Finding peace and tranquility in Assisi

Assisi, located in Central Italy, will always be a precious place for me.

I felt an immediate connection when I first visited 31 years ago, on a high school trip, and I knew this place would be etched in my heart. The town was much smaller then, and I can still taste that  large bowl of spaghetti that was served to me in a tiny restaurant with two tables. I was fascinated with the kindness of these strangers and knew that one day I would return.

Obviously, Assisi has changed, with too many tourist shops and tourist buses filled with pilgrims from all over Europe, but the small town feel and peacefulness is still here. It helped that I didn’t have an Internet connection for the three days I was here.

Upon arrival at this hilly medieval town, I lost my bearings and couldn’t figure how to get to the convent where I was staying. I asked a nun, who telephoned another nun and then a second nun, who greeted us on the street and took us to another convent, where I was led to the third floor and up a set of stairways, which led to the roof, where I ended up on another street, pulled my suitcase down a hill and there was my convent.

Assisi is the home town of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I really do like St. Francis. Who wouldn’t like someone who loves animals and promotes kindness, charity and love?

The Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built between 1228 and 1253. I like the simplicity of this place. There is no glitter and gold, just simple seating, beautiful artwork and silence. After spending 8 days in Florence – too many days – I was glad to leave its grandeur and extravagance for the peace of Assisi. I didn’t realize how stressed I had been in Florence until I left. Unlike Venice, I didn’t swoon over Florence. I found the museums and art galleries overwhelming, I ate until I felt sick and I only stayed in hopes that it would get better. I mean, I never met anyone who didn’t love Florence. I didn’t realize how much I was not myself until I arrived in Assisi, where I immediately felt happy and safe.

Assisi is located 5 km uphill from the nearest train station. As I made my way, the skies were a dark grey. Under different circumstances, I would have been put off, but I unexpectedly felt like a heavy weight had been lifted. Perhaps it was the endorphins from the long, steep climb, but I felt I was where I needed to be.

I really love taking long solitary walks in nature. The farther I am from people, the calmer I feel. Every single day, I still remember with excitement my 29-day hike on the Camino de Santiago in 2014. I had a very similar experience in Assisi.

There is an ancient hermitage in a steep forest gorge at Monte Subasio, a 4 km hike above Assisi. The local name is “Eremo delle Carceri” which means Hermitage Jail.  In the 13th century, a few hermits, including St. Francis, would come here to live in caves and meditate in the forest. Soon, others followed and found their own isolated caves.

Despite the 30+ degree heat, the idea of hiking in the forest to look for caves really appealed to me. It would give me time to focus on my walking, think about where I had been and where I was going, and most importantly, I wanted my recent anxieties to come to the surface so that I could understand what was going on in my head.

Imagine being in a densely wooded forest, surrounded by fresh, clean air, remnants of medieval buildings, and slippery slopes leading to various caves. There is only nature. Nothing else. The forest is alive: birds singing, twigs breaking, a stream gurgling and the wind blowing through the trees.

At no time was I worried about getting lost. Monte Subasio is a protected regional park and the routes are very well labelled. I wandered aimlessly for just over an hour.

In Assisi, I learned to slow down and not worry about checking everything off my list; I learned to pause and breath, even for just 30 seconds; I learned that I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. I learned to just be. Assisi is my safe space. Every time I feel lost, overwhelmed and inconsolable, I will think of Assisi.

What a gift.

 

 

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My Venice

The highlight of my travels so far has been my 8-day stay in Venice.

I enjoyed every single waking moment.

And while I really wanted to write about my experiences, I hesitated because I didn’t have the words to express myself properly.

How do I explain the fluttering in my stomach when I walked out of the train station and saw the incredible beauty of the Grand Canal in front of me?

How do I describe my feelings as tears streamed down my face upon seeing St. Mark’s Square, after 26 years?

How do I write about the intense feeling of joy of being alive and being surrounded by such exquisite beauty, about finally being able to live in the moment and appreciate everything around me, about feeling the happiest I have in my life?

I really can’t. At least not in the way I’d like to. I’m no D.H. Lawrence, Henry James or Robert Byron.

Every day, I walked with my late grandfather, who was often either cranky or depressed – except when he spoke about Venice. The last time I saw him, 26 years ago, his eyes would light up as he took a puff of his unfiltered Players, and I would see him return to that far off place, sitting for a coffee in St. Mark’s Square, his eyes watering as he tried to describe its beauty. He lived in Venice for one year in the 1920s.

I really didn’t get what he was trying to say. I had visited Venice that year, went to St. Mark’s Square, saw the Rialto Bridge and bought a tacky wooden gondola with a plastic gondolier.

But this time, I “got” it. This time, I experienced Venice, slowly, patiently, calmly and without a map. I stayed in a residential area, Canareggio and didn’t visit the tourist spots until my third day.

