Seven months ago I walked down a beach and into the Atlantic Ocean. That wouldn’t have been very exciting, had I not walked 865km across northern Spain to get there. That beach, in the small town of Finisterre, was where the road and my Camino ended. It’s taken this long to process the experience, and put fingers to keyboard to explain what it meant to me.
Unlike many who walk the Camino de Santiago, I wasn’t looking for an epiphany. I wasn’t recovering from a messy divorce, had a health scare or sudden death in the family. I wasn’t suffering from a crisis of faith, or a midlife one, and I hadn’t just been laid off from my job. Instead, my thought process was much simpler than that. I’m turning 40. I want a challenge. I’m in Spain. Let’s walk.
There’s a saying amongst pilgrims, though. The Camino provides. It gives you what you need, whether you know it or not. Sometimes that need is physical — food when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty, a bed when you’re tired — but sometimes it’s more than that.
It also gives you time, and space. Spending six, eight, ten hours a day moving slowly across an enormous landscape, week after week, gets the brain working in unfamiliar ways. The Camino provided me the opportunity to think, to reflect, to meditate, free of distractions and complications beyond my immediate needs.
I didn’t have many expectations from my walk, and wanted to just let the experience turn out as it would.
So how did it turn out?Continue Reading →
Back in September, I completed one of the most challenging and satisfying experiences of my life. In a little over a month I walked from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small French town at the base of the Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostela and onward to Finisterre on Spain’s Atlantic coast. These routes, the Camino Frances and Camino Finisterre, are part of a vast network of medieval pilgrim paths across Europe collectively known as the Camino de Santiago.
I’ll write plenty more about the experience in the future, but wanted to devote one post solely to the gear I took — exactly what I chose to take and leave behind, and how well those choices worked over the course of my five week walk.Continue Reading →
I turn 40 next month.
Forty years on this big ball of rock. It’s been a hell of a ride so far.
In my early twenties, I thought I knew exactly what life had in store for me. Of course, I didn’t have a clue back then — and I still don’t. Approaching my fifth decade, I have little more certainty about anything than I did in my second. Some people would struggle with that, but oddly, I find it comforting. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, and I don’t want to.
My current ideas for next April, for instance, see me simultaneously in New Zealand, Guatemala and Portugal. 2016 could see me settling in Spain, or wandering from beach to beach around Central America, or something else entirely. Hell, just today Lauren and I talked about visiting the Maldives, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India or Myanmar later this year, and as usual, ended up making no decision at all.
Right now, there’s really only one thing I know for sure.
A little under a month from now, early in the morning, my alarm is going to go off in a little French town at the base of the Pyrenees. I’ll get dressed in a hurry, throw my backpack over my shoulders, and quietly let myself out the door. Looking up at the mountains, I’ll pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and slowly start walking down the road to Spain.
And I won’t stop until October.Continue Reading →
I’d had no plans to go to Taiwan.
It’s not like I had anything against the country. It’s just that, like most other Westerners, I knew little about it. As a tech geek, I was aware many of my gadgets were made there — but even for me, a tour of the Asus factory didn’t seem a compelling reason to visit. If it wasn’t for Lauren, I probably wouldn’t have gone there at all.
She’d spent five weeks there a couple of years earlier, and just couldn’t shut up about the place. As in, every time someone asked what her favourite country was, the reply was instant and vocal. “TAIWAN!!!”, she’d shout. I could almost see the exclamation marks, hanging there in the air with a faint hint of accusation that not only had I never been, the country wasn’t even on my radar.
So, when a direct flight from Yangon showed up as we were figuring out where to go after Myanmar, I couldn’t resist.It was time to swap rickety buses for shiny metro stations, mohinga for dumplings and glacial Wi-Fi for some of the fastest speeds I’ve ever seen.
