Books Every Traveller Should Read vol.1

Reading has always been a way to take yourself on a journey. For periods of otherwise boring days, you can be transported to magical lands, far off galaxies, or in the case of travel novels, all over this beautiful planet of ours. The best travel writers are the ones who can take you on the journey with them and ignite a fire to get back out there and visit somewhere new. Over the years I’ve read my fair share of books, especially travel-related, both the obscure and the must-reads. Scholars of travel writing will know these to be classics, however, they are classics for a reason and therefore I feel they are an essential place to start.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

There is something so elegant and civilized about train travel, especially in this day and age. Stunning rail stations conveniently located in city centres, lacking the aeroplane style boarding and with no need to wait for baggage at the other end, rail travel is the epitome of ease. Paul Theroux’s travel diary published in 1975 tells the story of train travel from the UK to south-east Asia and back again. Some of the world’s most famous rail lines, some of which don’t even exist anymore, are described in a compelling story that evokes the imagination of readers and makes you want to get on a train headed anywhere. My copy of this book is often a fixture of my weekend pack, often read on a train journey headed somewhere new, with anticipation for the next adventure on my mind and the view of the countryside speeding by.

“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” 

– Paul Theroux

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The original American travel novel, first published in 1957, evokes a tale of self-discovery and carefree adventure across the US. Many travel quotes you find scrawled across hostels, maps and journals worldwide originated from this book, many of them prophecies to what today’s world of travelling has become. This story is not one of the conventional aeroplanes, hotels and restaurants, but one of the experiences of the true adventure of setting out on the road without even a destination in mind.

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”

– Jack Kerouac

What Kind of Life by Jon Thum

This one is less of a widely considered classic but is my favourite of all. Jon captures perfectly the feeling of restlessness that encaptures a traveller as they return from home, pouring every effort they have into getting to the next adventure. His transparent storytelling conveys an honesty and an openness that even the best travel writing occasionally will omit. The book carries you through the early travels of his youth and into middle age as he struggles to leave the nomadic life behind, an all too relatable and emotionally conflicting experience.

“What great fortune it is to have such times in your life to reflect and take stock! How important it is to make way for it! 

Yet how few people, when burdened with the day to day or hand to mouth, can say with all honesty that this is something they possess? How many of us will keep marching onwards with no real grasp of the where or the why?”

– Jon Thum

Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson

In truth, nearly any one of Bryson’s books could be on this list. From A Walk in the Woods which details his hike along the Appalachian Trail in the eastern US to his all too honest Down Under which details his (mis)adventures and observations throughout Australia. Neither Here nor There is a travelogue story that interweaves his first experience travelling through Europe after college, and his attempt to recreate it twenty years later. All of Bryson’s stories are told with brilliant observations and witty humour with a sense of adventure in-between.

“Bulgaria, I reflected as I walked back to the hotel, isn’t a country; it’s a near-death experience.”

– Bill Bryson

Anyone of these reads will inspire you to set off on your next adventure and are only just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to travel writing that is essential reading. I will be making these a regular post as I come across more books, articles and stories that I think every traveller would enjoy. If you have a suggestion for writing you think is a must-read, comment and I will happily check it out!

– Ryan

60 Under 30 #7: Slovenia

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Sounds like something right out of a high school graduation speech to a bunch of teenagers with hopes that still feel like a distant dream. We dream of becoming pilots that fly rockets into space, doctors who cure cancer or famous athletes making millions of dollars to play their favourite sport.

The harsh reality that all but a very small percentage end up facing is that not everyone can save the world, be rich and famous or rocket into space. As we grow up, expectations become tempered and reality sets in. We take a job that pays well because it means security. Dreams become tangible goals such as buying our first house or getting that next raise. Every once in a while you’ll read about someone who quit their “ordinary” job to do something they’ve always dreamed of. To those people, I commend your courage, however, not everyone is wired that way. Some of us are just meant to be “ordinary”.

I promise this wasn’t meant to depress you. There is nothing wrong with ordinary. The wonderful thing about this world and being able to travel across it is that you meet people from all sorts of backgrounds and who possess a wealth of experience. Everywhere you go, you find a whole new definition of what can be seen as “ordinary”.

It’s during these experiences, that every once in a while, you’ll meet someone doing a job that they were clearly meant to be doing. These people take something ordinary and make it exceptional. Everything about the way they talk about their work, carry themselves while doing it and the way they interact with others conveys the feeling that they love what they do.

On this particular trip, I had been travelling through Croatia, Slovenia and on to Austria with my family. The previous stop had been Piran on the Slovenian coast where we had sampled some of the most incredible seafood in the Venetian city and were keen to experience the cuisine of the country’s capital, Ljubljana.

