Ernie goes back to his Favourite Travel Shots: 2017 – 2018

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The Homestretch

I didn’t know it then, but 2017 would be the end of an era for Ashley and me. The half-dozen holidays we took that year, plus the handful of trips we took in the first few months of 2018, would be our last ones as a family of two. When I look back at these photos, though, I feel like we actually did pretty well in making the most of it for that year and a bit. I’m talking winter sports and hot springs, dense megacities and breezy tropical beaches, redwood forests and blazing deserts, and plenty of planes, trains, and automobiles.


A few days after I wrapped up my internship in Myanmar, we flew out to Tokyo for a quick holiday before the start of my school’s winter term. I took this photo after we had settled into our ryokan at Hakone, a charming resort area outside of Tokyo known for its hot springs. This secluded room with the muted colour tones facing the quiet winter landscape was the polar opposite of my time in crowded, steaming Yangon, and it was a welcome break before starting up school again.


One morning we met up with a friend that was working in Tokyo at the time to take a train to nearby Niigata Prefecture to go snowboarding for the day. It only took an hour-and-a-half to get to the Gala Yuzawa resort, where there’s a gondola that goes up into the hills straight from the train station. While we were much more active that day than we were at the ryokan, there was a similar feeling of solitude as it was a weekday and we basically had the hills to ourselves. This photo was taken in the middle of a run through one of the trails, and I love how stark and empty the watercolour landscape is – I just want to take a deep breath and fill my lungs with the winter air.


On our last full day in town, I took Ashley to Sensō-ji, one of my favourite places in Tokyo. I took this photo looking out from the terrace of the main hall towards the Hōzōmon, the gate standing at the entrance to the inner complex, and the bundled-up crowd filling the spaces in between. After the more somber tones of the Buddhist temples and pagodas in Myanmar, the festive atmosphere of Sensō-ji was quite a contrast, and one that I think I needed to reset my mind somewhat.


In April I took a last minute trip to Shanghai with Ashley’s side of the family. We didn’t do much sightseeing, but we did eat very well. I don’t know where I took this photo, only that it was from the rooftop of a restaurant we were eating at, but I love the transition from the supermodern buildings and skyscrapers in the distance to the intimate alleyway in the foreground. That window in the middle really speaks to me. But the other reason why this photo sticks out to me is that it led to the last pseudo-interaction between myself and a childhood friend. I’d posted this picture on Instagram and she had left a nice comment, though I didn’t reply as I didn’t really make a habit of it at the time. A part of me wished that I did. A few days later I received a phone call from another friend back home, telling me that our mutual friend had passed away in her sleep.


I took this photo in Shanghai but I feel like it captures something essential about big city life in Asia: late night runs in your home clothes to the corner shop to pick up some snacks and drinks. I’ve done this countless times in Hong Kong and encountered it everywhere from Tokyo to Taipei to Singapore to Seoul. It’s one of the things I love about living in this part of the world, that sense of the city never sleeping and being able to walk around at night in relative safety, and the absence of it is something I notice very much whenever I’m back home in the suburbs of Toronto.


This is Boracay, one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of island paradises dotting the Philippines archipelago. It has the strange quality of feeling crowded and secluded at the same time, courtesy of its massive four kilometres-long white sand beach stretching along the east coast of the island. I took this photo on our first day of our holiday that April, the rays of the setting sun cracking through the sails of a paraw, and I quite like the effect.


In June Ashley and I spent a couple of weeks in California. This picture of Newport Beach is kind of how I imagine beaches to be on the west coast – beachgoers drenched in late afternoon sunlight, the surf sending a mist across the sand, palm trees in the distance, and a long wooden pier reaching out into the ocean.


This photo was taken from Griffith Observatory, and I enjoy how it transitions from the very natural morning hiking scene at the bottom of the image into the more dreary low-lying suburban areas in the middle, before rising up into the smog-encased heights of downtown LA. There’s a lot of life in this picture.


