I have found my Freedom in the United States

December 30th, 2016

Travel Writing AwardUnited States

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Personal Freedom Through Language In France

The walk from the jet to Arrivées was like a second trip down the birth canal. The anxiety. The newness. Out from the panorama of windows and light, the director of my university’s French exchange program approached, arms waiting.

“Bonjour!” Carolyn said.

It was an early afternoon in February 2002 in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. I was 21 and had flown to France once before. That red eye had been my first trip outside the United States, and as an experience, it was an impressionistic view of the life of French people. This other journey would be deeper: eight months of the unknown, eight months of feeling like a fool every time I spoke. I had never had Carolyn as a professor and didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable falling apart before her.

“Ça va?” she asked.

I was okay, but not completely. I dripped sweat from wearing several pullovers I couldn’t fit into the suspiciously cheap luggage I had recently purchased. The luggage also didn’t have wheels, so I had to lean back hard to keep upright and stop every few feet to take a break. I would have liked to joke about it or at least explain the situation in detail, but I pushed my hair from my face and sighed.

“Bonjour!” I said, with mustered vivacity. “Ça va bien.”

Before arriving in Paris, I had read a stack of ex-pat narratives. The books were useful, but I felt abandoned in that none of these authors talked about the initial period of trouble with the language. Since I was there to improve my French, language ability felt the metric of my worth. Carolyn transmitted a fast-flowing cascade of pretty sounds. I, in contrast, could not assemble a coherent sentence despite six years of studying. Dad’s words “What? Are you going to work at a CVS in Quebec?” when I told him I would be studying French came to me in a wave of shame. My fight or flight organs filled with blood as I stood before Carolyn, a monument of worldliness I hoped to be.

Out of the banlieue surrounding Paris’ core, the shuttle driver flew and then plunged into the smaller streets on the Right Bank. I thought there might be an initial few ornamental sentences in French and then Carolyn would take mercy on me. Instead she filled me in on a play by Ionesco concerning the false worship of language that we were scheduled to see that night, and while she spoke, I nodded and replied, “Bien!”—“Good!” But then it became unclear to me whether the correct response was “Bien!” or “Bon!”

“Bien is an adverb, and bon is an adjective,” I thought.

Or were they both adverbs and adjectives? The battle of bien and bon consumed me, overtaking the importance of the content of what Carolyn was saying.

“Nous sommes ici,” she said.

“Eh?”

“We are here,” I translated a few beats too late to respond normally.

Dad visited months later. When he arrived, he swaggered through Arrivées wearing a stained sweatshirt, a Red Sox cap, holey jeans, and old work boots.

“I thought about it,” he said. “Maybe I should wear something super fancy because, y’know, it’s Paris, but then I decided, Forget it!—and I decided to be comfortable.”

At that point, I had become better acclimated to life in Paris. I had sanded off my usual beaming American smile and was speaking French more fluently. Although I was happy to see Dad, I tucked myself inside myself when he spoke so loudly.

Later that week the two of us took the train to the Palace of Versailles. Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens and Grand Canal to the west were so expansive there was a haze covering it in the distance. I looked over, expecting to see Dad looking unimpressed, but instead, I noticed him crying.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to support you with all this kind of stuff,” he said. “You deserved more.”

French came of age as the tongue of the elite and a world of culture while I, on the other hand, grew up in a working class household that didn’t have power and didn’t appreciate culture. French symbolized the refinement I longed for, but it was spoken by everyday people, too, and here it was becoming a thing to respect for my father, who had until then been happy to laugh at it, and my choice for choosing it as a manner to define myself.

I hugged Dad hard. Through French, he could see me, and I looked and saw him. I stopped worrying about his old work boots. We started joking and talking at our volume.

“Let’s go check out some statues,” he said.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

In the Delightful Company of Me

The sun had set. The patch of sky above the mountain range was painted shades of yellow. Before, it was orange, lilac, light blue and then dark blue. The moon glowed between pink clouds.

I was alone, at candle light, behind a book with me as my only company.

