what to pack in a carry on

15 easy tips for what to pack in a carry on

When I travel, I only carry travel-on luggage. I never lose my bag. It saves me a tonne of time when I get to skip the luggage carousel. And now that most airlines charge you to check a bag, it also saves me money.  If you want to know how to save time and money, this is all you need to know for what to pack in a carry-on.


1. Size Matters:

Get the largest size carry-on luggage (that still fits in the sizing device!) Soft-sided with an expandable zipper is best so you can always cram another sweater in.


I knew people would be upset, but you will NEVER guess what made people mad.

Last week I started up a war. I wrote a controversial post about the country of Africa and said that due to bad press because of the Ebola media hoopla, I was going to share some “lesser known facts” so people could understand the ‘real Africa’. I wrote a blog post. A lot of people complained when I said Africa is a country. It struck a nerve.

The Country of Africa

So why did I say that Africa is a country when I knew it was not true? It was all a joke of course. I know that Africa is an ancient city-state stretched along an enormous archipelago of 15 large and hundreds of smaller islands just off the western coast of India. For reference purposes, I have included a quick sketch of that fabled land (not to scale):

Africa is a country
A map of the Country of Africa

Why did I write the post? I had some noble reasons: I wanted to break stereotypes, stop the ‘poor African’ storyline, and to share a conversation with a wide audience, the same conversation I have shared with plenty of Africans  over the years.

I also wrote the article to have a little fun and I figured more people might read it.

There was a method to the madness, but if I am honest, it wasn’t until I saw the comments on Facebook or Twitter that I really understood what I had written. In the middle of the backlash one small niggling fact really stuck out for me. I learned a lot from it.



First of all, if you missed it, go read it and then come back here. I can wait.

In my post I tried to give plenty of cues that I was writing satire. I kept repeating that Africa is a country, and then wrote something else equally silly. Most caught the hints. If you were just skim-reading you may have missed what I was trying to say. Here are the clues I tried to leave:

  • I gave my article a sensational over-the-top title like the headlines that flood my Facebook stream.
  • I made sure that every single sentence I wrote was ridiculous or wrong, or both.
  • I made up absurd facts. Some were so crazy I thought that I had gone too far.
  • I used the most condescending language I could think of
  • I made up senseless quotes from imaginary people.
  • Each of my links in the post actually told the exact opposite story.
  • I kept the ruse going. I played an arrogant jerk or a clueless idiot in my Facebook responses when people reacted.
The Country of Africa
“up to your usual jackassery”

Africa is a Country: The reaction

I got a lot of confusing “WTF!?!” type responses. A number of people tried to correct my uninformed facts. But I must say that I was personally surprised by one little thing. Most people would only scold me about the error of my title. Again and again I was told:

“Africa is a continent, not a country!”

I was surprised that with all the dumb things I said about Africa, people were mostly concerned about my geography. They ignored the bigger picture. No one questioned my condescending tone about the needy people in Africa waiting for a brave hero from the west. People were fine with the thought that volunteers should go to Africa to hold babies and give away stuff. Or that an African’s favourite sport was war. No one challenged those statements.


I am not sure, but I have suspicions. Most people got the joke of course (many Africans loved it!). But for others I wonder if it has a lot to do with how we have grown up thinking about Africa, or maybe it is about reverse racism where we elevate people unrealistically. I don’t know. All I know is that I am sure glad I wrote the article. I loved the reactions! It has definitely given me some ideas for future posts!

Enough serious reflection. Back to the funny!

One of my favourite recent videos comes from a  group of students in Norway. SAIH has made some hilarious videos about this way of thinking. Do yourself a favour and please watch this genius clip! Maybe Africa is a country you can visit to save a child?

Other videos from SAIH are here on their Radi-Aid page. They are so brilliant that the only fault I can find is that I jealously wish I could have made them.

Know any other great videos like this? Share the link-love and post them in the comments below!

Mark Crocker 

The country of Africa

10 Astounding Facts about the Country of Africa (#6 will break your brain!)

The country of Africa is receiving a lot of bad press during this time of CRISIS OUTBREAK of EBOLA (the deadliest disease in recorded history). While these fears should probably be increased, I wonder if it is time to also share lesser known African facts.

I have travelled throughout the country of Africa, and while I am not an expert, I do have some experiences worth noting. Here are my views! CAUTION: although Africa is one of the world’s greatest destinations, during this deadly EBOLA outbreak, I would not recommend ANYONE to visit ANYWHERE in the country of Africa.

A little knowledge is a powerful thing – very little knowledge is the most powerful thing of all. – Nelson Malala

1. Africa is not only a big country it is a HUGE country.

A wonderful magical majestic country only slightly smaller than the USA and consisting of over 5 distinct people groups.


5 things that you might think taste like chicken but really don’t 

“Tastes like chicken” – thats what people say when they try something new. In my travel I have eaten plenty of unusual stuff – much of which certainly does not taste like chicken!

One of the best and worst things about travel is eating all kinds of strange and wonderful new things. Once you get off of the plane and away from the abomination that is airplane “food”. I try to eat local.

Nothing gives your tastebuds a workout quite like local cuisine. My favourite is the roadside stall. Since I do this a lot, I have a quick internal checklist I follow to make sure I find the best place the first time. Usually a flavour-filled portion of something exotic and tasty! Read through for my hints on how to eat well!

