Living in the Maldives

A few hundred miles southwest of the tip of India, there is a country of small islands called the Maldives. People who have heard of it have usually seen the incredible resorts, the shallow turquoise water, and the wooden bungalows that jut out into the sea from some nearly abandoned island. But what I saw was a different country, one that both struggles against itself and taught me a lot about good ways to live life.  

Initially, I was planning on going to the Maldives for just a few days, but I ended up there for the whole month of December, skirting out of the country only a day before my visa was to expire (whew). I had found a round-trip ticket from Sri Lanka to Maldives, which I had only purchased because I had also found a couchsurfing host in the capital of Maldives, Malé. 

When you approach Malé from the sea, there is a point when all you can see of the city is the white tops of the skyscrapers barely above the white crests of the waves. The layout of the city makes no sense, reflecting the growth of the island as people filled in more of the ocean lagoon to create more land. The wide canopies of trees hang over the one big boulevard in the country, and tall palms line the smaller streets, all of which are paved with grey bricks. The country is entirely Muslim, and it is formally illegal for a Maldivian to be anything else. I realized after entering the Maldives that the Hindu religious texts I had accidentally smuggled into the country were extremely illegal for me to have, but nobody ever bothered me about it, of course. Except at the resorts, things that are haram, like alcohol, are strictly banned, and I was even asked at the customs desk if I was bringing pork into the country.

But I wasn't thinking about this stuff when I got there, because I was super excited to have landed in what I had heard was the country most like a paradise on Earth. The airport in the Maldives is on its own island, but there is a cheap ferry to the city, where I was going to meet my host at the jetty. I arrived at night, but even under the cheap fluorescent lights of the ferry, I could see rainbows of fish at the bottom of the harbor. My initial host's family owns an apartment building, where I had the fourth and fifth floors to myself, because this area was under construction. My host rented out the third floor, he occupied the second, and his mom, the first.

My host, Ijaz, showed me all around the capital within the first few days, and I got to getting up to explore the warm back alleys by myself too. Mornings in the Maldives are unbelievably slow, especially on Friday, the day for Muslim prayers. I would usually plan to just happen to be walking by my host's mom's apartment around meal times because she invariably invited me in for amazingly good food. Maldivian food uses a lot of coconut and fish and curries and rice, but it's like nothing I had ever had before. Just as an aside, Maldivian food absolutely wins the award for most surprisingly good food, because I really didn't know what to expect, and it really, really impressed me. 

Walking around the island and the neighboring islands, I immediately had a good time. But as I would come to learn, many people are bored by life in Malé. During the day, people work jobs much like anything you find back home. When the nights are hot, the city goes outside. The young couples ride their scooters in slow laps around the city on the coastal ring road, which is almost noisier with laughter and chatter than it is with the sounds of vehicles. Older people go for walks, pray at the mosques, or play chess in the main park under the palm trees and the soft orange lights. From after dinner until well after midnight, the young men fill the many cafes next to the sea to drink cheap coffee and smoke cheap cigarettes. It is a one of my favorite cities for reading, eating, swimming, and a quiet life. 

By the end of my second day, I had more or less made up my mind to not leave the Maldives for a while. When he took me out to show me the city, my host pointed to the central harbor area where he said boats leave for all over the country carrying the goods offloaded from the international cargo ships. I asked if they ever let people get on the boats, and he said that this happens all the time. That more or less made up mind. I called to cancel my flight and get a refund, and they didn't want to give me one, so I kept the ticket just in case, but I just didn't go to the airport to catch the plane. 

Instead, I left for the south of the Maldives after about a week in the capital and a small stint exploring the islands around Male'. A fisherman - fishermen normally get to see a lot of the country, unlike everyone else - had told me that his favorite island was Foamulah, so I learned enough Dhivehi to ask around for a boat there and manage the details. I found one that was leaving within a few days, but when I came back on the day we were to leave, they told me they thought I had been joking. After renegotiating the price (I brought the price down to below 30 bucks for the ride and food for the three-day journey) we left. 

That first night when they called me to dinner, we sat together at the door of the engine room to eat. They put out plates of Maldivian fish curry with fish sauce called rihaakuru and some rice, and, as the boat was equipped with only one spoon, they put our only spoon on my plate - many South Asians prefer to eat rice with their fingers. As I sat down, I looked at my food, and I could tell they were all watching me to see if I would actually eat it. So I picked up the spoon, calmly set it aside on the table, and took a handful of rice and properly ate it with my fingers, at which point they all burst out into laughter. Everything was super easy and comfortable for everyone after this. I've actually learned to enjoy eating some foods more with my hands than with other utensils, especially rice, but that is whole other story.

I spent my time on the boat between reading and fishing. I had tea and cookies with the captain in the afternoons - he was a nice guy who spoke English. One of the guys who worked the boat showed me how to fish using their deep sea lines, but all I caught from that was how to say I didn't catch any fish in several ways in Dhivehi. He actually caught a big tuna on the morning of the second day and we ate that for breakfast and lunch. I spent a good amount of time reading on the roof of the boat, which is where people came when it was time to pray. At first I felt awkward and like I shouldn't be there, but I didn't know when people would come up and I couldn't figure out a polite way to leave. So then watching the prayers became routine, and when I heard them come up to prayer, I eventually just kept reading. 

On our second night, we reached an island in Gaaf Dhaal atoll called Gadhoo. The fishermen in Maldives make boat loads of money and are the Maldivian cultural equivalent to our stereotype of the investment banker. As we pulled into Gadhoo, some commercial fishing boat refused to move out of the space allocated to us, and there was a short fight on the dock, but it was quickly resolved and we moved into our space. I spent that night sleeping on the roof of the boat because it was too hot inside, and the next day I explored this small island. The captain offered to let me shower at his friend's place, which I did, but I think he offered that more because he wasn't sure if I knew how to take the bucket showers that Maldivians frequently do. I spent the rest of the day reading in a hammock at the white beach under coconut palms. Around two, the pickup truck on the island was making its last drop, so they picked me up on the way back and then we left for Foamulah.

I met more people in Foamulah and had a great time. Some of my friends from the capital let their friends and family in Foamulah know I was coming, so I immediately knew people when I got there. Also, I was pretty good friends with guys who worked the boat, and one invited me over to his home for dinner and just to hang out. One day I was walking up to meet someone, but he called me and told me he would come pick me up, so I sat down on a stump next to the road. Overhearing my conversation, the man who lived in the house next to this invited me in for a kashi, a big green coconut with water in it. And then he introduced me to his son, who spoke great English, so I happily spent the next few days hanging out with him and his friends. They go watch the sunset together everyday.

Foamulah was where I first realized that many people, especially the young people, are extremely bored in the Maldives. Alcohol is illegal here, but people make moonshine in some of the lagoons, and the country has a huge heroin problem too. Actually, many people warned me not to interact with young people because there is a high chance they are addicts. And many young people I met complained about being way too bored. The country itself is small, but the cities are absolutely tiny, and you can't even go visit other cities very easily because you need to take a long, slow boat ride or an expensive sea plane to get anywhere off the few islands with a domestic airport. Many people simply fly to Sri Lanka for the weekend to go shop or drink, but this is obviously very expensive, and even then, some Maldivians get embarrassed if they see other Maldivians at a bar in Sri Lanka. On Foamulah, I saw many people who were driving their scooters while drunk, which is made more dangerous by the fact that most roads outside of the capital district are made of sand and crushed coral. And at least once a week, I saw one person who was clearly really high on heroin. The islands really do look like paradise, but when you grow up there, it isn't that special, and the towns are too small for things like soccer leagues, or theaters, or anything else you might do to pass the time excepting the dense religious community everywhere. 

