t Zen Travellers Zen Travellers

One of the most incredible experiences of my life happened in the summer of 2010 when I flew to Haiti to volunteer with All Hands Volunteers (known at the time as Hands on Disaster Response) to help with the earthquake recovery efforts. For the most part, that involved shoveling heavy cement rubble into wheelbarrows and dumping it into large piles which we hoped would eventually be cleared away by other more well-resourced NGOs. It was exceedingly hard, physical work, especially under the hot and humid Haitian sun, but all the volunteers knew that their efforts would mean the world to families who had lost their homes in the earthquake. Clearing the rubble off the slabs meant that families would get a sturdy transitional shelter to replace whatever excuse for shelter that they had cobbled together with earthquake debris and garbage after their homes were destroyed. The transitional shelters would also keep them warm and dry through the upcoming hurricane season and would hopefully house them safely until a permanent structure could be built.

Volunteers hard at work removing rubble
People of all ages and walks of life, from retired professors, to intrepid Brits on their gap years, to ambitious single moms, to budding artists, to experienced carpenters and construction workers, to non-profit superheroes and to recent graduates like myself, showed up to volunteer with All Hands. And although there were obvious shortages of creature comforts in Haiti and it was challenging to be surrounded by some much devastation, the whole experience had some really fun moments. As it always seems to be with travel, it was the people who made the experience so memorable. I have written before about how wonderful it is to become fast friends with the people we meet on the road, and how important it is to cherish our time with them because it is all too often fleeting.
Beyond the piles of rubble, was even more rubble
One such fast friend I met while travelling was Ulli, a 40-something German with long curly brown hair, a goatee and impressive tan. He spent most of his days in India, but had been in Haiti since shortly after the earthquake. Drawn by an intense desire to do something other than sit idly by watching the devastating images flash across television screen, he stuffed a few possessions in his backpack and got on the first plane he could to Port-Au-Prince. He smiled broadly as he answered my line of questions about safety in Port-Au-Prince, even describing, to my utter shock, an incredible encounter in the city's infamous Cité Soleil slum. He had wandered into the dangerous neighborhood by accident during those last minutes of rapidly diminishing equator sunlight, but rather than being attacked, a large group of orphaned children surrounded him. Speaking no German or English, they sang to him in Creole and took his hand guiding him to a safe place to sleep for the evening. Once there, they cuddled with him on the floor and with that Ulli survived his sojourn in one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Now he spent his days volunteering with a few organizations and  riding his bike around more peaceful Léogâne which is where our paths crossed. He was not an official All Hands volunteer, but would often be seen hanging around with the volunteers as they wound down in an open air bar after a long day of shoveling rubble. Rarely having money of his own, he was able to charm most people into offering him a drink, present company included. As we drank, he described both the serene beauty of this troubled island nation, but also the horrific sights he had seen while exploring. He spoke with love, hopefulness and affection for a country that had too often suffered, but even he could not hide his despair. None of us could. The horror of the earthquake and endemic poverty could shake even the most optimistic of souls.

Enjoying one of Leogane's open air bars
Ulli had no fixed address and always seemed to appear and reappear as if born out of the dust of a passing truck on a dirt road. Never knowing where he would sleep that night, or where the money for his next meal would come from, he was unmoored in a way that would frighten most people. Despite these challenges, he seemed perfectly happy, so long as he was able to help people.

One night, while bathing at a quiet beach where bio-luminescent plankton sparkled like stars beneath the surface, he tried to convince me to swim 5km out to sea to see a ship wreck and coral reef. He promised there would be even more stars under the sea there too. Nervous about navigating in the open ocean at night, I declined, but he just shrugged his shoulders and took off swimming. I expected not to see him again until he wanted to be seen again. So it both surprised and amazed me when he reappeared at the beach shortly after he tried to get me to swim with him. As he stood dripping and breathless in front of me, he presented a wet mesh bag full of the "treasures" that he had found by the wreck and reef during his swim. I admired his impressive feat and he told me to pick something from his bag of treasures to keep. While people like Ulli may not have a lot of wealth or worldly possessions, they always have something to give.

