Sunday, September 28, 2008

Here at the end of all things...

ORIGINAL POST: 16 June 2008

So, what began with me stepping on a little plane in Birmingham, Alabama, on 15 January 2008... meet up with 45 fellow student travelers in Detroit, Michigan... move to Greece for a semester abroad...

...culminated in 18 days of an extensive sojourn through much of Europe with 4 other companions... then down to 2... then 1...

...and then ending with myself landing back in Birmingham, Alabama, 109 days later.

It was quite a trip. The best it could be.

First, I'm going to share just a few things I've learned while spending time abroad for 4 months. Second, I'm going to include a few stats about the trip that some of you may (or may not) care to know... but I'm going to include them anyway.
Now, some of you may have different opinions, but I'm just going to answer some of my most-asked questions as well as mention a few things that I have observed while a person spends a long time in foreign lands. If you disagree, please comment and explain - I definitely want to hear your side of the story...

...that's what this entire experience has been about: seeing the "other" side of the story.

So, here we go:

Q: What is the single most important thing you've learned?
A: I think this is my favorite question. In fact, it provokes the most profound thoughts and it seems the most profound people have been the ones asking.
I believe the single thing that will have the most impact on my life as a member of the human race is simply this: We are ALL in this world together. We all connect. We all share a common thread. It doesn't matter if you are black, white, brown, red, yellow, or purple... it doesn't matter if you believe in God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, or Zeus... it doesn't matter if you wear a suit, a turban, or nothing at all... it doesn't matter if you vote Democrat, Republican, or Socialist... it doesn't even matter what continent you live on... in the grand scheme of things, we all live here together. Every life is valuable and every person is someone's son or daughter or father or mother or sibling.

Q: What was your favorite place you visited? Why?
A: Easy: Israel. Probably Jerusalem, if I had to be more specific. I believe the Old City represents an extremely unique way of life. The people who occupy their respective quarters have developed a way to live together with their own religions and with the religions of their neighbors. Though they may not agree with their neighbor's choice they do respect them for their choice. I saw Jews shopping in the Muslim market and Christians eating at the Jewish restaurants beside his Muslim friend and his veiled wife. I ask you: what part of that shows any animosity toward the other? These people have learned to live with their religion instead of dying with it. Too often I think our civilization gets that confused.

(A market in the Muslim quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, Israel.)

Q: Did you ever feel like you were in danger?
A: No. I spent a good deal of time in Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, and all that time I never once felt "unsafe". Granted, we were accompanied by heavily armed escorts in Egypt - which was probably the most dangerous of the places. Yep, believe it or not, Israel was even safe to walk around in many places at night.
GASP! "You mean they weren't blowing everything up over there!?" says the average person. No, they're not blowing up everything over there. Those are extremely remote, extremely fanatical individuals who do things like that.
Of course, you see the Toyota pickups mounted with heavy machine guns or hauling around guys toting AK-47's, but that is just part of things in some places.

(An armed guard on the Nile boat.)

Q: Is there a lot of poverty over there?
A: Poverty? Where!? Sure, there are places like the outskirts of Cairo where the standard of living is pretty low, but for the most part the places I was exposed to were not THAT bad. The Bedouins - some of whom continue to be traditional nomadic shepherds - have struck a balance with the technologically driven world and just continue to do their thing they've done for thousands of years.
To be completely honest: Amman, Jordan, is literally THRIVING right now. Their money trades almost even with the Euro, their housing market is one of the best in the world, and I think there are more huge SUV's there than in the States these days.
Nevertheless, the poorest people are extremely noticeable. Most of the time, they are the beggars and cripples that sit on the street corners with their cups in front of their amputated limbs. Some people in my group would feel awkward around them and not know how to act... and that goes to show you how sheltered our children are these days. Yes, even the college age.

