Tag Archives: travel

In pursuit of the Northern Lights

We ventured to Iceland on a whim. All it took to convince us were a couple of ill-referenced blog posts illustrated with a collage of pretty pictures. It was only weeks later, when our Lonely Planet guide arrived, that the reality of what we were about to experience on the fringes of the Arctic, in December, started to seep in: four hours of daylight and a probability of driving through deadly snow blizzards. But at least we had greater chances of encountering the rare and unpredictable Northern Lights.

My travel buddy and I are the adventurous type who travel on a budget, with no more than 10kg strapped to our backs while sleeping in stuffy hostel dorms. The only thing we had booked prior to landing was a rental car, a place to sleep on our first night, and a return flight six days later – what happened in between was basically us winging it. So as you can imagine, our pursuit of the Northern Lights was as unpredictable as their actual sighting.

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We drove counter-clockwise across the empty and secluded Icelandic ring road in our modest VW Polo. Even though the ring road is considered as the main road round the entire island, where goods are transported from one remote town to another, what struck me most was how you could drive for hours, wherein the only signs of life were wild Icelandic horses and grazing sheep.

Bend after bend on Route 1, a procession of snow-capped mountains would morph into jagged black rocks covered in patches of green moss. It was so unreal that, at times, we were obliged to roll down the windows, let the Arctic air in and lean our head out to be part of the view rather than a mere spectator.

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Don’t call the Icelandic horses, ‘ponies’

Driving in Iceland made me think about how architecture shapes not only spaces, but also our minds. As humans we’ve evolved so much since our hunter-gatherer days in the savannah that looking into a screen feels more real to me than being out in the wild. It took a while to get used to the untouched landscape that panned out before us, and as clichéd as it may sound, the majestic views were often perceived like a movie-set or a painting.

It was the perfect mental detox, for I could be alone with my thoughts and, as we saw the authentic landscape unfold through our windscreen, I questioned what Malta would look like if it weren’t so heavily built up.

The route from Keflavík International Airport to Reykjavík transported me back to my childhood in Naxxar, treading through ix-xagħri in my denim dungarees and steering my bright pink bicycle across fields that are now mega-supermarkets and concrete blocks of houses.

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The Icelandic Ring-Road

In fact, it isn’t a country you’d visit for its bustling city life or architectural landmarks. As we hopped from one town to another, manoeuvring through potholed gravel roads and single-lane timber bridges, hoping to stumble upon ideal conditions for Aurora sightings, we would stop to stretch our legs and walk along the most surreal natural wonders.

Fortunately, we were in Iceland during a ‘heatwave’, when thermometers stood at an average of eight degrees Celsius, which wasn’t as cold as we had predicted. This meant there was barely any ice on the majority of the ring road, making it easier for us to explore independently.

Around the Golden Circle, a few kilometres outside Reykjavík, we witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air, visited the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls and the bubbling geothermal pools nearby. My favourite part of the journey was when we meditated in front of the famous Jökulsárlón, the glacial lake in the southeast.

Days are short and nights are long there in winter. The sun hovers on the horizon, making the panoramic views a photographer’s paradise. We arrived at the edge of Vatnajökull National Park late in the afternoon, and clouds hung low. Most of the Asian tourists were making their way to the parking area, where engines of big white coaches were humming, ready to whisk them away, giving us the privilege of exploring the lake in solitude.

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Jökulsárlón is the deepest lake in Iceland and one of the country’s prominent natural wonders.

Everything was at a metaphorical glacial pace, almost at a standstill, distinct echoes of the ice breaking off at a distance. The light catching the ice that crashed off the glacier during its final journey into the Atlantic reflected a luminous blue on to the still water, like a mirror.

In fact, I found the lagoon to be more magical than the overrated Northern Lights. We had been tailing after them for almost five nights, constantly monitoring the Aurora forecast and, on a clear Friday night in the remoteness beyond Borgarnes town, our chances looked promising.

