Seeing clearly

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When I put on my first pair of glasses for the first time as a teenager, it was like I had a revelation. Things that were previously a blur now appeared clearly, and I could see the details of the physical world with ease – the math formula on the blackboard, the strands of fur on a cat, the intricate petals of a flower, even the wrinkles on someone’s face …

For me, travelling is like wearing that pair of glasses. But it’s not necessarily those physical details I notice more; it’s the heart and soul that feels through a different lens that is blown away by an initially unfamiliar environment. An increased awareness notices a set of profound thoughts and delicate emotions within, intangible objects one cannot see or touch, which rise to the surface and make me appreciate the simple fact that my heart is beating, that I am feeling, that I am among incredible beauty in this world. I feel like it’s LIFE that I see more clearly.

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Tusiyon, Shokh Dara Valley

For the first time in my 10 days in Tajikistan, I was travelling alone. I left Khorog midmorning on a zigzag route around the city trying to find a marshrutka that would take me to the Shokh Dara Valley to the town of Tusiyon.

After a bumpy half hour in the vehicle, the driver got out and knocked on my window, telling me this was my stop. I paid a fare of 3 somoni ($0.50 CAD), walked across a bridge, and followed a dusty, hairpin road under an unrelenting sun up to the town. There were no marked homestays so I asked around for a name listed by the regional tourism organization. A young woman named Umeda, embarrassed that she thought she couldn’t speak good English, walked me over to a home where people were having tea. I asked if this was a homestay, and after some confusion (I didn’t speak Pamiri/Tajik/Russian, nor did they speak English) told me welcomingly to sit down. A few minutes later, they recruited a man from town who popped into the home and translated for us. Sasha spoke great English and stayed for the 2-hour long tea session, putting his English-language skills to good use in particular when translating an old man’s inquisitive questions about me, my Filipino background and my life in Canada. Besides that, they conversed in Pamiri and even though I couldn’t understand them, it was nice to be seated with them and observe the tea culture, snacking on non and sweets as well.

Eventually, the tea wasn’t replenished and we continued on with our day. I was showed to my room where I left some things before exploring the town. There were no sights per se, but walking along the streets, people greeting me at every turn, I made my way up a zigzagging slope to a fantastic viewpoint of the valley. I could see the picturesque town below, smallscale farms and apple trees providing plenty of green tones to contrast with the reddish brown mountains.

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I headed back down, wanting to go up another slope and see the region from a different angle. I ran into Sasha again, and he suggested we walk up to a route to a place where goes to relax. We took a dusty, winding road away from the town, views becoming spectacular with each foot forward, and he showed me some of the local plants, picking some beans and wildberries for me to sample. And we talked about life – life there in the Pamirs, life in Canada; two people with different backgrounds, paths converging at a common intersection in time and place, learning about each other. It’s interactions like these that motivate me to travel. I love seeing nature’s beauty and our attempts to match it with jaw-dropping architecture, but talking to people from different backgrounds is always a privilege. I know I’ve written it before, but there’s a common humanity that links and unites us all despite all the perceived differences which we think separate us.

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After close to an hour, we arrived at a flat pasture surrounded by mountains all around, and relaxed for awhile. I learned that Sasha had been working in Dushanbe for the past two years so hadn’t seen this site since then. There was a herd of cows grazing under the gaze of a shepherd who was a childhood friend of Sasha’s. He seemed to know everyone in town, except for the new generation of kids. There’s something nice about growing up in small towns and knowing everyone which contrasts with the anonymity of urban life in the West. Even when I’m travelling and I stay somewhere for a few days and realize that people recognize me, it’s a nice feeling.

On our way back down, we ran into his uncle who wanted to invite us to his home for a snack. Sasha kindly refused, saying we had to get back, but a minute later we ran into his aunt and he couldn’t say no to her, so we went into their house. She served us a fresh, salty cheese served with non (obviously!), and a bowl of sour milk with chunks of this cheese, to be mixed with sugar before drinking. I’m usually a bit iffy about dairy when travelling, but it was quite delicious so I ate quite a bit. Sated, we left and continued down into town where we received more offers for home visits and food, but we politely declined. Women and girls were walking the opposite way with buckets in their hands, heading to higher pastures to milk the cows. At the entrance to my homestay, I thanked Sasha profusely for showing me around and providing local insight about his hometown.

