A purifying simplicity

If I’m not currently travelling (and right now I’m not!), once in a while I tend to take a trip down memory lane ;). Sadly, details blur as the years go by, but the time stamp on this photo tells me I was here a bit over 3 years ago.

3 years ago.

I had reached Annapurna Base Camp the day earlier just after sunrise, and was currently on my 8th day of trekking, now making my way back to civilization after spending an afternoon at a local hot spring. There’s a purifying simplicity and an invisible beauty about going on a multi-day trek, with just a limited amount of possessions stuffed into a rucksack on your back, moving forward ever so gradually, one step at a time, with nature all around you and inviting you to just love where you are in the world and in life at that very moment.

I’ve been yearning for this for the past few weeks, and it hasn’t been a fleeting sentiment that just comes and goes. We tend to become too consumed in the material world, and often make life needlessly more complicated, especially living in a big city. But those material possessions don’t leave you fulfilled, at least not for me, anyway. It’s so rewarding on all levels to simplify things. I’ll be back in Nepal next month and hope to do another trek for a couple weeks or so. I’m looking forward to being in a different environment, to absorb the simplicity of just walking, to gain a renewed and clearer perspective on life.

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Haphazard hike to Gergeti Glacier in Kazbegi, Georgia

The town of Kazbegi in the Caucasus Mountains is a 3-hour marshrutka ride north of Tbilisi. Though perhaps a bit uncomfortable in a cramped marshrutka, the drive up to this mountain town was simply spectacular and the passionate traveller in me was only concerned about watching the magnificent views of Georgia while staring out the window. After spending 8 days in Tbilisi (with day trips to Mtskheta and Gori), I really felt like I was going to a special place and that I would finally get to embark on some amazing hiking in the country after hearing about such opportunities at the hostel in Tbilisi the previous week, and from fellow travellers during previous journeys. (I should also mention that this experience was a memorable chapter from my Eurotrip from two years ago in August 2013. I’ve wanted to write about this hike for awhile – better late than never, I guess!)

The picturesque Tsminda Sameba Church (Gergeti Trinity Church) overlooks the town from atop a hill, and I hiked to this point a couple hours after getting into town, taking an “off the beaten path” sort of route. I spent the late afternoon simply admiring the vibrant green fields and the majestic mountains before descending back to town to relax for the evening, knowing that the next day would be a long one.

“Off the beaten path”
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A shepherd tending to his herd
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Confession: When I’m travelling, I can be someone who does things without much thought. I’ll get an idea and simplistically think that it will somehow just happen. My trek to Gergeti Glacier was one of those instances – I read some stories online about the logistics of the hike, went into town and bought some water and freshly made, steaming hot bread made in a tandoori-like oven, and walked and walked and walked, one foot in front of the other, in my hiking boots that took me across Spain and up one of the Alps.

A sense of where I’d be going: from Gergeti Trinity Church to about 2 km southeast of where Gergeti Glacier is pinpointed. Also note the proximity to the Russian border. (credit to Google Maps)
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Two years ago: My arrival in Santiago de Compostela

Two years ago, I arrived at the plaza in Santiago de Compostela after 32 days of walking roughly 800 km. It was a journey that began at the Pyrenees on the edge of France and passed through scenic mountains and picturesque valleys, modern cities and modest farming villages. I had woken up at 3:30 am that morning to walk the last stretch of 20 km with a group who I became friends with throughout the past month, in the hopes of getting into the city before the onslaught of pilgrims and tourists.

I know I post periodically about my experiences on the Camino de Santiago, but I don’t think I’ll ever adequately be able to write any collection of words that would do my experiences and emotions justice. It was a true journey of the spirit, an ongoing expression of limitless faith, hope, and love. It was a supreme test of perseverance, waking up early every morning (sometimes earlier than desired, ahem, those nuns playing new age music at 5:45 am in Carrion), walking across all sorts of terrain through the pouring rain, blistering cold, numbing wind, pulsating sun. From the outset, there were difficulties: I got lost on the very first day, mistakenly climbing a winding mountain road that ended up adding at least 4 km to the day. Realistically, I should’ve taken a break after just the third day when I limped into the city of Pamplona, searching for a pharmacy to treat weak knees and sore heels. I would also catch a lingering cold and get an allergic reaction to a spider bite later on.

