El fin

From Southern Argentina

I. MATE

The first time someone offered me mate (“máte”) was late May, in St. Petersburg, Russia. A bit green, I responded, “…..que ?”. I hadn’t heard of it before. Even more disorienting, the guys were Chilean.

In hindsight, that encounter feels a little full-circle; I started my fellowship in Russia, and am finishing it here, writing about mate in Argentina where mate is, (and I am entirely serious), essential. 

Mate: a naturally bitter, caffeine-rich, hot tea that’s traditional in Argentina. It’s made from Yerba mate leaves, and it comes in a whole supermercado aisle’s worth of varieties. 

But, it’s the way they drink it that is so distinct: most traditionally, out of a cup (mate) made from a hollow calabash gourd, though cups today are made from wood/or ceramics/or silicon and mimic the iconic shape (which is sort of a rotund, stemless goblet, but I’ll include a picture to give a better idea).

For every cup, there’s a metal straw (bombilla), which has a distinct bend and semi-flattened end. When mate is made fresh, new leaves are put in the cup, hot water (but not boiling) is poured on top, and the straw is responsible for filtering out the leaves. Attention gringos: we do not ever stir the mate. 

Mate obsession is to Argentina as coffee obsession is to the United States. With one big exception. There aren’t mate shops like there are coffee shops; it’s a beverage that is made by the person planning to drink it, and the fact that literally everyone has their own mate makes the idea of a mate cafe generally impractical. 

A physical cafe for mate would also be impractical because Argentinians prioritize mate so highly that there is no limit to where it can be consumed. I’ve seen this devotion to drinking mate manifest in many an impractical moment…

Hot day at the beach, next to the towel in the sand? Mate. 

On a 17-hour bus ride to Buenos Aires? Balancing a small child in lap, phone in one hand, thermos between feet on floor, but other hand? Mate.

Walking 2km of boardwalk to the waterfalls of Iguazu on the Argentinian side, but equipped with a thermos in 100-degree (F) heat? Mate.

In the non-steering-wheel-hand of an eclectic, wildly-guesturing, Argentinian fisherman as he speeds down dirt roads to drop us at the trailhead? Mate.

Lugging a full thermos the final 1km to Mirador el Fitz Roy in Patagonia, which gains 400 vertical meters in an all-fours scramble to the top? Gotta mate.

Unsurprisingly ! mate is the official Argentinian national beverage. Since this is also true of Uruguay and Paraguay, when someone has mate, I typically eavesdrop, listening for the distinct accent, in which case having spotted an Argentinian is pretty much guaranteed. 

A tangent: 

Thanks to some great Argentinian friends made along the way, I had become familiar with Argentinian Spanish before arriving in Argentina. (My own academic Spanish was heavily Castellano-influenced, because the majority of my professors were from Spain). Since I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to linguistics and language and effective communication, South America has been extra fun for me.

Quick list of things that make Argentinian Spanish special, relative to ‘regular’ Spanish: 

The accent is most noticeable on the double L’s and Y’s; ‘me llamo’ sounds more like ‘me shamo’. There’s a special word for “you”, vos, (instead of the universal Spanish “tú”). And Argentinians have all sorts of alternative greetings, funny sayings, and words for things: 

From a friend-to-friend “che boludo!”, to a don’t-worry-about-it “tranqui”, to an Argentinian-hotdog “choripan”, to an alternative hello “buenas!”, to the substitute-for-muy “re”, to calling a pool a “pileta” (sink). 

But that’s where I’m going to take linguist-Claire off stage. 

Returning to mate: 

When consumed, it is usually shared, and that’s fundamentally what makes it my favorite thing in describing Argentinians. Mate is rarely made without being offered to whoever is in the near vicinity. It’s an act of kindness as much as inclusivity, but it’s also indicative of how cariñoso (affectionate, warm, loving) Argentinians are: 

They’re huggers. They greet you with the typical one-cheek kiss. They like to place a hand gently on your upper arm, or hold your hand when listening or talking intimately. They are expressive, and often boisterous in groups. They’re sentimental people, loyal friends, incredibly welcoming hosts. And above all, they will never blink twice at sharing a mate straw with a stranger.

The Argentinian friends I’ve made throughout my travels have been some of the most special. From Lud & Carlos in Hungary to Mari, Gaston, Laura, Leo, Yamila, Sofia, Ernesto, and the wider family of Argentinians in Floripa. It’s those relationships that have given my Spanish accent an Argentinian lilt, and most of all, made me feel so at home in this corner of South America.

II. PATAGONIA

I’ve never had the pleasure of getting to know a mountain town’s summer-self. 

With sunshine, smatterings of green shrubs and wild grasses, (and without snow), El Chaltén is nothing short of charming. Laundry flutters on the lines, Argentinian kids in summer-vacation mode scramble after each other with water balloons, the main road crackles with the slow passing of cars on gravel, and the town hums with what I think has to be the most serene tourism energy attainable. 

I was observing this with sort of delirious affection on my return into town after the longest one-day hike I’ve ever done. I logged 16.5 miles, which looks like hiking from roughly 8AM-6PM, with a two-ish hour break at the top to gaze at Fitz Roy and fall asleep in the sun, twice, on two separate boulders, if you’re me. 

Hiking, in a similar way to running, is the closest I come to meditation. I have yet to find success with the calmly-sit-still, eyes closed, feel-your-breathing kind of meditation. But I think I do (more or less) get it – the deep rhythmic breathing, the quieted thoughts, the present-ness.. I’ve always been able to settle into that space when my legs are moving. 

It’s day four now. I’ve done three 20+ km hikes/runs. I’m strong, but I’m not in the best running fitness of my life either; I’m a little sore. So, I’m going to be less of a psycho, rest for a couple days, see a big glacier, get myself a bit further south, and get organized for a four-day trek in Torres del Paine. 

This remote little town, this unbelievably vast region, and these mountain trails have been giving me the bit of space I was hoping for. To reflect. To be thankful. To be alone. To move. And to celebrate emerging on the other side of this incredible experience. 

III. Signing off, for now

As of today, I have officially completed my time as a Bonderman Fellow. 

Because I’m still traveling, and because I plan to continue traveling in South America for a couple more months, I’m a bit far from the concluding emotions and realizations that I imagine will go along with a true homecoming.

So, with the support & permission of our program advisors, I’m planning to write at least one more update around the time I return home. 

Until then, I want to close with a huge thank you. I’ve been pretty emotionally overwhelmed the past few days, mostly with gratitude…

Gratitude for the Bonderman family, for making my, and other fellows’ life-changing experiences possible. 

Gratitude for the Bonderman administrative team, for making this logistically possible and being supportive throughout it all. 

Gratitude for my amazing friends back home, who have kept in touch with my sporadic whereabouts and inspired me from afar with their successes and ever-evolving endeavors.

Gratitude for my awesome and all-too-hilarious family, for reminding me why a sense of humor is always the most important thing to pack.

And, above all, gratitude for all the people that have welcomed me into their lives along my way, from Russia to Hungary to Greece to India to Brazil to Argentina and beyond – you will all always have a space in my heart, and a space in my home (wherever that may be) waiting for you.

***

CB

Budapest

On a sunny day last weekend, Yoda and I decided to explore the city to celebrate his last full day of volunteering at our hostel. His next move would be to go through the rest of Western Europe before crossing the Atlantic for home.

We walked to Hero’s Square, which is arguably the most touristy area of this great city. Lucky for us, the rare January sun had not warmed the streets enough to fill them with tourists. The square was relatively empty and we took lots of photos of the fine arts museum and the main monument of the square basking in sunlight.

We walked past the huge column with an angel perched on top, and then the semi-circle of statues of impressive looking men, who were, no doubt, founders and former leaders of the region.

Behind, after a short walk, we found a castle and a small winter market. By now, these markets hardly interest me (it was no Christmas market, after all). But the Castle was magical.

We are walking across a bridge that stretches over a moat, and I notice two men staring at Yoda. It takes him a moment, but he hears one of them say the word “gypsy” and when he returns the comment with penetrating eyes, they look away, embarrassed.

The interaction reminds me of a section in Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. He gives an example of a man who is spying on someone through a key hole with his ear glued to the door. He is totally absorbed in observing the room inside, in a non-reflective state. Then, someone comes up behind him, catches him, and sees him spying. Now, someone else watches him! All of a sudden the man has become the object of another person’s attention, and aware of that person’s subjective consciousness. Similarly, with one look, Yoda pulled the man out of a non-reflective state and made him aware of himself and what he was saying. And he knew well enough that being caught using a slur was embarrassing.

Essentially, it is hard to objectify a person who stares back at you, as subject. Sometimes all it takes is a simple look. I imagine long-term remedies for racism take more than a look, though.

Yoda is not Romani, but Brazilian. He does look Romani, though. He has long, dark hair, which he ties back most of the time, and he has a beard. Occasionally, when walking through the streets, a passing person would say “Sastipe!” to him. He did not know what it meant at first, but eventually figured out it was a Romani greeting. They greet him to show solidarity, brotherhood. Even if they do not know each other, it is important for him to know he is not alone.

