Tag Archives: .SARA

Guest blogger: RETIREMENT/30/65/GRAD

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Editor (Sara)’s note: For the first time in saratreetravels history, we are proud to welcome a guest blogger to our travel universe – my (tied-for-) favourite travel partner and mother, Mary!!

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What a year!

Sara and I talked about doing a major trip, but her idea and mine of a major trip were two different things. When she asked me where I would like to go, I stretched it to my biggest dreams I could imagine of what I could do in my lifetime. I suggested wild things like a train trip across Canada, or sitting on the beach in Hawaii (which by the way was slowly being covered by lava). I stretched even farther to the Alaskan cruise up the West side of our fair country.

Imagine my amazement when I received the email from Sara who must have chuckled at my ‘amazing dreams’. My dreams were so small. She sent me an agenda that saw us flying to Rome. “Now” she said “what would you like to see now?”

Editor’s note: Small?! Absolutely not how I would describe my mom’s dreams… her life has been my inspiration to dream big!

Now my vision was set farther. Europe was never in my thoughts for a trip I could ever do in my lifetime. Now I had the ticket, just had to come up with an agenda. Sara asked me, “NOW what do you want to see?” I threw out things that I had dreamed of, again, never expecting to see them happen: The Coliseum, the Vatican, Pompeii, Venice, maybe a side trip to Ukraine to see dad’s family again.

Sara took my ideas under advisement, and came up with an agenda of almost three weeks. I got my boat cruise (not the Alaskan Cruise, but on the Danube which I had planned with a friend who had passed away before we could see it). I got my train trip (two actually), I walked the Coliseum (oh yes, it was at the end of our street in view of our hostel) and the Vatican. I walked Pompeii and marvelled at the amazing lost city. I took a gondola on the canals of Venice and visited the lace museum in Burano. We experienced the amazing city of Vienna and the Matyas heritage in Budapest including public baths and the Matyas church and castle.

Wait, what’s that we spy from our front door? Could it be… ??!!

Exploring the ancient mysteries of Pompei

Aboard a gondola for a canal-eye view of Venezia

El Museo del Merletto (The Burano Lace School & Museum)

Stadtpark Vienna City Park

Beautiful Budapest

As a grand finale, we took a train to Lviv, Ukraine and then drove to Lanchyn where I was able to once again see my dad’s village, walk the roads that he walked, sit for dinner with his family.



What an adventure! I am so grateful to have had this chance to see all I did. Kudos to Sara who planned all this in spite of writing exams and doing those things required to complete her MD. Challenge should have been her middle name because she most certainly meets the challenge. However her middle name is even better: Hope. Without the Hope, we don’t have energy for future plans. And so I say “Thanks for the memories.” It was an awesome experience of a lifetime!

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Motherland

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What does it mean to be something?

I have always proudly proclaimed that I am Ukrainian. And I know that to be true.

Yet, when people would question further, I would have to admit that no, I didn’t speak the language (besides the essentials: namely, food items and “I want to eat”). I don’t know the dances. I wasn’t born in the country. Furthermore, I had never been to the country.

What does it mean to be Ukrainian? And how could I say and know it so fervently to be true when all evidence pointed to the seeming vacuity of such a claim?

Perhaps like so many things, part of identity is habit and familiarity. The people most consistently in my life were Ukrainian, and thus so I identified. They spoke the language, cooked the foods, knew the history, preached in the church. While I personally could not do so myself, I embraced our collective history as part of my own personal story. (Even as I was writing those words, I absentmindedly got up to throw some perogies on to boil as a midday snack.)

Despite the fact that we spoke zero Ukrainian, my cousins & siblings & I carried the Ukrainian Church Christmas program for many a year, completely confusing the few actual Ukrainian-speaking kids there (Note the super Slavic camel? None other than your favourite blogger!)

Perhaps desire plays a role. I could not speak Ukrainian fluently, but I so wanted to learn and would pore over my aunt’s old буквар, insisting she and my mom quiz me by singing “Head and Shoulders” in Ukrainian. I would painstakingly sound out those Cyrillic puzzles that would unlock Christmas lyrics, so that I could join my aunts and uncles in carolling. I spent many evenings with my mom at the kitchen table, repeating the litany of our family’s devastation and reconnection throughout years of war, making notes on aunties’ and cousins’ names and origins until they were woven into my own meandering quilt of memories.

Or perhaps identity is in our blood, our genes, our soul. Because despite being born in Canada, speaking English as my first language, and not being allowed to dance growing up, the moment our train rolled onto Ukrainian soil and I saw the green hills of my motherland, I felt a connection that surpassed all evidence to the contrary. I was home.

After a few days exploring Lviv (where my mom completely took over as tour guide and wowed both me and every Ukrainian we met with her beautiful, fluent language skills!), we made the 3 hour drive to Lanchyn, the hometown village of my mom’s father. As the road rolled beneath us, my throat ached with suppressed tears, a joyful ache I couldn’t begin to put into words. All those campfire quizzes with my mom and aunt; all those Christmas Eves standing on my icy front porch, taking my youngest-child-responsibility seriously and searching for the first star to appear; all those Ukrainian Baptist conferences in middle-of-nowhere Saskatchewan, trying with all my might to discern just one or two phrases from the flowing conversation – I was finally here in the place where it had all started, the soil I had always longed to know.

And as we pulled into the Lanchyn post office parking lot and my mom’s cousin Mariya leaped out of her car, tears already streaming down her face as she called “Сестра, cестра!” (my sister!) and embraced my mom… That solidified what my heart already knew, that these people were family, not strangers, and that I had a place here despite having never been here before.