In the meantime, here are 5 things I have eaten while travelling that definitely do not taste like chicken:

5. crocodile

This was on the menu at Carnivores Restaurant in Kenya, a great restaurant if you are ever nearby. Crocodile comes roasted on a sword-like skewer, you fill your plate with as much as you like, as well as Zebra, Impala and a few other local animals. A lot of people say that crocodile tastes like chicken – I disagree. I think croc tastes like something half-way between a fish and chicken, with a rubbery texture like squid. Not sure if that sounds appetizing or not, but I would eat it again.

4. emu biltong

Biltong is basically South African beef jerky. An emu, like a chicken, is also a flightless bird but thats where the comparison ends. An Emu is huge like an ostrich and is a red meat. It tastes a lot wilder. Like venison. Perfect for those long hikes through the African bush when you are tracking game

3. pigs ears

I ate them in China at a special Szechuan restaurant. Fish heads, green spicy peppers that numb the mouth, heaps of dry red chilies, and pigs ears. I am not sure why this fancy restaurant was serving pigs ears but I dug in with my chopsticks, took a bite, then surprised my hosts when I went back for more. i would compare the taste of Pigs ears to the tendon in a big delicious bowl of Vietnamese Pho. If you haven’t tried Pho you are missing out on one of the best meals on the planet.

2. caterpillars

I had heard that Zambians ate caterpillars and I was curious. I was staying overnight at a Zambians home and asked what they were like.  Luckily they had some in the cupboard!  The next thing I know is that the frying pan was out and caterpillars were popping in the hot grease.  The verdict? Delicious! Seriously you should try them if you ever have the opportunity. They tasted like a mixture of popcorn and peanuts. I can see them taking over the menu at hockey games.

1. chicken

I was in South Africa and the cook came out with some beautiful pieces of fried chicken. It looked great crispy, big pieces, juicy and hot. I took a bite and there was a sudden strange disconnection. I looked a little more closely, I thought this was chicken, but it sure tasted like fish. But what fish has a drumstick? It was only later that I found out that this chicken was raised on fish meal. A very strange combination and I must admit not one I wish to try again. The chicken tasted exactly like crocodile.

How to eat well when traveling to non-tourist destinations:

So if you stuck around through my 5 meals that don’t taste like chicken, here is my quick guide to getting great eats:
  1. Find the place that looks the busiest by locals.
  2. Ignore the place with the English sign in places that does not normally speak English
  3. Sit down elbow to elbow with a crowd on a rusty bench
  4. Look around you at the good looking things that other people are eating.
  5. Order one of those
  6. You will eat well, you won’t pay much money.
  7. Even if you don’t like it (rare) you won’t pay much money, so try something else!
  8. You may not want to ask for a translation of what you just ate

Share the exotic meal you ate that definitely didn’t taste like chicken?

9 simple hacks to speed your way through airport security

We stand like cattle, shuffling forward, penned in by keepers in blue blazers, turn and turn again, awaiting the next stop.

Photo Credit: Kris Krug via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Kris Krug via Compfight cc

As I walked towards the departures gate I saw a long line and a short line. The short line had the Global Entry logo and I knew my Nexus card would get me through. My moment of happiness turned bitter as the security guard pointed to the TSA pre clearance logo.

Confused? So was I.

Anyways the guard at the line certainly wasn’t letting me through.

I returned to my line-up and my novel. Everyone needs a book when they travel. The line shuffled a step forward. After twenty long minutes of snaking back and forth I heard an urgent voice over my shoulder.

“Excuse me. I’m late. Do you mind if I cut in front?”

He looked frantic. I let him pass. No big deal. Everyone else in line agreed with a few quiet grumbles “why didn’t he get here early like the rest of us?” He reached the head of the line. At that moment the gate agent, who told me off a moment before, began to strut his authority. Something he clearly enjoyed.

Sir.” He shouted for all to hear. “There is a line for a reason. Come with me.”

He beckoned, and marched the man back to the beginning of the line. The man protested. Explained he had an international flight in 20 minutes. Explained how he had asked each of us for permission.


I get it

The reality is that I have been in the latecomers shoes before. Sometimes I have been late due to my own forgetfulness – it happens. More often I have been late because my connecting flight was delayed, my bag was the last off of the carousel, or I was stopped at the police roadblock. Interruptions are as normal to travel as sushi in Vancouver and traffic in Toronto

The agent stood firm in his polyester jacket and laminated badge of authority. By then the crowd in the line had heard enough. Initial grumbles turned to shouts of support for the latecomer. A few in the line mumbled comments about the moral character of the gate agents mother. Sensing an uprising the agent relented and the man walked to the front of the line once more.

I hope he made his flight, but he probably hit another line up at his gate.

Lining up like airplane cattle is tedious. Here are some clues on how to make it through a security checkpoint as fast as anyone with a million aeroplane points.


Check out the tips!


1. Get a Nexus Card.  If you live in North American you might want to give a foreign government all of your information (Canada shares with American and vice versa) in order to get the card. You will feel like a travel princess as you are escorted to the front of the line in border crossings across North America.

2. Pack Carry-on Only. People who don’t have to wait for luggage get to the next line-up earlier. I can pack enough in carry-on for just about any trip. If you have clothes for 10 days or so, you should be fine, people in other countries do laundry too. Get yours done.

