Taking Some Days Off

 

In a recent essay for The New York Times titled “A Day Off From the World,” Jennifer Finney Boylan opens with a passage that must mirror how millions of Americans feel about the current state of politics and POTUS:

This is the story of a day in Maine. It contains no mention of Himself, because He is all we ever talk about now, in these days of the Troubles. Instead, I hope you will allow me to celebrate a few small things, now that so much else has been lost.

What follows is a touching account. A day with loved ones, with good food, with a range of sensory experiences. Time is being cherished. It’s a love letter to those moments that we take for granted in our busy lives.

It was hot for Maine — in the high 80s — and I spent part of the day swimming in the lake. Long Pond is full of rocks, and I banged my knee against one of them as I swam, and said, “Ow!” “Jenny,” said my wife. “Are you O.K.?”

She’d been working in the garden. There she was, surrounded by elfin mountain laurel, Joe Pye weed, penstemon and masterwort.

I was fine. I took a walk down our dirt road. One of my neighbors passed me on an ATV. I tipped my straw hat to him as he went by.

In the afternoon my daughter and her girlfriend and three of her friends arrived, having driven up from Washington, where it was considerably hotter. There was a lot of hugging and kissing. The dogs barked at everybody. Bottles of ale were cracked open.

Boylan’s writing resonates with me on several levels. When I scroll through my Twitter feed, I sometimes end up wanting to palm-slap my forehead if I pay too much attention to Trump’s tweets and the toxic stench emanating from his swamp full of racism, corruption, enablers, and lie after lie after lie after lie. It is stressful thinking too hard about what is going on in Washington. Sometimes I feel hopeless.

But unlike many people, I don’t lack time to step away from the deluge of distressing information or a demanding job. At least for now, I can attempt to celebrate days like Boylan. The small things matter. As does a less frantic pace.

So this is the story of a recent day in New Hampshire.

In the morning, I sat with my dad on the porch. We sipped coffee–mine lightly sweetened with maple syrup–and the breeze almost chilled us. The sun would be brilliant and warm in a few hours. Dad scrolled his Twitter feed and chatted about Him and his latest Troubles, but the conversation shifted towards swimming holes, which we both enjoy.

Later in the morning, I picked blueberries at a local farm during my morning work shift. Some branches, heavy with fruit, bent sharply towards the ground. I checked carefully for purple coloring on the stem-side of the berries–that means they’re still tart. When I dropped the ripe berries into my plastic collection pail, it reminded me of boyhood visits to my parents’ hometown in Michigan. Grandma Gribbs and I would pick blueberries. She said I was best picker around, able to relieve her from laboring too hard for low-hanging fruit.

The farmer then showed me how to drive an old front-loader tractor. My body vibrated from the engine and I nearly ran over a few bushes. I delivered several loads of pruned branches to the northeast corner of the field, adding to an existing pile. On a fall cool night, this will become a bonfire gathering full of laughter, soaring flames, and sips of bourbon.

After nearly four hours, I checked my phone for the first time since work started. Then I left and enjoyed lunch with my wife on the porch. Then I departed for another farm job.

Around 4:00 pm, my legs and arms were caked in soft dirt and sweat from harvesting potatoes. A fellow farmhand had said this was one of his favorite jobs. It reminded him of a treasure hunt. I was hot and dehydrated, but my mind felt at ease. I would soon jump into the Merrimack River and scour my skin with sand to clean up for the drive home. Windows down.  

I’m blessed to be having many days like described above. Full of challenging but often meditative work. Plenty of fresh air. On the move. If these are considered days off from the world, then I’ll surely be taking more days off.  But I’ll continue striving to figure out how to stay abreast of political news and being civically engaged without being glued to the breaking news and hysterics. It’s too easily all-consuming, encroaching on the time we have to be present for little moments that seem inconsequential but can add up to the best kind of living.

 

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On Fixed and Fluid Worldviews: Were You Hoping to Catch a Bullet?

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With Omani paratrooper instructor Abdul in Al Hamra, Oman

“I heard you got back from traveling,” a local man in New Hampshire said the other day, before explaining about how he’s heard Europe has a bunch of great hiking trails. He seemed to assume that we visited Europe because, after all, could there possibly be any other foreign place that would be safe to explore our there in the big, bad world?

“Sure did,” I replied. “It’s good to be back, but it was an amazing journey. We didn’t go to Europe, but we did go to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.”  His eyes widened after I mentioned traveling in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

“What?! Were you hoping to catch a bullet!?” he exclaimed in disbelief.

I mustered up a forced chuckle and told him that by embracing basic vigilance, we felt quite in those places; after all, they are ranked as some of the safest places in the world according to a report from the World Economic Forum, ranking 2nd (UAE) and 4th (Oman).

