How biking is helping me break stereotypes & travel safer in Dar es Salaam

A solo Friday night bike ride at Coco Beach, Dar es Salaam
A solo Friday night bike ride at Coco Beach, Dar es Salaam

Cycling has always made me feel free.

In Ottawa my bike is what gets me from Point A to Point B, from friend to family, grocery store to coffee shop, home to work. In travel, cycling has opened up cities for me, and I have explored Beijing, Lumbini, Copenhagen, Whitehorse, Paris, and beyond from the saddle of my bike.

Since moving to Dar a few weeks ago, the lines between home and travel have started to blend. With it, the role of cycling – which I already knew to be a key element of what makes me happy – has shifted into an even more important role.

Let’s talk about safety. During the orientation for my new job, our Country Manager was upfront with us: the way you look at security here has to be different than the way you consider it at home. Bags can get swiped by passing motorbikes, purses can be snatched off of laps while sitting in cars, pockets can be picked. As a woman, walking by yourself is not recommended, especially after dark.

Anyone who knows me knows I am independent to a fault. It’s an independence mixed with a slight invincibility complex and a desire to explore. It’s a confidence elixir that has helped me travel solo in countries around the world. As a partial introvert who loves the outdoors, I do not take well to being told I should not be outside by myself.

In Ottawa I bike for the practicality of it, for the environmental benefit, and because I just damn well love it. The satisfaction of beating public transit during rush hour can only be described as euphoric. Biking gives me freedom from traffic, freedom from relying on cars and buses, freedom from sitting still.

Here, biking gives me the freedom to.

What I mean is this: biking gives me the freedom to be outside by myself as a woman. It is an unanticipated benefit of cycling, one I could not have predicted before coming to Dar. I’ve always known biking would be an important part of my life, but I never knew it would be so essential in simply allowing me to go about my daily activity as a single 20-something female.

(By the way, anyone who thinks this “freedom from” vs. “freedom to” concept sounds familiar, here is a full disclosure: I just started reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She talks about this idea of “freedom from” and “freedom to” in the context of having rights taken away as a perceived means of safety and security.)

As a mzungu (white person) walking around Dar, you already get called at. You become even more of a spectacle when you’re a female mzungu on a bike. Men yell “mambo!” from the side of the road, from the back of boda bodas (motorcycles). A puckering sound is directed at you through pursed lips. Much of this is harmless, but it is still unwanted attention, unwanted attention that may be able to follow me down the road or along the beach while I walk by myself.

Biking with my coworkers and friends, Logan and Alex, in Kariakoo, Dar's bustling main city market.
Biking with my coworkers and friends, Logan and Alex, in Kariakoo, Dar’s bustling main city market.

Biking provides me the ability to out-cycle these fears, and to escape the expectations that men may have because of the brief eye contact I offer, because of the polite smile my Canadian-ness predisposes.

But while part of this post is me discussing the role cycling has already played in equalizing my experience as a woman in a new country, part of it is also to lament and demand a change to the way women are perceived in different parts of the world.

It is not fair that I am somehow less at threat as a woman if I walk down the street with a man, no matter the capacity of that man to defend me. It reinforces the perception that women are weak, insecure, and easy, and that a man is her protector. I understand that gender roles differ by culture, but I don’t have to agree with that difference.

The past few weeks have shed light on the incredible privilege I have as a woman in Canada – a country, mind you, no less scarred by its disregard for missing and murdered Indigenous women, its continued inability for women and men to have the same salary in the workplace. Let me be clear: no country is good, while another is bad, and we have not reached the point where we can say one nation has eradicated gender inequality while others have not. It is a spectrum, and we should all be fighting to make our way to the right end of it.

Which brings me back to biking.

Coco Beach, a stop on the same solo Friday night ride.
Coco Beach, a stop on the same solo Friday night ride.

The other day my coworker Alex and I decided to go for a golden hour cycle in our neighbourhood. We were both wearing dresses with shorts underneath, and we were peddling at a comparable speed to traffic. As expected, we got stared at by women and men, the latter group offering a generous selection of cat calls.