The Vander Restaurant is located alongside the Ljubljanica river. On this particular warm July night, my parents, brother and I found ourselves wandering the streets of Ljubljana after a day visiting Lake Bled. As we walked past the Vander, we noticed it’s lovely patio adjacent to the river and my brother, of course, noticed the delicious sounding steaks on the menu. Done deal. Almost immediately after being sat at a lovely table for four on the patio, we were greeted by the food and beverage manager, Matjaž.

I probably don’t need to tell you that Matjaž is the type of person I’ve been talking about all the way along. From the moment he greeted us he and his team turned an ordinary dinner into something exceptional. Not only was the food delicious but he took the time to ask about our tastes, making excellent recommendations that complemented the meal. Local beer and wine, an Irish whiskey that we still remember to this day, in fact, I have a bottle of the Irish whiskey sitting on my shelf in London.


The Meal

Of course, no dinner can truly be complete without food to match the experience and in this regard, there was certainly nothing to disappoint. Our appetizer (a recommendation, of course) was salmon marinated in rum with horseradish and red pepper oil. I honestly struggle to describe it other than an excellent way to start a meal. Guess you’ll just have to try it for yourselves. Make sure you ask for a local beer to taste as well.

For our main courses, my brother, father and I each had the Australian ribeye, while my mother tried the roast chicken fillets. Each was paired with deliciously recommended wines and cooked to perfection. Sometimes comfort foods just can’t be beaten.

We were on holiday so naturally we couldn’t possibly skip dessert, however, we did need to share as we were starting to feel our waistbands getting tighter. If you can only pick one thing, do yourself the favour of their signature Pavlova, and ask for some extra macaroons if you want an extra little treat.

Just writing this made me hungry…

Now I’ve worked in a restaurant before. For several years in high school and university, I spent my summers working at a high-end restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. I can say wholeheartedly and with a lot of experience that it is a tough job. High stress, on your feet all day running between kitchens, bars, dining rooms and patios often without a break for yourself. I’ve often said that everyone should be made to wait tables at least once in their lives and that you can learn an awful lot about a person based on how they speak to a server. Some people can be absolutely horrible to servers and often for things entirely out of their control. With all this said, I find it even more amazing when I come across someone in the food and beverage industry who is able to turn the ordinary into the exceptional.

So thank you, Vander Restaurant, Matjaž and your team, for giving my family an experience to remember by loving what you do.

60 Under 30 #6: England

On May 26th, 1959 the “Empress of England” arrived at the port of Liverpool after travelling across the Atlantic from Montreal. Aboard the ship was my twenty-three year old grandfather James Elliott and his mother Ivy Jordan, travelling to England to visit a family friend living in Folkestone on the south coast for a three and a half week holiday. It was during this trip at a small local pub called the Earl of Clarendon that he would meet his eventual wife and my grandmother, Lois.

Ship log for the Empress of England

The town my grandmother grew up in is a small part of the city of Folkestone known as Sandgate which lies on the south-eastern English coast roughly fifteen miles west of Dover. The year after my grandmother was born, World War II began, which initially resulted in Folkestone being the evacuation destination of thousands of children escaping London, and as the war progressed many of the evacuees and residents were pushed farther west to Wales in an effort to escape the German bombing runs.

My grandmother grew up during the war as a small child, and eventually when the war ended, grew up through the re-build of the town and moved to London. It would be another 20 years following the war before Folkestone would return to the resort town it once was. Examples of the 1950s and 60s era re-build can still be seen along the beach especially towards Sandgate as you walk west. It was during one of her many visits home from the city to see her mother that she would meet my grandfather.

Since I moved to England a year and a half ago, and with my grandmother’s heritage being the reason I was able to live in the UK (I was granted an Ancestry visa given that I have a grandparent born in the United Kingdom), I felt determined to explore the area she was from, where she met my grandfather and where so many important events that eventually led to my existence occurred.

Having decided to make a proper journey of it, my housemate and I set off on a hike along the white cliffs from Dover to Folkestone. After an hour train ride from King’s Cross and a coffee shop barista who looked at us like we were insane when we said what our plan was for the day, we set off.

About half an hour in, we realized that we should have asked the barista why she looked at us why were insane. It turns out that, although possible, when hiking from Dover to Folkestone there isn’t exactly what you would call a defined path. Our initial idea was to follow the coast, however given that the cliffs don’t always include a beach or flat surface at the bottom, that dream was quickly crushed amongst the waves smashing into the cliff faces below. After a brief attempt at following Plan B (also known as foolishly walking along the main road that turned into a major motorway), climbing over what turned out to be not one, but two barbed wire fences and desperately hoping the road we found ourselves on was not some sort of military rifle range, we found what resembled a hiking trail. We got to the top of the hill and was greeted with a spectacular view of the sea, Folkestone in the distance and the cliffs along the way. Screw you Plan A and B, we like Plan C better anyways.

Our final destination off in the distance

We trekked on, enjoying the view along the water, the railway below and waving to the sheep in the pasture as we passed. Ten kilometres in, we reached the outskirts of Folkestone and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Thoughts of a cold pint, maybe a nice pie and mash carried us the final bit into the city centre where we sat for a quick drink while I looked up the location of the pub.

