Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Return, Regroup, Recharge

I realized the other day that I have been back in Niagara Falls for 6 weeks now. What is the number one thing that I have done since I have been back? That's easy, sleep. I can not believe how much but then again I don't care. This house is warm, the night air is crisp and clean and it is incredibly quite. There are no barking dogs, no roosters, no honking of horns or car alarms at all hours of the night. I think my old body just refuses to wake up from the cocoon of the comfort of a real western bed. What ever the reason...I am over it! I needed to get moving.

Right now I am pathetically watching the Survivor 37 final, reason enough to say it is time to get back on the road. 😀 The fact I just added an emoji to this post is another! On the home front it was time to prepare my house for the arrival of my sister Kelly. She lost her job about 2 months ago. A good corporate gal who was dedicated to her job and doing it well. She climbed the latter and was moving along her career path and then "oops, sorry". "Thanks for your time but your being let go", and she was walked out the door. Not an original story. NOTE to everyone out there. The Corporate world does not give a shit about you. If you needed a reminder, that is exactly what happened to me. Thanks for all your hard work but you are now redundant. Anyways, she sold her house and has moved back to the Falls to regroup.

So, the house needed a re org. I painted 9 rooms, 2 floors and built 4 walls. I installed 2 rooms with baseboards with the help of my nephew Nick. The garaged needed to be cleaned and sorted and all the compiled junk finally tossed. The basement also needed to be sorted, cleaned and yes, more junk tossed out. Small things needed to be fixed and curtain rods and curtains hung. The large yard needed to have all the leaves raked (8 bags) and finally Kelly had to be moved in.

To anyone out there thinking of a career path, get into the trades. Electrician, plumber, builder drywall, whatever. The guy that helps me with the house with things I can not do well (plumbing, electrical) is skilled and busy as a general handyman. Toss in yard word such a moving, raking and general maintenance and you have a huge career path trajectory. Stop coding or trying to be a Facebook influencer. Stop complaining there is no work. There is a shit load of work, you just need to be ready to actually WORK!

There have been too many chicken wings, pizzas and assorted gluttonous experiences. There has been drinks with friends, a bit of Christmas shopping (not finished yet) and dinners with Mom. I have been getting a bit of exercise but not as much as normal and I feel it.  HOWEVER, the other thing I am doing right now (during Survivor commercial breaks) is reading and signing my new teaching contract.

It's back to Asia I go. I am heading to the poorest country in Asia and the 8th most populous in the world. A moderate Muslim country that is subject to cyclones and the worlds worst traffic  but has a complete ban on plastic bags, incredible friendly locals and I can get breakfast for 50 cents. It was an opportunity I passed on in September but has presented itself again. So Bangladesh here I come.

I must be out of my mind...thankfully.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Epic Fail

Even the best intended plans can come off the rails. It might be quick or it might be painfully slow but Murphy eventually makes an appearance when given the opportunity. That being said, when things don't feel right you should always trust your "Spidey Senses", always! Yes I know, what the hell am I talking about?

My re-entry into Tehuacan felt like a comet. It shone brightly and illuminated my world. I was incredibly excited to return to Mexico Then just as suddenly, the light faded and I crashed to earth with a huge thundering THUD. My choice to fly halfway around the world, from Thailand to Mexico to take up a management position with a former school had started with high hopes and expectations. It ended after 3 months. Although it was my choice this little bump in the road gets filed under "Epic Fail".

So what happened?  The school had changed quite a bit in 2 years. It was no more an English school than a student factory churning out students who could continue to pay their fees. I had intermediate students who had been studying for 2 years who could not put together 3 complete sentences. They along with all students were being passed through to the next level. Keep them positive, keep them paying.

Another huge factor, which I did not realize until I returned was that very few experienced teachers were hired. It was a breeding ground for new graduates and first time teachers starting their supposed careers. Why no experienced teachers? First, the working contract is for 4 months, with a possibility of a second 4 month contract after that if you were asked. Teacher churn is outrageous. Secondly, although it is considered a "paid volunteer" the stipend is awful, 5000 pesos a month ( C$335) plus accommodation. Now, you can survive on 5000 peso's a month. However, it takes no time to learn how much each student pays per semester and then multiply that by the number of students and you realize how much revenue is being generated. Yes, the owners are building a new house but there is pressure on you not to "print to much" because paper is expensive.

After about two months most teachers have already checked out. I had to think back to my previous semesters and I was the same. There is zero motivation to contribute after a while. You need to take the personal initiative to improve on your own. That in itself is a reason to attack your classes with vigor.

I made a huge mistake by taking this job without talking about roles, responsibility, compensation and housing. My pay was 12000 pesos, about $C805 a month. After my time working in China, this was more than enough to live on comfortably for a short term. However, they did not offer housing. That my friend is a critical component to being an ESL teacher. I would have had to find an apartment and furnish it, including a fridge and stove. Cheap apartments were cliche rat and cockroach infested dumps. A decent apartment would have cost me 6000 pesos a month, plus electricity, water and of course Internet. (All free back in Asia). Yes I get it. I would have cost about $C500 a month to live, and one day down the road, no problem. When you are trying to live within your means while working and traveling so as to not start digging into your savings or retirement fund, paying half your salary was a non starter. Yes, its a good salary for Mexico to be sure but not now.

