Countdown to Zero: Day 29

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!

Countdown to Zero: Day 30

Today’s throwback: Pliva Lake, an hour’s walk outside Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, early August 2013. Clean and clear, calm and peaceful, and practically devoid from any other people, it took practically no effort to find a secluded place along the lake to go for a swim, soak up the sun, and relax before a bus ride to Mostar.

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Countdown to Zero: Day 31

A month from now, I will be flying from Bucharest to Istanbul to Boston to Toronto. It’s a simultaneously frightening and comforting thought that almost a year and a half of travel around the world is coming to an end.

To commemorate, I would like to share with you each day something from these tales of travels, these trials and tribulations that went on somewhere in the world in that time span (really, just my misadventures). This will be in addition to my daily travel posts and updates. Each day, I would like to reflect on a memorable experience I had during the last year and a half of travel – something I did for the first time, something I learned from, something humbling, something that made me feel accomplished, something that made me feel a way I’ll never forget, something that impacted me and left me with an impassioned inspiration – anything, really, that manages to make me smile when I look back upon it with the filter of time which only manages to facilitate the nostalgia I feel.

Today’s throwback: let’s not begin with anything too profound. Instead, here’s something from my time in Georgia from August/September 2013 – the food and drink! Khinkali, khachapuri, ostri, roasted eggplant topped with a walnut/garlic paste, Khevsuruli beer, homemade wine in used plastic bottles – these were my staples, and though sometimes repetitive, were always filling 🙂 By the way, I absolutely loved my time in Georgia and it’s easily one of my favourite countries I’ve ever visited. This won’t be my only post about Georgia in the next month…

Khinkali

Khinkali

khachapuri

khachapuri

Ostri

Ostri

eggplant with walnut garlic paste

eggplant with walnut garlic paste

Khevsuruli beer

Khevsuruli beer

Homemade wine

Homemade wine

Curiosity at a cafe

I was walking back to my hostel in Shkodër, Albania when a couple of men at a cafe made a gesture of hello and stopped me, then insisted I go inside to buy a drink and join them.

During times like these, instead of asking myself, “Why?”, I find that it’s often better to ask, “Why the hell not?”

So I bought an ayran (a salted liquid yoghurt drink) and sat with them. They spoke absolutely no English and my Albanian is limited to a mispronounced “thank you.” But I was able to introduce myself and tell them my background and nationality. Beyond that, they talked a lot and I couldn’t decipher any of it. It was a lot of fun but no less sufficiently awkward.

Isn’t it great, though, to have these interactions with people with whom you can barely communicate but who are so welcoming and curious to know a bit about you and why you’re in their country? That’s such a great part about travelling that too often gets lost in the scuffle when you’re principally concerned about just getting somewhere…

Another photo for the Balkan sunset collection

I’ve seen so many sunsets in the Balkans that I feel I can make a photo collection out of them. Well, I took another one for the collection today. Unfortunately, I took it from inside a bus and the windows were dirty and stained, which contributed to a blurry image, one certainly not worth posting. But the sunset was so vivid and stunning that it’s certainly worth the effort to at least attempt to describe what my eyes witnessed.

It happened shortly after crossing the Bulgarian-Macedonian border on narrow, winding, bumpy roads through empty hills with low-lying mountains in the distance. The horizon was every shade between purple and yellow, and the sun made a striking appearance under the few clouds accentuating the sky, clouds shaped like free-formed swirls echoing the whims of the people in the Balkans. It was the same sun I’ve seen thousands of times before, but today particularly remarkable and spectacular, a perfectly circular, pulsating orange sphere slowly descending into the mountains. A flock of birds, black shadows flying in unison in the sky, rendered the image even more arresting. A lone shepherd tending to his flock of grazing sheep in the rolling fields might, too, have noticed.

