Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ski Santa Fe: Affirming Life on Muerte

Two weeks ago, I found myself making a quick car swap in Amarillo. The trade was simple: take my beautiful car with its high repair bills and swap it for my brother's car. As long as I was headed that far, I figured I'd join the family for a quick run up to Santa Fe where the eating is good and the skiing is great.


Muerte, or "death" in Spanish, is probably my favorite run at Santa Fe Ski Area. The run is very steep and very fast. Very fast. The wide, flat slope contains several possible lines leaving the skier the option of diving into the most precipitous paths or taking a slightly more gradual approach down.

In the past, Muerte has been unkind due to lack of snow. Two years ago, my uncle, Rick, featured below, and I spent quite a bit of time bombing down that run. That year the snow was thin and crisp, and Rick and I had to stare hard at the slope in order to navigate. At those speeds, we feared hitting a small tree top, rock or pine cone left on the fragile surface, and Muerte presented a slalom course of perilous obstacles. We destroyed our bodies trying to get down unscathed.

This year was different. Santa Fe has copious amounts of snow, and Muerte holds a glorious, thick blanket. Early on Saturday morning, Dad had declared that we would not be skiing any black diamond runs that day. I stayed quiet as I eyed Muerte from the lift--the snow looked beautiful, and even at that distance, I knew we'd have to get over there.

Eventually, I coaxed Dad to the top of the run, and I think he had started to feel a bit more daring. As I began to put my hat in my pocket (I planned to go really fast), I heard Dad say, "Okay, Brad, I'm going to ski this slow and controlled." By time I had zipped my jacket pocket, Dad had devoured the first half of the run and was nearing its end. I pointed my skis down and labored to catch up, but he was gone. By time I reached him, I could tell by his smile that we'd be heading up again.

And we did, and it was glorious. There were times on the run where I took a particularly steep line and couldn't tell whether I was still attached to the slope. The run presented a feeling of controlled free fall, and it was beautiful. We will be back on the slopes at the end of March, and I can only hope that Muerte will be as inviting.

Group Ski

After spending a morning bombing down runs with Dad, it was time to rejoin the part of the family fresh out of ski school for a more leisurely afternoon on the slopes.

At lunch, my brother, Mark Everett, complained of a sore knee. He lifted his outer layer around his knee to find a bloody patch on his long underwear. Both layers looked as though they had been cut with a knife.

Apparently Mark Everett had suffered a bad crash during his ski lesson. In an attempt to master the art of heli-skiing, Mark Everett had jumped out of a helicopter onto the top of a snow-laden ridge. The ridge was heavily corniced, and his guide noted the avalanche danger. They turned on their avalanche beacons and decided the powder basin below called their name. With such beautiful snow, playing it safe means missing a great opportunity to baptize oneself in a holy fount of powder. Anyway, they started down the bowl making quick, telemark turns when a slab avalanche broke loose above. Mark Everett knew that he had no choice but to pick up the pace. As the avalanche gathered strength, Mark Everett and his instructor found themselves at the top of a series of frozen waterfalls. They precariously shot down the icy river bed with the powder on their heels before the avalanche caught them and smashed them into the trees. Fortunately, they were able to tunnel out of the snow pack, and Mark Everett escaped with minor injuries. (Note: This story has been embellished at Mark Everett's request. The actual accident may or may not have occurred at low speed on a groomed run).

The afternoon was good. I watched my younger siblings demonstrate a growing confidence and better grasp of the fundamentals. Mark Everett had shaken off the terrible events of the morning and managed to ski the afternoon with his knee wrapped . . . later he would receive 12 stitches, but for the time being, I treasured hanging with him on the slopes. Chairlifts are great spots for conversation, and we chatted until runs were covered in shadow and our legs wouldn't take any more.

We closed out the day at a Spanish restaurant called, El Maison. Diving into a massive skillet of seafood paella, we relaxed and recounted the days' glories. We only had the one day on the slopes, but we were glad to have made the most of it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Amazing Travel Video

This video is pretty remarkable. Very creative idea in mesmerizing settings.

Book Review: "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" by Ishmael Beah

I wandered into Starbucks late last week and noticed a stack of books near the pastries. The cover featured a disturbing photo of a thoughtful young boy walking with an AK-47 across his back and some sort of grenade launcher across his shoulders. Curious, I picked up the book, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, and decided to use it to break to the law school monotony. Instead, the book broke my heart.

Beah writes a beautiful memoir with succinct and devastating language. The narrative begins with a description of his childhood in a small village in Sierra Leone where he had a reputation as being "troublesome." As a child, Beah developed a passion for rap music and enjoyed dance and memorizing the lyrics.

Eventually, rebel forces attack the village and separate Beah from the bulk of his family. He becomes a refugee fleeing violence and horror only to find the conflict chasing him across the country. Eventually, as the title suggests, Beah becomes a soldier for a government army unit and watches his childhood vanish in a haze of drugs and killing.

The story follows him through the conflict and into rehabilitation, where life outside the war zone casts a spotlight on the transformation from child to soldier as Beah struggles to reclaim his former identity from a cloud of guilt and anger.

My description above seems dark, but the story is a continual roller coaster of hope and brief periods of elation interrupted with violence and sorrow. It reads quickly and beautifully, and I highly recommend it--after all, Beah's reality is echoed in conflicts across the world every day.

The Role of Nature

From a literary standpoint, I particularly savored Beah's invocation of nature. He grew up in a village surrounded by lush foliage. The bushes become a hiding place, the trees offer a food source and shelter from hog attacks, the streams provide relief from the heat, and the ocean heals Beah's torn feet.

But his use of nature goes beyond providing a setting and fuses two of three story-telling traditions Beah acknowledges as influential in his narrative (the third being rap music). He grew up in a culture of vivid nature stories, several of which are repeated in the memoir. For example, he tells the story of a hunter who could transform himself into a wild hog. Then, by eating a certain plant, he could change back into a hunter and kill the hogs. Eventually, the hogs discovered the hunter's secret and attacked, which is why hogs are distrustful of all humans. Later, Beah finds that the cycles of violence also make humans distrustful of each other.

Beyond the parables of his youth, Beah grew up on Shakespeare and loved reciting the great speeches from Julius Caesar and MacBeth. Suddenly, Beah's descriptions of nature took on a different meaning. I remember reading in awe at the way Shakespeare wrapped the natural environment into his works. When evil is afoot in Julius Caesar, the shutters begin flapping around in some sort of phantom wind. Throughout his works, good and evil in humanity is reflected in benevolent or menacing signs in the natural world.

