Posts by: "Eric Giuliani"

“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or said to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”-Helen Keller

Disclaimer: The chapters are meant to be read in order for better understanding, but with that said, each chapter can also be read on its own.

Over the next two hours I hike in silence as the same question keeps bubbling up in my mind, why am I really on this hike?

And when I strip away all the bullshit and answer it honestly, I don’t like what I find.

The truth is that I actually hate hiking.  I’m not an outdoorsman in any way, shape or form. Kilimanjaro was pure hell and I remember something I’d forgotten about it.  Once I finished the hike and made it back to the base camp in Arusha, I donated all my hiking gear to Festo because I swore I’d never hike another step ever again.

And so if I actually hate hiking then why am I really doing this?

And that’s when the real answer hits me.  The money made me do it.  This hike isn’t any better than my old corporate job, I’m still slogging through the day like I used to way back then, it’s just a different kind of slogging masked by what I thought I wanted. But the simple fact is that when I’m really honest with myself, I only agreed to film this hike for a paycheck.

When I realize that I’ve sold out, my thoughts start spiraling downhill.

This isn’t the pot of gold and if this isn’t what I want to do with my life, then what is?

When the answer doesn’t come I feel about as lost as I’ve ever been.

The hiking becomes too challenging to keep dwelling on it and I have to brace myself for each step because the higher we get, the steeper the trail becomes.  Plus, due to the fact that I really didn’t sleep last night, my energy begins to dip, which makes the backpack more colossal and uncontrollable.

Around 3 o’clock and at the verge of losing my mind I call out, “At what point do we stop for lunch and where do we get more water because I’m starving and dying of thirst?”

Jonathan and I had been reminiscing about Philadelphia all morning.  In particular its food.  I lived in the city for two years and grew up in its suburbs so we’ve been debating age-old questions like Pat’s or Geno’s?  Whiz or without?

He told me he liked his cheesesteaks from Geno’s and I said that I preferred mine from Pat’s, which is Geno’s rival. We did both agree on whiz however, which in Philadelphia of course means with cheese.  But it’s not just any cheese, it’s this special cheese that you can’t get anywhere else.  It’s warm cheese whiz, which gets slapped onto the top of the steak the second you order it.  It then quickly melts into the meat and seeps into the nooks and crannies of the fresh roll before you bite into it.  The whole thing is a thing of beauty.

We also discussed how special Wawa’s are and the intricacies of every kind of Tastykake made in the 1990’s.  I’ve never been much of a foodie, but there was something so special about these simple conversations with Jonathan as we hiked along.

Blue Skies Adventure Tours

Maybe it’s because I haven’t bumped into another American in nearly two years, especially one from the same neck of the woods where I grew up so it could be that it’s just nice to be on the same exact page with someone for a change.  Usually when I met someone while traveling we cover the same kinds of basic topics like, where are you from, what do you do for a living and where are you going next.  But when Jonathan and I talk its almost as though we can finish each other’s sentences.

But then again maybe it’s deeper than just being on the same page about cheesesteaks and butterscotch krimpets.  Maybe it’s because I don’t relate to that part of my past anymore.  I left Philadelphia in 2003 and ever since I left I haven’t looked back.  I haven’t gone back to visit and I haven’t maintained my friendships with the people I grew up with like I probably should have.  And so talking to Jonathan really feels like I’m reconnecting with a forgotten piece of my past.

But the big problem with all this cheesesteak and Tastykake talk is that it’s making me hungry.  Really hungry.

I call out again, “Seriously, when do we stop for lunch?  It’s already 3PM?”

As Alan gets ready to respond I can tell by the look on his face that I’m not going to like his answer, “Well, all of the food is dry food, so we need to add water to it to cook it, but we don’t have enough water left.  By the time we go and find a water source, set up the stove and cook the food it might take an hour or two and the campsite is just three more hours away.”

Alan’s response causes me to completely unravel, I take off my backpack and throw it like a shot put as far as I can, “It’s 3:00! I’m starving for god sake, we ate breakfast at 5:30 this morning and I haven’t had anything to eat since.  If you’re going to take people on a hike that’s this damn challenging you have got to give them a lunch break!  I would have packed a sandwich or something if I had known this.  My blood sugar is low!”

I hold out my hand and it’s shaking like a leaf.

Before Alan can reply I keep going on my rant, “And I don’t know how I’m going to hike for three more hours!  My toes are killing me; they have got to be bleeding inside these damn boots.”

Then I start to really lose my patience and launch my water bottle down the trail, “And what about water?  I haven’t had any all afternoon, this is inhumane!”

Jonathan shakes his water bottle; he has less than a quarter left in his and Alan the same.

“I understand your frustration Eric.  There is a water source close to the campsite.  The one I was planning on filling our bottles up at this afternoon was all dried up.”

Alan walks down the trail and picks up my water bottle and dumps all his water into it and then Jonathan does the same and with nothing else left to say or do we get back on the trail.

Eventually I come to my senses and apologize for freaking out, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I thought it would be and I’ve realized that I’m really only doing this for the money and so I’m just overall pissed off at myself.”

Budawang National Park

The next two hours is a slow march; I’m well and truly drained, mentally and physically.

