Travel Advent Dec. 25: What’s Next

I long pondered what the final post for this advent series should be. A yearly wrap up, or a look at what the next year could hold? Perhaps a look at what this year has been, or what my life is. Instead of all that, I think it’s important that we take a moment of reflection towards why we’re here.

While enjoying our summer of limited restrictions in Denmark, I got in a little spat with a coworker during lunch one day. Masks had yet to be implemented at this time, but they were most certainly on the way. I brought up how I would be sewing my own over the weekend, and how excited I was to go pick out fabrics from the shop to make my cute little masks.

“You know those aren’t as safe as the medical grade masks, don’t you?” my coworker butted in. Of course I know that, you don’t see surgeons going into the OR wearing cartoon llamas on their masks.

“But that’s so wasteful, having to wear and throw away a mask once or twice a day.” I posited back in his direction.

“Well…I think human life is more important here.” And again even lunch in the workplace can not escape politicized arguments. I shrugged and agreed with him, but in my head I went on with the argument.

“Isn’t this mentality the whole reason why we’re here?” I thought. If we go with the theory that COVID spread from a wild animal in a wet market to a human host, then nature is sending us all the right messages. We were getting too close to animals, stuffing ourselves too tight in cities, flying all over the world without accepting the consequences, and filling ourselves with garbage food that tears down our immunes systems. I get angry everyday I walk to work, because I walk by a bus stop where the garbage bin is filled to the brim with nothing but blue masks, and in the ever constant Danish wind those blue masks pick up and float into the bushes and trees where they’ll be for centuries. I just imagine magazines next year with the front page image being some child in a third world country swimming in an ocean full of blue masks, or a turtle swimming through the ocean with a mask on.

But I don’t want to get too negative — what I want to do is find the positives in this situation. We’ve been given the gift of reanalyzing our every day lives. Instead of going back to what “normal” was, we can notice what was bad about the way we were and improve the way we go forward. We can work more from home, or work less in general. Better yet, we can move out of the overcrowded cities and reconnect with nature a bit more while still having our jobs. We can eat better food, and for some of us eat food fresh from the garden. We can fly less, and focus more on the relationships we have growing in our immediate surroundings. And when we do travel, we can take more time to smell the roses and take trains or buses to see more of a destination rather than have weekend long city-escapes. We can spend more time learning hobbies that develop our character and impact our lives positively. There are endless positives we can take into tomorrow with us.

But few of us seem to be excited about these positives. We liked our cozy little normal, and we want more than anything to go back to our comfort zones rather than venture out and see what other lives could await us. The moment businesses open up again, we’ll be back in the office looking at our computer screens for 10 hours a day. As soon as cities open, we’ll all be out on the streets buying garbage and eating junk food. As soon as we can fly again, we’ll buy cheap RyanAir flights that take us to some random city for pennies. I’d be a hypocrite to say I didn’t want these things as well, I liked the way we used to live. But maybe I’d like the way we could live even more.

Maybe the |normal| we were used to wasn’t the way we were supposed to live. What’s the point of working all day so that we can buy things that keep us entertained while we wait to go back to work? There’s no point in working every day looking forward to the weekend, working just to pay for our car payments so that we can afford to go to work in the first place. That’s not what living creatures should do, sitting in front of a computer all day and coming home to eat a microwave meal and watch TV with a beer. What other animal worries so much about fake things like numbers on a computer screen like we do. I think that’s where the problem lies for us, where we messed up as a species. We have a fetish with separating ourselves from the animal kingdom.

Who are we to say we’re any better than animals? We think we’re so special, that because we can talk and make fire we deserve spot like Gods walking among the Earth, better than all other forms of creation. We think we’re different but at the end of the day we die and become food for the bacteria living in between our toes. You think you’re special because you can talk? Other animals communicate too, in ways we can’t even fathom with these big gooey advanced human brains of ours. And about those brains — whales have evolved bigger and more developed brains with emotional responses our human minds can’t even fathom. You think you’re special because you have thumbs and can make tools? So do raccoons when they open up your garbage, and otters when they use rocks to open up mollusks. You think our cities are cool? Try termite mounds and ant hills. We think we’re so special that we created this little caged environments and societies for ourselves when every other animal gets to be free. But I guarantee you we have a purpose as a species to fill in the ecosystem, we just haven’t found it yet.

