Serendipity is a funny thing. The mind-blowing intersections of fate and intention that lead a person down paths heretofore unconsidered is, without question, my favourite aspect of travel.
We sat, last evening, in the formal dining room of Sir James Wallace, a Knight of the Realm, so honored for his philanthropy. How did we come to be sitting there, eating off his privately commissioned silver, discussing art and opera? We picked up a hitchhiker.
In this case, a hitchhiker who turned out to be a micro-biologist and one of the most interesting travelers we’ve run across in a long while. He tossed his pack into our van and regaled us with stories of crossing China, a protein-per-penny breakdown on the nutritional value of chickpeas, and how Shakespeare and the Brownian theory related to travel. It seems he impressed Sir James as well. He’s now ensconced in the Knight’s mansion-cum-art gallery as the “artist in residence.” He’s creating a planetary mood ring on commission. I can’t tell you how, that would spoil the surprise and endanger his beautiful idea, the intersection of art and computer science.
When considering who he might share his good fortune with, he thought of us, and so we were invited to a private piano concert earlier this week, and dinner last night.
This has got me thinking:
The path would have been entirely different if we’d said, “No,” to any number of tiny questions along the way.
I’m a believer that the Universe conspires to help us, but we have to give her some material to work with.
Serendipity is one of the reasons we travel: in search of those unexpected, delightful connections between worlds that we would not otherwise have a door into.
Have you experienced this? Talk to me about serendipity and where it’s taken you!
In the past few months, I have complained several times about the current status of travel writing and how it does not satisfy my needs.
In this sense, it would have been too easy to just sit there and complain without actually doing something about it. And that’s exactly what I did by joining forces with British travel writer Tom Coote.
We sat down and worked hard to create a new digital magazine: Wicked World.
You can access it by clicking here.
Wicked World exists to promote the kind of travel related writing that wouldn’t normally find an outlet in more mainstream publications. We’re not here to sell expensive guided tours, round the world tickets or travel insurance. On the contrary, we are here to provide a showcase for honest, alternative and irreverent writing, with a particular emphasis on internationally oriented underground culture. And we of course accept related, inspired submissions from like minded travel writers and adventurers.
If you want examples, the very first issue of Wicked World has articles on: the burgeoning black metal scene in Bangladesh; the rarely visited Meroe Pyramids in Sudan; mine clearance in Cambodia; a haunting return to Vicksburg, Mississippi; the resurrection of a mummified monk in Thailand; a bizarre encounter with the police in Kyrgyzstan; System of a Down’s self-financed film about the Armenian Genocide; and a festival for hungry ghosts in Malaysia and Singapore.
In the future, we are planning to provide a syndication service for travel related articles, and to experiment with publishing the kind of eBooks that wouldn’t normally find an outlet through more mainstream publishers.
If you would like to get involved in Wicked World, or would simply like to know more, then send an email to either email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
My travels in northern France have always provided vivid reminders of the battle for Normandy, which raged from D-Day through the summer of 1944. Though partially healed by the decades, scars still remain in the rolling countryside, picturesque villages, and gentle beaches.
Sixty-nine years ago today, the Allies waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy, France, and began the liberation of Europe from Hitler. A US veteran of the Normandy campaign said recently, “Out of my squad of 13, only 3 survived.” His story was not unique. The fighting was ferocious, and casualties on both sides were severe.
On each of my visits to this beautiful area, I have been struck by the locals’ affection for Americans. The French are not normally known for their liking of the US tourist, but in Normandy, the appreciation for the US sacrifice is strong. Several coastal villages fly American flags and bear plaques in the town square commemorating the day of their liberation by US troops in June of 1944.
Some reminders are particularly evocative for me. For example, I find few sites as poignant as the rusted ports lurking in the waves just off the coast of Arromanches-les-Bains.
Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the tiny beach village of Arromanches-les-Bains was chosen to be the main port of the Allies. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports known as “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to move those millions of pounds of Allied men, vehicles, and supplies from ship to shore in the fight against Hitler.
The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.
The years go on, but the echoes remain.
It has occurred to me that the internet is, perhaps, the single greatest boon to the traveling world and, simultaneously, the biggest detriment.
On the one hand, the ability to keep in touch with the people who matter and are left behind, the ability to quickly search destination focused information, the ease of book tickets: plane, train, event or movie in just about any country in the world have made the travel experience so much “easier.” Travelers no longer need to feel like they are “alone” in the world or their experience. Blogs and online communities provide a thriving pool of fellow adventurers who “get it” and who are eager encouragers and a wealth of information for the newbie traveler who is nervously taking his first steps in the great big world. The old standard guidebooks are giving way to first hand, up to the minute information available online with a quick search that delivers a double handful of blogs by likeminded folks who’ve been where you want to go within the last month and are happy to share their favourites as well as their list of “don’t be bothered” for anywhere you want to go. It’s great, right?
