EBC, easy as 1-2-3…

This is a story of when I decided to trek to the Base Camp of Mount Everest with eight of my craziest friends. It’s kind of a difficult story to tell because it’s not really what you’d expect, but I’m going to tell it anyway…

I guess the best place to start this story is where my very first story left off – descending from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. I was sitting in the mess tent during our last night on the mountain, surrounded by my new friends and old ones. As we were all joking and reminiscing about our great adventure together, someone lobbed out the idea of trekking to Everest Base Camp. Two people eagerly jumped on the idea while the remainder of the group went silent. I shuddered at the idea of the frost gnawing at my nose while I squint into the blinding snowstorm, struggling to find our group. I shook this thought away as I leaned into Sieu and whispered “Yeaaaaaaaaaah … that’s a little too hardcore for us…”

Fast forward 18 months later and here I am looking for the gate to Kathmandu in the Istanbul airport. Somewhere in between that moment on the mountain and now, all nine of us impulsively booked this trip, no questions asked, when it went on sale. So, here we are, soon to be reuniting for the first time as old friends at the Moonlight Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The reality of this trip still alludes me. I’m going through the usual motions that I do during all of our travels. I go through security. Roam the airport. Board the plane. Pick out a movie. Fall asleep. Wake up. Leave the plane. And repeat.

As I head towards gate D13, I feel as if I’m walking in slow motion against a blur of cell phones and business suits rushing by me. Everyone looks the same and pulls along that same rectangular carry on suitcase with the long handle and four-tiny wheels struggling to keep up. As I look around to find real signs of life, an image comes into focus. It’s two men, in their late-20’s, standing off to the side. They are casually dressed and are both wearing Osprey backpacks. One of them is bent down tying his hiking boot while they continue to engage in conversation. As I watch him tighten his laces, it’s like something finally clicked. It’s as if I finally woke up from this haze and realized what’s going on. I guess the best way to explain it is like being the last person to understand a joke: … waiiiiiiit a minute …. we are soon going to be in Kathmandu …. which is in Asia … and then we will be hiking for 12 days through the Himalayas to the Base Camp … of Mount Everest! My stomach fluttered with excitement. I walk over to them and lean in, a bit giddy, and say “Let me guess … you’re going to Kathmandu?” They both stop talking and look at me blankly. “Uh.. yeah…” one of them finally replies with a puzzled look on his face. “I can tell by your backpack!!!” I respond quickly, with a big goofy grin, as I point to mine and keep walking. Good job, Sherlock Holmes. I praise myself; however, they don’t seem as impressed with my deductive reasoning.

img_20190926_1956335767977606345385616.jpg

As we reach our gate, it’s buzzing with eager travelers waiting to board their plane. I look around and see Osprey backpacks, Merrell hiking boots, and pants, which zip off into shorts! The girls have messy hair and their faces have been kissed by the elements of wind, sun, and cold. They don’t airbrush these flaws but instead, embrace them. Although I’ve never been here before, there’s a sense of familiarity in my surroundings. It’s like I stumbled upon an isolated pocket of misfits hidden in this hectic, polished airport and it’s exactly where I belong. Normally, I don’t always feel like I fit in, but here, I do. I am innately shy, which makes me quite socially awkward and a little bit weird. My social skills are slightly limited by my attention span and my interests are all over the place as a result of that. Here, I look around and see dreamers, explorers, and risk-takers who refuse to conform.

As we wait to board the plane, I begin feeling slightly apprehensive. Leading up to this point, I’ve had a false sense of certainty since my last hike to the summit of Kilimanjaro went so well; however, what exactly was it that made me successful? The training? Proper hydration? Taking Diamox? Or perhaps it was an absolute fluke?! I began realizing that I may not be able to replicate that same experience. This may actually be very challenging. My training and diet has suffered due to the reality of adult responsibilities but also due to the lack of motivation brought on by fear, like I had with Kilimanjaro. I am tired, dehydrated, and have never trekked for this long before. Also, we are only 10 kg of gear, which is 5 kg less than Kilimanjaro, yet the trip is double in length. Did I even choose the right gear to at least stay comfortable? As these questions fill my mind, I realize that it is too late now. In two days, we will begin our trek.

36 hours of transit later. 4 airports. 3 flights. 6 movies. Roughly 5 broken hours of sleep. And we land in Nepal. Let the adventure begin…

Mandy Uncensored: First World Problems

I’m starting a new section of my blog called “Mandy Uncensored”, which will consist of posts not directly related to travel. They will be more thoughts and opinion based. Will I be brave enough to publish my inner thoughts, allowing them to be publicly judged or criticized? Honestly, I’m not sure … But if I am, I hope you enjoy it and may even draw some inspiration or motivation from it.

