Touch the Void

We are graspers. Climbing uphill our whole lives, drenched in sweat as we fight against time, injustice, each other, ourselves, everything. The struggle persists and we claw until we are raw. But what happens when we let go? What happens when we are let go?

I was reminded this week of the film “Touching the Void”, an incredible story of two mountain climbers who face an unbelievable situation: One had badly broken his leg after reaching the summit. He was unable to walk on his own, so was slowly being lowered down a wall of ice by his climbing partner, attached to him via a long rope. A storm approaches and inhibits the men from communicating; they can no longer see or hear each other, but the rope remains. The injured man slips and is now dangling, unconscious over an abyss. After an agonizing period trying to determine the status of his partner, the climber at the top concludes he is dead and is faced with the terrible decision to cut the rope for his own survival. His partner plummets, still alive, into a dark crevasse.

If you know this story, then you know it was the right thing, the only thing, that could be done. In the end, both lives are saved, when certainly both would have perished if the rope were left intact. Do we face such choices? What if we choose to cut the rope? What if, dangling over a precipice, our rope is cut?

The analogy here is not that our relationships are dead weight to be discarded (though for some that may be the case). Nor am I suggesting that we sever our connections with each other and with the world writ large (thought that can be tempting). Paul Simon is right: a rock feels no pain and an island never cries. Many people do retreat from humanity as a way to insulate themselves against difficult feelings. However, any one of us who has done this knows we cannot survive long without the lifeblood of human relationship.

As Herman Melville famously (didn’t) say:

“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”

It’s not the sympathetic fibers that need severing. These invisible threads between us connect us and reinforce humanity.

I’m thinking of a different kind of rope. The rope between us on which travels obligation, resentment and fear. It is, quite literally, an unhealthy attachment.

This attachment is not love. It is what kills us and what kills our relationships. Love can only survive with true connection, true connection needs no rope of attachment, no cords that draw us in to another’s suffering or pain or anger. Compassion – and likewise, connection – is not about owning another’s feelings. When we are mindful of our own emotions we can see how we react to the pain or anger from another person. It’s not our pain or anger to hold on to, we need not fix it or feel in charge of it or be tethered or bound by it. It’s not a rope that we need – or ought – ever hold onto.

We may choose to let go of the rope, or it may be cut for us, but when we are released from unhealthy attachment, we become free. Sometimes we fall to cold darkness, but that is only momentary. We will find our way back to light and life, and on ground more solid than ever.


Still alive

I am still alive. And so are you.

We should probably spend less time in front of screens and more time in front of the world. Because we won’t be alive forever.

I love the access the internet gives me to the world, and how it allows me to feel connected to far-away friends. But at the same time it also helps fuel a treacherously easy path down to a cave full of mind-numbing habits: sitting, clicking, reading, dreaming, sleeping, working and on and on. Even more dangerous is the sensation that I might be doing something, when in reality I am doing very little that drives me forward to my dreams.

We are all aware of the passing of time. Children in our lives grow up quickly. Monday rolls around so quickly we can’t see where the last week went. I think I can actually see my hair getting greyer by the minute.

And yet I am still alive. This is the important part.

I was inspired recently by Edward Readicker-Henderson who tells his readers candidly about how travel literally keeps him alive. He faces a serious illness, which impedes him from travelling. Yet he continues to travel, because it keeps him living.

I have no such illness to keep me from travelling. Just the disease of distraction and mindlessness and so much privilege that decisions get mired in choices. I can’t blame this on my job, or my partner who doesn’t love travel the way I do, or my finances. There will always be a hundred ready excuses for people who choose not to take a plunge into life, a hundred reasons to stay stationary.

As Readicker-Henderson said “saying no is the easiest thing in the world. But who loves no? If you’re going to fight for what you love, don’t you have to say yes?”

Not ‘I don’t know’ or ‘maybe’ but ‘yes’. Not ‘someday’ or ‘possibly’ but ‘now’. Because I am alive now, and I won’t always be. And neither will you.

