New Year. Old Dreams.

First of January is one of my favourite days of the year. While to many the first day of the new year is a chance to recover after the New Year’s Eve craziness, to me it’s a new beginning.

I prepare for this fresh start for weeks, beginning to plan my resolutions as early as October. I look at my progress since the previous January and review the lessons learnt. I frantically clean the apartment and ensure I don’t carry any unresolved projects into the New Year. I vow to be better come January 1st.

This year was no different. I made my list of things to focus on. Alongside daily exercise and other noble pursuits, I add my usual – travel to five new countries each year. Except that this time it’s not enough.

2016 has brought some truly unforgettable moments that I will cherish forever. But it also brought a variety of other things. Things I don’t like to remember. While I managed to visit some amazing places, spoke at a travel conference and delivered my own bespoke travel psychology workshops, I also let life take over a little. A little too much.

Travel has always been a part of my DNA. It’s always been there, I’ve always taken my wanderlust for granted. Until 2016 when for the first time in life, I felt too tired to travel. Me. A travel obsessed person, dreaming of visiting every country in the world, suddenly had to have her husband convince her to spend money on honeymoon. Me. A travel writer, who instead of waking up with excitement at the thought of flying to Mexico arrived at the airport dreading the long journey.

That’s when I realized that I begun to let life take over. Reality was starting to win over dreams, exhaustion began to conquer wanderlust. Luckily, not for long.

Mexico woke me up. This colourful country rubbed off my soul and slowly I started to emerge again, my hunger for travel stronger than ever before. Had it not been for this one flight however, have my husband given in to my pragmatism, things could have been very different.

Look around you. Are you doing what you thought you would be doing in life? Have you pursued that dream career? Is your life the way you wanted it to be? If not, what are you doing to reclaim those dreams of yours?

Few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending my Sunday afternoon with a group of people who came to my travel psychology workshop. They all shared the same dream of traveling, but all were stopping themselves from making it come true. Money issues? Sure, maybe you can’t afford that trip around South America at the moment, but what are you doing to save up for it? Are you reading travel guides and making notes because one day you know you’ll make it there? Or is your fear stopping you? We can’t always make our dreams come true right now. But it doesn’t give us excuse to stop dreaming.

In 2017 I wish all of you to reconnect with your dreams and start making even the tiniest steps to helping them come true.

To help you reignite your travel spirit, for the next 7 days I will be posting here a little dream related travel treats.

Let us keep on dreaming and never let the everyday life take over.

Happy and hopeful New Year.

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Have yourself a hyggelig Christmas

We spend weeks preparing for Christmas. We run around shops in search of the perfect gifts for our loved ones, fill our homes with Christmas decorations and stack our fridges with delicacies to be enjoyed with the family. We dine with our families on the 24th December, or excitedly unwrap our presents on the morning of the 25th – depending on the customs of the country we live in. The Christmas traditions may change depending on our geographical location, but around the world the one Christmas-constant is the special atmosphere we are all hoping to create.

People across the globe agree that Christmas is a time of togetherness. It’s that special time of the year when we pause everything, when work comes second for a change, and we focus on our loved ones and we try to be present.

In “The little book of hygge: the Danish way to live well”, Meik Wiking describes Christmas as one of the most hyggelig seasons. Hygge is a Danish term used to describe the cozy, warm atmosphere of safety and connectedness. Think fluffy blankets, hot chocolate and board games by the fireplace. In the words of the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, hygge can be “everything from the art of creating intimacy to cosiness of the soul to taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things”. Following this definition, it’s easy to understand how Christmas carols, mulled wine, eating good food in the company of your loved ones, pine scent and cracling fire while it’s snowing outside, are full of hygge (or as the Danish say, hyggelig).

The very concept that hygge represents is nothing new –  most people in Europe are naturally drawn to beautiful interiors, warm lights, smell of freshly baked cake, natural materials and comfotable clothes, things that are hyggelig. The difference is that we do it subconsciously, while the Danes turned it into a conscious choice. They deliberately fill their homes with candles (very hyggelig!), make time for their friends and surround themselves with interiors that are high on the cosy-factor. As described by Marie Tourell Soderberg, hygge is “the danish art of happiness” and has been found to be a significant factor contributing to our wellbeing.

