Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Explore the Egyptian Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I could be making a very random reference here, but I'm hoping at least some readers will remember a fun children's film produced by the happy people at Sesame Street entitled "Please Don't Eat the Pictures". In this movie, the cast of Sesame Street, including the children, the adults, and all the puppets, spend a lovely day visiting New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the end of the day, Big Bird cannot find his friend Snuffalupagus, and sneaks back into the museum to connect with him. Snaffus and shenanigans ensue, and the entire cast ends up being locked in the museum overnight.

It really is a great film, full of information about the artists and artworks featured in the museum, and how museums construct their exhibits. However, the section of the movie that reverberated for me as a child and through time, is when Big Bird and Snuffy explore the recreated masterpiece of the Temple of Dendur.

The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts

I was enthralled by this structure. I have always been a fan of Egyptology, and seeing a full-sized Egyptian chamber rebuilt inside a New York museum fascinated me. So when I had the opportunity in 2009 to visit New York, I ensured that I slated a day at the museum in my itinerary. It was recommended that visitors to the museum arrive early, as the museum can get pretty crowded in the late afternoon. However, my friend and I meandered through Central Park before finding the museum, and so arrived just before lunch. The museum wasn't busy, though. In fact, due to the size of the building and the abundance of rooms and viewing areas, often my friend and I seemed to be the only ones there! We paid the admission (which afterwards I learned was a "recommended" admission, but not entirely "necessary" - but it all goes to a good cause, so I didn't mind paying) and entered. Of course, I made a beeline straight for the Egyptian room.

An Egyptian sarcophagus, housed in the Met.

Finding the Temple of Dendur was not as straight-forward as I'd imagined. There is a temple available for exploration immediately upon entering the Egyptian wing, the Mastaba Tomb of Perneb. It is small and claustrophobic, but it does work as a lovely introduction to some of the historic and magical things contained within the permanent collection. After following a series of connected rooms, filled with statues, broken slabs of stone covered in hieroglyphics, and even sarcophagi, I found the room which housed the Temple of Dendur. I give the exhibit designers props: this room made the already magnificent temple seem to breathe with a life of its own.

The room is vast, with large glass windows that allow the natural light to stream through. The temple is set upon a huge stone dais, surrounded by peaceful water, papyrus plants growing from the pool. Visitors are allowed to enter the temple, take photographs, and generally enjoy the space. It has been part of the museum's collection since 1978.

Standing outside the Temple of Dendur.

If you have the opportunity to travel to New York, do not miss your chance to stop by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are so many wonderful pieces of art housed within its walls; the Temple of Dendur is only one item among thousands worth seeing. But for sure, make sure you enter the temple and marvel at the fact that we can travel through time, if only by stepping into the past physically.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Visit the Tower of London's Creepy London Dungeon Wax Museum

When I was sixteen, I went to England to visit a pen pal. I'd been writing to my friend Graeme from the age of 11 or 12, when I'd met him at a family friend's birthday party. I thought it was terribly exciting that I had a friend in England, and even more so when I found out I was able to visit him the summer before I began Grade 11!

The London Bridge, although this isn't the original one.

Graeme lived in a suburb of London, not that close to the central or downtown area. We were only sixteen and unable to get away to do a great deal of sightseeing on our own, but we managed to see some fun things. I was able to go shopping in the famous department store Harrod's, where I bought an army-print mini-dress (of which I never, ever wore beyond the fitting room!). Graeme and I walked across the Tower Bridge. I was a bit depressed to hear that it wasn't the REAL, original London Bridge, as that one had been sent in bits and pieces to somewhere in the United States. However, the bridge there now is still just as impressive and beautiful.

For my sixteen-year-old self, the highlight of our London sightseeing adventures was visiting the Tower of London, infamous for its stint as prison and torture headquarters of London. We didn't even go see the Crown Jewels (what was I thinking??).

Waiting in line to visit the Tower of London

We headed straight for the London Dungeon, a wax museum of indescribable gore, to witness how the royal family brought justice to their lands, and ensured their power remained stable. The displays showed, in graphic detail, how English lords and royalty kept the people in their power by torture, murder, and other disturbing displays of power.