It’s true, we do have developed emotional responses and the ability to adapt and make tools. That’s one of our great points. We can live anywhere on this Earth, to create amazing works of technology, and do so while communicating in an advanced and clear way. We also hold this unique ability to gain trust from animals. Everything from the cat sitting on my lap right now to an octopus in the sea that a man created an emotional response with. So we have this ability to empathize, to fix and make things better, and to do so all around the globe. Perhaps it sounds like hippy bullshit, but maybe we were made to be ‘healers’ for the globe. To go around, making the Earth a better place with our empathy, ability to adapt, and create tools for good. If not, what else? We certainly didn’t go through the painstaking evolutionary process of over 6 million years to stare in front of a computer all day.

At least, that’s not how I want to live this life. I want to believe that we have better things to do with our brains and abilities, that we had a higher purpose in mind than running about in our own little constructed reality. This is the best time to look at these things, when we lack total control and have realized that the things we’ve been doing have gone too far. There’s a philosophy I like to thing about from the Aymara in Bolivia. They’re one of the few societies that believe we walk through time backwards.

Think about it, we always say “The past is behind us.” That’s because in our culture, we think of ourselves walking linearly across time, going from left to right, young to old and not looking back at the past that is behind us. The Aymara think that we are walking backwards through time: because everything that has happened lies in front of you already where you can see it, while everything that has yet to happen is still behind you out of view. If we can look at history as something that is always in our periphery, always something that can be analyzed and learned from rather than thrown behind us and forgotten, maybe we can move forward with better intentions. Today is meant to be a new beginning, a birth of new ideas and new philosophies to make us better as individuals and as a society. So rather than look at our future with bright starry eyed wishes to return to normal, we need to be able to see that there was something fundamentally wrong with what we called normal.

If we go back to normal, we’ll have another outbreak in a few years. Rather than just putting a bandaid on the situation by telling people to wear masks and wash their hands and get vaccines, what can we do to keep these things from happening in the first place? Could we eat better? Work less? Appreciate this beautiful environment we came from? Tear down this constructed superiority we hold so dear? We need to look at what got us here in the first place, and ponder whether or not that’s the reality we want to keep living in for this lifetime, and for those that come after ours. Merry Christmas — please stay safe, treat each other with love and care, and let’s make 2021 a better year for everyone and everything.

Travel Advent Dec. 24: The Fragrant Harbor

There are few places on this Earth that I love more dearly than the little island teetering off the coast of Mainland China — the territory that packs a punch like no other. Hong Kong has filled my dreams since the day I left in 2018, and while I lived there I may not have been entirely happy, upon leaving I feel the utmost nostalgia and love towards this harbor that housed me for half a year and showed me the beauty it possesses.

No other city I have visited has energy quite like Hong Kong. It is orderly, yet chaotic. Rude, but one of the most charming cities. Gracious, yet so taxing to its citizens. Free, but caged. Hong Kong has entranced me still, and every day I spend away from it is a day I wish I could be back. No other city can be so grey but so green. Hong Kong is the only expansive sprawling city that offers gorgeous remote mountainscapes and forests within a short subway ride. No other big city in the world can offer such natural escapes as Hong Kong with such an ease of public transport to get you from the concrete jungle to the Dengue fever rainforest without leaving the metro.