While many of us are still finishing off the leftover Christmas food and re-watching all the Christmas classics, some are busy hunting bargains in the shopping centres. England in particular is famour for its Boxing Day sales. Thousands of people prefer to spend their day off work shopping to staying home with their families, driving up sales and helping retailers make profit. Sadly, what started off as a medieval tradition of giving boxes of money and little gifts to the poor, has now become one of the most lucrative selling days for the years.

This Christmas, I wish you to spend this day in a more hygge way.  Instead of spending money on goods you’ve been tricked to belive you need, how about you focus on people instead? Maybe call a relative you have not spoken to in a while,  snuggle up underneath a fluffy blanket with your spouse or a child while watching “It’s a wonderful life”, ask your grandparents to tell you how they used to spend Christmas when they were little, invite a friend home for some remaining cake. Be present. Spend time, instead of money.

Merry Christmas and have a hyggelig time.

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Hold on to that holiday feeling

You go away. You explore another country, marvelling at everything. You notice new things around you and within yourself. You make promises, when you go back life won’t be the same anymore. You’ve been to the other country, you saw a different way of living is possible. You’ve changed.

You go back.

Nothing changes.

I believe traveling open our minds, it helps us to see things in a different way. It supports our development and allows us to pause and reflect – maybe life doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been? Maybe you don’t have to be the way you’ve always been?

I got back from Mexico filled with its energy. I brought its beautiful colours and sunshine with me to London, but soon after the old life took over. Work took over. Rain and cold took over.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

There are ways to not give in to the post-holiday blues. Let me present:

10 ways to prolong that holiday feeling

  1. Listen to the music

When I’m abroad I love to check out youtube.com as the page picks up on your location and suggests songs popular in the country you’re visiting. It is a great way to learn about the local music scene and to add a few new songs to your playlist to cheer you up on those gloomy days back home. I also like to find local digital radio stations. I might have come back from Mexico but when my kitchen sounds of rancheras and reggaetón, life feels much better!

2.Eat like a local

One of the best souvenirs you can bring from a country is its food. Choose items that can last long, such as spices, coffee, tea, drinks or sweets. From Mexico I brought, amongst other things, spiced chocolate and a local coffee. Now whenever going gets tough, I can sit down and let my little Mexican treat transport me back onto those white sandy beaches and mysterious jungle. I recently visited a friend who had just returned from Uzbekistan, drinking the aromatic tea she brought from her trip brought to life her description of the places she’s seen, allowing me to travel with her.

  1. Print out the photos

 Most of us take photos when traveling, but only a few actually then go through the trouble to develop them. Filling your house with the photos from your trips is the best way to travel back in time, plus seeing your own smiling face triggers a positive response in your brain as it remembers that feeling of genuine happiness. I personally love photos and my current Facebook display and the phone wallpaper feature me and my husband in Mexico – I can’t help but smile at the memories these images always trigger.

  1. Tell your story

Don’t wait for people to ask you about your trip, when asked how you are mention your journey at the earliest opportunity. Many of us keep our travel stories to ourselves, worried that the other person may not truly care. Forget about what others think for a minute and keep on telling your story. Most people love traveling so the chances are that the person you’re speaking to will find the very topic interesting and it might even give them an opportunity to add a thing or two about their own travel experiences. Talking about your trip will help to solidify your memories – the more we think or talk about something, the stronger that neuronal pathway in our brain becomes, making it easier to retrieve memories later on. So keep on talking about not just your latest, but about all your travels. If your friends are fed up of your stories, find a group interested in travel, join a new community, go to travel related talks. Anything that allows you to share your experience or inspires you to at least think about it, will help to keep the place alive in your memory. If you’re not really a talkative person or find sharing your travel experiences too personal, write it! Writing, aside from helping you to retain your holiday memories, has got a therapeutic value. And who knows- maybe one day your travel journal will help to inspire that travel book you were always meant to write? Maybe sharing your experiences on a blog will inspire someone else to travel, help them to avoid mistakes you’ve made or help them make the most out of their trip?

  1. Fill every day with travel 

Make your every day reality about travel. Buy travel magazines, watch travel shows, go to the travel meet-ups or photo exhibitions. Eat in foreign restaurants and make friends with people from other countries. We don’t always have to leave our home to travel. 

  1. Books are your travel tickets

Before any trip, I like to stock up on books about or set in the country I’m going to visit. I never buy the travel guides, but I do enjoy reading books written by someone who travelled to a given country, or something by a local author. Having someone describe the places you’ve visited allows you to re-experience them, but also challenges you to compare and contrast your opinions with another person’s perception. One of the places on this planet that are very close to my heart is Istanbul and every year I don’t get to visit it, I feel like something important in my life is missing. I then grab one of the books by a Turkish author (especially my favourite, Elif Shafak) and disappear in the streets of Istanbul.

