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The impact of action

It’s one of those overly warm spring evenings at the cottage. An afternoon storm passed through Muskoka and the air is still heavy. The lake is calm, like glass, and the large puffy clouds in the distance are lit bright orange by the setting sun. Spiders are busy in the corners of the boathouse windows, I’ve just turned on a lamp and their webs will catch the bugs attracted to its light. It is so quiet I can hear the clock ticking away the minutes. A bird calls to its mate, or maybe he is just letting his friends know where he’ll be for the night.  I am feeling thoughtful  thinking about the new journey my family and I are setting out on.

Our goal is to have a positive impact on the world through the work that we do. We’re heading to Barbados to start a project working with local communities to build a culture-entrepreneurial centre that will be sustained by a unique “experiential” resort.

Tourism has become the biggest economic driver on most of the islands, but it has also had some negative impacts on local communities – like the loss of local food production and manufacturing. Even local arts and craft markets are becoming dominated by cheap Chinese imports. The cost of importing food and products has risen as local production has slowly disappeared; and many of the islands have become far too dependent on imports. Our goal is to reignite the entrepreneurial flame by providing space, encouragement and resources.  We hope to inspire local entrepreneurs, artists and manufacturers.

Barbados will be our first “proof of concept” location and we are moving there to launch the project. It’s a big life change but one both my husband and I are looking forward to.  We have some terrific local partners and just recently the island elected their first woman Prime Minister – Mia Motley.  She is a strong, smart, and dynamic woman with an excellent record. Prime Minister Motley sat in opposition to the local government as leader of the Barbados Labour Party for over a decade. She was elected in a landslide victory winning all 30 seats in Parliament and over 70% of the popular vote.  With no opposition she’ll be able to bring about significant changes to a government that was plagued by inaction.   There is a new sense of vibrancy on the island, and it fits well with our own determination to contribute to the community.

The sun is low in the sky and long shadows stretch out over the lake – a stillness has settled over things and all the possibilities that a new day will bring are just beginning to form.

Portugal travel tips: consider camping

From the stunning coastlines to the lush vineyards of the north, Portugal’s allure is one of a kind. I remember the overwhelming feeling when two of my best gal pals and I decided on this destination for a three-week trip in 2016- there was so much to see in so little time.

I wanted to visit the rolling hills of Sintra, the vibrant city of Lisbon and the cliff-lined Algarve coast, but there was plenty of natural beauty between the nation’s major hubs, and it was calling to me. An agreement was made to skip the headache of booking hostels and the group opted for a more rugged experience. Sleeping bags, cooking supplies and a three-person tent were packed  and plans were set to jump from campsite to campsite along the Alentejo Coast.

To this day,  adventures camping through Portugal are some of my fondest travel memories. Those looking for a journey on a budget, or merely for the chance to get outside and indulge in nature, consider camping along this country’s coast for the perfect cure to onset of wanderlust.

Cost

Camping is a much cheaper alternative to staying in hotels, Airbnbs and even backpacker hostels. On average, I spent about €5 ($7.75 CAD) per night, with some sites costing as little as €2 ($3.10 CAD). Sometimes, this charge was applied to each person, but more commonly, it was applied to each tent, and because the group decided to snuggle up in one, the overall accommodation costs were extremely low.

Most campsites along the Alentejo Coast are located in small towns, so food and alcohol were generally cheaper as well. I remember one night sitting around a picnic bench, listening to the ocean, and sipping on a €0.50 glass of local wine that was filled to the brim- and this was a common occurrence.

It’s worthwhile to dig through travel forums to find campsites and wild spots in an area of interest, or check out iOverlander and FurgoVW for mapped areas throughout Western Europe. In Algarve territory, be aware that wild camping is officially banned.

Environment

Coming from Canada, where there are  some of the most lush campsites in the world, setting up a tent in the often sparse landscapes of Portugal was a bit of an adjustment. But, where Portugal’s coast lacks in trees, it makes up for in ocean.

The Alentejo Coast is a string of sandy coves woven through steep and rocky ocean-side ridges. This stunning scenery is usually only a short walk from  campsites, or, if wild camping,  the ocean is right at your tent door! There’s nothing better than waking up to the soundtrack of the sea.

Some of the Alentejo Coast  is populated with oak, olive and other native plant species- Over 100 kilometres of the coast is part of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, a preserved slice of land that’s home to plenty of unique animal and plant species. Unlike Canada there are no black bears or big cats roaming around these parts. There are very few dangerous animals in Portugal, especially along the coast, which is yet another reason why camping here has such a draw.