This feeling was affirmed when we arrived back at their beautiful home and found that Mariya had made a side of perogies to go with the meal, because she had seen on Facebook how much I loved them.

We spent 2 days with cousin Mariya and her family, spontaneously spending the night with no luggage on hand. We met her son who built an incredible house for his family on my Gido’s property. We walked to my Gido’s old school which has been renovated into a community town hall. And we did what I have always dreamed of doing, since hearing my Gido’s poems about his homeland read at his funeral: we walked to his beloved river Pruit and waded in its sandy shores, looking at the very mountains that my Gido thought of and longed for every day he was away from them. In that warm water, with the same warm sun that has touched my hair in Canada beating down on me in Ukraine, another piece of my story – and soul – was complete.

After only one visit to this rich (in history, in complexity, in contradictions) land, I cannot even pretend to lay claim to an understanding of it. But it’s yet another thread, this one pulsing with rich gold and blue, woven into my story…

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Travelling up the Carpathian Mountains on the Bukovel panoramic gondola

Land of seeming incongruities. Traditional singers protesting for #FreeSentsov at the Shevchenko monument next to a mobile tattooist

Treasures of Lviv: “Пузата Хата” buffet (home to the most mind-blowingly incredible dill cream pie), “Second-Hand” thrift stores, and traditional delicacies (hot dogs or Ruffle chips, anyone?)

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Whatsapp? A Tale Of Two Sleeper Cars

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June 05, 2018
Euro Night Schlafwagen Sleeper Car, somewhere between Venice and Vienna.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: Oh man oh man oh man, my love!!!!!! I am currently on the Schlafwagen – yes, you read that awesome German right – the night train to Vienna! I don’t have wifi but I am actually SO PUMPED I just had to Whatsapp you anyways and it’ll send when it sends …. this sleeper coach is freaking FANTASTIC! My mom and I are totally balling out here! Slippers, a teeny tiny sink, a crazy rope swing to keep me in my ludicrously high top bunk as the train rocks, free sparkling wine (it was on our bed and my mom being a …

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: HOLD THE PHONE. THIS BROADCAST INTERRUPTED TO INFORM YOU THAT MY MOM JUST DISCOVERED THERE’S A SHOWER IN OUR CAR. A SHOWER. I JUST SHOWERED ON THE TRAIN. No wonders of Europe can ever – EVER – compare with that.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: (Continuing on with our saga)

[06-05, 10:56 PM] Sara M.: … shameless uke and asking the porter (who btw, came to ask our BREAKFAST ORDERS), “Is the wine complimentary??” And him replying, “But of course. We just want you to enjoy your evening.”

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: Holy crap. This is what happens when josh and not sara books the overnight train 😛

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: (I said that to my mom and she replied, “I like josh.”)

June 06, 2018
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

[06-06, 2:17 PM] Joshua: Hahahahaha WOW this was an epic text-barrage to wake up to!

[06-06, 2:18 PM] Joshua: Lol I’d forgotten that I had bought that ticket! Well, you’re welcome, you’re welcome (said in my Maui voice, of course)

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June 09-10, 2018
Polrail… Sleeper car? Maybe. Definitely not Car 431 (since that was on our ticket and that would thus make too much sense). Somewhere between Budapest and Záhony.

[06-09, 11:19 PM] Sara M.: I don’t know if 2 sleeper cars could be more different than Polrail vs. The Schlafwagen.

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[06-09, 11:20 PM] Sara M.: To begin, Lviv wasn’t listed as a destination on any of the trains, and there were literally zero train employees anywhere in the station to ask. A cleaning lady told me this was the right train, but our car # was not to be found (we were car 431, and the train only had up to 405). So I’m running up and down the train and finally just heave mom and the suitcases onto a car and find some seat numbers that kind of match ours. There’s only one other lady seated in the whole car and we have a very confusing conversation in English / Hungarian, during which she just repeated “Chop? Chop!” And I repeated “Seats 11 and 15!!!”

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[06-09, 11:24 PM] Sara M.: My mom saves the day at this point by discovering lady is Ukrainian , so they immediately start chatting in Ukrainian about grandchildren, which is adorable, whilst I try to puzzle out where the heck we may be off to. FINALLY an employee comes along! I show her our tickets and she goes huffily, “Sleeper car. Dat way.” I’m trying to gesture and figure out where we’re going, when she snaps, “Or stay here, up to you, I don’t care!!”

She then descends on our lovely new friend and informs her, “Your ticket second class. Out. ”

Our lady obviously can’t understand English, so employee raises her voice and goes, “Idiot. Second class! Two!! Dva!” Then she turns back to us, “Sleeper car! Go!!”

[06-09, 11:28 PM] Sara M.: Ay yi. We go through what looks like an engine room and so I had assumed was off limits but nope, apparently just the way to first-class (Obviously. Maybe I am also an idiot). We find our berth. We’re so amazed and relieved there are actual beds (and not the non-reclining chairs we had thought were our “Sleeper car” seats!)

Suddenly, this balding unshaven man in dirty jeans and a beer t-shirt comes out and gets in our room, and is gesturing at the beds and grabbing at our sheets, and waving his finger at us. Both mom and I are both thinking the same thing, namely, “Holy #@$% is this guy sharing our berth????!”

I’m telling him that we have tickets and saying the berth number over and over again, and he then grabs our tickets and says, “I take these, give back in Lviv.”

[06-09, 11:30 PM] Sara M.: Wtf um, NO. So I try to grab them back and he’s getting all pissy and finally yells, “Yura!!!!!”

