Tuesday, June 21, 2016

PSA: Kayaking in Roatan


Every once in a while, I decide to use this platform for a public service announcement. Whether it's about how much to tip your divemaster or all the things your dive instructor won't tell you, sometimes I leverage the fact that I rank highly in Google searches about Roatan to get the word out about something that I consider important and I'm okay with that.

This time, it's going to be in the name of safety.

If you are planning to kayak during your visit to Roatan, please read this entire post.

I read yet another story of a kayaker going missing off of Roatan today. The story posted by officials is below my opinion. The next bit is all me:

While I am incredibly proud of all my Roatan friends who selflessly executed this successful search and recovery of a missing kayaker, I am tired of this happening several times a year to tourists on the island. People have died in the past - this is not a joke! Tourists and locals alike need to step up to prevent these incidents. These incidents need to STOP.

Visitors need to respect Roatan Marine Park rules by wearing lifejackets while on the ocean, and need to take responsibility for themselves by practicing proper ocean-going protocols: finding out about currents and appropriate locations to kayak, always using the buddy system, not drinking before kayaking and knowing their physical limits + staying within them. Sunset kayaking has been a factor in nearly all of these situations. The sun sets early on Roatan (around 6pm every day of the year) and rescue operations cannot go at night. Do not kayak outside the reef any time near sunset.

Tour operators, watersports rentals, hotels and locals on Roatan also need to provide correct and honest information to tourists. I have seen too many people willing to make a buck to rent a kayak and telling people who have never kayaked before "oh, it's fine, just go out there wherever you want, have fun". No mention of currents, boat channels, lifejackets, not paddling over divers, etc. The currents outside the reef around the West Bay/point area are extremely strong and most people are not prepared for them. Locals have a responsibility too, to value safety over a dollar.

I hope this is the last missing kayaker story I read out of Roatan. I also hope this individual makes an attempt to compensate the Roatan Marine Park, Tradewinds Helicopters, and the US and Honduran military teams for their efforts. People, please be safe out there. There are ways to enjoy kayaking and other watersports safely on Roatan. Don't make stupid mistakes that could cost you your life. Imagine this guy's wife and kid watching him drift out to sea, unable to paddle back to the island - how horrible for them.

Photo by Fernando Baron. More photos and videos by Fernando Baron of this rescue are available on this Facebook post.

 Official story from the Roatan Marine Park:

To some, this story will seem familiar. And it is. The truth is that we face incidents like this several times a year here on Roatan. This past week, an American visitor to Roatan went missing in a kayak off the point.

On Friday afternoon a man and his wife and child went out by kayak off the point, at the Roatan Meridian. The wife and child planned to snorkel and after doing so, found that the man had been pushed out much further than expected in his kayak. The man, still in the kayak, was being pushed quickly out to sea. The woman and child were able to swim back to shore.

At 5:30pm, the Roatan Marine Park received notification of the missing man. The location and description of the kayak were reported and Rangers immediately went out to search. Other boats were also searching the area off the point. Due to weather and light conditions, the search was called off at 10:00pm, the choppy waves were also making it difficult. The Roatan Marine Park notified the US Embassy along with the US Military Alpha Bravo Team as well as all Honduran authorities.

At 5:30am on Saturday, the search began again by sea accompanied by Paul Kendall of Trade Winds Helicopters SA Roatan in the air. At this point, the search took to the North coast of the Utila area. Around 6:00am, the Marine Park boats had to refuel. The search resumed, this time focusing on the North coast of Roatan moving towards Utila.

Marine Park Director, Giaco Palavicini flew in the helicopter with pilot Paul Kendall as they searched the area Saturday morning. You may remember from a previous story that it was Giacomo Palavicini who entered the water from Paul Kendall’s helicopter during the last rescue effort to save a family and baby lost at sea around Semana Santa of this year.

At around 7:00am on Saturday morning, about 10 minutes into the flight, Palavicini spotted the lost kayaker and alerted the pilot who zeroed in on the man’s location, approximately 5 miles North of West Bay. At this point, Palavicini prepared to do a rescue jump into the ocean. He was prepared with a first aid kit, inflatable life raft, water, a radio and cell phone. He jumped, approximately 28 feet into the open ocean below.

After retrieving the supplies, dropped from the helicopter after his entry, Palavicini swam to the man’s kayak and checked his condition. The man was thrilled to have been spotted but exhausted and dehydrated, having spent the night on the open ocean. Palavicini boarded the kayak in the second seat and took over paddling to keep the kayak from straying too far from their location. He continued engaging the man in conversation to keep him awake. The helicopter continued to hover over their location while they waited for a boat to arrive which took approximately 30-45 minutes.