After meeting new friends in Foamulah, I wanted to move on to a city called Addu, which is a collection of islands in the far south of the Maldives. One day I was hitchhiking across Foamulah, and a former island chieftain picked me up, and we got to talking about my plans. He excitedly mentioned that a police boat was going to Addu from where I was staying in the next few days, and so he called the atoll's police commander, who contacted the guy leading the boat, who called me and invited me on the boat. So I got a free trip to Addu aboard a super fast police boat which was going so fast that it often left the water entirely after speeding over a particularly large ocean swell. Also he gave me a ride to the most perfect beach in the world and introduced me to his friend who was having a barbecue there. Anyway, I met a lot of really nice people there. 

Once I got to Addu, I took a look at my map and realized that I was in the south of the Addu chain, but the boats to where I wanted to go next all left from the north of the chain. This is about an hour of driving, and there was no bus service in the country, so I just started walking with my bag. I started hitchhiking, and the first scooter to come past picked me up and took me as far as he could without going into the zone where you need to wear helmets, which neither of us had. Then I started walking again, and a police car came up, asked politely what I was doing in the Maldives, and then gave me an amicable ride back to the station with them. I got some more suspicious questions and looks, but not only did they let me go within a few minutes, they took me to the one guest house on the island!

But that place was too pricy, so I went to a cafe to use the WiFi and figure something else out. As the sun was going down, I left the cafe intending to just go camp on the beach that night, but then I crossed paths with a few white people. Not having interacted with another white person for close to a month, and very curious about what they were doing there, I introduced myself. They were part of a university group there, but they took me back to where they were staying and introduced me to the guy who was leading the group. He and I went out to get coffee, and after a good conversation, he introduced me to one of his friends, who had an extra room for me. So that is the story of how I got unbelievably lucky with meeting people and getting to, getting around, and getting a place to stay in Addu, Maldives. 

The guy I stayed with, Hussein, is a magistrate down there, and a really nice guy too. We watched movies together, went to the beach, went to the cafes, drove around the islands, and talked a lot about all sorts of things, but especially law and politics in America and Maldives. Misbah invited me along for snorkeling when he, the university students, and fishermen would go. I met the mayor of Addu, and through him and Misbah, I was able to take a free ride on a seaplane from the north of the Addu islands to the south. Once I went with Hussein to the court so he could write an arrest warrant. I meant to leave Addu within a few days, but one condition of my stay in Addu was that it be no less than a week long, so I happily accepted, and ended up there for about two weeks. I even started regularly going to the Maradhoofeydhoo Youth Centre to learn badminton from my host and his friends. I cut out seeing a few islands, but living in Addu was great - I learned way more by staying there for a while than I would have if I left. 

But near the end of my time there, my visa was getting close to expiration, so I began making moves to leave. I heard through a friend about a boat that was going back to Malé the day after I decided to leave, so I went there trying to get a ride, but the guy tried to charge me fully triple what I should have had to pay, which sent the message to me that this traditionally dressed man simply didn't want me on his boat. No worries - I called a friend and got a ride on his cousin's boat that was leaving three days later. On the way back to Malé, we stopped at a few more remote islands, I sat out reading and fishing all day, and I even managed to do some writing. 

Three days later, when I got back to Male', I felt the most proud I have ever felt on my trip. I had gone to the south and back again in ways that even surprised Maldivians, and everyone agreed they hadn't heard of someone traveling in their country like I had. As I walked from the wharf to my friend's house, I realized I knew how to navigate the nonsensical streets and that I had learned a lot about the Maldives in the past month. I know people there, which of the many cafes is my favorite, where to eat, where important Maldivians live, and I have learned so much about Maldivian politics and culture that I am able to articulate arguments about it to Maldivians. I even met one of the two mayors in the country! I certainly didn't become Maldivian, but man does the country make a convincing argument for conversion. 

I got a flight to Mumbai, India when I got back, but I still had a few days to hang out in the capital. I did the usual things, and there were late nights spent at the cafes with my Maldivian friends. One night, we were at my favorite cafe, the Dolphin View, when they started setting fireworks off in the harbor next to the cafe. It was the Maldive's National Day the next day, so I figured that the fireworks were for that. But actually, the ruling party had gotten a major defector from the opposition party, and they decided to launch fireworks with their party's colors - all off ships belonging to and staffed by the Maldivian Navy. But I am thinking of writing a full post on politics in Maldives and Sri Lanaka, so maybe more on that later. 

In those last few days before I left, one of my friends asked me what was most surprising about Maldives.  I had lived on local islands where nearly all women wear black hijabs, I had scheduled my days around the calls to prayer, and I had learned some of the local language at sea on rickety boats, but the most shocking thing was returning to Male' and seeing the western women wearing bikinis. 

Many families, conservative and liberal, do not feel comfortable going to a few specific beaches because of Westerners' public "nudity." Some Maldivians discuss the effect of tourists on their country in terms of assault, specifically referring to what many westerner women wear while swimming. On my way from the jetty to my friend's house, I saw one such westerner who was wearing a bikini, and for the briefest moment I was shocked, uncomfortable, and offended that she would wear something like that in public. Then, after that millisecond passed, I was doubly shocked at having been shocked by a bikini. Don't get me wrong - I do not take a moral stance on bikinis. But I do now understand the feeling of not being shocked and of being shocked by clothing, which is exactly the dual feeling I am trying to get.

An island country is a desert of salt water, the Maldives is unique among Islamic countries for sure, but each Islamic country is unique anyhow. My time in Maldives gave me a much deeper appreciation for what it is like to be from one - the strong influence of religion, the clothing dynamics, the curiosity about what is outside, the boredom, the frustration with your own people, the pride, and the happiness of big, strong families who live together. There were many times when I was uncomfortable, and I learned a lot about the Maldives and about what is important to me through that discomfort. I learned a lot about traveling itself, and I broke out of many shells during my time in the Maldives. As I have many times already, I learned about how little I know, and all the stuff that comes along with cultural immersion, like how to take a bath at a traditional Maldivian water well. But, to be honest with you, what has been most valuable to me was making Muslim friends and learning about life through their eyes. At no point in the past have I been bigoted towards Islam, but now when I hear people blaming the whole of Islam for things likes ISIL and the attacks on Chalie Hebdo, I can think of my friends and roll my eyes much more easily.   

Diwali in Amritsar and Badula

Hey all! I am trying to catch you up on what I have been doing, so I am speed publishing some of the more important stuff. Sorry I have been so lax with getting these out, but I have been really busy with other stuff. Make sure to follow the photo albums too because I often include little stories with my photos.