Now I have greatly underestimated several things before in my life. I foolishly did not listen to people who said just how hard an engineering degree actually would be. I moved to a new country without knowing anyone and somehow was still surprised at the effort required to start a new life. Neither of these come close to comparing to how badly I misjudged just how far it was exactly from the Dover train station to my grandmother’s house in Sandgate. I’ll just Google Maps from Dover to Folkestone I said. It’s England, that’ll be close enough I said. Ryan you are fucking idiot, I said.

I’m pretty sure that the look of horror on my face made my housemate think someone had died. I am normally great at planning things, I know how far I need to go to get from the airport to my hostel, where the main area of the city is and any day trips I’d like to do. Apparently I lose this ability when exploring my own country. I made sure to buy another round of drinks before breaking the news that sadly, we were about halfway there as the pub was located on the far west edge of Sandgate, completely on the opposite end of the city. Ryan, you fucking idiot indeed.

We’d come this far, so there was no turning back. Nicely enough it turns out that the entire waterfront in Folkestone was developed into a lovely garden park that transitioned eventually into the stone beaches of Sandgate I mentioned previously. Ellen DeGeneres’ “just keep swimming”, “just keep swimming” echoed in our heads as we marched on, through the greenery and across the pebbles. After what seemed an eternity later, we reached the corner, then the street and finally the pub. 10 minutes after they finished serving food. Ryan, you fucking idiot.

Hunger aside, it was sobering to be in the place that decades previously so much of my family history began. I owe my entire existence as the person I am to the chance of fate that two people met in that pub all those years ago. As I stood in awe of a seemingly ordinary pub, on an ordinary English street next to an ordinary house that my grandmother lived in as a child whilst German fighter planes flew overhead, even taking shots at her on some occasions, the other pub patrons couldn’t help but ask why the place seemed like a Holy Grail to me. After a brief chat, several of them mentioned that the owner of the pub at the time my grandmother lived there had passed away in 1990, only two months after my parents had visited the pub during their trip to England. After possibly the most glorious pint of our lives, and assuring that although we were likely not the brightest individuals that day we would not be walking all the way back to Dover, we made our way home.

Twenty-two kilometres, a March sunburn and blisters, cuts and bruises all over, somehow it all seemed worth it as we walked the distance back to the Folkestone train station and headed back to London. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to explore a foreign country and find your own history along the way.

As I arrived back at my flat in Brixton in South London, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps someday a distant relative of mine could walk down my very street, to find a seemingly ordinary flat amongst hundreds knowing that part of their history was written there and that they too, owed it all to a chance of fate that two people, decades ago, met in a tiny pub in Folkestone.



60 under 30 #5: Portugal

Off the beaten path.

It doesn’t mean necessarily to go where no one has gone before – not everyone can be Captain Kirk – but to go where most people don’t. Sometimes it means going where the locals are and sometimes it just means skipping the tourist attractions in search of something a bit more authentic.

If you key in the word “travel” on Google you will end up with an endless result of “Top 50 beaches to visit” or “Can’t miss sites to visit in Berlin” and more city and country guides then you could imagine. These guides inevitably feed into the open top bus driven, audio guided, fanny pack wearing tourism industry that generates an absolutely whopping 9.8% of the world’s GDP which equates to roughly 1 in 11 jobs worldwide.

Going off the beaten path is, by its very definition, among the minority. While 9.3 million people are lining up for the Louvre annually, there are a small percentage of travellers out there who are intent on finding something more. As you can imagine, as previously unexplored areas get discovered, slowly but surely the tourists move in. Many travellers will tell you that In many cases this has proven that to go off the beaten path is something that has to be earned, it is no longer as simple as walking a few miles down the beach to the lesser inhabited stretches. If it is that easy, you can assume it has been done before.

But what if it that isn’t necessarily true? What if it was possible to explore the same areas as the tourists but find hidden gems among the signs advertising “authentic” local cuisine and expensive day trips. Every city has locals that have their favourite restaurants, bars and ways to spend their days not at work. I grew up fifteen minutes from Niagara Falls, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Canada, and I can tell you I was not spending my weekends eating at T.G.I.Friday’s on Clifton Hill.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the best way to find out where the local hotspots are is from a local. What does take some creativity is figuring out how to find a local that can show you. Enter these guys. We Hate Tourism Tours are an outfit of locals in Lisbon founded on the very idea of an off the beaten path experience. They offer a variety of tours ranging from having one of their guides actually cook you an authentic Portuguese lunch in their home to customized tours of Lisbon and the surrounding area catered to suit.

The first time I visited Lisbon a year ago, I missed out on getting to check out the world famous surf of the Atlantic coast so this time around I was determined to test out my skills on the waves. The tour we (we being myself and two friends from back home Chloe and Marty) decided to check out after Marty found the company online was the Lisbon Surf Experience. We liked what we read about the philosophy of the company and after a few e-mails back and forth we were all booked.