As the sun starts dipping towards the horizon I can barely get one foot in front of the other.  I’m scared to see the state of my toes if we ever actually reach the campsite. They are going to have to be pried out of these boots tonight; the constant pounding up against the steel tip has left them a crumpled mess.  It gets so bad that anytime we get to a portion of the trail where there is even the slightest downhill slope, I have to turn around and walk backwards so my toes don’t slide down into the steel.

The group as a whole is spent and as morale takes one final dip, Jonathan takes a misstep and falls.  As he’s sliding down the gravel trail on his stomach, I reach out for him and we hook arms.  I help him back to his feet, but the damage is done, his whole right side is cut and bruised from the fall.

The trail has well and truly humbled us all.

“We are the Bad News F@cking Bears of the hiking world,” I scream out.

Alan’s dry sense of humor affectionately adds, “Even as a group we are still a couple cards short of a full deck.”

Two hours later and four hours behind schedule we make it to the last stretch of trail; we’ve now been hiking for 12 straight hours with no food or water.

I look up at a never-ending stone staircase that Mother Nature’s carved into the top of the mountain and Alan lovingly says, “This is called the stairway to heaven.”

Jonathan looks at Alan and says, “More like stairway to hell.”

I chime in, “You mean you saved the hardest part for last? We have to hike straight up now?”

Alan forever the optimist says, “The good news is, it only takes an hour and at the top is our water source and campsite.”

I look up, the rocks literally look like they go on forever, “They cut through the clouds and I can’t even see where it ends.”

Jonathan is somehow still in good spirits and points to outer space and says, “I think up there.”

Budawang National Park

I’m really not in the mood for jokes by this point, “I’ve got this monstrous backpack on, I haven’t eaten all day, I don’t have any water left, my only pair of jeans are covered in mud and in shreds, I can’t feel my toes, and on top of all that you’re telling me I now have to scale these stone steps for an hour in order just to get to the campsite?”

Alan quietly says, “Unfortunately, yes, that is what I’m saying.”

As I stand there I feel completely confused. Today was supposed to be my dream day.  This type of filming project is what I’ve worked so hard to get to.  This was meant to be my Bill Cunningham moment.  Now that I’m here and doing it, it’s actually one of the most awful things I’ve ever done.

Then, as I’m looking up into the sky I see Hayma’s smile.  I haven’t been able to get her out of my head all afternoon.  I keep replaying the moment we met and I started to miss her like crazy.  It’s hard enough to climb a mountain and now I’m going to have to do it while my hearts breaks.  The friendship and banter with Alan and Jonathan this week has taken my mind off her and eased my pain, but all that was just a band-aid.

She’s the one, I know it, and I don’t understand why she’s running from that!

Throughout the course of my travels around the world I’ve become the definition of resilient, which is something I’m extremely proud of.  When there’s been no way, I’ve found a way because at the end of the day no one’s out here with me to keep me going.  No one’s there to lift me up when I’m down or to reassure me each time I doubt myself. The sad truth is that my best friends probably couldn’t tell you what country I’m in and even my own family forgets sometimes.

The simple fact of the matter has always been that if I’m going to transform my life and make it around the world, that I’m the one that has to do it.  No one can do it for me.  I’m the one that has to muster up the self-belief day after day and every morning it’s like I have to start over.

I’ve been hit with so many setbacks along the way that my thinking’s gradually changed from, why me to what’s next?

And so it is with that what’s next attitude that I stop thinking, stop talking, and stop feeling, and I take off like a dart.

Whatever this fire is inside me that pushed me to quit my corporate job and try to live a creative life and make it around the world takes over every muscle and fiber of my body and I start running up the rocky stairwell.  I begin to move like I’m possessed; inside each step I take I gain more and more momentum.

I climb through the clouds and up and out of sight of Jonathan and Alan.  The climb feels like sustenance to me, like all the pain I’ve bottled up along the way is releasing itself and fueling my fire.  Miraculously I get stronger and stronger the higher and harder I climb.

The only thing I can think to compare it to is WWF wrestling in the 1990’s when Hulk Hogan was all but beaten, but he would find this untapped inner strength and mount a comeback against his opponent.  As his opponent would close in for the kill and hit him over and over, the Hulkster would start shaking like a maniac as if the blows inflicted upon him were actually recharging him.

Now I realize that that was fiction, but this is fact.  So much so that at one point I’m in a full out sprint and moving so fast that I can barely see where to place my foot as I leap for the next rock.  I could go on forever if I have to.

By the time I make it to the top of the mountain I’m fully out of breath and panting and wheezing for air, but nothing was going to stop me.

It takes Alan and Jonathan about 20 minutes to catch up to me and they both say that they’ve never seen anyone move like that.  I try to explain it to them as we pitch our tents and make dinner, but I really can’t, “That stairway restored something in me, half of me saying, “why am I doing this” and the other half of me was saying “this is exactly why I’m doing this”.  Most of the best moments of my journey have come during the times when all seems lost.”