No other city can be so welcoming yet so harsh. I would often go with my fellow exchange students to the infamous Mr. W’s, a restaurant known by all foreign exchange students for its cheap bottomless food and beer. Mr. W welcomes you with intense graciousness, taking you to the alleyway table because the restaurant is full but there’s always space at Mr. W’s. He makes jokes and makes sure there is food for you within 10 minutes. He comes and brings ice cold Kingsway beers, stored in their cheap dark green cans to soothe the humidity of the night. We spend hours drinking, eating, and laughing wondering what Mr. W’s true identity is. How else could he serve bottomless beer and food so cheap? At the end of the table, a mountain of cleaned plates and empty beer shells pile by the end of the table — a trophy to our trashiness. Soon we see some other foreign exchange students, a friend of mine from Copenhagen who climbs at the same gym as me. He comes over with a friend visiting from Copenhagen, a hippy Dane who joins our group of wandering exchange students and fits right in. As we drink, Mr. W and his associates clean the place and you remark at how quickly his mood has turned from jovial to “Get Out” so smoothly. You all go to the bottomless Kingsway fridge and put five or six each in your pockets, and go to the nearest park to keep drinking. As you sit and drink more, throwing empty cans at rats, you realize that you are the epitome of a terrible exchange student. The thing locals think and shudder at when they see us walking down the street.

Hong Kong is the city where you can get on a subway and be deep in the forest, completely lost among monkeys and mosquitos without any memory that one of the largest financial centers lies just several kilometers away. Here you can breathe the mountain air, surf in the seas, explore the biodiversity, skinny dip in the waterfalls, and be free like never before. Here you can wander holy sights, tranquil nunneries, and temples with shuffling nuns and monks going about their chores. You can be completely still, watching koi swim in ponds and resurface several minutes later in the hustle of downtown Kowloon.

Hong Kong is the city where you need to be messy when you eat. The city where a group of Hong Kong bankers go out to eat at the table next to you, get ridiculously drunk, and keep eating while their coworker vomits on the table. The city where you go out with your American, French, and Estonian friend with his Hong Kong girlfriend for dim sum on a Wednesday for lunch. The waiter brings sweet pork buns and tea. The Estonian’s local girlfriend, quite traditionally, takes a bowl and fills it with tea. She proceeds to take every bowl, cup, and chopstick from the table and wash it in the bowl of the tea. Why are you doing that? You ask. “Because these places don’t clean very well…” she says under a hushed tone, dwarfed by the size of your mountain of an Estonian friend. The food comes, and you all begin eating quite pleasantly. You are all content, but your Estonian believes that something isn’t quite right. “Where is the mess?!” he says in his booming voice, his muscles of an amateur bodybuilder pulsating. “You are all eating too politely! It is not dim sum unless we ruin the table with our food!” He takes the teapot and pours it out across the table until every napkin and plate is thoroughly drenched in warm amber Oolong tea. “There, now it is good dim sum. Can we have more tea please?”

Hong Kong is the city where a beautiful Hong Kong lady of the night almost seduces your mother. Your mom comes to visit, and you are so excited to show her around especially since she’s got space for you in her hotel room in central Hong Kong. After a long day visiting temples and being in the crazy atmosphere of the city, the two of you go down to the hotel bar to listen to a European quintet play some French gypsy Jazz. The bartender knows just what you want — a strong Negroni with an extra smidge of gin. The two of you sit at the bar writing haiku’s on the bar clad in brilliant bronze with a thick fatty leather border to rest your elbow on. Across the counter sits a beautiful Chinese woman in an elegant black dress, drinking slowly from a martini. Your mother makes eye contact with her, and asks, “What’s her story… she has too much personality to be all alone.” You shrug and continue writing haikus deep in your Negroni. The woman, noticing your mother’s eye contact, comes over and introduces herself and pays no attention to you at all. “You look like Lauren Hutton!” she tells your mother in broken English, to which your mother is flattered yet a bit taken aback. They hit it off instantly, and this mysterious woman introduces herself as “Lily”. Your mother tries to delve deeper into the past of this mysterious charming woman, but she passes it off with smiles and laughter and goes back to her spot in the bar to listen to the French gypsy jazz. Your mother is flooded with curiosity, and in her naivety lets her curiosity grow at this mysterious Lily. She comes over once again to talk, hoping to make a deal. But your lovely mother keeps talking, trying to connect with her new Hong Konger friend before Lily realizes this is no deal she can make. She sets off, and you and your mother finish your drinks and head back up to bed. Just as your drifting to sleep your mother, deep in thought, yells in revelation, “OH MY GOD….she was a prostitute wasn’t she!”

