Seward’s Folly

In 1867, United States Secretary of State, William Seward, convinced President Andrew Johnson and the U.S. Senate to purchase the territory known as Aleyska from Russia. Many Americans viewed this as positive, however some thought it was a horrible idea and referred to the move as Seward’s Folly. One hundred and fifty years later, whether or not the Alaska Purchase was a colossal mistake is yet to be seen, but there are indications on both sides of the fence.

The primary reason for acquiring the land was that many Americans in the late 19th century believed Asia to be up and coming economically. They wanted the territory to serve as a means of trade between China, Japan, and the United States, envisioning an entire coastline of ports filled with merchant ships bringing low-cost goods across the Pacific.

Kennedy might have lost this one without Alaska in America’s Pocket…

Another reason wouldn’t be seen for a hundred years. During the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Russians placed missiles at our nearby neighbor, Cuba. The standoff between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev is famously remembered as the Cuban Missile Crisis and was a major turning point in our favor during the arms race. Imagine a scenario where Kennedy not only had to deal with short-range missile silos 90 miles off the coast of Miami, but also up and down the Southeastern panhandle of Alaska (near Juneau) – 300 miles from Seattle. A Soviet presence on the continent of North America might have enabled the Cold War to play out completely differently.

The Oil Pipeline stretch for hundreds of miles, all the way through the state and down into Canada…

A third reason happened with the discovery of petroleum in the northernmost edge of the state, near Prudhoe Bay, in 1969. With the potential riches of oil, private companies came knocking on the very cold Alaskan door, and have been set up here for the last half century. Black gold has poured out of Alaska and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because the more domestic petroleum the United States can come up with, the less we are dependent on Middle Eastern suppliers like Saudi Arabia.

It’s bad because of the potential damage to the pristine environment up here (in fact, economist David Barker thinks the oil companies have yet to earn enough of a return on oil investment to justify the risks, and the federal government spends more governing the state than they get from the tax revenues), but the influx of funds into the mostly impoverished and rural Alaskan communities has become a double-edged sword.

The long-term effects of American involvement in the culture and lives of Native Alaskans have recently been shown to be far more negative than positive. In the 1970s, natives went to bat for themselves against the federal government and received the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, awarding the various tribes both monetary reimbursement and protected lands for their continued use and development. In addition, an annual stipend is provided to all Alaskan residents (regardless of ethnicity) from the tax revenues earned by the sale of Alaskan oil.

Just copped a squat on the frozen river…

Additionally, most of the native population resides in remote and ruralBushvillages (like the one where Jen and I now live) hundreds of miles from cities, paved roads, and infrastructure common in most other parts of the U.S. These scattered pockets of people struggle to survive in their traditional lifestyle: subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering. They also fight against the influence of contemporary civilization: schools, hospitals, and government oversight. The natives are perfectly happy to reap the benefits of cooperation with the white man (electricity, cellular service, and European-style housing) without putting in any of the effort required on their part.

As I see it, the discovery of oil brought interest and investment into Alaska. It’s only fair that the native people get a piece of that pie. However, I also feel that as a culture, they have misappropriated that money. Individually, many natives are misusing those benefits to the detriment of their society, their families, and themselves. The combination of the remote location and never-ending free money from the government has stifled economic growth in the regions of Alaska outside the three major cities: Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Natives don’t see the point in becoming educated because there are no jobs if they choose to remain in their community. If they obtain an education, there’s nothing in the villages to do with it; they would be forced to relocate to the Southeast just to utilize what they’ve learned.

Not sure why they need to be Chewed but…

Traditionally, the only education the natives got dealt with how to live off the land. And that was passed down by word of mouth through the generations. Elders taught their sons and daughters the skills of hunting and fishing as well as the crafts that enabled them to survive in such extreme cold and harsh winter climates: beaver hats, seal-skin mittens, and mukluks (heavy winter boots made from animal furs and walrus fat). Looking around at the villagers here, I notice that few are capable of their traditional skills and in succeeding in the American-style educational system. They’re stuck in the middle.

Students either drop out before graduation or simply graduate into perpetual unemployment to live in the welfare state that has become the native Alaskan villages. In some cases, the educated natives fill necessary roles managing the city (I have met a lot of hard-working and dedicated workers at the city office, health clinic, and public school); however, the rest feel like they are drowning in their depression – trapped between an unwanted way of life and another that appears to be slowly dying out. The suicide rate among Alaskans is the highest in the country (per capita).

Would the native culture have been better off underneath the leadership of the Soviet Union? Meh. Highly doubtful. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the fact that whatever benefits America thought we were bringing the native population, by making Alaska an official state in 1959, have become overshadowed by the detrimental way in which the people in the Bush have chosen to exist.

An idle brain seems to be the devil’s playground – a cliché that is everything up here. Children and adults alike find themselves with loads of time on their hands and nothing to occupy it. So they get into trouble: alcoholism and drug abuse, vandalism, and assaults and rapes run rampant throughout the villages.

(Point of fact: rape in Alaska is three times the national average and child sexual assault is nearly six times – those are conservative estimates since most offenses go unreported due to the fact that the perpetrator is also the family’s means of survival – hunting, cutting wood, and bringing water in – and in some villages the rate of violence against women is 100%).

As with everything they seem to do, the federal and state governments are great at staring a problem in the face and then only doing a small fraction of the work necessary to solve it. Is it up to the government to figure everything out? Certainly not, however, when the people here don’t seem to be able to help themselves, whose responsibility is it to enact the changes required to save an entire culture? Nobody wants to bear that burden, not the government, not the village elders, or any of the natives themselves. There’s only so much money can do, and in Alaska, it seems that handouts aren’t fixing anything. Too bad Seward didn’t have a crystal ball, else he might have not spent the money on Alaska.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

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The Snowball Effect

I Need to Get Shots Like This…

When my wife told me we were moving to the Arctic Circle, I knew we didn’t have what we’d need to survive up there. I figured we would be spending a bit of money on boots and gloves and a few other things. Boy, oh boy, was I wrong! Boots are the tip of the iceberg. Like the snowball rolling down the mountainside, outfitting ourselves to stay warm in the harsh winter kept getting bigger and bigger.

So I set out to research every single bit of gear that’s required for living in temperatures that drop downwards of -75 degrees Fahrenheit in the cold, dark winter months. The keyword when preparing for the harsh extreme cold is: layers. Some of my readers may think they know what cold feels like in New York, Winnepeg, or Minnesota – you don’t. Trust me; as I write this article, the temperature outside is in the 20s and it’s only September!

Shopping for winter coats and parkas for a normal winter in the Lower 48 is easy! E – A – S – Y! Not all stores carry the quality gear we need in Alaska, not all companies even make said gear. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’ll start at the beginning (or the bottom, and work my way up).

Boots

We felt the footwear was the most important, so that’s where we started. While you can layer your feet, for the most part boots need to have all the characteristics of successful outer and inner layers, meaning: warmth and waterproof. Kneehigh boots are good in the spring and fall because you might be wading through deep mud puddles; that also means they should be made of some heavyduty rubber. In the winter, they don’t necessarily need to be that high, but a high, warm boot helps to keep your calves toasty too.

Arctic Sport Mucks for all occasions!

I decided to go with Muck brand boots; they have a line called Arctic Sport that is tested down to –40F. I also will be wearing wool socks underneath. The great thing about Mucks (as they’re called up here) is the versatility of the single pair of boots. I didn’t need to buy snow boots, rain boots, hiking boots, etc. One pair is a one-stop-shop.

Other guys swear by Baffins, or army-style ‘bunny‘ boots, but they just didn’t come up high enough on my leg for the rainy season. They do look awesome though – I’d feel like a SWAT team member wearing them, so if the Mucks don’t work out for whatever reason, I can always get another pair down the road. If my wife lets me.

Manitobah Snowy Owl Mukluks with Real Rabbit Fur

Jen went a different direction. She wanted traditional Native Alaskan Mukluks. Her opinion is that if it worked for the native population for thousands of years, it will work for her. She did some research and found a pair she liked from a Canadian company. They’re made of sueded leather (a different pair was actual moose-hide) with a rubber sole that’s glued to the bottom of the mukluk. They are lined both inside and out with rabbit fur. There’s even some cute bead work on the top of the foot. The problem is that mukluks aren’t a one-stop-shop like my Mucks are; if she gets the suede wet or muddy, the boots are destroyed. So we needed to get her an inexpensive pair of waterproof rain boots as well (though if the puddle’s deep enough, the suction will take the boot right off her foot). She also has wool socks.

Coats & Pants

No company makes a single piece of gear that withstands everything you’ll need in the subzero temperatures. There are plenty of websites that offer advice on how to layer properly. The problem is all the best gear for what we need has the highest price tags. When I called to speak to sales reps on the phone at the various clothing companies, they helped as best as they could, but without all the information, the brick wall hit us in the face.

Most of the time, the gear will be just to get us back and forth to school or the post office. We won’t be spending hours upon hours in the cold wind and frigid temperatures – but you never know. We want to be prepared for a day when we have to be out for hours. Maybe that’s not possible, we’ll see. A lot of guys tend to have multiple sets of gear for different purposes, but these men are ‘lifers‘ up here. We aren’t going to be. We just need some good quality gear to survive the next few winters.

My friend Glen – ex Army Ranger, retired science educator, and avid hunter & trapper – told me that each person has a different way of doing things in the cold; he said try it out and if it doesn’t work, change it. So we’re back to trial and error. And if we choose wrong, the situation can get deadly quickly. Hypothermia and Frostbite are household words up here.

Basically the way it works is like this: wool base layer (because it wicks up the moisture from your sweat), polar fleece midlayer, heavy insulation layer (like goose down – but 500 fill coats aren’t enough, you need at least 750 fill for the Arctic), and then an outer layer called the ‘shell‘ that’s typically waterproof and windproof. The best is GoreTex.

A lot of people up here say that waterproof isn’t critical because we have dry winters. Essentially, once the temperature drops that far below the freezing point, the air no longer carries any moisture at all (remember those Arizonans talking about the dry heat of the desert not being as bad as the humidity in Florida?). I disagree though.

Suppose you’re traipsing through the snow for whatever reason and your body, or your movement heats up the snow enough that it begins to turn back to water. The last thing you want is to not have a waterproof shell, especially with down. The instant down gets wet, it’s worthless. It will get heavy and take a long time to dry. Wet down will not keep you warm. Waterproof shells are also windproof – and that is something that you’ll need up here as gusts of wind can make a –20F day feel like –40F in minutes.

Her plan is to trap her own fox or mink for the ruff along the hood…

So Jen chose a coat by another Canadian company called Sorel, that has 800 fill goose and duck down. I also got us both sets of polar fleece mid-layers, merino wool base layers, and snow pants from a company called 6th Avenue Outfitters that by themselves aren’t enough, but with proper layering should be. And again, if none of this ends up working, it’s like playing roulette in Atlantic City. I guess we go back to the drawing board and keep buying stuff until we’re warm enough.

As far as my coat, I have a tri-climate Toread (Chinese brand) coat that I bought a couple years ago (tri-climate means the jacket is in pieces and can be upzipped into separate parts for various uses). The shell is in perfect condition, but the insulation layer that came with it, won’t cut it up here. I’ll need a new one at some point, but with all the money we’ve been spending on other layers, I’m going to give it a shot and see how warm the coat keeps me as-is. After all, like I said, I don’t know how much time I’ll be spending outside at all. I already run hot, so if I’m able to layer up correctly, the insulation layer might not be needed for quick 10 minute walks back and forth across the village.

Head & Hands

Under the Waterproof shell is a Double Layer of Fleece and Wool for your Comfort.

Similar to the rest of the body, you’ve got to layer your head and hands. Frostbite can occur on any patch of exposed skin within seconds. So you’ve got to make sure that every inch of your body is protected. On our hands we have layers mitts that begin with a merino wool liner, followed by an insulated and waterproof subzero tested mitten – warmer than gloves because keeping your fingers together traps in the heat.

Beginning Signs of Frostbite – white and red skin, but then it gets worse…

The head and neck are two of the most important parts of your body to keep warm. The warmth of your head affects your fingers and toes as well. You start with a full head/neck balaclava of wool or synthetic material. It pulls down to your chest and the only exposed skin at this point are your eyes and cheekbones. Then you put on a neck gaiter, typically fleece, and a beanie or wool sock cap on your head – these are your insulation layers. To protect your eyes, you need goggles. Finally, you can put the hood of your coat up, tie it snugly, and you’re ready to brave the elements.

For those of you keeping score, we have 1) socks 2) boots 3) outer shell legs 4) fleece mid-layer legs 5) wool base layer legs 6) outer shell coat 7) down insulation layer 8) fleece mid-layer 9) wool base layer 10) wool glove liners 11) waterproof mitts 12) neck gaiter 13) balaclava 14) wool cap 15) goggles. Over $1,000.00 in extreme winter gear, per person!

All of that just to go pick up the mail.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

Off the Reservation

Typical Alaska (in the Summer)… Winter pic will Follow in the upcoming months…

I don’t mean to be offensive (as some people might interpret the title of this article). It’s appropriate. Native Alaskan tribes have elected (long ago in fact) that most didn’t want to live on the “prisons” the white man called reservations. Instead, corporations were set up to oversee and manage Native Alaskan land (during the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act). They are choosing to live off the reservation; but the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, while not 100% accurate for our native neighbors, is pretty accurate for us. Village life is off in many ways.

It’s a feeling more than anything else, and that makes it very difficult to describe if you haven’t had the experience yourself. Sure, I can paint you a picture, but it won’t really give you the feeling. I’ll endeavor to do my best though.

The Village of Kiana, Alaska

The three aspects of the Alaskan villages that make life here the most different are size, location, and culture (to some degree, and I’m not talking about Native Alaskan culture – I mean survival/subsistence culture, which I suppose is an offshoot of both the size and location issues). Life here, interestingly enough, has a lot in common with the experience we had on top of the mountain in Nepal at the Buddhist Monastery. Again, size, location, and culture. We’ve been in thirdworld countries that felt more “American” than it feels to be here in spite of some of the modern conveniences that we are allotted (like phone calls home, domestic flights again, and our own zip code).

Size

Kiana is .2 square miles. That means that you can walk from one side to the other in about 20 minutes. There are no paved roads, the paths are dirt/mud/eventually snow & ice. The population hovers around 400, and the average age is 28 (and will get lower as the elders unfortunately continue to die off). Everyone knows everyone, like in other small towns across the lower 48; however, most people are related to each other in some way. Remember, 97% of the population are not only Native Alaskans, but natives from the same tribe. Many of Jen’s students have brothers, sisters, and cousins in other classes in the school.

Everybody is somebody else’s relative, and everybody is into everybody else’s business. They know everything. Gossip is all over the place, and as ‘foreigners‘ coming in from other places, all the teachers must really watch what they do and what they say to not get caught up in a feud or some sort. It would be like if your entire social world was one street: Wysteria Lane

Location

Kiana is located 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. In August, the temperature hangs out in the 40s and 50s (Fahrenheit) – and in the dead of winter it can drop down to -75F. Brrr…. So those temperatures affect just about everything. There is special gear that must be purchased and worn (and layered, layered, layered) to keep warm just to go outside. A ‘regular‘ winter coat and boots that might get you by during a New York or even Minnesota winter won’t get the job done here. There is an entire subculture of winter that people learn about and live. It’s survival, pure and simple.

The Airstrip in Kiana…

In addition to our location on the globe, we are also more rural than rural. I explained in a previous blog that there are no roads to get from village to village (there are trucks here, I’m not sure how they got them in though). People have to fly in. Each village has an airstrip (ours is gravel) and a local small business that charters flights in/out.

Now, that’s not entirely true because we are located right on the Kobuk River, which can be used via boats/snowmobiles to get from village to village along the waterway. Sometimes though, it’s impossible to leave.

The Puddle-Jumper we flew into Kiana on…

Planes and other transport are goodweather dependent. So if there’s a storm or fog or the temperature drops below –50F, everything shuts down: people and cargo have to wait it out, whether they’re stuck in the village trying to get out or out of the village trying to get in. We’ll see how big a pain in the butt this becomes come Christmas vacation…

Oh, and the prices! We have had some culture shock regarding what things cost up here. First of all, the food – for example – is higher priced in Anchorage than in say Seattle because of the additional shipping and handling just to get it up here.

But we’re not in Anchorage.

(This is NOT Photoshopped…)

So we pay a premium to get the food from Anchorage to the village (food that’s already been marked up to a premium). It’s just part of the lifestyle where we are; what makes it harder to swallow is that we have been paying third-world prices for produce at a fraction of what most American pay (sorry to rub it in). To go from one extreme to the other has me ripping handfuls of hair out of my skull!

So if you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in the precarious position of needing a missing ingredient for your fresh baked chocolate chip cookie recipe, you’ll need to go to the village store to pick some up. The village stores are even higher priced than the Anchorage ones that ship into the villages.

Look, Ma! All that Wonderful Produce!

And they might not even have what you’re looking for by the time you arrive! One of our stores here didn’t have eggs for weeks (the shops are just as vulnerable to the weather and availability of items as we are when we order online).

Some of our Bulk Ordering (other people order a year’s worth at a time)…

Speaking of online ordering, not everything is available or able to be shipped up here. We have to use different stores for different things. Learning all of that is tricky. Mistakes were made. Other mistakes were made. But overall, we’re slowly getting the idea. Amazon Prime has been a godsend to these people, and stores like Fred Meyer (Alaskan version of Walmart) has created a special “Bush Orders” department, where they handle shipping and handling for the rural villages. We’ve managed to get everything we need – so far.

Culture

Native Alaskan culture aside (since we’ve had to deal with that aspect of changing countries over and over for the past six years), I have to tell you about the survivalism up here (I was asked before we got here what kind of gun I was bringing… what? What?? WHAT?!?!).

A Polar Bear in the Village of Kaktovik, AK…

It’s like you stepped off the plane and entered 1860 (calling Doc Brown...). There is no radio station (the alarm clock only gets static – try waking up to that every morning). There is no TV station. Villages have cell phone service (a single company has the monopoly), but no 4G data (not even 3G or 2G), only talking and texting – and that’s only a recent development. To communicate, villagers all have handheld VHF devices, which are great in emergency situations like there’s a storm coming or there’s a grizzly bear across from the general store or a pack of wolves over on Taylor Rd (yes, those things happen); but not-so-great when people feel like getting on the horn and venting about their deadbeat drunken husbands (yes, that also happens).

And that’s Ron Howard (replacement director of the new Han Solo Star Wars Spinoff Film) Singing…

Most commonly the VHFs are used to inform people when planes are inbound. People wait around for flights so they can leave, but also for cargo shipments. Getting mail is an event here (like the Pony Express must have been in the 19th century) and something to get very excited about (O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is-a comin’ down the street, oh please let it be for me…). And that’s rightly so, considering the fact that all our food, clothing, and furniture has to get shipped in from Anchorage and other places.

The only commodity that comes out of the village are what the villagers hunt, trap, catch, gather, or create themselves. Subsistence hunting (and even whaling) is allowed for the natives and any Alaskan citizens who reside in the villages for so many days a year (visitors aren’t legally allowed to shoot anything). But there’s also fishing (and ice fishing), gathering mushrooms and berries (which the townsfolk, especially tween boys, try to sell you for exorbitant prices – I’d say highway robbery, but there are no highways), and trapping (my favorite character here is trying to get rid of a wolverine he took down for about $550.00).

