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Retreat

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The four-seater Suzuki hatchback jostled me and my two companions as we made our way into the mountains that constitute the southern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. The roads here could adequately be described as a series of potholes, cutting a line though the hills. Almost as if someone had tried to carve a path into the mountainside using only jackhammers, the roads were an assortment of craters and stream beds whose width is sufficient for two vehicles to make their way past each other--sometimes.

The irony, I found, was that while our driver was braving these treacherous conditions, citizens of my own home were commuting on flat, paved roads in their 4x4 F150s, Silverados, and Rams. I couldn’t help but feel that the abilities of our American trucks were going to waste amid the USs relatively modern infrastructure. It seemed to me that this was the place where those vehicles were truly meant to shine, and yet here I was, in a local taxi, with its tiny tires and front wheel drive, audaciously weaving its way through the mountains.

In many ways the mountain hatchback is a model of the spirit of the developing world. Does it work? Kind of. Good enough!

As we made our way farther into the foothills of the Himalayas, I watched the buildings of the valley grow smaller with my ever increasing altitude. I was on my way to a meditation retreat, high in the hills outside of Pharping, Nepal. For the next 7 days, I would not be allowed to speak, to read, to write, or use my cell phone.

At this point I should mentioned that I never intended to do a meditation retreat while I was there. In fact, while traveling, any time that I heard a western traveler talk about their “life-changing experience meditating in a Buddhist temple,” or say “Let me tell you about my meditation retreat!” I inwardly scoffed at their pretentiousness. In some ways I felt that someone who would embrace such a retreat was running from something, they were filling a hole in their life or doing it for the social media attention. I didn’t want to pursue it myself out of a fear that I would be appropriating a culture, a fear that I didn’t have enough context to really get anything out of it.

No, two months ago when I first made my plans to go to Nepal for two and a half weeks. My ambitions centered on Trekking as they do for most who make their way to the tiny land-locked country sandwiched between China and India. But of course, the vicissitudes of life are inescapable, and trekking isn’t what happened. On my very first day in the country  I managed to mildly sprain my ankle in a bouldering incident at a climbing park. That, coupled with the three day fiasco of obtaining an Indian transit visa so that I could actually come home though New Delhi, took up five of my precious days in Nepal, and with it any chance I had of doing a Trek.

It wasn’t until maybe my fourth day in the city that I had really had any semblance of  a plan. At the time, a friend of mine who had worked with me at the butterfly park in Laos also happened to be in Kathmandu. She invited me out for drinks with some of her friends, and I happily obliged, limping my way through the night time streets of the city. It was at this get-together at a rooftop bar, among Americans, Australians, Italians, Dutch, and Germans that the ideas behind these meditation retreats was properly introduced to me, when someone started talking about their experience with Vipassana meditation.

Vipassana is a ancient meditation technique that most often takes place in the form of ten-day retreats wherein participants meditate in 10 hours per day in complete silence and isolation. Ten days: no talking, no eye contact, no cell phone, no reading, no writing, no sex, no music, no intoxicants, no tobacco no religious ceremony, separation of men and women, no physical contact, no religious objects; just you and your thoughts or lack thereof. You can read more about it here.

Crazy proposition, right? But to be honest, the intensity is what what drew me to it. It sounded challenging, nearly impossible. While she was talking, I looked down at my swollen ankle and realized that while the physical limitations of my injury would stop me from challenging myself on the mountain treks, there was nothing keeping me from challenging my mind. I decided that maybe I would give one of these retreats a try. I spent the latter part of that night investigating retreats nearby, but was unsuccessful in finding one that worked with my schedule.

The next day over breakfast my phone buzzed on the table. There was a Facebook message from the same person that I had spoken to the night before. It was a photo of a flyer, not for a true Vipassana, but a seven-day meditation retreat with similar but less intense specifications. Looking back, these modifications saved my ass, literally. My hip flexibility has suffered greatly since my kindergarten days. And I truly don’t know if I could have handled a Vipassana’s worth of “criss-cross applesauce”. The flyer  would begin the next day and it fit my timeline perfectly. I emailed the organizer, and the next thing I knew, I found myself in the back of that hatchback.

The building itself was high in the hills above the main road where the taxi let us off. We left our vehicles near the base of a concrete staircase bordered by a small forest of seemingly wild cannabis plants. After collecting our bags from the roofs of the cars, we trudged our way to the top. We climbed first on the stairs and then on muddy paths feeling the altitude in our lungs the whole way. We passed a tiny soccer field, a family of goats, and terraced farms with mud-walled houses carved into the verdant base of the mountainside.

The trek though tiring proved to be worth it. From the patio of the building you could see the whole of Pharping. The town’s clear-cut borders were delineated bright green array of rice paddies. Next to it lay a riverbed, a temple under construction, and a road that lead through a pass in the hills to the world beyond the valley.

I climbed the internal stairs of the house and found my bedroll on the ground in a empty yellow room with hardwood floors and a window facing the mountain’s slope. I deposited my bag in a cabinet and made my way downstairs to begin.

After a few words with two girls around my age from Israel and a cup of tea, our instructor, a Frenchman with 25 years of Buddhism under his belt introduced us to the building, and soon enough we had entered our silence and begun the retreat.

The seven days I spent there in silence weren’t easy, even considering our western handicaps: occasional yoga sessions, reduced hours, a 30 minute interval to discuss how we were feeling each day, and walking meditation to break up the time that we spent sitting still. My hips and back ached and creaked every time we sat to practice, and what was supposed to be an exercise in relaxation over the course of six hours each day quickly turned to an exercise in the tolerance of suffering.

At times we would be invited to meditate individually and I welcomed these as an escape. We could practice Yoga, or walking meditation, or continue as we had been. I took these moments as opportunities to get a little higher in the mountains, and rather quickly I developed a routine.

Each day during our individual time, I would fill a mug with warm water and hike to the top of the mountain, each time a third of the mug would spill out before I got to the top. I would sit under a tree a sip half  of the remaining water. Then I would close my eyes and practice for 10-20 minutes. Afterwards, lying on my back, I would complete a body scan, a technique of meditation often used in introductory courses where you spend time focusing all your mental power on each part of your body.  Then I would sit back up and finish my water that had become cold with time. Just before the glass was empty, I would pour the last little bit of water on a rock that marked my spot and observe as the liquid spread on its surface, soaking into the rock almost like a sponge. With that I would gently tap the rock, stand up, and mindfully walk my way back to the lodge.

Strolling down the hill, I did my best to stay present in the mountain scenery. I would listen for the soft call of the birds and the abrasive cuckoos that called the mountain their home. Car horns, like some freak hybrid of elephant and bird screamed their presence on the mountain roads as they tore around switchbacks. I would inspect the flowers, and count the leaves on their stems as I walked among them, while scrutinizing the trail for trash. In these ways I kept my mind steady.

And then I would find myself at the base of the house’s wooden staircase. Staring up at my living quarters usually with thirty minutes to spare.  I used that time to take a cold shower, trying my best to stay present for it. Letting the liquid run over one part of my body at a time. And then using my soap and rinsing and drying in the same way.

And so in the absence of my phone or people or even a clock to keep me on track.  I developed a sort of routine that kept me disciplined, clean, happy.

And to be honest, as austere as my conditions may sound it was nice. I found that the absence of these distractions put me in closer touch with myself. I was transported back to my childhood in some ways. I paid closer attention to details, like the grain of a wooden door, or the pattern of tiles on a wall, the feeling of hot tea in my mouth, and the warmth of the sun on my face. I began to approach the world with the novice’s mind, a perspective that I had long forgotten. In that state, simpler things excited me, and I found a deeper sense of contentment in just being.

Of course, I’m not expert and I couldn’t always remain in a state of mindfulness. In my silent hours, when I wasn’t meditating, focused on presence, or eating, I was thinking. And after a few days, I realized that there were a lot of things in my life that I had been distracting myself from, inconvenient thoughts that were unhappy truths. These thoughts were torturous, ravaging, unrelenting, and all-consuming. So many times I wanted to pick up my phone and call someone, read an article, or even write about it. I needed to distract myself in some way. But through discipline and a force of will, I avoided the temptation and my phone stayed quiet.

When it was over, of course there was relief and when I finally picked up my phone is was nice to have a friend to talk to. But I was surprised to find that at the end, when I finally could, I didn’t have a pounding urge to turn on my phone. I actually reviled a bit in the silence even after I didn’t have to anymore, because it was nice to stand on my own, to not be afraid of my own thoughts, to be okay with silence, with simply being.

Coming out of this, I’m not obsessed with mindfulness. I don’t think I found exactly what was missing in my life, or that I have all the answers to the big questions. I don’t need to  join a temple or convert to Buddhism, and I don’t need the people around me to try it. But I do see a new side of myself. I overcame a challenge and feel good about that. A challenge is what I wanted out of Nepal, and even though I didn’t get exactly what I planned for when I first made the decision to go there, I still pushed myself, and I feel like I’ve grown because of it.

Moving forward, I hope that I can have the discipline to incorporate meditation into my life at home, where a combination of medical school applications, loan payments, job hunting, research positions, and family challenges are sure to push my brain to its limit. No doubt in the chaos of my return to normalcy, the simplicity of that house in the hills will beckon to me, and I will long to be there.  It will be up to me to recall that the state of mind that I learned in that place is portable, because simplicity and a refreshed perspective can be found anywhere if you know how to look.


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Bubbles

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I reached to my left and grabbed the hose hanging from my shoulder as I stared back at the bungalows resting on that shore of Koh Tao, a smallish island in the  Gulf of Thailand. The island and the buildings perched upon its hills seemed to move up and down in the frame of my mask as my head bobbed above the ocean waves. I exhaled deeply and  pressed down on the button now positioned under my thumb. Air rushed out of the tube,the pressure of the gas in my vest disappeared in a gentle whoosh. The island moved upward one final time, pushed out of frame by the sea. And just like that I was in a different world, a type of purgatory. I was suspended in what some call “the blue”.  

In this place at that time, the rest of the world had disappeared, what was left was a rope, anchored 130 ft below, my dive buddy, the bubbles of those who had gone before us, and the steady sound of my own  breathing.

We spent maybe two minutes here. Falling through the blue. If it weren’t for the anchor line faithfully sloping down and away, the only sign of our descent would be the slowly changing depth reading on our dive computers and the pressure of the water straining our eardrums, reminding us of the weight of liquid that amassed above.

During my week of SCUBA diving on Koh Tao, I found descents like these to be profoundly calming. Considering the gravity of the situation, breathing underwater, where equipment malfunction, or poor judgement can mean disaster, I suppose there is an irony to this sentiment. Nevertheless, as I drift through “the blue” I feel isolated from the problems of the surface, and I take solace in the patterns of a safe and smooth descent from the predive safety checks to the iterations of thought that run through my head as I sink: follow the rope, head up, fall a bit, check your depth,  fix your ears, watch your buddy do the same, repeat for 130 ft.

This, of course, doesn’t last forever. The patterns and routines of the descent give way to exploration and curiosity (within realistic limits) on the bottom. On this particular dive we were determined to explore a shipwreck off the coast of the island. It was an intentional wreck, the boat had belonged to both the US and Thai militaries and was intentionally sunk at that sport so that divers on the island would have a place to practice wreck diving.

Only submerged for 12 years, it had already become its own ecosystem, sea urchins and mollusks decorated its hull and the barrels of its rusted guns. Schools of fish, lazily swam across its bow. It’s dark insides, guarded by jagged, rusted door frames, beckoned with mystery.

We didn’t go inside. Enclosed diving requires extensive training.  But gently swimming around the WWII era beaching craft form the Pacific Theater, examining its exposed engine room, peaking in its windows, hovering above where crewman used to work afforded a sense visiting a place with historic value and offered a new perpective on the world.

I wonder if  diving can’t do this for me back home in Michigan, where I have come to feel as though I’ve reached the limits of things to explore. The hundreds of pristinely preserved shipwrecks that spot the bottoms of our Great Lakes present an opportunity to explore the history of my state firsthand, and may help put me in better touch with the past and again satiate my appetite for adventure.

At 130 ft the ship was the deepest dive that we did, but definitely not the only one. I completed 11 dives, for a grand total of 6 hours and 45 minutes underwater during my time on Koh Tao. Beyond shipwrecks we watched vibrant ecosystems dance around us. Schools of barracuda, fields of sea anemones, populated by clownfish and pink anemonefish, scurrying giant hermit crabs, triggerfish, rainbow-colored parrot fish, lion fish and stingrays all accompanied us as we floated over and around reefs and rocks and among forests of coral.

Diving unlocks an amazing, unique, almost alien world that would otherwise go unseen.  I am thankful to have had the experience, not just because what I saw was beautiful but also because I have seen now in person exactly what environmentalists are fighting for.  And I know its worth protecting







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My Life and Times in Southeast Asia

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And just like that, Vietnam and Cambodia have come and gone. The last two months or so have been a constant hustle and I must confess I haven’t had much quiet time for reflection (or haven’t utilized it as such). I now find myself in the south of Thailand. And my eyes are set on Nepal in the near future. But before I get to that, I want to look back on the last two months and actually reflect on my experiences.

When I last wrote about the events of my travels, I was contentedly wandering the streets of Tet-time Hanoi. I found myself stumbling across bunkers from the American war and even older fortifications dating back to before the French invasion of the 1800’. I was visiting war museums, while trying as many bahn mi shops and bun cha places as I could find. Since then I’ve traveled nearly 6,500 km (4,039 mi) by bus, ferry, plane and taxi through three countries.

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Immediately after my time in Hanoi, I traveled to Hạ Long, a port city in the north, where I spent three days traveling with the Vietnamese family of a friend I had made while in Peru during my travels in 2017. With them I was lucky enough to try plenty of incredible home-made Vietnamese food including a plate of fried sea worms. My friends father only told me what it was after I had finished the whole thing. With them, I got to practice the Vietnamese language a bit, but I became much better at reading and writing than speaking. The spoken words that I learned from them in the north of the country were essentially useless as I made my way further south and the dialect changed significantly. I think my “please”, “thank you”, “sorry”, and “hello” were all decently understood, and you can get by abroad a lot of the times with just those.

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I traveled with her family all the way to the cloud-covered mountain town of Sapa in the northwestern region of the country. After a day her family returned home and she and I and one of her friends from Australia remained behind for a trek. The three of us connected with a German doctor whom I had become acquainted with during my time in Hanoi, and in the company of a fantastic guide the four of us climbed and swam in the waterfalls of one of the tallest and most remote mountains in Vietnam, Pu Ta Leng. It was a challenge to say the least and a trek rarely undertaken by Westerners. Along the way we stayed in mountain huts, and ate food prepared by our guide and the two local porters he brought with him. Their prowess in the mountains put all of us to shame. We couldn’t help but laugh at our relative weakness as, locals galloped past us on the trails, toting homemade air rifles, out hunting for the small game that inhabit the mountainside.

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After three days of trekking, tired and sore, our guide took us to a bathhouse where we relaxed in herbal baths meant to sooth the aches and pains of worn out muscles, and also (I imagine) to make us smell better for the hot pot dinner we had afterwards to celebrate the completion of our climb. Hot pot is a very common meal in Vietnam where a pot of boiling broth is placed on a burner at your table and an assortment of raw vegetables, meats, and noodles is placed aside it. You add the ingredients as you desire to the pot and cook it right there. Everyone shares the food and serves themselves out of the same pot. It’s a nice communal experience and helps bring people together.

After Sapa and a nine hour sleeper-bus ride back to Hạ Long. In the storied Ha Long Bay, I caught a cruise boat for a couple of days to float between the famous karst mountains molded by millions of years of water wear. It was a beautiful place, or it would have been. Unfortunately, unchecked tourism and poor environmental regulation in the bay has resulted in destruction of its natural beauty. I saw the devastating effects of plastic pollution on our oceans first hand, as we passed trash flotillas interspersed between the Islands. Our guide told us that it wasn’t from the tourist boats that crisscross the bay. He said that it floats in from elsewhere. I don’t know if that’s true, but regardless, it’s a sad sight to see.

