Posts Tagged With: wanderlust

A Girl Named “La.”

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Ratchanee “La.”

Her full name is Ratchanee.

But she assured me calling her “La” would do just fine. She walked with a confident posture as she led me up through the foothills of her native village of Mae Lid Luang. Noting things along the way she thought I might be interested in, she pointed out piglets that scurried across our path, chickens that clawed at the ground, and tired eyed tethered buffalo. These things, while certainly adding to the atmosphere weren’t what was catching my eye. It was the village itself, the tiered bamboo huts, the misty jungle peaks, the way Mae Lid Luang seemed locked in a bubble far away from the rest of the world.

La is Karen, one of the six major hill tribe groups that comprise Thailand’s ethnic makeup. The Karen speak a different language, wear different clothing, and have a culture entirely separate from the Thais we know bustling about urban Bangkok. Mae Lid Luang was the tiniest of villages nestled in the mountainous jungles of Western Thailand. When I questioned La towards the village’s population she told me there were only around sixty households that made up Mae Lid Luang. La’s parents lived there, her grandparents lived there, generations of animal husbandry and rice farming kept the people of Mae Lid Luang content and isolated from much of the rest of Thailand.

At 22 years old, La had already seen and done much more than many of her relations in Mae Lid Luang. She spent much of her time away from her village, studying at university and working with foreign students. Teaching them about Thai and Karen culture and practicing her English.

Mae Lid Luang
Mae Lid Luang.

She pointed out ahead of us to a distant crest.

“That’s my family’s rice.” she said, squinting up at the hilltop.

I felt silly, clambering up the muddy slope, minding my footing in my expensive hiking boots only to have La gracefully trot up behind me, clad in a $3 pair of flip flops.

With jet black hair, a round face, and tan complexion, she was the perfect representative for the Karen of Mae Lid Luang. To me, La was calm, quiet, and stoic. She carried out conversation with me through what seemed like calculated thought and humble wording. This was all guised by the limits of language, though. The more I got to know La, the more I got to know her real personality. She jostled and teased with the other villagers, shouting and laughing to them as we climbed upwards. When I had some of her conversation translated for me I learned that La was witty. She was sarcastic. She was sassy. She was someone I wanted to be friends with.

What’s more, La and I had a shared sense of worldly curiosity. Earlier in the summer as we stood next to each other, passing bucket after bucket of sand, used for concrete mixing as we helped with construction at a local Thai school, La turned to me, swinging a bucket towards my arms.

“Do you speak any languages?” she asked, as I took the weight of the sand from her shoulders.

“I speak Mongolian.” I answered, swinging the bucket on to the next person in line.

As I turned back towards La I was met with a raised eyebrow and blank stare. Suddenly, as if having processed what I said she burst out with a small laugh. “Justin, teach me Mongolian!”

“Hurdlach!” I said with mock seriousness, looking down at the dangling bucket in her hands. Faster!

Ever since, when we’d cross paths throughout our summer she would greet me with a stern “Hurdlach! Hurdlach!” quickly followed by uncontrollable laughter.

La and I in her family's rice farm.
La and I on her family’s rice farm.

As we ascended higher to the top of Mae Lid Luang, La and I kept pace with each other.

“When was the last time you were home?” I asked her.

She thought hard for a moment and let out a small laugh, “I don’t remember, many months ago.”

“Well you must be happy to be back.” I added, keeping the conversation going.

La just shrugged, “I like school.” she said. “My village is boring, sometimes.”

What she said stuck with me as we reached the top. There on the summit of our hilltop grew La’s family’s rice. In neat little rows it blanketed the mountainside, grassy stalks waved and trembled in the breeze, the green blades sensitive to each tickle of wind. La’s mother was already there, crouched in one of the endless rows, her hands buried in the rich earth. The view from the top was incredible. The misty rainclouds churned and roiled around the mountains. The murky water of the lower rice patties stood out as perfect rectangles from our high perch.

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How could this place be boring? I thought as I knelt and buried my hands in the dirt, helping La’s family by pulling invasive weeds from the hillside crop. It occurred to me that maybe La and I were even more similar than I had thought.

After I returned from Mongolia over a year ago, my home in suburban New Jersey had taken on a new image. I felt like Mongolia had truly opened up my eyes and heart to the world, New Jersey seemed to be holding me back from taking more in. I felt sufficated. I yearned to explore more. To learn more. To seek out places like Thai mountainsides. Places like Mae Lid Luang.

What if Mae Lid Luang was La’s New Jersey? I wondered.

I let these thoughts tumble around in my mind as the sodden clouds finally relinquished a light drizzle. I knelt and pulled weeds until the air smelled like rain and my hands were stained with earth.

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“What’s your favorite color?” La asked, appearing next to me as we walked back down the path from the mountain, the afternoon weeding finished.

“Hmmm.” I thought for a second. “Green, I think.”

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” I shrugged, “There are a lot of green things in nature so I get to see it a lot.”