I fingered through the collection of mostly rocks and sea glass before landing on a small stone that caught my eye. At first blush it was unassuming round grey rock, but was pock-marked with little white craters making it look like it was covered in lace. "I'll take this one" I declared while Ulli nodded in approval. For whatever reason, I still have that rock to this day. It sits on a small trinket shelf and makes me smile when I pick it up.

Ulli and some friends on the beach
During my last night out in Léogâne, Ulli joined us at our favorite post-work hangout and to my delight, even bought me a beer for the road. I thanked him and asked that he pose for a picture with me so I could remember him by it. As the shutter clicked, he planted a big, wet, sweaty kiss on my cheek causing me to wrinkle my nose for the picture. In the years following, he would often post that picture of the two of us on my Facebook wall for my birthday which always made me laugh.

Sweaty fun times
We kept in touch loosely as is often the case with travel friends. A few chat sessions here and there, a post on the other's wall, but I always remembered him fondly and liked to hear what he was up to. The last few years it seemed like he had been travelling a lot and I hoped that our paths would cross once again along the road.

Unfortunately, there will be no one day. I learned that Ulli had a heart attack and had passed away a few weeks ago. His friends expressed shock and disbelief that his light would just go out so unceremoniously, but to me that seemed like exactly Ulli's style.

I can't say that I knew Ulli well, or that I was one of his closest friends and confidantes; rather, he only joined me on my journey for a few brief but powerful moments. Yet I do find myself saddened by the news of his passing. He was someone who seemed to live entirely in the moment and who possessed limitless courage, for better or for worse. His drive to make the world a better place was infectious, and his ability to flounce cultural expectations and carve his own path through life, admirable. I'm sad that we'll never get our one day reunion, but I know he wouldn't want any of us to dwell on his passing for too long. He would want us out there living boldly and following our hearts to live the life that feels right, just as he always did.

The friends we meet when travelling may only pass through our lives for a short time, but those brief encounters can have a deep impact. I will always cherish those moments that I had the privilege of spending with Ulli and remember his carefree spirit. But I won't rue our never to be reunion, I'll just be glad that we met in the first place and will keep my heart and mind open to the people I meet along the way. That is the Zen way, and that was Ulli's way.

I hope Ulli has found his everlasting peace. 






Travel is at times, challenging, but it is important to remember that challenges also bring opportunities. Whether opportunities for learning, to push outside of one's comfort zone, or for personal growth, challenges force you to look inside yourself for strength and resourcefulness that you never knew you had. Challenges can also be really fun if you approach them with the right mindset.
When it comes to challenges, the key is to jump right in!
For example, during the month of June, Philip and I undertook the Great Cycle Challenge where we each set a goal to cycle 500km throughout the month and raise $500 for the SickKids Foundation, a charity that aims to improve the lives of children and their families around the world. Once the goals were set, it was up to us to meet them.

I met my fundraising goal pretty quickly and even surpassed it, while Philip charged ahead in distance (thanks to his 44km roundtrip commute). My short, 11km roundtrip commute was just not enough so I had to get creative in order to rack up kms to meet my goal. I started by adding a few kms through my local neighbourhood park to my commute home, but I didn't cycle to work every day as planned and the tracker on my fundraising page just wasn't adding up fast enough. Even adding some 35km trips around the city on the weekends only got me to just over 250km with the end of the month fast approaching.
Sunday ride to the bird sanctuary to see some wood ducks.
It was clear that I was going to have to seek out new cycling adventures if I was to make my distance goal. This led to all kinds of wonderful experiences like a birthday ride with my best friend, arriving at a new restaurant in an unfamiliar area via bike, and checking out new portions of Calgary's beautiful river pathway system. These adventures required simply looking at the pathway map and occasionally thinking fast when the route lead me to somewhere I was less than comfortable, like cycling on 17th Avenue SW during rush hour!

Philip helped our mutual causes by planning us a surprise birthday trip to the beautiful Mount Engadine Lodge (call to book, avoid  booking online unless you want to sleep in a twin bed!) and a tough but fun ride up Highwood Pass, Canada's paved road. It's closed to vehicles until June each year so cyclists flock to it to enjoy amazing views, a car-free ride, and a swift downhill cruise.

