My Old Stomping Grounds

my front yard for almost seven years: Beach Avenue, Vancouver

my front yard, 1998-2005: Beach Avenue, Vancouver

I was digging through the archives of my farewell trip through Canada (Lua de Mel 2) last September, and came across these photos I hadn’t uploaded yet. I have many similar photos shot with old cameras from when I lived on Beach Avenue in Vancouver, a place I nicknamed Chez Gail while others called it Hotel Gail because there were always people crashing on my couch, some even staying for months. Good times.

This is one of the downsides of expat life: I don’t know when I’ll see these places up close again. Vancouver is nearly a full day of flying from Portugal (there are no direct flights, only connections) and much more expensive than flying between Toronto and Portugal. But even when I lived in Toronto to Vancouver the flight was expensive; I put as many expenses as I could on my two credit cards using Air Canada’s frequent flyer program to rack up the points. Most of my trips between Toronto and Vancouver (a 4-hour flight) were on points. Since I’m not doing that anymore, I have a feeling it will be a long while before the next trip.

Besides, cities are always changing, and I expect this old round building on Beach Avenue to be demolished at some point and redeveloped to match the rest of the neighbourhood beside the Burrard Street Bridge. When I moved into a west-facing 1-bedroom suite on the 4th floor, I paid $680/month and that was practically unheard of for Beach Avenue back then, even for studios without a view at all. I can only imagine what it must be like now!

my home building for almost seven years: Beach Avenue, Vancouver

my home building 1998-2005

The office where I used to work from May 1998 moved from the hustle and bustle of downtown Vancouver to the sleepy Sunshine Coast in the summer of ’99 and then moved several times on the coast since then. For a few of those years this was my view, and I commuted to the office by airline and ferry for a year between 2008 and 2009 while living in Toronto. I’ve watched many incredible sunsets and sunrises here.

Sunshine Coast, BC

my office view: 2003-2004, 2008

While on the Sunshine Coast, Paulo and I went wandering around the town of Gibsons and ended up on the pier. He took a photo of me taking a photo of the doorway, and you’ll see my shot below his.

You’ll find more photos of the trip in the Flickr album: Lua de Mel 2

Gibsons (Sunshine Coast, BC)

Gibsons, BC (photo by Paulo)

Gibsons (Sunshine Coast, BC)

Gibsons (Sunshine Coast, BC)

12th Blogiversary

Gail at Large's 12th blogiversary

To imagine in 2002 what this blog would look like in 2014 would be like looking into a crystal ball of the internet, something investors and probably most — if not the rest of us — would love to do. (If the blog were a human it would be a tween turning into an adolescent… shudder) Let’s look at how much the internet has changed according to Google:

Google Zeitgeist for 2002, by month. See the total number of websites and users by year throughout history.

Nickelback had the biggest hit of 2002 (more shudder), with “How You Remind Me” (let’s not!), according to the Billboard charts. How about films:

Top-US-Grossing Feature Films Released In 2002, according to IMDB:

  1. Spiderman
  2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  3. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
  4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  5. My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Do you remember who played in the World Cup Final on June 30, 2002 in Japan? Brazil beat Germany, 2-0. It was tears of joy, back then, for Brazil. In case you’ve been living under a rock or have been totally unplugged in the Seychelles this month, World Cup 2014 is a year Brazil would rather forget. Forever.

The year I started writing in this blog, euro banknotes and coins were put into circulation.

I started this blog two years before Gmail was launched. The iTunes Music Store did not yet exist, either. Feeling old yet, blog?

If you talked about the cloud back in 2002, any rational person would just look up at the sky. Today, maybe just your grandma.

