Love for & love from Brazil

I. Saudade

When a friend across the table said “saudade,” a little light of recognition blinked in my brain. I remembered that Portuguese word – I’d read it before, in a past fellow’s blog, from the floor of my room in Ann Arbor. Shortly after that, it had settled into some dormant sector of my brain, maybe knowingly awaiting this almost-prophetic future moment.  

As the pregnant Brazilian couple unpacked “saudade” for our eclectic lunch group – a Brazilian holiday-er, the American honeymooners, some fresh international arrivals, and yours truly – I listened knowingly, happily.

“Saudade” is a special Portuguese word, and we don’t have an equivalent in English. It’s a mixture of sadness for missing and happiness to have experienced something; “the love that remains”. Although it’s in the camp of melancholic longing, it’s not quite what we’d call nostalgia, which is reserved for things of the past, because saudade is temporally unlimited – you can feel saudade for something that hasn’t happened yet, in a dreamy, wistful way too.

A standard example: a Brazilian, feeling saudade for Brazil, while being somewhere other than Brazil – and especially if lacking a known return date.

As Thanksgiving approached, I dramatically anticipated feeling full-on saudade for my home. My family would be getting together in typical fashion for the coziest time of the year, and I’d bet anyone it’s the best modern tradition we have: loved ones + sentimental reflections + gravy + food comas + gratitude… I told my international friends about it like a proud Kindergartner at show-and-tell, controversial historical roots and all.

On Thanksgiving, my family came together for a day that had just as much drool-worthy food, affection, and chasing of giggle-drunk little cousins as always. I phoned in briefly, and love was sent in both directions.

The weird thing: I wasn’t the bundle of saudade that I expected to be. I was happy, because they were so happy. Thanksgiving was still Thanksgiving, and home is still home. There’s a special comfort in seeing that from afar.

II. In the here-and-now

After spending the past couple months in mega-cities like Mumbai, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro, I’ve been savoring a much different kind of living in Barra da Lagoa.

At this pre-seasonal-tourism moment, Barra da Lagoa is a sleepy fishing village. Nestled into a corner of the Brazilian island-city of Florianópolis, it occupies one end of an Atlantic-facing, sand-crusted coast that extends north for 12 seemingly untouched kilometers.

This sandy strip has become one of my favorite places, especially to run. The sand packs smoothly at low tide. I go barefoot, and after a couple kilometers it’s just the waves and I. In stark contrast to the more-chaotic coast of Mumbai, this beach is devoid of urbanity, devoid of people, and nearly devoid of plastic. Broken sand dollars, small jellyfish, and shells are the main things that wash ashore; down the street, there’s a turtle sanctuary.

Barra (“ba-ha”) is the kind of small town that gets excited for the release of a rehabilitated turtle into the sea. A sizable crowd gathered around a roped-off patch of sand, where the sanctuary staff paraded the turtle for a mix of excited tourists and locals. People were eagerly snapping photos, and one woman from the sanctuary was making a fundraising pitch in a stream of nonstop Portuguese. The turtle was finally permitted to crawl from it’s crate, and after 5 minutes of determined scooting, he swam off. Naturally, everyone cheered.

Barra has proved to be the perfect unintended destination for improving both my Portuguese and Spanish. The majority of my friends are Brazilian or Argentinian, and we play a lot of soccer (futebol) – from juggling on the sand (altinho), to a backyard game (futmesa) that could best be described as volleyball + ping pong + soccer, to some pick up games at a local turf pitch.

Naturally, my Portuguese vocabulary is stronger in certain areas than others. But the overlap with Spanish has proved helpful in overall comprehension and pronunciation, a few challenging new Portuguese sounds being the main exception (it’s a more nasal language). It’s been a huge relief and a refreshing thrill to be somewhere where I can express myself in a relevant language more fully; I think it’s also helped me so quickly connect with a family of friends here and with strangers in little daily interactions:

Barra has the kind of community where people greet you with a nod and “bom dia” on the street. The cashier at the mercado knows to wait for me to dig out my reusable bag. I reflexively say “saúde” to the grandpa who walked by sneezing, and he smiles back with an “obrigado“. The kind-eyed owner of the local lunch buffet knows I always ask for the Mole suco with my meal. The grandmotherly woman at the farmácia patiently works with me and my broken Portunhol (a slang mix of Spanish & Portuguese) to determine the right thing for my resfriado. My local friends have have pulled me into the social world of surfista regulars; post-surf meals and all.

Maybe it sounds small-world to read, but I’ve been craving this kind of humanness, and a bit of regularity too.

***

CB

THAILAND

Preface: It feels ODD to be posting my remaining blogs for Thailand, Japan, and India (around 9 months after they happened – though I was about 3 months behind on blogs at that time, so really only half a year late to post these, right?). Anyway, I would’ve done it sooner, but my Bonderman journey took a slight detour (not even a detour really, since I was still abroad and still growing/learning/evolving). So not really a detour, but a sharp turn resulted in me shelving the blogging after April. The past summer and fall were occupied with applying to schools and some other things that I’ll expand on in later posts. But now, I’m finally able to look back on the unpublished months of my Bonderman experience, process them, and post them. I believe it’s a good exercise in follow-through and resilience to finish this, and that is my driving force. Thank you for reading, here’s Thailand:

1/16/19

Muay Thai training has been, in two words, a lot. I live in the gym’s designated dormitory with the others who are training. Some are Thai and some are traveling around, like me. Twice a day, two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, we practice in the open air gym. It is conveniently situated: the Chiang Mai Old City is an easy 20 minute walk away but far enough for us to be pleasantly removed from the bustle and dust.

I’ve been in a scrappy mood lately, so a few weeks of punching and kicking stuff is exactly what I need.

1/18/19

A recap of my progress: The first day I was good. Second day I was okay. Third day I sucked. Today I was simply average. There’s an assortment of food stalls near the gym to choose from for lunch. At night, we get dinner and go shopping around the Night Bazaar where there’s usually live music.

Scorpions on a stick, found near the Night Bazaar

The gym owner and head coach Prasit seems tough, but he has two dogs that wander around while we train, and one time, one of them ran away for three days, and Prasit cried the whole time she was gone. When she finally came back home, he immediately bought both dogs tracking-device-implanted collars. He’s a big softy underneath all that lethal muscle.

1/19/19

The days have started to blur together: wake, train, shower, eat, hang out, train, shower, eat, hang out, sleep. My body is splotchy with all the hematomas I’ve sustained from being kicked/punched and from kicking/punching.

Ping, one of the Thai girls training at the gym, is going to be in a professional fight tonight. She’s 16. I feel a bit guilty; training for me is recreational and by choice, but Ping told us that her parents want her to fight to bring in money for their family. Her story isn’t uncommon; children start training early and often forgo school to help support their families financially. Most professional fighters come from disadvantaged backgrounds. This knowledge is making me take my time spent in the gym very seriously.

Fight announcement

1/20/19

Ping won! To celebrate, we turned in early after a big glass of warm milk so we could train on our day off.

