broken walls and narratives

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Travel and My Fears

 

Travel and My Fears

H. Bradford

5/21/17

I am getting ready for another trip and I feel a little afraid.  This time, I am traveling to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan for three weeks.  Like always, I will go alone, though I will meet up with a group of strangers after a few days in Ashgabat.  From there, we will embark on an overland camping trip through the stans.  When I first fantasized about the trip, I imagined the wonder of seeing the dehydrated remains of the Aral Sea.  I imagined myself following the Silk Road through ancient, exotic cities.  I would traverse the rugged formerly Soviet states, admiring mosques, monuments, and a few remaining statues of Lenin.  It seemed very intrepid.  All winter, the trip was abstract.  I read books about the history of the region.  But, now that the trip is less than two weeks away, a new reality is setting in.  I am going to have to bush camp in the desert with scorpions, cobras, and several days without a shower.  I am going to have to navigate Ashgabat alone as a solo female American traveler.  Turkmenistan gets a fraction of the tourists that North Korea gets each year (about 9,000 compared to 35,000).  I am also moderately terrified of contracting dysentery, typhus, or any number of food or waterborne diseases.  (I do have some antibiotics from last year’s trip and was vaccinated last year against a variety of illnesses).   Also, ATM use in those countries is unreliable, so, I will have to carry a lot of cash and hope it is enough for the duration of my trip…and that I don’t lose it or have it stolen.  Internet is somewhat patchy in those countries and my cellphone does not work out of the country.  I have faced that same dilemmas before and fared alright, but, it does make me a little worried.

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The Darvaza gas crater in the Karakum desert- one of the places where I will be “bush camping” in just over two weeks from now.


Fear is not new.  I’ve always been afraid of travel.  Usually, there is this brave person inside of me, who is full of fantasy and confidence.  That person decides on some adventure, which looks great as a portrait in my imagination, but is not as fun as a lived reality.  Let’s call that person “Brave H.” For instance, when I was 19 years old, I decided that I would go to London and Paris alone.  I came from a town of 250 people and had never been on an airplane or road in a taxi.  Go big or go home, Brave H. says…until I am actually trying to figure out how airports work, on my first plane ride, and going across the ocean.  In retrospect, it is really no big deal.  That sort of travel seems easy.  But, to 19 year old me, that was a pretty big deal.  Over fifty countries later, I am still afraid, but the fear changes with new challenges.


Last year, I went to Southern Africa for an overland camping trip in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.  As the plane took off, I was pretty terrified.  I was terrified before then.  I had never actually gone camping, but somehow Brave H. signed me up for three weeks of it…in Africa.  I was afraid of being alone.  I was afraid of being the victim of crime- sexual assault in particular.  I was afraid of becoming very ill.  I was afraid that I was not up to the challenge of camping or the long days on bumpy roads.  I was a little afraid of insects, snakes, and animals.  Somehow, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, it was wonderful, fun, and even much easier than I imagined.  It took a few days of camping to come to the conclusion that I was going to make it.  Any small hardship was more than compensated for in the form of astonishing landscapes and animals.

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(A view of Victoria Falls from a helicopter.  I had a lot of anxiety as I had never been in a helicopter before.  But, overcoming fear and anxiety does have its rewards).

I was afraid the year before when Brave H. decided it was a good idea to visit Belarus and Ukraine, entirely alone.  After all, Brave H. wanted to see Chernobyl.  Brave H. wanted to visit a nature reserve outside of Minsk and partake in the weird splendor of the Cold War remnant.  So, that is where I went.  I don’t regret it.  Kiev was really beautiful and there was so much to see.  Minsk was not really pretty at all, but unique.  Neither place was teeming with tourists, adding a sense of bravery to my adventure.  I only spent a few days in each place.  I think that traveling often has waves of fear.  For instance, there is the anxiety of getting from the airport to the hotel without being ripped off or taken advantage of by a taxi driver.  Upon arriving at the hotel, there is elation after overcoming the first challenge.  After that, there are anxieties around finding a currency exchange, navigating the metro system, walking alone in the park, the other individuals staying in the hostel, the mysterious military parade, getting turned around, trying to find the monument to Baba Yar, etc.  It is like this on every adventure.  The ups and downs of figuring things out and staying safe in unfamiliar places.

