Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Madness Persists...

I have no idea WHAT Alison has blogged about regarding our recent Mongolian experiences, but Oi! have we had an adventure. Again, I'm racing the clock here at Za Internet on Peace Avenue, but let me attempt to fill you in.

Upon arriving in Mongolia, Alison and I realised that while some of the older folks speak a bit of Russian, we were now on similar playing fields. I was no longer the dumb foreigner who didn't understand what was going on--we were BOTH the dumb foreigners without a clue! Fabulous, because that's exactly what I'm used to.

What was most liberating for me was the freedom to deal with male attention or interactions as I saw fit. In Russia I left a lot of that up to Alison as she spoke the language and I didn't neccesarily feel right about stepping over her. Here in Ulaan Bataar when a man lunged after one of the four 1.5 litre bottles of water that I was struggling to haul back to our guesthouse, I snatched it back and shot him a nasty "NO!" and booked it up the road...granted the man was poor and seemed pretty innocent, but my past dealings with men in Morocco programmed me to be quite harsh and agressive. This little incident might seem pretty trite, but it gave me confidence to protect my space in the way that I saw fit.

When Alison and I saddled up on our sad looking horses out in the Mongolian countryside ready for a full day's ride, the guide looped our reigns around his fist and lead us for 20 minutes like kids at a petting zoo. We laughed and joked for a bit, but when he stopped at a viewpoint he tied up the horses, pointed to the large rock we were supposed to photograph, and then went and sat in a car with four buddies and smoked for a while. I was fed up. Alison and I were freezing, we weren't impressed with our pony ride, and we were quite aware of the fact that the guide and his friends were making fun of the 'dumb tourists'. I had enough. Alison and I decided that we'd rather walk back and go for a hike so I marched up to the car full of Mongolian men and using the most ridiculous actions and body language, announced that we were walking back and that we no longer wanted to ride 'attached' to each other. The men giggled and laughed at my wild and crazy gestured but I made our point clear. We strode off and minutes later the guide came after us with the horses and let us ride on our own for the rest of the trip. All in all we had a great time and had the chance to see some beautiful scenery and definitely filled the afternoon with photos and laughter. Fully satisfied, we returned to our yurt and warmed ourselves by the fire.

With traffic too, I feel a lot more bold about being agressive than I did in Russia. Here, traffic is a lot more chaotic and lawless, which is fun and I get quite a kick out of swerving through 4 lanes of (slowly) moving traffic. It's the only way to cross the street here, and standing in the middle of downtown rush hour traffic trying to cross to the next lane is such a rush and reminds me of Morocco. I've missed the insanity.

And speaking of madness. On the day Alison and I arrived hours before the Chinese embassy opened, (to try and accquire a visa for her entry into China next week) we wound up fairly close to the front of the line. 30 minutes after the embassy was scheduled to open we were still huddled around the front door, only now we were bracing our elbows and practicing menacing looks in hopes of warding off those who refused to queue up. As the solid metal door opened to let the first batch of visa-hopefuls enter, we were sure we'd make it indoors on the first round. BAM! The door slammed shut just as Alison and I tried to squeeze our way in. We caught the pitiful glances of the other Europeans ahead of us who we'd allowed to go ahead of us because they'd initially been in line before us. Polite Canadians that we are. Just keeping up our reputation as travel-savvy, polite Canucks for our fellow backpacking countrymen. After that though, we through patriotic duty to the wind and when the door opened again we squeezed in, triumphant. Out, out,, no, no...only those picking UP visas were allowed in doors. Again, sheepish looks from the Aussies, Brits, Americans, French, and Germans all cozily awaiting their turn to step up to the application counter. The guard ushered us back OUT of the embassy waiting area. "Are you SURE???", Alison asked, incredulity dripping from her voice. "SERIOUSLY???", disdain oozing out from mine. BAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We reduced to giggles there on the steps in front of a hundred onlookers. Again, and again, and again, the giant metal door clanged shut inched from our faces. BAM! BAM! BAM! Eventually we got in. Eventually Alison's visa application was accepted (with no problems unlike a lot of others...thanks for all the prayers!!! Can't emphasise that enough!!!) and FINALLY a few days later, in the shadow of Ghengis Khan in the middle of Sukh Bator Square Alison received her Chinese visa and Canadian passport. What a crazy epic and odyssey into the world of the Chinese bureaucracy that has been over the last few months!

