Ancona, Intro to Italy

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Ancona is an interesting place. It’s definitely not touristy, but it still has the charming attractions of an Italian city – beautiful old architecture, a lovely promenade, coffee.. pizza.. really we didn’t know what to expect. Neither of us had ever been to Italy, and we came because I had always wanted to see Venice and Natalie had always wanted to go to a truffle festival.

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Ancona was our crash course in how to get around in Italy. First – mediocre Spanish will not cut it. Some people might humor you and try to understand, but by and large we had more success with English and a tiny bit of Spanish than full on Spanish. Maybe if we had tried Spanish with an Italian accent?

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Second – Italians love their mid day break. Everything, and I mean everything, excepting cafes, restaurants, and maybe hospitals, shuts down for the hours of 1 to 4, give or take. It’s fantastic and infuriating at the same time. We’re so used to 24 hour on demand everything all the time. When it’s not available we’re not sure what to do. I think the Italians are on to something though.

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Third – do ask for help. As with many countries on our trip, Italians seem interested in travelers and asking politely (if plainly) is very often the best way to get what you need or find out where you need to go. We haven’t mentioned this much, but post offices around the world are full of some of the nicest and most helpful people imaginable. Maybe we got lucky? The Ancona post office staff took great care of us and got our package through the relatively complex shipping procedure in no time. In a related act of kindness, we needed packing material so I went to a nearby newstand and did my best to ask for the cheapest newspaper they had. The vendor said “it’s Italian, can you read?” I told him it was for mail, for a package. He dropped a pile of newspapers in my arms and said they were free, yesterday’s lot.

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Ancona itself is split into two parts – a lower section near the water, and the remainder atop a massive cliff. It’s a hike to get to the old town, and the metro system was unintelligible to us the first day. The streets are tiny, especially in the old town – this will become a running theme in Italy. Vespas and tiny cars are popular for a reason.

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Beautiful,

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ancient,

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architecture.
Italy does not disappoint.

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When everything’s closed and you have no plans, what to do but get coffee? It turns out fancy drinks like this are a bit unusual for Italy. Everywhere else so far the coffee has been plain espresso, or maybe with a dash of milk (steamed, foamed, straight). A regular small cup costs 1 euro and almost everyone has one for breakfast. It’s like a natural right here, and the coffee is almost always excellent.

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Ancona even has a bit of a fashion district on the promenade.

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On our way back to the hotel we passed this intriguing restaurant. It was closed when we passed. We wanted to come back but still couldn’t figure out the buses, so when it came time for dinner we decided to eat local. I think if we had more than a day and change in Ancona the public transit would have eventually made sense, but there’s not much in the way of tourist information when it comes to riding the trams.

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What does eating local look like? A random pizzeria near the hotel. Full disclosure, this was the third random pizzeria near the hotel that we looked at. The other two were not nearly as appetizing. We asked the lady at the front desk of our hotel if a single pizza was enough for two. It turns out sharing a pie is uncommon here – they’re very thin crust and designed to be eaten by one person. That may be the intent, but we were full pretty quick, even with the thin crust. We finished it though – it was too good!

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Next time – we head to Sant’Agata Feltria for their truffle festival!

Bosnian Coffee

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There is an interesting story whenever something forgets where it was from and becomes from somewhere else. This story is about a cup of coffee.

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The city of Sarajevo and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina are each beautiful and complicated. Their histories are long, and storied, and often very bloody. Bosnian coffee comes from a time when the Ottoman Empire threatened and conquered the Balkan peninsula. Slavic through pre-history, converted to christianity in the middle ages, Bosnia faced yet another existential threat. The Ottoman Empire, when it finally conquered the region, wiped out the former ruling structure but allowed the country to keep its cultural identity and name. Because many Bosnians converted to Islam and the empire spread, enveloping Bosnia in even more outer provinces, it reached a point of great influence in culture, commerce, and architecture.  This period is when the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar were founded.

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Bosnians say that they in their province retained the true form of Turkish coffee. Because Bosnian coffee, regardless of what it is called today, was brought by the Ottomans. The turks favor a very thick, very strong brew – almost a sludge. Ordering a Turkish coffee anywhere in the world will get you a cup of thick sludge covered by the liquid coffee. Ordering a Turkish coffee in Bosnia will get you a quick correction – Bosnian coffee – and a tray complete with cups, a pot of coffee, a bowl of sugar, and a piece of lukum. The coffee is the same thick, sludgelike delight, but it comes in the pot that it was prepared in – a jezveh. Every Balkan country pronounces this differently, and the Bosnians spell it džezva.

