Saturday, December 27, 2008

Distant But Not Different

One of the primary reasons for my year long wander is to gain an understanding of cultural diversity that two university degrees in Anthropology and Intercultural Youth Development were incapable of conferring. I have studied cultural variability from nearly every academic viewpoint imaginable, but growing up in a rural Midwestern town and attending university in two very homogeneous locations denied me an experiential understanding of cultural diversity.

When I began my trip it was easy and amusing to spot aspects of the local culture that differed from my own. As I moved East these differences became more pronounced and numerous, which made focusing on the differences nearly effortless. It is only now, after more than a month in India, that I am finally beginning to focus on the similarities between the local culture and my own.

Jess and I are spending a few days in Puri, a little beach town that is an overnight train ride away from Kolkata. Since it is so easily accessible to Kolkatans, it is a popular destination for middle-class Indians who want to get out of the city for a few days. As I strolled down the main drag on our first evening in town, I had an almost palpable sense of deja vu; it was as if I had walked down the streets at some point in the past. Of course I had not, but the string of hotels, restaurants, snack vendors and advertisements are strikingly similar to any family vacation destination in America's Midwest. I could have easily been at the Lake of the Ozarks or Branson in Missouri. Casually dressed families leisurely strolling down the road with ice cream, restaurants advertising food to suit every palate, souvenir shops selling knick-knacks - familiar scenes in every US vacation town during the summer. Walking around in Puri is like exploring an altered version of Midwest in which the food is spicier, the people dress brighter and cows roam the street freely.

These superficial similarities did not become totally clear until Jess and I met some of the incredibly friendly and welcoming locals. As foreign (and very pasty) tourists, we have to be cautious and aware of our vulnerability at all times, but we managed to let our guard down enough to get to know some local guys who struck up a conversation on the beach. After a very friendly conversation and promises to meet later and have a bonfire on the beach, I was very suspicious. What is their intention? What do they really want from us? What was the scam that we were walking into? Although these questions simmered in the back of my mind, we went to the beach on our way home from dinner to see if there was actually a fire as promised. Sure enough, our friends were waiting for us and we soon had a warm fire near the ocean on a beautiful night. As we sat under the stars discussing world politics and our life plans, I realized how many opportunities like this I miss every day because I am so guarded and uptight when interacting with local people. The guys around the fire were no different than my friends at home; they simply wanted to get together to enjoy good conversation and music, but I assumed they wanted nothing but my money. Jess and I were able to get to know some of them over the three days we stayed in Puri, all incredible young men and women who are interested in the world and are excited to meet others who are like-minded. In fact, the entire situation was very safe for one simple reason - no one was drinking alcohol. This is one difference between India and the US which I am begging to appreciate. No one was drunk or belligerent and there was no danger of making a foolish decision against one's better judgment. Alcohol just wasn't necessary as a social lubricant because everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves. The sober (dare I say "wholesome") evening allowed us to get to know each other on a less superficial level.

I hope that focusing on the similarities between Indian culture and my own culture will help me to see individual human beings among the billion bodies who inhabit India. The families on holiday in Puri have the same goals as American families who head to the lake on three day weekends; relax away from domestic and career responsibilities, spend time with family, enjoy a beautiful natural place, and eat good food. The responsibilities may be different, the families bigger, the natural place a bit more crowded, and the food spicier, but the motivation is exactly the same - to live the good life. Thanks to the wonderful people, who are much more welcoming and open than myself, in Puri who were able to teach me this lesson that I could not have absorbed from any Anthropology textbook.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

City of Shiva

Varanasi is India in concentrate. More cows, worshipers, historical places, tourists, temples, street vendors, and ceremonies per square inch than I ever imagined possible. Since the city has been a point of pilgrimage for over 4000 years, there is no reason to be surprised. Varanasi is India with impactitude -my new favorite word which I picked up from an Indian newspaper. Luckily I was fully recovered and well rested from my stay in Delhi, so I was prepared for some impactitude.

Varanasi is a city of contrasts. The city clings to the banks of the Ganges River, a wide and tranquil river which is very sacred to Hindus everywhere. The streets leading to the river could not be more different - narrow, crowded and chaotic. The city is a magnet for life of all types from around the world, but it also draws death. Many Hindus believe that dying and being cremated in Varanasi brings instant liberation of the soul, therefore over 300 bodies are burned on the bank of the river everyday. 24/7/365. The only limiting factor in the burning is the cost to import wood and the space necessary to build the pyre. The most intriguing aspect of this tradition is that it takes place in public. Anyone passing by walks within a few feet of burning bodies, bodies waiting to be burned, and the family who have congregated to watch. To my American mind, this seems like the sort of event that begs to be a private family affair, but not in India. My hotel is located only about 50 yards from where the bodies are burned, so when I inevitably get lost in the backstreets I just follow one of the frequent funeral processions and I eventually end up at home. It seems macabre, but life and death are just more visible and harder to ignore here than in America.

The Ganges River is the heart and soul of Varanasi. The river is holy, but it is used in every way possible, both sacred and profane. At any given point on the shore there are people doing abolutions, (like ritual cleansing), offering gifts to the gods, praying, and meditating. At that same point there are also people washing clothes, fishing, swimming, bathing, and gathering water. Of course a large amount of human waste, both in the form of litter and excrement, end up in the river. This does not deter the pious from entering the river and worshiping its power.

The Ganges River flows from the god Shiva's hair according to tradition; this is his favorite city and he is definitely the favored god within the city. Of Hinduism's pantheon of a thousand plus gods, Shiva is one of the most commonly and fervently worshiped. This is why the city is such a popular place for pilgrims from all over India. The worshipers and the city are intense, and this intensity is magnified by bhang, which is sold in restaurants, on the street, and even by government shops in the form of drinks and baked goods. Watching funeral pyres and ancient rituals with a bhang lassi is a quintessential Varanasi experience. While there are quite a few foriegn tourists here, there are not enough to substantially change the character of the city. Most of the people here are tourists of some sort, but most of them are from within India.

In retrospect, I should have spent more time in Varanasi rather than Delhi, but hindsight is 20/20. I am leaving the city this evening on an overnight train to Kolkata where I will meet Jess! We'll spend about 4-5 days in Kolkata before heading to Jaipur to work at Saharia over Christmas and New Year.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Motions and Meditation Don't Mix

I had the unfortunate experience of being forced to leave the meditation course after only four days of sitting cross-legged on the floor so that I could sit upright on a porcelain seat in a hotel; I got a bad case of what Indian's euphemistically refer to as "loose motions". It was inevitable - almost all tourists get some sort of intestinal bacteria during their stay - but I wish it could have come at a better time. Actually, there really is no "better time" to spend two and a half days walking from the bed to the toilet and back. Since I have arrived in India I have not eaten any meat, avoided uncooked fruits and vegetables, and only drank bottled water. At the Vipassana center I became comfortable and I relaxed my rules; on the third morning I ate a plateful of fresh bean sprouts that were undoubtedly washed in regular tap water. Lesson learned.

