Waking up in Trondheim

The lobby of the tiny train station was bare, but at least it was warm. After having wandered most of the tiny Swedish town finding not another human being or unlocked door, this was to be my inn for the night. The fluorescent lights shone brightly on the rows of benches that lined the walls leading up to the drawn gate to the shops inside. I would be gone before any of the shopkeepers arrived in the morning. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was mine.

Now after midnight, I knew it would be best to try to get some sleep. Bundled up in nearly every warm piece of clothing I had, I set my sleeping bag against my heavy pack on the farthest bench as a pillow. Lying like a corpse, I pulled my hat over my eyes against the harsh ceiling lights. I must have been tired because the next thing I remember was looking at the clock that read just past 5:00, less than an hour until my train. As the departure time approached, travelers and commuters trickled in to share the warmth of the lobby, all of us staring at the blank walls in a somnambulent stupor.

When I reached my next connection mid-morning, the sky was still as black as it had been when I went to sleep. Having woken up, I lost myself in various internet searches and interesting articles. While deeply entrenched in a lengthy defense of the Christ myth theory, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the black and grey morning had given way. Out the windows all around me, the fantastical scenes of the coastal Norwegian town climbing the snow-capped hills overlooking the expansive fjord streamed by in a dreamlike beauty. Each house was a  brilliant earthy color, greens and browns and yellows and reds. They each overlooked the deep blue waves that extended out to majestic blue and white mountains that rose up from the horizon.

When I reached my host’s house, I knew I should rest. She was off to work, and I had the place to myself, but the light was so wonderful and the town so incredible that I had to go explore. I’m very glad I did.


Alone on the Road

The almost full moon hangs like gold dollar, fixed just above a horizon of rolling evergreen forests dusted by the first snow. Behind is a backdrop of faded purple, pink, peach, and powder blue gleaming in the fading rays of the arctic sun settled just below the southwestern edge of the sky. As we roll past a half frozen lake, the moon’s reflected light shimmers off its fissure-streaked blue surface. On the near shore, a mill pumps out horizontal streams of grey smoke from his tall, narrow stacks. The translucent clouds appear motionless, held fixed in the frozen air as we pass under them. Everything about the scene – the sky, the lake, the colorful collection of Scandinavian homes clustered along the shore – seems fixed; everything except me.

The train whistles past the small town in seconds, the blackness of a tunnel swallowing the stunning scene. When we emerge, only the blurred brown of hibernating flora and amber of exposed rock fill my large window. It pulls me away from each picturesque scene, leaving me longing for a moment to stop, appreciate it, and perhaps capture it in the memory of my camera. I need just a moment. The light will last. The Earth turns slowly up here. Just a …. the scene is gone.

It has been nearly five weeks since I set off from my temporary home in Korea. I could have easily been home in less than a day, but I chose this path intending to take it slow. The world is far more interesting when we take the time to interact with it instead of merely flying over it. That has been even truer than I originally believed. Even this pace – trains at 200km/h, cars at 100km/h, and boats at 10km/h – pulls the world past me at blurring speeds, my eyes and my mind unable to focus on all that each beautiful place has to offer.

Not only does the pace of travel determine what I get to experience, but it determines how I experience it. After catching the 5:55 train out of Luleå, a cozy little town on the northwestern shore of the Gulf of Bothnia, I found myself in Umeå with about an hour before my connecting train to Sundsvall.

Finding no sense in spending the hour in the barren little train terminal, I shouldered my pack and went for a walk. The frozen little town was sleepy even late Monday morning. The main walking strip connecting the train station and what appeared to be a municipal building was almost empty except for a handful of elderly browsing the clothing shops and a pair of beggars seated pitifully outside food shops. Behind the municipal building I found the shore of a wide freezing river, along which ran a walking path of packed snow. I crunched along the path, grateful for the warmth of the rising sun still low in the sky even well past ten. The river crunched along as well, the chips of ice on its surface slushing past each other as it flowed around anchored buoys and rocks.

Taking note of the time, I started my return. I took a circuitous route past the town’s classic Lutheran church and through the bus depot. Attempting to cut through an alleyway that I knew pointed toward the train station, I got stuck. The passages that cut through the building were gated, and I had to double back. My alarm, which I had set to warn me of fifteen minutes until departure, sounded, and I picked up my pace.

