Saturday, 28 May 2016

15 Reasons You Should Visit Portugal

Deciding on which country to visit to celebrate my university graduation was a tough choice. Would I eat baguettes in Paris while gazing at the Eiffel Tower? Would I visit the pyramids in Egypt? Or would I follow Alexis Bledel’s character in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and be surrounded by Santorini’s traditional white houses in Greece?

Interestingly enough, the answer was none of the above. I wound up in in Europe’s westernmost country: Portugal. And very shortly after landing in the capital, Lisbon, I realized there was no place I’d rather be. Here are 15 things I loved about Portugal, and 15 reasons you should book your ticket.

1. The affordability

With the weakness of the Canadian dollar, any traveller wants to be sure their money will stretch as far as possible. Luckily, flying to Portugal is surprisingly affordable. Our flight cost roughly $600 (CAD). And the bargains don’t end there. I was amazed—and relieved—at the low cost of meals and tourist attractions, and in some cases, hotels. Our hotel for three in Evora came up to $120 euros for two nights—that’s unheard of!

For just a few euros, you can feed yourself and get admission to several museums, churches and towers.  No matter your budget, there is always something within reach to keep you entertained and your tummy satisfied.

Tip: If you’re travelling to different cities and planning on doing a lot of sightseeing, look for discount cards that offer reduced or free admission. Only get the card if it will save you money!

2. Food

If you’re like me, food matters even more than accommodations. I can stay in a rundown hotel. But just like the commercial says, I’m not myself when I’m hungry.

In Portugal, there is no shortage of tasty and affordable restaurants, cafes and cafeterias. Most restaurants were made with vegetarians, vegans, and those with other dietary restrictions and preferences in mind.

It’s customary for places to have their menus posted outside for you to browse through before deciding. It’s also typical for restaurants to have some sort of daily special—mostly their fish of the day. If you’re open to trying it, you get a good meal at an even better price.

Tip: Most servers will drop off appetizers such as bread, cheese, olives and olive oil at your table before your meal. Even though you didn’t ask for it, if you eat it, you pay for it. Kindly say no thank you or leave the items untouched and always double check your bill to make sure you haven’t been mistakenly charged.

3. Azulejos (tiles)

In Portugal, you can’t help but notice the traditional and ever-present decorated tiles that can be found throughout neighborhoods and cities and in some of the most well-known and long-standing buildings. Some designs are huge and intricate, often making up larger images that represent anything from historical battles to religious art. Others are smaller, and just used to line houses or buildings.

In Lisbon, there is actually a national museum of azulejos (they’ve got museums for everything!) Have fun with spotting them and don’t forget to pick one up for your own home in a market or artisan shop.

Tip: Visit the Sao Bento train station in Porto for a lovely display of azulejos. You won’t regret it.

National Tile Museum, Lisbon

4. Igrejas (churches)

Nothing made me feel smaller than the churches in Portugal. Historically, Catholicism has been the dominant religion of the country, and nothing indicates that more than the amount of churches in even the smallest towns.

Visit the local historic churches to see just how much work went into creating, building and most importantly, preserving the most important structure in Catholic faith.

Tip: Most churches have a small admission (usually 3 euros). If not, look for a donation box and drop spare change in.

Church of Santa Maria, Lisbon

5.  Museums and monasteries

Lisbon had some of the most amazing monasteries. And scattered throughout the country are equally fascinating museums. Before you travel, look up a list of the museums you’d like to visit.

Tip: Pay a visit to Jeronimos Monastery. It’s ranked the second best attraction in Lisbon!

Jeronimos Monastery, Lisbon

6. Hills

Okay, maybe not the hills, but certainly the views. Portugal is a hilly country. No matter where you go, you’re bound to encounter some sort of incline. While the hills were particularly brutal in Alcacer Do Sal and Sintra, it always led to a wonderful sight.  Don’t be discouraged. Indulge in the climb. I promise you, the view will always be worth it.

Tip: Wear comfortable shoes. I bought a new pair while I was there just to help deal with the hills.

Views from Sintra

7. Fish

With a bulk of the country’s coast lining the Atlantic Ocean, fresh fish are in abundance. Several of Portugal’s national dishes include fish—bacalhau (salt cod) and sardines, sardines, sardines.

Tip: The salt cod can be very salty. If it’s a bit too much for your taste buds, get some bread on the side. And water. Lots of water.