Jk, they all got hammered.

The fights were really cool to witness even though I had some trouble with the violence of it all. Before it began, the fighters performed a ceremonial dance in the ring. Some of them wore headpieces that had been blessed for good luck. The rhythmic pre-ritual and fight music, Sarama, which is played on percussive instruments and oboes was almost hypnotic; I felt like I was in a trance the whole time. Every time one of the fighters was on the verge of striking, the music would speed up dramatically which intensified the viewing experience. At the end, the opponents bowed to each other. So respectful after annihilating one another.

I cannot fathom striking with speed and force like the kind I saw in those fights. It was important to me to try Muay Thai because I’m not so formidable physically. Sure my brain is synaptic enough, but in regards to brute strength and defending myself, I have never been completely confident. I really felt this deficiency in Morocco. Muay Thai is about turning the entire body into a weapon and shield. Though, I’m focusing more on the shield part.

Fight night highlights

1/22/19

All the people here are getting pretty close. Having identical schedules for weeks helps with the bonding I guess. There’s Nick, the Italian sailor who is unflappably laid back at all times. He told us an incredible story of how he was sailing alone once and fell from the mast, breaking his back, and had to sail back to the mainland. Probably something like fracturing his spine and almost dying in the middle of the ocean but somehow still maintaining his grip on life so he could steer his boat to safety must’ve made him super chill. He is always doling out nuggets of wisdom like, “sometimes you have to break to become stronger” (well, my hands and feet felt so broken today that I skipped afternoon practice…oops). Adrian is from London, and I’m giving him guitar lessons in exchange for extra help in training since he is pretty good. Sas is from Canada, and her female friendship is much needed. I’m working on getting to know the others better.

Exploring new places in Chiang Mai; the last picture is of a fairytale-esque garden cafe called Chom.

Not wanting to be a total slob for missing training, I visited Wat Umong, a 700-year old Buddhist temple to the west of the Old City. It is Chiang Mai’s only forest temple, and the monks that live there feed the wildlife that meander through the grounds. It is my kind of temple. There was a vast collection of damaged Buddhist and Hindu effigies of unknown origins. Being amongst the crumbling sculptures with hundreds of the “venerable one’s” stone eyes on me, I felt at ease.

After wandering further on, I came across a dark, underground tunnel complex. According to some legends, the subterranean network was built by an old king to accommodate a well-known and perhaps eccentric monk, Therachan, who they believed was wont to wander off the premises and into the forest unexpectedly. You and me both, Therachan.

1/23/19

They say you repeatedly kick in order to deaden the nerves in those areas and make your bones stronger through direct blunt force trauma. It seems a bit much to me, but that’s probably because my shins feel like splintered shards of glass grinding against my skin right now.

I’m getting a little restless at the thought of staying in the same place for so long. It doesn’t help my outlook that my body feels more like a conglomeration of bruised organs than anything else.

1/26/19

Thai food is amazing, but sometimes it can be a little too sugary for my taste. I went to a restaurant called Aba for lunch and asked if they could make me a vegetarian curry that wasn’t sweet. The owner scrunched his eyebrows together in thought and said, “I’ll come up with something really special for you!” This frightened me a bit, but I remained open-minded. When the dish came, he explained the soft tofu and extra veggies he put in. And “no sugar at all,” he said proudly. I took a bite; it was perfect.

1/29/19

Just got a Thai massage, and it was unlike any massage I’ve ever had before. I did some reading about it before and learned that traditional Thai massage was influenced by Indian, Chinese, and other South Asian practices, and incorporates acupressure and assisted yoga poses. You remain dressed in loose clothing, and the massage is given on a cushioned mat on the floor.

All I know is that it felt like the masseuse (or “giver”) disconnected every one of my limbs and joints from their sockets before kneading and rocking them back into place. Bones I didn’t know I had were cracked. It was amazing. I feel like a jellyfish right now. Why haven’t I been doing this every day?

1/30/19

I’ve become a regular at Aba; I always ask for my special dish. Sometimes, the owner will come out and say he “changed something” and ask if I like it. I always do.

Instead of heading to the Night Bazaar with the group after training, Sas and I went to a Jazz Co-op to hear the talented musicians of Chiang Mai play.

Also, I learned today that some Thai toilets have hoses for your butt. They call them bum-guns. I’m too scared to touch them.

2/4/19

My restlessness and desire to get in a whole month of Japan has won out, so later I’m going to take a bus to Bangkok after saying goodbye to everyone at the gym. I really do feel more confident in my abilities to defend myself now. I don’t think another week of training would make a huge difference in my abilities, but leaving now will give me time to meaningfully explore new places. I’d need months I can’t give right now to accrue the benefits I’m seeking from Muay Thai. Hopefully I can continue learning it more longterm when I return home.

Taken by my friend and fellow trainee, Mara, at the Happy Sheep Cafe, my happy place in Chiang Mai

2/5/19

Bangkok is suffocating. It’s too hot. I’m dying. I planned my Bonderman trip to visit most countries in their colder/late Fall/Winter seasons. Southern Vietnam, Thailand, and India were the main exceptions, places where the heat was unavoidable. But even those I tried to mitigate by training in Northern Thailand and leaving humid Ho Chi Minh City for cooler Ha Giang ASAP. I’m going to move to Alaska one day. Or Siberia.

My flight to Tokyo is later tonight/early tomorrow morning, so I have the whole day to spend in Bangkok. Earlier, I played a game where every time I saw a 7/11, I’d duck in for the A/C and to avoid heat stroke. Khaosan Road, one of the city’s main attractions, was pretty crowded and full of souvenir stalls so I hung out at the Phra Sumen Fort instead. It was by the water and there was a nice park to enjoy the mango smoothie I’d gotten to deter dehydration.

Khaosan Road

Phra Sumen Fort

I passed by another temple, and it makes me consider the duality of Thailand: on the one hand, Buddhism, which teaches non-violence, is the predominant religion and highly integrated into the social fabric of the nation. On the other hand, the combat sport Muay Thai is a prevalent part of Thai culture too, and though it held many purposes historically and today, it is, ultimately, “fighting.” There are nuances to both, but it’s an interesting contradiction to contemplate. At least while I’m waiting five hours to head to the airport.

My one regret about Thailand (besides not getting more Thai massages and not being able to train longer) is that I didn’t get to have little fishies eat the dead skin off my feet till they were soft and smooth like I saw other people doing in Chiang Mai. Next time.

Japan post coming soon…

Lessons Learned in Tuk-Tuks

Currently: New Delhi (as of yesterday)

This blog post has given me the most difficulty and pause. It’s a first. Usually my mind is constantly aswirl with thoughts and ideas to reflect on in future blog posts. But it’s gone quiet since arriving in India. This is certainly contradictory to my surroundings. Perhaps that’s why my thoughts are muted. My senses are still processing the stimulation overload this country is known for. 

