It’s Only Just Beginning: A Sentiment to Those who have Left Their Mark

Grateful, overwhelmed, changed, full, at peace. These are all words that would accurately describe my current state of mind as I sit in the BKK Airport at a loss for words. Finally, something has shut me up. Actually, the real problem isn’t the lack of words but the inability to express my emotions to the level they’re being felt.

 
 It is through this journey that I have learned my place in this world and the power I have to affect the people within it. Through this journey I have built upon a passion which was already great to begin with but has since soared to heights I never imagined it would. It is through this journey that I have had the opportunity to have my life profoundly altered by over one hundred individual shining stars. I’m blessed to have also taken part in a change within their lives too. I have spent time releasing and cleansing my mind of the things in my life that once seemed so trivial and intrusive and now have me wondering why I ever wasted the time to dwell. As I make my way off that plane this afternoon, I will be embodying a whole new sense of peace and relaxation. Life is too short to be anything but happy. 
 
This, my friends, is a world full of so much splendour and even more wonderous human beings. Every sight, every personality, every laugh or hand held by a stranger has had me focusing only on the positive and marvelling at only the most beautiful. Do we really want to waste our time on Earth surrounding ourselves internally and externally with anything but pure goodness? 
 
The World has taught me to spend my time inspiring others through words, actions and art. The three greatest forms of communication. Nothing brought me more joy than hearing a loved one say that I have shifted a piece of their heart with my photographs, stories or advice I’ve shared along the way. This only means that I’m carrying myself in the way I’ve been striving to achieve. It means that I’ve grown enough self-awareness and appreciation for who I am to successfully love and reach out to others. It also signifies the growth that has sprouted from my art. The once hesitant photographs from my first seed of passion have now flourished into work I am more than confident with. I am so sure of my style and direction with not only my photography but my writing as well. Each one of them has advanced so significantly and to see that in myself has been nothing but an excitement. 
 
I think back now to the girl I was when I left in July. I wasn’t necessarily stuck in a rut or on the fast track to no good. In fact, I was pretty happy with who I was in that moment but that Sam was stuck in a stage of transition. She had left things she wasn’t happy with and changes both good and bad had piled up over the past year more than usual. I was aware that direction needed to be found and that change happens to even the best of us. Nobody needs to hit rock bottom to reach personal growth. I think I mentioned in my very first post about the Camino that I wasn’t sure of the changes it would bring me but the most exciting moment would be discovering them one by one as they were put into action.  I know that everything I ever do and every opportunity I take or leave has me growing and changing constantly. When push comes to shove, the Universe has a special way of piecing everything together into a flawless puzzle. That’s the way we need to tackle life, by accepting every moment as a learning experience and keep nothing but hope and faith in our hearts. If there’s one thing I’ve been taught over this journey it’s that. Everything in this world keeps you moving forward if you let it. 
 
I can’t thank the people in my life enough for the support you’ve given me while I’ve been away. Whether you’re an avid reader of my blog or you’ve taken the time to send me words of encouragement and love, I am touched by it all. I’ve felt each and every one of you with me as I’ve taken each step. I hope that through my words you felt only the same. I’ve always felt very loved and am constantly thanking my lucky stars that the people in my life are so caring and inspiring. This experience has had me over the moon thinking about how truly blessed I am. Your love was felt through every comment, email, phone call and transfer of energy. None of those feelings will ever leave my heart and I am eternally grateful. 
 
I hope that you’ve felt inspired to travel on an adventure of your own one day. I can’t say it enough that there is beauty absolutely everywhere. You don’t need to look further than your own backyard, I promise. Look at things from a new point of view and go exploring. You won’t be disappointed as to what it will bring you. All you need is an open mind and the city you walk through every day will be transformed. 
 
Sentimentally, I’m already looking back through my blog and gasping at everything I’ve accomplished. Over 60 cities big and small, six countries and several leaps of faith into opportunities filled with unknowns. I never want to hear the words “I can’t” escape my lips ever again. From hiking through Italian mountains, to a scuba diving adventure, to walking across an entire country and biking around an Irish peninsula, there is nothing in this life that should ever feel out of reach to me. I’ve demolished fears and challenged my body again and again never settling for anything less than everything I’ve got within me. Every single task I take on should be faced that way. With everything I have and it will. It’s a beautiful thing to realize the heights you’re capable of reaching. 
 
To the people I’ve met along the way: you ended up being the most amazing part in this chapter of my life. I set off into the great big Universe to see its sights and ended up seeing its people. Truly seeing them. I’ve felt so many deep and soulful connections over this past little while that I would run out of fingers and toes trying to count them all. It’s as if everyone I’ve encountered is a long lost soulmate. All of you have made your mark on my journey. A piece of you will forever be with me and each memory involves the loving smile of a new friend. We’ve shared our deepest emotions, our loudest and brightest dreams and sometimes even a few tears. Whether I walked with you for over a month on the Camino de Santiago or we spent just a few short days together, sometimes even a matter of hours, the amount of time has never dictated the depth of our friendship. If I photographed you and knew you only for a few snaps of the shutter, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for opening up to a complete stranger and showing me your raw vulnerability. That takes big strength and I am so honoured to have captured your essence. There is something really special about having friends all over the world. Every country brings a new perspective, a new way of thinking or approach to life. I’ve adored the diversity of the people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. What can I say other than I love you. I love you all like I’ve loved you my whole life. Thank you for everything you’ve shown me. 
 
Perhaps I should make this short and sweet. Maybe there isn’t a need to write down a mountain of words about what I’ve learned. I think the better way to let you know how this has affected me is to show you. My heart is aching with the desire to hit the soil of my beloved country. Something else that struck me time and time again was the deep love I carry for my hometown, for my country. I love where I live and no matter how far I travel and how many cultures I get to experience, there truly is no place like home. 
 
The traveling does not stop here. My mind is already buzzing with ideas for my next big learning experience abroad but for now, I’m really looking forward to bringing my newfound perspective back into the real world. I’m sure the changes within me will never stop showing themselves as I’m faced with new challenges and opportunities every day. After all, my Camino angel Nicola was absolutely right when she told me, 
 
“I think home is where the real journey begins. Life, wonderful life.”

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Hardly surprised by the rapids of Pai

White water rafting was something I always imagined myself experiencing on my 50th birthday. Not once did  I think I would be in the right place at the right time and have the opportunity staring me in the eyes so early. This ended up being one of the wackiest, weirdest and wildest trips of my entire time away and every moment had me more and more sure that explaining this to all of you would be nearly impossible. I think the two days we spent away ended up being one huge “you had to be there” moment. Even so, it was the perfect end to the adventure that has consumed my life for the past five months and as my stories from abroad come to a temporary close, why not end with something you may have to strain to believe? Friends and family I give you my strangest days yet. 

 
Everybody I talked to had recommended Thai Adventure as the rafting company of choice. They were safe, reliable and personal with their services which is everything one searches for before setting out on the rapids. I headed into the beautiful city of Pai on a Monday and planned to stay until at least Saturday morning. I had heard so many wonderful things about this paradise and every Thai local who I spoke to about traveling there just gave me a really solid “OK” sign and a wink in response. I was looking forward to its well known peace and small size that would allow me to sit back and chill out even more than I had in Chiang Mai. 
 
I entered Pai on a minibus after driving for three hours up the windiest road I have ever experienced. This was even worse than my ride down to the Amalfi Coast in Greece which heaven knows will stay with me forever. My stomach felt ill but my spirits were immediately uplifted at the sight of this little village. One main road stretches through Pai and since we arrived at night, we were able to see the incredible action that springs to life when all goes dark. It seemed like the place to be. Every shop door was wide open selling the most unique items. Each second we drove along had my head turning both ways and the entire van exclaiming their excitement. The street food looked remarkable, the people looked down to earth and as friendly as ever. This really was a little section of Thailand that takes things right back to the beginning and I felt so lucky to have landed there. 
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Aside from my rafting trip, I actually spent my six days in Pai doing absolutely nothing and loved every minute of it. I explored every inch of that town. I ate at a different street food stand every day, walked down the night market streets when evening came and people watched until my heart was content. I even discovered a bookshop cafe and went to visit and read there each morning. This place was beautiful and had a very outdoor treehouse feel to it. Used books lined the shelves and they provided swings as seats in front of the wooden tables. I took advantage of their delicious tea that is said to be a benefit to your health in several ways. Being the sicky that I am (it hit me folks, it hit me), it was a tasty blessing. After a few days here, I felt as though I had been living in Pai for years. I had my favourite streets and relaxing spots to sit and blog where I’m certain they knew my face. I even ran into people I knew on the streets quite often. After meeting friends at the hostels around here, you’re bound to see them again since Pai is such a small place. Those run-ins always made my days feel extra special. Where else can you find that atmosphere?
 
On Wednesday, I packed my things and walked to the Thai Adventure office. The day had arrived and I was anxious and excited to see what it would bring me. I met up with five others who would be joining me on this trip. I was sure that it would be just me and three guys at first (wouldn’t have complained) but two girls joined us shortly and we instantly hit it off as one of the coolest groups of people I have ever been a part of. We just seemed to work as a bunch and carried an open minded attitude the whole way. As we sat in the back of a truck on the way to the briefing site, we shared our traveling stories and special interests. As it turned out, we all had something that was a huge part of who we were. Max carried with him a GoPro and planned to shoot the whole trip on video. Holly loves to cook Mexican food. Girl from California whose name started with a V (why can’t people just name their child something simple) is a professional DJ back home. Ben, we joked, just sits back and enjoys the ride. Victor coaches a really cool Spanish game called Paddle and then there was me, the photographer. We all had our “thing” and our story. The six of us blended together like gold. 
 
Guy has been the owner of this company for 25 years. We were surprised to see that it was him teaching us about safety and not a hired employee. Those were the personal touches I was told about. It felt nice to get to know the owner and this man knew a lot about the history of Pai and Thailand. In fact, he rarely ever stopped talking. We were also surprised to realize our safety briefing over breakfast would be strictly verbal and consist of Guy quickly outlining and imitating what we are to do if we fall out of the raft. No videos, no dummy demonstrations, nothing. Who needs that, right? Let’s just get out there and face everything as it comes. And we did. After a short explanation by Guy, we were given helmets and lifejackets (they did spare us those) and sent into the back of yet another truck for the hour long ride to the river. 
 
It all happened so fast. One minute we were blowing up this raft by hand and the next we were floating along through the beautiful jungle and being introduced to our guide named Jaka. Let me try and explain Jaka to you. He is what made this experience what it was. This man was raised in a hill tribe. Nowadays they take tourists over to these tribes to see the long necked and big eared villagers who live there. The whole thing is actually quite sad but that’s another story for another time. Jaka was raised in the jungle and on the jungle. He knows this place like the back of his hand. He can point out every single bird or monkey in the trees that the human eye wouldn’t normally spot. He spent a lot of the time at the back of our raft imitating the birds using incredibly realistic bird calls. So realistic in fact that a lot of us were sure one had landed beside us. Jaka spoke English but in a very mumbly sort of way so you really had to pay attention when he spoke. Truthfully, he may have been speaking so quickly just to fool us. That’s the kind of person he is. I think I speak on behalf of all of us when I say this trip can be summed up into one sort sentence: “is this real life?” We never really knew when he was lying or when he was dead serious about anything. We didn’t know what to expect during any given moment. 
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As we all adjusted to Jaka and his bizarre ways, we were still so shocked about the sounds and sights this jungle held. At least, I know I was. I saw the brightest and bluest bird I have ever laid eyes on fly above us and perch itself on a branch. Although we didn’t see any monkeys (to my disappointment), we could hear them all day long along with the noises of many other interesting and unique animals. The cliffs and wild mango trees that towered over us were breathtaking and it took all my might not to constantly snap my camera in their direction. I needed to take time to absorb the sights with my own eyes first. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The jungle, much like the ocean, holds an entirely different world and we were only their lucky guests. 
 
The rapids were tame to begin with but as we moved further down the river, they began to pick up pace significantly. I think I was told we made it up to level 6 rapids towards the end which I promise you are pretty darn crazy. Jaka would steer the raft perfectly when we ran into trouble and the six of us rowed to his loud and urgent calls. My blood was pumping and it was exhilarating. I always marveled at the drastic change that occurred as we soared through a huge rapid and then seconds after entered extremely calm water. During those moments of blissful floating, Jaka would teach us a few games on a barrel using sticks and his two hands. A lot of them were tricky mind games that we all fell for but slowly began to solve. He would laugh and shake his head as we struggled to uncover his secrets. This man was definitely smarter than all of us combined.
 
