Bird’s Eye View of Cyprus

When talking with locals here in Cyprus, I am often asked, why an American would want to visit this tiny island? True, it is small; when flying into Larnaca a little over a week ago, our plane crossed the entire country, from coast to coast, in less than fifteen minutes. Descending into the airport, I saw deep blue sea water, clear enough to make out fishermen’s nets cascading through the undercurrent. I saw the bright green landscape sprawling for miles. On the airport shuttle to Nicosia, lavender and yellow wildflowers gave me the first indications that Cyprus experiences a bright and early spring.

There are palm trees, citrus trees, pines, olive trees, and big bushy plants that crave the intensity of a dry climate and the sun’s unrestricted touch. Speaking of which, I did not know how much I was missing sunlight after becoming familiar with the sultry gloom of Budapest. But the sapphire blue skies here awaken in me a familiar adoration for color. The red-orange rocks, the vibrant green hills, the blue sky–all of these cause me to wonder who turned up the saturation on this fascinating landscape.

The most fascinating thing about Cyprus, however, is not its landscape. As I sit on the rooftop of our building in Nicosia, for example, I can see clearly the mountain range that lines the Northern coast of the island. On one of the mountains is a giant Turkish Cypriot flag made of painted rocks. It beams red and white in the day, and at night hundreds of lights outline the flag. No matter the hour, one looking out over Nicosia is reminded of the Turkish presence on this Island which has remained here since 1974.

Across the skyline of the city, when looking toward the de facto border, I see mosque towers, Greek Orthodox church towers, and flags everywhere. People proudly cast into the wind the Turkish, Turkish-Cypriot, and Greek flags. Interestingly, I do not see the national flag of Cyprus often. From the rooftop of this building, there is not one in sight.img_4117

Cyprus has a dynamic and multicultural history. First settled by the Mycenaean Greeks four thousand years ago, the island has been occupied and developed by a host of powers, including the Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Alexander the Great of Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt, the Classical and Eastern Roman Empire, Arab caliphates, the French Lusignan dynasty, the Ottoman Empire, the Venetians, and finally the United Kingdom before being granted independence in 1960. British rule in Cyprus from 1914 to 1960 is largely considered to have been a form of colonialism, and some people argue that it contributed to a master-slave dynamic between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots on the island.

After independence from the UK, inter-communal violence broke out between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. This conflict eventually led to the emergence of two radical political movements: one to incorporate Cyprus into Greece, the other to incorporate Cyprus into Turkey. Turkish troops invaded Cyprus in 1974 shortly after a Greek military backed coup d’état took over the Cypriot government with the initiative to unite the island with Greece. Greek Cypriots were backed by the newly established Greek military dictatorship, Turkish Cypriots backed by the Turkish military. But when the Greek dictatorship fell within the same year, in 1974, the Greek Cypriots were abandoned to defend the southern part of the island. The northern territory captured and occupied by Turkey was established as a separate Turkish state in northern Cyprus in 1983. This territory is referred to as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. However, the Turkish declaration was largely condemned by the international community and Turkey is the only country in the world that recognizes northern Cyprus as an independent state.

So, on many maps the island is labeled as the Republic of Cyprus and has two dotted lines that run across the country and through its capital, Nicosia. Such dotted lines demarcate disputed territory. A similar line, I might add, runs between Ukraine and Crimea, which is currently annexed by Russia. Between Cyprus’s dotted lines is the United Nations Buffer Zone, which is a demilitarized zone that occupies 4% of the island and has been in place since 1964 as the UN’s longest-standing peacekeeping operation.

cyprus_map

Tensions are high on this little island. Crossing to the northern part of the island, one instantly sees the contrast in culture. There are more mosques, the signs are written in Turkish, the currency is the Turkish lira. On the southern side, people speak Cypriot Greek, serve Greek food. If you ask for hummus in a Greek restaurant, the waiter might roll his eyes at you. Mosques have been re-purposed as churches. On Sunday mornings the church bells on the southern side call out loudly; throughout the day several calls to prayer bellow out from the other side of the passport checkpoint. My friends joke that the mosques turn their speakers toward the south as a political statement.

Despite this, Cyprus is an extremely safe country. I am often stared at on the street as I am clearly of European descent (blonde hair, blue eyes). But I feel it is more out of curiosity than suspicion or hatred.

