Travel writing



Breakfast with Two Spanish Men

Still in my pyjamas, I pull up a stool at the Hostel Marino bar to join the two men already seated there. Those are probably the same two stools they select every morning and have been filling every morning for the past 20 years. Their faces are brown and weathered from the hot Evissa climate, their smiles are skeptical of my red hair and fair skin.

Resting my elbows on the dark, shiny bar, I ask for a cappuccino. Don't confuse me for a finicky-milk steaming-espresso-packing-know-it-all. It's my fifth week being in Europe, I know that my hostel isn't going to have a fresh pot of filtered coffee sitting on a hot element, ready to fill a mug. Who in their right mind would want that at 10 am on a Monday? Who would make themselves drink that watered down crap at any time of the day? Oh well. 

The bartender, also the owner of the family-run hostel, is making my drink in between talking to her six-year-old behind the counter and responding to the older mens' morning banter. 

I can only imagine what their comments are as they watch her spoon the frothy milk onto my espresso. She's explaining to them what it is and they chuckle "ohh cappuccino". They continue to watch the coffee phenomenon as they finish their own espresso shots in two gulps. 

A third man comes in and joins the twosome. Without missing a beat, the bartender places a shot glass in front of him and fills it with a purple liquid. Grape schnapps. I now notice they've all had a shot of the schnapps before their coffee. 

They serve a morning glass of schnapps the way I want a large morning cup of coffee; quick and without a doubt. I now understand why my choice of beverage was so funny to them. Maybe tomorrow I'll ask for liquor and make a few friends instead of being such a weirdo drinking a cappuccino.

Jupiler Beer and Belgian Fries

Dinner has arrived finally, after much anticipation. The buzz since arriving in Belgium is the fries. No, not French fries. They will correct you. Short, thickly cut, and tasting like the golden brown oil they were cooked in. It's all washed down with a Jupiler beer during the few breaks you must take in order to catch your breath and check your pulse.

I take a moment to scan the room that's filled with people who all know each other quite well. Me and my own cousins grew up having many family gatherings just like this one. They sort themselves out into the according age groups and have sodas and chips while parents chat and fill glasses.

Being here is completely random when I stop to breakdown why I am in this moment with this Belgian family who are all speaking Flemish. They are family, one way or another, as it turns out. I am somehow related to these people whom I don't know half their names, and the reason they come together is for me.

A kiss, kiss, kiss, to both cheeks, and introductions that are warm and familiar, all make me feel like I've been away for a really long time and I've finally decided to return and visit my roots. 

I am bounced around from one person to the next, answering the same questions repeatedly about my trip, my schooling and how I am liking their country.

The night starts to cool off and people begin to yawn, kids are leaning on moms shoulders. I watch the hostess clearing dessert plates and teenagers leaving to meet up with friends. I can't help but think how it took nothing but a great, great, great cousin or uncle or brother to connect us to one another way back in our family tree. It made this many people come together on their Friday night.

Everyone is seeking out eye contact with and smiling to a girl from Canada who is in town for a week and we know nothing about her. All we need to know is that she is related to us and we will hug her and welcome her and feed her. I could very well feel like a complete stranger in this moment. Someone could walk into the room and tell me I'm actually at the wrong party and I would believe every word because that's how random it was.

Yet, as I hug goodbye to the people I met only hours before, I already feel sad. Family is family.

Why I Love Winnipeg

Someone is smoking a cigarette and the smell doesn’t bother me. If anything, I like it. When the air is crisp, yet the sun is hot, the tobacco seems aromatic.

Drivers honk their horns and service trucks rev their engines. People of all kinds come and trample over the main hub of the city, either leaving work, walking home, or waiting for a bus.

The smell of turmeric, curry and garlic waft out from a restaurant window. The smell makes my stomach growl, a shawarma sounds amazing right now.

I don’t understand any of the languages around me. I know those two young guys are speaking in Spanish but the two women sitting on the bench waiting for the #19 are speaking something entirely different.

The buildings here tower with character and hold the history of a black and white photograph. Curly details on every corner of every building and window sill are carved into the cement.

The sun manages to get even hotter. I wore a scarf for the morning breeze and now I wonder why we all aren’t wearing shorts and sandals.

I am standing at Portage and Main, waiting for my bus to pick me up and take me over the bridge to my teeny apartment. But for the 12 minutes I have to wait for my bus to arrive, I pretend I am in a European city.

I’ve been to Barcelona, Brussels, and London. I’ve waited at bus stops with a 40-pound backpack. I’ve gone three months listening to the people around me speaking either Flemish, French, German, or Spanish.

Standing here in Winnipeg, Manitoba, it feels exactly like all of those things.

So for a moment, I am there, overseas, in a hectic city centre. I get to be there again. I pretend I don’t have an assignment due tomorrow, or a group project tonight. I am a tourist, and it’s pretty freakin’ cool.

I want you to try this. Next time you are standing somewhere, pretend it’s somewhere else.