The positive vibe that existed was gone, replaced by gossip, confusion and inconsistency. Listen,  I could probably go on and on pissing and moaning about the situation. Here's the rub. My "best" was not my best at all. It was the best that I could give when so uninspired by my surroundings. If I have learnt anything in the past 8 years, if it's not working or going to work, make a change. Don't get me wrong. That does not mean that when things become a bit tough or something is difficult it does not mean you "cut and run". I had such high expectations. Over the years I have stayed a jobs back in Canada much longer than I wanted to. I will not do that again.

So, I found myself pondering all of this while checking into a great old hotel room in Mexico City. It was easier sipping a cold beer and watching the tourists wander around the Historical District instead of finding reasons to justify my staying. I have had my own company. I have also been an supervisor, a manager and an executive within the corporate world. I left all that to loosen the shackles that were sucking the life out of me and find a better life. What the hell was I thinking that I would want to become a supervisor again.

Twenty months and 15 countries later, the timing is right for a return to Canada and a bit of a regroup....and chicken wings. Lot's and lot's of chicken wings.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

My Butcher Is A Vegetarian

One of the people I wanted to see when I returned to Tehuacan was Phil the Butcher. When I lived here in 2016 I would wander down to his shop on a Saturday afternoon. We would share a beer and sit for hours just hanging out with him and his buddies. The first time I saw him when I returned he looked different. He was fit, thin and looked incredibly healthy. I never inquired about it until today.

I went into his shop just to buy a few things for dinner and for what ever reason told him I have not been eating to much meat in the last couple of months. It has not been for any other reason except that I delve into beans and rice twice a day now. Not great for the people around me but good for my health. He gave me a huge Cheshire cat grin and excitedly told me that he has not eaten meat in over a year. Seriously, my butcher is a vegetarian!  He mentioned that he has stopped drinking and has been exercising because he had a health scare. Now I bring him coffee and we talk fruit, vegetables and healthy lifestyles. I am living in a Mexican twilight zone.

Anyways, time has slipped by and I have let my writing slip as well. I kept giving myself the excuse that there was nothing to write about. We know that there are stories around us every day. It is just our ability to uncover them that is the secret. I also gave myself the excuse that I was coming off a 6 month tour of SE Asia and then sipping pints in England and Wales. Again its the same lame reason I have not explored much since I have returned.

We are now half way through the semester and my hunt for a permanent place to live is on going. This semester has been challenging at times. I am teaching and I am also learning the processes and procedures of the Teaching Supervisory role. Sprinkle 3 hours of Spanish lessons every week on top of that little bundle of fun and you will understand my desire for a bit of weekend fun, which naturally starts on Thursdays.

As for an apartment it can be a battle. This is a working class Mexican town and what is acceptable to some is downright horrible to others, including me. Don't misunderstand me, there are great places to live here, it's finding them that is the mystery This is not China where good apartments are abundant. It will work out, it always does.

I have not traveled around anywhere since I arrived on August 14th. I have had no desire to get on a bus however there is a 4 day weekend coming up for Dia de las Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This is one of the most important holidays in Mexico. It is also something we could all learn from. Honoring your families heritage with celebration.  That being said I was offered the opportunity to climb Pico De Orizaba the same weekend and needless to say that caught my attention. Orizaba is the 3rd highest mountain in North America after Denali and McKinley, rising a majestic 5600 metres. If I do climb, it will be the highest elevation I have reached. It is ranked 2nd on the "easy to climb scale" for non technical climbing. There is a long list of climbable 6000 metre peaks. Time for a new challenge.

I need new clothes! That realization came to me recently when I put on one of my favorite travel shirts, a blue Columbia. It is in many of my photos over the past 8 years. This old friend has been with me the entire time. That being said I have had most of the same clothes for the past 2 years since I left for China. There has been the odd purchase here an there but I am ready for a clothing make over...well as much as simple living allows for a makeover. Hello Canada, Hello Value Village.

That being said, Yes, I am heading back to Canada, December 15th to the 31st. My old friend Ken Parker will pick me up at the Buffalo airport which will result with me being face first into a huge plate of hot chicken wings before you can say "where is the bathroom".

My return flight leaves on the 31st. Yes it's New Years Eve but the fares are cheap and I will be in Mexico City in the early afternoon. New Years Eve in Mexico City sounds like it might be a bit of a good tequila induced time. The Bills play the Dolphins on Sunday the 30th so my sister Kelly, nephew Nick and his baby mama Katie are heading to the game for a bit of shenanigans. They will drop me off at an airport hotel after the game eliminating any unnecessary border crossings. I will get some sleep and enjoy what I am sure is a huge buffet breakfast in the morning.Toss in  a free shuttle to the airport and I will be basking in the warm glow of Mexico in no time.