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There is a ritual in serving coffee the Bosnian way. That’s really what differentiates it from the Turkish coffee, though locals might say otherwise. Bosnian coffee is served in its pot, on a tray. Turkish coffee comes in a cup. Both come with permission and opportunity for a long, luxurious, meandering chat. In Bosnia this holds even more strongly. Gaining its freedom from the Turks did not revert Bosnia’s newfound identity. It still stands out amongst its Balkan neighbors being a Muslim majority nation. It stands out even further for being the last major armed conflict (not counting Ukraine now) on the European continent.
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During the Bosnian war, the social ritual of Bosnian coffee became a touchstone, a point of grounding for the residents. With extremely limited supplies, the ritual remained as the coffee was washed away. Any boiled drink, preferably brownish, served in its place – a reason to get together, to talk, to try and experience normalcy in the face of siege and war. Now, the war past but not forgotten, coffee once again proliferates the country, though the full ritual of it is slowly dying out. Many places will serve espresso or nescafe, and the cafes where true Bosnian coffee are served a fewer than before. In busy tourist towns and central markets though, there will always be a place for the tray with its attendant pot, cups, and bowls. This is lucky, because it is some of the best coffee anywhere.

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In Memoriam, a Bulgarian Tradition

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Wander around any city in Bulgaria and you’ll eventually come across printed papers with people’s pictures on them, some dates, and a little bit of text. People sometimes think they’re wanted posters or missing persons posters, but it’s not. This is how we show and share our grief when someone passes away. It’s traditional for family members to print these and put them up all around the area where the person lived, near apartment building entrances, along the street on electrical posts, and on the sides of buildings. They are ubiquitous around the country, effectively omnipresent in daily life.

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All necrologs follow the same basic pattern. This has changed over time to become a bit simpler and less verbose, but the main points have held. Normally there is the main title at the top of the page, in most cases it is “In memory”, but if the person recently passed away it might say something more specific. Then comes the date and number of years since their death, and then the name. Following that is usually some kind words about the person, and then a sign off from whoever posted the necrolog.

It used to be that the next of kin, or even entire family trees, were printed at the bottom of the page, but these days it’s almost always something simple like ‘the family’ or ‘the bereaved’ or ‘from the close relatives’. The words or epitaph are usually focused on extolling virtues of the person and describing lamentations of the relatives, how much they miss them. Other times it can be a poem, or something very simple like “They left too soon” or “They were loved and are missed”.

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You can see in this picture that the memoriam is for the same person, and the 8 and 9 in the two posters is for how many years have passed since the person’s death. It is tradition to put up a round of necrologs several times during the first year after death, and then once per year on the anniversary of their death. For this reason it’s fairly common to see multiple, slightly different necrologs for the same person in a given area.

The pervasiveness of necrologs makes for an interesting cultural relationship with death and grieving. When I was younger I found them to be a saddening sight, sort of a constant reminder of death. As an adult I am not affected in the same way – these necrologs as we call them are a tribute, a sharing of grief, a way to preserve someone’s memory. They are not joyous in the tradition of the Day of the Dead, but they are also not exceptionally sad. The words from relatives and families are often beautiful, a heartfelt expression of the value that the person brought to their lives. They remind us of the people we have lost, and they ensure that a person is remembered in their neighborhood for many years after their passing.

Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 2

View part 1 here.

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The Other Trans-Siberian

During one stop, we disembark to stretch our legs and find a sleek, forest-green train waiting across from ours. Emblazoned on the side is the seal of the People’s Republic of China, and beneath that in three languages it reads “Beijing – Ulaan-Baatar – Moskva”. The people spilling off of it are mostly white, dressed in shorts or jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps, all armed with cameras and cell phones. A flurry of camera shutters captures tourist selfies with their train, our train, and each other. This is the one of the Trans-Siberian “experience” trains that people take from Beijing in China all the way to Moscow in Western Russia. It takes nine days. Nine days on a train.

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How Do You Say

In Russia, I am functionally mute, voiceless because I am wordless. I rely on Stoytcho to translate into Bulgarian-Russian, hear a response in which might understand one English-like word (like ‘politicheskii’), and then rely on Stoytcho to translate the rest. It wears him out quickly, so our conversations with Russian cabinmates, Nikolaj and Ivan, are brief bursts followed by long silences. And in those silences I can ask a question that I’ll always understand the answer to: как сказать это?”

Our older cabinmate, Ivan, has two young daughters and knows this game well. I point to something and say “как сказать это?” He smiles and returns an answer. When I point to the sugar cubes, he returns “сахар”. When I point to the pillow, he says “подушка”. When I point to an apple on the table, he gives me “яблоко.” My pinhole view into the Russian world grows question by question, word by word. Ivan is infinitely patient.