Finding my way around the building and just across the street from the train depot, I saw a lone train parked on the tracks. That must be my train, I thought to myself, relieved that I had timed my walk well. Then the train began to move. That couldn’t have been my train. My train isn’t supposed to leave until 11:10. By the time I pulled open the heavy door to the waiting area, my gut was already full of anxious adrenaline. I looked at the departure screen, where the current time read 10:52, expecting to see my train at the very top. It wasn’t. The next train to Sundsvall was to depart at 12:45. What? How is that possible? I pulled out my phone to check my schedule. Journey from Umeå to Sundsvall, read my calendar, departs – 11:51.

HOW DID I FUCK THAT UP?! I wanted to scream. I tossed down my pack on an empty chair and cursed in anger. The dark-skinned man sitting in the corner looked at me silently. I paced the small room trying to regain my composure. If only I hadn’t tried to take that shortcut, I would have gotten here in time to realize that that was my train. If I had set a reminder earlier, I would have come back sooner. If I had’t been so stupid, I wouldn’t make stupid fucking mistakes!

When we make mistakes, it’s easy to fall into self pity. It’s easy to overlook the fact that making mistakes is merely a part of life, and it hurts the most when there’s no one to blame but ourselves. I have constantly reiterated the idea that we are never truly alone when traveling. I must make an amendment to that idea. We may not be truly alone in the sense that there is no one to turn to when we need help, but in many cases we are completely and totally responsible for our own fate. Of course, we always have control over our decisions, but in our everyday lives, there is often someone to offer advice in a pinch or correct us when we are deceived. Sometimes we don’t have someone looking out for us though, and when traveling alone, this happens at the most crucial times.

Today was the first time I felt entirely alone on this whole journey. It’s also the first time that I’ve made a mistake of any real consequence. Because of my carelessness, I needed to change plans with my host to something much less favorable, I lost the better part of a day in Trondheim, I lost a day on my rail pass, and I’ll probably be spending the night in a railway station in the middle of nowhere.

This is certainly part of the journey, but I believe that I could alleviate some of the stress had this journey moved at a slower pace. My attempts to cover great distances in short times have increased the complexity of my travel. With added complexity comes increased probability of error. Our minds struggle with the concept of time on scales longer than hours or days. It seemed perfectly reasonable to believe that covering in eight weeks the distance an aircraft covers in less than a day would be slow travel. In fact, this is about as fast as travel gets.

The pace of travel is not determined by the time it takes to cover a given distance. It depends upon the amount of time the traveler has to connect with the next mode of transportation. More than once have I been forced to run to a bus or a train station because there was absolutely zero room for error if I was to stay on schedule and avoid extra costs. My election for short stays and early morning departures have forced many of these stressful moments. Compounding the issue is that I often have no knowledge of the place I need to be or the occasional peculiar details. Staying a few extra days, being able to rehearse the journey, and leaving at a time when I’m more cognitively sharp would all reduce the risk of making mistakes like the one I made today.

Risk attenuation aside, this pace of travel has simply been too fast for the simple fact that one or two nights in a place is in no way enough to gain a true understanding of it. When I first left the United States, I had a strong attraction to Finland because of their apparent proper order of social priorities. Because of this schedule, I ended up spending just a few hours alone in the capital and seeing only one small northern city for a couple days before passing right on through to Sweden. It’s quite sad that I have effectively rejected an incredible opportunity to truly experience a country that I think so highly of. Norway will be the same, and my time is now even shorter. I will have a total of almost two weeks in Sweden and over a week in Iceland, but I feel that my priorities have been skewed on this journey.

In the future, my plans will include simpler travel and longer stops. Couchsurfing continues to provide the perfect opportunity to interact with locals, but to capitalize fully on the opportunity, I would be well served by finding multiple hosts in each city that I plan to visit. Getting multiple perspectives and a wider variety of experience would offer a better understanding of the places I visit. Even after eight months in Korea, I can’t say that I really understand the culture, but I can say that I know a significant amount about it. Even a couple weeks in Moscow or Tallinn or Helsinki would have given me a better understanding of those cities and their people, which is what traveling is really all about.

I have no regrets about this journey. Just over half way through, the excitement has yet to fade, and I continue to learn and grow at a rate not realized in a long time. The stories I have shared so far are only a small fraction of the stories I have made, and the book will only grow thicker.

Pride and Prejudice – Helsinki

Last night was the European premier for the Belgian film Black in Tallinn, Estonia. My hosts apparently had some connections and procured a set of free tickets. Because it was the premier, the two lead actors and a co-director came out for a brief forum with the audience. The film was one of the most gruesome pieces of visual art I’ve seen. With multiple gang rapes, visible gun shot wounds, and even a dead dog, the directors made a powerful statement about the life on the gang-dominated streets of Brussels. Though the main plot line followed a classic Romeo & Juliet love story of two teens in rival gangs, the deeper story of the impossible lives these kids lead came through with visceral clarity.