Despite the madness, there has been glorious respite found in North American-style restaurants, Irish pubs, a jar of Nutella, our new host Galina (another friend of April French's!) and her fabulous friendship & hospitality (just like Natasha's in Irkutsk) and the beauty of the Mongolian countryside. People here are incredibly friendly, directions are easy to obtain, and good grief things are cheap here! A 20 000 Togrog bill is worth less than $20. And there's no use of coins here. Alison has also found some relief from the effects of carbo-loading in Russia and my cold is finally easing up (for the second time!). Alison has caught a bit of my cold though...inevitable I suppose after sharing such close quarters for a month, however neither of us have gotten on each other's nerves. We've again had the pleasure of photographing in/performing for a local Mongolian church fellowship, and Alison even received an encore which was pretty funny/awesome!

Two more days and we're headed to China for the last leg of our journey...hard to believe it's coming to a close soon. But of course, there's so much more to experience so we're not looking at the final days yet. I am however, dreaming of a hot shower as I haven't had one in quite some time!

From the land of Ghengis Khan...and onto the Far East,


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

ABC's of Russia Travel: A Summary

I have 15 minutes to write a quick blog while sitting in an internet cafe in the middle of Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia and want to sum up our three-week trip across Russia. Right, that's pretty impossible. So here's what I'm gonna do...

A is for the All-Mighty Dollar. The US buckaroo. Greenbacks. Or as the Russian like to say "Bucksov". No matter how down-in-the-dumps Americans are feeling about their economy, let me just remind you that the US dollar still holds rank when it comes to currency exchange in Russia (or anywhere else I've traveled to for that matter). I'm always amazed at how much sway one can hold when flashing a little bit of American greenery. Not that we've really had to thus far, but it's always close at hand in case a 'fee' needs to be paid or a form signed...

B is for Borsch-sometimes with beets, other times just cabbage, always fatty and NEVER without loads of sour cream.

C is for Cool People: Backpacking, train-hopping, drink-swigging Europeans who befriended "The Canadians" on each leg of the journey; warm, hospitable, GENEROUS locals who gave us beds to sleep in and meals to eat all the way across the largest nation on earth; the North American expats living in Russia or the odd Canadian/US traveler who decided to hop the pond and then another continent just like us and who understood that life just isn't as good without peanut butter.

D is for Debit Card. Which I stupidly left in an ATM in Moscow before the trip had barely begun. I've never done anything so dumb on a trip and was pretty peeved at myself. We've been making do by using my Visa to pay for train tickets and then Alison pays me back in Rubles, now Togrogs (in Mongolia).

E is for Excrement. You got it. No blog of mine can be left without tales from the toilet. I never talk about the Life & Times of My Bowels at home because it's really not a major event in my day to day affairs, but on the road clinging to that fine balance between constipation and the runs has been very high on our list of priorities. What we eat, the water we drink, etc. etc. all determines how the digestive system functions and we try to maintain this mantra: What goes in, MUST MUST MUST come out.

F is for Flags. I really wanted to purchase a couple Soviet flags while in Russian and never found one. Quite disappointed, but what can you do. Go back again I guess..which I'm sure I will.

G is for Gulags. Or at least of the few remaining gulags semi-preserved and utterly desolate in nature. I visited Perm 36 with an American girl who hired a car to drive us two hours out into the middle of the foothills of the Urals (don't worry it was through a travel agency, not some random dude off the street) in order to visit this aging forced labour camp. Pretty depressing and slightly creepy seeing as how we were the only visitors. *Shudder*

H is for Homesickness. Got to talk to my family and Will for the first time while wrapping up our last few days in Russia and was overwhelmed with love for them and with gratefulness for their support, encouragement, financial assistance, and emails. What did long-distance travelers do without the INTERNET. Columbus, Lewis & Clark, John Franklin...good grief. I'm glad that as a 21st century wannabee 'explorer' I have the comfort of calling home. To quote Martha Stewart, "It's a Good Thing". (I have NO idea why that popped into my head).

I is for Inflation. No matter how well prepared I thought I was for this trip, I was not expecting prices in Russia to be over double what the guidebooks' most recent editions proclaimed. Inflation due to rising oil prices etc. etc. jacked up train fares to the point where Alison and I couldn't afford the first class, two-person berths we were counting on. So we settled for traveling in the Kupe class with the possibility of bunking with two other strangers. Fortunately we had our berth to ourselves on the first and last trips, and shared our berth with a lovely Russian couple on our 3-day jaunt from Perm-Irkutsk.

