Pilgrims v. Witches

On the edge of Salem Common stands a statue – often mistaken as a witch in a self-pleasuring posture – of Roger Conant: father of Salem and verifiable pilgrim.  It pains me to imagine how many scrapbooks filled with images of Salem day-trips misrepresent the man responsible for transforming Naumkeag – the place of the eel – into the new world’s Jerusalem, the “foundation of the Commonwealth,” and superlative center of trade for one of the nineteen “witches” who got caught up in the mass hysteria of 1692.  If those day-trippers would stay a little longer, dig a little deeper, read a plaque or two, they’d come to realize that our New England village owes far more to pilgrims (of both the square buckle and modern varietals) than witches.

I go to great pains to make sure guests enjoying my  Salem hospitality understand that there were probably no witches living here during that infamous single year of 1692 and that those who ply there trade on Essex Street today do so more with an eye on the dollar than on providence.  Then, I make sure my guests take in the spoils of the East India Marine Society on display at the Peabody-Essex Museum and the privateered 18th century scientific texts housed in the bowels of the Athenaeum to drive home the point that Salem was one of the most important ports in the world at the height of the China trade.

I’ve found that those of us who call Salem home today are equally worldly.  I’m terrified by the number of Salemites I have met who have spent some portion of their life in Kansas City; on my little dead-end street alone, five. Wine-soaked dinner parties open with a Polish blessing from which conversation flows to kibbutzim, Brazilian cow hides, and Dominican chocolate.

And so, in the spirit of Roger Conant, my worldly neighbors, and the modern-day witches who have made their pilgrimage to this historic village in order to keep Salem’s economic engine churning, I’ve decided to leave.

From Naples, Florida, I write, looking forward to deep sea fishing and organic farming as I make preparations to walk the ancient Way of St. James – El Camino de Santiago – across Spain, to trek across Northern Africa, and work and live on an Israeli Kibbutz.  I’m not sure how many grand adventures one lifetime can support, but do know that I intend to walk to the edge of that cliff.

Maybe in the next 300 years ignorant tourists will mistake Mr. Conant for one of the wanderers who enrich our contemporary life in Salem.  A mistake I could probably live with.

Two Tuesdays

Last week I had two Tuesdays, thanks to a little trip across the international dateline.  My flight left Beijing at noon and arrived in San Francisco at 8am the same day.  I didn’t get to Naples, FL, my penultimate destination on this around the world journey until midnight.  

Also, for the first time in nearly four months and despite conditions that give new meaning to term “un-hygienic,” I didn’t get sick until I found myself under my parents care.  Our bodies really are remarkable for knowing just what it is we can handle.

In all fairness, I don’t think it was outlet mall shopping or early bird dining that made me physically ill.  

Never one to rest on my laurels, the following Tuesday I decided to spend a morning with one of my dad’s Rotary buddies, Sustainability Specialist  and biofuel innovator John Puig (www.johnpuig.com) building an organic garden at a home for autistic children.  My thoughts were that I would spend a couple hours in the morning helping out and making small talk.  Nearly eight hours and 700 ft of arugula later I collapsed on the lanai amidst discussion of whether I should visit the emergency.

Don’t underestimate the power of the sun.


wrap up

I’m blaming the dearth of recent posts on the Great Firewall of China.  China may be the new land of opportunity, assuming you’re not a blogger or like to look at the pictures at http://www.nytimes.com.

You can imagine that quite a lot has happened in the intervening month since my last post.

I spent a week with a nomadic family in the Mongolian wilderneess.  We ate goat noodle soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, drank salty milk tea, and walked 12km each way across the mountains and through the snow to get to the previously mentioned monastery.

Which was a great disappointment. 

The monastery was disbanded during the communist era and has recently been re-colonized with about 50 adolescent monks decked out with red and saffron colored adidas gear.  The aforementioned 24km round trip trek meant that we had time just enough to sit through a three hour completely disorienting “prayer” service, have lunch, and teach an English lesson.

* A word of advice to any native English speaker planning to make a trip around the world: prepare an intermediate English lesson that can be skewed up or down as needed.  Everyone you come across will want you to teach an English class.  Sometimes your students won’t know their ABCs.  Most of the time, though, you will be the 27th American to have taught them how to say “hello” and they’ll want to learn how to conjugate the verb “to be” as my Mongolian monks did.  You better be prepared to bring it.