3. Pick the right line. If you have a choice, choose the lineup filled with businessmen and businesswomen. They have been there before and will often move more quickly than a shorter line (especially if the shorter line has children or people wearing flip-flops and shorts).

4. Wear light shoes. They are more comfortable on the plane, probably don’t have metal in them so you can wear them through the x-ray machine, and if you have to take them off it won’t take long to put them back on.

5. Get to know your clothes. Jackets and sweaters always must be taken off so don’t wear them if you don’t have to. Some belt buckles set off the detector and others don’t – if the line up is not long, keep your belt on and see if it will pass. It will save you time in the future if it does. Don’t wear a shirt with metal buttons.

6. Keep your fluids on the outside. You know that zippered compartment at the top of your carry-on bag? That is where you should put your 100 ml containers in their clear plastic baggie. A quick zip and you have them in the tray. No need to open anything.

7. Empty pockets early. Coins, phone, wallet, earphones, and everything in your pockets can go into your carry-on while you are waiting in the line-up. Don’t put it in the bin to be spilled as trays and passengers pile up.

8. Walk through the detector and keep moving. If you did not hear a beep you don’t need to wait for the security guard with the wand. Immediately walk over to get your stuff from the x-ray machine.

9. When security picks you! Don’t worry it is probably some metal thing you have in your bag that looks a bit unusual. Tell them: 1. “Yes, this is my bag” and 2. “Yes, you have my permission to take a look inside” and 3. if you know what the thing probably is “Can I show you what I think it is?”  Spend the time they are searching putting  back on your belt, and putting stuff back in your pockets. (If they are being power-hungry you can ask them to put your bag back together as well)

Granted none of these suggestions will save you a lot of time on their own, but all together they add up. Also, when you do these things, security will recognize that you have been here before and they might even treat you like a real human being!

What secrets can you share for getting through security as fast as possible?

Mark Crocker

How to reduce the threat of militants who are trying to kill you

My brother was working in Pakistan, in an area where terrorist attacks have become commonplace. He was there to aid the local people rebuild after some devastating mudslides had torn up their homes, communities and lives. While he was helping, militants were actively looking for ways to kill people who look like my brother. It was and still is a dangerous place. Thankfully he made it back home safely and I recently asked him what he considered the secret to his safety.

I too have felt the results of war a few times – In the Palestinian territories as I talked to the soldier in Bethlehem square, blocks of concrete whistled past my head at a guard post. The soldier clicked his gun off safety and ran towards the youth. Later that same trip as I walked up a hill to find a moment to myself, my persistent guide began to shout for my attention. I ignored his cries until I heard him say “They are shooting up there!” I decided to turn around.


Driving the shooting gallery

I have worked in a war zone in DRCongo, the longest running war in the world with a death toll of over a 1,000,000 people in the last 20 years. I most remember the striking image of the rocket launcher slung across the shoulder of the militant. She was there to protect me I was told. I missed a border crossing and had to run the hazardous trail from Bukavu to Burundi in the afternoon – the time when the local militias got trigger happy. My friend, Raha, kept calling and checking in every moment he could reach us by cell phone, frightened for my safety.

In the grand scheme of risk, my stories do not share the same drama that others have faced. Much more horrible things happen to international workers. I got a call from a volunteer within hours of the moment when he held a man as he bled to death. A construction accident on a job site building a children’s home.

The equipment burst in his hands, sending a shard into his heart.

There is real danger in travel.

Most development takes place in places where there are greater dangers than home. Disease. The Environment. and Armed Men With Guns all play a part.

Back to my brother in Pakistan. He was surrounded by razor wire, and high fences. The guards on the compound carried guns. There were protocols and procedures. Safe areas and meeting points.  Still that is never enough. He let me know his secret to personal safety, the same one I use.

He got to know the neighbours.


Like most of life, the secret is relationships

He dropped in often to the neighbour next door. He brought over food. Learned the names of the kids. He drank endless cups of tea. He asked questions about their lives. He shared his own experiences. In short he became a neighbour, not a foreigner.

After getting to know them, at one point he asked about the dangers of local militants, “What should I do if something bad happens?” His neighbour pointed out how the neighbourhood worked, the narrow streets that felt so confining also held an advantage. The houses were all close together for a reason. He told him, “if ever you are feeling in danger get on your roof – jump over the gap to our house – we will shelter you.”

When surrounded by danger, no amount of protective razor wire or fire-power is as powerful as the protection of a neighbourhood. The first step to safety is to become a fellow human begin and get to know the neighbours.

Have you ever been in a dangerous situation?

Mark Crocker

Photo Credit: gfairchild via Compfight cc

The Biggest Travel Etiquette Blunders

This might be the most offensive post I have ever written. So far…

Photo Credit: daystar297 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: daystar297 via Compfight cc

Have you ever offended someone and you didn’t know until it was too late? When I was about 20 years old, I remember driving down the Deerfoot in Calgary with a few other friends.  We happened to drive along a police car and noticed that the cop in the passenger seat was chatting with his partner, he was relaxed and had his finger casually hooked into the window frame. The funny thing was that it was his middle finger and so he looked like he was flipping us all off.


We did what we thought was right. All three of us in the car likewise returned the favour. We flipped him the bird. We gave him the Trudeau salute. We showed him the finger.