It was my last night as a volunteer in an intentional community in the mountains above Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. Yves, the founding member of the community, bought the 90 acres of degraded land 12 years ago. He has been working towards turning it into a productive site, both for humans to live sustainably as well as to promote biodiversity and create a healthy, growing ecosystem. Over the years many volunteers has come and gone to help and for the past three a community of resident members has established.

Everyone had gone down to town for the weekend, just as they had the weekend I arrived. I decided to stay.

At the time I had struggled. I had been traveling by myself for 5 months, volunteering in farms and communities like this one. I loved it, but seemed to find myself among couples again and again . When night came, I was always alone. And there I was again, in the company of me.

When they arrived it didn’t get better. Some people there were handling their own personal issues and they would bicker with each other and hardly talk to me all day. I had work to do in the morning, that I liked, but felt I was alone all the time. Community and loneliness don’t seem to match, but that was exactly how I felt the first days: lonely among people.

So why had I decided to do the same on my last night? Because somewhere in those two weeks I fell into place. My place. I embraced everything.

I created my own moments that didn’t need anyone else: listening to the sound of a hummingbird before I saw the bright green and blue of its wings, as I was squatting in the garden smelling the arugula; the taste of strawberries and uvillas picked straight from the trees, filling my mouth as I walked to the greenhouse; gazing in awe at the Andes range in all its colors and heights, spreading in front of me as I read, as I ate, as I cooked, as I talked, as I weeded, as I trimmed, as I plastered,

I learned everything but expected nothing. I marveled at the mountain library they had created, and its “living books”. Books on gardening with earth between the leaves, books on cheese making with mould on the edges, recipe books with grease stains, books on earth building with mud on the cover, books on animal cutting spotted with blood.

I focused on the keenness of some, rather than the negativity of others. I listened carefully to Yves enthusiasm talking about the plants. He spoke of “giving love” as he explained how I should weed them, trim them and compost them.

I realized I could adapt better to any situation and that that skill was growing, every day.

I don’t know if the general mood shifted at the same time, or if I just responded differently to it, but my second week there flew by and I actually wished for some time alone in the end. When everyone went down the mountain to town on Saturday, I stayed.

I wanted to say goodbye properly. I wanted to finish my book from the mountain library. I wanted to thank nature for the explosion of colors at sunset every day. Every day different. I wanted to sit in that room without windows looking at the stars. I wanted to tell myself, with no one around: “You did this. You found your place and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You are free.”

Share your story of gratitude in our Independence Travel Writing Contest. Free Entry. Cash Prizes.

Hit the Road in The USA, Jack (or Jill)

Whenever it comes to vacation time, the question is always, “Plane, train, ship, bus tour or car?” And, nine times out of ten, the answer will be, “Car!” I’ll take a road trip over a pre-booked tour, cruise or plane ride anytime.

It’s all about freedom and flexibility. Think about it. From preparing and packing for the trip to arriving home, it is just so much simpler. No weight restrictions for luggage means no second guessing about whether you really need to pack that sweater or jacket ‘just in case.’ Eat when and where you want to (and save some cash) by packing your plug-in cooler with favourite snacks and drinks. Afraid they won’t have your favourite cereal at the hotel’s included breakfast? Bring your own and use the always-in-the-room mini fridge to overnight your cooler’s perishables. And nothing beats driving down an open road, all windows in the car wide open, tunes cranked up.

Most of my favourite vacations have been driving expeditions. Over the last 40 years, I’ve left my home in the southern most part of Canada and hit the road to explore. Seven cross country treks, taking a different route each time, allowed me to visit all but three of the United States. (Okay, Alaska wasn’t a road trip, but it still counts.) By taking a northern route and not crossing the U.S./Canada border until I reached Vancouver, I experienced the beauty of Canada’s western provinces. From open plains with nary a tree in sight to majestic mountains, my home country really has a lot to offer the road trip traveler.

