10 Days of Vipassana Meditation in Myanmar Part 1: Bootcamp for the Mind

Silhouettes drift silently under the thick jungle canopy, layered shadows blotting out what little light illuminates the cracked cement walkways. I’ve never seen a shadow upon a shadow, or to be accurate I’ve never noticed the difference. It’s the ultimate darkness. A silent apparition of dark faces, lean bodies and focused expressions turning a carpet of grey satin into velvet black. Moving from all corners, striding along paths that wend their way through a maze of lush plants and multi-hued flowers until they merge into a single mass, patiently waiting to remove worn leather sandals and enter the squat meditation hall that stretches the length of the courtyard. My feet carry my forward into the whole, one more cog in a machine cast of iron solitude and steel silence. 

Day 4 of meditation. Day 4 without speaking, gesturing and eye contact. Day 4 separated from women. Day 4 without phones, books and writing. Four entire rotations of the earth without smiles or laughter.

I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world.


Yangon, Myanmar – Dhamma Joti Vipassana Center

Day 1

What the hell am I doing here? The thought runs through my mind for what must be the twentieth time today and it’s not even noon. Hands that are numb of feeling and seem to belong to someone else shovel food into my mouth with metronome precision, metal fork to metal plate to automaton mouth. An act of sustenance instead of satisfaction. I know what I’m doing here. Two of the many reasons are here; Lina somewhere in the building next to me and Jack a few seats beside me, two friends that I had met while in Thailand training in Muay Thai over a month ago. I can’t lie – I doubt I would make it without them. But yet, here we are. Our own islands. Men and women among a sea of faces, stranded and cast away in our own minds.

Last night we had entered this place as friends and left as individuals, wandering the halls of a deafeningly silent world as the loneliest of souls. 

Dhamma Joti Cafeteria, Vipassana Meditation Centre, Myanmar (Burma)
(Photo taken on Day 10, when phones were permitted)

What lay ahead was 4 AM wake ups in pre-dawn darkness, each day consisting of 11 hours of meditation interspersed with a handful of breaks and 19 hours of fasting. 10 days of vowing not to kill the super mosquitoes calling this haven of unresisting victims their home.

The rusted metal gate through which I had passed a night before is barred, as are the windows of my packed 20 bed dorm. I could leave at any point of my own accord. All I would have to do is break my silence and give my reasons to one of the two male teachers, wizened aged men with balding heads and bent backs that embody the ideals of Vipassana. It would be so easy. I could check out Yangon, eat all the Oreo ice cream I could find and go for a beer that is dripping with condensation. I could read and write until my eyes are bloodshot, mental satiation from the two activities most central to my identity. I could talk to any I wished, or at least any who would listen.

I could quit.

Metallic clanging of utensils against plates continue their rhythmic song of steel and sustenance. I leave the cafeteria, slowing my gait as I walk towards the rusted gate. I pause for the briefest of moments before tearing my gaze away towards the red brick steps leading up to my dormitory, plants lining both sides as if it were a path to something promised. I take a step forward.

Dhamma Joti Vipassana Meditation Centre, Myanmar (Burma)
(Photo taken on Day 10, when phones were permitted)


Day 2

It’s the first time I’ve felt happiness since I’ve been here. It feels more like a month. Thunder bellows overhead, dropping its first pellets of rain onto the dimly lit Dhamma Hall sheltering 100 people in silent meditation. My breathing adjusts to the laconic, rhythmic pattering without my knowing consent. I allow it to continue. A sudden wave of thunder, one strike after another rips through the air, the accompanying rain quickly building into a crescendo in the span of a few quickened heartbeats. A cacophony of sounds seem to envelop me and reverberate in the quiet, the maelstrom outside somehow perfecting the hall’s silence.

My instincts beckon for me to open my eyes and rush to the covered veranda surrounding the building to watch the tempest and confirm we’re in the eye of the storm, it’s power focused on the insignificant light blue cement building. Instead I squeeze my eyes shut.

It would not be the Vipassana way.

In fact, the storm raging mere meters away should be far from my mind, with thoughts of air passing through my body the only concern. I can’t resist. I’m 6 hours into 11 hours of daily meditation and my weak, artistic mind needs but a few moments of entertainment.

