Your First Two Months Will Define Your Study Abroad Experience

I remember the surreal exhilaration as I took that first step onto Danish soil.  Even as a veteran traveler I still couldn’t help but feel a bit like Neil Armstrong as he stepped out from the Lunar Lander into the unknown.  For me, it was the start of a two-year full degree program at the University of Copenhagen and a radical change from my lifestyle over the previous three years spent working 9-5 in the mergers and acquisitions industry. I was incredibly excited but also positively terrified. Living it at the time was a bit overwhelming but, as I look back, it was one of the best experiences of my life.  It was also a major learning lesson where I made mis-steps and could have done some things better. Overall though, I made a lot of great decisions and have relatively few regrets.

Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

Over the past few years I’ve worked with a lot of international students who have been engaged in a variety of different programs which range from semester exchanges to multi-year full degree programs.  In so doing I’ve noticed a couple of trends which are deeply ingrained in human behavior which can do a lot to shape how much you get out of your international study experience. Chief among these is tied to your behavior during the early-arrival period and how you form your daily routines.

Nude Austrian Saunas For Beginners

Intro To Austrian Saunas

There are moments in every person’s life where you pause and ask yourself…how did I end up right here, in this moment, at this point in time? For me, one such moment came in the form of a sweat covered, completely naked, Austrian man’s knee resting casually against my own in a lovely dry sauna in the small ski-town of Obergurgl.

It was my first international sauna experience and my first introduction to Austrian sauna culture.  To be frank, I had no idea what I was doing, or what to expect. The result? An absolutely hilarious experience full of culture shock, epiphanies, a whole lot of naked people, and what I think is a fantastic story.

This video is the latest in an ongoing series I’ve produced where I document some of my favorite travel stories.  The goal? To share them with you in roughly five minutes in the same way I’d tell them sitting around a table while sharing drinks at a bar.

So, without further delay – enjoy!

Oh, and for those of you who are wondering: It really was an amazing experience, and I’m now completely addicted to saunas and the Austrian approach. Stay tuned for Part II when things really heat up!

Don’t forget to view previous videos on my youtube channel and to subscribe to ensure you don’t miss out on future updates!

Two Years Away – My First Visit Back to Arizona

Self Portrait - Colorado Rockies

With my Master’s thesis handed in and the clock ticking down on my time as a student, I finally set aside the funds to return to Arizona. It seemed like a perfect opportunity.  My schedule was largely open, consumed only by applying for jobs and PhD positions here in Denmark.  My brother, the author of davidberger.net, who has spent the last 26 months in Africa with the US Peace Corps was scheduled to return to Arizona for his month and a half long home leave.  His home leave marks the 2 year mark in his service, and he’s currently scheduled to return to Zambia for a one year extension which made this my only opportunity to see him and my folks together for at least another year.

The plan was simple.  Return home and spend time together as a family.  While we all Skype multiple times a week, it would be the first time any of us saw each other since last year when we spent a month together in Zambia. As the date approached, David and I chatted in mixed tones of excitement and trepidation.  Would we experience homesickness? How strong would the reverse culture shock be?  Would we suddenly feel a sense of regret or second guess our decision to not only go abroad, but to stay abroad for so long?

Since many of you have asked about my experience, what I saw, what I felt, and my thought process, this post will be a rolling explanation that seeks to shed insights into these questions.

General observations

Sense of Noise – One of the interesting shifts was just how “loud” things seemed when I returned to the US.  Living in Denmark for the last two years my ears and brain have re-focused their filter from only seeking out relevant English words and conversations to filtering out Danish conversations which I only marginally understand.  Those who have traveled may know what I mean – your ear is constantly scanning and suddenly picks-up-on and hones in on English – any English – it hears. It can be a radio station in the background, Danes switching seamlessly to English and then back again, or folks having a conversation in English across the room.  The odd twist is that upon returning to the US and leaving Denmark behind, my brain took a while to slam the old filters back into place. The result was a sense of inundation as my brain tried to pick up and process every English sound and conversation occurring around me.  It made for a very interesting and slightly overwhelming experience.

Native English Speakers – In Denmark I speak English exclusively.  However, that English is international English, which is to say it is simplified English with slightly different emphasis and a significantly reduced pacing than I would use in the states.  My usage of slang is greatly reduced as is the use of highly complex or obtuse words. My day-to-day conversations take place with non-native speakers. Many of these non-native speakers are completely fluent in English and competent.  Yet, to be better understood my use of language while abroad changes. The same has occurred among my fellow American expats so that even when we’re talking to each other our conversations fall somewhere in-between a truly fluent native conversation and an international English conversation.  The result is that my active vocabulary has shrunk by hundreds of words. While this loss of vocabulary and change in pacing is temporary, some parts definitely recover faster than others. Throughout my stay I found myself searching for basic words or frustrated at my inability to draw upon the specific, descriptive word I needed.

