Orca Watching in Vancouver

Okay, full disclosure: I don’t really celebrate my birthdays. Or at least, I don’t in the conventional ways. For the past few years I’ve mostly just done my own thing and treated myself to a fun day out. Last year was no exception. I’d been living in Vancouver for a month before my 21st birthday, so I’d already done most of the touristy things: Stanley Park — check. Lynn Canyon — check. So, I asked around to find out what weird and wonderful things I could do to celebrate. I remembered, somewhere in the back of my mind, that someone back home had recommended going ‘whale watching’. At $50 a trip, it wasn’t the cheapest day out, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. A friend happened to be leaving that month, and she was keen to see the orcas too, so we bought the tickets together. Three connecting buses later (and a very stressful ‘follow that bus or I’ll miss the boat’), we finally arrived in Steveston, where the smell of fish and chips and saltwater hung redolent on the air.

Being from England, where the usual rule of thumb is to wear at least three extra layers of clothing just in case, I was well prepared for the chill of the sea. But probably just as well the trip included coffee and tea, poured from the kind of metallic travel jugs that take about three years to cool down. Considering I can barely walk down the street without tripping over some invisible pebble, I didn’t fancy attempting to pour boiling hot coffee into a tiny travel cup in the middle of a rocking, sea-tossed boat. Besides, who wants to stand around making drinks when there are orcas to see?

We struck lucky that day, three whole pods of orcas swam and played in the water around our little boat. The staff on hand were very quick to explain the mechanics of the pod to us, to answer questions, and to point out anything else of interest. We listened intently, holding on with cold-numbed hands to our phones and cameras, poised to capture the exact moment an orca appeared alongside us. At first, we gasped with every hint of a snout and flash of a tail. The orca joked and teased, giving us glimpses that would transfer to blurry photos on cameras that might have resembled an orca if we squinted close enough and used our imaginations. But after a while, they appeared in force, droves of orca dipping and twisting around the boat, splashing around in the foamy trail we left in our wake. By the time we reached waters which were closer to Washington than Vancouver, we could spot them in any given direction.

Even if we hadn’t struck lucky with so many sightings, it was amazing just to be on a boat in the middle of the sea, with the wind in my hair and water stretching across the horizon. Most of us don’t get to experience that every day, and it was wonderful simply to sit back with one of the laminated guides and imagine I might be lucky enough to spot some super-rare creature nobody had ever seen before.

It was probably one of my best ever birthdays, in all honesty. We were given the opportunity to witness something amazing; creatures I’ve only ever seen in unnatural environments such as aquariums, and that in itself was more than worth the ticket price.

Stepping back onto land at the end of the trip was somewhat bittersweet. We were hungry, and the inviting salt and vinegar tang of chips called to us, but so did the lure of the boat, and the distant glimpse of sea lions in the distance. And even though my camera is still full of blurry, not-quite-identifiable pictures of orca tails, the memory of that birthday spent watching the orcas splashing in the wake of the boat is fresh in my mind even now.

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Why You Should Stay in Williamsburg

We all know that feeling when you’re taking a selfie next to a big tourist spot; the feeling of sticking out because you’re so obviously a tourist. Staying in Manhattan, New York, carries a similar burden. As much as it’s great to be in the centre of things, sometimes it’s even better to take a step out, and take a look from the outside. This is why you should stay in Williamsburg the next time you go to New York.

Williamsburg is a lively district of Brooklyn and is about a ten minute subway ride out of East Village — you can guarantee that Bedford Avenue station will be your second home. But don’t let the small distance put you off — Williamsburg has so much to offer! You get to feel like you live in New York rather than just staying in a commercial, central hotel. It’s a totally different experience.

One of the best things about Williamsburg is the number of amazing restaurants and cafés it has: I went to a great dumpling place called Vanessa’s Dumpling House on Bedford Avenue — imaginative name, right? Creativity complaints aside, it’s super cheap and they serve great food. You’ll probably have to fight to get a seat, but it’s easy enough to order some to take away. If dumplings aren’t your thing, you can get amazing pizza at Roberta’s Pizza on Moore Street.

Smorgasburg Market, Williamsburg © Teri Tynes, Flickr Creative Commons

For lunch, Smorgasburg market has a huge variety of food, with over 100 local vendors selling the likes of tacos, savoury crepes from Shanghai, fried ramen burgers to mango on a stick, raindrop cake and spiked lemonade. It’s right by East River State Park, on Kent Avenue, and it’s open every Saturday from 11am-6pm.

Because brunch is essential when in New York, I will tell you a bit about my two favourite spots, even though there are plenty more to try out! Café Mogador has great decor, food presentation and choice. I have good memories of sitting at the breakfast bar eating a massive portion of french toast while reading the New York times. That was when I decided I have to live in New York one day. Champs Diner is all vegan, and has an overwhelming amount of choice. Who knew you could get vegetarian/vegan chorizo?! The pancakes are delicious, I’d recommend the cookie dough ones, but the menu has so much to choose from I don’t think you’ll have any trouble finding something you like.

French toast, Café Mogador © Edie Barrett

Williamsburg also has some pretty cool bars. There’s a bar called St Mazie on Grand Street which does live music — usually jazz, and Donna on Broadway is meant to be great for cocktails. Sadly I’m not 21 yet, so I couldn’t try any of these out, but they’ve got great reviews!

There are some brilliant vintage and boutique shops to explore in Williamsburg; you could probably spend a whole day rummaging through them! Check out Malin’s on Bedford/North 6th, Spoonbill and Sugartown for second-hand books, and don’t forget to take a look at the street sellers’ items. There’s a flea market every weekend selling artists’ work from 12-8pm off Bedford Avenue and North 6th. Personally, I think gifts brought home from different places over tacky tourist bits are much more appreciated.