Women, I’ve been told by a former Tanzanian coworker, do not bike. I am not here to say that women need to bike to be liberated, but I do want them to know that it is okay to do so, whether you’re wearing a dress or shorts and a baseball cap. I want to get so many shocked stares that this little tidbit of daily activity becomes a norm for women in Dar, not an exception.

I want women to know that biking is not just an activity for men, and that cycling can be a viable and safe way to travel in this city.

For the first time ever it’s the confidence boost I need, too.

Very excited...
Very excited…
Advertisements

The Familiar Feeling Of Leaving

I’m bad at goodbyes.

I’ve had to say a lot of them this week, and it’s not the first time. It was two years ago to the day that I left for Nepal on a one-way ticket. Two years later, a lot has changed. But one thing remains the same: the presence of fear, anxiousness, and excitement.

I recently re-read the blog post I wrote right before going to Nepal. At that time I was struggling with mental health challenges as a result of being burnt out from working with CBC and because I had associated my entire identity and feeling of self-worth with that job.

At the end of this summer I left another full-time job for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to build my capacity to work in a hybrid international development and journalism field. For me, these are not lessons that can be learned sitting behind a desk at a 9 to 5 job.

So come September I was once again going to be unemployed. But this time around I knew what to expect: uncertainty matched with freedom, anxiety balanced by excitement.

I picked up freelance jobs all over the place – in Ottawa and with new clients across North America. Still, when people asked what I had been up to, I found myself deferring to the usual “traditional” work: filling in at CBC Ottawa, freelancing for a local magazine, etc. I still felt the need to associate myself with jobs linked to a tangible level of success and value.

I’m too hard on myself, but consider the social pressures that mount around many of us everyday. Our society values worth in very specific ways: employment, economics, education. I was raised among these traditional concepts of success, and thought for a long time that my life trajectory would be one where I went to university, did well, got a job, and bought a house.

If there is one thing I have been grateful to realize early on, it’s that there is no black and white when it comes to living your life. What’s right and healthy for one person may not jive with another. Or that person may not have the opportunity to do what makes them happy. None of these factors discount the path someone has chosen. They’re just different.

I remind myself of this daily, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared of this coming turn in the road. I fear uncertainty, I fear missing out on major events with family and friends, I fear never having a long-term relationship. I’m scared of having no money (and worry about putting too much emphasis on this).

When I feel insecurities creeping in, I reflect on a single metaphor.

I picture my life as a pile of blocks. Each block represents some aspect of my life: my personal and professional experiences, my personality traits, my goals, my values, and my relationships. They’re stacked on one another and form the structure of who I am. By making the choice to disrupt the traditional trajectory – to quit my job and move overseas, I’m knocking over that tower of blocks.

But looking at the pile around me, those blocks are all still there. No matter where I go or how many times that pile of blocks is knocked over, every block can still be accounted for. Taking a chance is not a removal of what makes me who I am. It’s a slight disruption, and an opportunity to reflect on how I want to rebuild my life. That new structure of blocks will likely look a bit different, but what matters in the end is that I recognize I am an ever-shifting person with more to offer than any one thing.

I want my life to be a constant disassembling and reassembling of those blocks. With any luck I’ll be able to add a few new ones with each experience.

**

My parents have long known that I ask for their support and not for their permission.

This fall I was at a fork in the road. Do I return to Nepal as a freelance journalist or do I go to Tanzania and work with a Canadian NGO?

Neither option was particularly appealing for my family. One night when I was home, my mom came into my bedroom. “Where did your interest to go overseas come from?” she asked. “You were never interested in this before. How will you be sure you’re not doing more damage than good?”

I got defensive, as I too often do with my family (#25goingon16). But my mom’s question struck a cord. The same thoughts concerned me.

I’m not one of those kids who grew up wanting to be any one thing, and that’s still what I’m like as an adult. Ask me where I see myself in three years and I have no idea what answer to give. That makes me insecure. Don’t passionate people always know what their passions are?