I compromise, watching it in my head instead. I picture the rain slamming into the corrugated metal roof, chips of red paint flaking at the onslaught. Relentless beads of moisture hammer the cement walkways, widening the existing cracks still further and doing much the same to the red bricks hemming in the sea of green plants and purple flowers. The greenery itself is even more vulnerable, leaves and stems torn off as watery droplets make contact, the ones that miss unleashing their power into the black soil beneath. Individual sounds can be discerned, each resonating differently as the rain slams into a multitude of surfaces. The dark clouds high overhead light up with incandescent power, briefly illuminating it’s self made darkness. The storm is frightening and beautiful. Destructive and life giving. The definition of change captured in one of nature’s most spectacular moments.

I see it all as clearly as if I were standing in the middle of the maelstrom itself. It is truth as literal as any that has ever been witnessed.

A grin spreads across my face. Likely 1 among 99 pillars of impassive stone, resolute in their concentration. I have no idea how much time has passed. My few moments of entertainment could have stretched into an hour for all I know or care. I have the thought that this is what people should do during a storm: shut up and listen. Let the senses we’re so lucky to possess take us away in a flight of fancy guided by nature, the greatest and most experienced entertainer on earth shaping reality and mind alike.

The long expected gong finally rings, dismissing us from our cross legged positions for a brief break. By this time the storm has subsided into lingering droplets that have missed the main show. I step outside, half expecting a world reshaped. Yet, it’s similiar to the one I had left, cleansed and resplendent in its lasting beauty.


Day 3

Sweat rolls down my chest, narrowly missing my already soaked shirt that once began life in a shade of white. I feel the individual beads of moisture as if they were the only sensations available, tickling my stomach before being soaked into the waistband of my Adidas track pants. 

The AC machines that dot the dim room remain silent, the absence of their constant hum from the previous two days made all the more apparent in the sweltering heat that sits in the air, seemingly thick enough to cut with a knife.

I can’t move. Or to be more accurate I shouldn’t move. We’re in the middle of a technique that was just taught to us today, and from what I can tell it’s working, helped no doubt by the discomfort borne of intense heat. My respiration is heavy, coming in short, sharp breaths. Moisture covers my forehead and drips down into my eyes, threatening to sting my eyes if I dare open them. It’s easy to keep them closed. I’m lost in a world where mind and body are in equilibrium, a place where it’s possible to analyze any thought or emotion objectively if concentration is maintained. I’ve had an insight with an issue that has plagued me for years. It seems so clear and obvious now that I’ve distanced myself from the tangled web of emotions that had distorted it.

The clarity of this single session carries into the rest of my day, and it’s only later in the evening I realize that my detailed vision of yesterday’s storm was possible only because of the environment. Mediation and strict silence had allowed me to focus on what I desired: seeing a tempest rage in my mind’s eye. It’s an empowering observation and one that could be useful in the future. I feel leveled up, like a video game boss. And more importantly I feel like I have a strong motive to stay.

(Some of you might be wondering what kind of meditation technique I’m referring to. I’m not qualified to explain, nor am I inclined to. Vipassana is a way of life for some, a tool for many or simply a waste of time for others. This is an account of my experience, but if you believe Vipassana can benefit you then I highly encourage you to do more research on the subject here.)


Day 5

My mind is strengthened. Jokes of being able to levitate aside, I feel changes from just a few days ago. Facebook and Instagram have been forgotten. Constant silence, while not always desired, has focused my thoughts on any subject that comes to mind. I’ve started to realize how much noise surrounds us like a blanket as we stroll through our lives. How it takes away from the moment. How we suppress undesirable emotions with distractions.

Vipassana is becoming a tool that I can use. 

It feels normal to avoid eye contact and smiling. Silence, while not totally comfortable is also not entirely uncomfortable. It feels odd on the few occasions that I hear people speak, like the construction workers chatting away while they build new dorms. Even if they were speaking English instead of Burmese it would still seem alien and out of place in a world built for solitude. Will I able to function as a sociable member of society after 5 more days of this? The thought is fleeting and unimportant in this moment. Jack and Lina are also still here. Their presence is reassuring, but no longer the most compelling reason for not quitting.