Beah invokes his natural world in similar ways except, while Shakespeare's use of nature probably derived from Elizabethan-era theology and superstitions, Beah suggests a horror so brutal that nature itself cannot remain passive. The crickets, moon and trees are not immune from the violence.

After an attack on his home town, Beah notes, "With the absence of so many people, the town became scary, the night darker, and the silence unbearably agitating. Normally, the crickets and birds sang in the evening before the sun went down. But this time they didn't, and darkness set in very fast. The moon wasn't in the sky; the air was stiff, as if nature itself was afraid of what was happening."

Whether this reaction from nature existed in reality or only in Beah's mind, the effect is just as powerful. After an attack, "the moon disappeared and took the stars with it, making the sky weep. Its tears saved us from the red bullets." Here, nature responds to human sadness and, in doing so, provides protection to the scared children.

Eventually, Beah makes the transition from child refugee to soldier-barbarian, addicted to cocaine and methamphetamines. After his initiation into the world of bloodshed, Beah loses many good friends in an ambush in a forest and "left them there in the forest, which had taken on a life of its own, as if it had trapped the souls that had departed from the dead. The branches of the trees looked as if they were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer." At this point in the story, I began to get the idea that the trees were the last creatures with the will to keep praying.

In the midst of conflict, nature offers shelter while disguising threats, offers food along with predators, and reacts as it watches the horror unfold. The description of nature enriches the reading experience and helps explain the magnitude of the evil involved.

Pick up Beah's book. It is a well-written story that, at minimum, will transform the way you think about the headlines. At best, his story will leave you with a burning question: how can I help? That's exactly what I intend to ask the author when he appears for a book signing here in Dallas on March 6.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Beijing Puts on Its Manners Cap

Growing up, we were frequently told to don our "manners cap" upon entering restaurants and other public establishments. The cap was a metaphysical reminder to not act like wild heathens in the presence of our grandmother--if I remember right, my grandmother actually crafted the hats herself and could remind us of their function with one of her classic looks (many have attempted to imitate her legendary facial gestures--few have succeeded).

Anyway, Beijing is apparently attempting to put on its own manners cap. China will find itself in an international media spotlight for the Olympics and, in an interesting act of self-consciousness, has decided to crack down on "anti-social behavior." The Chinese government hopes to thwart major Chinese pass times like spitting and cutting in line.

What I find puzzling is the application of the term "anti-social behavior" to these activities. Spitting and cutting in line is extremely social behavior--it's the social norm. Sitting on a bus in Beijing, Clayton Brown and I witnessed people hurling massive loogies onto the floor of the aisle, which was nothing compared to what happened across streets and sidewalks around town. The most shocking loogie event occurred in the Beijing airport where we watched a greenish glob of goo smack against the pristine marble floors--apparently this behavior knows no boundaries.

As for lines, they frankly do not exist. When an airplane lands, people race for the door in a no holds barred struggle to flee the plane. As an experiment, I once jumped out of a seat on an Air China flight immediately upon landing, yanked my bag out of the overhead bin (smashing two heads with my elbows in the process) and pounded past people toward the door. While this behavior would have horrified US passengers (and likely landed me in an interrogation room), the Chinese accepted my assault as normal behavior. Again, these are social norms--far from "anti-social."

Elevators provide similar forums for chaos. In the US, the doors usually open and the people at the front of the elevator exit gradually. Once emptied, the people outside slowly enter the elevator--usually ladies first.

China presents a life or death struggle for elevator loading and unloading. The folks outside the elevator doors are rushing into the elevator as it begins to open. They slip in rapidly through the doors like a wave of water while those inside have to struggle to get out. We would have to swim out of the incoming crowd or face another elevator ride. Again, this procedure is the social norm.

But China attempts to impose Western social norms on its people--"it's glorious to be polite." The efforts have been highly effective in Shanghai, where public spitting is a rarity. We'll see how it works for Beijing.

This is how China hopes to avoid embarrassment in 2008. But I wonder if they are looking the right direction. After all people spit and blow their nose onto the sidewalks probably because Beijing's air pollution causes serious mucus issues. I would end my days in Beijing by blowing black snot into tissue paper. I wondered how athletes planned to compete in the thick, green air. Long walks left our lungs agitated by the particulates--how will the marathon runners feel?

So, when 2008 comes around, Beijing may be as "polite" as Shanghai with the population kindly withhold their polluted mucus for more private locations. The homeless will likely be shipped out of town, and the government will then expect Westerners to awe at the cleanliness and sophistication of China. But late at night, when the tourists return from the day's Olympic events, they will blow their own black snot into tissues with lungs throbbing from the particulates. That is an embarrassment that China cannot avoid.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Waterproof iPod: Perfect Travel Toy

I tend to pack a massive load of zip-loc bags. Somehow, I always seem to travel during the rainy season wherever I go (Chiapas, Honduras, Tibet, Tanzania, etc.), and I often find myself soaked (see places above). Megan and I spent a lot of our days in Tanzania rushing to stuff documents in plastic bags while deciding who got to use our one large waterproof pack cover. I tend to travel without electronics for the same reason. At the same time, an MP3 player can offer desperate relief from a world of strange noises, offer a short break from the culture shock, or provide a Zach Braff-esque soundtrack for the world around you.

Anyway, iPod is apparently creating a waterproof Shuffle with 2 gigabytes of memory (link to a great blog written by a tech-savvy 12-year-old). This will be an amazing breakthrough for travel purposes. That's one key item that won't face ruin when I end up in my next rainy season (maybe India during monsoon?).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine's Day: Hilton Head, South Carolina

Ever the romantic geniuses, Megan and I decided to celebrate Valentine's Day 2005 with a romantic getaway to Hilton Head, South Carolina. We had never visited the island of golf and retirees, so we were excited to see the ocean and weave through golf carts. Of course, to make things more interesting, we decided to run a half marathon just to spice up the weekend. I flew from Dallas to Atlanta, and we loaded the car to drive across Georgia to the island retreat.

Off to the Race

The drive itself was relatively uneventful except for noting the shifting location of chewing tobacco. In Atlanta, the chewing tobacco remained behind the counter with the normal tobacco products. Outside of Atlanta the chewing tobacco moved closer to the customer until we finally found it next to the candy bars near South Carolina. This is another reason why the South is awesome.