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I have felt at least a little afraid during each of my trips.  I don’t particularly like being afraid, but I do like the feeling of accomplishment from figuring something out or successfully completing a task or adventure.  I suppose it makes me feel stronger and braver.  Of course, this only serves to inspire Brave H.to dream up bigger adventures and greater challenges.  I am not a robust, energetic, extroverted adventurer.  I am cowardly.  I like books and birds.  I enjoy museums and botanical gardens. I don’t really care for being dirty, lonely, terrified, tired, or sick.  Brave H. won’t stand for that.  Nope.  Life is too short.  I want to see interesting things and test myself.  Granted, there are people who test themselves far more.  For instance, there was a woman in her 60s on my last trip who went scuba diving with alligators in the Zambezi river.  Brave H. wants to be her.   Normal, nerdy, cowardly H. does not like water or all the pressure from being under water.  The same woman climbed mountains and scuba dived all over the world.  She also traveled to the “Stans” for an overland trip.  I will never be one of those amazing adventurers that I meet when I am out traveling.  The ones who inspire Brave H. to concoct an adventure or dream of new challenges.  I will always be afraid.  As I test myself, the boundaries of the fear extends to the next horizon.  I hope that horizon takes me to interesting places.  Maybe I will trek up mountains (at least smaller ones that don’t require actual climbing gear).  Maybe I will learn to scuba dive.  Maybe I will never do those things.  Maybe there is a limit to how far the boundary can be pushed.  It may be limited by experiencing disease or a discomfort so great that it pushes me back into my comfort zone.  Whatever happens, it is my hope that I can one day be that old lady who inspires others with her fearlessness and zeal for life.

dscf4256Brave H. thinks she is a bad ass.   Well, maybe someday it will be true.

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Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

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Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

By Svetlana Alexeivich


This past April was the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Last August, I traveled to Chernobyl as part of a larger trip to Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden. While I don’t remember Chernobyl when it happened, I remember learning about it in elementary school and high school. Even at that young age, it captured my imagination. Really, it is hard to imagine it. As a child, I imagined some glittery cloud of poison spreading across Europe. As an adult, having been there, my imagination is even more stilted. It is warped by adventure, bragging rights, and voyeurism. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a necessary dose of lived experience. The book is a collection of interviews from survivors of Chernobyl. It is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. I am in awe of the immensity of the human suffering caused by this event.


The problem with being a tourist is that it experienced as an outsider and consumer. Experiences are packaged and devoured. While I certainly felt the gravity and horror of the Chernobyl disaster as an outsider and drew some lessons from the experience, I could only experience Chernobyl safely (relatively), for a short time, years later, and with the freedom and privilege of a traveler. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster provided me with more material for deeper reflection and understanding. To the people who contributed to the book’s narrative, Chernobyl was hellish. It deformed their babies. It ruined their relationships. It killed loved ones. It poisoned food. It killed painfully, often slowly and gruesomely. It destroyed beloved pets and livestock. It vacated villages and emptied lives. I knew all of this, but I really didn’t FEEL all of this. The book helped me to feel the suffering and desolation of the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the disaster.

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(Years later, it doesn't seem real.  It is a decaying world of lost things.)

There are a few themes that struck me or made me think a little more deeply. One very common theme was the sense that Chernobyl felt like war. This was because of the military’s role in evacuating villages, the use of military material, a sense of duty in cleaning or fighting the disaster, the mass dislocation of people, a lack of personal choice, leaving things behind, the and destruction of forests, animals, and villages. This made me think about how military or authoritative responses to disasters impact the psyche of a people. Even when natural disasters happen in the United States, it is not uncommon that the National Guard would be dispatched. But, this pairing of disasters with the military must have some psychological impact on people. Perhaps we like to think of this as a benign role for the military, but it is still a display of military power, imagery, and authority. What does it mean to be at war with a disaster? At war with nature? Can governments muster a less militant response? To what degree is authority necessary for public safety?


Another theme from the book was the reproductive consequences of radiation. One woman was told it was a sin to reproduce. Another had a child who was born with no vaginal, anal, urethral opening and other health issues. This required enormous care, endless surgeries, frustration, and hopelessness. I believe I read that Chernobyl resulted in 200,000 abortions in Belarus. Many women had children with severe disabilities. Some women had miscarriages as their fetus took on radiation. All of this amounts to tremendous suffering. Those who chose to have children often had enormous challenges, disappointments, and death. Many women could not have children. Others chose not to. But these are all choiceless choices wherein no one has the agency to make the “right” choice. There is no right choice. There is endless, demoralizing, sickness and suffering. Men were also impacted by the disaster, as they were mobilized as soldiers, pilots, liquidators, and firefighters. I learned in the book that one of the effects of radiation is erectile dysfunction. Discussing this was highly stigmatized, but impacted the relationship prospects of these men. Finally, children who survived or were born after grew up in an environment of death and sickness.