My Venice was filled with the sounds of water lapping as the oars of a gondola cut through the water, the cries of seagulls, a hundred pigeon wings flying simultaneously in the air, the voices of lonely gondoliers trying to find a passenger willing to pay 100 € for a one-hour ride, a classic guitarist who played in front of my local church, La Madonna del Orto, every afternoon, the clanging of bells outside one of the many churches, the thumping of suitcases on the streets, the babel of languages heard at every corner.

My Venice was also filled with the sounds of hundreds of mosquitos buzzing in the night, every night, waking up several times to thwack the latest bug until the next bite.

Each morning, I would open the large doors of the convent where I was staying and simply soak in the view of the canals: the weather stained buildings with brick or marbled facades, the palazzi with balconies and arched windows. I loved watching the play of sunlight as the buildings were reflected in the water. And every night, watching the colour of the sea change as the sun set.

Each alley was a treasure hunt, a constant find: hidden gardens,  an ancient shrine, a gelateria, a gondola repair shed and even a pop up museum.

Of course, there were other sights as well: tacky Murano glass shops, endless Pinocchio paraphernalia, tourists taking selfies, pigeons eating garbage and the famous gondoliers with their striped shirt, black pants, straw hat, texting or blowing bubble gum as they took tourists around the canals.

I didn’t get a chance to taste everything I wanted in Venice – my eyes were bigger than my stomach – but I certainly did eat my fair share of pasta and fish. I can still taste the salty freshness of a large platter of assorted fried fish that I had on my last night in Venice.

I miss those breezes of salty air, that first morning espresso, the bags of fresh fruit from the Rialto market and those rare moments of silence, when I felt like I was the only person around. I wonder what my grandfather missed about Venice.

Before arriving, I had visions of sipping an espresso in St. Mark’s Square in honour of my grandfather, but at 8.50 €, I chose gelato instead. I think he would have been happy with gelato.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manic in Milano

I arrived in Milano from Kathmandu one week ago, and I’m still  slowly recovering from culture shock.

It’s odd, I certainly didn’t feel as overwhelmed when I arrived in Asia over 2 months ago. I was prepared for the traffic, the poverty, and a completely different way of life.

But arriving in Milano felt like a punch in the face. I never imagined I would feel so disoriented and confused for the first several days.

The traffic – it’s so civilized. There are stoplights and both pedestrians and drivers follow signals. There is no worry of getting killed crossing the street or being jostled by a cow.

Smiling and starting conversations with random people – it’s definitely not done here. No one smiles back and I’ve had a few people walk away from me in mid-sentence. I get the impression people aren’t happy here. Or maybe they are but they’re too busy to show it or even think about it.

Obsession with food – here, it’s everywhere. In Asia, the food was delicious but there wasn’t much of a selection. If a restaurant served good food, I’d eat because I wouldn’t know when the next meal would be. I remember looking forward to my favourite morning breakfast: one crepe with a banana and a tablespoon of honey. There were many excruciatingly hot days where the food highlight of my day was finding a Popsicle.

Since arriving in Milano, I have eaten more food in one week than I had in Asia for over 2 months. Seriously.

For the first few days, I had the following from the breakfast buffet: panino with scamorza and smoked ham, 2 cornetti (one with chocolate and the other with vanilla), scrambled eggs, a small piece of fruit crostata, full fat yogurt and fruits. Since then, I’ve dropped the panino but am still eating everything else. In Asia, I never ate this much food in one day.

Gelato. Every day. Sometimes twice a day. I have to make up for all the Popsicles I ate in India and Nepal. I’ve even gone so far as to keep a gelato diary with my own ratings: gianduia and dulce de leche (5*), mango and strawberry (3*), coffee and pistachio (5*), coconut and dark chocolate (5*), passion fruit and forest berries (4*), amarena cherries and penguino – vanilla ice cream with Nutella (5*), hazelnut and pistachio (4*), lemon and mango (4*), coffee and hazelnut (4*), salted caramel and milk chocolate (5*), nougat ins and hazelnut (5*), 70% dark and mascarpone with figs (4*).

There is so much wealth in Milano, too much, actually.  The high end shops are endless: Prada, Louis Vuitton and Dolce and Gabbana, the latter of which has various shops taking up several blocks, one for women’s shoes, men’s shoes, a children’s shop and even a “family” shop. Seriously.

Milano is expensive. Very expensive. I backpacked through Asia for over 2 months and spent $800.  I spent just over that amount in one week here. I’m still in shock.

But I’m getting used to my new reality: gelato, pasta and wine. I don’t think life can get better than this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life and death in Varanasi

Varanasi is India’s oldest city, located along the banks of the Ganges River in NE India.

