This February I celebrate 10 years of traveling and life on the road. To commemorate this milestone, I’ve come up with a series of Top 10 posts. These choices are based solely on my personal experience.
10 memorable experiences
These 10 years are filled with memorable and intense experiences. Some of them are scary and negative, but most of them have been wonderful, unforgettable and will live long in my memory to recount them to my grandchildren. Looking back at them, the positives ones tend to stand out, and the negative ones don’t feel so bad, after all, they made my stories so much more interesting. This is not a list of Top 10, just 10 experiences without any ranking.
The best meal I’ve ever had
I’ve written an article about this. This is an excerpt of the main point:
Ramadhan is a holy month where the Muslims besides practice fasting, they also have to put more effort in following the Islam’s teaching; and one of the teachings is giving charity. Restaurants in Cairo would set out long tables in the streets and anyone could just come, take a seat and food would be served for free.
One day, Stephen and I were late leaving the hostel. By the time we got to the street, all the seats were taken. We walked along the street, up and down a few times without success in finding a single vacant seat. Then suddenly we heard the call to prayer. That was it, we realised that it’s too late for us to take part in the Iftar.
Just at that moment when we had given up a hand shot up from nowhere and pulled us down. Still recovering from shock, we saw that it was a middle-aged lady who had pulled us to sit on the curb of the street with her and 3 other locals. There were 3 or 4 small dishes in the middle of the circle. Without exchanging a single word, they gave us plates and gestured for us to dig in. So we started to eat the food these kind-hearted locals had decided to share with us – foreign strangers.
We had no idea what those food were but we didn’t care. If they were kind enough to share, we at least should be polite enough to try. But there was nothing to worry about, the food was delicious; they were simple home-cooked dishes. We ate in silent; they watched us and we smiled stupidly and tried our best to tell them that the food was amazing.
I guessed the lady cooked the dishes at home and brought it there to break fast with the men, who must be her family. The men finished first, and went back to work. One of them had a tea shop and brought Stephen and I a cup of tea each. While we sipped our teas, the lady slowly cleared up the dishes. When we finished our tea and she had finished clearing up, we didn’t know what to do but decided to show them that we wanted to pay, if not for the meal, at least for the drinks. But they waved our intention away. We kept saying shukran (thank you in Arabic) to them but no word could truly express our gratitude; they had let us experience a very intimate and personal cultural experience.
Distributing food to the homeless in London, England
The first job I got after leaving Malaysia was working as a Barista for Café Nero (a coffee chain ala Starbucks) in London. My colleagues were Italian, Spanish, French, etc. who were in London to learn English. The working environment was relaxing and fun. One day I was working the night shift with the manager. After we closed, we started to take down the food that was expiring that day. Knowing that they were still good, and not wanting them to go to waste, I asked the manager if I could have them. My manager was a good lady, instead of throwing them into the rubbish bin, she let me had all of them.
Armed with bags of sandwiches, pastas, muffins, I took a bus to Oxford Street. Then I would walk for about an hour down the length of Oxford Street, looking for homeless people and giving them food. Some days I would have more and I would walk until Covent Garden. Most of them were very grateful and thanked me profusely.
One day, when I had only 2 sandwiches left I came upon 4 homeless people. I felt bad as I walked up to them and told them that I didn’t have enough food to give to all 4 of them. I was going to suggest that they share the sandwiches among them, when 2 of them told the other 2 that they could have the sandwiches, because they had eaten already. This selflessness really touched me.
Every time I did my round, the first person I would meet was an old lady whose ‘home’ was outside the Salvation Army store. She had a grandmotherly aura about her and reminded me of my grandma (who passed away 3 months after I left home). I would go to her first because I wanted her to have the pick when I still have many things in the bag. Each time she would say in a very quiet voice “thank you”, and I would walk away with a lump on my throat and tears in my eyes. Years later when I returned to London I went to Oxford Street to look for her but she wasn’t there. I walked the length of the street but I couldn’t find her. I hope she’s in a better place.
