In the Land of Ice and Fire

Before there was earth or sky or anything green, there was only the abyss of Ginnungagap. This darkness and silence lay between Muspelheim, the land of fire and Niflheim, the land of ice. Frost from Niflheim and the flames of Muspelheim blew towards each other and when they met at Ginnungagap, the fire melted the ice and the drops formed the giant Ymir. Ymir was a hermaphrodite who could reproduce asexually. More giants were born from his sweat.

As the ice continued to melt, a cow, Audhumbla, emerged from it. She nourished Ymir and nourished herself by licking the ice which uncovered Buri, the first of the Aesir tribe of gods. Buri had a son named Bor who married Bestla, the daughter of a giant. Their half-god, half-giant children were Odin (who became chief of the Aesir gods), Vili, and VeOdin and his brothers slew Ymir and created the world from his corpse.

The sons of Bor made the sky from Ymir’s skull, and four dwarves corresponding to the four cardinal points, held Ymir’s skull aloft above the earth. They tossed Ymir’s brains in the sky and they became the clouds. His blood became the oceans, his skin and muscles became the soil, his hair became vegetation, and Bor’s sons placed the sparks and embers that blew out of Muspelheim in Ginnungagap to light the heaven above and the earth beneath. They created the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, from two tree trunks, and built a fence around their dwelling-place, Midgard, to protect them from the giants.

This is the Norse creation myth.

Iceland is a land of legends – a place of extreme geological contrasts, a land of ice and fire. It is home to glaciers and some of the most active volcanoes. Long summer days fade into dark winters. Although reachable with cheap flights from its neighbouring countries on both sides of the Atlantic, the prices in Iceland are enough to deter a lot of tourists. Iceland is expensive. Though the standard of living is high, it remains one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world. This isolation and the extreme nature have shaped Icelandic culture through the centuries, creating a resilient nation that values family bonds, tradition, and a strong bond with nature.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to have found a long lost connection – a childhood friend from a summer in Philippines almost 10 years ago. He remembered me and my family quite well and when I asked if he could host me for a couple of nights, he accepted.

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Me & J, after 9+ years, on Esjan

Flying to Keflavik on a clear day, it is impossible to miss Mt. Esja (or Esjan as the locals call it). Esjan is actually a mountain range, located 10km north of Reykjavik. Icelanders have a special bond with this mountain, and as a friend said, it is only when they see it that the feeling of ‘home’ finally kicks in.

It was only fitting to spend my first afternoon in Reykjavik hiking up Esjan. There is an extensive network of hiking trails and a bunch of Reykjavíkians go up there everyday. We didn’t get very high up though as the setting sun beat us to it. There was an aurora forecast for that night, and on our descent, we passed by people who were still making their way up.

Around 10pm, we drove to Seltjarnarnes, which, at the western end of Reykjavik is not Reykjavik at all due to some politics. It was so windy and cold. We parked our car by the road and waited for the aurora to be visible, but gave up after half an hour because we were so hungry. We decided to go home and finish the night with Berliner Luft and karaoke, because if there is one thing all Filipinos share no matter where, it is their inherent need to sing.

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The wasteland outside of Reykjavik

On my second day we drove the famous tourist route, the Golden Circle. At only 300km and passing through major sites without much walking, you can think of it as a hors d’oeuvre. It is what people who don’t have much time to explore the country will most likely see.

The landscape is incredible. The miles of wasteland will make you feel like you are on a different planet. Sometimes only the vacation homes punctuating the landscape will remind you otherwise.

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Kerið

We drove counterclockwise from the normal route and our first stop was Kerið crater, just one of the volcanic craters in Iceland’s south. There is an oval lake in it and you can walk around the rim and go down and walk the small circle in it. It’s a short stop where you can stretch your legs a bit. Nothing spectacular, but nice. Like a lot of places in Iceland, they now charge an ‘upkeep fee’ (400 ISK, September 2017).

We drove on to Haukadalur, home to the most famous sights in Iceland: the geysers. I have never seen one before and it really was amazing. The biggest geysers are Strokkur and Geysir (where the word ‘geyser’ comes from). The Great Geysir was the first geyser described on a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. Its eruptions have been infrequent. Only 50m away is the smaller Strokkur, which draws the tourist crowds. It is one of the few natural geysers to erupt frequenty (every 5-10 minutes).

