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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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Asleep on the Deserted Sea

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

H. Bradford

7/1/17

One of the draws of travel to Central Asia was the opportunity to visit where the Aral Sea once was.  I learned about the Aral Sea eons ago.  It was one of the few things I remember reading in my “Weekly Reader” as a first or second grader.  I am sure that I have learned about the Aral Sea in every environmentally focused science class since.  Decades have passed since the sunny autumn days at Wright Elementary School, but the sea continues to disappear.   I believe that the sea was about 40% of its original volume when I was in the first grade.  Today it is less than 10% of its original volume.   I was told by a fellow traveler that the sea continues to shrink by a yard each day.   Really, it is sad to think about the death of a sea.  Living next to Lake Superior (the second largest lake in the world by area to the Caspian Sea), it is hard to imagine a giant body of water just disappearing.   It would be as if in a few decades, someone from Duluth would have to drive to Marquette, Michigan to see the shoreline of Lake Superior.   While I did not spend a long time visiting what was once the Aral Sea, the sea shaped several days of my trip.

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My trip began in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a city lush with trees and fountains.  The many fountains and white marble create the illusion of serenity and coolness in the midst of the punishing heat of the Karakum Desert.  The miracle of endless water for fountains, well watered trees, and shiny clean cars and buildings is made possible by the Karakum Canal.  The 850 mile canal was built by the Soviet Union to divert water from the Amu Darya River to the hungry fields and cities of Turkmenistan.   Apparently 50% of the water the passes through the canal vanishes to evaporation.  Still, the canal is large enough to be navigated by boat for most of its length.  Ashgabat requires its own blog post, but suffice to say that my journey to the Aral Sea began with a visit to a water hungry and water wasteful city in the desert.  The city served as a brush stroke in the painting of a vanished sea.

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Between Ashgabat and Uzbekistan, there was little water at all, spare a salty lake en route to the Darvaza Gas crater.   However, as we neared the border with Uzbekistan, the landscape began to change.  The sandy, white blonde desert morphed into a less arid desert made of sage scrub.  This gave way to fields and trees along the legendary Amu Darya River.  Beyond this, hours along bumpy roads brought us closer to the sea itself, or where the sea once was.  We stopped at Moynaq, which was once a fishing town on the Aral Sea.  The fishing and canning industry in Moynaq employed over 30,000 people at its peak.  Art at the Savitsky Museum in Nuukus depicted various scenes of Moynaq in its heyday.  Paintings of fishermen, burgeoning nets of fish, and pastel sunrises over the pier decorated the walls of the museum.   However, when I visited, the town seemed small and empty, with just a few thousand residents remaining.   There was nothing pretty, pastel, or burgeoning about Moynaq.  The city reportedly has high rates of cancer and respiratory disease from the polluted remains of the sea and all of the chemicals used to grow cotton and other things.  None of this was apparent from a brief visit.  The people did not roam about like zombies, but carried on like any other village or town we had visited.  My traveling companions munched on five cent ice cream bars from a shop with a hodgepodge of supplies.  We’d intended to visit a museum to the Aral Sea, but much like the sea and most of the people, the museum was gone when we arrived.

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At first I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any sign of the sea or anything unusual in the dusty town.  However, once we boarded the truck, we set off for a memorial to the sea and the sea bed itself.   Just up the road we came upon an expansive basin- an empty bowl of sand and brush that extended to the horizon.  It was a dramatic crater that spread over 200 kilometers to meet the muddy shoreline of the shrinking sea.  The rusty wrecks of ships dotted the landscape.   Cows trod along, stomping over grass, sand, and broken seashells.  When I finally saw it, I was impressed by the astonishing melancholy it invoked.  After somehow negotiating with the local police, we managed to camp in the ship graveyard.  This did not prevent the fire department from paying us a visit to check on our campfire.  Otherwise, the camping was without incident, spare the swarms of mosquitoes.  Camping in the sea bed was certainly surreal.  In an alternative history, it might have been a beach resort and in the near history, it was a way of life.  I couldn’t help but feel angry.  It has to be the worst thing that humans have done to the planet.  At the same time, it is a cautionary tale of what could happen if climate change is not stopped.  We will see the Aralization of the planet.

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Seeing the Aral Sea certainly made me angry at the Soviet Union for prioritizing cotton production over the environment.  Of course, it also made me angry at the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia for continuing to grow cotton…(and now rice!) at the expense of the sea.  It is a tragic loss for the planet.  The sea is only 24,000 years old, young in geological time, but it vanished in less than 50 years.  Of course, it is easy to blame the Soviet Union and post-Soviet countries.  Since I have no control over history and these countries are impoverished, it is hard to blame them for continuing what is cheap, easy, and provides income.  Thus, it raises the question of what I can do as an American.  Really, there is precious little I can do for the Aral Sea.  However, rather than blaming the Soviet Union or Central Asian countries, it is more useful to draw lessons from the Aral Sea which can be extended to current water use practices in the United States.   For instance, aquifers in the United States have been depleted by about 25% over the last century.   56,900 million gallons of water are used each day in the United States for irrigation.  32% of the depletion (over the last century) of the Ogallala Aquifer in particular occurred between 2001-2008.   Someday, we might look upon the loss of the Ogallala Aquifer as a tragedy like the Aral Sea…something entirely preventable, wasteful, and irreplaceable.   Corn (and beef fed by corn) could easily be our cotton, something that future generations will look upon as wasteful and too thirsty for the landscape.  The truth of the matter is that all countries pursue easy profits over environmental sustainability.  It is the nature of the system and dooms us to environmental catastrophe and economic instability.   One of the greatest ecological mistakes seems to be the assumption that resources are endless.  While we are drowsy, we consume too much water, too much oil, too many passenger pigeons or Greak auks.  So, while the Aral Sea is particularly sad, it should be a wake up call to continue to organize.

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The Politics of Travel to North Korea

The Politics of Travel to North Korea

H. Bradford

6/29/17

I was recently on a vacation.  During this time, I avoided social media and the internet in general.  I wanted a break from my life.  So, I didn’t get much news while I was away.  The only piece of news that I heard about while I was gone was that Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a vegetative state.  I didn’t even know that he had died until after I returned.  This news haunted me.  It was horrific and mysterious.  What happened to him?  Why hadn’t he been released sooner?  Would he recover?  In a way, I became haunted by the fragments of the news story.  At the same time, now that I have returned, I have been able to read the news regarding his release and death as well as how it has been politicized.


I traveled to North Korea in 2010 without incident.  I was impressed with how clean the country was and how the sky was blue and free of air pollution (at least in places that I visited).  The roads were empty.  The country seemed empty.  I was there for over a week and saw many monuments, the mass games, Kaesong, the USS Pueblo, the DMZ, etc.  It was a memorable, amazing time in a very unusual and misunderstood country.  I felt extremely safe the entire time.  Of course, it was an enormous privilege to travel there, just as all of my travels are an astonishing exercise of privilege.  2010 was the first year that Americans were allowed to travel to North Korea year round.  I felt privileged to go there just as the doors to tourism were expanding for Americans.  I also felt that as an American, I could break some stereotypes about us.  After all, I am anti-war and anti-capitalist….anti-American.  When North Koreans learned that I was American, they seemed shocked, curious, and confused.  I sang The International on the bus with the guides.  The other tourists treated me like I was one of “them” (a communist), even though there is a enormous political difference between North Koreans and myself, a Trotskyist.   Nevertheless, I wanted to see what North Korea was like.   After studying in South Korea, I wanted to see the other side of the story.   I am eager to visit any country that has experimented with/experienced socialism in one form or another. No automatic alt text available.


Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as well, but with a much different outcome.  We were both similar in that he probably also went there out of curiosity, a sense of adventure, and bragging rights.  Though, unlike me, he was not anti-capitalist or anti-American.   He wanted to be an investment banker, was a Zionist, and was athletic and popular.  I am a tee-totaling, socially awkward, socialist.  He and his tour group went drinking and celebrating the New Year.  One member of his group even went missing for several hours.  I would have spent the New Year quietly reading or journaling.  He took a sign and was detained on his way out of the country.  I left without any incident or perception of danger.  Although I was very careful to follow the rules, it might have happened to anyone.  And, even if he did make a mistake by taking the poster, the punishment of 15 years of hard labor and his ultimate death is grotesquely unjust and deeply disturbing.  I feel terrible for him and his family!  I feel horrified by the mysterious circumstances of his death.


His death has resulted in some controversy and debate.  On one hand, the Left has been accused of hating Otto Warmbier for questioning his privilege and treating him like an ignorant, white, frat boy.   Interestingly, his career goals in investment banking and Zionism has not been as central to criticisms about him.   It is frustrating that so much discourse is focused on privilege, but does not connect this to the larger mechanisms of capitalist exploitation.  At the extreme of the privilege discourse, he is believed to have gotten what he deserved.  Those words cost Katherine Dettwyler, a professor at the University of Delaware, future employment with the college.  While it is not a kind thing to say, it is disappointing that the college did not honor academic freedom.  Personally, I don’t think that anyone deserves to come home in a vegetative state or get sentenced to hard labor for any offense.  Surely, there are more compassionate ways to express frustration with racial and class privilege.  But, at the same time, oppression is real and does not express itself with kind words.  We live in a brutal, violent, frightening, world wherein the majority of humanity has been immiserated by systems that grant power to a few.  For most humans today and throughout history, life is not a hedonistic quest of self-actualization but a struggle to meet basic needs.   Unfortunately, travelers such as myself,  are looking for a distraction, indulgence, or adventure.  The cost and context of this is often ignored.  Even to those who might be a bit more socially minded, must compartmentalize any modicum of pleasure derived from travel as it most surely has negative impacts either on the planet or other humans.   In any event, there should be the social space to speak freely about privilege, even if it is expressed in unpretty ways.


On the other hand, the right has called for banning American travel to North Korea and some kind of action against the country.  In this narrative, the Trump administration is viewed heroically for securing his release and taking more initiative on the matter than the Obama administration.   Americans should avoid North Korea because we are hated there.  This narrative portrays North Korea as a brutal, horrific pariah state which deserves a dose of American retribution (a.k.a regime change, liberation, etc.).   While certainly North Korea is a frightening dictatorship, this narrative does not uncover why we are disliked and feared by North Koreans.  It ignores the fact that during the Korean War, the United States killed 20% of the population.  The United States targeted refugee populations during the war and General McArthur ordered the destruction of every village, means of communication, factory, and city in the north.   Long before the famous famines that North Korea faced in the 1990s, the United States starved the country by flooding farmlands through destroyed dams.   The United States dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean war than it dropped in the entire Asian theater of World War II.  The country was punished with bombs and napalm in a destruction more complete than Germany and Japan faced as a result of WWII.  So, North Korea does have rational reasons to dislike the United States.  Our foreign policy since the Korean War has not done much to dispel the notion that we are not a peace loving nation.

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This raises the question of if Americans should travel there at all?  Assuming that one believes in travel, I don’t think that Americans should impose a ban on travel to North Korea.  Each year, around 6,000 Western tourists travel to North Korea, but around 100,000 in total (mostly from China).  For the most part, these tourists, like myself, travel there without incident.  While Americans have been detained in the past, this has typically been for religious activity or illegal entry into the country.   Of course, our own foreign policy plays a role in the safety of travelers there (just as it plays a role in the safety of travelers to many countries).  Our foreign policy regarding North Korea seems particularly aggressive at the moment.   I have no illusions that somehow travel opens minds or spreads peace.  Travel can be colonizing and damaging to the planet.  So, I don’t believe that travel will somehow liberate North Korea by introducing new ideas or new people, nor should it.  Yet, at the same time, I think it can be useful in seeing The Other and learning something new, even if it is skewed by minders and propaganda.  In a way, it also normalizes North Korea.  Normalizing North Korea is useful in creating an anti-war movement that can stand against U.S. foreign policy.  This isn’t to argue that human rights abuses should be normalized, but rather that U.S. aggression against sovereign countries should not be normalized.  Recognizing the right of other countries to exist is important to thinking against the norms of U.S. imperialism.  Of course, a person does not have to travel to North Korea to come to that conclusion.  A travel ban distracts from the “why” of U.S. and North Korean relations.  All travel involves some risks.  A traveler should consider these risks, of course.  A dark skinned traveler to the United States could be shot by the police.  An American traveler to North Korea could be detained for political reasons.  While there are plenty of compelling reasons not to travel at all, travel is a part of normal relations between countries.  If the government is concerned about the safety of Americans, our safety is best ensured by scaling back our military power around the world. No automatic alt text available.


The death of Otto Warmbier is terrifying.  I hope that someday there are more answers regarding what happened to him.   I don’t think that he deserved to die any more than a woman who drinks too much deserves to be raped.  The world is made unsafe by many things.  Crimes such as theft, sexual assault, gun violence, etc.  Preventable disease.  Terrorism.  And, in Otto’s case, detainment by a repressive regime.  Yet, all of these things…sexual assault, terrorism, preventable disease, etc. have causes and solutions.  While the solution for North Korea is complicated and not something that the United States can or should solve, admitting our own role in history as well as the political landscape of the present is important to understanding why Otto Warmbier died.

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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.

Packing for an Overland Trip

Packing for an Overland Trip

H. Bradford

12/7/16


This post is probably somewhat boring to anyone who is not planning on travelling in the near future.  However, if you ARE considering doing an overland trip, I compiled a list of items that I thought were useful for the trip, including some things that I didn’t pack but should have. dscf3584


Useful Items:

Headlamp:  If you are traveling to southern Africa in the winter, a headlamp is essential.  Our days began between 5am and 6pm and ended around 6pm.  This resulted in packing and unpacking tents and supplies in darkness.  Because the days were just as short at a Minnesota winter, there was a lot of time spent in darkness.  The days are very short.  Thus, the headlamp is essential for walking around at night, using the bathroom, showering, packing, setting up the tent, etc.  Also, be sure to bring batteries!

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Gloves:  I did not pack gloves, but would have really liked work gloves or garden gloves.  Pulling mattresses and supplies off of the truck dries out the hands and gets them dirty.  Wrestling with a stubborn tent mangled the skin of my hands.  By the end of the trip, my hand were dry, cracked, and permanently caked with dirt.  They looked like the hands of an old sailor or mechanic.  A pair of work or garden gloves will keep your hands clean and protect them from scratches and the enormous amount of dirt on everything.  I would definitely pack gloves if I did it again!


Lotion:  I never really care that much about dry skin.  It is something I hardly notice.  I never wear lotion on my hands or body.  During the trip, my skin became disgustingly dry.  Skin peeled off like snowflakes, but far less gentle and pretty.  My skin took on the texture of a crocodile.  I eventually bought some lotion, but it was a losing battle against the arid climate.  Namibia, Northern South Africa, and parts of Botswana are pretty much deserts or desert-like Karoo climate.  I have never lived in a desert or spent time in one, so I was not at all prepared for the extreme dryness of my skin. fscn1343

This is me sans lotion.