The meditation course was very intensive and intense. The schedule is EXACTLY as follows:

04:00 - Wake Up
04:30 - 06:30 Meditation
06:30 - 07:00 Breakfast
07:00 - 08:00 Rest
08:00 - 11:00 Meditation
11:00 - 11:30 Lunch
11:30 - 13:00 Rest
13:00 - 17:00 Meditation
17:00 - 17:30 Tea
17:30 - 18:00 Walking
18:00 - 21:00 Meditation
21:00 - 21:30 Questions to the Teacher (optional)
21:30 Lights Out

In case your doing the math, that is 12 hours of meditation per day. The rules, as well as the schedule, are very restrictive; no outside food, no reading or writing materials of any kind, no phones or music devices, and no medicine unless absolutely necessary. Perhaps the most noticeable rule of all is that of "Noble Silence". For the ten day of the meditation retreat you are not to speak to anyone at anytime, with the exception of simple questions to the teacher pertaining to the meditation technique. This rule was actually not difficult to follow or enforce. Since everyone at the center was there for the same purpose, there was little temptation to speak to anyone. It was difficult to follow the meal schedule because the afternoon "tea" was just that, tea with a light snack. You can imagine the growling stomachs in the meditation hall at six in the morning when the last meal was nineteen hours ago.

Meditation is extremely simple - focus your mind to the present moment. Meditation is also the most difficult thing I have ever attempted. In an environment with no distractions or worries, all I had to do was calm my mind, empty it of all thoughts, and focus all mental energy on my natural breath. Those who have tried know that the mind is a wild animal that is not easily tamed. I would relax and use all of my mind to feel the cool air brush against my nostrils and rush into my nasal cavities before pouring out my nostrils again. Vipassana teaches to focus on the breath, because it is natural, sensory, and everyone breathes. The technique makes a great deal of sense, and I love its simplicity and rationality, but that doesn't mean it is easy. Here is a typical excerpt from my mind's inner workings during the course.

One breath in, one breath out . . . two breaths in, two breaths out . . . I wonder how much a visa to Nepal costs . . . it should be warm enough to visit there by May . . . should I work on a farm there or just travel . . . SHIT! I did it again! . . . one breath in, one breath out . . . two breaths in, two breaths out . . . my back is getting sore . . . not as sore as after sorting olives for four hours . . . I wonder if Edouardo is still at the olive farm . . . SHIT! WHY WON'T MY BRAIN SHUT UP?!?!? . . . one breath in, one breath out . . . two breaths in, two breaths out . . .

According to the teacher, this is how all people begin meditation; frustration, failure, and (at least initially) persistence. It is amazing how little control we have over our own minds. We are really good at thinking, but all of our thinking concerns the future and the past, we rarely stop and thinking about what is going on at the present moment. A good example is driving. I remember drives back and forth between Missouri and Montana in which I covered 30 or 40 miles without any awareness. The sensory and motor movement parts of my brain were functioning on autopilot, completely out of my conscious awareness, perfectly able to drive the vehicle on the long straight highway, while all of my consciousness was consumed with memories, analyses, and emotions. We are all on some level of autopilot all the time. There are constantly sensations, sounds, and sights that our senses perceive, but do not enter our awareness. My very nature as a human makes meditation difficult, but my many years of formal education makes it almost impossible. I have spent my entire life being trained to do three things; think analytically, plan strategically, and communicate effectively. In order to meditate, I must stop my mind from engaging in all three.

Emptying the mind of its clutter and being acutely aware of the results in clarity and control. At least that is what I have been told by the teacher, who at least appears to be very calm and very controlled. I don't have to take his word for it, there are numerous scientific studies on the effect of meditation on the mind. Meditation's ability to alter brain activity and chemistry have been empirically verified and neuroscientists often incorporate the phenomenon of meditation in their theories of the mind.

Vipassana is not a religion, it is a technique. Although its roots are obviously Buddhist, Vipassana claims to be universal and compatible with many of the world's religions. There are no pictures of the Buddha, no mantras, rites, or rituals. There is also no hierarchy except that of teacher and student. I felt very comfortable at the center. It is located on a forested hill far away from the noise and pollution of Jaipur -monkeys and wild peacocks provided the only distractions. It is a peaceful and welcoming place, but my bowels did not feel as comfortable as my mind.

I am now fully recovered. I travelled from Jaipur to Delhi and I'm not sure how to spend the next five days before I travel to Varanasi and Kolkata to meet Jessica. I will probably spend a few days in Delhi's parks and museums, of which I have been to none. Although I am fortified by antibiotics, I will pass on any offers of tasty sprouts for the next five months.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nationalism Gone Wild

My North Indian tour has brought me from the home of the Sikhs to the land of the Hindus and I was able to catch a glimpse of Pakistan along the way. I was reluctant to leave the Golden Temple, with its friendly people and free food, but the road (or railway) beckons.

I was able to meet and get to know many Indians during my time in Amritsar thanks to the Golden Temple being a hassle-free zone, and one man, Paran, made a particular impression on me. After he finished with the usual round of "questioning the foreigner", I turned the table and interrogated him. After a little prying I learned that he was unemployed, has lived in Amritsar his entire life, and eats at the Temple every day because he has no money for food. I asked him where he learned to speak English, since it is usually a sign of high caste or education, and he told me that he graduated from a university with a computing degree, but it is very difficult to find work right now. He was obviously embarrassed by his financial position, but he brightened up when he said that he was planning to become a tour guide, using his English to show foreigners around the city. As he stood up to leave, I realized that 1) he was not a scam artist 2) he needed help and money 3) I needed a guide to get to the Pakistani border. So I made a proposition; I would pay him 150 Rupees ($3) to accompany me to the border with Pakistan as my guide. Most tourists hire a taxi to take them to the border and then back to Amritsar, which costs 600 Rupees. The public bus system in rural India is very cheap, only 50 Rupees to the border and back, but it is not easy for a foreigner to navigate because the signs are in Punjabi and Hindi and the drivers don't speak English. So my guide would be make more than the average day's wage in one afternoon and I would save some cash and get to see more of the Indian country-side.

This raises a legitimate and pertinent question; why was I so intent on getting to the Pakistani border? I have no interest in visiting Pakistan at this time, and I can't since I don't have a visa. So why go to the border only to turn around and go back? To join the border closing ceremony/party/nationalistic pep-rally, of course. The border crossing near Amritsar is the only open point between the two giant nations of India and Pakistan, who have perennially bad relations and a disputed border in Kashmir. Each evening both nations put on a big nationalistic show to crowds of people on each side as they ceremonially close the border. There are bleachers, food vendors, speakers blaring Hindi pop music, and even a charismatic MC to rally the crowd. All in all it is one of the most bizarre gatherings I have ever seen. Luckily I had my guide, Paran, to translate and explain some of the happenings, but such things defy a rational explanation. Maybe my photos will illustrate the scene better, but they are distant and vague. I have some videos that I will try to post, if I can figure out how.

It was fascinating to see the crowds of cheering spectators shouting "Long Live India!" while another large crowd on the other side of the fence yelled "Long Live Pakistan!". The border guards had an elaborate succession of marches, which amounted to a hyper-masculine display of nationalism and power. Finally, the flags were lowered, the gate was closed, and the crowd dispersed. Weird, but an interesting insight into how these two countries, which were originally one under the British, now deal with each other. I also was able to help out Paran, who was more enthusiastic than ever about become a tour guide, but I know he helped me out more because I would have probably ended up stranded in some remote village had he not been there to lead the way.

Now I am in Rishikesh; a Hindu holy city on the Ganges river in the foothills of the Himalayas where cows, white hippies with dreadlocks, wild monkeys, and Hindu swamis roam the streets. This is the place where the Beatles came to study meditation and yoga with the Maharishi in the '60s and now it is the "yoga capital of the world".

The setting is beautiful; the Ganges is clear and fast flowing between the lush green mountains. Also the air is relatively free of India's ubiquitous pollution and the streets are more pedestrian friendly. I can't say I'm smitten with the place, it wreaks too much of "spiritual commercialism". By this I mean a lot of rich kids and retirees come here to pay people to "enlighten" them, or they at least buy enough cool Indian clothes and trinkets to convince their friends back home that they have become enlightened. Regardless, it is a nice place to hang out and relax for a few days. Today I had a nice hike to a waterfall with many encounters with curious monkeys. I'm sure I would enjoy this place much more if I were staying in one of the many ashrams or taking a yoga course, but I must keep moving.