This blog predates Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and MySpace. In fact, it’s older than 13 of the 15 top social networking websites as of July 2014 according to eBizMBA – only Classmates (1995) and Meetup (June 2002) have been around longer. If I’d known back then what I know now about the internet, something I would’ve paid more attention to is Dead Links – links to nowhere! This blog is a big link graveyard. I should’ve pasted some excerpts instead, since The Wayback Machine doesn’t save everything. I also dearly wish I’d saved screenshots of the various incarnations of this website interface, or even just the mastheads, a la Dooce. Too late now.

Site statistics aren’t nearly as entertaining anymore now that Google hides keywords from organic search enquiries. Far fewer of these gems, aw. Or this and this. Too bad!

Speaking of statistics, I’ve updated my Excel file, which tells me I posted way more in February this year compared to last year, but that’s no surprise since the Turning 40 Series finale happened on February 5. I also did better in May this year (because last year I went to Portugal to obtain our marriage license).

Blog Stats 2014-07-28 at 4.17.27 PM

2014 also marks the end of an era: Orkut shut down, for good. (That page will probably disappear, too, so here’s the announcement on TechCrunch.) It’s been many years since I logged into Orkut, which is the reason why I wasn’t able to archive the posts and albums from David‘s account or mine. I met a LOT of people through Google’s first social network, not just David. Forum history that’s 10 years old is gone, sadly.

The internet is notorious for short shelf lives, quick expiry dates, trends, and fads. I’ve seen so many sites bite the dust and jump the shark, I can’t even begin to name all the big ones. Some major websites have been “repurposed” — Friendster is now a gaming platform — and serious money is being invested in smartphone and tablet apps. RIM (now Blackberry) is a shell of the company it once was in 2002, its worldwide market share eroded to only 1% in 2014 by Android, iPhone, Windows et al, according to Statistica.com.

It’s a whole different world than it was 12 years ago, even in the blogging world. I’ve web-watched bloggers (and photobloggers) marry, have kids, divorce, come out of the closet, get written up for plagiarism, lose their religion, find another religion, delete their websites, some try and restart them, scale down to a microblog on sites like Tumblr, change their ‘voice’ or reinvent their image. To see so many bloggers virtually explode and implode is pretty dizzying.

Meanwhile, I’ve been quietly blogging along here on a regular basis, under the radar, wrestling with plugins and negotiating prices with domain hosts and experimenting with new layouts and watermarks (yes, even though I loathe watermarks I’ve resigned myself to apply them because of Pinterest — big sigh). No matter how much I mess around with the interface, I fully agree that content is still king, and while many bloggers try and stay motivated to blog with projects like Writing Prompts, Blog Challenges, Weekly Themes, Guest Writers and whatnot, I’ve always had the opposite problem: blogging has become such a habit that it’s like brushing my teeth. Except it takes longer… exponentially longer. If only blogging was as quick as toothbrushing, I’d free up a lot of time spent processing images and thoughts into posts.

Can someone make a plugin for that?

Liebster Award Nomination

Liebster Award Nomination for Gail at Large

While I was in Cabo Verde I was nominated for a Liebster Award Nomination by Vlad from the originally-named travel blog Eff It I’m On Holiday. Thank you very much, Vlad! I will definitely be hitting you up for info when we get around to visiting Romania.

What are the Liebster Awards? Basically, it’s a meme for the blogging community. I have no idea of its origins, and nobody else seems to, either, not even search engines. There are a few basic rules which seem to have evolved over the years, but the general idea is to promote blogs you enjoy, ones that you feel deserve more of a following. How? By answering the questions given by the blogger who nominates you, and in turn making up questions for your nominees. I’ve seen Liebster Awards for blogs across all different topics but this time it’s about travel, although this blog covers quite a few topics apart from travel. I’ve been flying under the radar for many years now, because I spent five years building a photography business and not reading other blogs, just updating my own. I’ve been in a blogging bubble, and only since moving to Portugal have I begun to step outside of it again.