Campsite

After dinner, the three of us sit around the campfire like we’ve known each other for twenty years, bonded by the hike from hell and all our collective mistakes.  On a serious note, I lean over the fire and tell Alan that I hope he knows that on good faith I can’t recommend this hike to anyone just yet.  Then after a long pause I say, “But I have zero doubt that you will get this right and you’ll figure out the route, the water supply, the lunch breaks and the whole nine yards.  I’m sure you’ll turn this into one of the best hikes in the world one day.  You were right; it really is beautiful out here and worth the visit.  So even though I can’t recommend the hike just yet, I can recommend you.”

Alan looks back.  His fire burns bright.  His passion for hiking and getting his adventure tour company right reminds me of my own journey in that it’s only been amplified because of today’s setbacks, “Thank you.  I’m sorry for today, but you are correct, I will get this right.”

Alan then says, “Well I guess there’s only one thing left to do.  Let’s go and take that picture of the stars you were talking about.”

I let out an exhausted sigh, “I don’t know Alan, this campsite is pretty comfortable right now.”

It’d be pretty easy to sit by the campfire and fall asleep at this point.  My toes are a crumpled black and blue mess.  It looks like I’ll lose a few toenails before it’s all said and done.  Plus, I’ve been filming all day and every muscle in my body aches, but then I think of what Roger Staubach once said, “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.”

So I get up and delicately squeeze my feet back into my boots and grab my camera and tripod.  It’s about a ten-minute walk to where the trees clear and a rocky cliff runs out over a sprawling valley that never ends.

For the past three years I’ve taken one creative photo every single day, but I’ve never once taken one of the stars. I’ve looked at cool photos of the night sky online and dreamt of being able to do it one day, but I’ve never actually tried.  It always seemed too technical for me.  You have to know how to do a long exposure, which I’ve really only ever done once.  Plus, you have to be way out in the middle of nowhere to be able to do it.  If you’re close to a city, the reflection of the city lights against the night sky will block out the stars.

“There isn’t a city light, a house light or any other light out here so you have nothing to worry about tonight,” says Alan.

“But I can’t really see any stars. It doesn’t look like they’re out tonight,” I say.

Alan agrees, “Well let’s try it anyway, you never know.”

“You’re going to have to bear with me.  We might have to do this photo like fifty times.  I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

I set my tripod up on the cliff and then I slow the shutter speed down to 30, which means that when I take the photo the shutter will actually stay open for 30 seconds and capture everything over the course of that time.

Once I have the shutter speed set I ask Alan to walk out and turn his headlamp on and look up towards the sky.  It’s so dark out here that I bump up the ISO to 2000 and then open the f-stop to 2.8 so I can let as much light in as possible, but even then I can’t see anything on the LCD screen or through the viewfinder.

“I think it’s too dark.  It’s funny for as often as I use my camera I still don’t quite know what I’m doing.  I doubt I can get anything close to the cool shots I’ve seen online.”

Then I tell Alan how important it is that he doesn’t move and then I focus on where I think his headlamp is and say, “Okay, its ready, stay still for the next thirty seconds.”

I snap the shot and while the camera does its thing for the next thirty seconds I stare at the only star my eye can see and replay the entire day from the sausage rolls to the setbacks.

Once the shutter snaps closed I tell Alan that he can relax now.  I take the camera off the tripod and hold it in my hands.

Alan walks back and looks over my shoulder and says, “Okay, let’s see what we got.”

After we both turn our headlamps off I push play and the LCD screen lights up and glows across our pitch-black world.

When the photo flashes on the screen, I gasp.

“I don’t even know what to say.”

Alan says, “Oh my god, you did it.  What an incredible photo!”

In my hands is the most beautiful photo I’ve ever taken.

In the picture, the entire night sky is lit up behind Alan’s silhouette.  We can see every single star the galaxy has to offer and even the crevice of the Milky Way.

“The whole day was hell, but through the pain we kept going.  When we started out on this hike I didn’t even know where we were hiking to and then I started questioning what I was even doing this for and now on the edge of this cliff, above the clouds…”

I have to stop and compose myself because when the magnitude of the moment hits me and I can feel my tiny, but powerful place in this Universe I get a little lump in my throat.

“I’m holding the entire Universe in my hands Alan! Thank you.  This, this is my dream!”

Thank you Alan.

“The fight is won or lost far away form witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”-Muhammad Ali

Disclaimer: The chapters are meant to be read in order for better understanding, but with that said, each chapter can also be read on its own.

It’s funny how life works.  Just as I was about to completely fall apart over Hayma and lose all the ground I’ve gained, Alan and Jonathan entered my life.  Jonathan, a short, stocky twenty-three year old African American was waiting for me outside the Canberra bus station.  He was sent by Alan, a white middle aged Australian family man who emailed me saying he will be wearing a durag, but what that is exactly, I do not know.

They couldn’t be more opposite of one another if they tried. Alan’s the owner of Dickson Central, which is the hostel that I’ve bartered a room with this week and Jonathan is his right hand man. Jonathan gets a free bunk and small paycheck and in exchange he checks in the guests, cleans the rooms and does all the little things like pick people like me up at the bus station.

They are both a bit of a conundrum.

Jonathan’s around my age and he grew up on the mean streets of North Philadelphia, which is the part of the city that has the highest rate of violent crime.  His family moved around a lot when he was a kid, but he often found himself living in neighborhoods that were plagued by the same things; crime, drugs and social underfunding.

