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Sunday, 22 December 2013

This is About Introverts - But Extroverts Should Read This Too

Nearly half of all people in the world are introverts. Yet they are rarely glimpsed, like some threatened species. So are they all in hiding?

Introverts can be likened to oranges masquerading as apples in a society of apples. However, extroverts and introverts cannot be compared like apples and oranges.

No person can be a full-on extrovert or introvert, but simply lean more one way than the other. Every individual is a blend of both. I lean quite heavily towards introversion - more than just about anyone I know in fact. I have always struggled with this trait, regularly braving uncomfortable social situations, concealing my taboo tendency towards being alone. But then I watched an amazing TED talk called The Power of Introversion, which really shook up my thinking about introversion.

Today we live in a world tailored for extroverts, a product of the modern mass migration to cities, creating communities and work environments where nobody knows eachother, yet everyone must learn to get along and strive towards a common goal. Our offices are thus designed with minimal privacy, allowing neighbours to spy on eachother's monitors and hear every word uttered. In these open situations, extroverts dominate. However, the underrated introvert has more to contribute than meets the eye.

While extroverts slither into the spotlight at every opportunity and assert themselves as fearless leaders, sometimes the best leaders are introverts. This is because introverts recognize the need to give their colleagues space to operate without boundaries, a key to unleashing their inner creative spirit.

Extroverted leaders, in contrast, tend to imprint their vision on the whole group, oppressing creativity, as well as micromanage excessively, imposing their will on others. Their fearless leadership ironically instills fear in their colleagues. Indeed, individuals tap their creative juices when they tune out the voices around them. Those aha! moments in life rarely come to one in boardroom meetings or in bars, but in one's place of solitude, a place with no unwanted voices or distractions - one's "earth spot."
My "earth spot", my place of solitude - farm near Elea, Greece
Many of the world's most famous people and greatest leaders past and present were introverts: Gandhi, Albert Einstein and J.K. Rowling are some examples. Introverted leaders in business and innovation include Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Even the late Nelson Mandela was a self-proclaimed introvert. While these leaders derived inspiration and great ideas from solitude, they were also passionate for and loved being around people, and recognized the need to collaborate with people to accomplish their lofty goals.

I may not be a leader, but I am a self proclaimed introvert with some great ideas too. I am also a lone traveler. I went backpacking for 10 months and had some of my best ideas come to me on long bus rides, or long walks up and down foreign streets, or connecting with nature, the ultimate grounding force. My own "earth spot" is on a Greek farm overlooking the Mediterranean, an ultimate place of solitude. My best moments and memories, however, were shared with people, people who I have made lasting friendships with. The people were what ultimately defined my trip. One such moment was the time I Couchsurfed in a home with 1 gracious host and 6 other travellers, sharing wonderful food and inspiring conversation.
How does an introvert spend a night in a cramped room with 8 people?
Today, I know who I am, how I am, and in what situations I am or am not comfortable. I may not like small talk, but I love instant connection with people through common ground. I may be shy and taciturn in large groups, but I am happy to talk to those who are genuinely interested in what I have to say. I may not thrive in the loud and superficial atmosphere of bars and parties, but I enjoy small and intimate get togethers with a common purpose.

I thrive when I am alone. My thoughts flow freely, and my thoughts are mine alone, and nobody elses. However, I need people too. And when I go too long without human interaction, I feel lonely just like everyone else. In fact, I get out and meet people all the time. I care about people too and want to share wit them my wisdom and ideas that I derive from solitude, and are eager to hear their ideas too. It's also why I blog; because I am eager to share, but am unable to share such thoughts in person. The key for me is to build a healthy balance between social time and "me" time.

I ask you readers to be conscious of your introversion, and recognize your need for personal space, so you can foster your own thoughts or ideas, and maintain your self awareness and confidence. If you are introverted, then recognize introversion in others in your life, and give them the space they deserve, but also encourage them to share their wonderful ideas with you.

Because at first glance, we may be like apples and oranges, but we're all the same on the inside, and have much to learn from talking to eachother.

Amazing TED talk - The Power of Introverts:

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Couchsurfing - A Community of Travellers

As I write this article, Duncan Stokes, a traveller from Britain, is staying on my couch. At his request, I shall describe him as "lanky with a goatee." I will also add, this time without his consent, that he's not like most Brits in that he can't really hold his liquor. He's not like most Brits in the way he travels either. He has been on some extensive adventures: trained from Moscow to Beijing, drove across all 48 mainland US states, scootered all around southeast Asia, and cycled from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England.

