Into the harbour to seek shelter

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.

passenger ferry boat to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

passenger ferry boat to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

The last weeks…

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. ☮

Journey to Ometepe

I’m a firm believer that the journey to a destination should be approached with as much importance and regard as the destination itself. There’s so much excitement, so much to absorb, so much to take away from getting yourself from Point A to Point B (often via Point C and Point D, depending on your luck). I’ve read that Ometepe Island should be part of any traveller’s itinerary to Nicaragua. And now, after having visited, I can confirm this statement’s validity, but as this is beyond the scope of this blog post, I won’t explain why at this moment…

After spending four nights in Granada, I checked myself out of my hostel and the uber-comfortable double bed that had been my crash pad in the dorm, and walked to the bus terminal, passing through the bustling shops and markets that spilled onto the road. I had walked this same road two days earlier to catch a chicken bus to Mombacho, but its familiarity did not temper the noise, odours, and peculiarities I had noticed the first time around. This was my first time taking a chicken bus alone; I’d taken them to and from Granada the past couple days with friends, so I found myself more alert travelling by myself. I felt that the bus was packed much more than on previous occasions, and it was interesting and entertaining just watching all the different vendors selling everything from food to pens that doubled as two-year calendars…

Upon arriving at the bus terminal in Rivas, I tried to pair up with others who were going to Ometepe in order to share a taxi. It was all in vain because unfortunately, everyone was either already part of a big group or had already gotten in a taxi, leaving me with taxi drivers offering very inflated prices to get to the port in San Jorge. I ended up speaking with a rickshaw driver who said that he’d take me to some taxis further away from the terminal, who would offer lower prices. I figured, “Why not?” and got in, and enjoyed the ride a couple streets over, pretending I was a celebrity being the recipient of numerous stares while on the road.

The rickshaw driver pulled over not far away from the terminal, and started telling the taxi drivers that I wanted to get to San Jorge. They were offering the same inflated prices as those at the terminal, but I was able to bargain it down a little, though I still think I overpaid by a dollar or two. At any rate, I got in a taxi for the ~7km ride to the port, happy that my journey was finally progressing…

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The 91 year old woman

I climbed a volcano, admired some fantastic views of Granada, Lake Nicaragua, and Las Isletas (through which we had taken a boat tour the day before), caught a glimpse of a volcano crater, rode in a chicken bus twice, rode in a tuk tuk twice (and simultaneously was in amazement that I wasn’t in India!), had an amazing dinner, and all with the enjoyable company of Derek from Ireland, Bernard from Holland, and Gui from Brazil. And none of these was the highlight of my day. Undoubtedly and unequivocally, my encounter with the 91-year old woman is what I’ll remember most about day 5 of my Nicaraguan trip.

We were well on our descent down Mombacho volcano, walking down the road built for trucks to transport tourists up to the Biological Station (the base for which you can explore the top of the volcano through guided or self-guided hikes of varying lengths), when Bernard and I were stopped by this old woman at the entrance to her property. I’m writing this over two weeks after this happened and I can’t describe the physical setting too well, only that it was typical of rural Nicaragua – her home was a modest shack comprised of concrete and sheet metal, surrounded by dusty brown dirt and the lush shades of green effortlessly produced in the Tropics. This woman looked like she had been standing there awhile, and was eager to greet us and I’d say even a bit desperate to stop us for a few minutes of light conversation. I may no longer be able to recall my surroundings there very well, but I can certainly remember her tan, wrinkled face framed by her silver hair, the contradictory excitement and sadness in her eyes, and her smile simultaneously expressing gratitude and melancholy.

Above all, I remember her words. She fervently told us her age, and I had trouble believing that she was older than 60. She described to us how she used to work up at the Biological Station up until a few years ago, but one day they told her that she was too old and that she basically stayed home since then. With sorrow, she expressed how it was almost a curse that God allowed her to be so old, because she lived in this lonely, solitary environment without her children and grandchildren (although one of her grandsons was visiting her that day), and life was tough being alone and unable to work. And then she brought her hands together and praised God, thanking Him for the blessing of our company this day. She claimed that meeting us and talking with us was the highlight of her day, and I believed her. The sincerity in her eyes and the honesty in her voice were only genuine.

Throughout this encounter, and certainly the further along it went, I was always a bit wary of this woman, thinking that she might want something in return for sharing her very personal stories. Some money, some food – that’s typical of what people usually asked for, right? It turned out, she had wanted nothing more from us that what we gave her – a few minutes of our time to enliven her day and break the seemingly endless monotony that dominated her life. It really was just a few minutes of conversation with this lady, and then we said goodbye and continued our walk down the volcano. But this encounter had me feeling guilty and ashamed for thinking the worse in a fellow human being. How jaded, untrusting, and skeptical had I become? Thankfully, my actions didn’t reflect my thoughts, but indeed, this meeting gave me a lot to think about.

This 91-year old woman was the highlight of my day. Perhaps what I love most about travel are these strange, unforseeable encounters and surprises that you can never imagine taking place, but which unquestionably end up having a lasting impact on you…

Lagoon quest on a bike with a Dutchman

Any solo traveller will tell you that one of the best things about travelling on your own is meeting and befriending other travellers (many of whom are also going it solo) and ending up doing a lot of fun, amazing things together. Or something like that.