The night Spain won the Euro Cup 2008
It was the June of 2008 and I had been living in Spain for almost 3 years. My wanderlust had made me decide to leave the comfort of Spain and to set off for new adventure. But before that I needed to stay and support Spain in the European Cup.
I wasn’t a huge football fan but being caught in the Euro Cup frenzy I watched all of Spain’s matches. No one predicted it would make the final and when it did, there was a heightened sense of excitement in the air. When the day of the final arrived, no one could concentrate on their work, as everyone was waiting for the kick-off time.
I was at my favourite bar, Quevedo in downtown Madrid. The small bar was packed and everyone glued to the TV. In the sea of Spaniards cheering for their home team, there were some Americans, and me. As an Asian I probably stood out more as an outsider, but the 3 years living there had made me part of the community. And that night I cheered like a crazy person when Spain scored and bit my nails when they missed. When the final whistle was blown, the small room erupted in a euphoric screaming and shouting. The owner of the bar spread everyone with bottles of champagne. When that ran out, he angled his hand under the tap and pulled, spraying everyone in the room with cervezas.
When the small room couldn’t content the expanding frenzy, we all took to the streets. People were waving the Spanish flag, and chanting and singing. Many people jumped into the fountains, pulling their friends in, and spraying everyone else. Engrossed in the jubilation, I joined in the singing “Yo soy Español, Español, Español…” I know I’m not Spanish, but at that moment, when every Spaniard was proud of their “Spanishness”, I wanted so much to belong. I had been living in Spain for 3 years, it was a home when I didn’t realize I needed one. I embraced the culture and adopted the lifestyle, everything felt really easy and I felt contented there.
“Yo soy Español, Español, Español… pero no lo soy.”
Unfortunately, officially I wasn’t. But I’ll always remember at that joyous moment, I was one of them.
Falling in Love in Bucharest, Romania
Ever since I watched Before Sunrise, I had carried a romantic idea about backpacking with me. Sometimes I’m envious of those couples who found each other while traveling. My Canadian friend, David, who had been traveling for 15 years finally settled down in Medellin, when he found his soul mate. But I’ve never had much luck in that department.
The only time I fell in love while traveling was in the most unlikely of a place – Bucharest, Romania. When we met, we both thought that it was just going to be a fling and nothing else. Every day we would spend some time together, walking through the street, chatting in the park. Bucharest isn’t a romantic or inspiring city, but I enjoyed the time we spent together. I finally got to taste what the 2 characters in Before Sunrise had; the excitement of meeting a stranger who stirred some feeling inside in an exotic place. After 3 days, we walked to the bus station together. We reluctantly said our goodbye, closing a chapter that thought was ending. I boarded the bus and sat at the backseat. When the bus pulled away, I saw the figure standing there waving became smaller and smaller. Suddenly my heart hurt and tears formed in my eyes. This emotion took me by surprise, as I didn’t realize how intense I’d felt.
Three months of emails, phone calls and MSN couldn’t stop what distance could do to a relationship. Friends had asked me why didn’t I return to Bucharest, or move there, and then things might turn out differently. I could never give a cohesive answer. Maybe deep down, as much as I wanted it to work, I wasn’t ready to ‘settle down’ for a relationship. My nomadic soul is too wild. But I’m very thankful to have had a taste of it, even just for a while.
Being held at knife points in Medellin, Colombia
For the 1 and a half years I lived in Colombia, I was held at knife point a total of 3 times. Looking back now, those were some scary moments but they also made me appreciate my life more. And the best way to do that is to live it to the fullest.
#1: I was invited to the birthday party of a friend who lived in a comuna (favela, shanty towns). After a night of merry-making where they taught me, unsuccessfully, how to dance the salsa and meringue, I was asked to stay until dawn as it wasn’t safe to leave in the dark. I woke up early and while everyone else was still sleeping off their hangover I decided to go back, alone. Bad decision.
Few metres before I reached the metro station, a tough-looking guy with tattoos came out of nowhere to block my way. I didn’t think much of it until he took out a switchback knife. I froze! He asked me to take off my jacket then proceeded to pat me down. I looked at the people looking out their windows and pleaded for help, but they were just watching a show. An elderly man was passing by and I asked him to ayudame but he just went into his home, nonchalantly.
