STEPPING BACK IN TIME: LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA

LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA ~ JANUARY 7, 2014

DSC06192I am in an underground tunnel connecting two of the 11 medieval, monolithic churches here in Lalibela. The tunnel is pitch black and light is prohibited in here. I am pinned between two people. My left hand is on the front person’s left shoulder and my right is on the wall to guide me through the dark. The tunnel is packed with pilgrims. There is no room to escape or turn around, you have no choice but to move with the crowd. This is not for people who are uncomfortable in small spaces. Time stands still in here and I feel trapped. The line is moving slowly, scuffling ahead a couple of feet, every couple of minutes and the tunnel is about 20m in length. Then the mood suddenly changes…Men and women start to chant and pray, little children start to sing, I can feel them smiling through their voices and it helps me carry through the rest of the way. When light becomes visible at the end of the tunnel, everyone in unison yell what would seem like a high-pitched war cry ”La,la,la,la,la,la,la,la,la!!!” The ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and the chant symbolizes reaching the heavens. Aaaand I’m covered in goosebumps. Ethiopia is casting a spell on me…

It’s Julian Calender Christmas Day (Leddet) in Ethiopia and I’m spending it in ‘Africa’s Jerusalem’; Lalibela. The town is 1116199_10151796700066150_1868722195_oknown for their Medieval, rock-hewn churches built in-ground, dating as far back as the 12th century. Ethiopia is predominately of Orthodox faith, following the old calendar. Thousands of people from all over Ethiopia and surrounding villages have made the pilgrimage to be apart of this celebration (some walk for many miles and/or days barefoot!). Many of the pilgrims have never been here before. Some from very remote villages have never even seen a ‘faranji’ (white man). I had a lot of curious but shy children approach me, touching my hair or the skin on my arms. Everyone is dressed in white for Christmas, the women’s heads covered in a white scarf known as a netela. I decided to wear one as well out of respect.

1504274_10151796680791150_1967700842_oI attended mass on Christmas Eve standing on top of one of the cliffs overlooking one of the in-ground churches. Every inch of the place is occupied by white-clad pilgrims. Many staked out for much of the day to get a ‘good spot’. What surprised me is that many were sleeping during mass. Although understandable as this ceremony is over a 24 hour period. I carefully tip toe through the bodies, trying to find a good spot to see everything and it leads me to the top, where thousands of people are sleeping dangerously close to the edge. Everywhere I look I see white. Thousands of pilgrims who could not fit inside, stand in the dusty streets, sit in nearby fields and adjoining churches, listening to the sermon from the speakers.

The chanting, warm light from lit candles, smell of Frankincense and a sea of white bodies is permanently etched in 1486097_10151796676286150_1469247050_omy mind from that evening. Candles are lit after midnight and we make our way back through the chaos to the hotel to catch a couple of hours of sleep. We’re back again by 6 a.m and are overwhelmed by the crowds trying to get back in. The tiny, frail looking old women are the worst, aggressively pushing their way through, feeling a sense of entitlement perhaps, because of their old age. Security has their hands full. Elisabeth and I, separated by a few people in between us, look across at each other hopelessly. Then this young Ethiopian girl pops up out of the crowd and says “Come! Come! Follow me! I show you!” She grabs Elisabeth’s hand and I grab Elisabeth’s other hand and we begin to snake our way through the chaos. Miraculously she manages to get us to the very front. Two Polish men join us, catching on that this crafty little girl had a knack of working through the crowd.

