After 19 months on the road, I'm finally back home in New Zealand. I've just had a Christmas with family, seen a few of my friends and reacquainted myself with the NZ craft beer scene. I'm still trying to discover the entrance to the next path on my journey. It's like one of those pick-a-path books you read as a kid, and I don't know whether to turn to page 27 or 64. I'll work that out in due course; in the meantime, I've been reminiscing about my journey, the places I visited, the people I met, the foods I enjoyed.
These aren't the best photos I took on my trip. Instead, these are the ones that represent something specific or memorable, the sort of experiences that jump to the forefront of my mind when I'm in a contemplative mood. For better (usually) or worse, trips often don't turn out as you'd planned and these photos are evidence of that.
1. The Unique
I have to thank my Peruvian hostel-mate Nelson for this one. I'd heard of the structure at Buzludzha but hadn't made any concrete plans to visit it until we were chatting in our hostel in Veliko Turnovo and he invited me to join a tour that needed a minimum of 4 to run.
What we encountered was definitely not your run-of-the-mill tourist site! An hours' drive to a remote hilltop, followed by a little illegal entry (it's permitted to visit the site but not to enter the structure itself). Once inside, we were astounded, the interior defied belief. Political graffiti, rusted metal and broken glass everywhere, stunning views of the surrounding countryside from it's hilltop vantage point, all from an old Communist building shaped like a UFO!
I've written a whole post about Buzludzha, click here to if you want to read more.
2. The Friendships
I met so many amazing people on my trip, it really is unfair to single anyone out. But I'm going to do it anyway. During the first week in Sri Lanka, I helped a hostel manager with a little writing/proofreading for their website, only for a couple of days before I hit the road again. As luck would have it, I then bumped into Miguel a month later at a Mirissa bar on one of his few evenings off. An offer of a few days more writing turned into a week of hostel work, which soon led to a visa extension.
The next 2 months were among the most memorable of my time away. As well as giving me a chance to unpack and slow down for the first time since I'd started travelling, I was also able to help with hostel events (surf trips, quiz nights and walking tours of nearby Galle Fort), deal with fascinating people every day and indulge in my passion for sharing travel advice.
But the most memorable part were the people I worked with (and the many guests that came and went). Miguel and Edu from Spain, Jenny from Ukraine/Germany/Portugal, Leo from Argentina, Zima from England, Fanny from France, hostel owner Rajiv. And not to forget Lalith and Thirinda, the two local chefs we had on-site every day, amazing food and great guys too.
For more of my travels in Sri Lanka, click below:
Sri Lanka's North
Sri Lanka's South
3. The Wildlife
Since this is a post about photos, I may as well include my favourite. I saw many amazing and iconic creatures – tiger, whale, orangutan, shark, turtle. But this little guy was top of my list. In fact, I liked the shot so much I printed it on canvas as a Christmas gift for my mother!
I spotted him sunbathing on a wall while wandering back down from a hillside temple (Mulkirigala in southern Sri Lanka). Most lizards are skittish and disappear as soon as you spot them. Not this one though, he sat there observing me as much as I was observing him, before turning and crawling over the wall. But that wasn't it. As I peeked over the wall, there he was, still staring at me intently (although now looking up the wall). He let me bring my camera (by this time switched to manual focus and live-view in order to keep my ugly mug as far from him as I could) closer and closer, until I was only about 20 cm away. After a minute, he turned and left, never to be seen again, although I still look at him almost every day.
4. The Scenery
Ladakh is one of the most remote parts of India, located in the eastern part of the fabled lands of Kashmir, nestled against Tibet. Roads are constrained by the rugged landscape, as a consequence it took forever to get anywhere. Altitude is an issue, Ladakh is on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau so everything is at least 3000m above sea level. All of this makes it one of the most picturesque locations in India.
Public transport is scarce and getting the required travel permit impossible for a solo international traveller so I joined a small 4WD tour, where I soon met my new friends for the next 5 days - John and Jana from England, Katiki from India and Trent from Australia.
The valleys in the north of Ladakh were among the most scenic places I've visited - the apricot tree groves of Turtuk, the high-altitude sand dunes of Hunder and the amazing monastery of Diskit, draped down a hillside in five tiers. It's hard to single out any one place in Ladakh, but with the article length in mind I kinda have to.
Pangong Lake is nestled on the Indian-Tibetan border, with around 65% of it located in Tibet. At 4200m it's one of the highest altitude lakes in India, as well as being among the largest. Interestingly enough, despite being over 2000km from the ocean, it's a saltwater lake. It's also the location of the climactic scene in my favourite Indian film, 3 Idiots, making it a popular destination with Bollywood devotees.
But it was the scenery that stuck with me. A lake of almost impossible shades of blue (changing with the days' light), mountains in all directions, a sky permanently blue during the day and lit up with a million stars by night, stunning and accessible beaches and sandspits – it all made for one of those places where each view was better than last.
As I travelled through India, I was generally planning only 1-2 places ahead a time. But I had a few must-sees on the horizon – Rajasthan, the Taj Mahal, the mountainous valleys of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh.
And Rishikesh. I'd done a little yoga back home in New Zealand, my gym offered plenty of classes so it was a good way to improve my terrible balance and flexibility. Given Rishikesh was one of the most popular places in India for a novice to pick up a few lessons, it made sense. I can't forget The Beatles either, Rishikesh was home to the ashram they'd spent time at in 1967, which made for a nice afternoon of exploring between classes.
After wandering the streets visiting schools, I settled on one I felt comfortable at – Swami Vivekananda – as they offered a package that offered a bit of everything and seemed like nice people. So I went from no exercise (other than a LOT of walking) straight into an intensive course – 5 sessions a day for a whole week. It wasn't just stretching and contorting myself though, the course also covered pranayama breathing techniques and an evening meditation session. And after a year of travelling, it was nice to have a small amount of structure to my day, even though that structure began with a 5:45am alarm!
