Serenity in a barrel of diamonds

There are few sports that can be so exhilarating and full of adrenaline, yet still bring moments of supreme peace and tranquility.   There are few sports that allow you to get a damn exhausting full body workout and give you a chance to work on your tan at the same time.  There are few sports that allow one man to harness the raw power of Mother Nature, from her surging waves and powerful rip tides to easy swells and gentle currents.  If this sport sounds up your alley…the world of surfing is out there waiting for you.

 

Many people see surfing as one of those extreme sports that not everyone can be good at – and there is a learning curve to it, no doubt.  But with the right beginner break and a few days of nothing to do but relax and practice catching that swell, you would be surprised how quickly your body and mind catch on.  Once you perfect your balance when popping up from the board on a day of crumbling waves (a soft top long board is highly recommended for beginners!) and riding those in to shore, it is all a matter of strengthening your arms and reading the waves.  Practice paddling and increasing your stamina towards the end of every set to pump up your shoulder muscles for the next run.  Sit and watch the pros as they gauge the wave, when they paddle, how long they wait til they stand up, and how they balance once they do.  You may not be riding barrels in the first week, but the sensation of catching that first wave is enough to send anyone back for another try!!

 

Near the end of my day surfing in Kuta Bali, Indonesia, I decided to take a break and enjoy a moment of the sunset.  Straddling my board out beyond the break, farther even than the local surfers catching major waves that carry them almost all the way into shore, I turn away from the beach and bask in the orange rays of the dying sun.  Their reflection glints off the water like a thousand shimmering crystals, and the hazy clouds on the horizon permute the colours into everything from an optimistic yellow to a soulful hue of red.  I float gently on the calm ocean, bobbing on small swells that grow in size while approaching shore and giving the surfers behind me exactly what they want.  But at the moment I am seeking another aspect of the sport.
I am alone between the sea and the sky, being watched over by the sun, soaking in the last of the warmth it has to offer.  The beauty of the scene is fit for any postcard, and the moment lingers as the silence allows thoughts from the depths of my mind to come out and play on the quiet breeze for me to ponder.  The minutes pass as I take my time and enjoy the simplicity of the moment.  One man, 8 feet of longboard, and the eternity of nature stretching both outwards around me and inwards to the depths of my soul.

Life is good, but living it is even better.

Feeling refreshed and renewed, I again turn my eyes towards shore and promise myself I will catch the next big one home.  I lay forward on the board and paddle one stroke at a time with muscles rested and ready for the challenge ahead.  I glance over my shoulder and catch the sunset glittering through the mouth of a barrel wave curling out far behind me,  the wave seeming to be a carpet of diamonds glinting in splendor before collapsing in upon itself in hopeless chaos.  From the foam emerges a new swell, and I sense this is my chance.  I pull myself forward, four paddles, five, and the wave has me.  I can feel the acceleration as I am picked up by the immense power of the water, and I scramble to my feet.  The feeling of dropping into the wave, picking up speed as if growing wings and taking flight, is unparalleled to anything I have felt before.  To my left and right are local surfers cutting back and forth across the wave with gleeful abandon.  I don’t have those skills yet…but for me, the reward of knowing I have reined in the power of nature is enough.

It even makes up for being hopelessly battered in the surf all day.  =/

The Lottery You Never Knew You Won

This is a post done by a friend of mine on Facebook and I really liked it. I will cite my sources: This is by Madison “Big Cat” Schwartz. Awesome dude, and apparently he can write too! Our favourite pastimes include discussions about Russia, politics and failed states as well as doing push up competitions while drunk. Which I won. Even though he was in the army.  He also likes pizza.  Here is a picture of him in a bath with another man and a teddy bear named “Mrs. Bear”.

Told you he was awesome.

Take it away, Big Cat!

Whenever I meet people for the first time, the subject of travel seems to inevitably come up. Traveling is a major part of my life, I love it, and thus, I seem to always end up talking about it. People are sometimes unsure how to start planning, and saving for a trip, and a common response when I invite someone to travel with me, or to travel in general is “…Ya… when I win the lottery”. Well, here’s the thing, you’ve already won it, so pack your bags.

Think about your life. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re from a middle-class family, in the Western world. Now, I’m not a statistician, I’m not going to bombard you with numbers, but I wager you’re pretty stoked that you haven’t been born one of those people that live on less than $2 a day. These people number approximately 2.8 billion, we number considerably less. Not everyone in the world today has the opportunity to travel, we do, and we should take advantage of it. In addition, because of where we live, none of us were pressed into military service at the age of 18 (more than eighty countries worldwide still enforce some level of conscription, effectively removing the ability to backpack freely, at least for a time).