J is for Yours Truly. I am a grubby traveler. Next to Alison I'm a walking germfest and all because she cleans her feet and face at night, flosses religiously, and paints her toenails. I need to make perfectly clear that she's NOT a priss (and that's not because she's sitting beside me and will eventually read this) but she does these things because she likes the feeling of being clean. Me, I take great pride in ticking off how many days it's been since a shower and how black my feet are before climbing into my sleeping bag. To me it's kinda like camping and the more grubby I am the more rugged a traveler I appear to be/feel. But who am I kidding, the moment I get wind of a hot shower coming my way I am all about conditioning these locks and pulling out the mascara.

K is for Khazakstan. We keep bumping into immigrants from the 'stans'. Khazaks, Uzbekis, Tajikistanis, (really not sure HOW to label them all correctly) the whole lot of them are wildly fascinating to me and this trip has increased my desire to one day visit all the 'Stans'. "Here a stan, there a stan, everywhere a stan, stan..."

L is for Lenin. He's everywhere...kinda like Elvis, but not. Streets are still named after him, statues commemorating his ideals grace squares across the nation. Even here in Mongolia there's a bird-pooed-on version of the bald man himself standing in the middle of the city centre. And of course back in Red Square he's embalmed in wax and chemicals. Just bury the man by his mum already. (It was his dying be buried next to his mother in St. Pete.)

M is for Men. Russian Men. They really love Alison...and she could tolerate their advances because she could speak the language and flash a nasty full-on Russian "Don't you dare mess with me" look. For those of you who know Alison, you know what I'm talkin' about. I on the other hand have no such safety net, so I try to look pretty-stone cold, pull out my poker face, and regularly flash my two travel engagement worn on my left hand (North American) and one worn on my right (Russian). I've been waiting YEARS to be able to wear an engagement/wedding ring while on the road....THANK YOU WILL!!! Even better will be the day when I get to travel with my that's the ultimate deterent!

N is for Natasha, my friend April French's old roommate in Irkutsk, capital of Siberia. She was so much fun to hang out with, lavished us with hospitality, and bent over backwards just to make sure we were able to do the things we needed/wanted to while in our last Russian city on the itinerary.

O is for Odour: Fish, body odour, vodka, and cigarette smoke. Stand in a crowded hallway with a few dozen strangers for a few days and let this aromatic combination overwhelm the senses.

P is for Photography. I've been able to do church photography and portrait work in a few different places and that's been a huge blessing for others as well as myself. My eyes have been really opened to the need for more creative/technical/media tools and teaching within the Russian church community.

Q is for Quiet Time. I swear falling asleep to the sway of a rumbling train and the breeze of the pine-studded Siberian wilderness is the way to go. A little like stepping off a boat after a few days, the sway and rythmic chug-chchugg are still with me and I miss falling asleep to the lullaby of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

R is for Russian--as in the language. Which Alison has been masterfully translating for me. Really, she's quite good and we've had a lot of fun with her eavesdropping in on Russian conversations and then surprising them with her fluent Russian.

S is for Siberia. Prettier than you'd think and featuring Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake containing 1/5th of the world unfrozen fresh water. Remote, stunning, and vaguely similar in looks to the Pacific Northwest--not Siberia, just the lake.

T is for Toilets. Train toilets. I love them, think they're somewhat humourous, and enjoy the challenge of trying to pee while squatting above a swaying metal toilet that opens up onto the tracks. I'm weird, I know, it's the honest truth.

U is for Ulaan Bataar...our current destination and the last stop on our Trans-Siberian train route. What a difference from Moscow!

V is for Vodka! Alison and I bought cool shot glasses with Soviet symbols emblazoned on the glass along with a small bottle of the ubiquitous Russian drink and toasted our 10-hour border crossing from Russia to Mongolia with shots at 1 am in our cozy little train compartment.

W is for Weddings. I got to photograph a full-on Russian Christian wedding....woooweee was that a cultural experience or what. There are very few words to describe, so I'll just make you wait until you can view the pics for yourselves!

X is for XXX which is actually for the amount of bras we've seen through shirts, black thongs we've seen under tight white pants, and curves we've seen spilling over or falling out from under various clothing choices. And that's just regarding the ladies' apparel... Lotsa giggles and sneaky photos.... lol...

Y is for You ask a Question. I've got Y and M to go and I'm feeling lazy. Period.

Z is for Red Tape. Because I used up the 'R' and it's really essential that I include this, because there's no getting around it and it's provided us with both frustration and humour. And really how the heck was I gonna incorporate a zebra into this posting.

So, that took longer than 15 minutes but if you made it to 'Z' I'm pretty sure you're glad I took the time.

Come visit again with more tales from Mongolia...Alison and I are heading out tomorrow on a 3-day trek into the countryside for some horseback riding, hiking, a two-night stay in a traditional ger (or yurt) with a nomadic family. Pretty excited! Reminds me of my trip out into the Sahara with mom!