The Kobuk River Makes the Southern Border of Kiana…

For fun, people take to the river in the summer to visit islands and beachheads and to explore the wilderness. In the winter, we’ve yet to see, but I’m guessing the buzzing hum of snow-gos (as they’re called here) will fill the air. I’ve been told that one can get all the way to Kotzebue in under 2 hours from here (57 miles as the crow flies). I’m not sure I’m brave enough to do it myself, but we’ll see if we end up investing in a snow-go or not. We’ve already been taken on a couple of moosehunting expeditions down river, with no sightings; but it’s ‘early in the season for moose‘ apparently…

Those are the first impressions. Here’s another: this promises to be one of the most unique of all the adventures we’ve ever had!

Until Next Time…

-Justin

Torn Apart

It’s human nature to fear what you don’t understand, and what’s different from what you know or who you are. One of the easiest ways to differentiate what isn’t like you is visually: if someone looks like you, they’re safe, if they look different, they’re dangerous. That is the fundamental law of the human psyche that paved the way for racism.

When will the Tug of War End?

The practice of treating people differently based on their physical appearance is as old as humanity, and after thousands of years of evolution, racism hasn’t dwindled at all. One would think that modern mankind would have transcended a concept so superficial. Why does it matter how someone looks? The content of their character is far more important, yet in all corners of the world, people are drawn to the similar. It makes them comfortable. Different is uncomfortable. I have seen it on every continent and in every country.

In India and Nepal, the caste system classifies people based on their ancestry, pigeonholing them into neighborhoods, jobs, and spouses that the culture deems appropriate.

The majority ethnic group in China – the Han – use social breeding practices to assimilate minority groups into the larger, essentially exterminating the lesser and feeding the larger.

Turks persecute, and in the worst cases murder, the Kurdish people trying to survive and scratch out a living within the borders of that Middle Eastern country.

The various Arab tribes have been at war with each other for thousands of years (not to mention the everlasting jihad against non-believers).

Even in a modern and developed country like Spain, immigrants from the Latin American nations are looked down upon by the indigenous Spaniards.

He had a dream, Mandela shared it, but are there any dreamers left in South Africa?

And if it’s not skin color, it’s religion or gender or sexual orientation. Yes, America is leading the way for the rest of the world regarding these social issues, but even the United States hasn’t been without violence, oppression, and bloodshed because of racism inherent in the human condition. We were one of the last countries to outlaw slavery. And following the Civil War, blacks in the southern states weren’t treated much better than they had been before the war. A century later, the civil rights movement finally made progress in curbing a lot of racism thanks largely in part to the work of Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and other freedom fighters.

Mandela casts his ballot for president of South Africa in the history 1994 election…

More recently, South Africa went through a similar struggle overcoming the statute of Apartheid (legalized racism) within my lifetime. Everyone has heard the name Nelson Mandela. Most are familiar with his role in stamping out the all-white government and winning the ‘94 election that allowed a “one man, one vote” policy giving black Africans a voice for the first time in history. At the time, it seemed like a resounding victory for the minorities and underdogs of the world. But Mandela didn’t seek a second term, and once he passed away, the situation in South Africa didn’t improve. In fact, in the past few years, the political situation in that nation has been steadily growing worse.

International news media has a short attention span; they don’t seem to care about what’s happening in South Africa 20 years after the demise of Apartheid. However, take it from someone who’s been there and spoken to locals on the ground – both black and white… the problems are far from solved. Apartheid is over, yes, but racism runs rampant in South Africa.

Mandela preached peace. He didn’t want the black community to enact revenge on the white South Africans, because he knew that would make the blacks no better off than the whites who had violently oppressed them. It was bad, very bad, for the blacks for generations. I’m not defending the white South Africans in charge from the early 20th century until the ANC (African National Congress) won the election, placing black politicians in office. What has happened in the years since is a travesty unto itself.

Riots plague most South African cities, but the violence isn’t limited to mobs…

There is an exodus happening. White South Africans, fearing for their very lives, are fleeing South Africa by the boatloads. Families who have spent generations in the country are abandoning their homes and businesses, picking up and flying to nations like Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Europe to escape the brutality of the revenge currently being waged by the newly freed black community. In Johannesburg, whites are mugged, robbed, and in worst cases murdered simply because of their skin color. The pendulum has swung the other direction, it seems.

In the more rural communities, white farmers and their families are not only being brutally murdered, but in some cases being skinned alive and strung up in trees. Lynching is the word Americans would use (and some older Americans might remember the horrible days when blacks were lynched at the dirty hands of the KKK and other racist whites). For the 10% of white South Africans, it seems that progress has taken them two steps backward.

In Soweto, the people use mattress springs to create fences…

The majority of black South Africans aren’t part of the problem. Similarly to Muslims, a few bad apples (as they say) spoil the bunch. I’m not only speaking of educated blacks in the nation. All it takes is a bit of common sense, which some of the poorest of the poor and least educated citizens of Johannesburg demonstrate on a daily basis. On our tour of Soweto (South Western Township – the poorest community in the city – and the ghetto where Mandela and all the Johannesburg blacks were forcibly relocated back in the 1950s-60s), we met a handful of people who cram their large families into two room, tin-roof shacks… people who live on $2.00 a week… people who shunned the violence being carried out against white South Africans and tourists. They know better. So not everyone is to blame.

The issues stem from those who have an inclination toward violence and greed. The have-nots who want to take whatever they want from those who have it. That includes some of the politicians, post-Mandela, who’ve risen to power in the past 5-10 years.

Zuma isn’t really listening to anyone but his own wallet…

Just to put things into perspective, the current president – Jacob Zuma – is a far cry from Nelson Mandela. In 2005, he was charged with rape. There have been years-long legal battles over his involvement in racketeering and corruption (his financial advisor was convicted for fraud). He opposes same-sex marriage, wants to confiscate the accidental babies of teenage mothers, and believes the ANC will remain in power until the second-coming of Christ.

And last year, the Constitutional Court unanimously decided that Zuma failed to uphold the country’s constitution, calling for his immediate resignation (a failed impeachment attempt followed). And that’s just the dirt on the president, the head of the ruling party! Who knows what other tragedies occur every day in regional and municipal politics.

Here are some racist quotes from ANC leaders in various levels of government:

  • “We are not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least for now.” – Julius Malema
  • “White people in South Africa deserve to be hacked and killed like Jews.” – Velaphi Khumalo
  • “The first people that need to fuck off are whites.” – Kenny Barrel Nkosi

Evidently, the ANC has slid quite far down the rails of ethics since Mandela’s retirement and death. Twenty years after the dissolution of Apartheid, South Africa remains a nation torn apart. Racism is wrong in every direction. It doesn’t matter if those attitudes are from whites toward blacks or from blacks toward whites. We are moving swiftly into the 21st century, and those backwards ideas need to be left in the past.

Tourists are also losing out because there isn’t much worth traveling to South Africa to see. If the violence against Europeans and other white races continues, the nation will definitely see a decline in the revenue from their tourism industry. It’s a no win situation for everyone involved.

South Africans have suffered through tremendous tragedy in the past fifty years (or longer) and it’s time to set aside those difference and start working together, regardless of skin color, to create a more peaceful and prosperous tomorrow.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

The Endless Plains

Infinity. It’s a difficult concept to grasp; a concept that has grown even more increasingly hard to find as mankind has spread out across continents and oceans, exploring and conquering as we go. The next frontier is outer space, but it isn’t difficult to imagine what certain areas of our own planet used to feel like to humans as they gazed across the horizon into what must have appeared to stretch on forever and ever. Oceans. Deserts. And Plains.

Not the deserts of the Sahara, and not the jungles of the Congo – the Serengeti is somewhere in between…

In the middle of Africa, there lies the endless plains. In Swahili: Serengeti. A tried and true African Safari is on every travel enthusiast’s bucket list. And there is no better place than in northern Tanzania, where prides of lions hunt in their natural habitat, and millions of terrestrial mammals migrate in a loop that takes them from the south of the country up into neighboring Kenya.

When it comes to safaris, the Serengeti is the Times Square of destinations. There are lesser parks and preserves where one might visit to feel more alone and immersed in nature. In fact, many of the travel advice websites and guides suggest other places that have maintained an authenticity that is somewhat lacking in the Serengeti. But when we visited that and a few other parks in Tanzania, the abundance of other tourists (all inside similarly painted Toyota Land Cruisers) didn’t bother us as much as the ‘theme park’ feel of the smaller areas.

Truly, when scanning the horizon line of the endless plains, we felt like we had traveled not only into the wilds of Africa, but also into the past – to a time when mankind didn’t disrupt the natural order of the planet. At 12,000 square miles, the sheer size of the place can dwarf any visitor, making us all feel insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe.

There were moments that took our breath away. Below are some photos I took that I hope will take yours away as well.

Until Next Time…

Justin

North to the Future

Well, my loyal readers, this is the end. You have followed me on my journeys for the past five years. You were with me in South Korea, where I began my expatriation and initial contract teaching English as a Second Language.

Some of my Favorite and Best Students from South Korea

I brought you along to the capital city of Turkiye, where I immersed myself in Islamic culture for the first time and taught at a conservative, Muslim, all-boys high school.

“Jonathan” from our time in China Taught me how to Take Dragonball Z Photos (He was quite a ham!)

You followed me to rural China – the heart of communism on earth – and its 1.5 billion people, with its factory worker mentality and lack of personal freedoms and individuality.

Next, I explored the wonderful continent of Europe, and took you with me as I not only taught at an Opus Dei high school in Pamplona, Spain, but also managed to squeeze in visits to 10 other nations on the Continent during my year living there.

Our Little Monk Students Playing Around and Eating German Chocolate

The fifth year came with unknown challenges and unexpected obstacles as I first volunteered for 6 months at a Buddhist monastery on top of a mountain outside the city of Kathmandu in the rural and impoverished country of Nepal, and then spent 2017 (so far) living on the continent of Africa while teaching for an American NGO in the predominately desert – and very hot and humid – country of Tunisia.

And with that… the adventure is over.

Or is it?

One chapter is at an end, yes. But another chapter is just beginning. I am officially suspending my campaign as an ESL educator for upcoming the 2017-18 academic year and will be…

…Going, going, Back, back, to the U S of A!!!

That’s right! We are coming home!

Sort of…

My wife, Jen, has accepted a position teaching at a rural, Native Alaskan village school. It was her dream to live in a small village and be accepted into a tight-knit community. So, we will be relocating back into the land of zip codes and Amazon deliveries, of phone calls to friends and family, of English as a Primary Language… but we won’t be returning to the contiguous 48 states (not yet at any rate).

We’re moving to Alaska (but we won’t be living in an igloo)!

“I can see Russia from my house!!!”

The village of K—- (meaning: where three rivers meet) is located 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle and boasts a total population of around 400 people (about 130 students in the school, which is PreK-12). The village was founded several centuries ago by the Inupiat Eskimos. The school is 97% Native American (the only non-natives are probably the imported ‘white’ teachers from other states – Alaska has been having difficulties – as they themselves say, ‘growing our own teachers‘). The nearest ‘city’ to K—-, and what Alaskans refer to as a hub, is Kotzebue. Kotzebue is located at the northern tip of a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean from the state’s very crooked coastline.

As I write this blog, I haven’t yet arrived or traveled to the Last Frontier. So these are hardly my first impressions. What they are, however, is nothing more than Internet research and my limited understand of life in the bush country. I’m sure there will be many more articles about Arctic village life to come.

Aerial View of the Village of Kiana and the Kobuk River

The first thing you have to realize about the ‘bush‘ is what that word technically means. The bush is any area – sparsely populated by villages – in Alaska that you cannot travel to by car. The villages aren’t connected by roads (Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need… Roads!). The only way to get to these rural villages is to fly there on small 5-20 seat prop planes, or – when the weather is nicer – boat up rivers or along the coast. As you can probably imagine, in the cold and dark winter months, the waterways freeze over, making travel all but impossible save for planes (and even severe storms will cut us off completely from the outside world).

When we want to travel, we first have to take a teeny-tiny plane to Kotzebue and then transfer to a slightly larger plane that will take us to Anchorage. From Anchorage, we can use websites like travelocity, skyscanner, and cheaptickets to purchase our plane fare to the east coast to visit our friends and family. To receive shipments and packages, the boxes will first make their way to Anchorage and then get delivered by plane to Kotzebue, followed by the various villages of the region, where we’ll have to walk to the airport or post office when we want to pick them up. To the best of my knowledge, getting things in and out of the bush – including ourselves – will be a very expensive and time-consuming affair. It’s my hope that the experience will make these inconveniences worthwhile.

Okay, okay… I lied. It’s not the end.

As long as you keep reading, I’ll keep writing. Trust me, though. You’re going to want to stay with me. Our Alaskan adventure is proving to be the most interesting and unique of anything we’ve done so far. I can’t wait!

Until Next Time…

-Justin

Intrinsic Issues in the ESL Industry

The World of English as a Second Language!

Any teacher will tell you that there are problems in education. Problems in the classroom. Problems with student behavior. Problems with administration. Problems with government regulation. I began teaching ESL – English as a Second Language – in foreign classrooms for foreign schools and companies all over the world about 5 years ago. From the Iberian to the Korean Peninsulas, I have observed many difficulties that exist in overseas classrooms, but particularly ones that occur in ESL situations.

The Puzzle of Teaching Critical Thinking Skills…

The most obvious of these issues is that most students do not develop the necessary critical thinking skills required to be successful in academia or in the work force. Perhaps my expectations are too high since I’ve valued my own education from the time I was a young child (my parents were both very actively involved in my learning, even reading books to me before I could speak). I surrounded myself with overachievers, so now that I’ve reached adulthood, I often get disappointed, discouraged, and disillusioned with what I deem to be a quickly sinking average IQ across the globe (but it might have always been low, I just never exposed myself to those people).

I’m a believer in lifelong learning. Many of the cultures in which I teach barely believe in childhood learning. The basic concept of bettering oneself, and upward mobility in general, is alien to many who live in third-world countries. It’s a shame really, but when I get into a classroom full of students who are unable to answer simple logic questions (why? for example), my heart breaks a little.

Children In India Preparing to Begin a Life of Toil and Hard Labor…

Along the same lines, I have also observed that the students are a direct reflection on their elders. In many of these nations, the idea of education is a relatively new concept. Some students are the first generation to attend school, especially if they hail from rural villages. I remember being in Turkiye and learning that my 16 year old students’ parents never graduated from high school. What has always been more important than individuals in these nations is family – so even at the youngest of ages, children went to work in fields or factories in an effort to contribute to the family income stream. Which begs the question: how can a 10 year old care about their own education when their primary role models never did (and still don’t)?

Typical Behavior of Turkish Primary School Students (this was Jen’s class)…

Thirdly, and also on a related thread, students in most foreign countries (Far East Asia aside) are never taught how to be students. In the US, the first things that kindergartners learn is how to sit still (you’d be surprised how hard this is for most foreign students – they must all have ADHD), raise their hands, walk in straight lines, and other basic classroom etiquette. As they age, they’re taught how to properly take exams while in school, and how to study for those exams while at home. Teachers and parents in America are equally invested in the development and progress of the youth who look up to them. Working abroad has opened my eyes to 14 year olds who behave like 5 year olds and 45 year old adults who behave like 14 year old teenagers. It’s completely a mess.

The next two issues are specific to the ESL world.

Believe it or Not: I’ve seen Teachers like this…

The only requirement for an ESL teacher is being a native English speaker (and in many countries, this isn’t even set in stone – I have worked along side teachers born and raised in Thailand and Romania). I have met teachers who are so young, they are only extending their college partying experience with a year abroad (so to speak) so they can travel. I have also met teachers who couldn’t care less about the quality of education they provide to their students. I have rarely, if ever, met an actual qualified teacher. Employers are literally floored to see Jen’s resume and learn that she not only has one, but two master’s degrees in education. They just never see it (hell, even I don’t have a degree in education).

Most ESL teachers come from the US, Canada, and the UK and I would guess many haven’t ever been instructed in the proper way to create a lesson plan. Just because you know how to speak the language, doesn’t mean you know how to teach it (so in this regard, the teacher from Romania, who’s familiar with the official grammar rules, is superior to the native speaker). Some put effort in, of course – I’m not saying all are blase. But you’d be hard-pressed to find an ESL educator familiar with Kolb’s learning styles, or even know what the word pedagogy means. Similarly to a bachelor’s degree, a simple TEFL certificate hardly prepares someone for employment in the real world.

Nothing to Speak About, Nothing to Write About, Nothing to Think About…

Perhaps the single biggest issue in the ESL industry is this: lack of life experience. I know it sounds unimportant, but nothing could be further from the truth. I go into these classrooms to teach English. English is a form of communication. I’m not there to teach students how to think or give them things to talk and write about. They are supposed to come to the table with ammunition themselves. I have had students who have never traveled outside of their village. I have had students who have never been on vacation, or slept in a hotel room. I have had students who don’t have any hobbies, interests, or unique personality traits – other than soccer and shopping – that separate them from the pack.

How can an ESL student possibly write or speak in an effort to learn a new language, when they haven’t done anything worth writing or speaking about?

Very few of my students have ever been to a theme park, taken a dance class, played a musical instrument, or opened a history book. And…

Reading for fun… WHAAAAAT????

They only seem to care about cell phone games and partying. They know next to nothing about foreign countries and cultures; they know very little about their own country and culture. In the US, students are given ample opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities after school and on weekends. That doesn’t seem to happen in the third-world. And so, when I present a lesson during which the English learners are supposed to have opinions and share ideas about their lives, they simply sit there dumbfounded with nothing to say or write. They seem like empty, hollow shells of people (it reminds me of Westworld in a way).

I welcome your comments below.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

You Say You Want a Revolution?

My new apartment in Monastir, Tunisia overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, but that’s not all. It also overlooks the mausoleum of ex-president (and socialist dictator) Habib Bourguiba. Every morning, when I take my coffee out onto the balcony and bask in the sunlight as it reflects joyously off the rippling sea waves, I stare out at the palace-like structure. I began to wonder about who this Bourguiba actually was. So I looked him up, and this is what I discovered.

State Approved Presidential Portrait of Bourguiba (circa.1960)…

Habib Ben Ali Bourguiba served as the country’s first president following their independence in 1956, himself proclaiming the Kingdom a Republic the following year (1957). After the nation’s separation from France, he earned the title “Supreme Combatant” (whatever that means). He was born and spent his childhood in Monastir (hence why he’s buried outside my window), and you can eat in a restaurant in a building that he previously called home.

His rise to power isn’t that interesting at all. He was a statesman during the time of French occupation, but quickly became a socialist and ruled for about 30 years as dictator (for lack of a better word). He was ousted in a coup de’tat by prime minister, a man named Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 1987 because of his declining health, the rise of Islamism, and a War of succession. Basically, he came into power via bloodshed and turmoil and he left in the same manner.

What makes this story slightly more interesting is that his successor, this Ben Ali, was the leader until the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, also known as the Jasmine Revolution. At that point, he was ousted and now lives with his family in exile in Saudi Arabia. If he comes back into Tunisia, he’ll be executed on the tarmac. What is it about this country that causes leaders to be so violently overthrown, just about all the damn time? He is accused of a variety of crimes like manslaughter and drug trafficking.

