YoungGlobalCitizen.com tries to create a dialogue about the ideas of culturally sustaining development, global citizenship, travel, and identity. I may post an analysis of current events, a memory or photo from my travels, an inspirational quotation or song, or just an opinion. I believe that everyone in the world is amazing because we can all learn from every person, place, thing, and idea that we come into contact with and I believe that one day our world will be united with this kind of global appreciation. I would love to hear from any one, please contact me through the "Any Questions?" link below or at SSL332@nyu.edu.
It’s times like today, sitting the bus station in Podgorica, Montenegro, on my way to Pristina, Kosovo, that I think to myself, “my life is awesome and strange!”
I’m sitting in the station bar, joined by three men at a table catty-corner to me. They all look ragged, and (of course) their story is unclear to me. Are they also transient travelers? I don’t think so. Is this their bar of choice on a Tuesday night at 8pm? That seems slightly more likely.
Despite these usual questions I ask while people watching, another thought is at the top of my mind- Why is one of those men wearing an entire jean outfit? Jacket and pants! Fashion in the Balkans confuses me- and not because of some “this looks better than that” ideal, but because it really shows how disconnected (consciously or subconsciously) this area is from the homogenized global norm.
All of this said, I think I’ve quickly grown to hardly question it. Point proven by the fact that a guy my age just walked into the bar wearing a full sweat suit, and all I noticed was the dog he brought in with him. A dog in a bar? I don’t know either. He quickly walked back out though- maybe he realized what we were all thinking.
Oh, but now we four patrons have been graced by the presence of an elderly man (almost said “gentleman” but I’m feeling a bit pessimistic at the moment and don’t want to assume too much) who has sat down behind me and begun to smoke. He is in the perfect position to read my writing… but I’ll gamble on language difference and his inability to decipher my awful handwriting. Of any of us, he definitely seems like the regular to the train station bar. I bet he could tell a hundred stories about this place- if only I could speak the language. What is the language here? Montenegrin? I will have been in 11 countries this month so have lost all memory of language names, currencies, borders, etc. And despite no shared language, I think I prefer my imagination right now.
On the small circular wicker table (the kind with a glass protector over it) my notebook is next to a single 1.5euro Niksicko (lines over both the s and c) 500ml ber bottle, half of the contents of which are poured into a small Coca Cola glass. It’s a fine beer- I won’t pretend my palette or beer memory is enough to prescribe more than that single complimentary adjective to it. I did think about ordering food as well. I am hungry, have a three hour wait, and an eight hour bus ride after this…but from the seven page menu, only two options were available. So I declined. I’ll find something else soon. Somewhere. Though then I’ll have to take out more money at the ATM. Decisions…
What’s nice about traveling is noticing all of these little things and random people. One gets in a mode of ultra-awareness of difference when going from place to place quickly. This enables a heightened sense of smell, deeper respect for the beauty of vistas, acknowledgement of people and their jean jackets a bit more. I think it’s because when we’re traveling we have the time to. We are passive. Taking the passenger seat to life happening around us. We are in others’ lives when we travel.
We of course still find things weird when we travel, but unlike at home we can’t dismiss it so easily as such. Instead, we spend time rationalizing, philosophizing, and hopefully not too quickly believing we “understand” it enough to move onto the next thought. This makes travel a humbling experience- forcing the journeyer to say “I don’t know”. It’s a transcendent juxtaposition between this forced lack of understanding and the heightened appreciation of the world’s beauty.
This exposure to the unknown (both places and people) is why some travelers love touristy places and others despise them. Don’t you think? Too much difference can be overwhelming. Too many travelers are weak.
(side note) The jeaned man just left. He was carrying a 2 liter soda bottle filled with a clear liquid. He walks with a limb, has a scruffy face, and hair to his shoulder. His one friend has a kind of fanny pack hanging from his neck. The other is carrying a briefcase. Understand them better now?
I find it funny that places like this bar (I’ve realized now from a sign on the door that it’s called “Aperitiv Bar”) were once new! All shiny and quite possible fashionable- at least by local standards. Maybe this simple blue carpet, the bar with green opaque-because-of-bubbles glass, or these dark brown wicker table sets were the “hit new thing” once. Maybe everyone came to Aperitiv Bar- and slowly they have stopped- other than Mr. Jean Outfit, ancient old Mr. Smokes and SitsTooClose (oh I guess he left too), and the occasional random American on his way to an even more bizarre location.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this cigarette-aged bartender woman was being chased by these men some 20 years ago. They do say that bartenders have the best stories…
Who knows? I guess I do have 2.5 hours more to figure it out. Though soon, after a few more gulps of Niksicko (don’t forget those lined consonants) I will find another strange location, but with food, and there I will once again try (and likely fail) to make sense of my surroundings.
