As we travel around the world, one of our most important goals is to connect with people and find out what common threads exist that bind humanity together. It is so very easy to categorize people and to explain away the worlds ills with generalizations and dinner table chats on politics.
But who are the individuals who inhabit our earth? Who are the people we talk about dismissively during those dinner table chats, sandwiched somewhere between the main course and dessert? How are they affected by the grander conflicts of our world? What do we have in common with them?
Does the key to changing our worst behaviors as a species lie solely in seeing people as individuals who are very much like us?
Recently, I had the honor of meeting a woman named “Katerina”, who chose to share her experiences during a very dark period in Guatemala history- a period many have categorized as genocide. Her experience is her own and her perspective is uniquely hers, though many suffered in a similar fashion.
The period in Guatemalan history Katerina talks about is very recent history. It was a period of brutality fueled by politics that affected the lives of every Mayan, every Guatemalan, at the time. Out of sheer panic over the possible spread of Communism, the US played a now well-known role in the events during this period, supporting a brutal regime and fueling anti-indigenous sentiment in the country. Guerrilla groups cropped up (some backed by Cuba) and, in their zeal to fight brutality from government backed groups, often tormented the local populace in their own right. The results were catastrophic with hundreds of thousands of people killed or “disappeared” and many more tortured and brutalized.
I was barely alive when this all took place but, as an American, I cannot help but feel remorse and utter helplessness over the horrific experiences Guatemalans were forced to endure due in part to my country’s politics.
Katerina said, in part:
“They would come in the night. They would burn buildings and start fights. No one had arms to protect themselves but they would still come. They would kill men, women, and children- they didn’t care. It didn’t matter if they were guerrillas or military, they were all the same.
My family was one of the lucky ones. There were police in disguise all over our village but my family had no one with the guerrillas so we escaped much of the problems. People where I lived were always afraid. The military was always demanding free food that we could not afford to give. They would rape our women; kill people as they went about their daily lives. My mother protected us fiercely and somehow, none of the females in my family was ever raped. The guerrillas were always causing problems and they were not much better than the military and police officials.”
Can you imagine what she is saying for a moment? Close your eyes and imagine strangers coming in the night and killing your child. Now imagine those strangers are dressed in the military uniform of your own country. Imagine that the greatest achievement you reach as a mother for over a decade was in protecting your girl children from being raped. Imagine, on top of all of this, that you have absolutely no idea what is going on.
“In Chichicastenango, there were military and guerrillas everywhere. No one knew where these people were from, they were strangers. The guerrillas dressed in the typical, local clothing of the Mayan people in Chichi and so the military was constantly coming after the Chichi people. But these guerrillas were not from Chichi, they were strangers who dressed like the Chichi people to fool the military. No one in Chichi knew who they were. It was very dangerous for the local people.
In the time of the guerrillas, there were still a few foreigners coming in and out of Guatemala. A friend used to drive these foreigners from Guatemala City to the Panajachel area. Along the highway between Guatemala City and Pana, you can often see sacks filled with crops, lining the side of the road, waiting for pick-up. One time when this friend was driving these foreigners, there was a stretch of road that had sacks upon sacks but there was not one single person around. The foreigners asked the driver what was in those sacks because there were just so many and the driver told them it was likely potatoes.
They dropped these foreigners off in Panajachel and turned around to head back to the city. On their return, they noticed the sacks were still there. They went on for what seemed like kilometers. The driver’s helper convinced the driver to pull over and see what was in those sacks. There were just too many and there was still not one single person in sight. When the driver pulled over, he opened the bags and discovered the heads of indigenous people stuffed into those sacks. Who knows what happened to the rest of the bodies of those people.
Why would anyone do this? It was political. It was always political. We had no freedom of expression. We were stuck in the middle of violence that wasn’t ours. It’s always the same but now the problems we see are different. There are really no more guerrillas now but extortion is a very real problem these days. But it’s always political.”
Why would anyone do this? How could they do this to fellow human beings? Simple. They stopped thinking of Katerina and her community as human. The perpetrators created a political problem, a threatening philosophy that happened to wear indigenous Mayan clothing. Katerina and her community became “collateral damage”. Today that political problem wears a turban and has a beard. Collateral damage still exists and lately, it seems to exist far too often at Middle Eastern weddings full of children and families.
I wonder sometimes what clothing our political problem will wear tomorrow? Who knows.
