INDIA (1/2)

3/3/19

My uncle and aunt picked me up from the airport. I hadn’t seen them in a decade or so, even in pictures, but somehow their faces still stood out in the crowd.

I mainly came to India to do the Vipassana meditation retreat: 10 days of silence, no phones/reading/writing/technology/talking/meaningful eye contact. You wake up at 4am, meditate for 10-14 hours, go to bed before 10pm, and then do it all over again. The course is completely free and sustained by volunteers and donations. It has no religious component whatsoever. It seems fitting to learn about mindfulness in India, the birthplace of meditation and yoga. The 10-day course begins on March 10th near Jaipur, and I will be exploring Mumbai and Udaipur until then. After India, it’s on to Nepal, Everest, Base Camp. I cannot wait. This is probably the furthest ahead I’ve planned on Bonderman so far.

Presently, I am living out all my food dreams, and the only food regrets I have are for the foods I did not eat. Homemade garlic naan, vegetable pakoras, chole bhatura, chaat, pav bhaji, gobi parathas, fresh mango lassis and kulfi. And of course, masala chai.

3/4/19

I woke up thinking in Hindi…

It is very nice to be able to mostly understand what people are saying in Hindi around me and to be able to respond semi-competently in their language. A lot of times in other countries, I assumed that people loitering around the streets and yelling stuff towards me were saying unsavory things, but actually, now that I know what they’re saying, the talk mostly has nothing to do with me. It was pretty self-absorbed of me to think otherwise. I feel comforted.

3/5/19

We had dinner tonight at Mirchi & Mime, a restaurant that primarily hires people with disabilities; the entire staff knew sign language and the menu had diagrams to help people order dishes in sign language, too. It was a beautiful concept for a restaurant. I was with my aunt, uncle, and cousins and since they are all older than me, of course they began discussing what I was like as a kid and how I’ve changed over the years. They asked about my travels, what I wanted to do, and why I left home. My cousin was impressed by the logistics of it all. After dinner was over, she smirked and said “your dad raised you like a boy.” I know what she meant, and I smiled back.

3/6/19

Today, I visited the Gateway of India monument, an arched beacon for those landing from faraway seas. Nearby stands the Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the most elegant and upscale hotels I’ve ever been in. My aunt got me fresh pistachios from a vendor near the Gateway. We munched and watched throngs of people passing by as waves crashed and splashed towards them.

Hard to believe that eleven years earlier, this exact area was shaken by Pakistani terrorists who targeted such beautiful sites, sites that symbolized India’s democracy, freedom, prosperity, and culture. They hijacked a fishing boat and slit the captain’s throat before going on to kill around 164 people, including some American citizens. As I gazed at the majestic Taj Hotel, the grand archway, and the merriment all around me, I thought about all the vitality and vibrancy I’d experienced here already. I realized such extremists would never be able to crush a proud nation’s spirit, try as they might.

My time in Mumbai — the City of Dreams, where my mother grew up — is nearly over. Tomorrow, I fly to the City of Lakes, also known as Udaipur, to see the place where it all began for my dad.

3/8/19

I’m staying with my other aunt and uncle while here in Udaipur. Their home is very modern and spacious. I’ve also learned that you must say “stop” about 2 spoonfuls before you actually want your Indian relative to stop pouring the food onto your plate.

Gangaur Ghat on Lake Pichola

3/9/19

The relatives I am staying with are both doctors, so I decided it would be a great opportunity to witness what non-western medical care looks like.

The government hospital was very hard to see. There was an unbelievable amount of people waiting for care, wearing makeshift casts or dressings over their injuries. Overloaded providers working to help tend to the swell of patients, but the waiting rooms never seemed to thin. Literally crumbling facilities and a lack of infrastructure maintenance. I saw some private hospitals too, and they are like the ones I’ve been in in the U.S., but they are not as accessible. It’s deeply saddening how unevenly resources are distributed throughout the world. I can’t even imagine needing emergency care in a place like this…

My flight to Jaipur is tomorrow. I will have to take a cab to get to the meditation center which is far removed from the noises and distractions of the city. As I’m getting ready to leave, I’m thinking about how India has been strangely comforting:

• After 7 and a half months abroad, having a family with me (not just spontaneous friends) is so pleasant

• I don’t feel unwelcome or unusual or unexpected. My name, my face, nothing about me stands out here. Until I speak…

• Being able to mostly understand people even when they’re speaking a non-English language is always good

• Seeing through adult eyes where my parents grew up is powerful in a vague, yet fundamental way

Holy cow(s)

Jagdish Temple, a Hindu Temple in Udaipur

Me with a statue of hero horse, Chetak, at the Maharana Pratap Memorial. Maharana Pratap was a Rajput hero and King who defied invasion attempts of Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 1500’s

Sunset over Fateh Sagar Lake

3/10/19

I have arrived at the Dhamma Thali Vipassana Meditation Center. It is extremely low-tech and dusty here, but very beautiful; the facility is one of the oldest ones, and there’s a sense of serenity that comes with the history of a place like this, one that has taught and helped so many people before me. The center comprises a collection of off-white buildings which function as dorms, dining hall, and meditation rooms, all of which are nestled amongst verdant hills. There is a brilliant pagoda with solitary rooms where we will get a chance to meditate later on in the course.

Because I arrived freakishly early for once (involuntarily of course; I had an early flight), I get my own room. The founders were definitely going for a more spartan look when decorating these spaces… My bed is a wood plank with a blanket on top. There are cobwebs and matching spiders in the corners. Besides for a wobbly old table to set my bag on, there is nothing else in the room. The prospect of the ancient attached bathroom frightens me, and I’m not ready to look at it yet. I had to surrender my phone, but I snuck in some contraband in the form of pen and papers. The way I see it, the reason they restrict reading, writing, talking, exercising, etc. is because you are supposed to be focusing and learning away from distractions. However, I learn and process through writing. Not to mention, Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha, always said to think for yourself, even if that means defying the status quo and established rules. So really, by illicitly writing about what I experience, I’m embodying the very spirit of the subject I’m trying to learn about? I will just go with that.

I already had a new and cathartic experience when I arrived and they took attendance. The class was mostly Indians and a foreigner here and there. The instructor said “Chetali Jain” perfectly, but when she got to all the white people’s names, like Margaret or Caitlyn, she paused before totally botching the pronunciations. Cathartic.

I finally peeked into the bathroom; it’s not so bad, just old. That’s the case with my room too — it’s not unclean, just old. Thank god. And I honestly like sleeping on firmer surfaces; my mattress during undergrad was basically a rock. A slab of actual wood was the logical next step.

3/11/19

I’m glad I brought a digital watch for Bonderman. Without my phone or accessible clocks, the watch is all I have to set alarms and tell time.

3/12/19

Part of Vipassana is accepting how things are temporary and not reacting with any kind of attachment or aversion.

My understanding of meditation right now is basically this: you sit and close your eyes. As you do this, you are supposed to become conscious of the sensations all over your body, concentrate on each sensation — without any sort of emotion tied to that recognition — and then move on to the next body part. Then repeat over and over. Based on the nightly “lectures,” the idea behind this is that any human emotion you feel can be boiled down to bodily sensation(s). Therefore, the goal is to identify such sensations (like itches, aches, etc.), stop feeling any kind of emotion about them, and then just sort of accept their transience, and ultimately, you will stop hating or craving or being attached to anything…

This is a school for little sociopaths!

Benevolent and level-headed sociopaths, though. I need to ponder this further. Good thing I have 14 hours of meditation a day to figure it out.

3/13/19

Every morning before the sun has risen, bells toll throughout the campus to wake us up for our 4:30am meditation session. I am going to have nightmares about these bells.

My guess is that there are about 30-40 other women here (the men are staying in a separate area). We all sort of wander around the place aimlessly and avoid making eye contact. It’s not an entirely unwelcome change after almost 8 months of rapid socialization abroad.

The healthy, unembellished food they serve here is surprisingly good; it’s all Indian vegetarian cuisine with vegan options, as well. There’s even chai in the evenings. I’m impressed.

3/14/19

I continue to be amazed by the natural noisiness of being a human being, even when one is trying to be silent. It’s like watching “A Quiet Place” in theaters.