All right...that's all folks!!!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cheers! To Cognac for Breakfast...and Banyas for Everyone!

All right, so time is tight and I'm not sure how much I'm gonna be able to jot down here, but better a little than nothing at all I figure. Bear with me if I've repeated some of what Alison may have blogged about already at:

Before arriving in the more northern city of Perm where Alison and I have been for the last few days, we spent a bit of time getting our feet wet in Moscow, a city filled with under-dressed fashionistas and over-priced lattes, elaborately decorated metro stations and poorly-maintained streets, austere Soviet monuments and sparkling Tsarist gems. It's the kind of city where you can sleep till noon and sit down to breakfast begun with three shots of Cognac--which is exactly what we did the first morning!

We had the pleasure of staying with a host family right in downtown Moscow and were treated to a lovely breakfast after waking up around noon the first morning. But breakfast could not begin without toasting all our families...ahh, cognac on an empty stomach! Top that off with Russian-style cucumber & tomato salad, dumpling-like goodness, coffee and icecream. Oh, and we'd just taken Robaxacet an hour earlier to ease our sore muscles...nice combo there: relaxant, stimulant, and depressant, pretty magical I'd say.

Another classic highlight which no traveller to Moscow should miss is Red Square...which we wound up at no less than four separate times. These all include long and ridiculous stories, but from our first steps through the North gates with a view of the sun reflecting off the golden onion domes of the colourful and iconic St. Basil's Cathedral, to our solemn circuit around the decades-dead embalmed body of Lenin, we soaked up every minute of our time there. Each trip to the infamous square provided different experiences and photo ops, but when our hostess asked us each night where we'd visited, we were rather shy about telling her that we'd visited Red Square AGAIN. I think she was quite bewildered by the fact that we'd taken about 100 photos of ourselves jumping, making faces, and posing in front of St. Basil's, and was just as befuddled when she happened to see a bunch (no let me rephrase that: ALL) of Alison's photos featuring funny signs, odd sights, and general Muscovite kitsch. We had a blast, however, and our host family really blessed us with some great meals and fun conversation (most of which had to be translated into English for Yours Truly).

If there's another classic Russian tradition one should experience (besides viewing the world's most famous mummy) it's getting cleaned up at the Banya. Now for those of you who frequented my blog while I was writing from Morocco a couple years ago, you may remember my story about visiting the hammam--where I was lathered up and scrubbed silly while lying flat with my face pressed against the hot tile floors. It was humourous, it was overwhelming, it was above all, the cleanest I have EVER BEEN. And I went back for more. Since then I've developed this hankering to visit women's bathhouses the world over, and stories of Russia's famous banyas wouldn't suffice--I had to go.

Now Alison and I were conveniently staying right across the street from Moscow's premier Banya: the Sanduny Baths. Being budget travelers we chose the cheapest bathing option, which included a couple hours of access to the most basic services. Within a few minutes of emptying rubles from our pockets we were both handed head towels (we shrugged thinking we really didn't need one...) and directed to a lovely leather sectional where we could undress and store our things. We giggled as we stared wide-eyed at the opulent dressing room. Women lounged in various states of undress primping, socialising, and--get this--EATING. You could either order meals or bring in your own, plunk yourself down in a big, brown leather booth and chow down on a sandwich in the buff! I wasn't sure whether to think the system ingenious or just unhygenic...probably some mixture of both!

Alison and I proceeded to prep ourselves to enter the actual washing facilities and swung the doors open into a large tile and marble-encrusted bathroom. That's what it was, a giant bathroom with a row of open shower stalls with marble plinths just outside each one where bathers could set up their toiletries, a series of marble benches to relax upon, a smallish pool of neck-high cold water, and two mysterious wooden tubs full of water with ladders leading up to the edge. Oh and of course there were small broom-like tools consisting of birch branches which are typically used to beat bathers with. We didn't pay to have a Venik beat the tar out of us because it just wasn't in our budget, but we're definitely planning on doing so the next chance we get to try out a less expensive banya!

And then there was one more door. The door to The Sauna. The sauna is apparently whole core of the banya experience, and upon entry I promptly exited and reconsidered this whole banya deal. The only way I was going into a room that freaking hot was with a massive bottle of water by my side. The second time I swung the door open, this time with a bathtowel in one hand and a litre of water in the other, the lady in charge of heating the sauna shot me a sour look. Apparently I was letting the cool air in. I took a couple of steps forward and cried out as a blast of heat smacked my face, everyone including Alison who'd climbed the short flight of stairs up to the second level, called up to me to come quickly through the heat. I pressed through the heat and found myself herded into the fold of women and kneeling down on the slats above the first level, breathing cooler air from below. Everyone cleared a small space for me and helped me lay out my towel. I glanced around and when I noticed that each woman had their head covered in order to protect themselves from the heat, I was grateful for the extra 30 rubles I'd paid for a head towel.