When I saw the questions I thought ‘Oh man, this will take me forever’, but to my surprise I finished it in less than forever! It’s been a long while since I participated in any sort of meme, and will continue my time-honoured tradition of answering memes without nominating. Here goes:

Palau de les Arts

Palau de les Arts (Valencia, Spain)

1. How did you decide to start your blog?

In 2002 I was a frustrated part-time university student and full-time office worker who got sick of writing research reports and long essays. Blogging was a novel way to procrastinate, with the bonus of appearing productive (I’m writing, see!). In those days everyone thought blogging was oversharing and narcissistic, but it was such a relief to rant freely online. Eventually the ranting gave way to other topics. And on a related note, this is why I prefer to write a blog rather than a book.

Moulay Idriss, Morocco

Moulay Idriss, Morocco’s holiest city. Also referred to as ‘the poor man’s Mecca’ because five trips here is the equivalent of one trip to Mecca.

2. Think fast: your top three favorite destinations.

So far: Cuba, Iceland, Morocco, in no particular order.

Vila das Pombas (Santo Antão island, Cabo Verde)

Vila das Pombas (Santo Antão island, Cabo Verde)

3. What country have you always dreamed of visiting and why?

Madagascar. Well, I didn’t always dream about it, only in late 1992 while I was living in Australia. I was in a dance club, and the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen was dancing with me on a catwalk above the crowd. I asked her where she was from and she said Madagascar, and I decided I had to visit this place where such people were made existed. I like to go to places for random reasons, places that I never hear people talk about. I’m much more drawn to them than the ones that get a lot of media.

Air Berlin, Vienna to Rome

Air Berlin, Vienna to Rome

4. If you’ve visited it, what was it like? If you haven’t, are you planning on going anytime soon?

I haven’t visited it yet. A friend of mine in Toronto went last year, but he’s even slower posting photos than I am — I’ve barely seen any! Africa is such a huge continent I’m working my way into it slowly, starting with Morocco in 2007. Cabo Verde, our most recent trip, is “Africa Light” so maybe another island like Madagascar is in the cards, we’ll see. I got married last year so my travel planning is not for one but two, which means I don’t make all the decisions anymore. But it also opens up some activities I’ve done previously alone, like camping or hiking by myself, things I did only rarely because I acknowledge the safety issue.

in Iceland it's open season for... elves?

in Iceland it’s open season for… elves? (click for story)

5. How would you describe your travel style?

Deliberately random, leaving as much room as possible for spontaneity and serendipity. I like a lot of freedom, which is why I have avoided business travel. It may sound glamorous but it’s nowhere near the same, not even the time I was hired to shoot a wedding in Mexico and got to stay in a gorgeous suite at the resort. Believe it or not, but the few times I’ve travelled for work I have always pined for the freedom of leisure travel.

I can't believe that bus made it through the rivers

Stakkholtsgjá and Þórsmörk nature reserve, Iceland

6. What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you while travelling?

It’s only funny now, years later, but at the time it was more like horrifying: I was on a night bus in Germany after celebrating New Year’s in Hamburg. Before I boarded the bus to Amsterdam, I had some drinks with a friend to ease out of a hangover. What a mistake! It was more beer than I could handle without desperately needing the loo, but there was none on the bus, which was packed, and we were on the Autobahn with nowhere to stop. I tried telling the bus driver I had a “medical condition” (my exact words), but he refused to stop the bus. It was dark but with interior lighting I couldn’t get away with anything, especially since I was sitting next to a French guy who could see I was in pee distress and thought it was hilarious. Instead of trying to help or at least look away, he was mocking me and waiting for me to humiliate myself in front of him. It got to the point where I thought I would pass out, so I did the only thing I could think of — remember, I just marinated my brain in booze for New Year’s, I was short of ideas — which was to grab my newly-purchased scarf, pull down my pants, and hope the scarf could take all the beer.

C’mon, what would YOU do?