Hong Kong is the city where everyone is welcome — where you go to the Wanch every night for live music. The beers there are 50 HKD, the same price as three Kirins at 7-11. So you come prepared, with your 3 Kirins and a red bean bun from the 7-11. You stoop out on the street face, drinking your beers and listening to music and talking to the other locals that call the Wanch home. But you never go in — for fear that you’ll have to pay — and because there is more air outside than in. The owner, a fellow musician and music head, looks at you from afar and waves, seeing a younger version of himself too cheap to pay for expensive beer yet still wanting to listen to some live music.

Hong Kong is the city where the only riff-raff in the city, the only dangerous folks out past midnight are the ex-pats who stay up late to drink and party. No locals would be caught dead outside too late. You get to the bus station, fresh from a live gig at the Wanch or an Underground gig at 3 AM. You stand and wait, alone in a city of over 7 million people. The only other person alive is a white man walking toward you, who as he walks nearer you realize is your journalism professor who’s been in Macau with a colleague all day. “Small world!” He shouts out. Not a small world, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a city of dreams and stories. A city where everyone seems to have a story but are too busy to tell it. I dream to return, yet, it is the city that I know will never live up to the illusions of grandeur that I hold for it. I was lucky to experience Hong Kong in 2018 when it was still free to some degree. Now, for better or for worse, I know that if I ever return to Hong Kong it will be nothing like the Hong Kong of my dreams. Whether the Hong Konger’s gain independence, or whether they just become another Chinese city, Hong Kong will forever be a different place than the way we once knew it. And maybe that’s not a horrible thing. Still, I will always dream of the Fragrant Harbor.

Travel Advent Dec. 23: Do Languages Change Us?

Some of you who’ve kept up with this blog notice that I’ve had one Spanish story a week during the Travel Advent. They have absolutely nothing to do with travel they were homework assignments with my tutor Carlos. You see, I’m one of those folks that wanted to be an overachiever during quarantine and practice their language skills. When the pandemic first started, I started taking Japanese and Korean classes at my local language school. Then a few weeks later, I had to give a presentation to over 100 members of a Mexican blind organization — and that’s when I realized I need to improve my Spanish.

So I scoured the internet for pandemic proof language resources, and lo and behold found an excellent little tutoring service with countless languages called Preply. I found my perfect tutor, and we’ve been meeting once or twice a week since May. I’m an immersion learner, and the only way I’ve been able to keep my Spanish going these past years in Denmark has been from spending lots of time with Argentine around or by taking a trip to Spain now and then. But now that I can’t travel, I had to find a way to travel in my own home.

Carlos has been a godsend. Not only has he made Spanish classes interesting, but he’s pushing me to levels I haven’t experienced in a while. He grades me to groom me for the Spanish comprehension exams, which would be an excellent way to tangibly prove to myself that I benefitted from the lockdown. But learning any language does a lot to transport us from our everyday.

I think languages fundamentally change our brains, and I believe that our personalities are different in other languages. While my Korean and Japanese aren’t too advanced, just the act of learning them and struggling to identify Kanji or sound out Hangeul transports me to a restaurant in Busan or Nagano. If I were to expand these languages, I’m sure my attitude and personality would change. When I was in Japan a few years ago speaking my broken Japanese, I realized how polite and understanding my personality is in Japanese. In English, I like to wander about with big words and meander as if I were hiking through some verdant Welsh hillside.

In Spanish, I like to explore the emotions behind words. It’s such an incredibly emotive language with definitions that don’t fully translate to the moods of English. In that way, for me a lover of melancholy, nostalgia, reflection and magical realism, Spanish is an optimal tool to describe the mind.

In a contrasting way, I’m a lot more matter of fact when I speak Danish. Danish is an upfront language, and in my opinion spoken in a flat impersonal way. There is no word for ‘please’ for example, and the word ‘fine’ means excellent. If someone asks how you are and you say ‘Fine’, it means you’re doing splendidly average — which is a good thing here. In America or the UK and Ireland, ‘fine’ means I don’t want to talk about how I feel. The Danish language can be entirely robotic, until you get to the matters of the indoors. That illusive, unidentifiable and untranslatable ‘hygge’ taking the world by storm is the most human emotion one can find here. It something like the mood and emotions behind coziness, anything from sitting by a fire to having a beer with a friend. This makes sense that Danish would evolve this way, since you spend the whole year inside alone not talking to anyone. You don’t need to say please or express your human emotions, but you do need to invent words to make staying indoors more bearable.

