Wednesday, April 7, 2010

En route from London to Chicago

April 6, 2010
I’m on my way back to the United States. About half the group was up at three this morning, at the train station by about four. As I said goodbye to the rest of the group, I couldn’t help but cry a little bit – they all get to go back to Hiram together, but I’m going to be separated from the only people in this whole world who could understand the last three months. I’ve become very fond of all of them. The closer I get to home, the more excited I am to see all the people waiting for me, especially my family. But at the same time, I don’t know how I’m going to describe the experiences I’ve had to everyone back home. I don’t know if I’ll even try – it will probably come out in bits and pieces. Everyone else had lives that continued while I was away; I know I have a lot to catch up on as well.
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were free for Easter, and I spent most days finishing up assignments or walking around town. On Saturday morning, there was an adorable morning market in the center of Blankenesse . There were stands selling Easter eggs, flowers, books, crafts, meats, fish, produce, and cheese. People walked around with huge armfuls of branches, which looked like they were plucked right off one of the just-budding trees, but were actually sold at the flower stands. There was a certain austere allure to these non-floral decorations. I found out just this week that my great-grandmother was born in Blankenesse, in the same area where we were staying. As I walked around, I wondered which houses could have belonged to my family, which streets my family walked on, if they attended this same Saturday morning market. I wish I could say that I immediately fell in love with the town, but despite its undeniable charm it really creeped me out. The Elsa-Brandström house, where we stayed, was the same way: charming but creepy. I could barely bring myself to walk around the inadequately light hallways while relying on the energy saving lights which flicked off seconds after I passed. I would suddenly find myself in the pitch-black and the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up.
At night, we went out and experienced Hamburg’s Easter Weekend, which is very different from the United States. We wandered through the dark woods and the dark streets lined with dark houses, all permeated with the same austere allure as the branchy bouquets. At any given moment and without cause, my fight or flight mechanism would tingle. But I suppose this atmosphere made the Easter fires, a Hamburg tradition, seem even warmer and more welcoming.

The Saturday before Easter, people collect Christmas trees, scrap wood, and anything else flammable and pile it into gigantic stacks along the shore of the Elba. Just after the sun goes down, the huge structures are light, and the Hamburgers celebrate the beginning of spring en masse. A group of us hiked down a steep set of stone stairs through the perfectly sinister woods and finally arrived at the bright, cheerful fire parties. We began at a more subdued family affair, then walked a bit down the beach and found the riotous parties. People had clambered up any structure along the river, people were drunk and dancing around the fires and two ambulances wailed conspicuously in the background. The friends of the fallen sent their injured off with hollers and waves. The party went on.

We didn’t stick around for long – we wandered back into the woods and then up to our favorite hole in the wall bar. It was here that I finally met a character that had been talked about in our group for several days – Robin, the German rapper. I liked him the second he sat down outside with us because he was the archetype of what a European rapper should be: he imitated white, upper class Americans imitating the hip hop scene. “Yo,” he greeted us. “What’s shakin’ my…?” We all tittered. He moved on, not acknowledging that horribly offensive phrase. He told us about his rap, about how it was real, about the heavy shit that Americans rap about, and how it’s hard out there for a pimp. He wore a white cap with the name of his “label” on it, baggy jeans, and a red, white, and blue jersey. I regret not sticking around longer: apparently the more beer he drank the more hilarious he became.