So there I lay naked as a jaybird surrounded by a dozen other women all sporting their birthday suits, breathing in the thick, muggy air with ease while I inhaled as deeply and loudly as I possibly could, scared that my lungs wouldn't be able to reserve enough oxygen for me to survive on! It's amazing how quickly you forget about your nakedness when breathing becomes so important! Every minute or so I sipped water, which incidentally happened to be carbonated and exploded the second I twisted off the cap right in the middle of the sauna. I felt pretty classy at that point. Oh, and when Alison and I tried to chat we were talking in the sauna. After five minutes I could hardly stand it anymore: my knees were bent and therefore burning as they were higher than my body, I could chew the air but barely swallow it, and the no-talking rule had me bored out of my tree. Crawling over the mass of bodies I descended the stairs and pretty much felt my face peel off as I forced my way through the heat shield I initially panicked about. I had entered the sauna dry as sand and left after only minutes soaked to the bone. Awaiting me as I exited the torture chamber were the two mysterious tubs of water, and it was ever so clear as to what their purpose was in the moment I burst forth into the bathing room.

I'm sure all of you are very aware of how much I despise cold unless it comes in the form of ice cubes in my glass, but I'm telling you that I clambered up the rungs of that ladder so fast and dunked myself into that pool so eagerly that even I was shocked at how wonderful it felt to be COLD! The rest of the bathing experience paled in comparison to the sheer delight I experienced in that little wooden tub!

And I'm terribly sorry but that's where I'm going to have to end on this edition of the TSR adventures. So much more has happened since then which I'll update you on later. There've been many touching experiences with people we've met along the way, and opportunities to share God's love have continually presented themselves. We are currently in Perm where we're experiencing a reprieve from the hot, muggy climate of Moscow, but will be returning to the heat (yea!) in a few days when we hop on a train and ride three days further into the heart of Russia--Siberia!!! Unless I have the unlikely pleasure of writing you from the YWAM base outside of Perm where we're headed tonight, I most likely won't be blogging for the next week, but there'll be plenty to share once I arrive in Irkutsk and the land of Lake Baikal!

Thanks for tagging along!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Journey to the Beginning...

We made it. Alison & I made it to Moscow but we haven't even begun our trip really. We've yet to meet up with our contacts where we're staying during our time here, we've yet to see Red Square (though I caught a glimpse of the gilded onion domes of the Kremlin at one point) and of course we have not bought our first tickets for our Trans-Siberian train trip. But we are here, and we have had quite the adventure thus far. So let me rewind...

Monday morning I picked Alison up from the airport in Vancouver and we booked it over to the Chinese embassy where she was hoping to accquire her final visa in order to enter China after Russia & Mongolia. We waited for hours and tried every possible thing we could think of but could not secure her visa. So we've prayed, and we'll keep praying, and when we get to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia we'll stop by the embassy there and see what can be done. Please, PLEASE keep this in your prayers.

That evening, a friend from Menno drove Alison & I to the airport after hanging out and providing us with travel tips and contact information for friends and places all across Russia. April had lived in Siberia for several years and has traveled extensively throughout the country and has been gracious enough to help us out even while studying furiously for Hebrew exams/rooting for the US men's swim team (which even the Brits, Estonians, and Russians have been doing as evidenced by the local papers).

Our first flight from Vancouver to London Gatwick left two hours late which put us in a mad rush upon landing in England. Just the day before the city's mayor had blasted the Gatwick airport for its terribly slow processing times and baggage delays...I'm pretty sure this poor exposure helped us out because while things were slow, they were apparently not as bad as they'd been the day prior. Alison had bags she needed to courier to London for when she flies back after our trip to teach for a year, so we flew to the left luggage department and then checked in less than an hour before our flight. We careened through the airport with our cart laden with baggage just about smashing into all sorts of polite British folk and harried tourists, but we made it with sweat dripping down our backs and no food in our bellies. Silly us, we thought we might get fed on the flight....

If you think Air Canada is bad about charging you through the roof if you want a blanket or snack, try Estonian Airlines! Three pounds for a blanket and you don't even want to know what a quiche cost! I decided to try sweet talking the flight attendants though, when I realised that we would be arriving in Tallin, Estonia well after airport restaurants were closed for the night. In the end, one sweet flight attendant loaded us down with hot rolls, two hot meals, and a big bottle of water. With this as well as all our backpacks in tow, Alison & I set out for a night spent in the Ulimeste airport in Estonia's capital city.