She seemed satisfied with this answer.

“My turn.” I said, “What is your favorite animal?”

Without hesitation she brought two fingers up to her forehead, sticking them straight out, forming mock horns.

“Buffalo!” she said with a laugh.

I laughed at her performance. “How come?” I asked.

In Thailand the buffalo is far from being seen as a revered animal. It is even a common insult to call someone a buffalo as a jab towards their intelligence. La’s choice for a favorite animal intrigued me.

She thought for a moment. “I think because my village has many buffalo.” She spoke matter-of-factly. “So, the water buffalo is my favorite.”

The reasoning behind her words struck me like a hammer blow. So much so that I fell out of step, stopping for a moment to consider it all. You don’t have to be in love with the place you come from. It can be boring, it can be suffocating, you can relish when you leave and dread when you go back but no matter what its still a part of you. It shaped you, nurtured you, and engrained itself into the person you’ve become. As simple as having water buffalo as your favorite animal, even if you don’t realize it, your heart has a piece of where you come from in it. Recognize it and appreciate it.

I wanted to thank La, who unknowingly just instilled a major life lesson upon me. I couldn’t even begin to explain, Karen, Thai, or English aside. Before I could say a thing, La turned around to see me stopped in the road, a puzzled look on her face. Slowly her lips formed a smile.

“Hurdlach!” she shouted with a laugh.

I laughed and ran forward to catch up. We descended down the dirt path. The village at our front and the mountains at our back.

So, here’s to La.
Here’s to Mae Lid Luang
Here’s to the place you call home.

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Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Letters From Vientiane

Almost as soon as I arrived in Vientiane I began searching for a way to escape.

There was nothing in particular that drove me from the Laotian capital other than the simple fact that the city was not the jungles, mountains, and rivers that surrounded it. The Laos I wanted to see was the slow boats of the Mekong River, the lush mountain jungles of the highlands and golden pagodas of rural Buddhism. All my research and traveler advice pointed me away from Vientiane’s urban sprawl. My research pointed me north, to Luang Prabang.

I sat on the couch in the hostel lobby twirling the zipper on my backpack between two fingers. Waiting my turn to check in, two German girls argued with the Lao kid at the desk about the lack of private bunks.

Behind me, pool balls clinked on a ripped and worn table. Two guys exchanged turns in what already looked like a slow game.

Who comes to Vientiane to play pool? I thought.

A third buddy trotted up with three beers, clunking them down on the chipped edges of the pool table.

“What’s the name of this place….Vinetan?” he asked, unashamed. I pitted him as American or Canadian. I wondered if he even knew what country he was in.

His buddy, clad in the signature elephant pants of tourist South East Asia and a backwards trucker hat rested his hands on the top of his cue and squinted hard, obviously in deep thought.

“I don’t know.” he shrugged after a moment. “Can I have a cigarette?”

I began to look forward to my escape.

It’s no secret that the countries of South East Asia are a hot bed for young tourists. Expenses are cheap, the weather is warm, beaches are plentiful, and drugs and alcohol are easy to find.

“What’s up, man?”

I looked up from the bus schedule on the lobby desk and was greeted by a short backpacker in elephant pants and a neon green tank top. Unable to see his eyes behind the mirrored sunglasses he was wearing I looked back over my shoulder, unsure if he was addressing me.

“Where you goin’?” he nodded towards the bus schedule.

“Luang Prabang.” I answered, hoping to keep the conversation short.

“Prabang’s sweet.” he swung his pack off of his shoulder and let it thump against the desk.

“Definitely hit up Vang Vieng.” he bent over the schedule to point out the town on the bus route. “Its real chill there.”

As he bent back down to pick up his pack I noticed his tank top read “Tube n’ Party! Vang Vieng”

From the moment I had started researching travel in Laos I began hearing about how “chill” Vang Vieng was. The town, along the Mekong River turned into a tourist haven for partiers and substance abusers. A favorite activity was over indulging in any mind altering drug and then tubing and rope swinging in the river. On several occasions the town had gotten so rowdy and overrun that the Laos government stepped in to put a stop to the number of dead tourists that would inevitably drown whilst partying. To me, Vang Vieng didn’t seem “chill” at all. To me Vang Vieng seemed like a tourist infested, drug ridden, cesspool. Vang Vieng was exactly the kind of place I wanted to avoid.

Watching Mr. Tube n’ Party swagger up the stairs I was skeptical I’d find anyone on this trip I’d be able to relate to.

Side street outside my Vientiane hostel.
Side street outside my Vientiane hostel.

Checked in and ready to start exploring I laced up my boots outside the lobby, ready to get away from the hostel atmosphere.

“Excuse me.” I looked up from tying my boots. “Do you know where the arc is?”

The accent was British.

Not your typical run-of-the-mill British. Pristine British, classy British, the type of British you’d expect to hear at a London opera or in the corridors of Downton Abbey.