Now think about the era into which you’ve been born. Many of our grandparents, and great grandparents had the opportunity to visit Europe, or Asia, but it certainly wasn’t for pleasure (this is a reference to the World Wars, for those who are less historically inclined). We live in the freest era the world has ever seen, we’re not expected to join the army, get married, have children, or own a home by the time we’re 25, we can, but we don’t HAVE to. We’re part of what’s being dubbed the “boomerang generation”, we have a unique opportunity to have been born into a time when it is very acceptable to pursue a travelers lifestyle for a few years, and most of us still have the safety net of a home to come back to.

We live in the era of air travel. Sometimes, bleary eyed, and pissed off at the lack of movie selection on my 12 hour flight to Bangkok, I have to remind myself that only a few decades ago that same journey took several weeks, and a ship full of hearty sailors. Take advantage of this era when flight prices are at all time lows, don’t wait for that big retirement trip in forty years, the way things are going, there might be no aviation fuel left. Pretty good timing for us I’d say.

And yes, I know, even though all these things have added up to create an era where world travel is possible, it still costs a pretty penny, but here’s a clichéd idea you could try. If you’re a student like me, you drink a shitload of coffee, and odds are you buy your coffee at $5 a cup from the capitalist heathens at Starbucks. Brew your own for a year, and pocket the fivers, and next year we’ll go to this little café I know in Bangkok, and the coffees are on me. Deal? Deal.

Who said travel days had to be boring??

One would think that since the word ‘travel‘ implies moving from place to place, then travellers would be accustomed to such a thing. Some more than others do enjoy the thrill of heading somewhere new and unknown, but I have seen more than a little dread cross someone’s face when they look at the endless kilometres that must be traversed to their next fun destination.



Night train with a solid crew!


Crossing a border? We’ve got you covered on all party fronts!


Although the saying “It’s not the destination but the journey that matters” is true in the larger sense of your life long journey, try quoting that to a haggard soul who has been on a train for 36 hours and they might tell you different. Travel in most people’s experience involves seeing new places and experiencing new things, not just passing them by at 80 km/hour. And so the oft-dreaded ‘travel day‘ is born. Luckily, Free & Easy has a solution to that.

With Captain “Clown College” Coolin in charge, a course was set for epic-ness!


It all started on the ferry back to the mainland…


Travel with Free & Easy is not comparable to anything I have ever experienced. What might have been a long, lonely, iPOD filled ride (better hope that battery doesn’t run out!) if you were travelling solo or with a friend has the potential to turn into a massively mobile party on wheels. You are never alone without someone to share a conversation with when you are in a group of 20+ happy, friendly people travelling the same direction without a care in the world except when is the next bathroom break (or beer stop!). Whether it is chillaxing on a ferry from one paradise island to the next, playing games at the pier waiting for a transfer, or enjoying the wind whip your hair into a frenzy in the back of a truck, Free & Easy travel days are anything but boring!

The girls enjoy the wind in the back of a Song Thaew

While the boys take the back of a pick up

Indeed, they have perfected the recipe for group travel over the past decade, and even provide the Thailand trip with the ultimate travel vehicle: the PARTY bus! Equipped with a devastating sound system, indoor siren lights, and a leather couch at the back, the party bus is an explosion waiting to happen like a chemical reaction. Take a group of fun loving people, add costumes, a few road pops (that’s allowed in Thailand, and for that matter pretty much anywhere outside of the western world), some sweet tunes and maybe a rainbow coloured wig, enclose for 3 hours, shake it up with some on bus crowd surfing and a bumpy road and BOOM! Party time! You are at your destination in no time, and kind of sad to be getting off the bus!


Party bus!!! With Bryn, Sara, Kimber, Coolin and me.

Aly, Kyle and Shawn join us while Roanne decides its roof dancing time!

The costumes get busted out – wigs and all!

Kirb-stomp finishes off the bucket by her lonely self =)


Even bathroom breaks can be a blast!

Even when things go wrong on a Free & Easy travel day, there is always a silver lining hidden in the clouds. While travelling from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang on the LTC, my group experienced quite heavy traffic due to excessive mud on the road caused by recent landslides. At first we were expecting a few hour delay and grabbed some snacks and beers from local roadside villagers, but as we edged our way around some clifftop roads and the tires slipped closer to the edge with every tap of the brakes, we knew something was up. As time wore on we realized we were in this for the long haul…it looked like we were going to be delayed over 15 hours and would have to spend the night on the bus! Not to be discouraged, we made friends with some of the locals to ferry a few crates of beverages to and from the bus for us to enjoy, and after a few hours of hanging out on the bus we decided to go and explore the local cliffside village. The locals were excited to see us, as they don’t have much exposure to foreigners except in the odd roadside stop. The women of the village graciously offered us food for free as we were quite hungry and stranded with no dinner, but we understood the plight they were in living in such poor conditions so we offered them a fair price of a dollar or two for corn and rice to tide us over until we reached our destination.The children came out and wanted to play games with us, resulting in endless rounds of Stella Ella Olla for the girls and catching cicadas (a noisy but harmless bug about the size of half your palm) and giant bat-sized moths (honestly, it was as big as your hand!) for the boys. I have never seen a child so happy as the boy who had a cicada in each fist – it was like Christmas morning! Who needs that expensive plastic Tonka truck when you’ve got perfectly good bugs to put in your pockets?