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After Hạ Long, following the path of historical places, I made my way to my first city that saw active combat during the American war. In the Imperial City of Huế, I roamed through the palaces and temples and fortifications of the Nguyen dynasty, many restored and made to look new. I marveled at the dragons adorning the tops of buildings and the water lilies through which giant golden bass darted to chase fish food thrown by tourists. I wandered through the throne rooms where for 100 years Nguyen emperors held audiences with foreign dignitaries and their own suppliants, through the esteemed quarters of Queen Mothers and of royal concubines. And when I escaped the cameras of my fellow visitors, I felt myself transported back to that time. I was briefly a lone traveler in a forbidden city steeped in tradition and foreign laws and festivities. But then I moved beyond the restorations, where neglect by the French protectorate and bombing campaigns by the American military targeting anti-aircraft guns mounted on the walls of the city had destroyed so many relics of the past and left bullet holes in the walls that still stood. I was reminded that we were in different times. And that that place was only a ghost of what it once was.

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From Huế, I headed south, through the Hai Van Pass where I stopped and marveled at the country’s coast line from its highest point. The range which the pass travels over is the topological separation of North and South climate zones. Until the early 1800’s it was also the division between the kingdoms of Champa and Đại Việt. In many local’s eyes the range is the true dividing line of the country. Old French and American bunkers spot the hillsides as remnants of the country’s bloody past. The pass connects on the north to a stretch of highway that was known to the French as the “Steet without Joy,” for the frequent ambushes that troops experienced traveling along it and the complex tunnel and fortification system established by the Viet Minh close by during the French Occupation. On its south is the city of Da Nang, the site of both the French invasion of 1858 and the American invasion of 1965. Descending from its peak I could see all of Da Nang and the beach that lines its eastern boundary where all those troops landed. After a night in Da Nang, a failed attempt at surfing, and a trip to some mountain temples hidden in caves that were once Viet Cong hospitals, I made my way to Hội An.

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Hội An is a tourist trap in every sense of the word, but deservedly so. It was in Hội An that I found myself surrounded, surrounded by lanterns of all colors and shapes. Hội An is famous for its lanterns, which lazily illuminate its remarkably well preserved port town architecture dating back to the 1400’s. Situated at the mouth of the Thu Bon River, Hội An was the old gateway to Vietnam centerlands and an incredibly important strategic location. Considering its close proximity to the fighting of the 60’s and 70’s its remarkable that it’s there at all. I have to say though, that my favorite thing about Hội An was the food. While I was there, I ate a dish called cao lầu. It blew my mind and will never forget it. Perhaps one of the best meals of my life. It consisted of thick noodles made with a solution that only comes from trees on a local island, which are cooked in water only found in a specific well in Hội An, with specially made barbeque pork and herbed. I ordered it three times in the two days that I was there. But my visa was running out and I needed to keep moving, so I made my way Ho Chi Minh City, formerly (and for some locals, currently) known as Saigon.

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In Hoi Chi Minh City, I had limited time, only two days, but I knew I wanted to learn more about the war. I managed to make it to the War Remnants Museum, which I found far superior to its sister in Hanoi, because it felt far less like propaganda.

This museum actually featured the protests of the American people to the war, whereas the one in Hanoi showed the protests of every other country in the world aside from the United States. This one featured accurately labeled weapons. Where as the guns in the other museum were often improperly labelled and featured claims like “this rifle was used to kill 200 imperialists and 3 tanks!”. Those inaccuracies took away from the power of the museum in Hanoi, but they weren’t present in Ho Chi Minh City’s version.

The War Remnants museum itself was powerful, but what was even more impactful was the reactions of veterans, both American and Vietnamese visiting the museum, who had actually lived through it. Watching the men who were there point to maps, and say to their families, “that’s where I was”, “that’s where this happened.” Gave the war a realness that I’d never experienced before.

The next day, on local busses, using instructions from a blog I found online, I made my way to an expansive tunnel system used by the Viet Cong during the war. After an early morning wake up and a 3 hour ride to the site, I paid the park entry and a guide took me through just a few of the 250km of meter-high tunnels, pointing out bunkers, meeting rooms, storage rooms, operating suits, and mess halls, all concealed beneath the Earth. As he ran along the tunnels, well practiced in the craft, my larger European frame struggled to keep up, often having to fall to my hands and knees to avoid hitting my head. I can’t imagine what it was like to live and fight in such a tiny place and how terrifying it would have been to climb through the tunnels in the pitch black not knowing if an enemy soldier or booby trap awaited you around the corner.

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The park where the tunnels are on display also features a memorial which I hadn’t expected to see. It honored those who had died fighting for the Vietnamese independence/communist cause in the wars against the French and Americans in that region. Just as the Vietnam War Memorial in the US bears the names of over 58,000 men and women who died during the war in Vietnam, this memorial honored people fighting for the North Vietnamese, and featured the names of more than 53,000 people killed in the conflict. Of course no memorial stands for the 250,000 South Vietnamese who died fighting for country which John F. Kennedy described as America’s “offspring”, in fact, it was only in 2006 the Vietnamese government allowed people access to ARVN cemeteries to tend the graves of their decease. This is even more distressing when the tradition of reverence for ancestors and the dead in Asia is understood.

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I had a plane booked to Cambodia the next day, and I confess, I almost didn’t make it. I had a problem with my Vietnamese visa. Though I had paid for a thirty day visa, due to Februarys peculiar length, I had actually only received a visa for twenty-eight days. The day I flew out was day twenty-nine. Before I could check into the flight, I had to get approval from the supervising immigration officer who of course demanded that I pay a $60 fine (my online research told me the fine should only have been $10). Imagine my panic as I realized I only had $20 in my pocket, and no access to any money in my bank account (I had lost one of my debit cards the week before and a money transfer to my other card hadn’t gone through yet). Fortunately overdrawing my checking account by buying the immigration officer $40 dollars worth of cigarettes with my only debit card and paying a $20 fine in cash was enough to keep me on the road, skip the immigration line, and make my flight by 5 minutes. I totally kept the receipt for the cigarettes. Something for the scrapbook. And I was so close to making it out of Vietnam without having to pay a bribe!

From here I flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the millennium-old ruins of the Khmer empire and marvel at its stone temples where trees now grow out of the faces of devatas yet the creations of gods and man still intersect into something more beautiful than can be described in words, where timeless architecture rivals that of the Romans, and structures stand in alignment with the cosmos and solar cycles. Angkor Wat is truly one of the pinnacles of human achievement, art, and religious fervor. I spent three days exploring the temples and learning the histories of a culture that we don’t really ever talk about in the West. And yet, in the early 13th century, while London hadn’t even scratched 20,000 people, the Agro-urban center of Angkor boasted hundreds of thousands.

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Three days here came to be enough as I discovered that I was never designed to spend long periods of time in 100 degree temperatures with high humidity, and so with an Ankor Wat guide-book in hand, I headed south towards the Ocean to cool off.

To escape the sweltering heat. I flew to the ocean-side city of Sihnoukville, Cambodia, a place that I’ve heard described by more liberal minded people as an “actual shit-hole”. Others have called it “a cesspool of Chinese investment” and to be fair, it isn’t a pretty place. Trash and plastic pollution lines the streets and the ambiance could best be described as “jackhammer”. The Khmer culture has been completed replaced by Chinese, in the restaurants, on the signs, and in the people. This is because Sihnoukville is one large construction site bankrolled by China. And unless you’re involved in that construction, it isn’t a nice place to be. That being said, I think it is a good example of what modernization looks like, especially for small countries like Cambodia. To have the amenities and comforts of the rest of the world, they need the rest of the world’s money, and China seems to be a happy investor, especially in places in its own back yard. When you travel through Asia, you wonder how places like Singapore, become modernized so quickly. I imagine this is how. Though Sihnoukville isn’t nice to look at now, in 5 years when all the resorts are built and the construction is finished, its blue water beaches, Chinese casinos, and beautiful islands will be a touristic destination for years to come.

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This rapid development saddens me some, though I hope it is good for the people of Cambodia. But I didn’t travel to Sinhoukville to see the city, but to Koh Ta Kiev, a tropical island in the south of the country that is almost untouched by development. I wanted to experience life with no data, electricity, or water systems and escape the world for a bit and I was able to. But, In five years, I don’t think that will still be an option there. Already a Chinese developer has cut the beginnings of road into the island’s jungles, and purchased half of it’s land from the government. It seems only a matter of time before this hidden paradise becomes a new Thailand with hoards of tourists flocking there, and the tiny bungalows are replaced by 4-star hotels.

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I explored the island on foot, and found my way to a stilted fishing village that both is and is not on top of the water, depending on the tides. I sat down at a small restaurant where I ate freshly caught crab, and watched as man conducted a controlled burn on his small farm fanning the flames with an enormous jungle leaf. I walked and looped around the island attempting to find an abandoned airstrip from the days of the Khmer Rouge regime, to no avail. At night, I was caught off-guard by the presence of bioluminescent plankton in the ocean waves that washes ashore and subtly illuminates the beach. Swimming through it I watched as it followed my hand through the water and chuckled as I wrote my name in the blackness. Stars above and a glowing ocean below, on my last night there I found myself submerged in a dream. But the next day, I made my way back to real life in the harshest way possible.

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Almost immediately after landing in Phnom Penh, I made a trip to Khmer Rouge prison S21, the most notorious of the Regime’s 150 secret political prisons, where nearly 20,000 people waited to be sent to their deaths between 1976 and 1979. And then to the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh where these prisoners were brutally executed and buried in mass graves, in a place where what was supposed to be “never again,” happened only 40 years ago. I couldn’t help but think about my time in Rwanda, and the genocide memorial there. It was a reminder that we are often blind or apathetic to what is right in front of us. The US and numerous other countries allowed the Khmer Rouge to have a seat in the UN for the entirety of these atrocities. Even today, there are active genocides taking place in Yemen, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Syria. And the stage is being set for others elsewhere. They’re taking place currently, all over the world, yet the prevailing wisdom is that they are a thing of the past. Many of us still need to open our eyes. After Phnom Penh mine certainly are.

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From Cambodia, I arrived in my current country, Thailand. A nation with nothing but mixed reviews from my fellow travelers. I’ve met both people that love and hate this place. Those that love it, do so for its combination of relaxed vibes by day and wild party culture by night, those that don’t, hate it for the same reason, and for the hoards of tourists that the country harbors.

I feel that the culture here, at least in the places that I’ve been, has been so heavily influenced by western ideals, that it is hard to access, and so I’ve been taking solace in the natural beauty of the country. I was lucky enough that my girlfriend, Tess, came out to visit me (and saved my butt by bringing a replacement debit card, credit card, and important insurance paperwork all the way form the US). And we managed to get some trekking, sunset watching, hot spring bathing, rock climbing, and scuba diving all done in the week that she was here. Now, I am on my own again, in a dorm at what can best be described as a “dive camp” in Koh Tao, Thailand.

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I’m getting my PADI Open Water Certification here, a dream of mine since I was 9 years old and found out that it was a thing that you could do. Unfortunately when I was younger my health made it so that I couldn’t, but my lungs are in better condition now, a doctor signed off on my safety to dive, and I knew that if I didn’t do this now, I’d probably never get around to it.

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I’m excited to see what doors this opens for me, what new weekend trips are on the horizon when I get back to Ann Arbor. When I buckle down to start applying to med schools, I need some sort of weekend solace, and I’m thinking that diving and exploring the underwater world of the Great Lakes might end up being it (at least for part of the year).

Five days from now will mark exactly three months since departing on this second leg of my Bonderman Fellowship experience, and in ten days my formal 8 month commitment to the program will come to and end. But my travels won’t, and neither will this blog. After my certification. I’m heading to Nepal to see Kathmandu and Pokhara in the spring. I can’t wait to share my experiences with you along the way.

Thanks for reading,

Stephen

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Maturity

On the first night of my first day of international travel, back in 2017, I was on a plane to Chile and we were flying through the midnight sky from Lima to Santiago. I peeked out the window of the plane and looked down at the blackness of the country side where I caught glimpses of illuminated hamlets high in the mountains. I was awe struck. I felt completely frozen in time. It was a moment of incredulousness. I realized that I was really doing it, that I was really in South America, that I had really broken away from my home and I was somewhere that I had only ever dreamed that I would be.

When I first started travelling, I used to have these moments a lot. I would stop and sit in awe of my new reality, amazed by the apparent absurdity of me, a twenty-two year old kid exploring the world. But as my journey has extended itself, as I’ve travelled more and more new and wonderful places, those awestruck moments have become scarce, and the frequent highs of this lifestyle have started to go away.

But their absence isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if I do miss them sometimes. I think this emotional dampening is part of maturing as a traveler. When I first started out, in every new city and new place I felt like a helpless child. And that was a fair comparison. My traveling-self was in his infancy. Those awestruck moments, and their companions, moments of sheer confusion and frustration were the vast emotional fluxuations inherent to that stage of development. It was healthy to have experienced them. But now, having traveled five months consecutively, spending nine months reflecting on that experience, and with two more months of adventuring now on my resume, I’m more developed, and I don’t know that it would still be healthy to experience the same emotions that I did in the beginning. It certainly wouldn’t be healthy for a twenty-two year-old to still experience the tantrums and tumultuous moods of someone in early childhood.

As we mature, as humans, as employees, as travelers, as students, as any category of person. It is absolutely natural for our emotive responses to dampen as our reservoir of experiences grows. And although we often look at the past with a sense of fond nostalgia, and wish to be able to experience that childlike elation renewed. I think it is important to remember that that elation only comes with lows of equal amplitude, and that to slip back into those oscillations can be detrimental to our development in any category.

Of course, I’m not saying that maturity is devoid of happiness. Maturity does not mandate a constant state of emotionlessness. Even in this more moderated state, I find myself sometimes sad, but more often immensely happy, and consistently happy. Though the oscillations of my mood are now less extreme, their average is still skewed towards optimism. I think that is a good goal, the ability to maintain a homeostasis of contentment. Regardless of external factors, to know that you have the skills and inner strength to overcome the obstacles that you might encounter in your journey is a stabilizing and powerful feeling. But it can also become mundane. And at a certain point you crave something different to keep things interesting. And to discover those missing pieces you have to break out of comfort once again.

Now that I deem myself a mature independent traveler of stable countries abroad, I think that I must look to other types of travel to continue to grow. And there are still many types of travel where my experience is infantile, where my wisdom is limited, and where my constant contentment would swap out for more powerful emotional experiences. I’ve never traveled with family, or even another person for a genuinely extended period of time. Imagine traveling with a child and the roller-coaster of emotions that that could engender. I’ve never traveled for business or for love or for family, each of these an unique experience with its own set of challenges.

Additionally, every country that I’ve been to: Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam, aside from some occasional high crime cities, have all been stable countries at the time of my visit. I don’t have a soldier’s or aid workers experience, navigating zones of conflict and devastation. The closest I’ve come is Rwanda, with guards bearing AK-47s on every street corner, Leticia, Colombia with its heavy military presence, and working on an ambulance in Detroit with its gun violence. I think that hardly compares to navigating a place where you are actively taking fire, and have to worry about hitting an IED on the side of the road, or riding in a helicopter through a hostile terriorty. Nor does it fully capture the experience of traveling through a flooded city as people pick through the pieces of devastated lives. In these realms, despite several failed attempts to assist in some of these places, my experience is sorely limited.

Some people would say that that is a good thing. But I can’t help but feel that it’s a logical next step for my international self. The skills I have learned traveling abroad prepare me well for a dive into these even more challenging landscapes, especially when combined with a formal medical education. If I choose an international direction for my life moving forward, disaster, conflict and humanitarian medicine seem like logical avenues, but that choice, to pursue a career that mandates travel, once obvious to me, is unclear now.

In contemplating various types of travel that I have little understanding of, I realize that my time in my home country, my home state, and city is full of ignorance as well. I used to believe that my sense of unhappiness at home was related to being stuck in one place. But looking at my existence there from a distance I realize that I wasn’t just stuck in one place, but in a lifestyle as well. The lifestyle of the ignorant student, learning about the world that he has no first hand experience in, accountable to projects whose value he doesn’t fully understand. And that of an employee working for someone else, with limited options for advancement without more school. Of course I felt a level of anxiety and edginess. In both of those lifestyles there isn’t much risk and accordingly there is little freedom. And I think that is at the heart of my happiness now, the freedom to direct myself, to build what I want, to discover where I want to go and go there, and collect memories along the way.

I wonder if I couldn’t have the same happiness at home if I just had the freedom to shape my own experience. At home, I have never dabbled in creation. I have never embarked upon the adventure of building something that is wholly or largely my own. If I have, this journey abroad is the closest I have ever come to doing so.

Could something like starting a business at home give me a similar sense of satisfaction? And how would that look? I am still fully committed to medicine. Which means another seven years of an academic or semi-academic lifestyle. A sacrifice that I am happy to make for my love of the field, but I wonder about what happens afterwards. Will I live in one place or travel for work? Will I need to speak another language? Is it possible to run a business and practice medicine at the same time? And where does family come in to all this?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions right now. My understanding of myself at]s a free person at home is still in its early stages. But I’m excited to see how I mature, and for the high’s and lows that I experience along the way.

