broken walls and narratives

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Archive for the tag “travel”

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.

Travel and Worker Rights

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When I was young, I dreamed of traveling the world.  In high school, I was nominated to be part of a People to People exchange, once to Ireland and another time to Russia.  However, it was far too expensive for my family to afford.  I went to an information session and my mother very honestly told me that we couldn’t afford it.   During my first year of college, I met many students who traveled.  They went all over the world, spending their summers in Greece or service trips to Central America.  I didn’t have any class consciousness.  Somehow I figured that they were simply lucky or even better than I was to have such marvelous adventures.  My limited experiences were framed as personal failure, rather than the outcome of growing up in a town of 250 people to a teen parent and working class family.  In any event, hearing about these adventures made me hunger for travel even more.  It was an obsession.  I did travel.  When I was 19, I went to Paris and London on my own with money I saved from the three jobs I was working at the time (housekeeper, waitress, Headstart classroom helper).   I also went to Mexico that same summer.  That was the first time on an airplane.  It was my first passport and first times outside of the country (aside from Canada).  And, I did it entirely alone (at least the London and Paris trip).  The airport in London was far larger than the cities and towns I grew up around.  I am proud of my 19 year old self (a small town girl with many anxieties) for the bravery.

I have traveled a lot since then.  There was a great deal of longing and desperation for travel.  There was saving and creative financing (such as donating eggs to help pay for a trip to Cuba).   I’ve seen some amazing things.   I saw Hugo Chavez (the deceased former president of Venezuela) speak to crowds of socialist youth.   I’ve seen Lenin’s embalmed body.  I visited schools and universities in Cuba, even learning about the Cuban approach to sex education.  I spent a semester in Ireland living in a cottage on the sea.  I’ve been to Chernobyl and Hiroshima.  Ukraine.  Belarus.  North Korea.  The Great Wall.  The Acropolis.  Mayan Ruins.  The Colosseum.  Auschwitz and Baba Yar.   Bosnia and Serbia.  Albanian bunkers and Jeju Island.  I love lists.  Let me tell you, I make lists all the time.  Not to brag or bring others down, but I love to remember and organize those experiences.

Despite the travel, it wasn’t until about a year ago that I began to think of travel in relation to the rights of workers.  In my mind, it was always a precious luxury.   I think this is how most people from the U.S. view travel.  For most Americans, this is true.  Most people don’t travel unless they are college students or retirees.  In my observation, this is not the case elsewhere.  For instance, last year I spent a month travelling around eastern Europe and the Balkans.  During my travels, I met many Australians.   The majority of the Australian men I met worked in construction, mining, carpentry, engineering, or generally speaking, in areas connected to trades.   Not only were they working in largely blue collared jobs, they were taking extensive vacations.  My month off was enormous by American standards, but many were traveling for two or three months.  Some for more.  I thought it was quite astonishing that these Australian men could partake in such fabulous vacations, vacations that would seem impossible to the average American worker.  In the United States, many blue collar jobs still pay rather well, at least compared to many other jobs.  So, monetarily, it would be possible for U.S. workers to do the same.  The big difference though is vacation time.

1 in 4 Americans get ZERO days of paid vacation time each year.  The federal government does not required to provide even paid holidays!  So, many workers do not even get paid extra for working Christmas or Thanksgiving.  In contrast, EU nations receive a minimum of 20 paid vacation days.  Austrians receive 38 paid vacation/holidays.  Brazil provides 30 paid vacation days with 11 paid holidays.  France 30 days.  What would you do if you had a month off of work and it was paid?  Even a lower income worker might be able to travel around the United States, go to Mexico or the Caribbean, do camping trips, or spend more time with their family in their community. (This data is based upon 2014  Mercer’s Worldwide Benefit And Employment Guidelines and the Center for Economic and Policy Research)

This summer, I traveled again and this time, I observed the same trend of blue collar Australian men travelling, but also observed some people from the service industry traveling.  For instance, I met two cashiers while traveling.  In the U.S., those are minimum wage jobs.  Rent can barely be paid at those wages, yet, elsewhere, even service industry workers can expect to travel.  Both individuals traveled extensively, though on a budget.  I thought that was wonderful.  Even without the paid vacation, perhaps if our service industry employees made $15 an hour, the dream of travelling would be realized.  And yes, I do idealize travel.  I do understand that it can be wasteful and damaging to the planet (in terms of green house gas emissions from planes and the commodification of nature).  But, I don’t know that travel must be inevitably damaging and that some of the negative consequences could be remedied by greener, mass transportation systems.

