In less than a week I will leave on what is to be a year-long journey around the world. Along the way I’ll pass through more than fifteen countries on five continents and travel roughly 60 000 km. I’ll start in Lisbon and plan to end up in Rio de Janeiro by the summer of next year. So you could say it’s a rather big trip.
I’m going on my own, because I love traveling solo. And because I have no friends. No friends who are crazy or naïve enough to drop everything and join me on this ride. Which is quite understandable, as I have occasionally been questioning my sanity myself off late. As much as I am privileged and grateful to even be able to do this, it’s not an obvious decision to make. Trading a stable and comfortable sedentary life for an always-evolving nomadic one is not in any way effortless, whatever anyone may say. Quitting a job, leaving family and friends and the comfort of a place you know well is only the beginning. Doing all of this by yourself adds an even greater feeling of deliberate separation.
On the other hand, we all know (some more than others) that just because a certain idea is not sane does not necessarily mean it can’t be a good one. I believe that traveling is one of the best ways to spend one’s time and resources, whether it’s alone or with others. It’s about much more than just visiting a place that’s not home or seeing a pretty sight or eating different food. By changing your environment and constantly interacting with and adapting to the new world around you, you learn an incredible amount about who you are with respect to it and ultimately change yourself in many quite meaningful ways.
In my view, this sensation is much more significant when traveling alone. Without the companionship of a travel partner everything is completely up to you. What to see, where to go and who to meet is not subject to any debate or compromise, and in that sense you are completely free. That of course also means that you can’t rely on the other’s initiative or input which requires you to actively engage and make decisions pretty much constantly. Responsibility for anything you choose rests solely on your shoulders, which can at times be a burden or a blessing, and if you can’t drive yourself to stay proactive it is easy to become lonely. And being alone is definitely part of solo travel. It’s the ability to distinguish solitude from loneliness, and being comfortable with it that makes all the difference. I believe that the capacity to unconcernedly be by oneself is just as important as accomplished social interaction, perhaps even more so. If you can live with this boundless and uncompromising freedom then traveling alone is the greatest thing you can do.
If all this seems like common sense to you, that’s probably because it is. Or at least it should be. I’m not pretending to be very knowledgeable about all of this, nor do I mean to appear wise. Nobody has ever been wise at 27. But I can honestly say that some of the most valuable things I’ve learnt so far in life have come from being exposed to never-ending and ever-changing surroundings.
I’ll be gone a long time, so I’m not going to rush things. Because I don’t need to and because I really don’t want to. Much of the joy and satisfaction of a journey arises out of its unpredictability. The longer you’re able to travel the less you really need to care about how much time you want to spend somewhere. You can get inspired by places you didn’t even know about in advance, and change your plans whenever you feel like. For my part, there are some countries I’ll probably spend a month or more in and others that I’ll just briefly pass through, but who knows what might happen along the way.
As for my luggage, I won’t bring much, since the lighter you are the higher you’re able to fly. And I mean to fly high. I’ll be sad to leave my violin at home but instead I’m bringing a tiny ukulele (aptly named Duke the Uke). I will attempt to learn to play it properly, we’ll see how that goes. I am also planning to read a lot, and since I hate e-readers I’ll be bringing a 900-page, 900 gram Murakami monstrosity along to start. Apart from those, my packing list really isn’t that interesting so we’ll leave it at that.
By now you might be wondering what the purpose of this website is, and why it has such a pretentious name. Well as far as the name is concerned I just couldn’t resist. It’s not every day you have an excuse for creating an “andtheworld.com” domain. And it sounds goddamn awesome. However, that is and will remain the only (overly) pretentious element here. Over the course of the next year I want to use this page to tell some stories and share some experiences. Sometimes when I feel like I have something meaningful to say, but mostly just to talk about monkeys or pineapples, or both. I won’t write about how you should ditch you desk for your dreams, or seize the day, or yolo, or any of that stuff. There are plenty of people out there doing that already who are much better at it than I. I will write about what I see, hear, feel, taste and smell around me and how I see the world that day. After all that’s the title.
If that interests you then stick around for more. Or follow me on Instagram. There is no comment section, but you can always send me a personal message. On the Naim page you can read some more about me, and The World contains an overview of all stories, either chronologically or with a neat world map.
And that’s it, six days and then I’m off. To Portugal for two weeks, and then continuing through Spain to Morocco and Egypt in the first part of this epic adventure.
Let’s see what happens.
August 25th, 2016
Portugal, the land of explorers and adventurers. It’s hard to imagine the global power and sheer wealth this small European nation once possessed. The traces of its past global empire however are still quite visible today. Lisbon’s majestic skyline, Sintra’s extravagant and imposing castles and Porto’s marvelous bridges are just some indications of the country’s rich cultural history and economic might.
The first week of the year has gone by like a flash of lightning. There have already been so many impressions, activities and encounters that a week seems like too little time to fit them all. Then again, the eagerness to experience as much as possible in as little time as possible is a typical feeling for me in the beginning of a journey. I suppose it is for most people, and especially if they’re just on a two- or three-week holiday. As much as I’ve been talking about it, the fact that this trip is actually going to last a year has not yet fully sunk in. Right now it simply feels like yet another city trip or short getaway. Of course that’s logical if you think about it, but it is causing me to perhaps overdo things just a little bit.
Which is not exactly discouraged by the hostel environment I’ve been a part of for most of the time. The backpacker way of life has its own set of characteristics just like any other travel niche. The constant flow of new people you meet, spontaneous plans that are made for the day or night to come, the exchange of profound or ridiculous or just batshit crazy stories defines how you spend your time if you choose to be a part of it. Traveler clichés are confirmed by enthusiastic ever-present Australians, hardcore drinking French or organized Germans. They are contradicted by highly intelligent and down-to-earth Texans and weed smoking Austrians. And somewhere in the middle of it all you find yourself becoming a part of a constantly changing group of friends, with a typical turnover rate of about three days and a continuous search for people to connect with.
And to be honest, that can become exhausting at times. The conversations very often start the same way (Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? – the WWW of backpacking). Everyone you meet is different and unique in their own way. Some people you immediately feel at ease with, with others it’s all superficial banter. Some people you hate and some people you love. Finding out which is which while carving out your daily routine (or lack thereof) and seeing places takes considerable effort.
Now look at me complaining about my trip one week in, like an ungrateful spoiled kid that can’t have all the lollypops in the candy store. You might be thinking that me saying this now already isn’t exactly a good sign for what is to come. But it’s just reality and I’d say it’s better to realize it and deal with it early on. That being said I am profoundly happy and satisfied with all that has occurred so far, and all that’s yet to come. I mean I’ve walked through underground caves, climbed saturated green hills to colorful castles and sat on cobblestone streets talking to likeminded people all night long. And that was just day 2.
Despite all of this, I’ve already had plenty of time by myself. Moments where I’ve been traveling between places, or just sightseeing on my own between a quiet breakfast and an unaccompanied dinner. And I love those moments too. Either to process all the events of the previous days or simply collect my thoughts on something I’ve had on my mind. Sitting at a restaurant by oneself sometimes triggers curious glances from or awkward interactions with staff or fellow guests. It’s a perfect illustration of the implicit meaning people attach to others being on their own. That it’s because you’re inadequate at finding people to spend time with, or are in some respect a loner.
And in a way that’s one of the great paradoxes of traveling alone. You alternate between one of the most social environments imaginable and perfect solitude and that can create sudden and extreme changes in mindset. Non-solo travelers and locals see one side, tourists in diners see the other. Only you have the complete picture and the confidence that you are not defined by how others see you but by how you see yourself. Overcoming this anxiety is not only incredibly relieving, but crucial to the whole undertaking.
Now let’s talk about food. Because I simply need to mention it. Portuguese food is the bomb. I’m pretty sure I will probably say this about most places I’ll go, but it's a fact that cannot be overstated. The amazing Pasteis de Belém - little cream-filled cakes encrusted with the crispest dough - are to die for. Porto’s port wine is as sweet and delicious as it is cheap, and Nazaré’s sea food dishes have managed to give me the closest thing yet to what I think would best be described as a food orgasm. And a glorious one at that. As I’m sure we can all agree on, food can tell you just as much (or perhaps more) about a place’s background and local customs as any building or view.
Without sounding too dramatic, Murakami’s 1Q84 is quite a fitting read for this part of the journey. Like the main character I feel a little bit like having ended up in a parallel universe, that’s how vastly different my life is now compared to just a couple weeks ago. I have a lot more free time (a lot), to do or not do with what I please and that is becoming more and more a calming notion rather than an uncomfortable one.
So what’s next you ask! Well after Nazaré, the epic beach town with world-record waves, I’ll move down to Lagos for some southern Portuguese seaside adventures and then on to Faro before leaving Portugal in about a week for Seville. It’s promising to be suntan inducing, night swim encouraging and laziness inspiring.
But most of all it’s unknown, which is what’s most exciting.
September 9th, 2016
The Algarve. Portugal’s southernmost province is known for its diverse beaches and incredible coastline, characterized in some areas by thousands of eroded limestone cliffs. It’s the region where the historically significant Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula is still very noticeable, both through the many oriental architectural elements and the name Algarve itself, which is derived from the Arabic term for the West: Al-Gharb.
Most of all it’s a place where the pace of everyday life seems to slow down a bit, where it’s easy to get lost in mazy streets of picturesque towns and where travelers come to wind down and live the good life for a while. Which is definitely what I did. After the intensity of northern Portugal, the six days I spent in the coastal town of Lagos were the epitome of mellowness and respite. Which is not to say that they were uneventful, in fact quite the opposite. Cliché events like walking down to sunset point every night with good people and cold beers. Educational events like learning silly phrases in Portuguese from the hostel staff (Gosto dos teus sapatos – I like your shoes). Crazy events like spending an afternoon swimming from beach to beach with just a waterproof bag and one functional arm. Surreal events like watching Reservoir Dogs with Portuguese subtitles and people while sipping lemon peel tea. And that’s just by day.
Night time in Lagos is when everything changes. Laziness becomes craziness, sunbathing turns into moonwalking and a sea of liquor floods the throats. It’s as if all the energy charged up during the hot day is let loose again in the overcrowded dance bars and night clubs. This hedonism is passionately encouraged by so-called party hostels, one of which I stayed in for a couple of nights. Daytime is mostly spent recovering from the debaucheries of the night before, followed by mentally and alcoholically preparing for the one to come. It’s home to Australians with superhuman party stamina, dorm rooms with names like Hard Cock Café and Suite 69 and above all an unrelenting tsunami of booze. Suffice it to say that this place was anything but boring, in its own extremely unique and uniquely extreme way.
Meanwhile my skin tone has been progressing through 50 Shades of Brown to the point where my full body complexion could now best be compared to an Oreo cookie (yes that's right). It’s become clear to me that what we at home consider tanned is really quite a laughable concept. Here, life is a beach and death probably a cancer.
All joking aside though, Portugal has been a revelation and will remain one of my favorite countries in Europe. A place that definitely will need to be revisited. It was the perfect way to start this trip in and it has provided me with the traveler confidence I knew I’d need like no other place could.
I have been spending the last couple of days in Seville and have just now arrived in Granada. And boy has that been a great weekend. In an attempt to spice things up a bit and get a more local experience (and also to save money who are we kidding) I’ll be CouchSurfing whenever I find people that’ll host me and not murder me. For the first night in Seville I found such a couple, and an amazing one at that. It’s not every day you get a customized city tour by a high-ranking official of the local far left wing Andalusian labor union, ending in a whole night long Balkan-Cumbia style dance party with members of said far left wing Andalusian labor union. All of this while simultaneously being schooled in the civil and political struggles faced by the south of Spain and especially Andalusia.
Learning about a place through the eyes of locals is something I appreciate incredibly, especially when they are really passionate about their beliefs. It’s a different and at times refreshing exchange from the conversation that often takes places amongst foreign travelers. You learn more about what life is really like somewhere, and how people actually live where you’re just passing through. Even though going for a midnight shisha with seven solo travelers from as many different countries is pretty inspiring as well.
Speaking of passionate locals, I have to mention Medi. Medi is without any doubt and by far the best walking tour guide I have ever encountered. And I have been on my share of walking tours. The boundless energy and genuine enthusiasm with which he talked about the city and its history was unparalleled. It was so good that half of the morning tour crowd returned for the evening tour. I can’t even remember the last time I listened to someone talk for five hours in one day voluntarily. So if you’re ever in Seville ask around for him, he’s absolutely wonderful.
And so we arrive at the present. After seeing the Alhambra tonight I will leave Europe and go explore Morocco for about three weeks before heading to Egypt. The fact that I’m half-Moroccan myself and have never been there makes this an especially important part of this journey. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that it’s a stunning place, and I fully expect to confirm that sentiment. At the same time I believe that leaving Europe will really mark a proper departure from most of common Western culture and in some way the real exotic beginning of the rest of the year.
September 20th, 2016
Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar is more than just a one and a half hour ferry trip between Spain and Morocco. The narrow stretch of sea that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea constitutes both a geographical and cultural divide between Europe’s mainland and the very north of the vast African continent. It feels like stepping into a very old new world, one where lives are lived less artificially and time adapts to the people rather than the other way around.
I got to Tangier with a mix of raw excitement and sensible caution, my usual sentiment when arriving at an unknown destination. Even though my time in India has taught me how to deal with scamming taxi drivers and overbearing touts, it still took a bit of time getting used to this environment again. I find that it’s usually best to just approach it as a game, kind of like a level in Super Mario where you have to get to the end (the local bus) by finding your way past all the preying creatures (the touts) and obstacles (the misdirections given by taxi drivers). The reward at the end of the level being a 7 Dirham bus trip in the company of amicable locals instead of a 100 Dirham cab ride knowing you’ve been ripped off.
That being said, my first impressions of my half-homeland were overwhelmingly positive. Entering Tangier’s medina is like diving head first into the deep end of an exotic pool of colors, scents and sounds. It’s an intricate maze of narrow, winding alleys occupied by mountains of olives, buckets of spices, trays of headless chicken, all governed by an eclectic mix of characters who have found their fit into the bustling whole. The sense of logical and deliberate (and dull) purpose that so often guides Western society is nearly absent, replaced by an intuitive, clashing and vibrant atmosphere where everybody creates their own framework to reality, instead of it being prefabricated for them.
So structural and cultural differences run deep, and I am the first to acknowledge that as a traveler you often only get a superficial glimpse into a much more complicated local world. Overall though, just having seen what I’ve seen and having met who I’ve met here so far has made me further question what makes life meaningful and ultimately successful. And if you think that sounds deep, that’s probably because it is. I can’t always be talking about nuclear toilet visits and flying feces (don’t ask). As cliché as it might sound, the shielding and protective biases to a “good life” that many people at home surround themselves by - myself included - are slowly yet increasingly broken down as a consequence of encountering those of others. It’s interesting to compare what is considered valuable, and which ideals should be strived toward. Group society versus individualism, sound tradition versus uncontrolled progress, earthly roots versus flailing leaves, Africa versus Europe.
Don’t take my word for it, this is the wisdom of Abu Bakr, probably the most interesting person I’ve met here so far. As a Guinean musician working abroad, he has lived in Morocco for three years and is as down to earth as he is opinionated. I was told that the best way of reconciling seemingly surreal situations to reality is by just accepting that “this is the African way”. And not in the bullshit commercial Shakira way, but rather an unpretentious Rastafari way. I taught him the ukulele, he taught me about priorities in life.
And we went out to the most hilarious night club I have been to in a long time. Imagine your run-of-the-mill local dance bar, complete with blasting commercial beats, a busy bar and a modern, liberal crowd. Only one thing is missing: the dancing. Instead, everybody gets seated at small tables, smokes shisha with their drinks and glances at whoever catches their fancy. So obviously our little group of partygoers danced their asses off, in front of a crowd of onlooking (or rather staring in disbelief) locals. Arabian nights never felt more different than they sounded.
In contrast to Tangier’s craziness and intensity stands the supreme peace and tranquility that prevails in Chefchaouen. Arabic for “Look at the Horns”, referring to the shape of the mountains surrounding this small mountain village. Peacefully set amidst the Rif mountain range, the town and especially its center are characterized by the many bright blue painted houses. Chefchaouen’s medina is relaxed and hassle-free, its people laid back and even the many cats seem to be chilling out - although with cats you’re never quite sure what they’re up to. Maybe it’s the calming effect of the blue hue that encompasses everything here. Or perhaps the fact that the surrounding mountains produce nearly half of the world’s hashish. That’s not a typo or a literary exaggeration. Hash is everywhere here. Available for (hidden) purchase on every street corner, consumed by nearly everyone (male) in town, its aroma mixing with the mountain air every moment of the day and night. Smoking a joint is pretty much like having a beer, which is ironic because beers are nowhere to be found. This of course as a consequence of Islam’s guidelines regarding alcohol consumption.
Looking at this through a broader lens really highlights to me the somewhat narrow-minded view the West has when it comes to substances like marihuana. Especially when it condones the systemic abuse of alcohol, often to much more detrimental effect. I suppose performance-driven capitalist economies don’t really benefit from their work force slowing down their pace, rather promoting hedonist excesses to balance people’s increasing stress levels. So much for the conspiracy theory section of today.
Let me conclude on a positive note and share my profound relief for no longer having to explain my name or its pronunciation to every goddamn person I meet (Allahu Akbar!). In fact it’s now the other way around and I am being corrected myself on how to say it. I have to admit that that is quite refreshing, if not slightly annoying in a different way. The road to perfection is a long and winding one I suppose.