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Simple Pleasures

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“Safe travels,” I said as I waved goodbye to the Swede who I’d shared coffee with for the last hour while we had waited in a café on Train Street, a small corridor in Hanoi where a train track actually runs along the front doors of houses and shops. There, the bellowing of the whistle signals a mad dash to move tables, chairs, and vases of flowers off the tracks and out of the way so that the metal stampede can proceed unimpeded.

But the train had come and gone. The show was over now, and just like that I was on my own again, on a walk by myself through the streets of Hanoi. In new cities I go on these walks often. Often alone, sometimes with others. When you wander without a plan, you never know what unexpected surprise lies around the corner. Sometimes I leave my route entirely up to chance, flipping a coin each time I get to a fork in the road. And that’s exactly how I’ve spent my time the last two days, just wandering the city. Really, there’s been nothing else to do.

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When I first arrived here on the 4th of February the town was bracing for the lunar new year and a celebration known as Tet. It was almost the year of the pig. The garage doors on store fronts were all pulled shut as I made my way from the bus station to my hostel. It was a strange landscape. The city was ominously silent as it braced for the celebration yet to come. It started that night, as the whole city gathered to watch fireworks illuminate the skies over Lake Hoan Kiem. After the show the previously spellbound crowd came to life as they dispersed into the streets of the Old Quarter for a raucous night of merriment. People flooded bars and clubs, and vendors walked through crowded streets with armadas of pig shaped balloons floated through the air behind them. The cities walkways we’re illuminated by thousands of little fires where locals burned incense, fake money, paper iPhones, and horse sculptures as tributes to their ancestors awaiting supplies in the afterlife. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could transfer gifts to the living in the same way?

Tet has been going strong since I got here and it officially lasts until the 10th. Families throw parties every day, each day hosted by a different family member while businesses, museums, and tourist attractions all remain closed. Though I haven’t had much opportunity to see the local attractions, It’s given me a chance to see a less chaotic side of Hanoi, the city at its most tranquil.

After saying goodbye to my Swedish friend the first place of note that I happened upon was an enormous park adorned with lanterns, lights, and decorations. Greeting me at the entrance was an enormous topiary of a Pig, flanked by a squad of other horticultural sculptures: rooster, dog, rat, ox, tiger, and more. I spent a few hours wandering through this park, and around its lake. At one point, I stopped to sit and watch some fisherman tend their lines. About twelve minutes in, I was joined by two fathers and their four children on a family outing to do some fishing themselves. I smiled, and said “xin cháo” as the kids danced around and waved to me.

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I watched the fathers show both the boys and the girls how to bait the hook and cast properly. And I laughed as I watched the oldest girl pull up four fish in the first 3 minutes, while her younger brother stomped around in joy. When the boys finally got their turn, I noticed that they were a bit more aggressive in pulling the lines out of the water, their hooks and lures flying back over their head. I rested my backpack in my lap and slipped my arms through the straps to prop it up on my chest. At the time I was wearing a ball cap. Whenever I anticipated an overexaggerated motion on the children’s part, I just looked down. The bill of the cap connected with my bag, and I had a makeshift hook shield ready to go. It actually came in handy a couple of times.

They didn’t seem to mind my presence and would even laugh with me when something humorous occurred. At one point one of the fathers even asked to me take a picture of them all and send it to his email. I happily obliged.

It was nice to witness something so transcendent of culture and of language. I some ways, I even felt connected to home, having seen similar scenes in Michigan and remembering fishing at a young age with my own father.

It wasn’t a big moment. It wasn’t a 150 dollar day tour. It wasn’t an experience designed with my comfort in mind. But it was real. And it was simple. It was a genuine moment of human interaction.

And I have my walks to thank for it.

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Busses Borders and Bathroom Breaks

I stepped onto the bus and the driver passed me a small plastic bag. I, just as fifteen other passengers had done before me, slide off my shoes and placed them inside the plastic. He motioned for me to follow one of the two aisles towards the back of the bus where one of the staff was seating passengers as they boarded.  I had never been on a bus like this one. It was a sleeper bus destined for Hanoi, designed for long-distance travel. Its seats are not positioned upright, as in a typical Greyhound, but stacked over top of each other like tumbled dominos, presumably to make it easier to sleep. There were three rows of these with two levels each, like bunk beds. Neon lighting on the inside of the bus illuminated its passengers, huddled with their carry-on, with a dull pink light that matched its laffy-taffyesque external paint job. Windows were present but mostly obstructed by the steel frames of the seats, but people positioned next to them could peer out and take in tiny bits of a view. In order to accommodate this vertical seating arrangement, each seat had a small ladder running along its frame so that an upper-level passenger could climb up into their position.  The conductor directed me to a spot towards the back of the bus. It was a middle seat in the upper row. I had zero space to put my back, but I was happy that I had avoided the downward sloping roof and would have all the head room in the world. With aisles on either side of me I also had ample space to strech my limbs if I really wanted.  But when I reached down to adjust my seat back, I realized that the mechanism was broken and that my seat was fixed in the recumbent position.  Realizing this, and presuming the grass to be greener elsewhere, I quickly positioned myself in the adjacent seat. One of the upper-level lateral spots. Of course I failed to notice the stack of bulky floor mats positioned behind this particular seat. When I tried to fully recline, my stomach dropped as I realized that my seat was obstructed from doing so. At that point it became apparent to me that I had traded a seat with full freedom of movement for a seat in which I could not sit up fully without hitting my head on the ceiling and in which I could not fully recline. By the time I had realized my mistake, my old seat had already been taken. Accordingly, I spent the next four hours slipping down towards my feet and boosting myself back up. Great last minute decision.  In the first 12 hours we had had only bathroom stops. And, of course, I missed the first. We were high in the mountains and we pulled over on the side of the road so people could go in the bushes. Despite it being a tourist bus, the passengers appeared to be relatively well seasoned travelers and they took it well, scattering off to do their business. When we stopped, I first made an attempt to remove the stack of pads obstructing my seat, and was successful. But by the time that I moved to make my escape, the driver was already honking the horn and waving the crowd back on to the bus. I decided that I was just happy to be able to lie down and that I could wait until the next one. I reasoned that because we were stopping four hours in, we would stop again in four hours. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The next stop didn’t come until we reached the border, nine hours later. By that time I had to go to the bathroom pretty badly. We pulled up to a structure with two concrete buildings. A high arched canopy with the crest of the Laotian government boldly nailed to its front connected them and hung over the road. Upon our arrival at these buildings we pulled over and then we sat still. The driver didn’t speak English and no one really knew what was going on, but people started getting off the bus so I got off too. I didn’t see any bathroom signs so I just entered one of the buildings and walked around a bit. Apparently they weren’t open yet as there was no one to be found inside. There were no signs of a bathroom on the bottom floor but I found a staircase and decided to take chance. I walked up the stairs past some empty offices and hit the jackpot, a hidden western toilet! It wasn’t until later, while we were still waiting for the office to open, that I noticed the public restroom sign across from where we parked. I went to investigate and was glad that I hadn’t seen it any sooner as they were in pretty miserable condition. I was pretty sure at this point that I had used the private toilet of the military officers working the outpost. Thanks guys!  When the office finally opened, as signified by a line of Laotian men in olive green and red military uniforms making their way down from their barracks to the office, all the passengers lined up for passport stamping which invariably created issues. Some people Vietnamese visas were valid yet. Some people had to pay overstay fees. Some people had forgotten their departure papers. The uniformed clerk wanted me to pay a fine as well because my visa had expired the day before. I explained that I had departed on a bus on the expiration date and that it had taken a long time to get to the border, but that I thought it should count. He laughed and said fine.  After we got past the Laotian immigration control, we walked along the Nam Can bridge, past hundreds of vendors selling cherry blossom trees in preparation for the Lunar New Year. We navigated vast crowds of people coming home for the holiday, on hundreds of motorbikes. Often there would be a mother, a father, and child all on one motorbike. The man driving with the child in his lap and his wife on the back. I also chuckled at the sight of chickens poking their heads out of the holes in the plastic bags that they were carried in. No funnier than a chihuahua in a purse, I suppose.  At the Vietnamese side of the border zone, an English girl was refused entry because of a problem with her visa. After that 12 hour bus ride she was told that she would have to go back to Luang Prabang and fly to Hanoi. The only problem was that our bus was the last one for the next five days. I’m not sure what she ended up doing, but I saw that her two traveling companions boarded the bus without her.  In the second half of the trip, I made a stupid mistake. Shortly after we stopped for lunch, I become very consumed by the Netflix documentary I was watching and mindlessly downed two liters of water in the span of one hour. Bad idea. I had to sit and silently suffer for several more hours until I finally got up and begged the bus driver for a toilet break. When we finally stopped, I was relieved to see that most of the bus agreed with me when nearly ¾ of the passengers filed out, but not nearly as relieved as I was to see that hole in the ground in a shed behind the gas station!  During the trip I passed the time by reading, watching documentaries, trying to teach myself something of Vietnamese, sleeping. I considered writing, but it was rare to find a time where I wasn’t distracted by some form of discomfort whether it was fatigue, restriction of motion, or the slow expansion of my bladder.  All that being said. After the missed bathroom breaks, the uncomfortable seat, the guy throwing up behind me, navigating the customs, and the twisty mountain roads. I’m happy I took the bus. I had read that it would be challenging, but that’s what I wanted. Bus travel gives you a glimpse into the country that you’re traveling through that you wouldn’t otherwise see, and it gives you a real sense of the vastness of the world. Crossing between countries at a land border is also and incredible experience, because you have a life-size juxtaposition of the two places, where really the only difference is how the land is governed. While a plane ride would have only taken an hour, I feel that I would have missed a lot by simply flying. The fact that I had to wait so long to get here, and that I had to jump through so many hoops makes me value being in Hanoi even more.  I’ll be in Vietnam until the end of February. Looking forward to sharing more.  Stephen

I stepped onto the bus and the driver passed me a small plastic bag. I, just as fifteen other passengers had done before me, slide off my shoes and placed them inside the plastic. He motioned for me to follow one of the two aisles towards the back of the bus where one of the staff was seating passengers as they boarded.

I had never been on a bus like this one. It was a sleeper bus destined for Hanoi, designed for long-distance travel. Its seats are not positioned upright, as in a typical Greyhound, but stacked over top of each other like tumbled dominos, presumably to make it easier to sleep. There were three rows of these with two levels each, like bunk beds. Neon lighting on the inside of the bus illuminated its passengers, huddled with their carry-on, with a dull pink light that matched its laffy-taffyesque external paint job. Windows were present but mostly obstructed by the steel frames of the seats, but people positioned next to them could peer out and take in tiny bits of a view. In order to accommodate this vertical seating arrangement, each seat had a small ladder running along its frame so that an upper-level passenger could climb up into their position.

The conductor directed me to a spot towards the back of the bus. It was a middle seat in the upper row. I had zero space to put my back, but I was happy that I had avoided the downward sloping roof and would have all the head room in the world. With aisles on either side of me I also had ample space to strech my limbs if I really wanted.

But when I reached down to adjust my seat back, I realized that the mechanism was broken and that my seat was fixed in the recumbent position.

Realizing this, and presuming the grass to be greener elsewhere, I quickly positioned myself in the adjacent seat. One of the upper-level lateral spots. Of course I failed to notice the stack of bulky floor mats positioned behind this particular seat. When I tried to fully recline, my stomach dropped as I realized that my seat was obstructed from doing so. At that point it became apparent to me that I had traded a seat with full freedom of movement for a seat in which I could not sit up fully without hitting my head on the ceiling and in which I could not fully recline. By the time I had realized my mistake, my old seat had already been taken. Accordingly, I spent the next four hours slipping down towards my feet and boosting myself back up. Great last minute decision.

In the first 12 hours we had had only bathroom stops. And, of course, I missed the first. We were high in the mountains and we pulled over on the side of the road so people could go in the bushes. Despite it being a tourist bus, the passengers appeared to be relatively well seasoned travelers and they took it well, scattering off to do their business. When we stopped, I first made an attempt to remove the stack of pads obstructing my seat, and was successful. But by the time that I moved to make my escape, the driver was already honking the horn and waving the crowd back on to the bus. I decided that I was just happy to be able to lie down and that I could wait until the next one. I reasoned that because we were stopping four hours in, we would stop again in four hours. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The next stop didn’t come until we reached the border, nine hours later. By that time I had to go to the bathroom pretty badly. We pulled up to a structure with two concrete buildings. A high arched canopy with the crest of the Laotian government boldly nailed to its front connected them and hung over the road. Upon our arrival at these buildings we pulled over and then we sat still. The driver didn’t speak English and no one really knew what was going on, but people started getting off the bus so I got off too. I didn’t see any bathroom signs so I just entered one of the buildings and walked around a bit. Apparently they weren’t open yet as there was no one to be found inside. There were no signs of a bathroom on the bottom floor but I found a staircase and decided to take chance. I walked up the stairs past some empty offices and hit the jackpot, a hidden western toilet! It wasn’t until later, while we were still waiting for the office to open, that I noticed the public restroom sign across from where we parked. I went to investigate and was glad that I hadn’t seen it any sooner as they were in pretty miserable condition. I was pretty sure at this point that I had used the private toilet of the military officers working the outpost. Thanks guys!

When the office finally opened, as signified by a line of Laotian men in olive green and red military uniforms making their way down from their barracks to the office, all the passengers lined up for passport stamping which invariably created issues. Some people Vietnamese visas were valid yet. Some people had to pay overstay fees. Some people had forgotten their departure papers. The uniformed clerk wanted me to pay a fine as well because my visa had expired the day before. I explained that I had departed on a bus on the expiration date and that it had taken a long time to get to the border, but that I thought it should count. He laughed and said fine.

After we got past the Laotian immigration control, we walked along the Nam Can bridge, past hundreds of vendors selling cherry blossom trees in preparation for the Lunar New Year. We navigated vast crowds of people coming home for the holiday, on hundreds of motorbikes. Often there would be a mother, a father, and child all on one motorbike. The man driving with the child in his lap and his wife on the back. I also chuckled at the sight of chickens poking their heads out of the holes in the plastic bags that they were carried in. No funnier than a chihuahua in a purse, I suppose.

At the Vietnamese side of the border zone, an English girl was refused entry because of a problem with her visa. After that 12 hour bus ride she was told that she would have to go back to Luang Prabang and fly to Hanoi. The only problem was that our bus was the last one for the next five days. I’m not sure what she ended up doing, but I saw that her two traveling companions boarded the bus without her.

In the second half of the trip, I made a stupid mistake. Shortly after we stopped for lunch, I become very consumed by the Netflix documentary I was watching and mindlessly downed two liters of water in the span of one hour. Bad idea. I had to sit and silently suffer for several more hours until I finally got up and begged the bus driver for a toilet break. When we finally stopped, I was relieved to see that most of the bus agreed with me when nearly ¾ of the passengers filed out, but not nearly as relieved as I was to see that hole in the ground in a shed behind the gas station!

During the trip I passed the time by reading, watching documentaries, trying to teach myself something of Vietnamese, sleeping. I considered writing, but it was rare to find a time where I wasn’t distracted by some form of discomfort whether it was fatigue, restriction of motion, or the slow expansion of my bladder.

All that being said. After the missed bathroom breaks, the uncomfortable seat, the guy throwing up behind me, navigating the customs, and the twisty mountain roads. I’m happy I took the bus. I had read that it would be challenging, but that’s what I wanted. Bus travel gives you a glimpse into the country that you’re traveling through that you wouldn’t otherwise see, and it gives you a real sense of the vastness of the world. Crossing between countries at a land border is also and incredible experience, because you have a life-size juxtaposition of the two places, where really the only difference is how the land is governed. While a plane ride would have only taken an hour, I feel that I would have missed a lot by simply flying. The fact that I had to wait so long to get here, and that I had to jump through so many hoops makes me value being in Hanoi even more.

I’ll be in Vietnam until the end of February. Looking forward to sharing more.

Stephen

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Relaxing by the River

Local kids play soccer and try to throw our frisbee as the sun sets.

Local kids play soccer and try to throw our frisbee as the sun sets.

There isn’t much to do in the Village of Ban Thappan, where I’ve spent my time since the 2nd of January, at least not in the conventional senses. And that’s a good thing. The people here live a lifestyle that revolves around family, food, nature, and simplicity. There’s no bar here, no library, no theater, not even an ATM. And now, I too have fallen into that regular routine.