Despite the director’s (and the author of the book of the same name) intentions to show the discrimination these poor youths face, the end of the film left me even more prejudiced and confused about the racial lines along which societies break. Multiple moments in the film caused me to think that if only these youngsters could let go of their pride and accept the help that the well-intentioned police officers were trying to offer, they could break this vicious cycle of drugs, violence, and prostitution. Despite my initial reaction, I know this mindset oversimplifies the situation to the point of fallacy.

Indeed, the proper response is to try to understand the level of hopelessness required for a bright young Belgian to return to a gang that has insulted, beaten, and raped her. She must have been so convinced that law enforcement would be impotent to protect her, that the city would be useless in providing her an opportunity to improve her situation, and that her oppressors were so powerful that she would have nowhere to hide.

Personally, I cannot imagine such a helpless state of mind. For my entire life, I have known that I should turn to law enforcement officers if ever in distress. Even in the land of neocons who have worked hard in recent decades to minimize social welfare, I know that my city will never let me drop to the lowest of lows as long as I keep trying. Never have I lived in such a society in which violent criminals acted with such impunity. Black was a look into lives that still seem to me to be the constructs of fiction, but the directors grew up in that city, and a social worker, on whom one of the characters was based, said of the film that he had never seen such a realistic depiction of his daily life. For those like me, who come from such privileged backgrounds, we may never understand the lives of those whom society has forgotten, but those who aspire to public office will need to. If ever we are to solve the violence that plagues cities like New York, Detroit, and as recent events have tragically shown, Paris, community and state leaders are going to need to take a creative, compassionate, and comprehensive approach to building support structures for their city’s youth. Determining that approach in the million dollar question.

I offer this brief analysis because even though I am conscious of it, my subconscious mind still reels with prejudice. An example:

As I walked along a side street of the southern region of Helsinki, I spotted a trio of teen boys, one white, one black, one Arab. In their track pants and sweatshirts, they resembled the gang member and repeat offender Marwan from the film. Sauntering along the sidewalk, joking with each other, they looked to be up to no good. They stopped next to a flat bed trailer parked on the sidewalk, and two of them reached in. The one nearest me looked over his shoulder suspiciously. Bracing himself he began to lift. The boy on the other side did too. The one with his head turned spotted the man he was looking out for. Then they started to carry the large piece of wood carefully, under the direction of their teacher, toward the school’s wood shop.

When I recognized that I had expected something completely different from what was a perfectly normal and predictable event, I wanted to slap myself. It was a striking example of how even we who are so cognizant of biases and discrimination can fall into these traps. For those who come from less tolerant parts of the world or who have had much more negative experiences to reinforce the stereotypes, I can see how easy it is to allow this type of thinking to persist. With the current mass migration of people of non-white racial backgrounds into parts of the world where whites still hold majorities, it is especially important to look closely at the subjective opinions that so often parade as “facts,” particularly in conservative circles.

Helsinki is indeed a beautiful city, and from my limited experience, I believe it is home to wonderful people as well. From the old man who kindly opened the door for me to the woman on the train who made no fuss when she determined that I had taken her seat, the courteous Finnish people have shown me nothing but kindness since I arrived.

I am already done with the capital though. I’m headed north. After reading some more details on the rail pass that I will be using to get myself around the Nordics for the next 6 weeks, I decided to hop on the next train to Oulu. I haven’t confirmed that I have a place to stay tonight, but what could be more fun than figuring out where I’m going to sleep late at night on the arctic circle?

Photo Update: Tartu

When my alarm went off at 4:15, I couldn’t believe I was back in the old routine. Fortunately, I wasn’t. It was just the beginning of one more adventurous piece of this long journey. My host in Tallinn commutes the three hours to Tartu, a small southern city where she spent high school, for a lecture every Tuesday. As a way to see more of tiny Estonia, I decided to join her. As thanks for my host’s hospitality, I got up early to make breakfast; I really have missed the joy of cooking.

We slipped down the rickety old stairs just shy of 5 am while her boyfriend was still snoozing. The train was long, but it was comfortable and equipped with wifi. When we arrived, she informed me that public transport is really unnecessary in such a small town. It took only a few minutes to walk to the downtown area, a classic yet clean series of cobblestone streets, strewn with fine restaurants and cafes – what you might expect from a small Eastern European college town.