Thanks for reading!

img-20191010-wa00004779042267432152700.jpg

Have you ever came back from an incredible vacation only to find yourself feeling worse than before you left? You feel torn between what was and what is. You battle with the internal tug-of-war of being thrown back into the chaos of routine and responsibilities while your mind refuses to leave vacation. You return to your comfortable lifestyle surrounded by so much and yet, you feel so unfulfilled…

Why?

Upon a recent return from an amazing three weeks in Nepal, I’ve been trying to figure out what this emptiness is that has been debilitating me. Consequently, I even began questioning: who am I? What do I want to do with my life? What kind of person do I want to be? And what is it about travel that makes me feel so damn good and how can I integrate that into my day-to-day routine?

I began to realize that, for me, traveling allows me to be the best version of myself. While traveling, I feel released from my responsibilities, obligations, and chores and, instead, become preoccupied with immersing myself into a new culture and making real human connections. I set aside the trivialness of an idle mind, like questioning if I am good enough and if people like me and so on. During travel, I allow myself to let go because this new surrounding is out of my control. I have nothing to hold on to. I have nothing to prove. I don’t feel judged. And, while traveling, I have so little possessions to become possessed by. I become basic and simple – which is rather quite liberating.

So instead of waiting for my next adventure to let go and feel like I can breath again, I’ve started questioning how can I learn to embrace my daily routine and stop taking life so seriously. And I’ve concluded that it’s centered around our values and priorities. One of those priorities, being yourself. We need to learn to love ourselves unconditionally for who we are and not what status we carry, how much we own, or who we are friends with. We need to stop measuring wealth by what we can hold, and stop defining love by what we are told so that we can learn to be happy with who we are and what we have. We need to stop assuming that possessions are a measurement of our success – because they are not. These are just things. And we need to stop waiting to be told that we are pretty to feel valued – because these are just words. And instead of counting the likes and seeking external gratifications, we should turn our focus inward. We should work towards freeing ourselves from the shackles of pride and humility and stop trying to sell ourselves in exchange for the approval of others. Focus on loving and accepting who you really are. Because, after all, if we can’t love ourselves – how do we expect others to?

Instead of continuing down this path of self destruction with distorted values and personal criticism, we should just focus on being the best version of ourselves and accept that this IS enough. Be the person who YOU are happy to wake up to in the morning. Live by the values that YOU feel are acceptable. Be the parent, friend, or family member that YOU would want to be around. Stop buying wealth and chasing likes – instead, try chasing real life experiences. Try being real. Being kind. Being sincere. Take the time to make real connections. Listen – like, really listen, to others. Don’t just wait for your turn to talk. And not only speak with purpose and meaning but live with it. Look for the good in everyone – even if you have to squint to see it. Look for people’s strengths instead of their flaws – because, after all, their strengths do not weaken yours nor does their flaws erase yours.

Let go and just let life happen – because it will happen whether we try to control it or not. Let go of expectations. Let go of people’s approval. Let go of counting how many friends you have on social media. Let go of surrounding yourself with items that you think people will envy. Don’t become obsessed with the past or fixated on the future because now is the only time that really matters. Stop waiting for weekends, for vacations, for friends or for opportunities and start living life now.

Don’t only do what you love but learn to love what you do. Life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself! Figure out what person you want to be and be that person. Decide what your personal version of happiness is and once you discover it, live on your own terms.

Be kind to yourself. Embrace your flaws, don’t criticize them. Follow your passion, despite how silly it may seem. And, most importantly, allow yourself to be happy – in doing so, you will be able to make those around you happy too.

HOW TO … Pack For Everest Base Camp!

You’re doing WHAT?!” Expect that reaction as you begin preparing for this adventure of a lifetime.

So, once you’re done questioning if this is a good idea or not (which it is … trust me!), you’ll need to begin planning what kind of gear you’re going to need to invest into. Here’s my guide to everything that you’ll need to stay comfortable (and happy) during your trek to Everest Base Camp.

This item list is solely based on my own research and guided by my own personal experience on what I used during our 12-day trek in September / October with Intrepid Tours. Keep in mind that the time of year in which you’re planning your trek will dictate the type of gear you’ll need – there is no bad weather, just bad gear so you want to be adequately prepared!

