On my way back home

It is time for me to go back. It is time to go back home, back to Romania, back to Iasi, my hometown. There where my roots are, where I grew up and got ready to stand on my own two feet, there where I am now coming back, to gather my forces and my allies, to start creating a new kind of life for myself, rising and standing again, maybe differently now, on my own two feet.

The sun is setting, high above the clouds, sending its orange light into the dozed off silence of the airplane. I look around me for a moment, then I turn my eyes again towards the hypnotising light of the sun. The next time it will set, I will already be in Romania. I smile – the first day of my trip started into the light of a sunrise, seen high in the skies from another airplane, the one taking me to Paris. Now everything is coming full circle. One journey, which felt like a lifetime, is coming to an end, in between the light of a sunrise and the light of a sunset.

It is so that this Light Journal, the blog of a girl’s one-year trip around the world, is coming to an end. And we must say goodbye.

I want to thank you. It has been a joy to have you accompanying me along the way, sharing with you moments, and feelings, and images. And who knows, maybe we’ll see each other again, in one part or another of this world!

Epilogue on the back of a photo: The beginning of my new Romanian life came with orange marigold flowers, grey rainy clouds and a lost luggage, and the loving smiles and arms of my friend Irina and her daughter Mara. Interesting mix, isn’t it? Well, if this is how it started, I can’t wait to see what the rest of it will bring!

The highlands of Chiapas

Leaving the Pacific coast with eyes filled with sun, ocean and sand, I headed towards San Cristobal de las Casas, the heart of the Chiapas region. High in the mountains, it welcomed me with fresh morning air, chilly nights and heavy rains: the rainy season was starting to claim its territory. I discovered here a city of Spanish architecture and living pre-Hispanic traditions, graffiti walls and indigenous woman selling their crafts, dressed in black wool skirts.

One foggy morning we headed towards the Cañon de Sumidero, where trees grow on stones, and crocodiles bathe in the afternoon, and ibis birds nest. The little town of Chiapa de Corzo, that we also visited on that day, made me feel I’ve stepped into a slower rhythm of life, with vendors calling out their merchandise, people walking lazily, enjoying their ice cream or their fresh fruits covered in chili sauce.

But it was in the village of San Juan Chamula, some 10 km out of San Cristobal, where I came face to face with the life of the indigenous Tzotzil people, the true inhabitants of the highlands of Chiapas and one of the Maya tribes still living in Mexico. It was a Sunday, a market day, and fruits and clothes and little nothings were on display in the central square. People were drinking, eating and listening to the music played by one of the small bands around. But the sight that would turn to be one of the most impressive experiences of my year of travels was waiting for me inside the village church. Unfortunately, I could not take any pictures there, so I can only try to describe it to you… Imagine you step through the doors of what seems to be a fairly common catholic church, not entirely sure what to expect. Imagine that, the moment you enter, you are struck by the scent of pine and, lowering your eyes, you notice that the floor is completely covered with green pine boughs. Imagine that, in front of you, the big space of the church is lighted by candlelight, groups of tens of burning candles, neatly aligned in even rows, directly on the floor. Imagine that everywhere, in every corner and around every statue of a saint, there are fresh cut flowers. Imagine that long patches of fabric come down from the ceiling of the church and are fixed on the side walls, as if peaks of the mountains. Imagine that through all this, a murmur of voices, some louder, others more silent, reaches your ears. And that, after taking a moment trying to take all of this in, you start walking. And you start noticing details of rituals which belong to an era I had thought no longer existed in Mexico: people kneeled together in front of a ceremonial offering of drinks, food (or even live chicken), incantations uttered in the unfamiliar Tzotzil language, candles and incense sticks burnt on the floor. It is so that I was dragging myself around this strange church, impressed with the intensity and serenity of every scene, with the power of the belief which seemed to emanate from the prayers I was hearing, with the feeling that I was stepping into a place that which was both sacred and surprisingly alive. So much alive that I could almost feel it in my feet…

The story of the Taj Mahal

India-0585I would like to tell you today the story of the Taj Mahal, the Taj Mahal, as I saw it, and felt it.

