My Own Special Hell: Movies on Buses

The day slipped away from the Valley of the Kings, the last rays of sun passing over the tombs of ancient kings.

We rushed down the street to the two restaurants that fought for our business, trying to out wager each other with offers of free fruit juice, appetizers, desserts. We picked the one with the better kebabs, tender and juicy. Earlier in the day we had taken a feluca ride on the Nile; then spent the hottest hours of the afternoon splashing at the pool in our hotel, a luxury that came with our $7 rooms. Our trip through Egypt was reaching its last days, but before we returned to Cairo, we had one last stop: Hurghada and snorkeling in the Red Sea.

Until this trip to Egypt in June 2004, my international travels had been restricted to Europe—to high-speed rail and rental cars, sidewalk cafes and art museums. Egypt was a revelation. It was mad in a way that made me fall in love with it, all if it, even the incessantly honking traffic and the men who offered Jeff camels in exchange for me and the shop owners guaranteeing that whatever I wanted, they had. Every experience felt new, even ordinary things like bus rides.

Our bus ride from Luxor to Hurghada was to be the first long-distance bus of our Egyptian travels—we’d taken the train south from Cairo—and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the unmarked station—a mere parking lot, really—I asked and asked and then asked again which bus was ours, none of them seeming to indicate any sort of destination. Upon gaining a consensus answer, I handed over our luggage and then boarded the bus, my friends Kate and Ben behind me, Jeff and my brothers Gregory and Mark in front of me. I’m impressed with what I see. It’s clean. The seats look comfortable (and more importantly, are only required to hold the number for which they were built and not two, three, or four extra people). And best of all, there’s a TV. Hooray for entertainment, I thought. It was, after all, going to be a long bus ride in the dark, meaning there would be nothing to look at.

I hear you laughing now. I hear you laughing at the young, naive version of me, the eager traveler who had no idea what she was about to experience. I expected airplane-style entertainment: a movie, that while not awesome, would by at least mildly entertaining, and, of course, headphones or perhaps minimal volume with subtitles. (Okay, up off the floor. Dry your eyes.)

The bus began to roll—out of the station, out of the city, and into the desert that lay between Luxor and Hurghada. The wheels squeaked on the rode. The low rumble of conversation filled the bus. A kid vomited his lunch into the aisle. And then a deafening wail filled the bus. Movie time. Bollywood time to be exact. Three-hour Bollywood madness at maximum volume to be perfectly clear.

I exchanged glances with Jeff, with my brothers, with Kate and Ben. We craned our necks, waiting for the bus attendant to come back and adjust the obviously too-loud television. We waited in vain. (Seriously, enough with the laughing, Mr./Ms. Experienced Traveler.) For three hours, we endured an epic Bollywood film that seemed to combine Snow White and the Wizard of Oz and then inject it with bloodcurdling screams. It was impossible to talk, to sleep—even to think, except to think about ripping your eyes and ears from your head as a means of saving yourself. When the bus finally pulled into Hurghada—late, as all buses are—I nearly fell to my knees in thanks, if not exhaustion. I had been delivered.

But as every traveler knows, the delivery is only momentary. There is always another bus, another TV, another bad movie played at deafening volume. Sometimes for fun (yes, bus torture does distort your idea of fun) I think back about the bad movies I’ve endured on buses and try to rank them, try to determine which one was really the worst. The Egypt one has certainly stuck with me, but in retrospect I’m not sure it was so bad (though yes, very bad) as it was shocking. I mean, can it compare to the time I was forced to watch License to Wed on never-ending repeat? Or the marathon of five back-to-back Jean Claude Van Damme movies, each different from the other only in regards to what country the bad guys came from? Or the fact that more than one bus thought The Condemned (yes, the WWE film) was quality viewing? I’m not sure. All were terrible in their own very special way—a way that has allowed these bus rides to remain clear in my mind while memories of the precious movie-less rides drift away from me like sands on a dune. That’s the funny thing about travel, isn’t it? In the end, it’s not what’s good or what’s bad that makes a trip; it’s simply what’s memorable.

