Sleepless night, shooting stars, and unspoken wishes

13 August 2016, (circa 3 am)

My ears were no longer able to block out the unceasing sound of the roaring river below me, and my body was no longer able to sustain the uncomfortable position I had taken for the past hours of sleep, wrapped in someone else’s sleeping bag over a thin mattress on a tapchan (evelated platform used mostly for relaxing and as a site to drink tea).

I looked at my friend still fast asleep on the other side of the tapchan with a tinge of envy. I was weary but unable to stop thinking about the previous day’s hike, encountering shepherds and goats, lakes of delicate aquamarine hues, mountains so rugged yet so refined in their, well, ruggedness. My mind has a tendency to wander as much as my feet, and here in this isolated corner in the Seven Lakes of western Tajikistan, in this much too early hour, my mind was spinning with thoughts and emotions and I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep again.

In an attempt to calm myself down, I looked up at the night sky, a black canvas on which golden celestial bodies illuminated the backdrop. How could it be that objects light years away shone so bright that their light could arrive at my eyes? I thought I had travelled far on this earth but looking up at the universe put into perspective just how little and insignificant I was. It was then that I saw movement, something I had never seen before – a shooting star – darting across the night sky. This drowsy, fatigued traveller couldn’t help but notice it. And the next one. And yet another …

This little moment in time … Was it too much to conclude that the heavenly bodies of the universe were conversing with me? One after the other, not too frequent to call it a shower of light but definitely more than a handful of these shooting stars, decorating the night, lighting the atmosphere on fire, tempting me to make a wish. And despite being a child’s tradition, I thought it foolish not to make at least one wish.

But what should I wish for? For love? For freedom? For safe passage back to town tomorrow? For courage to continue pursuing these adventures? For this serenity and peace, wanting nothing more at the time but to see the dance of these stars across the heavens, gently fading into oblivion, slowly evaporating into the darkness of the night? Though no words were spoken, I felt that the world listened to my heart’s supplications.

I also made a wish to remember this moment and all the circumstances that accounted for the peculiar time and place at which I found myself. A year has passed since that night, and I still remember.

the tapchan in which we stayed, right by the rushing river, taken at dusk

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More than a picture

2 August 2016

Ishkashim, Tajikistan (with Eshkashem, Afghanistan lying on the other side of the Panj River)

It’s incredible how a single picture can trigger so many detailed, vivid memories. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, here’s some things this picture couldn’t tell you.

Obviously there’s the sunset, but unless I told you, you’d never know that I had stopped at this town for the night because I thought (incorrectly) that it would have internet access. Having been travelling in the Wakhan Valley for the past few days and not having internet at all, I kind of hoped that there would be a chance to go online.

You’d never know that I had to register myself at the local military office and show the additional GBAO permit in my passport that allowed me to be in this part of Tajikistan.

You’d never know that I had just taken a stroll around town with fellow travellers David from Austria, who I had been travelling with we met in Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan, and Charles from Québec, who we had met at our guesthouse in Ishkashim.

You’d never know that Fato and his kids Horod, Amir, and Yosomin, local Pamiris, were walking along the river bank where they encountered us. Fato talked to us travellers for a bit while the kids played around with carefree abandon, and all the while we enjoyed the cool breeze on another hot summer day.

You’d never know how much I pondered what life was like beyond the river, so close and yet seemingly still so far away, in a land that has been terrorized by war and invasion for centuries, in a land that I’ve heard about countless times in news headlines; it was surreal that I was separated from that land by only dozens of metres.

You’d never know that we cut through a field on the way back to our guesthouse and unwittingly trespassed through someone’s property.

You’d never know that we ended up at the house of an old woman who began yelling at us, resulting in my embarrassment for thinking that we made her angry, only to be surprised when she was just offering us tons of freshly-harvested fruits from her garden and invited us inside for tea.

You’d never know how much this day made me love travelling even more than I already did …

All of that I remembered from simply looking at this picture 🙂

A purifying simplicity

If I’m not currently travelling (and right now I’m not!), once in a while I tend to take a trip down memory lane ;). Sadly, details blur as the years go by, but the time stamp on this photo tells me I was here a bit over 3 years ago.

3 years ago.