As I was contemplating on the pain of the knife making impact on my body, he tattooed guy gave me back my jacket and asked me to move along. Puzzled, I walked away with my heart thumping so fast that I couldn’t hear any other sound.
Later after my friend apologized for not accompanying me, he explained that the guy was a gang member on patrol. He was suspicious of me because he had never seen me before; thinking that I could be a spy from the other gang.
#2: It was early morning and I was rushing to my morning class. On a busy road 2 guys walked towards me but I didn’t pay attention. When they were in front of me, they took out a knife and put it near my heart and asked me to surrender my money and cell phone. Too stunned to think I gave them what they asked for; a cheap Nokia phone and about USD20 in Colombian pesos.
Then they walked away as if nothing had happened. I was disappointed that no one had come to my aid. I walked to the police post not far from the ‘crime scene’. After telling them what had happened, I was angry that they didn’t bolt out to chase after the robbers.
I still made it to my class. When I told my students what had happened, they expressed their sympathy but told me that it’s so common that nobody batted an eyelid if you were robbed in public, in broad day light. They then went on to explain that that’s the reason most expats and rich people live in gated community. I had chosen to live where the common people live, that was the price I had to pay.
#3: Few months after the previous incident, I was walking in the main street at about 7pm. It was the peak hour where everyone was heading home. At a very poorly lit section a smiley guy came up to me asking for something. When I leaned in to hear him better he produced a knife and again pointed it at my heart. My heart must have rolled its eye (if he had one) and said ‘not again’. The guy asked for my cell phone. Just cell phone, no money I wonder why. I surrendered my new phone. When he was trying to make his getaway, I started to chase after him, screaming “ladrón! ladrón!”(thief! thief!). He ran into the streets, zigzagging through the traffic. I didn’t give up and ran into the street as well, keeping one eye on him while the other on the oncoming traffic. Seeing that I wasn’t going to give up, he flung my phone to me and it landed on the street. I quickly pick it up before a car could squash it to pieces. Luckily there was no crack and it was good as new.
When I told my friends about it, they all patted me on my back and told me that “te has convertido en un Colombiano!” (You’ve become a Colombian!).
After fasting for a day, eating only bread and soup, the Shaman led me to a shed at 11.30pm. Inside, his son has already started a fire in the middle of the room. While they set up, I wandered around. The room was very rustic with wooden chairs and logs arranged in circle around the fire. There are scary looking masks hanging on the walls and strange-looking figurines positioned on tables and counter top.
Ayahuasca or Jagé (in Colombia) is a hallucinogenic drink derived from the root of a plant common in South America. The shamans used it to perform cleansing rituals. I’ve heard stories from travelers who had done, and some would travel to Peru for the sole reason to experience it. But it’s not like magic mushroom where you can take for “recreation purpose”, this is a potent concoction. It could result in fatality if the ritual isn’t monitor properly or the shaman is inexperience. My Spanish friend who shared with me her experience: she was tortured by ghostly creatures and demons crawling up from hell. Now, that would put many people off trying but there’s something magical and mysterious about the experience that I really wanted to try it for myself.
At 12 midnight, the lights were switched off and the room was lit only by the dim glow of the fire. The shaman, wearing feathered gown and hat – like one of those Indian chief characters from a Hollywood movie, gave me a glass of lime green liquid to drink. It was think and bitter. The shaman and his son also drank a glass each. Then we lay down, waiting for the effect to kick in. Some time passed as I was becoming sleepy, the shaman said that we were ready. The son started to play some haunting music with his guitar, setting the mood. I sat up and my head was spinning, or maybe the room was spinning. It was the sensation you got when you are drunk. The shaman asked me some questions and I could answer them without thinking. It’s a very strange sensation; I was drunk but very alert at the same time.
