2015 was a crazy year for me. Probably my craziest year ever and, given my lifestyle over the last decade, that’s saying something. Although I have always appreciated the safety risks of working in Yemen I did not expect for an international war to begin while I was there!
I am not one to make New Year Resolutions per se but I do like to reflect on my past and set goals for the future. This month-by-month look back has reminded me of the challenges I have faced, the exciting places and experiences I have had, and the amazing new people I have met.
On December 31st, 2015, I obtained a new passport in Canada to replace one which was filled with stamps and visas. The best part of getting a passport at the end of the year is easily remembering the effective and expiry date on customs forms and being able to easily look back on the years’ travels!
I then flew to Spain where I celebrated Christmas with Sara. Christmas in January? Yes. The Spanish celebrate Ephiphany on January 6th which is the 12th night after Christmas. Epiphany celebrates when the Kings or Wise Men brought gifts to baby Jesus and the Spanish celebrate with a huge lunch meal. I don’t think I have ever eaten so much! Another food highlight was traveling to Segovia for cochinillo (suckling pig).
Sara and I also made a trip to San Sebastian and Bilbao in Spain’s Basque region. We loved the food, museums, nature, and culture and I developed a new love for the north of Spain.
Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain
After Christmas I returned to Yemen to work a five week shift. Hopefully it was not my last chance to work in Yemen…
After my work shift I flew to Madeira, Portugal, to meet Sara. While I was at the airport I met a number of British Embassy staff who told me they were closing their Embassy and leaving Yemen due to the Houthi occupation of the capital. I flew out in Turkish Airways’ business class sitting with several of Her Royal Majesties diplomatic mail bags. Who knew diplomatic mail flew in such expensive leather seats!
Sara and I had a fantastic week in Madeira hiking and exploring the beautiful mountains there.
Hiking the Ponto do Furado in Madeira
Since we flew to Madeira from London we also spent a few days visiting Sara’s friend, Lorena, in London and made a day trip to Stonehenge and Bath where they had not been before and I enjoyed returning to.
Although I was supposed to return to work after the holiday I was concerned about the embassies leaving Yemen and the ongoing security situation in Sana’a where the Houthis remained in control. I obtained permission to spend a month working remotely from Malaga, Spain, to see how the situation played out.
We rented an AirBnB in Malaga for an entire month and spent the time exploring Andalucia, including visits to Ronda, Nerja, Marbella, and Gibraltar. I also flew to Melilla which is a small Spanish territory in North Africa for a day. Being in Malaga was a good opportunity for Sara and I to try living together and I managed to balance work and living a more regular lifestyle quite well. I loved waking up early in the morning for conference calls and then running up to the top of the Gibralfaro castle in Malaga for sunrise. I don’t think Malaga is a place I would choose to live but it was great exploring the surrounding area.
After a month in Malaga the security situation in Yemen seemed stable (even though the Houthis remained in control of the capital) so I agreed to return to Sana’a, Yemen for work. Since the best flights from Malaga to Sana’a were via Istanbul I convinced Sara to join me for a trip to Turkey before I returned to Yemen.
Turkey was amazing. We visited Pamukkale, Cappadocia, and spent a few days in Istanbul. The food, culture, architecture, friendly people, and remnants of the Roman / Ottoman Empire were incredible and Turkey has become a favourite travel destination for me.
Hot Air Ballooning Cappadocia
Exploring Turkey before returning to Yemen was also a great decision for me since at the end of March the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declared war on Yemen and began bombing Sana’a and surrounding areas. Foreigners from Yemen were evacuated and the situation became very difficult very quickly. It has been sorrowing to see and hear about all of the civilian deaths and damage to a country I have lived in for almost a decade and the situation has also created a lot of uncertainty for me with respect to my employment.
I extended my time in Istanbul and was able to work remotely which has been great. It is very difficult for me to understand the situation in Yemen and as I write this, 9 months after the war began, I am still unsure when the situation will be resolved and my friends and colleagues in Yemen can return to a normal life.
Although I would have loved to return to Spain to be with Sara I had to be cognizant of the fact I could only spent 90 out of every 180 days in the Schengen Zone and decided to travel through some of the Balkan areas I had not been to before instead.