  1. The cinematic travel

Movies are great for a short trip away from the reality. You’ve been dreaming of visiting Japan but don’t have the time or funds at the moment? Watch a movie set there! I find movies a really great escape, allowing you to travel without leaving your house. When I was missing Australia, movies such as “Tracks” really helped me to feel the energy of the outback and feed my wanderlust.

  1. Invite friends for a themed dinner

Upon our return from Mexico, my husband and I invited our friends for a themed dinner. We made Mexican food and drinks, played local music and told them about our trip while showing photos. Hosting a travel-themed dinner is a great way to get together with your friends, but also to share knowledge of a country with others, break a few stereotypes and maybe inspire their next trip.

  1. Plan your next trip

A return to reality after being away can feel quite painful. Something you’ve been looking after for so long and then thoroughly enjoyed is now over. In moments like this it is crucial to have another trip planned. Usually after a long travel I no longer have the resources for yet another great venture, but a weekend away, if planned well, can be a perfect alternative. As soon as I got back from Mexico, I browsed internet for affordable tickets to a place my husband and I haven’t visited yet. The perspective of going for a weekend to Norway, gave us something to look forward to this autumn. We have also started discussing our travel plans for 2017, making the year to come exciting already!

  1. Find your inner Mexico

My trip to Mexico proved to be a very reflective time that helped me to realize a lot about myself. Traveling is a great tool for self-developement as it provides a space to see yourself from a distance, notice the personal journey you’ve been on, what’s been happening to your energy and relationship with your inner self. Mexico made me realize that somewhere in the stress of everyday life, I lost my zest for life and spontaneity. After reconnecting with that part of myself there, I didn’t want to return to my pessimism and worrying. But I did. Just few days after coming back to London, I found myself repeating the pre-Mexico patterns, returning to my old ways. Habits are difficult to change, but the first step is to observe and keep yourself in check. I might not be fully there yet, but I keep an eye on myself and try to embrace life. There are days when I give in to stress and tiredness, but I’m actively fighting for myself. I do more in my spare time and put more energy into my personal projects that I had before. I say “yes” more to opportunities that come my way and I try to enjoy the present moment. To keep that relaxed, happy Mexican Anna closer to my heart.

Keep traveling, wherever you are

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The sacred well

The sun began its descent, informing us that it’s time to call it a day. We picked up our books and towels from the beach and headed towards the swimming pool bar for one last drink before making our way back to the hotel room. We sat on the swings replacing bar stools and waited for our order. I could feel the last rays of sunshine gently drying my wet bathing suit as I swung slowly back and forth.

“Hi!” said a man with a clearly American accent. His name was Dominic and he was a New Yorker of Italian origin. His girlfriend, Luz, soon joined the conversation. Although this Colombian woman didn’t initially say much, there was something interesting in her silence. Luz just radiated a certain kind of warmth. The special kind  that only really good-natured, genuine people have. There was something very real and honest about both of them and I knew this was not  the last conversation we were going to have with these two.

Next day, after an evening and an afternoon spent with our new friends, Luz mentioned that she heard about a nearby cenote and suggested that we visit it before dinnerShe didn’t need to convince us – we grabbed our flip flops, Dom took the remaining bottle of champagne and speakers and we were ready to go.

Cenotes are one of Yucatan’s natural landmarks. These natural pools filled with crystal clear water are a result of collapsing of the porous limestone bedrock which reveals the groundwater captured underneath it. In a land surrounded by salted water with no overground lakes or rivers, life in the peninsula often centered around the cenotes, which provided access to freshwater supply. Many Maya villages and cities, like Chichen Itza, were formed in the vicinity of these reservoirs. The filtered ground and rain water not only sustained the lives of the local people, but  was also believed to be a gateway to the afterlife.

The Maya believed  cenotes to be the home of Chaac, God of Rain, as well as the entrance to the underworld. At times of drought a popular practice was to offer Chaac precious stones, wooden idols, textiles and human lives. The Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza in particular was famous for its ritual sacrifices and archaeologists found a large deposit of human bones at its bottom. Many of the discovered remains have been dismembered, burnt by fire, and bear signs of violence suggesting that before the victims were thrown into the well, they were subject to various sacrificial rituals.