The translated words for every language seem to have their weight to them. It makes sense that my personality would change with each language, because the words I’m using to describe something have an entirely different energy and meaning to them. Just answering the question “How are you” has three different answers. “I’m doing well!” Could mean anything, but English vocabulary was made complicated and given hidden meanings to allow us to answer things indirectly to allow us to keep our masks up. “¿Ando bien, y vos?” has an energy of movement to it. It’s imaginative, it means that “I’m still going” and creates the image of movement and continuation as Spanish is an emotive language of action. “Det går fint, tak” Feels well rounded to me. Danish allows me to be flat and make conclusions. There is no hidden meaning behind my saying “I’m fine,” because I am fine and have nothing else to say about the matter.

So as I look down the barrel of another few months of potential quarantine here in Europe, I’m not too worried. I’ve gotten used to working from home, have enough books to weather an apocalypse, and enough Spanish tutor Duolingo lessons to get through to experience multiple personality disorder before I get my vaccine. What have you been learning this year?

Travel Advent Dec. 22: Why I Travel Most in Winter

Beyond the obvious fact that Danish winters are disgustingly rainy and dark and offer none of the fun of white winter snow that other nordic destinations get, I feel winter to be the best time to explore the world. But not the toasty sides of the world. Winter is the best time to visit other disgusting cold places in the world.

I get out most in the winter, almost to the point that I am out of Denmark in the winter more than I am in it. Yes, because the weather is garbage, and now that I’ve been experiencing Danish winter for 2 months without getting out I’m already going crazy. I don’t go to Spain or France or Morocco…I most often go to Poland or Lithuania or some other cold dark place. There are plenty of reasons for why this can be a great time.

  1. Fewer crowds

    As long as you stay away from beachside destinations like Spain or Greece where other Northerners are sheltering away from the cold, pretty much anywhere cold you go will be devoid of international tourists. And if you do find international tourists, they’ll likely be other crazy people like yourself.

    When I went to Kosovo in January of 2019, I froze myself to death. My hotel room was colder than the outside, so I opted to be out more than in when I was exploring the capital Priština. This gave me a great opportunity to meet some other people, ones who made for a unique Priština experience.

    I went on couchsurfing and the only 2 people online were a French wildman backpacker and a Kosovar local just looking to hangout. The three of us met up in the only town square and went out to a bar. There aren’t many bars in the city, so the bar we chanced upon happened to be filled with Kosovar politicians. For the entire evening we got to rub elbows with the upper echelon of Kosovar policy makers, one of whom was the cousin of our local Couchsurfing friend. I got to pick their brains, learn about Kosovo’s plea for independence, and enrich myself in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.
  2. Stumble Upon Gems

    Since it’s most certainly cold enough to freeze your giblets, you have to plan when and where to take inside breaks, and take them more often. This often leads you in to more free art galleries, artsy movie theaters, concerts, libraries, bars, cafes, and random boutiques than it would if you were exploring in warm weathers.

    When traveling Vienna on the same expedition that eventually wound up in Kosovo, I would spent three days in and out of places I wouldn’t have ventured to in another season. I went ahead and bought the big museum pass, and spent hours seeing every last piece of artwork Vienna had to offer. I took late night yoga classes with a friend, toured as many antique bookshops as possible, went for late night movies at artsy boutique movie theaters, all in between expeditions to enjoy the architecture in the cold.

    In the summer, I would have spent all my time outside enjoying the parks and architecture rather than enjoying the indoor activities — which is pretty special.
  3. Cheaper Accommodation

    Off season travel is also the most affordable, especially in Eastern Europe. You can easily rent yourself an entire apartment for the cost of a hostel bed in a 16 dorm room in Paris. I love being able to socialize with random hostel folks, but I also love my alone time. Other backpackers know, it can be hard to find alone time when couchsurfing or staying in hostels. So the alone time afforded in a $10 apartment or simply spent reading a book for hours in a warm cafe are welcome times for introspection and thought should a travel experience get too hectic or overwhelming. And when you do crave human interaction, you’ll be driven in to a bar or other cultural location to break in with the locals.