Nitehawk Cinema © Emma Danielsson, Flickr Creative Commons

One place I’m gutted to have missed is Nitehawk Cinema on Metropolitan Avenue. It’s a small cinema that has decent priced tickets ($9) and showings sometimes until 12am. You can even order a full meal while you’re watching! In summer, McCaren Park – a great place to relax in Williamsburg – hosts evening films in collaboration with Nitehawk cinema. What’s more, there’s an outdoor pool which you can spend hot summer days in!

Williamsburg Bridge is just as impressive as Brooklyn Bridge, and you may be interested to know that some celebrities live in the area. Keep your eyes open!

Williamsburg Bridge, © Yonijrj, Flickr Creative Commons

Finally, and I will say this to anyone travelling to New York: fly with Norwegian Air! It’s far cheaper. But, download lots of films to your phone (Netflix, 4oD and iPlayer) to keep you entertained because their selection isn’t the best (although I am a bit of a film-snob).

You can probably see there are loads of reasons to stay in Williamsburg, Brooklyn instead of Manhattan. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover – that’s if I have persuaded you!

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The Eternal Image of Cambodia: Angkor Wat

Easily the highlight of any visit to Cambodia — and perhaps even South East Asia — the temple complex of Angkor is an ancient sentinel deep in the forests of Siem Reap province. At one point it was almost entirely lost to the trees, but following extreme reparations in the 19th and 20th centuries, it has become more than just a tourists’ dream; it is a startling testimony to the advanced Khmer Empire. Along with such wonders as Machu Picchu or the Great Wall of China, the crumbling majesty of this 12th century temple is an unforgettable experience. Continue reading

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¡El Agua es Nuestra, Carajo!: Bolivia’s Struggles for Water Control in the Age of Climate Change

Seventeen years ago in April, residents of Bolivia’s Cochabamba region took to the streets under a simple slogan: ‘¡El agua es nuestra, carajo!’, or ‘The water is ours, Goddamn it!’ Continue reading

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The Second City: First Class Comedy in Chicago

Welcome to Chicago! You’re jet lagged, you’re only in this city of world-class theatre and entertainment for a weekend and you haven’t (really) got a clue what’s on offer.

This is how I arrived in the Windy City. I’d done a bit of research on the sights I needed to see in my two days (‘research’ being two Facebook posts looking for recommendations, one to my news feed and another to a popular female travel forum I’m a part of), and had a few vague ideas concerning an architecture boat tour and the Skydeck experience (neither of which I actually ended up doing). But, bizarrely for this theatre nut, I had given absolutely no consideration to the shows I might be interested in catching. Moseying around the downtown theatre district in search of deep dish pizza to fill my aching stomach and soothe my sleep-deprived mind on that first night, seeing all the bright lights and ‘sold out’ Joffrey Ballet signs, I certainly felt a tad sheepish for taking such a lackadaisical approach to my travel planning.

Salvation arrived in the form of a Michigan-based friend from uni, who responded to my plea for guidance in the knowledge that I couldn’t leave this place without experiencing some of the entertainment treats it had to offer. She suggested I try to see something at any of the following: Steppenwolf Theatre, The Second City, Barrel of Monkeys, Blue Man Group and Looking Glass Theatre. Knowing I only had time for one show if I wanted to do anything else at all with my time in Chicago, a quick game of eeny-meeny resulted in my plumping for The Second City. I didn’t even look at the others — I’d left it too late to overwhelm myself with choices.

The Second City is an improvisational comedy enterprise that started in Chicago and now has locations in Toronto, Los Angeles and, I have since discovered, London. They also provide training for the next up-and-coming improv artists (Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Steve Carell all started off here) and, since opening in December 1959, have become one of the world’s most influential centres for comedy and improvisation.

Being on a tight budget and a limited timeframe, I searched for the cheapest show available on my last night in the city, which was a Sunday. To my delight, I discovered that tickets were available for ‘Infinite Sundaes’, a ‘singprov’ show performed by none other than The Second City trainees themselves. Tickets were only $12 a pop (not including tax) and, sitting in a downtown branch of Goddess and the Baker, munching my avocado and quinoa salad and filching their WiFi so I could order the tickets, I felt pretty chuffed at how things had turned out.

Arriving at the theatre near Lincoln Park the following evening, I was ushered into one of the smallest performance spaces I’ve yet experienced. With un-ranked seating for about fifty patrons (nicely upholstered chairs laid out in rows and the occasional table) and a stage so small that the actors looked like they were about to topple off and land right on top of us, I started to feel secretly pleased that I hadn’t decided to shell out for one of the big-name shows in the theatre district. With rough prompts in their hands and no costumes to speak of, the actors took us through an hour of high-energy improvised musical comedy, culminating in a totally script-free ‘singprov’ workshop that had everyone hooting with laughter.

The great thing about improv is that you could go to the same show multiple times and see a different performance on each occasion. I was lucky to experience these fledgling artists walking the sharp edge of their talent, producing characters and situations that no one could have predicted would appear on the stage before the show began — with roaring success. While I would definitely recommend at least doing a teeny bit of planning ahead (to avoid the panic and self-loathing involved in thinking you might miss out), my Second City experience taught me that there is entertainment available for every budget, taste and timeframe in Chicago. It was fantastic, and if you’re interested in improvised comedy I would certainly recommend stopping by if you’re ever in any of the four cities The Second City operates from.

(The Second City perform and train at multiple locations across Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles and London. Ticket prices depend on show, venue and city. For more information visit www.secondcity.com )

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