Wednesday, August 21, 2019


"Úristen!", exclaims Tintin, the globetrotting Belgian adventurer and journalist. "Good God!" in a rare, Hungarian language edition of Hergé's, "The Crab With the Golden Claws". (For some reason, the official English-language translation uses the unlikely anodyne phrase, "What the ...", instead of the literal, more spontaneous and evocative expression I prefer.)

Why start an article on my travels to Hungary with a panel from a volume of "The Adventures of Tintin"? This is all a roundabout way to introduce a bit of clarification as to the title of my post. Tintin may be just as perplexed as are others, as to why the country of Hungary is called by Hungarians themselves, "Magyarország" - literally the Land of the Magyars - and not something like, Hungary? "Hungary" perhaps brings to mind the distant and maligned, warring Mongolian tribal people, The Huns. These horrifying, some have even written, "child-devouring", invading mounted hordes may not understandably rest well with contemporary Hungarian sensibilities.  Falsely equating the Hungarian people with the Huns has a long-standing history. Current scholarly understanding of the origins of these enigmatic people however indicates that the two have different beginnings. The predecessors of contemporary Hungarian People - The Magyars, while indeed also an ancient tribal people, hail  from the steppes of the Ural Mountains in present-day Russia. What we don't know is if the early Hungarian tribal alliances galloped on their horses from the western or eastern slopes of the Urals. Were the original Hungarian clans therefore European or Asian people? I like to imagine that these wild, adventurous nomads intermingled and hence my ancestors are in fact Eurasians.

And so, I am back in wondrous Magyarország.

In Budapest, I went for a swim amidst the sweltering 42 degree heat. As with many things in Hungary, this dip in the pool was far from ordinary. When I think of "swimming pool", this ornate, grand, cathedral-like ceiling isn't what customarily comes to mind. But here it is, the splendid dome at the entrance of the Széchenyi Baths. Its mix of twenty-one - yes, that's right, 21 - indoor and outdoor thermal pools would make Neptune himself smile with glee!

Victor Vasarely's eye-popping op art pieces are beautifully displayed in the recently renovated, Vasarely Museum in the area of Budapest known as Óbuda.

The Parliament Building on the banks of the Danube is perhaps the most famous of Budapest's many picturesque scenes. Because of its immense popularity, the iconic architectural masterwork can be difficult to visit without an advance purchased entry ticket. I was one of the many who was only able to enjoy the dramatic building from the lovely nearby embankment. 

I did not however have any problem checking out the replica in the pretty town of Kesthely, a three hour train ride away at the western end of Lake Balaton. Thing is - this rendition of the Parliament is made of four and a half million snail shells! It took 14 years to complete this fascinatingly odd and obsessive project. The actual building took 17.

My graffiti-covered hotel was a short two blocks away from the elegant Andrássy Út, the very grand UNESCO World Heritage site honored, stately Budapest boulevard. This in fact is part of the very charm of Budapest. Beautifully restored turn of the century architectural gems are often juxtaposed with neglected and bullet-hole ridden derelict buildings - a testament to the long and oppressive Soviet occupation. As many of these aging structures have 'For Sale' signs affixed to them, it is only a short time before new boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants will again emerge from the rubble.

Europe's 2019 summer heatwave was oppressive. Hungary did not escape the smoldering effects of the global climate crisis. Everyone seemed to understand that our collective behaviour was responsible for the unprecedented, dangerous temperatures. While dizzyingly hot, this photo was not taken in Portugal. I stumbled across this pleasing coral pink stucco home with the olive green shutters in Pomáz, a small sleepy town thirty minutes out of Budapest on the HÉV suburban train.

When it comes to train travel in Hungary, unquestionably the most charming way to go is with the "Gyermekvasút" - The Children's Railway. It is a delightful, thoroughly enjoyable way to experience the forested hills of Budapest, on the Buda side of the Danube. The journey is an 11.7018 kilometer ride - the longest children's railway in the world. Precisely measured and  certified by Guinness World Records! Even getting to and fro the train station is big fun.  A short walk from the Budapest Metro, you can take a 15 minute ride on the cogwheel railway built in 1874 to where you board the Children's Railway. On the way back, I recommend getting off at "János Hegy" (John Mountain - the highest elevation of your excursion at 527m). From there it's a scenic ride back down to the City by chairlift.

Occasionally travel gives the wayfarer a special and unexpected gift. Literally, serendipity. As I disembarked from the train, I had the unexpected good fortune of meeting-up with someone who had stood next to my father and I in a fading photograph taken decades ago.  "And who is this pretty girl?" I asked the woman greeting me at the train station. She looked at the photograph, and in one of those priceless moments said, "It's me!" And so began a fascinating exploration of long forgotten, ancient and far-spreading branches of my family tree. We figured out that her great grand mother and my great grandmother were sisters. Until then I had no real idea of the meaning of the relational term,  "second cousin" - never mind meet her! 