PACKING LIST

* = HIGHLY recommended
BAGS

  • 25 L Osprey Manta day bag
    • I have various Osprey backpacks. They are comfortable, adjustable, and most have great ventilation for your back. In my opinion, Osprey also has the comfiest waistbands (with pockets), allowing you to alternate the weight between your hips and shoulders.
    • These packs also come with a Cambelbak hydration system.
      • Bring an extra bite valve, just in case!
  • * 75 L Marmot Long Hauler Duffel Bag *
    • I also have a 95 L North Face duffel bag – both are equally amazing!
    • This bag is versatile, durable, & waterproof!
    • Although it’s a bit heavier than some duffels, I would HIGHLY recommend it!
    • Since our maximum weight allotment was 10 kg, this bag was the ideal size for me during this trip. It fit all of my gear & sleeping bag perfectly.


HEADWEAR

  • * Buff *
    • Good for dust and also to prevent sunburns on the back of your neck.
    • Light, versatile … and looks cool!
  • Tilley Hat
  • Wool Toque
  • Sunglasses
    • I bought mountaineering glasses but just used my regular sunglasses (which were fine).
  • Ear plugs
    • The tea houses can be quite noisy so these are very handy!


UPPER BODY

  • T-shirts x 4
    • Preferably merino wool – it’s breathable, soft, warm, and (most importantly) odor resistant!
  • Long sleeve shirt
    • Icebreaker
  • Thermal top
    • Luckily, I didn’t need this.
  • Fleece top
  • Sweater
    • Columbia Omni-Heat
    • Used almost daily – love this product!
  • Rain Jacket
    • I used a standard Outdoor Research rain jacket, which was sprayed with silicone for extra rain repellent. It also doubled as a wind-breaker; however, it’s not as breathable as an actual shell.
  • Poncho
    • * Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Nano Poncho *
      • This is a great product which is ultralight & very compressible.
      • I stopped bringing a day bag cover and just used my poncho, if needed.
  • Insulated Jacket
    • Arc’teryx Beta SL Hybrid Jacket
      • A great overall jacket in the wind, rain, or snow. Comfortable, breathable, & warm. High neck for added warmth (didn’t need a scarf).
  • * Down Jacket *
    • I used Mountain Hard Wear but I would highly recommend ANY brand of down jacket! It’s compressible & warm.
    • Worn daily.


HANDS

  • Thin gloves
    • Used often during the chilly mornings or evenings.
  • Insulated mittens
    • Never needed.


LOWER BODY

  • Thermal bottoms x 2
    • Used one pair solely for sleeping.
  • Fleece bottoms
    • Luckily, didn’t need them.
  • Hiking pants x 2
    • One is a prAna pair that zip off into shorts (my favorite!).
    • Other is a breathable and stretchy Arc’teryx pair.
  • Yoga Pants
    • Worn around the tea houses.
  • Rain pants
    • I used this both as wind and rain pants.
    • Also sprayed with silicone.
  • Gaiters
    • Louis Garneau
    • These are the only gaiters that I’ve ever used but they are durable, waterproof, and don’t slip.
    • Not needed during this trek.


FOOTWEAR

  • Hiking Shoes
    • The ongoing debate between hiking shoes vs. boots – I was very happy with my choice of shoes but I did see many trekkers favoring hiking boots. It really comes down to personal preference.
    • Find a brand that works for you and stick with it! My go-to is Salomon so I went with the Redwood 2 hiking shoe.
    • Bring an extra pair of insoles in case your shoes get wet.
  • * Crocs *
    • I never thought I would say this but, for me, this is a camping must!
    • Used around the tea houses; convenient, easy to slip on & lightweight.
  • Socks x 6
    • I love the Darn Tough or Smartwool brand.
    • Also brought a pair of Gortex socks since my shoes are not waterproof.


MISCELLANEOUS

  • Cell Phone
    • If you are willing to pay, most of the tea houses have wifi and charging stations.
    • Charger.
  • External battery
    • Great for recharging your electronics.
    • Down side though – it’s heavy!
  • GoPro
    • Charger.
    • Extra batteries.
  • Travel Notebook
    • Your days will blur together so this is great of keeping notes, such as your daily saturation levels, how you feel, exchange contact info, etc.
  • * Compression Sacks *
    • I used mine to divide my clothes (tops, bottoms, socks).
  • Hiking poles
    • Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ Poles
    • These are ultralight & foldable.
    • I normally don’t hike with poles so I never used them but there are sections of the trail where they are very useful.
  • Gatorade Powder
    • Responsible tourism – you can buy water but it does create a lot of waste on the mountain; therefore, it’s recommended to use tap water and just purify your water. We used a steri-pen with additional chlorine tabs.
    • I prefer Gatorade to mask the taste of chlorine & replenish electrolytes.
  • Hot Paws
    • Never needed.
  • * Nalgene bottle *
    • HIGHLY recommended! At higher altitudes, I would put hot water in it to warm up my sleeping bag. With the screw-on top, you don’t have to worry about leaks.
    • This was also handy for sterilizing my water and then dumping it into my Camelbak.
  • Lock for duffel bag
  • Money
    • At the tea houses and along the trail, it’s preferred to use Nepalese Rupees.
    • Also for tipping porters & guides during the last night on the mountain – trust me, they deserve a good tip! You can tip in any currency but Rupees is easiest for them.
  • Tenacious Tape
  • Chlorine Tablets / Water Purification


