Third Time’s a Charm
My most memorable travel experience must be during my most recent trip to what I consider the most beautiful island in the Philippines, Coron. Coron is a town in Palawan which is located in the middle portion of the country. Palawan being a world-renowned place for its natural beauty especially with its flora and fauna has become the face of the Philippines and has been popular with tourists, locals and foreigners alike. Coron has so much to offer and always give the island vibe making you feel like you’re in paradise. From above, it is surrounded by clear turquoise waters and stunning limestone formations while below, it is rich in different species of sea creatures of different sizes and colors. I was born and raised in Bataan, a province near Manila and not anywhere near most of the beautiful islands in the country so visiting these islands almost always require booking a plane and applying for a leave.
My first two visits to Coron were in 2012 and 2015. In both times, the weather was not in our favor. During my first visit, the rain was so bad but we pursued the island tours and the rain just didn’t stop. We were very disappointed since we didn’t get to see the beauty of the islands. In my second visit, the weather was a little better but still very cloudy. We got to see the beauty of Coron and I was actually surprised that the water was still blue even with the sun hiding behind the clouds. I just told myself that, like love, maybe it was not meant to be.
This year, I decided to still give it a try. I could’ve visited other beautiful places in the country but Coron is just at the top of my list and I couldn’t bear the idea of not experiencing its full awesomeness. So I planned a visit with my colleague whom I share the same interest in travel and photography.
Come June 2017, I still remember the fulfillment that I felt when I got there. The whole trip was filled with blue skies making the islands so enchanting and it was like I was there for the first time. The limestone formations were more stunning, and the electric turquoise waters were more compelling. Even the underwater scene was mesmerizing. The sun was lighting up all the corals and the fishes that watching them felt like being in an episode of National Geographic. Everything was picture perfect. The whole experience left me in awe. Coron was there to prove something to me. It was there to prove that this time, it was meant to be. Third time’s definitely a charm.
Our 4x4 listed slowly back and forth like a dinghy riding a never ending ocean of sand. The deep channels which made up the final kilometres of the 'road' to Sossusvlei seemed as ominous to me as any tidal swell with all of the silent, surging power. I clutched the dash board and prayed that we would get to the end of the track without grounding. At 7am the heat was already nearing thirty degrees, getting stuck was not an option. We had woken well before dawn to make the journey from our lodge to the national park entrance. Once inside scrubby desert soon gave way to smooth drifts of sand, modest at first but as each kilometre fell away the scales became inconceivably immense, the gargantuan triangles reared up from the flat plain of the Namib like great sleeping beasts, their sinuous spines creating deep swathes of shadow, a dramatic contrast to the sun-drenched eastern faces. The dunes here are some of the largest on earth with 'Big Daddy' purportedly the highest in Sosseusvlei, making a bid for its summit irresistible for the daring, or darn right stupid. Once we had limped our way into the parking area we thanked the treacherous road conditions for the adrenaline rush it had afforded us, it would certainly help with the climb to the forbidding peak. Parched wafers of earth crumbled under our feet as we padded along the cracked clay pan ominously titled 'Deadvlei', home to the most photogenic group of dead trees on earth. The knarly, black branches of the ancient camel thorns fingered an azure blue sky. They once enjoyed life in a verdant river valley now cut off from any source of water by the march of the great dunes, blown west over years to fall into the Atlantic, engulfing everything in their path. Beyond the pan the flat, easy going conditions abruptly gave way to sand and our unforgiving ascent began. Yesterday's footsteps had been blown away over night leaving tantalisingly pristine ridges and smooth faces of virgin sand. The climb to the top was worth the lung-burning effort. We stood ankle-deep in warm sand, the great dunes falling away from beneath us in dynamic peaks and troughs, reaching out to infinity in every direction. Their hues ranging from purest gold to the most burnt sienna. The colours, heat and contrasting textures of sand, pan and sky were overwhelming. Fortunately there was no painstaking descent for us as, senses sated, we merely stepped off the peak and slipped through the shifting sand all the way to the bottom.
To my newest old friend
Now that I returned, I want to tell you how special this journey was. From the first message we exchanged, I knew this would be so much more than a simple trip. I completely abandoned my comfort zone, trusted my intuition and discovered Iran through your eyes. The 3380 Miles that separate us don’t mean a thing, for now you live in my heart as the truly exceptional friend I felt you were, long before we met in person that night at Isfahan airport.
From the magnificent mosques and palace in Naqsh-e Jahan Square, in Isfahan, to that wonderful day in your parent’s farmhouse in Padena, I felt blessed to have shared this unforgettable experience with you. Both of us being, as you call it, “emotional February man”, I soon realized we share a common way of experiencing things.