Site Quality

Campground quality can be a hit or a miss, and the group definitely experienced some rougher plots of land. However, more often than not, all were pleasantly surprised with the location and perks that the accommodations had to offer.

Most campgrounds along the coast are equipped with amenities that are suited for a resort- clean showers, outdoor pools, laundry rooms, on-site restaurants, grocery stores, barbecue stations and even widespread WiFi access. Some of the grounds are so clean and comfortable, that it’s not uncommon for families to park their camper vans or trailers and stay for months at a time. The parks can get quite full in peak season, but luckily, our group was travelling at the end of September and missed the summer rush.

A few coastal spots  are world renowned for their waves and are popular with surf camps and retreats. The grounds stayed on in Sagres, for example, had a surf camp on site and offered lessons to interested visitors.

People

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of camping through Portugal was the many faces  that I met along the way. As most small-town campgrounds are frequented by Portuguese families, I had the opportunity to spend time with the locals and learn about their culture firsthand. Friendly residents and fellow campers brought the group to their favourite beach spots, as well as to local gatherings. They cooked the meanest salted cod (or baccalau) I’ve ever tasted in my life!

There’s something about being in the great outdoors, especially in a country as beautiful as Portugal, that sparks the most basic instinct to bask in the joy of company. The intimate, yet open spirit of camping is one that brings people closer together and it’s an experience that the hostel-jumping trend of travelling often seems to miss. So, on the next trip to Portugal, (or anywhere for that matter) plan  a different kind of adventure- one that allows travelers to see a destination in its purest state.

Tourist Tips: Surviving a police trap in Vietnam

 

We missed our turn. Even though we had a map, and even though the man at the motorcycle shop showed us exactly where to go. Even though we had read plenty of ominous articles warning readers to not miss that very crucial turn, we missed our turn.

Let me take you back…

It was the beginning of December in Vietnam and my partner and I were wrapping up our six-week backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. We only had ten days to spend in Vietnam and, although there were plenty of cities and villages we yearned to see, we didn’t want to spend our last week of vacation commuting across the country. But, our unsettled spirit for adventure also refused to let us situate ourselves in one place for the entire duration. So, we compromised.

We decided to hitch a short ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Mũi Né, a sleepy beach town where we could relax and explore the southern coast. Mũi Né is a fairly quiet place, but it still seems to thrive on tourism. It’s especially popular with Eastern European travellers, as many of the restaurants, shops and hotels are owned and operated by Russian expats. The town’s main claim to fame, however, is an unlikely set of rolling red and white sand dunes that are popular for dune buggy trips and beautiful desert panoramas.

This natural landmark was at the top of our list and, as we had done in previous countries, we set out to rent a motorbike that we could ride to the dunes and beyond. The streets were much quieter here compared to Ho Chi Minh City, a place where the mere thought of mounting a bike in  the lawless flow of traffic was enough to induce a panic attack. However, I’m a pretty overly cautious traveller (and person), so, naturally, I began looking up license restrictions, driving conditions and shop scams in the area. Low and behold, Google returned a slew of results about the dreaded ‘Mũi Né Police Trap.’

Story has it, that a while back, some Russian tourists were driving recklessly in the area. In response, the Vietnamese police decided to clamp down on unlicensed drivers. Technically speaking, you require a Vietnamese license to drive a motorbike anywhere in the country, but it’s very rarely enforced, as locals prefer to keep vehicle rental businesses alive. The Mũi Né police force, however, took the order as an opportunity to construct a scam using the popular sand dunes as their bait.

Situated near the landmark’s entrance, they pull over non-Vietnamese drivers and pitch freedom at a cost, encouraging tourists to reach deep into their pockets if they want to leave without consequence. As you can imagine, the more fear they instill, the heftier the bribe they’re likely to receive. Thankfully, we knew exactly where these police officers were stationed and had clearly mapped driving instructions to avoid their shady trap.

Here’s the part where we miss our turn.  

We didn’t realize until they were ten feet in front of us, pulling every foreign face to the side of the road. The night before, we overheard a guy at a bar telling a drunken story about how he just kept on driving, right past the police officers who were too lazy to get on their bikes and chase him down. I felt my boyfriend rev the engine and I squeezed his waist as we zoomed on by, hoping the universe would grant us the same fate.

Suddenly, we were the prey of a police chase. And, before you envision Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh whizzing through dense traffic at full speed, reel in your imagination- it was more like Wallace and Gromit going a steady 40 kilometres per hour and whistling an apprehensive tune.