Typical Sight on the Tunisian Coastline (small wonder why no European tourists have come back post-2015 terrorist shooting)…

For those of you who don’t know, the revolution here wasn’t much more than a campaign of civil disobedience (thank you Dr. King) and street protests. The country has since become democratized (mostly successfully), which means that the general public and the media now enjoy freedom of speech – no small feat for an Islamic nation. But that’s about all that changed. From what other Tunisians have told me, there are other aspects of life which have gotten worse in the past six or so years, including unemployment, the value of the dinar (their currency), and trash or garbage, which litters just about every street in every city that we’ve seen – even our beautiful Monastir (and don’t get me started on the way it smells when the wind blows a certain direction).

Photograph Entitled: “The Rest Will Follow” that went Viral during the Arab Spring.

Many analysts agree that the revolution here could very well pave the way toward freedom in all other Arab countries. Although other Arab Spring nations have failed to convert to constitutional democracies thus far, there may still yet be time for them to fall like dominoes. Fighting in Egypt resulted in a regime change (when the Muslim Brotherhood was taken down by General Sisi, who went on to win a general election to become president himself) as well as the current civil war in Syria may yet go either way. Many other conflicts are still on-going and have been given the name The Arab Winter. For Tunisians, however, the winter and spring are over and the time for summer seems at hand.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away….

In 1977 the world changed forever. The epic space opera, Star Wars, revolutionized the way films were made and the way audiences watched them. 2017 is the 40th anniversary of that groundbreaking undertaking. And I got to visit one of the filming locations in Tunisia.

George Lucas originally conceived Luke Skywalker‘s home planet to be a lush jungle, however, he altered the decision at the eleventh hour to be a desert world to pay homage to Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune. He learned about the indigenous people of North Africa, who lived in the mountain caves that surrounded the borders of the Sahara Desert and was inspired.

The Rolling Sand Dunes of Tatooine (or Tataouine)…

Tatooine was born. In our world, the real-life Tataouine can be found in southern Tunisia and it’s pre-Arab inhabitants are known as Berbers. They have spent centuries – up to this day – living in troglodyte caverns underground. The most famous of these can be found in Old Matmata (or Matmata Kadeema) and became the now well-recognized home of Luke’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru – desert moisture farmers.

As a lifelong fan of the franchise, I just had to see the Lars’ Homestead for myself. The Hotel Sidi Driss isn’t only a decently preserved Star Wars set. It’s also a hotel, restaurant, and bar. I was surprised to see just how hoppin’ the place was. Every night, it crowds with locals drinking beer and wine as well as snacking on their favorite southern Tunisian foods. The loud music detracts from the magic, but if you want solitude, the place is perfectly quiet between dawn and 4pm.

The Painted Ceiling of the Lars’ Dining Room…

Jen and I got to eat dinner at Luke Skywalker’s dining room table. We got to sleep in his bedroom (never filmed, but Mark Hamill actually slept there…. actually, I can’t honestly back that up, there’s just no evidence that any of the cast or crew stayed the night in the cave rooms – and to go even further, I couldn’t find evidence that the now hotel was a hotel in 1975 either. That may have been a more recent alteration).

We also took some fun photos. See for yourself!

Until Next Time…

-Justin

 

A Tale of Two Monasteries

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the culture of Islam, it was the culture of Buddhism, it was the beach by the sea, it was the hamlet in the mountains, it was the spring of relaxation, it was the autumn of innerreflection.

Monastir’s location…

Usually, we sign a one year contract and stay in a place from September to June. However, when the opportunity to volunteer and live at a Buddhist monastery in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains for six months presented itself, we had to take it. Now, from where I sit – on my private balcony overlooking the crystalline Mediterranean Sea – I can see the decision was destiny.

Following our volunteering, we accepted a six-month position (to round out the year) with an American NGO (non-government organization) in Tunisia: Amideast. When we were hired, we were supposed to have been placed in one of the largest cities in this small north African nation, Sousse (you may remember it from the terrorist attacks in the summer of 2015). But fate reared its head yet again and our assignment shifted to a smaller city about 20 kilometers south along the eastern seaboard.

Monastir.

Yep, you guessed it. The name means monastery. So while we’ve been staying put for 10-12 months at a time, we moved to two different locations within the same year and both were – for all intents and purposes – monasteries.

The Marina of Monastir…

My first impressions of Tunisia were mostly unexpected. The people smile all the time. They seem much friendlier in general than in other similar countries. Perhaps it’s the climate. The summers (they say) can get very hot, but all in all the coastal cities share the weather of Greece, Italy and southern Spain.

There is a lot of litter around on the streets and blowing in the wind. The beaches aren’t up to American or even European standards (probably one of the reasons tourism has dipped recently), but what surprised me is that the air seems cleaner than Nepal and Egypt. There seems to be much less dust and there is an ability to take deep breaths and smell the salty sea air.

Some Boats kept in the Port Harbor…

Monastir as a city is quaint and quiet. It juts out on a little peninsula that faces east so the sunrises sparkle off the blue-green water. The view from our balcony looks out over the Mausoleum of Bourguiba and the ribat (a medieval fort) as well as the eastern wall of the medina (old city). There is a lot of traffic along the busier streets, but it’s nothing compared to the hectic turmoil of Nepal. So maybe first impressions are relative. If we had arrived in Tunisia directly from the United States, we may have been in for much more of a shock than we were.

The cost of living is much lower here than many other places, including Spain. In fact a kilogram of oranges costs about $0.25 and rents are a fraction of what a similar apartment would be in America or Europe. We’ve started running again, now that we have room to do so, and there are lots of benefits to exercise so near to the sea. More importantly than any of that though: we feel safe. There was a lot of speculation regarding our security before we got here. I’m pleased to announce that as of the writing of this blog, all is well.

The Mediterranean Sea from Monastir…

One of the initial downsides that may impact the entire time here is the work schedule. Many of the classes are geared toward adults and therefore must take place in the evenings and on weekends. It makes planning meals and leisure time activities difficult. On top of that, it’s not a static schedule. There is the potential to get more classes each month when new sessions begin.

Like everywhere else in the world, Tunisia is full of positives and negatives, advantages and disadvantages. Only time will tell if the pluses outweigh the negatives, but so far, it’s looking quite good.

The View from the Balcony of our new Apartment…

Until Next Time….

-Justin

Overseas Series: License to Drive

Behind the Wheel, Heading for France!
Behind the Wheel, Heading for France!

America has a car culture. I remember quite distinctly being a teenager in the suburbs and waiting with baited breath to turn the legal driving age so that I could get around to see my friends and have the ultimate freedom. I remember getting my learner’s permit and those first few times starting up the ignition and backing down the driveway. I remember all the lessons: parallel parking, checking mirrors, signaling before changing lanes… and the infrastructure is something that most Americans take for granted. Traffic lights, stop signs, painted lines on the roads, mile markers, and other conveniences are abnormally absent from third world countries.

A AAA International Driver's Permit
A AAA International Driver’s Permit

So when I decided to become an expat, I knew that driving was one privilege that I didn’t want to lose. I went to AAA and got my international driver’s permit so that I could operate a motor vehicle in every country in the world. While living in South Korea, I bought a motorcycle and took lessons so that I could get around town without having to rely on the public transportation system – the metro line was in construction in Jisan Dong (my neighborhood) and overcrowded buses were the only option.

In Turkiye, I only drove once when I had to leave school and get back to my apartment for some important paperwork that I had left at home. I borrowed my supervisor’s car and braved the Middle Eastern roads and traffic (my wife was a mess thinking about it). It’s something that I couldn’t have done without my international permit.

I doubt all these people have a valid license...
I doubt all these people have a valid license…

While living in China, the school provided us with an eBike – it topped out at 40 kph (which is nothing), and only for a short time before needing to be recharged, but we were able to get back and forth from the school campus to the bus station or the supermarket in town when we needed to. Incidentally, I didn’t need a permit to operate such a small eBike anyway.

Jen was Super Excited for our Road Trip!
Jen was Super Excited for our Road Trip!

In Spain, we rented a car a few times to drive around the country, or between countries. We took an amazing road trip through the south of France in October of last year (with a detour through Andorra) and then when we were in Germany over the Christmas holiday, we rented a car to get us back and forth to Prague in the Czech Republic. Driving in Germany was one of the best vehicular pleasures of my life – the roads are well-lit, the drivers know what they’re doing, and sometimes there’s no speed limit at all.

Whether or not I was behind the wheel in these countries, I sure as heck saw some weird, crazy, and sometimes amazing things on the roads.

Take a Close Look and You'll See the Weapons...
Take a Close Look and You’ll See the Weapons…

For example, in Ankara we saw people get into a fight on the road. They literally got out of their stopped cars in the middle of the lanes of traffic, went into their trunks and pulled out iron bars and baseball bats. Apparently, a lot of drivers keep weapons on hand in case of incidents of road rage. Pretty freaky!

In another instance, we were in the backseat of a car in China (driven by one of the workers of our school), who proceeded to not only drive into lanes of oncoming traffic, but then swerved onto the opposing shoulder of the road to try and make a left turn by avoiding the intersection completely and cutting off four rows of cars, buses, and trucks to do so. It was single-handedly the worst driving I have ever seen in my life.

The South Asian Roads are a Veritable Sea of Cars, Trucks, and Bikes...
The South Asian Roads are a Veritable Sea of Cars, Trucks, and Bikes…

The roads in Nepal and Cambodia are a nightmare. Yet somehow, the drivers seem to know how to successfully navigate the traffic. I have yet to see any kind of accident here. The speeds top out at probably 35 mph anyway, so no one is really gunning it – pedal to the metal – down the dusty, pot-hole-filled streets, but still. The roads are twisting and turning, and in both countries, 5 cars are squeezed into the space of where only two would normally fit. Don’t get me started on the motorbikes either. They are everywhere and will cut off the larger vehicles on both sides just to get around a jam.

If you choose to drive overseas, make sure you are completely comfortable behind the wheel. And if you’re an avid driver in the States, thank your lucky stars that you get to drive in such amazing conditions.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

A Himalayan Christmas

As all of you already know, it’s very difficult to be away from home for the holidays. There’s just something about surrounding yourself with friends and family that makes the Christmas season all the more special. Living abroad, Jen and I often find ourselves alone and have to make the best of it. This year was particularly hard since we don’t have many comforts of home living at the monastery. So we took it upon ourselves to make our own holiday magic.

The Boudhanath Stupa on Thanksgiving Night...
The Boudhanath Stupa on Thanksgiving Night…

For Thanksgiving, we ate on a balcony overlooking the Boudhanath Stupa, which was all lit up like it was Christmas. It was quite a festive feeling to be had on our holiday, as well as a great kick-start to the season. Surprisingly, the monastery helped set the mood too. On the night of December 23rd they held a candle-lit vigil in front of a very “Christmas-y” looking gompa. We processed around the grounds, including a walk through the stupa garden, along with almost fourhundred monks. It was quite a thing to behold.

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On the morning of the 24th, we took a two hour taxi ride outside the Kathmandu Valley and up into the Himalayan Mountains. There is a small hilltop village called Nagarkot where we stayed at a really nice hotel called the Country Villa. We got a corner room overlooking the snowcapped peaks. The ‘suite’ came complete with a queensize bed, heating in the room (a rarity in Nepal), hot water in the shower (that doesn’t go out after five minutes), and room service.

We spent almost three full days simply relaxing in the mountains. We read. We played games. We ordered in. We woke up early to watch the sunrise on our private balcony. We drank hot cocoa and egg nog. And we, of course, opened our gifts. It wasn’t the fanciest Christmas ever, but we managed to enjoy it quite a bit.

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So far, we have no plans for New Year’s Eve. The monastery closes its gates at 9:00pm and we cannot be out later than that without special permission – which we probably won’t worry about getting. We’ll see what happens. This will be my final post for 2016. We wish you all a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year!

Until Next Time…

-Justin

Monastic Life

Overseas Series: Cutting Loose

Sometimes it’s nice to be pampered: to go to a spa and relax with a hot stone treatment, deep tissue massage, and the whole works. Sometimes it’s just nice to be able to get a haircut. Living abroad can make doing these kinds of things difficult.

Recently, I went to a local Nepali barbershop to get my haircut and I was reminded of all the other haircuts we’ve tried to get since living overseas. In Korea, I couldn’t get the stylist at the salon I went to with my buddy Luke to agree to the haircut I wanted. Perhaps it was the language barrier, or perhaps he knew what I wanted and simply refused to give it to me. Either way, I never went back and didn’t try getting my haircut anywhere else since then. Until now.

Not Jen, but you get the idea...
Not Jen, but you get the idea…

In China, I didn’t get my haircut, but Jen did (she didn’t in Turkey, what with her coworkers all wearing hijabs, she didn’t have anyone to ask about salons). It cost her very little money and the stylist spent the better part of an hour working her hair over and she looked glorious when it was all said and done. He did an amazing job for practically pennies. He cut it, styled it, layered it, thinned it, blew it out, and did whatever else it is that you ladies always get done at the salon.

See, my hair is simple and I own my own set of clippers so 99% of the time, I just do it myself. I cut my own hair in Turkey, in China, and in Spain. However, trying to give myself a trim here at the monastery would prove to be a hassle. We don’t really have our own living space: essentially living a dormitory lifestyle, we have a room and a bathroom and we get our meals in a dining hall. But we don’t really have the money to spend on cleaning products (volunteers that we are) and I don’t really feel like having to stoop down and pick pieces of my hair up one at a time off the floor. On top of that, our bathroom is minuscule, I would have more room if I used the outdoor shared bathroom in our old building. However, then I have to worry about the cold, the inadequate lighting, and potential people walking in on me while I’m half-naked and shaving my head.

It’s just not going to work.

The Sailoon!
The Sailoon!

So I went to get it done. And what an experience it was. The salon – spelled Sailoon on the window – was a dirty, one room business on the corner at the bottom of the hill beneath the monastery. The owner is a young twenty-something who took over the family business from his father. He’s been cutting hair since he was nine years old. He sat me down, flipped the skirt thing around me, and asked me what I wanted. I told him and he began with the clippers, but he didn’t last long with them. He quickly switched to the scissors and comb.

Not as Scary as if he actually had scissorhands...
Not as Scary as if he actually had scissorhands…

His deft fingers flew across my scalp, faster than anyone’s ever cut my hair before. But I wasn’t scared he was going to cut me; he was simply that good. It was like Edward Scissorhands or something. He got halfway through my haircut and then declared a five minute tea break. He went next door and came back with a glass of tea for me and one for himself. He sat next to me chatting in his very broken and difficult to understand English. Super nice guy.

After we finished our tea, he commenced my haircut. When he was finished, he asked me if I liked it and I told him I did. He then proceeded to massage my scalp. I thought that was all I was going to get but when he was finished with my scalp, he moved to my forehead and eyelids and then down the back of my neck. He massaged my neck, back, arms, hands, and even cracked my knuckles on both hands. Following the massage and the haircut, he then moved into style mode. He put three products in my hair: gel, pomade, and hairspray – all of which he applied using a blow dryer. When I left, I looked like a movie star. I guess that’s what you get when your barber has been cutting hair since he was in the single digits.

I’m sorry to have to report this back to you guys in the States who pay upwards of $20 (for men) and $60 (for women) just to get your haircuts. But this very able barber charges his Nepali clients a total of 50 rupees (50 cents) for their haircuts. I felt generous after such a good job. I gave him $3.00.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

A Jungle Safari Adventure! (part II)

Drums out in the wilds of the deepest jungles of central Asia! The beating will drive madness into the mind! Danger! Excitement! Wild beasts! And now, presenting a safari trekking excursion!

DAY 3

Hiding from the Tiger!
Hiding from the Tiger!

Our third day began with an early start. When we finished breakfast, we walked down to the river and got into a special kind of canoe, made by the hollowing out of a special type of tree trunk. The canoe held about ten people and slowly made its way downstream to the entrance of the jungle. Along the way we saw plenty of waterfowl including egrets, cranes, and smaller, more colorful birds, and even a few crocodiles near the banks. I was worried the boat would tip too far to the left and start taking in water, but magically, it never did. We arrived at our destination dry as bones. Now it was time for our jungle trek.

In the Canoe!
In the Canoe!

The guide gave us his spiel about what to do if we encountered some of the area’s more dangerous critters: sloth bears, rhinos, and tigers (fun fact: did you know that you’re supposed to stare down a tiger if he comes across you, looking fierce, making funny faces, and loud noises while waving your arms at him? Truthfully, the last thing you want to do when facing a tiger is turn tail and run away). Rhinos have bad eyesight so if they charge at you, you’re supposed to run in a zigzag pattern and possibly either hide behind or climb up a tree.

Tiger Tracks!
Tiger Tracks!

So we hiked through the dense vegetation of the rain forest and the adjacent grasslands with 12 foot high grasses (which made visibility negligible) and didn’t encounter anything dangerous. We saw lots of brightly colored insects and birds, a few monkeys, a flock of spotted deer, and tiger tracks (we even heard one barking in the distance), but we didn’t see any. I thought I saw the back half of a panther, jaguar, or some other type of smaller jungle cat, but it disappeared before our guide could identify it. What we did see was big piles of animal stool, like sloth bears and rhinos. It was like we were tracking the beasts and our guide could tell us how recently the animals had been in the very spot we were standing. Too bad they had vacated the premises before our arrival.

Crossing the River!
Crossing the River!

Three hours later, we were sitting on a raised platform under the shade of a tree overlooking the river, watching an elephant cross the water. We hadn’t seen any rhinos yet, so our guide promised to take us out the next morning to a spot on the river where he knew they would be so that we could see them. All in all, our jungle safari trek was fun, but uneventful. At one point Jen had a leech on her pants, which came off easily with one small tug, but otherwise not much else happened. We returned to the town for showers, more a/c card games, and dinner.

DAY 4

It felt like Jurassic Park!
It felt like Jurassic Park!

Our fourth day started with a bang. RHINOS! We hiked to the river and saw two of them, one in the water taking his own bath and another up on the bank eating some grass (they’re herbivores). They are truly amazing creatures that made me feel as if I were in Jurassic Park. They really do resemble dinosaurs with the horn and armor plating. The rhino in the river crossed paths with a wild elephant too. They were really awesome to see.

Ancient Elephant heading back into the Jungle!
Ancient Elephant heading back into the Jungle!

After the rhinos, Jen wanted to bathe with the elephants again since it was our main reason for coming to the area and she had so much fun the first time. So she did that again, this time she spent close to 45 minutes scrubbing down a twenty-five year old girl named Elisa (or Eliza), who had walked for five days across India just to get into Nepal with her teenage owner and his five year old little brother. Both Jen and the elephant were all smiles that day and I got some great pics, so I was all smiles too.

Baby Elephants!
Baby Elephants!

Following more showers, we took a quick motorcycle ride to the Elephant Breeding Center, where baby elephants run around amok. We arrived just as they finished their grazing in the forest and were coming back for feeding time. We both got to play with and touch them (something you could never do in the States); one of the younger ones was running around the entire place looking for something sweet to eat, barreling toward the tourists, who jumped out of her way.

The Littlest Elephant - only 4 months old!
The Littlest Elephant – only 4 months old!

Their mothers are chained up while the babies roam free so that when they’re playing with tourists, the mothers don’t stampede or do anything else dangerous. We finished up just as the rain started coming down so we went back to town to wait out the rain and then head around for some souvenir shopping and more dinner at KCs.