Q: Was everything expensive over there?
A: Yes and no. Europe was expensive. The Middle East wasn't as bad. The most expensive it got was probably Paris or London. The cheapest it got was - by far - Prague. Cairo was a close second, in my opinion. Athens is about in the middle if you stay out of the touristy areas and Jerusalem would come in slightly more expensive than that. I had the most problems in Italy figuring out if I was getting ripped off or not because sometimes their "Italian" leather would be the absolutely cheapest quality but sell for the same as the real stuff. But the biggest problem with Italy is their tendency to have really expensive entrance fees to things: everything 10Euro or 8Euro really adds up fast.
Bottom line: the US Dollar really sucks these days.

Q: Do the people in Europe hate Americans?
A: Okay, the problem that most Europeans have with US citizens is not with the people themselves - its with the US government. For the most part, the people there easily separate a country's citizens from its government - a thing I wish we, as US citizens, could do for other countries.
Many people abroad really despise the US government these days because of its horrible foreign policy. Why? Because what sense does it make for some book-educated diplomat (or president) from the United States to fly eight timezones over to a country to mediate a peace deal between two countries where he doesn't speak the language but they DO speak the same language... all while the US is involved in a war they can't end in a neighboring country. See why it is so hard for the US government to be taken seriously?
By the way, you can't say "American" and just mean "people from the USA". If you say "American" you are lumping all of the States, Canada, Mexico, etc., together into a single collective "American".
HOWEVER: there were a few times abroad when you meet someone that has that "certain tone" and you either claim you are from Canada (which most Europeans don't mind at all) or "the country south of Canada" (which is not so much of a lie as it is taking advantage of the fact "the country south of Canada" is - oddly enough - linguistically confusing to most non-native speakers and all they hear is "blah blah blah Canada" and everything is fine anyway.
If you are abroad and you're not a blazing "stupid American tourist" with your American flag t-shirts and white tennis shoes and baseball cap... its always better to blend.

Q: So give me some numbers!
A: Just because some people actually ask... solely between January 15 and May 2, 2008:

I flew 14 times on 8 major airlines on 4 continents.

(Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Athens, Greece, via Amsterdam.)
I set foot in 16 countries and visited every one of their capital cities - except for one (Turkey).

(The Reichstag - Berlin, Germany.)

Add up all of the cities I've been to and you'll come out at 63 (I don't think I missed any). 63 cities that I either stayed in, spent some time exploring, studied there, or at least got a little taste of during my travels.
And this 63 includes the 24 that I visited while I was traveling by train through Western (and some of Eastern) Europe.

I thought about trying to figure out how many languages I have been bombarded by, but that would be a futile effort. The areas in which I traveled are some of the most culturally diverse and linguistically varied in the world. There are at least a dozen major languages in the Balkan countries alone.
In fact, from the time I left Detroit on January 15, I did not speak to a native English speaker - except the occasional tourist and the members of my group - until I landed in Dublin on April 29.

(The front gate of the Dachau Concentration Camp in Munich - "Work Makes One Free")

During the last few weeks during my whirlwind tour of Europe, I was on an average of three different trains per day; furthermore, on three separate occasions, I was in three different countries in one 24 hour period.

(A hi-speed ICE train in Frankfurt, Germany.)

Q: How many photos did you take?
A: My camera wrapped around DSC9999 to DSC0001 three times.

Q: So, how was it?
A: I get this question more than any other because it is the easiest to ask - however, its the hardest to answer. What sort of adjectives can I use to describe 4 months of exposure to this much of a percentage of the rest of the world? How many times can I say, "Oh, it was great!" and really mean, "It was something I'll remember for the rest of my life!"?

How does a traveler put his distant sojourns into a few words that the average "busy person" would care to hear before getting that glassed-over look that sometimes occurs when you go too in-depth about a vacation? How do you say, "It changed my life." and make it sound real?

But, then again, I have. These dozens and dozens of blog posts and thousand pictures have been my attempt at saying, "This is what I saw - and this is why I'm different because of it."