I had reached Annapurna Base Camp the day earlier just after sunrise, and was currently on my 8th day of trekking, now making my way back to civilization after spending an afternoon at a local hot spring. There’s a purifying simplicity and an invisible beauty about going on a multi-day trek, with just a limited amount of possessions stuffed into a rucksack on your back, moving forward ever so gradually, one step at a time, with nature all around you and inviting you to just love where you are in the world and in life at that very moment.

I’ve been yearning for this for the past few weeks, and it hasn’t been a fleeting sentiment that just comes and goes. We tend to become too consumed in the material world, and often make life needlessly more complicated, especially living in a big city. But those material possessions don’t leave you fulfilled, at least not for me, anyway. It’s so rewarding on all levels to simplify things. I’ll be back in Nepal next month and hope to do another trek for a couple weeks or so. I’m looking forward to being in a different environment, to absorb the simplicity of just walking, to gain a renewed and clearer perspective on life.

The first day

8 April 2016 … Day 1 of a 5-month adventure …

The first day – jetlagged and lacking sleep after a long flight from Toronto to Abu Dhabi, a bit overwhelmed with all the time I had in front of me and wondering how I’d fill all those days and if things I imagined in my head would go according to plan. Cautious and hesitant, not firmly in that traveller/backpacker groove just yet, perhaps reluctant to just embrace those moments which collectively would fill all those days. Optimistic, because I’d done things like this before and I had come to know that the best was inevitably to come, always, no matter how much I tried to downplay my excitement …

The first day – encounters, contacts, interactions, conversations, realizations, lessons, achievements, thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions – all that would come but could not be predicted …

I am longing for the first day of a long adventure ………

(I intended to post this on 8 April 2017, which would have been a year since the photo below was taken. A few days late, but the sentiments and reflections still hold true!)

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Seeing clearly

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When I put on my first pair of glasses for the first time as a teenager, it was like I had a revelation. Things that were previously a blur now appeared clearly, and I could see the details of the physical world with ease – the math formula on the blackboard, the strands of fur on a cat, the intricate petals of a flower, even the wrinkles on someone’s face …

For me, travelling is like wearing that pair of glasses. But it’s not necessarily those physical details I notice more; it’s the heart and soul that feels through a different lens that is blown away by an initially unfamiliar environment. An increased awareness notices a set of profound thoughts and delicate emotions within, intangible objects one cannot see or touch, which rise to the surface and make me appreciate the simple fact that my heart is beating, that I am feeling, that I am among incredible beauty in this world. I feel like it’s LIFE that I see more clearly.

Tusiyon, Shokh Dara Valley

For the first time in my 10 days in Tajikistan, I was travelling alone. I left Khorog midmorning on a zigzag route around the city trying to find a marshrutka that would take me to the Shokh Dara Valley to the town of Tusiyon.

After a bumpy half hour in the vehicle, the driver got out and knocked on my window, telling me this was my stop. I paid a fare of 3 somoni ($0.50 CAD), walked across a bridge, and followed a dusty, hairpin road under an unrelenting sun up to the town. There were no marked homestays so I asked around for a name listed by the regional tourism organization. A young woman named Umeda, embarrassed that she thought she couldn’t speak good English, walked me over to a home where people were having tea. I asked if this was a homestay, and after some confusion (I didn’t speak Pamiri/Tajik/Russian, nor did they speak English) told me welcomingly to sit down. A few minutes later, they recruited a man from town who popped into the home and translated for us. Sasha spoke great English and stayed for the 2-hour long tea session, putting his English-language skills to good use in particular when translating an old man’s inquisitive questions about me, my Filipino background and my life in Canada. Besides that, they conversed in Pamiri and even though I couldn’t understand them, it was nice to be seated with them and observe the tea culture, snacking on non and sweets as well.

Eventually, the tea wasn’t replenished and we continued on with our day. I was showed to my room where I left some things before exploring the town. There were no sights per se, but walking along the streets, people greeting me at every turn, I made my way up a zigzagging slope to a fantastic viewpoint of the valley. I could see the picturesque town below, smallscale farms and apple trees providing plenty of green tones to contrast with the reddish brown mountains.