Duncan came to Calgary because he was "bored with work" and wanted to live in Canada for awhile. But he quickly discovered that he wasn't suited to the weather; and it wasn't even that cold yet! So after a couple of days on my couch, he up and got a flight to LA where he will buy a motorcycle and ride it down to Peru in search of Macchu Picchu. One word comes to mind when I think of Duncan - spontaneous! I met Duncan through the Couchsurfing (CS) website, and only first met him face-to-face when he showed up on my doormat.
At a Couchsurfing free hugs event - Trafalgar Square, London
The previous week, couple Mathias and Anne-Laure, from the lonely island of St. Pierre, belonging to France yet lies just 500 km from Quebec, showed up with their energetic dog to graciously stay on that same couch. We (dog excluded) shared a few beers at Calgary's main monthly Couchsurfing meetup event in Calgary, which occurs first Mondays at the Hop 'n' Brew. This month's meetup was more alive than usual, with at least 40 Couchsurfers shuttering in from the cold to make friends and share their travel stories. Mathias is a journalist and formally interviewed me in the pub, sticking that big fuzzy microphone in my mug. He asked me about Calgary and my thoughts on travelling, generating soundbytes destined for a radio station back on his obscure island of St. Pierre.

In the past few months I have opened my doors to 9 different Couchsurfers with exotic origins and exciting adventures such as Duncan and Mathias.

However, as great as hosting is, the best part about CS is the surfing. During my 10-month sabbatical backpacking through Europe from July 2012 to May 2013, I visited 20 countries and surfed on 33 different couches, and met some amazing and memorable Couchsurfers.
With Yulia after her dance lessons
Meet Yulia from Moscow. She has professed to hitchhiking over 25,000 km in her young life, criss-crossing Europe several times over. She is fluent in 4 languages and is aiming for 9. She is also a yogi, hardcore vegan, and a dance teacher. I stayed with her for 4 days, basking in her shining optimism. I had a truly local experience with her when she took me to a bustling market in suburban Moscow. What was special about it was that it sold discount food! Yes, food that was no longer fresh nor presentable, yet still edible. Yulia is now enjoying the sun and surf in Portugal.
Marc holding a concert, Kiss style, on his birthday
Meet Marc, a man who has done it all. Throughout his life he was a video engineer for the Rolling Stones, joined the US Army, ascending to the rank of officer before losing faith in his job and bailing, and is now teaching English in Prague, and enjoying life more than ever. I met Marc in the epic tomato fight in Spain called La Tomatina, then several months later, stayed with him for 3 days in Prague, where I got to watch him hold a birthday concert starring his own band.
Awaiting the tomatoes - at La Tomatina with Couchsurfers Stig from Denmark, Sam from US, Hanga from Romania, and Claire from US
But few experiences match the time I was hosted in Budapest, my favourite city in Europe. My host was Gabor, a Couchsurfing legend with over 500 references on his profile. He is also a travel superstar, having hitchhiked to some very remote and avoided areas in the world, such as Pakistan and Siberia, and proudly calls himself on his Facebook page The Most Travelled Hungarian. At the time I arrived, he was hosting 4 different Couchsurfing parties at once, plus a friend and his 2-year old from Germany. However, the guy who stole the show was CSer Nicolas, from France. Nicolas, a philosophy and English teacher back in Nice, France, is on an epic pilgrimage of self discovery and world change, travelling around the world with no money (save a bit for visas), relying on kindness along the way, and plans on writing a book about the human connection. While Nicolas may not have any cash, he offers seemingly lifetimes worth of inspiration and wisdom, like a modern day messiah. To this day, I still can't believe the dinner table conversation we had that night, which was about how best to hitchhike across Pakistan to get to India.
At a Couchsurfing haven in Budapest
Nicolas is someone who has had a profound impact on my life in the space of a few days. His incredible journey is one that I still follow regularly through his blog posts on his Facebook page Teacher On The Road, living vicariously through his words and images. He is currently teaching English in China.

These are some of the most interesting people I met through Couchsurfing, people who shaped my travels as well as who I am today; people who I still call friends, who I will keep in touch with and potentially visit again one day. My meetings with Couchsurfers in Europe, and now through hosting here in Calgary have greatly enriched my life as much as I have enriched theirs.

Couchsurfing may still sound to you a bit like a "free hotel for travellers" and can sometimes be that way. However, it really is a community for travellers to meet eachother and make life long connections.

