broken walls and narratives

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Fall Camping! Camping Fail.

Fall Camping! Camping Fail.

H. Bradford

10/15/17

I like camping since it offers me a mini- adventure and time alone.   I like this new ritual of leaving for a day or two and unplugging from Facebook, activism, my phone, and people in general.  So, I was looking forward to camping at Savannah Portage State Park.   I visited the park back in August and March, but had not camped there.  It has become one of my favorite state parks due to the fact that it is not very busy, has great bog walk, and some nice trails.   Thus, I made it a goal that I would camp there this fall.   Here is how it went:

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Firstly, the forecast called for clear, sunny weather when I made my reservation at the campsite.   However, as it grew closer to the date, the weather looked like rain, more rain, light rain, clouds, and thunderstorms.  I am not a huge fan of being wet, but the days are getting shorter and my opportunities for camping will come to an end by the end of this month.   So…I looked up tips of how to comfortably camp in the rain.   I decided that it would not be a big deal and made plans to go birding and hiking- rain or no rain.


Like always, I stopped at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the way to Savannah Portage.  I immediately felt chilled by the rain and wind.   Nevertheless, I spent almost the entire day birding and hiking.  I was wet, but not not drenched.   Despite the inclement weather, I saw many birds.   One highlight was a flock of Pied billed grebes.  These grebes are adorable.  They have cute little fluffy white bird butts, big eyes, and a compact shape.  Another highlight was dozens of Trumpeter swans, even though they were pretty far away- near an island on Rice Lake.   I took a stroll down a service road and came upon two Sandhill cranes.  At first, I thought they were gray stumps or poles.  I guess I wasn’t expecting to see the cranes.   There were many other birds as well, including more ducks than I could hope to count- or identify.  The ducks were some distance away and I am not knowledgeable enough about birding to identify ducks by their flight pattern or shape.   While walking along the service road, I spotted a Lapland longspur.  This isn’t an uncommon bird, but the first time I have identified one.   I thought it was a fun and productive day of birding, but traipsing through wet grass, soggy trails, and drizzling rain left me feeling chilled.

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After leaving the refuge, I headed towards Savannah Portage State Park, picking up some campfire wood along the way.   I spent most of my day birding and I arrived a bit later than I had planned.  The park is remote enough that it is not well staffed and the park office closed at 2pm.  However, there was a notice on the door of what to do if I needed anything.  There are over 50 campsites, but only two were in use that night.  So…I pretty much had the whole state park  AND campground to myself!  There wasn’t even any staff.  Since it was drizzling rain when I arrived, I decided not to set up my tent.  The wind was also picking up.  I concluded that I was already soggy and wasn’t going to enjoy setting up and taking down a wet tent.   Instead, I would save time and effort and sleep in my car.   With nothing to set up, I set off for another hike (as I wanted to make sure that I visited the Bog Walk and did the loop trail around Lake Shumway).   I quickly did both short hikes, beating sunset.   After sunset, I decided to take advantage of my solitude and hike in the dark.   I haunted part of the Continental Divide Trail before the wind picked up again and I decided that hiking in the dark…alone….makes me feel a little uneasy.

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Back at my campsite, I pulled out my firewood and did my best to make a fire.  For whatever reason, this didn’t work out.  The wood that I had purchased was a little damp from being outside.  But, I had purchased some eco-friendly firestarting chips.  These did little to help the flame sustain itself on the wet wood.  I tried burning notebook paper and furiously fanned the flames.  Sometimes the fire lasted as long as five minutes, but after an hour of trying, it never really took off.   This was disappointing because I was going to make myself some hot tea, s’mores, and instant soup.  Instead, I ate cold snacks and drank cold water- which didn’t really do much to dispel the chilled feeling from being outside in the rain all day.   It hadn’t been a particularly cold day and I didn’t get drenched- but there is a certain, demoralizing chilled feeling that rain can bring.


Since the fire wasn’t going to work out, I decided to change clothes, read a book, do some journaling- and snuggle into my sleeping bag- in the backseat of my car.   It wasn’t exactly comfortable- but it was warm and dry.  Also, it was nice to be out of the wind.  Even though it wasn’t that late, I started to feel drowsy.  The wind rustled the leaves outside and droplets of water fell from the foliage onto the roof of my car.  I decided that I would head to bed early- feeling like my camping adventure was a bit of a fail (in terms of setting up the tent or making a fire anyway).  I had strange dreams.  I even had a frightening dream wherein I awoke to the sound of a male voice shouting my name.  It was an auditory hallucination- the sort a person has when they are half dreaming and half awake.  This is not a usual sleep occurrence, so I pondered it for a moment (maybe I had felt anxious being alone?).   I curled up into my sleeping bag and drifted back to sleep.  The rain and wind increased during the night, which again made me feel okay with the decision to sleep in my car- even if I was a bit bunched up.


The next morning, the sky was overcast, but the rain had stopped.  I got ready for the day and set out on a hike.   My goal was to do the Continental Divide Hike (which was perhaps 3.75 to 4 miles round trip from my campsite).  This was a nice hike.   The forest was yellow and the park was entirely empty (spare one other camper).  It was odd to be the only human on the trail.  The trail itself followed…well, a continental divide…or a ridge.  On one side of the ridge, water flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.  On the other side of the ridge, water flows into the Atlantic Ocean.  The trails were wet so it was interesting to think about the long journey the water could take- on either side of me.  Although the hike was often up hill and along a ridge, it was pleasant and not particularly challenging.  I hate hills- but none of them were that steep.   Towards the end of the trail, there was an overlook deck- where a person could admire the lowland Tamarack forests and Wolf Lake.   I spent some time there reading the interpretive sign, then finished the rest of the trail before turning back.

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Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, outdoor and nature

With the trail done and little to pack up, I left the camp site.  I headed back to Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge to see if I could catch a few more birds.  The sky cleared a little and I did see several birds, such as a Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue heron, Trumpeter Swan, Pied Billed Grebes, and what I believe was a pair of Blackducks.   I didn’t spend as long as I had the day before, but managed to devote a few hours to it.  I turned my phone back on.  I left the wildlife refuge and I started listening to radio news.  The first story that I heard about was the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  I was only gone Sunday into Monday, but it seemed that I had been gone much longer.  There is so much “world” to digest on a daily basis.   I like to escape it all.  I am not sure how others remain so engaged and yet sane or even happy from day to day.   Maybe I am weak for always wanting to run away.   On the drive home, I listened to the news coverage.  I saw a hawk perched over a swamp.  I turned the car around and watched it until it flew away (harassed by another bird).   I then headed home to change clothes and go to a feminist meeting.

Image may contain: bird, outdoor and nature

Image may contain: bird, sky, tree and outdoor

It wasn’t much of an adventure and I pretty much failed at some of the most basic elements of camping (setting up a tent or making a fire).   I was also somewhat miserable, but encouraged by my hardiness to at least TRY to be outside.  Yeah, I am not much of an adventurer.  I think about my co-worker who just spent two and a half weeks hiking the Superior Hiking Trail.  She was probably wet and muddy most of the entire time…without a place to warm up.   I wish I was more like that.   Maybe someday.  Who knows.  For now, it was nice to relish an opportunity to be outdoors- as winter is just around the corner.  With colder and shorter days, I won’t be as enthused to be outside.  We’ll see if I can squeeze one more camping trip in this fall.  Hopefully it won’t be as wet next time!

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Counting Countries

Counting Countries

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H. Bradford

9/26/17

I like to count things.  I keep track of the number of books I read in a year.  I count the number of species of birds I have seen.  I track the number of activist events I have attended and blog posts I have written.  Numbers provide a snapshot of life and data that can be analyzed over time.  The meaning should not be overstated, but keeping track of things is useful for goal setting.  It therefore seems logical that I should also count the number of countries I have traveled to.  Other travelers have mixed feelings about this.  Some have traveled widely and simply don’t care how many countries they have been to.  They may even feel that keeping track of countries is pretentious.  Others may focus more on quality, visiting a few countries for longer periods of time or paying repeated visits to a few favorite places.  And then, there are some who indeed count, but try to do this modestly.  Like many things, there are social norms about travel and counting countries might be seen as arrogant or “the wrong way to travel.”  At the same time, there is an entire club of globetrotters called “The Traveler’s Century Club” wherein members must have been to at least 100 countries (per their list) to join.  While I sense there is debate about the travel etiquette of whether or not a person should count countries, there is actually little debate over…what exactly is a country?!

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It’s one big happy world full of 195 countries…or is it?


I shamelessly count countries.  But, with counting everything, there must be rules and the “thing” must be operationalized.  Take birds for instance.  A person can count a bird for an official count if they make a positive visual or auditory identification.  There is wiggle room, since honesty is required when adding birds to the list.  Listing a bird also depends upon correctly identified the bird (so error is possible).  I try to photograph the birds as evidence that I can later check against a bird guide, but this is not always possible.  Birds are feathered, warm blooded, egg laying, beaked animals.  There is little ambiguity today of what a bird is, though if we went back millions of years in history bird identification would be more difficult.  Since birds evolved from dinosaurs, there are birds with teeth and tailbones or dinosaurs with feathers.  Where does bird begin and dinosaur end when looking at the therapods in the lineage of bird evolution?  All aves are therapods, but not all therapods are birds.  Birds are small, feathered dinosaurs but there are many gradiations of birdlike dinosaurs that are not birds.  Whatever a “bird” is or might include in a broader, evolutionary sense, today I don’t have to puzzle over it much as there are clear parameters of what counts as a bird.  However, a kiwi bird is considered an honorary mammal because of its mammal like characteristics such as heavy bones, hair like feathers, and lower body temperature.  But, kiwis aren’t related to mammals, they simply evolved mammal like traits.  Despite the uniqueness of kiwis, there is no debate of if they should be counted as birds.  The main debate in counting the 10, 000 or so species of birds today is what constitutes a separate species.  There may be as many as 18,000 species depending upon how species are defined (for instance, two birds may look similar enough to be thought of as the same species, but actually have different evolutionary histories ).    The big idea is that counting something is never as easy as one, two, three….  http://www.audubon.org/news/new-study-doubles-worlds-number-bird-species-redefining-species Image result for feathered dinosaur

Heeeey, want to add me to your birding list?!

 

Zhenyuanlong suni


Like birds, counting countries can also be confounding.  However, this is a stickier issue as the definition of countries is often a matter of power.   For instance, a country might be defined as a sovereign state – or a self-governing political entity that has diplomatic recognition of the international community (i.e. the UN).  According to the US State Department, there are 195 independent states in the world.   Independent state is often conflated with “country” so it is often said that there are 195 countries in the world.  The UN counts 193 countries plus two permanent observer states, Vatican City and Palestine.  There are many problems with this understanding of “country.”  One problem is that it relies upon international consensus to define what a “country” is.  However, because countries are political constructs- often constructed by more powerful countries that sought to colonize, acculturate, absorb, or otherwise control other territories, the independence status of a country is often a question of successful struggle against power or a matter of interests of some powers against others.   For example, around 135 UN member countries recognize Palestine as an independent country.   Interestingly, almost all of the countries of Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Asia recognize Palestine.  Countries of North America, Western Europe, and Australia are among those who do not recognize Palestine.  Countries that often have less political power and a history of colonization seem more inclined to recognize Palestine than countries such as the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (who are allies of Israel and often played a role in the construction and sustenance of the state of Israel).  If countries that are recognized by some UN members but not others are added to the country list, there would be 206 countries in the world.   This is the same number of countries recognized by the International Olympics Committee.   Other countries with partial recognition include Kosovo (recognized by 100 countries), South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Northern Cyrprus.   Whether or not a country is recognized is related again to power.  Russia and a handful of other nations recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but most countries do not.   On the other hand, most of Western Europe + the United States recognizes Kosovo, but Russia and a hodgepodge of countries in Africa, Asia, and South America do not.  The question of recognition of countries is a diplomatic question of how countries relate to players in a particular struggle.  In the case of Kosovo, Russia had close ties with Serbia.  In the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the United States is more closely aligned with Georgia than Russia.  However, Russia’s intervention in those break-away regions of Georgia was justified by the same logic that the United States and NATO allies used to support Kosovo’s independence: namely the threat of ethnic violence and need to keep peace.   In general, the quest to figure out what exactly should count as a country needs to move away from statist and often imperialist definitions of what a country is.  After all, the definition that a “country is a country when other countries define it as so” sounds like a tautology.   Aside from this logical issue, this definition gives powerful entities, with different stakes in the definition, the right to determine the nature of a country’s independence status.

