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A PALE LIGHT HAD BEGAN TO FAN OUT across the sky, reaching white fingers through the black between stars. As we watched, the lights took on a subtle shade of green and moved from the horizon to directly overhead and on to the darkness behind us – like ghosts passing from one side of the Earth to the other.

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I had flown to Iceland with my brother to see the Northern Lights – something high up on my bucket list of 28 Things. Someone up there loves us, because our first night was clear and when our tour bus disgorged its passengers in the sparse country outside Reykjavik, the lights were streaming through the skies.

But this was just a preview. A few days later in Skogar on the south coast we saw them again, even brighter. Green streaks like river bends and long shafts of white light like rafters supporting the sky. The truth is that it’s brighter in these photos than it was in real life. But they were still clear and bright and eerie. I like the way that in this photo they look like folds in the texture of space:

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Iceland seems designed to make you feel small. By day, you drive through plains bordered by towering bluffs, with signs of volcanic activity everywhere – vast lava fields, steaming vents and geothermal springs, glacial outwash plains that stretch to the horizon. The houses at the feet of the mountains seem tiny, like doll houses for ants. Then at night, gazing at the lights, you watch the solar wind crashing into our atmosphere and blowing across the dark and immense skies.

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In the Blue Lagoon, I float on my back in the silicate waters and try to imagine the distances above and the tremendous and busy depths below. And our small figures somewhere in between, perched on the thin crust as our planet tumbles through the dark.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buqtdpuZxvk

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AS WE WALKED INTO THE MOUNTAINS a steaming river wound down between mossy banks patched with snow. Around us white clouds belched from the valley floor. Through thick fog we saw what we had hiked here for: a geothermal river deep enough for bathing, surrounded on all sides by steep mountain slopes.

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Iceland is a young country, geologically and historically, birthed from volcanic activity in the fissure between continental plates some 20 million years ago, and carved into a nation by Viking settlers from Norway. I came here with my brother with one hope: seeing the Northern Lights as one of my 28 Things (more on that soon). In the meantime our road trip us took us through much of the West and South of the country.

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We packed so much in that places seemed to follow each other in a kind of endless day. We gazed up with the spray of furious waterfalls in our faces; we crossed black glacial outwash plains as fantastic as Mordor; we stood in an empty field of yellow grass as I read excerpts from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth within sight of the extinct volcano Snaefell, featured therein; and we waded through the steaming, shimmering silhouettes of bathers as the sun set on the Blue Lagoon.

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The landscape and weather changed rapidly, seeming to defy realism. It made me think of an open-world RPG. Horizon Zero Dawn eat your heart out. We drove through ancient lava fields green with moss one moment, sunny snow-capped mountains the next, then glacial mist as icebergs bobbed in a seawater lagoon, reaching the sea only to be shattered in the surf of rugged black stone beaches.

During the drive we discovered some unexpected facts: hot dogs are excellent wrapped in bacon in a bed of potato salad; radio stations in Iceland are not afraid to mix new and old music back to back, and currently play Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill” approximately seven times a day; and icebergs taste delicious.

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We didn’t meet a lot of people, but those we did were memorable. In Reykjavik we stayed with an American illustrator who was a self-described alcoholic, played Magic the Gathering professionally (stand-up at open mics was “a hobby”), and owed 20k to his coke dealer. The people you meet on Airbnb. But the place was comfortable and we were soon out on the road.

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Iceland has a tumultuous history thanks to the violent Earth and the greed of Dutch and Norwegian rulers; it’s a wonder anyone has survived. Then again, they were Vikings. At the National Museum we talk to a jovial, gigantic red-bearded man who actually looks quite a lot like a Viking.

He thinks the “tourist attack” that began in 2015 is a good thing. (We get the impression that others might not share his view). “Before, Iceland was like THIS.” He blinkers his vision by putting his own meaty hands on either side of his face. In the 1940s, he says, a black man came to Iceland and it made headlines. Before the Americans came in World War II, there was nothing, not even fruits. If you had a banana people said “WOW LOOK A BANANA!” Now things are changing fast.

As for the Northern Lights . . . Next entry.

 

OUR LITTLE HATCHBACK tumbled out of the mountains toward the coast, where a black speck hovered beneath us. The speck was a bat, a flying fox, gliding over the trees at the foot of the mountain. The hatchback slid down steep winding roads toward the bright waters of the ocean, which shone an impossible blue. A few wind turbines span lazily in the distance.

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Looking out at man-made Eden Island

We were driving across Mahé, the largest island in Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 granite and coral islands off the East Coast of Africa. I feel incredibly lucky to have visited Seychelles. The truth is that I had never heard of the place until I met my girlfriend, Miss F, who was born there and had returned to see what it was all about (you can read her blog here). Picture white sand beaches with creamy granite arms extending into the water. Dramatic mountain peaks. Thick verdant jungle. And giant tortoises, trundling over several of the islands. Technically, there are actually more giant tortoises than people. The total human population is just 93,000, concentrated on Mahé; there are 100,000 tortoises on Aldabra Atoll alone.

