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Anxious Adventuring: Hiking Mount Scenery

Copy of Anxious Adventuring_Scenery

Anxious Adventuring: Hiking Mount Scenery

H. Bradford

02/03/2020


Another mountain.  I am not sure why I do this to myself, but I seem to have some sadistic urge to punish myself by forcing my out of shape self up hills, volcanoes, and mountains while on vacation.  Finally, the day of reckoning on my St. Maarten vacation had come. It was Sunday, the day I had purchased a ferry ticket to the island of Saba to hike up Mount Scenery. I woke up with a sense of dread.  In fact, I didn’t want to wake up at all. For the past several days, Saba loomed large in the near distance, its top shrouded in clouds. Every day brought me another day closer to visiting that cloud covered summit, the highest point in the Netherlands and the mythical Skull Island from King Kong. Aside from the hike, the day would involve transportation logistics that I worried wouldn’t work out.  What if I couldn’t find a taxi to the trail head? What if I couldn’t find a taxi back after the hike? What if the hike took too long? What if I missed my ferry back and was stuck on the island until Tuesday?  

 

Despite my trepidation, I got on the taxi that my hotel had arranged for me and headed to Simpson Bay, where the ferry was set to leave at 9 am.  I booked the ferry ticket through Aqua Mania Adventures, which seems to be the main distributor of tickets. It costs about $100 for the round trip ticket on a ferry that would take about an hour and a half each way.  My hope was to arrive at about 10:30 am and start hiking at 11 am, which would give me about three hours or so to hike up and down the popular Mt. Scenery trail and return to the ferry by 3:30pm. Thus, my day began with the taxi ride from Philipsburg to Simpson Bay, which took about a half an hour and cost me about $18.  


The taxi dropped me off at a parking lot in front of a police station, which suspiciously did not look like the sort of place a ferry would leave.  I doubled checked my paperwork. The instructions stated the Simpson Bay Police Dock, but there was nothing in the area which remotely resembled a ticketing desk. The ferry check in at Simpson Bay is actually located IN the police station near the immigration area.  This was very confusing, especially for the first few travelers to arrive as there was no office or sign indicating that it was the right place. I asked someone inside the building at the immigration desk, who informed me that someone from Aqua Mania Adventures would be arriving soon.  Soon, some equally confused tourists arrived and began milling about the area, waiting for the ticketing agents. A little after 8 am, two individuals from Edge Ferries and Aqua Mania Adventures arrived and set themselves up at an empty table in the immigration office area. They began checking in tourists, scanning passports, and issuing the plastic card that would serve as the ferry ticket.  This process lasted until about 9am, when the ferry arrived and picked up near the police station.


The trip to Saba takes about an hour and a half and most of the travelers on the ferry were there for day trips.  In fact, over half were there to hike Mount Scenery. The ferry offered a complimentary soft drink and was otherwise a calm, uneventful journey. Upon arrival at the very small port, all passengers went through customs and passport control.  All of the other hikers had booked a package which included transportation and lunch. Thus, I was a little concerned about the transportation issue. There were enough taxis for all of the travelers, but I had to wait for my taxi to fill up with other people.  It was the last taxi to leave among the few parked at the ferry terminal. Since other passengers in the taxi van had other plans, the other hikers were able to get a half an hour head start on the trail before I was dropped off.


Due to the time constraints, the taxi driver decided to drop me off at a different trail head than the Mount Scenery Trail head near the Windwardside town.  I was instead dropped up the hill a bit, which cut off about a half an hour of my hike (a one hour hike up rather than 90 minutes) and caught me up to the other hikers.  The taxi itself cost $12, but would have been less with more people in the taxi van, so this number is variable. The driver agreed to meet me at the actual Mt. Scenery trail head (near the trail shop) at 2:45 pm, which would offer enough time to return for the ferry check in at 3:15.  I arrived at the trail just after 11:30. The driver said it would be an hour hike up and an hour hike down (to the actual trailhead). He also told me to turn left at the fork (towards the town) so that I would head to the correct trailhead at the designated meeting time.

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

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature

 


From the spot on the trail, I began the hour hike up to Mt. Scenery.  It was a humid, hot day, but the forest provided some shade and there was sometimes a breeze.  Because of recent rains, the trail was very slippery. The biggest offender was decaying vegetation and moss on the rocks.  I almost wiped out a few times from slipping, but was able to keep balanced. The steps were unevenly sized and also slippery.  However, the upper third of the trail often featured metal railings which aided with balance and also helped me pull my exhausted body up all those steps.  The trail is primarily made of stone steps, which can be tiring in the heat or simply due to the shear number of them (over 1000 from the trail head). There were enough flowers, foliage, and jumping lizards to occupy my mind as I ascended.  It took almost exactly an hour as the driver had predicted.  

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Image may contain: plant and outdoor

Image may contain: plant, nature and outdoor


The top of Mount Scenery featured a radio tower and a plaque with its elevation.  It was cloudy at the top, but I was able to take a few photos of the town at the bottom and of the sea before the cloud cover returned.  I didn’t linger long at the top since I wanted to make sure that I had enough time to return and visit the town below. So, after taking some photos, watching the moving clouds, and some time spent drinking my water, I set off back towards the bottom.  As predicted, this also took about an hour. Other people are likely to take less time, but I found it particularly slippery on the way down. This was where I slipped the most, as gravity wanted me to go faster than my feet did. I also stopped to take more photos on the way down, as I knew I had more time to spare.  Once at the bottom, I visited the trail shop, where I made a donation and received a certificate that I had reached the top. I then walked around the town, but many things were closed due to it being a Sunday.  

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I returned to the trailhead and was picked up by the taxi at 2:45 without incident.  Along the way, the driver pointed out some of the sights on the island, such as a university, some old churches, nearby islands such as Statia, and a hospital.  I arrived back with plenty of time to go through passport control and wait around in the scorching sun for the ferry to board. Some children were swimming in the small boat landing, as there are few beaches on the island.  I watched as some tropicbirds flew over the nearby cliffs until the ferry finally boarded and we set off back for Simpson Bay. The ferry ride back was equally calm and passengers were treated to pods of jumping dolphins, a swimming iguana, diving brown boobies, and flying fish. 

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At Simpson Bay, I once again went through passport control, then realized that there were no taxis waiting for the ferry.  I had assumed that taxis would congregate around the ferry drop off point waiting for business. This was not the case and I was instead met with an empty parking lot.  I walked to the nearby McDonalds, as it seemed like a more likely place to find a taxi, and waited for a taxi to pass. While I didn’t see any pass, I did see an approaching van with “Phillipsburg” in red letters in the window.  I flagged down the van, which is one of the public transportation vans. Although I was not at an actual bus stop, it stopped and picked me up anyway. It was $2 to ride back to Phillipsburg. The vans serve as the public transportation for the island, but they don’t have fixed schedules or precise routes.  They can be picked up at actual bus stops which say “bushalte”, but I also saw other people just flag down the van as I had. Apparently the rate varies at different times of the day. In any event, I found it to be a convenient and cheap way to return to Phillipsburg.


In the end, I was happy that everything worked out!  I made all of my transportation connections, arrived at Saba, climbed Mount Scenery, and made it back to Phillipsburg to tell the tale.  To other travelers, I would suggest that the police station is indeed the correct location for the ferry and that it is probably much less worrisome to book transportation and lunch ahead of time on Saba.  I was the only hiker who had not pre-arranged these details. Nevertheless, I fared just fine as there were enough taxis waiting at the tiny port. As for the return trip, it was certainly a pretty good savings to take the public van on the way back.  I am sure I could have taken the public van on the way to the ferry terminal as well, but because I am not accustomed to their regularity and I wanted to arrive on time, I didn’t consider it. There are ferries which leave from Philipsburg as well. Because they leave earlier and return later, the Philipsburg ferry provides a longer window for hiking.  However, I had plans on the days that the Phillipsburg ferries were operating so I had to take the ferry from Simpson Bay. Finally, the hike itself is challenging, but not impossible. I huffed,puffed, and sweated up those stairs, but in the end, it is only an hour or an hour and a half of effort up to the top. This is very doable. The biggest challenge is simply knowing that there is a time constraint due to the ferry schedule and taxi logistics.  With more time, a person could really savor the scenery, bird life, and many lizards. The hardest part was how slippery it was. I would recommend hiking sticks, though with the railings, these could become a nuisance when they have to be stowed away. Otherwise, it was a great little hike!

Image may contain: sky, cloud, mountain, tree, outdoor and nature     View of Mount Scenery from Windwardside

  

Winnipeg With My Mother

Road Trip to Winnipeg (With My Mother)

Winnipeg Road Trip (With My Mother)


H. Bradford

8/18/19


In June, I visited Winnipeg with my mother.  I thought I would write up a summary of what we did, so other travelers to Winnipeg might have an idea of fun things to do, especially if they are traveling with a family member.  Winnipeg is about seven hours away from Duluth, MN and I wanted to visit during the centennial commemoration of the 1919 Winnipeg general strike.   You can read more about tourist attractions related to the general strike here: Winnipeg General Strike Travel Ideas.  My mother traveled to Winnipeg as a child with her own parents, so she was interested in traveling there for the sake of nostalgia.   Despite our different interests, there were several things that we enjoyed in common.  Here are some of the top attractions that we saw:


Oseredok, Ukrainian Museum:


This is a free attraction and the first place we stopped while waiting for check in time for our hotel.   Oseredok means “center” in Ukrainian.  It isn’t a place to spend hours, but it did have a floor that featured WWI era photos from Ukraine, which is the current exhibit.  I was tired from working night shifts and recovering from a stomach bug, so I will admit that my brain did not digest a lot of World War I Ukrainian history.  It doesn’t help that Ukraine really didn’t exist as a nation during World War I, as it was divided between the Russian Empire and Austro Hungarian Empire.   Thus, Ukrainians fought each other during World War I on behalf of the respective empires they were a part of.  The photo exhibit constituted a floor of the building and was the only public area open at the time of my visit.   There is also a nice gift shop in the museum with Ukrainian crafts and imports.  Winnipeg had Canada’s largest urban population of Ukrainians until the 1970s, as Ukrainian immigrants came to the area in the early 1900s to work in such areas as mining, railroads, factories, lumber, and so on.   Oseredok is located near the Manitoba Museum.


