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Living an examined life

With Thailand on my right, and Laos on my left, I type these words while seated on-board a slow boat drifting gently down the Mekong River.

We are nearly an hour into our approximately 14 hour journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Despite my usual fears, our vessel is actually very comfortable. All nine of us on board have our own table as well as a double seat which looks to have been removed from a van or small bus. The gentle breeze, the rumbling engine, the subtle side-to-side  rocking of the boat, and the spectacular views of riverside villages have completely silenced all passengers. Some (including Marina seated in front of me) are absorbed in their book, others listen to music, while some write in their journals.

No one dares to break the silence.

There’s something quite amazing about traveling slowly, knowing that you have no hurry to get to your destination. There are few distractions. You quickly forget the urgency of life back home and settle into a more meditative state. Your mind – usually flexed with tension of looming deadlines, responsibilities, expectations, incoming emails, etc. – finally stretches out.

Thoughts of weekend plans, that erroneous cell-phone bill you need to call about, or the repairs needed on your car fizzle away to obscurity as you ponder your path in life, reassess your values, carefully recount the errors you’ve made, and focus on what you really require to be happy and content in your life.

An unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates

This is the gift of prolonged travel – whether by bus, boat, train, or plane. Many people embark on longer journeys with the purpose of “finding themselves”; the notion being that somewhere on the treadmill of modern life they’ve managed to become lost.

But all most of us require is some time and solitude, and the opportunity to examine our life from an aerial rather than the usual street view.

I can’t pretend that travel is the panacea for all of one’s problems; the problems you leave behind when you strap on your backpack are waiting to greet you upon return. However, if you’re feeling lost, lacking purpose, or uninspired, a sabbatical of some sort might be just the cure. You needn’t go far – maybe a staycation is all that is necessary. Just some time to break away from the monotony of everyday life.

Beware the bareness of a busy life

Socrates

Peter

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Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai: A photo diary

A sample of our favourite photos from northern Thailand (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai):

Getting close with Chaing Mai's ladyboys

Getting close with Chaing Mai's ladyboys

Bicycle taxi driver resting in Chiang Mai

Bicycle taxi driver resting in Chiang Mai

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

Cooking class in Chiang Mai

Cooking class in Chiang Mai

Muay Thai pre-fight dance

Muay Thai pre-fight dance

A young Muay Thai fighter awaits his bout

A young Muay Thai fighter awaits his bout

Washing elephants in the river at the Elephant Nature Park

Washing elephants in the river at the Elephant Nature Park

The White Temple in Chiang Rai

The White Temple in Chiang Rai

Monk painting pillars at the temple

Monk painting pillars at the temple

Peter

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Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok and Hua Hin: A photo diary

A small sample of our favorite photos from central Thailand (Bangkok and Hua Hin):

Monk in Bangkok, Thailand

Monk in Bangkok, Thailand

Hua Hin, Thailand

Right down the road from where we lived in Hua Hin, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

Hua Hin beach, Thailand

Beach in Hua Hin, Thailand

Street vendor, Hua Hin, Thailand

Street vendor, Hua Hin, Thailand

Morning prayer on Hua Hin beach

Morning prayer on Hua Hin beach

Reclining Buddha, Bangkok

Reclining Buddha, Bangkok

Tuk Tuks in Hua Hin

Tuk Tuks in Hua Hin

Mmm....street food...

Mmm....street food...

The day's catch, Hua Hin

The day's catch, Hua Hin

Peter

 

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Muai Thai in Cambodia

VIP seating at Muay Thai fights in Thailand and Cambodia

As we arrive via tuk tuk to what appears to be a huge mall parking lot in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we catch sight of the bright lights illuminating the boxing ring in the distance.

On the suggestion of our Cambodian friend, Long, we’ve come to see Cambodia’s version of Muai Thai boxing, named Pradal Serey. Although the former style is more popular around the world thanks to the UFC, from what I can gather the Khmers’ (people of Cambodia) style of fighting was actually a precursor to Thailand’s Muay Thai.

The crowd surrounding the ring is substantial; on the periphery numerous locals are seated on their mopeds, in the middle layer hundreds of locals stand together, and finally an inner circle of seated spectators encircle the ring.

Muai Thai Fight in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The crowd surrounding the ring (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

 

Since we are late, and the fights have already started, I presume we’ll be viewing from a distance.

Instead, we all follow Long as he pushes through the crowd, and points to the only row of empty seats, directly next to the ring.

We all sit, and immediately become transfixed by the swift kicks, punches, knees and elbows of the Cambodians duking it out. The sound of the traditional fighting music played by a band of cross-legged men provides an eerie melody but sets the tempo for the movement of the fighters.

It is almost as they are dancing to the music; as the tempo of the music picks up, so does the intensity of the fighting.