We took two days to drive the Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to San Francisco, and one of the stops on our itinerary was Morro Bay. The weather conditions were quite unpredictable on our first day of driving, with patches of brilliant sunshine mixed in with the conditions shown above. Being in this weather was not great, but I do really like how the fog washed out all colour and sense of place in this picture.


This picture was taken that same afternoon a little further up the coast, where the sun had managed to keep the wall of fog at bay. Getting to this beach required walking through a beautiful field of gold (though occupied by hundreds of tiny cheeping shrews), with this incredible view waiting for us on the other side.


Maybe 15 minutes drive from where we took the previous photo, Ashley and I stopped to take in this mesmerising sunset view. The ocean fog lingered just beyond the shore as the light of the sun filtered through the velvet layers and flooded the scene with these absolutely lovely lavender hues. It looked like some fictional depiction of heaven’s shores, or an in-between place that exists in the gaps of reality, a world waiting to be born.


The redwood groves of Muir Woods National Monument lie just outside of San Francisco, in the hills of Marin County across the Golden Gate. I love the verticality of this image, with the redwood trunks soaring up beyond the margins of the picture and Ashley on the path at the bottom trying to capture her own memories.


In August that year, I flew down to Singapore for a quick weekend trip to catch the Foo Fighters on the Asia leg of their Concrete and Gold Tour. Hong Kong is pretty hit-and-miss as far as big music acts go, and sometimes seeing a favourite band could mean having to hop on a flight to Singapore, Seoul, or Tokyo. It was a hot, hot night in Singapore, and the floor was just one big sweaty mass of skin and damp clothing, but the experience of rockin’ out with a multi-ethnic crowd of Western expats, local youths, and the hijab-wearing Malay demographic was excellent.


Our last holiday of 2017 was a week-long road trip around the eastern coastline and desert mountains of Oman. It was definitely an experience that has remained pretty high in our “do you remember when we went here, do you remember when we saw this” conversations, especially throughout this year of no travel. This photo was taken at the Bimmah Sinkhole, about an hour-and-a-half south of the capital city, Muscat, and I love the colours in the water and the cliffside. We spent a morning here by ourselves on our second full day in the country, and it was the perfect start to a week of jaw-dropping sights and magnificent views.


After visiting the sinkhole, we went on an afternoon hike through the stunning Wadi Shab, a short canyon trail that ends in a series of pools leading to a hidden waterfall. It was a relatively straight forward route, but the views were fantastic and the swim through the last few pools to the cave with the waterfall was absolutely magical.


As we were driving through the desert one afternoon, we encountered a group of three or four camels just hanging out together beneath the massive sand dunes. We got out of the car to observe from a distance, and then one of the camels decided to come check us out too. This beautiful creature got really up close and personal with us, dipping his/her/its head into our car window to give us a careful sniff before wandering back to the herd.


These are the cliffs of Wadi Nakhr, also known as the Grand Canyon of Oman. We spent most of an afternoon driving from the desert to the Hajar Mountains, and it was early evening by the time we arrived at this lookout point. I really like that warm sunlight hitting the canyon walls on the far side, lighting up the planes and contours of that particular section of the gorge.


I love this early morning shot of the mountains and valleys of the Omani interior, fading into the blues and whites of the distant horizon. This photo was taken from just past the village of Al Khitaym, the starting point of the Balcony Walk hike into Wadi Nakhr, and the views from here were almost enough to overcome my fear of heights.


The Balcony Walk is no joke – there’s very little elevation, but the drop-off into the canyon is terrifying. This photo really captures how the shelf just falls away into nothingness, though admittedly while we were on the path itself it didn’t look that bad. It’s only when I looked back at sections we had just walked through that my knees would go weak at just how close the path had taken us to the edge of the cliff.


This is another one in the “fearless Ashley” series. From what I recall, this little outcropping overlooked a bend in the trail, and Ashley wanted to climb up to get a better look into the canyon. My heart was in my throat the entire time she was up there. I love this photo, though, and what it captures of the landscape and of Ashley.


Misfat Al Abriyeen is a village halfway between the mountains and Nizwa, the major city in that part of Oman. Tourists are free to walk through the village and its famous falaj gardens, though there are some sections here and there that are off limits. I’m a big fan of those clay gourds in the window, and I like the transition from the light blue skies at the top of the photo to the cream-coloured walls in the middle, and then to the darker alleyway at the bottom.