Couchsurfing has become quite popular today in backpacking circles, but its rise was a bit tumultuous. The seed for was planted in 1999, when American Casey Fenton e-mailed 1,500 students at his future travel destination, Iceland, asking for accommodation, and received 50 replies. Upon his return to the US, he began work on the website, eventually opening Couchsurfing in 2003, from San Francisco. When it was finally becoming popular, in 2006, a major database failure caused Casey to shut down the website. However, the community members rose up to the challenge, forming collectives to work together and revive the website. Today CS is going strong, with over 6 million members.

Being a one-of-a-kind website, there are naturally many questions about how it works. The one you attentive readers are probably wondering about most is: is it safe to use?

To overcome the trust barrier, Couchsurfing has in place a rating system which functions like most shopping websites. Much like rating your favourite products online, Couchsurfers can rate each other with either a "positive" or "negative" experience, including a short explanation why. There are additional ways to validate your character, such as verifying your address by receiving a postcard with a verification code on it, and a vouching system, where the most trusted CSers of the community dole out the equivalent of "gold stars" to CSers they deem trustworthy. If a CSer gets enough vouches, he or she can start doling it out themselves, and such is how the vouching system proliferates itself.

Still, it's not a perfect system, and these failsafes are not enough to prevent negative incidents from occurring due to people using the website with poor intentions, such as mooching off of their host, or making inappropriate sexual advances. Negative incidents can also be caused by misunderstandings between host and surfer, or unexpected events such as emergencies or changed travel plans. Such can result in Couchsurfers giving eachother negative references, some ranging from justified to completely untruthful, others dangerous to hilarious, and which challenge profile viewers to use their best judgment of character based on loose subjective descriptions (often in poor broken English too).
The cozy interior of a Couchsurfer's "dacha" - a Russian country home in the countryside
In fact there is a forum on Couchsurfing called "Funny Negative References" where contributors post the most outrageous references they find from other profiles (omitting names, of course), and just have fun with it. While it can be fun to publicly scrutnize negative references, it is just a way for Couchsurfers to blow off steam and to recognize, satirically, that CS is not perfect.

I should now take the time and effort to clear up a big misconception about Couchsurfing:

It is NOT a dating website. But it can be... way to clear that up, huh?

While it certainly is not first and foremost a dating website, it is a community where like-minded individuals can meet and, if the feeling is right, hook up. I have two friends in Calgary who met through Couchsurfing and are now married.
Anna, a Dutch girl living in Bucharest, Romania hosted me and introduced me to hitchhiking
To be completely truthful, when I first signed up for Couchsurfing, I exhibited a slight bias towards meeting the opposite sex. But since then I have evolved to become a true community member, with the intention of meeting interesting people, bringing them together, or providing a couch to those who write a thoughtful enough message.

I have heard through the Couchsurfing grapevine of bad incidents happening through CS. I will say one thing - if you are a woman, be very careful surfing in Muslim countries, where men are culturally restrained and ready to let loose through CS. And in Italy, which is an anomaly, really. Italy has somehow produced chock fulls of traditional thinking, macho men, and it shows on CS. Through my experience, there seems to be an extremely low ratio of Italian women using Couchsurfing, and all the guys selected gender preference as "female." (Sorry to the good Italians, if I offended you. This is of course a blanket statement. I repeat, just a blanket statement.)
Some of the most common travellers to Canada are Germans and French. Here I am hosting two of them! 
Fortunately, I personally have yet to have a bad encounter on Couchsurfing. Two experiences that came closest to being bad were when the cat of my host in St. Petersburg peed on my jeans sitting on the floor, and when my host in Glasgow played videogames late into the night, on the couch that I was tired and needing to sleep on! Another experience that comes to mind is when I stayed in a squat in Brussels, with no running hot water, old reused mattresses with no sheets, and a dirty kitchen covered with dumpster-dived food, taken over by fruit flies. While most would call this disgusting and uncomfortable, I thought it was an interesting experience worth trying once!
David Beaumont, from England, baked me a Yorkshire pudding on National Yorkshire Pudding Day. I hosted David in August. He is now in Mexico
If you are just starting out Couchsurfing, and would prefer to avoid these unseemly encounters, just follow these tips and no harm will come your way:

1. Do NOT rely on it as the sole source for accommodation. If you do you will choose poor hosts and eventually have a negative incident. Have a backup plan such as a hostel, or tenting. In 10 months in Europe I actually only Couchsurfed one third of the days. The rest consisted of hostels and work stays.
2. Pay it forward. If you plan on travelling in the future, start hosting now. Hosts prefer to accommodate CSers who have themselves hosted, because they will know how to behave as surfers.
3. Only trust people with several references. I would say 5+ is the critical point at which a CSer becomes trustworthy enough to place your safety in their hands.
4. Fill out your profile. Consequently, carefully scrutinize each profile you come across. Good profiles are long or carefully written and tell enough about that person to validate their character, as well as their surfing or hosting situation. Naturally, it is best to choose CSers with similar interests to you.
5. If you are surfing, take your time to send a good Couchrequest. Write to your host and appeal to him or her as a human being and potentially as a future friend.