When dinner was over we took a walk along the river, saw some more crocodiles and tried to see the sunset, but because it was cloudy we only got more changing, shifting colors and didn’t ever really get a chance to see the brilliant ball of gas slipping lower behind the horizon. That night was awful because the electricity never came back on and we had to sleep in a muggy, bug-infested room (the screens had holes) and I barely slept a wink. It was awful, especially knowing what followed the next morning: another horrible, terrible, no good, very bad bus ride back up to Kathmandu (we found out the hard way that this time took 8 hours, not 6 because of muddy roads and traffic).

All in all, we had a great adventure in the jungles of Nepal. As always, the people are marvelous and well worth visiting. They really seem to care about going above and beyond to ensure you’re enjoying yourself. If you can stomach the bus ride, and have a few extra days, Chitwan National Park is worth it in spite of not ever getting the guarantee of seeing animals on your jungle trek. We recommend it!

Until Next Time…

-Justin

A Jungle Safari Adventure! (part I)

Drums out in the wilds of the deepest jungles of central Asia! The beating will drive madness into the mind! Danger! Excitement! Wild beasts! And now, presenting a safari trekking excursion!

DAY 1

Our adventure began with the bus ride from hell: six grueling hours on bumpy, unpaved, dusty, twisting and turning mountain roads in a vehicle without comfort (no a/c, cramped seating, and some bad body odor). When we wiped our foreheads, our hands came back black with soot and dirt. We weren’t sure the bus would even be operating on the day we needed to go because the monsoon season had brought with it a fair share of mud and landslides, blocking the roads. The tourism company had to find out if the roads would be cleared first, before they would even consider selling us tickets.

Nepalese Tourist Bus!
Nepalese Tourist Bus!

The bus did end up going and once we arrived at the dirt parking lot of the Sauraha bus terminal (there was no terminal), we negotiated a taxi to the hotel with a local driver, hopped into the back of his “jungle jeep” (nothing more than a pickup truck with seats in the back) and drove through more bumpy, unpaved, and dusty roads to get to our hotel. Our backs and backsides were killing us, but as the rain started pouring, we just wanted to get into our room and get showered.

The hotel was called the River Bank Inn, aptly named as it is (as advertised) on the edge of the Rapti River. The staff, all three of them, were very helpful and friendly. We chose the hotel because the guidebook said they owned three of their own elephants and that idea sounded marvelous to Jen; however, when we got there we learned that only four months earlier, the owner sold the elephants because they were too expensive to keep and business wasn’t doing so well. During our time there we learned why.

The hotel had zero ambiance. Up and down the main strip in the town, you can find dozens of safari themed lodges and campgrounds – totally immersing visitors in a jungle experience. The River Bank Inn didn’t do any of that unfortunately (but their breakfasts were some of the better hotel breakfasts we have had over the past few years).

Elephants on Parade!
Elephants on Parade!

After the rain ceased, we wandered around the town for a while, checking out the local shops and restaurants. The town of Sauraha feels like you’re stepping into a time warp; it’s not just being in an exotic location, it had a very Bedrock vibe to it. We had dinner at a wonderful little place called KCs, which had an entire garden out back and a diner-style menu featuring Indian, Mexican, Italian, and American foods. They’re known for their tandoori dishes so we stuck with eating Indian food while we were there (we went back every night for dinner – it was the best restaurant in town). The sky lit up with beautiful colors of magentas and violets as the sun set across the river and we were treated to some unique sights: elephants walking down the town streets, something we had never seen, nor even fathomed seeing before. Jen’s reaction was priceless!

DAY 2

A Privately Owned Elephant! Yes, the People Actually Live in that Shack!
A Privately Owned Elephant! Yes, the People Actually Live in that Shack!

Our second day activities opened with the primary reason for our visit. Jen donned her bikini and we hiked down to the river so that she could meet and bathe with the elephants. Basically, there are two kinds of elephants in the Chitwan National Park area: government owned and privately owned. Private owners let the elephant handlers, aka mahouts, take their elephants out and around town for various money-making enterprises, one of which is the bathing.

Look Out!
Look Out!

Tourists can help scrub the elephants down while they lay around in the river, or they can get on the beasts’ backs and allow themselves to be sprayed with trunk loads of water. The elephants are trained to suck up the water and then blow it all over their backs and the people on their backs. It’s a lot of fun to watch and even more fun to be soaked. Needless to say, Jen had a blast, no pun intended, playing around with a couple of elephants and then we headed back to the room for showers again.

Southern Nepal (heading toward India), where Chitwan National Park is located is much closer to sea level than the mountainous valleys of Kathmandu. Therefore, it’s much hotter and way more humid than the weather at the monastery. Every day peaked in the mid to high 90s with humidity at about the same. So following our morning activities, we spent the better part of the afternoon holed up in our room in front of the a/c (when the power worked – don’t forget this is Nepal and they only get electricity that works 50% of the time) playing cards or reading together. Once 4:00pm hit and the temperature and humidity dipped down did we brave the elements to venture out into the town again for some shopping, dinner, and night life.

Stick Dancers!
Stick Dancers!

And night life meant the Tharu Stick Dance performances at their cultural hall. Following dinner, we were entertained by a troop performing ancient, local dances to a very loud bongo drum. There was some chanting, but overall it was a bunch of people moving about in a large circle with smaller one-handed sticks or larger two-handed sticks, beating them together to the rhythm of the drum. The announcer had a really bad microphone (and notsohot English) so while we couldn’t understand what she was introducing, we were entertained in an awkward sorta way by their costumes and musical numbers. It was obvious that most of the participants cared about their heritage and wanted to put on a good show for those in attendance (about fifty people or so). At the end, they even called willing spectators on stage to join in the final number. That was hectic and chaotic, but everyone appeared to enjoy it and have a great time.

To Be Continued…

Overseas Series: Running in Circles

There are many advantages and disadvantages to living abroad as you have read so far in this series, and most of them can be rather humorous. One such example is staying active and working out, which can sometimes present interesting challenges and unforeseen difficulties in third world countries.

Jen looking for the end of the Rainbow...
Jen looking for the end of the Rainbow…

As I’ve mentioned before, teaching ESL in South Korea ran like a Swiss clock. The school not only provided housing and healthcare, but also gave their teachers memberships to a local gym. I could work out to my heart’s content (typically about 3 times a week when I lived there – before Jen started forcing me to do it every day). The club was within walking distance of both the school and the apartment building where the teachers were housed. Since leaving Korea, however, keeping fit has been something of a hassle, in spite of my wife’s prodding.

While in Turkiye, Jen and I had to walk down (and then up) hill for 15 – 20 minutes just to get to the park with the outdoor track so we could run. Unfortunately, the track wasn’t only used for running. We had to play Frogger with the other pedestrians and their strollers and toddlers and wheelchairs and senior citizens – not to mention the actual cars that would cross over the track on their way to the parking lot nestled on the other side. I actually ran into a toddler once and inadvertently knocked him down. I didn’t look back but could hear him crying as I continued along my way.

In Taoyuan, You would See things like This...
In Taoyuan, You would See things like This…

In China, we ran through the rural village in the countryside near our school campus. In Taoyuan, the people had never seen anyone white before so we’d get our photo taken countless times during shopping trips to the market. You can imagine what running must have looked like. People began to expect to see us (as far as I can tell) since they would cheer when we went by and even offer high fives or butt slaps on occasion (okay, okay, I’m exaggerating about the butt slaps). Yes, they would’ve been sitting on their front porches anyway, but it is truly hard to run when you’re laughing so hard because you just got punched in the shoulder by some old Chinese woman as you ran past her house.

Alicia Running in the Snow
Alicia Running in the Snow

And in Spain, Jen was such a drill sergeant that she made me (and our friend Alicia) run through all weather conditions including rain, snow, sleet, and hail. I felt like a postal carrier. On a more positive note, we did our first international 5k while in Pamplona, last October for breast cancer awareness. On a negative note to that positive note, most of the Spaniards walked instead of ran, you can just guess how well that went over with Sergeant Jen. But it was practice for her, at any rate, to run with the bulls in July.

I wore my pink on my sleeve...
I wore my pink on my sleeve…

Here, in Nepal, we can’t even run at or around the monastery because there just isn’t a place to do it. There aren’t any paved roads on the side of the mountain for us to run up and down (not that we’d want to run up and down a mountain), so that’s not an option. And while the gompa sits in the center of the grounds and a stone path circumnavigates it, because of last year’s earthquake, it’s covered with rubble and construction equipment as the contractors rebuild and repair the damaged structures (if we ran that loop, we would also have to deal with stairs and stray dogs).

Chinese Students Running with Jen
Chinese Students Running with Jen

Oh, you want to hear a dog story? Back in Ankara, Jen was attacked by a pack of the wild beasts when she tried to run one evening. They were jumping all over her. And if you don’t know Jen very well, let me tell you she just loves dogs. Loves them. All animals really, especially the strays. Not.

But running isn’t the only thing we like to do to be healthy. We also enjoy yoga from time to time. Since coming to Nepal we’ve been doing it on the roof of our building (the only place with enough flat space and some amazing Himalayan views) every morning between 5:30-6:30am. We’ve tried to do yoga other places though with some hardships. In Spain, for instance, we didn’t have wifi in our apartment and since we were streaming episodes from the internet, it was difficult. Since then, we have had to download episodes and then save them all, knowing we were coming here with limited internet access. When we run out, we’ll have to just repeat the same couple dozen that I’ve saved over and over again.

Yoga in the Himalayas
Yoga in the Himalayas

Wherever we go, we do our best to make the best of the situation. There’s always time and a place to work out and take care of your body. You just have to look for those options. You can’t shortcut health and fitness. Make a schedule and stick to it. Don’t let weather or laziness or bad internet or even unpaved mountain roads get in your way. The moral of the story: Just Do It!

Until Next Time…

-Justin

A Very Special Puja

On Sunday, Jen and I attended a four hour puja in the gompa at the monastery. Now, if a bunch of those words don’t make sense to you, you’re not alone; just let me explain. A puja is a prayer service and a gompa is the building, like a church or a temple. Over 1,000 people attended this very special prayer service on Sunday, which was dedicated to one of the gurus, who passed away a few years ago and has since been reincarnated into a now three and a half year old little boy. Sound a bit far-fetched? Not if you’re Buddhist.

Over 1,000 Monks chanting in Tibetan
Over 1,000 Monks chanting in Tibetan

A lama is a spiritual leader in the Buddhist faith. But more than that, lamas are people who have learned how to control when and where they will be reincarnated. They aren’t all “enlightened”, at least not yet, but they all have achieved a certain level of understanding of the universe around them. In Buddhism, the main concept is to still your mind through meditation so that you can learn the truths of the universe – the major one being the idea of emptiness (or selfless-ness, loss of ego). All Buddhists are somewhere along the Dharma or the path to enlightenment. They are striving to attain the status of Buddha. There are stops along the way, including the title of lama.

This particular puja was dedicated to a man named Lama Lundrup, the former abbot (head) of Kopan Monastery. His reincarnation appeared in a boy named Tenzin Rigsel, who lives in the city of Kathmandu until he becomes old enough to enter monastic life. Hopefully, he’ll accept his destiny. But what happens if he doesn’t? Well, it happened recently.

All of my Students were in Attendance (You can see some on the left side)...
All of my Students were in Attendance (You can see some on the left side)…

A few years ago, a young man denied his Buddhist order after being chosen by the Dalai Lama himself as a reincarnation of another lama. Osel Torres, now lives in Spain and studies film at a university in Madrid, but he was supposed to be a monk. So what happened? He was the finalist chosen out of nine boys to be whisked away to a monastery in northern India, where he was denied sports, movies, and girls. “It was like living a lie,” he told El Mundo (a Spanish newspaper). I suppose ultimately, we’re born with free will and that can mean turning your back on your fate if you want to, and choosing another.

Buddhist Nuns are called Anis and aren't easy to spot...
Buddhist Nuns are called Anis and aren’t easy to spot…

So the puja lasted four hours with an intermission and involved a lot of bowing, offerings, and chanting in Tibetan. It was very hard to follow, but with the help of our English translation, Jen and I at least got the gist. Visitors from Singapore sponsored the event, which meant they brought along snacks and relics to hand out to the participants. Other than being in a foreign language and in a foreign temple, all in all, the services were a lot like a Catholic Mass or a Christian church service. It was quite an experience.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

Overseas Series: Bathing Abroad

Recently, my wife and I moved in with one of her coworkers in an effort to save money over the summer during the period of time we won’t have an income. It’s a great help and we’re very thankful to her and her family for their sacrifice.

OMG! Brrrr! (Notice the Scorch Marks)
OMG! Brrrr! (Notice the Scorch Marks)

That being said, they have to do something about their hot water heater. The flame randomly goes out all the time, especially when someone has a face and hair full of soap and shampoo in the middle of their shower. The water turns ice cold to the point of being very painful and the difficulties we’re now having with our bathing have reminded me of some of our past issues while living overseas.

One would think bathing is a fundamental human activity. After all, everyone has to do it. So even the most under-developed nations should have a system in place of helping people to bathe and shower easily and conveniently. Not so.

What's Missing from this Picture? The Shower! It's just a Bathroom!
What’s Missing from this Picture? The Shower! It’s just a Bathroom!

Bathrooms are vastly different from continent to continent. Some people in Africa and the Middle East don’t have running water and indoor plumbing. The Far East doesn’t use shower stalls and bathtubs, preferring instead to just open up the entire bathroom to wetness while showering (you get the toilet and sink drenched every time). Most countries, other than the US and Canada don’t implement clothing dryers when doing your laundry (this isn’t exactly bathing, but still). One has to hang their laundry on lines or racks; Asians even used these circular hangers with clips for their naughty bits to dangle from while drying.

In Turkiye, before we bought legitimate towels, Jen and I had an experience of drying ourselves off with paper towels from the kitchen after our shower. But perhaps of all these weird and wild experiences trying to keep clean abroad, the craziest happened to us in China.

Last year we lived in a dormitory for teachers and students in a rural boarding school. The building didn’t offer free hot water to its residents. Instead, we had to charge money onto a special card that went into a reader that was bolted to the wall in the bathroom when we wanted the hot water to come on. Unfortunately, hot water was only available certain times of the day, typically between 6-8am and 8-10pm. If we wanted to wash dishes or shower in the middle of the day we were either freezing our tushies off or just plain out of luck (you would think they would either limit the time or charge us money, not both).

Our Chinese Apartment with the Kettle taking Center Stage!
Our Chinese Apartment with the Kettle taking Center Stage!

One time, when we absolutely needed to shower, but the hot water wasn’t turned on, I had to boil water in our electric kettle and then dilute it with cold water until it was a decently warm temperature so that the mixture could then be poured over top of Jen’s head while she scrubbed herself down. You can imagine this picture: Jen covered in soap, shivering… me fully clothed and pouring buckets of water over top of her while she’s in the bathroom, getting me and everything else wet.

The moral of these stories: don’t take your nice, hot showers for granted. Ever.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

By the Horns

Cultures of the world are full of traditions. Some are time-honored. Some are silly. Some both. Made famous by Hemingway in his novel, The Sun Also Rises, Pamplona Spain is home to one of the most random I’ve ever encountered that is all of the above: The Running of the Bulls. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Plaza Consistorial, featuring City Hall
Plaza Consistorial, featuring City Hall

Hundreds of people, dressed in red and white, take to the street (only one, sectioned off by wooden blockades) to run and jog alongside half-ton beasts with pairs of 18″ daggers protruding off the front of their heads. Many of these runners are drunk – let’s face it, you’d have to be right? But not all of them.

My wife was recently one of the sober ones (and she still chose to do it). If you don’t know what it is, allow me to wax intellectual about it for a brief moment. Six bulls are let loose to run as fast as their little hooves can carry them up and around the twisting, turning streets of the medieval section of Pamplona during the festival of San Fermines every July.

Jen getting ready to run...
Jen getting ready to run…

Originally, the custom dates back to the 14th Century when it became necessary to use fear and excitement to entice the bulls to run faster and faster (and the butchers themselves wore white). What evolved was a competition between men to see who could do the best job of scaring the bulls into the corrals. Enter the Spanish concept of Machismo with men trying to showcase their bravado and you have the contemporary Running of the Bulls.

The course ends at the Plaza del Toros where the bulls are kept for a few more hours between the morning run and the evening bull fights, an event during which time the bulls are ruthlessly toyed with for the amusement of the expectant crowd before being callously slaughtered – by the matadors – for no apparent reason. They do eat the meat, and honestly the killing is more humane than most American slaughterhouses. And it’s tradition. So it’s okay.

Look Closely and you can see Jen's face in there...
Look Closely and you can see Jen’s face in there…

Jen decided she needed to run, not once, but twice. The first time was just a run through (no pun intended) and she felt as if she could do better. So she did. The second time around, she waited for the bulls to make their presence known before starting her brief jaunt. Two men tripped and fell in front of her so she had to leap over their bodies, solidifying her opinion that she actually participated in the event (because running in and of itself doesn’t quite count). Don’t forget, this is the girl who sneaked into the Dome of the Rock and drove across the Sinai peninsula with an armed escort.

Contrary to popular belief, Pamplona isn’t the only city that hosts a running of the bulls. Smaller villages all over northern Spain do their own version of the run, sometimes with less bulls, sometimes with cows instead (did you know they have horns as well?), and sometimes with both. For example, the principality of Viana does a run with three cows and one bull. And another small village of Alfaro (in the La Rioja region of Spain) does an afternoon run with bulls and another run in the mornings with cows.

Annnddd... There She Goes!!!
Annnddd… There She Goes!!!

Additionally, there’s a fire bull for the children. What’s a fire bull? Funny you should ask. A fire bull is a 30kg headpiece with handlebars and fireworks shooting out from the sides. Some guy dons this device and chases after children as young as three years old. The saying goes that if you get burned by the fireworks, you’re running too close to the bull. That way, when you’re old enough to run with the real bulls, you’ll know to keep well ahead of them. Fun, right?

So the next time you’re bored, you can either head off to the local bull ranch and tease a bull, or just shoot off some fireworks at your kids. That’ll get ’em running!

Ta Da! She did it!!!
Ta Da! She did it!!!

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Overseas Series: No Place Like Home

I’ve gotten some feedback recently that many of my readers enjoy the articles filled with anecdotes about some of the troubles in living abroad. Therefore, I have decided to create a little series of blogs called the Overseas Series, in which I will explore various aspects of life as an expat in humorous and poignant ways. This will be the debut article in that series.

"There's No Place Like Home..."
“There’s No Place Like Home…”

It’s the little things, most of the time, that make living abroad difficult. Likewise, it’s an entirely different set of little things that help create a home away from home. What do I mean? Let me share a few stories with you so you can see for yourself.

When hopping from country to country, one also hops from apartment to apartment. In so doing, you’re forced to abandon and then rebuy items that make you feel comfortable in your new surroundings. Simple household items such as curtains, coffee pots, and holiday decorations can turn a drab and empty flat into a cozy place you can return to at the end of a work day for R&R. However, finding these items (and then affording them) can be quite difficult.

What's Possible with White Eggs (from our year in China)...
What’s Possible with White Eggs (from our year in China)…

For example, most recently Easter came and went and Jen and I had a tough time dying our eggs. Why? Because in Spain (as in many of the other nations across the globe) white eggs are difficult if not impossible to come by. America is one of the few countries whose dairy industry pressure washes the eggs (additionally, only in America is it necessary to refrigerate your eggs – while abroad, we leave ours out on the counter and they’re perfectly fine).

