the road goes on forever

As I pack my bag one last time, the caipirinha-infused sexiness of Brazil seems like an eternity away. So does Rio de la Plata, the crossing of the Andes and the adventures deep inside the Amazon rainforest. At the end of my trip, Peru still shines brightest in my memory, surrounded now by a dozen other jewels. Maybe it’s a backpacker’s version of a first love thing or maybe it’s real.

Sun-scorched Africa appears barely any closer. It is there that I saw the raw reality of human condition closer than I ever imagined it before. Thinking of the transformational encounters on this trip, the weeks in the Nairobi slum are one of the two experiences that immediately come to mind.

From there to the undefinable Iran, the spiritual Himalayas and the stretched beaches of Goa. These already seem far away as well. Even the streets of old Saigon that I’m looking at as I type these lines seems to be disappearing into the past before my eyes.

Do all these experiences feel so far because they didn’t actually happen a month, two or five ago? Maybe they were always part of me and the landscapes, the people, the ideas and the conversations encountered on this trip have only brought them to light. 

That’s anyway how I feel today, pulling the strings on my muddy ripped backpack one last time. I feel less like having seen new countries and landscapes and more like having uncovered new perspectives within myself that allowed me to appreciate life around me, be it in Arequipa, Nyiragongo or Hanoi, differently than before. And wasn’t this the whole purpose of leaving?

Today, my excitement with returning home is close to zero. There will be wet eyes when the cab picks me up in a couple of hours to drive me to the airport and then again when the plane takes off and the pilot sets the bearing westward. The rewards of travelling were so many and so profound that it is hard not to feel sad, fearful that life around the next turn in the road will not be as colourful and rewarding.

But when I cut through the sadness of these last couple of days, I am mostly endlessly grateful. Grateful not only for having had the experience that so few have the opportunity or the self-permission to live, but even more grateful to have a home, kind people, security, freedom, abundance and prosperity to return to. I would have learnt nothing in the past months if I was complaining about what awaits me on Monday.

I also realize that there is no reason to believe that the new inner perspectives that I uncovered in the past months will not be there, still with me, when the plane touches down in Brussels. 

Tomorrow, I will visit a new country on the road. Meet new people. Hear new stories. Be perceptive to new ideas. I will enter into a new meditation retreat – different kind, certainly, but still a meditation retreat. I will allow this next destination – the quirky and mysterious ancient kingdom of Belgium – to unlock further perspectives in me just as the previous destinations have done. 

Tomorrow, I will be travelling still and again. The road goes on forever!

motorbiking through Vietnam

After 8 months on the road, Vietnam was the last country that I was to visit on this trip. I decided to do it North to South (I needed to buy an inbound ticket to somewhere) and on a motorbike (as it seems to be what everyone I met elsewhere was talking about when talking about Vietnam).

As per usual by now, I had zero other plans when I landed at Hanoi International. I took a taxi to the city and found a nice hostel. At the reception, I ran into Simon – a guy with a broadly similar plan as me, full of energy and 100% chill. He’s now sitting next to me while I’m writing this post on his macbook in Ho Chi Minh City all the way down south and almost a month later.

And what a great trip it was, what a country! Vietnam in one word is “green”. Vietnam in two words is green and full of big smiles expressing what words can’t. It is peaceful with few signs of the painful history. And it is oozing with life on every street corner, every rice field, every gas station and every one of the countless small temples or other gathering places. All this is connected with one long winding road taking you from a smile to a bigger smile, from green to lusher green, from life to life at the next level of intensity. Vietnam!

Rather than me trying to write more (I really need to get out of here ASAP to get lost in the streets of HCMC for the last few days of my trip), I’ll leave you with a bunch of pictures of this place. Check the map to see exactly where I was getting lost & put Vietnam on your to do travel list if you haven’t  yet done so.

Hanoi

 

fishy business
track redevelopment
downtown Hanoi
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urban pagoda
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Uncle Ho memorial
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bike store
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where the intellectuals rent bikes
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leaving Hanoi never easy

Ha Giang


essence of Vietnam
taking selfies

the quintessence of this road trip:

 

 

Bai Tu Long Bay



To the South

“The American War”

into the void
rain pause; playing Xiangqi
dinner preps
lost again
Paradise Cave, Phong Nha
green

aaaaargh

buffalos chillin
rain pause #2
breakfast
smiles everywhere
Bai Dinh – one of largest Buddhist temple complexes

buddha buddha buddha buddha buddha buddha buddha buddha buddha buddha
lotus fields
yoga rider

smoky air
field burning

tradition meets modern

Hue & Hoi An

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warriors
explaining life with swastikas
street vendor
green @ the market
tasty meat
endless variety of fruits

becoming a yoga teacher

Before starting my round-the-world trip, one of the few things on my agenda was a yoga teacher course. I figured I will have the time to spend one month in a yoga studio and that it will be a good opportunity to deepen my practice.