I think of the Bread and Roses song.  The labor movement typically demands bread, or at least bread crumbs.  Of course, this is the most basic thing- safety, security, wages, benefits.  But, maybe those things that make us more human and alive get forgotten.  It is hard to imagine travel or extensive paid vacation as a legitimate demand when there are so many other demands to be made.   At the same time, those who have it are so much better able to live full lives outside of work.  Travel also, in a way, helps people to see how things can be different.  For me, it helps me see myself as a part of a wider world, rather than just an American.

I feel guilty for my travels- as many people are strapped down by poverty (well, I have endured poverty as well for most of my life), children, responsibilities, jobs without benefits, part time work, a patchwork of full time work consisting of various part time jobs, etc.  I am privileged in many ways.  But, why can’t we all enjoy these things?  What would need to change?  The countries that offer paid time off differ in some ways.  It seems that they have Labor Parties and more aggressive labor movements.  My own job does offer several paid holidays and some rather flexible vacation time (I had three weeks off this summer for my vacation).  We also have a union.  I think then, that while the demand for more vacation time seems trivial compared to the more pressing demands of living wages, any expansion of unions, labor movements, and alternatives to capitalist political parties could potentially work towards this cause.  There is also no reason why workers couldn’t start organizations that make legislative demands for more vacation time or raise awareness of this issue.  I am not aware of any such organizations or movements, except Take Back Your Time, which seems to be driven by the tourist industry rather than workers themselves.  Since workers of the tourist industry (hotels, cruise ships, shops, resorts) are highly exploited, I am suspect of this industry’s self-serving promotion of vacation (without accompanying worker rights).

In the Republican debates the other night, Jeb Bush accused Marc Rubio of his “French work week” senate attendance.  It made me laugh inside.  If only we were so lucky.  But, there are so many myths that prevail.  Somehow economies with vacation are inferior or less productive, as if productivity is the sum of human existence.  8 of the 10 highest GDP countries have fairly generous paid vacations (well, Japan only offers 10 days).  Only Chinese workers on this list have fewer paid vacation days than us.  Of course, GDP isn’t everything.  If 40% of the food we grow is wasted- the GDP would appear high, but would not account for wasteful economic activity.  If there was a natural disaster, again the GDP might grow as more resources must be used to fix the problem- but again, this doesn’t mean that society would be better off.  Anyway, productivity and growth are not necessarily good things. Even if a person accepted this as truth, vacation doesn’t necessarily get in the way of productivity.  I would like to work like the French, the Australians, the British, or the two dozen or so economically developed countries that offer paid vacations.  I only regret that it took me so long to connect my love of travel to a larger issue of social class and worker rights.

A Trip to Belarus

This  past summer I traveled to Belarus.  This was part of a larger trip to Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Sweden.   To begin, Belarus never played a large part in my imagined travels.  Belarus was one of those formerly Soviet countries that I memorized for a geography test in Mr. Bergstedt’s class.  The first conversation about Belarus that I ever had was with Adam.  Belarus was featured in the 1980s Soviet Life Magazine on our tabletop.  The magazine mentioned that some marshes were drained near Pinsk to make way for agricultural land.  We debated if marshes should be drained.  I thought it was a terrible idea and he thought that marshes were mosquito spawning wastelands.  His opinion on this matter has since moderated.   In any event, it planted a seed in my mind that somewhere a country called Belarus exists and that it is marshy.

I read a book about Belarus last November.  It was Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship by Andrew Wilson. There aren’t many books about Belarus.  I learned a bit more about Belarus and its slow start at becoming a nation and the flip flopping policies of the Lukaschenko regime.  The idea of going to Belarus became a little more concrete.  At least, I could imagine it as a nation…albeit a forgotten nation with a dictatorship and dim sense of nationalism.   With that said, I decided that since I was planning on going to the Baltic countries, it would be easy to visit Belarus.  After all, Minks is just a few hours from Lithuania.  And so, I did.