I am leaving tomorrow for Haridware and then Jaipur where I will join a ten day meditation retreat. Afterwards I will visit Varanasi, which is one of Hinduisms holiest cities. But in the meantime, I will try to avoid terrorists and their deadly antics.

Friday, November 28, 2008

All's Well in Rishikesh!

Just a really quick post to relieve those who are worried by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai - I'm fine! It is true that terrorists attacked a number of luxury hotels and restaurants in Mumbai reportedly were looking for Brits and Americans. Fortunately, I am not in Mumbai and definetly not in any luxury hotels or restaurants! Unfortunately, many innocent people, mostly Indian citizens lost their lives, and India's reputation as a safe tourist destination has been tarnished.

That is all, just a note to let everyone know that I'm OK.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Seeking the Sikhs

I made it out of the madness that is Delhi in one piece without getting ripped off - in fact I feel guilty after every transaction because things are so incredibly cheap. An all-you-can-eat traditional Thali (dal, curried veggies, flatbread, and rice) costs 25 rupees -- that is exactly 50 cents! Add a steaming cup of chai and your looking at a bill that could top 60 cents, which means it is nearly impossible to go broke here, even if you are overcharged, it amounts to a few nickels. I was obviously thrilled by how affordable everything was in Delhi, but that hardly compares with the deal I am enjoying in Amritsar.
I took an overnight bus (bad idea, cold, cramped and dirty) from Delhi to Amritsar two nights ago in order to escape the congested city. I couldn't have chosen a better antidote to Delhi's crowds and aggressive salesmen; Amritsar's Golden Temple is a haven of calm. The temple, which is the center of the Sikh religion, could not be more welcoming. Peace and serenity radiate from the temple, despite the fact that thousands visit this holy place each day. Not only is it a beacon of calm, it is also stunningly beautiful. The "Golden" Temple gets its name from a small building in the center of the complex which is plated in 1500 pounds of gold. Usually this kind of ostentatious display of wealth by organized religion repels me, but the Sikhs balance this with incredible generosity. I will stay at the Golden Temple for three nights with absolutely no expectation of payment of any sort. Not only do they provide free lodging, but they have a 24 hour community kitchen that serves delicious all-you-can-eat Indian meals to over 20,000 people each day! It sounds too good to be true, but trust me, it is both very good and true.
After a few days of Delhi, I became very nervous when approached by Indians because I assumed they were out to get money somehow, which is usually the case in Delhi. The first person who approached me in the Golden Temple startled me and I began to politely walk away, until I realized that he wasn't selling anything and he didn't want anything from me except some friendly conversation. He was genuinely interested in why an American was in Amritsar and he was happy to tell me about his religion and its history. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was desperately in need of a guide because I know very little about the Sikh religion and even less about the rituals that take place in the Golden Temple. He walked me through the central ritual in the temple, which involves entering the Golden building in the center and offering food to the men who are reading from the holy book. Not only did he make sure I didn't make any offensive mistakes, but he explained the significance of it all. It was so refreshing to finally meet an Indian who I could talk to as a friend out of the context of a business transaction!
After just a few hours in Amritsar my curiosity about Sikhism bloomed. It is a fascinating religion which is relatively new by Indian standards (about 400 years old). The founder of the religion, Guru Sahib, sought combine elements of the two dominant religions of India; Hinduism and Islam. He also wanted to end the injustice of the caste system in India, which has traditionally labeled millions of Indians as "untouchable". The community kitchen is a fixture of every Sikh temple because it demonstrates two cardinal precepts of the faith; generosity and equality. Men, women, rich, poor, Hindu, Muslim, Christian - all are welcome to join in the communal meals and everyone sits side by side on the floor. This may not seem like a dramatic concept, but traditionally people belonging to the upper caste (Brahmans) do not even touch, much less eat in the company of those of lower castes. Sikhs also do away with the gender segregation that is so common in Islam. In this way it is a very egalitarian and progressive religion. I feel very welcome and at home in the temple, so I'm thankful my Thanksgiving dinner will be a plate of simple Indian food enjoyed on the floor with thousands of Indians of every creed and caste.

The Golden Temple has not always been such a peaceful place. The Punjab Province, where Amritsar is located and Sikhism was born, experienced a great deal of unrest in the 1980s. Sikhs were unhappy with the government of Indira Gandhi and wanted to form an independent nation, Khalistan, from the Punjabi speaking provinces of India and Pakistan. Rebel groups formed and armed themselves, eventually taking refuge in the Golden Temple in 1983 demanding the independence of Punjab Province. Mrs. Gandhi (no relation to THE Gandhi) who was politically and religiously Hindu, decided to use a strong-arm military tactic instead of negotiation. On June 5th, 1984 she ordered the Indian army to storm the temple to evict and kill the militants. The results were disastrous. After two days of heavy fighting much of the temple was destroyed and thousands of innocent Sikh pilgrims were killed. This resulted in Sikhs protesting around the world and further unrest in Punjab Province. Sikhs have a very bloody history full of political persecution and it is actually a requirement that all Sikhs carry a special sword, "Kirpan" at all times as a reminder of their duty to defend their faith against injustice. They had their revenge on October 31, 1984 when Indira Gandhi was shot by two of her Sikh body guards. This led to anti-Sikh riots throughout India, and relations between Hindus and Sikhs are still tense, despite years of rapprochement. In India religion and politics are taken much more seriously than in America; they are often a matter of life and death.

So there is your daily dose of religious history. If you think that you will never actually run into a Sikh, you are almost certainly wrong; there are over a million Sikhs in North America, all of whom can be recognized by their special turban which covers their uncut hair. I will leave the Sikh homeland in two days on an overnight train to Rishikesh, which is a Hindu holy city that is popular with backpackers. I have photos of a few photos of Delhi and some decent photos of the Golden Temple now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Safe and Sane Thanks to Bahrain

I think that I have finally arrived in Delhi, but it feels more like I have woken up in a cartoon; a world full of vivid colors, bizarre characters, layers and layers of ridiculous sound effects, and constant unceasing motion in every direction. Not to mention the smells; exotic spices, urine, baking bread, burning trash, perfumes, and body odor (most likely my own) fill the air. All in all it is a little overwhelming after three nights of little or no sleep on trains, airport chairs, and planes.

The trek began when I said some heartfelt goodbyes at Yakabagh house and headed off to Istanbul on an overnight bus. Being ever-conscious of my ever-depleting budget, I bypassed Istanbul and took the bus company's free shuttle to the airport. Supplied with a jar of Nutela and a loaf of bread, I waited out until my 4 a.m. flight to Bahrain (a tiny island in the Middle East for those of you, like me, who had no idea). This turned into a 6:30 flight, but they mercifully served a nice breakfast, and the best was yet to come. I was fully prepared for 14 hours of reading and munching on junk-food in the Bahrain airport during my layover, but after disembarking, the passengers were directed to a customer service counter at which we were issued hotel and meal vouchers! Every budget backpacker's dream! As if in a dream, I was transported to a four star hotel in the Kingdom of Bahrain with a full-out-all-you-can-eat international lunch buffet waiting for me! Hummus, grilled vegies, Morrocan rice and lamb, Tandoori chicken, Polynesian beef, Thai shrimp curry, and a whole table of deserts! I ate until walking became strenuous, and standing up straight was impossible. After a luxurious shower and a glorious nap, I went down for Round 2, which was pretty uninspired because my digestive system was still trying to deal with the pounds of spices, meat, and flavors that bombarded it only a few hours before. I was then taken back to the airport where my flight was boarding and where another meal was promptly served. This whole post may be heavy with food references, but when you have a budget of about $5 a day, free meals are a big deal, and two free all-you-can-eat meals in one day is a miracle that needs to be communicated to the world.