Brave or stupid, we were about to find out

He finally noticed us and he frowned. We quickly pointed at his own finger, smiled broadly, and began to sweat that this was probably not a great idea after all. Luckily the officer noticed what we were doing and had a great sense of humour. He split up laughing and pulled down the offending finger.

When I travel I also find myself in similar circumstances. I may think I am simply relaxing, calling a kid over, or saying “great job!” and be completely unaware of how much I am confusing or offending any number of people who pass by. Thankfully, most of the time they will also laugh along with (at) me as I obviously don’t know the local rules.

Curious how you would do? Here is a great fun way to find out!

(if the story already offended you, don’t check it out)


My favourite 5 places on the planet.

I have travelled to over 45 nations and I am frequently asked “where is your favourite place? Where would I go back?

There are so many great options that I find it tough to pick just one. That is why my usual answer to the question is:

“The next place I go”

Cop out? Still true. I love the new places I get to travel. Recently I was travelling into Cambodia and Thailand, I have been to both countries before and was excited to return, although I must admit, I wished I was able to see a new place. Then the layover in Korea happened.

Photo Credit: jackieflynt via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: jackieflynt via Compfight cc

I had just gotten off the red eye, and my next flight wasn’t for another 12 hours. I was not looking forward to spending it in an airport. As I walked through the terminal I spotted a sign in English.

Free city tour.

I checked in and soon found myself joined to a tour-group sponsored by the Korean government. A whirlwind day tour of a beautiful temple, the national palace, lunch and some free time in the shopping district followed. A day, I thought might be wasted in an airport, turned into a serendipitous opportunity to visit beautiful Seoul. I hope to go back for more someday!

I love the new places I get to travel, even for a day, but I also have a few fond memories of some other locations.

Here they are:

Kabala boys - (c) Mark Crocker
Kabala boys – (c) Mark Crocker

5. Sub-Saharan Africa. I know that Africa is not a country, and the continent is highly varied with a huge number of tribes and peoples, but I find it almost impossible to pick just one place. I have favourite memories of my visits to a local Zambian home. Playing floor hockey in Malawi. Visiting South Africa as apartheid was beginning to be dismantled. Meeting the statuesque Turkana people in northern Kenya. Gazing over the endless hills of Rwanda. And driving the mountain roads through the tea plantations in DR Congo. Each experience is unique, tremendously different from one another, and yet a common thread runs through. Once you are in the village, the language and staple food may change, but the beat of life follows the same African drum.

This is a life-giving rhythm.

Newfoundland Dory - (c) Mark Crocker
Newfoundland Dory – (c) Mark Crocker

4. The table-lands near Trout River, Newfoundland. Rock and Water: my favourite scenery is always some combination of the two. Maybe it is in the genes of every Newfoundlander? The wash of water over rock is visually stunning. The table lands are a geological anomaly in the area where my fathers family grew up. When he was a kid, there wasn’t a road in or out, you got around by boat. My grandfather knew this place as he carried the mail by dogsled through the gulch. That same gulch eased now by the highway into some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. Few travel there. It is easier and cheaper to go to Europe. But you will not find a friendlier people to visit.

This is home.

Roadside in Morocco - (c) Mark Crocker
Roadside in Morocco – (c) Mark Crocker

3. At a roadside stall. I love street food. I know it is deadly dangerous and all, but all the same, I love it. I remember BBQ oysters steamed with a healthy heap of garlic while sitting with friends in an alleyway in China, banana pancakes and mama noodle stirfry in Thailand, sitting on rusty benches in the market eating plates of shrimp and rice in Cambodia, deep fried mars bars in the winter chill of Scotland, grocery store bread and cheese while watching the pope at the Vatican, plate lunches of truly massive portions in Hawaii. Each meal, simple, local, cheap and most important deliciously memorable.

This is satisfaction.

Photo Credit: marfis75 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: marfis75 via Compfight cc

2. Spain. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral and the warrens of small cafés in Barcelona. Learning how to eat tapas and going back for another helping of boiled octopus. Desert landscape punctuated by ancient communities along the Camino de Santiago. Renting a car and finding our way to that small town where John and I got lost for hours but eventually wound up at a bullfight – still the most stunning and surreal thing I have seen in my life.

This is exuberance and joy.

Elbow Falls (c) Mark Crocker
Elbow Falls (c) Mark Crocker

1. Kananaskis, Alberta. Travel down highway 8 off of the trans-Canada just 25 minutes from Calgary and you enter into some if the most spectacular scenery in the world. High alpine lakes, stark mountains studded by ranks of lodge pole pine. The wind whistles through the canyons and you could hike for hours without seeing another person. Banff and Lake Louise are just down the road and they are amazing, but locals go to Kananaskis.

This is peace

So, next time you ask, I may have a new destination in mind, but what do you think of my five favourite places on the planet at the moment? More importantly, where should I go next?

What’s your favourite place?

Mark Crocker

The fatal flaw to understanding another culture

A few years ago I was in India and I met a travel writer for Outdoor magazine. We chatted about life, travel, writing. I was a little jealous of his life and work. I had overheard him talking to an Indian guy about his wife and so I asked about his family. He told me that he wasn’t actually married, but in Indian culture it made sense to refer to his partner as wife.

