Lighting it up in Peru!

Originally posted on May 30, 2017

I’ve always been more of a “wait until inspiration strikes” kind of writer, but travelling in Peru, was such an amazing trip I just had to write about it! I had several incredible experiences that have inspired me to finally pick up the pen (ahem, keyboard) again. From surfing in Lima and eating ceviche by the beach to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, this was a trip of a lifetime.

My amazing hiking group at Macchu Picchu! Photo Credit: Christina Free

Light Up the World – an amazing NGO!

It was one experience in Peru in particular that had the most significant impact on me, and that was my time volunteering with a Calgary-based NGO called Light Up the World (LUTW). LUTW is an awesome non-profit whose focus is on implementing solar energy projects in communities that don’t have access to electricity (you can learn more about them here). Since 1997, the organization has been bringing clean energy into homes, schools and community buildings to off-grid areas in 54 countries. Over the past few years, their efforts have been focused in Peru which has one of the lowest electrification rates in Latin America, where 4-6 million people in Peru (actual estimates vary) currently live without access to electricity.

A mother and her three children relax in the “town square” of Llancash. Photo Credit: Christina Free

I had never thought much about what it would be like to live completely off the grid with no access to electricity. For most Canadians, ‘getting off the grid’ typically means getting away for a weekend camping trip in the mountains or a stay at a rustic cabin by the lake. It’s seen as a break from everyday life, a chance to escape our cellphones and office computers to get back to nature. But for millions of Peruvians, living off the grid isn’t a vacation – it is their everyday reality. And that reality is one where families may need to resort to using animal dung or wood for cooking. It’s a reality where, to study or do homework, children must use the dim light of a kerosene lamp or a flickering candle.

The kitchen at a school in Llancash used to cook meals for the students. Photo Credit: Christina Free

Not only do these energy sources pose inherent risks such as accidental fires, injuries and respiratory ailments stemming from the inhalation of toxic fumes – fuel sources such as kerosene are a primary source of greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, these inefficient lighting sources are extremely costly and families can spend as much as one third of their monthly income on kerosene or candles! To imagine that people love to complain about high electricity prices on almost a daily basis here in Canada! With a reliable, renewable source of energy such as solar power, this income could be directed to other priorities such as nutrition, business development or education. Access to electricity is an indispensable enabler for reducing poverty, improving health and promoting economic growth, which is why the United Nations made access to affordable and clean energy for all one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2014.

Locally hired technicians work on installing lighting in a school building. Photo Credit: Christina Free

Volunteering with Capital Power

My employer Capital Power Corporation partnered up with LUTW earlier this year as part of the corporation’s community investment program. As part of this initiative, Capital Power provided the funding directed towards the solar systems, equipment and staff at LUTW, while myself and several of my colleagues traveled to Peru to meet up with LUTW to install these solar electricity systems in rural communities in the Andachupa region. Our little group of 8 consisted primarily of office nerds (and one former electrician who was our saving grace!) who, until this trip, had likely never even held a pair of wire strippers in hand. Nonetheless, we arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed in Lima, ready and eager to learn all about small-scale solar systems. We were all motivated to volunteer our time, energy and money for the program primarily because of the social impact that we believed solar projects could have, and wanted to have the chance to witness first-hand how communities could benefit from this kind of work. But as the project went on, it became so much more than just about what we could give to these communities in terms of access to electricity.

The CPC and LUTW team posing in front of an electrical box installed at a health clinic. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

Kicking things off in Lima

Our first couple days in Lima were spent getting to know each other, team building, and completing an intensive crash course on installing off-grid solar systems.  The very first basic circuit we built I short-circuited (by accident I swear!), but by the end of the day we were able to circuit 5 LED light-bulbs in parallel, with switches! My grade 6 science teacher would have been proud, my first year university physics professor probably much less so! Armed with our newfound technical skills (or lack thereof, depending if you are a glass half-full or empty kind of person), we flew to Huaraz and met up with a local LUTW staff and technicians who would help us on the installs and also maintain the systems after we left. We loaded up our trucks full of equipment, then drove another 4 hours to Huallanca, a charming town nestled in a mountain valley at an altitude of nearly 10,500 feet, which served as our home base for the week.