 


Warm Clothes and a warm sleeping bag: I was also unprepared for how cold it was.  While planning the trip, I had checked out the temperatures of each place.  These temps seemed warm enough.  However, I learned a few important lessons.  1. A high in the 70s doesn’t matter if it is only at that high for an hour or two and the rest of the day is closer to the daily “low” temperature.  2. It feels colder at night when you are sleeping (and not moving around). 3. Wind and dry air make everything feel colder.  4. Deserts are cold at night.  5. Don’t underestimate African winter.  6. Everything feels colder when you can’t retreat indoors for warmth (in other words, a cool day here might be punctuated with time inside.  There, because the truck is not heated or air-conditioned, a person is always exposed to the ambient temperature conditions).  I eked by, using the clothes I had to layer. However, there were a few very cold nights.

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This didn’t feel very tropical.

A Cheap Rain Poncho:  I packed a cheap rain poncho.  It only rained once (on the first night…though it was a significant and terrible rain).  I used the poncho again at Victoria Falls (then threw it away to save space in my bag…yes, this was wasteful, but I needed to shed some items..).   The poncho saved me from packing an umbrella or actual raincoat.  Since most of the trip was through dry areas, the cheap poncho was all I needed.

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Wetter than it looks.

A Clothesline and Clothespins:  I packed a Bungee cord, but an actual clothes line would have been much more useful for hanging hand washed clothes.


Bar Shampoo:  To save space in my bag and avoid travelling with bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and detergent, I purchased an all-in-one camping bar soap which boasted that it could be used for shampoo, soap, and detergent.  It was called “All Natural Trail Soap” by Trascentuals.  The soap dried out my hair, making it feel like straw.  This added to my overall feeling of dryness.  However, I liked the scent, that I didn’t have to worry about packing numerous soap items, and that it came with its own plastic container. shopping   Fast Drying Microfiber Towel:  Since we never stayed in one place very long, a regular towel would have became moist and smelly. The microfiber towel that I brought dried very quickly, stayed fresh, folded compactly, and was unusually warm for how thin it was.  The towel was about $15, so not too spendy and worth it! shopping


Powerbank:  The truck is available for charging phones, mp3 players, cameras, etc.  However, it is only available when it has stopped for the night.  This means that everyone scrambles to charge their devices.  Sometimes the outlets might be full.  Further, once the truck is shut off for the night, there is no ability to charge things.  Thus, I found it useful to bring a power bank.  This allowed me to charge my items more frequently.


Packing Cubes: Overlanding involves a lot of packing and unpacking, often in the darkness.  Packing cubes makes it easier to find certain items.  For instance, I put all of my leggings and bottoms in one cube.  In another cube, I kept shirts.  In a smaller cube, I kept socks and underwear.  This made packing and unpacking far easier.  Though, even with the cubes, I seemed to always be losing things.  I bought really cheap packing cubes, so a few of them broke (zipper busted).  Don’t buy the brand “HiDay.”

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Padlock:  This is useful for the lockers on the truck.  Every passenger was assigned a locker for their items.


Handkerchief: Handkerchiefs are often worn by cowboys, farmers, gangsters, anarchists, and bank robbers.  I am not really badass enough to pull off the handkerchief look, but I wear them anyway.   I found mine incredibly useful for a variety of reasons.  1. While in Namibia, the truck filled with choking dust.  I was wearing a handkerchief, which I pulled up over my nose and mouth to protect myself from the dust.  2. Bad Smells: it is always useful to have something to protect against a bad smell.  3. Cold Wind: a handkerchief can offer some protection against cold wind (which occurred in open vehicles while looking for wildlife). 4. Bad hair: You can cover up bad hair with a handkerchief. 5. It is an easy to pack accessory that pulls an outfit together! dscf3967 Diva Cup:  Periods are never really fun when travelling…or really, ever.  They are especially not very fun when you are in a vehicle for many hours and are unsure what the bathroom conditions will be at each stop.  I found that a diva cup is useful, since it can be used for longer without leaking and does not require special disposal, such as pads and tampons.  The downside is that it is harder to sanitize it while travelling.


She-Wee: I packed a female urinal, but never used it.  I never used it because the places with the worst bathroom conditions were also the places without running water.  I didn’t want to haul a urine soaked female urinal around all day, waiting to rinse it off.  Still, it is kind of fun to have…if nothing else, it entertains the imaginations of fellow travelers.  Maybe some hardcore camper out there would find it useful.  Someday I will whip mine out….and use it proudly….peeing as freely as any man.  Until then…

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The Wildlife of Southern Africa by Vincent Carruthers:  This book offers a good overview of the most common birds, mammals, reptiles, plants, and fish of Southern Africa.  It helped me construct my list of species I had spotted and gain quick knowledge of the natural environment.


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A Stargazing Guide:  I deeply regretted that I did not pack a southern hemisphere stargazing guide.  In fact, the very first thing I did when I arrived in Windhoek was download a starmap and some astronomy books to my tablet.  Namibia is a great place to stargaze, since there is endless sky that is uninterrupted by light pollution, buildings, or trees.  Furthermore, people in the northern hemisphere do not get to enjoy many of the unique constellations of the southern hemisphere.  Once I downloaded a guide, I did my best to familiarize myself with the southern hemisphere’s sky.  Don’t miss out on the Southern cross, constellations named after scientific instruments, the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and Magellan cloud!


Ginger candies:

Unfamiliar foods, bumpy boat rides, long days on the truck, long periods between meals, etc. can upset a person’s stomach.  So, when I travel, I always bring ginger chews with me.  I find that they settle an upset stomach and ease motion sickness.  I didn’t get sick on this trip, but I did chew on ginger candies when I had mild stomach upset.


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My Little Archaeopteryx

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The first time I learned about archaeopteryx, it was when I was a child.  I loved dinosaurs. In odd continuity to my adulthood, I had a childhood passion for nonfiction.  One of my favorite books was a dinosaur book with a green glossy cover.  The book contained archaeopteryx towards the beginning.  The fossil was fascinating and beautiful.  Its body arched backwards with the elegance of a ballerina.  The fossil was unique because it had impressions of feathers.  It was a link between birds and dinosaurs.  Although it didn’t feature prominently in my dinosaur book, I committed the name and a few facts to my memory.  In my dinosaur book, archaeopteryx was considered the first bird.

 


Years later, I reconnected with archaeopteryx while I was in London.  In my early 20s, I spent a semester in Ireland.  Afterwards, I explored the UK a little, which involved a few days in London.  I ended up at the Museum of Natural History, which, unknown to me, happened to be hosting an Archaeopteryx exhibit.  I happened upon the special exhibition room with astonishment and delight.  This was it!  The museum had obtained a German specimen of archaeopteryx in 1862, though it usually is not on display.  This fossil was accompanied by a small collection of other German archaeopteryx fossils, along with the Chinese “fuzzy raptor.”  I wandered through the room, awestruck by my good fortune, as the exhibit was scheduled to end later that month.  It is still one of my favorite travel memories and one of the top things I have seen in my lifetime.


Another opportunity to see feathered dinosaurs arose when I was in China, staying with my friend Rose.  Beijing’s Geological Museum of China hosts a collection of feathered dinosaurs from Liaoning province.  Just as archaeopteryx was a groundbreaking fossil discovery of the 1800s, the Liaoning fossils were groundbreaking in the late 1900s (late 1990s to 2000s).  The less easy to remember sinosauropteryx was discovered there in the mid 1990s.  It was the first non-avian dinosaur with filament like feathers.  It was a downy dinosaur.  This discovery implied that all dinosaurs may have had feathers.  Volcanic activity in the area preserved the fossils very well, leaving ashy impressions of feathers.  This has allowed scientists to learn more about the evolution of feathers.  Feathers evolved much earlier than thought and were much more common.  My own impression was that the fossils were not as pretty as my original archaeopteryx.  They were dark and sooty.  Still, the fossils were fascinating and plentiful.  They were also more horrific.  The fossils looked more like mummies or freeze dried birds than bony impressions from a time long ago.  I would still say that this was another one of my top travel highlights.  The Great Wall might be impressive, but what is more impressive than the vastness of Earth’s history and the mysteries of all the life that existed millions of years before our own lives?