8. Fado

This is traditional Portuguese music that you will hear in many restaurants, shops and city centres. The word translates to “destiny” or “fate”, and listening to it makes you feel like you’ve found both. It’s very soulful and passionate and is something worthy of being seen performed live. If you miss out on seeing a live performance, visit a local shop and buy some CDs by famous Fado artists such as Amalia Rodrigues, Carminho and Ana Moura. They cost about 10 euros and it’s the next best thing to seeing a live performance.

Tip: Live fado often happens in bars or cafes on Fridays and Saturday nights. If you happen to be in Tavira, visit the Fado com Historia for their daily performances, complete with a brief history of fado music, as well as a traditional 12-string solo.

9. Diversity of the cities

In my 12-day stay, I managed to see six cities. I was amazed at how different they all were. If you’re planning on travelling to Portugal (or anywhere for that matter), do yourself a favour and move around. Don’t stay in one place. Each city had something different to offer, and the wonder of travelling is discovering the uniqueness in each place.

Tip: If you’re not sure which cities to visit, do some research. The Lonely Planet gives great (and accurate) impressions of each culture. Find what you’re looking for and fit it in to your itinerary.

10. Pastries

One of my biggest regrets in life is not eating that last pastel de nata before coming home. The pastries in Portugal are nothing that can be put into words.

Tip: Throw away the diet while you’re vacationing. You’ll climb plenty of hills to make up for it.

11. Sidewalk patios

One thing I really loved about Portugal was how each restaurant made space outside for people to sit, eat and chat. Whether it was a coffee shop or fine dining, the option is almost always there and people certainly take advantage, so long as the weather permits. You’ll also notice that cell phones are typically out of sight during meal time. Portuguese sidewalk patios remind you of the importance of unplugging—if only for a while—and indulging in the people (and food) around you.

Tip: If you want to sit outside but it’s too hot, restaurants typically leave the door to the restaurant open. You can sit near there and have almost the same experience.

Sidewalk patio in Sintra

12. History

I never thought I’d say this but that course I took last summer on the crusades really came in handy. Portugal is one of the most historically rich countries in Europe, if not the world. As the site of settlements, invasions, and historic battles, there is so much to learn. Pick up a book before going to connect the dots between the Roman ruins and the Arabic influence.

Tip: Pick up a book before or during your stay. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Roman ruins.

Roman ruins, Evora

13. The Lisboa card

Perhaps the best purchase of my entire trip (besides the floral wedges that I brought home in my carry-on) was this card that cost about 40 euros. The card allows you discounts to some of Lisbon’s most high-ranked tourist attractions. The card also comes with a book full of coupons that offer anywhere from 10% off to entirely free admission to towers, churches and museums. And if you’re not sold just yet—you can ride the metro for free with this card.

Tip: Other cities have similar cards. Be sure to visit the tourist information booth in each city to find out about good deals and activities.

14. Wine

One thing I looked forward to most about this trip was wine.  The best place to buy wine is in Porto. Most places let you taste the wine before buying it. Quinta do Noval had an amazing selection.

Tip: Always double check your allowance for carrying alcohol home and make sure it’s wrapped carefully!

15. Their metro

One of the most daunting things in any type of travel is getting around. But if you’re headed to Portugal, you will find peace knowing that Portugal’s metro in major cities is similar to Toronto’s. They’ve got multicoloured lines, a simple navigation system, and plenty of fare collectors there to help you out if you’re in need.

Tip: Rather than turnstiles, Portugal metro stations use automated hip-length sliding doors that close very quickly. Get through them fast to avoid getting stuck.

Friday, 23 October 2015

So I Went Out By Myself Last Night

I’m reading The Alchemist. It’s a wonderful book. I’ve learned a lot about what it means to follow my “personal legend”.

So when I was driving home last night, I realized that unlike most nights, I didn’t want to go home and go to bed. I wanted to hear music. And I wanted to dance. That was my personal legend. For the night, at least.

It was Thursday. There were tons of places I could go on a Thursday. “But I’m alone,” I thought. “I can’t go alone.”

You’re probably reading this thinking, yes you can. And yes, I can. But being able to do something and actually having the courage to are two different things. We can run for President. We can go skydiving. We can shave our heads bald if we wish. But will we? Do we?

I drove around thinking about whether I had it in me to go to a party by myself. I had seen other girls do it. There were a few that I always saw when I was out and they were alone. But they didn’t seem lonely. They came, they had a drink, they danced. If they could do it, couldn’t I?