Except when it’s not. The thing is, I don’t think most people even realize that it’s not. We’re all so irrevocably “plugged in” that we don’t even realize what we’re missing, but I promise you, we’re missing. Gone is the joy of authentically discovering something new without the pre-read experience of six other bloggers to frame your thought process on what you’re seeing. Gone is the need to hit the ground running and struggle through without “help.” Gone is the quiet within your own mind that comes from being alone in your own soul, without the tether to “everyone and everything.” Gone is the slow blossoming of deep thought and self discovery that comes with that quiet, and that intentional void. Our experiences are constantly compared and measured by those of others, so easily available online. We read our favourite blogs with longing, wishing our lives could be as cool and full of adventure as theirs, without realizing that they are also reading someone else’s blogs, comparing in some other way. The internet has become the ultimate tool for idolizing and one-upping one another in an endless comparison of “experiences.” Only what we’re doing is comparing our weaknesses (which we know all too well from the inside out) to someone else’s strengths (or our perception of them.)
Experiences can’t be compared. It’s like apples to dragon fruit.
It seems hypocritical for someone like me, a blogger, a writer, someone dependent on the internet and the online travel industry to even say such things out loud. I know. Part of me apologizes. But part of me also begs you to unplug, stop reading blogs, quit booking tickets and “experiences” online months in advance and lining out your itinerary like pool balls expertly aimed at velvet pockets. Part of me begs you to step into the void, with faith in the world and trust in your own ability and just go it alone in your own mind for a while. Take a book for company, and a journal to write in. Travel with someone you love or would like to know better. Leave the clamour of the online voices out of it. Those things that are “gone” as a result of our endless connectivity aren’t really gone. They’ve just been beaten out by the incessant beating of other peoples’ drums. You’ll find yourself, your own authentic thought process and experience right where you left them, patiently awaiting your return. I would go so far as to argue that until you’ve found a way to cut that cord and be in one world at a time, you haven’t yet seen the world, really seen it, through your own eyes.
What do you think? What are your experiences? Does the proliferation of travel material and tools online help, or hinder the experience of travel? Have you ever truly unplugged? What happened?
As a fan of great museums, England, and historical stuff in general, I’m excited about a brand new museum that has just opened this week.
Located in the historic dockyard of Portsmouth on England’s picturesque south coast, the Mary Rose Museum houses the sixteenth-century hulk of the HMS Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII’s navy. Built in 1511, the massive warship sank off the coast of England in 1545 while fighting the French fleet. After ages under the waves, her remains were resurrected from the sea by marine archaeologists and installed in the new museum. A museum that, incidentally, is situated in the very dockyard in which the ship herself was constructed.
But it’s the collection of objects from within the ship—thousands of sixteenth-century items being called the largest trove of Tudor-era artifacts ever assembled—that are the real stars of the museum. By a stroke of fate, the silt of the sea floor created a virtually airtight tomb for the small objects within the vessel. The resulting collection of relics is so well preserved that it has been dubbed “the English Pompeii” for its quality and poignancy.
The artifacts on display within the hull include miraculously preserved musical instruments, rosaries, board games, silverware, weapons, book covers, medical equipment, furniture, coins, and even the remains of several of the Mary Rose’s sailors. Facial reconstructions of the recovered skulls put a human dimension to the 500 men who perished with the ship, as do the everyday items they used. Combs with Tudor-era lice still trapped in them are also in the exhibit, as are the remains of the ship’s dog.
Taken together they are sure to tell a story of lives lived and lost within a sixteenth-century ship’s creaking timbers.
I can wait to see this for myself.
“Impressions of the Golden Land” is quite an apt subtitle for Burmese Light as this book literally brings to the table (a coffee-table, to be precise) two kinds of impressions. The visual impressions of photographer Hans Kemp, and the personal travel impressions – translated into words – of Asian-focused writer Tom Vater. If that was not enough, even the publishers’ name, Visionary World, further sanctions the direction of this volume’s journey: a pictorial trip through the Southeast Asian country that has been twitching, boiling, and changing more than any other in recent years. And, to give credit where is due, the impressions “Burmese Light” is made of come from the minds of two adventurers with a long, exciting past of Asian discovery and residence. Believe me: you, the reader, could not find better guides to tackle the lights and shadows of Burma/Myanmar with.
Kemp and Vater have taken an accurate, sensitive and contemporary picture of Burma. This book comes to fill a gap in the travel literature by directly digging back to its own early sources. The volume, in fact, is peppered with citations of writers and scholars who have lived and loved Burma before the authors. Kipling, Orwell, Gascoigne, Wheeler (not the Tony of Lonely Planet fame, to be precise) are just some of the names gracing each chapter’s introductory pages before giving way to the array of powerful visuals provided by Kemp’s camera and Vater’s razor-sharp descriptions and highly graphic prose.