The tour met early in Rossio Square in the heart of Lisbon, and having done several organized tours previously I was pleasantly surprised to find that out tour group would consist of only ourselves and two others plus our guide. Pedro, a local from across the bay in Caparica where our tour would be headed turned up and immediately we knew we were in for a good day.  Piling into the van, the obvious culture of the company became evident. The back ofthe driver’s seat had printed on it “The driver sucks but this van is cool”. Right from the get go we got a sense that not only was the company true to it’s idea but it was easy to tell that Pedro truly enjoyed showing us his city.

“The driver sucks but this van is cool”

Most surf lessons out of Lisbon take you north of the city to Cascais, a well known tourist area and full of surf schools. Our day however was to begin to the south of Lisbon just outside the beach town of Caparica. Anyone who has visited the Iberian peninsula can attest to the fact that the locals are not typically early risers. This was made abundantly clear as we rolled up in our van to the beach around 9:00 to find it completely deserted with the exception of the locals running the surf school we would be participating in. Our experience was all the more authentic as our lesson was occasionally required to be translated from Portuguese to English by Pedro if our instructors words and charades-esque demonstrations didn’t quite get the point across.

In no time at all we were in the salty Atlantic getting battered by the ocean as we learned the hard way what a breaking wave does to an unattended surfboard. Eventually we pushed past the break and out into the swells where we were afforded a break from the struggling and allowed to relax for a short while. Now the true test came. The three-step motion from flat on your stomach to standing and riding a wave seemed so easy on land, yet somehow when you are attempting the same feat on a crashing wave one’s brain has a tendency to revert into state akin to a deer in the headlights. After a few attempts each, all three of us managed to ride at least one not-so-spectacular wave nearly all the way in without falling off. Considering this a success, the time called for a cold beer.

Our “we caught at least one wave” surfer pose

It was at this point that the true benefit of a tour such as ours was made abundantly clear. Pedro had taken the time to get to know us a bit and instead of a set itinerary, he was able to suggest a few options for the afternoon. Perhaps it was the vast amount of salt water we had ingested, but food was very much a priority. It was decided that we would venture back into the town of Caparica to dine at a local favourite called A Merendeira. The restaurant serves up a delightful special of stone over baked bread filled with chorizo alongside a local soup of the name Caldo Verde. I can’t say I’ve ever had a Portuguese meal that I didn’t like but this one was especially delicious.

The afternoon consisted of a drive down the beach road to a small fisherman’s village where we explored the small side streets that zigzagged in among the houses and enjoyed a glass of the famous Portuguese “vinho verde” graciously provided by our guide as we lounged on a beach on the edge of town. With the exception of a few locals, we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. Here we were on one of the nicest beaches we had ever set foot on, with not another tourist in sight. In those moments, it is impossible to feel anything but relaxed and I must say I had one of the most serene naps of my life. 

The last stop of the day was a personal favourite. No matter where I visit I feel the need to find a high point to get a proper view of the area I am exploring. Pedro did not disappoint as our van turned a corner and suddenly we were on top of the world. Here we were, truly off the beaten path as we had a view that most tourists would kill for, all to ourselves. After a half hour to revel in the beautiful sight before us and reflect on what a great day was had experiencing the area as only a local could, we loaded back up into the van one last time and headed back to Lisbon. Along the way Pedro provided numerous recommendations for places to eat, bars to visit and lesser known sights to see. Although I ran out of time on this visit, I made sure to note each one, knowing I would be back to check them out. 

Panoramic view of Caparica from the last stop of the tour

Portugal is a country that I have fallen in love with, and I would recommend a visit to any person travelling through Europe. The people are some of the friendliest in the world, the food is to die for and from the beaches of the Algarve, to the surf of the Atlantic coast and all the way up to the wine country surrounding Porto, there is something for anyone and everyone. But once you’ve tried a pasteis de nata, sipped a bit of port wine and danced the night away in Bairro Alto, put down the guide book and take a step off the beaten path.

You won’t be disappointed.

60 Under 30 #4: El Salvador; Why I Travel

Thirty thousand feet in the air, on a flight bound from London’s Gatwick airport to Barcelona, my third trip to the eastern Spanish coast in the last two years, I couldn’t help but think about how I ended up here. 3500 miles from the small Ontario town I grew up in; the south London neighbourhood of Brixton, where my day began, is now home.

Each traveller has their own reason as to why they pack their bags and catch yet another flight, pouring their savings into a new experience or another visit to a city that has captured part of their hearts. Travellers as people are driven by a personal want to experience the world as much as possible, and each person has their own personal reasons for doing so.

My love for Europe was born two years ago, when my first backpacking trip began in Glasgow and was made up of six weeks backpacking across Western Europe from Scotland to Italy. It is how I ended up packing my belongings into a suitcase and moving across the Atlantic to start a new life in London, to be closer to the continent that had stolen my heart. It was where my love of travelling was cemented for good into who I am, but it was not where it began. For that, I have to trace back even further.

