As the year came to an end, I thought about doing a ‘Highlights of 2014’ post. I even made a list. But while I have had an incredible year of travel, I also realized that I’ve been too busy/lazy/disorganized/unmotivated and I haven’t actually written blog posts about many of those highlights, and to try to describe them all adequately would make one incredibly long post.
So I’m doing something a bit different.
For a long time now I’ve had a thing when I travel, which I call ‘Moments of Sheer Happiness’. They are exactly what they sound like; moments that fill me with a feeling like no other. It’s a sensation of pure joy right down to my core, which usually hits me completely out of the blue, often as a result of an encounter with a local or a place that simply speaks to me for some reason.
Usually there is a sense of discovery involved, that I am the first person to see this place or have this experience, even if that’s probably not true. Often they are at the end of a long or difficult day, or after a relatively negative experience, and thus they always come as a stark reminder:
This is why I travel.
Not the only reason, obviously, because they are rare and if they were the only times I really enjoyed traveling I’d probably now be settled back in Canada with an apartment and a dog and wondering just what in the world I was missing. But these events stand out in a different way than just a ‘highlight’.
They might not be just a moment, but are often short-lived; usually not more than half an hour or so. The suddenness of their arrival and the depth of feeling leave me smiling and feeling warm and fuzzy inside for hours afterwards.
They always happen when I’m alone. There have been situations when I’ve been with a companion where I think had I been alone maybe a MSH would have happened, but there’s something about sharing an experience with another person that doesn’t have the same impact, or dilutes the effect of it somehow.
I still remember the first time I realized that this was a ‘thing’. I was in the Philippines in early 2007, and arrived in a small village called Guintubdan after a long day of travel that involved a small boat, a trike, a jeepney to the main town, then another jeepney, a three hour wait, a big boat with the most narrow, wobbly and scary jetty I’ve ever seen, a trike, a jeepney, and then yes, finally one last jeepney. I dumped my stuff and went wandering.
Before very long I found a waterfall. It was gorgeous; a sparkling stream of water tumbling through the bright green trees of a lush tropical jungle. I was all alone in this beautiful spot, and I had a ‘Moment’.
Pure joy flooded my body and I realized that this was why I did it. Being able to ‘discover’ this picturesque waterfall was entirely worth the day of difficult travel I’d just been through.
So now, instead of telling you my top 10 destinations I visited in 2014, I’m going to tell you about my Moments of Sheer Happiness of 2014.
1. My day on Pahtaw Island, Myeik, Burma
This was actually quite a long Moment of Sheer Happiness, which you can read the details of here. The unexpectedness of it, the fact that the language barrier didn’t matter at all, and that they wanted nothing more from me than the novelty of showing a foreigner around their place all contributed.
From the second I realized that we were going to spend the rest of the afternoon together until I got on the boat to leave the island, I was smiling and filled with an incredible joy that such a situation can still exist, and the feeling left me grinning the rest of the evening.
2. Visiting my favourite family’s BBQ stall in Mawlamyine, Burma
One year previous to this moment I had been in Mawlamyine for about six days, and on at least half of those nights had eaten dinner at the barbecue stands down by the waterfront. The problem was that almost every stall sold only meat and fish, and I wanted some veggies, so for all three of those nights I went to the same family’s booth, the only one that also had corn available.
When I went back a year later, I sought out the same stall, and the moment the woman saw me, she said ‘Oh you! Chicken wing, corn, beer!’, which was pretty much exactly what I’d eaten on those three nights a year earlier.
I was thrilled. I adore Mawlamyine anyway, and now this! How, after a whole year of customers, did this woman actually remember me? But she seemed to recognize me and knew what I wanted, so it must have been possible, right? My whole meal became a Moment of Sheer Happiness, as I watched the family busily working, operating their business.
3. Hanging out with this family on the walk back from the Hanging Coffins, Luobiao, Sichuan, China
You may remember my post about Sichuan’s Hanging Coffins. Well, one of my Moments was when that family invited me to sit down with them outside their house, and we proceeded to ‘talk’ and laugh with each other despite none of us speaking each other’s language. I can’t exactly explain how that works, but it does, and it’s wonderful.
4. The meditation cave at Rhongphu Monastery hermitage, Everest Base Camp, Tibet
You’d think I’d have had some Moments in Tibet, because, I mean, it’s Tibet, but while it was an amazing trip, I was rarely alone and so I only had one MSH in the whole two weeks.
On the road just before Mt. Everest Base Camp is Rhongphu Monastery, which also has a small hermitage outpost about 500 metres further along from the tent camp where we stayed.
During a visit to this hermitage, I peeked inside the small building where some nuns were sitting and they invited me in through a small door. One of them took me further inside and showed me a trap door in the floorboards, indicating that I should go through.