The sky was clear, moon shining brightly. Everything seemed perfect, except that we were both freezing. I, in particular, was getting impatient. Teeth-chattering and arms crossed, we stood there in complete darkness, waiting for the Aurora to emerge. I remember that by midnight, all the thermal and fleecy underlayers weren’t enough to keep us warm.

We had read how the lights were formed when the Earth’s magnetic field drew the sun’s flares towards the North Pole. Albeit special, it was an underwhelming experience, possibly because the photos I had seen online had raised my expectations. The Aurora visible to the naked eye was a thread of faint emerald green specs, shimmering across the sky. But on camera, the very same vision appeared to be much brighter and definitely more spectacular. Perhaps the ones we saw weren’t strong enough, we remarked the next day.

Actually, the photo published has a story behind it. We were convinced we were alone on top of the little hill at the Fossatún camping grounds. But just a couple of minutes after witnessing the lights, a faint flashlight approached us.

It was an Asian man with half his face concealed in a black bala­c­lava, carrying a DLSR on a tripod. He showed us a remarkable image of the same Northern Lights we had just witnessed –  which on the screen of his camera seemed much more luminous – and, in the bottom left corner, a silhouette of two people: “Iz you!” he said enthusiastically.

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And that experience brought our road trip to full circle, flying back home with our backpacks laden with more memories than dirty laundry. Indeed, travelling to the fringes of the Arctic in December was a bold idea, but it was what made it special. Challenged by treacherous mountain roads, lack of daylight and unpredictable weather, our quest to drive around Europe’s most sparsely populated country was an eye-opening experience, realising there’s so much more to Iceland than the Northern Lights.

Originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta. 

Networked Intimacy

Whether it’s for work, study or leisure, it has become fairly common for twenty-somethings to pack their suitcases and jet off to travel the world. What could have once been a unique experience in terms of travelling alone and to experience one’s culture anew, has now become somewhat of a lived dichotomy between being home and away through the marked use of technology.

In the pre-networked days, to travel alone meant leaving your whole world behind you to teeter into unknown cultural terrains. The only news from home would be through snail mail or the monthly (expensive) phone call.

Nowadays, the Internet holds our world together in a network infrastructure, and wireless Internet devices, make our networks portable. What’s more is that online communication (such as e-mail or Skype) is free and instant, championing both constraints of these classic communication methods. Therefore, tethered, we carry a sense of ‘home’ with us, through our mobile Internet devices.

During my solo travels in Asia and continental Europe, the smartphone was my Swiss Army knife of sociality since it carried my physically scattered social networks intact. It offered an instant portal to people, news and memes that kept me up to date with the rhythm of life in Malta. As heavenly as it might read on paper, in practice, it proved to create somewhat of an inner-conflict.

In a sense, I was in-between worlds, because my best-friends weren’t necessarily in the city I was nor in Malta – but on the Internet.

For instance: while I rattled my bicycle to and from the library, in a quaint cobble-stoned city in the Netherlands, one of my best-friends attended pub-quizzes behind the York Minster after lectures, while another boiled haggis for occasional Sunday lunches in Glasgow. The three of us Maltese ventured alone, yet social networking apps such as Facebook messenger or WhatsApp allowed us to remain pretty much together.

Irrespective of where our loved ones are, the idea of here and there is somehow shattered through this newly acquired networked intimacy. The phone has facilitated communication with all our friends, irrespective of where they are, altering our perception of time and space; it has come to represent a ‘mobile home’.

My German friend Saba had once told me, “I moved from Germany four years ago, I went to Botswana, I went to Luxemburg, to France. I always took my friends with me, through my smartphone. That’s how I felt. Now I can talk to my friends instantly through my phone.”

Like Saba, my friends travelled with me from the Philippines, to Italy, to Belgium and to the Netherlands thanks to the Internet, and more intimately via Skype.

Video-conferencing (like Skype or FaceTime), is a fairly new and very common means of maintaining close contact with those that matter most. The quality of the call makes up for physical meetings, when these are not possible. While living in the Netherlands, my Polish housemate used to Skype with his mother in Warsaw almost every evening, “I feel that we are near each other during the conversation,” he used to tell me.