I was a little nervous for my arrival in Delhi because I had been reading my Lonely Planet guidebook (I finally broke my own "no guide book" rule because India is just too big and confusing) about how the taxi drivers at the airport are some of the best scammers in the world. Sure enough, they tried every scam in the book. Literally. First he tried to charge me double the going rate. No problem, I was expecting that one. I just held my ground, walked away as if I was going to another driver, and he caved in to my price. That was the easy part. When we were in the car he immediately asked me if it was my first time in India, sizing me up for the next scam, just as the LP guide said. I answered with a non-chalent "no, of course not", but the driver didn't seem impressed. He then asked if I had called to confirm my room, which I hadn't. I told him not to worry about it because I had an email confirmation. Still, he insisted on calling to check on my room because it is the tourist season and many hotels are over-booked and he doesn't want me to be stranded without a room. Of course it is just my well-being that he has in mind, right? Not even close. The scam is that he calls a different number, some friend, and he says the hotel gave away the room. Then he can take me to another hotel from which he will get a nice commission for bringing in a hapless tourist. I was well aware of this one too, so I refused to let him call. He took that in stride and said that he had to stop at a "tourist information center" because the address I provided was "no good", which was obviously B.S. because I had the exact address as well as two landmarks that it was near. Of course at the "information center" there was a sketchy guy who insisted that my hotel did not exist and that there is a much better on just down the street . . . that is when I had to raise my voice and actually get angry. All of a sudden we were back in the car and two minutes later I was at the door to my hotel! Amazing how that works. Of course the hotel also tried to scam me by telling me that all the economy rooms were full and that I would have to take a deluxe room, by this point I was already jaded and demanded the same room I had reserved, and Viola! I had my economy room. I guess I'm glad I'm getting my India Ripoff's 101 course out of the way early, but I'm sure it will become exhausting eventually.

I'll be spending my first two days in India taking things very slowly. I slept for six hours before finally venturing out into the urban jungle to find an internet cafe and write this post. Next; more napping. I have six months in the country and I'm in no hurry to get the inevitable "Delhi Belly" that plagues travelers who are plopped into a whole new universe of germs and bacteria while their immune systems are worn and vulnerable. So I'm taking things slowly, I have lots of time to explore the city.

I'll have pictures as soon as I suck up my pride and put on my tourist uniform. Until then, I have my Yakabagh photos up on Picasa.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Calm Before the Storm

The last week and a half has been blissfully simple, perfectly balanced, constantly stimulating, and almost too healthy. Morning call to prayer at sunrise from the local mosque (about 20 feet from where I sleep), Yoga at 6, breakfast at 6:30, olive picking until lunch, then crushing and pressing the olives for oil before a authentic Turkish dinner. Our group is now in a rhythm (physically, mentally, and socially) but the end of the workcamp is drawing near. Yakabagh House is more than a place, it is a state of mind.

I apologize if the above paragraph sounds a little flaky and/or corny, but this place and my time here are difficult to describe in prose. The house is surrounded by citrus trees that are yielding fresh oranges, pomelos, and mandarins, I spend my nights sleeping in a treehouse under the stars, and the olive grove is perched on a hill overlooking the Xanthos valley and the ancient Lycian city of Pinara. That is just the setting, the work itself is stimulating and satisfying. Olive picking is obviously monotonous, but climbing trees on warm Mediterranean mornings is not so bad. The group is also involved in the actual oil production, in which we use custom machines to extract the oil from the olives and to process olives into food. I've learned a lot, including that raw olives taste TERRIBLE and that green and black olives are not different varieties- green olives are just young black olives.
The people I've come to know here are also very special. It is a very international group as I mentioned before, but what makes the situation even more unique is that the couple which runs the farm are also intercultural. Sinan is a native Turk, but his wife, Isabel, is Cuban and speaks only Spanish and Turkish. At any given meal there are five languages spoken - Turkish, English, Spanish, French, and German. This makes me painfully aware of how mono-lingual I am, something which I am determined to change in the coming years. Although I've learned little to no Turkish, I have learned more Spanish in the past few days than in all my Spanish classes combined. A casual environment, encouraging teacher, and proper motivation are infinitely more conducive to learning a language than a classroom setting. I really didn't expect to come away from Turkey with more Spanish, but I like these kinds of unexpected twists.

So despite a fall from a tree which left me with a swollen knee, and the rain today which has kept us indoors, my time here has been better than I expected. All of the fresh fruit and vegetables have been the perfect antidote to the loads of white flour and cheese that I consumed in Georgia, so my body is beginning to regain its former shape. It is hard to believe that one week from now I will enter the madness of the Indian sub-continent where a whole new phase of my journey will begin. But, for now, I will try to be more mindful of the present and enjoy each moment as it happens . . .

Sorry I have no photos, but I can't upload them on this computer, so here are a few from the Yakabagh website. I'll post again and add pictures when I pass through Istanbul in about a week on the way to the airport.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Just Another Tourist

As much as I despise looking like the stereotypical tourist, I have spent the last three days carrying around the tourist trifecta; camera, bottle of water, and map. Istanbul has been getting tourists for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so needless to say the locals are used to being gawked at, photographed and asked stupid questions in foreign languages. Luckily I was in good company; I was joined by six other young people from around the world (America, France, Holland, Korea, Switzerland, and Japan) who will also be traveling to the coast to harvest olives. We also had a local tourguide who was able to answer most of our questions and prevented us from getting helplessly lost in the maze of streets that wind around Byzantium.

We spent the first day just wandering around and getting a feel for the city. The weather has been absolutely perfect for autumn; warm sunny days and cool nights. The tourist season is over, so the streets are relatively empty compared to the spring and summer months, but Istanbul attracts visitors year-round. The second day was spent touring the Aya Sofia Cathedral/Mosque/Museum - a long and complicated history, but a seriously amazing building. We also visited the Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, and Blue Mosque, which was the first mosque that I have ever entered. The Blue Mosque was simply decorated and very peaceful, despite there being more tourists than worshipers.

Yesterday we all went for a cruise up the Bosphorus Straight, the body of water which connects the Black Sea to the Mediteranean, and divides the European and Asian sides of the city. After a long hike uphill to an old castle we relaxed and laid in the sun before having a picnic on the boatride back to the city. I enjoyed being out of the city because Istanbul is not the best place for a backpacker on a tight budget. Turkey as a whole is quite cheap, but prices in Istanbul are comparable to prices in some Eurpean cities. I shouldn't complain because a cheap meal of a Doner Kebab and drink can be had for less than three dollars, but a meal at a nicer restaurant is closer to ten dollars. I guess I've just been spoiled by free meals at Temi and the very cheap food in Eastern Turkey.

Tonight I take a 12 hours bus ride from Istanbul to Fethiye to begin picking olives. The weather should be nice and warm and the beach is only a short distance from where we are staying, so again I am narrowly escaping winter's arrival. I hope to post again soon with pictures of the olive farm, but I have no idea about internet access at the site. But here are my touristy pics of Istanbul.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Days of Traveling

Independent travel can be immensely rewarding with beautiful days full of exotic sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. Then there are the other days. The in-between days which are filled with dirty bus stops, angry taxi drivers, overpriced food, and constant confusion about where the hell I am how how to get where I'm trying to go. During the last week I have had both, luckily more of the former than the latter.