We pulled into Hilton Head late Friday evening and found exactly what we expected. The number of golf courses was staggering. I would like to see actual statistics, but I'm guessing there is roughly 3 holes per person at any given moment. Naturally, my sticks were at home.

After checking into our hotel, we met friends at an Italian restaurant to try to intimidate ourselves. One of the friends was training for a full marathon and saw this as just a practice exercise. The other friend had qualified for the Boston Marathon by running some other marathon in 3 hours 10 minutes. They told stories of injury and glory (amazing how "injury" and "glory" come all tangled up together in the running world), and I looked sheepishly at my mound of chicken parmagiana. These warriors of the asphalt are featured in the photo below.

Megan, on the other hand, loved this talk. Megan is a runner. She ran cross-country in high school, and the competitive running environment really gets her going. She lives for that sort of thing. She is a natural competitor, runs without injury, and has willpower that lifts her abilities to a much higher level.

I am not a runner. I started "running" as a way to ease the stress of law school. Initially, these outings consisted of high-speed strolls around the block. When that didn't suffice, I started circling several blocks. Eventually I was running six to eight mile stretches faster and faster. My routes were arbitrary, my times were irrelevant, my joints were beginning to not like me. How I ended up signed up for a half marathon was beyond me, and, as I stared into my pasta, I felt a touch out of place among the runners.

Jitters aside, I downed my pasta, followed it with ice cream, and assumed this fuel would lead me to glory (hopefully without injury) the following day.

Pre-Race Ritual

We woke early. Well . . . that's an exaggeration. To say, "we woke" would imply that we slept, which we did not do. How could we? Megan was in some competitive zone that night, readying herself to will herself to go really, really fast. I was in a different zone: readying myself to hopefully not have a heart-attack around mile 4 requiring me to be stretchered off into some Hilton Head hopital, presumably over-flowing with patients who recently threw out their backs on the golf course. No, sleep was tough to come by, and around four, still three hours until race time, we decided to join the day.

Somehow we had determined that our best start would come from bagels and coffee. The bagels would provide more carbohydrates while the coffee would help us . . . hmmm, what euphemism to use . . . would help us lighten our digestive load a bit.

While downing these tasteless items (bagels were cold and soggy, the hotel coffee tasted like metallic dirt), we stretched and stretched and applied body glide and tied and retied shoes . . . heck, I was even wearing foam nipple protectors since I had a tendency to chaffe (did I mention that I am really not a runner?). The nipple protectors were part of my Valentine's gift from Megan.

Of course, these hours of warm-up ritual only left me more nervous, and the awful coffee left me losing my breakfast in the toilet. That didn't concern me--I had consumed enough carbs to run for a while. What did concern me, however, was the amount of liquid I lost with that upset stomach. Dehydration would be scary, and I had taken a huge step in that direction.

Meanwhile, Megan tried to calm me down. She seemed nervous in a different way--maybe nervous someone would beat her. We made for quite a duo--she was driven to win this thing, and I was hoping to come home alive.

Ready, Set, Go

The air was cold that February morning. Romance, it seemed, had yet to fill the air. Worse, we realized the route was not going to be what we expected. We assumed that a half marathon on a beach resort island would mean 13.1 miles of running along the sea, fresh wind at our backs, sun rising over the ocean. Instead, the route seemed to follow a very, very busy road in the center of Hilton Head that was only partially blocked off. So, we realized we would spend the next 13.1 miles breathing fumes without so much as the sounds of the ocean breaking the monotony.

Shake it off. I had tried to drink a little more water, but I seemed to constantly have to urinate . . . nerves, I was told. Megan, at this point, was freezing, so we jogged in place, moved up to the starting line, re-tied our shoes, and tried not to think about how bad we had to urinate.

After a while of that dance, the gun fired, and we were off. Megan and I clicked our watches as we crossed the line. And thus began a great experience for learning about one another. Some learn these sorts of lessons about each other slowly, painfully, over years and years--we condensed all of that pain into under 2 hours . . . and the watches were the root of these lessons.

Out of the gate, we were flying, soaring. I hardly felt my Mizunos on the pavement, hardly noticed to cold vanish into a brilliant warmth. I definitely did not realize that we had destroyed the first mile in 7 minutes and 22 seconds, a pace faster than I had ever run. Cool, we could do this.

Mile 2. 7:21. At this point, I'm getting a little more concerned but still feeling good. Megan is a machine and shows no similar concern. "Hey, should we slow it down to around 8 or something close to what we've practiced?" I asked for two reasons: first, if you can speak while running, you're still doing okay. Second, I really wanted to slow down. "No," and Megan focused on the road.

Mile 3: 7:22. I only know this, mind you, because Megan is keeping our split time down to the second. Her watch is computing almost as fast as her mind as she calculates split times and speeds, visions of glory dancing through her head. Meanwhile, I'm noticing the trees and the joy of moving.

Mile 4: 7:22. Amazing. I don't know how this gal next to me keeps this pace so perfectly, but she's moving as if her race were forecasted. I'm inspired. I notice a water station on the side of the road. During all my training, I tried to master the art of drinking on the run, and I never got very far. I grab a cup and immediately pour it all over me, so I grab a second and try to slow down--Megan refuses to take water and definitely refuses to slow, so I ditch the cup and move on. This is how downfalls begin.

Mile 5: 7:24. Megan is disappointed at the two-second slip, and I'm wanting to run back a mile just to lick the water off the sidewalk. Another thing about me--I sweat. I sweat like a Knapp, and for those who don't know, Knapp men sweat enough be considered a major water source. As I jogged, I pictured weather forecasters scratching their scalps in puzzlement at the great Hilton Head Flash Flood of '05. Meanwhile, Megan had scarcely broken a sweat.

Mile 6: 7:22. Back on track. I'm starting to not feel so healthy. Another water station passes without my being able to drink, and I'm wondering where this is going to lead. I'm starting to feel a bit grumpy. I have one pleasing vision: removing the watch from Megan's hand and trampling it to pieces.

Mile 7: 7:22. Megan is now counting the women. She keeps track of how many she passes, how many pass her, and, most importantly, what age group the faster women are running in. I am often consulted. As long as they are older or younger, she doesn't care. But if they are her age, she's taking them down. I, on the other hand, become jealous of the folks taking stretch breaks on the side of the road.

Mile 8: 7:24. Another water station goes by without a drop, and I'm sinking fast. I start to slow, my muscles cramping. I'm still sweating, but my mental state is crashing rapidly. I feel upset, but I don't know why. I'm feeling awful and not able to communicate well. I realize somewhere in the cloud that I am dehydrating.