Over 600m elevation gain is challenging  but worth it!

Despite all these efforts, within a week and half from the end of the month, I still had 170km to cycle to meet my distance goal. Fortunately for us, Philip and I had planned to visit the beautiful Okanagan valley in British Columbia a week before a friend's wedding in Summerland.

A truly beautiful place to cycle and get married!
The Okanagan as it turns out is a wonderful cycling destination. The Kettle Valley Railway trail which is an old railway corridor that has been rehabilitated to be used for cycling and hiking provides the perfect link between Penticton and Naramata with opportunities to get off the trail for wine tastings along the way. Naramata Road and Eastside Road are excellent for people who are a bit nervous about riding on roads since they have big shoulders for the most part and the speed limit is 60 KPH. Between the KVR and roads around Naramata, Okanagan Falls and Penticton, and the fast downhill from the Lost Moose Cabins we were able to get the kms we needed to meet our goal. Along the way we were able to taste delicious wines, cool off in Lake Okanagan and enjoy lucnhes and picnics on beautiful patios. The hardest part of the challenge was to keep cool, stay hydrated and avoid sunburns while riding in the Okanagan's scorching heat. If you decide to try riding the KVR, it's especially important to pack lots of water since it's hard to find along the trail.

Riding the Kettle Valley Railway is a wonderful and unique experience. 
Looking back, I can't help but feel like if we had not signed up for the challenge, we may not have pushed ourselves to bike as much and as far as we did. In doing so, we learned that cycle travel is one of our absolute favorite ways to get around. Now after a few days off my bike, I just have to get back on and go riding. I also expanded out of my usual biking haunts around Calgary and discovered new and fun places to hang out.

A toast to new favorites!
So challenges can be both difficult and rewarding as long as they are approached with the right mindset. When going into a challenging situation, especially when travelling, remember that there is always a lesson and quite possibly an exciting discovery at the end of it all.

If you're inspired at all by the Great Cycle Challenge and SickKids Foundation's good work, please consider donating by following the link to my fundraising page. Donations are collected until the end of July.

Now we are on to a new challenge, where we are aiming to implement a 90 day shopping ban so we can save money for many more exciting adventures. Wish us luck!
Feeling triumphant in front of Skaha Lake!









As anyone who travels knows, time and money can be the biggest hindrances to getting out and enjoying the experiences that you dream of having. In my experience, finding the time to travel can prove to be more challenging than raising funds for adventures. This is because there are all sorts of "travel hacks" that can be used to keep costs low when travelling, but pesky adult responsibilities can get in the way of hopping on the next plane. As I've written before, one of the keys to reaching travel Zen is to find ways to love your time at home as much as you love your time abroad. Having achieved that, both your trips and time at home will be more rewarding.

Speaking of rewards, in an interview for Riyoko, I described my wonderful trip to Spain where I cycled through the Penedès wine region for 6 days and toured Barcelona with my fiancé Philip. There we were able to keep costs low by "travel hacking" our way to some steep discounts using various rewards programs.

Cycling in Spain can be done on a budget
So what is travel hacking? Basically it is taking advantage of promotional offers and reward programs offered by companies to keep your costs low and free up funds for trips. Check out Nomadic Matt's site for a good rundown of American rewards programs. This post will discuss Canadian options.

First, I used the TD Canada Trust Infinite Visa bonus introductory offer to get 35000 Aeroplan miles. Often for these cards with an annual fee it is waived during promotional offers so keep your eyes open for a great deal. I also signed up for the American Express Gold Rewards Card for another 25000 miles. With these miles,  I was able to book my round trip airline tickets with the points that I had earned by signing up for the cards. This made my multi-stop trans-Atlantic flight very affordable. With Aeroplan points it's best to book as early as possible before their fixed price levels sell out and you have to use market fare. Also, there was a minimum spend to get the promotional bonus for both cards, so try to apply for them when you have a big purchase coming up or work with someone else in your household to get to the minimum.

