Annie Bananie en Europe

A blog about travel, life, and everyday tidbits

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Short travel reflection: Hillwalking in Scotland

Scotland is a walker’s paradise – I ought to know that, now that I’ve lived here for almost three years. Though I can’t say that I fell in love with hiking and hillwalking only after coming to Scotland (it was way back in Tobermory when I started to like hiking), being in a country surrounded by hills and mountains gave me plenty of opportunities to explore the countless trails, woodlands, parks, and natural reserves that it had to offer. Hillwalking has become a weekend hobby, especially during the past year or so. Sometimes I’d wake up at 5am on a Saturday just to catch the earliest train to the bottom of a hill and start walking – and if you know me, waking up early is TORTURE to me. Alas, only the hills have the power to make me WILLINGLY get up this early ON A WEEKEND.

Although I have yet to climb a real mountain, I’ve certainly conquered a fair number of small hills (200-700 m in altitude/ascent) – Conic Hill, Tinto Hill, Deuchary Hill, Callander Crags, East Lomond Hill, to name a few. Unfortunately, without a car, most of the time I am only able to climb hills that are reachable via public transport (and sometimes it takes up to 3 hours one way), and so the choices are rather limited. My list of “hills to climb” continuously grows as I find more and more interesting spots, yet it’ll take me years and years to check them off one by one…if I stay in Scotland AND get a car!

While I do like hillwalking, every hill is still a challenge to overcome. As I walk up the steep and slippery slopes, straining my leg muscles and sweating on every inch of my body, I curse and scream aloud words like “WHY AM I DOING THIS!” Getting to the top is tough work! Every step brings me closer to the destination but also gets heavier and heavier, until I reach the summit and embrace victory – often in very strong winds! And when the vastness and magnificence of the views below strike me, all of the effort (sometimes hours!) is rewarded, and I could say, “It was all worth it.”

A cairn marking the summit of the Broughton Heights circuit, reached on March 11, 2017.

My go-to resource for hillwalking information is, without a doubt, the WalkHighlands web site, without which none of my walks would have been possible. While the instructions are usually straightforward and easy to follow, there were a few instances where I did get lost because of vague descriptions and unmarked/unclear paths. In hindsight, however, I have done some pretty stupid things during my hillwalks that were completely my own responsibility, such as not bringing water, not following clear trails, and underestimating the time it takes to walk a trail. I’ve gotten stuck in thick mud several times (thank God for my super sturdy shoes) and almost injured myself from going down the back of Conic Hill via an extremely rocky and slippery path. It’s a miracle that I made it unscathed! If I do continue to take on hillwalking more seriously, I’m going to have to be much more prepared and informed (especially when I walk alone, which is quite often) if I want to conquer the hills instead of letting them conquer me…

(Feel free to check out my “The hills are alive…” series, where I wrote about various individual walks that I’ve taken within the past few years. Perhaps the “Food & the Hills” photo gallery, which showcases each walk (not necessary hills) accompanied by snacks that I brought along, would also be of interest to you 😉 )


Short travel reflection: Photographing people and streets

Lately I’ve developed a special interest in street photography, especially in photographing people, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do so while I was in Southeast Asia. While chatting with a friend and colleague, who is an aspiring photographer, we shared our experiences and talked about the types of photos we enjoy taking. My friend, who recently began to take photography seriously, said that landscapes and cityscapes attracted him, but when I told him about my recently developed interest in street photography, he couldn’t seem to understand the point of capturing photos of random strangers.

To be fair, I think I should use the term “street photography” cautiously because not every portrait is taken on what you’d call a “street” or even a city. And I’m really mostly referring to ordinary people and their everyday lives, so perhaps “people photography” is more appropriate. Anyway, our conversation provoked me to reflect on why I suddenly became so fascinated by people that I felt the irresistible urge to capture the emotions of all those strangers that I chanced upon, most of the time candidly. True, landscapes and cityscapes have vast amounts of beauty and can inspire unimaginable creativity in photography, and I myself enjoy them immensely, but people intrigue and even captivate me. When the truest and most genuine emotions or one inconspicuous moment of an individual’s life is captured on camera, for me, that is irreplaceable.

Perhaps my favourite photo taken during my first trip to Southeast Asia is that of this man sitting in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, December 2015. I was unsure if he was a worker there or a visitor, but the genuine and content expression on his face, with the hint of a sliver of a cryptic smile, made him so picture-worthy. And one ordinary person can outweigh all extravagant scenery you may see, and make the entire trip worthy. (Click here to see the original photo in colour.)