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Tortoise City

In the capital, Victoria, we visit the Botanical Garden to see the tortoises. It turns out that they’re actually pretty friendly. They seem to like it a lot when you stroke their necks. It feels rough and leathery, like the skin of a snake. But they stretch their necks out and close their eyes a little and seem about to purr. As I pat my new best friend, the prehistoric eye opens lazily to regard me. The face is wizened with age and weather, but when his mouth opens the tongue is wet and pink and young. He peers through black inky lenses at the leaf I hold.

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In a lot of ways, Seychelles is like the tortoise – unusual, unique, and seeming both old and young at the same time. The islands are ancient, but people are relatively recent arrivals, making the country very young; in fact, the islands remained uninhabited until the 1800s. Back in the car, we compare Montreal and Mahé. An unfair comparison. But there are superficial similarities: both are islands; both are multilingual; and both have pasts mired in British and French colonialism. Oh, and both begin with M. We joke that Mahé is like Montreal’s perfect counterpart in heaven. Imagine that you could pick up the island of Montreal. Now squeeze it to about a third of the size. Colour the edges with white beaches and coral reefs. And smooth over the language politics, while adding Creole to French and English. Finally, put it back down somewhere – and this is the most important step – somewhere where there is no winter! Even the prison, where we visit a relative, seems a paradise. Inmates stroll about outdoors, surrounded by coconut trees and with a view of the ocean. There is a playground for visiting children; the dogs, once strays, are all named and well-fed. Brightly painted letters suggest: “Turn water off after brushing your teeth!”

Of course, Seychelles isn’t all beaches and tortoises.A few weeks before, there was a riot in the high security section of the prison. The minimum wage is less than $4 an hour. There is almost no middle class, and a lot of foreign interests are overrepresented. This is symbolised by the sight of the palace of the Sheik of the United Arab Emirates Sheik perched on the highest hill looking down over the capital, Victoria. Oh, and holy crap, rent, imported goods, and even very modest restaurants are expensive. A packet of Doritos is $7. That’s a lot!

But if there is a paradise on Earth, Seychelles is it:

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Later, we swim out through bright schools of fish. Now you might know that I have a huge phobia of sharks. I hate them. Can’t swim in deep water. Ever since Jaws I, Jaws II, Jaws 3-D, and Jaws IV: The Revenge. Which I watched as a kid with my feet pulled up off the carpet . . . But when we arrive at the beach, Miss F swims out with me. We float through a jungle of seaweed swaying in the breeze of underwater currents. Wearing one flipper each. Sharing the snorkel mask. As fish – blue, yellow, red, gold – dart through our legs and one even nibbles at my toe.

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And it’s not so bad.

 

 

 

OLD HAVANA exists in two places in time. In one, classic cars drive down cobblestone streets between grandiose colonial buildings. In the other, Canadian and European travellers stroll through wifi hotspots crowded with young Cubans staring at iPhone screens. Superimpose these places one on top of the other and you have Old Havana. Beautiful, crumbling, modern.

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It was actually Hemingway, however, that brought us here. Hemingway lived in Cuba on and off throughout the 40s and 50s. I had become obsessed with him after reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. I think it’s because he’s a paradox: a war veteran, big game hunter, and bold writer, larger than life, but also very human, very vulnerable. An interesting anecdote: toward the end of his life, Hemingway became convinced that the FBI was following him. His friends thought he was crazy –  but turns out it was true! The FBI had opened a file on him, and was watching him. Around this time, Hemingway was administered electroshock therapy for depression; shortly afterwards he shot himself. We follow his ghost through Havana, drinking daiquiris at El Floridita and mojitos in La Bodeguita. I peer through the window of his home, the Finca Vigia, at the place where he would once stand to write on an old typewriter (he always wrote standing up). Bet you didn’t know this: Hemingway owned dozens of cats; he was in love with them. Hemingway: soldier, hunter, drinker – kitty lover.

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But for me, the highlight of the trip is the fishing village Cojimar, where we read The Old Man and the Sea. This is where the real Santiago, Gregorio Fuentes, lived. We sit on the bottom terrace of La Terraza, far from the noise of the restaurant. Read by the sea, the story takes on new dimensions. Our emotions fly over the water with Santiago, up and down like kites. It’s an especially nice experience because it’s shared. Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, and there’s a quote from another writer, Joseph Conrad, that I think explains why: “You fellows know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence.” That’s the kind of voyage that The Old Man and the Sea is.

We return from one paradox to another: Old Havana, with its strange mix of past and present, communism and commerce. We wander down the Malecon, past prostitutes, couples singing, families eating dinner; past magnificent colonial architecture, in a constant state of repair or disrepair; past banks, with their posters of Fidel Castro and messages of revolution. It makes me think of alternative histories, like steampunk, where old technologies march forward into the future alongside recent innovations such as cellphones and internet.