We stopped for lunch on a little island and ate fried rice out of a banana leaf bowl. Fresh bananas followed as dessert. Jaka and the boys had a rock skipping competition where they were schooled by his ability. Of course. I even looked over to see Jaka eating raw meat straight off the plate. I guess when you’re raised off the wild, your body is accustom to things that would normally kill us Westerners. His way of life just continued to blow my mind and it didn’t stop there. 
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Shortly after we traveled through even bigger moments of turbulence, our raft was quickly pulled over and Jaka demanded that we all get out of the boat. In a flash, this man ran with his bare feet as fast as they could carry him over rocks, streams, sticks and dirt. I’m sure his soles are practically leather by now. Suddenly, he disappeared into the jungle and after a few minutes had passed he still hadn’t reappeared. No explanation, he was gone. We all looked at each other and burst out laughing right away. Was this going to end like lord of the flies? Was he leaving us here as a part of some sick joke? Just as we were questioning what to do next, he practically leaped out of the bushes like a wild animal and brought with him…a wild animal. In his bare hands was a dead, bright green bird. He held it up proudly and we all looked at him with a face I hope to god Max got on video. Jaka explained that he had seen a hawk fly through the air, kill this bird and watched it fall into the trees. This happened just a few minutes ago! Weren’t we all in the boat with him? Using his jungle vision, he was able to spot this, pull our raft over and locate the exact whereabouts of this dead animal. We were stunned. It was the most random and unexpected event and we had the pleasure of being a part of it. Then, as if the situation couldn’t have gotten any more weird, he placed this dead bird inside the barrel that HELD OUR DINNER and shut the lid. I think we stood there for another five minutes without saying a word before he prompted us back into our seats. Thus begins the commonly used phrase of our journey, “did that really just happen?” 
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The day passed by quickly and after five hours on the water, we pulled over to a small rocky bay on the riverside. This was our accommodation for the night. A small little boy came out to greet us and happily stuck out his hands to help carry items off our raft. A man followed behind him who I presumed was his father and guided us up to our home for the night. This little camp was set up directly inside the jungle and looked like something pulled straight from survivor. I found out that this family of three (Mom dad and little boy Jai) live here eight months of the year. They share their home to visitors from the rafting company every single night which I found incredibly selfless and generous. Of course the raft brings them a few must need items but a lot of their food is taken from the trees and the river. This family lives off the resources that naturally surround them and it was so interesting to observe. I spotted Jai and his father fishing around 8pm that night. The men did most of the cooking and sat crouched on the ground with a mortar and pestle. A large pot sat over a homemade fire and popped us several big bowls of popcorn. My favourite part was watching as Jai, the little seven year old boy, made his own fun out of an empty water bottle. I watched as he threw it up the stream and waited for it to float back to him. He kicked it around like a soccer ball and banged it like a drum. To most of us, this might seem a little sad. Almost everyone reading this is incredibly privileged and has grown up to believe that we need the latest toys and gadgets to keep us amused. I’m not speaking for everyone but let’s be honest, many kids these days do not have the attention span to keep interested while playing with a piece of garbage. This boy seemed happier than ever creating his own little games. I couldn’t stop capturing his beautiful little face. His perfectly smooth and untouched skin glowed. Without fail he would flash me a toothless smile and a giggle as I clicked away and communicated with him as best I could about his life here. Image
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The food we ate that night was out of this world. Everything was freshly picked and flavourful. We sat on a log made table lit by tall wax candles and enjoyed our feast in the dim light to the sound of the wild animals. None of us could believe how minimalist this night and day had been. We sipped jungle juice (a slightly alcoholic homemade fruit punch) while Max and Ben shared stories about their University exchange program in Bangkok. Our chemistry as a group was simple and beautiful surrounded by an atmosphere just the same.
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Here’s the thing about our sleeping arrangements. I loved the natural aspect of it all and it was such a cool experience being amidst the jungle all night long. On the other hand, the whole set up was so impractical. It was a challenge that I was happy to take on but it had me wondering how this family was able to stay sane. They live in the village over the four months they aren’t here and I’m curious to know which one they enjoy more. Then again, maybe I’ve been too immersed in the privileged lifestyle myself to truly understand. If it was all I know, I’m sure this would have been more than perfect. I was reminded again of how much I really need in life. 
 
Does everyone remember those gym matts we used in elementary school? I slept on one of those in a bamboo hut sheltered by a tarp and a bug net filled with dead insects. We weren’t given pillows, only a cloth sheet and the sleeping bags were filled with ants so that option was nixed quickly. All we could do was laugh and think of it as part of this ever growing story. All part of the experience, right? Oh and I also peed in a hole in the ground which was cool as much as it was a little nasty. It was a first for many of us so I guess we can all check that one off the bucket list! 
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Before bed, we were lit a beautiful fire and gathered around its warmth to socialize. Little Jai became obsessed with not my camera but Max’s. The two of them formed such a bond and wandered through the bushes taking photos together with the flash, something Jai seemed to be enthralled by. Sitting in front of a fire with a group of friends is one of the most wonderful and relaxing feelings. We stayed there chatting for hours, joking around and probably keeping up half the jungle with our loud clamour. 
 
As weird as this next part is, I cannot write this post without including this moment. Victor is a crazy 32 year old from Madrid and was part of our crew. Around the campfire that night I began to mention something nobody seemed to think of. If any of us were injured and needed to go to the hospital, we would be screwed. None of us knew where we had been taken and we just traveled five hours along the Pai river to get to here. Wherever here was. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it, but the thought freaked us out and obviously sparked a few ideas in the brain of Victor. He began a long explanation about a thought that suddenly occurred to him. He seemed dead serious about the entire story and when he finally reached the end we heard him say, “maybe our guide is up in his hut plotting our death.” That launched this huge and drawn out scene about Victor believing this was one giant scam to murder us all and then turned into HIS secret plot to kill us himself. It was one big, classic ghost story and I have to give him props for the realism. He was so good at playing with our minds that we never knew from one minute to the next what was serious and what was a lie. Everyone, the boys included were seriously freaked out by it. Ben barely wanted to sleep under the same roof as him that night. Of course he was kidding. Victor is one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met but as soon as he said the words, “I’m not really from Spain, I’m from Syria”, we pleaded for him to shut up pretty quickly. Like I said, you really had to be there and before you start thinking I was on this trip with a psychopath, he admitted to the joke the next morning and confessed that he didn’t think it would have gone so far. It definitely made for one of the most interesting nights I’ve ever had and added a little excitement to our jungle stay. After all, what’s a fire under the stars without a scary story or two? 
 
That night and every moment that came out of it never died. We laughed and talked about it the entire next day and even shared our experience with Jaka who laughed and laughed…then pulled out the machete he uses to cut fruit. Bad idea. 
 
I wish I could tell you that I had a gorgeous sleep under the stars that night but I didn’t. It poured rain minutes after we left the fire and didn’t seem to stop until morning. This was the night my body decided to get sick. It was bound to happen. I was sitting in sopping wet clothes all day while traveling over rough water and pushing my physical limits to the extreme. I had been doing this since day one of my travels and only ran into one brief cold. As always, my strong immune system had saved me over these past four months but it finally ran out of steam. You don’t want to have a headache and feel ill while sleeping where I was. It didn’t seem too equipped for comfort. It certainly made it an unforgettable night and like I mentioned before, it’s a story to tell the grandkids. I’ll leave it at that. 
 
The next morning we were awoken at 7:30am, alive (Victor didn’t kill us) and ready to go on a six hour trip to the village of Mae Hong Son. I wish I had planned to stay there like most of our group but all my luggage was back in Pai. I heard it was a beautiful and secluded place. The first thing I saw while walking down for breakfast was that damn green bird fried up on the BBQ. We even had the chance to try a little piece ourselves. It really did taste like chicken! I couldn’t believe Jaka was serious about eating that thing. 
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After many goodbyes and a high five from Jai, we were on our way to yet another day. I still felt a little out of sorts but all was soon forgotten when we rode over rapids so rough that everyone except Victor and I fell out of the boat. The two of us high fived after everyone recovered for being the only ones who managed to stay in. I swear, Jaka was purposely running us into rocks so we could flip over and out. I saw how he manoeuvred that raft like it was nothing and he definitely had the power to steer us clear of obstacles. We were wearing helmets and lifejackets so a serious injury would be quite difficult. It added an extra thrill and I was so surprised that we only fell out that one time considering what we ran into several instances afterward. Image
All of us minus Victor who was steering our raft! Dear lord.  

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Lunch that day was held at the hot water springs! This little sandy patch held water so hot that it was close to the boiling point. The sand bubbled in various sections and was incredibly smooth. I find those hot water springs so interesting. The things that nature is able to do and produce in this world are wild. We all found a comfortable spot and rested our feet in the warm sand, swishing it between our toes while eating fresh watermelon. I loved every minute of it. We even took the time to stop at a cliff and the boys decided to bravely jump off. I was so tempted to do it myself but the water was very shallow and in order to prevent your legs from breaking, you needed to arch your body a particular way so they wouldn’t drive straight into the river floor. I love a risk but I wasn’t going to be that daring. I did, however, climb up to the peak and take a good look around me. The sight was so beautiful and the air was so clean. It was a shame to think that we were already heading home that day and had just begun to adjust to this lifestyle and to each other. Hadn’t I gotten used to that by then? Making friends and leaving friends…the hardest part about the backpacking life. 
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Just one small part of this world

In no time, we made it to Mae Hong Son in one piece. A very surprising factor at that point! I was drenched yet again but so happy from the days events and the bonding that we all had every stroke of the way. Things wrapped up very quickly and after a circle of email exchanges and goodbye hugs, we all went our separate ways. Those two days are ones that will stay in my memory forever for so many reasons. Our time together was shocking, thrilling, adventurous, scary, resourceful, hilarious and most of all, full of love, kindness and friendship, the three things that will stick out strong and proud. I am so thankful that I got to know these beautiful people. I’m thankful for the lessons this has taught me about necessity and appreciation. I can’t imagine what it would be like to share my home every night of the week so I’m especially thankful for that wonderful family of three. I had never been a part of an experience like that before and I think every one of us would benefit from a night living off the Earth and everything it provides. It really opens your eyes to a thing or two. 
 
From then on I decided to take things easy until I flew home but that didn’t mean  amazing people didn’t stop showing themselves. Every day I find myself meeting someone knew and learning their story. I’m hoping to take this home with me, this sense of interest in every new place and face. It will be a dearly missed emotion if I can’t recreate it. 
 
This is technically my very last story abroad for the time being. I will be posting again in the next 24 hours as I take my big flight home to Canada. There is so much I need to say about these last five months and hopefully a big enough word count. I knew from the very beginning these last words would be hard to express. Stay tuned…

One Million Little Lights

 

 Just as I expected, Thailand has thrown me into a wonderful and beautiful culture shock that I’m just beginning to fall out of. The beautiful aspect has stayed but my legs are now getting used to sauntering around these streets with ease and comfort.
 
 My first introduction to Thailand was Bangkok and it had me walking around those bustling streets with my mouth half open. I had never seen such an expressive and overwhelming atmosphere before that moment. I may have thought I had visited cities before this but Barcelona, Dublin, Athens….they’ve got nothing on Asia. Every single sidewalk acted as one big market. It’s impossible to pass a street corner that isn’t selling fruit, pad thai, hippy pants or jewellery. The list goes on and on. People are constantly asking you where you’re going and how long you’re planning to stay. They scream, sell like their life depends on it and drive like absolute maniacs. The non existent traffic rules took some getting used to but I eventually mastered the art of crossing the street by standing in the middle of the road and holding out my hand with a smile to stop the cars. Yes, you heard me correctly. Taking what is called a “tuk-tuk” to manoeuvre around is an experience all on its own. Tuk-tuk (which I heard translates into cheap-cheap. Very accurate) is an open cart driven by a man on a motorized three wheel bike. There are no doors, no seat belts and they don’t slow down for one hot minute. You sit there hanging on for dear life and watch the city zoom by. It’s incredible. This introduction was more than I ever expected and I set the bar pretty high. That being said, I knew Bangkok was a bit of an exception. Many people escape this place as soon as possible. I happened to enjoy it in all its wild wonder but wouldn’t have wanted to stay there for a long period of time. Instead, I was looking forward to spending my days in the cities that brought a little more nature and a lot more originality. After leaving the elephants last Wednesday, Fa drove me all the way to Chiang Mai and as we drove through the vibrant nightlife, I was certain this would be a favourite of them all. 
 