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South Ossetia’s flag- which is pretty cool looking.


Rather than relying on State Department or UN recognition of countries, a more nuanced approach might be to evaluate the history, politics, and culture of a country in question.   The central idea would be to determine if a particular region, territory, semi-autonomous state, or recognized country has been historically oppressed by another country.   Do the people of this area consider themselves an oppressed nationality?  Did they fail to gain independence or concede to colonial power?  Have they or do they have an independence movement?  Are they treated as a colony today?  What is their power relationship to other countries?  By this criteria, there are many territories that could be considered countries.  For instance, Puerto Rico could be considered a country.   The territory does not have the full rights of a U.S. state, has had an independence movement, and was once a Spanish colony that the United States gained from the Spanish-American war.   Its colonial relationship to the United States has been highlighted by Hurricane Maria, which knocked out power to millions of Puerto Ricans.  Power outages may last months and even up to a year.  The struggling utility infrastructure (and infrastructure in general) of Puerto Rico is the result of its debilitating debt and austerity imposed upon it by the U.S.  Elsewhere in the Caribbean, in 2009  Great Britain removed the government of Turks and Caicos due to allegations of corruption and appointed their own governor of the islands.  Voting rights of citizens of Turks and Caicos is limited to about 7000 people out of a population of 38,000 on the basis of individuals who were locally born on the islands.  Although this reeks of colonialism, small countries such as Turks and Caicos may not have strong independence movements because of the economic challenges of being a micro-state (without a diverse economy).   Other countries such as Curacao, Sint Marteen, and Aruba are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but have their own governments and autonomy outside of military matters and foreign policy.   Aruba in particular had made an agreement with the Netherlands to work towards full independence by 1996, but this process has since been postponed (per the request of the Prime Minister of Aruba).  Again, these countries exist in a gray area, wherein they do not have full sovereignty and maintain a relationship with a colonial power.   Supposing that a person counts all of the dependencies or territories in the world, this would add about 61 “countries” the the list.  But that is pretty generous- since some of these territories are not even inhabited!  Though, I suppose if someone travels to Baker’s Island, an unincorporated island in the Pacific that was claimed as a guano island in the mid 1800s, a traveler may as well count it.  Uninhabited territories aside, there are plenty of former colonies that could be counted as countries as a matter of recognizing their right to self-determination.  Thus, I would count any former colony that has not achieved full independence on my “country count.” Image result for hurricane maria puerto rico

An image of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico


Beyond counting territories, there are other nations of people who have been oppressed by imperialist relationships.  A nation is not synonymous with a state and there are many nation states that consist of various nationalities.  I believe in the right of self-determination to oppressed nationalities (i.e. groups of people with shared history, culture, customs, etc. who are oppressed by another nation within the context of capitalism).  Nations within nation states are often oppressed on the basis of their nationality (unable to learn their language in school or speak it in public life or face other cultural restrictions).  They often also serve as cheap labor or military fodder.  At the same time, their region may not be as economically diverse or prosperous.  Thus, aside from territories and former colonies, there are oppressed nations within nation-states.  For instance, today the people of Kurdistan voted on an independence referendum.  The referendum does not grant or even create a process for independence, but can serve as an example of a nation within a nation (in this example Kurds within Iraq, though they also live in Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and Syria).  In the example of the Kurdish people, the reason they lack a “country” or state of their own is a matter of history.  Many modern countries today were constructed by imperialist powers.  After the break up of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, Kurdish people were promised their own state by the Allies, but this did not happen.  Rather, French and British diplomats established the boundaries of modern Turkey, Syria, and Iraq from the former Ottoman Empire, dividing Kurdish populations between these countries.  In this sense, is a person travels to Kurdish regions of any of these countries, it may be perfectly legitimate to count “Kurdistan” as a country.  After all, its claim to country status and call for self-determination is no less legitimate than any other nation state.   With a population of 30 million people, they are the largest oppressed nationality in the world.  In another recent example, the government of Catalonia is moving forward with an (illegal) independence referendum on Oct. 1st.   Catalonia has been a part of Spain since the 1500s but Catalans want independence on the basis of their economic prosperity compared to the rest of Spain, history of oppression under Franco, and on the basis of shared history and language.  If a person travels through Spain, visiting Basque Country (in both Spain and France) or Catalonia, both of which have had nationalist aspirations, it seems reasonable that a person might count these as “countries” in solidarity with their struggles and recognition of the factors that have thus far stymied autonomy.

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A rally in support of Kurdish independence


Considering all of this, a person has to revisit the United States.  The United States grew out of our own colonial conquest of Native Americans.  There are 562 federally recognized tribal groups in the United States.  However, there are also around 250 unrecognized tribal groups.  This means that the United States consists of over 800 nations within our nation.  All of these groups have been and continue to be unquestionably oppressed by the United States.  All of these groups deserve self-determination, including the right to succession.  They are a part of this country because they were exterminated into submission.  A person might count legitimately count visits to Native American reservations as a visit to a “country” though I think that this should probably be discouraged as it might encourage unwelcome tourism to people who have struggled to protect what remains of their land and culture.  But, supposing one travels as a welcome visitor, it seems legitimate that this too could be counted as a “country.”  At least theoretically, a person could visit 800 nations without even leaving the United States! Related image


The Traveler’s Century Club is a club for someone who has traveled to 100 countries or territories.  Their list is fairly generous, as it includes 325 countries and territories.  Inhabited territories are included, as are island portions of Sovereign nations with populations of over 100,000 people, and regions with disputed autonomy but common culture.  The list does not make mention of issues like self-determination, but does include such places as Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and even Hawaii.  Some of the entries on the list are places I have never heard of, such as Lampedusa, an Italian island of about 5,000 people and Umm Al Qaiwain, one of the United Emirates.  The list includes Abkhazia, Trans Dniester, but does not include Nagorno Karabakh, a break-away territory of Azerbaijan nor does it include South Ossetia.  Kurdistan, Basque land, and Catalonia are not counted, but Jeju Island in South Korea is!   The list is a bit hit or miss when it comes to including the regions of oppressed nationalities that could be counted as countries.  In all, it has a heavy emphasis on islands, which sometimes do correlate to areas nationalist struggle (at least historically).   But, since it is a travel club for people who want to claim they have been to a 100 countries it at least creates some sort of parameter for counting countries.  And, since it includes 325 countries and territories, it is more inclusive than using State Department or UN standards.


Counting countries is a political question and one I do not have a precise answer for.  It also raises the question, how many countries HAVE I traveled to?  I don’t know!  I haven’t definitively developed a standard of how to count countries.  But, if you are curious, here is my list- by my own standard.  I came up with 62 countries (which I listed in the order that I have traveled to them).  This list does not include Hawaii and Jeju Island, which can be included on the Traveler’s Century list.  Hawaii seems like it could be an independent country and certainly exists as a state as the result of colonization, but I am not sure how to include oppressed nationalities within the United States on my list.  I wanted to reach 80 countries by 40, but I suppose that depends upon my ability to save and take time off of work.  I also don’t want to share this list to in any way glorify travel.  I do think that homebodies are far more ethical than myself, since they aren’t destroying the environment through travel nor are they directly interrupting the lives of other people  (especially poor or oppressed people) as a tourist.  I also think that while there are some countries that I have explored for longer periods of time (like Russia, Ireland, or South Korea) many of these are brief visits on account of my lack of time and trust fund.  Still, it is interesting to think about!

  1. USA (well, I’ve been here quite a bit…)
  2. Canada
  3. Mexico
  4. England (I tend to break up the UK into its four countries, but am open to including islands such as the Isle of Man or Channel Islands)
  5. France
  6. Switzerland
  7. Italy
  8. Vatican City
  9. Austria
  10. Germany
  11. Belgium
  12. Netherlands
  13. Russia
  14. Denmark
  15. Ireland
  16. Wales
  17. Scotland
  18. Venezuela
  19. Cuba
  20. Finland
  21. Cayman Islands
  22. Honduras
  23. Belize
  24. South Korea
  25. Japan
  26. China
  27. North Korea
  28. Czech Republic
  29. Poland
  30. Slovakia
  31. Slovenia
  32. Hungary
  33. Croatia
  34. Bosnia
  35. Serbia
  36. Bulgaria
  37. Turkey
  38. Greece
  39. Montenegro
  40. Albania
  41. Ukraine
  42. Belarus
  43. Estonia
  44. Lativia
  45. Lithuania
  46. Sweden
  47. Puerto Rico
  48. Barbados
  49. St. Kitts and Nevis
  50. St. Lucia
  51. Grenada
  52. Trinidad and Tobago
  53. US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas)
  54. South Africa
  55. Namibia
  56. Botswana
  57. Zambia
  58. Zimbabwe
  59. Turkmenistan
  60. Uzbekistan
  61. Kazakhstan
  62. Kyrgyzstan

 

http://www.polgeonow.com/2011/04/how-many-countries-are-there-in-world.html

http://www.economist.com/node/14258950

Some Things I’ve done to Travel

Some Things I’ve Done to Travel

H. Bradford

9/13/17

One of the things that I really love to do is travel.  However, I don’t have tons of money.  So, over the years I’ve done a few creative things- and some ordinary things- to afford travel.  Of course, the internet abounds with advice about how people can quit their job and travel…or how anyone can travel if they are simply determined enough.   This is absolutely untrue.  I can’t quit my job.  My bills will not magically evaporate.  I am extremely fortunate that I currently have a job that has allowed me to travel- far more than most Americans are able to.  I am also fortunate that I don’t have children, pets, or anything or anyone to take care of other than myself.  This gives me far more freedom to leave- and to save.  I have a lot of privilege in terms of health, nationality, race, ability, etc. that also allow me to travel.  So, even though I am a working class person- I have traveled much more than most Americans and most other members of my class.  These are a few of the things I have done to travel.  Perhaps some of them might be helpful to some people.  A few make for unusual stories.  And certainly, I don’t want to spread a narrative that with hard working and dedication dreams can come true.  They often don’t on account of systems of inequality.  Thankfully, I have been able to obtain a few of my dreams.  Here is how…

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(One of my favorite pictures- outside of Chernobyl Reactor 4)


1. Donate Eggs:

I discussed this in an earlier blog post, but back in 2008 I donated eggs to pay off some bills and to help save up money for a trip to Cuba.  At the time, it was illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba because of the trade embargo.  However, there were a few exceptions to this rule.  It was possible to travel to Cuba for research (as well as journalism and cultural exchanges).  So, I traveled to Cuba with Global Exchange on a research delegation.  It was designed to be a research delegation centered around education.  To qualify, delegates had to be working full time in an education field or a graduate student.  Back then, I worked as a tutor for Americorps in a program that served homeless youth in my community.  It was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable jobs I have had.  The trip was rather spendy (especially considering that my Americorps stipend was pretty meager), so donating eggs helped with some of the cost (though I mostly spent that money on bills).  Interestingly, I was in the midst of donating while I was visiting Cuba.   Yep…so I was giving myself daily injections of Gonal-F while touring schools and universities.   The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Center for Sex Education, where I learned about how Cuba approaches sex ed.  Shortly after returning to the U.S., I made me third and final egg donation.  I definitely wanted to donate eggs more than I did, but medical complications got in the way of that.  It was disappointing, but a good lesson that you should not put all of your eggs in one basket.

