Last month, my husband, two daughters and I went on a two week Euro-adventure to Berlin and the south of Spain. The trip was better than we ever imagined it could be and since getting back to our temporary home base in Morocco, I have hit the post-vacation slump: the can’t-I-just-go-back everyday kinda feeling. But lucky for me, I’m a writer and I can teleport myself to places we have visited using memory and journalling alone. One point I wanted to suss out more about our trip was just how much was affected by the fact that we are Muslims. Perhaps some of the things I talk about below wouldn’t have been so noticeable if we jet-setted to Europe from our permanent home base in Canada, but because we were coming from a Muslim country, however Euro-influenced it might be, somethings really stood out.

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Rare blog appearance by the husband. On a boat, no less.

Halal food hunting is always an adventure. I mean, for any Muslim who keeps halal with their eating, this is going to be the first challenge. This was more of an issue in Spain than Germany for two noticeable reasons: Germany is very inclusive of its large Muslim population -something we noticed everywhere we went and which is largely to the country’s history of genocide against religious minorities. The overcompensation was nice and welcomed…and frankly how it should be. It’s what one would expect from a country that had repented for its monstrous sins – we even had halal breakfast sausages (a variety to choose from!) at our hostel’s morning spread! Of course, this isn’t to obfuscate Germany’s very real resurgence of far-right, anti-Muslim elements but mainstream society seems pretty welcoming to Canadian-levels. We didn’t notice we were different the entire time we were there.

The second reason why halal food was more of an issue in Spain is because of the long Spanish history of persecuting Muslims. This actually has an effect on the food – believe it or not? Spanish hams and pork products are not a cultural anomaly – they rose in popularity during the post 1492 era and the Inquisition as a way of sussing out who was still practicing Judaism or Islam in private despite be forced to convert to Christianity in public. So yeah, Spanish cuisine is very, very pork heavy and it’s everywhere. There is also a lot of alcohol in both places but we noticed that more family-friendly places didn’t serve it at all so it was relatively easy to avoid altogether.

To get around these issues while still having an authentic experience, we sought out halal restaurants with certified halal products, tried street food that we knew was prepared in a haram-free place (like churros!) or we stuck to the grocery stores and ate veg/pescatarian. I am already inclined to veganism so this wasn’t a stretch for me but my husband was longing for a nice big tagine by the end of the trip, for sure!

 

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Finding places to pray is a challenge. Not only are all the former mosques of Andalusia now churches or cathedrals that Muslims are not allowed to pray inside, the remaining modern mosques for local Muslim populations are forcibly non-descript and tough to find. Unlike Canada, where a mosque is allowed to look like a mosque (with a minaret and everything), the same isn’t true elsewhere. We ended up just having salat where we stayed and left it at that.

Airports aren’t fun. Being Muslim in an airport is a nerve-wracking experience, no matter where you are, especially when you are dragging two little kids along and you tend to be the only visible Muslims in a 100-kilometer radius for some reason. Obviously the extra attention by security agents didn’t happen when leaving Marrakech much but it did get bothersome when entering Germany and Spain. My husband has a permanent resident card for the EU and the level at which it was scrutinized was necessary but irritating. Maybe it’s because the officers just did it in such a harsh manner or I’m overly sensitive to racism against Moroccans to the point of paranoia but I wasn’t pleased and I’m pretty sure that he would have been hassled a lot longer if he hadn’t been travelling with his Canadian-passport-carrying family. Oh, and the hijab pat-downs get old real quick, especially when someone is scanning my baby’s milk at the same time and both kids are hollering. Sigh.

Being the only hijabi makes you a sideshow novelty. I have no idea why but on our entire 2 week trip, we really only saw a handful of hijabi muslimahs. And yeah, we look for each other. I was pretty shocked to constantly be the only hijabi in the room and, as a result, be the constant object of other peoples’ stares. In a walking tour around Sevilla, our group turned to look at me every single time the guide mentioned Islam or the Qur’an. I mean, the association there isn’t so bad but you really start to feel like a circus freakshow when people are looking at you with their mouths hanging open in the grocery line.

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Circus is in town, baby.

Having a Canadian accent and being white changed how people with Islamophobic biases treated me. Despite the extra unwanted attention as a hijabi in tour groups, shops and on the street, I did notice that people changed how they treat me immediately on hearing my Canadian accent. It’s amazing how fast people compartmentalize you as a tourist and not one of “those” Muslims with just the flicker of a knowing glance when you ask for a bag or a receipt.