The police officer pulled right up beside us, looked over with a tired face and simply said, “stop.” We joined a small group of scared, helmeted tourists who had also been caught. He first asked to see our Vietnamese license, which of course we didn’t have, so he then proceeded to pull my boyfriend into a parked pick-up truck where he broke down a deal: we go free, with the motorbike, for five million dong (about $280 CAD).  

Now, you’ve probably already heard this travel tip preached by your father or your Lonely Planet Guidebook, but any time you clip in your backpack buckles, be sure to have a trusty stash of emergency doe tucked away in a secret spot. It’s easy to shrug off, but, trust me,  it’s so worth it once your staring into the sweaty face of a corrupt policeman.

We told the officer that we didn’t have that much money and showed him our empty pockets as proof. So, he ordered my boyfriend to drive to an ATM machine and withdraw the amount while they held me as ransom. At the time, we were using a Chinese bank card and, for some reason, it wasn’t working in Vietnamese bank machines. In all other money-related situations we were screwed, but in this instance, that Chinese card saved our butts.

We explained our situation as best we could, and after nearly one hour of broken debate with the officer and his sidekicks, they shook our hands and let us free for the mere price of $5 CAD. I’m still not sure if it was our knack for sweet talk, or just the pure exhaustion of being a tainted trooper that got us off, but I sure was relieved to hit the road again leaving the hustle in our dust.

Sometimes in life you miss a turn or two, but hey, all you can do is reroute yourself to the destination. We did reach the the sand dunes, after all, with a stack of hidden cash in our backpack’s inner pocket and a soon-to-be hilarious travel tale to add to the books.

Why you need to visit Lamma Island

Beyond the concrete towers that encapsulate Hong Kong’s skyline lies a hidden gem in the South China Sea. Originally known as Pok Liu Chau, Lamma Island is the tiny 13-square-kilometer destination that everyone should add to their bucket list. Although, sadly, there are no llamas, as the name may imply, this island is a true haven away from the dense commotion of central Hong Kong.

Lamma Island boasts some of Hong Kong’s finest natural landscapes, complete with thick greenery, swimmable beaches and a refreshing dose of ocean air. You can catch a ride to the northern village of Yung Shue Wan, or the eastern Sok Kwu Wan in just 20 minutes from Victoria Harbour, or 40 minutes from Aberdeen.

Whether you’re planning a day trip or a weeks-long getaway, here’s why this island will provide you with the perfect change of pace:

The Beaches

A spacious, tidy beach is a relic that’s hard to come by along the coasts of Hong Kong and mainland China. Lamma Island, however, has plenty of swimmable beaches with white sand and (mostly) clean water. Hung Shing Yeh is the island’s most popular beach in the main town of Yung Shue Wan, and despite being ordered to get out of the water due to a nearby oil spill during my own beach day, it’s definitely worth a trip. If you’re looking for a quieter spot, Lo So Shing beach is a must-visit, or you can explore the island’s coast, which is speckled with a ton of secret sandy shores. There is one beach, however, on the southern tip of the island that’s reserved for our marine animal friends. Although accessible by foot or private boat for some of the year, Sham Wan Bay is closed to the public from June to October, as it is the only remaining nesting site in Hong Kong for endangered sea turtles.

The Food

Hong Kong is internationally renowned for its seafood, and some of its best can be found on Lamma Island. Home to one of the territory’s oldest fishing villages, Sok Kwu Wan was once the liveliest fishing centre in Hong Kong. The village residents have been practicing this art for centuries and continue to use traditional fishing techniques to this day. Both of the island’s main towns are lined with seafood eateries, most of which come equipped with patios that overlook the ocean. And if fish isn’t really your thing, not to worry! Lamma is home to a hefty population of expats, many of whom have opened their own restaurants with an international flare. You can find delicious Spanish tapas, traditional British pubs, aromatic Indian grub, and plenty of cozy vegan and vegetarian cafes.

The Hiking Trails

With no cars or buses, Lamma Island can only really be explored by bicycle or by foot. Luckily, there are numerous trails traversing the island’s landscape.The most popular trail is known as the Lamma Island Family Walk and takes you between the major towns of Yung Shue Wan and Sok Kwu Wan in about one and a half hours. The trail is mostly paved with clear markers and fresh fruit stands along the way, and it’s easily doable for beginners. It will bring you through the rolling green hills of the island to various lookout points where you can catch the sunset and see the glitzy shimmer of Hong Kong’s concrete jungle across the channel.