It was late when I arrived back at the Elsa-Brandström House, but my alarm was set for five the next morning to make it to Hamburg’s fish market in its prime. Every Sunday since the Middle Ages, vendors have set up stalls in this particular area of Altona, near Hamburg. Easter is no exception. Of course I didn’t wake up by five, but I stumbled out by 6:15 and got on the train in the same clothes I had partied in the night before and had slept in. We followed the small crowd of people down to the, harbor, where a huge mass of people wandered around countless stands selling everything imaginable. If I were the knick-knack type, I could have bought literally any of the souvenirs of any of the countries that we’ve visited that I passed up when I was actually in the country of origin. But unfortunately, the only thing I wanted to buy (a beer stein) was poorly represented. Perhaps seven in the morning was too late for a market that begins at four.
Denny had told us about a “truly riotous” bier garten that takes place in one of the public buildings in the area that coincides with the fish market. Around eight in the morning, three of us followed the stumbling drunks to a huge hall filled with beer stands and appropriate munchies-type food. A strength test was in the middle of the hall, with a line of people who wanted slam the mallet down and receive instant validation of their brawniness. Every few seconds the crash of the mallet overpowered the 80s-styled band playing at the front of the hall. I drank the earliest beer of my life on a nearly-empty stomach, went home and passed out until lunch.
Sunday night was low-key: I finished up the last of my work and turned it in. Monday, we didn’t have class until after lunch – it ended up going until dinner. We had been compiling the lessons of the trips, and had been instructed to reduce the comments into six succinct messages. This seemed impossible and I think that the platitudes we finally agreed upon were shallow representations of the trip. But it might be nice to package the last three months into bite-sized pieces for the rest of the world. Towards the end, Nate stood up and publically thanked Denny, David, and Sigrid for all of their hard work and making this amazing program actually happen. This incited the first set of tears.
And now we’re on the plane back to the US. The man sitting next to me has ordered diet coke from the stewardess twice, and each time she tries to hand him a regular coke. He says in his ever-polite British accent “diet please,” and hands her back the coke. He’s with his wife and two adorable children on their way to Orlando, to see Disney World. I love the idea of people vacationing in the United States – I hope they really enjoy it. Being back in a pseudo-American situation on this plane has been kind of refreshing. I understand the culture, I understand the language, and everything seems normal and familiar. I think I’ll enjoy it for about a week, then wonder when I’ll zip off to the next country. It’s time to stay distracted until I transition back into my American life.

Hamburg, Germany

April 3, 2010
Overcast, cool

Last night, I finished up my work and we went out. The previous night, a handful of people had found a little hole-in-the wall bar and wanted to go back. On the way there, Tim commented that the bar was very small, and very low-key. We arrived, and it was about a third the size that I thought it was going to be. It was a little building with some chairs and a fire pit outside. Inside every one of the six chairs were taken, and about twenty people were hanging out in this bar the size of a bathroom. I pressed my way to the front and paid five euro for two beers, and Allen, Matt and I loitered outside while Tim chatted up the locals. It got a little cold out, so we squeezed into the bar and joined Tim’s conversation with Max. I got a second beer, and I thought that it would be perfectly fine to bust out my awesome German. I asked everyone I could what they called themselves, where they were from, and how they were. I apologized for being in the way when somebody wanted to get past, and then I stared dumbly when they started talking back to me in German. Tim stepped in for me. “Nich sprechen gut.”
I went to the bathroom, expecting it to be a little dismal. The bar tender gave me a key, and I stood outside the bathroom for several minutes before a helpful man came and helped me open the door. Inside, the bathroom was pretty much as large as the bar, the toilets had a cord hanging from the ceiling that you pulled to flush, there was a rack of magazines featuring attractive men, and there was tasty peach hand soap and strawberry hand lotion. I was very impressed. I returned, and talked to a guy named Sven for a bit, then we went back to the hotel.

Hamburg, Germany

April 2, 2010
Cool, Clear.
I feel like I’ll never be able to do enough. It’s the end of my around the world trip and I have a plane ticket home in four days but I feel like I’m not satisfied because there’s so much more to see. I wonder what will happen when I look back on my life and wonder if I’ve done enough, if I learned enough and discovered enough and saw enough. I guess it will only matter up until the point of death, when I won’t be aware of anything at all. I wish I had traveled the world and found that it’s a more beautiful place than I could have ever imagined, but instead I just feel like without significant changes we’re all going to be doomed. But, I feel like I’ve also learned a good deal about the transitory nature of things and so anything good or bad is sort of moot because it will go away soon enough. So even if we are doomed in the course of a universe’s lifetime, it won’t matter at all because things will continue without us.
Not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself immensely. One of the previous participants in the Biomes of the World trip told me to enjoy every minute of it, but then corrected herself and said appreciate it. I think at the time, it would have been impossible to appreciate every moment because there were times where I was so unbelievably uncomfortable that my only thoughts were how to alleviate my discomfort. But then, in retrospect, I probably love those moments the most because of a combination of bragging rights and a sense of accomplishment.

