Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Solo Travel Numero Uno

So, South Africa is not the first place I’ve travelled.
Long long before this blog was born, I had a few other adventures.
Recently, I made a list of them all. Just the blog-worthy ones.

Eventually, I may be able to make it through that entire list.
Of course, if I keep having adventures, the list will never end. What a terrible problem to have.

The first time I ever went on vacation by myself I was pretty terrified.

I had no idea how I was going to entertain myself. Would I be able to meet people, or would I turn into a quivering puddle of shyness, unable to leave my room? It was a total mystery.

At the time, I had a list of things I thought it would be good for me to do.
Included on the list:
1. Go to a movie by myself
2. Eat dinner in a restaurant by myself
3. Sing karaoke

Clearly, travelling on one’s own, without having accomplished any of these, more particularly, number 2, could lead to endless amounts of trouble. Not a small amount of which could easily be caused by low blood sugar due to not eating.

At any rate, finding myself single again, and pretty unsure of myself, I thought a trip was in order. But where to go? What to do? How to control all the uncontrollable elements?

I marched into the local travel agency, and announced that I wanted to take a cruise. A cruise, I reasoned, had many elements already all thought out for me.
· Route planned out – check.
· Meals planned out – check
· Enforced contact with other people – check
· Endless planned activities to divert ones self – check.

The travel agent was less supportive. She explained that there aren’t so many other people in the world that like to go on cruises by themselves, and therefore, there typically aren’t instant roommates waiting for a sad girl from Canada to show up.

Her helpful suggestion: Club Med. Promising. Many of the same elements as a cruise, but no limit as to the number of single people that might also be around.

For an extra charge, I could have had my own room. I decided to chance it. My impression was that either I would luck out and get a room of my own, or, I’d end up with another single girl as a roommate Bingo – instant friend.

The day finally arrived, and I headed to the airport. One connection later, I was in Cancun, waiting for the transfer to the resort. One other girl about my age was on the transfer. Majella. Dutch. Seemed nice.

However, now completely overwhelmed, I clammed up, didn’t really talk to her, and slunk to my room, too intimidated to brave the restaurant for dinner. This was not shaping up well. At all.

(Although, I was somewhat buoyed by evidence of a roommate, which upon room entry revealed that she liked flowered cover-ups, romance novels, and had brought with her a rather large box of condoms. Interesting. Said roommate was nowhere to be found. Probably putting some of those condoms to good use.)

The next morning I managed to find the restaurant, and armed with a book, choked down some breakfast. I then headed for the beach.

So far, I was a little disappointed in my complete and utter shyness, but at least on the beach I could read one of the seven, yes seven, books I had brought with me.

A few hours later, and it was only 10:30. And I’ll be real honest – I was bored, and hungry.

Sitting on the beach all day, alone, and feeling sorry for myself, apparently is not one of my favourite activities. Shit. This boded poorly. This was going to be a long week.

A very short time later, I recognized Majella pulling up a chair next to me. We exchanged some small talk. And then……

“I’m pretty hungry.”

“Me too.”

“And bored. I don’t think I can sit on this beach for a whole week.”

“Geez me neither!”

“This is going to suck.”

And then – Majella proved to be one of the smartest most wonderful women in the world:

“I’ve already asked at the front desk about renting a car. It’s only $50 a day. I was thinking of exploring. Want to come?”

Hell yes!!

Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that starting the next day, Majella and I jumped into the little red manual transmission Ford, and drove into the jungle in search of Chichen Itza. No mobile phone. No map other than the tourist jobby that had big cartoon lines instead of roads.

That night we had dinner on the beach in some beater town.

The next day – back into the jungle to find Coba – an even more impressive Inca ruin. But you have to get past the truck-sized potholes first.

That night, snorkeling in the underwater caves unique to that area of Mexico.

On the third day, we set off for the north shore of the Yucatan peninsula to see flamingos.

Despite a week-long stop in Miami on the way, Majella had never seen flamingos, and we had a hot tip that there was a massive colony of them in a game reserve to the north.

Three hours drive later, we hit the first of the flood water. The road was flooded over, but not for more than 50 feet. Majella got out of the car, slipped off her sandals, and proceeded to wade in.

“This is how we used to do it when I lived in South Africa” she explained.