Right before I left India, I went to a city called Amritsar. It is a large city in the northwestern state of Punjab, which shares a border with Pakistan to the west. I went to see the Harmandir Sahib (anglicized to the Golden Temple), which is the main temple of the Sikh religion. I also went because the Indian holiday of Diwali was being celebrated that week, and its celebration there is particularly big.

I got to Amritsar after a series of buses and full day of traveling. In the late afternoon, the kids of Amritsar climb up to the roofs of the city and fill the dust orange sky with hundreds of kites. Pictures never did it justice, but I could sit up there for an hour each day just watching the kites. One of the guys who works at the hostel is an Amritsar native about my age, and when I told him how much I liked the kites, he offered to show me how to fly one. So we went down to the shop and spent the afternoon on the roof with the other kids.

Our host Sanjay has the silly face. The indian guy with the receding hairline kept insisting that I was a great man, and he invited me over to his house to celebrate. 

Our host Sanjay has the silly face. The indian guy with the receding hairline kept insisting that I was a great man, and he invited me over to his house to celebrate. 

But I spent most of my days there at the Golden Temple. Eastern religions are interesting to me, but I don't let them into my head past a level of superficial intellectual curiosity. However, Sikhism made a powerful impression. Among many other important things, the distinguishing element of Sikhism is their commitment to feeding people, and every major Sikh temple has a 24/7 free dining hall. I ate at the Golden Temple and was stunned not only by how many people they served but by who was there and how good the food was. Unlike in the U.S., is wasn't taboo at all for rich people to accept free food, although I am sure many left donations, and I felt like people were very proud to be eating in such a communal setting. And the food was so good! Three or four courses of just delicious food, and you could take as much as you wanted. You just sit on the floor and volunteers with huge quantities of food roam around the room dolling out food to everyone. I really have a lot of respect for the Sikhs, and I hope to visit the temple in San Jose when I get home.

Other than to visit the temple, I went to Amritsar to celebrate Diwali. There weren't many people at the hostel, so our host, Sanjay, invited us home to celebrate with his family, which was just a blast. We watched the fireworks in Amritsar that evening, and then after those were mostly done, we went out to the village of Badula, where he lived. The bus to the village was packed because everyone had the same idea as ours, so we rode on the roof luggage rack where we had a great seat to watch the rest of the fireworks as we drove into the countryside.

When we got there, we drank tea and ate with the family. I had learned a few phrases in Punjabi, (like how to say "these crazy people" and a few lines from songs) and I deployed them to much laughter over dinner. Sanjay's dad, the guy in charge of the evening, sought me out to give me the honor of lighting the biggest firework, and I think I received some sort of honor in the religious ceremony later, but I couldn't really tell. Anyway, it was a great time.

Getting the kites ready 

Getting the kites ready 

It was my goal at the onset of this trip to wiggle my way into people's personal lives, and doing stuff like this helps you feel what it's like to be from a place like this. For me the biggest lesson was from the kites. I remember when I was really young I got an N64 for my birthday. People like my friend in Amritsar had trouble paying for kites that cost less than 10 cents per kite. He asked what I did when I was a kid, and I didn't include the fancy toys. Guilt isn't what kept me from responding with full honesty - what did that was the recognition of the economic gulf between me and him. I wanted to be better friends with this guy, and we moved on from the discussion, but not knowing how to handle that situation gave me the most poignant sense of being lost that I have had so far. I still have a lot to think about from Amritsar, but it was a great time.

Throwback Tuesday!: Visiting a Silver Mine in Bolivia

Hey all! I drafted this post a while ago, but I never finished it. I wanted to share this experience with you now because, after thinking about it off-an-on for a few months, I have realized that it was an important experience for me. Just to preface, I was never in any danger, but this experience gave me a much deeper appreciation for real, hard work, and it gave me some new things to think about for my own future. Now, back to Bolivia.

The mountain Potosi 

The mountain Potosi 

The city of Potosi sprung up around the mine that the Spanish started in 1545. It was initially silver that brought people there, but now it is tin and zinc, but even those are hard to find in the mine now. Some people estimate that the mine will be totally dry within ten years. It has operated continually since its start and more than 8 million people have died in the mine - that is 2 deaths per hour for every hour over the past 470 years. And those deaths weren't all from a long time ago. Some records say that two people die each week as a result of working in the mine.

I decided to check this place out for myself, and I organized a guide to the mines through the hotel I was staying at. The city isn't very touristy, but those of us who go there are there to do the tour of the mine, so the people who live there have become well equipped to handle curious gringos. The tour of the mine was with an ex-miner and three other tourists willing to go in. Again, this was never dangerous because we went to a place at the mouth of the mine which is a lot safer than the new areas of the mine.  Potosi is becoming an increasingly popular place to visit.

We started the day at the Miners' Market, where you can buy anything you might use in a mine. Dynamite was freely available to buy, and I wouldn't have to get a permit if I wanted to buy some for myself. I could just buy it. Our guide demonstrated the safety of one stick he picked up from a street vendor by throwing it at our feet.

We went from there to a refinery where some of the ore was processed. It looked like everything you have seen from the history books about the Industrial Revolution. The machines were very old and didn't have any safety equipment to speak of. Plus, the slag pond next to the refinery shares a wall with a children's playground. All of this was located in the center of the city, so I imagine that the ground water here is totally polluted.

The way up to the mine area is marked by small, white picket crosses, some a fresh white, others much darker. The mountain itself is a bright orange, and the miners and mine equipment were mostly dark brown with dirt. At times the mine was very hot, and at other times it was very cold. Almost every five minutes, you would hear something like distant thunder rumble on for about 30 seconds, and maybe a few specks of dust would fall from the ceiling. There is no central authority controlling who can dynamite - it all just works by shouting. It was actually really exciting and fun - we went in, saw a few of the old cavities, learned how the miners worked, and talked to a few miners on break.

The miners only have air being pumped in, not out. That means the asbestos accumulates in the air, adding another element of discomfort to the often hot, thick, muddy air. But what was really distressing to see was how comfortable these people are with their jobs. The miners we talked to couldn't have been happier, more confident people, but their humor seemed like it was that of people who need to laugh so as to distract themselves from other things. The man we talked to the most said he was 46 - he has 11 children - and the average lifespan for the miners is 45. We brought gifts into the mine and I gave him the rest of the stuff I had brought.

Our guide said that miners make an average of 300 Bolivianos per week, which is about $45. And he said that a lot of that goes to things it probably shouldn't go to, but there are no other jobs in the area for people to go into. Many teens have to quit school and join the mine if a breadwinner of the family dies in the mine. Miners work for themselves, because the companies were collectivized. That means miners supply safety gear and mining equipment for themselves. They work twelve hour shifts, during which time they can't eat, because the dust would get in their food and make them sick. Plus the body's waste creates toxic gas if too much of it accumulates in a confined space. A "double shift" is 24 hours long, but miners during the Spanish colonial period were sometimes forced to remain below continuously for months.

There isn't much to get out of this. We all intellectually know that working in a Bolivian silver mine is probably dreadful. That's intellectually not new. But to watch teenagers pushing carts of ore through the tunnels is a strange experience. Hearing people hammering at a wall with an actual hammer and not an air-powered pneumatic drill (nobody can afford them) is equally strange. It helps you feel what the experience is like, not just imagine it.

