Amy Rayburn, HTM 2011 Grad
Eat, Love, Pray Adventure
Amy's story, thus far.....
As I sit on this secluded beach, digging my toes into the silky sand, I am amazed to see dolphins playing in the deep blue water while the red hot sun slowly sinks into the Arabian Sea. I literally have to pinch myself to realize this is real.
It all started when some people questioned my desire to travel, especially for such a long period of time - whether it is the far distance from my family and friends back in Canada, or how I am able to afford such a long journey. And of course, there's that ever important question of getting a serious job, and the worry of losing my competitive advantage against all of the new graduates entering the workforce. These questions do cross my mind and often come up in conversations with other travellers; however I can't imagine being or doing anything else right now. It's currently my seventh month away from home, with no end in sight to my wanderings... Let the Adventures Continue!
China, Hong Kong, and Macau
With a one-way ticket to Beijing in hand, a backpack full of goods to keep me satisfied (including Canadian maple syrup!), I said until we meet again (no goodbyes allowed!) at the airport to my parents. It was only four days after my University of Guelph convocation. I had no plans on where the next few days, months, or years would take me, but I was ready to embark on a new adventure!
I began my travels in China, a country diverse in people, food, culture, and lifestyles. Tom, a Chinese friend of mine who is currently studying at Guelph, invited me to China to explore his country and visit his family while on summer vacation. I jumped at the opportunity, as I believe there is no better way to see a country than through the eyes of a local. Plus, what better time to visit a country as fast-growing, strong-powered, and culturally enriched as China!
When I arrived in Beijing, it was great to meet up with Tom and have a native show me around, to introduce me to his friends and family, and help with the extreme language barrier.
Even though it was hot and extremely polluted, Beijing has so much to offer from its fabulous food markets to its famous Pekking Duck dish; an entree of roasted duck dipped in sugar and garlic, served with cucumber, spring onions, a sweet bean sauce, and a steamed pancake full of fat but simply delicious - a local delicacy! Most incredible though was driving for two hours from Beijing to Jinshanling - a non-touristy section of the Great Wall, where we did an extreme hike and overnight camp on the wall itself. As a typical HAFA grad, I packed my backpack full of snacks and a bottle of "Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon" and enjoyed it at the 18th tower while witnessing one of the most awe-inspiring views I've ever seen - a moment I will remember forever!
I spent over two months wandering around China, exploring the big, ever so crowded cities of Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou, but I also got off the beaten path and hiked mountains and camped overnight in Huangshan, lived with a Chinese family for two weeks in Harbin, and eventually learned enough Mandarin to get me from point A to B. I journeyed over 40 hours by train to Western China and visited many small, rural villages along the Tibetan/Chinese border, where I spent my days trekking to the top of Tibetan mountains, going on horseback riding trips in lush valleys, practicing yoga in Chinese gardens, and learning Tai Chi at a mountain-top monastery. Most of all, I was embracing every moment, trying to learn as much as possible about the people, religion, food, and environment around me.
With my visa on the fringe of expiration, I took the last train possible and ventured to Hong Kong. Hong Kong and Macau are two fabulous cities full of life, with great restaurants, hotels, and casinos. As a budget backpacker, these cities break the bank compared to other Asian cities. They were, however, lots of fun and money well spent! Since my accommodation was free thanks to couch surfing, I could splurge on other things like bungee jumping off the Macau tower (the highest bungee jump in the world!) and enjoying Michelin star restaurants and Inniskillin Ice Wine.
After three weeks of roaming the busy streets of Hong Kong and Macau with new friends -expatriates, locals, and fellow travellers - I felt that it was time for a change, and so I booked a flight for the very next day to the Philippines.
Entering another country with not much previous knowledge about it and no expectations, I was welcomed with open arms. It was nice to be in a place where English was so widely spoken once again, yet where the culture and way of life is completely different than at home. It was in this nation of over seven thousand islands that I also encountered some of the most hospitable people I've ever met - always smiling, laughing, and enjoying each other's company, while offering a helping hand whenever needed. I was fortunate to meet many incredible locals who invited me into their homes and their lives, bringing me to family dinners, taking me on road trips, and even inviting me to a local orphanage and school to volunteer on my 22nd birthday - a very rewarding, humbling, and memorable experience.
