Wherever You Go, There You Are

I have declared that 2014 was the year Sam made many, many questionable decisions despite her outstanding sense of self-awareness. I received several worried comments in response to my spontaneous and altogether unpredictable actions this year. “Are you, of all people, sure you want to move to a city you’ve never visited and stay there for an entire year?” “Do you, Sam, craver of physical affection, really want to dive into a long distance relationship?” The answers I shot right back were, at the time, filled with what I thought was maturity, clarity and only a smidgen of doubt. Clearly, I was in a space where testing my boundaries was exhilarating and necessary. But all along, I knew where each of these experiences would lead me in the end. I was aware of the possible outcome. Yet, I still leapt into them head first. How strange it is when we lead with our mind and not with our heart.

I’ve been aching for months to write a piece based on my time living on the East coast. I remember the moment I decided I wanted to move to Halifax. I was in the mall with my mom and we were passing by the H&M. I had been chatting with her endlessly about what my next steps would be. I knew I wanted to experience something new, something radical, but it hadn’t quite hit me yet. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the idea dawned on me, so clear and precise in that moment. “I want to move to the East coast and buy a dog!” I was very, very adamant about the dog. I remember thinking how fancy and grown-up it would look on my future biography:

World renowned Documentary Photographer Samantha Polzin took a year of her life at age 20 and moved to the East coast.

It all sounded so glamorous in my mind. I jumped up and down, giddy with excitement as my mom told me, “why not?” Happy with the prospect of a new goal, I took the necessary steps to make it happen and never looked back.

There is something that still seems admirable to me about that moment where I put my faith and trust in a tiny thought. Whether or not it was my heart telling me to go for it, something certainly pushed me to take that chance. To this day, I will never regret making the decision to move here. I have toyed with the word “mistake” one too many times and I refuse to say that I made the wrong decision. Moving to Halifax was the right thing to do until it wasn’t. What I would have spent years regretting would be my refusal to take that leap. Living a life of “what ifs” has always seemed really unappealing to me.

I would love more than anything to tell you that my time here has been spectacular and full of experience. I would love to tell you that I did get that dog I always wanted, that I’ve grown with my art and met too many friends to count and that I just couldn’t imagine being anywhere else, but if I did, I would be lying. These past 8 months have, quite frankly, pushed me backwards. I could absolutely pin a few reasons as to why. The slow and calm pace of the environment, my lack of focus, the tending of a relationship built upon “wish you were here’s” and dropped Skype calls. It all makes so much sense. But the most important factor that comes to mind is my high expectations. I think it is a beautiful thing to dream and set the bar as high as you wish for any new experience but you should never completely count on it. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that life changes very quickly. Maybe your dream experience will take on a different form but still reach the same level of awesome that you expected. Perhaps you will be dealt cards that show you a slight detour but are still super necessary to face. Expectations box you in and train your mind to reject opportunities and outcomes outside their realm. The words of the infamous Mau from The Hospital for the Soul on The Camino come to mind right away, “keep open.” This is something I preach about quite a bit. It’s important to stay open to what the world will bring you. The good, the bad and the ugly. Since moving here, I’ve struggled to put this notion into action. The second I noticed my life was taking on a chapter I hadn’t anticipated, I froze and then proceeded to shut down. I think 2014 should also be called the year Sam felt out of body and never took her own advice.

There’s a beautiful theory that Oprah has about a whisper. I’ve heard it described as a voice or more commonly, an instinct. It just feels right to make it seem a little more human because its power never fails to astound me.  This whisper tells her the exact moment she is ready to move on from an experience and go forth to the next. I relate to this immensely because I’ve always felt that I have one myself. More than a whisper, it’s a scream. I can hear it loud and clear. It never fails to tell me when I need to move on, what people I need to surround myself with, how to truly continue feeling happy. Of course, this whisper can so easily be ignored. I think we all do this from time to time. We fail to acknowledge that “banging on the side of our head”, as O’ likes to say. Then, when the wall falls down around us, we tell ourselves and all our friends, “I think I always knew…” It’s a part of being human, it’s a part of growing older and it’s a huge part of learning how to trust your intuition. That strong and mighty and down right annoying intuition. I will fully admit that I had several of those little nudges throughout this past year. Some of them I listened to positively and others I told politely to fuck off. Coming away from this experience, I am taking with me a few lessons, one of which is  my ability to strongly recognize this voice and side with it right away. I have put it to the test and concluded that the little bugger knows what’s best for me every single time.