 

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I’ve been thinking about getting an archaeopteryx tattoo for a long time.  It has a lot of meaning to me.  It represents my childhood curiosities and hopes for the future.  Like many children I wanted to be a paleontologist.  However, I didn’t know the word for paleontologist, so I mistakenly called it “archeologist.”  I even dressed up in a khaki outfit and brought cow bones to my kindergarten class, for a career themed show-and-tell as an “archeologist.”  No one corrected the error.  Not that being an archeologist wouldn’t be cool.  It also represents some of the neat things I have seen while traveling.  Finally, as an atheist, it has meaning to me as the original archaeopteryx was seen as important evidence of evolution.  In a time when evolution was a new concept, archaeopteryx offered this very clear link between dinosaurs and birds.  All of the feathered dinosaurs have offered important insights about evolution.  And though the new discoveries have made archaeopteryx less important (or just one of many feathered dinosaurs, and certainly not the first), it is still the most recognizable and memorable.

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The main thing that has held me back from getting the tattoo is actually dissatisfaction with my body.  I wanted to get the tattoo on the underside of my arm, but fear that my arms look a little too flabby.  The tattoo was going to be a reward for developing awesome arms.  After about two years of waiting, I decided that I am not going to magically become more toned.  Perhaps I should embrace it.  Like the archaeopteryx, I too have wings.  I have tiny little flabs of chicken wings.  We are one.  Alas, I am flightless… and you, archaeopteryx, may have taken flight.

Top Ten Worst Travel Experiences

Top 10 Worst  Travel Experiences:

I haven’t had anything traumatic happen, so the worst really isn’t that bad:

  1. Shakes on a Plane:  I wasn’t really shaking that much as I was too nauseous to move. It began with a mild discomfort as I got ready in the dark of my Prague hostel for my flight home.   At the airport, my flight was delayed an hour.   In the hour or two before the flight, I had a rumbling stomach and six bouts of pure liquid diarrhea. This was soon joined by horrible nausea.   The nausea did not subside when I arrived in Amsterdam, quickly used the bathroom, and bought a PowerAde. I then stood in what felt like the longest line in history to go through security, not daring to leave the line to use the restroom.   Time passed with painful slowness. I had to throw out my PowerAde. I made it through security, rushed to the toilet, had diarrhea and dry heaved twice.   Soon, it was boarding time. I thankfully had an aisle seat, but I was nauseous for the entire eight or so hour flight. I couldn’t move or sip water for fear of upsetting the tender balance in my digestive system. I couldn’t even watch an in-flight movie. I just sat there miserably with a blanket over my head, counting the hours and occasionally lifting my head to look at the map of how far we had travelled.

Lesson: Travel with ginger.  My favorite is Sina Ginger Candy

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      1. Ripped Off: I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting my friend Rose in Beijing after I had completed a study abroad program in South Korea. I don’t remember the cost of taking a taxi from the airport to her apartment, but we’ll imagine it was $20.   Fast forward to my return home. Having spent six months in Asia, I am broke. I have, we’ll imagine $30 in cash, to pay for my taxi. This should be enough, right? I mean, I left at 5am, when the streets of Beijing were dark and quiet. Well, I got into the taxi, but found in strange when the driver seemed to take smaller side roads and a winding trip towards the airport. I had some idea of how long the trip took and the route, as the day before I had taken the same route when returning from the airport after my trip to North Korea. As I do not speak Mandarin, I wasn’t sure what to say as the driver racked up the bill on the meter. I watched helplessly as the amount surpassed the cash I had on hand. So, we arrived at the airport. I handed him the cash that I had. He angrily pointed at the meter. I shrugged and showed him the empty wallet, then walked away. I know that he was paid more than the trip was worth, so I am sure the amount paid was sufficient for the meandering trip across the city

 

 

3.  I’m Going to Have to Fight Him:

Due to changes to my original flight, I wasn’t scheduled to arrive at the Kiev Airport until after 1am in the morning. This caused me no small amount of anxiety as a. the airport was pretty far from the city center. B. there would be no public transport. C. I would be quite vulnerable as an arrival to a new country at 2 in the morning. I did my best to prepare for this. Before arriving, I studied a map of Kiev and the roads that led to my hotel. I also read travel advice about getting a cab. There was supposed to be a kiosk for official taxis. The instructions in travel guides warned that not taking an official taxi could result in being ripped off or out-right robbed.The airport was rather empty upon my arrival and after collecting my bags, I went to the official kiosk for taxis. There were unofficial drivers by the doors, offering rides to the new arrivals. Standing in front of the kiosk was lanky young man in a polo shirt. I asked him if he was a taxi driver and he said yes, then asked me where I needed to go. I explained my destination and negotiated what seemed like a reasonable price in dollars. With that, he took my bag to his car and put it in the trunk.


The car was not a registered taxi, just a sporty black car. I wasn’t sure what to do. I stupidly got into the car, which I immediately regretted. Harkening back to the Beijing experience, I felt that I would probably be ripped off. At worst, I began to think that he might sexually assault me or rob me. As he drove me, I watched the streets. I convinced myself that he was a bad person and that I was going to have to fight him. I considered how I would do this. I had purchased a small multipurpose camping carabiner which was attached to my purse. It had a semi sharp edge that could be used as a box cutter. The item went unnoticed when I passed through airport security, but really wasn’t all that sharp. So, in my imagination, I thought that I would use it as a shiv. The forty minute drive gave time to consider these schemes.


I was glad that I had studied the map, since the driver followed familiar streets. I could trace in my mind the route to the hotel and some landmarks, even though the city was entirely new to me. This lessened me anxiety. Still, the city was dark. It had never visited such a dark capital. The streets were also very dead. The darkness was ominous. When we arrived at the hotel, I didn’t recognize it, as the giant sign for the hotel was not lit up like in the photos and iconic Maidan square was also dark.   So, I became defensive and afraid. He assured me that it was the hotel and got my bag. I paid him the money we had agreed upon and he left without incident.


There was no danger. Nothing terrible happened. I had been hypervigilant. It was a little silly and thankfully he was an honest person who just wasn’t a registered taxi driver with a taxi car. Also, I am really not a very strong or capable person, so the plan to fight back was ridiculously confident

Lesson: Study the map before you leave. Don’t take unregistered taxis.

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  1. Venezuelan Boot Camp

In 2005, I traveled to Venezuela for a socialist youth conference against globalization. It felt a little like a socialist boot camp, because we stayed at a military barracks and kept a very tight schedule. For instance, after finally settling in to our rooms at 5 am upon arrival in the country, we had to wake up at 6 am to head to a day of conference activities. These activities continued until after 10 pm.   I was pretty exhausted for the first few days of the trip.   On the first day, after an hour of sleep and hours of speakers and marches in the hot sun, I collapsed onto my backpack in the midst of a sea of leftists from around the world.   The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, addressed the American delegation. However, I was in a half-dream like state and didn’t even notice. Thankfully, he spoke again at the end of the conference and I was better able to appreciate the experience. In retrospect, I wish I could have sucked up my exhaustion and enjoyed the experience more.

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  1. Where is my bus?

During the same Venezuelan trip we stayed outside of Caracas at a military facility in the mountains. This required a bumpy, hot hour long bus ride each day to the conference.   At the end of the day, the street was lined with buses to take us back. However, one day, I was uncertain which bus was mine. There were dozens of buses and I couldn’t remember my bus number. The buses filled and pulled away. I frantically marched along the rows of buses, looking for something familiar. I feared that I would be left there to stay the night outside. I asked driver’s where the buses were going and none were going to my destination. This frantic search continued for about a half an hour. Suddenly, a new bus pulled up and I spotted some familiar people (Carl and Rose I think).   I got on the bus, thankful that it magically appeared along with some comrades. The feeling of it all is a bit like when you are a child and you lose your mother in a store. I am sure I would have survived the ordeal, but there is a frightening isolation in being lost and confused with no one to turn to.