First stop: Taipei.Continue Reading →
The fog was finally starting to burn off as we rolled into Shwe Nyaung, scrunched up in a minibus without another foreigner in sight. Colourful woven blankets had kept the chill out for everyone else, but we’d had to opt instead for every item of clothing we owned. All the way down from Kalaw, the cold mountain air barely got a chance to heat up before the door was thrown open to let someone else out, or pluck a small family from the side of the road. I got very familiar with the sight of my own breath.
At least a dozen backpackers had got out of our bus from Bagan a few days earlier, but none had joined us on the van ride to Inle Lake. A three day trek was the preferred method, but with Lauren still fighting bouts of mono, we’d opted for the motorised option instead. A few dollars had got us to the intersection with the main road, some light-hearted negotiation and a few more notes got us the rest of the way to Nyuang Shwe in a taxi. We could have saved a bit by waiting for a shared pickup to fill up, but with just one night in town before we headed back to Yangon, time mattered in a way it hadn’t during the rest of our time in Myanmar. We needed to get moving — and the first item on the agenda was breakfast.Continue Reading →
“Not like that!!”
I yelled again, drawing a raised eyebrow from the elderly couple walking past. “Lauren! Slow down!”
Seconds earlier she’d been alongside me, the pair of us standing awkwardly astride the least-comfortable electric bicycles in the world discussing how they worked. Now, she was hurtling along the rutted dirt alongside a busy road, bouncing out of control towards a cluster of nearby trees. I’d envisaged spending our time in Bagan cruising along deserted trails, finding out-of-the-way spots to explore empty temples for a few days. Now a trip to the nearest hospital seemed more likely. I had a feeling the architects of this ancient kingdom hadn’t been big on wheelchair access.
Screeching to a halt in a cloud of dust and tears, a dejected figure slumped forward over the rickety basket. “See? I told you I didn’t know how to ride a bike properly!”
In that moment, it was hard to argue. Were we destined to walk or take taxis everywhere, I wondered? Or even worse, be confined to one of the enormous tour buses that rumbled past every few minutes?
I seriously hoped not… but what other options were there?Continue Reading →
It took far longer than it should.
I’ve been talking about going to Myanmar for years. I remember listening to Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet fame talk about the country at a travel writing expo in 2010, explaining in typically blunt terms why independent travellers should visit the country regardless of politics and conventional wisdom. By the end of his speech I knew I’d go there, but a procession of excuses and changed plans meant it was over four years until I finally did. In that time, the Myanmar of Wheeler’s experience changed almost beyond recognition.
The bulky generators on the streets of Yangon remain largely silent, power now a semi-reliable commodity in the country’s biggest city. In a nation largely cut off from the outside world for decades, Internet access — while still cripplingly slow most of the time — is readily available in the tourist hotspots. Locals openly talk about life under military rule in a way I doubt they would have in the past. Tour buses and a steady stream of backpackers now fill streets that were largely devoid of foreigners. The trains are as slow and bumpy as ever, but VIP buses ply the route between Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake on upgraded roads with a surprising degree of comfort. Hotel prices have escalated rapidly, traveller lore suggesting they now provide some of the worst accommodation value in the region.
As a result, Lauren and I didn’t quite know what to expect from our time in the country, and decided to opt for a short, two-week visit to get a sense of what was on offer. If we didn’t like it, if it just wasn’t for us, we didn’t have to spend long there. In, out, tick, done.
Not so much.Continue Reading →
Sri Lanka. Empty beaches and crowded cities. Terraced tea plantations and wild jungles. Elephants and leopards, whales and monkeys, friendly people and incredible food. Ignored by travellers during two decades of civil conflict, tourism is only now starting to reappear on this teardrop-shaped island off the bottom of India.
While package tours are popular,they’re far from the only way to see the best of what the country has to offer. I spent three weeks travelling independently around the southern and central parts of the island by bus, train and tuk-tuk, and the experience put Sri Lanka firmly near the top of my list of favourite destinations.
If you’re considering budget travel in Sri Lanka, here’s what you need to know.Continue Reading →