The sun’s disappearance signalled the end of another day of travel, a day when I left Bulgaria after spending two wonderful weeks there, a day when I came back to Macedonia and reminisced my time here last year. It’s the end of another day in the Balkans, another day of intense vibrancy in which I recognize how alive I always feel in this corner of the world. The Balkans is my favourite place in the world – there’s something about this region that does something for me – piques my senses, gives me energy and makes me feel more alive, makes me strive for something better yet makes me appreciate all that I already have…

How many sunsets I have admired over the past four years in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and hopefully soon in Albania and possibly in Greece…

Another “rescued by locals” story

I took a train from Bucharest, Romania to Gorna Orjahovica in Bulgaria where I befriended a Japanese man named Ari while waiting for our connecting bus to Veliko Tarnovo, which dropped us at the railway station outside of the medieval town. We decided to walk to our hostel, first across the highway, then through weird passageways, then up a hill to the edge of the town centre.

About an hour in, we stopped to look at Ari’s map and make sure we were going in the right direction. A couple of Bulgarians, Miro and Alex, saw us foreigners with our big backpacks and asked us if we needed help. After looking at our map, they decided that the distance was too far to walk and offered to drive us to the hostel. Tired and sweaty, we gratefully accepted at this point and it was a fortunate turn of events because after the ride, we figured we’d be walking at least another 40 minutes to get to the hostel. We also got a brief history lesson and a mini-tour of the city on the way there.

If this was any indication of the interactions I’ll have in Bulgaria, I’m sure I’ll love it here. The hospitality in the Balkans never fails to surprise or inspire…

Cambodia reflections

It’s almost time to say goodbye to Cambodia. The past two and a half weeks have been really memorable – pushing my body to my limits on a bike to get to the temples of Angkor, unleashing my inner Indiana Jones while exploring sometimes deserted ruins, seeing bats taking off into the night, riding on a bamboo train, lazing around in Kampot (a consequence of rainy season), refining my bargaining skills, and the surprising urbanscape of Phnom Penh…

I also visited the Killing Caves in Phnom Sampeau, and the S-21 Prison turned Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. These places gave me chills, eerie reminders of the atrocities that occurred here less than 40 years ago. It made me think of how I felt in Sarajevo, Bosnia every time I walked through a cemetery from my hostel into the Old Town and seeing so many tombstones of people that died within a span of a few years. (Co-)incidentally, it was a year ago since I was there…

For the most part, my posts are positive, and I like to focus on the good of humanity, but being in these places brings into my mind the cruelty and destruction, the bloodshed and violence that humanity is also capable of. So many hearts stopped beating, so many dreams died for unjustifiable reasons…

And I think, my heart is still beating, my dreams are still alive. It would be a shame to let them go to waste.

Leaving Myanmar

During my travels in Asia this year, everyone I met that had gone to Myanmar only had rave reviews, and it quickly became a “must-visit” country for me on this trip, ahead of other countries in Southeast Asia. Although I had hyped up coming here so much, I actually made no concrete plans and I had no guidebook (take that Lonely Planet!), instead relying on the recommendations and advice from other travellers I’d meet and whatever I could find online through very spotty internet connections.

In my 25 days in Myanmar, I’ve scraped my knee falling off a motorbike, fell into a moat, explored mystifying, historic ruins, went on some beautiful treks and slept on thin mattresses on floors of modest homes in hill tribe villages whose names I’d never heard of and already don’t remember, and as always, interacted with so many beautiful people.

kids in hilltribe village on trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake

kids in hilltribe village on trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake

It’s been a great time to experience Myanmar during low season and at its current course in history. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to visit this country of amazingly friendly people, and can only hope that if I get the opportunity to return here one distant day, the generosity and sincerity of Myanmar won’t be forsaken in the name of tourism and development.

Monks at U Bein Bridge, Amarapura

Monks at U Bein Bridge, Amarapura

And now I’m back in Bangkok for a few days, enjoying a few days of rest and relaxation before exploring another country in Southeast Asia…

A lesson in class

Two days ago in Mandalay, I literally sunk to a new low and had the most embarrassing moment of my life (at least this year).

