The Human Safari

As children, we often assume different roles while re-enacting grand fantasies. All hail to Cesar, riding atop a palanquin, or to the Astronaut floating above the world looking down at it.  The doctor saving lives, or the war photographer documenting the rawness of the human condition and the horrors of society as it fails. Then, we grow up.  We settle into our role within our socio-cultural strata and send subtle ripples across the fabric of the society that surrounds us.

As tourists, we recapture some of that wonder.  We gain the opportunity to stand in the midst of the Coliseum, to stride casually down the halls of grand empires and to snap photos of exotic peoples, destinations, and in some instances candid moments.  These rich experiences add to the substance of who we are and let us get back in touch with the beautiful sense of exploration which defined our youth. They are, for many, what make travel wondrous, expansive and oh-so addictive.

But, what happens when that sense of exploration leads us to moments and experiences which carry with them a taint of exploitation or dehumanization?  What happens when we suddenly become a modern incarnation of the aloof Roman dictator, well fed, wealthy, and separated by an invisible but nearly impenetrable wall from the people we’re visiting?  It’s something that happens easily, innocently and far more often than we’d like to admit.

The Stirrings of Realization

For me, two instances stand out. The first tickled my awareness with a mild sense of intangible discomfort. The second brought clarity slamming into place combined, strangely, with a sense of helplessness.

Faces of Zambia

The first was during my time in Zambia.  We’d elected to do a Safari with a fantastic company in the South Luangwa region. They invest heavily in protecting the animals, a light footprint on the land, and in the local community.  Yet, as we sat in the back of a large safari Landcruiser rolling along the pockmarked blacktop I looked out at the hundreds of locals that could readily be seen along the side of the road working their yards, walking the road, or going about their business.

Faces of Zambia

Often they’d look up at the four of us, often smiling, and in the case of the children, waving…then bursting into laughter when we’d smile and wave back.  We stuck out like sore thumbs, and not just because of the color of our skin. It was nearly everything about us – from our clothing, to our glasses, camera, and the way we were traveling. Just as often as I waved back, I’d sit, camera raised to my eye, set in sports mode snapping away while watching the landscape race by through my extended zoom lens.  Each shot allowed me to capture a candid photo of daily life. And, if I’m to be honest, each shot was much more comfortable than had I been on the ground, walking from house to house, snapping photos.  Just as fast as I snapped the photo or they looked up, the Landscruiser had spirited me away, erasing any possibility of a confrontation or interaction.

Faces of Zambia

It was only as I sat in that same vehicle the following days, snapping photos in the same fashion of wildlife that I started to register the stark and uncomfortable similarities between the two situations. Somehow, without intending it, I had gone from great explorer on a grand exploration to Dictator atop my palanquin utterly separated and detached from the local people who I was there to meet. True, I was there, but in this instance it would be far more accurate to say I was in actuality just seeing them, not truly meeting them.

The Stupid Myths We Believe as Western Travelers Time and Time Again

I’m narrowing in on accomplishing a major life goal on my bucket list. Before I turn 31 my aim is to have visited 50 countries…and yet, fresh back from my 45th, 46th, and 47th, I’ve just had a profoundly eye-opening and humbling experience. I had, once again, ignored the lesson I’ve learned time and time again, and bought into/believed the enormous pile of bullshit I’ve been fed by the western travel narrative about non-western destinations.

Worse than that, I realized quite vividly that I’d been gobbling down, consuming, and allowing myself to be poisoned by said bullshit for years. I always get annoyed when people tell me they can’t travel because it’s unsafe (my chances of getting robbed, stabbed, shot, or killed are far worse in Arizona than when wandering Europe) or when I read announcements like the US’s recent worldwide terror alert which only served to scare people while delivering virtually none of the context needed or adding any real value. But, the real truth highlighted for me time and time again is that I buy into my own version of this nonsense. The part that really pisses me off about the whole thing is that it keeps me from embracing amazing experiences, makes me stand-offish, much more conservative in my approach when I start, and adds bucket-loads of anxiety.

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I’ve talked about misconceptions a few times in the past, such as how wrong my preconceptions about Turkey were, or my African travel fears series looking at how Africa wasn’t nearly the life-threatening-bodily traumatizing disaster adventure I had anticipated. But unfortunately, I still hadn’t learned my lesson.  I’m going to do my best after my latest trip to really finally internalize this lesson and hope you’ll all join me in identifying, acknowledging, and then utterly dismissing the stories and nonsense that we’re spoon fed. It’s also worth noting that I think travel bloggers, myself included, bear some of the responsibility for perpetuating these myths.