Travelling to Belarus was not terribly easy.   Belarus requires a visa.  To get a visa, a person must be booked with an official tour.  However, I was traveling on my own.  In lue of this, travelers can get a letter of invitation or an official document from their hotel.  I stayed at a hostel and found it was challenging to get the hostel to send me the appropriate document with the official stamp-so that this could be included in my visa application.  They did oblige, but there seemed to be confusion over what I was asking.   I used a visa service in Washington DC, so that my documents would be delivered to the embassy there.  In all, I had to send them that official document, a photo, my flight information, and my hostel confirmation.  I also had to send them proof of travel insurance that specifically covers Belarus.  In total, my visa cost about $300 with all of the fees and postage.  The visa itself was only good for three days.  In this respect, Belarus was rather spendy.   Beyond the initial challenge of getting a visa, there isn’t much tourist infrastructure.  There is some, but none of those common tourist features such as day tours, English websites, Hop on Hop Off buses, kiosks selling maps, etc. are absent.  I booked a private evening tour of the city with Andrei, who offers a variety of private tours and who is a fixture of tourism in Minsk.  Again, a private tour is spendy but I wanted to get a good sense of the city.  Andrei was very well informed about the city and was the most knowledgeable tour guide that I have encountered.  So, it was well worth the additional expense.  There are also minor challenges of visiting Belarus.  I found that the currency was extraordinarily confusing.  The exchange rate was about 15,000 Belarussian Rubles to the Dollar.  Because of this, I found myself giving people bills that were off by a zero.  So, a bottle of water that may cost 30,000 BYR I would give 3,000.  I was seeing too many zeros to make sense of the currency as there are no coins, only bills.  Another item of confusion was that streets and metro stations had both Russian and Belarussian names, though maps or directions might only list the Russian names and both names did not always appear together.  On a side note, Russian is taught in schools and used in public life.  Belarussian is actually less used than before the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Language aside, I felt a little confused and challenged during my visit.

The country was certainly unique.  I flew to Minsk from Kiev, arriving at the airport, convienently located over an hour from the city.  Still, I was proud to navigate the airport to city bus, saving money on a cab.  Leaving the airport, I was met with forests and fields.  Within my first half an hour in the country, I saw three shiny blue Belarus tractors.  It was odd to see agricultural land outside the capital.  Rather than sprawling subburbs were villages and expansive farms with herds of shaggy round haybales.  I got off the bus at the last stop on the metro, which I took to my hostel.  I stayed at Hostel Revolucion, which was tucked down Revolution Street near the older part of town.  The hostel had charming revolutionary décor, a tortoise, a spiral staircase, and was pretty inexpensive-which was good, considering how much I spent on the visa.  It was oppressively hot during my stay in Belarus.  At least the upper 90s.

My hostel:

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Something like 90% of Minsk was destroyed during WWII, so I expected a dreary, gray Stalinist city.  Actually, where I was staying there were areas that had not been destroyed in the war or older parts that had been rebuilt.  My hostel was near a Jesuit church, a Catholic church, and a mideival townsquare.  On my first evening, I explored the area around my hostel and took a city tour.  I think the highlight of the city tour was the giant library that looked like a Droid cube spaceship and the former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald.   Other sites included various churches, government buildings, war memorials, etc.  Interestingly, tourists are not allowed to take photos of government buildings.  Government buildings are marked with Belarussian flags.  Unlike other places where flags may appear anywhere or are waved around patriotically, the flag is used sparingly and mostly to mark government buildings. Again, like the Belarussian language, there does not seem to be strong attachment to the flag.

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On my second day I was supposed to take a trip outside the city to The Berezinksy Nature Reserve.  However, because of the extreme heat, the reserve closed.  This was very disappointing, as I had been looking forward to seeing zubr (bison).  Instead, I went to The Museum of the Great Patriotic War, or as we would call it, a WWII museum.  Belarus suffered terrible losses during WWII.  Minsk was bombed and occupied, as well as the site of a large Jewish ghetto of 100,000 people.  Belarus also served as a site of resistance-such as the Jewish resistance of the Bielski brothers who hid in the Belarussian forests and .  The museum was interesting because it still flew the Soviet flag.  This is also something worth noting.  Whereas most post-communist countries have renamed streets and torn down soviet monuments, Minsk has not.  The streets are still named things such as Marx, Lenin, revolution, October, victory, etc.  Buildings still featured red stars and sickles and hammers.   With the large police and military presence, tractors driving in the city, and older ladies sweeping debris from the street, there was a sense that communism had never left.  Of course, this would ignore the Chinese and Iranian investment in hotels, apartments, and other buildings, along with McDonalds, Papa Johns, sushi, casinos, luxury cars, and Starbucks.  Anyway, the museum was quite interesting, with large dioramas and local art.  Not far from the museum was a large park and a nature reserve called the Island of Birds.  I spend the afternoon in the shade of the island, avoiding the sinister heat with a book about Hitler and Stalin’s atrocities in the lands between Germany and Russia.  An intoxicated man from Uzbekistan chatted me up while I was reading, trying to become friends and get me to agree to meet him later.  I pretended not to understand and wandered away after he didn’t move along on his own.  This ended my relaxation on the Island of Birds.

