This Too Shall Pass

That is the phrase I have tattooed on my leg in Hebrew. “Gam zeh ya’avor”.

I got this because a friend had said it to me during the really dark period of my life a couple of years ago. It was such a short phrase said almost as a throw-away attempt to comfort me (nothing brought me much comfort in those days). It stuck and it seared itself into my memory becoming some sort of mantra.

This too shall pass.

This time shall pass. This awful feeling will pass. This horrific time will pass. This journey will pass. This amazing time in South East Asia will pass. It will all pass, good and bad, all of it.

There are so many things to take away from that phrase. It did bring me comfort. In the days where I was hurting so much I wanted the world to burn with me, it comforted me to know that at some point it probably will. In the days after where I went travelling to heal, it reminded me to savour every beautiful, precious moment out there, because it too, undoubtedly will pass.

And now, in my more settled state in London, I find myself still lost, having been lost since I got back. I know what direction I want to go but I’m scared. It will require sacrifice of time, effort and hope. The last one being something I know how scarce and valuable it is. So I don’t dare dream, I don’t dare strive. I try and build towards my dream within the tiny sandbox that I have penned myself in. It’s impossible to build a real castle inside a sandbox.

Today was the first time in a long time where a conversation with the right person ignited my enthusiasm, my passion if you will. It was there all along, it’s never changed or waivered. I just needed the right person to help me unearth it. I don’t belong in a sandbox. And it is scary to try and invest in this. There’s no guarantee it will be a good investment. But time will pass, it doesn’t hang around. You don’t have eternity so get moving now. You’re never going to be as young as you are now so what are you waiting for?

Death, Our Constant Companion

News of the presumed death of Hansjorg Auer, David Lama and Jess Roskelley are making their rounds within the climbing and mountaineering community.

I don’t really know what to say.

It’s hard to grasp when the people you admire, who are three of your community’s and mankind’s best, are taken away by the very venture they excel at.

It’s humbling in a way. No matter how good you are at your trade, if nature decides it, then an avalanche will lay waste to you. It doesn’t give a fuck about how expert you are. And yet we play at nature’s feet. Because we’re compelled to, because we’re not living if we don’t. Like an analogy I read once, I believe from Alex Honnold – Alone on the Wall, as a climber to not live the life you are drawn to, is like to have a sports car and only drive it to the end of the road at speed limit and back.

But damn.

I had the fortune of being at an event a couple of years ago where Hansjorg Auer premiered his film “No Turning Back” and had a Q&A session with the host. He had such a raw energy about him, it’s hard to connect that with the fact that he, along with brilliant David Lama and Jess Roskelley, are gone. The energy dissipated. What hits home even harder is that David Lama is the same age as me. All of them brilliant and in their prime, just gone.

Death eventually comes for all of us. Events like this serves as a heavy reminder and give us pause to reflect, contemplate and mourn. But it should never deter us from our dreams for adventure. To show respect to the dead, to ourselves, we need to carry on with their memories and continue living the life we must. The life that we couldn’t be living without.

Rest in peace guys, you may be gone but you won’t be forgotten.

Back into the Fray

A week back into working in the urban jungle that is London. Things feel different – I guess largely because I’m different.

One difficult thing that I’m still coming to grasp is my hunger to do everything. When I’m out backpacking in the beautiful landscapes of SE Asia, I miss the mammoth menu of things to do, see and eat in London and cities. When I’m here, I miss the wilderness, the anything-goes attitudes and the pushing limits and horizons. I want it all; it’s incredibly hard to reconcile. I think it’s the main reason that I’ve never been able to specialise and focus on one thing. Because to focus on one thing means sacrificing the breadth of your experiences. This has always never been an appealing trade-off for me historically.