I rose to meet the gaze of two Asian girls. They seemed to contrast each other. One carried an artsy handbag and wore hip round sunglasses while the other was clad with a traveler’s pack and straw cowboy hat. I moved my eyes between them not sure who had addressed me.

“My name is Ada.” The girl with the sunglasses said. She patted her chest, her handbag swinging at the elbow.

“This is Anthea.” She gestured towards her friend who smiled underneath the brim of her hat. “We are trying to find the arc. We think it is around here somewhere.”

The arch in question was the Patuxai Arch.  A monument to Laotian military victory, it was inspired by, and modeled after Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.  One of the more notable sites in Vientiane it was on my to-do-list as well.

“Straight down this road and then left at the Governor’s Palace.” I answered, not entirely confident, trying to remember its exact location from my map. I told them I had looked it up because I had planned on seeing it too.

“Would you care to join us?” Ada asked, with a smile.

We walked the crumbling sun-baked streets of Vientiane. I tied a handkerchief about my forehead in an attempt to stem the flow of sweat that trickled over my brow. The sun was intense, I found myself squinting, even from behind the lenses of my sunglasses.

In my mind’s eye the Laotian capital was very different from its other South East Asian counterparts. Phnom Penh was a progressive getaway. Bangkok, a commercial metropolis. Yangon, the wild frontier. Hanoi, a historical giant. Vientiane always seemed…well…forgotten.

As my eyes took in the streets and buildings around me Vientiane seemed to uphold that forgotten allure. Long ago an outpost of colonial France it was as if the French built a city in the jungle long ago then simply packed up and left.

Like the streets of Paris, vendors sold loaves of bread. Pedaled carts loaded up with baguettes and fresh rolls. The streets were lined with coffee shops and bistros, al fresco style dining sprawled out on the sidewalks.

Unlike Paris though, the city seemed in various states of disrepair. Cobblestone brick sidewalks were torn and rent, pedestrians either forced to hop over the gaping holes or detour around them altogether. Colonial style terra cotta roofs were discolored and disheveled. The European influenced facades of government buildings were cracked and crumbling. Motorcyclists and tuk tuk drivers bobbed and weaved to avoid piles of fallen brick and up turned concrete.

As we neared the arc the girls began to chatter to each other in excited Cantonese. As they took photos in front of the monument I walked on to inspect it more closely. It really was a model of the Parisian icon, but with an Asian twist. Carved with sitting Buddhas and capped with pagoda style towers.

The Patuxai Arc
The Patuxai Arc

Looking around I noticed that even the outlying streets resembled the thoroughfare of the Champs-Élysées. I wondered how many people back home mumbled the name of the Patuxai Arc in the same breath as the Arc de Triomphe.

I gazed up at the dirty and stained stone of the Patuxai Arc. Vientiane was certainly no Paris but it still had so much of its own character. It deserved to be given a chance by travelers and urban explorers not just partying backpackers on a layover.

Vientiane deserved to not be forgotten.

When the afternoon sun drove us out of the street we retreated into the air conditioning of a nearby bistro. Whirling ceiling fans circulated the oscillating smells of freshly baked bread and pressed coffee grounds. At a small corner table I got to know Ada and Anthea.

Recently graduated from university in Hong Kong the two had planned a tour of South East Asia together before they began their prospective careers. When they weren’t studying at school they made their spending money busking on Hong Kong’s busy streets. Ada sang and played guitar, Anthea was on percussion and back up vocals.

“I must play for you when we get back.” Ada said, gazing down at the sandwich just placed in front of her. “The hostel has a guitar, I saw it earlier.”

“Are you going to Vang Vieng next?” Anthea asked pausing from sipping on her iced coffee.

“No, not my cup of tea.” I said, hiding my strong feelings about the place. “Did you guys go tubing there?”

Anthea crinkled her nose, “Ugh, no too many loud tourists there. We just took the bus there to get here.” she said, pulling out her camera and switching to pictures that designated where here was.

It was a picture of the two girls sitting on the floor of a bamboo hut. A Thai family sat with them smiling up at the camera, a feast of curries, rice, and soup laid out on the floor in front of them.

“We had a homestay with this Thai family here.” she explained. “We wanted to really learn about the local culture.”

Ada nodded in agreement from across the table. “We really wanted to have an authentic experience.”

I smiled at this, maybe there was someone in Vientiane that I would be able to relate to after all.

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I commented on the quality of her camera, it was a more advanced model of the one I had just purchased for myself.

Anthea nodded, “I studied graphic design, I take a lot of photos.”

“What kind of job do you want to get with your degree.” I asked.

She let out a nervous laugh. “I really want to work and freelance and keep traveling.” she looked down at her camera fiddling with the buttons as she spoke. “Working from nine to five every day in an office would be terribly dreadful.”

I felt my ears perk up at hearing this.

“What I’d really love is to get hired with a non-profit. I could travel and work and help out all at the same time.” she said, with a small smile. “Its just my dream though.” she added.