This picture was of my Israeli classmate Noa and our instructor Mukesh.
6. The Personal Challenge
This isn’t just a photo I like visually, it’s also what it represents. I was in Cappadocia, Turkey, in early October 2017, a few days before my birthday. Now, I've never really been much of a person for heights, so the idea of a hot air balloon ride wouldn't normally be my thing. But it just seemed right; it felt like the sort of thing I should do for a birthday on the road.
As it turned out, after I'd told my mother of my plans she transferred through the funds as a birthday present – thanks Mum!
So how was it? I'd done a little sightseeing the day before, I'd also been to Cappadocia years before, so I was familiar with the landscape, yet seeing it from 2km up gave me a new perspective. And as for the height? No problems; as we rose I was waiting for the 'freak out' moment to kick in but it never did. We were up nearly 45 minutes and I enjoyed every second of it.
7. The People
I have far better people photos (this one and this one, for instance) It's glary, slightly out of focus and the colours are washed out. But it makes me smile every time I look at it.
My first full day in Albania, I’d planned to sightsee the sights around Shkoder via hired bicycle. First stop would be a centuries-old Ottoman era bridge. Next I'd visit the Drishti castle ruins, then cycle back through Shkoder to visit Rozafa Castle, and finally check out the shores of Lake Shkoder.
Having visited the bridge, I then headed off to Drishti Castle. I’d half-ridden/half-pushed my ancient hired bike up a sometimes-steep hill and I'd reached the village near the top. Looking around for a trail, I heard a voice. A woman called me over; cool, someone to give me directions. Before I knew it, I found myself being invited into their house. I followed her inside and was then introduced to her husband. Next came the offer of lunch. Sitting on the living room floor, I sampled their homemade cheese and bread, before being offered a glass of rakia, the firewater widely drunk across the Balkans. And then another glass. Then another. Three hours later, he remembered (via a few not-so-subtle hints) why I was there and guided me to the castle ruins at the top of the hill. The remains of the castle were interesting but hardly a must-see (although the views of the valley were sublime), but this was one of those occasions where the journey was more memorable than the destination.
I never made it to the more famous Rozafa Castle but I didn't care.
8. The Food
I ate many great dishes on my trip. Cuisines as diverse as Italian, Malaysian, Persian, and the many regions of India. Sometimes a restaurant, often street food, occasionally in someone's home. And I have some nice food photos, far better than this, of Indian thalis, of Sri Lankan kotthu, of margherita pizza at source in Napoli.
But when I decided I need to include a food pic, I immediately thought of this. Because, after all, food is more than just what's on your plate, it's also the memories it evokes.
The chef was, well, I'm ashamed that I can't remember her name (it was over a year ago!). But she was responsible for some of the most memorable food I had over the course of my 19 months away. The venue was Just A Hostel in Sozopol on the Bulgarian coast, and they offered a meal every night. I can't remember the price, only that it was more than reasonable and included a large bottle of beer.
She'd left home at 18 and had virtually no cooking skills so decided that needed to change. Over the next few years she bugged everyone she could find to show her something and now here she was, in my hostel, cooking some of the most amazing traditional Bulgarian food I had in my month there. And great conversation too, with me, her, other guests and the very awesome hostel owner, Ivan.
9. The Unexpected
I arrived at my hostel in Peja, Kosovo, and approached the reception desk. “So you're here for the festival then?”. Festival? “What festival?”, I asked.
Turns out I'd arrived on the first day of Peja's annual film festival. Not just any festival either, an animated film festival.
The theme for the festival was “Reclaim the City”, a not-so-subtle dig at big business trying to take over public spaces, in particular the local theatre.
The two main venues were in the local park opposite the hostel, one set with the screen on the opposite side of a large pond (as in my photo above), the other in a small stone open-air theatre. Tickets were only 1 Euro, as was a large can of beer, so one of the most memorable experiences of my trip barely scraped the sides of my budget.
Each session was dedicated one of 3 categories - local, international and student, and the genres were wide-ranging - the humorous, the dark, the child-like, the horrifying. One film would be uplifting and inspiring, the next dark and horrifying. And since it was a festival, each session concluded with voting forms so we could debate our favourites amongst ourselves. We? I can't forget my festival buddies - Mia from England, and Jan and Sanna from Finland.
10. The Physical
As soon as I started planning my trip, one destination stood above all others – Annapurna. Specifically, trekking the Annapurna Circuit. I'd travelled to Nepal five years earlier but as I was only there for 18 days, my trekking options were somewhat limited. The four day Poon Hill trek was a great experience but it left me wanting more. Now, with an open-ended travel itinerary, I had my chance.
Unfortunately my physical fitness wasn't what it should have been, 3 weeks teaching English in flat-as-a-pancake Dhangadhi meant any tolerance to walking up hills had disappeared. Like that was going to stop me! Luckily for me, the Annapurna Circuit rises gradually for the first week, with only a few hills that caused any sort of issue. And any pain or doubt was soon dispelled by taking a look at what surrounded me – an always scenic valley with traditional villages every few kilometres, surrounded by an increasingly mountainous landscape. Within 9 days I'd summited the 5416m Thorung La pass and had met many amazing people, all amongst some of the most stunning scenery I'm ever likely to experience. And then walked for another week 90+ km downhill to my finish point at the hot springs of Tatopani.
That's why I chose this photo – I have plenty of stunning mountain photos but this is the one that best represents what I achieved, the culmination of the goal I'd set myself.