One of the most memorable tours took me from upstate New York through the New England States and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A quaint little inn in Vermont where I ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the container – because you can’t go to Vermont without staying at an inn or eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and who needs a bowl, anyway. Getting lost several times in Connecticut – how can one get lost in such a small state? Whale watching out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Getting my fill of seafood in Maine. Fishing in the Bay of Fundy. All things that I would not have been able to do if I were travelling by plane, bus or train.

Road trips can also mean not sticking to a rigid schedule. They allow you to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Or take an extra day to enjoy the concert along the river that you didn’t know about until you landed in town. On a round-about road trip this past spring to Orlando, Florida, I happened to stop in a little town in Casey, Illinois. Who knew it was the home of some of the largest things in the world? The world’s largest rocking chair (over 56 feet tall), the world’s largest golf tee (30 feet tall), the world’s largest wind chime (56 feet tall), and so much more. It was a great, fun place to stop and fill the tank and have a cup of tea. Taking a break from the open road for even an hour or two refreshes and allows you to continue on your way with a spring in your step – especially if you’ve just visited the world’s largest wooden shoes. It’s all about freedom – and flexibility.

Take this summer, for example. I’m planning a road trip to visit friends who live along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. I’m hoping to do some family history research in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York at the beginning of my trip and then head on up to their place near Morrisburg, Ontario. However, since I’ve never visited the Eastern Townships of Quebec, located between Montreal and the Vermont border, and I’ve been reading a series of great mystery books set in that area, I thought, why not visit this summer when I’m only 2 hours away. I went online to look for what was happening in the area, lo and behold, there’s a pre-launch party for the author’s latest book! If I had been tied to a bus tour – many of which are available – I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to meet one of my favourite Canadian authors.

I know that many women (and some men) do not feel safe when travelling alone, especially by car. However, I believe that if one takes appropriate precautions – staying in reputable places, leaving quickly when a situation looks iffy, making sure one has an automobile road side service plan – it can be a joyful, freeing experience. Why not hit the road, Jack (or Jill) and discover the freedom?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

ABORIGINAL DREAM TIME IN AUSTRALIA

The air around us reverberated with the deep tones of the didgeridoo and the Tjapukai aboriginals stamped and gyrated to its beat. Their ebony bodies adorned with traditional vibrant body art. Soon it was our turn to get painted and we felt the cool swish of a paint brush as it added colour to our faces. Bright bands of colour sourced from local materials; ochre and iron clay pigments of red, yellow and white, and black from charcoal. We felt part of something special and free of any encumbrance we might have brought with us.

Next it was time to take the flickering tiki lit pathway to the site where the fire ceremony would take place. With great dexterity a spark was kindled from a spinning stick which in turn lit a handful of dry vegetation. The fire was coaxed into life and soon flames were leaping high in the air. Then after much dancing and chanting a marksman took a bow and shot a lighted arrow into the darkness. It symbolised our entry into ‘dream time’ and our exploration into the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on earth -between 50,000 and 65,000 years.

In story time we learnt that In the beginning all earth lay sleeping. Nothing moved and nothing grew. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her deep slumber underground. She slithered and wended her way over the land creating awesome patterns with her long winding body. When she returned full circle she called to the fat frogs who were filled with water. She tickled them until they convulsed with laughter and the water within them gushed out and filled her winding tracks. These became the rivers and along their banks grew grass and trees. Animals and birds awoke and followed the rainbow serpent across the land. They were happy. The Rainbow Serpent made laws. Those that kept the laws were given human form. Those who broke the law were turned to stone. And so the dream time continues

Through song and dance we continued our journey as the ancient totems of the rainforest tribes of Queensland pounded their beat and the deep throated tones of the didgeridoo added base pulsating undertones. From the excitement of a kangaroo hunt to foraging in the forest, from primitive fishing with line and hook in the ocean to tribal art which exploded in colour and often included the characteristic dot effect which also adorned their dark glistening bodies. There was plenty on display and more adorned everyday items around us and now that we had learnt about dreamtime the stories they told took on a whole new meaning.