Next, I used my Capital One Aspire MasterCard's hassle-free "purchase eraser" function to cover the cost of booking my bike tour with Terra Diversions.  This left me with lots of travel funds to spend on delicious Catalan food and refreshing cava. This card has a $150 a year annual fee, but comes with $400 worth of introductory travel rewards so that's an easy $250 to add to your travel funds.

Finally, I stopped over in Ottawa on the way back to Canada for a friend's wedding. There I used the points from the Chase Marriot Rewards Premier Visa to stay three free nights in downtown Ottawa. This card has the added bonus of having no Foreign Currency Transaction Charges when used abroad, immediately saving you 2-3% on your purchases.

This trip could have easily set me back thousands of dollars, but by taking advantage of bonus offers and rewards programs,  I was able to spend over two weeks travelling through Spain and Ottawa for less than $1000 including airfare. If the fees attached to these cards is something that dissuades you, simply put a reminder on your phone to cancel the card before the free introductory year is up so you won't be charged the fee.

Now I understand that travel hacking may not be for everyone so here are some other tips and tricks that I've used for keeping my travel fund well stocked:

1) Use Hopper for airfare
As soon as you know where you may want to fly, put your intended destination and dates into the Hopper app. It compiles historic pricing information and advises you of past highs and lows for that particular route. If a flight drops in price, the app will send you a notification so you can always be sure to be getting the best fare for your flight.

2) Stay with AirBnB
While hotels are great when they're free like ours was in Ottawa, they can also be over-priced and generic. Private property rental sites like AirBnB and VRBO provide unique and affordable alternatives to hotels and can include valuable extras like bikes to use for touring around your destination. The place my friends and I rented in Austin, Texas for example, had a nice screened-in porch and came with bikes. As an added bonus, if you click the AirBnB link above, you will get $30 toward your first rental.


Posing in front of our Austin abode

3) Walk, Bike or Take Public Transit
Human powered modes of transportation are the most environmentally friendly, healthy, budget-wise and downright enjoyable ways to explore a new place. Using an app like City Maps 2 Go to navigate will help you make the most of your visit. Further, Writer Erol Ozan said that "you can't understand a city without using its public transportation system." So pick up a city transit map at a station or use apps like Google Maps, Moovit for the US or Metro Maps for Europe and see the city as the locals do.

Public transit, Mali-style!

4) Pack light
Paying baggage fees is a drag but so is being burdened with things especially if you're aiming to see your destination by bike or by foot. Bring a few interchangeable pieces and enjoy the freedom that comes with having less stuff to carry around. Packing light has the added bonus of leaving extra room in your bag to bring goodies like Cava and Spanish chocolate back!

Pictured: Spanish bounty!
5) Make the most of your time
Since finding the time to travel can be an even bigger challenge than finding the funds to, be sure to make the most of your time when travelling. Avoid unnecessary delays by pre-booking entry for sights online. For example, Philip and I were able to skip massive lines and save 20% off the entry fee to Barcelona's famous Sagrada di Familia simply by placing an order online the night before. Also, using apps like Open Table to make reservations in restaurants is another way to beat lineups and has the added bonus of earning you points for dining credits.

Sagrada Familia without the wait is even better
So there you have some tips and tricks that I've used to keep my travel costs low, what are some of your favorite travel hacks?

Cheers to travel hacks!

Anyone who has ever lived abroad knows that it is a separate experience from simply travelling to somewhere.

To truly soak up the wisdom that a place has to offer, you must endure all the stumbles, minor annoyances and cultural misunderstandings before finding Zen in their new surroundings. In short, you have to live real life, instead of tourist life to understand a place.But there's a rub. Real life can be hard, or dull, or so uninspiring that travel is what people may use to inject some inspiration back into it.

So how can you live real life abroad and still keep your sense of wonder? 

The trick is to find balance. That is, balance between routine and excitement, between your new culture and your old culture, and between staying static and being dynamic. Finding that balance is easier said than done, so here are some tips to make the most out of living abroad.