SLEEPING GEAR

  • Therma Rest Oberon -18C Sleeping Bag
  • Inflatable pillow
    • Not needed. Rooms have a pillow and comforter.
  • Sleeping clothes
    • I brought an extra set of clothes just for sleeping. It was nice having something clean.
    • I also brought a onesie, if you noticed in my picture. Totally useless item but it was funny.


PERSONAL HYGIENE

  • Dry shampoo
  • Regular shampoo
    • If you want to pay, you can have access to a hot shower at some of the tea houses.
  • Hair brush with extra hair elastics
  • Bar of soap
  • Baby wipes
  • Small travel towel
  • Tooth brush
  • Tooth paste
  • Face cream
  • Baby powder
    • An awesome luxury item! I put this stuff everywhere!!!
  • Toilet paper ++
    • Optional: Kleenex
    • Can also be purchased along the way.
  • Lip balm
  • Eye drops
  • Hand sanitizer + +
  • Drier sheets
    • Stuff these in your bag to keep it smelling fresh.
  • Vaseline
    • I didn’t bring this but wish I had some for at night. The air is SO dry that your lips become chapped and your nose may also become raw from blowing it so much.


EDIBLES

  • Gum
  • Lozenges
  • Instant Coffee
    • You can buy tea or coffee at all of the tea houses.
    • I enjoy the Nescafe sachets so I would just order hot water and use these instead.


MEDICATIONS / FIRST AID

  • Advil
    • You will likely get a headache from the altitude.
    • Also can be used for muscles aches and pains. 12 days of trekking can be quite strenuous.
  • Diamox
    • Use at your discretion. We used it.
  • Melatonin
    • Helpful for combating jet lag.
  • Gravol
  • Imodium
  • Nasal Spray
    • I didn’t bring any but wish I had – a few of us spent a few days quite congested.
  • Dexamethason tablets
    • Just in case!
  • Broad-spectrum antibiotics
    • This was a lifesaver for a few members in our group!
  • Sunscreen + +
  • Mole Skin (blisters)
  • Physio tape

Traveling on a budget? Check out http://www.thelasthunt.com for some great deals!

Still have questions or concerns? I’d love to help! Send me a message!

Happy Travels!

Salt Life in the FLORIDA KEYS

Date: July 13 – 20, 2019
Average temp: 34 – 36° Celsius

Island hopping in a convertible with the wind in your hair and Jimmy Buffet on the radio is the ultimate Florida Keys experience! We spent one week embracing the salt life while cruising the 204 km (127 miles) of narrow highway which connects the numerous tiny islands of Southern Florida, referred to as the Florida Keys.

This post is to share my experience and quick impression of the three regions of the Florida Keys: Key Largo, Islamorada, and Key West.

K E Y – L A R G O

Enjoy the relaxing Caribbean pace of Key Largo while you soak up the sun. This area is a paradise for those looking to enjoy the marine life under the sea and on your plate.

The sole purpose of our trip was for scuba diving so we contacted Rainbow Reef Dive Center in advance and they took care of all of the details for us. Despite spending five days with a constant dose of Bonine in our system, we completed our Advanced Dive Course along with four additional dives (I’ve never been seasick in my life but expect the unexpected when you’re out on the waters … unless you enjoy feeding the fish).

The bulk of our dives were spent exploring the French and Molasses Reef, where we saw an array of sea creatures ranging from nurse sharks, stingrays, giant groupers, eels, and an assortment of tropical fish. This area is a diver’s paradise because not only are there multiple dive sites, good visability, and waters averaging 28°C (82°F) – there are also various dive shops and companies peppered along the main road passing through Key Largo.

This area is also known for its wreck dives, which I highly recommend if you’re a diver! We did an unforgettable dive to the USS Spiegel Grove – a frigate vessel that was intentionally sank in 2002 in order to make an artificial reef. As you submerge yourself into the blue abyss, the silhouette of the eerie wreck eventually comes into view, with a decaying flag of the United States slowly waving in the water’s current. Due its depth, you need your advanced diving certification for this dive.