However, this dance is bound to leave a few bruises.

As the first round ends, we notice both of the local cameramen have zeroed in their cameras directly on us.

“Long, why are the cameras on us?” I ask.

“They want to show the people watching at home, as well as the sponsors of the event how popular this is. If there are foreigners here, it must be good!”, Long replies as he bursts into his characteristic high-pitched chuckle.

Now I begin to understand why we were given VIP seating – we’re practically celebrities in Cambodia! Immediately, I feel a hint of guilt at the preferential treatment. Especially since we haven’t paid a penny to be here.

As the fights progress, a similar pattern emerges that Marina and I witnessed at a fight in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Namely, the pattern of “tough” guys with intense stares, big muscles, and excess bravado getting their asses handed to them by their slighter, unassuming, and seemingly weaker opponents.

In many instances, these surprising victories are achieved by severe knockouts and accompanied by plentiful blood. In other words, not only did the more physically intimidating contenders lose the bout, they lost BADLY.

You can almost see a fighter’s ego being deflated as he gets knocked down by a seemingly inferior opponent.

Muay Thai fight, Chiang Mai

Why you should never get into a fight (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

 

While I was already a pacifist, watching these fights certainly reiterated an important life lesson:

No matter how weak your opponent might look, they could kick your ass. Thus, avoid fights at any cost.

So if you’re ever in a confrontation, do your best to talk your way out of it.

Otherwise, if your opponent doesn’t respond to reason, run like hell!

Peter

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Longtail boats in Koh Phi Phi Lei (filming location for the movie "The Beach")

Phuket, Phang Nga, and Koh Phi Phi: A photo diary

A small sample of our favorite photos from southern Thailand (Phuket, Phang Nga, and Koh Phi Phi).

Sunset on Phuket's Kata beach

Sand crab on Kata beach, Phuket

Phuket Tuk Tuks

Beach bar on Kata beach, Phuket

Marina enjoying a beautiful sunset

Marina enjoying a beautiful sunset in Phuket

Us at 'James Bond' Island in Phang Nga Bay

Thai boy bathes outside at a floating village in Phang Nga Bay

Reclining Buddha in Suwan Khuha cave, Phuket

Longtail boats in Koh Phi Phi Lei (filming location for the movie "The Beach")

Us at The Beach; Koh Phi Phi Lei

Island crusing near Koh Phi Phi

Marina's favourite pose on Bamboo island

Peter

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Monkeying around in Southeast Asia

“I think I prefer seeing monkeys in the zoo”, I tell Marina while walking among the hundreds of curious and mischievous monkeys in Ubud’s Monkey Forrest in Bali, Indonesia.

We have been in Southeast Asia for about 2.5 months now and have managed to encounter monkeys on the road, on mountains, in parks, caves, cafes, temples, and beaches.

While I am all for monkeys living in their natural habitat rather than behind bars in a zoo, given the nature of these frisky primates I would personally prefer some degree of separation.

Nevertheless, due to the frequency with which we find ourselves surrounded by a group of monkeys, Marina and I have picked up a few safety tips from various locals.

Feeding monkeys near Hua Hin, Thailand.

For those of you planning on seeing monkeys in the wild here are a few quick pointers.

1) No Smiling:

Seriously. Even though their actions may be hilarious, it is better not to laugh, or even smile for that matter in a monkey’s presence. Since bearing teeth is a sign of aggression, you showing your teeth while smiling may send the wrong message.

2) No food or shiny objects on your person:

Monkeys are a curious and perceptive bunch and they may become particularly interested in you if you are wearing anything shiny (jewellery, sunglasses, etc.), have any food on you, or are holding something in your hand. The rule of thumb is this: if a monkey tries to take something from you, it’s best to let them have it rather than fighting them for it. Better yet, do not wear anything that might attract attention, and do not carry any food with you. Additionally, if you notice you are being stalked by a curious macaque, show them your open and empty palms and often they will immediately lose interest.

3) Keep clear of injured or dead monkeys:

On one particular occasion in Ubud, we came across a monkey that had just fallen out of a tree and was badly hurt, writhing in pain on the ground. Our natural instinct was to get close and see if we could help. Thankfully, one of the experienced park staff quickly stopped us from getting mulled by the onlooking monkeys. As was explained to us, approaching a hurt monkey is likely to incite an attack by the other members of that group. Thus, if you come across a hurt or dead monkey, best to give it space.

4) Back away slowly:

Finally, if you encounter an aggressive monkey, simply back away slowly while continuing to face them. Since turning your back is a sign of fear, such action may increase their confidence, potentially leading them to attack.

A showdown in progress.

