January 28, 2006
Viva el Final!
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that all things must come to an end, for one reason or another. Even for two ambitious world travelers, still with much left to discover, this reality of life has gradually settled in. The grubby soles of our shoes have worn thin, budgeted finances slowly been depleted, and our steadfast endurance of long bus rides / email communication / digging through a backpack / etc. has been substantially diminished. It has truly been a remarkable and life-changing journey. But even so, the inevitable has finally come.
Now that we have been back in the U.S. for well over a month, this update may come as a bit of a surprise. To calm all immediate suspicions, no we are not announcing plans for another adventure around the world! At least not yet. Truth is, our backpacks still lie within easy reach, and our interest in travel and learning about the world is as strong as it has ever been. But we do not find ourselves in the same place as when we started. Throughout the last fourteen months, the dreams and motivations that first set this journey in motion have been transformed and are now taking us in new directions.
One of the things we have enjoyed most since our return have been opportunities to reconnect with family and friends. After the craziness of the Christmas holiday wore off, the two of us spent a week in Harrisonburg visiting college friends and professors. Then the following week, Eric took a trip to Alabama and volunteered with hurricane Katrina relief efforts in the Gulf. He is now back in Lancaster, starting to consider job possibilities, and looking forward to taking a seminary course at EMU Lancaster this spring. Dave has recently taken a job with Franconia Mennonite Conference in Communications and Leadership Cultivation and is excited as he begins this new position. He plans to base himself out of Harleysville until the fall when he will possibly begin graduate school somewhere.
Returning home can often be the most challenging aspect of any long-term travel experience. While there have been moments of discomfort and frustration in the past weeks, as a whole the transition into our home communities has gone relatively smoothly. And we’ll see… perhaps the jury is still out on this issue. But what has already become clear to both of us is the importance of being intentional and engaging ourselves in the things we care about. Just like the broader world, our home communities are full of opportunities to learn and become involved. Should we really have to settle for something that doesn’t bring fulfillment?
As we move on to new ventures, this marks the final Viva el Viaje update you will receive. If you have followed us from the beginning, chances are you received close to 60 of these things on a semi-consistent basis. Hopefully they have provided an opportunity to laugh, think, learn, and if nothing else, be distracted for a few minutes of your day. In the coming months, we plan to do some small presentations, and will continue to make periodic postings and update the website with additional information. It has sort of evolved as the interactive “scrapbook” of our experience, and we plan to keep it available as an online reference for ourselves and others who may be interested.
From the beginning, we have attempted (as much as possible) to share this experience with you, our friends and family. In each of our journeys through life, there is much we can learn from others walking alongside us, no matter what the context. All of you receiving this email have been involved in some way in shaping this experience with us, whether through faithful prayer, encouragement, hosting us in your homes, offering insightful comments, or simply being interested in what we are doing. We offer you our deepest gratitude. This trip has been just as much about you as it has been about us.
There are some endings that are final, and others that don’t really feel like endings at all. As we step out in faith and continue to build upon the experiences of the past year, this particular ending feels more like a beginning. There are always new opportunities emerging and glimmers of hope and truth waiting to be discovered. May God continue to guide us all as we live the journey together.
December 22, 2005
A few months back, I was looking ahead to this time of coming home with apprehension, not quite sure what to expect, but feeling that it would be difficult. I must say now that my experience since flying into Los Angeles on December 2nd has gone fairly well thus far. I?ve spent a lot of my time relaxing, catching up with friends and family, and trying to be intentional about making a slow transition back into life in the United States while keeping a positive attitude.
My flight from Bangkok to LA was fairly uneventful, except for a brief delay during the layover in Taipei, Taiwan. Before I knew it, I was back on American soil in the Los Angeles airport, tired from nearly two days without sleep, yet full of that honeymoon type of adrenaline for the final ?new country? of the trip. On the customs declarations form that you fill out before entering the US, there is a space to list the countries you have visited during your trip. I decided to fill the space by writing the last five or six, followed by a ???. The man at the counter questioned me about where I had gone and how long I had been away and upon hearing my answers, asked with amazed bewilderment, ?Is that all you brought back?? I replied that I liked to travel light. I guess most Americans bring more stuff than I do.
I spent my first week in the states in Pasadena, CA, spending my days getting over a 9 hour time difference, checking out Fuller Theological Seminary, and hanging out with my EMU friends Joel & Emiley Shenk and Alethia Bailey (traveled with us in Israel/Palestine, March 2005). We also went down to the Santa Monica Beach one evening at sunset and were blessed with an amazing array of colors falling into the Pacific Ocean. Another evening Alethia and I went to an art show in Venice which included a few of my uncle?s paintings. A different afternoon took a group of us hiking to the nearby San Gabriel Mountains rising from the back side of Pasadena.
I took my opportunity in the town of Pasadena to visit Fuller Theological Seminary, a place where a handful of good friends of mine who share similar interests with me are either currently studying or considering beginning masters? work in the future. I managed to find a time to meet with a variety of professors and academic advisors and a lot of these meetings helped me to better articulate what I am looking for in a graduate program. At this point in time, I can say that my interests lie in some combination of cross-cultural learning & education, peace and conflict studies, the American church?s role in international conflicts that have a religious component, and the Middle East region in general. I feel like my Masters degree will be a conglomeration of a lot of subjects that drive me to action and that as I study my specific focus will become clearer. I would like to get started next fall, but depending what happens this year, plans are always open to change?
Southern California was a perfect first stop in the US after a global journey. Landing on the ?left coast? of the country provided a lot of people who were open to talking about international issues and a general chilled out atmosphere that made me feel right at home. Having a few close friends around who understood my experience and a lot of others who were friendly but not overwhelmingly so seemed like the right ratio of familiar people for someone trying to ease into the culture shock of their own country.
The Plan of Surprise
My parents were under the impression for weeks that Alethia and I were driving across the United States and arriving home in Pennsylvania on Monday, December 19. This was the original plan, but transformed about a week before I flew to LA into a cheaper option of a $100 flight from LA to DC. I decided not to tell my parents of the change, but instead go to Virginia for the week and visit friends in the Harrisonburg area and then arrive home in PA on Friday to catch my parents not when they were expecting me, but rather when my sister Kristina was expected to come home from college for Christmas break.
We landed in Washington DC on Sunday evening and were picked up by Alethia?s Mom who has recently moved to Fairfax, VA. Alethia and I met two other friends from EMU, Rachel Miller (we visited her in Peru/Bolivia, December 2005) and Conrad Erb during the day on Monday and we had a nice lunch at an Indian restaurant in the city. We spent the rest of the day walking around the capitol building, the botanical gardens, and hanging out in a coffee shop.
Some of my initial perceptions of our nation?s capitol were ones of solitary power and unspoken sadness. Maybe it was the cold, grey skies that had been a foreign experience to me during the last few months, or maybe it was the way people seemed to be living their individual, forward-focused lives? something about it made it feel like the monuments were to an empire that could use a little hope. If you?ve read Eric?s recent journal about American military involvement around the world, you may empathize with me when I say that as I returned to the most militarily powerful place on earth, it felt like a sad homecoming.
Monday night we drove out to the I81/I66 split and met my sisters, Maria & Kristina, driven by Maria?s fianc?, Jesse, who managed to leap out of the car and beat my sisters to the first hug. We then started to drive south on the familiar I81 to Harrisonburg, Virginia.
I?ve basically lived in Virginia for the majority of the last four years of my life that I was in the US, so returning once again felt like home. Many of my friends that graduated with me a few years ago are still in the area as well as others younger than me. I had a wonderful week popping into my professors? offices and surprising them as well as some amazing conversations with old friends over a cup of hot tea or coffee. It was good to see Lin & Janet Stutzman (Sailing Acts, April 2005) again, who are gearing up once again to lead a Middle East cross-cultural semester this spring.
Virginia is a quiet place in relation to many that I have traveled through during the last few months. It was a nice space to just spread out, know the area around me, and be able to fit right into after a long time away. The five days there went fast, but helped to stretch out my transition in coming back to Pennsylvania.
My sisters and I managed to keep the secret of my presence in the area from my parents to the best of our ability. It really seemed like a possibility that someone might pass on the word to them when they found out that I was in the ?burg. From what I know now, they suspected, but didn?t know for sure what was going on.
We borrowed a car that needed to be driven to PA, loaded up with Kristina, Alethia, Kurt Rosenberger (Eastern Europe Bike Trip, May-July 2005) and I and drove the remaining four hours to southeastern PA. We stopped about a quarter mile up the street from my house and took everything from the trunk and piled it into the back seat. Since Alethia and I were expected to be arriving home a few days later, we piled in the trunk and Kurt and Kristina sat up front.
We pulled into our driveway and Kurt and Kristina went inside to say hi to our parents while Alethia and I waited outside. They asked for some help to come and unload the bags from the car and my dad came outside first to bring some things in. When Kristina had come into the house without me, my parents gave up the hope that I might have also been with her, so when my Dad opened the trunk and saw me there, he screamed and yelled my name, ?DAVID!? I was ready with the camera and got it all on video. It?s on the site, and definitely worth checking out. Sorry Dad that I keep putting a plug in for this. Mom came out a few minutes later, looking a little pale and like she didn?t believe that I was back.
Since last Friday, I have been around the area, unpacking all the stuff I had sent home at various parts of the year, rediscovering how much stuff I still own, and trying to get my life organized enough to start from here.
Life from Now?
It has been a good transition so far and I am excited to be back. In many ways, coming home just feels like another stop on the larger journey and that I will never be done ?traveling? as many of the ideas behind the vision of this last year continue with me as I start whatever is next in my life. It would be very easy to be negative about the things that frustrate me about this country, but it seems obvious that this will do no good for the world. My hope now lies in implementing what this trip has shown me into action and devoting my life to working towards a better understanding of these issues in this country. Coming back has also shown me how much I have to learn about what is going on here, and the very least I can do is be aware of these changes and discover the needs wherever I might be in order to fill open niches.
I have been struggling to write this journal entry for the last few weeks. Each time I start, and then can?t quite finish. I suspect that I have been just a bit burned out on written digital communication, and when the alterative is a live conversation with a good old friend, it?s difficult to be inspired to express myself on a computer screen. I?ll probably be either in Pennsylvania or Virginia during the next several months, so if you?re in one of those places, hopefully we can connect sometime. I don?t own a car anymore, and really don?t want to for as long as I can possibly manage without one. The next few months will be an interesting time for me to begin to figure out what this experience has meant for my life both now and farther down the road.
December 16, 2005
Home, Hope, and the Holidays
Suddenly, the end has arrived. Even with the past two weeks to spend in reflection (and an entire year of gradual anticipation!), this day has still somehow managed to catch me by surprise. In only a few hours, I will be heading for the Bangkok airport to begin the long journey home. While at times words have come easily on this journey, I now find myself with not a whole lot to say.
Maybe I'll begin with a few things that I'm looking forward to. The first, without a doubt, is the experience of flying. Many of my friends think I'm crazy, but I get pathetically excited about everything having to do with air travel. Starting with the often incomprehendable task of finding the best deal on tickets, to the moment of collecting my bags and leaving the airport... it's all a thrilling and fascinating experience. And the longer the flight the better. Extra hours only mean more time to look out the window, watch the cool little map of the flight's current location, eat a few more of the carefully packaged airline meals, and a chance to accumulate those precious extra frequent flier miles. I know this is all a bit strange. Sometimes it has led me to believe that I should have studied to become a pilot. Or at the very least done a few stints as a baggage handler down in Philly. Yeah, we'll have to see about that.
Perhaps part of this fascination with air travel is the way that it brings the world together. Watching the arrival/departure board at a major international airport, it doesn't take long to arrive at the conclusion that the world really is a small place. In less than a day's time, one can be across the globe, suddenly transported to a completely different context. On the plane in one country/culture/climate; off the plane in a completely different one. In a way, airports represent a kind of "third-culture", a unique environment where people from all corners of the globe come together and rub shoulders with each other. I like those kinds of places.
Enough about airplanes and airports. Another thing that gives me great joy is looking ahead to spending time with family and friends. Fourteen months is a long time to be away from the people that you care about. And although I have been blessed to have many opportunities to communicate with these people via email during my time away, I'm ready to be finished with that for awhile. Letters and emails are great, but they simply don't compare to the beauty of spending time being physically present with another person or group of people. In the past year, I have continually been amazed by the growth and interest that people have expressed for this website. Yet I have also learned quickly of its limitations. Without a doubt, it doesn't come close to the importance and necessity of personal, face-to-face conversation and dialogue.
Bangkok, in my mind, is the epitome of budget backpacker travel. The flashing neon signs, the ridiculous "just to prove I was there" little souvenirs, and the dirt-cheap guesthouses full of spaced out travelers... there is a shallowness here that is repulsive. Yet it is a neccesary evil for anyone heading into or out of Southeast Asia. So that's why I'm here. As I wondered the infamous Khao San strip last night, my thoughts drifted to the subject of community. Yes, it may be a cliche word in many respects, but at this moment in time I find it profoundly exciting. I guess sometimes it just takes going away to see these things.
Finally, I'm excited to get involved in things that I believe are important. Being a part of an honest and open-minded community, like I mentioned earlier, is certainly one of those things. But so is education, the work of the church, cross-cultural understanding, inter-faith dialogue, and so many other things. There are times to withdrawl and be contemplative (as I have done in the past two weeks), but there is also a time to engage and get involved. For many months during this trip, the prospect of "engaging" with my home community and sharing my experiences brought more fear than it did excitement. But somehow in recent weeks I have turned that corner, and begun to find hope and potential fulfillment in those areas. There is no life without hope, and what better time to discover this concept than during the holidays.
Although this is my final entry from abroad, I hope to write a few more once I've settled in back home. And Dave and I are also plannaing a few changes to the site, as well as other ways to expand the vision of Viva el Viaje. But that will all come in time... right now, it's time to enjoy the Christmas season. I will look forward to seeing many of you soon, and talking more in person. Your support, encouragement, and prayers have meant much more than I'm sure you realize. Thank you.
As I post this, I'm off to the airport. Somehow the cheapest ticket I found was with Malaysia Airlines, an excellent company that also provided me an overnight stay at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur this evening. Then tomorrow morning the 23-hour flight flight to New York begins. Although a bit of a disappointment, I found out after buying the tickets that we would have a refuel stop in Stockhold, Sweden, meaning that we will not be flying to North America over the Pacific. So much for the "round-the-world" trip!! Oh well, it was close... :-)Continue reading "Home, Hope, and the Holidays"
December 06, 2005
Earth to America: What the World is Saying... Will we Listen?
It was business as usual on Friday morning as I crossed the Mekong River from Thailand into northern Laos. This particular border crossing, although merely connecting two rural fishing villages, receives quite a substantial amount of traffic, due to the many backpackers (like myself) planning to take the 2-day riverboat trip to Luang Prabang. With my battered passport in hand, I stepped casually up to the immigration desk. Laos marks country #43, my final destination in this fourteen month journey around the world. It was somewhat of a personal milestone for me, but of course the immigration officer couldn't have cared less. He was too distracted by the glossy emblem on the front of my passport. "America," he muttered, shaking his head with disgust, "America."
In our previous writing for this site, Dave and I have occassionally commented on our experiences sa traveling Americans. Situations like I described above have taken place on a regular basis, in countries all over the world. And not just at immigration desks, either. In restaurants and hostels, on trains and in overflowing chicken buses, with local peasants and photo-clicking travelers... the reaction, unfortunately, is nearly always the same. It has gotten to the point that I now am very hesitant to reveal my identity, unless specifically asked. It's not that a fear the reaction, as much as I am tired of the predictable direction the conversation will turn, and the questions that everyone is only too eager to ask.
"Is it true that most Americans don't know the capital of Canada?" I have been asked on several ocassions. "So... what do you think about Bush?" is another common starter line. Or from the backpacker crowd, "Why don't more Americans like to travel?" These questions, while seemingly innocent and part of casual conversation, are often asked under one particular premise. People WANT their perceptions of America to be descredited. They WANT Americans to convince them that we aren't as ignorant and arrogant as the rest of the world thinks we are. People the world over are pleading, "Please... please, say it ain't so!"
While in Chiang Mai last week, Dave and I browsed through several used bookstores around town. With a long boat trip coming up, and two weeks of downtime before my flight back, I decided that this might be a good opportunity to do some reading. One of the first books to catch my attention was Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies. Although I didn't know it at the time, the book is currently an international bestseller, and would turn out to concisely summarize and add factual merit to many of the observations that I have been making during the last year. Pulling it out of my bag partway down the Mekong, Patrick (the burly Australian sitting next to me) remarked in typical half-question / half-statement style, "I hope you already know the answers..."
Maybe the first place to explore some of those answers is right here, among the rolling hills of Laos. As I sit on the balcony of my guesthouse, the street below is a maze of energetic children, jumping rope and cheering joyfully for each new contestant. In a yard across the street, roosters and chickens (the same ones that woke me up at 6am this morning!) peck at the earth like it's all that matters. And next door, two young musicians work their fingers over beat-up guitars, their melodies spilling through the windows and lingering with the spreading shadows of late afternoon. It is an atmosphere of undisturbed peace and tranquility. Not bad for a country that despite its tiny size, bears the aweful distinction of being the world's most heavily bombed country. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States of America dropped two million tons of bombs across the country of Laos. This unexploded ordinanace (UXO) continues to kill and injure hundreds of people each year, long after the war is officially over and forgotten by the world. Not to mention that it continues to render their precious farmland utterly useless. No matter how remote the village, you can believe that every civilian knows exactly where these "weapons of mass destruction" came from.
While Laos may have received an unjust portion of the U.S. military's wrath, it is certainly not the only country on the list. In fact, I wsa disturbed to find that nearly every country that Dave and I have visited on this trip (and many that we haven't!) were at some point in the last 120 years an object of U.S. military intervention. While I thought of publishing the entire list on the site, you can find Zoltan Grossman's comprehensive list of U.S. military interventions during the last century here. It gives a simple and straightforward explanation for America's reputation across the globe. As a sidenote, imagine for just a moment what the U.S. response might be if a foreign government was to be found "intervening" within our borders... even just once! It would not be pretty.
But this issue is not just about the misuse of military power. Citizens of developing countries around the world are suffering because of U.S. economic policies as well. Through controlling global financial institutions, such as the World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO), world markets are marginalized to favor the U.S. and American corporations. Americans get richer and poor countries of the world get poorer. It is no wonder that many countries express hesitation at jumping into the "free market economy" that is championed so heavily by the United States. They know that before long, their private and national companies will no longer be able to compete with the unlimited financial resources of corporate America.
This manipulation wouldn't be quite so disturbing if the U.S. was more generous in our foreign aid distributions. But as Jimmy Carter once pointed out, "We are the stingiest nation of all." As a percentage of our national wealth (GDP), the U.S. ranks twenty-second out of the 22 most developed nations in foreign aid contributions. Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries are consistently at the top of this list. Come to think of it, when was the last time I heard a negative remark about the Danish government?
In an attempt to get a well-rounded perspective on global events, I ocassionally log on to Al-Jazeera's English news website. Several days ago, they were featuring a fascinating interview with David Dionisi, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer (full story here). He is the author of a recent book entitled American Hiroshima, in which he argues that even in the spectrum of global politics, "kindness begets kindness." Instead of writing off the Taliban and Osama bin Laden as evil crazies that just want to destroy the world, let's get to the root causes of this desperation and hostility. In his interview, he asks the world to "imagine if Bush had said after 9/11: 'People are capitalizing on our mistakes in the Middle East. So, let's ensure that there is no hunger, lack of clean water, lack of education, etc. in the Muslim world.'" Had that been the case, we certainly would have a lot more friends than enemies. But we all know that this potential gesture of goodwill and earnest soul-searching was very far from the actual U.S. response.
It is true, we can't live our lives dwelling on the mistakes of the past. In many respects, the damage has been done, and we will now live with the consequences. But are we at least learning from the past? Watching the news of this last week, it seems as though very little has changed. At the United Nations climate conference in Montreal, the administration in Washington continues in its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which has already been approved by 40 of the world's other industrial nations (full story here). Despite strong scientific evidence of the drastic effects of global warming, the United States rejects the proposal, saying it would be "bad for business." What message does this send to the rest of the world? Clearly, all that matters to America is money, even if it means that portions of the world (including low-lying areas of the U.S.) will go completely under water in the next several hundred years.
Or let's examine the recent allegations that the U.S. is secretely using European airfields to transport CIA detainees (full story here). This has created an enormous uproar in Europe, and deservedly so. By interrogating these suspects in international locations, the CIA is free from the restrictions of the U.S. Justice System (in other words, right to a lawyer, illegality of torture, etc.). The U.S. defends its actions, saying that these are "special cases" involved specifically in terrorism-related activities. The message again to the world? Human rights apparently only apply when it's convenient, and the U.S. will take its orders from nobody (even on issues related to the sovereignity of other nations). Not surprisingly, when I last checked their website a few hours ago, CNN was barely even covering this story.
Finally, let's briefly skip over to Kazakhstan. On Sunday, this central Asian nation held presidential elections, in which the corrupt and heavy-handed Nursualtan Nazarbayer was reinstated into power (full story here). The country of Kazakhstan has never held an election that has been judged democratic and fair by Western observers. Yet the U.S. doesn't say a thing. Clearly, this remote country with little economic opportunity is outside the realm of U.S. interest. The message is a complaint that I've heard over and over... double standards.
Four years ago, I watched the events of September 11 unfold with a crowd of fellow students in the Oakwood dorm at EMU. Just like everywhere else, the "why" question was at the heart of our thoughts and conversation in the days that followed. Finally, on September 20, our president provided a direct answer. "They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other," he told a joint session of Congress. In the most simplistic of terms, George W. Bush described the entire problem as nothing but jealousy, pure and simple. Since we do everything right, they hate what they don't have. That being the case, there's nothing we could/should have done differently. They're just evil... end of discussion.
The world is not a simple place, nor is it easily read through a black and white lens. Likewise, the issue of why so much of the world despises America is stubbornly complex. As I discussed earlier, our constant use of military intervention and economic manipulation throughout the rest of the world has bred bitter resentment. As has our government's arrogant way of relating with the world ("it's our way or none at all") and the American public's seeming ignorance to it all. And I haven't even mentioned the War in Iraq, the effects of cultural imperialism and so-called "McDonaldization," or the proliferation of Hollywood entertainment and American television (and the values they promote) across the world. There is reason to hate America. And interestingly enough, not one person I have ever talked to has suggested that it was because of our freedoms. Because most of the world would be quick to point out (and I tend to agree) that we aren't as free as we think we are, anyway.
In recent months, I have received several emails from friends asking me if this trip has made me anti-American. This is a question that I find difficult to answer. I still remain an American citizen, appreciate much about my home country, and am eagerly looking forward to my return in two weeks. Yet my perspective has indeed changed in the last year. I have seen first-hand the devastating effects of American policy on people scattered across the globe, and the anger and distrust that results. My blissful ignorance has been shattered, and I can no longer passively accept all that my government says and does (in my name) throughout the world. Does my choosing to speak out against the injustices I have witnessed make me anti-American? I certainly hope not.