Walking silently in the wilderness amidst the oak trees and along the gorge in the Bakonyerdö (Bakony Forest), I found myself exploring places my father once told me of.  I was now in the same enchanted woods that he as a young boy would have hiked together with my grandfather - whom I never met. As I listened to the river and continued walking, I gradually fell into a comfortable trance-like state. It was not much later that I felt a warm and gentle presence; I was mysteriously touched by  my father's spirit.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019


I travelled in Vietnam along the coast by ship and inland between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi with the Reunification Express Train. It is a slow, wonderful and historic 1,726 km overland journey. In addition to the lovely and varied scenery, I enjoyed very much the warmth of the people working on the train. Travelling the length of the country by rail I was happy to celebrate the indefatigable hope, courage and resilience of the Vietnamese People. The line was severely damaged by US bombing campaigns during the American War (referred to as the Vietnam War by imperialist Americans and their allies).  Following the Vietnam victory in 1975, in less than two years, over a thousand bridges and 27 tunnels were repaired. Once again the connection between North and South Vietnam was established and the free and unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam was proudly proclaimed.

  I arrived at Hanoi Train Station at 4:30 in the morning in the pouring rain.

Two seconds before pulling out of the station, and she made it!

Walking into the beautiful, bright yellow French colonial, Saigon Central Post Office, I was nearly certain that I had time-travelled back to when Ho Chi Minh himself might have posted a revolutionary message from this impressive building. The fact that it was a hallucinatory hot 42 degrees, likely helped create the fluid time-frame I was experiencing.

Everyone has a motorbike in Saigon. Until I figured out the steps to this urban dance, crossing the street felt terrifying and seemed impossible. I'd wait and wait for an opening in the traffic, but it never happened. All day. All night. The congestion never eased up. Traffic lights were simply ignored. A t-shirt said it succinctly: "Green Means Go. Amber Means Go. Red Means Go". Thing is, if you step off the sidewalk an amazing choreography begins. Without slowing down, the motorcyclists, like a massive school of herring, coalesce and drive around you as you make your way across the road. Whew!

Halong Bay. It is no wonder that this ethereal collection of some two thousand limestone karst islands has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Like giant Rorschach ink blots, one can easily project meanings onto the shapes. Evidently I'm not the only one who sees the kissing chickens from the boat, as this formation is in fact known locally as either Kissing Chickens, or less placidly, as Fighting Cocks. I prefer amorous fowl to angry birds - no matter how popular their video game cousins are!                                                                                                                                                               

In one Hanoi neighborhood, the train oddly travels within a metre of homes and shops. The train schedule is posted outside bars and cafés so that fans of trainspotting can gather and toast the passing train.                                                                                                                                                          


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Everest Three Passes Trek

"This trek is a definite notch up in difficulty from the other treks covered here." That is, out of all the treks included in the latest Lonely Planet guidebook, "Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya."

Having trekked extensively in the Himalayan Mountains, I thought I was quite prepared to meet the challenge. In a word, "hubris". Big time!

The scenery was unquestionably huge and mind-blowingly stunning. The local people were, as always, extraordinarily kind and hospitable. Walking in the Abode of the Gods does fulfill my quest for travel to sacred landscapes.

Hiking at above 5,000 meters elevation for weeks is breathtaking; as in acute mountain sickness breathlessness! Especially so coming from sea level, Vancouver.

An easy walk in the low-altitude jungle to warm-up and check-out a baby rhino afterwards was a pleasant wind-up to the expedition.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Pilgrimage in the 21st Century? I walk along the Portuguese Way to Santiago de Compostela.

In today's hyper-connected, accelerated and materialistic life is there still a place for pilgrimage - where one walks, often alone and frequently over great distances towards a sacred destination? It is slow, it is basic, it is introspective; in direct opposition to what characterizes contemporary society. To help answer the question, I decided to again pick up my knapsack and follow in the footsteps of medieval seekers along the Camino de Santiago. This time to walk the Camino Portugués from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain; a distance of about 250 kilometers.

Stamps collected along the route in the Credencial. Required to stay at pilgrims' hostels and later at completion, to claim the Compostela certificate.
How to prepare for such an endeavour? In addition to sorting through gear and roughly planning the itinerary, I decide that besides ensuring that I was physically fit, I wanted to spiritually prepare for the journey. But what does spiritual preparation actually mean? As I reflected about the purpose of my walk, the idea of somehow needing to re-connect with the Divine kept coming to mind. Communion with the sacred. Leave the everyday world to re-visit the mysterium. But how to enter into a mental framework conducive to such an other-worldly destination? Well, other-worldly to some extent, as at the same time, it is of course very much a long distance walk amidst our quotidian world of rain, sun, fatigue and needing to find food and accommodation along the trail.

Last time I partook of the Catholic sacrament of Communion was ten years ago following the death of my father. In preparation, I made confession for the first time in many, many years - to the priest who administered Anointing of the Sick to my dad - in a corridor of the hospital where he was dying, or as I liked to think - preparing for his own final great spiritual journey.