Our brains seem to record so-called ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ events so similarly that modern technologies conspire to blur these realms as well. As a matter of fact, we code face-to-face and online experiences similarly, often with equal realness. One may notice this in everyday language, when we speak of online encounters as if they were real: How is Sarah doing? Fine, I guess. I spoke to her on WhatsApp. Did you meet her new boyfriend? Yes, I saw them together on Facebook.

The sense of visual immediacy experienced via video-conferencing and modern social networking creates a simulation of presence and intimacy. Such that, even when people are physically distant, social networks could act as a connective tissue, coordinating and synchronising conversations with friends who are scattered across the world that would otherwise dissolve into silence.

Nonetheless, these mediated communication platforms do not merely substitute face-to-face interaction, but constitute a new kind of presence.

The Internet and smartphone could be used to either enhance a sense of belonging to the place where one is physically present, or it could alienate the individual from fully experiencing the actual place, culture and surroundings.

From my experience, technology compensates for rarity of physical encounters, but doesn’t replace them. Even though the Internet eliminates feelings of distance, the sense of presence and level of intimacy is only short-lived. At the end of the day, we all need to live certain aspects of our lives together with the people that we love most, and cannot be replaced through a screen.

Before the emergence of online social networking, communities were formed around a fixed geographical space and therefore led to a tangible concept of what it means to belong and feel at home within a given space.

Now the Internet beckons us to ‘come together’ across a medium, suggesting that we can feel and experience home, and belong somewhere that is not necessarily the same place we are physically bound to.

Living in a network society, it has become easier for me to define home in terms of people who are scattered, than a physical town or city. To the upcoming generation, our sense of belonging need not necessarily be tied down to residential geography but a new, emotional geography.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of The Sunday Circle.

Disconnect to Reconnect?

A couple of months ago, I travelled to Alsace and stopped for one night in Paris.

I was staying at a youth hostel, and before I dozed off, I overheard an Australian in my dorm whisper, “Hey, there’s no wi-fi!” His friend replied, “Dude, you’re in Paris. Why the hell do you need wi-fi?”

And I thought about how two good friends backpacking across Europe and savouring its scenery, history and culture, still felt the need to be connected elsewhere.

Somewhere in the corners of the Australian backpacker’s mind hung the potential for a different connection and the looming fear that he was missing out on something that was happening elsewhere; something that he would never know unless he logged on.

With smartphones connecting us to the internet directly from our pockets, we now have the ability to span distances – the potential of acquiring a different connection within a pinch and a tap on a small screen is closing down the borders between virtual and physical space.

Social media provides us with a platform through which we can share content at no cost, to a boundless audience.

For instance, I wake up to see pictures of what my friends in Asia are having for breakfast, or what another friend bought while shopping in Paris or London – all this in real-time even though physically we’re in different time-zones.

Nonetheless, our perceived level of interconnectedness is only psychological.

What we are inherently creating via social media is what blogger Nicholas Scalice called the “Biggest, most engaging conversation in the history of human communication.” Social media has not opened a window but a horizon for self-disclosure. But what exactly are we getting out of sharing ourselves online?

By nature, we cannot help but share our subjective take on things, no matter who is listening. Statistics show that 40 per cent of our conversations are about the self, and the popularity of social media might be related to our primal urge of talking about ourselves.

In fact, recent neuroscientific research demonstrates that acts of self-disclosure were accompanied by spurts of heightened activity in brain regions, belonging to the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the sense of reward and satisfaction we also obtain from food, money or sex. Thus, the brain is positively reinforced and that is why we find talking about ourselves so enjoyable.

The habit of online self-disclosure is not necessarily taken up by people who are bored or in need of company. A survey conducted by T-Mobile in the UK has shown that people are sharing their lives online even while on holiday. I would think that people travel to get away from the stresses and routines of home, and yet 60 per cent of Britons admittedly log on to Facebook or Twitter while on holiday, specifically to boast about what they are up to.

