A tribute to the Road

I remember having a conversation with a friend many years ago, who reminded me how blessed we are for winning the birth-lottery in Southeast Asia. On the world map, if we were born inches away from Singapore in a country like Laos or Cambodia, our lives would have been completely different. I have been tremendously blessed.

As I turn 30 this year, it is timely to look back at the past decade of traveling the world, and the freemasonry of the road.

It all started in 2006. The males lucked out that year when it was announced that National Service was to be cut down to a 22-month stint. Between the end of our obligation and the start of college, what started out as a plan to do the Angkor Wat marathon turned out to be a two month sojourn around our backyard in beautiful Southeast Asia. My first backpacking experience, the travel bug bit, and I never looked back since.

[Sending well wishes to Andy and Joses!]

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River at Kampot, Cambodia

In the winter of 2007, I had one of the richest study-abroad educational experiences in Salvador de Bahia under the guidance of Professor Luciano. This was also my first encounter with Capoeira, which is now a big part of my life.

[Sending well wishes to Prof Luciano, Michelle and all!]

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My host family in Salvador de Bahia

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NYE – Wear white if you’re spending New Years in Brazil

Travels changed course in 2008 after I picked up Spanish during the summer in Middlebury – one of the best summers of my life in beautiful Vermont! This guy probably sums up the 7 semanas de locura, period.

[Sending well wishes to Harley, Katherine, Andres, Andres and all!]

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#mostepic character Harley

During thanksgiving break of 2008 I took the chance to visit the crazy Masters-program students in Madrid/Barcelona, and finally got to put my Spanish to real use in Spain. I also got to see Gaudi and Calatrava’s work which I studied in Archi-101. It was breathtaking.

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La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Winter of 2008 took me on a journey to learn about microfinance in Peru. We visited a rural village called Casa Blanca near Ica and finally understood the gaps and opportunities of microfinance in the field. I spent some time after that backpacking around inner Peru from Cusco to Lago Titikaka (where I also experienced the worst case of altitude sickness at Puno – 4000m. It is the feeling of having your head in your stomach, absolutely horrible).

[Sending well wishes to Allyson and Rhiannon!]

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Uros people of Lago Titikaka

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Indescribable. It still feels like I was just there.

Winter of 2009 was a big window of opportunity to head down south again. We embarked on a month-long trip down to the end of the world – Ushuaia in Tierria del Fuego (trips to the Antarctica begin from here!). From there we worked out way northwards through Patagonia and western Argentina, witnessing some of the most amazing piece of nature’s artwork.

[Sending well wishes to Joyce and Jonathan who survived the longest of bus rides ever with me]

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Torres Del Paine, Pantagonia Chile

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36 hour bus rides across Mountain Passes like these

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Rio de Janeiro – She is as crazy as it sounds

2010 was senior year, and that also meant the real world was calling. Before the final exam period, we took a week off to spend spring break in Puerto Rico, and it sure was rico! (too much rum)

[Sending well wishes to the Illini crew!]

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the Caribbean sea!

After graduation, Dan and I stuffed all my belongings into my humble Eclipse, drove halfway across the country to Palo Alto. We survived 40-degree camping (we gave up after one night), tornado-warnings out in the Dakotas, Badlands National Park and 2 nights in Vegas.  Stanford plans changed course eventually, but the 2500-mile road trip itself was worth everything!

[Sending well wishes to Dan, and Vegas]

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There is no other reason to drive to South Dakota

The transition back to Singapore was rough, and I had the travel bug to thank for tiding me through the bulk of those years.

In March of 2011 I found the most ridiculous flight tickets on Air Asia X – SGD$500RT from KL to Paris. Jumped on that flight, and spent two weeks from Paris to Granada and managed to visit Liz in Morocco for a few days. First time setting foot on the African continent!

[Sending well wishes to Hee Jeong, Liz!]

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Don’t go to Paris alone.

That same year, Andy and I had the idea of during a re-trip together, and we spent some bromance time out in beautiful Yogyakarta.

