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 …

A Photographer’s Late Night Musings

Zambia's Children

As I start this post it’s 2AM on a Friday night.  I’ve opted to stay in, distracted – or dare I confess lost in editing photos from my recent trip through Zambia.  I’ve got a half empty glass of 15 year old Scotch and find myself deeply effected by the faces staring back at me from the screen. Outside my 4th story window I can hear the sound of Danes diving headlong into the usual revelry and mayhem that marks a a carefree Friday evening here in Copenhagen. It’s an odd contrast to the scenes which slowly work their way across my computer screen.

It’s a strange thing really.  These photos, some of them strangely personal each tell a story.  Some may convey elements of that story more powerfully than others but each (at least when they’re in focus) is potent and resonates with me.  True, there’s the added impact knowing I was there and because of that I can recall bits and pieces of the context they were taken in, but those are only abstract, fragmented shards.

Obama Tshirt in Zambia

These were photos taken in passing. Some were quite literally snapped out of the window of a moving car.  Others such as those of young Zambian village children clowning for the camera were more personal and came with handshakes and exchanged smiles.  Even in these cases though I was still in a transient state.  In a few minutes, an hour, a day or two I’d be moving on once again to the next town, the next experience, and the next photo.  This transient and disconnected sense was magnified in part by the language barrier.  Though Zambia is technically an English speaking nation the children and adults in the villages where I took many of these shots only speak their local regional language, which in this case was Bemba.  Culture also plays a large role and unfortunately so does race.  As one of the only white people many of the children and some of the adults had ever met I was a novelty.  Something exotic. Something interesting, but also something different….a curiosity. It bridged some gaps by drawing them to me, but created others steeped in generations of racially bound class warfare, and the simpler and more innocent challenges that come with early interactions with people who seem somewhat alien and different from us.

Photo by David Berger

Still, as I think back on my time in Zambia language and race were not really the barrier.  Sure, it was a great excuse and granted it’s difficult to get someone’s name or a piece of their story from a moving car…but I wasn’t always in a car.  No, quite often I was there in the midst of a boiling group of Zambian youths eager for the excitement of interacting with a mzungu – a white man – and excited for the opportunity to see their photo on the camera after I had fired off a quick shot. Yet despite their openness, warmth, and glowing smiles I can only tell you a few names.  I can’t tell you much about their stories, or almost nothing about their dreams.  I can’t even tell you how old they were and tragically it’s quite possible that several of the wonderful, glorious people I met will die before the year winds to a close.

This was driven home recently by the following sorrowful message which my brother (who is a Peace Corps health volunteer and who we stayed with for several days) posted to facebook.  It hit me hard because it brought to mind so many of the wonderful children I had met during our visit.  The update noted,

“Well, Zambia wins the day again. 2 year old admitted to the clinic, who I saw this morning died this afternoon.
Dehydration from malaria infection that was treated too late. Another life claimed by poor transport and delay.”

This message came crashing home again tonight as I came to a photo of a young child.  David (my brother) had just finished showing us the spot along the local stream where water is collected.  We were walking back towards his hut when we came upon a small boy.  He was shy, dressed in a yellow hoodie, jeans and nice shoes.   In his hand he held a tattered piece of folded paper.  As we approach he smiled and waved.  We smiled, and waved saying “allo!” the local variation of hello.  My brother leaned down and gently took the piece of tattered paper the child held.  It turned out it was his health report card.  Basically a chart to document his weight and nutrition over time.  With a quick glance and a gesture he explained that though the child was doing much better now he was an orphan that had been taken in, and that when he was younger had suffered severe malnutrition and been terribly underweight which had stunted his growth.  At the age of 2 this young child had already suffered more than most westerners do in 20 years and yet there he stood sheepishly smiling at us with a childish grin.  It’s almost impossible to know as an outsider but I hope that based on the state and quality of what he was wearing (eg: the mere fact that he had shoes on), that he’s found a family to take care of him who can afford to get him the food and safe drinking water he needs.  Ultimately though, it’s impossible to know – and I can’t help fear that the two year old David wrote about might have been him.

A few photos later I sat staring at another shot.  This one was of a young child squatting in the dirt beside the road.  In the photo he’s in a tattered beige shirt, black shorts and sitting sideways in profile.  His right arm is resting on his knee and his left is lifted to his mouth chewing on something filthy.  What it might be given the dirty field he’s perched in the midst of, I dare not guess. There’s what’s likely dried snot on his cheek, and what looks like a fly resting just below his left eye. His gaze is piercing.  Powerful.  The whites of his eyes clearly visible as he looks my way, face partially obscured by his hand. The photo echoes hints of Kevin Carter’s crushing photo of a starving young child collapsed in a field and being stalked by a vulture in the midst of S. Sudan.  Carter’s photo rocked the world, but ultimately also embodied the suffering he had seen which eventually led to his suicide. Luckily the child in my photo and the photo itself is far less dire. Still, the photo resonates elements of that same bleakness and despair.  The air of tragedy that goes with it embodies the sense of injustice and internal tragedy that accompanies seeing young children facing profound threats, challenges and harm.  With this in mind and in light of the daily tragedies which mark life in many of these villages I find myself torn.  On the one hand I know it has the power to resonate with people….to convey the risk and tragedy of deaths like that of the two year old David wrote about.  On the other hand, I can’t help but feel it is also slightly disingenuous, insincere and a disservice to the wonderful Zambians I met to focus and convey almost exclusively these types of images.