Looking back now, I can pinpoint the exact moment it started. Not the love of traversing the globe at least, but the battle with my own brain that would eventually lead to that very discovery.

At the time, I had no idea what the symptoms of depression were, especially when mixed into a potent anxiety cocktail. I thought I was just having a bad day. I’d had a normal school day, followed by the myriad of basketball and other sports I was involved with at the time. I got home as usual, my parents were at work, my brother out somewhere with his friends. I sat down to eat the dinner left in the fridge by my mother and began to feel the onset of what I now know to be symptoms of anxiety. It doesn’t hit you all at once, it slowly creeps into your body and mind like an IV drip into your blood. It poisons your brain, fooling it into imagining all kinds of things, both mental and physical.

It began with a feeling of weakness. For that first night, I felt like I was coming down with the flu. Just getting up from a chair felt like a monumental task. I went to bed, hoping a good night’s sleep would abate the sickness and I would wake up feeling better.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, as it progressed further, the anxiety symptoms were the ones that continued to present themselves physically. The first time I had a panic attack, I was sitting in class and all of a sudden started feeling short of breath. Developing a sort of tunnel vision, I excused myself from class in an attempt to find a quiet place to calm down. As I sat in the back stairwell of my high school, I began to feel scared.

What was happening to me?

Worried thoughts would compound the issue and over the next weeks and months, the attacks would come and go more and more often, always at the most seemingly random of times. Basketball practice, dinner with my family, at the movies. As is typical with most people experiencing these things, I was afraid to tell anyone. To this day, none of my friends at the time, or even my family know what I was experiencing back then. It was to no fault of any of them. I tried my best everyday to not give anyone cause for worry, making every attempt to hide the panic attacks and carry on as if everything was normal. I didn’t want to burden anyone with it, so the worries remained my own.

If anxiety is worrying, depression is frightening.

It’s frightening because you don’t realize it was there until you resurface from it.

If you resurface from it.

Everyone describes the feeling of depression differently. I felt that it was as if someone attached a boat anchor to my ankle and then told me to swim. Most days became an exercise in making it back home, into my room where I could stop putting on the fake smile and pretending like everything was okay. Depression is like having a person stand next to you, all day, whispering in your ear.

“You’re not good enough”.

“They don’t actually like you”.

“Why do you even get out of bed in the morning?”.

Now at 23, I can’t imagine what 16 year-old me could possibly have had to worry about that could’ve started such a downturn. I had just gone through my growth spurt, gaining nearly a foot in a little over a year. I was a straight A student, well on my way to getting into the engineering program of my choice and had a good group of friends to cause trouble with on the weekends.

That’s the part about depression that people who have never experienced it don’t understand. There doesn’t have to be a reason, it can hit, and hit hard even when you have every reason to be happy. One day you are yourself and the next you are wallowing at the bottom of a well of self-pity and despair.

The next few months would progress into a further state of misery, while gradually becoming better and better at putting on the mask in the hopes that I would not be a burden on anyone. After all, it was all just in my head right?

That is where I reached a fork in the road.

To the left was a treacherous path, paved with anxiety and the black shadow of depression as my only guide, leading me to places I can only imagine now.

To the right was a hike up a mountain where the air at the summit is so clear, the peacefulness drowns out even the most cynical of voices in your head.

If only we knew how important some of the decisions we have made were before we made them.

That day, there were two voices that pushed me down the correct path and one that urged me to the left. The first came in the form of our school’s unsuspecting secretary, making her daily announcements. Our school board would be accepting applicants for a new program, taking a trip to El Salvador to participate in a house build with Habitat for Humanity.

Like a devil on my shoulder, the other voice spoke up in retort.

“They wouldn’t accept you even if you tried”.

Thankfully, there was a third voice that day.

It’s incredible how your parents can come through for you time and time again, sometimes without even realizing that they have. I believe the term is parental instinct. Regardless of what you call it, that night I went home as usual, and mentioned over dinner about the program. I’m not sure if depression was hoping my parents would say no so I wouldn’t have to bother, or if deep down somewhere I was beginning to fight it’s tyrannical reign over my mind. Despite the fact that we had little to no information about the program, and the only information we had about El Salvador was a brief Google search, my mother and father decided that I should at the very least apply, guiding me towards the correct path, completely unaware at the time that it was some of the most important advice they would give me.

The application process became a distraction for me. It was a focus point amidst all the noise going on inside my head, allowing for brief moments of clarity. After submitting the application and progressing to the interview stage, it eventually came back that I had been accepted. There were to be 11 students, each from a different school that would be making the trip south along with 8 teachers, also from various schools across the region.

I had reached base camp.