As the months went by, I was doing research and asking for good courses at every yoga studio I visited. I was almost completely flexible on timing and location, but wanted to find a set of good teachers in a genuine yogi environment. After dozens of options that did not match what I was looking for (from courses with great teachers held in posh business hotels in Ko-something in Thailand, sometimes at crazy prices, to remote locations in deep Sri Lanka where one had no idea what exactly will be taught), I gave up on the idea of becoming a yoga teacher this time around.

Months later, I was in Pokhara, Nepal with a couple of days to spare and nothing to do. I walked into a yoga studio, loved the teacher’s approach (one of the best I’ve ever had) and returned the next day for some more. At the end of that second class, the teacher asked me if I ever thought of doing a teacher course, she gave me the address of the school were she usually teaches and off I went. I cancelled my plans to visit Laos, got an Indian visa and booked my flight to Goa.

The one-month teacher course was intense – the days started at 7am and finished at 8pm with only a lunch break in between. Besides two daily asana classes, we listened to the theory of yoga, explored human anatomy and had lessons on “the art of teaching”. We also spent two hours every day in alignment classes focussing on only a couple of poses each day, learning how to get in and out of them properly, how to align them in every last detail, how to feel them energetically, how to adjust them for people with different health issues, how to use props and more. We closed every day with evening meditations that ranged from team-building techniques, to self-discovery methods, chakra meditations and analytical meditations on topics such as self-confidence or – this one seem to be coming back – see here – death.

All in all, the course was very technical and provided me with an in-depth understanding of basic yoga topics. As much as I appreciated this, I missed the slightly more esoteric approach and deeper discussions about our respective yoga practices. I missed being guided by experienced, wise teachers with decades of experience rather than by, although great and enthusiatic, still very young teachers who were only beginning to seriously discover the path themselves. Amidst tons of technical information I missed some wisdom that could help me grow my practice to the next level. But I guess that remains for me to discover for myself on the mat. Working on it with lots of enthusiasm and patience. Namaste!

(Note: most of the pics below are not mine but were taken by my yogi friends)

wheel it
busy schedule
examining the leg muscles
the art of physical adjustments
kissing the wall
strapped cobra
planning a class
no more prana
to be is to yoga
fly me high
gender fluidity: preggy yoga
corpses
acro yoga
Goa dancers
beach fun
getting into wheel
fish me
shoulder stand: perspective
happy times
the wall of alignment
class outline
anatomy class
stretched
Goa beach

10 days of silence

Finally an update! The last leg of my trip has taken me to Asia. After a cultural immersion in Iran and a close encounter with nature in the Himalayas it was time for some sprituality and personal growth.

Randomly enough, it was on the white sand beaches of Kenya that I first heard about Kopan Monastery. Yet another example of how travelling flexibly without an itinerary or a timetable leads only to good things.

Kopan is a buddhist temple tucked away in the hills outside Kathmandu, Nepal. I visited them to participate in a 10-day course entitled Discovering Buddhism, which the monastery has been offering since the mid-1970s when the first hippies descending onto Nepal.

When I applied, the course was still called “Introduction to buddhism and meditation” and so I expected to learn some basic meditation tricks and listen to some light, new age talk on reaching my full potential. Nothing like that! The course was a full-blown overview of the main buddhist teachings. The topics varied from more familiar stuff such as karma or importance of compassion to more fundamental and harder-to-grasp ideas of equanimity, non-duality, death and rebirth.

The Buddhists do not believe in god, rules or ready-made paths to spiritual growth. Rather, they teach that if any spiritual realisation is to be beneficial to an individual, it must spring from her or his own analysis and experience. This is why, after each lecture, the monks and nuns lead us in guided analitical meditations during which we focussed on the presented ideas and investigated how they resonate with us. We meditated on the value of our life, its purpose, how to increase compassion towards others, how to see all the people as equal and on other topics, including on the death process and how it can occur any minute now. Powerful stuff!

The impact of the meditations was strenghtened by the silence that we had to keep each day from dinner to after lunch the following day. By pinning a yellow ribbon on your chest you communicated to the other participants that you wanted to remain silent 24/7. To disconnect the brain from the outside world, all electronic devices had to be checked-in with the monks at the beginning of the course.

