I met so many people - kind, generous, grateful.
Or so I'd like to believe.
Which I had forgotten to expect - being too wrapped up in feeling like Americans are all those things and that other countries would be, could be, different.
I took pictures of pretty landscapes, historic sites, even a few animals!
I'll take the power to tell my own story over silence any day.
You welcomed me to your country, sometimes to your home.
You were also often racist, xenophobic, sexist...
(You wouldn't want me to show any of your people, pollution, or politics anyway, right?)
The people are more similar than different; more caring than apathetic; more yes than no.
Do they find that patronizing?
They're all silent.
"We agree," said the theoretical masses.
Every day I'm walking the line between memory and myth
Elevated / romanticized / demonized
How do we refocus our eyes
To spin truth in any direction we choose?
I left my belongings stored in my parents’ basement, joined hands with my partner Sarah, and flew to India to begin a 10-month trip around the world. Minutes after stepping off the plane in Mumbai, I was inching past families sleeping amidst vast pollution, the isolating taxi window affirming my separation from the realities of life for millions in India and beyond.
I had goals like many of us have for many a vacation: eat delicious food, soak in beautiful sights, post on Instagram, don't get kidnapped. I also set out hoping to open my eyes to new ways of living – to observe, honor, and likely extract what wisdom I could, to make it my own.
Privileged white Americans often glamorize western Europe as a haven of progressive society - the schools in Finland, the vacation policies in Italy, the farmer's market food culture of France - yet such a limited scope of comparison, such a limited search for life advice, reeks of ethnocentrism. It seems like most people in America wouldn’t imagine there’s anything to learn from “developing countries” – or to use other coded language, countries whose power systems aren't built on white supremacy and Christianity. Spirituality is the primary exception - westerners seek gurus across the globe, and as my trip went on, spiritual approaches to life and community were a constant theme for observation and reflection - even if I didn't think I was in the market for spiritual window-shopping.
I set off to learn about how billions of other people live – assuming, like most travelers, that values and lifestyles and beliefs around the world are so much different than what I see in my own society. Would we even have the impulse to travel if we didn't have myths about happy-though-broke farmers in India, living-like-they-always-have tribes in the Amazon, and oh-so-equal-and-balanced social utopia in Sweden?
So I hit the ground running with Month One in India, and in many ways, was drawn to similar concerns I have about my own culture. From rickshaw drivers hounding tourists at the railway station to owners of cheap hotels who sleep on cots in the lobby to slum-dwellers who’ve rushed to Mumbai for the lowest-level economic opportunities that are still better than what their home village offers, I felt stampeded by the quest for money. It's easy to take being a full-time consumer in your home country for granted, but this capitalist cacophony was loud and clear. Surely some people fight the urge just like some do in the US, and some people hop off the financial ladder, but money really does make the world go round, and the last several decades of economic growth for India nationally, hand-in-hand with the legal abolition of the caste system, has put rupee signs in the eyes of many. As we traveled from Mumbai north and east towards Varanasi, we engaged with dozens of people, selling, driving, eating, sharing train compartments -and they were in fact dozens of men, given the gendered public divide. In cities, we saw some women on the move between work and home; some girls going to and from school in their matching uniforms; and some women on the banks of rivers washing clothes. But two weeks into our trip I realized I had never even had a meal made by a woman, because all the restaurants and food stalls are exclusively male, despite the kitchen being exclusively the woman’s domain at home. This was a departure.
This shifted during our last two weeks in Kerala – the southwestern state known for high literacy rates, communism and workers’ rights, and other signs of societal “progress” that set it apart from some of the more traditional regions of India. Suddenly there were just as many women as men on the bus; restaurants and street stalls run by women; we even had conversations with some of them. Yet one of our most informative experiences was befriending a young mother, wife, and entrepreneur who explained some of the obstacles she’s gone through to assert herself as a woman with interests beyond her family, with skills to share and a career to celebrate, as such ideas thwart traditional roles.
We had plenty of new experiences to take in: the realities of the underemployed begging culture, abundantly interesting street food, cows holding up foot traffic in narrow alleys, a relationship with death that includes public funeral pyres, and plenty of hole-in-the-ground toilets. There were also an awful lot of similarities to social issues in the US. Hierarchies based on identity in the US are mirrored in India, and probably most places in the world. This could be a sign of human nature, our innate tribalism; it could also be exacerbated by colonial histories and globalization that perpetuate good/bad dichotomies and messages of skin color, gender, culture. I observed and verified through reading and conversation just how visibly the legacy caste system has to do with skin color - and whitening creams across India and all of Asia reinforce the complexion concern.
There's a sense that the US is "ahead" of India, that our social progress is further down the road, that at least we're having conversations about inequality, social justice, wage gaps and the prison-industrial complex and white supremacy and equal opportunity employment and much more. But there's a question at the foundation of these comparisons: is it fair to use the same notions of “progress” or “justice”? Do they mean the same thing in different cultures? The short answer is no – western liberal-minded do-gooders love to impose their own values on other cultures, but that doesn’t inherently make them better.
I didn't like the extreme gender divide. I didn't like the Hindu/Muslim religious conflict in the country's politics and violent current events. And I didn't like the servitude ingrained in the caste system and our de facto place high on the list. There are lot of things I don't like in US society, but my critiques there don't feel like an imposition, because theoretically it's my own culture, my own government, my space to shape if I can. In India, I had different versions of the same ideas, but was faced with a new layer, a new lens, of wondering whether I was justified in these critiques.
I’m challenged by cultural relativism. I do believe there are many ways to live, and many ways societies can function positively for the wellbeing of their people – even if no society does it close to perfectly. Who am I to say that traditional gender roles aren’t satisfactory to some women in northern India? Societal changes in the last several decades suggest that many women want a different kind of life – and yet I would bet there are plenty of people who are quite satisfied with tradition, with the culture that they can claim as their own, prior to the influences of the modern west and globalization. When you only know one way of life, it can be difficult to consider anything else as preferable.