What I’ll write is that when you’re getting from one temple to another and you think about crossing (what you think is) a wide ditch against the cries of some Myanmar people who try to direct you 10 metres over to your left to a bamboo footpath, follow their advice! Because the ditch was actually a moat and I ended up knee deep in murky, disgusting, sewer-like water while fighting to stay on my feet.

A couple locals helped me up while I struggled to maintain my balance. One man repaired my flip-flops, and another man took me across the street to a restaurant where he poured water from a big bucket over my pants, my legs, my feet, and my hands. A girl that worked there gave me soap so I could disinfect. There were a lot of onlookers and while I was laughing at myself at the absurdity of my situation, they just smiled politely and wished me well. I got a lesson in humility but I learned even more about class. Helpless and vulnerable, I was the recipient of mercy and compassion.

When you travel, you remember a day for different reasons – sometimes, it’s being somewhere indescribably beautiful; sometimes, it’s doing something you’ve never done before. In this instance, it’s because of how I was treated by these people of Myanmar and one more reason why I love this country.

My time in Thailand

I was supposed to be in Thailand for just 2 weeks, but have ended up staying 29 days. In Koh Samui, I struck a piece of coral and ended up having to get stitches on my right foot which affected my mobility and influenced my travel plans. Instead of going to Myanmar as planned, I forfeited the flight ticket and instead chose to recover in Thailand. And yet, life operates in the incredible fashion that it does, and things happen the way they are supposed to – in the sense that opportunities always exist in every situation, and when one door closes there’s at least another one that opens up.

Here’s a somewhat vague and disorganized rundown of my past month. I had intended Thailand to primarily be a stepping stone to get to other countries in Southeast Asia, but it has turned out to be quite the highlight. To be honest, it’s not because of the landscape or the food; it’s because of the company I’ve had the privilege of keeping. Travelling really is all about the amazing people you meet, and the past month I have lived is proof of that.

1
flight, Manila, walking, Silom, haircut, visa photos, taxi, turn the metre on, Chinatown, dinner, Luke, Wales, Jerry, US

2
application, embassy, Myanmar visa, food stalls, Grand Palace, Wat Pho, dinner, Oshiya, university, Spanish

30 April 2014

3
Wat Arun, MBK mall, $13 beer, most epensive beer ever, pay for the view, Sky Bar, cashews, Luke, Wales, Dan, Scotland, Sarah, Chris, Pasha, Philipp, Germany, bar-hopping, Silom, suggestion

Sky Bar

4
train station (intended to buy ticket to Chiang Mai, instead bought ticket to Koh Samui), Sukhumvit; failed sushi, failed pizza, street food, movie night, Siam Paragon, Transcendence

5
Chatuchak weekend market, rambutans, shopping, shorts, scarf, bloom, expansive, hot, KFC, train, Surat Thani, Lonely Planet, seats, fan, no AC

6
bus, ferry, Charlie, England, backpacker, jeep, Koh Samui, 20-hour journey, pool, sunset

ferry to Koh Samui

7
motorbikes, accelerate, traffic, waterfalls, hiking, beach time, finally, sunset, Felix, Germany, Melissa, England, restless, midnight swim, coral, blood, hole in foot, pain, cleanse, pain

getting ready for sunset

getting ready for sunset

8
pain, painkillers, Jessica, Quebec, nurse, advice, hospital, stitches, embarrassed, free coffee at least, grateful, hopping, defeated, dealing with change

9
goodbye, forced rest, forced relaxation, frustration, blessed, messages, around the world, English girls, card games, Uno

10
medical follow-up, hospital, taxi, ferry, bus, Nakhon Si Thammarat, plane, sunset, wow, Bangkok, realizations

NSM to DMK

11
walking, shopping, Silom, self-pity, new eyeglasses, 7-11 beer, Dan, outside Le Meridien, endless conversation