And Yura, this kindly older gentleman dressed in – imagine that! – a train uniform with an ID badge, comes in, and says yes, we’re in the right place and he’ll take our tickets now and give them back in Lviv. And then he brings Mom coffee in a beautiful silver salvar and leaves.

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Mom and I just couldn’t stop laughing and calling yelling man every bad Ukrainian name we could think of (“Snot-nosed whiney idiot flower pot!!” …it loses something in the translation). Who the heck WAS he???

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Needless to say, there was no breakfast menu or sparkling wine, so good thing we still had a bottle of prosecco from the Schlafwagen — we definitely needed it!!!

[06-09, 11:33 PM] Sara M.: Just spent a lovely few hours sitting and knitting with mom, and now it’s almost bedtime. When I wake up … I’ll be in my country!!!!

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[06-10, 12:44 AM] Sara M.: Oh jeepers. Woken up by literal banging on the door at midnight — welcome to Ukraine! Border guards on-board to examine everyone’s passports!

[06-10, 1:25 AM] Sara M.: Dear goodness. Ever since crossing the border, the train has been grinding deafeningly. It actually sounds like it doesn’t fit the tracks. Eff. Looks like there will be no sleeping in this sleeper car 😑😢😩

[06-10, 1:46 AM] Sara M.: Psych! That was actually just the Hungarian exit crossing! NOW it’s Ukraine entry time! 😣 Bwahahahaha Mom definitely found her Ukrainian sassy vibe and when there was more banging on the door, she yelled, “Що ти хочеш!?? Що ви робите?!!!?” (“What!!? What do you want???!”) in Ukrainian. Safely hiding in my top bunk, pretending I didn’t understand anything, I let her deal with the border guards!

[06-10, 1:47 AM] Sara M.: Got my passport stamps!!! Ay yi, onward ho?

[06-10, 3:05 AM] Sara M.: Update – 3AM and still no ho.

[06-10, 7:15 AM] Sara M.: Aha. So apparently a giant crane came sometime after 3AM and fixed something on our train before we could start moving again.

Even the toilet paper knows we’re in Ukraine. It is literally a roll of crepe paper streamers, the colour of every good Slavic birthday party: grey.
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First glimpse of the Motherland!!
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[06-10, 9:14 PM] Sara M.: Still more hiccups upon arrival, where seminary people [random family contact in the Ukrainian Baptist community who were graciously allowing us to stay with them during our time in Lviv] were supposed to meet us but no one was at the station and we were kind of peeved and there was no Internet and no phone number to get ahold of them… but we ended up talking to a lovely cabbie who informed us there was the UKRAINA RUN marathon today (but of course!) And so no cab could even get through to the seminary. We were about to brave public transit but stopped for some breakfast first and GOT PEROGIES and suddenly we weren’t peeved at all anymore 😊😊😊😄😄😄

[06-10, 9:15 PM] Sara M.: And then perogy place had wifi and we got the mobile # for the seminary guy who was apparently wandering the station looking for us! He (and everyone at the seminary) are so exceptionally lovely and our rooms are freaking ginormous! Except we each have our own and it’s actually really sad to be separated down the hallway!

June 10, 2018
And again, back at the ranch…

[06-10, 5:56 PM] Joshua: Wowwwwww you basically just composed a complete blog entry just through these whatsapps! That sounds absolutely crazy! Glad you guys look happy (in a just-teetering-on-insane kind of way 😝)

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“History sticks to your feet”

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As a kid, the only thought I had about my surname was that people never pronounced it correctly. I would fume at elementary school gymnastics meets when the inevitable “Sara… Ma-TIE-us?” would be announced over the loudspeaker. As I entered medical school and had to start distributing my signature copiously over orders and admission notes, I got questioned frequently about the origins of my name. “So unusual!” docs would exclaim, and react in mild surprise when I informed them it was Hungarian.

Funny too, to have my identifying name be Hungarian when I so proudly identify as Ukrainian. Being so close to my maternal family, I had often considered changing my surname to my mom’s maiden name. But even after my dad left the picture and my mom remarried and changed her name yet again, something kept me from relinquishing Matyas. I think I always knew that there was no danger of me losing my Ukrainian roots, what with my own interest in the culture and the plenitude of family connections wrapped around me. But my surname was my one link to my paternal side, and I could not deny that for both better and worse, that side of my family also played a role in shaping me.

When Mom and I were plotting our route, we realized that the overnight train from Vienna to Lviv would pass right through Hungary. So we broke a long travel day into two and planned an overnight stop in my fatherland: beautiful Budapest.

Budapest is a city that deserves the sighs of appreciation that inevitably accompany any mention of it. Architecturally speaking, it is stunning, offering graceful views of sweeping bridges and domed spires from nearly any vantage point. Historically speaking, it is the ancient throne of King Mátyás Hunyadi Corvinus aka “Mátyás the Just.” Born in Transylvania (um, awesome), King of Hungary from 1458-90 (with stints in Austria, Italy, Burgundy, and Bohemia!), famous for his exorbitant and controversial tax reforms, renowned as a “friend of the Muses” who loved reading and languages (and also astrologers, but apparently he was a fan of “real scientists” too). And, of course, my great-great-great-great—ad nauseam—granddaddy.

 


History sticks to your feet and leaves sometimes indelible traces of itself in the whorls of your soles and the creases behind your knees, even in the case of an ancient King with gossamer-thin claims to my present. But setting foot in this lovely and beloved city and seeing my name – my mispronounced, misspelled, “unusual,” name with all its hard history in my personal family story – written on street signs, on the currency, and on one of the principal landmarks of the city was unexpectedly and breathtakingly emotional for me.