I was enthralled. Yes, some of the displays looked a little fake, but overall, they made a lasting impression. Looking back at my photographs, the place was as morbid as it gets. But I didn't leave a single display un-photographed. I posed in front of 'dead' bodies, captured the 'running blood', and played with angles and lighting to capture the effects of each display... I guess I was a bit of a dark person in high school! Graeme patiently played along, but he didn't seem to be in the same frame of mind as me. Overall, it was a fun experience.

Goofing around in the Tower of London's wax museum.

Next time I go to London, I would definitely return to the Tower - maybe I would check out the London Dungeon again, but for sure I would ensure I visited the Crown Jewels and met the Tower ravens!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Explore the Catacombs Beneath the City of Paris

In April of 2010, I took my school kids on a field trip that no sane teacher in her right mind would take kids on - but since I'm not exactly the most sane person, this was a field trip perfect for me!

For a year and a half, since early 2009, I had been planning an international field trip for my students with a company called Explorica, hoping to be one of the first junior high groups in our school district to be allowed to travel under school sanction to another country. Many high schools had done this before, but not a group with the age range of my students. I wrote an eleven-page proposal, sent many (annoying) emails, and finally got my way! Our school's first "Travel Club" was headed to London, Paris, Italy, and Rome on a 10-day whirlwind trip! I will expand more on some of the adventures we had during this learning vacation, but I want to focus now on one of my favorite moments in the trip, a moment where I was very happy to check something off my bucket list: the Catacombs of Paris.

Bones, bones, bones - that's what's hiding under the streets of Paris.

For about eight months prior to the trip, I had been gearing students up about the catacombs. It wasn't a planned sight-seeing stop on our itinerary, but I REALLY wanted to see them. They are a bit morbid, considering they are a network consisting of miles and miles of tunnels under the city of Paris, and some of those tunnels were used to transfer and store dead bodies from overflowing cemeteries during certain periods in Parisian history. The Catacombs at Denefert-Rochereau are the only legally accessible parts of the catacomb tunnels, and have artfully arranged remains lining the tunnel walls: crosses made of skulls, altars of bones, and other such 'pieces'. I showed videos and pictures to my students, did some creative scenarios in which we were lost in the catacombs, and finally, after eight months, I had about 90% of my group convinced that exploring the tunnels was going to be the greatest part of our trip.

The Catacombs of Paris feature morbid designs such as this, complete with bullet-riddled skulls.

When we arrived in Paris, we naturally did a full day of sight-seeing immediately. Our adventures there must be reserved for another post, as I managed to check off several items from my Travel Bucket List. However, on our second day in Paris, our tour guide allowed us some free time in the evening to see sights that weren't included on our original itinerary. Naturally, myself and over half of my group chose to visit the Catacombs.

Markers such as this tell us where the Paris Catacombs bones were disinterred from.

Our group of about 17 navigated the Paris subway system independently, and were quite proud when we made it successfully to the 14th arrondissement, the neighborhood of the Catacombs entrance. However, after exiting the subway station, we had no idea where to go. Luckily for us, people in Paris are more than willing to help 17 lost-looking tourists!

We were directed to 1 Place Denfert-Rochereau, which was on a street corner: a small, dark-green building with a single door and a tiny plaque overhead that stated simply: Les Catacombs. I negotiated an entrance deal with the gentleman at the door and got us in as a group. (Not phoning ahead when you're with a group of seventeen people is not technically a courteous or smart thing to do while traveling! Be sure to phone ahead while traveling in large groups.)

The entrance to the Paris Catacombs

We entered the Catacombs and traveled about three stories down a flight of narrow and sickeningly twisting steps. At the bottom, we followed a long, narrow, darkened corridor - occasionally finding wall plaques that told us which street we were on, or how long ago the tunnel had been constructed. Many passages wove out from the sides, but were blocked by barred doors to prevent wayward tourists from becoming lost in the unending maze below the surface.

Walking in an underground tunnel towards the "Empire of the Dead"

Finally, we entered a chamber with pictures on the walls (of dead people) and a sign above a darkened doorway announcing poetically in French that we were about to enter the World of the Dead. The kids became excited and nervous just at the sight of the sign. Inside, we marveled at the grotesque but beautiful arrangements of Parisian bones - over 6 million skeletons, in fact! The walls were made of neatly arranged layers of brittle, ancient bones, the doorways lined with femurs and ulnas, and even the artwork all consisted of bones. Hearts, portals, crosses; every pattern you could imagine was designed using these discarded bones. It was obvious that this was not some morbid tourist trap, but rather, a way to memorialize all the people who had been laid to rest haphazardly in the Catacombs.