Fallon, Les and Ruth complete their practice circuit on our training day. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

The winding roads to Huallanca

Despite only being around 400 km north from Lima, Huallanca felt like it was oceans away. The views of coastlines dotted with skyscrapers were replaced by mountain vistas, speeding cabs and congested roads were replaced by motor-taxis (reminiscent of the tuk-tuks in Thailand) puttering around on quiet cobblestone streets. Instead of high-end shopping centers, little old ladies sat on doorsteps peddling local fruits, homemade soups and hand-knitted hats. Our group was among the only non-Peruvians visiting the town, and locals often approached us as we wandered the streets, smiling broadly and shaking our hands to welcome us to the community.

A local woman welcomes me to the community. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

The next day, after several people had time to rest from the long day of travel and recover from some mild altitude-related ailments (going from sea level to over 10,000 feet can often induce altitude sickness symptoms including headaches, nausea and fatigue), we were ready to get to work. We drove about 1 hour on some extremely bumpy country roads (which did not help those suffering from nausea much at all!) to a community called the “9th of October”. If Huallanca was oceans away from Lima, then 9th of October was a completely different world! Small homesteads constructed primarily of scrap metal and adobe sparsely dotted lush green hillsides. Although I spotted a few rusty early ‘90s Honda Civics, the preferred mode of transportation seemed to be either horseback or foot, and bleating sheep outnumbered the local residents at least two hundred to one!

A young girl does laundry in front of her home. Photo Credit: Christina Free

Installing Power Systems

There were four main facilities that we were going to install solar systems at over the next several days, including a newly built community center, the school and a health clinic and one additional solar system at another school in nearby Llancash. The first thing I couldn’t help but notice was the utter simplicity of these buildings which were supposed to provide the backbone to the community. Not only did the buildings lack any kind of electrification, but they lacked almost every other amenity and comfort that we in North America would typically expect.  A kitchen was nothing more than an empty room with a clay oven fueled by wood. The schools were shabbily equipped with old chairs and desks reminiscent of a 1900s one room school house at best, or cardboard boxes used as makeshift tables wrapped in paper at worst. The health clinic looked like it could have been the set of a medical horror movie – the maternity ward consisted of a single rusty iron bed, a broken pipe in the bathroom leaked water 24/7, and the medicine cabinet was poorly stocked with mostly empty boxes.  Ironically, some of the buildings did have a few modern appliances here and there – such as old laptop computers, stereos and even a printer! These items were typically either donated or given out through government programs but sat idly by collecting dust because there was no way to power them.

Joanne, Chris and myself working on a solar panel. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

Then the work began. It was quite the challenge to go from wiring simple circuits on a small board to setting up an entire solar system! We did walk-throughs of each facility with the locals (the Mayor of the town for the community center, the school teacher for the school and the nurse at the clinic) and they told us where they would like lights and outlets located and how many lights they wanted on each light switch.  And even after we came up with full circuit designs and laid out wires, we faced all kinds of other challenges with installing the systems. It was an endless struggle to try to get nails to stick in the adobe walls without them crumbling, and a headache to try to screw light fixtures into water damaged ceilings! Accidentally cutting the wrong wire or getting our positive and negative wires mixed up were also frequent mistakes that we had to check (and then double check!). Fortunately, we were lent a helping hand by a young local boy named Emerson who waited for us to arrive each morning to help dig holes, fetch tools from the toolbox and screw in lightbulbs. Although he occasionally was more of a troublemaker than a helper, especially the time when he pretended to cut himself on a box cutter by pouring iodine he found in our first aid kit on his hand!

Les and a young student checking out some selfies. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

The day after we got the first solar system up and running at the community center, townspeople were already showing up at the door with their cellphones in hand eagerly asking if they would be able to charge their devices! After we finished another install at the medical clinic, several families stopped by to excitedly check out the new lights and inquire into whether LUTW would be able to return to install smaller scale solar systems in their own homes. It was so encouraging to see that positive impact on the lives of these rural communities was immediately realized by basic access to electricity – something we in Canada consider one of our most simple amenities. By the last day of our installations, we were regular pros, and set up a full solar system at a school that worked without any troubleshooting on the first try – there were celebratory whoo hoos!  and high-fives all around!