Since we were exploring the area, we missed two eruptions but were lucky to have been standing right by it for the big eruption. Everyone went silent when the pool started getting wavier and then a big bubble formed and in a split second shot up. I was so caught up in the moment, looking up at the steam that rose high up until reality started raining down on us onlookers. Some tried to run away. Luckily I had my rain jacket on and all I could do was crouch down to keep my camera dry. I was drenched, and it was a cold day. J and I had a good laugh and decided we had seen enough geysers for the day.

We drove 10km ahead to Gullfoss ‘Golden Falls’, which got its name from the golden hue on its waters during sunset. It is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls, hence the crowd. As you first approach the falls, the edge is obscured and it looks as though the river simply vanishes into the earth.

There are short trails for walking where you can learn a bit more about Gullfoss. Back in the 20th century, there were some people who wanted to use the falls to generate electricity. It was indirectly rented by its owners to foreign investors. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of one of its owners, though uneducated, sought the help of a lawyer and brought the matter to court. She threatened to throw herself down the waterfall if they didn’t preserve its condition. Eventually, one of her family members sold Gullfoss and the surrounding area to the Icelandic government.

We drove on to Þingvellir National Park, a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian plates diverge 2.5 cm a year. We arrived in what I think is the most beautiful time of the day: just before sunset. Seeing the landscape of Þingvellir basked in golden light was breathtaking. Even J2 who had been to the place countless times could not help take a picture.

A few kilometers away is the Silfra fissure where you can stare in awe at the clarity of glacier water. Overall, the Golden Circle is touristy, but it does cover sights you cannot miss. The most valuable insight I got from this trip is that I would definitely skip the tour bus and explore it at my own pace.

I spent the next two days hiking and exploring more of Iceland’s diverse offerings. I did an easy hike to a hot river where we had to pass a bridge over boiling water, and make our way through the mist to be rewarded with one of the most relaxing hiking bonuses ever.

Since it was not that late yet, we decided to drive further south to Vik where the scenery made for a very exciting roadtrip. We passed by majestic waterfalls and glimpsed distant glaciers. Guest houses, cottages and small wooden churches periodically dotted the landscape. Unfortunately for us, when night completely fell  in Vik, there was no cheap place to stay. We briefly contemplated sleeping in the car but the lack of toilet and the fact that I have a pea-sized bladder in that cold and windy night made us drive back to Reykjavik.

It was not for naught as I got to see the Northern Lights and the road was well worth the trip. Returning to Reykjavik meant we were back to mile 0, and so we decided to drive north the next day.

I was up for more hiking and picked Glymurfoss because it was only a 40-minute drive away. J had spent 15 years in Iceland and had not once been to Glymur. We had a change of roles and I guided him through Hvalfjörður. Until 1998, people getting to the town of Borgarnes from Reykjavik had to make a 62-km detour on the fjord. The opening of Hvalfjardargongin tunnel cut travel time by an hour and the Hvalfjörður has become quiet.

The fjord itself is beautiful and the hike up to Glymur was by far the best I had done. There was so much variety of landscape – even rivers to cross. Not counting the part where we got lost on our way down, it was a mighty fun hike.

I spent my last day hunting for kitsch in downtown Reykjavik. The weather had gone absolutely sour, and the rain battered our car as J and J2 drove me back to Keflavik. I had grown quite dear to them in my sojourn. We were strangers when they picked me up only five days before. We said our goodbyes, and I got myself a big bottle of Brennivín for when the winter blues hit.

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Here’s to the Viking spirit and the day I come back!

 

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The Grand Budapest Adventure

If you go from Moscow to Budapest, you will think you are in Paris.

There are some things in life that people who have visited a place seem to forget to mention when you ask them about it – that the Czech Republic has a different currency – and that Budapest comes from the merging of the cities of Buda and Pest separated by the Danube River, and that locals hate it when you call their city Budapest when it is in fact ‘boo-dah-pesht’.

