broken walls and narratives

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Counting Countries

Counting Countries

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H. Bradford

9/26/17

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

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


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

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

 

Zhenyuanlong suni


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

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


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

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


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

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A rally in support of Kurdish independence


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


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


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

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

 

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

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

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Some Things I’ve done to Travel

Some Things I’ve Done to Travel

H. Bradford

9/13/17

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

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


1. Donate Eggs:

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

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

Image result for egg basket


 

2. Medical Study:

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

(Random guinea pig image from Pinterest)


3. Work Illegally:

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

4. Work- Really Hard:

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

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(Random image stolen from a google search.)

5. Join a Mission Trip

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

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(Image from Tours in Monterrey)

6. Tax Refund

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

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7. Second Savings Account

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



8. Regular Saving and Working…

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


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

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

Missed Connections: The Social Challenge of Travel

 

Missed Connections: The Social Challenge of Travel

H. Bradford

9/9/17

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

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

 


 

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

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

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


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


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


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

 

 

 

 

How Does Turkmenistan ACTUALLY compare to North Korea?

How Does Turkmenistan ACTUALLY compare to North Korea?

H. Bradford

9/5/17

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

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

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Neutrality Monument in Ashgabat


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

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An amusement park in Ashgabat


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

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Darvaza Gas Crater


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

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The stadium built for the Asia Games.


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

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


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

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Pyongyang

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Ashgabat

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

H. Bradford

7-13-17

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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Asleep on the Deserted Sea

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

H. Bradford

7/1/17

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

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

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

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

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

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The Politics of Travel to North Korea

The Politics of Travel to North Korea

H. Bradford

6/29/17

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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Travel and My Fears

 

Travel and My Fears

H. Bradford

5/21/17

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Packing for an Overland Trip

Packing for an Overland Trip

H. Bradford

12/7/16


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


Useful Items:

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

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


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

This is me sans lotion.

 


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

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This didn’t feel very tropical.

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

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Wetter than it looks.

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


Ginger candies:

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


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My Little Archaeopteryx

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

 


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


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

 

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

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

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