3/15/19

Feels like forever since I spoke to another person or engaged in intentional eye contact with one. Somehow, even though we are all just sitting for long periods of time, I am exhausted.

A few days ago, I found a pristine, completely intact peacock tail feather in the woods near my dorm. Ever since then, I’ve been spending my breaks searching for more. I’m trying to see how many I can collect. So far, I haven’t found any more of the iconic tail feathers, just a bunch of the dinky blue poofy ones. However, I am determined to find more tail feathers so I’ve been following the flocks around.

Stalking peacocks is all I have right now. Is this what insanity feels like?

3/16/19

We are all starved for entertainment/stimulation, and this has led to an unexpected pastime among my cohort: watching monkey fights. There’s a whole cadre of monkeys that emerge from the woods every now and again to observe us and take over our spaces. Once while we were all in the meditation hall, they carried out a coup on the trees near one cluster of dorms, including my own, and we couldn’t go back to our rooms until nightfall, when they finally settled down and fell asleep. During orientation, they had pointed out signs near the pagoda that caution guests to carefully shut the doors behind them, as a monkey once broke in and wreaked havoc on the monks for a while.

Anyway, after lunch today they had some sort of collective breakdown which led to a multi-monkey brawl on the roof of the meditation hall. Their pounding and shrieks actually kept me awake though, so that was good.

We all went out afterwards and sat on a ledge to watch the (playful?) fight unfold before us. They were ruthless: tossing their opponents off of branches, swiping at the ones who got too close while they were chewing a leaf, baring their teeth if challenged. One monkey got pushed out of the tree and landed in a sitting position, legs stretched out and hands sheepishly held in its lap. It appeared to me that he or she was deeply embarrassed, almost like he/she was mortified that we had all witnessed him/her get shoved out of a tree. I don’t know, I was actually very impressed (and jealous of) how acrobatic and agile the monkeys are. Jumping from branch to branch, off buildings, like it was nothing.

3/17/19

I keep falling asleep on my mat when I’m supposed to be attaining nirvana.

3/18/19

It may sound cliche, but I feel like things are very clear in my mind right now. There’s this all-consuming sense of goodness. Maybe the Vipassana is working. I feel super forgiving and content. I even stopped being irked by people’s audible breathing/swallowing/digestive noises. I just stopped letting it bother and distract me.

Here is what I have taken away so far:

Meditation is about the here and now, but that doesn’t make it shallow. It’s more just being okay with things not lasting forever: not our friendships, not our faces, not our health, not our successes, not our failures, not our bodies, not our selves. Since there’s no question of whether things end, there really isn’t a reason to worry about how long they’ll last either. If it’s for a minute or for a month or for a year or for 10 years — you should give as much as you can to it, and not be sad or happy once it’s gone. At least that’s what I’m getting from all this.

TL;DR:

Everything’s always changing, so there’s no point worrying about anything.

Does that make sense? I don’t know. Hunting for peacock feathers is my main form of recreation, so I can’t really comment on philosophical complexities right now.

3/20/19

F***, the word that broke my nearly ten days of silence.

There was a terrace, no barrier. I was just walking. Calm and so restful — I didn’t see what was lying there below my feet, catching me mid-step, plunging me ten feet to the concrete ground. All I can remember before everything went black is falling.

India post 2/2 coming soon…

Miners and Refugees

For €5 I can get on a bus at the bus stop in Nicosia and end up in Limassol less than two hours later. All the way to the southern coast I go, looking to spend Saturday in Limassol with new friends for the first days of Carnival. This is a festival similar to Mardi Gras, to celebrate the beginning of lent (set back a little bit because the Orthodox calendar is dom here). And then, on Sunday I will make my way early in the morning to Paphos to get on a flight to the not far away city of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Getting ready to leave this beautiful and fascinating country, I can’t help but think over the landscape I’ve learned over the past month.

Cyprus was pushed up from the sea floor by a Mediterranean fault line. It literally rose from the sea like some biblical event. Then, it was slowly settled by people from many different places over the course of thousands of years.