I shall never forget how you welcomed me to your home, making me feel like I belong. The genuine kindness of your entire family was truly overwhelming. Oh, and I must tell you… I promise next time I visit Iran I will wear the slippers before entering the toilet. I will never forget how horrified your mother was when I broke that Muslim rule and you were waiting for me, glued to the toilet door at your sister’s house, panic stamped on your face! Luckily, I was wearing my socks and I could remove them to solve the problem.
And that Persian wedding of that cousin of yours was really something! I remember that night someone asked me to describe Iran in one word, and I replied with a big smile on my face: “colourful”.
Speaking of which… that morning at the Pink Mosque, in Shiraz, as the first rays of sun entered the stained glass and the room was flooded with a multitude of colours… all it took was a look at each other’s eyes to realize how magical that moment was to the both of us. We left Shiraz with such good memories… Eram Garden, the tombs of Saadi and Hafez, Qavam Garden and, of course, Persepolis.
And I will never forget our absurdly fast-paced taxi rides. Whether crossing the busy streets of the cities, the immense deserts or the impressive Dena Mountains, what fun we had! How we managed to run over only one chicken on the way was a miracle! And that taxi driver who, amidst all the usual Ronaldo’s fans, read Saramago’s “Blindness”? Truly remarkable!
I’m so glad to have met you, I felt like our friendship existed forever. Traveling with our heart does make a journey so much more meaningful. Thank you so much for turning this big world into such a small one!
Just Fuego And Me
I wake sometime after midnight from an uneasy sleep. The temperature inside the tent has crept above zero degrees, thanks to the collective body heat of six people lying shoulder-to-shoulder. There is condensation building on the inside walls. I really don’t want to leave the tent, but eventually my bladder drives me out into the ice-cold darkness.
When you are camped out at 3,200 meters on the side of an expired volcano south of the Guatemalan Highlands, words such as outdoors, nature or even night-time take on a different meaning.
The clouds have dispersed, leaving behind an opaque sky and the Milky Way. It spreads out above me like a giant blanket which somebody has thrown over the curvature of the earth. I resist the impulse to reach out for a touch. In this moment of absolute stillness, I am awash with a feeling of proximity which is both comforting and unnerving. Out here, up here, nature plays out on a scale which dwarfs everything I know.
A soft rumble fills the air. I squint. Ahead of me, Volcán de Fuego, the Volcano of Fire, lies in darkness, its pitch-black outlines visible against the star-studded sky. Fuego is the reason we are here, why we spent six strenuous hours climbing its taller sibling, Acatenango. Fuego has been active for hundreds of years. In 2012, its eruptions were so severe, authorities evacuated 33,000 people from the area.
I gingerly pick my way past the smouldering remains of the camp fire and head for a secluded spot not far from the tents. The cold is so fierce it scratches over my naked skin. Soon my stiff fingers fumble to re-organise the many layers of clothing when I catch a movement from the corner of my eye.
Fuego is awake. And there is lava.
A crimson fan has spread out over the crater as chunks of molten rock shoot up into the sky in slow motion. Gravity eventually takes hold and the lava rains down on the slopes, accentuating the outlines of the volcano. The soft rumble wafts over again and it’s the only audible noise to come from this force of nature – as if added sound would somehow distract from the visual, almost graceful, spectacle.
I stand transfixed for what seems like an eternity. Only when I’m sure the eruption is over, I reluctantly head back to the tent. I need to get back to sleep. In just a few hours we will attempt to scale the summit, to catch the sun rising over the Guatemalan highlands, and to catch Fuego spewing ashes and lava once more.
The Grand Boulderpest Hotel
“If we make it to the first hut by 4pm, we will keep going.” Mistake number one. We made it at 3:58pm. Never make a deal with time because nature won’t play along. It was my second attempt at trekking to Mitre Peak, the highest peak in New Zealand’s Tararua Range. On my first attempt I turned back after reaching the treeline to find dark clouds caressing the ridge and a relentless wind with a force that could resuscitate a breathless body. This time it was going to take serious warning signs to turn me back. Except this time I wasn’t alone. As I stood at the treeline for a second time, I assessed the grey clouds hesitating behind the mountains and the wind gently rustling the shrubs. I turned to Peter and we both agreed to keep going. Mistake number two. My stubbornness blinded me from seeing the warning signs from the clouds and the time on my watch ticking towards 5:30 pm. Less than 4 hours of daylight. The higher we climbed the thicker the clouds and fog enclosed us. “Peter walk faster!” I continued to yell through the fog. The wind came in powerful bursts that brought me to my knees for stability. We walked on and yet we were going nowhere. Only a few meters could be seen before us, darkness was falling along with a spitting rain, the wind was wailing, and the trail ceased to exist. Fear and panic started to rise as the sun settled behind the mountains. We had to make a choice. If we tried to find the hut, we might get lost. If we slept on the mountain, we would be at nature’s will. A survival mode I never knew existed kicked in and made the decision for us. “We need to call for help and find shelter.”. To our fortune, we were on a small peak with cell service and a few large boulders that could provide enough shelter from the wind and rain. We found an overhanging rock that would become our home for the night. After Search and Rescue was contacted and our location found, our anxieties eased. “Hang tight, we’ll get you in the morning,” they said. We put on every layer of clothing we had, wedged between rock and soil and zipped our sleeping bags with trembling fingers. The reality of our situation sunk in and an absurd sensation came over us. Laughter. Uncontrollable laughter stemming from our nerves, but laughter nonetheless. I will never forget that sleepless night or the friend who shared the cold with me. To be exposed to nature’s will reminded us of the power she possesses and to never underestimate her swiftly changing currents. Humbling it was.