My mornings, aside from the odd one where I head to town, consist of writing and phone conversations with friends, an early breakfast with the park staff, followed by a couple of hours manning the reception desk or sitting in the garden by the waterfall, giving tours to those who pass through. Somewhere in the middle of this I switch from the desk to the garden or the garden to the desk, stopping for a lunchtime sandwich along the way. Of course in both my posts I have a significant amount of down-time which has allowed me to pick up reading for pleasure once again.

I’ve been reading at a pace of about one book a week and I hope to keep this up. So far I’ve finished, Superfreakonomics, American Gun, and Theodore Roosevelt: an Autobiography. If you have any recommendations I’d love to hear them.

When the park closes and my time in the garden or at the desk comes to a close. I sit down with the other volunteers and we have some tea and a bit of cake and discuss the day. There is usually some odd event of nature that takes place in the garden that none of use have ever witnessed. Yesterday it was the formation of a Euploea core pupa and the mating dances of two Papilio memnon. Of course we also discuss the guests, both good and bad.

Papilio paris

Papilio paris

Sometimes after our tea we take a hike to the top of the Kuang Si Waterfall and meditate or go for a swim in the river, or go shopping for supplies in the village. Yesterday, we ventured a bit further into the village to play catch with my co-volunteer’s frisbee and came across the local soccer pitch where it seems that the preteens from all around the village come after school to practice some sport. You could tell the contrast in class between the children. Some sported the latest soccer cleats and authentic jerseys while others, great athletes, danced around the ball in flip-flops. What really blew my mind was that some of these 10, 11 and 12 year-olds were already smoking. But I suppose it’s a different culture. I’m going to town today, and I think I might buy them a new ball, as the one they have is torn to shreds.

As the sun begins to set I hop in the shower to wash off the day’s grime. Afterwards we begin cooking dinner, which always ends up being some strange assortment of western foods blended with Asian spices. I have to say. It isn’t terrible. We’ve made vegetable lasagna, chicken dumplings, veggie stirfry, tomato-eggplant sauces, veggie tempura, and slutty-brownies among other things. The process is absolutely enjoyable. Here I can just cook. There’s no time limit. I don’t have to worry about meal prepping for the week and I can spend as much or as little time in kitchen as I want. And the scarcity of ingredients makes it a nice challenge. There is a special feeling of accomplishment that comes from successfully making a dish with an ingredient that you had to travel 54 km on the back of a tuk tuk to acquire.

My cooking face.

My cooking face.

Swiming just down stream of the Falls.

Swiming just down stream of the Falls.

Once dinner is done and the dishes from the day are cleaned, its completely dark. We head back to our bungalows for the night. Usually we gather in one, under mosquito netting for a movie night before heading to bed around 10 pm. By 5am the roosters are singing their morning song and it’s time to wake up and do it again.

I don’t know that I would want the rest of my life to be like this. But I have to say there’s something refreshing in the routine. This one will only last another week before I dive into a new country with a new language and a very complex history: Vietnam. So I think I do my best to just enjoy this break.

Until next time,

Stephen

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Big Risks

Tat Kaung Si

Tat Kaung Si

“The day that changed my life happened when I was 23. I was sitting in a bar after backpacking through Europe for five weeks following my graduation from college. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had just backpacked for five whole weeks on a different continent, halfway across the world! At that time, an Australian man and I got to talking. I asked him how much longer he was planning to travel. ‘Oh, about six more months’, the man said. I was shocked, but I pressed on. ‘How long have you been traveling?’ I asked him. ‘about a year.’ I was flabbergasted, and it was at that point I knew that there was much more to see, and that I didn’t want to miss it.”

An American man told me this story as we strolled through the enclosed garden of Butterfly Park where I currently reside. He was living in Paris and on holiday in Laos with his family. His twelve year old daughter had already been to 21 countries and they weren’t anywhere near done with South East Asia.

If your travel long enough, spend enough time in hostels and among communities of regular travelers. I think you’re destined to have one of these moments sooner or later. You start to grow impressed with yourself, with all the experiences that you have, all the good stories you can tell. And then someone comes along and they absolutely astonish you with the scope of their experience.

I’ve had a few instances such as this. In Jefferies Bay, South Africa, I met a Japanese man who had biked his way all the way from Cairo to Cape Town. There was the man trying to reach every country in the world without flying; the 23 year old Nepalese mountain guide, with formal culinary training, who had summited Everest twice and used his money in the off seasons to travel to over 20 countries, including recently visiting Kabul for fun. And maybe even more impressively there is the couple who are currently hosting me, who, after traveling the world together, quit their work as the owner of a design company, and an art therapist at a juvenile detention center, sold all of their possessions and moved to Laos to create the beautiful butterfly garden where I’ll be until the end of the month. They work hard seven days a week to ensure the success of their dream, and now have a new baby boy who will grow up here.

If that seems unconscionable to you. You aren’t alone. My hosts, and all of the people in these examples did something that few people would do. They took big risks. Risks that, at the time, seemed incredible. Risks that many of their friends and family didn’t understand. But the thing about putting everything out on the line, whether climbing a cliff, throwing yourself into a country where you can’t even read the language, starting a new business, is that when success is your only viable option, you start to think that way and to perform that way. You adapt to thinking of success as a lifestyle, as the air you breath and the water you drink. A situation where “there’s no turning back” inevitably forces you to move forward, to be more flexible, and to problem solve. You begin to take things day-by-day, and live more in the present.

It is in those situations where my distractible mind has always found serenity: coursing down a hill dodging trees and rocks on a mountain bike, wandering through a city where you don’t speak the language while carrying your whole life on your back, sailing through a storm, climbing up a cliff without a harness, trying to converse with someone who doesn’t share a system of communication with you, or managing your emotions and controlling the chaos on a busy day in an emergency department. Personally, It is these moments of risk that demand my full attention, pull me away from distraction, and ultimately center my mind.

That’s not to say that one should be reckless. If you jump out of an airplane you should have a parachute. You should have put some thought into your leap. Preparation is absolutely in order, not just for the hypothetical skydiver, but in all the situations I have listed. It’s part of the story, the compressed spring before the launch. But the fulfilling part of the story is to watch the preparation all come together to carry you beyond what you ever thought you’d accomplish. That doesn’t happen if you never take the chance.

This is, at least, how I have come to view the world and think about my own decisions. Maybe this resonates with you, maybe it doesn’t. Not everyone needs to be a thrill seeker to feel fulfilled. And that’s okay. But I have to say after the last year of travel, new experiences, I think that you should definitely give it a try.

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Entitled Griping of a Privileged Millennial

A nightly water show in Singapore

A nightly water show in Singapore

As the white van packed with twelve people rounded its final corner on the hour-long journey to the Kuang Si Falls from Luang Prabang, Laos, I breathed a sigh of relief. Getting there hadn’t been easy, but, after one visa mix-up, nearly twenty-seven hours of travel, stops in five different cities, and one new year’s celebration in Singapore, I had finally made it to my destination, the Kuang Si Butterfly Park in a quiet village near Luang Prabang. When I think about it, though, this journey didn’t actually start when I walked in to the Detroit Airport a few days ago. It began far earlier, nearly a year ago, with a phone call that I received in the airport at Dar es Salaam. It took me 13,000 km back to my home to organize the care of a sick relative, through two months scraping by as an Uber driver, and eight months as an emergency room technician.

As I sit here in this guest house, nestled in the Laotian country side, the roar of the falls echoing through the valley, again 13,000 km away from home, I feel as though I have mental clarity for the first time since my phone rang in that airport on January 25th, 2018.

I realize now that my time in the US was marked by perpetual anxiety and a near constant state of restlessness. It think it was hard to adjust take on so many new responsibilities so quickly. It didn’t help that I returned to the same city that I predicated half of my Bonderman application on trying to escape. I had to adjust from a period of absolute freedom and growth to idling in the only place I didn’t want to be. At least that’s how it felt. And reconciling that dissonance is probably one of the greatest challenges I have faced during this whole process. I can’t even say I was successful.

Of course, my time in the United States was not all bad. Because I returned early, I was lucky enough to see many of my friends graduate from college, and I was able to spend a significant amount of time with some of the closest people in my life before they all scattered to the wind. I got to watch a loved-one regain their health and independence. I forged new relationships and met new people who I would have missed otherwise. I even got to explore New York with fellow Bonderman, Kelly O’Donnel, and pretend like I was back on the road.

But, every day that I spent as an uber driver or emergency room technician, meeting med students the same age as me, watching doctors and nurses do the assessments that I wanted to be doing was a poignant reminder of the clock that had started ticking away. And that restlessness became twofold. On the one hand, I wanted to get away from my home town, to feed my hunger for new horizons. On the other I wanted to get started with the next chapter of my life: to start saving for retirement, to pay down my debt, to move on with my education. I had to admit that all of those objectives would be most easily completed by staying where I was.

For a time, I even considered forfeiting my Bonderman funds and just moving on. A thought, that when viewed from the clarity of these river banks, the serenity of these deep green valleys feels absurd. Looking back, I can’t believe I ever considered giving this up. I realize now that no one is immune to complacency. It is a reminder that without taking fulfilling risks in life you jeopardize your sense of freedom. That, for me, is the very source of my will to live.

I sit here, in a darkened room in the early morning as the sun is just beginning to rise. In a few minutes, I am going to get up and take the first step into a new day of my life, with a renewed sense of energy and a curious excitement about the world.

It is my goal and a priority of mine to curate this experience as well as I can. On this leg of my Fellowship, I am going to be twice as reflective and journal twice as much. If you’re still reading thank you for joining me on this adventure. I hope I can make it as interesting for you as it is for me.

Peace and Love from Laos,

Stephen

The base of Kuang Si Falls

The base of Kuang Si Falls

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Rolling with the Blackouts: On Tanzania

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The hotel’s scarlet roof was the first thing that caught my eye as my bus pulled into the small mining town of Kahama after eleven long hours on the road. It looked nice from the outside, and after two weeks of cold bucket showers, squat toilets, and alternating between sleeping on the ground and concrete in Arusha and the Serengeti, a night in a hotel sounded like an attractive option.

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Quick side note: If you are ever looking for a nice exercise in mental fortitude, start taking cold showers. I don’t mean just once. I mean repeatedly. Take them every day for a week, for a month, for the rest of this year without any days off. I did so for a month before departing on this trip, and I am happy I did, not only because it trained me to take them, an unavoidable obligation, but because it is an effective way to teach yourself how to tolerate discomfort. In a travel experience like this, that is an invaluable skill to have. 

Anyway, I took note of the hotel’s name as the greyhound-style coach proceeded through the city to its station. It was my first night on a five-day trip from Arusha, Tanzania to Kigali, Rwanda and back, and the dearth of hotels with internet access in this region and limited English in the region made it difficult to book in advance.  Turning on my phone, I typed “Buzwagi View Hotel” into the search bar. My Google search revealed that the hotel was only $15 a night. I smiled. A private room here was the same price that I had often payed for one bunk in a ten-bed dorm.  I scrolled through the amenities list: satellite television, mosquito nets, restaurant, telephone, complimentary breakfast. It all sounded great, but there was one item that made me giddy with excitement. They would have a hot shower waiting for me in my room. Exhausted and rather lacking in the mental fortitude that my cold showers had taught me, I was sold.

The bus pulled in, and I climbed off. The athletic shorts I had elected to wear for the ride coupled with my pale skin immediately singled me out as a target for ticket sellers, or “fly-catchers” as they are called. I pushed past the swarm of highly-aggressive salesmen and found an office selling tickets to Kigali before catching a three-wheeled moto-taxi to the hotel and, more importantly, to that most coveted of prizes: the hot shower.

I imagine it was strange for the neatly dressed hotel manager, sporting a pair of tailored khaki slacks and blazer, to watch as a new guest to his upper-class establishment arrived in a beat-up moto-taxi, donning dirty athletic shorts, a sweaty shirt, and mud-laden military boots. The looks I received from him, the staff, and the other guests sitting around at the patio tables, confirmed my suspicion. Regardless, he showed me to the private room that I would have for the night.

I noticed the trail of mud my boots had left along the pristine white tile just as the hotel manager closed the door to my room. I felt a momentary twang of guilt, but that feeling vanished quickly as my attention turned to the door behind me and the shower that awaited me beyond. I stripped, cringing at the smell of my socks now re-exposed to the air after eleven hours on the bus and confined to waterproof army boots. The mud on the floor, the smell of the socks, and the moisture on my shirt all combined, and I felt truly repugnant.

Folding up my clothes. I grabbed my flip flops and headed for the shower. After a few minutes of fumbling with the unfamiliar hot-water mechanism, I finally managed to make it work. I angled the shower-head, adjusted the spray, and tuned the water pressure to exactly my liking, reveling in the glory of the moment.

And then I took that amazing first step. I dove in head-first and felt the grime of all my time in Eastern Africa start to melt away. I felt liberated, like I had discovered the fountain of youth and was on my way to rejuvenation.

And then the bathroom lights went out; and then the red light on the hot water box turned off.  I knew what was coming next as it happened. The gentle enveloping warmth of the water turned into a frozen hell-storm of ice cold liquid, repelling me from its depths back to the relative warmth of the air. I muttered an expletive and looked up at the ceiling light with the hope that the power-outage would be short-lived. It was not. Still dirty, with an air of fateful acceptance, I sullenly plunged my head back into the bone-chilling torrent.

Such have been the events of my time in Eastern Africa. Every day engenders a new surprise, each moment is as unpredictable as the last.

Sometimes these situations are funny. One such instance occurred when my brother was coming into town to visit me. I was staying somewhere in Arusha’s southern suburbs, no address on a nameless dirt road.  He would stay with me, but I figured it might be helpful for me to show him the way there from the airport. I had arranged for a taxi to pick me up from my room two hours before his flight would land. At the prearranged time, I stood outside the heavy iron gate to the house, looking up and down the sparsely populated street for my taxi, but obviously, he was running late (as does everything that happens after 8 AM here).

 I realized that I needed to grab some extra money. I walked back to my room and retrieved some bills from their hiding place. When I returned, there was a young man in his early twenties standing at the gate, motioning to me. I walked up to him and realized that he was pointing at a motorcycle parked in the street. Confused, I asked  him, “Are you my ride to the airport?” to which he replied with a high pitched moan and more excited pointing at the motorcycle. I paused, slightly confused, and  said something to him one more time. Again, I was met with the same high pitched noise and a lot of gesticulation. At this point I realized that my driver was both deaf and mute. 

I shook my head to tell him “no”, not wanting to get on a motorcycle to go to the airport, knowing that it was a grossly insufficient vehicle for the task at hand. However, he was very insistent, even to the point that I began to think that I was the one missing something. I turned to one of the teenagers working at the butcher’s shop next to me, and gave him a “could ya help me out here?” kind of look, but he just smiled and turned away. At that point it dawned on me. Maybe my real shuttle driver sent this guy to retrieve me from the neighborhood and take me to where the shuttle was waiting to go to the airport. I didn’t know how else this guy would know exactly where to find me. He walked up to my specific room after all.

I pulled out my cheap Tanzanian phone and did an image search for a car. I needed a way to find out if he was going to take me to the airport car. I pointed at the motorcycle and shook my head “no”, while pointing at the car on my phone and nodding my head “yes”. When the motorcycle driver saw the picture, he let out another excited noise and started nodding rapidly. I was glad we finally had an understanding.

I hopped on the back of the motorcycle and we began our drive to the shuttle. I took a moment to embrace in the absurdity of the situation. I was in the same country as Kilimanjaro riding on the back of some random guy’s motorcycle, to catch a taxi to meet my brother, so that we could go see lions and elephants and rhinos in the wild. It was crazy to me. The breeze blowing over my face was freeing and though I was nervous about the situation, I also felt incredibly relaxed. (Side note: I was later informed (reminded) that I am not allowed to take motorcycle taxi’s and I haven’t since… sorry Rachel). After about six minutes of driving, he turned and started heading down a rather empty street, something that I did not like, something that made me very nervous. Just as I was about to tell him to turn around, he pulled over and pointed at the building next to us. It was at that moment that I finally realized what had happened. He was pointing at a car dealership.