What about you? What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen on a bus?

Language as Hope: Teaching English to Refugees

They straggle into the classroom, some early, some right on time, some a few minutes late. I don’t hold it against them. This is not the willful laziness of college. My students haven’t opted to sleep late or chosen to stand outside the door talking with a friend. If they are late it is because of their work or because one of the three buses they take to make it to the school was delayed.

I offer bright smiles as I hand out books and give them placards on which to write their names. Some return my smile and offer a carefully pronounced “Good evening.” Others cast their eyes down under furrowed brows.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves—reveal our names and where we are from. The young woman in the second seat, an eager learner with bright eyes and a face that reveals her youth, says that she is from a Thailand refugee camp. She does not claim a nationality, but a camp, a place for those caught in-between. When I ask her where she lived before the camp, confusion washes over her face. “My family has been in the camp for 50 years,” she says. She has been in America for two months.

A gentleman from Iraq, in his 60s if not early 70s, dressed in a dapper suit and addressing me with unnecessary formality, does not stop after his name and his home country but tells me about the work he has done in Iran and Jordan, the positions he has held. He wants me to know that in another time and another place he was someone who knew things, someone who spoke with authority, someone who did not have to grasp for words or grapple for understanding. He is not pompous or boastful, but simply a man whose world has been upended.

Through the course of the class, little things are revealed. One student has been in the United States for twenty years, making her way through the details of days, weeks, and years with only beginner level English. One student has children, though they are not here with him in the United States. One student must stand for part of the class, because of a back injury suffered in Iraq for which he is being treated at the local hospital.

I teach the best that I know how. I introduce new vocabulary. I say words slowly, carefully. I write every word on the board. I ask them to repeat everything I say. I demonstrate where I put my tongue, how I move my lips. I show them how to arrange words into sentences and questions. I give them verbs that will open the door on English. I ask questions and I give them silence in which to think and respond. I encourage them to speak, speak, speak, even when they don’t know exactly what they want to say. I celebrate their successes. I work with them through their struggles.

Having lived abroad and tried to learn languages foreign to my English-speaking tongue, I can sympathize with my students. But I cannot empathize. I chose to learn other languages. I chose to live abroad. I chose to travel to places where people did not speak my language. My travel has been for pleasure. And there is, above all, the simple fact that I always had a home to return to, a place where I could be understood.

My students have not come to the United States as travelers, but as refugees, as people without a home. They are far, far braver than me. They astound me with their courage. I am amazed that they still laugh, that they bother to ask me how my day was, that they mourn for each other’s losses when their own are at least as great. It is because of this courage, this joy, and this compassion that I spend every Tuesday night in the windowless basement room of a church. It is because I have been given so much in a world where so many are given so little that I do my very best to teach my students the difficult language of a country that perhaps one day they will refer to as home.

Traveling Africa: Private Car vs. Public Transportation

When we talk about our next trip—not the upcoming birthday trip to Hawaii or the beach vacation with my family, but our next big trip—we talk about Africa. We talk about Ethiopa, about the Masai Mara, the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, about Rwanda, and about Zambia beyond Victoria Falls. We talk about exploring the parts of East Africa that we were unable to squeeze into our three months in Africa. And we imagine ourselves doing it in a 4WD, the open road unfurling in front of us, our plans unhindered by bus schedules or tour operators.

During the weeks we spent traveling through South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana, we had our own car—an orange Kia that was decidedly not 4WD or fancy but that managed to get us everywhere we wanted to go.

Thanks to the car, we were able to go on do-it-yourself safaris in Kruger and Etosha and smaller parks in-between, where our encounters with lions and cheetahs were enabled by good fortune and sharp eyes rather than radio calls that have every safari truck in range surrounding one animal. We were able to detour to Tsodilo Hills and take the ferry to the Okavango Polers Trust for an affordable mokoro safari, places that would have been difficult to reach via public transportation. Thanks to the fact that we had our own car, we were able to stop on the side of the road along the Caprivi Strip and browse carved animal figurines while chatting with kids from a traditional village, people who would have been only passing images from the window of a bus. Having a car opened roads, destinations, and experiences up to us. It presented us with possibilities and gave us the freedom to change our mind at any moment. It allowed us to choose our own music instead of being forced to listen to the same song on repeat for four hours. It gave us the freedom to depart the second we chose rather than being forced to sit in a bus that was going “now” but not “now now” for long mindless stretches. These are the things I think of when I picture us in our own 4WD.