The same is true for me – I’ve only lived in the US, and only with all the privileges I have there. It’s easy for me to feel that it’s a society doing a number of things right – but I also don’t know firsthand what any other culture is like, and I know such a small fraction through observation. For myself, and the women in northern India, perhaps the ideal is to have a choice: to know enough about other cultures and other lifestyles that one can compare, contrast, and have some sense of choice in the way their life should play out in their society.
The belief in choice, and to some extent in democracy, is also rooted in individualism. Some societies are more collectivist, considering the functions of individuals through their purpose for and/or obligations to their society and smaller groups – the family, for instance. When it comes to the wellbeing of a communal family, traditional gender roles probably function very well for some groups – they’ve sustained cultural communities for thousands of years.
At the same time, India and the US seem so similar – from the emphasis on money, the readily apparent concerns of homelessness and poverty, the failing political infrastructure that can allow trash to contaminate the streets of India and lead to contaminate the water of Flint, the prevalence of Starbucks in Mumbai and Rihanna on the radio, and the similar conversations boiling about human rights. Perhaps with this particular comparison, the cultures are already too relative to have a strong opinion about. At the same time, I’m far from an expert, and I don’t mean to oversimplify – just as there are hundreds of sociopolitical voices shouting ideas in the US, there are hundreds if not thousands shouting in India, about issues both similar and very different.
I think the initial takeaway of my time in India, during which I hoped to learn about other cultures and perhaps adopt certain elements to my own life, is a surprise to me – that I like living in the US quite a bit. It's a combination of pride in theoretical "American values" and the familiarity of the country in which I've always lived, and it's a new feeling for me, a critical citizen with little interest in traditional patriotism. This isn't the story I thought I would find - though maybe subconsciously I was bound to get all analytical on whatever I experienced. Or maybe I’m just appreciating that there’s so much work to be done in the US, and so much I have yet to understand, that attempting to learn deeply about other cultures is spreading my capacity for understanding a little too thin. I’m reminded that the cultural and ideological diversity in the US is a special gift, a microcosm of the entire world’s range of ideas, and we don’t need to travel halfway around the world to learn about better ways to live. As with so much learning about other people, we can start by learning more about ourselves.
Throughout our trip I wrote a spreadsheet with the date, location, and a brief description of our day.
We do the walk, love the old towns on either side, green tea stop in the middle, all the Israeli photo women, disappointing ryokan with all the white people in robes and getting yelled at for wearing shoes to dinner
Am I just most comfortable stealing from
Nature? Landscapes? Temples?
Religious sites instead of religious people
I must think there’s less soul in a site than a saint
Humans see the greatest life in other humans
Maybe it’s biological or just bias-logical
But the warmest light, the most evocative story
Is in the eyes, the skin, the wrinkles, the blood
Of a human portrait
Reflecting a culture, a counter-culture, a family, an individual
New stories, new dialogues
Between subject, subject, subject, photographer, viewer
This space for dialogue breaks the laws of physics
There’s no conservation of mass in the new ideas
Evolving from art, subject, reader
In my insta-vacation porn
Part of it comes from a sense of ethics
The trees don’t have a say in the matter
But humans always should
Taking a photo without asking
Turns the world into a zoo
Where mostly white tourists from countries of wealth
Take photos of whomever they want
Part of it comes from challenging other-ing
The process that tells me who’s different than me
And therefore worthy of a photo
Travel - synonym - exoticization
Seeing something other
Making a judgment firsthand
I do think there’s a solution, to the paradoxes on my mind
Real relationships, authentic authority, genuine good grace
If I have a conversation with someone and approach with an open heart
The space, and privilege, to learn is shared
Maybe I’m more intimidated by international travel than I thought
Or so concerned about the privilege of travel
That I tread too lightly
Like butterflies pinned in a book
And photos of tropical trees.
Who is the fairest of them all?
Night boat with Max and Marie courtesy of Rahul, visit Rahul's shop, sitar lesson, Sarah walks home alone, late dinner on the roof with the Russians (the biggest GOAT!) and the Australian looking into the cannibalistic practices of a certain holy man
CUT TO: SOUTHEAST ASIA A.K.A. BACKPACKER PARADISE
Wearing $2 poofy pants covered in elephant patterns, dreading our hair to show how serious we are, packing our bags to 70L because the bigger your pack, the more badass your trip.
With fierce side-eyes and pitch-black shade thrown, we ogle each other's priceless belief that this world is ours to slurp up, shit out, fly away home from, and grass-is-greener remember as good-old-daze.
Party hard and find spiritual awakening
Tourist buses and motorbikes
Spice / curry / beer
...are you in the Peace Corps?
Minibuses and safari trucks
...aren't people, like, hungry there? / beer
Party hard and find a lot of old churches
Train passes and cheap flights
Pasta / sausage / beer
I am being way too cynical (right?).
I traveled with an open mind, early bedtime, and mature sensibility.
I didn't have goals to party, to exploit, to essentialize people and places.
Many tourists are responsible, respectful, resourceful.
Many tourists should also reduce, reuse, recycle.
I didn't pee in the sea, but I did have a good time at the Full Moon Party. There.
I'm constantly holding on so I'm not bucked off my high horse.
Trapped in Bangkok, Thailand
My social life is: surrounded by strangers every day, and one constant in my life who I spend 24/7 with.
Wandering back and forth each day up and down the balance beam: are humans more inclined to kindness or suspicion, invitation or isolation, species or tribe? Up close and personal people do care about each other, but they have tribalist views - are those natural or just ingrained in all societies, all demographics, all histories? Is it too persuasive an idea, to see your own kind as the best - cleanest, smartest, holiest, whatever?