High fives are exchanged after a successful solar system installation. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

Celebrating with the Community

After the four solar system installations were completed, we returned to the last school we worked at in the town Llancash to hang out with the schoolkids for the day. We put on a short skit about how a solar system works (we even had to say our lines in Spanish!), played several games that taught the children basic electrical safety, and showed them how the lights and outlets worked. I’ll never forget the look on the faces of a group of the students huddled at a doorway to one of their classrooms now equipped with lighting, eyes wide with anticipation to check out their new electrical system.

School children in Llancash participating in games to learn about solar power. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

Each child was fundamentally no different than my nephews or younger cousins who live in first world countries – they love to laugh and run around outside, they are eager to learn, and are endlessly curious and inquisitive. This is despite the fact that they have so, so much less – less materially, financially, and educationally. How many of these students would even graduate high school? Would any have the opportunity to receive higher education and secure stable jobs in urban areas? How many would continue to live in the highlands and work the soil? Would any of the girls face the hardship of becoming teenage mothers, as is becoming increasingly common in rural areas of Peru? A few lightbulbs obviously cannot solve all of these potential problems, but even if it can make their future just a little bit brighter, then it is well worth it.

A young boy from the “9th of October” gives me a high five. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart, LUTW for their incredibly hard work and for organizing such an amazing volunteer trip, as well as Capital Power Corporation for believing in and supporting the work that LUTW does in Peru.

The entire LUTW + Capital Power team with the students from Llancash. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

North Victoria – Kicking off 2019 Summer Mountaineering

In July 2016, I took an Intro to Mountaineering Course through Yamnuska Mountain Adventures as I was keen to develop some alpine skills so that I would be able to start climbing taller and more complex mountains. On that trip, I met a handful of awesome women who have since become dear friends and adventure buddies! I made it a personal goal to climb at least one 11,000+ ft mountain in the Canadian Rockies every year, and I’m happy to say that I have far exceed that goal since 2016! My 11,000er tick list has been steadily growing, but more importantly, my confidence and skills in the alpine and backcountry are improving as well. I’m hoping to eventually write a trip report for all my 2019 alpine trips, but I’ll kick things off with a trip report about North Victoria, which was my first mountaineering objective of 2019, which I did with Hannah.

Hannah and I on top of North Victoria! Spoiler Alert: we made it the whole way!

First, I want to talk briefly about why I am writing these trip reports. If you don’t care, feel free to skip on to the next section! I’m not a mountain guide, or a professional climber or skier. I don’t have any wilderness certifications other than basic first aid and CPR and avalanche safety (the bare minimum in my opinion for anyone who participates in alpine activities). Who am I then, a novice mountaineer, to be writing these kinds of trip reports? I came up with three main reasons;

  1. I want to be able to look back on my experiences and adventures in the future and have these memories to keep and share with friends and family and future children. Our minds are notoriously unreliable and recording memories in writing with photos ensures some semblance of accuracy. In this sense, this blog and these trip reports serve as a sort of personal journal, but a cool one with pictures, that I can share with those who are close to me and may be interested in what I’m up to.
  2. Obviously, a lot of readers or people who come across my blog don’t know me, so they won’t care about what I’m up to! For these people, I want to provide a different perspective on mountaineering/scrambling/the backcountry. When reading trip reports for planning my own adventures, I have found that most of these reports are written typically by men, with superhuman fitness levels (they write things like, “although guide books state the approach will take 5-6 hours, it only took us 3!”), and while informative or have clever storytelling, lack the “learners” perspective. I would like to write about my struggles and the lessons learned just as much as I talk about my successes and achievements.
  3. As I referenced in my first post on this blog, I want to work on and improve my writing. Fledgling writers are often given the advice to ‘write what you know”, so this gives me an outlet to practice and improve my skill in this arena. So as a note for those looking for a purely informational trip report – this may not be the place for you, as I tend to be a fan of long form, essay-style writing (this may change in the future).