It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power

Buddha calling

We’re coming up to the last week of the Bootsnall writing prompts. Day 24 suggests we write about the worst accommodation we’ve ever stayed in. It didn’t take much mental searching before I laughed out loud, remembering the “Floral Breeze” in Bagan, Burma where I stayed in the fall of 2012.

Before I chuckle my way though the rest of the story, some context: Burma (or Myanmar, depending on who you ask) has been ruled by a military regime since 1989. In 2012-2013, the Burmese government spent nearly 20% of its budget on the military, compared to 3.9% allocated  to education. This is a country mired in dysfunction and misallocation of resources.

The least of Burma’s problems is its tourist infrastructure. There are massive deficits in education, health care, cultural and gender equality and employment not to mention some of the world’s most abhorrent human rights abuses. To highlight the troubles in the tourist sector is one little, inconsequential piece of the dysfunction-pie that is Burma.

Anyone with enough capital to open a hotel is very likely connected to the military regime, and so there are significant ethical considerations when travelling to Burma. We tried to stay in the smaller hotels when we could, which led to the hilarity at “The Floral Breeze”‘ in Bagan.

Upon arrival, the hotel seemed quite lovely from the outside, red bricks and a lovely courtyard with beautiful landscaping. But there was nothing Floral about the Breeze here.

Regardless of the room we entered (we did try a few), each of them had an overpowering and noxious smell of backed up sewage. The staff were kind and tried to help, but there was nothing to do but “suck it up”. So we tried to prepare ourselves for the next three nights in Bagan.

I was travelling with a new friend, we hardly knew each other before embarking on this trip. But we got to know each other very well, quickly.

Our first day, we tried to spend as much time exploring as we could. Bagan is beautiful:

It was dusty and hot, and we got tired quickly. We returned to our Floral Breeze room and my travel companion took a turn for the worse. She had picked up some monstrous flu or parasite or bug. She was so sick, in retrospect we should have found her medical attention. So not only was she trying to get through this discomfort in close quarters with someone she hardly knew, but it turned out that the bathroom door did not shut. Those of you who have suffered through similar conditions know that at the very least, you need privacy in these moments.

I did my best to leave her be, as much to give her privacy as to protect myself from catching whatever she had. (This was to no avail. I got it about 3 days later and suffered in comparable, though more remote, “comfort”).

Somewhere near the end of the first day, a booming voice came into our room from across the street. A megaphoned drone, through a cheap PA system, complete with screeching feedback. An announcement of an upcoming event or visiting dignitary?  A sale or special advertised by a restaurant? A warning about bad smells at local hotels? Nope. It was the start of a 6 day 24/7 recitation of the Buddhist canon in Pali, at a decibel which I’m sure even Buddha himself heard. One might look at images of Bagan and imagine Buddhist monks chanting passages in sort of a romantic way. Let me assure you that after about 15 minutes, there is nothing at all but headaches.

The combination of the intense sounds and smells would lead to sensory overload in anyone. Facing the tropical parasite and the lack of bathroom privacy just made the icing on the cake, or in this case, the icing on the dysfunction-pie that is Burma.

Despite being the worst place I’ve stayed in recent memory, there is absolutely nothing I would change (except perhaps avoiding the wicked bug that nearly did us in). It all added up to amazing experiences, vivid memories and fond recollections of floral (and musical) breezes.

The Passion(s)

The @bootsnall prompt for April 5 (hey, no one ever claimed I was prompt with the prompts) was for bloggers to write about what their passions are, aside from travel.

Tongue in cheek, then, to call today’s post The Passion, at the tail end of the Easter weekend. Or perhaps just cheeky. Not meant to offend, but rather a play on words:

I always wondered why the saddest thing in Christianity was referred to as the Passion. Doesn’t passion mean something you love or care about deeply? Fever and fervour for something or someone?

Much like people, there is a lot to learn about words by knowing where they come from. The Latin root of “passion” means “to suffer” (ah, now the biblical reference makes sense).

After some consideration, this idea of “passion” as “suffering” isn’t so far off the mark. The Buddhists would posit that our attachments are the source of our suffering, and what things are we more deeply attached to than our passions?

