Friday, 22 February 2013

Chance Encounters and Random Conversations

I want to regurgitate to you an insightful conversation I had with a friend regarding, ironically, conversations. Let’s call him Joe.

Joe referred to a speech he heard describing Canadian homes as being like vaults or safes. “It’s not easy for people to invite others into their homes or open it up to strangers,” he said in more or less those words. Inviting people into your home is a powerful thing – it abandons pretenses and prejudices, evokes openness and ingenuity. But, he points out, “mostly, we meet at coffee shops or bars instead of having chance encounters and random conversations…”
A random encounter in Brussels led to dinner with Ata, a lovely and wise old man - twice! 
Conversations are human’s biological tool to communicate with the world around us. They enable us to exchange information critical to our daily survival. They also enrich our lives by allowing us to share laughs and smiles and build friendships. Conversations allow us, quite simply, to connect with other people. However, conversation is becoming a lost art. And here’s why: in today’s fast paced society we, as individuals, try to make sense of the chaos in our lives by exerting too much control over our time.

Every time block of our lives is becoming compartmentalized for specific tasks. As a result, we have become slaves to our own agendas. Every week, day and even hour is mentally predestined. We are either living in the future or dwelling on the past. During scheduled appointments half our minds are already on the next appointment. We hurry from place to place not even factoring in time for traffic delays, as if expecting the vehicles on the street to magically part like the Red Sea for Moses.

The time stress we induce on our own psyches is phenomenal. Yet today it’s become a sort of badge of honour to be busy. Recognition is heaped upon productivity superstars, reputation bestowed upon ultra-performers, with jealous competitors not far behind, taking on more aggressive schedules to get ahead. Sacrificed, in the name of efficiency overdrive is quality and integrity, fostered only with patience and care. With less time, everything we do is more prone to mistakes. With less time, we put on a superficial mask in front of everyone we meet.

With less time there is less opportunity for, you guessed it, chance encounters and random conversations. No time for a bump and a chat with a friend on the street. Time to help somebody who is lost find their way. Time to invite people into our homes. No, there is only time to share a quick drink at a coffee shop before our next task beckons.

Sometimes not even that. Joe told me how frustrated he became when we were having trouble meeting up before I left on my trip because he was too busy. “I did not have the flexibility to change my schedule to have that spontaneity… we try to force randomness in our schedule rather than providing randomness the opportunity to find us.”
Free hugs event in London - random encounters at its awkwardest! 
Individuals in our rushed culture are compartmentalizing more than just their time. Private vehicles are isolating commuters from interacting with strangers on the sidewalk or on buses or subways. Our homes, like broken ice sheets in the Antarctic, are drifting further apart, isolating us from our neighbours. The homes themselves are becoming larger and filled with more and more valuable possessions, further ensuring that we will never trust strangers in our home. Not so in other cultures such as India, where people live in smaller and denser tight-knit communities, have fewer possessions in their homes but are very warm and welcoming.

Planning out our lives, whether it’s the next 5 years or 5 minutes, gives us some stability amidst unpredictability, but we lose the magic of the moment. Nowhere have I learned this lesson more than in long-term travelling. Abandoning nearly all my possessions, concrete plans and time constraints, I find myself open to chance encounters and meetings. Each meeting brings with it the potential for fun and adventure, and is not considered time wasted or a distraction. Some meetings blossom into stronger connections. But at the very least I get a smile, an assurance that I made someone's day better.

I told my friend that “back home we are all about individuality. We each have ambitions and needs which don’t really fit into harmony with other people’s lives, and so we exclude them. Travelling forces us to intertwine our fates with others.” But even most of us travel on prepackaged vacations designed for maximum privacy with a nice beachfront view.
Budapest host - Couchsurfing means opening up your home - whether it's 1 or 6 people! 
So try something different for once. Clear your schedule for the following week as much as possible. When that week arrives, you may find yourself more relaxed, clear of mind, even a little excited about the endless possibilities of a week with no obligations. Anything can happen. Randomness is invited. Don't worry, it may feel a little strange at first to have nothing to do or worry about, but you'll grow into it.

I would like to conclude with some excerpts from Joe's closing rant: “when you’re not busy it is easy to feel alone because everyone is busy so you feel the need to compete… but if you don’t have the time just to have the opportunity for randomness and for keeping your doors open… how are we supposed to connect with people beyond a superficial level?”

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Getting Stuffed in Turkey

In the past few months, you have witnessed my slow transformation, shedding my identity as tourist for something more abstract, bordering on soul searcher. Having just arrived in Greece to start work on a farm, my transformation became complete. But not before climaxing in Turkey on a wild flourish of touristic attractions.

Thus, I present to you what may be the last touristy blog I will write. Warning - could cause you to stop everything and go to Turkey.