Smoasters (neologism: social media + boasters), was coined to refer to people who use social media to talk with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about their achievements, possessions or abilities.

Yet updating others while on holiday is not a new trend. Take the early 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, for instance. He documented his ascent to Mt Ventoux in France, describing the journey to the summit and the views over the Rhone to the bay of Marseilles.

It could be argued that if the same poet had to climb the same mountain today, he too would tweet verses about it. Of course: But would his subjective experience of the ascent be the same, or would it be existentially different?

Petrarch had the luxury of being alone, to process and reflect about his experience without being interrupted by other peoples’ updates rolling in, on his Newsfeed. Sometimes, I feel that we may be losing the beauty of the “now” because we are constantly pining for a different connection, possibly triggered by the fear of missing out.

Nobody can wait anymore, not because we can’t, but because we don’t have to.

Then again, new technology always sparks up some sort of controversy, possibly instilled by an intrinsic fear churned by our ignorance or misunderstanding of it. Nonetheless, we have always adapted it to our needs.

Sherry Turkle wrote that our relationship with technology is still in its infancy and evolving gradually.

Moreover, Howard Rheingold, in his recent publication Net Smart, encourages us to continue growing in this symbiotic relationship by learning to use media intelligently, humanely and mindfully.

Originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta on August 26, 2012.

How I spent Queen’s Day in Amsterdam

Yes, I was in Amsterdam for Queen’s Day.

I was right at the heart of the thriving street party, and for the first couple of hours, feeling totally bummed, isolated and drowned in orange.

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Having (unintentionally) left my phone charger in Brussels, I had no way of reaching my friends when my battery went flat. And after spending most of my morning walking to and from the train station hoping I’d be lucky enough to meet someone I knew, I finally decided to take the plunge, and sweep the streets alone.

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Thankfully though, the sun gave us a peep show for the über-special occasion. Painted in a gorgeous celestial blue, the sky was spotless. And replenished with serotonin, I ventured through the bustling streets of Amsterdam until I had no energy left.

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Being alone, I was obliged to throw myself in the crowd and be part of the passion between the community. The whole day brings with it an incredible sense of belonging.

Everyone is Dutch on Queen’s Day.

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Queen’s Day or Koninginnedag is basically the Dutch Queen’s birthday party. The current queen’s actual birthday falls on January, however she decided to keep celebrating it officially on her mother’s birthday in April, because it’s supposedly warmer.

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Everyone from the young, the old, their pets and your average Spanish, Italian, Asian, was parading the streets, participating actively in parties, flea markets and live performances.

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Despite being overcrowded, the atmosphere was very relaxed and joyful. With a sense of admiration, I observed old men wearing orange-afro-wigs, dancing salsa with their women (also clad in orange from head to toe).

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I also witnessed a woman in a  wheelchair wearing an orange boa around her neck and an orange cowboy-hat, families pushing orange prams, boat parties in the canals with topless male DJs wearing orange angel wings providing the entertainment.

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Everywhere in the city was orange: balloons, steamers, banners, foods and drinks. Wearing orange clothing and creative accessories (even a simple wrist watch or a shoelace) was indeed compulsory.

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My map-less route led me into the Jordaan (Jewish quarter), where people sold their second hand items and others performed. There was a talented blind woman who played the flute, accompanied by a precious young girl on the violin. I walked past a band of brothers who sang Drops of Jupiter to the beat of a drum-set and an acoustic guitar outside their garage door, while their mother offered cups of tea and homemade cakes to those who stopped to listen.

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I also stumbled upon a coffee shop by the canal in the corner of Noordermarkt, known for its famous apple pie. It was incredibly busy, but tasting the Mother of Dutch apple pies was definitely the culinary highlight of the trip.

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The next morning, it was headlined that Queen’s Day attracted c. 700, 000 people to the city of Amsterdam alone.

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Oh, and why all the Orange? Well, the colour refers to the name of the Royal Family: The House of Orange.