The grounds are seeming less like a prison and more like a garden. The rusted front gate is still there, imposing in its challenge. Yet, it opens as the handful of empty mats in the Dhamma Hall can attest to. The 20 bed dorm, full of gaseous Burmese men and a handful of foreigners including Jack and I is no longer the prison of boredom it once was. Lying on my half inch thick mattress that covers a solid wooden base has become a favorite past time and a refuge of a sort, thoughts wandering freely with the light that plays across my white mosquito net. Fasting for 19 hours no longer sends my stomach into unending rumbles of hunger. Instead it’s been replaced with a dull ache that I’m sure would disappear entirely over time. Filthy washrooms that seem to hold more spiders and reptiles than a National Geographic shoot are hardly ideal, yet easily tolerable. As for the mosquitos…well f*ck the mosquitos and the rules protecting their super species. 

Dhamma Joti Male Dorm, Dhamma Joti Vipassana Meditation Centre, Myanmar (Burma)
(Photo taken on Day 10, when phones were permitted)

The design of this place is simple and ingenious. It’s impossible that Dhamma Joti would spend funds on anything unnecessary even if they weren’t a donation based organization. Discomfort breeds self awareness in the same way that lifting weights builds muscles. Mental flexibility is the product of long hours of meditation dissecting the roots of misery; a formidable challenge still, yet now one with a clear purpose.

I’m halfway there. I question whether my sanity will hold up, or even the possibility of me exiting this world as someone that my friends would not recognize. A walking, talking Vipassana billboard that spews forth the principles and precepts at every opportunity, a perpetual cause of rolled eyes and uncomfortable silences. Only the next 5 days will tell.

Stay tuned for ’10 Days of Vipassana Meditation in Myanmar Part 2.’

Mongolia Part 2: In Search of Vast Empty Spaces and Questions

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Mongolia

Khövsgöl Lake:

There’s no reasoning with a storm. I let the rain wash over me, wind whipping pellets of water into my face and scouring the sweat and dirt of the last few days. Bolts of lightning tear the sky asunder and slam into the earth, illuminating the cloudy afternoon and impenetrable sheets of rain for but a heartbeat before rattling the ground with their thunderous voices seconds later. Its sheer power is invigorating and intoxicating. Its audacity in pushing away the relentless, burning gaze of the sun is worthy of veneration.

Yet, it’s a worship that I cannot sustain for long as I step into my ger, alone with my thoughts and the fiery warmth of the wood stove. My travel mates had left incense burning before they left on their watery horse ride around the lake. Did they know that the incense would perfect the background needed to sort my discordant thoughts? Thunder shakes the ger in implacable rage as if the tempest is reminding me that it will not be so easily forgotten, throwing life giving elements of wind and water into the protective felt of my humble abode. I lie in my bed listening to the maelstrom’s language of violence, resting my eyes and letting thoughts flow unimpeded.

I see a storm. I see man. I am the torrential downpour attempting to tear my walls down. The walls are external; necessary for daily function, yet a construct nonetheless. The relentless wind and pounding water is a mind that never turns off, becoming more self aware and raging at the facade that prevents complete honesty with oneself at every second of every day. The booming thunder is a harsh reminding voice of lessons forgotten and old patterns resurfaced. The incandescent bolts themselves are flashes of hope that pierce the darkest despairs.

But a fierce storm can’t burn forever. One would seek perfection in a world that doesn’t exist in a world as varied as ours. Progress is slow and steady, an occasional tempest needed to wash away built up grime and revitalize the land. The rain subsides to a soft patter against the tight skin of my ger, the howl of the wind reduced to a soothing soprano of a lounge room singer, the thunder and lightning no longer thrashing sky, earth and mind.