I parked my car in my driveway and left my purse in my car. I knew that if I left it in there and decided to stay home, I would have to go and get it, which is the halfway mark to going out entirely.

So I left my purse. I set up a trap for myself to get me to do what I wanted to do.

I went upstairs, changed into some jeans, tied my hair up and looked myself in the mirror as the Rocky theme song played from a magical speaker in the air. And then I got in my car and drove.

I can’t tell you why I had the thoughts I had while I was driving. But I can tell you what they were and perhaps you can relate.

Do I dance? Like, by myself?

How much should I be in my phone?

Do I buy myself a drink?

Do I look for other losers like me and try and make a coalition?

What time should I leave?

And what will I do with my hands?

When I entered the party, the music gave me a warm welcome and I knew I made the right choice. I walked over to the bar, I ordered a drink and I watched the sports recaps of the week. I sat there and said hello to a few people that I had known. And then I danced. Not in the middle. And not too far out. I just rocked back and forth all night long to the music that brought me there. And it was one of the best nights I’ve ever had.

We live in a society that praises independence while simultaneously discouraging us from being alone. Our culture praises cliques and the grouping of individuals together, even if it is founded upon shallow relationships and hollow principles. The dichotomy is so confusing that it’s awkward and challenging to be in our own company in public, despite our willingness, and even our desire to.

But by reading The Alchemist, I am learning to unconcern myself with those voices, those thoughts and those ideas, and instead listen to the desires of my heart and of my soul.

So last night, when I said and when I felt, “I want to hear some music,” it was louder than the “but you’re alone,” and the “you can’t go alone,” which I also said and felt.

You can feel a bunch of things. But you only have to pick one.

The thing is, I was so close to staying home. I was so close to settling. I was so close to letting the fears that have been pushed onto me by a series of cultural institutions and the ways of social media that I almost opted out of doing what I desired.

But I didn’t.

I even found the answers to my menacing thoughts.

Yes you dance. By yourself.

Don’t go in your phone. And I didn’t.

Yes, buy yourself a drink. But just one, you’re driving.

They’re not losers. Don’t look for them. And don’t make a coalition.

Leave when you feel content. Leave when you feel you got what you desired.

That’s a tough one. Act natural?

There’s a quote that is often repeated in The Alchemist and it reads, “When you want something, the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

I think that deep down inside we all know what we want. But I also think that there are a lot of things that get in the way and confuse us and trick us into thinking maybe we want something else. And despite knowing, we second-guess, for one reason or another. It’s not a terrible thing to second-guess, to think, to analyze and to consider. But it is a terrible thing to let those things get in the way of what you really desire.

So know. Second-guess. Analyze. And consider.

But follow your intuition. It only ever leads us to beautiful places.

Places that we belong. 

Monday, 10 August 2015

The Life Lesson I Learned at My First Hindu Wedding

This weekend, my boyfriend and I attended a Hindu wedding ceremony.

On Friday night, we went to the Vedic ceremony at the Hindu Sabha Temple. The room was full of circular tables for the guests to sit at and witness the marriage of the bride and groom.

My boyfriend and I stood at the back of the room, carefully contemplating which table to occupy. I saw one table that was empty and offered a great view because it was close to the front. I pointed to it and we headed over.

We sat down, and the ceremony began shortly after. But as a first-timer, I was so excited to see the ceremony that we moved a few seats over to get a better view. When I moved, I heard some huffing and puffing going on behind me. I turned my head to see that I was now in the way of a little girl’s view. The girl, about 11, gave me a series of dirty looks, making it obvious that she was annoyed with me.

At first, I felt bad for impeding her ability to see, but as she continued to huff and puff, obviously trying to make a point, I was reminded of a book I read in grade eight.

The book was called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. One of the seven habits that stuck with me throughout the years was how to be proactive instead of reactive. Essentially, had she had read the book, she would have known that in this case, rather than huffing and puffing and readying herself to blow a house down, she should’ve simply got up and switched seats.

With this reminder, I was able to watch the bride and groom perform the rites and marry each other-guilt free. My boyfriend and I even joked about it; every time we shifted in our seats we looked at each other, as if we feared for our lives and listened for her loud, exhaustive sighs.

The second night of the wedding was the reception. It took place in a beautiful banquet hall. After dinner and a few speeches, the DJ asked the crowd if we were ready to party, to which everyone in the room replied a roaring yes. But when the music started, I was reminded of just how much my boyfriend hates dancing.