The French guy gasped, he was loving this. Miraculously, the last-ditch act of pulling down my pants and sitting on the scarf was like a psychological plug on my bladder and the feeling passed. I pulled up my pants and spent the rest of the time before the first stop counting the painted lines on the road. Every time I had the urge to pee, I repeated this weird pants-down-scarf-sitting and it worked. When I arrived in Amsterdam, I had to run away from the French guy, though.

Cabo Verde Escudo

Cabo Verde Escudo

7. Do you have any regrets when it comes to previous trips?

Not following my own system. The (fortunately only) few times I’ve been robbed over the past couple of decades of travel happened because I didn’t follow my own system of securing money. A traveller has to be really consistent with certain things, because all it takes is that one inconsistency mixed with fatigue to let your guard down. It’s one thing to be robbed at home, you can still manage the day-to-day stuff and replace ID easily, but put yourself alone in a different country (especially in a foreign language you can’t speak) and it can turn into a nightmare.

on our way to fly over Manhattan

on our way to fly over Manhattan

8. What are the best and the worst things that have happened to you while flying?

Commercial flying: I opted for an airline-paid layover in Las Vegas a couple of years ago when my plane had mechanical failure (my other option was Buffalo, NY; no contest). Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to get upgraded to business a few times on a bunch of different airlines, most recently was last year on Air Canada. I always wanted to take those opportunities to gossip about celebrities doing stupid things, but there was only once when I got upgraded when I saw someone remotely famous, but I think he’s only famous in Canada. The most embarrassing moment in recent years was when I ordered a kosher meal on a flight to London, for kicks.

General Aviation flying: while flying over Manhattan in the VFR Corridor (my late husband was the pilot) in 2005, I learned the valuable lesson of not drinking anything just before taking such a flight. Won’t do that again!

couchsurfers giving free hugs

couchsurfers giving free hugs at Kensington Market in Toronto

9. How do you prepare for a trip?

Mostly internet research or talking to people I know who have been there. I try to use independent (read: unsponsored) travel blogs or sites geared to independent travellers, rather than forums where the users are resort/cruise people who enjoy being catered to and rate their experience according to service level or the weather (!–seriously, people do this). I use hospitality exchange sites wherever possible, not just to find hosts but to get local advice and to meet up with locals even if I’m not staying with them. (Couchsurfing converted to a B-Corp a few years ago which riled their user base, including us. We recommend BeWelcome as an alternative.)

sunset over Paris

sunset over Paris

10. What’s the one thing you didn’t foresee when you first started your blog?

Haha, I just get one? OK, one thing I didn’t foresee was how many things this blog has brought to me. I’ve had good fortune from it, like getting invited to stay in central Paris with a local, and having my iPod Touch returned to me in Atlanta when I dropped it in a cafe. The blog has also brought me freelance work. But the best part is that I’ve made close friends and interesting acquaintances through its history on the web, people I’d never have met otherwise. It’s like a 12-year old calling card!

Brain Storm

gailatlarge-GEF_3284

If you were to believe any of the nonsense that is horoscopes, you would steer clear of Geminis like me because our brains are totally cluttered and we can’t focus on anything, not even finishing our sentences (or posts!). Anyone who marries a Gemini should read the fine print before signing. We’re like magpies, driven to distraction by any shiny object — trivia, photos, gadgets, weird things on YouTube — that pass before our eyes. Thus, all long-distance trips are prefaced by chaos because of that deadline called The Departure Flight.

This photo was taken a year ago, at our first Azorean accommodation in Ponte Delgada. It was a little loft apartment in Pópulo, accessible only by a private beach using a set of moveable stairs operated by remote control. We loved it! I took this photo from the loft bed which had a great view of the ocean. The apartment also had a washing machine, which I took note of in the accommodation description because I was working like a madwoman in Toronto before the trip — as per usual — and didn’t have time to do laundry… so I packed my dirty laundry and flew it across the Atlantic Ocean and washed it in the Azores.