For the history buffs, Lamma’s trails are also decorated with remnants of the past. Along the way, you’ll find one of many small caves that were built by the Japanese during their occupation of Hong Kong in World War II. The caves were dug to hold speedboats that would be used in suicide attacks on enemy ships. Although they were never fully in use, the caves are untouched to this day, and are now known as the Kamikaze Grottos.

The People

Lamma Island is home to approximately 6,000 residents– not many, compared to the millions of people that populate the rest of Hong Kong. Some locals have lived here for generations, with roots reaching back to the island’s booming fishing days. However, Lamma’s laid-back energy and undeniable charm has attracted expats, artists and wandering nomads from all corners of the globe. It’s also been a recent draw for many workers who’ve opted for a daily ferry commute over the dreaded apartment hunt in mainland Hong Kong. The apparent multiculturalism has infused the island with a free-spirited vibe that makes it one of the best corners of Hong Kong if you’re looking to meet new people.

The Peace & Quiet

Lastly and, in my opinion, most importantly, Lamma Island is a slice of serenity in the foreground of cosmopolitan chaos. There are no cars and no skyscrapers to pollute its natural beauty, in fact, government restrictions forbid any units to be built over three storeys high. This not only curbs the number of residents, but it also opens the view to the skies above- something that’s quite a rarity on the mainland. If you really want to bask in the silence, avoid the island’s busiest time, which is summer weekends when a wave of mainland citizens come rushing in for the prime beach-lounging hours. But, just as quickly as they appear, they vanish at the call of the last scheduled ferry.

If you want to experience Lamma Island and all it has to offer, I suggest planning your trip soon. As the island gains popularity with visitors from near and far, an increasing number of developers are setting their sights on this relaxed hideaway. It may not be the same place in ten, or even five years from now, so hurry up and pack your bags!

Woman of the Week: Alexa Samuels

Alexa Samuels is the founder of Mercartto.com, a Toronto-based, female-led e-commerce startup that helps connect people with handpicked artwork based on their personality type. With a background in Latin American art and an MBA from Rotman School of Management, Samuels knows what it takes to run a business. Her idea — to offer original art to those who may not know what to look for — sprang from her own personal experience and desire to fuse technology with culture.

Samuels responded to some questions from Women’s Post about how she founded Mercartto.com and what advice she has for young entrepreneurs looking to run a startup:

Question: Your background is in Latin American studies and art – when did you decide to make the jump into business – and what was your interest in Latin America specifically?

Answer: I went to McGill University not having a clue what I wanted to do. When we had to declare a major, the cross-disciplinary nature of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program intrigued me. I’ve had a long-term inexplicable interest in Latin America since I was young, perhaps stemming from the region’s history/archaeology, art, music, food and languages. As for jumping into business, it just seemed like the thing to do. My grandfather built a successful toy manufacturing business, so perhaps entrepreneurialism is in the blood.

Your career is a bit all over the place – marketing, social media, non-profits – what drove you towards entrepreneurship?

Initially, my career began after completing my Master of Arts degree when I joined Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. I stayed there for over a decade until taking a Global Executive MBA that stoked my interest in going independent. In 2009 I felt the time was right to make the change.

How did the idea for Mercartto come about?

The idea for Mercartto literally sprouted from an “aha moment” when out with a friend for lunch.

Years ago, shortly after I moved from a tiny home with no wall space to a house with a two-storey front entrance, I knew I wanted a significant piece of art to make a great first impression. But, I didn’t want to spend extensive time searching for art, especially wading through art that was out of my price range or art that just didn’t resonate with me. I had also spent a lot of time (and continue to do so) contemplating my own art decisions: Why am I drawn to certain types of art? What are the common elements? Finally, I wanted to create an experience which surprises and delights the user, but within a selection of art that she is more likely to enjoy. Mercartto’s been evolving ever since that lunchtime epiphany.

In terms of your personality quiz – is there a kind of art that is most popular?

Our data set is still small, so it’s hard to make generalizations this early, but if I had to narrow it down I would say that landscapes have the edge. What’s more interesting to observe is how diverse our users’ tastes are. I can tell you that at current, out of the 31 different personality types, the most popular are the Sensory Collector, the Social Collector, the Visionary Collector and the Closet Daredevil. I’m also happy to observe that so far we have one Nonconformist.

How has the company evolved in the last three years? 