Walls of bones guide your way through the underground passages.

We had a fantastic security guard who undoubtedly loved his job and loved kids: as soon as he saw I was leading a school group, he leapt from his chair and turned on his flashlight. He excitedly showed my students skulls with bullet holes, child skulls, and other such items that we would have missed without the use of his knowledge and flashlight. Thank you, French Catacombs guard!

On our way out of the Catacombs.

Upon emergence from the Catacombs, we spotted two skulls sitting on a shelf. I inquired in my rudimentary French what they were for. I was informed that they had been confiscated THAT DAY from a tourist's backpack! My students, bless them, were appalled that someone would desecrate the Catacombs in that manner. What great students I have! Then it was back onto the streets of Paris to wind our way back to our hotel, leaving the world of the dead behind us.

People actually tried to steal these skulls - such disrespect!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Voodoo Priests and Bourbon Street Adventures in New Orleans

Attending seminars and conferences is a large part of a teacher's professional development. A first-year teacher learns this quickly. But most first-year teachers don't get to attend conferences internationally, which is something I found myself doing during my first year at my little rural school. This conference, held in New Orleans of all places, was something my principal was keen to attend, but didn't want to attend alone. Two other new teachers and myself joked about going with him to 'supervise' him, not realizing we'd actually be able to. But one week before March break, we found ourselves packing our bags to head to the 'Big Easy' for a week of sessions, sight-seeing, and even a few leprechaun sightings!

Strolling Bourbon Street with some lucky leprechauns!  Anything can happen in the Big Easy!

Canada in March is cold. Too cold. I'm not really a lover of winter weather. So when we landed in New Orleans, I rejoiced: the sun was hot, the air warm and humid. I shed my coat instantly. We checked into our hotel, a fancy place about one block away from famed Bourbon Street, and two blocks away from Canal Street, ensuring we had a nice, central location for everything we wanted to do. We dropped off our bags and then decided to map out our area, finding the conference area and seeing what was nearby for tourist trappings. We strolled along Canal Street, and reached the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. A majestic paddleboat was parked along the dock, advertising a dinner and theatre evening. We were excited to try that (but in reality, never did... next time!)

Outside the Creole Queen boat on the Mighty Mississippi.

We found the conference center, one block away from a giant mall that was built parallel to the water. Inside the mall, we were pleasantly surprised to find that margaritas, daiquiris, and huge mugs of beer were cheap and made to go! We filled up with our drink of choice, and headed back down Canal Street, sipping them contentedly.  We noted how truly close we were to Bourbon Street, and walked down its length. In the day, it is fairly unremarkable, boasting many, many liquor stores and bars, and more than a few sleazy strip joints. We stopped at a little seafood restaurant called "Oceania" and I had the greatest crab cakes of my life.

The rest of the first evening, we bounced from place to place, working our way down Bourbon Street. We even bought some cheap masks and beads in the spirit of New Orleans!

Our beautiful Bourbon Street masks!

The next morning, we were up early and out to our conference, which was very well organized. The second night of our trip, we just wandered the streets of the French Quarter, soaking in the unique and exciting atmosphere of the city. Street performers are a common sight on the streets, and we were lucky enough to see a live old-school jazz band performing on a street corner.

We also saw some well-polished break dancers, who slid on their heads and did other amazing tricks. We visited the casino, and my boss won $300 with ONE spin on the slot machine... disgusting. We couldn't whine about it though, since he took us out for a fresh lobster and seafood dinner with his winnings!

Other things we did while in the Big Easy included a wild St. Patrick's Day celebration, where the two other girls and I battled for beads - without flashing any part of our bodies - and I got kidnapped by an inebriated gentleman, who shoved me on his float and tried to drive away with me. We visited the IMAX theatre and learned about all the environmental issues that were associated with the famous Hurricane Katrina.

The result of our bead competition - all done while keeping our dignity intact, thank you very much!

