Sunday, 15 December 2013

How I handled difficult situations while traveling

In my previous blog I described typical difficult situations that could befall travelers and how they could best be handled.  In this blog I will share with you some of the situations that I encountered on my travels and how I was able to overcome them and still enjoy my vacations.

With each mishap I was either initially disappointed or panicked but had to deal with them to the best of my ability.  In certain cases I had to miss out on activities but was able to do other things instead. I calmed myself although it was difficult so that I could think clearly on how to proceed.  I then thought of different ways to resolve each situation.  I chose the best solution and carried it through.  Once resolved I stayed positive and made the best of each situation so that I would still have a great time on my vacations.

The mishaps that I experienced included having my overnight bag picked up by a tour group in Amsterdam upon my supposed departure, becoming sick with a cold in California while visiting my brother, sister in law, and my nephew who was a toddler at the time, missing my shuttle from Halifax to PEI due to lack of information either on my part or theirs in addition to having a cold and losing my luggage keys, and then tripping and spraining my ankle in Newfoundland.

In Amsterdam when I saw that my bag was not there the first thing I did was to ask the front desk if they saw anything.  I then went to the bus which housed the tour and tried asking in Spanish ‘hablo ingles’ (do you speak English) so that I could explain the situation. No one answered and so I tried looking in the overhead compartments but did not find it there or in the luggage compartment below. In the meantime I had missed my train and boat and had to book another spot with overnight passage which cost me more.  After calling my friend in London and explaining to her what had happened and that I would only arrive the next day I made the best of the situation and went to the Van Gogh museum and spent the afternoon there until I had to catch my train and boat.  Upon my return to London I went to the airline office and had my airline ticket home reprinted.  The good news is that I had my passport and money on me in my money belt and I still enjoyed my last few days in London with my friend although I did lose things like developed pictures and undeveloped film and a couple of gold chains.

In California I had come down with a cold in San Diego right before I was going to visit my brother in Los Angeles.  I was quite disappointed as one of my main reasons for going to California was to spend time with my little nephew.  Because I was sick I had to stay away from him and to continually wash my hands due to my brother’s concern which I completely understood.  To combat this he took me for a drive through Bel Air and Beverly Hills enabling me to sit and rest so that I could still enjoy my time with them.  I also did the best I could to take care of my cold and to rest so that my health would improve by the time I would leave.

In Halifax after realizing that the shuttle was not coming and then finding out from the company that I was supposed to be waiting 45 minutes before the departure time I did my best to explain to them that they had not notified me of that information.  Of course they denied it which is typical of a lot of companies so basically it was a ‘he said/she said’ type of situation.  Since I realized there was little point to any further argument all I could do was rebook the next day and make sure that they gave me the proper information this time around which they did plus notify the hostel in Charlottetown that I would not be there that day.  Luckily for me the girl at the desk had clippers and was able to cut the lock of my suitcase and then sell me another lock and key plus she was kind and empathized with my situations which lifted my spirits.  Unfortunately it was Sunday and the stores were closed so there was not much I could do for my cold until the next day.  In the end I was able to put the events of the morning behind me and then spend the afternoon visiting the Maritime Museum which I enjoyed very much.  The next day I caught the shuttle without any problems which enabled me to rest during the four hour trip to Charlottetown and once I got there.  Despite all that I still had a wonderful holiday and got to see what I had set out to.

On my fourth day in St John’s, Newfoundland while blindly crossing the street my foot got caught in a pot hole resulting in me tripping and spraining my ankle and scraping my knee really badly.  Needless to say I was feeling down and disappointed being away from home and having my vacation possibly ruined.  I was supposed to visit a museum that evening and I had planned to do some hiking in Gros Morne National Park.  All I could do was to keep my ankle elevated and iced at the hostel and while I was on the bus ride to Deer Lake and hope that each day it would improve.  I thought that perhaps once I arrived at Deer Lake I would cut my vacation short and head home from there but in the end I decided to go to Gros Morne and still make the best of my holidays.  On a positive note the hostel managers made me a meal of moose meat stew and other Newfoundland specialties, plus they gave me a park pass to avoid paying the entrance fee, and two girls from Alberta decided that they would travel with me and share car rentals for the next several days.  I went to bed that night feeling much better and more uplifted.