The last three years have seen the evolution from idea to a product. The most significant milestones have been:

  1. Narrowing down the Mercartto differentiator and refining the art personality quiz;
  2. Launching the beta as an iOS app in 2016; and
  3. Integrating tester feedback into an updated web version launched end of 2017.
Frida Kahlo her Wished For Child Arsema by Jane Murdoch Adams

Tell me about the scholarship aspect of Mercartto?

When considering who is going to be drawn to Mercartto, we think of someone who is interested in introducing original art into their space, whether for the first time or to build upon a small collection, but might be unsure about “the whole art thing”. Our mandate is to help people learn more about art, both from general concepts and from things related specifically to Toronto. We want Canadians to learn about themselves, and others to learn about us. Our blog serves as an ongoing repository of this information, and once a month we send our subscribers a curated newsletter summarizing the best content of the month.

What advice would you have for budding entrepreneurs? Did you experience any drawbacks or challenges in the creation of Mercartto? 

Ha! There are days (weeks!) when you’re an entrepreneur and everything you do feels like a drawback, challenge or learning experience. It’s especially difficult taking on a technology project when you don’t have the technical skills to build the platform yourself. If I had to narrow down my advice to a few points, I would say:

  1. There will be rough patches. Lots of them. You will make mistakes. Expensive, painful mistakes. If you want stability and predictability, work for someone else. But if you love the challenge of creating something the world has never seen before, you believe in what you’re doing and you accept that the buck stops with you and you alone, entrepreneurship can be very rewarding.
  2. It’s okay to change. Don’t be so rigid with your idea that you’re not willing to change. Really listen to others and not just hear what you want to hear.
  3. Listen to your gut. If something is gnawing at the back of your brain, there’s probably some truth to it. Honour your misgivings.
  4. Be very, very careful with whom you do business. As much as possible, set expectations up front. Deal directly with issues.

Tell me about #artistsneededhere.

#artisneededhere is our inaugural promotion to help build awareness. We’re on a mission to make your walls happy! Until Feb. 28, we’re giving people a chance to enter to win one of two prints by Toronto artist Jane Murdoch Adams’ wonderful Frida Kahlo series. Entry is done by sharing a photo of your sad, bare wall on a public Instagram account with the hashtag #artisneededhere, posting a comment to our #artisneededhere thread in Facebook, or signing up to receive our monthly curated newsletter. More details at http://ArtIsNeededHere.com.

Frida with Diego in Love by Jane Murdoch Adams

How do you help women?

I knew I wanted to build my business if not directly targeted at women, at least in a way that women would feel like it was made for them, but not at the expense of excluding men. It’s a true “feminist” approach: one that believes in equality for everyone. I am particularly interested in ensuring we have female artists represented on the site – again, not to the exclusion of men, but by at least making an effort to be consciously aware that female artists are being approached on an equal basis to males.

What do you do when you aren’t working?

I don’t understand the question (just kidding.)

If I’m not working, my time is generally spent with my husband, daughter, and extended family. Now that my daughter is getting increasingly independent, I’ve realized that I need to invest in spending time with myself, particularly doing creative pursuits like painting, writing, piano playing. And on Sunday nights you can find me playing hockey at my local rink.

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Tortillas and sugarcane juice in Costa Rica

Travelling through Central America was on my bucket list. After months of painstaking research, I realized that doing it all was impossible. I settled on visiting Costa Rica, in the northwest of the long finger-like country. The Pacific coast beckoned with its black beaches, diverse communities, and abundance of flora and fauna. My adventures were inundated with wild animals, sugarcane fields, and one-of-a-kind experiences.

Here are some of the highlights:

Sweet as sugar

A small town named Filadelphia in the interiors of Northwestern Guanacaste province acts as a gateway to huge acres of sugarcane. Sugarcane is a big player in the country’s largely rural economy. All parts of the crop are used up so there is little waste. Workers use machetes to hack through the tall tough stacks of cane before it goes to the ‘Trapiches’, or sugar mills, to be ground into sugar.

My guide, Ulysses (how epic is that?), points out the sodas lining the main street. Soda is a term for the ubiquitous eatery found at every corner. The sun is riding high in the sky, and from the cool interiors of the sodas, local Costa Ricans raise their hands in greeting. They know where I’m headed. Soon, I see orderly rows of sugarcane and lines of melons on the other side of the dusty road.

“These belong to the company Del Monte. You have heard, yes?” I nod, my mind flying back to my local grocery store. I’ll always have this picture in my head when I see those tins next time, I think.