He did not talk about it enough for me to know specific stories about the blanket racism that he encountered while travelling here. Maybe he would point it out in the moment, like that day at the castle, but otherwise he tried not to let it bother him. He remained kind, generous, insightful, and incredibly grateful for the city at large despite the instances of hatred and xenophobia he experienced.

I’ve had a harder time recently with my own experiences with prejudice. When I was in India I tried to harden myself against the sexism around me. Like many other female fellows have done, I chose not to dwell in my writing on what it is like to travel as a woman in South Asia. To be fair, most of the interactions that left me with a bad taste in my mouth were with people who did not speak English very well, who likely have not been exposed to the principles of gender equality that seem so natural to me. How they acted toward women was simply considered normal, and I chose to take a stance of cultural relativism and not take it personally.

It is harder now because people here speak English very well, are familiar with Western and American culture. Yet, it feels like another world to me anyway, and I grow wary as it is not only the locals, but also other backpackers who carry out subtle gestures against me. They may not even know that they are doing it.

From an older Hungarian man cutting me in line at the supermarket, to a fellow volunteer micromanaging my every move while I am on my shifts (even though I’ve been here weeks longer than him), some small form of sexism occurs almost every day. And its not always to me. Sometimes it is just how men talk about women, their place in society, what they are and aren’t allowed to do.

I know there are people who experience much more brutal forms of prejudice. I am not trying to compare. Still, these microaggressions wear me down. They have opened my eyes to the idea that the liberties and freedoms I enjoy as a woman in Ann Arbor are rarer than I had thought. I see myself as a free and empowered woman, but have been confronted with the fact that despite my background and accomplishments, some people still see me as just a woman.

Most importantly, however, I appreciate more than ever the people who take these bruises in stride, and love the world anyway.

We climbed to the top of the Citadelle and Yoda felt on top of the world. He called home to his mom is Brazil to show her the beauty of Budapest lighting up at dusk. The city sparkled and glistened in the glossy, pink sunset mist. My hands were just about frozen, but the cold didn’t matter as much as watching the darkness sink in over the Danube, buildings falling to shadow and small flickering lights calling out from so far below.

I probably could have chosen a less morose day to write about Budapest. The sun shines in today’s blue sky, but I am in a mood. One year ago, I worked tirelessly on my senior thesis, trying not to think about my pending application to the Bonderman Fellowship. I had stopped telling myself I would apply to law schools as a back-up, and instead was looking at jobs overseas, anything that would let me travel if I wasn’t selected.

I didn’t tell a lot of people about the fellowship. I kept it to myself to keep from jinxing it, and to keep from revealing how crazy my dreams had become. My dreams are not much less crazy now.

In the morning I pull a duvet cover from a used bed set during my cleaning shift. The static rips at my cotton sweatshirt and the ends of my hair. Everything is staticky in this dry, radiator-heated building. I match up the corners of the clean, inside-out duvet, and flip the whole thing over so the comforter falls neatly between the sheets of fabric. My freshman-year-roommate’s mom taught me out to do that on move-in day, shortly after I had forced my own family to leave me to my own devices. I think about how far I’ve come, since then. Over 17,632 miles of travel so far.

There are many things I love about Budapest. For one, I love how on the North side of Pest dog owners walk their little friends without leashes. Hungarian dogs are some of the most well-behaved dogs I’ve ever seen. I remember seeing a dog on a leash after India and being astonished at the notion of owning one. Then, here, astonished at the notion of owning a dog and not having to tether it. They are like familiars, like loyal Pokemon, how I think dogs ought to be. Two fluff balls play quietly on the floor of my favorite coffee shop. Two good boys try not to pay me attention while they wait on the sidewalk for their owner, who is inside a shop.

Like most places in Eastern Europe, the people of Budapest are serious. They walk fast, they do not say much, chose their words carefully, and do not waste time.

There are specialized shops along the streets instead of huge department stores.

Unlike many of the other countries I’ve traveled to, the book stores have sadly small sections of English books. People in Budapest are literate, they love to read, and everything is translated or written in Hungarian.

The currency exchange office on the Buda side of town which has the best rate (30,000 HUF for $100!) also has the nicest teller who asked me where I was from and gave me candy. The exchange offices with the worst rates have tellers who hardly look up, hardly speak, and grow irritated if you linger for too long.

There are coffee shops everywhere, which is quite literally my favorite part. There are very old buildings with ruin bars in the basements with cheery bar tenders who help you decide on a flavor of Palinka, a traditional Hungarian liquor that dates back to the middle ages. (The cherry one is the best).

The public transit system is phenomenal. I believe if you are a good person who always scans a single-use ticket on the trams (a lot of people ride for free) and give spare tickets to friends in need, good luck will come your way. Good luck came my way one day when I went to purchase two tickets. I paid, but no tickets came out. Instead of giving up and walking away, I shoved my hand up there to see if there was a jam. There was no jam, but duct tape over the printer! I peeled off the tape and pulled out 10 tickets that had been blocked from dropping into the tray. I looked around, expecting some police officer to come running. Expecting a trap. But no one was concerned with me at all, and I thought there was no point in throwing good tickets away, and considered it a good deed to prevent the scammer from reaping the benefits. I wondered why so many people paid and just walked away, without investigating, while their tickets where there the whole time, tucked under a piece of tape.

Overall, this city is a brilliant gem with a few cracks in it. Like the moonstone I wear around my neck, I find it possible to love Budapest despite its imperfections. I still have hope that the people here, whether locals or travelers, can be open to change. If we are patient and persistent, change will come.

At the end of this month I will be heading south to travel through Serbia and North Macedonia. I grow stronger every day and I am infinitely thankful for my new friends who lend me their shoulder in rough moments and show me resilience. Friendship really goes a long way.

In All Honesty…

It’s been three weeks in Vietnam, and it’s been utterly random. My route, if you could even call it that, was unusual and anything but linear. The typical backpacker route has you start in the north and work your way south or vice versa. I blame my love affair with the beach for my ping-pong approach.

My heart was set on spending my birthday by the ocean. This is what led me to fly into Nha Trang – stop number one. Nha Trang is neither in the north or south, but rather lower central Vietnam. A beach resort city, which caters to its loyal Russian tourists. You can imagine my confusion upon landing in my first Vietnamese city to find nearly every restaurant menu, storefront sign, and the like in Russian. And you didn’t have to do much observation to understand why. Russians abound everywhere.

Sunset on Christmas in Nha Trang

If anything, it made me aware of how much I take for granted what a privilege it is to travel as a native English speaker. Language barriers, a potential challenge I expected to have to navigate frequently, has rarely come up. This is a direct consequence of speaking English. It was humbling to have the tourism sector not cater to my native language, but another. So, with my options being Vietnamese or Russian, for the first time in over four months of international travel, I heavily relied on my google translate app.

Entrance to a Buddhist Pagoda in Nha Trang

In all honesty, I probably overestimated just how much time I needed to be in Nha Trang. It’s not exactly the place you go to learn about Vietnamese culture. It’s a beach resort city and by nature a tourist typhoon. Not a ton of substance, but I fully accomplished my goal of soaking up the sun for the holidays and my birthday.

Birthday celebrations in Nha Trang
Nha Trang

Next stop: Hoi An. Known for its ancient market, Hoi An is roughly ten hours north by bus from Nha Trang. A ten-hour bus ride. Sounds tragic, right? Not in the slightest.

You can travel the entire length of Vietnam by sleeper bus for extremely cheap, and it has become my favorite mode of travel by far. Keep your planes and trains – it’s sleeper buses all the way. Not only are they about 1/18th of the cost of a plane ticket (my ticket was $10), they are infinitely more comfortable than a “seat” on a plane. There is an upper and lower deck, and each is fitted with full-length seats that allow you to stretch your legs out completely. An adjustable back seat flattens out when you’re ready to snooze. Pillow and blanket included. Maybe due to my distaste for airports, I am a die-hard fan of sleeper buses now. So much so, I took the leap and elected to take a 24-hour sleeper bus to Ho Chi Minh city after staying in Hoi An. But that’s later.

Sleeper Bus to Hoi An

Hoi An is charming. Equally as touristy as Nha Trang, but in a different way completely. Where Nha Trang lacked substance, Hoi An was bursting with color and character.

I seem to find one everywhere I go…. I miss my pets 🙁

My favorite memory while staying there was the bike tour I took. It was advertised as a bike tour through the countryside outside the city. I failed to realize that we first had to get to the countryside…by bike. This meant joining the mayhem that is traffic here. What a rush. That is until I got cut off from the group (bless my very kind and informative tour guide, but when she got on her bike she was on a mission and did not have time to be checking up on newbies such as myself) while trying to not to get run over by the zillions of scooters and cars whizzing by me. I was trailing behind, a bus cut in front of me and before I knew it, I was stranded in the middle of downtown Hoi An traffic. Just me and rusty bike. The confusion mixed with slight panic on my face surely resembled that of a four-year-old who’s lost their mother in the grocery store. Well… now what? I thought to myself. I stood amidst the chaos for a few minutes debating in my head what I should do: go back to the hostel defeated, guess which direction they went in and most likely get lost, or stand there like a goof and hope my group stood by the motto “no (wo)man left behind”.