Chiang Mai has such an odd balance of constant live action and complete relaxation. It’s slowly been teaching me that it’s okay if I’m not on my feet and doing something every second of the day. It’s okay for me to calm down for a few hours and walk around with no particular plans or destination in mind. As you’ve probably noticed, I have a lot of trouble excepting that. I have a desperate need to pack in as much as humanly (and maybe inhumanly) possible while in each city. I love it and each minute brings me a new memory and life lesson, but it’s beginning to catch up to me and my poor body. I planned only one big event and the rest came falling into my lap unexpectedly like they always do. Those unplanned moments always end up being the best ones, don’t they? 
 
I was blessed to have reached Chiang Mai by car and with company instead of traveling in a cramped and lonely bus. Fa from BLES happened to be heading here for business and said he was happy to have me join the five hour ride. We listened to reggae versions of hot pop songs the entire way and stopped at many unique family run cafes. As soon as our truck made its way into the city, I knew it would be bringing me something special. You could feel the shift in energy here and the night life thrived with culture and community. Community, now that was something I felt was very absent from Bangkok and it’s always a joy to feel. Chiang Mai is a large enough city that you could explore it for days and still have plenty to see but small enough that you could head into a cafe and they would have remembered your name from the last visit. I loved the “don’t worry be happy” feel that each cafe and boutique expressed. Images of Bob Marley could be seen in almost every bar and slapped on sign posts. There was no way to avoid the feeling of peace and harmony. Could there be a better place to rest my head for a few days?
 
I spent my first day there doing whatever my heart desired. I walked out into the sunshine and told myself I would follow impulse and creativity the entire day. Camera in hand, I stayed true to my word. I stopped inside each little shop along the way and admired the colourful, bohemian jewelry and pants hanging on the racks. One thing I’m sure I will miss are the two dollar foot massages I was able to get at the drop of a hat. Every stand selling a fresh fruit shake knew my face by the time I left. It’s worth mentioning that life in Thailand is incredibly inexpensive for a Westerner. Meals cost no more than a dollar and are always made with the freshest ingredients. Street food is a favourite of mine because there’s no hiding how it’s made. I loved watching them chop the basil and peel the fruit right before my eyes. I was very easily able to live like a Queen. As I walked as slowly and carefully as my legs would take me, I studied the people around me and watched as they lived life in a very different way than the one I’m used to observing. How interesting it was to watch a day in the life of a local. 
 
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Usually barefoot it seems, Thai’s are often seen working very hard for their money. Many of them spend their days weaving jewellery, selling at a shop or a tent in the market or preparing food. Everything is wholesome and done so naturally, always served with a grateful smile. There was no big machinery or an air conditioned shopping centre around here, only the simplest tools and two bare hands out in the open air or under a wooden veranda. It was rare to see a local doing nothing at all but they performed their daily tasks with as much ease and care as someone who was. Everybody and their mother drives a motor bike (without a helmet or care in the world) and I felt like I was back in Greece again with the amount of wandering stray dogs out and about in the streets. It was wonderful to watch the care they put into everything they did. Preparation was done slowly, surely and resourcefully. They just want to make people happy.  With their unique style and vibrant personality, the people of Asia are so fascinating to capture.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage
 
I can’t seem to get enough of the temples that bask in their glory around every corner. I find Buddhism such a beautiful way of life. It’s a religion that doesn’t brag, boast or throw itself at others. I love that it stands for happiness and inner peace. The statue and image of the Lord Buddha is very sacred and can be found inside every temple as a divine and ruling presence. It’s incredible how much access they have to praise and worship in this country. How beautiful it is that they open their doors for anyone with a sense of curiosity or need to pay respect. The energy inside these vibrant gold tipped buildings will not be forgotten and I liked to visit them from time to time just to feel it all swell within me. I always find myself sitting on the carpet in front of the golden image a little longer than everyone else. It takes me away for a little while and you can’t help but feel affected by the silence and bowing surrounding you. 
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On that note, I took a yoga class that evening to end the day off with the zen that had followed me around since morning. It was easy enough that with my little experience I was able to keep up and follow along for the entire hour. This studio is situated amongst a beautiful outdoor garden with no ceiling and bamboo walls. The man who lead the class had the most relaxed voice I had ever heard and a slight German accent which almost put me to sleep when combined with his reciting of instructions. It stretched my body in every way possible and released anything my muscles may have had pent up. 
 
As the evening died down, I wandered further up the main road towards an event called The Night Bazaar. I didn’t know what to expect at first and what I saw completely blew my mind. This market begins at 6pm every single night and sells everything from clothes to food to knock offs of every kind. It stretches for miles and when the entire town is silent, you know where to find the action. The flashing lights and sound of enjoyment echoing through the clanking of pots and pans and music created the perfect night time atmosphere. It was very possible to spend your entire evening just walking up and down the rows of stands, admiring the colours and patterns on every handmade item. Around every corner, you’re never certain what to expect and that’s what made it such an interesting place to explore. I didn’t feel lonely in this sea of people, only guided and comforted by their nature of celebration and life. 
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I had thought about going zip lining at some point over my time here and decided to make it happen in Chiang Mai. It’s considered a very popular tourist activity due to the beautiful jungle just about an hour and a half away from the centre. The owner of my hostel named Wee (who I later discovered was an angel in disguise) recommended a company that he has zip lined with and showed me several photos of the amazing and thrilling time he had. I arranged all the details and before I knew it, I was on my way to the site in a van with six others. The view I saw as we rolled up to the bamboo building was breathtaking and the guides were friendly and officiant getting us all geared up. We rode in the back of a truck all the way to the greenery and then up a steep hill to the very first take off point. What I didn’t realize was that there was an entire course here made up of 26 stations. Some of the lines were longer than others (one stretched a whopping 600 metres) and others had you riding on a bicycle, a skateboard or scaling a rope ladder! It was so diverse and the amazing men who helped connect us to each chord had a hysterical sense of humour. They made all of us feel comfortable through the moments where we battled an unknown fear of heights. The first few lines were absolutely terrifying. I’m not going to lie, I do have a slight height fear myself but none of that was going to stop me from mastering each and every section of this wild ride. I slowly began to get more comfortable taking off from each platform. It may have been due to the pushes from Danny and Boom (our leaders) or their reassuring jokes as they threw up their legs and bounced up and down while riding on the lines themselves. This had to be safe if it was holding their monkey shenanigans. When I was finally sure of my bravery, I took a look below me while flying through the banana trees. Waterfalls flowed beautifully and I could hear animals squawking their calls. It added an extra something to the experience. It reminded me once again where I was. I was in Thailand… and it was beautiful. Image
 
My adrenalin pumped faster than it ever had before but the 26 stations zoomed by a lot quicker than I imagined they would. I was disappointed too since I was beginning to love that exciting feeling of fear rushing through my veins with each release. I had formed somewhat of a friendship with our crazy leaders and they would always greet me with my name each time it was their turn to hook up my equipment. I was endeared by it all and impressed at the personal touches they added to a system they have to go through day after day. 

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Another surprise waited for me at the end in the form of food. I wasn’t expecting the price to include a meal but a beautiful Thai buffet lay out for us to enjoy and chat over. I spent the next hour getting to know the people in my group from Australia and we shared our favourite memories of our trip around Thailand so far. It was an incredible experience all around and I take my hat off to the company Flying Squirrel. They really know how to create something memorable. 
 
The entire day, although fun, was incredibly exhausting. I practically zombie walked to my bed and fell asleep seconds after I hit the pillow. There was no way I was going to enjoy my night out after being so drained. At this point, I was still a tad apprehensive about how long I would be staying in Chiang Mai. Due to the huge once a year festival called Loi Krathong, every single room in the city was booked solid and I had to move from my original hostel into this current one down the road. I was only able to book one night. I decided not to worry about it and deal with things in the morning. There wasn’t a chance I would be missing these festivities that I just happened to be here for. 
 
I woke up from my nap, posted a blog and just as I was about to pack my things and head out to explore, a woman knocked at the front door in an attempt to get in. I ran down to open it for her and as she waited for the owner of the hostel to reappear, we began chatting. Lauren is an English Literature teacher in Bangkok and is originally from Ireland. I recognized her accent right away and gushed about how much I loved spending time there. I’ve met several teachers from Bangkok taking a mini weekend vacation so it wasn’t a surprise to meet yet another. She had plans to meet a few colleagues at a famous bar up the road but since she didn’t have a key, it could be impossible for her to get back in. She then asked if I wanted to join her. Not only because I had a key myself and could let her inside at the end of the night, but because we had bonded over travel and wandering and I had no particular plans that evening. It was a perfect scenario and together we headed to what is widely known as “the reggae bar”. 
 
This place was incredible and sat in a square of several other bars packed full of locals and other tourists. Everything held a very open feel and the busier it gets, the more inclined you are to meet a new face. The tables are large enough that strangers are bound to sit next to you once things fill and anyone spending their night there has a very similar attitude to yours. Most travellers in Thailand are cut from the same cloth so whoever you do meet almost always ends in a perfect connection. Lauren’s friends were super down to earth and very welcoming to a youngin’ like me. Have I mentioned how young this journey has made me feel? It’s something I’ve grown to appreciate. Rarely are the people I meet anywhere close to my age and always tell me to bask in the moments of youth. 
 
With drink prices being so inexpensive, we ordered several funky cocktails and talked about the bizarreness of Bangkok and wonder of living and working in Southeast Asia. The two men of the group had jokingly given me fake names so I’m still not sure of their real ones but they were quite the funny pair. I absolutely adored the atmosphere of this place and the small  Indian cafe in the corner that served delicious food right to your bar table. What a dangerously wonderful combination. During our chats, we would occasionally look up to see bunches of floating paper lanterns already being lit and released into the air in preparation for the weekend events. Two of the ladies, Pippa and Amy, were dying to run after them and discover their location. After a few more minutes, I agreed to join and the three of us” followed the lanterns”all the way down the road. 
 
We were lead to a small square filled with people letting go of lanterns and watching them fly. Before watching the big lantern release, it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. We decided to light two of them ourselves and were given instructions by this adorable Thai man who was turning 20 that day. He was very shy but we all sang happy birthday to him anyway as he blushed wildly. He told us about the fortune of good luck it will bring us and how everyone makes a wish before letting go. We were lucky enough to have another man helping us out who is part of a photography team and documented the event perfectly. It was a moment I will never forget and full of pure, undeniable magic. Image
 
Little did I know, this wasn’t the end of the sparkling celebration. I heard through the grape vine that an even bigger lantern release was being held at the University the next night about forty minutes from the centre of town. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there and I had no idea where I would be sleeping but I was determined to make it. 
 
The next morning I walked back over to my original hostel and spoke to the owner named Wee about my issue and desire to stay over the festival weekend. He was so kind and told me I was able to sleep in the lobby with the three other guests doing the same. He gave me a key to store my valuables in his cupboard and it was all more than I could ever ask for. I briefly mentioned that I was hoping to head to the University that night and he quickly said he would be glad to take me and another boy from the hostel in his car. Not once but twice had he saved me and only minutes had passed. I was given instructions to meet back there at 5pm and spent the whole day anxiously awaiting the nights events. I knew it was going to be something really special. 
 
Fireworks had been going off non stop since I arrived and the noises heightened as the big weekend drew closer. People were firing them off from their hands, in the middle of busy crowds and pretty much everywhere somebody shouldn’t be lighting off a fire cracker. At first it was fun and then it just got dangerous. The police presence was strong but nobody seemed to bat an eye. It’s funny how the laws and rules seem to change with each country but the actions that should be stopped never get less scary and life threatening. At least the ones successfully lit coloured the sky in sparkles and had me smiling down every street. 
 
I ended up spending most of my day with a lady named Dana, another teacher in Bangkok spending her weekend in Chiang Mai. We met on the street while admiring the same homemade bracelet stand and chatting with the artist who created them. She asked where I was from and said I was more than welcome to walk around with her and the friend she had brought along (I’m so sorry I forgot your name but you were very lovely too). They knew what it was like to travel alone. I was so grateful and took them up on the offer. Dana is someone who I would most definitely be friends with back at home. She carries such a wonderful energy and “go with the flow vibe”. Her personality is one that I could follow along through the streets of Southeast Asia for weeks. Vibrant, fun and willing to go anywhere and do anything. It’s a shame we couldn’t spend more time getting to know each other but the afternoon we did was more than I expected of the day and it felt great to have a full conversation in clear English. I’ve found that meeting people in Thailand hasn’t occurred like it normally does but each one has been an unexpected surprise and joy. 
 
