Back to writing

Today’s image: Sunset over Oostende harbor. The fastest way to work is via a ferry across the harbor, mostly used by tourists who can park for free on the industrial side and ferry to the city center. The six steel columns in the left of the frame are attached to the ship. It’s called a jack-up vessel. Those legs push down into the sea bed, lifting the ship out of the water, making it a stable platform for heavy lifting. In a few months she will begin assembling the turbines of Belgium’s next offshore wind farm.

Hello readers! It has been quite a while since I’ve had any travel stories for you. Not that I haven’t had any travels, but I’ve been distracted by other media. After my brief endeavors into video and audio, I’ve realized that I prefer the written word far more. It’s not always the best way to take in information, but in terms of putting ideas straight and reinforcing my own memories, there’s nothing like it. It seems to be the purest form of collected thought. There’s no worrying about my voice or the frame or monitoring the recording equipment. Really the only limitation is the speed at which I can type/write, which doesn’t always keep up with my thoughts. But I’d rather have that than the opposite situation, which I find myself in every time I open my mouth.

Video and audio have their advantages, and I’ll use them when appropriate. But for now, it’s back to the written word. And not a moment too soon! Indeed, several moments too late. I’m already embarked on my latest adventure.

A few weeks ago, I made a week-long stop in New York City to see some family and finalize my paperwork for a visa. Early this month, I arrived in Belgium, where I’ll be based for the foreseeable future. A former classmate-now colleague kindly allowed me to stay in his spare bedroom in his apartment in Gent for 10 days, but a couple weeks ago, I moved into my own place in Oostende (more about the city further down). For the first time in a while, I have a space where I truly feel comfortable and at home. Part of that comfort is the fact that this place is very quiet. Oostende is a quiet town this time of year already, and my courtyard-facing balcony of an apartment building on a one-way side street means that it can get deathly silent in here. I really like that.

One thing that has become more and more clear over the past few weeks is that I don’t do well in big crowds. Busy cities, packed streets, crowded rooms. Not for me. I’ve known I was an introvert since I learned the word, but despite my training to be more socially adept, I’ve gotten more in touch with my introverted self. Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, mentioned some research into extroversion vs introversion that has helped me understand what makes someone introverted or extraverted. They can actually figure out with pretty high accuracy your level of extraversion if you’re when you’re an infant. Some study examined how babies react to noise. Depending on how much noise it took to get them to react, they were classified into two major groups: “high reactives” and “low reactives”. The former reacted strongly to a little noise, while the latter required a lot of noise to get them to react. Can you guess which ones grew up to be introverts?

Here’s a hint: many of us introverts hate the sound of chewing. Even a distant sound of someone’s barbaric gnashing can set us grinding our own teeth in forced civility. We react highly to small stimuli.

That bit of knowledge has helped significantly in understanding why I find it so difficult to enjoy places like New York City. The noise is overwhelming. The crowds are consuming. The lights are often unbearable. When I don’t have anywhere to be, it can be an interesting ethnographic exercise to observe these strange creatures who thrive in such an environment. But when I have reason to join the crowd, to dodge aggressive taxis, to squeeze into crowded subway cars, or match the impatience of the long-adjusted New Yorker, the input is simply too much. Either I find my frustration and annoyance bubbling over in rage, or I simply shut down all emotions, including those of tolerance, patience, respect, and generosity.

I don’t think that New Yorkers are mean people. Indeed, I was able to spend a week there because of the generosity of my family who took me in, fed me, guided me, and provided a listening ear. But they can often come across as rude and inconsiderate, selfish and intolerant. I think I understand. Even the low-reactive types, who feed on the energy of a bustling sidewalk or cramped cafe, can only take in so much and give back so much. We only have the capacity to show care and deference to so many people. The thousands of strangers one comes into contact with in New York City have little hope of joining that small circle, and so at best, they treat each other with the indifferent cordiality of social convention.

The time in New York was definitely enjoyable. Explorations of the seemingly endless museum collections, lively dinners with family, and jazz clubs brightened by musicians who would be the talk of the town in just about any other part of the world. But I’m glad to have found somewhere a bit quieter to settle.

Oostende isn’t the place you would expect an adventurous twenty-something to enjoy, but it works for me. It’s a tourist town right in the middle of Belgium’s short North Sea coast. The local demographic probably has a median age decades my senior, but that means people turn in early. Like me! The coffee is pretty good, and the dining is endless. The city center is built for people, not cars. The nearest mountain is two countries away, but the sea is only a block away, and that seems to provide the necessary contact with Nature. The train station, bus station, and tram stop are only a 10-minute walk. From there, I can be almost anywhere in Belgium in less than two hours and almost anywhere in Western Europe in a few more. There are more kilometers of bike paths than I will be able to explore. The weather isn’t great for cycling right now, but it will probably be summer before I can put away the money I’ll need for the kind of bike I want anyway.