The streets of Hoi An – the fruits in that basket were so delicious

Thankfully for me, my group did eventually come back for me, albeit a bit huffy at having to turn around and come get me. I didn’t get to pick up the rear after that, and I was very much okay with this.

My Son Ruins in Hoi An

“Old Town” at night was pure magic. Even the flood of tourists couldn’t ruin it. The pictures I took didn’t come close to capturing the charm of the hundreds of beautifully vibrant lanterns hanging elegantly from boats, restaurants, and bridges lighting up entire alleyways. I took myself on a romantic date for one and walked along the bridge before grabbing dinner on a rooftop to take in the scene from above.

“Old Town” by night

I ushered in the new year and decade in this charming city, before taking my aforementioned 24-hour bus to the countries beating heart of the South – Ho Chi Minh City.

I arrived in HCMC feeling mentally tired. I’ve recently passed the official half-way mark through Bonderman. Four months in, and four more to go. As “ideal” as it would be to say I’m feeling invigorated at the moment, that isn’t the truth, and from the beginning of this blog, my priority has been, to be honest above all else on my experiences and subsequent feelings about them. So, in truth, I was feeling burn out. Traveling solo the last four months has me realize that my optimal happiness lies between a balance of spontaneity and routine. Traveling solo is spontaneity on steroids. It’s a never-ending array of options and choices, and because you’re alone every choice is solely yours to make. That’s part of the reason that solo travel is so thrilling. It also means that going on autopilot and giving your mind a rest isn’t an option – something that routines do afford us and what makes them boring, but comfortable. Simple tasks, like grabbing a coffee or pulling money out of an ATM, can easily turn into missions when you don’t know where you are. Everyone’s had that “where do you want to go out to eat?” “I don’t care, you pick” exchange with a friend or partner because sometimes you don’t want to decide. Choice is a privilege, absolutely, but it’s also a responsibility that can, occasionally, be relieving to relinquish onto someone else to make. That’s why we all have our “go-to” spots, whether it be a bank, a favorite dinner or drink spot or study location. Because who wants to put the mental effort into google mapping a new place every single time. As I type this, I feel a pool of guilt well up inside me. To admit that being on this fellowship brings me anything but joy feels ungrateful, but that isn’t realistic and it’s not the truth either. Deep down I know it is possible to simultaneously feel tremendous gratitude for an opportunity earned and be honest about my feelings.

Alleyways of Hoi An

So, craving a bit of structure, I got onto couch surfers in search of a local homestay. It was a success and just what the doctor ordered! I found a welcoming local family living just outside the city center. There is something comforting about staying in a home environment, because some things simply prove to be universal, even halfway around the world. Siblings bickering over the remote control, the setting of a dinner table, children moaning about school the next day, pre-teen angst, and shared family laughter.

My host family lived on what I can only describe as a family compound. There was “our” home, and my host mother’s siblings, of which there were four, each had their own houses attached outside. A community all of their own. Dong, my host mom, explained to me just how tightly knit Vietnamese families are. Grandparents live with their children and help to raise their grandchildren. Adult children often live with their parents, even after marriage. And siblings will live near one another, like they had, essentially as neighbors. The result is an iron-clad community and support system.

Traditional Vietnamese meal at my homestay – lots of veggies!

Dong poetically left the front door to her house open from morning until night, a symbol that all were welcome inside. As soon as school finished, children of all ages from all homes would run in and out of the house playing hide and seek, rollerblading or shooting hoops outside. The adult siblings would gather after dinner in an elected home and discuss their days (I’m presuming, I couldn’t understand what was being said).

The busy and beautiful Ho Chi Minh City

As surprised as I was to learn that adult children stay on with their immediate family in the same household and parents of children eventually move in with their youngest child till passing away, Dong was equally taken aback when I explained that in the US, people often leave home as young as 18 and almost always by their early 20’s. Even more appalling was the fact, that we place our elderly parents in homes for other people to take care of, rather than in our own homes. Not only was it seen as a bit disrespectful, but a waste of help. Grandparents play an integral role in helping to rear the next generation in a family.

Homestay Family – thank you!!!

There are, of course, pros and cons to each familial structure. Autonomy and individuality are pillars of American culture, so it’s no surprise we put such an emphasis on leaving the home and providing for oneself. But it was beautiful to see life through a different lens. Family is not just family, but your community here it seems.

Since being in HCMC, I took a deep dive into the Vietnam War. HCMC, previously known as Saigon, was a vital part of the fairly recent war that took place here in Vietnam. Why did I want to learn about the war while here? A couple of reasons. One, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I shuffled through my memories trying to remember a history class that discussed it. Nothing. All of the other US wars I distinctly remember devoting entire weeks of learning to. But not this war. Not the Vietnam War. No, that was always chalked up to a “stalemate”. A war with no winners. I thought maybe my memory of US history is just foggy, but after talking to other Americans here, we all shared similar experiences. Second, I thought what a unique experience it would be learning about a US war from something other than the US perspective, the only perspective I’ve ever learned about our history from. You might say we’re a bit biased.

HCMC houses the War Remnants Museum. It is entirely dedicated to the Vietnam War. To prevent myself from going in blind and completely clueless I watched a few documentaries on the war first. Others before me had warned that the museum was somber and quite gruesome in some parts. Prepare yourself, they cautioned.

Their advice was well placed. The museum was horrifying, to put it lightly. It became immediately clear why this war of all wars is the least discussed because it is the most difficult to spin us as the heroes. I love my home, but we could benefit from a big ole helping of humble pie. It’s gotten a bit embarrassing as other travelers around the world have shared their stories of Americans, arrogantly and unprompted, staking claim to be from “the best country in the world”. It’s so common apparently, it’s earned us a stereotype for being obnoxious braggers among our global neighbors. The line between pride and arrogance is fine. As Americans, we are exceptional at celebrating the things we’ve gotten right in history. But discussing openly the things we’ve done wrong? We’re hardly as eager. That’s why it was so jarring walking through the War Remnants Museum and for the first time seeing us painted as the aggressors and not the freedom fighters we have staked claim to be.

Our actions in the war disappointed me, but it’s our silence in the generations since that is even more so. There is immense strength and infinite learning opportunities in admitting to our wrongdoings.

War Remnants Museum, HCMC

What has impressed me above all else about Vietnam is the general feeling of forgiveness I’ve felt while here. Despite having a fourth generation still facing crippling disabilities from Agent Orange and other chemicals deployed by the US government, the war museum had an entire exhibition dedicated to those in the US who had opposed the war and expressed their thanks for standing in solidarity with them. The stories from both sides brought tears to my eyes as John Lennon’s Imagine played softly above. 

It’s my final day in Vietnam. I fly out for Cambodia tomorrow and I’m feeling excited to move locations and explore somewhere new.

After hearing countless others gush about Northern Vietnam, I feel a bit sad at having missed it this time around, but it gives me a great reason to return someday.

Vietnam you’ve been a sea of lessons – some silly, some serious. Thank you for each.

Till Next Time.

Happy New Years Tokyo

Japanese Toilets

First things first, TOILETS! Listen up United States, you are gross and let me tell you why! In the Middle East, you will not find a toilet without an attached bidet, but even that did not prepare me for the perfection of Japanese toilets. From heated toilet seats to a “privacy” mode, these toilets are an all inclusive experience. Picture this – you just ate a full double cheese pizza and your lactose intolerance kicks in. Shoot, you are in a public restroom and you don’t want the entire restaurant to hear you go. Well, thankfully you are in Japan and these toilets offer you “privacy mode”. When activated, the toilet will start playing elevator music to cover any bodily noises you make. Not to mention the built in bidet, heated toilet seat, AND sanitary wipes specifically used to clean the seat. Each stall provides incredible privacy and the toilets have attached sinks for sanitary use. Half the people in the States DO NOT EVEN WIPE PROPERLY.

New Years

Damn, January already? Well , Happy New Years and hope all is well at home. So I arrived in Japan on January 23rd and have been running around the city since then. Tokyo is interesting because the surrounding cities seem like smaller sections of Tokyo. The city planning reminds me a lot of Chicago with the separate towns in the bigger city. Also. There is absolutely zero litter anywhere in the city. It is odd because there are relatively no public trash cans, but the residents take it upon themselves to keep their city clean.

Apparently, Tokyo is the first place (after Hawaii) to celebrate New Years in the world. My friend was able to visit me for New Years, but of course we lost one another while making our way to the main square. I spent the count down just reflecting on my year. I do not have enough words to describe how thankful I am for the Bonderman Fellowship. The people, places, cultures- nothing will ever top this experience for the rest of my life (yes, my future children I mean that). Never spent New Years without my family before, but honestly it was not lonely for me.