Years ago, the British historian Norman Daniel coined the term "knowledgable ignorance." It can be described as "knowing people, ideas, civilizations, religions, histories as something they are not, and could not possibly be, and maintaining these ideas even when the means exist to know differently." In the United States, we are blessed with some of the world's best communication technology, giving us easy access to a nearly infinite amount of information from anywhere on the planet. Yet we still refer to the rest of the world in terms of deeply-ingrained cultural stereotypes. Or send our kids through educational systems that promote a triumphant and egocentric American view of history, while neglecting the perspectives of the "losers" around the world who have suffered because of it (starting with the Native Americans). Or the fact that most of us chose to receive our news through CNN or the other broadcast networks, all of which are owned by a handful of U.S. companies, each with deeply vested political interests. Case in point: Surf over to CNN and then BBC, and notice the difference in headlines. These are all examples of "knowledgable ignorance."
So what's my point with all of this? This journal entry probably reads more like a ranting and raving session than anything else. But if you've stuck with me thus far, thank you. Either you've somehow resisted the temptation to stereotype me as a "typical world traveler who thinks he knows it all... DELETE; or you are my parents. In either case, congratulations. :) In all sincerity, my intentions in writing this lengthy entry are not to offend anyone or to advocate one particular political persuasion over another. More importantly, I do not claim (nor ever will) that traveling the world has somehow provided me with an indisputable list of answers to the world's many problems. If anything, I humbly arrive at the conclusion to this particular journey with more questions than I started with. All I can truely offer is my own meandering experience. And if there's some bit of truth of word or wisdom to be gleaned from it, that's great. In the meantime, I'll just keep moving on.
"Since America is both the object and the source of global hatred, it must carry the responsibility of moving us all beyond it," writes Sardar and Davies. On a similar thread, I would add that for those of us that follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, the calling couldn't be any clearer. It is difficult enough to bear witness to the injustices that are being carried out by our very own elected government. Yet even more troubling still is to hear of them being done under the banner of Christian faith. I sometimes wonder if the Christian church has lost its voice in confronting such hypocracy, or if these actions are indeed an accurate reflection of theological belief within the broader church in America. Under either scenerio, it seems that we have drifted somewhat from the persona of Christ that is portrayed in the gospels. The Jesus I know and serve lived a simple life of peace, standing up for the oppressed and rejected, and calling all to repentence. If Jesus were alive today, I wonder what he might have to say...
At the close of the book Why Do People Hate America? the authors suggest that the process of transcending global hatred begins with a willingness to engage in dialogue and self-reflection. They make the statement that "if America has become a country that cannot debate, engage, or negotiate with itself, cannot wrestle with different meanings among people who are all Americans, then what hope is there that it can extend a listening ear or open mind to the rest of the world?" Somehow, we must stand against this perception that it is "unpatriotic" or "cowardly" to question ourselves or reflect on past mistakes. The process of self-reflection, on an even more personal level, is about learning to see ourselves as we appear in the eyes of others. Hopefully this journal has been a step in that direction.
Here in Laos, the day has faded and I have spent way too much time sitting on this balcony writing. Just a few blocks away, the night bazaar is in full swing, and the town residents are out enjoying the cool, refreshing air. I think I'll join them. In a few days, I will make my way south to the capital city, Vientienne, and then back to Bangkok for my flight on the 16th. This is the beginning of the end for me, and all things said... I'm very excited to be returning home.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
-Prayer of St. Francis
Again, if you have the time (and even if you don't), take the time to pick up Why Do People Hate America? It is an insightful and thought-provoking read. You can get it used on Amazon.com (current price = $4 USD), or I'd be glad to let you borrow my copy when I return.
November 28, 2005
To Cambodia and Beyond
As I look ahead to flying to Los Angeles on Friday, it's hard to keep my mind focused on being here in Thailand. It's become a struggle to live as the inevitable Thailand tourist/traveler combo, eager and brimming with excitement to tackle each day's sights and Lonely Planet checklists. In many ways, the tourist culture of this country makes me cringe. I'm ready for something new, and this time I think the newness will be in going back to where this trip started.
My last few weeks have taken me from Bangkok to Cambodia and now finally up to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Eric and I have spent this week hanging out and talking about the last few months and what lies ahead of us as we both return back to the United States within the next few weeks. But before I get into that, I'll do my best to fill you in on what has happened since Nepal and brought us to this point.
As my flight landed in Bangkok from Calcutta, I felt like I stepped back into the modern world. I was taken back for a bit by the efficient transportation systems, the cleanliness and the order and pace in which people were living their lives. After a few days of getting somewhat oriented with the city, I caught a bus out to the Cambodian border, heading towards a final week of experiences as a traveler before I would come back to Thailand to meet Eric and focus more on coming home.
My first destination in Cambodia was the capitol city of Phnom Penh, which I decided to reach through Siem Reap, stopping for the night and then finishing the trip the following morning. Getting to Siem Reap was quite an adventure, pushing through a shady tourist ticket that passed us off from one to another, always to a vehicle of less quality than the previous one. The final 8 hour leg of the journey was spent in the back of a pickup truck filled with 20 western tourists, including a set of disgruntled German doctors irritated about the rip-off tickets. After a long trip of swerving to avoid meter-deep potholes, we pulled into the town around 11pm, coated in a thick layer of brown road dust.
The next day's bus journey was much more pleasant. I arrived in Phnom Penh and connected with my friend and former EMU biology professor, Doug Graber-Neufeld, who is working with MCC. I was brought to the MCC guesthouse, introduced the rest of the staff and enjoyed some time to relax and recover from the long trip south.
The next few days in Phnom Penh were spent hanging out with MCC and Doug's family during the Water Festival holiday (Bon Om Tuk) and visiting the Tuol Sleng museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, both reminders of the tragedy of the Cambodian genocide.
The Water Festival is one of the largest in the Cambodian culture, celebrating the reversal of the Tonle Sap river with the finality of the monsoon rains. One of the festivities for this holiday is a large scale race with over 390 long, skinny and furiously rowed boats down the river while the banks are backed with spectators. One evening Doug, Cristina and I went down to the river to observe the final trials at dusk as the celebration turned into a fireworks show with authentic floating 'parade floats' coming up the river. The combination of all of this in a town fair-like atmosphere was quite impressive.
The genocide in Cambodia is one that is not generally known to the rest of the world. During the late 70's, the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot were responsible for a total of somewhere between 1-2 million deaths, killing up to a quarter of the country's population. The deaths were often caused by extensively brutal torture or crude objects such as shovels and blunt bamboo sticks carefully aimed at a person's neck. These murders were intended to be the means of purifying the communist ideals within the country's population. This process especially targeted those who were the greatest threat to the sustaining the oppressive system, those who were educated and had culturally diverse background.
Doug and I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh one day, which was a high school before the takeover of the city. Under Pol Pot, it became known as the S-21 prison where 'spies' were taken and tortured into giving 'confessions.' If this process didn't kill the prisoners, they were taken to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, a short pickup truck's ride away, where a mass grave with a total of 8985 bodies has been discovered. Only a few prisoners from S-21 survived the horrific process.
When I emailed Doug about coming to Cambodia a few months ago, he invited me to run a half marathon with him at Angkor Wat, which conveniently happened to be during the very time that fit my schedule to visit. And my response to his invitation was my usual, "Why not?... Sounds like fun." So after Phnom Penh, Doug's family, myself, and the Groff family made our way back to Siem Reap to visit the Temples of Angkor and run the big race.
The Temples of Angkor are Cambodia's largest tourist attraction. I won't go into a lot of the details here about their history, as you can find some of it in Eric's previous blog on Southeast Asia. I spent one day on a bicycle exploring the temple complex, impressed by the breadth of the place and the huge trees which seemed to be taking over some of the temples. This day also gave me a good opportunity to scope out the race course and get my bearings for what was ahead of me.
It's difficult to really train for something like this while you are traveling and not in a routine. I did my best in Kathmandu and Bangkok to get out and run, but dodging unpredictable traffic pattens and breathing city smog made an afternoon run not as attractive of an activity as it would be on a back country road in Virginia. But I did a little preparation, not nearly as much as I had originally planned to, but yet enough to give it a try when the time came.
The race was 21k of beautiful roads creating a loop around the Temples of Angkor, starting and finishing right at the entrance to Angkor Wat, the most famous and massive temple of the complex. A lot of the runners were ex-pats either working for Cambodian NGOs or tourists passing through, but there were also a handful of locals in the mix. Overall, the race went well and was a lot of fun, and I finished an exact minute ahead of my goal time of two hours, pushing through a few semi-painful kilometers at the end.
So after a day of sore legs and spending a final afternoon with the Graber-Neufelds, I took the long bus ride back to Bangkok the following morning. Luckily, I was able to hitchhike in from the border with two journalists, one from Kentucky and the other from Perth, cutting a few hours off the journey. The next morning Eric and I met in that touristy Khao San road, once again together after nearly four months apart.
We spent a day or so recovering from our respective journeys (Eric had just come up from Indonesia), and then caught an overnight bus to Chiang Mai. We've passed our days here with a lot of conversations at the same Japanese restaurant, testing the palatability of the locally fried insects, and contemplating whether we have the energy to make the tourist trek up to visit the long-neck hill tribe (So far all we could muster up was the effort to buy a photograph of two long-neck children). Naturally our conversations have turned towards what is ahead more than exploring touristy Thailand to the point of exhaustion.
So I hope conclusions are not what you had in mind from my final blog post before flying to the United States, because if they are to come, it will be at a later time. Last night I brainstormed up a list of things that I am excited about in relation to returning to America, so that may give a few insights into some of our conversations this week.
(in no particular order)
Things I am looking forward to in the US:
- Not carrying my passport and money belt at all times
- Toilets that really flush
- Water that I can trust to drink
- Not carrying toilet paper
- Speaking American English
- Deeper Conversations
- Not primarily communicating through written media (Internet, email, etc.)
- Wearing more than two shirts
- Mom's home cooking, especially the desserts
- My bicycle
- Catching up with old friends
- Machine washing my clothes for the first time in five months
- High Speed Internet and my own computer & my new pirated software from Bangkok
- Intelligent humor
- Seeing how much junk I've sent home over the last year
- Sleeping in the same bed for more than a few days
- Regular exercise
- A dirty Chanellos pie with Josh Miller
- Breyers Coffee Ice Cream
- The portions of Truck Stop Dinners
- Catching up on the music and movies from the past 14 months
- Listening to my music
- Seasons and the lack of humidity in winter
- Graduate School and where ever that is
- Continuing the vision of this trip through practical applications
Continue reading "To Cambodia and Beyond"
The next time I write I'll be in California ready to make the long and final road trip to PA. My plan is to arrive back at home sometime during the week before Christmas.
November 21, 2005
Tsunamis for Peace?
In my previous journal entry for this site, I painted a somewhat bleak picture of the rebuilding process in Banda Aceh. Relief work is a challenging, time-consuming process, and in most situations the needs far outnumber the available resources. At various points during the last month, I felt that my efforts were small and insignificant in the broader scope of things. Can I really feel good about building one house, while thousands of other families remain homeless... and probably will remain so for many more months?
It is inevitable that these kinds of questions will arise. Several years ago, while working at a mental health care facility in PA, I found myself battling a similar attitude. Like disaster relief, in the field of mental health there are very few "quick fixes." For every sucess story, there are countless other examples of patients who despite months and months of intense therapy, still fail to show any significant signs of improvement. When the same client is admitted onto the unit for the 5th time in a month, who wouldn't doubt whether their carefully invested time and energy is really making a difference? It is no coincidence that on my particular unit in the hospital, the rate of employee turnover was under one year...
There are many ways that people chose to deal with these feelings of hopelessness and discouragement. Some of my coworkers chose to drown them in the bottle after work. A few days ago, I was listening to a UN-sponsored radio program for NGO volunteers in Banda Aceh. This exact topic was being discussed, and several callers talked about the importance of getting a massage and manicure every few days, or treating themselves to a weekend of relaxation on the beach. It is true, people in demanding circumstances such as these need to make self-care a priority, or risk falling into an unhealthy state themselves. Yet there are positives to be found even in the most devastating of circumstances. Sometimes it feels a bit like looking for the proverbial "needle in a haystack" and the easiest option is to simply pronounce the entire endeavour useless. But the rewards are always there, even if we can't see them right away, or they develop where we least expect them. Now an example.
For the past 30 years, the province of Aceh has been the scene of a relentless and brutal conflict. Occupying one of the furthermost corners of the 18,000-island Indonesian archipelago, Aceh was never part of the Dutch colonial empire. When independence was declared in 1949, Aceh was lumped together with the rest of the Indonesian empire, much to the regret of many of the local people. In 1976, the Free Aceh Movement (G.A.M.) was born, and chose to pursue their seperatist ideals in a militant uprising against the Indonesian state. Of course Indonesia, unwilling to see a province with high deposits of natural gas and other resources become independent, launched a massive counter-attack.
The guerrila-style tactics used by G.A.M rebels and the intimidating campaigns of the military left many civilians caught in the middle. In 2002, a failed peace attempt between the two sides resulted in all-out martial law being imposed on the province. All foreign journalists and tourists were denied entry into Aceh, and troops by the thousands poured in. Details are sketchy about what really happened during those years of military isolation, but it is estimated that over 17,000 people lost their lives. And there seemed to be no solution in sight.
Then in late 2004, the tsunami hit. Within days, the province was opened to the world. Foreign representatives, journalists, and aid workers poured into the already troubled region. A temporary cease-fire was soon announced, and both sides made committments to allow much-needed aid to reach the survivors. Finally in August, with the assistance of a Monitoring Team from the E.U., a peace deal was signed which has resulted in thousands of troops leaving the province, and periodic collections of weapons from G.A.M rebels.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether peace will last in the region. Many international observers, however, remain optimistic. The present conditions in this particular area of conflict are ideal for establishing a lasting peace. First, the presence of the international press and aid workers has created an atmosphere of transparency and openess that has never been seen before in the region, and will mostly likely last for a substantial amount of time. In addition, the devastation caused by the tsunami has placed a necessary priority on rebuilding and aid work, and the government has been focusing much of its energy in those areas. And finally, the overwhelming majority of the population simply want peace. The past year has brought so much unexpected trauma and suffering, and the thought of struggling through even more turmoil because of an unneccessary conflict is the last thing the people want. While at one point the G.A.M. rebels received overwhelming support within the province, it seems that the tsunami disaster has brought a fresh perspective to many of Aceh's citizens. Tired of the suffering, they are ready for a change.
Am I suggesting that the tsunami was a good thing? Not exactly. It remains a most unfortunate and sorrowing incident that destroyed the lives of thousands. There is no escaping that aweful reality. However, there comes a point where one must begin to look for positives. We can spend the rest of our lives pleading the "why" question before God, but still receive no answers. In these situations, the problem lies not in God's inability to answer, but in our limited perspective. Even in an endless field of despair, there are always seeds of change and new life, waiting patiently for the right circumstances with which to emerge. Sometimes we catch glimpses of them, at other times we just have faith that they are there.
As we all know, the world around us is changing at a sometimes dizzying pace. Political agendas, natural disasters, and an explosion of technology across the planet are affecting even the remotest corners of the globe. Several weeks ago a devastating earthquake hit Pakistani-administered Kashmir, another isolated region of intense violence and conflict. Because of the destruction of many homes in the region, citizens are now at risk of freezing in the cold Himalayan winter. The situation has turned desperate, and it seems that even the bitter rivalry between the Pakistani and Indian governments is being put aside for the moment. Just yesterday, the governments cooperated for the second time in briefly opening up the border, so that family members on either side could visit relatives stranded just across the U.N. Line of Control. And in the past week, both goverments have made cautious appeals for a lasting peace. As was the case in Aceh, it seems that unfortunate circumstances are now opening doors of opportunity that had previously been closed for decades.
On Saturday evening, I said goodbye to my group of friends at Frontiers. It has been a most fulfilling month, complete with all the challenges and joys that come with living together in close community. And full of lots of internal processing about service work and our role in emulating Christ's example within the global community. On the same day that I left Banda Aceh, two of the Frontiers staff members were leaving for Pakistan, where they plan to assist another group of volunteers in trekking to some remote mountain villages to distribute emergency shelters. Had I not already bought flight tickets home in a few weeks (and depleted my budget for the trip!), I probably would have accepted their invitation to join them...
In the past two days I have spent more hours on a bus than off a bus. But just this morning I finally arrived back in Bangkok, where I intend to meet Dave at a guesthouse on Khao San in a few minutes. It has been four months since we've traveled together, and I think we are both looking forward to concluding this trip in the way that we started it. We have talked about going north to Chang Mai, but we'll see what happens. After Dave flies home on 2 Dec, I plan to make a brief visit to Laos before my return on 17 Dec.
November 09, 2005
Goodbye to Nepal
Since returning from the Everest Trek, I honestly haven't been too busy. My first goal was to recover and relax a little, starting out in the town of Pokhara, just south of the Annapurna mountain range and to the west of Kathmandu. I was still undecided at this point whether to try to fit in another trek, and after a few days relaxing out by the lake in Pokhara, I made my final decision not to try it, as it would have been an intense hike to fit into my schedule.
In Pokhara I coincidentally ended up at the same hotel as Nir, and Israeli friend I had hiked with in the Everest region. We spent a week in Pokhara reading, relaxing and just hanging out around town. I often went for an afternoon run up around the north end of the lake, out of the tourist region of the town. Looking back, it's probably best that I didn't begin a trek in the Annapurnas because a big snowstorm would have stranded me along with the 400 other trekkers for a few days near Manang. The same storm also took the lives of 17 French climbers and Sherpa porters attempting one of the peaks in the region.
I returned to Kathmandu and decided to hang around until my Uncle Galen would be passing through on a trip at the beginning of November. I hadn't seen a familiar face during the last 3 months and the thought of getting to spend some time with a family member was a wonderful treat. So I decided to wait there until he arrived, then head off to Calcutta overland.
While in Kathmandu, I spent a lot of time (again) doing nothing to adventurous, continuing with the running and reading and meeting new friends. I happened to meet four other friends for the Everest trek during this time including Pat, Matt & Tim who had recently came back from a tour in Tibet. After three months of a vegetarian diet, I decided to start eating a little meat again when we went to the Everest Steak house one night, where the menu offers huge steaks for about $3!
I also had the privilege of getting to know some of the local shop owners in Thamel, especially one family who ran one near my hotel. Nepal has a festival about every other week, and one evening they invited me a night of dancing out in the courtyard between their houses. During this festival the streets were decorated with "Christmas" lights and everyone was excited about the events going on around them... I felt honored to be at the party, meeting more local families and neighborhood leaders.
As the time approached to connect with Galen, I met Steve from Conestoga, PA, who was spending some time in Nepal helping out local church efforts. We spent a few days together, both happy to meet someone new and to talk some American English. On Saturday morning we went to a Nepali church in the Kathmandu valley and had the opportunity to meet some more local people.
I spent a wonderful evening with Galen and his friend Steve from India and then headed off the next day for Calcutta by land. I was mainly going to Calcutta to save money on a flight to Bangkok, but I also had a personal interest in seeing the city that my parents had visited for the Mennonite World Conference in 1997. I knew the overland route might be painful, but the rewards would make it the right decision.
So on Sunday night, I began my last long haul of this year-long journey. I left Kathmandu on an overnight bus, arriving at the border early morning. The bus was a little behind schedule (which is not usual) and I almost missed the train to Calcutta. Luckily I met a female traveler from Hong Kong who was able to go in the shorter women's line and buy us two tickets. I usually take second class sleeper cars, but today they were full, meaning the only way to get to Calcutta without waiting 24 hour for the next train was to sit on hard, wooden benches for the next 20.
All in all, it was definitely worth it, costing me only $7 to make the entire 36-hour journey from Kathmandu to Calcutta to save $100 on a flight and getting a quick glimpse of a new city. I've spent the last two days here walking around, struck by the many colonial remnants of the British presence here and the sporadic churches and missionary schools, which didn't seem at this density in the places I had traveled through in northern India. I also had a brief visit to Mother Theresa's orphanage, which was a highlight of my time here.
Tomorrow I will fly to Bangkok and after spending a few days there, head over for Cambodia where I will connect with some friends and run the half marathon on November 20th. And then in two more weeks after that I'll fly to LAX.
November 06, 2005
Living Like a Refugee
On the morning of 26 December 2004, the biggest earthquake in 40 years struck unexpectedly off the coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The shifting of tectonic plates miles beneath the ocean?s surface triggered a massive displacement of water, and a series of giant waves began to spread rapidly across the Indian Ocean. Within a half hour, the tsunami?s 20-50 foot waves completely engulfed the coastal areas of northern Sumatra. As millions of people around the world were wrapping up Christmas celebrations with family and friends, this unexpected series of events left 232,000 people dead and many more without food, water, and shelter.
At the time, I was enjoying a relaxing evening at the home of a missionary couple in Cusco, Peru. Internet reports were still sketchy, but it seemed that this disaster would have a substantial long-term impact on that part of the world. Although Indonesia was not in my travel plans at the time, over the course of the next months I kept considering the possibility of visiting the affected areas, and volunteering for a longer period of time.
Exactly 10 months after the tsunami hit, I arrived in Aceh (pronounced ?ahh-chey?). Although coastlines across the region were affected, the northern capital city of Banda Aceh was by far dealt the hardest blow. On my first afternoon here, I spent several hours walking around the neighborhood where I would be working. Once a fairly wealthy area of town, nearly every house was now reduced to rubble. In many cases, only the foundations remain, which serve as a convenient, cleared area for residents to pitch their UN-issued refugee tents. Others, unwilling to give up so easily, are still living amidst their half-destroyed walls, with scraps of tin placed overhead to keep the rain out. And still others had long since left the area, the constant reminder of their loss too much to bear.
Walking around that day, the burden of what I was seeing was almost too much. I had only arrived a few hours earlier, but had already heard a handful of heartbreaking stories from the welcoming residents. A young teenager who had been swept away by the wave, miraculously survived by clinging to a tree, and returned to his home to find the rest of his family dead. Another middle-aged man who saw the wave coming, managed to find safety, and now lives in a make-shift shelter with his one remaining family member, a 6 yr old son. This is a city where 90,000 people lost their lives, so everyone has a story. And those that did manage to survive often found that they had lost everything else. All within several hours on an otherwise normal Sunday morning.
After a disaster of such magnitude, it is clear that the people of Banda Aceh needed (and still need) outside help. But what is the best way to help people in situations like this? Where do you begin? In what has been described as one of the most massive relief efforts of the century, supplies began to pour in and various NGO?s from around the world began to converge on the province of Aceh. Each with its own area of expertise, they quickly began to provide clean drinking water, distribute food, set up temporary shelters, etc. Although the aid that was provided was absolutely essential, the process was unfortunately fraught with miscommunication, corruption, and insensitivity to the local community. Not doubt the coordination required for such an effort is immensely challenging. Yet many Acehnese still talk sadly about the crates of donated relief supplies that remain at ports in Jakarta and Medan, stalled indefinitely by political bureaucracy and mismanagement.
After communication with several different groups involved with relief work in Aceh, I was connected with a Korean agency called Frontiers. It is a small, Christian organization that focuses on peacebuilding, particularly in areas of natural disaster. One of the projects that they are working on currently is the construction of a ?Peace House? for orphans and the handicapped of the community. Our team of volunteers consists of around a dozen people, from Indonesia, East Timor, Korea, Germany, and the United States (myself). Like the other organizations offering assistance here, it is a far from perfect program. Communication is often challenging, the vision feels at times vague, and progress is painstakingly slow. But overall it feels like a good fit.