When 5pm arrived, I met up with Wee, his girlfriend and another guest at the hostel who would be joining us on the ride to the University. We piled into the car and head off to face the traffic jam that would be invading the roads for the next 48 hours. I was thanking my lucky stars that I hadn’t taken the invitation to go with Dana and her friend to the lanterns. I had a feeling in my gut that I should travel there with people who knew the streets. The girls had taken a tuk-tuk and I’m almost positive they didn’t make it in. When we reached our destination, we found that taking a car inside is nearly impossible due to the jam. I heard Wee say, “now we switch from car to motorbike” and my stomach lurched a little bit. I had seen how people drove those things. I was beginning to think I wouldn’t make it in alive. 
 
We stopped at a house where Wee and his girlfriend picked up two bikes and told us to hop on the back. Normally people don’t hold on to anything while sitting behind the driver but I clutched onto this ladies shoulders for dear life just to be safe. I surprised myself and as soon as we started moving I began to get comfortable and let go. To my amazement, it was quite easy to balance and I felt like a true local as we weaved in and out of traffic. To my family who are cringing at this thought, at least I’m telling you this now that I’m safe! We were dropped off at the entrance in no time and I was shocked at the amount of people who had flocked there. No wonder we needed to bike in. Our two drivers didn’t join us and said they’ve seen the festival many times. I didn’t blame them for not wanting to face the crowds but now that I’ve seen what it stands for, I would be anxious to be a part of it every single year. 
 
It was just me and this man from Japan making our way through the sea of people. What a wonderful and sweet guy whose name I also can’t recall because it was so crazy. You think I would be better with names at this point. At first I became a little frustrated with the crowd. It was impossible to move more than two steps forward without a hand on your but or a jab in the ribs. I quickly smartened up and remembered what we were there for. That would make everything worth it. 
 
We finally made it to the other side of the crowd and purchased lantern for the big moment. In the centre of the madness was a large opening now full of people sitting on straw mats and holding their lanterns high. A series of Buddha statues and images sat at the front on a stage, glowing in a beautiful light. Chanting and prayer took place to honour the Lord Buddha and the sight and sound of everyone’s worship sent shivers down my spine. It was incredible to be a part of and watch as they all bowed in unison. 
 
At 8pm, everyone scampered to find a seat on the grass and waited for the voice over the speaker to announce the moment we were waiting for. Lanterns had already begun to fly and beautiful music played as several of them trickled up and away. I could hardly imagine the sight that was to follow. A large lantern was lit on the stage in the name of the Lord Buddha and we were told to take a moment of peace to reflect and find our centre. We were reminded to think of those that we loved and send happiness to those we’ve never known. I loved that through all that chaos, this was the ultimate goal. I calmed my mind and focused on every piece of happy I wanted to send out there just moments before the candles in front of us were lit and it was finally time. 
 
We made friends with two guys standing beside us and they assisted as we lit our lantern over the flame. It’s a bit of a tricky task. So tricky in fact that ours went up in flames and nearly burned a group of ladies next to us. It was an honest mistake and we tried so hard to be careful but man was it ever scary! I felt pretty let down by that incident. Not only was it shocking but I was now without a lantern to release and I wanted to make a wish more than anything. A very sweet man behind me said I was able to join him and help hold his lantern and his random act of kindness made my heart leap. With just seconds to go, I looked around me and watched as these bright paper lanterns lit up the dark night. We were reminded once again to think about our wish and then gracefully, all in unison, we let go. Then I watched them fly. All at once, thousands of dreams, emotions and unspoken words floated high into the air to the sound of gorgeous french music. I was stunned and overwhelmed at the beauty before me. In seconds I was crying full fledged tears and laughing uncontrollably through every shortened breath. They were the happiest tears that have ever fell from my eyes and sparked by one single thought: this moment of unity defied all boundaries. We let go of our differences. Differences in culture, race and religious beliefs. None of that matters in the here and now. Hundreds of us bound together to celebrate and love. It was enough to keep my spirits lifted for a lifetime.
 
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I posted this on Facebook just a few hours after returning from this unforgettable evening. There’s no better way to voice what my mind was repeating so I thought I would share it with you all just once more. 
 
“Once every year on the November full moon, northern Thailand holds a festival called Loi Krathong which translates roughly into floating lantern. Words cannot begin to describe how blessed I am to have landed here over this celebration. Tonight brought me one of the best experiences of my entire life. Although I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot lately, the emotions and flowing tears I felt during this exact moment cannot be put into words. These lanterns hold the heartfelt wishes of everyone who is holding so tightly onto a dream. They hold whispered words for the ones we have lost, the love for friends and family by our sides and happiness for those that we’ve never known. As I watched thousands of brightly lit lanterns being released into the air, angelic opera accompanying their magical movement, I noticed one had the words “Keep Hope Alive” written on the front in black ink. Just remember that our society may focus primarily on the negative happenings of our world but over ruling that are so many moments of beautiful unity. Tonight I stood as one wish in the crowd of many and with perfect strangers released a paper lantern into the sky representing peace. That’s enough to keep the hope alive for anybody.”Image
 
I walked into the hostel that evening to see a little corner of the back room sectioned off. A neatly made bed sat in the centre filled with pillows and cushions. “This is your homemade bedroom”, Wee told me. He beamed with pride. Well shoot…that had to have been the sweetest thing any stranger has ever done for me. There went the tears again. 
 
As if that wasn’t enough excitement already, the following night on the full moon I met a girl named Daniella who took me to a ceremony at a temple in town. There was an area circled off and filled with beautiful candle sticks. The second I walked in I could hear the traditional Asian music softly playing and the voices of anxious visitors awaiting what was to come. We managed to make our way to the front of the crowd and could see a beautiful tree decorated in colourful lanterns as the centre stage. A statue of Buddha sat beneath it and glowed proudly. The entire scene was stunning and once again, truly magical. After a few minutes passed, we looked up to see around thirty young Monks dressed in orange robes enter the space. One by one they began lighting the candles as a soft and melodic voice chanted a rhythm of prayer over a speaker above. Each candle was lit with care and precision and I could see the glowing faces of the young Monks smiling in the golden light. They made their way over to the tree and each took a position beneath its beautiful branches facing the Buddha and kneeling slowly. The chanting voice continued and every so often they would bow in unison. Nothing in this world could be more peaceful. I was so grateful to Daniella for taking me here. I never would have known about it otherwise.
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As the Monks rose to their feet, a few of them began lighting lanterns of their own and in no time every one of them was releasing a lantern into the air, laughing and watching in awe much like I had the night before. It sure was an hour to remember and such an unexpected one at that. Didn’t I tell you? Beauty is found in the simplest of forms. ImageImage

A Love of Great Strength

Over the past three days, I have had the incredible opportunity of spending a few precious nights in Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary. Tucked into the jungle in Sukhothai, Thailand, this home has opened my heart as wide as it could go and filled it with lessons, knowledge, compassion and most importantly, true love.

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 I’m not sure where to start when I think about expressing my feelings towards this organization. It is one built on a sliver of hope which has slowly grown into a magnificent achievement and life change for so many animals in need. All it took was the heart of one woman who left her entire glamorous world behind to save the life of a special baby elephant, Boon Lott (meaning survivor in Thai). On a holiday around Thailand much like the one I myself am experiencing now, 22 year old Katherine Connor’s eyes were opened to the traumatizing conditions that elephants are often put through by their owners here in Asia. She sacrificed everything to keep little Boon Lott alive by sleeping with him at night and presenting him with the very first elephant wheel chair on his second birthday. Katherine’s story is one of complete fate and demonstrates a passion and strength that inspired me the instant I became aware of it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet this beautiful woman during my time here. Katherine was away doing what she knows best and fighting for the life of yet another elephant in need. I missed her by just one short day. Instead, I learned about her life and story through the many articles posted around BLES and each one of them touched me, spoke to me and had me itching to help make big change in this world. 
 
BLES is home to 14 rescued dogs, 26 cats, four cows and of course, 11 elephants. Each elephant has a story. Behind each of their golden eyes is a life that will break your heart to even fathom. Most of them were purchased and sold to tourist attractions, being forced to perform and give rides for days on end with little to no water or food. They lived their lives on a concrete slab and were controlled by heartless hands. Others were used for logging or chained on the side of the road as the cars whizzed by occasionally fuelling this act by throwing money their way. They suffered foot rot, land mine accidents and infections. It’s a wonder they all survived. The good news is, the months of fighting that Katherine and her team go through to rescue these gorgeous animals leads them to a life of absolute freedom. 
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 Heading back to my very first day, I was picked up by a man who works at BLES named Fa. He rocked some pretty cool dreads and had a very relaxed and calm energy about him that I felt immediately. Four other guests would be joining me through this experience and we were side by side in the truck in no time with no choice but to become instant friends! Pat, Colleen, Steve and Marilyn are two couples related through Colleen and Marilyn’s relationship as cousins. With one couple from New Zealand and the other from Australia, the four of them created a group of fun, adventurous and fascinating people to get to get to know. I loved each of their personalities and the sense of humour from their husbands had me laughing up a storm. 
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Arriving in BLES really was like entering a paradise. After traveling in on the bumpy dirt road we made it into a clearing full of lush green and several dogs and cats ran to greet us, barking and meowing their hellos. Beautifully built wooden homes, verandas and shelters acted as our rooms for sitting, eating and housing for the Mahouts and volunteers. The entire place had a feeling of complete zen and relaxation which took over my whole body as we entered and had me anticipating the moments to come with happiness. It was as if I could feel the elephant presence before they even appeared and I was dying to finally meet them. 
 
After taking in every sight, smell and feeling, we were shown to our personal log cabins hidden among the trees. Each one was beautifully decorated with elephant touches. I was smitten. I knew right away that it was highly possibly I would sit myself in the middle of this sanctuary and never leave. 
 
I wandered down to the pond by myself and explored what I could while the others got ready for lunch. As I walked further up the main path, something caught my eye. A big and bold grey elephant stood within the trees, munching away and swaying its tail back and forth. I didn’t want to approach him right away since I wasn’t sure of his nature but I stood back and watched as he lived life on his own terms. The entire sight was beautiful and I was awe struck with amazement at his size and grace. The personal stories of each elephant were located under the main structure which also held passages explaining how the biology of an elephant works when in a natural habitat. There were so many things I wasn’t aware of. The sensitivity of an elephants foot, the 80,000 muscles inside that one trunk, it all wowed me. They are such incredible and intricate creatures. I continued to walk around the sanctuary learned the horrific past of each elephant and the work Katherine and her husband Anon go through to bring them to peace. Reading about the conditions they were put through extending beyond what I described above broke my heart into a million pieces. I truly wondered how people slept at night with the knowledge that something so sacred and sensitive had been harmed by their will. 
 
After reading these stories with tears in my eyes, I’m so thankful that through everything they endured that all of these beauties ended up in a place like this. At BLES, elephants can roam free, are fed and hydrated constantly and form wonderful relationships with each other. They stress the use of the word foundation to describe BLES as opposed to camp because the days of catering to tourist related acts are no more. This is most certainly an elephant haven and they are so lucky to be in the hands of people who care so deeply about their well being. 
 