But (closing thought) isn’t the point that through failing to make sense of others we get a new piece of the puzzle to make sense of ourselves? But do we learn it immediately? If yes, then what have I learned from Mr. Jean Outfit? No, I think it cooks under the surface for a while first. But then how are these strange moments while traveling connected?
Do they make us who we are? Or do they simply show us?
Why You Can’t Use Phones On Planes: This is a hilarious short skit about how annoying it is to have to turn off electronic devices on planes, and how it really doesn’t make much sense to anyone. I personally almost always just put my phone on silent but keep it on. As for when I’m reading on a Kindle, I just nod my head yes when the attendant says to put it away and then just make sure s/he doesn’t see me continue to read.
This is the third and last edition of Overland Trip I Want To Take- explaining theoretical road trips that I’ve recently planned out. The series was inspired by a trip I’m currently planning, but generally I always fantasize about crazy journeys while I have free time. Hopefully in the next few years I’ll take one or more of these and then be able to post about the actual trip!
If I had a choice (and all the money and all the time and guaranteed safety) this is the tour that I would take. West Africa is one of the few parts of the world left for me to explore and so I’m eager to learn about it, see its people, experience its culture, and visit its sites. That said, there are a few reasons why I haven’t made the trip and why it might be hard to do. These reasons are: language, safety, and cost/time.
Language: Most countries in West Africa are French + local language speaking. I don’t speak French. What actually bothers me with French is that I can understand so much of it because I speak (conversationally) Spanish and Italian. So when I hear French I have a natural impulse to listen to try to figure it out. Usually though, I can’t, and that is frustrating. This would be easy to overcome by having a French-speaking travel companion. I’ll keep it in mind.
Safety: Though I generally think I travel smart and am thus not too worried about security threats, this is a bit of a volatile part of the world, I don’t have too many contacts there, and again, not knowing the language adds another risk.
Cost / Time: I put these two together because they’re very dependent on one another- the longer you travel, the more it costs. Traveling overland in West Africa takes a long time because of inefficient roads, lots of borders, and also because cities are so close, the buses stop more often. The itinerary below would take, I imagine, a couple months. Furthermore, though food and hotels generally aren’t too expensive (7 West African countries are on the list of 20 poorest in the world), there is one big expense: visas. Each of the 15 countries in the circular tour below require a visa, with an average cost between them at more than $100- it’s close to $2000! Furthermore, these aren’t visas on arrival- these are visas where you have to go to an embassy beforehand and apply, have a waiting period, etc. Because many of these are small and generally poor nations, there aren’t many embassies around. The best process would be to start in one of the bigger nations in the region (i.e Senegal, Ghana, or Nigeria) and apply from there.
All of this together makes the trip a little bit of a tough sell. Splitting it up into two or three trips would probably make more sense. Either way, it would be important to start somewhere for a couple weeks where you could apply for the other visas, have the money and time to endure all the waiting and bureaucracy, and likely have a French speaker. Because of this, I’ve cut the itinerary up into three parts (red, yellow, and pink) and added the blue as ways they could, theoretically be combined.
Lagos to Abidjan
This would be the easiest section for me to do as English is widely spoken in both Ghana and Nigeria, most of these countries are rather safe, and the road connections are quite straight-forward. The trip could start in Lagos, Nigeria- Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest and one of the fastest growing cities. Nigeria, thanks to oil, has been quickly developing in the recent past, and is now seen as one of the main centers for business in Africa. The route from Lagos to the next locations, the two narrow countries of Togo and Benin, would be quick, only a few hours between each main point all the way to Accra, Ghana. Ghana is the country in West Africa I most want to visit, as I have many friends from high school there and it is famous for its old British colonial forts and a wonderfully preserved jungle. The final jaunt on this section would be a half day trip from Ghana to the Ivory Coast (or Cote d’Ivoire) and its fascinating capital- Abidjan. The second largest city in West Africa, Abidjan has an interesting developmental history as it has somewhat shrunk from past economic and political heights in the past 20 or so years. Supposedly it still holds the charm of a once regional center that is trying to fight its way back.
