7 habits of highly… Actually just things my parents taught me.

7 05 2013

My parents have given me such wonderful habits.As I travel, I see the huge impact they have had in how I approach the world.

My mother is the reason that I wear sunscreen and sunglasses, always carry multiple ways to pay, put my seatbelt on as soon as I get in a vehicle, try to use the local language, take more poignant photographs, appreciate the little things, avoid fried rice and ice cream, love openly but guard my heart, praise people when they deserve it, wash my hands religiously, join the locals, write everything down, go for walks, get up early to watch the sunrise and stay up late to see the stars. My mother is the reason I dream big, appreciate the journey and trust my decisions.

My father is the reason that I keep trying when I fail, watch and see how the locals do things, smile at people even when I am grumpy, try new local dishes (even when they look or smell disgusting!), stretch often, do things even when they scare me, suck it up when it’s raining or I have to climb a bajillion stairs, don’t take shit from people, laugh at myself, stand up for others who cannot stand up for themselves, don’t tolerate the mistreatment of animals, introduce myself to strangers, listen patiently, get my hands dirty, have the confidence to try new things, offer my help freely, hold doors for people, open doors for myself and walk away from situations that I don’t like.





Living Vicariously…

5 07 2012

My friends Sarah and David are traveling through Europe this summer and writing about their experiences… I wish I was too!
They have spent the last 6 years dreaming about this trip, and they finally departed for Frankfurt on Canada Day.
Check out their blog!

I wish you guys safe, happy and memorable travels!





Canada’s Really Big…

19 06 2012
To quote a Canadian band, The Arrogant Worms, “Canada’s Really Big

I work in the travel and tourism industry in Canada, and one of the things that baffles me over and over again, is that people from other places really don’t seem to grasp the sheer SIZE of Canada before they come here.

Every day, I get people coming to my desk, asking how long it will take them to get to Tofino/Banff/Toronto/Niagara Falls etc. Judging by the dumbfounded looks on their faces when I give them an estimate in days, rather than minutes or hours… most are not prepared for the scope of the journey they had planned to undertake in a weekend or a day.

Let me lay it out for you in distances, and travel times, so you can get a good idea of just HOW big we really are, on a global scale, from the perspective of someone who has traveled extensively both in Canada and abroad.

From my perspective, when I say that something is:

“…in the city…” I am talking about somewhere I go every week:

I work in downtown Vancouver, so I am normally giving directions from Waterfront Station. (0km)
I live in New Westminster (19km)
I sing karaoke on Wednesdays in Surrey (28km)
I play dodgeball on Tuesday nights in Langley (47km)

“…pretty close…” I can mean up to 300km away.

A distance I would consider reasonable to go for a picnic, a hike, a day trip to ski or shop, or sight see.

Examples include:

Victoria (117km and a 1.5hr Ferry)
Whistler (123km)
Harrison Hot Springs (131km)
Seattle (230km)

“…at least a weekend trip…” I may mean up to 1000km (one way) in driving or flying distance.

Some ‘weekend trips’ I have taken in the past include:

Tofino (302km through mountain roads, and a 2hr ferry)
Calgary (954km or 1188km if I drive the longer, but more scenic route through Jasper)
Las Vegas (2021km – this is a common weekend trip for Vancouverites who fly down and back cheaply from Bellingham Airport)
Los Angeles (2051km – I went in 2010 for 4 days to shop and see a Muse concert and considered it a weekend trip)


“…pretty far…is what we use to talk about places that are generally several thousand kms away... places we only typically go for an annual vacation, a summer home, a family gathering, weddings, funerals and holidays such as Christmas.

Common examples are:
Los Cabos, Mexico (3916km) Destination Beach Wedding
Toronto (4205km) – Thanksgiving Dinner with Family
Montreal (4736km) – University Friends Reunion
Miami (5616km) – Disney World Vacation





Trip to Turkey & the World Wealth Income Distribution

13 06 2012

Today I bought a round-trip plane ticket to Istanbul, Turkey for less than $700 Canadian dollars including all the taxes, fees, adjusting my seat options etc. from Vancouver BC. I was ecstatic, as these tickets normally run for about $1500-1600, if you aren’t picky about your dates, and can run up to and over the $4000 mark for economy class seats! (The seat sale is still on, so grab one if you have ever wanted to visit!) Incidentally – props to KLM for lowering their prices so much! ❤