I took a bus from Istanbul to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where I found an amazing hostel to work from. The internet in Bulgaria was extremely fast, making it a wonderful place to work from remotely, and I really enjoyed the food, culture, old town, beautiful women, and cheap priced. Bulgaria is a country I really want to spend more time in!
From Bulgaria I made my way through Nis, Serbia to Kosovo and then flew to Slovenia where I enjoyed the beautiful nature, 80s music and fashion styles, and amazing people I met at my hostel there.
Me Hiking Around Lake Bled, Slovenia
From Slovenia I took a bus to Rimini, Italy, which is a popular tourist destination in the summer, but very cheap and uncrowded in the Spring shoulder season. I stayed in a beautiful hotel room overlooking the beach for only €30/night, including breakfast, and used Rimini as my jumping point to visit San Marino. Even though it wasn’t beach weather in Italy, I still had a great time and the cheap costs reminded me how wonderful off-season travel can be.
April is also the month my Canadian Driver’s License expired which is one of the biggest burdens of becoming a non-resident. Since I am unable to obtain a driving license in Yemen as I had planned, I will be unable to drive for the foreseeable future which sucks for destinations where renting a car makes sense.
From Bologne, Italy, I flew to Spain and stayed with Sara in Valladolid for a couple weeks.
Sara and I flew to Barcelona where we were able to meet my aunt and Mom who were traveling the Mediterranean on a cruise ship. Exploring Gaudi’s work in Barcelona and having Sara meet some of my family was great.
Sara and I then took the train to Nice, France where we spent a couple of weeks in an AirBnB. I love the Cote d’Azur and it is definitely the kind of romantic place to go with someone special.
View over Nice, France on the Côte d’Azur
We used Nice as our hub to explore Antibes, Cannes, Villefranche-sur-Mer, St Paul de Vance, and Monaco. A highlight for me was watching the original Terminator on the beach in Cannes as part of the film festival. I also got tickets for the Monaco Grand Prix on le rocher (the rock) which was a lot of fun and the best Formula 1 atmosphere I had experienced to date (Singapore and Abu Dhabi were far tamer).
I flew from Nice to Toulouse (disastrous EasyJet flight that forced me to overnight in Toulouse) and then carried on to Canillo, Andorra, to hike and explore. Andorra is difficult to explore by car but I still managed to see a lot by foot before carrying on by bus to Barcelona.
From Barcelona I flew to Montreal, Canada on an Air Canada flight that stopped over in Geneva, Switzerland. Luckily for me, the flight from Geneva to Montreal was cancelled and I got to spend a day exploring Geneva, all expenses paid, thanks to Air Canada’s misfortune.
From Montreal I took a train to Ottawa where I was able to visit my friend Stephanie, whom I met in Iceland, and Laura, one of Sara’s best friends. We visited the Gatineau Beer Fest and Le Nordik Spa, both of which I would highly recommend. I also had a chance to visit Jess, my best friend from High School, and meet her two beautiful children for the first time.
I returned to Montreal for the Montreal Grand Prix which I arranged for my brother’s bachelor party and was the primary purpose of my return to Canada from Europe. Montreal was a great time and the party atmosphere was even better than Monaco thanks to my brother and many other friends being in town at the time.
Since I have not explored Eastern Canada before and had already maximized my Schengen visa day, I took advantage of the opportunity to travel to Quebec City, Moncton, Halifax, and St. John’s before returning to Calgary. A highlight was flying to St. Pierre and Miquelon (a French Territory off the coast of Canada) from St. John’s; the weather was surprisingly good and I really enjoyed learning about the islands’ history.
The Rooms Museum in St. John’s, Newfoundland
I returned to my hometown of Calgary in time for the Calgary Stampede. As a surprise, I flew Sara’s best friend Laura in from Montreal on points to surprise Sara who flew in from Spain the same night. I was told I won the “Boyfriend of the Year” award so it was a great use of Aeroplan points. It was fun showing of Western Canada’s incredible nature to Spanish hikers and they really enjoyed seeing each other as well.
Along with the usual Calgary Stampede festivities (rodeo, drinking beers, listening to country music, and donning our best western wear) we had a great time catching up with my friends, exploring the mountains, and canoeing through Drumheller’s Badlands.
Hiking in Banff with my Mom
Sara accepted a teaching job in Odessa, Texas, so I spent the rest of July helping her find an apartment, car, and get set-up in the USA.