Luckily for the Maya people’s health, the ceremonial wells were mostly kept separate from the domestic ones used for bathing and as a source of drinking water. An interesting one is Ik Kil, a cenote situated 2.5 km east of Chichen Itza, which was most likely a bathing place of the city’s rulers . A long curved staircase carved in stone leads to this beautiful natural pool. The 40 meter deep well is surrounded by vertical cave walls and lit by the sunshine entering through the green opening 26 meters above. Although very popular with tourists and cave divers, the place is breathtaking and has a truly magical atmosphere.

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Cenote Ik Kil seen from the top

The Casa Cenote, to which Luz was leading us through the beach was quite different. Our walk turned out to be longer than we initially expected, but with the setting sun and local fishermen waving at us with their smiley “hola“s, walking on the shore, listening to Radiohead coming from Dom’s speakers, we did not mind the delay.

After about a half an hour walk, we turned into a sandy alley situated between two guest houses. As we crossed a dusty road, we saw a little shabby gateway. We walked in and greeted three young men sitting outside a little hut. It was past 5 and the place was officially closed, but after a short conversation in Spanish and the entrance fee, Ernesto, Antonio and Armando lend us some snorkeling masks and we got into the water.

As I stepped onto the well, I began to move slowly down the stone shelves leading to the deeper part of the pool. The water was ice cold, offering a pleasant cool after the day’s heat. Through the clear surface we could see the little fish swimming underneath. The cenote was an open air one and surrounded by the vivid greenery of the mangrove forest.  I lied on my back and looked up. Nothing but the sky and green tree tops. Except for the gentle song of a bird hiding in the branches, the place would have been enveloped in complete silence. Despite its depth, the clean water allowed us to admire the world underneath, uncovering the mysterious caves and mangrove roots suspended motionless in the water.  I felt peaceful and enchanted with the magic of this place. I now understood why the Maya believed cenotes to be the gateway to the other world.

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Bienvenido a Mexico

Nothing could have prepared me for that first sight of Mexico. After 10 hours of flying above the glimmering ocean, my eyes weren’t ready for the amount of green they were about to witness as the plane started its descent to the Cancun airport.

Yucatán Peninsula welcomed us with kilometers of lush green jungle. Staring through the tiny airplane window all I could see was the densely forested area with one, perfectly straight asphalt line cutting through it. That and a turquoise coastline, nothing more. I knew right away Mexico will be like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Boarding the Virgin Airlines plane in London I don’t think I had a clear expectation of what Mexico would be like. I’m embarrassed to admit that my head was full of stereotypical images – colourful skulls, thick mustache of the mariachis wearing sombreros and white sandy beaches. Beyond the vague idea of Cancun being the Ibiza of the States and Mayan ruins in Tulum and Chichen Itza, I knew very little about the place I was going to. The only thing I did anticipate was rain – the weather forecast maliciously promised  abundant rain fall every day of my stay. Luckily it turned out that I knew about the local weather just as little I knew about Mexico.

 Upon arrival we passed the all-female boarder control very quickly and entered the United Mexican States without any trouble. Had we tried to bring in any food that may have traveled with us from back home, or, like some travelers coming through the States, tried to stock up on cheap cigarettes before the arrival, the situation would have been very different. Luckily however our passage through the Mexican customs was pretty uneventful.

The arrival hall of the Cancun airport was quite modern and easy to navigate. Amongst the mix of taxi drivers eagerly seeking clients, my husband managed to find someone working for the airport able to provide information on pre-booked transport (it turns out that all the vehicles, buses and tour representatives await the arriving travelers outside the airport – important thing to note at an airport that does not have free wi-fi access for those of you who like me don’t always check all the further travel details before departure).

 We were taken to our hotel by a kind Mexican man called Arturo Sanchez. Since our driver’s English was not great, I had a chance to practice my Spanish. Arturo, like most Mexicans as I soon found out, transformed from a quiet and grumpy-looking man, to a chatty individual excited to tell me about his country. Throughout the one and a half hour long journey from Cancun to Tulum, he kept on telling me about the local area and pointed out the avocado, banana and mango trees growing along our way.

