Step out of your comfort zone.

This past November I experienced one of the greatest adventures of my travelling youth. Not one of the greatest distance or adrenaline-pumping thrills, but of the most intimacy in which I experienced a lifestyle so foreign from my own.  I’m talking about a step out of my comfort zone and into the lives of a rural, African community as an international volunteer. The project was only 2-weeks in span but the impact was tremendous, for both the community and volunteers alike.

volunteering abroad in Naro Moru, Kenya

My volunteer team in Naro Moru, Kenya

About a year ago, during a time of my own personal reckoning, I applied to be a team leader with an international volunteer organization. In an impulsive whirlwind I assumed responsibility for building a team of adults, selecting a grassroots project abroad and facilitating the entire experience over the course of a year.

And so the project ensued. I was relieved to have had recruited nine amazing volunteers dedicated to getting their hands dirty digging trenches for a sustainable irrigation system in Naro Moru, Kenya. After plenty of orientation meetings and pre-departure guidance, my team of rookies set out for Kenya on the 8th of November, 2013.

Volunteers walking to work in Kenya

Daily walk to work in Naro Moru

Small happy village boy in Kenya

“Jambo” Each morning

Our destination was a village at the base of Mount Kenya where an existing water system proved no longer sufficient for the growing population. The monetary donation from volunteers made it possible for the community to secure skilled labour and  larger PVC piping to replace the old system, which tapped fresh water from the river to distribute amongst individual farms. Our job in-country was to work under the direction of the community members to achieve a newly functional system, pipe by pipe.

hard-working Kenyan women carrying shovels

Kenyan women on their way to work

Transporting pipes 10 km by hand

Transporting pipes 10 km by hand

mount kenya volunteers walk to jungle

Two-hour walk to our project site in the jungle

Each day Kenyan men and women hiked two hours to the jungle under the blazing sun and at 7,500 ft above sea level. For us volunteers, who admittedly don’t walk two hours in a week, the trek alone proved mighty difficult without the foreign heat and altitude-affected heart rates. One of my volunteers experienced faintness and fatigue so notably that she had to turn back half way accompanied by a Kenyan committee member. This of course was before I was made aware of the wild buffalo that graze the land and meet small groups of people with intense aggression.

Upon descent into the jungle miles of trenches were dug in order to expose the existing pipe.  The new system was propped alongside for replacement when weather permitted, often interrupted by downpours of heavy rain from the mountain’s extreme climate changes.

I have to say the first day was the biggest shock. Things in Kenya operate much differently than North American standards. Time is not of the essence and there is little to no stress when progress is threatened. The concept of ‘hard work’ doesn’t hold impactful meaning because gruelling labour persists everyday without sight of the end, and everybody smiles.

volunteer project irrigation kenya

Digging trenches and replacing pipes

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DSC_0128African man smiling, teeth

Aside from challenging ourselves physically everyday and being put to shame by the Kenyan culture’s tenacity, we had the pleasure of sharing our personal lives with each other through photographs and stories. In Naro Moru we were treated like family from the first day we set foot in the community. We were invited into our new friends’ homes to share meals, meet their children and elderly parents, and learn how they work and what they hope to achieve. Can I say I would treat foreign strangers with the same welcome to my home in Canada? Truthfully, no. As Canadians we pride ourselves on kindness and positive spirit, but I found myself shaking my head with a knowing smile that no one I know encompasses these values more than this community.

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DSC_0201hug a kenyan woman

african women looking at cell phone

Showing our family to theirs


friendly african people in kenya

No amount of mental preparation can ready you for the range of emotions that you will experience in an adventure like this. Some days are tough. You are far from home, far from anything that resembles your normal routine, living conditions aren’t always comfortable, and you may witness scenes that make your heart ache. These are all completely normal and important things to experience. I’d say being uncomfortable is what makes it unforgettable. The important vision I had for my team was to leave a gentle footprint behind. We did not go to change a way of life or push our influence on the community- we were their visitors, an extra pair of hands, and friends to trade stories with.