Despite being ready to fly over to the dance floor, my date needed a couple drinks in his system before busting his moves. I learned very early on in our relationship that this is just how he is.

I was annoyed. I sat there wondering when on earth he was going to be ready, because I sure was.

“Go dance,” he suggested. I rolled my eyes. “By myself?” I shot back.

Just as I was about to huff and puff, I remembered the little girl from the night before. Just as fast as I was able to diagnose the problem of her being reactive instead of proactive, I was able to realize that I was being reactive, too.

I asked myself, “Are you upset that Renaldo isn’t dancing? Or are you upset because you’re not dancing?”


The issue the first night was that the little girl’s view had been blocked. Rather than get up and move to one of the many empty seats, she made a commotion to get our attention and hope that we would pity her and unblock her view.

The issue the second night was that I was ready to dance and my partner wasn’t. And so I too, sat there, getting ready to huff and puff, hoping he’d feel bad for me and get up and dance. But what type of dancing would that be?

On that second night, I headed over to the dance floor. I didn’t know anyone, but I knew how to dance. So I did. And after a few more drinks, he came and joined me and we danced together.

So many times, our emotions cloud our ability to identify the real issue. We’re unable to see what it is that’s really bothering us. And more importantly, we’re unable to see that the solution lies within us, and certainly within our control.

In both cases, the solution, and the lesson, was the same.

Sometimes, all you have to do is get up and move.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Why is My Music Collection Your Problem?

Today, I made the long-awaited switch from a Samsung Galaxy 3 to an iPhone 5s. I had switched from Rogers to WIND last year after being up to my neck in expensive phone bills with not enough data to justify the monthly expense. But when I switched, iPhones were unavailable with my new carrier.

Great, I thought, and settled for the cheapest thing I could find.

When I finally got to unite my new phone with my iTunes, all my old music came back, and I decided to throw some more songs on there. But as my old music played in the background, it reminded me of the long road I travelled to arrive at such a diverse-and problematic-taste in music.

Growing up, my dad was the most culturally confused guy I had known. He was a black guy that rode a motorcycle, wore cowboy boots, spoke a little bit of Portuguese and Hindi, and only listened to 80s new wave.

My mom, on the other hand, was a white woman who was so into funk and disco that her parents “rolled in their graves”, as she called it. She had a thing for Shabba Ranks, and Flow 93.5 was, for as long as I can remember, her favorite station.

So when people asked me what I listened to, I would tell them, “everything”. They would often laugh this off, in the way someone would laugh off a person thinking having a few Shania Twain songs in their iTunes meant they listen to country.

It was just one of those things. I was mixed, but too black to be white, so I was just black. And that determined the type of music that it was “okay” for me to listen to.

Maybe I’m being very sensitive, but I recall making playlists to listen to for the different hallways in my high school. My Chemical Romance couldn’t be blaring when I walked past the cafeteria. And if I was stopping to chat with the white kids, I didn’t want them asking me what it meant to “roll up de tassa.”

I thought this wasn't such an issue anymore. But a few weeks ago, I was bartending at a rugby club when Blink 182's "What's My Age Again?" came on. I sang all the lyrics as I poured drinks and the people on the other side of the bar, mostly white, looked like they'd seen a ghost. 

But truthfully, I was never a fan of rap. Or hip hop. I listened to it, but it didn’t get me going in anyway. And for the longest time, I was made to believe that this was because I was “whitewashed”, or “not from the hood”. People tried for the life of them to figure it out; to come up with a reasonable, logical diagnosis for this thing that they likened to an illness, a disease.

Why don’t you listen to your music?

So one day, I asked my dad this question.

“Dad,” I said. “Why don’t you listen to your music?”

“This is my music,” he said, acknowledging Tears for Fears on the radio. He may have even played the imaginary guitar to the solo that comes towards the end of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

I found my mom in the kitchen. She was hopping and bopping to the music on the radio as she cooked us dinner that day.

“Mom, why don’t you listen to your music?” I asked.

She laughed a hearty laugh and looked at me. “Honey, trust me. This is my music.”

I had no further questions. In that moment, I understood.

I was part of the same school of thought that had inspired the confusion in my own musical taste. I had heard so often that certain music wasn’t for me, that I was beginning to believe it. This was the same type of ignorance that had me mislabeling my dad as confused, when really, he seemed to have it all figured out.