The boat, the Wasted Seaman arrived with Captain Arthur Johnson, a deck hand and a staff member from the Meridian. They picked up the two men and the kayak and brought them back to shore. The boat arrived to the dock at Infinity Bay where Ms. Peggy Stranges of Clinica Esperanza (where the man’s visiting group was volunteering) was waiting to check the man’s condition.

Happy to be safe and reunited with his family, the man was back in time to catch his previously schedule flight home later that same day.

This story has a happy ending and the Roatan community, again has reason to be proud as individuals worked hard to locate and rescue this visitor to our island. But not all stories like this have a happy ending. Too often the current takes kayakers out further than they plan to paddle, surprised by the sudden change in the strength of the wind, the waves, the current. Often visitors are associating their outing with kayaking they have done on a river or lake and they are caught off guard by the strength of the open ocean as they move far enough out that the island is no longer blocking the wind. And while the Roatan Marine Park works hard to remind everyone that life jackets need to be worn for such activities, often they are not taken seriously. Events like this are a reminder that safety is not to be taken lightly.

The Roatan community thanks all who were involved in the search, who took time out of their days, away from jobs and family, and who used their resources to execute another successful rescue. A special thanks to helicopter pilot, Paul Kendalll, Fernando Baron, our brave Roatan Marine Park Director, Giaco Palavicini and all those who dispatched their boats and efforts.

Enough is enough. Make this the last missing kayaker story on Roatan.


Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there's that.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

5 Tips for Traveling to Armenia


Have you already planned a trip to Armenia? If this is your first visit to the country, you should find useful information in advance. It will help you to plan your vacation and have a minimum of situations that could worsen your days in this beautiful sunny country. Here are 5 tips for a perfect holiday in Armenia:

WEATHER

The best time to travel around Armenia is from May to October. In May, the weather is warm and pleasant, and the rains are not so often. The average temperature in the capital is +15/+20 °C. During that time, lots of spectacular colorful national festivals are organized in different corners of the country that are interesting for travelers. Moreover, in May the shelves in the markets start with bright and juicy berries and fruits.

The summer in Armenia is hot, and in the capital it is very dry with an average temperature of +25/+30 °C. In June and August the temperature can reach its peak, so it will not be safe to stay long in the sun. Be sure to have sunscreen, cap or hat and a bottle of water with you.

September and the beginning of October are the most pleasant months. The weather is warm and sunny days predominate over rainy. The shelves are abundant with seasonal fruits and vegetables.


The winter is relatively moderate in the country. In the capital and the whole Ararat Valley it is not cold and it does not snow often, with an average temperature -1/-5 °C. But, winter reigns in the popular ski resort of Tsakhkadzor, with heavy snow and low temperatures. So, the country has all the necessary conditions for winter sport lovers.

LOCAL CURRENCY

Armenian national currency is called dram (AMD). In Armenia, you cannot pay in foreign currency, so when you arrive at the airport you need to exchange currency for paying the transport fare. As in many countries, exchange offices at the airport are not profitable, so you can change not more than $10. In Yerevan, in large supermarkets you will find round the clock exchange offices where it is already possible to exchange the required amount. To find the most favorable exchange rates, you can visit the website www.rates.am where specified courses can be found, as well as addresses of banks and exchange offices.

TRANSPORT

The international airport is located in Yerevan. After arrival you will be able to reach the city center by public transport or by taxi. Public transport is available only during the day, but it is quite convenient for going to the city center. Taxis are available around the clock. The official airport taxi is more affordable and trustworthy, so ask the airport stuff to provide you with a taxi.

By international standards, the fare for public transport and taxis in Armenia is much cheaper than in other countries: 100 AMD ($0.20) is the fee in buses and mini buses, and starting fee in a taxi is 600 AMD ($1.25) and any additional km adds 100 AMD to that price.

If you have a smartphone you can easily use the service of "gg taxi". Download this app if you haven't yet, turn on your geolocation and call a taxi. You will have to wait only for 5-10 minutes.

If you plan to have many excursions in Armenia and do not want to contact any travel agencies, then the best choice for traveling would be to rent a car in Yerevan. There are many options in the capital, those who wish can even rent jeeps and minivans for a group of people.

SHOPPING

Yerevan has several huge shopping malls with many world-known fashionable brands. So, if you plan to buy clothes, accessories, etc. you can visit Yerevan Mall and Dalma Garden Mall.