Conversely, you will know Couchsurfing is not for you if you:
1. Do not trust easily, or are not comfortable with meeting people through this thing called the Internet.
2. Do not have the time or effort to plan around others. Some hosts have many rules and restrictions, what you can do in their home, or when you can be there. Some surfers expect you to spend time with them and show them around town.
3. Do not have the flexibility or spontaneity to plan around others and for unexpected events, such as last minute cancellations.
4. Prefer staying in a prime location where hotels and hostels are usually located. Many hosts live in less touristy areas far out of the centre, and I have occasionally gotten lost trying to find them.
5. Prefer to travel in comfort and security. The term "couch" is only metaphorical. Often times it actually is a couch, but sometimes you get a comfy mattress in your own bedroom, other times there could be no pillows or blankets, and at the rarest of times you share the same sleeping surface as your host.
6. As the saying goes, have a lot of money and you like to spend it.

As you can see, Couchsurfing is not for everyone, and using it properly takes a lot of time and effort, but the rewards are worth it.

Besides hosting and surfing each city has a message board where people can organize get togethers or post exciting events that are happening locally, such as language exchanges, coffee, festivals, music and theatre, photowalks, hikes, bar and clubbing and much, much more. In new cities, I often post looking for a partner in crime to meet up for the day, wandering the streets, exploring the cafes and bars. In Calgary, I have on more than one occasion hosted a board game night, as well as posted events such as film festivals, and even tried looking for a roommate through CS.
On a photowalk in Portugal
Couchsurfing is a constantly evolving website and community, and has steadily grown as backpacking has become more common. Unfortunately, it has experienced a few setbacks according to the community driven individuals. CS recently became a for-profit "corporation", which can only mean the degradation of the integrity of the website to attract more users. Not everyone belongs to CS, yet several recent changes have resulted in an influx of undesirables. Couchsurfing's membership grew by 2 million in the past year alone. Thrusting CS into the mainstream is not the answer to maintaining a healthy community based on trust. One website trying to be the "new Couchsurfing" is, but it just doesn't enough membership and, in my opinion, lacks an integral component to verify others - there is no reference system. However, I did sign up and succesfully host one German girl through Be Welcome, and we are still friends today.

Despite all this, Couchsurfing is still a strong and vibrant community and one that I am proud to be a part of.

I am a Couchsurfer for life:
because I seek genuine experiences and cultures in new cities, which can be best achieved through a local guide;
because I host, always remembering what it was like when I was travelling and desperate for just a roof and a flat, if slightly soft, surface in which to sleep;
to make friends from across the globe; and
lastly, though not least, to save money

Friday, 18 October 2013

On the Road Again, Part 2 - West Is Best

After a week of hiking all around the amazing red landscape of Utah, it was time to change gears. The west coast sprinkled a little bit of moisture on my dry face and added some colour to my red palette. I gave myself up to vulnerability and spontaneity, trademarks of my holistic approach when I was backpacking through Europe.
Words of wisdom - bench, Eugene, OR
After a 10 hour drive, blistering through the Nevada desert at the legal speed limit of 80 mph (128 km/hr), I arrived just outside of San Francisco. I was welcomed in Oakland by my friend, Courtney, who I met in Berlin in March, and with a hearty home cooked meal.