In Serbia, talking to a young man who says he would be unhappy if his kids wanted to marry anyone who isn't Serbian, on a blood level, not a citizenship level. I think a worldwide poll about marriage outside your perceived clan would have 90% of people in agreement.
Is it also a fear of losing culture and identity - and is that somehow a more justifiable or noble reason than racism? Progressive sociopoliticalites love communities focused on preserving their own culture, but does that excuse beliefs that are called racist, ethnocentric, xenophobic, when other people suggest them?
On the same day in Serbia we visit the Tesla Museum. Nikola Tesla: "Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment and merging of races, and we are still far from this blissful realization, because few indeed, will admit the reality—that God made man in His image— in which case all men are alike. There is, in fact, but one race of many colors." But do we as a species function best when we're separate but respectful of each other's space and customs? And can we claim to have an example of that in history? There's always been war over territory, always backed up by beliefs about who deserves what. And on the other hand, a theoretically united nation like the US doesn't live up to its ideals, doesn't function as equitable, just, or truly democratic. So neither system works, but which is better, which has more potential, does less harm?
A chopped salad or separate plates?
Pick up super sweet blazer from Anson, taxi to Limbe for minibus, totally crazy, back row squished till Mangochi where we get in other minibus that's double stuffed, arrive at night feeling nervous and pay car to drive us to Venice Beach where there's no one else so we get best room by the Lake but there's a rat
If I'm being honest with myself, did I really set out to learn or to escape?
I've romanticized separation from civilization for years. Long walks and road trips to disconnect, to be lost, to be unfound. To be minimized, anonymized, realized - by my own choice, my own control.
How much of this trip is motivated by this too? Do I seek anonymity only because I have so much privilege and support in my life that I need to pretend some other version of absence, un-ness, unnecessary-ness?
And is even this attempt at being honest with myself just a farce? How can I claim to seek anonymity while posting on Instagram? While checking in with my family nearly every day? While traveling with my partner instead of alone? While interacting with dozens of people a day? Or while gaining new perspectives on my individual relationship with traumas, terrors, and tyrannical regimes of the past?
Or is that the heart of it, not anonymity, but strange-ness - to feel like the stranger?
How did I get this far in life without understanding that the dirty hands of Europe and America sculpted the rest of the world as we currently know it?
That this is recent history - that "post-colonial" is mere decades for so many countries - that buildings, languages, infrastructures and statues are grounded in colonial histories - that American pop music sounding around the globe is preceded by limitless violence and extraction, a still-modern history of global economies writing the first-world/third-world narrative - that I would wind up so interested in these histories, apparently only by actually visiting these places and having my eyes opened.
My first reaction was cynicism. Why do we travel halfway around the world to see some birds fly? Why are we in awe of something we see every single day back home? The hierarchy of animals is not so different than the hierarchy of people. Yet here is a human/animal hierarchical paradox, with African people being among the most oppressed and exploited over human history and African animals being among the most revered and sought after. Perhaps the animals are esteemed precisely because the people are seen as lesser.
Safaris and our legacy of colonialism. These animals once were truly wild, and to whatever extent they served humans, it was for the local communities - for food, for guidance, for a society of species. Now, these animals are on display for visitors to tap into their colonial spirit of discovery and exoticization, semi-owned by parks and game reserves, while the descendants of native people are tour guides, waiters, and housekeepers at lodges, service staff for mostly European guests reliving the glory days of colonial powers civilizing the savage but beautiful continent.
And I have to remind myself of that in capital letters so I'm not all doom/gloom/kettle-black over here.
How could you not love seeing dozens of elephants sauntering through their home? Or waiting by a waterhole for hours in hopes of a lion, then not even caring about the lion because hundreds of grazing animals showed up instead?
Does it matter that zebra, kudu, springbok, warthog, and eland were all available in steak form at the park restaurants? Does it matter that I myself, vegetarian since I was 14, was more tempted by these "exotic animals" than any other meat opportunity?
The essence of a safari is much like hiking, or fishing (from what I hear) - time slowing down around you as you listen to the breeze, harmoniously coexist with your natural surroundings, and appreciate the simpler things in life.
Is there really blood in the red earth here with my DNA?
What does it mean to feel more human yet still only have photos of landscapes and animals?
To interact with hundreds of people each week but primarily for transactions, for services, for tourists to give locals a salary of two dollars a day and then walk away feeling like they made a difference?
To feel a sense of universal connection, translated months later into exoticized fetishizing, telling your friends how beautiful the people are - how you'd kill for that bone structure?
Do we feel more human because we connect with other humans or because we connect with our own privilege? Our own sense of self? Our own sense of the other?
Do we learn from the depth beneath the surface, or from our reflection on the water?
I love everywhere we've been, and would have gone on living just fine without having ever been there. I saw beautiful landscapes, mountains and fields and seas, and learned to appreciate the diversity of landscapes we have in the vast USA, a feast of forests, deserts, geological wonders, and dual-coast waves crashing. I sat in the thick heat of Thailand and stressed about where to go next, which flights to book, which hotels were cheapest, which friends were having the most fun at home, which tourists were in more beautiful, more secluded, more authentic, more delicious, more perfect parts of this world I think I deserve. I flubbed through Facebook grateful to be away, regretting missing out. I ate Domino's pizza for breakfast in a Saudi Arabian airport and missed the delivery-tracking app I use at home. I stood in some of the world's most beautiful places, a handful of the 1,000 you must see before you die, and I can still spend hours maligning this or that or this or him or her or them or that or when or what or how, because maybe disappointment is human nature.
I traveled to the other side of the world and all I got was this lousy cynicism (and no t-shirt).