But then I think of our travels through Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania, when we took buses and minibuses and trains and pick-up trucks and even a motorcycle or two.

There were some long days, where we did nothing but sit on buses, waiting for them to leave, enduring endless stops and starts, waiting out flat tries or overheated transmissions, bracing ourselves through pothole after pothole. We took buses that were so full we had to stand for the entire ride. We took minivans that held double or triple their intended number. We were often hot. We were usually uncomfortable. Yet somehow we still had fun. We met many people who wanted to talk to us, who were amazed to have us sitting right next to them in an overcrowded matutu. We met people who wanted to touch my blonde hair, people who asked us to hold their babies while they dug for their fares, people who shared their bags of fruits or nuts with us. When our buses or trains broke down, we stood on the side of the road with everyone else and traded sighs and stories. We learned Swahili from kids who would emerge from the village where we broke down, and we’d share a plastic table at the roadside restaurant selling chicken and fries. From our seats aboard Africa’s public transportation, we not only saw Africa but we also experienced it in the same way that most Africans do. Taking public transportation gave us perspective on what it is like to live in Africa, not just visit it. It allowed us to get intimately acquainted with people we would not have met otherwise. By paying the same fare and sharing the same small space, we became more approachable and less “the other.”

So when I settle in to my fantasies about my return visit to Africa, I find myself conflicted. Would I want to have my own means of transportation or would that only keep  me sealed off, viewing a sterile Africa through my own narrow windshield? Or would I want to opt for public transportation and open myself up to Africa but perhaps close myself off to destinations too far off the matutu route? I think the answer lies somewhere in between, in a combination of a 4WD on an open road and a matutu stuck in a traffic jam. Because as I see it, that is Africa, a place of opposites and extremes that combine in the most mesmerizing way.

Photo Friday: Cusco, Peru

As I was surfing through the archives, reminiscing, I came to December 2008/January 2009 and did a double take. No Cusco pictures? None? Zero? Zip? How could that be? Cusco was beautiful. It was interesting. It was definitely photogenic. I looked again. And then I remembered. Oh yeah, Ispent the first part of our time in Cusco with my head over the toilet, held hostage by a stomach virus. And then there was the fact that my brother Gregory was visiting, and we enjoyed his real live presence so much that we didn’t feel any need to get online. After that, well, we kept traveling and things kept happening and there was so much that we wanted to share that lovely, lovely Cusco was neglected.

I’m here now to make up for that. To beg the forgiveness of this breathtaking (and yes, I do mean that literally) city. For this Photo Friday edition of Lives of Wander, I present Cusco and the surrounding countryside.

An aerial view of Cusco, a sea of red roofs tucked into the valley.

Cusco’s main plaza, Plaza de Armas, as seen from the hills above the city. Lushly landscaped and surrounded by shops, restaurants, and historic buildings, the plaza is always crowded with both locals and visitors.

The Cathedral of Santa Domingo has a place of prominence in the Plaza de Armas. The cathedral sits on a foundation of an Incan temple destroyed by Spanish colonizers. If you look closely, you’ll notice that this is true of many of Cusco’s buildings.

Though I enjoyed the architecture of Cusco in its entirety, I particularly loved the balconies, both those that were intricately carved and the more simple ones lining the streets.

Souvenirs and necessities are sold side by side in the Cusco market.

Intricately decorated gourds are sold by the mound.

Though the traditional dress of the women in this photo is still worn by many Quechua people, many of the people you find in Cusco in such attire are wearing it in the hopes of making a few bucks off tourists who want to take their photos or pose with their llamas.

Just a short bus ride from the city center, life is rural. Farms here are necessarily small as the mountainous terrain makes it hard to find suitable land for growing.