Mile 9: 8:12. I've slowed Megan down, and here, at a water station, I send her on her way. We're trying to run the same race on very different philosophies, and it is time to split up. Somehow, Megan can run for 13.1 miles without a water break. I hit mile 9 without water, and I'm quickly approaching serious health problems. The parting is not a problem. I need to swallow 9 mini cups of Gatorade and 8 mini cups of water. Megan needs to destroy her competition.

Mile 10: ?. I'm recuperating. I'm moving slow, my muscles hurt, but my mental state is more balanced. I'm back to running as I tend to run. I can't think in split times, and I find myself returning to the joy of movement for its own sake.

Mile 11: ?. No sign of Megan. I'm hoping she is preparing to hoist a trophy. I hit another water station and take the time for 8 or 10 more of the little cups full of fluid.

Mile 12-13.1: And I cross the line. I see Megan and a distance, but I'm so shaken by the entire event that I really need to be alone. I grab a water bottle, a Gatorade and a slice of pizza and head off to a field to pull myself together. The sensation was amazing and intense. My muscles chastized me for the audacity of those first few miles, but, caloried and hydrated, they started to quiet down. Megan found me, and we hugged for a while. Oblivious to each other's stench, we had made it, and, finally, it felt great. In the end, we had to run slightly different races, but we ended up in the bliss of the finish together.

Happy Valentine's Day

Megan won her award, taking one of the top places for her age group. Our competitive friends from the pasta dinner were similarly successful. As I ate more pizza along with some oranges and apples and more water, I felt very successful as well--after all, that pizza tasted really great.

We hobbled back toward the hotel and collapsed. We knew napping would leave us immoble, so we reluctantly decided to take a stroll along the beach. Fully hydrated, we enjoyed a glass of red wine and some smokey cheese as the sun vanished over the sea. Tired and content, I think we realized this Valentine's Day celebration would be tough to beat.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Long Way Round: Vicarious Travels Across Asia

Frequently, a traveler finds herself jaunting between a series of transportation hubs. The backpacker headed to Europe normally explores larger cities connected by the rail system. Travelers to Asia tend to stop in only major cities accessible by large aircraft. But these sort of travels cut out the amazing opportunities available by road . . . opportunities exploited to the max by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in "The Long Way 'Round." I'll just call them "Ewan and Charley" from here on out because, after watching the documentary, they are starting to feel like old friends (they even note this phenomenon when they meet the folks at Orange County Chopper).

This weekend, Megan and I indulged in some vicarious travel by enjoying the DVD of the Long Way Round, a documentary of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's trip around the world . . . by motorcycle. While neither Megan nor I ride motorcycles, we found ourselves drooling at the thought of setting off across these vast territories by road.

The trip began with what seemed like Ewan and Charley's insane dream to travel from London to New York by motorcycle. After months of intense preparation (self-defense classes, first aid classes, the desperate search for motorcycle sponsorship--KTM lost a great opportunity as this film could be the greatest advertisement for BMW motorcycles of all time), the duo heads out on a pair of BMW's with a camera man and two support vehicles ("support" is a bit of a stretch: for most of the trip, the vehicles merely allow the bikers to restock on food and film before setting out on their own again).

The route was daunting. From London they would take the Chunnel train to Paris. After crossing Western Europe, the pair traveled to Prague and through Slovakia into Russia. From Russia the team entered Kazakhstan (finding a very different country than Borat describes). After Kazakhstan, they reenter Russia before crossing Mongolia. From Mongolia, they make a third entry into Russia and travel Siberia's "Road of Bones" to Magadan. From there they fly to Anchorage, Alaska. Then, they enjoy pavement toward Fairbanks and into Calgary before dropping down to the US and crossing the plains toward Chicago and, finally, New York City.

The route meant 20,000 miles through often absurd obstacles. The joy of the adventure often comes through the experience of random fortune. Kazakhstan finds them at the center of bizarre media frenzies. They end up spending the night in the home of a random, underworld character who entertains with machine gun and guitar. The "roads" in Mongolia leave the group at the mercies of random passersby who can perform instant repairs. Finally, they try to navigate the Road of Bones shortly after the winter thaw, so the roads often vanished into raging rivers, leaving the travelers to hitch rides in the backs of passing trucks. Needless to say, this trip wasn't easy.

To avoid spoiling the film, I'll cut the description short. Megan and I watched it with hopes of changing the way we travel in the future. While I doubt we'll cross Asia by motorcycle (and my mother and grandmother just breathed a huge sigh of relief), we would like to start hitting the road more often . . . probably even starting in Mongolia. Traveling by road, the duo encountered the joys of empty space and open highway, often finding themselves in nearly inaccessible hamlets in Far Eastern Russia. These sort of places offer rich experiences and fascinating interactions unavailable in major cities. I watched the DVD and found myself growing both jealous and bolder by the minute. And I'm guessing Ewan and Charley wanted their viewer feeling those exact emotions.

We finished the series aching for more, and, as if reading our mind, Ewan and Charley plan to deliver with the "Long Way Down," a journey from the tip-top of Scotland to Cape Town. While I do not know the exact route (and imagine that will depend largely on political conditions), the journey is bound to be as harrowing and fascinating as the first. Megan and I, after crossing part of Tanzania, assumed that navigating large parts of Africa by road would be prohibited by peril . . . we're hoping that Ewan and Charley prove us wrong.

Zimbabwe News: The Audacity of Robert Mugabe

The authors of the Knapp Adventure Blog are laughing really hard right now at a bit of news--we had to share.

Apparently Robert Mugabe, the intensely incompetent leader of Zimbabwe, is asking for citizens to contribute funds to his birthday celebration.

I love the audacity. So he expropriated the lands of anyone with money and then destroyed the homes of the poorest . . . I'm assuming folks are lining up to buy him champagne and tasty treats. Oh yeah, the country has also been experiencing 1,600% inflation, and the party will only cost $ 1.2 million (in US dollars, mind you . . . that's 300 million Zimbabwean dollars . . . wait, thirty seconds have passed, make that 301 million and counting).

It is truly amazing when world leaders become totally disconnected from their electorate and begin making decisions as if they exist in a vacuum. That would never happen here . . . would it?

Friday, February 9, 2007

Most Dangerous Places to Travel and the Top 5 Reasons to Go Anyway

Forbes has released its list of the most dangerous places to travel in 2007. The list contains few surprises: most of our readers are probably not planning to visit any of these places ever . . . ever. Then again, other more intrepid travelers have already planned routes to these dangerous spots (Hobotraveler is headed to DR Congo, for example).