For information on the company who helped to make this trip possible, visit Developing World Connections here.

kenyan school girls in uniforms

I hope my recount of this experience compels you to take a leap to do something beyond your expectations. There will be moments of  self-doubt, extreme gratitude, apprehension, and love for complete strangers. Your sequence of emotions will differ from another  but I can promise you all the same- you will never forget it. 

Amsterdam

house boats

Not what you’re thinking. Yes, Amsterdam offers many tourist-frequented festivities outlawed in Canada and most parts of the world, but I didn’t partake this time around. Family trip, give me a break.

A total of five days travelling through the Netherlands allowed me only two days in Amsterdam, which left little time for anything other than daytime strolling, frequent café breaks, and a couple bar hops.

Actually, my favorite thing to do in a foreign city (other than eat, and explore the nightlife) is cruise about it’s streets in the daytime and take in the local feel.  Plus it appears I am now big time into Americano coffees, so it works out.

“Take me with you”

Amsterdam houses

The traditional housing blows me away in Amsterdam. I love the tall, narrow structures all unique in style and form, with a layer of windows at every level and each façade a different colour than the next. In Toronto, “urban” housing means shoeboxes within shiny 20-story condos while north of the city you will find identical blocks of developer-built cookie cutter homes. If I’m going to pay upwards of half a mil, give me a historic masterpiece in cobalt blue.

boatandbuildingbridge

The Red Light District is full of many treats for the weary traveller like live sex shows, “window shopping” and plenty of coffeeless cafes. I visited this part of Amsterdam during the day and noticed the occasional bored looking prostitute, but I can imagine the scenery becomes a little more lively come dark. I’m no expert on window shopping for women but I’m pretty sure clipping your toenails isn’t on the job description.

The hyped up stories of debauchery, hookers and pot are a very, very small part of Amsterdam and really only those held up by tourists. The city itself is the jewel, so you should make a point of taking it all in. On my next trip I will be renting a bicycle to get myself completely lost in this maze of streets.

The point where all tunnels align

The above was taken while on a canal tour courtesy of the Dylan Hotel.

Amsterdam canal

Thank-you Amsterdam.

Restaurant Review, Mistral (Antwerp, Belgium)

mistral

One of my favorite things about travelling is dining in a place lush with character and unique from the typical tourist-frequented restaurants. Mistral, a tiny two-story serving fresh home cooking by chef Marie,  is the kind of place you will brag about to your friends at home. Some would call it ‘cozy’ although I’ll be realistic for you claustrophobics- seating is pretty tight. Although this is part of the of novelty in feeling like you are a guest in Marie’s own home.  If you don’t mind a little wafting smoke from all the pan seared deliciousness on the stove you can reserve one of the few tables in the dining room, which is situated on the main floor adjacent to the kitchen.

Our party sat upstairs along the windows which offered a great vantage point for the room and the street below. After a generous portion of French wine was served, our thick-accented server assisted us with the menu choices. It was the first time I had experienced service where the maximum amount of different dishes our party could order was 3, even though the menu was expansive. I would assume due to the size and capacity of the residence-made-restaurant kitchen. I can’t say this was against anyone’s best interest since we had a hell of a time deciphering any recognizable English from the Dutch menu anyway.

The eight of us made our selection between steak and mushrooms, fish, and a vegetarian dish. Almost everyone opted for the filet which came perfectly cooked and drizzled in a wonderful tasting jus. You can’t fight the mouth-watering smell of fish and chips though, and the aroma was complimented by the presentation of Darryl’s lightly battered fish served on a wooden slab with homemade frites and dipping sauce. A bit of menu envy had here.

Take advantage of the quaint atmosphere at Mistral and extend your bottle of wine after dinner has been cleared. Or, if you prefer to light up the town, there is a perfectly Belgian beer bistro down the street where “samplers” are served by the pint…

Hotel Review- The Dylan, Amsterdam

Wow. As if I already wasn’t on a enough of a high having arrived in Amsterdam this past Easter, I had now stepped into what I now expect to be one of the most unique hotels I’ll ever get to visit. Spoiled.

