Finding Ground Above Clouds

“Drink chhaang, nectar of the Gods. Then eat shutki”.

I didn’t know which one made me more reluctant: the pungent smell of the fermented millet drink travelling to my nostrils, or the sundried little fishes, their round eyes fixed on me morbidly. As I directed their heads towards my mouth, my bitter face anticipated the bad circus about to perform on my taste buds: my look was unmistakable. As I victoriously finished my glass, chasing each sip with a fish, each bite with the ‘wine’, Manik refilled my cup instantly.

“Oh no thanks, Manik,” I implored, battling with a piece of fish scale stuck between my teeth.

“Mountain tradition! Glass always full. Drink!” he insisted, as his chubby cheeks blushed from the consumption of the home brew while passing around the shutki.

Manik is a 5-foot tall Nepali. His petite stature didn’t seem to be of the average Himalayan guide. However his leathered skin, yellowed eyes and chapped lips confirmed a heavy exposure of sun and cold, prop to a mountain life.

Two days earlier, we had booked a three-day trek around Kathmandu, the capital and gateway to tourism in Nepal. Located at the foothills of the Himalayas, Nepal has been an admired destination for trekkers and climbers since the 1950′s, and has been on my list for a long very time. This was the perfect way to start our 2-month backpacking adventure through South Asia.

“I’ll set you up with our best guide”, affirmed the tour agent while finalizing our booking. “He his a very experienced trekker and has great knowledge of the area. You’ll like him for sure.”

Day 1: 16km to Chisapani (2340m)

It was an early morning in November when Manik picked us up from my hostel. The taxi dropped us at the entrance of the Shivapuri National Park, on the northern fringe of the Kathmandu Valley in Sundarijal. Chicken roamed near a set of steep stone steps built into the mountain. Goats followed our ascent, feeding occasionally on woody plants along the trail. We trekked through sprawling forests of pines, oaks, wild cherry and rhododendrons. The forest gave way to rural villages where we caught a glimpse of villagers going about their day.

The scenery enhanced with every step we took. We traversed alpine meadows, hiked through yak pastures and crossed glacial moraines. Soon we reached the clouds, piercing through thick fog and crisp air. When the trail narrowed in the jungle, we observed the prayer flags hanging from the trees, floating through the mountain mist. As we gained elevation and started to hike the mountainside footpath, we feasted on the views plunging into a dramatic landscape of maize fields and rice terraces.

When we arrived in Chisapani, we entered a candlelit teahouse where a group of guides and porters chatted around a table.

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Manik invited us on the rooftop terrace, where he happily served us hot tea from a silver tray.

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The night was cold as winds swirled through the cracks of the stone walls. The teahouse was without electricity, hence dark, cold and drowned in quietness. I curled into a ball, tucked in with wool blankets. Memories filled the emptiness as I drifted into sleep.

Day 2: 15km to Nagarkot (2195m)

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It was 5am when we awoke to a profound silence. It felt like we were in a different world, dazed in a haze of peacefulness. A heavy fog slowly entered the windows like a mountain ghost.

We started our daily trek well rested and fed. However, the slanted trail reminded me of my unshapeness. My legs endeavored with difficulty to succeed.

 “I carry bag,” suggested Manik, his round-shaped head nodding with a persuasive smile.

 “Oh, no, but thanks,” I refused with a frazzled smile.

He insisted: “Me porter before. Carry big bags for weeks, bigger than you, bigger than me”. He expansed his lean body, exaggerating the size of a tourist’s bag. His goofiness amused me. Yet, I resisted his offer, and sweated my decision every step I made.

“How was it to be a porter?” I asked while scrambling across a river.

“Very hard. Family poor. Before porter, me work in corn fields. Mountain life very difficult.”

Manik told me about the time he lived in the city, working as a rickshaw driver. Unluckily, he almost lost a leg in a traffic accident. He returned to the mountains to recover, and then became a porter.

“Me no English,” he pursued, wind ruffling his raven-black hair. “Carry tourist bags for days, weeks, months in mountains. Hard work. People mean sometimes. No shoes. Me not look strong, but very strong.” He flexed his biceps with a giggle, his feet sliding down into his oversized and overused sneakers.

“Porter for 15 years,” he continued. “Work hard. Learn English talking to tourists like you. Guide now. Hope to trek Everest. Good money Everest,” he explained as he pointed to the horizon.