All day train from Bar to Belgrade, riding backwards with Serbian women who only warmed to the baby that was in the cabin for a bit; beautiful mountainous Montenegro turned to hilly and then farmy Serbia; we reach hostel in the rain and late and get a free sandwich at a crepe shop, the only place open
He said it with a smile, this dreadlocked white guy from LA in a bright purple shirt, undoubtedly purchased at a quasi-Balinese fashion shop nearby. We were in the post office in the heart of the modern-hippie movement: Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, a small town somehow bursting with shops for clothing, gelato, yoga retreats, raw food, and Balinese crafts that run the gamut from truly impressive and traditional to shameful souvenirs in the vein of penis-shaped bottle openers. It’s surrounded by rice fields, like much of Bali, lush green terraces that fuse the past with the present in tourists’ photographs. Local legend says a mere twenty-five years ago Ubud hardly had vehicles passing through – now, the traffic on Monkey Forest Road is at a standstill all day.
For many visitors, Ubud is some kind of mecca: it’s everything you can find in an upscale neighborhood catering to a certain brand of spirituality in the US, but with a much higher concentration. It’s the fusion of superficial Hinduism, mysticism, yoga, and Whole Foods that becomes a foundation for people in their forties switching careers to become massage therapists or ditching it all to Eat Pray Love. I live adjacent to this community, somewhere between raw vegan desserts and my wool hat from Wal-Mart. While I fully support people exploring spirituality and wellness, I find this community to often be blissfully ignorant of the privileges that inform such a lifestyle of choice, and the new-age colonizing that takes place in their appropriated homes.
I looked at the tan, patchouli-wafting man in the post office, thinking that yes, Ubud was probably more similar to LA neighborhoods thick with yoga studios than anywhere else in Asia.
My wanderlusting compatriot didn’t respond – either because he didn’t agree, didn’t understand, or was too preoccupied with how to pack his newly purchased colorful pants to ship home.
Our taxi driver from the airport told us that 60-80% of real estate in Kuta, a major beach town on Bali, was foreign-owned, mostly by Australians. He said the Balinese government is too focused on money and not enough on its people – that it’s reaping as many benefits as it can from all the foreign business interest, and failing to return it to the masses. Instead, public education, at its cheapest, costs $65 per child per three months – a challenging expense for many local people, whose wages mean their kids can’t go to school, let alone jaunt across the world attending yoga retreats. Clearly the local government is part of the problem for its people, but the greedy interests of Australians, Italians, Germans, Americans, and more have whittled away the opportunities once available to entrepreneurial locals, and permanently changed the physical and social landscape of the island.
The rice fields that are so beautiful to so many tourists like myself are a central example. Rice is a major export, a traditional lifelong career, and spiritually connected with deities for the harvest, the water, the rice itself. The fields are now threatened by climate change – this year’s uncharacteristic rainfall has diminished Bali’s crop, and soon there may not even be a rainy season. Signs around the fields warn about fines for littering, but rivers already run brown with unrecognizable gunk and plastic. We befriended a Balinese woman who recently opened a restaurant in a rice field that doubles as a free refreshment station for field workers. She told us that young people are all seeking jobs at higher-paying restaurants, tour companies, and hotels, rather than following their parents’ path to the field – understandable, of course, but worrisome for the future of this vital part of the island’s economy and culture.
Bali’s tale of adaptation is but one chapter in the unfolding story of modern globalization. On a macroscopic level, we’re all participating in an era of shifting global culture that’s happening more rapidly, more fluidly, and more insidiously than ever before. The proliferation of American and generally European media across the world is astounding – but it’s just a public example of the power dynamics that seem to be shifting global culture in the direction of western culture. Balinese culture is being redefined by tourists, ex-pats, and foreign business owners to include yoga, antioxidant milkshakes, and partying all night on the beach – and if that's where the money is, more and more genuinely local people will adapt their professional lives and perhaps their personal lives as well. Meanwhile, conservative movements in the US and other increasingly diverse western countries are characterized by their opposition to "foreign" ideas and perceived lifestyles.
I can't decide if that's too harsh - especially given the risk of diminishing the truly destructive effects of legitimate, in-your-face colonialism. But if we fail to see the western cultural shadow expanding across the world, we’ll all soon be making casual statements like my yogi buddy in Ubud – and like climate change and colonialism, it will be too late to do much more than lament the consequences and be grateful that the west always has the upper hand in the worldwide oppression it creates.
Second "long" stay of the trip; Generally we do some work in our lovely apartment, buy lots of vegetables at the market and make phenomenal food ourselves like lentil beet shepherds pie, garlic cheese bread, spicy pad Thai soup, hot chocolate with rum... and we get lots of treats almost daily: chocolate croissants at our favorite bakery, sweet street coffee, best ever madeleines, tamarind juice, and a few potato salad carrot salad cabbage salad pasta salad meals (for 30 cents); love this city even though our noses are full of black boogers; get lost in the labyrinth streets, hustle and bustle, rolling hills
A part of being apart
Is hiding from the truth
The paradox of parrots
At the peak of Monte Cornetto near Cavedine, Italy.
I watched and wondered if I've been missing something divine all this time.
use religion to question answers
sleep through the night
I spent three days at the ashram of Amma, a world-famous spiritual leader whose campus attracts several thousand people on any given day. I knew little about what the experience would entail, and I was not a devotee before or after. I greatly appreciated my time observing and participating in ashram life. While reflecting on devotion, several voices emerged - this poem represents four different characters I feel like I met in Amritapuri.
I was feeling lost / Adrift, though it sounds cliché / I laughed at others like me / Before I felt that way / I grew up to be proud / To hold my head up high / I thought I might sustain the fantasy / Until I give up and die / But then my husband left me / I can’t discuss it much / I spiraled downwards, all alone / I needed to find a crutch / You saw me across the crowd / In the convention center / Your visit to Dallas lit my fire / Your heart opened, I entered / It sounds so simple when I put it like that / Of course it took much longer / But when I reflect I don’t need many words / I’m already so much stronger / To see another woman / Rising with such grace / Selflessly offering her love / There’s nothing I can’t face.