The Dylan, Amsterdam

The Dylan, Amsterdam

You might not notice the hotel amongst the clustered, narrow streets and windy canals of Amsterdam, recessed from the sidewalk behind a stone facade with iron-barred arch windows. We spent many a night directing our taxi driver towards the billowing blue flags distinguishing our hotel from the traditional architecture of tall, narrow houses lining the street. The running joke was, “Do you know the Dylan? It is on a street lined with cars and bikes… there’s a canal? Oh and all of the houses have lots of windows”.

"Loft Style"

“Loft Style”

But don’t be fooled by the modest placement of this impressive hotel, which dates back to 1632 as a renown theatre. Presently its contemporary style boasts a unique design for each of the hotel’s suites, for example “Kimono” and “Zensation”.  Somehow, my boyfriend, good girlfriend and I were given the keys to the “Loft Style” suite- one of the biggest and best the hotel has to offer. The entry presented a steep staircase climbing to a massive open, airy space complete with sitting area, King bed and open concept bathroom. After a brief celebration we learned that my  boyfriend’s newly wed brother, sister-in-law and parents did not have the same good fortune. Again, megaspoiled.

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DSC_0865The palace that was our room also offered a personal espresso machine which brewed a perfect crema espresso for one to enjoy while lounging in the “his” and “her” terry cloth robes provided, or in this case, “his”, “her’s” and “her’s”. Or, if you prefer a liquor induced beverage, you can peruse the stocked mini bar and melt into one of the deeply comfortable armchairs in front of the flat screen TV.  If by chance you can’t find what you are REALLY craving, pick up the phone and call down to the concierge. The friendly bell boy will gladly take a trip to the store down the street. One evening we had a few bottles of local beer delivered to us at 2 am on a silver platter…literally. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your own tunes- this suite also offers an iPhone/iPod supported sound system.

If you decide you ever want to leave your room The Dylan’s main floor is equally as impressive. Fun fact- there are strict policies against new builds or renovating real estate in Amsterdam, so the Dylan grew its presence only by gradually acquiring the real estate on either side of it. I suggest exploring the entire first floor when you arrive, as the architecture of the hotel makes for hidden rooms and unexpected corridors.

Dylan Hotel

Dining Room Dylan Hotel

My absolute favorite spot in this hotel is the lounge, which is such a cozy setting at night. Low leather chairs are arranged for intimate conversation across the smooth barn wood floor, with a softness that makes you want to slip your shoes off and go barefoot. A simple fireplace is the focus point of the back wall, centered by silk, cascading drapes showcasing the grandeur of the room’s high ceilings. The warm glow of this space is so inviting that we couldn’t help but wind down here after every evening.

Lounge

Lounge

Canal TourOne of the special services that the hotel offers its guests is a private canal tour, which can be booked directly through the concierge. The vessel captain will meet your group right outside the front door at The Dylan’s dock. Once aboard you will notice a bottle of champagne chilling on ice and some delicate snacks to sample during your cruise. Our young Dutch captain had a quick-witted humor and impressive knowledge of the canal’s history and operation. I appreciated that he didn’t speak too much or too often, and kept the mood lighthearted with tidbits like, “the canal is just barely swimmable” and “glad he could share the morning with us!” upon passing a houseboat’s open bedroom blinds.

My next visit to the Dylan will hopefully be in this lifetime if it is on my dime, and there is not much I would do differently other than a couple things:

1. Have at least one lunch and one dinner in the dining room. I am all about exploring the neighbourhood and its special restaurants, however based on our a la carte/ buffet breakfast at the Dylan I am confident that the chef serves spectacular meals. Plus, the ambiance of the dining room isn’t your typical ‘feeling guilty for staying in’ hotel feel, agreed?

2. Go in the summertime. There is a brilliant garden terrace in the centre courtyard, lined by trees and made private by the surrounding hotel walls. Visit the Dylan’s image gallery to get a sense of the hours you could waste  sipping cocktails here.

Well folks that just about wraps it up. Be sure to check out my upcoming post in cities I’ve been – Amsterdam for a few picturesque sights of this one-of-a-kind city!

-S