I didn’t feel like engaging on this topic further, sensing the possibility of a mildly contentious exchange. I instead changed the subject to deer hunting–something we ended up sharing a mutual interest in. I learned that as a dormant bow hunter, I can revive my hobby here in the Granite State on any land that isn’t posted, but that courtesy should rule: it’s best to ask permission.

Our short exchange seemed to encapsulate an argument explained by Thomas Edsall in this New York Times column about political leanings and a fixed or fluid worldview.

People with fixed worldviews tend to be wary about perceived (and real) dangers around them, are more likely to embrace authoritarianism, and prefer stability over social change.

On the other hand, folks like Rebecca and myself embrace a fluid worldview. We don’t see the world as a threatening place, we value openness, and we generally see change as a natural process that can often bring about positive results.

For us, fear rarely manifested itself while on the road. There was some discomfort being subject to a procession of curious and vaguely hostile stares at a local market in Tanzania, far off the tourist circuit. One time, on a bus in the countryside outside of Hanoi, a deranged man threatened me with a long pair of metal scissors because I wouldn’t give him my sunglasses or money. I was prepping for a potentially dangerous physical confrontation for a moment, but fortunately he got off the bus shortly thereafter. These experiences were anomalous–over the course of seven months, we experienced a lion’s share of hospitality, kindness, and curiosity in all six countries.

I wasn’t blind to this strong variance between a fixed and fluid world outlook before the journey, but my awareness of this gap is now heightened. Rampant bipartisanship is deeply rooted in a conflicting set of values, and on more than one occasion during our journey I commented to Rebecca that it’d be incredibly unlikely that we’d meet traveling Americans who supported Trump.

One commonality shared among the people we interacted with was their utter confusion and disdain for our President. Fortunately, not one person we encountered conflated us being Americans with supporting Trump. Traveling in four countries with a plurality or majority of Muslim citizens made it more likely, perhaps, that this could have occurred.  People in most countries also expressed justified fear of visiting America due to its obsession with guns.

I suspect that most people who have followed this journey see the world in a similar vein as we do. And while I wouldn’t go anywhere, I feel even more confident and comfortable to embrace future adventures in places where millions of Americans would be fearful of catching a bullet.

 

Snapshots of Humanity

 

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The writer in me has always appreciated hearing other people’s stories. When I drove for Lyft a few summers ago, I picked up one passenger after his shift at a suburban AT&T store. He soon told me about his trials attempting to make the Kansas City Chiefs, an NFL team. “I just wasn’t quite good enough,” he admitted. There are plenty of reasons why people don’t drive; I never learned his reason. I dropped him off near a Louisville high school, where he promptly started jogging to the school’s football locker and training room facility.

I also picked up a belligerently drunk man at a Mexican restaurant who admitted that he’d “work” remotely from home the next day, undoubtedly hungover, by activating his work chat window on his laptop with his big toe while sprawled out in bed. He also confessed he was avoiding downtown Louisville because of “all the blacks” who’d be lining the streets for Muhammad Ali’s funeral procession. These two details seemed to speak volumes about him.

To some, both of these accounts might be mundane. But to me, they are snippets of a larger tapestry about who we are–for better or worse. The diversity of human experience is all around us in our hometowns; while traveling, it can be in your face when you’re often surrounded by people whose day-to-day lives and cultures diverge greatly from your own. This post is a visual appreciation of just a few folks we’ve encountered over the past six-plus months. They–and countless others–have enriched our journey, and we’ve been lucky to have many affirming moments through smiles, gestures, and nods even when the language barrier stands tall.

There’s no doubt my general understanding of humanity has been enhanced by this experience, but it’s also humbling to know how many more people and places are out there. So many more stories. So many perspectives. So many more interactions to be had both in our backyards and abroad. While these interactions might only represent slipping into someone else’s shoes and standing still–or perhaps taking a few small steps–I’m not sure there is a better way to gain empathy than by putting in the effort to interact with open-hearted curiosity.

 

The Mystery and Allure of Vietnam

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Walking in Hanoi always puts us on high alert as we’re pedestrians in a city characterized by its crazy flow of two-wheelers. The motorbikes honk incessantly. They transport whole families, trees, dogs, kegs of beer, and bouquets of flowers. They U-turn with impunity, somehow snake through still traffic (as a taxi passenger, I often consider giving fist bumps to the passersby).

In order to cross the street, you have to walk into oncoming traffic. Just don’t stop moving because the motorbikes and cars will adjust. This can be a terrifying experience.

Nonetheless, Vietnam has been a great and fascinating place so far. If you hear people say that the food in Vietnam is amazing, they aren’t kidding. Count us in as being enamored by the mixture of flavors often available at modest street stalls, with colorful and tiny plastic chairs and tables strewn about. The other day we ate Bánh Xèo, a crunchy, omelette-like concoction that you cut up with scissors and then wrap in rice paper. Add lemongrass, fresh herbs, green banana, fish sauce, maybe fresh chilies. Throw in some grilled pork sausage on skewers if you’d like. Unbelievably delicious (which I repeated to Rebecca in between bites over and over again). Plus, the feast amounted to about three bucks.