The main reason I felt compelled to post this was to let you know that life isn’t always extraordinary and that is absolutely okay. I think I spend so much time worrying about making every minute of my life count toward the bigger picture and obsess over the “wasted” time if it doesn’t hit those expectations I spoke about earlier. Yes, I absolutely could have made this move to the coast the best experience of my life. I could have gone to every open mic night, every Dalhousie event, partied at every bar in town but I didn’t. I could have photographed every single day and made millions of friends but the truth of my situation is drastically different. I stopped feeling the desire to create a life for myself here because I very quickly became sure it wasn’t my place anymore. Do I wish I had done things differently? Sometimes I do. More times than I could count, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “Sam, what would you be telling any one of your friends to do if they were in this exact situation?” It was always so difficult to know that I was aware of how this situation could be turned around but have zero energy and motivation to take action. I felt extremely stuck and now that I’m un-stuck and can see a light at the end of the Halifax tunnel, of course I look at all the opportunities I could have taken and wonder what the hell stopped me. Every time I sat down to write this, I was sure there wouldn’t be a happy ending. Looking at it now, in a much better head space than I’ve been in over the past few months, I see that I can take away several very important life lessons from being here. Despite spending countless days bawling over the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy and dipping cheesy’s in a tub of icing, I have learned so much more about taking care of myself. I’ve learned to take care of my health (post cheesy obsession), I’ve learned how to create art and write for the most important person in the world (me) and I’ve learned how to be comfortable in my own company. I’ve eaten blueberries on the harbour, enjoyed some spectacular live music, had people I care about come to visit, traveled to almost every province surrounding me, worked at an amazing job that has literally saved my sanity and made me feel respected and valued every step of the way. I’ve learned even more about what I want and deserve in a relationship and how to manage my money (all the dos and definitely all the don’ts).

It has been enlightening in ways I didn’t expect. Maybe it didn’t catapult me into a flurry of success and consisted of more tears and confusion than any time of my life has before but once again, there is nothing wrong with this and I have to keep reminding myself that this year was here to teach me something big. As my dear friend Emily always tells me,

“an arrow needs to be pulled backward in order to be shot even further forward.”

I share this because maybe you need to hear it too. Maybe you’re feeling plain ol’ stuck. Try not to let the uncertainty of life drown you. Up until around September, the steps I was taking in my life just made sense. Everything until that point seemed so obviously right in my eyes. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to do next. I panicked at my lack of plan, I fretted over not moving forward and became suffocated with the bigger picture. It became stressful finding a place to begin. The two most influential things that pulled me out of this were taking baby steps and setting goals. If you focus on one thing at a time, the rest will fall gently into place. Your motivation will sky rocket with the success of that first goal and lead you to make the next, and the next, until you’re magically living again on a path you’re happy with.

Wherever you go, there you are.

This has continued to pop into my brain a lot over the past few weeks. I’ve struggled to grasp its intended meaning but I think it’s shining light on the fact that you are responsible for how you use a space, a place, and an opportunity. You brought yourself there to begin with and it is you that needs to deal with what it brings. There is no escaping yourself or looking for an external source for rescue. Wherever you go, there you are. It’s okay if you discover it isn’t right for you. It’s okay if it didn’t work out as planned and it’s okay if it isn’t what you wanted it to be but the point is, you’re there. So what will you do to change that? There are no right answers but listening to that whisper is a start. Staying open is key and knowing that you are in charge is almost mandatory for change. Don’t beat yourself up about it and do not harbour thoughts about what it could have been. Dust off your blue jeans with a new sense of wisdom and move on. I promise, it will all be okay.

Authors note: * I have plans. Big plans. Plans bigger than any I’ve ever held in the past. They started as small maybe’s and grew into something extremely possible. I am leaving Halifax in March. This story does have a happy ending after all but I can’t share those details yet. Just know that dreams can become a reality if you let them. Thoughts become things.

*The title of this post comes from the book Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. 