These things are indeed the source of suffering, as when we’re separated from our passions, we can feel lost and in need, or lonesome and in withdrawal. Travel for me is paramount of my passions, both for the aliveness it provides as well as the sense of loss when it’s not present.

But it’s much more than the craving a smoker might get. It’s more about the feeling of “flow” (from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book of the same name), of feeling truly alive and present in every moment. Skiiers feel it when they’re racing downhill, musicians feel it when they’re performing on stage and I feel it when I turn a corner to a street I’ve never stepped on and a view I’ve never seen before.

There are a lot of things I love in life: I’m deeply interested in community and how humans connect with each other. I care a lot about the people in my life, my family, friends, colleagues, my partner and our dog. The interactions and connections we build are what keeps us alive as social beings. And I guess in many ways, these same things can create the suffering of “passions”, the pull and draw that tugs at our hearts. Our relationships are both a source of pain and pleasure.

I am passionate about learning and growing, both intellectually and spiritually. At the same time, however, I really envy people who seem to have it all figured out, who are content and settled with the path they’ve chosen. It seems the more I learn the less I know and these pursuits for knowledge and wisdom can be painful ones.

I’m currently passionate about my career. I have poured the last 6 years of my life into building an organization that works on a complex human rights issue (human trafficking) in a complex way (collaboration). It bears the intersections of gender, migration, inequality and labour – it’s a subject fraught with political and moral debate. It’s also a passion in the true sense of suffering and attachment, but also brings me satisfaction and energy.

It is a luxury in this world to have passions, to find things in life to pursue because they please us (as much as they torture us sometimes). There are millions of people who don’t have the time and resources to wonder about the things that drive them. I am grateful to have these passions, even when (or especially as) they are just out of reach, as travel seems to be right now.

There’s no ignoring these things. To turn away from our passions is, bluntly, stupid. If I know what makes me feel most alive and ignore it, I cannot ask for sympathy if my life feels unlived.

“Face your life, its pain, its pleasure, leave no path untaken.” – Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

[If you think it’s strange to conceptualize passion as suffering, just wait for my post on compassion, literally “to suffer with”. That’s some messed up stuff right there.]

Wanderlust and wonderlust

In between trips, travellers have to contend with wanderlust. Some of us join clubs or write blogs, but I waffle between pining and distraction. I write long lists of countries I want to go to, deride my home town for its brownness and cold, and then I try to forget it all by immersing myself in work. I climb to the top of a ladder, take a deep breath and dive in, then I work until I run out of air. This doesn’t leave much space for daily work-life balance but I try to make up for it by longer spells of travel every couple of years. Life has taught me that any longer and I will go crazy.

My job takes me to places across Canada, mostly for conferences and presentations. I used to think this was magical, a get away without being out of pocket. This delusion didn’t last long. I won’t sound ungrateful, I really do appreciate these opportunities, I love the change of scene and the opportunities for learning that they bring, but this is not travelling. It is work first and planes, airports and hotels second, newness and adventure a distant third. It’s true that being out of one’s comfort zone forces learning, and these can happen while work-travelling as well as fun-travelling, but there is an important and internal distinction. Fun-travelling simply allows for a greater freedom of self.

I do try to make these work trips function as a way to stave off the wanderlust. It helps when I’m challenged and learning, as I have been on two recent trips. Despite this, there is nothing that compares with the uncertainty of being lost, the exhaustion of late-night airports and the absurdity of trying to muddle through a foreign language. I love every bit of it, good and bad.

So until my next trip, I will keep dreaming and listing. Thanks to this new blog, I will do these things out loud. If nothing else, it will hold me a little more accountable to my life and dreams.


Origins – A lesson injustice

What is my travel origin? What is the worst thing that has happened to me while travelling? What is the best? What are my passions outside of travelling? I’ve been thinking about last week’s travel prompts and have rounded them up into these next few blog posts, starting with my travel origin story.

Like all good stories, this one starts with heartbreak. In the fall of 2002, just turning 22 and coming out of a breakup, I was searching for an opportunity for independence, adventure and challenge, not to mention distraction. My school (University of Alberta) was offering term-abroad opportunities and I quickly signed up for the one which would take me the furthest away from my home. Seriously, that’s how I picked South Africa (or Zuid Afrika as it is known in Afrikaans).  6 months later I embarked on my first real trip to speak of, my first venture off the continent of North America.