All things considered, I have been positively and deeply touched by Morocco so far. I’m becoming prouder every day to be able to say that I have some of my roots here, and for the next two and a half weeks I will continue to explore it as much as I can. The African way.
September 27th, 2016
One of the main reasons why Morocco is a great traveler’s destination is its vast geographical and natural diversity. From the sweeping coastline over jagged mountains to lush woodlands, the country’s surface area matches that of France. But by far the most prominent and defining landscape is also the most extreme; the desert. Being the largest hot desert in the world, the Sahara covers most of northern Africa, stretching from the Egyptian and Sudanese coast in the east to south-eastern Morocco in the west. As such, visiting this part of the country seemed essential to me, and after an epic eleven hour night bus ride from Fez I reached Merzouga, one of the frontier towns bordering the seemingly endless sea of sand.
The contrast couldn’t be greater. Fez is a monumentally old place, preceding Marrakech and Meknes as Morocco’s first capital and its twelve centuries of history are engrained within the confines of the great walled medina. Letting go of any preconceived route or plan and simply wandering the maze of narrow streets is the best way to draw in the profound atmosphere that lingers here. That and the fact that you’ll get lost whether you intend to or not. The twisting alleyways have managed to even evade the powerful reach of Google Maps and provide an appropriate stage for the hundreds of overly helpful guides and touts that pop up at every street corner. Each turn leads into new scenes, people and animals. In a single minute you might be passing the screeching cart of a fig salesman while simultaneously declining a hash sale, dashing aside to avoid being run over by a donkey thus stumbling inadvertently into a lamp shop where you’ll immediately be sat down for tea and a sales pitch ensuring you that spending your life’s savings on what surely must be Aladdin’s magic lamp is really quite a bargain. This happened. I didn’t buy the lamp, I did drink the tea.
Even though on a long journey the pace of travel can be unpredictable and is often influenced by where you are and who you end up meeting, I like to alternate busier urban stops with calmer, more rural stretches. Just like Chefchaouen provided a welcome respite from hectic Tangier, so too did reaching the desert instill peace after the frantic folly of Fez.
It’s hard to describe the Sahara desert in a way that truly does it justice. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. The landscape is as pristine as it is desolate, with sand as fine as I have ever felt and a red-brown hue that glows in the light of the setting sun. The shapes of the dunes resemble waves in a frozen red sea, with razor-sharp curving crests and slopes as smooth as a baby’s bottom. There is no sound except for that of sand rustling in the wind and your own footsteps, no movement except for the occasional scurrying desert beetle or scorpion. Above all there is near perfect tranquility and silence providing the backdrop for the sound of one’s own thoughts. Without sounding too esoteric, it struck me how spending time in such absence of sensory stimulation revealed the loudness inside my own head. Being used to a lifestyle comprising a constant stream of thoughts mixed with timelines mixed with interactions and constantly varying impressions, it took a while for me to embrace this complete lack of intensity. I only stayed in the desert three days, yet in the end I felt like at least having made some progress towards accepting this solitude of mind. Of the many ways one can be alone, this seems to be a profound one.
Besides that, the journey itself was hilarious and epic. Riding a dromedary might look majestic, it feels more like getting a mild, sustained beating with forcibly spread legs for the duration of the ride. Dromedaries are awesome animals though. They are super kind creatures, can carry heavy loads for hundreds of miles and survive on a diet of only desert grass and water. They also occasionally throw off pretentious selfie-stick wielding package tourists, which made me love them all the more. I stayed the nights in a nomad camp, where our Berber guides prepared the most delicious tagines and played traditional drums. During the day they told about the purity of a faithful and devout Bedouin life, abstaining from the vices of alcohol and respecting nature (“Only the ones who don’t drink wine in life may drink the wine in Paradise”). At night we happily shared the bottle of whisky I had brought along. Maybe there is no whisky in Paradise.
The night’s sky is simply mind-blowing. Never before have I seen so many stars, galaxies and planets as clearly as here. The Milky Way lights up as if having been highlighted with a broad smudgy brush. Constellations are vivid and incredibly pronounced. We laid on our backs in the soft, warm sand immersed in this endless expanse, occasionally making a wish as a shooting star streaked the sky.
Intermezzo on Sahara humor
“What do you call suicide in the desert?”
- “Sahara Kiri”
All things considered, my weekend in the Sahara has been one of the greatest experiences on this trip so far.
On to Marrakech. If the hectic-relaxed dynamic needs any further illustration, Marrakech would be the perfect opposite to Merzouga. It combines the chaotic hustling of Tangier, mazy medina of Fez and metropolitan modernity of Casablanca into a melting pot of cultivated insanity. “Enjoy the medina and whatever you do, never stop walking or show any sign of hesitation.” Sound advice from the hostel staff, because as soon as you do either of those, two or more locals will latch onto you and not let go until they’ve made some money. Hopping between a stall with delicious street food, a supremely relaxing hammam and an underground shisha bar is just one of the many ways to spend an afternoon here. I’m taking it slow here, enjoying the bustle around me, choosing when to engage or just observe, when to get drawn in and back out again.
One week remains of my time in Morocco, and having entered October I’m now officially one month into the year. I can safely say that my journey so far has been a worthwhile undertaking, and the next leg promises to be at least as interesting: three weeks to explore and get to know one of the most ancient civilizations of all: Egypt.
October 6th, 2016
“God is the greatest.”
The man whispering to me during our guided tour inside the Hassan II Mosque spoke with a combined sense of admiration and intrinsic conviction. Looking at the majestic hall stretching out in front of us I couldn’t help but be equally overwhelmed. By the imposing pillars and arches, the intricate and highly detailed carvings adorning the walls and the solemn power that only religious spaces of this scale seem to possess. It was easy enough to relate to my neighbor’s emotions, albeit in a purely worldly way. I’ve been inside enough churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to recognize the universal pattern that an important measure of devotion seems to be the magnitude of its expression. As so often and not to anyone’s surprise, size does matter.
This is not to detract in any way from the respect I have for people of every faith. And even though I am not an atheist I don’t believe in the safe rigidity that defines most major religions. I guess you could call me agnostic, or eternally unsure, or simply critical to accept incomplete assumptions about matters we don’t actually understand as humans. Much less from a transcendent point of view rather than an immanent one. What I cannot reconcile, and likely never will are the flagrant hypocrisies that highlight the ultimate humanity of religious expression. The conformities and restrictions that are often more cultural than divine in origin. Opulent grandeur contrasted with shocking scenes of poverty. The fact that the mosque I was standing in cost 800 million dollars to build, while just outside some of Casablanca’s slum-like quarters were stretching into the distance.
At the same time, I get reminded of the enormous power religion has had throughout history and continues to have today, regardless of the rather recent emergence of a relatively minor secular and atheist community. There could be no better illustration of this than the sight of the nearly 5000 year-old Great Pyramid of Giza. As the only surviving ancient wonder of the world it is a baffling structure, nearly 150 meters tall and with a combined mass of almost six million tons. As a final resting place for the pharaoh and god-on-earth that’s a decent tribute I’d say. The fact that it took only took twenty years to construct is mind-blowing. A man-made mountain that has stood throughout most of human history, and will continue to do so for its foreseeable future. “Unless we bomb it.” You can always rely on the American sightseers to provide a trademark brand of subtle and sensitive commentary.
The night flight that took me from Casablanca to Cairo was entirely forgettable, except perhaps from the personal heavily armed military escort I got at 4am to collect local currency in order to pay for my visa-on-arrival. Having split the last week in Morocco between the supremely chill seaside town of Essaouira and metropolitan Casablanca, the prospect of finally getting to Egypt was exciting.
At the risk of repeating myself, the contrasts and cultural differences were once again widespread and deeply rooted. Cairo is a vast capital, with a great number of wildly diverse neighborhoods and a general atmosphere that is decidedly more Middle-Eastern than anywhere in Morocco. Alcohol is still frowned upon but much less hidden, women are still veiled but much more visible, traffic remains absolute insanity. And shisha is simply everywhere. Coffee shops serve tea and lemonade alongside it, and people sit and talk and smoke their pipe in peace. As an avid waterpiper I was in heaven. Apple, mint, lemon, grapefruit, watermelon, mango, vanilla and so many more. Even just sitting amidst this blend of flavors is intoxicating.
Five years after the Arab Spring, the returning stability created by a widely considered oppressive regime is still very fragile. There are security forces in the streets, and x-ray security checks at train and metro stations. That being said, after all the travel warnings and concerned fears that I have been hearing from both people at home and on the road the reality is in fact quite a reassuring one. People are extremely helpful (occasionally for a price) and the considerable language barrier is alleviated greatly through the power of impromptu sign language. One might even argue that given recent events, Belgium is not necessarily preferable to here safety wise. At least here there are mummies.
I got my second haircut of the trip at a local barbershop recommended by one of the hipster hostel staffers. Once again, nothing beats going local. I had one guy expertly cutting my hair while another translated my wishes into Arabic and a third tried to sell me a 5-day tour package to Luxor and the Red Sea. For the first time ever I got “threaded”. If you don’t know what that is, that’s probably because it ought to be illegal. An innocent-looking piece of rope tangled up and held between two hands and mouth is twisted and scraped over your face, pulling facial hair with swift, excruciating twirls. So I manned up and took the pain, with all of the onlookers laughing at me. Beauty requires suffering, and indeed my face has never been smoother. Also I will never again trivialize the experience of a Brazilian wax.
Over the next two weeks exciting times are ahead, seeing the Valley of Kings in Luxor, diving in the Red Sea, all the while appreciating life on a thick cloud of fruity smoke.
For now, traveling remains the Greatest.
October 17th, 2016
Over the last two weeks I’ve been continuing my journey through Egypt, passing through Luxor and Hurghada along the way. It’s been a time filled with very varied experiences and realizations. Now that I’ve been on the road for two months, memories are beginning to blend and emotions compiled into a slowly yet ever-expanding cloud that I carry along in my mind. I’ll call it the “travel cloud”, and I believe it’s a phenomenon that everyone experiences to lesser or greater extent, depending on how long they are gone and who or what they encounter along the way. You start to highlight moments that really stood out, blurring out the less eventful times and building a compressed version of your journey that consists of a discrete sequence of scenes that together make up a greatly imaginative mental movie. I find this a very satisfying process to undergo, to slowly become aware of the story that’s taking shape inside of you, the story that only you have the full understanding of and that makes your journey unique amongst those of others, ultimately the story that you will carry with you after you return home. I consider this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of traveling.
This part of my story starts in Luxor, where I arrived after having spent thirteen hours on an Egyptian air-conditioned express train. “Although refrigerated express train would probably be a more appropriate description”, the Mexican guy next to me mentioned as we were both shivering under a collection of blankets and sweaters, desperately trying to survive the powerful icy wind blowing through the cabin. Quite ironic, given that the ambient temperature outside the train was on average 34 degrees centigrade. It’s a curious fact that backpackers get more colds in warm countries than in colder ones just because they spend more time in overly air-conditioned spaces. Luxor is a rather strange place to visit in present times. The tourism industry has pretty much been gutted in recent years by the prevalent media reports about instability all across Egypt, and the consequences are very visible here. A city center full of hotels and guesthouses almost none of which have any clients, touts and shopkeepers desperately trying to get you to buy anything from them, scores of sailboats idly moored along the quays,… Suffice to say I did not meet many fellow backpackers here, although the lack of social interaction was more than made up for by the incredible sights I got to see.
Of course the main reason to visit Luxor is to see the monumental Valley of Kings. The mountain range containing this valley lies on the east bank of the river Nile adjacent to the ruins of Thebes, the capital of pharaonic Egypt during the Middle Kingdom. It houses the 3500-year-old underground burial chambers of supreme Egyptian rulers like Ramses, Amenhotep, and of course the most famous of them all, Tutankhamun. Stepping inside these tombs and seeing their inside feels hugely overwhelming, surreal, and simply astonishing. Perfectly preserved and beautifully colorful depictions of deities designed to guide the dead into the afterlife cover the walls, alternated by column upon column of detailed hieroglyphic text. The ceilings contain elaborate scenes of the night sky with golden stars and at the core of it all stands the huge monolithic outer sarcophagus, weighing several tons. These places were built almost four millennia ago, yet some of them feel like they could have hosted funeral ceremonies just yesterday. Tutankhamun’s tomb is the only one that was discovered untouched, resulting in arguably the greatest archeological discovery in history. The over 3000 artifacts found there have been moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where I went and saw this collection of incredible finesse and craftsmanship, crowned by the child-pharaoh’s world-famous death mask made from 11kg of pure gold. The Valley of Kings is a site everyone should visit, to get a renewed sense of the tremendous power of long-lasting human achievement and to marvel at the sheer beauty and intricacy of it.
When one morning I woke up and saw a string of hot-air balloons floating peacefully over the desert landscape I decided to investigate, and the next day at 4.30am I was standing in one myself, slowly being lifted into the dawning sky. It surprised me how many people could actually fit into one basket and how cozy that is, although being separated from the group of obnoxiously screaming and selfie-taking Asian tourists by the flamethrower in the middle was probably to everyone’s advantage. The vantage point you have is very different, and much more peaceful compared to being on the ground. I had the Lego set feeling I so often get in an airplane, where everything and everyone seems to be part of one big toy world, but seen at a much more leisurely pace. Watching the distant landscapes from up above one moment, and peeking into private courtyards and observing people’s lives the other. Perfect for naturalists and voyeur voyageurs.
For the first time since I left home I went to the gym. A chance discovery and a bit of bargaining led me to Luxor’s luxury men’s fitness club, and before I knew it I was surrounded by posters of monstrously muscular bodybuilders and men trying to look just a little bit like them. When wanting to run on the only treadmill present I was kindly informed by a staff member that it could not be used for longer than ten minutes for fear of overheating. I pleaded for two cycles, cranked the speed up to 15km/h and smoked the hell out of the poor machine. After that I was banned from the cardio floor so I rejoined the artificially and medicinally crafted beings dwelling in the weight lifting section. Contrary to them however, I first and foremost consider working out a crucial element of remaining in decent shape, which in my opinion is essential to fully be able to enjoy a lengthy time on the road. Even though I do a lot of walking, running, carrying packs, hiking and swimming, visiting a gym once in a while is a great way to get a condensed fitness session. After all, I also do a lot of drinking, sitting on my ass, and eating unhealthy food whenever I feel like it.
After five days of hot and dusty Luxor life, the seaside resort town of Hurghada provided a great backdrop for a week of relaxation and some vitamin sea. Hurghada is essentially a small city surrounded by a plethora of humongous all-inclusive beachside resorts, hugely popular with Russian tourists in a rather Westernized setting. The main activities here are being on the beach, taking boat trips to go snorkeling or diving and relax in the eternal summer. And I have to say, the Red Sea and its marine life are stunning. On the two-day course I took to obtain my Advanced Open Water diving license I saw an incredible underwater world. Scores of fish of all colors and shapes residing in flush coral reefs. A pod of five dolphins with a baby swimming by, among which an adventurous female that came to play with me and my instructor 10m underwater. The inside of a sunken navy destroyer, complete with rusty torpedoes and huge propellers and an ocean wall leading into a black abyss at a cold and silent depth of 40m.
Overall, this seaside week was the perfect way to replenish and recharge for the next couple of days and weeks, during which I will leave Africa after a final weekend in Cairo and continue onward to South-East Asia for the next major leg of my journey, starting in a place I have visited many times before, but which always has offered something new to discover.
October 29th, 2016
I arrived to Bangkok just after the sun had set on a hot and humid day. The sky was dark and ominous, filled with pitch black clouds and the silence that always precedes a tropical thunderstorm. After having spent nearly a day moving between air-conditioned buildings, buses and airplanes I was hit by the sudden and overwhelming change in climate. While Egypt’s and Morocco’s days are just as hot as here, their air is dry. Thailand’s humidity sets over you like a moist blanket as soon as you step outside, and there is nothing you can do but accept your near-permanent sweaty state. During the taxi ride from the airport to downtown Bangkok I looked out at the somber urban landscape that seemed to emphasize the uniquely sad circumstances surrounding my arrival: the King was dead.
The death of the longest-reigning monarch in the world has shaken Thailand to its very core, and signs of the people’s deep and respectful mourning are everywhere. Huge billboards next to Bangkok’s streets and motorways pay tribute to the King in sober font and color, and the metro’s and many stores’ TV screens display photo slideshows of his life and success. The large majority of people are wearing black and white, and everyone has a commemorative ribbon (even the cars on the local Uber app). And movie theaters show a minute-long royal documentary before every screening during which the audience is expected to stand. As a backpacker however, what was perhaps the most noticeable to me was the complete absence of music in the streets. Not a single hotel, hostel, bar or café playing anything, no live concert performances, no festivals. The usual noisy madness surrounding Khaosan road was replaced by an eerie buzz of people’s much more subdued behavior. Comparing this to my earlier visits to Bangkok, it was a very strange new atmosphere indeed. It almost felt like watching a movie with the sound muted. The usual scenes were still very much present; youthful foreigners eating pad thai and downing buckets of alcohol, locals selling fried scorpion and spider skewers, large balloons of laughing gas being consumed by the more adventurous,… but it all took place in a quite remarkably muffled way.