Sometimes in my more vulnerable moments I reflect on how I’ve come to an exact moment in time and space, like when I’m sitting alone on cafe patio listening to the foreign yet familiar sounds of a weary city heading home and settling in for the night as the sun slides steadily towards the horizon, setting a pink fire to the clouds. It’s a mixed bag of contentment with the present, excitement for tomorrow and oddly, confusion about the past. It’s not like you can take a magnifying glass and look back along every point in your life and identify each moment that brought you to the present, although we certainly try by breaking things down into formative moments. Despite this imperfect ability to stare into the past we ask the questions anyways, like how we ended up where we are surrounded by the people we’re with.

I’m on my last few days in Mongolia and the previous evening I had met an amazing woman and had a stimulating conversation that carried into the early morning, ended only by the need to rest our weary tongues and her need to leave that day. A strange feeling, flushed with contentment yet bereft of time. Coupled in a linguistic dance that was somehow both hypnotizing and illuminating, we moved as if choreographed with spirituality, sciences and matters of the heart setting the beat. Accepting situations for what they are and letting go was a central theme that, ironically, we could not let go of.

And when at the end of the night our logical minds knew that we had reached the point our hearts were unable reconcile, I touched her lips to mine and we set fire to the logic that we had spent so much effort building.

If I had chosen option A, would I be at point B? Where would I be and who would I be speaking to if I hadn’t booked the cheapest one way flight to Mongolia for a random date in July? Did going for haircut earlier that day shift my timeline, allowing paths to cross? One could get lost in the decision trees of ‘what ifs’ that lead to certain points in time, a network of vastly divergent roads that stretch into the distant past that might briefly converge with the roads taken by others despite each centimeter being constructed on a choice taken or not taken.

By this point in the evening the sun has slid almost out of site with only the upper top of the fiery disc peeking over the city buildings. The sky above takes on an indigo hue broken up by a handful of lazy clouds and the night air envelops the city with a slight chill made all the more apparent by the day’s oppressive heat. My thoughts wander back to the last ten days I had spent in Central and Northern Mongolia, in search of vast empty spaces and questions.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake

Sweat rolls off of the tip of my nose despite the early morning breeze. My feet are elevated on a boulder, with my hands spread chest wide on another rock and my body suspended in the open air between, pumping out push ups to the view of yak herds grazing the verdant hills below and red beaks circling the skies high above. 

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake stretches out before me, an unstoppable wall of mist rolling across the dark waters and gers that dot the coast. It’s hard to imagine any other gym in the world comparing to this one.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Mongolia

After four days in Northern Mongolia with my new group of Rachel, Jesus and Jenni, this moment of silence belongs to me alone. Structured thoughts are hammered away in repetitions of pain, diffused in heat and sweat. Problems of the flesh replacing problems of the mind, which are easily solved. Thoughts appear and are lost just as suddenly in ephemeral bursts of effort.

This is one of my favorite places in Mongolia. My place of solitude that I make excuses to visit so that I can stare pensively out at the emerald paradise. Rocky outcroppings dot the hills as if they were castles retreating inwards against the encroaching army of relentless vegetation. Its abundance stands in stark contrast to the scarcity of the Gobi Desert, both equally stunning in their own ways.

I lose track of time, pushing my body through squats and bent over rows using granite rocks that nearly slip from trembling fingers. It’s my first proper workout in over three weeks and I feel like a starving man lost at sea that has drifted into an island run by McDonald’s. I embody the rawness of the elements that surround me on all sides, a feral beast that has joined the ranks of the wild before me. This is my preferred therapy for all its mindless repetitiveness; a way to shut out the world of responsibilities and tasks. Somehow even in the middle of Mongolia those trappings exist for me here, albeit ones of my own design. Instead of typing away at my work computer I’m constantly scribbling down ideas for my website and shooting footage for video clips. It’s self created work that is a therapy unto itself, yet work nonetheless.

I’m finished. Covered in sweat, breathing hard to the serenity and calm surrounding me, waves lapping gently below punctuating the calm and somehow making the silence even more absolute. The wind surrounds me in cushions of the finest silk, breathing new life into my stiff limbs and muscles that seem to have atrophied in just three weeks.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, later that night

It’s the middle of the night when hysterical laughter and cries break the night silence, waking me from my catatonic state. I roll over to try and shut it out, only to doze off for what feels like a few seconds before a piercing scream rings through the air, followed by a cacophony of harsh voices shouting in Mongolian. I pop up to find Rachel and Jesus already getting ready to head outside.