It was one thing to read their stories but an entirely different feeling to meet them face to face. I’ll never forget my first interaction with Lotus. My heart crumbled as I thought about her abusive past. I couldn’t imagine anyone hurting her. I was shocked at her gentle nature and the movement of her delicate trunk as it blew soft air and thumped against the ground in happiness. Her striking presence approached me ever so softly and the second I wrapped my arms around her strong trunk, I knew why Katherine felt so compelled to devote her life to these stunning creatures. She absolutely captured me and hasn’t let go since. We spent many moments together and I will miss our connection more than I can begin to express. It was then that I decided to adopt Lotus and donate monthly towards her care and the care of the entire sanctuary. My only hope is that this beautiful place can continue to thrive.
ImageThroughout the next few days, I spent my hours with the four other guests surrounding myself with three elephant’s loveable ways. Lotus, Wassana and Pang Dow are the three most sociable and tame of the eleven that live at the sanctuary. Never in my life had I been able to interact so personally with such a large animal. Those three girls are nicknamed The Girl Gang and better yet, The Gossip Girls. They are one hundred per cent inseparable. After meeting Lotus, I noticed she was waiting patiently by a big pile of corn, hardly attempting to eat even a piece. Fa told me she was waiting for her girlfriends and the sound and sight of them meeting each day is unforgettable. He described it as “turning the whole sanctuary into Jurassic Park” due to the noises they make as they reunite. Sure enough, Pang Dow and Wassana came prancing down the hill and the three of them squeaked, squealed and trumpeted their hearts out, banging their trunks together like they hadn’t seen each other in years. It was remarkable. The relationships between every elephant were incredible to watch. When it comes to emotions, nothing seems to differ these creatures from humans. There are elephants that hate each other, elephants that form a possy and just like the Gossip Girls, elephants that you just can’t tear apart. 
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Each meal was spent under a hut by the pond. We were barefoot, cross legged and content as could be with the elephants by our side. Traditional vegetarian Thai dishes were prepared and fresh fruit always dawned every table. During breakfast, Lotus loved to saunter on over and stick her squirmy trunk under our roof looking for papaya, her absolute favourite fruit. On our second morning there, she rested her trunk on the side of the wall and soaked up every bit of attention we would give her. Her giant mouth would open playfully when she was looking for scraps and we wouldn’t hesitate to stick a few pieces of fruit onto her squishy pink tongue. I always giggled wildly while feeding them anything. The novelty never seemed to wear off and their bubbly nature caused the feeling of breezy freedom to run right through my veins. Image
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ImageDuring our first day, we took the gang into the jungle for some shady socializing. The six of us and a Mahout drove on a cart out into the depths of the greenery and set up hammocks underneath a collection of Lychee trees. I guess I should explain what a Mahout does. I like to call them elephant whisperers. There are seven Mahouts that work at BLES and are in charge of easing the elephants into their new home, acting as a safety net with guests in case something gets out of hand and are connected to the elephant somewhat like a second parent. It’s very difficult to describe and so much easier to understand when watching the interaction between a Mahout and their elephant. All of them strictly spoke Thai and I always watched wide-eyed as they would gently touch them and softly speak words of ease and direction into their ears. There are very specific phrases and tones used to guide an elephant and I was even able to pick up a few from observation. Fa told me that “the Mahout doesn’t choose the elephant, the elephant chooses the Mahout.” I believed it. They had a bond that was obviously born out of a gift that each of these brilliant Thai men possessed and it was so special to watch as it unfolded before my eyes. 

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 This little circle of trees had us closer to the elephants than ever before. It felt safe and secure. The elephants loved every minute of it and all of us were highly aware that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Hours passed but every minute was just as exciting as the last. They were so willing to accept our endless praise and attention. We poured our drinking water down their trunks and handed them sticks which they used to itch their bellies instinctively. It was there that I learned the most beautiful animal fact on the face of this Earth. Elephants have a hole located just outside their eye that emits hormones. I noticed that the girls would put their trunks over this hole and always wondered what it was they were doing. That’s their way of asking, “hey love, how are you feeling right now?” This is how they check in on each others well being and they do it so often too. The care that they showed for each other was a true display of friendship that we should all follow by example. 
 
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ImageImagePang Dow and her big ears slapping me in the head! What a silly one.

Our nights were spent over a tasty dinner and glasses of beer as we all sat talking about our day and everything from politics to education to our beliefs about world issues and more. Abba over a small speaker set accompanied our voices and cats always curled up on our laps even when we didn’t ask them to. BLES is a place of acceptance and belonging. I fell asleep surrounded by a flowing, white canopy and knew that my second full day would bring just as much wonder and lessons as the first. I don’t think I’ve ever slept so soundly and dreamed such perfect dreams.
 
I made a mad dash the next morning right out my front door and straight into the cart which took us on a banana run. We weren’t the only ones who needed breakfast. Actually, this was considered a snack for the elephants. Three kilograms of bananas! There certainly is a lot of one that needs to be fed! The country side we drove through was incredibly beautiful. We passed by farmers drying rice in the middle of the road and dogs balancing on the backs of motor bikes. Most of us jumped out and helped to hoist the bananas into the back. These were grown organically and we were all free to try as many as we pleased. I’m almost certain we’ve been doing bananas all wrong back in Canada. These tasted like no other and I chowed down on several along the way. 
 
The girls certainly seemed to love them just as much as I did. As we approached BLES with breakfast in tow, I saw them standing in their usual eating spot by the entrance way. As soon as we stopped, their massive trunks dove right into the big pile of food and squirmed like snakes to pick the ripest bunch. They use that instrument so delicately and it can move in some incredible ways picking up both very large objects as well as the tiniest around. I’m pretty sure I could watch them eat happily forever. 

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We took another walk into the jungle that day but this time we were introduced to some new friends. Mee Chok, Pang Tong (Boon Lott’s mother) and Somai were nestled in the bushes when we arrived at an elevated wooden platform off the path. The smell of the bananas brought the
m running. Before he arrived here, Somai was caught in a terrible forest fire and 70 per cent of his skin is now burned and easily torn. Despite it all, he gave off a very relaxed and kind presence. Mee Chok is only four years old and prances around like a bundle of pure joy. It’s a shame he’s too young to understand how to behave properly with humans because he looked like a ton of fun and a real free spirit. The dogs joined us up top and we watched as the three of them ate their hearts out and occasionally stuck their trunks through the cracks in the wooden floor to see if we had any treats hiding!Image
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After eating lunch, we all took turns washing the girls and hosing down their muddy bodies. It’s the simple things that make them happy just like the things we take for granted would make us happy too if they were absent from our life for a while. We were given a few opportunities to go and collect corn or do another banana run the next morning but I opted out. All I wanted to do was stay with the elephants and have them take my breath away again and again. 

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During our rest hours, I would take my ukelele down to the pond and Fa would teach me a few songs or intros to his favourite pieces. During the days he isn’t working at BLES, Fa composes music and has been living out both of his passions simultaneously for years now. I hope he knows that he has quite the amazing life going for him and it was such a blast listening to the songs he’s created and making music with a new friend. His goal is to compose a song for each of the eleven elephants at BLES that represents their nature and personality. I think that’s just beautiful. 
 
As our final morning approached, I tried not to focus on the goodbyes I would have to face. We still had a few precious moments to experience first and I savoured them with all that I had. During our last trip into the jungle, we were accompanied by the trio. Along the way, Fa collected a fruit called a Pomelo which is essentially just a grapefruit to us but a tad sweeter. The girls could smell them from a mile away and after we cut them open and took bites of the juicy fruit, we shared our leftovers and were instantly loved. Feeling completely calm and content, I stretched myself out in the swinging hammock and stared up at the three girls towering over me. Wasanna had wandered over and I stroked her wrinkled skin while the sun beamed down and warmed my face. Looking up into her big brown eyes, I had to ask myself if this moment was real. This striking animal with such a wonderful and sweet soul was just inches away from my smiling face. Fresh fruit was just an arms reach away and I was immersed in the beauty of Thailand’s nature. Things really couldn’t be any sweeter and this farewell moment was exactly what I needed to keep in my heart until the next time we met. 
 
ImageImageImageThe dreaded time finally arrived and before I knew it we were packing our bags and ready to go home. I made my way to the beautiful ladies chowing down on a mound of freshly picked papaya’s. Goodbye’s have never been something I’m good at so I decided not to make too much of a scene. I knew that we would be seeing each other again in the future so in the end, a “see you later” fit just right. As I gave Lotus one last hug around her thick trunk, I became aware of everything they had taught me throughout my time here. These elephants have helped me learn about compassion and the height it can reach in the heart of just one person. I didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed by my love toward each of their souls and how their personalities would steal my heart and captivate me for hours on end. It is this level of emotion that I will strive to reach in everything I do and work towards each day. Before we were even introduced, they taught me about hope and strength. Through everything they endured, their bodies pulled through and although those three girls have every right to despise people until the day they die, they chose to love us right back. They choose to dance in the rain and frolic in the papaya’s because they’ve put the past behind them and welcomed this new life with a positive perspective. Shouldn’t we all follow their example and do the same? Life happens but we choose whether or not we want to let it bring us down when faced with beauty and inspiration. Nobody in this world is forced to let the past rule their future. While I had my moment with each lady, I noticed how much they had taught me about control and balance. Their giant bodies have the power to harm anyone and anything in an instant. Instead, they walk with the utmost grace and every move they make is done with care. In my moments of stress and despair, I plan to “think like an elephant and move like an elephant” in order to achieve serenity. 
 
Last but certainly not least, the elephants here at BLES have taught me about love. Love for your friends, love for your family and love for the people who have guided you to the place where your feet are currently resting. It is a love built on trust and founded in the belief that they will be there to catch you when you fall. It is entirely unconditional and everlasting through the bumps and cracks that tag along for the journey. Yes, all of this was discovered through resting my forehead on the trunk of an elephant and knowing right away that this is the kind of love I want to give to the people I’m surrounded by daily. This is the kind of love that I never want to stop feeling. 
 
ImageI encourage you all to take a look at the Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary website and take some time to read each elephant’s individual story. As well, don’t hesitate to check out the story behind the creation of this organization and how it all began. 
 
There’s one more thing I need to mention and I hope you’ve all continued to read up until this point. I’ve recently sent out an email to my family requesting that each of them donate money towards the sanctuary as my Christmas gift this year. There’s nothing in this world I possibly need right now but there are thousands of elephants in need of rescue. If our world continues to act in arrogance about elephant care, this species will be extinct by 2025. That’s twelve years from the new year! I kindly ask that if anyone is looking to lend a hand to a cause in need this year or was thinking of purchasing a gift for me this Christmas, please donate toward BLES. It costs $34,000 to purchase one elephant and absolutely every penny counts. I guarantee the money will be sent directly to the organization and go towards bettering the lives of elephants for years to come. Please notify me if you’ve sent a donation as I would like to send a letter to Katherine with a grand total of donors and outline my respect for everything she does. 

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Chasing Fairies. Chasing Dreams

 

I woke up on Monday morning knowing that I would finally be visiting a part of the world that sparked so many thoughts and dreams inside my mind. Over one year ago, I remember sitting in that cafe with my good friend Rebecca very clearly. Traveling had been but a teeny, tiny thought in the back of my mind at this stage. There were still things to consider, choices to make, a conscience to follow. We reached the topic of Ireland and I expressed how much I dreamed to experience their culture one day. Rebecca had taken a recent trip to Scotland and almost instantly brought up this mystical destination. With excitement in her eyes she told me, “If you’re going to be near Scotland, you must go see The Fairy Pools.” We pulled up a photo on my phone and as they appeared, I was struck with amazement. The atmosphere seemed to sparkle with true magic and called out to me as a place I needed to be and absolutely could be. Looking at this photograph had me thinking of the many other almost unbelievable places the world holds. You read about them in the top ten books, watch them as backdrops in famous films and then wonder how you’ll ever be able to reach them yourself one day. They tend to seem so surreal. As I studied that photograph closer and closer, it hit me. For the first time in a long time, I realized that nothing was holding me back from immersing myself in these places that ignited such a passion and inspiring flame within me. I wanted to see them, didn’t I? Then why couldn’t I make the leap? I didn’t have permanent ties or commitments that had me stapled to the ground. In fact, nobody in this world really does. We choose our priorities and in that moment I was so sure of what mine were. My bucket list wasn’t going to sit in a corner and become torn as time passed me by. I needed to travel and The Fairy Pools would be seeing me very, very soon.

 
I had wondered for quite some time how I would possibly be able to reach the pools. The Isle of Skye is a located  in a very remote and very northern part of Scotland. This place is a secluded and beautiful paradise. Everywhere you look you’re protected by a wall of the Coolin mountains or a forest of brightly coloured Autumn trees. It surrounds you daily and calms your soul. I felt so many emotions as I stepped off that bus and noticed that this town of Kyleakin was about ten buildings long with a view of the Loch right outside the hostel windows. A vibrant rainbow dipped into the bridge across the way and welcomed me in. After settling into my friendly hostel with one of those roaring fires I enjoy so much, I walked with a smile on my face along the rocky beach and took in the clean, untouched air. Every rock was a unique shape and colour and the sun continued to shine. 
 
The sky darkens very quickly at 5pm around here so I made the most out of the three hours I had until evening took over. I took a beautiful walk up and through what they call Fox Hill located directly behind my hostel’s backyard. I had found myself a dream land entirely separate from the rest of society, how else can I possibly describe Skye? Every view point had me starring like a love sick puppy and feeling so, so lucky to be there in that moment. 
 