Many people claim that the northern side of the island is slightly more dangerous, but not because of the Turkish Cypriots, but the immigrants from mainland Turkey. I think this is an important distinction. At a dinner party with a Cypriot school teacher and her family, it was pointed out to me that Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have genetic makeup that is more similar to each other than any other area of the world. While people may identify for political and cultural reasons with Greece or Turkey, they are, at their core, Cypriot.

Daniella, the school teacher, and her husband asked me what I am interested in doing in Cyprus before I leave. I explained that I am interested in working with refugees, if possible. Daniella placed her hand on mine and said, “Did you know that I am a refugee.”

When she was a girl, during the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, she and her family were forced to leave their village in northern Cyprus because they were Christians. While Cyprus has one of the largest populations per capita of international refugees in Europe, it is often overlooked that many Cypriots consider themselves to be refugees within their own country. Roughly 180,000 Greek Cypriots were displaced from their homes in the north as a result of the war. Around 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were also forced to resettle in the north. The displacement that occurred as a result of this conflict has left deep scars in the memories of many of the people living here, on both sides of the “border”.

In April 2004 a referendum took place, which asked both communities whether they are in favor of joining the European Union as a reunited island. 65% of Turkish Cypriots were in favor, while 76% of Greek Cypriots rejected the referendum. In May 2004, the Republic of Cyprus became a part of the European Union, without reunifying the north with the south. Instead, the EU recognizes the entire island as the Republic of Cyprus, where the northern side of the island is illegally occupied by Turkey.

Many people view the decisions made during the 2004 referendums as one of the largest failures of the European Union, as they think the EU could have used its economic leverage to pressure Cyprus into reunification. Others might argue that reunification could have reintroduced armed conflict into the region.

On a weekend trip to the northern side of the island, we hiked to two different castles along the Kyrenia mountain range. The Buffavento and Saint Hilarion Castles were built during the Byzantine period along the mountains to fortify the northern coastline of the island from Arab pirates. From the top of the mountain, we looked out of the bright white city of Kyrenia. Across the Mediterranean Sea I could see the Turkish coastline. I was surprised at how high the mountains rose above the water, surprised that I could see it at all.

On Tuesday we went to Limassol. While sitting in a seafood restaurant, huge oil rigs sat in view out the window. We know now that natural gas reserves surround the island, and this alone is one more economic incentive for Turkey and the European Union to seek dominion over the island.

There is anger here, there is nationalist pride. There are people who have lived through displacement, racial and religious segregation. Adding to these tensions are the influx of immigrants and international refugees into the region. But what I find most inspiring are the hopeful voices in the crowd…

Clocks, Classes, Color, and Coronavirus….

Clocks

TIME IS FLYING. What is going on? Other fellows have told me that after the 4th month time just keeps speeding up, but this is insane! I wake up most days at 7am (I know I am impressed too), and somehow it turns to 10pm before I know it. Part of it has to be the routine I have fallen into:

Routine:
– 7am: Coffee, facetime parents, Head to Vietnamese coffee shop for my second coffee in 30 minutes, check updates on Coronavirus.
– 9am: Planning my next location – With the limited time left, I have gotten more indecisive with where to go! Currently, it looks like I am headed to Malaysia. They have some beautiful forested regions in Malaysia, and I plan to get back into trekking while there.
– 12am: Beach, walk the city, lunch at a local place
– 5pm: shower, eat, call my sister on the way to her job
– 7pm: General workout, gym class
– 9pm: shower and sleep

Classes (Workout)

I signed up for a gym membership! A great gym right across the street of where I am staying in Nha Trang. This city is interesting because it is an odd mix of Russians and native Vietnamese people and this gym reflects that. I have gone to a few workout classes and you will either have a full Vietnamese class or a full Russian class.

The first class I attended was an Interval Training class taught by a Russian trainer. The class attendance were five other Russian regulars and when the class began the trainer asked me to leave the room, because they thought that I was in the wrong place. When I informed the trainer that I was indeed there for the class, they were surprised. Apparently, it’s odd for non-Russians to be attending this class. The second class was a Hatha Yoga class and taught by a Vietnamese instructor. There were 14 other gym regulars all vietnamese. The class was purley Vietnamese, but the instructor was not shy to reposition when my pose was off.