Advertisements

Open Roads and Simple Reminders

Having traveled outside of my country far more than I had ever travelled the surroundings of my own province, I’ve often felt rather guilty and disloyal to the great and beautiful Canada. It was my mission since moving East to see my homeland in its most stunning form.  I was asked questions about where I lived many times while abroad and always struggled to answer them truthfully. That being said, I was never the only one to stammer and studder when asked about their own backyard. It’s so common to spend your life visiting the most romanticized destinations around the world and miss the beauty sitting directly in front of you. Perhaps it’s the size of Canada that stopped me or curiosity of the far away fairytale land of Europe took over but frankly, travel is travel and being in a new environment no matter how close to your home town is always exciting and new. Living here has inspired me to see every inch of Canada from top to bottom and my appreciation has sky rocketed.

I will always be a solo nomad at heart. There’s nothing I appreciate more than my own company. Which is why I decided to take this small, two day journey on my own. I needed to disconnect from the world (and the internet) for a little while and just breathe. Ever since returning home from my trip, I try to incorporate small moments of solitude to recharge and re-evaluate where my mind is sitting and what my priorities need to be. If this isn’t something you already do, I highly suggest you take the time to do it. Taking care of yourself is super important and allows you to move forward in such a healthy way. The only way one deserves to move forward, really.

The drive up was about 4 hours and nothing but open road. The highways in Nova Scotia aren’t anything like the highways in Ontario. They are much less intimidating and are surrounded by lush greenery. None of this big-401-concrete-wall-4 lane-crap we have to deal with back home. People take it easy here and it’s so much more relaxing to drive such a long distance in an environment that allows for sight seeing along the way. When I had listened to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros for so long that the CD was skipping on track 4 every time and even CBC radio had fizzled out, I drove in silence for a while, almost in a meditative state by the endless road ahead.

I was very excited to be staying in a hostel again. Yes, I know I work in one every day but the hostel experience is extremely different behind the desk. I was happy to be a guest that night and delighted to finally meet Carmen, the owner of Bear on the Lake hostel right at the foot of the Cabot Trail. This adorable place felt like somebody’s home. It was warm, welcoming and simple. There were 3 girls in the kitchen when I walked inside. Two of them I had already recognized as previous guests from my hostel back home. We all introduced ourselves and the conversation flowed instantly. Each of us came from a different part of the world (a circle I was grateful to be a part of). There was England, Switzerland, Germany and of course, Halifax, all represented in this cozy little kitchen. It was Carmen’s idea to take us all to a remote trail off the beat and path for a hike before it got dark. I’m always a sucker for the abnormal routes so I jumped at the chance. I was already itching to snap on my pack, tie up my shoes (that have truly seen their fair share of the world at this point) and walk again. How long had it been since I had just walked to…well…walk? To be honest, almost one year ago to the date in Ireland. How silly of me for forgetting the beauty of walking for the sake of walking. I made a mental note to do this at home.

DSC_0707DSC_0687

This trail really was hidden and I never would have been able to find it on my own. Once the 5 of us began trotting up the steep hill, panting away and chatting about everything we could think of, I felt alive again. It had been a rough couple of weeks and I had felt unfocused in many areas of my life. This had been what I needed to show me where I felt compelled to direct my energy. What made it even more enjoyable was the friendship I made with a beautiful lady named Stephanie. We seemed to connect in ways I hadn’t been able to find in anyone over the past year. There is something about a fellow traveller that is like no other. There’s an air about them, a mind-set and an energy that is indescribable. Our conversation was interrupted by excited exclamations of “ME TOO!” and “I know exactly what you mean”, every second it seemed. I missed feeling that and I missed conversation that made a 2 hour walk seem like a 5 minute stroll. The scenery was beautiful and I felt like I had gone back in time to the Camino days where I would look down at my feet and listen to the sound they made as they stomped against the dirt path. I missed connecting with a similar soul. My mind and body felt refreshed and relieved when we reached the end and with adrenalin pumping through our veins, we headed off to one of the most famous pubs in Cape Breton: The Red Shoe.