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2012 was a pretty ridiculous year – almost like travel on crack. It was a combination of needing to escape the corporate life and plenty of cheap budget air tickets coupled with multiple long weekends. There was also the big trip to Mongolia which I took in-between jobs. It remains one of my top travel experiences till date, with the best story of a motorbike break-down and being helped out by the nomads in the middle of nowhere.

[Sending well wishes to David, Angeli, Sebastian and our Motorbike story, Johanna, Kim, Kyla, Cori, Kelly, Isabelle, Melanie, Leandre and how we survived the Russian Mafia, Steffen and Hannah, and the British couple I met in Sirigiya and later ran into 8 months later in Lago Atitlan, Guatemala… ]

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Go to Mongolia if you have the chance

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A beautiful country with beautiful souls – Sri Lanka

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Dan’s first time in Asia

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On this particular trip to Krabi we almost got murdered by Russian Mafia

2013 was an interesting change! I met Lysia, and found a life partner to share my travels with. I dragged her along to see Mount Bromo in Surabaya, kite-surf in Phuket and explore one of my favourite travel destinations till date – Guatemala, also where we met a god-send, Shelby 🙂

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Antigua, Guatemala

Prior to our relocation to America, I also got to spend a week out in Myanmar with Ivan, again, one of the most authentic travel experiences I have had. First hitch-hiking experience!

[Sending well wishes to Ivan!]

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Bagan, Myanmar

2014 was a lot of America. We love Austin, TX!!! Of course we filled it with more roadtrips that we could ever imagine, including a 20-hour roundtrip from Texas to Alberquerque and back, just to catch the hot-air balloon festival. We wrapped up the year in Mexico – beyond the drugs and border violence, Mexico is truly one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

[Sending well wishes to Shelby, Nick, Ben, Tristan and the Capoeira Luanda Austin Crew!]

In 2015 I got admitted into the Kiva Fellows program and relocated to Tajikistan! Central Asia is mountains-on-crack, and I loved every single bit of it. I also managed to visit Kyrgyzstan (visa free!) during my time out there, and captured two of my favorite photos, ever.

[Sending well wishes to KF26, the best housemates ever Anna and Emily, Joe who survived the longest hitch-hike ever across Kyrgyzstan with me, Bren, Luna/Lea/Floria and the house cat, Sonya/Ciaran and the longest snow trek to Altyn-Arashan]

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The beauty of the most remote of bus-stops, Kyrgyzstan

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Road to Murghab, middle of nowhere

En-route back to the US from Tajikistan, we had a little tete-a-tete in Turkey – a country which I didn’t think much of to start with but then just blew my mind as I started to find out more about its long history…

[Sending well wishes to Josh and Myri!]

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Sufi mystics – humankind is fascinating

Prior to our relocation back to Singapore, our final sojourn was to the enigmatic Cuba. We have always heard a lot about this little island, frozen in time mainly due to political backlash; but we got to experience a very special piece of history – travelling to Cuba was like visiting living museum.

[Sending well wishes to Jayce and Kawa!]

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Vinales, Cuba

We started off 2016 with a trip back to a country where Lysia spent a significant of time at during her college days – Japan! Overall a very unique society with loads of strange peeves, including the concept of capsule hotels, which was very, very strange.

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Our recent trip to The Philippines this past week marks the conclusion of my last decade of seeing the world since the first backpacking trip through Southeast Asia back in 2006. We were rewarded with the most beautiful of waters, and wonderful Filipino hospitality.

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Coron, Palawan Islands

This year also marks my 30th year alive! What a blessing to be able to breathe and walk and BE ALIVE!

What have I learnt over this past decade?

  1. Hitchhiking is one of the best adventures in life, and a stranger is a friend you just haven’t met
  2. The more you travel, the more you will appreciate of the little things in life
  3. The more you explore, the richer you become

God knows where the next decade will take us all in life?  Whatever the route, thank you everyone for being part of my journey!

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Austin? Boulder? Portland?

If you want a San Francisco vibe (stereotyped: organic food, good coffee, hippie-culture, good music and chill communities) without the baggage of one of the most insane rents in the world, three American cities typically come to mind: Austin, Boulder, and Portland.