 

Yes, I am proudly Ukrainian. But I was also so proud to be a Mátyás in Hungary, and to claim my part of the beautiful and challenging story that is constantly unfurling from ancient past to my present.

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Simple Extravagance

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When I first visited Vienna and had the privilege of touring the Schloss Schönbrunn summer palace, I was struck by the rose gardens in the palace park, the delicate explosions of colour and the delicious perfume of the blossoms olfactible from blocks away. While it was lovely to wander throughout the gardens with Josh, my recurring thought was how much I would LOVE to share the experience with my avid gardener of a mother.

4 years after that first visit, it was incredible to walk to the entrance of the gardens with my mom and see her awe and bliss, much as I had imagined all those years ago.

Let it be known that her capacity for awe and bliss were even more admirable since mere hours earlier, we had just gotten off a train, found our hostel and dropped off our luggage, and figured out public transit to come straight to Schönbrunn since we weren’t able to check in for another few hours. Not only was my mom game for wandering the gardens after such a morning, but she also toured the imperial apartments and hiked up to the Gloriette!

The next morning, we made our way to the Naschmarkt and spent the morning finding Austrian culinary treasures to tuck away for future family Christmas presents… as well as for our imminent enjoyment in the form of a picnic dinner. Our afternoon was languidly passed in Stephansplatz, shopping, sipping coffees and Spritz, and admiring the endless graceful corners and facades of Vienna’s many architectural gems.

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The incomparable Stephansdom

Finally, we stationed ourselves just outside the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera House) on the Ringstrasse. As twilight settled around us and the crowd swelled, we delighted in our simple yet luscious dinner of Naschmarkt smoked hazelnut salami and black truffle gouda, with burstingly-fresh strawberries and tangy dried watermelon for dessert.

The day felt restful yet extravagantly lovely… much like Vienna itself.

Gradtirement begins!

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My maternal side of the family is incredibly close knit, and I grew up surrounded by cousins who were as close as siblings. We are also incredibly Ukrainian, clinging fiercely and proudly to a culture that first Russians and then Germans attempted to wrench away from us. It wasn’t until Grade 2 that I realized “goomkah” wasn’t the English word for “elastic band,” and that other kids didn’t spend most holidays hanging out at their Ukrainian church until midnight.

I am literally “first generation and a half” Canadian, with a mom who was born in Canada but whose older siblings were born in German camps during the war. We knew the stories of the family in Ukraine and Belarus who had been lost during the war, and the miraculous reconnection thanks to the tireless work of the Red Cross with aunties and cousins presumed dead, but until the dawning of the age of easy internet access, we never dreamed of actually connecting with these faraway loved ones on a regular basis. But eventually connect we did, and now with an epic celebratory trip looming in need of a destination, I couldn’t imagine a more amazing destination than going ‘home’ with my mom.

However, there was no need to hurry straight there! While I have had the privilege of roaming throughout Europe before, my mom has never traveled in Europe outside Ukraine. So, while sitting in my apartment in China, I took the plunge and booked us flights arriving in Rome and leaving from Lviv three weeks later. Now we just had to plan all the fun things in between!

When you travel with the same someone as often as saratree tends to do, you inadvertently develop roles to expedite the planning process. I have definitely become the “things to do and eat” person, while Joshua is the “accommodations and public transit” expert. Realizing that I would need to step into the role of all of the above on this trip was, to put it mildly, freaking terrifying.

While I did have more travel experience than my mom, I felt woefully inadequate in the role of navigator (Josh seems to think my philosophy of “I always get to where I need to go…. eventually!” is amusing rather than functional, and let’s just say that my mother’s sense of direction is even more… ethereal than my own). Moreover, my mom was struggling with a chronic ankle injury that limited her mobility and caused her fairly constant pain. Was a cross-European backpacking trek really the smartest idea?

Maybe not smartest, but definitely most awesome.

A word about my mom. My mom is, as I alluded to above, a first generation refugee who grew up in the culturally and geographically challenging rural North of Canada. Her family didn’t speak English and she had never seen a city or running water until she was 14. She has faced unimaginable hardships in both her personal and extended family life, and worked for decades as a nurse where she was expected to cope with other people’s grief and pain on a daily basis. As a child, she suffered numerous health problems, including damaged veins in her legs that left her with constant and painful swelling in her left leg, and a ruptured eardrum that left her half deaf, caused by a drunken doctor attempting an ear exam.

I confess that because I’ve grown up with these things, I have taken them for granted for most of my life. Mom’s leg that was a different colour, or the fact that she wouldn’t hear you when you talked to her on a certain side, well… those were just normal parts of her, like her collection of matryoshka dolls or her hazel eyes. But living in very close quarters with her during this trip (and planning daily activities that pushed the physical limits of her normal relaxed retired life!), I saw the extent to which she is affected on an hourly basis by these things: whether it’s in the ankle swelling that causes sandal straps to not fit properly, or the careful selection of seats to ensure she can hear the waiter, or even something as simple yet tiringly constant as the quick glances towards and away from her “rainbow leg.”

And yet in spite of (or because of?) all this, my mom is the most gracious, compassionate, generous, and life-loving individual I have ever met. She has instilled me with a sense of joy in the everyday occurrences of life, as well as a sense of healthy respect towards suffering: it happens, it’s hard, so we need to support each other and learn from it.

Also, did I mention that she’s just super fun?