Now that I’ve gotten you completely paranoid, please note that 99.9% of the time you’ll be absolutely fine. Despite our countless encounters (even when I fed a bucket of peanuts to a bunch of monkeys in Hua Hin’s Monkey Mountain) nothing even remotely dangerous ever occurred. And while we certainly witnessed a number of tourists freaking out when one or 3 monkeys jumped on them, no one ever got hurt. For the most part, the monkeys we came across were most often participating in any one of these 3 activities: eating, sex, or resting.

Just look at this face…

Awwww...

Peter

Note: As our few loyal readers may have noticed, this blog has been collecting cobwebs over the past few months. Let me assure you this silence was not due to a lack of adventures. For the past number of months we’ve been exploring Southeast Asia, and just recently settled into our next temporary home in New Zealand. As opposed to our travels through South America where I constantly updated the blog in nearly real-time, this time around I chose to experience everything as it happened without worrying how I could turn said experience into a blog post. But fear not! Thanks to my notes and Marina’s 10 000+ photos, we will be updating the blog with our most recent adventures over the next little while. Stay tuned!

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How We Become Digital Nomads…with PhDs

Let’s just dispense with the subtleties, and get right to it; by most people’s definition we are crazy.

If you are the type of person who prefers templates, clearly marked trials, conformity, movies with predictable endings, pop music and the like, it will be much easier for you to digest the following information if you just keep this notion in the background: these people are mentally unhinged.

Don’t believe me?

Then continue reading.

Us having a jumping contest in the salt flats of Bolivia. The winner is obvious;)

How we came to be PhD Nomads

With the initial intent of becoming tenured professors at prestigious research universities, we spent a ton of time and effort, made countless sacrifices, and amassed 2 bachelor’s, 1 master’s, and 2 doctorates between the two of us within a combined 2 decades of university education.

Disenchanted with our potential careers and lives as professors/scientists, we began saying ‘no’ to all the projects/jobs/opportunities to which we previously, albeit begrudgingly, said ‘yes’. We sold all our belongings, and traveled through South America until we ran out of money.

Overeducated and broke; quite the cliché, right?

After semi-voluntarily returning to Canada, we lived with my folks for a couple of months and tried to find employment that would allow us to capitalize on our academic/scientific skills without tying us down to a tenure-track professor position (the goldmine for those on the academic treadmill).

So, not only were we refusing to look for work for which we were most qualified, we were also living with my parents in the suburbs of a town affectionately referred to as the Dirty ‘Shwa – this more than anything should be a testament to our mental instability.

Once we made a few bucks doing freelance medical writing work, we moved out of my parent’s home with a bag of clothes, our 2 laptops, a box of books, and my guitar – all transported in my malfunction-prone ’98 Acura Integra.

Instead of doing the regular ritual of signing a 12-month lease on a property, getting furniture to fill said place, and settling down, we opted to sublet a furnished home.

Rather than getting a regular job, I continued to work remotely as a medical writer, essentially spending 100% of my working time doing the one thing that first got me into and subsequently pulled me through graduate school: writing about science. As my freelance work started to pick up, actual ‘sitting at a desk in an office, reporting to a boss, attending meetings, and commuting’ job offers came in. Despite the unpredictability of the freelance employment situation, I turned down everything that came along.

What the *&%# was I thinking, right?

Well, once you start making an income while sitting in your pajamas in the comfort of your temporary home, it’s tough to even contemplate going back to a structured work environment. So I declined interviews for positions I would have previously killed for. After every “Thanks, but no thanks” response, I sat in shock while Marina assured me that we were doing the right thing. During the process, Marina distanced herself from her regular university gig as a professor and research facilitator, and also became a freelance medical writer.

Another day at the office...

Today we remain as flexible and untethered as we’ve ever been. We attain this flexibility by not owning any property or furniture, not buying things that might tie us down, and generally being elusive in terms of a permanent residence.

For the foreseeable future we are taking a workation – that is, slowly traveling the world by living for 1-4 months in each location, while continuing to work remotely.

Why are we doing this?

Life is relatively short.

We refuse to spend our best years chasing the American dream, doing the 9-5 grind, accumulating unnecessary products to keep up with the Joneses, remedying our misery with hours of reality television, and conforming to the status quo, all the while living an unexamined life.

Instead, our lives are driven by this very simple notion:

“You’re sitting with your grandchildren on your lap telling them about your exploits. What stories are you telling them?”

In other words, we want to live a life that becomes a story worth telling.

Still think we’re nuts?

If you’d like to follow our adventure, please sign up for regular updates via email or RSS!

Peter and Marina

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Wandering around a wonder of the world: Machu Picchu

Often times, too much knowledge of a travel destination has the potential to attenuate the ‘wow’ factor upon actual visit. Of all the things we were going to visit during our 3 month sojourn, I was most prepared for what awaited us at Machu Picchu – one of the New 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.

“I just hope I’m not disappointed,” I kept telling Marina and Killian the night before the visit.