https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/my-adventures-as-an-egg-donor/

Image result for egg basket


 

2. Medical Study:

I didn’t actually do this to save up for a trip, but to cover my living expenses upon my return.  So…back in 2010 I spent a semester in South Korea, followed by half the summer in Beijing and a visit to North Korea.  The North Korea trip was rather expensive.  At the time, there were fewer companies that traveled to North Korea.  I went with Koryo tours for a ten day trip during the Mass Games (if I remember rightly).  And, while I earned a small stipend while in South Korea, it was hard to survive six months in Asia without regular work.  I literally had spent all of my money upon my arrival back to the U.S.   Worse, a new semester was about to start and I needed money for books.  For some quick cash, I volunteered for a two week medical study.  Although it is closed now, there was a medical research facility in Fargo- which is about a four and a half hour drive from Duluth.  Their website advertised several studies, but I tried for one that was about two weeks long because it paid a few thousand dollars.  So…I went to Fargo, was screened for the study, and was accepted.  The study itself involved trying out some sort of respiratory spray.  Twice a day, each of the patients was administered medication through an inhaler.  Honestly, it was a horrible time.  We sat in a room full of hospital beds.  We were not allowed to leave the beds (to go outside, exercise, etc.) and experienced several blood draws daily.  It was torturous to stay in bed waiting for time to pass.  Our only entertainment was an endless parade of terrible movies.  I remember a LOT of romantic comedies.  I wrote and drew, but was terribly restless.  The days seemed to draw on forever as I watched the sunshine turn to night from a hospital bed.  I also hated how regimented life was.  We had to eat our meals without waste or extras.  Of course, this was all to control the conditions of the experiment.  And, I should also be happy that my inhaler never actually gave me any of the medication.  Others complained of a bitter taste, but my inhaler didn’t have a taste.  I lucked out and was probably a control subject.  I made it through the ordeal, but it was one of the most boring things I’ve endured.  On the bright side, I met a medical student studying in Cuba during the experiment.  She joined the experiment for extra cash for visiting her family, since even though her education was paid for- she did not have money for travel expenses. Image result for black guinea pig

(Random guinea pig image from Pinterest)


3. Work Illegally:

While staying with my friend Rose in Beijing, I worked.  Because I was there on a tourist visa, this was technically illegal.  I didn’t work that much.  I just did some English tutoring for extra spending money.  Rose connected me with the opportunities to do a little tutoring.  She also connected me with an opportunity to earn $200 by pretending to work for a school in Xian.  What happened next is a long story, but it involved a very long train ride, fear that I was being trafficked, and NOT actually ending up in Xian.  If you want to know the long story….well, here it is (copied from an earlier blog post).  If not, read on to the next heading.


“While in Beijing, I did some English tutoring for spending money. This is illegal, as it is illegal to work on a travel visa, but it was done in private homes and at a café. Another way that some people make money is through “white face” jobs. Basically, you can get paid to be white (isn’t that the epitome of racial privilege?). These jobs are temporary positions given to white people, wherein they pretend to work for a school or company to bolster the image of the organization as more international and therefore prestigious. Rose called me about such an opportunity. All I had to do was pretend to be an English teacher. In exchange, I would be taken on a 2 day trip to Xian and paid $200. Sounds good! An opportunity to leave Beijing and see Xian, where the Terra Cotta warriors are….and get paid. So, I arrived at the train station to meet “Chuck” the head of a language school. Chuck bought my train ticket, but didn’t tell me much about the trip or what is expected of me. I asked Chuck if there will be time to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. He became quiet and thoughtful, then stated that we are going THROUGH Xian but our destination is actually Yan’an. We needed to take the train to Xian to get to Yan’an. This revelation marked the beginning of my Kaftkaesque journey.


I got on the sleeper train, which if I recall took about twelve hours to get to Xian. The additional trip to Yan’an was another five hours or so. So, after seventeen or eighteen hours on a train, I was pretty exhausted. I still had no idea what was expected of me. My only instructions were that I was supposed to pretend to be a teacher for his school. The arrival in Yan’an was hazy. We took the train there and visited a temple. However, I was informed that Yan’an was not our final, final destination. Rather, it was a smaller city about an hour away. We travelled there by car, but were now joined by an entourage of unfamiliar people whose position or relationship to Chuck were unknown to me. Chuck sped along at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour, even passing a police car that was travelling too slow for his taste. As undemocratic as China is, there does not seem to be as much policing of everyday things such as driving or littering as there is in the U.S. or this policing is less consistent. As such, not only was speeding by a police car to pass it seemingly acceptable, so is driving on the sidewalk from time to time. We arrived at our final, final destination and checked into the hotel. Chuck informed me that there would be a dinner at six.


Before dinner, I asked Chuck what I should say to his company. He told me not to worry, as none of them spoke English. So, once again, I knew nothing about my position as a fake teacher. No idea about the school or what grades I taught, how long that I worked there, or anything. Oh well. Weary from the long journey, I attended dinner. Of course, I was seated by a diplomat, who spoke English. And, while everyone else watched my reaction to the food, eagerly hoping that I enjoyed it, he asked me questions about my job. The surreal dinner, wherein I felt that I was the dinner entertainment….there to please everyone with assurances that the food is good and eat more as I am given it….stared at the entire time…continued. Only, each time I tried to answer the questions posed in English by the diplomat, Chuck answered for me in Mandarin. They conversed about my position….in front of me….in Chinese. This left me entirely in the dark about the lie that Chuck was concocting about me. It made me anxious. All of it made me anxious. The dinner went on forever. The food was actually pretty good, which seemingly pleased everyone that I ate it. On a side note, I hate feeling the pressure to eat and even more, I hate it when people watch me eat. But, I suppose we all do this when we have guests….eagerly hoping they will like what has been introduced to them.


We all returned to the hotel and I was informed that I must be up at 6 am the next morning. I talked to Chuck at the door of my room about this. He tried twice to push himself into my hotel room, but I blocked him with my shoulder and door. I really didn’t want to be alone in my room with Chuck. The next morning involved an award ceremony to celebrate the anniversary of a school. This is why so many politicians, school administrators, and important people were there. This cleared up a little what exactly we were doing there. At the same time, the two day trip had already been three days. Oh well. I assumed that we would return after the ceremony the next day.


The following day there was a ceremony, complete with children singing and dancing. There were speeches and a band. It was all a pretty big to-do for the anniversary of a school. When it was over, I asked Chuck when we will return to Beijing. He told me that it might be a day or two. He doesn’t know. A day or two?! After my very long train ride, enduring a couple of meals, complete isolation from everyone that I know- in fact, no one in the world even knows where I am, a ceremony, and now an uncertain return….things fell apart. The whole thing had been pretty uncomfortable to begin with. Never have I felt so powerless and isolated. I began to think that maybe I would not be returned to Beijing. Chuck went on to inform me that I must attend another meal with him.


I snapped. I informed Chuck that I would not eat until I return to Beijing. He said that if I don’t eat it will embarrass him. I told him that I want to go back to Beijing and can’t eat until I return. This was my only tool. A hunger strike. Chuck begged me to eat. I reluctantly agreed to at least attend the lunch. I attended the lunch, but only nibbled. The Chinese guests offered me some apple juice that was made locally. It tasted warm and fermented. More misery. However, at the end of this meal, Chuck magically produced some train tickets and announced that we would be returning to Beijing that afternoon.


17 long hours later. I enjoyed the crinkled yellow brown landscape of the Loess Plateau and the snaking Yellow River. The landscape became less like a curtain of sandy mounds and flattened. There were farms and nuclear reactors. Yan’an was the end of the Long March. I feel as though I had been on a long march of uncertain roles, awkward meals, fear, and isolation. We arrived back in Beijing. Chuck asked me if I wanted to grab breakfast with him. I said no. I took my $200 and left.”

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(Image of Terracotta warriors from the Chicago Tribune.  I never did get to see them…)

4. Work- Really Hard:

This heading is not as interesting as the others, but there were times that I just worked really, really hard.  One of those times was…once again…when I was saving for the Cuba trip.  Despite the money from egg donating, I still ended up working WITHOUT A DAY OFF from March until June.  This was hellish.  But, it was back when I was doing a year of Americorps service.  The monthly stipend was about $800 a month after taxes.  Still, going to Cuba was important to me.  Everyone who I knew who had visited Cuba tended to gush about it- with the exception of Adam.  He hates being warm.  Travel to Cuba seems to be a leftist rite of passage.   Activists often want to travel there to see for themselves what this tiny, embargoed, island nation has done in terms of healthcare and education- against all odds.  So, I worked very hard that spring.  I did my Americorps services on Monday through Friday, then worked double shifts at a hotel over the weekends.  It was exhausting.  And, there is something quite demoralizing about looking at a calendar and seeing an endless stretch of work without a day off.  But, I survived it- and definitely earned that trip.

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(Random image stolen from a google search.)

5. Join a Mission Trip

This is pretty embarrassing at this point in my life, but back when I was 19 I was still religious.  My friend Libby invited me to join her church on a mission trip.  I joined the trip more for the travel experience than any calling to save souls.  Yep, so I went on a bus trip to Mexico with her church.  Although I was religious at the time, I really didn’t fit in.  I didn’t dress conservatively enough and had to be told to cover up more.  I also wasn’t socialized into her church, so I suppose there were theological and behavioral norms that I didn’t conform to.  But, we did help with some minor construction on a church and I was able to see a really awesome cave in a mountain while everyone else went to a water park.  The cave was called Grutas de Garcia and was fascinating in that I took a cable car up the mountain, then entered a cave which at one time was under a prehistoric sea.  Various marine fossils could be seen on the walls of the cave.  The mountains were pretty and it was an interesting social experience.   Still, in retrospect it was a weird thing to do, especially since it hardly seems that Mexico is in need of spiritual or religious help from U.S. missionaries.   But, it was a two week trip to Mexico for under $500.  It was also one of the last memorable religious activities that I was involved with (as I stopped going to church or attending religious events in the subsequent years).  Finally, it was a happy memory with my friend Libby- who was my best friend since the first grade.  Maybe I wasn’t the best at being religious, but it was certainly worth it to share an experience with her.

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(Image from Tours in Monterrey)

6. Tax Refund

I usually spend my tax refund on travel.  To ensure that I actually get a tax refund, I claim zero on my taxes so that more money is taken out of my paychecks each month.  I have read that this is not good financial advice, as if a person simply saved more, they would earn interest on the savings.  However, since I am not always that great at saving- having more taken out of my paycheck in taxes has resulted in much larger tax refunds at the end of the year.  I think that this scheme will dwindle once I start substitute teaching and now that I can’t claim a credit for being a graduate student.  But, in previous years, I usually received $1000- $3000 back in taxes.  I used that money towards going to Eastern Europe and the Balkans for a month back in 2014 and the Baltic Countries/Ukraine/Belarus in 2015.

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7. Second Savings Account

One of my strategies in the past has been to have two savings accounts.  The second savings account was located at an out of the way bank (in an area I don’t often visit in Duluth) and did not have an ATM card.  By making my money harder to access, I did not dip into the savings.  It also kept the money separate from my regular savings- so the money was earmarked specifically for travel.  I have since closed the second account, but I found this to be a very useful savings strategy and one that I want to employ in the future (probably a non-travel savings account).