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Osoredok Website:

https://oseredok.ca/

184 Alexander Ave, Winnipeg, MB R3B 0L6, Canada

More Info on Ukrainians in Winnipeg:

http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages%5CW%5CI%5CWinnipeg.htm

 


 

  Manitoba Museum:


Near Oserodok is the expansive Manitoba Museum.  The museum is a lot to take in, and as I mentioned, my brain and stomach were not really up to the task of taking much in.  I wrote a blog post about the museum’s exhibit on the Winnipeg General Strike, but there was so much more!  A person could devote a whole day to exploring the museum.   The many things in the museum include dinosaurs, geology, natural history of Manitoba, indigenous history, Hudson Bay Company history,  and an exhibit on The Franklin Expedition.  The museum also features Animals Inside Out, an exhibition of plasticized animal bodies and organs.  Animals Inside Out is bizarre and beautiful, as there is something elegant about the skinless forms of familiar animals.  At the same time, I found it a little disturbing.  I guess I am a bit sensitive, as I felt anxious around the naked, dead, plastic, dissected animals.  That unusual state of display draws attention to their lifelessness and literally disembodies the whole of their being.   Kids seemed just fine running around and gawking at the sinewy nakedness of a plasticized giraffe, so I guess I am probably one of the few sensitive ones.  The museum is a bit spendy, but there is a lot to see.  I visited the Museum Galleries and Animals Inside Out, which is the most basic admission at $19.50.  There is also a Science Gallery and Planetarium which can be visited at additional cost.   The museum is located at: 190 Rupert Ave, Winnipeg, MB R3B 0N2, Canada


No photo description available.


Mantiboa Museum:

https://manitobamuseum.ca/main/visit/


 

  Assiniboine Park Zoo:

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Seeing dead, plastic coated animals at the Manitoba Museum made me feel a bit uneasy.  I prefer to see living animals, even if they are in captivity.  On our second day in Winnipeg, we visited the Assiniboine Park Zoo.  The zoo was established in 1904, and was one of the attractions that my mother had visited as a child in the 1970s.   Zoos are controversial, in that they do important work in conservation and education, but also normalize the use of animals for entertainment and the imprisonment of animals.   Despite the debates around them, I do enjoy going to zoos, as I like learning about animals and seeing them.   There are several things that stand out about the zoo.  One, there is a nice bird exhibit called Toucan Ridge, in which birds such as spoonbills and ibises roam semi-freely in a tropical plant filled dome.  There was a butterfly garden, but it was devoid of butterflies because it was a cool day and perhaps they were inactive.  There were also pretty neat Boreal Forest and Great Plains exhibits.  But, by far the best attraction at the zoo as the large polar bear exhibit which is part of the zoo’s Journey to Churchill area.  The polar bear exhibit features a cafe wherein patrons can eat their lunches while watching polar bears outside of the large windows.  There are also a few viewing areas of the grassy slopes where the polar bears are kept.  An educational center features interactive displays and acts as a small museum to the biology and conservation of polar bears.   The grand finale of it all is a glass tube, where visitors can watch polar bears swimming and playing above their heads.  Other Arctic animals are also featured in this exhibit, which really makes a person wish they could travel to Churchill.  Unfortunately, those trips are often over $7000 and zoo admission is $20.50 for an adult.  I suggest visiting Journey to Churchill last, as we did, since it really is a fabulous exhibit and worth saving until the end.


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Assiniboine Park Zoo: https://assiniboinepark.ca/zoo


Assiniboine Gardens and Leo Mol Sculpture Garden:


Once we had finished visiting the zoo, we went to the nearby Assiniboine Gardens and Leon Mol Sculpture Garden.  Both are free to visit.  Although there are several gardens in the park, we primarily visited the English Garden.  The entrance of the garden is marked by a statue called The Boy With a Boot, which dates back to 1897 when it was part of a fountain commemorating the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria.  Apparently the statue was unpopular, as a boy with a leaky boot didn’t seem like an appropriate statue to honor the 60th anniversary of the queen’s ascension to the throne.  This is why the statue found its way from City Hall to the park.  An impoverished child seems like a good way to celebrate the senseless excess of monarchy to me!  The surrounding garden was full of roses, peonies, lilacs, mock orange bushes, and poppies during our visit.  There is a small cottage within the garden, which I have seen referred to as Grandma’s Cottage, though I am not sure what the story is regarding the building.  It mostly served as a quaint prop for photographs.

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Adjacent to the English Garden is the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden.  Leo Mol, or Leonid Molodoshanin, was a Ukrainian sculptor who emigrated to Canada in 1948, eventually settling in Winnipeg.   The sculpture garden features 300 pieces of art donated by Leo Mol, which can be found in the art gallery, studio, or gardens.  The sculpture garden was established in 1992.  Many of the sculptures depict wildlife, such as deer, bear, and a boar, while there is also a large assembly of lithe, nude women.  Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet, artist, writer, and independence/national identity figure also makes several appearances.  My favorite sculpture was The Blind Bandurist, since I had already seen a version of it Oseredok and the bandura is associated with Ukrainian identity, which was one of the themes of the city’s history.  My mother’s favorite sculpture was Moses, who is located by a pergola and iris enveloped pond.

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Living Prairie Museum:


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This is another free attraction, which is located within 10 minutes drive from the zoo.  Prairies are an endangered ecosystem that have almost all but disappeared.  In Manitoba, less than 1% remains of the original tall grass prairie that pre-dated European colonization.  The Living Prairie Museum is a patch of restored prairie, where visitors can walk along an interpretive trail to learn more about prairie plants and animals.  To be fair, it is not an expansive attraction or even one what will wow visitors with its pristine natural beauty.   It appears as a large field located by a school and apartment building.  But, if a person takes their time to enjoy the trail, one can appreciate the effort to restore this pocket of prairie with native grasses and wildflowers.   The preserve, located in a residential area, was set aside in 1968 after it was discovered to be a vestige of an original prairie and now features over 160 species of grasses and wildflowers (some of which are prairie plants from Illinois as prairie plant seeds were not widely available at the time).  Some highlights of the trail included yellow lady slippers, wild prairie roses,  prairie sage, prairie smoke, wild licorice, and countless wildflowers which I couldn’t identify.   The visitor center regularly hosts educational events, but was closed during our visit.  It may not seem like much, but our visit was relaxing and educational.  It is probably the best urban prairie that a person can visit!


http://www.friendsoflivingprairie.org/ Image may contain: plant, nature and outdoor


Grand Beach Provincial Park:


Grand Beach is located about an hour and a half north of Winnipeg on Lake Winnipeg.  It was once a bustling tourist attraction which drew tourists from Winnipeg on the multiple train connections a day.  But, over the years, the beach declined in popularity, its dance pavilion burned, and the train service was discontinued with the advent of car travel.  It has been a provincial park since 1961 and is a breeding area for the endangered piping plover.  While the beach is not as popular as it was in its heydey, it is worth the drive to visit the white sand beaches and to see Lake Winnipeg, the third largest lake within Canada’s borders.  I mostly spent the afternoon stalking the nearby forests and trails for birds, as the area is great for birdwatching- even if June isn’t peak bird watching season.   The lagoon near the beach is a hotspot for birds, though I didn’t see anything unique during my visit.  My mother spent some time on the shore and in the water, which she found to be full of algae (so better for looking at than swimming).  There is a boardwalk and a few shops.   Despite the jackpine forests around it, it is easy to imagine that the beach is located on the ocean or some tropical location.  A beach makes for a good family destination, as those who like to play in the water can enjoy that, others can hike, or a person can choose to read or relax on the sand.

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Image may contain: ocean, sky, beach, cloud, outdoor, nature and water


Birds Hill Provincial Park:


Part of our trip involved camping at Birds Hill Provincial Park.  The park is located about a half an hour north from downtown Winnipeg and is a sprawling forest full of trails and campgrounds.  The park hosts an annual folk festival.  While visiting, we camped and hiked.  One of the trails that we hiked along was the Pine Ridge trail, which visitors can walk along while reading the interpretive brochure.   The trail travels along what was once Pine Ridge, a community of mostly Polish and Ukrainian farmers.  Most of the structures are gone, but the brochure offers the history of the store, school, farmsteads that were one there.  One farm along the mile and a half trail remains in tact for viewing.   I also wandered along the Lake View Trail, which takes visitors to a beach.  A highlight of the camping experience was the dozens of Franklin’s ground squirrels that darted around the campground.  Although these grey squirrel sized ground squirrels are found in Minnesota, they prefer prairie habitats so they are not often found in my area.   The park features a variety of ecosystems, such as prairie, burr oak and aspen forests, and spruce and tamarack dominated wetlands.  Yellow salsify, yellow ladyslipper, coralroot orchids, and oval leaf milkweed were among the wildflowers that I spotted on the trails.   Among the bird species seen in the park, there were a variety of sparrows, including clay colored and lark sparrows, as well as ravens, catbirds, red eyed vireos, common yellow throats, etc.  A day pass to visit the park is only $5 CAN and also works at other provincial parks, such as Grand Beach.


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Lower Fort Garry:


When we visited, it was free to visit the grounds of Lower Fort Gary, which is located about 15-20 minutes away from Birds Hill Provincial Park.   Visitors can also opt to take a guided tour, which costs about $7 and allows access to the interior of buildings.  We ambled around the complex on our own, as a map and signage helped us interpret the fort and buildings.  The fort was built in 1830 and served the Hudson’s Bay Company for fur trading and as a supply depot.  The fort is known for its historic stone buildings and limestone walls, but I found the psychiatric hospital to be the most interesting.  It was offhandedly mentioned on a plaque that one of the buildings served as a mental health hospital (the first in what became Manitoba)which seemed like a pretty brief and sanitized version of history.  A warehouse at the fort was converted into a penitentiary and mental health hospital in 1871, under the administration of Dr. David Young.  Prisoners and those with mental illness were housed together.  A few years later, a separate facility was built for mental health patients in Selkirk.   While the signs say very little about this history, it can be inferred that that part of Canada was in the early stages of institutionalizing psychology and that mental health was lumped together with criminality (as it still is today in varying ways).  Aside from the early mental health facility (which seems more likely a prison), another point of interest was the York boat display.  York boats were used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to transport goods and were known for their sturdy construction and ability to transport tons of cargo.   Otherwise, the fort was a nice place to stroll around and enjoy the flocks of American pelicans flying along the Red River.


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For more information: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/mb/fortgarry/visit


This isn’t an exhaustive list of everything we did during our visit to Winnipeg.  We also visited The Forks and stopped by the Hudson’s Bay Company Department Store, which my mother visited when she was a child.  As a child, she remembered it as a robust fantasy land of retail goods.  Today, it was a ghost town of vacant shelves, like most remaining department stores.  Our journey was met with a few mishaps, such as getting a little lost while looking for a Chinese Garden and learning the hard way that the U.S. border station near Tolstoi, MB closes before 8 pm.  We also learned the important lesson that gas stations are few and far between while traveling to one border station to another and along the Manitoba and North Dakota border.  Despite this hiccup in our border crossing, we had a good time and packed a lot of adventure into the four days that we visited.  Hopefully this gives readers some ideas of fun things to visit in Winnipeg and the region around it or things that could be enjoyed between an adult child and their parent (yes, I am an adult child…since I certainly acted like a child when the border was closed!).