We get to the stone carved steps leading down into the courtyard and it’s packed with people heading the opposite direction. A young American man is standing there too trying to discourage us from trying to get through. “You may 1497927_10151796688541150_1691376110_oas well just hang out here and wait. These crowds are insane! There’s no way to get through right now.” Humouring the guy, I look at the young girl who just led us through the seemingly impossible crowds and say “there’s always a way”. And in a matter of minutes one of our Polish accomplices has the idea to jump across a nearby boulder about 4 feet from the edge. He claims he’s a rock climber and I’m convinced as I watch him effortlessly leap over and scale his way down to the ground. The young girl is next, then it’s my turn and it gets a little tricky from there. The only one wearing sandals, I go barefoot on the jagged rock and carefully let myself down almost crushing the young girl in the process, who over eagerly decided to guide my foot onto her shoulder not realizing the amount of weight behind that foot and lets out a squeal when she loses her balance, and I quickly move it over to the intended foothold on the boulder and ungraciously scramble my way down. Much to the amusement of our local spectators chuckling at the crazy faranjis.1491424_10151796670506150_77147443_o

We make it just in time to watch 100 priests make their annual procession up the rock carved steps onto the cliffs surrounding the church. 2 dozen priests remain below ground in the courtyard playing instruments and chanting. Then it begins. A sea of robes, in unison begin this ancient ritual of transe-like dancing and chanting. The courtyard priests symbolizing the world’s people and the priests above on the cliffs symbolizing the angels in heaven. This continues for a few hours until about mid morning when the sun’s rays begin to shine down into the pit…

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I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been a part of something so spiritually charged, so sacred and virtually untouched for many centuries. And a rare glimpse into what Christmas might have been like for some of our ancestors a few hundred years ago. Lalibela is special. It’s raw and it’s real and will happily embrace you, if you are ready to embrace the experience.

ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL CLIMB ~ JEBEL TOUBKAL 4,167m

JEBEL TOUBKAL, MOROCCO ~ NOVEMBER 2013

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Another successful climb, climbing North Africa’s highest peak! Jebel Toubkal – 4167m, 2,200m elevation gained in 14km.

I made the decision to climb this mountain on my own without a guide to save a few $100. It was quite easy to arrange solo.  I took the local buses to Imlil and trekked out there alone to the lodge at the base of the mountain. It was a little confusing finding the initial trailhead but I met 3 young boys from a nearby village, who showed me the way. We could hardly communicate to each other because they didn’t know English and I didn’t know French or Berber but they were really sweet kids and they felt compelled to keep an eye on me taking the same route. They had a mule with them that was carrying propane for one of the lodges, each taking a turn riding the mule, often offering to have the mule carry my bag or myself. But I kindly refused thinking in my head that it was a form of cheating.

I made it to the base of the mountain for the night and met a lovely group of Moroccan women at the lodge that evening. In a muslim society, it is usually frowned upon women to be traveling unaccompanied by a man let alone attempting to climb North Africa’s highest peak! They were certainly not your typical Moroccan, muslim women. They were liberal, well-educated and proactive with women’s liberties and rights in the country. Some were actresses in live theatre and all had lived and worked in Paris and spoke French as if it was their native tongue. They had movie star looks and exuded class, even in their trekking boots and jackets. They were also very friendly and after chatting with them, they invited me to join them to summit the following day.

Sofia and Sarra were not feeling well and they stayed at the lodge so the three of us Imane and Insaf and myself, set out at about 2 a.m to1471122_10151687051996150_1170047732_n summit before sunrise. Insaf had climbed this mountain 4 times prior so she was the experienced one in our group and knew the route quite well. Imane had never climbed a mountain before so this was a huge undertaking for her. Half way up, Insaf was not feeling well at all. She was clearly suffering from altitude sickness but was adamant about pushing on. It was getting to the point where I had to step in and tell her we couldn’t continue. I convinced her that she was risking her life and as well as ours if something happened and we had to bring her down on the icy sections. She reluctantly agreed but refused to have us take her down, insisting that we continue climbing. We eventually did continue up but I regret doing so now because she could have been in danger. I was in awe of this little woman who epitomized Shakespeare’s words: “Though she be but little, she is fierce”. She was an adventurer and a risk taker, she sky dived solo many times! She was determined to prove to everyone and herself that she had the ability to do anything she put her mind to. And I respected her for that because she mirrored my character in so many ways. But altitude sickness strikes without prejudice. It can happen to anyone, even athletes or experienced climbers and Insaf made the right decision that day.