It was raining that morning and the fog was floating in the air, omnipresent. Passing the second gate, the Taj Mahal appeared in front of my eyes as the silhouette of a white, gloomy ghost. We got closer, stepping forward to meet this mighty legend, the Taj Mahal that everyone speaks of, that every visitor builds up in praise. Slowly I approached, looking with curiosity at its white marble, at the great four towers surrounding it, at the subtle, everlasting flowers carved into the stone, at the clouds that seemed to be crowns on top of the towers, letting just a little bit of sun to come out, just enough to light up in fire details of the inlaid work of gold and precious stones.

In front of the Taj Mahal, one takes a step back. A step back into the very core of his being, into that place deep inside of us where grace and beauty dwells. Marvelous works of art, or stunning sights in nature, have the capacity to do that. Maybe it’s because we feel that, in that moment, grace is flowing in us. Maybe because we can feel then a glimpse of the beyond, of the ever-perfect, of the beautiful without effort, right there, in front of our eyes.

On one of the following days we visited Agra and its mighty fort – still in the company of the rain and the fog. But this time, we were also in the (much more enjoyable!) company of Julie and Olivier, a French couple we met in Rajastan, and with whom we shared stories of places, and people, and our home countries.

About happiness

Thailand-7859Back in Bangkok for a few days. One of the evenings, I go for a walk by myself, in the park close to our guesthouse. I sit somewhere near the river. I can see in the water, glittering and moving lazily, the lights of the buildings next to me. Boats pass from time to time – boats from the five-star hotels down the river, small, decorated with little strings of lights, big touristic boats, sliding across the waters surrounded by a halo of colored light and music, long cargo ships, dark, anonymous, noticeable only by the dark enormous shades with which they cover the reflection in the water of the buildings across the river. Closeby, a Thai young man is playing the guitar. A girl is sitting beside him, holding out a notebook from which they both read. Sometimes I can hear her voice, timid, slightly off key, singing. The sound of the guitar reaches me faintly, like in a dream. I cannot recognize the song, but the warm and gentle notes of the guitar make my heart soften and smile, opening up and filling as if to the memory of a long forgotten love. And to all the beauty that is now around it.

And I suddenly have a feeling, a familiar feeling that it’s been creeping into my life, the last year or two: that THIS, this moment right here, could be a scene of a movie. One of those movies that we love to let ourselves drawn in, enraptured, intoxicated by. The kind of movies that we want to be a part of. And my mind instantly creates the whole story around it: it could be about this girl that left everything and when on a trip around the world. To look deeper into the world, to look deeper into herself. She is now in Bangkok, exotic, chaotic Bangkok, looking at the lights of the boats passing by. And a soft soundtrack music kicks in, the distant sound of a guitar blues.

Yes, it could be a movie! One of those romantic, I-want-to-be-in-it, happy-ending kind of movies. But – and I start laughing by myself – all of it is just such an illusion! I’ve been in Bangkok for several days, visiting, going around, trying the street food. And I did not have that “this is a perfect moment – I am perfectly happy“ kind of feeling. And I realize (a realization to which I come back, again and again) that the scenery of our lives does not contribute but little to our feeling of happiness. That you can be in the most extraordinary and exotic place on earth, on a beach in Thailand, sitting in the sun, but if you don’t open up to feel its beauty, to fill up with the wonder and gratefulness of you living all the sun and the sea and the sand, it is as if you were not really there. And then, you can be in your own house, in a little apartment in Bucharest (let’s say :) ), having a glass of wine with a friend, on your balcony, or a cup of hot tea inside, with some music and small candle lights, and you could feel, as I felt many times, truly blessed and perfectly happy.

Throughout this year of travels I have been, many times, more often than I would usually find myself, in places and situations in which I said to myself: “wow, this is a truly perfect moment!”. About some of these moments I wrote in this travel journal. But each time it happens, I realize that it is not necessarily the place and the time that makes it perfect, but the way my heart, in that moment, melts down a little, opens up to receive and understand the beauty around it. Because the beauty is always there! Even in the most ordinary situations of your life, even at the breakfast table, pourring your coffee, or going to work in the morning, looking at all the different people around you, each with their world and life around them, or looking at the clouds in the sky, with their different shades and colors, or going to a park, or meeting a friend, or enjoying the comfort and coziness of your home. Or reading a book, or playing a computer game you love, or cooking for someone you love. All of these can be moments of happiness – only if you acknowledge them as such. Of course that when you travel, as I am now, it is easier to let your heart open in this way and feel this happiness. But I tell you, precisely because I do feel it now and because I felt it sometimes when I was back home, happiness does not depend on what is happening in your life or in the world around you! I know that many have said this before and that this is not anything new, but I just want to share this with you, my own little revelation: happiness is about opening your heart to receive the beauty that already IS there. Sometimes this is easier to do, other times it’s more difficult. That’s why we should practice it, whenever we find it easy, so that we have the experience of what happiness feels like, for those moments when everything seems dark and gloomy and hopeless.