“You have a family?”

“Yes mam,” he affirmed, pride sparkling in his chocolate brown eyes. “Three boys. Me guide now. Now can pay for education. Hope best future for my boys.”

The trek became effortless as I sank into Manik’s life stories. How could he seem so content, healthy in and out, living a life that is so far from what I can possibly relate to? I empathized. I was inspired by his optimism and heartened by his genuine care.

Eight hours and a dozen swollen bug bites later, we reached the second summit of our trek, Nagarkot. My legs were inflamed, my face was red as a beet and the sweat dripped off my forehead endlessly.

“How I’d go for a glass of wine right now!” I exclaimed between two breaths.

“Me find wine for you!”

I looked at Manik trotting down the dirt hill, fading with the dusk.

As the moon rose up and settled in the sky, we gathered around a low table and sat on wooden drums outside a vendor’s hut. With the company of a fellow guide, Manik cracked the re-used water bottle and poured the chhaang in four glasses. Then came the shutki. The family that lived in the hut watched us with curiosity from the inside.

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He asked about our journey. I asked about his dreams. We conversed about life while the moon crossed the starry sky.

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Day 3: 15km to Thamel

We watched the sun rise over the Himalayas, snowcapped Mount Everest slowly piercing through the blushed clouds. As I contemplated the hues of the sky, I thought about Manik, and how he led me to a new way of seeing things. Just like my taste buds, he allowed me to be aware of the things I failed to appreciate. And while tourists snapped photographs of the morning spectacle, I stared in the distance, pondering the why and the how, and gazed upon a life of beauty and misery.
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We returned to the buzzing backpacking town of Thamel, where tourists and locals congested the tight alleys. I soon missed the stillness of the mountains, where my thoughts reflected far and beyond the open space.

I gave Manik my brand new trekking shoes. They perfectly fit his feet. He wrapped a white silk scarf around my neck, a khata, symbolizing compassion and purity.

We parted in different directions. And as I stood amongst the moving crowd, I closed my eyes. Suddenly, I was back in the mountains, walking on the rugged trails through the Himalayan mist, along with Manik.

“You want chhaang?” he’d ask.

I’d smile, indulging in reminiscences and the lessons I’ve gained: “Absolutely, I’d love some chhaang.”

Peacefulness in Chefchaouen and the Rif Mountains

The 5 hour bus ride from Fes to Chefchaouen allowed me to peacefully rest while finding comfort in the sound of music from my iPod. Songs that reminds me of home, of my friends, of a fantastic summer we just spent. Don’t worry, I am not homesick yet, but it is nice to sometimes feel close to home.

10 years ago, I moved solo to the mountains of Whistler. My comfort, my family, the place I always look forward to return after trotting the globe. Home. I couldn’t be there to celebrate this decade however, I managed to travel to the mountains, here in Africa.

Chefchaouen

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Chefchaouen is a peaceful town centrally located in the Rif mountains in northern Morocco. The blue painted walls of the medina offers calmness to all who stroll its alleys. We enjoyed getting lost in the non-hassle pathways, slowly walking through serene alleys. Stalls of colourful clothing, wool products and powdered paintings are found every corners with passive merchants.

Here, goats are a popular purchase for the Eid, considering they live right here in the mountains and are a leaner meat than the sheep.

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I couldn’t stop but admiring the soft contrast of women wearing colourful djellaba against the blue of the walls. Cats make up for great pictures too.

The main square houses a few restaurants, offering dirt cheap dinner option. Bright and colourful rugs for purchase hung on the central bench under the afternoon sun.

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Chefchaouen is known for its wool, its pure mountain water and the popular kif (cannabis), the town’s own perfume that is enjoyed by everyone. Men in back alleys are also spotted drinking mint tea, smoking kif and watching futbol. A persistent smell of goat is also added to the air.

The Rif Mountains

About 350,000 people reside in the province of Chefchaouen. Only 36,000 currently live in the town, while the rest is spread in the mountains. The mountains are divided by 33 rural communities, each housing up to 60 villages inhabiting up to 1,000 people.

Our host at the riad recommended us his childhood friend, Lofti, to guide us through the back mountains. We left in the afternoon for what was expected to be a 2 hour hike.

