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TEN PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS OF 2018

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Around this time last year, I posted a collection of ten photo highlights from my first year of solo backpacking. One year on, I managed to visit five more countries with my backpack; Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, New Zealand and Fiji. I swam with turtles and sharks, climbed volcanos and mountains and drove through some of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen. Here are ten photos from my year!

 

1. Turtles In philippines

Swimming with turtles is something I’ve wanted to do for so many years, an obsession that only grew when I went on countless dives and snorkels around the world and never saw one. I saw my first in Western Australia, in Coral Bay. But this experience in the Philippines was entirely different. This turtle was so calm and I was able to swim with it underwater for as long as I possibly could before coming up for air. I’ve swam with a fair few since, but nothing quite compares to this extraordinary encounter.

 

2. INSIDE THE VOLCANO

During one of my favourite travel days of the year, I entered Kawah Ijen - Java’s most famous volcano. We’d spent the morning hiking up to the summit of the volcano to watch a stunning sunrise over the mountainscape, but this moment, scrambling down and standing on the edge of an acid pit, feeling so small in this gaping active space, was unforgettable.

 

3. MEETING ORANGUTANS IN SUMATRA

I’ve always been an animal lover, so any experience I can have with them is special to me, but up until this point, my greatest encounters had been underwater. In two days trekking through the Sumatran jungle, we were able to meet over a dozen orangutans, occasionally being able to interact with them. This is one of my favourite photographs from our trip, where we met our first alpha as he made his mating calls from the trees - I was able to catch him from an amazing perspective and considered the moment to be an incredible stroke of luck.

 

4. HOOKER VALLEY IN MOUNT COOK

Mount Cook National Park is truly something to behold in New Zealand. Driving into it is captivating, with lakes, valleys and mountains filling your windows. On our second day there, we ventured into Hooker Valley and were extremely lucky with the conditions. The trek was amazing and offered us so many spectacular views, like this one.

 

5. SHIPWRECKED IN WHITSUNDAYS

I chose this photo because of what it reminds me of; a four week adventure down the East Coast of Australia in a camper van with three other friends. During that time, we explored national parks, met Koala’s, lived on an island and were shipwrecked in the Whitsundays. This evening in particular, we all got wet-suited up and jumped into the water to catch sunset across the islands from the open water and the small beach across from the boat.

 

6. A WHALE OF A TIME

Wow, I still get shivers looking at this image. Without a doubt, one of my greatest ambitions on this journey was to swim with whale sharks, the largest known fish species. The largest known individual has a length of almost 13m! We were unbelievably lucky on this day, as the expedition was almost fully booked. Luckily, we were able to join and ended up coming across some of the calmest and most approachable sharks the crew had come across in quite some time, meaning we were able to real swim with this unbelievable animal for a good amount of time, in pure admiration. This shot really encapsulates that, and my pure fascination with this species of shark.

 
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7. A DAY IN TONGARIRO

Easily the best day trek I’ve ever been on. Venturing into Tongariro at sunrise was incredible, seeing the gorgeous white snow over its landscape glimmer in the sun and guide us through its mountainous route. This was taken on the way down from its highest point, looking down over an unbelievable landscape of earth, snow and icey volcanic water.

 
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8. ISLAND HOPPING IN THE PHILIPPINES

In general, the Philippines is an unbelievable place to visit, with gorgeous islands, crystal clear waters and amazing food. This photo takes be back to three or four days of island hopping, heading out on a different boat every day to explore a new charter of small islands, all so unique and with incredible beaches. I had the greatest time there.

 

9. A VIEW TO PARADISE

My visit to West Australia’s famous Nature’s Window couldn’t have come with better weather. A gorgeous, clear sunny day made this window into the wild truly idyllic. I was with a small group, who were the only people up here at this time so early in the morning, so it really allowed us to take in the sights and sounds of our surroundings. Something truly special.

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10. FALLING, WITH STYLE

Another bucket-list obsession of mine was to sky-dive. Something I’ve said for years and years, and finally accomplished during my time in Byron Bay, Australia. A big group of friends I had made and travelled with for four or five days had all left the night before and I woke up wondering what to do with my day. I saw a flyer for a 15,000 feet skydive over the bay and with slight fear and hesitation, decided to just go for it. What followed was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life!

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BEAUTIFUL BOY: A MEMOIR-TO-MOVIE REVIEW

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen. Starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, and Maura Tierney.

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It’s not always easy, falling into an obsession with a piece of writing, whether fictional or fantasy, to then see that work adapted to screen. Your opinions are emotionally blurred, and your perceptions of characters, scenes, and places feel fragile. You worry if it will be done justice, and if it will it ever live up.

On the heels of a heart-shattering performance in Luca Guadagnino’s Call My Be Your Name, Timothée Chalamet returned to my attention with the trailer for Beautiful Boy. Father and son meet in a small-town cafe, obvious desperation in the father’s tone. There is an immediate realisation that this character is walking on egg-shells within a precious moment - a testament to Steve Carrells acting pedigree, giving us so much within just a few words. In response, the son, an initial bundle of warmth and laughter, erupts into an emotional frenzy. “I didn’t want it to go like this”, he mumbles behind shaking hands, staring out of the window. Within minutes, we as an audience are introduced to a complex father-son relationship, one that has been stretched, twisted and bent to breaking point by the relentless and unforgiving power of drug addiction. Instantly, I was hooked. 

I fell in-love with the gorgeous film-making and performances in Call Me By Your Name. Yearning for more, I purchased the original novel by André Aciman and was incredibly moved by it, adding so much depth to both the characters and settings I’d found myself so captivated by on screen. In anticipation for this new feature, I did the same. I began reading Beautiful Boy a few weeks before the film was to hit cinemas. The harrowing memoir from father David Sheff is immediately emotional and personal. The aching roller-coaster ride you join him on, of ups and downs and recoveries and relapses, is so moving, facilitated by a backlog of questions, self-reflections, memories, songs, experiences - a rich insight into the complex and extremely close relationship between father and son. I broke down reading the epilogue, finally at the close of this journey, one that knowingly for the narrator, may never really end. 

So, as I walked into the cinema last night, I asked myself; could it possibly live up? How will they structure the story? Or present that scene? Simultaneously, I tried to clear my mind of pre-disposed judgement and expectation - a truly difficult task with adaptations, when you have felt so immensely connected to the source material. 

 
 

The film begins with Carell’s David Sheff, clearly emotionally worn, and in the midst of a battle he is losing, asking a hidden figure for advice on his sons addiction. “My two big questions are, what is it doing to him and what can I do to help him?” The first third of the feature sets an interesting pace for the movie. We’re taken back a year from the opening scene, and provided with a collection of tangled moments that offer glimpses into the fairly happy childhood of Nic Sheff, compared to where he is currently; frail, aggressive, and falling into serious addiction. As a reader first, I found this take on structure to be initially very frustrating. The written story is told, for the most part, chronologically, almost as if David is talking to a therapist, starting at the very beginning. Understandably, it would have always been difficult to structure the film this way, and potentially not quite as compelling for audiences. The chosen approach from director Felix Van Groeningen is a clever one, almost emulating the devastatingly turbulent ups and downs of drug addiction. The delivery however, falls short. The slight lack of clarity within this choppy timeline makes it very difficult at times to understand where and when things began to change and why. In one scene, we’re shown David and Nic laughing, sharing a joint to celebrate his acceptance into some of the best colleges going. Shortly after, we enter a scene showing Nic’s second entry into a rehabilitation centre where, in his new bedroom, Nic explains that in a couple of years he’d fallen into regular use of marijuana, alcohol, ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, and finally, crystal meth for the last couple of months. Struggling, his father asks why, to which he responds, “When I tried it I felt better than I ever had, so I just kept on doing it.”

This scene is brilliant. The intimacy between David, Nic and his step-mother, Karen, is truly authentic. You can see that they are a real family unit, and that despite the trauma of the last few years, they are still incredibly close, and care deeply for each other. Carell’s fragile emotional dial is always fringing on ten, while Chalamet’s nervous, tearful and clearly regretful outpour is shattering. This is one of many scenes in which Beautiful Boy really triumphs. Not just because they are so truthful to the original story, but because it is in them that we’re offered the clearest bridge into who this family were and are, and importantly, the kind of person Nic is when he is sober. However, within the film I felt it was difficult to gauge how far apart this moment was with that of the father and son smoking together. As a film viewer, you are at times left feeling as though you are trying to put the pieces together yourself.

After entering the second phase of the feature, it generates a far better pace, supported by some tremendous performances, and this continues until its close. Ultimately, I felt torn by the end of the film. It is undoubtedly let down by its early structure and disjointed narrative, but its whirlwind performances and in-depth character studies pull it through. Chalamet so successfully transitions from an achingly vulnerable, powerless victim to a character riddled with frustration and desperation, wide-eyed, haunting and full of verve - a nod to his growing fan-base and proof that he is the real deal. Meanwhile, Carell offers an entirely different power. An ability to demonstrate complete loss, fear, anguish and desperation through expression and tone, at all times. Where Van Groeningen’s direction and narrative structure misses the mark, the praise-worthy performances from the two leads, as well as the supporting cast, attempt to fill in the gaps. Van Groeningen’s adaptation seems to focus much more on the real-time effects of addiction, rather than its causes. For me, both are equally as important in this story. This choice sees the film refuse to engage in some of the most interesting aspects of David’s memoirs, and Nic’s battle with his addiction, aspects which I felt needed to be shown on screen.

Overall, I really did enjoy the film as an accompaniment to the memoirs, along with its truly compelling performances, however, as a stand-alone film, I feel it was drawn short through its inability to share the incredibly personal in-betweens of Nic’s addiction, integral for really understanding the roots of his addiction and relationships.

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A PERFECT DAY: ISLAND HOPPING IN THE PHILIPPINES

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It was dark and late when I finally arrived to Panglao Island, south of Bohol. I’d started my travel day early in the morning, from Moalboal on the west coast of Cebu, the neighbouring island. I set off by local bus; cramped, hot and humid. Every seat was taken, so amongst some others locals, I stood in the isles for the first few hours, listening to music and people-watching. Children sat on mother’s laps and slept, elderly ladies waved papers like fans across clammy faces. Some spoke loudly to each-other, debating in their native tongue. Every so often, the bus would stop and men and women would come on briefly to sell home-made food, fruit and water, shouting like they do at the market stalls back home. The younger locals all meet my eyes at one point or another, always laughing nervously as I smile back at them. Eventually, I trade bus for tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk for boat, and then finally one more auto to my hostel. Overall, the day’s travelling takes around nine hours, which is pretty typical in the Philippines if you’re not flying. I’m spent. I arrive at the hostel with two friendly Spanish girls I met on the boat and sleepily trade my plans for an early night for a quick drink, which turns into two, which turns into a live acoustic session where we all play music and sing together (I was nominated as official table drummer). I laugh to myself, because this isn’t the first time I’ve swapped an early bedtime for a drink and have ended up leading a rendition of High School Musical’s Breaking Free to an equally enthusiastic audience.