So go out today, and choose one place, one moment in which you can just relax. Look around you as if it were the first time you see everything, with new eyes and new heart. Smile and look at the beauty, the tenderness, the sweetness in the things and in the people surrounding you. Invite all that into your heart and let it sink in, until it reaches every fiber of your being, until you can feel it in your toes! Then breathe in, smile and feel how blessed you have been today.

After a while, hearing again the tune of the song that lighted up in me all that stream of thought, I got closer to the Thai couple, made friends and listened to what they were singing. And a new smile took over me. It was an old song that I had just discovered this summer and with which I fell instantly in love. I heard it from an Irish guy, who stayed in Afroz for a few weeks and used to play the guitar in the afternoon. It brought back memories of wonderful times, full moons, and loves, and friends, and smiles.

The secret garden

Nice-8400There are some places in the world that, even if you have visited over and over again, you cannot grow bored of. One of these places is for me the rose garden of the Franciscan monastery of Cimiez, in Nice – the city of my Erasmus year. So, when, after coming back from Iran, I met in Nice my friend Irina and her daughter Ema, who were also visiting, I knew I wanted to show them and again go back to Cimiez.

So here we are, one not-so-cold morning, going down from our bus and heading for the rose garden! It’s 10 minutes away, but hurry up, the rain will start soon, the bus driver had told us. (Well, if you don’t already know, France had one the coldest months of May ever recorded in history. My plan to leave Romania and go towards western Europe mid-April – because, isn’t it, very soon it will be May and it’ll be warm and sunny – didn’t work very well!.. One would say that even the weather is plotting to remind me that this trip is not about what I am planning or how I am thinking things will be, but about learning to enjoy the moment, about enjoying what is.)

And besides, who could hurry when you were passing by Hotel Regina, with its 19th-century-France air, when you were taking little alleys with old houses surrounded by palms trees and olive trees, when pictures had to be taken (and both Irina and I, we are passionate, in our amateurish way, about taking pictures) and when there was so much to tell and to share in the meanwhile?…

It was windy and indeed rain was very close when we entered the garden. That made it quiet and almost deserted. We walked slowly along the alleys, smelling, caressing, smiling. Filling our eyes with the wonderful colors of these beautiful flowers. Breathing in the sweet scent of roses and spring.

I must say that I love all flowers, but that, in general, roses are among my least favorite. There is too much marketing, there are too much everywhere and, most of all, they often seem so fake, so stiff and fixed – the perfectly fake natural flower. But Cimiez is the exception. Maybe because here the roses are alive, flowing around you like colored waterfalls. Maybe because the silence in this garden gives you the feeling that you are walking not in just-another-park, but that you are entering a sacred space.

I let myself move slowly and without direction. Rain indeed came, but left shortly after, letting a little bit the sun shine over us, letting us enjoy a little bit longer the garden and its peace.

 

Eventually we left. And after visiting the Matisse Museum on the way, we stopped in the old city of Nice to rest and close the day. The sun was getting close to set and was looking sideways. Every little thing surrounding us had an aura of light around it – the people passing by, the buildings, the signs on the street, our glasses, the hair of my friend Irina. Sitting quietly, enjoying the sun, barely hearing the muttered conversations of the people in the street, holding little Ema in my arms.. I felt time stopping. And truly and completely blissful.

Saying goodbye

My last post about Iran… Time to say goodbye and go on with my trip, go on with this blog. Time to say goodbye and say thank you. Thank you to Sara and her parents who welcomed me with love, generosity and opened hearts.

Time to say goodbye to Isfahan and its gardens by the riverside. Time for a last walk, pick up a white rose, sit down and just turn it slowly round and round making the small drops of water sparkle in the morning sun.

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As all Persian things must end, I’ll close these posts about Iran
with a poem. Beloved Hafez will help me:

از بس كه چشم مست در اين شهر ديده ام/حقا كه مي نمي خورم اكنون و سرخوشم

I’ve seen so many eyes drunk with love in this town,
I think I’m drunk too, although I swear I’ve had no wine to drink.