Our people stick together better as minorities. For all of the issues that Muslims have with each other in Muslim-majority countries (humans gonna human, eh?) we sure seem to get along better and in a more cooperative spirit when we are the minority. We just noticed that everywhere we went, other Muslims would seek us out to ask for directions or assistance and to be honest, we did the same. I’m not sure why but the whole “we’re in this minority deal together so give me a hand” thing is real.

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Not a paid ad.

 

For better or for worse, travelling as a Muslim is definitely a unique experience and not one I exactly have a choice in! Before I was Muslim, I travelled a lot and I have to say that I really notice a difference in terms of acceptance and treatment by fellow travellers and locals. It’s also something other Muslims report noticing (especially if they are visibly Muslim) and honoring those experiences without self-gaslighting about them is important. Sharing raises awareness for everyone – that’s  the beauty of storytelling and bearing witness to someone’s stories. In the end, any different treatment we experience is neither going to define our trip nor the countries we visit.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

Maybe it’s the mild jetlag, but having recently returned from a trip that included roughly 54 km of up-and-downhill hiking plus days of city-wandering (for a total of 302,179 steps over 12 days according to FitBit), I find myself energized and motivated. About six months ago I spontaneously booked a hiking trip in Patagonia. Starting in Santiago, Chile and ending in Buenos Aires, Argentine, the guided tour was organized around the “W Hike” in Chilean Patagonia.

1.Puerto Natales

Patagonia is the windy southern region of South America split between Chile and Argentina. According to our local guide, Magellan’s first encounter with the indigenous Tehuelche upon reaching the far southern reaches of the Americas was a set of oversized footprints in the snow. Created by the thick guanaco hides that the Tehuelche used to protect their feet in winter, these footprints led Magellan to identify the residents of the region as a race of giants and to name them Patagones from the Portuguese for “Big Feet.” English travel writer Bruce Chatwin was drawn to a remote and barren Patagonia in the 1970s by its frontier mystique and legendary qualities. Chatwin’s In Patagonia is a travel account told through stories; an homage to a foreigner’s idea of a land of legend and myth, populated by dinosaurs, giants and outlaws. Now Patagonia attracts busloads of Gortex and Patagonia-brand fleece-clad tourists seeking novel terrains.

2. Catamaran to Paine Grande

Named for the shape it traces through Torres del Paine National Park, the W Hike is one of the most popular multi-day hiking trips in Patagonia. The traditional W includes four legs to three points: Grey Glacier, French Valley and Mirador del Torres. My tour did an abridged version of the W, hitting the three main sights but skipping the Las Cuernos campsite and the long leg along Lago Nordenskjöld. Our guide assured us that this was the “boring part,” although the company website cites limited space and uncomfortable terrain at Los Cuernos.

3. Grey Glacier hike

Our first campsite, Paine Grande, was nestled in grey-green valley on Lago Pehoé. We arrived by catamaran and shortly after began the first hike to the Grey Glacier lookout point. This was our first introduction to Patagonian wind. My toque nearly blew off and we had to brace ourselves in order to frame the obligatory lookout photos, but apparently it was nothing more than a “Patagonian breeze.” The next day we experienced a middling “Patagonian wind” in French Valley, which was enough to nearly knock me off my feet but not enough to qualify as “wind plus” on our guide’s scale of wind velocity.

4. French Valley hikeThe French Valley hike was approximately nine hours. The destination was an exposed ridge that was still overwhelmed by the surrounding mountains and overhanging glacier, despite being reached by a path that went up and up, over twisty exposed tree roots and red dirt and loose boulders. I returned with very sore toes but no blisters.

5. CaracaraThe third day we skipped the long hike, taking the catamaran back over Lago Pehoé, stopping for a short hike to Lago Nordenskjöld, and then carrying on by bus to camping Las Torres. Located on private land, this campsite featured yellow geodesic dome dining halls and thick foam mattresses resembling the blue gymnastic mats from elementary school gym class.