It is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. There is something spectacular about walking the same roads as other people have for nearly 4,000 years.

This is where Hindus go to pray, wash away their sins and cremate family members. Varanasi is considered an auspicious place to die because it offers moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Whatever is sacrificed and chanted here is one thousand times more powerful than if the same deeds were performed elsewhere.

For me, the ghats, large stone slabs of steps that lead down to the banks of the Ganges, are the most interesting parts of the city. Varanasi has at least 80 ghats that offer countless sights: people bathing, doing laundry, brushing their teeth, shaving, boys laughing and swimming and holy men smoking pipes. There are even men on boats selling souvenirs. And of course, workers regularly dump ashes from funeral pyres into this very same water.

Varanasi is raw and intense. It’s an open book into people’s personal lives. This is where life and death come full circle, where the most intimate rituals take place in public. On one ghat, people soak naked in the waters while offering prayers to Ganga; on another ghat, there are burning corpses in plain view.

I arrived in Varanasi after a 14 hour overnight train ride from Orchha. Due to construction on the tracks, I had to jump off the train and walk on the tracks with my backpack in 47 degree heat. I can only imagine how much hotter it felt near the furnace-like heat at the cremation sites.

Like all Indian cities, Varanasi is crowded, dirty and insane. Traffic moves all the time: no stoplights and no order, yet everyone seems to get from one place to another in one piece.

Nothing is hidden in Varanasi. Filthy four year olds carry tiny babies, still unable to sit up, begging for money. Dogs are limping, some with no fur, others staring blankly into space. I saw people with leprosy, elephantiasis and no limbs, all begging on the streets. There is death and decay all around, but oddly enough I didn’t smell death and decay, only smoky incense.

Varanasi is a city that never sleeps. Waking up at 5 AM to watch the blood red sun come up, the ghats are already full with pilgrims performing morning prayers, sun salutations and meditation in silence. The cremation ghats run 24/7 and some funeral pyres are still hissing, steaming and spitting flames.

In Varanasi, death is raw, transparent and simple. I must admit, I was fascinated and shocked by the funeral rites, but as the days progressed, I felt honoured to witness these intensely personal moments. I grew to admire the simplicity of the ceremonies and appreciated the honesty and rawness of it. Death is simply a passing event and while different cultures have different practices, death is the same everywhere: it’s inevitable.

At the end of the day, I’m back on the boat, where I see men and women taking holy dips, meditating in solitude, heads bowed in prayer. As the sun goes down, the evening ritual of worship called the Ganga Aarti begins. The air is filled with prayers, chants, music and incense. Cymbals crash, bells ring, drums beat and tea lights are placed into the Ganges.

I placed three tea lit paper boats with flowers into the river and asked for blessings, as I watched the candles float away in the dark. They, and dozens of other candles, looked beautiful as they lit up the darkness.

Once the Ganga Aarti started, priests and pilgrims chanted and sang, ringing bells, waving lamps in a circular motion, accompanied by the chanting of mantras and hymns. More candles and incense are lit and flower petals and sweets are sprinkled into the river as offerings to Mother Ganga.

I watched this one hour ceremony on a boat with hundreds of others. All of the boats gather together, gently bumping off each other as children jump from boat to boat. It felt intimate, even though I was surrounded by strangers.

Another day in Varanasi.

Goodbye, India

Goodbye, India

Goodbye women clad in pink, orange and yellow saris

Goodbye gulab jamuns with slivers of pistachio soaked in rose water, masala dosas, tandoori chicken and buttery parathas

Goodbye giggling children with toothy smiles, chasing me down the road and hoping to have a conversation

Goodbye orange sunsets and jasmine breezes, frangipani trees, incense and sandalwood

Goodbye chai masala, Limca and Thums Up

Goodbye Taj Mahal – the most beautiful monument in the world

Goodbye Varanasi – the most magical place I’ve ever been to

Goodbye, India

No more hoarking and spitting

No more one star hotels with dirty towels and bugs

No more 47+ heat and power outages

No more slipping in cow patties, jumping off trains and falling out of boats

No more leering, crotch grabbing men

No more pushy cows, mangy dogs and hissing monkeys

No more crazy traffic, hanging out of tuktuks and incessant beeping of horns

Goodbye, India

And I’m never coming back

XOXO

 

 

 

Thank you, Cambodia

For over 12 years, I dreamed about visiting Cambodia; more specifically, the temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom.

But after spending close to three weeks in Cambodia, I learned that the country is so much more than its temples.

My entry into the country was unusual. I arrived on foot from Vietnam, walking through No Man’s Land for 15 minutes in 40+ degree heat; and, once arriving in Cambodia, bribing a customs official to avoid getting a medical exam. The experience left me wary and slightly paranoid.