Ok then, let’s get back on track!

Trip Stats

Round trip time and distance: 1.5 Days (or can be done in a single day push in around 12-16 hours) and 21 km round trip

Elevation Gain and Max Elevation: 2,300 m; 3,388 m

About North Victoria

Mount Victoria is probably the most photographed mountain in Canada, although most people don’t know they are even taking a picture of it! It is, of course, that iconic mountain with the long flat ridge and massive glacier that spans the backdrop behind Lake Louise. The long ridge connects the south summit to the north summit, and only around 1000 meters lies between them. While the south summit is higher, the north summit reaches 11,116 ft, and is a worthy mountaineering objective in its own right.

Approach to Bivvy Site

Almost every trip report describes doing North Victoria in a single day push, starting at the Lake Louise parking lot as early as 2 AM! This would inevitably be a very long 12-18 hour day, and since Hannah and I were wanted to set ourselves up for success given this would be our first alpine objective of the season we opted to do this as a two-day trip instead.

To do this, we had to call the Lake Louise Parks office and request a bivvy permit for the night, which costs around $10 per person. They granted the permit to us easily once we explained we were planning to attempt North Victoria.

We drove up to Lake Louise after finishing up work on Friday July 12 and started hiking to the Plain of Six Glaciers trail up to the teahouse by 6 pm. Upon reaching the teahouse, we took a little break to have some water before starting on the trail towards the lookout point. However, about 100-200m from the teahouse, there is a trail that branches off to the right, beside an obvious boulder field. We took this well-trodden trail, which is deceptively steep but the steady switchbacks got us above the treeline in less than an hour. Above the treeline, there were several cairns that guided us through the scree field and moraine to reach the right-hand side edge of the Victoria Glacier.

Hannah hiking up the switchbacks above the tea house. Mount Lefroy, my first 11000er is in the background.

I’m pretty sure 99% of the reason I even bother mountaineering is for the beautiful bivvy sites! It’s not very often that one has the incredible opportunity to sleep right on the edge of a majestic glacier and watch the setting sun cast its warm golden rays across the valleys below. Hannah and I were also the only people there for the night, and it felt like we were a million miles away from the rest of civilization as we ate our Pad Thai backpackers meal and looked up towards the summit of North Victoria, planning our ascent for the next day.

Hannah and I hanging out at our beautiful bivvy site!

To the Summit!

Sleep evaded me most of the night. Whistling winds and several passing rain showers pit-pattered and rattled our small two-person tent. When I finally felt my body drift into a semi-conscious dream state, my cell-phone alarm blasted me awake at 3:30 AM. In my zombie state I somehow managed to get dressed properly, which is more than I can say for Hannah who forgot to put on one of her gaiters!  Thank goodness, Hannah remembered to pack some caffeine pills (a trick we picked up the year before from a couple guys on our trip to Mount Woolley) which perked us right up as we roped together and started to ascend the lower part of Victoria glacier.

The temperature was surprisingly warm and stayed around 10 degrees Celsius overnight, which meant the snow on the glacier was quite soft and there was no need to use crampons. As we steadily ascended the glacier, the sky started to brighten as dawn arrived, and we were able to see some old tracks in the snow that hadn’t been completely erased by the rain. This was helpful in navigating our way up the glacier, which has many large crevasses that yawn open into a dark abyss if you stray too far to the right or left. We stayed left of a large rock outcropping and continued to the upper part of the glacier which quickly flattened out for easy and quick travelling.

 One large obstacle typically looms between the glacier and beginning one’s ascent up to the ridge between North Victoria and Collier Peak, which is a bergshrund that runs across the length of the glacier. A bergshrund is a crevasse that forms between the moving part of the glacier and stagnant ice or headwall rock on the other side. We were fortunate however, because recent avalanche debris filled in a section of the bergshrund, creating a large and supportive snow bridge that we crossed with ease.  

The next section was much more difficult however. Referred to as “the black band”, we had to scramble up the steep slope on a treacherous mix alternating steep snow sections and wet rock ledges covered in loose rock debris. Going up required a lot of hands-on scrambling but we moved quickly and confidently up to the snow-covered ridge.