6. TreeThe grand finale of the W is Mirador las Torres – all uphill, finishing with a long, exposed scramble over moraine. We were treated to a shockingly windless day. Finally, we get to the base of the iconic Towers. Three distinctively narrow, vertical peaks recognizable from any Google Image search for “Patagonia,” the Towers peeked at us from different angles as we approached them until fully revealing themselves as we came around the final heap of gravel and rock to the shores of the Patagonian-aqua lagoon that sits in the bowl at their base.

8. a glimps of the Towers

9. Mirador los Torres

Although Patagonia is as far away from anywhere I’ve been, I often found the landscape familiar. While my ignorant, city-dwelling eyes miss many differences in flora and geological formation, Patagonia’s scrubby flat grasslands, interrupted by dramatic young rocky mountains carved by icefields and glaciers, did not seem all that different from Alberta’s own mountains and plains. In this context, the distinctively pointed domes of Las Torres are strikingly, and enticingly, other.

The ten day “Patagonia Trekking” tour was a new type of travel experience for me. It was my first time on a group tour, rather than travelling solo or with family, and my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere – or outside of my European and North American comfort zone at all. I am not an experienced hiker or camper. I swapped the discomforts of backpackers’ hostels for the discomforts of camping and the rewards of art museums and restaurants for the rewards of panoramic mountain views and hard physical exertion. (Well, there actually were some art museums and plenty of restaurants too…)

My travelling self is, in many ways, one of my best selves. Getting out of my daily habits gets me out of mental ruts and helps me view my daily self and life from a different perspective. As much as I am a creature who craves structure and organization, life does seem to offer more possibility when it is not divided into repeating segments of 9 – 5 and Monday to Friday. This effect was evident for me on this trip, which was so full of new experiences and challenges.

10. leaving Chilean Patagonia

Travel alters one’s relationship to time, place and other people, instilling openness, humility and motivation. The version of myself that travels is self-reliant and empowered, but more open to life. It’s amazing what you can do in a day when you have only two days to wring as much experience out of a place as possible. Being unable to fluently speak the surrounding language or social norms fosters an unselfconscious humility, making it easier to ask for help, or bumble through an unfamiliar experience or space without embarrassment. Connections are formed more quickly with fellow travellers than with acquaintances made in daily life. I am even more willing to chat with cab drivers. I get up earlier in the morning. (Admittedly that is as much to do with free hotel breakfasts before 10 AM and uncomfortable beds it is to do with refreshed motivation.)

I like resolutions. Tying an intention to a ritualized, significant moment – whether New Year’s Eve, a new month or a new payday – gives a tidiness to personal growth that I find reassuring. A trip can function well in this regard – a period of time taken out of the ordinary, punctuating regular life and providing perspective and motivation. I come home from travelling full of resolutions: to get up earlier, write or create regularly and to maintain a better work-life balance. Daily life has a way of eroding motivation and openness, but I hope to maintain my refreshed, post-trip attitude for as long as I can – hopefully as long as it will take to rebuild my savings account for the next one!


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

In Theravadan Buddhism, there’s a form of meditation wherein practitioners allow thoughts to enter their minds and dwell there free of judgement. The thought – no matter how potentially upsetting or disturbing – may be calmly turned over, investigated, and conversed with. It may go, or it may stay – either way, the thought is not understood as threatening. It is a part of the learning process.

It is amazing how effective this style of meditation is for untangling webs of anxiety and processing complex emotional issues. Removing the cloud of judgement, and all the fear that accompanies it, allows for the freedom necessary to properly work through difficult issues.

Maybe it should be unsurprising, then, that writing often has the same effect.

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I have found myself, countless times, writing about feelings I didn’t know I had. Thoughts I didn’t know I thought. I have watched, in semi-disembodied disbelief, as my hands seemed to work on their own accord, giving shape to my unconscious.

It is an unsettling experience to sit down intending to write about a specific thing and instead find yourself scribbling unstoppably about things you’ve never thought about. There’s a strange conflict, where your conscious brain struggles to take back control but your bodily unconscious – perhaps because of the writing muscle’s refusal to leave a sentence unfinished, perhaps because your conscious brain is so mesmerized by the novelty of what it is reading – remains in control.

It is a special thing. We so often try to ignore our unconscious. But in the face of a pen that doesn’t judge and a blank sheet of paper, we can engage with ourselves. Our truths can come spilling out and we can read them back.

There is more to the human experience than reason and restraint. Writing has always allowed people to create new worlds; discovering them is not always just for the reader.


rachaelRachael Heffernan recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.