After buying my incredible steal of a ticket, I excitedly posted on Facebook that I was going to Turkey next year, and another, more sombre post underneath:
“Just bought another transcontinental plane ticket on a whim… 🙂 I am SO lucky to live in an age where international travel is so easy. It humbles me to think that as recently as a single century ago, this would be the voyage of a lifetime for almost anyone on the planet…”

I probably rewrote that comment 3 or 4 times in trying not to draw hostile comments about how it would still be the voyage of a lifetime for many, or how many people can’t afford to travel, or more specifically how my friends couldn’t afford to travel, and how I was somehow luckier than them in this way…

I will say, that nothing drives me crazier than my friends telling me that I am “lucky” to be able to travel so much.

Not because I am not lucky… I will be the first to admit how lucky I am –

I was born and raised in a likeable country with a good reputation overseas, and one with not many restrictions on which countries I can visit. I even have dual citizenship – helpful with those tricky countries that don’t like one another…

I am healthy and have full use of my body – I am not wheelchair bound, I do not need glasses, I am not dependent on any medicines or machinery to keep me alive and in good health.

I have no criminal record and I am sound of mind – these can both be used to keep someone from entering another country.

I am not married to another woman – as wonderful as this might be, it would certainly restrict the places I could visit.

I speak an international language, which enables me to function on a relatively high level in most places around the world today.

I have freedom of movement – I am not a hostage, a prison inmate, a political diplomat, or anything else that would necessitate me staying in one country besides keeping my job – which I have the option to take vacation time from, or quit.

But 9 times out of ten, that’s not what they mean. They imply, or sometimes outright tell me – that I have money to spend on travel, that they do not. Or that I somehow have no other expenses, and that is why I can afford to travel? These conversations always boggle my mind, because they always end up going like this:

Me: I am going to Turkey next year! I am so excited…
Friend: You bought another plane ticket? You are so lucky! I never get to go anywhere… I wish I could travel.
Me: … Why don’t you come with me?
Friend: What?! I can’t afford that! I have bills, and stuff to pay off…
Me: I have bills to pay off too. I have a mortgage to pay, my cell phone, electricity, internet, student loans and credit cards.
Friend: Yeah, but you always seem to have more money than me – you’re just lucky like that.
Me: Well… I don’t own a car, and I don’t spend $300 a month on cigarettes and coffee. That adds up pretty quick.
Friend: Yeah, but I NEED my cigarettes, car and coffee…
Me: And I NEED to travel. So I give up my car, and put $50 a month away in savings for future travel. $25 each pay cheque.
Friend: Whatever… I have tried to save up for travel too
Me: Didn’t you go to Vegas last year?
Friend: Yeah, but… that’s not real travel. I want to go to exotic places like India!
Me: …Yeaahh…

In any case, I will also not deny that by global standards I am rich, but honestly, if you saved $25 a week for a year, you could go somewhere exotic “like India” for about 2 weeks if you planned it right. It’s just a question of priorities. Mine is to travel.

Let’s talk about wealth – relative wealth, that is… Tricky thing about money – most of us feel poor at some point, relative to our lifestyles and to our peers/family. The Canadian average income per year is $40, 541 according to the International Monetary Fund (2011). There is an interesting article that lists 20 jobs that earn approximately this much. I am in my twenties, I have no dependents, and I work full-time in a salaried job. My income is below the national average of my country, but I also recognize that not having children is saving me a lot of money too.

To put us on the global scale, I love to use the chart below. Normally I draw it out myself, but I had to find one I could post as an image because my scanner is broken…

This figure represents all of the world’s current money earning adults (in case you were wondering why it’s only ~4.5B people and not 7B people).

More than 2/3 of them make up the bottom portion of the triangle, and earn less than $10, 000 per year.

That’s right – if you are North American you are richer than 67% of humanity. Stop your bitching.

Another 23.5% earn between $10,000 to $100,000 – with most of us at the lower end of that spectrum.