1) Find Your Happy Places
Just as your favorite coffee shop/bar/restaurant/park bring you comfort and joy back home, so can finding new favorites in your new place. It can be easy to fall into the trap where you compare your new surroundings to your old, and often when doing so, the old ones always seem rosier. But your new surroundings will have their charms too, and going out and seeking your favourite place "for here" will make the transition from old life to new life easier. Eventually, you may come to realize that your favourites in your new home outshine those in your old.

Visiting Siby in Mali, again and again

2) Be kind to yourself
Constantly being reminded that you don't belong or don't fit into a place can be painful and can lead to frustration. Knowledge that the locals take for granted, like money is always quoted in derivatives of 5 or food can only be touched with your right hand can lead to laughs at your expense while you're figuring it all out. Often these experiences can be entertaining in hindsight, but also alienating in the moment which can cause impatience and uncharacteristic behaviours. If you lose your cool during one of these moments, don't fret. Instead, take a deep breath, reflect on the learning that the situation may have to offer, and forgive yourself since it was likely the first time you came across something like it.

3) Flip the perspectives
Building on the last point, it can be challenging to learn how to navigate a new culture day in and day out. When I lived in Mali, I was always astonished at how everything from getting ready for work, to preparing meals, to going to the bathroom, to meeting friends and working out could be so different. I would be lying if I said that doing everything differently every day wasn't tiring at times. That said, I found that if I imagined my host family coming to my home, I guessed that they would have a similarly difficult time adjusting. What was normal to me, would be very strange to them. This exercise in empathy made it easier for me to be more patient as I navigated through my new culture.

Prepping meals, Mali style

4) Don't depend on the people at home for your happiness
I have established that there are difficulties in leaving your home country and setting up a life in a new one, but obsessing over what goes on at home will only make those difficulties worse. Everyone feels nostalgic at times, and there's nothing wrong with that. But pegging your happiness to what people are doing or not doing back home will not help you enjoy your present. Although it can feel at times like the only people that can understand you are the people back home, that is simply not true. They don't know what it's like where you are, they are living their own lives and they are not doing that to spite you. In those moments where you feel twinges of jealousy that your old friends are all going out to one of your favourite spots together without you, remember that it was you that chose to leave. You are having your adventure, and you will likely be the better for it. No amount of staying at home can lead to the personal growth you will experience from learning to make a life somewhere new. Don't wait around for your friends from to Skype you, and don't seek their approval for what you're doing in your new place. Live for you in the moment. Do whatever you need to do to feel at home in your new place. Your true friends will be waiting to hear all about it when you see them again and you will be able to pick up where you left off. If they hold it against you that you left, they weren't truly in your corner to begin with.

5) Make friends from all circles
Going fully native when adjusting to a new place will lead to burnout, but hanging out only with expats will deprive you of an immersive experience. Having a wide social network will counter these effects and set you up for incredible memories. You may learn of hidden gems from locals or unexpected attractions from other travellers. The friends you make while travelling, whether locals or fellow foreigners, will stay warmly in your heart for long after you leave a place.

Real life is always better with friends


Aside from a short jaunt to California to visit an old friend, we at Zen Travellers have been staying pretty local this year. In light of the sticker shock we experienced in the US after the Canadian dollar sunk, a wedding to plan, and bigger travel plans on the horizon, we've taken to trying to make the most out of our local surroundings. Luckily for us, Alberta and its environs deliver in spades.

Northern California, you're quite alright too. 
As I've written before, there are plenty of reasons to revisit a place you love, so to start 2016 off right, we headed to a place where we have been many times before and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly by ringing in the new year in Whitefish Montana. While there, we enjoyed some world class skiing and witnessed a rare inversion where the valley was clouded and cold but the top of the mountain was clear and warmer than below. We tried some new restaurants and stayed in the beautiful Duck Inn Lodge where we could watch the ducks gather in the creek every morning and the deer make their way to a salt lick every evening. On the last day, we zipped around the beautiful municipal cross-country trails for the first time and got an early start for the drive home. While we weren't exploring anywhere new, we enjoyed different places and activities in Whitefish than we had in the past.