Olentzero, the Basque Santa Claus (he's a miner)
Olentzero, the Basque Santa Claus (he’s a miner)

Another example is Christmas decorations. In Turkiye and China (two cultures in which Christmas is foreign), decorations are put up for the New Year celebration and those decorations look strikingly similar to what we would use for Christmas (ie twinkling lights, glittery wall-hangings, even a fully-trimmed tree). So it wasn’t that hard to find, but again, there were little differences. In the Basque region of Spain, only about 20-30% of the population knows anything about Santa Claus. The other 70-80% either get their gifts from the Tres Reyes (or Three Kings) during the Feast of the Epiphany, or from a Santa “knockoff” who wears blue and sweeps chimneys: Olentzero (and many of the decorations are him or the kings).

Which quickly swings me around to my next point. Many of the customs and traditions are similar to ours in the West, but are slightly different. For instance, Spanish people celebrate their birthdays not by being taken out to dinner (or drinks), but by taking their friends and family out. Needless to say, they can get quite expensive, especially if you’re a popular guy. In Turkiye, when a couple gets engaged, they are expected – yes, expected – to bring in little sweet treats to share with their coworkers (even the ones who weren’t invited to the party).

Our Lil Chinese Trick or Treaters...
Our Lil Chinese Trick or Treaters…

Sometimes, our holiday traditions are so foreign to those we befriend, we find ourselves explaining them in gross detail. Like the time I had to call a restaurant to make dinner reservations for Jen’s birthday in China, and the concierge didn’t exactly understand what I meant by having a birthday cake with candles (that phone call lasted way longer than it needed to). Or the occasion that Jen taught her class about Halloween and Trick or Treating. She invited them to knock on our apartment door to get some candy (they didn’t have costumes so I wanted to “trick” them, but she wouldn’t let me).

As you can see, there is a lot to learn on both sides of the proverbial aisle when it comes to living in a foreign land. We are constantly learning about other cultures and teaching the people we meet about ours (at least the ones they don’t pick up from American films and television shows). These are just a few of the ways in which it’s possible to create a home away from home.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

…Another Brick in the Wall: Part IV

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.

That famous song and scene from My Fair Lady depicts Audrey Hepburn learning to pronounce the long A vowel sound in English. I wish my students displayed such a love for education as she does. Alas, they do not.

The most difficult aspect of my job this year, teaching in an Opus Dei high school in Pamplona is a single question: What kind of adults does a school system create? Or to put it another way, how does the school system affect the culture of a nation and its people?

40 years of a fascist government under Francisco Franco has dictated (no pun intended) the direction that the culture has shifted. You’re probably scratching your head and wondering how one has anything to do with the other. Well, let me connect the dots for you.

They are some of the Friendliest People on the Planet
They are some of the Friendliest People on the Planet

The first element of this equation is the culture. Spaniards are known to be a very friendly and relaxed people (see my other article about it). Because of that, they don’t put as much emphasis on work or career that Americans or Germans do. The Spaniards simply enjoy their lives to the fullest. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The second element is the aftermath of Franco’s regime. For generations, who are still very much alive and can remember, Spain wasn’t allowed any semblance of freedom. Franco told everyone what to do, how to do it, when and where to do it, etc. When the country became a democracy in 1975, the pendulum swung the other way completely. Now, there’s a underlying feeling of political correctness in the air.

Sleeping in Class is the Least of the Issues...
Sleeping in Class is the Least of the Issues…

Add these two parts together and what do you get? One of those firecrackers that doesn’t go off. Students in Spain lack any type of motivation to learn. It’s a struggle to get even the brightest of minds to complete his homework or ask a question in class. They rush through their assignments so that they can play smartphone games, or join their friends on the soccer pitch (don’t get me started on Europeans’ obsession with soccer).

So what came first? The proverbial chicken or the egg?

The students seem to want to do only the bare minimum of work to get through the class. There isn’t any inherit curiosity about their world. There isn’t any value for education or where a good one will take them in the future. Most importantly is something I’ve noticed in all my travels. The United States gets a bad reputation all over the world. We aren’t loved, and I’m not sure we ever were. When I first began teaching, it was my goal to escape my home country.

Maybe it does have something to do with the Profit Motive (as my father says)...
Maybe there’s something to be said for the Profit Motive (as my father says)…

Four years later, I have now found the single greatest thing that makes America and Americans great. Critical thinking. No nation on the globe teaches their students to be critical thinkers like the US does. Sure, I’m speaking in broad generic strokes and there may be elements of it in other countries (I’m sure the U.K. and Germany do a pretty damn good job too). But overall, from Turkiye and Spain to China and South Korea, there is no emphasis placed on a learner’s ability to plan ahead. There’s just not enough problem solving going on.

In Spain specifically, the reason goes again back to their government. Most students want to scrape by because when they graduate, they want to get a civil service job. There are 46 million people living in Spain and 3 million federal civil service positions including administrators, police, healthcare, and even street sweepers to name a few. There are even more per capita region by region.

With a gradually decreasing unemployment rate (from 23%-20% in just one year), and so many civil service positions available for many who do not have an education, students in Spain just don’t have the motivation to apply themselves. And the few that do, haven’t developed the necessary critical thinking skills to succeed (they’re too content to play their video games and text with their friends all the time – check out this article from the Guardian).

From early primary school, children aren’t taught to behave properly in public. I have seen it in my school and in other schools. From the age of 3+, they run around like wild animals, screaming and fighting, and doing God knows what else. It is this awful behavior (which remains uncorrected by both parents and teachers) that continues through secondary school. Unlike in Turkiye, Spanish students do not get 10 minute breaks between classes, but classes run together as the schedule is written, making the transition between lessons confusing.

Additionally, the long lunch break affects learning as well. Students are in school between 8:30 and 11:15. Then they get a 30 minute recess. From 11:45 to 1:20, they are in classes again, but the two hour lunch break follows and the next class doesn’t begin until 3:10. This concept is bad enough for teenagers, but the schools subject primary school and even kindergarten students to it as well. Can you imagine a classroom of 25 four-year-olds stuck in school from 8:30 to 4:50? It’s baffling.

It's Amazing what Parents Can Do!
It’s Amazing what Parents Can Do!

To sum up, four countries with four distinct educational systems. The only real insight I’ve gathered is that parental involvement is key. Parents need to show their children that they not only care about them, but they care about their education. Students need to build selfrespect, because if they can’t respect themselves, they’re certainly not going to respect anyone (or anything) else. After all, education is the silver bullet.

We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce. Teachers should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free to the citizens.

Let’s figure out how to do it. Thanks, Sam Seaborn.

Hasta La Promixa…

-Justin

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Officially known as the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition was established to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in rural regions throughout Spain. In the latter half of 1500s, it came to the attention of the church and Queen Isabella I that some of their citizens were practicing unconventional religious ceremonies, rituals, and customs. In a massive effort to stamp this “witchcraft” out, cardinals and bishops were dispatched to the farthest reaches and the most rural villages to exterminate those ideas and people. The region of Navarre was a hotbed of this kind of activity.

A Goat Skull - a symbol of Fertility (not the Devil)...
A Goat Skull – a symbol of Fertility (not the Devil)…

You may ask, what exactly is witchcraft? Well, I’d like to begin by telling you what it isn’t. Nowadays, people think of witches as they have been depicted in popular culture films, television, cartoons, and literature. In The Wizard of Oz, the wicked witch of the west has green skin and wears a pointy black hat while she flies around on her broomstick. More recently, the wizarding world of Harry Potter depicts witches and wizards wearing long flowing robes (also flying around on broomsticks), making potions in cauldrons, and playing with magical creatures such as unicorns, hippogriffs, and dragons. In reality, witches were nothing of the sort.

Prior to modern medicine and science, little was known about common ailments of the human body. The genome hadn’t been mapped and people didn’t even know what blood cells were. A group of people, typically rural country folk, used home remedies to cure these afflictions. Ever heard of homeopathy? They had a vast knowledge of plant life because they were farmers and the daughters and wives of farmers. They understood certain plants had healing properties and would use them to create salves and drinks that helped with a variety of symptoms including headaches, stomach aches, and skin disorders. These salves and drinks worked on both animals and humans.

One of the Torture Towers of the Inquisition, where Women were Held and put to the Question
One of the Torture Towers of the Inquisition, where Women were Held and put to the Question

Unfortunately, there were many who didn’t understand these natural methods of healing. Those who didn’t get it grew scared and believed these women (and some men) to be worshiping the devil. Their weird rituals and symbols were distinctly nonChristian and therefore considered evil. Something had to be done about them and their primitive beliefs. In Basque (the oldest language in Europe), the word for witch is sorgin (the origin of the word is sortze: to be born, and egin: to do – or she who makes born, ie a midwife).

Midwives were the precursors to modern day doctors and they used the resources at their disposal to help new mothers bring their children into the world. They were revered themselves, as they should have been for being the bearers of new life. But what they themselves worshiped was the natural order of the world (not what they felt was just some guy on a cross who had been dead for six hundred years).

These same sorginak (pl.) closely resembled people who are today known as Wiccans. They are a group of people who worship Mother Earth and love all things natural. They pay attention to the stars and positions of the planets and they pay homage to the cycle of birth, life, and death that can be found in all walks of nature from plants to animals to humans ourselves. But four centuries ago, the Holy Catholic Church didn’t see it this way. These women weren’t going to church and they weren’t practicing Christianity. You couldn’t find crosses or palm branches in their homes. And since they were different, they were deemed bad.

Village where "Witches" were Burned at the Stake for non-Christian Beliefs...
Village where “Witches” were Burned at the Stake for non-Christian Beliefs…

Last weekend, we took a trip to the small village of Zugarramurdi, which was a hotbed of witchcraft and Inquisitorial punishments. The locals performed orgiastic rituals and festivals in nearby caves that celebrated life and the seasons. They had secret knowledge of how medicinal herbs could heal the body. And for this, they were hunted down and murdered, burned at the stake. Anybody could be accused of witchcraft and that threat would have been taken very seriously.

The equivalent nowadays to the rampant fear that accompanied the Inquisition is terrorism (but the witches were healers, not harmers). Muslims the world over are being persecuted for their beliefs, and only a small minority are doing anything wrong. In Europe during the 17th century, people who believed anything different from what the Holy Church deemed appropriate were destroyed. The goat, their symbol of fertility was rebranded by the church into an image of the devil and demonic worship. Imagine how they must have felt though? If you had stumbled into a Catholic Mass for the first time, never having heard of Christianity before, the rituals would freak you out too.

Zugarramurdi Caves, where Life was Celebrated
Zugarramurdi Caves, where Life was Celebrated

What is the biggest shame is that the fear that took control so many years ago can still be found today. People are scared of anything different from what they know. Any cultural people, customs, language, food, style of dress… is looked down upon by those outside, who don’t understand its importance. Can’t we please learn from the mistakes of our ancestors? Stop the witch hunts. Stop the killing. And enjoy the video below.

Hasta La Promixa…

-Justin

Monty Python’s Flying Circus

The Importance of Being Ernest

Ernie and Me
Ernie and Me

One of the main reasons I initially decided to leave the safety of my home country and move out abroad, teaching English as a second language (ESL) to foreigners overseas was for a mental focus that comes with only working one full-time job instead of three or four part-time jobs. I have been blessed since leaving to have completed two novels and started work on two more in addition to a handful of short stories and articles. Writing has become an avenue of creativity and solace for me.

So when I moved to Pamplona, Spain and realized that one of the all-time greats lived, and wrote, here, I was flabbergasted. I was beside myself with giddy joy. Here I was, just doing my own thing, and I followed in the footsteps of arguably one of the greatest prose writers of all time: Ernest Hemingway. I was in good company.

Hemingway and the Bullfighter
Hemingway and the Bullfighter

Hemingway lived a life of adventure. He was a resident of not only Pamplona, but of Paris as well (and eventually Key West, the southernmost point in the contiguous United States). He spent a great deal of time hanging out with people, smoking and drinking and just soaking up life (Thoreau would have been proud). Having expatriated when he did, he became a member of the Lost Generation in the 1920s, a term that he coined, referring to artists who came of age during World War I (and included F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley, Isadora Duncan, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland).

Like these great names, I have embarked upon my own adventure to see the world, meet interesting people, and witness exotic cultural traditions, while at the same time learning and polishing my craft as a writer. In addition to my fiction, I have also had articles published in newspapers and magazines about my experiences living abroad. Look for my work in the Courier Post, the South Jersey Times, and Global Living magazine (to name a few).

Cafe Iruna - and their memorialized Hemingway in Bronze
Cafe Iruna – the first building in Pamplona to be outfitted with electricity, and their memorialized Hemingway in Bronze

And like me, Hemingway thoroughly enjoyed his time in Europe. In 1921, he was hired by a Canadian newspaper as their foreign correspondent and left immediately for Paris. It is said that he wanted a life in Europe because of the comforts such a life provided (at the time the exchange rate was profitable for Americans overseas). He first visited Pamplona for the San Fermin festival, aka the Running of the Bulls in 1923. He and his family returned for the next three consecutive years, Ernest becoming obsessed with bullfighting and bullfighters.

The Working Title was Fiesta (the Spanish word for "party")
The Working Title was Fiesta (the Spanish word for “party”)

It was during this period of the mid-1920s that he wrote what is his greatest work of fiction: The Sun Also Rises. It’s the story of a group of expats who go to San Fermin for the festivities. They also sit around in many cafes drinking wine, something we have done quite a bit since adopting the European lifestyle. Hemingway drew on his personal experiences while visiting the festival and wrote aspects of his friends into the characters: two things necessary for good fiction. The details he paints jump off the page and make the readers feel like they’re right there with him.

I’ve spent some time writing in the bar/cafe where Hemingway relaxed. It’s called Cafe Iruna, and yes I have sipped both wine and coffee whilst sitting with my laptop. I can only hope that someday, my writing is remembered half as much as Ernest’s. That’s what’s important to me. But my adventure, getting there, is a lot of the fun too.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Beyond the Barricades

I have now been fortunate enough to have traveled extensively around European cities, as well as living in one. I began to notice a trend that few (if any) American cities can boast. It all goes back to history. Sure, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston all have their Colonial neighborhoods out from which the modern-day limits extended. But they just don’t have the same gravitas that their European counterparts do.

Want to know why? Well, I’ll tell you… The Dark Ages!

The Citadel in central Pamplona
The Citadel in central Pamplona

From Nuremberg to Prague and Vienna to Carcassonne, aw hell I can’t stop there: Buda and Pest, Florence, Dublin, Zurich, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Madrid, a bunch in the UK, and the obvious two Athens and Rome (in fact, here’s the entire LIST), European cities needed fortified defensive walls built to protect their citizens since – you guessed it – the Roman Empire. In the medieval times and the Renaissance, nations weren’t as static as they are today. Borders weren’t controlled by armed guards, security checkpoints, and people didn’t have passports (most of the commoners couldn’t even read and write).

These walls not only were built to keep aggressors out, but also to keep people in as a means of population control. The nobles who ran the city would never have even fathomed the idea or had the means to keep tabs on all the rural villages in the surrounding countryside, but they were able to monitor who came in and out of each city gate through the use of a highly automated, state-of-the-art system (for its day): a couple of guards and a big, heavy f’ing door.

The Walls of Pamplona
The Walls of Pamplona

My current home, the Spanish city of Pamplona in the northern region of Navarre, has an almost complete defensive fortification around the city center that borders the Ciudadela on its southern edge. In the past few hundred years, the star-shaped citadel has been transformed into a park with some garden sculptures and an art gallery (it’s also where Jen and I go running a few times a week).

It’s obvious to me where the city walls can be found even before I stumble across them. Each city changes in a distinct way between the inner and outer sections. The external neighborhoods would be familiar to most of you: wide, straight, paved streets that intersect at mostly 90 degree angles, lined with tall buildings (mostly apartments and offices). However, the charm of Europe’s oldest settlements can be found within.

A Bridge over the Arga River (also along the Camino de Santiago)...
A Bridge over the Arga River (also along the Camino de Santiago)…

Narrow, twisting streets that zigzag all over, and criss-cross at awkward angles (many times even with an odd number of roads) cover the majority of these medieval neighborhoods. Buildings only three or four stories high, lean across above you as you stroll through time (and in a few cases, the roofs of those buildings have come together to form an arch that even protects you from the elements).

In Spain as well as other countries, the narrow streets open up to become squares (plazas or piazzas), where tourists and locals relax along a sidewalk cafe sipping espresso, wine, or ale. The term ‘charming’ doesn’t even begin to describe it all (even Audrey Hepburn films don’t do it justice).

More of Pamplona's Walls...
More of Pamplona’s Walls…

And all in all, these enclosed time machines might just be this traveler’s favorite part of Europe. Whenever life gifts you with the chance, you should come relax – even if only for a short while.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Off the Beaten Path

¡Hola Amigos y Amigas, Jen aquí!

Fun fact: Spanish feminists are promoting the use feminine and masculine plural titles being necessary, instead of masculine titles being all inclusive. Anyway…

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Appreciating the Stations of the Cross…

As many of you know from reading Justin’s blog, I am willing to do almost anything for an authentic cultural experience. From wearing a hijab and sneaking into the Dome of the Rock to breaking vegetarianism to eat dog and scorpion, when I have an opportunity to try something unique, I jump at the chance. Well, in this case, I “walked” at the chance.

Did you know that Catholic pilgrimages are a very honored tradition here in Spain? As soon as I heard about this beautiful, cultural past-time, I knew that I should join in. Oh, are you wondering why Justin isn’t writing this blog?

Because he didn’t walk 55 kilometers!

After a lot of begging among my coworkers, I finally convinced an amazing friend, Nuria, to do it with me. Everyone else complained about the difficulty without training. I had faith I could do it.

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Thousands of People Walking Together…

Here are the basics of the pilgrimage. Javier, the patron saint of Navarre (the region where we live), was born in a castle in his namesake city. He traveled the world as a missionary and is incredibly respected among the people here. Nuria even named her first-born son Javier. In fact, when I’m not sure of a student’s name, I can simply say “Javier” and have a good chance that he will respond. The people of our region created this annual pilgrimage to his birthplace called: Javieradas.

Here’s how the trials and tribulations of the weekend went. Justin packed me lots of meals and snacks. Nuria loaned me a backpack, sleeping bag, and hiking boots. Because I knew it was going to rain and snow over the weekend (and boy, did it ever), I had decided to wear her waterproof hiking boots.

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Mi barrita de chocolate…

Unfortunately, I had to start the journey without Nuria. For this reason, she signed us up with a church group so I wouldn’t be totally alone. Awkwardly, no one raised their hand when we asked if they spoke English. Thankfully, I did find a few people to talk to! Sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. Good thing we’ve been taking classes.

We walked all day Saturday, only stopping twice to eat, until, under the light of the moon, we finally reached an old church. Here, there was a celebratory service. While some people were celebrating, however, I was in severe discomfort. A shout out to the cutest little old Spanish woman that you ever saw, who went out and bought me a Coke to re-energize me because she noticed my excruciating pain during the mass.

Remember those boots I borrowed? Bad move.

One should never walk 30 miles in new shoes! My feet were covered in blisters. And being obsessive compulsive about germs does not bode well for these experiences. I refused the offer of help with my blisters, not trusting other people’s tools, and continued the rest of the way. While walking, I was actually daydreaming about my sneakers and wanted to kiss them upon our reunion.