Frontiers takes a different approach to relief work than many other NGO?s. Based on a biblical example, they make it a priority to live in community with the people they are serving. For our work in Aceh, this means living in similar conditions to those that have lost everything from the tsunami. At night, we sleep on wooden platforms in a cramped UN refugee tent, slapping persistently at mosquitos. Meals are prepared over a small portable stove and quickly devoured while sitting in a circle on the floor. Like our neighbors, we retrieve drinking water from the large orange tanks provided by the government of Kuwait. And after a hot day of work, water is drawn from the well and an awkward bucket bath follows. The conditions are definitely challenging. Meanwhile, looking down the street I can see a caravan of shiny black SUV?s, each representing different international relief organizations, returning to their nice offices in the suburbs.
In only two weeks of being here, I can already notice the benefits of such an approach. While locals refer to some of the other NGO?s with a certain degree of contempt and suspicion, it seems that our name is widely respected within the community. The people here don?t need internationals to come and flaunt their wealth, reminding them yet again of what they don?t have. They don?t need shortsighted visions for rebuilding, that throw money around and then within a few weeks are gone. What the locals here desire is solidarity; people who are willing to come live with them, listen to them, and work with them. Relief work is more than providing emergency supplies and meeting immediate needs. It is a long, painstaking process.
In the past year, I have had the opportunity to meet a variety of missionaries, service workers, and other internationals living in communities around the world. In conversations with these committed individuals, several themes have begun to emerge. In most situations, I find that what is lacking within mission and service organizations around the world is not financial resources, or more opportunities for locations to serve. We life in a suffering world with countless needs, and certainly it takes money to fund the ambitious programs that are needed. But the vast majority of the time, the missing ingredient is quite simply found in the human resources department. It?s easy to find people able to open a checkbook. What?s not so common are people who are willing to make other forms of sacrifice, particularly when they involve a longer term commitment.
In many ways this seems an appropriate way to wrap up the trip. I will not say that living in these conditions has been particularly easy, particularly at first. Yet during the past year, I have witnessed people in many countries living their entire lives under similar circumstances, and it is only fitting that I should experience it as well. To be completely honest, with each passing day I find the conditions of life here a little easier to handle. Gradually, life is reduced to the things that are truely important, and I'm finding that the list is much smaller than I once thought. Food, shelter, relationships, faith... Beyond the basics, contentment becomes entirely a state of mind.
Progress on the orphange is slowly coming along. Last week we had a ribbon-cutting cermony for the new toilets, and our current focus is on the wooden paneling that covers the interior. Taking it one step at a time, I am constantly reminded of the need to focus on the process, as opposed to structural perfection or approaching deadlines. Without a doubt, there are easier ways to build a house, and living conditions that are far more comfortable. But I remain grateful for the challenges of this experience, and the learning opportunities that it has provided.
My current plan is to spend approximately two more weeks here in Banda Aceh, and then take a ferry to Malaysia and back up to Thailand. Around the end of the month, it looks as though my path will cross with Dave's again, and we hope to spend a week or so together before his flight back to the U.S. It will be good to swap stories, reflect on the adventures of the past year, and support each other in anticipation of the return home. Which believe it or not, is now little more than a month away...
October 24, 2005
I met Gama quite unexpectedly at the bus stop. If I didn?t have a lost and confused look on my face, I certainly should have. My destination was Bukittinggi, a sleepy town high in the mountains about two hours away by public bus. According to the hotel manager, getting there was easy. Just wait on the curb for a red mini-bus to come along, take it to the main bus terminal, and board any bus heading north on the Trans-Sumatran highway. Sounded simple enough, but after a half-hour of waiting, I still hadn?t advanced past the first step. With deepening frustration, I watched every other color of mini-bus go flying by, with happy Indonesians stuffed inside and sometimes spilling out the door. But none of them were red.
That?s when Gama showed up. With a bit of hesitation, he shyly introduced himself and asked if I needed help. Very few Indonesians speak English, and his was by far the best I had heard yet. I immediately let out a short breath of relief, and explained my situation. With an eager grin spreading across his face, he said that he had some free time, and would be glad to show me an easier way to get to Bukittinggi. Being an English teacher, he explained that he was always looking for opportunities to practice his English. So we spent the next hour walking across town to a different transportation terminal, talking as we went. Upon arrival, I thanked him for his help, and we exchanged emails before going our separate ways.
Less than 24 hours earlier I had arrived in the bustling city of Padang, on the western coast of Indonesia?s largest island, Sumatra. My flight from Singapore took off in the midst of a downpour, and was one of those bumpy, make-you-wanna-hurl amusement park rides that seem to go on forever. But within an hour, the plane dropped out of the clouds and smoothly touched down at a quiet airport along the beach. The three-room terminal was surrounded by beautiful palm trees, and in the distance I could see the peaks of a rugged, volcanic mountain range rising from the plain. Indonesia looked truly exotic, and I was eager to explore. I spent only a night in Padang, just long enough to wander the marketplace, attend a church service, and make preparations for my journey north.
Bukittinggi has been a popular backpacker destination for a long time. It is surrounded by a ring of majestic volcanoes, and has a surprisingly cool climate nearly all year round. This year, however, the tourists are virtually nonexistent. Last year?s devastating tsunami, coupled with the recent bombings in Bali, have effectively wiped Indonesia right out off the tourist map. All the hotels in town stood empty, and many travel agencies I talked to where struggling desperately to keep their doors open. It is a sad situation, given the absolute beauty of the region and the overwhelming warmth of the Indonesian people.
I ended up spending about three days in Bukittinggi. Sitting on the balcony of my hotel room, I spent the mornings reading through Yann Martel?s Life of Pi, and got started on a James Herriot book that I found for cheap at a local used bookshop. In the afternoon and evening, I often explored around town. It is currently the holy month of Ramadhan, when Muslims are called to devote themselves to personal reflection and strengthening their faith. To this end, they must refrain from eating, drinking, and having sexual relations from sunrise to sunset. With over 90 percent of the population in Indonesia being Muslim, the fasting is strictly observed. All restaurants, including the western fast-food chains, are required to close their doors from sunrise to sunset. Which effectively means that travelers such as myself are observing Ramadhan as well! For good reason, most of the locals take life at a slower place during this month, and so there were plenty of opportunities for simple conversation with people relaxing in the park or strolling through the streets.
It was on my third day in Bukittinggi, just as I was feeling an urge to get moving again, that I got an email from Gama. It came as a bit of a surprise. Although I often exchange email addresses with people along the way, it is rare that the correspondence is actually kept up, particularly after such a short encounter. In his email, Gama personally invited me to return to Padang, stay at his house for a few days, and meet his family and friends. And since it was Ramadhan, there were many special traditions that he was excited to share with me, if I had the time. Since I was heading north, returning to Padang would mean several hours of backtracking, and possibly a few days lost that I could have seen something new. But after reflecting on my current lack of enthusiasm for ?touristy travel? and pondering some of the goals that this trip was established for, it all became quite clear in my head. I quickly responded to his email, telling him that I was very excited about coming.
I arrived back in Padang on Friday afternoon, and Gama was waiting for me at the place where we had said goodbye only a few days earlier. He assured me that everything was in place for my visit, and that I would be very welcome in his home. Since his family actually lives in another town, Gama lives with his aunt and cousins while taking classes at the university in Padang. We took the bus across town to his aunt?s house, where I met much of his extended family. After a short nap, Gama informed me of the plan for the evening. First, we were invited to the home of two of his English students, where we would break the fast together with their family. Afterwards, we would walk around town and explore the lively street scene. Then, at 9pm, I was to be the guest star on a local call-in radio program for teenagers. I was a little unsure of how everything would play out (particularly that last part), but was sure that it would be an entertaining evening.
In every Muslim home during this time of year, a piece of paper is hung in a prominent location listing the precise times of sunrise and sunset. When we arrived at the home of Desi Puspita, Devi Safitri, and Deva Sabrina (his students), there were still several minutes remaining until we could break the fast, so we sat around making introductions and practicing English. At the moment of sunset, the father of the family summoned us all to the table, where a tray of delicious sweets and fruits lay waiting. It is tradition to break the fast with something sweet, and we all hungrily dug in. Following this tasty appetizer, everyone made their way single-file to the bathroom, where each washed their hands and feet, and then retreated to their bedrooms for prayer. Within a few minutes, all had returned to the living room, and we all sat down on the floor to eat a delicious spread of rice, fish, chicken, vegetables, and more sweets. I thought that I can sometimes eat a lot, but on this occasion there was no need for embarrassment! Everyone around me was using their hands to shovel scoops of delicious food into their mouths, and I joined in the fun.
The streets outside were a maze of commotion. Food vendors on three-wheeled bicycle carts dodged between the lines of traffic, eyes scanning the crowds for someone needing nourishment. The restaurants were packed, with the latecomers being told to come back later when seats would be available. Walking around the town that evening, I was quick to note the drastic change from the lazy, relaxed atmosphere of only a few hours ago. On our way to the radio station, we walked past the massive mosque at the center of town, its minaret a glow of florescent light. Inside, hundreds of people were kneeling in prayer, their muffled words of supplication floating out through the windows and door into the street beyond.
Every Friday night, the government radio station in Padang does a ?Guest-Star? program, which has proved particularly popular among the youth of the city. Although usually determined by chance the night of the show, Gama had made some sort of previous arrangement with the DJ, and I was already set to be the guest-star. It was an appointment that I accepted with some hesitation, given (among other things) my very limited vocabulary of the Indonesian language. But Gama came on the air with me, and with his translation the show went along quite well. Throughout the course of two hours, we accepted callers from all over the city, covering topics such as American culture, my perceptions of Indonesia, politics, music, relationships, and so on. Once I settled into the flow of the show, I actually enjoyed myself quite a bit, and even learned a few new Indonesian words courtesy of my helpful audience. My confidence about how things were going was personally called into question only once, when a caller requested that a song be played by the band Green Day. Without missing a beat, the DJ mercilessly cued up the song ?American Idiot.? He later assured me that it was all in fun, and I guess I?ll choose to believe him.
After a short night of sleep, I awoke with the rest of the household at 4am the following morning. With light just beginning to creep over the horizon, we ate our breakfast together in silence. Everyone seemed to know that this meal needed to take them through the entire day, and treated it with due respect and seriousness. Once the prayers were completed, we all piled back into our beds and slept for a few more hours. This Ramadhan thing sure creates an awkward and unnatural routine. Despite not feeling a personal commitment to it, I cannot help but respect the discipline and dedication that it demands.
We woke up for the second time, and Gama asked if I would like to see around his university. Sounded interesting to me, and so for the next few hours we walked around the large campus. Classes were out of session for Ramadhan, but I did get to see some of the buildings and enjoyed the nice view looking down over the city. I was amazed at how quickly the time passed, and before long we were back at the house to pack my bags and say goodbye. After months of travel, I tried to think back to the last time I took the time to develop a relationship like that with someone from the country I was in. It had been too long, and in that recognition I began to unravel some of the discontentedness I?ve been feeling recently about traveling.
A 25-hour bus ride later, I am now in the congested city of Medan. From here, it is another overnight bus journey north to the northern tip of Sumatra and the coastal town of Banda Aceh. Quite frankly, I am tired of buses. Now more than a year since starting this journey, I have been on more than I care to remember. And of course the endless process of figuring out where I am, where I want to go, and how to get there consumes more time and energy that one would initially realize. With that perspective, the prospect of staying in one place for awhile and settling into a community becomes a very attractive thing indeed. My recent experience with Gama has also reaffirmed my need for a change. Once again, I?m finding that it?s time to get off the beaten path, start developing meaningful relationships, and get involved in serving the world.
As I mentioned in my previous journal, I have been connected with a Christian organization called The Frontiers that is doing tsunami relief work in Banda Aceh. They are currently working to build an orphanage for children affected by the disaster, and have responded enthusiastically to my offers to help out. It is exciting to see my needs and the local needs coming together, and I anticipate a very rewarding experience. Although in a few hours I?ll be getting on yet another bus, I have a feeling my feet won?t be dragging quite as much this time?
October 16, 2005
Top of the World
This journal entry describes a little about my recent trekking expedition up to the Everest Base Camp region in Nepal. I also posted over a 100 photos of the trip in the gallery on this website with captions that go into more detail. There are four sub-albums that can be reached by opening the main one.
My plan was to begin hiking at Jiri, avoiding the $90 flight to Lukla and to make the destinations of the trek the Everest Base Camp (5364m) and Kala Patthar (5550m), the best close-up viewpoint of Mt. Everest. I would then hike back to Jiri and catch a bus to Kathmandu.
When I found out that I had more time than previously expected, I also added a few side trips: one to the Island Peak Base Camp and another that crossed the Cho La Pass (5330m) to the Gokyo region which has five beautiful lakes. I hiked a different route back from Gokyo to Namche Bazaar, mixing up the way back.
Although I began my trip out to the trailhead alone, I soon met a few other hikers in Jiri. A few of us began at the same time, but it was only Francois and I that continued together for nearly the entire route.
Francois, a Quebec native, recently came from a two-year English teaching job in Japan. He had also just spent a month with a Nepali family, volunteering at a local school and during this time learned to speak a decent amount of Nepali. We liked to walk at a similar pace, fast, and went parallel for a while, and then eventually just stuck together until Lukla, where he flew back to Kathmandu and I walked the remaining few days alone. Most of the photos in the gallery that have me in them are taken by him. We're going to get together here in Kathmandu tomorrow before he flies to Hong Kong the following day.
I also met a lot of other hikers and travelers along the trail and we got to know each other as we waited to acclimatize over hot tea and Dal Baht in the lodges at night. Here are some websites of people I met on the trek.
The revolutionary militant Communist group controlling most of the hill
country of Nepal is known as the Maoists. This group has been
responsible for acts of terrorism over the past few years and has had a
devastating effect on tourism, one of the country's main sources of
The situation is currently safe; Maoists do not seem to be physically harming tourists, but they have been "taxing" them when them pass through their areas of control. Last year the charge was 1000 Nepali rupees ($15) for the popular trekking routes. Unfortunately this year for some reason, the rate has been raised to 5000 ($75).
This is a lot of money for a budget traveler like myself, so I was
bound to do what I could not to pay this sum, which would most likely
to go buy more weapons for the militant group. Fortunately, a lodge
owner tipped us off where the collecting check post was in our route,
near Bhandar. She told us to take another route down to the river,
hopefully avoiding needing to pay. We were successful! On the way
back, I took a wider detour and avoided the town of Bhandar altogether,
getting out without paying anything. The majority of the trekkers I talked to paid somewhere between 2000 and 5000, as the price seemed a little negotiable with some bargaining.
The Sherpas & Trekking Tourism
Nepal is a mosaic of distinct ethnic groups and present in the Everest region are the Sherpas. Famous for their ability to cope with high altitudes and the associated mountaineering success, these people have also found a good business in trekking tourism. Unfortunately the Maoist presence has reduced the number of trekkers greatly, especially at the lower altitudes before Lukla, where it is possible to fly into and avoid the areas of Maoist control. For me this was a mixed blessing, as I enjoyed this area relatively free from tourists, especially the ones that pack like 25kg and then make a poor Sherpa porter drag it up the mountains for them...
Two times along the trail I remember being amazed at the Sherpas' ability to carry heavy loads up into the thin air. One was as we were coming over a pass and met a woman possibly 80 years old wearing a huge backpack that probably weighed more than her. Another is when we passed a group of men carrying pieces of a disassembled pipeline (there's a photo of this in the gallery).
One of my fears going into this trek was how I would deal with the
altitude with a past history of asthma. Everyone's body reacts a
little differently to the decrease in air pressure and oxygen content,
and the only way to find out is to get up there.
All of the altitudes I have indicated in the photos are in meters, the way the rest of the world sees it. If you would like to do a rough conversion, just multiply the number by 3 and then add a little. The
exact conversion is: 1m = 3.28ft.
The key to success in getting to higher altitudes is to take is slowly, sleeping no more than 300m higher each night. It's fine to hike higher during the day, only the subsequent sleeping heights matter. So this means a lot of waiting on a trek like this one. After Namche Bazar, I could have walked the whole way to Everest Base Camp in a day, but instead needed to take six days to allow my body to produce enough red blood cells to function well at decreased oxygen levels.
Around 4300m, I had my blood oxygen saturation checked and found it to
be 89%, right at the top of the normal range for this altitude. At the highest altitude of the trek (Kala Patthar, 5550m), the amount of oxygen present in the air is half of what it is at sea level. On the top of Mt. Everest (8848m), this drops to one third. So overall, I did quite well with the higher altitudes, which was a relief to me to know that I can now do it in the future, if I take my time.
Another one of my goals for this trip was to get a glimpse of bigger scale mountaineering. The trips out to Island Peak base camp and talking to other climbers gave me a little idea of what this scene was like in Nepal. One thing I learned is that it is expensive in this country. All peaks above 6000m require a permit to climb, ranging from $200 all the way up to around $10,000 (Everest, of course). The closest that I got to this experience was probably the day we crossed the Cho La Pass, covered in snow and requiring some basically non-technical bouldering to descend. It was one of my favorite days however, and I have to wait to see what that means for future experiences. This was the only time on the trip where I wished I had my mountaineering boots instead of an old pair of running shoes, but I survived.
Pace & Physical Challenge
One of the things I discovered quite clearly on this trip is that my hiking pace is a lot faster than most of the people out there. I was lucky to find Francois and his similar desire to put in long and fast days. Together we completed in 18 days what the travel books describe as taking more than 30. The trip from Gokyo Peak back to Jiri lasted only four days, a time that impressed even the Sherpas.
Besides being how I like to hike, part of the reason I wanted to push the pace for this trip is because I'm planning to run a half-marathon at Angkor Wat in Cambodia with my friend and former EMU biology professor, Doug Graber-Neufeld on November 20th. The trip was a good way to get some intense exercise. I'm just hoping I can keep my RBC count high for the next month! Now I'll have to start running as soon as I am ready to get back on my feet, which honestly still ache a little.
I'll be spending a few days relaxing and recovering in Kathandu, deciding where to go next. I was planning on fitting in the entire Annapurna Circuit, which I believe could be done seeing how fast the Everest Trek went, but I need to decide if that's what I want right now. At the moment, a few good books and a view of the Pokhara Lake also sound attractive. We shall see...
In two or three weeks, I'll return to India to Calcutta, fly to Bangkok and spent the last few weeks in Thailand and Cambodia before flying to Los Angeles and heading back to the east coast of the good old USA.
October 15, 2005
Bangkok to Singapore: 4 Weeks in a Nutshell
Here on the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, I don't have to look around for long to realize that I'm not in India anymore. Houses of rusting concrete and tin have been replaced by towering skyrise apartment buildings of steel and glass. Puttering 3-wheeled rickshaws are now shiny luxury sedans. The winding city streets, once a maze of cows, pedestrians, and vendors, have been transformed into beatifully manicured boulevards lined with palms and flowering orchids. This is the island country of Singapore. The epitome of modernization, it represents a culture of absolute efficiency, cleanliness, and organization.
Although the initial contrasts are stark, the past four weeks of traveling south down the peninsula from Thailand have provided a much more gradual transition. Although countries in Southeast Asia are often simply lumped together as being basically the same, I have found this stereotype to be a shameful misrepresentation. There is a rich diversity here, not only between countries, but even within the borders of each individual nation. The past four weeks have quickly passed, but have left me with a variety of unique experiences and fond memories.
Following our arrival at the airport in Bangkok, Meike and I took an airport bus across town to the traveler's ghetto known as Khao San. I was immediately blown away by the impressive transportation system. Zipping across the city on an elevated highway, I couldn't remember ever traveling this fast, in such a straight line, during my two months in India. It made me uncomfortable, not because of my safety, but because I had this feeling that things were passing by too quickly... I just couldn't take it all in! In reality, we were probably only traveling between 50-60 mph, but it felt like a lot faster.
As Bangkok is the main transportation hub for the region, there are travelers constantly passing through. Although only those looking for a party really end up spending substantial time in Bangkok (sometimes called "Sin-City"), it does serve as a convenient jumping-off point. Which is precisely what Meike and I used it for. We spent a day looking through travel books, consulting with other travelers, catching up on internet, and figuring out the plan. Eventually we decided on first spending a few days in Cambodia, and then traveling south by land through southern Thailand, Malaysia, and eventually Singapore.
Thailand is unique among its southeast Asian neighbors. Never having been occupied by a foreign power or suffering the crippling effects of civil war, Thailand has a history of sucessful unity, which has contributed substantially to its economic growth and stability. It has opened itself to the rest of the world through favorable economic policies and heavily promoting its tourism industry. These factors, including the laid-back welcoming demeanor of the Thai people, make it an easy and enjoyable place to travel. And the food is pretty good too... once you learn how to eat it! On our first evening in Bangkok, I was served a bowlful of noodles and chopsticks. It was a little longer dinner than usual, but since that first night my skills in eating with sticks have gradually improved.
We ended up staying about three days in Bangkok. On a tip from a local school teacher we met on the street, it was discovered that we had arrived in the city at just the right time. He informed us that several of the Buddhist temples around town were open to foreigners on that particular day (which only happens once a year!). So ditching our guidebook, we took his advice and visited a few of the wats (temples) off the traditional tourist path. We were rewarded with an inside look at some of these colorful and serene buildings that dot the city. Aside from visiting wats, we also explored the bazaars of Chinatown, took a ferry down the river, and even splurged on a $3 Thai massage for an hour one afternoon. Eventually, however, cities around the world all seem to feel the same, and I was ready to move on.
If Thailand is a historical sucess story, the only way to describe Cambodia is absolute tragedy. In the early years, Cambodia was at the heart of the mighty Khmer empire, by far the most dominant in the history of the region. Centered in the city of Angkor, the Khmers developed extensive irrigation systems, built magnificent temples, and managed to retain control of their territory from the 7th to 13th centuries. However, subsequent invasions by the Thais and Vietnamese left the Khmer empire in shambles, and Angkor was abandoned. Eventually, the French took control of modern-day Cambodia in 1864, but preferred to invest in the development of resource-rich Vietnam, leaving Cambodia much on its own. With very little opposition, Cambodia was granted its independence in 1953.
Shortly after, Cambodia was dragged into a conflict it wanted nothing to do with, and things turned ugly. In its bid to free the region from the "threat of Communism", the U.S. was undergoing secret bombing campaigns throughout Cambodia to root out Vietnamese communists crossing over the border. As is always the case, the innocent villagers suffered the most, many of them being driven from their homes and losing precious family members and property. Caught in the middle, many Cambodians (already with an intense distrust of the Vietnamese), decided to side with the Americans, believing that they would eventually fulfill their promises to defeat the Vietnamese.
As we all know, this isn't what happened. Two weeks before the fall of Saigon to the communists, the U.S. withdrew its forces from Cambodia, and the country plunged into total chaos. Out of the created vacuum emerged the Khmer Rouge, led by their brutal dictator Pol Pot. Under his initiative to create a Marxist, peasant-dominated state, he ordered the massacre of thousands of the educated, "free-thinking" elite. And in the meantime, thousands more of the poorest Cambodians died as a result of famine and forced labor. It was one of the most radical and brutal revolutions in history, and nearly two million Cambodians died within those four years of Khmer Rouge tyranny. Eventually the Khmer's were overthrown by an invasion by Vietnam communists, and Pol Pot and his followers fled to the hills. Their guerilla war against the Vietnamese continued through the 80's, backed by indirect support from none other than the USA.
Walking along the potholed streets of Cambodia, the effects of war are still very much present. Many people hobble around on crutches, or sit silently along the sidewalks, having lost limbs from stepping on landmines and other unexploded ordinance. There is also a deep distrust of foreign involvement, an obvious reaction to feeling used and then alienated by the U.S. during the Vietnam era. Corruption runs rampant, particularly within the newly established democratic government, hungry for votes and a tighter control over the emerging economy. Tourism is viewed as the savior, and believe me, there is potential there.