Lesson: Write down the bus number.

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  1. Where is my lipstick?

I love lipstick. I wear it every day. It is my lip armor, coloring and moisturizing my tiny thin lips. When I visited my brother in Hawaii, I lost it while hiking. I had to survive four hours without lipstick. I was frantic. It was ridiculous. Okay, I am scraping the bottom of the barrel for this top ten list.

Lesson: Always carry two of something you can’t live without.

  1. I’m NOT Actually a Prostitute



    The choice to wear tight, zebra print pant to the Red Light district in Amsterdam was a bold wardrobe choice. But, I have been mistaken for a prostitute wearing far drabber, dumpier clothes as well. Not going to slut shame myself or slut shame prostitutes. So, in retrospect, I won’t call this a bad choice of clothes…just one time wherein I was NOT mistaken for a tourist.

  1. Beware of the Night Monkeys

While studying in South Korea, I managed to convince some fellow Americans to travel with me to Hiroshima, Japan (Doc, Westin, and Rachel). I created a list of activities for us and somehow they followed along with my fast paced itinerary. They are all saints.   Now, on one of the days I thought it would be a super idea to visit the nearby island of Miyajima and climb Mt. Misen. As the oldest, least fit person in the group, I am not sure why I was the most convinced that this was a super idea!


So, we arrived at Mt. Misen in the late afternoon and began our hike. I was excited by the idea that the woods were home to monkeys. We saw none of these as we began a trek that took much longer than the hour and a half that the trail guide quoted. It was beautiful, but we could not enjoy the beauty as the sun began to set and the shop at the top of the mountain was closed.   With that said, after a very brief time at the top, we decided to make a very hasty hike down.   As we hiked, the evening turned into night. Darkness descended upon the forest. It began to rain. This made the trail slippery and slowed my pace. Not wanting to twist my ankle, I took my time. This annoyed the others. But, by my reasoning it was better to be careful than to slip on the mud and need medical help. By the reasoning of the others, it was dark, rainy, and my fault.   We all began to worry that we might miss the last ferry back to Hiroshima. This would force us to stay on the island overnight. Also, the idea of monkeys in the woods became far more ominous. I imagined them lurking in the forest above us or all around us in the bushes. I imagined them jumping down or out in front of us. When a deer crossed our path, my stomach sank with fear that it was a monkey! Funny how they were so cute in the safety of daylight but menacing at night.


We made it back. The last ferry had not left. It was all good. But, sorry to those who I forced on that unfortunate adventure.

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9. I am a Terrible Person:

Long ago, I studied abroad in Ireland. It was really a magical time in my life. However, it was also a time when I had a very terrible social situation. I lived in this cute white cottage by the sea with four roommates. One day, one of the roommates, who I will call Kelli, asked me to meet the roommates for an important “house meeting.” I arrived at the meeting, where my roommates sat in a circle. They told me that they had something to talk to me about. My heart sank as I was sure that it was about the toast crumbs I always left on the kitchen counter. Instead, they told me that they decided to meet with me because my sexuality made them uncomfortable. I felt like I had been hit from the side by a semi-truck, as I hadn’t been expecting it at all.  Kelli explained an incident that led her to believe that I was a frightening pervert. The other day, I had accidentally walked in on her when she was in the shower. I didn’t hear the water and the door was open a crack. I thought I had made an honest mistake and had apologized. Instead, she thought that I was trying to get a sneak peek at her naked body. I had never been attracted in the least to Kelli. I actually found her to be a loud mouthed narcissist. Even if I had been attracted to her, I am not the sort of person who would barge in on her shower just to see her naked. Which I didn’t even see. I closed the door immediately when I realized the mistake.


I assured her it was a mistake and that I was sorry, but she brought up another, worse situation. At a recent party, there was a girl who was pretty intoxicated and crying in front of everyone. I think she was upset over how some guy had treated her, but the tears had become a bit of a spectacle. She was one of the few people I felt that I had a friendship with, so I told her if she felt overwhelmed that we could step outside. Now, from my perspective, I was offering to stand outside with a friend so she could clear her mind and take a break from the distressing party. From “Kelli’s” perspective, I wanted to get her alone outside so that I could rape her. So, Kelli confronted me about my intent to sexually assault this other person.   This was also pretty painful. In retrospect, I think more people should look after one another and make sure that everyone is safe. Maybe Kelli was genuinely looking out for her and that is good. Safety is good. But to me, I felt rather devastated, as I had actually been trying to be nice in my own awkward way…but my niceness was perceived as an attempt to sexually assault someone. I don’t know that I have felt so socially rejected and misunderstood in my life.


Before the conversation, I had felt like a misfit. I assumed that others just thought that I was a bit eccentric, but harmless. It was deeply painful that my roommates believed that I was a dangerous rapist or pervert. I felt that I had utterly failed at presenting myself as a good, trustworthy person. That somehow, by my actions, I had led people to believe that I was dark and dangerous. I told them my version of the stories. They seemed to accept it. They even admitted that they might have went about the whole thing the wrong way. I cried. They wanted to comfort me. I wanted to push them away and scream as they got tissues.   It gave me a lot to think about. I though the whole thing was about toast crumbs, not rape. How weird did I have to be for them to think I was this truly terrible person?


After that, I really didn’t hang out with anyone. I kept to myself and bided my time, enjoying my own company.   I thought maybe I had made a mistake by hanging out with people or opening up about myself. Had I just kept to myself, I would not have been at that party and my accidental walking in on the shower would have been written off as an accident.   I am sure that in my outsider-ness and open bisexuality contributed to the misunderstanding. Still, I felt that had I been a heterosexual male or female, my behaviors may not have met the same painful scrutiny. As I am older now, I should try to look at it with more objectivity. As painful as it is, I should commend them for looking out for the girl at the party. Too few people do that. My intentions were not dark and attraction or perversion did not even enter my mind. Despite what they believed, I was not attracted to every single woman in the world and looking to voraciously satisfy my sexual appetite no matter the cost. But, I suppose if the world is going to make a mistake, it should make the mistake of looking out for safety.   It is better that some innocent people are hurt by unkind accusations than ignoring dangers to potential victims.


Still, that was the most painful conversation of my life.

  1. The Teacher Who Didn’t:

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.

Christmas In Hawaii

The holidays are over, which gives me more time to reflect.  As such, I thought about my favorite Christmas ever… which was the Christmas I spent in Hawaii with my brother.  In 2014, back when I was doing Americorps service at the Boys and Girls Club as the learning center coordinator (i.e. I was living in extreme poverty), my brother kindly paid for my mother and I to visit him in Oahu.  So, these are some highlights of that memory.

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Cheap Flight:  We flew Spirit Air, which was an adventure in itself.  We had to pay more to have a checked bag, so my mother and I pinched pennies by stuffing our clothes and everything else into small carry on bags.  Even their carry on requirements were pretty strict.  Everything on the flight required money and there was an eight hour layover in Los Vegas.  Nevertheless, it was memorable if only for the challenge of packing less and not becoming too grouchy during the layover and long flight.