Indian Women with Headscarves

I understood why he did so. I was also there with my wife Supriya, although at the time she was my girlfriend. We had gone for a walk in Pune one night, we held hands and, looking for a place to buy water, made our way into a roadside pub. Almost immediately Supriya’s cousin Biyah appeared to ask why we were there? It seems we had violated a number of unspoken cultural taboos. (more…)

How to tell time

We left our guesthouse just after 7 am because our host had told us that the high mountain road was under construction. There was only one way in, and there would only be a couple moments when we could get through. We had to get there before 8 or we would have to wait until after noon.

How to Tell Time
We were cutting it close, but I felt good, we were going to make the deadline. We kept up the pace, until suddenly we rounded the corner to see a long line of parked vehicles in front of us. We stopped for what would turn out to be an unexpected lesson. (more…)

How to Tell a Story so People Pay Attention

A number of years ago I met Foday. He was tall, lanky and busy. Always moving. His young sons would run to hang on him whenever he could find his father taking a break, which was not often. Foday knew how to smile. A kind man, he quietly lit up a room.

Boday Sierra Leone
Foday & Sons – Kabala, Sierra Leone

Foday wanted what every good father wants. The best opportunity for his sons to succeed in life.  I don’t know if I really understood that as much as I do today – my two daughters have probably helped me understand this in a new way.

The problem was that we were in Sierra Leone. A country that had just come out of a savage and brutal time. Many people in the community shared the physical scars of the war.

Foday introduced me to a farmer with a missing arm.

Rebels had stopped this particular farmer and asked him a question”Do you want a short sleeve or a long sleeve shirt?(more…)

How a pile of compost taught this man’s wife how to write her name

I drove into the southern mountains of Haiti in the back of a Toyota Landcruiser, the vehicle used by most relief agencies. The sideways bench seats, as uncomfortable as they always are, still perfect for bringing us up into the hills. We arrived in Duchity, where over a few days with our partners from pcH we met with many farmers.

compost equals literary
The people in these hills have farmed forever. As outsiders, we were there to support their vision for two major goals.

1. Increased production, also known in less technical terms as “growing more food” – which means more to eat and more to sell.

2. The creation of a co-op. In nerdy MBA or development speak it’s called “improving the value chain”. Co-ops allow people to buy seed in bulk, share tools to reduce costs, and ship product in larger quantities.

The question was “did it work”?


8 key comforts you should take on a plane

A few years ago I was flying overseas when I was suddenly hit with a wall of stench. My eyes watered. It smelt like some hellish mix of ammonia, cat pee and pinesol. I instantly bonded with the stranger sitting beside me as we searched for the source. Was it a spray? No one looked suspicious.

I wondered if the airline was experimenting with some new industrial cleanser, or spraying disinfection through the air vents. Were we the unfortunate guinea pigs?


Over the next 10 minutes the smell faded and I took a few cautious breaths. Until, there it was again! A fresh assault. My seat companion gagged. I looked around me and asked aloud, “what is that smell?” No reply.

Innocence only.

Another few minutes and a third attack. This time I was sure where the source was. I turned and directly confronted the woman behind me. ‘What are you spraying?’ (more…)

Say Hello - Creole

How to say Hello in Creole

I am on my way to my 5th visit to Haiti and I am totally embarrassed to say that I don’t know how to say ‘hello’ in Creole.

Seriously. How lame is that?


I know how to say ‘bonjour’ of course, and knowing a bit of French can get me by. But in Haiti, the majority of people speak Haitian. A patois, partially French, partially local and all Haitian.

I have good reason as to why I don’t know how to say hello in Haitian. I travel to many different countries in my work. Much of my work is seminar style. I am in and out quickly. I don’t stay long in one place. Over the last couple of years alone it would have helped if I could speak French, Spanish, Filipino, Japanese and Swahili. I can’t learn them all!

Sounds convincing right?

The problem is that I can always find a good excuse not to learn some of the language. In doing so, I join myself to a special group of international workers. A group I am not proud to belong to.

Around the world I have met long term workers who have lived in their countries for years, occasionally decades, and they still don’t know the language. This, they assure me, is not a problem. There are plenty of local people who want to learn English. Translators are cheap. They have systems in place and look at what they are accomplishing. Ultimately, they tell me, they are too busy with their successful projects to stop and learn the language.

Still sound convincing?

I wonder, isn’t there more to life than accomplishing tasks and getting projects done. What about your evenings and weekends? Who do you hang out with then? Other expats only? The few who speak your language? Is this simply all about accomplishing tasks and getting projects done?

Knowing another language is more than understanding the code for your own language. It is a way to understand the soul of a community. Something different happens when you chat after the meeting. When you can walk through the community and discover your neighbours concern for their son. The grandfather who is ill. When you can come back on the weekend and hear what happened that week.

When Supriya and I travelled to Newfoundland soon after our marriage I found myself in the role of an interpreter. As the kitchen party went on later into the evening, my uncles grabbed guitars and sang the old songs, the stories of our history were trotted out again “Pops cup” gets told and retold, growing every time.

The dialect grew broader as the speech clipped along faster and faster. Stories evoked gales of laughter that I needed to interpret to Supriya as she was forced to smile and nod.

It was a lot more than than translating a few words. The language was the culture. The culture is the language. I need to be able to say hello, I know better.

By the way, “bonjou” is how you say hello in Creole.

Do you think learning the language matters that much?

Mark Crocker


I stood at the spot of the murders

This week marks the 20 year anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. During the week of national mourning I have listened to many of the stories of incredible pain, survival and forgiveness from the victims and the perpetrators of the 100 days of horror. I was there, I saw the sites. I remember again.