Budapest is a city of contrast. It has good public transport infrastructure but very old trains and rickety trams, grand art nouveau buildings co-existing with communist-era housing estates, and you can get romantic cobblestone streets reeking of piss. There is so much to love and yet so much to hate in Hungary’s proud capital, and whether it’s for the right or wrong reasons is entirely up to you.

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Vintage Trams ❤

Budapest’s airport is located about 20km from the city center and on the bus ride on that summer morning of well above 30° C, the remnants of years behind the Iron Curtain was still very noticeable.

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I had been a notoriously poor planner for this trip as pointed out by my friend who I hadn’t met until that morning in the airport despite living in the same city for over a month already. I had been handicapped from chronic lack of internet connectivity and free time. My friend Himeel arranged our Airbnb but he was arriving later so we decided to check in ahead and drop our bags.

We had rented a small one-bedroom flat located right across the splendid Nyugati Railway Station but I had had no contact with the host and could barely remember the listing Himeel had shared.

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Beautiful building beside our beautiful building

We managed to go through the main door and were about to call our host when he rang us. He told us to wait and we did but not for long as a man appeared through the main door. We introduced ourselves, he explained how the keys worked, crammed ourselves in the ancient elevator and led us to the flat we had rented that looked nowhere near any of the 3 listings I remember Himeel and I discussing when we were booking.

It was disappointingly small and dark but these things do happen, right? As it seemed already cleaned, we started to unpack, and then I started having second thoughts. Himeel had sent me a screenshot saying the flat still had to be cleaned and that we could drop our bags but the place wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon. Our host simply put on the new sheets and was about to leave us when his phone rang.

Surprise, surprise! What are the odds that we had a male host and were two ladies, and he was a male host and were expecting two ladies as well? In Budapest, where Airbnb is a big source of income and is regulated, quite common actually. There had been a mix up and after some apologies and laughter, our sweet lady who worked as a hostess for Airbnb renters led us to our much-better, newly-renovated flat with designer lighting.

We headed off to the river for a glimpse of the grand Hungarian Parliament. It was such a hot day that it was hard to focus on anything. To be honest, I had less than four hours of sleep and had grown unaccustomed to the heat that the day went by in a kind of stupor.

Budapest, which is still ‘the cheap city’ to Western Europeans, has a big art scene and it’s discernible from the beautiful street art scattered throughout the city, though this is most evident in District VII. Yes, in Budapest they name the districts with numbers and yes, District XIII does exist.

Having heard good reviews and recommendations for SANDEMANs (free tours) guides, we met up with Himeel by the fountain where the tour was to start but found the tour guide we had too awkward that we ended up being rude for being more interested in each other than at her and decided to separate from the group. I had’t met Himeel in over a year and so starting out with a guided tour was not very well-thought of. We crossed over Budapest’s famous Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge connecting Buda with Pest.

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Széchenyi Chain Bridge

It was too hot outside to do much that we skipped climbing up Buda for another day and headed out to one of the city’s main attractions: the thermal baths. Budapest sits on a patchwork of over 100 thermal springs, and the city has made good use of all of them. Since we like extravagance and were lured by the possibility to play chess while relaxing in the water, we opted for the Széchenyi Baths, the largest medicinal bath in Europe. What better way to relax after the end of such a hot summer day?

We did not get to play chess though. We asked the lifeguards and they looked so clueless about it. We assume it is a matter of bringing your own chess pieces. Needless to say, my friends felt betrayed by the advertisement.

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Széchenyi Baths

The next day was just as hot but windy, and so we went for a boat tour on the Danube where this priceless picture was taken (the things yadayadanada does for Instagram):

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The Moment the Wind Toppled my Beer ©Katja Camrath, 2017

The boat tour gave us the much-needed history lesson we escaped the day before. Budapest is one of the 4 national capitals along the Danube, Europe’s second longest river.

It has a long history starting out as a Celtic settlement fortified by the Romans, given up to the Huns until the horse-riding Magyars came in 896 AD and after a century of raiding Catholic Europe, decided that Catholicism was the key to survival in Europe. St. Stephen founded the Kingdom of Hungary in January 1, 1001.