But after all of those challenges and many more, I made it to Santiago de Compostela. I actually made it. Me. I remember feeling weightless walking through the streets of the city, taking the last steps to the centre of the plaza. There was no more walking. I leaned against both my walking sticks, bowed my head, and, overwhelmed at finally reaching my destination, I wept. “I’m here,” I thought. “I’ve arrived.”

A warm embrace to everyone I met along the Camino. It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since our paths first crossed. I’m grateful to have shared part of the journey with you 🙂

Route over 32 days from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela
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Me!
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It ain’t too far

Camino - en route to Acebo

Often during my month in India, a rickshaw driver would pull up to me and try to convince me that where I was going was too far to reach by foot. And I’d just be thinking, “I once walked 800 kilometres across Spain. It ain’t too far.” 😉

A look back to the Himalayas – Trek to ABC, Nepal

Travelling and trekking have kinda become my thing the last couple years. It’s a great feeling to have an almost endless array of stories, many of which are simply inconceivable to the imagination, to tell friends and family at various occasions.

Still, it’s hard to believe that I’ve actually lived some of these experiences – how what was once just a vague, perhaps outlandish idea in my head somehow manages to simply become reality, sometimes through determination, sometimes through sheer chance.

I remember reading guidebooks of Nepal at a public library in Toronto in the autumn of 2013, researching a bit about treks. A few months later, a year ago today, in fact, I found myself in this video, at Deurali on day 6 of my trek to ABC, Annapurna Base Camp, in Nepal. It was already a wonderful feeling to just see the Himalayas all around, and to think how far my body, mind, and spirit had taken me. In many ways, it’s still so surreal…

I hope to see more of the Himalayas when I visit India next month, and will definitely keep you all posted!

One step at a time

One step at a time. A simple phrase, but one which takes on greater meaning when you’re somewhere on an 800-km trek from the Pyrenees to Galicia, Spain. One step at a time. That’s the only way you can accomplish such a challenging journey, to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter what weather conditions you face and whatever physical or emotional baggage is weighing you down. One step at a time. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned.

between Hontanas to Boadilla del Caminoon the Camino de Santiago

between Hontanas to Boadilla del Camino

One year ago today, I began this pilgrimage from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela. I take a look back and memories flash through my mind, some like blinding lightning, others like a slow-motion replay of a sports highlight. Many memories will forever remain vivid, while I guiltily acknowledge that some are already fading, and might disappear with the passage of more time…

But I will remember to take life one step at a time. And with each step, attempt to recognize what makes life so mysterious yet gratifying, be appreciative of every breath, every foot forward, every person that shares my journey, and every person that almost inexplicably appears with an almost inexplicable precision when I need a reprieve from my solitude.

The Camino also taught me that the path – my camino – that I walk must be my own. I must walk at my own pace, not be afraid to take alternate routes, and always listen to my body, mind, and soul. I can’t live for the wishes and expectations of others and place their dreams in front of mine, no matter how good-intentioned they may be. I know it sounds incredibly selfish, but that path won’t create happiness and ultimately the person who ends up hurt is myself.

I believe I am still on a pilgrimage and that I continue to walk my camino. In fact, it’s an often arduous journey and the road looks like it never ends. But I can say that if there’s a destination, I’m closer to getting there today because of my experiences last year.