2007's Most Dangerous Places on Earth

1) Iraq
2) Somalia
3) Sudan
4) Burundi
5) Chad
6) Democratic Republic of Congo
7) Pakistan
8) Afghanistan
9) Haiti
10) Cote d'Ivoire
11) Sri Lanka
12) Lebanon
13) Liberia

But the places really got me thinking . . . isn't there a major upside to traveling to some of the world's most dangerous places? The question is not rhetorical--we see at least five key advantages of putting one of these spots on your destination list this year.

Top Five Reasons to Visit an Excessively Dangerous Country

1) No crowds. Think about the time you tried to get that perfect picture of yourself in front of St. Peter's Basilica. . . remember the crowds? Remember waiting for everyone to move out of the way? Well, you won't have that problem in many of these spots. Your snapshots will capture you as the lone wanderer . . . because no one else wants to go there.

2) Empty beaches. That's right--a number of these spots have long, uninterrupted coastlines. Somalia, for example, has many miles of pristine beaches just waiting for a romantic getaway. Sri Lanka is supposed to be a glorious island paradise, even if the sound of the waves is occasionally interrupted by gunfire.

3) Great hiking. The outdoorsy folks should be hankering for a trek in Pakistan. Fly from Islamabad to Skardu and take jeeps toward the Concordia Glacier--in just a week or so, you could be standing at the foot of K2! Afghanistan also has plenty of rustic mountain scenery. We also hear Afghanistan offers great opportunities for cave exploration.

4) No news is good news. While the world is saturated with stories about Anna Nicole Smith (this link takes you to a blog addressing the excessive media coverage), I'm guessing you could escape the media blitz in Darfur. Imagine the other senseless cultural frenzies you would be able to avoid as well. Let the rest of the country get progressively dumber as you retreat.

5) Good yarns. Traveling to these places would generate a set of stories to intimidate the most seasoned travel veteran. Just wait for someone to tell some "adventure tale" of that "rough night" in "Paris." Then you can chime in with the time you dug shrapnel out of your knee while participating in the "running of the guerrillas" in DR Congo.

So don't count these places out. After all, it can't be that bad . . . right?

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Adventures of Livingstone--The Glory Days of Travel Writing

I decided to check out the aforementioned chronicle of the Herald-Stanley expedition into Africa to find David Livingstone. Not twenty pages into the book, Adventures and Discoveries of Dr. David Livingstone and the Herald-Stanley Expedition, I found the following passage:

"Starting, and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivora, and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death. Turning round to relieve myself of the weight, as he had one paw on the back of my head, I saw his eyes directed to Mebalwe, who was trying to shoot him at a distance of ten or fifteen yards. His gun, a flint one, missed fire in both barrels; the lion immediately left me, and, attacking Mebalwe, bit his thigh. Another man, whose life I had saved before, after he had been tossed by a buffalo, attempted to spear the lion while he was biting Mebalwe. He left Mebalwe and caught this man by the shoulder, but at that moment the bullets he had received took effect, and he fell down dead. The whole was the work of a few moments . . . [the carcass] was declared to be that of the largest lion they had ever seen."

The story goes on, almost without transition, into Livingstone's missionary activity, which faced a number of obstacles. Initially, conversion required male converts to separate from their multitude of wives. While this might not seem problematic, the author discusses the problems of having hoards of furious ex-wives opposing Livingstone's efforts. Secondly, someone spread a nasty rumor that Baptism involved drinking the brains of dead men. Despite these obstaces, "we had sown the good seed, and have no doubt but it will yet spring up, though we may not live to see the fruits."

This account of the lion attack struck me on a number of levels. First, modern writing tends to restrict description to a sentence or two: this author spends six sentences loaded with analogy to explain the mental state alone. I was even more interested by the fact that, out of that small group that encountered the lion, Livingstone had already saved the life of another person. But that event is mentioned in one clause within one sentence. Saving that person's life after an encounter with a buffalo barely deserved mention: the mental state of being assaulted carried the story.

Had I written the passage, I probably would have gloated at saving the life of another person, but to Livingstone, that's just what happens in Africa. The interesting thing to him is surviving the attack and the odd euphoria induced by the moment. And, at this point, the missionary context helps explain the author's choice. Livingstone goes to Africa motivated by his religion. The strange peace during his attack supports his faith in a "benevolent Creator." His saving another life remains less important than his sowing of "good seed" against the various cultural barriers.

One last observation. Within the first pages, Livingstone reduces another potentially long story to a brief mention: "I performed a distance of some hundred miles on ox-back." That's another beautiful time capsule. While I have previously written of the pain and torment of taking a ferry from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam without air-conditioning, Livingstone hardly mentions what would inevitably be a brutal and terrifying journey. In the past I've mentioned wanting to travel like Livingstone--now, I'm not sure I would have survived.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Nepal Update

Nepal remains one of our dream destinations. After hearing descriptions of treks near Annapurna and other legendary mountains, we knew we would have to visit. While we lack concrete plans to visit, I have attempted to keep with the political situation in Nepal.

In college, I more-or-less focused my education on studying the history, philosophy and politics of revolutionary movements. While that education centered on Latin American movements, I found an opportunity last year to do a deeper study of the Maoist movement in Nepal.

In my reading, I came across a number of facts that lead me to believe that the Maoists would be successful. First, I found that the traditional society in Nepal oppressed women while the Maoists empowered women. That effort alone gained the Maoists huge support early on. Second, the Nepalese court system has a long back-log and is generally considered to be broken. The Maoists set up courts providing quick access to dispute resolution: while the decisions often tended to be arbitrary or even just bad, the perception of better governance also helped the Maoists make in-roads among the people. Finally, the Maoists effectively tied into to local cultural institutions to create strong links with the people around them. In one story, a group of Maoists soldiers disguised themselves as members of a traditional wedding procession to sneak past the royal police. The population considered it both a sign of cleverness and an endearing invocation of traditional culture.

My prediction was that the Maoists would eventually toss out the monarchy, and that proved incorrect. Instead, the King has less power, the Maoists are in parliament, and, apparently, Nepal is still in pretty bad shape. The situation has approached Peru under Sendero Luminoso when the tough tactics of Fujimori and the brutal tactics of Sendero left the population trapped between two forces becoming less distinguishable. Often, in these struggles, the "good guys" are impossible to find.