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Image may contain: Heather Bradford, tree, sky, shoes, child, outdoor, nature and water


Maximizing the Oslo Pass

Maximizing the Oslo Pass

Maximizing the Oslo Pass

H. Bradford

6.4.19


Visit Oslo offers a nifty pass that offers free access to over thirty museums or attractions, free use of public transportation, as well as discounts on restaurants, tours, and some other selected activities.  The pass costs about $51 or 445 Norwegian Krone. Considering that the Viking Ship museum costs about $11 and a visit to the Norsk Folkemuseum costs about $18, it is a great deal for anyone who plans on visiting a couple museums and using public transport to get to them.  I purchased a 24 Hour Oslo Pass and was determined to make the most of it.  Here is how I fared…


Obtaining the Pass:


I pre-ordered my pass online, but still had to pick it up at the Oslo Visitor Center, where the pass is validated.  The Oslo Visitor Center is located at the Oslo Central Station.  Thus, my first act of the day was paying a visit to the Oslo Visitor Center to pick up my pass.  The office has a variety of brochures and helpful staff.  During my visit, the office opened at 9am.  This means that the earliest that you can begin to use the pass (obtained at this location) is after 9am.   If a person wants to avoid the need to physically visit the Oslo Visitor Center, the pass can be purchased via the Oslo Pass app.  In any event, visiting the Oslo Central Station wasn’t inconvenient, as many buses leave that area and most museums don’t open until after 9am.  Validating it any sooner would not make sense.

Oslo Pass

Image from Visit Oslo https://www.visitoslo.com/en/activities-and-attractions/oslo-pass/


Taking Public Transport:


Since there are many museums clustered on the Bygdoy Peninsula, this was my first destination.  To get there, I took Bus Number 30.  Use of buses is included in the Oslo Pass, so this saved $4, which is the cost of a single bus ticket (for one hour use with transfer).  The driver did not ask for my Oslo Pass, but this can be used as a ticket if there is a ticket check.  The trip to the first museum on the Bygdoy Peninsula took about 20 minutes (though a ferry can also be taken to Bygdoy Penninsula).  My first destination was the Norsk Folkemuseum, which is the first museum on the bus route and conveniently has a bus stop right outside the museum.

Cost: $4

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Norsk Folkemuseum:


The Norsk Folkemuseum opens at 10am during the summer months into early fall.  By the time I arrived there, the museum was just opening. As I mentioned, the museum costs about $18.  I wish the museum opened earlier, since it is an expansive complex of Norwegian buildings. Upon arrival, visitors can present their Oslo Pass at the ticket office, then begin exploring.  The first assembly of buildings feature indoor museums with various exhibits on Norwegian culture. A person could spend an entire day at just this museum. However, because I had an ambitious agenda I didn’t linger at any one exhibit.  A person can take their time absorbing various elements of Norwegian culture, such as arts, crafts, and costumes. I found the exhibit on Sami culture to be the most engaging and one to spend more time with.


As interesting as the indoor museums were, the real attraction are the 150+ buildings that constitute the open air museum.  The museum is believed to be one of the oldest and largest open-air museums in the world. The most impressive structure is the ornate Gol Stav Church, which was built in 1200 and moved to the sight when it faced demolition in the 1800s.  Another point of interest was large assembly of various farm buildings, complete with livestock, vegetables, and costumed farmer reenactors. There are homes or building representing various regions of Norway and a stand out was the sod roofed buildings from Fjordane.  More modern buildings can also be found in the “New Town” area of the open air museum.


Cost: $18

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Viking Ship Museum:


The Viking Ship Museum is a quick 400 m walk from the Norsk Folkemuseum.  Since this museum opens at 9 am during the summer, a person who already has their Oslo pass might choose to visit this one first.  Without the pass, the admission is $11.40. The museum is very popular and there were several buses there when I arrived. It also has tighter security, so visitors must check their bags before they enter.  The museum is impressive, but smaller, so it is reasonable that it could be visited in far less time than the enormous Norsk Folkemuseum. The main attraction are several preserved Viking ships and associated artifacts.  The main attraction is the Oseburg ship, which was constructed around 820 CE and used as a burial for two important women. The burial also consisted of a sleigh, animals, tools, a cart, and other items. This ship is the centerpiece of the museum, but other ships and artifacts are contained in the wings.  The Gokstad ship was built around 890 CE and served as the burial for an unknown man of importance who was buried with an assembly of animals that included two peacocks. The museum also includes the less reconstructed Tune ship. Viewing the ships and the various artifacts in the museum is interesting. The fact that the ships were so well preserved and that they could be rebuilt is also pretty amazing.

Cost: $11

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Kon-tiki Museum:


It is a little less than a mile walk from the Viking Ship Museum to the Kon-tiki Museum.  A person could also continue onward via bus 30 for a five minute bus ride. I chose to walk.  As for the Kon-tiki museum, I wouldn’t say that it is a must see museum, but it went along with a general museum theme of learning about Norwegian ships.  The museum contains the Kon-Tiki balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl used to sail from Peru to Polynesia. It also contains the Ra II, which was a papyrus boat that was sailed from Morocco to Barbados.  The museum documents his life, the various expeditions he took part in, other participants in the expeditions, sea life, and elements of the cultures Heyerdahl interacted with. The museum is a little unusual in that some of Heyerdahl’s ideas were far fetched if not pseudoscientific.  But, his expeditions at least opened the door to what is possible when it comes to long distance cultural exchanges between people who were otherwise believed to be isolated from each other. He also helped to popularize experimental archaeology and this could benefit some indigenous people if they have control/agency regarding the experiments.  For instance, while visiting Hawaii a few years ago, I learned at the Polynesian Cultural Center that there are efforts to construct traditional ships and test out historical voyages across the Pacific. This could benefit indigenous people by preserving or rebuilding historical knowledge. Without the Oslo pass, admission would be $14.

Cost: $14

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Fram Museum:


Right next door to the Kon-tiki Museum is the Fram Museum.  Following the theme of the other two museums I had visited, this museum contains a ship.  In this instance, the ship was the polar exploring ship known as the Fram. The Fram was used to explore both the Arctic and the Antarctic in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The massive ship looks sturdy and shiny enough to be made of metal, but is actually made of wood. This in itself is pretty impressive, as it was the only wooden ship to travel as far north and south as it did.  Visitors can view the ship from several levels and board the ship for further exploration. The museum itself offers a great deal of fascinating information about polar exploration. I knew nothing about the Fram before entering the museum, but was enthralled by the artifacts and stories of the sometimes doomed and often life and death struggles of exploration.  The Fram was the ship that brought Roald Amundsen on his successful expedition to the South Pole. This museum is definitely worth visiting if polar exploration floats your boat.

Cost $14  (Or about $11 if purchased with Kon-tiki ticket.)


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Ferry:


There are other attractions on the Bygdoy Peninsula, including the nearby Maritime Museum (near the Fram Museum and Kontiki Museums), Oscarhall, Holocaust Center, and Huk and Paradisbukta beaches.  So, a person could reasonably spend the day at Bygdoy.  The Holocaust Center and Oscarhall cost about $7 each. Instead of remain on Bydgoy, I relaxed, ate a snack, and watched some birds from a bench before heading back on a ferry.  The ferry returns Bydgoy visitors to Pier 3 at City Hall. It is covered by the Oslo pass, but without the pass, a one way journey would cost about $7.

Cost: $7


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Historical Museum:


Although I had already visited four museums, I pushed onward to another museum.  I walked from Pier 3 to the Historical Museum, which is about a half mile walk. A person could take a bus, but it was easier just to walk.  The museum is open from 10 am to 5pm during the summer and costs just over $11. However, admission to the Historical Museum is included in the price of the Viking Ship Museum, so, the Oslo pass really doesn’t save a person money if they are already planning on visiting both museums.  By this point in the day, I was a little exhausted by my marathon of museum visits. Still, there were some interesting and enjoyable things at this museum. Highlights of this museum include a Medieval gallery, Viking artefacts, Egyptian mummies, and a collection of gold coins. I don’t think this museum is a “must see” museum in the way that the Viking Ship Museum, Fram museum, or Norsk Folkemuseum are.  The museum was a bit forgettable because it contained items one would expect in a history museum. If a person has a strong interest in Medieval doors and chairs, it may be worth a visit.


No Savings

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Oslo Reptile Park:


The grand finale of my museum marathon was going to be Oslo Reptile Park.  Oslo Reptile Park is located about .3 miles from the Historical Museum, which made it an easy destination.  The Oslo Reptile Park is open until 6pm, which also made it a good final destination as other museums closed at 5pm.  Admission to the Oslo Reptile Park is a whopping $17, so this definitely added value to the Oslo pass. Unfortunately, it was not as grand as I hoped.  It was tucked away in what looked like an apartment complex and contained about 100 animals. Despite the name “Reptile Park” many of the animals were actually insects or amphibians.  The Reptile Park includes two small floors of animals enclosed in glass. Of course, there are a variety of snakes to look at and perhaps the most chilling exhibit is a lonely Black Widow spider.  Visitors have the opportunity to watch the feeding of some animals or hold a snake (at least when I visited a staff allowed people to touch a snake. I don’t remember the species). It is a modest attraction and not worth $17.  But, with the Oslo Pass, there is little to lose in visiting. It is a nice change from the heavier, more historical information that my brain had been digesting all day, so, it provided a welcome splash of variety to my day. I imagine that keeping all those animals alive and well is costly, so the admissions price is probably necessary.  I finished up my visit here before 6 pm closing time.

Cost: $17

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Frogner Park:


With the museums closed, I was determined to do at least one final activity for the day.  I decided to head to Frogner Park, which contains over 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. Visiting Frogner Park is free.  However, it is over a mile and a half away from Reptile Park. Because I had been on my feet all day, I opted to take a tram to Frogner Park.  The tram took about 20 minutes and like the bus, would have cost about $4 for a one way trip with transfer. The park itself was very unique and relaxing.  The park is full of Vigeland’s bulky, bronze statues of naked bodies. Muscular men and thick women line the long pathway to the Monolith, a tower of 120 naked bodies carved into granite.  Gustav Vigeland was sympathetic to Nazis and their occupation of Norway. I didn’t know his political orientation when I visited the park, but the sculptures certainly idealized an ideal type of body (robust) and conveyed traditions of family and solidarity.  The park features a pond with birds and an assortment of gardens to enjoy as well. After spending some time at the park, I used the Oslo pass to return to my hostel and called it a day! It was a long day indeed!


$8 (Transport-both ways)

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Total Savings:


Regular admission to all of the museums would have been $74.   Additionally, $19 was spent on transportation. Since most people would buy a 24-hour day pass for transportation, I will count this at $12, which is the cost of a day pass.  The cost of the museum admission plus the day pass for transport would be $86. So, the Oslo pass saved me about $35. I tried pretty hard to squeeze as much value as I could out of the pass and was pretty exhausted by the end of the day.  I didn’t even eat lunch during my museum marathon! I felt accomplished and satisfied. I didn’t race through each museum, but I definitely pushed myself. I don’t think I could have fit any other museums or sights into my day. There is a limit to how much value one can extract from the Oslo Pass, as museums are mostly open between 9am and 6pm.   Therefore, although it is a 24 hour pass, there is a nine hour window to utilize the pass due to open and closing times and logistically I would have found it quite difficult to visit more than six museums. Some museums can be visited in about an hour (such as Reptile Park and the Viking Ship Museum). Others, such as the Norsk Folkemuseum, take over two hours.  By the end of the day I regret that I did not purchase a 48 hr pass. This costs 665 NOK or $76. For $25 more than the 24 hr pass, the two day pass is a pretty good deal and it would have been easier to spread out the museums and add a few more sights over the span of an extra day. Other sights that I would have visited include the Labor Museum and the Munch Museum.  Both of these were out of the way so they did not fit into my schedule. If a person really wants to visit a lot of museums, the 48 hour pass seems to be the way to go!