 

Polynesian Center:  My brother and I went to the pricey Polynesian Center, which was pretty fascinating.  It was fascinating because it was run by Mormons and many of the performers and workers were recruited from various islands by missionaries and are students at Brigham Young University.  The Mormon influence was subtle, but includes more modest dress and a free shuttle to the LDS church.  The center consisted of various villages representing an array of Pacific islands.  At these villages were performances, displays, and lessons.  I tried a Polynesian dance lesson, watched a coconut uses demonstration, listened to a lecture about Polynesian navigation, and observed several dance/musical performances.  One highlight was a floating parade of boats featuring dancers from each island.  My mother opted to go to the beach that day.
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Bishop Museum:  No one seemed enthused to go to the Bishop Museum, as it seemed a little spendy and we had already done quite a lot.  But, I love museums.  The Bishop museum was excellent, with a giant Nene to sit on, magnificent cloaks made of red, black, and yellow feathers, a Planetarium, scientific and cultural artifacts, and lectures.  We went to a presentation on volcanoes and another on Polynesian ethnobotany.

 

Botanical Gardens:  I feel that we went to three botanical gardens while visiting my brother.  Some people like going to beaches and relaxing with drinks.  I like learning.  ALL THE TIME.  But, what a wonderful opportunity!  Because of its isolation, Hawaii has many unique plants and birds.  Of course, the endemic plants and animals have been challenged by the many exotic, introduced species that continue to bombard the islands.  The botanical gardens showcased non-native plants, such as those used for commercial use and interesting plants from throughout the Pacific.  We visited the Lyon Arboretum, where we saw a small waterfall and went on a hike…only to get rained on. We also visited the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, where we fed some ducks and geese at a small pond.  Another garden was Koko Head’s Crater, which was massive, dry, and featured a large collection of African plants and cacti.  I feel that we probably visited another garden as well, but I can’t remember off the top of my head.  The best thing about the botanical gardens was that they were actually very empty.  We were among the few people to visit them- perhaps because other tourists aren’t as in to plants?
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(Note: I don’t think this particular hibiscus is native to Hawaii)

Pearl Harbor:  I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body.  I am somewhat indifferent to both the victory and defeat of imperialist Japan against imperialist U.S.   How can I defend the US?  During World War II, we imprisoned socialists…in my own state of Minnesota, no less…and sent Japanese citizens to concentration camps.  We bombed civilians with ATOMIC WEAPONS.  Of course, I don’t want 2000 people of any nationality to die, but the death of Americans is never uniquely tragic to me (as compared to the deaths of any other nation).  But, Pearl Harbor is a place where tourists go.  So we ritualistically lined up early in the morning, waited, and visited Pearl Harbor.  The visit was memorable in that it was a good study of sociological phenomenon such as “feeling rules” and presentation of self.  The American tourists at the site behaved in sober, quiet, reflective, ways…as these are the feeling rules of visiting such a place.  Like church, children were expected to behave, not climb on things, not shout, and “be good.”  Some Asian tourists broke the unspoken feeling rules by smiling, laughing, and taking fun photos.  This is no offense to Asians, but perhaps the don’t feel as compelled to follow the rules.  However, once the Americans were back in the parking lot, everyone was loud, rowdy, and energetic again.  They had left the public space and were backstage, to use Goffman’s metaphor.  It was interesting to watch the performance of reflective patriotism give way to more everyday expressions of self.  I also saw the USS Arizona burp oil into the ocean.  Is that good for the environment?

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Byodo-in:  My brother lived right across the street from a Buddhist temple.  We visited the temple on Christmas Day, which was not only enormously fun and beautiful…it was vaguely sacrilegious.  The temple had a bell, a few nice trails, bamboo patches of forest, koi ponds, and a Buddha statue.  My mother was awkward about the Buddha statue, which I suppose seemed like idolatry to her.  I was also a little awkward about the Buddha statue since I never know the right etiquette and it is a bit of a hassle to take off my shoes.  Still, it was a lovely place and a great way to walk off Christmas dinner.
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Christmas Hike:  Christmas morning, my brother and I went on a hike on a nearby hill/mountain.  The trail was impossibly muddy, making the journey dangerously slippery and messy. It was fun to spend my time doing something active with my brother.  Christmas should be for hiking and enjoying nature…not sitting around, eating, and watching TV.
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Taro Pies and Sushi:  My brother lived walking distance from a McDonalds and a sushi place.  So, several days involved visits to the sushi restaurant for really cheap sushi.  The sushi in Duluth tends to be a little expensive.  On Oahu, it was as cheap as fast food (at least it seemed this way to me).  I also ate taro pies from McDonalds.  I enjoyed the novelty of eating a pie filled with a gelatinous, sweet, purple tuber.
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(Taro, before Ronald McDonald turns it into a pie.)

Diamond head State Park:  My mother, Tiffany, and I hiked up the Diamond head crater for a lovely view of Honolulu.  I am proud of my mother for making it all the way up the almost two mile trail (which included a tunnel and a lot of steps).  It was pretty hot that day too.  My mother was pretty good sport and went on a couple hikes.

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(My mother and Tiffany, not enjoying the hike)

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Whale Watching:  We all went on a whale watching boat excursion and had a few sightings of humpback whales.  Layton, who was probably only about 2 then, searched the water for whales (looking over the side of the boat).  It was a whale of a good time.

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(My mother and the sunset)

Crabby Brother:  My brother was memorably crabby during the trip.  I suppose he did pay for the trip and the activities, as well as drove us around.  This is pretty stressful and underlines the lack of public transportation/traffic nightmare that is Oahu.  I had enough fun for four people, so too bad I couldn’t redistribute my good mood to the less fortunate.

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Stray cats and chickens:  My brother and I went out to feed stray cats and chickens on the day after Christmas.  We fed them the remains of the Christmas ham.  Oddly, the cats were at the bottom of the pecking order…cowering from the fierce flock of feral chickens.  I think we might have seen another botanical garden after this, but I don’t remember.
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This was a truly magical Christmas.  It was the way Christmas should be.  Christmas often stresses me out with its social obligations, financial burden, cold, and oppressive presence through trees, songs, sales, traffic, consumerism, religious battles, etc. But that Christmas seemed like a nice escape from it all.  Instead of cold, it was tropical.  Instead of tons of gifts, it was a few things we could fit in our carry-on.  There was a Christmas dinner, but this was a minor event compared to the Christmas hike and Christmas temple visit.  There was family time, but instead of the familiar setting of Minnesota and home, it was far away and exotic. And, it was far less stressful as it was only a few immediate family members. There was learning, botany, volcanoes, hikes, stray cats, Mormons, taro pies, whales, and sushi.  The trip sparked an interest in Polynesian history.  Of course, my wonderful Christmas was only possible because of crushing U.S. imperialism which put Hawaii under its yoke and a tourist industry that commodities Hawaiian nature and culture while at the same time destroying both.  But, politics aside, it was enjoyable.

 

I will probably never have a Christmas as fun as the one spent in Hawaii in 2014.  But, life is long!

Emetophobia: Redrawing the Border

It is embarrassing to admit, but I have emetophobia (fear of vomiting).  It is embarrassing because I think it makes me seem neurotic.  I don’t want to be neurotic.   Who wants to be some worry wart who frets over their food?  I sure don’t.

It began in the second grade.  I had a stomach bug and puked all over my pillow and bed.  My mother was upset over the mess and told me that if I puked again, I would have to clean it up.  I don’t know why, but this planted a dark seed of anxiety in my mind.  Any frustrated mother would say the same thing.  Until then, I hadn’t feared puking…but for some reason, after that incident, I began to fear vomiting.

I started sleeping with water by my bed in case I had to puke in the night.  The water, in my imagination, would help me not vomit.  I also started having panic attacks.  I felt my chest and throat tighten.  In my young brain, I mistook this for nausea or that I would soon throw up.  So, bus trips and car trips were a nightmare.   I feared that I would throw up, uncontrollably, in a confined space…making a huge mess.  I am a messy person?  Why does this matter?  I don’t know.  There is no logic to phobias.  This is also a source of shame, as I try to be a logical person.  The phobia is like a demon that possesses me, drawing out the worst traits of paranoia and irrationality.  I don’t believe in gods or ghosts, but I believe that vomiting is worse than death!