It’s ironic that human mind strives for abundance and yet we are in awe of desolation. Beneath my feet lies a lifeless and silent world of twisted shapes and porous wrinkles. A lava field stretches up to the horizon of the planet I cease to recognise. It is the base of Tolbachik — a large volcano on Kamchatka peninsula. Forty years ago a great eruption flooded this place with streams of fire. The valley of the shadow of death. Or am I being too poetic?
The top of Flat Tolbachik grins with pointy rocks ten thousand feet above the sea level. I like the challenge. However this isn’t about me anymore.
I turn around to see the girl step out of the SUV. She humbles the unearthly landscape with subtle grace. I reach for my pocked to make sure it’s contents is still there. It will be disclosed soon, but first we reach the peak.
The path curls across the hills of boiled metal that bristles with sharp edges at the intruders as if craving revenge for the unfinished conquest. I climb a lava hump and focus my camera. The structure cracks and sends me flying to sharp rocks. Not the first time I choose between saving myself or the equipment. I prefer the letter. Occupational hazard.
Rough blades pierce garment and bite into flesh. Next moment She darts towards me, digging an aid kit from the back pack. “Wanna return to the SUV?”. Ah, the temptation… But I never turn back. Besides, this isn’t about me anymore. She doesn’t know yet.
We trail a desert of black sand, then conquer the icy slopes. Cold air is punctured with dots that look like snowflakes. They are in fact tiny flies. My leg is soaking the trousers with blood. But the only important thing is that She is still here. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.
Finally, our group climbs over the muzzle walls. I take Her by the hand: “Can we talk?”. We move to a narrow ridge. The girl glances at me inquiringly. I don’t need cliche promises that She’ll follow me to the edge of the world. For She already did. Only one question remains…
I bow my knee and pull a box out of the pocket. Its cover flies, revealing a diamond ring.
Without a dough or inner strife
I ask you: will you my wife?
Thick clouds engulf us in cocoon of silence, where time freezes. She lets surprise sink in and gives me a happy smile. The world goes on. And though it’s time to go back down the mountain, I see only one way for both of us — ascension.
When I arrived on the train station platform, the fresh morning breeze had already long vanished. I was loaded up like a mule and hadn't had a wink of sleep in the last twenty hours. I was only longing for one thing: rest. But once on the train I realised that was wishful thinking as the packed coach was more like a barnyard full of cackling hens and barking dogs. The next thing I knew I was pressed between a chattering little girl and a mother with a crying toddler, and then a chicken fell into my lap! What on earth was I doing here, 6,000 miles away from Toronto where my best friend had offered me a terrific job in his father's firm and a weekend cottage on a lake – a perfect Canadian summer. A cacophony of loud voices started to swirl around me as I tried, eyes shut, to block them out one by one.... I went back in time to my grand mother’s bedside as she told me how important it was to her that I visit the family’s native land in China to learn more about my roots and my 'real' self. In the background I could hear an old Chinese lullaby she used to sing.... I felt something as soft as a feather touching my knee while my head was comfortably nestled on some cosy shoulder. The gentle song resonated through me, cradling me into a warm haze. I opened one eye to see the infant's face, now angel-like on his mother's lap, his blanket gently tickling my leg, and the little girl smiling at me. Looking around, I discovered the other passengers were also staring at me with the same smiling expression. If I stayed any longer leaning on the young mother's shoulder, the whole train would be making fun of me. Embarrassed, I sat up and looked out the window. From the height of the sun —as well as the grumble of my belly— I could tell it was well past noon. When I looked back inside, I discovered that the family had taken out a whole feast: watermelon, mangos, meat buns, and even tea! They had obviously been starving for hours, waiting for me to wake up to share their meal. They were soon eager to start a conversation, no doubt expecting that from my looks and my ability to say "xiexie" (thank you), I would be fluent. I took out some pictures of my family and my grandmother and stuttered a few village names in Chinese. We laughed at our desperate attempts to understand each other in a warm casual atmosphere that reminded me so much of my family. For the first time abroad I felt at home.