This place is also brimming with history. The town of Oostende dates back to the Middle Ages when this area wasn’t even connected to the rest of Europe. Until about 600 years ago, it was an island, on which the villages of Westende, Middelkerke, and Oostende (West-end, Middle-church, and East-end, respectively) developed around the fishing trade. Improving hydrological engineering and the money from trade allowed the people of the town to build a series of dikes and canals that protected it from the sea and connected it to the mainland. This is actually the second time I’ve lived in a strategic Medieval trading post. Visby constantly changed hands as it was the central port for trade across the Baltic. Oostende was sacked multiple times for its strategic position on the North Sea, especially when the port of Antwerp was blocked. Between 1601 and 1604, it became the site of the bloodiest battle of the Eighty Years’ War, which culminated in Dutch independence from the Spanish Empire in 1648. The siege of the city by the ruling Spanish Empire took just over three years and ended in over 100,000 dead or wounded and was a major loss for the Dutch and English. The current layout of the city center (where I live) was set by the 18th century, but most of the buildings from that period were destroyed in a magazine explosion in the late nineteenth century and when it changed hands during both of the world wars in the first half of the twentieth century. Most buildings appear to be from the post-war period. And that’s what I’ve learned just from Wikipedia! Lots more exploring and learning to be done!

And I’ll have to brush up on my war history. I know I’ve heard the names of many of these battles, but I didn’t realize that they were in Belgium: Liège, Antwerp, Ypres, Mons. Actually, much of the first World War was fought in this region! Much of World War II centered around the German offensive and the Allied counteroffensive through the Ardennes, the forested region in southern Belgium. So much to explore!

Also, this town just got a lot smaller. I finally found myself a bicycle. It’s not much, but it’s a pair of wheels, and it will get me a lot farther a lot faster than I could go on foot.

I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures, and I’ll try to post them on here. But many of them will show up first on Instagram and Facebook.

Habits

Today’s featured image: Except for a duffel bag of clothes and a guitar at my parents’ house and the clothes I’m wearing, everything I own is in this photo. I’m not trying to brag, but it’s a reaffirmation of a lifestyle that I enjoy. I don’t get too attached to things. I have no need to own a houseful of stuff. I have what I need and little more. It’s a frame of mind, and it makes me feel free.


I’ve (almost) done it. It has been 30 days of writing. I’ve not written my full quota every day, and several days’ posts are still in my journal, but I have written something every day. Though it has not been my most successful 30-day challenge, it has accomplished its mission: I have a new habit.

The habit is not only the daily urge to write, but it’s also a new mindset. My brain is now in the habit of looking for a way to turn some event or idea I have encountered each day into a 500-word story. I look specifically for details of my environment and consider the words I would need to describe it most accurately and in a way that best reflects the feeling of the moment.  I’m not always successful, but such skills come with practice.

Tomorrow, the habit will take on a new form. I will begin work in earnest on stitching together my travels during November and December 2015 into a coherent story that I hope will one day be published as a book. I will have about six weeks to generate the content, but I expect I’ll need to do some significant editing after I leave Poland. I’ll try to keep posting occasionally on the blog as I explore Krakow and the surrounding areas. I may make a couple jaunts out to Slovakia Hungary, or other cities around Poland, but I have no plans yet. Staying put for a few weeks actually sounds pretty nice right now.

It will be nice to build some other habits. My fitness and diet routines have been rubbish for the past month, so that will definitely need to change. I’d also like to start building some other habits, ones that can help me go a little deeper into my own mind.

Just as this habit of writing has started to train my brain to think in a certain way, other habits can have similar effects on our intellectual minds. For example, building the habit of meditating every day can have noticeable effects on the ability to concentrate throughout the rest of the day. I’m sure there are deeper benefits to meditation, but I have not yet experienced them.

I’d also like to rebuild the habit of eating a plant-based diet. I stayed with a guy last night who has explored the philosophical ideas that have come up on this blog much more deeply than I have, and a particularly interesting insight was that he actually started eating a fully “vegan” diet before he had the ethical impetus to do so. It was a rational decision not to support the animal agriculture industry even via egg/dairy consumption, but his ceasing of eating these products allowed him to open up to his connection to the rest of the animal world. Now, eating any animal products just feels wrong because it depends on the causing harm to sentient beings that are not just anonymous unseen animals in some distant farm, but another feature of the universal self. To participate in such harm is harming oneself, which is not only terrible but unnatural and irrational.