The prolific, impenetrable jungle enfolding the grey of the modern highway constituted a peculiar contrast of the two worlds I entered. On one hand I was in the land of the Mayans, just meters away from the unruly world of nature that filled every free centimeter of space with yet another shrub or green vegetation. On the other, I was moving at a high speed through a smoothly paved road overseen by massive signs informing me about the closest mega-hotel or tourist attraction. On the side of the road, against the leafy background, stood giant billboards advertising the famous Coco Bongo night club or displaying photos of beautiful beach condos on sale. I felt as if someone created mini-USA in the heart of the Yucatan’s jungle. Further conversation with Arturo confirmed that the area, especially Cancun, was filled not just with American tourists but also many houses belonged to them, driving the local real estate prices up. Despite the inflated prices however, the Quintana Roo state’s economy is booming thanks to the visitors from across the border.

The high presence of the tourists also means higher investments in the local security, making Yucatan one of the safest parts of Mexico. Although visitors can drive safely through all the region’s major (toll) routes, any night travel is highly discouraged as theft, car hijacking at fake check-points and other crime are not uncommon after dark. Single women should be especially careful around Cancun where walking alone at night returning from a club can make them an easy target. Most resorts have tight security however and carefully check who gets into their premises. Despite the official reports, I personally felt very safe in Mexico, although  I wouldn’t risk driving alone at night.

Dusk comes quite early in Yucatan in September/October time, as we drove with Arturo to our hotel, around 6 pm the sun begun to set. By around 6.30, when we arrived at Dreams Tulum, it was already dark outside. Before our route became enveloped in darkness, I managed to notice that the closer we got to the city of Tulum, the less “American” it seemed. The billboards gave way to local colourful houses and chapels, mega hotel signs began to get replaced with eco-parks and directions to cenotes, natural pits or sinkholes with crystal clear underground water. Everyone recommended Tulum over Cancun when we planned our trip and I was beginning to see why.

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Tulum beach and jungle

Last journey

I can’t think of a worse place to learn about death of a close person than the airport. Luton especially. Death is usually something very personal, something we don’t wish to share. But since I was forced to parade my sorrow in front of hundreds of cheerful holiday makers, I decided to carry on exposing my soul. Maybe that’s what it was meant to be like. Maybe she wanted the world to know about her last journey.

The plane was standing on the runway. Sat inside, I could feel another long minute passing by. Stillness.Nothing was happening.Then suddenly, without any warning, I began to hear the engines starting to roar. Yet still nothing happened. We weren’t moving. Despite the vibrating desire to move, the plane remained stuck. This is what death feels like. One moment you feel nothing, then suddenly numbness gives way to the feeling inside that commands you to cry, to scream, to turn inside – out. Yet despite that inner vibrating roar of your soul nothing happens. Your eyes remain dry. You are stuck, shaking gently, like a plane waiting to take off. And finally that moment comes. The plane moves and forgets the land. So do your eyes, bursting shamelessly into tears, forgetting the stares of people around you. And while the plane keeps flying, the tear drops keep flowing down your cheeks.

My grandma didn’t travel much. The war generation above all seemed to appreciate stability and all things known.Besides, looking after her brothers and sisters from the early years, while their mum had to work to support the large family after father’s death, didn’t leave much time for anything else. She traveled enough while fleeing from the Russian soldiers and when forced out of her home by the Germans. She did travel to Hungary though, but that was much later. After the war she would support her salary by selling things from Poland and bringing back goods unavailable at the time in our country. I would sit in her small living room, listening to the stories about the people she met during those trips. But I didn’t listen closely enough. I thought I had the time. I thought I could write down her stories some day. I didn’t know that day would never come.

This is the lesson death always teaches us – you should have paid more attention when you could. You should have listened to their story while they were here. Being present, savoring every word. Because you never know when someone is telling you their story one last time.

Every person, just like every place, shares their story with you. But you need to really listen to hear it. You need to be really present to discover it.

And just like every journey teaches you something, so does every death. Babcia Ircia, used to say”if you have a soft heart, you need to have a tough butt”. If you’re not strong enough life will keep on giving you kicks in the behind, until you’ve toughened up. And she was one tough lady!

The 28 year long journey I shared with my grandma taught me how important it is to be true to yourself, to stay strong and keep pushing through the stuff life throws at you. Now that our paths have parted, I need to keep traveling alone.

Cherish the people you encounter on your way. Listen to their journeys, regardless of what they may be. Collect their stories and cherish them like the treasure that they are. And live your life according to your rules. Just like my grandma did.

When in doubt call…Sweden

Working from home has its perks but it also can leave you lonely, and – let’s face it – slightly bored. Instead of talking to a colleague one needs to find alternative ways of taking breaks. Such as calling Sweden for example.