Inflation – I was really surprised to see that the cost of everything has gone up $1-2. When living there day-t0-day you don’t tend to notice it.  Having left and returned I was quite shocked to see that things had increased significantly.  Especially when one considers just how low and slow to change the minimum wage is. When I consider the minimum wage in DK vs. Arizona and the prices of things in DK vs. the US, I  am reminded that prices  aren’t nearly as expensive in DK as they initially appear.

Nice vs. Friendly – The Danes, famous for being a bit more reserved, are incredibly kind.  They are truly nice people on average, and once you strike up a conversation they are eager to chat, eager to help, and very curious.  Americans on the other hand live up to our reputation abroad. Folks are just down right friendly.  They’re outgoing and eager to strike up random conversations.  Bored?  Downtime?  Waiting in a line?  You name it, it’s grounds for commentary and social interaction for the duration of the time spent in the same space. As someone raised in that culture, it’s something I really enjoy and miss a little bit while in Denmark.  Luckily, Danes are always more than happy to respond to my prompts for conversation – even if they violate social norms and take them a bit off guard.

Things I Miss

I have a deep seated love for the US, for all it has to offer and even for many of its failings.  While I haven’t felt a strong pang of homesickness during my two years in Denmark, there are definitely things that I really miss. Some of which I didn’t even realize I missed.

Family and Friends  – This is a given, but it still bears repeating.  Spending time back with family and my amazing group of friends was truly a wonderful experience. It is, hands down, the hardest part of being abroad and leaving Arizona behind. That even after two years apart we can come back together for wonderful evenings, conversations, and stories is a true tribute to what a fantastic community I still have back in Arizona.

The Food – I often am greeted with extreme skepticism when I tell people that of all the countries I’ve visited, the US has some of the best food in the world. It does, and Arizona will forever hold a special place in my heart for its amazing Mexican food. You could likely eat Mexican food and its various Americanized variations for every meal, every day, for a week without having  the same style twice.  Of the many things I’ve missed while living in Denmark, good, cheap, filling, grungy Mexican food is one of those that I hanker for most strongly.  Similarly, cheap, amazing, massive steaks from the supermarket, as well as hamburgers.  I’m not talking flowery, pretty, Danish-style hamburgers you eat with a knife and fork.  I’m talking about delicious, sloppy, ugly hamburgers that are packed with flavor and send you into a food coma afterwards. Hamburgers that you eat with your hands until they implode, like flavored fireworks, and are only finished when you lick the leftover juices from your fingers.  I also miss the Chinese buffets, especially a fantastic seafood variation in southeastern Phoenix. For $17 of all-you-can-eat goodness, you can gorge yourself on surprisingly high quality and flavorful crab legs, shrimp, scallops, sushi, frog legs, you name it.

American Friendliness – Americans are awesome. They’re friendly, chipper, positive, optimistic, and love to talk.  Walking into a shop for lunch?  Be prepared, you’ll likely have a total stranger at the door strike up a conversation with you and make suggestions – “The double paddy is massive, go for a single unless you’re sharing!”.   For some foreigners this comes across as insincere, fake or overwhelming.  I don’t find it to be any of those.  For me it’s just down-right friendly.

American Bathrooms – I appreciate that this is more of a matter of building age and logistics, but I don’t care.  American bathrooms are amazing especially in comparison to Danish bathrooms (and European bathrooms in general) which suck.  They usually have more space in them than your average Danish bedroom, have real showers, real tubs, water pressure, and are set up so that you don’t have to spend 20 minutes after every shower squeegeeing everything down, including the damn ceiling.

Western Apartments – Your average student’s apartment in Arizona looks more like a luxury condo here in Denmark.  They are large, often recently renovated, with lots of room, decent furnishings, and loads of amenities. It’s the little things like full-sized refrigerators, in-house washer and dryer, and walk-in closets that really make a difference.  The friend’s apartment I stayed in was a beautiful, if normal, two-bedroom, two-bath student apartment in central Phoenix. The complex was fairly new and tailored to students with cheap rent, in a neighborhood that was being gentrified.  His rent was less than I pay for a single, shared room, with four people co-sharing a single bathroom in Denmark.

Good Ol’ American Bars – There’s something deeply charming about various types of American bars.  I really enjoyed some of the funky bars we ended up in.  One in particular that comes to mind was a VERY stereotypical country bar in Durango.  My brother and I stuck out like sore thumbs, but thoroughly enjoyed grabbing a drink while listening to great live music as folks did the country-two step on the dance floor. It was lots of fun, and as you might imagine there were cowboy hats and boots a-plenty to be found.

