Snapshots of Humanity

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

Advertisements

The Mystery and Allure of Vietnam

motorbike with tree

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.

back of vehicle.jpg

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 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.

IMG_6631.jpg

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.

20171201_105014.jpg

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.

IMG_0023.jpg

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.

IMG_5141.jpg

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.

IMG_0016.jpg

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.

Screenshot 2018-01-08 at 4.53.42 PM

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:).

On the Road in Oman: Insights and Tips

You can pack in many unique experiences in Oman within a week or two, and we tried our best to do just that. It wasn’t a perfect trip–it’s silly to have that expectation, but I hope to visit Oman again someday or at least host some of our new Omani acquaintances if they ever visit the States.

Here’s a gallery of more images if you care to check them out! 

You can navigate without a GPS:  Despite a few detours, a nonworking Google Map–the blue dot flickering and slowly following our Toyota Fortuner’s progress–was enough for us. This wasn’t by design. That’s another story. But we were on a well-traveled loop, from Muscat down the coast to Ras Al Jinz, back up through the Wahiba Sands, up to Jebel Shams, then back to Muscat. The roads are mostly new, but signage doesn’t always match up with expectations. Luckily, the Omanis were always willing to help, either in English or enthusiastic Arabic, even though we only knew a few words. 

Definitely rent a 4WD:

If you have an inkling of adventure in you, you’ve got to rent a 4WD in Oman. For us, it was especially handy over several days. We needed it for our drive out to a fancy desert camp in Wahiba Sands, 11 km on mostly level ground between the dunes. And once you get into the mountainous region, even the paved roads have some serious grades. Driving up to the village of Al Khitaym for the “Grand Canyon” walk is dirt road part of the time and steep. But the highlight of our 4WD adventures had to be the drive from Al Hamra to Bald Sayt–a truly spectacular and adrenaline-pumping journey. After enjoying a walk around Bald Sayt, we ended up giving a lift to a hitchhiking Egyptian family who were leaving the valley enclave, heading to the nearest city of Rustaq for their monthly trip.

20171208_152831.jpg

Our passengers from Bald Sayt to Rustaq.

The Jebel Shams area is sweet:

While Oman’s coastal area is picturesque in places, and the wadis a highlight for most visitors, we were most impressed by the mountain region. Misfah Al Abriyeen village is one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited–the walk along the Falaj (irrigation canal) is really beautiful. Just be respectful of the local farmers tending their terraced plots with date palms and other crops.

There is also a sweet little museum in Al Hamra called Bait Al Safah, which is enclosed in one of the oldest homes in the village. It provides a glimpse into traditional Omani culture–there are live demonstrations of cooking, medicine-making, and other crafts. Very cool.

Then there’s the “Grand Canyon” of the Middle East. You can park at Al Khitaym, where goats acclimated to getting treats from visitors might even try to get in your car. The trail from this village gradually descends to some ruins tucked along the cliff. And there’s reportedly a nice swimming hole at the end of this walk. We couldn’t find it, which was the only disappointment during this fairly strenuous 3-4 hour round trip. (Someone had told us it wasn’t much of a hike…not true, you need to be in decent shape for this).

IMG_7331.jpg

Not shy.

Omanis are off-the-charts hospitable:

I don’t say this lightly. After our honeymoon in Thailand, during which a man zoomed our lost selves around on his motorbike for an hour, trying to deliver us back to a guest house, and another family hosted us in their traditional countryside home, treating us to grandma’s homemade chili paste with fish, boiled duck eggs, noodles, and other delights, I figured the Thai people were the friendliest on the planet. Now I’m not so sure.

Our first airbnb host Mohammad is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, full of wisdom and open to cultural exchange–he even went snorkeling with us.

We then met Abdul, an Omani Special Forces paratrooper, while wandering around in Al Hamra. We were looking for the old section of the town, photographing goats in the alleyways. He asked if we needed help; we said we didn’t, thank you. But he then ended up inviting us for dates and coffee on the ground with his mom and sister. This led to two trips to his home, where we enjoyed conversation and received some generous gifts of traditional Omani clothing and aromatics. Like I said in the intro, I hope we can reciprocate someday. Inshallah, as Abdul told us.

me and abdul

With Abdul.

It’s such a chill place compared to Dubai:

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, ruler for the past 47 years, determined that he wanted to keep Oman’s traditional culture intact, developing slowly and sustainable. As a result of this leadership, you won’t see gleaming skyscrapers in Muscat, or over-the-top theme parks. There is a coherence to the place that you won’t find in Dubai, where anything goes architecture and rampant development can make you feel like you’re in the midst of a kid going crazy playing SimCity.

20171201_173625.jpg

Muttrah (old port area), Muscat

Avoid visiting the wadis on holidays and weekends:

We unknowingly booked our rental car during Oman’s long holiday weekend in early December. This caused the wadis to be overflowing with people. If you are looking to experience the wadis during a less hectic time, try to visit them on the weekdays and get out early.  Nonetheless, we loved swimming at Wadi Bani Khalid, where there are plenty of pools to explore (keep walking up the valley to avoid crowds and explore more pools).  If you are a woman, plan to swim in your clothing or shorts and a one-piece bathing suit; as it is considered disrespectful to strip down to a bikini. You will likely receive some stares no matter what; Omani Muslim women do not swim in public places.

Visit the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve in the early morning:

A few other travelers that we met during our trip also encountered a chaotic crowd at the turtle reserve for the nighttime viewing. We were advised by an expat who has lived in Oman for 20 years to opt for the reserve’s early morning tour, which begins at 4:45 am. According to him, you have a better chance of seeing the turtles with a much smaller group.

Don’t Miss the Souk in Muttrah

The enclosed souk in Muttrah, the old port in Muscat, should not be missed. It is an endless maze of vendors selling a combination of inexpensive tourist knick-knacks and more authentic items. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.

 

 

Snapshots From Georgia: A Glimpse Into Our Two Months

We’ve said to several of our family members and also our new Georgian acquaintances: We’ll have to be careful to not compare the next places we go to Georgia because it has been such a wonderful country to begin our travels in. Can anything top it?

Vacations and travel are never perfect of course. As travelers, Rebecca and I aren’t immune to the shitty and/or tedious things we all encounter in day-to-day living. We’ve already had plenty of afternoons lounging around with a little bit of cabin fever. We’ve dealt with colds. Taxi drivers occasionally try to rip us off. And so on. But there were so many positives during our time in this small country–we’ll let the image gallery do the talking. Here is a link to the above images plus about 70 more.

Please let us know if you have any questions about any of the images!