While in the Philippines, I became good friends with two backpackers from Spain and Turkey, and the three of us travelled around the island of Palawan for a month together. We relaxed on beautiful beaches, went on overnight camping trips, barbecued freshly caught fish over a beach fire, motorbiked to local farms, hiked to waterfalls, climbed to soaring heights to witness the breathtaking views of the island, trekked through the jungle to visit a cave-living tribe, and forged friendships with locals that allowed us to experience sights only known by those living in the area.
I chose to complete my time in the Philippines by attending a yoga and meditation retreat for two weeks. The retreat was very small, with never more than six people attending during the time I was there, and this led to some close friendships with the staff and fellow students. Whether I was discussing natural health remedies, partaking in mud baths, embarking on a five-day fast, or practicing my yoga asanas, the retreat allowed me the opportunity to break away from the backpacking world for a short time, and to really focus upon improving my mind, body, and soul.
From the Philippines I then ventured to Singapore, a beautiful, clean city that marries Western culture and Asian tradition. The country has Chinese, Indian, and Malay influences, and is diverse in beliefs, culture, and food, which makes it very fun to explore. I stayed with a friend I had met during my travels in the Philippines, which allowed for this new friendship to be further strengthened. My friend showed me around his small but bustling nation, and introduced me to his friends, family, and various contacts. I was able to experience and enjoy very high end clubs and restaurants in the city, and was given tours of the casino and luxurious hotels, while also enjoying all of the local amenities they had to offer.
My time in Singapore provided me with the opportunity to do a great deal of networking in the hospitality and financial industries. I met chartered accountants, restaurateurs, and the general managers of a few large hotel chains, as well as several individuals within the academic world. I was even able to reunite with HAFA professor Dr. MacLaurin while there, and attended two of his lectures at the University Las Vegas Nevada, where I was fortunate enough to do two one-hour presentations on my experiences abroad.
Thailand was my next stop on my travels to meet up with my mom and sister for a family reunion! It had been six months since I had seen my mom, and over a year and a half since I'd seen my sister, as she had also been travelling in Asia and Australia. I was looking forward to reconnecting with my family in a different part of the world, sharing my backpacking lifestyle with my mom and swapping travel tales with my sister.
We reunited in Bangkok, a busy city that was facing a difficult time due to flooding. There had recently been a great deal of rain throughout Thailand, and although most of the city was dry, we did come across some flooded areas during our time there. It was quite the shock to witness the flooded streets, with trucks moving people and supplies through the high waters, garbage floating past former food stalls and homes, and children splashing around in the shallower areas. What amazed us all was that despite this tragedy, the Thai people came together to help one another, and those we spoke with were still in positive spirits.
With rumours that the city was going to become flooded further, we headed south to the islands with hopes of dry weather. One of my goals when embarking on my travels was to complete my PADI Open Water Scuba Diving course, which I was able to do on the island of Koh Tao. It was incredible getting to dive to deeper depths than I had ever seen before, and to witness all kinds of strange and beautiful underwater creatures such as sting rays, turtles, sharks, and even a seahorse. We then travelled on to Koh Lanta, with its long stretches of beach and beautiful sunsets over the Andaman Sea. Here we did a cooking class, learning how to make delicious Thai meals like Pad Thai and Green Curry.
Our last stop in Thailand was the coastal areas of Rai Lay and Tonsai. This part of Thailand is incredibly beautiful with towering cliffs - a rock climber's paradise. I had never before rock climbed outdoors, and so the three of us decided to push ourselves with a day of climbing and belaying one another up the rocks. The feeling of accomplishment and success upon reaching the top of a difficult climbing route was incredible.
...And then it was off to India! My sister, Mel, and I decided to continue travelling together for the next three months, and India was a place that we had both been long awaiting to visit. When we first arrived in Mumbai, it didn't seem all that different from the various places we had both travelled to within Asia. Sure, there were a lot of people, there was garbage throughout the streets, and the roads were very congested but we've both simply gotten used to those things being the 'norm' while travelling. However, as we accidentally hopped onto a third class all-male train compartment in Mumbai, I was completely overwhelmed by the many bodies packed like sardines into such a small space, and people throwing things off of the train and climbing over one another as they tried to get off at each stop. While being torn every which way as people pushed and shoved, Mel and I held each other's hands for dear life so that we wouldn't get separated. Now, THIS is India!