Hanoi is huge, with many distinct districts and neighborhoods. We first stayed in Tay Ho, which has an international feel and plenty of expats, where you can readily find Vietnamese street food but also a brew pub and a bacon cheeseburger. We’re now staying in a district northeast of the city center, where it’s rare to see any foreigners. The touristy Old Quarter seems to be poppin’ at all hours; admittedly, the coupling of sensory bombardment and survival mode to avoid being run over by motorbikes overwhelmed me a bit during our first foray there. We sought refuge at a spa where we enjoyed some outstanding foot massages.

We’ve only spent one night outside of Hanoi thus far. Uncle Ty’s Farmstay was in a small village near Hoa Binh, where farmers led small herds of water buffalo to wallow in the irrigation canal. The haze draped the hills and rice paddies existed anywhere enough water could be diverted. Some aspects of it felt timeless, old school, a continuation of long agricultural traditions. Yet from 7-10 pm, a local man crooned nonstop during a solo karaoke session. Korean and Vietnamese tunes, we were told. I imagined an impassioned attempt to earn a spot on Vietnam Idol or whatever exists here. As he went silent, we heard the rice fields become ablaze with noise, almost like we were tuned into 94.9 The Insect. I’m looking forward to our next trip to a rural area where the collision of tradition and modernity will certainly manifest itself in other ways.

It’s a country that seems to be a polarizing place for many visitors as many love it and others vow never to return. Here, Nomadic Matt describes his experience almost 10 years ago and, due to the popularity of his blog, there are interesting comments and rebuttals worth reading if you are considering traveling here. Not sure if it’s still relevant, and since Rebecca and I are doing more living in local neighborhoods than touristing, our perspective is different as we haven’t inhabited places where we’d be bombarded daily with tourist hawkers and schemers.

Being here has made me think back to a post from several months back, during which I reflected on what it means to truly know a place. The motorbikes hum and honk in every direction; being outside of this traffic flow is a metaphor for simply being a spectator of the culture. Here are some snippets that have captured my imagination:

  • While at the B-52 Victory museum, I read placard after placard describing Vietnam soldiers’ heroic actions in the face of wars of sabotage of American Imperialism.
  • The language is really tricky. So much so that a fellow American we met here with an advanced degree in linguistics basically gave up. Rebecca and I laugh because locals often don’t even understand our attempts to say ‘thank you’.
  • It’s a place where, in the midst of a modern apartment complex and planned neighborhood, you’ll see goats tethered to light posts. They’ll find themselves roasting on a spit within days. And where we’re told a very large portion of people still eat dogs. Which I’m not disgusted by, given the French colonial history and ensuing wars of sabotage of American Imperialism, people will do what they have to do to survive.
  • There are 53 ethnic minority groups in the country and most people don’t affiliate with formal religion. But it’s obvious that folk religions and spirituality factor into daily life. There are small altars with gifts where prayers are offered to ancestors in almost every home and business we’ve been to, even in the bustling, modern fitness center, where an altar with cans of beer, fruit, and a tree-like sculpture adorned with burned cigarettes is displayed.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I could never really know Vietnam, especially due to the language barrier, but I wholeheartedly suggest intrepid travelers add it to their destination list. We’ve felt very welcome and feel fortunate to snag insights and new understandings of the culture when we can. Next stop in this country is Ha Giang, which we’ve read is one of the final frontiers for tourists. It’s the northernmost province and borders China. We might be crazy but we’re going to attempt a motorbike tour, finally joining the flow of people and goods as we attempt to understand a little more about this compelling country.

 

Two Tanzanian Safaris and Five Observations

our safari car

Rebecca and I both feel extremely fortunate to have spent six weeks in Tanzania, and we decided that we’d be foolish to pass up observing some of the world’s most awe-inspiring creatures in the wild while we were there. Our travel funds may have taken a huge hit, but two different safari experiences in both the northern and central regions of the country proved to be worth the expense. That said, we didn’t really know what to expect! Below are some of our takeaways:

Seeing Big Game in the Wild is Magnificent

Don’t expect to see a lion chase down a lithe Thompson’s gazelle and snap it’s spine with one crushing bite. Or a cheetah up close and personal when it jumps onto your vehicle. But damn, it was amazing seeing such a variety of beautiful creatures–both large and small, land-bound and in flight–up close in vast and varied natural environments. Lions don’t seem to be afraid of anything, and we lucked out with several opportunities to observe them up close. Hard to forget the gaze of a male lion seemingly looking right at you. But the warthogs, Marabou storks, and other more obscure animals provided just as much delight.