There was something a little bit surreal to me about this bright yellow VW bug parked on a hillside in the Cusco countryside just a few hundred yards from a set of Incan ruins. I love strange juxtapositions and the reminder of the way life marches on.

A large statue of Jesus stands above the city, guarding Cusco.

While down in the city, the baby Jesus is attended to by Mary, Joseph, and a llama. (We were in Cusco the week after Christmas.)

If you’re planning to hike the Inca Trail or one of the alternative trails to Machu Picchu, be sure to pad your schedule so that you’ll have a few days in Cusco. Besides needing those days to get used to the high altitude, you’ll find that your days will be packed simply exploring Cusco and the nearby villages and Incan ruins. Though Cusco is certainly a very touristed city, it didn’t, at least to me, feel touristy.

For more Photo Friday posts, be sure to check out the links from Delicious Baby.

***Photos 1 (Aerial view of Cusco), 3 (Cathedral of Santa Domingo), 4 (Carved Balcony), 5 (Street of Balconies), 6 (Cusco Market), and 7 (Gourds) are courtesy of my brother Gregory Dowell, who traveled with us to Cusco. See more of his excellent photography, including images from Chicago’s recent Thunder Blizzard on his blog.

Ruminations from the Acropolis

(Taken from the Spargel archives: September 12, 2003)

Last night I saw The Shakespeare Theatre from Washington D.C. perform the Oedipus Cycle at Herodes Atticus Odeon, the theatre on the Acropolis. To see an ancient Greek tragedy performed by a modern American company in an ancient Greek theatre was an amazing experience. Almost 34 rows of stone seats remain, rising seemingly straight up from the ground. Behind the stage, there is a row of arched windows, above which is a row of smaller square windows, then another level of bigger arched windows. To the sides, ruins linger, making it clear that at one point the theatre had at least two more levels. While I am sure the theatre is nothing more than a shadow of its former glory, it is unqualifiedly grand.

As I watched the show with one eye and examined the theatre with another, I couldn’t help wondering, “What is the cost of such greatness?” Not the cost in money, but the cost in human lives. While it is certainly worthwhile to marvel at the way these buildings, constructed hundreds of years before Christ, still remain, demanding respect and reminding us of the ancient roots of democracy, it is important, I believe, to think about how these buildings came to be. Structures of stone, they required tremendous labor. Each stone had to be cut from quarry. Each stone had to be transported to the site. Each stone had to be arranged and secured to withstand the change of centuries. “Who did this work?” I wonder. Who gave themselves fully to the task of creating such a monument? Who lost their lives when a rock shifted unexpectedly? It wasn’t the great men of Athens. It wasn’t those we read about in textbooks or see statues of in museums. It was the common man. It was, most likely, men held slaves by other men. Greatness is a strange concept. There are men we consider great, and there are things we consider great. Sometimes we forget that many great things result from the toil of many forgotten people. It is not just true here in Greece, but in the United States and throughout the world. That which we marvel over and hold precious often has a hidden cost. That doesn’t mean that we should quit marveling. We should marvel, but not just over the thing but also over the people who created such marvels.

On a different but related note, have you ever gone somewhere and wondered what it used to be like before it is the way you see it now? For instance, whenever I go on long road trips, I always find myself imagining what our country must have looked like before interstates, or even roads of any sort, crisscrossed it. What must it have been like to have crossed the U.S. by wagon, without roads, interstate signs, fast-food restaurants, billboards, hotels, convenience stores? All you had was yourself and whatever you could fit in your wagon. All your food had to be prepared, found, or hunted. Every need had to be fulfilled by you. You didn’t know what was up ahead. You couldn’t consult Mapquest. You couldn’t call AAA. In one day, you would travel the distance we now travel in one hour. Strange, isn’t it? Could I have done it?