In my travels thus far, I have never seen anything quite like the Angkor temples, north of Siem Reap. A magnificent complex stretching for miles through the jungles of northwest Cambodia, it deserves a visit for anyone traveling in this part of the world. Meike and I decided to make the trip from Bangkok in a day, first taking the train to the border, and then a long bus ride to the temples. Unfortunately, corruption has already taken over the tourist business as well, and we ended up buying overpriced tickets for a bus that took an exceptionally long time to get there. On purpose of course, so that when we arrived at Siem Reap late at night, we would stay at the hotel where we were dropped off, and the bus drivers would get a fat commission. Feeling a bit upset by the whole ordeal, Meike and I refused to give in to their little game, and despite the late hour walked around until we found a cheaper hostel in much better condition.
After a day of exploring Siem Reap, we got up early the next morning and spent an entire day at the ancient temples. It is impossible to walk the entire complex in a day, so we rented bicycles, which proved to be an enjoyable way to get around. By far the most stunning temple is Angkor Wat, 55m high and surrounded by a moat of nearly 3 square km. There is no larger religious building in the world, and very few that can match the beauty of its intricate design. Built by Suryavarman II in the 1100's, it was constructed to honor the Hindu god of Vishnu, and also conveniently served as his funerary temple upon his death. We spent over 12 hours exploring the many temples and artifacts around Angkor, yet could certainly have spent much more. The following day, we endured the long bus ride back to Thailand, spent a day recuperating, and then jumped on an overnight bus down to Malaysia.
To me anyway, the country of Malaysia conjures up images of an exotic and mysterious land, far removed from the scope of world politics and international fame. Prior to our arrival, about the only recognizable landmark I could identify from the country were the futuristic Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, for several years the tallest building in the world. Perhaps it was this subtle curiosity about the "unknowns" of the country that led Meike and I to spend more time here than in any other country in Southeast Asia.
What I found in this marvelous country was a peaceful coexistance of a variety of people groups. Native Malays, Chinese, Indians, and indigenous tribes, scattered throughout the country and harmoniously living together. Unlike the tensions that diversity has caused in neighboring countries such as Indonesia, and increasingly now also in Thailand, Malaysians have figured out a way to avoid these clashes in culture and ethnic background. In fact, they are so fully integrated that many people have trouble identifying their unique identity as Malaysians. I would venture that a good place to start would be in their tolerance of diversity.
No place is this heterogeneity more noticeable than on the western coast island of Penang. People from all over the region have been settling on this beautiful island for centuries, and today an equally diverse group of travelers make it their primary destination in Malaysia. Meike and I spent several days in the city of Georgetown, sampling the delicious variety of food available from hawkers roaming the streets at any time of day or night. Upon arrival, our friendly hostel manager informed us that it is impossible to go hungry in Penang, and I would have to agree. And for the first time in months, we could actually drink the tap water, a wonderful convience when brushing teeth, and a blessing to the money belt!
Our next destination in Malaysia were the Perhentian islands, on the opposite side of the peninsula. Not so much authentic local culture there, but definitely plenty of beautiful beaches and sunshine. After some long days on the road, it felt good to relax in one place for awhile, catch up on some reading, and hang out with some fellow travelers. We arrived on Pulau Perhentian Kecil via a 2-hour ferry from the mainland. The monsoon season was soon to come, and so we had no problem finding very inexpensive accomodations on the island. But the weather was still beautiful and the water warm. A highlight from the time on the islands was renting snorkling gear for a day, and getting to swim with a giant sea turtle and a "friendly shark" that was at least as long as I was.
Along with several other travelers from our hostel on the island, we made our next destination the Taman Negara national park, deep in the interior of the peninsula. The most popular way of getting there is via the Jungle Train, which although not the quickest method of travel, does provide a great view of the dense jungle growth along the way. At times, the bamboo and overhanging vines would knock against the side of the passing train car, giving the feeling that we were completely engulfed in the jungle. It then takes an additional 3 hours by boat to reach the Taman Negara park headquarters. Because of a short schedule, we could only afford to stay one night in the park, but had time to do several hours of jungle hiking and go across the world's longest canopy walkway. The park has several popular and inexpensive "hides" scattered around that have bunks for up to 12 people, and are built overlooking a salt lick. Unfortunately, we didn't see much wildlife while in the hide, but did witness an awe-inspiring thunderstorm in the middle of the night.
The capital city of Kuala Lumpur was our final stop in Malaysia. With only a few days until Meike needed to be in Singapore for her flight, we spent a day and a half wandering around the city. Although Malaysia remains a predominantly Islamic country and has regions of strict conservatism, this is generally not the case in KL. It is a city that has welcomed Western industrialization and modernization, which is clearly evident in its staggering skyline. We were fortunate one afternoon to get last-minute free tickets to visit the skybridge of the Petronas twin towers. The towers were completed in 1998 at a cost of $1.9 billion, and until just recently was the tallest building in the world. The unique design was based on an Islamic 8-sided star, and the five tiers represent the 5 pillars of Islam. At the base of the towers is an ultra-modern shopping mall and cinema complex, that as far as I can tell have very little to do with Islam. The following morning, we took a bus down to the southern tip of the Peninsula, and crossed the Strait of Johor into Singapore.
Singapore has long held a reputation as being a sort of "nanny-state." Civil obedience is held in utmost regard. The prime example of this being the mandatory conviction of death for anyone found being involved in drug trafficking. On a lesser degree, even behaviors such as smoking in public, failing to cross the street at a crosswalk, and possession of large quantities of chewing gum can lead to surprisingly hefty fines. While the straightforward orderliness of everything here can be a welcome relief, for travelers such as myself it can also be a bit overwhelming.
Once a part of Malaysia, Singapore also has a richly diverse culture. One of my favorite places to hang out here has been in Little India, where the Bollywood pop music blares from speakers, and the atmosphere is lively and colorful. And of course Indian specialities like masala dosa and all-you-can-eat thali are readily available and reasonably priced. I am currently staying at the cheapest hostel I could find ($9 USD a night!), on a side street of Little India, and rooming with an Indian, two Japanese, and an African. It has been most interesting, but I am ready to move on.
Yesterday marked a major transition on the trip for me. Meike, also on her own around-the-world journey, flew out on a morning flight for Australia. Having traveled together for quite some time, it was sad to see our time together come to an end. But the next two months also present some exciting possibilities. I have been in contact with several organizations in Indonesia about tsunami-related relief efforts. There seem to be some opportunities developing, and the prospect of getting involved on a deeper level in a local community is very exciting.
So after some prayer and further research, my current plan is to head for the island of Sumatra, on the archipelago of Indonesia. Because of the explosion of budget airlines across southeast asia, it is actually cheaper for me to take a flight, instead of a ferry plus bus combinations. I expect to take about two weeks traveling around Sumatra, starting first in the west coast city of Padang, and gradually heading north to Aceh, hopefully to start my volunteer work around the end of the month.
October 14, 2005
Up & Back
Since no one has heard anything from me in the past three weeks, I just wanted to let everyone know that I am safely back from the trek, alive and well. I finished in a lot less time than I expected, so there is space for another one.
I'll be spending a few days (until the 17th) resting and eating well in Katmandu before heading out to trek the Annapurna Circuit.
I'll write more about the hike later.
September 24, 2005
Pre-Everest Base Camp
Hello from Kathmandu, Nepal! It was only about ten days ago that I left the peace and quiet of Dharamsala to travel back through the madness of Delhi to Varanasi, my last destination in India before coming to Nepal. A lot of the time since then has been somewhat uneventful, so I won't go into a lot of detail. It was basically a trip to Nepal with a few stops.
India can be quite chaotic and busy, and for a lot of that last week I just wanted to move on. The Nepali people have been very friendly and honest with me so far, and in India it felt like people were often just friendly, seeing me as a walking ATM machine. You can put up with it for a while, but eventually you just need a break, which meant getting on the road a few days early.
I arrived in Nepal four days ago and have been spending my time preparing for a trek which I will begin tomorrow. About a year ago, when we were planning for this trip, the India was to spend some time hiking the Himalayas, possibly doing one of the larger journeys that last a few weeks. Over the last few weeks, I've been debating over which trip to do, but the decision seemed to settle into the Everest Base Camp Trek.
For those of you who are a little confused, I'm not climbing Mt. Everest. The ultimate destinations will be the base camp (5350m), where climbing expeditions start from and to a nearby viewpoint of Mt. Everest (5545m). The trip should take three to four weeks of walking (round trip), taking most of the month of October. This is the best time of year to take the trek, as the monsoon rains have just finished, the fields are green, and the weather is cool but not freezing. The route climbs up and up into the heart of the Himalayas, through many small villages accessible only by foot and eventually into the Sagarmatha National Park, where Mt. Everest is located.
I've spent a most of the last four days doing research about conditions, supplies, etc, as well as doing some shopping for a few things that I needed. The tourist count is slightly down now in Nepal because of the Maoist situation, but I still expect to see a lot of people on the trail. A lot of people seem drawn to the highest mountain in the world, myself surely included. It will be interesting to meet the kind of people who make this sort of pilgrimage, one that I feel I can identify with in many ways.
So, It looks like I will be out of internet and email contact for the next month. If anyone needs to reach me, you just have to wait a little while...or get back to me in the next couple of hours.
After I get back, I'll spend a few more weeks in Nepal, and then travel back to India to Calcutta to catch a flight for Bangkok. After a few weeks in Thailand and Cambodia, it will be time to come home.
The Essence of India
"Please Ma'am." With a slight bow the Indian doorsman opens the door of the airconditioned jeep. Thanks to Annette's French friend, Danielle, who works as a tour operator in India, we just got an exclusive tour of a luxerious resort at Kovalam Beach in South India. With the words, "Ladies, please take my card" the vice president of sales gives each of us his business card. I'm supposed to act as Danielle's assistant and putting on a professional looking smile, I try to appear interested in the discussions about suite prices, personal servants and check-in at the airport. From the corner of my eye, I take a peek at the card I just received. It says: "The Leela, Kovalam Beach. The Essence of India."
I almost have to start out laughing aloud. Out of the stylish reception hall with a shiny parquet ground, I look through the gigantic open glass doors on a clear swimming pool, whose edge seems to fuse with the open sea beyond. Next to it, Annette, Eric and Arun sit at a table whose discreet decoration on the white table cloth is tastefully done in the same colors as the one in the entrance hall. Eric is looking a little puzzled as a waiter takes the white cloth napkin and puts it on his lap with an elegant swing. Everything here is very aesthetical, elegant, clean and organized.
That must be a joke, calling this -admittedly very tastful ambience- the "essence of India!" All that is within me rebels against this description. The being of India, that which is at the core of this country, is the exact opposite: chaotic, dirty, loud and colorful! At least that is the India that Eric and I have gotten to know and love. And suddenly I am incredibly happy that we travel on a low budget, despite its often being uncomfortable. That we are not brought from an airconditioned airport to an airconditioned hotel by an airconditioned resort cab, always sealed off from the "real India" ....real India with its permanently honking busses, temples with colorful lights and millions of begging untouchables. But that we persitantly bargain prices with rickshaw drivers...... get an often crazy ride to the train station, avoiding pot holes and cows on the way.... make our way through the masses of people sleeping on the station floor.... finally arrive at our reserved seats... and then the adventure may begin.
I just love riding trains in India! After shamelessly staring at us at in the beginning, people pretty fast open up, usually beginning the conversation by the familiar "What is your country, please?" question. And while we learn more about arranged marriages within the same caste (still valid for almost all social groups in India), Hindu gods and people's lives, the vendors from Indian Railways pass by. In an about three minutes' time we can hear in a crescendo and decrescendo: "CHAI COFFEE!" Their deep rasping voices (which seems to be the same all over India) always make me laugh! Their faces brighten to a smile when we accept to buy the sweet beverage in a plastic cup for 4 Rupees (8 cents). Unfortunately all these plastic cups and all the other garbage as well are thrown out of the window into the beautiful countryside. When we try to collect our garbage in a plastic bag we only get uncomprehensive looks from the Indians. What are you planning to do with it? And in some ways they are right.... I sometimes start to doubt whether the word "litter box" even exists in Hindi as the actual thing doesn't seem to exist!
On the 20th of September we will fly from Calcutta to Bangkok. I will be missing India. With all its contrasts and contradictions, "Incredible India" seems to be so full of life! I let my thoughts wonder back at a couple of episodes from this trip:
There are the things that make me laugh: when we buy our train tickets we have to queue up on the counter with the sign saying ?for blind, deaf, cancer, tourist and freedom fighters? (tourists really do have a special status in India, don't they...?) :)
Then there are the things that astonish me: How is it possible that such a chaotic society can have such a huge bureaucracy? Germany, which always seemed the worst to me, seems nothing compared to that! When we check in at a hostel, each of us must besides the passport-and visas data also indicate their fathers name and occupation. Nowhere verifiable and simply totally unnecessarily!!
Moreover there are the things that are hard to get used to: While couples don't display any sort of affection in public (except western oriented cities like Bombay), we can see everywhere men walking holding hands or standing around arm in arm. In India a socially accepted sign for friendship!
There are things that are shocking for me as a German: on the rickshaws, on the door of our hostels, at tempels... everywhere one can find a swastika. For Indians, this symbol apparently has a religious meaning (that I unfortunately have not found out yet...).
And naturally experiences that would shock everyone: On a busy business street in Delhi, on our second day in India, we passed a body lying on the sidewalk and surrounded by flies. In a safe distance stood two policemen recording another man that has literally died in the street overnight.
In the meanwhile, the sales manager has gone and Danielle and I have joined Eric and the others in the restaurant. I have just learned that the cheapest room in the resort cost $200 dollars per night. In my head I'm calculating.... wow, with that amount of money one can easily live for a whole month in India! The bill for the cocunut milk I had ordered amounts to only 2 dollars, but on the street I could get 18 coconuts or two whole meals for that money! Many questions arise, especially when seeing the richest and poorest living so close to each other. How do you deal with poverty? What are the roots of poverty? Is our western style of living partly responsible for this...?
When I process our experiences on the end of this part of the trip and try to come to terms with India, it seems the title of a book written by a BBC correspondent best describes my feelings: "NO FULL STOPS IN INDIA." India leaves behind more question marks than concrete answers. It unsettles the mind. But that's maybe what makes it such a fascinating country.
September 12, 2005
(His)stories: Religion and (Non)violence
India very well may be one of the most diverse countries in the world. It is the home to over one billion people, 1/6th of world, and second in population only to China. There are six major religious groups, 18 major languages, 1600 dialects, and 10 written scripts. Individual states within India are organized according to linguistic and religious boundaries, making the country a mosaic of religion and culture.
India's largest religion is Hinduism, having over 800 million followers and an estimated 333 million gods and goddesses, making the Hindu to god ratio approximately 2.4:1. Islam comes in second, containing 11% of the population, with Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism making up the remaining four. All of these religions have played a role in making India into the diverse state it is today, but not without their share of conflict and revolution.
Yesterday I was reading the newspaper over breakfast and found an article describing recent violence in the Kashmir region of India. A group of Pakistani militants had ambushed an Indian army convoy traveling south on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, killing 5 and injuring 4. The incident occurred in the morning, the same time I had traveled this route about two weeks ago.
Over the past year, this trip has journeyed through many "dangerous" regions of conflict in the world: Colombia, Israel/Palestine, the Balkans, and finally Kashmir. At the end of August, I traveled to Srinagar from Leh on a two day bus journey through the northern Indian Himalayas (literally "abode of snow") into Kashmir, the most conflicted area in India. The region has been relatively calm in the last few years, with occasional spurts of violence directed at military convoys like the one that happened this weekend. I was curious to see this place that is described as one of the most beautiful and volatile in the world, possessing a strong Persian flavor remaining from the days of spice and silk caravans, which had passed through this rich valley.
The city is situated on Dal Lake, and the place to stay while visiting is on a houseboat. Unfortunately, because of the instability of the area, there are way too many houseboats for the number of tourists, so houseboat owners consequently create more conflict trying to get people like me to stay on their boats. During the last two hours of the trip, our bus was bombarded with these middlemen, trying to convince us by any means possible to give them some business. When we finally arrived in Srinagar and got off the bus, we were frantically mobbed by a crowd of houseboat owners, only to be rescued by the local police and pulled into the station. One by one, the houseboat owners were allowed to enter, give their pitch, and then we could make our decision. After a lot of hassle, we finally made it to a houseboat owned by short and strange Ibrahim, tired and exhausted. This initial experience in Srinagar almost made me ready to leave, but after some time had passed, things started to improve.
One of the days in the city, I spent my time with a newfound German friend, Rene, exploring the local culture of the old city. We visited various mosques, talked to local people in their shops, and made a lot of friends. There is a huge Indian military presence in the city for prevention of continued violence, and although very friendly, they do not like having their photo taken... Almost everyone we met was very warm and inviting, reminding me often of the Muslim charm and hospitality that I had experienced in the Middle East. I took many photos this day, and I posted a lot of them in the photo gallery on this website.
It seems that areas of conflict usually have this strength of openness and hospitality, as a knowledge of what really matters develops through the struggle to live through ongoing violence. Culture also often seems to flourish in conflicted regions, as identities need to be defined to clarify vision and muster up the necessary energy to continue fighting. Although this isn't always the case, it has seemed to be a theme in many of these areas. It has also been interesting for me to see how religion plays a role in each of these conflicts.
The Kashmir conflict began when India was partitioned into religious lines, creating the Muslim nation of Pakistan from the predominantly Hindu India in 1947, when both countries gained their independence. A mass migration of Hindus and Muslims occurred after the partitioning, each trying to make it to their new religious homeland. During this process, over 500,000 people were killed in large scale religious mob-violence. Kashmir decided to stay with India, but Pakistan has been fighting to gain control over this predominantly Muslim region ever since, and the violence continues today.
During this migration, many Sikhs crossed from Pakistan into India, settling in the state of Punjab. The holiest site of Sikhism is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a beautiful place that also has a history of violence. In 1984, armed Sikh militants seized the temple in hope to gain an independent nation for the Sikh religion, a fascinating mixture of Islam and Hinduism. Indira Gandhi, the current prime minister of India at the time, sent in the military to stop the uprising, resulting in a bloody four day battle that killed thousands of people at the holy temple. Not to long after this battle, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards at her home in New Delhi.
The Golden Temple in Amritsar was a place I wanted to make sure to visit when I was near the area. So after leaving Srinagar, I boarded yet another bus to this city, arriving exhausted and disoriented at the Golden Temple around 2:00am. Contrary to what you might think, the place was alive and buzzing with orange Sikhs everywhere. At night, the temple is under lights and its brilliance is amazing, reflecting through the huge pool of water surrounding it. The music and chanting brought me back to the hike up to Hemkund Saheb about a month ago, when I visited another of the Sikhs' holiest sites. Stepping into the complex feels like entering another world, which I guess is what some of the Sikhs were fighting to attain back in 1984. I was exhausted from an 18 hour bus trip, so I made my way to the international pilgrim's sleeping area only to find all of the beds already taken. Feeling that just about anywhere would work at this point in the night; I laid on the concrete ground and soon fell asleep.
I woke up early in the morning to the same continually boisterous activity and made my way around the large pool surrounding the temple one more time, ate breakfast in the huge communal dining hall, and decided it was time to continue on the road. I grabbed my gear and got the next bus out to Dharamsala, where I currently have been living for nearly the last two weeks.
During the last year, I have not slept in the same bed in the same physical location for more than five consecutive days. Feeling the need for a little physical stability and time to process this journey, I decided to find a place in India to attempt to sit still and think for a little while. After talking to a lot of travelers, I decided to make that place Dharamsala.
I think I made a good choice. Dharamsala, and specifically the village of McLeod Ganj, are situated at the base of the Himalayas and have a fascinating mix of culture and activity. Many travelers make it out to this town, often staying for months or even longer to take classes or just relax for a while. McLeod Ganj is the center for the exiled Tibetan government and home to the Dalai Lama, attracting many who are interested in the Tibetan situation and Buddhism.
This is probably one of the best places in the world to study the plight of the Tibetans or their strain of Mahayana Buddhism. Numerous books, films, organizations and resources are available and eager to share about the situation. As is the case with any exiled or persecuted indigenous group, international awareness is always a helpful asset in working towards restoring justice.
In 1950, Communist China invaded Tibet, occupying the country and exploiting it's land and inhabitants for the expansion of the newly founded People's Republic of China and propagation of Communist ideals. Many buildings were destroyed and people murdered in this process, as deceit and lies were directed towards the Dalai Lama in attempt to gain his support and control. Much effort was made by the Chinese to extinguish Tibetan Buddhism, the cornerstone of a vibrant and peaceful culture and had independently existed for centuries in the mountains of the Himalayas. The Chinese believed that only by eliminating religion and its integrated nationalism could their totalitarian form of Communism survive, and that mortal force was a justifiable means to achieving this goal.
Tibetan Buddhism has a central focus on nonviolence, and the Tibetans existed without a functional military at the time of attack, resulting in the massacre of many Tibetans. Being a part of the army was considered a lowly position in society, as it was against the Buddhist religion to kill any living sentient being, human or animal. Buddhists believe strongly in the interconnectedness of all live and in the impermanence of all physical aspects of the world. By freeing your mind from a dependence on the materialism of this world, it is possible to develop compassion and personal humility throughout your actions. By living these principles, each person?s actions will ultimately bring about more joy and peace in the world and put an end to suffering and violence.
I recently read the autobiography of the 14th Dalai Lama (entitled "Freedom in Exile"), Tibet's spiritual and political leader, which describes his life growing up before the Chinese occupation and during the violence that has nearly destroyed the Tibetans. In 1959, he escaped into exile, finally settling in Dharamsala, India. During all of this time he has been striving to nonviolently regain Tibet for the Tibetans and promote peace throughout the world. It has difficult for Tibet to rally international support in the global community, and their struggle seems a desperate one. Current literature states that over 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed as a result of the Chinese presence in Tibet, and many violations of human rights continue in the region.
The Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt, "Seven Years in Tibet" is the story of an Austrian mountain climber who makes his way into Tibet during the beginning of the Chinese occupation, and gives a good introduction to the Tibetan story. There are a few low-budget movie theaters here in McLeod Ganj, and they often show movies like this and other documentaries about Tibet and other worldwide struggles for independence.
The Tibetan exiles in the Dharamsala have been a wonderful group of people. I have really valued talking to them and hearing their stories, whether funny of deeply painful. I remember one conversation with a bookstore owner in which he burst into tears after relaying his history of growing up in Tibet and the struggle throughout his life to work towards independence. It really blows me away how the Tibetans could have been a threat to the Chinese. Was it their mere existence in the wrong place at the wrong time, their religion, their attempt to personify the truth of nonviolence? This case seems similar to many other examples throughout this year, and I have been fascinated and curious to figure out the relationship between religion and violence, or nonviolence.
The one personal who has been most influential for me during this search is Mohandas K. Gandhi, possibly the worlds' most effective disciple of religious nonviolence in history. While Gandhi was working as a lawyer in South Africa around the turn of the 20th century, he became aware of injustices towards Indians living in the area, and commenced a lifelong effort to work for the independence and justice of the Indian race. His personal spiritual journey reinforced his native Hindu religion, but many other faiths had a strong influence on his philosophy, especially Christianity and Islam. Gandhi, was known to India as Mahatma, or the "Great Soul," and was ultimately the greatest factor in gaining free and independent rule from the British Empire.