Needless to say, I survived a day of horseback riding through the mountains with a wooden saddle, carving out the delicacies from a boiled goat head, and leaving my glasses on a hillside somewhere in rural Mongolia and eventually made my way to Beijing. 

I was woefully unprepared for the journey, having packed only some bread, cheese, and water for a nearly 36 hour trip so was delighted to find that the couple who shared my kupe was well stocked with kimchi, rice, fish, bread, cake, eggs, etc.  They fed me very well.  It wasn’t until I was helping to fill out their immigration forms that I realized the irony of the situation: they were North Korean.  You really can’t make these things up: North Koreans feeding Americans on their way from Mongolia to China.

Also on the way to China, I was nearly taken off the train when crossing the border for fear that the crazy mountain man on the train in cahoots with the North Koreans was not the scrawny adolescent pictured in my passport.  Thankfully, after some consultation the three Chinese border agents decided I wasn’t an imminent threat to Chinese homeland security.

Beijing is spectacular, exploding with creativity and opportunity.  After visiting this city of 20 million it’s clear that the 21st century belongs to the Chinese and that America has got to figure out how to do something more than consume if it hopes to be known as anything more than a short lived experiment that had a pretty good run for a while.


A monk’s life II

Since I started my journey at an American Anglican Benedictine monastery, I figured it made sense to spend some time towards the end at a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Mongolia.

Tomorrow, I leave Ulan Bator, sometimes called the ugliest capital city in the world, for five days living in a ger, riding horses, and eating boiled mutton.  There might be some meditation involved as well.

Ger to Ger (www.gertoger.com) is a socially responsible, ecologically aware, culturally sensitive – yada, yada -tour company operating out of UB and organizing similarly themed excursions.  While there are literally hundreds of tour companies organizing outings for the backpacking circuit, Ger to Ger is the only one that is values-driven, striving to enrich its hosts economically and its guests culturally.

An orientation is also required.  At mine, I learned that the horses I would be riding would have Mongolian saddles – i.e. wooden.  I learned how to accept snuff from the elder of the ger when he offers it to me as a sign of greeting.  And, I learned that while English has served me fairly well throughout my travels, it will be absolutely no use over the next week.  I was given a Mongolian phrase book, but between deciphering the cyrillic and differentiating the guttural coughs, I think it’s pretty much hopeless.  I’m surely quickly learn how to sign “no more fermented mare’s milk.”

I’m pretty sure there’s no wi-fi at the monastery, so another week will pass before any more updates.

Assuming I survive.

Lonely planet

This leg of the journey from Siberia to Mongolia has been the first I’ve encountered travelers.

“Travelers” sometimes known as backpackers are quick to tell you they’re not tourists.  As far as I can tell, though, the only difference is that tourists are willing to pay a fare rate for accommodation and have a better understanding of their contribution to the local culture – infusing the local economy with foreign cash.  I’m still trying to figure out how it is that my bed+breakfast+24 hour tea/coffee in Ulan Bator costs only $5 a night.

Up to this point, I had been living and working with organic farmers, journalists, friends of friends, random people I met on the street.  When I got to Irkutsk, the gateway to Siberia, though, I joined up with the circuit.

The one railway carriage going from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator (or UB as it’s fondly called) was filled to capacity.  Of its passengers, though, only one was Mongolian; their were no Russians.  The rest of us were British, Australian, French, Polish, Chilean. I was again the only American.

A typical conversation among travelers goes something like this:

“Where are you from?”
“How long have you been traveling?”
“How long are you going?”

I had been feeling pretty smug about my 3.5 months on the road.  Nothing to sneeze at, I thought.  It turns out, though, that on the circuit six months tends to be the average.  I met a guy last night at one of UB’s many Irish pubs who had been going for 3.5 years.  Not sure if this is a development of the world wide economic crisis and the unavailability of jobs or just representative of traveling in this part of the world.

What strikes me is not so much how one funds all these months of travel.  In addition to the aforementioned penn-pinching ways of the traveler there’s a fairly well established infrastructure, especially in developing countries for short term employment, particularly for native English speakers.

What I wonder about is how a traveler defines home.

A traveler decides to leave the place he has called home with the expectation that he won’t in the foreseeable future spend enough time in any one of the dozens of places he plans to visit long enough to put down any roots.

He leaves the people who have invested in him and he in them with the understanding that along the way he’ll by and large make shallow acquaintances useful for travel advice and drinking buddies.

