It's almost been three months since I left work to travel the world. In that period, I travelled to Cuba together with Iris, spent three weeks in August in Romania and the Czech Republic, and headed to Morocco for a couple of weeks most recently in September. Iris and I are currently at her parents' apartment in Taichung, where we'll be based together for a month before I fly off to explore South East Asia.
I was catching up with a friend, Anusha, over WhatsApp and she asked me "what have been your three highlights so far? (I think this should be a blog post.)" I rattled off quite quickly my top three, which became my top four. It reminded me of a conversation that I had with Iris in Meknes where we explored together what we wanted from our upcoming year away from full-time employment. We weren't enjoying travelling through Morocco all that much and frankly were tired of touristing around. That led to a conversation about what we did want, and we spent time reflecting on what we enjoyed most about our trips so far.
It's what we often do in coaching, reflect on what we've enjoyed so far ("what made you feel alive") to help guide what we want to do and where we want to go.
For me, the following stick out. Of course there were so many other experiences that I enjoyed and even some that blew my mind (like horse riding through the valleys of Vinales), but the following resonate with something deep inside of me - my soul.
#1: Evening drinks with Alexander and his friend, on our final night in Havana
We spent our final night in Cuba at Alexander's casa in the Habana Vieja (the Old Havana). Alex was recommended to us by our friends Kuli and Claudia, who had stayed with him when they came to Cuba last winter.
As he does with every guest that stays with him, he invited us for an evening drink on his rooftop bar for "the best cuba libre in Havana". I don't know how it happened, as there were other guests around, but we got to talking and he asked us to join him and his friend (boyfriend?) in a game of domino. We didn't know how to play, but they were very patient and sporting.
One drink became two (and three) and we somehow spent the rest of the evening listening to Alex's story. He told us how he used to work in a tourist office, but got tired of the rigid working hours and lack of progression. He told us how he sold his car (a very valuable and prestigious thing to own) to purchase the first floor of his four storey casa, to follow his dream of becoming a casa owner. How after a while he was able to purchase the second floor of the building, then the third and eventually rebuilding the top floor as a home for himself and a rooftop bar.
He shared with us his dreams of visiting other countries regardless of the huge cost and the government making it very hard, how he'd been able to send his mother abroad to his family in America, how he hoped Cuba would be allowed to become more open to the world and progress...
On the surface that was a very simple evening - just two couples sharing some rum, stories and games. Yet looking back it is more precious to me than the grand valleys of Vinales or the much loved Trinidad with its beautiful architecture.
I've written a couple of posts on some of the amazing people I met during my stay at Podstel in Bucharest, Romania. I loved it so much that I ended up coming back to Podstel after visiting Brasov. I haven't yet had a chance to mention some of the locals (including some very talented artists, one who inspired me to take the plunge with The Artists Way - see below) that I had the pleasure of meeting but know they hold a very special place in my heart.
I've recently published a detailed post on my experience teaching English at an immersion course in a Czech castle. When this came up in my reflections, it initially surprised me as I honesty found the course very challenging at times. There was a rigid schedule in place, which was one of the things I hoped to escape, and the days were very long.
But it was as rewarding as anything I've done to date, both in terms of seeing how happy the Czech students were at having surpassed their own expectations but also the wisdom that some of the participants and volunteers imparted on me. When the teachers were leaving on the bus at the end of the week, a group of participants came to wave us off and some of them were even in tears. For me it reflected a bond that had formed between the teachers, who fiercely held an unwavering belief in the students' abilities to achieve their goals, and the students that gave their all to try to prove them right.
Unwavering belief on display at Angloville.
In the latter half of our trip in Morocco, I was suffering from a stomach bug. This meant we couldn't be as active as we'd have liked and we spent a good portion of our days in Fes and Marrakech in our room. As bad as I felt for Iris, who'd have to stay in with me as walking around alone as a single woman in the Marrakech medina wasn't advised, I also really enjoyed the opportunity to read.