After high school Jonathan enlisted in the military where he served two tours of duty in Iraq.  He was eventually forced to retire because of post-traumatic stress disorder.  The toll that combat had taking on him still haunts him to this day and he’s not shy when talking about it.  Before we pull away from the bus station he said, “Whatever you do, don’t sneak up on me or make any loud sounds around me.”

He quickly added that he would be filling out an absentee ballot for Donald Trump in the fall because he desperately wants his veterans benefits increased.  I wouldn’t fault you for assuming that Jonathan must be a tough guy with a mean streak, but somehow, someway, this bowling ball of a man is exactly the opposite.

He’s outgoing, fun and funny and I say this with all due respect, but he’s kind of a nerd, like a really big nerd. Instead of turning to the streets as a teenager, he turned to cartoons and he still loves them to this day.  He’s a walking encyclopedia of all things Superhero, and The Big Bang Theory is his favorite TV show.  He’s constantly quoting Sheldon like he knows him personally.  When he picked me up at the bus station he was wearing his favorite bright yellow Sponge Bob sweat pants (and durag).

Then there’s Alan, who offers his own contradiction.  He’s a mountain man with a five o’clock shadow that seems permanent.  He’s into camping and hiking and, like most Australian’s I’ve met, he has a really dry sense of humor. He’d vote for anyone other Trump if he could vote in our election and he’s always playfully pressing Jonathan’s buttons because of it.  Alan recently spent every dollar he had to purchase the failing Dickson Central hostel and he’s smack dab in the middle of doing everything he can to turn it around.  The place was a known haven for meth users and prostitutes before he took over, but it’s got good bones as Alan told me.

Alan knows he’s going to have to get creative to attract business because Canberra itself doesn’t get much tourist traffic since it isn’t much of a stop for travelers when they visit Australia.

Alan sadly said one day, “they usually go from Sydney to Melbourne or vice versa, often skipping over this amazing part of the country.”

Dickson Central

His hands are worn and calloused from all the work he puts in remolding the place and his eyes are a cross between exhausted and optimistic.  He works 6 days a week at the hostel, and then the 7th as a carpenter just so he can scrape together enough money to put food on the table for his family.  I wouldn’t fault you for thinking that Alan must be stressed to the gills and the stereotypical grizzled handyman.  But like Jonathan, he too is the exact opposite of what I was expecting.

Alan’s endearing, and an open book.  He’s willing to talk about the inner working of himself and he quickly became one of the most genuine, warm-hearted people I’ve ever come across while traveling.

For as different as Jonathan and Alan are from one another, they do have one thing in common and that’s that they both have hearts of gold.  There is just something special about the two of them, and our conversations around the hostel this week have helped me heal.

Alan might be the first person I’ve ever met who truly understands the essence of what I’m trying to do with my life without me having to explain it; he just gets it.  He knows that my journey around the world has very little to do with travel itself and it’s as though he believes in me without needing an explanation. In my experience, people like that are few and far between.

The plan while I’m here is to do photos and a film of Dickson Central in exchange for a room.  On top of that, I’ve also struck a deal with Alan, who is also starting a tour company called Blue Skies Adventure Tours.  When he was telling me about it the day I arrived a light blub went off and I quickly came up with the idea that I could film one of the hikes his tour company will offer in exchange for a fee (like money, like real money, like what professional travel filmmakers normally do).

I was stoked when Alan quickly gobbled up my offer and when the dust settled a few minutes later, we agreed on a three-day hike to Budawangs National Park.  The film I’ll create will be played in the lobby of Dickson Central to encourage guests to stay a few extra days and to sign up for the hike.  The other part of our deal was that I’d recommend the hike to the people following my journey online, which has recently ballooned to over 100,000 travel-minded followers.

The whole thing is ideal for both of us.

Alan’s getting a film at half the price he would normally pay and he’s also getting to test out the route and terrain with Jonathan and I as his guinea pigs.  And for me, this is as good as it gets!

I would have actually paid to go on a hike like this while I was here, so having Alan actually pay me feels like my biggest win to date.  I’ll be hiking, which I love, filming, which I love, and so this feels like it might just be the real pot at the end of the rainbow that my mother mentioned way back in Singapore.  This is exactly how I want to make money; this is my Bill Cunningham moment!

***

Dickson Central

Last night just as I was about to fall asleep at the hostel, Alan sent me a text asking me if we can bump the trip up three days and leave tomorrow morning at 3AM.  He said he had been looking at the forecast and that it looks like a storm is about to move in.  But he thinks that if we leave in just a few hours that we might be able to avoid it.

Before I can type out my reply he also gives me the option of cancelling it altogether, which I instantly cringe at.  There is absolutely no way I would ever cancel the hike.  This is my first shot at a real payday since I got my final paycheck from my old corporate job nearly two years ago.  Sure I’ve made some money along the way, but nothing this substantial, so I can’t pass this amount of money up regardless of the circumstances.

Plus, I can always bank on the fact that I did climb Mount Kilimanjaro once and that nothing can be harder than that.  Right?  