Luckily, Machu Picchu is one of those places that can never be truly appreciated via photograph or even video.

“This place is absolutely beautiful,” I say faintly to myself, looking down from one of the grass terraces at the Lost City of the Incas, just as the sun begins to rise past the mountains, illuminating the complex stone architecture of the site.

“It really is, isn’t it?” responds Killian after a long pause. All three of us are transfixed by visual feast we are currently dining on.

Machu Picchu, literally meaning ‘old mountain’ in Quechua is one of the most renowned archeological remains of the Inca civilization that at one point controlled much of western South America.

Due to the invasion by Spanish conquistadors, the entire Inca civilization was wiped out, and almost all of their cities destroyed. For example, in Cusco, many of the buildings constructed by the Spaniards used the original foundations laid down by the Incas. However, rather than being captured, the Incas originally living on what is now Machu Picchu, decided to gather all their most important possessions and flee.

The Spaniards never made it to Machu Picchu, and the site wasn’t officially discovered internationally until 1911 by an American historian, Hiram Bingham. He was led to the site by a child from a local village, when Bingham was exploring the area and inquired the locals about any interesting Inca remains. When Bingham originally saw the site, it was heavily grown over by vegetation.

Since then, Machu Picchu has become the most popular symbol of the highly advanced Inca civilization – not to mention a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Wonders of the Ancient World.

In addition to the site itself, the surrounding mountain terrain is absolutely spectacular. As is the bus ride up the mountains from Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the historical site.

After exploring the grounds, climbing up to the sun gate, and enjoying a brunch on one of the cliff-side terraces with a view 400m below to the nearby river, the hot midday sun forced us to seek some shade back at Aguas Calientes before departing via train back to Cusco.

This is one day none of us will soon forget.

Peter

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Stranded in the desert with Jesus

“We’re out of gas!” yells Louise, as the head of the petite Aussie just peaks past the crest of the sand dune some 300 m above us.

With the exception of Louise and Cindy, who decided to sit this hill out, the rest of us are at the bottom of a valley waiting with our sandboards, covered in a mixture of sunscreen, sweat and sand. We had just sandboarded down what was supposed to be our last run.

“We’re out of gas?!” I yell back.

“Yes, the buggy won’t start!”

I look back at Marina and Killlian and smile.

“I think the girls are trying to play a joke on us,” I suggest.

On the past 3 runs, after we had sandboarded down the dune, our buggy driver, Jesus, would drive down the dune and pick us up, pack up our boards and drive us over to the next run. After this last, and most vertical run, we were supposed to be taken back to the Huacachina Oasis for some much needed lunch and relief from the scorching sun (all of us had a bit too much Pisco liquor earlier that morning while on a ‘winery’ tour).

Us in Huacachina

 

“I don’t think they’re joking” says our guide, Luciano, in his unique Spanish/Italian/French accent.

After a number of minutes pass, I realize we are not going to hear a punchline to the joke I had suspected; we are stranded in the middle of the Peruvian desert with Jesus.

And despite Jesus’ biblical success in the desert, this lesser Jesus is having no luck with the simple act of starting a buggy.

He also has little success locating a cell phone signal to ask for assistance from his co-workers back at the Huacachina lagoon.

Splendid.

There are a total of 10 of us including our guide and Jesus.

We have very little water, no shade apart from the shade we create for each other and we are surrounded by kilometers of fine sand desert.

And it’s hot as balls.

In a moment of mini-panic, Killian, Marina and I decide to climb back up the almost vertical slope of sinking sand, while Barry and the 2 British girls, Jessica and Tambee decide to wait it out in the valley.


After a few breaks we finally finish our labored assent and head straight for the non-functioning buggy for some shelter from the sun and to get a sip of what water we still have remaining.

Jesus is still struggling with his cell phone reception.

Finally, he gets through, and we are assured help is on the way.

About 20 minutes later, our help arrives in the form of 5 of Jesus’ laughing coworkers (or disciples) in another buggy.

Given we had now all been out in the middle of the desert under the midday sun for over an hour longer than predicted, we had assumed this other buggy was here to pick us up.

Or at the very least, we hoped Jesus’ disciples had some mechanical skills between the 5 of them or an extra tank of gas to remedy the suspected lack thereof.

We were wrong on both counts.

Rather than packing us up into the functioning buggy, they decided to drain gas from it into a plastic bottle – all the while spilling much of the gas onto the sand – and then transferring said gas into the non-functional buggy.


Realizing this may take longer still, Killian and I grabbed a couple boards out of the back of the buggy and decided to do an extra run down the dune.

After we joined Barry, Jessica and Tambee down in the valley, Louise’s head yet again popped up from behind the crest of the dune.

“It’s still not working!”