That Time I Was Sick in the Desert
In hindsight, it’s incredibly interesting to me how many restaurants in San Pedro de Atacama have fish on their menu. San Pedro is located in the middle of the highest, driest desert on Earth, the closest ocean being several hundred kilometers away through winding mountain roads (and this is South America, refrigeration and OSHA standards are not exactly a priority). This is my view in hindsight. My reflection came while I was laying in a run-down hospital bed, a hospital without soap or a functioning light in the bathroom, a hospital without a doctor. A laminated poster hung on the wall identifying human anatomy. The room smelled like glass cleaner and was so cold I could see my breath. I was waiting for the IV fluid to replenish my severely dehydrated body.
The series of events that led me to that hospital room seemed ordinary enough. My bus ride from Salta to San Pedro climbed to an altitude of 4810 meters. Immigration between Argentina and Chile was located in the mountain town of Paso de Jama very near this peak height. On a bus full of gringos, who had no idea the altitude we had reached, we hopped off to stand in line to clear customs. Prone to altitude sickness (AMS), within minutes I started feeling dizzy to the point where I needed to lean against the wall. I noticed men in orange coats were coming from a back room and tagging people out of line and taking them away. Then there was some commotion out of my line of sight, when an orange-coated man came running with a wheelchair. Someone had fainted. Now my memory is fuzzy, but the next thing I knew it was me sitting in a wheelchair. Carted off to a crowded medical room and hooked up to an oxygen mask, just one in a line of about 10 other naive travelers who had been showing signs of AMS. Apparently, this occurrence is so common at this particular immigration point that they staff medical personnel to deal with the fainters.
After that embarrassing episode, we continued to San Pedro on a downhill trajectory. And this brought me to the moment when I was sitting in a restaurant, not feeling even a little bit hungry, but knowing I needed to order SOMEthing to regain my strength. Several days in a row with unhealthy options and my fainting spell earlier in the day, the salmon just seemed like the best choice. Seemed like it anyway. 24 hours later I was in the hospital attached to an IV, being judged by the staff that just shook their heads. “You ate salmon...in the desert??”
Mr. Sri Lanka's Neighborhood
Click, Clack, Click, Clack, the familiar sounds of steel on rail as we find ourselves once again seated aboard a Sri Lankan train, in for another adventure. As the cart gently rocks from side to side we leave Ella station with anticipation running through our veins. Reverting back to advice from our Colombo hosts, this was supposed to be it: the cherry on top of all train rides. Comfortably situated in our roomy reserved 3rd class cabin, which feels oddly empty, mostly likely getting bypassed by tourists taking up 1st & 2nd, we’ve got leg & bag room to spare. 3rd’s class is the new 1st.
It’s not often a train ride can captivate or even graduate in grandeur as it moves on but this one, this one is different. There is something calming, almost trance-like that the countryside casts over you, constantly engaging you, begging you to enjoy. With an occasional whistle-blow you pop your head out the many open air windows scanning the length of the train, making mental images of the smiling locals in the trailing cart, standing open air, sending back a nod of approval. You don’t know when they are going to come, you certainly can’t plan them, but in a trip filled of moments, this is a highlight. It’s a train ride worthy of a flight to Sri Lanka, purely to enjoy the aromatic tea plantations carving an intricate labyrinth of hillside designs or taking in the gushing waterfalls peppering themselves in like some sort of Cadbury surprise. If it’s authenticity you’re after, take a seat in the open doorway, legs dangling a meter above the wooden rail ties, waving back to friendly locals who are unspoiled by the daily repetitive nature of the tourist commute.
You are in a constant dilemma of choosing which side is better, knowing whichever you choose, you win. With a watchful eye on your clock, it’s probably the only 7-hour train ride you’ll be on, that you wish was longer. Rolling 15km/h through chicken strewn villages, majestic tunnels, set amongst the colorful saris of the women working the tea fields, it’s Sri Lanka at it’s best. You can’t go back and recreate that magic, you can only hope to capture it in a story or with a photo, but knowing full well this is truly impossible. You can tell others about it, but it’s yours alone, a memory that is personal yet shared, simple yet complex, demanding others to experience what metaphysical changes occurred to you at the most cellular level aboard Thomas the Train’s ride through Mr. Sri Lanka’s neighborhood.