“The guerrillas and the military were all the same to us. They all wanted something, they all did bad things. The military would tell us we had to have documents [identification] an then the guerrillas would come and tell us “no documents!” They were always fighting. They decimated us financially. We are still struggling to support our families after all the fighting. We work harder to earn [the equivalent of] one dollar. Kids to take care of, no land, no work. When you live like this, you end up with no love for life.”
When you sit sit across the table from a woman like Katerina, sharing a warm empanada, and listening to her story, it is hard to view her, or her community, as anything but human. They are not a political talking point, they represent no ideology. Katerina, her family, and her friends are people. People who woke up one day to torture, rape, violence, murder, kidnappings, and abuse around every corner.
Travel brought me to Katerina’s table and her face is the face I will always imagine when I here the words “those people” fall off the lips of someone discussing politics at a dinner party. Those people have names, faces, feelings, and terrifying fears because of political ideologies. We create enemies, reasons to wage war, and imaginary barriers that divide humanity into “us” and “them”.
But there is no “us” and “them”. The very concept is an illusion.
Katerina is, at her core, absolutely no different than me. There is nothing at all stopping the horrors she faced from showing up on my doorstep tomorrow….. or yours.
Travel creates space for clarity. It pulls away the curtain of political ideologies and forces us to think for ourselves instead of internalizing the agenda of our next “leader”.
It creates the space to see our own hypocrisy and to see the simple facts in those situations we make far too complex, in a never ending search for justification.
Travel forces us to look “them” in the eye to see if our justifications, political talking points, philosophies, and biases hold up.
It creates the conditions where a citizen of, arguably, the most powerful country (currently) on earth can sit across the table from a descendant of one of the most powerful civilizations in history and discuss the very simple fact that there is absolutely no difference between human beings- no matter what corner of the earth they call home or what period of history their society inhabits.
When our common humanity is illuminated and we accept that there is no “us” and “them”, it becomes impossible to ignore the “collateral damage” anymore.
“Me, I am lucky. I like my work. I work everyday between my two jobs and I get one day off every 15 days. I don’t drink, not at all, for 9 years. My kids, my spouse, and my family are more important to me. But what about the others? They work in ways they weren’t meant to for money they do not care about. The kids are forgetting our culture. They drink to feel better. What about them?
We still have problems after what happened.”
Yes. We certainly do.
$60-75/day including nearly all organic meals, outdoor adventures and lodging for three people. A single person or even couple could probably get away with around half of that by eating at local restaurants or finding a way to cook some meals.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
I hesitate to call it strange, but it was really interesting to see the cultivation of betle nut all around us. Intensely arduous work with some sort of pole tool is needed to harvest the nuts from the top of the tree. Seemingly every home had betle nut drying in various stages in the yard, from the just picked bright orange to the fully dried dull gray.
Once they got to the optimal point, entire families would sit around and remove the nut from the husk. The husks were then burned in piles in various locations throughout the yards and the nuts bagged in large sacks. It was truly a family affair.
Describe a typical day:
Waking up in a bed surrounded by a mosquito net to the sound of a small river nearby. Flipping open the laptop to do some work.
Later, we head up to the restaurant, where we have the option of Western or Thai food, all of which is organic and local. We engage in conversations about life and travel with other guests or volunteers.
We then head out to explore the area, maybe visit a school, hike to a waterfall, or take a bamboo raft down the Paksong River.
We come back in the evening and do some homeschooling and work, maybe at the lodge, maybe in our room, maybe in a random spot by the river. We maybe take a yoga class or mandala drawing workshop.
We head up to the lodge for dinner where we eat a buffet style meal of fresh Thai food with our new friends and talk and listen, hearing accents mostly from all over Europe. Some evenings people get out their instruments to play music and sing.
We head back down to the room, where the daily ritual of teeth brushing and bedtime reading ensues.
After our daughter falls asleep, my wife and I will talk until the symphony of frogs, geckos, insects and the river sends us to sleep.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
Probably the most memorable conversation I had was with some local boys. We first met them at their school when we visited for a few hours. We learned from them the very basics about their lives at home and school.
We were completely charmed by their excitement when, a few days later, they found us at a festival. They hugged us and flashed enormous smiles.
We sat around and talked a little more but with a very limited ability to communicate, we were all happy to just sit and share food and drinks with one another.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I like that it’s peaceful, that I somehow feel at home, that there is great company, that the town isn’t overrun with tourists, that seemingly everyone smiles at us and that it is so stunningly beautiful. I honestly can’t think of one thing I disliked during our two weeks there.
Describe a challenge you faced:
Getting to and navigating through the local hospital so that my wife could get one of her series of rabies shots, which she needed because of a monkey bite.
What new lesson did you learn?