The glow of the sunrise illuminates the snowy ridge to the North Victoria Summit. South Victoria is tucked just inside the clouds.

By the time we reached the ridge, the sun was rising above Collier Peak. Earlier I said that my favourite thing about mountaineering was the bivvy site – but reminiscing on this morning, I might have to reevaluate! There is nothing quite like a sunrise high in the alpine – the way the alpenglow enshrouds the mountain peaks with warm shades of blush pinks, violets and rust orange. The way the rays of the sun extend in ribbons of gold across the horizon. The warmth of the sun’s morning glow on your face after trudging up a glacier in the night. The entire world below you illuminates, and the wonders of the earth are finally revealed before you, as far as the eye can see.  

Sunrise! Collier Peak is behind me.

Crossing and ascending the ridge was by far the most scenic part of this trip. Once you start ascending the ridge, there are sections of easy rock scrambling, until you reach a pillar of rock with a 5.3 move on it. This can be bypassed on the right by ascending very steep snow slopes. Given the snow didn’t get a very good overnight freeze, we opted to solo up the 5.3 rock step which felt much, much harder than some 5.8’s I’ve done in sport climbing! It was a good reminder that climbing in heavy soled mountaineering boots, with a pack on your back, on wet cold rock, is not simple, easy or straightforward. Hannah had already climbed up and over the rock step – she has the uncanny ability to let adrenaline take over, and despite admitting to also being terrified, doesn’t freeze up but just marches on forward. I’m the opposite. I found myself temporarily paralyzed halfway up the rock step, my fingers frozen in a death grip on icy rock. I finally managed to step my feet up and pull myself over and on top of the final ledge, breathing a sigh of relief at the top.

Some scrambling along the summit ridge

Looking back on this section – there were a few things we could’ve done to make the rock step less terrifying. Hannah went first, but I was carrying the rope! Rookie mistake. If I had gotten stuck, there would’ve been no way for her to rappel back down. Or, even though the rock step was short, we had carried a rope this whole way, and could’ve easily belayed each other up this section, as there was a permanent bolt halfway up and a rappel station at the top.

We made it through however, and the rest of the ascent was a straightforward walk up snow to the summit. By the time we reached the top shortly after 7:30 AM, the summit was enshrouded in a cloud, so we didn’t get the best views, however the clouds were mostly clear lower down on the ridge so it’s not like we were missing out too much.

Just below the main summit, the clouds quickly started to thin out.

The Descent

As every mountaineer knows, reaching the summit is only half of the journey, and 75% of falls happen during the descent. Fortunately, bringing a rope served us well, since there were several makeshift rappel stations set up along the route. We were able to easily rappel down the 5.3 rock step, as well as the rock scrambling section below to the col.

Hannah rappelling down the 5.3 rock step – but not pictured is the crazy exposure all the way down to the glacier, just to the left!

Descending the “black band” however was significantly worse than ascending it. The snow sections at this point had become sugary and unsupportive. Each step into the snow gave way, and it felt as if we would slide all the way down to the glacier with just one misstep. We opted to scramble down just on rock instead, the first half was painstakingly slow as we were zig-zagging down the band, searching for ledges that had enough room to securely place our feet. About halfway down the black band, we reached another rappel station that we had found during our ascent, and rappelled the rest of the way down to the glacier. Although this probably didn’t save us much time, since setting up the rappel takes a while (we probably need to work on our rope management skills), and we had to descend one at a time, it felt much safer.

Rappelling down the “Black Band” onto the glaicer

Returning to our bivvy once reaching the glacier was straightforward, as we just retraced our steps all the way back to our tent. Upon arriving, we instantly kicked off our boots, and shovelled a bunch of cheese and meat to fill our rumbling bellies. Afterwards, we curled into our warm tent and had a very well-deserved nap before packing up camp and hiking back to the car at Lake Louise; overall, a very successful start to the mountaineering season with a wonderful friend.

Mount Chester Scramble

Trip Stats!