This is what impresses me incredibly about Gandhi: By living a personal religious life centered and sustained by truth and nonviolence, you can become the prevention and the example that the world needs to live in peace and justice, as well as to be a positive force to combating the violence that arises from violent and oppressive power.
Gandhi's autobiography is entitled, "My Experiments with Truth." The concept of truth was central in his life, to the point of saying that Truth is God. By pursuing God through revealed truth, Gandhi's life became a series of experiments with nonviolence, extending it to each and everyday detail. By this gradual lifestyle refinement, Gandhi found a force that he believed was incredibly more powerful than the heavy-handed, greed-based violence that he saw manifested in the British Empire. Gandhi believed that only through the comprehensive application of a religion of nonviolence could injustice be overcome.
Through his personal example, Gandhi set the standard for a peaceable economy coming bottom up from the poor and seemingly helpless population of India. He promoted personal and national self-sufficiency, knowing that by each person consuming less, large amounts of power would not be necessary to maintain the population, which had traditionally involved violence. He also organized boycotts of British goods that stole work from the poorest of India, as well as many other forms of civil disobedience which countered the oppression and exploitation of India by British Colonialism. He authored a campaign named Satyagraha (translated from Hindi as soul-force or truth-force) that was based on the fact that a truly righteous cause based in nonviolence and justice would eventually prevail. Gandhi was constantly politically vocal and arrested numerous times, always happy to serve his sentence for a noble cause, as it was more honorable to obey God than oppressive laws. He spent a total of 2,338 days of his life in prison.
Gandhi also worked to break down barriers in his society, speaking out strongly against the stratified Hindu caste system and obtaining massive reforms as well as promoting religious cooperation, especially between Muslims and Hindus. He was heartbroken when Pakistan became a separate state apart from India. He was a friend to all, independent of their religion or creed, a constant humble learner that said if any of his writings contradicted themselves, the reader would be better off to believe the latter of the two. He was assassinated on his way to evening prayers in 1948, only 5 months after India achieved independence. His assassin was a Hindu extremist opposed to his civilized attempts to cooperate with Indian Muslims.
My wanderings through yesterday's edition of the Hindustan Times also brought me to many articles relating to September 11, commenting on it's effect on India and the broader world four years later. The front page posted an article reporting a survey of Indian Muslims from different parts of the country on these issues. Some interesting results state that 63% feel that the 9/11 attacks have made the Muslim community more vulnerable to hatred, 55% think America's War against terrorism is actually a war against Muslims, and 18% believe that America is winning its so-called War against terrorism. 22% believe that Islam is being practiced/followed in its true form, and 42% sympathizes with the 9/11 attackers.
While I was reading these articles, a traveler about my age from New York City came down and sat next to me. We got to talking and the conversation eventually led to 9/11 and his experiences during that fateful day in the city. His brother had worked in the World Trade Center, but fortunately wasn't there on the day of the attack. He told me some stories about his brother's friends, images that had haunted them for months after the event.
Since 9/11, large scale Islamic extremist terrorism has increased globally (Bali, New Delhi, Casablanca, Madrid, Ayodhya, London, Sharm-el Sheik...) and its consequent reactive retaliations (US instigated Afghanistan and Iraq Wars) have also taken thousands of lives as well as greatly stressed international relations within the world's superpowers.
As the surveys indicate, effects of 9/11, probably the most significant event in current world history, obviously live on. Although global opinion varies as to whether the "War on Terror" is a religious war or not, it definitely has religious implications. Another article discusses the raised emotions among religious Muslims worldwide and the increase in number of fundamentalist groups across the Middle East and Asia since 9/11. The world also observes the rise of conservatism and Christian fundamentalism in the USA. So if everyone is becoming more fervently religious, what is going on? What is religion's role in response to these events?
Quoted in the paper is lyricist Javed Akhtar, saying that it is wrong to state that the "War on Terror" is a war against Muslims. He says, "The US didn't go seeking Israel for squatting on Palestinian land though they did attack Iraq for aggression on Kuwait. This is because they do what suits them. You have to understand the politics of it all."
Since 9/11, one thing that has astounded me is the absence of the following question on national media: Why did this happen? As Akhtar stated, there are obviously politics involved here. It is completely ignorant to think that a religious group would attack the most powerful country in the world, demolishing two towers symbolizing wealth and dominance in the world's financial capitol for absolutely no reason. Why didn't we look at our politics that related to the Middle East and try to fix the root of the problem? Why didn't we have the humility to ask ourselves if we had made any mistakes, and then attempt to change them? The last four years have only shown that violence propagates more violence.
Indian author Yoginer Sikand states in the same article, "Everyone now knows there was no WMD in Iraq. It's US imperialism, plain and simple, which is being driven by Christian fundamentalism, the mirror image of Muslim fundamentalism."
Right before I left Srinagar, I stepped into a cafe to get a quick breakfast before catching my bus to Amritsar. A young Muslim guy was running the place and projecting a very friendly and loud atmosphere into the room. He eagerly asked me where I was from, and upon hearing my reply, a large-scale political discussion ensued, similar to many I have had in the Middle East. We talked about terrorism, fundamentalism, and the responses of our representative religions. Before I left, he said, "I'm sorry for what some people from my religion have done to America." And I replied, "I'm sorry too..."
It really makes you wonder about religion's role in violent conflict. It has often been a divisive factor as well as a bridge of love between diverse groups. What part of religion signifies this difference? How can we be religious and not live in a way that directly or indirectly creates violence in our world? Is it possible?
It seems to me that Gandhi has provided an excellent example for us. In an incredibly religiously diverse India that had been plagued with imperialist injustice and violent religious conflict, he encouraged the common, ordinary people (as well as political leaders) to become disciples of nonviolence and to change their lifestyles into ones that would promote a peaceable economy and political structure. He realized that the ultimate value of religion comes in the ability to change ourselves first. The only power that each of us ultimately has is to purify our own actions. From this foundation, compassion and active nonviolence will enable us to set an example for the world. Any religion devoid of nonviolence is a perversion, supported by fear and oppression through power.
Gandhi viewed religion as an integral part of politics, but only if religion was entirely expressed in nonviolence. The Dalai Lama of Tibet has also exemplified this point in his relations with China and the international community, believing that nonviolence is the only acceptable path to bringing about change, both personal and on a global scale.
In a few months I will return to America and will be put into a context where the popular mainstream lifestyle does not promote a peaceable global economy. I will have the opportunity each day to make decisions that I know will ultimately have violent or nonviolent effects on the world. As a citizen of the most powerful country in the world, I feel that the change has to happen in America first. We must stop the violence we are inflicting on the world by changing our personal lifestyles. If we truly live in a Democracy and our leaders reflect their constituents, these ideals should rise to a political level, changing our international politics. But if we keep consuming a grossly unjust and unnecessary proportion of the world's resources, the hurt will eventually come back to us. The decisions are ours; after all, with all of our power, we have the ability to "do whatever suits us." One thing I have definitely learned on this worldwide journey is that the best way to begin at making a positive change in the world is to first change yourself.
Spending the last few weeks reading and reflecting has been an incredibly valuable thing for me. The diversity and mystery of India have often blown me away and opened my eyes to many new examples of wisdom and hope that I am excited to take it back to the west. My personal goal is that I will be able to stay true what I have experienced here when I step into the fast-paced current that I left last October. Slowing down and being able to process some of this experience has helped to aid some of my apprehensions in returning, but I still expect it to be a difficult process.
In a few days, I'll travel to Varanasi via Delhi, and then into Nepal around the beginning of October. I expect to spend 6-7 weeks there, doing a lot of trekking. Afterwards, I will travel back into India to Calcutta, fly to Bangkok, and spent the remaining 3 weeks of the trip in Thailand and Cambodia. The plan is to be home by Christmas.
[All quotations used can be found in the September 11, 2005 Hindustan Times, New Delhi. Other resources include: "The Gandhi Reader" - edited by Homer A. Jack and ?Freedom in Exile" - by the Dalai Lama of Tibet]
September 02, 2005
My 15 Seconds of Fame... (maybe!)
So everyone has heard of Hollywood, right? Multi-million dollar film budgets, red carpet celebrities, ritzy hillside estates... the picture is all too familiar. Increasingly popular around the globe, the Hollywood film industry (fairly or unfairly) represents US culture to the world. But what most people don't know is that nestled within the second most populous country on earth, a well-established competitor is picking up steam. Move over Hollywood, here comes Bollywood.
The Indian film industry, nicknamed "Bollywood" (because of being located primarily in Bombay), is by far the largest movie making industry in the world. It employs over 2.5 million people, and has produced nearly 35,000 feature films in the last 60 years. In other words, quantity over quality. But to millions of poor and jobless Indians around the country, a fourty-cent night at the movies provides the entertaining escape from reality that they are looking for, regardless of how far-fetched or overused the plot sequence might be. Nearly every small town has a musty old theatre, and the names of elite Bollywood stars are recognized by even the youngest of children. Of course, the most popular films are loaded with Western-style music and dance and are set in European or American locations. And as you can imagine, this creates a market within the film industry for light-skinned people such as ourselves. For the producers, the trick is knowing where to look.
After an exhausting 17 hour bus ride from Udaipur, in the western state of Rajasthan (check out the highlights here), Meike and I finally arrived in the bustling metropolis of Bombay. Given the state of India's roads, and the fact that we had the lucky fortune of getting seats in the very back of the bus that didn't recline, it was a journey that led us to the conclusion that for future overnight trips, the train will always be the preferred mode of transport. In somewhat of a daze, we wandered the streets of the downtown area, looking for a cheap place to crash for the next few nights. We finally settled for the rustic dormitory accomodations of the Salvation Army guesthouse. It is a huge, institutional-looking place that despite the guidebook's warnings of ocassional bedbug problems, has become quite popular among the budget backpacking crowd. For three dollars a night, you get a bed, breakfast, and seemingly unlimited smiles from the cordial staff. It is here, at the unassuming Salvation Army guesthouse, that Bollywood agents come to recruit their groups of amateur Western moviestars.
Meike and I had barely taken off our backpacks, when the receptionist informed us that in ten minutes a Bollywood rep would be showing up to recruit extras for the day. Dreadfully tired, although still ready for an adventure, we decided to check it out. Our man arrived a little late, decked out in jeans, sunglasses, and with the expected hint of an "I'm too cool" attitude. After carefully listening to the sales pitch, I decided his offer seemed reasonable. In exchange for 8 hours of our time on the set, we would be given lunch, dinner, an unlimited supply of chai and mineral water, transportation to the studios, and 500 rupees (about $12 USD). Not to mention being able to rub shoulders with our favorite Indian movie celebrities. So we said that we're in, and jumped in a taxi with several other travelers who also felt like doing something ridiculous for the day. In talking with another traveler in our cab, I found out this was her second day on the job. Some backpackers, desperate for fame, money, or maybe both, have been known to stay on for weeks at a time. I took this as a sign that the whole thing couldn't be too bad.
Our gang of Western wanna-be's arrived at the studios of Raj Dhairya Entertainment about an hour later. We walked through the main gate, and into a maze of beat-up production trailers, struggling power generators, and outdated electronic equipment thrown about. Not exactly the picture I had in my head of what a film studio complex would look like. But then again this is India, and I should have known by now that things are done differently here. Our recruiter slapped some high-fives with his buddies and led our group of a dozen back to a small room in the rear of the complex.
As we entered the room, there were some murmered discussions between a couple important-looking guys in the doorway, and all three simultaneously turned their heads in my direction. Pointing a decisive finger at me, one of them quickly pronounced "Policeman!" and then walked out. From a corner of the room, a costume designer lept into action and started fishing around in a big black crate that he had been sitting on. Out of the mess inside he somehow produced a pair of black pants, white shirt (a couple sizes too small), tie, boots, and even a British-style black police hat. Once I had successfully gotten into my costume, I was handed a clumsy belt, complete with plastic gun, baton, handcuffs and a pathetic plastic imitation of a walkie-talkie. I literally laughed out loud when I thought of the higher quality toy radios that I've seen in the past at WalMart...
Once in uniform, I was told to sit down and wait. In the meantime, the rest of the group was led off somewhere for lunch. As I had no other information to go on regarding my role, other than that I was to be a "policeman", my mind began to wander. Next to me a couple of muscular Indian guys (most likely famous stars, but I'll never know) were changing into cowboy chaps and I imagined being involved in some crazy shootout scene reminiscent of the old Wild West movies. The bad cop taking on the cowboy heros. Hmmm... this could be interesting. Hopefully they won't expect me to say anything in Hindi...
After about 30 minutes of sitting in the dressing room waiting for my opportunity to shine, the man who previously appointed me as policeman appeared once again. Instead of directing me to the set, however, he told me to change back into my normal clothes. Apparently they didn't need a policeman afterall. Or probably wisely decided that I didn't have quite the skill level they were looking for. Regardless of the reason, I obediently changed out of the phony police costume and rejoined the rest of the group for lunch. My feelings at that point where a strange mixture of disappointment, yet relief.
But of course the day wasn't over. The main shoot for the afternoon was of a London discotek, and so our Western faces were in high demand to make the place look authentic. While the Indian stars occupied the prime spots on stage and in front of the cameras, we filled in the background and around the edges of the stage. Our instructions were to simply look like we were having fun, and keep our hands in the air while dancing around. Of course for some people this was no problem, but those of you that know me well will recognize that dancing isn't exactly my thing... Fortunately the shots never lasted more than about 10 seconds, and in between there was plenty of time to relax and talk to fellow recruits while the stage was hastily rearranged for the next sequence. Sometimes it was entertaining enough to simply stand in a corner and watch the chaos unfold. From the producer yelling at the fog machine operator to back off a bit, to the actors and actresses running for a mirror and body spray every few minutes... the whole thing inspired more than a few chuckles and ocassional muffled rounds of laughter from our group of first-timers.
At around 10pm, the producer finally called it a wrap. Exhausted but feeling like I saw something truely unique that day, I stood in line with the rest of the group to receive our wad of freshly printed rupees in compensation. Even without the pay, I think it would have been an experience that was worth the time and effort. Although I will probably never choose to do it again. Rafta Rafta: The Speed... coming soon to a theatre probably not so close to you.
The next night in Bombay, Meike and I decided to further our education by seeing a finished Bollywood product at a local theatre. The movie for the night was entitled Mangal Pandey: The Uprising and was a surprisingly well-done historical movie about the Indian struggle for independence. I understand that the movie is experiencing incredible sucess both here and abroad, and if you get the chance to see it, check it out. It is done in a mixture of Hindi and English, and provides not only some authentic glimpses into Indian culture, but a solid perspective on the struggles against colonialism that have plagued this nation throughout history.
The cinema experience was also unique in itself. Upon arrival, handprinted signs throughout the theatre kindly reminded patrons that there is "No Spitting" allowed. Although this didn't seem to stop the crowd of rowdies that got seats behind us in the cheap section. Indian cinema is just as much about the group experience as it is the individual's personal enjoyment... and as such it is very common for loud discussions, catcalls, and all sorts of other random commentary to take place from various corners of the theatre. For this alone, it is worth the fourty cent entry fee. And as a word of advice: If you ever find yourself in an Indian theatre and wonder why everyone suddenly rises to their feet at the start of the movie, just join along in the fun. It's time for the national anthem!
Following a few short days in Bombay, Meike and I took an overnight train down to the beautiful beaches of Goa. A perfect place for relaxing and meeting other fellow travelers, the past week there slipped away surprisingly quickly. We are now in the southern city of Trivandrum, where we are staying with a friend of Meike's for the next few days. From there we will begin the long journey back to the north, this time riding the rails up the eastern coast to Calcutta.
August 26, 2005
Manali to Leh
It's the afternoon, the day after the journey, and I'm still recovering in a very relaxing (150 rupee) guest house room. I can see snow capped mountains out my window; a gentle green garden progressing into trees creates the foreground. There is a soft and sporatic drum beat in the viscinity, and a few local radios entertaining the workers outside. I feel lazy, but triumphant to be here, to be acclimatizing, and I am content with where I am and where I am going.
Descriptive fragments from the journey: a bruised left shoulder from constantly banging into the rear window latch, the latchless front window gradually sliding its way back and cracking open as we climbed, letting in the cold, thin air, moving in a new direction with each bump, blowing out a tire on a hot and dry desert road, early morning goat and sheep herders seen near the blowing prayer flags, bridges that had to be trusted but didn't look worthy of it, driving into the cloud on the Rhotang Pass (3980m), seeing one truck with a front, driverside wheel hanging over the abyss and resting on its axle, in all, the remains of 6 trucks (not buses) below that didn't make their turns, at times being thrown a foot into the air from the bus' back seat, the six foot diameter hole in the road which gave view down the slope, the six hour delay because of a landslide, potentially switching buses by running straight up and across the switchbacks, climbing on a new bus, and then finally the old bus coming up to pick us up, a local dormitory bed in Keylong for 30 rupees, people shouting and smoking in the middle of the night, 4 hours of restless sleep, 2nd 4am morning, arriving in Leh at 9pm in the dark through winding passes, anti-claustrophobic plateau before last 5300m pass, mental adrenaline from the intense landscape, introspection, articulation, joy, weariness, headache, endurance, glad i reserved a front seat, meals at bedouin-style tent villages, morning light on the grey rivers, Cappadocian rocks, Grand Canyon colors, Sinai, Negev, spirituality and landscape becoming one and approaching a Tibetan experience.
It really was quite an adventure, this Manali-Leh road. Described by some as one of the most spectacular and intense overland journeys in the world, this route covers 400+km in two days, transporting its passengers from the green gateway of the Himalayas at Manali to Ladakh, a high altitude desert region that is rugged and breathtaking. The trip included one of the world's highest motorable mountain passes at 5325m (17470ft), the highest elevation that I have experienced in my life. It wasn't until I woke up in the next morning that I realized that I was really in another world. It didn't feel like India, but what people have been telling me is more similar to Tibet and other parts of central Asia.
Most of my time in Leh has consisted in getting a glimpse of the Tibetan culture here, reading and writing a lot, and getting to know other travelers. On the northwest end of town is the Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist temple high on a hill that is magical at sunrise and sunset. Twice I have made the climb up 560 stairs to have this experience, and my breathlessness has been justly rewarded.
In all except for the beautiful Manali-Leh bus journey, most of my time has been very relaxed. It seems like India doesn't allow her travelers to speed through the land, and I have enjoyed taking this pace. Tomorrow I'm going to take another two day bus to Srinagar in Kashmir, near the Pakistani border. It's already been one month since I arrived in India, and in one more I'll be beginning Nepal.
[Be sure to check the photo gallery]
Border Road Organization's Caution Signs along the Manali-Leh route:
- If you're married, divorce speed.
- Be Mr. Late, not Late Mr.
- Safety on the Road means "Safe Tea" at home
- Life is a Journey. Complete It.
- Heaven, Hell or Mother Nature. The Choice is Yours.
Some of the Books I've Read on this Trip:
- Herman Hesse, Siddhartha
- Carlo Carretto, Letters from the Desert
- Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
- Annie Dillard, Mornings Like These
- Kahlil Gibran, An Anthology
- Dan Brown, Deception Point
- Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
- Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
- Thomas Merton, The Asian Journals of...
- The Gandhi Reader, edited by Homer A. Jack
- The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
- Yann Martel, Life of Pi
- Andrew Pollard, The High Altitude Medicine Handbook
- Gita Mehta, A River Sutra
August 12, 2005
Starting Again in India
Let me fill you in on the last couple of weeks here in India with some excerpts from my journals...
New Delhi: Arrivals and Impressions
Upon arrival in New Delhi, the humid air hit me like a blanket and the poverty on the streets immediately informed that I was in a third world country. India is the 37th country of our round-the-world journey, and even though you would think that the shocks of travel may have grown numb, this country brings those feelings to an entirely new level. My first goal was to crash at a hostel in Paharganj, and then to spend a few days getting accustomed to the somewhat overwhelming atmosphere of the city.
In total, I spent a little over a week in India's capitol city, filling the time with some sightseeing, eating lots of wonderful (and cheap) Indian food and talking with other travelers (mainly Israelis) in order to gather advice on where I should focus my energy. It was also a pleasant surprise to run into Josh Kautz, a friend from EMU who was just finishing up a month of medical volunteering in Uttaranchal. Together, we spent a day visiting some museums, parks and the Bahai Temple. Josh almost changed his ticket at the last minute to travel with us for a couple of weeks, but was unable to do so with such little notice.
Some of the mental images from Delhi include...the constant and persistent horns on the street below our room, the monkeys in the trees of our roof top restaurant which almost jumped on me as I was eating breakfast, the dead homeless man on the street swarmed by flies as two women and a police officer observed nearby, the presence and lingering smell of cow dung everywhere, incense attempting to mask it (and keep away the flies), children begging for food and hanging onto your clothes as you walk by, and the general frantic atmosphere trying to find order but never quite making it. I think that being in India teaches people how to be patient, to wait and understand that what others do is entirely out of your control. It teaches you to trust in a sort of empty and self-less flow of life as you try to make sense of it all but keep moving yourself.
Losing Some, Gaining Some
After the bike trip, I decided to lighten my pack considerably for the rest of the trip in an attempt to travel with more simplicity and versatility. In fact, I sent my large, old pack home altogether, keeping only minimal clothing and necessary items, losing all of the camping gear except what I will need to do some trekking in Nepal. And with the smaller pack that I have acquired here containing a lighter load, I decided to buy a guitar, an Indian-made "Givson" for quite a good price (note the "v"). Traveling with a guitar will have its share of challenges as well, but already it seems to have been worth the hassle.
Where to go...?
The combination of my personal research, conversations with other travelers, and general interest has led me to decide to travel to the northern regions of India during the 2-3 months that I will be here. The heat of Delhi was almost overwhelming to the point where it was difficult to relax and sleep, and I could only imagine that the south would be worse. A retreat into the mountains seems to be what I am looking for and needing: some space and unrushed time to unwind and explore one of the most fascinating regions of the world in its best season.
Eric and Meike had interest in traveling throughout other parts of southern India, but also wanted a taste of the north as well. We decided to travel together up the Ganges River into the mountains to visit the Valley of Flowers, a world heritage site that is at it's peak bloom during this time of year. After returning from this short excursion into the mountains, we would head our separate ways.
Haridwar and Rishikesh:
Our trip up the river took us through two holy cities, Haridwar and Rishikesh, each lying along the banks of the Ganges. One night in Rishikesh, we walked down the hill in the late afternoon to the town on the river, absorbing the atmosphere of the religious ceremonies taking place. There were many people down on the water lighting candles wrapped in flowers and sending them floating downstream. A lot of Indians wanted us to take their photos and then show them the image on the digital screen.
The whole place here [Rishikesh] has this magical feel to it, the dusk light on the dirty river makes it look cleaner than I have seen it before. There is a walking bridge stretching across the river, which sways a little under the moving weight of loads of people and motorcycles. Many people are dressed in orange, pilgrims for their faith, the presence of Shiva and the other gods, as well as Ashrams, Hindu temples, all the works. I think it will only get better as we head upstream.
The Bus Journey:
[On looking back on the day of busing the Himalayan foothills...]
I bet the mudslides will be everywhere tomorrow morning.
We had to stop the bus for maybe an hour today while a bulldozer plowed away the rocks and mud that had fallen from above. There were occasional blasts of dynamite to break up the larger rocks. With the first blast, all of the locals put their hands on their heads as smaller rocks became dislodged and bounced down onto the sides of the bus. Across the gorge were a few small rock slides that started from the sound of the blast. It seems like this has happened a lot here, as there are big chunks of the road missing and relocated farther down the cliffs. I really think these were the most sketchy roads of the trip so far. It felt like they could crumble and fall away.