Even though I had just eaten, it was almost time for dinner. Dzamira laid set up the “table” for me on a mat in my room, and soon served me fried potatoes and more non (of course!). I was surprised to have a companion for the meal – 3-year old Amir, full of untameable energy as most boys that age tend to be, but it made for a fun and amusing dinner. Many towns in the Pamirs generally only have electricity for a few hours in the evening, so a battery-powered lamp illuminated our meal. I played with Amir for awhile and talked to the grandfather, the owner of the homestay, before retiring for the night.

The next day, I had a simple but tasty breakfast of non, eggs, and mystery meat before saying goodbye to my host family and walking down to the road to flag down a car to Khorog. Though my stay was short, I felt grateful and fortunate to have had the experience I had. It’s another addition to an ever-growing collection of stories and memories I manage effortlessly to treasure. Tajikistan is quickly becoming one of my favourite countries I’ve visited…

Arrival in Santiago de Compostela – June 2016

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I’ve arrived!

After 7 days of walking about ~227 km (give or take one or two ;)) beginning in the outskirts of Porto, Portugal, I reached the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain at about 11:30 this morning. Excitement mounting within and wanting to arrive in time for the pilgrim mass at noon, it was my fastest day of walking. As I made my way into the city and realized that I would make it in time, I slowed down my pace, actually savouring every step, every foot forward knowing that I would soon be at the main plaza in front of the cathedral.

And then I was there. And then tears. Mine. Subdued tears of gratitude for arriving safely in good health, good mindset, and good spirits after 7 days of pilgrimage. Tears of happiness for being able to arrive here once again, under a different set of circumstances and experiences but no less memorable.

I only thought about embarking on this pilgrimage 15 days ago – I was on a plane from Kuala Lumpur and as we were descending into Bangkok, I looked out the window and felt a pull to go to Santiago. I can’t really explain it in words – the feeling was just there, and there was an inner urgency about it. And now that I’m here, it’s like every beat of the heart spreads immense joy through my veins. I’m simply elated to be here again, reminiscing my time here last and just marvelling at the beauty of life.

Tomorrow, I will head back to Portugal (by bus, not walking!) but this pilgrimage won’t be in vain. From here, I will treasure the lessons of patience, determination, and perseverance, and take with me more faith, hope, and love than I started with.

Life is filled with obstacles and challenges, but no matter how difficult or insurmountable they might seem, they can be overcome – one step at a time 🙂

Buen Camino!

Perhaps it was peace

05:24, 9 May 2015, Sikkim, India

Eyes touched by the day’s first light, lying between a hard mattress and a rough blanket, I decided that I wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep. So I left my shack, a crumbling wooden box taped with newspaper, walked past the outhouse, and climbed a shaky ladder to the top of an unfinished building. I breathed in the crisp morning air and saw a rising sun illuminating the magnificent Himalayas.

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Up on that roof, there was no fear, no worries, no doubts, no anxieties. Just a willingness to accept whatever the world would bring me that day. Just this harmony with my surroundings, modest and humble compared to other extravagances of the world.

Perhaps it was peace. Just peace, then and there, at that moment …

Great reasons to travel

Great conversations are spoken in hostel kitchens and guesthouse terraces.

Great friendships can come into being with the most unlikely people in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Great fun happens when sharing a taxi on the way to the next party in the Balkans or while wandering through town when the schoolkids are going home and staring unabashedly at this temporary celebrity.

Great ideas emerge while persevering through a challenging, strenuous trek during a rainstorm or navigating through overcrowded aisles of flea markets.

Great thoughts materialize while admiring the sunset from atop an ancient, abandoned temple or feeling the crisp, morning air at the summit of an extinct volcano for sunrise.

Great reflections arise while looking out the window of a long-distance train or an overcrowded chicken bus.

