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. ☮

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Countdown to Zero: Day 28

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:

The most important thing I’ve learned

As a traveller, the most significant thing I get annoyed at is seeing how many tourists behave with an air of superiority and treat locals condescendingly and with disdain. Perhaps they think that because they come from somewhere more “advanced,” more “developed,” or more “modern,” they have the right to look down on people from other cultures which are, in their eyes, less advanced, less developed, and less modern. I’ve seen people flaunt how much money they have and think that their monetary wealth should command them better treatment. It’s very off-putting to witness this.

Similarly, I find it baffling when tourists just want to get to a famous site or partake in the “must-do” thing without regard for interacting with the local population. Why travel such a long way and not take any interest in the people of the country you’re visiting?

You know, we’re over 7 billion people living in this world and sharing its beauty, and we tend to focus on our differences. Everything from religion, language, nationality, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, skin colour, facial structure, educational level, occupation, income level, ways of life, cultural practices, societal norms – the list goes on endlessly – all these have been used to create division and prevent meaningful relationships between us from being formed.

I’ve travelled to 42 countries the past few years, mostly on my own, and the most profound memories I have are the truly wonderful interactions I’ve had with people from all walks of life. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that when I look into the eyes of another human being, despite all the (perceived) factors that may create distance between us, there is a common, undeniable bond in our humanity – and that’s reason enough to treat the other person with dignity and respect. I keep in mind that I’m looking into a pair of eyes of a fellow human, whose heart beats with just as much strength and passion as mine, a fellow human being who also loves, hopes, dreams, fears, doubts, wonders…

I’ve been the recipient of dignity and respect countless instances in my travels. I’ve been afforded immense hospitality and generosity from people of all religions and skin colours, people who spoke languages I did not understand, people who wore designer clothes and people who wore rags, people with PhDs and people who have likely never set foot in a classroom, perfectly healthy people and people who have likely never received any health care, people who live in grand mansions and people who live in modest shacks.

I’ve spoken to a 91-year old woman in Nicaragua who lived on her own in a shack at the base of a volcano. I was offered multiple helpings of sliced fruit from an elderly woman on a train in Taiwan. I was given very exact directions to the airport by a nearly toothless man standing in front of the bus I’d be taking in Sri Lanka. I had a taxi driver in Georgia take me to a secluded monastery and proceeded to give me a full tour of the complex – in Russian! I was received with an encouraging welcome by a fellow hiker when I reached the top of one of the Alps in Austria after hiking up with a GI infection. I’ve been the object of many photographs taken in Armenia. I’ve been lost more times than I can count and have found my way, usually because a local took it upon himself or herself to help this foreigner out. Most recently, on my 9-day trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary, I was befriended by more than a handful of porters that took an interest in me when they saw I was trekking alone.

It’s astounding how much love and goodwill there is in our world when you take a chance and open up. Don’t let our perceived differences unknowingly create a self-imposed barrier and prevent you from interacting with some great people in this world. You might even end up counting some of these people as your friends.

Armenian adventure

It’s been a wonderful 10 days in Yerevan and Armenia filled with unthinkable surprises, fantastical landscapes, hospitable and curious people, encounters with other travellers that I now call my friends, misadventures on marshrutkas, finding random restaurants/cafes/bars/clubs of which the city has no shortage.

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I knew little of Armenia before crossing its borders and still feel that I’ve only scratched the surface (like most places I’ve been to, in fact). I’ve been tempted to stay at least to the full term of my 21-day tourist visa, but ultimately, the travel show must go on…

Yes, it’s been superlatively wonderful; days so full of life I couldn’t have imagined when I started travelling four and a half months ago and certainly not when I was processing paperwork in the office even longer ago!

Now, in what is probably my last full day in Yerevan, I relax at an outdoor cafe (it’s a pleasant 28 degrees Celsius with a light breeze) listening to a beautiful singer covering English and Russian pop songs after going on a city-wide quest to buy new shoes! And now, after thinking about the last 10 days or so, I think about the upcoming week: Yerevan – Tbilisi – Belgrade – Kotor … I’m excited!

“Living” in Tbilisi

I have had an incredible August so far. Perhaps unusually, the summer has normally been a time where I have worked. In fact, I’ve worked every summer since I’ve been an adult save for one when I was “studying” in Mexico for five weeks in 2007 (“studying” in quotations because really, I don’t remember much studying and remember too much tequila – but that’s another story). This is the first time in the summer since then that I’ve been travelling – and it’s been wonderful and packed with so much more than what I can put into words…

Since leaving Mostar on 4 August until arriving in Tbilisi on 14 August, I’ve gone hiking in the highlands of Bosnia; found some really great nightlife spots in Belgrade; stayed with family in London and was treated to delicious home-made Filipino food; and met up with friends in London, Dusseldorf, and Brussels, grateful for the opportunity to meet up with wonderful people that I met on previous travels last year. But whenever I’ve gotten comfortable in a place, it was time to leave…

Which brings me to Tbilisi – the capital city of Georgia with a population of almost 1.5 million people. For me, Tbilisi has been an incomparable blend of modern and traditional, shiny and glistening to rotten and crumbling, a place where I’ve been the recipient of indecipherable, unstopping stares to receiving some of the warmest hospitality that I’ve ever experienced, and that which transcends the language barriers that certainly exist. Figuring things out for yourself is an outright challenge, as Georgian has its own written script, one which I know only a handful of characters at best. And the most common second language isn’t English – it’s Russian – a language I don’t speak! There’s much to see and do, although I’m content if I leave the hostel some time in the afternoon and walk somewhere that I haven’t yet seen. I’ve been here for five days and don’t yet know when I’ll be leaving, although I know I’ll be coming back at least twice – Tbilisi is pretty central in Georgia and I know I’ll be going to Kazbegi, Batumi, and Armenia some time in the next month and will have to return to Tbilisi before continuing on to my next destination. I’m in the region until mid-September, and I’ve given myself a month to explore the Caucasus, but I certainly don’t think it’s enough time as it is!