There are way too many things about Cape Breton that remind me of Ireland. It looked the same, smelled the same and felt the same as the rural and open spaces in Ireland did. I felt like I had magically shown up there by mistake. Which I couldn’t complain about, obviously. Stephanie and I had just shared our deep love for that stunning country and I felt it in my veins again how much it meant to me. This pub was packed to the brim and we had just walked in from out of the rain. It was warm and low lit inside. It had that feeling all the Irish pubs do. They’re like a safe haven from the harsh weather and snuggle you like a blanket. Bright fiddle music filled the air and I had a smile across my face the entire time, tapping my foot and thinking “one year ago, I was actually in Ireland and this year I get second best.” I felt pretty blessed to be there right then. Our arrival back at the hostel was greeted with a family that had come to stay. We spent the evening cooking dinner and listening to classic Canadian artists belt their tunes while we sipped beers. It was such a spontaneous end to a first day away and I loved every minute of it.

DSC_0780  DSC_0772DSC_0891

My alarm went off at 5am the next morning and I got ready right away to get my start on the Cabot Trail before the sun came up. What I wasn’t aware of was the trail’s length. I thought it was something you just walked but it is, in fact, a provincial park and it takes 5 hours to drive the length of the road. You get to pick and choose what trails to hike and there are so many available. I planned an itinerary the night before and was on my way at the exact time I said I would leave. The morning atmosphere couldn’t have played out any better. There was a magical fog casting its glow over the road and tips of the trees around me. I was lucky enough to be driving as the big, flaming, orange and blaring ball of sun rose up from the horizon and cast its glow behind me as I drove forward.

DSC_0733

I can’t even begin to describe to you how stunning the colours were on each and every tree. Somebody once told me that Cape Breton feels like an entirely different part of the world and my god, were they ever right. I felt so secluded and safe driving around the twisted roads and alongside the coastline. It’s safe to say that every 5 minutes I was hopping out of my car to take a photo or gawking with my tongue hanging out at how incredible the scenery was. I even started talking to myself at one point because I needed to express, out loud, how amazing my surroundings were. I just kept thinking to myself “nobody is going to believe me when I tell them I was in a place this beautiful.” It was that stunning. I started developing a thing for roads as I moved along. Probably because I spent hours and hours staring at one but I was captivated by the way they photographed. I loved their crisp, straight lines and the way they all lead to nowhere in particular. They symbolize so much and depending on the surroundings of the road, each one is different. They all have a different vibe. That’s the way I felt, at least. Which compelled me to daringly stand in the middle of the road several times to snap a shot.

DSC_0842

DSC_0823 DSC_0765 DSC_0736 DSC_0735

DSC_0910DSC_0740DSC_0846DSC_0839

My biggest fear while hiking was the risk of bears. If you’re going to see a moose or a bear, it would be on the Cabot Trail. What I wasn’t prepared for was the coyotes. I sauntered up to the entry of the first and most popular trail named Skyline and prepared myself for the hike before noticing a sign at the entrance. It read: Coyote Habitat and then proceeded to give me clear instructions (with pictures) on what to do if a coyote approaches you. In a nutshell, you fight back. You actually throw stones at these bastards until they leave you alone. I kid you not. I didn’t think that wildlife would ever be a fear of mine but I was petrified to the point of not moving. It clearly said to hike with friends and a walking stick, neither of which were with me. I began to panic and debate with myself over how stupid it was that I was letting a one in a million chance deter me from taking a pleasant hike with myself. I was so grateful when a couple walked over to me and were more than happy to have me walk alongside them. What didn’t help was the story they told me about a young girl my age, from Ontario at that, who was killed by a coyote attack on this exact trail a few years ago. Just what I wanted to hear stranger! Thanks! Actually, he was a delight to walk with aside from the warnings. Him and his wife seemed to have done a lot of travel themselves in the past so we spent most of the walk talking about Italy. Reaching the lookout point took my breath away. There isn’t an undesirable area of Cape Breton, I am sure of it. Every inch tells a story, every inch is full of history and every inch is appreciated by its locals. I was thankful to experience it with the kindness of strangers. For the record, no coyotes were seen that day but needless to say, I didn’t walk alone from then on. I wasn’t even going to think about risking it.