You see, there were other moments – moments that I’m frustrated with myself for not capturing. These were wonderful moments which showed these same children at their very best.  These were the moments which were profoundly inspiring.  The moments when these kids would scrub away the caked on dust, set aside the tattered shirts and torn pants they had been wearing, and don their school outfits.   Dressed in their school finery, these kids will sometimes walk for miles without complaint all for the chance to attend somewhere between 1 to 3 hours of school….if, that is, the teacher decides to show up to class.  There’s a beauty to the way they carry themselves and their eagerness to learn.  There is a pride and dignity which is part of what makes the Zambians I met so wonderful.  It’s also a side of life in rural, impoverished Africa which you don’t usually get the chance to see when clicking through photos or reading reports from westerners discussing their visits.

At the end of the day it bothers me that I don’t know each person’s name or more about their story. It’s an odd feeling to know that even if I tried to seek out information about them, there’s no way I could find it.  I also wonder how they would feel and respond to the way I’ve captured and conveyed them. Would they appreciate it?  Enjoy it?  Be angered?  Embarrassed? I suppose what I’m really asking myself is, “how honest is this photo?”.  Then there’s the what if side of it.  What if I did learn their name, their story, and we spent days, weeks, or months together? At a certain level I’m not sure that’s an emotional weight I’m willing to bear and i’m still not sure if that’s a fact I am content to accept or if it’s something that shames me slightly.  Then again perhaps despite it all it is the interaction or the moment itself which is what is valuable and important.  I suppose in some ways it really is just enough to be there and to capture a moment which can be shared.  At the end of the day though, there’s also a certain responsibility  to be honest to the moment that comes with taking those photos.  It’s a responsibility which isn’t widely discussed – oh, sure people talk about model release forms and the how to cover their ass in case they want to sell or publish the photo – but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about something beyond that.  Something far less certain.   I suppose I haven’t really answered any questions with this post but perhaps, just perhaps, it will help you to better understand my photos, travel photography, and I hope your own experience as a photographer abroad.

If you’ve got any insights, reflections, or personal thoughts to share – I’d love to hear your take.  For my part, the Scotch has run out and if I dally much longer I’ll be nose to nose with the rising sun.

You can read David’s blogs from Zambia at


I’m Sorry, Did You Say Travel Disaster? I Heard Adventure: Why I Travel for the Disasters

Sunken Pink Boat - Bergen, Norway

Life is comfortable. Chances are you’re not starving in a third world country or digging ditches in Sub-Sahara Africa. Most Millennials reading this are students, working desk jobs or have embraced the life of an entrepreneur. We live comfortable lives and are grateful for it. Sure, we face challenges – we all do, but those challenges are seldom balanced. Most tend towards insignificance or life altering.

To advance as a person, we all need to periodically find that middle group between “Oh no my phone fell in the toilet, my life is over” and “my friend was just killed in a car accident”.  A life enriched by moderate disasters better prepares us for the big things, and reminds us how insignificant the little things are.

Beyond that?  Travel disaster stories make for some of the best stories out there and let’s face it: I’m sure you’re interesting, but it definitely wouldn’t hurt you to be that much more fascinating, would it? To fulfill these types of needs and missing experiences some people dive into extreme sports, others advocate more benign ways of pushing our comfort zones.  At the end of the day though, I’ll take an excuse to travel the world over signing up for a public speaking class in a heartbeat. The best part is both are equally as effective.

So, what the hell am I talking about when I say travel disasters?  I’m talking about when things go implode. I’m talking about when it’s 10PM and the hostel/hotel loses your reservation, when the “waterproof” hiking shoes you bought for $10 fall apart a mile into a partially submerged subterranean cave, when your ferry gets shipwrecked, or when you lose your travel partner in a foreign city and neither of you have cell phones that work.

Don’t get me wrong, I also travel for the food, for the culture, for the history and for the scenery but at the end of the day when I sit down for coffee with someone – it’s the misadventures that were terrifying and miserable which come to mind first.  They’re the ones that forced me to sink or swim and taught me to take action. They’re the ones that develop us as individuals and which stay with us as important life lessons. I’m sure someone told you as a child that fire was hot, but you only truly understood it and related to it after you burned yourself the first time. It was in the aftermath of the burn that you came to understand the power, benefit and beauty of fire. Similarly, some experiences must be experienced before we truly understand them and better understand what we are capable of and need as individuals. It’s not always pleasant, but essential.

