Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Stuck in Istanbul - My Escape to Normality

Upon entering month six of my travels, I fell into a new troubling phase in my free and nomadic life. I became afflicted by the ultimate first world problem, that which can only affect the long term backpacker living the dream, jetsetter extraordinaire stimulated by new and amazing experiences on a daily basis.

I became sick of being a tourist.

Museums and attractions started to become boring. My comfort zone, like a balloon reaching full capacity, stopped expanding at its once furious pace. New places were no longer as exciting, new experiences no longer as spine tingling as before. I knew this onset of travel-weariness was inevitable, but trying to figure out where to go and what to next troubled me more than expected, even disturbing my sleep.
Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Fortunately, the perfect tonic for my travel weariness was waiting for me in my next destination. Located where east meets west and where empires ebbed in and out throughout history, Istanbul is a truly special city. Its streets are alive with organized chaos, loudspeakers envelope the sky with mystic voices of Muslim prayer, and its skyline dazzles with both minarets and skyscrapers rising over the geographically significant Bosphorus Strait. Istanbul provided the perfect escape from my troubles. Its history and beauty is so rich and its culture so refreshingly new that it temporarily revived my touristic motivation to see mosques and museums. But when that desire quickly subsided, my final escape lay in one solitary place.

Istanbul Hostel provided a semblance of normality and shielded me from the unpredictability of travelling. Somehow the turnstile effect of hostels didn't apply here and many people stayed long enough that I became familiar with them. These familiar faces were ones which I no longer needed the pretense of asking the cliche five questions: what's your name, where you from, how long you been travelling, where you been, where you going? And then there's the guessing game: are you Korean? Japanese? Oh, Canadian... but what are you really?
Jumping for joy... at a war memorial site 
Finally I could just be myself for once and, as a traveler, that's something rare and valuable, like a small lottery win. I stuck around Istanbul and at the same hostel because the people I met were cool characters, the kind I could be friends with if we were living in the same city. I even achieved the notorious reputation of "the guy who would never leave." I eventually did leave, but my stay went from an originally planned 3 days to 10 days at Istanbul Hostel.

The people provided good times and distraction from my troubles long enough for me to find a new direction in my travels. I have decided to go to Greece to work on an olive farm for at least a few weeks. But I will be a tourist for another week in Turkey. I am currently writing from surreal Cappadocia. Think of the Grand Canyon. But on the moon.
With Emelia and Chris, before Chris continues his cycling round the world journey 
Thank you to Chris Gruar for connecting me with the olive farm. You are a great man and I hope to catch up with you after your epic journey is complete. To see Chris's epic journey and, if you are inspired as I was, to donate, click here: cycling4cancer.wordpress.com.

Thank you also to Emelia for wallowing together in the self pity of our mutual travel weariness. The rest of you, you know who you are! Thanks for the memorable time at Istanbul Hostel and see you again, hopefully sooner than later.

Istanbul photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157632635823090/

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Help Connection

There is this phenomenon I have been contemplating as of late. It has the power to bring people together. It sees a mosaic of colours but does not exclude any from its undiscriminating eye. Its impact is immense and timeless, as a river carving out a canyon. While fascinating, it is so staggeringly simple yet overlooked and underutilized.

I am talking about helping others. And it's a phenomenon because, puzzlingly, it doesn't happen enough.
Standing at the side of the road, with my thumb out, and holding a sign with city name, resting on my notebook. 
Earlier today, while hitchhiking from Sofia to Plovdiv, standing on the side of the road, staring into passing cars, hungrily at the empty seats, new thoughts dawned on me, really came to the forefront of my mind.

I used to think hitchhikers were crazy. These days I am the one with my thumb out, watching the cars pass by, thinking motorists were the crazy ones, and what a waste it is for all these empty seats to pass me by, their destinies unfulfilled, their existence obsolete. Don't get me wrong, I haven't waited more than an hour before getting picked up in my 4 or 5 hitchhiking experiences now but, provided I am waiting at the correct spot, shouldn't I not have to wait more than 5 minutes? How hard is it to help a guy out?

Then I thought of the people who had picked me up in their car. Sometimes few words were exchanged (primarily due to language barriers), other times many. Sometimes money was given, other times contact information. What was guaranteed was a smile and a handshake. A spontaneous combustion of happiness! I call this the help connection, human connection through helping.