Having spent significant time visiting San Francisco and lived in Austin for the past two years, I can confidently say that Austin gives SF a good run for the money (except the year round 70 degree weather which is hard to replicate honestly). Most Austinites will agree, along with the 150 new people who move into Austin every single day.

I have always been curious though – what about the other two? Portland? Boulder? I have heard great things about them both. Portland still remains a mystery until I get to visit, but I finally got to experience Boulder first-hand this past weekend. The verdict? If you want a “perfect” life surrounded by the most gorgeous hiking trails, then yes. Otherwise, Boulder is nowhere close to Austin in terms of a good balance in all areas of the scale.

Here are a couple of reasons why Boulder < Austin, in my humble opinion…

One. Boulder has one of the most homogeneous communities I have ever seen. Ok, put in another way, everyone is white. The lack of diversity in today’s world made Boulder feel like an extremely foreign place. In contrast, both due to Austin’s proximity to the border and the ability to attract internationals, one will find a wider spectrum of diversity in Austin that is represented through food, culture, and people!

Two. Boulder is too perfect. Everything is nice, neatly laid out and generally perfect. That’s the issue – it is too perfect! It felt like a Hollywood set, artificial to a certain degree. If you live in Austin you will under this reference – Boulder represents just Terrytown, period. In contrast, there are parts of Austin which are slightly less-than-perfect, but along with that comes character and “grunginess” that allows one to feel a lot more relaxed, even if you’re wearing pajamas to your favorite grungy dive bar.

I could come up with another ton of reasons why Austin > Boulder, but I also wanted to give Boulder some credit for some pretty amazing things!

UC-Boulder: Yes, my thoughts exactly – why didn’t I go to school here!!!? 

This view, a 30min drive away.

Legal dispensaries: #4/20win

General craft beer, valet bike parking and other #hippiethings

What do you think?

Axé; good energy, life force

I first encountered Capoeira back in winter of 2007, as a freshman at college. Professor Luciano led about 20 of us on a tremendously educational trip to Salvador de Bahia in North East Brazil, where we got to immerse ourselves in Bahian culture, food, beats, and even experience Candomblé and Capoeira. Candomblé deserves an entire post on itself, as a fascinating religion practised by the “povo de santo” (people of the saint) most common among people of African descent. We had the chance to witness a full Candomblé ceremony, which was a fascinating experience. Bahia was unforgettable, and Capoeira was definitely the highlight.

Class of LAS 199 in the Bahia coast, 2007

Class of LAS 199 in the Bahia coast, 2007

As procrastination will have it, I only became serious about Capoeira a whole seven years later after I moved to Austin. I got to meet contra-maestre Esquilo serendipitously while standing in line at SXSW, and some time later I found myself part of the Capoeira Luanda community. Capoeira is beautiful; the history, the sounds, and the art of this ancient dance-fight preserved by generations of Capoeiristas. Many argue about it’s true origins, but in an oversimplified nutshell, think about it as the African slaves masking self-defense into a dance to avoid the suspicion of their Portuguese slavemasters. Along with this comes heritage, beats, song-style (call and response) from the African continent. You can take the people out of Africa, but you can never take Africa out of their soul.

Capoeira Luanda Austin! Come check us out.

Capoeira Luanda Austin! Come check us out.

In class today we learnt a new song “Estrela que brilha no céu da Bahia”, which translates to the star that shines in the sky of Bahia. To provide a little more context, many people trace Capoeira back to Salvador de Bahia, the first port of call for African slaves who arrive in Portuguese Brazil to serve their senhors (masters). Today, if you get the chance to visit Bahia, you will notice a lot more dark-skinned Afro-Brazilians than, well, white Brazilians.

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class scribbles

This song though, was so beautiful. In just four stanzas (two lines each) and a chorus, it captures the essence of Capoeira in a single tune. Many Capoeira songs were written by the Capoeiristas who lived during the early days, and they tell stories of Capoeira Masters, the context of slavery, the beautiful beaches (and women) of Bahia and the soul of Brazil. In Estrela que brilha no céu da Bahia, each stanza recounts certain pieces of Capoeira history, paying respect to Maestre Bimba, describing Maestre Pastinha pointing to the stars on his deathbed saying “I will always be by your side like the shining stars in the Bahia sky”, and the most beautiful of all, depicting how the night stars that used to illuminate the farms (where the slaves worked on), will continue to shine and show the path back home to Bahia for all future generations of Capoeiristas.