American Retail – American retail is amazing. It is incredible just how much high quality stuff is at your finger tips.  Even more incredible is that should you not find it or not like the price in one of the sprawling warehouse-like stores, you can hop online and order it from groups like Amazon and Newegg.  One of the things I miss the most while in Copenhagen is Amazon. I can still order from the UK or German versions but it just isn’t the same and the pricing is nowhere near as competitive.  I was, however, very disappointed at how much service quality and consistency has dropped.  I used a NET10 pre-paid wireless plan during my trip in the US and it was dreadful…as in borderline scam-bad.  Their customer service was some of the worst I’ve seen in years.  My brother also ordered a new laptop from TigerDirect.  The folks at TigerDirect seem to, at best, be having major quality control issues and at worst to be running a shipping scam.  The laptop he ordered arrived missing 4gb of RAM and the processor speed had been misleadingly listed on their website. Their response?  “oops” we’ll send you the RAM and you can figure out how to install it yourself OR refund the entire computer. Take it or leave it.  No interest in making the situation right.  Talk about disappointing. My other main frustration was dealing with Apple which continues to pump out defective products and which was more than happy to agree that the hardware they’d given me was failing and inferior, but unwilling to do anything about it.

Things I Don’t Miss

Fake Patriotism – Sticking an American flag bumper sticker on your car automatically serves as a justification to say and/or hold whatever idiotic or intolerant view that is your personal flavor of the month.  It is the sentiment that doing whatever you want, to whomever you want, is acceptable so long as it isn’t happening to you. When they are reminded that their rights only stretch to the point where they infringe on another’s, they automatically claim oppression.

The Number of Grossly Unhealthy People – This doesn’t really need clarification. A trip to a local super market typically means you’ll risk getting run over by a small army of heavily- laden scooters with folks suffering from extreme obesity and sipping on a 64 oz “diet” big gulp.  This is a stark contrast to Copenhagen (perhaps not Denmark at large) where the mere nature of the day-to-day lifestyle encourages a very fit and comparatively slim population.  Which is not to say that there are not a fair number of heavier folks, but that number and the scope is dramatically reduced.

In-Your-Face Christianity – You would think that with an astounding majority of the population being one flavor of Christian or another that everyone would just chill out. Not so. It seems like everyone and their sister is in a competition for who can be the more visible (not better) Christian.  I suppose in the US your particular version of Christianity is as much a part of your socio-identity as your job and the car you drive.  The number of ridiculous bumper stickers, flyers, handouts, corner preachers, and times folks mention religious stuff in conversations is mind numbing. Every fourth conversation seems to include at least one reference to being a “God-fearing Christian”, “going to church every Sunday” or being a “good Christian girl”.  The Danes have a state religion and state church and while it is true that they are also one of the most atheistic countries on earth, Danish Christians are MUCH more relaxed about it. It’s something private that they do; it is a personal relationship with their church and god. Not a method for self promotion and advertisement. I definitely do NOT miss the US bumper-sticker Christians.

Religious Fanatics – Tough fact. The US has a high number of religious fanatics.  It is, perhaps, the most fundamentalist Christian nation among the western cultures.  With the high number of religious fundamentalists and fanatics comes all of the negatives that we much more easily and readily identify in other cultures and faiths.  Unfortunately, it’s something that is largely ignored by the American population and/or not realized.  They are also nearly untouchable as it has become unacceptable to critique or challenge issues that folks claim are faith-based or parts of their religious identity. The religious extremism in the US is something that deeply saddens me, and which I feel has direct connections to many of the nation’s current woes.

Traffic Jams – Having a 20 minute commute turn into a 50 minute stop-and-go session. Ugh.

The Car – Having a car was great! It adds flexibility and freedom.  That being said, it’s also a royal pain.  I really, really, really missed having a city that was walk-able or which had fantastic public transit where I could hop-on, hop-off, and not have to worry about parking, gas, and all the other complexities that come with driving. It also makes enjoying night life, MUCH simpler and safer.

American Bar Culture – Again, this is one that falls on both sides of the fence.  On the one hand, I love elements of a good ol’ American bar.  On the other hand, I love the relaxed charm and dive-bar (but not) mystique of the Danish bar scene.  People in Danish bars are friendly and approachable.  No one is looking to start a fight. Everyone is fairly in control (even when falling-down drunk) and overall it’s just pleasant and harmless.  In the states too many folks get violent, or just obnoxious. The hyper-sexualized environment makes conversations with strangers, especially members of the opposite sex, more like an argument or fist-fight than a relaxed conversation and the whole thing has a certain shallowness and blah feel to it.  The exception of course is when one goes out with a group of friends and sticks to that group of friends.  It’s an odd mixture, because there are great elements to it like the American friendliness, but at the same time that is countered by how bar culture works and the hyper polarized male-female dynamic.  Say hello to a girl?  She assumes you’re hitting on her.  Even if you are and she’s interested, for the sake of appearances, she needs to put on the image of being proper and not too interested, “slutty, or “easy”.  Meanwhile, she, or others are constantly fishing for a free bar tab to drink on or free drink.  Dancing is far less dancing and far more grinding on each other with the hope of figuring out and perhaps remembering each other’s name. Bleh.  Maybe I’m just getting too old and got it out of my system when I was younger and doing the Scottsdale club circuit. Either way, i’ll stick to my Danish bodegas.

