finding Berlin (2018)

It was clear, from their very first conversation, that one of the things that drew them together was a shared desire to travel, so it was natural that within weeks of meeting, they started thinking about where they’d like to take their first trip together …

It’s a big step, travelling with someone for the first time, but, as the saying goes, when it’s right, it’s right.  And it felt right from the very start.  It was nevertheless important to find somewhere neither of them had been to before so everything, from the food to the language, the sights to the people – were new. In that way, the experience would be exclusively theirs, together.

Berlin ticked all those boxes.

It’s one of those cities that is always going to be a fascinating place to visit.  It has no choice but to look its recent history in the eye … and try to move on, all the while reinventing itself in the eyes of the rest of the world, and its own. No mean feat, when at every turn in this extraordinary city, there are stark reminders of the atrocities of a world at war. From Checkpoint Charlie to vast stretches of the Berlin Wall still looming grey against the skyline, both with moving exhibitions about the desperate impact on the lives of Berlin’s communities, as the city was divided into East and West. The powerful grandeur of the Brandenburg Gate, standing proud and defiant, the site of one of the most iconic scenes in recent German history when thousands celebrated as the Wall fell in 1989, and representing now not so much the a divided Germany, but more a symbol of unity and freedom.

IMG_0742.JPG

A city very much coming to terms with its past, respecfully and quietly. This struck them no more so that at the Holocaust Memorial. Over 2,500 giant block of grey concrete, set out to deliberately confuse on an undulating piece of land near the city centre.  Even on a sunny day, the atmosphere was eerie and desolate with a clever play of light as the shadows played on the stones – a deeply thought provoking homage to the murdered Jews of Europe.

IMG_0732.JPG

Berlin’s history is fascinating and tragic, and it is all too easy to spend time there feeling pulled down by the weight of it.  There is no escaping the past but there is no doubt that this is a city that passionately strives to look forward.  None more so that in Kreusberg, the cool suburb where they stayed, giving them snap shot into the lives of modern day Berliners – families to-ing and fro-ing on their bikes, music flowing out of the bars along the riverbank, every kind of cuisine, street art … the hip place to be.

They found a tiny ruin bar just off the river front, a building that they wouldn’t have given a second glance to without the recommendation of their host, graffiti covered, down an uninspiring side street. But what a find.  Inside, the young owners had imaginatively turned this desolate building into a warm and welcoming bar, candlelit nooks and warm smiles, the younger generation celebrating their city and reinventing something old into something new and exciting.  It was Berlin in a nutshell!

 

 

 

finding Dubrovnik (2018)

The view of the medieval city walls was quite different to how it had looked the day before, when they’d walked its perimeter over several hours, taking in, from above, the maze of narrow cobbled alleyways within.  The old town had suffered its fair share of conflict over the centuries, not least of which the bombardment in the early 90s, when over two-thirds of the historic town’s buildings were hit by artillery during the break up of Yugoslavia. It took a UNESCO led initiative to reconstruct the town back to its former splendour, its turbulent history sand-blasted out of the stone, topped with new terracotta tiles adorning the roofs.

IMG_0062.jpg

However for the first time in history, the city walls had themselves received over one hundred direct hits, and from their new vantage point, the scars were there to see.

The opportunity to see the city from the sea was too good to miss, despite the reservations of her girlfriend who had envisaged a rather more relaxing break in the sun.  So, it was not without some trepidation (neither of them having even set foot in a canoe before), they took to the water, under the watchful eye of their tour guide and the rest of the group, far younger and rather intrigued by the sight of two women who should have known better giggling their way out into the bay, struggling to control the direction of their unruly kayak.

Once they’d fathomed how to synchronise their strokes, they’d settled into an easy rhythm, unwilling to admit to their aching backs and knees, sore arms and sunburnt faces tingling with the salty spray.  It wasn’t for the faint hearted, and 3 hours in, paddling against the current, getting back to the safety of the harbour was no mean feat for even experienced kayakers.  And wet didn’t even begin to describe the state of their underwear – perhaps wet suits would have been a better idea! But they did it, and did not embarrass themselves by floating unchecked towards the horizon (it happened) or falling overboard (that happened too)!

And they managed to keep up with the kids! So, in the end, it’s all about perspective!  Like the town wall, they might have been showing signs of having been around for a while, but they’d lived to fight another day!

 

img_0113

 

 

 

 

 

finding the Northern Lights (2018)

“Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly.  Choose happiness”

(Brionnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying)

A new chapter had begun. A page turned.

She’d left a job of the last thirteen years to take another that, she hoped, would give her a better quality of life.  It was a time for change. It felt like the stars were aligned … and she was feeling brave.

Feeling brave is feeling empowered, and so, in that precious week of freedom between leaving one job and starting the next, she pushed her boundaries just that little bit more and booked a flight to the northern most parts of Norway to follow a life long dream to see the northern lights.