I have been to to many genocide sites, My first international trip from the UK to the Ukraine where we stopped in Poland at Auschwitz  “Work Makes Free” written in bold lies across the gates. Inside the discarded glasses, children’s toys and the cloth made from the hair of the victims each told another chapter of the inhumanity.

I have kicked up the dust to find human bones in Cambodia. Years ago, When I took my wife to the killing fields for our honeymoon, I made a video about my thoughts. You can find it at this link 

I I have visited the Rwandan churches where the bloodstain from the bombs thrown through the windows (that picture above) still wait as witness. Here is the link to my tumbled and uncomfortable thoughts during that day.

I have talked to the Sierra Leone farmer who was asked if he wanted a long sleeve or a short sleeve shirt. Bewildered, he replied “long” which meant he kept his forearm as they hacked off his hand.

Never Again.  Again and Again.

 Mark Crocker

How to know if you are a traveller or tourist

I don’t hear anyone saying that they want to be known as a tourist. If anything, when I find out someone has just got home from a cruise, they sometimes feel the need to explain themselves. They explain that they got away from the group every chance they got to have a ‘real local’ experience. What is a real hard-core traveller supposed to do, with travel so easy and cheap, it seems like everyone is doing it.  Don’t fret! Here are the top five tell-tale signs to separate the hard-core traveller from the cruise-line tourist:

Traveller or Tourist







 photo by Ian T. McFarland

1.  Tourists go and buy travel gear at travel stores before they leave – Travellers go and buy the more expensive travel gear at travel stores before they leave.

2. Tourists learn a few phrases of the local language before they go. Travellers explain that they could not possibly learn a few more phrases since they travel to so many other places in a year. The tourist is grateful when a traveller helps out, not with a few words in the local language, but with an iPhone app.

3. When walking down the street in a new country, tourists make eye contact with other tourists when they see one another. Travellers will pretend not to see each other.

4.  Tourists say, “Where are you going on your next vacation!”  Travellers respond with a world-weary sigh and suggest “When you travel as much as I do you don’t always know where the road may lead …”  Travellors know that eager desire to see new places is not cool – Yoda-like pronouncements are cool.

5. Travellers call themselves something funky like “expats” or “temporary nomads” – tourists call themselves ‘travellers’

What do you think? Are you a traveller or a tourist? Is the word ‘Traveller’ just a newer hipper word instead of ‘Tourist’?

Got any more to add to the list?

Mark Crocker

The 11 people you meet in the boarding lounge.

Sitting in the boarding lounge before a trip to haiti.
We are on travel time. Not real time. A portal to elsewhere.

Flight crew saunter in and wait in the no mans land between the gate agents desk and the security doors. Flight attendants read People magazine. Captains and first officers brightly chat as they carry and ferry Starbucks to flocks of flight attendants.

Wheelchair porters stand ready. Chatting quietly with one another until it comes time to push a passenger forward. Then the appropriate charm or chill will come out according to some internal barometer of passenger patience.

Gate agents try to create order of the mass of people. Continued calls for various passengers to approach. Facing down the horde who lie in wait for the hint of upgrade. The list grows ever longer. Super elite. Elite. Sapphire. Gold. First. Business. Emergency row. Plus. Group one. The crush forward. Older annoyed passengers exclaim ‘we are all getting on the plane – no use in rushing to sit down!’

STM team members wear matching tshirts. Comic sans font proclaim team name and English scripture references. The groups resting on and around luggage piles. Members smile and chat as middle aged men share the finer points of culture or travel advice back and forth with one another as Haitians listen on.

Young Aid workers wearing jeans and fashionable scarves sit hunched over macbook pros. Older more jaded NGO workers wearing wrinkled quick dry long sleeves sit hunched over beaten-up windows machines with stickers of their aid agency stuck on the back. Both read from spreadsheets, graphs and endless email.

Black men, affable and portly in clerical collars walk by with cheap luggage. smiling at everyone and no one alike, slightly baffled at the intricacies of the airport.

Mixed race couples with children sit together even as they are casually separated by various I-devices. Familiar with the routine they amble forward at the call for business class passengers.

White women with Haitian babies held protective and close. If you catch their eye they look a little longer. Willing you to ask them a question.

Business men in blazers on cel phones. Those with Bluetooth gadgets in their ear at some point in the call announcing the fact that they are in an airport, credentials as an international traveller appropriately noted, they continue with the more banal news of collegial deadline and meeting – the gossip of the office.

The modern backpacker – Hipsters rest with their girlfriends. Sharing screens and earbuds. Carry on luggage artfully aged in vegan dyed leathers shunning the convenience of handles and wheels.

Young men dressed in dark jeans, loud t-shirts and gold chains sport bright red Beats headphones. They point at friends greeting and meeting their way along to the gate.

Then my group is called …


We are on travel time. Not real time.

Have you ever stood here?

Mark Crocker

6 Expert tips to land a job in a Disaster?

After every disaster, I will often hear from people that they are interested in helping out during the disaster. Many are hoping to find an agency that will pay for their trip and they will volunteer in turn. Aid agencies are usually hammered with volunteer requests when a disaster strikes.

Tsunami in Japan

Not all Aid Agencies work at the initial point of the disaster. Initial response efforts require trucks, airplanes, security, specialized personnel, warehousing and tonnes of commodities. Large aid agencies are first responders.