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Another highlight of my visit to Minsk was a visit to the Museum of the Founding Congress of the Social Democratic Labor Party.  The green building was tucked behind some trees, not far from a WWII memorial and the apartment of Lee Harvey Oswald.  The small museum contained some early 1900s art along with some artifacts from this meeting and other events hosted at the house over the years.  The museum was mostly in Russian so I did not leave with much additional information.  The visit to the house was mostly symbolic or historical as a site of the origins of the Bolshevik party.   The green hammer and sickle fence around the house was a highlight of this visit.  Afterwards, I visited a park, an amusement park, and the National Art Museum of Belarus.  I enjoyed becoming familiar with Belarussian art.  The museum housed a very large collection of icons.

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Overall, Belarus was interesting.  It is a place where I saw almost no tourists and heard very little English.  Unlike other formerly communist countries, there is less distance between the communist history and symbols.  This isn’t to say that globalization and capitalism are absent, but there is less idealization and strong ties with the West.  While I was there, I saw people petitioning to have candidates on the ballot in the national elections this October (which Lukaschenko just won…making this his 5th term as president).  In the past, the police would have cracked down on this.  I also saw a lot of construction and a disparity of wealth between luxury and everyone else.  Minsk felt rather safe if not sleepy.  The sense of safety might arise from the number of police and how common it was to see families in public spaces, going for strolls and enjoying public fountains.  With that said, as with everything, the experience was dialectical.  Forces of change clashed with forces of conservatism.

Travel Tips:

Apply for your visa early (I gave myself about a month and a half and felt stressed that I hadn’t given it enough time.)

Carry a calculator (for currency conversions)

Study or brush up on Russian (I used Russian in museums, shops, tourist sites)

Buy a map (I had a hard time finding a city map in stores)

Books to read:  (There are not many books to read on Belarus, but the ones I read during and before the trip were: Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder as well as The Reconstruction of Nations by the same author and Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship by Wilson)

A Trip to Ukraine

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I have wanted to write a post about my visit to Ukraine, but have been uncertain where to begin or how to frame it.  I am afraid that I will interpret something wrong.  Even now, I am not sure what to write.  When I told fellow travelers that I had been to Ukraine, I was often met with a reaction that it is unsafe to travel there.  Many travelers feel that they would avoid going there and expressed fear of the country’s situation.  So, I thought I would write about my short experience there and my perceptions of the country (as well as some lessons learned.).

Why Ukraine?

I was attracted to Ukraine because I wanted to visit Chernobyl and because I was planning to go to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden with BusAbout.  I wanted to go to a country near these countries as I was already planning on going to the region.  As such, I chose Ukraine and Belarus, as I have never been to these countries and they were near my bus tour with Bus About.  I was also interested in Ukraine out of a general interest in communist history and Slavic cultures.  With that said, I considered safety issues and figured that because fighting in the country has been in eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that it was probably relatively safe to travel to Kiev.  This assumption was based on the notion that fighting had not spread beyond these regions over the course of a year (since Crimea was annexed).  Furthermore, the State Department’s website has not posted any travel warnings for regions outside of those near the border with Russia (at the time of my booking).  Finally, other travelers to Ukraine have not reported war specific issues while travelling in western Ukraine.  The main complaint of other travelers (at least in a survey of blogs) are problems with crime, corruption, or police.

The situation:

It is hard to make complete sense out of the conflict and really, I only dimly understand it.  The conflict regions have Russians and Russian speaking Ukrainians, some of whom want to break away from Ukraine.  Russia has supported separatist rebels, supplying them with weapons and troops.  The region has experienced de-industrialization since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has created Soviet nostalgia among some of the populace.  This has been expressed through a pro-Russian and an anti-European Union orientation.  The economic troubles are important to note, as the conflict began after the EuroMaidan protests which..if I understand them correctly were basically protests regarding an acceptance of a Russian bailout versus an EU bailout (again a Russian versus EU orientation), but also some issues of corruption.  The ultra-nationalist, anti-Russian tone of the protests were worrisome to the Russian speaking easterners.  Despite real economic, cultural, and historical concerns of people of this region, the conflict is fueled by Russian support.  There are various narratives and debates about the conflict (such as is Russia imperialist? and are there two Ukraines?).  I am afraid that I only have a basic understanding of the situation.

