People often ask me what’s my favourite country I’ve visited, and it’s hard to choose one out of the 55 I’ve been to 😉 But Georgia is definitely near the top of the list, with the sincerity of its people and its unending natural beauty, like this melting glacier flowing into the valley outside of the town of Mestia in the Caucasus Mountains. This little Asian guy felt so foreign and out of place in a land I knew little about, and yet I yearn to go back and experience more of it …
The town of Kazbegi in the Caucasus Mountains is a 3-hour marshrutka ride north of Tbilisi. Though perhaps a bit uncomfortable in a cramped marshrutka, the drive up to this mountain town was simply spectacular and the passionate traveller in me was only concerned about watching the magnificent views of Georgia while staring out the window. After spending 8 days in Tbilisi (with day trips to Mtskheta and Gori), I really felt like I was going to a special place and that I would finally get to embark on some amazing hiking in the country after hearing about such opportunities at the hostel in Tbilisi the previous week, and from fellow travellers during previous journeys. (I should also mention that this experience was a memorable chapter from my Eurotrip from two years ago in August 2013. I’ve wanted to write about this hike for awhile – better late than never, I guess!)
The picturesque Tsminda Sameba Church (Gergeti Trinity Church) overlooks the town from atop a hill, and I hiked to this point a couple hours after getting into town, taking an “off the beaten path” sort of route. I spent the late afternoon simply admiring the vibrant green fields and the majestic mountains before descending back to town to relax for the evening, knowing that the next day would be a long one.
Confession: When I’m travelling, I can be someone who does things without much thought. I’ll get an idea and simplistically think that it will somehow just happen. My trek to Gergeti Glacier was one of those instances – I read some stories online about the logistics of the hike, went into town and bought some water and freshly made, steaming hot bread made in a tandoori-like oven, and walked and walked and walked, one foot in front of the other, in my hiking boots that took me across Spain and up one of the Alps.
Two years ago, I arrived at the plaza in Santiago de Compostela after 32 days of walking roughly 800 km. It was a journey that began at the Pyrenees on the edge of France and passed through scenic mountains and picturesque valleys, modern cities and modest farming villages. I had woken up at 3:30 am that morning to walk the last stretch of 20 km with a group who I became friends with throughout the past month, in the hopes of getting into the city before the onslaught of pilgrims and tourists.
I know I post periodically about my experiences on the Camino de Santiago, but I don’t think I’ll ever adequately be able to write any collection of words that would do my experiences and emotions justice. It was a true journey of the spirit, an ongoing expression of limitless faith, hope, and love. It was a supreme test of perseverance, waking up early every morning (sometimes earlier than desired, ahem, those nuns playing new age music at 5:45 am in Carrion), walking across all sorts of terrain through the pouring rain, blistering cold, numbing wind, pulsating sun. From the outset, there were difficulties: I got lost on the very first day, mistakenly climbing a winding mountain road that ended up adding at least 4 km to the day. Realistically, I should’ve taken a break after just the third day when I limped into the city of Pamplona, searching for a pharmacy to treat weak knees and sore heels. I would also catch a lingering cold and get an allergic reaction to a spider bite later on.
But after all of those challenges and many more, I made it to Santiago de Compostela. I actually made it. Me. I remember feeling weightless walking through the streets of the city, taking the last steps to the centre of the plaza. There was no more walking. I leaned against both my walking sticks, bowed my head, and, overwhelmed at finally reaching my destination, I wept. “I’m here,” I thought. “I’ve arrived.”
A warm embrace to everyone I met along the Camino. It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since our paths first crossed. I’m grateful to have shared part of the journey with you 🙂
Well, 2015 is here. It’s another year…
The past two years have been so incredibly meaningful, dotted with innumerable occasions that my soul yearns always to remember.