						
					

Birds of Copan

Birds of Copan 1

 Birds of Copan

H. Bradford

5/22/19


This past winter, I was able to travel to Central America.  One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Copan ruins in Honduras.  Before I continue, it is important to note that Honduras has been experiencing political violence and repression since the 2009 coup that overthrew democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya.  The United States has supported the coup in a number of ways, such as normalizing relationships with and recognizing the subsequent government. The United States has continued to provide military aid to the Honduran government, despite state violence of activists fighting for environmental, indigenous, and human rights.  The following is about birds, which seems pretty trivial and privileged. For more information about the political situation, I found that “The Long Honduran Night Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup,” by Dana Frank was useful in providing an overview of the U.S. role in destabilizing the country.  I feel that I can’t talk about the fun topic of birds without at least acknowledging the more serious social context, which I was sheltered from as a leisure seeking tourist.  The only indication that anything was amiss was a power outage that locals at Copan blamed on the government as a way to thwart New Year’s eve celebrations and the large number of armed police/military/guards.


While I could have traveled to Honduras for more noble reasons, such as with a Witness for Peace delegation, I was there as a tourist.  As a tourist, I visited the Copan Ruins. The Copan Ruins are located near the border with Guatemala and it represents the southernmost city of the Mayan civilization.  Mayan “civilization” itself sounds rather racist, as Mayans are still alive, have (what wasn’t destroyed or repressed) cultural continuity with pre-Columbian Mayans, and certainly accomplishing important things.  I suppose when this word is used is it to describe Mayans before the arrival of Spanish and before the abandonment of cities and monument construction at the end of the Classical period. Copan was a powerful Mayan city state located in the Copan River valley of Honduras.  People in area had been constructing stone structures since 9th century BC, but the dynastic history of Copan begins in 426 AD and ended between 800 and 850 AD. At its peak, over 20,000 people lived in the city. It is a World Heritage Site and an impressive complex of what seems like an endless array of ruins and stelae.  The site includes a ball court, Acropolis, stairways, residences, stelae, temples, tombs, altars, and other ruins. There is a lot of history to absorb and it is a lot to explore the entire complex. As fascinating as the ruins are, they are surrounded by forests which burgeon with birds! My attention was divided between history and ecology.  In the end, my love of birds probably won and that was what I absorbed most from the experience. Yet, these things aren’t entirely at odds, since many of the birds had a place in Mayan culture. Birds are history as much as the monuments! Here is an overview of some of the birds that I saw and how they might relate to Mayan or regional culture.


 

1. Scarlet Macaw (Ara Macao):

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A Macaw at Copan, H. Bradford 2019


A large number of Scarlet Macaws can be found at the Copan ruins.  I spotted over twenty while meandering around the ruins. They seemed most plentiful on the main trail from the visitor’s center.  The red parrots are hard to miss, as they are large, loud, and bright. The large number of Scarlet Macaws has to do with the nearby Macaw Mountain, which rehabilitates, breeds, and releases Macaws.  Other birds are also kept at Macaw Mountain, often as permanent residents because of injuries or health conditions the birds sustained while kept as pets. There are feeding stations along the trail to the ruins (Whitely, 2015).  They are the national bird of Honduras. Scarlet Macaws were culturally important to the Mayans, who, like the Aztecs, believed they symbolized the sun. Mesoamericans also traded the birds, which have been found in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.  The bird remains found in Chaco Canyon date back from 900 AD from captive stock of parrots (Greshko, 2018). Macaws may have had ancient population decline due to this trade. Scarlet macaws are native to tropical lowlands where Mayan civilization was most concentrated and they require pristine conditions to survive, as they nest in tree trunks.  Macaws are sensitive to deforestation, poaching, pet trade and are rare in the Yucatan peninsula. Today, they are more commonly found further south in Central America such as in Costa Rica (Stuart, 2015). Thus, the trade in parrots is why the macaws are found at Copan today, as the modern pet trade resulted in the need to rehabilitate the birds and eventually reintroduce them to the area.


Beyond trading them, they appear in Mayan stories.  Popol Vul, the ancient Mayan creation story, features a deity called Seven Macaw, which is a bird creature with some characteristics of macaws, but also characteristics of a snake eating hawk (Hellmuth, 2015).  In Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins, the central characters of the story, use a blow gun against Seven Macaw, which is perched atop a nance tree, which is a a type of tropical fruit (Iconography, characteristics of painted macaws on Early Classic, Tzakol, basal flange bowls, 2014).  In the Popol Vul, Seven Macaw describes himself as such:


    “I am great. I dwell above the heads of the people […] I am their sun. I

am also their light […] My eyes sparkle with glittering blue/green

jewels. My teeth as well are jade stones, as brilliant as the face of the

sky. This, my beak, shines brightly […] My throne is gold and silver.

When I go forth from my throne, I brighten the face of the earth.

Thus Seven Macaw puffed himself up in the days and months before

the faces of the sun, moon, and stars could truly be seen. He desired

only greatness and transcendence before the light of the sun and

moon were revealed in their clarity.”

(Helmke and Jesper, 2015: 28)


Copan ruins are the only place to see a specific depiction of a macaw (as the deity itself is not necessary a macaw) as this deity.  There is a depiction of a scene wherein one of the twin’s arms in the beak of Seven Macaw (Iconography, characteristics of painted macaws on Early Classic, Tzakol, basal flange bowls, 2014).  This depiction is located as an architectural decoration near the ballcourt. However, I did not know to look for this scene. Here is a replica of that artwork: Image result for A replica of a ballcourt decoration at Copan representing Seven Macaw, (Museum of Mayan Sculpture, Copan, Honduras).  Photo by Mark Cartwright, 2014 A replica of a ballcourt decoration at Copan representing Seven Macaw, (Museum of Mayan Sculpture, Copan, Honduras).  Photo by Mark Cartwright, 2014


Seven Macaw is one of four Mayan “Great Bird” deities, which represent the moon, sun, stars, and darkness.  Popul Vuh discusses the death and defeat of the bird, which was a prerequisite for pacifying the world to allow for the creation of humanity.  To defeat the bird, the Twins tricked it after hitting it with the blowgun. They told the bird that they were bringing a healer, but instead removed its teeth and eyes, which served as the source of its power (Helmke and Jesper, 2015).  Aside from the depiction of Seven Macaw, Copan ruins feature a macaw head ball court marker. Elsewhere, macaws, or at least stylized macaw like birds, are depicted on bowls, other ball game hachas. From the 2nd century onward, Mayans regularly featured Macaws in their art (Hellmuth, 2015).  In the Late Classic Mayan period, macaws are the most commonly depicted land bird (Stuart, 2015).

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Photo from the ball court, H. Bradford 2019

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H. Bradford, 2019

2.) Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma):

 

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Montezuma Oropendola, H. Bradford 2019


This large bird with an unwieldy name ranges from southern Mexico to Panama, occurring mostly along the Carribean side of Central America.  It is an Icterid, or member of the Icteridae family, which consists of new world blackbirds, new world orioles, bobolinks, meadowlarks, cowbirds, and grackles.  Although it is in the blackbird family, it really doesn’t look like a blackbird, as it is larger, with a large red and black bill, chestnut, black, and yellow plumage, and bare skin by its eye.  Montezuma Oropendola is considered common, is omnivorous, and can be found in evergreen lowlands, forest edges, plantations, and disturbed forests (Sample and Kannan, 2016). I spotted at least two of them near the park entrance at Copan ruins.  The name of the bird translates from Spanish to “Golden pendulum” perhaps because of its yellow tail and and the tree limb swinging mating dance of males (Fendt, 2016). Males weave drooping nests that hang low from trees. The only reference I could find regarding this bird and the Mayans is that Mayan art at Peten depicts the nests of Montezuma Oropendola (Oropendola, Montezuma, 2017).


3. Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis):

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H. Bradford, 2019

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H. Bradford, 2019


There are several species of orioles which can be found around the Copan ruins.  According to e-bird, these species include Altamira, Streak-backed, Yellow backed, Bar winged oriole, Spot-breasted, Baltimore, and Orchard orioles.  The pictured orioles are Altamira Orioles (I believe) since they don’t have streaked backs, spots on their breasts, don’t have a black head like a Baltimore oriole, nor are they as dark as Orchard orioles.  Alamira Orioles are found in Central America and range as far north as southern Texas. Like the Montezuma Oropendola, it constructs a long woven nest, which in its case, can reach almost 26 inches in length.  The Altamira Oriole was once called the Lichtenstein’s Oriole and Black throated Oriole. It is also the largest New World Oriole (Altamira Oriole Identification, 2017).  Yuyum is the lowland Mayan word for oriole and the Bonampak mural depicts a royal figure whose name translates to “Yellow Oriole” or Aj K’an Yuyum,  Yellow backed orioles are depicted in the Murals of San Bartolo (Stuart, 2014)


Seeing as there are seven species of orioles in the area and that each are some combination of orange and black, I would advise any newer or intermediate birder like myself to study orioles before visiting.  I struggled a bit and probably saw other species, but was too slow to identify or photograph them.


 

4. Motmots (Momotidae):

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Out of Focus Turquoise-browed Motmot, H. Bradford, 2019


One of the most exciting birds that I saw was the Turquoise-browed Motmot.  It was a book that I saw in my bird book, so it had captured my imagination before the trip.  To suddenly see one and immediately recognize it was amazing! Turquoise-browed Motmots range from southern Mexico to Costa Rica.  They can adapt to a number of habitats, but prefer tropical evergreen and tropical deciduous forests. Since it perches on fence posts and wires, it is not too hard to find, and during my trip I saw them several times.  Interestingly, the tail feathers are not genetically slender, but get worn down exposing the feather shaft. Turquoise-browed Motmots nest in underground burrows (Streiter, n.d.). Both male and females have long tails, but they use them differently.  Both sexes wag their tails to indicate to predators that they have spotted the threat, but males use their tails for sexual displays as well. It is also the national bird of El Salvador and Nicaragua (Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa).n.d.)

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Hidden and shady view of Lesson’s Motmot


To make matters more confusing, there is actually another species of Motmot that can be found at Copan.  Lesson’s Motmot is also found in the area. I spotted one through some dense foliage, so I was unable to get a decent photo.  However, the two species are very similar in their plumage as both have bright turquoise brows, green coloration on their bodies, black masks, and racket tails.  Despite the poor photo of Lesson’s Motmot, the main difference that I could see between the two is that Lesson’s Motmot does not have the long, featherless shaft that the Turquoise-browed Motmot possess.  The featherless area is much shorter. Lesson’s Motmot is also chunkier and longer than the Turquoise-browed Motmot. Both birds were spotted on a trail that cut to the left before the main complex of ruins.  One source said that motmots can be found by cenotes, or underground pools. According to Mayan stories, the Motmot was the most beautiful bird, but lost its feathers after a hurricane and went to the cenotes to hide (Robinson, 2013).