Anyway, for many years I suffered with this phobia.  I had panic attacks, feared road trips, feared carnival rides, feared unfamiliar food, feared restaurants, etc.  For many years, it was nameless.  I never knew that people could actually fear vomiting.  I thought I was a solidary weirdo with a bizarre fear.  But, I found that there are entire websites dedicated to it and that it is one of the more common 500 or so phobias that have been identified.

It is hard to explain what it is like having it.  It has shaded my life.  Whenever a new situation arises, I immediately think…”will this make me throw up?”  As such, in years past, I had anxiety flying… or going on boat rides or trying new foods.  In recent years, I have made some headway fighting this phobia.  The biggest breakthrough was realizing a.) I have a phobia.  b.) the phobia has a name.  c.) other people have this phobia.  To use the demon metaphor, perhaps having a name for it gave me some control over it…as I could research it and learn more about it.  Another boon for overcoming the phobia has been life experience.  The more I experience life, the more evidence I have against the irrationality of the phobia and the more exposure to the things that make me afraid.

Exposure.  Yikes.  When I was young, I feared seeing vomit on television and became afraid someone else vomited.  I feared new things, such as dissecting in biology class or unfamiliar smells.   However, I have learned that not all things cause vomiting.  I stopped fearing flying after not becoming ill during my first international flights.  The flying itself did not make me sick.  I have never become sick from being on a boat or sick from a new smell.   Vomit on television or on a sidewalk will not make me vomit.  So, slowly the phobia has shrunk down from its original form in my childhood.

I have also faced stomach bugs in recent years.  This has been a mixed experience.  Between the years of 1989-2010, I never vomited.  Not once. This is quite a record.  It seems almost impossible.   I even forgot what nausea was like- so I often mistook anxiety for nausea.  Then, in 2010, I caught a stomach bug.  I very quickly learned what nausea was (after missing out all those years).   I had a very unpleasant day.  I didn’t throw up, by a dry heaved for the first time since….second grade.   I cried.  I begged for anti-emetics.  I took Nausene and survived.   After surviving, I felt a little less afraid.

Then, things were calm again until I worked at the Boys and Girls Club.  Working with 80 kids that don’t often wash their hands is a recipe for all kinds of illnesses.  The year that I worked there, I got sick with stomach bugs three times.  Again, I never puked…but there were miserable bouts of dry heaving (which I suppose is close enough?).

I think that the worst nightmare was my trip to Eastern Europe.  Throughout the trip, I had a few bouts of diarrhea, nausea, and upset stomach.  It was unpleasant, but survivable.  However, on the morning of my flight back home…I was hit by something awful.  I used the bathroom six times in an hour…with a lot of watery diarrhea.  This was coupled with severe nausea.  To prevent myself from puking on the flight from Prague to Amsterdam, I could not move my body.  The slightest jostling upset the delicate balance in my stomach.  When I arrived in Amsterdam, I bought a Gatorade and had to wait in a long security line…feeling like I would explode from either end at any moment.  I had to throw out the Gatorade of course, passed through security, went to my gate, and dry heaved in the gate’s bathroom until my flight to the U.S. was announced.  Then, I spent 8 miserable hours in my seat with a blanket over my head…counting the minutes and hours.  I could not watch the movie or move one bit, as again, any movement triggered the extreme nausea that I was facing.  Never in my life have I been that nauseated and for THAT long.  I couldn’t drink water as even this upset my stomach.  Being trapped in a confined space with limited ability to vomit was hellish.

The past year, working at a shelter for women, has also exposed me to many germs.  Again, I have had stomach bugs a few times.  I even think I had food poisoning this summer when I went out for Thai food.  Each time I survive.  It isn’t pleasant.  But, I survive.  I suppose, in a small way, the phobia shrinks a little each time I survive a stomach bug.

Now, I am actually far less afraid.  I think the phobia is a skeleton of what it once was.  In the end, I am only truly afraid of puking in limited situations.  My main nightmare is becoming sick at work, with no one to cover my shift.  So, this is the fear of vomiting at work with an inability to escape my duties to be sick.  Another nightmare is becoming sick on a bus or vehicle with no place to vomit.   In the end, with my phobia far smaller, I see it’s naked ugliness.

The phobia is about control.  I fear vomiting because I can’t control it.  I can’t control how long it will last and where it will happen.  I can accept, to some degree, that I will get sick- and provided that I am near a bathroom or comfortable place- I can live with that.  But, what I really fear is lack of control over vomiting.

For example, I work at a shelter for domestic abuse.  There are sometimes fifty five people in the shelter.  The individuals live in closed quarters and many are children.  Add stress to the situation (which compromises the immune system), some lack of hygiene and lack of medical care…and there is really a hot bed for disease.  As such, we have many bouts of stomach bugs through the shelter over the year.  In fact, I really don’t think Norovirus ever actually leaves the shelter as we have stomach bug outbreaks every month or two.

As a rational person who doesn’t want to get sick, it is reasonable that I would want to CONTROL norovirus.  I can’t.  We use hand sanitizer in the office, but alcohol based sanitizers don’t really work against norovirus.  Hand washing is effective, but once I touch a door knob, keyboard, counter, or one of the hundreds of other things, my hands are infected again.  Worse, norovirus can travel through the air.  So, if you enter a room where someone has been ill, you can become sick from vomit or fecal particles in the air.   Worse still, it only takes 10-100 viral particles to make you sick.   A pin head sized piece of feces has millions of viral particles.   As such, a sick resident can carry just the tiniest droplet on their clothes or hands and make everyone sick.  And, even if a person becomes ill with norovirus, the immunity tends to be rather short.  I can’t think of any way to win against norovirus.  For all practical purposes, it cannot be controlled.  I bleach counters and surfaces…many things…at night with bleach and water.  Bleach kills it.  But, only until the shelter becomes dirty again when residents touch things.   I can see how this phobia might lend itself to OCD behavior as the habits to control it would require such behaviors (a lot of hand washing and cleaning).

When I go to work and know that people have been ill, it causes me anxiety.  It causes me anxiety because I fear that I will get sick and be at work, trying to take care of the shelter…with no reprieve to vomit.  I can’t control becoming sick.  As I have mentioned, norovirus is quite difficult to control.   The best I can do is control myself, by washing my hands and avoiding eating or touching my face.  However, even if I do my best to avoid putting anything near my mouth, this only prevents the oral-fecal route of contamination.  Airborne viral particles from vomit or feces cannot be controlled, lest I put on a mask.  So I worry.  This is where my phobia is the worst.

I could seek professional help.  I might benefit from counseling or an anti-anxiety drug.  However, perhaps because of the stigma of mental illness, I prefer to plod along on my own.  Already, I have brought my phobia down to a skeleton of its original form.  In the end, there are certainly times that I skip meals, avoid going places, or have panic attacks.  It makes life harder.  At the same time, I take pride in facing my fear.  Imagine if you once afraid of spiders.  You panicked when they were on television or at the zoo.  Then, through enduring spiders and facing life, the fear becomes smaller.  Maybe you travelled to the desert and saw a tarantula.  Maybe a spider fell on your shoulder when you went through the Amazon.  It was horrific.  But, you didn’t die.   At this point, the only spiders you fear might be in just a few places or situations (maybe you fear going into the basement or the garden shed).   That is how it has been with my phobia.  I have had the shits  and hellish nausea from Prague to Minneapolis!  But, I still saw Prague and all of Eastern Europe.