Light and darkness, as I mentioned previously: because the authors decided to present their own take on classic Burmese destinations (Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Bagan), without forgetting to explore other lesser-known places (Mrauk-U and cruising down the Irrawady river). However, this book is not just a particularly vivid travel memoir, as it also presents well researched chapters on many aspects of those traditions Burma is still rich in. Understand about monkhood in the country, learn to respect the cheroot – the most loved local kind of cigar – as a cultural symbol, spread thanaka all over your face, and enjoy the descriptions of street life and food at the intersection of the Southeast Asian and the South Asian worlds. By flipping Burmese Light’s pages I got intensely taken back to the time I ventured along the same dusty potholed roads, finding my way in a completely blackened downtown Yangon that resonated with the rhythmic chug of electric generators. And even if you are not as brave as the authors, be sure that you will feel your armchair blaze in shades of Burmese jade and gold, as long as you will keep this volume open on your lap. This book is a necessary addition to the libraries of all those who consider themselves to be lovers of Southeast Asia.
Check out a video book trailer here
Strangest things we’ve seen lately:
Back home, before 2011 when we hit the road to become The Nomadic Family, we used to not move without seat belts. I would allow the kids to unbuckle only when the car came to a complete stop in the driveway, and not a second earlier. Today, after hitchhiking on the back of banana pickup trucks throughout Central and South America, our motorcycle accident in Cambodia, and most recently, after sitting on the roof of a jungle expedition truck in Gopeng, Malaysia; we no longer regard transportation safety a parental concern. (God help us!) Strangest thing I’ve seen lately, is all five of us on the back of motorcycles on the curvy mountain roads surrounding Da Lat, Vietnam, with not a care in the world. I’ve spent my entire motherhood telling the kids how motorcycles were death traps, and here we are, with the Bull Riders of DaLat, on motorcycles. Strange, and liberating, indeed.
One of the reasons we travel is to reach across cultural boundaries and experience the world from a different perspective. It’s that genuine human interaction between different worlds, within the same space that is the essence of the value of leaving home and “seeing the world.” That connection is the moment that makes all of the uncomfortable moments on the road worthwhile. It’s the window that allows us to really see into a place, and a people. It’s the window that allows us to truly see ourselves and learn about who we are and our place in the world at large.
In our experience, those connections rarely happen on tour buses, or packaged experiences. There’s no way to set them up, or manufacture them for mass market. The moment someone tries, something is lost. The best of them are beautiful serendipities.
Today I’d like to ask my fellow travelers how they make these connections.
We have two, that are effective without fail:
Some of our best friends have been drawn to us while traveling because of soccer balls and musical instruments.
What about you? How do you make connections? What are your best “tricks?” Tell me about your experiences, as I’m seeking to learn and deepen my own!
The following story happened too many times along the back roads of deep Asia. And today, it got me inspired…
They offered me a cup full of hot water and they poured some tea leaves in there, too. It was too hot to handle so I put it down first while I kept observing the surroundings; so many people living in such a small room, kind of bound to it, but blessed by the unique rural environment of families providing for each other. I emptied my glass slowly as it was very hot, as I felt warm eyes all over me and my friends. When it was time to go, the family asked me to take a picture with them and we posed in front of the doorstep, smiling. When I look back at that picture today, I can’t help but laugh looking at the crown of tiny limbs creating a forest of motion behind me. Those naughty kids…
Then, it was time to go back on the road. We passed next to a column of women dressed in traditional clothing and head scarves. They transported wooden baskets full of weeds or small stones on their backs. Observing them, I tried to figure out if in my home country of Italy such kind of menial work is still conducted the way those women did. I quickly came to the conclusion that no, it belongs to the past. Or to an undefined dimension that makes some parts of Asia places where a bad wizard has cast a strong spell, and time just slipped down the crack in between the third and a fourth, incredible dimension.
In these moments, you feel lucky to be able to witness a relic of a world that is gradually losing its very own differences.
Please, if you go to such places, try to preserve the spell. Or just don’t go. It would be too sad for me to return one day, and see begging hands, instead of friendly locals willing to share a little part of their world with me, the incautious foreigner that just stumbled in their world.
Tearing up the Silk Road: A Modern Journey from China to Istanbul, through Central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus
by Tom Coote
Garnett publishing, 2012 (buy on AMAZON)
With nine weeks on your hands, the last thing you want to do is breeze from Asia to England through the Silk Road and the Caucasus. Trust me: I know what I am saying as I completed a very similar trip in double that time. The sheer vastness of this part of the world would be enough to put such a task under the perspective of “this time, maybe better not”. However, for some determined individuals, being short on time is not necessarily a problem getting in the way to realize life-long dreams.
Tom Coote is one of them. An individual who’s not just content with the personal pride of having completed such an overland odyssey using only public transport, as he also managed to pen his experiences down in Tearing up the Silk Road. The title is explicative enough, as Tom has literally breezed through a lot of ground, still being able to visit the highlights of 8 countries, a couple of which – China and Kazakhstan – are two of the biggest colored drops on every World map. The more we get into the book, and the more we feel the hourglass inexorably passing sand to its bottom. Ancestral sands similar to those the author has felt creeping down his collar as he ventured from the wilds of Xinjiang to the barren deserted expanses of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. (more…)