Life Abroad and the Loss of Innocence

Old Woman By Fountain

As I stepped off of the curb and down onto an old cobblestone street in the historic district of Innsbruck, I found myself musing.  A few minutes earlier a light mist, far too mild to even be considered rain, had begun to drift down.  I was surrounded by old buildings full of character, each with a wealth of stories locked away behind oft re-painted and restored walls.  As my eyes scanned the street they settled on an old woman standing beside a water fountain.  It was one of those postcard perfect moments.  The type you travel for; that brings to life all of the magic moments you fawned over, dreamed of, and were raised upon.  I paused and soaked up the details of it. It wasn’t until several days later, as I touched down in Istanbul and found myself wandering the storied city’s ancient and exotic streets, that I realized that perfect scene had been the harbinger of a significant realization.

When I made the choice to re-locate to Copenhagen for a two-year Masters program, I knew that a lot of things would change.  Chief among those was me as an individual.  One thing I never thought about or expected to change drastically was my relationship as a whole with Europe.  True, I expected it to become more familiar, but I think at a certain level I expected that I’d just have more time to relish its magic and cultural diversity.

I now realize that in re-locating to Denmark, a large chunk of Europe has lost part of the exotic mystery that made it such an exhilarating and spectacular place to visit as a child and young adult. This shift hasn’t come entirely from the year and a half I’ve lived in Denmark. If I’m to be honest I think I can trace it as a gradual progression as I took each European trip.

The last year and a half has stripped away my innocence.  It has, in a way, mirrored the shift we go through as we grow up and realize that parents can be wrong, that Santa Claus is mythological fiction, and that special effects are constructs and not reality.  I hesitate to say that the magical has become mundane, because that would be a major simplification and, in truth, grossly inaccurate. Yet, it may, in part, get at the heart of what I’ve come to realize.

Istanbul offered me something that Innsbruck did not.  That taste of discomfort, the raw unknown, the alien. It offered the exotic, the strange, the curious all in addition to the pleasures of exploring a typical city. There was a time when Innsbruck and the other German, Nordic, and British cities harbored that same allure.  Now, though, they’ve become part of me.  The architecture differs, but only slightly.  The languages and people are different, but still close enough of a kind that they feel like kindred populations, strange cousins of a sort.

I suppose what I am getting at is that after nearly two years spent living in Denmark, that once-magical-fairytale land that was Northern and Western Europe has become an extension of the United States in my mind.  Just as a trip from Arizona to Florida offered a taste of the exotic, but remained still very much a part of the world of experiences and flavor that is the United States. The same has happened for me within Europe be it Denmark, Austria, Prague or England.

It’s not a bad thing really. If anything it is a chance to better connect with and relate to these countries.  I’m also not implying that Austria and Denmark are the same.  Far from it.  Yet, a part of me is slightly sad to see that period of innocent wonder lost…not unlike the loss of the innocence and wonder of youth. It also comes with the realization that to feed my addiction to the new, to the exotic, and to that sense of mystery – I’ll have to continue to explore other parts of the world I have thus far neglected.

As Asia, Far Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of South America call to me I cannot help but be excited for the feast that is fresh discovery.  Still, I cannot help but realize that it will never be the same as my early love affair with Europe.  It is where my wanderlust was birthed, nurtured, and matured.

The lady by the fountain and countless moments like it also put my mind at ease.  It reminded me that there are still an abundance of intimate moments to be experienced here in Europe. It is a wonderous place full of incredible experiences, delectable food, new surprises, and a lifestyle that most Hollywood directors would refuse to craft into their films, claiming it to be far to ideal to be believable.

This post isn’t about regret, far from it. It is merely about the realization of lost innocence. I would make the move to Copenhagen again in a heart beat. I am love with my lifestyle, with the city, and derive endless pleasure from exploring Europe’s historic districts, winding streets, and cozy alleyways.  While every brick may no longer ooze mystery, the opportunity to spend my days casually wandering through real-life paintings is a true blessing.

In discussing this realization with friends who have pursued or are currently on a similar path, i’ve discovered that I am (perhaps unsurprisingly) not alone in this realization.  It is, in a way, inevitable.

To those of you who are dreaming of, considering, or in the process of pursuing expat life – it is a wonderful, informative, and inspiring thing.  Just be prepared and go into it striving to enjoy each and every moment while you can.  Those memories are the foundations upon which great memories and life’s context are built.

