Deepening geographical understanding through language

Wrocław, Poland

Jenna was asking me to remind her the name of a city in Poland that she had been planning to go for a conference. After I helped her pronounce Wrocław correctly (and was surprised at myself that I remembered it so well) she said something very interesting:

“I think it should be part of geography to also learn some parts of languages.”

I realize that lonely planet and guides will get into pronunciations. But what this made me notice is that when I was specifically studying geography, so much of the context was just entirely lost when it wasn’t coupled with a slightly deeper / local understanding. Not sure how curriculum has kept up, maybe it’s more common now.

But culture and geography are so intertwined, and connections and isolation between people have so little to do with political boundaries, it took me a lot of years after school to finally feel like I have a better sense of the world. It made me sad to realize how little I knew despite thinking all along that I knew and understood a lot more.

Snorkeling with a school of fish in Hawai’i


🐟 I just had the most wonderful experience. I left my fins and camera behind and decided to venture over the coral reef with just my snorkel mask. I was alone on the reef. First person to make it to the beach. Before sunrise.

I enjoyed watching all the colorful fish so close, observing them as they plucked on the food growing on the corals. It was interesting to see a giant food particle floating in front of me as 5 different fish across 3 different species took turns plucking at it before moving on.

About 15 mins in, I saw with the corner of my eye a fish which is quite common here. It was smallish, about 6cm long, flat, white, with zebra stripes. But it wasn’t just one. As I turned my gaze towards it, I saw more and more. There were at least a hundred. And just like a herd of zebra, the effect of so many of those fish together was quite scintillating!

It was a school of fish. All fish almost equidistant from each other, moving in unison like one being. And more interestingly, interspersed between them were about 3-4 much larger fish of different species. And they just occupied the spaces in between the smaller fishes. They also moved in unison with the school. I swam along with the school and they welcomed me and didn’t seem to mind me at all (the fish here are very used to humans). I observed as they moved from one part of the reef to the other, like a coordinated dance without any apparent leader.

Diving together to the lower rock, nibbling for a few seconds, and then diving up to the upper rock and doing the same. I tailed them for a while. And they were just a mere inches away from me at most times. I was almost surrounded by them often when they would change course and kinda just run through me.

I didn’t have my camera on me at the time – I have no photos or videos of this. Visually, with the morning sun just out and reflecting off the shiny glistening fish, it definitely was something I would have loved to capture. But it’s even more special as it’s just in my head at this point 🙂

And I’m sure this is common for folks who do this often, but this was the first time for me and it felt magical 🐟

Help me identify this fish? Please leave a comment. Thanks!

How we organize and store our backcountry gear at home

General, Travel

There are two main reasons why it helps to neatly organize backcountry gear:

1) everything in its place and a place for everything makes it easier to find things and you “lose” things less often

2) unpacking completely and packing each time before an outing ensures full awareness of the gear on you, important discussions about choices to make, an opportunity to inspect things and better chance at weight management.

We move around a lot so our solution had to be portable and modular, nothing could be too heavy to lift or carry, and transparency and easy access was important. Here’s how it works.

The main building blocks of this system are the 6 plastic bins. We shopped around for the right size – these fit very well inside a closet, are shallow enough to make sure everything is visible, and roomy enough that hiking poles and ice axes can also fit it, along with sleeping bags and tents. It’s very hard to overload them, so anyone can carry them comfortably with two hands when moving.

All personal hiking stuff (layers, gloves, hats, sunscreen, gps etc) goes into one bin. All personal climbing stuff (helmet, prussiks, belays, pulleys) goes into the other. One bin contains all the group gear (tents, ropes etc) and the other contains food, meds etc (food backs, stove, blue bags, wipes etc).

The backpacks are always completely emptied, nothing in any pockets. And they are hung on the hooks, which frees up all the space above and below them for other storage.

The top shelf contains the snowshoes, hiking boots, climbing boots, shovels, ice axes.

Hanging in the middle are the various upper layers – fleece, soft shell, goretex shell, down jacket.

Before a trip, the bins all come out and are opened and then we pick what we need from each one based on the checklist.

Con: Drawers would be easier. But it would make it very hard to move. So it was a necessary compromise

What do you think?

Shooting the lava flows in Hawai’i in 4K HDR

General, Travel

I spent several hours near the volcanic lava flows in the Big Island of Hawaii. I am trying to share those videos in 4K HDR and it’s been fascinating to learn how hard it is to access today as different OSes and devices will render a different variant depending on various factors.