As far as dining goes, it seems that you really can’t go wrong. With seafood on all of the menus, every restaurant we dined in was a mouthwatering sensation! One of my favorites was The Fisheries, where I enjoyed a lobster BLT with the tropical sounds of music played on a steel drum. It doesn’t get much better than that, right?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

~ I S L A M O R A D A ~

Deemed the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, you know what to expect when entering this region. Since we were just passing through, we focused on eating lunch rather than catching it. We stopped at the charming Midway Cafe to refuel on caffeine. From there, we roamed off the beaten path in search of the No Name Pub on the No Name Key island. To our surprise, we stumbled upon tiny deer roaming the neighborhoods like stray dogs. I was able to get up close and personal with these tame little critters as they came over to say hello (and probably to see if I had any food).

On our way back through this region, returning from Key West, we stopped to sample some of the local brew at the Florida Keys Brewing Co. and welcomed this opportunity to stroll through their eclectic beer gardens. For supper, we stuck around for a romantic evening at Chef Michael’s where we enjoyed … yep, you guessed it! More seafood!!!!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

K E Y – W E S T

As Jimmy Buffet would say, “Changes in latitude, changes in attitude”. Although Key West is elbow to elbow with other thirsty sunseekers, it is an experience like no other. I’m not going to lie, we did not take the time that this place deserves. Key West is known for it’s history, architecture, and night life.

As we explored the town on foot, stray chickens crossed the road for unknown reasons. We made our way to the southernmost point on the continent of the USA and snapped a quick selfie. Interestingly enough, this location is only 95 miles from Cuba! In search of a good meal, we zigzagged the streets until we settled on Bliss – which is exactly what it was. The food and service was superior. The owner claims that he makes the best sangria … and I’ll have to agree.

After our meal, we decided to continue our quest for the best key lime pie in the Florida Keys. Luckily, we found it hidden on a side street where the Employee of The Year is an overweight black and white cat napping in a box. Pepe’s served up a tart but sweet key lime pie the way your grandmother would have made it. The crust was flaky and the whip cream was light. Satisfied and tired, we hopped on the Duval Loop, a free (air conditioned!!!) bus that circles around the city, and called it a night.

The next morning we tested out the saying that “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere” by ordering margaritas at 11am at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, which to our surprise the idling bartender did not judge us for.

After embracing an early morning buzz, we set our sail onward to find food. A wooden shack built around a food truck on the corner of the street caught our attention – Bo’s. Peeking in we could see a few occupants other than street chickens so we decided to give it a try. We ordered up a grouper sandwich with a lime-ade beverage and took a seat on an old picnic table next to a chicken waiting for some crumbs. The old wooden boards that were built around this food truck were decorated with license plates, buoys, and street signs. Our food was served hot and fresh to perfection! This diamond in the rough was a friendly reminder that you should never judge a book by its cover (but always have Imodium close by just in case).

With our bellies full and seeing everything that Key West had to offer for us during our brief visit, we packed up to return to Key Largo for our final dives.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My Travel Recommendations…

So in a nutshell, my recommendations are:

  • If you are looking for unforgettable dives in turquoise waters, take the plunge in Key Largo.
  • If you want to catch your own supper, cast off in Islamorada.
  • If you are looking to drink, pour something tall and strong in Key West.

Enjoy your trip and if you have any comments or questions about your past or future trip to the Florida Keys, please share them in the comment box below or email me!

Happy Travels!

The Story Behind The Picture: Breaking Bread

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – it can be a means of expression, a way of preserving a moment, a method of story-telling, and so on. However, sometimes we can’t truly appreciate a picture until we know the story behind it. 

For this reason, I decided to create a subsection in my blog called, “The Story Behind the Picture”. Here, I will take some of my favourite travel pictures and turn them into short stories. These moments and interactions, for me, are what makes travelling so enriching: they open your heart, broaden your mind, and ignite your soul.

Thanks for allowing me to share my stories with you! xo 

Morocco

We were four hours into the eight hour drive to our destination – the Sahara desert! I swayed back and forth as our van hugged the winding roads that were carved along the mountainside. I continued to stare out the window at the dry, desolate environment that surrounded us. Looking into the distance, I noticed some sparse patches of vegetation that were peppered along the hillside. Occasionally we would pass a local, who seemed to be wandering aimlessly with no apparent origin or destination.

My view was interrupted as our van pulled into a small rest area. Our G-Adventure guide, Youssef, had planned a roadside picnic as an opportunity to breakup the drive. He had even taken us to a grocery store the night before to pick out our food. We eagerly disembarked the vehicle, excited to dig in to our smorgasbord of snacks. Mine was a combination of Moroccan meats and cheeses, mixed with North American comfort foods, such as Pringles and Red Bull.

The area that he chose was perfect: there were large tiles used as flooring with manicured clusters of palm trees to provide ample amounts of shade. It seemed to be a place that the locals enjoyed as well. Further in, there was a small group of people taking turns collecting water from a tall, stone fountain. They all kept to themselves and paid very little attention to us.