Great humility is felt when staring into another person’s eyes and realizing there’s a common humanity there that unites us, despite all the perceived differences that exist.

Great lessons are learned in the most compromising, unfamiliar situations.

Great inspiration is found from the most unimaginable of sources.

Great fear is left in the past when you appreciate how many times you crossed imaginary lines and self-imposed barriers.

Great doubts and insecurities evaporate knowing and realizing that you did all of it.

Are these good enough reasons to travel?!

It all starts with the decision to go…

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Cross the bridge!

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And follow your path!

End of year reflection

(22 September 2015) … Outside an abandoned Soviet-era prison In Tallinn, Estonia, I stared into the waters of the Baltic Sea and arrived at a strange and untimely realization. Life – this thing called life – is so great, so powerful, so vast, so infinite – understanding it all is beyond comprehension because I feel that its limits are endless.

I’ve tried so hard at times to describe and show the best of life through my interactions around the world, but the truth is that life is beautiful beyond what mere words can only attempt to describe or what a camera can only try to capture. And I will never arrive to a full, complete understanding of the magnitude of life, the greatness of all this world contains.

But I never want to stop trying so long as my heart continues to beat. Staring at the sea, I felt that each heartbeat was an invitation to discover the infinite beauty of this world. I hope I always do.

The year draws to a close and I’m a bit surprised to count fourteen countries visited in 2015. Thank you to my friends and my family around the world for supporting my passion for travel. From the cold of Canada, I send my warmest wishes for a blessed 2016.

Happy New Year!

Baltic Sunsets

Sunset … it’s that time of day when the sun descends from the sky and disappears beyond the horizon, signalling the transition of the afternoon into the early evening, and it has become my favourite time of day when I’m off travelling. I don’t often pay attention to sunsets when I’m back home, but when I’m away, I make an effort to find a good vantage point, usually from a spot a bit high up, and admire the occurrence of this daily phenomenon. I am prone to taking a plethora of photos when I’m travelling, many of which are taken during sunset. After my latest trip to the Baltics, I have a few more to add to the “sunset collection”…

Taken from the shore of the town of Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa, which is the biggest island of Estonia, I took this picture after exploring the town’s castle and learning a bit of the island’s history. I was half a week into my travels and as the last of the sun’s light was reflecting on the Baltic Sea, so too was I reflecting upon my experiences during the last few days in Helsinki and Tallinn…

Kuressaare is the largest town on the island of Saaremaa, which is Estonia's largest island

Kuressaare is the largest town on the island of Saaremaa, which is Estonia’s largest island

South of Riga’s historic, UNESCO-listed Old Town is the Latvian Academy of Sciences, and from atop the 17th floor of this skyscraper is an observation deck where you get simply magnificent panorama views of the capital city of Latvia. I had just arrived into the city a few hours ago, and fortunate to see a clear sky (the weather is very changeable in the Baltics in September), I decided that it would be a good idea to pay the €4 fee to get a good bird’s eye view of the city during sunset. In the coming days, I’d explore the city’s Old Town and Central Market, green spaces and Art Nouveau district, and become acquainted with the main railway station where I took day trips to other parts of the country…

As seen from the Latvian Academy of Sciences observation deck

As seen from the Latvian Academy of Sciences observation deck

The Old Town of Vilnius, Lithuania felt the most vibrant and full of local life of the 3 Baltic capitals. Locals and tourists alike flock to Gediminas Hill during the late afternoon to watch the sun say goodbye for the day. The day I took this picture began very cloudy, and I took a day trip to nearby Trakai. As I mentioned earlier, weather is very changeable in the Baltics and by early afternoon, the clouds had cleared, allowing the sun to make an appearance. The sky was still clear by the time I got back to Vilnius so I wanted to make the most of this opportunity and was not disappointed when I got to the hill. I found a spot on a low stone wall, took a seat, and watched this…

From Gediminas Hill

From Gediminas Hill

I’ve been blessed to see the sun set from so many awesome locations in our world and can only hope that I’ll continue to do so in the future…