It’s a bit of a tough concept to grasp, but our rationalizing minds are very good at finding ways to justify our current behaviors. Our mind doesn’t want to believe that our current habits are self-destructive. If we cease the habit, perhaps our mind will open up to the idea that those behaviors were wrong.


sidenote: I’m really trying to get into this whole tolerance and oneness thing, but there is one type of person whom I don’t think I will ever be able to relate to, tolerate, or have one iota of respect for: loud eaters.

What’s the point?

Atop the 16th floor of this apartment building in Gangnam, with my feet dangling from the edge, I still feel secure. The solid faces of the office buildings that rise even higher than my lofty perch shield me like the firm reassurance of the wall beside a warm bed. It’s the feeling that nothing can sneak up behind me. It’s a comforting warmth like the rays of the sun that have begun to peek over the rooftops. Grey and green and brown, these quiet giants stand sentinel against the fantastical pursuers of imagination. Despite their comfort, though, my heart does not fully rest. A sour anxiety digs deep into my gut when I face my greatest challenge: myself. I am the only thing that stands between life and death in this precarious position of extreme potential. Below the untied laces of my shoes, I see solid pavement, sixteen stories down. The fall would take under four seconds. By the time my helpless body began to flatten in contact with the hard ground, the distance would be closing at the speed of a car on the freeway. The laws of physics hold me safely on this stationary ledge, but they could just as easily carry me to the end of my conscious experience if I so stupidly shifted my weight beyond the threshold of security. Even more frightening than the possibility of the fall or even its proximity is the absurd fact that I feel the urge to send my body into this fatal free fall. Fighting this urge takes a conscious effort to resist the temptation to place my hands on the cold, dirty metal ledge, lean forward, and push.

This is not a post about jumping off buildings, suicide, or even about physics. This is about feeling. I’ve taken pictures from rooftops of skylines, of the sky, and of the ground directly below. None of them remotely captures the sensation described above. If I have done what I aimed to do, many of you currently feel the anxiety I felt while sitting on the roof this morning. Recently I have lost sight of why I write, why I photograph, and why I try to capture the moments of my life. It has nothing to do with showing off the exotic locations I have been so privy to visit or telling impressive tales of adventure. It’s about sharing this human experience. It’s about telling the part of the story that I have to share. It’s about uncovering parts of the world that intrigue, impel, and inspire both others and myself.

I noticed recently that my photographs were severely lacking in comparison to some of my earlier work. This became extremely noticeable in review of the hundreds of photos I took over the border into North Korea. I deleted almost all of them. I had this pressing sensation that what I was looking at was so incredibly important and meaningful that I must capture it on my own personal SD card despite the fact that I could not actually pick out any feature or shape in my frame that remotely represented what that importance. Recognizing the limitation of my lens’ zoom, I snapped hundreds of photos in RAW format, hoping that a few would be focused enough to digitally zoom later. It was futile. All I got were a mass of data that overloaded my computer’s processor and a series of grainy images of a North Korean town 10 kilometers away. What inspiring story was I telling with those shots?

None.

Inside the Joint Security Area (JSA – where North and South Korean officials meet on the rare occasion that they do), I snapped dozens of photos of the North Korean buildings and South Korean guards inside the meeting room. I kept taking the exact same shot because I had nothing else to shoot. I didn’t have my camera directed there because I saw something particularly meaningful, but because I couldn’t turn it anywhere else. When I attempted to take pictures I actually thought might intrigue those who could not join such a tour, I got reprimanded by the American soldier who was supervising our tour group. Instead of powerful images, I ended up with a hundred photographs that look exactly like the ones you’ll find if you just Google “JSA,” so what part of the story was I able to share that others have not already told?

None.

Indeed, now that I look back on my experience, I may have been better served simply leaving the camera at home. I could have snapped a few shots with my phone for the sake of helping me remember, but that’s not why I spent the better part of my savings on a new camera. I bought that camera to capture moments of my life in such a way that others could share in those experiences.

William Howard Taft is quoted as saying, “Do not write so that you can be understood. Write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” This sentiment applies to all forms of self-expression. Whether through writing, photography, speech, music or otherwise, our goal should always be to clearly and accurately pass what we know, think, and feel to the rest of the world. Simply snapping away at whatever puts itself before our lens or mechanically describing the events of our past is not sharing our story. To truly uncover something about the world, to make sense of it; and to feel it, we must use these incredible minds that nature has designed for us to capture to quintessence of life.