On the afternoon of day four, I got on the wrong trolley, and instead of being delivered to the conference center, I headed the opposite direction down St. Charles Street, which was actually a plus. I was able to see all the traditional southern mansions, Emeril's first restaurant, Loyola University where they train all those classic southern lawyers, and I befriended a charming older New Orleans native named Ray, who took me to a wonderful restaurant called "The Carmelina Grill", which is a favorite for New Orleans residents, but kept a secret. We ate outside on the levy, now repaired after breaking during Hurricane Katrina. After saying goodbye to Ray, I took the trolley back the way I had come, and realized that I'd missed the last afternoon session at the conference center.

A typical apartment in the French Quarter - very beautiful!

While waiting for my group to return, I explored some of the side streets in the French Quarter and found Lafitte's Bar, the oldest bar in town, opened originally by pirates and is now, supposedly, a gay bar. I didn't go in, so I can't say for sure.

Lafitte's, a historical landmark in the French Quarter.

I discovered the voodoo museum, which outlined the history of voodoo and had a real life practitioner living upstairs. He was very friendly and open about what he did for a living, and I went up to visit his pet albino python, who slept in a dog basket in the corner of his living room. He made me a few 'trinkets' for luck and money, and a poppet, or voodoo doll, for future use should I need it. I still have everything, but have never used the poppet!

Creepy voodoo poppets, apparently still 'active'.

My group and I also went for an early evening swamp tour. A bus picked us up at our hotel, and drove us out of New Orleans to a small Creole fishing village that offered swamp tours to see alligators, swamp life, and the after-effects of the hurricane. We saw four giant alligators, some snakes, a heron that eats alligators by pecking through their skulls, and some gorgeous scenery and vegetation. Our captain was incredibly experienced and informed, and entertained us thoroughly the whole time. I would recommend a swamp tour for anyone heading to the Big Easy for a vacation.

Can YOU spot the gator?

Going home was a completely different story - not as enjoyable as my stay. Read about it here. But I do hope to head back to New Orleans one day, dragging my husband with me. It is now one of my favorite cities, and I know Joey would love it. Plus, I still have to ride that paddleboat!

All decked out for the St. Paddy's Day parade.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Go on a Zip Line in my Wedding Dress

Zip lining has always been something I wanted to try. I came close a few years ago when I helped to chaperone some students at their yearly Grade 5/6 Camp. Zip lining was listed as a team-building activity, and I was very excited to try... until I found out that I was required at the school that day and couldn't join the 5/6 students on the zip line. I'm still bitter about missing out on that opportunity. But I was able to make up for this disappointment... on my wedding day!

My ziplining outfit - my wedding gown! (And some pants.)

That's right. Instead of having a dance and watching drunk people doing the worm, wear ties around their foreheads, and fight over drink tickets, my wedding celebration consisted of donning a pair of capri pants and a tank top underneath my wedding dress and hooking myself up to some suspended wires overtop of a jungle. Joey and I got married in Costa Rica with just us and a few random people to act as witnesses, and as soon as lunch was over, we ditched everyone and headed to a place called "Wingnuts Ziplines".

The view from the top - best wedding celebration ever!

We'd visited Wingnuts the day before our wedding, since last minute planning seemed the appropriate thing to do considering the laid-back nature of our entire wedding planning strategy. The day of our wedding was actually all booked up, and Wingnuts originally turned us down. However, when they heard we were planning on zip lining in our wedding outfits, and that I would be wearing a dress and tiara, they opened up two spots for us quickly. Their company believed in the spirit of adventure, and this, they told us, definitely qualified!

Joey flies through the Costa Rican canopy on the zipline

So, on April 1st - yes, my husband and I got married on April Fool's Day; would we have it any other way? - we ventured to Wingnuts Ziplining and tried zip lining for the first time. The gentleman leading our group wasn't too sure what to make of me, at first. I assured him I had pants on under my dress, as he had to buckle me into my harness, which wrapped around my pelvis area. Every time he had to hook and unhook me from the zip lining wires, he had to dive under my wedding dress while I held the folds up as high as I could - a very interesting sight for the other people in our zip lining group! I looked about five months pregnant when my dress was sitting naturally on my hips, since the zip lining buckles and hooks rested right on my lower belly. My look turned out to be a saving grace for one family. The mother of the family was terrified to go down the zip line, but when she saw me dressed in a gown, with huge gloves and a belly full of buckles, her feelings of anxiety disappeared completely.