Youssef spread out two large, wool blankets onto the tiles for us to sit on. We each sat knee-to-knee around the outer edge with just enough space to fit all fourteen of us. We eagerly dumped out our grocery bags of miscellaneous food into the middle circle, similar to children comparing their loot after a night of trick-or-treating.

As I began to build a sandwich, I noticed a man sitting behind our group on a concrete bench staring at us. He stared at us the same way you would stare at a camp fire … blankly with very little authentic interest. Just a fixation point for your eyes while you allow your mind to wander. He was an older Moroccan man with leathery skin and age spots. His narrow face and bony arms gave him a frail appearance. The rest of his physique was cloaked behind baggy clothing. He dressed with a toque, a few layers of long-sleeved shirts, and loose pair of pin-striped pants. On his feet, were a worn pair of sandals.

I folded up my sandwich and slipped away from our group. As I walked over to him, he seemed as intrigued by me as I was of him. I sat down beside him and tried speaking French; however, he did not seem to understand. I gave up on the idea of verbally communicating and instead, pointed to myself and slowly said “Amanda”. He nodded his head, as if he understood. I smiled and handed him over my sandwich. He took it and quietly smiled back. There was an awkward pause and then he began trying to tell me something. I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. Was he introducing himself? Was he telling me that he’s hungry? Did he want something else? Wait … was he gluten intolerant? Then I began wondering … Are people outside of North America gluten intolerant? … There was no way for us to be able to communicate aside from sign language so I just continued to stare at him, as if we were partners in a game of charades. My lack of understanding made me realize why I was always picked last for charades…

Finally, I understood what he was trying to tell me!! He pointed to his mouth and opened wide. Ohhhhhh!!!! He had no teeth! Nothing but gums!! He was trying to tell me that he had no teeth to chew the thick and dry bread from the sandwich! After I understood what he was trying to tell me, I had to chuckle. He smiled back with his empty mouth and proceeded to gum the bread of his sandwich.

Charlie

I heat up his favourite dish in the microwave and put it down in front of him. A meal that used to bring him great joy, now turns his head away in disinterest. I can feel myself becoming frustrated, yet desperate, because he just won’t eat. I stare at his frail body trying to figure out what to do. His loose skin hangs from its bones since there is no longer any muscle or fat to give it shape. I look into his opaque eyes, which are clouded from his cataracts. They look sad. When I look at him, he turns his head away and pretends to stare off into the distance. I can’t help but wonder, does he resent me for not letting him die? The cancer has spread quickly over the past year and now he just waits, tiredly, for it to consume him…

To fully understand this story, let me bring you back to where it all began…

It was a warm August morning, only a few weeks before my new semester would begin. I had gone into the pet store that day in search of a rabbit with floppy ears. Funny enough, I had actually picked out its name before even deciding to get a new pet. As I walked towards the rabbit cages, near the back of the store, something had caught my eye. I stopped and stared at him as he stared back at me. Intrigued, I could tell that there was something quite extraordinary about him, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Perhaps it was that he seemed like an old soul, much like myself. In a room full of chaos, he sat there with such a serious demeanour, quietly observing me with his big brown eyes. Whatever it was about him, I knew that I couldn’t walk away.

He was nearly the size of a small bunny, with mottled brown, black, and beige fur. He had subtle hints of white hidden on his chin and chest. His fur was so fluffy that it almost made him appear round. His tail was short, his ears were floppy, and he had a small button nose. He was absolutely perfect. It was at that moment that I realized … he was my Charlie.

img_6818-2

To the average person, Charlie might have been an overpriced mutt, but to me, he was priceless. A true hidden gem. And he quickly became the greatest companion of all time.

Shortly proceeding that day, came some of the darkest and difficult times of my life. As I would sit on the floor, with my head buried in my arms in complete defeat, Charlie would nudge me with his cold, wet nose, as if to reassure me that it was all going to be okay and that I would never be alone.

And he was right. As we climbed our way out of that rut, I was never alone. His loyalty and companionship helped me through those difficult times and allowed it to strengthen and define me instead of break me. Charlie stayed patiently by my side as I rebuilt my confidence and rediscovered my lust for life.

In no time, we were hiking trails, conquering mountains, and even spending nights together camping underneath the stars. Heck, we even tried paddle-boarding together (although he wasn’t a big fan of that)! I didn’t have much, but I always had him and wherever I would go, he would always come along.

img_6819

But eventually his body became older and he struggled to keep up. But this wouldn’t stop us from being together! I still carry him along on our adventures because I knew how much he hated to be left behind. Gradually, he became so weak that he was unable to even jump up to his favourite seat on the couch, but I would still pick up him and place him there because I knew how happy it made him.