As I wandered the streets of Mumbai, the sights, sounds, and smells took my breath away - literally. We walked along the city bay, wandered down cobblestone back alleyways, and explored the nightly markets that filled the streets, with people selling everything from spices and shoes to food and furniture. I have begun to fall in love with Indian food - food with REAL flavour. The many varieties of curry, masala, biryani, and bread allow us to try a new dish at each meal, which is something I look forward to every single day.
Mel and I couch surfed while in Mumbai, and there was an extreme contrast between the busy streets and where we were staying. After suffocating days in the city, we would come home to our luxurious accommodation, where we had an infinity pool to swim in and a mouth-watering breakfast to enjoy in the morning at yet another Michelin star restaurant - and all for free! The disparity between the rich and poor within the country was something one could never imagine until arriving. With over a billion people in this nation, and some of the most visible poverty I have ever witnessed, it is astonishing that there is also so much wealth, and yet so little possibility for so many to improve their quality of life.
After Mumbai, we road-tripped with locals to Pune and the surrounding countryside where we were able to escape from the city and drive throughout the hills, befriend a roadside camel, and gallop on horseback across the tablelands. Mel and I then continued to travel further south to Goa, which offered a true breath of fresh air from the bustling city. Although Goa is fairly touristy, we have been able to find our own little piece of paradise here, where we sleep in a treetop fort on the beach, do yoga in the sand each morning, and swim in the Arabian sea as the sun sets over the water. Not only do local women in colourful, extravagant saris walk along the beach with their children each evening as they sell their wares, but dogs and cows gather as well as the sun dips into the sea - a sight that never fails to put a smile on my face.
My sister recently celebrated her 26th birthday here, and we spent the day motor biking around back roads and finding our way blocked by cows, exploring new beach fronts, wearing party hats while drinking beers on a cliff-side, and indulging in desserts with every meal. The simplicity of days like those and the life that is lived by the ocean is something that we both love, and it would be easy to get stuck here for awhile. Nevertheless, we're gearing up to leave Goa soon. Since this is just the start of our time in India, we know that there is much more to explore, see, and experience. I'm excited for more cultural enrichment during my time here, as well as to go diving in the clear blue waters around the Andaman Islands, ride camels in Rajasthan's deserts, see the Taj Mahal with my own eyes in Agra, and visit Darjeeling's tea plantations while getting a glimpse of Mount Everest in the distance.
However, that's in the near future. As for now, I sit here on this white sand beach, taking in the beautiful, peaceful surroundings, and I close my eyes and take a moment to appreciate my past travels, and the fact that I am here, in India, in this moment.
...Where to Next?
I don't know where my travels will take me from here on. I may visit Mongolia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, or I might join the crew of a sail boat and scuba dive around Borneo and Indonesia. I'd also really like to travel throughout South America, work on a vineyard, and learn Spanish. However, no matter where I end up, I know that the experiences I have will be unforgettable. As long as I continue to apply the lessons I learned in my undergrad to the real world, search for personal growth, and be open to change, I know that what I'm doing can't be wrong, and that my travels are only helping me to become the person that I aspire to be.
Since my travels are continuous and for an indefinite period of time, I feel that I need to have some meaning behind my wanders and set goals to work towards while I'm on the road. These little accomplishments are necessary so that I continue to learn and grow as I travel, and so that my journey has some sort of purpose. Such things as staying for a month at an ashram so I can further practice yoga and meditation, getting my yoga teaching certificate, learning new languages, and volunteering my time for worthy causes are some of the things that I'm hoping to accomplish while abroad. However, while away for such a long period of time, you also need to spend days doing absolutely nothing. You have to remember that this is your life - a day-to-day journey - and that the travels aren't always just about getting to a certain destination. Travelling for me is about taking your time to really experience a place to get to know the locals, learn the language, and embrace the customs.
Overall, my travels and explorations over the last seven months have opened my eyes and given me the opportunity to learn and grow as a person. I see other countries and cultures, and I take a step back and look at my own life and how fortunate I have been. It is very humbling for me to realize that what I am tired of or complain about would be welcome to so many people. Many have more, lots more, but so many have less. So appreciate the little things, and go with the flow! Be open to change. Not everything is going to go according to plan, and you have to be okay with that. Embrace spontaneity! Get the most out of your travels while you're fortunate enough to be on the road. I want to be inspired. I want to live.