A friend invited me to come with him to a mining photography exhibit this week. I was expecting black and white, dramatic photos of people working in the Cypriot mines.

When we arrived, a woman named Taia brought me inside and lead me to the back of the exhbit. She showed me rocks. Some were pulled from the mines and are naturally formed here. But I was drawn to one rock in particular and picked it up. She goes, “that is not rock but Slack and it is made with a furnace.” I just responded “oh” and set it down. Weird.

Then she brought us to a stretch of wall with old photos. They were of two mines in particular that had been developed in the 20th century. But, the crazy part was that these mines were also on top of older, ancient mines that were used during the Bronze age by indigenous people. There was usually a gallery (decorated with paintings and art) that led down into the inner shafts of the hills.

There were photos on the wall of Bronze age tools that were found in the mines. We marveled at how similar our tools are today. I wondered how many times I had assumed that humans living thousands of years ago were somehow less intelligent, less industrious.

And then there were photos of the landscape around the mines. Ancient miners would pull rock from the earth and melt it down, creating smooth black rocks called “slack”. It just seemed so amazing to me that those black rocks were so old, but perfectly anthropomorphic.

Modern mining consists of excavating the entire area of interest. For the sake of efficiency the mining company takes out all of the dirt, moves it to another area, extracts the precious metals, leaving behind a gaping cater in the land.

It doesn’t take much to understand why this mining technique could be bad for the local environment.

Taia is an archeologist. She had advocated for the UN to register one of the mines as a UNESCO world heritage site in order to protect it from more mining. She loves this body of work because she sees it as something that brings Cyprus together in terms of its common history. Such archeological evidence should be protected in her view.

The photography of the mines at the exhibit was marvelous and vibrantly colored (which was characteristic to the over-saturation of Cyprus on a sunny day). My introverted self really wanted to stay home that night, but I am so glad I went on that mini-adventure.

The highway that runs south from Nicosia branches out a point, westward to Limassol and Paphos, eastward to Larnaca. About 20 minutes from Larnaca is a village called Koufinu. On the outskirts of Koufinu, hidden in the quiet folds of a gigantic olive tree orchard is one of Cyprus’s refugee camps.

I was invited to come along for an english lesson taught by some Americans. During the lesson my new friend taught a class of refugees from Syria, Palestine, the DRC, and some other countries. She spoke in English and then translated to French when necessary and the room was full of women and children. The men are mostly gone throughout the day if they can find work.

When we arrived at the camp we had some spare time before class started, and we were invited to have coffee with one of the refugees in her family’s “home”. I am told that Koufinu is cleaner and has more amenities than many other refugee camps because it is meant to house entire families.

To protect her privacy and identity, I will not use the real name of the refugee who generously shared her home and story with me.

Shana is only 24, two years older than me and the same age as my older sister. She has two expressive and brilliant little boys. Two years ago she and her husband packed some clothes into bags and carried their sons out of Ilib, Syria. They walked for weeks toward the Turkish border. Eventually they made it to Turkey and found a smuggler to take them to the northern part of Cyprus. (Because North Cyprus is illegally occupied by Turkey, a lot of refugees chose this route in order to get to camps in the south, and eventually become a part of the country)

In the dead of the night, something happened to their boat during the crossing over to cyprus. Shana found herself shoveling buckets of water over the side, not sure whether her family would make it. Her sons were also on that sinking boat.

They eventually made it to shore, but they still had to find someone to take them over the “border”.

I never asked if she still had family in Syria, or if she missed home. I find myself avoiding homeland topics with refugees. Honestly, I had no idea how to approach the subject because I had never met anyone who had to struggle so much just to survive.

We talked about her sons, how they were learning so fast. She made coffee for us and told us to sit on one of the beds while she sat on the floor. We laughed about her decision to ban tablets in the room because the boys turned into “zombies” when they watched videos all day. The family of four is living in a 8ft x 8ft room made with plastic walls. They have a heater and Shana says it works well enough.

Shana and her family have applied to become refugees in Cyprus, but because they are still waiting to be approved and processed. Like many other people in Cyprus, they are designated a limbo status as people in “asylum”.