And less than 1% of people in the world are millionaires and billionaires – however, they own 38.5% of the total $. The original posters of this figure break it down even further:

“As readers can see above, the figures for mid-2011 indicate that 29.7 million adults, about 1/2 of one percent of the world’s population, own more than one third of global household wealth. Of this group, they estimate that 85,000 individuals are worth more than $50 million, 29,000 are worth more than $100 million, and 2,700 have assets above $500 million. Compare this to the bottom of the pyramid: 3.054 billion people, 67.6 percent of the world’s population, with assets of less than $10,000, who own a mere 3.3 percent of the world’s wealth. Add another billion people with assets between $10,000 and $100,000 and we have 91.2 percent of the world’s population that owns something on the order of 17.8 percent of total world wealth.” http://rwer.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/the-global-wealth-pyramid/

So next time you think to yourself – wow, that person is so lucky, they get to travel and I don’t – either start saving to buy a plane ticket, or just be grateful that you earn more than $10, 000 a year, and probably won’t ever have to worry affording vaccines, basic education, shoes, a clean toilet, food and a roof over your head.

For my part – I will continue to make travel a high priority for spending my hard-earned dollars, and try to stay humble about how lucky I am to be able to travel with such ease – sound of mind and body, and with a passport, plane ticket and full belly.

– Sarah Topps 2012





7 Things I Never Travel Without

10 02 2011

As an event and trip coordinator, and a frequent traveler in my personal time – both clients and friends often ask me: What should I pack?It’s the age-old traveling question, and I have often found it makes the world of difference in the quality of my trip.

To be honest, it really depends on the trip – how long is it?, where will you go?, who will you go with?, do you need fancy clothes?, how will you get there?, where will you stay?, what activities will you be doing? etc. I could go on and on about the various factors that come into play when I am deciding what to bring. (Look out for upcoming posts as I begin my quest for one-bag international travel starting with a trip to Taiwan in April.)

However, if I have to give a short answer, I always love the quip about the necessary “Big 3” my parents used when we traveled: “Tickets, passport, money. Everything else you can buy, borrow, or make do without.”

While I truly believe this motto, and have followed it to the letter before in extreme circumstances, there are several other items which make my “necessities” list on (almost) every trip these days, rounding out to a nice 10.

1. Good walking shoes & SmartWool socks

Okay, so technically this one is two things, but it’s not like you would use one without the other, right? After years of walking in many kilometres, in many conditions, all around the world, I have come to the conclusion that I absolutely LOVE SmartWool socks. They are comfortable, they don’t smell, they take YEARS to wear out, their colours hide dirt well, they look good on everyone, and they prevent blisters! To learn more about the science behind these awesome socks, they made us a pretty website!

2. Pencil and notebook

Same deal as above… paper is pretty useless unless you’re using it for fire starter in the woods (and I think open fires are illegal in most wooded places now anyways). Great for remembering details such as addresses or opening hours, for learning words of the local language (a great opener for talking to locals) and for detailing your adventures in.

3. Sunscreen

This brings us to one of my absolute all-time favourite travel stories, and perhaps the best one to illustrate my parents unique manner of raising me to be the independent, responsible and interesting human being (I hope ) that I am today.

When I was 17 years old, and full of young restlessness I used to spend hours and hours (actually who am I kidding, I still do) on airline websites, trying to find the best travel deals to my dream destinations. One night, my parents had asked me to babysit my younger brother while they went out for dinner and a show. After my brother had gone to bed, I was on the computer, chatting with some friends from Australia and skimming my usual travel sites. Suddenly, I spied an incredibly good deal for a flight to Brisbane from Vancouver… after doing about, oh… maybe 3 minutes of intense cost research and asking my friends if the weather was nice, and whether they thought I could get a job there, I had bought a plane ticket. For the next morning. To Australia.

By the time my parents got home, later that night, I was halfway through packing for my spontaneous 3 month trip down under. My Mum took one glance in my room, asked me where I was going, stared at me for a moment after my reply and then shook her head and went to bed. The next morning, around 6 a.m. she padded back through to my room in her slippers and asked if I was serious. I held up my bag in one hand and my plane ticket in the other, then cheekily asked if she could give me a ride to the airport in an hour. She thought about it for a second, nodded, and then padded to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.

An hour later, we were driving to the airport and we were chatting about mundane things when she suddenly seemed to realize that I was actually planning to spend the next three months in Australia. She turned to me abruptly and said:

“So you’re really going to Australia today?”

“Well, yes, although I won’t get there until tomorrow. I’ll call when the time difference isn’t too bad.”

“Did you pack sunscreen?”