Anyway, I overhear the table beside us talking about their island hopping trip the next day, and the dreaded 5am start. During our growing sing-a-long, this group have been laughing and drinking and joking and seem like a really fun group, so I eagerly approach them and introduce myself, and after some time, ask them if they’d mind if I joined. They happily agree and so, I head to my creaky bed, situated in a little wooden hut, for some much needed rest, put my Go Pro to charge and set my alarm - 4:30am. Before I know it, I fall into a deep slee-

Zzzz.

The alarm rings, muffled under my pillow. My eyelids feel unbelievably heavy as I lie awake for five minutes, contemplating whether I have the energy for the day or if I should sleep and regain my strength. Philippines, as wonderful as it is, comes with tremendously long travel days that can completely zap you. Eventually, I end up at the same conclusion I always do. “Say yes.” A mantra that developed early on in my travels. I leap out of bed and head out into the darkness of the early morning. One by one, the others arrive in the breakfast area of the hostel and we head down to the beach, some of us sleepy, some of us surprisingly full of beans. Their energy is contagious and as we meet our boatman, we are all singing and joking, appreciating the view from the shore - a bright pink sun just beginning its ascent, sending a shimmering stream of strawberry coloured light across the ocean waters.

It’s 5am now and we are the only boat on the water, beating against the current, with reggae music blaring from one of the girls speakers. What a way to wake up. Somewhere in the middle of the sea, with only the faintest view of land at either side of us, our captain slows us to a stop and tells us to lower the music. Within mere moments, a family of wild dolphins breach the still water beside us, playing and dancing in the water. We were all given an immense buzz in this magical moment, through the combination of the late sunrise across the water and this amazing meeting with these majestic creatures. From the back of the boat, to the front, they swim around us, occasionally disappearing and then reappearing. Eventually, when they do leave, we talk in disbelief at our luck as we set off again to our first stop. The tone for the day had been set; we were all awake now, eager, thirsty for more.

 
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We get to our first spot fifteen minutes after our encounter; gorgeous crystal blue water, so clear that you can see all the way down to the sea-bed, covered in coral. We jump straight in for a snorkel and are surrounded by fish, all different breeds and colours. The snorkel spot is called the drop-off, like in Finding Nemo - a big cliff edge under the water, its walls covered in coral and sea-life. Eventually, I see my first turtle of the day and follow it desperately under the water until I need air. I’m already on such a natural high by the glorious nature and marine-life in the Philippines.

On our way to our lunch spot, we stop at two more different reefs surrounding some other little islands. All of them coming with a fresh eco-system to discover and explore under the water, different fish and different coral. I’m in my element. Eventually though, we arrive on land again and start drinking, singing and dancing, before having an incredible feast; fresh white snapper, grilled chicken and loads of fruit and veg, including marinated diced onion and bell peppers inside an eggplant skin, a delicious Filipino delicacy. Besides a small village that resides here, we are the only tourists on this gorgeous island. We speak to the locals and swim in the clear waters before we go out for a few more snorkel trips before heading home at sunset. On the ride back, half the group fall asleep. The other half fall into conversations that move from culture, to relationships, to travelling, to music. To the meaning of ‘freedom’, something we all have our own definition of. One of the girls heads rests on my shoulders as she sleeps, two girls across from me are lying in each-others arms talking and laughing. Everyone is enjoying the quiet ride back, affectionately sprawled across the boat, entangled amongst each-other. There is no-one here who isn’t somehow physically in contact with someone else from the group. It makes me happy, the way that strangers out here, backpackers, have no walls and no fears. Disconnected from the digital world, we find comfort in our human senses and connections, our conversations and affections, without judgement and stress. Once again, I look out to the ocean passing us by, radiating in the sunset, glad that I said ‘yes.’

 
 

 

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BREAKING CONNECTION: 10 DAYS OF SILENCE

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Before I left home at the close of 2016 I had a rough idea about kind of things I wanted to experience while away. I had plotted down a journey through Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, spanning up to two years. In my first month, I followed a pretty typical backpacker route through Thailand, finding familiarity within this new style of living. But it didn’t take long for me to crave experiences that felt different, that would test me and that I hadn’t read or already heard about from friends or on my Facebook feed. Around three or four weeks in, I found myself sitting atop a two-thousand-year-old temple in Bagan, Myanmar, with a handful of travellers watching the sun descend into the Earth, covering the space around me in beautiful colour. At this point, I’d ventured out on boats at the crack of dawn, slept in stranger’s homes and rode bikes off the beaten track to waterfalls, cliff-points and places that didn’t exist on maps. I thought I was doing pretty good at this travelling thing.

Watching this particular sunset, I really fell into the moment. I was completely absorbed by my present. All the distractions of my external world slipped away. As I looked across the vast golden land and temples that spread out in front of me, I felt the breeze brush over my cheeks and through my hair. I felt the sun on me. I watched the couple a level below me dance together to the music of their home. Another pair laugh sharing quiet stories. One guy to my left was lighting a roll-up and blowing smoke into the sky, watching it drift away in the wind. To my right, a girl from the Netherlands was meditating, smiling. Eventually, her eyes opened and I fell into conversation with her during the fading crimson of the sunset. I told her of my aspirations to become more aligned with myself and to learn more about meditation. In that conversation, she introduced me to an ancient technique called Vipassana; a 10-day silent meditation that she had recently finished. She talked about her experience with pride and admiration, as if it had humbled her and taught her so much. The idea of it baffled me… arriving at a retreat, handing in all your possessions and spending 10 days in complete confinement and silence. Why would anyone put themselves through that?

Over the following months, this retreat kept coming up in conversation. And the more it did, the more I felt pulled into the idea. I started to think about it like this: our whole lives we’ve been connected. From our earliest years with our parents and siblings. Through school with friends. And now, more than ever, through the media. You could be completely alone in a room and be connected to a million other people through a tool that sits in the palm of your hand. Good or bad, I have my arguments for both, but one thing I’ve come to understand a great deal over the past few years is the importance of balance. It exists within everything we do. Digital and social media has offered us so much; the means to communicate with my grandparents from thousands of miles away, or the chance to present voice for change from anywhere in the world and push culture-bending movements like Me Too and March For Our Lives. On the other hand, it has morphed us into a new breed of socialite, where for some, the constructed image of our lives on social media is more important than your actual life. Where limitless connection to world content has rendered us desensitised and sometimes cruel, abusive of our anonymity online. We live in a world now where a plea for positive change can be sparked into viral trend at such a rate that it can reach millions in minutes, but also where a video of someone else's pain and misfortune can trend just as quickly within a misguided form of humour.

What I've found is that it is immensely important for us to be aware of the power of social media, our influence as individuals and also, our consumption. Over the last decade or so, we’ve completed the transition into a new digital culture, but keeping oneself within the present and developing a balance in your life between reality and what you find on your phone is more important than ever. Vipassana offered me an opportunity to explore a life without connection, and intimidating as it was, I felt like it was something I had to do.

I completed my 10 days last October in Nepal, just after tackling Everest Base Camp, going from one extreme to the other. Now, with considerable distance from the experience, I can really say it has had an incredibly positive effect on how I approach my day-to-day life. While it still remains one of my most intense experiences since being away, it has brought a monumental level of clarity and understanding to my own purpose and direction.

For those who are unfamiliar with Vipassana meditation, it's an age-old technique originating in Burma and rooted within Buddhist tradition. Amongst a list of its rules are no speaking or communication (even eye-contact is forbidden), no reading or writing, no food after mid-day lunch, and ultimately, you must adhere to the meditation schedule of 10 hours of meditation a day, including an hour of discourse in the evening. To further stress the intensity of the retreat, here's a glimpse of our daily schedule:

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Up until this point, everyone I had fallen into conversation with about Vipassana had adamantly refrained from oversharing. The logic here was that the experience of Vipassana is entirely unique to the individual, and thus, giving a detailed account of ones experience only leads to expectation. I respected this intention, and despite my burning curiosity, I loved approaching this fresh new reality with barely any knowledge of what I was getting myself into. One friend had said to me of her experience “I found myself going crazy for the first three days, but after that, I started the most intense conversation with myself I think I’ll ever have.” The statement both intimidated me and incited me. I set aside some spare time in Nepal after my Everest Trek and discovered a Dhamma Meditation Centre in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. I booked my place, and before I knew it, I was on a bus heading away from Kathmandu and into this rural town, to essentially cut myself off from the world.

The night before, my apprehension and excitement to dive head-first into something completely alien to me was overwhelming. I attempted some basic research on my phone, finding statements like ‘Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’ and Vipassana is defined as ‘the art of living, the true nature of reality’. It was all very profound, but I felt fully ready for whatever lay ahead. Upon arrival the next morning, I was asked to hand in all my possessions, keeping the bare essentials; a toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel, sandals and a basic set of clothes. One of the meditation leaders said to us, “You will soon find yourself in line with nature, you will even free yourself from your name.” I let the notion sit with me as I filled out an entry form. And then it was time. Time for silence. Time for reflection. That was the last time I properly spoke for 10 days.