After grabbing a cup of coffee and a pastry from the Werner Cafe, an establishment with a prolific history that goes back more than a century, she went to class, and I set off a-wandering. It didn’t take long to find ruins, mystical gardens, and moss-covered forests straight out of a storybook. Though grey and rainy all day, Tartu offered some fantastic scenes for playing with my camera. Here are the best shots of the day:

Finding Comfort

The cobblestones continued to rise up between the ancient stone wall on one side and the tall row of facades on the other. A straight and smooth steel railing split the path. At the top of the hill, a wrought iron gate stood open beneath a white stone archway, the sign beside it clearly welcoming. Each rising step brought into the view the contents of the shops inside the windows of the facade. In one, mannequins dressed in snowflaked wool sweaters and knit caps. In the next, painted trinkets and memorable souvenirs. In the last, a long wooden table in front of a typical bar devoid of patrons at the early hour. As I approached the gate, I began to pick up the faint sound of music. Passing under the arch, I noticed that a sign beyond advertised a now-closed cafe. The shadows chilled the narrowing passage, but the sound of festive melodies drew me on. Beyond the cafe, the stone alley broadened into a long courtyard, and the music revealed itself to be of a genre lost centuries ago. Rising to my right, an ancient castle wall betrayed the medieval origins of the place. The cold, still air carried the faint scents of a smoldering hearth pouring its white smoke into the damp autumn sky. The sound of the jubilant music, a laughing child, and the whispering of the torches that flanked a stone staircase mingled in a gentle harmony. The smell, the sound, the sight; they transported my mind to that romanticized era of knights and kings, of myth and legend. Regardless of the facts that kerosene powered the torches, the stone steps led to a themed restaurant, and the far arch of the castle wall sported a neon sign advertising the museum inside, Tallinn had cast its spell on me.

I set off from the United States nine months ago on a journey to find a place where I felt at ease. Before setting off, I had identified the nations of Northern Europe to be potential future residences, but I knew that it would take personal experience to make any educated assessment. I knew it was highly unlikely that Asia would offer any of the cultural aspects or social structures that I sought. i held out hope that I would be able to recognize the difference in Europe. By most modern maps, I have now officially departed Asia, and the change was palpable.

More than once I have found luxury along my travels that to me had cost very little, but the Estonian bus that carried me from Saint Petersburg rivaled any business class flight. Arriving in Tallinn, I immediately noticed the cleanliness of the bus terminal and the coziness of the adjoining cafe. With my host, I experienced the affordable yet efficient and attractive public transportation as we rolled along through the capital city that feels more like a small town. Reaching his neighborhood in the suburbs, I felt immediately at home among the large parks, low wooden fences, and quiet streets. The damp air and cold overcast sky couldn’t shake the feeling of comfort that just felt so right.

After separating from my hosts this morning, I met with a couple researchers at the technical university to discuss a potential graduate program, and then set off to explore the city alone. Eero got called away from class for a full day of work and was unable to meet for lunch but suggested that I go to the old city and find a vegan restaurant, minimally named V. After a bit of confusion in getting on the right tram, I wound my way into the relaid cobblestone streets and medieval stone walls of this ancient city. Though well after a normal lunch hour, the small restaurant was full, and I had no desire to compete with other patrons who had intelligently made reservations, so I went for a photo walk. Around each corner and down every stone alley, the excellently preserved city astounded me.

After getting thoroughly lost, I stumbled upon the restaurant again to find multiple open tables. The waitress greeted me in perfect English and showed me to a small table with a pillow-lined bench seat on one side. I unashamedly took my seat alone at the table, having grown accustomed to dining alone over many months in a part of the world where communication was always a struggle. After giving me a few minutes to look over the detailed menu, she politely took my order, given in full, proper English sentences. While waiting patiently as soft indie cult classics played in the background behind Finnish and Estonian conversations, I got lost in a well-written long form article in from The New Yorker about the immigrant communities of Paris and munched on soft multigrain bread and olive oil.

When the dish arrived, I fought the urge to take a picture of the culinary masterpiece – my  shamelessness only goes so far. On the large white dish, two slices of firm tofu, slathered in a spicy ginger sauce, laid on a grilled pineapple ring atop a tower of quinoa and green beans in the center of a sea of creamy Thai sauce. That description is the closest you’re going to get to understanding how delicious it was – yet another example that we can create fully satisfying and nutritious meals without animal products.

Wandering back out through the darkened streets of the early evening, the sun having set early in mid-November, I got lost yet again among the mystical alleys and towering castle walls and church spires. There are some historical cities that, when introduced to modern business, become an unappealing clash of time periods that makes what should be wondrous ancient architecture feel fake and artificial – the random and unsightly pieces of history in Seoul or the filthy and disrespected (even if insanely fun) French Quarter of New Orleans. Then there are cities that have retained the beauty of a time long lost even as upscale eateries and clothiers move into the outmoded structures. These are cities like Prague and even the much younger Annapolis. I confidently assert that Tallinn is among these cities.