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As we hiked up, we sought three women cutting the oak for the goats. On the road, a minivan filled, in and out, of farmers and their kids came back from the Monday market in town. We passed beds of purple-pink flowers on rocky surfaces, donkeys feeding on bark, rosters hanging out. An old man on a slim donkey returned from the market. A young man attempted to show off on his motorcycle. The funny part was to watch him run after his hat, once it blew in the air.

We arrived at an open space, at the foothills of a high mountain. Boulders that once rolled down are scattered on the ground.

Our guide was very knowledgeable and the trek was very informative. When we stopped for a break, he introduced us to cactus fruit. I didn’t have the choice then to try and chew the excessive number of seeds that contained this little fruit.

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We arrived at the village of Kalaa.

We sat under a fig tree to enjoy a rewarding cup of mint tea. The scent of kif perfumed the fresh mountain air. Local men played board games on balconies smoking and drinking afternoon tea. Kids returning from school enjoyed their liberty in the surroundings.

On our way back, we walked through small villages. Cats, sheep, donkeys, horses, all were there to greet us with a stare. Kif dried on a roof.

The sun setting behind the mountains on the way back left a soft pink light over the blue city. The view was stunning, the breeze refreshing and the smell of pine trees comforting.

The moon replaced the sun in the sky, lighting us the way the back to the medina. This 2 hour hike ended being a wonderful 6 hour trek. We are exhausted.

Good night Chefchaouen.

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IMG_9196*I highly recommend to hire Lofti. If it is for a tour of the medina, a couple hour hike, or a few day trek in the Rif mountains, I assure you Lofti will make it worth it. He works for himself and charges extremely cheap rate (I ended up giving him twice his offer), so make sure you treat him right. He speaks both French and English. To contact him: guidrural_lofti@yahoo.fr

Wilderness Pleasures

It is a Monday in early May. A late peaceful afternoon. I am sitting in the boat, parked on its trailer in the driveway of my house, laptop on my thighs. My dog is laying on the bow. I watch cars pass by, kids on their bikes, cats tempting the grass. The air is warm and the smell is beautiful. My other dog attempts to chase a bird that keeps stealing her nuggets in her bowl. I sip on a local apple cider and contemplate life. I am inspired by my surroundings and I type. …Hold on, why am I sitting on the boat on a trailer in the driveway? Why not…

 

944889_10152816406295721_1665688489_nAs excited wild campers, we went out camping at the lake for the first time of the year 2 weeks ago. It was a cold, windy, gusty, overcast and rainy late April weekend, but who cares? Certainly not me. I am a passionate traveller always striving for new adventures and this is why I chose the Canadian West Coast as my home. British Columbia has all what it needs to satisfy my spirit when I am not on the road overseas. From the mountains to the ocean, from the forests to the lakes, there is never a dull moment for all summer outdoor enthusiasts: ski the glacier, mountain bike down the gnarliest trail, hike to the peak of a mountain, wakeboard the glacier lakes, fish on the ocean, surf on the island, go camping… It is indeed, one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

 

255669_10152816410760721_1776122002_nWe went out again last weekend, spending 3 days in the wilderness. The sun was hot, the water was a mirror. It was a premature summer weekend offering us a very revitalizing lake to freshen up between our sessions of Vitamin E. The weather was unusual for this time of the year, but much needed and very much enjoyed. The calm water was inviting. I strapped the wakeboard under my feet and carved my turns along the wave. I looked up high and felt the sun on my face. I looked around and admired the views of 9000′ mountain peaks reflecting perfectly on the pristine water. There is no where else I’d rather glide.

 

946332_10152816408080721_560272956_nAnderson Lake is a recreational paradise located 1 hour north of Whistler. As religious campers, we make it our destination weekly, rain or shine. This weekend, our 3rd camping trip, had rain in the forecast. So we brought extra tarps and rain jackets.The spot we regularly attend to is a place we found a few years ago and decided to make our home. The boys built a rock wall and a fireplace, flatted some spots to put the tents, attached anchors for the boats, even created a landscape around to make it cozy. There is an outdoor ”kitchen”, an outdoor ” living room”, and room for 10 ”bedrooms”. Oh and the outdoor ”bathroom” is definitely the best seat in the house! It is a home, far away from home, far away from televisions and cellphones, where one connects to the other, where soul meets nature. If you want to look for adventure, there are a few waterfalls to hike to and enjoy the view. If you feel more like a rural exploration, you can boat to the village nearby and walk to the only pub in town. Seton Portage is a historic rural community located at the north of Anderson Lake. A few orchards, small farms, one pub. Indulge on a homemade poutine, sip on a bevy and play a game of pool or darts. Get some supplies if needed.