That being said, my week in Bangkok was still outrageously interesting and crazy. I didn’t visit the usual sights and temples since I had seen those before, instead I explored some different local areas throughout the city, mostly just wandering around, eating street food and talking with the friendly and ever-smiling locals. On a night out with a Swede and a British guy we managed to lose the latter and later were told he woke up the next day 40km outside of Bangkok with no memory of what had happened whatsoever. A French guy was almost seduced by a ladyboy when we attended a hostel-organized cabaret show one evening. I entered a whisky-drinking competition with a bunch of Koreans who were half my size but somehow still managed to drink me under the table. Many more similar stories happened in that first South-East Asian week alone, and the difference with conservative Egypt could not have been greater. The juxtaposition of Cairo as a place of strict social and cultural guidelines with Bangkok as the world capital of hedonistic expression is as profound as it is utterly mind-blowing.
After a long period of research and anticipation I finally bought a compact travel camera (a Sony DSC-HX90V). The photos I had been taking up to this point with my smartphone were not necessarily very bad, but I felt the need for a device with which I had more options while still retaining a small form factor. And Bangkok being a shopping paradise, with 5 of the largest malls in the world in one city, this was the place to be and buy. I’ve now been using it for about a week, trying to learn its features and get the most out its awesome power. I’ll leave it up to others to judge whether this will improve the quality of pictures I take, but in my mind I’m already working for National Geographic.
Getting out of Bangkok wasn’t easy, but I finally managed to get my ass over to Chiang Mai and have been staying here ever since. There’s a reason this city in the Northern hills is so popular with travelers and expats alike. It exudes true serenity and just has a very laid-back vibe about it. It’s one of those places in the world where one can just be. It’s extremely easy to get stuck here, and so a lot of travelers have. Considered one of the most important hubs for digital nomads in the world, Chiang Mai has a sizeable foreign population, with the resulting plethora of food options. And that’s alongside the delicious Thai cuisine, which I can safely say is in my (and probably most people’s) top-3 of world’s best foods. So I’ve basically been being, eating, sleeping, and driving around on my rental scooter visiting temples, lakes and night markets along the way. Buzzing through the hectic traffic is perhaps an initially somewhat frightening experience, but I love the feeling of freedom a motorbike provides. I have every intention of getting my official license when I return home (you don’t need one here, you just need to bribe the police if they were to stop you). But to be honest, if someone can drive in Asia, the rest of the world is a piece of cake in comparison.
I suppose I should mention that this has also been the week a certain disgusting individual managed to bully himself into becoming the most powerful man on earth. Watching the election with the many American backpackers at the hostel was a sad experience, and I am personally just disillusioned with the Western world at this point. At the same time you realize that there is power in unity and that we should never forget a most amazing woman’s advice: “When they go low, we go high”. Now more than ever traveling as a means of not giving in to isolationism and xenophobia, and instead expanding your view on the world seems important.
As for me, I will remain in Chiang Mai for a couple more days, mainly to attend the world-famous Chinese lantern (or Yee Peng) festival taking place mid-November. After that, a two-day slow boat will carry me from the northern town of Chiang Rai over the monumental Mekong River into Laos.
November 13th, 2016
The purpose of traveling is more than just being in and seeing different places. The road can be just as interesting the destination, and it’s the part that’s usually much less talked about. Traveling on a budget means always looking for the most economical way to get from A to B, often at the expense of comfort or pace. Taking long-distance buses or trains, hitchhiking or ridesharing, and traveling overland whenever possible. In my experience however, the cheapest journeys are usually the interesting and unique ones, for better or for worse.
The way from Thailand into Laos turned out to be a particularly memorable one. After an overnight stay in a dodgy Thai border town that included Cards Against Humanity, four Israelis and a nightly swimming pool party, I found myself boarding the slow boat that would take us up the Mekong river to Luang Prabang. This two-day boat ride is one of the most mesmerizing journeys I’ve ever experienced. On both sides of the river lush, jungle-clad mountains shot into the air, their jagged peaks cutting up the sky. It reminded me of the might of the Norwegian fjords, yet in a more exotic setting. Yes, the boat was slightly overcrowded and yes the engine noise in the back was like the sound of a thousand cats in heat, but those were minor annoyances at most. It wasn’t in any way an active trip, I mostly read or slept or talked with fellow passengers, or simply looked out at the amazing landscape unfolding everywhere around me. Overnight we stayed in a little town with a single bar where every traveler converged, drinking and talking in the cliché common travel spirit.
At the end of the next day, we finally reached Luang Prabang. A former French colonial enclave, the town has an eclectic architecture mixing in Oriental and Western elements. The food is similarly influenced, resulting in a wide availability of baguettes and patisseries alongside the more typical Lao cuisine. I had been expecting Laos to be cheaper than Thailand, but it turned out that the influx of middle-aged Western package tourists has driven up the prices in this idyllic hillside hideout considerably. This realization caused brief despair amongst a binge-drinking British gang staying in the guesthouse, at least until our joint discovery of the miracle of Lao-lao, the traditional Lao whisky.
Lao-lao is a miracle, as evidenced by its holy trinity of outstanding properties. First, it is incredibly smooth. Despite containing 40% of alcohol, it tastes about as strong as a sip of white wine. Second, it is outrageously cheap. A one-liter bottle of the stuff will set you back about 25 000 Kip, or 2.50 Euro. It should be obvious how insane this price is. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it does not give you a hangover. This last property was rigorously tested by independent observers and found to hold under even the most extreme circumstances. Add to that the acceptable taste and wide availability and here is a drink that will forever live in infamy in most backpacker’s hazy recollections.
Up to this day the whole of Laos still has a strict curfew imposed on its entertainment venues, which means that all restaurants, bars and night clubs are forced to close before midnight. This also means that there are usually one or two places who manage to stay open later, through a mix of connections and bribes to local authorities. In Luang Prabang this place was a bowling alley. As surreal as it may sound, a typical night for most backpackers would start in the popular outdoor Utopia bar, and around 11pm anyone keen to continue their evening would get shipped out in a horde of tuk tuks… to go bowling. The scenes at this alley were among the strangest I have seen at any party on this trip so far. Without going into too much detail I can safely say that I will never look at bowling the same way again.
Obviously I have to mention the currencies in Laos and Vietnam, which walk a fine line between awesome and ridiculous. For the first time in my life I can call myself a multi-millionaire, handing out 10 000 Kip or Dong bills as if they’re mere pennies (which they are). A history of hyperinflation has created a system where people have become used to paying several thousand units for a bottle of water, and even omit the multiplier altogether when talking prices.
After obtaining my Vietnamese visa I got out of LP and headed south to Vang Vieng. Once the most notorious backpacker town in the world, Vang Vieng is set next to a leisurely flowing river, in an evergreen valley surrounded by the trademark Lao mountain ranges. Its glory days are long behind it, although calling them glorious would be misplaced at best. The outrageous consumption of drugs and alcohol combined with uncontrolled sprawling river bar entertainment like cliff jumping, ziplining and tubing led to the death of over twenty backpackers in one summer. Today, the tubing still exists – and it is absolutely fantastic – but most bars have been closed and their entertainment along with them. I spent a couple of interesting days here, tubing (responsibly) and partying (irresponsibly). It’s a place where many backpackers get stuck, perhaps similar to a jungle version of Goa, yet to me it came across exactly as authorities intend for it to be these days, a ghost of its former self.
The journey out of Laos could not have been more different than the one entering. Thirty one hours on a sleeper bus is not an experience I would willingly submit myself to, but budget considerations provided enough incentive to choose this over flying into Hanoi. We set off, myself perched on a three-person upper bunk in the back of the bus, next to the toilet, with fifty other passengers cramped into tiny reclining beds. Stopping only twice, apart from the early-morning border crossing which took four hours to clear, we thundered along winding mountain roads through the thick jungle covering the inland roads between Laos and Vietnam. It was a journey I will never forget.
Thank God for the miracle of Lao whisky.
November 30th, 2016
“It’s not about what you see, but about who you meet and what you end up experiencing as a result.” This might be one of the most prevalent traveler mantras you’ll hear anywhere you go, and as so often is the case with clichés, it’s absolutely true. Two people visiting the same city and seeing roughly the same things will often tell a completely different story about their stay. And when you are on a lengthy journey, you have the luxury of letting present experience determine your travel plans to a greater extent. If you like an environment you can keep extending and extending, or leave when things aren’t interesting any longer. Regardless, the best memories are almost always shaped by unexpected encounters.
I’m bringing this up because my first weekend in Hanoi was one of the highlights of my trip so far, and yet entirely unconventional. I couchsurfed at the home of an amazing group of expats living and teaching English in Hanoi, and celebrated my first ever Thanksgiving with them. We spent a whole day preparing an enormously delicious dinner, cooking together, playing tunes, drinking beers, and simply enjoying each other’s company. I helped out as best I could and by twilight we finally sat down to eat. After everyone around the table had said what they were thankful for, the culinary feast kicked off. The party extended well into the evening, in a very laid back and blissful manner. That day, and for the rest of my stay there I felt part of a little family. A family of people with very different backgrounds and stories, but all equally welcoming and kind. An environment without pretense or disingenuity, straightforward and open-minded. With the winter holidays and the year’s end approaching, the thought that I won’t be home with my family has been saddening me on occasion, and I found comfort in spending time with people who understand and share these feelings.
Hanoi is a mesmerizing city. It’s one of those few places on earth that draws you in and captures you in its buzz, leading you to utterly tranquil lakes, colonial quarters, vast bridges and local outskirts. Motorcycles swerve through the city streets like blood coursing through a vast network of urban arteries, their course purposeful yet seemingly utterly chaotic. Vietnam is without doubt the motorcycle epicenter of South East Asia, with six million bikes in Hanoi and over seven million in Saigon. As a backpacker, one of the quintessential Vietnam trips is driving up or down the coast between these two major cities on a purchased motorbike. I chose not to do this and instead spend more time in less places which I really wanted to see.
And so I went to Cat Ba, expecting to see a lot of cats and ending up seeing only a few. Obviously that’s not the English name. Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay, easily the most famous sight in the whole of Vietnam. It’s an island that has gained popularity in recent years, while the rest of Halong Bay had continued to suffer from overdevelopment and poorly regulated tourism. It’s very much being developed in a similar manner however, so its authentic character that I found so appealing might not remain for that much longer. Cat Ba is beautiful, full of hidden beaches and rough roads winding through valleys surrounded by towering jungle-clad mountains. I stayed in a tent on a beach, waking up every day to the sun rising over countless evergreen rocks in the sea. Motorbiking, hiking and swimming around by day, playing pool at the beach bar and skinny dipping with bioluminescent plankton at night. This being my first encounter with a beach since I got to South East Asia, I like to think I made the most of it.
And then there is Bia Hoi. I am always eager to learn about countries’ unique quirks and peculiarities, especially when they’re culinary in nature. Northern Vietnam’s Bia Hoi is the cheapest beer in the world by volume, and in Hanoi or Ninh Binh you can just sit on the side of the street on tiny plastic chairs next to a makeshift beer tap and have as much as you can afford. Which would be more than you could ever hope to consume at 5000 Dong a glass – 20 eurocents. That’s right, a single euro buys you over a liter of beer. Granted, it’s not very powerful, but that’s really beside the point in this price class. It’s so cheap that many of the hostels even have full on free beer happy hours. And when beer is free, there is no excuse not to have an ample amount of it, shouting Mot Hai Ba Yo (one two three cheers) with appropriate enthusiasm.
After a brief stint in Ninh Binh, I continued down to visit the natural park in Phong Nha, a region world-renowned for its exquisite karst formations and collection of gargantuan cave systems. The world’s largest cave is situated here, the massive Hang Son Doong, accessible only through a week-long jungle tour costing over 3000 dollars. Since that was just a little bit out of my budget, I visited two smaller, yet still enormous caves. Paradise cave is the largest dry cave in Asia, stretching over 37km underground, and filled with stalactite formations of staggering beauty. Formed over millions of years, the eerie atmosphere prevailing in the huge caverns was palpable. It might have been the most overwhelming natural sight I’ve seen in my life so far. Dark cave on the other hand was all about adventure. Ziplining, kayaking, swimming, and by far the coolest, mudbathing. Imagine a walled cavern in the heart of a mountain, filled waist high with gooey brown mud. The density was such that one could simply lie down on top of it and float, with a sensation of near-weightlessness.
The next few weeks will take me to the south of Vietnam, through Saigon and then onwards to Cambodia, celebrating Christmas in Bangkok and starting 2017 in the tropical setting of the Philippines.
Mot Hai Ba Yo!
December 9th 2016
Traveling isn’t always about going somewhere you haven’t been before. As rewarding as discovering new places can be, revisiting a city or country after time has passed often sheds a new light on it, revealing novel aspects, changing impressions and rekindling memories. I find that the longer ago the initial journey occurred, the more prominent those feelings become. For me, returning to Cambodia after ten long years felt quite special indeed.
Maria and I didn’t stay long didn’t stay long in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it goes by these days). As the busiest and largest city in Vietnam, the former capital struck me as a chaotic vortex of noisy traffic and saturating lights, teeming with people from all walks of life. It’s definitely the most liberal and hedonistic place in the country, with rooftop bars and western-style night clubs dotting the center and its skyline. But in my memory of Vietnam, HCMC will not stand out.
So on to Cambodia and some days of relaxing island life. Contrary to the rest of the Kohs in the Gulf of Thailand, the Khmer islands have not yet been exhaustively commercially exploited (although that will definitely happen within the next decade). Pristine, white-sand beaches outlined by palm trees against a jungle backdrop with tropical temperatures all around. No WiFi, no ATMs, no TV. A perfect place to disconnect from the rest of the world. So that’s exactly what we did, together with a bunch of other privileged Western backpackers at a wonderful (albeit overpriced) hostel resort. Days spent reading, swimming, playing frisbee and beach volleyball. Nights spent eating, drinking, playing Jungle Speed and skinny dipping. We could easily have stayed here a week, but limited time and funds dictated otherwise.
Our short stopover in Phnom Penh was spent mostly visiting memorial sites of what can be described as one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. Perpetrated just forty years ago by Pol Pot and his Red Khmer movement, the killing of nearly three million Cambodians by their fellow countrymen remains a dark stain on the rich and long history of the country. As awful as all of these mass murders are, they make you realize that people, no matter where and when can always be conditioned or coerced into committing these heinous acts. Be it in colonial America, 1940’s Europe or present-day Syria, and that hatred in the face of a common enemy is one of the scariest bonding forces. Visiting places like these and getting informed about some of the most horrible parts of history I feel is incredibly important and humbling, and once again makes you realize how lucky we actually are to be living in a part of the world that is entirely peaceful (the much exaggerated terror threat notwithstanding).
And then there is Angkor. A place of magnificent ancient ruins and wonders, and one which has special significance for me. In my teen ages I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in an international symphony orchestra for several concert tours in Europe and Asia. It was an unbelievably epic time, during which we performed at the World Exhibition in Japan, the Wiener Musikverein in Vienna, and perhaps the most unique of all, played a New Year’s Eve concert in front of the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. Seventeen at the time, I was obviously a rather different person than I am today, yet that journey and the experience of playing in such a unique setting has stuck with me in a profound sense. It was the first classical concert ever to take place there, and one of the first symphony orchestra concerts in Cambodia. We played on a stage surrounded by jungle with the temple in the background. The spots illuminating the stage attracted such high volumes of bugs the organizers decided to spray industrial mosquito repellant everywhere, and still enormous grasshoppers were landing on our instruments throughout the concert. That’s how 2007 started and I can honestly say that that is the most unique New Year’s Eve I will ever be likely to have. Now, ten years on I can hardly believe it’s been that long, and being back here seeing the same temples and places again has been slightly surreal. Much has changed, back in the day you were basically allowed to climb onto and into everything (at your own peril) whereas today because of the much higher visitor numbers, routes are clearly marked and far less is accessible. Just a much has remained the same, the grim smiles on the faces in the ruins of Bayon, the ancient trees growing on top of the walls at Ta Phrom, the imposing and massive central towers of Angkor Wat. For these temples that have stood for a thousand years, a decade is just the blink of an eye. A couple of blinks for an entire human lifetime, that really puts things in perspective.
Life on the road continues to have its moments of crazy and strange. Battling flying cockroaches in the jungle dorm at Koh Rong Samloem, losing our hostel key in the pool five minutes after check-in in Siem Reap, getting super intense but highly therapeutic massages by blind people,... All the while the temperature never dropping below 20C and humidity below what seems like 99.9%.
And then before you know it you’ve been traveling for nearly four months and Christmas is officially there, only it totally doesn’t feel that way. The cozy cold and snowy winter (or rainy in case of Belgium) is nowhere to be found, and as much as I am grateful for this year of eternal summer, the absence of changing seasons does make this holiday harder to accept. We celebrated Christmas in the laid-back town of Battambang (I don’t know who came up with that name but they deserve a comedy award). An eight-hour boat right in the blistering sun, through mangrove-covered rivers and past floating fishing villages brought us there from Siem Reap. It was a sober but genuinely good night, sitting in the evening simmer having a cold beer, a group of expats singing Christmas carols, watching a bit of Netflix and enjoying our good fortune.
And just like that, 2016 is drawing to a close. As this will be my last story of the year, I want to extend to all of you my warmest wishes for a peaceful holiday season, and a glorious transition into a new year full of opportunities and joy. I will continue my life on the road for the foreseeable future, and if my journey so far is any indication there are some interesting stories yet to be told.
I look forward to sharing them with you in 2017.
December 26th, 2016
When Maria arrived in Ho Chi Minh City early December, I had been traveling alone for over three months. As much as I had been enjoying my time on the road up to that point, I could not have been happier having her come over to travel together with me for a month. Seeing her again after such a long time and being able to spend time exploring together has been the best thing that’s happened to me on this journey so far.