The Dhamma course is progressive, each day of meditation building on the last, and advancing your understanding of the practice. The theory is led by S. N. Goenka who shares discourse every evening through a screening, talking us through new lessons and exercises for the following day, facilitated by a plethora of anecdotes and fables. Interestingly, these nightly lectures often illuminated some of the experiences I was going through over the ten days. He compared the Vipassana course to brain surgery, clarifying that over the course of our time spent there, we would be cutting into our brains and it would hurt. As we slowly identify and remove all the negative roots that have dug deep within our past, until we get ‘stitched up’ on the last day. While I discovered this to be true for most others in conversations shared after my ten days, my own experience was quite different. Maybe that comes down to where I was mentally when undertaking the retreat, but I truly never felt a sense of emotional pain or any real sadness. This is, I think, because Vipassana offered me something I had desperately, desperately craved for such a long time, and never had... Time. In the world I grew up in, time was fast and fleeting. I was constantly in a race against it; sprinting through my childhood and school years, always trying to seize the moment, living each day to its fullest, trying to make good use of my time. And I wasn’t always on my time. How many of us really are? When a close friend of mine passed away when I was 19, I cried. I grieved. And later that day, I went to the university library to finish my end of year assignments, my eyes swollen, my mind twisting. When I broke up with my long-term girlfriend at 22, I began a journey into heartbreak more intense than I’d ever had to deal with before. And then I got on the train and went to work, forcing those emotions as far into the back of my mind as I could, until my journey home where they summited once more. What I’m getting at here is that in our day-to-day lives, time can often become disjointed, broken and rushed. As human beings, we are emotional creatures, and all too often we can neglect our most basic emotional needs, replacing them for the intense demands of the society we exist in.

Vipassana offered me time. During the ten days, I took my time working through anything that was complex, complicated and affecting in my life, accompanied by the meditation techniques I was learning. I ventured back to age 7, when my parents separated. I thought about its impact on me. And by that, I mean I took a deep dive into every trait of my character that has been affected by that experience in my life over 20 or so hours of stillness and patience. Uninterrupted thought and reflection. Time was mine, completely, and I used it wisely. I thought back over past relationships, friendships, triumphs, failures. I contemplated the concept of ‘regret’ for hours. What is regret, really? Can you ever truly regret something if that experience has led to growth and progression, mentally or emotionally? Many hours passed. Days, even. I felt like I was having a deep catch up with myself that had been pending for years and years. And I didn’t just reflect on my past, I thought to my present and my future. I thought about where I am as a person, in immense detail. What I’ve achieved. How I’ve grown and what I’ve learned up until this point. I thought about my future, who I want to be, what I want to do. What I define as personal success. All of these thoughts were given hours of dedicated time. Patience. Soon, I’m returning back to a corporate world, in one of most fast-paced cities in the world. The difference is,  I understand time now, probably for the first time ever. I don’t fear it, or run from it, or chase it. I own it, utilise it. I create it. My time is mine. And that is the greatest gift Vipassana gave me. An understanding and contentment of self. A learning of my own clock and how to control it.

This understanding of time came hand-in-hand with other valuable lessons, such as forgiveness. According to S. N. Goenka, our old disinclinations are stored within us, as sankharas. The idea is that if you keep ignoring these distressing emotions, they will continue to rise to the surface in the form of physical sensations; itches, aches, pains. We were taught to become aware of these sankharas, and when they come, not to react with a scratch or a shuffle, but to simply remain still and focused. Through this process, you endure the irritation as it develops within your physical structure, and eventually you are liberated, and it passes. In other words, you have finally let that suppressed pain leave you. Some I spoke to found this practice to be true, others did not. Personally, I felt incredible physical change over the course of the ten days. Early on, my body ached and irritated. My second night I could barely sleep through the back pain that had manifested over the initial day of 10-hour meditation. During my meditation, I found so many itches, aches, and nerve pinches in my back, neck and fingers. But once I dedicated time to the practice, these small irritations began to appear less and less, and the release of physical stress and agony felt amazing. Was it down to my body simply getting used to the new routine, or was the sankhara theory really true? I guess I’ll never really know for sure. Whilst the technique was mostly based in the physical, I found myself drawing some psychological conclusions from the underlying philosophy of sankharas. I looked at these sankharas as suppressed emotion, coming from painful moments in the past, or simply, the idea of holding grudges. How many of us do this all to often; find a suitable place, experience or person to point blame for our own pain, anger or misfortune? I know I have.

I would definitely have considered myself to be an over-thinker in the past. Things that affected me emotionally, however great, would have the power to manifest at an unbelievable rate into something so elaborate and well-thought out in my mind. On occasion, this offered me an aptitude for understanding people; why they are a certain way and are driven to particular emotions. It gifted me a level of empathy that has allowed me to connect with so many different people, especially on my travels, in a way I know isn’t particularly common. On the other hand, it has had the ability to fuel my depression, forcing me into deep black holes that I found impossible to climb out of. Since my early teenage years, this was something I was desperately trying to get a grip on. I wanted to understand my psyche better and have more power over my train of emotional thought. I talked with my Mother about potential therapy. I delved into books on depression, social anxiety and the power of the mind. Before Vipassana, I spent many years working on this successfully, but during the course of the ten days, I made rapid progression that has followed me into my daily life. I learned the invaluable art of letting go. Similarly to the theory of sankharas, I let any past grudges and grievances surface. I’d digest them, process them and then finally release. I made my peace with so many things during my Vipassana experience. There was once a time I had considered my mind a bit of a prison. I spent many years reconstructing that idea; planting fresh seeds and weeding out the things that didn’t belong there anymore. Vipassana allowed me to finally walk through the lush, flourishing garden I had been creating. I left feeling unshackled by anything from my past, fearless of anything awaiting me in my future, and most importantly, so alive within my present.

After the experience, I spent a lot of time reading and writing. I jotted down memories of ideas I had visited, and documented my feelings and thoughts towards what I had gone through. I read amazing articles from others who had undergone the Vipassana practice and evaluated my own experience in conjunction. I remember coming across someone who’d written that they had developed ‘an acute sense of self’ and scribbled it on the top of my page, underlining it. I related massively. I found the experience to be extremely personal, and while most of it I have and will keep for myself, I’m glad to be able to share a small portion of it with the world. After all, we are all on a personal journey, and the simple sharing of our stories can turn out to be some of the greatest gifts we can offer one another.

I hope to continue sharing mine.

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MY INCREDIBLE JOURNEY INTO MOUNT DOOM

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The alarm clock rang at 4:30am, on a cold morning in Taupo, New Zealand. The once silent room slowly shuffled and murmured into life, and one by one we arose and started to prepare for the 19.4 kilometer journey ahead of us. It was still dark out when we boarded our bus to Tongariro National Park, but during our sleepy journey towards the start point, we watched the skies brighten, with the first rays of sun greeting us as soon as we started our hike.

We learnt on the bus that Tongariro National Park was the first national park in New Zealand and that the weather is extremely unreliable, the last two days of trekking completely prohibited due to unforeseen snow-storms. I read a small brochure on the journey that informed me that the volcanic peaks of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and others are actually still very much active, and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered a world-renowned trek.

Now, after completing the trek trip myself, I can easily say that the Tongariro National Park is the best day-trek I’ve ever been on. Rich in both cultural identity and dramatic, awe-inspiring natural scenery; we ventured through huge, vast open spaces, covered in snow, surrounded by incredible mountain views, up tough rocky mountain-sides, with gaping valleys, and down shimmering golden hills. It had everything you could want from a trek this short, in terms of views and challenges. We had gotten extremely lucky with the weather, having come just at the end of a snow-storm which allowed us to witness the National Park in it’s finest conditions; dry, clear but covered in white. Regardless, the stretching views from the top, the crystal blue volcanic lakes you can walk around, the decent from mountain terrain into forestry… it was all amazing.

For me personally, the opportunity to stand face-to-face with Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom was a special feeling. The fantasy geek in me recited lines to myself in my head, appreciating this very real environment I was standing in. Overall, if you’re visiting New Zealand’s North Island - don’t miss out! The Tongariro Crossing is a must do.

 

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HOBBITON'S EVENING BANQUET: AN UNFORGETTABLE EVENING IN THE SHIRE

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It’s late 2001, and Christmas is around the corner. I’m eight years old, shuffling my way through a busy, vibrant crowd in London’s ODEON cinema, holding on to my Dads hand, along with my older brother, Andrew. A month earlier, the first instalment in the Harry Potter franchise was released on the big screen, setting the world into a fantasy-frenzy. For my brothers and I, and almost everyone else my age, the wizarding world that we had all already fallen in love with through the novels had been brought to life with so much character and charm, and it was all we talked about. Preluding that unforgettable cinema experience that brought the limitless paperback world of Harry Potter to living colour, another fantasy world shot into life within the trailers. Wizards, orcs, glowing swords and an ominous golden ring at the centre of it all. I see my Dad’s face; grinning ear to ear, eyes glowing with excitement. He leans across us - “This is my Harry Potter, boys!” A month passes, the curtains spread, the lights dim and the phenomenal score of the Fellowship of the Ring begins.

Over the next three and a half hours, I was transported into a fantasy world so different from the warm and unblemished universe of Harry Potter. I found myself terrified of Uruk-Hai, totally in awe of Aragorn, devastated at Gandalf’s apparent demise… and completely in love with the Shire. Our Dad, over the moon that his young boys fully appreciated something he adored growing up, talked assiduously with us about the story, and details we may have missed. This cinema experience was the beginning of a very long adoration of a world that begun construction in the 1930s. And so, the opportunity to visit Hobbiton was something I just couldn’t pass on.

Many years later, I find myself making a slow decent from Auckland, down both islands of New Zealand, a gorgeous country with more stunning and diverse greenery than any other place I’d previously visited. I wanted to take every day as it came, but there was one thing soon approaching at the forefront of my mind: Hobbiton. A place I’d been excited to visit since I heard of its existence, many years ago. Whilst double the price of the standard ticket, my friend Dilan and I opted for the Evening Banquet Tour, which promised Hobbiton at sunset and a feast worthy of thirteen hungry, uninvited dwarves. It turned out be so much more. The big green tour bus picked us up from the Shire’s Rest Cafe at 4:30pm, starting our experience with a video message from Peter Jackson and the LOTR design team, welcoming us into the real world they so brilliantly adapted from page to screen. Already, seeing this backstage footage of the Shire being brought to life felt special. Our guides were full of film facts, and terrible Lord of the Rings jokes. They led us through a cobblestone pass and into Bag-End, the setting sun fighting away any remnants of grey cloud. We started off with a patient walk, from Hobbit hole to Hobbit hole, accompanied by some wonderful behind-the-scenes stories from the set. Eventually we arrived at the top, to the hole on the hill, the iconic home of Bilbo. At this point, the sun was low enough that all of Hobbiton was covered in its glow. We looked across the river at The Green Dragon, hearing lively music inviting us over. What was so special about this place was the attention to detail. The pipe left on the table, next to a pot of Old Toby. The basket of freshly picked fruit from the garden. Real, worn suede jackets on the coat hangers, chess games half finished, a spinning mill wheel in full motion. The set was alive, as if it really existed. We walked over a bridge leading to the Green Dragon and, after retrieving our Shire brewed mug of cider, found our way back out there to watch the incredible sunset, which set the Shire ablaze in beautiful orange and gold. 