The next time you plan a trip and start worrying about everything that could go wrong I want you to pause, smile and get excited.  Sure, shit may hit the fan but you’re ready for it. You can handle it. That’s what you’re there for.  Granted, there’s no reason to seek out disaster but if it finds you?  Well, that’s just part of the experience and a trip well traveled.

Ready to embrace your next disaster? Consider documenting it with a Canon G12 or a Canon T3i.

*This post was originally published on


A Year In Review

Preikestolen, Norway

Two thousand ten was a spectacular year.  A year that told the world, “Yes, you’re really in the 21st century and no, it’s not going anywhere”.  It was a year which history looked to with grand aspirations, dreams and expectations. It was a year that brought great strife, both in the form of economic and military struggles as well as brutal natural disasters. Yet, it was also a year that brought a sense of economic recovery, fantastic new milestones in science and reminders that the future will always be bright for those who choose to shape their destiny.

Professionally – On a more personal level 2010 was a spectacular year for me.  Many may be wondering why I’m writing a year in review post nearly two weeks into 2011. Well, the answer lies in just how busy, adventurous and enjoyable 2010 was.  The truth is, this is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and type out my thoughts or even to truly reflect on 2010 as a whole.

On a professional level I saw significant growth.  I was able to continue to weather the tail end of the financial recession in a workplace I enjoy with people I have the utmost respect for despite being in an industry that was nearly obliterated by the great recession.

I continued to grow my web-based projects and launched which has been well received and supplements my resource site which has also continued to grow and receive widespread praise.  In addition to these projects I launched which has been an enjoyable side project.  All the while, these projects further supported the continued growth and health of this site,  2010 saw VW pay for itself and turn a small profit, as well as increase its web presence and following. Not bad for a side hobby!

From a personal branding point of view 2010 saw me rank in several top 100 travel personality/blog lists, quoted on MSNBC Travel, and across a variety of major travel oriented web blogs.  The year also provided an opportunity to return to Ignite Phoenix and deliver a second presentation to a sold out, 700 person audience. This time on the power and advantages of solo travel.  The year also presented me with the opportunity to return to Arizona State University where I gave three guest lectures. Two on Global Communities and Virtual Worlds and one to Journalism students on the value and benefits of blogging and social media. Lastly, the year provided the opportunity to meet a wealth of local travel professionals and bloggers through the Arizona Travel Tweetup series which I organized, launched and hosted.

2010 also saw me begin my preparations and exploration into a return to school in the pursuit of a Masters and PhD.  With 8 applications in to top tier schools last year set what I hope will bring new adventures, challenges and great growth in motion. Exciting!

Alex in Patagonia

Travel/On The Road – I could not have asked for a better series of trips.  2010 offered me a rare opportunity in which I enjoyed both summer solstices (northern and southern hemisphere) in near polar locations.  In the northern hemisphere I enjoyed it in Central Norway, in the southern hemisphere I celebrated it in Tierra del Fuego Argentina, often referred to as ‘el fin del mundo’ or the end of the earth. These locations offered long days, short nights and amazing memories.

In 2010 I added 5 new countries to my list.  Though two of those (Chile and Peru) were only quick airport layovers I experienced Norway, Denmark and Argentina thoroughly for the first time while revisiting Ireland, Mexico and Germany which have become old travel companions and friends.

In total I spent approximately 38 days in 2010 abroad.  This was split between a 20 day trip and a 18 day trip.  Where I welcomed 2010 on a sandy beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico I bid the year goodbye from a steamy rooftop terrace in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In addition to my trips abroad, I also realized the opportunity for some regional domestic tourism with extended weekend trips to Northern Arizona.  While there I re-visited the Grand Canyon for the first time in years while enjoying a spectacular sunset, photographed the painted desert, explored Flagstaff through the eyes of a tourist and re-visited Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon.

The year also brought the opportunity to connect with old friends. Some of whom I hadn’t seen in years, others of whom I’d met last year on the road during my travels.  They hosted me, entertained me and shared their native culture, cities and lives with me, which was a pure delight and incredible gift.  Similarly, my adventures presented the opportunity to make a wealth of new friends from the world over who I look forward to hosting or visiting in the not-so-distant future.  On a related note, I hosted my first two couchsurfers in 2010 which introduced me to two delightful people, while meeting up with several others for coffee.

Sunset at the Grand Canyon

In Review – There’s no doubt a lot which I’ve left out or overlooked, but in truth it’s just icing on the icing on the cake.  This past year was an incredible one. One which I will remember fondly for the rest of my life.  So, while I’m sorry to see it go, given all the great things it offered I cannot wait to see what 2011 brings.  The promise of new discoveries, new adventures, new growth, new experiences, and new people with powerful lessons and incredible insights.

Goodbye 2010 and welcome 2011.  Let the adventure continue!