Thankfully the next two days I was pretty much able to stay off my ankle as a result of taking a 10 hour bus ride to Deer Lake and then having one of the girls drive.  We also took a wonderful boat tour among fjords which again enabled me to not use my ankle though I still had to endure a 35 minute walk to and from the boat.  However, I had heavily bandaged my ankle and wore my hiking boots so as to keep it stable and I took it slow along the walk.

Unfortunately my troubles were not over.  A few days later the scrape on my knee got infected and I had to drive to the closest hospital. After waiting an hour I did get the proper care and was given penicillin and had a medicated bandage put on my knee.  It played a lot on my emotions because I was all alone in a hospital in unfamiliar territory but it was important that I have it taken care of before anything serious could happen.

Normally I would have stayed off my ankle as much as possible for about two weeks but because I was on vacation I knew that I could not spend the whole time at the hostel so all I could do was to take proper precautions by keeping my ankle wrapped up and taking things slowly.  Gradually each day both my ankle and knee improved.  All in all despite everything I was able to do shorter and easier hikes and to enjoy the boat tour though I had to opt out on hiking up Gros Morne Mountain as it is too steep and rocky and treacherous for a sprained ankle.  I was also able to enjoy the Theater Festival in Stephenville and to take scenic drives around the area.

Basically, what I learned from these experiences is that unfortunately unpleasant things can happen while on vacation causing disappointments and changes of plans, if necessary.  I realized that I had to figure out ways of dealing with and resolving these situations in order to make the best of things and to salvage my vacation and still have a wonderful time.

It would be interesting to hear about any predicaments that may have befallen you and how you dealt with them and still managed to have a wonderful holiday.

The ruins of Tulum in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico

A beautiful sunset in the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica

A wonderful family Alaskan cruise in the Yukon, Canada

A nice day walking along the streets of Toledo, Spain

Handling difficult situations while traveling

Although travel can be an exciting and learning experience there are sometimes difficult situations that can happen to anyone while away from home.  I am sure that everyone has experienced at least one mishap while on vacation.  Mishaps can be anything from falling ill, injuring oneself, theft, a missed connection, or even worse crime.

At first the situation may seem daunting and one may become upset, uptight, or start to panic.  The best thing is to calm down and think the situation through in order to resolve it and still be able to enjoy the rest of your holiday.  You can also learn from each mishap to either prevent it from happening again, if possible, or better deal with it if it is out of one’s control.

I will provide several examples of difficult situations that can befall a traveler and how they can best be handled or resolved and the lesson that one can learn.

What would happen if you arrived at the airport and suddenly found out that you left your passport at home?  If you do not live too far from the airport and there is still plenty of time before your flight leaves an option would be to return home and retrieve the passport.  Even if you live a distance away you can still attempt to return home and take a chance.  If you end up missing the flight you can always book yourself on another one though it may not be at your convenience.  If you wish you could speak with an official there and see if an alternate solution could be presented with other possible sources of identification or anything else which they may deem legitimate.  The lesson to be learned is to make sure the night before that you have everything you need.  Go through every room, cabinet, and drawer at home to make sure that nothing is forgotten.  Also make a list and start to pack everything a week prior in case you remember something later on.  Put essential items like your passport, papers, medications, etc in your carry on bag and keep everything together near the front door.

Many travelers have been mugged or robbed of all their cash, credit cards, or identification while abroad.  The first thing to do is to cancel all your credit and ATM cards.  Find the nearest police station or telephone the police to report the offense.  Also let them know at your accommodations so they can provide assistance as well.  Call someone from home and have them wire you some money for the rest of your stay.  If your passport is amongst the stolen items go to the embassy of your home country so they can help you out.  For the future carry all essentials in a money belt or neck pouch or keep it in the safe or front desk of your hotel.  Make sure to photocopy your passport and keep a couple of copies with you in different places, give one to someone you know, and keep one at home.

