Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Expedition

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To come home from a hiking trip in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is to experience civilization in all of its guts and glory.

Just three days at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was enough to make me question my style of traveling. Up until this point, I had been taking planes and trains to major cities, dining in fine restaurants, and visiting art museums. I had been feasting my eyes on the creations of humankind, many of which are so ubiquitous that they don’t get pointed out very often.

Looking out at the sunset at Beaver Creek this past weekend, I could see the Earth rotating. My friends and I were lying alone on the silken white sands of the only beach in the world. 20130525_222347My retinas burned with ecstasy, soaking in the soothing opulence of the lake’s diamond ripples like a stagnant sea sponge. Orange, purple, red, pink, and indigo turned the tabula rasa into a tie-died masterpiece that slowly streaked into the steady horizon, reminding us that each day is a new chance to turn it all around.

The following day, we took the North Country trail heading West toward the legendary Chapel Hill landmark and campgrounds. I saw a corduroy cabin in the woods and marveled at the ability of humans to infiltrate even the purest of landscapes. I normally see hundreds of houses a day, but this one brought to light the utility of opposable thumbs. My seclusion struck me in the strangest of ways, punting my pulse into a frenzy at the sight of a lonely log cabin on the edge of the wilderness.

On our final day of hiking, we came upon the Coves. These rocky platelets jutting out into the marine blue depths transported me to the mermaids’ lagoon in Peter Pan. There I was, forever young and surrounded by sirens of the sea. Beethoven’s Million Dollar Quartet came to mind, as did Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The cloudless sky’s never-ending story pulled me in and set me free simultaneously.

Every bridge hovering above a creek was the bridge to Terabithia, and each ravine rolling into a meadow was an entrance to the Forbidden Forest. All of my fantastical fixations came to the forefront of my consciousness like the full moon when it outshines the stars, conquering the night sky. I half expected to see Aslan the Lion come galavanting into the forest with some Turkish delights stolen from the evil queen.

None of that happened, but there were a couple other magical aspects of my Michigan trip. For one thing, my physical suffering did nothing to detract from my spiritual growth. If anything, the two were, and are, directly related. The more I suffered from physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation, the stronger my will to survive became. And as time slowed down exponentially, my oneness with nature solidified like the shale and sandstone of Mosquito Creek.

Adventure, sport, and spirituality embrace the points on the coveted trinity : body, mind, and soul. Someone once said that experience feeds the brain and nourishes the spirit. It turns out that the cheapest way to travel can leave a person with the richest experiences this world has to offer : sublime sunsets, hearty fires, and waves of peace.

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The Second Boston Massacre

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America has known so many senseless tragedies, and for what ? It is a young, restless country with a less-than-perfect past and a fuzzy future. It may not be wise, but it is here.

I returned from Boston less than 24 hours ago with a light heart. Bean town is a small city with enough history to keep you from losing interest. It’s that colonial charm that gets you to stick around in this nitty, gritty city.

ImageYesterday, my friend and I strolled past the marathon finish line just hours before it was blown up by two bombs this afternoon. But this post is not about me. It’s about the people who are total badasses and ran a marathon. The ones that died or got injured. The ones that ran to the hospital to give blood instead of finishing the race. The ones that helped make the situation less terrible.

Like many media moguls have noted today, it’s important to only report what you know. We still don’t know what–or who–set the bombs off, and the JFK library explosion is unrelated. Props to the brave people. You never know when a passerby will turn into a martyr.

Notes from St. Louis

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If you are under the age of 30, you should run if you ever hear this phrase : “XXXX” is a great place to raise a family. St. Louis is one of those places, and unless you are visiting somebody that’s down with a scene and knows the happening spots, you should pick a place that has more going on, both socially and architecturally. But if you have a family, by all means, indulge in all the fear-free frolicking that this city has to offer. Just stay out of North St. Louis.

The benefits of St. Louis are

a) There is always parking. If you paid to park your car, you got fooled.

b) Things are cheaper there. A decent sized meal will be under $10, and that’s if you even eat a full meal. I found people who eat full meals few and far between. People here are constantly eating on-the-go. Snack food and pop are everywhere. Dinner is at the Quaker hour of 4-5 PM (at least for the people with whom I was staying–Yes, this was a family trip).

