Lake Natron might be the most beautiful place you never want to visit. The images of desert snow, hidden waterfalls in slot canyons, and neon red waters full of flamingos were enough to ignite our expedition there. It is stark beauty at its best, but unfortunately, it is fiercely guarded by a gauntlet of fees and tolls from the Tanzanian Government. This has significantly decreased travelers to the region, and hurt the local Maasai community that depends on the revenue they bring.
The epitome of visiting the Mursi tribe was when our guide (not jokingly enough) asked the chief if he could marry his daughter. The chief basically spat in disgust. Of course not, he explained. Only a Mursi man is suitable for her. It was the perfect example of how, despite the harsh conditions of daily life, he still held the people of his tribe above outsiders. He was not interested in the relative material wealth of our guide, he was interested in maintaining his culture in his bloodline.
In a society that has been governed by a council of elders, guided by rainfall, and defined by warriors, the people of Karamoja must now find their own way to integrate more deeply with the people beyond their borders so that future generations can thrive. This transition has already begun, and completing it successfully will be one of the biggest challenges the Karamojong have faced. There is nowhere in the world where you can just trade in your gun for a lifetime of education or professional experience.
The snow-capped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains tower to the west, and the dense woodlands of Kibale Forest National Park stand to the north, stocking the Bigodi Wetlands full of water and wildlife. It is one of the best places in the world to see primates, with nine species jumping through the treetops during the day, and four nocturnal ones that emerge under the moon. Further, the birdlife in the swamps is exceptional, as the wooden walkways traversing them allow you to go deeper into the ecosystem than usual to find what is hiding in the reeds.
In the boundless Northern Area of Pakistan the world’s greatest mountain ranges all come to meet. Pushed upwards by the subduction of the Indian subcontinent, their snowy peaks rise above parades of clouds providing habitat for The Golden Eagle, Snow Leopard, Himalayan Ibex, and The Tibetan Wolf. This is where the Hindu Kush, Himalaya, and Karakoram mountains merge, hosting five of the world’s 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), including K2, the world’s second tallest peak after Mount Everest.
The Danum Valley is the still-beating heart of Borneo, untouched but constantly in danger; it is where the soul of the island has taken refuge, and a traveler can look back in time to how things used to be. It is tucked deep into the interior of the Malaysian state of Sabah, which has shielded it over the years from the clamor of chainsaws that have clear-cut most of the coastal forests, but every year logging companies build roads deeper into the jungle, closer to these remaining wildlife sanctuaries.
As time rolls forward, how do we decide what should change with it, and what will be preserved to remind future generations of the past that defines them? Some pieces of time seem too important to alter, or have such beauty that we want them to endure. Some moments are given monuments, while others are allowed to flicker and fade, barely noticed in the sea of reality.
Maputo is the tale of two cities woven together in the same location yet tugging the seams in different directions with a potentially devastating result for the fabric of society. It is a marriage of socialist ghosts and a capitalist nightmare.
For almost 3,000 kilometers the border fence between Pakistan and India runs from the sea to the great mountains of the north. It is lit by 150,000 flood lights, which glow bright orange from space, scarring the solace of the desert and the shared cultural history of the millions who live in it. It is broken in the hinterlands of Punjab by the Wagah Border Crossing. While the border itself is a product of the violent geo-political dynamic between the countries, this passage across it undermines its absoluteness and highlights its complexity.
Nothing is yours anymore. Your time is controlled by the incessant traffic, and your space is shared with a river of humanity constantly running through your senses. It even feels like you have to even share the millimeters under your finger nails, so that Dhaka can squeeze one more person into the most density populated city in the world.
Having an opinion on policies is a luxury, not afforded by many slum dwellers. So when roads are not built, electricity grids are not extended, and sewage continues to run raw through clusters of corrugated metal where people crouch through life, nobody is surprised. This is slum democracy, and those who live it, understand exactly how it works.
Cuba might still be the most interesting place I have been, and is certainly the most common recommendation I give to travelers who have still yet to land upon its shores. It instantly makes you aware of how similar disparate places around the world have become. How standard hotel rooms are, how familiar restaurant menus look, and how perplexing it is that everyone has chosen the same imperfect capitalist system to increase the quality of life in their country.
Rosa was Fidel Castro’s primary Spanish-Russian translator. The revolution had sent her to study Russian in Moscow, and she had studied diligently. She would claim with a smile that McNamara, always wanted to see her Spanish translation converted into English, so he could see how she was interpreting issues. She had served Castro during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and relayed the whole incident with the drama of a Mexican soap opera.
The malecon (the sea wall) is Havana’s bar, restaurant and source of entertainment. As the work day ends, and the sunset lights the sky, the city migrates to the seawall to drink rum, fish, talk stories, and play music. This was the only place Pancho ever wanted to live, because besides the fishing, he loved it all.
In fact, Rigo told us everyone had a side hustle in Havana. Everyone went to work for the government during the day, but at night sold beans out of their backdoor, cut hair on their terrace, or taught salsa to tourists. It was this shadow economy that kept the island running.
In stark contrast to the concrete blocks, and infestation of brand name stores in Waikiki, the north shore of Oahu remains genuinely Hawaiian. This is no accident; it is the direct impact of locals constantly striving to “keep country, country”.
He cocks his head backward at the bullet hole. “Someone may try to carjack us. They will jump out in front of us on the road with some sort of gun and demand we stop. I need to know what you are comfortable with.” He looked straight ahead, to allow the concept to sink in, to allow me to be alone with my thoughts temporarily.
A few months before I arrived in the area, a child was taken from the village where one of our guides had family. In the recent past the men would set out with guns to go kill the marauding beast, but today that is not possible, since no one has guns anymore.
Tribal warfare, the lack of infrastructure, violent crime, malaria, steep mountains and dense jungle, mean age old traditions still dictate the tempo of daily life, and information still travels by whispers and rumors.
In the end, reality is only what we agree it to be, and in this situation with such limited understanding between staff at ASUR and villagers in Maragua, parallel versions of the truth are kept. I see my role as a bridge of communication that can better relate theories to facts, weaving a closer understanding of what is important, possible, and realistic.
These are excerpts from my Peace Corps diary. They are set in a Quechua community, perched 10,000 feet in the Bolivian Andes, lost in a time before electricity and running water.