This afternoon I came across theswedishnumber.com,  a website of the Swedish Tourist Association. The page proudly reminds us that it was Sweden who first abolished censorship in 1766 and now they are the first country to have its own phone number that anyone can call to speak to … Sweden.

So this is how it works: you dial +46 771 793 336. You hear a female voice informing you in a Swedish accent that you “will soon be connected to a random Swede somewhere in Sweden”. Few seconds later AN ACTUAL RANDOM SWEDE answers!

I spoke today with a really lovely girl from the south of Sweden. It was a bit strange at first speaking to a complete stranger, but her friendliness made it less awkward. She told me she signed up to the programme only yesterday and has already had 3 calls so far. She likes the initiative as she believes it is a great idea for Swedes to represent their country.

I asked my “random Swede” about her recommendations for someone who is traveling to Sweden but doesn’t want to just see the typical touristy stuff. She recommended going to small towns so that one can be in contact with nature, which is really beautiful in this part of the globe. One of the places she recommended was Ystad, a small coastal town on the south of Sweden. She reminded me however to ensure I travel in the summer, otherwise my visit won’t be as fun.

With the approach of the warmer months across Europe, how about we reward this lovely, creative (and brave!) initiative and the AWESOME SWEDES who signed up to it, and visit this stunning part of the world?

If you choose Stockholm, a short train-ride from the capital you will find a bit of Scandinavian mysticism. The town of  Gamla Uppsala was once one of the most important places in Scandinavia and is a home to the Royal Mounds, three burial mounds once believed by some to represent the Nordic mythology gods: Odin, Thor and Freyr. Over the past few years apparently the town has seen a return of the blót. This Norse pagan ritual often involved  an animal sacrifice to please the gods and the spirits.

But what do I know? Better call a random Swede and check for yourself…

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Thank you Sweden and the lovely Swedish girl who answered my call. You truly made my day 🙂

Beauty in the rough (Part 2)

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There was something magical about traveling through one of the oldest trade routes in the world. The mountainous Khyber Pass, part of the ancient Silk Road, was a passage that saw history being made. The Spin Ghar Mountains bore a silent witness to the processions of Darius I, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. They saw invasions that changed the geography of the world, traded goods that brought prosperity as well as wars, and watched how religions developed and spread.

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In the 1960s and 70s Khyber Pass welcomed the alternative tourists – adventure seeking hippies, making their way from Europe to India. In the era of terrorism and fear, the existence of the Hippie Trail seems almost impossible. And yet there they were – happily stoned dreamers hitchhiking cheerfully through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Their journey was a statement. It screamed: “we’re done with wars! We want the world of freedom and love. We say no to the exploitative capitalism and choose the depth of spirituality instead”. Many traveled from Kabul to Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore searching for the Sufi-shrines, before entering India and Nepal.

Despite the flowery philosophy of the hippies, the world decided to once again turn to violence. The revolution in Iran, political unrest in Pakistan and the invasion of Afghanistan put an end to the Western tourism. Gradually, Afghan and Pakistani women began to replace their minis with long skirts; men exchanged the bell-bottoms and colourful shirts for more traditional clothing. The beer-serving liberalism of the Bhutto era gave way to religious conservatism. Khyber Pass’s tourists gave way to armed soldiers. The land became a Taliban hideout and its villages filled with the tough gaze and dark burqas of the Afghan refugees fleeing their country.

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Passing through this land today one can feel the uneasy history of the region. Looking at the faces of the people we passed on the road I could sense their mistrust, so typical for those who have been through a lot. According to the UNHRC, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2015  the country had 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, making Pakistan a nation with one of the highest refugee populations in the world (and that’s after the UN already facilitated a return of 3.8 millions back to Afghanistan).

Living mostly in the proximity to the border, many of the Afghans travel between the countries, contributing to the local trade  and filling Pakistani jewellery stalls with beautiful silver bracelets and necklaces. Although both countries have many cultural similarities that make refugee’s life here easier, due to the alleged drug smuggling and terrorism the newcomers are not always welcome. According to the government of Pakistan, the majority of the terrorist attacks in the country are traced back to the refugee camps by the border.  Despite regular checks, the mountains provide opportunities to cross illegally, making it difficult to regulate the traffic in and out of the country.