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So, it was just me and Imane, the girl who had never trekked before. It was not an easy climb, but I was determined to get her up there. Slowly, with a lot of encouragement and a few white lies (I would keep telling her that we were almost there, even though we weren’t evenclose to keep her motivated) And finally made it to the top! I was so proud of her!I was more excited about the fact that this girl who had never climbed a mountain before in her life, just conquered North Africa’s highest peak, than me reaching the summit!

Another life lesson: Happiness is more meaningful when shared with others…

PUSHING BOUNDARIES ~ MOUNT KINABALU

MT. KINABALUHIGHEST MOUNTAIN CLIMBED TO DATE, MT.KINABALU (4095m).                                           BORNEO, MALAYSIA ~ JULY 2013

This trip has been about pushing my boundaries and taking myself out of my comfort zone. Today was one of those days. I climbed the highest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea!

Mt. Kinabalu sits at 4095m with an elevation gain of 2229m within 8.7km, this is almost double of what I’ve been use to hiking in the Canadian Rockies. The first day I made it up to the hut for the night at km 6. Then an early start at 2:50 a.m to the summit to catch the sunrise, of which the last 2km is a heart pounding 822m in elevation gained. Some grades were so steep, ropes had to be used to ascend with.

Altitude sickness almost got the better of me at the last 200m. My headlight was running low on batteries and it was becoming difficult to see in front of me in the dark on the steep, slippery grade. I also became disorientated and began losing my balance due to altitude, my guide gave me his hand to keep me steady and we finally made it to summit at 5:20 a.m. Unfortunately it was raining and missed the sunrise but it was totally worth it the effort.

I fought fatigue, high altitude, cold wind and rain to prove to myself I could do this. Out of the 50 people attempting to reach summit, approximately 20 made it that day. I was the 8th person to make it! Considering I could barely even walk 9 years ago, this has been a huge accomplishment for me, definitely one for the books…

KOJAK ~ FROM BODYBUILDING TO PALMREADING

LAOS ~ JUNE 2013

kojak      I met Ted at the airport heading to Vientiane. He was in his 50’s and looked like Kojak on steroids. Ted was a successful entrepreneur / doctor / author, who was on his way to meet the Governor of Laos for a new venture he’s pursuing in the country.

He invited me out for lunch and had an unexpected visit with this body builder from Tennessee…A one hour lunch ended up lasting the whole afternoon discussing everything from spirituality to the Periodic Time Table. The guy even read my palms! Never ceases to amaze me, the kind of people you run into on your travels…A very memorable day indeed…

Towards the end of our conversation, already inspired by this man, I asked him if he had any piece of advise to give me what would it be. He leaned in, looked me squarely in the eyes and without hesitation he asked:

Ted: Are you married or have a boyfriend?
Me: No.
Ted: Do you have kids?
Me: No. 
Ted: Mortgage or any debts tying you down?
Me: No. 
Ted: THEN SPEND EVERY SINGLE PENNY YOU’VE GOT TRAVELLING RIGHT NOW HONEY!!! 

Just. Awesome.

Ted really surprised me with this answer. From the outside, this guy exuded making money and measuring success by earning it (although I knew he had many different layers to him after picking his brain all afternoon.) It seemed like reckless advice but he lived many different lives throughout his years and I felt that his words came from his heart, after many years of his very own soul searching.

These words had stuck with me upon my brief return to Canada to meet my new nephew. I was trying to decide wether to go back to work or continue travelling…

Ted’s words were the deciding factor to continue this journey.

Thank you Ted.

MR. KHAING ~ MYANMAR

MYANMAR (BURMA) MAY 2013~

I stayed the night in the sleepy jungle town of Mawlamyne. George Orwell spent time as a policeman here and Rudyard Kipling wrote about it after spending just 3 days. There are these beautiful Colonial style mansions scattered throughout this city. Most of them boarded up, abandoned, covered in vines and worn down from years of neglect but can easily picture how grand they would have been back in their day and the stories they held if those walls could talk… I stayed in one with a long history behind it. Originally built for a shipyard owner in the late 1800’s, later sold to a merchant from India then bought by Mr.Khaing’s father about 70 years ago, Mr.Khaing turned it into a guesthouse shortly after his father passed away about 20 years ago.