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Another theme was gender roles themselves. The men who were interviewed were stoic and dutiful, if not somewhat fatalistic and nihilistic. Men played an important role in containing the disaster and evacuating villages. If men were not bound by duty and suppressed emotions, they would not be so easily mobilized into self-sacrificing heroics. The men saw themselves as robots. They were like robots, as they literally replaced the malfunctioning robots who failed to remove graphite rods from the roof of the reactor.   Certainly this was an important task, but it was a sentence to a painful, miserable, grotesque death. We make men into robots so they can fight wars, shoot “criminals,” guard prisons, break strikes, and do all of the other violent dirty work that society requires. Sometimes these robots malfunction and strike the women, children, and animals that society deems that they should not. Yet, society does not care of this violence is unleashed against foreigners and “bad guys” (often Muslims and African Americans).


Animals were often discussed. After the disaster, soldiers killed every animal in the exclusion zone, from cows to cats to foxes. Those who were evacuated and some who remained told stories of beloved cats and dogs that they left behind. The soldiers who killed the animals viewed it as a job, but unpleasant none the less. The animals were feared to be radioactive and thus capable of spreading radiation. So, they were killed. In a way, killing pets and livestock represented killing the remnants of civilization. Some animals escaped and became feral, but even the feral animals represented the human life and activity that once was. It was a connection to the former humanity the land. In the absence of humans, wild animals returned. To those who stayed behind, the wild animals seemed a bit fiercer. This might be imagined, but in this vision, the violence and destruction of nature made the animals mean.


Hopelessness was another theme. There is no justice. There is no one to blame. The Soviet Union is gone. The Soviet Union could be blamed for responding slowly, for secrecy, for lying to people, for building less safe reactors, and for instilling in people faith in nuclear energy. But, what happened cannot be undone. People live with the consequences. The magnitude of the problem would have been daunting to any country. Any country would have had to sacrifice human beings in the heroics of stopping the disaster. Again, the wiggle room for choices is small. The faith in nuclear energy and the naivety of people is the most tragic. In the first day after the disaster, children played and people marveled at a nuclear fire! Fisherman experienced an atomic tan, none the wiser that they were killing themselves. The juggernaut of ignorance resulted in a lot of cancer. Then, I think of the greatest disaster we face today: CLIMATE CHANGE! Like radiation, it is hard to see climate change. At ground zero of melting ice caps, not so much. But for most of us, we don’t see it or don’t want to see it. So, there is this disaster of global proportions. A disaster greater than Chernobyl. Yet, governments are just as slow to respond. Worse, society propagates the naïve belief that it can be stopped by green consumerism and within the framework of capitalism. In the face of grand human suffering, the destruction of nations, the extinction of life…we are fisherman with a nuclear tan. This is not to blame people themselves. But, I think that the same mechanisms that resulted in a slow response to Chernobyl operate quite well in the face of many disasters. Why? Responses are hard. They are scary. They require resources and restructuring. They require vulnerability. They require informed people. They require things that undermine the power of those in power. It is easier to ignore, minimize, hope for the best, or hope no one notices. At least that it what I thought when considering this aspect of the Soviet response.


A good book is a book that makes me think.   It is rare for a nonfiction book to make me both think and feel. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a great read. It adds to my understanding of Chernobyl and has given me a lot to consider.

My Chernobyl Reaction

The highlight of my recent trip to Europe was a visit to Chernobyl.  I was attracted by the idea of going there out of an interest in history, science, and tragedy.  The idea of entering an “exclusion zone” something so dangerous and exclusive also had a certain appeal.  Before going, I did my best to research the safety and weigh the risks of radiation exposure.  The information on this matter is variable.  However, my impression is that scientific measures of radiation at the sites are variable.  Thus, exposure can be variable.  While some areas, such as the amusement park in Pripyat may average 5 microsieverts of radiation per hour, a particular patch of moss or an individual tree may register as more.  Any amount of radiation increases cancer risks, but since the average exposure (considering that particularly irradiated parts of the environment are avoided) was less than an international flight, I figured it was safe enough to venture there for a day trip.  As such, the journey began with a two hour van ride to Kiev.  Outside of the city, the landscape becomes a collection of villages.  Mismatched homes with corrugated metal roofs are squeezed close to each other, set amidst fields of hay, sunflowers, and wheat.  These villages and fields punctuate an otherwise forested environment of tall pines and thick birches.  This forest was thick and ancient looking.  The villages themselves seemed frozen in time, with little economy but farms and perhaps timber.  Yet, they were connected to Kiev by bus stations.