Here’s the 4K HDR version. If you are on a phone, open this in an app as the browser might cap out at a lower fidelity version.

And here’s the regular version to compare. If you see no difference between the two, then you are viewing them both in standard dynamic range.

Poznań at Sunset


Labels are very tricky to navigate, especially through the lens of history. Poznań is the chief city in the historical region called Wielkopolska (Greater Poland) which used to be at the heart of the 10th century Polish state. After more than a century of partitions between the Austrian, the Prussian, and the Russian imperial powers, Poland re-emerged as a sovereign state at the end of the First World War in Europe in 1917-1918. By then the capital of Poland was Warsaw and Greater Poland (which had now been under Prussian rule for a long time) was won back in the Greater Poland Uprising of 1918. Following the German invasion of 1939, Greater Poland was again taken over and now incorporated into Nazi Germany. Poznań was declared a German stronghold city in the closing stages of the war, being taken by the Russian army in the Battle of Poznań, which ended on 22 February 1945. Since then, Poznań has been back in what we today recognize as Poland. And this is what it looks like at sunset ☺️

When I almost lost my hand


For those who were following along at the time, it’s been 5yrs now since I almost lost my right hand!

For those who came in later, here’s what happened. This may be a little graphic so please only continue if such content doesn’t bother you.

I caught an infection in Tanzania that started developing symptoms on my flight to India. But I went straight to a wedding first, which is the main reason I had flown to India that day ☺️

My Facebook post on that day. My swollen hand is not visible in this picture.

Next morning my hand was very swollen and it hurt very bad – like a semi truck had just run over it. I also started to develop a fever. Went to the doctor who said I needed to be operated on right away.

8hrs later I was on the operating table inside a hospital in Mumbai, under general anesthesia, and the surgeon made an incision in my hand and drained all the pus and then closed it up. That was the easy part. 🤞

We didn’t know what the infection was and my fever raged on. My hand hurt like hell. And every 6-8hrs they had to remove the bandages, stuff a bunch of gauze and cotton deep into the hand cavity and squeeze out the pus like we squeeze out toothpaste. There was no anesthesia involved in this step. It helped me understand pain, my thresholds for pain and offered me a great opportunity to practice integrating into discomfort rather than fearing it. I remember how traumatizing those days were – to feel the pain, to know that more is coming at regular intervals, and the powerlessness around it. Also in an interesting way, I think my family was affected more by it then I was. I was never shrinking or crying or squirming during the procedure. I had mostly resigned to it and was mostly detached from it. Mostly! 😛

4 days later we got the culture results and the right antibiotic started to work. My fever was finally coming down and I could think again. But my hand still was no where close to healed. I could see raw flesh and the deep cavity every time the bandage was taken out. I didn’t think that was ever going to heal. Funny the narratives our brain can tell us 😆 I had to leave my hand raised in a sling to avoid accumulation of fluids. I started doing my tasks and working on my laptop etc with my left hand. I had accepted a future where I didn’t have use of my right hand and had simply moved on. (And you guessed it right, I’m right handed 🤓)

After a month of daily change of bandages and cleaning, I was amazed at how much the body starts to heal. The cavity was closing in, new flesh had formed. And I was also able to finally close my fist again. It then took me 1yr of physical therapy to get my grip back. And now, after 5 yrs all I have left is a scar and memories!

Lesson learned: don’t pluck feathers off dead flamingoes 🦢 😇

Train to Toruń


On the train from Poznań to Toruń, random fellow passengers helped me put my bags away, offered me food and a drink which is definitely something spiked with something. And now we are using Google translate to communicate with each other.

I think they are Ukrainian. And we are mixing some Russian with Polish now.

They work in construction. Build bridges. They came from Ukraine to work in Poland.

I gave them chocolates from the U.K. One of them has a girlfriend called Marislova. The chocolates are now a gift for her.

And yes it was Vodka. We are best buds now 😜

How I saw Santa, a White reindeer & the Northern Lights on Christmas Day


I didn’t plan this. It kinda just unfurled as I flowed through the small decisions I was making. But three things happened to me on Christmas Day 2014 that made it absolutely magical:

  1. I visited the Real Santa in his village under the Arctic Circle in Finland
  2. I had a highway encounter with a white reindeer
  3. I saw the Northern Lights for the very first time!