After the sun had made its decent we were taken into a hall and a countdown began before two big mahogany doors were pushed open, revealing a feast unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Long tables were covered in colourful, aromatic dishes; three or four slow cooked meats, covered in gravy. They had Samwise’s potatoes; boiled, mashed, stuck in a stew! Sweet potato, roasted aubergine, parsnips and carrots with crushed chestnuts and a honey glaze. Stuffing, sausages, caramelised onions. Some dishes I couldn’t even pronounce. No photos were taken over the next few hours as we dug in to this glorious meal, taken straight out of a movie scene. We haven’t even reached dessert yet, but my stomach is beginning to rumble, so I’m inclined to move on. 

After a feast I will never forget, we were led back into the hall and each provided lanterns. We made our way once more through the Shire at night, which felt completely different, a sort of new magic ran through it. The colourful lit-up Hobbit-holes reflected in the lake, which was full of colour amidst the blackness. We found ourselves gathered in the big space where Bilbo’s one-hundred-and-eleventh birthday is set and stood in a big circle. Our guide asked us all to close our lamplights and close our eyes. He asked us to reflect on the day and all the small Hobbit-holes we had passed, and to pick one. “Imagine for a moment, now,” He said, “that you lived at that Hobbit-hole, here in the Shire. Picture yourself sitting, right now on your rocking chair. The warm summer breeze making its way down your street.” The music from The Green Dragon still floated around in the distance, and I could hear the lake beside us. An overly-sentimental moment, sure. But I loved it. I thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the guides and the fact they appreciated the love people have for this fantasy world. It was a perfect way to end an amazing night, escaping into a world I’ve adored from behind a screen, or in pages, for so long. Now, I can live happily ever after, until the end of my days. 

 
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MY JOURNEY TO MEET SUMANTRA'S ORANGUTANS

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Since leaving Bali in search of more thrills I'd found myself climbing mountains for sunrise, gazing into toxic turquoise lakes and sitting on the fringes of volcanic craters, but it could be argued the best was saved until last. Although I was never allowed any pets, my childhood bedroom walls were filled with dinosaur posters and my bookshelves filled with animal books. I eventually moved away from the Jurassic era and a little closer to modern day, falling into complete fascination with monkeys and apes in particular (only boosted by King Ceaser and the Planet Of The Apes franchise) so, when I learnt of a place in Western Indonesia that serves as home to one of the worlds largest remaining Orangutan populations, I jumped feverishly at the opportunity.

After flying from Yogjakarta through to Medan, we set off on a five hour drive across the torturously bumpy terrain beside the banks of the Bahorok River, into Bukit Lawang - a small tourist village in North Sumatra where our adventure would begin. The following morning, we packed a small day pack each consisting of essentials, and set off in to the heart of Gunung Leuser National Park. En route, the amazing guides Helmi and Bunglah proclaimed that orangutans are currently classified as critically endangered, and a large part of this is due to rainforest deforestation from palm oil plantations. Within the UNESCO site we were currently hiking in, however, they were protected and monitored, whilst remaining wild and in their natural habitat. 

Within our first hour our guides brought us to a stop, patiently assessing our environment before pointing high up into the canopy. Soon enough, we noticed a huge nest within the trees and a broad dark face peering through the leaves at us. Our first orangutan, a huge male! From that point onwards, we encountered a handful of these incredible animals from the trees down to the ground during our trek, close enough at times to hold eye contact. Connecting with them in this way was truly an indescribable feeling. We also spotted the famously rare animals that call this jungle home, such as the Thomas Leaf Monkeys, White Tail Macaques, large Monitor Lizards and colourful Hawksbill birds.

Nearing the close of our first day of trekking, a nervous whispering spread across the five or six guides within the jungle, and their once playful demeanours very quickly became quite serious. Our guide, Helmi motioned for us to stop before approaching the next flatland, turning to us to explain the situation in a bit more detail. He told us that just around the next corner there lay a female Orangutan, feeding on the flat. Her name was Meena and she was known for being extremely volatile and at times aggressive. Upon asking why, he explained that she is a grandmother in this jungle, and not too long ago she birthed a stillborn child. She couldn’t accept this tragedy, however, and refused to part ways with her infant, which is not uncommon in these situations with apes. Traditionally, they carry the body with them everywhere, on their backs through the trees and across the ground when walking, and only once the head eventually removes from the body they bury and grieve. Helmi continued, telling us that in these instances, the corpse can inherit diseases and viruses very quickly, which could spread to other life in the jungle and create a chain of illness within the protected environment. So, in order to prevent this, Meena was put under with tranquillisers, and the corpse of her stillborn child was taken from her, treated and then buried. Apparently, since waking up without her child, she has been grieving heavily and acting very aggressively towards the guides.

This provoked some apprehension within the group, but as we approached, I found a composure and profundity in Meena that I wasn’t expecting, something far from the character I had drawn in my head. For me, one of my most memorable encounters was experienced in this brief moment. Time stood still as we slowly found open space around her as she ate. Her posture was so human; one hand stretched out behind her to support her, the other casually bent across her raised knee. She ate with her mouth closed, chewing slowly, watching each of us patiently, as if she was trying to gauge us and get a feel for our character, just like we do as humans in our first meetings. I remember her eyes falling on me. She sat still, holding her gaze collectedly. There was no anger, fear or an ounce of aggression behind her eyes. Just patient curiosity. She took a bite of her orange, without breaking stare. This utterly sincere moment, that felt as though it stretched over half an hour, was disturbed by a Macaque who had jumped onto the scene looking to steal some of Meena’s food, stirring up some of the passion we had heard so much about. As a confrontation began, we were ushered away to safety and forced to continue our travels. Until we reached our camp that night, I kept thinking of Meena. The closeness of our species, our mannerisms. Her ability to judge and identify the nature of our visit without animalistic emotion. Her composure.

We camped that night in the jungle beside a river, which offered us the perfect bathing spot that evening, after seven hours of trekking in the thick, humid rainforest. We heard brilliant stories from some of the other groups who told us of their own experiences - close encounters with local monkeys and orangutans who interrupted their lunch to steal all the fruit. The footage was massively entertaining.

Overall, the two days we spent within the jungle in search of these wonderful animals was incredibly satisfying. Not only to be so close to such majestic creatures whom share so much of our DNA, but to feel unrushed and able to observe them in their natural habitat, climbing, eating, nurturing their young, and playing, was an incredible honour - something I will never forget. 

If travelling to Indonesia, make time to visit Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world. Join Sumatra Orangutan Trek group and experience it for yourself!

 
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KAWAH IJEN: CLIMBING UP JAVA'S SULPHUR VOLCANO

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This past weekend, during a dinner with some friends on Nusa Penida island, off the east coast of Bali, I felt the full force of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake erupt beneath my feet. Like something out of a movie, locals and backpackers fled into the streets in panic, glasses crashing off shelves onto the floor, with screams and cries surrounding us. Within the hour, a tsunami warning was issued, and we grabbed backpacks full of essentials and immediately set off on our motorbikes to higher ground in search of safety. There was fear, panic and genuine anxiety amongst us, as we huddled in the mountains discussing the potential natural hazards coming our way. Unfortunately for our neighbouring islands, the experience was far beyond just fear, and for some, it was fatal. After some deliberation, I made the decision to head West, in an attempt to distance myself from the potential danger, heading towards Java, home of Indonesia's most reputable sulphuric volcano crater, Kawah Ijen.

Famous for it's unique electric blue flames, sun-coloured sulphur and gorgeous, highly toxic turquoise lake, Ijen is popular amongst many travellers and I was told by friends that it was a must do. They were one hundred percent right. We started our experience at midnight, travelling by jeep into the foot of the mountain. Surrounded by headlamps, we made our ascent in the darkness. Within an hour or so, the strong stench of sulphur spills in to your senses and the gas masks you've been provided are put to use. The huge, thick smog clouds make their way through and above the mountains around you and you're instructed now, at 2389 meters up, to start your climb down into the volcanic crater, towards the flickering blue flames and golden rock. Even with the mask, my lungs felt congested with thick, warm air within minutes, and my eyes started to water. After ten minutes, half-choking, half-mesmerised by the electric flames, I needed to make my way back up, desperate for fresh mountain air again.

 
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Venturing into the crater was an amazing experience, but the real highlight for me came with the sunrise. Huge, thick clouds floated across the earth below us, with the sky filling with colour as we sat on the edge of the cliff. On the other side, the famed turquoise lake slowly came to light. Once the sun finally showed itself, the view from the mountain top was truly baffling - the sky was filled with deep shades of blue and purple, and the crater formations around us felt so vast, stretching across the landscape. We walked along the crater edge, peering over the edges at the deep drop into smoke and water, suddenly feeling very, very small, surrounded by nature's grace. For anyone visiting Indonesia, I would highly recommend the climb. Suk Sumah, Kawah Ijen.

 
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TOP THREE HIGHLIGHTS FROM AUSTRALIA'S GREAT OCEAN ROAD

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Over the past year, I've visited over 10 different countries, slept in countless hostels and met so many incredible people on a daily basis. Every single day was something new and exciting - and then my money ran out. It had lasted me longer than expected and it was always going to happen sooner or later. Lucky enough for me, it happened as soon as I arrived in Melbourne - a vibrant, energetic city in the South East of Australia. Melbourne is full of life and there's plenty of fun to be had here, but three months of week-to-week work and city life had suddenly felt suffocating, after a year of living completely free. Lucky for us, its outskirts are full of adventure. All we needed was a car.

Without much thought or planning at all, four friends and I decided we all needed an immediate escape from the city. That night we organised a car rental and the morning after we were meeting at the airport, cramping our bags into our Toyota and setting off on one of the worlds most travelled roads, with barely any knowledge of what we were going to experience on the way. In the earliest hours of the drive, I really didn't care where we went. It felt so refreshing to be on the move again, driving alongside the ocean, the salty ocean breeze crashing in through the open windows while the world passed us by. Soon enough though, we decided we should think of a few stops to fill our day and after a quick surf online we'd mapped out some stops for our two days on the road. Here are my top three spots from the Great Ocean Road...