When I left home I did so with the expectation that I would think seriously about what I wanted to do with my life’s labor.  I learned about hard work on the goat farm; I learned about the global economy in the Latvian classroom, and the value of maintaining traditional community life with the Russian religious sect.

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from the travelers.  Maybe don’t leave home without a Lonely Planet.  (Funny name if you think about it.)

Moscow day 6 of 10

Thanks to the efficiencies of the Chinese Embassy in Moscow, I will be in this fair city another entire week.

It’s a truly humbling experience to walk into a room and not understand a single word spoken or character written.  Even with two languages represented – Russian and Chinese – there was no hope of any communication taking place.

I had done my homework before, though, so I already had completed an application form in English.  Good thing too as the only applications on hand in the office were in Russian and Chinese and you can imagine what those looked like.  

Armed with my application, passport, and extra passport photos taken just before departure that no longer bear much resemblance to my current appearance, I joined the longest queue and hoped for the best.  (Incidentally, my passport photo was taken 10 years ago when I had acne and spiky hair; I have long flowing locks in my driver’s license photo, and my extras show me sans hair; today, I’m dark from hours in the fields and the grime of Moscow air and have seen enough hair growth to cause someone to ask me the other night if I was from Iran.  I’m up a creek if somebody decides to take these photo ids seriously.)  At the end of that longest of lines, I found English was spoken and all my documents were in order. I just needed to fill out an additional application form.  Not sure why they couldn’t just make a copy of the original, but considering the alternatives floating through my mind I was happy to oblige, matching blanks and characters.  

After making my way through the long queue a second time, I learn that my paperwork is indeed in order, but the embassy is backlogged and my visa won’t be ready until Monday week.  Aaaargh.

In an effort to try to make something of my extra time in Moscow, I decided to attend a CouchSurfer’s gathering.  Certainly glad I did, too, because within ten minutes of arriving I found a Polish travel buddy.  Anna was planning to leave for Irkutsk-Ulan Bataar-Beijing on Sunday; I was going on Monday, so we decided to go together.  Bought our tickets today.  To travel 5000 miles over four days we paid a little more than $100.  I think Amtrack should take some notes.

While in Moscow I’m staying with a journalist couple – Shura and Ulli – and their three children.  It’s a four room flat on the 24th floor of a soviet era apartment building, so we have plenty of opportunity to chat.  Ulli’s working on a story now about a group of cartoonists who are working to represent Russian culture in a positive light which led us to a wide-ranging discussion on patriotism.

According to Shura and Ulli, most Russians don’t really like Russia.  A strange concept for this American to understand, since my experience has shown that in America, it’s not really ok to think like that.  As Ulli pointed out, most Americans who protest the government do so because because they want to affect positive change.

Then, I got to answer the questions of all questions: what does it mean to be an American? I know a lot of people who would probably say that I’m not particularly well-qualified to answer this question seeing as how I don’t like the Fourth of July, apple pie, or football.  I think I did a pretty good job though: fiercely independent, pioneering, freedom-loving, self-willing.  It got Ulli’s attention who thought it was a great endorsement for America; which I found funny considering the earlier comment regarding my Iranian appearance.

Tomorrow is day 6 of 10 in Moscow and I’m running out of ways to fill the hours out of the smog and without spending an arm and a leg.  I’m thinking I’ll head to the banya, but will also welcome suggestions if anyone’s got some insider knowledge. . .

keeping russia alive

I was scared of the big cows in Poland.

I was proud of the bigness of America in the Latvian classroom.

I’m astounded by how big Russia is.

Russia has nearly twice the area of the US but only half the population.  That means that 90% of this expansive country either is not populated at all or is the equivalent of Western Kansas.  Of course, whereas Western Kansans are fiercely independent pioneers, Russian, especially the provincial ones, have lived in small communes and in service to the Tsar or Communism or, now western-style Capitalism.

Fedorovtsy, a small religious community of about 20 people, is one of the last places where traditional Russian life is still practiced – 0nce largely rural and agricultural, Russia’s population is now almost completely urbanized.  Like many of the sects that dotted the vast Russian plains over the past couple centuries, Fedorovtsy is rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy but with a little twist – the arms of the Orthodox Episcopacy can only reach so far.  In the world of Fedorovtsy, the group’s founder, Fedor Rybalkin, was the messiah and we’re now living in the apocalypse.  Consequently, no marriages or children.  If you’re interested you can read more about the community where I spent the last week here: http://directory.ic.org/21630/Fedorovtsy.

