I wrote about Atlas Obscura in the My Favourite Things of the Year post. The book is SO awesome, I rush home every day after work to lose myself in its nearly 500 pages (yes, I'm a nerd in case that wasn't already apparent). The writing style is so engaging, the subject matter so fascinating, that I cannot recommend it enough. I am already planning travels around it.
The book – and website it's based on – focus on lesser-known curiosities around the globe. Prior to reading it, I had never heard of the longplayer in London, England (a musical recording arranged in such a way that the variations will never repeat for one thousand years; listen to it digitally here); Mount Roraima, Venezuela (an unbelievably beautiful flat top mountain with its own unique ecosystem); or Centralia, Pennsylvania (seriously, WTF?).
My immersion in this tome has me contemplating my own travels. In particular, moments I've experienced that have stayed with me and formed a part of who I've become. They weren't always the main event. They often involved a chance encounter with someone who, in a way they will never realize, has impacted my life profoundly.
These are some of the global experiences I've had that resulted in memories of a lifetime:
6) Making friends with a stranger in Frankfurt Airport (2016): earlier this year, I traveled to Dubai. It hasn't been my favourite destination. All the flashy buildings and endless shopping malls proved too superficial for my tastes. However, the journey did result in meeting someone that I think of often. It happened during a stopover at Frankfurt Airport. A friendly woman from Chennai, India struck up conversation with me as we waited for our Toronto-bound flight. We talked for hours like old friends, it was almost as if the thread of our bond was pre-existing. She told me of her family. I told her of my future plans to visit her country (with her even offering to be my tour guide and lend a place to stay). It can become lonely traveling solo, so these types of interactions always elicit joy in me. We became separated after landing at YYZ and while she did leave a voicemail message for me afterwards, it was sadly without a return number. On the very slim chance she is reading this, please give me another call or send an email. You are an amazing woman that I'd love to reconnect with.
5) Driving through the Canadian Rockies in the dead of winter (2001): it was a late December drive from Banff to Edmonton. The days were already short during this time of year, but the shadow of the mountains decreased them even further until all one saw were shapes moving in the darkness. And stars. Thousands (millions!) of stars overhead. We were the only ones on the road, save for the herds of elk illuminated only by moonlight that took the lack of vehicular traffic to wander where they once couldn't roam. This drive made me realize how truly stunning my home and native land is, even with the lights off.
4) Relaxing at a Japanese spa theme park (2015): My excursion to Japan in 2015 was memorable for a number of reasons, the main one being I CLIMBED A FREAKIN' MOUNTAIN. But that is the expected answer. The following day was also legendary. It may take strength, fortitude and deep belief in one's self to accomplish climbing a 12,000+ ft peak, but it takes all of that and more to be stark bloomin' naked in front of dozens of staring strangers at a Japanese onsen.
3) Scavi Tour, Vatican (2011): Few people know of this very exclusive tour of the underground necropolis beneath Saint Peter's Basilica and even fewer get to go on it. By chance (and perhaps luck), my father and I had the opportunity. I am not religious but visiting a site with such rich history, and seeing the bones of the individual who is said to have spread the gospel of Christianity to the world after Jesus's crucifixion, was a very humbling experience.
2) Riding for nearly 40 hours on a train from Beijing to Chengdu, China (2007): I've already documented this here, here and here. At the time, it felt like hell. The more I reflect though – and the more distance there is between me and that toilet – I realize what an immense learning experience it was. Everyone should take a long-distance train in a foreign country. It's a wonderful way to connect with locals.
1) Taking this private tour through the DMZ, South Korea (2015): Every Christmas, I watch a Seth Rogan film. Don't ask me why. My life has just somehow evolved to watching stoner comedies during the holidays. In 2014, that film was 'The Interview'. Throughout that year, my interest in Korea (both North and South) was also peaking. After viewing it, I boldly booked airfare to Seoul along with the aforementioned tour. I didn't really know what to expect, and I do admit to second-guessing my decision in the weeks before traveling, but in the end it proved to be one of the greatest trips of my life. Seoul itself, I feel, is poised to be one of the world's dominant cities of influence. I would love to work there. If you are a recruiter, hit me up. Seriously. But THE particular moment that has put it on this list happened while visiting a hilltop South Korean army base. A shy recruit handed over his binoculars and motioned for me to look at a river down below. As I did this, I caught glimpse of members of the North Korean army patrolling its banks. I was floored. Here I was witnessing a moment of modern history. I then tried to peer at more of the mountainous, raw landscape sprawled out before me, eventually catching sight of a North Korean army base on the peak opposite. Through the lens, I observed a North Korean soldier looking right back at me. A shiver went down my spine.