Not exactly sure how long I will stay in Tehuacan, but it will be at least another year. I have a job offer back in Bangladesh starting in September of 2019. Who knows, maybe another trip to Asia is in the cards before I take a more serious look at my long term options in Mexico. Oh and lets not forget that small 6 month trip to Africa that I am planning for 2020.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Zapotitlan Salinas

Tehuacan is not a major stop on any travelers' itinerary and the EXPAT community's name is Eric (the tall guy in the photos with the great hat). This is a working class Mexican city and only makes the news for all the wrong reasons. However, in April of 2018 the entire Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The recognition makes Zapotitlan Salinas a double UNESCO World Heritage site, a very unique qualification as it is now recognized for both its Natural and Cultural heritage. It was time for a revisit to what is one of my favorite places I have ever been to.

Today's intrepid group consisted of Neimh (Ireland), Lauren (England), Adam (USA), Tom (Wales) and of course Eric (USA and is now the Expat community in Tehuacan). You may remember both Tom and Eric. Both were teachers here 2 years ago. Tom decided to come back for a semester the same time I did. Eric now works at the local university. Familiar faces in all the right places.

The day started with a 7:30 am meet up at the Zocalo (city square) and as none of us went out after work the night before we were all fresh faced and eager to go. From there we walked to Eric's house, about 20 minutes towards the Purisma market area. A place that is notorious for pick pockets and petty crime, but whatever. Walk the streets like you own them! He had the oatmeal cooking and coffee brewing and I brought some bananas (yeah I know, a big surprise). We then settled into basic locker room talk torturing the girls but they were good sports and could give back just as fast. This was going to be a good group to spend the day with.

We found the bus, paid our 12 pesos (80 cents Canadian) and settled in for the 45 minute ride. Needless to say we were the only foreigners on the bus full of locals heading out into the countryside. They were either heading out to work or heading home after being in the town markets for a few days selling whatever they grew or made in their little communities. Their serious looks turned lighter and there were even smiles when we loudly boarded the bus but started rambling back in forth between Spanish and English to each other. It was obvious that we were teachers because those are the only westerners here with the exception of a handful of university students. Tehuacan had a huge university population since it does have 2 of the top universities in the State of Puebla.

I had been here a few times in the past and as a hiking freak I became the defacto guide. We paid our 45 pesos and were prepped by an actual park ranger about the Reserve including the do's and do nots. Remember this is more than a cactus reserve. It is thousands of square kilometers and is filled with Aztec and Poco Loca ruins, dinosaurs bones and foot prints. This entire area was an ocean a few million years ago it is loaded with aquatic fossils and sea shells. Yes, there are sea shells all over this desert.

There was the standard well marked trail that circled the entrance and touristy shops and we wandered that for about an hour. Adam and Lauren climbed a 2000 year old holy tree that could have gotten all of us arrested, but you have to have those selfies. The views were great from a few of the viewing points and towers and the morning was easy. The sun was shining and it was getting hot by 10 am. I mean Mexican desert hot. Most of us had already drank a couple litres of water. We needed more because I was about to take them out of the main part of the park. We went back to the centre where we bought water and cactus flavored popsicles. Trust me they taste better than they sound.

The back-country hike started down a gravel road that lead to a camping area. There are fantastic cabins that can be rented with hot showers and they are solar powered. We also picked up free wifi on our mobile phones. The serenity and eerie quality at night must be overwhelming. The amount of stars viewed would be extraordinary in such a remote location with no city lights for miles around. We were told by the park panger that the coyotes would howl all evening but would never come into camp. There are large cats, puma or lynx like from what I could understand. The setting would be the ultimate overnight in the desert. Naturally none of us thought to ask the price.

We spent about 5 hours hiking past the camp ground, heading towards a few lookout towers where we had snacks and just relaxed enjoying the situation. We then saddled up and hiked through hard desert dunes that held large deep crevasses and unsteady footing. I remembered the route and we wound our way down an eroded gully that lead into the valley. We walked along an old riverbed and were surrounded by high almond colored cliffs. There were restrictions, as in the area there is a working salt mine in the area. This being Mexico when you come to a No Trespassing sign, you obey it.

Along the river we did come across paw prints that were neither dog nor any hoofed animal. They were cat, a very large cat of some type. Time to turn around. We climbed back up through the dunes and through trails surrounded and overgrown with as many varieties of cacti as you could imagine. Yes we all yelped in pain at one time or another. Stopping at the watchtower there were eagles gliding in the updrafts, large iguanas dashing from boulder to boulder and other critters scurrying about. It was on the way out that we came across a huge spider that we were unsure we gave it a wide birth. There are snakes, spiders and scorpions here that can and will kill you.