I once heard a quote that life begins where fear ends.  I didn’t learn until later that the quote is rather New Age-y and from Osho Rajneesh.  Although spirituality isn’t my thing, I found that the quote was a good sentiment.  Fear fences out many wonderful experiences.  If I had let the phobia truly rule my life, I would have never gone on a flight or travelled.  I would avoid working with children or domestic violence victims at the shelter.   My life would be very fenced in.  I don’t want that.  So, I hope that one day the phobia shrinks down to nothing, so I can live without being fenced in by this fear.   I am optimistic that it will.  I think it will as long as I push back against the fence and face the things that I fear.

 

 

 

 

 

Estonia and Post-Soviet Identity

After my brief adventure in Belarus, I traveled on to Estonia.  To me, the interesting thing about traveling to formerly communist countries is how the history is remembered.  Of course, memory isn’t homogeneous, but it is social, political, and public.  I can only judge a country by the public expression of memory and the brief impression a country leaves on me.  With that said, when I arrived in Estonia, it felt familiar.  Things were clean and green, with tourists, the euro, tourist attractions, fast food, technology, and an overall “Western European” feel.  What is Western European?  What does it feel like?  In the geography of the imagination, it is globalization, moderated capitalism, predictability, safety, English language, integrated markets, Euro, tourism, tidiness, consumption, freedom, etc.  This is all made up.  Just a list of stereotypical things that come to mind.  To someone else it may mean something else.  In contrast, Belarus is part of an imagined Eastern Europe.  Imagined Eastern Europe is  drab, confusing, uses Cyrillic, corrupt, xenophobic, homophobic, unsafe, poor, undemocratic, less integrated, exotic, etc.  No one wants to be a part of imagined Eastern Europe.  This seems especially true of Estonia.

So, I arrived in Estonia, somewhat comforted by the fact that people looked and sounded Finnish.  Finnish is familiar.  There were confused tourists looking for their hotels and hostels.  This was also comforting, if only to make me feel slightly more competent.  There was a lot of English in the background.   English is a little jarring after not hearing it.  I could understand what people were discussing in all of its glorious banality.  My hostel was in the Old Town of Tallinn, which struck me as a bit like a Renaissance Fair or amusement park, with costumed people, vendors, narrow cobblestone streets, defensive walls, tall churches, and restored medieval buildings.   My initial impression was that Estonia has done pretty well since the collapse of communism.  It appeared to me to be rather prosperous, technologically advanced, vibrant, and connected.  Whatever “Eastern European” is, it didn’t feel that way.  My impression was that it went through great lengths to distance itself from this notion of Eastern European.

Of course, for me, one of the joys of traveling to formerly communist countries is to see what is left behind.  Thus, my interest is not in how Scandinavian Estonia might feel but the legacy of the Soviet Union.   The following are some remnants of communism that I visited.

Linnahall: On my first night in Estonia, I watched the sunset on the gray, graffiti covered remains of the Linnahall, a palace of sports built for the sailing regatta.  The 1980 Olympics were held in Moscow and boycotted by the Western world over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.   As the United States is STILL in Afghanistan after 15 years, the Olympic boycott (of 65 countries no less) seems a little ridiculous.  In any event, a sailing regatta was held in Tallinn and poorly attended.  Today, the ruins of the stage are a gathering ground for flocks of young people who seemed to be hanging out, drinking, and socializing.  As usual, I felt a little odd, as I was alone-without a drink-or intention to socialize.  My interest was watching the sunset over the Baltic sea and enjoying the scenery of pastel painted houses along the shoreline.  If communism was entirely forgotten, maybe no one would gather there and the place would be torn down.

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Patarei Sea Fortress Prison: On my second day, I toured a Soviet Prison.  This is a bit of a misnomer, as the prison operated during tsarist times and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Still, it is pitched as a Cold War attraction, even though it was built in 1828 under Tsar Nicholas I (though it served as a military barracks). The prison was quite photogenic, with colorful graffiti to brighten the dust, rust, and gray.   It is terrible to think of the years of torment, death, and isolation inflicted upon the prisoners there.   And while soviet prisons may invoke a special kind of awful, no prison is “good” and I don’t know if for the time period, our prisons were qualitatively better.  I thought it was interesting that the prison was framed as a Soviet prison.  Maybe this was a way to appeal to tourists who want to enjoy the spectacle of “Sovietness” or that something can be Soviet if it is bad.  Calling it a Estonian Prison is a little more personal and owns the history more than “Soviet prison.”  But, I was told that many of the supervisors of personnel were Russian.  And, as it was built under tsarist rule, it really isn’t part of Estonian national history except for the years that it operated after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Laahema National Park: On my third day, I visited Laahema National Park.  It was the first park established in the Soviet Union.  There wasn’t much “sovietness” to the park, as it featured villages, bogs, dense forest, and German estates.  However, within the park is an abandoned Soviet submarine station.  Interestingly, submarines would stop here, where they would be demagnetized.  I learned that submarines pick up the magnetic fields of the ocean floor, which makes them easier to detect.  This was fascinating.  The earth’s magnetic field has shifted over time, but the ocean floor is magnetized from other eras in earth’s magnetic history.  Submarines become magnetized, which meant they had to be demagnetized through a process of coiling copper wires around the craft and electrifying coils.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the submarine station eventually closed.  When it did, criminal or gangster types dismantled much of the machinery and stripped the station of anything of value.  What remains are cement docks jutting out into the sea, cluttered with garbage and decorated with graffiti.  The fact that this is a tourist attraction attests the fact that Estonians must realize that the history is interesting enough to market.

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Murru/Rummu: Finally, on my fourth day, I saw yet another Soviet prison (Murru) near the village of Rummu, as well as a beach that was actually a limestone quarry.  Mining operations left mountain sized hills of white sand and a pit of water with flooded buildings.  Actually, it was the prisoners who mined the limestone.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prison was closed and the mining stopped, resulting in the “blue lagoon” beach of a mine pit.  The place is a local attraction and it is treated like a beach.  The water is very clear and the sand dunes otherworldly.  The Soviet history is literally submerged, as  buildings and equipment are under the clear, “clean” water of the quarry lake.  (I was told it was clean, but I am skeptical that mining produces pristine water) Other tourist attractions visited that day included a Soviet cargo plane and Soviet style city called Paldiski, complete with Krushchev era apartment buildings.

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Other observations:  Russian was widely heard and spoken, another legacy of communism.  I also learned that while Estonians seem to attest to the good relations with the Russian minority in the country, after the collapse of communism Russian speakers could not gain Estonian citizenship unless they passed a language test.   As such, the mother of one of the guides I met has lived in Estonia for decades, but is not a citizen because she has not learned Estonian with the competency to pass the test.  This seemed quite unfair, especially considering that Estonian is only spoken by about a million people.

Conclusion: It seems to me that Estonia would like to embrace its Western European-Scandinavian-ness (even though geographically, linguistically, and culturally it is neither).  Communism is remembered as something foreign, Russian, and imposed upon.  Still, there is also a recognition that communism sells.  So, there are ample opportunities to tour soviet sites (as I did while I was there).   Maybe like a good horror film or tragic story, communism is good for tourist dollars.  Thus, it is preserved and packaged.  Still, it is not overly embraced nor embraced with kitschy nostalgia.  It might be embraced in the same way a hipster (for lack of a better word) embraces the dorky clothes they wore in high school.   A hip person might feel a little pride in their Lisa Frank binder or wearing zuubaz for several years after they fell out of fashion.  But, embracing the crush on Weird Al Yankovich, thick uncool glasses, acne, infrequent use of deodorant, and F in phy-ed…not so much.  (Only some of that list are from my uncool past).   That was me…and that was SO not me.   Communism- that was me and that was SO not me.  Embrace it a little and it can be cool.  Embrace it a lot and it is awful.    My impression is that Estonia tries to embrace it enough to be cool (unique and not quite Scandinavian) but distanced enough that it is not a part of the national identity.

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