I learned a lot about the local region and about the world when I was in Cyprus last month. As the end of this fellowship comes closer every day, I am savoring it. I feel so full, so happy, so grateful for everything. Looking back I can hardly believe I’ve come so far. So much has changed.

Mental Hardships of Traveling – Note to Self

QUICK NOTE: I’ve received messages saying that the interview letters have been released for the Bonderman Fellowship. For all who received letters, I would like to say congratulations! More importantly for those who did not receive interview letters, do not stress. I promise you everything you do is an opportunity. Whatever you decide to fill in as a substitute will provide growth and experience in a different way. Traveling is not gone forever for you. There are travelers of all ages around the world and you will one day join them! If you choose that you still want to travel, but do not have the means to now, then save up for the future! I am sorry if it feels devastating , but I promise that the opportunity to travel is still available.

Reflection:

I decided to reflect on some of the emotional work while traveling. While traveling your mental health is entirely up to you. In college, family, friends, roommates will check up and make sure you leave the house and feel good, but while travelling you are 100% responsible for yourself. That’s why a traveller always has to be monitoring their internal dialogue. Where is your attention focused?

This week I have been stuck with “When I get home I’ll do this ” and my entire brain has been thinking about relationships back home. The six month mark is tough because you can see the end of the fellowship, but it is still too far to invest time in planning for when you return. There are two consequences of not staying present while traveling. 1- It is easy to get depressed while thinking about all that is going on at home and wanting to be there. 2- WHAT A WASTE OF TIME! You are in a beautiful country with culture, history, life. Get out of your damn room and go experience it (Ya, Tariq I’m talking to you).

To adjust my mindset, I decided to limit the amount of hours I could stay at my hotel. Being out and signing up for cultural activities really helped me practice mindfulness and being present. Also, it is time I get back into a hostel environment (no not hostile environment – word play). I have been in a very affordable hotel room for two weeks, but the hostel life is where friends are made and adventures start.

What makes me most annoyed about being homesick is how illogical it is. When I feel homesick, all I can think about is wanting to be home. But, I know within the first few hours of being home, all I’ll want to do is go back out and travel. These past two days have been much better because I have been out and about in the city. So current and future travelers, if you ever experience this, then quit reading this blog post with terribly corny jokes, and go outside. I always hate when people say “OH stop your anxiety/depression by taking a walk”, and I do not mean to say that. But, don’t allow yourself to sink into it, because no one else is going to be around to help you out.

More than anything else, while traveling you learn resilience. It is your saving grace when you are at your lowest. The missed flight, late night harassment, deep homesickness, exhaustion, burnout you will only have resilience to get you through those situations. Stay safe and healthy – also Michiganders take your Vitamin D. 40% of y’all are deficient.

Confirmed: paradise has cats

Over just three days, Singapore had me routinely picking my jaw up off their pristine ground. But more than the cool space themed capsule I slept in, the sleek skyscrapers, the wonderful green presence the city has created with parks and wildlife everywhere, and even having Ben & Jerrys for the first time since leaving home, the thing I loved most about Singapore was its subway system.

I think I loved it most because it gave me the illusion that I had successfully navigated a foreign subway system with no help, but really, it’s just an organizational masterpiece. It was also entirely in English, so that didn’t hurt my success rate either.

I left Singapore for Indonesia, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m convinced every pre-set computer screensaver of a distant island with the perfect palm trees and white sand beaches was taken here. Every cliché postcard photo – it was taken here. I fear this will be my most superficial blog post to date because I cannot stop commenting on how beautiful my current surroundings are.

In Ubud, Bali I gazed out in awe at the rice fields and the magnificent shades of green (I think green is officially my new favorite color – I’ve written about it too many times. It’s earned the new title). I saw my first waterfalls after walking through the jungle. I hiked up a ridiculously steep volcano to catch the sunrise.

I was exhausted from waking up at 1:45 am, hangry, my knees and ego were bruised after slipping and falling twice in front of my hiking group, and my thighs were screaming at me that is has, indeed, been months since I’ve last worked out, BUT that view. That view made all the above worth it.