When I showed up in Tanzania four years ago I met my guide, Festo, at the basecamp in Arusha.  The first question he asked was, “Have you ever done any hiking before?”

After I said, “No”, he asked, “Have you ever gone camping before?”

I said no again and told him that I had never spent a single night inside a tent.

He shook his head.  “You do realize this is the tallest mountain in Africa don’t you?” he asked.

But that’s how I do things; I just throw myself off the cliff and find out whether I’ll fly or fall.

I’ll never fully understood the people that buy guidebooks and run their highlighter across every single site and statue in them.  As I’ve made my way around the world, I’ve come across tourists that cross things off in their guidebook like their vacation was one big to-do list.  They’ve scheduled out every minute of their trip before they even left home, which leaves no time for my favorite part of traveling – the unexpected.

The average American worker only gets 10 days of paid vacation per year, so I do understand that most people want to make the most of their hard earned vacation time and see the most important things first, but I’d much rather miss something big and be surprised by something small.

There is a drawback to my strategy however, and that’s that I often find myself unprepared, which is exactly what dawned on me the second Festo and I took our first steps down Mount Kilimanjaro’s Marangu trail.

Mount Kilimanjaro

The 7 days that followed were pure hell, but ultimately, after the hardest and most grueling days of my entire life, I did manage to will myself to the summit.  The altitude, lack of sleep, and exhaustion (all things I hadn’t prepped or planned for) had taken a toll by that point and I could barely see straight, but I learned a lot about myself because of it.  And I must admit that I was happy to see that the man that’s widely regarded as the best and toughest NFL linebacker, Ray Lewis, wasn’t able to make it to the summit when he tried a few weeks after I did.

***

I throw my backpack atop a pile of backpacks in the back of Alan’s Land Rover.  I packed super light; just my toothbrush, deodorant and one extra shirt make up the contents of my bag.  The last thing I want to do is lug around a heavy backpack the next three days while I’m trying to film the hike so I made the conscious decision to not bring much.  I’ve also got my camera and tripod, but I set that between my legs as I settle in next to Alan upfront.

Jonathan shuts the trunk then hops in the back.

The old 4-cylinder diesel engine rattles the windows and Alan calls out, “Settle in boys, its about 4 hours to Budawang National Park.  We’ll stop just after sunrise for some breakfast.”

Jonathan grumpily yells, “I still don’t understand why we have to leave at 3AM, but wake me up when we stop for breakfast.  I want a sausage roll.”

The smile on my face is as wide as the night is dark. Even though it’s early and I didn’t sleep a wink last night, this doesn’t feel like work.  This is a road trip with friends that I’m actually getting paid to go on, so it’s more significant than just going on a hike.  It’s another layer of my dream manifested.

Sunrise

A few hours into the drive I ask Alan to pull over as hints of lavender begin to creep across the pre-dawn sky.  We’re the only ones on the road and once he yanks the emergency brake up, I run across a road and unfold my tripod in front of the mountain pass.  I’ve seen a lot of beautiful sunrises around the world and this one is right up there with the best of them.  This utterly ridiculous hue begins to emanate from the sun once it hits the horizon.  It’s purple, then pink and then gracefully slides across every shade of orange imaginable.

Frost has coated the grass that I’m standing on and it’s chilly out, but I don’t feel it because I’m so locked into what I’m doing.

I call over to Alan so he can get in position for the shot I want, “Lean up against the hood and look off into the distance.”

Not long after that we stop at this little hole in the wall place for breakfast.  Everyone slowly wakes up as we sip beautifully brewed coffee and shovel delicious sausage rolls into our mouths.  Around 8AM we arrive at the entrance to the park.  Alan drives us a few miles down down a dirt road and then parks.  We all hop out excited to start our adventure.  Alan’s so kind and so nice that he ran out and bought me all the gear I’ll need for the hike and he hands me a shopping bag full of stuff like it’s Christmas morning.  Since I’ve been trying to travel as light as humanly possibly as I make my way around the world, I don’t own anything other than jeans and t-shirts so he bought me boots, sweatpants, a jacket and also a wool hat.

I slide my right arm into the jacket first, but I can’t even get it past my elbow.  Something isn’t right so I slip it off and hold it up to my eye.

“Um Alan, I think this is a size small”, then I jokingly say, “You do realize I’m like twice the size of a normal human being.”

“No it can’t be, I remember it was on the rack that was labeled extra-extra large and the hanger said XXL.”

We both reach for the tag that’s still hanging inside the jacket, and I say, “Yep it’s a small. It must have been hung in the wrong section, happens all the time.”

I immediately think of the line Chris Farley made famous and I can’t help but start laughing hysterically.  I try to put the jacket on again and then I dance around Jonathan as he and I recite Farley’s famous line over and over, “Fat guy in a little coat, fat guy in a little coat.”

Alan laughs along, but feels terrible and apologizes profusely.  I tell him that it’s not a big deal as I toss it back into the truck, “The sun is out and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day.  I can’t imagine I’ll even need to wear it.”

I reach for the wool hat next, and try to slide it over my head, but that doesn’t fit either.  It looks like a Yamika on my head.  And again, I can’t help but to laugh as Alan starts getting mad at himself for buying another thing that doesn’t even come close to fitting me.