I see you, my child / And I have what your need / Peace, quiet, a shoulder to cry on / Just a small fee / My back aches / My sari’s hot / My loyal squad of servants / Keeps forgetting when I’m not / In the mood for worship / Ready to sing bhajan / Sticking to a schedule / So nothing can go wrong / When I was young I really thought / Love is all you need / Growing up you start to notice / There are flowers and there are weeds / When I laugh on stage I see / Thousands of white beings / Clamoring to follow me / Practically stampeding / You are not my teachings / Your pushing, your pride / But you fuel my empire / So pray with me, in kind.
First I watched the promo vids with babies kissed on the cheek / My brother says it’s propaganda but that just means he’s weak / Unable to open his eyes and see / The light the love the truth the dove she shares direct with me / Sure she gives a candy to everyone she hugs / But she’s saved my life a thousand times, better than doctor’s drugs / Like when I blacked out at the frat party for the seventh time / The college tried to kick me out, but Divine was on my side / Jimmy says it’s dad’s persuasion but I know the truth / Divine Mother called up the gods and put me back in school / Then there’s the time Lizzy Dizzy went and broke my heart / I nearly used a blade that day but Mother kept me from falling apart / It was her voice that called Dizzy and left the voicemail saying though she’s a bitch / I forgive her, I loved her, I still hate her brother, but karma’s the ultimate itch
I met a lot of people at your family home / Few of them talk to me, but hey, we’re here to grow / Thanks for sharing cappuccinos with us western folks / A taste of home is necessary, and that’s not a joke / All the Indian stuff is cool and all, but the West does it right / I know you agree with me, Divine Mother, ‘cause your ashram in Cali is pretty tight / Everyone here wants to win your affection / Divine Mother, you know it’s true / When will you use your holy power / To cast out the posers so we’re just a few? / Sitting around with coconuts and writing shitty thoughts / They think they’re spiritual and learning from you but their hearts know they’re not / They come here on vacation, for a cheap place to stay / They sit in their rooms and shit in the holes and then pretend to pray / I shaved my head for you and got a darshan token / So I could give you my precious locks, a symbol of love, unbroken / So kick those lazy fuckers out and elevate us to your level / Om etc., Divine Mother, thanks for saving me from the devil.
I came to Amritapuri to learn to be better / So what a surprise, instead, to be swayed by the weather / By the humidity and sunshine, the refreshing breeze and surf / It wasn’t the people that changed me, that lifted away my curse / Through guided meditation I sat completely still / I focused on my breath like a hunter on its kill / But there was movement, so much movement, happening just overhead / Crows upon crows upon crows upon crows / Cacawing away their dread / Zipping through trees like an extreme sport / Black blurs against blue, painting the shade of port / Their movement seemed so natural, so fast, so simply right / I couldn’t help but wonder if my meditation was getting trite / Another way for humans to falsely elevate ourselves / To believe we’re better than mother nature then blindly call for help / Movement is a virtue, a gift not all can share / I learned from the crows, not Amma I’m afraid, that my energy deserves my care / And it’s energy and movement that makes a change / That activates my greater value / Manifest justice and goodness for all / As the crows circle without you.
Rented bicycles, had fantastic tea leaf salad and sugarcane juice at lunch, visited major pagoda with epic steps in afternoon and at sunset, Greg had diarrhea in the plains and stepped on a thorn that wound up being debilitating for weeks
I see stunning examples of what a group of people can accomplish with holy motivation, some of the world's greatest achievements in architecture and design, often an unintentional celebration of human relationships with nature, stones and gems and clay forged together in a show of strength, of safety, of purpose.
I criticize the Christian hegemony of the United States, our false separation of church and state, one nation under god, yet I venerate the thousands of Buddhist pagodas dotting the landscapes of Myanmar, the geometric grandeur of mosques in Jordan, the solemn saints adorning Christian churches in Romania – all wrapped up in the same cycles of violence and oppression and also beautiful, also spiritual.
I wish I was looking for guidance.
I wish I could convince myself I haven’t already made up my mind.
Before I forget
Know that this trip can be defined as
A dictionary of beauty
Some places do have a magic all their own. Energy heaving in the heat, buzz of insects, brightness in people's eyes; winds carrying whispers of stories, myths, ghosts. Colors in the earth, sand, flora and fauna, skin of people, fur and scales and feathers. Does every place carry this magic? Don't I feel it at the Dismal Harmony trail in NJ, Valley View Hot Springs in CO, maybe Oakwood Cemetery in NY? Familiar places that are somehow then connected to the Miyazaki-like surreal but tense beauty of the farm-adjacent forest in Japan, the templed plains in Bagan, the labyrinthine timeless streets of Fez and Varanasi, the aching arms of trees and towering red sand in Sossusvlei. How much of that magic is in the land, and how much is in my head? In other words, how much is that felt by everyone, and how much is it felt especially by me? And how is magic felt differently by temporary visitors like me and by locals with long-term, no-choice, here-we-are lives there?
Can we cultivate that magic in our own/home worlds? Can we choose it?
In Munnar, India, we were invited to meet students at the High Range School. Before we began a discussion about filmmaking, we were treated to these two folk songs - the video to the left is in Hindi and the video below is in Malayalam.
The last destination of our trip is Rome. Sarah posts on Facebook, asking for restaurant recommendations. Dozens of friends and acquaintances reply, and many of the recommendations ensure that this restaurant, this special restaurant, is authentic, off the beaten path, not for tourists. The irony is not lost.
I wish I had a nickel for every time a tourist told me that ____ isn't worth visiting anymore - it's been corrupted by tourism, cruise ships, Taylor Swift - they even have a Wal-Mart now!