For the subsequent few nights in the Bay Area I found, through Couchsurfing, a six-person commune in which lived a nudist, and at the time hosted five Couchsurfers. Interesting place, to say the least.
Gogol Bordello at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Golden State Warriors NBA preseason game, Oakland
All too soon, it was time to leave San Fran, and so I wound my way up the scenic Pacific Coast of California. Car sleeping on a highway turnout by the ocean, I let the waves lull me to sleep.
Glass Beach, Fort Bragg - glass beads made from landfill bottles worn down by the ocean 
The following morning, finally, I arrived in the state of Oregon, which I had been yearning to visit since an unlikely encounter with a very interesting person from here, who I met while traveling through Italy last October. In maybe the hippiest city in North America, Eugene, I had an unforgettable time, fitting in snugly with the strong culture of bike lovers, vegans, backyard farmers, and craft beer swiggers.
Gate at a collective house made from old bicycle parts
Upon leaving Eugene, I shot back towards the Pacific coast to awe at the mighty yet steadying presence of ocean waves crashing into jagged rocks, towering cliffs, and beige beaches.
Seal Rock Beach, Newport, Oregon
And then there was Portland. What I really came to the west coast to see: Portland is a larger and more well known version of sleepy Eugene; it is the self-proclaimed bicycle capital of North America, rejecting highway building since the 80's; its slogan is "Keep Portland Weird" and it is home of the unsurprisingly weird show Portlandia, which is a pretty good indication of what it's like to live there.
Portland Farmer's Market - high standards and integrity market offering great local food 
Portland has been in my dreams since the idea of it first planted itself in my brain and it was exciting to finally be there in person. Not only that, but I arrived on the weekend where the city comes alive, and found the perfect Couchsurfing host, Ben, who took me on a day trip along the Columbia River gorge with its myriad waterfalls.
Multnomah Falls, Oregon
I left Oregon with such a favourable impression that I think I will live here someday. It is the true epitomy of the cultural and natural mosaic of the west coast.

After a quick stop in Seattle's Georgetown neighbourhood, I rounded out my trip by spending 4 days in Vancouver, visiting my best friend, Henry, before he departs on his sabbatical of self-discovery in India. As per usual, our conversations were what bonded us; we continue to philosophically challenge each other with our differing perspectives in life.

Going for a run in Stanley Park, Vancouver
Over the course of 3 weeks, my faithful Toyota Yaris took me 6,500 km around the western United States and back on just $420 of gas. But I also gained kilometres of experience and wisdom.

This trip reaffirmed my desire for the purest form of travel - staying in hostels or with Couchsurfers to get the local perspective, and walking or biking around a city to get a feel for its character. While nature stunned me and culture impressed me, what defined the trip were the inspiring people I met and the amazing conversations I had.
While driving is nice, it's always nicer getting around a new city by bike!
Especially bike friendly cities like San Francisco, Eugene, Portland and Vancouver.
The one big difference in this trip with my Europe travels was that I drove the whole time. While having that freedom was really nice, there is something about taking buses and trains that I missed. Something about having that large expanse of time to fill how you like - by watching the landscape roll by, reading, or writing in a journal. Oh, and also not having to deal with traffic in big cities!

My recent experience has also helped to redraw the North American borders in my mind. Sorry Toronto: in North America, west is best.
Mt Hood reminds Portland of how powerful and timeless nature is
Because while oceans calm us, mountains alter us - they ground us, humble us, make us forget about life's insignificant problems and remember how simple and happy it can be; they can make us bow down with respect and love for nature in all its beauty.

Flickr link:

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

On The Road Again, Part 1 - 127 Hours in Utah

With 10 months of backpacking still freshly imprinted on my memory, my vacation meter seemed filled up, if not still bubbling over the top. I was perfectly content to continue reestablishing roots in Calgary.

This doesn't explain why I suddenly embarked on a 3 week road trip, looping down the western United States and up to Vancouver, my current location. The explanation is not in the brain but in the heart: my heart is fueled by adrenaline, beats to the rhythm of new footsteps, pumps with spontaneity and fills the arteries with a vigor for life and new experiences.
Quick pit stop in Butte, Montana - discovered she's a beaut 
A few opportunities came together, and so on the last Friday of September I found myself driving out of town, south for the border. Past the prairies of Alberta and Montana I sped, eventually into darkness. After car sleeping, I woke up to pretty rolling hills smiling down at me, renewing my vigor. I drove on through Montana's better half, past Idaho's lava rocks, and braved Salt Lake City's rush hour traffic.
Three and a half men - in a condo in Moab, Utah
Finally, after 18 hours on the long road, I arrived in Moab, Utah, joining three guys each around 60 years old, already asleep in our rented townhouse, preparing for the upcoming physically demanding week.