“At least the tags are still on them so you can get your money back”, I say.

I toss the hat on top of the jacket and then hold up the pair of humongous sweatpants he got me and say, “at least these will fit.”

“What about the boots, they are the biggest ones in Canberra.  They’ve got to fit.”

I unlace the boots and sit on a mossy stump nearby and slide them over my socks.  My first instinct tells me that they are really tight; I stand up and walk around in circles like I’m testing them out at Foot Locker and say, “I think they will loosen up over the next three days and stretch out a little.  I’m a size 15 and these are a 12, but it’s not like I need them forever, I only need them for the next three days.”

I throw the sneakers I was wearing on top of everything else in the trunk, put my backpack on and start heading toward the trailhead to see what lies ahead.  Alan quickly calls me back, “Eric, where are you going?  You need your backpack.”

“I’ve got mine on”, then I turn around and say, “See.”

Budawang National Park

Alan and Jonathan both start laughing at me.  Alan then pulls a third backpack out of the backseat and says, “Its got your tent, your sleeping bag, your food, kerosene for the gas stove” and then he rattles off about 25 other camping related things I’ve never even heard of, but that are apparently essential for our camping experience.

“That thing looks like we’re going hiking for three years, not three days.”

I unload the things that are in my backpack, which weigh all of one pound, into the one Alan’s given me and then hitch it up onto my shoulders.

“This can’t be right, how much does this monster weigh?”

“It’s about 18 kilos, which to you Americans is close to 40 pounds.”

I stagger backwards and say, “And I have to carry this for the next three days?  I thought Jonathan was going to carry some of my camping stuff so I could focus on the filming?”

“He is, he’s carrying some of your food and your flashlight, we gave you the lightest pack.”

I’m suddenly feeling less exuberant than I was three minutes ago.  Nothing fits and the monstrous backpack won’t rest right on my shoulders, “I can barely stand straight and these nylon straps are going to rub my shoulders raw.”

Before we even get ten feet down the trail a sinking feeling hits me.  It’s the same one I got at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro with Festo.  I’m in over my head and I’m so utterly unprepared for what lies ahead.

In my excitement for the hike and the big payday at the end of it I forgot to stop and ask Alan anything about the actual hike itself.  I don’t know a single thing about the trail, not one.  I have no idea about the most basic things like our food and water situation and hell, I don’t even know where we are even hiking to, or how long it’s going to take to get there.

I began wheezing and sweating immediately, mud caking my boots and the back of my jeans as we begin a slow climb through a damp Australian rainforest.  It’s hard for me to enjoy the sun gleaming through the trees though because I’m holding my camera and tripod out in front of me, which is roughly another ten-pounds of gear.  Each time I move my arms it feels like I’m curling a tiny dumbbell, which if done once is not big deal, but I’m doing it inside each step.  On top of that, Alan’s suddenly decided to move at a blistering pace and I have to try my damndest just to keep up with him.

I look over at Jonathan and he seems to be doing fine, but he’s a solider for god sake.

Alan’s original plan included three more hikers from a hiking club he’s a part of and they were going to be the “models” in the film, but since we had to leave early to beat the rain, none of them could make it.  At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal, but now I feel its consequences.  I have to run ahead, set my camera up, then run back and walk alongside Jonathan and Alan so that I can fill out the shots and be one of the “models” as well.

The back and forth, up and down, immediately wears me down and I quickly realize that this is not exactly what I had signed up for.

About an hour in we use a series of rocks that are poking out of a stream to cross it, which means that we’re all but out of the rain forest portion of the hike.  Alan switches into fifth gear and speeds up his pace and leads us north. As we begin to walk through dense brush, every ten steps or so there’s a tree that arches over the trail that causes me unspeakable misery.  Alan and Jonathan zip under the branches with ease, but because I’m so tall I need to find a creative way under them.  But that’s no easy task with this forty-pound bag on my back and my camera and tripod in my hands.

Budawang National Park

Sometimes I lean forward and then slide under the branch and then other times I bend at the knees and kind of crab walk under them.  There is no winning in this situation, I’m either lunging or squatting every few feet and this goes on for hours under the heat wave the afternoon brought us.  As we climb higher and higher, each step becomes labored, interrupted occasionally by a short series of downhill switchbacks, which is not so much the break I was hoping for as it welcomes me to a new kind of hell.  It’s in these downward steps that it hits me that the boots Alan got me are way, way too small.

The weight of the monstrous backpack took my attention away from the boots this morning, but now each time I take a downward step my toes smash into the front of the hiking boot, which for some strange reason has absolutely zero give.

By midday I’m covered in sweat and beginning to show signs of cracking, “Alan you have to slow down!  There is no way I can keep this pace up.  We haven’t taken a break for hours.  If you’re going to take people on this hike you have to go slower and give them a chance to rest every once in a while.  I’m in decent shape, but you’re killing me out here.”

Alan apologizes and takes note of my advice.  Jonathan and I really are the guinea pigs here.  Alan hasn’t actually taken anyone on this hike before and it’s only his second time ever on this trail.

“I have to sit down”, I say.