One happy couple, way up high in the jungle!

I was the first in our group of 12 to buzz down the zip line into the jungle. The guide hooked me up to the wires while I held my dress up to my chin, then gave me a brief explanation on how to maintain speed while moving along the wire, and how to slow down as I reached the next platform. With that, I was off, my dress billowing in the breeze and snagging on the tree tops. It was such a rush! It was easy to keep the speed, and hard not to want to go faster. Then the quick trip was over and I was at the next platform, ready for more. Joey followed behind me, holding a video camera and smiling like a fool. We did this for about 14 more platforms, stopping midway for a snack and a chance to feed a manticooti, which is like a large jungle raccoon.

By the end of the voyage, my dress was virtually ruined, torn and dirtied at the hem, and wrinkled beyond belief at the waist from scrunching my body as I swept through the jungle canopy. I didn't mind in the least - that rumpled garment tells more stories than any perfectly preserved gown sealed in a dry-cleaner bag! Time to start planning my next zip lining outfit...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Get Married in Costa Rica on the Beach

I was never the type of child to dream about her wedding. I never dressed up as a bride, or cut out pictures of flowers and dresses. When I was 25, I worked at a museum that had a lovely viewing space, which was used for weddings. Since the wedding planner at our building ironically didn't work weekends, I had the lovely job of using her notes to make sure the weddings were pulled off according to plan. After an entire summer of suffering through brides, the mothers of the bride, and drunken grooms and guests, I HATED weddings.

Enjoying the view during our wedding lunch.

I just wanted to get married on a beach. No guests. No music playlist. No table centerpieces. Just my fiance Joey, and I and a Justice of the Peace.

As luck would have it, my fiance's father purchased a house in Costa Rica. Billy, Joey's father, and his mother, Marni, had been going to Costa Rica for years, staying in a rental condo unit while there. They had fallen in love with the country, and had decided to make the leap and buy a house in a beautiful area called Playa Carillo, near the surfing village of Samara on the Pacific Coast side of the country in the province of Guanacaste. So when my then boyfriend, Joey, asked me to marry him, we made plans to elope. At first, both of our families didn't want us to leave to get married, then wanted to come with us, then starting planning the wedding for us... so we threatened to not get married at all! Eventually, it was settled and we were going to Costa Rica for Spring Break of 2009 for a wonderful vacation, and, oh yeah, a wedding.

Costa Rica is paradise on earth - I could stay there forever!

We flew into Liberia, and immediately I felt the wonderful cloak of humidity wrapping around me, making my hair curl at the neck and my skin start to glow. I think I was born for tropical climates! I breathed in the rich air and knew that we had made the right choice for our wedding destination. After a two-hour taxi ride to Playa Carillo, we arrived at the house - a beautiful yellow bungalow with terracotta tiling and a rich, green lawn surrounding it, ginger bushes gating the front doors.

We found a beautiful old church in Nicoya, Costa Rica.

We spent the first three days exploring the beaches of Playa Carillo and Samara. The most notable difference was that Playa Carillo was much less busy, being a hidden gem in a little populated area, and that Samara's gorgeous white sand was unfortunately riddled with sharp pieces of broken coral from the reef just beyond the cove. Otherwise, both beaches were peaceful, beautiful, and wonderful to just lie on in the hot sun.

The gorgeous white-sand beach at Samara.

We were also told about a hidden, private beach not far from the house in Carillo - just a mere 15-minute walk, Billy told us. Unfortunately, both Joey and I are absolutely useless when it comes to directions, and our 15 minute walk turned into a 3 hour trek, with no water or sunscreen. Needless to say, I was getting a bit cranky by the end of it - especially when the trail we'd been hopefully following ended in a cliff, so we had to turn around and go back the way we'd come. We hiked through that sweltering jungle, the ocean always within view but only accessible down a steep cliff that neither of us were willing to traverse, and finally found the right path and made it to the private beach. In the end, it was worth it and we got some gorgeous cliff top photos as a result of our trek!

Me Tarzan!  Loving the swinging vines in the jungle.