A good lunch in town with a few large cold beers capped a great day. I have every intention of coming back. There are a few long hill hikes that lead to ancient ruins which both Eric and I will get to. We will need a guide but it will be worth it. Then there is the camping. Secure cabins in the middle of the World's largest biosphere surrounded by hundreds of varieties of cacti, yapping coyotes and billions of stars. Pot is now legal in Canada. I might just have to take one for the team here in Mexico.

Happy 420 Canada, Mexican style.

Monday, September 10, 2018

One Month In

It has been an odd first month back in Mexico. A mixture of nostalgia, stress and excitement has lead the way. Now, the dust has settled and I have found a bit of a routine. I forgot how nice a routine can be when you enjoy it but I do need to be careful. Routine can and usually does, allow time to slip by without much fanfare. I have made a pledge to stay on my toes and to try and challenge myself every day. Be it writing this blog, improving my Spanish, wrapping my head around a new grammar rule (who would have thought that was possible) or just exploring the nooks and crannies of Tehuacan.

On the home front, I am back at the teachers residence and in the same room as I had before. However the house has been upgraded and looks great. I am living with 5 other teachers and it is not without it's challenges. I am lucky to have my own room so with that comes the ability to find some private time, a luxury to be sure.

The walk to school is about 15 minutes. The neighborhood is filled with fruit and vegetable shops, a few bakeries, a large pharmacy, a variety store on every corner (beer beer beer), a great butcher, a few laundromats where a kilo of washing costs 10 pesos. There are food stalls, carts and family food outlets on every street so hunger is a choice for us, not an option. I am looking for my own place, with the help of the school, as I am here long term, well longish. Let's see how it goes right. I have been known to change my mind on things. For the record, a clean modern apartment will run me about $150 - $200 Canadian, and that is a top end place.

We have not been without our fun times the first month. We hit Cerezos most Fridays after school for massive mugs of beer for 40 pesos ($2.75) or 3 for 100. What do you suspect my Friday night choice is? Remember these are mugs that hold 1.5 litres of beer so that is 4.5 litres of beer for the equivalent of about $8.25 Canadian, $9 with tip. There are a few places in the Zocalo that we have spent time at. The area is hopping and and 1.5 liters of Corona is 71 pesos....stupid tourist prices!! I did get dragged willingly to the Roof a few weeks ago. Cerezos was closing and the Roof is a club that stays open until dawn, and a 5 minute walk we walked. At 5 am after dancing like fools and maybe sipping a few tequilas, the 8 of us decided it was time to leave. On Sunday I slept in until noon, napped at 2 and 5 and then back to bed around 9. There is a reason I don't try to run with the yung 'uns.

School life is all about lesson planning and teaching. I only have 2 one hour classes. In the morning I train with the current teaching supervisor, Matt Poy, to learn the workings of the school. Included in this are the interview techniques developed my Matt through trial and error on how to choose the best candidates. This is also helping me build relationships with the owners Rachael Heslington and her husband Teo. This is arguable the most important part of the next 4 months. Matt has been here for 8 years and they rely on him something fierce. I have my work cut out on this front.

On the Mexican side, Tehuacan is living under military rule right now. Yes, military rule. It is the safest city in Mexico right now. How did this come to be you ask? The current mayor and most government officials including senior police offices are horribly corrupt. There was an election a few months ago and the mayor and her crew were voted out. The transition to the new government takes 3 months, a normal transition time. Well the current leaders said "fuck it" and stopped ruling. The police stopped policing and the mayor and her staff, embolden by the lack of police presence started looting the treasury.

New of this emerging "wild west" situation brought the Zetas out of their dark places. They opened a new bar called Dubai in town and started demanding protection money from local businesses. Hikers were being robbed at gun point along the popular, an my favorite hiking trail up to Cerro Colorado. So, the president of the country, Enrique Peña Nieto called in the military. Enrique Peña Nieto is horribly corrupt but that is another story. He just lost the Federal Election to Andrés Manuel López Obrador who takes over on December 1st.

Back to my lovely little town. The military came in 1500 strong plus lots of 50 Caliber mounted jeeps, low flying helicopters and armored personal carriers. Read the story here. All the corrupt police were fired scattered into the desert...or were shot. The running news here is the military will one day walk into the Dubai bar fully armed giving only one choice, leave immediately. If there is any pause for thought they will open up on the Zeta's. So, it goes without saying I will never go into Dubai regardless of the awesome patio and good looking menu. In the game of Mexican Military vs. Drug gangs the military always wins. Mexico is ranked 32 (of 136) currently reviewed under the  global firepower review, Canada is 25th. These lads are serious.

Here are a couple of links to have a peek at where I am now working/living

The schools website     The schools Facebook page

 I will add some photos of the neighborhood tomorrow.