News on Nepal is difficult to come by and often biased. The Maosists leak certain information as propaganda while the government tends to stifle media as well. Andy at Hobotraveler.com is currently in Nepal and reports on a pretty desperate situation. His view is worth checking out.

We want to get to Nepal, but we'll have to see how things develop. In an oft-repeated story, the Nepalese people seem caught-in-the-middle and suffer as a result. While the 10 years of conflict is apparently winding down, the fall out will be felt for a long time to come.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Service-Learning Honduras Part 2: Politics, Missionaries and Heading Home

So, settled into our environment, we grew accustomed to our day-to-day tasks. The work at the construction site was fairly simple except for the fact that we were trying to build with mud during rainy season. The project, led by a very clever fellow nicknamed "Enano" for his lack of height, moved rather slowly. Our foreman seemed motivated mainly by the prospect of teaching us local slang for various body parts.

Otherwise, the construction experience became an interesting political forum. The other workers tended to spend a lot of their time asking about life in the US--more specifically, they wanted us to find ways to bring them back with us (no, I told them--a baggage compartment of an airplane would be a bad, bad way to travel). One of the workers informed me that cash piles up in the streets throughout the US, and all he needed to do was to show up and scoop some cash up. Despite my best efforts, I could not convince him otherwise. Apparently these rumors had been spread by a person in a neighboring town who had been deported from the US . . . twice. We tried to explain how hard immigrants work to succeed in the US, but they could not be persuaded.

Don Salome took a different approach to these problems. He disliked the fact that the young in the community looked toward the US for their future instead of developing the resources around them. I admired the faith he had in the land and in his neighbors. Indeed, several of them had started small developments that began a move toward bigger economies. Jill's family had saved up and purchased a mechanical corn mill. For a small fee, people around town could use it to grind their corn, saving time and energy. Seth's family had invested in pigs and made some money selling pigs at market. These enterprises had moved the families beyond mere subsistence, and they could better provide for themselves and their future.

On the topic of foreign aid, Don Salome seemed skeptical. He suspected the motives of most donor nations and saw aid as a method for securing underhanded trade deals. Any development, he suggested, would have to come from within. I soon realized my notions of a "peasant farmer" had been exploded--I had so much to learn from this man. There was an interesting undercurrent to the conversation. After all, I had arrived as a form of "foreign aid," but soon into the construction, I realized that my efforts provided little help. Sure, I offered another back, but these folks have been building efficiently for centuries this way . . . and they moved toward the inefficient rainy season for our benefit.

Eventually, I would ask Don Salome if my visit, my foreign aid, was a benefit or a burden. He thought for a while before responding and explained that my visit helped initiate a project that may not have happened. While my work itself would not be a huge help, he had learned from me, and he knew that I had learned even more. These lessons were why the trip was valuable--the work itself could be forgotten.

La Esperanza

Naturally, our group tended to return to the "big city" of La Esperanza for lukewarm showers and meat-filled meals. Our transportation varied. Often Save the Children arranged vehicles for returning us to town. Otherwise I accompanied Don Salome by hitch-hiking in the backs of trucks--a very common transport system. Any truck bed is assumed to be available as a means of public transport. It is also assumed that the passengers will toss a few bills toward the driver on exiting. The system works remarkably well, and I enjoyed the experience.

In town, we found time to catch up on the NBA finals, make quick calls home, and try to check email at the one Internet cafe in town (that was 2001: I imagine the place is now crawling with Starbucks and cell phones . . . maybe not). We would also zip by the markets and avoid the loose dogs and occasional knife fight (might have been a small town, but it sure could be exciting).

We quickly learned that US visitors to the area fell into basically three categories. The long-term visitors were Peace Corps volunteers who worked on water sanitation projects and agricultural support efforts. We fit into a second category of folks traveling with different NGOs--some doing medical relief, some delivering school materials, etc. The third category consisted of missionaries.

I made one encounter with missionaries during an evening in La Esperanza. I saw two tall and lanky guys standing on a corner being confronted by a police officer. Assuming the guys were in trouble, I thought that perhaps I could help them out. At this point, my language skills had greatly improved--I even found myself dreaming in Spanish. As I approached, I realized the confrontation was friendly, but I also realized that the two US guys spoke no Spanish.

The police officer soon waived me over to see if I could translate. Apparently the police occasionally let some prisoners out of the jail cells for a game of basketball (I know, sounded very unusual to me as well). The police team frequently loses to the prisoners, so this police officer wanted to recruit some tall US guys to play on the police team so they could finally defeat the prisoners. Okay.

So I translated for the linguistically-challenged duo, and despite their Indiana roots, they expressed little interest in the game. I translated, and the police officer became curious about why we all had come. I told him I was in La Esperanza to work with Save the Children. When I asked the guys from Indiana what they were doing, one replied, "We are going into the mountains to save the people for Jesus."

I translated for the cop . . . and he immediately laughed. Then he began a long tirade in Spanish that baffled the guys from Indiana. The police officer explained that he was tired of folks from the US trying to "save the people." He said he had seen US television shows and heard about US culture, and he suggested that Honduras should send religious missionaries to the US. He was really confused by these guys who spoke no Spanish--how were they to share their message without being able to communicate? I was similarly baffled. Having attended a church service in Pueblo Viejo, I realized that the police officer was right. I have rarely seen such strong faith as in that part of Honduras and wondered what these guys hoped to accomplish.

Unsure how to translate the message without having the situation escalate, I told the Indiana guys that the officer thanks them for coming . . . and I quickly walked away. Religious missionaries, it seemed, present another puzzling aspect of foreign aid.

Sometimes we show up in places planning to "help." Often, we find we are the ones receiving all the benefit.


By the last week of the trip, I had traveled the culture-learning graph mentioned in Part I. I had been excited, but a few days of repetitive diet and heavy rain had left me a little more bummed about my situation. I had become more comfortable only to find myself uncomfortable again. Finally, upon returning from a great trip to the Mayan ruins at Copan, I had settled comfortably into my home.

Our last week, I began work at the project as usual when I noticed one of the fellow students coming into Pueblo Viejo from a neighboring village. Even at a distance, I could tell he walked awkwardly and seemed to be limping. As he got closer, I noticed a red gash on his knee where his jeans had been torn away. I decided to rush down to the road.

There, Cayley began speaking quickly, "Brad, Pat is really sick. Really sick. If Sandra (our professor, guide, and personal hero) or anyone from Save the Children shows up, tell them to get a vehicle to Pat's house to get him to a doctor quickly." And then he turned to walk away.