Utah is simply one of the most beautiful places in the world. Its rock formations are like nothing I have ever seen. The morning after our first sleep we tackled the Negro Bill Trail which took us to the Morning Glory Natural Bridge, then later on hiked up another trail to see the Corona Arch.
Morning Glory Natural Bridge - tough to see, but it actually
stands on its own, separate from the large wall behind it
Corona Arch - tallest of all the arches in Utah
On Day 2 we checked out one of the slot canyons, made famous by the movie 127 Hours, Wild Horse Canyon. Later on, we dropped in on the goblins (though more mushroom-like in my opinion) of Goblin Valley State Park.
In the slot canyon, wading through knee high muddy water
Goblin Valley State Park
On Day 3 we decided to tackle Mt. Peale, the second highest summit in Utah, nearly 13,000 ft, offering us an escape from the low heat into chilling alpine winds and breathtaking views of fall colours and vast expanses of desert red rock in the distance.
12,700 ft above sea level, it's a long way down from Mt. Peale
On Day 4 we awoke to an impotent US government and locked gates at our most anticipated attractions - Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Undeterred, we found a wonderful alternative - one of the most impressive and imposing rock formations I'd ever seen, Fisher Towers.
Fisher Towers - jutting slivers of rock that are truly unbelievable
Looking straight up, we saw rock climbers taking on one of the many steep tower's faces
On Day 5 we went to Dead Horse Point State Park, with views down to the valley floor, breathtaking, and into the distance, endless.
The view of the famous bend in the Colorado River, and a big pointy rock
It's a good day to be alive
Moab is the self proclaimed mountain biking mecca of the world. After 5 days of amazing hiking, I decided to take on the famous Slickrock Trail.
Taking a break from a grueling 3.5 hour teeth-grinding mountain biking trail
Some mountain biking enthusiasts rumbling down the steep hills of Slickrock
Despite the national parks being closed as a result of the greatest blunder of democracy, and being stuck in a house with 3 old guys, I was still able to experience some breathtaking places unrestricted by quasi-martial law. Over 6 days, I hiked around 60 km, gained nearly 2 km of elevation and got my tail kicked mountain biking. I left Moab drained but feeling fantastic.

And on the drive out of Utah, I managed to dip my feet into the Great Salt Lake, then take my car off the highway onto the salt flats, which stretch into the jagged horizon.
Just off the interstate, salt flats seem to go on forever and ever. And ever
The west coast is up next, and it's time to trade in the comforts of a townhouse for my old school ways of hostels and Couchsurfing. The road will take me from the dry heat of magnificent red rocky deserts into wet and wondrous blue coastlines, snow capped grand vistas of volcanoes and vibrant cities teeming with down-to-earth people in the hip west.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

The rest of my Utah photos can be seen here:

Monday, 16 September 2013

A Beautiful, If Brief, Calgary Summer

Maybe it was my slow reintegration into society. Or the lingering effects of the devastating flood. Probably a little bit of both. Since my return, it seemed to take forever for the real Calgary to show up. But, finally, Mother Nature gave Calgary the summer it deserved - a sublime forecast of 25 degrees and sunny virtually every day of August and September.

And I was able to make the most of every minute of it.

First major redefinition of the post-travel "me" started on the inside though, with my condo. I refocused my compact space for functionality and serenity - my bed is now just a mattress in the living room, frameless, and folds up against the wall during the day, like a Murphy bed, creating an impressive open space in the small yet large living room for yoga and meditation. If making room for these mind enhancing activities weren’t enough, I am living without internet and TV at home. All of these changes are an extension of my experiences during my travels, where I plugged into nature, laid roots in the earth, while discarding distractions.

The comfy couch and TV have slid over to the bedroom. With this revamped space, I was able to get back into Couchsurfing, and it's even harder than ever now to say "no" to a Couchrequest because I always think back to when I was surfing in Europe and desperate for hosts. Since returning, I've hosted (all individually) two French guys, two German girls, a British guy, and a Dutch man, a decorated travel veteran who has been to 50+ countries and still going strong, with the unfathomable ability to overcome any obstacles of travelling, able to sleep anywhere and hitchhike from dawn until sunset.

Amidst their company, I've managed to continue on with my busy summer, packed with numerous cultural events, plus cultivating my unbridled and somewhat unorthodox passions. Contrary to popular belief, there are lots to do in Calgary.

Some of my summer highlights can be seen here:

Through these awesome experiences, I've been meeting lots of wonderful people and getting even more ideas for yet more interesting experiences to come. I just can't wait for the next adventure, the next day, even the next moment to arrive.

And as promising as the future is, I can always look back to the past, at my travels, to realize that there is never anything to ever complain or grumble about.