Oh India, what is there to say, where to begin? I can say that it’s like no other country I’ve been to thus far on my journey. The traffic and city atmosphere reminds me a bit of the chaotic energy of Cairo, Egypt, however, there are even more people here and the culture is quite different. Additionally, within India, the cities themselves are vastly dissimilar, but in a country as expansive as this one, this should hardly come as a surprise. 

Jaipur, India

It’s been just over three weeks in this colorful country, and I’ve had the opportunity to travel to four cities, attend an Indian wedding, co-paint my very first mural, and have my first ride in a tuk-tuk. 

The tuk-tuk experience(s) was in my touch-down city – Jaipur. Let me tell you, riding around in the back of a tuk-tuk, swerving between urban Indian traffic is a thrill. I should clarify – a tuk-tuk, for those unfamiliar (as I was), is a small, door-free, three-wheeled vehicle, roughly the size of a golf cart. They are the quintessential Indian taxi. They’re also the perfect exercise in the art of “trust and let go”. I’ll never forget when the driver took a sharp left, cutting directly in front of 4+ rows of oncoming traffic and motorcyclists, speeding directly towards my right, exposed, side. At that moment it felt like I had equal chances of being the next traffic accident or making it back to my hostel. Abby (who I was lucky enough to briefly travel with in India) and I exchanged a shocked glance before sharing a laugh, because…. what else could we do? We had to trust that this wasn’t our tuk-tuk driver’s first time around the block (pun very much intended), that oncoming traffic was used to rash decision making from their fellow drivers and let go! 

One of many tuk-tuk rides – a most fun way of transportation

Truthfully, hats off to Indian drivers. For as chaotic as their traffic may look to a western eye that’s used to stricter driving practices, in all my time here I have not seen a single traffic accident take place. A couple of close calls that had me wince and suck in my breath with apprehension maybe, but everyone walks away unscathed. Observing Indian traffic leaves me thinking there is no “right” way of doing things, only differences to fit different needs and surroundings. 

The Hawa Mahal Palace – affectionately referred to as “The Honeycomb Palace”

Following Jaipur, I traveled to a “small” town called Sangli to attend a traditional Indian wedding. Ashton and Raj- many, many thanks for allowing me to take part and being incredible hosts! While I was in South Africa, I remember a man from India adamantly telling me if I planned on going to India, forget the Taj Mahal, just befriend someone who’s getting married and go to their wedding – every aspect of Indian culture could be found there: food, dress, music, religion, and dance. And he didn’t lie. It was all there on grand display, and I’m immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to witness something so personal and important. 

The colorful joyfulness of an Indian wedding

After the wedding, I spent a few days exploring Mumbai, which has been my favorite city thus far. Despite the sticky humidity, the lush greenery and beautiful blend of Indian and British architecture against the coastline was irresistible. After my few days were up, as I headed to the airport, I felt a pang of sadness to be leaving. 

Every single blog post I read on India before arriving, they all shared the same sentiment. “You’re either going to love it or you’re gonna hate it.” It being India. But I haven’t felt my emotions swing towards either one of those extremes. That is until it came time to say farewell to Mumbai and my sinking heart at having to leave realized India has been quietly and slowly growing on me. 

Wedding Atire

I recently celebrated three months of independent travel! Bewilderment and pride swelled inside on the anniversary of my leaving the US. Has it been that long?! 

I only know it has in fact been months since leaving, because the time in which I make plans has become increasingly more last minute, the actual plans set in place are increasingly more vague, and where this used to leave my stomach in knots of anxiety, I have a quiet confidence and shrug that “it’ll work out” and if for some reason it doesn’t then I’ll figure it out. Usually with the help of a kind stranger. 

Mumbai – Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Heritage Museum)

I’m becoming more and more comfortable with forging ahead without a plan, but instead wandering, even getting lost and waiting to see how events unfold without my interference. I’m trying to rely less on google maps, instead letting my eyes lead me. This goes against every instinctual bone in my being. Detailed plans and bullet-point lists to check-off have always given me the illusion of control and quieted my incessant thoughts. And while I believe planning will always be part of my character, much like with the tuk-tuk, I’ve been enjoying learning to let go.

Other changes include being less concerned with being “nice” or someone’s source of entertainment. I have a harder time holding my tongue, instead, saying what it is I’m honestly thinking, and sometimes that means not saying anything at all. For too long, I romanticized the idea of the “social butterfly”, but I’ve made peace with my introverted nature. It’s a trait I even like about myself now. I’ve always been a “let’s go get dinner and catch-up” person over “let’s go to this party and hang out” person. But I’d still go to the party to please others and end up sneaking out early thinking I’m boring for itching to leave. I’m not boring, I’ve just realized that certain types of conversation with large groups of people require a ton of my energy, leaving me feeling drained. One-on-one interactions allow me to give the best version of myself and feed me rather than drain me. Even more, I’ve become comfortable with silence. What used to feel like a gaping hole I anxiously felt was my job to fill, is no longer my responsibility or worry. Just like conversation, silence can also be shared. 

Mumbai – Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve grown at all on this journey. And it brings me distress when I feel I haven’t. Even more than being able to see the world, and maybe selfishly so, I saw the Bonderman fellowship as the ultimate opportunity to challenge myself and grow as a human being. Personal growth was my biggest motivator for wanting to apply. Often, I pause, and wonder is it happening? Am I growing? Have I changed? Of course, this isn’t the kind of growth the eye can see. But I can feel it. Inside. In small, quiet, unexpected moments. I’ll catch my reaction or response to something and think, “huh, that’s different than it used to be.” I think my biggest hurdle now is to stop being so self-scrutinizing. It’s like watching grass grow. You can drive yourself mad watching or you can enjoy your summer and before the weeks over it’s time to cut that dang grass again.

Till next time.   

Growing Pains

The airport is completely closed down and empty because it is still hours before dawn in Kiev, Ukraine. Families bundle together in the arrival lobby as they wait for their rides.

I wanted to take the metro into the city from the airport, but as hours pass by and the sun still low below the horizon, I opted to call an Uber instead. (It turns out the metro doesn’t start running until just before 6am anyway.) We zipped down the dark highway, the sky still black even as we pull up to where my hostel was supposed to be. Almost all the signs are written in Ukrainian or Russian, but it feels slightly familiar because during the first semester of my freshman year I attempted to learn Russian and somehow remembered parts of the Cyrillic alphabet. The driver points down a dark alley.

Okay, here we go. I wrapped my wool scarf tight around me (I do not yet have a winter jacket) and walked off down the alley.

It’s 6:30am and the air is tight and icy. I breathe in and am instantly reminded of home. I may look better with an even tan, but I am 100% meant for a four-season climate. I need winter. I need ice and snow. My sister should give up on trying to get me to move to Florida when I come home. 😉

It’s freezing. I buzz 29ь and a sleepy-eyed girl about my age brings me inside, checks me in, and shows me my bed. I have been traveling for over 24 hrs and fall asleep instantly despite another backpacker’s loud snoring.