How to skip travellers diarrhea

Dukoral … I just took my first dose.  This is supposed to help prevent all kinds of intestinal parasitic problems, I hope so.  I leave for DRCongo again in about 10 days and I sure don’t want a repeat of my last flight home!

This time I head to Uvira, into a remote area.  I have been at the back end of nowhere the last few times, but Uvira is supposed to be really, really out there. In Congo I am usually in Bukavu, which is not on anyone’s top 10 list for travel destinations. I am really curious to see what people in Bukavu think of as remote.

Last year at this time I was in the middle of managing a $2.5 million dollar food aid project in the area. This time I am working with the people on the next steps. What do they want to do to stabilize future food security? Hopefully we will work out a project that will be a real and lasting benefit.

Hopefully the rebels don’t take it all away.

My second and last dose of Dukarol is to be taken in a week. This is also supposed to keep me safe from cholera, a water-borne disease, for three months.

I got caught by some bug on my last visit and spent an uncomfortable plane ride home in all kinds of (euphemism) ‘abdominal distress’. Contaminated water is a real concern so we are also looking at a well project in one of our project areas. It would be great to reduce illness without the need for a few thousand (expensive) Dukoral doses for the community

I will also be scouting for Mike and Amy Boomer who I am helping to the field this fall. This is a double-duty role for me – I will train and facilitate them through our Mid-Termer Process at STMN (check it out stmnetwork.ca) and I am also their project manager for ERDO.ca They are a great couple and are inspiring many others to support them, check out their blog at www.theboomers.org (UPDATE: Wezesha project) maybe they will inspire you to head overseas – let me know, I will be able to help

What do you do to protect yourself when you travel?

Mark Crocker

Once more into the Congo

Bukavu Team

Nov 09 marked the end of a highly successful food aid response to 21 000 of the most vulnerable people in the war-affected areas of eastern DR Congo.

If you have read any of my previous posts on the subject, you have already heard of my first of three visits to the region, during a visit into Nindja, we spent 8 hours on the road. That got us to and from a one-and-a-half hour meeting.  The total distance we travelled was probably about 269 kilometers – 130 km each way, and about 9 in climbing in and out of potholes.

During our drive to the community, at first we passed other four-by-fours, large transport trucks with crowds seated on top of the mass of products, and small Toyotas with the suspension about to burst.  Eventually the vehicles dwindled down to the occasional motorcycle, until finally we met no other car on the road, no one passed by, except on foot.  Later we discovered that we were the fourth vehicle into the region that year.

We passed some of the most beautiful country in the world, gentle mountains, lush and green, gave way to groves of banana, tea, pine and countless small farms.  The hillsides were alive with countless women, men and children, each hard at work with worn shovels and smoothed hoes.  The observable evidence of a return to normal cultivation is on the rise.

Still, the problems of DR Congo are significant;


Start Using Your Head

Today was market day, so everyone was out in full force.  The merchants and craftsmen carried their finished products along the long roads.  A carpenter walked along with the carefully balanced wooden framework for the couch on his head.

African heads, protected by a twist of cloth, are used to carry almost anything you can imagine.  They balance the large plastic water cans to and from home, children are often the ones sent running down to the well, to slowly and carefully picking their way home along the roadside, yellow jerry cans balanced high.  For everyone else, the black plastic bag full of the days shopping, countless bundles of firewood, long long lengths of lumber and bamboo, an unopened umbrella ready for the rain, ruddy woven baskets, trays of tiny fish, each sway perfectly balanced, atop men and women as they walk the red dust. The most unusual and incredible things can be carried on top of your head! (more…)

I did not make myself an orphan

Rwanda is green and clean, a marked difference from  yesterday’s Kenyan diesel and red dust.  Here you are either walking up or down, as the nation is made up of a collection of hills, tall, but not quite mountainous.

Rwandan Hills

When you say Rwanda, most peoples first thoughts are of the genocide. I remember listening to the stories of General Dallaire’s and his memories of those horrific 100 days.  I suppose this is why my first stop today was the genocide museum. (more…)

Close but no Engrish!

No Parking in IndiaPeople in other countries sometimes go out of their way to communicate with English-speaking tourists. Here are several signs, seen in locations around the world.

Cocktail lounge, Norway:



See all the Famous Sites of London in 1 day

Travellers are well aware that Heathrow in London, England is often the hub through which you connect to the rest of the world. Often the stopover is several hours, or a day. If you have a few hours to kill, here is my recommendation on how to spend the day in London … enjoy your next Stopover!


Photo Credit: -Jeffrey- via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: -Jeffrey- via Compfight cc

London is a walking city

You can and will have to walk any and everywhere, but it can take a toll on your feet. Bring really, really, really comfortable shoes. Bring an umbrella or a raincoat, or be prepared to be damp, London is famous for fairly constant rain.

Drop your stuff at the airport short term storage, Heathrow charges by the individual bag, so cram one into another, or find a garbage bag and stuff in two or more backpacks.  Voila! one bag.

There are many tourist maps that you can find at info booths, in the tube stations (subway), at almost any attraction, etc. Grab one, they are often helpful. Even better, download the tube map on your iPhone now. You may not find wifi to do it after you arrive. The freebies will not be as good as the London Mini-map that you can often find in a coin-operated vending machine in a tube station for a couple of pounds.

