Category Archives: Europe

Duty Free Curiosity

Landing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, I have about four hours to kill between flights, so after having a quick bite, I wandered around the “lounges”, an atmosphere which is more shopping-mall than airport.  It got me to thinking about airports in general.  I’ve seen my fair share of airports around the world, and they have always fascinated me.  Everyone in the airport is going somewhere, and here in Schiphol, a major hub between Africa, Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, the  diversity of our world is prominently on display.

African women, with their vibrantly coloured flowing dresses, stand next to Sikh men in colourful turbans and mischievous blonde haired, blue eyed Dutch children. A group of chinese tourists in matching green baseball caps rush past me, following their leader with holding a pointer with a green ribbon, and bleary eyed teenagers on their first backpacking trip across Europe stand bewildered looking for the passport control.

In duty free shoppes around the world, one would have no trouble finding perfume, liquor, cigarettes and chocolate (among other items, but these are the most common).  What is so special about these particular items, that make them the items people most want at Duty free shops?  Alcohol and cigarettes, ok I can see – they are usually heavily taxed.  But what is so special about perfume and chocolate?

Many airports have started catering to their customers and are providing more mainstream retail services.  As I write this, I am indulging in a foot massage at the Xpres Spa at the airport…  what a brilliant idea!   UK airports also usually have Boots pharmacies on the secure side.  How many times have you passed through security, and were wandering and thought “OH I forgot to pack XYZ!” A quick trip to the pharmacy would resolve that.  I wish Pearson would shape up and bring a Shoppers Drug Mart in.

Unfortunately, due to the “captive” audience (and yes, we technically are captive, behind the secure airport lines), the prices at airports are ridiculous.  Who wants to pay €20 for a McDonald’s meal? or €4 for a bottle of coke.  Well, now that we can’t bring anything more that 100mL through security, I guess we have to.

So, my ramblings continue…. as I wait another couple of hours for my flight to Kigali.

“Val, why do you travel so much?”

My wanderlust was acquired very early in life.  By the time I was two, my parents had traveled extensively with me, and before any trip we took, dad would break out the atlas, and we would let our fingers do the walking over the maps to our destination.  I was always fascinated by these colourful maps, measuring the distance we covered in a few hours in a plane over the different topographical features in hand-widths. We would visit our family in Poland, or go south to a Caribbean island.  We took road trips to places like Sault Ste. Marie, and Hershey, Pennsylvania.

I remember one plane trip, while looking out the window being very upset that I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play in the fluffy clouds.  I had imagined they felt a bit like a bouncy castle, or a feather duvet.   By the time I completed my undergraduate degree in university, I had visited Europe at least 10 times, but my travels were only beginning.

The loss of my Mom in May 2000 had the greatest impact on my desire to travel.  She and my dad were excitedly looking forward to retirement, in order to visit exotic places like South America and Asia.  Unfortunately those plans were cut short by cancer, and in those final weeks that I cared for her,  I learned a life lesson that I continue to carry closely in my heart and mind. I learned not to take anything for granted, to take every opportunity that comes my way, and to live each day to the fullest!

Just after we lost my mom, a good friend invited me to go with her to visit her family in Italy.  During this trip, we discussed our dreams, our goals, and made plans to someday visit India and Nepal together.  Ironically, those two countries remain on my ‘bucket list’.  (perhaps she and I will end up visiting them together after all!)

Then one day everything was just right. I had no debt, no serious relationship, and was ready to leave a really stressful job that I wouldn’t miss. I had always wondered what the wildlife in the hills of Borneo sounded like, what the sand felt like on the beaches of southern Thailand.  I’d always wanted to see a sunrise over Angkor Wat, a massive temple complex in Siem Riep, Cambodia, and wander the streets smelling the amazing dishes being prepared in the French Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam.  So I bought a ticket to Asia, and planned my departure for January 2, 2005.  I knew as I tearfully went through security and saying goodbye to my dad and aunt at the airport, that I would come back a different person.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.0 earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra, spawning a tsunami which would obliterate half a dozen coastal nations, and take with it over 200,000 lives.  It was this disaster, and my experience in post-tsunami recovery which changed my path, and became my destiny.

I now travel to unusual places around the world like Pakistan and Haiti, having discovered the fascinating and rewarding field of humanitarian relief work… My life’s true calling!!

The purpose of this blog is to capture the essence of some of my adventures, but also to share some of my stories and experiences.  I will be departing next week for East Africa, where I will meet up with my friend Anne Stevenson.  Together, we will travel to Tanzania, and experience a big game safari.  Admittedly, the closest I’ve come to wildlife in their own surroundings are the raccoons that I chase away from my garbage bins.

I’ve heard that if you go to Africa, it’s in someways a shame – because you’ll never want to go anywhere else, you’ll always be trying to go back.  We shall see…