It’s impossible for me not to think differently about zoos; while they have their place for education and conservation of truly endangered species…I don’t know. At the rate human consumption, greed, and population growth are screwing up and straining the planet, zoos are probably the last hope for countless creatures.

Don’t Waste Your Money on Special Clothes

The safari fashion industry is a massive racket. During a safari, you spend your time in a four-wheel drive vehicle. If you’re lucky, you view wildlife from the comfort and confines of said transport, and despite the heat, you won’t exert yourself. You probably won’t be battling creepy-crawlies or trekking through the jungle. Since you’ll probably be traveling in proximity to dirt and dust, I understand buying clothes that you won’t mind getting dirty. But the multi-pocketed, zip convertible pants, vests, floppy caps…all over-the-top for a traditional safari.

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Safari outfit? The same Hawaiian shirt that, to the chagrin of Rebecca, I managed to wear almost daily for six weeks.

The bottom line: wear comfortable clothes for what will likely be hot weather.

Mix Up Your Itinerary

As mentioned above, most traditional safari experiences entail a lot of time spent in a vehicle. Since you’re likely seeing elephants, giraffes, zebras and, other iconic creatures at close range, you probably won’t mind being in a car. You aren’t allowed out of the car in these national parks–at least in Tanzania. That said, when my dad and his partner visited us during our last week, we had an amazing time doing both a traditional safari at Mikumi National Park and a jungle/waterfall hike in the Udzungwa Mountains National Park, which turned out to be one of the most memorable days of our entire journey.

 

Dozens of monkey sightings, a black mamba snake, bushwhacking a bit due to a gargantuan tree blocking the trail, the most reinvigorating and refreshing swim I’ve probably ever had once we made it to the top.  If I planned another safari experience, I’d combine several days in the jeep with several days visiting villages, hiking, etc.

It’s Expensive But DIY Isn’t A Realistic Option

We learned quickly that unless you’re an expat living in an African country, with deep knowledge of the politics, language, and bureaucracy, a DIY safari would be a nearly impossible venture. I initially cringed when paying fairly exorbitant sums, but it quickly becomes apparent why you pay so much. We did hire a private car, which is another expense worth the price. Anyway–there are park fees, police checkpoints with possible bribes, food, fuel, knowledge and know-how. 

vista

In the Serengeti, imagine the vastness of the American great plains, a network of dirt roads, and potentially no idea where animals are migrating, mating, or just hanging out. It’d get challenging really quickly. The guides in the Serengeti communicated on a CB radio to help locate animal activity worth checking out, and they were adamant that multiple vehicles converging on a certain spot wasn’t stressful to the wildlife.

It’s Nature–You Don’t Know What You’ll See

Both of our guides told us about groups who expected to see the most dramatic animal moments, especially big cats stalking and killing their prey. Sorry folks, it doesn’t work that way. These are wild-ass animals, and depending on factors such as the weather, moods, and time of day, lions could very well be hiding in tall grass. That said, if you are at a park with healthy populations of giraffes and elephants, you will see them. They spend so much time grazing and they’re too large to hide. Plus, they aren’t too shy, so up close and personal experiences are likely. Towards the end of our last safari drive, a young female elephant postured and gave us a warning charge. Even in the confines of a sturdy Landcruiser, it was a great reminder that we were visitors in their land.

 

 

The Pull of Community and Routine

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We were warmly welcomed to multiple supras with Natia’s family in Western Georgia–experiences like these help make up for missing our communities and family back in the States.

I miss strolling around Bardstown and Douglass Loop Farmer’s Markets in Louisville, KY, my adopted hometown for over 13 years. Even if I didn’t run into anyone I knew well, the familiarity and routine of being in a place where people share at least some values is something that’s tough to capture with a transient lifestyle. I miss waving to neighbors in Clifton, chatting on front porches of shotgun houses, maybe enjoying a bourbon on the rocks as the freight trains rumbled by on the elevated tracks. Or enjoying collegial relationships at work, when simply socializing for five minutes or productively troubleshooting about how to improve curriculum during a meeting provided a balm for other stressors.

I think about other routines. For Rebecca and myself, we enjoyed Saturday morning hikes on the Red and Orange trails at the Horine Reservation area of Jefferson Memorial Forest. Afterwords, we’d be relatively near the Vietnam Kitchen and other delightful ethnic eateries, justifying our gluttony after a moderate workout on the well-worn trails. Last winter and spring, we spent our Tuesday evenings volunteering for Kentucky Refugee Ministries, helping American newcomers study for the citizenship test. Mitra, an elderly gentleman from Nepal, had an infectious grin and steady work ethic. Despite this elementary English skills, he always showed up to class–walking rain or shine–and interacting with him and others under the sometimes-flickering fluorescent church basement lights inspired us on a regular basis.

There are, however, fleeting moments of immersion into community and satisfying short-lived routines found while on the road.