I really like this photo of a mother and her child at Jabrin Castle, with the late afternoon shadows creeping across the stone courtyard. There were very few other visitors while we were there, and we pretty much had the run of the place. I wasn’t expecting a castle to be one of the highlights of the trip – Jabrin Castle was basically pencilled in to fill an afternoon on our way to the mountains – but the visit was well worth it.


This photo was taken at Nizwa Fort, and I feel like it has some serious Tatooine vibes. The architecture of the fort is simple but still visually appealing, full of straight lines, smoothed corners, and beautiful symmetries, and the shadows created by these elements in the harsh desert sunlight are a big part of the structure’s aesthetic.


We were driving back to Nizwa from the highlands of Jebel Akhdar near the end of our holiday when we came across this stunning view of the sunset over the landscape of the Omani interior. The golden yolk of the sun was just dipping into the cradle of one of the mountain ridges, while dust clouds flew up in the foreground from the local villagers playing soccer on the field beside the highway. Every so often there are moments during a trip or a holiday where we see or experience something not on our itinerary that just grabs us and forces us to pause, and this was one of those moments.


The Nizwa Goat Market was one of the highlights of our time in Oman. It was such a lively gathering of humanity (and livestock) after a week of being mostly on our own, and it made for some really great portrait photo opportunities. There were probably a dozen photos from the goat market I could have chosen, but I love this goat seller’s straight-on gaze penetrating through the crowd directly into my lens.


I took this photo after emerging from a harrowing drive through the alpine roads of the Al Hajar Mountains, and I have very intense feelings of relief associated with this picture. The whole drive through those mountains my heart was in my throat, particularly one section where I had to do a three-point turn on a narrow cliffside road after going the wrong way. When we finally emerged onto paved roads and flat land in the late afternoon, I was pretty damn close to crying tears of happiness.


These are the evening lights of Muscat, taken from our balcony after wrapping up our one week road trip. There was something comforting about being back in the capital after some of our extreme experiences in the Omani countryside, like just the fact of being inside of a modern hotel again was enough to bring me some measure of serenity.


The following February, my dad’s side of the family organised a family reunion trip to Phuket over the 2018 Chinese New Year holidays. Ever since moving to Hong Kong back in 2009, going on holiday with my direct family has been a rare thing, not including my occasional visits back home to Toronto, so this trip was nothing but good memories for us. On one of the days we took a boat trip out to see some of the other islands, including James Bond Island in the background of this photo, and I love how game my parents were when asked to pull out their top 007 poses.


In May, Ashley and I did our babymoon in Bali. We found out we were pregnant at the beginning of the year, which would have an immediate impact on our traveling habits. In between all of the appointments and check-ups, we squeezed in one last holiday together before the point in the pregnancy where it wouldn’t be safe to fly. I took this photo of Ashley in our villa one morning, looking radiant and bright with life after some five months of pregnancy. I’m also reminded of how concerned we were about the Zika Virus back then and its potential impact to pregnancy, which feels like a lifetime ago given the global pandemic we’ve been living through for most of 2020.


This isn’t technically a travel photo, but it did involve an overnight stay. I took this photo in our hospital at Happy Valley after we had Miles, during a quiet moment in the early evening when mother and baby were taking a nap together. I love the intimate lighting in this picture and the blurred city lights in the background – the scene isn’t necessarily unique to Hong Kong, but the combination of frenzied urbanity and small intimacies is very much an essential element to Hong Kong living.


About a month after Miles was born, I flew down to Singapore to attend a wedding with a few other friends from Hong Kong. The night of the reception, we made a pit stop at a bak kut teh restaurant in our suits and dresses, just hanging out and relaxing in the tropical evening weather while chowing down on peppery pork bone broth. The part of me that’s still the suburban North American/Toronto boy, even after over a decade of living abroad, savours moments like these – the unfamiliar becoming the familiar, the “far away” becoming home.

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