“Forget 40 days, this Jesus couldn’t last a day in the desert”, joked Killian.

After a few false starts, the struggling engine of our buggy finally coughed to life.

Before long, we were all back to safety, enjoying some Peruvian cuisine for our much delayed, but now discounted lunch.

Even more enjoyable was the shade, drink of water, and a swim in a refreshing pool within the desert oasis.

From what I can gather, Jesus will need nothing short of a miracle to keep his job.

Peter

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Galapagos Islands: Santa Cruz and Isabela

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago consisting of over a dozen islands, only a few of which are populated. Santa Cruz is the hub of the Galapagos; it is the central island with the largest population of all the islands at a whopping 15, 000 inhabitants. The change of pace from Quito has been nice. For the past 3 nights we stayed at Hotel Espana in Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz.

On our first morning in Puerto Ayora we went around to all the travel agencies in town to get the lowest quote on a day trip to one of the farther islands – I kept notes of all their offered prices to then use them against other agencies – this approach seemed to intimidate them. In the end we got a price from Michael at Galapagos Mural S.A. agency, which none of the other agencies would match. We felt good about being such bargain hunters.

Once our next day’s trip was settled, we headed to the Charles Darwin Observation station to learn about the efforts on the various islands to rebuild the population of giant tortoises. Before man began visiting the islands the population of giant tortoises on the Galapagos flourished as these beautiful and slow-moving animals had no natural predators. Since the arrival of various pirates, colonists, etc. the tortoises have had a tough streak, being killed off by the thousands mainly for their meat. Despite what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would have you believe, giant tortoises are basically defenseless – they simply hide their heads in their shell when threatened. Thus, the authorities at the islands have started a breeding program to rebuild their population. While visiting the station we saw what looked like giant tortoises at all stages of development in individual pens – some of them just a few centimeters long. Then we moved onto the adults.

The first time you see a giant tortoise your mind become blown. The best part about these tortoises, and basically all animals on the Galapagos, is that they aren’t scared of humans. One female giant tortoise easily weighing over 200lbs actually chased me – at a tremendously slow speed, mind you (see photo above). I pulled some leaves off the nearby tree and fed her – it was fantastic. We then moved over to the male tortoise enclosure. While the guys weren’t nearly as playful as the females, they were absolutely gigantic – 300-400lbs easy. We got up right beside them and they barely moved a muscle. This became my personal highlight of our trip up to that point.

Right after this, we saw male and female giant tortoises making passionate love. We were literally a few feet away as their shells grinded together and the male moaned with each thrust. We didn’t stay until the climax – one of the staff there told us tortoise sex can go on for hours.

The following day we boarded a boat on a day excursion to Floreana Island – one of the most southern of the Galapagos islands. Due to prior experience on rough seas while traveling from Malta to Sicily a couple of years back, Marina and I knew we had to prepare for this excursion which included about 2 hrs of very rough waters each way. So we went to one of the local pharmacies and got sea sickness meds – sold by the pill, over the counter for 25 cents each.

I love this medication!

Aside from a strong sedative effect, my stomach and head were perfectly fine despite the VERY rough water. Marina also felt perfectly fine, even falling asleep at one point.

On this trip we saw some more giant turtles being bred, some tunnels that developed from the flow of lava from one of the volcanoes that created the island. Apparently, a bunch of families from Europe colonized this island and used these lava formations as their homes. After lunch we went snorkeling. This was not the greatest idea as this was probably the roughest snorkeling I have ever done – the sea was angry, very angry. While we were being sloshed around by the waves we saw a couple small sharks and a sting ray. On account of the rough seas we moved onto another site with calmer water. This part was fantastic – we got to swim around with sea lions. They were so playful, doing all sorts of tricks in the water for apparently no other reason than to entertain the tourists. Marina tried to mimic the sea lions by following their every move. At one point, she started to blow bubbles in the water and two small sea lions mimicked her – spectacular!

Although the sea lions seemed friendly in the water, this morning I learned a very important lesson: they DO NOT like to be touched. We were walking by a tiny fish market, where a fisherman was selling off today’s catch to the locals piece by piece. Amongst the shopping locals and the fisherman were two sea lions, who would slither around, sniff around the counter, and patiently wait until they got a scrap of fish. Batting the sea lions for precious scraps were half a dozen huge pelicans and one stork-like bird with a giant and sharp beak. Given the cute mannerisms of the sea lions, and the way they moved around the fishermen, I assumed they liked people.

Not-so-friendly sea lion that tried to bite me

So I decided to pet the sea lion.

BAD IDEA.