I have been in this city for less than 24 hours, but I already know that it is a place I could live. Whether Estonia will offer the life I am in search of or if the university here will provide the type of education best for my goals are far from settled, but I can safely say that this is the first place I have felt truly comfortable since I left my birthplace. At the end of this little adventure, I will return to the United States for an undetermined amount of time, but Tallinn will remain in my heart with this small taste of home on the road.


No Solitude

Pacing this small cage like an animal in captivity, I somehow feel more liberated here than in the larger cabin of the train car behind me. Here in the small antechamber, my fingers numbing and my joints cramping from the cold, I am in a state of being seldom accomplished over the past several months of my life: alone. 

I am, by nature, an introvert to the highest degree. To me, people are stressful. In their presence, I constantly feel anxiety. I am on high alert, my guard almost entirely protective. Always one eye stays focused on the looks, the stares, the breath, the movements, the actions of those around me. Each additional cohabitant compounds the effect. In the open bay barracks of the train car, the dozens of foreign bodies – their individual needs and desires, their personal characteristics and speech – it saps my energy constantly. It prohibits my mind from being my own. In the economy of my intrinsic energy, this diverted attention is like a government in a great war, taxing energy production to the point of crushing any hope of growth or improvement, hoping only that resources will last to the end of conflict. 

Here in my alcove, I can escape. Though cold, hard, and small, it is like a vast cavern for my mind to wander. Of the four doors of this chamber, three open to the rushing Siberian landscape. The fourth door is windowless and blocks any attention on my being on this side. My fellow passengers have no reason to transit this space. Only interrupted occasionally by an attendant storing dirty laundry in the corner, I can direct the eye that had been preoccupied with my outside appearance inward where a roiling amalgam of thoughts, feelings, and emotions press forth in an amorphous and chaotic fervor. With only the distant homes of rural Siberian towns as my companions, I can filter and sort these thoughts. 

This is not meant to be an attack on humanity. Indeed, the greatness of this adventure has come entirely from the interactions with the people I have met along the way. Though I will have only been on the road for two weeks before this writing comes to light, I feel as though I have been here for years. Not because of boredom or strain of travel, the time has felt so full because the relationships I have built have reached a depth generally reserved for friends of long acquaintance. 

Most recently, I have had the honor of spending many hours with Lena, a student of philology, addicted traveler, and eternal dreamer. When I arrived at the train station of her hometown of Irkutsk at what felt like early morning because of the darkness (though it was actually 7:30), she was waiting with her brother Slava, who had driven the 20 minutes from their home outside the city to pick me up. Too tired from the journey and intoxicated by the scenery, our conversation in the car was limited, but it was certainly not for lack of common language. Lena speaks wonderful English, and her brother can communicate passably. With a quiet demeanor, a shaved head, and hard characteristically Slavic features, I believe many lone travelers would have feared Slava. However, his kindness was palpable. When I pulled my heavy bag from the trunk of his car, he immediately took it from me, slinging it like the small bag I wore, and carried up the three flights of stairs to their home. When I entered their small apartment, I was met with the wonderful smell of roasting herbs and frying oil. Especially after the 36 hour journey from Ulaanbaatar, during which much of my diet consisted of crackers and dried fruit, the prospect of a hot meal was exhilarating.  Slava dropped my bag in Lena’s room, and I put my other bag on top of it when I had taken off my dirty boots. Lena took my winter coat from me to hang in the closet, and I laid my sweatshirt on my pile of bags, adjusting to the warmth. The futon in her room took nearly half the small square bedroom and her desk took the other. Though small, it was cozy, and I took a seat. 

It was only a moment before her mother came around the corner to say hello. With disheveled short blonde hair, she was a broad-shouldered, top heavy woman, and she wore a beaming smile for her new guest. Her jerky motions spoke of excitable eccentricity, and her sweatshirt and jeans attire gave her a comforting motherly aura. She extended a hand and introduced herself in Russian. I stood and did the same in English. She said a few other pleasantries, and Lena translated. She was so excited to have a guest that she had made a special breakfast of peroshki and baked chicken. At their beckoning, I joined them in the kitchen as Lena’s mother finished frying up the cabbage-stuffed doughy rolls. As Lena and I discussed potential plans for the day, Slava and his wife Masha emerged from behind the back wall of the kitchen that was apparently the extent of their mother’s bedroom. We all crowded around the small glass table on stools and plucked peroshki and chicken quarters from the glass bowls in the center. Lena translated what was pertinent of the conversation, but much talk revolved around me and my travels, a curiosity for all. As I filled my grumbling stomach with the delicious greasy foods, I relaxed into the conversation with yet another incredible group of people to whom this journey has led me. 