Safety and prejudice:

Although 7,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine, I did not feel particularly unsafe during my visit.  Nevertheless, when I planned the trip I made sure that I only stayed a few days and only in Kiev in case the situation changed.  Really, when I arrived I was more worried about tales of corruption and crime.  There were various warnings about being taken advantage of by taxis or hassled by police. Of course, this can happen in many countries.  Because my flight was changed at the last moment, I arrived in Kiev at 1am.  This was a terrible start to the trip because I couldn’t use the Skybus or the Metro (as the metro closes after midnight).  Thus, I was forced to take a taxi.  There was a driver by a kiosk that said “taxi” or ground transport, so when he offered me a ride I assumed he was a legitimate driver.  I agreed upon a price (which was expensive at 25 euros, but not beyond the averages that other travelers reported).  However, when he brought me to his car, he was not a licensed taxi driver with a marked vehicle.  I was quite paranoid from the reports of other travelers, but it was late and I took the risk.  All the while, I imagined all the terrible things that could happen.  I was so worked up about it, that I wouldn’t let him handle my bags and would not get out of the cab until I was 100% certain it was the hotel.  Even then, I half expected him to change the price.  Thankfully, I arrived at the hotel without incident.  Even then, I expected the hotel to rip me off.  The polite staff informed me that although I had prepaid I needed to pay a local tax.  I was sure it was a scam.  No, only my paranoia.  The tax was less than a dollar.  When I went to my room, I decided to relax and stop assuming that everyone was out to get me.  Reading travel blogs had made me paranoid and prejudiced.  Thus, a major lesson that I learned on the trip was not to let concerns for safety prejudice me against the people of the country.  Honestly, everyone that I interacted with was polite, helpful, and generally nice.  There is a stereotype that eastern European service industry workers are rude (that is, they have not yet conformed to the level of emotion work that their western counterparts do…i.e. service with a smile, the customer is always right, and many other dehumanizing acts of emotional and mental control.)  For better or worse, this was not my experience.

The experience:

My hotel was Hotel Ukraine, a monstrous building overlooking Maidan Square.  I had a room on the 8th floor which over looked of the square.  I liked the hotel.  It was close to many sites and only cost $25 a night.  Really, many things were very inexpensive.  The wonderful museums that I visited were each under a dollar for admission.  In this sense, Ukraine is an inexpensive place to visit for an American.  As nice as this is for a budget minded traveler, it is awful for Ukrainians (as this would signify a decline in standards of living, with more expensive imports and a decline in wages).  The currency was devaluated 40% in 2008 and was devalued again in 2014 to meet IMF requirements (for a floating currency?).  As such, a dollar is worth about 22 hryvnia.  I exchanged $20 and this lasted three days (with some currency leftover).  Granted, I purchased food from a grocery store and my main expenses were metro rides and museum admissions.

Anyway, after some rest at my hotel, I set out to explore Kiev.  Once again, I generally felt very safe.  There were many soldiers out and about, as well as police.  I also observed many Ukrainian flags along with makeshift memorials to the dead.  These memorials were set up along the roads near Maidan Square and consisted of candles, flowers, and photographs.  The flags, memorials, and movement of soldiers were the main indications that the country was involved in war.  Another indication was a lack of tourists.  I went to several tourist sites, such as the Cave Monastery, St. Sophia, a war museum, a famine monument, etc.  There were Ukrainian tourists at these sites, but I did not note foreign tourists.  Even on the metro, I never heard English or saw backpackers.  While I am sure there were some tourists in Kiev, I do not recall hearing or seeing them.  And, even though I was certainly not as fashionable or thin as Ukrainian women, I did not perceive that I was always pegged as a tourist either.  For example, I have found that tourists are often communicated to in English first.  This was not always the case.  I was even asked by a woman (in Ukrainian) which metro stop we were at.  I any event, although I often felt alone as a foreign tourist, I didn’t feel that I particularly stood out (that is I wasn’t harassed or bothered by street vendors or people selling things any more than anyone else).