This was the first time I have experienced the interaction between the Russian and Vietnamese culture. I am not sure why the cultural clash is so interesting to me. From a westernized perspective, I never thought of that cultural interaction. To see signs in Russian while walking in this Vietnamese city is something I am still getting used too.

Color

I am definitely out of place as a brown, Middle-Eastern, bearded man. Culturally, Vietnamese people do not favor darker tones of skin for themselves. I learned that the facemasks used by the residents here, are less about fear of spreading sickness, but actually used to prevent skin damage! I would have never thought that was the case, but that is what I was told but a cultural tour guide.

Everyone has been so kind here and I have not felt targeted in anyway. Many people do ask where I am from. For the most part, the only interaction people here have with the Middle East is typically with Israeli tourist traveling after they have served time in the military. So they don’t usually know where Syria or Lebanon is until I reference it to the location of Israel.

Coronavirus

Coronavirus, let’s talk about this. Y’all I promise I am being safe. Everyday, I check https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ for credited updates on the situation. But a deeper discussion needs to happen with the rhetoric around the virus. Never put yourself in unnecessary danger, but the way this virus is being discussed has real consequences to the people living in Asian countries. I have had many people message me and say “get the hell out of those Asian countries”, so let’s lay down some facts. I am currently in Vietnam so I will focus on this country:

1. As of today February 15th, outside of China, there has been only been 2 deaths due to the Coronavirus.

2. The USA has 15 confirmed cases with only 3 recovered and the remaining still being treated. Vietnam has 16 cases with 7 fully recovered and the remaining quartinined and being treated.

3. With globalization, viruses like this will continue to happen routinely and it is not the fault of the culture or the people. The amount of times people have told me that “Asians got this virus because they would eat anything”. Y’all this mindset is harmful.

  • FIRST, Asia is a huge continent extending from the Middle East to Japan. But using the word “Chinese” as the only descriptor of Asia hides the immense diversity behind that label.
  • SECOND, Remember swine flu? “Where did the 2009 H1N1 flu virus come from? The 2009 H1N1 influenza virus (referred to as “swine flu” early on) was first detected in people in the United States in April 2009” (https://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/information_h1n1_virus_qa.htm). Yet, the rhetoric around viruses are so insanely different depending on which country it originates from.

4. Sitting in a coffee shop that is relatively empty. A Vietnamese shop employee sits with me and we are discussing the virus. She tells me that business has been bad due to the fear around the virus. Tourists stop coming because they are scared of getting the virus. The employee swears to me she has never been to China and all the cafes food is safe and clean. She is not the only one who worries about the future of her business. This worry is echoed in popular tourist destinations. In Hanoi, the most popular site Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the great Ho Chi Minh is buried, is infamous for its insane wait times. Now, there is barely a line.

Conclusion: Always be safe. But, remember that some media sources really invoke fear. I find it best to reference this data graph offered from an accredited source when I begin to worry about the things being reported.

Sovath’s Story

Fields of green so vibrant, it’s as if each strand of grass has been hand-painted, fly past my window. So many beautiful shades of green – rich and deep like a rain forest to shades so light they were just shy of yellow, blend together seamlessly.

I’m on my way to the “Floating Village” in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is home to South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake – the Tonle Sap. During the wet season, the lake expands six times its original size. Incredible. This annual massive flooding presents a challenge. Locals, however, have built a unique solution in response – a floating village.

Our tour van pulls up to a dusty, red, dirt road. Lined on either side are homes built high on wooden stilts. I’m amazed to learn it’s not just homes teetering above us, but entire school buildings as well. Modest shops, temples, and markets – an entire community resting mid-air. It looks quite peculiar to me as I walk along the road. And quite impressive, as well.

Home on wooden stilts in the Floating Village, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Although, it’s dry season now, so children are running up and down the road, barefoot and laughing. From somewhere I can’t quite place, a reggae song pulses through the entire street, giving it energy. From the balconies above I see toddlers looking down on us as their little legs bounce up and down in beat with the music. A boy no older than five years old walks a few feet ahead of our group, a backpack nearly as big as he is dangling off his body carelessly. He turns around repeatedly to stick his tongue out at us and giggles to himself incessantly at his own wit. I giggled too.