I was moved by how similar our frustrations, our dreams, and our life goals were. It’s amazing how two strangers could be such kindred spirits from across the globe.

Wat Sisaket, Vientiane's oldest temple.
Wat Sisaket, Vientiane’s oldest temple.

After lunch we walked back to the hostel so the two could catch the bus to Phnom Penh, the next stop on their tour. We passed through temple gardens and golden Buddhas, along cracked sidewalks and bustling markets. As we passed a battered post office box Anthea let out a little yelp.

“Oh shoot!” she said, glancing at the box as we passed. “I forgot to mail my postcard.”

“Family back home?” I asked, sidestepping around a pile of gravel.

“No, no.” she said, with a shy laugh. “I mail a card to myself in every place I visit. That way I get a nice and proper reminder about my trip later once I’m home.”

I found the idea very clever, and put it in my mental bank for later.

Buddha garden at Wat Sisaket.
Buddha garden at Wat Sisaket.

Back at the hostel the two sat out on the hostel floor with a beat up guitar and ran through a short list of songs that they performed on the streets of Hong Kong. Ada sang beautifully and Anthea complimented her nicely with a soft quiet voice.

“Oh no, we have to run.” said Ada, after a short while. She put down the guitar and picked up her pack, glancing at her watch. Hurriedly they gathered their things to make their way to the bus station. Saying goodbye Athea halted her step as she walked away.

“Could you drop this in a post box for me?” she asked, pressing a colorful Laotian postcard into my hands.

I said a final goodbye and promised I would.

After they left I took a walk down the street. Mostly to take in more sights but also to find a post box for Anthea’s letter. I finally stumbled across one. Rusted and worn on a the cracked curb of a nearby street corner.

I noticed she had addressed it to herself and stamped it, but the whole space left for a message or well wish was left blank. I thought a moment and then told myself she wouldn’t mind if I filled in the space. I told her how great it was to spend the day hanging out with her and Ada in Vientiane. How I hoped the rest of their trip around Cambodia went well and they made it back to Hong Kong safe.

I also wished her good luck for her future. Not to give up on her dream job and to keep searching for those “authentic experiences”. I told her I would be doing the same from the USA.

As the post card fell into the darkness of the mailbox I sent with it the mental wish that the words would find Anthea.

Because everyone needs that reminder. A small recognition that they aren’t alone, that someone else out there shares their struggles and frustrations.

Everyone needs that little push to not give up, even from a complete stranger. Motivation to not let their dreams and goals go on and become faded and forgotten.

Everyone needs a letter from Vientiane.

Vientiane
Vientiane

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

The Best Part of Angkor Isn’t the Wat

It was the right kind of quiet. Not quiet as in to say there was no noise. There was plenty of noise. The chorus of any number of species of birds pierced the air; chirping, singing, warbling, and calling. The cries of monkeys, the rustling of leaves, the snapping of branches, the buzzing of insects. The jungle was alive with all the natural ambient noise that one would expect to come from it.

The humidity hung in the air like a weight. You could taste it on your tongue. You could feel it on your shoulders. I sat down, perching myself atop one of the many crumbling stone blocks. The rock was rough and cold to the touch. A beetle, as yellow and spotted as a jungle cat scurried over my fingers just before spreading its tiny wings and taking flight.

I was sitting in the middle of the ancient Khmer city of Angkor. The massive complex consisted of hundreds of temples constructed over centuries and through generations of rulers. People flocked from all over the world to visit Angkor. Most of them coming for the main attraction, the famous Angkor Wat. The Wat is the single largest religious structure in the world and arguably the most architecturally pleasing out of all the Angkor temples. Contested as a wonder of the world it is the only existing man made structure to be featured on a country’s national flag (spoiler it’s on Cambodia’s), its name can be easily uttered in the same breathe alongside the other global marvels such as the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Petra.

 

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

Me and my two travel companions decided to spend the day exploring the hundreds of other ruins that made up Angkor and save the iconic Angkor Wat for last, going to see it just around sunset. As we walked through the winding dirt paths, we veered off at the first sight of dilapidated ruins. When we neared the site we each broke away from one another without preamble, letting our heightened senses lead us. That was how I happened upon my stony seat.

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The small temple, which I later learned was called Prei Prasat was a wonder in its own right. Staring up at the stone blocks around me it was like something out of a movie. Something out of my dreams. The aged and weathered rock looked fragile in some places and stout in others. Twisted vines, gnarled roots, and crooked trees jutted their way through the crevices. It was impossible to decipher whether the jungle was a part of the temple or the temple part of the jungle.

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“There you are.” Jessica said, poking her head out from around a corner.

“C’mon lets go.” she added with a wave of her hand.

We explored the ruins of Angkor in a similar fashion. Breaking off and enjoying the moments of solitude and exploration the different sites invoked. Each temple seemed more intriguing than the last. Ancient trees that grew from ancient stone, pillared corridors that led to cracked Buddhas, Hindu gods smiling back from etched walls.