Yesterday we went to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration/labor camp about two hours outside of Hamburg. We began by walking around the grounds, seeing the huge mounds that held thousands of bodies. We saw Anne Frank’s grave. We saw the memorial to the dead. We walked through the woods to the Russian POW camp, and saw the mass graves there. The atmosphere was completely creepy; I’m so glad we visited during the day. Afterwards, we walked through museum. The walls were lined with monitors that played videos of holocaust survivors, and pictures of the atrocities. Last night, whenever I woke up at night, all I could think about were the videos of dead, emaciated bodies being bulldozed into pits, and being flung into piles.

It was just awful. You can hear about terrible things your entire life, but you cannot comprehend them until you have a first-hand experience. The same is true of India, or Africa, or of climate change. You have to be there to understand the enormity of the issue. I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to understand the world more thoroughly, even if I just barely glimpsed it. As much as I look forward to seeing my friends and family and being back in familiar surroundings, I keep dreading April 6th because I don’t want to leave my friends here, and I don’t want to return to stationary life.

En route from Berlin to Hamburg

March 30, 2010
5°C, Overcast

Today was a travel day not unlike the epic train journeys from India. Last night we flew into Oslo and found that the “super easy” train transfer to the hotel was not going to happen because the trains in Oslo had been completely shut down. Instead, the airport had chartered buses, and there was a hoard of people crowding to get on the bus. You’d think we were starving and fighting for hamburgers or something. The first charter bus was almost filled up, except for a few seats. Liz, Matt, Swaffie and I tossed our luggage on and sat down. We were surprised that nobody else in the group followed us to take up the last remaining seats, but suddenly Liz yelled to me that it was the wrong bus so everyone but Swaffie quickly shuffled off. The bus driver got very angry. “What are you doing?!” we told him that we wanted to go to Oslo Central Station, and he said that he was indeed going there. “I am the driver, you should listen to me!”
Liz and I got back on the bus, and we took off. Matt was nowhere to be seen, and as we zipped through the Norwegian countryside, we accepted whatever was to come and assumed we could meet everyone when we got to the train station. I talked a bit to the guy next to me, and he let me know when it was time to get off. When we stepped off the bus at the Oslo Central Station stop we were in front of an “Opera Hotel” which played nonstop opera and had quite a few costumes on display. Liz, Swaffie, and I loitered and waited around. Denny hadn’t known the name of the hotel One of the people at the front desk told us that the train station and bus terminal were actually behind the hotel, and after about half an hour of waiting, Swaffie took off to scout out the terrain.
Not five minutes after he left, a van and a bus showed up with our group in them. I ran out of the hotel and ran up to them. Anh told me later that she wouldn’t have stopped the van had she not seen me run out of the hotel. I felt like my flailing, frantic scene had been validated. Once everyone was reunited, Anh and I went to go look for Swaffie. Even though we only walked over a few city blocks, it felt like Oslo was a gigantic city when we looked through the train station and bus terminal for him. When we got to the end, we gave up and went back, only to find a small group – including Swaffie—waiting for us. We trudged to the hotel, and I noticed that Matt didn’t have his suitcase. When I asked him where it went, he told me that he had left it on the bus and was not able to retrieve it when we thought it was the wrong bus, then the driver shut the door in his face and left.
Once we were reunited at the hotel, the group went out to dinner at a strange little restaurant run by an Indian man. Huge chunks of ground beef were brought out, with potatoes drowned in gravy. I was told this is similar to what is called a “Salisbury Steak.” It wasn’t that tasty. Then I went back to the hotel and passed out until the morning, when I got up grudgingly for breakfast. We left for the airport train at 9:55am, and just as we arrived and were receiving our tickets and the train was about to leave, Denny realized that he didn’t have his backpack. So he left to go retrieve it, and the train arrived and we all faced a dilemma: should we split up again?
Matt had to pick up his bag at the airport and so Michelle and I went with him. We arrived without a hitch at Oslo Airport (by the way, I really think that the United States needs a more extensive rail system – these airport express trains were awesome and looked like spaceships and got you to the airport very quickly. Europe is way better at “being green” – everywhere in Germany there are these huge windmills and gigantic solar panels. Most of the time I feel like being green in the United States is just a cute thing to put on packaging of “organic” products). The bag was supposed to be at Platform 2, but the official at Platform 2 directed us to the Lost and Found, and then the person at the Lost and Found directed us to the Information Desk, and the person at the Information Desk directed us back to Platform 2, and when we asked a different official, he said, “Oh? You mean this bag?” and picked up Matt’s bag, which was sitting right behind the Platform 2 desk the whole time.
Then we took our plane to Berlin, and then caught a bus to the train station. The bus was extraordinarily crowded, and we had all our luggage with us, but we finally arrived at the Haupfbohnhoff and found the correct platform. Then we loitered for two more hours, and now we’re finally on the train to Hamburg. As much I will miss traveling to all these cool places and seeing so much of the world, and even though there is so much left to see, I am so tired of carrying my bag through all these different types of transportation and wheeling it through muddy streets and shoving it into undersized compartments. This morning, on the Airport Express train, this man’s bag fell out of the compartment and went flying down the center aisle, and almost careened into a baby’s stroller. When he sheepishly retrieved it, I wanted to give him a hug because I felt empathy: that moment is a perfect representation of my relationship with my luggage for the last three months. My twenty kilo huge red duffel has become a cancer on my trip; if I ever travel the world again, I’m going to pack everything I need into a smaller and more portable bag.
But once we get to Hamburg, it will be our final destination. After that, our next flight will be the flight home. I can’t believe it.