The history that is encapsulated in Capoeira songs will continue to cradle the dance-fight, and with each new roda played in every part of the world, the art is given a new lease of life.

and just because.

and just because.

Crazy? It’s all about perspectives.

Yesterday’s New York Times article called it “A most dangerous game” – Calcio Storico, a centuries-old competition in Florence with very few rules and the sort of human wreckage generally associated with gladiators. 

A.k.a. THIS:

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The ball is somewhere (else) on the pitch.

The game-play is quite simple. Two teams, one ball. Get the ball to the opponents goal line and you score. The only twist is, there are literally no rules. So from the picture above you see neither a ball nor a goal line, but just members from opposing teams having a jolly good time giving each other a good wallop. This video will give you an idea of the madness of the game.

As I was reading through the NYT article, I got reminded of Buzkashi. I attended a Buzkashi competition in Tajikistan back in March this year, and back then I thought I saw one of the most ridiculous games in my life. Here’s a pictorial recap on my Exposure post. In a nutshell: 400 horsemen, 1 dead goat carcass. The objective is to score points by dragging the carcass to the goal. No rules. This is what the carnage looks like, and yes it resembles a Mongolian battle scene from the 14th century:

Banzai meets Harakiri

Banzai meets Harakiri

To the Florentine Italians – “wow, Buzkashi is just complete madness!!!”

To the Tajik Buzkashi riders – “wow, Calcio Storico is just complete madness!!!”

To us – “these people are all mad.”

Our perspectives are largely shaped by our environment growing up, and go on to eventually define how we look and understand the world around us. From my perspective, both Buzkashi and Calcio Storico are simply priceless traces of history that continues to get preserved by the bold sportsmen over hundreds of years. Yes, it is madness, but heck, they may consider the modern man working 40 years of his life towards that corner-office a very, very insane thing as well.

Have you witnessed Calcio Storico? How was it?

First world problems.

Someone asked me last week, “so what’s one of the biggest differences you see being back in America now?”

This.

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We are bombarded with such a bounty of choices in the first world, and we often forget how blessed we are regarding the decisions we have to make. We do not make decisions about whether we will have water, but what kind of water we will have – tap, bottled, gas, flavored, spring, vitamin… and the list goes on. We do not make decisions about whether we will have food, but what kind of food we will have – Thai, Mexican, Asian-fusion, fast-food, organic, gluten-free… and the list goes on. And… I just came from a place where people do not get sufficient vegetables over the winter as they cannot afford to import them into the country. What is the biggest difference? Abundance, and we have no idea that we are living in this plenitude of stuff. It is healthy to remind ourselves every one in a while how blessed we are for living in the developed world.

I was browsing Facebook last week and this caught my eye, and how true the revelation – It is difficult to truly understand how much abundance we have, and may this be a reminder to all of us!

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100 days later, 5 lessons learnt about life, microfinance and the world

I’ve come to the end of my Kiva Fellowship, and as challenging as it was living in a country like Tajikistan, this priceless life experience has been tremendously humbling. Here are some concluding thoughts from me, as I draw the velvet curtains to this chapter.

1. People are good, and the Media can really upset your view of the world

What we consume via the Media on our TV screens often has a huge influence on our views of the world. When I was first told I would be sent to Tajikistan for my Kiva Fellowship, I too, like many friends and family, had assumed that it would be a dangerous place mostly because it was a country that bordered Afghanistan. The truth is that for many, an initial perception of Tajikistan could be shaped by an initial perception of Afghanistan (or the middle east/central asia in general) which would be sadly shaped by the behemoth called the media.