Obscure Anime/ Maid Cafes

Right after the count down, I decided to head back home before the subways closed down for the night. The subways begin again at 6am so most people were partying through the night and taking the subway the next morning. I ducked into a bar to quickly connect to wifi and route my way home, when two travelers introduced themselves to me. They were both Americans, but have been living in Japan for a few years for work. They were visiting Tokyo for a week to attend an Anime conference. I decided to stick with them for a few days and they showed me some amazing places in Tokyo. I was introduced to some not safe for the workplace anime. Afterwards, they took me to something called a “Maid Cafe”. It was one of the weirdest experiences of my life. (Backstory- these cafes are a part of “Kuwaii Culture”. “Kuwaii” means anything absurdly cute. Basically, anything that resembles a “Hello Kitty” vibe is considered Kuwaii culture.) So at this Cafe, these women dressed up in maid uniforms with insanely high pitched voices make you dance with them and make animal noises. I know, I know… it sounds quite cringe, but some people take this stuff very seriously. You can collect stamps from each Maid Cafe and even level up depending on the amount of times you go. The food is served in a very cute and thoughtful way and then you select an animal for the server to draw on your plate with sauce. Once she draws the animal then you are expected to preform the Kuwaii dance with her and make the noise of the animal you drew. Needless to say, I tried it out and here are the photos with the two travelers that took me.

More than half-way through

The past fellows told me time begins to fly after the 3 month mark- they were not wrong! Before I knew it, a few weeks passed. my planned itinerary officially ended, so I have no idea where I am going to next. I was thinking about going back to the Middle East, but the war with Iran makes that complicated and Lebanon is still actively protesting the government. Old Tariq would have still traveled to the Middle East despite the conflict, but after being in Israel/Palestine, my thoughts have changed. The political tension and fear places a heavy load on individuals. Most of my political ideology has changed since leaving the States. The way I speak about politics has also changed. It is complicated for everyone and I am still processing other political conflicts before I introduce myself to more.

Also a moment of honesty, I am glad I am not home at the moment. I love home and my family so very much, but a goal of mine when I left was to reduce the space I took. My personality is large and at home I am relied on as a mediator. Since leaving, I have been told how much my brother has grown out of his shell. I think I overshadowed him while being at home and he never got the chance to take on the social role. Home is a bit hectic and I get phone calls from my parents asking me to help fix things. I would die for my family, but I also know they are capable and intelligent people. Now, I spend time listening to my family’s concerns instead of trying to fix it.

I remember when I was being interviewed as an applicant to the Bonderman Fellowship and they asked why I wanted this fellowship. I responded by saying that I need to leave home for awhile and decide the person I was without Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Medical school, family, friends. Of course seeing new places are great, but no one ever mentions how healthy it is to leave an old place for awhile.

Closer to the Sun

From special times spent in Floripa, Santa Catarina, Brazil

I wake up to Groupme messages that the swell is good. Pulling up the conditions that my friends taught me to read from the grid of numbers, arrows, and colors of Windguru.com, I can confirm – it’s another “go” day for Moçambique. I grab my second-hand wetsuit, canga, and toss a jar of peanut butter into my bag. I throw on my swim suit and a pullover, and scurry down to load my board, a slender black and white 6’4″, into the back of the truck.

It’s 8AM. And we’re zooming along a sandy dirt track through a pine forest in Florianópolis. The pines are technically a rather aggressive invasive species, but the way the dusty morning light filters in is dreamy, regardless.

After about 10 minutes, we break out of the trees to parallel the shore on a sandy bluff overlooking canto das aranhas – “spiders corner” in Portuguese. It’s the kind of beach that’s reachable A) by boat, or B) with 4-wheel drive, both of which go in combination with being local, or being lucky enough to get to know some of the amazing people who are. 

To reach the beach, Felipe shifts into low gear, and the truck hurtles across the loose sand in a wide arc, skating and relying largely on momentum until the tires catch on the hard-pack sand of the beach face. 

The waves are big – to me, at least. In actuality they’re around 1 meter, which is no pipeline masters, but with the volume it’s no gentle beginner ocean either. We paddle out at the rip, where the waves are a little more subdued for a brief window between sets, though it’s messier, like a wave pool, thanks to the current flowing back out to sea against the incoming swells.

After a few weeks of getting into what’s probably the best swimming shape I’ve ever been in, paddling out is still intense. No amount of lap swimming or pull ups or open water swimming in the ocean is equivalent to paddling out in strong waves, especially where touching the bottom isn’t an option. 

Paddling out, and surfing generally, would be easier if I had mastered duck diving. Reality: I’m about 50% effective in the face of smaller oncoming whitewater, at best. At Moçambique, I throw my board behind me to deep dive under the big waves’ thundering whitewater. This costs me some ground every time, as compared to successfully scooping under with my board. But we’re getting there.

Surfing at Moçamba (“Mo-samba”) means I scout for the intermediates, and my much more experienced friends wait to ride the sets and barrels. Surfing at Moçamba also means that, sometimes, my attempt at paddling into a wave, or success in catching a smaller one puts me in the surf zone juuust as someone does the whistle – the typical heads up for “set’s coming”. Which is when things get more interesting.

The most hilarious and exhausting and occasionally scary place to get stuck is here, where the wave are breaking. When a strong set comes through, it’s best to just wait for it to pass, rather than force through a series of big waves in rapid succession.

So, I dive under repeatedly, though almost inevitably (especially as I get tired) I get properly washered by a few waves before the day’s over. It’s only ever a couple seconds, but it’s not a still breath-holding. Some waves hold me down for what feels like much longer. But I almost always come up laughing, or laughing and spluttering, because it’s just ridiculous. The ocean, in whatever conditions, is so powerful – I’m an average adult getting cartwheeled underwater. And then I’m spouting water from both nostrils. And my hair is essentially three sand-ridden dreadlocks stuck sideways across my face. So it’s also humbling. And I usually waste 5 valuable seconds cracking up at the thought of the view a fish would have of the whole thing before having to refocus, dive a wave, and paddle out again.

Felipe, Lucas, Bruno, Shine, Gaston, Dudu, Kizu – They’ve encouragingly told me that this is actually the most promising thing about my aspirations to learn to surf well on a short board: “You have to learn to enjoy the wipeouts”. Regarding that, at least, I would say I’m above average.

Learning to surf has been funny like that though. A lot of the time, it seems to sneakily double as metaphorical life wisdom. It’s been a lesson in patience: trusting that another set will come, or letting good waves pass because there’s a really good one further back in the set. 

In being fearless: Making it past the break after feeling a wee bit intimidated on shore.

In pursuing failure: Going for waves, and wiping out in front of them, because there’s much more to learn from going for it and flopping than half-effort paddling and missing waves.

In not being a wimp: Getting pummeled by a closeout, but regrouping, grabbing the board, and pointing the nose towards the whitewater again.

In finding silver linings: From getting to know Kizu, a generally inspirational good human. Also from getting to watch him kayak-surf epic barrels. He’s paraplegic, a professional adaptive surfer, and a World Champion, though he’s so humble you’d never know.

In continuously aspiring: The friends I’ve made here will be the hardest to leave, but mostly because they’re the kind of people that are always striving higher. They’ve made me a better surfer, but they’ve inspired me to be a better person.

***

I’m leaving for Argentina soon. And I’ll get excited, fall into a new rhythm when I get there.. but I’m in that pre-leaving moment, again, where my insides sort of crumple at the reality of leaving. The never-ending trade-off of travel.

Moçamba, another day, because we usually leave phones behind

***

CB

Transit vs. Arrival

The narrator in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance pauses on the following idea:

“The statement ‘To travel is better than to arrive’ comes back to mind again and stays. We have been traveling and now we will arrive. For me a period of depression comes on when I reach a temporary goal like this and have to reorient myself toward another one. In a day or two John and Sylvia must go back and Chris and I must decide what to do next. Everything has to be reorganized.”

They are on a motorcycle trip through Northern America. They have been riding for days and are about to reach a new destination. I used to agree with the narrator on this point and believed that I was happiest on buses, on trains, in airports, deep into the forest on a trail. I actually drafted this post over a week ago with the intention of defending his normative, comparative claim. But since then, my view has changed.

To be in transit is to be moving, working toward a goal, living where you have the space and time to think and dream.

Back in Nepal while trekking, I stared down at my legs, amazed as they took step after step. After a while, those first waves of amazement subsided and my mind grew quiet. At times I could walk for hours without really thinking about anything, and other times my mind could focus and follow long trains of thoughts and narrations. The only real thing I had to focus on was my own dynamic energy. It was meditation within a vacuum away from society and problems. Once I stopped thinking about the physical sensations, I was able to look inward and just think.

Similarly, when traveling in a train car, there is usually minimal entertainment (distractions) and you have a similar space for your mind to wander. You can just stare out the window and be completely present.