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As we neared the famous Angkor Wat and grand finale there was a different sort of noise. The ambient jungle sounds were replaced with the bustle and clamor of people. Throngs of them herding across the causeway towards the rising towers of the Wat. Shouting, calling, laughing. Children crying, peddlers yelling, thousands of shuffling feet.

We weaved our way through the crowd, abruptly having to stop every so often so people could take that stereotypical posed shot in front of the temple. Single file with the masses we climbed the stone steps into the heart of the temple, passing security checkpoints and filtering out into the structure’s corridors.

Trying not to pay attention to the chaos around me I focused on the beautifully detailed bas-relief walls. The entire hallway depicted a carved recreation of the Khmer army in action. Speared warriors, rampaging elephants, and raining arrows covered every inch of the hall. The detail, down to the horror on each soldier’s face was remarkable.

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“Erhm.” It was the sound of a man clearing his throat.

“Excuse me.” a man said.

I turned towards the French accent. The source of the voice was a large man in a white buttoned down shirt. Sweat gleamed over his bushy eyebrows, his armpits were dark blotches, and his ample stomach protruded out from his waist. He was precariously balancing a camera tripod on top of the chipped remains of an elephant statue pointing it towards the carved wall. His two compatriots, a fanny packed woman and another man, tall and skinny, his own camera dangling from his neck stood off to the side with their arms folded.

His eyes hardened when I met his gaze.

“Move along.” he said with a swift shooing motion towards the corridor’s exit.

Aghast I didn’t know how to respond. Who does this guy think he is? I thought. His tone was uttered with such annoyance and bombast it was as if we had stumbled into the man’s home during a family dinner.

“Lets get out of here.” Jessica whispered.

“Just a minute.” Elliot said, loud enough for both parties to hear.

He then took out his own camera, snapping pictures of the relief and making a show of photographing the wall, taking his time.

The overweight French fellow grumbled to himself as we leisurely took our leave.

We exited out back of the temple. Getting away from the bustling crowds until their noise was nothing but a dull chatter. Sitting ourselves atop a stone wall we sat and waited to watch the sunset.

I tried not to let the vast crowds get to me. To have them take away from my experience. It seemed so many people were there just for that bucket list tally mark. Piling out of busses and tour shuttles, frantically snapping a bunch of pictures, piling back in, “Quick, next stop the Great Wall!”

These sites are world renown for a reason. Was anyone really taking the time to stop and take it all in? To experience it, learn from it, and try to understand it? It reminded me of a book by Paul Theroux, novelist and travel writer. Stuck next to a man on a plane he is subjected to listening to the man’s world tripping exploits. With each listed destination the man is corrected by his wife, incorrectly naming cities, mispronouncing countries, confusing islands like Tahiti with Haiti. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.” Theroux writes, “Travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

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The horror struck me that I might be just as bad. After all was I not bent on globe tripping, hoping to see all the things and places I possibly can in one lifetime. I told myself I wouldn’t let it devolve to the point where it would just be something to brag about. I wanted to learn and grow from each awesome thing I saw. I wanted to savor the experience while I was there.

As the sun descended behind the temple taking away its light and drawing out that iconic silhouette I made my personal vow. I thought on how glad I was that we chose to wander around all of Angkor and not only hit the big hotspot. Those moments of jungle solitude would be the most memorable, they were what made Angkor a part of me.

The sun dipped lower. Angkor Wat rose high. The towers pierced the evening sky.

Of course I took a picture.

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Categories: Cambodia, Travel Insight | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

How Skype Keeps Travel Alive

 

They were all there. Crowded around the laptop like kids around a campfire. Smiling faces, jostling left and right, trying to be the main focal point of the laptop’s limited camera. Munkhkherlen’s face, then Enkhtor’s, then Chimgee, the librarian’s. The camera spun. Saruul came into view. Smiling she made a clucking sound with her tongue shaking her head. “Oui! You look the same! Your hair is long! Shave your beard!” Whirling color. The camera shifted again. Munkhkherlen leaning in closer than necessary, speaking into the lens. “Justin aa! I had a dream about you. I dreamed you came into the teacher’s room. You were wearing your deel. You surprised us!”

I had been home from Mongolia for over five months but through the miracle of modern technology all those almost forgotten familiar things were back with stunning clarity. The white washed paint chipped walls of the school’s teacher’s room. The cracked window and thin curtains. The very benches I used to sit on everyday. Miss matched patterns and torn upholstery. Through Skype, the online video calling platform I was instantly transported from my New Jersey bedroom back into my former rural village in Mongolia. Ten years ago this would have been impossible.

More often than not the would be traveler uses this technological marvel to bridge the gap between where they are and where they call home. The study abroad student Skype’s home from Europe. The solo trekking backpacker video chats his girlfriend from East Asia. A volunteer in Central Africa laughs with her mom and dog thousands of miles away. We go to Skype to assure those we left behind we’re alive and well. We also us it to remedy homesickness, that inevitable symptom of long term travel.