For now, I’m off to toss my headphones on, listen to some classical music, and let it serve as a soundtrack to my next adventure.

The open road calls …

When Sky, Fire and Water Meet

Faces of Zambia

The sweat from my palms soaked the steering wheel as the tense muscles in my hip throbbed.  My body was on edge and had been for the entirety of the drive south.  Upon arriving in Zambia, I’d been informed by my family that I would be the one responsible for driving our rental car.  Ordinarily not a big deal, but it was my first time driving on the opposite side of the road and in a non-North American country.  The roads in the Luapula Province of northern Zambia did little to allay my fears.  Many are paved, but in such a poor state of repair that there are no such things as lanes.  In truth, you spend at least one third of most drives with one (or both) tires off the road, the car at a 25 degree angle while zig-zaging between potholes large enough to swallow a small tank. The scrape of the car’s undercarriage is a constant reminder that you zig-ed when you should have zag-ed.  By itself that might not be so bad, but then add in large freight haulers and buses that race along the roads at high speed. And if that is not enough, add in head-height grass which lines many of the roads and conceals everything and everyone.  My eyes constantly scanned the road for potholes with quick glance at my rear view mirror in search of large trucks bearing down on me. Then back to the sides of the road where I diligently watched for erratic movement from the veritable army of goats, small children, old grandmothers, and bicyclists who use the roads as walking paths and have a tendency to dart into traffic.  Despite constant and nearly un-blinking vigilance I  found myself forced to slam on the brakes  to avoid people and things at the last moment.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As I turned the key off and the car stilled I let out an audible sigh of relief. Somehow I’d gotten us to a small guest house along the shores of Lake Bangweulu just outside of Samfya.  As I sat in the driver’s seat collecting myself, I wiped my hands on my jeans leaving dark streaks of sweat.  Finally, I allowed myself to take in my surroundings. The parallel-parking spot I had pulled into faced out onto what looked like a small sea. In reality, it was a sprawling lake.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we settled into great little rooms that opened out onto a small sand beach and a wonderful view of the lake, we all struggled with the day’s contrasts.  We had started out in my brother’s small mud brick and thatch hut. A building that is a lovely and cozy place but which lacks electricity or running water and has a small outhouse located behind it. Now, a few hours drive away, we were back on the grid with semi-reliable power, running water, and perhaps most importantly western flush toilets.  It made for a powerful contrast which set the stage for the rest of the evening.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

My brother David is a Peace Corps volunteer and he had brought us to Lake Bangweulu to see the sunset.  I’ll confess that as a big fan of sunsets, I wasn’t entirely sure why the multi-hour drive south had been worth the pleasure of a simple sunset.  Still, he was our guide, the local expert, and it was hard not to be won over by the prospect of a real bed and a cold beer.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As the sun began to set and the early twilight of late afternoon settled over the lake, it quickly became apparent why the sunset was worth the drive.  Lake Bangweulu is known as the place where the water meets the sky.  It is an aptly chosen nickname for this unusual body of water.  More than 70km by 40km in size, the lake’s depth averages about four meters and fluctuates more than a meter between Zambia’s dry and rainy seasons.   During our visit in the midst of the dry season the lake still stretched beyond the horizon.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Just beyond a small fence at the end of the beach, we watched as a group of children washed dishes, did laundry, and then set to fishing.  The children, some barely old enough to walk, participated in chores.  The older children kept close eyes on their younger brothers and sisters though I doubt the oldest was more than 10.  There’s a certain responsibility among the young Zambian children that I found incredible to watch … a certain level of maturity that most western children twice their age lack.  Perhaps the most powerful of which were the (slightly) older sisters who diligently took care of, disciplined, and watched over their 2 and 4 year-old siblings with great care and competency.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Shortly after the children finished their bath and their chores, they wandered back up the bank. A young woman and her son waded down and out into the reeds with bamboo fishing poles.  With the poise, elegance, and stillness of a heron they carefully raised and lowered their poles, gently jigging and probing the reeds for fish.  Their patience and control reminded me in many ways of the street performers who pose as human statues, perfectly still and seemingly lifeless before moving smoothly to the shock and surprise of those passing by.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

In one last rush before the sunset stole the remaining light, a near constant flow of chitenge-clad women atop reed and dugout wooden canoes made their way past us.  Some used push poles to take advantage of the lake’s shallow depths while others had rough-hewn wooden paddles attached to long poles which they used from a standing position.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