After having cruised through Cambodia during the first half of our trip, we made our way back to Bangkok to fly out to the Philippines in time for New Year’s Eve. Getting there was somewhat of a logistical nightmare, but after twenty six hours and rides on a taxi, a plane, a bus, another plane, another taxi, a boat, a tricycle, and a bit of walking we arrived at our hideout in tropical paradise. Though I haven’t been lacking in tropical paradise destinations on my trip so far, the Philippines are a brand of their own. Their tourism slogan – “It’s more fun in the Philippines” – is terribly cliché, and yet absolutely accurate. People are friendlier here than in any other country I have ever been, not just to tourists but also amongst each other. Their interest in Caucasians is very noticeable yet genuine, and never in any way overbearing or bothersome. I was blown away by the degree to which the English language is used and has been integrated in society. Almost everyone speaks it fluently, all road and shop signs, information boards and advertisements us it, and connections to American culture and products are everywhere to be found. Purely in terms of vocabulary and grammatical proficiency, the Philippines surpass almost any other non-native English speaking country I’ve been to. And that’s saying something.
After not having seen the sea for nearly two weeks, naturally some beach exploration was in order, and when there are locals partying in bamboo beach huts with liter bottles of seven percent beer at 1.5 euro, you know it’s more fun in the Philippines. When you rent an awesome scooter to go there from a guy named Ken at a roadside motorcycle rental that’s basically just a bunch of parked bikes and they start cracking jokes at you, you now it’s more fun in the Philippines. Even after venturing into the sea without protective footwear and stepping on a spikey sea urchin, the splinters in your foot are quickly forgotten when you later have dinner on a torch-lit beach with waves crashing a meter away from your table. We waved 2016 goodbye from that same beach in the warmth of the 25 degree night and hundreds of partygoers alongside us. But not before having had our last meal, an all-inclusive Filipino buffet-style gala dinner with deafening techno music playing out the speaker towers for the whole duration. Needless to say we nicked the not-so-inclusive bottle of wine and got away with it.
And then we went diving. Even that is more fun in the Philippines. The sheer number of dive sites is baffling, and the combination of crystal clear water, exquisite marine life and an abundance of islands and coral makes it one of the best places in the world to dive. It had been just two months since I last dove in Egypt, but diving with Maria this time around was so much fun. We saw at least a dozen sea turtles, many kinds of colorful fish, and coral reefs straight out of the opening scene in Finding Nemo. Three days of life on a boat and in and under water, without a care in the world.
Another thing that surprised me was the actual size of the country. Over seven thousand islands make up the archipelago, on which nearly a hundred million people live their lives. Given the distance between them, the idea of visiting more than two island groups in less than two weeks is rather unrealistic, unless you want to be traveling half the time. We decided to stick to the islands of Cebu and Bohol, and spent the rest of our time together there. Bohol has lots more to offer than just diving, we saw the smallest monkeys in the world, and hills that looked like green semi-spherical domes popping out of the lush jungle landscape. At night we paddle-boarded down a quiet river and saw trees filled with dancing fireflies under a moonlit sky. Easily the most mesmerizing view I’ve had in a long time. We drove a hundred and fifty kilometers on steep mountain roads all across the island, past local villages where every single kid waved and yelled hello at us. Obviously we felt extremely cool.
Underbart är kort, way too short, and after a luxurious finale in a 4-star hotel in Cebu City Maria returned home. And I was once again by myself. A great month had gone by, and I spent the next couple of days in a reclusive beach town just reminiscing, swimming, and doing absolutely nothing.
To end my time in the Philippines with a bang, I decided to stay in Cebu City a few more days and attend the yearly Sinulog festival, a massive city celebration rooted in a religious feast honoring the Child Jezus. One and a half million people celebrating in the streets, a gigantic and colorful parade with dancers, singers, you name it. So I went and dove into the madness, and in some way emerged unscathed. I don’t remember everything that happened, but sipping craft beers with local DJ’s, chatting with a group of ladyboys, getting hit on by the gay owner of a massive night club were just some of the highlights.
And that’s that. I’m writing this in the cabin that I’m sharing with eleven Filipino’s on the 24-hour ferry back to Manila, from where I’ll fly via Singapore to Bali. One thing I am certain of is that I will be coming back to this amazing country at least a few more times. But for now, I’ll conclude my nearly four month’s stay in South East Asia in the most epic island nation of them all – Indonesia.
January 19th, 2017
I'm writing this story sitting in the international terminal at Osaka airport in Japan, during an eleven hour lay-over between flights from Malaysia and into the United States. This mammoth journey marks the official conclusion to the 3.5 months I've spent in South-East Asia, and the start of an epic next chapter of my trip. The last couple of weeks have been crazy, hilarious, lively, high-pace yet chilled out. I traveled around Indonesia together with one of my oldest friends, and we had the best time.
Jeroen and I first met when we were just five years old, and hadn't seen each other in over ten years, except for a brief stint on Corfu last year. If that sounds like a lifetime ago, that's because it really is. I find it funny how you can be out of touch with some people for so long and still reconnect nearly instantly. Back then we played violin together, in plays, on the street and in an orchestra. This time around he brought his guitar and we jammed many nights away. It's no secret that the one thing I really miss the most on my travel is playing violin. Being able to play music again, together with someone who has all the ability to make it effortless and intuitive, was beyond fantastic.
We met up in Kuta, the party center of Bali with a reputation in debauchery and seediness to uphold. We participated briefly but with full resolve, before continuing to quieter pastures. Even during the rainy season Bali sees plenty of visitors, ranging from package holiday tourists to Eat-Pray-Love backpackers and beach- and party-hungry youth (mostly Australian). Along with Thailand it's the most heavily touristic developed area in SE Asia I've been to so far. The island is gorgeous, with all the makings of a tropical paradise. Getting around is very easy as long as you're willing to spend a decent amount of rupiah, and the locals far more laid-back than in Thailand. Beer continues to be a major drain of cash, to the extent we even started reasoning in terms of Bintangs (Indo's national beer) to calculate potential savings on activities. We went to a cheaper hostel and saved 2 Bintangs. Hitchhiked for 80km, saved 4 Bintangs. Did our own motorbike tour to the local volcano, you get the idea. We actually never made it to that volcano because of an hour-long torrential downpour, instead being stuck in a local roadside shop playing word games with our German and Dutch backpacker buddies for the day, but that's beside the point.
On to Amed in the north of Bali for the cheapest diving I have ever done, where Jeroen got certified and we stayed at a place which had, by far, the most relaxed guesthouse manager on the planet. Yogi manages the place, owns a shop out front where you can buy stuff by day and join him and his friends on their nightly guitar and double-bass jam. Arak flows, people gather, and then you notice he's just there sitting on the shop floor casually tattooing one of his friends with expert skill. Throw in a couple of ridiculous Russians and the strongest vodka in human history and you know that this is a night which you won't easily forget.
We passed through the largest of the Gili Islands and left our mark of authentic Belgian likeability. By this point, the continuing downpours were turning some of the streets into rivers, and the absence of scooters or any motorized vehicle on the island meant the only way across was through. The humidity was so ridiculous I'm surprised I didn't turn into a lizard. If there's one thing I won't miss about this region of the world it will be this feeling of continuous dampness. We survived though, and actually managed to get away from there and onto Lombok, an island of which the vibe was completely different from Bali's. Being predominantly Muslim (as opposed to Bali's Hinduism), the atmosphere there is a lot quieter and more traditional. I spent my last days in Indonesia learning to surf and biking around to beaches, with the weather finally looking up. Jeroen stayed in Lombok while I went back over to Bali to fly out to Kuala Lumpur and start the long journey I'm currently on. One super fun night in KL later and I'm suddenly halfway around the world again, completely changing my surroundings and having to adapt once more to a different reality.
After five months on the road, I'm noticing that I've become so used to the logistics of moving around it's become almost routine. There is of course always the unexpected stuff that needs to be dealt with along the way, but generally you know how to handle most of what can be thrown at you. At the same time though it's starting to become somewhat exhausting. I've been slowing down my pace already but I feel I will want to settle somewhere for an even longer time pretty soon. Really existing in a place, rather than just always passing through like some kind of traveling ghost. Perhaps Guatemala or Nicaragua, and most definitely Colombia.
But first, ‘Murrica! I'll cross the date line on my next flight and travel a full day back in time, arriving in San Francisco and continuing down through California from there into Mexico and Central America.
I hope Trump will let me in.
February 10th, 2017
One week from now I will have been away from home for half a year. With that significant milestone coming up, I’ve been thinking a lot about what has happened for me personally over the last six months. Not just where I’ve been or what I’ve done, but rather the meaning and purpose (or lack thereof) of it all. I am not getting philosophical for the sake of it, but I do feel that by now I have mostly lost touch with my life as it has been for quite some time before I left. Of course there is change and upheaval in everyone’s existence, yet also solid constants, be it places, people or activities. It seems to me that the scales that symbolize this balance tip differently for everyone, and that the act of trying to find the optimal angle is as important as it is difficult. For me right now there are nearly no constants, all having been replaced with an enormous amount of change, adventurous but uncertain. Every day is different and usually unpredictable, from where you might end up to who you will meet and what conversations you might have. And that is definitely the most exhausting aspect of traveling a long time. I’ve mentioned before that I’m longing for a bit more stability down the line, and perhaps settle somewhere for a bit. But apparently not yet. The last couple of weeks have been the polar opposite of stable, and quite likely the most intense of the whole trip.
The grueling 36-hour journey from Kuala Lumpur to San Francisco wasn’t without its host of problems. From onward ticket requirements to be allowed to board the plane in Osaka, to “random” extra security checks, a crazy rush through US immigration and customs at the monstrous LAX airport, and finally my 3-hour delayed backpack arrival in SF, I was initially too stressed to even phantom how utterly different my surroundings had become. After three and a half months in South East Asia, arriving to California was the biggest culture shock of my life. The comparatively insane cost of living was somewhat alleviated by a mix of CouchSurfing, staying at friends’ places and sticking to fast food meals. I felt tiny in the vast urban expanses where everything is more than twice the size compared to Europe or Asia. The cars, the meals, the buildings, the people… Being back in a Western society meant that rules applied strictly again, while I was very much used to the freedom I enjoyed so much in South East Asia. And all of a sudden I could understand peoples’ conversations! I can’t stress enough how nice if was to just be in a place and hear all these fragments of everyday talk, not necessarily even participating but just undergoing and listening.
My first week in California kind of went like this.
Friday: Arrival in San Francisco after the insane trip I described. Getting to CouchSurfing host’s apartment. Deciding to go out together to some gay bars. Meeting a bunch of interesting people.
Saturday: Exploring San Francisco Bay on foot the whole day, walking roughly 12km. Seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. Going out on my own in downtown SF at night to a hip-hop dance bar.
Sunday: Changing to a fancy hostel for the night, getting lost in the skyscraped business district and eating McDonald’s with some homeless people. Going out on hostel dinner, ending up doing a piano-singing jam at 3am with an awesome guy who worked with Hillary Clinton. Then sharing bourbon and trading stories with a bunch of odd characters until the morning light.
Monday: Slightly hungover, picked up by David, a former work colleague of mine who now lives in the Bay Area. Going out to Palo Alto for fantastic Venezuelan food followed by ending up randomly at a ukulele jam in downtown Mountainview.
Tuesday: An all-day walk in Silicon Valley, exploring and lunching at the vast Google Campus. Going to the gym. Huge American dinner with David at a local brewery and wonderful conversations with a great friend.
Wednesday: Joe, a guy I met just one night in Poland offers me to stay at his place in Berkeley for a couple of days. I’m keen to check out American college life and head over. We visit college campus, talk to Evangelical Christian students about love. We visit the largest vinyl store in California. Quiet night with some beers.
Thursday: I borrow Joe’s bicycle and head out around Berkeley town for the day. I realize it’s been months since I’ve actually cycled. At night I finally find the student vibe I’ve been looking for at a local happening bar and end up hanging out with a bunch of grad students at one of their's apartment until 5am.
Friday: I make my way back to San Francisco, to meet two French Canadian girls I met at the hostel dinner on Sunday, we rent a campervan and set off on what will be a week-long drive through California and Nevada.
Clearly a run-of-the-mill week.
I spent a week on the road with Stephanie and Fany, doing the quintessential road trip down the Californian coast, through national parks and up to Las Vegas. Though not entirely. The worst storm in decades destroyed parts of Highway 1, blocking our pathway to Los Angeles. Many days were rainy ones, and driving up the winding road to the 2000m high Sequoia National Park was challenging at the least. But we made the most of it, parking overnight at the parking lot of the Home Depot, or a mesmerizing lake in the foothills of Sequoia, or a small coastal town overlooking the Pacific. Cooking pasta and noodles on the gas stove, taking improvised solar showers on abandoned camp grounds, trying to figure each day out as it went along. There were ups and downs, as with any undertaking of this kind, but reaching Las Vegas after 1700km of road made me realize what an amazing experience this has truly been. Intense once again, but great.
I spent just two nights in Vegas, but that was enough to see most of what makes this place so unique. To me it represented the pinnacle of human materialism and senseless capitalism. Decadence for the sake of decadence, where morals come to die and greed flourishes. Now I’m by no means someone who doesn’t appreciate some debauchery on occasion, but this city takes it to a whole new level. On the one hand there are the massive 24-hour casino’s, filled with row upon row of slot machines, poker, roulette, craps, any game of chance you could possibly imagine. Alcohol is cheap, making people drink and clouding their judgement. Everything looks similar and is built in such a way to prevent people from finding their way out easily. Every hotel and casino has its own night club or big-name show as part of their continued effort to stand out from the competition. Then on the other hand there are the scores of homeless people dotting the Strip and downtown area throughout, just a few meters away from the gambling addicts who don’t even blink when losing 1000 dollars on a single bet. The increasing divide between rich and poor is hardly better on display than in this supposedly fabulous Las Vegas. Nevertheless you can have fun here, if you have a lot of money to spend and don’t think too deeply about how you’re spending it. I myself played a bit of roulette and won five bucks, and that feeling of addictive excitement immediately took hold.
So as I’m writing this I’m getting out of Vegas, back west to Los Angeles for one final weekend in the United States. After that I’ll be happy to go recover from the madness in Mexico City for a while. Although I have a feeling the madness is only just beginning.
February 24th, 2017
I’ve been a big fan of the Oscars for a long time, for all the right and wrong reasons. Staying up way past bed time on that Sunday night in February, trying to illegally access a bunch of online livestreams that were constantly taken offline or overloaded, was a challenge I took on gladly for the opportunity to sneak a peek into this most glamorous of award shows. Everything from the red carpet arrivals and the comedic opening monologue, to the dramatic acceptance speeches and impressive musical intermezzos seemed out of a different world. Which of course it was. A very powerful, wealthy and elite one at that. Being able to briefly be a part of it, albeit only through a shitty 240p low-res corner of an LCD monitor, was rewarding enough at the time. This year, for the first and probably only time, I actually attended the Oscars.
I wasn’t in the theater of course. Or on the red carpet. I wasn’t even on the street surrounding the red carpet leading up to the theater. Being an ordinary citizen I was permitted only to glance from behind an array of fences and road blocks patrolled by hundreds of LAPD’s finest (and rudest), at a safe (read tele-lens requiring) distance. The security measures were immense, yet I still managed to climb onto a windowsill of a nearby hotel to get a vantage point for my paparazzo moment on this trip. As huge black SUV’s and stretched limousines started driving up to the entrance, the other world briefly made itself visible, before hurrying on to the warmth of the waiting press’ flash bulbs. With a combination of patient resolve, a 30x optical zoom lens and some impeccable timing I managed to snap my way into believing I’d make a good celebrity photographer someday. Terence Howard, Jackie Chan, Chris Evans, Vince Vaughn, got them all. And the back of The Rock’s neck, which is equally as unmistakable as his front. Standing there I overheard a guy comment on the fact that we might as well have been at the zoo. And he was completely right. All these people waiting for hours and hours, standing in line with camera’s ready just to catch a glimpse of a very rare species of animal: the movie star. Walking down Hollywood Boulevard as I left the circus, passing scores of homeless people and beggars in the street I felt simultaneously happy to have witnessed this extravagance at least once, and disgusted at the wealth and power so openly and shamelessly on display just half a block away.
I did little else in Los Angeles except visiting the iconic Santa Monica Pier, strolling down Venice Beach and enjoying American night life one last time. My flight for Mexico City left early on Monday morning, and by the afternoon the world around me had once again completely changed.
Arriving in Mexico City was a breath of fresh air, though a decidedly thinner one. At nearly 2500m altitude, it is one of the highest capitals in the world. It’s also one of the most populated, with an urban area comprising over 20 million people. Twice the size of Belgium in one city. Its vastness was apparent even before landing, as the rolling landscape unfolded itself, covered all the way to the horizon with urban sprawls. And yet, diving into this overwhelming madness of a place was a relief for me. I felt like I was back in a more comfortable environment, akin to the likes of South East Asia. I checked into a most homely hostel in a more hip neighborhood, went out to have my first taco’s, had a Sol beer and decided to have a nice and calm week right there and then.
And I have to say I really tried. Visiting the absolutely stunning pyramids of Teotihuacan, majestic and superbly tranquil, taking long walks through peaceful streets lined with green and purple trees, enjoying simply sitting and reading in one spot for a couple of hours. But then I met Juan and his friends, a super-lively and friendly bunch of MC locals who I ended up spending quite some evenings with. They introduced me to Mezcal, henceforth known as the drink of death, a 50% strong concoction of delicious evil. Alongside tequila it’s the national drink of Mexico, and it blows vodka straight out of the water. Sorry Poland. They invited me along to Xochimilco, a local weekend boat ride activity on a river in the city, where you simply spend some hours on a barge sitting, drinking, eating and enjoying the moment. They included me in their lives for a short (and a crazy) while. I could not have wished for nicer folks to spend time with during my time there, and I won’t soon forget them.