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Goodbye/Hello

In our conversations, Ivan speaks glowingly of his wife and daughters. He’s been away repairing electrical pole wires around eastern Siberia for six months, and now he’s finally headed home. This train is the second-to-last part of his trip; at the next station, he’ll board another train to carry him through the last part of his journey home.

Ivan disembarks in the early hours of the morning, while Stoytcho and I are still huddled in our bunks. His rustling wakes me up, and I squint over at his bunk to find him packing things away. Seeing me awake, Ivan smiles and holds an apple up to me. “яблока?” I ask. “Da,” he says, followed by words I don’t understand and a gesture to take it. He points to other food left on the table, packets of noodles and fruit. “What about you?” I ask him, pointing between him and the food. Ivan responds with some more words I don’t understand, and Stoytcho below me translates. “He says he has better stuff at home, this is for us.” “Ah, спасибо,” I smile. “пожалуйста”, Ivan replies. Then he’s gone. I drift back to sleep and am only vaguely aware of the click of the door as someone else comes in to take Ivan’s bunk.

In the morning we have a new cabinmate. He’s quieter and more reserved than Ivan, but he’s curious enough about us to engage in idle chat. We find out that he’s a Lieutenant in the Russian Army, but little else—he’s vague on his destination, his work, and his life. When he asks what we’re doing here, we explain the trip around the world. “Natasha just finished her PhD in Biology,” Stoytcho tells him. “Ah, I majored in Biology at university,” the Lieutenant replies with a smile. “Has he found it useful in his work?” I ask Stoytcho, who translates the question on. The Lieutenant replies with a laugh, “Not really with my job. But it helps when I’m hunting.”

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Drunken Russian Men

The battery of my phone is running low, so I plug it into one of the few outlets in the hallway outside our cabin and sit down next to it. There’s nothing but darkness out the window, so I pull out a fabric flower-making kit I got in Japan to while the time away. I sew and watch the occasional light streak by in the darkness and listen to the chatter and laughter from the cabins. Eventually, the traincar slows to a stop and the speakers overhead announce the station name. In response, cabin doors open and people spill out into the hallway to get out into the night air.

Two gigantic men, more than thrice my size, stumble boisterously out of their cabin and notice me sewing. One waves and I wave back with a “Здравствуйте.” “Ah, you speak Russian?” he turns and walks toward me excitedly. I pinch my two fingers together and squint in a universal “a little” sign. “Where from?” he asks. “США” I reply, and try to explain our trip. “один лет…нет, один год…мир,” I say and make a circle in the air to indicate going around the world. They don’t get it, and sway as they stand in front of me trying to make sense of the situation. Stoytcho steps out a moment later and after an exchange in broken Russian, the guys invite us out for a smoke and stumble toward the exit. They’re clearly drunk, and the last thing we want to do is make two drunken Russian men angry.

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Outside, the smoke from the two guys’ cigarettes drifts through the open air, mingling with the smoke from dozens of cigarettes. People cluster together, sucking in the smoky air and chatting. Most are balanced, but some people are sloppy drunk despite a ban on bringing alcohol onto the train. This includes our two hosts, who offer us cigarettes that we politely decline and tell us how wonderful our trip is, how wonderful we came to visit, and how wonderful we have each other. We smile and nod but are unsure of what to say. Stoytcho once showed me a video of a drunken Russian man punching an unsuspecting newscaster in the head and I can’t help fearing that as an eventual scenario, though I feel ashamed about believing stereotypes. These guys just want to have a good time.

We’re eventually saved by my lack of a jacket and break free of conversation with the two men to return to our cabin. The Lieutenant, laying in his bunk, glances up as we open the door and we nod to him as we walk in. In an instant, he bolts up, looks out the door in both directions, and pulls it shut. He then sits down, and staring Stoytcho straight in the eyes he whispers in a low, hurried tone. I know none of the words he is saying but know the chill creeping up my spine. The Lieutenant glances at me for a second and concludes his sentence with a sharp, cruel twist of his hand in midair between us. “What…did he say? Did I do something wrong?” I ask Stoytcho after the Lieutenant has returned to his bunk. Stoytcho turns to me and sighs, “No. But he said we should stay away from those two guys because they’re really drunk. And Russian guys, when they’re drunk, they can turn on you just like that.” He ends the sentence with the same sharp, cruel twist of his hand in the air.

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Destination

I sleep fitfully that night. Every time I’m awakened by the train jolting, I’m momentarily afraid that we’ve missed our stop. This is irrational, because fifteen minutes before our stop the train attendant comes by to bang his fists on our cabin door and shout, “Krasnoyarsk!” I’m not sure if this is standard, or we’re getting the tourist treatment.