El Viejo Hacienda

The group made a stop at a hacienda, which lay past the fields and the streams where egrets continue to fish, unfazed by my picture taking. Built in the 1800s, it retains much of its original wood work. I wander into the courtyard, entranced by the view of the surroundings.

“Careful!” warns Ulysses, and I step back in alarm. Snoozing in the sunny courtyard is an iguana, all orange crest and striped tail. I was too busy looking about to have seen what lay at my feet. My heart is in my mouth.

“They’re harmless,” he grins. “They only fight among themselves.”

I’m not convinced and vow to pay attention. But the lovingly restored hacienda works its soothing magic on me. Upstairs are rooms whose wooden floors are scuffed with the imprints of a thousand visitors. The walls hang with pictures of another era. From the upstairs verandah, I see the clumps of weirdly shaped cacti, and beyond, the fields and mountains, misty in the noon haze.

Sabaneros

The group then had the opportunity to learn about the Sabanero (cowboy) culture, native to the region. Time lies still in these parts, I think. I meet El Capitano, the ox who will help in moving the mill press, which will grind the sugarcane to make juice. He’s a robust bull, but docile, on account of his castration, Nina, the young lady showing me around, explains. Then she makes a peculiar howling sound and, in an instant, is answered with the same sound from beyond the canopy of trees. That, she explains, is how the cowboys communicated with each other. Tourists gather around to watch the churning of the old machine with El Capitano’s help.

I cannot help it – I’m captivated, held fast by the sunshine, the scent of woodsmoke, the nectar-like sugarcane juice, and the living groves of tamarind and mango trees. Ulysses leads me up the steps to the modest Casa del Sabanero, with an open hearth with roaring fire, pats of corn dough, and an invitation to bake fresh tortillas. The taste is reminiscent of a simpler time, of sun, of community, of the earth, I think poetically.

Wetlands

The wetlands are only a short drive away. Through densely treed land, the van stops at the banks of the fast-flowing Tempisque river.

“You must see the monkeys. And crocodiles. Big!”

Ulysses’ appetite to let me make closer acquaintance with the stuff of my nightmares is unending, it seems. But I forgive him when I’m on the boat. A cooling breeze, jungle-thick banks, and the brackish waters of the Tempisque river.

“Crocodile!”

Everyone turns to the right. And on the bank, amid the mud, lies an enormous monster. It looked at us balefully with one eye.

“That’s Boss”, claims the boatman.

“How do you know? Can you recognise him?” someone asks nervously.

“He had an accident some years ago – fighting with another male. He’s blind in one eye.”

Our boat dawdles near the bank. Suddenly he lifts up his huge girth and in a second, slides into the water. The speed was frightening. Our boat zips away.

A flock of black necked stilts peck through the water near the bank. And at last, in the trees, a clutch of capuchin monkeys swing. Except for two of them.

“What are they doing?” a curious 10 year old asks.

Silence, and then laughter breaks out on the boat.

“Eh, fighting, I guess”, says the embarrassed mother.

If you are looking for a trip which combines the pleasures of a laid-back lifestyle, interesting experiences, rich diversity in plant and animal life, and smiling people, you need look no further.

From Toronto, New Year’s traditions from around the world

As we approach 2018, it’s time to think about all the positive things we have managed to accomplish in 2017 and how our lives will be different in the new year. Luck and prosperity are just a few of the things many people from around the world hope for. In keeping with this, many people have a few customs and traditions to help make the transition easier, and hopefully bring luck along the way. Here are some New Years customs and traditions from some countries around the world.

Brazil: jump seven waves 

NYE in Brazil is well celebrated and can feature spectacular firework displays all along the famous beaches in Rio. Many people find themselves hanging out by the beach and not just to watch the fireworks. Wave jumping is another tradition. If you jump over each wave while making your wish, this will increase your luck and bring you joy for the new year. If you want to increase your chances in love, make sure the first person you greet in the new year is someone special.

Turkey: wear red underwear

Wearing red underwear is common in many countries on NYE, especially those in Latin America. Many people head to the malls to buy themselves some red undergarments for their NYE celebrations. Wearing red panties guarantee passion and love for the new year ahead for many women. It is also common to wear yellow underwear to bring happiness and money. Perhaps aim for a red panty with yellow polka dots?