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Buda Castle

Buda was its most important royal seat until the Mongol invasion left it devastated. Under Matthias Corvinus, it was the first country to adopt the Renaissance outside of Italy. However, he later moved the capital to Vienna after defeating the Habsburgs.

Buda and Pest fell to the Ottoman Empire for almost 150 years – and the Turks left behind many thermal baths – before the Habsburg Empire conquered it. It became relatively autonomous afterwards and in 1873, the cities of Buda, Pest, and Obuda were merged to create Budapest. Budapest aimed at rivalling Vienna and the Millenium in 1896 (1000 years since the arrival of the Magyars) saw ambitious large-scale projects like the magnificent Parliament and the Millenium Metro, the third oldest underground railway in the world. At the end of World War II, Hungary attempted to negotiate a separate peace treaty with the Allies and was in retaliation occupied by Nazi forces.

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Hungarian Parliament

The city slowly recovered after the war and was the showpiece for Hungary’s more pragmatic Communist policies. After an uprising that installed a reform-oriented government, Moscow interfered and installed János Kádár who ruled for 30 years until the 1989 change of system that saw the country’s rebirth into a more progressive nation.

The city is an architectural treasure trove of baroque, neoclassical and art nouveau. Most of the buildings were built at the end of the 19th century, in Budapest’s ‘golden age’. A stroll along Andrássy Avenue is recommended for admiring the turn-of-the-century buildings.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

There is so much to do and see in Budapest that three days didn’t even feel enough. One can easily spend a whole day in Buda alone. It’s a city I’m sure I will revisit. I went about this trip with that thought – no rush, just soak in the atmosphere. Admittedly, it wasn’t all rainbows and stars. I was subject to my first racist attack which I will talk about in detail in another post.

But to those who have had Budapest on their list for far too long – go. It’s worth it.

Think Before You Paddle

When I was in 2nd grade, our English class teacher made us read so many stories, and we always discussed the moral afterward. I remember one about a frog jumping into a well and being unable to climb back out as it was too deep. Back then, it didn’t actually occur to me that this frog could die a slow death, alone, and a miserable prisoner in that well. Only that he was stuck there. The moral was to look before you leap.

File_000 (2).jpegYesterday, the weather in Warsaw was beautiful. Being the hipster Varsovian that I am, I decided to lounge around on a beach chair by the Vistula. A beer later, I decided it was, in fact, the perfect weather to go kayaking. So I dragged my friend and we rented a kayak at a shop right by the canal lock.

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So we started paddling, then went downstream, eventually managing to navigate to a sandbar that was separated from both shores and reachable only by boat or kayak. We sunbathed in our little private stretch of beach until the complete absence of shade made us leave.

We hopped back on our kayak and paddled. We paddled. And paddled. We’d make a bit of progress, only to have the Vistula undo it and send us even further away. But we weren’t going to let the current daunt us, so we came up with a plan. We’d paddle to the riverbank and navigate along the shore. We braved Vistula water splashing at us and paddled. And paddled. We managed to get back under the bridge, but never beyond it. People were looking at us curiously. Still, we thought, we were gonna get through this. We weren’t seasoned kayakers, but we thought we could beat the Vistula’s current.

When we accepted it wasn’t going to work, we went back to the sandbar, where, as we tried to navigate through a strait, the Vistula dragged my water bottle away. We managed to paddle to the other bank and dragged our kayak ashore. We were stranded on the wrong side of the Vistula with no water and just a bag of half-eaten chips. Everyone around us had beers, and there we were, trying to figure out how to get our little red problem back to where we signed up for it.

 

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Stranded on the wrong side of the Vistula

 

We talked to the rescue guys who wanted to charge us 40 euros for dragging it back on their jet ski. Being the stingy haggling Asian that I am, I remembered the water taxi I saw while lounging on my beach chair and contemplating the whole paddling on the Vistula affair. It had a mobile number printed on it. Lo and behold, we didn’t even need to make the call! Mr. Water Taxi had come ashore!

We convinced him that it was completely legal to get our kayak on his little wooden boat. Having never done it before, he didn’t even know how much to charge us. It was about a euro per person, and since, when in fear of prices, the safe answer is always “I’m a student”, we only had to pay 4 euros for that boat lift.