Look at that thing! Isn’t it cuuuuuuuuute?
At first we thought it was a bat.

Dani tries to steal local children. “It’s not CREEPY, it’s called the maternal instinct!!” Sure, Dani.

We also discovered that a 4 year old Laos child was much better at catching the cicadas than we were – they had no hesitation to get in there and grab it by the wings or thorax, where a lot of us foreigners would hesitate or recoil because we thought it was gross. It reminded me of how some people hesitate to take the reins on their life and idly watch it pass by from the sidelines – while Free & Easy shows us that it is okay to grab life by the horns and enjoy every minute of it. Even on a travel day!

Songkhran – Country wide water fight!?

Songkran…What is there to say about it? Perhaps one thing: if there is a time of year to be in Thailand, this is it. If there is a place, it is in Chiang Mai. It is in this very place that 16 Free & Easy travelers (and a score of others along for the ride) are lucky enough to celebrate the half week long Thai new year’s festival.

That poor kid looks so confused by all those white devils…
Water accessories not only necessary, but encouraged!
The holiday of Songkran coincides with the coming of the new year in the Thai calendar (among others in South and Southeast Asia). Historically this was a time of cleansing and renewal, and a ritual evolved where water was poured over statues of the buddha to cleanse them of dirt. Afterwards, the “blessed” water that had been poured over the statues would gently be poured over relatives and friends shoulders to cleanse them of any past misdeeds. The holiday has largely modernized into a gigantic country wide water fight, in which it is perfectly acceptable to spray anyone anywhere as long as they are outdoors and it is relatively daytime.
Told you it was gigantic.
Outdoors? Check. Daytime? Check. Spray on!


Jon and Lindsay having a good time blasting people in the face. Note the foresight in buying classic WWI pilot goggles. This isn’t his first rodeo.
Chiang Mai has an Old City surrounded by a moat, which makes for water fight central during this week of warring wetness. To celebrate the holiday in true Free & Easy style, we rented three pickups off of our good friends at Libra Guesthouse and placed a garbage can full of water in the back of each. To be extra sneaky, we bought a few giant chunks of ice to cool the water down and give it that extra kick when you dump a bucket over a stranger’s (or friend’s!) head. We took the pickups for a rip out and around the old city, and by ‘ a rip’ I obviously mean waited in traffic for hours as the roads were full of revellers on foot, bike, and pickup dousing each other mercilessly with unending buckets of water. It was pandemonium! People lining the both sides of every road, two or three deep, and an equal number clogging up the roads themselves, with a few more unfortunate enough to have been pushed into the moat. I made the mistake of choosing the truck packed with Canadian girls…now if that isn’t a target for Thai’s and foreigners alike, I don’t know what is. I tell you, if this water absolves sins, then by the end of this week I will have atoned for every sin of my life. Not that they believe in sin in Buddhism, but you catch my drift. Being in the back of that pickup was like being in a torrential monsoon, non-stop! There was no break in the downpour, not even time to shotgun a beer! That didn’t put a damper on our fun though, as we hopped in and out of our truck, refilling our water guns and going to find our friends and blast them in the face while yelling “Sawat dee bpii mai!”, which means “Happy New Year” in Thai. All in the name of cleansing, right?

Be healed, heathens!
The greatest thing about this holiday (other than being able to be a kid in a water fight again) is the friendliness and openness of the Thai people to strangers. I rode countless motorbikes and jumped on the back of dozens of trucks, just to catch a lift around the corner or to graciously refill my empty water gun with precious ice cold water, which I inevitably turned on those very same Thai people 30 seconds later. It’s a blessing, right? You have to be polite. There were smiles all around, even after a bucket in the face. Locals would cheerily invite you onto their trucks, offering to share their whiskey as they asked about your home country and what you were doing in Thailand. This would all happen while you simultaneously soak every victim in sight. Now there’s a bonding moment.