Language was a slight problem.  I studied Russian for two years but I am pretty rusty.  Nevertheless, I could sometimes figure out signs or what people were saying to me (in Ukrainian).  However, I felt like I had to pretend not to understand or that I could not reply in Russian.  I was afraid that if I used any Russian it might be offensive or a sensitive issue.  Ukrainian is not the same as Russian and I don’t speak any Ukrainian.  So, while some words are the same or similar, there are obviously many words that are different.  The language issue was not that big of a deal, but a minor challenge.  It made me feel mute, as I might know how to respond in Russian, but I was afraid to speak.  Now, my Russian skills are terrible anyway.  I am not sure how much help it would have been.  It was certainly better than knowing nothing.  Of course, Ukrainian uses a few different Cyrillic letters.  Nevertheless, it was a bit of a conundrum.  For the most part, young people spoke English.  The non-English speakers I encountered tended to be older women working at museums or as cashiers.  As a travel tip to anyone considering going to Ukraine, a Ukrainian phrase book would have been helpful!

Despite warnings of crime and trouble with police, I did not encounter these problems.  Because of a lack of tourists, there were not as many crowds as many popular tourist destinations.  As such, there was always enough space around me and never a sense that there were pickpockets lurking about.  And while tourists to Russia have sometimes complained of being stopped by police and made to show their passports, I feel that I was mostly ignored by police.

The only time that I felt uncertain about safety was when there was a large military parade on August 22nd.  I saw hundreds of soldiers and heard loud patriotic music.  There were crowds of people and some demonstrations of military equipment.  I was baffled by the scene.  I was uncertain if the scene meant that there was a ramping up of the war or if it was some sort of memorial for the people who died earlier in the week.  I threaded through the crowd, took some photos, and wandered off to my hotel.  The parade or gathering lasted for several hours.  I found out later (by looking it up on the internet at my hotel) that Independence Day is on August 24th, so the parade was likely related to this.  This eased my worries.

Once again, I felt safer in Kiev than in places such as Moscow or St. Petersburg.  To contrast, when I visited Moscow in the past, I felt that the city was huge.  I felt that the spread of the city to the size of the buildings are all designed to make a person feel small.  There were crowds at tourist sites, along with beggars.  Kiev, in contrast, felt smaller and less crowded.  It felt less busy.  At night, the city was darker and it seemed that fewer people were out.  The roads were mostly empty.  I am sure there is night life, but no one seemed to be lingering out that long.  In fact, that was my first impression of the country.  When I arrived at 1 am, I was surprised how dark the city was.  Even Maidan square was dark.  It seemed that everyone went to sleep early.

Russia is my frame of reference for Eastern Europe.  I travelled there twice in college for a summer Russian program.  So, whenever I travel to an eastern European country, I can’t help but compare it to Russia.  With that said, there are of course some similarities owing to some shared history, religion, and culture.  Kiev gave the impression of ancientness.  Of course, it has been settled since at least the 5th century, so it is old!  The cave monastery that I visited dated back to 1077.  Parts of St. Sophia also date back to the 11th century.  Anyone with an interest in Eastern Orthodox religion would be quite enthralled by the city.  Unfortunately, as an atheist, I couldn’t fully appreciate it all.  I felt awkward and out of place at sites where people were crying in awe and reverence.  I also did not pack the appropriate clothes for these visits.  As a word of advice, pack a long skirt and shawl if you wish to visit these places.  I did not.  But, even if I had, the temperature was about 95 degrees, so I probably wouldn’t have overdressed anyway.

Kiev also gave the impression of tragedy, though this may have more to do with my interests than the city itself.  For instance, I made a point of visiting Babi Yar twice.  However, other monuments to human loss are the famine monument, Holodomor museum, and Chernobyl museum.  There are also day trips to Chernobyl itself (which can be read about in my previous post).

Conclusion:

I enjoyed my short visit to Kiev and don’t regret going.  It was interesting to be in the country.  It was a unique opportunity to witness how the conflict there impacts people.  There is an impression that despite the flags, patriotism, movement of soldiers, and memorials, people continue to live as normal (visiting museums, shopping, eating, socializing).  Nevertheless, my taxi driver on the way back to Boryspil airport said that he hadn’t seen his family for a year because they live in the conflict areas.  In the end, I am left wondering what it means to come and go.  There are things that I will never really understand.  In many ways, I am always that person standing at the monastery.  Everyone is crying in awe and reverence.  I don’t feel the same and can’t feel the same.  I come and go as an outsider to things I don’t and can’t understand.

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