So yes, I’m getting to the part that relates back to my theatre experience. As I sat high above the stage, just as others had done centuries ago, I wondered what it must have been like for them to sit there. What was the same? The glow of the full moon, the pin point light of the stars (multiplied exponentially, I am sure), the trees like rough strokes of black on an illuminated canvas, the shadows dancing wildly on the stone wall, the balmy summer air, the whispers of theatre patrons. So much must have been the same. But as I looked out the arches over the stage, I saw city lights, buildings, restaurants, endless streams of cars. Where there must have been rolling hills and fields, there is now development. While the Acropolis stood stoically, the city around it grew and changed to become a modern metropolis. If the people, who in B.C. sat in the same seats that were filled last night, returned, what would they recognize? Would they even know where they were? While some things remain, so much changes. Bit by bit, the familiar becomes the unfathomable. The world is only ours for a brief moment.

Budgeting for Your Round-the-World Trip: Coming Home

On December 15, 2009, just a little over two months after landing back in the United States after our year-long trip, Jeff and I closed on a house, putting a solid 20% down. No, we aren’t rich. We didn’t discover that we were the long lost relative of a member of the royal family. We didn’t win the lottery, embezzle funds, or steal and pawn a gold Buddha. No, the money we used to purchase our house didn’t come to us in any exciting way. Instead it came to us the old-fashioned way: by working and then saving.

When the idea of a RTW trip first weasels its way into your head, all you can do is dream. You dream of what it will be like to stand at the Sun Gate and look down on Machu Picchu after three hard days of hiking. You dream of the way your heart will race the first time you see a lion in the wild. You dream of the taste of the pad thai that you will learn to cook yourself in a class in Chiang Mai. You plan routes in your head. You read blogs and travel guides and you watch travel shows to fuel your dreams of all the places you can go and the adventures you can have.

Then when the idea has entrenched itself so much that it’s no longer a dream but a plan, you begin to look into the costs. How much is a RTW ticket? What about individual legs? How much does it cost to sleep and eat in South America? Africa? Asia? Australia? What’s the price tag for a gorilla trek in Uganda or learning to scuba dive in Malaysia? You determine what kind of traveler you are. You decide what you can live without and what you must have. You calculate, add and subtract, guesstimate here and there, until you have a number. Your budget. The amount it will cost you to take a round-the-world trip.

Maybe it’s $50 a day. Maybe it’s $100 a day. Doesn’t matter. Everyone travels differently. What does matter is that what you have here is only a partial budget. What you have here is the cost to travel. What you’ve forgotten is the cost of coming home.

Of all the destinations on your trip, home is going to be the most expensive for the majority of round-the-world travelers. Sure, maybe Mom will let you crash in your old room and will have missed you so much that she’ll fix you food and let you borrow her car, but after the absolute freedom of long-term travel being dependent on someone else is not going to be very fun. So what you’re going to want to do is budget for both your trip and your return home.

Here’s how in five easy steps.

1. Take a realistic look at how much it costs to live at home for one month.
How much is an apartment going to cost? Don’t forget the deposit and utilities. How much do you need for groceries? What are your transportation costs? Assume that you’ll live pretty frugally upon your return, but don’t be too ascetic in your budgeting. Chances are you’re going to want to catch up with friends over a beer or hit your favorite restaurant when you get home.

2. Assume you’re going to be without income for at least one month upon your return. Then plan for three.
While some people are able to line up work in advance of their return, most travelers return from their travels to find themselves unemployed. Getting hired, especially these days, isn’t the easiest thing, and even in the best economy, the time from application to interview to hiring is usually a few weeks at minimum. And honestly, you’re going to want to give yourself some time to readjust to home before you slip back behind a desk. Three months worth of savings gives you time to re-enter, look for a job, and hopefully get hired, if not at your dream job, at least at the local coffee shop.

3. Take the three month figure and then pad it.
Did you consider the fact that if you’re unemployed, you’re also without health insurance (at least in the U.S.)? You’re going to need money for a temporary policy. Did you sell all your stuff before your trip and have to go shopping for something to wear to your interview? Regular life is often filled with unexpected costs. Be prepared.