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Grateful that my temporary home offered free hot chocolate, I cuddled up with a cup that night and met a wonderful lady named Sarah who had just started working at the hostel that week. I explained my story and desperate need to see the Fairy Pools while here. She responded with a smile. That was exactly the same dream that brought her to Skye a few years ago and she had nothing but amazing things to say about the affect it has on her soul. “If you’re into energy, what you feel while there is incredible and will hit you the second you step into the realms. The minute I arrived, I knew right away that I needed to stay in Skye for just a little longer.” Our whole conversation had me jumping in my seat with excitement and anticipation for what the pools would hold for me. Sarah and I connected and bonded over the magic that drew us to this Island with just one glance at what it has to offer. We sat on the couch by the fire and shared our lives, views and love for our similarities. Most of all, I was thankful for her direction. She explained in perfect detail how I would be able to reach the main hiking point and then take the stunning walk to the home of the fairies. I was a little discouraged at first. The only way I would be able to enjoy this experience without rush would be to hitchhike as early the next morning as possible. “Don’t worry”, she assured me. “People on this island know how hard it is to get around. You’ll get picked up no problem and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.” I had never hitchhiked before but had met so many travellers who had and ended up meeting very interesting people in the process. The thought always made me nervous as much as it intrigued me. It seemed like such a risky adventure and I’d secretly hoped I would be faced with it just so I could see for myself how thrilling it could be. 
 
The next morning I took a scrawny scrap of cardboard from the bin and wrote my destination in thick sharpie on the front: Sligachan. With my heart held high, I made my way to the roundabout and stood at the side of the road looking as helpless as possibly and praying to God someone would take pity on me. Well, that’s how I started at least. I soon realized that I needed to be a little more prompt with my sign and stuck it out confidently. Within minutes of standing there in the rain, a car pulled over and I peaked inside. I saw a man, a small woman and a little white dog. Using my judgement, I was sure they were the least threatening people that could have stopped and I hopped in. The two of them were passing by Sligachan on their way to Portree and were happier than ever to give me a lift. Gotty, their sweet and soft puppy affectionately greeted me in the back seat. They introduced themselves as Savine and Dan, a couple from London who had taken time to visit friends in Scotland. Savine had done a ton of backpacking and hitchhiking during her younger years so she related to me right away. I answered every question they asked about my journey and we talked non-stop through the hour long drive. Dan, I found out, is an illustrator and former teacher in Glasgow which explained his respect for the artistic career I’m planning to take on full force. Both of them are such incredibly generous and warm people and I couldn’t thank them enough for empathizing with my need to navigate around this desolate land. They were so interested in everything I had to share and I felt support from them for all I was doing seconds after we met. I’m always saying that everything happens for a reason and it just keeps proving itself. Savine has a good friend based in New York, a photographer known for her portraits who has been known to take assistants. Who knows where it will lead or if it will amount to anything at all. What I do know is that the exact amount of time I overslept that morning, the minute I pushed open that door and the cars that passed me by all lined up so I would meet this amazing couple. Hitchhiking wasn’t so scary after all and it really does bring a big, big thrill. 
 
Arriving in Sligachan, I asked the man at the one and only building in the entire town for directions to the path and set out for my trek. The sign reading: Glen Brittle, 4.6km had me giddy with excitement knowing that the pools were just a few hours away. I was shocked at the beauty of this walk. I had no idea that the hike to the pools was going to be just as amazing as the final destination. The Coolin mountains that surrounded me were snow capped and captivated me every step. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. You think about how many people are on this planet and how busy everything seems. The world keeps moving but through it all, there are places of absolute peace and stillness and I felt like I was the only soul in the world that had found it. Nobody was around me for miles and I was two inches tall against a backdrop that could have been snatched out of a postcard. I walked for over two hours, following a rickety wooden sign with the words PATH painted on the front. It wasn’t much of a path at all, really. Much like Mount Croagh Patrick, it had me jumping over rocks and scaling the sides of hills dropping down to waterfalls. It sure wasn’t for the weak. I took my sweet time and thanked the sun for once again shining brightly on a day when I needed it the most. 
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Finally, I found someone walking toward me on the trail and we stopped to photograph the same pond reflecting the peaks. He confirmed that I was in fact heading in the right direction and the pools were waiting for me at the end of the path. I continued on and had been wishing several times for a tripod. The lighting cast a shadow over almost everything and my photos weren’t having any of it. It was as if someone had heard my thoughts. I suddenly approached a beautiful waterfall and knew that I had arrived. A man sat crouched in front of it, balancing a tripod on a jagged rock. “Would you like to have a go with it?”, he asked me. I kid you not, this man proceeded to connect my camera to his tripod and let me use it for as long as I needed to get a clear and bright shot of the beautiful sanctuary in front of us. As Santiago in Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist always says, 
 
“when you want something, all the Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” 
 
They directed me to a path that ran through at least eight different waterfalls within the canyon. These were the Fairy Pools and that energy that Sarah had talked so highly about was just as incredible as she described. You really could feel it as you walked up and over each hill and skipped along the rocks to reach the other side of the flowing rivers. Being set beside such a grand backdrop never had me feeling so safe and protected. Sure, you can blame it on my imagination. I really did transform the little fluttering bugs into sparkling fairies with wings. It was hard not to in a place like this. It had my mind running wild with inspiration and nothing beats the feeling you get when you know you’ve checked another item off the list of things you’ve been dreaming to do for so long. 

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 I decided to find a secluded spot and take in some moments before walking back. I traveled as far as the trail would take me and spotted a patch of crystal clear water shimmering with turquoise touches. This is another aspect of the pools that make them such a wonder. If you find a section of water that’s stayed calm amongst the rushing falls, it glows several shades of blue attributing to its name and purpose. I almost gasped at the sight of it. The funny thing is, what I was looking at right then wasn’t at all like the photo that is posted on my vision board at home. Aside from the blue waters, what I’d first laid eyes on had been an extremely colour enhanced version of what I was seeing. You would think this would disappoint me but in reality, where I was could never be captured at all. It was much, much better than any google image out there and nothing could have prepared me for it. Everything boiled down to how my heart and mind felt while I was there and that was something I needed to be present for. 
 
I carefully took off my shoes and tip-toed across the rocks to the paradise I had found. Sitting on the grassy ledge, I dipped my toes in very slowly and the ice cold water took over my whole body. I had originally thought to take a quick swim but was very glad I didn’t attempt it after experiencing how freezing cold it was. Swimming in the Atlantic last month was one thing, swimming here would have been stupid. All I needed was a bit of time to make my mark and place just one part of me into the magic waters. I sat there, looked around and smiled. This was definitely the moment I had been waiting for. 
 

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For the first time in hours I decided to check the time. Sure enough, I had been so lax about my pace that it had already reached 3:30 and the bus from Sligachan left at 5pm. Not only that, but the sun was going to start heading down soon and I wasn’t about to be hiking through this with no light. Still, I took my time walking. Regardless of what happened with the bus, I would get home. I wasn’t about to rush the one thing I had come here to see. But as the sky began to dim and the beautiful red sunset that I couldn’t stop admiring faded away, slight panic set in. I had to take my time so I wouldn’t fall into a ditch from running, but I sped up my pace as much as possible and prayed I would make it on time. I arrived in town at 5:10 and at this point it was so dark I was sure no one would be picking me up if I hitched my way back. The hotel that had given me directions to the path was locked up and every light was out. The bus had clearly left. There was no one around for miles and I was literally in the middle of nowhere. The lesson of “everything works out” that I learned with the sunflowers in Pisa has done me well every single time but this was one of the first moments where I was almost certain I would be stuck out here all night long. I even began brainstorming how I would keep myself warm overnight. Drama queen, I know. I was shocked at how down I suddenly became. I felt so helpless standing in the dark and the rain, entirely lost and with little hope for a rescue. Before things escalated too quickly, I snapped myself back into reality. Things do always come together if I believe they will. Why did I need any more proof?
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I remembered the small piece of cardboard in my bag and pulled it out. It was crumpled and wet but I did my best to scribble a sloppy  KYLEAKIN on the front in big, bold letters. Only one or two cars passed by every five minutes but it was worth a shot. I stuck out my sign once again and held my hope high. Whatever did drive down the road passed me by for the next ten minutes. Then, out of nowhere, a white car pulled over and two people in their mid-twenties were inside, asking me where I was headed. They were going to a hostel in Broadford which was on the way but not quite where I needed to be. Regardless, it was still closer than I was and they agreed to drive me there. The two of them, Anya and Fabia are from Hungary and are cousins traveling the area to visit friends. Both of them were very sweet and soft natured. When we arrived in Broadford, they wished me luck on picking up my next ride and drove off. I was a little bummed about having to hitch for a third time at that stage but had a little more hope this time that it would work in my favour. 
 
Seconds later, the Hungarian cousin’s came driving back and pulled up beside me. “We read our directions wrong”, they said. “We’re actually headed to the same place you are!” They laughed and pointed at the hostel photograph, wondering how in the world they mixed up the cities. “Hop in”, they told me. I was so relieved. What were the odds that out of all the cars (or lack thereof), they one that stopped was heading to my hostel in the middle of nowhere. Everything falls into place. I should have known. 
 
Skye also brought me a few other sights. The next day I took a tour to The Fairy Glen (I’m sensing a theme here). This island is quite well known for their inhabitance. In this area, everything surprisingly seems to shrink down in size. The hills get smaller, the trees get shorter and there’s no doubt it feels like a sacred place. According to the myths, no one should ever leave or take anything from the premise or you’re bound to have bad luck for the rest of your life. I was just as captivated about this place as I was the pools but in a very different way. We didn’t end up staying long. The rain began to poor, the hail began to fall and we rushed into the bus for shelter. Just for good measure, we still ended up taking a hike down to a gorgeous waterfall and something at the end of our walk made the whole thing worth it. Those rainbows, they always shine down at the end of every storm. 
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Before I left for Edinburgh, Scotland at the end of October, I stayed with yet another Camino friend and her family (which you will eventually read about). Mary is an incredible lady from Derry in Northern Ireland and her hospitality blew me away like all the rest. When she heard I would be heading for the pools the next month and wasn’t sure how I would find my way, she came downstairs holding a small pin. It was a tiny golden fairy. “I hope you find the fairies”, she said as she clutched my hand around it. Mary, I promise you I did. I really did. 

Ain’t no Mountain High Enough. Ain’t no Valley Low Enough

The Cliffs of Moher and Mount Croagh Patrick added to the list of stunningly beautiful scenery that had been consuming me day after day in Ireland. Each being situated in a very small and quaint town, I’ve almost been turned off by the city life I enter in between tiny destinations (which is saying a lot coming from myself whom I’ve deemed a “city girl” time and time again). I just want to stay in the little towns forever these days. I think it has to do with my mental state. The environment I’m in matches the inner workings of my brain. Clear, free and peaceful. 
 
Laurie, a woman from Montanna was my angel and traveling friend for my trip to The Cliffs and the town of Doolin. As I mentioned in my previous post, I met Laurie in Dingle beside the fire in that cute little living room. She had rented a car for her vacation and when she heard I would be taking four busses to reach the town just outside of the cliffs, she offered to give me a lift. After all, we were heading to the same place, staying in the same hostel and every solo traveler enjoys a little bit of company now and then after days of solitude. Still, every part of me was grateful for her generosity and I practically bowed at her feet for saving me the hassle of almost a full day of travel. 
 
We drove and stopped along the way for almost six hours and never once did we run out of things to talk about. Laurie may have been old enough to be my mother but her age didn’t once dictate how I saw her. She acted like a friend. Her openness to get to know me and youthful spirit had me seeing her as someone who could have been twenty for all I knew. The two of us road through a few “ghost towns” as we called them since things seemed to completely shut down outside of tourist season and we even took a small back road to stop at a mysterious castle that I had to hop the stone wall to get a closer look at. She leant me the ingredients to make a PB and J sandwich on my lap in her car. That was pretty much the deal breaker. This lady was cool. 
 