Getting accepted to the program was enough to slightly restore confidence in myself. It was the first small step in a battle against the voices in my head that had withered away my mental state over the course of the previous months. Leading up to the trip which was to be at the end of June that year, we met each week to participate in activities that would help us on our trip. Spanish lessons, brick laying and information about the country we would call home for two weeks. These sessions became my escape, something I looked forward to each week and one of the few places I found myself actually smiling. The people were incredible, both students and teachers, joking and learning together as we attempted to prepare ourselves for our journey.

When the day finally came, I was in a better mental state than I had been in months. I was legitimately excited, a feeling I had rarely had in the previous year. Our flight was rather uneventful, and we landed safely at the Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport in San Salvador.

As we walked out of the airport we were hit with a wall of both blazing humidity and overwhelming culture shock. Outside the entrance were hundreds of El Salvadorans waving and smiling at everyone who exited the terminal. Some greeting loved ones and others seemingly just greeting every new visitor to their home.

The mountain awaited.

We spent the first day split between a morning playing with the most adorable children at a local orphanage and an afternoon hike up to the mountains with a breathtaking view over the tropical landscape. The immersion into the local culture was an experience that was completely new to me, and I was enjoying every second of it.

Our residence was to be in a small town outside of San Salvador called Zacatecoluca. The town was vibrant in both architecture and personality. Our first visit to the local market left such an impression that still, wherever it is that I visit, I am drawn to local markets as they often yield a more truly honest glimpse into the culture of a city than any other place you can explore. Our residence was a small compound of hostel-style rooms with bunk beds, cold showers and a wonderfully friendly man named Carlos who maintained the place. Throughout the course of the week, using our broken Spanish and his broken English, the language barrier was slowly broken down and we were able to communicate with our new friend.

If the town was a cultural shock, arriving at our build site was a complete revelation. Over the course of the ten days, it would draw emotions from us all, some that we didn’t even know were possible to feel all at once. We were there to build a house for a family of twelve. It would be far too easy on a trip like ours to pretend that we were there solely to help the family, that we were part of the greater good and that we were changing their lives. We were building a house no bigger than most of our garages back home for a family of twelve. This was to allow the family to move out of a house the same size that they currently shared with another family of twelve. Throughout the course of the trip, we all quickly realized that to assume we were there to help them and help them alone was not only wrong, but ignorant.

Each day on the site the family prepared meals for us at lunch, and afterwards we would break from our labouring to play soccer and other games with the children of the family. I can still picture their smiles and their laughter when I think back to it. When we surprised them one day with a brand new soccer ball, the pure joy that erupted from their tiny faces was, at the time, a happiness I was not sure I had ever experienced.

Depression is a fickle creature. Despite the joy surrounding me, the voices in my head made me feel guilty.

“All it took for them to be happy was a soccer ball, what’s your problem?”

No one ever said climbing a mountain was going to be easy.

The rest of the week would go on, as the house neared completion, so did the end of our trip. The final day, we said our goodbyes, and nearly every one of us was in tears as our van pulled out of the site for the last time. The effect the family had on us, sharing their culture, their joys and their love, left us all feeling a mixture of emotions ranging from guilt to thankfulness. They had expanded our small bubbles of existence to include a piece of their own world in it.

That is why we travel.

Each experience, each person along the way becomes a part of our own world. Shaping how we view the worlds of others, and how we live in our own.

Sitting now, staring out the window of this airplane, just as I was seven years ago on our way back home from our adventure, I can remember what it felt like to reach that summit for the first time. The realization that there was so much beauty in this world I had yet to see, and so many worlds of others left to impact upon my own, had conquered the darkness in my own head, holding it at bay.

The clarity would not be something easily noticed if it had always been there. The climb is never simple, and will surely have to be made more times throughout my years ahead. Each time it becomes a little easier, signposts left along the way, inspiration to keep pushing along, the memory of what it felt like to reach the summit.

But up here, at thirty thousand feet, it is joy. It is the joy of exploring a new city for the first time, a pint shared with travellers from across the globe and the joy of a brand new soccer ball, kicked back and forth across a dirt road.

That is why I travel.

60 Under 30 #3: Italy

Despite what the name suggests, pizza was not in fact invented in Pisa. Similarly garnished flatbread type dishes have been around since ancient times all throughout the Mediterranean, known to ancient Greeks as plakous, and the still favoured focaccia throughout many parts of ancient Italy and Greece. However, the greasy, tomato and cheese covered dish that has been adapted and recreated in nearly every corner of the globe was in fact invented five hundred kilometres to the south of Pisa, in Napoli during the late 18th century. It was common at the time for travellers visiting the city to venture into the poorer areas of the city in search of a taste of the local delicacy. 