Jenni is missing.

I follow them into the pitch black abyss, our flashlights slicing through the black. We can see the silhouettes of a large group fighting a hundred meters away at the edge of the ger camp, voices pitched and grunts of a physical struggle apparent. I can hear the thumps of fists being thrown in anger and accompanying cries of pain, all punctuated by the single voice of a screeching banshee from the myths of Irish mythology that was responsible for waking us from our slumber. It’s impossible to guess how many people are involved in this fracas that has turned my quiet lakeside paradise into an unexpected and unwelcome hurricane of violence. It would appear that the Mongolian warrior culture is very much alive.

Rachel and Jesus head to the nearby beach to look for our wandering compatriot Jenni, while I opt to take a position outside of the ger to make sure no one gets in and in case Jenni wanders back. I think about finding my guide and good friend Bilgunn, but that would mean wandering through a sea of violence and leaving our ger unattended. Several other ger doors are tentatively opened with most being closed just as quickly. It would appear that those are the smart ones. The night darkness, unfamiliar words of violence and knowledge of being stuck in the middle of nowhere are profoundly unnerving.

Earlier in the morning my feeling of solitude in this vast, empty space felt like it was my best friend and now that same isolation had become my enemy.

This is possibly the first time in Mongolia that I’ve missed home. Yet, a part of me is aware that this could simply be an unrealistic expectation of the tranquility I’ve come to know imprinted on a country that has its own problems, just like anywhere else.

Jesus and Rachel show up with Jenni in tow after fifteen excruciatingly long minutes. We quickly move back into the ger and lock it, adrenaline draining out of us and the wood burning stove burning away any lingering remnants of fear. By this point our attitude towards the incessant shrieking has shifted from alarming to annoying, with our patience withering in step. In his usual charm Jesus jokes that maybe this was all an elaborate show for us tourists. Life imitating art indeed. The police finally arrive an hour later, the yells subsiding and one final piercing scream of defiance shut out by the closing of a police truck door, my quiet paradise returned to the equilibrium nature had intended before human interlopers had ever stepped foot on this land. Silence has never been so sweet.

Somewhere near the Uran Togoo Crater

It’s our second last dinner together and we’ve run the gauntlet of discussion points, from finding fulfillment in our careers to past loves and heartbreak. We move outside with our pink plastic cups filled with unpronounceable Mongolian vodka that has quickly become our drink of choice. The sun is setting a pink fire to the sky in its last breath before moving to the next life, with the vodka setting fire to our souls. An armada of clouds elongate from massive motherships into smaller drop ships, drifting away every few minutes I look up from my cup. I have the mundane realization that sunsets are free and there every day for the taking.

Sunset over Uran TogooThe ambiance creates the perfect environment for me to reflect on my time here. Almost a month has passed and I’ve met a multitude of new faces and exchanged innumerable stories. There are too many people to mention that have touched my heart these past few weeks. Summarizing in a paragraph wouldn’t do them justice, and besides they know who they are if they’re reading this. I’ve made friends, a handful that I will encounter on my travels over the next eight months and the majority I’m likely to never see again.

The discomfort is a familiar face, yet so is the appreciation that I could fit seamlessly into peoples lives, breaking bread and sharing drink, giving trust and accepting it as easily as if it were a currency within our limitless bank account of friendship.

This is the traveller’s way. The trade off is quality and quantity with like minded wanderers for brief, intense periods. They leave a yawning gap once gone, yet it’s one filled with memories of precious shared experiences.

As for Mongolia itself, it has been an active teacher in its limitless boundaries and unmatched beauty. This land belongs to the yaks, goats, eagles, vultures and gazelles that are more commonplace than humanity. Just having to watch for animal waste at every step in the middle of nowhere is proof enough. The elements have reduced me to my base properties and forced a harder, harsher look at my psyche, changing my reality and adjusting my perspective through a series of unending challenges that I would not experience at home.