I traded Mexico City and surroundings for the east the week after, arriving to Cancun on a sunny afternoon. I wasn’t here as much for the culture – it’s pretty much like the Vegas of Mexico in that regard – but rather to enjoy the fabulous beaches and just laze away for a while. And to see what American Spring Break was all about. All throughout March American college students flock to Cancun to spend their week off school partying in luxury resorts located in the Hotel zone of the city, basically a 5km stretch of land in the sea overgrown with massive hotels, bars and western night clubs. Entry into the most popular ones costs upwards of $70USD, an almost obscene amount of money that is justified only by the willingness of spring breakers to spend their parents’ money to get inside. The same goes for spending a day in the all-inclusive resorts where one can have the ultimate spring break experience. Do I sound resentful? Perhaps, after all I couldn’t afford all that. To me it mostly demonstrated once again that the value of something is mostly a function of its desirability, and not its true worth. I never ended up attending any of the events, instead spending most of my time with locals in the downtown area that was actually Mexican.
Overall though, the Yucatán coastline was absolutely stunning, with Isla Mujeres and Playa del Carmen being welcome stops on my way down south. And onward south I go, to at last arrive in Central America.
March 12th, 2017
Another country, another flight, another airport. Similar procedures, similar security to pass, similar scams to deal with. With Guatemala being the nineteenth country on this trip, all of this has mostly become routine for me. I’ve written before about the mixed sentiments of excitement and anxiety I usually have when moving on alone to a completely new country. This time though, things were different. After all I wasn’t just arriving in Guatemala. For the second time this year, I would be reunited with Maria.
She’d been in town since the night before I arrived, and was waiting for me in our double room (to hell with dorms!) at the hostel. Even though we’ve met up in places pretty much all around the world by now, it remains slightly surreal to encounter someone you know so well in a place you don’t know at all. And yet, after just the briefest amount of time you’re reminded of the way you live in the world together, and everything starts to normalize in a profoundly reassuring way. No matter where you are.
We traded Guatemala City the next day for more exciting pastures. The highly uninteresting and rather dangerous capital is nothing more than a rather desolate rigid grid of streets with single-story concrete houses and fenced off storefronts with heavily armed security guards everywhere. Being out on foot at night will almost certainly get you robbed, and there are no real sights to speak of during the day. Although, in the short time we were there we managed to get drafted as star guests in a local street artist’s performance, easy targets being twice as tall as anyone else in the audience. I had to slo-mo battle to not have to leave my better half in Guatemala, she obliterated him in the ensuing dance-off. And everybody loved it.
Luckily the rest of Guatemala turned out to be absolutely amazing. Maria had signed us up for a three-day hike from the town of Xela to Lake Atitlan, and so just two days later we set off into the foothills with a group of twenty others, guided by volunteers from the lovely Quetzaltrekkers organization. The hike was neither too difficult nor too easy and absolutely beautiful, we slept in tiny villages along the way, washed ourselves with buckets in clay-iglo-like Mayan Temazcal steam saunas, and even had a time trial high-altitude hill-climbing competition. Which I do have to elaborate more on because despite daunting competition from the five super fit (and arrogant) ex-military Israeli’s in our group, I summited faster than anyone except the lead guide. The taste of victory and blood from high-altitude trachea dehydration was sweet, yet slightly rusty. We woke up at 3am on the final morning to watch the sun rise over the most beautiful lake I have ever seen. The sharp edges of three volcanoes cutting through the haziness of the morning light, overlooking the mesmerizing lakefronts and sleepy towns dotting the banks. We made our descent into San Pedro town and settled in for a few days of well-deserved rest at Lake Atitlan. During the day we jumped off wooden ramps into the lake, swam and ate, at night we celebrated my first ever Saint Patrick’s Day with a bunch of splendid Irish people from the trek. Sadly we were unable to turn the lake green, but it was a fantastic evening nonetheless.
We were a week in so obviously it was time for a shopping day (or so I was told). But not just any kind of shopping. We took a string of so-called chicken buses to the town of Chichicastenango to visit the biggest market in Central America, particularly famous for its textiles. Chicken buses are essentially decommissioned American school buses (the famous yellow ones from the movies), that have been refitted to suit the needs of Guatemalan public transportation. A stronger engine to brave the sharp inclines in the hilly landscape, more seats to accommodate the approximately 200 people that were on our 60 capacity bus and a sound system pumping reggaeton at decibel levels that would be illegal on most European festivals. And as the name suggests, plenty of room for bagged chickens on the luggage racks. All of that going 60km per hour through sharp bends next to steep cliffs for several hours and you know this has to be the cheapest mode of transportation. But it was hilariously fun and we got where we needed to be. We bargained in broken Spanish for a beautiful piece of textile, sampled some local chicken with rice and beans, and made our way on to Antigua.
As the former colonial capital, Antigua is postcard pretty, and quite touristically developed. We stuck around for a little to recalibrate, before moving on to the warmth of the Caribbean cost, more specifically the mesmerizing Rio Dulce and super laid-back town of Livingston. It’s remarkable how different the people and the setting was within a single country. Darker-skinned people from Garifuna descent, extremely easy-going and helpful. Scores of beautiful storks lining the trees along the rivers and the coast, wild pelicans fishing in the teeming water, lush palm trees everywhere. We crossed the open waters on a tiny motor boat and arrived in Belize, constituting my most unique border crossing to date. There we settled in a tiny coastal town for a week, with nothing but the quiet, sunny beach and salty sea water to entertain us. It was one of the best weeks of my trip.
And just as suddenly as we met, so abrupt was goodbye. One last day at a gorgeous four-star hotel marked the end of our time together, and I am once again on my own. As I continue on to Panama and South America for the remaining four months of my trip I feel excited for the prospect of all the unexpected yet to come, but simultaneously yearningly looking forward to returning home at the end, to everything and everyone I’ve left behind.
April 3rd, 2017
I’m sitting on the front deck of a small open speedboat, beer in hand, speeding through a vast archipelago of lushly green islands covered in flowers and palm trees. The sun is high in the sky, beaming down with striking intensity on a hot and humid world below. My swimwear, still wet from a whole day of catching crystal-clear waves at a secluded beach, is clinging to my salty and sandy skin and cooling me down somewhat in the 35 degree heat. I’m headed back to my hostel, a wooden sprawl built on the water and comprising jumping towers, slack lines and swings into the ocean. Close to two hundred people are drinking, dancing and jumping in and out of the water at one of the largest parties all year, Saturday night during Semana Santa. I’m in Bocas del Toro, and it’s a paradise on earth.
But let’s start at the beginning. Arriving in Panama City from Guatemala City is kind of like trading a 20-year old Citroën Berlingo for a brand-new Audi. At first glance, the dense array of skyscrapers reaching into the hazy red-hot sky seems like something out of the limbo dream stage in Inception. Tall and narrow, dotted throughout the landscape as if dreamed up on the fly by ambitious collectives riding on a wave of increasing economic growth and prosperity that has swept through the city as a consequence of the ever-expanding Panama Canal. Called the Miami of Central America, Panama City definitely has a decidedly American feel to it, at least in the business districts where scale and impersonal shops and chain restaurants are taking over. The old town however, Casco Viejo, is a beautiful colonial part of the city, under intense renovation and the place to be for the emerging upper middle class and of course the tourists. I spent close to a week settling into this new country. Besides visiting the technological marvel that is the Canal and watching immense container ships pass through its locks, I did little other touristy stuff. I went to the mall, watched Beauty and the Beast and loved it, ate pollo con arroz every single day at a local diner down the street and tried to figure out my plan for the upcoming few weeks.
A few months back in Laos, a traveler I encountered had recommended a hostel in Panama that he described as an unmissable experience there. I’d held on to the information and so I decided to make my first stop at the Lost & Found Hostel. Deep in the Cloud Forest in the hills of central Panama, this place is only accessible through a steep 20-minute uphill hike, and is as secluded as it is beautiful. I arrived after dark, and found myself clambering over slippery rocks with just a flashlight and my full pack, the jungle around bursting with nocturnal insects buzzing all around. The path before me suddenly opened up to a group of buildings set right in the middle of the sloped jungle forest. Tired, I settled into my dorm, feeling immediately welcomed by the atmosphere and fellow people working and staying there. After waking up the next morning, I truly discovered the unique magic of the hostel. By daylight, the whole place opens up to breathtaking views of the surrounding hills, clouds flowing through and around them all day long in ever-changing patterns and shapes. Exotic birds and bugs are all around, each one more beautiful than the next. After a few days I knew I wanted to spend a lot more time here, and so, after nearly eight months of travel, I’d found my place to settle. I decided to volunteer at the Lost & Found hostel for at least three weeks, but not after one last stopover in the quintessential Panamanian beach/surf/party destination.
Which brings us back to the beginning of this story. Island life continues to be highly satisfactory, and Bocas del Toro was a highlight of my trip in that regard. The week leading up to Easter is a big deal in the whole of Latin America, and many locals have time off to enjoy the holidays. So too in Bocas, where they even went as far as to ban the sale of alcohol for two days prior to Sunday. Which obviously had almost no effect on consumption, since human creativity knows no bounds when the incentives are powerful enough. Blissful days were contrasted by raging nights, making this by far the least Christian Easter weekend I have ever witnessed.
My Spanish continues to improve at a slow yet steady pace. Having been in Latin America for over one and a half months now, I’m definitely making some headway. The fact that almost nobody actually speaks English is a big help, after all having to ask where the toilet is in Spanish or not finding out at all provides a more than decent motivation to learn. People usually react way more friendly if they notice you’re making at least an effort to communicate in the local language, and here is no different. The remainder of my trip will be spent mainly in countries where Spanish is the official language, so I intend to continue to work at it and perhaps come home with a new language ability.
Over the course of the next three weeks I’ll remain at the Lost and Found hostel to volunteer. I’ll spend my days working, hiking, relaxing and finding some much needed structure and an outlook on the months to come.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
April 19th, 2017
I started my volunteering at the Lost & Found hostel on a sunny Monday morning, helping with preparing and serving breakfast to the guests. I knew I really liked the place and its people, but I had no idea what to expect of the coming three weeks. I was mostly happy I’d found somewhere I thought I could truly calm down and settle for a while after nearly eight months of travel.
Traveler cliché number 452 says that hopping from place to place for an extended period of time can and does become exhausting, from the stress of continuously figuring out how and where to continue on to, to forging and severing connections with an endless string of people in a mostly superficial way. That’s not to say I haven’t had a great journey so far, but settling down for a bit I hoped would bring me some clarity and repose before continuing on for the last three months of my trip. In addition to that, I felt like I really needed some routine and sense of purpose. The balance has been tipping over to the complete opposite end for quite a while now, and having chores and responsibilities repeating every day would at least provide a semblance of those feelings.
For the most part, this did happen. I got up in the morning, made breakfast, watched an episode of Westworld, helped out at the hostel or went on a hike in the jungle, had dinner, chatted with some guests and bartended in the cabin-style bar on the property for as long as the night would go on. I felt comfortable knowing that I could mostly predict what would happen over the next few hours, even days. This might sound like I’m not really enjoying the adventure anymore and just continuing on for the sake of it, but I don’t see it that way. I’ve talked to many people about what the ideal length of a journey like this would be, and how the manner in which you experience new places is affected by it. Some people say three months, some say six, some say there is no limit – they’re exceptions and I don’t necessarily believe them – and of course this very much depends on your personality and individual expectations.
I personally find that as soon as you’re over the initial rush of excitement, the rest is just a continuous alternation of good times and lesser ones. Getting used to solitude works for a while, but in the end loneliness is such a profound feeling that I know I at least won’t ever escape it completely. As much as I like to be on my own, in the end I will always be needing renewed affirmation from others to confirm that I am capable of being social, connecting, making friends. No matter how often those qualities might have been confirmed in the past. In that sense it’s not just the stable environment I appreciated at the Lost and Found, but also a static group of people to be around.
The staff at L&F was wonderful. It seems that living in a secluded environment for a longer period of time, like the managers and owners have, cuts away a lot of unnecessary stuffing that prevails in what people would call regular society, and adds different quirks instead. For some this means being direct and open, while simultaneously keeping up an immense guard. Others create a world of their own, in which they can experience themselves and their environment more purely, with minimal outside interference. Everyone is free to be as creative as they want to be, having access to this unique playground.
And a creative playground it definitely was. A book written by one of the owners serves as a background story in which the L&F and its history play a central role. Facts are blended with fiction in a seamless way, and many of the hostel’s activities link to some part of the narrative. The more you read and participate actively, the more you’re immersed in this world, in a willful suspension of disbelief (as the author would say).
Apart from that, there is of course the jungle. Hundreds of different beetles, birds and butterflies buzz through the trees from morning to night. Tarantulas the size of a human hand are not an uncommon sight, and once in a while the odd monkey or snake shows up to steal the show. During the day you can hike to your heart’s content in the jungle forest all around, take a dip in the fresh river flowing through and soak up the plentiful sun. Every evening it’s possible to visit and cuddle with a tremendously cute honey bear that lives on the property, before heading over to the bar for happy hour, giant jenga and foosball, there’s even a pole for dancing if you feel so inclined.
I had a great time at the Lost & Found, and it felt truly strange to say goodbye after three weeks and return to the real world. At the same time I’m excited to continue on to the final major phase of my journey, South America. From now until I return home, I’ll be spending time in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and ultimately Brazil.
Next stop: Medellín, Colombia.
May 12th, 2017
Pretty much since I started my journey, everyone that I met who had been to Colombia and heard I was planning to go there told me how amazing this country was, and how much they had enjoyed their time there. They raved about its natural beauty and diversity, the openness and kindness of its people and most of all how this was just a place where people tried to enjoy life to the fullest. Suffice to say that I arrived with great expectations, eager to find out if all of these travelers were right. After having spent nearly a month here, I can safely say that I’m in full agreement, and then some.
Let’s start with the rollercoaster ride that is Medellín. I spent nearly two weeks there, and it’s easily in my top 5 of favorite cities I’ve ever visited. The economic heart of Colombia, it sprawls over a vast stretch of valley, crawling up the slopes of the massive green hills all around. There is an incredible amount of life and activity happening everywhere, from the touristy and night life center of Poblado to the outer barrios reachable by aerial cable car. The people of the Medellín are called Paisas, and I experienced them to be savoring everyday life in a way most Europeans don’t ever get close to. They talk loudly and laugh often, help you without you even having to ask and without wanting anything in return. They work hard during the day, and during the night… they dance like there is no tomorrow.
In Medellín, and Colombia by extension, everybody dances. And not the distant, constrained, solitary jumping to a techno beat you see so often at home. Complex patterns and rhythms make up the art of salsa, while the thumping beat of the super popular reggaeton invites for intense and aggressive grinding that at times can best be described as dry humping on the dance floor. Dancing is engrained in Latin American culture, and practically everyone is good at it. Or at least has the confidence to not give a shit and just live it up. Being in this environment is a fantastic experience, because you discover that this approach is much more real, and far less pretentious.
Of course there is another side to Medellín as well, connected with its relatively recent and violent past that has been overturned over the course of just fifteen years, back when it was the most dangerous city in the world. The guide of the walking tour I went on told some heartbreaking stories about the impact the cocaine trade has had on the city and its inhabitants, in particular under the reign of the most famous drug lord in history, Pablo Escobar. At sad as that part of history may be, the fact that the safety has so dramatically improved is absolutely remarkable. There are still areas where visitors should not venture, and drugs can be purchased with incredible ease, but overall the reputation of this place is steadily rising to that of a vastly interesting metropolitan tourist destination. It’s obvious that the people want nothing to do with the past, live very much in the present and look forward to the future. Their attitude is a sign of their resolve to rid the outside world of all prejudices concerning Colombia and its citizens.
After a brief repose in Guatapé, I went over for about two weeks to the Caribbean coast of Colombia, easily the warmest and most visited part of the country. Compared to the eternal spring climate of central Colombia, the humid heat of Cartagena came as a sweaty slap in the face. The Spanish colonial old town was amazingly scenic, at least for the five minutes at a time you could spend outside away from AC to admire it. At any rate, being back at the seaside was a joy. I visited Tayrona national park, which was just astounding. Hiking and swimming during the day, and sleeping in open-air hammocks in a little tower on top of a rock overlooking the sea, beach and jungle beyond. Unfortunately I did lose my camera I bought back in November in Bangkok, which I’d really become accustomed to and was quite valuable. So back to smartphone photos for the remainder of the trip, which is a sad reality I’ll have to get used to again.
While leaving Tayrona to spend a few days in the backpacker hideout of Taganga (a strange seaside town with an overwhelming presence of Israeli ex-military backpackers consuming vast amounts of drugs and alcohol) a girl stepped onto the local bus. She opened a case and took out a violin, quickly tuned it and for the following ten minutes played beautiful Colombian folk songs while we were driving over winding roads circling steep cliffs down into the town. I hadn’t seen a violin being played up close like that since I left home, let alone as good as she was doing it. It was a magical moment, and I just sat there mesmerized and watched as she played with her eyes closed. It once again made me realize how much I miss playing. I wanted to go up to her and say hi, ask about her violin and if I could perhaps play a few notes. As I contemplated the complex social situation where a complete stranger who barely speaks Spanish approaches a girl on a crowded bus asking to play on what is probably her most precious possession, she thanked the driver and got off as suddenly as she appeared. The moment was gone, and I cursed myself for not being more forward in the face of this rare opportunity. It was a tiny event in a vast string of experiences, but for me it stands out and I’ll remember it for a long time to come.