Mexican sun means Mexican smiles.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Tehuacan 2.0

My return to Tehuacan was delayed by a quick stop in Cancun for a week. Sure, not the worst place to wind down after 18 months in Asia and I had been here before when I left Tehuacan a couple of years ago. I stopped here because flights from London fly direct to Cancun (no stops in the USA which is important for me). If I was thinking at the time, I would have stopped for a night near the ADO bus terminal and then head to Merida or somewhere I have never been. Regardless, I found a cheap hotel downtown with a single room for $20 a night. There is a local bus for $.50 that will take me to the hotel / beach strip in about 30 minutes and cheap and delicious food all over the downtown area. What's not to love?

A bit of sun tanning, lounging by the pool, splashing in the ocean and swimming with whale sharks capped a fun filled week. There were decent chicken wings, cold delicious beer and many, many tacos. I understand that when booking a trip to Cancun the usual choice is to check into an all inclusive beach front hotel in the hotel zone. After all, you work hard and come vacation time you want comfort and 5 star service. If you want to change your habits, and challenge yourself a bit and save a shit-ton of money find a cheap flight, book into a decent downtown hotel and change your experience. You might be surprised that you enjoy yourself more.

Now swimming with whale sharks was not even on my radar. Then I read that this was the season of their migration and tours were available. The decision took about 1 second to make. Swimming/cage diving with Great Whites is high on my agenda. Whale sharks would do for now. Let's just say it was as incredible as you could imagine. The boat trip was a bit long and bumpy, about 90 minutes out past Isle Mujeres. You teamed up with a "dive buddy" from the boat. When a shark was spotted and it was your turn, you slipped into the water and there it was, a 40 foot fish no more that 15 feet away.

They are docile and seem slow moving but I was swimming like a crazy man just trying to keep up. I did not take any pictures but did take a few videos. This one is raw and uncut and the best I could do considering the situation. Ultimately I wanted to enjoy the experience, not spend my time trying to capture it.

I took my flight from Cancun to Puebla, a taxi to the ADO bus station and then the 2 hour ride into Tehuacan. I was met at the airport by Matt Poy, the Teaching Supervisor who I will be replacing in January. He is a good dude and I do consider him a good friend. He dropped me off at the teachers house where I lived before, gave me my keys and off I went. I wandered the familiar streets, noticed the small changes and met people who remembered me.

The first excursion made was to the recently opened pyramids in old Tehuacan in Tehuacan Viejo, about a 20 minute combi ride from the city centre. The ruins themselves are small when comparing them to PalenqueChitzen Itza or Tulum, however this area of Mexico was critically important for the Poco Loca Indians and then the Atzecs. There are deep caverns of fresh water from the natural run off from Popocatépetl near Puebla. A very active and gorgeous volcano.

When you hike in the surrounding hills the trail is littered with broken pottery shards. It's odd, you can pick these pieces of history up but most people, myself included, are not compelled to put them into their pockets. They toss them back onto the trail where they belong. I will take a few photos next time I head out. It is estimated that there are over 200 temples and pyramids in the surrounding area. As with every other archaeological site in Central America, money is a huge factor. There is not enough to uncover the treasures that lay beneath the soil. Hopefully Tehuacan draws the attention of the Universities and clubs that fund such projects. For now, visit this site and support its growth.

I don't know why I have taken to Tehuacan. Don't get me wrong, there is not a long term plan to stay here. Let's call it a mid term plan. I honestly think I returned to regroup and plan things moving forward. I do believe that there is something here in Mexico waiting for me, ready to take me in a new direction. I am 100% sure it is not here in Tehuacan but this is where I need to be for now. Lets see how it goes.

I did write quite a bit about Tehuacan in the past. Here is the link to my first post.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

To Be Continued...

Eighteen months have flown by. All the intense and somewhat stressful preparation for my move to China is now a distant memory. Eight years have ticked away since I rebooted my world. Time that would have passed just as fast if I did not, and I'm still standing.

It would have been incredibly easy to settle into China for an extended period of time. My initial plan was for 3 years. The school was great as were the students. I was active socially, the money was good and there were opportunities to travel throughout the year.

In the end two things changed my mind about staying in China. First, it was the brutal air pollution that enveloped Xian from November to March. It was everything you think it was and more. For example when the Air Index in Toronto hits 10 - 12 people are told to stay in doors because of the health hazard. A normal (yes normal) day in Xi'an saw an index reading of 250. To see 300 was not random and there were a few days where the index topped over 800. Those are the pictures you see on the news or online. It is true that you cannot see across the street. Of course all that pollution was drifting in and around the food in the markets and street stalls. The second and more important reason for leaving was that my heart was not really in it. That being said, I never just “went through the motions” and I contributed to my time there to the best of my abilities I really tried to embrace the language, the culture and the social insanity that is China. In the end I felt there was something else, somewhere else that I wanted to be. So off I went.

So, after eleven countries plus Tibet, it has come to this. Sitting pool side at my Cancun hotel trying to recharge my rusty Spanish while I prepare for Mexico 2.0. A few days ago I was drinking pints in Liverpool and yesterday I was swimming with whale sharks in Mexico. I am sipping coffee reflecting on those thoughts, which lead me to this thought.