Like a firework bursting in the black sky ignited by a single spark and illuminating the night, my life has been like a firework with the initial decision to quit my job to free up time for travel having produced treasured accomplishments, triumphs, memories, friends – each highlight part of a collective memory but flickering uniquely and unmistakably in the kaleidoscope of my mind.
The past couple years have been filled with experiences where I’ve not only stepped outside my comfort zone, but expanded it so that I now feel comfortable in so many more situations and environments. They have been years where I’ve pushed myself to my limits and reached new frontiers in what I now know I’m capable of. They have been years where I’ve crossed lines that I assumed were so far beyond my reach, only to realize my surprise when I discovered that my strength could take me so far beyond these lines. They have been years where I’ve periodically stopped and shaken my head, marvelling at how everything comes together almost magically at a common time and place to create something really special.
And they’ve been years that will fill my upcoming years with laughter and merriment each time I recount the strange circumstances in which I’ve found myself that sound utterly ridiculous to declare as fact (That time a guy tried to mug me in Morocco/That time the marshrutka dropped me off at the side of the highway in Georgia, 10km outside of the town I wanted to get to/That time I hiked to the top of a mountain in Taiwan only to have a 360 degree view of dense fog/That time I rode a bicycle in Thailand to a hospital to get the stitches on my foot removed/That time I fell in a moat in Myanmar/That time I was sleeping in a hammock at a hippy lodge in Nicaragua/etc/etc/)…
Like any year, I know this one will also be filled with ups and downs, twists and turns, trials and tribulations that will continue to make me question and wonder.
But you know, 2015 is another year of life. It’s another year in which I continue to breathe and I know that once in a while, my breath will be taken away by something so beautiful and unexpected. It’s another year in which my heart continues to beat, and I’ll appreciate that sometimes it will beat lightly in comfort and safety while other times it will pound to its limits, like on a challenging trek.
It’s another year to dream, another year to learn, another year to love, and, of course, another year to travel!
The past years have been so good to me, and I’m grateful. Yet somehow I know, without any tangible proof, that the best is still yet to come. Always.
After I quit my job 20 months ago, one of the first things I did was apply for a new passport in preparation and anticipation for all the travelling I’d be doing.
Well, that “new” passport has been used and abused, stickered and stamped on more times than I can count. It’s been my most frequent travel companion. And all the pages are full. In a way, it was a sign for me to come home.
Flipping through the pages is like reliving my journeys or reading my biography. Every visa is the beginning of countless stories, every exit stamp the end of a chapter.
Last month, the German immigration officer at Tegel Airport in Berlin was struggling to find a place for my exit stamp and told me, “You need a new passport.” I applied for a new one today and can only hope to have a fraction of the experiences and adventures with my next passport.
The only downside – I can’t spontaneously leave the country until I get the new passport within a couple weeks!
It’s a common tradition in Japan to receive a fortune after making a small offering when visiting a temple. I did just that at the Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto back in January this year, less than a week into my Asian adventures. This is what it read:
“In the autumn evening when the wind is blowing hard, a sailing boat is coming into the harbour to shelter for the night.”
I enjoyed contemplating on these words at the time, and carefully tucked away the folded paper into my passport holder. Numerous months later, I came across the fortune in Amsterdam during a show-and-tell session on the passport holder’s contents (passport, random currencies, entrance tickets). I unfolded the paper and found it so appropriate to be reading the same words knowing that I’d soon be returning home after all these months.
The boat has been at sea for almost 9 months since it was last in the harbour, and has been away for most of the last 17 months. It has sailed around the world through both rough and calm waters, docking at some magnificent locations. At times, the boat has been solitary while navigating the waters, while other times the boat has shared the journey with a formidable convoy. The boat has been damaged by natural and man-made calamities and has been repaired on multiple occasions. Throughout the voyage, I believe the captain has weathered it all with a lot of dignity and enough command, but the captain needs a rest.
There’s two more nights left until that autumn evening arrives. I’m coming into the harbour and seeking shelter. I’m coming home.