5. Toucans (Ramphastidae):

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Keel-billed Toucan, H. Bradford 2019


I didn’t actually see these birds at Copan, but nearby at Maccaw Mountain.  There are feeding stations for wild birds near the entrance of the rehabilitation center and various wild birds around the parking lot, even though the sanctuary itself features aviaries of mostly rescued animals.  The two species of toucans that I saw in this area were a Keel-Billed Toucan and Collared Aracari. E-bird lists these as the only two species of toucans found in the area. The Keel-billed Toucan is identifiable by its colorful green, red, yellow, and turquoise beak, which is why it is sometimes called the Rainbow billed Toucan.  They have no known affinity for colorful cereal and instead prefer a diet of fruit and nuts. They are considered common and their populations are listed as Least Concern, though climate change is pushing their range to higher elevations They range from southern Mexico to Northern Colombia, in humid lowland forest canopies (Jones and Griffiths, 2011). Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, bird, outdoor and nature

Collared Aracari, H. Bradford 2019


The Collared Aracari is smaller than other toucans in its range and is the northernmost Aracari species.  It is black, with yellow underparts, and a reddish color collar. It looks similar to other species of Aracari, but none fall within most of its range.  It does overlap with the Fiery Billed Aracari in Panama and Costa Rica. It is primarily a frugavore, but does eat insects, eggs, nestlings, and small vertebrates.  It is considered a species of Least Concern, but as a cavity nester it is sensitive to deforestation (Green and Cannan, 2017).


Northern Lacandon Mayan men would give yellow breast feathers from toucans to their wives as a gift.  Women tied the feathers into their hair to symbolize marriage. Toucan breast feathers are also featured in the garb of warriors on the Bonampak mural in Chiapas (Nations, 2006).  Otherwise, I could not find other references to the importance of toucans to the Mayans. While I don’t have any other Mayan stories, I do have a modern tale of greed. MIA, a California based non-profit concerned with Mayan archaeology and education, was asked to change their logo from a toucan because Kellogg’s believed it was too close to Toucan Sam (Hsu, 2011).  Kellogg’s also took issue with the use of Mayan imagery due to similar settings that Toucan Sam appeared in. The non-profit found that the only thing Kellogg’s had connected to Mayan culture was an online game where in Toucan Sam encounters a racialized villain character representing a Mayan (Cushing, 2011). A negative publicity campaign against Kellogg’s resulted in the company paying $100,000 to MAI, removing the online game, and featuring MAI’s website on cereal boxes (Patterson, 2011).   The offending logo can be found below:

Image result for MIA toucan logo kellogg's Clearly this logo is too similar to Toucan Sam…


6. White-throated Magpie-jay (Calocitta formosa)

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White-throated Magpie-jays, H. Bradford 2019


I spotted several White-throated Magpie-jays along a trail that leads to the Copan Ruins.  They can be found at the forest edges, ranches, and outskirts of towns among the dry tropical forests of the Central Mexico to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, which is exactly the sort of environment I spotted them in (outside of town, by a pasture for cows).  Due to deforestation, their range is expanding southward in Costa Rica, thus they are a bird that actually benefits from human activity and are considered a species of Least Concern. White-throated Magpie-jays feed on both insects (but also eggs and small vertebrates) and fruits, switching their diet depending on if it is the dry or wet season.  They are social birds and unique because they form groups organized with a dominant female, her mate, and several female offspring. The adult female offspring assist with feeding the dominant female and her younger offspring. Male birds move between groups, unless the dominant female is nesting. Male magpie jays produce up to sixty vocalizations, which are used to communicate predator threats or the presence of low threat birds.  These alarm calls may be used by males to attract the attention of females, which otherwise might not have much use for them (White-throated Magpie-Jay (Calocitta formosa, n.d.) Image may contain: tree, sky, bird, plant, outdoor and nature In general, Magpie-Jays are a genus called Calocitta, which include White Throated Magpie Jays and Black-throated Magpie-jays.  The two birds can hybridize and both are known for their long tail length. Jays, or for that matter magpies which they are named after, are corvids or members of the crow family.  Members of the crow family are among the smartest birds in the world and some species are known to use tools, play tricks, hold funerals, and teach each other information. Experiments with Eurasian scrub jays conducted by Dr. Nicky Clayton of Cambridge University, using worms and beetles suggest that the birds may be able to consider the preferences of their mate when choosing whether to eat worm or beetle.  Her experiments with Western scrub jays demonstrated that the birds were able to remember where and when they had cached food. If a perishable food item such as wax worms had been cached several days prior (and was no longer palatable), the birds went for previously cached peanuts instead. This is despite the fact that the birds prefer waxworms. The jays were also found to be able to plan ahead by caching pine nuts in a room where they regularly found breakfast, so that they would find more food each morning (Balter, 2016).  While many corvids cache food, White-throated magpie jays are unusual in that they do not engage in notable caching activity. Corvids are believed to have descended from a moderate caching ancestor. New world jays themselves evolved from a caching corvid. Loss of the ability to cache occurred at least twice independently in corvid evolution as maintaining this ability has a high metabolic cost and requires an enlarged hippocampus (de Kort and Clayton, 2006). Because White-throated magpie-jays do not cache, I will assume they do not have quite the memory capabilities of other jays.  Still, they are pretty unique birds in that they have female dominated social groups AND they are unique non-caching jays.


I could not find any references to the significance of jays to the Mayans, but other Native American cultures have presented Blue jays as trickster, thief, or bully characters.  Cree people envisioned gray jays as benign trickers and its nickname Whisky Jack, may have come from the Algonquin word “Wisakedjak.” In Algonquin stories, Wisakedjak actually describes a trickster crane that let loose a terrible flood (Chadd and Taylor, 2016).


 

7. Clay Colored Thrush (Turdus grayi):


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I saw quite a few of these drab, unassuming birds hidden amongst the forests that shroud the Copan ruins.  Yet, oddly enough it is the national bird of Costa Rica. This seems odd considering there are so many colorful, charismatic birds in Central America.  It was designated the National Bird of Costa Rica in 1977 because of its song and association with the greening of the season (so perhaps end of dry season?).  It is known as Yigüirro in Costa Rica. It eats snails, worms, and insects. It was once named Gray Thrush after a British ornithologist and was also known as the Clay Colored Robin.  It is not shy around humans and can live in urban settings. Perhaps because it is common, has a pretty song, and often around humans, in Costa Rican culture it appears in poems, stories, and songs (Javi, 2014).  I am not sure what the Mayans thought of this bird, but it is neat that such an ordinary bird has national importance.


 

8. Turkey (Meleagris):


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I saw a turkey at the Copan ruins and wondered what it was doing there.  I know that turkeys were domesticated by Native Americans, so I wondered if it was a wild turkey or a domesticated turkey.  In this case, it was a domesticated turkey. Turkey bones have been found at Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala dating from between 300 BC and 100 AD.  The species of turkey found at the site actually originated in Mexico, where all domestic turkeys are from. So, it means that Mayans imported turkeys from outside of their homelands to be kept or raised (University of Florida, 2012).  Originally, turkeys were domesticated for their feathers, which were used in ceremonies, robes, and blankets. In Mexico, they were domesticated in 800 BC and in Southwest United States this occurred in 200 BC. (Viegas, 2010) Both Anasazi and Aztecs domesticated turkeys.  Anasazi domesticated turkeys from Rio Grand and Eastern subspecies and the Aztecs from a vanished southern Mexican subspecies. The Anasazi domestic turkey has disappeared from history (Smith, 2017). All modern domesticated turkeys are from Aztec domesticated turkeys (Viegas, 2010) While a person can’t include domesticated turkeys on their birding list, they are still beautiful birds with a lot of Mesoamerican history.


Conclusion:


There were many other birds that I saw at Copan as well, including summer tanagers, golden fronted woodpeckers, rufous naped wren, black vultures, and more! So, this overview is not comprehensive of the birds that I saw.  It also doesn’t include many other birds that were important to the Mayans. For instance, water birds were actually surprisingly prominent in Mayan art. Over 52% of natural bird species depicted in Mayan art are water birds such as herons, egrets, and cormorants.  Of these depictions, 83% are from the Late Classic period, which was associated with drought (Stuart, 2015). The Copan ruins are near the Copan River, so it is possible that a person could see some water birds if they were near the river. Another bird that was important to the Mayans are Resplendent Quetzals.   Resplendent Quetzals can be found at elevations between 1000 to 3300 m and prefer evergreen cloud forests with plentiful fruit trees, where they forage from the canopy. They are considered Near Threatened, since they are sensitive to deforestation and climate change. Copan situated in a valley at 700 m above sea level, so, the elevation is not suitable for Quetzals.  According to E-bird, there have been some Resplendent Quetzal sightings at Finca El Cisne and the aptly named Montana El Quetzal, which are not far from Copan, but even these sightings are infrequent. Both Mayans and Aztecs revered the bird as a figure representing goodness and light, and as a deity of air. Its name comes from Nahuatl and the Mayan word for the bird is Kuk.  Quetzal feathers were reserved for royalty and priests and more valuable than gold or jade. The birds were captured, their feathers plucked, and then released, as it was believed that the birds would die in captivity. Aztecs associated the bird with Quetzalcoatl. Today, the bird is featured on Guatemala’s coat of arms, flag, and currency (which is called quetzal). Although they are not at Copan, I figured it was worth a mention due to their cultural importance.  With that said, the Copan ruins are a great place to enjoy nature. Since nature is as much a part of the history of the Mayans as the Copan ruins, a person shouldn’t feel guilty if they find themselves admiring the plants, birds, or butterflies instead of the city of stone. These things are all connected.

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Sources:

Altamira Oriole Identification, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Altamira_Oriole/id

Balter, M. (2016, July 22). Meet the Bird Brainiacs: Eurasian Jay. Retrieved from https://www.audubon.org/magazine/march-april-2016/meet-bird-brainiacs-eurasian-jay

Chadd, R. W., & Taylor, M. (2016). Birds: Myth, lore & legend. London, UK: Bloomsbury Natural History, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Cushing, T. (2011, September 8). Kellogg’s Stakes Claim To Toucans, Mayan Imagery; Issues Cease-and-Desist To Guatemalan Non-Profit. Retrieved from https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110907/15550615845/kelloggs-stakes-claim-to-toucans-mayan-imagery-issues-cease-and-desist-to-guatemalan-non-profit.shtml

de Kort, S. R., & Clayton, N. S. (2006). An evolutionary perspective on caching by corvids. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 273(1585), 417–423. doi:10.1098/rspb.2005.3350

Fendt, L. (2016, March 01). 6 Costa Rican animal names decoded. Retrieved from https://www.caminotravel.com/6-costa-rican-animal-names-decoded/

Green, C. and R. Kannan (2017). Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/nb.colara1.01

Greshko, M. (2018, August 13). Early Native Americans Imported Exotic Parrots, DNA Reveals. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/08/news-ancient-dna-chaco-canyon-pueblo-macaws-archaeology/

Hellmuth, N. (2015, September 06). Macaws and Parrots in 3rd-9th Century Mayan Art. Retrieved from http://www.revuemag.com/2011/04/macaws-and-parrots-in-3rd-9th-century-mayan-art/

Helmke, C., & Nielsen, J. (2015). The Defeat of the Great Bird in Myth and Royal Pageantry: A Mesoamerican Myth in a Comparative Perspective. Comparative Mythology, 1, 23-60.