As some long-term readers will know, up until two weeks ago, I had never been to Eastern Asia. While this is a very common and popular region for many travelers, especially budget travelers, it has for a long time been my “dark region” in that I had never been. Why? There are a number of factors which range from simple fear, lack of interest, cost, and then desire to protect and cherish the novelty. What do I mean?

  • Fear: Simply put, the Asia I had built in my mind was a very alien place where getting around using English would be difficult, where everything would be deeply exotic, and where even the most basic of daily activities would be challenging. Add to that a fear of a large amount of human and animal suffering. It was a part of the world I always had very mixed feelings about.
  • Lack of Interest: When I was younger I had a very strong interest in Greco-Roman and Medieval history. I find for many young people, tend to be drawn in strongly by Asia or Europe, while others sort out to Latin America, or Africa to a lesser extent. There were elements of ancient history in these other regions that offered passing interest, but beyond that I felt minimal draw. I felt their history was somewhat uninteresting, was not enamored from a cultural dating perspective, and had only minimal interest in cultural creations like anime and food.  As I’ve traveled more, learned more history, been exposed to more culture, and pivoted more to an interest in food, much of this has changed and Asia has increasingly grown in appeal and draw.
  • Cost: This is an odd one, as SEA (Southeast Asia) has always been extremely popular because of its relatively low cost areas. It’s why regions such as Vietnam and Thailand are thick with travel bloggers and has been a major tourist draw for decades. But, the flights from the US were usually fairly significant and even once I got to Denmark, prices and availability when I looked at SEA as a destination never seemed to work out. In 2010 I almost booked a trip to Thailand but, at the last minute, opted for South America (Argentina) instead based on pricing. Had the other factors mentioned in this section not also been weighing on me, perhaps I would have prioritized it.  Never the less I didn’t and the rest is history.
  • Novelty: This is a tricky one to convey. I’ve written in the past about how important it is to travel and experience things NOW in THIS MOMENT because the destination will change and evolve just as you do. You will never see or experience a place the same way as you would have if you went now and the more we travel and are exposed to, the more our relationship with novelty and novel cultures evolves. Globally, if we stereotype regional cultures down to geo-cultural macro-groups there are regions that share some (albeit very limited) cultural characteristics. As my travels took me to different continents and exposed me to different cultures, I felt a shred of sadness as the fear, novelty, excitement and sense of pure discovery that came from exploring an entirely new culture faded away. As I got a taste of Europe, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt as though the last great region to explore and discover became Asia and perhaps as a separate entity Eastern Eurasia and India. While I still have an enormous amount of exploration, discovery and novel cultural exploration to do in all of these areas, I found myself keeping Asia to the side as one of my quasi-last opportunities for that utter sense of the unknown.

But, this winter I decided it was time to explore. I opted for a teaser trip to SEA which started purely by coincidence in Ho Chi Mihn Vietnam. Somehow I would then touch base in Cambodia’s Siem Reap region to see Angkor Wat, and then terminate from Bangkok with a few days in either the north or south to explore. This was far too much ground to cover properly in 19 days, but the goal was to test the waters, explore a bit, see how I coped, and if I liked it/where I wanted to go back.

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The Myths

I mentioned that for years I’d been very resistant to a visit to SEA because of different fear-based factors. Eventhough I ultimately found these to be greatly exaggerated, that is not to say that if you go into rural areas, have bad luck, or are in the heart of a heavy tourist area some of these won’t hold some truth, but they are far from the prevalent, unavoidable, and highly experientially potent experiences we’ve been led to believe.

A Video Guide To Exploring (and Learning) Danish Culture

The Danes are a famously quirky bunch.  They’re much beloved, generally liked the world over, and a bit of an enigma.  These are the people that gave us Vikings, Lego, and Danish design. They are a people and country famed for their work-life balance, straight to-the-point style of communicating, odd blend of extreme homogeneity and their contrasting sharp brand of Danish individuality. They have been hailed as both the most shameless people in the world (in a mostly good way) and as some of the most humble people in the world. Talk to anyone who has spent time in Denmark (and yes, that includes most Danes as well) and one thing is consistent – folks are fascinated by the Danes.