Tribute to my trekking boots, tribute to Nepal

Three nights ago, walking down the streets of Thamel in Kathmandu, I made one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make during my travels. After much deliberation, I decided to leave behind my trekking boots in Nepal. It’s something that I didn’t do lightly – these shoes had tremendous practical value for me as a hiker, and even more sentimental value – they’d taken me 800 km across Spain; I’d climbed 4 volcanoes in Nicaragua with them; I’d gone hiking in the Alps, the Caucasus, and the Himalayas with them sheltering my feet and guiding me through shaky and solid ground. I’d climbed more mountains than I can count with these buddies. But after almost a year of wearing them so often, the traction had really faded, they were no longer really waterproof, and they just looked really beat up. On a couple other practical notes, they would have taken a lot of space in my backpack and I wasn’t intent on wearing them through humid Southeast Asia in the months ahead every time I’d be moving from place to place. And so I left them at the hostel. Incidentally, I met a Thai girl during my last days in Kathmandu who intended on trekking to Annapurna Base Camp and needed a pair of boots, and (strangely enough) mine looked like a good fit for her. So it looks like my boots will continue to go hiking in Nepal 🙂

I feel like these boots were, and still are, a part of me and that they belong on my feet, or at least in my backpack, and that I left a piece of myself behind in Nepal (and you don’t have to tell me how silly that sounds – I know). At the same time, perhaps there’s a nice symbolism behind it. I’m sacrificing a part of myself as a traveller and a trekker. It’s like I’m paying homage or tribute to Nepal by leaving something so important to me behind, and it’s like a part of me is still in Nepal. I think it’s a nice sentiment because I really didn’t want to leave last night on the flight for Hong Kong, and right now I wish I was back in crazy Kathmandu, relaxing Pokhara, or hiking in the Annapurna Conservation Area. For reasons that I can’t fully explain in this post, Nepal has given me so much love, peace, strength, courage, determination, friendship, warmth, generosity, hospitality…the list goes on.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Nepal left such a wonderful impression on me. In fact, of all the places I’ve been on my travels, I can say that Nepal is the place I’ve been touched the most. I don’t even know where to begin and don’t think I can adequately describe the simultaneous joy that fills my heart when I recall all my experiences the past month, and the melancholy I feel because I’m no longer there. After visiting Sri Lanka, I told other travellers that I felt like royalty, being the object of so much attention and stares, and the recipient of so much generosity and hospitality. In Nepal, I blended in so much that Nepalis often thought I was a fellow countryman, but I received just as much hospitality and affection. People treated me as a friend and even like family. Despite the blackouts, frequent lack of water (hot and cold), the crippling traffic, the bumpy bus rides, the suffocating smog of the cities, the blowing dust…I often felt truly at home.

Machhapuchchhre‎, Annapurna Conservation Area

Machhapuchchhre‎, Annapurna Conservation Area

Just a few examples from yesterday alone: I was passing by a shop that I’d bought a jacket from earlier in the week, and waved at the shopkeepers. They returned the greeting and invited me to take a break and chat for awhile, and we talked for what might have been close to half an hour about life in Canada, life in Nepal, and the different people we’ve come in contact with. There was no pressure to buy anything else from their shop and they were quite impressed when I listed the countries I’d been to the last six years! Later on, I met up with some friends I’d met at the hostel and their Nepali friends, and we walked to Basantapur to watch the festivities of Ram Navami. They were so welcoming and hospitable, recounting some of the history of the exquisite temples that formed part of the Durbar Square complex. They were interested in my travels as well and wanted to know what I liked about Nepal the most. And when I was back at the hostel, ready to go the airport, the staff asked me if I had a taxi yet and when I said that I didn’t, fetched a taxi from the main street to the front door of the hostel, and negotiated a fair price. These are reasons reflective of why since my first day in Nepal, I knew that I’d make a return visit. That sentiment is even more true today. I’m so grateful that I made plans to come to this amazing country renowned worldwide for the Himalayas but for me, is distinguished by the unmatched warmth of its people.

So there’s my tribute to Nepal. And now, I’d like to take this time to pay tribute to these awesome pair of shoes. With fondness, I remember the mountains I’ve ascended, the trails I’ve gotten lost in, the cities I’ve navigated, and all the animal excrements that I’ve stepped on in them – be it from cows, horses, chickens, dogs, sheep, goats, yaks…With a sad resignation, I let go…

trekking boots - goodbye :(

trekking boots – goodbye 😦