November 29th marked my three month point on the Bonderman Fellowship; December 6th will be my 100th day of world travel. Such benchmarks call for a bit of reflection. I have been taking note of some of the changes:

I. I AM QUIETER.

This is in part because I spent a lot of time in Nepal and India with introverted people. But I am also just trying to listen more. Americans are notorious out here for over-explaining and giving their unsolicited advice and opinions. Fighting that stereotype, I try to be more like my grandpa, strong and silent but always listening. When you ask him what he thinks, he takes his time and then finally says something thought-provoking, insightful, wise. Wisdom takes time but for now I can work on being concise.

On a similar note, a new favorite hobby of mine is to listen to a conversation in a foreign language and try to guess what they’re talking about. There were many times in India when I felt like I could understand Hindi in a way. (It helps that Indians mix English nouns into their sentences.) I’m sure I am way off, but part of me hopes I’ll pick up on the languages easier by just listening. In Kiev, this was true. Yesterday, when a new friend and I were crossing the street she saw a man she knows from church. She laughed and said to me, “это мой друг” (“eto muy droog”). In a flashback, I remembered this phrase from my semester of Russian and without asking her to translate, I knew she had said “that is my friend.” I was elated. She taught me some basic phrases and I left Kiev this morning longing to learn more. I told her when I come back to Kiev one day maybe her and I can speak in Russian instead of English.

II. I WANT TO LEARN.

I want to learn and speak foreign languages more now than ever. I listen to French, Spanish, and Russian backpackers and try to pick out words I can remember. They talk openly in the dorm rooms of the hostels and I long to jump in. When I get home I want to dedicate myself to becoming fluent in a new language. I am planning to spend a chunk of time in Turkey and maybe I’ll find some free language classes to try out Turkish or maybe Arabic. I’ll let you know how that works out.

I want to learn more about international politics. Recently I’ve started listening to daily global news podcasts and reading news articles online. In addition to all of the crazy stories about U.S. politics right now, there are SO many insane things happening around the world. Sometimes I can’t finish the podcast because it’s just one international crisis after another; some days I can’t stop listening as I become ravenous for information. I started reading this book called The Rise and Fall of Nations to learn more about global economics. Its a tough read; usually I can read 100-150 pages in a day but with this book I have to work hard to read 20 or even 50 pages.

I miss being able to sit in a lecture hall and have a paid professional give me the facts and theories about the world. When you’re out here, learning about cultures and people in a more experiential way, it is much much harder to get technical information. The things you see often go unexplained, and I’ve found myself (so far) with more impressions than hard facts. Reading this book has helped a lot. For example, the chapter on the relationship between population and economic growth helped me reconcile what I saw on the ground in India with the real economic changes the country is experiencing today.

III. I AM A STORYTELLER

This one is a little ironic because this blog post does not feature many stories. But I have found that when I journal I mostly tell stories about what I’ve seen. I focus on the people more than myself and I love writing out a narrative for them. Sometimes I end up writing fiction, many of the characters based on the archetypes of travelers and locals that I’ve met. I have to really focus to self-reflect in my writing.

IV. GROWING PAINS

I look at my reflection in the train window and I wonder who I am.

Am I still the girl who sat in that conference room in February, earnestly interviewing for this fellowship? In that conference room, on that day, I was one of the best versions of myself because I was actualizing a lifelong dream. I admire her and strive to be her or someone better every day.

There are times, however, when I don’t feel qualified for this journey, when I am feeling worn out or failing to find the connections and experienced I’d hoped for. Sometimes I need to take a day or two off, to just recharge. I’ve discovered that I am even more introverted than I thought and at times I envy the backpackers that can just walk down the street and talk to anyone and everyone.

I’m learning to appreciate myself. To take time with my thoughts and emotions without discrediting them. To stop comparing my experiences with that of other people. Looking back over these months, I’ve already had so many experiences that I will remember all of my life. In the moment, especially the lulls and lows, I can feel like I’m stagnant, not moving. But the reality is that I am always moving, learning, growing.

During my first couple of days in India I was uncomfortable, terrified, and uncertain. India was far more challenging than I had expected. There was this distinct moment when I was traveling to a new city, as anxiety started to pool up in my stomach, a moment in which I thought to myself, “these are growing pains.”

Not once did anyone say this journey was going to be easy. It is far from easy but so so worth it.

In India I met many great people that welcomed me and let me see little slices of their life there. I saw old cities and new ones. Best of all was the wonderful opportunity to attend an Indian wedding. (THANK YOU, Ashton and Raj!)

P.S. the sun sets at 4pm in Ukraine during December. This will take some getting used to!

Thankful

I have been feeling very good recently and feel like I hit my stride while traveling. While in Dubai I got the opportunity to see how the hospital system work. All professionals in Dubai are head hunted by private companies. While shadowing a pediatrician, I was told how these professionals were compensated. They are given a great salary, an apartment, and a private maid. My responsibilities as a shadow was to take part of the conversations with the patients and hold children still while they were being examined.

I am currently in Kuwait! I would not be able to forgive myself if I had not seen it before leaving the Middle East. Staying with a host family here is great way to learn more about Kuwaiti culture and traditions. Kuwaiti citizens have immense benefits such as receive free living, paid university, and government connections. Of course these are paid for through taxes of non-Kuwaiti citizens. I was even able to meet a few long lost cousins who lived in Kuwait. Most of all, I got to see the building that my father and his eleven siblings lived in together. It was surreal seeing where my father was raised, the barber shop he went to, and the soccer field he played on. I wonder if his family knew the massive migrations the world would experience since his childhood.

Before leaving I realized I would miss events back home. Two days ago was my sister’s engagement party. Not being able to attend was difficult for me, but on top of that our close family friends recently passed away. My mother has been having a difficult time with the loss and more than ever I wish I was home to help her through this. May you rest in peace Peggy.

United Arab Emirates

Every year, United Arab Emirates announces a new goal for the following year. Last January, the UAE leadership announced that this year will be the year of Tolerance. UAE is home to a largely diverse group of people. As of 2015, the official estimates stand at Emirati make up approximately 11.6%, South Asian 59.4% (includes Indian 38.2%, Bangladeshi 9.5%, Pakistani 9.4%, other 2.3%), Egyptian 10.2%, Philippine 6.1%, and other backgrounds at 12.8%. (http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/united-arab-emirates-population/)

UAE leadership understands the importance of immigration. The high population of immigrants, which are estimated to make up 90% of the population, make up the majority of the work force. But, the motivations of immigration changes with each minority group in UAE.