Round trip time and distance: Approximately 5-7 hours and 13 kms

Elevation Gain and Max Elevation: 1,196 m; 3,054 m

If you live in the Calgary or the surrounding area, it’s likely that you’ve hiked or snowshoed to the incredibly popular Chester Lake in Spray Valley Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country. It’s an incredibly popular trail for good reason too – it is relaxing stroll 4.6 km (one-way) and only 300m elevation gain along a well-maintained trail (maintained both in the summer and winter), to reach a small but pristine lake in a sprawling alpine meadow. Chester Lake is a wonderful lake to visit in every season; one can spend a relaxing afternoon fishing for trout or dolly varden in the summer, admiring golden larches in the autumn, or admire snow-covered peaks while cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the winter.  

Chester Lake was my first backcountry ski experience! Pillowy snow and bluebird skies made for a fun day out.

I’ve been to Chester Lake on several different occasions in different seasons, but this time the goal was to scramble up Mount Chester which towers behind the lake at an impressive 3,054 meters. I went out for the day on August 3rd with two of my colleagues who also love the mountains but more importantly, don’t shy away from long and strenuous days in the mountains either. The three of us even endeavored to complete the entire Northover Ridge Trail in a single day – and succeeded (for context, this is a backpacking trip that people usually take 2 or 3 days to complete)! One of my colleague’s friends also decided to tag along for the trip, and I brought along Heidi, my adventure dog! Mount Chester would be her most “difficult” mountain to date, she has had longer days on the trail but not with the level of scrambling, loose rock, and steepness involved with Mount Chester.

Heidi enjoying the wildflowers on the trail up to Chester Lake

We drove to the Chester Lake trailhead parking lot along the Smith Dorian Trail and started hiking up the well-marked trail which follows a logging road for the first two kilometers. After zig-zagging through the trees and few small clearings (which were filled with beautiful alpine wildflowers!) we reached the expansive meadow that provides clear views of Mount Chester with its unique diagonal folds. Shortly before reaching the lakeshore, there is a path that veers to the right and crosses a creek over a small wooden bridge, which lead us straight to the base of the gully that leads up to the saddle. Although many groups opt to go straight up the middle of the gully, Neil, who had done this scramble before, suggested staying on the grassy left-hand slopes above the gully because the scrambling is more interesting and generally it seemed like it would be less of a slog up the black scree.

We ascended a combination of grassy slopes and rocky ledges that angled up and left of the saddle, and this proved to be relatively straightforward, although Heidi got a little nervous trying to navigate a couple steeper ledges. Little did she know; more treacherous ledges and rocky slabs would be up ahead (which she managed to scramble up with more ease and grace than all us human scramblers despite her earlier hesitations).

Coming up the grassy slopes above the main gully

We came out on the large summit face about a quarter of the way up between the saddle and the summit. From here, there were various faint trails and cairns dotting their way up the mountain, but we mostly picked our own path up alternating between rocky ribs, relatively low-angled slab (don’t trust the photos it is much easier than it looks), and little meandering scree paths. The summit face is like a choose your own adventure for scramblers and provides lot of options depending on your comfort level!

At times, the scrambling is pretty hands-on, but never too exposed and lots of fun!

We came to the right-most side of the ridge (it drops off in a near vertical cliff, so don’t venture too far right!!) near the top and followed the easy ridge to the summit. We had virtually no wind, and sunny skies at the top, and had amazing views in every direction! We could see Spray Lakes to the North, Mount Assiniboine to the West, and the Headwall Lakes to the East, amongst dozens of other peaks that I struggled to identify.

Me! On the summit ridge!

After a relaxing lunch and lounge (and photos of course), we picked our way back down the way we came. Although on our descent, we aimed straight towards the saddle, and then took the gully back to Chester Lake (because going down scree is always easier than going up it!).

Lunchtime hangs at the summit

Manny had left a beer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade in a cooler in the back of his vehicle, so we all passed the refreshing drinks around to celebrate another stellar day out in the mountains!

Wanderlust & “Real” Travel; or why you don’t need an airplane ticket to”Find Yourself”

This post was originally published on my old blog in August 2015. I still think it rings true todayand after writing this post I think my own attitude towards travel and why I travel shifted for the better.