The weather was perfect. The wind was still which left the lake with a glass-like surface and the air was thick with the haze of pale gray smoke from local controlled burns.   By day the late afternoon sky was devoid of clouds but boasted the moon and later the bright glow of a nearby planet.  The horizon itself quickly faded away, lost and indistinguishable from the lake’s smooth waters.   I’ve never seen a sunset that was able to so perfectly blend water and sky. The combination of gentle smokey haze, mirror-perfect water, and clear skies accomplished the unbelievable.  What was left were strange little boats that seemed to have taken flight to float among the clouds.  The sort of strange and mystical spectacle that one might see in movies of far-off places and imaginary lands – but never in the real world. Then the color changed. The soft blue-gray transitioned into a multi-spectrum rainbow centered along the horizon.  The sky’s dark blues re-emerged while the waves reflected the violets and purples of the next stage of the sunset.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Then as the sun approached the horizon the violets deepened and transitioned into oranges and golden hues as the smoke served as a filter that split off the sun’s otherwise harsh rays and left it visible to the naked eye as a glowing red orb.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

I’m not sure how long the sunset lasted, I suspect close to 30 minutes.  It’s hard to tell though, as every 5 minutes it seamed to drastically change. The colors would shift, the haze would lift, the sun would slip into a smoke bank, or one of the local fishing boats would slowly cut their way across the horizon and in so doing add a new perspective and human element.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we sat on the beach enjoying a local Zambian beer I couldn’t help but feel an emotional connection to the area. One brought about and highlighted so beautifully by the sunset.  It was a thing of contrasts, just as Zambia and Sub-Saharan Africa is a place of similarly extreme contrasts. It can be a profoundly harsh place, but it is also a warm and welcoming place with its own element of profound hospitality.  A trip to the heart of Africa, one that takes you into authentic Africa, beyond the walled compounds and neatly pitched tents of safaris and large cities is a must.  It will change you by infusing you with a new perspective and understanding.  It will give you a renewed respect for all nature has to provide, a deep  sense of awe, and an opportunity to connect at a deep level with people who live vastly different lives.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

When we set out for Samfya to watch the sunset, I expected a few minutes of transient natural beauty.  A wonderful thing, but something that hardly seemed likely to offset the hours of anxious and uncomfortable driving required to get there.  As often happens in these types of situations, I was not only wrong but met with an incredibly rich experience that was one of the gems of my visit to Africa.  I’d place the sunset in my top 5 and will forever have its beauty and the wonderful musings that accompanied it burned into who I am and how I see the world.

Announcing the 4th Arizona Travel Blogger Meetup!

Grand Canyon at Sunset - Boots

The time has come for the 4th Arizona Travel Blogger Meet (and tweet!) up. Bring your stories, pictures and self for an hour or two of travel talk, stories and bonding with other members of Arizona’s local travel community.

The goal is simple! Get to know each other while developing a more aware/active travel community in Arizona. We’ve got a ton of talent/experience in Arizona and it’s about time we started helping each other!

The meet-up will be Saturday March 5th at 2:30PM. We’ll be meeting at Boulders on Broadway which is located just west of Mill Avenue off of Broadway Road in Tempe. All you need to bring is yourself.

If you’ll be attending, please feel free to post a quick introduction, including your twitter info/website/blog in a response to this post.

Date: Saturday, March 5th 2:30-? PM.

Location: Boulders on Broadway which is located on the North East Corner of Broadway and Roosevelt Street in Tempe. View it on Google here. The address is 530 W Broadway Road, Tempe, AZ.

Coordination: My (Alex) phone number is 480.313.2441 if you want to confirm anything or are having issues finding the meet up shoot me a text/call. I won’t be able to check twitter during the event, so make sure to contact me directly.

Spread the Word: So, here’s the challenge. Let’s make sure we don’t miss anyone. Are you aware of travel tweeps, bloggers or industry personalities that might like to join? Make sure to either send them to this post, or get me their e-mail and I’ll reach out to them.

AZ COMMUNITY – On twitter? See the list I’ve assembled of AZ based travel twitter users here.

Any questions? Post them in a comment – or feel free to e-mail me directly via alex ~at~ virtualwayfarer.com.

October, March and August’s meetups were an absolute blast and I’m really excited/looking forward to round two! Hope to see you all there.