To arrive is to become grounded again, practical.

There is something beautiful about setting down your bags on the hostel bed, looking out the window and thinking to yourself, “OK, now what?” It is a turning point where things must change. You’re not in Kansas anymore and now you have to figure out how to order food in a foreign language, use new transportation systems, adapt to new and uncomfortable cultural practices. People travel in order to discover and experience these changes.

Throughout this fellowship, I have experienced that subtle pivot from transit to arrival many times over. While I find solace in periods of transit, I live for the change that come with arrival. From tossing around in the back of a tuk-tuk on a mission to buy paint in the middle of the night, to shivering in the wind at the Ukraine-Poland border as police searched the coach bus for illegal migrants, to watching in horror as a hostel guest apathetically mentions to the receptionist that he has bed bugs–Fear, anxiety, horror are all emotions that bring color to memories and texture to life in ways I never thought I would appreciate.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I disagree with the narrator in ZAMM. I do think the statement is unreliable to begin with because the narrator was low-key running from his past, anxious about an inevitable confrontation with his son and deteriorating sanity. For him, travel is an escape and he dreads arrival because it means he would have to face reality.

Arriving home is different from arriving somewhere homeless. When life seems to run its course entirely independent from you, it is scary. No one is going to give you a warm bed unless you go looking for it. No one is holding your hand or giving you some template itinerary. I could sleep on the street if I had to (I met a man who slept under an overpass while he waited for his train). It would probably be unpleasant (and risky) but I would survive. I’ve had to accept that sometimes I do not have control. I’m not afraid of fear anymore.

In the bigger picture, the Bonderman Fellowship itself is a state of transition. I contemplate with excitement and dread the “destination,” physical or metaphysical, that lies ahead. But the summit of Thorong La Pass is a very specific physical point that can be pointed to on a map. The “destination” of this fellowship is designed to be uncertain. I wonder if this makes the nature of this big-picture travel different than the day-to-day, point-A-to-point-B kind.

If I got on a train today, not knowing where it is going, would it be different? Perhaps I would stare out the window, looking for signs, learning the landscape, trying to figure out where I am without reference to some point on a piece of paper. I wonder what can be learned about life and places when you don’t have some pamphlet to dictate what should be appreciated, some line on a map telling you where to go. Perhaps that would be a higher quality form of exploration. 

I am contemplating this as my metaphorical Bonderman Fellowship train car passes over the half-way point of this wild eight-month journey.

Happy New Year from Budapest, Hungary.

The Here and Now

Well, Delhi belly struck and prevented me from actually seeing any of Delhi. I’m grateful for the fact that it allowed me to visit the Taj Mahal before residing me to my (death) bed for days. (In short, the Taj Mahal is so worth the trip and lives up to the hype. I went at sunrise, and upon first seeing it from a distance, it looks like a painting, a mirage, too beautiful to be real.)

In all its glory..

The worst felt like it was over, and it was good timing too. I had a train ticket scheduled to leave for Haridwar the following morning at 6 am. But then my “India” moment happened. That is my “nothing goes as you planned in India, so be patient and go with the flow to keep your sanity” moment happened. I’d been pretty lucky up until this point. More than a few times I’d been warned of this happening, but all of my plans thus far here had gone just as I’d intended them to. Until now.

I arrived at the train station on time but didn’t even make it through the door before an employee notified me that my scheduled train had been canceled due to fog. Instead, I was told I’d need to go to a different train station across the city and catch the 7:30 am train, but not before first making a stop at the ticket office in a separate location to switch my ticket over. I had an hour and a half to make this happen. If this sounds like a cushy amount of time, remember there was Delhi rush hour morning traffic to get through. 

It didn’t end up mattering though. At the first stop, the ticket office, it was made clear that all of today’s trains had been canceled due to fog. At least all the trains going to my desired destination. Okay, what about tomorrow, I asked. Canceled. Okay… what about a bus? I could hear the “you’re joking right” in the bus operator’s voice over the phone when I suggested booking a ticket for today. 

“Today?! No, you must book tickets five days in advance.” 

“Five days?!?” I replied exasperated. 

“Yes, all trains are canceled. Busses are full.”

Ah, yes. You’re not the only one who’s frantically searching for a plan B Bronte. His tone made sense now. 

I was down to two options: plane or cab. The six-hour cab ride was cheaper, but barely. So long, $12 train ticket. 

It was a blow to my budget, sure, but I shrugged. Things could be worse. I could not be going at all. But I was. I was still going to experience living at an Ashram in India for one week. 

I was equally excited and nervous about this experience. Ashrams are set up to strip you back down to the basics. Your main objective is to sit with yourself (usually in meditation) and self-reflect free from life’s daily distractions and desires. 

The particular Ashram I stayed at was in a small village quietly nestled between Rishikesh (a tourist nub for yoga and meditation retreats) and Haridwar (one of the three holiest cities for Hindus in India. Or so I’d been told). 

After my cab took me as far as the road will allow him to go, I had to take a tuk-tuk the rest of the way. It could maneuver around the long and bumpy dirt road, which eventually led me to the Ashram’s gates resting alongside the Ganges river. 

Delhi belly wasn’t completely done with me yet, so I spent the first day or so getting back to full health. But after I quickly came into a silent routine. It went something like this:

•    Wake up in time to make it to the meditation hall at 6:00 am, where I would attempt to quiet my thoughts for 60 minutes in silence. 

•    In a trance, make my way over to the adjoining building for 7:00 am yoga. 

•    At 8:00 am the “dinner” bell would ring at the dining hall, signaling to us that breakfast was ready to be served. Every student and resident would line up, similar to a school lunch line, grab our trays and silverware and be served our breakfast from one or two volunteers, one by one. 

•    9:00 am – 11:30: free time

•    At 11:30 Satsang began. Satsang is when everyone who wished to would join in the library in a circle created with colorful bean bags. At the head of this circle sat the Ashram’s live-in president/guru/spiritual teacher. He wore long white robes, and these matched his long white beard and semi-long, slicked back, white hair. And then in a very informal Q&A format, residents asked Swami all sorts of questions. They could be as simple or philosophical as you wish- just whatever was pressing on your mind. He would then give his perspective on the topic. 

•    Right on the dot, the bell would ring for lunch at 1 o’clock. 

•    2 pm – 6 pm: free time

•    At 6 pm was another 60-minute-long meditation in the hall. 

•    7 pm was dinner, which was nearly identical to lunch – rice with brown or yellow curry, a couple pieces of bread, some vegetables, and sometimes a traditional Indian sweet. I ended up living for those sweets.

•    And finally, at 8:00 pm was gathered reading in the library, where each person would read a random page from a book on meditation and spirituality. 

Lunch and dinner for a week

In hindsight, I’m grateful for the experience I had at the Ashram. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t excruciating at times. Sitting with yourself, with nothing but your thoughts, is hard. I had been anticipating this. I heard from others who’d done something similar in the past lament how they had to leave early or witnessed others who had. Now more than ever before, especially Americans, we always have something to do. If not, there is always something to entertain us in the rare moments we don’t have something to be doing. To sit still and simply be present in your body and mind is such a foreign concept. 

The library where Satsang took place

I went through my book, my only source of entertainment (no Wi-Fi or cell service), in three days. When that form of escape was gone, I was really stuck. I went for walks around the ashram, I slept a lot, sometimes out of tiredness from waking up so early and sometimes out of boredom, and I sat and thought a lot. I thought about thinking. And in my daily meditations, I would walk out of the hall exhausted, feeling like I’d just been in an hour-long war with my mind. 

Meditation is about being aware of your thoughts, without being attached to them. You do your best to focus on your breath, and when a train of thought inevitably flits across your conscious, you make note and then return to your breath. With a lot of practice, this process becomes easier until it’s effortless. Until then, it can be a bit maddening, but also enlightening. 

Just after morning meditation as the sun began rise

I’ve known for some time that I tend to live in the future. I didn’t realize quite how much until I started paying conscious awareness of where my thoughts were. Nearly every thought was based in the next hours, in the coming years and every space of time in between. The future is where my mind resides- or anxiously awaits might be more accurate. And it’s ironic because I romanticize the past without exception. I’m almost obsessive about not forgetting a single detail. That’s why I’ve kept stacks on stacks of photo albums long before Instagram made photographing your life the norm and kept a daily journal since middle school. Re-reading old entries and flipping through pictures is a favorite pastime. 

But where am I if my minds in the future and my bodies recording the past- always in one realm or the other, but never here in the present. What am I missing out on by never being here

Staying at the Ashram for a week forced me to slow down. At the end of my stay, I didn’t leave with life figured out. I’m still very much figuring that one out, but it made me far more aware of where my head is. And if there is one thing I did learn, it’s that any answer we are searching for- it’s found in the present. Not the future. Not the past. It’s right in front of us, within us, if we can be still enough to listen and see. 