8. Regular Saving and Working…

This is mainly what I do now to travel.  It doesn’t make for a good story.  Save and work.  Blah.  To that end, I picked up some extra shifts at work this month.  I try to pick up extra shifts when I can.  The other day, I worked a sixteen hour shift followed by a twelve hour shift the next day.  I might try substitute teaching in my free time as well.  (Though typically I only work 40 hours a week).  On the saving front, I will admit that I am terrible at saving.  I have too many hobbies and eat out way too much.  But, I’ve been using Mint since March and find that it helps me track my spending and set saving goals.   Each month I try to squirrel away money.  But, it seems that once I save up enough- I spend it all on travel.  So, perhaps I could add “living irresponsibly” to my list of things I do to travel, as I am definitely NOT saving up for retirement or a rainy day.   My goal is to eventually become good enough at saving that I can put money away for BOTH travel and responsible adulthood.


There are probably many other ways that I could travel.  I could work overseas, such as teaching English in South Korea.   I could try to find work that somehow involves travel.  But, for the most part, I am content right now to save, work, and dream of future trips.  Provided that my current job continues to allow me to take vacations each year, I continue to travel as long as I am able to.  It challenges me socially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.  While it is a selfish endeavor, it allows me to re-dedicate to activism and my work.   That is why I like it and why it has been worth the effort.

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I also love this photo-in Kazakhstan, since I look badass- masking the fact that I am a dorky, fearful, and unfit.

The Hollow Monument

The Hollow Monument

H. Badford

9/12/17

Every self is a hollow monument,

an ode to accomplishment, attachment, advancement, and the other virtues of civilization.

Behind each strong facade is fiber glass fillers and paper mache.

A hollow space to be filled with depression or distraction.

Together, we are a marble city,

made tidy by endless sweeping

and the tireless scouring of each surface,

until it all shines right and white.

Some sweepers and sculptors know it is all for show,

but without scripts and statues,

brooms and grooming,

What would we be?

What would we know?

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(A poem that I wrote while thinking about Turkmenistan, but also the social construction of the self/mechanisms of social control)

Missed Connections: The Social Challenge of Travel

 

Missed Connections: The Social Challenge of Travel

H. Bradford

9/9/17

I remember back when I was a flag twirler for marching band (at Cambridge-Isanti High School), sitting alone on the school bus as it carted me to march in a parade.  I always sat alone.  I always sat alone for soccer.  I sat alone for track as well.  I have many memories of sitting alone on school buses as I traveled to track meets, games, speech meets, or whatever else.  I also have memories of “pairing up” for projects in college and high school, or just “pairing up” for whatever else.  I was always the last person to find a pair.  I even took a community education ballroom dance class where I danced alone with an invisible partner- simply because I had no pair.  I am like a mismatched sock.  Thankfully, I tend to enjoy my own company.  My best days are often the days that I spent alone- hiking, camping, watching birds, writing, etc.  At the same time, there is something painful and mysterious about my inability to “pair up” or how it seems that there is a natural force field around me that deters others from sitting with me.  Normally, this doesn’t matter as I do have a core of good friends.  This is something I lacked in other eras of my life.  It only becomes a problem when I leave them.  As such, I find that this is one of the most challenging aspects of travel.

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My last two major trips were overland trips.  One visited southern Africa.  The other visited Central Asia.  These trips both involved meeting a group of strangers, camping with them, and spending long hours on a truck with them.   In fact, most of my travel experiences involve meeting strangers and confronting the painful truth of my life: I am a misfit and I lack social skills.  The social dance of travel follows some patterns.  Firstly, everyone expresses excitement to meet one another.  There tends to be bonding early on over a meal and drinking.  Conversation is light, centered mostly upon small talk and travel.  This pattern repeats itself, generating stories that create situational bonds.  For instance, a generic story might be something such as “the time we ate X, then drank X, got so drunk, and stayed up all night doing X.”  The story might be made more interesting by such mishaps as getting lost, getting harassed, a misunderstanding, getting sick, or positive things such as making a local friend, discovering a cool place, or some other adventure.  The sum of these experiences tends to be friendships, vows or plans to see one another again, and teary eyed departures home.  95% of the time I have been an outsider to this experience.  I have watched it unfold, like a flower opening, with the predictability of spring time.  And, I have watched, usually from a solitary seat on a bus, truck, or train, as the friendships others have built end in tears.  I am left to feel my own sadness- but generally that of the perennial outsider.   I wonder what is wrong with me?  Why can’t I connect?  And worse, I feel the existential pain of not mattering- of existing in no one’s memory.  Of simply vanishing without consequence and failing to invoke warmth and connection.

 


 

Why can’t I connect?  I think it is complicated.  I am slow to open up to people.  By the time I begin to feel comfortable opening up- most people have already made their connections within the group.  I am terrible at small talk.  I tend to get bored with small talk.  I would much rather start off talking about something political or sociological.  Unfortunately, most social situations require political neutrality.  I do a lot of activism.  My political identity takes up at least half of my time.  I am aware that the things that are the most important to me tend to be alienating to others.  I am a feminist.  I am a Trotskyist.  I am an atheist.  I am a sociologist (well, in the sense I have an M.A. in sociology and can’t NOT analyze or critique social norms.  Sociology does not have an off switch).   I am an unmarried adult with no children- who lives in a shared house with adult housemates- which also serves as a makeshift food shelf.    I have a belief system and lifestyle that is shared by very few people.  Because polite conversation tends to avoid controversy, debate, or politics, I feel that I can’t share 75% of who I am with others- at least not upon first meeting them.   In this way, social situations can feel like a straight jacket.  There are other peculiarities about myself.  One, I don’t drink alcohol and never have.  I have never in my years of travel met another traveler who is also a teetotaler.  Drinking is an important part of the bonding process.  It loosens people up and makes conversation easier.  Another area of bonding is television shows.  However, I usually limit my TV or Netflix watching to less than an hour a month.  I find little joy in binge watching shows (except once a year I do watch the previous season of the Walking Dead).  I don’t really like watching shows and don’t know or care to know what is popular.  I am a vegetarian.  I am also bisexual.  I tend to keep my sexuality to myself as I am often paired with female travelers as tentmates or roommates.  I once had a bad experience wherein a fellow traveler once mistakenly believed that I was trying to see her naked.  This wasn’t true.  But to avoid that, I tend not to advertise it.  I think that a barrier to making connections is the fact that I feel that there is a lot about myself that I can’t talk about AND even if I could- I am pretty unusual.

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This sock probably doesn’t have a match since it wants to talk about communism when people really just want to talk about tv shows and places they’ve been.

If I can’t talk about politics or ideology, who am I?  Who am I outside of my activist identity? Well, there is my work self.  I work at a domestic violence shelter, so, that can be interesting to talk about.  However, intimate partner violence isn’t a “fun” topic of conversation and not a topic most people want to delve into right away upon first meeting.   I do have quite a few hobbies.  I enjoy reading, writing, learning about nature, bird watching, outdoors, learning in general, gardening, drawing, and have dabbled in activities such as ballet lessons, soccer, writing poems, other dance or fitness classes, violin, etc.  Despite the hobbies, I often feel that I am a little boring.  I mean, my latest “dabbling” was creating watercolor images of birds.  I think I have the tastes and interests of a fussy, tea drinking, great grandmother.  All things considered, I don’t expect that others would actually want to be my friend.  So, I tend to be reserved and observant, making little effort to exude the warmth and welcome needed to attract friends.  This all becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  1.) I feel that I am too different to make friends.  2.) Based upon this belief, I don’t make an effort at it.   Following this internal logic, I tend to make the most of my situations by keeping to myself or trying to find the joy in my own companionship.


The social aspect of travel is frustrating because it seems to serve as a microcosm of my relationship to society at large.  I don’t fit in.  This is often masked by the fact that I have a few close friends who are also…misfits.  I also feel that maybe there IS something wrong with me.  This sense of something wrong with me sometimes causes me to disengage with people for fear of rejection.  Oh dear!  Why does this have to be so complicated?  It would be easier if my friends enjoyed international travel.  I could then travel with a buddy and would not have to worry about how I connect with others.  However, travel is spendy.  Even if it wasn’t, no one I know is all that keen on traveling.  For the foreseeable future, I will be either traveling alone or meeting up with a group of strangers as I travel.  But, I don’t really mind.   And, perhaps there is hope that I can grow and become better at socializing/connecting.  This summer, I feel that I fared much better at my attempt to befriend others.  In fact, I actually left the trip a bit teary eyed.  That was the first time that has ever happened on a trip.  I don’t even know what to think.  Usually, I am the outsider watching emotions as they happen for other people.  I can’t say that I am overly fond of feeling sad upon departure.  But, I think sadness is better than distance or emotional vacancy.


A part of me will always have times when I feel like a lonely child.  I will always have moments where I am reminded of the times that I sat alone on a bus or hid during lunch hour because I had no one to sit with (at Cambridge-Isanti).  Usually, I am too busy with work, activism, and my friends to feel lonely.  I actually seek out alone time because my life is too full.  I do enjoy my own company.  A benefit of my lonely past is that I am not at all shy or self conscious about eating at a restaurant alone, camping alone, hiking alone, or going to a movie alone.   It is only when I am away from my friends for an extended period of time and thrust into a situation where I am with strangers that I am confronted with my insecurities and the demons of my social struggles.  It is in these situations that I struggle with the haunting pain of being a misfit who is socially deficient.   The bright side is that it is a learning experience.  Maybe I will never learn the lessons that I need to learn, but it does challenge me by pulling me away from my confidence and comfort.  I suppose that is one of the purposes of travel- to leave one’s comfort zone.  Well, I will say that I do- but in ways that are painful, unseen, and unspoken.  (Though I have just spoken of it now!)


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(Generic image of a lonely person on a bus stolen from the internets)

 

 

 

 

How Does Turkmenistan ACTUALLY compare to North Korea?

How Does Turkmenistan ACTUALLY compare to North Korea?

H. Bradford

9/5/17

This summer, I paid a short visit to Turkmenistan.  In fact, one of the big reasons that I wanted to travel on Oasis’ overland trip was the opportunity to visit Turkmenistan and view the Aral sea in Uzbekistan.  In preparation for the trip, I tried to do some reading.  Many travel websites compared Turkmenistan to North Korea.  Documentaries or short videos on Turkmenistan were mostly from the mid-2000s and centered around the bizarre dictatorship of Niyazov, a.k.a Turkmenbashi.  As the trip approached, I became nervous.  I would be joining the trip in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.  Travel websites warned of individuals who had been denied visas or how notoriously difficult it was to obtain a visa.  What if I was not allowed entry?  What if my visa upon arrival was denied?  I would spend my first day or two alone.  What if I accidentally broke a law?  The information provided in travel websites, books, and videos warned of laws such as a city wide curfew, travel restrictions, restrictions on  photographs, bans on circuses or women wearing makeup on television, bans on gold teeth and beards, etc.  If indeed, the country was like North Korea, how safe would I be during the time period I spent alone?

