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.
I am shocked that the ritual of the 12 months and 365 days has already come and gone, and I am once more reflecting on a jam packed year. As in the previous three year-end posts, as I look back on all that I did, felt, learned, and made happen this year, I can confidently say 2013 was my best one yet! The highs were high and the lows were low, and (importantly) I’ve felt mature enough, secure enough, and supported just enough to introspect well on both sides.
Last year I wrote that in 2011 I was becoming the person I wanted to be, that in 2012 I was being that person- and following this (true) logic, I would say that in 2013 I was testing that person out in the real world. Looking back I’m very satisfied with the results, but looking forward I’m not yet clear on how I want to / can continue to push this. I think 2014 will be the real test of whether I can keep up this growth and “best year ever” streak I’ve been on.
Because of how over-the-top this year has been, I thought the best way to write this reflection is with ten superlatives of things I’ve done more this year than any year before! Enjoy!
1. Growing up- 2013 was truly the beginning of the third part of my life- the first being Indiana until I was 16, the second being my international education at UWC and NYU. Sure, I’ve aged the same amount this year as the last ones, and been “of-age” for 5 years, but this is the first time I can say, without any thought of an asterisk, that I’m an adult. And it feels REAL! For the first few months at work I could happily say that at 22 I was the baby of the office, but soon 23 came around, new youngsters joined and I had to realize that 23 is a strange but wonderful age. It is unique because it isn’t so young that any success is considered astonishing (significantly fewer “you’re only x years old!!!”) but also isn’t so old that you’re expected to have too much experience.
2. Awareness and Confidence- Understanding and accepting the differences between what I’m capable of, what I can learn to be capable of, and what I probably can’t be capable of (but still not putting too much in this last bucket) was a great part of 2013. I don’t think it stemmed individually from having a degree, working at a prestigious company, or the continued support of family, friends, mentors, and mentees, but all of these things combined gave me the confidence that where I’m at is good and the awareness of what I need to work on to be even better.
3. Independence – Moving to a new country, making an apartment into a home, managing money, and generally having fewer guideposts have all helped me to move fast and grow. Of course, I’ll never be rid of helping hands, and I’ll never want to be – but it has been nice to take on more things on my own and even nicer to realize I’m handling them just fine!
4. and 5. Travel – The past few years of my life have been full of travel, but 2013 takes the cake! 95k miles (150k km or 4 times around the equator) covering 30 countries, being taken there by 100+ flights and trains, over the course of ~150 nights in luxury hotels, another 40 in hostels, 30 or so on friend’s couches, maybe 10 on planes, and a sad remainder in my own bed. I’ve been on the move, and it likely won’t stop as I love it and my job requires it- so this year travel gets two mentions
New places - Through work in the Middle East, holidays in Southern Africa, the Balkans, and Central Europe, and weekends around the Mediterranean I’ve experienced so many fascinating and beautiful new places this year. I’ve been to some of the most beautiful places in Croatia and South Africa and some of the most intriguing (for better or worse) in Bosnia and Saudi Arabia
Returning to my favorites – In addition to new favorites, this year was also full of returning to some old locations that continue to inspire me- of course moving back to the UAE, spending more time in the villages of Tanzania and Rwanda, and spending time with family in the USA and Germany – I love having familiar places to travel to, and I sense that more and more my trips will be returns in the future.
6. Religion – Living in one of the most religiously charged parts of the world for 18 of my past 28 months has really pushed me to think long and hard about spirituality and religion: the unfortunate differences between them, the ways in which they can each lead to the other, and the magic / ineffability of the subject and how it affects my life. My focus waxes and wanes, but this year I have felt myself coming closer and closer to the enchanting and unreachable truths.
7. Reading – In 2013 I read more than 30 books (mostly on my kindle) and have become once again obsessed with learning through print. This year’s library included many books on geographies that interest me Rwanda (Antelope’s Strategy, Machete Season, Life Laid Bare, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters), North Korea (Nothing to Envy, Reluctant Communist, and Escape from Camp 14), and Gaza (Meet me in Gaza), topics I like to explore like identity (Ethnicity Inc, Defining Decade, Exploring Happiness, Memories of Mohammaed) and economics and development (Black Swan, The Crisis Caravan, Capitalism and Slavery, The Elusive Quest for Growth, The Bottom Billion, Emerging Africa, and Outliers and Tipping Point, both by Malcolm Gladwell). I’ve also made my way through around ten novels (Rules of Civility, Cry the Beloved Country, Middlesex, Diary of a Nobody, Gulliver’s Travel, and Inferno and Lost Symbols by Dan Brown) and explored some more of my favorite author, G. K. Chesterton’s, works with Heretics and The Man Who Was Thursday. Reading has really been a highlight of this year!!!
8. Working – There is nothing I have done more this year than work. Starting my first fulltime adult job has been an exciting experience and I am happy to be at a place where I am constantly learning. It is sometimes hard to be within a system that dictates what you learn and when, but nothing can take away the wonderful lessons and amazing mentors I’ve met this year.
9. Wealth / Points – Another benefit of working is getting paid! It’s been strange to go from a student’s budget to being able to save or invest most of my earnings. A lot of lessons come from having money- how to manage it, keep it coming, and how to get the most out of it. One thing I always remind myself of is the hadith that says “It is not a sin to own things, it is a sin for things to own you.” This is a simple but meaningful thought which pushes me to realize the impact money can have beyond the material, especially through helping others. What is also exciting is that I have a large indirect income from points earned from all of my business travel! Tons of hotel upgrades, free flights, and special events make the long hours slightly more worth it!
10. Culturally Sustainable Development – At the core of who I am for the past few years has been Culturally Sustainable Development, the idea that development is not just an increase in economic indicators, but an increase in quality of life, the metrics of which are culturally and community specific. This year I have continued to think through issues of development and identity through the lenses of living in the Middle East and traveling the world, the books I’ve read, and the work I’ve done and hope to continue to do with Trail of Seeds. More importantly, this year I’ve begun to see not just the destination I dream of taking Culturally Sustainable Development to, but also the path of how that can happen and what I need to push harder to do and learn.
2013- so full of memories, incredible new lessons, many new friends, and a very new lifestyle!
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!