There was plenty of interaction and this new found freedom seemed a world away from life back in the hotel in Cairns. There was feasting with a selection of items which would not normally feature on our table. Many of which were unfamiliar. Fortunately they did not include wriggling grubs! Many were fresh berries and fruits which we found delicious; the like of which are now just a distant memory. Australia has many experiences to offer but an evening spent with its indigenous people was for me one of its highlights.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A STORY OF SELF-EMANCIPATION IN THE UK

The biggest lottery in the world is having no chance to choose where you’re born. God blesses us with travelling; we can riot against the national communities who always try to classify us according to our physical appearance, cultural background, and beliefs. As you can see above, they are just talking about you and no one ever asks you how you define yourself. No one has ever asked me how I defined myself. I felt I needed them to question me to tell them who I actually am. But everything irreversibly changed in January 2016 after I was nominated by the Erasmus Plus Exchange Program to go Bournemouth in the UK.

Frankly speaking, I had concerns before the program began. The Erasmus Exchange isn’t the kind of travel journey that I am used to. It includes meeting international people, studying and living abroad! I was the princess of my house (read “kingdom”) and I had never cooked , paid bills or even taken the trash out! What kind of princess would I be during my exchange? Cinderella?

Eventually, after Erasmus was over, I realised that we all need to grow up. It might suck but it’s much more delightful than fairytales. Notably, every single moment of my post-Erasmus life was like the short movies I write, direct and act in. The very first fılm was when Bournemouth University invited me to a Skype interview and asked: “Why would you like to come to Bournemouth University?”. The answer was simple, their great academic media background. Suddenly I felt this wasn’t my belief. I didn’t want to repeat others’ belief. My answer must depict my soul.

“I think I need to get out my comfort zone and experience multiculturalism in an academic environment.”

Bournemouth lived up to my expectations instantly. Talking about scuba diving, I met my first Thai friends at the beach. The fine sand we build castles together actually comes from Sahara, a Maltese guy who studies geography told us. He also explained to me Maltese culture while we were enjoying the sunset on the pier and now I think that Malta is more than an ex-colonial island. It’s actually the coolest country, which has a Facebook page that only Maltese citizens can join. The Dutch have their own Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas. Egypt shouldn’t be visited just for pyramids. Experiencing the post-revolution atmosphere is highly recommended. The Portuguese navigate your palate with their bakery skills. I’m still dreaming about the “pastel de nata” I ate while I was imparting the Turkish are Anatolians not actually European, Asian or Middle Eastern.

Watching the Eurovision whilst drinking delicious Caribbean cocktails in Turtle Bay was another unforgettable moment. This event became more entertaining in a multicultural student city. Although Turkey didn’t compete this year; the Ukrainian winning song had a Turkish chorus. When they asked me what the chorus meant I had no idea what kind of discussion would start after they learnt its significance. Even though Erasmus is such a marvelous experience we missed our friends and family and soothed each other saying that we will see them again. Beside us, many people had to leave their homeland behind because of the political uncertainty. In that point we reached a consensus that there is only one condition required to declare a person free, can he or she take a journey with a guarantee to come back home?

The unbearable lightness of volunteering, withal, in Bournemouth… I’ve what I never imagined myself doing before modeling in a fashion show for a charity, which supports children with mental disabilities. The moment I saw those children and their families smiling at me while I was walking the podium for them, I felt I complete. I discovered one of my personal goals: build your inner strength to share it with people in need. I would like to help my own president who says, if a woman is not going to have children she’ll be seen as a deficient woman. Obviously, he has a really needy character and he acts conservative about independency of women in Turkey and tries to create a new social mentality against women to weaken them. He should be aware that if I’m not going to be a biological mother of a child, I can practice my maternal instincts with the children who need me the most as a peaceful mind and a strong, independent woman.

At the end of the six months, I realised my nationality is not enough to define my personality. I should never accept dependency even to my own family. We all deserve freedom; we’re all supposed to be free. I am everyone else and everyone else is just like me. To call me as a princess is unjust to my individuality.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Be Free in The Egyptian Red Sea

The Red Sea. A place for world-class diving in warm, gin-clear waters. It is a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers of all ages, a honeymoon destination for happy couples and an affordable beach resort for families.