Twelve hours later, we safely arrived in the cliff side town of Joshimath, only one bus connection away from the beginning of our trek into the mountains.
Stranded in Joshimath:
We spent a night in Joshimath, and after waking up the next morning to a steady rain, learned that the road ahead of us was closed for the day and maybe tomorrow it would be passable. We decided to spend the day in town, which was really our only option besides trying to walk the 20km to the next town of Govindghat, as some of our Israeli friends ended up doing.
That afternoon, I wanted to go for a walk down into the gorge and maybe across the river and Eric said he would come along. It took us about an hour to get down and then crossed a bridge that was visibly sagging at its middle joint. We waited there for a while near the hydroelectric plant, and then started to walk back up the hill when two guys, one a policeman, caught our attention and told us to come over. We sat down with them and they brought us some chai (tea) and we talked for a little while.
The policeman arranged a free ride back up to the town for us in the cabin of this big dump truck, which was crammed with people and smelled like BO, but took us right up the mountain. It was really a sweet ride around all of those hairpin curves, and definitely a lot less energy than going by foot.
The next morning brought better weather and an open road to Govindghat, where our trek would begin.
Trekking with the Pilgrims:
The trek was 13km up a river valley, on a well worn stone path full of very happy Sikh pilgrims. Each of them must have been having the best day of their lives and many stopped to talk or take a photo of us. It was really exciting to have a smaller pack, containing only what I thought were the basics, but yet many of the pilgrims were carrying almost nothing, and some even walking without shoes. They were so friendly to us, even though the constant photo shoots started to get annoying after a while...
After a good day's walk, we arrived in Ghangria (around 10,000 feet elevation), a small mountain village existing only during the summer to serve tourists to the Valley of Flowers and Sikh pilgrims making the trek to Hemkund Sahib. At this town, the trail splits for these two destinations.
From Ghangria, it took us about two hours to get up to the Valley of Flowers, following a nice river with remaining winter ice at various places. The valley opened up for about 8km, surrounded in mountains reaching up to the deep blue sky with occasional clouds resting upon the ridges. The valley has an estimated 500 species of flowers, each unique and beautiful in its own way.
Our destination that we had worked toward for the last five days was finally reached... It was peaceful and serene, a place that felt like I could just rest and be. The sun felt great and we spent a lot of time just sitting there and absorbing the beauty of the valley. I also took about 50 photos, a lot of both the flowers and the mountains around us.
The next day I decided to make the trip up to the Sikh pilgrimage site, Hemkund Saheb, where a temple is located on a lake high in the mountains.
I woke up at 6am an the skies were clear and I felt pretty good, better than I had for a few days, so I decided to go for the Hemkund Saheb hike... After I found out that Eric was a little better and wanted to stay for another day, I packed up in minutes and headed out, first for some breakfast and then up the winding trail.
It was a steep trail, 6km to the top, rising about 4000ft to an elevation of 14,202ft. I started pretty fast and then slowed down when I met Sunny, a 17 year old guy with a lot of energy and his hair tied up in a ball on the front of his head. We got to talking and I decided to continue at his pace. I was a little worried about such a quick accent, but overall was pretty happy with how I did in the altitude... My lungs felt as good up there as they did in Ghangria. At one point the winded Sunny said that I was like British Air, I kept going up and up and up.
It took maybe 2.5 to 3 hours to reach the summit, walking with pilgrims and mules and a diversity of colorful people. I think a woman asked me to marry her daughter at one point along the route. The sky was almost entirely blue and clear the whole way up, giving incredible views of the snow studded Himalayas and the green flowing out of them.
At the top there was a Sikh temple and people were bathing in the ice cold lake (something I decided against with my cold). I was the only non-Indian present, and therefore the subject of many photographs to show the family. It really felt like I was in a different world, with the high mountain setting, the orange colors of the dress and Punjabi flags, and all the rest that was really somewhat indescribable.
Sunny took me into the temple for a religious prayer time at 10am which lasted about a half hour and reminded me a lot of a Muslim service (Sikhism is an interesting combination of Hinduism and Islam). At one point everyone was served an oily, sweet dough and I decided to partake, even if it make me sick (it didn't). After the service, we all went over to another building where two old bearded men were cooking huge vats of chai and Dal soup, which was very satisfying as I was hungry from the steep hike up.
Sunny kept hanging around me and I really wanted some space, so I went up on one of the hills and rested for a while. Afterwords, I went down the other path for mules (the one I went up ended in a set of 1185 stairs over the last km) and again rested for maybe a half hour, just looking out into the mountains. The steep hike down went well, and I was amazed how far I had climbed up. Usually it seems like coming back goes faster, but for some reason this time it felt longer.
The next day we hiked down to Govindghat, and took a Jeep taxi back to Joshimath, spending a night there and then taking another day-long bus through the half washed out mountain roads back to Rishikesh, where we are now.
Tomorrow, Eric and Meike will leave for Rajasthan and I will perhaps spend a day or two more relaxing in Riskikesh before getting a bus north to either Dharamsala or Manali before heading up to Leh in the northernmost part of India. My plan is to be home by Christmas, after spending the next 4 months mainly in India and Nepal, and hopefully also Thailand and Cambodia.Continue reading "Starting Again in India"
August 03, 2005
The Waiting Game
Patience is not easily learned. Our lives are such that we can often get whatever we want, whenever we want... We use expedited shipping, instant coffe, express checkout, and fast-acting medications. With the right amount of money, practically anything can be ours. Our affluency gets us what we want, and as a consequence we rarely have to wait around for anything. But the moment will enevitably arrive when control is lost, and the only option is to sit down, take a deep breath, and exhibit a bit of patience. That's when the going gets tough. And fortunately that's when we learn.
This has been a personal theme of the past few weeks. But before diving into the details of my lesson in "patience building," perhaps I'll do a quick overview of what has happened in the previous month since my last email update. After all, it wouldn't be fair to keep you waiting...
Following an enjoyable few days of exploring Prague, I took a train to the border of Germany and finished the bicycle trip under ideal conditions. Most of these final five days were spent riding along the banks of the Main River, through wooded forests and countryside. Germany is an ideal place for bike touring, as there are countless established bike routes that zigzag around the country. I finished my route in the college town of Giessen, just north of Frankfurt, and spent an evening with Oleg Dik and his wife Lisa, who help to run a coffee shop ministry for immigrants in the area. Their names were given to me by Josef Berthold while we were in the Middle East, and it was a real blessing to connect with them for an evening. Not only was I inspired by their vision, but was reminded again of the opportunities that exist for reaching out to people of all backgrounds even in our home communities.
The following morning I took a double-decker train down to the Frankfurt airport to meet my friend Wayne Groff. The two of us have basically grown up together, attending the same elementary and high schools, and hanging out regularly on our breaks from college. He decided to take a few weeks of vacation and join me in Germany, which worked out great for both of us. It was refreshing to hang out with someone who knew me well, and have a chance to catch up on the past few months. Being around someone from home, it also sparked my own thinking into ways that I have changed on this trip, and what the transition back to life in the States may be like. Although the best part of having traveling with Wayne was simply hanging out, we also managed to get a decent tour of Germany in the process.
Starting in Frankfurt, we spent a night in the nearby city of Mainz, where we plotted out our schedule and relaxed a bit from the busyness of the last few days. On our way south, we visited the picturesque mideival town of Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber, and then continued to Heidelberg and Tubingen. In Tubingen we visited Meike Keller, a friend of mine who was on a YES team with me to Brazil several years ago. She found Wayne and I a place to stay in her university dorm, and in the evening we went out for a boat ride on the Nekar River with some of her friends. It was fun to be in a laid-back college atmosphere again, staying up late talking and meeting new people. Visiting Meike also provided the opportunity for us to talk about our travel plans, as she is just beginning an around-the-world trip and is currently traveling with us here in India.
From Tubingen, Wayne and I spent a few days in the Black Forest, doing some hiking, visiting a glass-blowing factory, and spending a day at an amusement park. From there, we headed down to the Austrian border, and the small town of Fussen. This area has some of Germany's most well-preserved castles, and so we spent a day touring the two famous castles of Ludwig II, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. If you have seen any pictures of castles in the Bavarian Alps of Germany, chances are that you have seen one of these.
Our final week was spent in the vastly different cities of Munich and Berlin. Munich, the cultural capital of Bavaria, was as usual flooded with tourists from all over. We spent several days in Munich, visiting the Deutches Museum, the concentration camp at Dachau, checking out the Englischer Garden, and of course enduring a performance of the Glockenspiel on the wall of the New Town Hall. From Munich, it was a long drive north to Berlin. But fortunately it was autobahn all the way, and you know what that means...
Just outside of Berlin Wayne and I decided to spend the night at the small town of Wittenberg. As the birthplace of the reformation, the town is full of trinkets and statues of Martin Luther. Shortly after we arrived, we noticed a sign that mentioned an English worship service in the church where Luther preached for many years. Since English church services have been hard to find in our travels, it seemed like we should take advantage of the opportunity. A preacher from Ohio was there, and using the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), he talked about the importance of learning to wait. A pertinent message for me to hear, given the events of the coming days.
Following a few days exploring the city of Berlin, Dave, Wayne, and I made the drive back to Giessen. The following morning, Dave and I flew out and arrived in Istanbul. We had arranged this stopover when we bought our tickets to India, as it was included for the same price with Turkish Airlines. Because of our whirlwind tour of Germany, I still hadn't received my Indian VISA, which is required prior to entry. It is sort of a complicated story, but it takes several days longer to process the application than the Indian web site seemed to imply, and my only remaining option was to apply for it in Istanbul. Upon arriving in Turkey, I hurried to the consulate the following morning, and put in my application. Unfortunately, there was no way to speed up the process, and I was told that it would be at least 5 days until I could receive my VISA. Our flight to India left on Monday evening; the VISA wouldn't be available until Tues. afternoon. At this point the situation was out of my control, and I simply had to wait. My disappointment was somewhat curbed, however, by the fact that because of the circumstances, Turkish Airlines allowed me to change my flight at no extra cost.
Istanbul wasn't a terrible place to be stuck for three extra days. As the crossroads between continents, there is a fascinating mix of East and West, both coming together in Europe's largest city. I enjoyed wandering around, sampling cheap kebab meals, and meeting other travelers from our hostel. On Monday evening Dave flew as scheduled, and over the next couple days I took a tour of the Bosphorous Strait with two other backpackers, and did quite a bit of reading. Although my heart in some ways had already moved ahead to India, I managed to make the best of the circumstances. Finally on Thursday evening, with the VISA in my passport, I boarded a crowded plane and arrived in Delhi in the early morning hours.
The waiting was finally over... I had arrived in India. But this experience demonstrated to me that I am still waiting for a lot of things. As the last four months of this trip approach, the temptation is to start making judgements and creating expectations about what it will be like to return home. In my mind, I want to start picking out the good and the bad about this experience, my home culture, my faith, etc. The temptation is to start drawing conclusions now. But as the pastor at Wittenberg so eloquently described, there are times when we are called to wait. Instead of pulling out the weeds while the wheat is still growing, sometimes we have to wait until the harvest. As time goes on, a better eye will be developed... one that can better distinguish between what should be kept, and what to let go of. Until then, I just have to be patient.
July 30, 2005
Random Ramblings About the Last Month
The last email update I sent out talked about our time in Poland seems like quite a long time ago. Since then, we have traveled through the Czech Republic, finishing the bike trip in Berlin, Germany. We flew from Frankfurt to Istanbul, Turkey, at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. And now we're in New Delhi, India, beginning a new portion of our journey in Asia..
When we were in Prague, Kurt and I realized that we had more than enough time to make it to Berlin, so we set out on the slowest portion of our bike trip, averaging maybe 50km a day for about a week to stretch out the last section of road. We followed the Elbe River north out of Prague into the Eastern German countryside, passing through Dresden, Wittenburg, and finally into Berlin. One night while we were camping, we heard the scream of a wild cat, which we later learned from a German taxidermist in Istanbul to be a good sized lynx.
We spent a week in the Berlin area, staying in Furstenwalde with some friends of Kurt's family, celebrating the completion of our bike trip (and Kurt's birthday) with some good food and relaxation. Kurt and I ended up riding about 4250 km (2640 miles) in our journey from Athens to Berlin, and were a little sad to see the bike trip come to an end. By the time we had finished, it really felt like we were only beginning.
Berlin proved to be a very fascinating city and we spent a few days in museums learning about the East/West divide of the city and the events that lead to the wall coming down in 1989. Another interesting day was spent at a special exhibit on Albert Einstein, commemorating 100 years since the unveiling of his theory of relativity, which revolutionized physics as well as challenged society into many novel and profound ways of thinking. A new holocaust memorial was opened in the downtown area in May, filling a city block with slightly tilting rectangular stone pillars resembling a field of graves. Walking through this space makes you feel like you are sinking, becoming lost, and eventually find a way to discover a path out.
We had a few days of craziness getting everyone out of Germany and ahead into the next phase: Applying for Indian visas, packing up bikes, getting Kurt to the Berlin airport with two bikes, picking up my visa, driving to Frankfurt, packing up another bike, getting to the Frankfurt airport and flying to Istanbul, all of which happened in less than three days.
My largest goal for the time in Istanbul was to take it easy and try to prepare myself for the transition that was about to occur before leaving for India. Most of my time was spent hanging out with other travelers at our hostel, walking around the beautiful city, and trying to not do very much at all... And now suddenly I'm in India, and the world has once again become a very different place, as India is like nothing we have seen yet on this journey.
The last few months have flown by with incredibly enjoyable memories. I think that traveling by bike has been my favorite mode of transit yet, allowing for one of the most intimate interactions with the surrounding cultures and landscapes. I already have ideas streaming through my mind of where to use this way in the future.
Around four and a half months remain before I will return to the states in mid-December which will be spent mostly in India and Nepal as well as a few countries in southeast Asia. Although it sort of feels like the home stretch, I'm trying to remind myself that it is only 2/3 of the way through. There is still so much to experience here, and less than five months seems immensely inadequate to explore this part of the world. Many travelers I have met here already have said they could spend years in India, and still not see it all.
My immediate impressions of New Delhi are quite chaotic. After staying awake all night on the flight from Istanbul, waiting in an airport, fighting for my rights with the taxi driver to take me where I paid for, and maneuvering through dirty streets jammed with people and rickshaws and meandering cows, I arrived in my room and fell soundly asleep. In the last couple of days I have been adjusting myself to being here with all of the frantic busyness and intense humidity, and I am thankful to say that it is coming along fairly well. Eric arrived yesterday morning and we will be spending a few days here figuring out where to go next.
[You may have been wondering why our writing has become more infrequent as this journey progresses. And I hope some time in the future to try to articulate why. If you're curious in the meantime, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we can start talking from there...]
July 07, 2005
Oswiecim - "Work Brings Freedom"
Only 60km west of the Polish town of Krakow lies the smaller town of Oswiecim, a place that is better known by it's German name during WWII, Auschwitz. After leaving Vienna, we spent a week biking through northwestern Slovakia to Krakow, Poland, and then after spending a few days in the city, turned westward to visit the infamous concentration camp.
Most of my personal interest in visiting Poland was to see Auschwitz, the largest of all of the Nazi concentration (or more appropriately, extermination) camps. Many of us are familiar with the horrors of the holocaust, but these realities have their greatest impact when we experience them firsthand.
During my time in Israel in 2002 I had the privilege of meeting a holocaust survivor on Kibbutz Afikim over tea and desert in her home. A small group of us spent the evening talking and learning from her few stories, which were clearly difficult for her to share. At one point during this time, I remember her walking over to one of the cabinets in her living room, opening a drawer, and pulling out a paper that displayed her name, showing her identification number and a record of her transport from the Dachau concentration camp in Germany to Auschwitz. I specifically remember this experience because it was one of the first times that I realized how this most tragic chapter in modern human history had devastated so many people. My memories went back to the time that I had visited Dachau in 2000 on a high school choir Trip. Now, finally making it to Auschwitz felt like putting one of the last pieces in the puzzle.
The original Auschwitz (I) camp has been converted into a large museum complex to illustrate the realities of life and death for its prisoners. Many of the 28 buildings that were used to house and execute prisoners are now exhibits containing moving remnants of the vast amounts of hair, shoes, prosthetic appendages, suitcases, and eyeglasses that had been kept after prisoners had been murdered. The words above the main gate to Auschwitz state, "Arbeit mact frei," or "Work brings freedom," a sarcastic reminder to prisoners of the hopeless irony of their situation. One building was named the "death block," where the first experiments with gas chambers were conducted and many people were killed by firing squad. At the other end of the camp is a larger set of gas chambers and a crematorium, which still contains the scratches from prisoners' fingernails as they struggled through the last moments of their lives. The photo gallery for Poland on our website contains images of many of these things, so I will not go into much of their detail in writing.
We spent most of a morning at Auschwitz I, and then moved only 3 kilometers to the other side of town to Auschwitz II, more commonly known as Birkenou. This second camp that was built later to accommodate increasingly larger number of prisoners which topped 100,000 in 1944 and were contained in the camp's 300+ buildings. The breadth of this camp far exceeds Auschwitz I, stretching almost as far as the eyes can see. There are a fair amount of buildings in their original constructed states, but many others only remain as foundations and chimneys, reminding you that only your imagination could bring the camp back to life. Through the main entrance gate runs a rail line which travels to the opposite end of the camp, terminating near the crematoriums and gas chambers.
Jews were transported on trains from all over Europe which were funneled into this final line and, upon arrival, were sorted according to their physical strength and ability to work. It is estimated that over 70% at this stage were sent directly to the gas chambers, and their bodies stripped of all valuables and afterwords cremated. There are pits near the end of the railway containing large amounts of human ashes as the result of this process. Those who survived this initial selection were forced to battle daily for their constant survival in the camp.
The grounds of Birkenou are open for exploration, and we spent a few hours walking its length and peaking into some of the buildings. When we reached the opposite end where the trains were unloaded, we came across the remains of two destroyed crematoriums and a memorial to all that had died in this location. The memorial consists of 1.5 million bricks, each signifying a life that was lost in the camp.
During the holocaust, 6 of the world's 12 million Jews lost their lives due to direct ethnic and religious cleansing by the Nazis. 1.5 million of these deaths occurred in Auschwitz. I have been trying to mentally grasp what this number really meant for this stage in history and for it's subsequent results hereafter, and it has been a difficult process. Standing at that location and trying to imagine the incredible loss of life was something that I will never forget.
During our time in Krakow there was a Jewish Culture week which presented a series of events, one being a film that commented on Christian/Jewish relationships during the holocaust. With the recent death of Polish Pope John Paul II, Krakow was an interesting place to look a little deeper into this topic. One of the main questions that was brought up during this presentation was, why didn't the rest of the world, specifically the church, do more to speak out against the evils of the holocaust? And it's a very appropriate question. Certainly since the event, much has been said wishing different actions, but why not during it? Was it our fear? Our ignorance?
It is astounding how many similar events are present in world history at various scales. In only the past two decades I can quickly recall Serbia/Bosnia/Kosovo, the Darfur region of Sudan, Rwanda, Saddam Hussein's policy toward the Kurds, and the ongoing violence in Israel toward the Palestinians. Although each event varies greatly in depth and scale, all are the direct result of one group's intolerance (ethnically, politically, religiously) of a specific other. What scares me even more than the horrific realities of these events is the potential they have to repeat themselves through reactions that are spawned from the suffering of their victims.
As human beings, I think it is important for all of us to remember that we are capable of playing either side in these events; we can be either the victims or the perpetrators, and by becoming one it is easier to become the other. And by standing aside and doing nothing to speak out against the evils in the world and change our lifestyles to benefit those who are suffering, we become the oppressors.
When we passed by the two crematories at the end of Birkenou that were intentionally bombed by the Nazis when they realized they had lost the war and would be discovered, there was a sign that read, "Keep off the Ruins." This caught me in a strange way because of the word, "ruins." Usually when I encounter this word in points back into the years of the past, dating something that was significant in the progression of human history. Yet, although these ruins were fairly recent, they still seem to deserve to be put in the same category.
Although the holocaust is becoming farther from the personal experience of the world's population, it's realities and repercussions live on. I am very curious about which "ruins" will remain with significance after my lifetime, and how my life interacted with their creation and destruction. My hope is that we can break free from these cycles of hatred and prejudice, and can have the courage to do that in a way that is truly effective. Our work must come first in shaping our own attitudes, as well as those of our community and country. History will tell the rest...
July 02, 2005
Communism: Dream, Reality, Nightmare?
What a difference twenty years makes. Today, walking the narrow streets of downtown Prague, the atmosphere feels much like any other touristy European city. Near the center of town, I stop for a break at a corner McDonald's, order a small coffee (in English, of course!), and pick up a copy of the latest USA Today newspaper on the table beside me. Now sitting at one of the many internet cafes, I have just spent the last half hour sending and receiving emails with the western world...
This wasn't always the picture here in the Czech Republic, or in the rest of the former "Soviet bloc" for that matter. Talk to the locals here long enough, and glimpses of a very different life are soon discovered. Media sensorship, the Secret Police, socialist ideals, government propoganda, economic policy, a "classless society," and the list of relevant topics could go on and on... Nearly everyone has some very poignant reflections on what it was like to live under a Communist regime. Yet over the past several weeks, I have been surprised to find that not everyone is in agreement on the perceived progress that has occurred within the last two decades.
Curious about some of the discrepencies of opinion that I was encountering, I decided to spend my first morning in Prague at a newly-opened Museum of Communism in the downtown district. Glenn Spicker, the museum's creator, designed it as a place not only for tourists, but also for younger Czechs who don't remember life under Communism. In a recent interview with Newsweek, he remarks that "visitors who see the Benettons and Pizza Huts don't get an idea of how different life was... [and] the younger generation has not been told the whole story by their parents because everyone's too busy living a new life."
Although Karl Marx published his famous Communist Manifesto way back in the mid-1800's, it wasn't until the following century that his utopian ideals really began to take root. Characterized by an extreme hatred of the establishment and the wealthy class, Marx's protege Lenin initiated the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. As a result of the hardships of post-WWII Europe, these attractive ideas began to spread westward. In 1946, with Marx's brand of socialism seen as the answer to the poverty and economic stagnation taking place across the continent, the people of Czechoslovakia voted the Communist party into power with 38% of the vote.
What followed was a steady progression of economic and social changes. Independent farmers were forced to join agrarian enterprises and coops, and industries were nationalized. In the schools, children were taught to hate the wealthy classes and democratic nations, while the common laborers were promoted as being the true heros of society. Religion was also discouraged, as it distracted from economic production and was a barrier in the path towards true revolution. Along with fixed wages for workers, prices in the stores were also determined by the government. Although the idea seemed great, the reality of a huge surplus of demand over supply led to empty store shelves and an underground barter economy.
What I found most disturbing, however, were the ways in which the Communist regimes held on to their power, often using fear and propoganda to force the population into comformity. Capitalism and the west (particularly the U.S.) were depicted as the enemy, an "empire of evil" out to rule the world through exploiting labor and minorities. At one point in the 1950's, a potato bug attacked fields in Czech and East Germany. The government, making the most of the opportunity, informed the public that these were "America Bugs" being spread by U.S. airplanes, and thus initiated a huge media campaign against the west. At one point, the Communist government even began to pass out gas masks, and used repetitive messages of fear and propoganda to promote war hysteria within the general population. The enemy was portrayed as being perverse enough to use weapons of mass destruction on innocent children and families...