 

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One of Praga’s untamed beaches

 

It was such a relief to be on the water again with a boat with an engine cruising the Vistula. It only occurred to us then that nobody was ever expected to paddle against the Vistula, and that we had rented from the wrong place. There was a reason our boat rental place was at the canal – and that they didn’t offer pick-ups or another drop-off point.

The moral of this story: think before you paddle.

 

With love, TO

Cultured and cosmopolitan yet relaxed and liveable, the New York City of Canada is a vibrant sprawling city.

Two decades ago, Canadians might have laughed at the idea of visiting the provincial capital for fun, but these days, with a population of almost 3 million in the city alone, with more than half born outside of Canada, it is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

With a visit limited to 10 days, I travelled Canada on the fast lane. My first day was already endless bus rides in suburban Montreal, my second – endless food and endless drinking in the city, that by the time we got to our hotel room at 3am, we all passed out knowing we had to be up by 5am.

And so the alarm went off and we dashed through the dawn. We arrived in Downtown Toronto at noon and made our way along Dundas Street, hungry and desperately craving a root beer shake (uh-huh). Most places were packed and since I do occasionally live the hipster lifestyle, we opted for Bare Burger: free-range, grass-fed, organic.

A vegan, a carnivore, a dietitian and a glutton sit at a table.

My Toronto trip was just one of the many moments I found myself somewhere with not even a skeleton of a plan. The only comfort was I dragged my best friend with me and we had a place to squat. It’s amazing how many people I went to school with in Philippines have immigrated to Canada.

So what would stereotypical Asians do when they reunite after so many years?

Go karaoke and get drunk. Then realize you skipped dinner.

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View of Downtown Toronto from Centre Island

Toronto is crowded, dense, and spread out. With a little research and proper planning, it’s easy to spend a couple of days just exploring the city. There is something for everyone. Here are my highlights for a short trip in Ontario’s capital:

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The CN Tower  and the Entertainment District

An icon of the Toronto skyline, the CN Tower was the tallest freestanding structure in the world from 1975-2007, and though it no longer is, it still relieves tourists of as much cash as possible. On a clear day, it’ll give you a good bearing of the city’s layout and its neighbourhoods, and you may even see as far as Niagara.

The CN Tower is located in the Entertainment District which is also home to Ripley’s (Canada’s largest indoor aquarium), Rogers Centre (for baseball and NFL fans), theatres, performing arts centres, and nightclubs.

A Visit to the Royal Ontario Museum & Art Gallery of Ontario

The main entrance of the ROM (Daniel Libeskind’s The Crystal) might be a hot topic for debate, but Canada’s largest museum of world cultures and natural history is somewhere you can easily spend 3 hours in. From dinosaurs to the birth of present-day Canada, the exhibits are well-organised and there are plenty of helpful guides to assist you.

Another one of the city’s cultural highlights is the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). It is one of the largest art galleries in North America. There are five floors, two for art and the other three for exhibits.

Tip: The AGO is free on Wednesdays from 18:00-20:30. 

A Trip to the Toronto Islands

When the sun is up, Torontonians set sail for a small chain of islands on Lake Ontario that can easily be reached by City of Toronto ferries operating at Jack Layton Ferry Terminal at the foot of Bay St. The islands are home to parkland, yacht clubs, an airport, a children’s amusement park, car-free residential areas, swimming beaches (including a clothing optional one). There are plenty of picnic spots and quiet nooks to escape the bustle of urban life.

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A Stop at Nathan Phillips Square

You just can’t miss this square when in Toronto. Located in front of Toronto City Hall, this is where the now-iconic 3D Toronto sign is. The square is the site of a weekly farmer’s market, art displays, concerts, and public demos. In the winter, the reflecting pool is converted into an ice rink.

Chilling at the City Parks

Toronto has a lot of parks. Even when in Downtown Toronto, you’re only a couple of minutes away from the many parks along Lake Ontario. HTO Park has a beach by the boardwalk. Toronto Music Garden is a waterfront garden co-designed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma that hosts summertime concerts. Its landscape is areflection of Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major. It’s perfect for chilling on mild afternoons to try to get your mind off the frentic city life.