The teeth of the angry sea lion grazed my forearm as I quickly pulled away when it started to twist its head around to bite me. I nearly soiled my pants. Right as it happened a few of the fisherman who saw the encounter altered me not to pet the sea lions as they can bite – advice that would have been very useful only seconds ago…

This afternoon we took a boat to the biggest of the Galapagos islands – Isabela. Once again the sea was very angry, possibly even angrier than the day before, but once again our butts were saved by the meds. Although Isabela is the biggest of the islands, it only has about 2000 people living on it. In other words, this islands is almost deserted. The roads here are not paved. There are no names of streets, or numbers on buildings. From what I can gather there are 1 or 2 places with internet access here, and that access is rather patchy – I will have to see tomorrow if I can actually post what I am currently writing.

The main 'street' on Isabela

Once again, we arrived at this place with no accommodations arranged, but as I write these words, I am sitting in a two bedroom ‘home’ with a bathroom, tv, dvd player, a makeshift kitchen. The owner of this place, Lauro, just happened to be at the pier as we got off our boat. We hopped onto some rickety truck, threw our backpacks on the flatbed and headed into town. Oh and did I mention we are paying 10$ per person per night?

It is now 10:05pm – as in 5 minutes past my bedtime. Marina has been sleeping for the past hour. She will have an unfair wakefulness advantage tomorrow morning. I must retire.

Good night,

Peter

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Montreal 2011 (36) (1024x680)

Residential Experiment #3: The Plateau Row Home (Montreal)

One of the perks of living in various places for a few months at a time is finding out what you do and what you don’t like as your home. Given that we eventually want a stable home, these residential experiments help us understand what our ideal home might look like, and where it may be located. Thus, in an effort to keep track of what we’ve learned, this is one of a series of posts where we evaluate the places in which we temporarily resided.

Nickname: The Plateau Row Home

Location: Montreal, Quebec

When: Summer of 2011

Basics: 1 bedroom plus office ground level row home on a tree-lined street in Montreal’s famous Plateau neighborhood.

As soon as we stumbled onto the idea of living in a number of places around the world, Montreal landed at the top of our list. Aside from gallivanting around the globe, we are honestly trying to find a place to grow some roots and start a family.

Both of us had visited Montreal on various occasions and felt a strong pull towards it. Our respective crushes on Montreal are quite reasonable considering Montreal is consistently rated as one of the world’s most livable cities, was called “Canada’s Cultural Capital”, and was also named a UNESCO City of Design.

The day we moved in we went for a walk through the neighborhood and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was “at home” – comfortable, safe, and relaxed. Despite the fact that Montreal is only a few hours east of where Marina and I did our graduate work, given the language and cultural differences between the two provinces, it really feels like a foreign country.

Since we were now out of our home province, both Marina and I were working 100% remotely – a goal I had set for us earlier in the year, when Marina was still working full-time at the university while I was working from home. While I certainly loved the flexibility afforded by remote work, the sense of isolation started gnawing at me over the latter months in Kingston. Having both of us working from home made the situation much more appealing, as we were able to share meals, discuss projects, go for walks, and run errands during the day together. The downside of both of us working from home was that we would sometimes distract each other – when one wasn’t being productive, the other one also struggled.

Our place was located just off of a main (but only two-lane) street with multiple independent grocers, bakeries, cafes, butchers, gyms, parks, restaurants, etc. This meant that we walked essentially everywhere, while our car was merely a nuisance. If we were to stay longer, I would have sold our car and simply used public transportation (nearby and efficient) and signed up for a car-sharing service for those few instances each month when we might require a vehicle. In addition, Montreal has a fantastic segregated bike lane system that runs across most parts of the city and is used by many locals – one of the best I have seen anywhere. Thus, biking would have been another option.

During this residential experiment, I think we learned much more about the type of area in which we’d like to live rather than specifics of our dream home. Being able to walk or bike to essentially everything you would ever need is very important to us, possibly more important than other factors. Also, having access to green space where we can go for a run, or walk, or throw a Frisbee around, or have a picnic is key. Reliable public transit that could take you (almost) anywhere you would ever need to go really made owning a car redundant. Lesson: the less we have to use our car, the happier we both seem to be.

Our street: the car had to be moved twice weekly

Montreal is a city with countless cultural events occurring on an ongoing basis. Having access to these events also made a big difference – we never felt bored. For instance, we attended Formula One, the Just for Laughs Festival, Fireworks Competition, and bumped into Bradley Cooper, during our short stay here. There was always something to do, and this, we learned is also critical to our happiness. Thus, we now know that we need to be living in a relatively large city (Montreal is the 2nd largest in Canada, and the 15th largest in North America).

Our actual home was rather quaint and sparsely furnished, but it had a fantastic office space with a wonderful view of the street, as well as a small deck in the back for soaking up some sun. Having a dedicated office area to do my work was a definite bonus over the dining room tables I had been using in the previous two residences. While we had yet another budget television set, given the lack of cable, we never really turned it on. Instead, when faced with some downtime, we would go for a walk. This, once again, reiterated what we already learned – we’re better off sans television.