As I set on a bus packed with 30-40 Syrian immigrants, I think of my Syrian mother. What would have happened if she stayed in Syria? Would she have found her way to Dubai like all the people I am surrounded by now? I have to remind myself that this is one of the rare opportunities I get to experience Syrian culture and I should not waste time ruminating. The entire bus begins a new traditional Syrian song and I begin to clap my hands.

https://photos.google.com/share/AF1QipMywS2CPy3HbROrDwClLfU41sZxu-e06DdluvOKn5Mu-iT5RcaXlUUT3fnntqrooQ/photo/AF1QipOjrP_4HHQmmHNsM1Sujwi6VaBOP9CPZ3or38H9?key=LWZ6YURGNWJqWUQ2RGtxQVJfNW1LWFpOem05TVBR

(video of bus singing Arabic songs)

The host family I am staying with are Syrians who moved to Qatar years ago, but then were kicked out due to the stigma against Syrian refugees. Many who immigrated to UAE were escaping war and are wealthy business owners. UAE allowed these immigrants because they stimulate the economy. My host mother is a lawyer for private contracting and has a very intelligent 18-year old daughter named Zeze. Zeze applied to ivy-league universities in London, Canada, Spain, Italy, and Paris. But, because of her Syrian passport, she was rejected for study visas. United kingdom went as far as to say that Zeze would not receive a study visa because she comes from a single parent household and her mother may not have the financial means to support her daughter and lead to Zeze being a refugee.

When I asked her how that made her feel, she told me that it made her hate being Arab and Syrian for a period of time. She began to speak less Arabic and preferred speaking English for a few years. The feeling of mutual understanding connected me and Zeze. I spent the majority of my childhood with a deep hatred for my culture. My blatant Arabness made my life hell. From the 2nd grade I knew I was different when on the anniversary of September 11th, my teacher made me stand up in front of the class and say the national anthem alone because according to her, “your people should express the most nationality after what they did”.

Me and my blatant Arabness. Taken on Dubai on a day trip with a group of Syrians.

Traveling more humbles me. Hearing Zeze’s story of not being able to pursue the education she dreamed of due to an identity that she is proud to have, but the world despises, makes me think of the need to escape Arabness. In Israel, Palestine, Turkey, UAE, there is a constant theme of the need to escape being Arab. I purchased the book “Orientalism” by Edward Said to learn more about how and why the world wants the escape of Arabness. Wish me luck as I continue.

Also, I will do shame if I do not mention how beautiful Dubai is. Truly the most flawless city to ever exist. It is unique and nothing could compare to it. I read online that Dubai is “the Las Vegas of the Middle East” and I could not help but burst out laughing. Dubai is in it’s own league!

Finish Lines and Open Eyes

Content warning: in this post I describe an animal sacrifice I witnessed as part of Dashian festival in Nepal. Please read only if you feel comfortable.

On another note, please forgive me if any of the information about Nepali festival season is incorrect. My knowledge of Dashian and Tihar is limited to the traditions of the village in which I observed them. There may be regional variances, or simply aspects I misunderstand because of cultural and language barriers.

The Annapurna Circuit

Imagine this: you are walking along a path lined with hunks of red, black, grey granite rock, on through a hilly mountain pass nestled between two snow-capped mountains. The earth has fallen to rubble around you. You have been walking for days and it has only been two hours since you departed from the last tea house in Thorong Pedhi before the sun had risen over the Himalayas to the East. You feel simultaneously light and heavy, and the air is so thin and oxygen so scarce that all you can focus on is breathing and taking one tiny singular step forward in the fine moon dust.

Visualize the oxygen being absorbed into your bloodstream, pumped throughout your body from your heart, graciously accepted by your tiny muscle cells as they tear, bend, and build under a stress unlike anything they’ve felt before.

A guide walking back down the pass tells us that we have 45 minutes to go until the summit. The encouragement was appreciated, but useless. Time had already slipped away. I decided not to check my phone until we reached the summit to save battery power and my own sanity. Checking the time or map over and over is maddening. Minutes crawl when you do that. Minutes crawl anyway.

Years later, a bearded man approaches us and tells us we have 15 minutes to go. Again, appreciated, but the statement meant nothing to me other than understanding that 15 is less than 45. Marketa and I exchange apprehensive looks, but zombie march on.

There were so many moments, when we were approaching a round in the path or a crest of a hill and, coming around it, would only find a larger hill will tiny people climbing up it. Higher to climb still. My body groans, “you want me to take you up there??”

Marketa keeps a steady pace as I slow down and she takes a considerable lead. Sticking to our unsaid pact, when she gets too far ahead she stops and waits for me to catch up again. She gets around a corner up ahead and when I get close enough she says, pointing, “IT’S THERE.”

Lesson: when you have a huge project or a goal in life, staring at the summit and obsessing about getting there will drive you mad. Period. Your mind can only focus on so much, so be patient. Your body can only push so far, so pace yourself. Focus on one step at a time. Hours, days, years later you will look up to find yourself standing up there on the snowy summit. Not because you paid someone to take you in a helicopter to the top; not because you ran as fast as you could, hoping you wouldn’t burn out, but because you trusted in yourself and you made it. 242,828 steps.

Dashian and Tihar

After a few days in Pokhara, we headed back to Gaunshahar to help at the school. To our surprise, when we returned we learned that the kids were off school again in observance of another festival called Tihar. School was out, but we found little projects to help with around the house and school, such as repainting the bannisters in the courtyard or chopping vegetables.

Before Marketa and I left for trekking, we caught a glimpse of some of the celebrations of Dashian, which is the most important festival of the year in Nepal. (The festival is also known as Dashera in some regions of India.) Dashian is celebrated by many different religions and ethnicities, but I primarily saw the Hindu interpretations of the festival in our village.

Bamboo swings are constructed at the entrances of villages; shops put on huge sales; I even received a message offering extra cellular data in honor of festival season!

The main celebration is held on the ninth night of the festival and is called Kal Ratri, or dark night. Bimala, one of the women from our homestay, offered to bring us to the temple for dancing, music, and to watch the ceremony. Some of the volunteers whispered that there would also be animal sacrifice. When we got there, men were dancing and in the center of of the temple square a buffalo calf was tethered to a post.

Thousands of animals, including water buffalo, rams, and goats, are sacrificed every year across Nepal as a part of Dashian. Kal Ratri commemorates the victory of the Goddess Durga over an evil daemon king who was disguised as a buffalo as he terrorized the Earth. On the dark night in Gaunshahar this year, the buffalo calf was offered to Durga and Kali to worship them and to ask for their blessing. I feel that it is not my place or right to judge cultural practices which I do not fully understand. I was asked multiple times that night if I wanted to leave early before the ceremony started. No, it was going to happen and I didn’t want to blind myself from a reality of this world simply because it is considered taboo by the standards of my own culture.

I watched as the Hindu priest came out in a procession, as the blade was sharpened, as the buffalo was blessed and prayers to the goddesses were offered. Then, after what seemed like hours of waiting, with one strong downward stroke, the buffalo’s head was severed from its body. A group of men dragged its body around the post three times, drawing a red circle on the stone. The man with the blade went to the other animals and began beheading them one after another. There was more dancing, singing, and cheering from the crowd. I read online that sacrifices usually carry on until dawn while locals have a great feast on the meat, but we went to bed shortly after the main ceremony was completed.