The view from Duck Inn Lodge
We employed the same approach with respect to another favorite ski destination in February and stayed at the Mulvehill Creek Wilderness Retreat a unique eco-hotel just outside of the town while enjoying Revy's famously good snow pack. Again, although it wasn't our first time to Revelstoke, it was an all together inspiring experience to stay closer to nature and enjoy the good hospitality of the folks at Mulville.

Bluebird day after two straight powder days at Revelstoke
El nino has made it so warm and dry in Calgary that it has hardly felt like winter this year so it made it hard to get into winter sports despite my actually being able to do them this year. Still, we discovered a new favorite cross-country ski trail in Banff National Park. Again, this is a place we have visited many times, but the Great Divide trail had lingered on our list for a long time. Finally, we set off to make the picturesque arch one weekend and had a blast despite less than ideal snow conditions. Despite it looking like a winter wonderland, the snow was actually quite sticky and portions of the 15km ski gave us very little glide. Getting to the marker on the Alberta/BC border made it worthwhile and we were also treated to the sight of some very excited sled dogs. The Great Divide is a long but flat and straightforward ski to a fun place to stage a photoshoot with friends. Since it was so snowy when I was there, I would like to go back and do it again when I can see the surrounding peaks. As I've written before, I'm a firm believer in always having a reason to go back so I am glad that this experience, wonderful as it was, gave me one.

Jumping for joy at the Great Divide
More recently, we visited another old friend down in the Crowsnest Pass with the intention of skiing at Castle Mountain from there. Castle was supposed to get 12 centimeters of fresh snow for the Sunday which we thought should make for some really fun skiing. Since the forecast said no new snow on Saturday, we decided to make a leisurely drive down to the Pass and check out some new places in the area. First we headed down to Waterton Lakes National Park which is mostly a ghost town during the winter, but stunning nonetheless. We embarked on one of our earliest hikes yet and climbed the short but steep Bear's Hump which gives you a birds eye view of Waterton village and the expansive prairie below.

Waterton Lake and the Prince of Wales Hotel from the Bear's Hump. 
From there, we stopped off at what is possibly Alberta's most random waterfall in Lundbreck before making our way to the Pass to meet our friend for dinner. We enjoyed a lovely visit with her and her family before heading to Castle for what we hoped was awesome skiing. Sadly for us, the skiing did not deliver so we quit after only a couple runs and headed back to Waterton to ultimately rule out a wedding venue. While the visit hadn't gone exactly as planned, we were delighted to catch up with an old friend, explore some new places and make some small gains on our wedding plans. To that end, I have also written before on the virtues of being flexible and open to unplanned experiences while travelling. 

Local Alberta gem: Lundbreck Falls
So while we may not have collected any new stamps for our passports recently, we have been fortunate enough to discover some inspiring local gems. In short, we found some local Zen. 

Pictured: love and local Zen. 

"I haven't been everywhere but it's on my list." - Susan Sontag

Travel can lead to conflicting emotions and priorities. Consider the oft repeated Susan Sontag quote above and what it inspires. Most travellers know that it's hard not to agree wholeheartedly with Sontag and want to keep exploring new places for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile they also know that it's true that there value in slowing down and savoring their surroundings in the present. That is the Zen way after all. But instead of being diametrically opposed, these conflicting priorities can be reconciled in order to achieve travel Zen.

The key to really enjoying a place is to keep finding reasons to revisit it.

Allow me to explain. Rushing from one place to another can be physically and mentally draining. Furthermore, a place rarely reveals its inner workings at first blush, so it's important to keep an open mind to coming back when travelling somewhere new. When we breeze through somewhere we risk missing the chance to glimpse at the grit, soul and complexity that makes a place worth visiting in the first place.

While revisiting a place that inspired and excited you may not help you carve out any new notches in your belt, it can impart a wonderfully dichotomous sensation of wonder and familiarity. Just as a person can never truly come back home after being away for a spell, a place that one once visited doesn't remain static, suspended in time waiting for you to come back. Seasons can impart a different feel, as can a high season versus low season dynamic. In short, there are many reasons to revisit a place that once brought you Zen.