DSC_0862DSC_0876

The rest of my day was spent driving quite a bit but as I said, every minute was exciting and each turn surprised me. I was in and out of my sturdy little car quite often and photographing every lookout point I passed. There were tiny little craft shops and bakeries along the way. I had to stop for a minute and devour the most delicious blueberry turnover I’ve ever had. It was still warm and flakey but soft and gooey on the inside. I think I might write a blog post specifically about this blueberry turnover. It was that good. Anyway, everything was the East Coast at its best. It was the most maritime-y place I’ve ever been and I fell in love with it more and more throughout the day. There were moments where I was just driving along listening to some radio station playing celtic tunes and smiling like a goon. Everything about those moments was perfect and peaceful and rejuvenating. It affirmed the exact reason why I came there in the first place.

DSC_0922DSC_0947DSC_0962 DSC_0952 DSC_0825 DSC_0798DSC_0898

Before heading back, I was told to stop in a place called Neil’s Harbour and try the fish and chips at the Chowder House. It wasn’t hard to miss and looked like one of those hole in the wall shacks where you get exactly what you pay for without all the frills. Everything about it was very endearing, including the checkerboard table cloths. Another thing I missed was going to restaurants alone and reading my book. I whipped out Eat, Pray, Love which I had been reading for the millionth time and waited for my meal. The fish and chips really were incredible. The fish must have been caught seconds before being battered and placed on my plate, it was that fresh. Then, without hesitation, I wandered over to this little lighthouse that doubled as an ice-cream shop. I was greeted by a very happy man in his late twenties who seemed to be so at peace working in a place like this. We ended up chatting for at least an hour about how he serves the most ice-cream in Cape Breton and runs this place all on his own. We talked about our favourite books and delved into spirituality and his adoration for philosophy. Everyone here moves at a different pace. I imagine growing up in a place like that would have its perks and its downfalls but I don’t doubt that it would cause you to be a spiritual thinker.

Driving home that night was exhausting and ended with an experience that boosted my faith in humanity even higher than it already was. The inevitable happened. After years of driving and testing fate with the gas bar, I finally ran out. My car didn’t actually come to a complete stop, but I was driving that sucker on fumes for a good half hour and still wasn’t able to locate a gas station. I started to panic and felt a slight lift when I spotted a gas symbol at the next exit. After driving another 10 minutes in tears and sure that any minute I would putter to a stop in the middle of nowhere and instantly become a coyote’s dinner, I came across the station and guess what? It was closed. Dark as can be. I don’t know how I get so lucky, I don’t know how big that horseshoe up my butt is (I like to think it’s a good mix of energy and manifestation instead), but I spotted a small shop across the road in this tiny, pitch black town that was just closing up. If I had gotten there 5 minutes later, I would have been sleeping in my car that night. Did I mention my phone also died? I banged on the locked door and the lady inside came out with a huge smile to greet my tear streaked, scrunched up face. Man, will I ever grow out of this crying thing? Probably not. I was gutted and scared and frankly just plain tired from driving so much all day that anything would have brought me to tears. This amazing woman agreed to lead me to the nearest gas station while I followed her in my car. Should anything happen, she was more than happy to make sure I got gas delivered to me. She had just closed her shop, it was 11pm and she was probably dying to get home and sleep and yet, her willingness to help a stranger like me poured out of her. I was way too grateful when she dropped me off at the Shell station and even offered to cover any gas expenses I may have needed. I didn’t take anything from her but was touched at her compassion and empathy. These are the things I remember when I come across a tough situation. I don’t remember that drive home as the time I almost ran out of gas and cried in the middle of an abandoned town. I remember it as the time a very, very nice lady showed me that people are really, really good. I really, really love them.

I slept well that night. I dreamt about colours upon colours and open roads.

An Old Friend

 

 

They found me once more. As I knew they would.

I personally thought that my experience at this beautiful sunflower maze today deserved a blog post all on its own. Nothing lengthy, just a reminder that the world holds some gems if you take the time to look.  It was an adventure that I took by myself and for myself. A chance to reflect and relax and appreciate simplicity. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately and am looking forward to sharing why it’s important.

For now, I leave you with these sunny beauties. For those who have memory of my travel tales, you know that the sunflowers have brought me some unforgettable moments and played a role in teaching me one of the biggest lessons there is: have faith, trust and everything will fall into place.