Part of what I loved about cities in India was how fast everything moved. In Mumbai, the traffic might be bumper-to-bumper but the honking fills the air, the vehicles whiz past whenever possible, and every five feet is a brand new scene - a family curled up on cardboard, a hole-in-the-wall shop loading its new supply, a group of friends or cousins doing an impromptu construction project. Every nook and cranny of urban space is electrified with movement and life.
As I appreciated this, eyes open as if absorbing the lights of Times Square, I also slowly began to appreciate my temporality in this space - and that the energy I admired was exciting in part because of how briefly I was there to see it. My snapshot memories of the hustle and bustle stand out as different than what "daily life" generally means to me. But to the millions of people who have made a home in that nexus of hectic lives, it is simply day-to-day. It's a broken record of horns honking, lights flickering, lungs coughing, paan spitting, and dogs howling.
That's part of the very nature of travel though - it's why we say travel or visit instead of living or home. I'm transient and temporary in each place I go that's not my home - I'm temporary everywhere I've ever called home, but I at least have the potential to participate in a community. While traveling, I accept the few days I spend there, trying to observe and digest, but there's no before and after, no past and future, just a present that's wrapped up in a box of memories that I own, alone. My Mumbai is very different than the one that millions try to make home – and as with so many aspects of travel, it’s a privilege to observe without responsibility. I loved my time there, but I will always know it was just that - "my time," isolated and individual, bursting with energy like a solar flare rather than simply shining like the sun.
I failed to anticipate the way I would feel towards the de facto bad guys.
I felt an affinity towards every dark-skinned person and vitriol towards the white people. I seethed and saw each white person drenched in blame for two centuries of land-grabbing European expansion, one century of European intertribal violence, and one century of European supremacy culminating in the apartheid system that viciously oppressed the people who had lived on this land for millennia. If they were wealthy, they represented the upper-class who benefited from those centuries; if they were poor, they represented the underclass who needed those divisions to feel better about themselves, and in today’s world, surely harbor venom towards the Black community they see taking power, taking opportunities, rising up for themselves to fall down.
Look, there’s some truth in all that.
But it’s also ridiculous. Apartheid is fresher than slavery and segregation in the US, but the race-based oppression that runs rampant across the US today doesn't make me drown every white person in shade. On one hand, most people who belong to a community in power (white, male, Christian, etc.) aren’t really responsible for the problems in their society (they were just born that way, as the defense goes); on the other hand, everyone who fails to fight against injustice is complicit and perpetuates hierarchy, division, and oppression.
There’s also a quagmire of self-hatred and self-pride that encourages me to denigrate a cultural community to which I nearly belong.
Staying in this small town in Italy, and for the most part throughout Europe, people mind their own business around us - the tourism infrastructure works differently than Asia and Africa, where everywhere we went, people welcomed us and offered to show us to something, some activity or site. Is that all just business, is that what it comes down to? Who needs the informal tourism business more? Or is there a difference in hospitality - or in personal bubble respect? Are those conflicting ideas or really the same? It plays into the communal living vs. independent living dichotomy I felt in Southeast Asia vs. Japan (and the US), and Europe's position also confirms the wealth correlation. Can I generalize that more impoverished communities are more communal, that money leads to fences, literal and figurative?
In some ways, it's ironic because European nations were primarily responsible for the last 500 years of colonizing - an act that requires a complete lack of personal respect, or so it seems. Does it make logical sense if we assume the Europeans then didn't see the people of the colonized areas as fully human?
Windows - there's a good metaphor.
We're always approaching the window. And it may be distorted with some warped glass, some bug guts, some paint specks, but even reaching the window is a good start. We each have our own little room in the hotel of life together, and we cautiously step up to the window to see what we can see, smell what we can smell. And maybe sometimes we even open up the window, we peer outside, we bend and angle our heads to see what's below, or around the corner, or up in the sky.
We can take on infinite perspectives yet we're always there, in our room, in our window, framed.
“What’s your favorite place from your trip?” The most complex but benign question, and a year later, I often say Ethiopia. I usually stumble around, deflecting that there are no favorites, no way to choose – but I also know that no one wants to hear that. So I say Ethiopia and talk about the surprising landscapes of lush green mountains, the remarkable hospitality, the coffee culture that was a joy to participate in every day and inspired me to roast my own coffee at home. It’s fun to talk about these ideas, and to do my small part in painting a positive picture of a region known in the west for famine and war.
And there’s nothing false about that report – I could go on for hours recounting memories of our three weeks in Ethiopia and everything I loved.
But Ethiopia is also on my mind more than some of our other destinations because I’m still in touch with a few young men we met in Lalibela. Abiy, Estifanos, Haile, and Taddess are all around twenty years old, attending college in various parts of the country. In August 2016, they were home in Lalibela, working a shoeshine business and kindly greeting tourists like us. Over our four days in town, we managed to cross paths with these young men every day, usually in the middle of town, when we were looking for lunch or heading back to the hotel between visits to the area’s famous ancient churches. We developed a repartee, and by the last day, we’d been invited to their mother’s house for a traditional coffee ceremony.
On the bus towards Lalibela
On that final day, we’d seen the eleven rock-hewn churches, carved into stone, architectural wonders that continue to function as religious sites to the public day in and day out. While Sarah rested with a cold in our hotel room, I set out on a hike, to appreciate the remarkable high elevation landscapes surrounding the town. About two miles beyond Lalibela, on a trail used by shepherds and their flocks, I met Yt Barak – a 9-year-old boy in bright yellow puddle jumpers. He had mastered about ten words in English, and made it clear he would be my guide to a monastery two miles further down the trail – whether I liked it or not. I did my best to make it clear that I had no money and that I was enjoying my time alone (I’d truly stepped out of the hotel without cash so I wouldn’t wind up in a situation like this). But Yt Barak refused to take no for an answer and wound up accompanying me all the way to the monastery – always 5-10 feet ahead of me, occasionally shouting something to another child staring at us from their home, gradually taking on authority as my one and only new friend today.