Sara and I spent August in Texas. Although Sara was very busy with work we managed to visit Austin (now one of my favourite cities in the world) and road trip through West Texas visiting Fort Stockton, Alpine, Fort Davis, and the McDonald Observatory. It was great discovering the Big Bend Brewing Company in Alpine and dropping by the brewery for a few pints during their open house.
I also returned to Calgary because Scott, my younger and only brother, was getting married. He had a beautiful wedding in the mountains near Canmore and I had a great time seeing family, many of whom I had not seen for many years due to my travels.
I spent September back in Odessa, Texas, playing the role of “houseband” while Sara worked. It was the first time Sara and I lived a normal life together and was a big step forward in our relationship. I enjoyed hitting the gym, cooking my own meals, and having more of a routine but my feet were also itching to get out of Odessa as the city itself lacks culture and outdoor activities and seems like a city people live in for the sole purpose of making money.
Although the weekdays were boring for me it gave me a time to work on this blog and Sara and I made the most of our weekends exploring Big Bend National Park, Guadalupe National Park, Carlsbad Caverns, Roswell, Three Rivers Petroglyphs, and White Sands Dunes.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
I spent another three weeks in Odessa and had the chance to enjoy Texas Football culture including a Permian Panthers vs. Midland Lee homecoming football game in Odessa (inspiration for Friday Night Lights movie) and a Texas Tech Red Raider game in Lubbock (Wreck ‘Em!!!).
After two months in Texas I felt the need to get back out exploring the world so I booked reward tickets to Bermuda with stopovers in New York. I love New York and was craving a meal at Gramercy Tavern, my favourite restaurant in the world. I was also able to catch up with my friend Gina in Brooklyn and explore some new restaurants and bars I had never been before.
Bermuda was a bit of a letdown as it rained almost every day I was there but my AirBnB host was a fellow Canadian and we enjoyed hitting the pub to watch the Blue Jays chase the World Series. Despite the numerous Dark & Stormies (drinks and days), I still enjoyed exploring Bermuda and learning about life on the island.
From Bermuda I made my way to Haiti for some of the toughest traveling I have done. I found Haiti extremely expensive and difficult to get around but still enjoyed my short visit, especially Jacmel.
Bassin Bleu near Jacmel, Haiti
Although my few days in Haiti were not nearly enough to develop a full understanding of the country, I formed some strong opinions about the impact of the UN, charities, missionaries, and other foreign interests on developing countries. While these agencies may mean well, I do not believe the outcomes of their work is always positive and unfortunately they have greatly setback tourism in my opinion.
At the end of October I attended my first Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) conference in Fort Lauderdale. I have blogged as an amateur since 2011 for personal pleasure and to save time giving travel advice to friends and family but now that I am not consulting as much in oil and gas I decided it was time to explore the business-side to blogging.
TBEX was both a positive and negative experience for me. The positive was that I met many other interesting and adventurous travelers who blog for the same reasons I do. The negative was seeing how commercialized the travel blogging industry can be and realizing that a lot of travel bloggers only travel and write to get free trips or make money. Although such bloggers disgust me, it made me realize how much better my blog could be given how much I travel and the fact I have always paid my own way.
On October 31st I met my Mom in Miami for a two week Caribbean Cruise. I thought cruising would be the most affordable way to visit a lot of Caribbean countries and spend more time with my Mom and it worked out very well. Although the cruisers were predominantly old, retired, overweight, Floridian gamblers, I still met some fantastic people who I hope to stay in touch with for years to come.
On the cruise we visited Bonaire, Aruba, Grenada, Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua, St. Thomas (USVI), and St Maarten. For most of the islands a single day was enough for me but I would like to return to Bonaire and possibly St. Thomas for a week of diving one day.
From Miami I flew to Playa del Carmen, Mexico where I caught up with a buddy from Calgary who plays online poker for a living as well as a travel blogger I met at TBEX. I quickly met a bunch of their friends and discovered a coworking space called Nest and before long I was changing plans to extend my stay. I enjoyed visiting Chichen Itza, partying on Avenida Quince, swimming with turtles in Akumal, and eating more tacos than I can count to in Spanish.
Swimming with Turtles in Akumal, Mexico
Eventually, I had to leave Mexico to meet Sara in Belize where we spent her Thanksgiving Holiday break on Caye Caulker. We both enjoyed Caye Caulker’s slow pace and spent the week relaxing, eating lots of sea food, and snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
When Sara departed for Texas I flew down to Roatan, Honduras, where I planned to spend more time under water.
