National Marooned Without A Compass Day

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Alexander Selkirk might have a few words of advice on finding a sense of direction. We know that the sun rises in the east, and that moss grows on the north side of trees and rocks. Tides come and go. Wilderness camp taught us which way the wind blows.

In honor of National Marooned Without a Compass Day (November 6), we ponder the classic question: What would you do if you were stranded on a desert island ?

Would you stay and build an empire, or would you try to get back home at all costs ?

Certainly, a good book would be comforting (Robinson Crusoe is a personal favorite). Perhaps some music to listen to beneath the stars: Sinatra swooning from the gramophone, the waves crashing near your hut. Being deserted isn’t so disastrous after all. As light filters in from the slats in the roof of your straw abode, count the tallies next to your pine needle pillow. Just 49 days ago, you took everything for granted.

Do you dream of distant lands with “wild caught” shrimp dinners and tropical drinks with woody notes? Or do you savor the rare solitude, because your company, your family, and your crew can’t survive without your solid leadership? You are a rock, you are an island.

Beyond the obvious hardships of being stranded, there is a curious joy in discovering the unknown. We are reduced to our hunter-gatherer instincts, foraging for food like our bodies were built to do.  We remember minute details of our former lives, like the initials carved into the doorframe on move-out day, or the smell of mom’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. These are the things we miss, but they’re also the things we learn to live without. For what is life but an extended memory test?

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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Does travel cause a loss of self-identity ? Or can travel help you find yourself while being lost in a foreign culture ? The musing lends itself to scrutiny as I look back on the countries and states I’ve visited in the past several years. Countless paychecks and plane rides later, I can safely say that I’ve discovered more of myself and the world around me, but I don’t think that I’ve grown, per say. Physically and mentally, I’ve been more or less the same size for years. That being said, I’ve learned more and started using more of my brain–in other words, my potential was unbeknownst to myself. I hesitate to say that I grew because I’ve had it in me all along. We all do.

It all comes with the right kind of support. The fact is that people need others around them egging them on, praising them, and yelling at them when they mess up. A person’s potential will stagger because of the unfavorable environment in which his or her lack of motivation is being reinforced.

Contrary to popular belief, personality and environment are the two most important factors in identity formation. I’m lucky enough to still have both of my parents, but some people are not so lucky. Their personalities are formed with gaps and holes, and their identities become amalgamated through the lacks and the surpluses with which they were raised. My gaps and holes are a mystery to all but a trusted few. But imagine what it would be like to have your life broadcasted in tabloids and celebrity news channels like E! and VH1… You would probably go on coke binges and shave your head too. Britney, I don’t blame you.

righteous

Shoddy journalism still makes money off of people who fiend for base gossip and speculation. I’ve known so many otherwise cultured people that go one of two ways : they either immerse themselves in politics, sociology, art, and heaviness, or they distance themselves from their high-charged careers at any possible moment by watching romantic comedies and reading People Magazine in their spare time. Clearly, the demographic for this type of writing is pretty broad and is vaguely defined by people who want to tune out for a minute. Personally, the lightness of being gets to be a little much at times when I pick the latter option, so keeping a healthy balance is what I live for most of the time. Whatever floats your boat.

We’re all only as strong as we think we are. Therefore, the man who shoots you down could be your impetus for change or your bullet to the head. There’s a lot less to it than meets the eye. In some instances, going through the motions in life is the path of least resistance, while for others it’s a path that’s met with resistance. Day-to-day, we’re faced with millions of decisions. We make most of them without even thinking about it, but the decision-making process can require a lot of energy. If decisions are particularly difficult for you, you may just decide that going with the flow is the best option. But how are you benefitting from life if you don’t make the most out of everything ? If you look at your environment as a big, round orange, you should ideally be trying to squeeze that orange dry with all of your actions and decisions. “When life gives you lemons, you paint that shit gold”. Slug’s right about one thing, which is that gold is a lot more useful than a bunch of fruit…. At least in the modern society we live in. I guess if we still depended on livelihood and bartering, lemons would be useful, the internet would be obsolete, and this blog would be useless.

If there’s anything traveling has schooled me on, it’s that boredom is just a state of mind, not a state of being. Being bored in a big city signifies a lack of interest, not a lack of activities. Every minute you spend thinking about doing something is a minute wasted not actually doing it. What’s horrible about laziness is that it’s mental paralysis. Stuck in between two greys, you are going nowhere, and fast. That sedentary lifestyle becomes the norm, and so does your indecisiveness. You’re stuck in purgatory, but only you have the key. That being said, laziness is relative, and all religions and ways of life are just different paths to the same thing. Everyone’s on the pursuit of happiness.

Sidenote : “Vagabond” by The King’s Parade encapsulates the short journeys and fathomless solitude that make up the life of a restless soul.

Travelling has simultaneously opened my spirit and disappointed me. There is no ideal place to go, no ideal living situation, and no ideal traveling buddy. Life is imperfect no matter where you go, and no place is a promised land–not Paris, not Salt Lake City, not even New York. These stories are the same as the ones people told the poor immigrants about the streets of America. They packed up their lives to come to Ellis Island and found that the streets were not, in fact, paved with gold. If you really immerse yourself where you are, you’ll see that there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Layer after layer, you’ll discover the various facets that make up a city, culture, village, society. Taxes, death, violence, and illness are everywhere if you look hard enough, but so are the things that make life worth it. The diamonds in the ruff.

onions have layers

The openness to new experience that comes with travelling is more of an awareness of the things around you rather than a gain. I read somewhere that we only use a small percentage of our brains as adults, and that certain people use more than others. I wonder if people who have had the opportunity to travel use more of their brains than the others…. that hypothesis has yet to be tested. That’s what I mean when I say that travel hasn’t made me grow–it just raised my awareness and tested me in ways the Institution never could have. Travel : the practical component of a global education.