So I asked him about the massive gash on his knee. "Oh that? I got hit by a truck on the walk over here. No big deal. The truck slid in the mud and smashed me into the hillside." I was stunned at his relaxed mood. Pat must really be in bad shape. I forced Cayley to bandage up before heading back (Pat ended up seeing a "doctor" who wore a Hawaiian shirt and gold chains before prescribing something unusual--back in the US, Pat found that he had been prescribed some sort of veterinary medication . . . getting sick in certain places can be a bad deal).

With Cayley patched and Pat healing, we headed back toward the US. In Tegucigalpa, we found a Papa Johns, and we were all soon ill on pizza. Apparently pizza is tough on a digestive system after weeks of beans and corn tortillas.

Arrival in the US was bliss. I showered off in my empty dorm room, readjusted my belongings, and got ready for an early morning flight . . . I was actually headed to Disneyworld. And maybe it was just going from Honduras to Disney, but that reverse culture shock thing can be brutal . . .

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Service-Learning Honduras Part 1: Living with Mountain Farmers

The plan formed on a whim. During my first year of college at Southwestern University, I noticed a flyer in a hallway advertising a "service-learning" program to Honduras. The program was relatively short and relatively inexpensive (as I read the words, I could immediately spot the ways to sell my parents). I would receive 3 hours of credit, improve my language skills, and, to top if off, help some Hondurans in the process. Most importantly, my summer stay in Amarillo would shrink by four weeks, which was fine by me.

There were a few things I did not realize at the time. My prior international travel had only included trips to Mexico, Norway, England, France, Japan, China, German, Morocco, and Canada . . . through the country pavillions at Epcot Center in Orlando. I had seen the Canada side of Niagara Falls, and I had stopped in briefly on a couple of Caribbean Islands as part of a short cruise. Despite this vast experience, I had yet to acquire a passport.

Perhaps I was naive, but I figured that jumping into a four-week homestay with rural farmers in the cloudforests of Honduras would be a great way to join the initated. And it was . . . though it definitely did not turn out to be anything close to what I expected . . .

Finally in Honduras, several months after signing up, I knew I was in for a unique time when I saw a friend from a neighboring town wandering up with a bloody knee to give an update on another student's intense digestive woes . . . but to create some motivation for reading through this series, that story will come in the next part.

Getting Ready

Before the trip, the leaders of the program tried their best to introduce us to what would come our way. The director of study abroad at Southwestern lead a program on culture shock. She showed graphs charting the process: from excitement to horror and misery to mistaken comfort to more bearable misery to comfort. Of course, if we reached comfort, our return would likely produce similar, if less dramatic, waves of shock. The graph seemed abstract and, while it would later prove to be absolutely correct, I tended to disregard this information.

I also remember being required to rent various Latin American films. I watched Amores Perros and two zany Argentine films. I was not sure how this would ready me for the trip, but the introduction to Latin American cinema was interesting nonetheless.

Finally, I paid extra good attention in Spanish class that semester. While I cannot remember what class I was taking at the time, I remember that it involved some criticism of literature or film (oh yes, we're talking advanced Spanish here). Obviously a close reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez stories would help me converse in Central America . . . obviously.

Toward Intibuca

First some maps to set the scene. The first one features Central America. Our flight landed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras' capital. We arrived in Teguc (as those-in-the-know call it) almost three years after Hurricane Mitch had ravaged the country. The disaster was still apparent. We also encountered groups of children who abated their hunger my sniffing industrial glues--meaning that teenagers often had the mental capacity of three-year-olds. It was a shocking introduction to life in a less developed country, but I was glad to have the experience. In fact, three hours in Tegucigalpa sparked a transformation in my political philosophy that was solidified over the coming weeks and years of travel . . . but back to the maps.

The next two maps feature close-ups of Intibuca, the department we were in just north of the El Salvador border. The region was mountainous with thick forests known for heavy, low-lying cloud-cover. We arrived in rainy season, so our mornings began with thick, can't-find-the-outhouse sort of fogs. The afternoon usually involved an hour or two of rain so thick that the entire atmosphere seemed transformed into a swimming pool. The last map shows La Esperanza, the "big town" near our outposts. Our group would be split between La Esperanza and two tiny villages (by "tiny," I mean the town hall meetings might gather thirty people). I would be in Pueblo Viejo.

Our group turned out to be excellent. Nate stayed in La Esperanza doing research on microcredit programs. In fact, my involvement with that research and microcredits in general are discussed more fully in my Maasai village posting. Our village housed Jill, Seth and me. Cayley, Maggie, Pat and Amanda were in the other village.

We had several goals on the trip. Primarily, we were to work with Save the Children-Honduras to build a school in each village. My village would have a school made from mudbricks and mud mortar (adobe construction); the other village would build theirs from cinderblock and concrete (a much more viable option during rainy season).

Our second goal would be hygiene education, first aid education, and some environmental education in honor of Honduras' Dia de Arbol (Tree Day). Before departing the States we had assembled large first aid kits and school supplies to hand out during our presentations at the area schools.

Other than that, we knew we would occasionally have some email access and get to take one vacation weekend over to Copan Ruinas, a Mayan ruins on the Honduras-Guatemala border.

Settling In

After a quick stop in Teguc, we headed out in 4x4 Dodge pick-ups toward Intibuca. My first experience on Honduran roads caused intense panic: cows wandered across the path, buses seemed to play chicken with each other, chickens played chicken with the trucks, etc. It was intense. While wet roads in Tibet made these Honduran roads seem like the Autobahn, at the time, I was terrified.

My anxiety only climbed as we approached Pueblo Viejo hours later. My head was racing. I knew I would be living with farmers, but the rest was a mystery. As we came closer to Pueblo Viejo, I realized more fully that my next four weeks would be a drastic change from my normal existence, but, to refer back to the culture shock graph, I was still in the excitement stage.

We finally pulled up to the home of Don Salome Garcia, his wife Patricia, and their grandson, Wilmer. I immediately felt relief. Don Salome wore smile lines on his face, and I felt overwhelmed by the kindness in his eyes. His wife Patricia had rough hands from years of working masa (ground corn), but she also radiated friendliness. Wilmer, a three-year-old, would obviously become my good friend. Unable to say "Brad," Wilmer began calling me "amigo," which I enjoyed better anyway. In all fairness, no Honduran ever learned to pronounce my name, so a nasal "Bran" was as close as anyone could come.