The Struggle – Student life in the US is challenging.  As much because of the academics as everything else that goes with them.  In chatting with and seeing friends who are struggling to deal with the ridiculous amounts of debt they are accruing as part of their education and the criminal medical bills they face in instances where they’ve had medical issues surface, I definitely feel disappointment for how badly the American system is failing them.  After spending the last two years in an environment where higher education is free and comes with a $800 living stipend, and medical costs are mostly covered by the state, I find myself shocked by how appalling, exploitative and counter-productive the American system is.  Not to mention the deep costs on both health and future potential and success which it extracts from American students. While some sense of having to work for it, and earn it is important – what’s occurring in the US these days is tragic and definitely undermines the country’s future prosperity.  It, and the impact it has on people’s emotional state and overall health, is something I definitely do not miss.

The Lack of Consumer Protection – Deregulation in the US has provided increased competition in a few cases, but by and large seems to have just allowed for exploitative monopolies and brutal consumer exploitation.  My US-based retail experiences were, with the exception of an exchange with REI (who were fantastic), extremely frustrating.  Quality control is abysmally low, product quality is hit or miss, and the companies providing these products no longer seem inclined in the slightest to go an extra inch, let alone mile, to make things right.  Their mistake, should you catch it, is almost your fault. Something you should feel guilty about as you force them through the inconvenience (after wasting hours of your time) of correcting the order or servicing the warranty on a defective product.  The US consumer has an amazing number of options available to them, but they’re also getting screwed on a regular basis. Short of trying to make a small stink via social media, most of the old agencies in place to keep retailers in check are now irrelevant or lack their bite.  Something needs to change and soon.

Arizona

Over the final few years I spent in Arizona my contempt for the political, religious, social and intellectual environment in the state grew.  My general level of disgust colored and partially blinded me to the raw naked beauty of Arizona deserts and her diverse terrain.  Even as a more green and water-oriented traveler, the canyons and deserts are gorgeous. Before I left for Denmark, I spent the last few months trying to experience Arizona as a tourist. Those trips were immensely successful and paved the way for this return visit.  While I still have very little interest in returning to Arizona in a long-term capacity, the two+ years spent away did allow me to more accurately enjoy and experience the state’s natural beauty.

When I chose to leave Arizona it was because it embodied many of the woes facing America.  Outside the state’s shining bastions of intellectualism (ASU, UofA, NAU), it is a fetid and intellectually decrepit place.  Conservatives and their religious fundamentalist allies have waged a concerted war on education and science in the state for decades and turned what was once one of the more progressive southern states into one of the least advanced and most regressive. The state has  become the poster child for failed conservative ideology.  Things like school voucher programs and unregulated charter schools have been used to gut comprehensive education, while fundamentalist factions from both the Evangelical and LDS populations have heavily infiltrated the Government and carefully dismantled sound policy.

It’s the type of state where it is common to encounter people who have such a warped understanding of science that they sincerely believe and advocate that the earth is 6,000 years old. It’s the type of state that rages against the “socialism” of funding basic infrastructure repair projects, education, and safety-net programs while having a large portion of the population on medicare or food stamps. The same state that is so perversely corrupt that things like the sale, and lease-back of capitol buildings at outrageous prices is just common place and an every day occurrence. It’s also the type of place that, in the middle of a recession, feels the best use of legislators’ time is to legalize people’s “right” to carry loaded guns into restaurants and bars (now a law of the land) and to try and do the same on college campuses and in college classrooms.

As an expat, when I see an article about one US state or another doing something mind-bogglingly stupid, evil-spirited, or incoherent, it usually turns out that it is Arizona.  From SB1070 to Sheriff Joe’s blatant abuse of the constitution, Arizona is a walking tragedy.  The role of profoundly ignorant fundamentalist Christians cannot be over-emphasized.  Arizona is the state where, just after September 11th, we had a random Sikh shot and killed on the street because he was wearing a turban and believed to be a Muslim. Racial rants targeted at various religious and associated ethnic minorities are common place. The state has boasted the likes of Russell Pearce as President of the State Senate who found widespread support and used his influential position for writing and endorsing bills despite clear ties to white supremacist and neo-nazi groups (to Arizona’s credit Pearce was, eventually, recalled and pulled from office). It is a place where for every well-balanced, moderate Christian who has embraced Christ’s message of love, tolerance, and integrity, there is another that is every bit as radical and fundamentalist as many of the Muslim extremists that are viewed as such a profound threat to the civilized world. They may not be inclined to blow themselves up, but they regularly discuss armed conflict, make veiled threats, and are open to violence on a lesser-if still present scale.