But then I realized I’m asking myself the wrong question. As a wise friend recently told me, it’s not the what that matters, but the how. It’s a mindset shift that focuses more on your values than the title on your business card.

That mindset shift made my mom’s question and my subsequent concerns null.

It doesn’t matter that I didn’t grow up reading National Geographic or having a deep understanding of social justice issues. I am who I am now, and that’s because of the experiences I have opened myself to, and the opportunities I have been privileged to have and worked hard to achieve. I don’t want the person I am to remain static.

For me the “how” is this: I want to approach life with an open-mind and a desire to learn more about the world’s diverse cultures and communities. I want to gain a greater respect for what makes all of us tick, and I hope my work can help other people gain that respect, too, and debunk some of the fears and misconceptions they have about the world. I believe it’s a basic matter of human dignity for all.

And so, just as I finished my 2013 blog post in a darkened airport terminal in Doha, Qatar, I finish this one at the airport in Istanbul. In two hours my flight leaves for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For the next eight months I will be working as the communications advisor with a Canadian NGO called EQWIP HUBs where I’ll be supporting the team to develop locally-relevant communications and recruitment strategies for their entrepreneurship and employment programs.

After that – who knows. East Africa is a diverse place and I’ve always wanted to explore the Great Lakes region. I’ve got my recorder, my camera, and my notebook, and I’ll hopefully get to share some stories.

And when I find myself dwelling on the uncertainty of what comes next, I will remind myself of this: there is no such thing as a right or wrong life path, the important thing is that you make a decision and own it – fear or not. This is who and how – I want to be when I grow up.

Just as at the end of my Nepal blog post from 2013, there are many more photos and words to come. I’m excited to share more with you.

Vignette #1: That Old House

This is the first in a series of short reflections I’ll be posting in the coming weeks. I’ve always enjoyed writing vignettes – small snippets that capture a very specific moment in time, a person, or a place. My writing often takes this form, and I thought I’d tug these words out of my notebook and Google Docs folder, and start posting again. This is actually a monologue I wrote for a radio club I’m a member of. We were partnered up and told to create a soundscape/experimental sound piece around the other person’s words. My partner and I have yet to do this, but the written piece alone means a lot to me. Here’s vignette number 1 – I hope you enjoy.

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 11.19.59 AM

When I was growing up, I always thought it was a castle. It was the biggest house I had ever seen, which wasn’t much, coming from small town northern Ontario. The house held equal part memory and personality. That clinically-mint kitchen-bedroom combination on the second floor, those floral sheets spread clean over single beds. The back stairway that led from my parents’ room down into the kitchen. The couches wrapped in plastic that squeaked as I flipped through a decade of dusty yearbooks.

It was my gramps’ house and it was our summer retreat, until it wasn’t anymore.

We got older and that house got older and my gramps got older, too. Today only the first two remain, and no one looks the same.

A few summers ago I returned to that town and stood on the sidewalk across the street from that old house, the castle of my childhood. It had been years, and I expected it to look different – reclaimed by another family and by other children with active imaginations and toys to scatter the front yard. But it was the same. The red paint on the porch was peeled back, worn clean along a track where I learned to ride my tricycle. The doorbell was the same white turn knob, a rusty ring that percussed along with the sound of screen door slams.

Inside the front window, there was a ladder, and a room half painted. Memories were in the midst of being covered and refreshed, but they would never be forgotten. They run deeper than any paint, than any furniture. Still the transformation was underway, from a place that was mine, to a place that was theirs.

I spent my summers growing up in that old house, but never as much as in that moment.

Kathmandu to Hong Kong: Culture shock central

Hi all,

Part of me wishes (and will always wish) I was still in one of the two places mentioned in the title of this blog post. International travel is an intoxicating mix of new encounters and humbling experiences. I feel fortunate for the adventures I had and the lessons I learned last fall and winter, and can’t help but yearn for when I will be lucky enough to have them again. At this time when I feel myself struggling with a couple of complex feelings around place and direction, I’ve been thinking a lot about the journey I took earlier this year. Because of computer logistics and less notebook scribbles, I never posted anything about my final trip days. I’m hoping to do a bit of that over the coming weeks, as I reflect back and start a new chapter in my life. More on that later.