But if you want to feel all the national peculiarities of Armenia and buy colorful meaningful souvenirs the best choice would be Vernisage – the open-air fair offering a huge choice of hand-made souvenirs including pictures, magnets, khachkars, jewelry and much more.


NATIONAL CUISINE

In Armenian traditional cuisine mainly predominate meat dishes, however there are delicious options for vegetarians as well. Armenian cooks use many kinds of greens and herbs, but in general, the dishes here are not hot at all. The most popular must-try dishes are the following: Armenian barbecue, tolma, white fermented soup spas, meat snack basturma, national sweet cake gata and others.


Thursday, June 2, 2016

So I'm Moving to Japan... WTF


Yeah, so I know I kinda just slid that in there among all my "I'm leaving Roatan for good blah blah blah" stuff lately... "oh and PS I'm moving to Japan".

WTF?

(I know, right.)

It's actually been a really, really, long time coming. To be accurate, about 10 years in the making! Here's the story.

From the time I was a little kid, I have always been fascinated with Japan. Not Asia...not other countries in the area. Just Japan. I wasn't into anime or J-pop, but I was in love with the food, the crazy Harajuku fashion, the precise and efficient infrastructure and the stunning natural geography in the different regions of the country. My anxiety-ridden and obsessive-compulsive self was calmed by the explicit and controlled set of steps in the traditional tea ceremony and flower arranging. When I got to university, I gave up on French after 14 years of conjugating a million verb tenses and enrolled in a Japanese course (hello 2.5 tenses, I love you). I found the local Japanese community and started with language exchange partners (which, if I recall correctly, consisted mostly of us speaking English and eating copious amounts of crappy sushi). I rented out the second bedroom in my condo to a Japanese ESL student and she taught me homestyle Japanese cooking, the Japanese nuance of 'reading the air', and was forever trying to convince me that it was totally sanitary to consecutively share bathwater with your family as long as you all showered first (still a no for me).

When I was in my third year of university in 2006 (hence the 10 years in the making bit), I was walking down a hallway to class when I saw a booth set up with information about the JET Programme. I saw Japanese flags so I stopped. The people at the booth animatedly told me about this program that sent university grads to Japan to team-teach in public schools with the local Japanese English teachers and promote cultural exchange. You got paid a decent salary, flights were covered, free Japanese lessons, rent was subsidized and you got ample time off to explore the country. There's a one-year contract that can be extended up to 3-5 years depending on placement.  Sounded pretty good to me but I wasn't done university yet so I left it in the back of my mind.

Fast forward to my last year of university. By then I had decided I wanted to become a high-powered criminal lawyer because who the fuck knows why. I was applying to law schools left right and center and had completely forgotten about the JET Programme because I have a one-track mind and am somewhat like a goldfish.

After university, I worked as a legal administrative assistant while still trying to get into law schools. Finally I decided it was time to let that dream die, so I did my paralegal certificate and worked as a paralegal. I visited Japan in 2009 on a whim when some friends and I found $400 return flights out of Vancouver and it was the best trip of my life. I had built up Japan for so long in my head I was worried it would disappoint. It did not. I thought about the JET Programme again, but I after doing some serious Googling I realized I didn't really have the background the program was looking for...I didn't have much international experience, I didn't have much volunteer experience, and I had no teaching experience of any kind. So I went back to work as a paralegal. Aaaaaand I hated it.

[Insert massive cubicle throwdown here, everything on this blog, moved to Roatan, became a dive instructor, lived on tropical island for four years, yadda yadda yadda]

Last year on Roatan, I knew things were heading in a downward direction there and I started thinking about JET again. I still had all my interest and passion about Japan, but I now had loads of international traveling experience, experience living abroad, demonstrable initiative in learning a new language in my host country (Spanish and creole), teaching experience (scuba diving!), volunteer experience (charity work), lots of different types of professional work experience the last 10+ years both in my home country and abroad (office, hotel, restaurant, dive shops) and I had taken a TESOL and TEYL certificate online. "Holy shit," I thought, "I might actually have a chance at this now". So I decided to go for it, and applied last fall.