Unfortunately for my travel companion Jonny and I, pizza was not our main concern as we got off the train from Florence to Naples. The day was beginning to wane into the evening, and despite the urge to seek out a slice of margherita that the city was famous for, we decided it best to continue on to Sorrento as quickly as possible. Not two days prior to our arrival in Naples we had listened to the warnings of some of our fellow backpackers at a hostel in Florence proudly state that they had “survived” the commuter train from Naples to Sorrento. At first this did not seem to be a feat worth boasting about until one of the revellers cared to mention that at night, the Stazione Garibaldi is one of the most dangerous places in Europe.  We didn’t exactly feel like experiencing it for ourselves.

After surviving the pick-pocket capital of Europe two weeks earlier in Barcelona, Europe had begun to lull us into a false sense of security. That is, until we stepped onto the graffiti-laden commuter train that was to take us the fifty-some-odd kilometres down the Italian coast to Sorrento. As a traveller, you begin to develop a sort of “oh shit” radar. You know the feeling, wandering into the wrong side of town, people glaring at you like they’d like to relieve you of your belongings and if you are especially unlucky; your kidneys. Let me tell you, five minutes into our little train journey, our “oh shit” radars were blaring like a fire truck on route to a house fire. After forty-five minutes of clutching our backpacks and nervously keeping our backs to the wall of the rickety train carriage, we finally arrived at the deserted Sorrento train station, belongings in hand, and happy to report that our kidneys were still comfortably internal.

Hardly has the word beautiful so utterly failed in in the description of a place as it does when talking about the Amalfi coast. A person could spin round in circles with their camera randomly taking snapshots along the way, and not one of the pictures would turn out badly. The following morning after our harrowing train ride in, we set out for the day from Sorrento along the coast to the next town. Nestled in amongst the mountainous landscape is Positano, with it’s brightly coloured buildings climbing the hillside like steps carved into a mountain path. It’s beauty is all the more appreciated after you survive the half hour long bus ride along a single lane, hairpin turn road from Sorrento. It’s charm was temporarily lost on us as we kissed the pavement, thankful to have our feet firmly planted on the ground without danger of careening over one the roadside cliffs.

Our first stop of the day in Positano was to be brief, for that day we had something else in mind. Earlier on our trip we had met a traveller who told us of a hike called the Path of the Gods, which traversed the hillside from the town of Amalfi to the East, along 15 kilometres of stunning views back towards Positano. I am always one to listen to recommendations from fellow travellers, no internet review or brochure could ever convince you to do something like the tried and true tale of another backpacker who has done it themselves. A few stops previously in Nice, an Australian traveller we met in our hostel had insisted that of all the experiences not to miss in Italy, this one was top of the list.

After yet another stomach churning bus ride along the coast up through Amalfi, we were let off at a roadside stop with a makeshift sign denoting that the start of the trail lay just up the hill. We traversed through what appeared to be the back gardens of some of the Italian farmers who called the mountainside home until we at last crested over the top of the hill. The view from the start of the trail just about knocked us back down as we finally understood what our friend from down under had meant. As I have said before, the word beautiful just does not do justice to the landscape that unfolds in front of you. Mountains dotted with colourful little houses and sprawling farms that overlook the sapphire sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. The air is as startlingly clear as the water, allowing you to see for miles out into the unending waters, dotted with sailboats and ferries full of sunbathers and fishermen alike.

I have walked fifteen kilometres or more many times in my life. Days spent wandering the spectacular old town of Edinburgh, a particularly miserable journey from Finch to Bloor street in Toronto during the worst rain storm the city has seen in several decades, and numerous other occasions spanning all over Europe and North America. It’s not exactly an impressive feat, but what was impressive to me about this particular day, was that I desperately wanted it to continue. It didn’t matter how far this scenic trail had been, we would have followed it for days if it had gone that far. Around every bend was another breathtaking sight to behold, and slowly as we approached our final destination in Positano, the rainbow coloured town grew bigger and bigger, with the sunshine illuminating it’s quaint beauty with an almost guiding light.

View of Positano from along the Path of the Gods

As we reached the end of our hike, the trail transitioned into a concrete path, winding between beautiful fenced in estates perched on the hillside. The path eventually reached into Positano where we were led down the mountainside via staircases amounting to nearly 1900 steps in total. Midway down we stumbled upon a couple selling freshly squeezed lemonade, made with lemons from the trees growing in their very own back garden. Many would agree that a fresh glass of lemonade after a day spent in the hot sun is as refreshing as it gets, and sitting on the concrete bench in the courtyard, overlooking the sparkling blue water, listening to the many happy sounds from the town below, one would have to agree that in that particular moment, there was indeed nothing better.

60 Under 30 #2: USA

It’s been about four hours since we started our early morning descent at eight thousand feet. A rickety old van loaded up with us and our mountain bikes, slowly climbing the dirt road leading to the trailhead that marked the beginning of the days ride. It’s mid way through our trip to Moab, Utah in the south-western United States. For years, this trip has been at the top of the list for both my father and I. In North America, there is no better place to ride than here, and we have been looking forward to this week since the day our flights were booked nearly a year ago.