Earlier, when I had pointed at the picture of the car he thought that had meant that I wanted to buy a car, not go to a car. With that understanding, he happily provided that service, much to my dismay. I put my hand on my face in frustration and pulled out my phone again, now seeing three missed calls and a text from one of my housemates informing me that my real driver was there and waiting for me. I told them I’d be right there and hopped back on the bike. Not fully appreciating the strangeness of the situation, also confused and slightly on the defensive, hyperaware of possible scams or accomplices to a robbery, and not sure if I had been the butt of some practical joke,  I just pointed him back to my house with an aggressive look on my face, much to his confusion. When we arrived the cab was waiting and I pointed to it saying “this car” to which the motorcycle driver gave me a look of understanding. Meanwhile the kid at the butchers shop who had offered me no help at all, was dying with laughter. Embarrassed, and hyperaware, I handed him money for the pointless ride and got in my cab, shaking my head.

It wasn’t until about twenty minutes later that I let my guard down, realized that it was really just a huge misunderstanding, and started to laugh at myself. A few days later, I ended up seeing him at the neighborhood bar, and we shared some beers and laughed about the whole thing. For the rest of my time in Arusha, whenever he passed me on his bike, he would honk and wave happily.  

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I often find myself in situations like those, that I think are going great, until all of the sudden they aren’t. There was the Couchsurfing host who offered me free lodging and advice and then suddenly asked me to pay him out of the blue. There was a mosquito net that ended up being full of gaping holes. There was the cab that I hopped into to hoping to escape the rain that got a flat tire three minutes into our trip, and then after fixing the flat, ran out of gas a kilometer away from my hostel. At one point I had an incredibly early bus. Wanting to maximize my sleep for the night, I pre-planned my morning activities down to the minute. Wake up, drink water, brush teeth, pack bags, use toilet (this is important because the busses don’t have bathrooms), catch a cab to the bus station, and arrive on time. But of course, when I get to the toilet phase of my plan, with not a minute to spare, every toilet in my hostel was clogged and out of toilet paper. Needless to say, it was an uncomfortable bus ride. Beyond that, there was my decision to sleep in on a Tuesday morning in Arusha that was foiled by a random church choir singing outside my door, literally 3 meters from it, at 6:30 in the morning. And how could I forget walking through the basement of the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, next to cases of skulls and bones, when suddenly the lights went out and I was in a dark room full of human remains. On top of that I was not sure if it was a typical power outage or something more sinister, having read that the memorial was a potential target for terrorist attacks.

These “curve-balls”, as I have elected to call them, have become so frequent that in many ways I am no longer surprised by them. I feel at home with them. The unpredictable has become a part of my daily routine, and as plans fall through and my situations perpetually change, I’m getting batter at laughing at the absurdity of it all, not taking anything that happens seriously, to the greatest extent that I can. I think it’s impossible to travel this much without that attitude. I am at the point of such extreme acceptance of my random situations that I often have to stop and ask myself whether what’s happening at any given moment would be considered “normal” back home. Things like passenger busses stopping on the side of the road for a bathroom break--so 10 different people can go squat in the bushes in proximity to each other--don’t strike me as odd as I’m sure they would have when I began this trip.

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And I’ve noticed that this way of thinking towards the unpredictable is the prevailing attitude among the people that live here. It’s necessary for survival. There’s no way someone could have a happy life here without a full acceptance of things over which he or she has no power. A need for predictability would destroy any chance at happiness, because there is no way to predict anything here. And that has created more of a challenge for me than I anticipated it would. In other words, I failed to predict the extent to which I would fail to predict the things that happen to me in daily life here.

For that reason and others I think that Arusha, Tanzania has been the most challenging place I’ve been so far. The combination of that unpredictability, language deficiency, lack of normal comforts, and an in ability to blend into the crowd made my time there very difficult.

One part of the trouble for me was language. After what basically felt like a vacation in English-speaking South Africa, arriving in Arusha, where relatively few people speak English, was like being back in my first day in Santiago without knowing any Spanish. Of course there is a tourism industry here where more English is spoken, but in the interest of avoiding the tourist/vacation lifestyle, I elected to stay with a Couchsurfing host in the southern suburbs of the city, on a street with no name, in a neighborhood where myself and a Colombian girl were very much the only light-skinned people and English speaking is very limited. 

Living in this community as the only white was challenging for me. Yes, read that absurd sentence again. I, a 6 foot-tall, anglo-saxton, educated male, had problems because of my identity. Which was interesting and eye opening as I think it is the first and  probably only time I will ever have that experience.

You see, generally, when I travel, I do my best to blend into the city around me. I try to mimic the clothes of the people there. I try to avoid carrying a backpack. I do this partly because I want to avoid making myself a target for crime, but also because I don’t want people to change their day to day habits simply because I am present. But I found that in Arusha, making a scene just by my mere presence was inescapable.

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Every morning, I would start my day by walking down the nameless dirt road that led to the entrance of my habitation. Passing small shops that sell essentials: bottled water, laundry soap, bread, I would make my way towards my favorite hole-in-the-wall chapati shop for breakfast. Along the way, my eyes would trace the small stream of road run-off that flows along a dirt ditch off to the side of the road. I would spot hundreds of children with improvised toys floating plastic-bottle boats down the stream or wearing cups as hats, and playing drums with pots. And as I passed by their dirt-and-concrete playgrounds, they would unfailingly shout, “MZUNGU!”… White man. Like a car alarm that went off wherever I went. Almost in the same way, I imagine, that an American would should “Zebra!” upon seeing that beast in the wild for the first time. To those children I have a sense that that’s what I am. Some mythical beast that they’ve only ever seen on TV, a rare game suddenly spotted locally. Though the word can sometimes have negative connotations, I’ll admit it’s cute when you hear a chorus of 40 little voices shouting “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” as they tag along with you down the street.

        Such was the alarm that sounded wherever I went, from the excited shouts of children, to the hushed murmurs of adults, speaking lowly in Swahili where “mzungu” was the only word I could make out. There was no way of avoiding the fact that I was out of my element and extremely out of place. The fact that the people around me knew that was immensely unsettling.

Looking back, I doubt that much of what was being said in hushed tones by the adults was malevolent, aside from maybe the man that hit my brother on the shoulder and shouted “American!” as we drove by in a bajaji (tuk-tuk).  But that sense of having eyes on you that you can’t see, doesn’t do much to make you feel calm.

When I’m in an unfamiliar place, which now, is all the time, I like to practice situational awareness. I like to know fully what is happening all around me, watching the world as the world is watching me. But in Arusha, there was a strange chaos to the city that I couldn’t seem to get a handle on. I would look in front of me and scan the world, turn and check behind me and turning back around to my front nothing would be the same. Really, the only constant was that regardless of when I went, I could see and feel eyes on me from every direction but I couldn’t look back at them all.

That being said, I can’t say that I think what I experienced is exactly the same as what a black person from America or South Africa must experience on a university campus or in the halls of wall street or in the confederate states, because despite the experience of isolation I haven’t experienced hostility, subtle or open. The racism (and maybe racism isn’t the appropriate word here) that I experience here is more an unfounded expectation of wealth.

Although I do my best to avoid the appearance of wealth, my light-skin and the fact that I am traveling at all, gives the impression that I am selfishly hoarding some mass aggregation of money. I think for many, I have the appearance of a walking-ATM. I have found that often locals will feign forming friendships with me, only to ask me for money a few hours later.

 Of course the typical western-traveler to these parts doesn’t help the situation. Backpackers are few in Africa and most travelers to this region stay in nice hotels on organized vacations with extra money to blow. Children have learned that if they hold out their hand and say “give money,” sometimes white people will oblige. Westerners, especially Americans, often over-tip guides resulting in an economic system where people who directly interact with tourists end up making the most money, such as safari guides who end up making more money than the park superintendents who run the very parks that the those guides use to make their money. Additionally, the UN courts that were held here following the 1994 Rwandan genocide resulted in an influx of westerners and a mass increase in prices that hurt many locals.

After years of foreigners arriving and spending excesses of wealth, completely changing the economy, I’m not surprised that this belief exists among locals. It is a telling sign that every young person that I have met here wants to become a safari guide and eventually own a tour company. I have yet to meet a future doctor or engineer or human rights worker.  That being said, the expectation of loose spending on the part of foreigners that exists here is immensely tiring. I have to constantly reaffirm that I don’t have enough money to afford things and barter with taxi drivers and food sellers not to charge me the “mzungu price”, which is usually double to three times the local price.

This experience has given me a lot of empathy for the women of this country who face harassment, albeit of a different sort, on the streets of this country every day. And I can’t begin to imagine how tiring walking down the street in these countries must be for the women in my fellowship cohort, who have to deal with both sexual harassment and monetary harassment.

Another exercise in empathy for me has been dealing with prostitutes in bars. I remember a few days ago in Dar es Salaam, I was at a beach club, and they would not leave me and my table alone. They would come over and touch me, butt into my conversations with friends, and try to take my hat and play with it. At first I had fun with it, lying to them about my name, my background, telling absurd stories, always finding a creative way to get them to leave. But after a while I got really tired of it, eventually shouting at one woman who was especially annoyting to make her leave, and I found myself thinking, “Why can’t I just enjoy a night out with my friends without being harassed by all these women who I don’t know and have no physical interest in?” A phrase that echoes the sentiments of many of my female friends in the bars of my home town. But of course, these aren’t exact comparisons, just circumstances that have made me more empathetic to other people, who, due to no faults of their own, stand out and are reminded of it every day.

The best thing I’ve been able to do to combat this perception of me as a rich, ignorant, mzungu is learning and using Swahili. I have found the when I ask for something in a sentence of perfect Swahili or tell someone accosting me on the street for a safari tour that I’m not interested by using the local language, they begin to view me in a different light. I become more of a person in their eyes, less of some foreign money tree, and more someone who is in touch with the local customs, and also the real costs of goods and services. Scott Haber had a nice piece on the benefits of learning new languages which you can read here.

All and all Tanzania has been immensely challenging for me, but I think it is exactly what I needed it to be. At the end of South America and especially in South Africa, I didn’t really feel challenged at all. I wasn’t having new revelations, I wasn’t seeing the world in different ways, and I didn’t feel like I was growing. While here, I can say that I’ve done nothing but mature, adjust, and change. I hope the tone of this post doesn’t sound to terribly pessimistic, because Tanzania is a beautiful country, with amazing features and incredible opportunities, and I have met some fantastic people while I’ve been here. But growth can be painful, and sometimes it’s nice to complain about it even though you know it’s making you better.  

I leave Tanzania in two days. I know that I will leave it a more relaxed, more flexible, and more empathic person.

 

Thanks for reading. As always more to come.

 

-Stephen

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The Holiday Spirit

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The Christmas season has come and gone, and to be honest, outside of interspersed mutterings of “Merry Christmas” from strangers, nothing about the holiday felt real. 

I spent Christmas Eve hiking alone through the remnants of a recent forest fire along the dunes that trace the southern shore of the African continent. Emerging from the greenness of the fresh brush were thousands of blackened trunks, their scorched branches rising from the ground like the hands of corpses protesting their deaths, rejecting their burials. I found myself navigating a place that felt as conflicted as I do right now: the terrain striking a strange balance between life and death, myself happiness and sadness.

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For Christmas I accidentally booked a hostel with no Wi-Fi, and in the absence of the connection to my friends and family back home, I felt lonely. I wasn’t 100% by myself, I found myself with strangers also traveling solo, or on working vacations, a pack of lone wolves, united only for the night, but I can’t remember their names now. I wasn’t even there for a full day. We braaied (grilled over a wood fire) on Christmas Eve and the next morning, I managed to sneak my way into a fully booked Christmas lunch that the hostel was hosting after some guests cancelled. I sat at a table and was joined by some others who were simultaneously on the side lines watching big local families enjoy their meals around communal tables. I ended up napping on a lawn for three hours and then caught a bus to the next town.

I don’t want to say that this is the first time loneliness has struck me on this trip, but I think being mostly by myself, without my normal distractions (everyone was at home with their families) these last few days has really made me contemplate it.

Ironically, I feel myself becoming more introverted despite my sense of loneliness. In some ways this lifestyle lends itself well to being social, but in others it can be vastly more challenging. Although there are always people around, unless I intentionally go for a solo hike, or distance myself from my residence, I must confess that it can be exhausting.

I’m tired of trying to make plans to do things with flakey strangers, of being forced to insert myself in groups of friends that have known each other for years. I find I’m less interested in talking to people because I’m tired of small talk. I’m tired of retelling my story every day to someone who is going to forget it in a week or less.

I went for a hike maybe a week ago with another solo traveler from France. She gave me her number so that we could share photos from the hike and said, “make sure you put ‘Table Mountain’ after my name so you know who I am. After all, I’m just this Thursday’s hike.” And she was right.

Yesterday I went for a walk along the beach in my current town, Jeffrey’s Bay, a small town turned surf mecca in the middle of the coast. As I strolled past families reclining on the beach, groups of children splashing each other in the surf, fathers teaching their daughters to fish, and couples playing catch, I realized that what I really wanted at that moment was a friend.

I want someone that I don’t have to explain myself to. I want to hang out with someone who isn’t forming their first impressions of me the entire time I’m in their presence, a friend who I can rely on when it comes to planning. I want to be around someone that is as comfortable with me as I am with them. I’m becoming more introverted because I’m tired of accommodating other people, of the constant need to be cordial, and the disappointment when the work I put in ends up being for nothing.

And in living this lifestyle, real friends are hard to come by. Changing places at least every ten days doesn’t lend itself to forming lasting friendships. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I have made friends along the way, but in that short period of time (for me often shorter), it is difficult not only to find people you connect with, but to have meaningful experiences that reinforce that connection because everyone is on their own schedule. Everyone has their own deadlines, and it’s hard to make them line up with the people that you encounter.

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But despite this, I’m not entirely sad. I still wake up each morning elated in some unbelievable, exotic place, doing things that I never dreamed I would do. I would have laughed in your face three years ago if you had told me I would learn to surf in South Africa, or that I would mountain bike the Andes, or that I would play with a locals pet monkey in the heart of the Amazon on the same day that I saw my first dolphin swimming in that same river.

In many ways this isolation is the price I pay for the unrestricted freedom that I have in a world of people constrained by work, school and deadlines. But I still feel like it would be nice to shuck some of that freedom, and settle myself down for a little while. I head to Tanzania tomorrow, and I am hopeful that maybe I’ll do just that while I’m there.

Until next time,

Stephen

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Bienvenido a la Selva

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I felt a sharp pain in the fleshy area between my toes and cursed myself under my breath. Looking down, I spotted a colony of orange-red army ants scurrying over my exposed feet. When I first disembarked from our river boat, there had been a small voice in my head telling me that it probably wasn’t a good idea to try to walk through the jungle in flip-flops, whom, at this point, I was very sorry to have disregarded.  After a painstaking fifteen minutes, we finished the walk. The whole time my guide glided between trees, rapidly clearing a path with the deft use of his machete, an instrument he was so familiar with that it very well may have been an extension of his own arm. And, of course, I followed behind, limping in a horribly ungraceful fashion.

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Eventually we arrived at a small series of ponds where we planned to fish that afternoon. I sat down on the aged wood of dock that had been constructed by the local community years before and removed my shoe, searching for the source of the pain. Sure enough, one of the ants had become trapped between the strap of my flip-flop and my skin, and accordingly, it had lodged its pinchers deeply into the meat of my foot.

Curious as to why I was sitting down staring at my feet, my guide, Angel, came over and asked me what was wrong. I only pointed at the insect. He chuckled and reached down to help me pull it out. The pinchers were deeply lodged and it was an incredibly unpleasant experience. When all was done, he chuckled and placed the head and pinchers, the same ones used by locals to suture deep wounds, still intact, into my hand. “Bienvenido a la selva,” he said. “Welcome to the jungle”.

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                Over the course of the next four days of my introduction to the jungle, it became one of his favorite phrases. When I fell into mud up to my belly button, “Bienvenido a la selva.” When I wrapped my hand around a tree covered in thorns, “Bienvenido a la selva.” When I tripped over a log and fell into a small creek, “Bienvenido a la selva.”

Eventually his welcoming phrase became so synonymous with my mistakes and ignorance, that whenever something bad happened, I could almost hear him say it before the words came out of his mouth.  And now, despite having been away from the jungle for over two weeks, whenever I have some sort of misfortune, all I can think to myself is “Bienvenido a la selva.”

In a way, the world itself is a jungle, full of perils and mishaps lying in wait. And while the usage of that phase acknowledges that, in it there is still a light-hearted tone. It basically says, “You are going to make mistakes. It’s unavoidable, especially because you’re new to this place. Regardless, you can still make it your home.” And when you travel, that’s actually the attitude that you need to have. Errors will be made, misfortune will occur, that is the way of things in the jungle and it’s the way of things in the world, if you want to be happy here, you have to accept it, and learn from it.  I loved my time in the jungle because I thought it was funny how analogous it was to my whole experience so far.