My mom seemed thrilled to have the chance to visit Italy (apparently she has been captivated by the idea of Pompeii since high school, of which I had no idea!), and I was equally thrilled to have the chance to play host in one of my favourite countries, despite all my worries about her well-being. I knew that if anything happened to her, not only would I feel horrible, but I would face the wrath of my three older siblings. It was one thing for ME to go irresponsibly gallivanting across the globe, but to drag along my respectable mother who was supposed to be relaxing in her much deserved retirement??

As it so often turns out, my fears were groundless. Every day, my mom astounded me with her strength, humour, and resilience. She was wonderfully encouraging to me in my newfound travel agent role, offering generous amounts of much appreciated reassurance and excitement. She appeared charmed by the vast assortment of accommodations I found for us, embracing the shared bathrooms and hostel breakfasts with aplomb. She bravely tackled Rome’s metro guarded by machine gun-toting militia, the scorching heat of the Foro Romano, the endless staircases of Venice. Most notably, she never complained. She would request to sit for a minute, or accept my offer to lug her suitcase for awhile, but she would never complain.

Our charming conglomeration of accommodations. I was VERY pleasantly surprised (read: relieved!) at how lovely they all turned out to be… I chose them mainly for price and location, and was keeping my fingers crossed for all the rest!

Our biggest hurdle… the infinite bridges & staircases of Venice (aka the city where my respect for my mom’s chutzpah quadrupled)
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Planes, trains, automobiles… and vaporettos

Life is hard. Challenges get thrown our way (sometimes more due to our choosing than other times!) But how different could our experience of challenges be if we simply stated what we needed, or what could be helpful, rather than resorting to ineffectual kvetching.

El Foro Romano: never fails to be utterly awe-inspiring

Hey Joshua… “[El Foro] is a good place to find a thumb.”
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My perennial favourite of the Foro – the Temple of Romulus (AD 307), with the original bronze door and the lock that STILL WORKS
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Mom taking her role as traveller-tourist seriously and not missing a thing!
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Views from Venezia

All life lessons aside, it was also just pure fun to play tour guide to my mom in bella Italia, a country I have now had the privilege of visiting for the third time and that still leaves so much to be discovered each time I arrive!

Amazing new discoveries with Mom, such as our blissful Santa Marinella beach day

First time in the Pacific!!!
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The rainbow puzzle box of Burano
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Late night strolls down to our favourite neighbourhood landmark
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And then, with coins thrown into Trevi to guarantee yet another return (it’s only had proven success thus far for me!), it was ciao! to the Romantics and hallo! to the Germanics as we boarded our Schlafwagen to Vienna…

(To be continued!)

Shant-outings*

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*Thanks to Joshua for the oh-so-punny title

As mentioned previously, Shantou is tucked into the coastline of the South China Sea, making it the perfect jumping off point for day trips to the numerous surrounding islands. On our first weekend in China, myself and the other Canadian exchange students took the ferry for 1 yuan (~20 cents) across the Shantou Harbour and landed on the idyllic shores of Queshi island. We were greeted by a woman expertly dissecting pineapples with a machete and neatly skewering the slices onto long skewers. An entire pineapple for 7¥ ($1.5) seemed a reasonable price to pay for a snack as we walked along the island’s meandering paths.

View of Queshi from the Shantou side of the sea

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Our goal was the pagoda we had seen every morning we walked along our side of the harbour. On our way up the mountain, we explored a series of naturally formed granite caverns with such enchanting names as “Rainbow Lying Cave,” “Happy Fate Cave,” “God’s Shoe,” “The Platform for Watching Sight of Flame Mount,” and “Three-Tier Cave Toilet” (on second thought, maybe that last one was 2 separate stops…)

View of Shantou from the Queshi side of the sea! 

Terrifyingly steep steps into the caves!

Lovely lunchtime stop
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Giant Buddha (only after an entire photo sesh with G.B. did we realise we had been sitting in front of a sign that read, in Chinese, that pictures cost 2¥ each… and consequently a terrifying encounter with the giant security guard ensued)

After eating lunch in the pagoda at the mountain peak and paying our respects to giant Buddha back down on the ground, we headed back to the ferry. Before we had even landed back on mainland, we were already receiving WeChats from our host students, inviting us out for an evening of quintessential Chinese cultural fun: KTV.

KTV (aka karaoke) is more than just a past time in China… it’s practically an art form. Whole streets are lined with massive KTV buildings, each hosting a multitude of private rooms where groups can order food & drinks and custom-create a karaoke setlist of K-Pop and the newest Swifty singles. At KTV, the most stoic and shy of students suddenly comes into their own and discovers their latent pop stardom, belting out sexy ballads with no restraint or reserve whatsoever!

Post-KTV, we were up bright and early to board the bus taking us to a village about 2 hours from Shantou. Interestingly enough for a self-declared Communist country, healthcare is not publicly funded in China, and therefore many citizens cannot afford basic medications or even a simple doctor’s visit. Thanks to Guangdong-born Hong Kong billionaire philanthropist, the Li Ka-Shing foundation has instituted numerous charitable works to address health inequities across the country, including the one we were participating in that morning – Medical Aid for the Poor (MAP). Once a month, MAP physicians set up free clinics in villages near Shantou, providing free medications, blood pressure readings, and specialist consults. They also provide home visits for any rural citizens unable to transport themselves to the clinic.

My lunch at MAP won the honour of being the most interesting food I have ever eaten to date: I was so proud of myself initially for trying what I was convinced was liver, since I had never had that before. But when I checked in with my Chinese friend, she blithely corrected me: “Oh no, those are blood clots. Maybe pig? Probably dog.”