I’m spending the final few days of my stay in Colombia in the capital. Bogotá is even larger than Medellin, the fifth largest city on the whole American continent, with a colder climate and a chaotic and bustling atmosphere. I’m mostly by myself, enjoying some solitary days walking around in the midst of it all, visiting museums of pre-colonial Colombian gold and the contemporary art of Botero, taking salsa classes, eating delicious arepas and empanadas, drinking the world-renowned Colombian coffee, sipping some Aguardiente.
Colombia has been an absolute revelation, and probably my favorite country of the whole trip so far. I can recommend a visit wholeheartedly and I’ll be sad to leave. At the same time, I’m excited to move on to Peru and all its splendor, with Machu Picchu as a definite highlight. I’ll keep you posted.
June 1st, 2017
As European summer keeps edging closer, I have been moving to increasingly colder places. From the heat of Cartagena to the springy Medellín, overcast Bogotá and onward to higher altitudes past Lima into Cusco and the highlands of southern Peru. Since I touched down in Lima for my two weeks in Peru, I have slowly begun to realize that my journey is not far from its final stages anymore, now nearly ten months in and with only little over a month to go. As hard as it is to do from abroad, I now really need to start looking into how I will settle back in once I’m home, and what life will look like after this year on the road.
At the same time, the fact that I am traveling home from Rio de Janeiro and need to get there in time for my flight has required me to accelerate my pace considerably, with over 5000 kilometers still to cover in three countries. So real time to think is somewhat limited by this, and the past two weeks have once again been mind-blowingly intense.
Lima was kind of a run-of-the-mill capital, and not really worth spending many words on. What did strike me was the surrounding landscape of desert-like sand dunes which ran right up to the Pacific Ocean. This was the first indication of the stunning diversity in Peru’s landscape I would continue to witness throughout my stay. A twenty-three hour bus ride took me from sea level to 3200m altitude through a never-ending succession of winding roads, slowly snaking into the mighty Andes mountain range and the old Inca capital of Cusco. This ride started a week that will remain an absolute highlight of my journey.
Cusco is a scenic place, squeezed into a valley carved out of the surrounding mountains, colonial in style and ancient in culture. Because of the altitude and mountainous climate, the sunny days can be pleasantly summery, but as soon as the sun is gone a dry chill settles over the city and the nights are never warm. On first glance, it seems to be the venue for a massive gay pride celebration, with rainbow flags flying throughout the streets and squares, when in fact this is merely the official Cuscanian city flag. A neat coincidence, and I wonder if this is where the pride movement got their inspiration. After two days of settling in, I embarked on a tour that would last four days and ultimately take me to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu.
I almost decided against doing a tour at all and instead making my way up there myself, but was luckily persuaded by a super chill Dutch guy who was going as well. As far as value for money goes, this might be the best organized activity I’ve ever gone on. Over the course of four days we did what felt like every thrilling mountain activity imaginable. Obviously I had ignored my own intention to not party the night before we left, and therefore found myself sick to my gut on the cramped minivan ride that would take us up to 4500m altitude for what would turn out to be the most insane bike ride of my life. At an average speed of 40km/h we practically raced down the narrow winding roads over 80km and down nearly 2000 meters in altitude. The views were spectacular, though looking at them for more than a split second would probably have had lethal consequences. Hangover cure, absolutely. As if that wasn’t enough for one day we then went on a proper rafting ride with class III rapids and a generous dose of ingested Peruvian river water.
Day two was hiking, a good 24km partly along the original Inca trail, a daunting series of stone steps next to a several hundred meter vertical drop. It was as frightening as it was stunning. Thermal hot springs to relieve our sore legs at night, and several Pisco Sours to relieve everything else. Zip-lining and more hiking on day three to finally arrive at the base of the mountain for the highlight of it all.
We got up at 3.30am, it was pitch dark out. Armed with headlamps, water and sugary snacks we started the 1700 step ascent towards the Inca city perched on top of the mountain 400 meters higher. The effort was substantial, but dwarfed by the reward at the top. Even though it’s hard to rank these kinds of things, I can say that Machu Picchu is most likely the most fabulous natural sight I’ve ever seen. It’s a vast, drop-dead gorgeous ruin of an empire that was hidden, lost and found several times over its 500-year history. The landscape around reminded me somewhat of the alien world in Avatar, simply out of this world. It’s hard to fathom the effort it took to construct this city, and another great example of human ingenuity and resolve. The memory of this place is going to stick with me for a very long time.
The same night our jolly group of travelers, subtly dubbed the Sexy Lamas, disbanded and I arrived back to Cusco, tired yet very satisfied. Time to leave the Andes and move on to even higher pastures. On the border between Peru and Bolivia lies the largest high-altitude lake in the world, Lago Titicaca. The perfect place for some solace from the intensity of what has come before. Bolivia will be the second-to-last country of my journey as this adventure is steadily drawing to a close.
And I’ll be committed to make the most of the time that remains.
June 17th, 2017
Cold. I can’t say that I was used to it anymore. Except for the few days in wintery Nevada back in February, temperatures have probably not gone below 15C at any point over the last ten months. As a consequence of the destinations I chose for my trip, I expected to experience a year of summer (or at least summery spring). And those expectations were entirely fulfilled, until I crossed the Bolivian border.
The east of Bolivia is a high up part of the world. Elevations of over 3500m are the norm, thinning the air to a crisp, sparse breath containing considerably less oxygen than usual. The difference in temperature under sun or shade is remarkable, which makes for reasonably pleasant days yet dreadfully freezing nights. Add to that the fact that the southern hemisphere celebrates Winter Solstice on the 21st, and you have a recipe for shivering. My modest traveling wardrobe did not contain much thermal underwear or thick jackets for obvious reasons, but fake alpaca wool clothing shacks suddenly appeared all around. As always, where there’s a need, there’s a business catering to it. Regardless, the night I spent on the beautiful Isla del Sol was bone-chillingly cold, while the days were absolutely stunning. Near-360-degrees of the perfectly still lake of Titicaca, lama’s and locals strolling around going about their lives, and small stone-stepped roads leading up to miradors that literally took my breath away. A nice repose at 4000m altitude, with views of ice-covered peaks over 6500m.
Then there was La Paz. Highest de facto capital in the world, I could say I had an everything but peaceful time here. The city is not an extreme marvel, although the sheer drops and light-covered hills are mesmerizing to look at by night. There’s a cable car that carries you from low to high, a witches market where lotions and potions can be bought to mend or improve any impediment imaginable; lack of any kind of appetite, lack of sleep, lack of focus, lack of sanity, lack of belief in questionable medicine. Improvements in sexual prowess, endowment and performance are prominently advertised, but that should not come as a surprise. The city is also home to one of the most surreal prisons in the world, the San Pedro correctional facility, a 3000-inmate containing city block with guards posted only at the entrances, basically rendering it a mini-society of its own, where prisoners live with their families and have laws of their own. Walking around anywhere comes at considerable effort due to the elevation, and while not at all unsecure, I often found myself feeling a little uneasy browsing empty streets at the fringes of town.
For one week I stayed at the Wild Rover hostel, known as one of the most hard-partying backpacker spots in South America. Differently themed parties every night, rocking bar, and a never-ending stream of young travelers looking for hedonist debauchery. Probably one of the last real party hostels I will stay at, this place lived up to its reputation that I’d been told about since Lima. But to be honest, as well organized as everything was and as much fun as I did have, I realized the longer I stayed there that the prevailing superficial and somewhat insecure vibe was something I was kind of fed up with at this point. That doesn’t mean I didn’t meet some great people, in particular Jorrit the Dutchman and the jolly band of four Irish guys with names as wild as their approach to partying (PD4540157). They’ll forever be associated with my time there, and then some.
The highlight by far of Bolivia for me, as I assume is the case for nearly everyone that visits, were undoubtedly the salt flats in Uyuni. Many places on earth are spectacular, yet far fewer are truly unique and Salar de Uyuni was definitely the latter. Miles and miles and miles of white expanse, as flat as a penny, disturbed only by an infinite expanse of polygonal crusty patterns formed by convection cells between the salty bottom and water from the past rain season. This monotony, and the lack of any landscape features that would otherwise provide a size reference make it the ideal place for taking the surreal faux-perspective photos that have become so popular here. An eerie, alien world might not have looked much different. It’s a place that has to be seen to be believed.
And it’s a place you need to bring warm clothes to. The 15C sunny days are contrasted by the -15C equivalent nights, and even though I didn’t overnight on the flats, I suffered on the night buses that took me there and back. The cold I contracted those days has still not passed, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
I’m now in Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia, though not very remarkable at all. After the two highest week of my life I’ll take the so-called Death Train to the eastern border tomorrow. Contrary to some misconceptions, this name originates from its initial use of transporting yellow-fever patients which usually had a poor chance of survival. It will bring me into the last country on my journey, the vast and epic nation of Brazil.
I’ll spend three weeks there, passing through Iguazu, Sao Paolo along the way, and finally, as a fitting last stop, Rio de Janeiro.
June 27th, 2017
Tomorrow, I’m going home.
I’ve been trying to come up with a single word that describes how I have been feeling the last couple of days, as I’m experiencing an absolute whirlwind of emotions. I’m really glad to be going back, meet Maria, my family and my friends, play violin, drink Belgian beer and eat fries, and start a next chapter in my life. I’m sad as well, ending this lifestyle that I’ve become so used to, and that, as fleeting as it can be sometimes, remains a rush I will never tire of. I’m scared to tackle the many challenges ahead, and simultaneously profoundly reassured that everything will work out. But most of all I’m thankful. For how lucky I am to have been able to do this, for the endless beauty I’ve experienced, and for all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for the kindness I’ve been afforded nearly everywhere I went. This journey has changed how I see the world for the better in a way I could not have imagined at the outset.
But enough melodramatic ranting, let’s talk about Brazil, the country I’ve been spending the last three weeks of my trip in. The Train of the Dead took me through the Bolivian Pantanal wetlands to the Brazilian border in sixteen hours, where I was greeted by Nicoli, a friend of a Guilherme, a great Brazilian traveler I had met nine months earlier in Morocco. She and Guilherme (a different one) hosted me in Corumbá and Campo Grande and introduced me to Brazilian culture in the warmest possible way. My first caipirinha, the first couple tastes of the amazing cuisine, a new language, with unparalleled generosity. Having spent four months in Spanish-speaking Latin America, arriving here took me back to square one in terms of communication. I’d become reasonably comfortable with basic Spanish, and trying to speak that to a Brazilian is like bringing a sword to a gunfight; useless and you look silly doing it.
What struck me right away about the people was their great diversity. In the whole of upper Latin America the population has been quite uniform, usually quite short, dark-skinned and black-haired. All of a sudden I was surrounded by all kinds of colors and sizes, and if not for the musical and lively Portugese exchanges one might have gotten a quite European feeling. Where previously I had stood out as an obvious gringo, I now fit into the mix perfectly. People even told me I looked Brazilian, but then again I’ve had a hard time defining what a Brazilian look would be.
I continued my journey by yet another bus down to Foz do Iguacu, the site of the magnificent Iguazu waterfalls, the greatest in the world. I’ve been traveling overland since Lima, that’s over 5000km of buses, trains and drives. Divide that by an average travel speed of about 50km/h and you get a sense of the ridiculous travel times that have been involved in this. But comfort is usually inversely proportional to cost, and by this point money had become a serious concern. Also, the reward of arriving somewhere somehow seems more earned when the journey takes more effort.
And the reward at Iguazu was simply magnificent. The greatest waterfalls in the world, and one of the seven modern wonders of the world, the might of an average 1000 cubic meters of watering thundering down per second over more than 250 individual falls is jaw-dropping. The vast site sits on the border between Brazil and Argentina so you can visit from both countries, giving different perspectives. When ranking all the natural beauty I’ve seen this year, the Iguazu falls are near the absolute top, gorgeous and spectacular.
With time ticking away steadily I moved on to Sao Paolo, where I was hosted by Ana and her family. We met four years ago, on my first major solo backpacking trip in India, and together with Jayme and Pat we traveled together in what I still consider the best travel gang of my life. Besides a brief reunion in London last year, we hadn’t seen each other since, so having the opportunity to meet her in her hometown was too good to pass up. My weekend in this urban concrete jungle of nearly 20 million people was immeasurably improved by her and her family’s hospitality. The city itself, while the largest and most prosperous of South America, is not a tourist highlight. That privilege is taken and held on to with overwhelming imposition and relentless vigor by the iconic metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. The final destination, and what a way to finish. Rio is hard to describe, or at least in a way that’d do it justice. The adjectives are endless; gorgeous, diverse, maddening, chaotic, mesmerizing, dangerous,... the list goes on and on. It’s a blend of stunning and rugged mountains, their slopes clad in colorful favelas, and a vast city landscape where over six million people live their lives in every kind of way imaginable. I stayed in Lapa, near the downtown center of the city, and one of the most lively and gritty parts of town. That is automatically associated with poverty and crime, and one flipside of Rio is that it’s one of the few places I’ve been where there is actual danger. Armed robberies occur often and consistently, night and day, whether you’re alone or in group. Where in other places you perhaps hear of a couple stories of people having been harassed, here it’s a steady stream, and at least ten backpackers I met in my time at the hostel had been robbed at knife or gunpoint at least once. I’ve been lucky and nothing’s happened to me, but it’s a sad stain on an otherwise fantastic image.
I’ve now spent two weeks here, with a short holiday to the beautiful Ilha Grande as a repose, and I’ve hiked stunning and difficult hikes, saw the sun set from the top of Sugar Loaf mountain, visited Christ the Redeemer, and soaked in the sun on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema surrounded by the most attractive beachgoers I’ve ever seen. At night, every night, the parties rage and people gather in streets everywhere to drink and dance. The atmosphere is as intense as it can get, dense, dark, dirty. A crossover between the cave scene at the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded and Dirty Dancing. People just live and breathe on a different level here.
And just like that, the end has finally arrived, and I’m returning home a different person. It’s been a crazy year, probably the most adventurous of my whole life past and future. And while I will likely never do something like this again, I will never stop traveling, see new places and witness life from all possible angles.
For now I’m simply grateful.
July 22nd, 2017
Over the course of my journey I’ve collected songs associated with memories of places I’ve been and people I’ve met. I made a playlist out of them and you can listen to it below. Enjoy!
I’ve been home almost two weeks now, and the reality of being back is slowly kicking in. It still feels strange, and sometimes I feel like this is so far just another stop on my journey, even though I know in my mind it isn’t. I’m occupying myself with sorting and editing my photos and videos, an enormous task because of all the material I have, meeting friends I’ve not seen in a long time, and obviously looking for a job (or any way really) to replenish my much depleted funds. I’m 28 years old, unemployed, with only several hundred euros in my bank account, and I would not have done anything differently.
I realize I’m still processing all the experiences and adventures of the past year, and will continue to do so for quite a while. Life has been so intense for such a long time, that the so-called dullness of home does creep up on me, even though I know it’s not necessarily any less exciting, it’s just exciting in a very different way, one that I’m not used to anymore. Regardless, as I was reminiscing, I automatically started thinking of all the best (and worst) places I’ve been, the most mind-blowing experiences as well as the most disappointing ones.
So I thought, why not share some of my rankings. Perhaps you might find them useful down the line, or at least entertaining to read. After all, everybody loves lists.
Here we go, the good, the bad and the ugly.