I wouldn’t say that I learned this lesson, but instead that I was reminded of one I already knew, which is that when I disconnect from the internet I am generally happier and more at peace. Being at the eco-lodge allowed me to disconnect from the computer for all purposes other than work and reminded me of this valuable yet often-forgotten lesson.
We’re headed to Chiang Mai, Thailand for some city living.
I can’t believe it’s been eleven years since Rolf’s first book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel was published.
I remember picking up my first copy, thumbing through, and thinking, “This guy… this guy has nailed it.”
I wasn’t a new traveler, having been raised by gypsy parents, but that book grabbed my by the nomadic heart strings and reminded me of all of the best things about life and the world. Subsequently, I bought Vagabonding by the case and gave it away to young friends, old travelers and as freebies on our website, on my own dime. The message matters that much to me.
Surprisingly, I didn’t discover this website until I was invited to write for it. It was like coming home. My people are here. I’ve continued to write weekly for the same reason that I continue to buy and give away the book: because the message matters and, philosophically, there’s no better match for me in the travel world.
Rolf’s invitation to take over as Managing Editor of the site caught me off guard. We talked for a few weeks about what that would entail and the very big project of overhauling the treasure trove of content that’s been slowly accumulating for over a decade and creating something that will continue to be a hub of resources and community for the adventurous souls of the world. I’m really excited about the project. I’ve got lots of ideas.
There are going to be some big changes. But before I dive in and shake things up around here, I wanted to give you, the reader, a chance to weigh in.
Would you be willing to take a minute and help us make Vagabonding better, for everyone?
Happy 2014 to all of you vagabonds!
As the dawn of another year begins, we here at Vagablogging are seeking out new contributors to join our ranks, sharing our vagabonding wisdom with a growing worldwide community of long-term travelers.
We’re looking for dedicated weekly contributors to post on vagabonding-related topics of their choice — from travel tips to destination suggestions to reviews of travel media.
The ideal writer should be familiar with Vagabonding and the philosophy behind it. To get an idea what we’re looking for in terms of content and style, take a look at our recent posts and archives. The best posts are informative in nature and conversational in tone. The deadline for submitting is January 31st. We’ll announce our new contributors on February 15th.
Though the positions are unpaid, it’s a great opportunity to build a readership, establish contacts, and create professional opportunities in the travel-writing realm. Vagabloggers who’ve landed lucrative gigs after writing for us include Tim Ferriss (who wrote a little bestseller called The 4-Hour Work Week), Justin Glow (who went on to full-time editing positions at Gadling and AOL), and a number of individuals who’ve landed paid freelance work at World Hum, the National Post, Gadling, US Airways Magazine, Travelers’ Tales, the Los Angeles Times, and other travel-writing venues. Kristin Pope even got a call from The Daily Show after her post about “staycations”.
To be considered for a weekly slot at Vagablogging, please email 1-2 previously unpublished sample posts (200-600 words each) to our managing editor, Ted Beatie (ted *at* tedbeatie *dot* com). To ensure Ted gets your submission, please include the word “Vagablogging” in the subject header. Also be sure to include a little bit about yourself, like where you’re from, your best travel experiences, and anything else you think we should know.
Happy New Year, and may it be one filled with adventure!
In the final entry in my series of posts on the subtle but interesting variations in how European cultures celebrate Christmas, I take a look at one of the finest places to spend the holiday season, England. It’s not just a beautiful country with a joyous approach to the holiday; it’s also the spot where some of the most cherished Christmas traditions originated.
Throughout Europe, the sound of carols spill out from churches great and small, and the youthful choir’s heavenly harmonies are carried to the rafters on the cold air, just as they’ve been every year for centuries. Families cluster together and listen to the joyous sounds as their ancestors did, often in the same place.
But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of England—Wells, Canterbury, Durham, Bath and Salisbury to name just a few—hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight. Outside of the massive churches, colorful Christmas markets buzz with activity.
Once a pagan country with a large Druid population, England is also to thank for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The custom originated with the Druids who would decorate their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.
The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.
As if England didn’t have enough influence on Christmastime rituals, it was also the originator of the “kissing under the mistletoe” tradition. Dating from the medieval period, there was a tradition of hanging a small treetop called a “bough” upside down in one’s home as a blessing upon the occupants. As the years went by this custom lost its popularity, but was resurrected by the Victorians (nineteenth century) as a holiday decoration under which sweethearts would kiss for good luck.
A particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul, because every proper English event involves tea.