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There was much more to our trip – casa particulars, horse riding in Valle Viñales, getting extremely sunburnt at the beach . . . But The Old Man and the Sea lingers on – just like a good story should.

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THE BALLOONS LIFTED INTO THE AIR above rolling limestone canyons. One green giant drifted over our heads almost close enough to touch. I counted around eighty; my brother and sister counted more. We stood on the cliffside as the rising sun lit up the balloons and filled the sky with colours.

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The whole family had met up in Istanbul, flying in from different parts of the world. I had surprised my sister, who thought I couldn’t come, at the airport, holding up a sign with her name on it. Watching the hot-air balloons soar over the dusty terrain of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia was one of her dreams.

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Mine was Kaymakli underground city, an ancient, multi-levelled, subterranean network of caves dug into a kind of soft limestone called tuff splashed across the region by volcanic activity. Sometimes this stone erodes into towering pillars, giving the landscape an unearthly character. Many are dotted with caves that were once houses – ancient apartment buildings, stone high-rises.

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There are dozens of underground cities in Cappadocia. Kaymakli is the widest, a labyrinth of caves built around a central ventilation shaft, and connected via a nine kilometre tunnel to Derinkuyu, the deepest. The first levels might have been dug by the Hittites, or perhaps the Phrygians, around three thousand years ago. Historians believe the cities were used to hide from invaders. Nearby Derinkuyu could shelter up to 20,000 people. Over time, the caves were expanded; Kaymakli reaches down eight levels. Christians found refuge here from Roman persecution during the second and third centuries, expanding the caves and even building underground churches. As we followed our guide, we walked through bedrooms, wineries, stables, churches, wineries . . . a lot of wineries. I guess when there are enemies above searching for you and you’re hiding down in the dark, there’s not a lot to do besides drink wine. Drink and pray.

I managed to scare the crap out of my sister twice, hiding in shadowed hollows that might have once been bedrooms. It was awesome.

Back in Istanbul, I walk through the square between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It’s Ramazan (Ramadan) and now that the sun has set families are feasting in the park . . . A procession of men in red robes march toward a stage amid cheers . . . . The moon, which we had watched grow toward fullness each night, is finally whole, and floats near a minaret of the Blue Mosque. Someone once told me that when Roman gladiators won a fight, people would shout “die now!” Because that was as happy as the gladiator would ever be. I don’t know if that’s true, but you hear similar sentiments sometimes: “I was so happy I could die!”

Perfect moments like this make me feel the opposite. They make me want to live forever.

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JERUSALEM SYNDROME IS WHEN YOU GO CRAZY WITH RELIGIOSITY after visiting the city of Jerusalem. Wikipedia:

The Jerusalem syndrome is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination but has affected Jews, Christians and Muslims of many different backgrounds.

The best known, although not the most prevalent, manifestation of the Jerusalem syndrome is the phenomenon whereby a person who seems previously balanced and devoid of any signs of psychopathology becomes psychotic after arriving in Jerusalem.

We didn’t go crazy, but I did get to do three things on my bucket list – wander through Petra, float in the Dead Sea, and visit the Holy City.

In honour of our trip, I made a short and informative documentary on the plane home:

Lehitra’ot.

MUHAMMAD PUSHED OFF FROM THE EARTH SO HARD when he ascended to Heaven, his footprints were imprinted onto the stone now housed within the Dome of the Rock. There’s someone who didn’t skip leg day.

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If you had been walking behind me in Jerusalem, you might have heard me laughing maniacally as I nerdgasmed. The Old City represents millennia of history. The Assyrians fell upon it in the 8th century BC; the Babylonians in the 7th; the Persians, Hellenes and Roman followed. Meanwhile the Israelites, driven by apocalyptic prophecies, dreamt of national restoration. The Caliphates made Jerusalem a Muslim city and the Crusaders spilt rivers of blood to take it back.

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It’s a surreal experience to see the place I read so much about in my studies. Like when you see the Statue of Liberty for the first time, having seen all those movies set in New York. We walked through the winding, cobbled streets, through the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters.  Why is there an Armenian quarter? They say that the Crusaders spared the Armenians in the First Crusade because the Armenian women were so beautiful.

The jewel of the Old City is the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built on the Temple Mount, where once stood the Jewish Second Temple. Non-Muslims are forbidden entrance. Jews regard the bedrock inside as the foundation stone of the world, laid down at creation. Beneath is the Well of Souls, a cave where the dead whisper as they await the Last Judgement. Rabbis warn against entering the Temple Mount, since one could unwittingly tread on the forgotten location of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary which only the High Priest was permitted to enter. Hence the Western Wall – a safe distance.

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As dusk falls, we leave the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, and walk the Via Dolorosa, the path he supposedly followed carrying the cross to his crucifixion – now a marketplace selling cheap knick knacks. The street ends in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to be the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and entombment, based mostly on tradition. The holiest site in Christendom, the Church is controlled by several Christian factions, a fact which sometimes results in punch-ups:

The Church makes me think of Israel – held together by stories, fought over, a patchwork of history.