Why do we care about street photography? When people and their homes, those streets and alleys on which they set foot every day like second nature, become the subjects of interest in a photo, what does that tell us? What does it mean to us, the ones that immortalize these images? Perhaps we see a reflection of ourselves in the expressions and the movements of these strangers whom we will never meet again. And there is a certain beauty behind it that I can’t explain, an invisible connection that reminds me, through their eyes, what it is to live, to be merely human.

Somewhere that was only mine

The word “hometown” elicits complicated feelings in me because my true “hometown” is not a home. “Born in China and grew up in Canada” – that’s what I always tell people when they ask me where I’m “from”. While it is true that I still have extended family in my hometown Guangzhou, the place where I am most comfortable, the place where I feel the most sense of belonging, the one place I truly call home will always be Toronto.

Growing up in a city made me take the familiarity – or what I thought was familiarity – for granted. The same streets, the same buses, the same buildings – nothing ever seemed to change, except for me. It wasn’t until I went home after having spent three and a half years in Europe did I realize for the first time that I was so out of touch with my own home. Familiarity became the most unfamiliar part of my world.

During an 8-month period of idleness and unemployment, I decided to take full advantage of being in Toronto and to become a tourist in my own city, something I had wanted to experiment with for a while. It was then that a whole new Toronto began to unravel. Beyond the impression that Toronto has given the world as a booming metropolis and an urban centre, I ventured out of the heart of the city into its veins, to those little-known places that are so local and so authentic that perhaps only few are aware of them. I observed the city as it thrived, noticing the ever-changing colours of its ephemeral seasons and the sound of footsteps as people scurried through subway stations to and from their workplaces, day by day.

In the midst of it all, I fell in love with Toronto’s greenspace, almost to the point of obsession. I was fascinated to discover that there are parks, hiking trails, conservation areas scattered all around the city, and where were they but tucked behind the concrete highways and avenues? I really had to make an effort to find them, whether I had to drive to a secluded parking lot, take the bus and get off at a seemingly random stop, or just trust my instincts and follow a narrow path on the side of the road leading to an expanse of nature in the middle of nowhere. The sense of adventure was like looking for a treasure in your own basement – it’s got to be there, and the search is the most exciting part!

Pond in the middle of Moccasin Trail Park, Toronto, October 2014

Crothers Woods, David Balfour Park, Wilket Creek – these are just some of the places to consider if you’re looking for the perfect walk in Toronto, away from traffic and noise. And even Torontonians might not know about these places! Among the green areas that I had found, my favourite would have to be Moccasin Trail Park, right next to the Don Valley Parkway, one of the busiest and most important highways in Toronto. Most daily commuters on the DVP would probably have noticed large expanses of green areas on both sides of the highway, but few have ventured away from the main lanes and into the tree-covered parks and gardens. That was exactly what I set out to do.

Autumn was in full swing and it was the perfect time to see the exceptionally colourful foliage that Canada is known for. My walk into the woods of Moccasin Trail Park became a coveted date between my camera and me, a treasured one since it would be one of the last opportunities I had to capture Toronto through the lens before I left again. It brought me a supreme sense of serenity, especially since I was the only one there on that mid-October afternoon. Amidst the slow stroll on my way to the Rainbow Tunnel, I discovered an inconspicuous pond right in the middle of the woods, hidden from sight unless you went slightly off-road. I could still hear the sound of cars passing on the highway because as I had mentioned before, the park was right next to the DVP, but this place was like an urban oasis. The pond itself was a pristine mirror reflecting the beauty of the surrounding nature, one that I was surprised to find in the middle of the city. So calm, so eerily peaceful, so out-of-this world was the atmosphere that I marvelled at every colour and every sign of life. And at that moment, the park, the trails, the very spot where I captured the photo – they somehow became a special place within the city I thought I knew so well, somewhere that was only mine.

Perhaps I only felt this way because in my heart I knew I would leave Toronto again and wanted to cherish every unique secret that I found out about it. And I did leave, only to await coming back to the familiarity that would always welcome me. Perhaps the next time I walk the path of Moccasin Trail Park into my secret place, the leaves would have fallen, the pond would have dried up, and picture-perfect would have become a distant memory. Even though the park will still be there, I don’t expect to be ever able to duplicate the experience or reproduce the photo. And I won’t try, because one image is enough to remind me of the special feelings that only one moment could ever give me.