I had almost let the idea of seeing The Cliffs of Moher pass me by. I saw signs everywhere in Dublin, advertising day trips and deals to see these things. I didn’t see the big deal really. It just looked like a few cliffs and some water…the photos weren’t that breathtaking really. I thought to myself, “must be just another tourist trap…I think I’ll skip it.” After having seen them there, presenting themselves so proudly, I want to go back in time and shake myself silly. The Cliffs of Moher almost became a seventh wonder of the world. I’m not sure who the idiots are that grant that sort of prestigious status but they must have been having an off day because this true wonder didn’t make it. That’s okay, they’ll be an honorary eighth in my mind forever. Because we didn’t arrive inside a huge, honk’n tour bus, Laurie and I were able to walk a trail that took us right over the cliffs and through a less traveled walking path. I was so thankful for this because it helped make the experience my own without the distraction of clicking camera’s and chatty kids. Wow, don’t I sound like an old lady. It’s true though that this is something you need to experience with a completely open space and a clear head. The only camera I wanted to hear clicking was my own. ImageImage
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We walked all the way to a place titled “Hags Head” and couldn’t for the life of us figure out why. Anyway, the castle that sat as our destination stood perfectly on the edge of the cliff in all its beautiful loneliness. We passed by sheep and cows in the fields and I fell on my butt in the mud one too many times because I was stupid enough to wear Berkinstocks when I had a perfectly good pair of hiking shoes in the back of the car. Lesson learned. There was this one moment where we passed by two elegant, white horses. They rested there silently chewing on grass. I was mesmerized by their presence. Horses have played some magical role in my journey. I always encounter a few in each country and feel so in tune with them, like they have secrets to share or wisdom to give. Through the rain and the wind, I walked along this beautiful path and looked behind me every second to admire my surroundings. 
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The two of us left feeling happy and accomplished. Just down the road stood the little hostel we were to call home for the night. It couldn’t have looked more picturesque amidst the open land, rushing creek and tiny little flowers. After the cold day, a warm fire was exactly what I needed in a place like this. Doolin is a town that is alive for three things. Accommodation, music and drinking. It’s probably the tiniest town I’ve been in so far since you could walk from one end to the next in five minutes. Laurie and I spent the night in two very cozy and traditional pubs. I’ve heard recently this town is also very famous for its music and I would never question it. Particularly the second bar we went to had two men playing the uilleann pipes and a banjo. They put on an incredible show like it was nothing and you could tell they really loved and felt passionate about what they were doing. I’ll never tire of that sense of comfort I feel when I sit in a toasty pub surrounded by singing strangers and flowing beer. It takes you away to a place where everyone is accepting, equal and happy and you can’t help but feel the same every moment you’re there.  It was a great wrap up to another unexpected change of plans and a perfect day. 
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I took a bus to Galway the next morning so my time in Doolin was short. When I awoke, the world had blessed me with another beautiful morning. The sun was shining and the sky was nearly crystal blue. The weather in Ireland had been listening to me consistently since I arrived. When I needed a gorgeous day, my wish would be granted. I had heard there was a pier at the edge of town with yet another lingering Dolphin named Dusty. With only a few hours until my departure to Galway, I decided to take the walk there. The stroll through the back roads was lovely enough. I passed by some more beautiful horses who I stopped to pet and feed and admire. There were rushing waterfalls flowing into the sea and in the distance sat the rocky pier, glistening in the sunlight. Without a second thought, I climbed over rock after rock until I reached the nearest point to the shoreline. I was surrounded by stones of all shapes and shades and the sun continued to beam. The waves in front of me rushed and crashed then simmered down before the ocean sucked them back in. It was there that I decided to meditate. I hadn’t really focused on it seriously since Nicola and I attempted to practice it every evening. I didn’t have an audio guide but practiced a type of yoga I had read about where the yogi sits, smiles and does nothing else. I worked it into the techniques I had learned a month ago. I sat with my legs crossed, my eyes closed lightly and my fingers forming an O shape on my knees. I took breaths as deep as I could breathe and I focused on every single sound that entered my ears. First it was the obvious sound of the waves and the way they settled so beautifully before crashing rapidly against the rocks once again. Then it was a flock of birds playing in the sand. I took note of every animal call, every word spoken by a passerby and I even concentrated deeply on the sounds of the construction to my left which contrasted so drastically with the environment I was in. I wasn’t angry with it. It had become a part of where I was in that moment and helped keep my senses alive. Before I knew it, I had been absolutely present for close to ten minutes. A record breaking feat.  I opened my eyes slowly when I felt I had reached what I needed for that day. Nothing in the world could beat the relaxation I felt perched on that small rock by the sea. I spent time taking in the senses and sounds with my eyes open this time and watched every move so acutely. I took one final look for the dolphin who didn’t want to show herself that day and took the walk back to my hostel, practically floating on air. It is my goal to experience every sight with just a small amount of mediation from now on. There’s really nothing like it. 
 

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I’ll come back to my time in Galway soon enough because it gave me some pretty magical memories. I only spent one full day there because I was anxious to head to Westport and climb Mount Croagh Patrick. This Pilgrimage is climbed by many each year and only takes about three hours to complete round trip. I was itching to walk again, believe it or not, and this hike had me missing the Camino the whole way up. I stayed in a beautiful bed and breakfast right at the foot of the mountain the night prior. I decided to splurge a little bit since I wanted to be as close to the mountain as possible and for just one night I wanted my own bathroom. After far too many connections on the bus, I made it to the adorable home of Linda where I would be spending the night. I looked down at my watch. It was already close to 6pm. The climb would have to wait until the early morning. I happened to be the only one booked in that night so I felt like I was just spending the evening at a friends house. It was so beautifully decorated. Linda made me a cup of tea the second I walked in and showed me to my room. I think I let out a little gasp as I walked inside because the size of that bed screamed luxury and my bathroom was bigger than most of the rooms I’ve slept in over the past little while. Everything had such a personal touch in this house and she really cared about making sure people felt welcomed. We ended up talking in her kitchen for a while about travel and her dream to walk the Camino one day. The little town just outside of Westport that holds the mountain is just far enough away that nothing is within walking distance. I was ready to accept a quiet night in and an early bedtime until I heard a knock at my door. Linda was heading into town to watch her son in a boxing match and wondered if I wanted a drive to the city so I could explore and get something to eat. I jumped at the offer, suddenly not quite as tired as I was before. As we entered the town, she pointed me in the direction of a quaint Italian restaurant run by a man named Innis and we planned to meet at a famous bar called Matt Malloy’s around 10pm. 
 
This restaurant couldn’t have been more perfect. It was made for me. I was alone and one hundred per cent okay with that. I don’t think I would have wanted to be with anyone else in that moment. Twinkle lights sparkled in all places, candles were lit on each table and I sat in a little booth covered in silk, cushiony pillows. Innis was quite the character. He is a tall, bald, very fit and very gay Italian man that will win the award in my mind for the best waiter in the world for an eternity. I think I had an out of body experience with my food for a solid two hours. I enjoyed every bite like it was my last. 
 
Matt Malloy’s followed where I was able to sit by the fire (man I love the Irish) and listen to two men on an accordion and a mandolin. A group of at least ten friends were traveling together and took up most of this back room. The musicians let everybody know that they were welcoming singers to their corner to accompany the next few songs. One woman pointed frantically at her husband yelling, “he can sing! He can sing!” and at first this man looked less than pleased. He ended up laughing it off and joining them for a few classics. As soon as he opened his mouth I started to smile. His voice was beautiful and pure with a bit of an Irish twang as he sailed from one note to the next. He absolutely stole the show and I was so disappointed when he returned to his seat (looking proud and happy to be in his element). I enjoyed a few pints listening to this while I waited for Linda to arrive. Unfortunately she was eager to leave pretty quickly but I thanked her multiple times for taking me out so I could experience all of that in just a few short hours. It beat staying in, even with that damn beautiful bathroom.
 
I was up early the next morning and was ready as I could be to begin the climb. I was greeted in the morning by a smiling face and a full Irish breakfast which had me even more prepared to take anything on. The weather had once again cooperated and given me one of the best mornings I could ask for. The wet ground was just beginning to dry from last nights rainfall and the air was crisp, the sky clear. Linda even leant me a small backpack to use and left me the house key which continued to put her in my good books. What an amazing woman. It was 8:30 by the time I stepped out and made my way to the start but there wasn’t a soul in sight taking the trek with me. I was oddly okay with this. I felt like I had the whole mountain to myself. 
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ImageImageThe first few steps were a bit of a shock. I was honestly planning to walk this thing like it was a casual morning stroll. I had a train to catch heading North at noon and I figured I would be back with plenty of time to spare. A three hour hike? Not a problem! Nothing like 500 miles (I promise I won’t play that card too many times). I was surprised to find that there wasn’t much of a path heading uphill. I was forced to become a temporary mountain climber, jumping over trickling streams and climbing (using both hands and feet) over a rocky terrain. It proved to be quite the adventure. There were sheep just roaming about on these hills, nothing there to fence them in. Might I add again that it was just me? I was alone with this beautiful piece of nature. It was just me and Croagh Patrick, alone, spending a Friday morning together. Every time I turned around, the town below became further and further away creating a stunning picture and I stopped several times to breath in that clear air and admire everything around me in my solitude. The only sound I could hear was my own voice, traveling in the breeze as I sang every song about dreams I could think of. 

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I was hesitant to continue climbing when I reached what I thought was the top of the mountain. Cranking my head upwards, the rest of the climb seemed extremely unsafe and instead of a small path here and there, I couldn’t see one at all. An entire hill full of sharp and jagged rocks stood before me. Maybe this was the end and I had no idea of knowing. Suddenly, I spotted the one and only person I had seen so far in the distance. When he came to meet me, I could tell he was an experienced climber. He assured me that it was entirely safe to keep going and “no, there wouldn’t be any rockslides.” So I walked the last 25 minutes which tested my strength and endurance to its fullest. A cruel, cruel mistress it was. Like almost everything else I’ve been through, the hard work lead me to the light at the end of the tunnel. Although it was very foggy way up there, it had me feeling serene. A small church sat at the peak but I took my seat on yet another small rock in the very centre of it all. I decided to forget about my scheduled train. I was already cutting it close at that point and I didn’t want to rush these moments. They were meant to be savoured. 
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What seemed like hours later, I headed back down. I remembered very quickly the lyrics of a Tom Petty song I saw scrawled on a sign heading down a Camino hill. 
 
“I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings, coming down is the hardest thing”
 
And how true that is, Mr. Petty. But all that didn’t seem to bother me. I ended up running into several lovely faces on the way down. I guess none of them were morning risers. One man and I talked about Machu Picchu which I plan to climb on my 30th birthday and he had walked a week on the Camino a few years back. He insisted we take a photo before parting. It was adorable. 

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 See, look at all you can do before noon! Slap me silly if I ever sleep past 7am ever again. 
There are too many mountains to climb. 
 
 
 
 

