Saturday, July 18, 2009

Airport Aficionado

It finally happened. It may have taken a year of hand-gesturing my way through seemingly insurmountable language barriers, eating mysterious food served in cheap and unhygienic restaurants, getting lost on incomprehensible byzantine bus routes, and sleeping in rooms ranging from bug and rat infested dungeons to hot and rancid closets, but it finally happened. I wouldn't change a minute of the last year because all of the challenges have given me what no luxury hotel or group tour packages never could; my “a-ha” travel moment.

My travel epiphany happened in London after my second night in a row of sleeping in an airport. First I spent the night in Almaty airport (small, quiet, and clean: **** I give it a four star rating) and the second in London Gatewick (constant loud announcements, but very comfortable seating and the security is not as intrusive as I feared: *** three stars). There is something about spending over 48 hours trying to sleep in busy public spaces that puts accommodation into perspective. Not only was I too broke to get a hotel either of these nights, but I was also too cheap to buy any food. So I spent my hours slicing block cheese and salami, scouting for good spots to snooze, and watching people from all walks of life filter in and out.

Needless to say, when I finally arrived at my hostel in Central London, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Clean beds, hot showers, a locker to store my bag, and a free breakfast! What more could I want? Life was good. That is when it happened. I had just gotten out of a luxurious and unapologetically long hot shower when I heard a familiar sound; a midwestern college girl on a summer Eurotrip. I couldn't believe my ears, not because I was listening to a fellow midwesterner, but because she was complaining energetically. “I can't believe they put 15 people in these rooms . . . like do they even clean these showers? . . . only cereal and bread for breakfast, no thanks . . . London is like so confusing to get around, you know? . . . “ I won't pain you with the rest, but there was more, lots more. That was when I had my travel moment and realized how far I had come. On most points she was right – the rooms were crammed, the showers weren't spotless , and breakfast was a bit slim – but until I overheard my straight-outta-Iowa roommate's comments, I would never have thought about the negative aspects of the hostel. Until that moment I still felt like a rookie Yankee tourist, but hearing what a real rookie tourist sounds like helped me to realize how far I've come.

Scrimping and saving every Som, Yuan, Rupee, and Lyra I could for the past year put things into a different light. I am happy to sleep in an airport hall curled up on an uncomfortable bench if it saves me a few bucks which will allow me to travel for a few days longer, to see a few more sights, and to eat a few more meals of local food. In my “a-ha” moment I realized how this year of travel has changed me, and I believe for the better. I will no longer take the day-to-day luxuries of living in the US for granted . . . well, at least I will try to be mindful of these daily blessings for as long as possible. If you ever hear me complain about trivial inconveniences (“damn, my cell phone is out of battery!” or “the grocery store is out of skim milk again!”, or “this stupid internet connection is sooooo slow!”) please remind me of this post and the unconsciously annoying American who inspired it. I promise it will shut me up for a while.

But anyway - London:

Although I found Central London a bit sterile and cutesy, I enjoyed my three days wandering around the city. Just when I started thinking that the city was trying too hard to appear like a hyper-British stereotype with the goofy guards and red phone booths, I sat next to two old men in tweed jackets drinking tea, smoking pipes and discussing Charles Dickens in their finest Oxford accents – that's the kind of awesome British scene you can't concoct. True to its status as an international city, London is full of people from all over Africa, India, East Asia and Europe. The city is stupid expensive, but it is easy to walk around and all the museums are free. The National Gallery and Tate Modern art museums are world-class; I saw works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Michaelangelo, and Leonardo DeVinci all in one day.

I am writing this from London's Heathrow Airport (intrusive security, obnoxious announcements, and very little seating ** */2 two and a half stars) after a less than restful night. (Now that I am an expert on free airport accommodation, maybe I should start a website in which people can find and post information about sleeping in airports around the world. Sounds like a good idea, right? It is, but someone beat me to it; check it out for yourself) Since England is not known for its culinary specialties and London is bloody expensive, I've only been eating food I packed from Kyrgyzstan, which I am thoroughly tired of at this point. Luckily, in a matter of hours I will be in Toronto in the loving care of Jessica's mother, Marg Lewis, and then off to the serenity and beauty of Wabun to spend ten days relaxing, rejuvenating, and recuperating on the shores of Lake Temagami. I have already begun to focus on my next travel challenge; getting a job in Austin, Texas and getting admitted to an alternative teacher certification program for the following year. Wish me luck, with all I've read about the economic situation, I may need it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tourism Made Kyrgyzy

Jess and I are still enjoying the rugged beauty of Kyrgyzstan, unfortunately, I am still unable to share this beauty with you because I can't seem to upload my photos. Rest assured, when I return there will be slide shows and photo albums galore, probably more than anyone cares to see. Until then, you'll have to settle for my vivid verbiage and picturesque prose.

One of the themes of my blog has been how tourism can and does negatively affect the developing world's cultures, economy, and environment. I am pleased to report that Kyrgyzstan has avoided this trap; the Kyrgyz have found a way to embrace tourism in a way that sustains its unique traditional culture and benefits local families who are engaged in the tourist industry. This was possible because of Kyrgyzstan's unique history. Before 1991 there was no international tourist industry in Kygyzstan because it was part of the Soviet Union and largely cut off from the rest of the world. When the USSR collapsed, Kygyzstan became an independent nation overnight for the first time in its history, and therefore had the unique opportunity to start its tourist industry from scratch. In an effort to avoid the problems experienced by other developing nations (such as Nepal, India, and Thailand) which have seen their most beautiful areas scarred by large-scale commercial tourism, an non-profit organization called Community Based Tourism was formed. CBT aims to connect international tourists with local families in order to promote and sustain local culture and lifestyle while giving tourists an authentic cultural immersion experience. The simple beauty of CBT is that it cuts out the middle-man; tourist money goes directly into the hands of the local families who act as guides, hosts, and interpreters. Families have control over their services, when they want to work, and how they want to portray their community and nation. This is much different than the kind of tourism I have seen in other parts of the world in which corporations are allowed to come into a community, buy the best property, spoil the environment, and then take a large profit while the locals are paid at a sub-standard wage.

Jess and I were able to enjoy this kind of "direct tourism" at Song Kol lake- a beautiful and remote high alpine lake. It is possible to reach the lake by jeep, but we opted for a two day horse trek with a Russian/German couple. Yes, a two day horse trek through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan - this is why I love to travel and why I love travelling with Jess. We spent nights in a where we had three traditional Kyrgyz meals a day. It was incredibly refreshing to be in a home rather than in a hotel or restaurant. Instead of being served by underpaid and overworked teenagers, we were hosted by a family who is happy to share their culture and customs.

We are now near lake Issyk-Kol, which is the second largest freshwater lake in the world (bonus points for anyone who knows the largest) and we will leave tomorrow for a three day trek into the mountains where there are lots of natural hot-springs. After that we have only one week left to explore the area and then return to Bishkek to spoil ourselves with nice food and beverage after a week of sleeping in a tent and drinking watery instant coffee.

I'll be back in Missouri in less than a month!