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Home visits & tour of the village temple

Since we were spending so much time in “small town” China (remember that Shantou’s population is a mere 5 million), we thought we should grab the chance to see big city China at its most iconic: Hong Kong.

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For being so close to Shantou, it was a headache and a half to actually make our way to HKSAR. A chartered car, a bullet train, a subway, a walk through two sets of customs, and another subway later, we were finally in our Hong Kong home for the weekend – an itty bitty hostel room on the 14th floor. The rule was that some part of each person had to be touching their bunk at all times, otherwise there was not enough space for us all in the room!

Hong Kong had some noteworthy features: milk tea, pork floss toast, the mind-blowing bus ride up to Victoria Peak (call me small town, but I have never seen buildings rising up higher than the surrounding mountains!!), and the hilarious experience of finding our way up to the “Highest Bar in the World” and negotiating with the hostesses and fellow patrons for rented pants so our male compatriots could actually enter the bar (because apparently, while shorts are incredibly offensive and inappropriate, ankle-skimming polyester gems passed around to 3 different gentleman in 1 hour are far, far more acceptable). However, in general, I do not feel the need to go back to HKSAR. I feel so privileged to have spent the majority of my time in “small town” China that actually felt unique, and not simply like a crowded version of any forgettable kitschy American town.

Buildings, buildings everywhere…

The day after arriving back in Shantou from HKSAR, we were again packed into a bus, this time to trek several hours to Nan’ao island, where we spent a lazy day hiking up to yet more pagodas, watching our bus driver carve roast chicken with his bare hands, and getting yelled at by locals for daring to swim in the ocean (apparently, that’s just not done).

All in all, our Shant”outings” made an already memorable exchange even more extraordinary. And after three weeks of this, I still had a week of true holidays left…
(To be continued!)

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Barefoot to White Coat

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Having returned from my three months of out-of-province electives, I settled back into the swing of things at home… at least for the next two months 😉 I was at home just long enough to do some CaRMS interviews for my upcoming residency specialty training, complete my final undergraduate OSCE (a lengthy clinical exam with actors pretending to be patients suffering from a variety of weird and wonderful ailments), and spend an incredible month working with the Program of Assertive Community Treatment (aka PACT), a service provided at home to individuals with severe and persistent mental illness, helping them stay out of hospital and maintain their independence in the community.

March 1 was Match Day, the day where medical students all across the country are informed which specialty program they have been accepted into; or in other words, the day we find out what type of medicine we will be practicing for the rest of our careers. I was beyond thrilled to match to my first choice of Family Medicine – Northern-Remote stream, a specialized Family Med program designed to address inequities in access and quality of healthcare for Canadians living in rural and remote areas, particularly those of Indigenous descent. While every Family Med program across Canada offers excellent medical training, I was drawn to the Northern-Remote stream for its unique decolonizing vision and immense scope of practice. And now, as of July 1, I will be a member of its team!!

“Plan B” theme party on Match Day Eve – Joshua and I showed up as WWOOFers, to nobody’s surprise!

Match Day!!

Even after some epic Match Day celebrations, the adventures were not over! Two days after the Match, I boarded a plane along with three other med students, and two days after that, we landed in Shantou, China, a “small town” of only 5 million people in the Guangdong province, nestled on the coast of the South China Sea.

Our apartment complex and view from my window

Seven minute walk from my apartment to the harbour!

The four of us had the immense privilege of being chosen to participate in an international medical exchange with one of our sister universities. Every day for three weeks, we toured two different hospital wards, ranging from Neonatology to Hepatobiliary to Orthopedic surgery. An English-speaking physician was assigned to us on each ward and would accompany us on bedside rounds of their patients.

The brain tumour research hospital… appropriately shaped.

Shantou “Hospital #1”

Bedside rounds & teaching


There were a number of striking differences in the Shantou hospital wards compared to our Canadian wards, but the most notable by far was the organization of care. In North America, family physicians (known in the past as “GPs”) are the first stop for the vast majority of patients. Sore throats, earaches, slipped discs, period problems, prostate problems, depression, pregnancy… most health concerns can be treated directly by a family doc, but if need be, the patient is then referred to the appropriate specialist for more unusual and complicated health conditions.

This type of healthcare organization, aka with a “primary care” focus, is rare in China, and the vast majority of individuals in China bypass primary care physicians and attempt to access specialists directly for all healthcare concerns. In other words, if you have a headache, you try to see a neurologist. A cough and sore throat? You hope to somehow snag an appointment with a respirologist. Partly this is due to cost: with China’s three-tiered system, individuals are required to pay for most services out of pocket, so patients do not want to risk having to pay a family physician and subsequently pay another fee to a specialist. Furthermore, there is a strong historical component that has cultivated a sense of mistrust towards the idea of primary care.

Several decades ago, the concept of “primary care” referred to farmers in rural areas who received a mere 3 months of training by urban medical professionals, in an attempt to address healthcare access issues for the enormous rural Chinese population (which represented 80% of the total Chinese population during the 1970s and 1980s). While these “barefoot doctors,” as they came to be known, provided some relief to the healthcare crisis, their training and medical expertise was understandably unequal to that provided in tertiary care centres staffed by fully trained physicians. The barefoot doctor system eventually collapsed under economic policies introduced during the Cultural Revolution.

Family Medicine was only introduced as an official specialty in Chinese medical schools in 1999. In 2009, new health reforms were put in place in response to rising public frustrations over difficulties in accessing professional medical care, as well as the steep prices associated with healthcare. The Chinese government instituted a goal of training 300 000 family physicians by 2020; even this impressive number, however, would still only provide 0.2 family doctors for every 1000 citizens (in comparison, consider that there are 1.17 family docs per 1000 Canadians – ~6x more than in China – and that is still woefully inadequate!!)