Research shows that to stand the best chance of seeing them, there needs to be darkness, and lots of it.  And the best way to find that is to head just about as far north as civilisation allows, to a tiny city called Tromso.  Linked to the main land by a elegant arched bridge, the island of Tromsoya is located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle,  where, during the polar night lasting from November to January, the sun does not rise at all.

The darkness apart, never having been a skier, she had also never before experienced a landscape eternally shrouded in its winter coat.  It was difficult for her to imagine, therefore, a land where it is like this for months on end, which is why she wanted to see it for herself.

The flight out of Oslo gave her the first glimpse of what she had been looking for.  In the eerie twilight blue, the jagged crevices and undulating contours of the bleak barrenness were outlined in every detail by the snow, norwegian firs piercing through, standing proud and defiant in this unforgiving landscape, so much more beautiful here than the one she’d left behind still holding up the gaudy remnants of the festive season at home. On they flew, two hours north of Oslo, on and on, north and north, leaving behind day light hours, and speeding towards a land of perpetual dark.

On her first morning, a violent noise, like someone throwing grit at her bedroom window, woke her with a start.  What she’d noticed when she arrived the night before was how quiet everywhere was.  Not only does a colder climate discourage anyone from venturing out, but the snow muffles any sounds, from passing traffic to voices, thus amplifying the strange and foreign sound, which turned out to be the snow plough doing its morning rounds, clearing the road outside her room after several feet of snowfall while she’d slumbered in the early hours.

In the south of England, on a “bad” year, we might do the depths of winter, or at least our perception of it, for a week or so. We momentarily marvel at the white, sparkling beauty of  a couple of inches of freshly fallen snow, then we grind to a halt. We moan that the trains don’t run on time (if at all).  We begrudgingly clear our drives and slip-slide our unresponsive cars onto roads often ill prepared for a cold snap, with gritting lorries cajoling the main arteries into life, but anywhere else left to the eagerness of its residents to get to work with a shovel.  We dig out our warmest clothes, raid the food stores as if the cold snap is unlikely to ever end, become neighbour friendly in ways we never do in “normal” times, start making homemade soup …. and wait for the thaw.

So different there … they are prepared and several feet (not inches) of snow is the norm. As is the multiple layers of clothing required to even step outside the door.  It certainly takes longer to get ready to go out for the day!

Apparently the way to walk best on frozen ground is to walk like a penguin … not something she ever really mastered and even had to be rescued from the middle of a cross roads when she froze on the spot (literally) trying to decide in which direction she would least likely end up on her derriere!  A kindly octogenarian, came dashing across the road with astonishing nimbleness, and came to her rescue.  It seems the key is not to walk like a penguin, but clip on spikes! She needn’t have worried though – by necessity everything moves slowly – the people (it’s all those clothes) and even the traffic!

IMG_5500

Tromso, dotted with centuries-old painted houses, was a centre for seal hunting, trapping and fishing, and later a launch pad for several notable Arctic expeditions. A truly fascinating place to explore in the mornings, the blue twilight creating an enchanting and surreal landscape before darkness set in, and the town retreated to snug indoors by candlelight, in front of cosy fires and generous bowls of steaming reindeer stew.

Afternoons were for sleeping …  for the real reason for her visit happened of course, at night.

She had three chances to see the northern lights.  Three nights to find what she had dreamed of seeing for as long as she could remember …

The first two nights were too cloudy, so she awoke on her final day knowing that it was now, or probably never.  To cushion the potential disappointment of not seeing them at all, she had booked a husky sleigh ride for that morning.  Two to a sleigh, with a team of excitable barking huskies straining at the reins, they left the city lights behind and headed into the snowy barrenness. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of her life – Wednesday mornings would never quite be the same again.

IMG_5562

And so it came to the last night.

Two minibuses set out in search of the elusive lights, higher and higher, deeper and deeper into the icy wonderland, then stopped to set up campfires and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  It was approaching midnight, by which time she had retreated into the warmth of the minibus and closed her eyes, resigned to the fact that it wasn’t to be.  Then there was a loud banging on the door. “Come quick! The lights!”.  And there they were, drifting across the night sky before her eyes in their magical dance, a green luminescent cloud, shifting and undulating like a flock of murmuring swallows.

There were no words …

IMG_5618

 

 

 

 

finding Myanmar III (2017)

 

Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay” was the majestic Irrawaddy river.  Her route north to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, was rather dustier – think long, poorly constructed roads clinging to the hillsides, with motorbikes weaving erratically between the traffic and the potholes,  carrying anything from a family of four to towers of vibrant flowers destined for market.

IMG_4837.jpg

It felt like the true beginning of their journey, leaving behind intensely populated and oppressively hot Yangon, to start getting under the skin of this fascinating country.  She’d never before been on a guided trip like this – two weeks where every minute is carefully itinerated.  It would be easy to write about it like a long tick list of places seen … we went there, we did this … but that wasn’t the point.  This was all about having the privilege of visiting a country that, after years of military dictatorship and ethnic feuding, was just dipping a tentative toe into tourism, so rare to find in a world where travel to far-flung places can be done at the touch of a button.