To be clear, this is not to say that there are not wonderful people, and many people who fall at various spots along the spectrum.  During my time in Arizona, I made a number of truly incredible friends. People who are a gift to the world at large, and who  endeavor to better themselves and their companions.  Some are Arizona natives and others are imports.  Many are such a stark contrast to Arizona at large that it is truly shocking. They are some of the greatest minds in the US tackling social, scientific, and moral issues who range from atheists to devoted Christian scholars.  Other friends are individuals whose hearts are in the right place, even if we harbor strong ideological or intellectual differences. Together we challenge and tolerate each other, hopefully constantly growing and learning from each other even though our world views, moral priorities, and intellectual beliefs stand in direct contrast.

Of course, no community is perfect.  There will always be individuals who stand out as the best and worst the community can produce. There will always be political conflicts and ideological differences.  Yet, the more time I spend in the world at large, the more confident I am in saying that an influential segment – perhaps some 20% of the population – is an American incarnation of the Taliban. Their core drive, mentality, and approach to everything from knowledge to women’s rights is similar in approach and end goal even if their path to it is different.  As we’ve seen the world over, when these groups, even if they are only a minority, take control they are able to cripple government and – if they retain control – do lasting societal harm. That is, I fear, the nature of Arizona as it exists today and will continue to be for the next few decades at least. The young population – those who have not been brainwashed at least – are starting to push back and to seek change, but unfortunately, for most of us it makes far more sense to leave upon the completion of our degree. And leave we have. Many of those friends I mentioned previously – some of the state’s best and brightest – have already left. Many of those who remain will leave soon. Of those who do stay, it is often because they are held hostage by a rare job opportunity or a desire to stay close to family.

When I chose to re-locate to Denmark from the US, I felt fairly confident in these conclusions and observations but still retained a certain uncertainty.  My time away, and observations during my recent return, have done away with any lingering doubts. It has provided further perspective and for that I am grateful.

Denmark

Upon touching down in Copenhagen I was tired and stressed out, as my return to Copenhagen marks the beginning of an intense 3-month period where I have to sink-or-swim if I’m to stay on in the country.  I have submitted a number of PhD application and am firing off job applications where I see quality fits.  I stand on the cusp of that point where I have to decide “what comes next” now that the 2-year MA program is winding to a close.

Yet, I was also excited. I’ll return to the US at some point.  That point may be 6 months from now, or it might be 6 years.  Regardless, I’ve truly fallen in love with this city and Danish culture.   If I was to sum my sentiments up all in a word, it is, just quite simply “Civilized”.  Oh, it has its failings.  The Folk Party is the Danish alternative to the Tea Party, full of horrible economic policy and rampant racism. The bureaucratic environment is embarrassingly primitive at times and at others painfully relaxed.  Yet Denmark, and Copenhagen in particular, is amazing.  I think at a certain level I was afraid that my return to the US would suddenly reveal that Denmark wasn’t the wonderful place I had convinced myself that it was.  That it was a sorry alternative to the US and that I’d feel a pang of regret and the draw to return to Arizona. I need not have worried.  There’s a reason that Copenhagen is one of, if not my favorite, city in the world.  It is a wonderful and special place and while I don’t think it will be the right place for me forever. For now, I’m confident that it definitely is where I should be.

For those who read this and are considering relocating or a place to live or study, I highly recommend it. For those of you who know me and have wondered how I’m truly finding it and relating to it – perhaps this post will help you better understand why I am not only here, but intending to stay here for a few years.

As promised, this has been a rambling chain of connected thoughts, but if I missed something or there is another specific you’re curious about that I’ve failed to cover or elaborate on, let me know.  I’d love to elaborate.

Lastly, to all my friends and family who made my return to Arizona and Colorado so lovely and memorable.  Thank you.  I miss you and treasure you.

Round The World in 1969 and Two Years of Family Travel

Camping in the Van

I’m extremely excited to share today’s post with you.  I had a very unusual childhood, one which instilled my wanderlust at an early age.  I owe a lot of who I am and the adventures that drive this blog to my parents. While you may have heard me write a bit about these formative experiences, what you haven’t heard is the other side of the story – that of my parents.  So, I recently reached out to my Dad and asked him to tell his story, a story which includes an incredible year-long, solo RTW trip which he took between 1969 and 1970.  

What makes it all that much more exciting is what he was doing during that year: studying the way different cultures educate their kids.  That trip, and the two years we spent on the road as a family recently came up in discussion as I worked with him on his new book Vital Lies: The Irrelevance of Our Schools in the Information Age in which he explores the shifting role of education, the impact of technology, and offers what I found to be fascinating insights into the role education has and continues to play in our society. 