Some may think that China’s approach to healthcare is actually more effective; after all, cutting out the middle step of a family physician should likely result in faster and better service, right? On the contrary. Since 2009, primary care use in China has decreased, while visits to hospitals and specialist services have increased significantly. And sadly, death from all causes, money spent on healthcare, and inequity between rural and urban health measures have also increased in China. Multiple studies have shown that regular primary care improves health outcomes and reduces time spent in hospital. But unfortunately, in China, people with multiple different health concerns tend to use specialist and hospitalist care over regularly seeing a family physician. Moreover, people with lower incomes tend to have poorer access to primary care services, and therefore are at a higher risk for poorer health outcomes in general.

The partnership between our university and Shantou has been an exciting adjunct in addressing the primary care gap in China. While in Shantou, Canadian Family Medicine faculty and residents were very involved in giving lectures to and leading discussion groups with Shantou medical students and residents.

It was fascinating to discuss both the differences in clinical approaches between China and Canada, but also realize just how many similarities existed between our sites. As one preceptor stated, “We are all just trying to provide the best care possible to our patients.”

Piqhiqpaa? Piqhinngittuq.

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ᐱᖅᓯᖅᐹ? (Blizzard; Is there a … ?)
ᐱᖅᓯᙱᑦᑐᖅ. (Blizzarding; It is not .)

When one kind of accidentally realizes they’re going to be away from home for 3 months, the option of trying to see one’s spouse occasionally comes to mind. Josh and I tossed around endless possibilities, trying to find what made most sense: Should he come to Toronto, about the halfway point of my travels, which would also give him the chance to see his cousins? Should he come to Ottawa, getting to stay with my family and one of his best buddies, but then would that be silly if I was going to be in Winnipeg (albeit very briefly) the next weekend? At the back of our minds in all these discussions was the dream of him visiting me in Rankin, but it remained firmly in dreamland. While I knew his intrigue for Nunavut was at least equal to my own, we also knew that flights to the Territories are prohibitively expensive at the best of times, let alone for a brief weekend visit.

Air miles, on the other hand? Apparently cheaper to get to Rankin than Ottawa.

And suddenly our complicated decision-making got a whole lot simpler!

His flight blew in Thursday night, just hours ahead of a blizzard that would shut down the town the next morning, leaving us with an open day to explore Rankin in the daylight. With sunset sweeping the skies by 2:30PM, extra daylight hours are not something to take for granted!

11:30AM

2:30PM

Josh’s welcome feast of leftover birthday kwak and maqtaq… I assured my host he most definitely would NOT mind leftovers, particularly of this variety!

Josh trying his hand at the ulu, under Aanak’s watchful eye

Aanak’s expert ulu wielding

Sadly leaving Josh at home, I blindly made my way to clinic through the gusting snow on Friday morning, only to be informed an hour later that we were now shut down. Apparently there’s an Environment Canada gnome who sits on high and makes the call of Blizzard or Non… and apparently he slept in on Friday. Gnome needs to get his act together!

As I struggled back home and was swept in through the door by the winds, I was greeted by my host and her friend having coffee. “Pshh” they scoffed. “This isn’t even a real blizzard. You can still see the car in the driveway.”
…I’d love to know what Toronto would think of this system.

Josh’s visit fortuitously fell on a Flea Market weekend, where the whole hamlet gathers at the arena to hawk traditional felted banners, sealskin gloves, hand-sewn parkas, and spring rolls from the Filipino family in town. We continued our shopping expedition by combing through every inch of the tiny but packed craft store Ivalu, stocked by artisans throughout Nunavut.

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We then holed up at The Matchbox Gallery for a few hours, hearing the fascinating history of the ceramics studio from the artist-teacher gallery owner Susan Shirley. After the original nickel mine closed in the 1960s, Matchbox was first opened as a government-run program to train ex-miners in a new craft: sculpting and ceramics. When government funding ran out, Jim and Sue Shirley took over the gallery and continued coordinating art classes and studio space for local artists, “preserv[ing] the reputation of Rankin as the only community producing Inuit fine-arts ceramics in the world.” You can find Rankin work at the National Gallery of Canada, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and throughout Europe and the USA.



Sunday however, was my favourite day, when we finally did what I’ve been wanting to do since I first arrived: Venture out of town and onto the land.

Perfect weather for an adventure!

Sea ice waves still struggling to surge in the tide of Hudson Bay

Dabbing at Char River … inevitable when one of your hosts is 9 years old

Photos could not begin to capture the ethereal beauty of this deep port bay

Classic Canadian method of warming up frozen toes and fingers

This time, it was only a weekend. But we will continue to seek out those beautiful and wild places we may one day call home together!

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For anyone who read to the end of this most momentous post, congratulations!!! Thank you for sharing in saratreetravel’s ONE HUNDREDTH POST!!! The first person to post a comment containing a limerick or haiku about their favourite travel adventure will be contacted personally by saratree and receive a Northern prize (that may or may not be fermented walrus, depending on the rest of Calm Air’s passengers feel about that… but I have a feeling they’d be down).

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ᖁᕕᐊᓱᒃᑐᖓ (quviahuktunga!)*

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Being the youngest of four kids with nine years between my older sister and I, the (almost) youngest of a large extended family, and a December baby to boot, I am in the unique position of having a long period of observation of others celebrating birthday milestones before it is my own turn. This year in particular has seen high school friends one after another celebrate / bemoan / shrug off / enthusiastically embrace the big 3-0.