They Liked it So They Put a Ring on It

The Ring of Kerry and The Dingle Peninsula pretty much speak for themselves. This week has been filled with an overwhelming amount of beauty and gratitude. I barely know where to begin or how to express what it’s arose within me and how it’s impacted my heart and mind.
Before I begin, in the spirit of my inpatient nature, I’m going to give you the Coles Notes version of my time in Cork and Cobh. This isn’t to say that they were any less significant than my time in the places I’m about to share but something was ignited when I traveled to Killarney and Dingle. They broadened my mind and opened my heart and pretty much made me feel the warmest and fuzziest inside that I could possibly be.
The city of Cobh (pronounced Cove) is known for something very special and holds a unique history. The Titanic set off sailing to New York City just a stones throw from a dock by the cities pier. Hundreds of passengers gathered by the harbour to take a small ferry over to the unsinkable ship in 1912. The building in which each person passed through to collect their ticket and board was just recently renovated last April and was previously kept in its original condition. It now stands as a museum that guides you through the exact steps taken by many so long ago. I’ve had the privilege of going through a similar tour at the Children’s Museum in downtown Kitchener and this one was just as shocking. Even more so knowing that so many of these steps were their last and once so real. I could feel it in the air. It was a looming and eerie feeling of sadness. The whole experience took you back in time perfectly. We were even given a ticket with the name of a real passenger and were able to find out our fate when the exhibit was over. This time I was a seventeen year old girl named Emily in third class and unfortunately (because of that factor), I didn’t survive. It hit close to home knowing she was nearly my age. I thought about her, this girl that I never knew as I looked out over the dock drinking tea, imagining as best as I could who was standing where I was. I wonder what they may have been feeling and thinking in that moment with so many hopes and dreams just a sail away.
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I only spent one day in Cork to experience a few important things and the feeling of a new city. The hostel I stayed at was situated above a bar so I had no problem meeting a great group of people the second I walked in. Having just left Jess and Tomas (who joined me in Cobh), I had that feeling in my stomach again that comes and goes quickly when I enter a new place. Much like the feeling you would get on a first date. It isn’t bad, it’s just uncertain. You’ve yet to ask them their favourite colour and exchange music taste. You just never know what the vibe of a new environment may bring but a part of that is super thrilling. Truthfully, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I was comforted immediately by the faces of new friends from Canada, America and Australia. We played a wickedly intense game of beer pong downstairs until the wee hours of the morning and that warmed me up to Cork right away. The butterflies disappeared within seconds.
 Blarney Castle was certainly the highlight and turned out to be a much fuller experience than I expected. Blarney Castle is just one “small” section of a huge national park. The castle itself is the main attraction but there are gardens and caves surrounding it that are worth checking out just as much. Rock Close is the name of one section and is trail that takes you through a magical and mystical land of fairies and the Blarney Witch’s territory. I loved the quirky little signs that lead you through the Fairy Gland and the Witches Kitchen. My favourite spot was what they called the Magical Staircase which was given as a gift by the Blarney Witch in exchange for fire wood from the forest. If you walk up and down the stone steps with your eyes closed and think of nothing but your wish, it will come true within a year. They mention below that they’re not liable for any accidents and I didn’t blame them for the disclaimer. It was dangerous! Nevertheless, I walked them all. Every single wet and slippery step. All we do now is wait!
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ImageImageClimbing Blarney castle was exciting because the spiral staircase was very narrow, dark and mysterious. Climbing up it alone felt like an adventure. Each opening lead you into a new room labeled bedroom or kitchen, whatever they thought it may have been used for six hundred years ago. At the top of the castle there sits very special stone. It’s said that if you kiss the stone, you will be granted eternal eloquence. I didn’t realize how much of a tourist attraction it had become although maybe I should have assumed. The Discovery Channel has named it one of the 99 things to do before you die. I also didn’t realize how difficult it was to reach the stone and give it a smooch. Seriously, this thing was located underneath the bottom edge of the castle’s wall. I had to lie down on a padded surface while a man held me tightly as I cranked my head all the way back and planted a peck on its slippery surface (I hoped to god it was because they had washed it). Not only that but a man stands on your other side with a huge camera and snaps photos of this event which end up being extremely overpriced. Of course it’s all worth it in the end. Eternal eloquence will do me some good! I chuckled as the lady behind me very loudly expressed to the man, “You better watch where you put your hands there mister.”
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 These were a few highlights from the two C Cities as I call them. Those definitely weren’t Coles Notes either. Sorry guys, you all know how much of a lie “I’ll give you the short version” can be when it comes from me.
Walking into Killarney and Dingle had me falling in love with these cozy little towns that often belong to the West. Killarney is home to the National Park and The Ring of Kerry, both spectacular sights to see and each of them take you away to a different world full of peace and tranquility. I spent at least four hours walking around the national park on my very first day. I practically bolted from my hostel so I would have enough time to see as much of it as possible before darkness swept over. I walked somewhat of a ring around that park too and took in the smells of the trees, the sound of my footsteps. It took me right back to my Camino days which suddenly seem so far away now. I found myself walking by a gorgeous backdrop of rolling hills and decided to sit down on a bench so conveniently placed right in the middle of the whole scene. I sat there for a long time and took everything in. I kept on noticing a disturbing sound coming from the distance like a cow in distress. I thought to myself, “wow, those cows sound really upset!” When I looked a little closer, I could see that it wasn’t coming from the cows at all. It was a herd of deer. The noise I continued to hear was the males mating call and I remembered the woman at the hostel desk telling me it was that time of year. They looked so beautiful out in the open and I wanted to get closer. This probably wasn’t a very smart idea on my part but I hopped over a fence and tried to get a better view and a clear photograph. Their little ears perked up as soon as they heard my crunching steps and I ran back just in time. I’m sure they wouldn’t have been happy had I come any closer. I didn’t get the photo I wanted but a man told me to head to a path called Deer Run where there were even more running free and you could get a much better view.
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Before heading there, I made my way to Ross castle which sat beside a beautiful lake filled with ducks and a few docked boats in the distance. I didn’t bother taking the tour of this one. I just wanted to enjoy its beauty by myself and run my hands along the stone walls. I ended up walking to the very last marked point on the trail and came upon a lookout that they call Governors Rock. The view stretched for miles and was dotted with little islands. I let the wind blow around me and relaxed overlooking natures gift. That’s what it felt like to me. A gift. Every time I look out at something beautiful, I always want to thank the Earth. I want to kiss the ground for giving me something so inspiring to surround myself with. Deer Run ended my 15km walk around the park. It really was incredible how many seemed to flock here.  I was nearly in a trance watching them all interact and stand so proud and delicate.
ImageImageIt had been a full day and it didn’t stop there. I was exhausted from my walk and travel but decided to go to a pub for dinner and some live music. As I was sitting there waiting for a table, I had a strange instinct to head back and grab the friends I had met earlier that day. See, my plan had been to rent a car and drive around The Ring of Kerry. I would have done it by myself if that had been the only option but I was hell bent on finding someone to split it with me. Driving on the opposite side of the road seemed a lot more comfortable with someone else in the passenger seat. I posted a sign in the lobby advertising “a car ride and a new friend” and the second I barged into my room, I asked the girls there if they were up for the challenge. This was all done before any introductions.I know, it was a little forceful but it was a good ice breaker! Two of them had seen the Ring the previous day, but we seemed to connect well and they were who I wanted to be with that night at Murphy’s Pub. I told my waiter I would be back in a few minutes and walked back to the hostel to see what they were up to. It seemed a little crazy and impulsive at first but everything fell into place as it usually does. They had been wanting to go out for a few drinks anyway so we all went to the pub together and several others followed. They all played some beautiful and traditional Irish music and I was once again in awe at our diversity. Austin, a guy from South Carolina, had wanted to see The Ring of Kerry the exact same way and when he agreed to take a car with me, I was thrilled. Hanna from Michigan said she wanted to join as well. We had a great group going but as soon as we arrived at the car rental, the man told us we needed to have had our license for eight years before legally being aloud to rent in Ireland. It was a bit of a bummer, but we found out just minutes before the tour bus was leaving. Despite my negative view towards tours in general, it was that way or the highway. Image
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Whisky before breakfast. Irish coffee stashes are the best stashes

The tour didn’t end up have much of a “tour feel” at all. It felt more like one giant road trip with a bunch of strangers who eventually became friends. Our driver was an older man with a funny hat and a polka-dot bow tie who had a wicked and quick sense of humour. John was his name and he took us around that ring with laughter and ease. I was almost grateful for his driving instead of my own. It allowed me to really concentrate on what was around me without the worry on the rainy roads and let me tell you, there was a lot to look at and process as we cruised along. John let us stop at all the key photo opportunities and take as much time as we needed to enjoy the breathtaking beauty that is Killarney. It was raining hard almost all day but it reminded me of my walk through the Pyrenees. I liked the vibe that the misty horizon brought to the atmosphere. It was magical. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing half the time. Am I really here? Is this really happening to me? It was one of those moments I’ve found myself experiencing now and again on my travels. I needed to remind myself of my whereabouts. “Okay Sam, you’re in Ireland. You’re actually in Ireland.” It’s not like the scenery wasn’t enough of a reminder alone but it’s so incredible that you just have to pinch yourself every once in a while. It was, in fact, all real and I was really there as a part of it. Things like this exist in the world. Like I said, I think the photos can do the most justice although even then, it needs to be seen and felt with your entire body.

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I didn’t realize how tiring a bus ride could be but we traveled around the entire ring that day and were walking in and out of the bus for at least six hours. Hanna and I spent the night in and decided that the two of us were going to head to our next destination together: Dingle. I should note that the alternative title for this post was I bet you can’t say dingle without laughing. My Mother sure couldn’t. I had heard loads about Dingle from Jess’s family who praised it constantly. When I told people I was planning to visit for a few days, their faces lit up. I knew there was no way I could be let down. Needless to say, it didn’t disappoint me one bit. If anything, it was even more beautiful than I imagined. Dingle was a harbour town which always drags me in. It’s full of sweater stores and fish and chip shops. A famous dolphin named Fungi has been hanging around for years and no one really knows why. She’s become a huge tourist attraction and probably sustains half the town from the looks of it. We explored the area around the harbour for a while which had such a distinct feel from the rest of the town. It felt like Dingle had been plopped into the middle of the wilderness unexpectedly. Did anyone even live here at all? Looking around you, there wasn’t a skyscraper in sight, only lush fields of green and the sound of sheep munching on grass. That particular moment brought us just a sprinkle of sunlight through the dark clouds above. I’ve been focusing a lot on smells lately and I wanted more than anything to bottle this one up and keep it forever. I don’t think we spoke much as we walked, only smiled and photographed silently and completely at peace.
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The hostel we stayed in will probably be top on my list regardless of where I go next. This little place called the Hide Out Hostel is someone’s home. It hasn’t been converted or renovated, they’ve just placed extra bunk beds in the rooms. It was the warmest and coziest place alive. There was a roaring fire in the living room that I could have lived in front of and I enjoyed writing in my journal by its toasty light. Hanna and I made friends right away with two beautiful Australian girls sharing our room. Ruby and Rosalie are two lifelong friends taking the trip of their dreams and were perfect roommates for the nights that we stayed. Laurie was another wonderful soul we met while there. She was taking just a small vacation by herself and had rented a car for the two weeks she was away. Laurie became somewhat of an angel in my journey when she invited me on her car ride to Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher. We realized we would be heading to the same place next at the same time and she saved me one hell of a travel day. I don’t know what I would have done without her. You’ll hear more about this in my next post! Hide Out had that atmosphere that invited friendship and love so easily. It made my stay in Dingle extra special.
I wanted to see the Peninsula more than anything. National Geographic had named it one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I needed to see it for myself. The two of us rented bikes for the day and set off to ride as much of it as we could in a day. Although we didn’t finish the entire 40km route, we biked for eight hours straight (stopping to take photos every second it seemed). There was just so much to capture. I have to say, this route was even more breathtaking than The Ring of Kerry. The air was so crystal clear and pure with every breath. I could smell the ocean again which brought me back to Paros, Greece when I would walk to my scuba lessons every day by the pier. I rode down the hills with the breeze rushing around my whole body and focused so hard on being present. That’s been something I’ve strived to achieve over and over again while I’ve been away. On the Camino, I would find my mind wandering so far away from me that by the time I’d snapped back into reality, who knows what sights I had missed. It’s okay to dream, it’s okay to think about the past and the future but all in moderation. I’ve managed to reach moments of complete and utter participation in the “now” but it fleets away before I can grab ahold of it for more than a few minutes. This acted as perfect practice and as my bike took me faster and faster down that hill, I payed close attention to every inch of my surroundings. I took in the sounds around me and dammit, I was present in each millisecond that passed. So there. It really was beautiful. My camera took the digitals and my mind took the feeling and images that nothing could possibly capture.

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This feeling held as we biked to the Dunbeg Fort which is a site where construction of these stone forts began in 6th century B.C. It held as we biked around Slea Head Drive and out to the peak where ocean and islands stretched for miles. As we rounded the bend, we met a woman named Kirsten who was selling pans of dessert squares out of the back of her van. She had picked the perfect spot. Behind her was the most breathtaking panoramic view I had ever seen. She was trying to save money to go to Grad school and then eventually open up an animal sanctuary. We chatted for quite a bit about life in Dingle and how difficult it is to make enough money to sustain yourself over the winter. She moved there after falling in love with the city while spending her summer holidays in the town. We had planned to just retrace our steps and head back after this since it had been four hours since we started but Kirsten insisted we keep going. “You can’t go back that way”, she told us promptly. There was no question. We just couldn’t. Apparently, the most beautiful section was yet to come.
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If it hadn’t been for Kirsten, we wouldn’t have discovered the walking hills that lead us up to the peaks and the best view in all of Ireland. One particular hill lead me up to the highest point possible. The little bodies of fellow travellers were far from where I had climbed and Hanna sat content on a peak of her own. I was alone for a moment and felt like I was the only human in the entire world. I hadn’t seen a view like this one before. Looking out I could see The Sleeping Giant, The Three Sisters, the roaring and bright blue ocean below, the entire town of Dingle and beyond…I once again was reminded of how small I really am against what the physical world holds. I took a little time to meditate up there as best I could. I couldn’t really sit down so I sort of did it standing up but it was my first instinct when I thought, “how can I experience this fully.” Shortly after, families arrived and my little paradise was discovered. I was okay with this. I had my moment with the world and now they could experience it too. I wished that everyone could. It reminds you of what’s important. What’s worth worrying about in the grand scheme of everything.

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The Sleeping Giant. Can you see it?

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After asking directions several times and climbing up one giant hill where we couldn’t bare to ride our bikes any longer, we made it back to the cozy little nook we called home. We agreed that it would be totally reasonable for us to sell t-shirts that read, “I broke my ass on the Dingle Peninsula” because we seriously ached afterward. We had another quiet night in, full from seeing yet another gift of the universe.
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Ireland, you’ve got me wrapped around your little finger.