Speaking of the present moment, presently I’m in Kathmandu, Nepal. But not for long, my flight for Vietnam leaves at 10:30 pm tonight. 

I haven’t even been in Nepal for a full week – my shortest stay in a country yet. It feels like an overnight stay after just spending five weeks in India. Part of the reason for my short stay is half my clothes were stolen my last night in India. This included all but one pair of my pants. And Nepal is absolutely frigid right now (after spending the last 4 months in hot weather that’s how it feels at least). I could’ve bought warm clothes, but I’m going right back to a tropical climate after this, and if I’m going to splash out on a new wardrobe, I figured it best be on clothes I’ll wear for months instead of days. 

Watching these guys snatch orange juice and cotton candy from unsuspecting hands was a solid source of entertainment

Nevertheless, it speaks to Nepal’s credit that it only took a few days for me to promptly add it to my “visit again” list. It’s a living breathing oxymoron. Peaceful chaos. As motorcycles, cars, trucks, and people pushing carts loaded with fresh produce whiz by me, I’m greeted with “Namaste” along my walk by locals, and Buddha’s serene face follows me at every turn. Locals appear unfazed by the congestion and traffic. Usually, such a scene causes hostility. An urgent energy where everyone is trying to get where they need me to be now. But not here. 

The streets of Kathmandu by night

With only a few days here, I was the ultimate tourist and only visited the “must-see” sites, but I long to return one day, to when I can get a true sense of Kathmandu and the other beautiful cities of Nepal. 

Making friends everywhere I go…

I have some big dates approaching! The 25th is Christmas. It will be strange to be away from family and loved ones for the first time during the holidays. The following day, the 26th is my 23rd birthday. This too will seem odd to spend alone. I’ve elected to celebrate on the beach, my happy place, hence why I’m flying to Southern Vietnam. I’m not terribly sad about the prospect of spending my birthday alone though. I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy my own company, and there is something special about ringing in a new year of life in such a way. And then the 28th marks the official half-way mark through my Bonderman journey. A full four months traveling, and a full four left to go. 

Now feels like a better time than any to express my immense gratitude for this opportunity I’ve been granted. I can’t think of a better Christmas or birthday gift than to simply be exactly where I am. 

Till next time.

Thankful for Thailand

Oh Thailand. So many backpackers have told me that you were THE destination. You had it all they said. My only complaint? You limited my time here to 30 days, and I needed much longer to see all your sites. It’s sad to think that some people believe you are only for cheap vacations and the “ping pong” shows. The culture, people, life in Thailand is what it should be known for.

The King of Thailand:

The new King’s coronation occurred in May and the festivities are still continuing now in December. I was fortunate enough to attend the new king’s parade! It was very interesting. We waited for 4 hours to see the new king board a long wooden carved boat with at about 20-30 soldiers, relatives, officials following in their own boats close behind. When the king passed us on water, we were told by Thai citizens to take off our hats, not to stand, and to stay quiet. The citizens have immense respect for their king. We were allowed to cheer after the king himself has passed. I was unable to record while the king was passing so that is not included:

Kai and Mazen

I met a phenomenal Thai woman named Kai. She had done research at University of Michigan and was so excited to show me around. She taught me how to use the metro, and how to barter for better prices. I even ate some authentic Thai food! Moments like these, I remember how lucky I am to have attended University of Michigan. The university truly has connections world-wide and I am so thankful to be a Michigan Wolverine. I hope to see Kai again as she pursue her masters in Chicago or Ann Arbor. In my hostel, I met a Yemini traveler named Mazen. He felt like a brother to me and we immediately connected. I brought him along with me and Kai to JJ’s Market. Mazen has a wife and a 2 year old son, but he still makes it a point to solo travel as much as possible, while still being a good father.

Phuket

Wow. Phuket is beautiful. Phuket is a city in the very south of Thailand and is known for its beautiful beaches and great night life. I am currently staying near Patong Beach, but will be moving to Phi Phi Islands tomorrow. I met a lovely family form South Africa that has adopted me for a week. They had me move into their hotel rooms and even booked my ferry ride to Phi Phi Island for me. It is the strangest experience for me to be with this family and not feel like odd one out. They make sure to include me in everything. I have been feeling so blessed with all the good luck thrown my way so far (knock on wood).

Takeaways

I have spent a lot of time wishing I was back home the first four months of travel. I decided I will stop doing that. Mazen had told me that he wanted to introduce himself on the first day I arrived in Thailand, but I was always on the phone so he felt like it was never a good time. The family I am with now make it a rule to never be on the phone while in the presence of one another. I need to be more mindful in these amazing counties that I am visiting so I decided to limit my phone usage as much as possible. Wishing everyone back home happy holidays <3.

JAPAN

2/5/19

I LOVE TOKYO. I’m couchsurfing with a woman named Elena who is originally from Russia but works here as a translator. Her apartment is in Shimokitazawa, a newer neighborhood full of vintage clothing stores, indie bars and shops, quirky streets and narrow alleyways — in essence, it is the aesthetic Urban Outfitters wishes it could authentically cultivate but instead overcharges like no other to merely mimic.

Elena took me to a sushi place with really cheap food. We ordered on a machine at the table, and then the food was delivered via conveyor belt rocket to our booth. It reminded me of that episode of “Drake & Josh” which was parodying an episode of “I Love Lucy.” Classic.

2/7/19

Instead of taking the train to Shibuya, I took the 40-minute walk so I could see more of the city on my way there (and because I haven’t gotten a Pasmo card yet for transit). I was surprised by how many quiet residential streets there are; I read that Tokyo sort of sprawled out from the main center and spilled into the suburbs. When I used to think of Tokyo, bright lights, vibrant color, and sleek technology most readily came to mind. But I love this tranquil, simpler side of it. Also, no matter how off-the-grid you think you are, there’s always a vending machine around, ready to dispense hot coffee, tea, cold pop, water, peach Coke, etc. Elena said she went hiking once and got turned around, but somehow — off-the-trail, ostensibly disparate from known civilization, like a fevered mirage — there stood a vending machine, waiting to provide her with liquid sustenance before she found her way back.

Shibuya is technically bigger than just the famous Shibuya Crossing, but today I focused on this area. The ward itself has the two busiest train stations in the world: Shinjuku, which I used when I arrived from Narito Airport, and Shibuya, which is right by the Hachiko monument. It was made to honor Hachiko, an Akita Inu dog who came to the station daily to meet his human companion as he was returning from work. When the aforementioned human passed away while at his job, Hachiko continued coming to the station every day for nine years, until he himself passed away… I miss my dog.

Hachiko guarding two cats

Shibuya Crossing is what I used to picture Tokyo as before actually coming to Tokyo. It’s essentially a frenzied, neon-lit, packed, scramble-style intersection. Traffic on all feeder roads (more than just four) halts so people can cross in any direction, at any angle. After experiencing it as a pedestrian, I saw it from above in a building with large windows. I watched the mesmerizing scene unfold again and again like clockwork. After a while, the sky darkened and it started raining, but the finely tuned machine did not slow. Now, colorful umbrella tops were wading just as fluidly through the streets. Surrounding the intersection are tall, brightly lit buildings with giant TV screens blasting brilliant images to onlookers. Through the glass, with the glowing light reflecting off the rain and the hypnotic procession flowing uninterrupted below, it seemed like the organized chaos of Shibuya Crossing was encased in a dazzling, starry snow(rain)globe.

Not the best depiction of the crossing, but to give you an idea of it

Shibuya

2/8/19

Elena recommended I visit a digital art exhibit today. One of the best recommendations I’ve gotten throughout my entire trip. I kinda wish I didn’t bring my phone, but I’m also glad I had it because the pictures are cool, even though the brilliance of the exhibit was hard to capture on camera.

I moved from room to room, each door leading to a new sensory-visual experience. I started off walking up a ramp through knee-deep water into what I call The Dimly Lit Bean Bag Floor Room. It was a fun struggle to walk across the squishy terrain, and many people took breaks on the ground since it was, you know, made of bean bags. I fell a lot, but the very floor that thwarted me also cushioned my fall. There’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.

I’m just gonna post pictures of the rest now:

The last two depict a room that was essentially a giant ball pit, but because it is Art, it’s okay for adults to play in it.

In conclusion, the best part was all of it, and the worst part was when it had to end.

A convoluted and fun note on the trains since I had a convoluted and fun time figuring out how to get to the exhibit: I took the express instead of the semi-express, and as a result missed the stop of my transfer, but as it turns out, the train I would’ve been on was actually ending at the station where I switched to backtrack, and there it turned into the train I had to transfer onto (just a later stop on the semi-express that I should’ve gotten on), so instead of going backwards to start over, I could’ve just gotten on the transfer train (previously the semi-express), but alas I spent about half an hour going back and forth like a buffoon, BUT I genuinely had a good time learning about the intricate subway system here. And if you followed that, congratulations because I barely do and I did it.