In 2013, Mehdi Hasan, political editor of the Huffington Post, delivered a well-argued rhetoric during the Oxford debates, supporting Islam as a religion of peace. I spent almost 100% of my waking hours over the past 100 days with Muslim people – Muslim colleagues, friends, neighbors. During my time in Tajikistan, I met some of the nicest, most hospitable and kind-hearted people I have ever come across in my life.  I travelled to the Afghan border, met Afghan people, and experienced genuine kindness from them. Cyclists I have met who journeyed from Europe through Asia also described Iran as the highlight of their trip from being showered with hospitality as if they were family. If I were to tell you that Iranians, Tajiks and Afghans are some of the nicest people on this planet, you have to believe me. I am a strong proponent that one must experience a place for yourself in order to draw your own conclusions – the media is one big boo-boo. Sadly, because of the media, most people of our generation will grow up thinking of a bipolar world where there is peaceful guys, and the Muslim extremists. This rift will only continue to widen.

Pendjikent

2. Wealth is not defined by $$

This is something that must have been repeated countless times, but I am writing this down not only to share with you but also to remind myself of this fact – wealth is not defined by the digits in your bank account. Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia, but from what I have seen, she is also the richest country in the world – her beauty, her history, her people.

Tajiks are extremely rich in their generosity towards others. First a stranger, I would almost immediately attain the “title” of guest after a quick conversation, and proceed to be given the best things they had. Whatever little they had, they would share. If they had nothing to share, they would extend an invitation for me to return the following week so that they could somehow treat me to something. We barely know each other, but the wealth of generosity overflows from their hearts.

I remember approaching a particular rural village – simple, modest, pretty dilapidated. It was a freezing day in early Spring, the garden was still struggling to recover from the bitter winter that had just passed. When I met the Kiva client, she wore the biggest smile on her face, the joys of life beaming from her face. Her family had so little that she had to take a out a loan to purchase school supplies for her four children. She hosted me with a cup of tea, and continued to wear the smile on her face as she explained the difficulties of village life to me. “husbaht!” she would exclaim repeatedly – to be happy with life, that is the most important in all circumstances. Right at that moment, I was reminded about how wealthy she was in her mind and spirit, despite the most modest of living conditions.

Glorious beauty

Glorious beauty

3. There is a certain wonder about ordered chaos in the developing world

For those who have spent time in Third World countries, you will understand what I mean by “ordered chaos”. Let me draw a reference to traffic, something which is not only unique to Tajikistan, but in common across the world from Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic has to be one of the most fascinating things in this country, and how it actually functions is a daily miracle.

A red traffic light means – hey take a quick peek to check and if you do not see oncoming traffic, gas it! White line markers creating 2 lanes on the road means – who cares about lines? let’s squeeze as many vehicles as we can within the available tarmac space! A minibus stop means – if the existing bus stop space is already occupied by a minibus, pull up right beside it and create your own bus stop in the middle of the road! Direction of traffic? What direction of traffic? Drive against traffic if you need to avoid a stretch of congestion! Last but not least, the horn. God bless the inventor of the horn. The cacophony of car horns at Tajik road junctions at rush hour can send you straight to a mental institution. All that being said, the system works, and people get around!

It is quite amazing that a natural form of order develops within the chaos – people expect the pandemonium, become more tolerant (despite the occasional squabbles) with each one another, get better at driving in order to avoid accidents, and learn to make things work, somehow! This is also the magic of the ordered chaos in the developing world – people learn to hustle, adapt and make things work.

Tons of people and traffic in peaceful coexistence

Tons of people and traffic in peaceful coexistence

4. Microfinance helps, but isn’t a silver bullet to alleviate poverty

Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit. Soon after, microfinance steadily took off and is now deeply entrenched in many parts of the developing world. Credit is something that we take for granted in the developed world, but can be life-changing for the rural poor. Credit creates opportunity, when managed properly; and this opportunity is exactly the tool needed to alleviate poverty worldwide. However, despite being such a simple concept, microfinance is not easy to operationalize in the field.

Bringing financial services to rural areas come at a significant cost, which translates into sizeable interest rates for the clients. Sadly, it is a double-edged sword, especially for those who do not know how to manage their finances. Fortunately, many of the Kiva clients I visited in Tajikistan received some form of education from their credit officers, which reduces risk of default due to client negligence. I am also glad that over-indebtedness is something that Kiva consistently tracks, but for some microfinance clients in general, the cycle of debt ends up becoming a plague in their lives. It will take innovative ideas and the persistent efforts of new social-enterprises that weave in auxiliary services in addition to credit, to increase the effectiveness of microfinance. Some of Kiva’s partners including the One Acre Fund and Proximity Designs are doing exactly that, and they help us keep alive the dream of a promising future for microcredit.