On the fourth day of our trip, we were married on the beach in Playa Carillo, on some stunning black rocks sitting mid-point on the crescent-shaped strip of glistening sand. I felt like a princess, with my prince perched beside me in bare feet, the roar of the crashing waves virtually drowning out the Spanish wedding ceremony being recited by our very pregnant J.P. It was perfect in every way, with total strangers as our witnesses and people we'd only met the day before showing up to gift us with a bottle of champagne. It was the most stress-free wedding I'm sure has ever been performed on this planet, and it was perfect. I did miss having my family there, but ultimately the wedding was about Joey and I, and we did everything our way with no worries or strains.

Enjoying some 'sombra' (shade) during our wedding photo shoot

We took our small, impromptu wedding party out for lunch, then went off to do our own thing... I'll discuss that afternoon in a later post. It was something unique and extremely fun as part of our wedding 'ceremony'!

The rest of our time in Costa Rica, we went boogie boarding in the swells of Samara, ventured up to a beautiful Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Resort for some amazing scenery and a high-class dinner, relaxed on the beach of Carillo, visited the city of Nicoya to pay our photographer, J.P., and my hairdresser, and just enjoyed the relaxed pace of life that Costa Rica offers. We ate very well, also, and my favorite dish was the traditional Tiko chicken, rice, and beans platter. It doesn't sound very glamorous, but it was delicious. As well, I really enjoyed the arroz con pollo.

Joey enjoying the beach at Carillo in his sexy sun hat. Ha ha!

We are hoping to go to Costa Rica again, and next time I am determined to take Billy's Jeep, Snowball, out for a cruise to the volcano of Arenal, to the Cloud Forest in the middle of the country, and turtle beach on the Atlantic side of the country.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Live in Quebec for Three Months and Learn French

As I said in my introductory post, moving to Quebec when I was sixteen was one of the first major travel experiences I'd ever had. I'd taken French courses my whole life in school - that is simply part of the Canadian school experience - and had a desire to be able to say more than just the phrases taught in the workbooks. Our school had been participating in the French Exchange program for years and years, and in the last few of those years, I'd become friends with some of the prior exchange students. I also wanted to be the one in our high school yearbook who had a whole page dedicated just to her and her life experiences (yes, at sixteen I'll admit I was on the vain side). Overall, I felt that the exchange program was a good fit for me.

Quebec City, Quebec Canada
Chateau Frontenac, a gorgeous and very historical hotel!

I signed up, beat out some of the other hopefuls, and had my exchange partner, Caroline, move in with my family and I in September of my Grade 11 year. She stayed until the end of November, and it wasn't my turn to leave until February. I remember being excited for Christmas holidays simply because they meant time was moving closer and closer to my departure date.

Outside my school in Ste-Agathe-Des-Monts with some friends

Finally, it was time. I piled onto the airplane with several other students from around Alberta and headed to the Montreal airport. I was picked up by family and began my 'new life' in Quebec - at least, for the next three months.

It was indeed an amazing experience. Caroline's group of friends was eclectic and independent, marching to the beat of their own, much different drum, and we had silly and entertaining parties that included such activities as costume dress-up and couch dancing. With them, my confidence in meeting new people and learning foreign languages increased. My family lugged me all over the province, attempting to show me how wonderful Quebec is (and it is!).

Outside the Olympic Stadium in Montreal

I experienced the beauty of Vieux Quebec (Old Quebec City), skiing at Mont Tremblanc, the Parliament Buildings, the Biodome, the Funiculaire, an NHL hockey game - the Canadiens of course - and the busy streets of Montreal, as well as a traditional Cabane a Sucre, where I was able to see how real Canadian maple syrup is made, and created my own maple taffy on a stick by pouring the syrup onto crushed ice and letting it cool.

Making maple syrup candy at the Cabane-a-Sucre

My school provided me with many opportunities, as well. They realized quickly that I was not the strongest French speaker - despite another boy from Alberta, who was fluent, helping me to cheat my way along! - and enrolled me in such classes as art, sculpture, computers, and radio DJ experience. It was a lovely three months, where my most difficult courses were economics (in French) and Grade 12 math (in French - and yes, I know I told you I was in Grade 11 at the time - there had been a mix-up when they enrolled me, so I just had to suck it up and take Grade 12 math one year early, in French.) I met many wonderful friends and even competed in the school's talent competition! I love to sing, and so I did a karaoke version of a song by Quebec's favorite star, Celine Dion. I didn't win because I used a karaoke tape and not a live band, but I had a great time anyway.