En route from Longyearbjen to Oslo

March 29, 2010
About -10°C, clear in Longyearbjen

I almost spent this morning napping. Matt came into my room and told me that he was going to climb the hill behind our hotel and go look at the abandoned mind. My bed was comfy and warm, and it is a steep hill so I told him that I was just going to stay in. He walked outside, and I saw him climb down the stairs outside from my window. He looked back at me, and suddenly I couldn’t stand the idea of staying in any longer. I ran to the door. “Wait for me!” I yelled, and threw on some layers haphazardly. I ran down the stairs and joined Matt and Nate. They told me that I had the saddest look on my face when I looked out the window – I probably did because it was one of those times where I felt like I had to partake in a possibly uncomfortable and unpleasant activity for the challenge.
The hill was very steep and icy. Nate went first and kicked little footholds into the snow, but it became too icy to do that and we moved over to the rocks, which I scrambled up like a climbing wall. Eventually, the rocks also became too slippery, and Matt and I moved back to the snow. I stopped looking up or down, and just concentrated on each step. The hill was very steep, and rocks and bits of ice tumbled past me, then cracked as they fell down the slope. At several points, I stopped to catch my breath and thought that I couldn’t make it. But eventually, by focusing all of my attention on the ground and the next step, I arrived at the top. I couldn’t believe it when I heard Nate yell “we made it!” and held out his hand for a high five. I was completely drenched with sweat – we all took off our hats and our hair dripped and formed little icicles. My scarf was frozen as well.

We clambered into the mine, and tried to find an entrance. A few other people from the group had climbed up yesterday, and told us there was a way to get in. We didn’t spend much time inside the mine itself; to be honest it was really creepy and we had to get back to the hotel to get on the bus to the airport. It was really interesting to see the inside because it had been fairly undisturbed (what person would willingly make that treacherous climb?). There were mugs, paint cans and candlesticks sitting on shelves. In one room, there was a picnic bench. Tons of artifacts from several decades ago were lying around, kind of adding to the creepy effect. John had told me that there was a room with a blackboard and some chalk, and that somebody had written that they had celebrated their twenty-second birthday in the mine. Based on my conversation with John, Nate, Matt and I went to very different parts of the building than the rest of the group, and I never saw the chalkboard. However, there was definitely evidence of a party: very festive lights strung across the top of the mine. I have a lot of respect for people so dedicated to partying well that they would drag party lights, and all of their friends up this hill for the sole purpose of having an awesome birthday.