“Now you can see where it is shallow enough for the car to go.”

Following her footsteps closely, I drove the little car through.

On the road again, and through a couple of tiny towns that definitely aren’t on the tourist map, we hit the second flood.

This time, I jumped out.

Wading out to my ankles, my knees, then my thighs, I looked at the scenery on either side of the road.

Hmm. Swamp. Swamp. Swamp.


“Majella – is that swamp?”


“Do you think there are alligators in that swamp.”


“Do you think the alligators will know the difference between the swamp on this side of the road, the thigh-high water that I am standing in, and the swamp on the other side of the road?”

“Shit. You better get out of there right now.”

And so ended the flamingo expedition.

At the end of the week, I had learned a few things:
1. Club Med is not for me.
2. People turn up when and where you need them.
3. Travelling on your own is the very best way to meet those people.
4. You are always braver than you think you are, and if you’re not, give yourself a break.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


DavidHelenFi, originally uploaded by hkarrandjas.

Seem like cheating to put up a photo instead of a story?
my blog.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

My Career in Steel

One summer in university, I had somehow managed to screw the pooch long enough that there weren’t many high-paid summer jobs left. Scratch that – there were no jobs left, short of the typical burger-flipping, $7 an hour grunt jobs that really don’t contribute much more than pizza money to your accumulated funds.
I needed a high-paying dream job, and I needed it fast.
Enter Rachel – my friend from the Student Union. She had a job at an aluminum factory typing letters, or something similar. Glamorous – not so much – but it paid.

In case you didn’t know it, Hamilton Ontario is also known as “Steel Town.” Didn’t get that nickname for no reason. Nossirree. Hamilton is literally jammed with steel and aluminum factories. Not near the university. No – over there it’s all coffee shops and nature trails. You’d never even know about the concrete hell that exists on the other side of town. On the other side of James Street – to be exact.
Hamilton’s one of those funny places where you can go and hang out and feel very happy and comfortable – as long as you stay west of James Street. The minute you cross over – it’s like a different world. Everything is run down, closed, or smells like urine. Even the sky gets darker and cloudier. Nope – east Hamilton is the stuff of scary scary legend.

Needless to say, my one big job hope that summer was east of James Street. Not just east, but north. North by a mile, on the slow bus. About an hour after catching my first bus, I had transferred two more busses, and walked up a factory-lined street.
The lovely thing about factories is they don’t really have inviting glass doors with potted plants to show you where the entrance is. What they do have is a lot of steel double-doors, about one set every 50 feet, all around the perimeter. Most of them have either 18-wheelers, or men smoking cigarettes outside. I picked one with smokers.
Inside I found my friend, along with a lot of other job hopefuls, and waited for instruction.
Ah – clipboards and application forms. No problemo. I scanned the sheet looking for the part where I told them how fast I could type, or take dictation, or something equally office-y.
Hmmm. Likely just a standard form. Just because there wasn’t room to share my super fantastic office experience was no reason to panic.

Next came an orientation. Everybody shake hands, say hello, hear the history of the company, which, for purposes of this story, will be known as Aluminum Casting Corporation.
Still not sure why I would be required to be familiar with the layout of the factory floor, I followed the tour.

Two things that are vital to know about an aluminum casting plant, before the tour begins:
One – it is unbearably hot inside. You know those days in summer where the humidity saps all energy out of you, and the heat greets you like a brick wall whenever you leave the safety of your air-conditioned office? Double it. Triple it.
Two – the smell of melted aluminum makes you wish you had been born with no nose. But since you were, it makes you want to rip out whichever parts of your brain process odours, and burn them. The smell is indescribable – and I’ve smelled a lot of barnyards, rendering plants, and slaughterhouses. An aluminum plant is so much worse, I cry and cry just remembering it.