It was so nice to see you again.

DSC_8074 DSC_8079 DSC_8084 DSC_8098 DSC_8115DSC_8120DSC_8117DSC_8210DSC_8144DSC_8132 DSC_8203

To The Coast On Impulse

Image

Sometimes we experience fleeting thoughts about things that we’ve secretly longed for or wild ideas that seem incomprehensible and unattainable. They flash through our minds quicker than we’d like them to before we write them off as silly or impossible. 

 

I remember so clearly the night before I left for University. I’d like to think that was the moment I realized I was truly in charge of my own destiny. I was driving in my car with a close friend and I suddenly turned to her and said, “I don’t really have to go, you know. I could run this car through the red light and hop on a plane to Japan if I wanted to. I don’t need to drive to Windsor tomorrow. I can do whatever I want to.” Of course this thought was immediately dissolved by laughter and the current circumstances surrounding my situation. Tuition had been payed for, I had people rooting me on, a boyfriend waiting. It seemed ridiculous to haphazardly change a plan I had been mapping out for the past year. 

 

It wasn’t until I got there that I knew things needed to change. It was my first lesson in experiencing a great let down of expectations. Something much bigger than finding out your plans were cancelled or that you got a C on your Math test when you thought you would get an A. This was my future falling apart. The future that I had held so close to my heart as something I was so sure I wanted to come true. 

 

Something clicked in me the second time around. It was when I intentionally missed the deadline to sign up for the Winter semester classes that I noticed I was still in one piece. Nobody told me to change my mind, nobody was holding a gun to my head, there wasn’t a big flashing bolt of lightening plummeting from the sky toward the ground. I was okay. In fact, I was happier than I had ever been. From there, the doors just opened. It was clear to me then that I had the power to shape my life because it was mine. It wasn’t anybody else’s. That is why I live by the motto of following your heart. I think a part of you always knows where you need to be lead before you can admit it to yourself. I know it isn’t easy. I know that I am blessed with a support system like no other but if I can help to inspire even one person to throw caution to the wind and only be where they believe they will be the happiest, I will have done my job. 

 

I promise, promise, promise it will be worth it. 

 

Which leads me to my next journey. One I knew would come sooner rather than later. It began as a fleeting thought but this time I kept it there and refused to let it go. After you’ve spent a significant amount of time discovering the world, even just a small part of it, you can’t help but feel that itch to see more because there will always be so much of it waiting. 

 

Originally, I had plans to jet off to New York City, a goal I am still certain I will achieve in the next few years. I think I just decided to stop narrowing my mind to one option and seriously evaluate where I was sitting mentally and spiritually. My current self needed to be somewhere with a little less hustle and a lot more peace. At heart, I am a city girl who thrives off the energy of others. Anyone who knows me knows I am constantly moving with little time to breathe. A whole other side of me has appreciated the alone time and the chances I get to calm my body and mind. It’s important to find a balance between the two which is why I jumped to the idea of travelling to the East Coast as my next destination. 

 

The importance of seeing my own country became apparent while I travelled to cultures that were vastly different from ours. I often found myself embarrassed at how little I was familiar with outside of Ontario. 
That is why on Monday the 16th, I will be driving my way out to  Halifax, Nova Scotia and making it my home.

I have a beautiful room just minutes from the harbour and filled with people I know will bring friendship and new opportunities into my life. I plan to take what the Maritime lifestyle gives me and incorporate its charm into my art. This is a place I know I will be able to grow as an artist, a writer and more importantly, as a person. How long will I stay? That answer isn’t up for me to decide right now. I know that when the time comes to move onto the next step, I’ll be able to recognize it and so I will go. 

 

The goodbyes never get any easier. It’s strange to think that at about this time last year I was in nearly the same position, struggling desperately to squeeze in hugs and catch ups before my departure. Although it’s true the goodbyes are never forever and I’ve gotten used to friendships withstanding a 500 mile distance, things are a little harder this time. I couldn’t tell you how often I’ll be visiting my hometown of Kitchener-Waterloo. Of course I’ll be home for Christmas but rarely much longer. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love where I’ve grown up. Since leaving it for a long period of time and then returning, I’ve found a solid appreciation for what it has given me and what it has offered. 