I’ve come to appreciate the virtues of a simple nomadic life. Even they cannot master nature in this place, but they can adapt to the rigors, using the communal open space of earth and sky to create a paradise built on pillars of rustic simplicity and strong familial values. Vast distances create a warm hospitality and reliance on strangers, with assistance commonly offered without a second thought. Waste is limited and maximum function is gained from finite resources; slaughtering a goat is not a matter taken lightly, yet unlike most communities in the West Mongolians have a use for everything. Ostentation is limited to nationalistic prints dotting ger walls, with beds, kitchen, table, wood burning stove, closets and horse tack all fitting within their abodes. Their austere nature not a sign of poverty or wanting, and is instead a focus on resilience and modesty that they hold up as a badge of honor.

Time will not fundamentally change this for the nomadic family, for in its relentless power over the centuries it has already tried.

Ultimately I know that it’s not a life for me – I’m listening to Spotify as I write this and I intend on catching up on Game of Thrones as soon as I’m done. But as I sit here putting pen to paper and constructing a shell of a story through words that can never perfectly describe my experiences, I’m struck with the realization that at some point in the last few weeks I had stopped thinking of Canada as the final stop on my journey. My feet have become my home, taking me where my mind needs to be the most. There is no “getting back to reality.” This is the existence me and many others have chosen, and if we can figure out a way to do it forever than we will whether or not it’s socially acceptable to the masses. We are nomads in a manner all our own, shunning the comfortable for the exotic, the stable for the uncertain. And it’s with a heavy heart and bittersweet goodbye to Mongolia that I move on to my next adventure, leaving behind perfect sunsets, starry skies, vast empty spaces and true friendships.


Mongolia Part 1: Sunsets, Starry Skies and Friendship in the Gobi Desert

The van lurches downward into the sudden dip at speed throwing me into the seat in front me, then tossing me backwards as it launches out of the ditch, spitting rocks and a cloud of dust that floats through the wide open windows. We have a thirty second respite before the country road and our Mongolian driver, grin plastered on his face, again demonstrates the laws of physics with a gut wrenching plunge into a hurricane of dirt. My tank top has become a second skin melded to my torso through a mixture of sweat, sunscreen and dirt. After a few hours it feels like I’ve been locked into a tanning bed, spun around ten times, told to hold my vomit then pummeled by a pro boxer. Day 3 in Mongolia. Day 3 in the same clothing. Day 3 without running water. Day 3 of baby wipe showers. Day 3 of holes in the ground for toilets. You’d think this would be a slow death with nearly another week to go.

I smile.


Let’s turn this back a few days.

It’s my first morning in Mongolia after 26 hours of travel and a handful of hours of sleep. I’m reaching for a slice of toast in the multi-hued common room of the hostel, questioning my internal clock and my sanity. This is what passes for multi-tasking In my sleep deprived, jet lagged form. I hear a garbled noise. Then I hear it again and realize in my dazed state that a young, darkly bearded Italian guy sitting with a couple of blond smiling Americans and a friendly looking Dutch girl is asking me if I just arrived. I nod, exchange names that are quickly forgotten then reach for my coffee. It’s my first day, so terrible first impressions are permitted. The Americans, a brother and a sister, are chatting about their trip to the Gobi Desert that starts in half an hour. Dormant ears perk up and sleepy eyes dilate as my mind kicks into a higher gear, my mouth moving before my brain can stop it.

“Would you guys mind if I join your group”?

And this how a story starts.

Khongor Sand Dunes

The massive sand dunes loom above the barren plains, casting shadows across our camp and bathing it in an early darkness. The shade is a much needed respite from the blistering sun, but even that isn’t enough as me and Luca, the bearded Italian sit on our beds in the protective ger.

“I do not fight the desert,” he comments as I curse and brush the pervasive sand from my toilet paper roll. “You cannot win.”

He’s right of course, but I don’t let it go. I already have to do my business in a hole in the ground and I’m not using sandy toilet paper when it has to get done.