Visiting that mine, like many experiences in Bolivia, was absolutely bizarre. The refinery, the slag pond next to the playground, and the ridiculous conditions in the mines all reminded me of what we have pushed away from in the United States. It is stuff like this that has gotten me to really appreciate some of the things we have accomplished in the US, and it is strange to know that such bad conditions exist on the same planet.

Me with some good old dynamite 

Me with some good old dynamite 

I think I have taken away two main things from this experience. I have a much deeper appreciation for America's reformers and our current regulations, which are caused by a more meaningful emotional understanding of what it is to work in a place like this. The second thing is a realization that I have never done a hard day of work in my life, which is an extremely unusual status for humans across the planet and back into history. This experience has gotten me thinking of how much I could learn if I put the books on hold for one summer and did some farm work, or some ranching, or worked on a skyscraper. I know how communist that sounds, but I think that people who do this type of work have skills you don't usually learn doing white-collar work, but they are skills that can really help you when you are doing white-collar work. They give you the appreciation of knowing what kind of opportunities you have, but they also give you more tangible things like focus and diligence.

My time in Bolivia was also when I realized how important it is to look and not pass judgement. Everything about the mining process in Potosi is outdated and unnecessarily unsafe, but it is the way it is. That doesn't mean I have to accept it, but changing it requires much more than anger or disgust - it requires compassion. You have to maintain people's pride in what they do - the miners are very proud - but you also have to identify that things need changing.

Other Options

Note: The first  half of this is a post I drafted in the second week of my trip, but I never published it. I am publishing it now because I have learned so incredibly much since I wrote this, and it is kind of funny to look back on this. Plus, there is something that I think is important to add here, which I do in the second half. There are no pictures because the week I wrote this my camera got stolen, sorry.


One of the first things I have learned is that there are many, many options for pursuing success, and my definition of what success was far too narrow. I've met people who have started hostels in foreign countries, trekked for years, lived in monasteries for months, and what they have come away with makes it clear as day that they are examples of other options. In just a few short weeks, I have met travelers who have done incredible things, and what has been most striking about them is how successful they are. Their wealth is the power to see, hear, speak, and emotionally feel in ways that I had never considered possible for myself. Their outlooks can be breathtaking. When really needed, their advice can be dazzlingly creative.

What they do is hard - saving money, then spending it wisely is certainly hard - but then traveling is also harder than I initially thought it would be. Their skills are applicable to anything they want to go into later, and their ways of addressing problems will likely be deeply influenced by what they have seen. Traveling is job training as I see it, and I think it is something everyone should try to do. When you're at this for a while, it isn't a vacation in the least bit, and you pick up skills and emotions you didn't know about before.

There are tons of options for learning about new ways of thinking - more than I could list here. Have you ever thought that you'd like to live at sea? There is an entire subculture of people who this as deckhands, and they do it all year, every year. (Check out floatplan.com) If I had more time, I would try to do this one for sure. Are you interested in sustainable farming and developing new ways of approaching food? You should check out the job entries on helpx.com for positions in botanical gardens near Iquitos, Peru in the Amazon Rainforest. Perhaps you're interested in Buddhism or in thinking more about religion in general. Consider joining me in Nepal at the Kopan Monastary (they have a website, I'm surprised to say), which apparently gives you a bunk with the monks and three meals for a little more than one dollar per day. I met a former teacher who was able to save enough money in four years to travel the world for three. Western Europe is expensive, but traveling outside this zone, where places usually have even more to offer, isn't expensive. 

And the change that has happened within almost each person I have met is change that is hard to come by. One person didn't like her homeland, but after years away, she has been able to commit time to thinking about herself and what makes her happy, and she is excited to return. Others just quit their jobs and moved here to take classes in Spanish and see more of what's out there, and they will return home with new skills and a better appreciation for how people are connected. I bet that all of these people are more compassionate, and therefor better friends and workers, for knowing about different ways of living. Too often we expect people to just immediately change their opinions and emotions when presented with evidence, but opinions and emotions, like any other mental skill, can take many years to form and train. And seeing the world arouses a whole set of new emotions that reading about it sometimes does not.

But, just like anything else, these options can lead to failure - I've only seen the products of success. To be sure, any evidence I have now is anecdotal evidence. But that's okay and besides the point, because each path for each person will be different, and it's exploring the different options that is important, I think. Either you find another way of life you like more or you realize that your life back home is great - either way, that is success. So, in thinking about what would make my trip successful, I've added at least one thing.

If by the end of my trip I can think and feel with at least one third of the brilliance that these people can, I'll have been successful. And I won't stop there either - it's become harshly clear that the path I had chosen for myself, one where I go to law school and all that, was the result of choosing from a limited pool. There are so many other options for my life, and, even if I don't choose them, my knowledge of them will make me more confident that my eventual choice is the right one for me. 


And now today, four months after writing this, I want to add some more thoughts. To take up on that last point, I have actually come back to law school being in my future, but for several different reasons than I initially had for wanting to go. Also, I am not as anxious to start as I once was - I could move back to Uruguay and ranch cattle there once I get good enough on a horse, and I feel like there is something important there to learn. Or I have also considered moving back to Bolivia and teaching English for free while learning Spanish, because there are a lot of indigenous people who get taken advantage of in part because their English or Spanish is not good enough. And simply traveling has awakened me to how little I know about the world - I thought that I would be totally on point when I got to Dharamsala, where there are lots of Tibetans living, because I took a class on Tibetan Buddhism, but I have since realized that the amount of knowledge I got from that class is a rounding error compared to the amount of things that I have to learn in order to understand their lives. This realization further prompted me to realize that I probably know very, very little about what it is like to live in United States, and I want to continue what I am working on now when I get home, but next time looking inwardly at the US. 

But it is more than just emotional understanding of others' lives that I have been learning. Growing up in the West, I have a developed a powerful appreciation for the scientific method. The scientific method is how I form opinions, answer questions, and approach life in general. I am proud to have written a thesis based entirely on applying the scientific method to a simple question over the course of a year. But the scientific method, forming a testable hypothesis and then repeating experiments to find results, is not the only thing out there, and in India, I have encountered something totally different, totally apart from the scientific method.

First, let me explain why I care about this. To embed different and conflicting patterns of thinking within you is what separates the good from the great, in my opinion. Scott Page, a researcher at U of M, has demonstrated that a group of people with bachelors degrees in different fields is better at solving complex problems unrelated to their degrees than a group of people who all have PhDs in the same field. People develop patterned ways of thinking, and we apply those patterns to each problem we encounter. Think of the adage about if all you have to work with is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Developing new patterns of thinking is like adding new tools to your problem-solving tool box. That is what I mean when I think travel changes you in ways that can give you the edge in business.