30 seems to strike more significantly than 20. At 30, many people around me have long graduated from post-secondary training, are more settled in long-term relationships, are starting to gain confidence in their current career… and sometimes more importantly, are truly starting to question if they are comfortable where they are and what they want to do about it if not. At 30, we are in the unique position of having gained some essential life perspectives, and are now wanting to go back and apply that needed perspective to all the important decisions we made during our 20s!

For myself, I am still in school (and damn Med still makes me call it an “undergrad”), having taken a number of years between my first undergraduate degree and entering Medicine. I have already had one life-changing career as a biochemical technician in an interdisciplinary research lab, but even at the time, I knew it was a career that would not be permanent. I am in a relationship with the same individual I have been with since I was 20 (!!!), but both him and I have changed so much and spent just as many intense days living our individual lives apart from each other as together that it sometimes seems as though we have had a number of different unique and life-changing relationships with each other. And through everything, I have never stopped questioning if I am comfortable where I am at, and what I should do about it.

My difficulty in making decisions is a running family joke, whether it’s ordering ice cream at BDI or choosing a university degree. I’m often tempted to succumb to the general mantra that I should be done university already / have a permanent career already / have bought a house already / have kids already / spend more time with my husband already. But I am thankful that I was raised with a joy of pursuing the unique and the unknown.

Talk about people paving their own way… who needs a road when a field is right there!

I grew up with a conservative small-town Ukrainian Baptist mom… who eschewed all norms and moved to Flin Flon on her own for her first nursing job. A cousin who, when I wistfully talked about wanting to take a trip after graduation, asked, “Well, where are we going?” and sent me an email the next day with flight itineraries to Rome. Inspiring preceptors who see their role as physicians to recognize inequity and take action now to address it, no matter how unpopular it makes them with more mainstream medical colleagues. A best friend I met at camp when I was just 14, who also loved spontaneous road trips and was willing to move to Argentina for a year to live in a tent and wanted to learn firsthand from Northern Manitoba populations and threw himself wholeheartedly into recording an album when he already had a full-time job.

And yet another of my heroes: The Nunavut Cyclist

As I sat down on the eve of my 30th birthday to contemplate life and things (as I felt one should do on the last day of their 20s), I realized just how thankful I am to have surrounded myself with people who not only recognize the life-shaping value in pursuing the unique and unknown, but have embraced it for themselves.

With pursuit of the unique and unknown as my guiding philosophy for the last 3 decades, it seemed very fitting to celebrate this decade turnover in Nunavut, living with an Inuit family, learning a craft that inspires and terrifies me (aka Medicine), and surrounded by one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.

Impromptu breakfast performance by my host and her “throat singing soulmate”

The morning of my birthday, I heard my host yelling to her 9-year old son, “Run to annanaqa’s (auntie’s) and grab the maqtaq for tonight!” After a busy day at the health centre, I walked home and found cardboard already spread on the ground, graced by 2 massive chunks of frozen meat: maqtaq (beluga) & tuktu (caribou). My host busily laid the cardboard table: uluit at the ready for slicing thin strips of tuktu, small dishes of soy sauce and hot butter and onions for dipping, Greenlandic Aromat spice. It was enlightening chatting with my host’s sister the other night, who told me, “I hate it when Southerners assume we’re all poor because we eat on the ground. We always eat on the ground for certain foods, even if we have a table. You can’t cut maqtaq on a table.” Or as my host put it, “People with food on the floor are rich.”

“These Pampered Chef knives have a lifetime warranty. I’ve already had 3 replaced. The last time, the customer service rep asked me what I did to the knife, and I told him I was trying to cut a caribou head open. He told me, ‘Ma’am, you probably shouldn’t do that again.’”

Aftermath!

I still catch myself looking for a restart button on my decisions. Yes, I could have been graduated from Med at this point and been an attending physician already for 3 years. But then I wouldn’t have toured Great Britain with my chamber choir while at Prov for a year, igniting my passion for music and travel. I wouldn’t have built on my French at CUSB. If I didn’t work at camp all those summers, sacrificing some connections in the city, I never would have been on the drama team, wouldn’t have been at FRBC that night, wouldn’t have asked Josh for a ride or Michelle for her mom’s contact information for a lab job. If not at the lab, then I wouldn’t have learned about social determinants of health or interdisciplinary collaboration, or first been challenged by my own racism. If not for those 2 years in Nursing, I wouldn’t have built my interviewing skills, wouldn’t have taken Economics or Native Studies. If not for all my university wanderings, I wouldn’t have run into Josh again at Fort Garry campus – so no band, no Argentina, likely no learning a third language, definitely a lot less love. I wouldn’t be me, with all the experiences and empathy I can offer to my future patients.

I also struggle with the trap of worrying about how much time I’m ‘wasting’ before getting to start living my life. The only thing that is a waste of time is that thought. A life does not start once I start receiving a regular paycheque or making regular down payments or having a regular address that my bills can be sent to. All these things that I’m doing or have done – studying, arguing with MPs, putting my thoughts in order on this blog, exploring new locations for a week or for 8 months or for 10 years, putting in sutures for the 1st time and the 50th time, going to my mom’s for supper, going to Nunavut for supper – This is my life and I’m living it right now!

While hard to see in the moment, it was an incredible exercise to sit down on December 4 and trace the path where my decisions have led me thus far, all I would have missed if I had chosen differently, and all the unknown opportunities still open before me. I am so thankful for this life, shaped by the pursuit of the unique and unknown!

* “Quviahuktunga” (ᖁᕕᐊᓱᒃᑐᖓ) = Happy (I am…)