This past year in Asia, I was attempting to be more flexible with my travel plans, to see where the world would take me depending on who I met or how I was feeling or what I had heard about. The effort brought me to some amazing places on this Earth and in my heart.
The past three weeks, I’ve made more concrete plans to be in certain cities during certain times to stay with friends that I’ve met during the last year or so of travelling. I dare say, things couldn’t have turned out any better. Nothing in this world is perfect, but I couldn’t have imagined or conjured up a better way to end all these months of travelling.
It’s been such a welcome change to spend time with people who have come to matter to me, and not just do the hostel thing and exchange the obligatory pleasantries and travel questions (e.g., where are you from? how long are you travelling? where have you been? where are you going? how was [this city]? how was [that country]? oh yeah, what’s your name?)
Sean, who I met in Armenia, and later again in Georgia and Japan – dekuji for hosting me in Brno! Sally, who I met in Georgia, and later again in Armenia and Turkey – shukran for hosting me in Hamburg! Bernard, who I met in Nicaragua – bedankt for hosting me in Amsterdam! Philipp, who I met in Thailand – danke schön for hosting me here in Berlin!
It’s been my pleasure to have all those whimsical conversations with you where others would think I’m crazy, it’s been my privilege to see and reconnect with you again, it’s been a blessing to share more meals with you, and it’s an honour to call you my friends. ☮
I’ve fallen even further behind! I know! I’ve spent the last few days in Brno, Czech Republic visiting a friend I met last year around this time in Armenia and again early this year in Japan. I’m re-evaluating doing a daily post at this time; perhaps it will be easier to do once I’m back home…But for now…
Today’s throwback: Akhaltsikhe, Georgia, August 2013
There’s a fortified castle in this Georgian city, close to the Armenian border, that was almost deserted when I was there in August 2013. It was magical. Earlier in the day, I had avoided a herd of cows as I walked to a nunnery from my guesthouse near the Vardzia cave monastery, then taken a marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe, struggled to find a decently priced place to stay (eventually the hotel across the bus station gave me a discount), hired a taxi to take me to the isolated Sapara Monastery 10 km outside of town in a very old car that had a seatbelt without a belt (complete with an endearing old driver who worked his hardest to go up the sometimes unasphalted mountain roads, then proceeded to give me a tour of the monastery in Russian when we arrived), and returned to town in the midst of a torrential downpour…
The rain subsided and I ventured outside, arriving in the castle just around sunset and pretty much had the place to explore myself, climbing up its towers, walking on its walls, and smiling in amazement at the beauty of the town and surrounding countryside. I’m currently in Prague as I write this, an effortlessly beautiful city but one with countless tourists, and it’s such a contrast to think that I might have been the only foreigner within those walls that day. I really had that sense of discovery which captures the soul of a traveller and makes one appreciate being off the beaten path. What was notable was that I knew almost nothing about this city or its castle before getting here. This day was challenging, memorable, irreplicable, unique, special – one of those travel days that will forever be a highlight in my life 🙂
Here’s a video from the castle:
I’m behind! I know! It’s a combination of spotty wifi in Albania and Greece, very busy travel itineraries, and a bit of laziness thrown in there as well. But I’ve been constantly thinking about more highlights from the last year and a half, and this one is certainly among them…
Today’s throwback: Festa de São João in Porto, Portugal, June 2013
Probably the country’s biggest party, the Festa de São João in the northern Portuguese city of Porto takes place every year on the 23rd of June in honour of Saint John the Baptist, and my travel plans happened to take me here at precisely this time.
On this day and the days leading up to it, the inescapable aroma of grilled sardines fills the air of Porto, and a traditional courtship ritual to hit one’s prospective romantic interest with garlic flowers becomes a free for all with inflatable plastic hammers! Everyone floods the streets to watch the midnight fireworks, and lanterns are set off into the sky from the Rio Douro. The party continues into the night in the city’s bars and clubs. It was easily one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had!