I guess where I’m getting at is travel in deep winter can create some really unique human interactions. By couchsurfing or going to bars where everyone is stuck with each other in side, you’re given the chance to focus on them without distraction. Social cohesion is somehow easier when you enter a large public place quite obviously an outsider. Locals haven’t seen one of your kind for a while, and have spent long weeks weathering the cold darkness without much interaction from the outside world. So when they find some form of hope, some word of reminder that there is indeed a world outside of this dark little bubble, they welcome you with open arms in a way that they do not in the summer.

And I’ve always told myself, if I can love a place in the winter then I’ll love it even more in the summer. When is your favorite time to travel?

Travel Advent Dec. 21: El Hombre con su Casa a Cuestas

Había un hombre que caminaba llevando su casa como una mochila. Sé que estás pensando — ¿y qué ? no es raro ver un mochilero con su casa a cuestas, — pero no era una mochila con una bolsa de dormir y una carpa —. Esto era una casita, como una casa para muñecas, que llevaba el hombre. El hombre, el cual se llevó su casa a cuestas, estaba caminando fuera de toda la civilización, dentro de un bosque misterioso y oscuro. Estaba caminando, y su barba larga flotando en el aire fresco, caminando encima del musgo esponjoso. ¿Dónde caminaba? no sé. Pero sabemos que el hombre cuya barba estaba flotando alegremente, era libre.

  El hombre caminaba dentro del bosque durante un rato que se sintió más bien como meses. Pero se centro emocionadamente en ser libre, y no se preocupó en las cosas fuera del bosque. Un día, estaba caminando cuando olió el fuego en un hogar. Lejos de él, pudo ver una casa roja con humo escapando de la chimenea. Caminó cerca y golpeó por la puerta vieja, un niño abrió la puerta llevando unos pantalones de cuero y una camisa de franela y un humo de fuego y olor a pan nuevo saliendo de la puerta. 

“¿Quién es usted?” cuestionó el chico. 

“Soy el hombre que camina con su casa a cuestas, el cual puede ver hasta el futuro. Estuve caminando en el bosque por meses y necesito una cama y un baño para refrescarme. ¿Están sus padres aquí adentro?”

“Solo vivo aquí con mi padre y él fue al río para colectar hongos. Pero el va a volver en un ratito y puedo darle una sopa y un té para calentarse.”

“Me parece perfecto comer un poco. A cambio, puedo darle “echar un vistazo” a su futuro.” El chico dio un paso y el hombre con su casa a cuestas entró en la casa. Había un hogar cerca de una mesa muy antigua y encima del hogar había las cornamentas de un ciervo enorme. Todo estaba muy limpio, y el hombre se sacó sus botas para no llevar barro a  la casa. Sacó la casita fuera de su espalda con hombros y brazos fuertes de un hombre el cuál llevaba mucho tiempo diambulando. Esos  hombros que llevaban el futuro de todos… 

El hombre dejó su casita encima de la mesa, y se sentó mientras el chico calentaba la sopa encima de la estufa. Cuando el fuego se encendió y la sopa estaba calentándose, el chico vino con una silla y se sentó cerca del hombre. El hombre miró al chico y dijo, “A ver, qué está pasando en su futuro, amigo.” Con dedos gordos y fuertes, abrió la puerta de la casita y el chico puso su cabeza cerca de la puerta y miró con un ojo cerrado, desde la puerta de la casita. “¿Y qué ves, amigo mío?” 

El chico era bizco, pero después de un momento pudo ver qué estaba pasando en la casita. “¡Vi un hombre, !” dijo el chico. “¿Quién es él…soy yo? No puede ser. El es muy alto y guapo, además llevando traje — y tiene una castaña en su mano. ¿Qué haces con esta castaña, chiquito?” El chico apartó de la casita, y miró que el hombre con su casa a cuestas tuvo una castaña en la palma de su mano.