Monet’s Waterlilies in France, and inspiration to witness in person.

Wanderlust is all the rage nowadays. I was walking through Chapters the other day and (almost ironically), their ‘back-to-school’ collection features notebooks and coffee mugs brandished with the motto “Wander Often, Wonder Always” or quotes like “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” If I open my Facebook newsfeed, I will likely scroll past no less than three articles with Buzzfeed-esque titles about why you should “drop everything and travel the world”. I would run out of fingers (maybe even toes!) if I tried to count the number of world map or compass tattoos I’ve seen on peoples forearms this year.

Travel isn’t new.  But, what many in the wanderlust community like to refer to as ‘real’ travel (often juxtaposed to vacationing, say at a Palm Springs beach resort sipping on overpriced margaritas) is the latest and greatest trend. ‘Real travel’ is the kind of travel where you leave in hopes of “finding yourself”. A popular EliteDaily article posits that “Travel is being integrated into a culture that values diverting from the beaten path…Traveling means staying in hostels and befriending other travelers, as well as locals…  Traveling means wanting to leave as an altered and more educated person.” The main takeaway being that you leave in order to return as someone different, as someone better.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll continue to refer to this kind of travel as ‘real’ travel (not that the other forms of travel aren’t real, or of lesser value, hence the quotation marks). Nowadays it seems as though every other 20-something-year old is jet setting off to a foreign country with nothing but a backpack and the stars in their eyes, anticipating that somehow, a grand adventure will bestow upon them a newfound appreciation for life and teach them the true meaning of happiness. Oftentimes it will. But other times it won’t.

I am not dissing backpacks! My backpack has served me well!

I potentially sound like I’m criticizing the wanderlust trend. I’m not. Actually, I think promoting a more globally aware traveller is pretty awesome. In fact, I am one of those ‘real’ travellers. Heck, I’m even one of those bloggers! I do think that the way in which travel has become popularized in social media can come across as pretentious, but even though the millions of blog posts about how ‘real’ travel makes you smarter, happier, more confident etc. get old really fast, they do have some truth to them.  I can honestly say that it is in large part because of travelling that I have become more culturally sensitive, am better able to adapt to unexpected situations and challenges, can easily make new friends and have overcome a lot of my shyness.

I could sing the praises of ‘real’ travel all day, but there is a caveat. As magical and enlightening your solo backpacking trip through India very well may be, you can’t expect anything about your life or your happiness or your future to change just because you bought an international airplane ticket. After finishing my graduate studies program, burned out from the past 17-years in formal education, and feeling generally listless about what to do next in life I decided to go to Australia for a month to try to get some distance from everyday life in order to gain some clarity about what to do next in life. I thought that I would come home to Canada and just know what kind of career I wanted to pursue and figure out exactly what I wanted from my relationships.

Long story short is I didn’t. Not to say I didn’t enjoy my time in Australia. It was amazing – I reconnected with my Aussie cousins, learnt how to surf, went kayaking with humpback whales, and met a family of wild koalas. But upon returning home, I found myself reverting back to my baseline level of happiness (which was not very high at the time). I have observed in myself and in those I have encountered both at home and abroad that people place far too much emphasis on external drivers to change our internal attitudes.

Hitting up Bondi Beach for some surfing

There are lots of ‘real’ traveller success stories that you read on Huffington Post where a couple quits their job for a year to explore the world to come home an internet sensation. Or maybe the success story isn’t quite as impressive, a frustrated college student takes a semester off to hike the Patagonia trail and discovers a talent and love of photography and realizes upon returning she should pursue her passion for the visual arts. Awesome! But this isn’t the norm, and this is the kind of false hope I am afraid the wanderlust trend is promoting – that young adults in some sense need travel in order to learn about themselves.

For each person who returns for an international adventure feeling freed from their problems, there are dozens I have encountered who do not. Most of the people I have met during my travels are trying to escape something about their real life. Disheartened students who failed their first-year courses, young adults discouraged with the bureaucracy and mundanity of their first desk job, people who just broke off an engagement to their fiancé. Yet after a month, six-months, even a year, of ‘real’ travel, they are unable to lift the cloak of heaviness off their hearts.