Eventually, we had to go back down the hill. Ever cautious, I started to pick my way down through the icy snow, but Nate just sat down and slid down a particularly icy patch. I loved watching him skid down with one hand on the ground, surrounded by a cloud of snow powder. But I hate anything that involves sliding down steep and slippery slopes (except for some mild sledding), and Matt tried to coax me into descending the fast way. He held out his hand and I had flashbacks of my dad trying to teach me how to ski: by taking me up to one of the steeper slopes and taking me by the hand and pulling me down. I tried to pick my way down but it became way too icy, so I winced and sat down and tumbled down the hill. I only screamed a little bit, at a particularly slippery part and I thought that there was no way I would stop before the upcoming rocky ledge, but I slowed down and got up and did it again. We arrived at the bottom very sweaty with frozen butts but completely intact. Then we stripped off our layers, got in the bus, and went to the airport and got on the plane.
Though our plane went all the way through to Oslo, there was a stop in Tromsø and for some stupid reason we had to clear customs just as soon as we arrived in the mainland of Norway. So we got off the plane (walking to the terminal in 4°C weather seemed almost tropical) and collected our bags, went through customs, and dropped our bags off once again. The Tromsø airport has many automatic doors, and as we were going through to claim our checked baggage, this little kid tried to get through the door but was not nearly tall enough for the sensor. To everyone’s amusement, he bumped right into the doors, and stood in shock for a few minutes not knowing what to do. His parents had passed through and were out of sight because the door could not be opened from the other side. His confused look was absolutely adorable, but I took him into my lane and got him through. I love those little moments.
There were surprisingly many small children – babies too! – coming from Spitsbergen. I didn’t expect so many families to vacation in the Arctic. I’m sad to be leaving: each plane we board is one flight closer to the end of the trip. I also kind of fell in love with the Arctic. Each place we go is so cool that I wish I could spend many more weeks there just exploring, maybe with the exception of India. On Norwegian television there are these “Incredible India” commercials with a highlights reel of this guy on vacation. He rides a dromedary camel, scuba dives, climbs a palm tree, camps in the Himalayas, goes to the Jaipur kite festival, gets a massage, plays on an inner tube raft, takes pictures of an Indian couple at the Taj Mahal, has red powder streaked down his forehead by an old man, and throws colors during Holi. I was surprised that Indian Tourism Department chose not to feature the starving beggar children, rivers of sewage, dirty trains, irritable customs officials, and creepy men.
What would my highlights reel be like?

Longyearbjen, Spitsbergen

March 28, 2010
-17°C, Clear. Lots of wind.

I spent this morning cozily in the hotel, napping, watching TV and eating a leisurely lunch. Around 2:30, I started getting the layers on: full-body under armor, a flannel, two sweaters, my yoga pants, two pair of regular pants, three scarves, my hat, jacket, and gloves. Two men picked us up at our hotel, and we piled into two cars and drove to a small wooden house along the edge of the water. We were each given a full-body snowsuit, face mask, fur hat, gloves, and knee-high snow boots. We looked like those little kids in the snowsuits who are so overdressed that they cannot move their limbs properly. Every time I lost my balance, I had to grab on to something or I would have gone down hard.
We got back into the cars and were driven about seven kilometers to where the dogs were housed: about a hundred dogs, each chained individually to a straw-filled dog house. I felt kind of bad for them, but when I went to harness them my sympathy left immediately. As much as they loved humans (and they were very affectionate), they could not wait to get out and run. We were instructed by our guide to walk them over to the sleds on their hind feet, because they were far more powerful than us and could easily pull us to the ground and drag us along. It was hard work getting the six dogs strapped to the sled. Even though they were very agreeable and would lift their paws into the harness, their excitement made them difficult to control sometimes. As Matt stood with the two leaders, I dragged and strapped in each one, and by the end of the task I was sweltering in my snow suit and couldn’t imagine being cold ever again.
The dogs’ order on the sled was carefully prescribed to minimize fighting, though quite a few got very feisty. I stood on the breaks and waited to go, perhaps as anxious as the dogs, who were crying and whining and barking. Some were running in place, either out of anticipation or the cold. Finally, our guide whistled and his dogs took off, then in turn each of our teams started running. I was at the end, and nearly fell off the sled as the dogs started sprinting. The well below freezing wind cut through all of my layers, and I couldn’t believe that we were actually dog-sledding in the arctic.
This entire area is made out of glacial valleys, similar to Juneau. We sledded up a valley west of the town, half of which is liquid water in the summer. The sun was shining, and I wrapped my face up tightly, and couldn’t believe the landscape of huge beautiful snowy mountains. We didn’t see any polar bear, or anything really – the Arctic is more like a desert than any other biome we’ve been to. There were two Svalbard reindeer, but they were closer to town. On the top of one of the western mountain ranges, there was a factory that was surrounded by a hundred meter radius of black coal dust. It was really gross, but it is because of that coal that goes to the coal plant that our hotel is so toasty and has an unlimited supply of hot water. Pipes run along the town, bringing hot water from the plant.
Those few hours seemed to go by in no time at all, and we were suddenly pulling back into the dog’s kennel area and unleashing them. A few hours of gripping a sled tightly, and keeping myself warm had really worn my out. When I went to unleash the largest of our team, he pulled me down and I face planted into the snow. Luckily, our guide took him from me and I was unscathed, and took the smaller dogs back to their kennels. We fed each dog, patted them goodbye, and went back to our hotel.
An absolutely amazing day.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Longyearbjen, Spitsbergen