4. Set up a separate account as your re-entry fund.
Every time you feed your round-the-world account, feed a portion of it to your re-entry fund. It’s just as important as the actual travel fund, so don’t neglect it with the idea that you’ll feed it at the end. Even better, feed it first, and then start in on the travel fund. You’re going to want to make sure this is a secure account (not stocks that might crash before you get home), and it’s a good idea to make it an account that is really hard to access from the road so you don’t “accidentally” spend it when some “opportunity-of-a-lifetime” presents itself to you when you’re drunk at 3 a.m. in Nicaragua.

5. Depart on your trip, knowing that you’ve done what you can to make re-entry easier.
With a nest egg set aside for re-entry, get going. Have fun. Take part in all those adventures you dreamed about when the idea of a round-the-world trip first crossed your mind. When you do come home, re-entry will be challenging (and that’s okay), but you’ll have made it a bit easier on yourself by taking care of the coming home part before you ever left.

If you’ve taken a long trip, how did you manage when you returned home? If you’re planning a trip right now, do you have a coming home fund? Share your tips for planning and saving for re-entry costs.

What Skiing Taught Me About Travel

I was a few months shy of 21 the first time I donned a pair of skis, and I think I fell down about five times before I even made it to the lift. I was in the German Alps, near the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, host to the 1936 Winter Olympics. Jeff had come to visit me in Germany over his winter break, and we’d decided that a ski trip was just the thing to do.

The Alps are not for weenies. On the edge of the slopes were signs warning about steep drops but there were no barriers to keep you from actually going over the edge. I should have signed up for a class, but the classes were all taught in German and the oldest person in the class was maybe 3.5. As I watched tiny tot after tiny tot come whizzing down the mountain, stopping with a snow flinging turn, I figured that skiing couldn’t be that hard. That was before Jeff struggled to explain to me the exact method for skiing, before I slid down almost the entire mountain on my butt, before I spent the night in the hot tub trying to soothe my aching muscles. By then I was convinced that those kids I had seen flying around on skis must have been born with a special gene that made skiing as easy for them as falling down was for me.

By the third and final day of our trip, I could make it down a hill without falling, but it wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t fast. We then didn’t go skiing again for five years, until a spring wedding took us to Denver in time for the last ski weekend of the season. This time I took a class, and I began to understand why people might consider skiing fun.

But then, we got caught up in writing guidebooks and finishing PhDs and traveling around the world, and it wasn’t until this past weekend, that we were able to go skiing again, my third time. I had received assurances that skiing was like riding a bike, and it would all come back to me easily. I’d say that’s a partially true statement. I didn’t feel like I did the first time I clicked my boots into my skis—I certainly didn’t flail around as much—but I still wasn’t entirely comfortable.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a worrier with an overactive imagination, so every time I got going at a decent pace, all I could imagine was what it would be like to wipe out at that speed. And so, I made lots and lots of turns. I gave my glutes a workout through overuse of the snowplow. Essentially, any time I got up to speed, I made myself slow down. By the end of the first day, my knees were killing me. On the second day, they began to bug me as soon as we started down the first slope. I mentioned this to those we were skiing with and no one could quite figure out why. I played around. I experimented. And then I realized what the problem was. I was going too slow. Essentially I was taking every turn without much in the way of momentum, meaning my knees were having to do all the work of turning my skis. What I had to do was let go.

It wasn’t easy. I hesitated a few times. I pulled up on the steeper parts. But eventually, I let go. I trusted in my ability. I knew that I knew how to ski, that I knew how to turn, that I knew how to slow down, that I knew how to stop, and so I let myself go. My knees quit hurting. Skiing became much more fun and much less work. I tried bigger hills, tougher slopes. I fell a few times, but I popped right back up each time. I didn’t throw caution to the wind so much, as I trusted in my knowledge, skills, and abilities and then went for it.

As I see it, this is exactly the same thing you have to do with travel. Whether it’s deciding to take a major trip, opting to travel without a detailed itinerary, or choosing to travel to a challenging destination or simply somewhere outside your comfort zone, eventually you simply have to let go. You have to trust in your knowledge, your instincts, your experience, and whatever planning you have done, and then you simply have to make the leap. And that’s when the adventure begins.