But now his body is too weak and he is unable to eat. I can see that not even puréeing his food is enough anymore. Crushing his pain medication in his food is not enough anymore. Everything I try to do is no longer enough anymore.

That day in the pet store, twelve years ago, I had always felt like it was him who needed me. I saved him. But now looking back, I see clearly see that it was actually me who needed him. His love and companionship was a constant reminder of the beauty that still existed when all I could see was grey. However, he does need me now … he needs me to let go. As I hold his empty and tired body in my arms, I realize that if I truly love him, then I must say goodbye.

To feel the unconditional bond that is formed when a dog chooses you as his master is one of the greatest and purest gifts of life. Charlie, you loved without the fear of getting hurt. You were loyal without question. You gave without ever asking for anything in return. You listened without judging. And you kept every single secret, as promised.

I want to thank you for choosing me as your master, companion, and family. You have taught me about loyalty, friendship, and love. You have touched the lives of everyone who was privileged enough to meet you.

You are so much more than just a pet or a dog, you are my one and only Charlie. And I will always love you.

img_6820

Nomad Mandy Wanders the Sahara Desert (part II)

We watch in awe as the fiery orb in the sky slowly collides into the saffron sands of the Sahara desert. As the sun merges with the earth, its molten sunlight reflects off the sands and is amplified back into the sky to reveal glorious hues of red, yellow, orange, pink, blue, and even violet. We are left breathless … mostly because of the climb but also because of this spectacular moment. Here we stand, teetering on a thin crest of a sand dune, the size of a small mountain, in Morocco! Life IS good! Once the last flame fizzles out, we continue to stare into the evening twilight, as if expecting the sun to reappear, until Youssef finally announces that it’s suppertime.

FB_IMG_1558433566061.jpg

Looking down from where we stand, our campsite looks so small compared to the vastness of the Sahara. The Arabian style tents next to a lone palm tree in the desolate environment of the desert looks like a scene from Aladdin. Behind the campsite, our camels are resting in two perpendicular lines. With my shoes in one hand and my camera in the other, I race down the side of this enormous sand mountain, my legs struggling to keep my body upright. I feel like the Road Runner in the Looney Tunes being chased by the coyote. Beep beep! With every step I take, my feet sink through the warm superficial layer of sand and into the cooler layer that’s hidden below. Once nearing the bottom, my legs are finally defeated by gravity and, like rubber, they give out and I face-plant into the sand. I quickly shoot back up again and dust myself off, hoping that nobody saw that. I don’t think they did.

Our campsite is built around a common area, made up of overlapping layers of brilliantly colored Persian carpets, used as flooring. In the middle, is a single kerosene lamp next to three short, round wooden tables, covered with a plastic, wine-colored tablecloth. On each table, are the usual Moroccan condiments of fresh olives, olive oil, and almonds. This area is sandwiched between module tenting. To the left, is the kitchen tent, where I can see three of the Berber guides preparing our meal in the dim lighting of a small lamp. The tent beside that one is dark, which I assume is where they sleep and keep additional supplies. To the right of us, is our sleeping area. It’s made up of multiple mod-tents, placed side-by-side, in a rectangular shape. Each tent has two mattresses neatly made up with a pillow, thin cotton bed sheets, and a worn wool blanket.

As we take our seats around the tables, sitting cross-legged on the ground, our guide offers us some mint tea while we wait. This is customary in Morocco, signifying hospitality and friendship. The warm and sweet taste of the tea pleases my palate. As we sip on our tea, we begin going around the table and sharing the names that we had given our camels. I had named mine Carl. Far from being the winning name but he did look like a Carl to me. We also took this time to reflect upon our trip and some of our favourite moments.

It wasn’t long before the guides bring out a large, hand-painted, clay tagine pot for each table. As they remove the triangular cover, an exquisite aroma fills the air! Inside is a steaming stew-like preparation, heaping with beef, carrots, lentils, onions, apricots, tomatoes, turnips, and almonds. We decide that this is the ideal time to pull out the bottles of wine that we got the night before. Since Morocco is a dry country, it was quite difficult to find alcohol. Luckily, we spoke with the manager of a small grocery store who had some bottles hidden in his basement storage. As we eagerly fill our small plates with this warm and hearty offering, we also take this opportunity to toast our new friendships, old friendships, and this amazing adventure that we are fortunate enough to share together. The ingredients of the tagine taste so fresh and are flavoured with the spices that Morocco is so well known for; it pairs nicely with our cheap bottles of red wine.