There’s sharing a meal–and countless toasts–during a supra, a large traditional feast in rural Georgia. There’s joining a gym in Tbilisi, even if just for a month, using the 10 minute walk through bustling streets and past traditional shota bread ovens and other vendors as a warm up. There’s conversing with longtime expats in an Irish pub in Dubai, a place providing comfort for countless folks living thousands of miles from home. It’s especially festive during the second Saturday of every month, when a traditional string band plays standards and originals, drowning out the raucous clinking of pints and boisterous chatter. Now in Tanzania, we’ve found ourselves welcomed into Zoe and Roy’s home along with their two kids, four dogs, and two cats. When we make the 20 minute walk to the village for fresh avocados, mangoes, and pineapples, we wave and say jambo to familiar proprietors.

Sometimes, I think I could embrace fleeting routine and bursts of community for a much longer stretch than our current journey; at other times, I’m not so sure. But I am convinced that very few people are cut out to be permanent vagabonders. This is despite messages inherent in the glamourous accounts of some travel bloggers out there, who are trying to convince all of us–and perhaps themselves–that being on the road is a dream lifestyle worth emulating and easily attainable.

I’ve also been thinking about Sebastian Junger’s outstanding book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. In this short but powerful text, he asks why so many American servicemen long for combat upon returning from overseas. They miss the brotherhood. It’s all about the shared sacrifice, being part of something larger than oneselves. Thousands of combat veterans experience living in the modern American world of me me me and the pursuit of comfort convenience comfort convenience and more comfort as vacuous and profoundly depressing, according to Junger.

Junger writes, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”  While it might seem glamorous, I’d feel empty simply gallivanting around the world, staying in fancy hotels and airbnbs without having to pay our way or work remotely. (Please note: we can’t afford to do this, but you get the idea). In Vagabonding, Rolf Potts writes scornfully about people who travel without having made any personal sacrifice–“trustafarians”–and this resonates mildly with Junger’s musings about hardship and living with purpose.

While testing the currents of long term travel, we have come to cherish the novelty of arriving in new places and attempting to soak up sensory bombardments, gaining insights into people and place as we can.  The opportunity for personal growth and escape from the daily modern grind. We are blessed to be accumulating a lifetime worth of adventures, insights, and tastes. You can’t put a price on the memories and stories we are stockpiling as the stamps graffiti our passport pages.

But again, the pull of community and routine…which is sometimes a tease but at other times is a persistent itch, especially when your family and best friends are only accessible via a pixelated screen. Ruth Whippman writes in the New York Times, “Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor there is of a happy life, even going so far as to call them a “necessary condition for happiness,” meaning that humans can’t actually be happy without them. This is a finding that cuts across race, age, gender, income and social class so overwhelmingly that it dwarfs any other factor.” We’re maintaining social relationships with those closest to us, and we’re forming new bonds with people in each of the four countries we’ve traveled. Fortunately, Rebecca and I are best friends and must put up with inordinate amounts of time together–our social relationship is crucial!

I still follow tweets from my former employer, Fern Creek High School in Louisville, KY. And follow the local news. Thirteen years in a given place means–at least for most people–some sense of community. Relationships. Familiarity. And we all seek a belonging.  So after more than five months on the road–and nearly eight months since we left our home and began inhabiting friend’s basements and family guest rooms–the pull of community and routine keeps tapping us on the shoulder, beckoning us to turn around and consider putting down roots again, despite the inevitable revelations ahead and the precious opportunity to keep on truckin’ if we so desire.

Travel: Escape, Growth, and Everything in Between

 

In a region of Central Nicaragua, the sultry air of Muy Muy town put us into a sweaty daze. Rebecca and I took turns swinging on an indoor hammock and sipping warm Toña beer in the musty interior of my friend Angus’s Peace Corps abode, a one-room home constructed with cinder blocks. We swatted flies, sorted beans, and lazily let time pass. Earlier in the day, I had walked the town’s dusty streets in search of a vendor selling shirts sin mangas–without sleeves–because I had to do something to remedy my perpetually dripping back sweat. This was spring break 2011.

Later that evening, or was it another one?, we walked up to visit Muy Muy’s most prosperous hacienda. Angus’s friend, apparently one of the wealthiest men in town, was patriarch of the spread, which contained a significant amount of land, some cattle, a sweeping one-story wooden home fronted by a rickety and undulating front porch.

I remember plenty of giggling as I tried to make corn tortillas in the hacienda’s indoor kitchen, smoke billowing from little ventilation and open flames. The owner’s young girlfriend and her sister barbecued fatty cuts of beef. We sipped homemade hooch served from a plastic gasoline container, which turned out to be fitting given its taste and potency. When we got a ride home, we hopped in the bed of a pickup truck and the man’s girlfriend came running out of the house with a shotgun; we learned the property owner had recently killed a trespassing man, igniting a family feud, so it was best to leave the property armed. Especially at night.