Here is a detailed summary of items that either improved or tarnished our experience in the Plateau:

The good:

- All our wonderful new Montreal friends (whom we now dearly miss)

- People outside all the time

- Tolerant and less materialistic society (at least in our immediate neighborhood)

- Strong focus on family

- Great active transportation options

- Dedicated office space

My "office" (the space is empty as the photo was taken when we were moving out)

- Close enough to walk to anything we needed

- Running space (at La Fontaine park)

 

The bad:

- Parking is a major headache (had to move car twice a week for street cleaning, and sometimes could not find a spot on our street – same goes for guests who visited)

- In our neighborhood French was the predominant language and many individuals spoke next to no English. This was only a problem because I tend to be a rather social person and my French is terrible, thereby severely limiting my communicative abilities. If we stayed longer, I would take French lessons though I am well aware this would always be an issue for me.

- Far from most friends and family

In conclusion, we both miss Montreal and see it as a potential place to live at some point in the future.

Peter

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Residential Experiment #2: The Retirement Condo

One of the perks of living in various places for a few months at a time is finding out what you do and what you don’t like as your home. Given that we eventually (though, not any time soon) want to buy a home, these residential experiments help us understand what our ideal home might look like, and where it may be located. Thus, in an effort to keep track of what we’ve learned, this is one of a series of posts where we evaluate the places in which we temporarily resided.

Nickname: The retirement condo

Location: Kingston, ON

Dates: March – April 2011

Basics: 2 bedroom corner condo unit on lake Ontario within 2 km of downtown and the nearby university. The vast majority of residents were above retirement age.

After our experiment in reasonably rural living at The Cottage, we decided to finish off our stint in Kingston while staying a bit closer to civilization, and particularly closer to the university where Marina was working.

We were well acquainted with this condo property as our good friends, Ian and Katie, lived here for a number of years while we were all in graduate school. We had very fond memories of this property so we jumped at the chance to temporarily live there ourselves.

In contrast to our prior home, here we had 2 bedrooms. However, we generally found we had no use for the second bedroom as once again I settled in at the dining room table as my office space. Of course, if we were settling here more permanently, the 2nd bedroom could have easily been turned into an office, thus clearing our dining room for more appropriate activities – such as dining.

Peter's office space

Being quite a bit closer to work meant Marina was able to walk to work on most days (weather permitting) instead of taking the bus (the norm at the Cottage). Also, we were close to a park, a convenience store and a Tim Horton’s coffee shop. While this was a significant improvement in the proximity of the essentials from our last place, we still felt fairly isolated.

One of the highlights of this place was the lake view (see above), which would have been particularly spectacular in the summer time – had we stayed long enough to see it. Every morning, as Marina got ready to go to work I would transfer from the bed to the couch and soak up the sun that would stream through the large windows overlooking the water. This was a wonderful way to start the day while sipping a cup of tea.

Peter's morning wake-up couch

Being close to a park also meant that we had some nice running routes to take advantage of. Additionally, all day long I would see people from my “office” window running by and this certainly was a nice motivator to get off my butt.

In contrast to the Cottage, which we found to be great for hosting dinner parties, the kitchen/dining/living room arrangements at the Retirement Condo were less conducive to having people over. The kitchen was very small, with little counter space, which made making cooking a nuisance. Since the dining room could only hold 4 people, our dinner parties had to be small. Finally, due to awkward seating arrangement and lack of adequate living room furniture, even having a few people over for a chat and a drink was much less natural than at our previous home.

This residence came with a fairly budget television but a reasonable number of cable channels. I found that merely having that television meant that more often than not, we would automatically turn it on during meals, or when vegging out, rather than reading, talking, or doing something else more productive. This once again suggested to me that not having a television, and specifically not having cable or satellite is the way to go. Having the option to turn it on and tune out was just too easy and I felt as though we wasted much more of our time passively consuming poor quality content. Having a television for purposes of watching a movie or documentary every once in a while is fine, and I think this may be the way to go when we settle down. But having a large selection of channels simply steals hours of your life. I’d rather do something more productive.

On a positive note, given that this was a condo, I didn’t need to worry about shoveling snow (which took up many hours at the cottage), or mowing grass, or remembering to take out the trash at specific hours. This was all taken care of, and when the garbage became full, I simply walked it over to the garbage shute and deposited it regardless of the time or day.

Here is a detailed summary of items that either improved or tarnished our experience at The Retirement Condo.

