Pack your bags, they say. Go on an adventure. Find stillness, wildness, novelty, nostalgia. Be in search of something bigger than you, with nothing but the bag on your back to keep you company, carrying enough for three countries and three seasons.
Words & Photography by Catherine Sarsfield
photography of Catherine by Katie Rae
Part One: Portugal.
The tail end of Europe’s hottest summer and ten days surfing in a bikini top and neoprene bottoms, 32-degree sun on my back, a cap to shield it from my eyes, and endless zinc for protection.
I arrive in Portugal and step out into the sunlight at Faro airport. My skin delights at the prickly heat and I feel myself unfurling from the early start, cramped flight and sleepless night. Life feels sweet and uninterrupted, despite the constant state of flux and flights and never staying in one place for too long.
Things I remember. The salt kissing the air at sunset, deep green lining red-dust tracks, winding cliff tops and off-road drives; being way out west at the furthest point of Cape St Vincent (and the wind as we paddled out, pushing us even further). Portugal brought sunrise kingdoms, green canyon forests, desert disguised as wild coast, afternoon pastel del natas and morning espressos, a full moon peeking out from lilac skies, and the heat of a summer we thought we’d lost.
Part Two: Toronto
Seven days in the concrete jungle of Toronto, a far cry from morning surfs and afternoon siestas, but beautiful all the same.
Step outside and breathe. Drink it in. I jump on the train and snake my way into the city. I see the needle of the CN Tower, the skyline littered with stacks of buildings. Cities never make me feel nervous. I don’t get panic-stricken at the compact square mileage, or the grid systems, or the inescapable vastness packed into this space. I simply arrive.
Autumn here brings a gentle bite. One day I’m wrapping up in scarves, the next a heatwave hits, and with it comes sweaty, sticky pavement walks and ducking into air-conditioned shops. It’s Thanksgiving the weekend I arrive, and I’m thrust into an evening of potluck dinner, new friends, new faces, new laughter, new vulnerability, new accents and finding out that I might be a piece of the puzzle here too.
We walk and walk - the Queen Street shuffle a daily occurrence. We share meals at midnight, eating Filipino fare in the plush basement of Mother Tongue, we wake early and do laundry opposite the apartment, sipping on coffee and tearing pieces of pain au chocolat while we wait. We lie in parks and educate ourselves; we look up and notice the beauty of concrete, the resilience of its structure, the fortitude of the people it encases. We see inclusivity and diversity and culture and community. We eat ice cream. We melt.
My bag lies unpacked in the room I share with my best friend, a memento of a voyage. It quietly awaits its next adventure. The whisper of the tropics is faint but not far. Onwards we go.
Part Three: Panama.
The last time I was in Central America, I was faced with political unrest in a country I felt lost in. What should have been a soft adventure turned into a fleeing - an escape - a fear. But that was months ago, and I am soothed by the safety of travelling in numbers.
Panama City has that old world colour you rarely see. As we enter Casco Viejo, we see the truth of this place. We walk around and gaze at the buildings, peeling away at the edges, vines and leaves poking out and wrapping themselves across corners, reminding us that the cracks are where the light gets in.
A five-hour drive south, almost to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, took 17 strangers to our place of worship for the next three weeks. My rucksack was heavy with words and notes and expectation and transformation.
We drove through lush green forest, past waterfalls, along the coast and landed straight into ourselves. Silent mornings were met with grace (for the most part), and led the ritual of practice, teach, tear open, hold space, find peace; rinse and repeat. We cleansed our bodies in the ocean, lay naked in inky pools of moonlight, unravelled, fell deep, caught ourselves and each other in the process. Days were punctuated by long table dinners and discussions, negronis and margaritas at midnight, stifled laughter at breakfast, offline communication, weekend surfs in empty lineups and movement that made us feel noticed, deeply heard, never judged.
It’s time to return home.
Often we unpack our bags - mine now weathered and full of sand, dirt, earth and salt from two oceans, three countries and countless experiences - and find ourselves pulling out more than we had started with.
Packing is easy, packing is smooth clean lines, packing is hope and excitement and adventure. Unpacking is the hard part. Unpacking our travels, our memories, the moments in between, the feelings that lay beneath the surface, dormant until we shake out every last garment.
And sometimes we find secrets hidden in pockets long forgotten, that teach us something new about the packing and unpacking of journeys past.