Roatan was exceptional, in large part because of the great people I met at my hostel there. I ended up diving several times, celebrating a “Frygiving”, meeting many expats, and doing an epic road trip around the island with hostel mates. I could have stayed in Roatan for a month or more (and may do so one day to do my Dive Master Cert) but I also wanted to see more of Central America so after a week I made my way to Copan Ruinas, Honduras.
Copan Ruinas was a sleepy, relaxed town, with limited tourist impact and beautiful ruins. Along with learning a great deal about the Mayans I learned many things about the teas, chocolates, and natural health products that could be made from local vegetation. I also made a trip to beautiful natural hot springs called Luna Jaguar which, while relaxing at the time, caused me significant problems in Guatemala.
After making my way from Copan to Antigua I noticed my foot began to swell. I thought it was likely due to my numerous sand fly bites and that it was some form of allergic reaction but after a few days my foot was much worse and I realized my foot was infected, probably from the hot spring water getting into a sand fly bite wound. After a visit to a Private Clinic where they wanted to keep me overnight for $500+ for treatment, I managed to obtain a 10 day course of antibiotics which eventually healed me. Unfortunately, my infected foot meant no hiking volcanos, swimming in Lake Atitlan, or pursuing other exciting adventures but I still really enjoyed my time in Antigua.
After my foot healed I made my way to El Tunco, El Salvador, a small surf town on the Pacific Coast. While I didn’t have a chance to surf there, I did meet some great people and had fun joining in the party with Salvadorians who drove into El Tunco from San Salvador for the weekend.
I flew from San Salvador to Panama where I met Sara for her Christmas Holidays. We spent one week in Bocas del Toro where we met my friend Aviva from Calgary, as well as several other great people who I am sure we will travel with again in the future. We also spent five nights in Boquete enjoying the delicious local coffee and climbing Volcan Baru, Panama’s highest volcano at 3,474 meters. Although we have found Panama to be very expensive, commercialized, and too American for our liking, we are looking forward to watching this evening’s fireworks and celebrating the New Year in Panama City.
Overall, it has been an amazing year of travel for me and I am very excited about working on this blog to share my experiences and learnings. While having so much uncertainty in my work life has been difficult, it has been fun seeing Sara pursue her passion for teaching in Texas and spending time with her Texas has been a big step forward in our relationship. Although I spent a lot of the year backpacking solo, it was great to share so many exciting experiences and adventures with Sara and friends.
Hey Dave, loving your work!
I feel like I can live vicariously through your travel stories 🙂
You are still leading the top countries list out of everyone I know, and I’m in the travel industry!
Have some kids soon so I can get some inspiration for family trips 😉
Found your blog on Pinterest and was surprised to see you have visited Odessa! I also live in Odessa (born and raised) and can agree with your description of our small town, also known as Slowdeatha. Really enjoyed reading about your adventures!
I did more than visit Odessa – my girlfriend lived there for the year so I spent nearly 5 months there. Slowdeatha is a good way to describe it!
I’ll be posting lots more about great experiences I had in and around West Texas though so be sure to check back again soon 🙂
What great write up! You really do travel. I love Akumal and was so excited when I read that you were there. I was last there in September 2015 and as I have friends who own a house there I hope to swim with the turtles many more times. I also chuckled when I read about your Texas roadtrip as you may have driven through my home town of Hondo, Texas. There is a sign that states: This is God’s Country, Don’t Drive Through it Like Hell. Austin is great and I hope you get to spend some more time there. And finally your description of Odessa was spot on! Thanks for the enjoyable read.
Thanks for reading Cindi! Akumal is amazing and it remains one of the best “free” experiences I’ve had in the Yucatan. I managed to capture that turtle photo with a GoPro; since the water is so shallow the lighting is great – give it a try yourself!
I must admit I had to look up Hondo, Texas on a map and sadly I haven’t been through there. I have seen some hilarious religious signs and billboards in Texas and wish I had a photo of the “Don’t Drive Through it Like Hell” sign you’re mentioning. I have spent the last few months in Texas and will be posting lots about West Texas, Austin, and San Antonio in the near future; hopefully you’ll have a chance to read those posts too.