The Lieutenant is no longer with us in the cabin, disembarked at some station in the night without a trace or whisper. But Nikolaj remains with us, and as we pull into Krasnoyarsk Station he comes out for a cigarette and to say goodbye. We wish each other safe journeys and depart. I wonder whether what standard Russian conduct is on the Trans-Siberian; do these trips lead to exchanges of contact information, new friendships, or even love? Or is a shared journey on the Trans-Siberian an ephemeral phenomenon, a distinctly-partitioned act in the play of human life where characters that are strangers meet, speak, and share space for a brief duration before departing again as strangers?

We get lost in the station for several minutes trying to find a nonexistent information booth and a wifi signal. When we finally stumble out into the sunlight, a twenty-foot high mural greets us with the same face we left behind in Ulan-Ude’s central square. He is the constant, ever-present companion in Russia: Lenin.

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Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 1

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Our traincar’s attendant watches people disembark.

Cabin-mates

Today we bid farewell to Ulan-Ude and board the trans-Siberian railway westward to Krasnoyarsk. Our trip will last 26 hours, and we’ll be sharing our journey with two others in our cabin in kupe. Stoytcho is apprehensive about this, but it’s already a compromise; if I was choosing alone, I would’ve gone with plazcart, which consists of just rows of bunks with curtains for privacy. But as the train arrives and we watch the people piling into the plazcart cars en masse, I’m glad we went with kupe.

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The hallway of kupe.

We board after an attendant scrutinizes our passports, and we find our cabin, a tiny 7’ x 4’ x 7’ room that hosts a table and four bunk beds. There are two guys already in there, one older and one younger, and they fall silent as we walk in. Neither one is smiling. After we drop our stuff off on our bunks, we step outside of the cabin and Stoytcho gives me ‘the look’. “They don’t look friendly,” he sighs.

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Stoytcho stands in our 4-berth cabin.

Lay of the Land

Siberia is endless. Our traincar glides through the landscape, and fields of flowers, open plains, and dense forests fill our window. I feel that if I could get out of our tiny room and run, I could run forever in any direction.

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A road winds through the Siberian landscape.

Occasionally we pass a house or small village huddled near the railway, usually old wooden structures with meticulously-painted accents and a vegetable patch nearby. Wires seem to extend from beside the tracks out to these houses—the electrical wiring running parallel to the railway appears to be their source of electricity. I wonder if it’s the only source of electricity out here, so far away from a major city. I wonder what the people do when it goes down.

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A lone house peeks between freight railcars.

In the late afternoon on the first day, I watch the landscape bathed in golden light move past our window. A stand of pines gives way to a sparse birch standing in a field of tall, brilliant purple flowers. We’ve seen these flowers before, on the shores of Lake Baikal. The family who hosted us our first night there explained that the leaves could be made into to tea, giving it the name ‘Ivan-chai.’ “Иванчаи,” I say out loud, pointing at them. The young guy in our cabin replies with a grin, “да.”

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Birch trees stand in a field of blooming Ivan-chai.

This Is Chai

There isn’t much to do on the train besides sit and watch the scenery go by. You can read, although the swaying of the traincar can give you mild motion sickness. You could write, but the jolts can send your pen scratching across the page. And you could use some electronic device of your choice, but the only outlets available for charging are found in the aisle outside your cabin. Instead, you watch the scenery go by and you have чаи (tea).

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Snapshot of Siberia: pine forest (right) gives way to birch trees, then bog (left).

Every Russian traincar is equipped with a samovar, a hot water dispenser. The car’s attendant lends you mugs for free, which consist of a simple glass held in a gorgeously ornate tea glass holder (подстаканник). Add your own teabag and presto, you’ve got hot tea to sip as you watch the scenery slip by. Not knowing about this, we did not bring our own tea, but the older guy in our cabin pushes his boxes of teabags and sugar to us with gusto. “Please, help yourself,” he says warmly. We thank him and dip teabags into our cups, watching the dark color of tea ripple out into the hot water.

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The traincar samovar.

The young man returns from the restroom and sits down next to the older man, on the bunk across from us. “чаи?” he asks. “да,” we reply cheerfully, pointing to the mugs. He glances at the older man and smiles. “нет,” he shakes his head, and rifles through his stuff. Seconds later, he produces bountiful containers of Russian salad, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, lukanka, bread, and cheese. He lays them out on the table, beside our mugs of tea. In the meantime, the old man disappears and returns with two more mugs of hot water. The four of us sit together at our table as Siberia passes by our window, “This,” the young man grins with a flourish, “This is чаи.”

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A podstakannik with tea and some snacks from our trip.