The trip from Tbilisi, Georgia to Trabzon, Turkey was one of the more miserable that I have had the displeasure of experience thus far on my trip. I tried to sleep on a noisy and busy train from Tbilisi to Batumi, arriving very tired before dawn. I wandered aimlessly for about an hour to postpone the inevitable bargaining and arguing with a taxi driver, which is absolutely necessary to get a fair price for the trip to the Turkish border. After a prolonged battle with a group of persistant old men who view me as an obscenely rich American, I finally got a fair fare to the border. Then the fun part began. For a variety of reasons, some sensible and others more malicious, getting into Turkey is always an ordeal. When I arrived at the border at 9 a.m., there were about 500 people waiting in "line" to get through the passport control. In fact, it was nothing like a line, it was a mass of hurried, desperate Georgians all pushing, shoving, and squirming their way to the small gate at which there were only TWO Turkish border guards checking passports. There were no bathrooms, no concessions and no orderliness to be found. My entire morning, and afternoon, were spent getting pushed, squeezed and elbowed by people of all shapes and sizes. It was so bad towards the front that an old man in front of me passed out and a young woman became hysterical, she screamed bloody murder until she was carried away. I can see how people die in stampedes and crowds in India and other populous places - the pressure of shoulders on every side was really incredible.

So the ordeal ended at around 4 p.m. when I finally got an little stamp on my passport. Then came more arguing, haggling and bargaining with a new set of cab drivers intent on getting as much money from me as possible. The first price I was quoted was 200 Lira to Hopa. That is $120 for a ten mile ride. Needless to say, I just laughed. I had to continue this from town to town, taking a shared minibus to Rize and then a large bus to Trabzon. I am always running into travelers who say they "just love to bargain" with the locals when they travel. I understand the necessity of negotiating a fair price, it is tradition in many cultures and economies, but I do not enjoy the process. A white man traveling alone with a large backpack is always targeted as an easy mark, so I immediately start at a disadvantage. In order to get a fair price, I have to not only be firm, but do the walking-away act at least two or three times until they get the point that I refuse to pay more because I'm American. This obviously frustrates and disappoints the vendor, so the process ends with me angry and the vendor disappointed - someone please explain how this can be fun. The worst part is that I usually have more money in my pocket than the locals earn in a month, so I always end up feeling a tinge of guilt about arguing about a few dollars with a person who is supporting a family on his or her meager income. Those few dollars are much more important to them then they are to me, but if I went around paying whatever the locals asked for I would have been broke in Bulgaria. So the bargaining continues, but only out of necessity.

I arrived in a cold and rainy Trabzon (don't worry, the entire post isn't a long whine; there is a happy ending) with some vague information about a Catholic convent which takes in travelers. I wandered, asking for Santa Maria whenever I saw someone who looked friendly. Finally I found it in the middle of the old quarter of town and knocked on the steel gates. I almost gave up after 5 minutes of knocking and yelling, but just before I went to Plan B (which I had not yet formed) two French guys opened the gate and greeted me warmly. They seemed surprised, but happy, to see me, and immediately showed me to my room. Since this was a Catholic convent, I imagined a cot in a basement with minimal accommodations; I couldn't have been more wrong. I had an entire guesthouse to myself. Shower and Western toilet in my room, full kitchen, washer and dryer, and a garden terrace. I almost wept out of pure joy. Remember that at this point I had not enjoyed hot water or a shower in a month, and this shower had unlimited hot water, lots of pressure, and a removable shower head! The best part of all -- it was FREE! Almost enough to convert me to Catholicism . . .

So I spent the next three days relaxing and enjoying Trabzon. I can not fathom why the guidebooks all give the city a lackluster review; the setting is beautiful, the people are friendly and it is all much cheaper and more authentic than Istanbul. Getting by with English isn't easy, but why should it be? The other Trabzon photos are here.

So now I am back in the touristy but incomparable city of Istanbul to meet with the fellow members of my Turkish work camp. We have a few days of doing the touristy bit in Istanbul before heading down to the coast to start harvesting olives for two and a half weeks. I'll try to post my Istanbul pictures before I head off to the camp because I don't know if I'll have regular internet access.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Running Away from Winter

It was difficult to say goodbye to the people of Temi this morning. I'm sure more difficult for me than them because they are used to waving goodbye to volunteers, but I am not used to saying goodbye to 60 wonderful and caring people all at once.

Although it was tough to leave, it an appropriate time to move on. The seasons are changing and the air is cooling quickly, which means no more agricultural work and construction projects are wrapping up for the winter. There is already snow on the ground and most of the fruit has fallen from the trees.

My last few days were spent taking trips to local sites with some of the Temi residents, including an old church overlooking the Telavi valley. I enjoyed the decrease in work and took the opportunity to goof off with the kids as often as possible. I have lots of pictures now, which you can view at Picasa. I just wanted to make a quick post while I'm here in Tbilisi for the afternoon. Tonight I catch a sleeper train to Batumi, then tomorrow a bus to Trabzon, Turkey. I might spend a couple nights in Trabzon before heading back to Istanbul to meet my workcamp group for a few days of sightseeing. Yeah for a week of Trains, Buses and Taxis :-(

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Has It Really Been 3 Weeks?

It is difficult to describe three amazing weeks in Georgia in one posting, but since this is the first time I've had internet access, I guess I'll have to try. Temi is a very unique place - 60 individuals from very different backgrounds living together and working extremely hard to build a utopian community that serves as a home to the socially vulnerable and lives close to the earth. Sounds like a cliché hippie idea, but this couldn't be farther from the truth. Temi has sprung out of the Georgian culture's deep sense of hospitality and community to fill an urgent need - replacing the failed Soviet era social care institutions for orphans and people with physical and mental disabilities.

Temi is a community for those without a community of their own, but feels more like one large family. Being an organizationally minded Westerner, I found the whole scene to chaotic and confusing during my first week. There are no job titles, no organizational structure, and no hierarchy. Despite this lack of formal structure, Temi is very efficient I was wrong to assume that anarchy prevailed. There is a very effective form of organization, that of interpersonal accountability and personal motivation for the group to succeed. There are no posted rules, no community meetings, and no formal system for punishing members, but problem behaviors and community issues are dealt with on a daily basis through mutual trust and respect between individuals.

My role at Temi has also been very informal - work when I want doing whatever I like. I still find this frustrating because I'm used to having a schedule and a task list at all times. I am definitely used to the schedule; breakfast at 10, work until lunch at 3 and then a few more hours of work until dinner at 7. My work has included harvesting vegetables from the garden, cutting firewood, helping with the various construction projects, gathering fruits and mushrooms in the mountains, and a little bit of grantwriting. Unfortunately this work has not been enough to burn off the thousands of calories that I consume each day. All food here is fresh and home-made - fresh baked bread with homemade cheese for breakfast, fresh salad and soup for lunch and some sort of Georgian specialty for dinner. Due to my weak will-power, the over zealous Georgian hospitality and the use of whole milk and lots and lots of butter in the food, I have gained probably ten pounds since my arrival. I think I need to fast for the next month in Turkey to get back to normal.

Not all aspects of life at Temi are as perfect as the above description may indicate. The facilities are dirty and overcrowded, there is almost no hot water, and there is no shower. Yes, I have gone three weeks straight without a shower. Bathing materials include a bar of soap, a big bucket and a small bucket of lukewarm water - I'll let you figure it out. Money is understandably scarce, so the children do not have the clothes or toys that they would like, and clothes are not as new or clean as many of the other children in the village school. Despite these difficulties, all the children are loved and well-fed, and are much happier than they would be at a large government run institution.