Naive Realism

“There’s always lots of people who really want to meet with people. … And why do they want to meet? Because they want to explain to the other side how things really are. They think that if they do that, the other person will become easier to deal with in the future, and if not, it proves that they’re not objective, they’re not reasonable, that they’re not a partner. What I have never experienced in 40 years of doing this is people who say, ‘I really want to meet with the other side because I think I have things wrong. I think I don’t know the facts. I think my reasoning is askew. I think my reasoning is biased. I want to meet with the other side so that they can set me straight’ I’ve never, ever had the experience of even a singe individual tell me that.”

Lee Ross is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and has recently coined the theory of “naive realism.” It is really an easily observable phenomenon that occurs any time we have a disagreement with others. The realism part comes from our innate assumption that we perceive the world as it really is. For the most part, particularly with physical interactions with the world, our senses are quite reliable. We tend to translate this thinking into intangible ideas such as justice, security, and attraction. On that level, our intuitions become much less objective. The naiveté comes from the belief that others who hold different beliefs on such things are delusional, biased, or misinformed. If we were merely to provide them with all the facts we have, they would come to believe what we believe, and if not, they are simply irrational and cannot be dealt with.

Many of us probably gawk at the above description in its portrayal of such a close-minded personality. Surely, I am not like that. But think of this scenario: you are driving down the road and come up behind someone going a bit slower than you. “What an idiot!” you think, “This guy is going so slow!” Just as you are about to blow past him, someone behind you slides out and zooms by. “What a maniac!” you think. It’s really a wonder how the roads even work at all with so many idiots and maniacs!

That was the humorous yet painfully true observation presented by George Carlin over three decades ago. It is still true today, and I can remember a dozen instances of thinking the same exact things. I started, however, to notice this bias during my long read trip last winter. On the choked roads of Arlington, Virginia, I found myself getting frustrated with the apparently inept behavior of the drivers around me. Fortunately, my solitude gave me the opportunity to consider the unfairness of my perspective. It is wholly irrational to believe that with different experiences, different biology, different fears, different desires, and different perceptions that anyone would drive the same as I do.

Why, then, would I abandon this principle with I entered a different culture? My biases returned, as I suppose they ought to naturally, and I came to judge the people of the cultures in which I had been merely a sojourner who presumed to know far too much.

I have had the fortunate experience of having that bias challenged during my most recent time in China. Not least of all because of the wonderful Chinese people I had the chance to interact with while I was there, I came to realize that any judgment I had passed on the inferiority of their culture or society was wholly presumptuous and closed-minded.

My first visit back in May was marked by the cynicism of my jaded and discouraged host. In a world that doesn’t appear to make any sense, that fails to recognize the simplest of truths, and lacks any semblance of fairness, these emotions are wholly justified. However, they also penetrated my perceptions of Chongqing, a city that has literally sprouted out of the dirt of farmland over the past few decades. People here are rude, self-serving, dirty, and loud. They know nothing of conducting business, operating motor vehicles, or acting responsibly.

Take a moment to think about what all of those things look like. I have a very clear image of what they look like in that backward, far eastern land, but you probably have a very different view. A person from China would likely have an even more different view. Their view might even look much like what I see as the rational, sensible world in which I grew up.

Particularly during my time wandering the streets of Beijing, there were stark differences between the established capital of Beijing and the far away upstart of Chongqing, but there were also many similarities. This time, however, I did my utmost to see the world objectively. What I quickly realized was that I knew effectively nothing about this culture. I had spoken with a few Chinese people and gained a bit of a perspective, but a small handful out of 1.2 billion is an exceptionally small sample size. Not only their experiences or their genetics, but the vast length of traditions and wildly different linguistic practices that have led to completely different ways of thinking and perceiving the world must necessarily create a society in which things do not make sense to me.

I then thought back to my time in Korea, less than a week prior. I had finished my time there with such vile and unfair opinions of the people of that bold little nation that I had forgotten the respect and awe that I had gained upon my arrival. Sure, some things just don’t work very well in Korea, but perhaps their measures of success are simply different from my own. What works for the culture in which I was raised may well be a disaster for another. To speak of solutions here with any presumption of authority would be sheer folly.