Language and cultural barriers prevent me from gaining a better understanding of the whys and hows of sacrifice as a part of religious practice. But, I would like to offer the following questions:

  • How many animals are killed every day as a part of the means-to-end-, market-oriented system of the American meat industry?
  • Why do we condemn one form of killing (animal sacrifice being illegal in the U.S.), but glorify the other?

We returned from trekking and had the opportunity to participate in Tihar, the Hindu festival that shortly follows Dashian. Each day of Tihar is dedicated to blessing and celebrating a different type of local animal. One day is for crows, then dogs, cows, and buffalo. The animals are decorated with flowers and given Tika and a treat. On the last day of Tihar families exchange colorful Tikas and share sweets and a big feast together. It felt like a balancing act, a time to celebrate life in Tihar, after recognizing death in Dashian. Not many explanations were offered for the reasons behind the traditions, but one aspect of festival season that was abundantly clear to me is that it is a time to spend with family and loved ones.

I will soon post again about my first week in India. 🙂

A little time warped

From Brazil

I woke up around sunrise to the sound of Brazilian Funk. It’s a pretty popular genre here, and it’s easy to recognize thanks to its usually looping beats and night club vibe. To dance along, pretty much any kind of twerking suffices. 

The Funk I was hearing was playing from the phone of the young Brazilian mother in the bus seat in front of me. I wouldn’t exactly say it suited the moment, but I was too groggy from bus-sleep to mind. After a little while, her cutie toddler started fussing and there was a hard cut in the music. Suddenly, “baaaa-by shark, do-doo-do-do-do-do” took the place of both the Funk and fuss.

I’m comfortable with long bus/plane/train rides these days. Twenty hours on a bus is still on the longer end, but with my talent of falling asleep pretty much anywhere, I can usually pass a large majority of that time sleeping. Seeing a toddler-bearing mother managing herself and a little one on what must be like a month-long ride in toddler time gave me renewed appreciation for the freedom I have at this point.

I move wherever, however, whenever, with whatever I need stuffed into my 40L pack. That privilege has not lost any of it’s luster. 

The baby shark song bus ride shuttled me from Rio de Janeiro to Florianópolis, a Brazilian island nearly adjacent to the coast, between Curitiba and Porto Alegre.

Upon impact, I headed for the nearest cafe with an egg breakfast and logged online to follow the U of M Cross Country team at the B1G Conference Championships. It’s one of the most exciting and important races of the season, and exactly one year ago, that’s where I was, chasing down a title with the team.

Watching a cross country race unfold was a funny benchmark moment to reflect on.

First: because I realized northern hemisphere fall has really snuck by ! It’s easy to forget with the southern summer heat slowly turning up here. I run barefoot in a sports bra on the sand like it’s August in Grand Haven, MI. Meanwhile, my dad has been sending snowy yard pictures in the family group chat. I scrambled for a calendar after the first one. Snow?

Second: because I realized that one year ago I was still amid the uncertainty of impending graduation, applications, and drafting life plans. Remembering my past stress in the hopes of arriving at this “future” moment is a pretty sweet thing to have the fortune of savoring.

Third: because I realized I’ve only ever known a Michigan fall, and I’ll probably forever associate it with cross country. For the past 9 years, I’ve toed the start line from August to November at high school and collegiate 5-6k races. The training and racing for this has always put me in close proximity to the nuances of fall’s annual maturation:

September is tan legs, slick brows and collarbones, post-workout Gatorade tasting better than any beverage ever, ideal temperatures to race in buns, orange to red to pink sunsets above leafy horizons.

October is hardening leg muscles, starting a workout in a long sleeve, the fall smell’s sudden permanence (dried grass + distant bonfire + fallen leaves + crisp air), warm post-practice coffees, long runs, and cold rains.

November is fine-tuned bodies, gusty winds, frosty ground, the sudden usefulness of team-issued layers that seemed ridiculous in August, snowy championship races, and high stakes.

….I’m always going to love a true Michigan fall. As for cross, being away has given me the distance to appreciate and be affectionately nostalgic for a sport that I came close to burning out of. It was a treat to tune in from Florianópolis; the women currently on the team are continuing to raise the bar as people, teammates, and competitors. I’m rooting for ya’ll from afar.

***

Hearing about the seasonal transition back home has also made the temporal measurement of my absence a bit more tangible, though no less bizarre. In 10 days, I’ll hit the 6-month mark. And it’s hard to believe that I’ve been gone for almost half a year. I feel like I’m in some kind of time warp, thanks in part to the seasonal consistency I set myself up for.

Given  my timeline and the geographical logistics of the 3 world regions I wanted to explore, my options were to travel through an 8-month summer or 8-month winter. So that was a no-brainer. Last month I hopped the equator into southern hemisphere summer. And I’ll be darned, summer is starting to feel a little uncanny.

On top of this, my days seem to be passing more and more quickly. I’m accustomed to the rhythm of travel life; like college semesters and sports seasons, once I settled in, time has seemed to accelerate.

***

Checking in for this post has made me realize how, after India, I have needed some time for myself and for things that (though still new) are a bit more familiar.

So, I’ve emphasized some more personal goals while in Brazil: I’m learning how to skateboard in a half pipe, and I’m putting in some hours to become a much better surfer. I chit chat in Spanish with my amazing Argentinian friends. I bought a soccer ball, and I play Altinho (Brazilian game that’s basically juggling a soccer ball with a partner or small group) whenever I can. I’m learning how to cook new foods, from Brazilian Feijoada (stew with beans and pork + accessory dishes), to Shakshuka (a tomato-base Israeli breakfast dish), to preparing fresh-catch ‘lula’ (calamari).

I never anticipated spending this much time in Brazil, and ya know what, I’m about to spend more. Argentina isn’t going anywhere.

***
CB

Living in the Lap of Luxury

My plane destined for Jaipur, India leaves at 12:10 am tonight, and I’m anticipating an adjustment period more jarring than usual after living in the lap of luxury this past week in Muscat, Oman. 

I arrived last Saturday, and as soon as my feet hit the airport’s *literal* sparkling, impeccably clean floor it was apparent I was in a country with immense wealth. My host family, much to my relief, offered to pick me up from the airport. 

Part of the complex where I stayed with my host family

It was the biggest treat to walk out of customs and have someone waiting for me on the other side. Personally, getting to my destination after arriving is one of the most daunting tasks, if not the most daunting, after arriving in a new country. To save money, I take the less convenient flights, usually leaving in the early hours of the morning or late at night (my flight to India is a prime example), which leaves me utterly exhausted upon arrival. Yet, this is when I need the most mental and physical energy to navigate unfamiliar territory, and the inevitable bartering with cab drivers to get me where I’ve never gone before. 

So, when I saw AJ, her husband Boran, and their son Jupiter waving from their waiting spot, it felt familiar and foreign all at once, but mostly overwhelmingly relieving. 