I’m staying at a very interesting, laid-back, “homey” hostel a few minutes walk from the central Freedom Square. It’s comfortable and inviting, though doesn’t boast of any eye-popping facilities. It’s gem, though, undoubtedly lies in its guests. There’s an Australian guy that has been here long-term, and by “long-term”, I’m talking about months in the double-digits. There’s also an Iranian guy who’s been here for about a half-year, and a Lebanese girl who arrived earlier this month who’s staying and working here for a couple of months. There’s also an American couple who I think has been here for a week and will be here for another week more. I feel that I’m falling into this realm of a handful of wonderful, incredible human beings with each additional night that I stay here. I want to leave and explore more of the amazingness that I know Georgia has to offer, but for some reason (fatigue? desire for familiarity?), can’t bring myself to pack up my bags and get on a marshrutka (shared mini-bus) and go!

In any case, I know that I’ll have an amazing time, either just “living” in Tbilisi (breathing, cooking, eating, drinking, interneting, meandering) or exploring more of Georgia…

Travel updates

Looks like I haven’t posted anything in two and a half months!  It’s not for lack of anything to write, that’s for sure.  Initially, I wanted to take some time out while on the Camino de Santiago, and then I didn’t know where to begin blogging again once I had finished my pilgrimage.  And from there, it was just one place after another, with me overwhelmed about doing my experiences justice by putting into words everything that I lived and sensed and immersed myself in.  This post is a humble attempt to summarize where I’ve been the past few months and where I’m going the next few.

The past that has passed

My trip through France was leading me from the centre of the country down to the southwest to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the starting point of the Camino de Santiago (Camino Frances, Way of St. James).  It was a great ten days exploring different cities in a country that I’d wanted to visit for so long, especially learning French throughout school.

The Camino de Santiago was an intense, unrelenting, unforgettable journey of the spirit that took my body from the Pyrenees all across northern Spain, walking on average between 20-30 kilometers a day with a rucksack on my back through rain, shine, and wind over all sorts of terrain.  I very much hope to write more about this experience because I believe that it has been the most significant thing that I have done with my life, and these mere words right now cannot possibly explain everything that my body, mind, and soul encountered during this blessed time.

I spent a few days in Santiago de Compostela, afforded with the luxury of sleeping in the same bed for more than one night and walking the same streets daily, even having a cafe that I frequented.  After moving around every day for the past month, it was a welcome change!  Then, I headed into northern Portugal for six days.  Portugal is a country that will always be on my list of places I want to return because of the friendliness and sincerity of the people.  Of course, there’s also the food, the port, the cities, the landscape, the Mediterranean way of life…

From Portugal, I flew to Morocco where I spent thirteen days.  Morocco is an explosion for the senses where everything hits you unapologetically and makes you feel more alive!  Everything from the exquisite food, the calls of the vendors in the souqs and its related hustle and bustle, the oppressive desert heat – it’s overwhelming and intoxicating, but somehow leaves you wanting more… DSC00669

After Morocco, it was back to Europe where I relaxed for a couple days in Madrid, then a few hours exploring Zurich and a few days in Budapest, Hungary where I did a few things that I hadn’t done during previous visits, like ride a railway line run by kids!  The conductor, of course, was an adult, but the selling and validating of the tickets were undertaken by kids 10-14 years old…

From Budapest, I took a train to Vienna where I didn’t do nearly as much as I would’ve liked due to an illness that unfortunately had me staying at hostels more often than seeing the city.  After moving on to Salzburg, however, I got my groove back and did plenty of hiking, including a 1400-metre ascent up the Untersberg mountain (part of the Alps), the accomplishment of which highly lifted my spirits!DSC01957

And now, I write this post on a couch in the common room of a hostel in Bled, Slovenia, where I have spent the past four nights.  Bled and the surrounding area is a haven for nature and adventure enthusiasts, and I’ve thorougly enjoyed the past few days strolling around Lakes Bled and Bohinj, taking a dip in pristine waters, appreciating a lazy boat ride, and of course, hiking – to waterfalls, through gorges, through quaint, picturesque towns…

Foreseeable future

There’s just under three months left of travel for me, and I do have at least a rough idea of where I’m going.  I’ll be heading to Ljubljana in a couple days, then southeast to Bosnia and Herzegovina (possibly with a short stop in Croatia), down to Montenegro and the wonderful
Adriatic Sea, then up to Serbia where I’ll catch a flight in Belgrade to London.

I’ll spend a few days in England with family and friends, then fly into Dusseldorf where I’ll meet up with a friend for a couple days before going to Brussels to meet up with another friend.  From there, I’ll fly to Tbilisi, Georgia – the beginning of a one month itinerary in the Caucasus which will also include visits to Armenia, and hopefully Azerbaijan, if I can secure a visa.

After this month, I’ll fly back to Belgrade from Tbilisi, and from there, round out the Balkans with forays into Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bulgaria before heading into Turkey where I’ll spend my last week or two before heading home!

Anyone care to join me?