Hsu, T. (2011). Mayan group’s logo too much like Toucan Sam, Kellogg’s squawks. Retrieved from https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/money_co/2011/08/kellogg-asks-mayan-group-to-remove-toucan-from-logo.html

Iconography, characteristics of painted macaws on Early Classic, Tzakol, basal flange bowls. (2014, October). Retrieved from http://www.maya-archaeology.org/neotropical-Mayan-ethnozoology-sacred-utilitarian-animals-reptiles-fish-birds-insects-iconography-epigraphy-faunal-remains/Mayan-iconography-scarlet-macaws-Tzakol-Early-Classic-bird-images.php

Javi. (2014, January 23). History of the national bird: Clay-colored thrush (Yigüirro). Retrieved from https://www.govisitcostarica.com/blog/post/history-of-the-national-bird-clay-colored-thrush.aspx

Jones, R. and C. S. Griffiths (2011). Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/nb.kebtou1.01

Nations, J. D. (2006). “Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities”.

Oropendula, Montezuma. (2017, February). Retrieved from https://www.maya-ethnozoology.org/images-birds-species-bird-watchers-guatemala-mexico-belize-honduras/montezuma-oropendola-psarocolius-wagleri-bird-nests-peten-izabal-guatemala.php

Patterson, R. (2011, November 18). Kellogg Reaches Settlement in ‘Toucan’ Trademark Dispute – Few Feathers Ruffled. Retrieved from http://www.ipbrief.net/2011/11/17/kellogg-reaches-settlement-in-toucan-trademark-dispute-–-few-feathers-ruffled/

Robinson, J. K. (2013, July 23). Land of the Maya the way it was then. Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/travel/article/Land-of-the-Maya-the-way-it-was-then-4003689.php

Sample, R. and R. Kannan (2016). Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/nb.monoro1.01

Smith, J. (2017, November 17). Tracing the Wild Origins of the Domestic Turkey. Retrieved from https://blog.nature.org/science/2017/11/20/tracing-the-wild-origins-of-the-domestic-turkey/

Streiter, A. (n.d.). Turquoise-browed Motmot, Costa Rica. Retrieved from https://www.anywhere.com/flora-fauna/bird/turquoise-browed-motmot

Stuart, P. (2015). Birds and environmental change in the Maya area (Unpublished master’s thesis). A Division III examination in the School of Natural Science, Hampshire College, May 2015. Chairpersons, Alan Goodman and Brian Schultz.

Stuart, D. (2014, April 20). A Glyph for Yuyum, “Oriole,” in a Name at Bonampak. Retrieved from https://decipherment.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/a-glyph-for-yuyum-oriole-in-a-name-at-bonampak/

Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/2168-Eumomota-superciliosa

University of Florida. “Earliest use of Mexican turkeys by ancient Maya.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 August 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120809090706.htm>.

Viegas, J. (2010, February 01). Native Americans tamed turkeys in 800 B.C. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/35186605/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/native-americans-tamed-turkeys-bc/#.XOPizqR7mUk

White-throated Magpie-Jay (Calocitta formosa), In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: https://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/Species-Account/nb/species/wtmjay1

Whitely, D. (2015, March 07). How the scarlet macaw returned to Copán, Honduras. Retrieved from http://www.grumpytraveller.com/2015/03/07/how-the-scarlet-macaw-returned-to-copan-honduras/

 

Anxious Adventuring: Nationalist Tour Guide

Anxious Adventuring_ guide

Anxious Adventuring: Nationalist Tour Guide

H. Bradford

10/8/18

While visiting Macedonia I decided to go on a day tour to Lake Ohrid.  It would have been far cheaper to take a public bus, but I had some worries that perhaps the bus would be overbooked or that I would miss the bus back to Skopje.  To make things less stressful, I booked a day tour to Lake Ohrid.  Of course, Macedonia does not have an expansive tourist industry, so most day tours are private tours.  Private tours are expensive, but they make it easier to learn about different historical sights than I would have learned on my own.  Another downside, besides price, is that it can be socially awkward.  After all, it means that the guide is your only company ALL day long.  That is a lot of social pressure on both parties.  Many things could go wrong.  What if the guide is weird?  What if the guide makes me feel unsafe?  What if we simply don’t get along?  I don’t often do private tours because of the price and the social component.  But, it seemed easier than making a mistake using the bus system in an unfamiliar country for a several hour bus ride that at least online was said to be often sold out… so I booked a guide.

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Beautiful Lake Ohrid…


I waited anxiously at my hostel for the guide to arrive.  When he arrived, I felt disappointed that it was a man, since it always feels safer to be alone with women.  I wasn’t entirely alone though, since he had a driver with him.  It made me feel tense, as these two men were to be my company for the day.  Oh well.  The guide was nice enough…and handed me some brochures about various Macedonian tourist attractions.  He gave me an overview of how the day would go and we set off towards our first stop, the mouth of the Vardar river.  Along the way, he shared his knowledge of Macedonia, which he was very passionate and knowledgeable about.  Based upon his particular slant on the information he shared, it became clear that he was….very nationalist. Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, mountain, sky, outdoor and nature

First stop…Vardar River (one of many photos of me that day…)


The guide, who I will call “A.” strongly believed that Macedonia was indeed the homeland of Alexander the Great and that the people of Macedonia, while Slavs, had actually mixed with the ancient Macedonian population.  He substantiated this belief with stories of how some villages continue to conduct group weddings.  He believed that group weddings  were a custom modeled after Alexander the Great’s mass wedding held in Susa wherein marriages were arranged between Alexander and his officers and Persian noblewomen.  This was an interesting theory, though there are many reasons to hold collective weddings (for instance, to save time and to share costs).  He was a strong advocate for a boycott of the referendum, as he felt that if it passed, Greece would have control over street names, statues, books, school curriculum, stadiums, or even outlaw the use of the name Alexander as a given name.  I didn’t quite understand why the referendum would be boycotted rather than simply “vote NO.”  Since the failure of the referendum, I now understand that voter turnout needed to be at least 50% for it to be valid.  To A., the very idea that the matter would be voted upon was insulting.  He felt deeply that not only were Macedonians the inheritors of Alexander the Great’s legacy, Greece had no business telling Macedonia what to do.  This was not framed as an anti-Nato or anti-EU sentiment.  A. also made no indication that he had a pro-Russian political orientation.  His position was, however, a vehemently anti-Greek position.  He spoke about the oppression of Slavic people in Greek Macedonia and believed that the majority of this population still spoke Macedonian (it is unknown how many speakers there are, but in 1951 it was 40,000).  I nodded along to his assertions, but didn’t know what to say when he went on a tirade about how Alexander the Great was not bisexual or gay and this was a myth propagated by Hollywood.  Nationalism, while it has reasonable aspects (yes, Macedonia should have the autonomy to determine its own name and interpretation of history) can also be deeply intolerant, angry, masculine, and homophobic… at least that is the brand of nationalism that I experienced with A.

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For my part, I mostly played dumb and asked questions, since that is often the safest way to act out the role of a non-threatening female around angry men.  In any event, I did not want to risk upsetting the person responsible for my safety and transportation.  The day had many awkward moments, as A. had a very pushy personality.  For instance, he insisted that he needed to take my photo at every stop we made.  At churches, rivers, lakes, statues, etc.  I politely told him many times that I was content to have just a few photos of myself, but he pushed to take my photo at every stop, harassing me with compliments about how I looked.  This was uncomfortable, but I lacked any power in the situation to escape this barrage of photos.  I did my best to make polite excuses not to take more photos of myself (usually I have the opposite problem that as a solo traveler I have to ask a stranger for a photo or use the self-timer on my camera).  This was to no avail and a familiar experience.  Consent and boundaries are only dimly understood among most people and part of living and traveling in this world is experiencing situations where these are violated, ignored, or pushed.  Likewise, A. was very devoutly Orthodox.  When we visited two monasteries, he insisted that I drink the water.  I didn’t want to drink the water, since I didn’t trust that it was not going to make me sick (untreated water contains unfamiliar bacteria that he might be used to, but I could get sick from).  He pushed me to drink the water, which he asserted was the purest water in the world.  I took a small sip to appease him and later found myself pretending to drink the water by cupping it in my hand, putting it to my mouth, but letting it slip through my fingers.  When asked about my religious beliefs, I felt it was best to lie- as he was extremely devout in his Orthodoxy.  I told him I was Protestant.  I don’t think I have ever lied about my atheism.  At one point, he told me to light the candles at the monastery.  I am not Orthodox, so I felt uncomfortable, but he was so adamant about it, I lit the candle.  Then, he quizzed me about what it meant.  I had no idea.  He said that the candles are lit because of the sins in the world.  I said something awkward about darkness and suffering, then moved on to ponder the miraculous dripping bone marrow of John the Baptist.

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Things became less socially intense when we arrived at Lake Ohrid.  I opted to spent some time alone there and enjoyed blissful social isolation as I strolled around the lake looking for birds and taking in the scenery.  At Lake Ohrid, the guide and I parted ways.  I appreciate that he was very candid about his political beliefs and I felt that it had been a unique opportunity to speak with someone with strong nationalist views.  On the other hand, I was relieved to no longer feel pressured for photographs or to sample water or any other thing that had made me feel uncomfortable during the day.  I survived!  The ride back to Skopje was less stressful.  I had an enjoyable conversation with the more politically moderate driver who was pro-EU and pro-NATO.  He was pessimistic about Macedonia’s future and largely indifferent to Greek’s demands, since Macedonia was too weak to resist it and Alexander the Great was not worth celebrating anyway.  The driver felt that Macedonia was a unimportant, doomed nation (so he lacked A.’s zealous confidence in Macedonia’s purpose and history).  It was interesting to hear this perspective, even if it came across as a dreary pro-Western defeatism.  Despite the polar opposite views on Macedonia’s history, both men agreed upon the horrible prospect of “Greater Albania.”  When I spoke to a very progressive guide the following day, she also feared Greater Albania.  So, oddly, that was the tie that bound the political spectrum- fear of Albanian territorial, economic, and population expansion.  I am not sure what to make of that…

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My guides often pointed out whenever they saw an Albanian flag…


I think it is both rude and privileged to put down my guide, as he was extremely hard working and passionate about his job.  In a group setting, I probably would have felt far less uncomfortable and anxious.  He was uncomfortably pushy in some regards and it was emotionally exhausting to try to balance politeness (for safety and a smooth day) and resistance (not wanting to drink unknown water, for instance).   I have had experiences like this before while traveling and living, which I have navigated differently depending upon my own perceived power in the situation (which is often little).  In any event, as trying as the day felt at some points, it was an opportunity to see and hear nationalism first hand.  Despite my support of Macedonian self-determination, on a personal level, nationalism feels smothering, assertive, and intolerant.