Spain- lucky grapes

There is a tradition, as well as a superstition, in Spain where people eat 12 grapes at midnight. These grapes are known as the lucky grapes and can be traced back to a custom in 1895 by grape growers. If you eat 12 grapes at midnight, each grape will represent the 12 months of the new year and the 12 wishes you are permitted. These 12 grapes must be consumed in the first 12 minutes of the new year. If you get a sour grape amongst the bunch this could mean a sour month in the year ahead. It is also common to find this tradition in the Philippines and other Spanish countries and communities.

Denmark- break plates

If you live in Denmark and you have a broken dish, don’t throw it out. Instead, smash the remains on NYE. This tradition is odd, yet serves as a sign for friendship in that country. After midnight, it’s not uncommon to find a pile of broken dishes on your doorstep, as this is a sign that someone values your friendship. Smash plates and other wares against your friend’s door as a sign of lasting friendship and love — just make sure it’s not glass.

Jamaica- clean your house

Similar to many other Caribbean islands, Jamaicans have a tradition of cleaning out their homes for Christmas and for the New Year. You clean out all the negativity and leave room for positive space in your life. People find the time to buy new decorative items for their homes and even repaint their houses. Many people around the world also take a broom on NYE and (literally) sweep all the negativity held throughout the year.

Japan- ring 108 bells

This may not be a personal requirement for the New Year in Japan, but many temples ring the bell 108 times at the stroke of midnight. Ringing the bell 108 times represents 108 worldly temptations a person must overcome in the Buddhist belief.

Italy- Pucker up

particularly in Venice, there is a custom of mass kissing that takes place at the stoke of midnight. As fireworks  light up the sky over St Marks Square, couples are encouraged to start smooching!  Many couples make this a romantic event. It’s not odd to kiss at midnight, as this is common in many cultures around the world, including here in Canada and in the united States. kissing someone at the stroke of midnight is meant to set the tone you wish to establish for the future with that person. It is about maintaining the bond. If you’re single and don’t have anyone to kiss, I say to kiss all your problems from 2017 goodbye.

Happy 2018!

Coco —the film you didn’t know you needed this holiday season

Disney’s latest movie, in collaboration with Pixar Animations, is called Coco. This is a movie every child, and even every adult, should see. When walking into the theatre, I did not know what to expect. I’m a long time Pixar and Disney lover and generally find that their movies are good. It’s home to classics like Toy Story and the last Pixar movie I saw, Finding Dory. Last summer, there was Moana and I left the theatre full of pure happiness knowing such family-friendly movies are still out there.

When I decided to see Coco, I didn’t gather much from the trailer. I knew it was a movie based on the Mexican celebration for Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. This historical holiday is based on Mexican heritage and can be traced back to Indigenous culture. It is a day where families gather and celebrate the memories of their loved ones who have passed away. Families visit graves and lay offerings and gifts to their ancestors. They also put up pictures of loved ones lost. This opportunity is to encourage the souls of their loved ones to visit.

Disney’s attempt to tackle such a historical topic in a manner that could be presented to children was bold and risky, but it paid off. The concept of death is not uncommon in Disney/ Pixar movies, but it has certainly never been highlighted in such a manner like the movie Coco.

This movie is about family traditions and values. Family dynamics in turn shape us more than we can imagine, even based on the practices of our ancestors. Without giving away too much, the story follows  a 12-year-old boy named Miguel Riviera, with his trusty side kick, a stray dog named Dante. They end up, through a series of mishaps, in the land of the dead where Miguel seeks the help of his great great grandfather. The land of the dead displayed in Coco is full of skeletons, bright lights, lots of music, lots of dancing, and lots of culture. Miguel has a love of music, but this is heavily frowned upon by his family based on the actions of his great great grandfather. Spanish music played a big part in the sounds of this movie, with original songs like Remember Me, performed by Benjamin Bratt, who played a famously ( dead) musical and film star, Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel’s musical idol. Other songs included The World Es Mi Familia and Un Poco Loco.

The role of Miguel was voiced by 12-year-old newcomer, Anthony Gonzalez. who delivered an energetic and heartwarming performance. Nothing, however beats the actual star, Coco, who is Miguel’s great grandmother. She deals with memory loss due to her age, but dreams of one day being reunited with her ‘papa’ who is now in the land of the dead.

If you decide to watch this movie, it wont be odd to start thinking about your own family ancestry and remembering your loved ones lost. Coco captures the heart and actual soul of what it means to value and pay respect to your family as generations go by.

Coco was released on November 22 and can be found at your local movie theatre. Have you seen Coco? Comment below

What is a boutique hotel?

I’m currently looking for hotels in New York and I saw this term “boutique hotel” listed. To me, a boutique is a small, independent shop often found in a quaint neighbourhood that sell handmade items you can’t find anywhere else.