Iris had recommended 'The Forty Rules of Love', which she'd started reading in August during her Workaway in Sicily. We share a Kindle collection between us (out of the 150 books, only five are mine) and this novel caught my attention big time. I'll share a quote here, one of the 40 rules that Shams of Tabriz, a character in the book, sets out:
"How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we."
I was so gripped by the book that I blazed through it within a matter of days. It had been a while since I did this (not since Brian McLaren's 'A New Kind Of Christian' trilogy and before that Harry Potter) and it annoyed Iris somewhat that I'd finished the book she'd recommended! But the book resonated with me a lot - it's now one of my all time favourites - and reminded me of a desire to read more. I'd once said to Iris last year that I wanted to go somewhere where I could just read and write. I'd found it in the most unlikeliest of places, thanks to an undesired illness.
We had some great times too in Morocco, as we've always done on our travels and lives back at home. But we left in search of more than that, and we felt that's what our focus needs to be on.
So what do I really want from the coming months?
Reviewing these top hits, I saw some themes emerge. The first three were all about forming connections, whether it be with the local community or fellow travellers. I think I am particularly drawn to fellow long-term travellers. I don't think long-term travellers just decide one day to pack up their lives and head out into the unknown. Even if we don't know it yet, there must be some kind of drive - a sort of pilgrimage, maybe? It's something that I'd like to explore more.
There is an element of teaching, too. I greatly enjoyed helping the Czech students fulfil their English goals. I was driven to teaching (in poorly spoken French) some of the Moroccan shop keepers and hustlers on the street that shouting "China! Japan! Arigato" to any Asian-looking person walking by on the streets is probably not going to get them business and can get annoying. Also "arigato" means "thank you" which is just non nonsensical and stupid, unless they were thanking me in advance for the lesson I was about to give them.
I've somehow (thanks Dad) ended up being lined up to give a talk at a Christian conference in Indonesia in December. It's to a group of teenagers and will likely be on the importance of finding your counter culture. This has given me a focus for the next few months in the run up to the talk and hopefully a couple of the teenagers will find it helpful. More on this later.
Finally is reading and writing, the feeding and outpouring of my creativity (/ soul). I found writing for the blog really enjoyable, although rarely easy, and it's something that I'm so glad to have started. As an introvert and not a very chatty person, I find that paper is a great way to get my voice heard. As someone who struggles to clarify thoughts in my mind, getting this down on paper has been so helpful to gain some clarity of thought.
I've recently embarked on 'The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity', a 12 week do-it-yourself course by Julia Cameron. It aims to help blocked artists overcome their barriers, become unblocked and find their own voice in the world. I don't see myself as an 'artist', but Julia Cameron's philosophy is that as human beings we are all creatives, much more than we are consumers. It's an idea that I can get behind and one which I hope to explore in the coming year. More on this later too.
So what next?
As a result of our soul-searching, this is what we plan to do. Iris and I will spend the rest of October in Taiwan, seeing what life has to offer here. We'll spend time together as a couple, play with our nephew who's over here with him mum, explore the island with Iris' awesome school friends, all from the comforts of Iris' family home.
I'll then make my way on my own to Cambodia in November, which will kick start my backpacking in South East Asia. Travelling solo, I'll be able to travel without much of a plan and see where my heart takes me. It's quite likely that once I find a nice spot I'll spend days "doing nothing", or so it may look to the outside eye. I'll have conversations and I'll sit in silence. I'll have fun and I'll pray. And somehow, after all of this, I'll end up in Jakarta at Christmas ready to give a 90 minute talk in front of hundreds of teenagers...
In the meantime, Iris will stay behind in Taiwan for a little while, with more school friends visiting from nearby countries. In December she'll then head to an ashram in India for a yoga teacher training course.
Who would have imagined that I'd be travelling through South East Asia solo, giving a talk at a Christian conference, and that Iris would be a qualified yoga teacher by the end of 2017?! Those are our rough plans. Who knows what'll happen between now and then. Who knows what'll happen come 2018? We don't know, but we proceed in the faith that we're headed in the right direction. What's certain is that it'll be more exciting than if we had stayed behind in our previous lives in London!
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