—-

Leaving Nepal on January 28 was bittersweet. It was dusk in Kathmandu as I took the taxi from Boudhanath, where I’d had dinner with a new friend, to the airport. One last ride on the pockmarked streets, horns blaring around corners and into the night sky.

Saying 'bye bye' to Boudhanath and Kathmandu - so bittersweet, but I'll be back!
Saying ‘bye bye’ to Boudhanath and Kathmandu

During nighttime take offs, one of my favourite things is to look out the window at the lights of the city below, snaking their way around waterways and geometrically into grids. Not so in Kathmandu. Our plane soared off the runway and up into the sky. I turned my head to the window, and found we left behind almost complete darkness. I shouldn’t have been surprised. January and February are two of the worst months for power load shedding in KTM, and at this point in the evening, the sprawl of the city was blanketed in black. Still, I said my final farewells to that temporary home, and imagined leaving behind all those now-invisible behind-a-curtain restaurants, street vendors, and mountains.

This in mind, Hong Kong hit like a bag of bricks. Kathmandu is a sensory experience because of the honking and monkeys and traffic and dust. In Hong Kong, it’s the never-ending light. Electricity everywhere, screaming at you with the equivalent of a thousand caps-locked novels. I felt as though there were more lights in one square block of HK than in all of Kathmandu. It was jaw-dropping. I felt like I had just been caught escaping jail, every floodlight of the institution suddenly shining down on me.

Hong Kong edits-6

Hong Kong edits-4

 

Hong Kong edits-2

Hong Kong edits-5

A constant theme throughout my travel-related blog posts were experiences that provided dramatic foils – concepts of day and nightmadness and calmness in Janakpur and Ilamplaytime in the Western world versus in Nepal. The contrast between Nepal and Hong Kong was one of those so-called opposites. I went from a country that is in the midst of such development, to one of the most high tech and densely populated cities in the world.

Kathmandu (left) to Hong Kong (right)
Kathmandu (left) to Hong Kong (right)

The culture shock hit the moment I got to the airport. I realized I had “forgotten” how to use an automatic soap dispenser and was surprised when the toilet flushed itself. I got nauseous and motion sick on all forms of public transportation because my body was no longer used to travelling faster than 40 kilometres an hour, not to mention on smooth roads. There were street lights, street signs, garbage cans, and skyscrapers. I stared at my sweaty, backpacked reflection in the window of Dolce and Gabanna and Gucci stores. Starbucks and McDonalds waved with Western World hello’s. Everything was efficient and clean and everyone was in a rush.

Hong Kong edits-3

It was easy to feel overwhelmed by the change. I think Hong Kong would have been intense coming from Canada, but it was even more so coming straight from three months in Nepal. Still, I was grateful for the order of travel, and the perspective Nepal gave me for this new city at hand.

Suddenly, “Western” ideas of consumerism and capitalism in Hong Kong seemed absurd when compared to the poverty I had witnessed in Nepal. In Gatlang, one of the only opportunities for women to “shop” was when two young men walked the five hours from a local village, peddling Hello Kitty polar fleeces and fake leather jackets. In Hong Kong, material items seemed much more important. Shopping malls marked every corner like a neighbourhood coffee shop.

Hong Kong edits-12

Market scenes
Market scenes

It’s here that we should note that Hong Kong is not China (no, really, it’s considered a “Special Administrative Region” and is so much more British/Western because of that controversial little thing they call colonialism). When I talked to some people at home about going to China, or even going to Hong Kong, the reaction was: do you know that China is a communist state? A: sure, in theory.

But despite the cultural revolution, Maoist hate-on for capitalism and the bourgeois, China, to me, is really the ultimate expression of Capitalism (in what I thought as a sweet bit of irony, I was even able to buy my very own little red copy of “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” and a lovely wristwatch where Mao’s raised arm is used to indicate the changing minute). And, since we’ve already established that not only is HK not really China, but was also very much Western-inspired, the city’s culture reflects this. HK has one of the highest per-capita incomes, but also one of the highest rates in income inequality among developed countries.