I am fairly certain that this AP photo by Thanassis Stavrakis of a Macedonian nationalist is a picture of my tour guide….

Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

Top 10 Reasons

Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

H. Bradford

6/18/18

With the death of Anthony Bourdain, there have been many well meaning articles which encourage people to travel so that they can become better people.  This is a common theme in travel writing- the transformative power of travel. However, I am uncomfortable with this framing- especially the claim that travel makes you better.  Sometimes this claim is qualified by saying that it will make a person more adventurous, more comfortable with strangers, smarter, more flexible, more self aware, etc. I think this is a dangerous narrative, and that believing that travel makes a person better can actually make a person worse.  At the very least, it is a hollow, self-congratulatory platitude for those who have had the privilege of traveling. So, to buck the trend of “travel makes you better” here is a top ten list of how travel doesn’t make you better.


1.Better is Comparative

What is better?  Better is a comparative adjective.  Thus, to argue that travel makes someone “better” means that there is an unnamed subject that the traveler is better than.   Perhaps travel makes a person better than the person they were before they traveled. The comparison is between the past and present self.  More darkly, the comparison could be between the traveler and those who have not traveled. This is problematic because travel is a privilege, which will be addressed later.  While it may seem benign to suppose that travel makes an individual better than they were before they traveled, this argument concedes that the worth of a human being has something to do with how much they have traveled.  Am I a better person because I have traveled? No, the quality of my humanity is no better. I may be more knowledgeable about certain subjects, have some fond memories, or feel proud of confronting my fears but my overall “betterness” is non-existent.  I am no better than the human I was before I traveled and no better than any human who has not traveled.  Really, this vague notion of “better” is inherently hierarchical, as it divides humans (even as individuals) into better and lesser. The danger of this is that, once again, travel is a privilege that not everyone has access to.  It also assumes that travel is intrinsically good.

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Bulawayo, Zimbabwe


 

2. Better is Subjective

Most people who argue that travel makes you better are probably not intending to divide the world between better and lesser people.  The sloppy comparison is not meant to be harmful. It is just an example of the taken for granted expressions of common speech. When travel blogs argue that travel makes you “better” it is meant to express that travel improves a set of specific characteristics of an individual traveler.  For instance, a travel blog might argue that travel makes a person better at problem solving or better at talking to strangers. Arguably, travel can make someone better at some things. For example, a person who travels frequently may be better at navigating public transportation systems or packing a suitcase (of course, these very specific applications of “better” are not typical of the “travel makes you better arguments” ).  It seems reasonable that a person who packs suitcases often may gain skills in fitting objects into a small space and deciding what not to pack as a matter of experience. Compared to someone who does not pack suitcases, this seems true. However, “better” must still be operationalized. How does one measure the quality of betterness at packing suitcases? The volume of objects that are fit inside? The amount of time it takes to pack said objects?  If these were deemed the measures of “betterness,” travel is not the only act that creates the improvement of these skills, but rather the act of frequent packing that is associated with travel. A person could develop this skill as a hobby, as a competitive sport (the made up sport of timed packing contests), frequent moving, because of work travel, or maybe even playing Tetris. The big idea is that most uses of the word “better” are subjective. “Better” is not an objective measure (as in the packing example, where it is based upon time and volume) but rather personal opinions, emotions, norms, or less measurable qualities.  A person who travels may indeed be “better” at talking to strangers by some objective measures, but this is unlikely to be universally true or true only on account of the travel experience. Finally, the improvement of this skill is only subjectively important. Image may contain: sky, tree, mountain, nature and outdoor

Travel probably has made me “better” at packing and camping… but only marginally.


3.Better is Fleeting

Years ago, I spent a semester in South Korea, I studied Korean history and language.  When I returned to the United States, I maintained my interest in the country for a short time by taking a another Korean history class and reading books.  For a time, it could be said that I was “better” at Korean language and “better” at history (as compared to my pre-travel self and the average American who had not studied these things).  But with time, this knowledge has faded. While I am still more knowledgeable about topics related to Korea than I would have been had I never studied or traveled there, there are still plenty of things I never learned, will never know, and have long forgotten.  The disciplined study of of another language or a country’s history, art, popular culture, music, etc. is a lifelong pursuit that cannot be accomplished simply with a visit, no matter the length. Even becoming an expert in a subject area related to a specific country or area is an ongoing struggle to stay abreast of the latest research.  Without ongoing effort to learn more, question what is known, build upon existing knowledge, and make connections to other areas of knowledge…”better” is subject to entropy. Thus, while travel may make someone “better” in the sense they are more knowledgeable, this kind of better declines with time unless effort is made to maintain or improve upon the original set of knowledge.

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So many forgotten experiences…so much lost knowledge…


Some travel blogs argue that travel makes someone better, not in the area of knowledge, but in personality traits such as flexibility, problem solving, interpersonal skills, etc.  I imagine that these areas are more variable in their decline. A person who learned to problem solve while traveling may have gained a lifelong skill, or, perhaps in other contexts, that same person could become rigid.  On the other hand, some of these traits might grow better with time, irrespective of travel. I imagine that the average person who must work and interact with people would over time improve their interpersonal skills simply as a matter of surviving in a society wherein some level of interpersonal skills are required for maintaining a job, maintaining friendships, and navigating social interactions to meet basic needs like food and shelter.  In any event, whatever “better” is, ultimately it is illusive, temporary, and contextual.


 

4. Better Rarely Matters

Suppose travel does make a person better in some ways.  I think that my geography skills are probably better than they might be had I never traveled (though my studious roommates who do not internationally travel are much better at geography than I am AND my comrade who has a P.h.d in GIS is infinitely better at geography than I am).  So what? Why does it matter? Why does it matter that I might be better than average at geography or alternatively worse than others at it? My worth as a human being is not dependent upon my geography skills. Knowing geography is useful in some contexts (such as teaching geography, current event literacy, or trivia), but the masses of the world do not live or die by my knowledge of geography.  The masses of the world live and die in poverty, by preventable disease, by the wars inflicted by my own country, and the legacies of colonization exasperated by the inequalities of global capitalism. My knowledge of geography is important only inasmuch as it can be used to understand and dismantle systems of power. Can travel offer insights that can work towards this end? Of course. It can connect people to others, be a tool of solidarity and collaboration, can mobilize others towards common causes, or be a source of education on injustices.  This matters, but only because I value the advancement of social struggle. Travel that makes a person a “better” activist in terms of their effectiveness in advancing struggle certainly has value. Travel that connects and fuels social movements has value. But, almost all of my travel is for pleasure, education, and self-fulfillment. Whatever I gain in the interest of these things, even if I personally become “better”- means little to the rest of the world…which traveling should teach is often entrenched in poverty. What does it matter if I become better at talking to strangers, packing a suitcase, navigating public transportation, or gain the sense I am a more whole person?  What does it matter if I become more knowledgeable about a country’s history or culture? What does better matter unless it is a means to an end? The end of self betterment is not globally liberating. The end of fond memories or confronting fear will not ensure a more just world. Becoming a “better” person simply doesn’t matter. We all die. So the goal of becoming a better person for its own sake is a dead end. Becoming a “better” person…in the interest of becoming a more useful and effective member of movements for social change expands the self beyond an individual life or needs. Of course, this is also draining, disappointing, and doesn’t make for great Instagram photos.  I am not selfless and tireless enough to only travel in the interest of building social change. So, what does my “better” matter, if not for those things? What does anyone’s “better” matter, if not for those things? And, since travel is not required to become better at the things that truly matter (as much as anything matters in the indifferent universe), does travel matter?

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Some of my knowledge from travel is useful when I play trivia with friends


5.Travel is a Privilege:

 

A major problem with the notion that travel makes you better is that not everyone can travel.   80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day. For most of the world, international travel is not an option because it is simply too expensive.  This means that travel is mostly a source of “betterment” to people from wealthier countries (i.e. often those with colonial histories which enabled earlier economic development at the expense of exploited colonies).  Within wealthier countries where more people may have the leisure time and resources to travel, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and other sources of social inequality limits who is able to travel and who is not.  I have certainly seen many Australians traveling in Europe, but I would be hard pressed to find an aboriginal Australian among them. This isn’t to argue that aboriginal Australians never travel, but since 19% of the population lived in poverty (in 2014), it would be harder for many of them to afford travel.  16% of Americans live in poverty, but 27% of African Americans live in poverty and 26% of Hispanics. Larger segments of racial minority populations simply cannot to travel on account of poverty, not to mention other barriers such as incarceration or safety issues. 12% of Americans have disabilities. While having a disability does not mean that a person cannot travel, depending on the disability, it could create barriers or restrictions to travel.  Travel safety is also an issue. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, etc. travelers may be restricted in where they can visit to do fear of repression, hate crimes, incarceration, etc. Travel is far easier if you have money, are cisgender male, straight, white, healthy, young, and child free. Of course, there are plenty of people who are not these things and who travel. Still, 63% of Americans have never been outside the country. It is easy to think that Americans are ignorant, xenophobic bumpkins.  In a survey (conducted by a luggage company), 76% of respondents said they wanted to travel but it wasn’t financially possible and 25% said they lacked the time. Only 10% responded that they had no interest. The bottom line is that most people in the world cannot afford to travel or have social barriers to travel. It seems unfair to rate some people as “better” for doing something that is out of the reach of so many more.

https://nypost.com/2018/01/11/a-shocking-number-of-americans-never-leave-home/

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A street in Bridgetown, Barbados

 


 

 6.  Not Wanting to Travel is Okay

One of the myths behind travel is that it will open up the world, transforming the traveler into someone who is no longer closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, provincial, etc.  This implies that people who do not travel are closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, and so on. Now, I certainly want people to look at the world beyond borders. I want people to think against our foreign policy and national interests.  I agree that society would be better if there was less racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and all the other “isms.” But, a person does not have to travel to be an open minded internationalist who wants to end social inequalities.  Travel is not the only means nor the best means to become open minded and globally aware. There are plenty of travelers who travel with their prejudices and ignorance. There are plenty of travelers who change very little after their experience. Travel is not the magic key to betterment.


Most of my friends do not travel.  Yet, all of my friends are aware of the world and committed to social justice.  Some of my friends do not travel due to income, lack of vacation time, health, criminal background, and other barriers.  I have one friend who adamantly says he does not want to travel. Is there anything wrong with this? Why would there be?  Not everyone wants to travel, just as not everyone wants to plant a garden, watch birds, go for long hikes, collect stamps, go to sporting events, attend concerts, scuba dive, or any number of other activities.  Not wanting to travel doesn’t make someone “bad” or stupid, or closed minded, or inferior. It is simply a matter of preference. A person can prefer not to travel, but still have a deep interest in learning about the world and still have a strong commitment to changing social injustices.  Just as a person can travel and be entirely indifferent to social injustice and blind to privilege. There are many ways to learn about the world. Formal education, self-education, employment, community engagement, volunteering, activism, hobbies, etc. can connect individuals to people who are different from themselves and broaden the mind to social justice issues.


