Sticker shock

I’ve been back home in Canada for just over a month now, and I still get astounded at how expensive things are here compared to many places I’ve been the past year and a half. I can’t help thinking that the value proposition for staying here all year round quickly decreases when you realize how fast your money goes out of your pocket here and just how far your money goes elsewhere. A few examples from a day out last week:

GO Train from Ajax (suburb of Toronto) to Union Station (downtown Toronto) – $8.10 CAD
Train in Thailand from Bangkok to Ayutthaya (~83 km) – 20 THB, or ~$0.67 CAD

TTC (Toronto public transport system – subway/buses/streetcars) – $3 CAD
Microbus in Nepal from Kathmandu to Boudha (~7 km) – 30 NPR, or ~$0.34 CAD

Chicken shawarma in downtown Toronto – $6.54 CAD
Chicken kebab in Sofia, Bulgaria – 2.70 BGN, or ~$1.96 CAD

Medium coffee at Tim Horton’s – $1.65 CAD
Espresso in Berat, Albania – 50 ALL, or ~$0.51 CAD

Haircut (including tax and tip) – $20 CAD
Haircut in Kalaw, Myanmar – 1000 MMK, or ~$1.11 CAD

These numbers make the thought of travelling again all the more appealing! …

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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…

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?