Though drinking in public is illegal in Toronto, they’re reversing this law starting July 1. Yay to Toronto!

Walking the Busy Streets

What better way to explore a city than on foot?

The city’s multi-ethnic identity is reflected in its neighbourhoods. From busy city center to historic Old Town to trendy West Side and hippy East Side, to the Boho charm of West Queen West, Kensington Market, and cheap Chinatown – it’s a city for everyone.

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Into the Sunset

 

The Colours of Spring

While many other European cities started blooming at the beginning of March, Warsaw slept under its grey blanket a little longer, and it wasn’t until 2 weeks ago that it finally grew out of the dull winter mood.

Warsaw is an ugly city. It’s a mess of stark contrasting communist blocks and modern steel and glass high-rises. The center is the place to be, and at times it seems like it’s the only place where anything is happening. Despite the sizeable expat community, it is still very homogeneous, and generally, you will get the impression that service is foreign to the Poles.

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Under the Bridge, Służew

But come spring, and suddenly the city is so much better. The first greens remind you that it isn’t such a dreary city – there are plenty of green areas – it just really sucks in winter (which is half the year), when all is bare and the communist era buildings stick out of the cityscape. When Warsaw finally wakes up from a winter-induced dullness, it’s beautiful.

April began with the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit cheekily called “The Beguiling Siren is Thy Crest”. It’s set on its new pavilion by the Vistula and managed to lure me there because it’s free. It’s a small exhibit and rather lacklustre. It deals with the origins of the siren in Warsaw’s crest (already in use in the 1400s), the mythology surrounding it, sexuality, and the siren’s relevance to the city.

A highlight of the exhibit is “Him” by Danish duet Elmgreen & Dragset which depicts the Copenhagen Little Mermaid as a man. The exhibit runs until June 18 if you are interested. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it, but if you’re at the Copernicus Science Center or the Warsaw University Library which are right across, it’s worth a stop. The museum cafe is decent and there’s an outdoor platform where you can sit on beach chairs and chill.

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Promenade along the Vistula

With the warm days coming up, it’s worth noting that Warsaw is really embracing the Vistula (Wisła in Polish). They’re building hang out spots on the promenade along the river, and by the looks of it, it should be completely ready by summer. If you prefer a wilder side, the untamed beaches of the Praga side of the banks of the Vistula is the perfect place to relax, and it comes with a view of the Royal Castle and the Old Town.

To celebrate the colours of spring, a Holi event took place at Castle Square in the Old Town and being the kid that I am, I eagerly dragged my friend along. It was a small crowd but it was fun, colourful, and messy – a perfect way to enjoy a sunny day.

Warmer days also mean eating out and lazing around in the park which means – food truck season!

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April’s first weekend was a busy and awesome one. And look, it’s already the weekend…

 

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P.S.

Of course all happy days must have a dash of sadness… mine was because I learned the random palm in the middle of an intersection in Warsaw is not real. And I was so impressed by it.

My Friend Tried to Kill Herself…

And only two people knew- the girl who had called the morning after, and me…6000 miles away.

A year ago, her recipe was set: the lost of a first love, college pressure, and a dash of depression. She’d gone through the steps: wrote a suicide note, and took the meds. She didn’t need much. She fell asleep with the fifth pill.

Her friends had noticed a change in her, even her mother had suspicions, but no one thought she would actually do it. Most of us have had suicidal thoughts at some point, we just don’t act on it. This girl did. She didn’t just want to die- she could have already died because unlike me, she tried.

There was that one worried friend who had called her the morning after, when she woke up alive and scrambled to hide all evidence of what she had tried to do. I don’t know how that conversation went but I know that she didn’t talk to people about it. ‘Kalain sad oi.’ It’s unusual. She only told me – a year later – because she was suffering bouts of anxiety and she was afraid she had depression.

There is a stigma attached to mental illness in the Philippines – and it is a taboo to talk about mental health. I would know from experience. When depression ceased me, I knew something was very wrong, yet my first reaction was to retreat further into myself and show the world that I was still capable of being happy by laughing when it was appropriate and smiling… when in reality I felt nothing.