Perhaps fortunately, I couldn’t understand a word anybody said to me so I largely remained blissfully ignorant. Didn’t have to understand the texts of the songs we sang before and after meals or engage in eschatological debates.  Just drink lots chai, split firewood, and read Andrey Bely’s The Silver Dove.

I did also have some opportunity to chat with Shura, my english speaking escort from Moscow, from whom I learned that, in his words: “Russia is tired.”  

Now that I’ve been back in the chaos of Moscow for a couple days, I think I understand what he’s getting at.  While Russia has tremendous natural resources, a significant population, and huge geographic spread, it’s hard to imagine the farmers in and around Tishanka caring about building a world superpower.

The shabbiness of St. Petersburg’s western-style palaces built on a grand, inhuman, scale and the glaring gilt of Moscow’s temples to consumerism belie a culture that lacks self-awareness or confidence.  While it seems everyone in Russia wants to live in Moscow these days – it’s population has nearly doubled in the past ten years – what they’ll find here is a cheap knock-off of western culture designed to impress but not to nourish the souls of its residents.

At least there are twenty old men in Fedorovtsy keeping Russia alive.

where am I?

I feel like I’ve landed on another planet.

Kind of like those Polish cows, Russia is really, really big.  On the bus from Tallinn into St. Petersburg we drove for an hour through endless apartment blocks before we got to the city center.  On the train to Moscow, I could see endless forest.  It’s one thing to know that Russia is twice as big as the US; it’s another thing to be here and realize just how far it is one from one end to the other.  I’m getting the geography lesson I tried to teach the Latvians.

I’m in Moscow now, at the flat of a young journalist who’s going to take me to harvest potatoes at an Orthodox monastery.  Here’s the view from the 25th floor.

Moscow.  Might as well be Mars.
Moscow. Might as well be Mars.

While St. Petersburg has always looked west, even taking cues from Venice with all its canals, bridges and palaces, Moscow is a bit more foreign.  I’ve only been here a few hours, but am already overwhelmed by the pollution, pace, and size.

I leave tonight for rural Russia, so probably will be offline for a week or so.  I’ll try to jot some ides in long hand, so I can file a whole series of reports once I rejoin civilization.

Baltics wrap-up

From the Russian/Estonian border, greetings.

I’ve been reading horror stories of it taking upwards of six hours to pass into Russia, so at 1.35 am when the EuroLines LuxExpress bus pulled up to the Narva, Estonia, I armed myself with a cup of complimentary on-board coffee, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, and prepared to wait it out.

It’s 2.38 am, now.  We’ve re-boarded the bus having successfully gained entry into the Russian Federation and are still on track to reach St. Petersburg by 7.30 this morning.  My breathing has slowed considerably.

The entire journey through the Baltics really started as a means of avoiding having to get a Belarussian Visa.  Now that it’s come to a close I feel like I should thank the Belarussians for making it so difficult to pass through their country.

While we generally lump all three countries into a common unit, each has it’s own unique identity: Lithuania’s position at the political/religious crossroads of Eurasia lends it an exoticism that I found wholly unexpected; Latvia is the most developed of the three and is struggling with how to reasonably manage economic growth (see below for more); Estonia is more Scandinavian than Eastern European and as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as any mid-size Western European city (Tallinn’s the birthplace of Skype, you know.)

With a population of 1 million Riga, Latvia, is the largest city in the Baltics and home to half of Latvia’s total population.  Old Town Riga was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.  In 2001, unbridled downtown development, caused UNESCO to warn that city that these things can be rescinded.  When Ryan Air added Riga as a destination in the late nineties, the city began catering to the hordes of British Stag parties who found Riga to be a cheap and exotic destination for a quick weekend of bacchanalia.  I found Old Town Riga to resemble Kansas City’s Power Light District more than a World Heritage Site.

Luckily, I had planned to only spend one night in the metropolis.  My second day in Latvia, I took a commuter bus 45 minutes outside the city to Jelgava where my first couchsurfing host, Ediite, lives and works.  Couchsurfing.org is an innovative social networking site that seeks to connect local hosts with intrepid travelers looking for a little more local color than places like Old Town Riga can supply.