Mr.Khaing sitting at the breakfast table after a most memorable talk.

Mr.Khaing sitting at the breakfast table after a most memorable talk.

“I am very greatful to my father for giving me this opportunity to make a living by giving this house to me…” ~Mr.Khaing 

When I checked in, Mr.Khaing was sitting in the lobby chatting with a friend and he asks me where I am from. I said Canada and says “Ah I had an interesting guest from Canada named William. He stayed here 7 years ago at my guesthouse. I have a great story I will have to tell you about William later”. I went about my day and sat with him in the lobby that evening. The story is too long to repeat but I’ll mention that Mr.Khaing like most of the people in Burma are devout Buddhists. In fact Burma is one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world. The story ties in with that and the next morning as I’m having my cup of coffee people-watching over the balcony, he sat at the table and motions me to come over. Mr.Khaing keeps a journal of his guesthouse with guests leaving personal messages and he wanted to share with me what William left for him. This one paragraph struck a cord with me:

“Don’t go into the tangled jungle looking for the great awakened elephant,

who is already resting quietly at home in front of your own hearth.” 

He changed the words a little from the original paragraph but I like it. Here’s the whole thing for those who care to read it:

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This moment was an emotional one for me. It took me by surprise because the quote above resonated with the current struggles I’ve been faced with and that I still continue to face. We are all ultimately looking for happiness in life and go through life trying different ways to find it. This sentence to me, means that true happiness can not be found externally, it can only be found from within. Temporary happiness can be reached with things like material possessions, earning money, ego, emotional attachment to people and even travel but that will ultimately fade away, leaving us with another void to fill until we find the next ‘fix’. Happiness is already inside us, we just have to learn how to tap into it.

Does it mean something different to you?

TRAVELING AND SOCIAL CONNECTIONS

MAY 2013 – I’m on an island in southern Thailand called Koh Lanta. It’s quiet, somewhat off the tourist radar which became a welcome respite after visiting the more popular islands along with the tourist hoards. I practically had the entire beach to myself which gave me a chance to recharge. On one particular night I ended up having drinks with an odd mix of people. A journalist from TIME magazine, a photo journalist from the UK and a lawyer from Paris. This circumstance seems like a romanticized story you would read in a book. The likelihood of meeting these fascinating people back home are quite unlikely. Yet, here we are, from different countries and backgrounds sharing some common passions that brought us together. The passion for travel, resisting conformity and following our dreams.

Then it occurs to me that if I chose to remain in the bubble I essentially created for myself back home, remaining within the comforts of routine with work and making social connections with the same circles of coworkers, friends and family, I am isolating myself from the rest of the world and all the life altering experiences that go along with it.

Traveling isn’t just about visiting places. Traveling is also about networking and meeting people who may have the potential to impact your way of thinking or that could possibly open doors you never even dreamed of. You never know that the next person whose hand you shake or say hello to might take you. It could start a domino effect, leading you to an unexpected adventure.

This is another life lesson I’ve been trying to teach myself. To be more open and friendly to people. For introverted personalities such as myself, this isn’t easy, not to mention that in western society many of us grow up learning to keep to ourselves. It has been my observation that people in developing countries seem to have a stronger sense of community than we do. Possibly due to economic struggles, having to depend on other people for moral support. All over the world I see families getting together in the evening at the town squares, parks or cafes to socialize. Our evenings in North America are typically spent in front of the television  or computer. We as an ‘advanced society’ have become so self-sufficient that I think we’ve lost that important connection consequently isolating ourselves.

Is it possible that losing this important social component is one reason why so many people are depressed in the west? Could it be one reason why so many people in western society live a life of consumerism, trying to fill empty voids with material things? I have no facts or educational backing to prove this. These are just some thoughts that have come to mind on my journey. What do you think?