Plenty of people have had their checked luggage misplaced upon arrival at their destination.  Go immediately to the claims office to report it and describe in as much detail as possible the contents of the baggage and the suitcase itself.  What often happens is that the luggage is found a couple of days later and then sent to their hotel or home whatever the case may be.  It is not as unpleasant if one’s luggage is lost on their way home because at least they have their other clothes plus the comforts of being in their own territory.  However, if it happens at the beginning of the trip it can be unpleasant and one is forced to either shop for new clothes or to wash and wear the same clothes every day.  There are a few solutions that exist to either better deal with it or prevent it from happening.  You can take two smaller bags and carry them both on the plane in order to prevent lost luggage.  If that is not possible then in your carry on pack a couple of pairs of undergarments and a jersey or two and anything else you may need so that you have a few things to live on should your luggage get lost. Also take a couple of pictures of the bag you are checking so that you can give them to the claims officers in order to help them locate your bag.  In the event that your luggage is not found do your best to enjoy the holiday and activities that you partake in and take it all in stride with good humor.

There have been people who have had accidents and have broken or sprained something.  First thing to do is to get to a clinic or hospital if it is serious or put some ice on the injured spot.  Do your best not to use that part of your body and either rest at your hotel or partake in activities where you can stay off your feet or not use your arms like driving or doing a bus tour around the city.  Another option is to cut your vacation short if it is really serious.  Always pay attention when walking or doing sports and also make sure that you have good walking shoes so that you do not suffer similar mishaps.  Another important issue is to make sure that you get the proper travel insurance before you leave on your trip or else you may end up paying huge sums of money for any medical costs incurred abroad.

There are many instances where connections have been missed due to miscommunication, lack of a wake up call, or an alarm clock not going off.  Missed connections could occur with a flight, train, bus, or shuttle. It is best to call the flight carrier, bus or train company to arrange for an alternate connection.  You could also go directly to the airport or station to see if you can change your ticket.  Once you have rearranged everything if you have plenty of time before your alternate departure see if you can visit a museum or site so that you can still enjoy the day.   Before you leave for your trip, ensure that your alarm clock is in working order and have a second set of batteries.  At the hotel you can ask for a wake up call and set your alarm so that you are doubly protected.  If you make the reservation by phone make sure you double check the information and write it down clearly so you have the evidence in case the miscommunication was their fault.

Another unpleasant situation is falling severely ill with influenza or severe diarrhea.  Go to a clinic or doctor for treatment.  If necessary, cancel your plans for the day, rest or sleep, watch your diet, and follow the doctor’s recommendations in the hopes that you could go out the next day.   For diarrhea drink lots of water and gaterade to avoid dehydration and eat dry crackers or toast.  Pick up some cold medication and diarrhea tablets from your pharmacy beforehand to take along with you and take them upon onset of symptoms.  Before your trip it is a good idea to get as much rest as possible and eat properly the week or two before so you can be strong and immune to possible bugs.  If you have the budget get a private room and bath so that you do not come in contact with others who may be carrying germs.

As a final note do your best to stay positive and find other ways of enjoying your vacation whether it is going along with your original itinerary or having to make alternate plans that are just as enjoyable.  In the unfortunate event that you do have to cut your vacation short focus on the time that you did enjoy and tell yourself that there will be plenty of other wonderful vacations that you can enjoy without any ado.  Also make sure you learn from each situation so that it can be possibly avoided on future trips.

In my next blog I will be sharing with you how I handled different situations that I encountered on my travels.  Have any of you experienced anything and how did you deal with it?

 Atop the Sun Pyramid in the ruins of Teotihuacan just outside of Mexico City, Mexico


In the jungles of The Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica

The spectacular Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska, US

The expansive Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain

Friday, 22 November 2013

Madrid VS Montreal – My Observations & Experiences

This past September I went to Spain where after partaking in a language program in La Alberca in the Salamanca area (see my previous blog) I then spent a few days in Madrid and enjoyed myself tremendously.  Beside the fact that Madrid is beautiful and has exquisite architecture with wrought iron balconies I found that there were a lot of similarities to Montreal where I was born and raised and still live today.  This is an observation on my part so it may not be completely accurate but this is what I discovered in my own way.