So far, this is probably the most important thing I have to say about traveling. I am still struggling to overcome my commitment to the scientific method and to learn what it is people here use. I simply cannot understand why my well-educated Indian friends believe in traditional medicine, chakras, or the power of energies, especially when they have adopted several non-Indian cultural elements into their clothing and homes. Some of the things they have said casually to me have made me have to hold my jaw so it wouldn't drop, because they are so different from things I would say. Yesterday I was playing cards in a tattoo parlor with a friend and some other Indians (it wasn't as cool as it sounds), and one of the Indian men playing was betting based on the position of the stars. This just doesn't compute for me! I mean, notice my reference to "anecdotal evidence" in the previous section - that was hilarious to reread for me because it's a nod to the fact that I was offering an opinion that was unsupported by the scientific method.

I still have a lot to figure out about all this, but I think one of my friends has offered advice that was really helpful. She said that the Indian way of thinking that I have encountered is more based on feelings and emotions. We in the West are often so busy that we have no time to feel. Simply, we think too much and feel too little. Overcoming my skepticism and internalizing this way of thinking is my main goal for my months in India. Steve Jobs called the thinking I have encountered "intuition," and his biography is stuffed with examples of times where he cites his 7 months in India as the reason for some specific business decision. Encountering and learning this way of thinking is why I think everyone in the US should come to India for a long time, and it's what I meant when I talked about how travelling should be seen as job training and another option. The days when a university degree was valuable simply because it conferred facts are over - with search engines, now the value of a degree is in its ability to teach you ways to think. Traveling is just the same. 

Landing in India and Dalai Lama Teachings

When I got to India a couple of weeks ago, I had expectations about what I would find here, and it's been fun to realize that most of them were more or less nonsense. I hate to say that something is indescribable (in part because that's a description), but India has me beaten.  I have been in India for just a few weeks, but I am already convinced that this is one of the greatest places on Earth. And to learn from and enjoy this place, I've been learning to put myself on hold for a little while, because things just do not fit into a Western set of expectations about the way things should be.

The Old Delhi market area

I started in Delhi at the end of September. I found a great hostel on the second day there, and I did a lot of normal tourist things with people I met there. I saw the Red Fort, went to a bunch of temples, was overwhelmed by several markets, and just generally relaxed from a long flight and an awful jetlag. A few friends and I booked train tickets to Agra, where we made it just in time to see the Taj Mahal at sunset. But the highlight of that day was watching all the tiny villages and the hundreds of shrines and temples we passed. Each village and each person's clothing is like a drop of bright colors splattered on a canvas of the greenest green farms and jungle. But slums are a real thing here, and trash is piled high all over the place.

I came from there to Mcleodganj about a week after getting to India, because I was headed to see the Dalai Lama speak. Without thinking, I planned to travel the night before a national holiday, so I was competing for tickets with tons of people trying to get out of the city for the weekend. A friend and I ended up getting the last seats on a bus, and right after we got our seats, the aisle of the bus was filled with people who were going to stand during the long night trip. There were so many people packed in that the driver latched the door closed from the outside so that he could fit a few more guys in the stairwell of the bus. I slept until about 6 AM when I was kind of woken up by a really nice guy who wanted to chat about his job, where he is from, and the upcoming holiday.

Mcleodganj (Upper Dharamsala) downtown

Mcleodganj (Upper Dharamsala) downtown

We got in at about 8 AM. Mcleodganj, the home of the Dalai Lama, is located on the spine of the long ridge between two river valleys. Below the other hills there is a wide valley covered in farms and a few small cities. When there is no mist, you can see the first white peaks of the Himalayas above town.

The main reason I came up here was to hear the Dalai Lama teach. I got here a few days early just to make sure I could get my permit sorted out, which was surprisingly hassle-free for India, and I spent some time just walking around. A lot of people from my hostel in Delhi came for the teachings as well, and then I started forming my Indian friend group through one of them.

The teachings started at 8AM and lasted until 12. He taught in Tibetan, but we were allowed to bring a radio and headphones to listen to the live English translation. Actually, the Dalai Lama would talk for a bit, and then stop, and then the translation would kick in, so I got to do a lot of people watching and I got to listen to the original Tibetan as well. People would stand up randomly during the teachings to do prostrations before him, and I was surprised by how few tourists were there. Occasionally volunteers and monks would walk around giving out Tibetan bread and Tibetan butter tea. 

While drinking tea, a lot of people would pass out cookies that they had brought, and such was the case for a really kind old Tibetan woman who sat next to my group. At one point, I had to step over her bag to get to my seat, but at some point when I was mid-step, the lady pulled the bag towards her with great anguish on her face and the strength of a person much younger. Of course, I immediately felt just awful, and I tried everything to apologize to this lady, but she was actually comforting me by the end of it. Inside the bag there was a another bag, and in there was a book, and in the book was a picture of the Dalai Lama, and it is very rude to step over something like that. She offered me her cookies right after this, making me feel way worse. And then, the next day, when I thought I would be clever by bringing her more cookies, she brought me cookies and candy! I get into situations like this all of the time where I accidentally offend people, but it's interesting to learn what value people put in different things. 

My permit to attend a four-day teaching by the Dalai Lama. They didn't allow pictures of the event or inside the temple, sorry. 

The Dalai Lama focused on Buddhist teachings, but he made a quick comment about the West that I thought was very interesting. He praised non-Buddhist religions for their commitment to changing the conditions of poor people and others in need of help, which is a line that I had heard many times from his books or speeches intended for Western audiences. But, unlike I had seen him do before, he went on to add a major qualifier to that.  After specifically complimenting Christians and other non-Buddhists, he said that without the desire to arouse bodhicitta and without focusing on the five other great perfections, there is no possibility for enlightenment and nobody gets closer to escaping the cycle of suffering as a result of altruism. It was really interesting to have seen him say one thing in English to Americans and then say the same thing in a dramatically different way in Tibetan to Tibetans. Other than that, he focused totally on Buddhist stuff, which was a great window in. My favorite note that I took is probably this one: "Nirvana is not a thing and Nirvana is not a non-thing... All suffering comes from wishing ourselves to be happy, and all happiness comes from wishing others to be happy."

The Dalai Lama's monastery. His home is in the back.

Those teachings ended about five days ago, and the town has gotten a lot quieter since then. I have stayed because I have been learning a lot from and having a lot of fun with the Indians I have met here and from volunteering a little bit. In the afternoons, I try to volunteer at the Tibetan center, because now I have made friends with a few of the regulars. When I got here, all of the hostels and guesthouses were booked up, but I was lucky to get the last room at a Tibetan Cultural center. Actually, in the room next to mine, they have conversation groups for people trying to learn foreign languages, so I go to the English conversation group pretty frequently. I've met a few monks and others who live in the area, and it has been great to talk with them about what they do on a daily basis and what they think about things. In perhaps the most American 5 minutes of my life, I explained what the President does, how baseball is played, and who Jesus was. I have also been able to ask them questions about Buddhist teachings and it's really fun to listen to them argue among themselves about the answer. Last week during the teachings, one of them invited a group of us to come meditate with him the next morning at his monastery, so of course we went, even though that meant getting there at 5:30. 

After volunteering I usually head across the street to drink chai and play cards in my friend's tattoo parlor. I have learned a few Indian card games, and I think I may have even impressed these old Indian men with a few of my hands. Yesterday I went out to the countryside with the tattoo artist I play cards with and we visited his astrologer, who read my star charts for me while my friend translated.

A cow once hit me with its head to get past me.

A cow once hit me with its head to get past me.