Eager to share part of his story with you, I’ve asked him to tell what it was like to travel the world on a solo-RTW trip in the late 60s, and to explain what it took to uproot the family for two years travelschooling in Europe and the US.  He’ll be responding to questions in comments, so please feel free to chime in!  But enough from me, here’s his story:

Ed and Date Tree

Preparing for RTW Travel

Wherever you are is the center of the universe. As a kid, the center of my world seemed vast. In time, I came to realize that there were billions of other people – their centers of the world – equally important. I felt very small. It was like looking at a star-bright sky and wondering what part I played. I couldn’t go to the stars, but I knew I could travel into the spheres of influence of other people. I could move around the planet and see what they saw, sing their music, eat at their tables. I could touch and feel and learn what was real. That is how I became an explorer, an adventurer, a traveler into other’s places.

I took small steps at first, chaperoning a ski trip to Switzerland, traveling with buddies in Mexico. I knew I was ready to travel, but to start it took money, time, and a sabbatical leave with half pay. I sold my car, said goodbye to fellow teachers, family and friends. I would visit schools in 22 countries and lecture about American Education or Southwest Archaeology. In exchange, they would arrange for a native speaker who could take me into the local schools and explain what was happening. I felt safe, knowing I had places to go and check-in. I didn’t consider what a year with only American Express mailboxes to keep me connected with home would mean.

Ed at the Alhambra

Taking The Plunge

I was 29, in 1969, when I departed Colorado and headed for Hawaii and points West. I set out to wander for a year. My plan was to immerse myself in other cultures and places, without rushing through others lives and the planet’s awesome beauty. In reality, to friends and family, I disappeared. Until they got a letter, often weeks after I left a place, they did not know if I was dead or alive. In those days, there was no internet, no Skype, nothing but letters traveling by snail-mail, and static-filled phone calls that cost more than four days food and lodging; impracticable and hard to place.

It wasn’t easy getting away. A military friend of mine told me there was a good chance I would never survive the year. “Ed, you probably won’t come back. Your family will never know what happened to you.” Another close friend asked me, “How can you do that to your parents … and me?” I had no answers, but I knew I had to go. I was not prepared. I had never experienced loneliness. I had never been followed and stalked. I was an innocent – for about three weeks – until I learned that traveling alone required special skills. There were no hostels, few hotels that would not leave me scratching, and even fewer signs in English. When I was ill, I self-medicated and lay in a room until it passed. When I wanted to talk to someone, anyone, I made contacts at the schools I visited, talked to myself, or wrote in my journal.

When I came home, I learned how my parents had spent a year worrying. My school peers were threatened by what I had learned, and avoided me. I rekindled some friendships, but lost an equal number. I had grown. I was not the same person. I wanted to contribute to education and… But few people could comprehend what I had experienced; what I had learned. Yet I still dreamed of the world and people who were part of my ken. I held that dream, time passed. Then something wonderful happened.

Berger Family in Europe - 95

Family Travel

Married in the ‘70s to an amazing travel companion, then parents in the ‘90s, my wife and I studied our two sons, saw innate wonder, curiosity and natural joy. We figured out our responsibilities as their teachers. We planned a life together, for the four of us, where the centers of our worlds would be expanded to include other places, people and realities. We wanted them to run free on the beaches of the world, discoverers of living things, open time, and personal responsibility. When they were eight and eleven, we rented our house, collected our meager savings, and spent the next year, packs on our backs, letting whim and caprice, adventure and discovery lead us through Europe. Travel! Cars and boats, trains and planes. Most important, shanksmare through other places and lives. They could look at the stars and know who and what they were a part of. It made our hearts smile.

To some, travel means that if it is Tuesday this must be Paris. Wednesday? London or Madrid. For us, it was sharing our son’s 8th birthday on the Eiffel Tower, as he looked down at Paris and then followed a pigeon, round and around, on the iron decks. Six months later, it was celebrating Greek Independence Day and our oldest son’s birthday In Crete. In between, experiences so powerful and mind-changing, so inspiring and filled with wonder, that they are as real to us now as they were then. The year ended, and we were sad. We could have traveled forever. We had to slow down and get back to the old reality.

Back home in Arizona, we expected too much. We were used to mind-broadening experiences and interactions with wonderful people. Sitting in classrooms and trying to be awake, didn’t serve our boys well. We decided to venture out again, this time in the US. We had an old 5th wheel trailer and a Chevy Crew Cab truck. We left in the fall, the day school started. Our classroom for the next year would be on the road. We melded into communities and the lives of others. Our 32’ trailer was home and school. We didn’t have to can things and bring them into class. The real world was outside our door. We moved from Arizona to Canada and then let winter push us south down the East Coast. We stopped every time we saw a new community, museum, or factory … whatever caught our eyes. We parents didn’t have to teach. What we learned we learned together. What we knew, we shared as it applied to the environments and cultures we cozied into. We called it “Travel Learning,” and started a web site to connect and share with others. On the road, we discovered many other families using travel as school. We let winter push us to Southern Florida and the Everglades. We fished, explored, and learned local history and customs. We experienced an America unknown to most.

Dad and I

We all travel now, every chance we get. The boys are grown, one at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. The other, in Zambia, Africa serving in the Peace Corps. They are part of communities and feel connected to the worlds of others. We are always growing, exploring, getting the pulse of our planet and other people. That is what TRAVEL means to our family.