I swear you would all be grinning from ear to ear if you could see the bed we constructed in the front waiting area of the airport. A few others were forced to spend the night in the airport as well, but our construction was pretty stellar (I'll get pics/videos online eventually)! We shoved three benches together so that we had a sleeping platform the size of a queen-sized bed, then locked all our bags together underneath with zip ties. Next we unfurled thermarests, jackets, and sleeping bags, and finally, we changed into our pjs in the restrooms. While we didn't sleep a whole lot due to some of the others who decided not to sleep, the floor polishing machines, and bright flourescent lights, it was still fantastic to be able to get horizontal for a few hours, and we were pretty comfy too!

This morning we boarded our flight from Tallin to Moscow and upon arriving in Moscow changed some US $ into Rubles and caught a shuttle to the metro which we road into downtown. We've spent a better part of our afternoon looking for cheap eats which proved to be EXTREMELY difficult in this city. I don't even want to tell you what we payed for an orange juice at a coffee shop we stopped at...let's just say that we were so appalled, we split the juice! Eventually we found a fantastic (and more reasonably priced) Russian restaurant that served a lot of locals and a couple really hungry Canadian girls. The food was AMAZING and we really didn't want to leave...but leaving brought us to the internet and to you, so I'll speak for both of us and say that it was well worth it!

So far, Alison's Russian has been a blessing to me...oh the struggles we would have had without it. And she's also been able to connect with some really cool ladies we've sat next to or chatted with in the airport. I can't wait until I can start blessing others with my photography, and I probably won't have to wait long. We'll be going to Perm after Moscow (probably by Sunday or Monday) and there's a Russian couple we've heard of who needs a wedding perfect!!!

Anyway, I'm gonna run out of time here, so I'll wrap this up.

From Russia with Love!

Jaime & Alison ( I've now been calling her by her Russian name)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Back in the Blogosphere

All right, so I’ve been terrible about blogging this past year, but there’ve been so many adventures that it’s been hard to keep up!  So I thought I’d recap the past year for those of you who’ve inquired about my blog.  And for those of you who’ve asked me whether or not I’d be blogging throughout my upcoming journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway, the answer is yes, as best I can from the middle of Siberia!

 So here, without further delay, is a slight overview of my travels from 2007-present.

I’d never done a spring break/reading week trip during my university years, and I was determined to go somewhere my last year at Emily Carr.  I’d also never done a major road trip with friends, so when my roommate Laura and I started talking about California, we approached a handful of friends and started planning.  In late February ’07, 4 guys and 3 girls piled into Laura’s dad’s ’92 Aerostar (which we nicknamed the Blue Behemoth) and drove nonstop from Vancouver, BC to Temecula, California where we stayed with my longtime friends, (practically family) the Jonkers.

Although the trip involved most of us coming down with a horrid flu that was sweeping through Southern California, the group had a blast hanging out with the Jonkers, going hiking, visiting the beach, checking out LA (the Getty was a huge highlight) and generally relaxing.  My favourite day was one of our first, which we kicked off by visiting my old church, Mountainview Community Church—a primarily black church in which us white kids from Canada stuck out like glue sticks!  Pastor John spotted me from the front and joked a bit about us Canadians, or the cold or something, and I just felt right back at home in this warm, dynamic congregation.  Later that afternoon we headed down to Tijuana with the Jonkers and some friends of theirs and had a blast checking out a lot of the typical tourist spots.

 Our trip back included stops in Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and the Redwood Forest before bombing it back to BC.

Next stop, graduation from Emily Carr and a flight to England from my parents as a gift.  I called up my friend Mandee originally from Vernon whom I’d visited in England the year before on my way home from Morocco, and asked if I could come the following week to stay with her and her husband Sam.  Before I knew it I was back in southwest England enjoying springtime in Devon. 

If there is one place I’ve found that I long to be in the spring, it’s Devon.  This year April/May rolled around and I found myself craving a good walk through the fields and hills of the countryside, exploring castle ruins, long drives along the winding roads of the moor, and most of all (aside from spending time with Mandee, Sam and their friends & family) Devonshire cream teas.  OH.  MY.  GOODNESS.  I cannot even begin to describe how absolutely heavenly one of these delicacies melts in one’s mouth and warms the body.  Served with classic English tea, a scone is split in half and topped with strawberry jam and the most amazing clotted cream you have EVER tasted.  It’s an unpasturized cream, so if you think you’ve had a traditional cream tea in Canada think again because it’s illegal to sell unpastureized dairy products here (or so I was told by a leading local dairy when I tried to find the stuff).  The cream is probably thicker than whipped butter and just thinking about it oozing into the jam on top of a hot scone is making me salivate all over the computer.  I love it so much, that I froze tubs of it and brought it home in my luggage to share with family & friends (we used up the last of it in December!).

