We hiked for four days between mountain huts in the High Tatras, we had large portions of the trails to ourselves. When we did pass trekkers, they were almost all Slovakian, or from neighboring Poland or the Czech Republic. The whole Slovakian experience was impressive. The mountain landscapes are beautiful, the mountain culture is rugged, and the mountain bars are open for breakfast.
Ibo Island feels like an heirloom, passed from culture to culture through the ages. The Swahili, Arabs, Indians, Dutch, Malagasy, British, French and Portuguese have all left their imprint on the island. Some are harsh colonial scratches on its soul, while others are picturesque like the Swahili sails on the fisherman’s dhows.
Everyone giggled uncontrollably. The adolescences entered the crescent with more trepidation, moving across it quickly, more self-conscious of their movements. However, the women would follow with large arching leaps through the crescent to encourage them to express themselves more freely. In their small community, the dance seemed to say, show us proudly who you are, so we can support you.
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 sweat on your hands melts the sandstone you are gripping back into little granules causing your hands to slowly slip from the small holds on the cliff face. You have to lean in, and let go with one hand to dry the other on your pants. You are desperate to keep moving upwards towards Abuna Yemata, but stuck trying to decipher Amharic instructions from your guide about your next move.
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.
The bull jumping ceremony in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is a rite of passage for every young man in the Hamar tribe. The young man must strip naked, and run across the backs of bulls in front of his village. It is an indisputable test of bravery. However, it is not the most impressive part of the ceremony, or the most intense trial of courage of the day.
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.
Lake Bunyonyi is surrounded by terraced hills where local farmers grow groundnuts, plantains, sweet potatoes, and cabbages in patchworks of adjoining fields, so it appears like someone laid a volcanic red and verdant green quilt over each hill.
There are about fifty crater lakes around Kasenda in Western Uganda guarded by steep volcanic slopes, but you would not know it, because hardly anyone does. They are due west of Kibale National Park, and just East of the Rwenzori Mountains, and right off people’s maps. Even Ugandans who have heard of them have trouble pronouncing their tribal names, so the whole region generally slips off the radar of travelers.
This piece gives an overview of the plans I have made for my Great African Road Trip, which will traverse 16 countries and cover over 20,000 kilometers over the course of 2016. I talk about preparing to be unprepared, and finding purpose along the way.
Fairy Meadows is the bouquet of alpine flowers set before the towering translucent tomb of Killer Mountain, called Nanga Parbat in Sanskrit. The mountain provides the views that make Fairy Meadows such an alluring destination, but Fairy Meadows are where the legends of Nanga Parbat are kept alive, told by generations of villagers who witnessed the legions of climbers that never descended its icy walls.
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.
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.
Shela has morphed from the humble fishing village it was into a secluded haven for travelers who want to locate themselves off the map and on the beach for a while. Some may lament this, however, it does seem like those who modernized it, did so with respect to the timeless Swahili style that has always given Shela its character.
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.
The show is spectacular. The volcano mostly smokes, but then a couple times a minute it spews lava in a fiery shower, like a whale spout, and then occasionally it bellows quite deeply and launches car sized molten boulders far into the sky above our heads.
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.
For my first Carnival, I traveled to Oruro, a city referred to as the “Indigenous Capital of the Country”, hosting the largest parade in the country.
Today marks my 14th day in Bolivia and my spirits are still high. Currently, I am in the training stage of my service which will last for ten more weeks before we are sent out on assignment. I am living in an extremely rural area like I have never experienced before. I have an outhouse, electricity most of the time, and water some of the time.
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.