I couldn’t have asked for a better host than Ediite.  Her English was impeccable having studied at Shaker Heights High School in Cleveland and graduated with a degree in Anthropology from the University of Hull in England.  She’s just started her second of two years as an English with Teach for Latvia, a program modeled after Teach for America, and so has her finger on pulse of Latvian education, culture, and politics.  I was shocked to learn that Latvian teachers make only 200-300 Lats a month; that’s the equivalent of $400-$600. While the cost of living in Latvia is low, it’s not that low.

Since this is only the first week of school, I got to go in and be the special guest for grades 11, 8, and 5.  We drank tea and talked about American geography.  Each class wanted to know if I had been to Hollywood or Las Vegas and I was surprised to learn that Latvia covers approximately the same area as Maine with only a slightly larger population (2.2 million in Latvia; 1.2 million in Maine).  We also had interesting discussions about why it’s so valuable to learn English.  Ever the arrogant American, I had assumed most of the world learns English because it’s so important to communicate with us.  Turns out, it is about communication, but the motivation isn’t all that americentric.  With only a million or so native Latvian speakers, a second language is imperative if one wants to travel any distance, have varied work options, and consume media.  Imagine if each of the fifty states had its own language.

(Incidentally, Russian roads are atrocioius.)

From Jelgava, I took the bus north to Tallinn, Estonia, which turned out to be charming town pulled from a Scandinavian Fairy tale.  Some of the themed restaurants were a little kitsch, but there was plenty of other independent retail to balance their effect. Also, the ever present Irish pub.  Where else could an American, Slovenian, Australian, and Finn find common ground?

I didn’t have much time here, so besides wandering the only other event I schedule was a trip to the sauna.  While most of the nice hotels in Old Town have them, I chose to go to the one literally on the other side of the tracks – an old Soviet-era carry over.  Upon entering, I quickly found myself stripped naked and beating myself with birch twigs in a steaming 100+ degree room filled with half a dozen men who didn’t speak a word of English.  In keeping with the theory that utter ignorance often has its advantages, I was laughed at, but also was offered smoked salmon, complimentary birch twigs, and tips on how to sit without roasting my bum.

Russia promises to bring the adventure to a whole new level.  It occurs to me that nothing I have done the past six weeks has been that disorienting.  Russia promises a new language, alphabet, culture and customs the likes of which I have never had the opportunity to run into before.  

I’ll spend the next two days in St. Petersburg, then Moscow from where I’ll leave to help with the potato harvest at a provincial orthodox monastery.  Then, the Trans-Mongolian railroad.

tea time

I finished Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major on the farm and am saving War and Peace for the long train ride ahead, so I had to do a little book browsing in Vilnius.  Happy to report that the local history shelf even in the Baltics is alive and well.

Vilnius: City of Strangers (http://www.indiebound.org/book/9789639776449) offers a well-documented look at the city’s marginalized role in major world events, from the Crusades, through the Napoleonic and World Wars.   The author, Laimonas Breidis, writes: “Vilnius has never been a city of travelers, and unlike the more celebrated cities of Europe, such as Rome, Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna or Moscow, it has never acquired a narrative and representational canon which could guide foreign visitors through its history and geography.  The history of Vilnius mirrors that of Europe, but only as an altered, distorted echo of its grand story” (16).  

During WWI and under German occupation, the newly created German language newspaper in Vilnius published a series of vignettes from everyday life called “Wanderstunden in Wilna” or “Wanderings through Vilnius.”  These vignettes were collected to a form a very successful volume, the introduction to which echoes my personal travel philosophy:

In this world, the right to conquer foreign cities is a privilege reserved only to a few mighty rulers and military leaders, but every traveller can successfully master unknown cities if he perfects the art of wandering.  If the traveller is a clever strategist, he will certainly consult various maps and chronicles before he ventures into a strange town.  If the traveler is an artist – and wandering is the freest form of art – he will approach the city from a completely different perspective.  Without any hesitation, the urban wanderer will let fresh air guide him through the unfamiliar streets of the far-flung city.  This form of travelling has the potential of breaking every kind of fortification.  Fortunately for the traveller, our good old Wilna is blessed with a perpetual breeze, creating perfect conditions for endless roaming through its streets and squares.

Paul Monty, Wanderstunden in Wilna (Wilna: Verlag der Wilnaer Zeitung, 1918), 76.

Once I disembark from the LuxExpress (yes, I’m blogging from a bus in far-flung Europe; the Fung Wah this is not), I’ll continue my wanderings in Riga, Latvia, a city known for its saunas and Jugendstil architecture.