Before starting the course, the complete seclusion worried me a bit. In a world where endless chats (not to mention the ever-so-urgent work emails) have to be responded immediately, Facebook likes appreciated a dozen times a day to keep one’s self-image strong and news refreshed hourly to make sure we didn’t miss an impeachment, the idea of disconnecting is scary. What will become of me if one day Whatsapp does not buzz at least 20 times?? The same goes for in-person conversations. How often we speak and speak with not much to say just to keep our egos tamed and so that we do not have to face the silence or listen to the other person.

To my surprise, however, the experience of silence was soothing and very enjoyable. The first day I decided to stay completely quiet and stayed so for the whole 10 days. It was probably the most revealing experience of my whole trip. After a couple of days of nothing polluting your brain, the mind slows down and becomes calm. It feels like inhaling a lungful of fresh mountain air only that you are doing it with your mind. The ego stops its eternal grind. The comparison of everything with everything else ceases. The constant planning for the next step makes no more sense as there is nothing to plan. In this empty space, your head is fresh, your mind reset. Thoughts become clearer and conclusions sometimes painfully simple. Most of all, with only three to four ideas worth focussing on every day, the process of thinking regains its sharpness and pleasantness. The difference is huge.

The long silence revealed something else. Leaving the monastery after 10 days of silence I was very aware of every word I said. This strong awareness only lasted for a couple of days but that was enough to realise that each word, each sentence, each idea takes energy to be expressed and understood by the other person. Being aware of this, I repeatedly stopped myself from speaking because the words I was about to say were either not necessary, not kind, did not contribute meaningfully to the conversation or did not engage the person I was speaking to. During these few days I experienced very palpably that most of the words we say are redundant. This was a powerful insight that I am now working on strengthening and keeping with me as I slowly prepare to return home to a world where keeping words rare and kind will be more challenging. 

But challenges are what keeps us going. And if I ever feel like I’m losing the battle, I can always return to the Himalayas to search for more silence.

Kopan
main stupa
meditation hall
meditation cushions
 

view of Kathmandu

Patan, Kathmandu
street table tennis
KTM hipsters
Hindu temple
yogis
body cremation
Boudha, Kathmandu

trekking in the Himalayas

I just came back from a 10-day trek in Nepal zig-zagging between the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna ranges. I chose an alternative, non-touristic path and so walked in total peace from village to village where I spent the nights with the locals and barely any tourists. I eventually reached the foot of the mountains yet stayed so very far from their unattainable peaks.

The Himalayas are a world apart in which the mountains are majestic queens towering over everything else. Their height and volume are humbling and awe-inspiring but also calming and soothing. Nature at its best.

Reflections of Annapurna

From Dhaulagiri to Annapurna
sunrise over the Annapurna range

Dhaulagiri flags
the World’s rooftop

South face of Dhaulagiri
Reaching new heights – Annapurna South
highlander
Magar village
Magar village
path to Annapurna
sunny peaks above the clouds

land of contradictions

Iran is a land of contradictions and shattered preconceptions.

There is nothing further from the idea of Iran I had before visiting than Iran itself. It is a country that is extremely easy to visit, filled with nice and cheap homestays, comfortable buses and tons of things to see. But its most incredible feature (and by far) are its people – kind, gentle, helpful and, in many ways, open. When the locals take care of you, you forget time and again that you are actually visiting the “axis of evil”.

Persian cities are beautiful beyond measure. The endless bazaars, colourful mosques and palaces, water gardens, scenic deserts and on and on. Even Tehran is beautiful in its own gloomy way. Because I write these lines (with some delay as per usual) on a Nepali wi-fi, I will not upload many photos with this post. There would be too many & I have already posted hundreds on Instagram (link), where you should really check them out.

But Iran is also full of contradictions. It is a country where alcohol is strictly prohibited, yet flows in rivers at home parties. No one seriously worries about getting in trouble for it. People worry just as little about offering MDMA to unknown foreigners at said parties. With its strict prohibition on drugs, Iran is the country with biggest drug addition problem in the world. Women are veiled to show humility, yet they proudly show off their noses covered in bandages indicating plastic operations. Gay people “do not exist” / are randomly executed every now and then, yet young people claim being gay to steer clear of army duty. The government also fully sponsors gender reassignment surgeries making Iran one of the countries where they are most common. It is a land of extremely nice people, who won’t think twice before running you over with their car. And while Iranians have lots of style they also love their plastic sandals. And so on and on… it’s a country of contradictions making it all the more interesting.

So go book your flights now! Iran should be right there at the top of your bucket list.

Where to stay:

Teheran – See you in Iran hostel, Kashan – Noghli house, Isfahan – Howzak house, Yazd – Hostel Oasis.

Iranian desert, Kerman
Yazd
Shah mosque, Isfahan
Kashan
Tehran
Traditional Iranian house