Being back has led to some interesting questions being asked internally. Do I want a focus? Is that why life feels lacking? If so, what is it? What is important to me? Money – I don’t need much. Success – completely subjective. I’m good at what I do, but reaching the top doesn’t appeal to me – it’s too egotistic to me. Family – don’t really want for one. Relationship – I’ve never met a person who can quite keep up. So what should I seek? When I think through all that I’ve done, I want to create a life where I feel the most alive, at peace – that makes me the most happy.

I don’t subscribe to the mass-prescribed modern life template. Be educated, go to uni, get a good job, find a partner, settle down, buy a house, have a family – in varying order but nevertheless the same milestones. Once you blow the template out of the water, then what? You get to decide what you want to do. 80 years of life where everything you choose to do is accountable to your decisions. And that’s terrifying – too much for some people. I still have trouble grappling with it but it makes the most sense to me.

Question everything. Why do you do the things you do?

Blink of an Eye

I can’t believe it’s September already. Time really does fly with the blink of an eye.

The last month has been a little of a whirlwind, with a quick exit out of Vietnam to see family and then back to Vietnam and starting three weeks of travel. Back to it!

We first made our way towards the South of Vietnam, I’m glad I made time to finally do so since I didn’t really get to whilst I was working at Asia Outdoors. We did an overnight train to Hue, biked from there to Hoi An, flew from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh city and then bussed from HCM to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The bike route from Hue to Hoi An was definitely one of the highlights with some really cheap options to get there. 450,000 VND (~£15) for bike hire for the one way journey and they transfer any big bags you don’t want to take to your hotel for you. For a day of riding around on a 135cc automatic scooter, it was totally worth it!

Hoi An was definitely very beautiful with all its signature lanterns glowing at night, painting the old streets in a gorgeous soft lighting. It is very touristy though teaming with visitors both western and Asian (there were a lot of Koreans when we were there).

In HCM we took an evening to have dinner and then go to the cinema. It’s the first time I’ve been since travelling and it was really good fun to do a coupley thing that was more familiar territory with both our backgrounds. Mission Possible was an excellent choice for it.

Phnom Penh was largely spent inside as I was ill (how I managed to contract a cold in ~30 degree heat, I’m not sure). We did manage to visit the genocide museum (S21) which was pretty harrowing, I had no idea Cambodia had such a violent, heartbreaking recent history.

Generally the city seemed like a pretty uninspiring sprawl. It definitely wasn’t very pedestrian friendly, particularly around where we stayed. I also nearly got robbed by some guys on a motorbike which was fun. Otherwise, Cambodians seem really nice and friendly.

We are currently in Siem Reap. Yes, we will be going to see the Angkor National Park tomorrow but I can’t believe it’s $37 to get in just for one day. I do really want to go see Beng Mealea too but we won’t have time.

One of the things that’s changed this time travelling is that I’m not longer solely travelling, I am also remote working. It’s bizarre, and it’s definitely taking getting used to but it’s an interesting new lifestyle. I certainly don’t earn enough to sustain a life in London but if I were to stay in SE Asia, it would provide a good amount of income. It is tiring though moving around, travelling and working as well. It’s a lot to juggle to then make sure you make quality time for your boyfriend which is the reason you went on this three week trip in the first place. You gotta do what you gotta do. Hopefully I can get this set up and rolling so that it can sustain me in future.

The Corner of Lost Souls

I’m sitting on the bus on my way off Cat Ba and out of Vietnam after 90 days in this country. It feels so weird. It’s the longest I’ve spent continuously in any country after UK and HK. I certainly would’ve never envisaged that I would be doing that here and certainly not that long in a small town on a small island. I remember arriving here in May (which feels like a lifetime ago) and thinking “shit, I’m going to spend three months here”?. It’s funny how quickly that seems to have passed.