The day started with a slow descent through the high altitude and gradually increased in pace as we gained both confidence and adrenaline from the successful traverse of the rocky trails. Every so often we stop to take in the beautiful sights, landscapes similar to that of the Grand Canyon further to the west. Late morning was met with a brief stop for lunch at the start of the cliff-side trail that will make up the majority of the afternoon’s ride. At 16, I am the youngest in the group by nearly two decades, and have been quietly keeping up to my father near the back of the pack. During our lunch, in their typical Australian nature, the two leaders of our group insist that I come to the front with them for the next section of downhill. Nervously I agree, and once we are all packed up, I head out down the trail right behind them.

Start of our descent at 8000 feet

The wind is rushing past me so quickly that my peripheral vision is nothing but a blur. I am focused on what’s ahead, with only a few meters of path visible behind the two adrenaline-crazed Australians I am following. In the few split seconds I allow for myself to break focus I can see that on either side of the trail is a few short feet of untamed brush, following by what must be at least a thousand foot drop. Each glimpse reminds me of the importance of keeping my eyes on what’s ahead. Despite the harrowing nature of the current nerve-wracking downhill I am facing, the surrounding beauty of the southern Utah badlands is not entirely lost on me. To either side, the vast expanses of canyons can be seen with flowing rivers, cacti and the red sandstone arches that this area is so famously known for.

Normally adrenaline seeking is not exactly in my wheelhouse, but a place like Moab brings it out in people. It also brings those types of people into it. Moab is a small town, about a four hour drive south of Salt Lake City, which is also the nearest major airport. The drive starts out surrounded by the snow capped Rocky Mountains and transitions into a desert scene straight out of a Roadrunner cartoon. It can be quite startling to fall asleep in the middle of a blizzard and wake up passing by cacti and dustbowls on the highway.

My focus is once again broken when I realize that both riders I have been following have suddenly vaulted into the air and then dropped out of sight. Realizing quickly that there must be a drop up ahead, I have no choice but to commit and hope I can pull out the landing. According to my speedometer I hit the drop at around sixty kilometres per hour, launching into the air. The brief few seconds slow down to feel like hours and for that brief time I feel like I am flying, the view of the surrounding landscape even more beautiful as I soar through the air, coming to a slightly bumpy but stable landing several metres down the trail. I pull up next to the Aussies as my dad catches up, having seen the drop in time to avoid it. The force of the impact causes my rear tire to deflate, and as we stop to repair it, we examine the drop and estimate it’s height to be at least six feet. No wonder it felt like flying. I chalk this one up as the first of many times I have nearly died at the hands of an Australian.

My father and I overlooking the cliff side on the edge of the trail

As you wind into town from the North, crossing over the Colorado River, numerous campgrounds start to appear filled with cabins, tents and camper trailers. The town has a few small motels, but most visitors tend to “commune with nature” by tenting or renting one of the small cabins my father and I had opted to take up as our home for the week. By the second night I had wished I had brought a tent to sleep in as my father’s legendarily loud snoring was at it’s all time best. In the cabin next to us are my Dad’s friends Neil and Pritchie, who had invited us along on their annual pilgrimage to the red rocks. Due to the generational gap between us all, I had been given the nickname “Spongebob” early on, as that was dubbed to be something I could relate to. I returned the favour by taking every opportunity to remind our companions of my youth by racing past them on the trail every chance I got, often with a grab of the brake on their handlebars as I sped past.

Moab itself sits in the bottom of a canyon surrounded by burnt red rock walls and with numerous flowing rivers winding their way through the quiet town. It is no coincidence that with such a backdrop, the majority of people who make the pilgrimage to Moab are adventure seekers. Rock climbers, white water rafters, hikers and mountain bikers can be found aplenty, as well as numerous shops selling and renting the gear to go with them. The beautiful little town manages to find a way to keep itself away from the fast food chains and commercial shops that dot so much of the United States. Restaurants are family owned, each with their own specialty. Much to my chagrin, having to share a small cabin with him, my father opted for a delightfully authentic Mexican joint called La Hacienda on our first night. Despite the noxious gasses that would no doubt pollute our small but functional homestead later that evening, we gorged ourselves on platters of enchiladas, tacos and burritos. The food was so good that we would return yet again later in the trip for a repeat indulgence.

I have travelled to many places in the USA, each with their own fond memories, but Moab will always stand out to me as different. Many travellers who make the trip to the US and visit the cities often comment on how big, busy and loud it is. The same could be said about many of the people who live there. What makes Moab stand apart for me is that in a country where cities like New York and Los Angeles dominate the tourism market, there is this little town in the middle of nowhere that attracts people from all over the world without the tacky traps and gimmicks that so often comes with the tourism industry. Moab sits in the middle of the desert, offering up its natural beauty and providing the basic necessities to enjoy it. It knows what it has to offer and if you’ve come to enjoy it, it’ll welcome you with open arms. Just make sure you keep you eyes on the trail ahead.