Man I miss traveling. Even with two kids under 10, I miss traveling. And not just any travel. I miss getting on a plane and crossing an ocean. I miss the smell of airports and jet fuel. I miss cramming way too much shit into my luggage (a quarter of which will never get worn but I need it “just in case”). I even miss the pilot interrupting my free movie to tell me to look outside my window at something I can’t see.
The need to escape our day-to-day schedules for a yearly antidote against the doldrums is as old as the term “vacation.” Even during the pandemic, we’ve opted for somewhat safer staycations just to break the monotony of our perpetual Groundhog Day (great movie, btw). Laying poolside, food and bevvies within arm’s reach, worries temporarily massaged away during a spa treatment—they all sound delicious. Hell, I’d take any one of those right now. But the biggest thing I miss about traveling is being immersed in a culture, whether it’s new or familiar. The people, their food, their beliefs, the places they congregate, the clothing they wear and the significance of it all.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.Mark Twain
Travel—fortunately and thanks to my parents—was a part of my life from a young age. Every winter break, our family would pack up and head to India for a few weeks. That exposure to life outside of my comfy existence in Canada was so integral in shaping my worldview. Fast forward to today and I can’t imagine not getting lost in the wonders and curiosities of far off places, regardless of how many times I’ve seen them on Instagram.
I’ve also been lucky to run into folks who share the same passion for culture. For five years, I was a contributor (photographer and writer) for Life & Thyme, a culinary media platform that provides a global perspective on food culture. I learned so much during my time with them and some of my most memorable experiences were from assignments. The one nearest and dearest to my heart was from India, specifically the free kitchen (called langar) at Sri Harimandar Sahib, also known as The Golden Temple. Located in Amritsar, Punjab, this gurdwara is one of the holiest places of worship in the Sikh faith. Millions visit each year and the kitchen feeds 100,000 of those visitors daily. I’ve stepped onto these marble floors too many times to count, but this was my first time getting a behind-the-scenes look at the massive kitchen and all those who selflessly work here each day.
At Life & Thyme, the focus was always on the people behind the food. In 2015, I worked on a series dedicated to the California drought and its impact on the food chain. I travelled up and down the Central Valley—the heart of California’s farmland—for months speaking with farmers, hearing their stories of struggle due to water shortages and the politics behind access to water, and how businesses were affected down the line.
Another conversation was about migrant workers. These seasonal harvesters, many from Mexico, are considered the backbone of the agriculture industry in California. Without them, many crops that are hand picked—figs, radish, strawberries, to name a few—would be left to spoil. This backbreaking work is not desirable to most Americans. And though talks of deportations have fuelled political agendas, it’s more obvious than ever that finding a path forward for these undocumented workers is crucial for the food industry to survive and thrive.
As much as I loved living in California (and other parts of the U.S.), I always wore my Canadian heritage with pride (We The North!). So when I had the chance to visit back in 2014, I wanted to explore it through a food lens. I first headed to Montréal where I spent the evening observing Chef Joe Mercuri doing his culinary magic. I’ve worked in professional kitchens before but have never had the chance to fully take in the coordinated dance from a storyteller’s perspective. I loved every second. Watching Chef and his team put together one thoughtfully plated dish after another was a dream.
The next morning I set out for my hometown. What I love about Toronto is how diverse this city is. You can literally find any of the world’s cuisines in this metropolis and denizens actually have intelligent opinions about them (which is sooo refreshing, let me tell you). I decided Kensington Market, located in Old Toronto, was the best place to get a taste (pun intended) of Toronto’s multiculturalism. From churros to jerk chicken, gelato to mochi, fishmongers to cheesemongers, Kensington Market did not disappoint.
But what I loved even more is how old this Market is and how many people have come through here. Immigrants opened shops here. Families have grown here. Keys have been handed off to new owners from completely different backgrounds, some of whom have continued operating those very businesses because of their importance to the community. It’s these glimpses into a city’s history that are clear reminders of how we’re connected, despite our differences and tastes.
There is a choice one makes when planning for a vacation: visit the location as a tourist, or visit as a traveler. The former focuses on your own pleasures: you relax, see the sights, take some pictures, eat some delicious food, buy some souvenirs and then head home. The latter is vested in absorbing a new culture: interacting with locals and hearing their stories of struggles and triumphs, learning about regional customs and history, and most importantly, despite differences in lifestyles and beliefs, finding commonalities.
Frances Mayes, the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, once said in an interview “…it’s part of that great sense of continuing education that you get as a traveler.” That education is dual: learning of others, yes, but also learning about yourself. Over the years, I’ve learned that getting a bit uncomfortable is a good thing. I can’t wait to feel that way again.