 

1. Erksine Falls

A short drive inland from the beach town of Lorne, you'll find one of the most popular falls in the Otways. On a good day, a strong stream cascades down 30 meters into the fern gully, surrounded by lush overgrow and wildlife. You can take a cool dip in the water or just enjoy some downtime within the cool, jungle like enclosure.

 

 

 

2. LoCH Ard Gorge

Just 8km east of Port Campbell, make sure you stop at this incredible viewpoint and beach cove. From the top, you can work your way round a variety of viewpoints exhibiting a plethora of natural rock formations, and incredible views that stretch out for miles and miles. But the real attraction is the pristine gold-sand beach, with crystal clear, cool waters and an cave you can walk in and explore.

 

 

 

3. The Twelve Apostles

I'd seen so many photos of the Apostles on brochures and postcards, but still, when we arrived I was blown away. Somehow, we had timed it perfectly. The dipping sun set a pink and orange glow throughout the sky, that sunk into the sand and sea, decorating the string of limestone cliff that stretched across the coastline. Every minute that passed, it just got better and better. We'd bought pizza and beers on the way and they were the perfect accompaniment to the experience. After a long day of driving and after a fair few photos were out of the way, we found the perfect spot to sit and really take in this view that was so, so worth the journey.

 
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WHY MARCH FOR OUR LIVES WAS SO IMPORTANT

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I spent this weekend hiring a car with some friends and driving up to Grampians National Park in South Australia. We arrived just before sunset and climbed out onto the cliff's edge for the perfect view. Sandstone mountains, wildflowers and forestry stretched across the world, illuminated by the glow of the sun. I inhaled the cool, fresh air, appreciating the sense of freedom and the perfect calm within the moment. We would spend that night camping on the mountain-top, and it wasn't long before the black sky was filled with stars. The four of us feeling completely isolated in the wonderful calm of the top of the mountain, I started thinking about the march that was taking place 10,000 miles away from me.

Since the shooting on February 14th at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, I've been so inspired and captivated by the students who have sought change, lifted their voices and stood their ground for a safer future. In the days that followed the shooting, I'd had countless conversations on U.S. gun laws, scrolled through videos, reports and statistics, until I came across something on Facebook that stole all of my attention. Emma Gonzales' incredible 'We Call BS' speech just a few days after the shooting at her school. Her voice cracked as she shared impassioned words and spoke for her fellow victims as she began:

"Every single person up here today, all these people, should be at home grieving. But instead, we are up here, standing together because if all our government and President can do is send 'thoughts and prayers', then it's time for victims to be the change that we need to see."

I felt so moved by her passion and emotion as she addressed thousands with a speech filled with strength and change. She talks about how it feels like this is the first time victims are actually being listened to on this topic, that has arisen over 1000 times over the past four years alone in America. She goes on to inform the audience of the gun-violence histories of Australia, Japan, Canada and the U.K., for instance, discussing how Australia had one shooting, changed its gun laws and have never experienced a mass shooting since.

I was involved in a pretty intense conversation on a Facebook status posted by a relative in the U.S., filled with essay-style comments going back and forth about the approach to gun-laws in the States. My brother and I chimed in with our opinions and were met with mixed responses. Many American's disagreed with our collective view, expressing that the guns aren't to blame, but the people using them, and in a recent interview with NRA spokeswomen, Dana Loesch, she labels the shooter involved in the incident in question as an 'insane monster'. This argument is a short-cut response I've heard and read too many times, to a much bigger problem. The individual that she is so quick to label 'insane' is in essence a young, unstable kid, who has grown up surrounded by a culture wherein the ownership of firearms is considered normal and at times, condoned (consider, for a moment, that Trump's solution was to arm teachers).

So many are quick to stamp these shooters with mental health problems after these tragedies, whilst leaving the slow development of this twisted and violent mentality so frequently overlooked. Surely some consideration should be focused on the ways in which one's mindset is altered by this society. A society where thousands of shootings occur every year, yet so quickly become yesterdays news. Just another headline, or statistic. In an environment such as high school where those who are different or suffering can so often be ostracized and ignored, leading to mental instability, it is alarming to think that a hormonal and emotional young person would be completely aware of their ability to obtain a powerful and deadly weapon, made purely to kill, en masse. And is it only the shooters in these instances who are affected by gun-culture? Many good people I know so strongly believe that they need a gun in their homes to protect. Protect how? By killing? What needs to be realised is that this is a vicious and violent cycle that should have been changed a long, long time ago.

The March For Our Lives was so important because of its resilience and perseverance. Despite there being numerous shootings in the past, this is the first time that we have been forced to listen and continue to listen and think about the problem. Despite so recently going through a tragedy, the students, victims and spokespeople who have created this incredible movement, have fought through a time of grieving to create change and fight for a future so that their generation doesn't have to continue to live with this problem. The strength in their young voices is the most important thing because they speak for a generation and they speak for the future. Despite still being in high school, they have worked tirelessly since the shooting to spread their passionate voice, to speak to organizations and press, to show up at every talk and to take every opportunity to spread their message, and it all led to this day. Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Common and Jennifer Hudson (who has lost her mother, brother and nephew to gun-violence) were a handful of the artists to perform and speak at the event, whilst the likes of Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Will Smith, Jimmy Fallon, Lady Gaga and Zendaya supported from the crowds, amongst many other big names. Additionally, more than 800 cities took part in the March.

This weekend, whilst myself and a small handful of friends gazed into the star-filled night sky, completely alone atop a mountain in South Australia, over a million citizens of the U.S. marched for change 10,000 miles away. A change sparked by a group of friends, students, victims of another mass shooting. Gandhi said 'Be the change you wish to see in the world', and this weekend, they were. They made and will continue to make history, and I will continue to watch in awe and to support. To these incredible students, and to everyone who marched, I stand with you.

Here are some of the pictures, tweets and moments from the event.

 

Emma Gonzalez names the murdered Parkland victims and observes several minutes of silence in a 6-minute, 20-second speech that covered the same time it took the gunman to kill 17 people in her high school, then states: "Fight for your lives before it's someone else's job."

Edna Chavez, a student at Manual Arts High, south of Downtown Los Angeles, blows a kiss as she speaks about the shooting death of her 14-year-old brother at a shooting earlier this year.

 

 

 

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TEN PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS OF 2017

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At the end of 2016, I quit my job and booked a one-way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand. I had no idea when I’d be returning home, as I set off on a solo backpacking trip through Asia. From that point, to the end of 2017, I visited eight countries in twelve months. Here are some of my favourite photos from one of the greatest years of my life.

1. Lady In The Siem Reap Slums

I was lucky enough to have been taken on a trip from Siem Reap into the slums by a local guide. During our trip we visited an old home where this lady was showering outside. I was able to communicate with her through my guide’s translations. Along with her grandson, she is the last of a long family tree, tragically extinguished by the Khmer Rouge regime.

 

2. Girls On Elephant Rock

When travelling through Sri Lanka, I made a really great group of friends in Ella, consisting of Australians and Dutch backpackers. We all met up in Arugam Bay and spent four days surfing, cooking, laughing and drinking in this incredible corner of the country. This photo, taken after a big surf day at Elephant Point, really sums up our time together.

 

3. The Morning Of…

This photo was taken around 6am, the morning that my team and I made it to Everest Base Camp - one of the greatest days of my life. I really love looking back at this picture and remembering the cold morning, the atmosphere and buzz amongst us, walking through the most perfect day to our final destination.

 

4. The Old Man And The Sea

This is easily one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken. We were waiting on the creaky, wooden port for our boat to pick us up and take us across the backwaters of Alleppey, in India. This wooden row boat emerged over the water, with a man with a face so dark and hair so white. The colours of this scene just felt so rich and captivating to me. He was a great model, and we became friends instantly.

 

5. The Lady In Colour

India was always rich in colour and smells. Wandering through the backstreets of Udaipur in Rajasthan, I noticed this lady, perched on a destroyed thin clay slab sticking out of the wall of her home, legs crossed, simply watching the passers by. She let me take a photo and to this day, the colours and her face take me back to this moment.

6. Mum, I Made It

This was the moment we arrived at Everest Base Camp. The feeling we all had when we made it; cheering and hugging, was priceless. I stood at the top of this small bundle of rocks and did a 360 turn, surrounded by the entire Everest Himalayan range. Truly astonishing and a moment I’ll never forget.

 

7. Steps In Jaipur

We came across this incredible holy monument in Jaipur, with pink and orange washed walls and symmetrical steps. I remember spending ages here with friends, just sitting on the steps and admiring the craftwork of thousands of years ago.

 

8. Sunrise On The Water

Sunrise and sunsets are two things synonymous with backpacking Myanmar. Everywhere you go has incredible opportunities to see sunrise or sunset from temples, lakes, bridges and monastery’s. This photo was taken under U-Bien bridge in Mandalay, as this fisherman was pulling in his nets.

 

9. The Sixty Kilo Walk

During our nine days hiking to Everest Base Camp, we spent a lot of time talking, eating and walking with sherpas and workers like this man, who carried 60kg on his back, travelling over six hours from place to place to deliver goods and food to the inns in each village. I felt this photo really immortalised that moment, with the mountains in the background and the huge cargo he had to carry on his back.

 

10. The Girl From The Village

One of the first things I did on my trip was a two day hike into the mountains and jungles of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. During our first day, we stopped at a village high in the mountains for some food, when this curious young girl appeared. I managed to take a photo of her after we played some hide and seek around the hut we were eating in and it captured her character perfectly. I’ll forever look back at this and remember the beginning of my adventures!

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ONE OF MY FAVOURITE DAYS IN SRI LANKA

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Sat in my new office, five floors up in the centre of Melbourne's energetic business district, I'm staring out the window at the world below; gravel and pavement, cars, trams, people, every one of them with somewhere to get to and a place to be. It feels so bittersweet to be back in this world, swapping tangled sandy streets and tropical coastlines for the bustling city-life. On the one hand, it feels so good to be back in business, creating again around like-minded people. To be able to go to cool independent bars and cafe's and have new clothes - no need to recycle the same three t-shirts I've lived off of over the past eight months. On the other hand, I miss adventure terribly. I miss not knowing where I'm going to wake up and where I'm going to sleep. I miss the feeling of meeting new people every time I arrive in a city I'd only ever read about, exploring a new world and sharing that experience with alluring strangers who are suddenly my best friends. 