The advances in modern communication are mind blowing. My small rural village in Mongolia, disconnected from running water or central heating was still able to connect with me instantly through the web. As the internet continues to cast its digital net further and further into the most remote places on Earth why not take advantage? Just like we use Skype to cure homesickness why not use it for the opposite, to cure those pangs of travel nostalgia?

We return back home and get back into our daily lives and old routines. We hark back to those days abroad, dwelling on where we’ve been, who we met and what we’d seen. With the marvel of Skype those places can be as unforgotten and tangible as they were when you left. Miss that home-stay family in South Africa? That flatmate in central London? Those locals that hosted you in Argentina? With programs like Skype, they’re all one click away.

As I stared passed the smiling faces of my former Mongolian coworkers I looked out the window in the small teacher’s room. Outside, the small village of Omnodelger was the same as when I left it. A horse was tethered outside the local market, birds dipped and fluttered through the blue Mongolian sky, the dirt road looked gritty, dusty and brown, the way it did every spring. It curved out of view, leading off to my former yard where my former ger used to rest.

Like most, I’m a sucker for old travel photos and journal scribblings. Taking them out and gazing in fondness at the memories they invoke. With Skype it brings on elements that photos and journals can’t provide. Here through my computer screen Omnodelger was a living breathing place. With all my happy chatting coworkers, the hustle and bustle of the town outside and the familiar aura of the teacher’s room, where I had traveled was right here alive in front of me.

Never had hanging up on a call been more difficult.

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Categories: Travel Insight | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Detained: Travel Misfortunes Make the Best Stories

Zabaykalsk, Russia
Chinese-Russian Border

“We’re going to need you to gather your things and step off the train.”

It was the last thing we wanted to hear.

“You’ll have to come with us.” the Russian border guard added as I hastily began stuffing belongings into my backpack.

Three of them stood at the entrance to our berth. Arms crossed, glaring down the brims of their oversized hats. One officer clutched our passports to his chest. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the little booklet as I slung my pack onto my shoulders. I wondered what it would take for it to be handed back over into my possession.

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As we stepped into the hall one of the guards pushed passed us. Overturning mattresses, flipping open cabinet doors, scanning under the table. Looking for contraband that wasn’t there.

Our translating border guard led us down the hall. As we stepped off the train and onto the platform our carriage’s provinista, no nonsense car manager gave us a shaming look. She whispered something to the border guard as we passed.

“She says you must come retrieve your tickets from her if you aren’t getting back on the train.” I didn’t have time to contemplate this being a good or bad sign. We were ushered forward across the platform. Guards patrolled the border perimeter. Army fatigues, slung rifles, leashed dogs. Me and Jessica exchanged worried glances. They brought us into the border office. A concrete giant of Russian bureaucracy. We moved through metal detectors into a large holding room. “Sit” our translating guard said, with a wave of her arm at a row of chairs. “You will stay here until a decision is made.”

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“Are we really being detained?” Jessica whispered as we slumped into our seats.

“Looks like it.” I answered, I felt helpless.

“We’re so stupid.” said Jessica, voicing what I was thinking. “So damn stupid.”

“There can’t be a worse country to have this happen in.” I added.

In the corner of the room a little brown cocker spaniel whimpered as it pulled on the chain that tethered it to a far chair. We both stared at it and Jessica let out a defeated laugh “Oh God, this is too much.”

It was almost comical. Two Americans and a sad cocker spaniel bound by the same predicament. I turned and sat on the hard plastic chair and put my face in my hands, trying to run through the series of events that had culminated just right to land us in this situation.

It was entirely our fault. Having booked our tickets in advance while living in developing Mongolia we had only one option; to pick them up in Beijing months later. We didn’t discover until then that we were taking the longer Trans Manchurian route up into Russia instead of back through Mongolia as we had anticipated. This was a giant red flag that we failed to notice until it was too late.

About an hour before we were escorted off the train, we had arrived at the Russian-Chinese border. Before exiting China border guards assessed each passenger’s passport and cleared them to leave the country. In the early morning a banging on our compartment’s door startled me awake and sent me jumping down from my top bunk. A Chinese guard took our passports and eyed each page over carefully.

“Do you know your Russian visas are not good until tomorrow?” Jessica and I looked at each other, wide eyed. “Your Chinese visas are also expired.” she shut both of the passports. “You cannot stay in China.” With that she handed them back to us and shut the door moving on swiftly to the next compartment.

The red flags were waving clear in front of our faces now. Our misjudgment of which train route we would ultimately be on had screwed up the whole timetable of our visas. Instead of the day spent traveling through Mongolia we were now arriving early in Russia and leaving China too late. Our blunder was beyond fixing. As the train crawled across the border our fate would soon be left to be decided by the Russians.