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Before I was going to see the border with my own eyes, we stopped at the Michni Post, the last check-point before the Torkham crossing into Afghanistan. The post has been guarded by the Khyber Rifles,  a unit of the Frontier Corps, since the 1800s, policing this tribal region.The place was a strange mix between a small military base and a  tourist attraction. As we arrived, we were greeted with various nuts and freshly squeezed fruit juice. The air filled with the soft scent of cardamom coming from kava, green tea mixed with a hint of delicate spice.

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We sat down on the traditional woven rugs covering the seats of the tiny auditorium and a seriously looking man in a uniform began to give the presentation outlining the history of the passage. In front of us was a glass wall providing a panoramic view of the Western end of the Khyber Pass. After our “guide” finished talking, I went towards a telescope from which you could see tracks and people at the border. We stepped outside to take photos of the stunning view. We were tourists in this world. Just like the hippies…

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Beauty in the rough (part 1)

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I woke up early. We had a long journey ahead of us, so after a quick breakfast consisting of the best, lightest cheese omelette I’ve ever had, and the warming milky-ness of dudh patti chai, we left the officer’s mess where we had spent the night and got into the 4 by 4s waiting for us outside. I looked behind and noticed an armed soldier sitting at the back of our jeep. Him and his rifle, ready to defend us should the Taliban want to spoil our trip to the border.

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In the early hours of the day the air was crisp but the blue sky brought a promise of a sunny warmth. We drove through an empty road, every now and again passing men hiding from the winter cold under wide beige shawls. A long queue of bearded men waited in line by the side of the road to register for the national IDs. We had just left Peshawar and were in the semi-autonomous Khyber Agency. An area governed by its own, tribal, rules. We were entering a world I didn’t know.

The Agency, also known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), is an area with difficult past and complex legal status. Although the region is formally controlled by the government of Pakistan, in reality the majority of Pashtun population living in the region is subject to laws agreed by the jirga, the assembly of the tribal elders. FATA also does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, following instead a special set of laws known as Frontier Crimes Regulation. Under the FCR, jirga can decide on the appropriate punishment for the committed crime, forfeiting the accused person’s right to the judiciary trial. With the increasing Talibanization of the region since 2001, Pakistan has steadily strengthened its military presence in the region. Interestingly, over three quarters of the people living in the area claim to support the army and its fight against the radical militants. According to a survey conducted in 2010 by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow, around 70% of the FATA population supports Pakistan’s military activity targeting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

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The route to Afghanistan is a lonely one. Vast open spaces, sandy landscape with occasional passer-by rushing to their every day chores or a solitary mosque. Every few kilometers a chaotic village market buzzing with hurried buyers. Other than that, silence. The vast tranquility of this place filled me with a strange peace. Blue sky and sunshine embracing the rocky scenery gave the route a serene feel. It was hard to believe that this oasis of calm where people just go about their daily routines  is known more for the terrorists than its beauty.

 

 

In the valleys we passed children were playing cricket. Even in the most remote areas little boys know how to use a bat and the ball – in Pakistan following this sport seems to be unanimous with the national pride and the chants of “Pakistan Zindabad” – “Long Live Pakistan” are just as likely to feature a national rally as they are to be heard at a cricket match.

Aside from the occasional kids, we saw mostly men. A few women here and there rushed somewhere accompanied by another woman or by a group of kids. Their colourful vails providing an interesting contrast to the monochrome background of mountains and men. Despite the colour, however, these mothers, wives and daughters shared a certain roughness that the terrain seemed to instigate in its people.

Were they happy? Or is happiness something they don’t have the luxury to ponder on? They reminded me of my grandparents – generation of people brought up to be tough. People who rarely  give in to sadness because their life has got no space for expectations. People who grow old appreciating the little things in life – a calm evening with the family, a tasty meal,  a chat with the neighbour. Sometimes because there is nothing else to enjoy. People who don’t complain but carry on in silence. How I wished I could have stopped the car and hear their stories.

But we kept on going.  After all, isn’t that what we always do?

 

The walls of freedom

Freedom.

To me freedom has always meant independence, lack of restrictions.

In Pakistan freedom requires boundaries.

Our visit to Peshawar centered around Bala Hissar. This well-preserved Fort, believed by some to date more than 2000 years back, is one of the most characteristic aspects of the city’s landscape.  The dusty reddish fortress dominates the city, reminding its citizens about their history, as well as the power of the military. The building is currently in the hands of the Armed Forces of Pakistan and is not open to public.