I’m not sure if it was the heat or dehydration, but I arrived in the country feeling exhausted, confused and hopeless. Despite the sun and blue skies, I felt a blanket of immense sadness, within myself and around me. These feelings lasted for almost 1 week.

If Cambodia could speak to me, it would scream poverty, rage, genocide, rape, torture, land mines and terror.

UNESCO has listed Cambodia as the third most land mined country in the world. More than 4 million are still strewn across the country. One does not take a walk in the countryside in Cambodia.

On my first day in Phnom Penh, I visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, both of which moved me to the core. The last time I felt such sadness was when I visited Auschwitz in 2000.

The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, took control of the country in the 1970s. In order to speed up communism throughout the country, he had anyone who he thought was a threat eliminated: the educated and wealthy, religious leaders, landowners, teachers, inventors and anyone who could help build the country. Schools were shut down. People were gathered in masses, tortured and executed.  Even children and babies were killed, for fear they would seek revenge when they became adults.

The Genocide occured 50 years ago, and all Cambodians today have been affected by it. I met people whose aunts, uncles, grandparents and siblings were taken away in the night, never to return.

And yet, every single Cambodian I met greeted me with a smile. They showed me kindness and generosity and reminded me that the light always comes out after darkness. After tragedy, there is hope. There is always hope.

I met a 12 year old girl who sold fridge magnets near one of the temples. She was a bright girl with a ready smile and superb negotiating skills. We laughed and talked for several minutes and yes, I bought 3 fridge magnets. This girl will continue her studies and I am confident she will be a success story in this broken country.

I feel truly blessed to have been able to participate in the celebrations of the Khmer New Year, one of the most important festivals in Cambodia. It’s a 3 day festival which started on Friday, April 14. Everyone, from the very young to the very old, was out on the streets with massive water guns, spraying everyone – including me – in sight. Cambodians working in the cities return to the villages to celebrate with their families. Many businesses are closed for two or three weeks.

One of the highlights of my time in Cambodia was attending Phare, the Cambodian Circus, where performers use theatre, music, dance and acrobatics to tell Cambodian stories, both past and present.

Phare artists are graduates of PPSA, an NGO school and professional training centre in Cambodia. It was founded in 1994 by 9 young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the camp, they took drawing classes, which helped them with the healing process. Once they returned home, they offered free art classes to street children. A school was eventually started, offering education and professional arts training: visual arts, theatre, music, dance and acrobatics. All programs are free.

If Cambodia could speak to me, it would say there is hope, look ahead, we will rebuild, we are fearless, we are brave.

Thank you, Cambodia.

 

 

 

Hoi An: land of fine fabrics and beautifully tailored clothing

Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Central Vietnam, was once a major port on the Silk Route and still continues to thrive as a place where tailors custom make excellent quality clothing at bargain prices.

I bought a navy silk dress with magenta flowers as well as a full length winter coat, even though I had explicitly told myself I wouldn’t spend any money. Once I posted my items to Canada, I left town for fear of buying more.

This pretty town, with its canals and bridges, multi-coloured paper lanterns and more than 800 preserved historical buildings, also has hundreds of fabric shops and stalls lining the streets and alleys. Thousands of tailors stitch, sew and cut fabrics to create replicas or custom pieces in as little as 24 hours.

I visited a shop that employs over 320 tailors in three different locations and has been crafting clothing for over 20 years. They had a large selection of high quality silks, cotton blends, wool and leather, as well as stacks of American fashion magazines for clothing ideas.

The atmosphere in the shop was electric and buzzing with energy, at least 15 sales ladies were busy with clients, either helping people pick fabric or taking measurements. I was told that the clothing was made precisely to suit my body because not only were my measurements taken, but I also had a 3D scan of my body.

My measurements were taken at 9 pm and my first and only fitting was the following day at noon. I was so impressed with the accuracy of the measurements. A few minor alterations were made and the dress was ready by 4 pm. As I was waiting for my dress, I noticed some lovely wool fabric for a nice coat, so I had a one made, also with only one fitting and less than 24 hours.

There was so much beautiful fabric. If I had room in my bag, I would have ordered 5 linen shirts in various colours, linen pants, the red silk dress I’ve always wanted, the perfect trench coat and some work dresses, I have visions of flying to Hoi An next year and getting tailor made clothing for all four seasons.

I asked for a tour of the facilities and I was brought up to the attic to meet the master tailors, all women, about 70 of them. The rooms were airy and many of the women smiled and we’re happy to show me what they were doing. When asked discreetly, a few told me they were well paid, despite the very long hours.

There really is something to be said for having your clothes made in front of you by an experienced artisan, as opposed to buying cheaply made clothing from a sweatshop somewhere.

This is a shopping experience like no other:  everything made with speed, precision and professionalism, truly the most memorable shopping experience of my life.