Making lifelong friends in Quebec on my French exchange trip

After three months, I returned home full of confidence in myself and my ability to travel the world on my own, and was able to talk a mile a minute in Quebecois-accented French. 15 years later, I still am in contact with several of the friends I made long ago on my journey.

We loved to pose on that dumb rock! Ha ha!

For any young reader who is considered doing an exchange program but is hesitant, I suggest to you to take the risk and scoop up any experiences that come your way - the exchange that I participated on was indeed worth it!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Go White Water Rafting in Canada's Rocky Mountains

Man vs. Nature.

I teach this concept to my students all the time - it is a timeless conflict in literature, and in real life. Will man overcome, or will nature take its course?

I decided to test this in the summer of 2009, and was lucky enough to test it twice in one week. My husband's family has rented a cabin in Radium, British Columbia for the last two summers; a new 'tradition' that we're trying to establish. It is a small town set in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, full of beautiful hiking trails, gorgeous views, and of course, the famous Radium Hot Springs. But we were to discover there was more adventure to be had in Radium than jumping into the ice pool at the Hot Springs...

The Rocky Mountain view from our launching post

Last summer, as Joey and I, along with his sister Nancy and his brother Chris were strolling through the streets of Radium, we encountered a white water rafting agency and ventured inside. The prices were reasonable, and they had beginner levels that we could attempt to master. We signed up right away. The next day, we were boarding a big, yellow cheese wagon - or school bus to those of you who have never had the pleasure of riding one to school in your youth - and were bumping along half-developed logging roads towards our drop-off point in the Kicking Horse river.

Ready to white water raft in the Kootenay River, British Columbia

Once down at the drop-off point, we geared up in hospital-scrub-green waterproof pants, which were slightly less than flattering, and bright orange life vests. We patiently and somewhat nervously listened to the safety speech all about falling off the boat and drowning or getting legs broken on hidden, underwater rocks, then loaded into the large, inflatable rubber boats. We four were in that perfect age range of being older than the small children on our boat (yes, that's how tame the river ride was to be - we were sitting with 9-year-olds) and being younger than the timorous parents who wanted to just sit in the back, near the guide. So Joey, Nancy, Chris, and I got front row seats on the boat - first to go down each trough, first to get a face full of icy water when hitting the crests of each rapid wave. After the first couple of slaps in the face with glacial water, my body got used to the temperature and I really began to look forward to the rapids.

Joey all decked out in his white water rafting gear

Our journey was customized for families with children and beginners, so for the most part, our ride consisted of floating peacefully along, gazing at the serene landscape of British Columbia forest. But every so often, our guide would lead us into the heart of some rapids, and rattle off succinct instructions on how to paddle, where to paddle, and when to quit paddling. It was exciting and quite safe. There was even a point where Joey and Chris were encouraged to leap out of the boat, go for a polar bear swim, and then get hauled in before we hit the next round of rapids. I hauled Chris in easily, but Nancy nearly allowed my husband to be bashed by rocks before she finally got him inside the boat! It was such an amazing time.

An in-action shot of the white water rafting trip!

The next day, my parents decided to come to Radium to spend some time with the in-laws. It was their anniversary, and so Joey and I came up with the brilliant idea of giving them a white water rafting package for their anniversary gift. Now, please realize that my parents are in their fifties, and my father can't even swim. Somehow, we still thought that this was a genius idea. They accepted, to my surprise, and so the next day I found myself back on the yellow school bus, bumping along the same beaten path to the river. We'd chosen the exact same route as the time before, knowing it was pretty tame for the most part.

My parents on their anniversary - pretty brave!

It was, once again, a great experience. Our guide this time was a lot more laid-back than the first one, and encouraged all rafts to engage in a giant water fight, bail-out buckets full of icy water included. Every person in the rafting group was soaked to the bone by the time we'd finished our river journey - but everyone excitedly chatted about the water fight on the drive back to the headquarters. My dad even said he'd enjoyed it, despite him not speaking a single word the whole rafting ride and his knuckles white from gripping his paddle so hard. He was a great sport! My parents are talking about coming out to Radium again this summer - perhaps we'll try the next level up? We'll have to see!