Some people here think of themselves as somehow better than people on the East or West coasts because St. Louis is a cheaper city. That is, if you can even call it a city. There is one 24-hour coffee shop, and the corner store down the street from where I was staying (South St. Louis) sells crack pipes and knives. It was also sandwiched between 2 currency exchanges. Sound sketchy ? It was. That’s another thing about St. Louis–it’s hit or miss, and when you miss, you miss by a long shot.

I’ve heard travelers rave about the soul food, the barbecue, and the kind people in STL. I guess all those things exist, but when I travel, I look for culture, diversity, and aesthetic appeal. I did not find these things in St. Louis.

My favorite part of the trip was my visit to the City Museum. On the way there, I saw a giant meditating bunny called the “Earth Rabbit” in a square. I wanted to get closer, but the museum was calling my name. The outside of the St. Louis City Museum has an industrial design with tubes, slides, and ropes to climb on for kids and adults alike. The late Bob Cassilly built the museum in 1997, and it became the hottest thing since St. Louis fried chicken. I can understand why–it was the coolest thing I had seen in St. Louis. I went down the 10-story slide, saw the aquarium upstairs, avoided the generic cafe, and climbed through the tubes and tunnels until it was time for lunch.

Fishtastic Museum Theme

Fishtastic Museum Theme

My last lunch was at Soulard‘s Coffee Garden in one of the old French neighborhoods where they hold Mardi Gras every year. I got the Veggie Bennie and must admit that it was a decadent vegetarian version of the classic eggs Benedict. The Highlander Grog was a hazelnut infused coffee that attempted to be Scottish and failed miserably. The Scottish drink espressos, not Americanos.

If someone asked me if I like St. Louis, my answer would be a resounding “No.” This family-friendly area is neither big nor beautiful, and outside of Washington Street, the environment is shockingly suburban. But if you like small-town charm, less crowds, and Midwestern openness, then this is the place for you. Oh, and the Budweiser brewery calls St. Louis home.

Paris : La Bohème Expo at Le Grand Palais

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Wikipedia: Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits. In this context, Bohemians may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds

“Je sais quand je suis né, mais pas pourquoi…” – Proverbe Rom

Walking through the archways of Le Grand Palais is sort of creepy. Nobody expects to find themselves in a damp wooded labrynth with gilded paintings and burgundy tapestries. La Bohème Expo in the Grand Palais gallery is coordinated to match the Bohemian lifestyle, which is to constantly be living in tune with nature, and to always be on the move.

Ceiling

Artists started recreating Bohemia right around the plague— in other words, the mid-15th century. The paintings featured a chaste virgin/tempting gypsy dichotomy. Gypsies, or Roms, had been around in Europe for centuries before art made them famous, though. Their traveling lifestyle formed the foundation of the philosophy based on living off of the good intentions or naiveté of others. Roms found their way to Western Europe through Bohemia, or what is now called the Czech Republic.
The Bohemian

“La Bohèmienne” – Pierre Auguste Renoir
PHOTO: Gilles Nèret

The exhibition begins with plaques written in French and English, explaining the history of Roms in Central and Western Europe. The first statue is a marble bust of a chaste Bohemian woman. The following paintings show gypsies and women who wore their hair down and curly (gasp), defying social norms and rendering them rebels of the times. Renoir’s “La Bohèmienne” has a girl with long wavy hair and a worried look on her face, probably due to the auspicious bulge in her stomach. Audio guides go into further detail about the alleged inspiration behind each painting.
Van Gogh

“A Pair of Shoes” – Vincent Van Gogh
PHOTO: Leslie Parke

Vincent Van Gogh’s painting resonates with the traveling spirit of Bohemianism. It’s not about the quality of the shoes, it’s about where the person wearing them has been and what they’ve experienced.
“Qui voyage beaucoup, apprend beaucoup…” – Proverbe Rom
At one point or another, every Bohemian gets the travel bug. But this is a specific kind of wanderlust, the kind that makes people crave crépes and hot wine. The Montmartre neighborhood in Paris has aging cafes and cabarets that draw artists like flies to honey. Le Chat Noir is the family crest for people that used to thrive in these social boxes, whether it was to philosophize, commiserate, or participate in some harmless debauchery. The painter, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, was born on the hill in Montmartre.
Montmartre

“Le Chat Noir” – Theophile Alexandre Steinlen

Glorified by counter-culturists to this day, the Bohemian era is still not over. Each decade, the creative milieu reinvents it to incarnate the sentiment of the times. The beatniks, the hippies, the squatters, and the ravers of today all have one thing in common: a reverence for all things Bohème.
A bunch of people at the exhibit were dressed up like the museum was a themed party. No one else got that memo. I guess the freedom of La vie Bohème is too attractive to pass up.

