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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Bottled water is an inevitable requirement in many countries…
…but guess where those water bottles end up?

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

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.

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.

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.


Ode to the Ojek

An okej turns around in the market street.

In much of south east Asia, the humble motorbike is the number one choice of transport. It’s a reliable, flexible, and most importantly cheap. Individuals, families, cargo, and even food stalls are loaded on the bike, zipping around traffic, through markets, and up mountain roads to wherever people need to go.

Ojek riders in Jakarta. Lots of riders wear face masks for easier breathing.

In Indonesia we got our first taste of the tide of motorbikes. The term for them there is “ojek”, though a friend we made joked that many people call them mosquitoes. During heavy traffic they can truly be a swarm, encircling slower cars and parting only for trucks and pedestrians as needed.

Ojeks swarm around a car during rush hour.

Everyone rides ojeks. In a country that is incredibly divided economically, ojeks seem to be the one unifying factor. Young and old, rich and poor, everyone uses ojeks. Of course, the more wealthy residents tend to drive cars and only use ojeks when they absolutely need to, while a vast majority of the remaining population uses them as primary transport.

A family waits at a light.

There are plenty of ojek-taxi services that work basically like Uber, but with motorbikes. Gojek is one of the most popular and visible services. It’s got a clever name and a very visible green-jacket uniform. These guys are great but a bit scary because they’re likely to check their phone while driving.

One of many Gojek drivers.

And since crossing the street is a cooperative game between ojeks and pedestrians, that’s not a great situation. You step into the river of motorbikes and cars, then while staring at the incoming traffic move through any visible gaps in the stream. Vehicles farther away will tend to move around you, so it’s only the immediately nearby ones you have to worry about.

Crossing the street involves patiently waiting in the middle of it.

Along with traffic, ojeks produce a lot of air pollution. Maybe less per vehicle than cars and trucks, but ojeks outnumber everything else on the road three to one.

As the light turns green, all the ojeks start revving.

Despite their issues, they’re highly modifiable and incredibly useful. This one has been turned into a food-ojek trike.

Cleverly using the seat for cooking!

On our hike up Bromo we saw another form of traveling food-cart, this time strapped on the back of the bike. Everything he needs to sell food for the night is tucked and tied to the stall.

On the road to Bromo. The balance involved here is amazing.

And another one on the other side of Bromo. This is a very popular method of getting the food stall around.

On the road from Cemoro Lawang. This is so much steeper than it looks.

In the countryside people use ojeks to transport produce.

Balancing harvest baskets.

In the very deep countryside. This is in the plateau of Bromo.

Carrying harvested grass on the back of an ojek.
Driving through the ashen wastes of Bromo.

I think there’s an minimum age to drive an ojek, but really people start as early as they can or need to. These kids were super excited to get their picture taken.

Three young riders on the road to Bromo.

Helmets seem to be a toss up. The majority of riders seemed to wear them, even going so far as Gojek drivers carrying an extra helmet, or passengers carrying their own. In the cities it was fairly rare to see a helmetless rider, but out in the country it was much more common. The pace there is also much more sedate and the traffic is much sparser.

Black and white photos are cool. So is that guy’s bike.

Medellin’s Parque Arví

The gonodola leading to Medellín’s Parque Arvi.

Parque Arvi is Medellín’s largest park and part of its bid to become a national and international city of distinction. Comprising 16,000 total hectares, this reserve high above the Aburrá Valley encompasses more than 50 km of walking trails, 1,700 hectares of pristine forest, and several pre-Colombian archaeological sites.

A small mushroom grows among the moss on the forest floor.

The history of the park itself is hard to discern. The first reports of the area come from the Spanish Conquest, where conquistadors chronicled the discovery of crumbling buildings and “roads of chopped rock, wider than those of Cusco [Peru]” that they “dare not follow, for the people who made them must have been many”. The land sat untouched for 450 years, until in 1970 the Colombian government declared it the Río Nare National Park. Then in 2010, as part of a city-wide improvement program and a bid to triple the amount of park space accessible to the citizens of Medellín, the city completed a metro cable connecting the city’s train system with Parque Arvi. Since then, the park has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, both from Colombia and abroad.

A Metro employee guides people onto the gonodola.

A visit to Parque Arvi is much more than a chance to get some fresh air–it’s a chance to experience first-hand how much Medellín has changed in the past few decades. After repeated recommendations to visit, one sunny afternoon we caught the A line to Acevedo station and bought tickets for the gondola. As we glided over the rooftops of the hillside barrios, we could see people walking on the streets and children playing in the parks. Forty years ago, these neighborhoods were slums, cut off from the city proper and opportunities in the center of the valley.