(Click on an image to go to the full story. Best viewed on larger screen.)
|Iguazu Falls||Foz do Iguacu, Brazil|
|The greatest waterfalls on earth. An absolutely magnificent display of nature’s raw power and beauty, and a definite highlight of Brazil and Argentina.|
|Paradise Cave||Phong Nha, Vietnam|
|As stunning as the Phong Nha region is above-ground with its shard-like mountains and lush jungle, the real awe should be spared for what lies beneath. Paradise Cave is the most spectacular cave I have ever seen.|
|Lake Atitlán||Atitlán, Guatemala|
|After a four-day hike from nearby Xela, we reached a viewpoint and watched the sun rise over what is often talked about as the most beautiful lake in the world. And from my experience, I fully agree.|
|Runner-up: Salt flats||Uyuni, Bolivia|
|An eerie landscape out of an alien world. That’s a good way to describe the immense plane of salt in the southwest of Bolivia. The flattest region on earth, it’s a place that boggles the mind.|
|Machu Picchu||Andes, Peru|
|This lost Inca city perched high atop a massive mountain in the middle of the Andes is mesmerizing from every angle. It’s the combination of impressive ruins and dizzying nature that sets this place apart.|
|Valley of Kings||Luxor, Egypt|
|The collection of burial sites for the ancient pharaohs is nearly 4000 years old, yet the hieroglyphs and paintings that adorn the tomb walls look like they could’ve been made just decades back. Simply amazing.|
|Angkor Wat||Siem Reap, Cambodia|
|The largest religious building on earth. Even though a ruin now, the fact that I’ve visited twice, with a ten-year separation in between, made it even more special. Also there were monkeys.|
|RU: Las Vegas Casinos||Nevada, United States|
|While Las Vegas wasn’t at all a pretty place to me, in many respects, the sheer size and overpowering nature of its casino’s were quite unique to me. Fitting with the intimidating and decadent feel of everything else.|
|Medellín takes you in and gives you whatever you might desire. Little over a decade ago it was the most dangerous city on earth, now it’s incredibly friendly. My favorite city in Latin America by far.|
|The Blue City in the middle of the Rif mountain range seems like a place out of a movie. Tiny, winding streets make up the medina, painted blue and white. It’s the perfect place to relax, with the smell of hashish everywhere.|
|Port wine, wrought metal arch bridges, small wooden ships on the Douro river. Porto is a place you can stay in for weeks and not be bored. It’s a wonderful European city, historic and highly cultural.|
|RU: Rio de Janeiro||Brazil|
|Rio is madness; awesome, shocking, intense, dangerous. I ended my journey here and had one of the best weeks of the entire year. Probably the most vibrant city of South America, it took my breath away.|
|The longest one||Bus Vang Vieng - Hanoi, 35 hours|
|The longest bus ride of the year had me perched in between an Italian couple and the rear toilets on semi-reclining seats over rough roads and humid heat. I did have some whiskey, a minor consolation.|
|Temperature extremes||Train Cairo - Luxor, 10 - 35°C|
|The thermostat in the train wasn’t really a thermostat which meant that the only two settings were on and off. On being a freezing blizzard of cold air, off the equivalent of the outside air, hammering 35°C. For 12 hours.|
|The most delayed one||Ferry Bohol - Manilla, 10 hours delayed|
|The ferry was subsequently two hours delayed, then four, then eight and so on. I saved my ass and made my flight out of Manilla by leeching onto a helpful Philipino and not letting go until he’d snuck me onto an earlier boat.|
|RU: The coldest one||Bus La Paz - Uyuni, 5°C|
|Not having packed anything warmer than a sweater, I set off into an area that was known to reach -15°C during the night. The bus I was on didn’t have heating. Thus began my Bolivian cold period.|
|I’ve been eating this traditional Moroccan dish since I was a child, but the way they made it in Chefchaouen definitely stood out. Delicious.|
|Noodle soup! Everything is soup in Vietnam, but it’s goddamn great soup. As with many foods in SE Asia, the best varieties are usually served out of the dingiest-looking joints. No different here.|
|Phad Thai||Chiang Mai, Thailand|
|The quintessential Thai backpacker dish, and something the locals don’t even really eat. Nevertheless Phad Thai is everything you expect from the ultimate street food; tasty, cheap and ubiquitous.|
|RU: Seafood||Nazaré, Portugal|
|Portugal knows sea food, and I still recall the dinner I had just a week into my trip in the town of Nazaré. The setting was cozy, I was super hungry, and the fish-potato-salad dish tasted incredible.|
|Lost & Found Hostel||Chiriqui, Panama|
|Located in the middle of Panama’s cloud forest, the L&F hostel is the perfect blend of nature, friendly vibes and a supremely chill place to spend some time. I should know, I ended up working there for a month.|
|Home Hostel||Mexico City, Mexico|
|A small, quiet hostel in the middle of Mexico City. The people are unpretentious, the beds extremely comfy, and the vibe almost like a small family home that just happens to be shared by backpackers.|
|Reggae Mansion||Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia|
|Worthy of the mansion title. A massive hostel, with all the amenities you can think of, a huge rooftop bar serving shisha and the scene of lively parties. And the beds are simply on a different level.|
|RU: Wild Rover Hostel||La Paz, Bolivia|
|One of the most intense party hostels in South America, and the world by extension. Despite the debaucheries, the place is kept extremely tidy, and every day has a new activity to join.|
|Onward journey||Osaka, Japan|
|On my flight from Kuala Lumpur to San Fransisco I had a layover in Osaka, where a polite lady informed me I needed a ticket out of Mexico to be allowed to board. I managed to get a fake one online, major stress.|
|Lost backpack||Santa Cruz, Bolivia|
|Upon arrival in yet another city, I discovered my bagpack was no longer in the buses cargo hold. After 5 hours and serious semi-Spanish threats to everyone I could find, the bag miraculously showed up on another bus.|
|Stolen stuff||Mexico & Colombia|
|Although this happens to nearly everyone who travels for a long time, it still sucks. Mexico took my phone, Colombia my camera, and in total I lost stuff amounting to around 700 dollars. Such is life.|
|RU: Night club bliss||Marrakech, Morocco|
|Local bouncers squeezed me out of 35 dollars before letting me into a vast and nearly empty night club. I was subsequently harassed by prostitutes and shady drug dealers, decided to leave and walked over 5km to get home.|
|Sky Garden||Bali, Indonesia|
|Sky Garden is the Sodom of Bali, with cheap open bars every night to get people absolutely wasted. Jeroen and I went here on our first night in Indonesia, and let’s just say things got out of hand…|
|Party Week||Mexico City, Mexico|
|On my second day in Mexico City I met a group of life- and party-loving locals, who took me under their wing for much of the remainder of my stay. Topless bar dancing was a standard move in their repertoire.|
|Books Hostel||Rio de Janeiro, Brazil|
|This hedonist party hostel in Rio is known far and wide for its raging, booze-fueled evenings. It doesn’t hurt that it’s situated in the liveliest party neighborhood of Rio. I had fun here.|
|RU: Aqua Lounge||Bocas del Toro|
|Bocas del Toro is known in Central America as a place where people come to take in the sun, take off their clothes, and generally disregard their dignity. Aqua Lounge adds water towers to the equation. Enough said.|
|Toilet of Death||Vietnamese border crossing, Vietnam|
|This actually happened on the longest bus ride, so you can imagine the compounded bliss of having to go number two at 2am in the pouring rain on a squat shared with dozens of dead cockroaches, and living moths the size of my face.|
|The Shit Storm||Ferry Lombok - Bali, Indonesia|
|We had rough weather on this four hour ferry ride. So rough that over half the passengers became seasick. I’m sure you can appreciate the joy of trying to use a toilet in a rolling boat with all the walls covered in vomit.|
|Hole in the Wall||Luxor public toilet, Egypt|
|There’s not much to be said here. I understand that you might want a squatting toilet instead of a nice, shining, porcelain bowl. But in that case at least put it in the ground, so I don’t have to fight gravity.|
No runner-up, although that term could probably be used to refer to a number of toilet-related events I ended up featuring in.
|Diving with dolphins||Hurghada, Egypt|
|Ten meters underwater, on only my second dive in the Red Sea, a female dolphin decided to show up and swim with me and my instructor for nearly a minute. He said he knew her, I said sure you do. Magnificent.|
|Hiking and beach-bumming with Maria||Guatemala & Belize|
|From intense walking in the hills of western Guatemala to even more intense lazing on Belizian beaches, Maria and I did it all, and it was the absolute best. And some gin and tonics as well.|
|Getting my first tattoo||Rio de Janeiro, Brazil|
|I’d been thinking for a very long time about getting a tattoo as a symbol for this journey, and a memory. I finally went for it in my final few days in Rio de Janeiro, and got my tattoo in the most local way possible.|
|RU: Campervan trip||California & Nevada, USA|
|I, Stéphanie and Fany spent a week riding through California and Nevada in a campervan. We parked overnight at Home Depot, drove hundreds of miles from SF to Sequoia to Vegas, and it was epic.|
In all these moments that I mentioned, and all the ones I didn’t, the people I met have always played a huge role in making my experiences as memorable as they are. So to all of you I want to say thanks, and in particular to
Cyrus, Raquel, Karima, Latore, Yassin, Guilherme, Thomas, Rachel, Jamila, Ilze, Stefan, Sara, Julia, Alex, Bianca, Priscilla, Heidi, Jeroen, Anouk, Stephen, David, Stéphanie, Fany, Juan, Vane, Caoimhe, Tina, Jannik, Lieselot, Ayla, Laetitia, Anne, Antoine, Florine, Jean-Marc, Saki, Marta, Melissa, Jorrit, Alicia, Ash, Shay, Jamie, Travis, Paul, Nicoli, Guilherme, Ana, Syed/Josh, Peter, Max, James, Georgie, Francisco, Felipe, Sandra, Mitt&Sam.
I hope I'll be fortunate enough to meet at least some of you again.
It's been a tremendous year, and with this I've written my final story about it. Obviously I still exist, and so does the world, so who knows, I might post some more stories here down the line.
August 7th, 2017
Transylvania, late afternoon. The landscape is one beset with huge, forest-covered mountains, tiny villages with red-roofed houses sprinkled all throughout the valleys in between. The setting sun is reflected in the stillness of the river water, and the haze of twilight is slowly starting to overtake the sky. The scene is almost perfect, as we’re cruising through the winding mountain roads of Romania’s heartland in our fully adequate white Ford Fiesta, trusting the rented GPS to take us to our destination, a town just 70km away, just past Count Dracula’s famous castle. As I’m driving, Maria snoozing next to me, I’m reminiscing about the insane drive this day has turned out to be, on some very cool and highly dangerous roads, when suddenly, I notice the ground has turned to gravel. It starts to narrow, and before we fully realize, we’re trapped all around by tiny houses separated by even tinier roads. Tiny women are coming out to their tiny porches to look at us, and at my desperate attempts to get ourselves out of this predicament. Going back is not an option, and so with a resolve not at all warranted by the circumstances, I take aim and hit the gas hard, and we shoot up and out, tires spitting gravel, engine roaring. Almost killing one of the tiny ladies in the process. And that, in some strange way, sums up Romania quite accurately; incredibly beautiful, vast contrasts, crazy traffic situations. And tiny ladies.
I had been home a month and still not seen Maria. She was working in Norway at the time of my return, and visiting her didn’t seem to make much sense as it’d be expensive and she’d be working anyway. So instead we decided to travel to Romania for two weeks. On the cheap, bringing tent and camping gear, enabling us to also hike for part of our time. Packed to a beautiful approximation of the Wizzair luggage restrictions, we arrived in Timisoara late afternoon. I didn’t know we’d be renting a car to get around, as that had been kept expertly secret by Maria, it being my belated birthday gift. Next thing I know, we’re veering into traffic leading away from the airport, and I have my first major realization about Romania; their traffic situation is simply ridiculous. And not India or Vietnam ridiculous, because at least they don’t really have much infrastructure and it’s just general insanity, and you’d never even dream of driving there. Romania has lanes, roundabouts, traffic lights, speed limit indications, the whole nine yards. It’s just that nobody really cares about any of it. The name of the game is freestyling, and what’s even more paradoxical is that there isn’t generally any tolerance for any form of delay. Pull up half a second late, angry honking. Drive half a kilometer under the speed limit, angry honking. We decided it would be easier to just ignore all their anger, and that policy saved us many times down the road.
In general, this paradox also extended to people’s attitudes. While random strangers we met were delightfully friendly and helpful, people working in the service industry were so rude it was often hard to not laugh at the ridiculousness of their behavior. And I’ve lived in Poland. It’s not all that surprising in a country that suffered a period of brutal dictatorship by Nicolae Ceaușescu on top of decades of Communist labor philosophies. Romania to this day is not a wealthy nation, or rather a nation where wealth is very unevenly distributed. While a quarter of its population lives in poverty, the highest rate in Europe, Porches are all around, not just as a flaunting testament of the wealth of the few but also a cover for the lack thereof of many others. Someone told us a family might own an expensive Audi, but not have food on their plate or money for gas to drive it.
We made our way down to the southern Carpathian mountain range called Retezat (which, coincidentally, in Dutch means “drunk as f*ck”) for an intense four-day hike in this stunning landscape. Stark mountain slopes were rising from fairytale-like forests we passed through on our way up the foothills, slowly getting to about 2000m altitude and the mesmerizing glacial Bucura lake. Maria came up with this amazing risotto-cheese-pesto hiking meal that we cooked on our camping stove. Because we had not found anything but lamp oil to light it with anywhere in Romania, we used that and completely blackened the stove with a flame we could barely control every single time we lit it. We never lit any precious national park property on fire, but we definitely came close.
It was there, after hiking to the top of the highest mountain in the region, that I asked the most important question I’ll ever ask.
We made our way back down, and continued by car all the way through central Transylvania, over the wild and windy Transfăgărășan mountain road, elected by Top Gear as the world’s best drive. We saw the Count’s castle by night, and Sinaia’s overwhelmingly opulent stronghold the next day, before continuing on to the mandatory final few beach days, camping right next to the Romanian Black Sea.
Surrounded by what we assumed was much of the country’s relative elite, we rented beach chairs in front of fancy hotels, and brought our black-potted camping lunches along, while the artificially enhanced women and men around us were sipping champagne and smoking fat cigars. We got the last-tan-of-the-summer there and then, along with blissful afternoons and cozy evenings.
One last day in Bucharest, with a delicious, delicious meal and an equally satisfying shisha, and we’re on our way back to Timisoara, having now driven nearly 2000km. It’s been an epic two weeks, in a beautiful country and alongside the best companion I can imagine.
Travel and otherwise.
September 18th, 2017
I arrived in Copenhagen on a rainy morning in early October. Even though it had been several years since I’d last lived here, the place still felt all too familiar. Stern and symmetric buildings alternated by high-tech, futuristic designs. Clean and efficient transportation for outrageous prices. Tall and gorgeous people, all in their own little world, trying their best not to communicate or interact with anyone unfamiliar. The pinnacle of a profoundly wealthy, ultra-liberal, individualized society. An interesting place to spend the next few years of my life.
It’s curious how life can bring you back to places in ways you’d never have expected before. Even though this time my circumstances were very different. Last time I was an exchange student, this time I was unemployed and looking for a(ny) job. Last time I inhabited a tiny apartment by the northwest urban coast, now I’d be moving into a place in a rural town in the very south. Neither Maria nor I had seen the apartment we’d be living in before we’d signed the contract, so I hopped on the train with a huge suitcase and my violin, and 100km later stepped off in Vordingborg, our home for at least half a year.
Vordingborg, population 17.714. A windswept town by the sea, it’s a very scenic place indeed. Not that I’d ever heard of it before, and really the main reason we decided to live here was because of Maria’s medicine internship nearby. As I walked through the narrow streets, it occurred to me that a year of non-stop traveling all over the world ultimately had brought me to a village on the Danish countryside. And I couldn’t be more excited about it.
As you can probably understand though, arriving in one of the most expensive countries in the world without a job, almost no money and a signed rental contract is slightly stressful. Not that I hadn’t tried my best applying beforehand, but as I was slowly finding out Denmark is not an easy country to find an engineering job in, especially as an outsider. Simply getting face-to-face with anyone is next to impossible, be it employment agencies, consultants, or employers. Everything has been virtualized to such an extent that most of human interaction happens through networking and acquaintances, which as a foreigner I didn’t have too many of.
I spent the first week mostly camping in our fully unfurnished new residence, adjusting, applying, exploring Vordingborg and going for runs in the amazing nature around. Maria’s arrival a week later was very welcome, and in one incredibly intense weekend we officially moved in. Sweden was involved, and so was IKEA. Not even a few days later, you could already call our place a home. All that was left was everything else.
But then, on a bright Monday morning, an invitation from Danmarks Tekniske Universitet came in, for an interview regarding a PhD position I’d been applied for and was really interested in. Assessing Hearing Device Benefits using Virtual Sound Environments, quite a mouthful. But research titles always are. This one seemed almost made for me, and that sentiment was apparently shared by the assessors, who offered me the position on the spot. I’ll be spending the next three years at DTU, working in this absolutely badass lab, and hopefully becoming a doctor at the end of it all. “I don’t know how I feel about that doctor title” were Maria’s words.
And so, for the first time in nearly a year and a half, I’ll be regularly employed again, in probably one of the best positions I could’ve imagined. I’ll also be cold again, because winter is coming for the first time in two years. I can’t say I’ve missed it, although the coziness of the end-of-year period does make up for it somewhat.
The next few weeks we’ll continue getting settled, dealing with Danish bureaucracy, enjoying Danish pastries, drinking Danish beers, living Danish life. And then, before you know it, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and a whole new year full of ways to make the most of life.
November 3rd, 2017
Friday night, 9.30pm. It’s dark outside, it has been for over 5 hours now, and the icy wind continuously hitting us in the face feels like a slow but deliberate sandblasting treatment. There are a handful of people hastily making their way through mostly empty streets, on their way home to hide from the wind and each other. We pass a group of teenagers drinking and smoking in a parking lot, their shouting on par with their shivering, and continue along the main drag on our exploratory nightlife quest. Finally, something resembling a bar appears amidst the facade of shuttered storefronts and we enter. Inside, the bartender, three scroungy teenagers playing pool, a conversation of a threesome that is most aptly described as white trash, and a blind-drunk woman in her fifties ranting and making rounds with a bag of peanuts.
Welcome to Vordingborg.
Don’t get me wrong, Vordingbronx, as we’ve lovingly started to call our new hometown, is quite a wealthy place. And according to the usual Danish standards, that means first and foremost tidiness and cleanliness. The bay and its adjoining marina serve as an anchor point for many small and mid-sized boats, owned by locals or sailors passing through this quite scenic part of southern Denmark. There is about one store for every commodity, the houses are well-maintained, and the people mostly well-behaved. But this prosperous blandness goes hand-in-hand with a profound lack of excitement, diversity and fun.
Although, and this came as a very welcome surprise, Vordingborg has a shisha bar! It’s called King Bar and it’s absolutely magnificent. Just around our corner, it’s run by some guys from Turkmenistan, the pipes are very tasty, and the crowd is a mix of Eastern immigrants and Danes aged 17 to 21. The music is pumping, at a volume so insane I saw ripples in the water pipe bowl. Not surprisingly it’s the most vibrant place for nightlife (out of the three) I’ve encountered here, and without it this town would truly be depressing.