Feeling apprehensive, images of being trapped inside a cellar flashing through my mind, I hesitated, but she urged me on. Down I went, carefully climbing down some cuts in a rock wall until I reached the ground.
I turned around and gasped, that feeling of joy filling my soul once again.
It was a small cave, the ceiling only about the height of me at its highest point, with two small rooms, each with a shrine to Guru Rinpoche (an extremely important figure in Tibetan history religion) enrobed in silks, surrounded by flowers, incense and candles. It felt magical.
It seemed like my own private spiritual oasis, like I was the only one who knew about this place, although clearly that wasn’t true. Fingering my prayer beads, I stayed a while, soaking up the peaceful feeling permeating the air before reluctantly climbing back up the rock face and through the trap door. The nun looked at me questioningly, and I gave her a very pleased, knowing smile before heading off to explore the rest of the hillside.
5. Visiting Boudhnath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal
After spending some time in Tibet, I found that I had fallen in love with the culture and the gentle souls of the people. Moving on to Nepal, I discovered that a visit to a Hindu temple was a much more overwhelming experience than a Tibetan Buddhist one. A lot more seemed to be expected of me in terms of worship, knowledge, and donations, and I somehow always ended up with that red smear on my forehead, like it or not.
So when I finally got around to visiting Boudhnath, the Tibetan Buddhist stupa in the middle of Kathmandu, I immediately felt at home. It was fairly quiet when I arrived, with just a few pilgrims circumambulating the stupa, and a handful more walking around or meditating on top of it. The atmosphere was welcoming and peaceful.
I spent hours there, people watching, visiting a nearby monastery to listen to the novice monks’ reading session, and walking around the stupa myself, prayer beads in hand.
As evening fell, the number of people grew. The area set up for prostrations filled, people bowing down before the stupa again and again and again.
A group of monks set up rows of mats on the stupa itself and held a chanting session. In another area at the base of the stupa, another group of monks gathered in front of a shrine to Hariti (the goddess of smallpox) to throw food and other offerings on a pile, some praying and playing musical instruments.
6. Sitting in the gazebo full of prayer flags, Kangding, Sichuan, China
The city of Kangding lies on the edge of the Tibetan plateau and as such exhibits elements of both Chinese and Tibetan cultures. I was there on my way to the Tibetan areas of Western Sichuan province, to go down to Kunming via the so-called ‘back door’. Initially Kangding was more Chinese than I expected, and at first I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to.
But then the hostel owner recommended a walk, which goes along the hillside above the town, stopping at a small temple and a couple of other structures.
The walk was lovely, and although I could still hear some noise from the city below it was fairly peaceful and I didn’t meet many other people along the way.
Then I arrived at the last stop, a gazebo-type structure on the edge of a steep hillside. It was covered in prayer flags, wrapped around it and through it; old, faded, tattered ones and bright, perfect, new ones, and everything in between. They were flapping in the wind, and every so often a huge gust would come along and they’d go mad, prayers flying all over the place.
I immediately had that feeling – that joy that overtook me from being in a special place that it felt like only I knew about. I stood right in the middle, laughing with wonder and joy when a huge gust of wind sent the flags aflutter. I sat on a bench, flying cloth all around me, nearly covering my face and flapping against my head when they blew in the wind.
Try to imagine the noise of a couple thousand flags all flapping at the same time, each one sending out a little prayer to the universe.
7. Witnessing the joyous reunion of these little girls in Litang, Sichuan, China
You read about these little girls here, but I’ll say it again. The little girl had been walking around, looking just so miserable, and the happiness expressed on her face when her friends showed up, and the hug between them just made my heart sing.
8. Watching a prayer session in Litang, Sichuan, China
On my meanderings down the back streets up to the big main monastery in Litang I wandered into a small hall. Outside, the courtyard was lined with small prayer wheels, every one of which I dutifully spun.
When I went inside, I passed by a few people sitting on the threshold, having a snack. Most of them were elderly or close to it, and all were Tibetan, in some form of traditional dress.
I didn’t think much of it; Tibetans were everywhere. Inside were about 18 huge prayer wheels, arranged in rows on either side of and behind a central altar. By this time I had a need to spin each prayer wheel I found, so I started on the one closest to me, on my left as I went in the door.
By the time I’d reached the third one, a woman had joined me. She seemed to indicate that I was doing it wrong, and that I couldn’t just go around each one once, but that I should do it three times. So we did, she and I, around every prayer wheel in that hall three times. She chanted the whole way.
When we finished, most of the others were getting up, and I sat down in the doorway instead. While I ate my snack and drank some tea, I watched and listened as they went in a line around every single wheel three times, spinning them to make the overhead bells clang and all chanting the same mantra in unison.