After church, we still had a kilometer to go before our overnight destination. Being in so much pain, the group tried to convince me to drive to the house. Umm no. That’s cheating. I told them, “Soy cabezota.” I am stubborn. Plain and simple: I would walk the entire pilgrimage no matter the pain. After all, isn’t suffering a part of the process?

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El Castillo de Javier!

The next day, we walked the final 8 kilometers, stopping 14 times along the route for the Stations of the Cross. As we came around the final bend, the castle came into view. I’ve never been happier upon seeing a castle in my life. Seriously, Cinderella’s castle in Disney World doesn’t even come close to my joy in this moment. Mission Accomplished!!!

Unlike eating scorpion (which I really don’t recommend), a pilgrimage is something everyone should take an opportunity to do, no matter your religion. It was a time of selfreflection and perseverance. The body and the mind are capable of much more than we often give either credit for.

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55 KM! I did it!!!

I found mediation to be a powerful force in keeping me going. Ultimately, I came to regard the following three aspects of my life during the experience: gratitude for my body’s fortitude, blessed to have a friend in Spain willing to try something new with me, and happy to be graced with a life off the beaten path.

 

Hasta La Proxima…

-Jen

Wish Upon a Star

Call it fate.

Call it karma.

Call it luck.

Call it the allure of the Spanish countryside. My parents came for a visit!

The Village of Segovia
The Village of Segovia

With our week off for Easter vacation, we met my parents in Madrid for a long awaited chance to show them around our home away from home. We went to the Prado museum (to see the Goyas and others) and the Palacio Real (to see the king of Spain, who wasn’t even there). We took a drive through La Mancha to see the windmills and then stopped for a walk through history in the capital of medieval Spain, Toledo. And we also visited Alcazar at Segovia – a castle that inspired Sleeping Beautys Castle in Disneyland.

My Parents are so Corny!
My Parents are so Corny!

Roughly translated to mean “City of Victory“, Segovia is about an hour and a half from downtown Madrid – the present-day capital city of Spain and their seat of royalty. In addition to it’s fairy tale like castle, the city has quite a rich history.

The Roman Aqueduct at Segovia
The Roman Aqueduct at Segovia

The aqueduct dates the settlement to the Roman Empire (the city was the site of a battle in 75 BCE). And like all other ancient cities that have survived to today, it held an important position along trade routes. It was an important center for wool and textiles. Going back to the aqueduct, it is known as the most important Roman civil engineering work in the area, as it consists of 25,000 granite blocks which are held together without any mortar! It spans 818 meters and has over 170 arches! Quite impressive…

Ignore the Scaffolding...
Ignore the Scaffolding…

Likewise, the Alcazar is a royal palace of some majesty. Originally built as an Arab fort, the structure was built on top of a smaller Roman fort. Its design made it one of the favorite residences of the monarchs of the Kingdom of Castile. And in 1474, Isabella took refuge within the walls after learning of King Henry IV’s death. On December 13th, she was enthroned as Queen.

Alcazar's Throne Room
Alcazar’s Throne Room

As fun as the castle is to look at from the outside, it is equally (if not more) impressive from within. Between portraits, armories, tapestries, and carpets, the ornamentation of the many rooms was completed by Arabian workmen during the Christian rule – combining elements from both religious traditions.

If you are a fan of Walt Disney, or just visit central Spain, you’ll be remiss if you don’t take a half day to visit this marvelous castle on the rocky crag.

One of the Rapunzel Towers of Alcazar...
One of the Rapunzel Towers of Alcazar…

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

The Passion of the Spaniards

The Village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra
The Village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra

Spain, as a country, has one of the most interesting Easter week traditions of anywhere I’ve learned about in the rest of the world. Holy week processions are very solemn traditions that date back hundreds of years. An interesting fact (for those of you unfamiliar with the Da Vinci Code), the KKK, or Ku Klux Klan, stole their well-known, white, pointed head wear from these Spanish customs (although the KKK isn’t anywhere near as holy or self-deprecating as the Spanish are).

The town of San Vicente de la Sonsierra (just west of Logrono, Spain) doesn’t utilize the pointed masks. Their participants still wear white, but they do something no other town or village in Spain does. Their traditions are completely unique and different (in researching this blog, I discovered there are other Latin American nations which share these customs). Words can’t express it, but the photos below speak for themselves.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Invitation

I’m embarking on a new adventure and I would love for you to join me.

I’ve started a blog that focuses on my writing instead of my traveling.

Please visit the link and click follow so that you can read all about my projects and some other creative aspects to my writing.

I know you’ll enjoy it!

-Justin

From Where the Sidewalk Ends - poems by Shel Silverstein
From Where the Sidewalk Ends – poems by Shel Silverstein

 

The Great Reinterpretation

In 2012 when my plane took flight from LAX to Seoul, South Korea, I had never been off the continent of North America. Now, almost four years later, I have lived in or traveled to 19 countries on three continents. I have yet to visit South America or Australia, and the Africa I’ve seen was limited to Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula. However, needless to say, I get around (kinda like a used bicycle, lol).

The Pagoda @ Kiyomizu
Japanese Temple in Kyoto

Crossing Asia from Japan to Turkey and then Europe from Budapest to Barcelona, I’ve noticed how gradual the cultural shift actually is. People don’t often think about how similar China and Italy are (only one example). The buildings, food, clothing, and customs seem like two different alien worlds, when in fact, there is a definite path one can follow to get from one to the other (you only have to pass through India, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe to see it).

We never even learned the name of this temple, but there were lots of monkeys - Kolkata, India
Hindu Temple in Kolkata, India

East Asians eat noodles. Italians eat pasta. Indians eat rice. Spaniards eat rice. A flat bread with toppings is called Pizza in Italy and Pide in Turkey and Pita in Greece. Shrines and temples exist in Japan, Korea, China, Nepal, India, and all over Europe. All over the world, people care about spending time with family for important life events (weddings, births, funerals). So why is it that in a age of global communication, social media networks, and terrorism, each nation – and by extension each culture – feels more and more isolated and misunderstood?

I don’t know. What I do know is that the changes aren’t sudden. There isn’t some line drawn in the sand to separate where Asia ends and Europe begins. It’s gradual. It’s subtle.

The Blue Mosque - Istanbul
The Blue Mosque – Istanbul

Whether I meet people from Kathmandu who make me feel at home while I’m only visiting for a week, or I move to Pamplona and am warmly taken in by coworkers and neighbors, the fact remains that there seems to be so much hatred in the world just makes me sigh sadly. I want everyone to experience what I have.

I began writing this blog about the Roman Empire’s re-purposing of pagan temples to Christian sites. But a stream of conscious tangent took me somewhere else entirely. Somewhere I didn’t expect to go. It ties in though… sorta.

St. Maria's Cathedral - Pamplona, Spain
St. Maria’s Cathedral – Pamplona, Spain

While traipsing around Rome, I noticed that so many of the ‘Holy’ sites that bore crosses and statues of saints (or the baby Jesus) had previously been pagan. And not just one or two, and not only for a few years. We’re talking dozens of places where pagans worshiped for centuries! But after Constantine’s death, the Romans gradually ripped down the icons of the old gods and replaced them with crosses and other Christian motifs, motifs that weren’t even necessarily Christian to begin with (even inside the Colosseum). Pagan imagery is embedded in the art of the time and even later (medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculptures feature Christian figures that double as their mythological counterparts).

St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City
St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City

The term ‘pagan’ developed a very negative connotation over the past 2,000 years. However, if one were to look at the etymology, one would learn that the literal translation only means: villager, rustic, or rural. It was used in its time to denote who was from a city (like Rome) and who was from the countryside. So while Constantine is remembered for the Empire’s conversion to Christianity, all he really did for the fledgling religion was to allow the practice of worship legal for its adherents.

A 2001 New York Times article discusses the many similarities between the pagan icons and Christian symbols. The Council of Nicea did a number on many of the early traditions that had stemmed directly from Judaism (for example, changing the holy day from the Sabbath – Saturday – to Sunday, a day that pagans worshiped Sol Invictus, or the Sun God). There are others… too many to list here.

Suffice it to say that the Empire made a conscious effort to ease the transition from the worship of many gods to only one. Christianity, therefore, shouldn’t be entirely viewed as a separate religion, but as the next stage in the development of theological beliefs by the human condition (just as Muslims believe Islam is an even newer stage).

The Pantheon in Rome which used to house statues of Roman gods, but now portrays only Christian Saints
The Pantheon in Rome which used to house statues of Roman gods, but now portrays only Christian Saints

The Death of Paganism

The bottom line is that it got me thinking about how easily one culture can impact and influence another. In this Information Age, the act of assimilation can be achieved with the click of a button, the swipe of a touch screen, or the delivery of a text-message. If 2,000 years ago the Roman Empire could alter the fundamental ideas of hundreds of thousands of pagan believers, we have no choice but to admit that corporations and governments can alter the course of our cultural development today.

Apple stock rises. Americans get their iPhones and iPads. Chinese work 15 hours a day in a factory for $2.00. The rich get richer. And there’s the gap.

Yet we all eat noodles and rice.

We all visit temples, churches, and mosques.

And we all enjoy spending our time with loved ones.

"The Triumph of Christianity"
“The Triumph of Christianity”

Let’s reinterpret our world to be better than the one we left it. Not so we’re all the same or to get ahead as individuals. You are entitled to your own beliefs and those may include monotheism, but just because you think there’s one god doesn’t mean there’s only one person. There are over 7 billion of us on Earth now. How about we start acting like it and share a bit? It’s time for another great reinterpretation.

If there has to be a melting pot, then the melting pot I want isn’t one of selfies, Facebook, and designer handbags. I want the melting pot of respect, diversity, and equality.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Worth a Thousand Words

Tilting at Windmills

Windmills of La Mancha
Windmills of La Mancha

At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, “Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.”

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.

“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”

“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”

~ Don Quixote (Part I, ch 8), Cervantes

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

Published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, is considered the most influential work of Spanish literature. It appears on almost every list of greatest fiction works ever compiled; some even put it at the top.

The Head of Cervantes in Toledo, Spain
The Head of Cervantes in Toledo, Spain

Cervantes himself is not only known as the greatest writer in the Spanish language, but also as the world’s first novelist. His major work, Don Quixote (quoted above), is a satire of the romanticism in the age of chivalry, and Cervantes’ choice to create a madman hero enabled him to showcase various elements of human behavior such as deviance, aberrance, and other eccentricities.

The Man of La Mancha (an arid but fertile plateau region south of Madrid) is paired with his character foil: the bumbling and simplistic, Sancho Panza. The two of them travel across the area battling imaginary foes and winning the hearts of imaginary princesses as the hero sets out to revive chivalry and bring justice to the land.

More Windmills
More Windmills

The now widely used English idiom “Tilting at Windmills” refers to Don Quixote’s ill-advised bout against a group of what he perceives to be giants. The idiom implies a vain effort that cannot be won against a real or imagined opponent that is impossible to best.

Living in Spain awarded us an opportunity to witness these “giants” of La Mancha first hand just outside the town of Consuegra. Nine windmills remain there, perched in an uneven row along a rocky cliff. They are accompanied by a small castle, where visitors can tour. These windmills may have been the set that inspired Cervantes to write his famous scene, but there are also other windmills in the region – in fact, we passed quite a few on the way to Consuegra.

La Mancha - Consuegra Windmills
La Mancha – Consuegra Windmills

As I move from country to country and job to job, I find myself struggling against tilting at my own windmills, as I’m sure all of you do at times. Let’s just hope that we don’t find ourselves losing uphill battles more often than we win them.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Cittadina, Italy

When I began booking a trip to the homeland of my ancestors, I expected big, BIG things. And I was not disappointed – literally, at all. However, I was surprised when the train pulled up to a station in Florence. The northern Italian “metropolis” is perhaps one of the best known destinations in the entire world for art, beauty, culture, and food, but I didn’t realize just how little the city is like a city.

The Duomo of the Santa Maria Cathedral - Florence's most recognizable sight
The Duomo of the Santa Maria Cathedral – Florence’s most recognizable sight

Florence isn’t anything like Rome, or Paris, or some of the other major markets in Europe. In fact, it isn’t like any other city I’ve ever seen. It’s quaint and quiet and has an air of relaxation to it. Obviously, it is swimming with tourists, but if you – as a tourist – can get yourself away from that, it is one of the most exquisite cities on the planet (US equivalent examples: Savannah, GA/Colorado Springs, CO/Columbus, OH).

It goes without saying that there is much more history and art than those cities I just mentioned. And it’s hard to convey the sense of serenity one feels strolling through the twisting and turning, narrow streets that date back over 1,000 years (note: this was the only city in which I got lost more than once and typically I’m very good at urban orienteering). So why go to Florence? There are so many reasons!

  • Take a leisurely walk along the banks of the Arno River, cross over the Ponte Vecchio (a covered bridge full of shopping stalls), or head up one of the winding mountain roads toward the Piazzale Michelangelo for a breathtaking view of the skyline, including the Santa Maria (aka the Duomo)
  • Pull up a chair at a corner sidewalk cafe for a cappuccino to soak in the ambiance of the old, medieval central district
  • Visit one of the many museums – including the Uffizi Gallery, the Galleria Dell’Accademia, and Palazzo Vecchio – to look upon the works of the Renaissance masters (the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, the Annunciation by Da Vinci, Michelangelo’s David, the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna)
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is hard to photograph because of the rounded shape of the camera lens
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is difficult to photograph because of the rounded shape of the camera lens
  • Take a short train ride to Pisa for some fun photos of the Leaning Tower of Pisa
  • Get lost (figuratively or literally), because the town is so small – cittadina translates to “small town” in Italian – you’ll eventually find your way to your destination or back to your hotel

There is a lot to see and feel in Florence, even if it doesn’t feel like the city has a lot to necessarily “do“. I highly recommend stopping by though, as there is nowhere like it in the entire world!

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Renaissance Man

Serfdom - and I don't mean Catching a Gnarly Ripcurl...
Serfdom – and I don’t mean Catching a Gnarly Ripcurl…

The Renaissance. Ah, twas a magical time of advancement in both the arts and the sciences. During the dark times of the Middle Ages (after the fall of the Roman Empire), people were oppressed by the Holy Catholic Church as well as “nobles” that used the feudal system to get rich while keeping lowly peasants poor and ignorant (not to mention the black plague). But all bad things must come to an end. And they did.

Papal Avarice - The Power of the Church in the Dark Ages
Papal Avarice – The Power of the Church in the Dark Ages

When people think of the Renaissance period, dozens of names come to mind: Galileo, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo (yes, theyre mostly Italians) to name a few. Nowadays, the term “Renaissance Man” refers to an individual who shows aptitude in a multitude of subject areas. Perhaps today’s Renaissance Men (and Women) would have also fit in with the likes of the great masters.

While visiting Italy (Rome & Florence), I took the opportunity to admire some of the works of these men – one in particular. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (14751564) was a painter, sculptor, poet, architect, and engineer (damn!), who is probably most famous for creating the statues of David and the Pieta, as well as the painting of the Sistine Chapel (in Vatican City). I saw more of his works than these (including the Basilica of St. Peter which he helped design), but for the purposes of this article, I would simply like to give my impression of his three major works.

David Needs No Caption
David Needs No Caption
  • David – He resides in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and is pretty much the only reason to go to the museum. Like all museums in Italy (and I’m assuming France as well), you have to wait in long lines just to get in and once inside, the rooms are over-crowded with people. One of the more pleasant aspects of going to see David were the art students who had sketch pads and pencils. Overall, David met my expectations (particularly since we weren’t originally going to visit the Accademia). He is positioned in a great location with fantastic space and lighting to maximize his visibility (I think the curators did that to show off his naughty bits).
His isn't the Only Pieta, but it is the Most Famous
His isn’t the Only Pieta, but it is the Most Famous
  • The Pieta – Stumbling upon this masterpiece was a bit of a surprise because I hadn’t researched where it was, and didn’t know to look for it inside St. Peter’s Basilica. While wondering around the immense church, I realized what it was. The statue was just sitting in an alcove, minding its own business. A few tourists were taking photos, but most were ignoring it (most likely ignorant of what it was). I found the positioning of this one perfect for the mood the work conveys. A wave of solemnity with a tinge of loneliness washed over me as I stood before Mary holding the body of her crucified son.
Not my Photo (the one I took was blurry)
Not my Photo (the one I took was blurry)
  • The Sistine Chapel – Unfortunately, the Sistine Chapel failed to meet my expectations. As reported in a previous entry, we were herded into another over-crowded room with men shouting through loudspeakers to be respectful. And while it was possible to stand directly beneath many of the scenes and stare straight up for any length of time we wanted, the magnificence of the work was lost to the hustle and bustle of the mismanaged museum.

Whether or not the works of this great artist ended up where they should be, it was obvious within seconds that they were the work of a master craftsman. To have a statue you sculpted residing in a building you designed is a feat unto itself. In my life, I have always striven to be a Renaissance Man. And I hope that one day, people will consider me one (fingers crossed, lol).

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

 

 

Bread & Circuses

Juvenal, the Roman poet, said, “The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses!” Most if not all of you have heard that quote before, particularly if you’re familiar with the Suzanne Collins Bestseller, The Hunger Games (which takes place in a fictitious, post-apocalyptic North American nation called Panem – Latin for bread). But what exactly does the phrase imply?

It means that the proverbial Powers that Be can get away with literal murder, rape, robbery, and everything else, provided they divert the eyes of the masses to entertainment, while at the same time keeping their bellies full. As long as the public has the means to eat and to distract themselves with games, they’ll ignore everything and everyone, including their misdeeds.

rome1
Panorama of the Interior of the Colosseum (2015)

At the height of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum in the capital city was primarily where those games took place. Truthfully, it was only the largest arena in the largest city in the empire, but all cities had arenas of varying sizes that held varying types of circuses and games. Similarly today, every major city across the globe hosts some type of sports arena whether it be for football, baseball, cricket, rugby, basketball, or tennis.

We have certainly produced our fair share of games. And just like the emperors of old – doing whatever they wanted – we have our own power-brokers who take advantage of us with variable interest rates (and other garbage) while we’re waiting idly for the snap on the line of scrimmage.

Depiction of a Gladiator Match
Depiction of a Gladiator Match

Back then though, one of the most exciting (and bloodiest) forms of this entertainment was that of the gladiatorial combat. The gladiator was an entertainer who fought for his very life, with weapons and sometimes without, in front of tens of thousands of screaming spectators. Some were criminals, some volunteers, most slaves of some sort. This version of entertainment lasted almost a millennium, and boasted a wide range of styles. Listed below are some ‘other’ types of fights than the standard one-on-one gladiator battles (which was by and large the most popular).

