Thursday, January 24, 2013

More Reasons Why I Travel (In No Particular Order)

At a World Food Program feeding site in Benin

Why I Travel #1: To Think, Process and Feel

The other thing about traveling alone is that I have a lot of time to think, process, write... In real life, I fill my time and my head so much that sometimes I don't let myself sit back and reflect and feel.  Reflecting is not always fun but it is necessary.  Every so often I need a check in.

When I travel my feelings are much more present. Sometimes I get really lonely, but then out of the darkness, I sit next to someone and have the most inspiring conversation and suddenly feel deeply connected.  Or I feel frustrated and lost, but just as I am about to crumble, I turn a corner and discover something magical and new. It teaches me about possibilities and reminds me how easy it is to survive the extremes.

Why I Travel #2: It Opens Me Up 

In my daily life in New York, I don't have that many chances to talk to random strangers.  We all know that it's a bit frowned upon to sit down next to someone on the subway and strike up a conversation.  It doesn't mean it never happens, it's just not encouraged and my behavior has adapted to it.

The opposite is true with the kind of travel I do.  When traveling I strike up conversations with everyone.  I have lots of short genuine interactions. I feel open and constantly connected.  I love it.  As an extrovert, I get my energy from others and fresh random conversations are like crack for me.

The funny part is when I get home and I find myself chatting in the subway with mixed results.  I try to find tourists to target, so that they think all New Yorkers are that open and friendly.

Meeting Iraqis in Iran.  Stereotypes be gone!
Why I Travel #3: To Meet People From All Over The World

I know that it might sound funny that living in New York doesn't put me in contact with people from all over the world, but it really doesn't.  I love travel because I not only get to meet people and learn about the culture of the country I am visiting, but I also get to meet people from many other countries.

Over the years I have learned that Aussies speak practically a totally different English.  That I feel deeply connected to Brits. That the French have a very inquisitive eye. I have heard about places I have never knew existed before. And I have made real friendships out of it.  I have visited friends I met traveling in London (2), China, Tunisia, Indonesia, and Greece.  Plus I have hosted people from Switzerland and Austria in NY. This past year, I loved getting birthday greetings from across the world and particularly from Australia so many hours before my birthday was even happening in my time zone.

And most importantly I have been able to share my reflections and examine my American bias. It helps me understand the world better and understand what I am seeing better.

Don't worry though, my volunteer activity with Big Apple Greeters taking tourists out on personalized tours of New York gives me a chance to meet at least a few folks in my home town too.

North Korea really blew my mind
Why I Travel #4: To See/Learn/Experience and Understand Other Worlds

The most obvious reason I travel is that I am an experiential learner.  I can read tons of books and watch lots of movies and tv, but I can't really understand a place till I've been there.  Suddenly when I set foot in a country everything I have read comes to life and I have a bottomless desire to read more and understand a country better.  History in books tends to go in and out of my brain too easily, but somehow if I am walking on the same ground as historical figures, I can absorb all the information. 

As a current events junkie, I love news, but often I feel the US news doesn't give enough context or cover the full story, so instead I fly off to Afghanistan to hear about life after the Taliban. Or to Israel/Palestine to see the wall and feel the distinct separate feeling on each side of it. Or to Iran, where I met Iranians and saw just how different they were from the way they are covered in our press.

It all started when I was in high school learning about the The Soviet Union and the Cold War and just having a hard time buying what I was hearing. My dad was Russian and had a PhD in Russian Studies so I asked him if I could go visit and meet real Russians.  He said yes and boy did I learn a lot. Yes communism was different and parts of the Soviet system were shocking to my American Capitalist self, but I also got to meet many young Russians who seemed to have dreams just like me.  I got to basically see that the world is very complex and nuanced.  I haven't stopped traveling since.

Photos from Peru

Ladies at the market in Puno, Peru

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

In Peru, It All Seems to be About Hats

When traveling through the Andes in Peru, there is so much to see.  Radiant green landscapes with soaring mountains and sprawling valleys.  Snowy peaks in the distance.  Incan ruins clinging to the mountains above.  Fuzzy llamas and alpaca grazing on the high altitude slopes.  Enormous, ornately decorated cathedrals showing the Spaniards wealth and power...  But for me, a person who travels to see people and culture, my eyes were mostly focused on the hats.  Tops hats, bowler hats, straw hats, woven hats, leather hats, fabric hats, flowered hats...  Round tops, flat tops, soft tops, ruffled tops...  Brown, black, red, white, tan or brightly colored...  It never ended.  It was a feast for my eyes.

