3 Things I Learned from a Year Around the World

I’m a scientist by training, and traveling 24/7 provided ample time to observe the world and its people. Free from the mental burden of a daytime job and (most) academic obligations, I did and watched and spoke and thought. After a year , here are three things I have learned from my travels:

One: People are generally good.

IMG_0732
A kid poses while working a market stall in Jakarta.

It’s easy to be cynical about people in the world, now moreso than ever, so it’s easy to dismiss this first one as some bland attempt at higher moral values. But the goodness of people and their willingness to help when you need it is one of the most humbling and powerful parts about real travel. From the guys who picked us up as hitch-hikers stranded in central Java and refused to accept what little money we had to our cabin-mates who generously shared their food with us on the trans-Siberian rail between Ulan-Ude and Krasnoyarsk, people were incredibly kind to us when we needed help.

2-IMG_6498
These fine folks watched our stuff while we went swimming on a beach in Chile.

And it wasn’t that they felt we were in a position worse than theirs — as foreigners travelling, we are clearly well off and could repay them. We could have easily repaid the women in Goryachinsk who took us into their dacha for the night, or the man in Panama who paid for my bus fare when I miscalculated how much it would cost to fly to the airport and this was the last bus we could catch to be on time for our flight. They could tell we could repay, but that wasn’t the goal. Kindness was.

IMG_2527
A Russian couple we met while camping in Stolby insisted on sharing their food with us, including making fresh salad each night.

That being said, those who are most eager to help you often don’t have your best interests in mind. These are often people looking to ingratiate themselves to you and then harness reciprocity to get something from you in return. A great example were the luggage carriers in Probolinggo, Indonesia: guys who would hang out where the jeeps dropped off tourists and eagerly offered to help carry luggage. They not only expect a tip, but are often in cahoots with men who sell fake tickets at the bus station and will direct you to purchase tickets from them, expecting that their first favor to you will blind you to what’s going on. In these situations, I often got a “weird” feeling that was difficult to ignore, and it was worthwhile to listen to it.

 

Two: Water is a problem everywhere.

IMG_7051
A reservoir in France; you can see where the water line once was.

“Water, water everywhere, and not enough to drink”. We may live on a blue planet, but nearly everywhere we went there seemed to be less water than ever before. Locals in Cartagena and Medellin noted it was a dry year, while friends in Australia spoke of drought and described this year’s wildfires in New South Wales. The trees in many cities and towns in Bulgaria showed signs of water stress, with curled brown leaves and wilted young branches. And driving through France, it was hard to miss the chalky white marks along reservoir edges marking old water lines, now feet above the current water level. Much of the world is getting hotter, and drier.

IMG_7045
Markings of waterlines suggest there’s been a steady decline in water here.

20171003_162442
There remnants of a hillside brush fire in Macedonia.

And where there is water, it is often polluted or perceived as polluted. Of the 28 countries we visited, we had to drink bottled or filtered water in more than half of them. We purified our water in Mexico, Central and South America, all of Asia, and parts of Eastern Europe because we were advised not to drink the tap water. Even in places where we were told the tap water was fine to drink in Chile and parts of Russia and Central Europe, we would often find locals drinking bottled water. Even if the water is drinkable now, in many places people don’t trust it because it wasn’t drinkable before. That’s a hard mindset to change, especially when people don’t see it as a problem to solve but an inevitability.

20-IMG_20170118_160353
Bottled water is an inevitable requirement in many countries…

IMG_2176
…but guess where those water bottles end up?

Three: It isn’t just the poor vs the rich, it’s rural vs urban.

IMG_2078
An abandoned machine in the town of Nikolaevo, Bulgaria.

The wealth disparity in the world is another thing that’s hard to miss when you’re traveling, regardless of what country you’re in. The paradigm of the poor versus the rich is an ancient one and continues to this day. But now there’s a twist: it’s not just poor versus the rich, but it’s the rural versus the urban population. Nearly everywhere we went, the poorest people in the cities still had far more opportunities and resources than the poorest people in rural areas. Those who can travel to cities to work and sell goods, packing buses, trains, and roads.

IMG_3562
People board a bus bound for the city in Ecuador.

This divide in wealth makes sense, because historically anywhere a concentration of goods and information arose a city would follow, and in turn a city would seek to increase the amount of goods and information at its disposal. But now there’s a new twist: information flows more freely than ever before out of cities into rural areas. 4G phone speeds may not be accessible everywhere, but you can surf the web in towns along the Baikal shore in Siberia and get cell signal in the Andes. Rural people (and everyone, really) have faster access to more information than ever before — including clear representations of life in the city, with all of those resources, with all of that wealth.

IMG_3419
Men laying fiber optic cable in a more rural area in Colombia.