I surveyed my surroundings. Some chickens milled about near a massive bull. The house contained one main building with a separate corn crib, outhouse, outdoor shower, and wash baisin. The home was clean and simple. I dropped my bags into what would be my bedroom. The bed was large and made from local trees. The mattress, stuffed with lumpy cotton, was supported by ropes strung between the frame. I was shown where my candles would be for the nights, but I assured them that my flashlight would work--they could save their candles.

The living area featured a small sofa near a television powered by a car battery. I soon learned that the television would only turn on for national soccer games, which proved to be gripping even with the hazy reception. The main room also featured a blackboard where Don Salome taught a Thursday "Bible" class. I put "Bible" in quotations because the class was really much more. The blackboard featured a list of key problems in the community: emigration, deterioration of traditional culture, rise in materialism, and loss of spirituality. I immediately realized that Don Salome and I would have plenty to talk about. I knew from some pre-departure reading that Honduras faced a steady drain of brains and talent to the United States. I also knew that Central American cultural products were dwarfed by the large Mexican music and film industries as well as US culture. These cultural imports exacerbated the loss of traditional culture. Originally, the area was inhabited by an indigenous group known as the Lempira. Don Salome and most in the area were still called "Indios" for their Lempira heritage, but the age of colonization had whithered their culture and modern culture threatens to extinguish it entirely.

The kitchen proved to be the main social area for my time in Honduras. It featured a table that sat five, a battery powered radio, a wood-fired stove, and a long table for preparing meals. We gathered there at 5 AM for a first breakfast of coffee and either a corn tortilla or pan dulce (sweet bread . . . if I was lucky . . . this stuff really amazed me). Then I would head to work at the school for a few hours before returning for a second breakfast of coffee, beans, and corn tortillas. Then after more work, I would enjoy a late lunch: beans, coffee, corn tortillas and an avocado slice. Finally, dinner around 5 PM would feature coffee, beans, corn tortillas, some rice, sometimes tomatoes, and occassionally a piece of meat of some sort. After dinner we would chat over the day's events, discuss politics a bit, and listen to the radio. Finally, sleep would come around 8 PM.

The food was fairly repetitive but really tasty. The beans were mashed and seasoned with salt or sometimes sprinkled with a mild cheese. The coffee was magical and harvested from nearby. The beans were then roasted on the family's cooker, ground on a stone, and the water used for percolating had previously boiled fresh sugarcane. The coffee alone would be worth the return trip.

Wilmer, the three-year-old, also loved coffee, and it really showed. He would spend his days chasing the dogs and chickens with a machete. In the evenings, he would tell me absurd tales of the goings on of "otro Wilmer" ("other" Wilmer), his imaginary friend that tended to break dishes and chase monster "guzanos" (worms). Whether the stories were linked to to the caffeine, I will never know, but conversations about the "guzanos" tended to provide good laughs (Don Salome and Patricia were slightly less entertained).

The outhouse was nice, actually featuring a porcelain basin. The shower, pumping frigid water through the cold, mountain air, was a weekly relief, and I was soon thankful I had buzzed my hair short.

All in all, after some ups and downs, I settled in nicely to my surroundings.

The Other Homes

My companions were often not as fortunate. Pat slept on a cot in the kitchen of his home. Initially, the family chickens lived under his cot. While he found this disturbing, he could definitely handle the situation. Weeks later, the handful of chickens ended up producing forty baby chicks, and his situation grew worse.

Amanda slept in a small building detached from her family's house. One night, she woke to some strange creature on her chest. She screamed loudly while fumbling for a flashlight. Eventually she managed to open the door to her room to find the father of her household standing at the door completely naked. I'm not sure she ever recovered from the trauma (and we have yet to discover the nature of the creature: I suggested rat, but she swears this beast was of much larger proportions).

Finally, Maggie ended up in a slightly weird home where her family would lock her in her room at night. The family seemed slightly "off" to all who met them, and I think she looked forward to the occasional weekend away in La Esperanza.

All in all, our group was set for a fascinating time. We had prepared as well as we could, and we all landed in decent homes for the weeks to come . . .

Friday, February 2, 2007

Study Abroad

Megan and I both had the joy of attending Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. We loved the small student body, excellent interaction with dedicated faculty, great opportunities for fun times, beautiful limestone buildings, and . . . back to the relevant stuff . . . the study abroad opportunities.

During our time at Southwestern, we took a lot of trips that really transformed the way we travel. Instead of traveling passively (look at the pretty stuff), we began traveling more actively. Travel became an opportunity to learn about a culture, a political situation, an economic crisis, and a bit about ourselves in the process. By engaging in the surroundings, we found we would get much more out of the adventure and hopefully return more knowledgeable and aware of the world around us. Even just chatting with cab drivers has offered some of our best learning experiences abroad, such as our recent education on Muslim holidays by a cab driver in Dar es Salaam.

Back to Southwestern. While in college, Megan took advantage of study programs to Guanajuato, Mexico, and Granada, Spain. I took study trips to Honduras, Italy, England and Chiapas, Mexico. Recently, Southwestern started a study abroad photo competition, and the results of the competition are really remarkable.

Soon we will start adding stories of these study abroad experiences. The first set will be a multi-part series of my service-learning trip to Honduras, a trip that fundamentally reshaped the way I think about the world while simultaneously creating a passion for all foods that include avocado.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Choosing Books

People taking long trips have serious decisions to make on their book choice. Most of the world lacks options like Barnes & Noble and Borders, and you will find people trading books in hostels and cafes as though the books are worth their weight in gold (I remember negotiations in Shigatse, Tibet, in which a Grisham novel was considered worth two of any other novel . . . it is a strange market). More importantly, weight itself can be a bit issue when traveling, so a bad book is a tremendous burden. Even a great book is a burden if it is too thick (which is why one might find a copy of Joyce's Ulysses in a youth hostel in Rome . . . just couldn't carry it anymore).

You can get a feel for these decisions through Andy Hobotraveler.com, a remarkable website. He recently commented on "Crichton travel" a term coined by Clayton and I after reading about Michael Crichton's physical (and metaphysical) travels. I, personally, found the metaphysical discussions annoying, but the physical travels documented in the book were riveting. Anyway, Andy plans to put the term "Crichton travel" to the test. With plans to soon travel through the Congo, he'll do exactly that--hopefully proving to the rest of us that intense travel through relatively untrod territory is still possible.
Travel Blogs - Blog Top Sites