My favourite photographic exploits from the trip included a trip to the Devon County Fair—a massive agrarian fair with more sheep, ale, and Hunter wellies than you can imagine.  I also had the chance to visit a friends’ farm which had been in the family for multiple generations, and received a few driving lessons from Mandee—which scared the crap out of me as I wound through the narrow hedgerows and roundabouts on the opposite side of the road!

Whew…Mississippi.  All right, so I’ve been visiting Mississippi since my parents gave me a flight there for my high school graduation gift.  Just to give a bit of background even though I know I blogged about Mississippi last fall, when I was 16 I went to Russia on a missions trip and met my friend Liz who had joined the trip and happened to be from Mississippi…I’ve been visiting ever since!

I flew down to Mississippi in July to photograph one of Liz’s brothers’ weddings, and while I was there, happened to become casually acquainted with her husband Michael’s best friend Will Fenwick.  He was playing bagpipes at the wedding I was shooting, and something about his confident nature and down to earth character caught my attention.  Apparently he thought I was worth getting to know more as well, and so we started emailing.  And email we did for four long months before we finally met up in November.

In between visits to Mississippi I whipped down to California again to visit the Jonkers for a week, and then came back home to photograph a few more fall weddings.  Nervousness about meeting Will again didn’t hit until about a half hour before he was due to arrive from Atlanta (where he’s currently finishing up his schooling this year) and then all of the sudden I wondered what on earth we were doing coming all this way to see what would happen with this newfound friendship.  It didn’t take long to figure out.  Will arrived at about 2pm and after spending the afternoon at the Knoxubee Wildlife Refuge talking and getting reacquainted in person, Will asked me out by 6pm that night.  Neither of us had ever dated and we both new what we were looking for, and we’d found that in each other.  But this really isn’t a blog about our romantic lives, so let me carry on! 


I spent that month mostly living with some good friends, Butch & Susan, and visiting with Liz & Michael, as well as building new friendships with other great people in Starkville.  And of course, Will brought a lot of adventure into my time there.  He took me to college football games (if you’ve never been to one in the Deep South, it is truly a cultural phenomenon!) squirrel hunting, deer hunting, to family gatherings, his childhood home, and great places to eat.  Susan was also able to secure me a sideline press pass for the biggest Mississippi State game (against Ole Miss) of the season which was absolutely incredible!

I forgot to mention that our family built a new place out near Okanagan Lake just outside of Vernon, so for a while I didn’t feel like I kept returning home and felt more at home on the road which was a bit strange!  Christmas wasn’t even spent there as our family decided to take a trip to Mexico for a week.  Jacqui & I had never been to an all-inclusive, and I have to admit that relaxing by the beachside bar has some definite perks!  We had a great Christmas together and hadn’t been on a family vacation for YEARS, so it was nice to get away together.

When we flew back to Vancouver I proceeded to fly to Prince George, BC and photograph a rather chilly, but beautiful winter wedding for a friend up north.  I got to warm up again though when I flew the following week to Cuba where I was shooting a wedding for a Canadian couple at a resort in Holguin.  The trip was extended when, back in November, I met six Cuban pastors visiting Mississippi who invited me to come photograph their families and churches.  I couldn’t believe God’s timing…I’d been praying for at least three years about an opportunity for me to photograph the Evangelical Christian community in Cuba before the end of Castro’s regime and finally, here was my open door. 

After shooting the wedding in Holguin, my cousin Stephanie (who was a bridesmaid) came with me to Santiago de Cuba for a day or so.  Once she left I traveled alone by bus throughout the country visiting churches and pastors’ families, even a seminary.  My eyes were opened to the various hardships faced by Evangelical Christians there, and I was amazed that despite the heavy restraints placed on the Church by the government, the Church continued to thrive.  I became amazing friends with one family in particular, and continue to pray for them as their son escaped to the US shortly after I left, leaving his young wife to have their first child, and his family in a panic as to his whereabouts for some time. 

I also had the chance to do some sightseeing in Trinidad, Vinales, and Havana, but did so while extremely sick, which made for an incredibly difficult end to the trip.  I’d never been so lonely, or so desperate to get home, but wanted to soak up the aura of a place that will change dramatically one day.  I felt the Lord’s presence with me continually and knew that people back home were praying.