They know what they’re missing out on, and that can’t feel good. The next challenge for us in tackling wealth disparity will be to build technology that facilitates the flow of goods more easily to rural areas. Otherwise we could have a lot of angry people on our hands.

IMG_3171

Temporary Goodbyes

20171106_100212 Today Stoytcho and I are saying goodbye temporarily, as he heads home to the U.S. to take care of some personal matters. It’s weird that it’s just another plane ride, but it will be one that he takes alone. I’m staying in Germany for another week.

I take the metro with Stoytcho to the Berlin airport to see him off and we talk mostly about logistics. He’s flying to New York, then on to San Diego. I’m flying from Berlin to Boston a week later to start looking for apartments while staying with his cousin. He’ll join me when he’s done in San Diego, but we don’t know when that will be.

For most people and in most scenarios, this would be totally normal. But it feels so weird when you’ve spent nearly every waking (and sleeping) moment with the same person for the last 13 months. When you’ve curled up in a tiny 2-person tent in the New Zealand wilderness or shared a mattress on a floor in Russia, when you’ve been crammed together in a narrow row of seats in a bus puttering through the Chilean desert or in the back of a incredibly-jittery minivan careening down a volcano in Indonesia. Or when you’ve both squeezed into the same tiny half-person bathroom because one of you needs to use the sink and the other needs to use the toilet, and like hell are either of you are going to wait.

Our journey together has been 371 days long. That’s 8,904 hours, of which Stoytcho and I have spent roughly 8,890 together. That seems like an insanely long time, but this is how things used to be. We spent our lives with the same people, in the same tribe, unchanging save for the flow of birth and death.

20171106_100950

Now Stoytcho will disappear behind a wall and in a few hours will be thousands of miles of way. The modern age is weird.

Berlin with Photography Friends

IMG_7534 We stay with Cindy and Eric and Anna in a tiny apartment in Berlin for a week, doing nothing in particular but living. The three are here working on photography books and projects and workshops, and for them this stop is just one more in a life of itinerancy. They move to new places every few months to work or think or for Eric to run a photography workshop, but everywhere they work on new projects, connect with friends, and live. Travel is merely another axis on the grid in which they live their life.

I am lucky to know the people I do, and to while away days in quiet contemplation with them. To be not going anywhere in particular, to not be thinking about the next step. Instead, we live our lives and, inspired by Cindy and Eric and Anna, make photography into art. Are we successful?

20171105_121110

IMG_7567

IMG_7537

IMG_7695

IMG_7590IMG_7624

20171109_002051

IMG_7614

IMG_7587

Who cares? We are having fun.

The Train to Germany

20171102_134214

Onward, onward! Today we take the last train on our journey, from Paris to the city of Berlin. While this is a departure from our ever-westward travel, we’re meeting our dear old itinerant friends Cindy and Eric, whom we last saw in Hanoi about six months and half a world ago!

 

20171102_090430
Spoiler: Something bad will happen to this bag.

 

We first stop by the local bakery for a bundle of morning pastries to add to our pile of gifts, stuffing them into a spare shopping bag we picked up at Maison Georges Larincol. Then it’s off to the train station to find our train and pick up our tickets, a slightly more complicated process than normal because we’re crossing a border. Still, it’s a breeze when compared to flying.

20171102_094952

Once on the train, the familiar flow of scenery past our window and people in the aisles begins. There are short bursts of cityscape strung with thick trellises of telephone and electric wire and dotted with concrete train platforms, followed by long stretches of pasture and woods in the French, then German countryside. The transition between countries is once again seamless, noticeable only by the change of language on station signs.

20171102_134208

The flow of people continues as well, French, Germans, and other Europeans getting up and disembarking, boarding and sitting down in recently vacated seats. The only unmoving group is a Muslim family, clearly tired and stressed from travel. The mother desperately tries to handle three children and quell their hunger with cheap, off-brand crackers. She spanks one of them for getting too rowdy and the child wails.

20171102_101042

We doze and nearly miss our stop in Berlin, waking up just in time to dash off the train with our backpacks. When we gather ourselves on the platform, we realize we have left the bag of pastries on board! They’re gone with the train, alongside my warm wool leggings I’ve used for the last year. Easy come, easy go.

The Muslim family also got off with us, and they adults are all now hugging a couple who were waiting on the platform and crying. The children just stand around, confused.

20171103_174052

Berlin is colder than Paris, so we walk quickly, catching the local metro to a small suburb where our friends wait for us.

Transition to Germany

20171031_104430

With a heavy heart we packed our bags, said goodbye to our friends, and headed out of Paris.

IMG_20171102_082318

On the way out we made sure to stop by our favorite bakery and pick up a pile of delicious pastries for ourselves and the friends we would be meeting in Germany. Some of Natalie’s close friends from college were staying in Berlin and let us stay with them!