Survival Cannibalism: Rugby Gone Wrong ?

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Toothpaste for dessert ? Sounds questionable. For the survivors of el Milagro de los Andes (the miracle of the Andes), Aquafresh was a rationed delicacy. On October 13, 1972, a chartered aircraft was on its way from Montevideo, Uruguay to Santiago, Chile for a rugby match. Tensions were running high as the players anticipated beating their long-time rivals, who had an outstanding record in their league. But all of these fears got pushed aside when the plane crashed in the Andes mountains, killing 29 passengers and the pilot. Of the remaining 25 people, 16 people survived by rationing the meager supply of chocolate bars, biscuits, and other snacks scattered among the wreckage. Every time someone died, the crew would do the unspeakable–skin them and roast their flesh for sustenance. When life is reduced to primitive instincts, these are the kinds of decisions people have to make.

Cannibalism has been around for centuries, but that doesn’t change the fact that people tend to avoid talking about it. For regular carnivores, meat, fish, and poultry seem to suffice. Why would someone even think about consuming a fellow human being ? As a species, we are not genetically inclined to eat each other. We need to multiply, and we have the tools to kill other animals. So why is it that some people choose to partake in this obscure ritual ?

     The Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea has been eating people for years. Not just any humans, though. They claim to only eat khakua (men they consider to be evil witches). The tribe lives in tree-houses up to 45 meters high about 100 miles inland from the Arafura Sea in a country that already has a low-density population, putting them out of reach of any “civilized” metropolis. Dutch missionaries lived among the Korowai between 1978 and 1990, observing their behavior in detail. For Westerners, their accounts are gruesome. According to cultural relativism, each society has its own moral codes and social norms. These tree-house dwellers have clashed with police for eating their own people, but the practice continues, though on a more clandestine level.

A Korowai man stands in front of a traditional treehouse in West Papua. PHOTO: MARKUS FLEUTE

     The Uruguayan rugby team members had to choose between life or death. Far from the societal constraints we know all too well, they separated the concept of body and soul to help keep their own bodies from disintegrating. The basic desire to survive drove 19 year-old Roberto Canessa and 21 year-old Fernando Parrado to search for help. Stocked with plenty of flesh for the trip, they set out on a 10-day journey from the snow-capped peak of Tinguiririca that culminated in a free meal from herdsman in the foothills and a long-awaited rescue mission for the teammates who stayed behind.
     Sleeping bags made of plane insulation may be a relic of the past, but the living survivors of the crash hold vivid memories of those 72 days of isolation. On October 13, 2012, the team took a plane to play that rugby match that had been post-poned for 40 years in Santiago, Chile. This time, winning and losing was not a priority. The sense of togetherness and camaraderie overshadowed any lingering bad memories and the plane ride home was simple, as they all live within a 5-mile radius of each other in Montevideo. Their fellow passengers helped them live through hell, and they honor their lives by donating money to a charitable sports foundation in Uruguay so that children in poverty can play rugby.
     Some like to think they would never stoop so low as to eat human flesh, and perhaps they are right. There are many people who would die to uphold their convictions. But no one knows until they are sitting on a mound of snow, shivering, wishing the body in front of them were a feast of gargantuan proportions.

Survivors of the crash honor their dead teammates with a moment of silence in Santiago, Chile. PHOTO: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

Back in Loca-motion

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Back in loca-motion.

It’s been months since I’ve blogged. I underwent an invasive operation in Kosovo, touched homebase briefly, and secured a journalism internship in Paris. I’m currently living a blue-collar lifestyle in one of the richest neighborhoods in Paris. I live in the maids quarters of a noble Countess that is so desperate for money that she makes store-brand hotdogs and frozen peas for her tenants.

I pedal a rental bike through the boulevards and wonder at the smoothness of the ride, the rules that drivers follow, the people who reach into their wallets on café terraces with blasé smiles on their faces. This is the first world. Secondly, most people don’t seem to notice all the individual stones that make up the legendary cobblestone streets of one of the most developed cities in the world. The third time’s a charm : she is mature, but she is not fully evolved.