You can read Ed’s blogs on education on his site – EdwardFBerger.com, where you can also find out more about his new book Vital Lies.  He is on twitter via @EdwardFBerger You can also see my post from the Alhambra Spain, which takes photos from my visit and matches them up with shots Ed took 40 years previous.  If you’re curious about my brother’s Peace Corps activities, he has a series of amazing blogs on his site DavidBerger.net.

Have a question for Ed?  He would love to hear what you have to say – just post it in a comment, or connect with him on twitter. 

My Introduction to the Colectivo

Flores Guatemala

The time came to say goodbye to San Ignacio and the amazing adventures it held.  With slightly damp shoes, a spring in my step, and my two backpacks resting on my shoulders I made my way towards the central square.

Once there, I located a Taxi driver I’d bartered with earlier in the morning, re-confirmed the fare I’d bartered for earlier (about 10 dollars) and then piled my gear into the trunk.  Before long we were lazily cruising across the Belizean country side towards the Guatemalan border.  A new country and new adventure awaited.

The ride itself was fairly brief at about 10-15 minutes. The driver was amiable and shared stories and advice before pulling up to the border station and pointing me in the direction I needed to go.

A few passport stamps and about $20 later I’d paid the exit fees and was waved into the no man’s land between borders.  There I looked across and into Guatemala and paused briefly a bit confused.  Straight ahead there was a seething mass of currency traders and taxi drivers, a small guard house to block vehicles and….an open road?  It took me a solid minute of watching before I realized that the border station was actually set to the side, giving it a somewhat optional feel.

In my general ignorance, I’d nearly (and amazingly, very well could have) walked straight into Guatemala.  Chuckling at the differences between the borders back home and those in Central America, I threaded my way through the crowd, somewhat surprised and unnerved by the large number of Guatemalan security personnel on guard with large, sawed off shotguns resting casually at their waists. Eventually I identified the right line, paid my 20 GTQ (less than $3 USD) entrance fee and got my stamp.  From there it was down to the Taxis where, despite what I’d read in the guide book, I opted to take a quick taxi ride to where the Colectivos (Collectivos in English) were.

The Adventure Begins

After talking briefly with a Taxi driver, and telling him where I wanted to go (less than a mile) – we agreed on a price of 10 GTQ or about $1.25.  I got in, and we started rolling down the street…slowly.  Before we’d gone 15 feet, he started trying to pressure me into a $40 USD Taxi ride to Flores.  A situation made that much more confusing given his lack of English and my marginal (at best) Spanish.  Not completely opposed to the idea but eager to try the Colectivo and not interested in spending $40 I countered that I’d give him $20 but wasn’t especially interested. As you can imagine, his response was less than enthusiastic.

Outside of San Ignacio

Preferring to try and pressure me into it, he slowly made his way down the street, going so far as to head through the intersection and begin towards Flores. Annoyed, I opted for a classic tactic, I’ve found to work particularly well with high-pressure sales people who won’t take no for an answer: I took my already low $20 offer, and dropped it $2 every time he countered. While they may be immune to “No” and happy to ignore it.  They tend to be far more susceptible and give up much quicker in the face of ridiculously bad (and decreasing) offers.   By the time I reached $14, he pulled over and tried to find someone who spoke English.  On his second try he found someone, who translated.  I re-iterated my stance and without further adieu was dropped off down the street in front of a Colectivo.

Before I’d had the chance to get out and grab both bags, the larger of the two was scooped up by the Colectivo’s driver.  As he turned and began to swing it up towards the Colectivo’s roof, I stopped him with a quick, “Woah, no no no!”. He paused, allowing me the time to confirm the fare – 35 GTQ or about $4 USD and destination: Flores.  That accomplished I smiled, waved, and relaxed as my bag was hoisted onto the van’s roof rack.

Now, let me preface by saying that I’ve experienced my fare share of mass transport adventures.  From odd taxi cabs, Croatian Buses teetering along steep cliff faces, and rural Greek buses.  None of those prepared me for Colectivos.

Colectivo Interior

For the uninitiated the Colectivo as I encountered it is, in effect, a van/group taxi.  The one I found had a sliding side door and had been modified to fit as many people as humanly possible.  It had three rows of forward facing seats, in addition to the front bench seat and a Jerry-rigged backward facing bench immediately behind the driver.  Each of the middle two seats had a small fold down extension that allowed passengers into the back seats, without losing any space.

Recall that I’m 6’4″ and that your average Maya/Mexican/Guatemalan in the region is perhaps 5’3″.  Now imagine the look on their faces, as I walked up and was pointed towards what I thought was the last available seat in the Colectivo: the fold down chair in the row 2nd from the back.