The key to traveling here, and something that I hope to keep with me for a long time, is that you have to just stop judging the world around you. Things not working, buses being locked from the outside, the blackouts, the bathrooms, the arbitrary rules, the non-stop honking, accidentally offending people, the delays due to cows, the trash piles, the incredible number of people, the random smells - all of it is just part of life here. I have met travelers who get really upset by all of this, and I think this blocks them from having experiences like befriending monks, learning from people you've upset, playing cards in tattoo parlors, and going to the countryside to visit holy men. I have been trying hard to be able to look at a thing like the extreme poverty and think "I wish they didn't have to live like that" instead of thinking "that place and those people are gross." Passing negative judgement on things like this only hurts the traveler. I am glad I came to India after traveling for a while, because I learned a while ago that it never helps to pass judgement like this on places. You have to come with a strong dose of cultural humility and a willingness to understand why things are the way they are. More on my experience learning how to do this in my next post. Hope you're doing well, and thanks for reading.

Living with a Chilean Grape Grower

Hey again! So I got the name of this woman who grows grapes in Chile from a friend, and I decided to reach out and see if I could stay with her. The week or so around this adventure showed me tons of ways that Chile and the US are both very similar and very different, but the most valuable thing I came away with was the sense that problems concerning water usage are worldwide and the same everywhere.

The city of Vallenar, Chile is at the mouth of a long, steep valley stretching from the coast back into the Andean desert. The area is dry except for a river running through it, and small grape and olive farms line each side. The shade from the south side of the valley puts the farms closest too it in a different cycle than the farms on the other side, meaning that one side of the valley is a bright green and other side is a bright tan color.

The woman I contacted about crashing at her place has a farm in the valley about a ten minute drive from the edge of the city. She grows grapes for Pisco, which is kind of a grape whiskey. Like most places in Latin America, the people in the lowlands are the rich ones, while the people with the views from the heights of the hills are poor. The day after I got there, I decided to go for a walk to the top of the one the nearby hills through a pueblo called La Parotas.

Walking up the road to the hill. 

Walking up the road to the hill. 

I thought I had missed the village until I came to a bend in the road where perhaps 30 people had gathered. Behind them and among them were perhaps 30 policemen, and I was immdiately put a little bit on edge by this whole situation. As calmly as I could, I walked right throught this group, but after getting to the other edge, I was stopped by a woman in plain clothes who asked what I was doing. I got the feeling they do not see many tourists.

She asked me if I was a journalist, which I said I was not, mainly because the policemen where interested in my answer to this question. She was dissapointed, and she continued to explain to me that they were protesting the construction of a new water pipeline to be started that day, and she wanted me to tell the world about it.

The canal on the left and the protest is on the right through the trees. I didn't feel comfortable attempting a picture any closer because of the police. 

The canal on the left and the protest is on the right through the trees. I didn't feel comfortable attempting a picture any closer because of the police. 

The village had (until the day I arrived) a nice canal running through it, which gave this village the rather rare benefit of having flowers and trees to decorate the place. The people living there also drew water from the canal for free, while farmers like the one I was staying with had to pay. I watched as they began to construct a pipeline in the place of the canal. The pipeline will enclose the supply of water, killing the flowers and depriving the village of its free water. But, as my host emphasized later, farmers need the water too, because their farms are dying from the lack of water, and leakage from the canal consumed a lot of the already short supply of water. It was a classic fight between the rich people and the poor people, only over something that there is usually plenty of, especially in a farming area.

The truck is dumping some dirt into the canal. All of that vegetation is absent on the rest of the hill, which is totally dry. 

The truck is dumping some dirt into the canal. All of that vegetation is absent on the rest of the hill, which is totally dry. 

Actually, later, she asked me where I was staying, and I foolishly thought that giving her the name of the person would somehow endear me to here. Quite the opposite in fact. When I told her that I was staying with one of the farmers down below, one of the people who was benefiting from the closure of the canal, she totally withdrew. After first being a cuiriosity, I became an enemy, and I was accused by the crowd of being an instigator, a spy, and some other things not fit to print. I and the police actually laughed about this a bit, and then I went on my way up the hill.

Everyone says that water allocation is the problem of this century, and here is at least one story that might suggest that is true. Years of droughts have taken away all the water that the desert has spaired this valley, and years of droughts have started new tensions in California. What used to be a north-south political divide in California has turned into a coast-not-coast divide both in politics and in economics, and now water is being mapped onto that well. I am not sure what that means, but it is bizzare to see the stuggle in rural Chile and then to read about it in the California news that night.

This is the view out over the valley from the sufi's house. 

This is the view out over the valley from the sufi's house. 

Anyhow, who knows. On that same day, my host I and I went to go pick up her cousin and we went to visit his cousin who lives on the hill. It was interesting to hear them talk about this situation, but I was more interested by this guy on the hill, who is a Sufi who has built his own mosque by hand up there. We say around taking and drinking coffee, and I helped his wife crack walnuts for backlava. Actually, I met a lot of the family of my host (like 4 cousins, her parents, her sister, and her daughter) and I helped her out a little too. She sells avacodos and I went with her to deliver them, which always resulted in a cup of coffe and some interesting conversations.

So I have been having fun and learning quite a lot. Thanks to all of you who have been writing to me - I always like to get emails and I can tell you more about what I am doing there too. I hope everyone is doing well, and always remember to be smart with how you use your water.

Just one last shot of the vineyard. 

Just one last shot of the vineyard. 

Border Hopping in Bolivia

First off, I am really sorry for being slow with the posting. In the future, I am going to try to have one out every week - on Sundays if I can. Anyhow, here is a little bit about crossing over from Bolivia.

What I encountered in Bolivia was something I am calling "cultural intimidation." It is not that anyone ever talked down about me or the US, or that anyone ever tried to be intimidating to me.  Let me explain with an example from when I crossed the border into Chile. 

There is only one way out of southern Bolivia into Chile, which takes you through the Atacama desert, which I am told is the driest on Earth. The bus left at 4 in the morning - that's fine, I have done worse - but the next 16 hours were some of the most stressful I have had so far. Yes, 16 hours.

First off, even though I bought a ticket for a seat, I found an old Bolivian man sitting in it when I got there, and I wasn't about to make the old man move. So, with a bunch of Bolivians, I stood for the next 5 or so hours, and I discovered that I can sleep standing up on a moving bus. People brought out food I had never seen before for breakfasts, and I was offered and ate some soup that I still am unable to figure out. We did not travel on a road, just across compacted dirst and sand, and we had to stop for hours at a time at several random places. I really never figured out why we had to stop so much. Initially, I thought it might because we were planning an illegal border crossing.

Anyhow, I was traveling with a Bolivian marching band of about 30 people. It was just me, them, and family or two in the back. Each time that we stopped, the band got out its instruments and played us a full march, sometimes marching around the bus to show off. When they weren't playing, the band took an interest in me and why I was going on the bus with them. They told me about how this is a dangerous road and I shouldn't be doing it and about how the city we were going to was dangerous as well. They also made plenty of jokes about me, but I really had not option for turning back by this point, so I had to laugh and sit quietly. 

A picture of the border. There were two shacks on either side that processed our papers. 