                The moment I stepped off the plane that first early morning in Chile, exactly 100 days ago, I was in a completely new world and just as ignorant as I was my first day in the jungle. I didn’t know how to travel, how to communicate, and what I was going to get out of this fellowship. And I made mistakes. Since that time I’ve been scammed by taxi drivers. I’ve lost credit cards. I’ve accidentally insulted people. I’ve lost clothing and equipment, and I’ve overpaid for random things.  And those are just external mistakes, there are also internal mistakes that have to do with how I spend my time, how I find a sense of fulfillment, which I will talk about later. But for all of these mistakes, I can’t help feel that “Bienvenido a la selva” applies to all of them in a way.

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As I sit here in the Medellin airport, nestled in the mountains of Colombia, waiting to board the first of my 5 flights over the Atlantic that will eventually deliver me to Cape Town, South Africa, I feel a need to reflect on the mistakes I’ve made in my first three months of travel. Firstly in the interest of not repeating them, but secondly for you, my reader, so that when you embark on your own adventure such as this, perhaps you can avoid some of my mishaps. Although to paraphrase former President of Uruguay, Jose Mojica, it seems that often man is incapable of learning from the mistakes of others and always has to discover things for himself. So perhaps my second goal is futile, after all, I remember receiving a lot of the advice that I am about to give, and not listening to it in turn.

First and foremost, I think it is important that before traveling, it is important to try to distinguish what exactly the journey’s goal is. What kind of trip is desired? A relaxed vacation in a foreign paradise? Something more profound? The goals of travel largely distinguish the type of journey that an adventurer will undergo.  

Imagine that people on journeys can be classified by their position on a grid. On one axis you have vacationers and backpackers. The other axis runs from tourist to traveler. Let’s try to break these definitions down.

Vacationers are not traveling for an extended period of time, usually not any longer than a month, and they have obligations waiting for them back home. A vacationer travels as a sort of escape. From what I have seen, often their priority is relaxation and partying, there is very little interest in seeking out difficult circumstances or challenging themselves because this brief period is their only respite from an often mundane and exhausting job or series of obligations that are waiting for them back home. Not every vacationer does this, but a lot do. And I think it’s kind of funny. It’s ironic that when people vacation from a monotonous job, they often vacation monotonously, every day at the beach, every night in the club with drugs and alcohol.

Backpackers on the other hand, are in this for the long haul, generally traveling anywhere from a month to years on end. They are less occupied with the things that are going on back home and often don’t have any concrete plans for when they get back. At this point in their lives, they are lucky enough to call travel their full time job.  

It’s an interesting cultural note that I rarely meet American backpackers, which makes us distinct from many other developed countries. I recently spent a week traveling with a girl from Amsterdam, who also just finished University and is also on the track to become a doctor. She told me that approximately 80% of her high school graduating class had already embarked on some sort of extended backpacking trip. In the US it is entirely different, outside of the friends I have made in this fellowship, I can’t think of anyone I know from my high school, or even from University that has independently done the same.  It’s funny because when I departed on this journey, I thought it would make me extremely unique, but after meeting so many people on similar path, I realize that I was only a black sheep in the culture of my home. I wandered away from the bleach-white masses, thinking I was heading off to face the world alone, and I actually happened upon an entire herd of black sheep just like me. They just happened to be from different countries.

On the other axis you have travelers and tourists. The major difference between these has more to do with one’s travel goal. This was something that I discussed at length with one of the previous Bonderman Fellows, Christian Bashi, when I first started planning my trip. His definitions may be slightly different from mine so please don’t assume that I am speaking for him. I just want to give credit to him for initially pointing out the distinction to me sometime early last winter.

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To me, tourists tend to stay in the same places as other tourists, their itineraries are planned months in advance, and for them, a trip well spent is one where they check off every item in a Lonely Planet travel guide. Tourists seem to prefer places that remind them of their own western comforts and they conglomerate in places that can accommodate these desires. The Huacachina Oasis in Ica, Peru and the Walled City of Cartagena, Colombia come to mind as particularly strong examples of these “tourist traps”. Both of these places have enormous boundaries that separate tourists from the realities of the country that they are in. In the case of Huacachina, it is enormous sand dunes. In the case of Cartagena, it is a literal wall. A tourist could spend their entire journey in these places, relaxing on the beach, and sipping coffee in a quaint café each morning and feel perfectly content only seeing the world through the eyes of the countries tourist board and from the windows of their comfortable accomodations.

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Travelers are the opposite Tourist traps bore them, usually after the first day. They crave more. Travelers want to cultivate genuine experiences that are unique to wherever they find themselves. They don’t just want to take a graffiti tour; they want to paint street art in the allies of Valparaiso. They’ll catch a random bus in Santiago and see where it takes them.  They don’t just want to taste wine, but they want to hand pick grapes in the vineyards of Mendoza. The prospect of joining a protest against Monsanto in the streets of Cordoba excites them. They’d rather follow a doctor in the ICU of the public hospital in Cusco than eat in a fancy restaurant. They dream of wandering the wilderness of the Ausangate Mountain like the first explorers to reach the Andes did. They cherish brief interactions with street dogs in the poorest neighborhoods of Ica. They’d prefer to explore the nature reserve of Paracas by themselves with nothing but a mountain bike to taking a guided tour. They’ll sit in the streets of Lima with a homeless man and talk about what went wrong in his life. They’ll become close with their jungle guides in Iquitos, and play with their new friend’s pet monkey a few days later. They’ll take a three day barge down the amazon instead of the sixteen hour boat, because traveling by hammock with chickens and families, palates of Powerade and bricks, is more exciting and more enriching. Maybe one day they’ll catch a cargo ship across an ocean instead of paying for the flight, not because it’s efficient, but because for them it is far more interesting and ultimately more fulfilling.  Ultimately, travelers go through the world like they’re on a roller coaster, riding the highs and the lows and collecting the amazing stories that naturally occur on a tumultuous odyssey.

I want to stress that objectively each one of these groups is has its merits and its downfalls and not one of them is any better than the other; however, I’m sure that my descriptions of each probably sounds a little bit biased. That’s because a person who really embodies the spirt of the Fellowship will fall into or at least attempt to fall into the latter group as a traveler-backpacker, conducting the journey in that way really allows you to get the most out of this opportunity. Looking back at first essay I wrote for this fellowship, to travel in that way was my original goal. Additionally, all of those specifics desires of the traveler-backpacker that I just listed are things that I have done or wanted to do during my time abroad.

That being said, I have made mistakes. I have not been a perfect traveler-backpacker, and the instances in which that wasn’t intentional are some of my biggest regrets, because I do believe that that kind of journey is the most fulfilling. At times I have found myself in all of these categories sometimes perhaps more excessively than I would have liked. Other times, my insertion into the realms of vacationers and tourists has been intentional. And It does make sense for a traveler-backpacker to insert him or herself into each of those roles, just to say that he or she had the experience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going out to a party hostel and having a night out with other travelers, or visiting a tourist trap, or spending sometime relaxing on the beach, or exclusively interacting with other English speakers for a day. All of these things are unique experiences that have value, as long as you don’t become trapped there. But at a certain point it becomes gratuitous and at that point your sense of fulfillment begins to diminish. Too much time spent in hostels, too much time relaxing, and you stop genuinely appreciating that personality and beauty of wherever it is that you are.

I’ve been there, in fact over the last month or so I have struggled with that a lot. I’ve had days where I didn’t want to leave the hostel, where I just lied in bed and binge watched Netflix, and it sort of became a vicious cycle. I’d waste my day and not meet any new people, or line up prospects for my next adventure and then I’d have no reason to get out of bed the next day.

But my first month and a half was different, perfect in a lot of ways, my travel was incredibly fulfilling and every day, I would be struck with a sense of wonder and awe. I think some of this could be attributed to the fact that I was still new to traveling, but I think the primary difference comes down to my living situations. For the first month and a half of my journey, I didn’t touch a hostel. I did a Workaway, I stayed with locals from Couchsurfing, and because of that I always knew what to do. I had easy access to activities. But in hostels, you don’t have that easy access to a local guide. You have to be a lot more proactive and research what you want to do, and sometimes you just don’t feel like it.  I’ve had plenty of those moments. And that’s where my biggest mistakes have been made.

That being said, I’m incredibly happy with how South America has worked out for me. I ended up spending a month and a half longer here than I originally intended. Despite my errors, despite the fact that I’ve probably squandered some of my time here slothing around in hostels, I don’t have regrets, because it’s impossible not to make errors when you’re in an unfamiliar place.  

Now my goals are simply not to repeat the errors of the past: to avoid the scams that I’ve fallen for, and try my best to use my time wisely,  and spend more time Couchsurifing and in Workaways. Every day I want to strive to make the most of this experience, and I’m going to do my best to share it with you every step of the way. Of course, I haven’t learned everything that there is to learn about traveling, and I’m sure many more novel mistakes are bound to come my way. But when they do, I’ll simply chuckle to myself and mutter under my breath, “Bienvenido a la selva. Bienvenido al mundo.” Welcome to the jungle. Welcome to the world.”

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Side by Side

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I had been antisocial the night before. After two hours of playing cards with assorted travelers from around the world, I rose from my hostel’s plush couch and exited the game. The yellow Christmas lights that hung above enveloped the room in a warm glow, illuminating the red and black patterns of the playing cards scattered before me. I downed the last sip of the Corona that I had been nursing since the beginning of the game and made my way to my room on the edge of the courtyard. A warm desert breeze nudged me inside.

I wanted to get up early to see the sunrise from the top of the enormous dunes that flanked the Huacachina oasis where I was staying that night. The oasis was a small lake situated in the desert and encompassed by foliage situated just outside the city of Ica. Surrounded by resorts and restaurants, it was a true tourist haven. It even felt like me and my fellow travelers were corralled there, fenced in between the dunes.  Maybe in some way, by rising before everyone else to witness the sun peek out from beyond the horizon, I believed I could escape the nagging feeling that we were being herded like sheep, contained within the censored comfort of the tourist trap.

When my alarm stirred me from my sleep, I rubbed the fatigue from my eyes, put on shorts and shoes, and began my ascent. The trek was challenging despite the additional red blood cells that my body had generated during my time living in the mountains. Climbing the dune was like walking on a very long, very slanted treadmill made of sand that was set to just under my normal walking pace; what should’ve taken 10 minutes ended up requiring 30. By the end, I felt as worn down as the grains of sand I had just trudged through.

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When I finally arrived at the peak, I let out a triumphant exhale. It was 5:31 AM. I scanned the horizon for any sign of the impending light, but to my immense dismay, I found none. The heavy morning clouds had obscured the entirety of the sky, effectively blotting out the Sun. Some desert, I remember acerbically thinking to myself. I sat down in the sand and looked out over the oasis. It was tranquil. The water was calm, and the glowing street lamps competed with the encroaching daylight to illuminate the still sleeping town.   

As I took in the sight and accepted my poor luck, a cacophony of sounds broke through my abstraction. I heard the barking of dogs, the cawing of roosters coming from behind me. The dune upon which I was perched separated the oasis from a shanty town on the other side, called la tierra prometida, “the promised land.” It was from this settlement of Ica’s newest and some of its poorest residents that the noises originated.  I stood and turned. To my left was an oasis in multiple senses: from the 5-star hotels to the artificially crystal-blue pools to the overpriced foods, it was the picture of western luxury. To my right, however, lay the unadulterated Peru, devoid of commercial facades and illusions. As I stared down at the conflicting landscapes and stood between worlds that existed in stark contrast with one another, I had the overwhelming urge to rush down and explore the desert town, the real Peru.

It was only 6:00 AM; I had a whole day to explore. I turned and made my way back down the dune to my room. I reached the gate of my hostel and smiled at the clerk who hadn’t been there when Id left. Trying not to disturb my roommate, I tiptoed through the room and to the locker containing my possessions. I opened its aluminum door and took out a photocopy of my passport and 20 soles (Peruvian currency), which I would later slip into my sock. I swapped my Samsung Galaxy s8+ for a Galaxy s3 mini, and left my wallet behind. Finally, remembering the rocky-looking terrain and trash-strewn streets that I had been able to discern from the top of the dune, I swapped my flip flops for my more sturdy military boots and departed at once.

When I finally arrived at the town, to my surprise, I found a place seemingly empty of inhabitants. The main street had a sufficient amount of traffic as it was a prime route from the main body of Ica to the sea, but as I walked along its side streets past the thatched walls and tin roofs of the town, I encountered few. I supposed they must have left for work hours earlier or were still sleeping. The few strangers that I did encounter were parents hurrying by me, trying to get their children to school on time, and shopkeepers rushing to open their stores before their customers would arrive. Oddly enough as I strolled by, the ones who were most aware of and interested in my presence were the wild dogs. Some slumbered docilely in the streets, while others growled as I passed, their distrustful eyes never leaving me. Then there were those that chased after me, barking viciously.

Dogs are omnipresent here. Those that live in the streets are called, “Perro Callejeros”. They’re powerful creatures, a prime example of Darwinism at work. Without anyone to look after them, the dogs are left to rule their domain how they see fit: scavenging, howling, and fighting at all hours of the day.  In the end, only the strongest survive. No two dogs here look the same, in physique or color, and yet, they’re all powerfully built. They’re as common, if not more common, than squirrels or chipmunks or raccoons back home. They’ve happily greated me. They’ve followed me on my walks. They’ve chased me on my mountain bike. They’ve accosted me on the street. They’ve challenged my right to walk where I want to walk. All this makes them the most beautiful dogs in the world to me, because they are the epitome of Dog, breedless, masterless, and free.

Most of the time they ignore me. However, occasionally one will decide to challenge me. With these dogs though, you cannot back down. It’s a contest of power. I imagine it’s comical to watch a naive gringo yell at a street dog, but my method works. I make myself big, I shout in an unexpectedly deep booming voice, and when that fails, the rock that they spot in my hand is a sufficient deterrent. I’ve encountered hundreds of dogs in my wanderings and thankfully the stone hasn’t left my palm yet.

I don’t want to sound arrogant. I am well aware that this technique isn’t perfect. I know the rule will not always work. Bondermans have been bitten in the past, and I know that all it takes is one aberrant dog to ruin my day. But that same could be said for life. One misfortune can change everything. But if you spend every day worrying about your chances of encountering misfortune, you miss out on the opportunity to live. You miss out on the experiences that make life worth living. If you spend your life in fear: afraid of getting in a car accident, afraid of a terrorist attack, afraid of natural disasters, afraid of being robbed in the street, you ultimately refuse to indulge in life. To me, that is more unfortunate than any one of those things. No matter where I go here, there are dogs, and the same is true for life. But I refuse to let them dictate where I can go, and what I can do.

Walking through that shanty town. I was expecting danger, but I didn’t tread timidly. I walked with confidence. My eyes scanned the doorways and corners. I was perpetually aware of my surroundings, unafraid, with a hint of curiosity. And I had no problems. It actually surprised me how safe I felt as I walked. I expected to find scowls, dirty looks, and maybe a few shouts, but in reality all I encountered was children playing in the street, and families going about their daily lives, in difficult circumstances.

Fear made me misjudge the place, especially as I stared down at it from my lookout atop the wall that separated their world from mine. And I think the world is equally judgmental towards poor places.. I remember how surprised one of my taxi drivers was when I told him that I had taken that walk, but when I asked him if he had ever done the same, he told me no. So often we equate poverty with crime and danger. But this is unfair. Yes, one engenders the other, but they are not inseparable. And I must say that I have always felt the most welcome in the poorer parts of the world.

When I worked on an ambulance in Detroit, my favorite patients weren’t the people from the rich areas of town, but the ones from the worst parts of the city. In general, they were nicer, less demanding, and more relaxed. I remember having a patient with five gunshot wounds who asked me how my day was going. I also remember having a patient the same day in one of the nicer areas of town who went on a three minute long expletive laden rant because it took us 12 minutes to arrive for her sprained wrist.

People here are more hardworking as well. After seeing the work ethic of many people here and in less fortunate parts of the world, of people who have far less than we do in the United States. I can’t help but feel there is a prevailing laziness in my home country.  The thing about poverty is that it teaches flexibility and ingenuity. I imagine that if we had more people with those skills in the US and could combine them with our vast resources, our society would be immensely more productive.