I was in Cape Town in South Africa when I decided I wanted to go to Finland. It was summer time in Cape Town and I walked into an adventure store selling flip-flops and beachwear and asked “Do you have a thick down jacket for extreme winter?” The attendant looked at me puzzled, but then went inside and brought out a black down jacket with a red inner lining. I asked “Do you have a different style?”, the answer “No”. “Do you have another size?” “No”. Easy, $135.50 and I was out of the store in 10mins.

The flight from Cape Town was uneventful but it was dark and freezing when I landed in Helsinki. It was Christmas Eve and my car rental office had already closed for the day. I had prepaid for the car but here I was, stranded at the airport without it. And there were no hotels available. I got on the phone and paid $100 as after-hours fee for the guy to come out and give me the key. And then right in the parking lot, I somehow locked myself out of the car. I paid another $100 for him to come back and give me a spare key. He was like, “Sameer, I am leaving now. You are on your own. No one is going to show up and help you once you leave Helsinki. Please be careful, and please don’t get locked out of the car”.

In December, Finland only gets 3–5hrs of daylight, mainly an extended morning and evening and the rest of the 20 or so hours is just dark. It was cold. Very cold. I started driving up North, hoping to get high enough to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights minus the light pollution. I drove all night and at about 3am I reached a spot that I thought could be good. But there were too many clouds and I couldn’t see a thing.

So on Dec 25 at 6am, I was somewhere in Northern Finland, sleeping in my car with the engine and heat running so I don’t freeze to death. Two days ago I was in Cape Town in summer weather. I hadn’t slept much in this time. And I hadn’t showered. I decided I needed to freshen up a little. I realized that I was very close to Rovaniemi, the place that had Santa’s Village. The real Santa Claus lives in Finland. Under the Arctic Circle, in Rovaniemi!

I drove down to the village. Parked the car. Paid the entrance fee, walked in. I was in Santa’s home. It was all underground. It was huge. There were reindeer, and elves and things. It was very festive. There were a lot of people. Lot of kids. A non-trivial number of people were Asians. I am Asian too. India is in Asia. I first headed for the restroom. I wet a towel and gave myself a warm, moist towel bath. Changed my underwear. Brushed my teeth. Put on some deoderant. And this hobo brown man emerged from Santa’s restroom feeling fresh and ready for the next day.

I stood in line to visit Santa. Before long it was my turn. He asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?”. I said “I really want to see the Northern Lights. I have come a long way!”. He said “I can’t really help you with that, but I do wish you luck!”. He didn’t let me sit on his lap. I didn’t expect to but it was fun to ask :D. I sat next to him and got a selfie. I then headed to the Snow Queen’s home. She was in a seasonal castle built entirely out of ice. I had to put on a thick heavy down jacket before I could go in. Everything inside was ice. Her throne. The tables and chairs. There was a bar where she offered to serve me a special icy cocktail. I paid $10 for it. And it froze before I was even halfway through it. I wasn’t too happy about that. I talked with other visitors. Many were international students in Finland who hadn’t gone home for the holidays. And had decided to come to Santa instead. I then sat next to the Snow Queen and got a selfie.

Then I decided to grab some lunch. They had a buffet in the middle of the “cave”. It was right next to the main stage. Meatballs and potatoes and fish and cranberry sauce. It was delicious. I saw some elves dance and perform on the main stage while I ate. Then I went to the post office. It had a mechanical arm that would sort all the mail and route it. I could send a letter from this place to have it delivered next Christmas Day. I thought that was sweet. So I started texting my family and extended family for their addresses. And got to work writing postcards. It was quite awesome.

I walked around and took in the sights and sounds. Then I headed out and fetched my drone. I tried flying it to get a nice view of Santa’s village from the sky. However, it was really really cold and the Lithium batteries were only showing a 3 minute flight-time even on a full charge. I was unable to get good footage. But I got something.

I left Santa’s village. It was cold and dark and freezing. The perfect conditions to see the Northern Lights. It was 1pm. I continued driving North. I wasn’t driving aimlessly. I was actually very well informed about what I was doing. I was accessing real time weather reports, cloud cover maps, aurora watch webcam feeds, aurora forecasts and was also actively communicating with a bunch of complete strangers on active Facebook groups of Finnish aurora spotters. This was my last night. If I didn’t see the Northern Lights, it would have to be some other day. I had only rented the car for two days. It was expensive and I couldn’t afford to keep it for another day. Especially given the extra expense I had already incurred in just getting out of the airport. I decided I was going to go all the way to Inari which was another 5 hrs away. It’s way up in the North, almost close to the Northern Norweigian border. But it had the best chances based on all the forecasts I was seeing.