Floating Village – during wet season this road would be entirely underwater

Cambodia’s natural beauty contrasts heavily against its turbulent and horror-filled history. A past that reared consequences they’re still working to reverse.

Following Siem Reap, I took a bus to the capital, Phnom Penh. I went with the intent to learn about the Cambodian genocide.

Throughout this trip, it’s become clear what history is considered important in the western world – and that’s western history. It says something that we learn extensively and remember one genocide but make no mention of one far more recent. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Phnom Penh is not a particularly pretty or captivating city. But after learning of its history, I reserved my superficial judgments.

In the spring of 1975, Cambodia’s government fell to extremist communist rule under the name of the Khmer Rouge. Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed into Phnom Penh and ordered all of its citizens to evacuate the city immediately.

How did they convince an entire capital city to abandon their homes? It seems my learning about the Vietnam war wasn’t over quite yet.

In an effort to win against Northern Vietnam, American bombs were deployed on the Cambodian border where it was believed Vietnamese base camps lie. Over 100,000 Cambodians were killed as a result. Termed “The Secret War” by the west, “it was no secret here” claims the genocide museum in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge took advantage of the publics’ understandable fear and told them more American bombs were headed for Phenom Penh. Evacuate now and you can return in three days the public was told. It would be four years until that false promise became true.

The Khmer Rouge, and its leader Pol Pot, had a vision of returning Cambodia to an agrarian society. Public rejection and criminalization of anything deemed to have to do with technology or ties to the western world were enforced immediately, and all citizens were relocated to the countryside to work in the rice fields.

A map showing how citizens were displaced from major cities to the country for forced labor

Phnom Penh, along with other major cities, was gutted and destroyed. Factories came to an immediate halt, effectively terminating the modern economy. Schools were deemed immoral and closed. Religion seen as a distraction of devotion from the ruling government was criminalized. Temples were destroyed, including the famous Angkor Wat. Cars, televisions, modern medicine, anything of a mechanical or technological nature was deemed evil and demolished.

More horrific, anyone who was formally educated was seen as a threat to the government. Doctors, lawyers, and teachers were most at risk. Eventually, glasses and soft hands became legitimate indicators of higher intelligence, and therefore guilt.

Two esteemed professionals – a doctor and lawyer, both murdered

Those found guilty of perpetrating “crimes” against the Khmer Rouge were systematically killed.

The genocide museum, housed in Phnom Penh, was once the most well-known “prison” throughout the Khmer Rouge regime. It was called S-21, and of the 12,000 citizens brought here for questioning on their “crimes” against the Angkar (government), only 15 made it out alive.

A building in S-21 – barbed wire encloses each floor to prevent prisoners from jumping off and committing suicide

Much like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their destruction. Each victim to walk through S-21’s walls was photographed and recorded. Throughout rooms in the building were double-sided billboards of mugshots. One after the other. Line after line.

Mugshots like these by the thousands were found throughout the buildings – all victims of the Khmer Rouge

This was easily the most difficult museum I’ve been able to visit. The horrors that took place on the very ground I was walking are too disturbing to repeat here. Looking at mugshot after mugshot, it was gut-wrenching to see the humanity, the fear, the absolute loss of hope and confusion at how they got here, in each set of eyes. It was overwhelming in the worst way.

The rules of S-21 enforced by Khmer Rouge officers during questioning

It wasn’t until 1979 when Vietnam invaded and liberated Cambodia, that the horror the Khmer Rouge inflicted came to an end. By that time, two to three million Cambodians had been murdered or died from starvation and exhaustion from forced work in the rice fields. Nearly a quarter of the entire population.

It took only four years to eradicate the entire upper and middle class. Professionals from all fields were entirely wiped out. In many ways, Cambodia had to start entirely over only decades ago.

While staying in Siem Reap, I met an amazing woman named Sovath. She was an employee of the hostel I had been staying at, and only a few years older than I am.

While sitting at the information desk, hunting for my next hostel stay, she joined me on the other side. For a while, we sat in silence, as I was preoccupied with my search. Eventually, though she initiated in conversation, and we made small talk.