12
another follow-up, hospital, need to go somewhere, ferry, heat, sun, contemplation, Chao Phraya River, fortress, canal, water monitors

water monitor

13
day trip, Ayutthaya, Dan, Sharon, US, tuk tuk, temples, more temples, fluctuation, Thai face = free admission, birthday beers, 25 for the 4th time

Ayutthaya

14
decision day, stay in Thailand, flight (to Chiang Rai booked 5 hours before departure), at airport (with 2 flights to my name, still wondering which one to check into), takeoff, mountains, landing

15
bicycle, iced coffee, caves, temples, more temples, noodle soup, sweat, bike on highway to another temple?, no, thank you

Chiang Rai

16
day trip, Mae Sai, border town, hike up hill, construction zone, Myanmar (seen from across a river, slightly lamenting that I didn’t make it there yet)

17
bus, Chiang Mai, tuk tuk, confusion, bicycle, temples, more temples, computer time

18
bicycle, hospital, stitches, removal, Philipp, catch up, biking, temples, more temples, Ping River, iced cappuccino, rest, good company, sunset, night market, kebab, rotee, shopping

Chiang Mai

19
motorbike, Doi Suthep, temple on mountain, corn, gasoline (bought in used glass bottle at the local market, which I had filled the tank of the motorbike with), palace, not paying, Hmong village, waterfall, mutant butterfly, attack of the flies, spicy fried noodles, muay Thai, Zoe’s, drinking, dancing

20
morning walk, espresso, Jessica, Hong Kong, Felipe, Brazil, Philipp, brunch, support, lunch, failed massage, night market, saffron shirt, fried chicken, walking pharmacy

21
pancake, goodbye Chiang Mai, crazy pick up, minibus, curves, Pai, taxi, resort, trees, bugs, dinner, curry, drinks

22
motorbike, Pai Canyon, hike, flip flops, extreme, climbing, dirty, dusty, beautiful, mountains, panorama, bridge, scarecrow, waterfall, cool down, coconut cheesecake, relax by pool, rain, more rain, rainy season rain, dinner at resort, invite by staff, fried fish, herbs, shellfish, rum, awkward (We were hanging out at the common lounge area of the hotel, relaxing before intending to head into town for dinner. It started to rain, then it started to pour, and it didn’t stop. The staff were about to have dinner and they warmly invited us to join in. It was a delicious if not slightly awkward affair).

Pai

23
hunt for bacon, bacon, future plans, motorbike, waterfall, Chinese village, viewpoint, mountains, human-powered ferris wheel, letdown, hammock, fell off, sunset, mojitos, English couple, beer, more beer, rotee, late night snack, resort, leaves, peanuts, herbs, fresh

Pai sunset

24
bacon, motorbike, 4 hours, Pai, Chiang Mai, sore muscles, straciatella ice cream, Mr. Kai, tom yam soup, Loco Elvis, live music, coup, curfew, garden bar, stay until closing time, cookies (couldn’t open pack)

25
women’s prison massage, twist, stretch, crack, cafe, lazy lunch, peanut butter banana smoothie, chess, lost (but close), train, rice wine and salmon chips = dinner, sleeper seats, AC, summer plans

26
arrival, Ayutthaya, sunrise, motorbike, temples, deserted, ruins, exploration, only ones, feeling of discovery, bats, snake, more temples, local market, pigs’ heads, KFC, more temples, hiking up temples, train, Bangkok, 7-11 beers, lazy night

Ayutthaya 2

27
spring rolls, movie day, X-Men, donuts, sneaking in, taxi, Khao San, scorpions, dragon fruit, maggots, grasshoppers, beer, coming to an end, shared understanding, beer, pushing curfew, sleep

28
malls, AC, tako katsu, shopping, impulse shopping, reunions, fitting, coming to an end, again, goodbye, impulse shopping

29
writing, blogging, …Myanmar!