I paused. Scratched my head, and then decided that the only way I’d be able to actually get to/into the chair was to back in, butt first. The locals all found both my size, and my entrance highly entertaining.  As I sandwiched into the small seat, wondering if it would support my weight, my seatmate – a Mother traveling with her suckling babe – introduced herself, chuckled again softly, and offered a few words of advice.

Before long the folding seat in front of me was flipped up – catching my somewhat unawares, and smacking my knees.  With a groan I realized that my knees would be supporting the chair back for the duration of the trip. The Colectivo had two operators.  The driver, and then a 2nd individual who rode in the back and was in charge of ticketing and seating.  His approach was simple, but creative.  Cram as many bodies as humanly possible into the vehicle. Out for room?  Then open the door or a window and hang out.

As I mentioned previously, I had thought that I was one of the last to board.  Boy-o-boy was I wrong.  As time passed our numbers grew.  From 16, to 17.  From 17 to 20.  From 20 to 22. Wide eyed, I did my best to take up as little room as possible, trying to take in the experience and reminding myself that the ride was only 2 hours.  The ticket had only cost $4 and that this was a cultural experience.

Finally the door slid closed and we began our trip.  It was hot, muggy, and more than a little smelly.  Luckily I was located next to one of the windows, allowing the opportunity to mingle fresh air with the smell of body sweat, perfume, cologne, and the odd assortment of food’s several of the other travelers had packed.

We’d gone some 3 blocks when we paused again.  This time the door slid open, the woman next to me muttered, and 4 more people piled into the vehicle.  The area around the door quickly became standing room only, and after a half hearted attempt, the ticket guy swung his torso up and out the open door, to hold onto the roof rack…and we were off again.  I chuckled at the spectacle of it all as I listened to the tires ground out and rub every time we hit a small bump or pothole.

As we continued along our way we dropped people off in front of farms, or small towns and replaced them with others who we found standing along the roadside.  The roads themselves were an interesting mixture.  At times newly paved, other times so riddled with potholes that it felt more like we were dodging a minefield than driving on a major national highway.  The majority of the road, however, was packed dirt/sand which had been recently grated and was in relatively decent shape.  It’s truly a testament to the economic state of the region that the major artery connecting northern Guatemala to Belize (and Mexico in turn) is little more than a two lane dirt road in many places.

About an hour into the two hour trip – things took a turn for the interesting.  The colectivo had emptied out to a reasonable and dare I say, nearly comfortable, level when we paused and picked up a group of 5 women with children. While there were fewer people numerically, the size of our average group member had increased significantly between the newly added women and several stocky farmers we’d picked up previously.  As they boarded, the ticket man directed one towards the sliver thin space between my seatmate and I. The woman beside me muttered that the man must be out of his mind and I worked to squeeze myself as far towards the window/wall as possible. It wasn’t far enough, which meant that the woman ended up more or less sitting on my left leg. I let out a quite groan-laugh and couldn’t help but think to myself, “Well boy, you ain’t in Kansas anymore are ya’?”.

Somehow they managed to get the sliding door closed and we started forward once again.  Unfortunately, most of the women had children with them of suckling age.  As it turns out, one of those children happened to belong to the woman in my lap. Before long her daughter began to shriek, with eyes and nose running it quickly became apparent that Grandmother wouldn’t be able to quiet her. No bother! We pulled off to the side of the road and the ticket man jumped out.  Scratched his head for a minute and then began a game of musical chairs. Mom was gone – back up to the front where she could hold her daughter. Unfortunately for me, the person she switched with?  A small dude.

It was at about this point in time that the adventure was starting to turn from entertaining cultural experience into…well, something I was ready to be done with.

I opened the window a crack more, leaning as much of my body as I could towards it and the window.  Doing my best to take up as little room as possible. Then it really took a turn for the ridiculous.

It was like a lunch bell silently had gone off somewhere.  Within the course of 3 minutes – often in the middle of a conversation – three of the mother’s casually pulled down their tops and offered up their teats to their suckling babies.  On the one hand, I’m all for a more relaxed, mature and natural approach to breast feeding.  On the other hand – that’s just not something you run into in the U.S. or most of Europe and when you do, it’s typically done under the cover of a blanket.  Needless to say, I was in culture shock.

Just what IS the appropriate protocol for riding sandwiched in a small van with 20 some odd people, breasts exposed all over the place, with a dude sitting in your lap, while having a conversation with a breastfeeding woman?  Frankly, I haven’t the slightest clue.  I laughed at my discomfort, looked out the window, counted the minutes and tried to remind myself – that here, this, was normal. This was healthy.  This was natural.

Some two hours later we arrived in Flores.  I let out a sigh of relief and light groan as I slowly extricated myself from my seat, before thanking the Colectivo team for one hell of a cultural experience and taking me the extra few blocks out onto the Island of Flores itself.

In retrospect, would I do it again?  In a heart beat.  Will I be using Colectivos for trips longer than 30 minutes in the future?  Most definitely not.

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