A picture of the border. There were two shacks on either side that processed our papers. 

The border crossing we made was in the absolute middle of no where. The border guards on both sides where mildly surprised to see me. They lined us all up to examine our papers and our luggage, all in the middle of the desert. Both sides very conspicously placed me at the front of the lines, and each side very conspicously checked my papers for a few seconds, but they spent minutes checking the papers of the Bolivians.

What I want to convey about this experience is not so much what happened, but that I had no idea why it was happening. What people were eating, what they were wearing, what was going on with the customs officials, where we were going, why I was in the middle of the driest desert on Earth in the bus most likely to break down on Earth - I really understood none of it. And the whole way people were asking me questions about why I was there. And most people tried pretty hard to be polite and not stare, but there was that too. And the Bolivians kept trying to get me to drink their pure (like actually 95%) alcohol with them, which may sound fun, but when you have been anxious about your own safety all day, you immediately think that they are trying to drug you. For probably the first time in my life, I had an overwhelming feeling that I should just not be where I was, or that I had no cultural backbone for what was happening.

A picture of our caravan at one of the many random stops we made. Here the band is getting their instruments out to play.

A picture of our caravan at one of the many random stops we made. Here the band is getting their instruments out to play.

For me, this sense of being alone in the wrong place exaggerated my feelings of insecurity. I really had no reason to be afraid, and the Bolivians could not have been nicer in trying to share their things with me. They even dedicated one of their songs to the solo gringo traveler on the bus.

And although I have made it sound like this intimidation was a bad thing, I think it is exactly what I was looking for when I left for my trip. As a straight, white, blond male, there are very few times when I am not in the majority of something at home. Until now, I have never had the experience of feeling like I had no idea what was going on, or that I was unsupported by the culture of where I was. I have never really even thought that a person could feel uncomfortable because of something as simple as the soup people were eating around him.

I can imagine that this is what many in the US feel on a daily basis - perhaps some of you have felt it. I imagine it is what many immigrants felt when they first got to the US, and I bet many people who are the first in their families to go to college feel it as well. There may be little or no hate directed at you, but every day can be a barrage of things that seem normal to everyone around you and completely off to you. And then, when you talk about things that you do or like, the people you are with just have no idea what you're talking about. To me, that is cultural intimidation, and I can immagine it pushes against many in the US. For me, cultural intimidation has been in the background almost every day of this trip, but this one day I felt fear the whole day. I hope this memory doesn't leave me, and I doubt it will, because it is something that I know can make me a better person back home. As am discovering, this cultural intimidation is something we all participate in, whether we recognize it or not.

Are there ways to deal with cultural intimidation? For me, what calmed me down was the one guy in the band who explained the names of places to me and told me how to get around the city when we got there. His kindness was simple and costless, but it really helped me take a deep breath and carry on. 

A Week in Rural Peru

After checking out Machu Picchu, I went from Cusco to Arequipa, where I grabbed a bus to Puno, Peru, which is situated on Lake Titikaka. There is a lot going on here - more than many travelers give it credit for, and one amazing opportunity that came my way was to spend a week in Llachón, Peru. 

I had been in Puno for a few days when I decided that it was time to leave. I was having a good conversation with the proprietor of the cafe where I was drinking a coffee, so I asked her for advice. She was thrilled, and she immediately began calling around to friends and taxi services, all while I felt a bit embarrassed that my question had sparked so much work. Within a few minutes, she proudly proclaimed, "You must go to the house of Valentín Quispe!" So, of course, I immediately and enthusiastically agreed. 

People headed up to market day. 

People headed up to market day. 

Valentín and his wife Lucila live in Llachón, Peru, a small ranching pueblo that slides from high hills into the shore of Lake Titkaka. It's about two hours from Puno, and the drive takes you through some of the stark and dry altiplano. No tourist busses go here, so I took a chain of the locals' minibuses, and I got many impressed and surprised looks from my fellow passengers. Because it's the dry season, people weren't farming, but the high yellow grass in Llachón is great for the many sheep and cattle there, which are set out in terrace pastures built by the Inka. 

In the morning, Lucila cooked donuts, which I happily ate baskets of. Her dining room has big windows with a great view of lake. After breakfast, I would usually go for a walk through the community, and many times I had to pull aside for sheep and cows. In the afternoon, I would usually relax, and at night, Lucila always cooked us an excellent dinner. 

I assumed that the candidate pays for these house to be painted, but actually, someone told me that people pay the candidate to come paint their house like this. There are also a lot of houses like this. It's like a lawn sign but on steroids. This house supports Valentín in his reelection next October. 

I assumed that the candidate pays for these house to be painted, but actually, someone told me that people pay the candidate to come paint their house like this. There are also a lot of houses like this. It's like a lawn sign but on steroids. This house supports Valentín in his reelection next October. 

During dinner, Valentín would often tell us about what was going on that day and what was happening in the local politics. As it turns out, he is actually the alcalde (like a mayor) of Llachón, and he is running for relection this October. His name is the one painted on the houses to the left, and his name is painted on house everywhere around Llachón. So of course, during this week, I spent a lot of time trying to learn about local Llachón politcs. 

At least in Llachón, it seems that the major problem, like everywhere, is resource allocation. For example, the community has set up tight restrictions on tourism to try to destribute income more evenly accoss the town. For example, I cannot buy land in Llachón - only people who are directly related to someone from there are able to buy land. People who own hostels are not allowed to also own tourist services. That means other people in the community are able to make some money renting sailboats to the occassional travelers who go there. 

People intitially resisted a road to Llachón, but now one is being built. Eight months ago, there was only a foot path to the community, mainly for the feet of cows and sheep, but now a new dirt road runs between there and the nearest city hub. I hitchhiked with a construction truck once, and he told me that one day the road will be paved, and that it is being paid for by the federal government in large part because of the work of Valentín. When I asked Valentín about this, he was proud to say that he was part of the solution to the road situation, but it took years for them to convince the government to build the road. For his part, Valentín has been invited by the White House to attend a pan-american mayoral conference in Washington, D.C. Valentín said that he wanted to get involved when he was living in Lima and going to college, because a child in his hometown of Valentín died on the way to the nearest hospital, in part because there was no road.  He went from Lima to the nearby University of Puno to study tourism and agriculture, and then moved back home.

Llachón with Isla Taquile in the background. The point to the left was the proposed location of the hotel. 

Recently, there was an offer put forth to build a large hotel at the point of Llachón. The hotel would be for-profit, but 60 percent of the profit would go straight to the people of Llachón. The picture to the right depicts the approximate proposed location. Valentín helped lead a resistance to the project, and it was ultimately turned down in a nearly unanimous public vote. 

Life in Llachón startled me. There probelms were surprisingly easy for me to put in context of the problems my cities have at home. And, intellectually, I knew that there are people in this world without roads, or running water, or sewage sytems, or electricty, but to see that life and live with them made it emotionlly much, much more real for me. Simple things also amazed me, like how in the same world where my friends make their livings in tall glass-and-steel buildings there are women sitting in the sun with blankets full of potatoes so that the potatoes will dehydrated and be easier to store. 