We entered the fort after the sun had set. Our cars slowly climbed up the winding road within Bala Hissar’s walls. At the top, awaiting us was an amazing view. A low-rise building surmounted by a row of white columns illuminated in the dark. A vast lawn with trees and bushes adorned by green lights. Outside the walls the chaos of the streets, inside the serene comfort.

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Courtyard of Bala Hissar

The soldiers welcomed us with the most delicious hot and sour soup I’ve ever tasted. We ate the starter outside, under beautifully lightened gazebo next to a wall depicting military struggles to safeguard its country’s freedom.

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While waiting for the dinner, we walked into the main building. We passed by a few offices within the officer’s mess and the female part of our group headed towards the ladies room. The name turned out to be more literal than I expected. Adjacent to the female toilet was a large, comfortably fitted room with pastel decorations. Its walls proudly presented photos of Kalash women wearing their traditional colourful jewellery. The Kalash people are the smallest religious minority in Pakistan. This indigenous tribe centered around Chitral district within Khyber-Pakhunkhwa province we were visiting is known around the country for its unique culture. The Kalasha are not Muslims. In fact, they are polyteists centering their customs around natural forces. In Pakistan difference comes with a price however. Due to their religion the Kalash people have received death threats from the extremist groups such as Taliban. This lead to an outrage from the Pakistani public who generally take pride in the cultural diversity in their country and has lead to an increased security in the Chitral region provided by the Pakistani army. Guarded by guns, the Kalasha are free to cultivate their cultural identity.

In the central point of the room there was a painting representing some of the most extraordinary Pakistani women – ranging from the first female pilot and soldier to Malala. In the center of the painting the artist placed Fatima Jinnah, sister of the founder and first Governor General of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Together with her brother, Fatima spent her life fighting for Pakistan –  a country formed on a dream to create a safe space for Muslims in Asia. A country formed out of a desire to break free from repression of the British Empire. A country escaping religious injustice. Pakistan – a nation’s dream of freedom.

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Ladies Room

Following a sumptuous dinner served by incredibly polite Pashtun soldiers, we went to another part of the fort. In the long corridors of the building’s basement we had a chance to learn more about the military history. Walking inside the walls of what used to be jail, I learnt about various guns, saw an old execution site and admired various war memorabilia. One of the items that particularly caught my interest was the ISIS flag which the Pakistani military managed to intercept during a fight against the terrorists. I found it ironic – while the world sees Pakistanis as terrorists, they are risking their lives to free that same world from the actual terrorism.

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flag of the terrorist group Islamic State

The walls of Bala Hissar fort got me thinking about the meaning of freedom.

Driving around the streets of Pakistan’s cities you are surrounded by walls. When someone says “on your left you can see a hospital”, most of the time it means you will see the wall surrounding the aforementioned hospital. Maybe the top of the building if you’re lucky.

Everything is guarded by walls – shopping malls, schools, houses. A typical residential street in Pakistan is lined  with homes lurking from above the brick partitions. The walls of freedom.

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walled houses on a residential street

Pakistani society, as any collectivist culture, is governed by a set of social rules that nobody in their right mind would wish to break. And while these rules are widely accepted, they are often quite different in the comfort of one’s own home. A man wearing traditional clothes on the street can be the most liberal person at home; a woman with a modest headscarf may live the most lavish lifestyle.

This duality is reflected in the buildings. Dull grey wall can hide the most luscious green you’ve ever seen, a row of simple bricks can reveal the most elaborate architecture. On the outside all the houses may look the same, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

In Pakistan individuality is not flaunted around, it is more of a quiet secret, that only the beholder knows about. On the outside it’s safer to be the same, attract no attention, stay away from trouble.

The walls protect from others’ judgement but in the country touched by so many tragedies, walls create also a sense of safety and freedom. They form people’s private islands of comfort, places where one can be their true self, where one can go to sleep with the impression of safety.

But isn’t it the case for all of us? Don’t we all go through lives building walls around us? Don’t we all believe a few bricks and a pair of door will keep the evil of this world away?Don’t we fortify our hearts to protect them from being broken? Don’t we build glass walls in museums to keep the valuables out of reach? Don’t we fill our Facebook walls with things that are meant to present a certain facade to the world?  Maybe deep down we all have more in common with Pakistan than we think?

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What are the walls of your life?

 

Albert Camus once said that “the only way to deal with the unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion”.

The questions is, do we dare?