Earlier on I mentioned God’s timing in working out contacts etc. for my trip, but I was blown away when I received an email from Will while in the northern Philippines the following month, telling me that Castro had resigned.  I had in fact, photographed the Evangelical church in Cuba during the dictator’s last days.  I was floored…it was an answer to a very specific prayer that I’d prayed for years, and I knew that God’s hand was upon my work.

The trip to the Philippines in February/March was another emotional experience.  My mom and I spent three weeks with my Uncle Cliff and his Filipino family whom we’d never met.  Mom’s brother has been a missionary in the Philippines for about 20 years, and 12 years ago married an Igorot tribeswoman from a remote village in the Cordillera region of Mountain Province.  Cliff, Josie, and their sons David & Jesse live, farm, and preach the Gospel in and around their village of Bakigan, several hours north of Bontoc—a village that we could only reach on foot, by climbing the steep and narrow rice terraces that ribbed the mountainsides.

My uncle, aunt, and cousins live simply in a renovated hut without beds or bathing facilities, only a few pieces of borrowed living area furniture and a basic squatty potty (pit toilet).  Refrigeration, and kitchen appliances are non-existent, and most in town cook by fire in their pine walled, tin-roofed huts, whereas Uncle Cliff turned this former relative’s hut into a cinder-block and cement two-story with electricity and a two-burner propane stove.  This has been their temporary housing since their previous home burned down during the Christmas of 2005, a tragedy that took the life of their 2-year old son Paul.  While this loss has affected their family tremendously, I was overwhelmed with the spirit of joy and faith that genuinely spill forth from their lives into the lives of those surrounding them.  Like I said, it was an emotional trip.

By the time I’d finished these exhausting travels, I was more than ready to book it down to Atlanta to visit Will, and so I did.  Along with spending a glorious three weeks with Will, (thanks to the gracious hospitality of his friends Charles & Christy whom I stayed with) we also got to spend a bit of time in Mississippi visiting friends and his family.  During this trip Will told me that he loved me and I of course, responded in kind…it was shortly after this that we began talking about marriage, and about the turn our relationship would soon take.

Spring was incredibly full with wedding photography in full swing and editing up the wazoo!  I was grateful for the work and glad that the busy schedule helped to pass the time quickly between visits with Will.  A week in Winnipeg shooting for my Uncle Gerry & Aunty Cathy’s business and visiting some extended family helped to speed along the time.  And on the July long weekend, Will finally arrived in Canada.

I had the time of my life showing Will around Vancouver & Vernon, not to mention showing him off!  He really hit it off with my family and friends and we had some much needed time together just relaxing without work to do.  On Sunday, July 6 I went skydiving (my first tandem jump, something I’d dreamed of doing my whole life ever since watching my dad jump as a little girl) and then helped to host a potluck where close friends and family came to meet Will.  That night, exactly one year after we’d met at Joy & David’s rehearsal in Starkville, Mississippi, Will knelt down by the beach, presented me with an incredible ring he’d had made, and asked me to be his wife.  Oh the adventures we’ll have!!!

And here I am, on the cusp of another truly awesome adventure: a 5-week trip from Moscow to Beijing, via Mongolia along the Trans-Siberian Railway—a trip I’ve been dreaming of since I first went to Russia in 1999 and met Liz, my friend from Mississippi who eventually introduced me to my future husband.  This time I’m headed out with my friend Alison Tishenko who’s joined me in dreaming about this trip for the last few years.  Our mission is to spend a good portion of our travels helping out in churches, orphanages, and ministries in Russia & Mongolia before headed to Beijing for a few days of touring the major sites.  As Alison is a music teacher and I’m a photographer, we’re hoping to bless those we meet with using our skills and gifts as needed.  We’ve made arrangements with tentative contacts and are planning our itinerary somewhat spontaneously, which should be fun!

I will do my best to keep a blog running during the trip (hopefully with updates once a week) so you can follow along.  And don’t worry, they won’t be NEAR as long as this one!   I’m excited to compile a series of images based on the Christian church along the Trans-Siberian Railway, but am not quite sure what will come of this project.  Recently my work was featured in ‘Testimony’ magazine (affiliated with the PAOC) and ChristianWeek is also covering my work in their September issue.  My goal with documenting the Christian church around the world is to break down stereotypes of what the modern Evangelical church looks like, as well as to contribute to the strong heritage of the Christian church for generations to come. 

Thanks again for all your support and I can’t wait to share this trip with you!