 

Of course, like everything else, camping is not an activity that everyone enjoys, however, you need to try it before refusing the offer. Myself, I like to get dirty and wash off in a cold lake, I like to fish for dinner, I like to share stories by a bonfire, I like to fall asleep under the stars, I like to wake up to the chanting of the birds, I like to peacefully admire the mountains reflecting symmetrically on the mirror waters, I like to feel the early sun shying behind the trees, I like to sit there for minutes, for hours, for days… Camping for me is a way to splurge into the moment.

 

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Winter surely departed, leaving behind left over snow on the top of our dear rocky mountains. The sun has arrived and is not shy to shine. Sunny bright days and a glorious forecast to stay, might be the joy for all dreaming about summer glow and a sun-kissed tan. I am looking forward to biking the trails with the dogs, cruising the highway along the mountains window down, wind in the hair, or to go canoeing down a river with friends, but most of all, I am looking forward for the next retreat in the wilderness and escape the hustle and bustle of my little town.

 

If you ever feel stressed, tired or simply out of energy, consider a camping getaway. Connecting with nature will re-boost yourself and revitalize your senses. It might be all you need: a cure found in our beloved nature.

 

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Wrap Up 2012

Comes the end of 2012 and looking back at the days that became weeks, weeks that became months, months that made the year.

As time flies like in the blink of an eye, my goal is to always keep the calendar full and accomplished so each year is a unique chapter with its own flavor, its own story.

It is time to rememorate the highlights of the year passed and cheer one more time for a great life!

Dear 2012:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to live, work and play in the Cayman Islands.

Thank you for challenging me in obtaining my Advanced Open Water Certificate and the change to dive every mornings.

Thank you for making me taste the life of the rich and famous drinking Moët & Chandon aboard luxurious yachts, every Sunday Fundays.

Thank you for the great occasion to light up a cigar in Cuba and sipped many Mojitos while meeting up with my mother for a weekend in Old Havana.

Thank you for this entertaining road trip in Puerto Rico, from East to West Coast, from historic San Juan to surf town of Rincon, to magnificent inland caves and waterfalls.

Thank you for this nice visit at a friend’s in St-Thomas and all this pampering at the Marriott.

Thank you for the amusing exploration of the island of St-John aboard our roofless Jeep.

Thank you for this return home to Whistler and all those weekend on the lake and wild camping.


Thank you for this latin adventure through Central America, starting in Belize diving the Great Blue Hole with a dozen Black Tip sharks.

Thank you for giving me the chance to explore the Maya temples of Tikal in Guatemala.

Thank you for making me fall in love with El Salvador: it’s sun, it’s surf, it’s sea. I might go back and never come back 😉

Thank you for this attempt to surf in the waves of Nicaragua‘s Pacific Coast.

Thank you for this unique home that I love returning to. My 7th heaven, my soft pillow, my paradise in a snowglobe.

What did I learn through this passed year?

Well, I learnt that even if you jump feet first into the new and the unknown, even if you are scared and unsure, at the end you’ll be doing just fine. By simply keeping your head up high with a positive attitude and an enthusiastic approach, you can achieve anything! Take risks, be scared, get out of your comfort zone and go explore the globe! It’s a brilliant and colorful world out there!

I learnt that sometimes to need to let go, sometimes you need to hold on. It’s finding what’s best for you. Never give up on your dreams. Never give up on yourself.  You can do anything. The only thing stopping you is yourself.

I learnt the importance of being surrounded by people that makes you happy, keeps you positive, inspire you. People that are mentally and physically active. People that smile everyday.

Wherever you are, it doesn’t matter what you do. But it is how you do it. Make a list, and make sure you check it. Restore your dreams, plan your projects and accomplish your goals, one at a time. It doesn’t matter how much you do, but as long as you do it. Remember that the only things that you regret are the risks you didn’t take. You only have one life. And it is yours to achieve.

So I thank you 2012 for all the discoveries of places, for the memorable adventures and for the encounters of amazing and inspiring people.

Farewell 2012 and welcome 2013!

Have a great year fellow footlooses!