I’m pretty sure I’m in one of those trucks out there. Or maybe I made that up. You can look for me if you want.
Walking around the moat, you were inevitably targeted by Thais in posession of talc powder mixed with water, often used by monks for blessings but during this week of mayhem it was more for the purpose of face paint. You could expect to walk out of there looking like you were just in a mud fight with your younger sibling. But it washed off easily enough, and your luck should be improved for the rest of the day! More likely than not it would be washed out by the next wave of water to hit you head on. Even the street vendors got into the fun, getting soaked and returning the favour, shooting back with their own wares of water guns and buckets.
This is the only week a year where you can slap a complete stranger across the face with a full bucket of water with no explanation other than a smile. (Preferably a foreigner…the Thai’s are usually more polite with a sprinkle of water from a bucket or a gentle pour over your shoulder). So I know where I’ll be next April…do you?? Sawat dee bpii mai!

Let’s try to find our future.

Alright, I’ll be completely candid with you. I haven’t written in over 2 months, and I find it hard even now to complete a post. I’ve made an effort once or twice, but every time I come back to publish, it just isn’t relevant anymore. So I’m going to do my best to cover the time I’ve spent in Thailand from November on RIGHT NOW, and I know I can’t do it justice, but you’ll just have to bear with me and try your best to fill in the best details on your own, as impossible as that is.

So we spent 6 weeks in November-December in Thailand, the “Land of Smiles.” Which is the main reason no one has heard or read anything from me for almost the entire time. I think I called once and sent a few emails to ensure my parents that we were safe during the protestor take-over of the airport (which was largely blown up in the news). The rest of the time was spent chilling on white sand beaches, exploring limestone caves, snorkeling or scuba diving in crystal blue water, feeding monkeys, riding motorbikes and elephants (I was even allowed to ride on its neck, although it got upset at another elephant, trumpeted and galloped ahead to join with the rest of the herd…holy adrenaline rush!), petting tigers, zip trekking through the jungle, bungee jumping…you get the picture.

The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi…awww look at the little tigerwigerbooboo!
Our double-decker hammock/porch party in Koh Lipeh.
The “Anything goes but clothes” party in Khao Sok! What am I doing over there!?
Our bungalows on Koh Pha-Ngan…site of the infamous Full Moon Party, where you dance on the beach until the sun rises in the morning…literally.

The Shell gas station in Bangkok that turned into a bar at night…complete with candles lighting the tables surrounding the gas pumps =. Can anyone say safety code??

Group shower party on Khao Sok lake trip! What fun!

The culture itself is something to admire about Thailand, with the people being very courteous and respectful, the food delicious and served either in bags (in the case of soup) or banana leaves (and occasionally styrofoam containers =P). Have you ever tried eating soup out of a bag?! Me neither, until today. It’s tough! We have frequented a number of Buddhist temples, Buddhism being the dominant religion of Thailand, although you can find a number of Muslim communities as well. I have been taken aback on island after island at how friendly and kind the people can be to foreigners! All of my favorite places in Thailand are because of the families we have met or the bar staff who have made our stay so much better than it would have been without their special touch. I was even given a Thai name in Koh Lanta: “som chai”, which loosely translates into something resembling “gentleman”. I swore I would be back to some of those islands to visit, and I plan on keeping that promise!

We stayed mostly in the south of Thailand, on some of the most beautiful islands and mainland tourist spots. We did a tour through Free & Easy, a Canadian company that pretty much takes care of everything for you along the way. Nice if you don’t want to plan it out, and definitely recommended for anyone who wants to spend some time in Thailand. Another great thing about the country is how cheap everything is! Dinner will cost you around 50 cents (street food, anyways), a wacky t-shirt might ring up to $4-5, and accomodation at a hostel will be about 2-7 euros ($3-10) a night, depending how luxurious a hostel you want! Ridiculous!

The group on our last dinner together in Bangkok =(

So when it came time to leave Thailand, and we spent 5 days in Hong Kong (dirt cheap by Canadian standards), and I could barely stomach the prices in comparison! When I was faced with the prospect of spending even MORE money in Japan, I couldn’t do it! We’ve also become accustomed to 30 degree weather, I haven’t worn pants a single day in Thailand, and very rarely shirts. So when we hit 15 – 20 degree weather in HK, and started winter jacket shopping, I had a bit of a change of heart. Back to Thailand!!

I was a little hesitant about this decision at first, given that there are so many places I would love to visit and so little time to do it in, and I hated to change our plans last minute. But then I realized that this was the exact nature of the journey I was on, that I can go where I want to, when I want to, and not be afraid to change my plans, or have no plans at all. This trip is not measured by the countries I tick off. It is measured by the people I meet. By the things I learn. By the experiences I have. If I look at it this way, there is nothing lost by going back.