I take my backpack off and rest up against the smooth side of a boulder.  After I drink the last of my water, I poke at the toe of my boot. “Alan come over and feel my boot, it’s rock solid.  My toes are absolutely killing me.”

Alan reaches for the tip of my boot and then at the same exact second it dawns on us what the problem is.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry”, he says.

“You bought me steel tip boots that are made for construction workers and not hikers.  No wonder I can’t feel my toes!”

This realization is a bad one because it’s almost like it justifies the pain and it gives my feet permission to hurt even more.

I look at Alan and say, “Not only are they three sizes too small, but they’re coated with this awful unforgiving steel.”

Alan apologizes profusely, “I wanted to get you the biggest ones and didn’t think to look closely at the actually boot.”

I’m afraid to take them off because I doubt I’d be able to get them back on.  “I’d give anything for my sneakers right now but they’re five hours behind us, way back at the truck.”

Alan offers a chance to go back, “Well, we’re almost half way to the campsite, but we can turn around if you want to.”

I think of quitting and heading back to the truck, but that’s not really an option because quitting now means I won’t get paid so I begrudgingly say, “I think I can keep going.  It can’t get any worse, my toes are already numb.”

I stand up and dust myself off while dreading the monstrous backpack and steel tip boot combination and then brace myself for the next long stretch of trail.

Just seconds later in the midst of my next lunge under a low hanging tree branch, I hear this awful sound like someone ripped a giant piece of chart paper in half and then I immediately feel a cool breeze on the back of my legs.

I reach down and grab for the back pockets of my jeans, but they’re gone and I scream, “Oh no, I’ve just split my pants.”

The entire backside of my jeans, my one and only pair of jeans, has just split right down the middle and a gaping hole has replaced the two back pockets.  I didn’t know jeans could split and create a hole this big from a single movement.  It’s like someone fired a cannonball directly through them.  But instead of stopping to change and risk my toes swelling up once my boots were off I decide to just continue on with my entire ass exposed.  “There isn’t anyone else out here anyway.”

My dream project has become a nightmare in the span of six hours and I sigh under my breath, “What else could go wrong?”

“First best is falling in love.  Second best is being in love.  Least best is falling out of love.  But any of it is better than never having been in love.”-Maya Angelou

Disclaimer: The chapters are meant to be read in order for better understanding, but with that said, each chapter can also be read on its own.

My relationship with Hayma lasted for four more days once she slipped out of that Melbourne café.  Then everything fell apart.

It was a rainy Friday morning and I had just strategically folded my underwear and wedged them into the top right corner of my trusty duffel bag.  I was just about to put the final touches on my normal packing routine and head to the bus station when a long text from Thailand came through.

Our texts up until that point had been relatively playful and short. I’d call her my lil cous cous because it’s the only thing I could think of that’s also Moroccan and we’d fill each other in on how our day was going whenever we both had Wi-Fi.  When she told me about the scorpion she ate on Koh San Road the day after she got there I told her I’d never kiss her again.  I was kidding of course.

Regardless of what we were talking about we’d always end each string of texts with the same smiling emoji, the one with the little red hearts for eyes.  So when I saw how long her text was, my heart sank before ever reading it.  I knew what was coming.

I knew she had given into her fears and decided not to follow her heart.

She delicately listed out all the reasons why we can’t be together.  She said that after a lot of thinking on her long bus ride from Bangkok to Chang Mai that she hadn’t been thinking things through and that she just went with the flow in Melbourne because it felt so good at the time.  And that things just went way too fast and that it usually takes her years to develop such deep relationships with anyone, even her closest friends.

She also said that she has no clue what she really wants and that it’s not fair to me to try and build something together when she really needs to be figuring her own self out first.  That she’s so confused that even the crossroads have crossroads.  She also sited the distance and how impossible that would be.  And then finally she got to the one thing that I knew would eventually be our unraveling.

She said that I’m not a Muslim and just how complex of an issue that is for her.

She ended the text by saying how much she likes me and that it’s just all too overwhelming at the present moment, but that she wants to keep in touch.

Melbourne, Australia.

Even though things were magical and beyond perfect when she was here in Melbourne with me, I’d be lying if I didn’t half expect this kind of text from her one day. Back in that café a few days ago when I brought up the idea of coming to Amsterdam to see her one day, she looked hesitant, “I am not sure how comfortable I would be introducing you to the people I know, they might not be open to the idea of us hanging out together.”

Once she said that she wasn’t sure about introducing me to the people in her life, I knew it was over.  I knew that if she couldn’t even picture that, that the idea of us had no real chance.

There’s a certain freedom found when traveling, especially backpacking the way she is, but I knew that when she got a quiet moment alone to sit and think about us, that she’d inevitably picture her normal life back in Amsterdam, and that no matter how many angles she looked at that life from, that I just wouldn’t fit.  I was always going to be the square peg.

To be fair to her, this is exactly what I do; this is so typical of me.  Now I can unequivocally say that I’ve never met anyone like Hayma, but I’m known for falling in love fast, throwing all my logs onto the fire without thinking.

In fact, I’ll tell you what happened the last time I was in this very city five years ago.  Something so identical that it’s eerie.