Politics

Our cabin mates are Nikolaj, a younger man on his way to visit his sister in Novosibirsk, and Ivan, an older man homebound after a six-month work stint on electrical lines out in Siberia. I introduced myself as “Natasha” and Stoytcho introduced himself with his name. Ironically, it’s a funny name even here, although Nikolaj and Ivan recognize it as Slavic. Stoytcho explains that he was born in Bulgaria, but works in the U.S. now. The guys are evidently pleased that they’ve got a Slavic brother in Stoytcho, even if Russian and Bulgarian have only about 50% equivalence. Both groups struggle to find synonyms and simple words that might map complicated thoughts and feelings.

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A building stands alone in the Siberian landscape. Some buildings standing near the rails appear to be old factories, perhaps abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Nikolaj asks us if Americans hate Russians, followed by what we understand as, “If I travel there, will I be welcome?” We reply with “Americans don’t hate Russian people, it is the governments that don’t like each other. Big countries want to be the best. People are people, the rest is politics.” Both Nikolaj and Ivan nod, “It’s the same here. The government says that America hates us, makes trouble, sanctions. But the Cold War is over already. America won,” Nikolaj sighs with a laugh. “You should come visit us in America!” I offer helpfully. “Yeah, I want to try to visit,” he replies, smiling. Given U.S. visa costs and requirements, we both this is nearly impossible.

View part 2 here.

Ulan-Ude: This is different

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The Molodaya Buryatia monument at a traffic circle in Ulan-Ude.

Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, is situated just east of Lake Baikal. Though it is built at the meeting point of the Uda and Selenga Rivers, the streets are dry and dusty with fine yellowed sand. It lends a wild-west feel to the city, especially in the suburbs. Here, old wooden buildings with immaculate carvings and battered windows squat side-by-side along broken pavement and hardpack dirt. It is a world away from the skyscrapers of Moscow. IMG_7656 IMG_8826 The other side of that town is a glimpse of that world-away through the same dust-yellow filter. Spreading from the town’s main square are the dense, multi-story apartment complexes and shopping malls, where people can find everything from bread to fashionable clothes to some fine international chocolate. Multiple theaters line the central square and candy-colored sidewalk boards around it advertise new restaurants, bakeries, and the ever-popular kvas vendor. Things are developing quickly in this part of Ulan-Ude, all beneath the watchful eyes of a ten-foot statue of Lenin’s head.

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The people of Ulan-Ude are equally as strange for how similar and different I find them. As we people-watch at a fountain in the central square, I spot the typical Slavic-looking Russians, with slightly tanned skin and blonde hair—“White-looking” people that look like my mom’s family. But the other half of people I spot are pale to dark, with rounder faces and jet-black hair—“Asian-looking” people that could be part of my dad’s family. Regardless of appearance, there seems to be no racial tension as couples pose by the fountain and kids play together. That’s nice, given what I’ve been hearing about the troubles in the U.S. IMG_8889 IMG_8967

Then there are the handful of people who are clearly mixed, and it’s weirdly like looking into a mirror. Beyond Hawaii and California, this is the only other place where I’ve encountered people who look like me. I want to talk to them and ask what it’s like, if there’s any discrimination, or if it’s considered a bonus. But I’m still learning to sound out Russian Cyrillic, and my vocabulary is limited to “Thank you”, “Hello”, “Exit”, “road”, “I want cake”, and “No smoking”. I am not equipped for any conversation. But that doesn’t stop one woman who mistakes me for a local and rapid-fires a string of Russian at me. I catch “Gdei…”, so I know is she’s looking for something. But I’m lost as to what, and can only give an embarrassed smile and lift my hands in an “I don’t understand” shrug. The lady, abruptly taken aback, returns the embarrassed smile and a string of Russian words that I assume are “Oh sorry, nevermind.” The weirdness now goes both ways.

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The plaque on this local monument reads “In memory of the martyrs for Communism” in Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

Our hostel is across from the train station, and we can hear the rumble of the trains throughout the night. During the day, we sometimes make our way across the pedestrian walkway over the tracks, pausing at the middle to stare down at the lines of endless train cars. Some are passenger trains, but an overwhelming majority of them are carrying goods: massive tree trunks, wood planks, tumbled gray gravel, black-stained tanks of oil, and piles of jet-colored coal. And it’s not just one car carrying these natural resources, or ten of them, but hundreds of rail cars, stretching past visibility into the horizon. These never-ending trains in Ulan-Ude’s trainyard and slowly jerk to life with the creaking and screeching of metal-on-metal, bound for elsewhere, usually southward toward China, toward the bottomless demand for resources. IMG_7721

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IMG_7749 It looks like Ulan-Ude sees little of the wealth that this Siberian bounty fetches for Russia, and we find ourselves wondering why Buryatia remains part of Russia. We ask an employee at our hostel, a sharp, no-nonsense woman fluent in English, Russian, and Chinese, why Buryatia isn’t its own country. “You guys know that you’re basically propping up the economy for Moscow and the rest of Russia, right? Like, why don’t you demand more investment from the capital or break away to sell the resources yourself.” She scoffs at me and replies, “Oh, that is always what the Americans would want, what they tried to do.” I had no idea that the U.S. tried to convince Siberia to break away from Russia, but I wouldn’t be surprised. She continues with an answer “What would we do if we broke away? We have no way to develop these resources on our own. And we are all different groups. If we broke away, all we would do is fight each other and we would have nothing. Russia gives us an identity, unity.” Russia is the message that all of these people, regardless of race or geographical location or social status, rally around. IMG_8638

Hostel, Brothel?