It was very foggy when I was driving on the one lane highway, the only car for miles and miles. It was Christmas day after all. Most were home with their families. Not doing a crazy road trip by themselves. The fog and the cloud cover meant no visibility for the Northern Lights. But that didn’t dissuade me at all. I was hopeful there would be a break. And I needed to be at the right place by the right time and wait. But the fog was so thick at times, I could only do 10 mph. Yes, basically just rolling slowly with zero visibility. I was so slow at one point that my car just stopped. It had hit something. It was a soft nudge that I had felt. It was a reindeer. Not just any reindeer. The most magnificent, most whitest reindeer I could’ve ever imagined. He had been chilling on the middle of the highway. I only saw it when it was 5 feet in front of me. It turned it’s head and looked at me. Full eye contact. He wasn’t scared or worried or hassled. Just owning his space. I was an outsider. I stared back. Then I backed up my car. And drove around him. He didn’t move. He was exactly where he wanted to be. I stopped and watched him in the rear view mirror. I wanted to take a picture. But I was already running late in reaching Ivalu. Every minute mattered and the fog had already thrown me off my schedule. So I just kept going.

When I reached Inari, the Northern Lights suddenly came into view. I could see them. While I was driving. Right out of the windshield. It was amazing! So beautiful. Reflecting off all the completely white snow! I wanted to pull over. But I realized I couldn’t. The highway had been paved, but there were no paved turnouts. There were no businesses or parking lots here. The only ones were too close to the light pollution. There was nowhere to park if I wanted to get out of the car to view the Northern Light. That didn’t make sense. So I did something very stupid. I decided to pull over into a turnout that was covered in deep snow. My car was an AWD with snow tires. But that doesn’t help when you end up with snow under the car. And that’s exactly what happened.

I was stuck. My wheels were spinning in air. The snow had raised the body of the car and it was all compacted under the main chassis. I couldn’t move. I had a choice to make. I had maybe 2hrs left before I had to turn around to get back to Helsinki in time. Should I go take pictures first and deal with the car later? But I was worried that if I did that, the snow would freeze the car into place even further. So I put on my thickest goretex gloves and my thick down jacket and got out. Went on all fours and got under the car. Started to dig. It was cold. I started shaking. I went back into the car to warm up. Then crawled under again and kept digging. I eventually displaced all the snow from under the body of the car until I saw the tires were load bearing again. My hands had no sensation left. I got back in. And was able to get the car unstuck. The traction felt great. I had no cell network. There was no one in sight. I didn’t have too much gas left. I didn’t want to think what would’ve happened if I had been unable to get out of that snowbank.

I continued searching for a parking lot or safe turnout. It wasn’t easy. I was in the hills and most of the panoramic sections of the highway didn’t have any place to pull over. I finally drove past a particularly interesting section of the highway and saw a school bus turnout right next to it. A properly plowed section, way better than where I had just attempted to park. That’s where I stopped. I got back into warm clothes. Grabbed my tripod and walked the 200m back up to the scenic section of the highway. It was a nice hair pin bend on the highway, overlooking a lake. I went over the guard rail and was on the edge of the road, overlooking the lake. Every 3–5 minutes a car would pass by and see me standing right next to the guard rail and get confused. I would try and turn off my headlamp and look away when I would see a car approaching so as to not startle them. But I am sure I turned a lot of heads.

I had never shot photos of the Northern Lights before. I didn’t know what settings to use. What white balance to set. I took a few test shots. But I was already feeling super cold. So I walked back to the car. Warmed up for 5 mins then walked back to the tripod and camera. Took some more test shots. And decided I was happy with what I had. And so then I set up my camera for a time lapse and then left the stuff unattended and walked back to my car. It had been 30hrs with only 6 hrs of sleep. And I had a 13 hr drive back to Helsinki. I decided it would be wise to take a nap. So I napped on and off watching the Northern Lights from the warmth of my car while my camera was timelapsing for a couple of hours. I transferred some pictures over WiFi and posted them online. Then I fetched my stuff and started driving south, back to Helsinki.

The drive back down was gorgeous. There was fresh white snow everyhere and no dirt. And a glowing orange sun lingering on the horizon for most of it. With a few stops in between, I was eventually I was back in Helsinki. Back at the airport. Returned the car. It was a Christmas adventure to remember, all in 48hrs!