I met AJ and Boran through a site called WorkAway. Basically, it allows you to travel cheaply and the opportunity to interact with locals. In exchange for free accommodation, you give five hours of your labor five days a week. Not bad. 

AJ and I at one of the Sultan’s many hotels – it was incredibly large and sparkly

AJ and Boran are expats from Turkey, living in Oman, and were looking for a native English speaker to help their toddler son Jupiter with his speaking skills and general house maintenance. They live in a beautiful compound that caters to tourists and expats but ironically has become even more popular with Omani’s.  

Being part of a family was such a welcomed change of pace and environment after hostel living the last 10 weeks, and I quickly fell into an easy routine while here. 

With Boran and AJ were at work, and Jupiter at pre-school, I cleaned up the early morning breakfast mess I slept through, unloaded the dishwasher from the night before, and tidied up the house before greeting AJ and Jupiter at noon. We’d have lunch together, before I would inevitably find myself at the beach more days than not. I would wander back home right around the time Jupiter woke from his afternoon nap, and we would play, so AJ could cook dinner without interruption. Jupiter would do his best in helping me set the table, and soon Boran was home from work, when we would all sit around the table for a home-cooked meal (oh, how I’ve missed these!) and discuss our days. Once we were all full, I’d clear the table, load the dishwasher, wash whatever couldn’t fit, and call it a day. 

To say I lived a relaxed lifestyle while here is an understatement. In defense of my extreme relaxation, Oman is ridiculously expensive. To take a taxi into town and back would have cost me roughly $77. So, in a place where a lemonade was over $7, the beach was about all I could afford! There are worse predicaments to be in, and I enjoyed every second. 

Folding clothes, hanging wet ones on the line on the balcony, putting away dishes – these small acts of normalcy brought me so much contentment. To have some sort of purpose, even if it’s only to wash dishes, made me happy. 

I did do some things, aside from laying seaside, while here. AJ and Boran took me to the local souq (market) one evening, and in an even kinder gesture asked a family friend to show me some neighboring cities on the weekend. 

He picked me up at 7 am Friday morning, and we didn’t return until 9 pm. It was a long day due to how much ground we covered (over 400 miles!). We first went north to visit the historic city of Nizwa, the original capital of Oman. There lies the original castle and fortress that once protected the city. After touring both, we drove three hours South to the highlight of the day – Wadi Shab.

Traditional performance of war songs at the Nizwa fort

A “wadi” is similar to a lagoon. It’s a pool of fresh water surrounded by lush greenery and palm trees and in Oman’s case towering mountains. The hiking path getting there, and the final destination was astounding and like nothing I’d ever seen before. It’s a high contender for the “most beautiful natural sight I’ve seen” thus far. There was so much vying for your eye’s attention- the looming mountains blocking out the sun like skyscrapers, the palm trees set the scene, and unforgettably the turquoise-green color of the water below. 

The trail leading to the Wadi Shab

Once we reached the wadi, I jumped in and swam about 80 feet to reach the end. I consider myself a good swimmer, but parts of the path had my adrenaline pumping. The rocks below are slick and I lost my footing more than once. I would be walking with water at my waist and a deep drop-off, with no warning, would have me feeling like I was walking off an underwater cliff. This part of the hike/swim was the most beautiful, but unfortunately, I was too busy trying to breathe to take photos. 

Oman is beautiful, no doubt about it. The hotels, restaurants, homes, mosques- they’re all exquisite. Breathtakingly so. And admittedly, I enjoyed a lot of the consequences of such wealth while here. Having so much wealth has its obvious “pluses”, but, in my opinion, it also makes a place sterile. Cookie-cutter perfection truly is boring, pretty to look at maybe, but boring. Imperfection is where character, personality, and human expression thrive. And if this sounds cheesy, it’s because it’s true. 

Jumping in point!

It’s been interesting seeing the change in dynamics in a country so wealthy after experiencing those without. Someone told me they thought Omani people to be selfish. I don’t agree, that’s a sweeping statement to make about a whole country of people, but I think I understand what he was observing. The high degree of public formality and general aloofness reminds me of the States. In countries that have so much, it seems people are less open to others. They simply have more- more to lose and more to guard as “theirs”. Often it seems to be those that have the least, to show the most generosity. Why? I wonder if it’s because they are not attached to “things” the way we are in the States or how I’ve observed here in Oman, and thus find their joy in less materialistic pursuits. I think back to Egypt, a country with less money than the US or Oman, yet time and again I was offered tea, a snack, and a chat with someone who happened to pass by – purely to share in drink and conversation. Does our level of reservation with others not have anything to do with the level of wealth we’re accustomed to, and our subconscious choices to protect our own? The individual used the word “selfish” to describe the people here, but I think he was just observing an underwhelming hospitable presence that he’s accustomed to in his home country. Wouldn’t it be great if we could enjoy the spoils of wealth without growing attached or possessive? But that’s the catch, isn’t it? All too often, we do become possessive of a good thing, and in turn, it makes us more reluctant to share, less inviting even. 

Not a Wadi, but a natural sinkhole nearby…

These are simply the musings in my head from this past week of relaxation and reflection. And I don’t think it could have been better timed. I’m anticipating India to be many things, but relaxing is not one. My tentative itinerary has me moving me around this great country quite a bit, and there’s simply too much to see to keep the sleeping in schedule I’ve been indulging in as of late. 

India, I’ll see you soon. 

Till next time.

Staircases and Street Art

**In actuality this post was written two nights ago, but due to technical difficulties it’s been posted today**

Jordan gave both me and my budget a hefty workout.

I climbed more stairs the past week than I ever would have dreamed to attempt on the Stairmaster at the gym. Amman, the capital, was hands down the most difficult city I’ve had to navigate thus far on my trip. Twisty-turvy roads and discontinuous sidewalks galore. Thank god the city was as safe as it was because I had “lost tourist” stamped on my forehead with my nose glued to Google maps and a confused look perpetually planted on my face for nearly the entire venture. But even Google maps got confused. I would be instructed to turn right only to be met with a cement wall. Or just as puzzling be told to turn left and be met with three options: a left so severe it had me practically walking back where I came (naturally, back up a hill), a true 90 degree left, and a wide left sloping downward. I would choose one, but more times than not I ended up doubling back minutes later to try a different route.

They hurts less when they’re pretty to look at, right?

The positive of all this was I was guaranteed a workout no matter the length of the walk- you’re hiking up or down a hill regardless. The locals, as a sort of kind encouragement, would frequently greet me with, “Welcome to Jordan!” as they walked past me. And when I could break away from looking at maps on my phone, Amman’s beautiful street art gave me ample opportunities to catch my breath and admire the creative minds of Jordan. 

View of Amman, Jordan

From afar, Amman looks fairly monotone. Tan homes stacked upon each other up the hillsides create am impressive, but muted, view. That is until you start walking within. Street art is fairly common to most big cities, but I felt Amman had a far higher amount than usual- more like an outdoor art gallery. I wondered while admiring the many murals if the residents were under the same impression as I was, and in an effort to bring some color to their city they had taken it upon themselves. In reality, the rectangular-shaped, neutral-colored homes create the perfect massive canvas for any inspired artist. Their brilliant paintings made getting lost enjoyable because I’d always stumble across another piece of creativity. 