Back to the tour.
“Now – over here is where the aluminum is superheated to become molten aluminum. It’s then piped through to the casting molds. Never ever come this way – it has happened before that molten aluminum has squirted out the side of the machine and….well…” awkward silence. The foreman looks at us meaningfully, then carries on. I look at my fellow tour mates – they seem slightly concerned also.
“OK – now here – just watch your step. The floor gets pretty slippery, and someone fell and broke their leg yesterday.” The mental checklist of places to get injured here is growing by the second.
“Now – this is the casting machine. This is where we take the extra aluminum off the casting. So – what you do is this…you….here you try. Fit the casting to this piece here. Now – take your hands off. Both hands. Use both hands to push these buttons. Just remember to take BOTH hands off. If you don’t, this thing’ll break your arm.” Fuck.
“…and watch out for the forklifts – they move pretty fast, and they don’t always see you.”
“…long pant legs, long sleeves, safety goggles, steel-toed boots, and heavy gloves – or the aluminum is sharp enough to slice you.”
“….need to check each piece and file them down quickly. If you see a bubble or hole – pull the piece out – otherwise it could explode when these get to the automotive plant for fitting.”

Now, I’m not a practicing Catholic. I’m not even Catholic. But at that point, I was earnestly wishing I knew how to Hail Mary and ask her to preserve me.
It was looking worse and worse for the cute little office job, and more and more like I would be joining the aluminum worker team.

Next came our training.
This consisted of standing behind a current plant employee, and watching what they did for an hour.
This is not as fun as it sounds.
My particular employee was a very sweet man. He told me about his family, and how long he’d worked at the plant, and what he liked to do on weekends. He pointed out how to keep from breaking my arms, getting sliced, melted, or run over by forklifts. As he talked, he picked up pieces of aluminum off of a conveyer belt. The aluminum had just been poured into a mold, set, and dumped onto the belt. Eldon’s job was to take those pieces (carburetors, I soon learned), and cut off the excess bits of aluminum, with the arm-breaker machine, which works kind of like a big, arm-breaking 3-hole punch.
Next, he would take the excess pieces, and throw them into a scrap bin.
He then took the carburetor and filed down any sharp edges with a big file. This was to make sure that the workers who would install the carburetor later didn’t slice their hands off on rough leftover aluminum.

All very interesting, but here’s what was going through my head.
“Wow – I can’t believe this guy does this for 12 hours a day every day. This is pretty tiring work. And you only get one half-hour lunch break? Crazy. God it smells in here. Where should I stand? I don’t want to get in this guy’s way. But I don’t want to stand to close to the arm-breaker. And if I stand over here, I’m in danger of getting run over. But if I’m over here, he can’t stack the carburetors properly. I guess I’ll just stand directly behind him. I really hope that as he’s flinging the excess pieces of jagged sharp aluminum into the scrap bin, which is also directly behind him, that he doesn’t forget that I’m here, and accidentally fling them at my head. He does this every day for 12 hours a day. Surely the routine of flinging those super sharp pieces of aluminum into the scrap bin is like breathing to him. How can he possibly remember that I’m here. Instinct will take over, he will forget I’m standing here, chuck that extra shit back, and I will end up with a lethal spike of aluminum in my forehead. Or across my jugular. Or in my eye. Oh god. Please don’t forget I’m here. Please. Please. Geez I wish I were Catholic.”

45 angst-ridden minutes later, we were able to take our lunch break. I stuck to Eldon and the new recruits like glue. On the inside I was crying. On the outside, I was trying to figure out where the ladies room might be. It then occurred to me that, other than my bitch friend Rachel, who had tricked me into coming here in the first place, there weren’t any other ladies here. There weren’t even any butchy broads. Nope. Just me. Awesome.
We completed the day with our trainers, and were asked to check the schedules to find out when our next shifts were.
Lucky me – mine was 7am the next morning. 7am to 7pm. Then, 7am to 7pm the next day. Then again, and again.
I headed outside, and found the bus.
I sucked back tears the entire bus ride home.
I climbed into bed and cried and cried.
I woke up the next morning at 5am, and started crying.
I got back on the bus, and cried my way east through the nice part of Hamilton, all the way to the factory.
I got changed in a broom closet, since there wasn’t any ladies room.
I spent 5.5 miserable hours by myself making carburetors, crying.
I wandered into the lunchroom, and noted despondently that all talking ceased when I entered. Apparently a sad looking girl in the factory was a bit of a novelty.
I finished my shift, got back on the bus, and cried all the way home.

My second full shift varied from the first very little, except that I learned my neighbour on the arm-breaking machine to the left was out on parole. Umm, yeah. Murder.
The next morning, I called the plant. I told them that physically, I couldn’t handle the job, and that I wouldn’t be coming back.