(I recently discovered a small camera that was released back in October from Light Co. It has the potential to be a good travel camera, combining 16 lenses into one about the size of a smartphone to keep it convenient without losing the quality. Check it out 😉 )

Glasgow – A belated year-end reflection

15 months ago I arrived in Glasgow, a little more than a year ago. One year is a noteworthy milestone because well, we tend to think that a “year” is quite important, though it could always be arbitrarily defined.

I felt like 2015 has been a stark contrast to the previous years in many ways. 2014 was a year of instability. I was back home, unemployed for a while, and at one point worked three part-time/freelance jobs. And in 2015, I seemed to have “settled down” again. None of that mobility scheme during my PhD where I was moving between France and Belgium every few months. It was Glasgow. Scotland. And I was here to stay for three years whether I liked it or not. And thank God I do like Glasgow. To think now that soon I would be halfway into my contract is quite…unfathomable, if not scary at the same time, for lack of a better word to describe my feelings. Where has my time gone?

I began to think a lot more deeply into a lot of things – human relationships, freedom, responsibility, the academic field, the future, God and faith…the list goes on and on. I gained many friends, lost a few, laughed a lot, cried a little. I wrote a lot less because many other things kept me busy. I fell in love with hiking, fell in love with cooking and travel all over again, and well, fell in love.

Have I grown within the past year? Certainly. Did I learn from my past mistakes? I’m not sure. Am I optimistic about the future? I had never been anything but optimistic.

But what about now? I think that though I have found my place in this rainy city that I now call home, I still have a lot to learn and discover. There is a sense that God must have placed me here for ulterior reasons behind those that I’ve already realised, and the joy and anticipation of unravelling the unknown keep me curious and hopeful. As my old friend liked to say, “We’ll see…”

In the end, I may still be by myself, but I’m anything but alone.

Small house-warming party with some lovely lady friends at a new flat in Glasgow, January 2016

Short travel reflection: Not travelling

I love to travel. That is more than obvious. I like to read travel blogs and browse travel photography, both of which inspire me to aim higher and travel further. As a semi-frequent traveller, often I find myself reflecting upon the meaning of travel and asking myself why I travel, and there is no single, straightforward answer. However, in this day and age, people for whom travel isn’t a major part of their lives sometimes face some serious scrutiny, even to the point of judgement, because of their lack of travel experience. And I can’t help but ask the travel community – is it wrong to NOT travel?

I believe that travel is a privilege, not a right. Somehow I landed myself in a position where I can travel relatively more frequently than the average person, and for that I am grateful. Not everyone has the luxury of going where their hearts desire and roaming free in the vast unknown. In fact, not everyone WANTS this “luxury”. There are people who are perfectly fine with their stable everyday lives, living in the comforts of their homes with their families and friends within close reach. And there is nothing wrong with that. Better still, perhaps the familiarity of home is where their hearts lie, so they already have everything they want and need. It stings me when we as travellers belittle or even criticize those who choose not to travel or who simply do not have the resources to do so. Sure, one may encourage others to explore the world because we genuinely wish that they too could experience the thrill of travel. Yes, one may say that travel doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, and that the experiences one gains can never be replaced by staying in one’s home. These are all true, but there are also people who just don’t WANT to travel. And who is to say that those who do are superior to those who don’t?

A saying that is often quoted is “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” I didn’t think much of it when I first read it, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like a direct criticism of people who don’t travel for whatever reason. Somehow our society has ingrained an unreasonable expectation in our minds that without travel, we’re “stuck” on the first page of our lives and we will never truly be complete or “find ourselves”. Of course that would never be a problem for people who roam around the world and live as a free bird, but for those with a 9-5 job in the office and a family to feed? Well good luck finding meaning in your lives…huh? Is that the attitude that we’re projecting towards people who don’t share the same values as ours? When did travel all of a sudden become the golden standard of whether a person is living a worthy life or not?

This issue had been on my mind for a long time and I finally decided to put together this post as a summary of what I think of the cliché that has been molded by the travel community. Yes, I love to travel, but not everyone else has to. It’s just like any other hobby – painting, cooking, yoga, you name it – and might not be suitable for everyone. Frankly I am quite uncomfortable with the notion that travel is the ultimate goal of life and the only way of understanding and experiencing the values of mankind. It is not. And I’m not saying that every traveller projects the same image, but admittedly, some do. As a travel community, let’s appreciate our opportunities and not take our privileges for granted. And let’s get over ourselves.

Good ol’ home sweet home in Toronto, Canada, June 2014

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