“Uhhh… no?”

“There should be a bottle under the seat. You can take that one.”

I dug it out and tucked it into the top pocket of my bag. We drove the rest of the way to the airport in that comfortable silence that only comes from everyone feeling that all that is needed has been said. I think it officially marked the moment in my life where I felt like an adult in my parents’ eyes. And I still remember to pack sunscreen, every time.

4. Digital Camera

I have found over time that I never remember my trips as well if I don’t have pictures to spur the memories. Take pictures! Take LOTS of pictures. Take pictures of new friends, old friends, yourself with friends, yourself alone, local quirks, colourful signs, famous locations, not-so-famous-but-just-as-cool locations, your favourite dish, your favourite camel… you name it! If you’re motivated enough, you can even make yourself a scrapbook when you get home. (Just don’t force your poor friends to sit through an 800-picture slide show… really, after 50 pictures, no one cares.)

I currently own one digital SLR; the Canon Rebel T2i (EOS 550D outside the US, but I like the flashier name… no pun intended) which I love for it’s smaller grip – perfect for my female hands, and a smaller Canon Powershot from a few years ago when it had a slimmer design.

5. Universal Plug Adapter

Really? You want an explanation? Just get one. You can thank me later…

6. Goody’s Ouchless Hair Elastics

Weirdly useful… and not just for putting hair into a ponytail.

These amazingly durable, colourful bands are perfect for securing things together (bunches of pens, flowers, rolls of bills, you name it!) or for hanging things. As hair elastics go, they are very comfortable since they don’t have the traditional metal bar holding the elastic together which pulls your hair out when you remove it. They come in a great variety of colours, last forever and are super cheap and easy to find (any major drugstore will carry them). I find them so useful that I often have an extra one on my key chain or in my bag – in fact, I’m wearing one on my wrist right now!

7. MP3/USB player

Again, you can buy them in any electronics store or major drugstore – cheap, not flashy, easily concealed, good for storing digital pictures or e-versions of important documents. Wear it around your neck under your shirt on a cord necklace for easy but secure access to your music. The one I use is similar to this one. Get as much memory as you can find/afford… even your favourite songs get old after you’ve been on the same bus for 18 hours.

And of course – don’t forget your tickets, passport or money!

– Sarah Topps (2011)





To master or not to master?

18 03 2010

As an honours student at a top university, I have been frequently asked what my post-grad plans are in the months leading up to my graduation. Many of my peers have applied to grad school, and many will succeed, given the competitive push amongst those of us who have lasted through our undergraduate degrees. I thought I would investigate this line of thinking and see how common my choices were…

My top choices currently stand as follows:

1. Masters of Public Health at Simon Fraser University

2.  Travelling to Cameroon to work with Aquacare, a locally-founded organization which is promoting SODIS (solar water disinfection) – the topic of my current thesis

3. Travelling to Angola to work with Karen Henriksen and the Centro Evangelico de Medicina de Lubango (although I would need to learn more Portuguese first)

4. Masters of Public Health at Queen’s University (although more of an Epidemiology focus than SFU)

5. Working as the Morocco consultant for the Rickshaw Travel company located in Brighton, England

6. Working temporarily for Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) – a job I’ve already been interviewed for, that would help me work off my student debt, let me travel and improve my language skills

There are others, but those are the top ones which appeal to me at the moment. Several internships also appeal, although I plan to find out if my applications to grad school are successful before applying.

Being at university, and especially as a B.A. student, I often feel as if everyone and their dog has a university degree these days – which can be seen in both a positive and a negative light. After applying to grad school, I thought about the number of my friends from high school who didn’t go to university, and wondered what the national statistics had to say about the matter.

The answer is surprising – only 19.4% of Canadians (2007) have completed a university degree. This includes all bachelors degrees, masters and PhD’s in the country. If you also include CEGEPS, colleges and technical degrees, diplomas and certificates, the number rises to 46%, which is apparently the highest proportion in the world!

Wow. I feel much smarter now – thanks Google! I have been so immersed in the academic environment for the past 5 years that I haven’t stopped to realize both how lucky and how talented we students are as a group of people in this country, and globally. Having realized this, and knowing that the rate for a master’s program must be that much lower, I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for being accepted. I just hope that I have eased someone else’s mind in the process of writing this!