To begin with they are both fairly large cities with about the same population.  Madrid has roughly 4 million residents and Montreal has about 3 million residents.  They both have city centers with suburbs on the outskirts where families reside.

Another similarity is the transportation systems that both cities have called the Metro.  In both cases there are stops all over the city and it is clean and easy to navigate with portable colorful maps which are also posted inside the metro cars.  One small difference is the one in Madrid has a lot more lines than the one In Montreal with only four lines but you can purchase a single ticket, 10 tickets, or a monthly pass and charges vary according to zones.  There are also buses and trains that run throughout the two cities and into the outskirts.

I have found that both Madrid and Montreal are relatively safe to walk around in at all times but there are areas in each of them that are better to stay away from late at night.  Also there are pickpockets which are a common theme in larger cities but if you keep your wits about you and use common sense, especially as a tourist, they generally don’t bother you.  Just do not stick out in the crowd and keep your purse securely closed else you will attract these types of people.

Both Madrid and Montreal offer lots to do due to their larger sizes and more urban lifestyles.  There are plenty of restaurants to eat at in the various barrios or districts to please all palates and there is plenty of night life including theatre, movies, pubs, and dance clubs as well as museums.  You can also take bus tours and walking tours of both cities and of course there are the sites to see and behold.  What I liked is that the museums offer free times in the early evenings so that one can enjoy the splendor of exquisite artwork from either prehistoric or modern times.

One of my highlights was walking around Retiro Park which I thoroughly enjoyed because there was a lot to see and photograph there.  There were several fountains and monuments of famous figures and also a waterway where those who wish can rent rowboats.  There is also Crystal Palace where people can hold all types of events and it is right on a picturesque pond with ducks.  I enjoyed walking through the various pathways leading around the park and even saw an art exhibition being displayed in one of the buildings.  There are plenty of facilities if you wish to have a snack and also restrooms.  There was also an area where some huge event was being held.  I went to the doorway but the looks I got from the well dressed participants told me I’d better not enter.  I did walk around the garden area which was a sight to behold and saw a peacock which I photographed even though its feathers were not spread out.  A few minutes later somebody walking with a baby stroller showed me the exit out of there.  Guess I was not supposed to be there in the first place but how was I to know not being able to speak much Spanish.

Retiro Park reminded me of Westmount Park in Montreal because of many similarities.  Although Westmount Park is about one tenth the size of Retiro Park it also has a pond with ducks, various buildings, and different pathways.  Crystal Palace reminded me of the green house in our park because both are transparent and bring in lots of light and sunshine.  In Westmount Park you can sit on a bench and relax along the water and even take in a Sunday afternoon concert or Shakespeare in The Park theater performances in the summertime.

What I also loved about Madrid was that you could eat inexpensively if you know where to go.  Many options include San Miguel market where although it can be crowded and a bit on the touristy side you have a wide variety of choices of delicious tapas galore and you can purchase either one or a plate of several to share with your buddies.  You can also buy drinks including wine and sangria to wash down your tapas.  What I enjoyed most of all is the bars where you order any drink you want and you get a nice plate of tapas for free with it.  At the bar down the street from my hostel I got some nice tapas including a potato pie and scrambled eggs with mushrooms and each time it cost me no more than 2 Euros!  Talk about eating on the cheap!

It is best to go to restaurants which are off the main strips and which are recommended by other travelers watching their budgets and to stay away from the restaurants on the Plaza Mayor.  The prices rise the closer you sit at the front of the restaurant and even more so if you eat out on the terraces.  However, on the informative walking tour I took almost after I had just landed in Barajas Airport we stopped off at a delicatessen like place to use the restrooms and have a sandwich and we were told to go straight to the back and not sit at the tables but instead to stand and eat at the counter or sit on the nearby stools so that the prices would be much lower.  
While there are similarities there are some differences as well.  In Madrid meal times tend to be later than in Montreal.  In Madrid meal times are breakfast at 9 am, lunch at 2 pm, and dinner at 10 pm before retiring to bed for the evening.  In Montreal breakfast is generally at 7 am, lunch is at noon time or one pm, and dinner is generally at 6 pm leaving the rest of the evening for doing activities or relaxing at home before bedtime.