Like any government thing, the JET Programme is a looooooong process. This varies by country, but in Canada the applications open in late September and are due in November. The application is pretty long and detailed, and you need to write an essay and get two bangin' reference letters. Then you wait. If you get selected for an interview, you find out in mid-January. The interviews are held mid-February. Then you wait. If you are selected/alternate/rejected, you find out the last week of March. So end of March rolls around and yay you're in the top 6% of the thousands of applicants and you got a spot. Woohoo! Now....you guessed it... you wait. You know you're going, but you have no idea where. You have to wait till mid-May for your placement! (Have fun answering "I don't know" for months to everyone who congratulates you on getting the job and then asks where you're going.) After you get your placement, you get to wait again to get your contract from your new employer (the Board of Education wherever you're going) and hopefully hear from the person whose position you're taking so they can tell you what you need to know/bring/etc. This can happen anywhere from right after your placement up until THE WEEK BEFORE YOU MOVE. Which is the end of July. Guys, there's a lot of fucking waiting.

To recap...

September 2015: start application
End November 2015: application due
Mid January 2016: notification of interview
Mid February 2016: interview
End March 2016: acceptance notification
Mid May 2016: placement notification
June-July 2016: placement contract and information
End July 2016: fly to Japan

It's almost a damn year of your life to do this thing before you even leave. If you get chosen as an alternate, it's even worse. You could get upgraded anytime until 2017. I have no idea why this program thinks people can put their life on hold for a year+ but luckily I wasn't doing anything with my life anyway so I had time to wait.

But... I got in :) I GOT IN!!!!

I've been placed in a city of about 60,000 people called Naruto, in the Tokushima prefecture. It's located on Shikoku, which is the smallest of the four main islands of Japan. It's pretty rural by Japanese standards but coming from Roatan it's a huge step into the 21st century for me. I'll be an assistant English language teacher along with six other JETs at the public junior high schools. I don't know how many schools I have yet, usually it's a few. They're split between the seven of us. I'm still waiting on all the details from my predecessor. However, I do know the most important detail - there is A/C in my apartment!!

tip of the arrow is right on my city!
I asked for a placement (you get to make three requests which are usually not granted so I don't know why we even do it) up in the far northern part of Japan. Guys, that's up by Russia. I made this request while doing my application in Roatan where I was sweating to death. I ended up being placed in the south, but right on the tip of an island so I'm right by the sea and the mountains. The climate is pretty temperate and no snow! So I actually ended up getting a placement that was a better fit for me than what I asked for anyway. I'm THRILLED with my placement. Shikoku has diving, surfing, mountains and tons of natural beauty. It's also only a couple hours to Kobe and about 3 hours to Osaka. My town is known for some crazy whirlpools where the Pacific Ocean and the Seto Inland Sea meet, is the starting point for the Shikoku Pilgrimage and has the largest art museum in Japan. Also there's a crazy big bridge connecting it to the next island over on the way to Honshu (the main island in Japan). Plus, my prefecture has it's own famous style of ramen (obviously food is still #1 guys).

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I can't wait to get there. The next two months are going to be really busy getting ready but I'm planning to do some more in-depth posts about the application and interview stages of the process because I read a ton of blogs that really helped me prepare, so hopefully I can spread the love by continuing on with that.

For those of you who are only here for the Roatan stuff, I'm not done with it yet and there will still be some Roatan stories sprinkled in here and there until I finish with everything I wanted to write about it. This site will be continuing on with my life in Japan though, and wherever I end up on adventures over there and after that. I'm still going to be posting stuff about diving and hopefully will get a chance to do some diving around Japan and SE Asia while I'm in that corner of the world. If you're looking for an expat Roatan blogger still on the island, both Amanda and I have left permanently but Deb is there! You can always check into my Roatan FAQ page too.

I have no doubt that Japan will provide me with as many adventures and misadventures as Roatan did. I'm living my dream that's been 10 years in the making right now and I couldn't be happier. Someone once told me, "jump and the net will appear" and I've been living my life by that motto ever since. The net will always appear. So I always jump.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there's that.  


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Giving Back: How You Can Help Roatan


One thing I loved about a lot of the tourists I met over the years on Roatan is that many of them had a strong desire to help the island. When you get there and personally witness snippets of the grinding poverty that some people live in, and realize the government is not going to help them, for most people it ignites a fire to do something to give back.

On Roatan there are many worthy charities, some of which I've highlighted before. I highly recommend that all tourists research various ways to help the island before their trip, and to save a little space in their suitcases for items that are desperately needed (please talk to my friend Avi at Not Just Tourists Toronto if you can bring an extra provided suitcase of much-needed medical supplies). It's a good way to give back to your host community and can really connect you to real Roataneans and get a more authentic experience than just laying on the beach being a drunk glutton for a week. I mean, you should do that too, you're on vacation... but only seeing the side of Roatan that the hoteliers and tour operators want you to see is not the real Roatan.