And so ended my career in the aluminum business.
For anyone who ever thought I was brave or tough or capable of anything – now you know the sad sordid truth: I was beaten by the aluminum industry. Beaten badly.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Shooting for Dummies

Check it out - the video evidence of "Shooting 101"

Friday, May 16, 2008

Hot Ankle Plague

So, one thing I noticed, is that men in Africa have hot ankles.

I don’t mean that you’d look at their ankles and feel a little quiver in your loins, and suddenly and inexplicably feel that you are madly in lust with their ankle-bones.

I mean they must physically have ankle joints that are overheating. But only their ankles. Or at least, more so than their knees or calves.

How have I made this astute observation?

By astutely observing, of course.

Faced with a cancelled flight out of Zambia, necessitating a trip to the airport “restaurant,” and then a further one hour delay while the now not-cancelled-but-instead-delayed flight arrived, I had a couple of gin and tonics (in Africa, “couple” equals “four”).

Because there were no seats left in the wildly overcrowded departure lounge, and having just spent $200 in the airport store on a bunch of children’s pillowcases with warthogs on them (don’t ask), I smartly decided to sit down on the last patch of remaining floor space, and not drink anymore gin and tonics, not spend any more money.

From that vantage point, I saw the first evidence of the ankle-overheating ailment plaguing men travelling in Zambia.

Everywhere I looked, another man appeared to be suffering.

Everywhere I looked, women stood idly by, as if they didn’t realize the agony their men were in.

Everywhere I looked, men had ill-advisedly come to some sort of solution on their own.

Yes, everywhere I looked, men had found a way to combat the hot ankle plague.

Capri pants.

Just then, a mild, unassuming, and sadly smitten young man strolled by me in Capri’s.

I shuddered, and tried to erase the picture from my memory.

Then suddenly, my visual cortex – now programmed to register other similarly-clad men – lit up like a Christmas tree. They were everywhere.

They were coming out of the woodwork.

There were men in Capri’s all over that airport, and god knows how many more outside.

This was serious. A veritable pandemic.

Obviously these poor men were having overheating issues with their ankles. But just their ankles. Their calves and knees appeared unaffected. How else to explain why they could not wear full trousers, yet tragically, had also not opted for shorts? Only a man in ankle-overheated desperation would turn to the absurdist of leg coverings – the Capri man-pant.

Of course, because I am an intrepid photojournalist, seeking always to bring you only the most relevant, most newsworthy stories, with visual evidence, I took a few snaps.

And so here I give you:

Crisis Zambia: Hot Ankle Plague 2007 (insert appropriate CNN-type music here)

This man - not content with the trouser-to-short option, planned ahead for the crisis, opting for a third zip-off option - Capri's.

Actually, these are some random Russian dudes and their classy girlfriends hogging the bar. No Capri's, but amusing, nonetheless.

Security - stop that man!

I told you....everywhere. Let's hope it's contained to the African continent, and doesn't go all SARS on our asses.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Lost Posts

OK – so I got back from Africa right before Christmas. Now it’s May.
Things got a little crazy, a little hectic, as they’d say in Jozi. I may have rearranged some priorities when I got home, and Mr. Blog fell down a couple of notches.
However – there are a few posts that never got posted. And there are always new posts to add.
So…for one week and one week only, I’m posting some of the “lost posts.” Consider it
May Sweeps – you know – to get you all hooked on the series again.
Then we’ll see how I do acting like a tourist in my own town, finding the blogworthy stories back in the Great White North.
So I’m Going to South Africa. Redux.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The best trip yet

Exactly two years ago today I met the sweetest little boy in Karachi, Pakistan.
I’d flown half way around the world for only one reason: to meet him.
He didn’t have a name just yet, but his mom was pretty sure she knew what she was going to call him. It was the name she’d been thinking of for a little boy since she was young.
For those three weeks I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life – meeting wonderful people, seeing beautiful places, and becoming a
Today, he’s a bopping two year old, full of life, and darn smart.
And he’s going to be a big brother. Correction: he’s going to be a great big brother.
Knowing how long the journey was to bring him home, and how loved his new little siblings will be, I cried buckets when she called to tell me the amazing news.
I am so happy for him and my dear friend and her husband and family.
I wish every story had just as happy an ending.

Eid mubarak.