Not that I’m spending that much time in it these days, since the start of my PhD every day has been more busy than the one before, and combined with the longest commute of my life that means I’m not spending a whole lot of time at home. Working days start at 5am, taking the train over a hundred kilometers north into Copenhagen. Another train further north and a bus, and by 8.15am I walk onto campus. Leaving work at 5pm means not getting home before 8.30pm, and in order to get some sleep for the day after bedtime comes shortly after. I keep telling everyone declaring me insane that it’s a temporary situation until we move closer to the capital, but even after just a month I can feel the tiredness creeping into my bones. Winter in general is a gloomy time in Denmark. The sun rises at 8.30am and sets at 3.30pm for a whopping 7 hours of daylight, rain alternating strong winds and gray clouds. When people are in the street, it’s with the sole purpose of getting to another indoor destination as quickly as possible. Commuting happens in absolute silence, according to unwritten rules of conduct that are applied stringently and infractions looked upon with quiet disdain. I’ve had this little project of saying hi to at least one random an unfamiliar person a day, out of a mixture of social desperation and indirect rebellion to this state of being. Mixed results so far, but I’ll keep trying.
The good thing about starting a job in December is that you’re just in time for all the Christmas parties. And the hierarchy of a university means that there are many. Faculty, department, research group, student association,… Quite an ideal way to be introduced to many people from the get-go. And the Danes take their Julefrokost seriously. The food is plentiful and delicious, beer and wine flowing freely and continuously. And that’s how you find yourself suddenly joking around with faculty administrator, splitting beers with an associate professor, dancing to 80’s hits with the group’s head professor and realizing he’s got far better moves than you do. Missing the last train home and heading out into the meatpacking district in Copenhagen to party until 6am. Falling asleep on the first train and missing your stop causing you to end up on a different island. Having to wait another hour in the freezing cold to catch one back and realizing that Maria is on it returning from a night shift at the hospital.
All craziness aside, I’m truly enjoying being back in an academic environment. Although most of my activities have revolved around getting administration in order, dealing with planning and setting up frameworks, you can sense the creative and collaborative mood all around. The informal yet professional attitude, the abundance of knowledge and scientific mindset, the youthful scene set by students everywhere. I’m feeling a borderline unhealthy eagerness to do everything all at once, and take in every piece of information I can, to an extent I haven’t experienced in a while. As amazing as long-time traveling is, it lacks opportunities to be this intensily involved in a complex and difficult pursuit. And seeing the value of that is just as important as acknowledging what wandering can teach you.
The year is drawing to a close, and it’s been quite a ride. Although 2018 won’t contain the same amount of adventure (that would be very difficult), I’m excited for what is to come. It’s the beginning of a new chapter, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, only time will tell where it will lead.
Happy Christmas, and see you in 2018 :)
December 21st, 2017
The air was crisp and thick, the sunlight overwhelming and unrelenting. Night inside my head had become day everywhere else. The world felt unchanged, yet strangely different, like a parallel universe that had diverged from the former one only very recently. People were people and cars were cars, but the people acted sunny and the cars drove on the other side. The face in the moon was turned on its head, and the constellations were new and exotic. I felt, on every level, that down was up and up was down, and that the only way to proceed was to simply follow the rabbit hole, into the world down under.
We landed in Sydney in a blood-red, hazy twilight after 20 hours of airplane time, including the longest flight of my life of over 14 hours. Covering a distance of nearly 20000 kilometers in just a day doesn’t feel in any way natural, and the jetlag it incurs is crushing. I’ve always enjoyed bragging that jetlag doesn’t affect me, that I am somehow able to adjust my biorhythm to any time zone change. Well, I’m happy to report that I am very much like everyone else when it comes to literally flipping the day around. Luckily, Maria and I were staying at Bondi Beach, the world-famous surfer’s beach that encourages sleeping and lazing through the day.
Those first days were turbulent, as we also needed to arrange a place to live in Sydney in just 48h hours. We found a lovely top-floor apartment in a shared house just off the north shore beach of Manly and met Karen who received us incredibly kindly into her garden paradise that we’ll be lucky to call home from January onwards. It seems like I’ll need to get used to those pesky after-work surfing sessions…
The actual December destination however wasn’t Australia, but even further down and more under. New Zealand is a country whose mysterious appeal speaks to the imagination of many. It’s about as far as one can get away from Europe before getting closer again. Made famous by featuring in the best-regarded fantasy trilogy of the last century, it carries a rich history of indigenous population and Western settlement. I was surprised to learn that the earliest human inhabitants of the island nation arrived only 800 years ago, in the form of sea-faring Polynesian explorers on massive canoes capable of crossing the open ocean between places like Tahiti and Hawaii. The Maori natives established themselves all over the north and south islands of Aotearoa (NZ), only to be rediscovered 600 year later by Captain Cook, a British explorer who was actually looking for Terra Australis. Where have we heard that before…
New Zealand got its Western name through a pre-Cook Dutch expedition, relating it back to the southern Dutch province of Zeeland. Having lived next to the latter for most of my life and having only been in the former for little over a week, I can already say that Z and NZ have almost nothing in common except their name. Auckland on the north island may be the lushest modern city I have encountered, with massive trees, palms and wild flowers shooting out of the ground all around, heavily scented and encouraged to grow by the year-long mild climate. It’s an eclectic place, a mix-and-match between steely American high-rises, wooden colonial mansions, and everything in between. Spread out over multiple peninsulas and permeated by water all around, it’s a breezy, liberal and easy-going metropolis.
The degree of indigenous integration into society is noticeable by the bilingual (Maori/English) public signs and many other subtleties all around. It is said that NZ is one of the more successful stories of harmonious cohabitation between natives and settlers following Western Imperialism. However, learning about the first treaties between Maori chiefs and Western emissaries that decided on matters such as individual governance and sovereignty, it is almost comically clear that the superior might of the British Empire would tolerate no significant movements for true independence and statehood.
The birthplace of New Zealand, where both the Polynesians-Maori and Captain Cook first arrived, is called the Bay of Islands, and it’s where we headed next. About 200km north of Auckland, it’s… a bay with islands. But that’s where ordinary comparisons end. This northern archipelago is a sailor’s and swimmers paradise, with hundreds of beaches hidden away across dozens of large and small islands, reachable by boat, paddleboard or kayak. Like any northerner arriving to a tropical beach destination, getting the tan was high on the list of priorities. But tanning down under is different as well. The reduced thickness of the ozone layer means that the sun’s radiation is vastly more potent. You can almost feel the tingle of alpha radiation seeping into your skin while lying in the sand. To avoid the Chernobyl tan, factor 30 doesn’t cut it. Factors 50+ are commonplace, and 20 or below is not even sold. I realized that complaining about the sun being too powerful when coming from Denmark in winter is not going to be sympathized with very much, just saying, island life can be hard as well.
We spent nearly a week here, swimming, eating good food, taking an amazing trip on a sailboat called “She’s a Lady” with a fantastic skipper who showed us around the islands, spotting tropical fish and penguins along the way! We rented a twin kayak and paddled between tiny islands looking for secluded beaches. I had the brilliant plan to launch my drone from the kayak mid-sea and fly it while Maria was paddling in the rear, resulting in an almost instantaneous seagull attack on the drone and the boat. Lesson 3 in flying class: trying to land a 30cm drone in the palm of your hand, on open seas, while sitting in a bumpy kayak that has birds swarming around and snapping at your head and at the paddle Maria is using to defend us…. It was quite the achievement that we didn’t end up in the water, and a near miracle that the drone didn’t either.
So we’ve come out of the gate strong. Over the next few weeks it’s onward and downward across the north island, renting a car and driving it on the left (!), to explore some of the many treasures this Middle Earth has to offer.
December 13th, 2019
It was a bright and sunny afternoon as we drove through the rolling green hills that make up Matamata’s landscape, on our way to one of the most famous fictional towns in cinematic history. As an avid fan of the Lord of the Rings saga, and a geeky teenager at the time Peter Jackson’s trilogy was filmed in New Zealand, I had been looking forward to this particular day ever since we first decided to come down. And so it was that almost exactly eighteen years after first being introduced to the barefooted little Hobbits and their holes, I myself walked into the Shire.
Well, myself, Maria and the 25 photo-crazed, selfie-stick-wielding package tourists that made up our tour group. This is after all the most popular tourist destination of New Zealand, and everyone wants to show that they’ve been. Granted, I was mostly annoyed by them being in the way of my own photo ops. That being said, visiting Hobbiton is a 100% worthwhile activity. The painstakingly restored Hobbit holes, herb gardens, gorgeous flower displays lining tiny picket fences,… it’s beautiful from start to finish. You get to pass through Gandalf’s cutting, stand beneath the imposing oak party tree, and push the famous fence at Bag End (“No entrance, except on party business!”). It all ends with a complimentary Shire beer inside the Green Dragon Inn at the far end of the bridge, before returning home. Some people call the whole thing a franchised commercialization aimed solely at turning a profit, and I’m sure that’s valid. However, for me, being given the opportunity to actually see and touch a piece of fantasy pop culture, and a vivid childhood memory at that… priceless.
Back in the real world, New Zealand offers yet another type of landscape in the form of the vulcanic regions surrounding the massive lake (and former caldera) at Taupo and surrounding cities of Rotorua and Tauranga. It is known for its natural sulphur and alkali thermal pools sourced from subterranean boiling lakes, which are of great therapeutic benefit for all types of ailments, as well as just being supremely calming to chill in. Which is what we did during days of bad weather, and in anticipation of scaling the most famous North Island mountain pass, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The Tongariro Crossing is essentially a walk along the skirts of an active volcano, with scalding rivers and fumes rising from the earth. Given the recent disaster at White Island, we were a little hesitant at first to go through with it, but the experience was in every sense of the word otherworldly. Early in the morning, it’s a steep climb up the Devil’s Staircase to a misty burnt plateau. Through the clouds and jagged rocks you can start to see the slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe, desolate and covered in grey-brown volcanic rocks. Used as the location for Mount Doom, it lives up to that reputation and then some. That particular morning the windchill was reaching -8C at the Red Crater, the icy winds blowing over the narrow ridge that marked the highest point of the crossing. Ducking and carefully scrambling over loose gravel, on a 2m-wide path with steep drops on either side, you eventually reach the bright-green Emerald Lakes. Spooky and smelly, they are the mysterious proof of the subterranean unrest. The trail continues past the alkali-infused Blue Lake, setting the scene for a mesmerizing lunch spot. After that, it’s slowly downward through warming hills covered in vegetation. The hike measures 19,7km, or 7 hours and is considered the most spectacular single-day hike in the world. With my limited experience, I full-heartedly agree.
We were getting from place to place by rental car, a tiny Mazda 3 with ridiculously low mileage and ridiculously loud acceleration. Driving on New Zealand’s narrowly winding and warping roads is challenging, not only because of often steep inclines and sharp bends, but also because you drive on the left side of the road. Which we had never done before, but nervously embraced and got used to surprisingly quickly (with the odd traffic rule navigational crisis between Maria and I). Accelerating to overtake a truck on a single-lane mountain road with a Mazda 3 feels a lot like trying to reach top speed with a bumper car at a fun fair. You press your foot into the floor as hard as you can, the car reacts after about 5 seconds, you shoot off at a sky-high rpm, and you feel like this vehicle should never be let onto the actual road. We drove over 1500km with our bumper car without bumping it once, from Auckland to Matamata, on to Rotorua and Tongariro, and ultimately to the main hiking event of the trip: a 4-day trek around the misty lake Waikaremoana.
Multiple-day treks mean packing and carrying all necessary food, camping stove with gas, sleeping gear and necessary clothing. No tents because we were sleeping in barebones trekking huts along the trail. A beautiful but intense few days, away from cellular reception and surrounded by lush jungle, on one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks. Although this particular one should perhaps be renamed the Wet Walk. It rained pretty much non-stop for 3 out of 4 days, mudding out the trail almost entirely. The day walks of 12km on average were hard because of this, but the prospect of a dry hut heated by firewood in the evenings helped. We celebrated Christmas Eve here in utmost peace, eating freeze-dried lamb with mashed potatoes and warm apple pie by the fire, topped off with a few sips of aged Single Malt. I gave Maria a camping cookbook to spice up our future treks, she gave me green contact lenses to spice up my future looks. Although far away from home and family, I couldn’t have asked for a sweeter 24th. I will however ask for a drier 25th next year, as the rain soaked us yet again from head to toe that day. Arriving to the final hut on the last night, the clouds lifted and we felt the sun streaming over the water and our faces. Almost as if nature was rewarding us for having made it through, we could now relax and enjoy a final evening away from it all, before taking a landing craft back across the lake the next morning.
An epic drive back to Auckland and night bus ride later, we got to my final stop of the journey. Wellington, or the windy city, greeted us in just this way. We spent our last few days together relaxing, walking around, getting cool in the hipster vibe that characterizes much of the nightlife there, and getting geeky taking a tour of Weta Workshops, the company famous for creating the cinematic world of Lord of the Rings. I was returning to Sydney just in time for New Year’s Eve while Maria would continue onward to the South Island.
I was reluctant to have to return, yet excited about the new year ahead. SydNYE did not disappoint, keywords including rooftop pool party, full harbor fireworks views, and happy people all around. And so here we are. The year is 2020, I’m 30 years old and I’ll be living and working in Australia for the next half year! Life could definitely be less exciting.
Happy New Year!
January 4th, 2020
It’s my last day here today. I’m thinking back to all that has happened in my life over the last six months. Things have not gone according to plan, in fact quite literally the opposite. I like to think that my travel experiences over the years have made me more resilient in adapting to changing circumstances and tackling the curves and bumps in the road ahead. It turns out that nothing can quite prepare you for complete and utter global upheaval, all you can do is find acceptance, perspective, positivity. I have to some extent accepted what has come to pass, and gained new perspectives along the way. Some very positive and others less so. Above all, I have discovered within myself a new appreciation for the raw beauty and potential of the life that each of us is here to live. And that will always be my memory of Australia.
It’s funny how time seems to compress and expand according to the meaning of its content and the eye of the observer. I find myself becoming more and more peacefully nostalgic looking back, rather than constantly anticipating what’s next. Attempting to hold on to moments and memories, which keep piling up as life passes, has never mattered to me more. Realizing what truly matters, who truly matters, building my present upon the strongest and brightest bricks of the past. Using the power of a mindful mind to be in the moment and fully absorb what the world around me has to offer. And knowing that feeling comfortable in a healthy physical body is an essential part of that.
There might not be a better place to come to terms with these insights than the insanely beautiful country that is Australia. Despite lockdowns and travel restrictions, I still managed to explore some of its plentiful natural wonders. Maria and I went on an impromptu apocalyptic campervan road trip from Sydney to Cairns, skirting border closures, social distancing in our cozy containment and managing increasingly sparse overnight hospitality. We found ourselves completely alone on spectacular beaches, hiking lush rainforests and cruising along gorgeous, vast expanses of Australian coastline. We saw wild giant lizards, deadly spiders, eucalyptus-eating koalas, kangaroos with their joeys, poisonous snakes, jurassic birds, rainbow-colored parrots, as well as a few humans.
Australian humans are generally great. I had always wondered whether the extroverted, enthusiastic, party-loving, booze-binging walking Australian backpacker cliché I’d come to know and love abroad would carry over to the homeland. And to some extent it does, despite the general nanny-state approach the country has to public behavior and the abundance of rules and regulations. People are extremely polite, open-hearted and talkative. Society is hyper-modern, publicly open-minded yet steeped in Anglo-Saxon traditions. There is a lot of dark history, mostly related to the colonization efforts by the British and the discrimination and abuse of the indigenous Aboriginal population. Their unfathomable 40.000-year history provides yet another perspective on time and the meaning of a human lifespan. Though traces of their world remain, everyday life is marked by staples of prosperity and spaciousness that characterize the Western new world. Massive pick-up trucks guzzle gas, imposing skyscrapers mark city skylines, consumption is king and money its mistress. Life is good in Australia, exotic and foreign in some ways but familiar and comfortable in most others. A place where most people are generational immigrants, it’s no wonder that people come from all over to start a new chapter in their lives here. My chapter has been brief, but I don’t regret starting it.
University life has not been university life since by the time I got settled on my new campus, it had to shut. Work life has not been work life because the experiment I was able to set up never got carried out, and setbacks have been pretty much constant after that. But through all of this, having Maria be here with me for most of the time made these aspects pale in significance compared to the quality and positivity in my personal, actual life. We lived in a peaceful, communal house hosted by Karen, an artist and extremely generous person. The ocean was 5 minutes away, along with Manly beach, one of the most famed Australian surf spots. We had sanctuary there to explore our life and our love together, and to keep expanding the horizons beyond which we continue to find profound and exciting new ways to navigate our unique bond. This summer will mark thirteen years since we first met, and my feelings for her are only ever growing.
So with utmost sincerity, I believe that life remains quite unbelievably exciting, not only despite but perhaps also because of the setbacks that have come along. Every cloud has a silver lining, but only when the sun is shining through. Call me naïve (pun intended), but that may be the best way to deal with the challenges that each and everyone of us have been facing, and will continue to have to deal with for the foreseeable future. To attempt to find acceptance, perspective and a positive outlook.
I hope for myself that I will continue to be able to fulfill these intentions as I return home to Europe, home to the final stretch of a stressful yet rewarding PhD degree, home to my family and my friends, home to my love, home to my violin, home to the next chapter in my life.
July 2nd, 2020