Q: Any advice for a future traveler?
A: Absolutely.
-Do everything you can as often as you can do it. You'll never regret taking that extra day trip, even if you don't think you'll have the time.
-Do NOT, under any circumstances, make decisions based solely on your money situation. It will drastically decrease the quality of your trip and it will put a damper on the trip for any companions you may have.
-Eat real food. Eat real food from the locations where you may find yourself. On multiple occasions, I found myself shelling out up to 20Euro for a meal... but I'll never regret doing that. Ever. If you opt to eat granola bars and peanut butter for your three square meals, you're missing out on a major part of traveling abroad.
-Pack efficiently. For the final 17 or 18 days I was in Europe, I packed a pro-size D-SLR body, four lenses (including an 80-200/2.8!), 6 complete sets of clothes, toiletries, a 15-inch Titanium Powerbook, and a Lacie ruggedized external hard drive in a LowePro CompuRover AW. Departing Athens, it weighed 13.1kg (or 28.8lbs). Yes, that's pretty heavy, but it was compact and efficient. Most people think hiking backpacks are a good idea; however, its true you can fit more stuff in because they expand, but they'll easily max 15 or 16 kilograms and are bulky and VERY easy to pickpocket - all the pockets on hiking backpacks are designed to be "easy access".
-Its a mighty good idea to drop off your bag at the Luggage Storage at the train stations to explore a city and then go back and get it when you're done. I find it annoying, but slightly amusing, that some people actually opt to haul around a 15kg backpack to save the 5Euro for the train station luggage storage.
-Be flexible. Its a good idea to plan your trip by location order and NOT day by day. Make a loose outline of the places you'd like to visit in the order you're going to try to visit them. This may make some more anal-retentive people gasp for air, but honestly - if you miss a train or if a train comes late and you miss a connection or a flight, don't you think you'll be far more stressed? Roll with the punches and be flexible and you will enjoy the trip all the more.
-I used a Blackberry 8830 WorldPhone with Verizon/Vodaphone service to stay in touch overseas. I was in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea between Rhodes and Mykonos and STILL had usable service. I applaud you, my sweet little Blackberry.
-Go buy a dozen extra memory cards for your camera. You will ALWAYS need another one and prices on SD and CF cards overseas are usually twice what you'll get them on Adorama or Calumet. I had eight 2GB and two 1GB.
-Go to your favorite book store and check out all the "Do Europe on a Budget" books. There are dozens of them, so look through them and pick the one that has the highest quality maps and the most information displayed on them.
-Don't be stupid. "Stupid" can be defined as "doing things without thinking it through". Someone I know planned on heading out and staying with some people he/she met randomly on the street. That is just not using common sense. That is stupid.
-See some of the tourist things, but DEFINITELY go off the beaten path and see what else the city/country has to offer. Such as Kutna Hora outside Prague: who's ever heard of that? But isn't it so cool!?

(The Kutna Hora Ossuary houses 40,000 human skeletons: 1hr outside Prague.)

Q: Where will you go from here?
A: I don't know. And doesn't that make life fun to live?

There are so many things to share with so many stories to tell. There is no way to share 4 months on a dozen posts of a silly blog and a little over a thousand photos.

Thank you. All of you who have kept up with my travels and added your support through emails or even simple comments on this blog. It has been a heck of a crazy ride...

...and I guess this is where I should put something like "The End" or "And that's the way the cookie crumbles" or some sort of silly remark symbolizing some sort of end to these things... but it isn't over. Things are not ending. And the cookie is still good and gooey and warm from the oven!

Soon, you'll be seeing me return to real life. In fact, things are already in the works. Tomorrow (Monday, June 16) I leave for a week-long conference for University Photographers. This will be my first year and I'm mighty excited. DEFINITELY stay tuned for that because I get to learn from the best - Steve McCurrey (National Geographic), Michael Grecco (Canon Explorer of Light), and
Bob Rosato (Sports Illustrated).

Stay on for that! And in the Fall? Oh... I don't even want to spoil the fun! Let me just say, the assignments shall flow like milk and honey.


Stay tuned,
~Noah D.

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