 

The truth is, “This town will always been too small for all the dreams held inside my head. I’m sorry, but I cannot stay.” 
 

 

I remember reading that quotation once and almost laughing at how much it rang true. Sometimes you just out grow a place. Your dreams stretch wider than the environment that housed you for 20 years and you’ve had a taste of the places that can make them come true. You should never deny yourself of seeking out new options, taking risks and stepping outside of your comfort zone. It’s absolutely thrilling. 

 

The moment I realized I had signed a lease, bought myself a car and partially packed up my life into two Rubbermaid bins was the moment I became shocked at the power of decision making. It’s an incredible thing to create a reality from a tiny passing thought and a terrifying but exciting moment to await what it will bring you. 

 

So, without further adieu (and the potential to make this a freaking Oscar speech, thanks to all those who continued reading), I am thankful for the support of everyone in my life as I do something crazy and slightly unplanned once again. Didn’t you expect it by now? Truthfully, it’s my favourite way to live.

 

See you soon Halifax. I know you’ll bring me magic. 

 

 

 

Remembering a Moment in Time

Hello to my beautiful readers!

I’ve truly missed publishing posts on Soul by Sole and you can bet your bottom dollar that I will be posting again very soon about my next  big adventure in this world. You’ll also have a hard copy of my book in your hands before you know it! The process is happening slowly but surely. I want this final outcome to be more than you could ever imagine and making sure it is perfect for every single one of you guys doesn’t happen overnight. Although sometimes I really wish it did. I am far too excited! 

Remember this moment in Venice? It couldn’t come back to my mind any clearer. Sometimes I sit and remember little tidbits from my travels and it feels like I have just experienced them. It’s as if I can still feel the breeze on the back of my neck in Italy or smell the harbour on those islands in Greece. I can so vividly hear the crunching of my shoes on the gravel pathway as I walked The Camino and feel the laughter in my gut as I talked until dawn with friends from Ireland. Having been home for several months now, my travel life feels like a completely different world. I guess it will forever be this little universe I can call my own and go back to whenever I feel it calling me. That’s pretty special if you ask me. 

I’ve decided to enter an incredible contest with a very renowned photography blog titled I Heart Faces. The theme is ‘Beautiful Black and White’. This image always makes me feel free. It captures the essence of the mindset I always strive for. Spread your wings, reach your dreams, jump, fly, find your inner child and frolick in all that life has to offer. 

I can’t wait to share my adventures and captured moments with you all once again. Hang tight friends, I promise that wonderful stories are just around the corner! Your support continues to amaze me. 

Image

This photo was submitted to the I Heart Faces Challenge – http://www.iheartfaces.com





xo 

Coming To A Bookshelf Near You!

Image
Friends, family and loved ones,

It is my absolute pleasure to announce that Soul by Sole is currently in the process of becoming a fully bound, self-published book for you to enjoy any time and anywhere! 

Most of you are already aware of this spectacular news but for those who aren’t, this gives you a little insight on Soul by Sole’s next steps!

I am currently proof-reading, editing and formatting my little heart out to make this collection the best it can be! 

Stay tuned in the next couple of weeks for a release date, information involving shipment for my friends abroad and a few special secrets I have in store! 

None of this could be made possible without the help of my support group all over the globe! I am grateful for you all every single day. 

Smile, explore and dream big, 

xoxo Sam 

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.”

Image

Image

 
 

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. 
 Image
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. 
 ImageImageImage
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. 
 Image
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?” 
 Image
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
 ImageImage
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.
 Image
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! 
ImageImageImage
 
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. 
 Image
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.  

Image

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. 
 Image
Image
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. 
 
ImageImageImage
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. 
 Image
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. 
 Image
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. 

ImageImageImage

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.
 
ImageImageImageImage
 
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.
 ImageImageImageImage
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.

Image

 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. 
Image
 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. 
ImageFa giving off a ton of character as usual 
 
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. 
ImageSuch hams these girls are. Always posing up a storm.

Image
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
Image
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. 

Image

Image
 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. 
 
Image
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. 

Image

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
Image ImageImageHappiness is…

ImageImage
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. 

ImageImageImageImage

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. 

Image