Another difference is that in Madrid pretty much everything is geared towards Spanish culture for obvious reasons but Montreal encompasses various cultures, particularly French, with its European flair.  In Madrid, Spaniards tend to eat paella and tapas in restaurants but in Montreal, you can find every kind and any kind of restaurant that one’s heart desires.  Another amazing thing about Madrid is that they claim to be host to the oldest restaurant in the world!  It even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records!  Quite the feat!  (See my pictures below as proof). 

In Montreal you get frowned upon if you walk into a restaurant just to use their facilities and then leave immediately without purchasing anything.  I occasionally will sneak into a MacDonald’s or Wendy’s or other quick place to use their washroom and I have generally gotten away with it.  In Madrid I was able to go into pretty much any restaurant and use their restrooms, particularly the pubs, and they did not mind at all.

There are also differences in the climates of each city.  This is because Madrid is further south than Montreal is so the temperatures tend to be milder there.  Also Montreal has severe winters with plenty of snow whereas the winters are milder in Madrid with little or no snow.

I basically only stayed 6 days in Madrid with two day trips to Toledo and Segovia included so I am sure that there is plenty that I did not see but again I am talking from my observations.  I found Madrid to be beautiful and a great city for walking around and enjoying each area.  What saddened me though is that the unemployment rate in all of Spain is about 27% and that there are many Spaniards who have still not found jobs after 2 years of searching.  A tough situation for Spaniards to be in, however, they appear to be enjoying life all the same.

I would like to hear from any of you who have been to both Madrid and Montreal whether or not you agree with me or if you have had other observations of these two wonderful cities.

Puerta Del Sol - the center of Madrid

 Palazio Royale - The Royal Palace

Retiro Park - one of the exquisite monuments along the water

Retiro Park - Scenic view of Crystal Palace right on a pond

Plaza Mayor - The main square of Madrid

The oldest restaurant in Madrid and the certificate to prove it


Friday, 25 October 2013

My experience as a volunteer at Diverbo in Spain

This past September I spent a week at La Alberca, a small village in the Salamanca region of Spain, as a volunteer helping Spanish students to improve their English speaking skills.  It was an experience of a lifetime for me as I met so many wonderful people and it felt so good to be able to help others.

I attended a program called Diverbo – Pueblo Ingles that specializes in week long sessions in different locations in Spain, Germany, and Ireland.  It is composed of a number of English speaking volunteers from Canada, The United States, the UK, Australia and New Zealand and also a number of Spanish speaking students mostly from Spain but from other countries as well.  Some of the volunteers have already participated in this program including one who has done it over 60 times!  Goes to show you how much people love to help others and how great a program it is.

This program is run by the Program Director and by the Master of Ceremonies.  They work together to ensure that each day is filled with a variety of activities that enable the students to work with the volunteers on their English speaking skills.  As a volunteer I would check the daily schedule to see what I would be doing and which student I would be working with for each particular activity.  I was dependant on the schedules as if they were made of gold!

The days were pretty hectic as the activities started immediately after breakfast at 10 am and ended by 9 pm with an hour and quarter siesta in between.  We had a variety of activities which ran the gamut from one to one interactions to two by two discussions to group exercises and conference calls. 
During the one on one interchanges the students were given phrasal verbs, which are two word phrases consisting of verbs with an adverb or preposition, and idioms to learn.  I would always ask them first to tell me their interpretations then I would either correct them or give them additional explanations.  If they were not familiar with any of them I would then explain to them what they signified and how they could be used in various contexts.  Some interesting meanings and contexts came out of these learning modes as many of them dealt with dating which amused the Spaniards to no end.

The two by two discussions included groups of two volunteers and two students and we were given a list of topics that we could discuss amongst ourselves.  This made for a lot of fascinating discussions and everyone always had the option of expressing their views if they felt so inclined.  The group activities enabled Spaniards and Anglos to work together to use their imaginations for presentations, skits, a scavenger hunt as well as learning to Salsa dance.   I also participated in conference calls where I acted as a leader and communicated with the students through speaker phone and also as an observer where I took notes and then offered praise and constructive criticism to each student so that they would improve their telephone skills to use in real life interactions.