I felt the sudden urge to get rid of most of what I own.

When do we want a revolution? Right Mao!
When do we want a revolution? Right Mao!

All this in mind, HK was exciting, too. It felt like being in a non-stop amusement park. I ate oily, deep-fried fish balls and squid sold at corner street vendors, chunks of eggplant oozing with cheese. I wandered market after market, taking great thrill in haggling for fun; I ate noodles and drank beer in outdoor night markets. The Hong Kong subway and mini buses hurtled me around the city, to take in the sights and scents at Taoist temples, and awe over manicured city gardens contrasted with the highest of skyscrapers.

Hong Kong Island (Kowloon in the distance) from Victoria Peak, the highest point in the city.
Hong Kong Island (Kowloon in the distance) from Victoria Peak, the highest point in the city.
Food stall
Food stall (the woman is telling me off in Cantonese)

Hong Kong edits-16

Incense burns at Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong - Chinese New Year offerings.
Incense burns at Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong – Chinese New Year offerings.

To be fair, I was also in the city during Chinese New Year celebrations (as I had eagerly intended), so things were perhaps even more frantic than usual. Stay with me over the next little bit as I explore the fun follies of cultural identity, colonial remnants, celebrating three New Years in one year, and the impressive hilarity of choreographed water fountains!

Ottawa’s newest brewery evokes Old-Ottawa charm – talking beer with Dominion City Brewing Co.

It was arguably the most perfect day to visit a brewery.

The brewery in question!
The brewery in question!

The sun was beating hot and heavy, my car windows were rolled all the way down, and I was hollering along to some catchy new Arkells song on my car stereo. I was excited. And thirsty.

It was the August long weekend, which meant I had driven back to Ottawa to visit some old friends and my younger brother. One of my favourite things about visiting the Capital after a long time away (since September!!) is scoping out all the interesting new businesses that have thrown open their doors. In fact, I almost fell off my bike looking at all of them.

But the one I was most anxious to visit was Dominion City Brewing Co., the brain and beer-child of friends Josh McJannett, Alex Monk, and Andrew Kent.

You see, back in March I got an inconspicuous email. It was from my friend Jessey, and it was about a new brewery her friends were involved with opening. Skip forward a few months, and you have me, driving probably a little too fast in search of an afternoon chat about craft beer.

Josh McJannett, one of the three founders of Dominion City Brewing Co.
Josh McJannett, one of the three founders of Dominion City Brewing Co.

I pull up to Dominion City Brewing soon after. It’s less than a week to opening date, and half a dozen-or-so friends are helping clean growlers, bottle beer, and keep spirits high. Josh steps out of the walk-in freezer in shorts down to his knees and black rubber boots that go just as high. Casual Sunday wear when you’re hanging out in the brewery.

Beer has been an important part of the three men’s lives. Josh smiles as he tells the story of how he and Andrew found their passion for pints. Around 2003, they, like many other university students, were spending a fair amount of time drinking beer. But for the two friends it was different – they spent their time and money at Vineyards Wine Bar Bistro in the ByWard Market. Sure they were drinking a lot of different types of beer, but they noticed one thing: the local options were limited. It was import-city. The brainstorming and daydreaming began, and two years ago, the friends (with Alex on board) started aggressively planning to open a brewery. After home brewing for years, they’re finally at a point where they have a commercial space to call their own.

Of course the beer scene has changed a bit since 2003.

For those who don’t know Ottawa, or for those who live under a rock in Ottawa, it’s no secret that the craft beer market is exploding in the city. Beau’s, Kichesippi, Beyond the Pale…all are relatively new ventures in the sipping scene. And they’re all awesome. I can say that because I drank at least one of each of their brews during my short time in Ottawa.

So I wanted to ask Josh what he thought was different about Dominion City. Perhaps that’s a null question, because maybe it’s enough that you’re making delicious beer. But still, I thought I’d toss out the question.