An hour later our motley group finds itself slogging up the second highest point of the dune mountains. My initial awe is replaced by exhaustion from burning lungs. My quads and calf muscles feel like they’re going to cramp up and rip through my skin. It’s a stair master from the depths of hell, pushing me down a few inches for every foot gained. Martina is ordering us forward and upwards, putting distance between Manuel and I. Luca is taking a break on all fours fifty feet behind us, while our guide Galman and driver Tuwsnin are barely recognizable below in the distance. Quitting crosses my mind briefly before I can push the insane thought out of my head. This is getting done now, not the next time I happen to be on this side of the world. I push on and crest the ridge with Manuel, Martina already taking panoramic photos. I’m breathing heavy, laying across the sand and trying not to suck in too much sand. I finally look up and see the most beautiful scene I’ve encountered during my travels.

Sand dunes stretch into the distance below us, reaching across the land in an uninterrupted sea of golden waves that stretch across the horizon to the distant mountains with the sun slowly working it’s way across azure skies.

Khongor Sand Dunes in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia

I’m suddenly lacking for breath for a reason other than the sad state of my cardio. This is why I’m here. These are the moments that remind me why I quit my secure desk job. Me and Manuel laugh and holler, dancing along the ridge while the wind whips sand into our grinning faces. The sand mountain divides two worlds: one forged of shadows that loom across the arid plains and the other an ever shifting paradise built from the finest gold. Half an hour later we’re all on the summit, our joyous expressions still painted on our faces but exuberance replaced by companionable silence as the sun creeps towards the horizon until it’s a sliver of light in the darkening sky, bidding us farewell to say hello to different people.

The desert always wins, but there’s no loser here today.

Somewhere near Tsagaan Suvraga

Thousands of stars surround us, tiny pinpricks of white painted against an indigo canvas on a night made clear by the lack of ambient light. Manuel, the wiry American with an awkward humor that can make the most impassive stone crack is using an app on his smartphone to identify constellations. The irony isn’t lost on me. His sister Martina, an energetic bundle of energy that never misses the opportunity to make a timely joke is writing out a message in the open air using a red light torch while Luca records it using the time lapse function on his camera. Me and Rianne, the Dutch girl with a warm smile and wisdom beyond her 30 years, follow Manuel as he points out the the Little Dipper.

The celestial bodies awe us into silence, thoughts flowing through us like the solar winds drifting in the darkness of space high above.

We feel insignificant and meaningful, infinitesimal and powerful. Most of all we feel grateful that we’re in the company of a pantheon of gods. The surreal feeling of standing on the plains of Mongolia under the gaze of the universe is overwhelming, yet as I look at the astonished faces of my fellow world nomads I take comfort knowing that I’m not alone in the feeling. 

Somewhere near the Yoliin Am Canyon

I stand on the peak of a lush rolling hill overlooking the ger camp, arms outstretched to caress the gentle wind. Tendrils of lavender float through the air and surround me in an aromatic embrace that only nature can give. I’d probably look pretty weird to anyone looking up at hill. Luckily I’m in the middle of nowhere and a combination of insomnia, wanting to see the sunrise and beer the night before had conspired to get me out of my bed at 5 AM. I left home to leave the incessant, never ending flow of emails and messages behind. I sought remoteness to make me reflect, reset and maybe even forget. It was a mission that should leave me with moments of loneliness, but my motley crew of travellers have been a constant reassuring presence of laughs, smiles and wisdom. Each has their own unique story of where they’ve been, where they’re going and what they left back at home to be here.

As if on cue, Margy exits her ger and starts up the hill. Margy is the heart of our group: a solo travelling, hitchhiking Australian grandma in her 60s that has 4 adult children and has led an incredibly interesting life. She’s full of energy, tastefully lewd jokes and sagely advice when it’s needed most. We spend an hour on that hill, sharing the breeze and details of our personal lives as the sun starts its daily task of clearing away the darkness. Without me saying it, Margy can tell that that I’m here to lose myself more than to find anything in particular. That life back home had become mundane and routine despite a wonderful group of friends and family. I confide in her about my own tragedies: a brother that committed suicide and a good friend that died of brain cancer two months later. She tells me about her own life, from the wondrous to the tragic. We both leave that hill richer, adding to a wealth measured in experiences and strong relationships.