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“Come with me please.” I was stirred from my thoughts by the guard standing over me.

I stood up and followed her into a small office. An officer sat at a cluttered desk looking down, not gazing up from his task as I entered. I took the seat across from him and soon noticed he was thumbing furiously through my passport. Finally he looked up and eyed me sternly. He began firing off questions in Russian. The translating guard positioned herself at a post next to his desk listening intently. Why were you in China? Why are you coming to Russia? What do your parents do for a living? What is this organization? He stabbed a finger down onto the cover of my passport which displayed a United States Peace Corps sticker. I answered all the questions as confidently as I could under his scrutiny. Have you ever been in the military? Why not? He scoffed at my answer. How do you feel about the United States foreign policy? What don’t you like about it?

I was becoming more and more uncomfortable by his prying questioning. I answered as simply and cleanly as I could, careful not to take an aggressive stance. Finally he either became satisfied or bored with my answers and waved his hand towards the door, signaling me to leave.

I was escorted back out into the holding room and made to sit back down. Before I could say a word to Jessica she was told to follow the guard into the same interrogation room. She shot me a nervous look as she passed. It’s fine I told myself, we have nothing to hide. The worst they could do is hold us here until our visas are good or deport us and make us go home.

Finally after what seemed an eternity Jessica came out. She was followed shortly after by a tall woman in a smart uniform. She whispered to our translator and began rustling through a stack of papers before producing our passports. She smiled down at us.

“You have been given permission to enter the Russian Federation.”

Our nervous laughter and joyous relief must have been infectious. Our translator smiled and let out a small laugh when she saw our swift change in mood. The tall uniformed woman smiled and handed us our passports with an approving nod. I could of hugged all of them, even the surly interrogator. Our misfortune and mistakes had left us with nothing but an excellent story to tell.

If only we could have taken the cocker spaniel.

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Zabaykalsk station. We were held in the middle building with the pink roof. In the far left background the tall gate monument marks the border between Russia and China.

Categories: Russia | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

How Couchsurfing Restored My Faith In Humanity

Warsaw, Poland

Somewhere between the bus station and nine blocks past the highway overpass we realized we were completely and utterly lost. Stopping at a street corner we squinted sidelong down the road. A church bell tolled in the distance. Above our heads the brush stroke clouds slid across the sky. A women walking her pug skirted around us to move across the street. She shot us an irritated glance as she went. The pug staring at us over its shoulder. Its little feet pitter pattering on the pavement as it waddled next to her.

“Well now what?” Jessica asked with mild exasperation.

“Well this way can’t be right.” I answered, looking straight ahead then craning my neck back the way we came.

“I say we head back to the bus stop and try again.”

Jessica followed my gaze backwards before nodding in agreement.

We trudged back the way we had come. Bumbling about through Poland’s capital in an attempt to find the apartment of our one night host. We had just shy of twenty four hours in Poland and it was our first stint with Couchsurfing, the online meet and greet site for world tripping backpackers. Marta, our Polish host opened her apartment to us, leaving us with her address and enthusiastic greetings telling us to come over as soon as we arrived. Now we trudged about looking for the familiar landmarks and street names Marta described.

“I can’t believe you’re eating that.” Jessica said in disgust as I unwrapped a tuna sandwich leftover from the flight.

“Want some?” I laughed, lifting the sandwich and offering her a bite. Sesame seeds tumbled, Jessica recoiled.

“Just keep walking.” she said, “I think we’re close now.”

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We stopped and took in the surroundings. Pinpointing streets and buildings.   As I looked around, I gazed down at the sidewalk. My feet stood upon a blue arrow, sketched into the cement in chalk. That’s weird I thought, scuffing the arrow with the sole of my shoe, smearing blue against the gray cement.

“Its this way, I think.” Jessica said, turning off the sidewalk and into an apartment complex.

As we walked along I notice we passed over another blue arrow, and then another. They seemed to be pointing in the exact direction we were moving. Eventually we were brought to the front door of a ground level apartment building.

When the door swung open we were met with an exceptionally cheery Marta.

“Come in, come in!” she exclaimed, “Don’t worry about your shoes.”

She ushered us upstairs and unveiled a tray of cookies.

“I made you guys some cookies!” she explained offering us plates. “They’re no-bake!”

Her smile was infectious. I liked her almost instantly.

“Did you see my map?” she asked, looking at us expectantly.

Me and Jessica exchanged puzzled glances. Marta, sensing our confusion added, “I drew directions on the sidewalk from the bus stop for you guys.” her eyes darted back and forth between us looking for a reaction. “I used blue chalk.”

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, the blue arrows immediately coming to mind.

Over the next several hours Marta took us on a jam packed walking tour of Warsaw. Explaining she had work early the next morning she wanted us to get in as much as we could with the limited time we were there. We strolled through the streets as the sun set. Skirting through the cobblestones of Castle Square in the Old Town and peering out over the Vistula River. She brought us to her favorite hot spots and local bars.