2/10/19

It occurred to me today as I was climbing with Elena and her friends at their favorite climbing gym: part of what allows me to love Japan so much has to do with the stability of living in a home, the friendships I have here, and a “routine” that is structural enough to be functional and flexible enough for spontaneity (read: I have no responsibilities here, but there are things I like enough to do on a daily basis). I realize that’s a lot to say for being in this country about a week; although Bonderman has altered my current perception of time passing, and coupled with the unfamiliar comfort and ease I feel, it’s like I’ve lived here for much longer. Besides, time in a cumulative sense is hardly a determining factor in whether a connection is made and/or remains.

It seems acceptable to make such lofty postulations when trying to literally climb to lofty heights

After climbing, we went to an underground izakaya, which seemed like the Japanese version of a dive bar (which is to say that it was the clean, refined, well-kept version of a dive bar. I mean, they gave us hot towels to clean our hands before we ate). Everyone insisted I try sake; it was strong, served chilled. I was lucky to be surrounded by Japanese translators because the menu didn’t have pictures or English (most restaurants don’t, actually). We also ended up doing karaoke since they have special karaoke places where you dress up like a banana or popular anime characters in a room you can reserve for your group.

Miscellaneous Japan-related thoughts

  • People are very skilled at maximizing space while minimizing unnecessary possessions
  • How is it SO clean when there are zero trash cans anywhere??
  • Japanese photo booths (purikura) are so kawaii and fun-ner than any other photo booth
  • Even though I stick out a lot more here, no one stares. Everyone is so polite and so helpful if you ask them a question. Stunning

Purikura. Can’t stop laughing. Why are my hands so long?

2/21/19

Recap of the past week and a half:

  • Left Tokyo, and did the Hakone circuit (Odawara → Hakone → Lake Ashi → Hakone-Yumoto → Odawara).
  • During this time I ate lots of mochi and visited a natural hot spring spa (called onsens). Onsen visitors aren’t allowed to have visible tattoos most of the time, and you are NOT allowed to wear bathing suits…. This part was a little odd for me, even though they gender-separated the spa facilities. And since everyone else was Japanese, no one stared, so after the initial shock of being naked around a bunch of other people who were also naked, I actually felt pretty okay. Plus, the springs erase all tension and stress and the outdoor ones have a front-row view of the stunning forestry surrounding the springs. Plus plus, no cameras/phones/electronics are allowed in the bathing area. Plus plus plus, there was a dry sauna room, and they did a special hot rock treatment in there, and it completely cleared my sinuses and scorched my airways in a pleasant and curative way. By the end, I felt super serene and luxuriated.

    • Then I went to Hiroshima and met up with Mara (who I met in Thailand at the Muay Thai gym I was staying and training at) in front of the A-Dome and Memorial. There was a man outside encouraging people to talk about what happened during WWII. He said he was a survivor of the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan during the war and invited us to attend a survivor talk and Q&A. At the meeting, him and another survivor, Maki, explained that authorities were trying to obfuscate the truth and reality of the bombing in order to soften Japan’s mistakes during the war and win over the public. That’s why it was important to him to share his story with others. Every time the War Memorial Museum is renovated, he said they make the mannequins of what people looked like after the bombing (flesh literally melting away, bloodied faces, missing portions of body, and on) less traumatic which in this case makes them more inaccurate. Along with educational censorship, they say this is covering the horror to control the populace. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit the museum to corroborate his claims. Maki said “it doesn’t matter who was badder, America or Japan. War is bad, that is the point.” When he asked everyone to introduce themselves, there were some Canadian, some Japanese, and others. I felt weirdly guilty when I answered American. It was a heavy talk, but Maki emphasized the importance of forgiveness. It took 10 years to rebuild Hiroshima, and during that time, he said the Japanese public became very anti-war. There were some who resented the U.S. for their actions during the war, but most were focused on rebuilding. He said the main thing was making sure something like this never happens again. Maki was incredible to listen to; it’s life-affirming how resilient, forgiving, and brave people like him are. The city of Hiroshima recovered strongly and beautifully; walking around the bustling, yet immaculately clean, downtown, you would never suspect something so horrific once happened here…

    • Mara and I decided it would be therapeutic to visit Rabbit Island (real name: Okunoshima Island). We bought carrots, celery, and cabbage from a Family Mart and took the ferry. The island had been used for clandestine production of poison gas, weaponry, etc. for 15 years before it was shut down after WWII, and all the warfare materials were buried, incinerated, or sunk into the Pacific. Then they introduced bunnies to the island and now it’s known as Rabbit Island. There are about 700 bunnies on the island, and each one is cute and loved by me. It seemed so strange but poetic to take something that was once associated with destruction and doom and replace it with life and bunnies. It wasn’t crowded at all, besides for the rabbits, and me and Mara were able to explore the entire island without running into anyone. I really appreciated bunny/former-site-of-illicit-gunpowder-production island.

    Me: You know what’s ironic? I feel really peaceful here.

    Mara: Me too.

    • We took another day trip from Hiroshima to another cute-animal-filled island: Itsukushima (also known as Miyajima) Island. Amongst the frolicking deer, we climbed Mt. Misen, viewed the tide wash over the famous “floating” Great Torii Gate, and visited historic Daisho-in Temple. The bright vermillion shade of torii gates and shrines are thought to be protective against evil and disruptive spirits. It seemed to be working; Miyajima was a perfect bubble of tranquility.
  • moodDon’t forget to give your deer ones a kiss.
    • The great thing about Japan seems to be that wherever you go, it’ll be amazing. So even though it was sad to leave Hiroshima, I was ready to see Kyoto.

    Due to a combination of basic-ness and also a desire to experience new things, I visited the tatami mat Starbucks in “Old Kyoto” where most of the buildings were wooden and reminiscent of faraway times. It featured sliding panels, cloth tapestry, and mainly natural lighting. I feel like this is the kind of place where samurai warriors might gossip over a cup of tea in ancient, feudal Japan.

    Yokai (Monster) Street. At first, it seems like you’ve turned onto just another quiet street. Then you notice that it’s quiet because there are very few people around. Then you see the monsters. Tons of them, some hidden in plain sight, others taking a more in-your-face approach. Business owners make these creatures to represent the ones in Japanese folklore and legend. Yokai street and its outlandish creatures are meant to cater to local clientele and aren’t considered a tourist attraction, surprisingly. I had a spooky time trying to spot the 30 monsters in their respective haunts.

    Yokai street monsters

    Kinkakuji Temple, Golden PavilionArashiyama Bamboo ForestArashiyama Monkey Park

    The beautiful Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine; walking through thousands of Torii gates. The path leads to the forests of Mount Inari.

    2/22/19

    I’m glad I did Russia first because it makes most of the other countries seem relatively less intimidating. If I had started in Japan, it would have skewed my perspective what with its ubiquitous convenience, heated toilet seats, easy/reliable/frequent transport, openly kind denizens, glorious vending machines, and strong cellular signals no matter where you are (I could FACEBOOK video call someone from inside a volcano and there wouldn’t be a lag or pixelation) to name a few. Russia set the bar high for enjoyment, and also challenges. And I’m so grateful that my ignorance on what Russia would be like ended up making me stronger and more ready for challenging countries to solo-travel in. Because of that, Japan feels like taking a breather from all of it. It almost feels like cheating, that’s how lovely and convenient it is to travel and to exist here.

    2/23/19

    Mara and I took a shinkansen bullet train to get to Nagoya so we could visit Shirakawa-go, a small, traditional village that is only accessible via very infrequent buses or if you drive yourself. The shinkansen was a sleek dream (the speed!), and I felt as though I was on an airplane. Shirakawa-go is full of wooden farmhouse-type structures and devoid of rampant technology. Because of the heavy snows in this area, it is truly reminiscent of a winter wonderland and the village holds semi-frequent winter light-up events to showcase this splendored sight. You have to reserve a trip far in advance for this, though, because it’s extremely popular.

    It’s charming how Japan is a technology giant that is constantly advancing, but a large portion of its culture comes from preserving more old-fashioned practices: letter writing and pride in quality stationery, the principle of honor, and a respect for older things to name a few. Maybe that’s why it seems to attract more mature tourists; I’d guess the median age of travelers I come across here is 28-30 whereas in other places, it was more like 24.

    Village of Shirakawa-go

    As a traveler, Japan has exceeded all expectations, but I was curious to know what people who moved to Japan from other places thought of actually living here. A common sentiment I heard was that it can be very challenging to feel like you belong if you’re not Japanese. Many said that they speak perfect Japanese and have lived there for years, but they’re still viewed as foreigners. A lot of expats also said that it’s hard to form deeper friendships because much of the time, it’s not socially acceptable to talk about personal troubles or “deep stuff.”

    2/25/19

    Back in Tokyo. Explored Ginza today which seems to be the 5th Avenue of Tokyo. The opulence moved me. I wanted everything in this huge stationery store, Itoya, but I settled for a tiny mechanical pencil shaped like a pig, and you had to push the snout in to get more lead out. Solid purchase.