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A street on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Our first night in Tokyo, we stayed on the outskirts of the city in a makeshift capsule hotel/hostel. This was one of the most bizarre, uncomfortable nights that we’ve ever had, partly because our room looked like this:

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Stoytcho stands in our ‘room’, which has barely enough space to fit our packs and ourselves.

And partly because, well, I’m pretty sure our hostel was also some kind of brothel. Stoytcho fell asleep early, but I huddled on the lower bunk for several hours writing for the blog, with our room’s accordion-screen door cracked to get some airflow into our tiny crevice of a room. Around one in the morning, I heard some shuffling noises outside and low voices speaking Japanese, and two figures drifted into view through the crack in the door. They stopped at the empty room across the hall, where they seemed to be having difficulty turning on the room’s light. Minutes passed, and their talking grew louder, probably because they were drunk, and the smell of cigarette smoke started drifting into the room, probably because one (or both) of them had decided it was ok to smoke indoors. I found it unlikely they could have missed the no-smoking signs in the well-lit reception area, but, Japan.

After the cigarette smoke smell permeated the air of our room, I’d had enough and mustered my broken Japanese to do something about it. I poked my head out and called to them to please not smoke. 「タバコを吸うあないでください。」I could make out two figures in the dim light, a man and a woman, in front of the doorway across our narrow hall. They stood surprised. The man fell silent, and did not speak again. The woman, holding the burning cigarette, stared at me for a second before crying out softly 「ああ、ごめん!」She looked around for a way to put her cigarette out, but found none.

I stared at them for a few seconds longer, but I could feel the man’s growing discomfort and so I returned to my writing. After a minute, I heard the woman call out to me, asking if I knew how to turn on the room’s light.「あのう、どう電気をつけますか?知っていますか?」I set my computer aside and crawled out from the bottom bunk, squeezing myself into the narrow space between our beds and the wall, and then through the narrow crack of the door into the hallway. To avoid embarrassing any of us further, I kept my eyes toward the ground as I reached into their room and flipped a light switch. A soft yellow light flooded the room and spilled into the hallway, illuminating the three of us, with at least one of us no longer wishing to be here.

I have no idea what happened after that, because I closed the door and went to sleep with earplugs. There was no sign of the two in the morning and the reception was unstaffed when we checked out. Even if someone had been there, I have no idea what I would have asked because my Japanese wasn’t up to snuff to ask about prostitution, and I have no idea why I would have asked beyond sheer curiosity. Prostitution is quasi-legal in Japan, and I hold no particular sense or desire to pass moral judgements. But the incident felt like a glimpse into the private life of the Japanese, a peek behind the veil into something deeply personal in a culture obsessed with hiding one’s private feelings and thoughts.

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The room in question, the morning after. No sign of anyone remains beyond the faint smell of cigarette smoke.

An Introduction to Vietnam

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Students pose in front of a communism monument in the shadow of a Pepsi advertisement.

We’re on to Vietnam, where we’ll spend the next three weeks traveling. Since these posts are retrospective (we were there in April) and Vietnam is a country that gets mixed reviews when it comes to tourism, I wanted to start with this post outlining our overall experience in the country. Here are five impressions we got as first-timers in the country.

It was super-affordable

Excluding the flights into/out of Vietnam, we spent $600 USD a week, or $300 a week per person. While there are South American countries that price similarly, the difference here is we were living a step above the standard backpacker lifestyle: we flew between all our destinations (three flights), we rarely ate at street food vendors, we went to a Starbucks-like coffee shop almost every day, and we paid for two tour packages and a cooking class. We were more like we were upper-middle class tourists here than backpackers.

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We flew everywhere in Vietnam. In some cases, flights were cheaper than the advertised bus and train fares!

You are an outsider

This is the feeling we struggled with most, and I suspect it’s the feeling that leads many backpackers to leave Vietnam with a negative opinion. You are an outsider in Vietnam and very rarely are you invited in. One reason is the language barrier; for people whose native language is English, Vietnamese is hard. In our three weeks we picked up only a couple of phrases, mostly to order coffee and thank people. Since language is often how we connect with people, it’s hard to move from outsider to insider, even for a backpacker.

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Stoytcho walks through a crowded market.