IMG_20171102_084030

On the way to the station we saw even more fantastic architecture! We hadn’t had a chance to wander up this way before – it was less quaintly Parisian and more industrial, closer to a concrete, business-type city. The people were still stylishly dressed, of course.

IMG_20171102_084455

At the East Station we saw an outdoor exhibit on some of the world’s strangest buildings.

IMG_20171102_084710

Bonus points for looking like a space colony. Many of these were in Japan, yet another mark for the mutual admiration that the two countries seem to have for each other. It’s such a big cultural exchange that Mariage Frères, a fantastic French tea company has a Japanese division – the only country in Asia that merits a full Mariage Frères store.

IMG_20171102_170352

After a bit of figuring out where our train was at the station, we got on and peacefully rode through the French countryside onward to Germany and Berlin. Along the way we had to change trains, and about fifteen minutes after we did, we realized that something had not made it with us in the transfer. Our bag full of delightful French pastries was spiriting away from us on another train! Natalie’s leggings were also in the bag, but those were replaceable. After a vain attempt to recover the bag by calling the train company, we let the treats go and continued on to Berlin. A quick walk through the residential neighborhood of Moabit, which borders the station and is surrounded by rivers, we arrived with the rest of our belongings to a warm welcome at our friends’ apartment.

Sights and friends in Paris

IMG_7392

One of the best things about Paris (for me) is that a few of my good friends from college happen to live there. We were extremely lucky to stay at their apartment right in the heart of the city, and to have them with us as guides to the city.

IMG_7474

There are of course the monuments we found on our own, and the city is well equipped to handle english speaking tourists. There’s no issue getting around to see all the famous sights, but it’s really for the hidden shortcuts and small alleys that you need a local with you.

20171031_115456

None of these are hidden or secret, though I’m sure there are those as well. For the most part, all the interesting things are right on display, you just have to know where to look. Given how many tiny shops – cheese, pastry, antique, meat, tea, everything – and how many sculptures, beautiful buildings, and above all cafes there are, a friend who has a few favorite spots is extremely helpful.

20171101_205718

Dinner is the other important topic. In college we gathered for “family dinner” nights, and it was a blast to do it again. Despite being in the middle of a move, my friends hosted us for a wine and food filled evening, ending in a short and happy walk back to the apartment.

20171101_205301

On a different night we went out and wandered into a late-night cafe/restaurant. On order were salmon pancakes – a savory shortstack in true American French fusion cuisine.

20171031_120240

Outside of the monuments, Paris is still a living breathing city. It’s far from perfect, and is constantly under construction.

20171031_152244

There’s delicious, perfectly decorated food around every corner. There really does seem to be a pastry shop on nearly every street, often more.

20171031_144736

Giant sculptures dot the city, and in many places they act as playgrounds, especially for tourists, but also for locals.

20171031_131211

Other works of art are much less interactive but no less grand.

20171031_122410

We’re not sure if these dancers were filming a commercial, doing a photoshoot, or putting on a show. Either way, it was one of the many interesting things going on in Paris, on a weekday at that!

20171031_121715

Street-long indoor galleries dot the city. Some are famous and have tours going through them, some are out of the way and filled with unknown treasures. In one of the heavily trafficked ones, a wine shop window filled our eyes with these massive wine bottles. I’ve seen comically oversized champagne bottles for events before, but I’ve never seen so many at once, and given the price tag these are no joke.

20171031_121546

That same gallery, and many like it, have indoor cafes! They’re cozy and in inclement weather a delightful way to spend an hour or three. While we were visiting it never really got cold or wet outside for too long, so we never saw too many people at them.

IMG_7442

There’s all sorts of surprises around the city. In a somewhat lonely corner near a very popular Eiffel tower vista point, we found a statue of Benjamin Franklin.

IMG_7511

There’s lots to see and do, the city is beautiful, and the food is great. I was thrilled to see my old friends again, and with any luck we’ll have another chance to meet in Paris! Thank you Chloé, Antoine, and Axel, for being such wonderful hosts!

 

Paris (it’s pretty nice)

 

20171101_185920
Visiting the Louvre at dusk.

 

We said goodbye to my uncle and his wife, dropped the car in Limoges, and hopped on a train bound for Paris. And Paris is, as far as cities go, pretty nice.

 

IMG_7360
The Eiffel Tower. We’re such terrible tourists that this was as close as we got to it; we didn’t even bother walking across the bridge to the actual park.

 

I’m speaking objectively. I’ve never really been under the sway of the French obsession. Haute couture fashion and makeup? Don’t follow it.

French food? I can agree with them that butter = better.

Romance language? I prefer Italian, or non-romance languages Russian or Japanese.