When I closed my eyes, I could see fireworks of colours; burst of colours like firework going off in my eyes. I could also see some animals crouching in the dark just at the peripherals of my vision. Which I later learned were my guardians. The shaman started to describe the people he saw in visions, and he could describe my family and friends to the T. And he told me many things about my life that I had never told him before. The whole time the shaman was chanting and making shooing sounds, it was all very strange and incredibly mysterious. I wasn’t afraid at all but thrilled to be experiencing it.
The whole ritual lasted about 5 hours. When dawn broke, we were done. The shaman took me to his house to have breakfast. Over a simple meal of bread and coffee, we talked about the session. He told me that I was the person who had the calmest experience he had ever seen. There was no shouting or screaming or crying. I didn’t even go to the toilet; as the drink would cleanse your body as well. I asked him about the moment when he described my grandma. The shaman told me that when my grandma appeared she was furious, she wanted to know what the shaman was doing to her grandson. When the shaman told her that it was a cleansing ritual, meant to cleanse all the bad things and negative energy from me, my grandma relaxed. She sat down next to me and told the shaman that she was there to protect her grandson. Upon hearing that, tears welled up in my eyes. I felt very blessed and knew that she was there with me.
Everyday on the Camino de Santiago, Spain
This is by far the most spiritual, enlightening and amazing experience I’ve had in my 10 years of travel. It was very personal and changed my life completely. For 37 days, I walked the length from Roncesvalles to Finisterre. Along the way I threw away many things; I threw out 5kg from my backpack, along with many emotional and psychological baggage as well. There were uncountable memorable experiences, to write them will require a whole book. So here are 2 to complete this list.
#1: On the 2nd day, while I was resting in the pilgrim hostel, a guy came up to me and said “whatever you need, all you have to do is ask,” and he walked away. I was left stunned; who do I ask? A few weeks later, as I was approaching the meseta (plateau) – a parched dry land that doesn’t have a lot of shade – I wanted a straw hat, but I didn’t really ‘feel’ like buying one. In the morning where I left Burgos and started for the meseta, I was the last person to leave the hostel. And there waiting for me was a straw hat. And I would wear that hat all the way to the end of the Camino. When we reached Galicia and the terrain became more mountainous, I wanted a walking stick. As before, I didn’t ‘feel’ like buying one. Even though I passed by many shops selling all kinds of walking stick, I didn’t bother looking at them. An Austrian lady, who had been walking with me on and off for a few days, decided that she couldn’t go on because her leg was giving her problem. The morning she left, she gave me her walking stick. That stick served me well. Every morning as I set off I would always remember to take it. But one morning, after the mountainous region, I had been walking for almost an hour before I realized that I’d forgotten my walking stick. I was sad but I realized that maybe someone needed it more than me were staying in the hostel, that’s why I left it behind.
#2: One lesson I was learning all along the Camino was to ‘Let go’, to surrender; to let go of expectations, desires, baggage, etc. I just wanted to be liberated, to be free. I even screamed my lungs out on top of a mountain “I LET GO!!!” On my 2nd to last day, I arrived in a small village. After talking a much needed shower, I went to the common area of the hostel and found a French guy there. He was holding a deck of Tarot cards (Osho’s), as if waiting for me. When he saw me, he asked if I’d like to try. By then I had ‘let go’ of the restriction my Catholic past had taught me not to believe in it. So I said I would love to try. I was very open to all experience; I didn’t want my background, my education, my past to dictate what I could and couldn’t experience. The French guy handed me the deck and asked me to shuffled them carefully, thinking about what I wanted to know. I shuffled them carefully. But somehow a card fell out. I panicked, thinking that I had offended the card, and/or the French guy. I bent down to pick it up and waiting to put it back in the deck and start all over again. But the French guy stopped me. He said this was a sign. He put the card on the table and asked me to open it. I reverently turned the card over. When I saw what was written on the card, I had goosebumps all over my body, as if a current of electricity had passed through it. The card read “LET GO”
I always believe that when you follow your destiny, the universe conspires to help you. If these experiences have made you want to travel, you are most welcome to join my small group tour. Then you’ll have all your own memorable experiences to write about!