Wearing traditional dress is still the norm for large parts of this mountainous region where the Quechua people have been able to retain their cultural traditions.  This means most people are sporting bright colored textiles: men in ponchos intricately designed with customary patterns, women in woven or embroidered skirts that they wear sometimes up to 15 layers deep to create the full look with multi hued ruffles showing underneath. The vibrancy doesn't end there though.  Goods from the market are packed up in vivid cloths and tied to ones back along with babies and everything else.  Then add the piles of fruits and vegetables in all shapes and sizes.... Color, color, color! Viva Peru!
Taquile Island, Peru in Lake Titicaca

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Visiting Machu Picchu. One of the 7 Wonders of the World

Perched way up in the sky on a mountain top, often hidden by clouds, lies Machu Picchu, an intricate and sprawling complex built in the 15th Century and abandoned in the 16th Century when the Spaniards conquered the Incan Empire.  I arrived in the early morning in the pouring rain.  The clouds were so thick I could only see 30 feet in front of me at a time and even then not too clearly.  I walked with no concept which direction to go. I spent hours sitting watching the clouds come and go and the scenery focus and then fade again.  At first I couldn't see all the mountain peaks surrounding the site or the valleys deep below it.  Finally the sun broke through and there below me was this amazing sight.

The incredible part of Inca building is that they didn't use draft animals or even use the wheel but somehow managed to transport all these huge stones up mountains and build walls that still lie intact today without any mortar between them.  Many of their stones were cut to interconnect much like Lego and throughout Peru, a highly volatile seismic region; their buildings survive earthquakes as modern architecture falls.

Incan structures are visible throughout the Sacred Valley of Peru clinging on the side of mountains and nestled in valleys.  In Cusco, the main city of the region and the capitol of the Incan Empire, the Spaniards built right on top of the Incan sacred sites, perhaps in an effort to quickly replace their religion and introduce Catholicism. Luckily the Spaniards never found Machu Picchu though, so it remains for all of us to enjoy.

The Difference Between 12 Days and 12 Months of Travel

Going to Peru means wandering the well worn backpacker trail.  In the US, we celebrate a one week vacation, which is a striking contrast to the travel that is going on in here in Latin America.  Conversations with fellow travelers here talk about 3, 6 or 12 months of travel.  I even met a French guy who has been traveling for 2 years and isn't sure when he is going to stop.  This type of travel has few set itineraries and is filled with 24 hour bus rides on local buses sometimes to places you just heard about at breakfast the day before, sleeping in bunk beds at hostels, eating in local markets and checking out the best of the world's sights one by one, but also believing that those sites are better if you take time to explore the wider land and community around them more.

Cusco - The Heart of the Peruvian Highlands

Why I Like/Need to Travel

I'm embarking on this journey to Peru partly to appreciate and get the most out of life at home. It might sound strange for a person who has traveled as much and as broadly as I have to admit that I have a really hard time leaving home. I sleep best in my own room and am very fond of my daily routine. While I like being in new places, the process of leaving my own place is really painful sometimes. People always ask "Are you excited to be going to xxx?" And I feel terrible when I have to admit that I'm not because there is a big pit in my stomach at the anticipation of leaving.

So why do I do it, you might ask? On one side, I absolutely love to see new places and cultures and see the daring, fearless person I become when I travel away from the normal constraints of home. But almost as importantly, going away always makes me realize what I have. I miss my home, my city, my friends... In my regular life routines, I end up taking those things for granted and getting lazy. I like my friends, but in the context of normal life, I sometimes don't make the effort to reach out and make plans with them. I love New York and all the exciting happenings and cultural opportunities it offers, but after being in my routine for a while, I get lazy and spend the day at home watching tv vs getting out there and discovering something new.

Travel away motivates me to appreciate and seek out what I have at home. It energizes me and I come home from a trip and take advantage of that energy and live more fully by reaching out to people, making plans and discovering new things. Travel revives me.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The 2013 Inauguration of President Barack Obama

I was lucky to be able to attend the Second Inauguration of President Barack Obama.  Washington, DC shined brightly as I toured its great monuments and enjoyed the political energy pulsing all over its streets.   Seeing the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument for the first time on MLK holiday weekend moments before swearing in America's first black president for his second term, gave it even more meaning.  Seeing so many black faces in all the crowds who were so jubilant to live in a country that has come so far felt powerful.  What a weekend!