One child in particular has affected me deeply. Datuna is an adorable seven year old boy who is in a wheelchair due to a fall out of a seventh story window. His mother was abusive and chronically homeless, and he came to Temi about three years ago in bad health and with behavioral difficulties. He was immediately accepted into the Temi community and his development since he arrived has been very positive. He is a gifted child, he already speaks several English words just from listening to me speak. During my stay, a Scottish Physical Therapist has visited to assess his condition and to teach him exercises which may increase his mobility. The PT was accompanied by a Venezuelan filmmaker who will be producing a documentary about Temi and Datuna in particular. The most exciting result of the visit is that there is a surgeon in the UK who can repair some of his spinal damage enabling him to stand. Unfortunately there are many barriers preventing this from happening, mainly legal. His mother is technically still his legal guardian and she would have to give permission for him to have surgery, not to mention to get a passport and visa to allow him to travel to the UK. Transfer of custody of a child has never taken place in Georgia, so it will be no easy task. The Georgian Human Rights Ombudsman visited Temi to discuss the situation, so there is hope. I have learned so much from this situation - it is definitely "Intercultural Youth and Family Development" in action!

The entire experience has been both rewarding and humbling. Since I don't speak more than a dozen words in Georgian and only three people at Temi speak any English, my ability to communicate is very limited. I am known as "Luca" by many people here, but I am also known as "Lucasee" by many of the children - "-see" is a diminutive suffix added to the end of children's names when they are young. I think this is both endearing and appropriate because I am as helpless and ignorant as a child. I do not know how to do many things that all Georgians take for granted and I can't speak as well as a three year old. I realize now how absolutely integral learning the local language is to successful intercultural helping - this is the first time I have traveled to a place where English is almost completely unknown. It never ceases to amaze me that people are always apologizing to me for not speaking English -- I tell them that I am the one who traveled to Georgia, it is I who should be apologizing to them. Imagine a Georgian coming to the US not speaking a word of English and expecting people to understand Georgian. This is obviously a ridiculous scenerio, but the reverse should be considered equally ridiculous.

I have about a week left at Temi before heading Westward to Istanbul for four days of touring the big historic sites and taking long, hot, luxurious showers at every opportunity.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Rest and Relaxation in Georgia

Based on the media coverage that Georgia has recieved in the past few months, most people imagine the country as a heap of smoldering rubble. It is true that Russia has been bullying the small nation around, but luckily the military clashes have been isolated in two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are located in the north of the country. The rest of the nation is unscathed and going about their business as normal. In fact, I have found Tbilisi to be a fairly calm and quiet capital city.

Not only is Tbilisi calm, it is located in an incredibly beautiful setting; mountains surround the city and the Mtkvari River (how is that for a consonant cluster?) runs through the center. There are ancient churches of all kinds (Armenian, Georgian, Zorastrian, Muslim) scattered throughout the city. There is a little bit of a Soviet feel in the outskirts of the city, but the center does not appear to be Soviet at all, but much older. Despite the ubiquitous historical monuments, the city is very cosmopolitan and is Westernizing at a very rapid pace.

I scored big with my couchsurfing arrangment - I have a huge apartment with a balcony overlooking a main street all to myself! My host has moved out but still has the place for the remainder of the month, so until tomorrow morning it is all mine. It has been good to catch up on some sleep after a week of traveling. My night train from Batumi to Tbilisi involved a four year old with access to unlimited Fanta, candy bars and chewing gum. Needless to say, it was not a quiet night and I didn't get much sleep.

I spent the day touring the city and taking pictures of the main landmarks. Unfortunately, I am an unskilled and unenthusiastic photographer with a sub-standard digital camera. Thus, my pictures make Georgia look grey and dull. I assure you that everything I have photographed looked twice as good in person. Now that you are excited to see my pictures, here they are.

Tomorrow I head East on a mini-bus for Gremi Village in the Kakheti region to join the Temi-Community for a month of grape harvesting. The village is fairly remote, so I don't know if I will have any internet access, so there may be an extended lapse in my postings. Hopefully there will be a nearby internet terminal so that I can get at least a weekly information fix and stay in touch.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Unexpected and Unbelievable Turkish Hospitality

Traveling alone has its own set of risks and rewards. There is the ever-present risk that you will be scammed, conned or ripped off. There is also a certain loneliness that you experience on an 18 hour bus ride during which you hear hardly a word you can understand. These conditions can easily lead to isolation, but I learned an important lesson on my bus trip to Trabzon - most people are genuinely nice and helpful. This of course does not mean that I will assume that a random stranger is out to help me along, but it does mean that being overly paranoid will not lead to enjoyable travels. I just have to trust my instincts and go with the flow.

Go with the flow is exactly what I did when I met Celib on the bus. He noticed that I spoke English and no Turkish and tried extremely hard to communicate with me, despite the fact that his English vocabulary consists of about 10 words. It is amazing how much can be communicated with 10 words, lots of hand gestures, and 18 hours on a bus. Near the end of the journey, I realized that he was inviting me to his home outside of Trabzon. I was immediately suspicious and I relented. I then realized that the probability of him taking me to his dungeon and hacking me to bits was very remote, so I decided to go for it. He seemed like a nice guy, right?

I couldn't have been more right. We got off the bus about 30 kilometers before Trabzon and hitched a ride into the green hills that overlooked the Black Sea. It was stunningly beautiful, like nowhere I have ever seen. We first visited his house where he lives with his parents, sister and grandmother. By Western standards, he is very poor, but they have everything they need. They grow nearly everything imaginable - Kiwis, Bananas, Potatoes, Pears, Apples, Corn, Carrots, Hazelnuts, and fruits whose name I don't even know. They also have chickens, a cow and doves (for eggs apparently). After a quick tour of his home, he rushed me up to the village school so that I could speak English to the school children. I really had no idea what to expect, but I was so engrossed by the exotic beauty of my surroundings I had no time to be nervous. When we entered the school and he announced that I was an American I was immediately swamped by students yelling "Hello America!". I was then ushered into the teacher's lounge where I chatted with the teachers using the English teacher as a translator. They had a lot of questions about my perception of Turkey and Islam, none of which I was really comfortable answering, but I tried my best. I then went to the English class and started to help with the lesson before I was summoned to the Principal's office. Yes, I was in trouble. Apparently strange foreign guys who randomly show up on a bus aren't allowed to hang out in classrooms. Not really a bad rule when you think about it, but the English teacher was furious. I had an awkward half hour in the Principal's office before escorting out to take some photos. Celib's younger brother then walked me back to his home.

Since it is Ramadan, no one in the village (except young children) eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. This is obviously tough to do, so most people take a substantial nap during the day, which is exactly what I did when I got back. I woke up to the evening call to prayer echoing within the valley and the family sitting down for their long-awaited dinner. It was a delicious feast of fish from the Black Sea and various fruits and vegetables that they had grown. I was forced to eat until I was stuffed and then we went around to Celib's various relatives houses for more tea and snacks. It was an amazing display of hospitality, and I was barely able to express my thanks due to my absolute ignorance of the Turkish language.

The next day I was fed breakfast even though they could not eat themselves. I showed the family pictures of my family from my Ipod and now they are all invited to Turkey next year! I don't think that is going to happen, but I know the offer was genuine. Celib then gave me a huge shopping bag full of roasted hazelnuts (which I love) took me to the bus station in Trabzon and insisted on buying my ticket to Batumi, Georgia, as well as buying me snacks to take on the trip. But no, it didn't stop there. Once I was on the bus, he came on board 3 times to tell me what was going on with the driver and why we were running late. He even asked people sitting around me if they spoke English so that I would have someone to talk to!!! He did all of this and expected absolutely nothing in return.