Most days, I couldn't be happier to be here in this incredible city, somewhere I've always dreamed of visiting, and Melbourne really is amazing. But days like today, coffee in hand, peering out the window into this concrete jungle, I do find my mind tracing over faces, places and moments I shared and loved over my travels so far. One day in particular springs to mind.

I'd been in Arugam Bay for two hours, and the coach journey from Newara Eliyah was one hell of a ride. Predicted to be four and half hours long, I decided not to book a hostel and find something once I arrived. It would be the early evening and the strip would be coming to life, so I would get a good sense of where to stay. Alas, the heavens decided to open up a mere hour into the journey, sending bolts of lighting down to the Earth along with the thundering rain that smashed against the windshield. It's bad enough that Sri Lanka's drivers persist at driving 100mph regardless of terrain and traffic, ours was now driving almost blind against a thunderstorm. 

I arrived four hours later than expected to the town I'd heard so much about from other travellers. Night had already fallen and I had no idea where I was going to sleep, with my clothes drenched through. I found the closest place to stay and dropped my bags before venturing out into the street, which was regaining some life after the storm and it wasn't long before I bumped in to a few familiar faces who I'd end up spending my whole time here with. A few days in, we decided to take a trip to Elephant Point, rumoured to be a great surf spot out of the town. There were 12 of us in total, so we hired some boards and crammed into three tuk-tuks, haggling down to a good price for the ride there and back.

We built a quick rapport with our charismatic driver who let us take it in turns to ride the auto to the beach, which didn't disappoint - elephant-shaped cliffs that sink into gorgeous turquoise swells. The light breeze delivered the salty scent of the ocean into my lungs and from that point all I wanted to do was get in the water. A handful of us grabbed our boards and head straight in.

There was a real freedom that lived within every second of this day. A spontaneity that reminded me why I loved to travel so much. From riding the tuk-tuks, to surfing at the beach, to climbing to the top of the cliff all together, the day was full of freedom and laughter, and it was beautiful. 

 
 

 

Once we'd had our fill of Elephant Point, we jumped back into our tuk-tuks and head back towards the Arugam Bay strip. The setting sun draped deep pinks and oranges across the sky, serving as the ultimate backdrop as we raced each other across the open roads, hanging out of our auto's, laughing and joking, until our drivers told us to park up.

We lined up at the side of the road and looked out as the sun made it's decent into the Earth, highlighting the scattered clouds with colour. It was a great moment, but apparently this wasn't why we'd stopped. As the sun disappeared and we climbed back into our auto's, our drivers laughed and told us to wait a bit longer. We talked amongst ourselves, becoming frustrated at our drivers idleness. In the space of twenty odd minutes, it had grown really dark. That's when our drivers called out to us, pointing to the opposite side of the road where thick forest bordered the plain. A huge shape emerged from the woodland, then another, and another. Wild Elephants. The drivers flicked on their headlights, but it was only as they made it to the road you could really see them properly. We were all completely silent, in awe, as these magnificent creatures crossed the road in front of us, pausing only for the briefest moment to register our presence. And then they were gone.

As our engines roared back to life in succession, we all talked about how incredible these animals were and how great the day had been. When we finally reached home we all head out for drinks at Hideaway, our favourite bar, then a beach party, and the night went on. All in all, it was a perfect day - sun and surf, freedom and laughter, incredible nature and unforgettable encounters, all in great company. Not only one of my favourite days in Sri Lanka, but one of my favourites of this whole trip. 

 

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MY SUNRISE TREK UP KALA PATTHAR

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The alarm rang at 3:30am. It was dark, and cold enough that the windows were frosted over. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and stretched out my aching legs. This is how day ten of our Everest adventure began.

The previous day we'd finally made it to Everest Base Camp, a journey that lasted over nine hours from Lobuche. The day was long and hard but so well rewarded with such a memorable feeling - arriving at the camp with your friends to hugs, kisses and hi-fives, and lots of photos. By the time we got back to our teahouse we were all exhausted and ready for rest, and in the evening we were given a choice; wake up at 3:30am for a cold, hard sunrise trek, or enjoy a nice lie in, the first we'd have had in ten days. Every single person in the group sleepily made it into the lobby for our 4:00am meet time the next day, everyone was ready for the challenge.

The morning that followed turned out to be one of my favourite experiences of this adventure so far. Once our coffee cups were empty, we made our way outside one by one, leaving the warm indoors to a harsh cold wind, and a black sky filled with stars. We've never been out at this time before to see them and we were all in awe. Trailing from the tiny town of Gorak Shep was a bee-line of tiny headlamp lights making their tangled ascent up Kala Patthar, one of the tallest mountains in the Everest Himalayan Range. Everything around us was dark except these tiny lights and the surrounding white glaciers that towered like giants beside us. We began our ascent. 

The climb was taking us from around 5100m to 5600m and the sudden increase in altitude was very, very noticeable. A quick climb suddenly became slow, fifteen successive steps suddenly became three. Just a tiny exertion of energy and your body felt like it was sprinting. Three quarters of the way up my friend Lucy and I were ready to settle, give up on the climb and just stop and enjoy the view, but a few of the team who had made it to the summit turned up the noise and encouraged us to keep going. We forced our way up to chants and songs and eventually found ourselves at the feet of our friends, met by big embraces. Then it was our turn to cheer on the rest of the group. They found their way one by one, until we were all at the top. 

Once the climbing was finished, the cold hit. Our bags were frosted over and we were all hugging our bodies trying to keep warm as the world around us slowly lit up and came to life. Then, finally, just as we started talking about heading down early, the sun emerged. Rays of light cut through the sky to huge cheers from everyone at the summit. At this moment, you could fully appreciate the panoramic view of the Everest Range that Kala Patthar offered, including the Everest peak itself that never looked so close and so captivating. For me, this was easily one of the most enamouring views I'd ever, ever seen. I couldn't help but put my camera down and just take it all in, not just the views but the moment, the people, the atmosphere amongst us all at the top of that mountain. Electric and unforgattable. 

 

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MY SIEM REAP MOTOR MYSTERY TOUR

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Besides the world-famous temples of Angkor, I arrived in Siem Reap without much knowledge of the city at all. I hadn't had much chance to research things to do before arriving and it was the first time I'd really been travelling completely solo since starting this journey. Luckily for me, a woman overheard a conversation between myself and some new friends about things to do off the beaten track here. I was beckoned over and handed a wrinkled paper card which read 'SIEM REAP MOTOR MYSTERY TOUR'. "If you're looking for something different, this is it," she told me, and I was immediately intrigued. 

With two days set aside for the Angkor temples and just three days in the city, the following day was the only chance to get on this tour. I arrived home at midnight and eagerly sent an email to the only point of communication on the card, worried that I'd missed my chance. 1:00am I received a reply from Bun, the creator of this weird and wonderful mystery tour, "Thanks Alex! I'll pick you up at 2pm tomorrow!". That was it. Still a complete mystery, but that was absolutely fine with me.

At 2pm I was greeted outside my hostel by Bun, a friendly 30-something local, full of laughter and animation. As we started our journey I asked him about the mystery tour and how it got its name and his reply left me feeling both apprehensive and excited. He said, "I call it a mystery tour because neither you or I have any idea what we're going to do in the next four hours." He explained to me that he had grown up around the jungle and the slums, and in turn the outskirts of the city. He had practiced locally as a monk for two years before educating himself and studying at university. He knows this place better than anyone and when people visit his home, he wants their experience to be as authentic and as real as possible. It was at that point I realised today could either be a disaster or it could be magnificent.

On scooters, we travelled outside the busy centre of Siem Reap and within a couple minutes, Bun had us speeding away from the city and into the vast open countryside. We stopped at a small farm area and he proceeded to tell me the story of the family that were working around the crops. The mother had been married twenty years ago and had children, but during the Khmer Rouge regime, her husband was murdered. He pointed to a tall palm tree and told me that he had been hung from this exact tree. The smile left my face instantly. He told me that she had eventually re-married and had three more children and before I knew it, I was being introduced. The youngest girl grabbed me by the hand as I helped her harvest the field and led me through the farm she had worked on since she could walk. All of my apprehensions about the day vanished and I was certain that in four hours time I would have experienced things no regular tour could have offered me.

 
 

We set off once more through the neighbouring villages, following the dirt roads that connected these small communities. We passed by a group of women cooking and after a few words from Bun they beckoned us in to join them, laying down bowls of rice soup before us as soon as we sat down. I asked Bun how he knew them and he told me he didn't, and that this was simply the Khmer way. After eating I walked into the garden and found an elderly lady hanging her washed clothes up on a line. She was so famished and thin. The lines of her face spoke a thousand words, but her lips were tightly sealed in a knowing smile. Bun joined me and worked as translator, explaining to me that she was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and had lost many family members to harsh terrors of this genocidal campaign. We shared a moment watching each other as Bun spoke, and I suddenly felt so small. So greedy. So lucky, and ungrateful for everything I've had at my feet back home.

 

We worked our way through the villages, heading further and further away from the centre of the city and out into the country side. We passed by temples and pagoda's, families and workers. One man was chopping up a snake he'd come across in the fields to make snake soup for his family while his son walked around wearing the most incredible Mickey Mouse one-piece. The best thing was, we never just passed by. Bun, as intrigued as I was, stopped everywhere to talk to these people and share their stories and experiences with me.

Eventually, we left the villages behind us and entered the slums of Siem Reap. A bleak and impoverished part of the countryside, covered in dry sand and half-destroyed houses. As soon as we arrived into the open stretch of the seemingly empty slums, kids started to run towards us from out of nowhere, smiles stretched across their cheeks. Guests meant food. I reached into my bag and pulled out the huge bag of Oreo's I had bought in anticipation for a moment like this and started to fill the empty outstretched hands of these children who looked up at Bun and I as saints. One of the older boys donning a Argentina kit told us of a football match about to commence. I gave Bun a nod and the kid jumped on his scooter to show us the way. Soon enough we arrived a bumpy, open lay of land. A collection of teenage boys stood in the sun, topless and sweaty with a football in the centre, waving at the foreigner to join them. I took of my t-shirt and shoes and head onto the 'pitch', but after half an hour of intense football under the raging sun, Bun and I admitted defeat and left the game to continue our adventure.