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Weathered, a piece from Regardt van der Meulen’s Deconstructed sculptures

The fact is it isn’t as fun in the Philippines as most people think.

Filipinos are known as highly adaptable people who manage to smile even at the hardest times. Unfortunately, it seems this image also helps make the discussion of mental illnesses a taboo. In addition to this, mental illnesses are often connected to insanity (dangerous, aggressive, violent) and even seeing a mental health professional is perceived negatively. Denial then becomes a big hindrance to receiving treatment, not just for the person but for the family as well. Meanwhile, all we can do is bear the burden in our worn-down minds and try to cope by relying on our inner resources.

Sometimes, suicidal thoughts or profound unhappiness bring forth guilt. There are people who have it so much worse and they’re not chained by their own misery. What then, is wrong with you?

We need to talk about mental illness. We need to get rid of its stigma. We need to acknowledge, as a society, that a person cannot be held responsible for his own psychological health. We need to start to listen without judgement. We need to admit that refusing to acknowledge a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We need to accept that it’s okay to get help, that it’s okay to be unhappy when there is so much to be happy about. Until then, we will continue feeding the ignorance that might ultimately cost us the life of a spouse, a parent, a friend, a child, or our own.

Stop the stigma. Mental health matters.

Reflections on a Year Past

I started 2016 with so much energy and the impulsiveness I’ve always had. As a response, Berlin gave us a ball of light in an entirely overcast sky for a sunrise on January 1.

It was at the beginning of 2016 that I finally made the change I was always planning on but was always afraid to do. It was painful then, but the pain stayed there. I was free. It was the year that proved what I always say: I’m too many people at once, sometimes I don’t know who I am.

IMG_017211111.jpgI spent so much time, money, and energy traveling. There were times when I felt physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. I met all sorts of people, engaged in countless conversations that impacted me so much, and collected so many stories. I realised I can talk and that there are people who want to listen, and that the quieter you are, the more you can hear.

I worked on rediscovering what it meant to be ‘family’ –as Jonathan Safran Foer puts it, “One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what means to be family.” I spent my entire Christmas break traveling to meet family. It was a bit of a challenge that they were scattered all over the place.

I learned to do weekend breaks– having spent the previous year with barely any weekend free from work. I traveled to places I’d never heard of before, and learned to make do with whatever was at hand.

I woke one February morning to the news of the Brussels Bombings. I breakfasted in silence with the strangest feeling. By some stroke of fate, my extremely delayed flight left the airport 6 hours before that attack.

April 1 World Pillow Fight Day
World Pillow Fight Day in Berlin

In a fit of jealousy, stubbornness, and possessiveness, I started running again. Every initial step was a battle against the voices in my head, against memories of the darkest summer I spent. I signed up for my first half marathon: the Isle of Skye Half Marathon.

I met the dreaded ToiToi – Germany’s portable public toilets, enjoyed work and the diversity of the people I was with. When summer was in full heat, I had my first swim in a Berlin lake, did the Rostock Half Marathon, and enjoyed the outdoors and the endless events that made up Berlin’s summer spirit.

One Sunday I visited a Gurdwara for the first time and received insights on something I knew very little about. I learned that Sikhism is more tradition, a way of life, than religion.

 

I remembered my roots, realised how much two and a half years can change a person, and caught up on old relations. It was a pleasant surprise that although we all go through so many different experiences and we are constantly changing, some things are fundamentally the same.

I moved to a new city in a new country, made new friends, and lived a new life. I had my fair share of grief and tears, faced my selfishness and learned that I didn’t have to explain all my actions. I shuddered at the indifference I discovered– at how cold and cruel the human heart can be. There are people in your life who are worthy of an explanation– and among them, people who don’t listen. As the saying goes, there are people who can’t see the forest for the trees.

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Rolling with the times

It was the year I first smoked weed, shisha, drank a little too much a few times too many, yet it was the year I was fittest. I felt young. I regressed and did things I had missed out on in my strange childhood.

It was life on the fast lane that on the day I typed the words, it was true.

You know the girl you once thought you knew? Well, she’s not here anymore.