  • Bestiarii – beasts, including but not limited to lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!), were used in a variety of ways from slaughtering criminals to parading around for mere show
  • Noxii – mythological reenactments from the stories of their pagan religion were possibly one of the most popular types of games as the “battles” were often fixed so that the correct side would come out victorious (if you’ve seen the Ridley Scott film, Gladiator – which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2000 – then you’ve seen this game)
  • Comoedii – comedic fight scenes with no real victims or casualties were used between matches to “clean up” and give the audience a rest and chance to get some refreshments
  • Supplicii – criminal executions were very creative as the victims were sometimes blindfolded and told to fight each other, or just put in front of wild animals without any weaponry
  • Aurigas Cursoresque – chariot races (self-explanatory) weren’t held at the Colosseum in Rome but across the street at the Circus Maximus
A Sea Battle in the Colosseum
A Sea Battle in the Colosseum

Sometimes the arena floor would even be flooded to reenact a mythic water battle, but usually if the emperor wanted, he could command the entire audience to move to a nearby lake for that portion of the show. I don’t know about you but that sounds a lot more exciting to me than watching a bunch of sweaty Europeans kick around a ball.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Make Way for the Tourist Parade!

While strolling through the streets of Italy’s (and probably Europe’s) most unique city, one cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense that you’re in another world; some alien species has abducted you and transported you away to some fantastical city that couldn’t possibly exist on the planet Earth. But, you’d be wrong. You’re only in Venice.

venice1
Venice’s Grand Canal

It would be impossible (and completely insane) for me to try and convey how it feels to be in Venice. Some have called it romantic. Others magical. Sure, it’s both of those, but it’s also so much more. It’s a quaint, quiet, small town that is like nowhere else I have ever been. There are buildings one cannot get to without being on a boat!

Of course, it’s far from perfect. Nowhere is perfect. And Venice is plagued by some of the same problems that other cities in Italy and elsewhere in the world have. There are places under construction. There are hawkers shouting to sell their wares. There are noisy crowds of half-lost tourists. And there are traffic jams. The only difference is that these jams aren’t in the streets: they’re in the canals.

venice2
A Gondolier and his Gondola (and his Tourists)

The quintessential image conjured in most people’s minds when they think about Venice is the gondola – an elegant, streamline boat, built for two, and rowed by a crooning Italian local in a red and white striped hat and shirt. And that image, my friends, doesn’t exist in reality. It’s purely fantasy, just like the idea that you’ve stepped onto some alien planet millions of miles away.

The truth is that the gondola ride is one of Europe’s most overrated (and overpriced) tourist traps. Yep, I said it. Not attraction, trap. A 40 minute ride runs you about 80 Euros. And the price skyrockets from there (apparently the city regulates what the drivers can charge you). An additional 40 Euro for each additional 20 minutes! It doesn’t stop there. You want some of that crooning? The price and tip for the singer must be negotiated by each gondolier, and you better believe they know this will most likely be your only time in one of these boats. So they hose you for all you’re worth.

venice3
TRAFFIC JAM!!!

The horrors don’t end there. Let’s say you actually bite the proverbial bullet and purchase a ride, because, hey, it’s the thing to do and you’re only in Venice once, right? Well, get in line. Because you weren’t the first (and you won’t be the last) to come to that logic. The canals quickly become crowded with rows upon rows of gondolas. And most of the gondoliers can be heard shouting to each other, not singing, shouting.

I personally spotted one of these ‘cabbies’ (yes, they share a lot in common with NYC taxis) on his mobile phone – while he had passengers! His mobile phone! Need I remind you of the price again?

Suffice it to say, we opted to not take a ride on the gondolas. If we ever get back to Venice (which we would love to do), I doubt we’ll ride on one then either. Trust me, the city is an amazing place to be without being on the water.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Et Tu, Brute?

One of the aspects of traveling Jen and I enjoy most is experiencing the local cuisine. We love eating in general, so when we arrived in the pasta capital of the world (Jen being a vegetarian – which pretty much makes me a vegetarian), we were ecstatic and eager to try as much as we could get our lips on.

Da Pancrazio Ristorante facade in Rome
Da Pancrazio Ristorante facade in Rome

In addition to good food, we appreciate when restaurants have a story or offer a unique ambiance for our meal. While in Rome, we found a very special eatery. It might have been the most amazing place I’ve ever eaten at and not because the food was to die for, though it was very good. What made this restaurant so great was it’s history.

Da Pancrazio is located in a building constructed on top of the ruins of the Theater of Pompey, where it is believed that Julius Caesar was murdered by politicians in the Roman Senate, including Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, on the 15th of March, 44 BC. Contrary to popular belief, he was not stabbed in the Senatorial chambers, but just outside the theater in an area of Rome that was only just uncovered a few years ago (the city won’t officially excavate the ruins of the actual theater because the buildings now sitting on top of them have used the original foundation and supports for the structures still standing and in use today)

The Basement Dining Room underneath Da Pancrazio Ristorante
The Basement Dining Room underneath Da Pancrazio Ristorante

Julius Caesar avoided the Senate chamber on the ides of every month prior to his assassination (up to a year) because his wife Calpurnia had disturbing dreams that made her fearful of her husband’s safety. Unfortunately, this precaution didn’t prove to be enough as the would-be king was stabbed over 23 times. It has been said that 60 men participated in the death of Caesar, though not all brandished steel in the physical act of violence that killed him.

There has also been some controversy over the discrepancy of Caesar’s final words. The best known version comes from the English playwright, William Shakespeare, but the phrase, “Et Tu, Brute?” has no basis in fact (it was merely a popular phrase during Elizabethan times). Many of the conspirators, who were present in Julius’ final moments reported that he said nothing. He simply fell to his death.

Temple Complex Unearthed in 2012 (the Bottom of the Stairs is the Exact Spot where Caesar was Murdered)
Temple Complex Unearthed in 2012 (the Bottom of the Stairs is the Exact Spot where Caesar was Murdered)

Whether or not he said anything had no effect on our enjoyment of the meal we ate in Da Pancrazio. I had the opportunity to meet the owner and discuss his family history as well as that of the restaurant. Apparently, the location (even before it was a restaurant) had been in his family for years. It was his grandfather who opened the first restaurant, and it was his father who excavated the basement to discover the storage chambers behind the stage of the theater, which were used for props and costumes (now, it’s filled with tables). The basement isn’t the exact location of the assassination, but it’s close enough for government work – and fun to think about!

If you are in Rome, I highly recommend making reservations at Da Pancrazio, as it promises to be one of the most unique dining experiences of your life.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

One Hit Wonder

Been around the world and seen a lot of things.

I’ve gone out of my way to make the best effort to track down all the ancient wonders the world still has to offer. I crossed the Sinai Desert, passing through military checkpoints, to witness the majesty of the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. I trekked through the southeast Asian jungles to explore the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. I ran, yes ran, along the Great Wall of China. I’ve been inside both the Taj Mahal and the Hagia Sofia (and Jen even went inside Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock – forbidden to non-Muslims).

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I traveled to Petra in Jordan, Kappadokya in Turkiye, Chichen Itza in Mexico, Jeju Island in South Korea, the Statue of Liberty in New York City, and just about every single temple in Kyoto Japan (including Kiyomizu). So what’s left? If you’ve been reading my most recent blogs then you already have the answer. The Colosseum in Rome, Italy.

Unfortunately, my loyal droogs and droogettes, I have disappointing news to report. I wasn’t all that impressed with Italy’s contribution to the New 7 Wonders list. Perhaps, it was because of all the hype surrounding it. Or maybe it was the fact that I had already been to many of the other places on the list.

Jen and I inside the Colosseum
Jen and I inside the Colosseum

Don’t get me wrong, it was cool. It just wasn’t as cool as I had hoped. Nobody has asked me to put my official stamp on which of the “wonders” is my favorite; thankfully, because I’m not sure I could choose one. But what walking around inside the “One Hit Wonder” did get me thinking about was all of the other ancient wonders that no longer exist… the ones none of us will ever get to see.

The two that always fascinated me as a kid were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Colossus of Rhodes. In fact, while living in Turkiye, we almost took a trip to the Greek island of Rhodes – knowing the Colossus had been destroyed centuries ago – just for the chance to take a boat ride through the mouth of the harbor where he previously stood and say we passed beneath him.

The Fabled Colossus of Rhodes
The Fabled Colossus of Rhodes

And the crux about Babylon is that nobody knows exactly where the ancient and mythological metropolis was! Of course, there’s speculation that it’s somewhere in present-day Iraq – I think near the present-day city of Hillah (but God knows I’m never going there).

So all things considered, I suppose the Colosseum wouldn’t be at the bottom of my list… but it certainly wouldn’t be at the top (and I’m Italian).

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

A House Divided

In honor of primary season hitting full swing in the States with Super Tuesday today, I thought I would take the opportunity to turn your heads away from American politics and explain a little bit about what’s going on over on this side of the “Pond” in Spain’s politics.

Royal with Cheese... (Thanks Quentin)
Royal with Cheese… (Thanks Quentin)

Europe is like America in a lot of ways. They have basically the same stuff here that we do at home, but a lot of times, it’s just a little bit different. History, however, isn’t one of them. The history of Europe is much more complicated than that of America, although they do share some history together. What might be difficult for a lot of Americans to understand is the sheer number and diversity of cultures that have existed and still exist on the continent.

The modern geopolitical map of Europe isn’t static by any stretch of the imagination, nor has it ever truly been. Borders move. Names change. Entire peoples are uprooted from one place and deposited on another as refugees seeking new homes or asylum from tyrannical governments. America has never experienced such problem (with the major exceptions of the slavery issue and the displacement of Native American tribes), as most of us simply consider ourselves American, and our culture “Western“.

Spain, for example, has only been the nation that it is since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Francisco Franco united various autonomous regions under the banner of Spain. Prior to that, the geographic area that is now known as Spain consisted of a half dozen different countries with as many dialects or separate languages: including Basque, Leonese, & Catalan.

Map of Catalonia
Map of Catalonia

One such region is Catalonia.

Catalonia is in the northeastern most section of Spain, bordering France and the Mediterranean Sea. Barcelona, its capital city, is arguably the most economical prosperous market in the country. So last month, when Catalonia held elections, the rest of Spain held its collective breath. And Catalans, by a narrow margin (52%48%) elected a separatist president. Now, for the first time in three generations, Catalonia has a very good chance of becoming a sovereign state again.

So what does this mean for Spain? And what does it mean for the Catalan people?

Nobody is certain. The modern world is much different from the preWWII era in which Catalonia was its own nation. The EU is under threat of collapsing due to the influx of Syrian refugees. Greece is bankrupt, Italy is on their boot heels (no pun intended), and Spain’s been struggling with a recession for 4 years. If Catalonia (the most economically successful province in Spain) breaks off, then Spain might just enter their own great depression.

Thousands of Catalans Rally for their Independence
Thousands of Catalans Rally for their Independence

But for millions of Catalans, the issue isn’t about money. It’s about cultural identity. Under Franco, the people, their culture, and even their own language were subjugated and – in some instances – banned altogether in favor of the more widespread and accepted Castilian (textbook Spanish). Half of Catalonia wants that back. Can you blame them? I know Texans can’t.

We’ll have to sit back and wait to see if Catalonia’s new president, Carles Puigdemont, can lead his people to their freedom. He says he need 18 months. Until then, nobody knows.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

Mozart’s Requiem

Vienna & St. Stephen's Church (in the distance)
Vienna & St. Stephen’s Church (in the distance)

Requiem is Latin for “rest“. Therefore, a requiem mass is a mass of rest, or a funeral – mass for the dead. When a composer writes the music to accompany such an event, it is also called a requiem. Many composers have written them: Faure, Verdi, Stravinsky, Haydn, Brahms, and of course Mozart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is perhaps the most famous composer who ever lived. He spent much of his youth being dragged around Europe by his father Leopold, labeled as a child prodigy. He played before emperors and bishops, and even composed works as early as age seven. As an adult, he enjoyed Vienna the most and tried to spend as much time living in the city as possible. Visiting many of the places he went to was perhaps my favorite aspect of traveling to the capital of Austria.

Don Giovanni - the Commendatore Scene
Don Giovanni – the Commendatore Scene

We toured the Mozarthaus, a museum built into an apartment in which he lived from 1784-1787 (and composed THE MAGIC FLUTE, DON GIOVANNI, and THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO). We had lunch at a small, medieval tavern – Griechenbeisl – where he frequented with his contemporaries. We went into the grand Church of St. Stephen, the cathedral where he celebrated both his marriage and funeral. We paid our respects at the St. Marx Cemetery where he was buried in a common grave (the marker was added later) with the likes of Beethoven, Strauss, and Shubert. We walked the streets he must have walked and saw some of the sights he must have seen.

It felt truly wonderful to step back into the history of this legendary figure. I wish there were more photo opportunities. Unfortunately, you have to be there to really feel his presence, and the few pictures I did manage to snap, simply don’t do him justice.

If you have seen the film, Amadeus (if you haven’t you should), you are aware of the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. According to the film, it was the sheer act of composing his requiem, a job that was commissioned by a masked benefactor, that brought him to his untimely demise in 1791. The piece was finished in someone else’s handwriting. Eerie…

Mozart Directing Requiem on his Deathbed
Mozart Directing Requiem on his Deathbed

Guilt and shame over his father coupled with massive gambling debts are more than likely a closer cause. But the idea that he wrote his own requiem mass and that is what killed him sends a chill up my spine.

One cannot come to Vienna without spending at least one day retracing Mozart’s footsteps. Don’t forget to load some of his work onto your iPod and listen as you stroll.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

A Merchant of Venice

Cathedral of St. Barnabas (featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
Cathedral of St. Barnabas (featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

As many of you know, when I travel the only souvenirs I require are my memories and my photographs. However, now that I’m traveling with a spouse, things are different. Jen loves herself some souvenirs. She wants to put them on shelves and hang them on the walls to remind her of all the wonderful times we’ve had traveling together. At first, I thought it was a waste of money. But… it brings a smile to her face and after all, what is marriage if not compromise?

The Masks of Ca'Macana
The Masks of Ca’Macana

The single souvenir she decided she wanted from our week in Italy was a Venetian mask. If you don’t know what they are, I guarantee that you’ve seen them at one point or another. Films such as Amadeus, Eyes Wide Shut, or any other movie that features a masquerade ball or party shows them off. Essentially, the masks are paper mache which are hand-molded and hand-painted. The process is very extensive and was explained to us by the shop-owner of Ca’Macana – the place Jen hand-picked off the Internet before we had even taken off.

Ca’Macana Tripadvisor Page

The major pitfall of souvenir shopping the world over is the cheap imitations. It doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll find crappy goods manufactured in some Chinese factory, bought in bulk, and shipped by some third-party vendor to be sold in tourist destinations all over the world. Venice was no different. There are kiosks up and down the Grand Canal with chintzy, plastic masks – some of which appear to be the genuine articles. Please don’t be fooled. They’re not.

A Not-So-Grand (but still very lovely) Canal in Venice
A Not-So-Grand (but still very lovely) Canal in Venice

If you truly want the full experience of trying on and purchasing an authentic Venetian mask, please visit Ca’Macana. There are two locations as well as a workshop owned by a husband and wife team (though not the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play), who employ dozens of different artists to make the masks in a variety of styles. You can browse, take photos, and try on the masks – which number in the thousands. Additionally, they offer classes where you can make and paint your own. Fun for the whole family!

Jen and I had a ton of fun looking around and finally choosing our mask. Someday when we move back to the States, come over and take a look. I’m sure she’ll have found a prominent place to display it, either on a shelf or a wall.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

State of Confusion

Piazza di St. Pietro (Technically still Rome, not Vatican City)
Piazza di St. Pietro (Technically still Rome, not Vatican City)

Contrary to popular belief, Vatican City is not part of the nation of Italy. It is a citystate, fully sovereign and independent. When visitors pass through the walls, and enter the museum on the other side, they are in fact visiting the smallest country in the world, and leaving Italian soil.

That being said, however, the process of crossing the boundary couldn’t be more complicated. Finding out where to go, how to get there, and how long it will take once inside. I am usually pretty good about planning holidays and even the Papal State managed to baffle me.

With a bit of preliminary research I learned that the best idea would be to purchase tickets online in advance so as to skip ahead of the line on the day of the visit. The official Vatican Museum website asked to choose not only which day but also a specific time – down to the quarter hour. When we arrived at the doorstep, we found that the day-of line (non ticket holders) stretched around the block, and was perhaps 300 strong (at 10:30 am).

Ceiling of the Vatican Museum (Not the Sistine Chapel)
Ceiling of the Vatican Museum (Not the Sistine Chapel)

On the other hand, those who had purchased tickets already still had to wait in line, but that took much less time (approximately 30 minutes, mostly because of how slow security was feeding people through the metal detectors). Once inside, the crowd was moved through the museum like a herd being led to the slaughter-house. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the museum was the only section of the Vatican visitors got the chance to see.

So after being shoved and prodded through various halls and galleries, finally emerging into the Sistine Chapel to glare up at the masterpiece (while the security guards yelled through microphones to keep quiet because the chapel is a holy place that needs to be respected – oh, and no photos), we found ourselves outside the Vatican again, and back on Italian soil, our heads spinning around confused.

Interior of the Basilica di St. Pietro (Technically inside the Vatican City)
Interior of the Basilica di St. Pietro (Technically inside the Vatican City)

Obviously, we circled around to St. Peter’s Square and Basilica to see the burial place of the popes and other attractions, which was all fine and good. But if you go to Vatican City, be prepared for what it actually is: a cattledrive.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

STRATENY

Since 1993, the tiny, central/eastern European nation of Slovakia has been LOST.

Central Street of Bratislava & St. Mark's Gate/Tower
Central Street of Bratislava & St. Mark’s Gate/Tower

Prior to that, their acreage belonged to the former country of Czechoslovakia which was part of the Warsaw Pact formed in 1955. Of course, it existed on and off prior to that as well, however, this article isn’t about the sovereign state of Czechoslovakia. It’s about the insignificant nation that was left behind. Similar to Hungary, Slovakia drew a short straw with their location – sandwiched between Budapest and Vienna – and with Prague just a hop, skip, and a jump to the north. All in all not a very positive location for promoting tourism and trade.

Hence why they’re LOST (strateny is Slovakian for lost).

Most of the country is wilderness. There’s not much to see that visitors can’t get in the neighboring nations of the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, and even as far away as Moldova and Romania. So why go? The dinky capital city of Bratislava – where I spent about 24 hours in (the only reason we went was to check another country off of our list) – has very little to offer in the way of interesting sights. In fact, it looks much like the smaller parts of Budapest and Prague. Since the split in ’93, Prague has received the lion’s share of tourism. Such a pity for the Slovaks.

Jen Scolding the "Man at Work" Statue
Jen Scolding the “Man at Work” Statue

It’s their own fault though. One would think that the people of Bratislava would go out of their way to project images of warmth and friendliness. One would think the citizens of Slovakia would dump money into their tourism and marketing, hoping to increase travelers coming across their borders. Quirky museums, churches, and statues do little on their own. Alas, no. The Bratislavans are lost, just like their country.

They aren’t friendly. They aren’t welcoming. And they certainly don’t seem to give a shit if tourists come to their city or nation at all. Which is a shame, since they’ve got no other major industries there. What a missed opportunity for Slovakia.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

In The Crosshairs

The Flag of the Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian National Socialists)
The Flag of the Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian National Socialists)

Budapest drew the geographical short straw. The city was founded during the Roman Empire and the ethnic Hungarians arrived in the 9th century. Their history has been rife with war, however, as that first settlement was pillaged by the Mongols in the 13th century, and spent 150 years under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

Actually two individual cities separated by the Danube RiverBudaPest – were unified in 1873 and became the second capital of the AustroHungarian Empire, which wasn’t dissolved until the end of The Great War in 1918. World War II arrived on the Hungarian’s doorstep, but the people were no strangers to strife. They originally allied with Nazi Germany and when they tried to pull out of the war, their leaders were overthrown and a puppet regime was installed.