Following Ubud, I boarded a speedboat for an island off the coast of Bali called Nusa Penida. With only a spattering of outdoor restaurants and four ATMs (two of which worked) on the entire island, it was quite in contrast to the bustling Bali I had just left. Yet, the unbelievable beauty remained.

The obvious highlight on the island is Kelingking Beach. Scaling a cliff in the mid-day heat was not a good time. When I finally made it to the bottom, I was so hot and sweaty, I decided to go against my guides advice and just take a super quick dip in the water. I only up to mid-thigh when I looked up in horror at a wave my height. Before I could regret my decision to take a dip, I was doing summersaults underwater and being dragged across the ocean floor, effectively collecting half the beach’s sand in my swimsuit. Nothing says refreshing like salt water through the nose. BUT, the view! Indonesia’s beauty is so astounding it takes away any pain you incur in getting to your desired destination. Beauty is pain applies here too, I guess.

I felt lucky in a backward kind of way because it’s Indonesia’s rainy season right now, but I’ve had few rainy days since being here. Talking to one local, he described how this year there has been very little rain. “It’s global warming” he explained to me. His remarks had me think back, and it struck me that this is not the first instance of abnormal weather patterns I’ve laid witness to in the last five months.

Zambia was in a severe drought. Their river (and source of electricity) was completely drained. I had a rainy day in Cairo, Egypt. A few in fact. I shuddered when a local man in his 70’s told me never in his life had he seen rain this time of year (and this was after an unusually long and hot summer). Cambodia was also recovering from a severe lack of rain, and it seems Indonesia is now too. I didn’t doubt the existence of climate change before leaving the States, but it’s even more alarming seeing its effect on other countries right now.

Putu, my taxi driver on Nusa Penida one day, was telling me as a boy his mother worked by the ocean, planting seaweed. He recalls never seeing plastic bottles and empty chip bags polluting the pristine water. What’s changed, I asked him. “Tourists.” He replied. He smiled as he said it, to show he had no ill will, but I felt embarrassed as he drove me around his beautiful home. Putu, every week gathers his younger brother and the other boys from his village to do a routine clean-up of the island. They spend a few hours each week picking up litter, a good portion of which their community didn’t contribute to.

I promise I won’t stay on my soapbox for long, but if I have one pet peeve, it’s people who litter. So much about climate change can be quite complicated, and its solutions even more so. But littering? So very simple. Put your trash in a trash can like a decent human being. The audacity to travel all this way, to ooh and ahh at sights, and get that perfect shot for the gram just to leave your empty Coke can lying on the ground of someone else’s home???? And yet, I witnessed this very thing after clamoring my way back up Kelingking Beach. I received a very sour look after returning this woman’s trash, who was clearly not from Indonesia, back to her after being willfully ignored. But with an audience, she managed to find a trash can. Funny how that works.

I’m now on a tiny island, you’d have to zoom far in on Google Maps to see, called Gili Air. It’s about the size of Mackinaw Island and shares it’s ban on all vehicles. It’s horse and buggy or bicycles here only.

I find this little island so charming. I especially like walking in any direction, and knowing even if I get lost, I’ll find my way back eventually. Yesterday it took me about an hour to do so, but I did it! It’s incredibly safe, considering everyone knows everyone, so no one dares to get themselves in trouble. I’m told that if you get caught committing a serious crime, you’re voted off the island and you aren’t allowed back. Islands have their own set of rules, I’m learning.

Before I go and let the photos speak for themselves, Gili Air has an affection for cats. They are everywhere. Inside the shops, strolling on the beach, even sitting on the table I currently type on. I am so happy.

Till next time.

The rice terraces in Ubud, Bali
Making a wish at the holy springs temple
Our rewarding view after climbing Mt. Batur at sunrise…
On the climb back down…
The STUNNING Kelingking Beach
Before this trail became severely vertical
Gili Air
Gili Air
The model kitty I shared my fish dinner on the beach with… the perfect dinner date
The beginning of my “walk to get lost” yesterday
Effectively lost..
Despite the signs, and support of the goats, still lost..
I eventually found my way back to the Tabby Cat Gang that runs my hostel

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 by 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 Vietnamese residents 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.