I had been to Montana probably 5 times before I saw the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. 
My fondness for Montana illustrates this situation nicely. Whitefish and Glacier National Park are about five and a half hours from my Canadian home. Canada is so immense that I can drive in any cardinal direction for 5 hours and still be in Canada. Not much will change in those five hours, but Montana always feels like somewhere special. Somewhere just different enough to be exciting.

Montana in spring greens up earlier than it does at home, so it is a good place to go when you've got a post-winter hiking itch. Whitefish in winter is full of out of town skiers and bars and restaurants bustle as if it were a big city. Glacier National Park in the fall is beyond magical and mostly free of the summer crowds.
Avalanche Lake for some early season hiking


Each visit I am reminded of why I was so fond of it in the first place, but I also discover something that makes me want to come back. Whether a new restaurant, hiking trail or ski terrain, there's always more to see, and more to look forward to discovering. Revisiting favourite old local haunts is also a great way to satisfy wanderlust urges while saving money and time for bigger adventures.

The pursuit of going everywhere is certainly a noble one, but so is getting to know and love a place for what it really is. Knowing when to do so will put you on the path toward travel Zen.


I wrote recently about how difficult it was to keep my spirits up when I was dealing with a serious knee injury last year. Part of why it was so difficult was because I was unable to do so many of the activities I loved like skiing and hiking. That got me thinking about Canadian winters and how they can be both brutal and beautiful at the same time. West coast winters are very rainy and dreary, but less snowy than other parts. The rest of the country typically experiences sub zero temperatures and big snowfalls. That is, unless it's an el nino year like this one where winter comes all at once and then melts leaving everything brown and hardly conjuring images of the winter wonderland that people expect Canada to be.
Winterlust is a thing during el nino years. 
Long nights and cold days lead some people to develop seasonal affective disorder or SAD, a seasonal depression brought on by a lack of vitamin D from the sun's rays. Grumbling about the weather becomes a national past time for some. Meanwhile others rejoice because the season means skiing, skating, snowshoeing among other outdoor pursuits.

Indeed, surviving Canadian winters seems to come down to frame of mind. For those who grumble, escaping to sunnier climes is the only way to survive.  But for those who embrace winter, there is much Zen to be found.

So how exactly does one embrace winter? The following are ways to keep your Zen during colder months:

1) Believe in layers
Few things can damper a mood faster than being cold and wet. Dressing in layers can keep you warm and dry and ready to enjoy all the fun activities winter has to offer. If it's especially cold, remember to wear a hat that covers your ears, a scarf for your face and gloves or mittens for your hands since skin can freeze quickly in sub-zero temperatures. You don't want to learn that the hard way like the Australian traveller who almost lost her hands while travelling through Saskatchewan.

2) Take up a new sport
Winter is a great time to learn a new activity, which will give you something to look forward to during those short winter days. Skating is a great activity since pretty much every town has either a rink, an outdoor pond to skate on or both. For a truly iconic experience, consider skating on the picturesque Lake Louise or Ottawa's Rideau Canal. Downhill skiing is my winter sport of choice, but of that's too thrilling and/or expensive for you, consider cross-country skiing. The gear is extremely cheap to rent, the technique for classic skiing is basically walking, and you will still get the benefits of visiting the church of the forest.

View from the nordic track on Lake Louise
3) Celebrate koselig
Norwegians have substantially less seasonal depression than Canadians despite living in similar harsh northern climes because they actually look forward to winter. To them, winter is the season of koselig, or coziness, where you sip hot drinks, light candles or fires, and snuggle under soft blankets. It's a time for slowing down and enjoying the company of your loved ones while staying warm. If you look at it that way, winter doesn't seem so bad after all.

4) Embrace, escape, then embrace again
There is too much wintry wonder to skip out all together, so while I don't recommend snowbirding down to Florida like many Canadians do, a quick jaunt to warmer climes can keep the blues at bay. There you can soak up some much needed sun, go SCUBA diving or other water sports and enjoy not feeling your face hurt when you go outside.

Have a little of column A and a little of column B
So there you have it, there is Zen to be had in winter and it can be a great time visit Canada. For more information on winter activities to enjoy in Canada, check out blogs like this one that provide detailed information on a lot of ski and snowshoe trails around Canada.




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