– Sarah Topps





Difficult times for university students and recent grads

16 07 2009

The economy is down, job searching this summer is tearing students apart in North America – most of my friends are having some form of difficulty finding work. And not just work that pays a decent wage, or even minimum wage, work that is any more challenging than flipping burgers or doesn’t involve someone screaming at you every fifteen minutes or so – now even these hated positions are scrapped over like the final pieces of carrion by vultures.

As a top student at one of the best and easily the most well-known university in Canada for my field of studies – I followed the same path that has previously offered the best chances for interesting and sometimes paid work opportunities this summer:

I asked my current manager if he would be able to keep me on for a summer position… no such luck.
I tapped my professional contacts… no luck.
I applied for, and was accepted to an internship program… but in the end couldn’t afford the plane ticket and visa costs to reach the country where the internship was to take place due to funding cuts by CIDA this year.
I searched on the internet for hours, finding internships, jobs and volunteer work which appealed to me and applied to dozens of spots, all well before deadline… no luck.
I asked past employers if they needed employees for the summer months… no luck, many are still downsizing.
I spoke with friends, family, friends of the family, family of friends… no one was hiring, anywhere.
I applied for jobs in the paper – in English, in French, in Spanish – in Alberta, in BC, in Montreal, even in Europe… no luck. I had some job interviews, and even a few offers, but moving and housing would cost more than the salary offered.
I took job interviews with companies I would never wish to work for, such as telemarketing and door to door sales, heavy manual labour that paid less than minimum wage or waitressing positions in sketchy restaurants that ran drug deals out the back… then I decided risking my safety and/or sanity wasn’t quite worth the minimum wage positions.
I even worked manual labour for 4 weeks while I tried to come across something more stimulating (or better paid).
And put myself in a somewhat risky situation with a bipolar boss who paid under the table cutthroat wages and screamed at us when he couldn’t find his cigarettes which were on the table behind him.

Finally… I’ve had enough. Sometimes you can put in all the work, and your luck or timing will be off by just enough that you just miss the spot you were trying so hard for. Better luck next time…

On the other hand, I have the luxury of having paid all of my bills already and not having any dependents at the moment (besides my kitty, who I have fed and taken to the vet when I didn’t have money to buy food for myself or pay all my bills on time) and realistically, I’m far more likely to wear myself down, wear myself out or put myself in the way of some serious harm – whether physical strain, mental breakdowns or simply feeling terrible about my life – than to actually make enough money to make those things worth it.
I’ve paid all my bills for the summer, and I’m not going to starve to death, I can keep my cat healthy, keep me healthy and far happier than I would be, working some shitty job where in the end, half my pay is lost due to my bosses losing track of my hours or short-changing me on my shift hours etc.

I’m lucky, and I recognize that. Not having to work for 6 weeks during a recession where finding a job as a student is a nightmare and keeping one is hellish at best, is truly something to be taken advantage of, and I intend to spend the time working on my thesis, prepping for my classes next year and taking care of myself mentally so that I might not break down when it all goes to hell next April when my thesis will be taking over my life.

For a few lucky ones, life still worked out in their favour – even more so than it did for me, and several of my most talented friends have been offered interesting and stimulating work or educational placements this summer – including my friends Alexandra in Nepal, Eric in Syria, [see their collective blog here], Lynn in Tunesia [click here to follow her adventures and those of the other AIESECers from McGill], and fellow AIESECer Amina Samy in India, and good friend Kelly Garton in Panama.

Next year I will be one of these lucky people, as the internship offer which I qualified for with AIESEC McGill still stands until February of next year, by which time I will have chosen one to undertake post-graduation in May 2010. (I’m very excited to see what I will end up choosing… there are so many options!)

As for right now, I remain happily unemployed, working hard on my thesis, my final paper for a summer class and my blog, organizing the international trips for my VP position in the McGill International Student Network for 2009/2010, coming up with ideas for my other VP position on the IDSSA (International Development Studies Students Association) academic board, keeping my body healthy, helping my cat with his physical therapy and enjoying spending time with friends I might not see again for several years after this summer.

All in all – not a bad way to spend the last 6 weeks of a summer when unemployment is rampant and most of my friends are wallowing in misery-filled jobs, huge amounts of debt, or both. I think I’ll just appreciate that for now I have the most luxurious of resources – time.

– Sarah Topps








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