Monrovia to Dakar
This route would likely be easier (visa wise) starting in Dakar. Either way, this will be a complicated path as the countries here are more of the unknown and tense ones in the region / world. Though Liberia and Sierra Leone both being English-speaking may be useful, they both have long and somewhat recent histories of violence. In many ways this actually makes the nations safer, as disarmament has taken place and people are trying to get over their painful past. Liberia would be great to see as it was actually founded by freed black slave from the USA and it’s capital, Monrovia is named after James Monroe. Moving up North would be the two Guineas: Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. Guinea supposedly has next to no transport infrastructure, so that could a be a harrowing journey trying to navigate through the rather large and diverse nation, but hopefully there would be a way to have some experiences there and then make it to Guinea-Bissau, one of the few Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa (the others being Angola, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Cape Verde). The final stretch would be through the tiny nation of Gambia, another English speaking nation, and then on to Dakar, Senegal. Along with Accra, Dakar is the city I most want to see in West Africa, one Christmas a Senegalese friend of mine from boarding school came to spend the holidays with my family, she cooked one night and if what she made then was any indication of what I’d eat in Dakar, I’d go just for the food! Another incentive is that one of my advisors from university works heavily in Senegal and so I’m sure I could talk to some inspiring individuals there.
Nouakchott to Niamey
This part of the trip is really exciting to me because it is through the land that combines French West Africa with the Arab North Africa, though in a much more “untouched” way than people might think of in Morocco, for example. Being a desert region also remind me of my current home, Abu Dhabi, and so it could be eye-opening to see how others (less gaudy than the Gulfis) live in this harsh terrain. Though some might find this section crazy because of the three insanely long (24-50hr) bus rides that would be required, anyone who has read this blog for a while knows my strange obsession with long bus rides, especially in Africa. In fact, the buses might be the highlight of the trip, as much of the things to do in these countries is admire the landscape. The first bus from Nouakchott, Mauritania to Bamako would be the longest, with stories of 2-3 days including breakdowns… From Bamako, Mali it would be great to go up and visit Timbuktu, but currently rebel factions have a hold of it and travel in the North is not advised- hopefully that would change. The next two buses, from Bamako to Ouagadougou (pronounced Waa-gaa-doo-goo) and then onward to Niamey, Niger, would entirely cross Burkina Faso- going from the lush Volta region, through to the Arid west. The final stop, Niamey, is a low lying desert city with a nice river that (along with the mosques) are the main point of interaction. Though the cities along the way may be less than stellar, I think this section would be full of things to learn and reflect on: the identity of Islam in Africa, political economy of landlocked nations, and lots of introspection on those long rides.
So there you have it! A crazy tour through West Africa. If anyone wants to fund it (trip cost + salary deduction for missed time), speaks French, and is a good companion- let me know!
Bonus Trip: In each of the three parts, I’ve included a bonus trip that I haven’t thought through very much at all, but would still like to take. Todays bonus is- The Caucuses and Central Asia. This would be a two part, really requiring a flight in the middle, but a nice jaunt around Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia and then a trip through a few of the stans: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan (the three most prominently on my list) would be really mind blowing since I hardly know ANYTHING about the culture in any of these locations.
In planning a trip through German-speaking Europe that I am hoping to take this December/January, I started thinking about other overland trips that I would like to take in future. I came up with three really exciting ones and thought I would post the theoretical itineraries here!
I’m not sure when- but I’ll definitely be taking one or more of these trips in the next few years.
This trip would be amazing! It combines ancient sites, Soviet era architecture, small modern cities, a beautiful coast, low lying mountains and more. For me it would be unique in that Eastern Europe is really one of the regions that I’m least familiar with- I speak none of the languages, only know the basic outline of political history, and am not aware of much of the culture. All of this would make it the perfect kind of travel- full of learning and experiencing new things.
The trip would start in St. Petersburg experiencing the iconic “Mother Russia” before heading west through the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) this fast developing though often forgotten part of Europe interesting combines Eastern and Western Europe with some Northern/Scandinavian flair - or so I gathered from my short weekend in Latvia in 2011. That brief encounter made me want to see more of the Baltics.
From there the route would go through Belarus and Ukraine. These two large countries were two of the more connected to the core of the USSR and still exist as more reserved (especially Belarus) than other parts of the former Soviet bloc. These two nations being so large would mean long hours going through country-side, hopefully stopping in small towns, seeing the rural life a bit, making new friends, who knows.