I call her “The Purple Woman”

Maybe Egypt’s bustle and iconic honking was still stuck on me (miss you Cairo), but I found Amman to be an incredibly quiet city for how large it is. The word peaceful comes to mind when I think of it. I spent a few afternoons walking along the trendy “Rainbow Street”. An endless option of restaurants, chic shisha lounges, and my personal favorite, café bookshops lined either side of the street. Jordan also had one of the most impressive museums I have yet to visit. It was infinitely engaging which isn’t an easy task when listing an enormous amount of information. If you’re ever in Amman, this is one museum worth your time. If Cairo was over-stimulating, Amman was subdued, challenging its guests to seek out what it has to offer.

Diversity folks.. it’s cool everywhere

I had my first “couch surfing” experience. I stayed with Linn and Jakob, both from Norway and studying Arabic in Amman. They opened their spare bedroom up to me and made me feel included despite their busy class schedules and social lives. 

After two full months in hostels, it was comforting to have my “own” room, sit at a kitchen table, and use a real shower. It’s the little things, truly. 

Linn and Jakob as I mentioned both study Arabic and more broadly, Middle Eastern culture and politics. For my personal motivations in wanting to travel to the Middle East, they made perfect conversationalists. I desired to visit this region of the world because I know the least about it. So seldom in the States do we hear anything but bad news about this corner of the Earth. 

This one was very impressive- the brush strokes were chaotic but the subject matter so serious.

My generation was just starting grade school when the Twin Towers fell. That greatly changed US perceptions and brought on an onslaught of Islamophobia in our country. It changed the obvious- like how we travel. But it also changed more subtle things, like who the villain in Hollywood film is too often stereotypically depicted as (think Taken). As I touched on in my Egypt post, what is being left out of our nightly news programs? There’s gotta be more to the story, and unsurprisingly there is. 

In just a few, brief, conversations Linn and Jakob did their best to answer my basic questions and give me a crash course of current affairs. To say it’s complex is a massive understatement, and US involvement was equally complex and lay in a grey area. I listened mostly, threw in the occasional question, and a lot was over my head- so I don’t feel comfortable delving any deeper here as I’m not an expert, however, it did give me a far better understanding of just how intricate and multi-layered things truly are. It was yet another reminder that nothing exists in a vacuum. Context is everything, and to only show the top layer without explaining the bottom five is only a half-truth.  

After four days spent in Amman, I packed my things and hopped on an early morning bus for Petra. Four hours later, I arrived slightly rejuvenated from my cat napping on the way. On the way to my hostel, my taxi driver/tour guide made the suggestion (sale) of a day trip to Wadi Rum. Now before leaving, Jakob had chided me for picking Petra over Wadi Rum, insisting that I should drop tourist prone Petra for the natural beauty of Wadi Rum desert. But I was short on time and put Wadi Rum on my “next time” mental list. So, when my taxi driver made the offer, I took it as a sign that I should see as much as I can while here. Petra would just have to wait till tomorrow. 

After talking him down substantially from his original price (happy to report my bartering skills are strengthening, considering they were non-existent two months ago), I very spontaneously took him up on his offer. 

In a rush, I dropped my backpack off at my hostel, without so much as seeing my dorm room, before jumping back in the jeep and heading off to Wadi Rum, which rests about an hour outside of Petra. 

The closest thing to the desert I’d been to, before Wadi Rum, was the Sand Dunes outside Traverse City, Michigan. Wadi Rum was the actual desert, a world entirely on its own and it was spectacular. The vastness of the desert reminded me of the ocean. When you look out and it spans for as far as the eye can see. Wadi Rum was the same if the ocean had been drained of all its water. More than the sheer size though was the magnificently vivid blue sky. Not a single cloud. Not. A. Single. One. Just a sharp blue contrasting with the warm sand. It was beautiful. 

Wadi Rum

My tour guide was kind and professional, for which I’m grateful. His father belonged to a Bedouin tribe and herd camels for a living. We went to his home for lunch. What an experience. 

An old truck that never made it out of Wadi Rum..

We pulled up to a black tent surrounded by nothing but massive dunes, and rocky mountains further in the distance. The guide greeted his father and quickly got to work creating our meal over the open fire inside the tent. His father motioned for me to sit on one of the cots, as he served me Bedouin tea (affectionally referred to as Bedouin whiskey). I explored outdoors as son and father caught up and tended to the fire. The meal was fresh and delicious and the perfect refuel I desperately needed. 

Bedouin tent sitting to the left- our rest spot for lunch

Currently? I’m sitting on the return bus from Petra going back to Amman. I woke up just after 5 am this morning to reach the opening of Petra’s gates at 6 am. Although I’m exhausted after hiking exactly 9 miles by noon, I cannot stress enough how happy I am that I sacrificed a few hours’ sleep to get there early today. 

Walking along the Siq and the uphill trail to reach the Monastery, it was seldom I passed a fellow hiker, making for a quiet and peaceful climb. In short, the Treasury and Monastery were stunning. Much like with the Egyptian ruins, I stared up in awe, imagining how such a feat could have been possible all those thousands of years ago. It’s inspiring to witness.

After walking the Siq you’re faced with The Treasuary

Walking back, I hardly recognized the trail I’d just come from. It was nearly 11 am at this time, and the barrage of tourists and merchants was growing thick. I got asked maybe fifty times total if I would like to take a donkey up (or down) to the Monastery by locals who herd them for a living. I looked at these donkeys, laden on either side with tourists’ bags and satchels, fruits, drinks and food for the kiosks at the top. Every couple of minutes I had to step to the side to let a donkey carrying what appeared to be an able-bodied, shameless lazy tourist on its back up the steepest of steps for miles. I tried (not really) to wipe the look of disdain off my face as I would move out of their way to let them pass. The donkeys would sometimes halter, as they (smartly!) questioned what they were doing, trying to find placement for their hooves on the sand dusted steps. Whenever this would happen, their handler would whip them harshly across their bum and reluctantly the donkey kept it moving. If it wasn’t so difficult to watch and hadn’t preoccupied my thoughts for pretty much the entire hour-long hike back down, I wouldn’t bother to mention it. But it did. Just don’t do this. It’s a tough hike, yes, but no one’s made it a race. Take all the time you need reaching the top, but don’t shirk your laziness off to these poor animals – it was too cruel to see. 

To the left are the steps leading up to the Monastery
I was met by a feline friend once I reached the top where the Monastery rests

I have one last night in Amman before waking up early in the morning to catch my plane for Muscat, Oman! I’m staying with a family there. In exchange for my accommodation, I’ll be helping them out around the house, and teaching their toddler son English. I’m very much looking forward to staying with a family- something I miss very much. 

The highest point I hiked in Petra – utter silence

Till next time.