It has been 8 years to the month since I tossed aside the safety of my routine life with the corporate world for a life less complicated. Sure, it was exciting in theory, most things are. One day you're getting "grin fucked" in a corporate boardroom and then you are waking up in Antigua Guatemala thinking "what the hell am I doing in Guatemala"?

** Grin Fucked - In business when someone smiles and shakes your hand assuring you that they have heard and will act upon your recommendation or concerns when in truth you have already been ignored and dismissed.

When this journey began, I had no clue what I was doing but I absolutely knew I had to do it. I took my baby steps as a volunteer teacher with Global Vision International. This introduced me to the people and cultures of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. At the end of that contract I found myself wandering the jungles and beaches of Costa Rica for a couple of weeks. My wet ears had dried and my confidence was blooming. "What the fu** am I doing" became "OK, I can do this".

I was offered a permanent and paid position with GVI at their school in Otavalo Ecuador so off I went. After a few months it was not working out the way it was promised and I chose to cut my ties. I had spent a lifetime of working at jobs and in a career putting up with shit just to have a job. That was not going to happen again, EVER.

There I was in South America with a few dollars in my pocket and an open continent in front of me. So off I went. Ecuador, Peru for the second time, and then down the long spine of Chile. My soul was opened to the beauty of Patagonia after hiking to Torres del Paine and then spending 6 hours watching the enormity of the calving of the Perito Moreno Glacier. I found crossing the the Straights of Magellan into Argentina otherworldly and discovered myself in Ushuaia, the city that is the farthest south in the world. It is also the launching of tours into Antarctica so off I went. A week later I was sitting shirtless on a gleaming glacier watching humpbacks play in the bay around our ship.

Back up the continent through Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia. I had my small day pack lifted from me during Mardi Gras in La Paz so good bye passport. I needed a police report before I could get a new passport which could only be described as a very intense "I own you if you do not co-operate and pay me extra" experience. The Bolivians are lovely, the Bolivian police not so much. Instead of waiting the two weeks for a new passport I chose a one page travel document. It was time to go back to Canada and regroup. So off I went.

In Canada I had a brain wave, or brain cramp depending on your point of view. I had a nagging desire to learn to drive transport and a Class 1 license would get my blood flowing. The cost became a bit prohibitive so I trained for my single axle class 3. Looking back I guess I could have found a way for the government to pay for my schooling with a training grant of some type but it never even crossed my mind.

With my class 3 in my pocket I loaded up my Ford Escape and  headed to Red Deer, Alberta to begin life  in the Oil Fields. On day 2 my reliable truck broke down between Sault Ste Marie and Wawa. I remember the spot that my truck sat smoking was a spectacular lookout into Lake Superior. There was a huge plaque dedicated to the Edmund Fitzgerald mentioning that Whitefish Point was straight ahead in distance. That gave me incredible perspective as I waited for my tow so I ate my lunch without a worry. Well no worries except that nightfall was coming, I was in bear and wolf territory, CAA was still an hour away and I had no idea how much my repair bill was going to be. As an aside, the drive from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken.

Two years later with stops in Red Deer,  Lloydminster, Grand Prairie, Fort St. John BC and various small towns and work camps in between my itch was scratched. I met interesting people from a world that was completely foreign to me. Hard working but with the need to perpetually try to be the toughest guy on site. I also challenged myself in ways I could never have imagined. It was a profitable venture and I accomplished what I had set out to do. Now, it was time to get back to teaching.

Nicaragua had captivated me. I have said many times before that the universe (you can insert your god of choice here) shows you the way. I found and immediately signed up for the TEFL course with the International TEFL Academy in Leon Nicaragua so off I went.

With a brutal 30 days of training and learning how to teach I happily graduated. I instantly started working as a "certified teacher" in Leon at ANS, The American Nicaraguan School. It was part-time and gave me a kick start to the real world of ESL teaching. I will say that my first paycheck of about $150.00 US dollars was more satisfying than any one of the larger corporate paychecks I had ever received. Then the reality of needing to pay my rent made me ponder whether that larger corporate paycheck would be quite beneficial right about now.

I had quite a bit of spare time while in Leon and I got to know the manager of Quetzel Trekkers after signing up for one of their tours. He said he was looking for volunteers to guide. I thought, "I can do that" so I off went to be a Trekking and Volcano guide for four months. Forty two treks on six different volcanoes, leading 250 people from a variety of countries was the highlight of my journey to date.  I wrote about that experience and you can read it here. Nicaragua captured my heart but it was time to go. I had a contract for a teaching job in Tehucan Mexico, so again, off I went.

While planning my trip from Leon Nicaragua to Tehuacan Mexico I wanted to take advantage of my time and location. I took a rickety boat across the Gulf of Fonseca to La Union, El Salvador. I had toured El Salvador along the way and really adored the country. I was just passing through on my way to Guatemala but it gave me the chance to revisit the capital and gorge on pupusas until I was ready to explode. I also took the time to revisit Church of the Divine Providence where Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was murdered, which was a driving force behind sending El Salvador into a full scale civil war in 1980. To this day the square in front of the church has a massive police and military presence as the issue is still "open sore raw" with so many citizens.