So then, it must come down to the memories that stay so vivid with the passing of time, that they are as clear as if they happened yesterday …

… the long line of saffron-clad bare-footed novice monks, dull eyes, heads closely shaven, queueing with empty bowls for their meagre lunchtime ration in front of a crowd of camera-totting tourists. A life of monastic discipline, cut off from their families and the outside world until they are old enough to decide for themselves which path they want to take.  For those considered fortunate enough to be here, an escape from poverty and an opportunity of an education – in the eyes of a western tourist, a life without freedom of self-expression, a childhood taken, and a uncomfortable insight into a cloistered life, prostituting itself for the sake of a tourist dollar.

… lying in bed in the early hours, listening to the night calls of unseen animals and deafened by the thunder of monsoon rains on the corrigated iron roof of their chalet deep in the teak plantations at Maymyo, high up in the Shan Highlands. Rains .. and sounds .. like she’d never heard before.

… the best part of a day sweltering on a rattan recliner aboard a paddle-steamer meandering it’s way down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to the ancient city of Bagan, past under-nourished oxen working barren fields, golden stupa jutting above dense, jungle-clad riverbanks, endless rice paddies, and children splashing in the muddy shallows as their mother rinsed yesterday’s longyi, passing snapshots of rural poverty masked in the beauty of this untouched landscape.

… setting off before dawn for a hot air balloon flight over the temples of Bagan. An eerie silence broken only by the hissing of gas as the balloon serenely rose and drifted over this vast plain, over 2,000 buddhist monuments peeping through the early morning mist. And returning later to climb one of the pagodas to watch in awe the setting of the sun over this most ancient of worlds. … magical times.

 

 

 

 

… speeding across the vast serene waters of Inle Lake, fringed by marshes and floating gardens, stilt-house villages and buddhist temples, marvelling at the Intha fishermen, famed for fishing on one leg, and the curious Kayan people, whose woman consider their long necks encased in brass coils a thing of beauty. Such strange and foreign lands …

 

 

 

 

… most of all, the people.  It takes a trip like this to know what poverty truly looks like.  To know how fortunate are those who have running water, a roof over their heads, and  the certainty of another meal. These things so often taken for granted, when so many people in the world cannot.  And yet, they found people who were respectful, courteous and generous with their time … of course, just waking up to the potential riches a visiting tourist could bring, but nevertheless, grounded by their faith, and genuine with their smiles.

Myanmar, such a privilege, such a place … memories that would stay with her forever …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

finding Myanmar II (2017)

What is faith?

She did not believe in a god as such, but equally she had never wanted to believe that the here and now, this life on this earth, is all there is.  She did not think that praying to a greater power was the way to heal, find happiness or seek whatever we are looking for, but she did believe that we all have the power within ourselves to find our path.

Nevertheless, she had always been fascinated by those whose lives are rich because of their faith, who find answers where she had never looked, who believed that a greater power would hold their hand and guide their way.  She did not understand, did not judge, but in many ways envied their total belief that that they would find their way, because they believed.  It is love and it is hope … however and wherever we find it.

Buddhism had touched her life when she had dipped in and out of yoga and meditation practices over the years, and she was curious to see a country where faith was not a lifestyle choice but a life’s journey.  On her travels, she had always found extraordinary, whatever the faith, the desire to demonstrate ones commitment to ones faith by donation, often, it seemed to her, by the most poor to the most rich …. even more extraordinary, here in Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in the world,  to see gleaming gold pagodas peeping out of the vegetation at every turn, as their plane came in to land.

It would be churlish and disrespectful to say that it’s all in the size of your pagoda … or indeed your buddha!  But there are a lot of them, and some of them are huge!

A large shed, north of Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon, houses the impressive Reclining Buddha – 66 meters long!  White face staring benevolently down, a vision of gold robe, red lips and finger nails, and feet so large that a platform has been erected at its feet to read the 108 characters painted on the soles.

IMG_4764.jpgBut this had nothing on the Shewedagon Pagoda.

For a buddhist, especially a buddhist in Myanmar, this 98m high gilded stupa which dominates Yangon’s skyline, is regarded as the most sacred buddhist pagoda in all of Myanmar.

Monks, swathed in their distinctive saffron robes, going about their day, gliding silently amongst those who had come to pay their respects and those, like her, who had come to see this most sacred of shrines as the sun came down.

IMG_4790.jpgBarefoot, she walked around the stupa, gold, resplendent, towering above her.  It was one of those moments when being a tourist feels invasive, out of place.  So important to respect the privilege it was to be there. Everywhere, the offering of prayers and flowers, and the lighting of candles around the vast perimeter of the padoga.  Flames flickered in the sultry evening breeze, the sun slowly fell in the evening sky, its glow falling onto the gold stupa …. a hush descended on the gathering crowds, a moment to be still, to think, to pray .. .

It was spell-binding.  It was faith …. and it was beautiful.

IMG_4794.jpg