A boutique hotel is similar in a fashion. It is not operated by a large chain or brand. Instead, it is independently owned that provides individualized and custom service. Most have less than 100 rooms, meaning the experience can be quite intimate. At the same time, boutique hotels usually have a lot of character. The building may have a theme that seeps into every room.

Don’t be fooled though. This doesn’t mean the hotel is tacky. Most boutique hotels are actually quite luxurious. Because they are smaller than the typical hotel, it means more care is taken in the decor. Designer furnishings and unique pieces of art are common in each room. The best part is that, unlike your typical hotel, no two rooms are alike. Some rooms may have a quirky sense of humour while others may have a warm and cozy ambiance.

Because of the size of boutique hotels, owners are usually able to find prime locations to build upon.. This can result in some truly breathtaking views.

Each room will also have some luxury, hand-made and unique items available for use, like organic soaps, bath pillows, or even a linen selection. Prepare to enjoy some locally-grown foods as well as some art by local artisans.

There are also a few different kinds of boutique hotels. Historic or country boutiques, for example, offer accommodations with rustic charm — think stone walls, big fireplaces, detailed wood carvings, and homemade comfort food.  These buildings often have some sort of historic significance and rooms are designed to feel homey, yet still rich in culture and comfort.

Urban boutique hotels are often found in a city’s centre and caters too younger travelers looking for a tech-savvy and comfortable place to stay. They are generally located in neighbourhoods with lots of culture and nightlife. The rooms themselves use Smart technology and there are common areas for people to mingle.

Then there are the luxury boutiques. The rooms in this accommodation use high-quality materials and exclusive designer furnishings. They may have infinity pools, skylights, or even spa services available. Luxury boutiques pride themselves on personalizing your vacation experience, and ensuring you have the most fine wining and dining available.

Check out these boutique hotels in Toronto: Thompson Hotel, Le Germain, or The Drake (Nook room featured in photo above).

Luxury boutique hotel Barcelona Duquesa de Cardon
Boutique Hotel Bali

Don’t let fear stop you from seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris

While at a recent dinner party, I was asked an interesting question: what’s your favourite city to visit and why do you have a connection with that place? I thought about it for a while and decided on London, which has always felt like home to me. It’s probably my obsession with British fashion and even the depressing weather. I heard other guests reply with places like Manhattan, New York, Tokyo, Japan, and other destinations. I got to thinking to what my answer might have been a few years ago—Paris, France.

France is one of the most popular European countries, with the City of Paris attracting a lot of attention. However, in 2016, the French Tourism Board reported a dip in tourists in the city, with the industry losing almost £644M. This sharp decline was mainly caused by terrorism fears and concerns. France is a country that relies heavily on tourism, with seven per cent of the country’s GDP  generated from those sales. Even the Eiffel Tower had about 1 million less visitors last year.

 

Paris is known as the city of love and, before terrorism became an active concern, it was seen as a peaceful and romantic destination with odd crimes and pick-pockets. French tourism does not look so positive, as a few weeks ago, in the City of Nice, nine people were arrested after a thwarted terror attack.

However, one of the worst things you can do is let fear restrict you from travelling to the places you dream of. We are living in an unpredictable world, but that shouldn’t prevent someone from experiencing other cultures or relaxing with friends and family. Here are four small tips to travel without fear.

  • Consider your anxiety and don’t let proposed fear outweigh actual concerns. As a tip, maybe stay away from overly populated tourists spots or make sure your valuables are kept safe. Try getting a small lock for your backpack to deter pickpockets.
  • Know where you’re going. Research the neighbourhoods and know roughly how to get to your destination. Don’t wander down dark streets on your own.
  • Don’t let regret plague you from missing out on a good trip. At the end of the day, you don’t want to think “Oh, I wanted to go to the Eiffel Tower, but I was too worried about pickpockets”. You will always regret not going to see this iconic and historic marvel. Just do it!
  • Stop worrying about something that is out of your control. Sometimes, shit happens. Just take every minute as it comes and remember that as long as you are safe, everything else is small potatoes.

Try to venture off the beaten track a bit and explore less popular neighbourhoods in Paris, including Quartier Chinois (Chinatown), Bastille, Canal Saint Martin or Saint-Germain-des-Pres. This way you can soak up all the food, culture, fashion and romance the city has to offer without having to line up for hours with hundreds and thousands of other tourists like you.

Will you be planning you next trip to Paris? Comment below.