    I’m settling back into my Tokyo “routine”: wake, coffee, read in Hanegi Park (where the plum blossoms are blooming — the heavenly scent permeates the air, and it’s basically impossible to be anything but happy), explore new things around Tokyo, then back to Elena’s apartment in Shimokitazawa. At the end of this month, I have to leave Japan, and I don’t think I’m ready for that goodbye.

    2/28/19

    Photo montage of stuff I’ve done the past few days to experience as much of Tokyo before leaving:

    Rainbow BridgeTakadanobaba neighborhood in Shinjuku, TokyoArisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park in Minato, TokyoHarajuku: a neighborhood filled with unique confectionaries, colorful everything, street art, and wild & creative fashion. It is the physical embodiment of a sugar rush

    Bar and restaurant in Shimokitazawa

    3/1/19

    I will never forgive Hong Kong Airlines for forcing me to make a quick decision:

    When I was checking in for my flight to India, they said I couldn’t get on the plane without an exit flight booked. BUT, I wasn’t sure where I was going next and when I would be going. I’m terrible with decisions, but the drawn-out mental grappling and despair it evokes is part of my decision-making process. And they just made me decide right then and there, without any of the aforementioned despair — I couldn’t believe it. I’m only being partly facetious.

    As I’m waiting to board my flight in the Hong Kong airport, I came up with a list.

    Things I already miss about Japan

    -heated toilet seats

    -the intuitive layout of everything

    -the unspoken agreement that burping around others is simply unconscionable

    -everyone always stood to one side of the escalator, so if you want to manually walk down or up, you can easily do so — this really doesn’t happen often elsewhere

    -even though there are real pitfalls when it comes to being too reserved about emotions in service of being dignified, I appreciate that the general atmosphere is one of cordiality and positivity

    One day, I’ll come back when the sakura (cherry blossoms) are in full bloom.

    Now I’m on the plane. I can’t help but think of the last time I was on a flight to India, a decade ago almost exactly. I watched “The Uninvited,” and I had my entire family with me. Tina (my sister) and I sat next to each other and synced our movies, so we could watch together.

    Everything is so changed.

    3/2/19

    As we approached the gate in Mumbai, the pilot’s rich timbre reverberated through the aircraft, the words he spoke sent chills through my body:

    “To all our passengers from abroad, welcome to India.

    To our fellow Indians, welcome home.”

    India posts coming soon…

    Україна

    Khreschatyk Street, the main street that runs through the center of Kiev is wide and serious like Detroit’s own Woodward Avenue. Serious is a word that I’ve used frequently over the past weeks to describe Ukraine. I do not mean it in a negative way.

    Tanya, the 22-year-old tour guide who showed me many of the important buildings in Kiev’s Old Town, told me that she can always tell if someone is an American. She says Americans have a slap-happy look on their faces and they tend to carry themselves in an slow, easy-going fashion. Ukrainians, on the other hand, are always in a hurry and they do not smile unless a smile is truly warranted.

    I took not one, but two classes on Ukrainian culture and history during undergrad, and I was quite simply siked to finally see this beautiful, unique, and interesting country first-hand. On my tour with Tanya, I recognized most of the monuments and even managed to answer most of her pop-quiz questions on the first try. For example, the Ukrainian flag is blue and gold–the blue representing the vast and clear sky that stretches out over miles and miles of golden wheat fields. Ukraine is colloquially and historically known as the “bread basket” of Europe, and, naturally, locals also take all things wheat-related very seriously.

    Walking around the capital felt like seeing a screen-adaptation of my favorite novel for the first time, but this time the film is better the book. So, I found myself unable to contain my excitement and walked down the street with a massive smile on my face. It wasn’t until Tanya explained that Ukrainians (and Eastern European people, for that matter) restrain their emotions in public that I realized why I was getting so many weird looks during the first couple of days. But, I am an American and I am proud to wear my emotions on my sleeve (most of the time). Besides, Tanya’s point was that Ukrainians do smile when there is a good reason for it, and boy, did I have a good reason.

    After a couple of days I got used to the business-like attitude of Kiev and began to blend in a little bit as I walked down the street. In Asia, for obvious reasons, I stood out right away as a foreigner. In Eastern Europe, I must look local because many people have approached me to ask for directions in Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, and once in German. It is an interesting change to experience.

    Here are some highlights from the Old Town walking tour with Tanya:

    • We began in Independence Square, or Maidan Square, which was also the location of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity. If you want to learn about this revolution, there is a great documentary on Netflix called “Winter on Fire.” Basically what happened (in very general terms) was the then-President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was expected to facilitate a trade agreement with the European Union in order to bring Ukraine closer to Europe. However, this agreement became complicated as it also would impact Ukraine’s trade agreements with Russia. The Euromaidan movement sprouted as citizens interpreted Yanukovich’s actions as him backing out of the EU trade agreement. This movement developed over many months into violent protests, resulting in the deaths of nearly 130 people (including protesters and police) and the resignation of President Yanukovich, who fled to Russia after his personal safety was compromised.

    • During the tour, the Revolution of Dignity, the annexation of Crimea, and the Donbas War came up a couple of times and Tanya generously shared her perspective about the conflicts: Ukraine is an independent country. We have fought for independence many times–independence from Poland, from Imperial Russia, from Soviet Russia, and from other oppressive leaders. No matter what happens in the future, Ukraine will always fight for freedom.
    • Disclaimer: Ukraine is a diverse country and not everyone wants to see the country aligned with Western Europe and the EU.
    • To the left of the Independence Monument (the victory pillar erected in 2001 to celebrate Ukraine’s 10th anniversary of independence) is a statue depicting the founders of Kiev.

    • Next we went to the other end of the square to see the Lach Gates, which have a black and gold statue of Saint Micheal on top. (Locals call him Batman because of his dark color!)

    • Then, we walked north to see a few of the cities Orthodox churches. Along the way, we found a beautiful panoramic view of Podil and the Dneiper River.

    • We ended the tour at the Golden Gates, which served as the medieval entrance to Kiev in the 11th century.

    After the tour was over Tanya and I got some coffee together and she helped me book a train to Lviv for the next day. She also showed me Kiev’s famous metro system and we walked around Podil for a little while. The sun sets around 4 pm, after which Kiev becomes an even colder city, so with dusk we both headed home for the night.

    Bright and early the next day, I woke up before sunrise (which is not really that early after all) to catch my West-bound train. I got to the station, wandered inside, and stared at the train time table on the wall for a good 5 minutes (all of it written in Ukrainian) before asking someone for help. A German Shepard was rolling around in the middle of the station, paws over his snout, clearly thinking it was way too early to be at a train station. I agreed with him. Everyone ignored the pup as they walked toward the platforms. He was apparently as much part of the station as the ticket counter.

    Running along platform 3, I caught the train at the last minute and soon enough was off to Lviv. After a few hours I woke up from a comfortable sleep to check my phone and discover that we were departing from the Lviv train station. My mind flashed back to Claire’s blog post from the summer when she described a similar event and having to wait at a local station for another train to take her back to her destination city. It is freezing outside, I thought. Luckily, there is more than one train station in Lviv and I was able to get off at the next stop. Be warned, though, trains in Europe stop for moments and do not wait for anybody!

    Lviv is a beautiful city. It feels like you are stepping back in time. The streets are cobblestone, there are magnificent old churches around almost every corner. There is a grand opera house in the center of town. Near the opera house I also found a giant statue of a man raising with his hands another statue of religious images. I never found out exactly who the man was, or why he was immortalized, but my heart was warmed to find near by a miniature model of the statue with the description written in braille.

    One day, I was walking around the city and ended up a bit lost. I had the cellular data on my phone turned off and decided to just keep walking until I figured out where I was. I once again forgot to download the offline map of the city before getting lost in it, a lesson which I apparently cannot learn too many times. (Should it be considered a lesson if you make the same mistakes over and over?) (Don’t worry, connecting to wifi in a shop easily solves this problem.)

    The roads started to lead up a hill on the North side of the city (it helps if you can determine cardinal directions using the sun, which moves from East to West in the Southern sky). I found myself standing on a platform that overlooks the winter tops of cathedrals and ancient buildings, chimneys billowing white columns of smoke into the sky. There was also some kind of monument on the platform. I walked closer and saw candles and dozens of Ukrainian flags strung around pictures of men and women who had died. Below each picture were the dates of death, many of which occurred in February 2014. All at once, in a rush of emotion, my heart sank as I realized that they must have been protesters who died during the Revolution of Dignity.

    A cold wind sparkling with ice crystals blew past me. The sun broke through the clouds and touched the monument all over. I stepped back and looked at it in entirety. I saw that it was a giant metal arrow, pointing toward the setting sun. Pointing to the West. Through all of the pain, the death, all of the sacrifice made for freedom, hope for a better future remains.

    I left Lviv after a few days and traveled to Lublin, Poland. Please stay tuned for a post on Lublin and Krakow soon. xoxo.