I toured up into lovely Guatemala where I hiked up Volcan Acatenango and Tajemulco. Northern Guatemala brought with it the ruins of Tikal. After Tikal, the clear waters of Belize beckoned followed by the slow traverse up through Mexico. I used San Cristóbal de las Casas as a launch to the ruins of Palenque. It also gave way to the ruins of Ken. I endured the worst possible case of food poisoning imaginable that lasted almost two weeks. It had to have been bordering on dysentery because nothing stayed in, even water. I rested for 10 days in Oaxaca, not straying to far from my room and the comfort of the toilet. Finally, enough was enough and following the advice of my new school, I devoured medication when I arrived in Tehuacán .Within a few days that cleared up the final remnants of whatever was eating my insides. I had lost quite a bit of weight and it was time to eat. Fortunately, I was in beans and rice country so putting the weight back on would be no problem.

I spent two semesters at the Heslington language institute and enjoyed my time there, and in Tehuacan. . I was living in the teachers residence and Scott, one of the teachers there had just recently come from a tour of teaching in Xi'an China. After a few emails, a skype call and a signed agreement, I had a job in China, so off I went.

China gave me the opportunity to see and walk the Great Wall from where it begins in the East at Jiayu Pass and experience a real Oasis in the Gobi Desert at Dunhuang. One of many that helped traders survive along the old silk road. There was the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, Pandas in Chengdu and the glory that was Mt. Everest in Tibet. Learning to speak and understand day to day Mandarin was a daily quest and life in China was excellent. Which takes me back to the start of this post as to why I left. As with South America a few years before, I was now in Asia with time to spare. So, as I had done many times before - off I went.

Many of these experiences, with the exception of life in the Oil Patch, are in this blog. I do have small regrets about not writing about working and driving in the patch because there were interesting and bizarre stories that unfolded every day.

None of this would have happened if I chosen the easy path and accepted new position within Bell Canada when every other member of my team, who put their hearts and souls into our projects, lost their jobs. No, I am not being magnanimous because I seriously did consider it. In the end, much like China, my heart was not in it any more seeing years of work being tossed aside like it never happened. I went to work every day and witnessed what that does to a person. I watched so many good people on that slow downhill slide to "just putting in my time".  I was not going to be a part of it.

None of this would have happened without the people I have met along the way. Most have been incredible and interesting and others, well not so much. It also is vanilla bland without you. Friends, family, readers and contributors who have sent me encouraging comments and kinds words. Some of you have been dicks but that is the world we now live in.

Finally, if you noticed that the spelling and grammar have improved over the last month or so, that is a big thank you to Jennifer Allan Cummings. A long time friend and supporter from Collingwood, Ontario who stopped commenting on the fact my grammar and spelling is horrendous for an English teacher and started to happily help edit my posts..

Now I sit poolside in Cancun, Mexico. Yesterday I went swimming with whale sharks and it was as insane as you might think it would be. You can watch the RAW video on YouTube. I do not know where my road is going to take me and I sure as shit do not have a "five year plan". That is exactly why my plans constantly change or I appear to be flighty and in a constant state of flux. I have completely opened my mind to any possibility that presents itself, no matter how abstract it may seem to be.

I am going to keep "putting in my time", but its going to be my "best time possible".

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Siege of York and Robin Hood

Today I walked along the walls of York that still partially surround the old town. The gates are filled with wooden doors dating back to the 14th Century, stone gates and ramparts and information plaques to give you a bit of knowledge as to where you are standing. I was not overwhelmed but I did stand on the wall facing York Minster, the behemoth cathedral that captures the skyline of the old town and let my mind wander and my imagination flow back to the time of William Wallace.

The Siege of York was the first battle in William Wallace's invasion of England which came into our modern consciousness with the movie Braveheart. A good article about his invasion of Northern England can be found here if you feel like a bit of a history lesson.

There is Fort York, York University, York Region, North York, East York and The Royal York all in and around Toronto which was called York at one time. None of this happens without York, England. Yes there is the whole invasion of Upper Canada and the cruelty that was inflicted upon its indigenous peoples but, that's just a bit of history right?

York was jumping when I arrived and it was only 10:30 in the morning. I had to stay in a 10 bed dorm because any single room was about $200 a night. Anything cheaper was already booked including the University. Off I went to wander and find a coffee so I could get my bearings and relax from the bus trip. Beside the coffee shop of choice was a pub and the patio was jam packed with a few merry makers well on their way. I get that it was a Saturday but it was also before 11:00 (Says the guy who was day drinking not so long ago in Liverpool). The lady who owned the coffee shop told me that today was the monthly pay for most people. Plus, York is very popular for Hen and Stag parties on most weekends and also for 21st birthday parties. It was all happening and it was a recipe for a massive  and possibly turbulent night. So much for an uneventful nerdy history day.