Small talk beginning to wane, I asked her about herself. She told me she works six days a week at the hostel, from 6 am9 pm. A 90-hour workweek. She said it like it was nothing.

Sovath shares an apartment with her older sister, whom she rarely sees. “When I wake up, she’s sleeping, and when I come home, she’s sleeping,” she told me.

“What do you do on your day off??” I asked in amazement, thinking she must just rest the entire day.

“Usually I go visit my family in the countryside” she replied matter-of-factly.

She grabs her phone and shows me a photo of an older man, with a wide brim hat on shading his face, standing in the middle of a brilliant green field. “My hero” she captioned it quite simply. The man in the photo was her father.

Her parents are rice farmers and through back-breaking work, they provided for her and her six siblings.

She showed me another photo – her college graduation. Sovath stood center, looking stunning in her cap and gown, as a large family beamed around her. She explained to me that her cousins never had the opportunity to attend college. Her aunts and uncles simply couldn’t afford it. They needed their children’s help in the fields. But not Sovath’s parents. Providing their children with higher education, an opportunity for more was of most importance to them.

Sovath pauses and searches for a word to describe how she felt watching her parents labor in the rice fields growing up. Frustrated she reaches for her phone to translate the word her lips cannot find.

“Pity. I pity them” she says finally.

I try to imagine the work Sovath’s parents endured to put their children through college. How many hours in the hot Cambodian sun? How many early mornings and late nights? How many personal sacrifices? I look back at her graduation picture. Her mom and dad stand closest to her, and my eyes brim with tears thinking about how they must have felt in that moment to see everything they worked for come to fruition. Their daughter with a diploma.

“They must be so proud of you,” I say. Sovath nods in agreement. “We were all crying that day” she replies.

Reflecting on this conversation, after learning how deeply this country was robbed of gaining an education, how a degree was a death sentence, I have so much respect for Sovath’s parents. The sacrifices they made and continue to make, to put their children through university, is incredible in its own right. But the fact that they’re actively part of helping to re-build a population systematically killed only decades prior is astoundingly inspiring. And it gives me hope that good does prevail over even the most horrific evils.

Sovath uses her day off now to return home and help her parents, who are working to put their remaining three children through college. Sovath tells me her one brother desires to be a policeman, while the youngest sister and brother aspire to be teachers. She gives a portion of her hard-earned paycheck each week to her family to help contribute to their higher education.

Sovath got her degree in finance. Although her current position at the hostel is not centered around her degree, she assured me she enjoys her job, and when she doesn’t any longer, she will pursue a job that has her directly utilizing her finance skills.

Continuing to scroll through her family photos, she says, “we are poor…not a lot of money, but we are happy. We are always together.”

Her story touched me so deeply. I felt a sense of pride well up inside of me as if she were my own sister.

We must have talked for at least an hour until it was nine o’clock and she could finally go home after an incredibly long day.

At the very beginning of our conversation, she told me, “you’re so strong, traveling alone…no family, no sister.”

But it was me telling her she was the incredibly strong one by the end of it.

Sovath’s story is just a snapshot of the resilience woven through the fabric of this beautiful country.

Till next time.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
A temple inside the Angkor Wat complex
After Phnom Penh I went south to a sleepy town called Kampot. This is atop a famous hill there.
Kampot, Cambodia
Kampot – on an afternoon walk back into town
Kampot – once in town…
Kampot – finally…it’s just not a blog post without a kitty picture

Life is a Rollercoaster

Where do I begin? The past few weeks have been insanely hectic – A medical scare, missed flight, friends visiting, potential ending the fellowship. How about we make a deal? I’ll alternate between good and bad news. This way it’s easier for everyone to take in:

Good News: My best friend visited me while in Japan. We went around to some of the most amazing places. Even took a flight to the south of Japan to Okinawa for the beaches. There is a light museum that had some stunning views. You can even color in your own drawing and interact with them on the walls of the museums. Truly a stunning place. You can get lost here for hours. The art changes continuously and art pieces you see in one room move around the entire museum. LISTEN UP ROMANTICS- propose to that special person here! I bet you can get the facility to have the proposal light up in the museum. Make sure to invite me to the wedding if it works ;).