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“I love this pub!” she exclaimed with a smile as we sat down at a table.

“It’s so hip.” she added with a smooth bobbing of her head. “They have lots of games you can play with your friends.” she reached for the shelf behind her pulling a board game from the stack. “This one’s my favorite.” she added pulling off the lid.

As she cheerfully explained the rules, a band struck up a very Polish rendition of “Superstitious”. Sitting in a bar I’d never been to, in a city I’d never visited, drinking a beer I’d never tasted, playing a game I’d never heard of with a person I just met I knew that out of the entire cross continental journey me and Jessica had just taken this night and these last twenty four hours would be the most memorable.

As we got back to Marta’s apartment late that night she made us sandwiches and sent us to bed. Explaining she would be leaving early for work and that a friend would be by to see us off. Drifting off to sleep I thought that there was nothing more heartwarming than witnessing the kindness of a complete stranger. Couchsurfing for the first time was a big risk. Putting your faith and trust into someone you’ve never met. If we had opted to stay in a hostel or hotel we may have never met Marta, the connections we made and the short experience we shared may have never happened. Marta made the risk worth taking again and again.  There was solace in considering that the world was full of people like Marta, kind, friendly, and eager to help in exchange for nothing but a human connection.

As we packed and had our coffee the next morning we said goodbye to Marta’s friend and left her a thank you note. Exiting her apartment we both stopped in our tracks as we both noticed the chalk writing in the pavement.

There is nothing more heartwarming than witnessing the kindness of a complete stranger.

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Categories: Poland | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

Why My Passport Never Leaves My Table

My nightstand is a lonely place. There isn’t much there. A simple alarm clock that blinks by miscalculated minutes. A small box to hold my watch and wallet at the end of the day. Atop the tiny box, out in the open, rests my passport. To lift the box lid, I must pick up my passport, withdraw or deposit contents into the box, shut the lid, and then place the passport back where it was. It has been this way for months.

Not long ago, as I was finishing a conversation with my mother, she turned to leave my room. As she walked out she spied my nightstand.

“Why don’t you put your passport away?”

The comment was meant to be harmless, but as her footsteps echoed down the steps I found myself sitting and staring at the little blue book. Why hadn’t I put the passport away? My room was not at want for drawers or shelves. Why did it sit out next to my bed as if on deck to be swept up at any second to catch some trans-hemisphere flight? Why burden myself with the tedious motions of repositioning the little book every time I used the small bedside box?

The answer was obvious.

To put my passport away. To stash it away in some drawer for safe keeping would mean the journey was over. The adventure at an end. Exploration and discovery had reached a finite conclusion.

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“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.” -Paul Theroux

There are a thousand and one cliches that describe wanderlust and its incurable symptoms, but instead of striving to understand it I take solace in knowing I’m not the only one. There is a world full of wanderlusters just like me.

We’re a different breed. We aren’t tourists. We don’t go just for the exotic notch on our belts. We travel for the journey that gets us there, even though we never actually arrive. We tramp about every damn town, city, mountain and desert on this planet for the precious ounce of personal growth they deliver. We discover more about the world, about humanity and about ourselves in those fleeting moments. Tangible times when we gaze out at panoramas that catch our breathes and interactions with the people we pass that steal our humility and make us smile at the beauty of the human race. We do what it takes to grab these moments. We’ll do anything. We sleep in crowded rooms. We sleep on floors if we have to. We hitchhike. We get lost. We’ve been beaten up and stolen from. We get lonely. We get frustrated. It’s not a vacation. It’s our way of life.

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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

Nothing scares me more than the monotony. The thought that I’ll surrender to the expectations of my own culture.

I’m at a time in my life where I’m suffocated on all sides by new marriages, planned pregnancies, and new home ownership. I have to catch myself when the thoughts inevitably creep into my head. Is there something wrong with me? Am I immature? Maybe I should be doing all this, too?

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“Every man can transform the world from one of monotony and drabness to one of excitement and adventure.” – Irving Wallace

I think about falling into step. Swimming in bills, drowning in debt, turning off that simple alarm clock every morning to drag myself to my secure nine to five job. I’d do this day in and day out, crashing into that tired bed every night to watch those miscalculated minutes keep ticking away. Then expect my future wife and children to do the same? Is that the American dream? It isn’t mine.

That life. Those problems, aren’t for me. My mind is glued to problems that are beautifully simplistic. Will my backpack hold up? Are my boots worn out? Which direction should I go next? I never want to stop exploring. I never want to stop learning and growing, discovering new things in new places about new people. New experiences that make me proud to be me and be a part of all the things I’m lucky enough to see and do.

This is what I want to live for.

I want to be ready to go at a moments notice.

So until that unavoidable move into my pocket, it will stay on my nightstand.

Yes, my passport will stay right where it is.

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“You go away for a long time and return a different person–you never come all the way back.” Paul Theroux
Categories: Travel Insight | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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