It was at this point in my tour through the museum that I began to notice a few parallels. Now I have been out of the U.S. for almost nine months, but all of this talk about fear, an ememy with weapons of mass destruction, and "empires of evil" began to sound strikingly familiar. Sort of like something one might hear while watching the evening news, or in a speech from our commander-in-chief. Yet this was all from a museum dedicated to a fallen, oppressive Communist regime... not a portrait of our mighty nation, a beacon of freedom and democracy to the rest of the world. The irony of it all hit me squarely in the face, and I wondered if some of the same observations were being made by the crowd of internationals passing through the museum as well that day.
As we all know, the Communist system didn't survive. Despite the lofty ideals that it was established under, and its often violent supression of dissenting voices, the system fell at the hands of its own people. In January 1969, a Czechoslovakian college student by the name of Jan Palach burnt himself alive, in protest of the Soviet occupation of his country. This triggered a massive underground movement in the years that followed, consisting of the distribution of pro-democracy literature, music, and art to the general population. People eventually took to the streets, and by 1989 Communist governments in Poland and Hungary were officially ousted at the polls. Several months later, on the 9th of November, the people of Berlin began to dismantle the wall, effectively destroying the most tangible symbol of Communism's "iron curtain." In Czechoslovakia, knowing they had lost the support of their people, Communist leaders resigned and were replaced by their democratic opposition. This has since been referred to as the "Velvet Revolution," in recognition of the smooth and largely bloodless transfer of power that took place.
Here I will return to my original question, which has to do with this lingering support for socialism that is still present among a portion of the population in Eastern Europe. Here in the Czech Republic, for example, in the 2002 parliamentary election, the Communist party still retained 20% of the total vote. In talking with a man from Slovakia a few weeks ago, he said the reason for this support is quite simple. When the Communists were in power, everyone had a job. Maybe there wasn't a huge variety of things to chose from in the stores, but at least most everyone was earning enough money to feed themselves and their families. And that was all that really mattered.
Competition is fierce in the European economic markets these days. And although the growth of the European Union is often viewed as a very positive development, I have also seen a much different side to that coin. Many of the smaller countries of Eastern Europe simply cannot compete with the powerhouses of Western Europe. Although many of these larger countries are expanding their industries into the East, unfortunately the profits from this expansion will not remain here - it will go back to the West. And of course as the Euro is adopted and local currencies phased out, many Eastern Europeans find that their money, while perhaps more stable, simply doesn't go as far (true for those of us traveling with US dollars as well!).
It will be with a certain degree of sadness that I now leave Eastern Europe. After some wonderful interactions with the people, and lots of fascinating discoveries about the history and culture in this part of the continent, I continue to move on. Most of my time here in Prague the weather has been rainy and overcast, which has delayed my plans for the final leg of my ride into Germany. So this evening I will take a train to Cheb, in western Czech Republic along the German border. From there, I should have enough time to ride the remaining 300km along the River Main to Frankfurt, where I will meet my friend Wayne on July 7th.
June 28, 2005
Re-biking Slovakia to Poland
Kurt and I spent the last week biking through northwestern Slovakia from Vienna, Austria, to Krakow, Poland. We had a great ride with near ideal conditions, making good time as the hills and mountains rose before us, presenting more challenging climbs and descents. One day we kept putting in the miles, completing our 4th century of the journey.
One night we camped out at the base of the mouth of a huge cave overlooking beautiful mountain valleys. Another we made our home along a lake in the northern part of Slovakia, spending our time with some local teenagers cooking sausages around a campfire. Slovakia is the home to many historic castles mounted high on the hills above many cities and villages.
We have now arrived in Krakow and have spent several days relaxing, meeting fellow travelers at our hostel, and exploring the sites of this small, beautiful and historical city. Today we will bike west towards Auschewitz, visit the concentration camp tomorrow, and then progress westward to Prague.
June 21, 2005
Stories of Rain, Rivers, and Eastern European Hospitality
When the Rain Comes...
Within minutes of crossing the border from Bosnia into Croatia, we knew we were in for some nasty weather. Earlier in the afternoon, we had enjoyed a beautiful ride with Nate Kauffman over rolling hills down to the Croatian border post. Now on the other side of the bridge, the conditions had changed drastically. Dark clouds loomed overhead, and a stiff wind began to blow steadily against us. These were not exactly the ideal conditions that we had experienced through much of our tour in Bosnia, and I wasn't thrilled by the prospect of getting completely drenched just a few hours before setting up camp. When the wind increased to the point that our pedaling seemed to get us nowhere, we decided that this might be an opportunity to put ourselves at the mercy of the locals and see what happens.
Heading out of town, we noticed an old wooden barn that despite its worn and delapidated condition looked as though it might provide some adequate shelter until the storm passed. However, before we even got a chance to check it out, the farmer and his wife saw us from their patio on the other side of the road. Recognizing our need, they offered us a dry place to hang out until the storm passed. We ended up spending over an hour with this friendly Croatian family, enjoying drinks, fresh cherries, and attempting to communicate through a mixture of broken German and English.
Once the rain had slowed down considerably, we ventured north to the town of Novska and bought some groceries for dinner. Unfortunately, after exiting the supermarket the rain began to pick up again, this time with no indication that it would quickly pass. We asked a few locals about good places to camp in the area, and got a handful of strange looks in return. One young guy pointed across the street to a concrete bus station on the corner of a deserted parking lot. With a smile, he assured us that this would be a good place to stay dry for the night. Although I must admit that I didn't sleep the best, it did prove to be one of our most memorabe "campsites" thus far on the bike trip.
The following day, the rain continued. Riding north towards the Hungarian border, we pushed through the cold and wet until we arrived in the quiet town of Slatina. We again bought our groceries and set out to find an appropriate campsite. On the outskirts of town, we happened to pass by a small town park with lots of grass and a few large trees to help protect us from the wind. Since it was a public area, we decided to ask the owner of a corner store if it was OK to camp there. This turned out to be our wisest decision of the day.
Bozika, the friendly middle-aged store owner, soon made a few phone calls and determined that we would be fine to pitch our tents in the park across the street. At least that's what we thought she was trying to communicate to us through her rambling Croatian mixed with wild hang gestures. As we were halfway through cooking our pasta later in the evening, she appeared again, this time with two teenage girls that knew a fair amount of English. Turns out, she wanted to invite us to her home for dinner. Suddenly another night of pasta didn't seem so appealing, and we quickly accepted her offer. One plate of food led to another, and before long we had to start hiding our plates and cups under the table so she wouldn't continue filling them. It was a late of night of laughter and fun around the table, and as we left to return to our campsite, she insisted that we return in the morning for a 6am breakfast. Not exactly as early as we normally get up, but considering the circumstances...
We enjoyed a hearty meal of bacon, eggs, bread, vegetables and pastries the following morning, then said goodbye to Bozika and started to head across the street to pack up our things. But before we could get out the door, she started grabbing random food items off the shelves of the store and shoving them into our arms. It is hard to refuse hospitality, but at one point it felt as though she would give us the entire store if we let her. Our experience in those 12 brief hours begged the question... What compels this kind of selfless giving towards complete strangers? I have met very few people who would give as freely as she did to random, unknown travelers passing through. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in receiving hospitality, and left me with a lot to ponder as I pedaled away.
"Could You Cook Our Pasta, Please?"
Leaving Slatina, we ventured out again into the lingering cold rain. The temperature had dropped considerably overnight, and the going was difficult. On our way to the Hungarian border, we stopped at several different cafes along the road, staying long enough to feel our toes again and muster the energy and willpower to push on. On each ocassion, we met friendly locals who laughed as we staggered wet and dripping through the door. And every time, someone felt sorry enough for us to buy us a round of hot drinks, which helped considerably to warm us up and get us going again.
We sincerely hoped that crossing the border into Hungary would bring a change in weather. But when countries are literally the size of small states in the U.S., crossing a border doesn't guarentee much of a change in conditions. So the rain continued, and we were forced once again to find a somewhat sheltered campsite. After climbing a steep ascent out of Harkeny, we stopped at a fancy hilltop restaurant to see if we could camp in a grove of trees to the rear of their property. They assured us that this shouldn't be a problem, and if we had any interest in some tasty Hungarian specialities, we should come on over to the restaurant.
After setting up our tents for the night, we opted to save some money and go with our traditional meal of pasta and vegetables cooked over our campstove. But as we pulled out our canister of camping gas, we realized that the valve had not been properly shut from the night before, and we were without fuel for the stove. There were no towns within several kilometers of our campsite, and none of us felt like venturing back out into the rain to purchase more fuel.
So with our pot and bag of pasta in hand, Kurt and Dave walked over to the back entrance of the restaurant. It was an awkward proposition, but with a laugh the large chef agreed to cook up our pasta for us. Within a few minutes, we had our dinner of pasta, and had made a few friends at the restaurant as well. No doubt they will always remember the day three Americans showed up in the driving rain, camped under some trees out back, and asked for some help in cooking their pasta!
The following day we awoke to our fifth straight day of rain. By this time we were mentally unprepared to go much further in these miserable conditions, and so we rode for a few hours in the morning to the southern Hungarian town of Pecs. Here we decided it best to take a day off to dry out our gear and regroup. With the help of some local university students who found us near the center of town, we walked around and eventually located an apartment in a family's home that we could rent for the night, for a very reasonable price. We spent the remainder of the day in Pecs relaxing, cleaning up our things, and hoping for better weather in the morning.
Night Riding on the Danube
Like many of the other Eastern European countries that we have been riding through, Hungary is a land of quiet, friendly people, many of whom live in small agricultural villages. Still relatively sheltered from the influences of their Western European counterparts, the culture is rich and fascinating. Although the stream of tourists is rapidly increasing in many of these countries, it is still possible to ride through small midieval-looking villages and feel as though you are the first foreign traveler to pass through for months. However, as the European Union continues to grow and spread its influence across the continent, there are very legitimate fears among the people that their cultural and national identities will soon be lost. It is a good time to visit this part of the world.
Leaving Pecs, the weather finally turned to our favor and we pointed our bicycles northeast towards Budapest. Hungary has a well-developed system of cycling routes, one of which runs the entire length of the Danube River. The fertile Danube river valley is one of Hungary's leading agricultural areas, and often the cycle path runs along the top of a dike on the eastern bank of the river. It is straight, monotonous riding, and so on our first night we decided to mix things up a bit and ride through part of the night. It was finally beautiful weather, and we were determined to take advantage of it! Free from the traffic of the roads, we used the light of the moon to light our path, and enjoyed the peaceful sounds of the night as we continued north along the river bank. It was a wonderful experience.
Following the gentle upgrade of the river, we made the next day our longest thus far, riding the remaining 110 miles to the beautiful city of Budapest. Exhausted from the long ride, we eventually found a hostel on the west side of the city called the Backpackers Guesthouse. A brightly painted, well-designed residential house in the suburbs of the city, the hostel was a gathering point for travelers from all over the world. Our first night there were over 50 people there, some sleeping in bunk beds, others on the floor (that would be me!), and others on the patio out back. It was a lively atmosphere, and the melting pot of nationalaties present made for a very enjoyable stay. We stayed up late on many nights, sharing traveling stories, talking about life, and getting to know people from around the world.
We did of course get out of the hostel a few times to explore the city as well. One of my good friends from high school has a sister, Janelle Zook, who has spent the last two summers teaching English in Budapest. On Tuesday morning she took us on a tour of the western side of the city (Buda). Glad for an opportunity to get off the bikes, we walked up to the citadel and presidential palace on a hill overlooking the Danube for a wonderful view of the city, and later stopped at a small Hungarian cafe for lunch. It continues to amaze me that in almost every country we visit, there are friends or acquantances that also happen to be there, which of course provide great opportunities to make connections and share in other people's experiences as well.
The Flat That Wouldn't Go Away
From Budapest we crossed the Danube at the touristy town of Esztergam and spent the following days riding through western Slovakia. Of all the countries that we have ridden through, Slovakia has reminded me the most of my home area of southeast Pennsylvania. Or at least how it might have looked 100 years ago, before the rise of tourism and urbanization. Rolling hills, small farming communities, and quiet streams and forests made it a real treat to ride through.
Since we had several days before we needed to be in Vienna, we picked a random destination in central Slovakia by the name of Banska Stiavnica and headed in that direction. We really didn't know a thing about where we were going, except that our map had a little castle icon next to the village, so we knew there must be something worth checking out there. Although we hadn't intended to take a particularly leisurely approach to getting to this town, sometimes the amount of progress made is completely out of your control. Like when you experience 8-10 flats on the same tire, and no amount of patching or changing of tubes seems to help. We ended up doing barely 60km that day, and by evening the only remaining option was for Dave to push his bike the final 8km into town. Fortunately Eric and Kurt had already rode ahead, found a local guy who knew the owner of a bike shop in town, and were able to buy an extra tube and patch kit even though it was well after closing time. It was a frustrating day, but considering that we had no pressing destination or schedule crunch, we made the most of it and managed to find the humor in it all.
And the best part was that our slow pace made it possible to connect with a Slovakian couple who also were doing some cycle touring in the area of Banska Stiavnica. We met Igor and Monica outside of the supermarket in town, and after talking for a bit they invited us to ride with them to a small lake above town where they intended to also camp for the night. They spoke excellent English, and were eager to help us have a wonderful experience in their home country of Slovakia. The following morning, after enjoying a breakfast together, Igor gave us a detailed route for riding to Bratislava, where we could cross the river into Austria.
Our ride west to Bratislava was a most enjoyable one, full of more interesting experiences in Slovakian hospitality. Two days later, we are now in Vienna, where we will spend a few days exploring the city and relaxing a bit. We are staying with Bernd Koppenhoefer, a friend of our family who has been working in Vienna for the past three years. And we are excited to get together this afternoon with Renee Glick, a friend of ours from EMU who also happens to be in the city during the same time we are.
From Vienna, our paths will split for the next month. Dave and Kurt will ride back into Slovakia and make their way north to Krakow, Poland. Meanwhile, I will ride through Austria into the Czeck Republic and visit the city of Prague for a few days, before continuing west to Frankfurt. A close friend of mine from Lancaster, Wayne Groff, is flying into Frankfurt in early July, and we plan to spend a little over two weeks traveling around Germany together. In mid-July, all four of us plan to reunite in Berlin, before Dave and I catch our flight east to India. As always we would appreciate your prayers during the coming month as yet another chapter of this journey comes to a close and we transition into the next.
June 07, 2005
Busing the Balkans
It has now been nearly two weeks since our first border crossing on bicycles into Bulgaria, beginning our travels in the Balkan countries. Today we will have our second border crossing on our bikes into Croatia, even though we have spent the last two weeks traveling throughout four countries and one United Nations Protectorate, observing and learning about the complex and tragic history of this region. Much has happened and many people have been met, and it is still difficult to summarize the last few weeks in words...
While in Sofia, Bulgaria, we decided to make a bit of a route switch and get a bus to Kosovo instead of cycling northwest through Serbia to Sarajevo. Because of our schedule and our strong desire to visit some friends in the region, we felt that switching to buses for a week would be a justified option.
So on May 27th, we loaded our bikes under the bus and headed for Skopje, Macedonia where we would get a connecting bus to Pristina, Kosovo. Although Kosovo is working its way towards being an independent state, its current status is a UN Protectorate, which has been the case since June of 1999. In March of the same year, the Serbian Army (Christian Orthodox) moved to empty the country of its Albanian Muslim populaion, causing nearly 850,000 people to flee in order to escape violent ethnic cleansing. A bombing campaign was launched against the Serbs by the US & NATO that put a halt to some of the violence on the ground, causing Serb forces to pull out. Only 6 years later, the effects of this war were very visible on both the land and the people of Kosovo.
It is primarily because of the fact that Pristina is the hometown of two of my friends that I had interest in visiting. An international exchange student from EMU, Lutka Demaj, came to the US to study business in Virginia. During my time studying there, I got to know Lutka better and learned a lot about Kosovo's history and situation. This past summer I worked at Grand View Hospital in Pennsylvania and found that another Pristina native was working in my same department. Fadil and I soon became good friends, spending the summer months working together. After hearing so much about the region, I was curious to visit and see it for myself.
As our bus crossed the UN border and made its way to Pristina, the one thing that caught my attention first was how many buildings were being constructed or reconstructed. I had expected to see more visible damage from the bombings during the war, but more than anything, the regions we were passing through were being rebuilt, looking new and Western. We were greeted with warm hospitality in Pristina as we asked for directions to find our way around (since the war, there are only a few streets labeled with signs) and made our way to connect with the Demaj family. We met Lutka's sisters and mother and had a wonderful evening with them, including a delicious Albanian meal.
The next day we explored the city a little more and were able to connect with Fadil's two children still living in Pristina. Most of the family had left when the war broke out and moved the the US, settling in Harleysville, my hometown. Over coffee and dinner, we learned more from Arbana and Arben, realizing that we had been neighbors only a few years ago, but were meeting for the first time not in Pennsylvania, but in Kosovo. Our time in Kosovo also included a visit to the pictureque town of Prizren and the international evangelical church, both which were learning experiences and brought to light some of the complexity of the region that has been a result of international involvement.
We have mentioned briefly in other writings that the image of America to the world is not one that is readily welcomed. It was a pleasant surprise for is in Kosovo, however, that the United States is the most popular foreign country. There is a hotel with a miniature model of the statue of liberty on the roof and a street named after Bill Clinton. We were told that at graduations, the American flag hangs next to the flag of Kosovo. It was definitely a strange feeling...
From Kosovo, our next destination was Sarajevo, Bosnia, which required a round-about bus route taking us back through Skopje, Macedonia and Belgrade, Serbia. We decided to take two overnight buses and spent the days in the capital cities, allowing for time to explore but little to sleep. When we arrived in Sarajevo, Bosnia early in the morning, we were a bit dazed but excited to be in a beautiful city with a complex history.
The war in Bosnia broke out in 1992, a year after the country declared its independence from Yugoslavia, when Serbian snipers killed a dozen peace demonstrators in the Holiday Inn. The city of Sarajevo was under Serbian siege for the next three years, leaving over 10,000 civilians dead. Brutal ethnic cleansing occured in the region as Serbians expelled Muslims from northeastern Bosnia, terrorizing and looting villages, destroying homes in order to prevent the return of refugees. Concentration camps were also set up for both Bosnian Muslims and Croats (Roman Catholic from Croatia), the two non-Serbian ethnic groups living in the region. As a region of the country was set up for these two groups by the UN, violence continued between all three groups and NATO slowly became involved. Once of the most tragic events of the war was when 6000 Muslim men were massacred by the Serbian army as they fled through the forest in 1995. Soon after, the US and UN once again stepped up involvment and agreements were reached to split the country half, one being the Muslim-Croat Federation and the other as the Republic of Srpska.
As we can only attempt to imagine the recent violence of this region, it becomes evident that despair and hopelessness would be two of the largest obstacles since the war. The city of Sarajevo is a mosaic of churches and mosques and synagogues, surrounded by buildings painted with the evidence of shelling and fire. Employment in many towns ranges from 60-85%, and many Bosnians are used to surviving only, as attempts to improve the progression of the country are coming very slowly. Tensions between ethnic/religious groups still abound.
Our friend from EMU, Cathy Smith, is currently serving in a one year SALT term with MCC in the Bosnian town of Jajce. Cathy connected us to MCC Bosnia and we have spent the last week learning local initiatives working with refugees and bridging camps between ethnic and religious groups.
In Sarajevo we spent some time with Keziah Conrad who is working with the Pontanima Interreligious Choir. This group is composed of members from all of Bosnia's religous and ethnic groups and sings music from their collective traditions - Jewish, Orthodox Christian, Islamic, Catholic and Protestant. We were blessed to sit in on a practice one evening and watch the diverse group sing. The choir tours villages around the country, and have been received in powerfully moving ways as their bridge gaps between faiths that share a common violent past.
From Sarajevo, we hopped back on our bikes for our longest day of the trip at 160km to reach the town of Jajce where Cathy is staying. We spent the weekend relaxing with her, hanging out and enjoying a beautiful Saturday walk out along the river to the lakes on the edge of town. Cathy works with a womens' group which has recently organized a large-scale childrens festival including many from surrounding villages.
We spent a lot of time talking about how our experiences have been affecting us and about what it might be like for us to go back to the states, back into American culture, and how to share with our home communities. I can still remember clearly back to last summer when I said goodbye to Cathy as she was beginning her one year experience. Now as she is starting to see the remaining months of her time in Bosnia, it starts to remind me that our trip will eventually be winding down too.
Most of our time in Bosnia has felt like I was just trying to figure out what had happened here with the wars and what had caused the larger general ambiguity in my mind. It has become increasingly difficult throughout this trip to express the experience in writing and to critically process it as we go. There is also an important balance between spending our time writing/processing and actually living out the experience. The two come in waves of intensity, but it often feels that our desire is to do more living and less talking. The learning will come later as it needs to, making everything clear.
Many of the people here seem to struggle to look ahead down the road, beyond the survival mentality that results from living through a war. When I look ahead into this journey, I see the end of July as a time when Cathy returns to America, the bike trip comes to an end in Germany, and Eric and I fly to India to begin the final stretch of our trip across Asia. The past year has been an indescrible experience for all of us, and the paradox of trying to live and think both now and ahead comes more into my mind as the journey progresses. It seems like a lot of the challenge during the steps ahead will be finding the best way to be aware of where we are and where we are going, as we will be there soon enough.
We are now in Prijador, Bosnia with MCC workers Nate and Jen Kauffman and will spend our day biking from here into Croatia.
While in Sarajevo, we discovered the exhibit of a video written and performed by Damir Niksic, a recreation of the Fiddler on the Roof's "If I Was a Rich Man...". One of the goals of his work is to raise awareness that some of the tragedies in this part of the world are the same tragedy that has reoccured throughout history in many different places and times. This project identifies the Bosnian Muslim history with the Jewish tragedy during the holocaust at the hands of religious intolerance within Christian Europe.
IF I WASN'T MUSLIM - Damir Niksic
If I wasn't Muslim
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I wasn't born Mohammedan
Life for me would have been fun.
I could live and prosper
On my land and I could even build a bigger house
I wouldn't have to, every now and then,
Run and hide like a mouse.
If I wasn't Muslim
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba deedle deedle dum.
My neighbors wouldn't set my home on fire
And surround me with barbed wire
I wouldn't live in terror
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba deedle deedle dum.
Books wouldn't teach you that I was an error
In European history.
I would not have to prove that I am not stupid
A backward and primitive villain
An alien threat to your way of life
to be hunted down.
I wouldn't be so ashamed of
The names of my relatives and mine
Of the Semitic language I speak to my God
That no one here understands
My tradition wouldn't insult
My Christian neighbors and friends
My diet, my cap, the Ramadan fast
the crescent and the star.
Bayram, I know, will never be famous
like Christmas or Easter Sunday
so modern and cool, so western,
and - oh so "secular".
If I wasn't Muslim
If I had an ordinary Slavic Christian name
If I wasn't circumcised
If I could eat my eggs with ham
I would be accepted
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba deedle deedle dum.
I'd blend in to Europe and enjoy
I wouldn't be its whipping boy.
If I were a Christian
I wouldn't have to prove that I am human too.
'Cause when you're Christian you're always civilized
no matter what you wear or do.
But when you are a Muslim
It is really hard to find some sympathy for you
No one really likes you, no one really cares
No one wants to know your point of view.
If I wasn't Muslim
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I was a part of Christendom
Europe would be my sweet home.