I’m grateful that Rebecca is an adventurous traveler; otherwise, aspects of this trip detailed above–and other detours–could have proven fatal to our relationship: the American school buses sent to Central America to be converted into colorful passenger caravans, bus after bus packed full, bumpy roads, blaring horns, passing and being passed on blind corner turns; the two hour “cab” ride in a man’s personal vehicle from Matagalpa to Leon and wondering if we had just gotten suckered into being kidnapped by these two men; pickup trucks, shotguns, and head lice in Muy Muy.

But overall we certainly learned a lot about each other, about Nicaragua, about local culture, all while solidifying and reflecting on our own values. While we did end up chilling in Las Penitas, a quaint coastal town on the Pacific Ocean, overall it wasn’t a relaxing trip. It was enlightening, adrenaline-inducing, frustrating and sweaty, all rolled into a messy nine or so days.

There’s travel or vacation to escape, recharge, and relax. And then there’s travel containing trials and tribulations, rife with uncertainty and the slight increase in pulse when trying to navigate through new situations. Personal growth or transformation, of course, is likely to occur during the latter.  Prolific vagabonder and traveler Nomadic Matt writes, “Traveling forced me out of my routine. It helped me become independent, take more risks, be ok with change, get better with people, learn more, and be more versatile. Travel is not some panacea. The baggage you have comes with you on the road. There is no place far enough away to escape your problems. But what travel does is give you the space to be someone else and improve your life.”  

But there’s a whole lot in between traveling to get away and travel to transform. It’s not like you can’t escape to relax and also gain insights about people, places, and self. I happen to think a combination makes for the most memorable and satisfying sojourns. And as we are in the midst of long-term traveling, we’re experience the range of possibilities inherent in breaking free from home.

In Dubai, I learned that I will never choose to live in such a manufactured place, with daily life revolving around escaping heat and over-the-top modernity, where an absurd strain on limited natural resources is par for the course. But I also began learning about the staggering diversity within the Muslim world. And what a different version of a “melting pot” society can be like. And how many people can live satisfying lives within an absolute monarchy.

In Oman, I was reminded that human decency and warmth can be an aspect of a place that trumps all other potential attractions. I learned that sometimes GPS is overrated; we had to navigate the country with maps, roadside advice, and signage. Gasp! To imagine doing this in 2018!

In Georgia, we learned how nationalism can be a double-edged sword–it can easily breed resentment of the other, but it also can be used to celebrate the best things about a place. Georgian language, food, wine, and history is rife with unique utterances, flavors, and lore.

While on a luxurious family cruise about six or seven years ago, I don’t think I learned anything too meaningful or underwent any personal transformation. And that’s perfectly cool. It was about creating memories, some serious family bonding, shared meals. We basked in the sun on the top decks, snorkeled and drank spiked fruit punch, and I remember sampling so many different foods at the over-the-top buffet spread that I kept a journal, thinking how absurd this abundance was.

Now we’ve been in Tanzania for a few weeks. I’m writing this enjoying the breeze at my back from the Indian ocean, hanging out with our British expat hosts. It’s pure escape in many ways. But when I leave their compound, abject poverty and the vividity of being here offers a constant reminder of what it’s like being an outsider, in addition to thinking more deeply about ethical travel–what are the consequences of spending your money in various ways as a privileged visitor to a place so impoverished?

But however you may choose to travel–whether on a cruise ship or in a village in Nicaragua–there’s little doubt experience and ensuing memories will likely enrich your life, possibly by imparting some wisdom or insight, or simply providing a respite and dreams of the next escape.

Related Reading:

Reasons not to quit your job and travel the world

Meaningful travel–what the heck is it?

Travel is…

Resonance and Revisiting Past Travels

 

For this latest dispatch, I’ve decided to revisit some travel posts from years past, in addition to sharing a few essays I’ve read while on our current journey. So far, many of the themes and questions found in the posts below–the ridiculousness of American exceptionalism, valuing experience vs. material comfort, mindfulness, and human decency–continue to churn around in my head as we confront new experiences daily.

Thailand: Idealism and Reestablishing the Travel Bug: For our honeymoon, Rebecca and I journeyed to Thailand over Christmas in 2013. As I look back at this post, the themes continue to resonate: while traveling, it’s natural to imagine new possibilities, but with this idealism comes reflection about what it would really look like to move thousands of miles from home.

“Certain travel experiences undoubtedly unearth a sense of idealism and adventure, providing visitors to new places the sense the grass is greener. I couldn’t help but feel this at certain times in Thailand.

But after we began considering the possibility of living in such a different place, we realized we’d probably never learn much more than how to say hello, thank you, and where is the bathroom? in such a challenging language.  And it’s so far from our home in Kentucky and families in New Hampshire. We even got tired of eating delicious coconut, lemongrass, chili, and lime infused flavors by the end of the trip. (But if I had to only eat one type of food the rest of my life, Thai would be high on the list.)”