The good:

-          Great view

-          Communal pool

-          Morning sun exposure

-          Proximity of running routes

-          Ability to walk to a select few places (convenience store, Tim Horton’s)

-          No need to worry about garbage disposal/snow shoveling/grass mowing

The bad:

-          The presence of cable television

-          Small kitchen with limited counter space

-          Uncomfortable and small dining area

-          No dishwasher

-          No air ventilation in washroom = very steamy showers

-          Poor fridge design (left side freezer full length of fridge)

-          Awkward entrance (door opened in a direction making getting in and out more difficult than necessary, especially given the small foyer)

-          Outdoor parking

Conclusion:

Feeling less isolated from civilization, particularly when you work from home is very important. Simply knowing that I could walk to the coffee shop or convenience store, or to downtown (in 30 or so minutes) made me much less anxious about being isolated. Nevertheless, there were still only a few things in our vicinity, and I would have still preferred living closer to a city centre. Living in a condo is certainly easy as most things are taken care of on your behalf – you pay a condo fee and forget about maintenance hassles. Maybe if I was a more handy person, I would have preferred to do these tasks myself, but I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit I would much rather spend my time doing something else. Finally, the lack of neighbors in our age range made making new friends a bit tough.

Peter

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Working on our assassin skills at a shooting range!

I’m staring down the barrel of a 9mm gun made famous by the James Bond movies. Because I could no longer stand the anticipation, I volunteered to be the first shooter in our group. Now as I stand there, legs staggered, upper body leaning forward, arms outstretched with a slight bend, my heart begins to race as I struggle to steady my sweaty hands to aim at the target ahead.

The first shot is exhilarating and frightening.

The sheer power generated by the relatively small object in your hands is phenomenal.

I finish off my round of 10 shots, the vast majority of which hit the target, and put the empty gun down on the table.

As my long-time friend, Matt, gets prepared to shoot his first round, and I attempt to take his photo I realize just how much my hands are shaking.

And we’ve just started! This is the smallest caliber gun we’re shooting today!

As a prototypical male who played plenty of shoot ‘em up video games and incessantly watched any movie involving Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve always wondered what it was like to actually shoot a real gun. Of the numerous items on my bucket list, the attainment of “shooting skills” has been something I’ve been obsessing about for the past 2 years.

Today, armed with the company of Marina and a long-time friend my wish was finally coming true.

After Marina nervously finished off her rounds with the James Bond gun, I was up again to try the .40 caliber Glock – the most popular gun among police officers in North America.

As you may be able to appreciate by the above video, I really liked this gun! And my accuracy wasn’t too shabby either; I managed to put 6 rounds through the head of the target!

Peter and Matt smiling because they shot their targets and not themselves!

Next we shot off a bunch of rounds of a .223 rifle similar to the one used by the Swiss army. This thing certainly had some power, but due to its larger size, it felt much more comfortable and stable to shoot.

Next up was the manliest of weapons – the shotgun. Right after we both realized just how much kickback a mere 9mm pistol could generate, Matt and I both became a bit nervous at the prospect of shooting the 12 gauge Remington shotgun we naively decided we should try. The hardest part of shooting a shotgun was aiming – not that aim is terribly necessary when you essentially spray your target with fragments.

See below video of Marina with a shotgun:

Although we were all very satisfied after successfully handling the beefy shotgun, we had forgotten we had also ordered dessert! The finale of our shooting spree consisted of 5 rounds on the sniper rifle – complete with scope and all!

The sniper rifle finale

We all had an absolute blast – we were giddy as children and couldn’t stop exchanging high fives after successfully handling each weapon.

In total, the three of us went through 125 rounds, 5 different weapons, and many paper targets. We were there for a heart-pounding 2 hours and paid approximately $80 each.

If you live or are visiting the GTA, and have even a passing interest in shooting a gun, I’d certainly recommend you give Target Sports Canada a try.

What a rush!

Peter

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Our long-overdue engagement photos

Those of you who were following our adventures throughout South America last summer may recall that I wrote one sappy post on love that began with the following quote directed at Marina while on a train through Bolivia:

“I’m uncertain about many things in this life, but I am absolutely sure about one thing: I love you.”

What I failed to document on the blog was that soon after we returned to Canada, Marina and I got engaged. We have yet to plan our wedding, and due to our nomadic lifestyle, this is not likely to happen in the immediate future.

In the meantime, while we continue to refer to one another as fiancee we thought some engagement photos might be fun. They may be nearly a year overdue, but who’s counting?

Lucky for us, one of our good friends from Kingston, Rob Whelan, is actually a professional photographer. Since Rob was visiting Montreal on other business, we thought it would be a great idea to do an impromptu photoshoot. So we did exactly that and had a great time.

Below is just a small sample of the wonderful photos Rob took of us goofing around in the plateau area of Montreal – where we’ve been living for the past 4 months.

For more information on Rob’s photography and to find out how you can book him to shoot your engagement, wedding, or other special event, please check out his website.

Thanks again Rob!

Peter

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An over-educated couple on an extended 'workation'