I felt that prior to embarking on this trip, that I would again receive Holy Communion as a way to identify this trip as not just a long distance hike through ancient villages but also as pilgrimage to help deepen my sense of connection to that which is Holy.

Early morning at the Porto Cathedral. Seagull and I alone at the closed gates. Obtained my pilgrim's passport and attended a glorious high mass with choir and chamber music prior to setting out - way too late as it turned out!

I began walking after Mass at the Cathedral in Porto on April 1, 2018. It is Easter Sunday, and also curiously April Fools' Day! Auspicious day to start. Fool or Pilgrim? Maybe I'm both. The thought pops in: Am I kidding myself? Am I just a plain fool to attempt this sacred journey? As every peregrination starts with a first step, I distract myself from dark thoughts of self doubt and begin walking.

From Porto there are three main routes leading to Santiago: The Coastal Route, The Caminho Central and the Seaside Route. (As I did not begin my journey in Lisbon, I will not be discussing the route from Lisbon to Porto.)

The Coastal Route, initially confusingly, does not always hug the coast as does the newer, and some say, inauthentic, recently configured Seaside Route (Senda Litoral). Not wanting to slog through the industrial outskirts of Porto, I decided for my first day I would follow this Seaside Route out of the city.  I joined the traditional medieval path - the Central Way - the following day and continued along it all the way to the Cathedral in Santiago.

I walked the Camino Portugués like this:

Day One: Porto via Matosinhos to Lavra. 22km
Day Two: Lavra via Vila do Conde to Rates. 24km.
Day Three: Rates via Barcelos to Portela Tamel  São Pedro. 24km
Day Four: Tamel to Ponte de Lima. 24km
Day Five: Ponte de Lima to Rubiàs. 20km.
Day Six: Rubiàs via Valença (Portugal) to Tui (Spain). 20km.
Day Seven: Tui to Porriño. 17km.
Day Eight: Porriño to Redondale. 16km.
Day Nine: Redondela to Pontevedra. 20km.
Day Ten: Pontevedra to Caldas De Reis. 22km.
Day Eleven: Caldas de Reis to Padrón. 19km.
Day Twelve: Padrón to Santiago de Compostela. 25km.

Along The Way, I stayed at albergues, the shared accommodation pilgrims' hostels. The camaraderie, commiseration and motivation provided by our multinational fluid community of walkers was always appreciated. The snoring is irritatingly identical in any language! Addresses are easily located in tourist information centers, by word of mouth, Camino handbooks and online sources. For lists of accommodations and general trip preparation, I used John Brierley's book, "A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino Portugués", guidebooks I downloaded onto my iPad from The Confraternity of Saint James website, and the comprehensive, "Wise Pilgrim Guides" app for the Camino Portugués. In Porto, I picked up "The Portuguese Way to Santiago de Compostela" by Sérgio Fonseca.

Crossing from Valença, Portugal into Tui, Spain. Smiling despite the blisters and a week of rain. The poncho was another gift along The Way - as we liked to say, from St. James. In this case, from a fellow peregrino.

A highlight for me - aside from arriving in Santiago, was the magic of Padron; a town one day's walk from Santiago de Compostela. Padron plays great importance in the history of St. James' mythic journey from Palestine to the Iberian Peninsula. According to the legend, it is here that Santiago came to preach the Gospel in the First Century. After several years, he returned to Palestine and was beheaded by King Herod.  It is also to Padron that Santiago's remains were mysteriously returned on a stone ship by his disciples. Over the centuries, the Cathedral in Santiago was built to house the crypt of Santiago. Pilgrims have been coming to venerate this place for two thousand years.

Monte Santiaguiño. A steep climb above Padron is an often overlooked secret of the Camino. This is the place that marks where Santiago preached in Galicia before returning to Jerusalem. It is also to where his remains were mysteriously transported - to begin the timeless pilgrimage along the Camino De Santiago.

The walk was very satisfying along many dimensions. Travelling by foot through ancient medieval towns in Portugal and Spain was almost akin to time-traveling. To appreciate that millions of devout pilgrims - and lowlife criminals doing penance also walked this ancient route, gave me a feeling of kinship with a larger humanity. That we helped one another along the way reflected the ethic that comes from participating in this time-honoured grand walk.

The answer to the question that I posed at the start of these reflections is a resounding, "Yes!" Walking along these paths - sometimes indeed along ancient Roman stone roads - is a meaningful and necessary counterpoint to the contemporary social order which emphasizes the acquisition of limited material things and consequent unhealthy feelings of greed, envy and ultimately a disquieting sense of purposelessness.

The yellow arrows that guided me from my fist step outside the Porto Cathedral and onto Obradoiro Square in front of the Cathedral in Santiago taught me that no matter where I am, I can always find my way to God.

Buen camino!

With work having begun in 1075, ongoing restoration of the Cathedral in Santiago is necessary. A reminder perhaps that there is also continuous work to be done along our own journey to self realization.