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher writes on precisely this phenomenon.

Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene that you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.

Seneca

You get out of life (and travel) what you put into it. Nothing about your long-term happiness will change because you went skydiving for the first time or went swimming with dolphins. Seneca aptly tells his readers that

To live well, – is found everywhere… The person you are matters more than the place to which you go; for that reason we should not make the mind a bondsman to any one place.

Seneca

Wanderlusters, continue to embark on your grand adventures! But also keep in mind that travel and the pursuit of inner happiness or contentment are not one in the same. They are separate activities, though mutually exclusive, are not interchangeable.

The impressive cliffs at Sagres, the most southwestern point of Europe

Added August 2019:

I want to just leave you with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that I think perfectly captures why the pursuit of happiness (be it through travel or money or other things) is perhaps not the kind of pursuit that will actually bring true purpose or happiness to your life:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some thoughts on writing

I love the art of written word, so much so that I think about writing all the time. At least, I used to… Language Arts (or English) was my favourite school subject, and for most of my adolescence, my dream career was to be a writer. I am constantly trying to put together tales in my mind, grinding over the details of my experiences that I hope to put down in words. But the problem is, I hardly ever actually sit down and write the stories or essays I create in my head. On occasion I jot down my thoughts and feelings on scattered pages in varied notebooks and journals and computer files, but it is an entirely unstructured and convoluted sort of writing.

To actually BE a writer, one needs more than simply a passion for the art. This is true of any endeavour – music, sports, you name it. You need action and discipline. No matter how much I want to be a writer, no matter how much time I spend thinking about the stories I could tell, no matter how many blogposts or books I read to learn more about the art of writing or to serve as some sort of ‘inspiration’, it all means nothing if I don’t actually put pen to paper. And consistently.

I think that both hopeful and seasoned writers alike struggle when it comes to writing consistently (and especially struggle when it comes to writing consistently well). Personally, I tend to write only when the mood hits me – which occurs usually after I have had some kind of emotionally moving experience that I want to reflect upon. Unfortunately, my life is not so interesting that such experiences occur every day. Moreover, the desire to write about these experiences is fleeting, and even if I tell myself that I will write about it later “once I have the time”, I rarely ever do.

The ultimate question of course, is how does one actually get started writing, and then stick to it? For me, there are three major components to the answer to this question: motivation, habit and accountability.

First, in order to write you need to know why you want to write and then what message you want to deliver. George Orwell wrote a wonderful essay on this very topic and I completely agree with his thesis. If you haven’t read it, you can find his essay here.  Find something (or in my case – a number of things) you are passionate about, that inspires you to want to write. It also helps bring focus and purpose to your writing, as many individuals struggle with starting to write simply because they do not know what to write about.

The next task is to turn writing into a habit. This is something I learned from reading Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits. His philosophy is that that it is much more effective to turn something into a habit rather than approaching things as large goals or tasks that need to be accomplished with great effort. So if you want to become a writer, learn to write daily. Start small, just 5 minutes every day, and increase gradually over time.

The last step is to find some way to keep accountable. That is why I am (re)-starting this blog. Although this post may sound like advice to the aspiring writer, it is really advice to and for myself. These are really basic lessons that I know to be true in order to become an effective writer based on research of many successful writers and bloggers –  but have yet to  successfully implement in my own life. With this blog, I am accountable to my audience (no matter how small) to regularly provide content (which will be about whatever I want and am interested in). If you don’t fancy writing a blog, when I was younger, I kept a joint journal with my mother in which we wrote to each other on a regular basis. You could also find a pen pal, or even something as simple as checking off your calendar for each day you write, with some small reward (like going out for ice cream) at the end of each successful week is a useful tool to help keep yourself in check.

Although these three steps have been explained in the context of writing, they can be applied to almost anything you want to improve at in life – fitness, healthy eating, playing an instrument, quitting smoking etc.  But keeping in line with point 2 – start small and just pick one thing at a time! In the meantime, I’ll be re-posting some of my old blog posts, mostly just because I really like them 🙂