It’s a paradox that our wealth and access to resources is the same thing that ultimately prevents us from utilizing them to their full potential. We become so comfortable with our technology, our energy systems, and our highly interdependent society that we use these privileges as a means for useless ends because we’ve never not had these advantages. I think there’s a lot we can learn from interfacing with those parts of the world that have never had the same comforts as us in the United States. How many Einsteins have lived and died in rural India? How many people with brilliant minds and incredible abilities have gone unnoticed because they didn’t have the resources to make their way to the developed world? And how asinine is that? We have an untapped resource of human potential that, because of the petty limitations of money, nationality, wealth, race, we refuse to use. It's as stupid as the US national soccer club trying to recruit a world class team out of the exclusively the upper echelons of American society, and just as effective.

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Why do we allow this system to persist? I think it comes down to fear. We are afraid of each other.  But fearing someone for their difference is nonsensical. And maybe that sounds obvious but I think it is the root of a major problem in my home country: racism. The ideology of racists is just so stupid to me. In the context of the world, no matter how distinct two groups are, those differences pale in comparison to the common challenges that we all face; nuclear war, rising sea levels, food shortages, depleted energy sources, epidemics. I find that I have such disdain for bigotry, because all it is are is a distraction from those important things. In the grand context of humanities existence, cultural and even racial differences are a miniscule aberration, and in that context, insignificant (in the grand scale, that’s not to say there isn’t beauty in differences). To me people who are different are not scary, but those who focus on differences, those who fear differences, are. They start wars, justify atrocities, and create chaos and civil strife. And why is it necessary? Bigotry can be boiled down to a lack of confidence. People that indulged in the rhetoric of hate are cold blooded. They don’t have the confidence to be comfortable with who they are in any environment, so they feel the need to create a world in which the external matches the internal. And that is frustratingly primitive.  

The fact is that at this moment in time, we live and die in one tiny place. Earth. We all do. And since we live in an age where our technology could destroy it 200 times over, that should really be the only thing that matters. The fact is that humanity: rich, poor, educated, uneducated, agricultural workers, industrial workers, politicians, clerics, generals, activists: we’re all in this together, and we all face the same challenges. We need every great mind and great worker to be able to tap their full potential to accomplish the single goal of all living things. To persist and survive.

And that starts with cultural understanding. We need more interpersonal connection, more cultural context, we need to see each other as humans. We need to see how similar we really are.

I think for that reason I love standing at heights, on a dune, on a hill, in a tower, because when I look down, I’m reminded of how small each one of us is and how petty our differences are. I remember staring out at Santiago from the tallest tower in South America, sitting on the dune in Huacachina, admiring Cordoba from a rooftop and thinking about how much those views remind me of a colony of insects, small creatures going about the daily tasks of living and contributing to something much larger. And a colony spread across this planet is really all we are. Every little seemingly insignificant deed we do contributes to the much larger wellbeing or disease of our home. And I think we have an imperative to protect this place and develop new ones. We will need everyone for those ends.  In the context of our species, in the context of humanity’s long-term, that is the only thing that matters.

 

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Vinicunca, The Rainbow Mountain

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I dropped my daypack on the bus and immediately turned around. Beyond the wooden sign that read “Welcome to Vinicunca, Rainbow Mountain,” my eyes scanned the closest ridgetop for the group I had passed on my descent from the 17,060 ft peak of Peru’s newest famed tourist destination. As my eyes passed over the ruddy cliffs that lined the trail to the mountain’s summit, I could hear the hail that had started ten minutes before falling on the bus’s aluminum roof. It took maybe five minutes before I saw them, slowly making their way down the hill. It was a group of ten, carrying a middle-aged women supine on a stretcher down the dirt and boulder trail that winds its way from the peak of the mountain to the parking lot where I was sitting. She had fallen victim to the altitude. I had asked if they needed help when I passed them thirty minutes before, but the nurse and medic from the tour company already attending the patient had said that it wasn’t necessary. However, now, as my eyes connected with the slow-moving pack, it became apparent that some of the stretcher bearers were becoming tired. I climbed out of the bus and began my second ascent, trying my best not to run and compromise my own health. I reached the group and called out in my best Spanish “algún persona está cansado?” One of the men in back, his face contorted with stress, and gripping his corner of the stretcher with both hands motioned for my assistance.

As the weight of the stretcher fell into my hand, the patient’s face came into my view. The rest of her was covered by jackets and blankets in an attempt to prevent hypothermia. It was a face I had seen before while working on ambulances and in hospitals, obscured by an oxygen mask, but with eyes that were very much exposed. In those eyes I could feel the panic and fear that raced through the woman’s mind as ten strangers rushed her down the side of a mountain two and a half hours away from the nearest hospital.

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The nurse, for anonimity's sake, we'll call her Javi, bent down to comfort her, and I shifted my gaze forward to the parking lot. The buses shimmered in the distance like a herd of metallic beasts, foreign creatures that had only recently arrived in this land to join the herds of alpaca, llama, and sheep that already inhabited the mountain. Curious animals paused their grazing and stared up at us as we passed. I squatted as I walked because fully extended, my relatively long European legs would tilt the woman off the stretcher. Only one kilometer left. We reached the parking lot and after a brief period of deliberation the nurse instructed us to place the patient in minivan. The seats had been adjusted for the stretcher, but it was still a struggle to fit the patient, the nurse, a medic, a driver, and the patient’s family all inside. It was far different than the easy to load stretchers and ambulance doors that I had become accustomed to in the United States, but it worked. And in remote settings such as these, improvision is less a beneficial skill, and more an absolute necessity. After obtaining a set of vitals on the woman they were ready to go. I did my best to clear the crowd that had formed from around the van so that they could depart. Javi signaled for me to close the door and the vans multi-hour trip back to Cusco began as the van began its decent down the winding dirt road full of switchbacks and newly formed puddles.

I made my way back to the bus that had carried me and my tour group to the mountain that morning.  Although I had been one of the first five to arrive back at the parking lot in the time since I had deposited my things in my seat, the bus had become full. It now housed the majority of my tour group. Shuffling and climbing over bags and appendages in the tightly packed vehicle, I found my seat, which I fit into snugly like a puzzle-piece. My legs, always far too long for everything here, pressed tightly against the plastic of the bench in front of me. I pushed my bag further under my seat, leaned my head against the wall and contemplated the day.

We had risen early at our hostel in the central part of Cusco. At 2:30 AM, well before the Sun, our alarms went off, our bags were packed, and our boots tied tightly in preparation for the 3 hour bus voyage southwest of Cusco and our ascent to the mountain’s peak. Around 03:30 AM our guide arrived at the front entrance, called out names, and led us to our bus through the, dimly lit, red-clay cobblestone streets of the old capital of the vast Incan empire.

While the sun remained dormant and we rode along the relatively straight highway leading out of the city. In that time it was easy to catch some more sleep. But as dawn broke, and we made our way into the mountains, along cliffsides and the endless switchbacks, it became hard to ignore the bumps, and also the beauty of the terrain. The sky was mostly cloudy, but occasionally, the Sun would peek out from behind the coverage, casting shadows over the mountainsides, wholly brindled with the scars of abandoned man-man terraces from the era of the Inkas.

The longer we drove, the deeper into the mountains we forged, I felt more and more impressed by the Inkas. If the beautiful power of Machu Picchu, which I visited last week, wasn’t enough, I now had the chance to see the vastness of their agricultural system, one which cultivated more land in Peru than in modernity. I marveled at the ambition of their expansion and the true size of their empire, made even more impressive by their lack of wheeled vehicles, a system of writing, or steel and iron tools. Simply following the winding mountain roads, was enough to convince me that our destination, Vinicunca, should never have been found, let alone on foot. And yet, I soon found myself eating breakfast in a tiny restaurant, in a small village, nestled among Inka ruins, preparing to make our ascent to this mystical place, as herds of alpaca, llama, and sheep grazed peacefully outside.

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After breakfast, our guide gathered us in a small room with a dirt floor and stacked-stone walled and briefed us on the ascent. We would go 10 km on foot. 5 km up and 5 km down. Over that distance we would increase our altitude by 1,000 m. We would need at least a liter of water and some snacks for the ascent. Javi proceeded to ask about heart problems and lung conditions, and stressed that anyone having difficulty with the trek should hire a horse to take them up to the top. It was around this time that I realized that this attraction, which in Cusco is marketed as a relatively benign day trip, could actually be quite harrowing.

At the end of the briefing they passed around a basket of dried coca leaves (the same ones used to make cocaine, and yes, flavor coca-cola). They are a traditional Incan remedy and natural stimulant used to combat the headaches associated with altitude, boost health and energy, and resolve a multitude of other ailments. The leaves are omnipresent here, and ingrained in the culture of Peru. In fact, agricultural workers actually receive them as part of their wages today. The whole leaf and its eighteen alkaloid compounds are not nearly as well studied in western medicine as its illicit derivative, cocaine. And there is little conclusive western evidence for or against the whole leaf’s use in treating altitude. Regardless, in a study published in 2012, 62.8% of travelers departing Cusco reported using some form of coca leaf--in tea, chewing the leaf directly, or in candy-- to prevent altitude related illness, and attempts by Spanish conquerors in the 1500’s to eradicate its use actually resulted in its more widespread popularity. It seems that this tradition probably will not end soon. And that okay. Often it is the little repetitions, like a bowl of leaves in every building, next to every container of hot water, bags of them in every that develop the personality of a place and contribute to an overall sense of culture. I placed a few in a paper wrapper and put it in my pocket for the assent. “Gracias”.

After our safety talk, and a second, longer safety talk in Spanish, we reboarded the bus. For the final leg of our time in the bus our convoy was led ominously by a Kia SUV with a light bar that said “rescue” on the side. We pulled into the parking lot that I mentioned before, departed the bus, and began our ascent.

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I walked slowly from the start, cognizant of the necessity for a slow, calm ascent. About 400 m into the trail, half of our group broke off, concerned about the exertion required to summit. This segment would take a horse to the top, as Javi had suggested before. As we ascended and the partial pressure of oxygen in the air decreased, more and more people climbed into saddles. I, however, had no desire to do this. I have plans to climb Kilimanjaro, which is 600 m taller than Vinicunca, and maybe visit Everest Base Camp, which is the same height as the Rainbow Mountain. I wanted to see if I could handle the pressure (or lack thereof). The higher and higher we climbed, the tinier my footsteps became, to the point that every step was toe to heel. I could feel my heart racing and my respiration increase as my cardiopulmonary system fought to compensate and maintain the oxygenation of my tissues in light of the shortage of oxygen molecules in my lungs. Despite my slow shuffle, my heart pounded as if I were running a marathon, but I felt great. I smiled as I walked, proud of my body for its functionality, thankful for the genes that conferred a quick adaptation to altitude. Soon my breathing and my pace fell into a harmonious rhythm, and I looked up and around at the ruddy cliffs that lined the trail to the mountain. I shuffled slowly around boulders, across bridges, and out of the way of the local guides and horses who comfortably ran up and down the mountain at a light jog. I started to pass other members of our group who had overexerted themselves. Slow. Steady. Purposeful, I made my ascent. As the stripes of the mountain came into view, I tried to think what this must have been like for those who came here first, who deified the mountain, who first set foot on its newly exposed face after its glacial cap melted away. And as I reached its peak, looking down at the striped almost alien terrain, I felt a sort of love and tranquility. I took a seat on the peak, surrounded by other travelers and simultaneously alone. I closed my eyes, felt my heavy breathing of the crisp air, and felt the beating of my heart. I let my tired muscles relax. And as I opened my eyes, I smiled again, knowing that this was real. I was there.

And after my experience with the woman that we carried down the mountain, I look back at that time on the summit and think about how lucky I am to have been able to go there, to be healthy enough to make that climb, to go anywhere in the world, to be completely mobile. For these eight months to enjoy a brief respite from the waiting that is so commonplace and to do so at such a young age. I look back at my pictures from my time on Vinicunca, at the surreal landscape, traced perfectly with multicolored lines, like a fairytale landscape from a children’s book. And it reminds me of one such book that those of us in the United States are quite familiar with. I remember chuckling to myself on top of the mountain as I thought of it, “Oh, the places you’ll go.” And now, seven weeks into my travels, I can help but think: Oh, the places I’ve gone. Oh, the places I am. Oh, the places I will be.

Thanks for reading :)

Stephen

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Como un Niño

Hey guys, sorry I haven't made a text post in a while. I'd been having problems with using my tablet, and was unable to post to the site. I bought a laptop in Cusco yesterday, so that problem should be resolved. Anyway here is a post I wrote shortly after leaving Chile. Enjoy:

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The first stop on my journey was a small apiary and walnut farm on the outskirts of Codigua, Chile, approximately two hours southwest of Santiago. The farm rests at the base of an enormous hill, one of many that populate the region. Though it is far larger than anything that exists in Ann Arbor, the hills of the area are dwarfs when compared to the domineering Andes that loom to the East. That being said, these hills are big enough to require winding valley roads, and verdant enough to instill a sense of tranquility in those who travel among them.  

It was this backdrop where I chose, rather impulsively, to begin my adventure. I really didn’t know what to expect when I sent my host, Jaime, the first email asking to come work on his bee farm, but I have to say it worked out incredibly well.  My first two weeks on the farm were like an incubator for me. I found myself learning the culture and language of Chile in a relatively safe and especially beautiful place, exploring the nature and wildlife of the area, and indulging in delicious food made by Jaime’s wife, Mayela. I was also lucky enough to have as much fresh honey and as many organic walnuts as I could eat, and I ate a lot.

During my time on the farm, Jaime was kind enough to welcome me as family, and soon I fell into their happy routine. A schedule that I must confess, I now miss. Each day I would rise around 7:00 AM and study my Spanish for two hours before getting out of bed. Around 9:00 AM I would walk out into the great room of the ranch and make breakfast for myself. This usually consisted of hot tea, with honey from Jaime’s bees and fresh squeezed lemon juice in addition to fresh baked bread opped with avacado, cheese, butter, honey and walnut, or tomato and garlic. We would spend the next  hours working.

Usually in the mornings I would do something simple and repetitive, like cleaning hive boxes or building frames with a hammer and a bag of nails. I spent hours doing these tasks. Before I left for this trip, I had always had a distain for monotony, but in practice I found that the rhythm of that work was immensely calming. I could retreat into my thoughts and contemplate, or simply let my thoughts drift away to be replaced by the sounds my own breathing, the repetitive scraping of chisel on wood, or the pounding of the hammer.     

Around 12:30 PM we returned to the house for Almuerzo, the largest meal of the day. Mayela would always cook incredible meals. Afterwards we had an hour to rest. I would retreat into my room and often passed that time writing or reading.

Around 2:00 PM we began work again until 5:00 PM when we would eat dinner and begin to relax for the night. This afternoon work was almost always related to the bees. It was when I learned the most about them. Some days we would make our way, hive to hive, treating for mites. Other days we would focus on growing queens, or on prepping the colonies for a buyer that might arrive. The goals were always different, but they often required many of the same practices.

In beekeeping, patience is essential. When working with a hive, often the first thing you have to do is find the queen, she must be isolated during the work, because she is necessary for the colony’s survival. To displace her, means death for all. Sometimes the queen can be immensely difficult to find. Imagine a three dimensional game of Where’s Waldo, except, the characters on the page attack you, and they are all dressed exactly the same. It can be a challenge to focus enough to find her. You have to scan every inch of a colony composed of individuals that look almost exactly the same for one that is only slightly different in form, and that requires patience and attention to detail, a relaxed demeanor, and a mind that is focused solely the task at hand.

Beekeeping also requires a certain level of tranquility of mind. Quick movement and sudden jolts are immensely distressing for the bees. If you find yourself caught in a swarm, you cannot run. You must breathe, smile, and have faith in your protective equipment, even as you watch twenty different stingers meant for your face, poke their way through mesh that’s only seven inchs away. If a bee does make its way into your clothing—or, as in my case, eight bees all at once-- again you cannot run, you cannot shout. As you feel stingers puncture your skin, and the venom injected into your flesh, you can only breath and walk slowly and surely away to a safe place. Opening a hive can sometimes feel like chaos, as the bees defend their home, flying quickly and rapidly dive bombing your head and buzzing in your ear. But it is essential that you can ignore that and focus on what you came for. You must be able to work calmly, yet efficiently, in the face of chaos. And I think that is a good practice for the career I want to go into, emergency medicine, and in life. Those who find tranquility in chaos are well suited to the unpredictability of both.