The second, more insurmountable reason for this is that Vietnam has suffered a lot under actions of the West. Vietnam was as a staging ground for a proxy Cold War only a few decades ago, with the U.S. bombing the country while the rest of the Western powers looked on. Before that it was a French colony, where heavy-handed tactics were used to keep the Vietnamese in check. While the Vietnamese claim they hold no grudges, it’s in their rhetoric to say they won their independence and autonomy on their own. This means the Vietnamese people aren’t going to glare at you on the street, but they don’t have a reason to do you any favors. Or, as we found out when we asked a guide about the price of something in the market, “For you, it would cost about this much.”

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The market where we learned prices were different for us and locals. It’s not a good feeling.

The tourism dollar comes at all costs

In Vietnam, the primary goal of tourism is wealth transfer from foreigners to locals. This leads to three problems: a lack of budget backpacker options, some shady dealings, and environmental damage. Vietnam doesn’t offer much in the way of super-cheap backpacker options because that doesn’t facilitate as much wealth transfer; we lived as middle-class tourists because we couldn’t find any backpacker options when it came to tours, food, and accommodation. There are hostels, but their minimum price is higher than in South America because they know that anyone who can afford to get here can afford to pay a little more for that bed. Tours start around $40 USD because the agencies know you can pay. This is why people have such different opinions after visiting Vietnam: those looking to travel middle class find a fantastic deal, but those looking to travel as backpackers wonder whether they’re being cheated.

There’s also a distinct goal of getting as much money from you as possible; some people are outright dishonest and lie to you, but more often it’s subtle omissions of information or referrals to friends. Things like “Oh, we forgot to mention that the all-inclusive resort doesn’t include drinks and you’re not allowed to bring your own,” or “you shouldn’t go with this tour agent, go to the one down the street (who I happen to be related to).” We took any info we got with a grain of salt and always looked for second opinions. And when it comes to providing good tourism, the goal is to again maximize that dollar. I cringed when I saw our tour guide feeding monkeys so they would come closer to us, and sighed over the massive environmental damage in Ha Long Bay. Like so many other developing nations, the Vietnamese know what cultural treasures their country holds but they’ve decided the tourism dollar is worth more*.

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A monkey looks up at us, expecting more food from our guide.

The Vietnamese culture is amazing and unique

Even with the above issues, there’s no place like Vietnam. The food is like nothing else, a fusion of Asian and French cuisine that’s had centuries to become sublime. There’s pho, banh mi, fresh spring rolls, and a hundred other amazing dishes that haven’t yet made it out to the rest of the world. And there’s a plethora of healthy, fresh vegetables at every meal, so you’re getting good nutrition. Simultaneously, the Vietnamese celebrate and preserve their culture in temples, museums, and open-air displays. And it’s a culture that you can’t find anywhere else.

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A dish from our first night (in Ho Chi Minh City). It’s fresh veggies, rice noodles, and fried tofu with fish sauce and citrus juice for dipping, and it was delicious.

The future looks bright

The Vietnamese are excited about the leaps their country has made in economic wealth in the past decade and they’re optimistic for the future. Cities seem to be under construction everywhere you turn, everyone’s starting a business, and people talk about the future with smiles rather than frowns. In rural areas, opinions seem more mixed—the residents here look at the growing wealth in cities and fear being left behind. We also have a biased sample – we can only talk to English speakers, and their economic prospects are much better than people who don’t speak English. But it’s invigorating and exciting to see people talk about their country with such pride, love, and excitement, and to see them look forward to the future.

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Kids play in an open-air square in Hanoi. Optimism for the future runs high among the people we spoke to (in English).

*Note: While it feels bad as a traveler to be seen as an outsider and walking money, I find it hard to begrudge the Vietnamese for their behavior. They’re responding to blooming tourism after decades of hardship in the most human way possible: let’s make money and create better lives for ourselves, our families, and our friends. You can’t fault them for that, or for feeling no particular affinity of friendship toward visitors from the Western world that created many of their hardships in the first place.

The National Museum in Jakarta

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A view of the National Museum’s new wing.

It’s Thursday, and we’re gathered in the main foyer of the National Museum’s new wing for an English-language guided tour. With the old wing under renovation, the tour is limited to the new wing exhibits. But between the artifacts, scale models, and multilingual tours, the exhibits in the new wing alone paint a detailed portrait of Indonesia’s history.

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A Sanskrit tablet from ancient Indonesia

 

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Depiction of a mythical creature, possibly the Indonesian version of a Qilin.

We start with the natural history of the world and humankind (Man and the Environment), where the guide shows us replicas of proto-human skulls and patterns of human migration. We then follow her up to the second floor, where the tour of Indonesian culture begins. It’s an epic tale of cultural evolution driven by what Indonesia does best: trade. The cultures of Indonesia adopted new ideas that flowed along the trade routes, starting with Hinduism and followed by Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam. The result was a cultural melting pot unrivaled by any other pre-modern civilization.