I am now safely in Georgia waiting for an overnight train to Tbilisi. I'm staying with a Couchsurfer for two nights and then I'm off to Temi-Community in the far Eastern corner of Georgia. I'll try to post pictures and stuff about Georgia in the next few days while in Tbilisi because I don't know if I'll have any internet connection for a while after that.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Good Time to be Abroad

In the past few days I have been trying to keep updated on local and national disasters that have befallen my home. The national banking crisis is shaking the US financial system to its core and my hometown of Silex, Missouri is recovering from a catastrophic flood. I have been gone for a month now, and this is usually when the first wave of homesickness occurs. Knowing that the US economy is crumbling and that my hometown is busy scraping up river mud reminds me why I went abroad in the first place.

Of course I have a great deal of sympathy for my friends and family who have had their homes destroyed by the Cuivre River and part of me wishes I was home to help them in this time of need. However, I do not have the least bit of sympathy for the investment bankers who are so shortsighted that they couldn't put their greed on hold for a minute in order to prevent this collapse. Thank goodness good ol' Uncle Sam will be there to bail his high dollar friends out. My only question is this; if the government can afford to spend $700,000,000,000.00 to bail out wealthy bankers, why can't it afford a few thousand dollars to bail out the financially strapped victims of a devastating flood in the nation's heartland?

Enough about the eternally frustrating world of money and politics. Istanbul is awesome! I have been a bit under the weather the past few days with a head cold, but I still had plenty of time to wander around the backstreets and gaze at the innumerable ancient monuments around the city. I also had the pleasure of hopping from Europe to Asia and back again in the same afternoon. That's right; Istanbul is the only city in the world which occupies two continents. It truly is where East meets West. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes are very exotic. Unfortunately, there are many people who can spot a tourist from a mile away and instantly see dollar signs. I have a few tricks for dealing with these people, including dressing down as much as possible and speaking Spanish when they approach me. When I go out in sandals, riped up shorts and an old T-shirt, I become invisible to the hundreds of carpet salesman, tour guides and club promoters who assume I'm a bum, or worse, a dirty hippy. The truth is that they aren't far off - I budget does not allow for buying any Oriental rugs while I'm here.

Today I leave for Trabzon, which is in the far Northeastern corner of Turkey on the Black Sea coast. I'll spend two nights there staying either at a Catholic Convent (free rooms) or with a Couchsurfing host. After that I'm off to Tbilisi, Georgia! Luckily I'll have two more visits to Istanbul, so I didn't feel pressured to see it all this time around.

Sorry there are no pictures, this internet connection is extremely slow and my photos aren't uploading. I've been spoiled by the fast connections in Bulgaria that are faciliated by the EU. I don't know how much internet access I will have for the next month, so posts and photos may be patchy at best.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


I'm now blurry eyed and dazed ın my hostel lobby ın the beautiful city of Istanbul after an adventurous night of passport controls, customs agents, bus transfers and visa purchases. Adventurous ıs euphemıstıc because the entire night was a hurried and confused blur.

I spent the day packing and saying my goodbyes to the wonderful people of Hotnitsa, especially the Sutherlands who have been amazingly gracious hosts throughout the past two weeks. So gracious that Allan called nearly every hotel ın Veliko Tarnovo trying to find someone who would sell me some Euros or Dollars. Why do I need Euros or Dollars when I'm traveling to Turkey, which uses the New Turkısh Lira Good questıon. The inexplicable answer is that an entry visa can only be purchased ın US Dollars or Euros. Of course I don't fully realize this until Sunday evening, two hours before my bus is scheduled to leave. Luckily Allan and Eileen came to the rescue and made some strategic calls, eventually finding a frıend who could sell me 20 Euros in exchange for Bulgarian Leva. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning. On route to their friends' home, Allan and I became stuck behind a military parade marching through the center of Veliko Tarnovo. Brilliant. The detour led to us getting lost in VT's meandering back streets while our cell phone's low battery alarm chimed incessantly and the low fuel light flipped on. With only 20 mınutes remaining until my bus left, I may or may not have become slightly anxious. I now realize that Allan only wanted to make my last few minutes in Bulgaria memorable - which they were - and he delivered me to the bus station with 20 Euros and time to spare. Whew. With all that behind me, I was ready for anything that the Turkish Border Control could throw at me.

The actual bus ride was almost pleasant: spacious seats, a stewardess who delivered free snacks and drinks, and regular bathroom breaks. Greyhound should take note. The border crossing was annoying at worst with lots of needless waiting around and too many guys with mustaches holding enormous machine guns between 1 and 3 AM. I finally arrived ın Istanbul at about 7 and spent about an hour trying to figure out (without a map or guidebook) how to get to my hostel. I was too efficient because now I am here and have to wait three more hours to check-in.

I'll have pictures and stuff about Istanbul in a few days once I am settled. I'm going to spend today resting and strolling and napping. It should be an interesting time to be here because it ıs the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours. This ıs my first visit to a Muslim nation (albeit a secular one), so I have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Strawbale 101: Alternative Buildings and Lifestyles

The "three little pigs" were all wrong - believe it or not strawbales are an excellent building material. I have spent the past week working on a strawbale house that is very stable, extremely well insulated, and relatively easy and affordable to build. Despite what most people think, strawbales are not a fire hazard and are compact and durable enough to last for ages. Not only does straw make pragmatic sense for economic reasons, it is also a sustainable building material that can be acquired locally.

When I arrived in Hotnitsa, the basic structure of the house was in place, so we have been working on sealing the outside of the straw with layers of lime plaster. It is very dirty work, but also rewarding when progress is made. We have successfully finished the first coat since I've arrived and are due to begin the second outer coat tomorrow. Hopefully the second coat will be finished before I leave next weekend, but none of us are experts and we may still encounter a few surprises . . .

I find it fascinating that people were using strawbales to build houses in the Great Plains a century ago, but only recently has the practice been rediscovered as an economic and environmentally friendly way to build a structure. The ability to "Do It Yourself" is also attractive to many people who want the satisfaction of building a house themselves from the ground up. I am really interested in these sorts of alternative building methods, including cordwood, cobb and straw. I'm glad I am seeing the not-so-glamorous side of this alternative building method; I now have a real sense of how much work a project like this can take.

Natural housebuilding takes a lot of work, but it is labor intensive rather than capital intensive. This distinguishes it from modern construction in that it takes a lot of man hours rather than expensive equipment and specialized tools. This is where I come in - cheap labor! Allen and Eileen are registered on the Help Exchange website in order to recruit interested people to help them finish their project. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement for several reasons. The host get an extra set of hands without having to pay - an obvious plus - but simply provide accomodation and food. The volunteer gains experience in a project of interest and free accommodation for their time. In my case, I would never be able to afford a year long trip across Eurasia if I had to pay for accommodation and three meals a day. Also, this project and others give me a chance to gain practical, hands-on skills and get to know one region in some depth.