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There are some important differences between Turkmenistan and North Korea.  While Turkmenistan has been called the North Korea of Central Asia or North Korea with oil, a major difference between the countries is how they relate to the United States.   As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, during the Korean war, the United States bombed North Korea into oblivion.  More bombs were dropped on Korea than all of the Pacific during WWII and unexploded bombs are still found in the country.   Thousands of schools, hospitals, and factories were bombed by the U.S.- and when there were but a few buildings standing in the whole country, the United States bombed dams- flooding the country’s agricultural land and threatening the populace with starvation. Civilians were specifically targeted by the U.S., which destroyed 20% of the population in the war.  This created a deep fear and bitterness towards the United States which is used to sustain the repressive Kim dynasty.  Turkmenistan does not have that same destructive and antagonistic history with the United States.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Niyazov proclaimed that the country was neutral.  In fact, there is an enormous monument to neutrality in Ashgabat.  Despite this official neutrality, Turkemistan provided tax and duty free gas/oil to NATO countries engaged in the war in Afghanistan and has allowed NATO to use its airspace and land aircraft at Ashgabat airport.  Furthermore, U.S. corporations such as John Deere, Caterpillar, and Boeing conduct business in Turkmenistan.  Niyazov’s successor, Berdymukhamedov, even sent a personal congratulation to President Obama upon his election.  So, while Turkemistan is viewed as a country that lacks basic rights to organizing, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and a criminal justice system with torture and abuse, a key difference is that this authoritarian regime is a strategic ally of the United States whereas North Korea is viewed as an enemy.   Consequently, the United States is less inclined to call out human rights abuses in Turkmenistan or call for regime change.  In fact, very few Americans know the first thing about Turkmenistan.  Why not?  Well, fear mongering and villainizing Turkmenistan simply isn’t a matter of importance to American foreign policy in the same way North Korea is.   While the United States was an enemy of the Soviet Union and certainly some suspicion may persist, I think it is very unlikely that an American would be kept in Turkmenistan or imprisoned there for political reasons.  The Peace Corps operated in Turkmenistan until 2012 and there is a U.S. embassy in Ashgabat (along with embassies for at least 20 other countries).   In short, despite its reputation as a very authoritarian country, Turkmenistan has fairly “normal” relations with the West.

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Neutrality Monument in Ashgabat


Upon arrival in Ashgabat, I applied for my tourist visa by presenting a letter of invitation.  In contrast, my visa for North Korea was arranged ahead of time in Beijing and  was contingent upon travel with North Korean guides and an organized tour.  My arrival in Pyongyang was heralded by a power outage at the airport- itself a modest building.  Ashgabat’s airport is a much larger white building in the shape of a giant bird.  Tourists in Turkmenistan are free to explore the capital on their own, but a guide is needed for travel outside of the capital.  We were joined by a local guide who stayed with us during our visit through the country.  In Pyongyang, I turned in my cellphone at the airport.  This was not the case in Turkmenistan, where it was common to see satellite dishes and the main indicator of a lack of freedom of information/communication was that I could not access social media.  Because it was expected that tourists are always accompanied by guides and our accommodations were at the Yanggakdo Hotel (on an island), there were no opportunities for independent exploration in North Korea.  In Turkmenistan, I spent two days exploring Ashgabat all by myself.   While traveling around the Ashgabat, no one avoided me but no one went out of their way to talk to me either.  It was common to see police, but they also seemed fairly indifferent to me.  At least on the surface, it seemed that the level of control of tourists or the populace was not the same between the countries.  As of September 2017, U.S. citizens are no longer allowed to travel to North Korea.  This ban does not come from North Korea, but rather our own state department, so a major difference between the two countries at this point in time is that Americans can’t enter North Korea!

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An amusement park in Ashgabat


Both Pyongyang and Ashgabat are showcase capitals.   Ashgabat was hit by a massive earthquake in 1948, which leveled the city and killed 110,000 people.  During the Korean war, only two buildings stood in Pyongyang.   Suffice to say, both capitals are newly constructed since the 1950s.   Nevertheless, Ashgabat has undergone an extensive and expensive renovation since the 2000s, which has transformed the city into a white marble wonderland of fountains and gold.   In this sense, Ashgabat is certainly more luxuriant…as natural gas revenues have been used to remodel the capital.  Even the apartment buildings are marble.  Pyongyang is certainly clean and resplendent with monuments that celebrate the Kim family and Juche, but it is not characterized by the same parks, neon lights, clusters of monuments, and marble.   While Ashgabat is lit up at night, Pyongyang seemed fairly dark.  I think a major difference is that North Korea devotes more resources to the military and developing weapons (20% of the GDP goes to the military).  Because North Korea is embargoed and Turkmenistan is free to sell its natural gas, Niyazev had more money to play with in reshaping the capital (Turkmenistan spends about 3.5% of its GDP on military).  At the same time, North Korea is more developed than Turkmenistan.  Outside of Ashgabat, 80% of the country is desert.  The Karakorum Canal provides irrigation to agriculture (albeit wastefully), but the country, at least from what I could see- is very rural and agrarian where this is possible.  This underdevelopment is attributed to the fact that Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic mainly supplied the USSR with natural gas.  Its economy was not and continues to not be very diverse (though the fact that 80% of the country is desert puts a major geographical limit on development… USSR history and transition to capitalism not withstanding).  The legacy of Soviet gas exploration makes for interesting tourist attractions.  There are three large collapsed craters left behind by Soviet gas drilling.  One is filled with water, the other flaming mud, and finally, there is the Darvaza gas pit, giant flaming crater in the desert- which has been burning since 1971!   North Korea is a country that is industrial enough to…well, have a nuclear program.

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Darvaza Gas Crater


Both countries share a strong sense of nationalism, which plays an important part of the personality cults established by their respective dictators.  Niyazov invented the Ruhnama,  a book that outlined the history of the Turkmen people, but also was a spiritual, literary, and moral guide.  It was required reading for all students and government workers and the book was to be read with the Koran by imams.  Since Niyazov’s death, the book is no longer required reading- but it was meant to help develop Turkmen identity.  Berdymukhamedev has sought to connect Turkmen identity to horses- and Ashgabat features a Ministry of Horses as well as horse head shaped stadium built for the Asian games.  He also built a nearly 70 foot statue of himself on a horse and wrote a book about horses.   Turkmenistan does not have a long history as a nation state with a national identity.  Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, Turkmenistan didn’t really exist.  It was a region of nomadic people who spoke various related Turkic languages, lacked common political institutions, and often in conflict with one another.  This is not to disparage the people of Turkmenistan, as all nationalities are social constructs in one way or another.  It is simply to say that they had not organized themselves into a united people with a common identity and sense of political nationhood.  Despite the seemingly new and artificial construction of Turkmen nationalism, this seems to be the foundation of Niyazov and Berdymukhamedev’s regimes.

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The stadium built for the Asia Games.


Korean nationalism has been around much longer.  The Korean language is one of the oldest living languages, which has had its own unique script since the 15th century.  Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula sparked a modern nationalist, independence movement.  Various kingdoms existed on the Korean peninsula over history, but Korean culture and norms were united by a singular political administration since the Joseon Kingdom of the 1300s- late 1800s.   In North Korea, the juche ideology was used to support self-reliance, self-defense, the leadership of the Kims, and independence.  This is complimented by songun- or the ideology of military first.  Pursuit of military build-up at the expense of social programs or social welfare is undertaken to protect the DPRK from the United States.  So, while it seems irrational and cruel, it does serve the function of deterring direct U.S. military intervention- which has happened in many other countries.

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The USS Pueblo is a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.  It is a captured American spy boat which is a proud trophy in the nearly seventy year conflict between our countries.


There are certainly similarities between Turkmenistan and North Korea.  Both countries are disparaged for human rights abuses and lack of freedoms.   Both are viewed as among the most repressive countries in the world.  But, I think that travel websites overstate the similarities.  There is one major difference- this main difference is how these countries relate to the West (or the United States in particular).  This makes a world of difference in terms of travel, but also in terms of how these countries orient their economies, state ideologies, and social priorities.  It also means that Turkmenistan is largely ignored by the United States, whereas North Korea is on the news daily.  Of course, this could be blamed on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs- but how much do we know about our own missile testing or nuclear history?  How much do we know about who and what we bombed today?  Because Turkmenistan does not actively defy the United States or our allies, it is forgotten and unknown.  And, because Turkmenistan’s government is not legitimized by a six and a half decade long conflict- it does look differently and act differently.  Thus, as a traveler to both countries, I tend to disagree with the comparison.

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Pyongyang

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Ashgabat

Another Mini Camping Trip

Another Mini Camping Trip

H. Bradford

8/22/17

I can’t believe that summer is nearly coming to an end!  (Well, technically it ends September 21st, but…it feels like it ends once September starts).  I feel that there is so much that I didn’t do this summer.  It never lasts long enough.  I suppose that is why I felt that I needed to take another mini camping trip.  It won’t be long before it is too cold (though I suppose I could someday try winter camping…).   In any event, I once again checked online to see what programs were being offered by state parks.  I saw that Temperance River State Park was offering a plant identification hike.  So…I decided that I would head there for a little camping and lesson on plants.

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Temperance River is about an hour and a half northeast of Duluth.  I set out early Friday morning to make certain I arrived there on time for the ten A.M. plant identification hike.  It was a pretty drive.  The road was not yet crowded with vehicles and the accompanying scenery of Lake Superior made me feel happy to be alive.  I have been many places but there really is something special about Lake Superior, especially the north shore with its dramatic cliffs and craggy shores.

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The plant identification hike was pretty cool.  Those sorts of programs don’t tend to attract huge crowds, so it was a naturalist, a family, and myself.  I knew many of the plants already, but I did not know that Jewel Weed can be used topically to treat stinging nettle.  I also saw Wild Beebalm, which I had never noticed growing around here before.  I also learned that Victorians used to back Tansy into cakes.  The smell is pretty…strong and not very enticing…so I am not certain why it was added to cakes.  But, it is mildly toxic, which ended tansy’s career as a cake flavoring.  Hmm.  The hike lasted about an hour and a half.   When it was done, I decided to purchase two guidebooks from the park office and set off on another hike.   I purchased a guide on fungi (as I have been more interested in fungi recently as a result of the Feminist Frolic earlier this month) and another on berries (as many berries are appearing now).

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I set off for Carlton Peak, which is the second highest point in Minnesota.  Because it is the second highest point, I figured it might actually be a bit of a challenge.  It really wasn’t, which I guess goes to show that Minnesota really isn’t a dramatically tall state.  But, it was still a fun time.  I stopped along the way, taking note of interesting fungi and doing my best to sort of identify them.  There were also many warblers hidden in the woods, chipmunks scurrying about, and the early touches of yellow on some of the leaves.  The hike took me to the top of the peak, where there was a nice view of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests.  Like usual, most of the hikers were couples, families, and friends.  I didn’t meet anyone else on a solo adventure that day.   After taking some photos of the top, I went to nearby Tofte Peak for another view.

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Oh, I also ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  This is a challenge when I go on these mini trips.  I never know what to pack.  I need to bring things that are easy to make and which don’t spoil without refrigeration.  I have yet to come up with a satisfying menu of camping foods- so I tend to eat snacks.  In this case, I brought peanut butter, jelly, and bread.  Only…my bread was kind of old.  It tasted gross and stale.  I ate the sandwich anyway, but my stomach felt uneasy for the rest of the day.  I also lost my taste for PBJ sandwiches after that one bad one…even after buying some better bread.  Despite an upset stomach, I went on several other hikes that day.  I wandered around Lake Superior and went on a hike along Temperance River.  In all, I was up and moving around from 10 am to almost 8pm (though it wasn’t strenuous non-stop movement as I sat down, did identification work, took photos, etc.).

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At 8pm,  I made a fire and rested for a while.  I made myself a grilled cheese and avocado sandwich, but my taste for food was non-existent due to my nasty PBJ earlier.  I mostly stared at the fire and journaled in the dim light.  Also, I came to the realization that my tent…which I had not used since my rainy camp adventure in July…smelled really, really musty.   I aired it out through the day, but it still smelled.  I think it will be better next time, but it could really use some airfreshener.  My stomach was not a happy camper  and the smell of the tent was not going to do my digestive system any favors.  I ended up sleeping in my car to avoid the smell.  Yep.  But, not before wandering to Lake Superior in the darkness and sitting on some rocks.  I observed the stars and enjoyed the darkness.  There is something wonderful about the blackness of night.  It is mysterious and frightening in a fun way.   I listened to the water on the rocks and the sound of leaves.  All of the other campers were already sleeping, so it was nice to stay up and out there alone.