Since I had no money on me, I couldn’t actually visit the monastery, and I turned around – much to Yt Barak’s surprise. He put out his hand. I shrugged, turned out my pockets, and returned the way I’d come. Yt Barak joined me for the return journey, and nearly back where I’d first met him, he was joined by a grown man – his father. They invited me into their home, in a foggy village of round structures made by hand as they have been for centuries. There were Yt Barak’s mother and two younger siblings, and as we squatted on low wooden stools, his father spoke to me about Yt Barak’s schooling. He was best in his class – a brilliant child, as I’d certainly seen. But the father explained that school in Ethiopia is no longer free after this age – 10 or so – and they have no money for school fees to keep Yt Barak moving forward.
At this point in our trip, we’d traveled for eight months and primarily interacted with people whose income was a small fraction of anything we were used to at home. We’d gained perspective on the sliding scale of money – what $20 means to us at home versus in India versus Japan. We’d made choices here and there to help out – from tipping more generously at restaurants to gifting some food and sidewalk chalk to a family we met in Antananarivo, Madagascar. We’d met travelers who believe you should never give money or food to anyone, as it just makes them dependent and hurts the tourism industry in the long run. We’d also met travelers who were long-term volunteers or aid workers, for whom charitable service was a lifestyle, not just a moment-to-moment choice. I believe socioeconomic stratification and inequity is mostly the fault of the government and international relations, big-picture systems that oppress the 99%, so to speak – but I’ve also questioned if this line of thinking apathetically releases the individual (myself) from any responsibility.
I wrote down my email address on a piece of paper for Yt Barak’s father – he said he can get to a computer in town about once a week, and he can receive money at Western Union. He encouraged me to take a family photo on my phone, which I in turn showed them, all of us exchanging big smiles, warmth. Yt Barak’s mother had made each of us coffee, in their traditional long-necked round-bellied pot over an open fire, and I knew that I was experiencing one of the most local, authentic moments of my trip. Was it happening entirely because they wanted me to give them money? Probably – but I also felt that it didn’t have to take away from that sense of authenticity. Aren’t all experiences with other people about exchange? Isn’t this indicative of how this family would socialize with other families in their village, and my only way of invitation was the prospect of my money? I walked away from them, waving and grinning, returning to Lalibela, feeling unsettled by this most forward, potentially long-term ask for financial support, but also more confident about the experience with each step. I started thinking that yes, I could send this family a little money – maybe even regularly for a year. I could sponsor a child’s education directly, a child I had met face-to-face through fate, and fulfill some yearning I have for “doing the right thing.”
Several hours later, Sarah and I meet our four friends in the center of town, and they lead us down winding footpaths to a one-room home. Inside, a woman offers us popcorn as she begins to prepare coffee. On the wall, markers on posterboard read “Happy Honeymoon” – a welcome message for Sarah and I, as we’d previously told them we were on our honeymoon in order to get some time to ourselves. We sat on a bench against the wall, and with the four boys we filled up the perimeter of the house. They explained that the woman making us coffee was essentially their adoptive mother. All four of them were from a village some ten miles away, a village with no school or potential for kids to grow beyond the possibilities of their families and their land. As pre-teens they’d been taken in by this woman in Lalibela, where they grew as brothers, attending school and relying on each other through the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Now, they were each attending college, but their education was threatened by lack of money. Specific examples included their need for new bedsheets, textbooks, and computers.
We knew the ask for money was coming, but we were fairly impressed with how much backstory led up to it, how emotionally involved their stories were – my summary above really covers about an hour of narrative before we got to the business stage. All the while, we actively listened and drank fresh coffee that their de facto mother prepared for us. When our role as wealthy foreign benefactors was front and center, we asked some follow up questions and then explained that we’d love to be in touch when we finished traveling and made it back home in two months’ time. I have no idea if other people write checks on the spot, but our friends seemed perfectly fine with our plan of deferment, and we cordially went our separate ways.
As we walked back to our hotel, I rapidly transitioned from empathy to suspicion. As Sarah and I rehashed their story, I kept poking holes in it: why do they need new bedsheets, don’t they have ones from last year? Isn’t the university system funded primarily by the government – like Europe? And why did they seem distant from the woman who was supposedly like their mother for years? My trust was deteriorating quickly – or had never been very firm in the first place.
We spent the entire night theorizing about these guys, and what our relationship with them and their financial concerns should look like. Should we give them some cash in the morning and hope to never speak again? Should we stick to our plan and be in touch via email months later, at which point we’ll almost certainly feel obligated to send money via Western Union? Should we stop being so cynical and consider how we might send them money on a monthly basis? For about ten minutes we even considered staying in Lalibela for an extra day to film a short documentary about these young men – we could then share their story on a crowdfunding site and likely get hundreds of dollars in mere days. But my suspicion about the truth of their story was an impossible obstacle: I would hate to spread their story if it wasn’t true. I also began to feel guilty about the dozens of other people we’d encountered on our trip who would have loved to turn into some tourist’s crowdfunding campaign. Basically, if I can’t help everyone, I might as well not help anyone. That’s not how I try to live my life – I try to accept that fate brings us to individuals, and if I can help one person in one small way, I should engage with that opportunity. Here, I found myself refusing to make it so simple.