Bad News: I was very close to ending the fellowship 3 months to soon. I had received some awful medical news while doing a routine check. I was very lucky that my friend was with me when I received it because it had crushed me. Thankfully, after a week of anxiety, the doctor ran another test and turns out I had nothing to worry about. It was my first time having to fight my insurance company for cost and appointments. While abroad everything is different. The hospital/clinic you go to will not accept you if you do not prove that you can pay out of pocket or they do not receive a guarantee of payment from the insurance. The false medical scare required me to purchase medication needed immediately and I had spent 3 days fighting with the insurance, before I was forced to pay out of pocket. It is odd because right before leaving for the fellowship, I had a cancer scare because the doctor had found a concerning lump. Thankfully, that was also nothing to worry about after a few tests. So I guess it all turned out to be good news!

Good News: My visa to Vietnam worked out! It was an incredibly long process and I actually was not allowed to board my first flight due to visa issues. Let me try to explain this process. As an United States citizen, you can not just apply for a visa when you land in Vietnam. You have to pay a company- before you take a flight- to apply for “pre-approval to apply for a visa”. This guarantees that you can apply for the visa when you land in the country. There is an option of a “guarantee pre-approval visa” and you have to pay 250 US dollars for it and you’ll receive it in 15 minutes. Then when you land you have to go to the Visa station before you enter the country. There is where you actually receive the visa. They do not collect you redistribute your passport in any order, so you can wait there for any number of hours after your flight for them to call your name. Unfortunately, I had some plane sickness on my flight in Tokyo so I decided not to eat anything before my flight. My glucose levels were very low and I got an awful migraine. After four hours of waiting, I received my visa and got to my hotel. So I am currently in Hanoi, Vietnam! I have no pictures to share with y’all, but hopefully next post.

Bad News: Coronavirus. Because I am traveling in Asia, I have been keeping up with the Coronavirus daily. I found this is a good link to provide updates w/o the fear-mongering. It breaks down the cases, infection rates, and fatality rates compared to other viruses. https://worldometers.info/coronavirus/. Coronavirus has killed 0 people outside of China. Yes, the transmission rate is high, but fatality rate is much lower than the seasonal flu. May I remind you that some Americans do not even get the flu vaccine (yes, I am throwing shade). If you are not scared of the flu, then you shouldn’t be scared of coronavirus. Anyway, I am being safe as you can see in my photo below:

Me and my friend Tyson at the airport with our facemasks.

Good News: Other than being healthy and happy, I received a job offer for when I return back home. I know, I know, “Tariq can you calm the hell down and enjoy traveling the world!”. Chill sis, I am enjoying it all, but I am also an anal, type-A person, who needs a plan. An old boss of mine reached out and asked if I would be available for when I return back home to assist in running an educational program. I still don’t know if I will be accepting. This travel experience taught me I really enjoy manual labor. I still plan to attend medical school in the future, but when I return home I think I will focus on renovating homes. I have basic skills in construction and used to flip houses to pay for university. I want to hone my construction skills and become an amatuer handyman before I attend medical school.

Bad News: I have had problems gaining weight while in college. Working out had helped me. Unfortunately, I have lost a lot because I do not have access to the gym. I do some at-home workouts, but I don’t want to be the weirdo doing pushups in the corner of a tiny room with 10 other people. Also, the hostels in Japan are so different than other places I visited. In tokyo, hostels are for sleep and that is all. Tokyo hostels are as private as possible and no one speaks to one another or even changes clothes in front of others. Other hostels I have been to stress being a social hub. I think this may be a cultural component. Even the subway forbids talking on the phone, and relatively zero talking occurs while riding. So, my goal in Vietnam is to try to gain some weight back and potentially find a gym I can enroll in for a few weeks.

Conclusion: 80 days until I come home. I don’t know how I feel about that. When I thought I had to come home after my medical scare… part of me was relieved. Mostly because I was feeling scared and nervous, but also I have not been home for 5 months now. No routine, no work, no studying. I know that is awesome, but you miss a routine after a while. Reflecting on it all now – God, I love this fellowship, but I don’t think I will extend my travel after the 8 month mark. In the past many fellows have have that. Also CONGRATS CLAIRE for finishing her 8 months! She is another fellow that decided to extend her traveling for some time longer. I have a feeling that my plans will change a I near the 8 month mark. Stay tuned friends….

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.