Usually Asia Outdoors only give out six month contracts, but as luck would have it, through disorganisation of outgoing and incoming hiring people and their needing staff quickly I managed to negotiate a three month contract. I don’t regret my decision to leave after three and I’m glad I didn’t impulsively extend. Some people have been here over a year and I don’t quite understand how. Being here during the progression into rainy season probably doesn’t help much as it has made it such an effort to go climbing on days off. I can’t remember the last time I went to Butterfly Valley on my personal time. Climbing out in the bay is stunning but also expensive as you need to hire boats for the day. And going out DWS with the company on days off is something I didn’t enjoy too much. The fear of falling and jumping into water from high up severely hampers my enjoyment of the activity. So for me, my time here has felt like a time of being lost and trying to experience more, whilst lacking any real direction. And perhaps that’s where I come from so I’m projecting but I see a lot of people in the same boat as me – particularly those who have been here for over six months. The Corner of Lost Souls as I called it in a conversation with one of my past colleagues.

It’s been an interesting social experiment to see how people react to me. The locals and even westerners would often think I was local or could speak the language. Even this morning on my last office shift I had four people try to speak to me in Vietnamese and one westerner ask me if I can ask the Vietnamese staff of the neighbouring tea stand for some ice. It’s often quite amusing, particularly the embarrassment of the westerners sometimes. There would’ve been a time where it particularly bothered me – a time when my sense of identity was more fragile. Nowadays, I can shrug it off pretty easily. Of course I don’t expect you to know that I’m not local, I am Chinese after all.

I have missed long travel times alone like this when I usually default to escaping into my thoughts. There has definitely been a lot of distractions in Cat Ba. But also, the idea of sitting in a room by myself never seemed that appealing and neither did I find anywhere external to the hotel that I felt comfortable enough to relax.

The butterflies here are exquisite. That’s been a pleasant surprise that I’ve really enjoyed. I remember there was a particular week period around the end of May when Butterfly Valley really lived up to its name. I got distracted regularly whilst belaying by the variety and how many butterflies there were. Even now, there are still some beautiful and vibrant ones around.

Cynical Optimism

I’m in a rare pensive mood today which I haven’t been in for a long time. Rainy days will do that to you. Although, my brain is pretty unbridled today so apologies for the lack of flow in this entry.

It’s been almost a year since I embarked on a one year sabbatical. An unintentional one year sabbatical, mind you but I think it was for the best. There was lots of processing and healing that needed to be done and a lot of personal growth to be had in the time I’ve been away. If I had gone back in May like I had planned, it would’ve been premature and possibly detrimental as I was not ready and was on track to jump back into my old life.

On some levels, I miss it. London was and will always be a big part of who I am but like so many big influences that occur, it kind of happened as opposed to being purposefully conceived as an aim. Most of my friends live there for one, so it will always hold a big draw. Particularly because I am the kind of person who sees close friends as family. But family are not so easily lost over distance and having not seen my closest friends since January, I am still in constant contact with them which is testament to the strength of our friendships. I will miss the vibrance of the London recreational scene. There’s so much to do and it is a beautiful city – all you have to do is look up to admire the beautiful old and new architecture all around. But having gained some perspective from being away from it, I can now see I was naturally burning out from the lifestyle. The pace of life and the consistency in which there are things going on, leaves little time for a person to fully catch their breathe. There are almost too many distractions. As a wise man once said:

Creativity is the residue of time wasted.

– Albert Einstein

The modern pace of city life is certainly one that does not allow for much contemplation which in turn, in my opinion, is the gateway to ideas and inspiration.

What have I learnt over my last year of travelling over Europe and SE Asia? On the face of it, I’ve had some amazing experiences like diving, trekking and seeing in person incredible natural landscapes. In essence, the main thing that matter the most is learning that humanity is the same anywhere you go. Sure, the culture and language is different. There are differences in the ways things are regarded like being outdoors for instance, where it’s a much more common thing for someone to go for a hike or go on holiday to spend in the sun, here in Asia you would be hard pressed to find local people who are on holiday out in the sun without being covered up and holding umbrellas. There are also differences in terms of politeness, generally the Vietnamese and Chinese are much more brash and less concerned with queuing and being elbowed out of the way. There are always going to be such differences. But everywhere I’ve been to so far, close knit families prevail. People are just looking to survive and live their lives. Sometimes that’s in peculiar ways (to me), like the floating villages in Lan Ha Bay. 4,000 people live on these floating homes – there are even floating restaurants and grocery stores. Some of these people will never step a foot on solid land and yet most of these people also cannot swim. It’s bizarre in that sense but they have adapted to surviving by fish farming and shellfish collecting to feed their families and to continue their existences. Their aim is something I’m sure anyone can fundamentally relate to. I just have the luxury to be able to choose how it is I want to adapt.