It's a simple concept, a happiness recipe that requires a few ingredients, mainly vulnerability and trust. Today I could have paid just 6 euro to take a train from Sofia to Plovdiv, but I chose to make myself vulnerable by waiting on the side of a road, putting my trust in the hands of people speeding in and past my periphery. Add some time, next thing you know I got picked up and, voila, instant happiness for both myself and driver! All it's missing is that out-of-the-oven freshly baked smell.
A wonderful meal with Couchsurfers - New Year's Eve in Sibiu, Romania 
Hitchhiking is like the road version of Couchsurfing, which also thrives on the concept of the help connection. On CS I constantly make myself vulnerable by asking for a couch to sleep on. I put my trust in people I have never met. But when we finally do meet, instantly the walls of mistrust are torn down, and it is like making an instant friend. This is as good as happiness in a bottle. And the best part is it's free!

Phenomenons like hitchhiking and Couchsurfing prove to me that the best things in life are free. When you pay more while travelling you get modern comforts and contentedness. But the net happiness doesn't change. When you pay less you sacrifice comfort but rely on others for help, which results in a net gain in happiness. The math works.

As a happy passenger on the drive from Sofia to Plovdiv, while admiring the beautiful countryside of Bulgaria, I resolved to be more helpful to everyone, friend or stranger, in the future.

I also thought the word "stranger" needs to be revised. The word has negative connotations in a world where nobody makes themselves vulnerable nor trusts eachother. But you can make a change!
Near a remote village, I taught this old man how to use my camera! 
So when's the last time you made yourself vulnerable to others? Put your trust in someone you just met? Helped someone in need? My challenge to you is to actively help someone today unconditionally. And feel the spontaneous combustion of happiness inside you bursting into a big smile on your face, spreading from person to person in the vicinity.

I hope reading this helped you to realize the power of vulnerability, trusting and helping others. As the old saying goes "treat others as you want to be treated."
My morning view in Magura, remote village in Romania
Romania pictures, in two parts:

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2013 - Off to a Good Start

2012 was a hell of a great year, easily the best year of my life. I can look back and say I did pretty much everything I wanted to. It certainly won't be easy for the coming year to outdo the year that just ended. But I think I've gotten off to a pretty good start so far.

January 1, 2013

This morning, I woke up to a fresh new year in a fresh new situation. I woke up in Sibiu, Romania, in my Couchsurfing host's home. After my friendly hosts had fed me very well throughout my entire stay, they gave me one last wonderful breakfast, consisting of many homemade traditional products. I packed everything, said goodbye, walked outside and, feeling the morning sun on my face, felt that my possibilities were endless today, and nothing I wanted was too far beyond the horizon.

At this point, I would like to introduce you to my Couchsurfing friend, Anna, who I travelled with in Romania. She is a truly inspiring person. She is also quite adventurous. She took me hitchhiking for the first time less than a week ago.

Aside from some small bumps in the road, pardon the pun, hitchhiking was a lot easier than it sounds. And it is generally safe, but only if the proper precautions are taken. Having completed my first hitchhiking trip with Anna to guide me, I was in high spirits and had the momentum on my side. It was also not just a new day, but a new year, and, on top of that, the morning sun shone brightly on my face, and I felt invincible.

I started walking to the edge of Sibiu. With some help from the locals to point me in the right direction, I eventually reached the edge of the city. Then I stuck out my thumb into the road, high and proud, and held up my sign, with "BV" for Brasov written in thick black marker, and stood waiting patiently, with a subtle smile on my face and a feeling of peace deep down inside. Traffic was low and the city was still sleepy from New Year's Eve celebrations, which made me a bit nervous. But about 15 minutes later somebody stopped on the shoulder beside me and let me in. The man drove a nice car and gave me a reassuring smile, signs that I would be safe. He was not so talkative and his English was not great, but it allowed me to enjoy the scenery. Only a few hours later I arrived at my destination. My first time hitchhiking alone, a success... incredible! And a great start to 2013!


I am currently in Brasov, a pretty city nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, and home of the famous Dracula's Castle. But aside from attractions such as Dracula's Castle, Romania has a lot to offer.

My time in this country up until now has been surprising and filled with discovery, a continuing trend in Eastern European countries due to their being relatively outside of North Americans' consciousness. I won't divulge Romania's history to you in detail, like I did in my Ukraine blog, but I will ask you to Wiki the name "Ceaucescu." His dictatorship until 1989 left many scars on the country which still show in the things you see and the people you encounter in the country.

Anna has really helped to answer all of the questions I had upon arriving in Romania and witnessing the bleak atmosphere. I initially connected with her through Couchsurfing and she not only hosted me but took me under her wing as an understudy to learn all about Romania, its people and its culture. Later on we hitchhiked together and stayed at the Sibiu host's place. She has an adventurous spirit and good heart and is on a quest to make the world a better place. Thanks Anna for the deep, humbling conversations, and for sharing in a great time in Sibiu!