It’s my first day without a member of my crew to keep me company. I’ve had a day of writing and a lunch surrounded by perfectly pleasant, intelligent and interesting travellers. But something is off. It feels like I’m cheating on my old group of friends. It’s silly and absurd, but plausible nonetheless.
Tsagaan Suvraga (White Stupas) in the Gobi Desert, MongoliaThe long string of goodbyes was difficult. First it was Galman, our sociable guide with an easy laugh, driver number 1 Bataar, imposing in presence until you see one of his many smiles that seems to take over his face and driver number 2 Tuwsnin, a diminutive energetic man that served as a perfect contrast his counterpart. Then it was Margy heading to Sri Lanka – what more can I say about that special soul? Luca departed for China a few days later, his timely and canny statements quickly missed. Next was Martina and her brother Manuel off to Russia; their hilarity and sociability a warmness taken too soon. Then it was Rianne heading back home, my kindred spirit that I shared endless hours of conversation with on the road; from living the Law of Attraction to our deepest fears and greatest hopes. No toilets, internet service, power or anyone to save us from a medical emergency…like explosive diarrhea from mare’s milk meant that everyone in the group had seen each other in our most natural of states.

There was one long talk in particular that I had with Rianne on the subject of impermanence and letting go. We talked about how the best thing about travelling is meeting amazing people and the worst thing is saying goodbye. Yet, our lives are so much richer for having met those people in the first place. There’s a beauty in transition. We discussed how people suffer from trying to hold on to things and keep them constant rather than enjoying the experience and being able to let it pass, as if we were holding on to time itself by the tips of our fingers. The fact is that we might never all meet again. As sad as that thought makes me, it brings a smile to my face knowing that I will treasure the moments we shared in the empty spaces of the Gobi, accelerating our friendships through discussions, jokes and common experiences that helped us grow individually and as the family we had become.

Hiroshima Bicycle Ride: Joy in a Forsaken Land

Hiroshima Bicycle Ride

Street lights illuminate the grin on Florian’s bearded face as he takes a gulp from his Asahi beer, one hand on a bicycle that comes close to teetering over into Edward, the lanky Englishman. We’re finishing up our 5th can from our 5th 7-11, the ubiquitous convenience stores serving as a helpful way point for our wanderings. The night is near silent as we wean our way through thoroughfares and alleyways, apparitions materializing underneath street lamps and vanishing a second later. For Hiroshima it’s a Wednesday night. For us travellers what day it is hardly mattered. Before I can suggest another 7-11 pit-stop Edward takes a sudden turn into a side street restaurant.

We’ve been touring the city for 2 hours on a steady diet of adrenaline, laughs and beer. Food is a better idea at this point. 

This was a far cry from my afternoon spent touring the war memorial and the lush green walkways of a city that has had to rebuild from scratch into the archetypal metropolis that now stands in its place. Its perfectly designed streets and bridges makes its previous incarnation all the more apparent to the imaginative mind. Instead of gleaming skyscrapers reflecting the midday sun, I see the charred rubble of wooden and clay houses that lay smoking below a horizon tinged a crimson red against dark gray clouds. Logically I knew it would be this way. Emotionally it was something else.

Even in retrospect I knew I had made the right decision to come.

The prospect of experiencing joy in Hiroshima had seemed an impossibility just a few hours earlier. Yet now, my self induced depression had been completely flipped on its head with the massive swing making the high all the more enjoyable. Bicycle beers weren’t making me and my new friends forget the pain burned into the streets of Hiroshima. This was something different as we cruised through the alleyways and shared companionable silence broken only by the constant hum of our tires on asphalt and the occasional swear and accompanying laughs from narrowly avoided collisions. We were children enjoying two wheeled flight through a jungle of concrete, street lights and restaurant signs, our adult minds appreciating the resolve of a people that could create beauty out of the ashes of nothingness. In our own way we were giving back to Hiroshima, our merriment traded for the soothing touch of the city.

Cycling through those streets was therapy I hadn’t realized I needed. I couldn’t accurately put the my tempest of thoughts into imperfect words. But what I could do was move my feet forward one rotation at a time, the thoughts embraced, permitted to flow and given form in a ride of elation and sorrow.

This post is from an experience in June 2014, prior to me starting Worldly Warrior