Get an all day tube pass that includes the zones that you want to see the sites of, that will probably roughly include everything within the Hammersmith and City and the District lines of the tube. If you look on a tube map, those two lines form a rough circle around the most popular tourist destinations.

Things are expensive there, most prices will look like a price you would pay in Canada, but because it is one pound instead of one dollar, depending on the exchange rate it can cost you a lot more. If the cost of an item looks like a Canadian price, then it probably is a fair price for England.

After paying for short-term luggage storage, the Tube and meals, the following suggestions are for the most part free.

Itinerary for a perfect day in London

Head to Piccadilly Circus, have a look around at the sights.

If you want to go to a play or a musical in the evening either download the TKTS app, or be at the lone building at the south center of Leicester Square (pronounced Lester) for 11 am. There you can buy ½ price tickets to many of the evening shows from TKTS (formerly The ½ price ticket booth). do not be fooled by the many, many other places selling half-price tickets they commonly inflate the price to make it look like a discount. There will be a line-up, so getting there a little early would not hurt.

From Leicester Square, you can walk a couple minutes south stopping in at the National Portrait Gallery as well as the National Gallery a few steps beyond that. Both include originals of many famous works of art. In the National Gallery you can see original Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, Manet’s, Gauguin’s, etc. It is worth a visit.

The National Gallery fronts onto Trafalgar Square (of Mary Poppins fame), there you will find thousands of pigeons, hundreds of people feeding them, and interesting statuary. Also the square is ringed with embassies, including the Canadian.

If you continue walking south on Whitehall street for another couple minutes, you will come to the Admiralty Arch, which leads directly down The Mall to Buckingham Palace. From the arch it may take 15-30 minutes to walk to the palace. There is not really a closer tube station to the palace.

If, instead of walking through Admiralty Arch you continue down Whitehall, you will soon arrive at the Horse Guards. If you are there at the right time, you may see them marching about. A little further down Whitehall takes you to 10 Downing Street (The British PM’s house).

If you walk through the Horse Guards Arch you enter St. James Park this is a pleasant walk through the park to get to Buckingham.

Say Hello to the Queen

Once you have finished gawking at Buckingham, which is fairly unimpressive, unless you can convince the guards in to let you have tea with HRH, you can head over to Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To get there either walk about 5-10 minutes south to Victoria station, hop on the tube (Circle or District line) and ride to Westminster station. Or you can simply walk east 15-30 minutes up Birdcage Walk (on the south side of St. James Park) back to Whitehall and then south on Whitehall about a block.

You have to pay to tour Westminster, unless you arrive at some service time. If you want to step inside during a service, pop around the side entrance, let the guard know you are there for the service and they will let you through. There are often choral groups inside and you can also see the headstones of the many famous people who are buried there (ie. Churchill, Sir Isaac Newton), it is a beautiful building. You can also walk into the Houses of Parliament, to view the House of Lords as well as the House of Commons if they are in session (this is a great idea if it is raining and you want to dry out for a while. Take note of the massive entrance hall as you enter into the Houses of Parliament, it is built without a single nail. Ask the guards there for more history, they are often happy to oblige and let you know who was killed there (hint – lots of people). Big Ben is actually the bell of the very large clock outside the Houses of Parliament. The Thames river is also immediately east of the Houses of Parliament.

At some point grab lunch, I do not have good suggestions about places to eat, but there are thousands of places all around (try to avoid anything that says “special prices” or “where Londoners eat” in places such as Leicester Square for lunch, they cater to tourists and are usually awful.

Choose your own adventure

There are many other things to do/see from this point. But it is best to get on the tube to get around. Some suggestions.

The Big Ferris wheel across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament is called the London Eye. This slow-moving ride is a nice way to see the city and it takes about ½ hour to complete. The Tate Modern Museum is also nearby at this point, use the funky Millennium Bridge

If you go to the Tower Hill station you can get out and see both the Tower of London as well as the London Tower Bridge (and no, it is not falling down). It is best to go in the early evening as this is when they are all lit up with their lights.

If you want to do some upscale shopping, get off anywhere on Oxford street (Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Circus or Bond Street stations)

There are also other market areas to shop in. Camden Lock (Camden Town station) for antiques and crafts. Petticoat Lane (Aldgate East station), Sundays for all kinds of stuff.

If it is raining you may want to visit the British Museum (about a 10 minute walk from Tottenham Court Road station). They have free days, and often the last hour of the day is also free.

St. Pauls Cathedral is also a beautiful church (St. Pauls station)

Winding Down

For a rest, hop on a double-decker bus (the regular public transport with the closed top is included with your tube pass not the open top-type with a tour guide) , get to the top and ride around for a while as a self-guided tour. Do not worry too much about getting lost, if you are not sure where you are, get into a tube station and it is pretty easy to find your way back to where you want to go.

For the evening I would suggest you go to a show, (Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, The King and I, Cats, Oliver, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Mousetrap all play somewhere in the theatre district). Almost all the seats are good as the theatres are fairly small. Before or after the show, you can wander a little through Soho, the theatre district. This can be a little seedy, but there are great places to grab a bite.

Those are many suggestions, and I know there are many other places I have not yet gone myself. If the above itinerary is not too appealing, look on a tourist map and explore

Have fun. Tag me in your pictures!

Mark Crocker