The Power of Silence

Through my clean, dry socks, the warmth of the heated linoleum floor penetrates the soles of my feet, wanton for this brief moment of respite. In a cozy room alone, I have taken the opportunity to spill some thoughts, unhampered by the anxieties of tomorrow’s responsibilities. More than anything though, the greatest relief is the silence. Though the window is open, the loudest sound in the room is the scratching of my pen against paper. Above the constant ring of my ears, the gentle whir of a water cooler slips under the thin wooden door. An occasional joyous outburst from the room upstairs reminds me I am not completely alone up here, but this has been my first time away from the energy and activity of the city in over six weeks. I had forgotten what it was like to stand near an open window and hear nothing but the gentle scratching of dry branches at the beckon of a gentle breeze or the distant whistle of a lonely animal calling expectantly for a companion. I had forgotten the scent that a cool night air carries over an artificial settlement such as this one, placed so brashly in the bosom of these wooded hills. In this quiet, clean calmness, I can listen to my busy mind, desperate for an open ear.

I penned these words in a small journal as I was sitting in my dorm room at the Yongpyeong English Village, a small collection of a brick buildings, stereotypically fashioned after the architecture common along the American East Coast. In the mountains to the east of Seoul, this little village serves as the site for intensive English language courses, a meeting place for faculty and staff, and even a popular television drama. Surrounded only by mountains and rural farming towns, the English Village is particularly quiet at night. Especially on a night such as that one, when the skies were clear and the wind was calm, there was almost no sound coming from outside the buildings. On an impulse, after I spent some time thinking and writing in my room, I decided to go for a walk. With only my notepad and a pen, I wandered up into the woods above the village. There were scattered camping areas and a small obstacle course, which I of course had to play on. After startling a dog whose bark was probably much bigger than his bite, I decided it was best to return to my room. I did little writing over the course of those two hours, but the walk through the natural stillness, listening to the gentle murmur of a small creek and tramping over the wet leaves shed last autumn, I was able to release much of the stress and pent up emotion that had been plaguing me over the past couple weeks.

The next day, I went out again to see the forest in the daylight. While most of the rest of my colleagues were in sabbath day activities, I ambled through the forest in a Thoreau-like contemplation to read of the adventures of Alexander Supertramp in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and admire the natural beauty that I no longer get to observe so often as I once did. While exploring, I snapped a few pictures. Let me know what you think.

Last time, I shared with you some of the flashbacks of my multiple lives in the United States that had been taking an emotional toll on me. Since Friday, when our retreat started, those have been much less frequent. Today, however, I had a little time back in the city as I was walking to a footy match (which I had failed to notice had been cancelled), and I got to thinking about a conversation I am currently having with Joel about prestigious universities. I have realized that few of the things I have done over the past decade have been for any deeper reason than “because I can.” I have fully embodied the “Type A” personality: simply for the fact that the mountain exists, I must climb it.

College math courses are available to me in high school, you say? I shall pass them.

The Naval Academy only accepts 1,500 students a year, you say? I shall get accepted.

Aerospace engineering is the toughest major, you say? I shall master it.

I did these things primarily out of the need to prove that I could do them. Fortunately, I did not accept such challenges as becoming a Navy SEAL, becoming a fighter pilot, or even dropping literally everything to start from scratch as a hobo somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After all of this, I began thinking about how much of this current journey is led by the same motivation. Although some of that certainly still hangs with me, I do not believe this journey is any longer at the will of the latest challenge to be accepted. I recently narrowed down my objectives while I am here in Korea. These are all pragmatic goals that stem from a quest for liberty and a sense of belonging.

1. Pay off my debts. Living with the thousands of dollars that still hang over my head because of decisions that were exactly right for a life I no longer lead restricts my dream of experiencing the world. The monthly payments I must maintain dictate the jobs that I may accept and thus the places I may find employment. When these debts are gone, I will only need to earn the money sufficient to maintain my livelihood, which may be a very small amount depending on my current place of residence.

2. Learn Korean. Though I have a desire to communicate with the Korean people out of respect, this is really the first step in a journey to become multilingual. As is the purpose of this blog, my aim is to learn and tell the stories of those whom I meet along my journey. Currently, I cannot tell the story of anyone who does not speak very good English. By learning Korean and the languages of the countries in which I will live, all of these lives will become available to me.

3. Write. The more I write and the more I think, the more I realize that I my future profession will be based in the written word. Whether it be in publishing research as a professional academician, telling the stories the public needs to hear as a journalist, or sharing my continued explorations as a travel writer, my future career will depend upon the skills I am honing here. Also, I know my family likes to hear what I’m doing. 🙂

4. Stay fit. Too often, I see people debilitated by their failing bodies. I pity them because I know that for many, it was the sum of disrespect for their bodies that has now crippled their lives and freedom of movement. I know that I have many years, probably decades, left of exploring the world. I want my body to be ready when I need it.

None of these goals calls for the conquering of towering mountains – although I would love to see Everest on my travels. These are the ways I am preparing for the life that is right for me, a life in which I may explore great swaths of this beautiful Earth, tell the stories of the people who are its stewards, and search for a home among the community that shares these beliefs about the world.

In the brief instant of our lives, we are meant to roam and explore beyond our boundaries.