The greatest folly, however, was to spread that bias to my friends, family, and guests. I am a naturally critical person. I believe that overlooking problems is simply cowardice and facing issues directly is the only way toward improvement, which is what I believe ought to be the objective of life. To criticize effectively, though, one must have a deep understanding of issues. I can say with great certainty that I do not understand Korean or Chinese society (though I understand enough to know how different they are). What I did was to provide an uninformed yet unflattering view of my temporary home when I would speak to other foreigners. In doing so, I would overlook all of the wonderful aspects of that country that allowed me to live such a comfortable and effortless life. For every issue I saw, there were ten more ways the country sustained a life that was by most measures quite good.

When we speak critically about our own nations with our friends and colleagues, we discuss from a common understanding of the positive aspects of our lives. I may criticize the American government for its failure to shift away from fossil fuels, but we Americans all recognize the fact that we can breathe easily even in big cities because of the Clean Air Act. I may criticize the continued cuts to science education in America, but we all recognize that the U.S. is still home to many of the world’s finest institutions of higher education in science and technology. When I make such criticism about foreign lands, my audience often does not have that base of understanding. The Korean education system may be train wreck of excessive competition, but Korean kids are really bright and have learned a lot by the time they get to college. Korean people may be annoyingly conformist, but few countries can band together in such a way as to solve crises on a national scale. The picture I painted for other visitors was only half complete and crudely sketched.

I would like to apologize to all of those whom I have jaded. I’m sorry to all of my couchsurfers who may now have a tainted view of the Korean portion of their travels. I’m sorry to my friends who have been witness to my exceptionalism and bigotry. I’m sorry to my parents who received nothing but cynical prejudice from my discourse.

The reality I thought I saw was only my own perception. Certainly it is justified to say what I didn’t like. I didn’t like they way Koreans educated their children. I didn’t like the way they drove. I didn’t like the way their government worked. And I most certainly didn’t like the music. Those, however, are not statements of fact. Those are opinions. Opinions are perfectly fine so long as they are understood to be no more than that.

In quite appropriate timing, I have found this podcast (entitled You Are Not So Smart) with guest Lee Ross while about halfway through the rail journey from Irkutsk to Moscow (a less than comfortable experience I will have to recap later). I find it startling and a bit sad that this professional, who has been involved in conflict resolution for four decades, has not met anyone who recognizes that they are likely the ones biased in a given scenario. Perhaps it is the product of my travels and my widely varying experiences, all coming in rapid succession, or perhaps it is just the excess of time I have had to reflect, but I would love to work with Professor Ross one day so that he can say he has met at least one person who recognizes that they are the one lacking the information.

Through a series of very foreign cultures, I have accepted the perspective that I am the outsider, that I do not understand, and that I am the one with inherent biases that need to be corrected. Indeed, when I return home, I will continue the pursuit of further understanding because one thing I have become acutely aware of while abroad is that I don’t even know the place of my birth well enough to make any valid summary. It is really quite obvious that it is I who holds the biases, whose reasoning is askew, and who lacks the facts. Now and forever, I want to meet the other side so that they can set me straight.

Photo Update: Moscow

Across the whole of the Asian continent, I have ambivalently overlooked the architectural wonders of each nation. Though pretty and often intricate, there were other phenomena that caught my eye much more strongly. For the first time in a long time has my urban environment taken my breath away. The people of Moscow have built great big things, made of brick and stone and concrete, made to last. The towering structures may be years or decades or centuries old at this point, but they all portend that their futures will span millennia. I rarely angle my lens upward to capture rising spires, but I simply had to try my best to show the magnificence of this city. Though Red Square was preparing for the coming holidays, I was able to squeeze around for a few worthwhile shots.

I met with a fellow couchsurfer who had reached out to me several months ago looking for worldwide responses on what global media was spreading about her country. I’m sure she never thought we would actually meet face to face, but we did, and she got me thoroughly lost in this immense city!

We split up just before sunset, and after a grey and dreary day, the night provided even better lighting than the day.

One last thought:

Here’s a shot of one tower of the wall that surrounds the Kremlin, previously the seat of power of Soviet Union and now of the Russian Federation. Take a look at who stands watch over the door. Isn’t is ironic that the nation that gained the pejorative atheist moniker displays its Christian roots and the one whose constitution forbids such religious displays on government buildings became the “Christian nation”? Strange how things play out that way.


The Lives of Others – a brief thought from Beijing

His arms swinging agitatedly beside his barrel chest, the middle-aged man strode quickly down the cracked cement alley. The scowl on his face marked his sour mood, and the barking shouts of the woman emerging from the alley behind him revealed its source. The woman – dark-haired, petite, and cleanly dressed – paced after him, arm outstretched accusatively. Though I understood none of her words, her vehement tone and rapid pace told me all I needed to know about the monologue. In fact, I already knew too much.