Trees, teas, carols, and mistletoe: England is a fine place to enjoy the warmth, food and music of the season. Attend a carol performance at a magnificent old church, decorate the tree, have some pudding and kiss your honey under the mistletoe. It’s the most joyous time of the year and England is a great place to spend it.
It’s once again winter holiday season, which means it’s time to tout my books as stocking stuffers for the travel lovers on your Christmas list.
Vagabonding makes a great holiday gift for:
And of course my newest book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, is not just an entertaining and engrossing read for the armchair traveler; its “commentary track” makes it an offbeat travel-writing textbook for students and fans of the genre.
Both books are available from online retailers. If you’d like a signed copy of Vagabonding or Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, send me an email at books [at] rolfpotts [dot] com.
The holiday season is upon us and on every side we’re being encouraged to buy stuff and to give because the holidays are about giving. But what do you do if someone on your gift list is a traveler and, like me, lives out of his backpack. There’s no sense in giving a bathrobe to a backpacker, and that $99 Soda Stream in the Black Friday flier is useless to someone who’s intentionally homeless. So what do you give a traveler?
Here are three intangibles that could be perfect:
If you’ve got two million miles and you know you’ll never use them, why not transfer a few thousand to the gypsy in your life? A voucher for an airline ticket, miles that you have to use or they’re going to expire, or that companion ticket that you got with a new credit card sign up: perfect. Airfare is often the biggest line item in a traveler’s budget and, who knows, perhaps they’ll use the ticket to pay you a visit!
E or Audio Books
Reading material in your primary language is sometimes hard to come by on the road. When they can be found, books are heavy. Rarely do we carry more than one paper book at a time. However, with our iPods and iPads we can carry thousands of books and read them everywhere. If you’re worried about your loved one reading on a tiny screen, then audio books are an excellent alternative. Gift cards for iTunes or Amazon, or Rolf’s new audio version of Vagabonding, on Audible are sure to be welcome gifts for the nomad you love.
Want to really make your traveling buddy smile: give the gift of a first night. There is nothing worse than finding yourself in a crappy hostel on Khao San Road in Bangkok after a grueling 30 hour trip from the other side of the world. Give a weary traveler the promise of a first night in a comfy hotel when they hit the ground. Hand make a gift certificate for them and then let them help select a place that best suits their needs.
Now you tell me… what are your best ideas for intangible gifts for the travelers you love?
In 1885, a young lady just 21 years old read an article titled “What Girls are Good For” in a Pittsburg newspaper. Her written response to the paper impressed the editor so much, that he offered her a job as a writer, with the pen name “Nellie Bly”. Nellie went on to prove that women had brains, heart, and courage to do anything that men could, despite what the article had previously reported.
Nellie began traveling to other places as an investigative journalist, broadening her knowledge of cultural, political, and social issues, and giving raw accounts of the groups and tribes she encountered.
She was one of the first female travel writers, and after studying her, I can see that her vagabond spirit propelled her further than other women of her time and geographical location. She had an unprecedented idea to travel the world alone in fewer days than the male character in the book “Around the World in Eighty Days”. Women did not travel without escorts because it was said that they were too delicate, and that they had too many belongings to take with them. But Nellie, unwilling to be held down by anyone’s expectations or rules, boarded a ship alone with the clothes on her back, a few under garments, a coat, and a small bag of toiletries. This puts my “one luggage per family member” rule to shame.
Not only did Nellie complete the trip, despite several setbacks, she did it in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds after her departure. Her arrival home was met with applause by men and women alike, as she accomplished something no one else in her position had done before.
From this point in her life on, Nellie made decisions that rung true to her own convictions and beliefs. She traveled to many more places that American women dared not, and she uncovered and reported a myriad of disgraceful political and social issues that were hidden from the public. In one of her adventures, she posed as an insane person in order to get an inside look of life in an asylum. When she revealed the conditions through her detailed report, a judge granted a huge budget increase to care for the patients there.
When each of us takes a step on a journey, we do it out of conviction or curiosity. When we find our strength to leave familiarity for something more meaningful, we are raw, vulnerable, and unable to use our comforts and belongings as crutches. We see things the way they really are, and we relate to people more honestly and openly. Often we find more than we set out for. In the beginning, Nellie just wrote a letter addressing the fact that women were valuable. In the end, she became one of the first well-known female travel writers, investigative journalists, and advocates for social justice of her time. She shaped herself and her surroundings with each step she took in her journey- just like we do as we travel our own roads.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
All of Cappadocia! The Fairy Chimneys, the cave hotels, and underground cities made it seem like I was on another planet. It was weirdly beautiful and peaceful.
Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.