There were both men and women, in all kinds of Tibetan dress, some carrying prayer beads, some also spinning their own portable prayer wheels. They moved slowly, and though the wheels were huge and heavy, they still spun faster than the people going around them.
At one point the line stopped and one person poured a bit of water into one of each person’s hands. This they took a sip of, splashing the rest onto their heads and moving on.
This was amazing to watch, and they didn’t seem to mind me sitting there observing. I don’t know if it was an organized prayer meeting but I feel like I was exceptionally lucky to stumble up on it.
Now I’m going to take a minute here to note that since I’ve been in New Zealand I’ve had a multitude of MSHs. I’ve been spending a lot of time alone here, and it seems that every time I come around a corner in my car and am awestruck by the beauty of this country I have a Moment of Sheer Happiness.
For instance, after spending a rainy night in Timaru, then driving through rain all day to get to Hanmer Springs, the sun finally popped out a bit in the evening, lighting up these hills and making their green just absolutely shine. Bam. MSH.
There have been so many, in fact, that I think the moments themselves have been a bit diluted, so that now I am having trouble identifying them. Which may, in fact, completely contradict the whole idea, but whatever. It is what it is. So I think I’ve chosen a few of the biggest ones here for you, but keep in mind that there have been many, many others in the past few months.
9. Having the chicks hatch on my last day of my house sit in Decanter Bay
I spent six weeks house sitting on the Banks Peninsula in New Zealand, and I had ten chickens to look after, or, at least ten that were actually in the coop. Every so often I would count them, just to make sure, and one day there were only nine. I counted again, and again, (they move around a bit!) and still only nine were present.
I freaked out a bit, but waited, and a few more feeding and counting sessions later, there were ten again. I realized that one hen must be sitting on some eggs somewhere, and that they would probably hatch shortly after my departure.
So imagine how excited I was when, less than an hour before I my departure, I went out to feed the chickens one last time and there they were: four tiny chicks following their mama around.
10. Having a tour of the local theatre in Hokitika
I arrived at my hostel just out of Hokitika in the late afternoon and immediately took off on a walk down the beach into town. Being me, I took much longer than any normal person would, and by the time I got there it was getting cold and windy and I was getting quite hungry! Rather than walk all the way back to my hostel and eat the food I had with me, only to leave again for the sunset and some glow worms, I stopped at a takeaway shop for some fish and chips.
Having nowhere to go, I sat at a bench outside and started munching on my dinner, and was soon after joined by an older man. He told me that he was one of the organizers of a theatre production taking place just around the corner; a Mexican tale that included a themed dinner in the intermission.
We chatted for a while, and when we finished I started to say goodbye, but then he offered to show me what he was up to.
He took me to the theatre, opened the door to the room where the show was going on with a crowd of well-dressed people seated at dinner tables to watch. He showed me the food that was being prepared and about to be served. He introduced me to the servers, local women in Mexican peasant dress to fit the part. He took me backstage and showed me where the actors were watching on a TV screen, so they’d know when their cues were coming up. He showed me the dressing room, where hair and makeup were being adjusted like mad, and most fantastically he showed me the costume room. I was astounded at the number of costumes a local small-town theatre company had to choose from!
This was a small thing: the whole encounter from the fish and chips to my departure was maybe 45 minutes, but it was an encounter with a very enthusiastic local and a taste of local life that I definitely wouldn’t have experienced otherwise! I grinned the whole way home, simply for the love of small-town New Zealand.
11. Seeing a yellow-eyed penguin in Roaring Bay, the Catlins, New Zealand.
On a trip through the Catlins I stopped at Nugget Point; a rocky outcrop with a lighthouse on it that is well known for opportunities to view sea birds, seals, and sea lions.
Just before the Nugget Point carpark is Roaring Bay, where there is a hide made for viewing penguins. The sign at the entrance to the short track indicates what time of day you might be most likely to see penguins at various times of year. I determined that it was highly unlikely that I would see one at the time that I was there.
But of course, I am addicted to penguins, so I went anyway.
I got to the hide, took a look out, and there was just a beach (a pretty one, mind you, but aren’t they all?) so I turned around and started reading all the info about yellow-eyed penguins that was on the wall.
I got about halfway through, and actually had the thought that I should be looking outside and while I was reading all this there were probably multiple penguins out on the beach. So I turned around again and looked. And there was a penguin!
Until this point I’d only seen them from REALLY far away, so you can imagine just how happy I was!
So those are my Moments of Sheer Happiness from 2014, and there are dozens of other amazing experiences that I have yet to tell you about! What an epic year! I just hope I can make 2015 just as great.