Roatan Charity Ministries (RCM) is a local charity that I have personally worked with in the past and would encourage everyone to look into if you are checking out ways to help the island. Miss Donna Lynn Watler spearheads this grassroots organization and she is a pillar of the local West End community. When people are in dire straits and need help, they call Donna.


I am not a religious person and while RCM is a Christian organization, I have been 'on the ground' with Donna and she focuses on meeting real, urgent basic needs, along with fellowship and ministry as a followup. She goes into the hospital and prison with food and basic hygiene supplies - neither of these basic items are provided by the government in these places and must be brought in by friends and family members who hopefully have enough money to purchase them...otherwise you're shit outta luck. Seriously. I have seen Donna hike into the bush carrying food and drinks for people living off the land in tin shacks who have nothing - and I mean nothing - to their name. I have been with Donna while she receives call after call from people begging for help with food, clothes, a place to stay... the most basic of necessities that they cannot provide for themselves or their families, and there is no government program to help them.

Roatan is a third world country and has a long way to go with assisting its own citizens. In the meantime, charities there are a wonderful way to help if you feel inclined. There is no Red Cross or mega-organization where 80% of donations go to pay inflated administrator salaries. 100% of the donations received by RCM go straight to assisting the needy. Donna uses donations to provide food, shelter, education (school fees, tutoring, uniforms, after-school programs), clothing, basic hygiene and cleaning supplies and more. She also provides Bibles, Christian ministry, a loving word and a hug. I have known Donna for years and she is one of the most kind, generous and genuine souls I have met anywhere on this planet. Her passion for helping people is evident from the moment you meet her. (We once worked together, and all the staff called her mama, me included!)

The week before I left Roatan I was able to help RCM twice and it felt good to be leaving knowing I had helped some of the local people who shared their island with me.

First, we helped four large families in a poor neighborhood whose houses had burned to the ground. Sadly, houses burning down is not an uncommon occurrence on Roatan. Wood construction + shitty unsafe electrical wiring, gas stoves and water heaters, improper storing of flammable items and poor supervision of children (with easy access to matches) often combine with results of houses starting on fire somewhat frequently. While the municipal government finally stepped up to assist the families in rebuilding new (concrete) houses, RCM provided much-needed food and hygiene items for them in the interim. If we did not provide these items for the families, they would not have eaten. There are no fallback plans in Roatan. If you don't have family or friends to provide for you, no one will. This is where RCM steps in.


On my last day on the island, I left Donna with a large suitcase that I didn't need filled with extra items from my house that I wanted to donate before I flew back to Canada. She had received a message from a young man whose house had burned down (uhhh...are you guys seeing the pattern here) who was left with nothing for himself, his wife and small daughter. He had a job, but needed a little hand up while rebuilding his home. After receiving his donations from RCM in my large blue suitcase, he smiled and told Donna his prayers had been answered as he had been praying for help...and also for a suitcase!


You can read more about people RCM has helped (as well as the longer versions of my stories here) on RCM's "People We Have Helped" page. I encourage everyone who wants to help Roatan to check out the charities on the island to find ways to give back. If you'd like to connect with RCM, like their Facebook page, visit their website, or send them a message to find out how you can help.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there's that. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

ICYMI: I'm a Roatan Expat Expert!


Sometimes I forget that not everyone is following me on all my social media channels - so in case you missed it, I wanted to showcase my recent partnership with AirTransat as part of their ExperienceTransat series - I'm the Roatan Expat Expert! (If you were already following along, then I've included something in here for you too... some behind-the scenes photos!)

AirTransat is a Canadian charter airline that flies directly to Roatan from select cities in eastern Canada. If you live anywhere near eastern Canada, TAKE THE CHARTER. Seriously. This is advice coming from someone who has done up to NINE connecting flights to get off Roatan and get back to Vancouver. It's a nightmare. So I'm all about direct flights!!

As part of my partnership with AirTransat, I wrote a few articles and took photos for them that you can check out here:

We also produced a video with the help of local Roatan rockstar video production company Umi Productions. If you've ever wondered what I look like or sound like in real life, or see me diving, here's your chance:


Here are a few behind-the-scenes photos of Saaya from Umi Productions and I as we spent a day filming the video:






It was a lot of fun getting to show off Roatan. Big thanks to AirTransat for letting me be a part of the Transat Expat Expert experience!

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there's that.