I have received a lot of grief from people when I tell them that I am 'volunteering' or 'working for free' while abroad, and at times I have questioned why I went to school for so many years if my time is worth nothing more than a bed and three squares a day. In reality though, most people work only for food and accommodation. I was working 60 hours a week in Missoula, but I had very little money left after I paid for my food and accommodation, and what little was left over I saved for traveling. Now, I work only 30 hours a week (6 hours a day/5 days a week) and I have lovely accommodation with three delicious meals that I don't have to prepare myself! And I am doing it in interesting corners of the globe! It is a much simpler arrangement than I had in Missoula - no bills, no taxes, no shopping - and I am learning a great deal.
I have just a few more days here at Hotnitsa, then off to Istanbul, Turkey for a few days before a long bus trip along the Black Sea coast to Tbilisi, Georgia! The next leg of the trip will be a little more adventurous - goodbye Europe and hello Asia!
P.S. - Sorry for spelling errors - the Spellcheck isn't working :-(

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Global Socio-Economic Stratification. Fancy Term in a Simple Village

It is strange to travel thousands of miles and find yourself nearly where you started. Living in the village of Hotnitsa is not unlike living in Silex (population 197) - I fled one small, provincial village for another. Of course many things are different - the language and culture - but much of the rest is the same. Most people make a living in either construction or farming. Everyone knows everyone else's business. Even the climate here in Bulgaria is strikingly similar to that of rural Missouri.

Today while I was walking around with a camera taking pictures of quaint scenes I'm sure the locals thought I was either crazy, very bored or a CIA agent. Of course I would laugh an any foreigner who purposefully travelled to Silex and took pictures of the lackluster scenery, but that is precisely what I want to see and experience during my time abroad. The monuments and museums of lively cities are naturally worth a visit, but I want to capture the mundane aspects of everyday life that are so often ignored. I can get on Google Earth and download a thousand pictures of Rome, London and Prague, but it is much more difficult and rewarding to see the surroundings of the average population. I am an American, but I feel no more at home in New York or San Francisco than I do in London or Toronto. These cities are all international and don't reflect the local history and rich culture of a region. If I wanted to show a foreign guest how Americans really live, I would in fact take him to Silex to hang out at the Kwik Store and cruise the back roads.

Although I am living in a traditional village, it will not be easy to become immersed in Bulgarian culture during my stay. I am living with a British couple (which is a cultural lesson all its own) who have limited Bulgarian social contacts. They are extremely kind and conscientious people who are making a solid effort at getting to know their neighbors, the local culture, and the language. This is made difficult by the fact that Bulgaria is experiencing an influx of British expats who are relocating due to the favorable climate and much more affordable cost of living. Since the Sutherlands have moved to Hotnitsa in 2003, about ten other British families have followed them. These families have naturally become close to one another and have created a community within a community.

An entire anthropological study could be conducted on this phenomenon of European integration. It is fascinating how the British are moving to Bulgaria for the cheap property and low cost of living while tens of thousands of Bulgarians are moving to Britain for the high wages and higher standard of living. The Brits here in Bulgaria seem to be getting along very well - they can get by with very little Bulgarian and the locals are happy to have them as neighbors. I wonder if the Bulgarians in Britain have had such a smooth transition. Undoubtedly they can not get by with only Bulgarian - they must learn English to function - and I'm sure that more than a few individuals view their new Eastern European neighbors with some suspicion. All of the Brits I have talked to here tell stories of being invited into homes for traditional Bulgarian family meals, which makes me wonder how many Bulgarians are invited into their new British neighbors' homes for dinner. I do not mean to say that people in Britain are snobish, rude or racist in any way, at least not any more than the average Western European. I just find it interesting how it is easier to move down the socio-economic heirarchy of nations than it is to move up it. The same can be said of an American moving to Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans will likely be very welcoming and open to a new neighbor from the U.S., but most people in the U.S. would be unlikely be as welcoming to a new neighbor from "south of the border".

Just some thoughts I have had while I'm elbow deep in straw here in Hotnitsa. I've really enjoyed my stay so far. I'm learning a lot about strawbale construction, which I'll post more about once we have made more progress on the house. Today was a day off, so I wandered through the town and walked to the Hotnitsa waterfall. Well, I tried to walk, but I was quickly picked up by two Bulgarians and a Swiss tourist. They were headed to the waterfall and my beard gave me away as a non-Bulgarian. We had a great time hiking around and attempting to communicate. Our conversations was partly in English, but we then moved to Spanish. Yes, one Swiss, two Bulgarians and one American trying to communicate in Spanish. This is why I love to travel!

More Hotnitsa Pictures

Monday, September 8, 2008

So Monasteries ARE Worth the Visit

My thinly veiled disapointment about missing the Rila Monastery was cured yesterday. I spent the entire afternoon (in +90 degree weather) hiking up to a remote monastery in the hills above Veliko Tarnovo. The hike alone was worth it; amazing views of the city, the fortress, and the surrounding hills and valleys. Also, I didn't meet even one other person during 4 hours of hiking. Bulgaria has a ton of well blazed trails which even I didn't get lost on, despite the fact that I had no map and had gotten only sketchy directions from my hostel.

There were a few tourists visiting the Monastery, but they were all Bulgarians out on Sunday drives. It has been amazing how few tourists I have seen in Bulgaria, and of those tourists only one has been an American. Most of the tourists have been Brits or Germans who are passing through on their way to Turkey. I've enjoyed the lack of tourist traps and overrun attractions. Even Missoula had more tourists than Sofia or Veliko Tarnovo!

I was picked up by my Hotnitsa host, Eileen, this morning from Veliko Tarnovo. I was relieved to find that Eileen and her husband Allen are incredibly kind and welcoming people; working with them will be a sincere pleasure. They have a beautiful home in the small village of Hotnitsa and their strawbale house project is progressing nicely. I have especially enjoyed their British expressions and the frequent tea breaks! We got right to work this afternoon and I enjoyed getting my hands dirty. I'll have pictures of the project and the village soon, but now it is dinner time . . .

The pictures of the monastery and hike are now up and added to the Veliko Tarnovo album. Hotnitsa pictures still to come.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Who wants to go to a Monastery anyway?

Traveling can seriously mess up one's sleep schedule. Tired when one should be out and about and wide awake when one should be sleeping. Such was the case for me the day I was to leave for the Rila Monastery. I couldn't stay awake past 8 p.m. but then was wide awake at 4 a.m. only to be back asleep at 7 a.m. - just in time to sleep through the only bus that goes to the Monastery from Sofia. Luckily I had not yet purchased my tickets and because I am traveling solo I can switch up my itinerary any time I like. So I got over my frustration about missing the bus and decided to head to the ancient city of Veliko Tarnovo instead. Good choice - how much fun can one have with a bunch of monks anyway?

Veliko Tarnovo did turn out to be an excellent choice. The city is much more relaxed than Sofia and it is a lot more scenic. There are endless places to stroll around and there are Bulgarians napping under every tree. My hostel is also very good - a big veranda, free internet and two free meals a day. I have spent a lot of time relaxing outdoors and enjoying the summer weather. Most of today was spent just strolling around and getting lost in the winding streets, taking in as many scenic views as possible. I also toured the "Tsarevets Fortress" which overlooks the city. It is a stunning site - castle walls surrounding towers and a restored church on a hill overlooking the town and river. The city itself is mainly a college town; it is home to one of Bulgaria's largest and most prestigous universities. Classes have not yet begun, which is one reason why the city is so quiet.

I have one more full day in VT before the folks from Hotnitsa come to pick me up. I'll probably spend it hiking around some of the hills and maybe going out on the town with some friends from the hostel. Otherwise I'll just be hanging out and planning the next leg of my journey from Bulgaria to Turkey to Georgia. I did some research today and it appears as though I can travel to Georgia as planned!! The situation has stabilized and as long as I steer clear of the conflict zones (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) I shouldn't have a problem. That came as a huge relief to me because I would have been deeply disapointed if I could not visit the Temi Community home in Georgia.

More pics (of much better quality than these) can be found, as will be the norm, at my Picasa site.

My next update will be from the village of Hotnitsa in the care of the Sutherland family!