Shoes on the Danube Memorial (with the Chain Bridge in the background)
Shoes on the Danube Memorial (with the Chain Bridge in the background)

That regime was called the Arrow Cross Party. From the 15th of October 1944 until the 28th of March 1945, this socialist political party ruled over Hungary and murdered or deported 600,000 Jews (many to Auschwitz, other shot into the Danube). The Arrow Cross shared many similarities and ideologies with the Germans; even the symbol of the party (an ancient symbol of the Magyar tribes who settled Hungary) slightly resembles the Nazi swastika.

The Arrow Cross rose to power by signing treaties with both the Nazis and the Soviets, directly leading to cease-fires. Prior to the winter of 1944-45, the Party committed atrocities against its own people living in Budapest and across Hungary. The short-lived rule birthed death squads, deportations, slave labor, and forced military battalions. When historians mention the Holocaust, the Nazis remain front and center, but the vast majority of exterminated Jews happened in, or came from, Hungary – and were committed by the Arrow Cross Party.

Arrow Cross Party Propaganda (circa 1944)
Arrow Cross Party Propaganda (circa 1944)

Toward the end of the war, Soviet forces surrounded and laid siege to the city (the Battle of Budapest), squeezing the lifeblood out of the people and the Arrow Cross Party. In the spring of 1945, the USSR’s Red Army officially took control of the city (their rule lasted until the Revolution of 1956), and during the Cold War that followed, Hungary maintained ties to Russia. The country didn’t actually gain its true freedom from tyranny until 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

This violent history is obvious when walking around the city. Most, if not all, has been rebuilt, but one can feel the undercurrent of suspicion rippling through the landscape. I suppose it’s natural for a people who were placed smack-dab in the middle of two ‘evil’ superpowers and had been attacked and pillaged by various ’empires’ for centuries to be a bit wary of life. I’m not sure how, but they still manage to smile to tourists.

Hasta La Promixa…

-Justin

 

Not Too Gaudi

As an artist in my own right, I think about leaving my legacy behind in my writing, music, and films. So it is with a heavy heart that I learned about the Catalan artist and architect Antoni Gaudi (God’s Architect) who passed away tragically prior to completing work on his most famous of works: the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, or la Sagrada Familia, for short. His magnum opus.

Casa Batllo, by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain
Casa Batllo, by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain

Gaudi’s thumbprint can be seen across the city of Barcelona from the basilica to Casa Batllo and to the works of his financier Palau Guell and Park Guell. Though, the structures do not dominate the entire skyline. During his life, he designed 19 buildings in Barcelona alone. His art defies traditional architecture and his style is often described as neo-gothic, moderniste, and even Oriental. He rarely drew up plans, choosing instead to mold three-dimensional models.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and appealing aspects of this designer’s method is how he used his creations to tell stories. Gaudi put relentless thought and consideration into each and every element of his design from the materials used to the way in which they would be used.

From the outside, the basilica facades tell the story of the birth and death of Jesus (on each side respectively). This can be seen in the statues that decorate the area surrounding the doors. The Nativity Facade faces the sunrise while the Passion Facade faces sunset. By the time the church is finally completed, around 2026, there will be a total of 18 spires each representing a different person (12 for the disciples, 4 for the evangelists, 1 for the Virgin Mary, and 1 for Jesus). Currently, only 8 have been finished.

The exterior isn’t much to look at from a style standpoint, however, the interior will blow you away. The entire apse is designed as a geometric hyperboloid (I had no idea what this was, but it looks cool as hell). The pillars that hold up the entire structure are designed to look like trees (redwoods if you ask me) adding a natural element. The roof is so high, it appears these ‘trees’ reach up to heaven itself.

I suppose the fact that Gaudi is so well appreciated so many years after his death fills me with hope for my own creative works. Even if I end up destitute prior to my death, there is always that chance that my books are discovered and downloaded on Amazon.com in the next few hundred years.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

The Third Man

What is Film Noir? Many critics debate whether or not this style of film-making is a genre unto itself or not. Film Noir, or black film, is a type of film from the 40s and 50s, typically gritty detective stories, that thematically deal with sex, drugs, crime, and the seedy underbelly of society. The films also utilize cinematography, lighting and shadows, and music to create a dark and ominous mood. Noir characters aren’t heroes. They’re flawed every-men.

Film Noir in Vienna's Sewer System
Film Noir in Vienna’s Sewer System

Additionally, the narrative structure tends to drive the climax into some sort of maze or shrinking space, forcing the protagonist and antagonist together. The screenplays are often pessimistic, fatalistic, or nihilistic. But a film classified into this not-genre doesn’t have to have any or all of these and there are many films in the genre which have virtually none.

It’s confusing as hell. So when I was assigned an oral presentation on film noir during my first, freshman year, History of Cinema class in college, I butchered my way through it and escaped with a B+. Still, to this day, I’m bewildered when it comes to what makes noir, noir. And looking back, I’m pretty sure the rest of the class was as well.

During my recent trip to Vienna, however, I enjoyed watching a classic bit of film noir cinema greatness: The Third Man (with Orson Welles). Shot almost entirely on location in Austria (including the theater Burg Kino, in which we viewed the picture), the film takes place during a post-WWII rebuilding of Vienna, when the main character comes to town to find his best friend dead. The first line of voice-over narration says, “I never knew the old Vienna before the war…”

Vienna's Reisenrad or Ferris Wheel as it Looks Today (it was a featured scene in the film)
Vienna’s Reisenrad or Ferris Wheel as it Looks Today (it was a featured scene in the film)

A mystery ensues (if you haven’t seen it I won’t spoil it for you) all over the capital city of Austria transporting the audience to 1949, but to many of the same places Jen and I had visited earlier in the visit. The film was very good and I recommend it. I’m still not sure I can explain exactly what makes it film noir, although the final chase through Vienna’s complex sewer system – complete with elongated shadows and echoing footsteps – is most likely the film’s best indication.

In his review of the film, the late Roger Ebert said, “Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.” I don’t completely agree with him, but I can see how he arrived at that opinion. I did feel very much engrossed in the golden age of Hollywood during the screening.

Hasta La Proxima…

-Justin

The Prague Blog

The Prague Skyline Panorama from atop the Astronomy Tower
The Prague Skyline Panorama from atop the Astronomy Tower

How many cities in the world rhyme with the word blog?

Combined with the trip to the German Christmas markets, we swung through the Czech Republic for a couple days to see what all the hullabaloo was about their capital city: Prague. It’s been on the top of my life for over 10 years for a few reasons. The first of which is that everybody who’s been there raves about it. I’ve spoken to friends, family, and even strangers on the interwebs who claim Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

Rightly so, considering it was one of the few major markets to avoid bombing during WWII. The Nazis marched across the border prior to their invasion of Poland – which was the inciting incident that brought the combined strength of Britain and France down upon the Third Reich. With the city heavily occupied by the Nazis, and so geographically close to the German stronghold of Munich, it’s easy to see why many of the beautiful architecture dating back to the Middle Ages survived.

Tyn's Church and the Astronomical Clock Tower from a Distance
Tyn’s Church and the Astronomical Clock Tower from a Distance

However, I must say that while I enjoyed my time in Prague, I was somewhat disappointed. Perhaps it was the level of expectations people set for me. Perhaps it was the weather. Perhaps the crowds (we happened to be there on a Czech specific holiday) stole some of the majesty away. These may have all been contributing factors, but I presume the real reason I wasn’t thrilled is simply due to the sheer amount of traveling I’ve done over the past few years. Many of the places I’ve seen around Asia and Africa just dwarf what Prague is and has been. It’s the way I choose to travel – more Indiana Jones than Anthony Bourdain.

I guess what I most wanted to experience was that Old World feel of being in another place and time. I wanted to step out of the 21st century and into the central square and winding back streets of Prague to feel like I had been transported to the 16oos. If you’ve seen The Illusionist (mostly shot in the Czech Republic) you’ll understand a bit of what I mean. However, the massive amount of traffic – both pedestrian and automotive – didn’t help to get the job done. On top of that, there are hundreds of old buildings, yet their first floor storefronts have become GAPs, ZARAs, and other high end clothing and jewelry stores. That certainly takes away from the ambience.

Of all the activities we did, the one that made me feel the most like traveling back in time was a tour of the Clementinum: a series of buildings that now houses the national library, among other things. In the past, it was where Kepler and Brahe did a lot of their work high above in their astronomy tower. That was where we were able to view the amazingly preserved Baroque Library, as well as gaze out over the entire city. The view of the church steeples and Medieval and Renaissance roofs was astounding.

The Charles Bridge with Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral Behind
The Charles Bridge with Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral Behind

We also crossed the Charles Bridge a few times, back and forth to the old town square, or Staromestske Namesti – which is home to both the Astronomical Clock (fantastic) and the famously haunting Tyn’s Church that dominates the skyline. The bridge crosses the Vltava River, is over 600 meters long and over 10 meters wide. It dates back to the 14th century and is considered to be one of the most astonishing gothic style bridges in the world, decorated with over 30 statues (mostly of Christian iconography). It’s beautiful for sure, when you’re not crammed shoulder to shoulder with people trying to cross. It ended up feeling more like a through-way than an actual sight to go and see for itself.

Likewise, the old town square was so full of people, it became difficult to move. I’ll even go so far as to say it reminded me of being in China. Yep, it was that bad. The church was cool from the outside, but overly decorated and gaudy from the inside. The clock was perhaps the best part, though with so many people there, it became difficult to soak it in and enjoy it fully.

Prague's Astronomical Clock
Prague’s Astronomical Clock

The clock was finished in 1410 and is the third oldest (and only still operational) astronomical clock in the world. The dial is an astrolabe, a medieval device used for star mapping. The clock face also boasts a zodiac ring. Normally, the center of the square is empty. Except we happened to be there during Advent and like their German neighbor, Prague boasts its own version of the Christmas market.

The fully lit tree was a nice touch, as was the stage (off to the side) where groups of children’s choirs would perform one after the other. And on December 5th, Mikulas makes an appearance. The Czech version of Santa is slightly different from our own. He appears with two followers: an angel and a devil, also known as the Krampus. If the child has been bad over the year, the devil kidnaps him (or her) and tosses them in his sack to bring straight to hell. However, the angel pleads to Mikulas on the child’s behalf, to save him from damnation. Mikulas then asks the child to recite a song or a poem and if he can, then he’s freed from the devil’s sack and given a treat. If he can’t, it’s said that there’s nothing else to be done but wave goodbye as the cackling krampus departs.

Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square)
Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square)

Quite a bit scarier than getting a lump of coal in your stocking. Don’t you think?

So our trip was fun and delightful overall. I wish that I had felt more of the magic Prague has to offer. I suppose that’s the risk when one’s traveled to Kathmandu, Kyoto, and Cairo.

Prospero Año Nuevo…

-Justin

Czech Out My German

Christkindlesmarkt

One of the Major Thoroughfares in Nuremberg
One of the Major Thoroughfares in Nuremberg

Without a doubt, one of the hardest aspects of being an expat is spending the holidays without family and friends surrounding you (hence the previous blog about Christmas movie viewing). Needless to say, every year we look for new and exciting ways to celebrate and curb the loneliness that comes from living abroad, while still keeping the traditions that we grew up with alive.

This year, our Christmas holiday season began with a trip to Germany, where we visited the town that invented Christmas: Nuremberg. Now, when I say invented Christmas, I don’t mean the entire holiday. The human observation of the daylight growing longer and overcoming the darkness dates back to prehistory. However, many of our contemporary western ideas relating to the festival of lights come out of Germany and other central European nations.

The German Christmas Market in Munich
The German Christmas Market in Munich

One way that many of the European cultures celebrate is through the markets. Christmas markets can be found all over the continent, but they – like many other traditions – originated in the area of Germany (ie. trees, wreaths, and Sinterklaas). The oldest of these is in Nuremberg where instead of Christmas market, it is called the Christkindlesmarkt.

Christkind translates to ‘Christ Child‘ in English and specifically in the Bavarian region (yes, we ate real pretzels and bratwurst), children write letters to the baby Jesus asking for presents. The letters are decorated with sugar to make them sparkle. The Nuremberg market opens on the Friday prior to the start of Advent, and a young girl with ‘Christ like’ qualities is chosen to participate in a parade as the Christkind. She wears a long, white dress and has blond curly hair with a gold crown atop her head. Sometimes she even wears wings like an angel.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Nobody really knows how the Christkindlesmarkt traditions began, but its been theorized to date back to 1628. The oldest piece of evidence is a wooden box with that date inscribed on the bottom alongside the words: KindlesMarck. Additionally, the words Kindleinbescheren (handing out presents to children) or Weihnachtszeit (Christmas time) were used in official Nuremberg city documents as far back as 1610. Most historians believe that the markets gradually evolved between 1610 and 1639.

Most, if not all, of the Christmas markets in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and other countries take place in or around the town square and Nuremberg is no different. The Hauptmarkt is the area of the town beneath the Frauenkirche – a very unique cathedral that appears to have jumped out of the pages of a steampunk novel, complete with a mechanical clock dating back to 1506 (but commemorating the Golden Bull of 1356).

Christkindlemarkt at Night in Front of the Frauenkirche
Christkindlesmarkt at Night in Front of the Frauenkirche

There was a time when traveling meant capturing great photos of some far off places and experiencing the feeling of simply being there. That was when I took trips alone. Going on a holiday with Jen, however, is a completely different story. While I spend time researching hotels, airlines, and sights, she spends her time vigorously combing through internet forums for what people claim are the best souvenirs to buy. If I’m lucky, she chooses one. At a Christmas market though (at any sight with the word ‘market’ in the title), I felt lucky to get out of there with only a small handful.

During the trip we strolled through markets in Prague, Munich, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and Nuremberg. And after seeing the various styles of markets, I believe we made the right decision in doing all of our souvenir shopping in Nuremberg. The quality of handcrafted goods far outweighed options at the other markets. Rothenburg ob der Tauber was such a small market, there were more Christmas shops than stalls (shops open year round so I’m told). Both Prague and Munich had a plethora of cheap, factory made chintz. It was frustrating to walk kilometers (literally) around the markets only to see the same junk being peddled at every booth.

Nuremberg Prune Men
Nuremberg Prune Men

On the other hand, Nuremberg showcased a variety of goods that none of the other markets had on display. For example, we purchased two very cute Christmas decorations. The first is called a smoker and is similar to a nutcracker. While the nutcracker sits on the shelf looking Christmasy and not doing much else (unless you really want to try cracking a nut), the smoker opens up and a small incense cone goes inside. The smoke comes out through a hole in the mouth, filling the room with the scents of pine trees, warm apple cinnamon, or anything else you might want.

The second is the Zwetschgenmannle, or Prune Men. They were supposedly invented in the 18th century by a man who only had wire and a plum tree. He wanted the perfect gift for his children so he created these little figurines. Today, the prune men come in all shapes and sizes (some even ride Harleys). It’s impossible to visit the Nuremberg market without getting at least one. They range in price from 3 to 20 euro, and unlike many of the other potential souvenirs (wooden ornaments, gingerbread, spiced wine, and more), the prune men can only be found in Nuremberg.

Jen with her Nuremberg Mug filled with Hot Chocolate
Jen with her Nuremberg Mug filled with Hot Chocolate

Another interesting aspect of the markets are the mugs. Visitors pay a deposit of 2 or 3 euro and get a special mug (every year has a different design and the date printed on it). You take your mug with you to every drink stall and order whatever hot beverage you prefer, whether it be hot chocolate, apple cider, or mulled wine. At the end of the evening, you can choose to either return your mug for the deposit, or keep it as another souvenir. We took a mug home from both Rothenburg and Nuremberg. Two more souvenirs and many cups of hot beverages that kept us warm while we shopped.

So, we enjoyed our short Advent trip to Germany and the Czech Republic. Next, we’ll be traveling to Italy, Austria, and Hungary. We both miss home and hope that all our family and friends are enjoying the build up and preparations for the holiday season… Stay tuned for more stories from our adventures!

Hasta la Proxima…

-Justin

Lost in Tradition

Christmas Films should Evoke this...
Christmas Films should Evoke this…

Now that Thanksgiving is over, we find ourselves fully immersed in the holiday season. Because of this, I wanted to share some vital information to those of my readers who also double as film buffs. It’s come to my attention there has been a discrepancy about Christmas movies. So consider this article an brief guide to help steer you in the right direction.

To begin with, I would like to point out there are two types of films that will appear on this list:

  • Films about the Christmas spirit
  • Films that are set during the holiday season

If any of you Google any terms related to Christmas or holiday films, you will undoubtedly find rolls of film titles, some even 100 long. However, the vast majority of these movies are not Christmas movies in the traditional sense. The primary method of determining the validity of an actual Christmas film is where the holiday and its message fall within the context of the characters and story.

Or this...
Or this…

If the holiday of Christmas is nothing more than a set-piece, ie. in the background or backdrop, with lights and snow then that film is NOT a Christmas movie. I repeat… movies with a Christmas setting are not necessarily Christmas films. So what makes a movie a Christmas movie?

For starters, the holiday itself is in the foreground of the story and characters. The movie needs to take place during Christmas or it doesn’t make sense. Stories that can be transferred to other seasons and still maintain their dramatic integrity do not count as Christmas movies.

Especially this...
Especially this…

Secondly, the theme of the film must have a happy and uplifting ending. Christmas movies are meant to make us feel good. By the time the fade-to-black hits and the credits begin, the audience should be laughing, smiling, have tears of joy streaking from their eyes, or some combination thereof. They should be about family and love and forgiveness and new beginnings. They should, for the most part, be so sappy and saccharine you want to gauge your eyes out with an ornament on your tree.

Yes, yes, yes… we all cheered when Batman finally got rid of the Penguin in Batman Returns (but that doesn’t make it a Christmas film). Nor are Die Hard, Gremlins, Trading Places, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Reindeer Games (though aptly named), Lethal Weapon, The Nightmare Before Christmas (again, aptly names), Meet Me in St. Louis, and Bad Santa (to name but a few) – as much as we may like them or think they are.

So, to sum up… A Christmas film must directly relate to the holiday AND leave audiences with a happy and uplifting ending. Got it? Good. Now onto the list of the top 25 “not-to-miss” Christmas films to watch this holiday season (in no particular order):

  1. Miracle on 34th Street (either version)
  2. A Christmas Carol (any version incl. Scrooged starring Bill Murray)
  3. It’s a Wonderful Life
  4. Babes in Toyland
  5. A Christmas Story (my personal favorite)
  6. Home Alone
  7. Elf (a contemporary classic)
  8. White Christmas
  9. Holiday Inn
  10. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
  11. The Santa Clause
  12. The Bishop’s Wife
  13. Holiday Affair
  14. The Ref
  15. Mixed Nuts
  16. Four Christmases
  17. Fred Claus
  18. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  19. Just Friends (this one could go either way, but I believe it to be a Christmas-themed rom’ com’)
  20. The Polar Express
  21. The Holiday (on the fence)
  22. Jingle All the Way
  23. Prancer
  24. Christmas with the Kranks
  25. The Nativity Story
Exactly Like this...
Exactly Like this…

And with the end of this blog, I wish a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night – filled with hot, buttery popcorn, and 5.1 surround sound, high-def movie viewing!

Feliz Navidad!!!

-Justin