For me I didn’t have to fake much. I really did feel like I was somewhere exotic. The languages, the colours, the restaurants, the clothing.

Going for a walk downtown is a celebration of our multi-cultured city. Travel is mostly smells, tastes and sounds. It’s an energy. It’s the pulse of a city.

I think it’s pretty rad that Winnipeg allows me to go places without ever having to leave.


Long Trains, Big Skies, and Friendly People

Home is in southern Manitoba. The Minnedosa Valley is just about smack in the middle of Canada. Most people would say that it’s very flat where I live, but you soon understand there are different degrees of flatness when you start driving West on the Trans Canada Highway.

It's actually quite beautiful. My mother says she remembers long drives from Melita to Riding Mountain National Park in the summer and whenever they were descending into the Minnedosa valley after seeing field of yellow canola after flat field of canola, she used to say “This is God’s country.”

I agree with her every time I come back.

Your first glimpse of the town is framed like a picture if you enter under the train bridge that arches over the #10 highway. The bridge has been artistically decorated with graffiti by the great high school legends that held onto the inch-wide ledge to shimmy into the centre of the bridge to leave their mark on this town. The rest of us holding our breath as semi’s tore down the highway underneath them.

Once you’ve passed under the bridge, you are given a panoramic view of the storybook image.

There’s no castle in this story but there’s an ethanol plant that stands pretty tall and pumps out clouds of white clouds day in and day out, the clouds let you know that you’re almost home.

The Little Saskatchewan River politely finds it’s way through the streets and around the houses and out to the rest of the empty stretch of valley.

The faces of the surrounding hills are bare for the most part but their creases are lined with dark oak trees and small paths made by the hundreds of deer that call this place their home as well.

Maybe this morning the valley has a blanket of fog haunting it or maybe it’s late October and all of the Poplar leaves are yellow. The next day the trees will suddenly be bare and cold; ready for a Halloween snowfall.

One of my favourite drives into Minnedosa is in December. They say hell freezes over here and they’re right. Every day of winter is a reminder of how many days are left until summer.
But when it’s 5:30pm and the sun is already just about gone, there’s a yellow glow against the surrounding chilly blue hues. The puffs of white smoke coming out of chimneys make it look like a scene from a Christmas book. This is a sight only us locals will know, unless you are in town for a weekend of minor hockey. If not, then it’s the summer months and our manmade lake that bring the outsiders to visit our paradise.

People from surrounding towns come from all over for a week of roasting hotdogs, laying on the hot, clumpy sand and diving for clams in the leech filled water.

I’ve lived in big cities and I’ve met people who tell me that they too, are from a small town. I later find out that their idea of a small town is a graduating class of 500 students.

Even I can feel wrong calling Minnedosa a small town in comparison to a few other communities around here. If you’re from Clanwilliam or Basswood, it’s just a group of families living where a grain elevator used to be and they all take turns cutting the grass at the cemetery in the summer.

Whether it grows or it shrinks, whether it changes or stays the same, I know I’ll be back again and again.

Home is where there are long trains, big skies and friendly people.

The Ibiza Sunburn

I have had every hour on the clock relentlessly stare back at me tonight. 1am, 2am, 3am, f**king 5am. 

My name is Cassandra and I admit I am guilty of searching my symptoms on Google in the middle of the night, as many of us are, only to find out I have a rare mutation and should seek immediate medical attention. Last night was no different as I banged my head against the wall (not kidding) and itched every inch of my stomach and back as fast as I could in order to get every tormented spot.

I had been a little itchy during the day but we all know everything gets 13 times worse when night time rolls around.

For the first time ever, I wasn't going to die in 24 hours and didn't need emergency surgery. It was nothing but a post sunburn itch. Post sunburn Bitch.

They call it "Hell's Itch" or "Satan's Itch" from what I have gathered by scrolling through multiple forums on the glorious Internet. It's such a comfort to know there are hundreds of other itchy people out there who have made this same desperate Google search at the same absurd time of night and formed a lovely community out of it. 

Moms everywhere are shaking their head because sunscreen would've prevented all of this torture. And you're right, it would have. In my case, I did use it, but SPF 25 isn't enough apparently. I also wasn't excited to ask the Spanish hombré in a speedo to get the tricky spot on my back that I couldn't reach. 

"Satan's Itch" occurs when the second layer of skin has been burned and is healing. Imagine bugs crawling under your skin. "It's a madness-inducing itch. It is an itch that has brought U.S. Marines to their knees and trumped the pain of childbirth for mothers."

Here is the most helpful list I stumbled upon while sobbing and twitching on the cool bathroom tile of the hostel. (Momentarily relief).

"Contrary to what most people seem to believe, it is quite easy to overcome the demonic itch. Here’s a quick list of possible solutions:
1 – Death: instant pain relief.
2 – Scalp yourself: unfortunately it usually implies (1)."

Advil, Benadryl and peppermint oil are also on the list so maybe I will try them first.
(Pre-apologies to the innocent human that gets to sit beside me on my flight today. Welcome to hell.)