Turkey arguably has the richest history of any country in the past 2000 years. But take a wander 'round and you'll discover that it has a lot more to offer than just museums and mosques.
Inside the Aya Sophia - most gorgeous mosque in Istanbul
During this time period, Constantinople perched itself on top of the world, overseeing the dominant Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, accumulating mass riches and a wealth of architecture. It became Istanbul after the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI. I felt the history as I first stepped foot in the main square of Istanbul's historic neighbourhood Sultanahmet, centred by a large fountain and framed on both sides by the glorious Aya Sophia and Blue Mosque. There is so much to offer in Istanbul that I ended up staying 10 days to do everything imaginable, but mainly to enjoy it all in the company of good people. I went out in modern Taksim, stayed in, walked around, visited mosques, saw museums, fit in a boat tour and a day trip to a WWI site, and even sat in on a presentation about Islam.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum - Sean measuring himself up to a column capital from Temple of Artemis 
But my favourite experience was probably the Turkish bath, or Hamam. It sounds strange to say this, but the man who bathed and massaged me during the experience was very rough with me, yanking me around like rag doll – and I liked it. But what I definitely did not like was the pot-bellied Turkish man stalking me around the baths after my treatment, following me from the cool down pool to sauna, then to steam room, then the bath area, sitting literally a metre from me each time. Thankfully, he never got any closer.

Finally, when I strayed outside of the bustling metropolis I found an even more diverse and dazzling array of natural phenomena. I traded in my thinking cap for an Indiana Jones hat and Tomb Raider tights and explored Turkey's countryside like a pioneer in a new land.
Cappadocia - a place like no place on earth
Cappadocia, with its old and mysterious cave dwellings carved into even older “fairy chimneys” formed by erosion, feels like a land out of a fairy tale. Most travelers I met here took to the skies in a hot air balloon but I felt my experience was equally rewarding keeping both feet on the ground – and 100 euros in my wallet. I hiked tirelessly for two full days, descending valleys and ascending ridges over and over. Each viewpoint was more unbelievable than the next, provoking equally joyful and agonizing primal screams. In my hostel in Cappadocia I met probably the most positive guy on my travels. Michi arrived during breakfast, gave a friendly greeting to my group and indicated with a warm but assertive smile that he was going to sit down with us and become our friend. And that was the truth!
Rose Valley - like waking up in a dream
I settled temporarily back into city life with a couple of days in sunny Antalya. It’s the first Turkish city outside of Istanbul I visited and I really liked its vibe. People were quite helpful. I even played football with some kids in a park and joked around with them for a bit. Also, its placement between the Mediterranean coast and stunning mountains makes it the perfect place to admire a sunset.
"Oh wow, a stranger! Let's talk to him!"
A visit to Termessos ruins near Antalya came really close to topping Cappadocia. In a high mountain valley, navigating stone slabs scattered like sand among crumbled buildings, with hardly anyone else around, I felt like a kid in a playground with no parental supervision. The theatre with its magnificent ring seating overlooking the stage below and mountains above in all directions made you wish you were a spectator of a Roman performance back in the heyday of this abandoned ancient city.
Termessos - a theatre with a view
Next I spent a couple of days in picturesque Olympos, a ruins of a once thriving port city situated near pebble beaches and nestled in thick forested mountains. The area was dotted with numerous restaurants and pensions (a kind of accommodations) which would all be packed in the summer but, again, hardly anyone was around. The highlight was Chimaera, a site where natural gas vents into the atmosphere as fire. I wish I had brought marshmallows or raw kebabs. Back at the hostel, I shared my wooden cabin with two wonderful Americans, who I clicked with right away. We parted just after meditating on the beach.
Chimaera in Olympos -
imagine having a permanent fire in your backyard 
In Pamukkale, fire gave way to water but in a rare and spectacular form – travertine pools. Here calcium deposits achieved epic proportions, taking over the landscape, forming grand white cliffs. Water flows down these cliffs, forming pools, stepping down like classic rice paddies in China. And yes, there were ruins on site too.

Pamukkale - barefoot policy more than just for mosques

My final destination was Selcuk to see the granddaddy of all ruins in Turkey – Ephesus. But not before an unexpected scare. A screwup on my bus ticket took me to the wrong city at night. A smooth talking guy at the bus station convinced me to let him help me. But while he was trying to help, we chatted, and I slowly became aware that this guy had some issues. I learned his name was “Sanchez” which actually sounds Mexican, he works for the Turkish Service Service, and he fought in southeastern Turkey against the Kurdish, resulting in three bullets lodged in his left leg. The whole time he drank in public and even peed several times, waving around his wang in plain sight, and he kept telling me to watch his bag closely and don’t let anyone touch it or “kill them.” Needless to say, I excused my way out of getting help.
Ephesus - cat rejects me, then follows me up the theatre and curls up beside me 
The next morning I finally made it to Selcuk but by then I felt "ruined" out and was having trouble mustering excitement for my visit to Ephesus, 3 km away by dolmus (minibus). This actually helped because my expectations were exceeded once I began exploring the largest and most spectacular Greco-Roman ruins in Turkey. Surprisingly the highlight of the day was the cat that initially rejected my efforts to pet it, only to later follow me and curl up in my lap. Later on I managed to sneak outside the site limits and ascend to a high point with a bird's eye view of Ephesus and of Selcuk. I hiked along the ancient city walls straddling the top of the mountain, eventually descending back into Selcuk.
Ephesus - the library facade is the site's most famous structure 
After a pit stop in Istanbul I am now settled in at an organic farm in Greece, with an incredibly welcome family, and never more ready to get my hands dirty. And thus concludes 3 amazing weeks in Turkey! Despite my travel-weariness I was happy that I managed to see the best Turkey has to offer and had a really memorable time.
Overlooking Ephesus - thanks for reading!
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