It took a little while, but I have overcome the reverse culture shock of my distressful return to society. And Calgary provided the ideal home base for recovery. As it turns out, Calgary has the people and the resources to make anyone’s dreams come true. You only have to know where to look.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Plight of the Greeks - and the rest of Southern Europe

Most people are aware of the events of 20th century history causing the east-west political divide in Europe. However, I believe there is another divide that has gone largely unnoticed and has had major repercussions in the globalized 21st century.
At the Berlin Wall, the very centre of the east-west European political divide
This is probably the most interesting observation I made about Europe. It probably took my entire 10 months of travelling all around the continent to develop this theory of north-south division. I have since realized how bloody simple and obvious it is, yet I haven't met anyone else who has actually realized it until I explained it to them.

The root of what divides northern and southern Europe is the same phenomenon that determines almost every aspect of people's behaviour and culture all around the world - climate.

The climate in your environment infiltrates every facet of your lifestyle, affects every decision you make. And your decision will likely be different from the decision of someone living in an entirely different climate.

Europe's climate varies from north to south. See where I'm heading with this? Now if you will allow me to work backwards for one second, then I will explain the current state of affairs on this continent.

Europe is in troubled times economically. The EU currency is failing. Greece has filed for bankruptcy and youth unemployment is at 50%. Spain is also trying to save its skin and youth unemployment was as high as 75%. France and Italy are struggling, and little Cyprus is hanging on by a thread.

Wait a minute. Aren't all of these countries in the south?

That's right! So why are all of the southern countries struggling?
Peloponnese Mountains, Greece - 1 hour drive from my farmstay
I probably first noticed why when I was in Greece. I first arrived by bus in a small town, skipping the big cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki (which is unfortunate because I didn't get an urban perspective of the country). The first shop I entered looked like a cafe but, when I stepped inside, I was surprised to see up to 50 men all sitting around poker tables, gambling. And not a single woman, except the bartender. Shouldn't so many guys in such a small town be working right now? Certainly not risking throwing away their money in one normal afternoon!

Later on, my farmstay family would tell me more about life in rural Greece. They bring an outsider's perspective because they are Swiss-German but have lived on their farm here for 30 years. It was, and still is, incredibly backwards, although the situation has improved in the past 20 or so years. Men are predominantly out in town, while women generally stay home and tend to the house.
And if the women are cursed with immobility I guess it's the men sneaking into their houses, then their bedrooms. The host wife unfortunately got caught up in too many women only juicy conversations about who's doing who, even though everyone is married. Such behaviour, then conversation, it appeared, were not taboo and no different from talking about the weather.

People here are also laid back. Or lazy. Whichever term you prefer. In our olive picking crew there was myself, my Swiss German host, a French and Dutch helper, and an older Greek farmer. He was usually the last one ready, holding up the group, usually sitting at the table rolling a joint, and when finally got out into the fields, he was usually the first one taking a beer break.

So they're somewhat lazy and irresponsible. How can you blame them? The Greeks are blessed with a hot, hot climate, fresh food, and a snaking coastline of Mediterranean Sea and beaches, all just out their front door.
Nice, France - why would you live anywhere else?
Same with the Spanish with their all night partying and siestas during the afternoon heat, the Italians with their picturesque and inspiring mountainous cities and virtually unlimited supply of pasta and olive oil, and the French with their six weeks standard vacation and paradoxically healthy diet of wine and cheese. And don't even get me started on the Cypriots...

These countries for the most part share this desirable climate, great food, relaxed mentality. They also have a distinct, admired culture, and they know it, which leads them to be excessively proud, stubborn and resistant to change. They all have pretty low English speaking rates.

The northern European countries, by contrast, have colder climates and are as such more adaptable. Because they spend less time enjoying the outdoors they instead concentrate their time and efforts on education and innovation and learning the language of business - English. They have kept up with today's fast changing world by developing robust economies fuelled by an open-minded and creative work force.

But ultimately they are not blessed with good weather. So they spend their well earned money flying to southern Europe to enjoy the good Mediterranean life that they can't get back home but people like the Greeks and Spanish already have in their own backyard, if even for just a week or two.
Cinque Terre, Italy - 5 towns, car free, within walking distance, along cliff paths on the Mediterranean
This same divide can even be observed within individual countries. Italy is a prime example where the north and south are completely different, sometimes called different worlds that share only language in common. The north has a robust economy inhabited by orderly people, while the south is characterized by corruption, is run by the mafia and dragging down Italy's economy. Yet there's something beautiful in this chaos. No wonder that the southern island of Sicily is considered to be the romantic getaway to visit in Italy. There's an elevated passion mixed with ignorant bliss there you can't find in the north.