I had big ambitions for the following day.  I planned on doing more hiking and visiting some other state parks on the way back to Duluth.  But, after hiking so long the day before, I wasn’t that energetic.  I did a little geocaching around the park and stopped for some photos at nearby rivers and the abandoned town of Taconite Harbor.  However, I wanted something more substantial than what I had packed to eat.  My stomach felt normal but wasn’t hungry for what I had packed.  So, I made my way back towards Duluth in search of food.  I stopped in Silver Bay and did a little more geocaching, but began to feel drawn home by some activist obligations.  Originally, I had set off with the intention of staying out late at Gooseberry Falls State Park so that I could catch a presentation on ravens.  However, this would mean missing out on a prisoner solidarity protest and a benefit dinner for a UMD student from Syria.  My roommate Adam texted me asking where the signs I had made were.  I didn’t actually make any signs for the protest.

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Visions of eating Mexican food and attending these political events drew me home earlier that I had intended.   I didn’t catch the presentation on ravens, but I did have a fun time eating Mexican food and going for a walk with Adam.  I was also glad to attend the political events later in the evening.   I am not much of a camper, but I enjoyed the hiking and genuinely felt glad to live in this part of the world.  There is a lot of beauty to partake in here.  Each time I camp, I learn something new.  This time I learned to really, really think about what I want to eat and not to pack expired bread- even if it isn’t moldy yet.  I also learned that I should be more careful with my tent and not assume that it was “dry enough” when I packed it up.  This can lead to a musty misadventure.   In all, it is fair to say that I am not the most adventurous person…but I enjoy my little mini adventures.  It removes me, even for a short time, from people, work, activism and the demands of everyday life.  It is an important part of my self-care and I always learn something new.

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My International Bog Day Bonanza

My International Bog Day Bonanza

H. Bradford

7/25/17

Last week at work I had a several stressful situations arise.  When I am stressed, I like to fantasize about my time off.  So, I determined that I was going to really enjoy my time off by celebrating International Bog Day.   International Bog Day was first celebrated in Scotland in 1991 in honor of a pretty unique ecosystem.  In the United States, it was first celebrated in 2008 at the Volo Bog State Nature Area in IL.  There are not a lot of bog related celebrations in Minnesota, even though Minnesota actually has more bogs (10% of the state or 6 million acres) than any other continental state.  The biggest celebration for International Bog Day in Minnesota appears to be at Big Bog State Park.  However, I didn’t feel like driving three hours to attend festivities such as the “bog jog.”  Maybe next year.  In any  event, I can’t say that I know a lot about bogs, but they are dear to my heart.  I grew up near a bog and have many great bog memories.   I can confidently say that bogs are my favorite ecosystem.  Thus, I relished the idea of celebrating International Bog Day!

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I like to invent holidays or holiday celebrations.  Some take off, such as Marxmas (which I did not invent, but have passionately planned a well-attended party for each year).  Others, such as Radon Awareness Month- don’t really pan out.   I felt that International Bog Day had a lot of potential.  I began to dream about visiting bogs.  Where would I go?  What would I do?  Oh, then there are the other details such as…what should I wear?  Each holiday needs special apparel.  So yes, I bought myself a “bog shirt.”  Yes, yes, shame on me for consumerism, but details matter.  And, it was hard to find a bog shirt!  I found a pretty cool shirt with a woman wearing a pitcher plant on her head.  Aside from this, I wanted a “bog cake” but this turned out to be too much work.  Then, there were the activities!  I decided that I would visit three bogs.  My first adventure would be a visit to the Sax Zim Bog in Minnesota to do some birding.  This would happen on “International Bog’s Day Eve” or Saturday.  Then, the following day I would drag my comrades Adam and Lucas on an adventure to Cable WI, to visit the Forest Lodge Trail.  I read online that the trail was the best interpretive bog trail in Wisconsin.   Then, on the day after International Bog Day, I would revisit Savanna Portage State Park for some camping…and you guessed it…a visit to a bog.   Three days.  Three bogs.  No one can com”peat” with this bog day bonanza. DSCF6115 (2)


Day One: Bog’s Day Eve

Located about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Duluth, the Sax Zim Bog is one of the best birding spots in Minnesota.  It happened that the Sax Zim Bog was hosting a Bio-blitz this past Saturday.  The goal of the event was to take visitors on various field trips to count the biodiversity of the wetland.  Field trips throughout the day logged such things as dragonflies, butterflies, spiders, wildflowers, birds, fish, etc.   I decided that attending the birding field trip would be a great kick off for Bog Day and a way to add more birds to my birding list.  So, I awoke very early.  In fact, I hardly slept at all.  I dragged myself out of bed at 3:30 am and headed out the door at 4:15 am.  The morning was foggy and cool.  I wanted to stop for coffee or a snack, but waited until I was out of Duluth to make a stop.  Unfortunately, I waited too long to stop and the gas stations near Cotton, MN were still closed.   I was the first to arrive for the 6 am birding field trip and felt a little groggy and thirsty.   I nibbled on graham crackers from a previous camping trip and found a single lime La Croix in my backseat.  Still, I felt that I was graduating into a more serious birder, as no normal person would wake up at 3:30 am for something they weren’t passionate about.

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The early bird catches….the bird.  (gray jay)


Our field trip began with a journey to where a Great gray owl was thought to be nesting.  The Great gray owl is the world’s largest owl by length, though it is mostly a mass of fluffy gray feathers.  Sure enough, we saw a family of Great gray owls.  The mother took flight, moving a little deeper into the woods.  It was astonishing to see an owl that looked to be the size of an eagle.  It was my first time seeing a Great gray owl.  We stayed there a while, also spotting a Black backed woodpecker.  That was also a first for me.  After observing two woodpeckers dart from tree to tree, we moved on to watch birds elsewhere.  Three hours of birding yielded quite a few birds, including Sandhill cranes, a sedge wren, a swamp sparrow, a group of curious gray jays,  a few alder flycatchers, black billed magpie, and others.  I learned that the Sax Zim Bog is the eastern most range of the black billed magpie.  I added seven birds to my life list.  Also, I was again amazed at the other birders.  They can easily spot and identify birds.  I feel pretty dumb sometimes, but hope that with effort and time I will someday be as proficient.

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Sedge wren

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Black backed woodpecker–can you tell?  Nope.  I couldn’t.  But the other birders could…


Aside from the birds, I saw some pretty neat wildflowers.  These included purple fringed orchids and a purple fringed +ragged fringed orchid hybrid.  Another unusual flower was called Marsh grass of Parnassus.  It is not actually a grass but a fen dwelling flower that is threatened in WI and declining in MN.  I also learned that a lily that I had been calling Turk’s cap lily is actually called Michigan Lily (the former is found further south).  We saw some Michigan lilies as well as a black-eyed susan with a goldenrod crab spider perched on a petal.  I would have liked to have gone on the wild flower walk, but after birding for three hours on two hours of sleep (I could not sleep!) I decided to head home.  I had some other social obligations on Saturday as well.  Nevertheless, I hope that next year I can participate in the Bio blitz again- hopefully partaking in other field trips.

Marsh grass of Parnassus

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Purple fringed orchid

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Day Two: Forest Lodge Trail

On International Bog Day itself I set off with Lucas and Adam for Cable WI.  I had read online that there is a bog north of Cable, WI that is supposed to be the best interpretative bog trail in Wisconsin.  This is a tall order, but I had high hopes for an exciting bog adventure with my comrades.  Unfortunately, I started the day off in a crabby mood.  It was another early morning and I felt stressed out.  My cellphone does not get very good reception in rural WI or rural anywhere.  I had some printed maps, but I was the driver and no one was keen on navigating.  I could have forced the issue, but ended up doing 98% of the navigating myself.  Oh well, I should be proud of usurping gender roles as both the driver AND navigator.  AND photographer.  AND planner.  Okay, so I became a bit of a Swamp Diva as the day progressed, as in the moment I could not find the joy in being so empowered.  Sorry guys.

A comrade

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There were some snags in our adventure.  For one, we hiked the trail, but did not see a bog board walk…as I had seen online.  The bog itself seemed pretty ho-hum.  It was a long drive for a bog and board walk that didn’t seem to exist and certainly not to the degree that I would call it the best in Wisconsin.   However, the trail itself was nice.  There was a variety of terrain and only one other pack of hikers.  As we tried to find the trail, we stopped by the Gormusch Resort- a bizarre German themed petite-bourgeoisie lake resort.  But, for all of our trials finding the trail and traveling the trail itself, we saw little more than a blanket of moss punctuated with swampy puddles.  (I later learned that there is an extended trail…and the bog walk must be off of that.  I also learned that the Natural History museum has trail booklets as the trail does not have posted information on signs).

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Despite a disappointing bog, our spirits were lifted by a visit to Cable.  Adam bought us brownies, which he called “bog cake” (even though he never knew I had wanted to bake a bog themed cake!).  I found two geocaches and endured some teasing for my dorky, pointless hobby.  Lucas went as far as to call it a petite bourgeois past time.   The Natural History museum was closed, but we vowed to return and see it.  Otherwise, we also paid a short visit to a community farm, where we were impressed by the resources that the community had put into developing a farm wherein the produce was donated to local food shelves.   We decided to return to Cable again and set off to find the legendary Delta Diner.  This is where my Swamp Diva nature climaxed.  I was not paying close enough attention and had to back track twice.  I cursed and grumbled about my inability to find the Delta Diner, which seemed to be the Brigadoon of restaurants.  We eventually found it.  Had I been more patient and attentive this would not have been an issue.  As for the diner, it was a hipster oasis on rural WI.   Interestingly, the diner has a no-tip policy as the prices are inflated 20% to make certain that the staff make a living wage.  Despite my tantrum about getting turned around, I did enjoy the experience of eating there AND I did see a family of trumpeter swans along the way. Image may contain: outdoor, water and nature


Finally, we set off back towards Superior.  I was in better spirits.  We stopped by the old King’s? school and a marsh off of HWY 13.  We went for another short hike.  I did some more birding while Adam and Lucas hid in the bushes, pretending to ambush me or something.  I think they were planning military strategies.  In order to get Lucas more engaged in the birding I told him it would be useful for “the revolution.”  After all, it would improve his skills as spotting something unusual in the landscape, such as a bomb, mine, or sniper.  I have zero sense of what is a useful “revolutionary skill”, but it seemed to work.  Finally, we stopped by the Davidson windmill where I finally found my geocache (that I could not find before).  Adam and Lucas wearily rested in the grass while I searched around the windmill.   I also tried to convince Lucas that geocaching is a useful revolutionary skill, as it can help us become better at hiding and finding messages or packages.  However, it seems there is a limit to how well I can pitch my hobbies as “useful to the revolution” before my manipulations become obvious.   All and all, I had a fun day.  I exhausted my poor comrades though.

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Day Three: Savanna Portage and Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge-

Although my first two days of International Bog Day celebrations were rather exhausting, I didn’t feel that I had my fill of bogs.  After all, I had yet to see a carnivorous plant and the Cable bog was a little lackluster.  I mustered my strength for one final bog slog.  However, I decided that camping was too much effort.  So, I went on a day trip to Savanna Portage State park and the Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge.  I nixed the camping, since packing, setting up a tent, and sleeping outside seemed overly ambitious.