We rode fast through the bumpy serpentine roads of the slums until we reached a long stretch, bracketed by tiny wooden houses with vast lakes and fields behind them. Bun sped ahead as I took my time on this road, watching either side of me as families greeted this unfamiliar outsider. The kids yelled hello's at me with great teethy smiles as their elders nodded in welcome. Almost every single family stood out to watch me ride by on my bike and I shared smiles with all of them. It felt so surreal. I've been through places similar to this, not quite as real. The difference was, I'd always gone with a group, or on a tour, most often to places that tourists have passed through many times before. This time around I was completely on my own, and the way the people looked at me, I couldn't help but feel like visitors didn't come this way very often.

I finally caught up with Bun at the top of this stretch. He'd settled at a small area in the middle of this road, the perfect sunset spot. We stopped and watched and talked about the day as I took photos of the landscape as Bun meditated. As we made our way back home against a deep amber sky, I felt really happy to have met Bun. A single Dad, he didn't have the time or money to travel, although it was his biggest passion. Instead, he spent every day sharing his world with people from all over the globe. I would recommend his tour to anyone visiting Siem Reap, but don't expect the same experiences as I had. It will still be one big mystery for the both of you.

 

 

Since writing this blog post, Bunny, with the help of some travelling friends, has been able to create a website for his business,. This trip was one of my biggest highlights from my time in Cambodia and I would recommend it to anyone. Thinking of going off the beaten track in Siem Reap? Check out Bunny's Mystery Tour here.

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A MORNING ON INLE LAKE

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During our time in Myanmar we passed through Inle Lake, a wonderful destination located in the Nyaung Shwe township of Shan state. 3.5 miles long and seven miles wide, the lake is famous for its unique fishing techniques and floating markets, something I had to see when passing through.

We set out early, travelling through the town in the black of morning at 5:30am to the docks. Once we boarded, we set off into the lake in complete darkness, the only sounds were of the motor and the water breaking at the bow. Soon enough, the world was slowly brought to light. Wonderful colours of blue, pink and purple filled the sky and the lake, bracketed by silhouettes of mountains, banana trees and fishermen setting off for the catch of the day.

We spent the day in the floating villages that exist on the lake, passing through the fresh-food market, learning how to canoe on the narrow, unbalanced wooden boats the locals use daily, trying local foods and delicacies and learning how this incredible community works.

I put together a really rough capture of our morning, shot with my GoPro Hero 4+, hope you enjoy! (Please excuse my cheesy selfie moment half way through!)

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CHASING THE SUN IN PAI

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Pai was most likely my favourite spot on my journey around Thailand, a small town north of Chiang Mai. It was the place that the Pai Panther Biker Club (as I called us) was born, a collection of 16-20 backpackers who instantaneously came together on the road in search of amber skies, winding highways, caves, waterfalls and springs. Here's how it went down...

Ben and I had been travelling north of Thailand since my earliest days in Bangkok. We hopped off the bus that had brought us from Chiang Mai, our heads spinning from the bumpy, serpentine route across the mountains to this small hippie town we had caught wind of. Online we had found a relaxed looking hostel to stay at over the coming days and followed our maps around the corner and down a seemingly empty alley... surely, the maps have got it wrong? Soon enough, the strumming of a guitar caught our ears and the hostel logo came into view. We turned into the hostel and were greeted by a long-haired dude at the bar and then the barman - John - an image of John Lennon if ever I've seen one. "Welcome to Common Ground fellas!". Liverpudlian too, amazing. Two guys we're singing and playing guitar from the comfort of a string of hammocks, while another guy painted the wall behind them, a psychedelic tree of life made of fluorescent greens and blues. I loved this place already.

We were introduced to Jordan, an Australian whose welcoming and laid-back attitude made it feel as though we'd been here for weeks already. "Need anything guys, just give me a shout," he said. Having come from two busy cities, full of vibrant energy and life, we happily welcomed this new environment, this perfect hub of calm, cool bohemian culture. We immediately went to fetch some scooters for hire. No questions, no license enquiries, just payment. In under twenty minutes we were driving back up our alley to our hostel, greeted by quite a few more bikes outside than before. As we walked back inside, we noticed a collection of backpackers, some checking in, some introducing themselves to others - the last bus of the day had just brought a fresh batch of backpackers to our new home. After some short introductions, the group were eager to get on the road. We all hopped on our bikes and head to the top of the alley, ready to head to Tham Lod Cave. I looked over my shoulder and smiled back at the 16 strong congregation of scooters, revving and ready... the light went green and we were off.

This was my first time riding a scooter, ever. Before I knew it I was on the open road hitting 60mph and it felt amazing. The wind beat against my chest as I rode past other members of the group, looking out onto the most fantastic landscapes. Pure and complete freedom, that was what it felt like.

We extended our time in Pai from three days to seven and in that time, the Pai Panthers shared many great rides together, often riding back on winding highways, beside a blanket of deep orange sky and a vast green bed of forest and jungle. We shared some of the best days and nights with this group of people in Common Ground hostel, my favourite home in my journey so far. If you get a chance, go to Pai. Stay at Common Ground. You won't regret it. 

 

 

 
 

 

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TWO DAYS IN THE JUNGLE

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Whilst staying in Chiang Mai, it won't take long to realise there is much adventure to be had here. Entering your hostel, you'll be met by hundreds of glossy folded leaflets full of excursions, tours and activities - colourful and visual, before you know it you'll be making the tough decision of weather to zip-line through the jungle or go cliff jumping in the Canyon. We chose to spend a day with elephants. And then we chose to spend two days hiking and living in the jungle.

We chose to go for the more pricey trip with 8Adventures as it included water rafting and we're so glad we did. We were introduced to Sak and Not, our guides, at basecamp and they really made the excursion what it was with their knowledge of jungle and how to survive off raw materials, as well as their humour and character. Here's a little inside peak into our two days in the jungle...

After two hours of trekking uphill through a maze of thick, tangled bamboo we finally reached our first checkpoint - a clearing in a rice field offering views of the village in the distance. From the muggy and humid interior of the bamboo jungle to the clean and crisp air of this open space, we quickly realised how difficult this hike could become.

We came across some local villages harvesting their rice in front of a glorious mountainous backdrop. They laid down a wide blue mat, bound together their rice stems with string and smashed them down on steel barrels, forcing all the rice to come loose, discarding the stems. I asked the eldest of the group if I could help and as soon as I finished one band of rice stems I was immediately handed another, and then another, much to the amusement of our guides!

After about six hours of gruelling trekking uphill, we finally reached our base for the evening at around 1600m. Constructed with wood and bamboo, with a small room full of thin mattresses and mosquito nests, we found our home for the night fascinating. Reaching 6:00pm we realised we needed to find our spot for sunset, so we set out about the village, coming across a set of bamboo houses mid-construction; floors, roofs, but no walls - perfect. We set up our camera's and took in the view before a curious young Thai boy found his way to our spot, immediately reaching for the camera's, turning our village sunset into a welcomed photography lesson.

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After sunset, the skies colour disappeared pretty quickly until we were left with torches and a fire as our only sources of light. We had an amazing home cooked meal around our fire, with soups, pork belly, sticky rice and more, all cooked over a fire and with bamboo sticks. After food we asked Sak questions which were greeted by many stories of his life living in and around the jungle and these remote villages that function here. 

At around 9:00pm, in the pitch black of night we were given a question: bed time, or night hike? Sak, excited as ever, grabbed his essentials and we head to the ATV. Five people in one quad was far from comfortable, so i had to sit on the front hood as we climbed the steep hill, also far from comfortable! After a short drive and an hour and a half hike upwards, we reached the 5500 ft summit in pitch black. You couldn't see where you stepped on this tiny base without a torch, all you could see was the stars.

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CHIANG MAI'S ELEPHANT SANCTUARY

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Coming to Chiang Mai, I knew that spending some time with the incredible Thai elephants was something I had to do. I've become very aware of the cruelty that goes on in a lot of zoos and parks in Asia and was reluctant to throw money at an organisation that advocated these customs, so I was so happy to come across the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Here, we were able to join the team of Karen village-people, helping feed and bathe these wonderful animals, getting a bit muddy in the process...

The day began with an hour journey to the sanctuary, meeting all the other backpackers and getting changed into the swaggy hippie attire provided by the Karen hosts. And then came the elephants...

We fed and played with the amazing elephants, which were so lovable, friendly and active, from the eldest to the youngest, a 1 month old called Lady Gaga. Before we knew it, it was time for a bath. Here's a little video of the day...

 

After we got all cleaned up, we had some amazing pad thai and rice, courtesy of the Karen village people. This also gave us a great opportunity to speak to them, learning a little more about their lives and the lives of the elephants. For example, did you know that elephants fall pregnant for 22 months?! Yikes.

What a day! I had the best time meeting these wonderful animals amongst loads of other travellers, talking to the village people who run the camp and spending some time in the great outdoors. To anyone visiting Chiang Mai, i'd definitely recommend a day of mud baths and banana feasts with Thai elephants, best experienced at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary!

 

 

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A THREE DAY JOURNAL OF BANGKOK

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November 23rd

During the weeks that led up to this journey, every day would pass in similar fashion. My dreams would be distrubed by the unavoidable pitch of my alarm at 8:00am and I would reach for the post-it note sticking to my bedside table, featuring a list of things that I needed to accomplish in that day. Constructing this the previous night had become a staple part of my bedtime ritual, and this would be the first thing I’d address as I wipe the sleep from my swollen eyes. My days would be fleeting, a messy rush and a failed mission as four or five things would be added to the next days list before bed, and new ‘must do’s’ would be grumpily made note of.

November 23rd was very different. There were no more lists, no more notes to reach for. No more time to prepare and no more time to worry. Every day leading to this one had a plan and a strategy, but as my sleepy fingers trailed over the snooze button on my all-to-familiar 8:00am alarm, my stomach was met with something very unfamiliar. Nerves. Panic.  Anxiety. How much hadn’t I done? How many failed ‘to-do’s’ would come back to haunt me after this day? There wasn’t much time to dwell on it - it was time to pack. 23kg. 19kg. 12kg. I strike out the unnessessary items I once deemed essential one by one as I aim for the lightest possible backpack. Still full to the brim, but 12kg will do.