The next few months would reveal my travel origin, the best and the worst of travelling and would shape my life, including future passions and goals. Not to mention I got a first-hand taste of the delicious drug that is travelling.

I was to travel with another student from my university, we had met shortly before departure, and she become an instrumental part of my travel origin story.

I can’t remember much about the flight, which is probably a good thing. I imagine this is the same mechanism that mothers instinctively employ to erase childbirth from their minds. If we all remembered the long, painful flights no one would leave home again.

What I do recall, 11 years later, is the way I felt coming from the airport to our hostel in Durban.

The weariness and excitement culminated in a sort of jelly-legged way, like how one feels after hours on a boat. Before I could even get my land-legs back, Melanie and I threw our stuff in the hostel and out for a walk. Seems rational to walk through a new town, jet-lagged and jelly-legged, with no thought of where to go or of our safety. I miss the recklessness, the openmindedness and naivety of my youth. I really do, even though that walk would end rather poorly.

What we didn’t know, what we could’ve known if we had been a bit sharper, was that that day was a holiday in ZA. This meant that the shops were all closed, the streets were quiet. Unbeknownst to us, we were not in the best part of town. This was all quite lost on us. After some time about the beach and town, we were heading back to our hostel, confident that our first day was a success and that we would only have a few more ‘hours to kill’ (isn’t that an awful expression?) before we could collapse for the night in our hostel bunk beds at a reasonable time.

Heading back to our hostel, I felt a sudden, sharp tug on the front of my body. It was the pull of my purse strap breaking, being pulled off my body. (Actually, the purse belonged to my ex-bf’s sister, a lovely and generous traveller and a woman I love dearly all these years later). Jen’s bag was gone, along with my bank card, cash and ID. (Some traveller’s instinct had me store my passport and credit card at the hostel before going out.) Within milliseconds, a dozen people came out of their homes and inquired about what happened. The jelly moved from my legs to my brain and I was at once bewildered and speechless. We tried to brush them off and attempted to make our way through the crowd back to the hostel so that we could collect our senses and figure out what to do next. I was so grateful to have Melanie with me.

The people who quickly gathered around us were angry that I had been robbed. Someone flagged down a local police car. Being the polite (and discombobulated) Canadian, I urged them to forget about it, that I was fine, and we would be on our way. I remember these minutes like they happened today. People, police were asking me what had happened, what I had seen, who I had seen. Some folks had run off down the street and dragged back a young boy, 15 at the very most, and said to us “this is the boy who took your bag, he was with the gang who robbed you, this is him, we found a knife on him”. Of course, I had seen no boy, and hardly cared at all who took my bag. He certainly didn’t have it on him, and I was increasingly aware of how fast this situation was spiralling out of control.

Seconds passed and the crowd had this young boy down on the ground, kicking him. Someone took their shoe off and beat him with it. They were screaming, punching, berating him. They were apologizing to me this whole time, saying tourists needed to be treated better and needed to be safe, all the while I was that insisting he was not the boy who had my bag, it wasn’t him. He didn’t have my bag, I pleaded with the police officer and with the crowd, please let him go.

Then the police officer, a white police officer in South Africa, less than a decade after the dismantling of the official Apartheid system, said something that still rings through my ears:

“This is justice in the new South Africa.”

This is justice. This is the new South Africa.

That police officer stood back and supervised – encouraged – them as they beat this boy. Melanie and I helplessly trying to put a stop to it. It became very evident that this violence was not new to anyone involved.

Melanie and I were herded back to the hostel, to collapse in exhaustion and sadness.

This is the story of my travel origin and remains the worst thing that happened to me while travelling, barely half a day into my very first trip. It is also the start of the stories of connection, friendship and awakening that would follow in the next few months. But nothing before and nothing since has opened my eyes the way that sunny, horrible afternoon on a Durban street did. I would absolutely never be the same again.

Street in Durban. Photo credit Amber Webster