I wouldn't have to worry
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba deedle deedle dum.
What will happen in a year or two
Will I have to leave or stay and die
Drop my pants to be identified and put aside
Just 'cause I'm a Mussulman?
May 26, 2005
Athens to Sofia on Two Wheels
According to my bicycle computer's odometer it is 1101.4 KM from our hotel in Athens, Greece to our new place of residence in Sofia, Bulgaria. Though it certainly is not fair to describe our trip with such a simple statistic. Nothing against statistics, they have their place, its just that they don't leave room for the quality of hat has transpired in the last two weeks.
In our time in the saddle we have learned that travel by bicycle is an amazing thing. The idea of being able to be outside with no barriers between you and the places you are traveling is a very freeing thing. Freeing not only for us but for the people we are encountering as we go. To them we are seen as people ON bicycles whereas if we were in a car we would be viewed as the car itself not as people IN a car. This openness along with the physical reality of riding a bicycle loaded down with all our gear and belongings is quite the invitation for hospitality whether it is a couple of oranges from a kind woman or a whole evening of food and entertainment from a group of Greeks (more on that later).
Riding a bicycle across a distance is also a more initimate way of travel as it forces you to be completely engaged for the duration of your trip; there is no way to catch a quick nap during a bicycle ride like we could traveling by bus or train. Also it means you are hyper-aware of any geographical change. Any time the road rises or falls with the hills and mountains we will know all too well. Same with the climate of the land. Compare the more humid climate of the coast with a dryer one along Greece's interior and we can say we measured the differance not by a number the weather forcast told us, but by the number of times we had to fill our water bottles during the day.
So then about that hospitality, after riding our bikes out of Larisa we soon found the sun a little lower than we would like considering that we still had to find a campsite. We decided to stop in the closest town and ask where a good place might be. After getting directions from a local man we made our way down to a small lakeside park with some nice tall trees. Upon arrival we discovered that along side this park was more than just a lake. Our park came stocked with three restaurants, one church, an osterich, go-kart track, too many Greek dogs and a handful of friendly people, including two metalheads in a black car. At first I was a little skeptical of the intentions of these two characters, but I soon realized that all they wanted was to have a good time, and it seemed that tonight we would be included in the festivities. After explaining the idea behind our trip and how we had been traveling they insisted that we would not be cooking our own meal tonight and that they would return with some food.
So we waited around for what seemed a long enough time considering our post-ride hunger, until they, as promised, returned with some local fare of stuffed peppers, goat cheese, bread, candy, and ice cream. As well as another person for even more company. After eating and talking for quite a while our defacto hosts for the night had organized with the local security of a water pumping station that we would sleep in the grassy courtyard of the town pumphouse (situated between the park and the lake) instead of the dusty park ground... OK by us. Then our hosts decided that we did not have enough food OR company so off they went again for reinforcements. They returned shortly with warm sandwiches and an impressively packed car. Our numbers we now in the double digits and our stomachs were definitely full.
After our night by the pump house we had a pleasant three day ride into Thessaloniki. Those days of riding took us over some of our hardest and most beautiful climbs as we crossed the Olympic mountain range. The long, fast coasts on the back sides of the mountains were always worth the effort, though one proved to be too much for Dave's rear wheel as he broke a spoke while braking before one of the hairpin turns. We then spent the greater part of the morning attempting to fix the wheel ourselves even though we lacked both the correct spoke length and the necessary tools for the job. Eventually we decided it best to find a bike shop in the nearby city of Katarini.
With the new spoke installed we headed onward for Thessaloniki and arrived in good time the next day. In Thessaloniki we explored the city by foot, enjoyed more Greek food and found Dave a more substantial wheel strengthened with 36 spokes instead of 32 like his old wheel had as well as more tools so we will be better equipped should a problem arise again. Leaving the city was not a pleasant experience as Salonika (as the city is also known) is nestled nicely between the sea and a low range of mountains which are not very fun to cross alongside city traffic.
Once the climb was over and we were off the major road we decided to stop in a small town's grocery store for some dinner. It was here that we encountered our second notable display of Greek hospitality. After our groceries were paid for, the owner of the store added some extra food to our bags and invited us to his wife's cafe across the town, or to describe the size of the village I should say, on the other side of the street. In the cafe we enjoyed tall glasses of frappe (cold frothy coffee) and good conversation with our new Greek friend and his German wife. We spent our time talking about travel philosophy, the importance of hospitality, and both international and local politics.
After a lengthy amount of time spent in the cafe, our new friends gave us directions to a nice roadside campsite complete with running water and picnic tables. The next day we woke early and finished the climb out of the Strymonas River valley and enjoyed our last large descent in Greece. After a filling lunch we spun out the remaining flats through a gap in the mountains to Bulgaria!
The border crossing went very smoothly with the only hangup being how very little I look like my passport photo which was taken when I was in the tenth grade and had bleached and very short hair. From the border it was only three day's ride to get into the Bulgarian capital city of Sofia. Here we plan to spend some time reorganizing, exploring the city with its many churches and mosques, and preparing for our next leg of the journey.
Our plan for the next week or so is to take public transportation from Sofia south west into Kosovo where we will visit the family of a friend of ours from EMU and the family of a co-worker of Dave's who both live in Pristina. From there we will continue by public transportation north to portions of Serbia that we are hoping to be more ideal for traveling by bicycle.
May 18, 2005
A Tale of Three Bikes
Looking back, our final weekend in Harrisonburg last October was a blur. With hope of what was to come, Dave and I had endured a long, exhausting summer of work; earning money and staying up late planning for the year ahead. Once all was finished at home, we jumped in my Pontiac Sunfire and headed down to Harrisonburg, VA on our way south to Mexico. That was seven months ago, and despite traveling thousands of miles, I haven't driven a car since.
At some point during the craziness of that weekend, I managed to work out a last minute deal to sell my car to a fellow student. Not only would a car be completely unneccesary for the next year, I could use the extra money for other things. Like a bicycle. So within a few hours after completing the paperwork for my car, I walked to the East Coast Bicycle Shop to see what was available. Knowing very little about road bikes, I took along Dave and Kurt (who is now traveling with us) to provide some knowledgable advice. Fortunately, we discovered that they had the perfect bike for me... a Fuji touring design, loaded with extras, for an unbeatable price. Since the new models had already arrived, it was the only one left and they were eager to sell. It was the kind of bike that could get me across Eastern Europe, plus provide years of virtually free transportation once I return.
So I bought the bike, even knowing that it would be several months until I would see it again. Not wanting to see my investment sit idle for so long, I decided to leave it at EMU so that it would get some use. I'm not sure who all has ridden it, but from what I hear, the bike has even been through Everglades National Park and seen an alligator up close... Which is sort of how the box looked when it arrived at Athens airport last week... But despite the mangled appearance of the box, the bike inside still looked like new and has been riding very nicely since the start of our trip.
Although Dave has owned his bike since he was 14, it has probably covered more ground in the last few months than at any other time in its history. After being transported down to Harrisonburg by Dave's sister, Maria, it also remained there for several months while Kurt made some repairs and outfitted it for touring. In early March, Laura and Alethia graciously agreed to bring the bike over with them when they visited us in Israel.
So the bike was boxed up, only to be unboxed for transport in Alethia's car up to Lancaster, where it was boxed up again to send on the plane. It was then driven to JFK airport and checked in at the airline counter. After a stressful experience in Zurich explaining to the security officials that they were indeed carrying a bike with them, they eventually arrived in Tel-Aviv, where Linford Stutzman took over. He took the bike with him on a bus to the marina in Ashkelon. And the story isn't over!
Once in Ashkelon, Dave's bike was unpacked, taken apart, and placed down in a storage hold in the bottom of the sailboat. It remained there for the duration of our time sailing, crossing the open sea to Cyprus and then along the Turkish coast. Upon our arrival in Kusadasi, Dave eagerly pulled the bike out, assembled it again, and took it for several short test runs. From Turkey, we took it on a small ferry to Samos, and then stowed it away again for the overnight ferry trip to Athens. Finally arriving in Athens, Dave wheeled the bike onto the Metro, where he was informed that he must take the wheels off before boarding. Having come this far, we of course complied and were soon in our downtown hostel. The manager agreed to let us keep the bikes in a downstairs storage area, which quickly filled up with gear and spare parts once Kurt arrived. Already with a wealth of traveling experience under its belt, Dave's bike is now tuned up and ready for the next stage of its incredible journey.
Kurt Rosenberger, a friend of ours from EMU, isn't new to the world of travel or bicycling. Although in the class two years behind us, we quickly began to recognize the friendly guy from State College, PA, who insisted on riding his bike all around campus. It was during our senior year, after Kurt returned from a cross-cultural to the Middle East, that we began to discuss the possibility of him joining us for a portion of our trip. He soon agreed that it was a good idea, provided we traveled by bicycle. During many long hours of working on Dave's sailboat together, the idea was solidified and Kurt began to make plans for spending two months of his summer with us in Europe. In fact, since our access to planning resources is quite limited, Kurt has done much of the research and organization for this portion of our trip.
Kurt arrived in Athens last week sporting long hair pulled back in a ponytail and a two large bike boxes. The one was mine, and the other was a new Surly frame that he had recently built in anticipation of this trip. Many of the components are from his racing bike at home. A stylish dark green, it has blended in quite nicely with the lush Mediterranaean landscape of the region. Although he is still making some adjustments to get the right fit, it seems to be working quite nicely thus far.
Aside from the bikes, Kurt brings a refreshing energy and enthusiasm to travel that Dave and I sometimes lose sight of. Our travel can often become very repititive, and so a different form of transportation and a new face have provided us with the fresh perspective that we needed. It's not always easy for someone to join a trip in the middle of it, but we have no doubts that Kurt will be a good fit. And of course, if our bikes break down (which they will!), there are very few other guys I'd rather have around at that moment...!
It has now been almost a week since we packed up our panniers, saddled up, and rode out of Athens. Our first stop on the way out was the old Olympic stadium, where we posed for pictures and focused ourselves for the madenning mid-day traffic of the city. It really didn't turn out as bad as we thought, and by the end of the day we were out of the city and approaching the town of Marathon (where the first Olympic "marathon" started from).
Leaving Marathon the next day, we attempted to ride out along the coast and quickly found that just because a road is on the map, doesn't mean that its good for riding. Much of the Greek coastline is quite rugged, and so the majority of the following day was spent pushing our bikes up and down gravelly, washed-out roads. As the orange glow of evening approached and our odometers displayed our dismal progress for the day, we took comfort in remembering some of our Bible triva from Sunday School class. Even without the gold thing, at least the streets of heaven are paved!
We found a piece of heaven the following day, as we got on one of the major roads heading north and made substantial progress. With snow-capped moutains on either side, we glided through a beautiful valley of wheat and olive trees. And suprisingly, the traffic was manageable and the road conditions excellent. Basically, the past few days have been absolutely ideal for touring.
Of course, Dave and I have been sitting on a sailboat for the past month, and therefore the past week hasn't been without a bit of pain. Yesterday we spent the morning ascending our first major pass (1200m) which presented a bit of a challenge. And that afternoon, on the plains south of Larisa we encountered a strong headwind which made for difficult going. So we stopped in a small agricultural village, received permission from the mayor to camp in the town park, and had a refreshing night of rest. Despite starting off with very little training, we find ourselves getting a bit stronger each day. Each day we go a little farther, feel more comfortable, and gain a bit more confidence.
One week into this tour from Athens to Frankfurt, I must say that overall things are going better than expected. Having ridden a total of about 5 hours on a road bike prior to this trip, each day is a new experience for me. Committing myself to two months of cycling without really knowing what it was about was a definite source of anxiety in the past few months. However, if the first week is any indication, this is going to be a wonderful experience. The company is good, the scenery incredible, the form of transportation ideal. I'm gradually becoming convinced that the pace provided by a bicycle provides the perfect balance of covering ground, yet having lots of opportunity to experience the local culture and meet people along the way. And the best part is that it doesn't cost a thing to operate!
Today we took a break and spent half a day doing some writing, bike maintenance, and internet work. We anticipate continuing north out of Larisa this afternoon, finding a campsite somewhere out of the city. From there, its a long day over the Olympic Mountains before we reach Thessaloniki. If our current pace continues, we should be entering Bulgaria within the next 4 to 5 days.
May 13, 2005
Transitions: Buses squared plus Boats squared equals Bicycles cubed
---> Cappadocian Caves
As our sailing career came to an end, we once again set out as we started, as two backpackers on a bus heading to unfamiliar destinations. We decided to spend our last week in Turkey backpacking the Cappadocia region, away from the touristy coast, right smack in the center of the country. We had read about exotic rock formations, ferry chimneys, and underground cities, located in what was described as a "backpacker's" paradise awaiting the end of a 15 hour bus ride. It is important to say that we were not disappointed.
We stocked up with a day's supply of food and headed off into one of the valleys descending from the small town of Goreme, stepping into another world. Dotting the countryside were strange conical and cylindrically shaped rock formations, a combination of eroded sandstone and volcanic rock. Within most of these structures were carved out doors, windows, entire rooms that were accessible and inviting exploration. It is difficult to really describe what this place looks like, so you might be better off checking out the photo galleries on the website.
Throughout the day we hiked passed a UFO museum, over and around this moonscape, eventually deciding to camp out in a cave on the upper side of a canyon overlooking the valley. Overnight we encountered something that we had not seen in a while...snow! It caught us completely by surprise as we woke up early to see a white coating covering the ground. We were thankful that back in the cave the ground temperature and our good sleeping bags kept us warm throughout the night.
The next few days were spent and exploring and absorbing the incredible and unusual quality of the region. Another morning we awoke to the sound of hot air balloons firing only 50 feet above our convertible tent. Looking up, we saw hands and faces pointing down at us as a series of about a dozen balloons floated over the ridge. A few days and many photos later, we caught the bus back to Kusadasi on the western coast, ready to move westward..
While waiting for the customs officials at the port leaving Turkey, we met an unusual cyclist traveling on the same ferry as us. Jimmy, originally from London, has been traveling for three years as a Cyclown. His homemade bicycle consists of two frames welded together, one directly on top of the other and loaded with crates and boxes of eclectic gear, including a mandolin, clarinet and hand-made paper sword, which he told us was for his protection (check the site for a photo). Jimmy's bike immediately caught our attention, as well as his friendly personality.
We learned that he earns his living doing freelance circus performance as a street musician and puppeteer, as well as being part of a jazz band based in Berlin. As we were arriving in Samos, he gave a short performance to the ferry passengers in which he earned a few Euros and a meat and cheese sandwich. After arriving on the Greek Island of Samos and watching his bizarre bicycle pass through customs, we said our goodbyes and continued on our travels.
---> Cycling Samos
We were fortunate enough to have a half day on the Greek island of Samos, located only miles from Turkey and famous for its legendary resident, Pythagoras. The mathematician, inventor and academic monk is probably most well known for his theorem explaining how the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the square root of the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Remember your high school geometry? He also invented an interesting wine cup intended to prevent greedy workers from getting more than there due share, in which after the liquid level reaches a certain point, the entire contents of the cup will drain out right into your lap.
Since I was traveling with my bicycle and a little conditioning wouldn't hurt to prepare myself on the next few months, I decided to ride around and explore the northern coastline of the island. The islands are definitely one of the highlights of Greece, and there is no better way to explore them than on your own power. The warmth of a beautiful spring day with the smells of flowers and pine forests made for a wonderful ride, although it was important to take caution with the road rage of some tour bus drivers. Later in the afternoon we caught an overnight ferry to Pireas, the port of Athens, bicycle and all.
---> An Aegean Cross Cultural
Our first night in Athens we met up with the EMU Aegean cross cultural, and were excited to meet familiar faces as well as a few new ones. The group of 12 students will spend the next three weeks in Greece and Turkey with their leaders Linford and Janet Stutzman, learning by exploration and ocean sailing. Eric and I sat in on an orientation meeting, sharing a little about our sailing and traveling experiences with the group. Afterwards, we headed down to the Placa for a Greek kebab dinner with Jeff Mumaw, one of my high school teachers who is now studying at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and Steve Horst, a friend of ours from EMU.
The following day there was a nationwide strike in Greece, shutting down all public transportation including the metro, buses, and air traffic controllers. The cross cultural group had chartered a bus, so fortunately they were still able to make the trip out to the town of Corinth. We were invited to come along with the group for the day, and we welcomed the opportunity for some learning and fellowship.
Corinth sits on an ancient land bridge that is now a modern day canal and contains impressive ruins from the thriving ancient city. Except for Ephesus, Paul invested more time here than any other city, and wrote two letters to the church which are now known as the books of I & II Corinthians. Unfortunately the strike also kept us from entering the ruins, but we were still able to see them from outside the fences. We also hiked up a hill to the remains of a fortress atop, providing a spectacular view of the rugged landscape and sea.
---> Catching and Continuing with Kurt
Our friend Kurt Rosenberger will be joining us in our travels for the next two and a half months as we ride bicycles from Athens to Germany. Kurt's plane was scheduled to arrive in Athens on the same day as the strike, which could have had interesting complications for our rendezvous. Without public transportation, we were limited in our ability to travel and Kurt's potential for delays greatly increased. Fortunately we were able to reach him by email and give him a heads up before he flew from the US. And thankfully, Kurt pulled into Athens with only a few hours delay and arrived safely last night at our hostel.
After spending a day packing the bikes and running a few last minute errands, we will ship our backpacks ahead to Germany and begin cycling tomorrow morning to catch up to them in July. Our intended route is to ride through the countries of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Czeck Republic, Poland and Germany. We plan to spend a lot of time off the beaten track, exploring and camping in this new part of the world.
This point in the trip is definitely one of transition. We are familiar leaving cultures and countries and traveling into parts of the world in which we have very little knowledge and experience. We are excited to bring our trip to a new stage and ready for all of the adventure that comes with doing something new. We're ready to start pedaling; there is a long road ahead.
May 04, 2005
Where You From?
For the past month, Dave and I have lived in a boat. Each day we eat, sleep, read, walk around, and even use the bathroom... all inside our floating fiberglass shell. Like a rare variety of aquatic sea turtle, our home is always with us. We travel from place to place along the coast, never needing to go through the tiring routine of packing and unpacking. I'll admit that sometimes the boat feels cramped, and other times a bit more unstable than my stomach would desire. But this is a small price to pay. We have traveled along the coasts of three different countries for nearly 800 miles, and yet still managed to wake up every morning in the same bed. Our home is with us, no matter where we go. This is the novelty of traveling by boat.
On Thursday afternoon of last week we arrived in Kusadasi, our final port of call onboard Sailing Acts. With a strong wind filling our sails, we glided into the large harbor and tied up to the dock in near effortless fashion. This is often one of the most difficult aspects of sailing, but we have had many opportunities to practice. Only minutes after Linford had beautifully maneuvered us into the berth, Janet was already preparing a celebratory snack. Afterwards, we set out in our customary walk around town.
Kusadasi is a city designed for tourists. It is a maze of shops, restaurants, and travel agencies, all nestled as close to the waterfront as possible. Nearly every morning, a new cruise ship has pulled into port, unloading its cargo of walking dollar signs into the nearby streets. Fortunately for us, we have arrived early in the season, before the cruise industry really gets underway and crowds swamp the streets. Unfortunately for us, this means that with fewer tourists around, we are an obvious target for local businessmen eager to get the year off to a good start.
As we walked down the main street of town, touts from the local restaurants would inevitably notice our presence and come out to greet us on the sidewalk. Of course, no one likes a pushy salesman. So many of these friendly entrepreneurs have learned the art of first developing a relationship, and once your guard is let down, nailing you with the sales pitch. By far the most popular way to initiate such friendly conversations is by a simple question: "Where are you from?" Most people, eager to talk about their home country, fall for the trap and are soon paying ridiculous amounts of money for a mediocre dinner of fish and chips.
As budget travelers to the extreme, we have learned to be wary of these sidewalk salesmen and their sneaky tricks. Ocassionally, however, we do find it amusing to join in and play their game. The ball gets rolling with the typical question regarding our nationallity. Usually preferring to be honest, we respond that we are in fact Americans. The way this news is received is difficult to put into words, yet almost always the same. There is usually a slight pause, an awkward shift in body movement, and then some kind of obviously forced response, as if we somehow left them speechless by our answer. The best way to describe the look on the local's face at this moment is a combination of disbelief, hesitation, and grief.
Now having been traveling for over six months, we have grown accustomed to this kind of response to our status as American citizens. As far back as Mexico, one of our bus drivers (after discovering our nationality), encouraged us simply to tell people that "we're not from around here." Not only is the United States a very unpopular country around the world, there simply aren't many Americans getting out beyond their own borders these days. Before meeting a young couple from California a few days ago, I honestly can't remember the last American travelers we've crossed paths with. It is a sad reality that was also confirmed by a local shop owner here in Kasadasi a few days ago. He shared with us how when he was a child, he remembered how there were more Americans traveling around than people from any other country. Now, it seems, Americans are simply staying at home.
As a result of this fact, people rarely assume that we are Americans until we tell them. So Dave and I have begun keeping track of our current nationality in the eyes of the locals. In South America, we were often being mistaken for Germans or sometimes Swedes (Dave particularly!). Upon our arrival in Turkey, we have become Australians. "Hey, Auzzies!" is the current shout as we walk down the sidewalk. Maybe it's our long hair... Whatever the reason, you can find our latest nationality on the Stats page of the website.
A few days ago, we took a bus from Kusadasi several miles inland to the impressive ruins of Ephesus. One of the most important Roman cities of ancient Asia Minor, it was also a home to the apostle Paul's missionary efforts for three years. Although I've learned many things from following Paul's paths for the last month, there is one thing that particularly stands out to me. Not only was Paul a very gifted evangelist, he was a model traveler. For the better part of his life, he was either covering rugged terrain by foot or experiencing the unique challenges of traveling by sea. Not to mention the lashings and beatings, which would certainly be a setback to even the most seasoned traveler! And yet Paul pushed on, bringing the good news of the gospel to the western world.
Given his unique identity as both a Jew and a Roman citizen, no doubt Paul was also faced with questions about his citizenship. Unlike most others in the world at the time, Paul was a Roman citizen, a status that brought with it privalege and power. But I would imagine that as Paul traveled the vast Roman empire, even he felt the lonely feeling of being a stranger in a foreign land. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses the imagery that probably comes directly from his experiences as a traveler: "...you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens..." (Eph 2:19). As a fellow traveler, I find it easy to appreciate the type of citizenship that he is referring to, one that is not limited to national boundaries or political ideologies. Citizenship in a Kingdom that brings together instead of seperates, where home can be experienced no matter where find ourselves.
According to Page 5 of our U.S. passports, any American citizen can formally renounce their citizenship before an overseas consulate. While this would probably not be in our best interest, it has generated a considerable amount of creative thinking in the last few weeks. What if we could simply pronounce ourselves "Global Citizens", and develop some kind of passport that would be free from national affiliation or endorsement? A citizen of no particular country, and a friend towards all... It seems that this might bring a few more favorable responses to the "Where you from?" question than our current answer. And I think its probably a closer resemblance to the Kingdom citizenship that Paul was talking about as well.
With our time aboard Sailing Acts at a close, Dave and I are now returning to our traditional form of travel: backpacks, public transportation, and camping. After thanking Linford and Janet by giving the boat a thorough wash and wax, on Monday morning we took a bus to the Cappadocia region of central Turkey. We will remain here for a few days before returning to Kusadasi and boarding a ferry for Athens, Greece. I guess we'll have to use our passports for that one...