Soaring over the hillside barrios

The infamous Pablo Escobar gave a voice to the people of these disconnected and disenfranchised areas, demanding services for them in his brief stint in Colombia’s House of Representatives. After his expulsion from politics, Escobar recruited people from the slums in the drug trade and armed them, calling them to rise up against the wealthier inhabitants of city. Medellín became one of the most dangerous cities on earth, with the highest per-person homicide rate in the world from 1990 to 1999. In the worst year, 1991, the homicide rate was 325 people per 100,000, which is equivalent to the murder of roughly 1 in every 300 people.

A person navigates the stairs in one of the hillside barrios

Depending on who you ask, Pablo Escobar was either neutralized or assassinated in 1993. From there, government intervention and the election of political outsider and mathematician Sergio Fajardo as mayor brought sweeping improvements to all citizens of Medellín. The metro infrastructure was one of these, enabling people from the hillside barrios to easily travel into the city and find opportunities. The story is wonderfully chronicled here by The Guardian, but the punchline is that Medellín’s homocide rate has dropped to one tenth of what it was in less than thirty years and the poverty rate has fallen below Colombia’s national average. And the city feels it. Everywhere we’ve been, people have greeted and welcomed us. As we rode up on the gondolas, we encountered a man who recounted how bad it used to be in the hillside barrios, and how much things have changed. “Our mayor,” he said in stilted English, “He had a saying – por los pobres, los mejores – for the poor, the best. The best educations, the best buildings, the best everything.”

The view of Medellin from the gondola to Parque Arvi.

After the first gondola ride, we transferred at Santo Domingo station to the gondola for Parque Arvi. We passed even higher, up through farmland, and finally we soared over forest and touched down at the Parque Arvi station. A market greeted us, full of food and handicrafts.

The market at the Parque Arvi station, selling food, jewelry, and souvenirs.

The target demographic here was clearly middle class; one stall sold vegetarian portabella burgers and another served up locally-brewed craft beer. The people shopping and milling around the station were clean and well-dressed, and the stray dogs and ambient Spanish were the only indicators of Colombia. After walking the market, we purchased tickets for guided walk around the park. Park rangers lead these 2-hour hikes several times a day, providing information on the history and wildlife of the area. While we waited for the walk to start, we struck up conversation with a man who had brought his family to the park for the day. He tells us that he’s finishing his master’s degree in education, and that while Medellín has improved vastly since the 1990’s, there are still many problems. Education for better-paying jobs can be hard to come by, he attests, and sometimes the jobs themselves are scarce. “Still”, he says cheerfully, “I’m the first person in my family to get a higher education.”

Our guide shows us flowers found along the trail.

Our guide arrived and we began the hike while she introduced the region’s climate and biology. She explained that the park encompassess multiple types of forest, and that many of the plants growing in these forests have commercial, culinary, or ornamental value. “However now we protect these forests, so we ask that you do not take or damage anything. And those people allowed to take things from the forest can only take things that do not harm the plant, such as seeds,” she says. I thought of what a subtle difference that was from the U.S., where removal of everything is banned in nearly every park. There, everything must be preserved with minimal human intervention. Here, faced with the reality that some people’s livelihoods depend on collecting from the park and that there may be no other jobs up here, Colombians have chosen a compromise.

A species of blueberry (mortiños) growing in the park. Colombia is home to dozens of species from the blueberry family, Ericaceae.

Still, the biodiversity is impressive and we see a lot in our two hours of walking. Our guide shows us various various species of trees, bushes, and orchids. She points out some wild-growing blueberries which look like no blueberry I’ve ever encountered because it’s a different species; Colombia has the highest number of blueberry species in the world.

Inhabitants of Parque Arvi. Instead of purchasing land outright, the government pays landowners to preserve forests and care for the land.

After more than an hour of hiking through thick jungle and forest, we enter a pastoral area where houses dot the hillside. We ask the guide whether we’re still in the park and she nods. When we ask about the people, she says that this is their land. “When we wanted to expand the park, we didn’t force people to sell the land,” she explains. “Instead, we paid people to care for it.” This lease system provides an incentive for landowners to preserve forest on their private lands.

Campers along the river in the park.

We arrive to the camping area at the bottom of the hill where the hike ends along the river. Here people can picnic or spend the night for the fee of a camper’s permit. Looking at the campers among the pine trees, it’s easy to mistake this for some part of the pacific northwest, maybe just south of Seattle or along the coast in northern California. The woman with red hair could even be an engineer for Google. This is Colombia, and she’s (probably) not. But the similarity is proof of how much Medellín has changed.

A hawk or sphinx moth rests on an outcrop of dirt.