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I visited Savanna Portage State Park back in March, so I knew it had a decent bog walk.  I was eager to see it in the summer, so I set off for a hiking and birding adventure.  This turned out to be worth the drive, as once again, the park was pretty empty.  It is nice to go somewhere and feel alone.  I only met one other person on the trails, though a few people were there for canoeing and fishing.  The first order of business was checking out the bog walk.  This time, it was alive with vegetation.  I saw what I thought was an unusual orchid, but it turned out that it was actually the flower of the pitcher plant.  I never new that pitcher plants had flowers!  I always thought that the pitcher plant was simply a pitcher shaped trap for insects.  I was enamored with the elegant, nodding green and purple flower on a slender stem.   The usual suspects, like cotton sedge, sphagnum moss, and Labrador tea also blanketed the bog in green. Image may contain: flower, plant, nature and outdoor

Pitcher perfect!


After enjoying the bog, I walked around Lake Shumway.  It seemed daunting to walk the perimeter of the lake, but it turned out to be a relatively short hike.  Along the way, I saw what I thought was a hairy woodpecker.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was actually a yellow bellied sapsucker.   I think it was worth taking a second look simply because it will help me to pay closer attention to details and become a better birder.  After finishing the trek around the lake, I went on another short hike alone the Continental Divide Trail.  Water to the west of the trail flows into the Mississippi River, whereas water to the east flows into Lake Superior.  Again, it was nice to have the trail to myself.  I definitely want to return to this state park in the fall and do some camping as it is quickly becoming one of my favorite state parks.  It has nice trails, a quiet atmosphere, an awesome bog, and patchwork of lakes.

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As a grand finale of the day, I went birding at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  I had planned on visiting my mother in the evening, but ended up staying at the refuge until sunset.  The refuge contains lakes, forests…and bogs.  It also is also a historically and culturally important area to Native Americans, who have inhabited the area since at least 1000 BC.  Rice Lake, as the name suggests, is a source of wild rice, which is still harvested from the lake by local Ojibwe.  On a previous visit last spring, there were Native Americans harvesting maple syrup at the refuge.   I saw quite a few birds on my visit, including common loons, Great blue herons, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, unidentified fly catchers, eastern kingbird, belted kingfishers, common yellow throats, etc.  Once again, I was the only person in the entire nature area.  It was liberating to explore the refuge in the joy and solitude of my own company.   The park closes at sunset, so I reluctantly left it behind and began the drive home. Image may contain: bird, sky, outdoor and nature

Eastern kingbird

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I had a fun, if not exhausting, three days.  Oddly enough, I spent today birding and hiking as well.  Tomorrow, I will return to work (though, I won’t get bogged down by the stress should it arise).  But, I feel that I have spent almost all of my time off in the outdoors.  Summer is precious and short, so I don’t regret this marathon of bogs and hikes.  As for bogs, I think they are worth celebrating.  For one, bogs have really unique plants!  As a child, I wanted to become a botanist- so bogs naturally interested me because they were home to carnivorous plants and orchids.  Tamarack trees are also common in bogs!  What’s not to love about a  deciduous conifer tree or a tree that sheds its needles and grows them back! Heather is a type of bog plant, so, even my name has a bog connection.  Although bogs are rich in peat, or layers upon layers of dead, slowly decomposed vegetation, they are acidic and oxygen poor-resulting in interesting adaptations for the plants that live there (such as carnivorous plants or stunted growth).   Bogs are important carbon sinks (though as frozen bogs thaw or peat is burned, the carbon is released) and soak up water, thereby preventing floods.  Culturally, bogs have been important as a source of fuel (peat) but also used to store food and a treasure trove of archaeological information (i.e. bog bodies).  While I certainly have a lot more to learn about bogs, I think that they are a fragile and unique ecosystem that deserve appreciation.

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Not a Happy Camper

Not a Happy Camper

H. Bradford

7/15/17

Back in May, I went on a short camping trip at Wild River State Park to enjoy International Migratory Bird Day.  I enjoyed this little adventure, as it gave me the opportunity to do some birding and hiking.  Well, I thought that it would be a good idea to do another little camping trip.  I have some post-travel blahs and this would be a way to enjoy nature.  To combat these blahs and take advantage of my time off, decided that I would head to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park for a little camping adventure.  As it turns out, it was a miserable time!

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The Plague of Traffic:

Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is about two hours from Duluth and located in an area steeped with Native American history.   The earliest signs of human settlement in Minnesota are found in the Mille Lacs area.  As for the lake itself, it is the second largest inland lake in Minnesota.   Like many state parks, I haven’t visited it, so it was another incentive to visit the area.  Thus, I set off for a short adventure.  It was raining when I left Superior, but the forecast indicated that the rain would stop.  It didn’t.  Most of my drive involved driving in the rain.  I took my time since there was no point arriving in the rain.  The rain did eventually stop, but I did not predict the enormous traffic jam by Mille Lacs Lake (which seems odd to say Lacs Lake, since it is “lake lake”).  It has probably been over a decade and a half since I was out by Mille Lacs and even then, it was never for anything tourist related.  The towns dotting the giant lake only have a few hundred people, yet, I was stuck in traffic for an hour as trucks with boats tried to merge into one lane.  I watched time pass by.  I watched the lake.  I felt annoyed by the mass of fishermen and women who were scrambling to return to the Twin Cities.  I also felt annoyed with myself for choosing to camp on a Sunday (when everyone else is returning home from the weekend).  Considering the throngs of traffic, it is no surprise that the lake is empty of walleye (well, that and climate change warming the lakes). DSCF7140DSCF7152DSCF7183DSCF7186


The Plague of Flies:

After suffering through the traffic, I set up my tent.  Despite the crowded herd of slow moving trucks, the park itself was nearly deserted.  There were very few campers in the park that night.  This was encouraging.  I decided that I would spend several hours hiking, so I went to the trail center and picked a trail that looped around one of the lakes in the park.  I immediately found that the trail was rather muddy and infested with swarms of flies.  The flies surrounded my head, buzzing loudly and getting tangled in my hair.  I picked out pieces of dead flies from my hair, swatting the others who seemed equally determined to meet their death in the snarls of my black and blue tresses.  It occured to me that perhaps I could use my super duper DEET 100 to deter them.  So, I doused myself in DEET.  The DEET was so concentrated that it took the nail polish off my nails.  I suppose this provides makeshift beauty advice.  While camping, DEET can be used to take the varnish off your nails.  While it removed my nail polish, it did not remove the flies.  The flies seemed completely indifferent to the chemical stench wafting from my body.  I even sprayed a handkerchief with DEET and wore it on my head.  The flies did not care in the least.  This cut my hike short.

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Not pictured: a plague of flies.

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(What could possibly go wrong?)

 


Instead of hiking, I made a detour to climb a fire tower.  I figured that if I couldn’t hike, I could at least climb up the tower.  This was a good challenge for me, since I really hate heights.  And, I actually had to tell myself out loud to keep going up after I was above the tree tops.  I focused on looking up and made it to the top without incident.  Though, on the way up I imagined getting stuck up there…too afraid to go back down.  Since I was all alone, it would begin my new life.  My new life on top of the fire tower.  It was completely fine.  The view from the top allowed me to see Mille Lacs Lake and several of the lakes in the park.   I felt a little accomplished. DSCF7119 DSCF7115 DSCF7122


After clambering down the fire tower, I thought I would take a short hike on the Interpretive Trail.  The flies continued to harass me, but at least I was distracted by the various signs about the history of the park.  It was interesting to learn that many of the campsites in the state park were places were Native American villages or camping sites were also located.  The park also contains burial or ceremonial mounds that date back to 3000 BC.  The park is filled with archeological sites, including the remnants of settler homesteads.   It was also interesting to learn about the ecological history of the park.  From about 300 BC to the late 1800s, the area was dominated by white pine.   The white pine forests were ended in less than 50 years with the arrival of white settlers and logging companies.  Deeper in history, the park was Oak Savanna, Aspen, and other variations of forests.   The park was at the edge of the glaciers of the last ice age, which carved out the lakes of the area.   Another highlight of the trail was seeing a catbird.  I heard a strange, crying noise from the bushes and spotted the catbird tucked into the foliage.

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  The Rain:

Since my hikes were thwarted by flies, I decided that I would venture out of the park back to the town of Garrison.  It would offer me the opportunity to take some photos of Mille Lacs Lake and explore some landmarks.  This went wonderfully.  I enjoyed the evening taking photos of the lake and watching some purple martins catch insects by a boat landing.  I even saw an immature eagle in a dead tree.  I watched the birds and lake until near sunset. Little did I know, that back in the park, it had rained.  The glossy pavement as I approached the park was a sign of the isolated shower.  I wasn’t worried, as my tent…should be water proof.  This would have been the case but part of the flysheet on the backside of the tent was not pulled down far enough.  Somehow this tiny slit had let a deluge of water into my tent.  I was astonished by the lake that had formed in my tent, soaking my sleeping bag and forming puddles on one side.  Thankfully, I had two emergency blankets in my car.  I was also thankful that I had a spare towel in my car as well.  I sopped up the soggy mess, but was not happy. DSCF7189DSCF7188DSCF7179


I went on to make a fire, where I sat and journaled.  I also spent some time reading various articles on a Marxist critique of Intersectionality.  I will try to write up my thoughts on these articles on a future blog.  Writing and reading restored by sense of peace.  I decided that I would devote several hours to hiking the next day and studied the map to see which trail I would chose.  There was something peaceful and restorative about taking time to delve into those articles.  I stayed up late, took a shower, admired the nearly full moon, then headed into my moist tent.  Yes, it wasn’t perfectly dry.  Sopping up the water had made it moist at best.

 

 


Then I sat there, tossing and turning, bumping elbows with something wet.  I pushed my soggy sleeping bag into the corner.  I stared up at the ceiling of the tent.  It rained again.  Even when it didn’t rain, the forest sounded like 1,000 leaky faucets.  I felt that somehow the moisture outside had penetrated by bones, making me feel chilled and uneasy.  The raindrops continued to pound the tent, drop by slow, torturous drop.  When it became clear that I wasn’t going to sleep, I took a Tylenol PM.  I hate taking these because they have been connected to dementia.  But, they work very well.  I dozed off and slept.  The next morning I continued sleeping.  I slept and slept…and slept some more…missing the opportunity to hike.


When I finally forced myself to get motivated, I decided the adventure was done.  My tent was still wet on the outside.  I packed it up, picking off a few slugs.  I felt wet and dirty putting everything away.  I had a feminist meeting later in the day anyway, so I was okay just leaving the park.  I was disappointed, but there were some highlights.  I enjoyed the fire and my time reading and writing.  I enjoyed my encounters with birds.  I can add purple martin to my life list, as I have not seen one since I started birding about two years ago.  I enjoyed climbing the tower.  So, even though I wasn’t a happy camper, I didn’t regret my mini-adventure.

 

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

H. Bradford

7-13-17

I was excited to travel to Turkmenistan.  I had read that there are only 9,000 tourists who visit the country each year.  By comparison, over 100,000 tourists travel to North Korea annually.   Of course, comparisons to North Korea are abundant on travel websites.  The idea of traveling to such a mysterious place filled me with fear and excitement.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Some travel websites warned that tourists had been denied visas upon arrival or faced harassment from the police.  Documentaries about Turkmenistan (from Niyazev’s rule) made it seem like a bizarre country where in women could not wear makeup on television, video games, opera, and the circus were banned, everyone had to get off the streets by 11 pm, and government officials were made to go on grueling marches once a week to ensure their health.  These kinds of stories made me worried that something might go wrong.  I began to feel real anxiety as my trip approached, as I would be spending a few days in Ashgabat alone before joining the group I would be traveling with.   If Ashgabat was truly like Pyongyang, as some websites suggested, it was a worrisome thought.  I was afraid that I might accidentally break a law.  The fear was unfounded.  The visit to Turkmenistan went beautifully.  Still, during my time there, I reflected on my privilege and my desire to see strange places.  Thus, this post is about both my experience in Turkmenistan but also the dark urges and privileges of a tourist.