I kept circling back to this question of trust, and eventually I realized that this was one of my most colonial-minded ruts of all. I elevated myself to judge, jury, and executioner, all predicated on my subjective obsession with the truth. I positioned myself as the center of the circumstance, and deemed my moral compass as the critical decision-making factor. I put this above what was literally in front of me: four young men in Lalibela, Ethiopia, who wanted some money. A foundational truth here is that my $20, $100, $200, means more to these men than it does to me. That’s a day’s work; a fraction of a birthday gift from a family member; a parking ticket I’d roll my eyes about and simply pay. For Abiy, Estifanos, Haile, and Taddess, it may turn into bedsheets or food or transportation to the city. It could also turn into something I’ve deemed unworthy of my charity – whatever it is that makes me weary of giving money in the first place. Is that alcohol? Fashionable shoes? I can’t even list what I’m concerned about, it’s an intangible mess of things that seem frivolous or irresponsible – the things I spend money on for myself without a care. Whatever their intentions are, they know a fundamental part of charity worldwide: those with the money only want to give to causes that fit their moral convictions, socially-constructed genres like education. Who doesn’t want to support education? Whether they are truly college students or they’ve just found a way to spin their story, there’s a desperation in the very nature of asking for money that should make all other concerns of purpose go away.
Two months after meeting them, I was back in the US, and right on cue, I got an email from Abiy checking in. Two emails back and forth later, the ask for money came. We sent $80 to his Western Union account, intending to give $20 to each of them. Meanwhile, I never heard from Yt Barak’s father. I’ll never know if he had trouble with my email address or if there’s another reason, but each time I think of that family I feel the same surge of warmth, of care, and I know I would send them money if we were in touch. With both experiences held up together, I also know that trust is at the heart of this – and it turns out I trust Yt Barak’s family more than these young men. Is this a version of ageism, or a bias against certain family structures? If so, and if the young men’s stories are true, I’m all the more to blame for not trusting them when they are unwilling victims of family circumstances that don’t meet my compass of trust.
Now, another year later, I continue to get emails from Abiy and Estifanos and Facebook messages from Haile, and every month or two there’s a new version of the “ask”: they need a PC for class; they need to buy custom t-shirts with their classmates; they need to travel to Addis Ababa for an apprenticeship. At one point I received a very circumspect email from Abiy’s “professor” – heaping praise onto his scholarly skill and telling me that only I could ensure Abiy remains in school. Some messages feels copied and pasted – I can imagine them going out to ten of last season’s tourists at the same time. Should this matter? I still believe that they need the money more than I do, that I have a safety net and general resources far beyond what they have right now – that I should honor their persistence. Maybe I’m mostly concerned about “giving in,” like I’m letting myself be taken advantage of. I feel stingy; I feel disturbed by the inherent god complex; I also feel like there are other tourists who may give more willingly than me and I hope they give generously.
As with so many issues in the world, I really just want other people to do the work.
Every block of every city or village has at least one woman who is constantly roasting, grinding, and brewing coffee, her very own coffee cycle for customers to enjoy on stools low to the ground, in small cups lined with sugar. I was most captivated by the roasting itself, so crucial in the process yet hidden to most coffee drinkers around the world. Here, I watched green beans turn yellow, then brown, smoking, hot as embers, shaken in a pan over an open fire.
The magic and simplicity seeped into the growing mythology of our trip.
I bought my first bag of green coffee on the street in Addis Ababa, on my last day in the country. Two months later, back home in the US, I made my first batch in a pan on the stove, and I've been roasting that way ever since.
When coffee beans experience heat, they begin to release water, and then gases, which we see in the changing color and hear in the first and second "crack," when the bean literally splits to release gases fighting to get out. The length of the roast greatly impacts the flavor profile of the coffee; there's a golden window between the first and second crack when the sugars in the bean are evolving and the flavor is changing every few seconds. I can control the roast, more or less, but all the flavor possibilities are innately in the bean - like wine, the flavors are dependent on the region of the world, the soil, the nearby crops, the rainfall, the way the beans are processed before they reach me.
Pardon the indelicate metaphor, but how roasted - how cracked - how released - am I from the open fire of our trip?
These layers, these cycles, this theme of everyone being responsible and part of the problem, the big pictures of hierarchy and violence that invite systems of oppression - these are the same disease by different names in different times and places. A disease, or maybe more properly an addiction, that we don't need but can't shake, that we can't heal and be rid of but can monitor, maybe replace with something a bit healthier, that demands consciousness, alertness, a name. Oppression defined by race, gender, religion, these are an addiction that our society thinks we need in order to survive, thinks will keep us functioning. Should we ever have the courage to fight it off, the withdrawal period will be horrendous, but we'll emerge fractured yet healthier, ready to rebuild a life together.
The increasing understanding of the failure of language - not so much because of language barriers, struggles communicating while traveling, but because of the inevitable impossibility of anyone else understanding this experience. The lack of language to articulate emotions, intangibles, the brackish juxtaposition of memory and reflection and presence. Time folding in on itself, warped photographs and sensory subtext. Personal development, isolation, insignificance, hand in hand.
But maybe just one extra layer of understanding - that we all have experiences we can never put into words.
On our final day, ten months after flying to Mumbai, hours before we fly back to the US, to family and friends and closets of clothes and The Cheesecake Factory, we walk through Rome and ascribe significance to everything. Every moment is our last _____; every interaction is profound; every object is a symbol, connecting us back to another part of the world. I can't stop thinking of cycles, circles, repetition, returns.
After four months in Asia, four months in Africa, and two months in Europe, we watch the sun set on the Colloseum and witness this full-circle heart-squeezing moment:
A man of seemingly Indian origin sells selfie sticks.
A man of seemingly East African origin sells wooden bowls.
As the orange glow settles on the Colloseum, the bowls guy hails the selfie stick guy and passes him a small flip phone.
The selfie stick guy takes a picture of the bowls guy - posing in front of the Colloseum, here in Rome, like all the other tourists, flashing a brilliant smile - and one more with a peace sign for good measure.
He records/distorts a moment, celebrates/vindicates a cross-continent connection, sends that photo home.
I record/distort the scene in a note on my iPhone and six months later type it into this project.