Before dinner we would be treated to theatre presentations by both volunteers and students who would have a couple of hours beforehand to prepare a skit and then perform it.  There were some pretty hilarious skits that were done by all including some really raunchy ones.  It was all in good fun.  In my skit I was a fickle minded director of a movie about a wedding taking place where I was continually changing the theme of the wedding until it made sense to me.  It was quite remarkable in that everyone played their characters with exaggerated expressions and it made for some great laughs from the audience if I may say so myself.  By the time it was over the poor groom and minister had been killed by the pregnant bystander several times during each take.

After dinner there would be evening activities which would start at 10:30 pm for those who were able to stay awake long enough.  There were two game nights one of which was Taboo.  It was quite comical because you had to describe the word in question to your teammates without saying certain words but that proved difficult because we were timed which caused us even more stress.  Our teammates had to guess the word we were describing and believe me there were plenty of interesting guesses.  You had to be there.  Another night we had a pub quiz where we had to answer 50 questions in various categories.  I was on the team called Maida’s Maniacs and we won by a large margin shared by everyone on our team.  Woohoo!

Another night we had a little party where we drank Queimada which is a strong alcohol cooked with herbs, coffee, and whatever else is desired.  Three women dressed as witches where they read both English and Spanish poems and chants which were pretty funny.  These women were quite the scary witches and I think a few of the volunteers and Spaniards may have been spooked.  We then all got a taste of the drink and boy oh boy was it strong!  We then all performed songs from the countries where we hailed from and each country came up with great songs including the lively Spaniards who all moved and danced to their tune.  An interesting experience one will never forget.

The big highlight of the week was a party which was given to us to celebrate our getting halfway through the week.  There were plenty of musical tastes for everyone and we all danced the night away and had a blast.  Lots of photos were taken and the party went well into the night.

On one day we walked to the village of La Alberca and the Master of Ceremonies gave us a mini tour and showed us the main sites.  We then had some free time to walk around and shop and I was able to pick up a few souvenirs for myself and family.  We had a beautiful group picture taken in front of a fountain which was put together and distributed to everyone afterwards.  We were treated to a nice surprise where we ended up at a Bodega where we had wine, cheese, and ham which the area is known for.  We saw the actual pig that was used and we had the option of trying our hand at cutting the meat.  For lunch we had suckling pig which is a delicacy of that area and was quite tasty.  Though normally I do not eat pig I decided to try it since it was considered as their main fare.  Unfortunately that morning I had woken up with diarrhea and an upset stomach but still engaged in tasting a bit of everything.  Guess it’s all a part of travelling and not eating what one is used to but is so worth it in the end.

On our last night we had a wonderful dinner in the village and we were treated to a musical performance by one of our most talented volunteers who sings and gives voice lessons to aspiring students.  On the last morning we were divided into groups and each group had to choose a song and write words to it about our experiences of the week.  Everyone did a great job and each song and lyrics were humorous and very creative.  We had a closing ceremony that was quite emotional where both volunteers and students alike received certificates and had the option of saying a few words to everyone.  We then had lunch and said our tearful and sad goodbyes to each other.  We all kissed and hugged with promises to keep in touch and with hopes of seeing each other in the future.

I have to say that it was an experience which taught me a lot about myself and about others.  Everyone had plenty of interesting and fascinating stories to tell and we became a really close family.  I am looking forward to doing more of these programs since I enjoyed it so much.  I would like to try the one in the Black Forest in Germany since it will be different and I will also try ones in other parts of Spain.  During those times I am looking forward to hooking up with my new friends in Barcelona, Madrid, and Southern and Northern Spain.  

If any of you readers are interested in finding out more about this wonderful program you can go to to get information on becoming a volunteer or learning English as a student
Here are some photos that I took during this amazing experience:

 Our wonderful group of volunteers and Spaniards

My beautiful villa that I shared with Brigitte, my Barcelona friend

A couple of pictures of the village of La Alberca

Me standing at the fountain in the main plaza

Singing with my Canadian friends at the Queimada