Why You Should Rent a Car in Europe: Or just about anywhere else where the driving isn’t too chaotic (Georgia tested my limits a few months ago!)

“Driving led us to places I never imagined we’d go. We talked and laughed with an elderly man in the stunning wine country of Jeruzalem, Slovenia. He had barely spoken English during the past forty years, but filled us in on regional history and insights into the work of a vintner over countless glasses of local wine. We explored the Istrian Penisula of Croatia, where ancient Roman towns dot hillsides surrounded by olive groves and grapes and the cuisine is superb. We awoke to the clanging of cowbells and the rich scent of Eucalyptus groves in Sao Luis, Portugal.”

Europe, 10 Years Later, in the Moment: One decade after my study abroad experience, I found myself back in Europe, finishing a degree in Oxford during the summer of 2013.

“I’ve attempted to allow myself to be in the moment this summer: to hear the Wood Pigeons cooing in the 14th century courtyards of Lincoln College; to see the egalitarian cyclists of all shapes, colors, and sizes jockey for position on narrow Oxford streets busy with double decker busses; to taste braised pork cheeks cooked in brown beer sauce in a local restaurant in Ghent; to feel the vibrations of the oncoming trains at Paddington Station in London; to read and reread 16th century English Literature without the rhythms and demands of multitasking that can become commonplace during the teaching year.”

And here are a few travel essays worth checking out:

Dave Eggers, on traveling via taxi across Saudi Arabia

“When I first traveled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realized no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.”

Michael Chabon on Traveling in Van with Family in Morocco

Nothing moves me more profoundly, I hasten to add, than discovering the extent of my own ignorance. That is why I travel—by nature I’m a homebody—but sometimes it can be hard. Some days you get tired of decoding, of interpreting, of working to understand, of constantly orienting yourself, or, to put it another way, of being constantly lost.”

 

The Only Mzungus At Market Day

Hawkers selling garlic, fresh ginger root, vividly colored fabrics, flip flops manufactured from recycled tires, and second-hand clothing lined the muddy thoroughfares as Rebecca and I soaked up another sensory-laden scene in Tanzania. The steady Indian Ocean breeze didn’t reach the inland market; the sun beat down on my uncovered head (thank you 50 SPF).

When you’re the only mzungus in a place, you’re going to attract attention, regardless of where you are in Africa. (As a side note, mzungu means “those who wander without purpose” in Swahili and is a term applied to just about all white people in East Africa–this is confirmed by both Urban Dictionary and our host Roy). But we were also with Agnes, our host’s wonderful Malawian housekeeper, who had generously agreed to accompany us; luckily, she likes outings and it’s clear she enjoys showing Western visitors the lay of the land. This made the experience a little less intimidating for us.

Visiting local markets is something we enjoy doing in every country we visit, but this one was the only one we’ve been to as the ONLY visitors/tourists/travelers (at least that I saw), and we did attract attention, some of which didn’t feel positive.

It was certainly a strong reminder of what it can be like to be an outsider, a position that privileged white folks like us rarely find ourselves in by choice or chance. And we have chosen to be in this position. There’s little equivalency between our own feelings of discomfort compared to those who have no choice whether or not to be persecuted/critiqued/harassed/questioned based on their skin color.

Imagine being the lone person of color in a classroom, working in a small office, or married into a racially homogeneous (lily white) family. There’s no doubt that skin color is noticed first, versus the other facets that make you human. Over thirteen years in the classroom, I saw assumptions about skin color play out class after class, day after day, semester after semester, both among students and towards teachers–including myself. Educator Rafranz Davis, who was often the only person of color in her classes growing up, sums up the phenomenon quite well:

Anyone that says that they “don’t see color” is lying. If you say that…stop saying it. You do. Try placing one color of skittles in a bowl. Now place one skittle of a different color in the same bowl. Shake them up and I dare you NOT to see the difference first. That doesn’t make you racist. It makes you aware and that is okay. On the other hand, put yourself in the position of “the different skittle”. You are also fully aware that when people see you, they see that you are different first before really “seeing you”.

That is what it is like as the only person of color in the room.

There’s no doubt that the locals at the market saw our whiteness first. It’d be impossible not to. And with that whiteness undoubtedly comes assumptions about wealth, money, etc. In East Africa, mzungus, almost by default due to pervasive poverty, are extremely privileged.

Taking pictures in this market also felt inappropriate, if not tacky. People trying to scrape by and make a living aren’t at the market for foreigners like us to gawk and document. But being in a place like this is also completely exotic for me, and I enjoy sharing our impressions of places and people. I tried to be discreet in taking some of these images and after our excursion, I came across this blog post by Amanda Machado explaining six questions you should ask yourself before taking pictures in developing countries:

  • Are my intentions for this photograph only about myself?
  • Does this photo represent a stereotype of people from this country?
  • If a tourist in my home country took a photo of me in this same situation, would it make me uncomfortable?
  • Do the photos represent people with dignity?
  • Have I tried building a relationship with the person I’m photographing?
  • (Most importantly) Have you asked permission?