Fun fact! The inspiration for the three-leaf brewery emblem was inspired by former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson's choice design for the Canadian flag.
Fun fact! The inspiration for the three-leaf brewery emblem was inspired by former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s choice design for the Canadian flag.

Turns out it’s the link between country and city, urban and rural that Dominion City is hoping to evoke. That idea of place. And check it out – the brewery is in the middle of an industrial park in east Ottawa, about as “city” as it gets. But step inside, and your perspective shifts. You see a bar made of 100-year-old pine logs dredged and dragged from the bottom of the Ottawa River. There’s a wall constructed of dark, up-cycled wood planks salvaged from a barn in Almonte. A black-and-white street-scape of old Gatineau graces the edge of the bottle room.

The bottle room still in progress, but see those planks. They're (at least) a century old! How cool is that?
The bottle room still in progress, but see those planks. They’re (at least) a century old! How cool is that?

Appearance alone does not a brewery make. The beer itself carries the same city-country dichotomy. The local mentality is strong, with spent grains going to hungry piggies at nearby Castor River Farms, and most of their organic Red Fife wheat grown and milled in the Ottawa Valley. It’s local, from design to draft to drink.

And while I’m ogling over the prettiness of the bottle house area, Josh is the first to emphasize that this is a working brewery, the real deal. People can see back to the 15-gallon system, the tall metal vats where beer chemistry magic happens. It’s a warehouse. There’s no pretending here, but it’s honest and open and clean.

And, oh right, you probably want to know about the beers themselves, huh? Dominion City is launching with three main brews (descriptions condensed from the brewery’s website):

  • Two Flags IPA: An assertively hoppy by well-balanced and highly drinkable India Pale Ale. Flavours include burnt sugar, grapefruit, and a lingering hop bitterness. 7%
  • Town & Country Blonde Ale: An easy-drinking beer with a kick. Soft, malty sweetness and biscuit notes are combined with a mildly spicy and citrusy hop crispness. 5.5%
  • Earl Grey Marmalade Saison: Brewed with freshly-zested oranges and Bridgehead organic Earl Grey tea, this brew has contrasting fruity, spicy, and tart notes, with a dry and moderately bitter finish.
The branding for Dominion City Brewing Co. was designed by Chris Mantil, an Ottawa-based graphic designer. Click on the photo to go to his website.
The branding for Dominion City Brewing Co. was designed by Chris Mantil, an Ottawa-based graphic designer. Click on the photo to go to his website.

Josh says the brewery hopes to bring in seasonal brews, but is keeping its focus on these three for the time being. The beer can be bought in 1.89L growlers or 750ml grumblers.

Community-built beer
You might have first heard of Dominion City Brewing Co. through Kickstarter.

The crowd-funding website was alight with support for the new brewery, with money being raised to fund the aforementioned bottling room and tasting bar. They surpassed their goal of $15,000, and, in the end, 273 backers contributed just over $19,600. Josh and I agreed – humbling was the word to describe the whole process.

Still, the support has gone far beyond the crowd-funding campaign. Dozens of friends have stepped up to help Josh & Co. do everything from washing to bottling to social media work. It’s been a team effort from start until doors open.

IMG_5147-2

Speaking of that, it’s happening awfully soon. Tomorrow, in fact. The inaugural public drafts were poured at a party this past Tuesday, with the bottle shop opening its doors this Saturday, August 9. There’s going to be a food truck on hand, and lots of beer to sample. I won’t be in town, but it sounds like a hell of a way to spend a weekend afternoon, right? In the meantime, I’ll enjoy sipping my Town & Country here at home in Sudbury. Cheers to you, Ottawa!

IMG_5128-2

Kegs and beer chemistry do-dads (technical name...)
Kegs and beer chemistry do-dads (technical name…)
Directions on how to get to Dominion City Brewing Co.
Directions on how to get to Dominion City Brewing Co.

For more before and after photos of the brewery space, and shots of the awesome people involved, visit the Dominion City Brewing Co. Facebook page