‘The Red Sea. A place of adventure, somewhere to escape to and enjoy ocean giants such as whale sharks and thriving coral reefs.’

I muttered brochure descriptions to myself as I stood at the water’s edge, weighed down with scuba equipment and my heart racing with fear. Curling my toes into the golden sand, I dug deep to find courage and prepared to dive for the one hundredth time. Sheer obstinacy had carried me to this moment as a thirty-something trainee scuba instructor with a chronic fear of being underwater. I looked back at the palms lining the beach and thought of my old life in England. I had given it all up to be there, to conquer my fear and run towards a life in the ocean.

The beauty of travel isn’t just the exotic destinations, diverse wildlife and cultures that are explored. It is the opportunity to step away from daily life and experience a journey on many levels that makes travel so irresistible. People find themselves when they pack up a suitcase and leap into the unknown. Travel pushes beyond the impossible to where dreams are created.

As I descended towards the sand below me I thought of my dreams and breathed bubbles up to the surface. Months of hypnotherapy and visualization practices came to mind and my hand shook as I checked my depth gauge. I would put all I had worked toward for three years into practice and find my freedom. There was no going back, failure was not an option. The metres ticked by as I descended and admired vibrant tropical fish and soft corals that swayed gently in the current. A small torpedo ray glided past and ignored me, in search of its next meal in the sand.

I stopped, knelt on the sand and nodded at my dive buddy. He knew why we were there, what the moment symbolized. As we drifted with the current once more I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pulled my scuba mask off. Panic threatened to engulf me and my throat tightened but I held on to the moment. I stilled my mind, opened my eyes to the world and eventually I smiled. I could see nothing more than sand and turquoise water, I had lost all sense of the world around me but I could feel the water against my face.

I was truly alive at the Red Sea. I was without limits and finally I knew what it was to be me.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Visiting our Fantastic Children in Mon-ten-e-gro!

The plan was for my husband and me to visit Belgrade, Serbia together. He was nine-months clean and we were excited to visit his youngest daughter at her first international internship at University of Belgrade in summer 2016.

Then I returned from a trip to New Orleans with my biological children in April; a trip to celebrate milestones in their young adult lives. He was supposed to go too; knew how much I counted on the four of us traveling together to help heal still-raw wounds suffered from his last relapse. But two days before we left for The Big Easy, he suddenly fell ill and said he couldn’t travel. The day we returned to Cleveland, flush from adventures we eagerly shared, I discovered the bag of syringes, skin-toned make-up, and baggie of brown rock he hadn’t even bothered to hide. “Yes,” he admitted glumly. “I’m using again. But I’ll stop.”

The numb nod of my head as my brain flipped to autopilot. “You know what you need to do.” The despair in his eyes as he dutifully packed a few things and left.

I never considered not going to visit Anne. After all, my husband and I had traveled with all of our children and stepchildren every summer while they were growing up. Since they started interning and working, we’ve made it a point to visit them in every location they’ve stayed. It’s true Belgrade would be the furthest, priciest kid zone yet, and this time, I was in the midst of selling the house, most of my possessions, while job searching and hammering out a legal separation, so the timing wasn’t great.

Or was it?

For once it was Anne and me alone time. She suggested itineraries for me while she worked in Belgrade, and created a Google spreadsheet for us to plan our big side trip to a bordering country. But which one? It was her discussion with Serbian locals that informed her request for us to visit Montenegro, and when I saw the options on the Google spreadsheet, I was all in.

For the first time, I was interacting with my youngest stepdaughter as an equal, not as a responsibility. She suggested taking the overnight bus to Montenegro, and right after we arrived at our Air B&B in Kotor and heard about the unreliable buses, I decided to rent a car.