 

Sunset at the edge of the world

(written during my trip in Iran, 25 April – 12 May 2013)

Shiraz-8970Coming back from Shiraz. Watching through the window of the bus as the sun is falling, fading, slowly, behind the mountains. The light filtered through the clouds has a delicate beautiful feeling to it. To the east, the sky is still blue and the white clouds receive faint reflections of red and orange and pink – hints of the revolution happening on the other side of the sky, on the other side of the world.

It seems as if we are moving towards the sun, as if the road is going to disappear into the incandescent light in front of us. I look at the sun through the corridor of the bus. Back here it’s still a normal world, with people chatting, listening to music, with clocks, days, years, distances, buses and meaning. But there, into the light, everything disappears into nothingness. And this light bewilders me, enraptures me with hypnotic power. I cannot turn my eyes away, I cannot run away from the immense force of this incandescent black whole which seems to absorb everything.

Shiraz-8985

And fast, almost without me noticing, the sun fades behind the mountains. The last piece of it disappears behind the horizon, as an eye slowly closing, leaving behind it wonderful warm colors of red, orange and grey. The ground gets dark, fading into the night, but the sky still keeps for some time the memory of the incredible turmoil which just has happened to the west.

I start thinking about my life, about where I am now in my life. Yes, I am really in Iran, I am really on a trip around the world. And in this moment I am alone – it is me, just me. There is nothing and nobody else, all that I can feel now inside of me is all I have; and I will carry it with me around the world. I feel utterly free and utterly alone – in the same time. But I am ok with this feeling of loneliness: I always thought that in the end we are alone, that in this world you can share moments with others, but that ultimately, in our most inner self, in our core hearts, we will be alone.

I thing about my future life, about what it would be. I wouldn’t like this trip that I am taking, now, at 30, to be the highlight of my life. I am thinking why not take another sabbatical year when I am 60? Wouldn’t that be nice? I try to open up my heart and my senses and to probe the future in order to understand how this other one-year trip would be like. How would I be like at 60? How would I taste then a trip around the world?

And I start sensing in my body that part of me that experiences the world and that I feel will remain the same throughout my life. As if I can feel that woman traveling around the world at 60 in the body of the 30 year-old woman who is now coming back from Shiraz and looking at the colors of the sunset. I feel that my most inner self, that part of me that in this moment I start feeling, that I let expand and inhabit me, will not change. It will be the same.

And, instantly, I feel terrified. As if I am on the top of a cliff and I am about to jump into fin air. 60 seems so much closer to death. Another 10 or 20 years. Close to the not-being, to the unknown. I feel the ground disappearing from under my feet. My heart stops beating for a few seconds and I cannot breathe. I feel the death that is in my body.

This is how it should be, I know. Death is inevitably braided in our bodies the day we are born. And it is not that I think that existence stops when the body dies. But I do think that after death there is a different existence, a different way of experiencing life. And the woman I am now, the 60-year-old woman that I feel in my body, they love this life and they love living it, with all its ups and downs, its suffering and joy.

I bring air into my lungs and breathe slowly, with the pain and the memory of death still inside of me. After having occupied my whole being, my whole body, the feeling of all this naturally and gradually disappears.

It has been a long time since I didn’t live such an acute feeling of death. I almost thought that this fear of dying faded away or was replaced with my trust into the existence. How foolish sometimes we are. As every fear or pattern that we have inside of us, it is still there. Maybe it does not have (anymore) the power to dictate your every movement, maybe it is just so dim that you cannot see it in the light of every day life. But in the shivering light of the sunset it can re-appear. It is there, it will always be there. And all I can do is acknowledge it. Let it be and witness it.

Imam Square – the heart of Isfahan

(written during my trip in Iran, 25 April – 12 May 2013)

Isfahan rose

After my first encounter with Isfahan (Khaju Bridge by night, remember) the city opened to me, slowly, building by building, site by site, just like a rose bud opens into a flower and slowly lets the world discover its inner most hidden petals, its deep heart.

Isfahan is a city that at first did not tell me much. Of course, I was excited to arrive here and meet the family of my friend Sara, but the city itself, with it greyish sand-color buildings, not more than 2 or 3 floors in the center (restriction meant to protect the historical heritage of the city) did not speak to me. That is until, one day, Sara brought me to the Imam Square.