Next would be moving into the mountains of Moldova and Romania. Considering I love low lying mountains and hills, I think this would be a highlight! Plus Moldova is probably the most obscure of the countries on the list, so getting to know it a bit would be really exciting.
Once in Bucharest, the plan is to cut directly West through Belgrade and all the way to Zagreb in Croatia and even further to Ljubljana, Slovenia. These two capital cities are said to be somewhat unknown gems of Europe, with the latter being popular with cyclists and sharing some parts of Italian culture because of its proximity with Northern Italy.
The ride down the Croatian coast of the Adriatic sea will likely be the peak of beautiful landscape on the trip. At some point though I’d move inland first to visit the campus of the boarding school in Mostar that is part of the United World College movement that I attended. After crossing through the last bits of coast in Montenegro I’d move inland a second time, through Kosovo to Sophia, Bulgaria.
After Sophia I’ll be deep in old Greek territory, visiting Alexander the Great’s sites in Montenegro and then through another beautiful capital, Tirana, Albania. I will then leave the “Balkans” proper and head down through Greece to all the ancient ruins on the way to Athens!
Wow! I’m both exhausted and exhilarated from even writing about it! Definitely would be a whirlwind experience. Hope I will do it (or parts of it) soon!
Bonus Trip: South Pacific While talking with a friend we came up with three other long trips, and though I haven’t put much thought into them, I’m including one in each of the posts as a bonus trip. This idea is to island hop around the South Pacific- seeing Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Marshall Islands, and many more! I would be done ideally on a boat, though there are lots of small planes that go between the islands as well! Who knows!
I’m currently planning on going to Europe in December to spend Christmas with my German family. One of my American friends from boarding school will be around because he is working in Germany for a year but not going home, and so I’ve invited him to Christmas with my uncle. Because of the way the holiday, and New Year’s Day, falls in the middle of my Sun-Thurs work week, it’s very easy to take off the next week as well, and so we’re now planning a little jaunt around German speaking Europe. It’s all very tentative, but I’ve started looking at prices and things to do around and routes to take, and I map the itinerary below:
It’s fun because it takes us through every Germany speaking country: Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria, and because it is pretty short, with the maximum travel time less than 6 hours. We would have about nine days to do it- probably the first four going quickly point by point and then a slower five in Austria. Who knows if it will materialize or how much of it we will do, but it looks like a lot of fun!
In getting excited for this trip, I started thinking of other overland tours I would like to take, looking into whether or not they’re possible, and fantasizing about when I could do them, who with, and adding extra fun components like making a documentary of the journey or something. It all sounds up in the air and like a dream, but I’m sure I will actually do at least one in the next five years. I always say, “always be dreaming 10 amazing things, then if you only accomplish 1 or 2, you’re still being amazing!” So, I’ll add these to my list of amazing ideas and see where they go.
So without further ado, the trips!
The W(r)est of South America
This trip would hit all of the things I wanted to do in South America but haven’t yet. It hits three of the four countries on the West of the continent, as well as the rest of the Spanish speaking countries I’ve yet been to, so I call it the W(r)est trip. It would start in Buenos Aires where I would see my wonderful Italian relatives that live in the Capital. I would then head up to the triple border of Argentina-Paraguay-Brazil to see the Iguazu falls, which are the last waterfall on my list of the top 5 (the others being Niagara, Angel, Gullfoss, and Victoria). I would then head up through Paraguay to Bolivia, stopping to revisit the family of a friend I stayed with in Santa Cruz, the Potosi Salt Flats, and the Mile High city: La Paz. I’d then head into Peru, spending time admiring the Andes, and of course seeing Machu Picchu near Cusco. I’d then head up through Ecuador before finishing in Bogota, Colombia!
The yellow highlighted bits are “optional” thoughts that I would consider depending on time. The first is to explore Argentine Patagonia, supposedly one of the most beautiful places in the world. The second is to take a flight to the Galapagos islands (or maybe Easter island?) from Ecuador. A third one not included on the map would be a quick jaunt over to Suriname and French Guinana- so I could officially say I’d been to every country in South America!
Bonus trip (I haven’t put too much thought into but in talking with some friends, thought to include): Southeast Asia- somehow incorporating Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and maybe Myanmar?