I had been introduced to Bernard from the Netherlands a few days earlier at the hostel in Granada by an Irishman named Derek, and as we were both staying another night in the city, he invited me to do that typical Dutch activity of bike riding. There’s a place called Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake outside of Granada that reputedly has Nicaragua’s cleanest water for swimming. “Sure,” I thought, “Sounds like fun plus it’d be good exercise”. Turns out, I got too much of a bargain…

We rented bikes from the hostel and after a short ride around the city getting acquainted with our rides, we made our first stop at a supermarket for a humble breakfast of bananas (an unbeatable value at 1 cordoba or $0.04 apiece), drinkable yogurt, and coconut cookies. The sun already began to bake us outside the store where we indulged in our meal. We then stopped at the old railway station and took a few pictures before edging our way to the outskirts of the city where we rode along the side of the highway. And here, it began to get really hot. Just in case you didn’t know, asphalt + sun + temperature of 30 degrees Celsius + humidity + bike riding = a desperately terrifying amount of sweat. To the point where your light blue shirt turns navy. To the point where you can fool someone into thinking that your sweat made this lagoon we were making our way to. We asked for directions from locals on the side of the road or those cycling just like us, and each time we got different responses to how close we were. As we were intent on just getting there, we kept going. Luckily, there was a roadside tienda selling ice cold gaseosas and we enjoyed a sugary orange soft drink with the company of the friendly shop vendor who pulled out chairs for us and kept us company in the shade of her family’s modest home, telling us how beautiful the lagoon is, and lamenting how her boyfriend who studies English wasn’t here to practice his language skills with us! This place was an oasis, a world away from the highway just steps away!

From here, we were a couple Ks away from the road which joins the lagoon with the highway. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was mostly uphill. But we kept pressing on, sometimes without enough energy to cycle, instead getting on our feet and pushing our bikes uphill. We passed a massive commercial chicken farm, enjoyed another break with ice cream, popsicles, and Pepsi, were objects of curiosity and fascination by passing schoolgirls… Ever closer, the last stretch was the easiest part and a welcome reprieve from our bike riding so far – a winding downhill ride in the shade where we could catch beautiful glimpses of the lagoon, and later into the entrance to the lagoon itself. We chose the closest access to the water by a lakeside restaurant, ordered some beer and some light snacks much to the dismay of the waitress who couldn’t sell something more pricey, and passed out a little bit from the fatigue of two and a half (or perhaps closer to three?) hours of bike riding to get to this point. It was a lazy afternoon of lounging by the lagoon, swimming in its almost too warm waters, admiring the hardly touched countryside, and having conversations with a new friend.

glimpse of lagoon

glimpse of lagoon

well-earned beer

well-earned beer

picturesque lagoon

picturesque lagoon

Alas, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we had to leave to make the arduous trip back to Granada. We walked with the bikes uphill for forty-five minutes, unable to find a suitable vehicle to hitch a ride. At the top of the hill, though, it was a fast and exhilarating ride down, and once at the side of the highway again, we waited not half a minute until a chicken bus pulled over and we eagerly got in, bikes and all, marvelling at the perfect timing of it all. Back in Granada and off the bus, it immediately started to rain heavily (it is still rainy season here, after all, and a strong downpour in the afternoon is obligatory). But what’s a little rain after all that exercise? It was even more refreshing than swimming in the lake, and possibly the funnest part of the day to bike through the streets of Granada, competing with cars, buses, taxis, and horses for control of the streets, navigating our way back to the hostel to end this great journey!

So, all in all, I’ll remember this day for many reasons and had an excellent time. Riding a bike in the city, down the highway, and especially through the rural countryside of Nicaragua was special, an opportunity to see life up close and personal for a bit, without the filter of shaded windows. But the physical exertion in this climate can’t be underestimated! So, the next time a crazy Dutch guy (or anyone from any nationality, really) invites me to go cycling in a tropical country, someone remind me of today so I’ll think twice about it!

Where next?

So, I’m going to Nicaragua today – and I know there are people thinking, “You’re going away again?” or probably, “You’re going away again already?”  It’s strange – when I was in various places in the Balkans during my last month of six months of travel, the thought of being back home made me feel both apprehensive and excited, but once I was back, it was a welcome change to sleep in the same bed every night, have my own bathroom, wear a different set of clothes, and, of course, see my dear family and friends.  However, I got bored of it pretty quickly!  Quite soon after I got back, I found myself researching flights to various places around the globe and a week after I returned, I found myself booking a reasonably-priced flight to Nicaragua, ready to see and experience a bit more of this beautiful world of ours.

Back in the spring, when I was happily telling everyone about my travel plans, the short summary was that I was going to Europe for six months and planned on having a superlatively amazing time.  And I did!  But the truth was I was planning to travel for about a year, and Europe was the first stop.  I debated whether or not to actually go back home at all, if I should really be away non-stop for a year, but when all was said and done I decided to take a small break for “awhile” and I boarded that plane from Istanbul back to North America.  But the travelling wasn’t over!

I’m in Nicaragua for four weeks, and then will return to Canada once again to spend the holidays there.  Again, I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends, the festivities, and the food and drinks, but the stay is temporary.  Early next year, I’m going to Asia and leaving behind the oppressive Canadian winter.  Of course, I have some ideas about where I’ll be going and what I’ll be doing, planning my best to coordinate schedules with family and friends in the region and meet up with them along this journey!  Just to name drop – Japan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia, all of mainland Southeast Asia – I really hope that I’ll touch ground in all of these places and see, learn, experience, and discover…