Those afternoon hours were some of my favorite on the farm, they were a good chance to practice those skills. But not only that, they were an opportunity to contribute something to the world. Bees are so important, they pollinate seventy different types of crops, and are the primary pollinator in commercial agriculture, not to mention they produce delicious honey, and have several applications in medicine. They play an important role in the symbiosis of this world, and as someone trying to see as much of this world as I can, I am happy that I had a chance to work with them so closely.  To learn from them, and to indulge in the tranquil routine of their care.  

It’s been two weeks since I left, more specifically two weeks of bouncing around cities (literally and figuratively) in busses and cabs. I’ve slept in different places: on floors, couches, hostel beds, and for the first time last night, on a bus. All things considered, I will admit that I miss the routine of the farm. I miss having the extra time to relax, to think, to cook healthy food, to watch the sunset, or walk a dog. That’s not to say that I don’t feel happy where I am. Each day I smile and pause just to remind myself of how lucky I am to be walking the streets, hearing the horns, watching the street dogs and birds. I still have a sense of internal tranquility, but I will confess that I miss the reflection of that tranquility in my surroundings.

When you find yourself on a farm, especially a remote one, you are really living in a small world. The problems of this tiny world are proportional to its size, and the people who live in it feel bigger. The challenges that this smaller world faces are surmountable, and it is easier to find a sense of fulfillment. On the farm, often my goal for the day would be to remove a sticky substance called the propolis that bees produce from a certain number of hive boxes before the end of the day. And although this was tedious work, I didn’t feel like I was wasting my time. As the stack of dirty boxes diminished and the stack of clean boxes grew,I could see my work having a tangible impact on my world, the farm. Pretty soon all the boxes were clean, and I felt fulfilled.

I remember accompanying Jamie, my host, and his son, Pablo, to the top of their hill on the second day I was there. The view from the top across the rooftops of Codigua and the farm houses scattered among the countryside, sheltered from the horizon by the foothills, was absolutely beautiful. But what impressed me even more was the reason we had traveled up the hill the in first place. During a recent earthquake--they are common here—a large basin of drinking water at the top of the hill had shifted so that the water level was tilted in the container. A new stronger pump needed to be installed. I smiled when I realized that we were there to fix the drinking water system for the community living on the hill. A task far too complicated for many of us in the United States. I remember being so impressed with how casual this was for them. Just another day in their life.  It was the same when Jaime needed a new incubator for young Queen bees. Instead of going out to buy a new one, we spent a day converting and old refrigerator. Why go out and buy something that you can build?

I think that has a lot to do with time. When you own on work on your own farm, or your own business, you own your world. Your time belongs to you, and you have the freedom to teach yourself new skills because if  you want your world to be successful, you have to.

The culture I grew up in is so compartmentalized that we don’t do this. We don’t take the time to learn these new skills and this makes us dependent on our societies, trapped in them. Our economy is based on specialists who provide services to others but not themselves, plumbers, hairdressers, doctors for your heart, doctors for your teeth, doctors for your brain, mechanics, teachers of specific subjects, police for a city, police for a border, police for legal vices, police for drugs. When something doesn’t work properly we call the person who knows how that specific system works and they come to fix it, and we don’t take the time to learn what exactly it is that they did. They do their job, we continue to do our job, and we all remain co-dependent. We can’t do certain things for ourselves so we are forced to continue living within our own societies, forced to accept certain norms. We lose some of our freedom.

Why are we okay with not knowing? Why do we accept these deficiencies? And I think this is because the urban world feels so much bigger. For example, on the farm there are a few water pumps, they are critical to survival and a huge part of the world, we learn about them to fix them, to replace them, out of necessity. In the city there are thousands of pumps serving millions of people. But there are so many different kinds of pumps, what would be the point of learning only one? If you want to put pumpfixing on your resume in the city you have to understand the different types, how they work. One pump on the farm becomes hundreds of pumps in the city, and the task that on the farm that was easily manageable and fulfilling is now insurmountable in an urban setting.

I can extend that to how I currently feel about cities, especially after living on the farm. I have said in the past that I don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to do anything, but in the city that is impossible. Cities are so much more grandiose, there is so much more to see and do, and it can be overwhelming. On the farm when I stopped to write a blog post, the house was quiet, the rest of my world was relaxing, but as I sit here and type this, the sounds of engines, jackhammers, dogs barking, and people shouting outside remind me that there is currently entire world having life experiences that I will never share in. And I find that immensely frustrating, because despite the fact that I know that blog writing  is a time for me to reflect, that I know I will be happy for having typed this, and I know that it is unrealistic to expect to be able to do everything all at once, I’m greedy and I want to know the world.  My heart wants this world, this whole world, the entire planet Earth, to be the world that I live in, that I understand, and my brain can barely comprehend the magnitude of that task, all it knows is that that will take time, and every day that goes by is another day that I won’t get back, another day less to accomplish that task.  

I think about how long it took for me to feel ready to leave the farm. After two weeks on the farm, I was only just starting to feel like I had had all the experiences that I wanted, that I had taken advantage of the opportunities available there. And even then, those were simple: go to the river, climb the hill, see the sunset from the hill, explore the brush, get a video of a queen bee, go for a slow walk, practice Spanish. To be honest there are still more experiences that I could have had there, but I needed to move on. And now I find myself bouncing between cities, with infinitely more experiences available. And I can’t help but feel I’m missing out, or not doing enough. Like I’m not making the most out of this incredible opportunity.

I think that this sense is compounded by the fact that my language skills are so bad. I miss out on a lot here because I can’t communicate effectively. The first time it really affected me was at the birthday party for my Jaime’s son. Their extended family came, and they enjoyed happy conversation around a communal table, but of course I couldn’t join them. I had so many questions, so many thoughts I wanted to share, but there was no way for me to express them, let alone understand any response that I received. And this makes understanding the human element of the places I visit more complicated. So often, I have wanted to be present with the woman begging on the street, the officer patrolling the square, the parent watching their child play,  and talk about their world, but I just don’t have the skill, yet.

Often I feel like a child, wandering the world without his mother. I have little direction, little instruction, and I find that I am fumbling my way through the simple tasks of daily life: going to the store, ordering food, giving directions, making friends. I am so limited in all of these because I can’t express myself.

And this sentiment has followed me throughout my trip. I feel an enormous sense of guilt for not speaking Spanish, or at least one other language, like so many of the other travelers that I have encountered. I absolutely hate when someone has to switch to English for me, or even worse, when an entire group has to switch to speaking English for my benefit. I hate the sense that I am imposing on peoples conversations, that I am forcing other people to struggle to express themselves because I am not as cultured as I should be. I had one host jokingly say to me, “You know how I know you are from the United States? Because you travel 8,500 km to a foreign country that doesn’t speak your language and you expect to be able to find someone that you can talk to, you expect to be able to find someone to accommodate you. Only people from the United States do that.” And maybe that’s a bit harsh—Australians definitely do that too—but he’s not entirely wrong, afterall the United States is the only country in the Americas whose people have the audacity to claim the entirety of the “American” identity. A habit that I found very quickly offended people in Chile . From now on I no longer claim the title of “American,” I am only “from the United States”.  

Because of this sense of guilt, for the first time in my life I have developed some level of social anxiety. Group meetings are awkward, asking for assistance in a store is a challenge, and obtaining a SIM card for my phone has been a multi-hour ordeal every time that I have done it.  

And this also negatively affected my usefulness on the farm. I couldn’t do the more complicated tasks because I couldn’t understand the instructions, and I couldn’t learn as much as I could have because I couldn’t do those tasks. I was very much limited to menial manual labor, and, though I worked harder than I probably otherwise would have had I spoken the language well,  I still felt incredibly guilty about my lack of proficiency.

I am so painfully foreign here.  I remember at one point Jaime was talking to his friend, and their conversation turned to me. Jaime explained that I was from the United States and that I had terrible Spanish. His friend had a look of confusion, and then Jaime said “Workaway.” And his friend just smiled with a knowing look.It was at that moment that I realized I was filling the role of cheap foreign labor, doing the uncomplicated tasks that the more educated and well off didn’t want to do, a role often filled by Spanish speakers in my own country. I contemplated the irony of the situation and also the value of finding myself in this position, but also felt a twang of guilt as I realized that while I found myself in this situation as an indulgence of my own interests, there are many people forced into it out of necessity. That’s not to say that I shouldn’t have been there, doing that work, I don’t think that is the important thing. What’s important is that that brief exchange between those two men was a jarring reminder of exactly how privileged I am to have this opportunity, and I am happy that I had the chance to be reminded of it.

I also want to stress that, although I am having these conflicting feelings, and I am facing these struggles. I am absolutely happy. I knew when I started that I would face challenges similar to these and they are developing me and growing me as a person. And I expect it to get even more difficult. Chile and Argentina are relatively will developed place, as I make my way farther North, the norms that I am accustomed to will change, and I am excited to see how I will change with them.

 

Hasta luego,

 

Stephen

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Light Speed


I woke up on the five hour flight from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile just as we were beginning  our descent. Outside, the lights of the small Chilean towns nestled in the valleys of the Andes stood out brightly against the darkness of the uninhabited countryside. It was as if I was looking simultaneously up and down at the night sky.  I felt as if I was sandwiched between the stars, flying through space and time.  


In a lot of ways I do feel like I’m a space traveler, gliding along at light speed.  By embarking on this fellowship, I’ve left my old sense of time behind, just as an astronaut traveling at such high velocity would. For the next eight months, the rest of my world will continue without me: my friends will go on to enroll in graduate schools, to begin careers, to start families. I feel frozen in a state temporal nirvana, zig-zaging among the possibilities of this world, among the infinity of the human experience, with little regard for the timeline of my home. I didn’t notice it until after I had watched my friend’s SUV pull away from the Detroit Metro Terminal early in the morning on August 31st, but it is beautiful. It is more than I could have ever hoped for.


The journey from my condominium in the residential area on the south side of Ann Arbor to my destination, a small bee farm in the rural part of central Chile, was long, much longer than was necessary. However, I wanted it to be that way. The little quirks of three flights, two layovers, and two bus rides, made the trip more powerful. 


During my first flight there was an irate middle age woman who chose to spend the entire first third of my trip mocking our flight attendant because she kindly asked that the woman remove her bare feet from the chair of the passenger in front of her. At first glance this unruly woman was nothing more than an angry, selfish person. However, later at the airport terminal under the transit center’s fluorescent lighting, I could make out deep shadows under her tired eyes as she pushed a loved one in a wheelchair towards their next gate. 


On my first layover in Miami, with seven hours to kill, I took an Uber to a beach nearby. I remember sitting under the shade of a palm-thatched hut, staring out at the vast and powerful Atlantic. In the distance there were enormous freighters tracing the horizon.  I watched them make their way around the Florida coast and contemplated the fact that they carried shipping containers full of Barbie dolls and toaster ovens that had seen more of the world than I, even in twenty-two years on this planet.  Eventually my gaze made it’s way down the coastline, along the beaches littered with luxury condos and resorts. They had a nice aesthetic, especially when juxtaposed with the parasailer hovering in the wind and speed boats carving white rifts in the blue face of the ocean in the distance. I took a moment to consider that this was where traveling stops for many people in our society, a luxury resort on a coastline. I supposed that that’s understandable, the world can be a scary place, and that scene was so picturesque: the epitome of comfort and “happiness.”  Even to me it really did look nice, but I smiled, knowing that I wouldn’t be there long. 


A few hours later I boarded my plane to Lima, Peru,  accompanied by two incredibly nice UCF graduates who had traveled much of the Caribbean and South America. They were headed to Cusco, Peru to do volunteer work and they were kind enough to offer me a mountain of good advice for my travels.  


In the Lima airport I spent the next four hours wandering the terminal and generally being confused about what time it was. I was also very concerned because as the hour approached my  boarding time, my flight did not have a gate assignment. I found myself pacing the building, gazing up at every departure screen that I came across. I resorted to asking a gate agent in broken Spanish why my flight didn’t have a gate. He happily replied in near perfect English that I would just have to keep waiting. I decided to take a quick nap, waking up only five minutes before my boarding time. My alarm had been set to the wrong time zone.  I rushed over to the gate agent and was given a handwritten boarding pass. A couple minutes later I was on my five hour flight to Santiago with a row all to myself and fell asleep, eventually waking up to the scene I described earlier.   

 In Santiago, there was no gate for our plane, only a staircase.  As I stepped off its metal and into the freezing Chilean night, I looked up and saw that the cloud cover obscured the stars. A bus pulled up with only standing room and the crowd of passengers climbed aboard.  I held my bag tightly. We pulled up to the terminal and made our way to customs where a bored-looking beaurocrate stamped a receipt and handed it to me. The airport was cold, and as I exited the security line into the country, I was greeted by a horde of taxi drivers looking for their next fare. I made my way through the mass and began to seek out the bus that I was supposed to take from the airport into the heart of they city. I walked into a restricted hallway and a guard in neon yellow jacket stopped me. In broken Spanish I asked where the busses were. There was no chuckle followed by a pleasant response in English like I had experienced with the gate agent in Lima,  only suspicious eyes. He said something I didn’t understand and pointed in a direction. I followed his finger out the terminal door and back into the fridged morning air. Eventually I found the bus I was looking for and climbed aboard. Someone had told me that they accepted US currency, but that wasn’t true. The driver waved me away. I turned around, pushed my way past the line and found a place to exchange my American money for Chilean Pesos. 


My second attempt at riding the bus was more successful. I made it past the fare. Though I had to fumble with my new money a little bit. I took a seat in the middle of the bus which soon became packed. As we left the airport the day was just beginning, but there was heavy cloud cover and the sky was a dim gray. Midway through the trip I turned to the girl sitting next to me and asked whether we were going to where I thought we were going. My stop ended up being relatively obscure and without her help I would have ended up on the Metro. I exited at a bus terminal and mall in the heart of the city. At some point during my voyage, I had lost track of time. I wandered past security guards in neatly pressed uniforms and protective vests, past gray store fronts obscured by imposing metal bars. Forgetting that I was the early morning, I questioned what had happened to make the place feel so empty and cold.


Eventually, I made my way to where the busses were housed, up a flight of stairs in the back of the building. The station had about twenty booths set up, with bright colors like a row of concession stands at a carnival. Each company had a booth where a cashier sold tickets. I smiled at the woman behind the counter of the bus company that I had been instructed to use.  I purchased a ticket and the cashier pointed to a number taped to the window of the booth. Bus #84. I made my way to the end of the terminal where my coach was waiting, finally boarding my last bus. 


After another 30 minutes I arrived at the bus stop where my host, Jaime, greeted me. We climbed into his manual transmission, four-door Ford ranger and started the thirty minute journey through the valleys of the Andes’ foothills to his farm near Codigua just southwest of Melipilla.  As we approached our destination the asphalt road turned to bumpy dirt with the scars of water run-off-chiseled into its face. In the background the high peaks of the foothills loomed majestically, and the sun finally peaked through the morning clouds. The road was now lined with cattle wire fences and chickens pecking at the ground. We pushed further into the Chilean countryside, following the snaking valley roads. As we made a bend just beyond one of the foothills, two dogs rushed out to greet us.  They chased behind as we pulled into the dirt and stone driveway of Jaime’s ranch. To our right, horses from the pasture adjacent to his property gathered their morning drinks from a small man mad canal. Jaime parked the truck and I grabbed my bag from the back seat. We walked inside where I was greeted by Jamie’s wife Mayela and another volunteer from France, Monia, they greeted me with smiling faces and  showed me to my room. 


Twenty-six hours after my departure from Ann Arbor, I sat down on the knitted blanket covering my new bed and grinned. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Yes, it was long, yes it was tiring, but the sense of satisfaction I felt at the end of it was well worth the hassle.  That is because all those obstacles—the transfers, planes, busses,  currencies, and strangers—that some may describe as undesirable or too stressful, to me, are the joys of living .  They are beautiful impediments that increase the likelihood of conflict, of a necessity for problem solving. And I love conflict. It is what makes life exciting, and more importantly, it is what teaches us about the world, about others, and about ourselves. Life is conflict, the more you face and are able to overcome, the more fulfilling your time on this planet will be. 


Maybe some think that the way I went about this journey was wrong, or inefficient, but I think that I did it exactly how it needed to be done. Because convenience comes at a cost. By always taking the easiest path, so often we miss out on some of the greatest beauty of life. Of course, sometimes there are good reasons for that: timing, school, work, family. But while I’m here, gliding through the world, timeless, without deadlines or a necessity for efficiently, without any goal other than my own fulfillment,  I don’t have an excuse to miss anything. 


Thank you for reading. More to come soon. 

Stephen

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