Having procured a ticket for the overnight bus to Inner Mongolia, I decided to take a walk. A few hundred meters down the street, I spotted a busy market and decided to investigate. Crossing a busy street of cars, scooters, and tuk-tuks that had no intention of stopping for pedestrians, I joined the flood of patrons rushing along the market street. Wagons and tables of fresh fruit and vegetables dotted the north side. Small shops and eateries lined the south. Scooters and cars squeezed down the lane, honking their horns to alert the mass of pedestrians that somehow parted just in time to make room. Little boutiques with steaming dumplings, frying pancakes, and boiling eggs increased in number. On my left, a large square of food stands became visible, and I examined the frying meats, baking breads, and boiling soups with hungry eyes. I made a note to return before my bus left as to have a full stomach for the long ride ahead.

Overwhelmed by the detail, I stopped in a side alley to retrieve my camera from my bag. Reentering the street, I snapped a few wild shots of trays of meat and patrons examining produce. Each time I lifted my camera though, I looked at my subject and saw discomfort. I could feel the eyes of intrigued locals upon me, a strange sight with my brown hair, long face, and large travel pack. I could feel the eyes not only on me, but on my camera. The discomfort prevented me from even bringing the eyepiece to my face.

This was wrong. These people were living out their daily lives in no special fashion yet I was capturing them like performing animals at a circus. In no way was that my intention, but perception is reality. Had they known that my only intention was to show my friends and family some of the cultural differences that I had seen during my time in abroad, perhaps they would have entertained my hobby willingly. However, that consent was impossible to obtain because I could not communicate with them.

The area of Beijing in which I found the long distance bus terminal was not the affluent city center that I had seen while wandering the area around the popular attractions like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. This was a part of the city that was home to thousands of people who had yet to feel the comforts that China’s rapid industrialization had made available to many. The travelers I saw were people who could not afford to fly to their destination. They came with cinched and taped burlap sacks and heavy boxes on their backs. The people of this small market made their living selling snacks for less than a dollar a piece. They lived in homes of loose brick and crumbling concrete, electricity a recent improvement and hot water a luxury.

In this area clothes hung on lines drawn across narrow alleyways. The dirty concrete path turned to mud with dirty water and bodily fluids. Thin, hungry dogs sniffed up the short steps to the eateries, hoping for a bit of scrap. People walked and rode their bikes, the shining new cars that lines the streets financially out of reach. They lived in the shadows of towering new apartment buildings, separated by tall brick walls and long sheet metal textile factories.

After only a few moments, I put my camera back in my bag, but I continued to wander. It was only a few more steps before I heard the shouts of the woman from a side alley. Her husband storming out past me, she in close pursuit. Neither gave me a glance as I passed them, but I made eye contact with a large young woman as a crossed in front of the alley. Presumably their daughter, she followed reluctantly, perhaps frustrated at yet another of her parents’ fights.

This was too deep of a look into the lives of others. In this crowded world of the lower classes of Beijing, privacy was a luxury many could not afford. Their dirty laundry literally hung out for all to see, even this curious foreigner became privy to the most embarrassing parts of their lives.

Day 1: Incheon – It just got real

As I gathered my overloaded bags from the sidewalk where I had set them for one last picture with my best friend, I looked up to see his slender figure striding away. He carried nothing save a half-finished bottle of vodka. He didn’t look back. Once I shouldered my pack and turned toward the ferry terminal, neither did I. With my heavy bag, I walked strong. We will see each other again. We will continue to talk from opposite sides of the world, but somehow that didn’t make it easier. I have prided myself on the composure with which I have handled the goodbyes of dozens whom I may never see again, but this time the pressure built behind my eyes as the ripping sensation of separation grew. Inside the terminal, I found a seat among the crowd of chatty travelers, thinking only of the friend who will sorely be missed.

But that’s not the real part.

That’s how tough goodbyes are expected to be. That’s Hollywood. Our friendship has been anything but expected though. Sitting with my journal in hand, my phone began to vibrate in my pocket. It was him. He was concerned that I would not be able to send our photo to my requesting mother, so he had turned around so we could take another one with a phone. I tried to explain that I was going to transfer the photo to my computer soon, but he was already on his way. Gathering my things again, I headed outside to meet him. With goofy laughing faces, we snapped a quick selfie and said a chuckling goodbye.

“Get outta here! For real this time!” I chided as we separated unceremoniously. I turned back to the terminal laughing audibly.

I will see my friend again. We are both on incredible journeys, and our paths can only remain on the same track for so long. A goodbye is not the end of a friendship; it is only the turning of a page in the long stories of our lives.

This is real life.