When I scrolled through my music today, I saw everyone from Foster the People to Mac Demarco. I saw the Cold War Kids and Krosfyah and even some Ashanti (back when she was good). There was rock, there was reggae, there was a lot of soca and a lot of good music.

Imagine being told that the only thing, universally, that unites us more than food, I would argue, has its own target audience, and those audiences are based on skin color.

And imagine growing up and actually believing that. Because I did.

But I don’t anymore. And thank God for that.

I’ve come to realize that this constant over-compartmentalization of things and people and music and food and experiences is just a way that people come to terms with their own discomfort; their own misunderstanding.

It’s a way for them to organize grey areas into darker greys and lighter greys.

Because people fear what they don’t understand.

And an open-mind is one of the scariest things a closed-minded person might ever face. Because it poses the challenge of having them, too, open their minds, and see life beyond their black and white disillusioned realities that got them here in the first place.

I don’t listen to the music I do because I “must have suffered some traumatic experience to this specific genre that has me turned off of it for life,” and I don’t listen to it because “my parents obviously didn’t raise me right.”

I listen to it because it appeals to me. I listen to it because it’s my music. Its not up for questioning, and its not up for debate. This is the music that speaks to me.

Every so often, my dad and I compare our music libraries. He introduces me to bands I have never heard of, and songs that become my favorite, and I do the same for him. But there’s this really beautiful thing that happens sometimes where he’ll tell me he has a song that he’ll know I love and I already have it. And I already love it.

Art is art. And music is music. And like all the universal things that unite us, it’s meant to be enjoyed by everyone and for everyone.

Open your minds. And open your ears. You might really like what you hear. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

#CyclistProblems: The Difficulty of Cycling in Scarborough

There is nothing more annoying than driving in Toronto. The constant traffic, the inescapable sound of horns honking and being flipped off often leads me to question why I spent money on a vehicle in the first place. It is then that I remember the convenience of being able to get anywhere in the city-as fast as traffic allows me to-and remember why I signed the papers.

The arrival of the Pan Am games has made traffic even more of a nuisance. The lane restrictions, the jam-packed streets and the surplus of cars on the roads has made Scarborough residents feel like they’re Downtown.

A recent class project about an issue that needs some attention got my partner, Asha and I thinking about cycling. I thought about how common it is to hear news stories about the latest cyclist to be hit by a driver at a big intersection, like Neilson and Sheppard. In the last year, I can personally recall Immanuel Sinnadurai being killed there while on his bike.

On a recent trip to Montreal, my boyfriend and I rented what’s called a bixi. You pay $5.00 for a bicycle rental that lasts you 24 hours, and you can drop it off at any bixi station set up throughout the city. I was mind-blown. I couldn’t believe how easy it all was. When my friends told me that we had these in Toronto, I felt silly for having to travel all the way to Montreal only to try out something I had in my own home and native city.

As we cruised down the Old Port of Montreal, I felt inspired to reconnect with my own bike. Then I wondered why I hadn’t ridden it so often anymore. But when I came back to Toronto, to the traffic, the honking, and the fingers, again, I was reminded.

For some, this may have been even more of an excuse to hop on a bike, but for me, I saw red flags and danger signs all over the place.

Quite frankly, cycling in suburbia is not the same as cycling in Montreal. Its not even the same as cycling in Downtown, Toronto. The bike lanes that allow cyclists their own space just do not exist. In fact, the bike paths that they are given aren’t well-lit enough to make even the bravest soul feel safe.

To combat this issue, we’ve contacted two Scarborough MPs, Mitzi Hunter and Raymond Cho to ask that they spend some time and resources trying to resolve the ongoing issues that exist for cyclists. We seem to live in this paradoxical world of telling people to save the environment, carpool and cycle, but fail to realize how impossible it is for them to do so without the essential resources.

Suburbia often gets a bad rap. My aunt that lives in Yorkville always jokes about how people who live in suburbia are more prone to being overweight because we drive everywhere. And she’s right. People of the suburbs love their cars. But I’m sure that people in suburbia would love their bikes, too, if only it were safe enough for them to ride them.

Bike riding in Scarborough would be an absolute pleasure. We’ve got streets like Morningside that allow for virtually uninterrupted riding for stretches of road before a traffic light pops up. But safety is a huge issue. There’s no doubt that it’s time for a change, Scarborough. Lets get on our bikes and prompt an increase in our safety. Once you learn how to ride, you never forget. But lets not wait long enough to get back on our bikes to have to test that theory out.