Build in the 1600s during the Safavi dynasty, the Imam Square (now officially called Naqsh-e Jahan) is a huge place, having on its sides the royal palace of Ali Qapu, the entry to the Bazar and two mosques, the bigger Shah Mosque and the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque.

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The Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque is the first mosque I ever entered into in my life. A rather small mosque, it was initially built for the private use of the shah’s wives.

What I felt in this mosque … After going from the bright sun outside through a sinuous shadowy hallway, I found myself standing under a dome that was as grand and majestic, as soft and incredibly near, surrounding me form all sides like the arms of a mother. There was no space in that room that was separated from the dome, that was not under the force and the spell of the wonderfully entangled decoration of its walls. I walked slowly, very slowly, breathing and letting everything sink in. Opening. Opening my senses and opening myself to grasp all the beauty that was before me. I cannot pinpoint what impressed me so, I cannot tell you, this or that were the things that captured me – maybe another would even say that all this is nothing at all. But in that moment and in that place I was overwhelmed by the beauty, the magnificence, the colors, the never-ending circular shapes and lines in front of me. I whirled slowly a few times letting all the colors mingle – what an incredible experience should have been for the Sufi Dervishes to whirl under similar ceilings… High double-layer windows filtered the light and their shape seemed to change as I was walking around the room. As if to let you understand that in that moment you are no longer under the power of the omnipresent sun, but rather in another world, in another universe.

The other mosque in the square, far bigger and more eye-catching, as well as the royal palace Ali Qapu, unveil that Persia of the seventeenth century, that wonderfully rich and mysterious Orient about which I was reading during my school years. And the capital of this Persia was Isfahan. Isfahan – half of the world, as the Persian used to say.

In between visits, Sara took me for lunch to a traditional Persian restaurant, where we ate sitting on wooden beds covered with carpets and well equipped with pillows. But about food and traditional restaurants I will tell you more in another post!

Until then, as the Persian say, hoda hafez – may God be your guardian!

Isfahan-7146

Welcome to Iran – Khaju Bridge

My first encounter with Iran’s long history (and when I say long, I do mean thousands of years): the Khaju Bridge, in Isfahan.

The Khaju BridgeWe were still recovering, my friend Sara and I, after a 20 hour trip from Paris to Ispahan, to the house of my friend’s parents, when Sara’s father proposed to go for a night walk on the riverside. We dressed warmly, we took the customary scarfs to cover our hair and we were ready to go!

Build in 1650, the bridge was used for pedestrian and caravans’ passage, as well as a place for games and fireworks organized in honor of the king. But rather than facts on its history, I would like to tell you about the feeling of the Khaju Bridge.

Even though it was close to midnight, alongside the river’s banks (which actually are more of a huge park), people were still having dinner or drinking chai (made, of course, on the spot, using small gas cylinders – because Iranians like their tea the same way Italians like their pasta: hot, very hot). From time to time you would see a circle of fire glittering in the night – it was somebody trying to light the coal for a waterpipe. Make no mistake, we are in Iran: you could recognize women from a distance due to their (very often) black clothes, long sleeves and covered head, and couples would openly be seen together only if married.

The bridge was full of people coming and going, having their walk, talking or even having their pick-nick right there, under one of the many arches of this two-story bridge. It is under one of these arches that we stopped to buy some kind of boiled beans from an old, simple-looking man. After giving us one each to try and understanding I am a foreigner, he whispered to the ear of my friends’ father: “You have guests, it’s better your don’t buy from me – the beans were boiled yesterday.”

Our impromptu guideAnd yet another unexpected and beautiful meeting was to happen that evening: when visiting the upper part of the bridge, a man approached us asking if we knew this and that about the bridge. No, we did not know. So he engaged into an actual tour of the bridge, taking us up and down, showing us how the bridge was closed to become a dam, the way the arches of the lower level formed the shape of a candle, the glittering eyes of the lion guarding the bridge. He spoke in Persian, so I could only follow through my friends’ translation. But I liked his open, candid way of speaking to us, the energy and passion he put in his account, his shyness in being photographed.

Isfahan-4One of my favorite moments on Khaju: sitting on the stone steps on one side of the bridge, looking and listening to the water rushing thought the sluice gates beneath us. It was as if the water was taking us into another dimension, far and free from the chatty and crowded world outside, a place of silence, a place of meditation.

As we were about to leave the bridge, a little red rose caught our eye. It seemed to me that the Khaju Bridge was saying goodbye.

Farewell, Khaju!