Our first outing, to the Njegos Mausoleum perched on a mountain in Lovcen National Park, was up a narrow switchback road with 25 hairpin turns. As I began the trek, re-acclimating myself after a 15-year absence of driving stick, stalling out twice in bumper-to bumper traffic in Kotor, Anne immediately assumed the role of navigator and cheerleader. When I drove for three hours north for a white water rafting trip on the Tara River, she was the one who discovered someone else had booked our Kotor room for the evening. She found an alternative online in Risa, with a sea view, and snagged it on the late afternoon drive back.

By this time, Anne was singing the word Mon-ten-e-gro! every time a new challenge presented itself. On the bus ride from Belgrade to Kotor, she had to pay 50 Serbian dinar to use a Turkish bathroom? Mon-ten-e-gro! The road from Njegos Mausoleum to Cetinje, the only road to get to our next stop, was closed for the next three hours for a car race? Mon-ten-e-gro! We treked at least a kilometer down a previously two-way seaside road that had morphed into a one-way, and I was driving the wrong way? Mon-ten-e-gro! The Air B&B Anne found for us in Risan had a killer view from the veranda, but our room was a closet with a mildewed bathroom. Mon-ten-e-gro!

I had wondered if it would seem strange to either of us that I was there and her father wasn’t. But it didn’t. We didn’t talk much about him. Heavy thinking wasn’t what this trip was about. It was about cementing my relationship with a remarkable 21-year-old whom I’ve helped raise since she was five-years-old. It was about letting her know that I’m family, for now and always, no matter what happens with her father. It was about two capable women planning our way in an uncertain world, embracing every aspect of our special adventure.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Because we both know by now that we can’t control the world around us, only our reactions to it. (God, grant me the serenity…) We have given ourselves the freedom to lead our own lives without becoming swallowed up by the addiction of a man we both love. And while we are both there for dad/husband while he tries to straighten himself out, we will not let his addiction define us.

Mon-ten-e-gro!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

A boat in the Majestic Greek Islands

I think I had too much. Too many “places to be”, too many people “You just have to talk to, Gina”, too many minutes full of too much.

I had left university, I had gone straight to London with my creative partner and I had landed directing my first national TV commercial within three months. The glitzy London media scene became my life. I was moving in their circles, drinking their old fashioned’s and pretending to be interested in all their success stories. A world as interesting as it’s people and at twenty one years young I looked like I had it all. But I didn’t want that much. That world is was private VIP Party to me. Which sure, is fun for the first few months. But after a while you just want to dance like an idiot with your mates in that shitty pub down the road.

A few years and a hundred brilliant but stressful hours in Advertising later, I made a decision. I told my business parter I was leaving. I was going to live with my Aussie boyfriend on a boat in The Greek Islands. I was going to show people the beauty of the mediterranean. I was going to have time. Have space. Have less. She already knew.

I left with a suitcase, a laptop, a fear of the ocean and no clue about boats.

Fast forward four months and here I am. Sitting in an old fishing bay eating Anchovies and Greek Salad. I’m wearing the same cotton dress I wear most days, it’s 30 degrees and i’m writing my blog. Twelve hours is stretched ahead of me with only an hours drive to the next island village.

I can see my best friend and business partner killing it right now. Hustling the creative media world of Soho and i’m happy for her. I miss her. I miss the people, I miss the tolerance of the city and I miss the energy. But, I don’t miss the lifestyle we had.

I don’t miss opportunities only being available to me if I chew some rich, greying mans ear off over a drink that cost me an hours work. One that he will refresh in the hopes that i’ll stick around a little longer, so that he can finally talk about himself.

I prefer finding my opportunities myself- like writing this. I’ll sit in my little den, in my little boat with my little notebook next to me while I listen to the fish nibbling the bottom of the hull.
I want peace and power, not powerful men giving me pieces of advice.

But it’s not the space to create my own opportunities that gives me freedom. It’s not the ocean I live on, or the space I have. It’s not even travelling that really makes me feel free.

It’s not having any idea what the hell I’m going to do after this.