I suppose the reason I’m feeling as introspective as I am today is partly because it’s time to move on. I’ve enjoyed and learnt so much from my time travelling SE Asia and working here in Cat Ba but it is time to move on with my life. I’m done running and healing. I am grateful for all the time I’ve allowed myself to have and for every spectacular human being I’ve met and travelled with on this journey. It’s helped me get to where I am right now and I’m excited for the future. There are so many unknowns that it’s completely uncharted territory for me. But I head on forward with a cynical optimism (the fault of my British upbringing) that no matter how things go, there will always be a way to go. One step at a time, taking deep breathes in and out.

Journeys of the Heart

I’ve recently entered into an incredibly intense and mind-blowingly amazing relationship with a guy I met here and it’s thrown up a lot of uncomfortable feelings I have experienced and dealt with in the past. Largely the main enemy is insecurity, which I’ve learnt long ago is rooted within oneself most of the time and not in the other person. When you discover something so rare and precious, then you stand to lose so much and that fear is what drives the insecurity and anxieties. Or at least it is in this case. I’ve successfully managed to deal with it in previous relationships, partly because I cared less for the others and stood to lose less. But this, this has really taken me for a turn.

As if planned, I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind last night which is one of my favourite movie. I love it because of its’ storytelling and the complexities within the plot and also the use of a sci-fi-esque invention within the movie to explore relationships. One of my favourite parts is at the very end, after Joel and Clementine discover all the messy events that have led them to be where they were because they had reached the breaking point in their relationship previously. Despite this they are still drawn to each other but knowing there is all likelihood that they will end up down the same path of confrontations and arguments. Joel simply looks at Clementine and goes “Okay.” with so much acceptance and resignation because he thinks it’s worth trying.

I also saw something a friend posted on my Facebook feed today. “life is tough, but so are you”. And I know I’ll be fine no matter what, I’ve been through enough to know that. But life sometimes makes you build walls in order to protect yourself and to open up to let that someone on is terrifying. To then run the risk of losing them is even more so. But like Joel said, okay.

Halfway Through

If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.

– Lewis Carroll

I’m about halfway through my time here on Cat Ba and it has been a quite a ride so far. The work continues to throw up interesting challenges daily and there is continual staffing shifts which changes the dynamic of the group frequently. As July approaches I become more and more acutely aware that a decision on what I want to do after will have to be made soon. A friend/colleague introduced me to the quote above a couple of days ago which really stuck with me. There’s been so much anxiety over picking THE thing I need to be doing next but there’s no grounding for it. I have no aim and no real preference for what I want to do so there’s no need for the anxiety.

Cat Ba is an interesting mix of environments. The town itself is a horrible over packed seaside town which the Vietnamese come to invade during June and July. But going out into Lan Ha Bay for work provides some sort reprieve from the hustle and bustle that is this neon town. It’s a funny lifestyle living here as an adventure guide. Going out onto the bay for work and escaping deep into the island on days off to climb. We work and play as a unit which makes it all very intense, particularly if you strike up a romantic relationship with someone or have a disagreement with another.

I love driving out of Cat Ba Town; I even own a scooter now. My first moving vehicle! Heading out from the busy town onto quieter roads always feels a bit cathartic, especially when you’re turning up the gas so that you pelt along at some speeds.

I’m interested to see what the next half of my time here will bring. If it brings anymore clarity to my future plans, that would be most welcome.