Paris as a dream destination? The closest I’ve come to learning about sightseeing in the city is listening to David Sedaris’ interview with This American Life.

 

IMG_7403
We came upon these columns on a road along the Seine; they’re strangely attractive for industrial grade metal pylons.

 

So with no expectations for Paris, here’s what I came away with:

1. The food is actually better than the U.S. Like in Italy, even the base quality food is better. You can still find places that are meh (especially bakeries), but the grocery goods are way tastier and there’s a fresh market stall for everything from produce and bread to meet and seafood.

 

20171031_104430
A kouign amann, which is basically just thin sheets of dough held together with butter and caramelized sugar.

 

2. Not everyone is dressed better, but the better-dressed are noticeably more stylish

 

20171031_115447
Look at this random guy. A thousand times more stylish than a random guy in the U.S.

 

3. Everything IS pretty. Forms of function have decoration and embellishment by default. Presentation matters. In this sense, being here reminds me of Japan.

 

IMG_7496
This is a random Metro entrance, apparently in the style of Art Nouveau because of course.

 

Oh, and someone told me that Paris Syndrome is actually a thing. Guess it was good I came without expectations.

Chateau

When my uncle first mentioned that my cousin had purchased a chateau in France, I imagined that a chateau was some kind of rustic country house. In this case, it turns out that chateau meant closer to ‘castle’, complete with a turret that houses the staircase from basement to attic. Though it’s in a bit of disrepair (and has salamanders invading the basement), everything seems intact.

20171029_103056

20171030_122717

It also apparently came with several other buildings on the property, including a stone farmhouse and chicken coop. These buildings are also looking worse for wear, but they make for beautiful photos.

Nothing a bit of hard work can’t fix, right?

20171029_103622

20171029_103524

The chateau also comes with a guardian in the form of Drago, the chubby dog owned by the farmer next door. He bounds up to meet us when we arrive, on the heels of my uncle. The entire back half of Drago’s body wags when my uncle pulls bags of treats from a drawer in the chateau’s kitchen.

IMG_7244

IMG_7240

Drago follows us for walks in the nearby woods, which is the primary activity in our days. We wander through the trees, still verdant despite the increasing chill each morning, and forage for fallen chestnuts or document the fungi we find.

20171029_114029   IMG_7104

IMG_7109

IMG_7146

IMG_7191

Back at the chateau, we use the oven to bake our foraged chestnuts and huddle in the kitchen over bowls of warm chicken soup. We visited a nearby supermarket, Super U, when we first arrived and bought some chicken and vegetables. They don’t seem like anything special, but they taste far better than anything  from the U.S. supermarkets. The food really is just better in France.

20171029_164121

IMG_7248

Onward to France

IMG_20171023_143111 Part of Europe’s magic is that you can get on a train in the morning and be in a completely different country in the afternoon, complete with a different language and very different views on how the same batch of ingredients should be prepared to make food. We’re moving on to France today, via train through the Southern Alps. I am unsure of where Italy ends and France begins. On this side of the EU, borders are easy, imperceptible. And the landscape looks the same: sun-drenched fields and mountains clothed in vegetation showing the first hints of fall foliage in yellow and red.

20171024_133733

20171024_134438

20171024_120836

20171024_125648

20171024_124051

We disembark at Chambery and catch a local train to Grenoble. The scenery rolls by effortlessly again and I can’t help but think that Europe seems so very small.

Slow time (San Martino Buon Albergo)

20171018_153401

We lived for a week in an Airbnb’d apartment in San Martion Buon Albergo, passing the time in writing and walking the town. The world has begun to hint at a change in seasons, with drifting mists across the fields and cold tile floors in the mornings. We have chased summer south and north for almost a year; but as we slow, winter gains.

IMG_5986

IMG_5987

We take this time to rest, letting the time slip by in local cafes over 1 € espressos and in walks through town. It slips through cracks in the windowsill and evaporates in the bubbling water as we boil pasta for dinner, our staple in a town with a local shop that sells fresh pasta.

20171019_134152 20171019_134158

We make one day trip to Verona, the nearest city and setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tourists come here to propose to each other on Juliet’s balcony and to leave their names scratched onto adhesive bandages plastered on the walls of the balcony’s courtyard. The sky is overcast as we visit the towering, angel guarded tombs of the city’s powerful Renaissance families. The sky remains gray as we sit on a patio overlooking the Adige River, watching the water drift past over another 1 € espresso.

IMG_5899

One warm afternoon I discover a praying mantis on the ground outside the apartment. It twists over its articulated joints, serpentine-esque eyes tracking me warily. I pick it up to examine it and place it on a nearby bush. It inches off into the brush, swaying unevenly like a twig in the wind, though there is none. In a few minutes it is gone. Soon we’ll be gone too.

20171021_142917 20171021_143055