The unusual nature of Turkmenistan began with my flight.  The flight from Frankfurt to Ashgabat made a stop in Baku.  I had never been on a flight that stopped to let off passengers before.  The plane landed and to my surprise, let off almost all of the passengers on the plane.  When we continued from Baku to Ashgabat, there were probably less than six people on the flight.  All of these six people were foreign tourists.  It was bizarre to be among the few remaining passengers and that all of us were foreign.   Foreign travel is somewhat restricted in Turkmenistan, as in order to travel the country a tourist must have a local guide and a letter of invitation.   However, tourists are able to travel to Ashgabat on their own without a guide.  As for locals, the economy of Turkmenistan is built upon oil and gas.  There is a wide gap between the very few rich and poor, with an unemployment rate of about 60%.   Poverty is almost certainly one of the reasons there was no one from Turkmenistan on my flight.  As for myself, I had a letter of invitation and a local guide accompanied our tour through Turkmenistan.  Thus, I breezed through customs without incident.  However, I arrived late (at midnight) and was one of very few people at the airport.  This meant that my bag was inspected for a long time.  After it was put through the x-ray machine, several workers sifted through my belongings.  They studied each medication, opened them, looked at the contents of each bottle.  They also took special interest in my snacks, making commentary to each other about my belongings.   I suppose they might have been bored.  I think my snacks were probably disappointing.  As for the thorough inspection of my medicine, opiate drugs are banned in the country, even with a prescription so I can only assume they were looking for banned medication.


Once I passed through customs and the baggage inspection, I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay and that I’d worked myself up watching too many documentaries or reading travel horror stories.  I was met by the local tour guide and driven back to the Ak Altyn Hotel.  By then, I was sleepy from my 20+ hours of airports and flights.  So, I barely paid attention to the city.  I dreamily looked back at the airport, a giant white structure shaped like a bird.  I also took note that there were other cars on the road, despite the 11 pm curfew.  I was informed that shops close by 11pm and also warned not to smoke outdoors (as it was illegal…though I don’t smoke anyway), but there were no other immediate signs of dictatorship.


The following day, I decided I would set out by myself and explore the city.  A few other tourists from the group arrived, but I gave them a cold welcome.  I was more interested in my own agenda of seeing the city than getting to know my future travel companions.  So, with a guidebook, map, and to do list, I set out walking.  I decided to walk because the buses seemed confusing (as there was no central map of routes).  It was hot.  I was disoriented at first and spent some time walking the wrong direction.  When I found my bearings, I turned around and set off for the statue of Lenin.  It was located about an hour or so walk from my hotel, provided one does not get turned around.  My walking brought me to a random amusement park with rides, a Japanese garden, and dinosaur statues.  People seemed to be having fun, though each few blocks seemed punctuated by a police officer.   Some meandered through the parks as well.  It seemed that despite the 60% unemployment rate, there was no shortage of police jobs or jobs sweeping or cleaning the many monuments.   Still, the city did not really feel like Pyongyang at all.  The fact that I could travel freely and solo, made it seem very different.  And, after wandering the streets alone for two days, I was only approached once by a police officer.  When it happened, my heart began to race, but…it was only to check the time.


Once I found Lenin, I spent several hours exploring other monuments and parks.  Lenin was only important because of my politics…but also because Turkmenistan has sought to distance itself from its Communist past.  Although Niyazov was a communist leader during the Soviet Union and his party was the reincarnation of the communist party after the Soviet Union collapsed, the iconography of communism as well as remnants of Russian colonization have been dismantled.   The Turkmen script was changed from Cyrillic and statues and images of Marx and Lenin were replaced with the images of Niyazov.  The guiding ideology of the nation was set forth in the Ruknama, a book by Niyazov on the history of the Turkmen people and himself.   Gas revenues were invested into creating a showpiece capital.  Thus, almost all of the buildings in Ashgabat are new and made of Russian and Italian marble.  The city is full of well kept parks and monuments.  It really is unique.  Still, despite the changes, a statue of Lenin remains…not far from the American embassy, in a less visited park.

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I spent the day visiting parks and viewing buildings.  Towards the end of the day, I visited the National Museum of Fine Art.  I was the only tourist in the three story building.  The staff seemed surprised to see me.  This was a common occurrence in Ashgabat.  The museum was filled with interesting Turkmen and Soviet art, such as giant carpets.  There were images of rivers, workers, giant melons, tractors, and happy people with musical instruments.  On the way back to my hotel, I wandered through Inspiration Alley, a park of various statues of Muslim scholars.  They were unfamiliar men, owing to my lack of knowledge of Muslim history.  The history is so foreign to me, it is hard to imagine that Al-Zamakhshari or Abu-Biruni might be household names and that not knowing them would be the same as ignorance of Einstein, Shakespeare, or Newton. Image may contain: sky and outdoor


The following day, I set off to visit the Botanical Garden, as I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to watch birds.  The Botanical Garden was closed.  This is a theme of my life.  When I went to Minsk the garden was closed.  When I went to Bishkek, I also found that the botanical garden was closed.  I feel that I somehow have very bad luck with botanical gardens.  Anyway, I instead visited the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral.  It was a very hidden and modest orthodox cathedral.  I didn’t stay long as it was hosting a service.  Later I visited a bazaar and did some more walking, revisiting some sites I had seen the other day.   I was approached by two Russian speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I was actually curious to talk to them (for the first time ever), but our conversation was cut short by two police officers and I was quick to walk away.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are illegal in Turkmenistan.  In all, the city is quite large and spread out, so I found it impossible to see some of the major sites by foot.  These had to wait until my tour actually began, as we were promised a sight seeing tour by bus and a night time tour to see the city lights.


The bus tours offered a wide array of strange sights.  We saw the largest indoor Ferris wheel in the world, the Arch of Neutrality, and the largest fountain in the world.  Once again, it is unsettling that the largest fountain in the world is in a country that is 80% desert!  The Ashgabat fountain is guarded by stern statues of the ancestors of the Turks: Orguz Khan and his sons.  We even passed by the Walk of Health, where government workers were expected to trek the 23 mile path through the Kopet Dag mountains once a year.  Perhaps the grand finale of the eccentric was a visit to the Turkmenbashi Mosque.  The mosque holds the remains of Niyazev and his family (his mother and brothers died in the 1948 earthquake that struck the city).  It also features quotes from the Ruhnama on the walls of the mosque and the eight pointed star.  The eight points represent the eight pillars of Islam.  Niyazev added three more pillars to Islam, including reading his book and visiting local holy sites in Turkmenistan.  These revisions were not welcomed by Saudi Arabia and consequently, Wahhabism is also banned in Turkmenistan.  We revisited the city later in the evening, when every building was lit up and the city looked like Las Vegas. Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor


All of this probably sounds pretty astonishing.  I thought it was astonishing.   Although Niyazev is dead and some of his monuments have been shuffled around, the country is still considered one of the most repressive countries in the world (by Human Rights Watch for instance).   Yet, as a tourist, it was…well, fascinating.  My detached position from it all and speaks to my privilege.   I believe that when we travel, we consume the exotic.   In Turkmenistan, it was the experience of dictatorship and the legacy of Niyazev.  If we consume the odd food or threat of danger, we can take on the qualities of the fearless or the bizarre.  Just as the flamingo becomes pink from eating crustaceans and algae, the traveler consumes experiences to become something more colorful.  As travelers, our privilege allows us to migrant from experiences.  We are not mired in the same realities of oppression.  When a tourist goes to jail or becomes very ill, the reality of the world returns.  This painful reality is framed as shocking.  It is framed as a bad travel experience.  Anything that is too real or too inescapable is not travel…it is a crisis or tragedy!  Hence, the case of Otto Warmbier in North Korea or Bakari Henderson, who was recently killed in Greece after taking a selfie…are not viewed as part of the travel spectrum.  Travel should be cushioned from the world’s harshest realities.

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Perhaps the exotic should be made normal.  In Turkmenistan, it may seem exotic that drivers are fined for having dirty cars.  But, are our own laws any more rational?  The fundamental assumption behind both is that laws exist and breaking them results in state administered punishment.  An alien might find little difference between the marbled fantasy land of Ashgabat and the red carpet of Hollywood or neon glow of Las Vegas.  One was built as a dictator’s legacy, the others built upon a similar fantasy of wealth and beauty.   The weird mosque of Turkmenbashi is only unusual because “legitimate” religion must be at least a few hundred years old.  But, these too were created by individuals and interpreted by other individuals until they were made normal by legitimizing power structures.  The excess seen in Ashgabat…with giant fountains and white marble statue are no more heinous than the same excess that is commonplace in advanced capitalist countries.  What about our giant malls, thousands of Walmarts and McDonald’s, and mountains of garbage?  Turkmenistan is a country smaller than Spain with a GDP that is smaller than Croatia’s, Lithuania’s, Kenya’s, and well….87 other countries and a population of less than five million.  Surely, even with its excess…the country has an ecological foot print far less than much of the world. Image may contain: sky


At the same time, differences do exist.  We are not all perfectly the same.  To glaze over difference by normalizing the strange, fails to recognize the social conditions which brought about a particular set of traits.  It is terrible that so much gas wealth was put into building the show case capital than building schools, hospitals, or housing.  It is also unfortunate that wealth and power in the country is concentrated into the hands of so few.  As for the social conditions that brought about Niyazev’s dictatorship, that is a long complicated story that I don’t have the time or knowledge to answer.   The political/economic development of the country…and the very existence of the country itself as a unique entity with a unified identity is a Soviet construction.  But, even this construction is a dialectical process as it was constructed in a world at odds with the Soviet Union.  Prior to this, its development was shaped by Russian imperialism- and that itself was shaped in reaction to British imperialism.  There are always bigger forces at play.  No dictatorship exists in a vacuum.

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Returning to privilege, to some degree, all travelers must exist in the fantasy land of their own ego.  My ego is hungry for experiences.  This is in part so I can patch together an identity that is not a disappointment to myself.  An identity that siphons as much living out of the world as possible.  The truth is, I am not wealthy and free.  I am oppressed.  I am a worker.  I will live and die like a billion humans whose stories will fade into the blurry memories of a few close friends or family members- before disappearing entirely.  In the grand scheme of things, I am not even here.  I never existed.  My importance is so minuscule, that for all practical purposes I am already dead.  Isn’t this the epitome of privilege?  Exerting what little power and freedom I have for the purpose of living selfishly?  The rest of the world be damned.  This is something all travelers do.  Many loath to return to work.  The most privileged don’t have to.  So, while we are privileged enough to enjoy some ego driven escapism, what are we escaping from?  For me, the gravity of wage slavery will always draw me back home.  Thus, I think my travels are fueled by escapism, ego, and existential crisis.  It is a combination that makes it hard for me to be perfectly mindful of my impact on the world and in this case, the wanton consumption of dictatorship.


So here I am.  Chronos eats its children.  Every human eats its reality when it becomes aware of its existential crisis.  Yet, we don’t all have the power and privilege to be titans.  Every titanic consumer is a blight on the environment, the lives of others, and the world around them.  There are moments when I am a titan.  But, usually I am just a proletarian.  I don’t know how to remedy this contradiction.  I love to travel.  I love a chance to get away.  When I am at home, I work very hard as an activist, worker, and human being.  I try to be engaged and mindful.  Then, when opportunity permits, I escape for a bit and consume piece of the world in the form of leisure and a particular form of selfish living.  I am hungry for the darkest, strangest bits.  Dictatorships, nuclear accidents, and spectacular tragedies.  Maybe there is a little cult of personality in each of us.

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