March 27, 2010
Clear, -20°C
I feel like this trip brings together so many things I’ve learned or encountered throughout my life. So frequently I feel like I have a greater understanding of the connectivity of the world because of my last three month’s experiences. This morning was no different, when at breakfast I encountered some of my favorite cheese. I first tasted this delicious block of dairy goodness last semester, when the Whole Foods cheese guy recommended it to me. It was a caramel brown, in a red package, and tasted like a sweet cheddar. I bought quite a bit of it and nibbled for weeks, pairing it with apples. And this morning, I saw some of that tawny cheese peeking out over the red label, but in a much much larger quantity. I highly recommend you search out some of this caramelized Norwegian cheese. It’s worth it. Then this evening, David brought out a chocolate pudding with two ice creams – one Neapolitan, the other a vanilla with caramel bits in it. I remembered my childhood, reading Roald Dahl’s Boy, which contained a description of this very same crunchy caramel ice cream that Dahl stated is a Norwegian favorite. As soon as I thought of Roald Dahl, I remembered that the museum we visited today featured a photographer with the last name Dahl, almost certainly a relative of the author of some of my favorite children’s stories. And while this is sort of shallow, it is still a very good example of so many happenstance occasions where I have felt the world makes just a little more sense.
At the same time, I feel like this trip has confused me beyond restoration. So many things I’ve seen have yet to even begin to make sense to me. Even things that shouldn’t be very confusing leave me wondering how the world is the way it is. After class this morning, we went to a museum and I read several exhibits detailing the benefit of conservation, about the value of the Arctic, and how it is horrible that so many human activities threaten the integrity of the region. I turned a corner and saw a reading area covered with seal pelts, with baby seal pillows. A library of books had been provided, so you could lounge on the dead animals and read the about environmentalism. I snuggled up, and looked across the room to a wall full of quotes – one which called the Arctic the “thermometer of the world” because it most drastically responds to environmental damage. It seemed so oxymoronic.

Afterwards, I bundled up in my layers – two sweaters, four pants, my winter coat, three scarves, and my trusty “toaster” mittens and hat and walked with the group out onto the sea ice. The image was stunning; it the most quintessential arctic landscape you could image. Across the water were huge dune-like mountains, covered in snow. The wind had blown of the icebergs into the U-shaped bay, and behind us and to our right were glaciers. All we needed was a polar bear eating a seal and we’d have the true arctic experience.

I think that will probably come tomorrow when we go dog-sledding across the ice fields. We decided not to go snowmobiling, because we felt that such a disruptive activity would probably be counterproductive given the subject of courses. We’re going to be suited up in all-weather snow outfits, and spend three and a half hours driving our own sleds with our own pack of dogs. It’s going to be quite an experience. And I cannot wait. After all these things I’ve done, I can’t imagine going home and going back to the mundane, the routine. I was walking back to the hotel today and every hair on my few inches of exposed face froze and icicles formed on my hat and I couldn’t believe how lucky I am.