As we neared Chernobyl, the sense that things were frozen in time only deepened. (I traveled to Chernobyl through Solo East as a day trip.)  At the 30 km exclusion zone, we were met by a military check point. The soldiers at the check point checked the tours paperwork and our passports, then we were allowed to continue.  Actually, about 6,000 people work within the exclusion zone.  One elderly woman lives within the exclusion zone, cut off from electricity, buses, and society-though the rest of the workers commute or stay at a hotel in Chernobyl.  With that said, the exclusion zone isn’t exactly a ghost town as soldiers continue to work there.  The reactors that did not melt down continued to operate through the 1990s with the last one closing in 2006.  In any event, we continued towards the 10 km exclusion zone, making a stop at a military base once used for missile detection and an abandoned kindergarten.  There was a second check point at the 10 km exclusion zone, where once again paperwork was checked.  I looked for signs of a sickened earth, but aside from the abandoned and rusted remnants of humanity, the forests seemed healthy and thick.  There was a tranquility as schools, bus stops, and a base slowly disappeared into a voracious forest.  The forest gave way to a field.  The road curved and suddenly I saw lakes (cooling ponds) and several reactors.  A 5th reactor was nearly operational at the time of the disaster and a 6th one was being constructed.  Like everything else, the reactors were frozen in time (or in a state of decay).  Among them was reactor 4, entombed in a silvery gray cement sarcophagus.  This was breath taking.

Tens of thousands of workers were deployed to stop the spread of radiation.  10,000 miners were extracted from all over the Soviet Union, put to work digging a tunnel under reactor 4.  The fear was that molten radioactive material would cause a second explosion as it seeped into the ground (potentially meeting water trapped under the reactor).  Lead was dumped onto the reactor and robots could not withstand the radiation from irradiated graphite rods.  Soldiers had to do the work that robots could not so that the reactor could be sealed.  The sarcophagus had to be built offsite and assembled like a puzzle, fitting together perfectly.  This assembly consisted of 30 min shifts, as any longer would result in deadly doses of radiation.  Thus, the containment of the disaster cost human lives, labor, and health on a scale that is impossible to imagine.  I stood outside of reactor 4, in awe of the horror, labor, and history of containment.  The sarcophagus will soon be replaced.  The next one will have to be replaced in another 100 years.  Like this, humanity will have to attend to containment for generations.   The radiation reading on a Geiger counter was 6 micro Sieverts.  The highest reading during the trip was a nearby forest (the red forest).  The red forest has since been bulldozed and buried (with growth of a new forest).  Still, the new forest registered 16 microsieverts (with only a minute or two of exposure).

Near the reactors were cooling ponds.  The ponds were once used to raise catfish, as these fish could withstand the higher temperature water.  This seemed resourceful.  The fish have since been abandoned and now flourish in the pools. Some are as large as children.

Beyond the reactors and forest was Pripyat.  It was a model town built in the 1970s for reactor workers.  It seemed like a place of hope and relative prosperity, with such luxuries as a super market, swimming pool, stadium, hotel, coffee shop, and tree lined streets.  Trees have overtaken much of the city.  The crumbling remains of the community are hidden in a forest.  A soccer field has turned entirely into a forest.  An amusement park set to open on May Day rusts to ruin.  The city is empty.  The evacuated populace can return once a year.  As a tourist, I was very privileged, as I could pay to spend the day there…given special rights over those who once lived there.  I entered apartments and a school and stepped over cracked sidewalks.  Weather, time, and trees have damaged most of the structures.  The city was liquidated five times (given new pavement, cleaned, radioactive dust removed).  There was an early hope that people could return, but the despite the efforts it is not habitable and likely won’t be for 20,000 years.

Reaction: I love travel that challenges me and makes me think.  Chernobyl raises many questions.  The first is of course the question of nuclear energy.  I think standing in the center of catastrophe you can see very clearly the danger of when something goes amiss.  When things go wrong with nuclear energy- they go very wrong- and for a very long time.  Despite the failings of the Soviet Union in reporting this disaster, great effort went into containing it.  This raises another question.  What should be done when disaster strikes?  The people of Pripyat were not given a choice.  They were lied to and made to leave.  This made the evacuation fairly swift (busing people out in a day or so).  Authoritarian power was used to move people and to have people clean up the mess.  How would the U.S have done things differently?  Would poor and elderly people be left behind?  Would poor people and people of color be made to clean up the mess because of the choiceless choices of capitalism?  Would there be more transparency and choice?  When terrible things happen, how can governments act quickly and efficiently without coercion?  Then there is the question of tourism and myself.  What are the ethics of traveling to such places?  It is a place that is closed to former residents, but not tourists.  I was brought there by curiosity and adventure, certainly hedonistic consumption of experiences.  I find it meaningful and interesting, but how can one visit such a place and still respect as more than just a tourist attraction?  It is hardship and tragedy.  Anyway, more than my other travels this year it raised many important questions.

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