Because that’s the thing about Geminis, if you believe this to be a trait I share with anyone born mid-year: we always get it donesomehow. It won’t be pretty, and we’ll look crazy in the process. Everything will be predictably haphazard, the more organized bystander will tut-tut over the sleep deprivation and lack of finesse, but the chips fall where they may and they’re usually in our favour.

The Departure Flight is on Saturday. (See above.)

Gail At Large, By Paulo

a rare sighting of Gail at Large

a rare ‘Gail at Large’ sighting

You’ve probably figured out by now, if you’ve been reading for a while, that I’m not into selfies. Sure, lots of photographers take selfies but I’m not one of those photographers — I’m reflective enough without a camera. (Just ask my husband.) I have this blog, which is all me me me, so photos of me in posts in addition to my words are just overkill if you ask… me.

Anyway, now that the preface to this rare photo is out of the way, the byline: this most recent photo of me was taken a week ago by Paulo, when we were at the urban markets in Porto. I think it’s his comeuppance for all the photos I take of him, except that this one passed the “photographer filter” and appears online instead of being archived on an external drive.

Also, someone noticed that my first DIY haircut has made its first appearance, too. Yeah, the shock to my head finally wore off, Zhu!

Our couchsurfers arrived in Porto this evening and we’ll be showing them around for the next few days. Blogging will be light-ish.

I Survived My First DIY Haircut

my first DIY haircut

That is, my head survived. Have you ever tried cutting your own hair? Trimming bangs doesn’t count. The last time I had bangs was either the second half of 1998 or the first half of 1999. Before that it was high school. There are no pictures handy to verify the date but I distinctly remember the first time the new bangs were revealed. I arrived at the office, a corporate outfit in downtown Vancouver. My boss walked right by me and did a double-take.

“What happened to your hair? You look like a 12-year old.”

“Oh, it was around 2 o’clock in the morning and I decided I wanted a hair change.”

“Here’s some advice: don’t ever cut your hair at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Needless to say, I took his advice. There have been no bangs since 1998/89, and I haven’t cut my own hair since. But I trimmed Paulo’s recently and thought to myself ‘Hey, I can do this. My hair is long enough to manage the angles.’

Famous last words, right?

There are people who LOVE going to the hairstylist, barber, what-have-you, because they like the head massage while breathing essential oils or having someone shampoo their hair. If the salon is posh or trendy they’ll bring drinks, making the whole pampered experience like going to a bar while sending your head to a spa. Some have found their hairdresser to be witty and engaging as well as skilled, and they’re loyal to that hairdresser because they’ve spent a lot of time and money searching for The One Who Will Make Them Feel Like A Million Bucks. These are usually the people who follow the recommended guidelines of a haircut every six to eight weeks, and look forward to that next appointment.

I’m not one of those people.

I will go to great lengths to avoid hairdressers, even choosing ones whose first language isn’t English because the small talk typically goes out the window and the whole thing is over sooner, not to mention the Asian ones are much cheaper.

The last time I got my haircut was in November, when Paulo was in the USA for work. My mother-in-law brought me to her hairdresser and wouldn’t let me pay for it. The lady did a fine job, she didn’t speak English, and she was quick. All good.

Yet, I will go to great lengths to avoid another haircut session. Since this is my first shot at cutting my own hair, I had to completely flatiron it first (because it’s curly) and the whole process took AGES. I’m talking hours — enough time to have my hair professionally cut and blow dried at least four times already — but the final result is promising. I think it turned out alright. I figure, if I can maintain the hair myself, why not? I can only get faster. But if I am to continue doing this, I’d better get a pair of proper scissors!

Down The Rabbit Hole

Miss Kyra shared her bunny with me

December 2004 (not my bunny — it’s too pink!)