During the market trip, I honestly didn’t ask for permission, but I tried to capture “scenes” representative of the feel of the place, and I can say with a little confidence that if I were a random person going about my business in a market at home and ended up in a tourist’s photo, it wouldn’t bother me. Overall, I feel OK about the images I took. And the above list is a good one–these questions are among those that swirled in my head during the market excursion.

The bottom line is this: For Rebecca and myself, being in a non-touristy place in Africa provides endless opportunity to reflect upon our privilege, issues pertaining to race, and what it means to be in a minority group, among other things. There’s no better educational curriculum than traveling on the edge of your comfort zone.

The Barber Shop Cost of Living Index

During our first week in Tbilisi back in September, I got a haircut for four lari–or about $1.60. This was a win. The small hair salon, tucked in a cavernous space below street level in the Vera neighborhood (go to this area if you visit Tbilisi), proved quite the steal, despite the fact no employees spoke English. And my Georgian was limited to thank you, you’re welcome, and no (ara). Before the trim, I pulled out my phone and showed the barber a picture of myself with shorter hair. Thank you, iPhone. I figured ara might come in handy if the buzzcut to my receding hairline was somehow butchered. No problems emerged.

In Sharjah, UAE, I experienced my first local haircut for 10 dirhams, or $2.80. This was a steep increase from my Tbilisi trim, but still cheap enough to excite the pennypincher in me. But no beard trim yet.

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In the midst of a perfectly fine cut in Sharjah, UAE.

That would be my next step in local barber exploration, when a shop in Oman groomed me better than I’ve ever been groomed. Rebecca quickly approved of my newfound appreciation for beard and general personal upkeep, as it but part of my enthusiasm was due to an unexpected head massage and about three layers of creams, salves, and cleansing solutions applied to my face.

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Feeling pretty good about myself after this grooming in Muscat, Oman. A 45 minute beard trim, massage, clean…the works, for about seven bucks.

Then a few weeks ago, back in Dubai, I took the elevator down from the 45th floor Sheraton Grand Hotel apartment so generously loaned to us on a quest for a fresh cut. I walked through the lobby of the adjacent building, knowing a barber shop was on the first floor. I was not impressed.

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A peek through the window at the “hip” barbershop in downtown Dubai. Not for me!

For 155 dirham (about $40) I could get a haircut and beard tune up in this “artisanal” shearing shop. Heck no. I’d like this journey to extend as long as possible; finding cheap haircuts is one simple way to extend our funds. Another alternative is to return to my “Grizzly Adams” look, which I’d gladly do. I know someone, however, who will nix this idea.

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Borderline too-bushy-of-a-beard for Rebecca. But I see her smiling…

After bypassing the overpriced joint, I left the building and walked northwest towards the Persian Gulf, where you soon enter a more modest and older neighborhood. The towers lining Sheikh Zayed Road loomed behind me. And a pronounced shift was occurring, leaving the insulated opulence of glass towers for the bustle of more modest commerce. Small businesses wedged side by side, the smell of chicken shawarma, perfumes, and exhaust mixing in the air. No 40 dollar haircuts to be found, that’s for sure.

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Within this block, I had my choice of three barbers. The skyscraper back left in the background is the Sheraton Grand Hotel, where I started my walking barbershop journey.

I knew I’d have my pick of barber shops as they seem to be everywhere in the Muslim world. If you’re wandering in a local or older neighborhood, you will have options. I settled for a branch of the Al Sayan Gents Saloon and got a perfectly suitable haircut and beard trip for 20 dirham (5-6 bucks).  

This lighthearted tale about haircuts and beard trims relates to greater questions many of us face: What is the cost of living in various locales? Can we live the lives we’d like to given varying expenditures? What do we sacrifice and gain when choosing between places?

For us, choosing to live in a place that will demand two full time jobs just to simply cover rent or mortgage is beginning to feel especially absurd. Being exposed to a range of possibility of where and how you can live is certainly part of it. And it’s already tempting to dream about choosing a place from our journey (maybe we haven’t been there yet) that will allow us a lifestyle with less stress and more adventure, in addition to time to pursue hobbies, volunteer work, long visits with family, whatever….

Expatistan is an interesting site–folks living in cities around the world submit prices for commodities, housing, transportation, and other costs. Below, you can see the information you’ll receive if you compare places. Dubai, our last home base, is twice as expensive as our current base, but that was seriously offset by free housing.

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Expatistan will also give you more specific breakdowns and examples of costs within each category.

In the meanwhile, I’ve yet to find a barber in Tanzania, but the time will come:).