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I headed back down, wanting to go up another slope and see the region from a different angle. I ran into Sasha again, and he suggested we walk up to a route to a place where goes to relax. We took a dusty, winding road away from the town, views becoming spectacular with each foot forward, and he showed me some of the local plants, picking some beans and wildberries for me to sample. And we talked about life – life there in the Pamirs, life in Canada; two people with different backgrounds, paths converging at a common intersection in time and place, learning about each other. It’s interactions like these that motivate me to travel. I love seeing nature’s beauty and our attempts to match it with jaw-dropping architecture, but talking to people from different backgrounds is always a privilege. I know I’ve written it before, but there’s a common humanity that links and unites us all despite all the perceived differences which we think separate us.

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After close to an hour, we arrived at a flat pasture surrounded by mountains all around, and relaxed for awhile. I learned that Sasha had been working in Dushanbe for the past two years so hadn’t seen this site since then. There was a herd of cows grazing under the gaze of a shepherd who was a childhood friend of Sasha’s. He seemed to know everyone in town, except for the new generation of kids. There’s something nice about growing up in small towns and knowing everyone which contrasts with the anonymity of urban life in the West. Even when I’m travelling and I stay somewhere for a few days and realize that people recognize me, it’s a nice feeling.

On our way back down, we ran into his uncle who wanted to invite us to his home for a snack. Sasha kindly refused, saying we had to get back, but a minute later we ran into his aunt and he couldn’t say no to her, so we went into their house. She served us a fresh, salty cheese served with non (obviously!), and a bowl of sour milk with chunks of this cheese, to be mixed with sugar before drinking. I’m usually a bit iffy about dairy when travelling, but it was quite delicious so I ate quite a bit. Sated, we left and continued down into town where we received more offers for home visits and food, but we politely declined. Women and girls were walking the opposite way with buckets in their hands, heading to higher pastures to milk the cows. At the entrance to my homestay, I thanked Sasha profusely for showing me around and providing local insight about his hometown.

Even though I had just eaten, it was almost time for dinner. Dzamira laid set up the “table” for me on a mat in my room, and soon served me fried potatoes and more non (of course!). I was surprised to have a companion for the meal – 3-year old Amir, full of untameable energy as most boys that age tend to be, but it made for a fun and amusing dinner. Many towns in the Pamirs generally only have electricity for a few hours in the evening, so a battery-powered lamp illuminated our meal. I played with Amir for awhile and talked to the grandfather, the owner of the homestay, before retiring for the night.

The next day, I had a simple but tasty breakfast of non, eggs, and mystery meat before saying goodbye to my host family and walking down to the road to flag down a car to Khorog. Though my stay was short, I felt grateful and fortunate to have had the experience I had. It’s another addition to an ever-growing collection of stories and memories I manage effortlessly to treasure. Tajikistan is quickly becoming one of my favourite countries I’ve visited…

Arrival in Santiago de Compostela – June 2016

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I’ve arrived!

After 7 days of walking about ~227 km (give or take one or two ;)) beginning in the outskirts of Porto, Portugal, I reached the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain at about 11:30 this morning. Excitement mounting within and wanting to arrive in time for the pilgrim mass at noon, it was my fastest day of walking. As I made my way into the city and realized that I would make it in time, I slowed down my pace, actually savouring every step, every foot forward knowing that I would soon be at the main plaza in front of the cathedral.

And then I was there. And then tears. Mine. Subdued tears of gratitude for arriving safely in good health, good mindset, and good spirits after 7 days of pilgrimage. Tears of happiness for being able to arrive here once again, under a different set of circumstances and experiences but no less memorable.

I only thought about embarking on this pilgrimage 15 days ago – I was on a plane from Kuala Lumpur and as we were descending into Bangkok, I looked out the window and felt a pull to go to Santiago. I can’t really explain it in words – the feeling was just there, and there was an inner urgency about it. And now that I’m here, it’s like every beat of the heart spreads immense joy through my veins. I’m simply elated to be here again, reminiscing my time here last and just marvelling at the beauty of life.

Tomorrow, I will head back to Portugal (by bus, not walking!) but this pilgrimage won’t be in vain. From here, I will treasure the lessons of patience, determination, and perseverance, and take with me more faith, hope, and love than I started with.

Life is filled with obstacles and challenges, but no matter how difficult or insurmountable they might seem, they can be overcome – one step at a time 🙂

Buen Camino!