The Parisian lifestyle sounds glamourous, but it is in fact far from it. I find beauty in little things, closing my eyes when I listen to music so as not to look at the crumbling ceiling in my little box of a room. For now, poordom is okay. Being viewed as a heroic American savior in Kosovo this past summer made me realise that I don’t need a lot of purchasing power to be happy. In fact, I was the unhappiest I had ever been in Pristina, regardless of the fact that some of the locals looked at me and smelled wealth and roads paved with gold in their own version of the American dream. Keeping busy to run from reality, staying on track to fill up time, keeping focussed to nail the deadline, isn’t that what we do in the Western world ? The Steely Dan song ‘Here in the Western World’ popped into my head constantly as I fantasised about handsome architecture, a functioning postal system, potable drinking water, and uranium-free air. I saw the slowness of southern Europe as a disability rather than a different choice. After all, it’s all about the choices we make, day in and day out. But the friendliness and the warmth of those people stayed with me, and now I understand the difference between the modern disconnect and the old-age adage that says “Treat your neighbor to biscuits made of gold, you never know when you’ll be cold”. Actually, I just thought that up.

But what’s up with this cliché H-word ? Why are people so obsessed with pursuing it ? I did an epistemological inquiry to figure it out for one of my high school English assignments and investigated the up-and-coming field of positive psychology. This branch of the humanities promotes a positive outlook and shows statistics of human development indices (HDI) in Scandinavian countries, which are the highest in the world due to their government model and other cultural factors that I don’t know (yet). It’s probably got something to do with the fact that they ride their bikes everywhere and eat delicious smoked salmon.

Happiness with a capital ‘H’ is just an ideal. A wise person once told me that contentment comes from the good moments that make up a week. Eating well, listening to good music, seeing art, having sex… each of these moments should be savored so that when looking back on them, you realise the fleeting impermanence of all emotions and situations, whether fortunate, unfortunate, or anywhere else on the gamut. I try to have as many of these good moments as possible, and I appreciate good luck when it comes my way. As for being happy ? That’s a butterfly that still hasn’t landed on my shoulder.

For now, I’d rather be poor in Paris.

Eighteen

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It sucks that I don’t have a smartphone with me in Kosovo, because I’ve never wanted to take discreet photos more. Almost everyone here’s brunette, so people tend to dye their hair funky colors to distinguish themselves from the crowd and add some spice to their lives. This city rivals Berlin for it’s fashion sense, minus the goth bit. Here are a few of the trends I’ve noticed since I’ve been here :

1. Red hair. Actually, dyed hair in general. I don’t know what it is about Eastern European women, but they tend to be drawn to red hair dye. Fire-truck, auburn, carrot, purple… You name it, the Kosovar women have used it. I even saw a girl on the bus with icy grey hair that shimmered blue in the sunlight (my personal favorite). Is it my Eastern European roots that compelled me to dye my hair dark red in 2008 ? It’s hard to tell, but the longer I stay here, the longer I’m tempted to get a new hairstyle. Considering how cheap the standard of living is here, I might just do it.

2. High heels. So far, virtually every woman I’ve seen in Pristina wears some form of high heels. I definitely never got the “no flats” memo. Wedges, stilettoes, Mary Jane heels, espradille wedges, blossom heels. Being short is just not an option here. I’m always under 5’5″, so I must look really bizarre.

3. Selling illegal things. This may not be a fashion trend, but it adds to the overall feel of the town. Walk down any given street and you’ll see children peddling everything from cigarettes to iPads to bootleg movies. There’s no limit to what they’re willing to sell to you, and they get pretty touchy- this little girl was hungrily grabbing at my notebook from the edges of my café table and I wished I had some leftover food to give to her. Class notes never filled an empty stomach. A little boy started grabbing at my arm as I walked past him on the street. Awkward ? Oh yeah. A French EULEX (the EU peacekeeping / law enforcement mission here in Kosovo) officer told me that the Roma (gypsy) population has practically no network here because they have very weak political representation. No government assistance, no health care, no nothing.

Sidenote : In Freedom House’s 2012 Nations in Transit report, Kosovo is classified as a semi-consolidated authoritarian regime. Much like a recent college grad struggling to break away from financial family ties, Kosovo’s an independent country that’s still on it’s way to being released from the grips of EU control.

4. Café culture here is thriving. I see the same people sitting at the main strip of cafés every day, and it’s reassuring. I’m becoming a regular and I like it. There’s no Wicker Park or Chinatown or Ukrainian Village of Pristina, and the downtown area is fairly small and closely resembles Chicago’s Gold Coast. Hopefully in ten years this city will diversify itself enough to make more people want to visit.