Once upon a time, more than 20 years ago, I was in Melbourne, Australia, working for a company that sold books door-to-door. I was living in a flat in St. Kilda with my workmates, a motley mix of foreigners — mostly Brits — and young, itinerant Australians. At 19, I was usually the youngest and the only Canadian on my teams (I did meet one other Canadian from Victoria, but he didn’t last long). I’d just met them but was expected to spend all my waking hours with them in a hyper-communal living arrangement. Not only were we sharing expenses via a kitty, buying groceries together and divvying up the housework, we were on a company mandate to spend all of our free time together to “bond” as salespeople. Those first six months in Australia working for two rival companies with nearly identical employee training programs and policies turned out to be some of the most absurd yet strangely rewarding months of my life, where I made friends I still have to this day. It’s also where I learned a great deal about myself, human nature, and more about Australian people than I could ever, ever want to know…

Even though all this time has passed, I still don’t talk much about the first six months in Australia because it was such a weird time, based in these isolated quasi-communes and living like we were in some kind of transient work cult. Today, we would be a reality show and we’d be making money from the weirdness. But back then it was a way of life, a situation that could only be possible in the pre-internet days on the gigantic island that is Australia, cut off from the rest of the world and where news came by traditional media like TV, radio, and print. We lived in a bubble. A fun bubble in a Willie Wonka sort of way, but a bubble nonetheless.

Due to the nature of the work, the places where we lived became a revolving door of people. Many of us were on short-term visas, mostly Working Holiday category, living out of bags and going where the wind took us. Teams were changing constantly. We’d basically given up our freedom in exchange for accommodation, being continuously on the road in the company of other young people, and the promise of well-paid commissions for hard work. We had few responsibilities like finding places to live, but we made a deal with the devil and had to abide by a slew of rules. We were associated with cults because communication with “outsiders” was virtually impossible: nobody had mobile phones, pay phone calls were expensive, and we were monitored to a degree that still disturbs me a bit when I think about it. Later, when I was still in Australia but working elsewhere, someone told me there was an exposé on television about these companies and their dodgy practices and I was in it, portrayed as a “victim”, but I never got to see it. Probably a good thing!

The terms of employment were such that the companies dictated our social lives. We were strongly discouraged — nay, forbidden — to make friends apart from our workmates who were already living with us, but at the same time it was verboten to sleep with each other because that would “fracture” the team. Which of course, as you can imagine, invited a lot of clandestine rule-breaking. As if that wasn’t enough drama, the learning curve for our jobs was very steep and not everyone in the teams got along. There were personality conflicts, sexual tension, and the type of behaviour you’d expect when a bunch of strangers are thrown together in close quarters. Everyone was far from home, we only had each other, and this compression bubble turned us into a de facto family — a very dysfunctional one at times. We ate together, worked together, went clubbing together, did everything together. Between the two companies, around Canberra and Melbourne, I spent six months in these roving bands of sales teams.  It was like a portable, real-life version of Big Brother, with jobs but without the prize money.

I still think about some of those people from time to time, because of what we experienced together. I’ve reconnected with some later, in particular one friend who returned to England and set up in London. I’d met up with her a number of times over the years between living in Scotland and passing through London. Some people leave a strong impression, either for their personality or from something that happened. One individual I remember from those days was one of the funniest people I’d ever met, one of the few from that team whose name stuck in my head. I’ve often wondered over the years what he’d done since then and if he’d returned to Wales. I don’t know what possessed me to plug his name into the search bar today, but to my great surprise I found his name (a common one) in Amazon — by some crazy coincidence he’d just published a book about those very days in Australia!

Now, if you’d met anyone who’d worked for either of those two companies in Australia, you’d likely hear some variation of “I could write a book about those crazy times” passing their lips within five minutes. Because it’s true — even six months to a year of this nomadic and intense lifestyle could easily fill a book with outrageous stories, names changed of course. But here we are 20 years later and finally someone DID actually write a book about it, and it happens to be a guy I’d been wondering about all along. My curiosity got the better of me. I started reading some chapters of the book and indeed, he’s changed people’s names, but the stories are not exaggerated…

… and down the rabbit hole I went.