FB_IMG_1558433497081.jpg

Once our meal is done, two of the Berbers pull out a set of drums and sit down with us. Each drum set consists of five handmade drums of various widths tied together. Without saying a word, they begin warming up with a simple rhythmic beat. In sync, they battle in a musical duel, progressively getting faster and faster until they both suddenly stop. There’s a drawn out pause until one of them cries out something in Berber and then they continue to play again. The music is tribal-like; the man on the left provides the lead vocals in Berber while the other echoes his lyrics.

After playing a few of their traditional songs, they ask for a volunteer to come up and play. Lacking any form of musical talent but enthusiastic to give it a try, I volunteer to go. How hard could tapping a rhythm out on a drum be, afterall? Well, it’s pretty hard. Being a huge Greenday fan, I decide to play “Good Riddance”. My uncoordinated drumming and squeaky voice gives everyone a whole new appreciation for the Berbers’ smooth and beautiful music. “… I hope you have the tiiiiiiiiiime of your liiiiiiiiifffffffffeeeeeeeee” (followed by a drum solo … followed by an electrifying finale …… followed by … a pity applause).

Apparently this was enough to make the Berbers decide that it’s time to move forward with tonight’s itinerary because they pick up their drums and lead us to a nearby campfire. They sit down and continue to drum and sing. We gather around as Youssef, our guide, joins in with finger cymbals. We continue to laugh and celebrate under the pitch-dark sky of the desert, as the fire dances along with us to the music.

Knowing in advanced that we were having a campfire, I packed some Hershey’s chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows. The Berbers have never heard of s’mores before, along with some of the other members in our group, so I give a “how to” class. Each person is handed their supplies: two crackers, a square of chocolate, a wooden skewer, and a marshmallow. “Step 1…” I begin, “… place your marshmallow on your skewer. Step 2: roast your marshmallow until the inside is warm and gooey. Be careful not to burn it! Step 3: sandwich your chocolate and cooked marshmallow between the two crackers. Step 4: enjoy!!!” As the Berbers take their first bite, their minds are obviously blown by this flavour explosion. They are so excited that they ask for seconds and begin referring to me as “Fatima”, which Youssef explains is the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and is one of the four perfect women who are mentioned in the Koran.

As the campfire begins to shrink, we sneak away to a nearby dune. All fourteen of us sit together in silence. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I can make out the silhouette of our campsite with the small flickering of our dying campfire next to it. I look into the sky, which is peppered with millions of stars. Absolute perfection. I have never seen a night sky as flawless as this one. The sand is soft, the air is cool, and my mind is calm. I am overwhelmed with the feeling of pure contentment. I take in a deep breath of the crisp night air. As I exhale, I say “Sooooo….. does anyone want to slide down the dunes?” Everyone is game! We run back to the campsite and begin raiding the kitchen, in search of anything that could be used as a toboggan or crazy-carpet. We find a couple of garbage bags and a serving tray. We run back to the top of the sand hill to try to slide down, like we do during the snowy winters back in Canada. The serving tray provides too much friction and we don’t slide an inch! Someone suggests using our head wraps to devise a slingshot. This is also a fail. One of the members of our group decides to give the garbage bag a try. He rips a hole in the bag for his head and puts it on like a sweater. “Should I poke arm holes?” he asks. “Naaaaaaaaa!” we all respond. “Okay, here I go!” Fully committed, he takes a running start, leaps into the air, and belly flops. Again, too much friction! You can literally hear the wind being knocked out of him, as his chest sinks into the sand and his feet continue the momentum forward and fly over his head. He flips over and lands hard on his back! OUFF! Epic fail.

After admitting defeat, fatigue quickly sets in but we are not ready to say goodnight just yet. We decide to drag our mattresses from the tents out to the common area so that we can sleep under the stars together. Although some were a little hesitant at first, since we were warned to be careful of scorpions and snakes, everyone decides to join in. Youssef’s very impressed because he’s never had an entire group sleep outside before. I use my headlamp to check my shoes and bag for any scorpions before bringing it to my sleeping area. All clear!

Too excited to sleep, but too tired to stay awake, I crawl under my blankets and stare in disbelief at the sparkling yellow specs scattered throughout this vast, charcoal canvas. Like fine dust, blown into the cool night’s sky, it made me appreciate how little we really are in such a large universe. In the grand scheme of things, my existence serves no real purpose and is merely a series of serendipitous events. Perhaps the only real purpose of life is, in fact, whatever we ascribe it to be. For me, it’s these experiences and these connections that we make with one another that give my life meaning. My eyelids become heavier with every blink as I try to resist succumbing to sleep because I don’t want this moment to end. As I lie here, semi-awake, I enjoy the heavy silence of the desert as I reflect back upon my day…

FB_IMG_1559155827127.jpg