I walked the wall, admired the gates and took in historical information that was available on wall plaques everywhere. I sauntered, yes I just said sauntered, around the town finding great little alleyways and paths. As the afternoon stretched into the early evening you could feel the mood of the town change. Young girls/women had gotten dolled up and were roving in packs. Every single one of them wearing extra long fake eyelashes. They were hunted and hounded by loud and obnoxious steroid pumped frat boys. Tossed into this bubbling mess were the local lads. They had spent most of the day in the The Micklegate at 127 where the pints were the cheapest in town.They were looking for trouble hidden behind overly friendly banter. I had stuck my head in the 127 around 4:00 thinking a pint was in order. I never even crossed the threshold of the screaming drunken sausage party that was happening. 

The desk clerk of the hostel gave me the 411. He explained that the main street should become a bit of a war zone come midnight. Most pubs closed at 11:00, and the few night clubs in town were scattered along the street around the hostel. Grab a beer and sit on the patio upstairs, it should make for good entertainment. What an excellent idea.

By 9:30 as I headed to the relative safety of my bunker, I had already seen a few drunk girls crying while sitting on a curb, their friends doing what they could to console them. A few locals were sporting black eyes and had begun screaming at each other. One girl in her early 20's was a knockout. She had sparkles all over her face as the Hen parties tended to have. Her sparkles were enhanced by her purple and blue closed right eye that was tearing it was so fresh. She did not miss a beat as she walked past me chatting and laughing with her wobbling and stumbling posse.

Three of us from the hostel grabbed a few cans of beer and sat on the rooftop patio come midnight.
We were waiting for the action to unfold and were well stocked for a couple of hours of observation. In the end all we got for a show was some screaming and shouting between various groups and one guy falling off the curb backwards trying to take a selfie. That was kind of funny really.

Sunday came and the town emptied out, as did the hostel. By dinner time most of the shops were closed and the place was a ghost town. I made my way to a very different 127 pub and had a good laugh with the bartender as she told me stories about the night before. That was York and I am glad I took the time. 

After the madness of York, I welcomed the wide, modern and quiet streets of Nottingham. I came here for a couple of reasons. The first being Sherwood Forest, yes it is a real place. Second are the recently discovered/uncovered tunnels and grottos of Nottingham called the City of Caves. The largest and most extensive in all of Europe, and that is saying something. Then there is Nottingham Castle and Wollorton Hall. After Nottingham I have a couple of challenging travel days so I just wanted to rest and get myself sorted.

The tales of Robin Hood have made him an enduring folk hero. Although his name has been mentioned throughout history and sung in folklore ballads, no concrete evidence has ever been found to verify he actually existed. Who cares? The notion of a brave rebel who lives on the outskirts of society, fighting injustice and oppression with his band of companions, has universal appeal.

Now that being said, Sherwood Forest is very real. It is an hour bus ride on the aptly named "Sherwood Arrow". The journey takes you out of Nottingham and through pristine farmland and quaint villages. The bus drops you off at the main entrance and off you go. The visitor centre is being renovated but there are trail maps and information markers that are well laid out.

The big draw is the Major Oak. Estimated to be over 1200 years old it is one of the last of the old Oaks that grace the forest. At one time Sherwood Forest was massive, covering most of Nottinghamshire, but over time so much of the trees were felled for the construction of boats, churches and towns. I wandered the paths and trails for a couple of hours. There were some families enjoying the day but the park was quiet.

There was a woman who was selling coffee and snacks near the entrance of the park. Her radio was playing "The Clash" which I commented on. It turns out she is Canadian, formerly of Calgary. We both smiled at being Canadian and at that exact moment the song on the radio changed to Bryan Adams summer of '69. That made us both laugh and with that she gave me my coffee and apple cake for free. It was a nice moment.

when I first arrived but when we started chatting and discovered that we were both Canadian the next song to come on was by Bryan Adams. A bit of a "holy shit" funny moment. She gave me my coffee and a piece of apple cake for free because of that moment.

The main village near Sherwood Forest is Edwinstone and they have taken advantage of their location for tourist purposes. It is subtle but all the signs are there. I left the park and the 10 minute walk to town was nice. It was a bit overcast so the air was cool. I stumbled onto St Marys Church Edwinstone which is rumored to be the locations where Robin Hood and Maid Marian were married. We don't even know if this guy existed but we do know where he was supposedly married. I love folklore.

My flight to Mexico leaves at 8:10 am on the 10th. Heathrow is an incredibly busy airport and Antonia advised me to get there no less than 2 hours before, and that would be cutting it close. I figured that to get to the airport for 6:00 am I would have to leave where ever I was by 5:00, which is when the underground opens. It made no sense to spend the money on a room since I would be waking up at 4:30 AM. I am taking the 6:00 PM bus from Nottingham that gets me into Heathrow Terminal 2 around 10:30 pm. I can sit or snooze until 5:30 AM no problem.

 Cancun, you are on the clock.