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Decorative belts from ancient Indonesian cultures

 

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A ornate ceremonial gold, silver, and quartz crown.

 

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An intricately-woven basket in the exhibit

The number and variety of artifacts in the exhibits is staggering. We pass ancient stones carved with Sanskrit, ceremonial jewelry worn by the islands’ various ethnic groups, and scale models of temples. The guide stops at one of these scale models and introduces it as Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Inscribed in its walls are the stories of Buddha and his enlightenment. I think Stoytcho and I have found our next destination.

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A scale model of a traditional house–NOT Borobudur, which had poor lighting and was difficult to photograph.

 

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Necklaces, bracelets, and other adornments that were potentially used as funerary gifts.

We end our tour on the top floor, with the treasures of Indonesia. We’re not allowed to take photos, due in part to a heist that happened here in 2013. But the pieces here match those of Europe’s crown jewels: gold rings, necklaces, and brooches threaded with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Ornate Kris blades, encrusted with jewels. It’s stuff from the dreams of Ali Baba. While we’re finishing up in the exhibit, the lights flicker for a moment and go out. We’re left in darkness, and fumbling for our phones, manage to shed some light on the glass displays. Thankfully, this isn’t a heist; the museum has been suffering intermittent outages thanks to the construction next door. We wrap up and head downstairs, into a sea of fidgeting, giggling schoolchildren waiting for their own tours to begin.

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A student rests behind an Indonesian depiction of a dragon.

A tale of two redoubts

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Much of Maori culture and history in New Zealand is locked behind a paywall. That’s not to say it’s inaccessible, but it takes money. The Waitangi treaty grounds, arguably the most important site for understanding the modern day relationship between Maori and colonists is a $40 ticket per person, almost as much our daily budget. Outside of Cape Reinga, which is a fantastic experience, we found very few free areas to learn about the Maori past. The Te Porere Redoubt was one of them. As a hike, it’s short and sweet, with interesting and varied flora. The trail continues past the redoubts, at least for a while. Where it leads we’re not sure.

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Te Porere A Rereao tells the story of two Maori events. The first is how the place got its name. According to the sign the area “was named for Reraeo, grandson of Tuwharetoa, the ancestor of of the people of Ngati Tuwharetoa.” Specifically, “at one time Rereao joruneyed into the west area of Tongariro and stopped here for the night. Early the next day he rose and attacked Ngati Hotu on a ridge west of Ngauruhoe.” Because the attack was carried out in a night (Te Po) flight (rere) and by Rereao (a Rereao) the area is named Te Porere A Rereao.

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The second important event was one of the last major battles between the independent Maori and the New Zealand government. This took place in September of 1869, when the Te Kooti, a leader of the Maori resistance, was surrounded by the government forces and their Maori allies. Te Kooti and his forces were driven from the lower fortification to the upper, where the last of his warriors were slain.

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At the upper redoubt you can supposedly see the final chapter in the story. We did not find any in-depth sign, but this placard speaks for itself.

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It reads : “Here lie the followers of Te Kooti killed at Te Porere.” The sign tells of a fairly one-sided victory and from just visiting the site one might assume this was the end of Te Kooti and his followers. Reading a bit on Te Kooti shows that he escaped the battle and lived a long and storied life. Before Te Porere he had founded a religion (Ringatu, still active in some Maori communities) and escaped prison to lead raids against the New Zealand government. After To Porere he continued raiding for three years before being again captured, escaping, and living under the protection of the Maori king for a decade, expanding his religion. 7-IMG_20170216_154420

Part war curiosity, part historical site, the redoubts are interesting to visit. It’s fun and sobering at the same time to walk through the ditches where men fought and died, to see the corners around which ambushes might have happened, and ports in the walls for shooting. The site feels a bit more “alive” than a castle does, open to the air and covered in growing green grass, it’s easier to imagine how the embattled warriors may have arrayed themselves, the fighting that would have taken place between the walls.

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I don’t think the posted signs do a very good job of describing the events that took place here. Only the bare minimum is provided and even then fairly disjointedly. This sheds more light on the strange dynamic of Maori history on the island, at once cherished but also constrained. While clearly cared for, and perhaps in development, the story is engaging and then entirely dropped. The site is well preserved and some money is dedicated to its upkeep, but not so much that it’s a fully developed historical site. Our reaction stayed somewhere between the “ah” of learning and the “oh” of dissappointment. The nature was beautiful and the short hike a worthwhile stretch of the legs, but reading Te Kooti’s story beforehand would add a great deal to the experience.