I find freedom in not having it all worked out. In not being able to picture where i’ll be next year. A five year plan is no longer in my lexicon. I find freedom in the moments when i’m worrying about how i’ll make money after this adventure. I find freedom in saying “I’m not really sure” when people ask me what I want to do for a “proper job”. In that space there is nothing but myself and my ideas. Noting else can make a decision for me. Nothing else can tell me what to do next. I find freedom in a unplanned future. I find freedom in the fear of the unknown and that my friends, is exhilarating.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Introducing myself in the USA

As humans, we need to quickly categorize the information we take in so we can make sense of things, and ultimately make decisions. Bali: spiritual; Delhi: chaotic; drunk guy at bar: steer clear. I’ve become acutely aware of this with dating profiles, which is essentially a list of labels we give ourselves… outdoorsy, adventurous, foodie, movie-lover, book worm. We tell people how to perceive us so they can decide if we’re worth pursuing. With such a short window to catch someone’s attention, these words carry a lot of weight. But labels are funny things.

For years my label was “responsible, West LA marketing manager.” I liked what it represented (stable, accomplished), but it really didn’t suit me. I started resenting it, and the job that came with it. After stewing in discontent longer than I should have, I changed labels, becoming the single woman who gave up her career to volunteer, travel and write about it. After reading many travel blogs, I learned the “quit your job to travel” label was as ubiquitous as shirtless photos on Tinder. Except I was a 39-year-old in a 20-something backpacker world, not something I was all together comfortable with. Sometimes I wanted to pull the damn label off; other times I clung to it for dear life. I sacrificed a lot for this travel thing, and for better or worse, I was going to make it stick.

During my 15 months of globetrotting, I picked up a few consulting clients. It wasn’t intentional, but as it happened, I liked the sound of “digital nomad.” It became my Goldilocks label. Not as seemingly carefree and irresponsible as “quit my job to travel,” but more exciting than “corporate marketing manager.” This one felt pretty good.

But then I came home at the end of 2014. Turns out the word “nomad” doesn’t work when you’re living within 50 miles of where you grew up, so in order to maintain my status, I convinced myself and others that my situation was temporary. My stuff was still in boxes, I was building my client base and I would hit the road again soon. I made good on that promise when I was contracted to work at the Cannes Film Festival. Phew! I could proudly sport my nomadic label once again, but then I felt conflicted because “glamorous Cannes” didn’t sit well next to “volunteer in India.” I kept attempting to categorize myself so I knew who I was, which became fuzzier the more I tried to figure it out. How could those coexist? In which box did I belong?

When I decided to return to Buenos Aires earlier this year, a place that had given me such joy 18 months prior, it was to stamp my digital nomad card again. I needed to prove this lifestyle I had chosen was sustainable. During those two months I spent a lot of time alone, away from comforting distractions, wondering if I could really make it work. Wondering if I WANTED to make it work. Hell, what kind of life did I actually want? Cue the anxiety storm.

Could all this travel be a means of escape? Was I running away from things I didn’t want to deal with, and questions I was afraid to answer? Yikes. “Escapee” was NOT the label I wanted to display.

I mistakenly thought not being tied to a location meant I was free. I could choose where, when and how long. Turns out, by chasing this so-called freedom around the globe, I was really just collecting labels and putting myself in different boxes. Boxes and freedom sound counterintuitive because they are.

I’m starting to understand freedom comes from not *needing* labels; from being comfortable with the fact that I’m a mish-mash of so many things, some of which contradict each other. I’m not a neat little package, and I’d venture to guess no one else is either.

Labels are a problem when they become something we need to live up to, or hide behind. Sure we use them to make sense of the world, but we need to recognize when they’re running the show—when they’re wearing US.

So here I am, a former corporate marketer who quit her job to travel, now living in suburbia. I have no idea how long I’ll be here or what’s next, and that freaks me the hell out, but I know I won’t find answers “out there.” People will want to categorize me, and I understand that, so I need to be ok with the “I don’t have a friggin’ clue” badge right now. It’s not comfortable or sexy, but it’s the truth.

In the meantime, I’ll keep swiping left on those shirtless photos. Some labels are extra sticky.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.