I was in the midst of my three-month leave of absence from my old corporate job and I was feeling a similar blissful balance back then.  I had flown from Bali to Melbourne on a whim one day and I was out bar hopping with some friends I’d just met.  When my eyes locked with this stunning woman named Tina it was then that I first realized that the world actually had the capacity to stop.  Her mysterious dark features were a mix of Spanish, South African and Australian and she was without question the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.

Tina was perfect in so many ways, she was a flight attendant that loved to travel and as we got to know one another over the course of the night, everything just clicked.  We both fell for one another and she promised to take a few weeks off of work to travel the rest of the way around the world with me.  She even insisted on locking pinkies and swearing that we would do the Great White Shark cage dive together when we got to South Africa.  We put a bow on the whole evening with a knee-buckling kiss underneath a dimly lit street lamp; the whole thing was a scene out of a black and white Carry Grant movie.  I watched her every move as she walked away and faded into the Melbourne night, and at the time I had no idea that that kiss would not only be our first, but also our last.

Melbourne, Australia.

I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep that night and I emailed her the second I got back to my hotel, then again, and again.  By around 5PM the next day, the feeling started setting in that I was never going to hear from her again, which is exactly what happened.

Ever since that life-changing three-month trip around the world, I created this meditation-like routine that I do. During a small part of that routine I picture what I want in my mind’s eye and then feel the feelings in my heart of whatever that thing is that I want.  It’s something Louise (the clairvoyant) taught me that’s loosely based on the law of attraction.  She would always say all the power comes from within.  So when I get to the part of my meditation where I want to create love, I’ve always used Tina as a signpost.  I picture her in my mind’s eye and then tap into the feelings I felt on that dimly lit street corner in Melbourne.

When my eyes locked with Hayma in front of Flinders Street Station seven days ago, ironically, or maybe not so ironically, it was only a few blocks away from where that fateful kiss with Tina happened.

My mind had projected Tina and my heart had felt her so many times over the past five years that I was bound to manifest something similar once I got back here.  The amazing thing about it though was that my connection with Hayma was exponentially greater than the one I had with Tina.

But then again, maybe it’s something else entirely.  Maybe Hayma’s just playing a character that I invented.  Maybe she’s Santiago’s Fatima and not my Fatima.  And that no matter how much I want to turn metal into gold, I’ll never become the Alchemist.  That book is fictional anyway.  It’s entirely possible that she was auditioning for a character I created, one that my mind desperately wanted to box her into, but now that she’s gone off script I find myself standing here wondering why.  But, wow, what a three days it was.  We had such a great time together in Melbourne.  I was dizzy with ecstasy and even if it was a character my mind concocted or a meditation manifested, it was better than anything I’d ever imagined.

We created our own cocoon, but in doing so, I did what I always do.  I forgot to measure the risks or take a real look at the obstacles.  I was overly optimistic and I just assumed that we were on the brink of a love so deep that we’d glide past everything thrown our way.  The truth is, her being Muslim is a serious thing and I never took it into account the way that I should have.

I grew up Christian, have a Hindu tattoo, and spent an equal amount of time in mosques and synagogues over the past few years, but at the moment I don’t consider myself anything.  If anything, I’m a little bit of everything.  When I initially read Hayma’s text this morning the thought of converting to Islam did cross my mind, but what would I even be converting from?

Melbourne, Australia.

If anything, it feels like I have a direct line to God now and that a religion, any religion, would only get in the way of that.

Throughout the course of my journey I’ve grown to trust God, like really trust him.  While I’m heartbroken over the fact that Hayma doesn’t want to be with me, I’m also able to find some sort of peace with it.  Like I said before, everything happens for a good reason, even the bad.  While on the surface this is bad, awful in fact, I don’t know what’s happening below the surface.  I can’t see all the gears turning, levers being pulled and other doors opening behind the scenes.  I’ve learned to put all my faith in the process because I don’t know what kind of breakthrough this will eventually lead to.

Knowing all of this doesn’t make much difference in the moment.  As humans, what we can handle intellectually far outweighs what we can handle emotionally.  I’m still human and heartbreak will always be heartbreak.  Reading her text was far harder than I ever thought it would be.  I desperately wanted to be with her.

By the time the bus gets on the M31 North and steadies itself towards Canberra, the yearning to return to the cocoon we created in Melbourne floods my body.  It’s a swell of emotions that pushes tears right up against the rim of my eyes.  Even if only for a few days, I had it all.  I was creating, taking photos, making films, writing stories, traveling, making money and falling fast in love.  And damn, it was good.

But coming down from the highest of highs isn’t easy.

As I look out the window and the smoke stacks on Melbourne’s west side slowly fade out of view I feel myself begin to fall apart.  No matter how I look at it, I just wasn’t enough for her.

When there’s nothing to look at besides another seemingly endless stretch of barren highway, a tear trickles out of my eye.  I look over at the woman that’s sitting in the row of seats across from me to see if she notices.  She’s wearing a blue and white striped shirt and her head is buried in a book.  I wipe the tear from my cheek and then I turn my head sideways so I can see what she’s reading.  As the cover comes into focus I read the title to myself, Trusting God through Tears.