It's this passion for their land and yearning of the simple life that has prevented southerners such as the Greeks from keeping up with today's globalized economy. It's a game they're not adapted to play and win. They're happy with their little lives and prefer not to be interfered with. And I really do feel bad for them because the forces of globalization are tearing their means of living apart.
Elea, Greece - woke up to this view for 3 weeks straight
That's because I was there myself for 3 weeks, in this absolutely perfect situation, which I still remember as the best time of my trip. I woke up every day, peace and solitude greeting me in the form of a soft Mediterranean Sea breeze and a view, as if out of a painting, of blue sea on grey mountains on blue sky. I ate some of the best food of my trip, more than half of which consisted from the farm itself - a recently slain goat, lemons hanging from the tree, and from the garden which I helped till and spread the topsoil. And working outdoors in the olive orchard was its own reward.

Back home now, the divide from that Mediterranean life is great - harsh winters, bland olive oil, no beaches. My farmstay is making me seriously consider if I want to partake in the economic engine of Canada, or escape again one day to the simple life, to ignorance and bliss.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Life After Travel

One friend and coworker keeps asking me the same question everytime he sees me.

"How's your soul?" 

He knows a lost soul when he sees one. He also understands the slow and slightly painful recovery process of reintegrating back into society after a soul discovering journey.
Back in Canada but still on the road
It has been almost 40 days since I made my much heralded return to Canada. But, in keeping with my blog title, it has been anything but normal since I came back. I feel like I have retained my magnetism for adventure, unable to escape it, simultaneously addicted by its pull.

Here's, in chronological order, why I have still felt like a traveller in my home country: I landed in Montreal, stayed one night with a friend who I met in Barcelona, took a bus to Toronto, spent a week with family, catching up with friends where I certainly felt my newfound contrasts to society and traditions, drove five days to Saskatchewan with a 70 year old hippie artist lady and 2 dogs, a time filled with interesting stories, stimulating but sometimes irritating conversations, and yet more irritating demands, and seeing beautiful Ontarian nature and the great flat prairies and car sleeping along the way, afterwards picked up a hitchhiker and dropped her off in Calgary, worked 2 days of training for my upcoming new job, drove to Vancouver with 2 guys from Kijiji and picked up another hitchhiker, a professional hobo, saw once again my captivating Rocky Mountains unfold before my eyes, spent 3 days with my best friend in his oceanview apartment on the English Bay, then drove back to Calgary with a Canadian rapper/producer who spent 12 years in Japan and his newly married Thai wife in a car so packed I could barely shift gears with my right hand.
The Rocky Mountains - soothing for the soul, massaging for the mind
Okay. Let's take a short break and catch our breaths. So at this point I had ventured across much of the great landscape of Canada, meeting strangers along the way and swapping stories, experiencing shocking revelations from my interactions with family, friends and peripheral meetings. Here is where I hoped adventure would end, and a return to the predictable 9 to 5 would begin. Not quite.

Upon my return to Calgary I stayed with a friend while getting back to work and reacquainting myself with friends, and dropping check marks on my massive to do list on the way to achieving full resettlement. Some big check marks included finding a new tenant for my condo, finding a roommate and a new place to rent, all which provided several headaches. After awhile I moved in with a friend who also owns in my building, Union Square, but in a few days the massive flood hit and I was evacuated, returning to my first friend's place. I worked several emergency midnight shifts throughout the week, then did some odd jobs with the City including volunteer work. During the city's flood recovery, I also managed to move into two more friend's places. Meanwhile my condo, which I have decided to move back into, and my place of work, City Hall, have both sustained heavy damage from the flood and I am not allowed back into either yet.
The flood - the Saddledome, where the Flames play, turned into a big soup bowl
In 40 days back in Canada I have still not yet stayed more than 10 days in one place, living out of a couple of duffle bags and my worldy possessions are spread out in 3 different places. I've remained nomadic in my home country, but how can I complain? I'm still living like a traveller. I've experienced the best and the worst that nature has thrown at me, and I'm surviving. Although it's hard living out of a backpack while holding a job, I guess I am not quite ready to be normal yet anyway. If anything, it has been a nice, slow transition out of my traveller's skin.

I've learned a few more things about myself along the way. I love my mountains! And Calgary (sorry Toronto, you will never have enough nature to compete with the wonderful West). But I will never ever fully shed my traveller's skin. And one day it will grow back so thick until I become the same unrecognizable Andrew, ready to get out into the world again.

Lost the last part of my traveller identity a few days ago - my hair  *tear*
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