Dad makes it to mine early and again, the reality of the situation dawns on me a little bit all over again, but that’s nothing compared to how I felt saying my goodbyes at the gate. Mum and Dad are in tears. My little brother, Luke, is smiling at me, for me, excited for what he knows I’m soon to experience.  I hug Mum and she says “If anything happens, if anything happens to you, if you get hurt you come straight back home to me!” This cuts through me. It does all over again as I write it down. I felt myself shiver, and I feel my eyes squeeze back any tears - I don’t want to show my parents the slightest trace of fear. Then there’s Dad, so overcome with sudden emotion I can’t make out his muffled words as he buried his face into my sweater. I feel a wave of emotion rush through me once more. My eyes squeeze shut again. One more hug. One more glance. One more look over my shoulder as I head inside alone. Solo. That’s me from now on and for the foreseeable future. My hands tremble slightly as this wave follows me around the corner, but I stop. Inhale. Look up from my feet to straight ahead. And then there is a new wave, one filled with confidence, positivity and excitement.  One that is screaming for adventure, knowledge and life. I take my first couple steps with this new wave to make sure it fits. It does. 

 

November 24th

Fast forward from the twenty minute run through the enormous Dubai airport to my final call, to the seat-belt sign flickering on, followed by an announcement from the captain. Time to land. The twelve-hour journey is over and now I face the challenge of navigating through Thailand’s infamous capital. Passport control and baggage claim take mere minutes and I’m out in the Bangkok air, it’s thirty degrees and humid as hell. I head back inside and hop on the city link to the center, my eyes are met by every new person who arrives through the doors nearest to me. They’ve seen thousands of me, I’m sure, but a smile is still met by a smile and that’s always a good omen. I see trickles of rain appear on the windows. Before I can finish my negotions with the Gods, the sky opens and unleashes a thunderstorm that would have Londoners scrambling like ants. Thunder, lighting and the powerful drum of rain against the steel barrel we speed into the city in. Jacket on. Raincover on. The locals laugh at me as they pull out their umbrella’s, all too prepared.

I reach my stop and laugh to myself as I head out into the unforgiving conditions that arrived to greet me. I follow my map from memory for ten minutes with my head down before realising it was the opposite direction. Twenty minutes back and my shoes, shorts and front-pack are drenched. My face is soaking, it’s still 30 degrees. I turn a corner and there it is. Bed Station Hostel, the only light on the corner of the street and I follow it. I feel like Colin from Love Actually as I burst into the door and pull off my hood. Just swap the snow for rain and the horny american girls for drunk backpackers. I’m shown my room and 15 minutes later, I’ve showered, unpacked and am ordering my first beer. I sit down at a table full of backpackers, but no one turns their head so I simply listen to shared stories of travel and sex, for now that’s fine with me. Eventually, I get talking to a guy from Croatia. Then a girl from US and a guy from London who’s lived in Thailand for five years. Then some locals. Then some Germans. Before I know it, drinking games are in full flow and we’re heading to Khao San road – the amazing, trashy, glorious, alcohol-ridden elite home of the drunk backpacker. There is no better place to start, so it seems.

 

 

November 25th

I wake up at 1:30pm, sleepy, groggy and filling in the blanks. This isn’t my usual style, to waste a day of travel and of exploring so I drag myself to the showers, and eventually out of the front door. The hostel is a complete contrast of the night before, maybe I wasn’t the only one having a much-needed recovery sleep. I head straight to the famous Bangkok temples to start, Wat Phom and Wat Arun, but it begins to rain again. With the temples covered in grey and my head still banging from the night before, I can’t help but feel a bit deflated. I take refuge in a nice looking restauarant close by to have my first meal of the day - Pad Thai it is. The food is great, but as a stare out to the stormy streets with a sore head and tired eyes, I feel a slight loneliness creep in, and crave some companionship and conversation. It feels unusual to be eating alone in a foreign city. Raincoat back on I trudge out once more, telling myself that the first days are always like this and that it’s nothing to go by. And I was right, I head home and have shower number two, getting into my comfiest clothes ready to relax and plan my trip to Chiang Mai for the following day when I see a familiar face. A german girl I met the night before called Laura. She was very sweet, reading to me from her Bangkok travel guide as I sat next to her and opened my laptop, which closed just as quickly at the mention of a rooftop bar. She was going with two other German guys and a girl, and now me.

I head back to my room to change clothes and we set on our way. Benjamin, Laura, Hannes, Suzie and Me. They were nice, probably the nicest people I’d met so far. I asked questions and learnt about them, who they were and what they did and the places they’ve been, one by one. Then we reached Cloud47, the rooftop bar on the 47th floor that opens up to incredible views of the whole city, its towering skyscrapers sinking down into brightly coloured steets. We ordered our Chang’s and enjoyed the atmopshere of the rooftop, all well aware of the gem we had stumbled on. After we’d finally had our fill of the mesmirising views, we head to a market for some food, passing down countless offers for ping-pong shows as we went. Food down, goodnights said, I crept into my bed at 1:30am. I felt like I’d made my first friends and things were taking shape. I felt good. I felt excited for the next day and all I wanted was for sleep to disappear and to wake up to a sunny sky instead of grey.

My alarm went off at 9:00am and I felt the rays of the sun squeezing through the gaps of the blinds. Sun.

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I MISS THE OLD KANYE: TWELVE YEARS OF KANYE WEST

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I MISS THE OLD KANYE, STRAIGHT FROM THE 'GO KANYE
CHOP UP THE SOUL KANYE, SET ON HIS GOALS KANYE

 

Travelling into London this morning, my brother and I fell into discussion. We talked about Kanye West, an artist which we've both grown up adoring. Sharing one headphone each, we journeyed into central from zone 6, shuffling through Ye classics,  Last Call, Never Let Me Down, Homecoming and Family Business, to name a few. We exchanged opinions on his influence on music, the hip-hop genre specifically, and the impact his catalogue of work has had on some of the most talked about artists to grace headlines in the music industry today.

Let me start by saying this piece is no dig at Kanye, despite what its title may imply. Some great artists you are introduced to late. You're given a taste of something and you either bite or you don't, and if you do, you often crave more. I've listened to the likes of Queen and Michael Jackson for as long as my memory stretches,  but late greats like Bowie I fell into much later, encouraging almost a sonic journey through an extensive catalogue of albums, songs and styles. Along with so many of my friends who appreciate Kanye like I do, I grew up with his music and fell in love with it all on my own, it was never introduced to me later or force fed. For a kid that grew up on rock and pop, I had never ventured deep into the realms of hip-hop. I didn't know who N.W.A were, I hadn't even heard any of Hov's early stuff. I'd listened to some Tupac and Biggie that I'd liked, but the genre was barely existent in my every day listening, especially in comparison to now, with my iTunes library full of its most influential and distinguished records, from Illmatic, to Stankonia, to Straight Outta Compton. It was Kanye's The College Dropout that created that bridge for me, leading me into a long-term relationship with hip-hop that has since never wavered and probably never will.

This early work was a perfect intro into the genre. Along with Late Registration a year later in 2005, The College Dropout showcased Ye's natural mastery at chopping up soul beats to make a more widely accessible, jocular breed of hip-hop. Since his earliest days on the scene, before he may have even known it himself, Kanye has been a futurist, never a conformist. Fast-forward to present day and look over his catalogue of music, eight albums spanning twelve years, all showcasing Kanye's huge influence on the transforming trends of the genre and it's place in pop culture. Think back. Hip hop wasn't relatable to the everyday fandom, Kanye made The College Dropout. He predicts the imminent wave of EDM culture and samples Daft Punk on Stronger. He sees a need for love and melody in rap and creates 808s and Heartbreak. Hip-hop isn't experimental enough, he introduces Yeezus. Kanye has always been the first. Whilst his first three records we're instantly adored, 808s was something new and entirely unique. A hip-hop artist exploring themes of loss, heartache and a disaffected fame through love songs and electronic beats? It took a bit more time, but it wasn't long before it seeped through the cracks of street-rap, influencing emerging artists and thus, transforming a part of the genre in a massive way. Would we even have hits like Hold On We're Going Home without 808s? Kanye has been a constant pioneer of change in the genre and today, the hip-hop world thanks him for it, often. 

How many contemporary artists do you think could achieve what he has done with The Life of Pablo? The album was completely self-marketed, regularly prolonged, name-changed (four times!), and had successfully caught the attention of the world within its first whispers. The pop-culture juggernaut, who once upon a time rapped about his desperate efforts to sign a deal, now has the world at his feet, selling out Madison Square Gardens in mere minutes, along with cinema tickets all over the world to premier his new album. 

But what about the music? Whilst listening to tracks spanning Kanye's twelve years of music, this became the sole focus of my conversation with my brother on our journey into London. Listening to the bracketing albums, you'll certainly hear the difference. The College Dropout emblazons a hungry, talented, meticulous artist striving for success at all costs, and as you would imagine over a decade later, The Life of Pablo showcases something completely different. This is not to say that it's bad, or that I didn't or don't enjoy the album. I do. Most of it, anyway. I remember starting my first listen chronologically with Ultralight Beam and feeling chills at its opening gospel sonics, as well as pure elation when Chance's genius verse drops. I was immediately sold. But as I reached the end of the album, whilst I enjoyed it greatly for what it was, something was missing for me. Straight up rap. Many may disagree, but as much as I hugely enjoyed the album for many things, including its production value, style and synth-heavy electronics, I desperately longed for quality lyrical content and good old fashioned rap that I don't feel existed. The elite verses found on tracks like Made In AmericaNo Church In The Wild, Runaway or All Falls Down were replaced with forgettable features from Ty Dolla Sign, Young Thug and even drooly verses from Ye himself.

For as long as i've been a fan, i've been able to quote Kanye. I quoted Graduation endlessly, and I still rap along to so much of My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy. When tracks from Watch The Throne came on in clubs I could rap a whole verse along with my friends with ease and confidence. Did that exist on this album? There was no Family Business flow, no brilliant metaphors like that in Homecoming, or anything like the genius construction of Lost In The World, featuring one of my favourite Kanye verses. Kanye had brought together over ninety contributors on this album, is that perhaps why his own light, as a rapper, didn't quite shine as bright? As a producer trying to make it as a rapper, Kanye worked tremendously hard early on to show his worth, but his knack for clever wordplay, fluid rhyme patterns and vivid imagery were still hugely present in later works like MBTDF and Watch The Throne, so why couldn't I find it in The Life of Pablo?

Personally, I enjoy music for its sound and its melody, but I love it for its words and meaning. As far as rap goes, delivery and lyrical content are what appeal to me. That's why I love J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, two artists that have such a raw talent when it comes to telling a story, vividly and intelligently. Kanye has always had that. It's one of my favourite things about his music, but I didn't find it here. The Life of Pablo is a great album, and yeah, I love the new Kanye. But sometimes, I miss the old Kanye.

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