7. Travel Can Be Unethical

There are many unethical aspects to travel.  Firstly, travel requires transportation- which generally means using more fossil fuels than one would use if they just stayed home.  Travel can also be a source of waste. For instance, the airline industry produces 5.2 million tons of waste each year in the form of such things as empty bottles, uneaten meals, packaging, etc.  https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/airlines-cabin-waste/index.html


Many countries lack waste management systems, so even if a person wants to recycle or compost, there is a lack of infrastructure to support this, much less the more basic service of garbage collection.  I have certainly littered when in other countries simply because proper trash disposal was nowhere to be found. Increased travel to natural areas can impact plant and animal populations and increased travel anywhere creates more demand for tourist supporting infrastructure such as roads, hotels, stores, and restaurants (which can result in loss of human neighborhoods or natural habitats depending upon where these are built). Travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their environmental impact. Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor, water and nature

An underground landfill fire in Grenada- indicating a waste management problem


Travel changes economies.  With the decline of industry in my own region, the economy has shifted more towards tourism.  The impact of this has been the expansion of lower paying, non-union, service industry jobs with higher turnover and greater sensitivity to economic downturn.  Of course, workers can always fight back for higher wages, better conditions, and unions- which has been happening in the service economy, but this takes time and organization.  On a global scale, catering to the tastes of tourists can mean a homogenization or Disneyfication of culture, shift in labor from subsistence to tourist economies or from production to service economies, marketization of culture and environments, privatization of resources, and dependency on tourism (which is a variable source of income), increased reliance on imports (as the economy shifts from producing things to services or to meet the needs of tourists) etc.


At the same time, economies change and tourism fills the gap of industries which once were (but are no longer profitable).  It is very hard for island countries to maintain a global, “competitive advantage” due to trade laws, transportation costs, lack of land, lack of money for capital investment, etc.  For instance, it would be very hard for many Pacific Island countries to be major exporters of produce, since the islands are far from each other, often small, and far away from global markets.  Because of colonization and globalization, subsistence ways of life have been disrupted. Tourism is a way to generate some income and create some jobs. Tourism isn’t necessarily evil and may have the positive impact of injecting money into these economies.  However, the plight of these countries is a complicated mix of colonization, current trade practices, climate change, and tourism. A well meaning tourist can attempt to patronize local businesses or engage in ecotourism, but the global economy is set-up to prohibit the development of some countries and continue the dependency of poorer countries on wealthier ones.  Travel is an aspect of this dependency and the consumption practices of a single traveler, no matter how well meaning, cannot alter the nature of global capitalism. Thus, travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their role in the global economy.


8. Travel is Made Possible by Imperialism

From a socialist perspective, imperialism is a stage of capitalism wherein due to declining profits, developed economies look to perpetuate capitalism and avoid crisis by expanding trade into global markets, integrating more workers into their economies, and by destroying economic competitors.  This is the motor behind globalization. As a U.S. citizen, I have found that ease of travel often correlates with degree of integration within the global economy and acceptance of the United States foreign policy. For instance, travel to North Korea is currently banned for most Americans (by our own government), Cuba was historically a place U.S. citizens were banned from traveling to due to our trade embargo, and American travel to Iran was briefly banned last year after the U.S. travel ban.  Ease of travel is a function of U.S. imperialism (but also imperialism in general). For instance, in countries like Belarus and Turkmenistan, I was unable to use my ATM card. This seems like a minor inconvenience, but generally, this also means that these countries are not well integrated into the global banking system. On the other hand, some countries literally use U.S. dollars. All U.S. “territories” (i.e. modern colonies) use US dollars, including Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Zimbabwe also uses U.S. dollars. For countries which don’t, I never have any issue converting my money, since it is widely accepted as a matter of our position in the global economy. The same cannot be said for someone carrying Albanian lek, who would be hard pressed to convert their money due to its obscurity and relative lack of value. In most countries I have traveled to, I have been able to find English speakers. Again, this is a matter of both American and British imperialism- which has spread the English language around the world and made it a language of economic and political importance.  Likewise, Spanish and French are also used due to the history of colonialism and imperialism. Infrastructure which today supports tourists, such as ports, airports, and roads, were often built by colonial powers in the interest of extracting resources from these countries or to support military interests (an extension of imperialism). For example, Kinshasa airport was first built by the Belgians, Cairo International airport was first used as an airfield by the U.S. during World War II, Ahmed Ben Bella airport in Algeria was first used by the French in WWII as an airfield, etc. This isn’t to argue that countries do not build their infrastructure on their own, independent of imperialism, but that imperialism has shaped the globe, making it far easier for me to travel than someone from a country that was never a world power.  Can I really argue that travel makes me “better” when my ability to travel has been lubricated by imperialism?

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(In North Korea in 2010)


9. Travel Has No Intrinsic Value

The nature of value is complicated, since the word value is used in a variety of ways.  In a Marxist sense, something has use value if it has “usefulness” or utility and exchange value if it can be expressed in price or traded as a commodity.  Travel is a set of experiences, but not a singular entity or commodity. It may be many commodities which are consumed in the process of travel. In this sense, to my best understanding, travel does not have use value or exchange value, though aspects of travel may possess these things.  Travel can be broken down into meals, hotel stays, flights, bus tickets, tours, and so on, which have exchange value. But, this is a very mechanistic view of what value means.


When most people talk about the value of travel, they are referring not to the economic value, but the value of memories and experiences.   Of course, on an individual level, these things have value. The problem is that some people idealize this value above other experiences. Is the value of travel greater than the value of other things?  It is tempting for some travelers to revel in the freedom of travel and to frame it as superior to such things as working 9-5, having children, settling down, staying in one place, forming routines, being tied down by responsibilities, and so on.  Does travel have more value than working? Well, travel is often a lot more fun than working. But, is the value of fun greater than the value of work? What is the value of work (not in the Marxist sense) but the everyday, more generic sense? I work at a domestic violence shelter, as a substitute teacher, and at a women’s health clinic.  Reproductive health is a heck of a lot more important than having fun! Access to abortion and other reproductive health care is fundamental to the equality of women (or anyone with the capacity of becoming pregnant). If everyone who worked in this field suddenly decided to take prolonged vacations, resulting in the shutdown of reproductive health services (this is an unrealistic scenario)  society would be worse off. My own work in this area is minimal and part time, so it is important not to overstate my own contribution to this area. The main point is that travel is often framed as better than work, but work has a lot of value. My full time job is at a domestic violence shelter- it is hard to imagine that travel, which is done for fun and selfish reasons, is of a higher importance or value.  Travel is important to me, but the social value of sheltering survivors/victims of domestic violence is greater than the value of travel. Leisure travel does not address a social problem or meet a social need. Image may contain: text


I don’t wish to overstate the importance of work, since work can be draining, stressful, exploitative, a source of struggle, and necessity for survival.  Because work is alienating and exploitative, escape from work through travel is idealized. But, escape from work does not improve labor conditions or improve the lot of working people.  It does not alter the conditions of work. Still, people SHOULD work less. There should be more vacation time and more time to pursue anything which broadens the human experience, including travel, hobbies, community engagement, relationship building, education, etc.  Yes, travel is one of the things that can enrich the human experience. But, so can having children, building meaningful relationships, connecting with a community, planting gardens, going for hikes, or any number of experiences. Work also has the potential to enrich the human experience, but to do so, it must be liberated from capitalist exploitation.


 

10. Travel Can Make You Worse

Finally, there is no rule that travel will make you better (whatever that is).  Travel can make a person worse. By worse, I mean, it can give a person a sense of inflated importance.  It can make someone believe that they are more knowledgeable or have lived a superior lifestyle. Like the character in Rocky and Bullwinkle, who prattled on about his marvelous adventurous, it can make a person a egotistical, elitist, and out of touch.  Look at me! I’ve been there! I’ve done that! I know all about that! I know the best place to stay! I know the best deals! Of course, I fall victim to this as well, since I often write about travel- pretending that I have some important knowledge or insight to pass on.  Well, I am doing that right now- passing on the insight that travel does not make you better! Image result for commander mcbragg


Travel can make you “worse” in other ways.  Travel can be tiring, stressful, socially exhausting, confusing, make people sick, costly, dangerous, frustrating, disappointing, etc.  The toll of the challenges of travel can bring out the worst characteristics in some travelers. I myself have become withdrawn, anxious, depressed, fatigued, frustrated, judgemental, etc. while traveling.  I can hardly say I am my best self when faced with challenges and new situations. I have certainly observed other travelers melt down or engage in maladaptive behaviors to combat or mute the stress of travel.  Excessive eating, drinking, and spending are some ways that others might cope with the hardships of travel. Drinking too much is especially common. While there might be some awesome, cool, well-adapted, roll-with-the punches travelers out there, there are probably many more than have yelled at hotel staff or looked at difference with disgust.


In a material sense, travel can make you worse.  When I spend money on travel, it means that I am not spending money on other things.  I am going to be far worse off in my retirement years because I spent money on travel rather than saving for old age.  I am not building my savings for a rainy day or unforeseen catastrophe. Travel is not the most prudent thing to spend money on.  However, I value the experiences so I continue to spend money on them.


Travel can make a person’s health worse.  I have been fortunate that I have never become majorly ill from travel, but travel does expose people to diseases that they might not otherwise encounter.  I have almost zero risk of contracting malaria or yellow fever if I just stay home…


 

Conclusion:

 

This may seem rather negative, but I really feel that travel does not make you “better” just as formal education does not make you “better”, having a professional career does not make you “better,” or any number of other things makes a person better.  I enjoy travel, but it does not make me better. In some ways, it makes me worse than others. I would love to travel more than I do. I encourage others to travel. I admire those who travel. However, I don’t know that it is the path to betterment or that such a pursuit is even a worthy goal.  What is betterment outside of comparison, hierarchy, or elitism? In what ways does “better” concede to an economy that makes money by making us believe that we need to be more than what we are? Of course, at some basic level I want to improve upon myself, grow, change, and experience new things.  But does accomplishing this make me better than others or better than my past self? At the core of these sorts of questions is the bigger question of what is meaningful in a world where everything dies or changes, where life is short and harsh for many, and never fully realized by the vast majority of us.  Through the prism of pain and dying, the “best” among us are those who work the hardest to make the suffering in the world less and work to build a world wherein more people can explore their full humanity. Travel can sometimes support this goal, but for me, it tends to be a diversion.

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Counting Countries

Counting Countries

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H. Bradford

9/26/17

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

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


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

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

 

Zhenyuanlong suni


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

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


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

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


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

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A rally in support of Kurdish independence


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


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


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

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

 

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

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

Some Things I’ve done to Travel

Some Things I’ve Done to Travel

H. Bradford

9/13/17

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

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


1. Donate Eggs:

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

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

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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

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