Kiva borrower Marhabo and her grandson

Kiva borrower Marhabo and her grandson

5. Life isn’t a race, take time to pause and ponder

We are wired to work, work hard and work fast. In the rhythm of our work-lives, we find ourselves consumed by our work and the ability to work anytime, anywhere. Unfortunately, many of us forget this – Our days are long, but the decades are short. Next year I turn 30, and it seemed like yesterday when I turned 20.

When I made the decision to take four months off work to volunteer as a Kiva Fellow, some people exclaimed, “wow! that is a really long time! how is that going to affect your career?” “You’ve only worked four years, and you already want to take a sabbatical?” Well, I didn’t know how the decision would affect my career. Honestly, I did think that people only took sabbaticals after working for decades. However, you will never know what tomorrow brings, and living life with no regrets is probably the best thing you could do for yourself. I first came to know about Kiva in 2008, and then about the Kiva Fellows program in 2011. For three years the thought of applying for the program lingered on in my mind, and just as there were plenty of reasons to apply, there were always 101 reasons to not do it too. Thinking back, even when I was preparing to leave, there was significant apprehension lurking…

Four months later, here is what I learnt: Taking a meaningful sabbatical is refreshing and teaches you a whole lot about yourself. Not only does it allow you to recharge, it also gives you the opportunity to contribute to causes larger than yourself for an extend period of time. The truth is, “meaningful” or not, try to take time off to do something completely different from your daily routine. Find work through wooofing, go live on a boat, heck go on a tuk-tuk race across India! If you are looking to put your professional skills to good use during your sabbatical, there are many options available! Applying to go abroad with the Kiva Fellows program is one, but I am sure you will be able to find some in your own backyard too. You will never look back years later and regret taking time to pause, breath, think and hopefully touch the lives of others along that short journey.

You will find beauty in the most unexpected places

You will find beauty in the most unexpected places

A tribute to an inspiration

My last post about the freemasonry of the Central Asian road was largely inspired by a gentleman by the name of Taylor. I met Taylor 4 years ago in Singapore. At that time, he had just arrived from Rome. Yes it sounds pretty normal, except he did not arrive by plane. It took him 2 years, overland, through one heck of a hitchhiking journey (except for one leg across Afghanistan where he had to fly due to extreme safety concerns). He had hitchhiked cars, trucks, ice-cream vans, animals, basically anything that moved. When he told me he had done this from Rome to Singapore, I remarked “you are one crazy dude.”

We met at a local CS gathering, and of course he had plenty of stories to share. The most surprising thing I recall him telling me was that he had hitchhiked from the Botanical Gardens to Little India (2 locations in Singapore), and I did not believe him. I said that people in Singapore are too busy and careful to allow random hitchhikers on board their cars. He proved me wrong. Before we bid farewell that evening, Taylor issued me a challenge – “Baby steps my friend, begin by trying to stick your thumb out and hitchhike in your own country!”

The following day I tried to do that outside my apartment, to no avail. I was disappointed, but I guess it was a tiny victory as sticking that thumb out felt a lot more difficult and awkward than I thought it would be…

… 4 years on, I have since hitchhiked in Singapore, Myanmar, Indonesia and most recently Kyrgyzstan.

Today I received a note from a friend, telling me that Taylor had passed away last year. While travelling back home to Canada, he was hit by a truck in Africa. 6 years of his hitchhiking vagabondage across the world came to an abrupt end.

What exactly did we talk about that one random night in May of 2011? I honestly don’t remember much. However, I do recall how he inspired me to do something as simple as sticking my thumb out, and to let the road carry me home.

Through my travels, random encounters such as the one I had with Taylor inspired me in a small way, but grew to have such a large impact of my outlook in life. RIP Taylor!

To Taylor!

To Taylor!

Here’s his letter from 2012 and his couchsurfing profile.