But life wasn´t hard for these people. In fact they seemed to like it quite a lot - it´s just that their lives are so different from mine. People in Llachón are proud of their political opinions, their community, and their heritage. It´s not arrogant or unwelcoming - it´s anything but, really - but it is exclusive. It´s the type of pride that turns down pure profit and good jobs from a hotel to preserve their ways of life, or the type of pride that only lets real Llachóñeros buy land here. It´s the type of pride that gets men and women to dress in full suits and dresses to do farm or animal work. I know this is massively cliche, but I can´t say anything different because I didn´t see anything different, and I think it is important to mention because of how surprised I was by these things that I thought I knew. Intellectual understanding is truly different from emotional understanding. And, at least for me, it´s an important reminder that all people deserve dignity like they deserve water. Sure, I can go to these places and be emotionally amazed with the way of life, but the next step is not pity. It´s something I haven´t fiured out yet. Perhaps its just emotional understanding, and that´s my last stop. I´m not sure.

The road out of town. I was quite sad to leave. 

The road out of town. I was quite sad to leave. 

I think I learned a lot from going to Llachón, and it has definitely encouraged me to seek out more places like it. I don´t know, I guess that I had just gotten pretty tired of the tourist circuit in Peru, and I feel like I learned more in my week here than I did in the rest of my month in Peru. I'll certainly be looking for places like this in the future, but it takes a lot of luck to find them as well. Just another reason to trust people and take their advice. 

I'm writing from Bolivia, and I just got here. I'm excited for a new country! Hope all is going well back home, and I'll have something up about my time in Bolivia soon. 

First Two Weeks and the Festival of Inti Raymi

One of my first big events was the festival of Inti Raymi held here in Cusco every June 24 on the Winter Solstice. What was great for me about the festival is that I learned that it reverses some of the negative effects of colonialism using a play book adapted from the Spanish, and it taught me about my own shortsightedness. 

Qurikancha. The large black foundation wall was once the outer wall of the Incan center. The walls also used to be plated with gold, which was shipped to Spain. 

Qurikancha. The large black foundation wall was once the outer wall of the Incan center. The walls also used to be plated with gold, which was shipped to Spain. 

The festival predates the arrival of the Spanish, but there is a healthy dose of Christianity in there as well. Colonialists were well known for taking native fixtures and changing them into Christian ones. For example, upon arrival in Cusco, the Spanish promptly destroyed the main religious center of the Incan Empire, called Inti Kancha, and built a church on the same spot, renaming it Qurikancha. By actively re-purposing large cultural fixtures, the Spanish both drew on the legitimacy the spot previously had and they redirected the culture in their direction. Peru is now a proudly Christian country with traditional Christian values, but Peruvians are very far from forgetting their pre-Christian forebearers. 

What is cool about this story is that the people of Cusco figured out how to play this game as well. For example, in the main church of Cusco, the massive depiction of the Last Supper shows Jesus sitting down to a meal of cuy, the most prominent ingenious dish. The streets here all have Quechua names. And the flag of the Incan empire flies from many of the Spanish colonial buildings in Cusco. 

The beginning of the parade. It lasted for more than 12 hours!

The beginning of the parade. It lasted for more than 12 hours!

But what got me thinking of writing this post was the festival of Inti Raymi, which was really more like a month-long festival. The festival is very much rooted in the pre-Spanish religion of the area. In the major moment of the festival, the golden Incan emperor receive his symbolic staff of rulership from someone dressed as a Spanish monk. There is a huge parade that goes through all of the big church squares, and the churches  even dress up for the event.

Inti Raymi celebrates the pre-Christian religion of Cusco, but it uses Chrisitian fixtures to do so. Maybe this occurs simply because the two traditions mixed and neither dominated the other. This would certainly be supported by the fact that Peru is a highly Christian country. But, all of Peru is religious, and not all of Peru celebrates a festival like this. This festival does not intend to counteract the religion of Christianity, but it does counteract the cultural standarization of the Spanish. It is a way of creating an identity that exists outside the identity brought to this area.

The Peruvian part of Inti Raymi. People build these hollow dirt mounds and light fires in them. Then they take off the top part of the mound to grill or they leave the mound intact and roast potatoes in them. The guys in the background are digging out the potatoes from an oven.

The Peruvian part of Inti Raymi. People build these hollow dirt mounds and light fires in them. Then they take off the top part of the mound to grill or they leave the mound intact and roast potatoes in them. The guys in the background are digging out the potatoes from an oven.

Identification seems to be a huge issue around here, and it is easy for those of us who come to this area to mistake a manufactured identity for an authentic one. The other thing I learned about Inti Raymi is that there are really two areas of celebration. One is a reenactment of the Incan religious ceremony, which is populated by tourists. The second is nearby, and really it is just a large carnival where all generations of families come out and cook in a large open space. This second part is almost exclusively Peruvian, and there are many more people there than at the first part.

Many "whole" things here seem to be really two parts put together - a native identity and a Christian identity, a festival with a touristy religious part and with an authentic family part. When I looked these things up, I only saw one part, but being here has reminded me of how shallow much of that travel information is. My first couple weeks have been good and challenging - more on that in the next post. I'm still surprised by how confident I was that I knew what would be happening while I am here. It's not that what I do is out of my contral, but there are many things I didn't see coming, like the fact that Inti Raymi has two parts and the part I learned about on the web was more for tourists anyway. I think next time, instead of relying too much on the Internet for help, I'll just decide to go to a place and see how it goes. More on how that works out to come as well.

Welcome to my Travel Blog!

This week I am beginning a long tip. Over the next 8 months, I will go to Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and China, all with the goal of trying to figure out what it's like to be from these places. I'm out here to challenge myself and to grow from that challenge. To better understand people in the United States who feel out of place, I am trying to feel out of place too - and I have gotten some of that already for sure. 

A side street in Lima coming out of the historic city center into  a more run down neighborhood. 

A side street in Lima coming out of the historic city center into  a more run down neighborhood. 

Three days in, I have already struggled and grown. My trip has had hard parts and good parts for sure. But I am getting the real experience of what it is like to be an outsider, something a white, male, blue-eyed blonde does not frequently get in the United States, and it's a goal of mine to get just that. And the support that I get from friends and family has made a big difference in preparing me for this. 

My goal for this blog is to make it useful for you, so I will be mainly focusing on the things I am learning. Mixed in with that will be a healthy dose of my stories from the road, and I already have some of those (unfortunately and fortunately). 

But I am not going to try to hard to find meaning where there are scraps. If I am either unable to learn something from an experience or there simply is nothing to be learned, I won't make anything up. If I am unsuccessful somewhere, I'll share that experience and what I and others can learn from that. 

 

 

There are things that I hope to learn, but it's what I don't even know to hope to learn that excites me the most. And the experience of being alone abroad for only a few days has allowed me to better respect those who have come to the United States. 

Anyhow, welcome to my blog, and thanks for coming. This is a group project, which means that I have been really interested in hearing what readers are curious about. Wether it's the religion or food or whatever, your interests drive mine, so feel free to let me know what you want to know. I'm here to learn as much as I can. It will be fun and it will be hard and it'll be a long 8 months, so I'm glad you're reading my blog and I hope you'll stay around.