My Temporary Abode

So after being on the road consistently since January, it got to the point where I felt quite tired of moving around. So I’m now on Cat Ba island in Vietnam for a couple of months working here as an Adventure Guide for Asia Outdoors. It’s pretty cool. I would have never imagined myself working outdoors like this in a foreign country. The bay is beautiful although it does make me really sad how much rubbish is floating around. The locals litter a lot as do the big tourist cruise ships which is heartbreaking. The education in Asia really needs to be improved to make the locals aware of how delicate the environment is.

The work is cool, I work with a really good bunch of people who all love the outdoors and are really good fun. The days are long and tiring, it’s proper honest work though which does give you a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. Cat Ba seemed like a good place as there’s plenty of climbing here to go to do on days off. So far, I haven’t quite had as many sport climbing days as I’d like but I’m hoping that will change.

Deep water solo is also an awesome activity that is on offer here that’s perfect now that we’re heading into the hot and humid summer.

This whole travel adventure has thrown up a lot of questions about what I want from life. It’s caused me a fair amount of stress from not having even a rough plan of what I want to do. But one epiphany I had from climbing the other day is that life is like climbing. As you move through the different foot and hand holds, you’ll come across different options but you won’t know until you get there. It was a nice summary of where I was at. It doesn’t matter if I don’t end up living the cookie cutter lifestyle I always thought I had to live. I don’t want that and it’s in accepting that there are other ways to live that will give me the freedom I’m seeking.

Indonesia: Water, green and wilderness

That will be my memory of Indonesia. In the not-quite three weeks we were there, we ended up splitting the time between Nusa Lembongan, Labuan Bajo/Komodo and Bali. What we saw was beautiful.

Despite being quite touristy in some places, there are still lots of wilderness around, particularly underwater. The diving here is phenomenal and definitely some of the best that I’ve experienced. The variety and size of coral and fish in Komodo was astounding. It was easy to feel dwarfed by the monstrously sized marine creatures swimming in those waters. We were lucky enough to come across a lot of mantas at a dive site called Mawan. These mantas were easily 5m wide and much bigger than the ones we saw at Nusa Penida. They are amazing, just so graceful and calm as they swim playfully past you.

I was a bit sceptical about spending too much time on Bali knowing how popular with tourists it is. We spent a couple of days in Amed, which had a great relaxed pace. It was fun to hire scooters and zip around seeing the beautiful coastal scenery.

Here we also got to see an example of a freediver, Joan Capdevila, in action. Snorkeling at the Japanese Wreck, he manages to dive down and stay to inspect the wreck in detail for three, four minutes at a time with ease. It was mind boggling enough to see that knowing he is managing it all with one single breathe. To then extend that thought to trying to comprehend his deep dives to the depths of 70/80m is something my brain instinctively shuts down. It’s amazing what human beings can achieve and it’s another stark reminder that our biggest limitations are the mental walls which we box ourselves into. I doubt that freediving is something that I will be pursuing obsessively any time soon, but the learnings are just as applicable to my love of climbing.

After Amed, I spent our last few days in Canggu. Going from sleepy Amed to Canggu was a bit overwhelming initially. The traffic for one, is much more intense. But Canggu is pretty cool. Kind of like Hipsters on Holiday vibes. Surfers and skaters revel here as do digital nomads. The main streets are decorated with shiny shops, shiny cafes and shiny signs. As much I liked the pseudo westernised environment to soothe my cravings for home comforts, the place still has too much of a sheen for me to feel completely comfortable. It was also nice to see the rice paddies that still existed just off the main streets, but also sobering to consider that they will probably no longer exist in a decade or so to make way for more perfectly curated shops and cafes.

Indonesia has been an interesting experience. Personally, it threw up a lot of questions about what I want to do with my life, particularly after I call it quits with travelling (the number one reason why anyone travels right?). But the country is beautiful, and I would love to revisit to explore more.