In the past I’ve talked a bit about the difference between Danes (and the Dutch!), Scandinavians, and the Nordics.  I’ve also delved into communication styles and the ways in which the Nordic style of communication differs from the North American style and approach.  As part of my increased focus on video content, I recently decided to expand that exploration into a video series focusing on Denmark, the Danes and my own special mix of observations, advice, and opinion.

Use Exciting History Podcasts To Revolutionize Your Travel

Exciting history podcasts. That’s right. I used those three words in one sentence without a hint of sarcasm or satire. They’re few and far between, but they do exist and holy smokes will they surprise you and revolutionize how you understand world history and the destinations you’re visiting.

Unless you were a history major (and even then), chances are good that you haven’t done a deep dive into a specific region or civilization’s history since you were a kid.  The history you got as a kid was useful, but also likely full of holes and deeply biased. Upon landing in a new city, it’s common to do a very shallow and cursory dive into the city/country/region’s history but that rarely goes beyond “This wall was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD.”  Who was Hadrian?  Where does he fit in the greater Roman history?  Why was he building a wall? Who the hell knows. For most of us those are the mysteries that are lost to time – both in the sense that even if we did know the answers we likely forgot them, and if we didn’t …. well, time is precious and even those of us with a desire to read historical texts like Meditations or in-depth period histories rarely find (or make) the time for them.

The Sojourner’s Dilemma

I love Copenhagen. It is, quite possibly, my favorite capital city in the world.  Yet, recently, I found myself falling out of love with the city. A combination of factors – winter, a cold, the stress of the job search, and a daily commute that ate up three hours of my schedule started to weigh on me. I found that sense of doubt creeping into my psyche, combined with the seeds of bitterness.  It wasn’t until I had a day to walk the city – something I hadn’t done in more than three months – that I had an epiphany and sense of renewed love for Copenhagen.

Springtime in Copenhagen

What I’ve taken to calling the Sojourner’s Dilemma is something no doubt familiar to anyone who has done a long-term study abroad, lived abroad as a sojourner, or progressed to the full-expat stage. It is that inevitable stage in the experience where your love and zeal for a place starts to slip away.  In some cases losing that magic is a very real thing tied to changes in your needs as an individual.  But, more often than not, I believe it stems from a loss of connection with the aspects of the city and daily/experience which were the source of that magic to begin with.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in a city for 6 months or 10 years, it’s when we lose touch with the daily richness that the balance begins to shift from a place of inspiration that puts an added bit of zip into our steps towards a weighty chain that drags us down.

Four Beaches to Visit in Copenhagen During Summer

Summer has arrived in Copenhagen and it is glorious! It may lack the scorching heat or consistent sunshine of more southern climates, but it brings with it a fragile northern beauty only made possibly by its contrast with Denmark’s long dark winters. Where other regions throughout the world take summer for granted, the Danes relish it and throw themselves into the country’s long summer days with near reckless abandon. Work grinds to a halt, the parks overflow with people, and the city’s open spaces are overwhelmed by a tidal wave of sun-burned, partially-clad Danes often found with a disposable BBQ, six pack of cold Carlsberg, and a beaming smile. This sight is usually set to the soundtrack of local Danish artists blasted from modified Christiania bikes with full speakers and sound systems (sometimes even a DJ turntable) jury-rigged precariously atop three standard bike wheels.

Copenhagen City Tip – Visit A Cemetery

Unless you have some sort of obsession with visiting the final resting places of famous people, most folks don’t find themselves with a visit to a city’s cemetery on the top of their city to-do list. As someone not particularly interested in famous people, their eventual final resting place, and with a general aversion to cemeteries it took me a long time before I finally heeded the advice of my Danish friends.

Biting Back – Bed Bugs, Treatment, Hostels and Hotels

How to treat bed bugs

Over the years travel has left me with a few scars.  Small injuries, cuts and scrapes from various poorly thought out misadventures are responsible for a few but by and far the most prolific culprit is the common bedbug.  These dastardly creatures are often almost too small to see with the naked eye, prolific, devious and have left a trail of small scars across my hands, elbows and legs. While most travelers have a passionate dislike and hatred for bed bugs I truly loath them.  In no small part because I harbor an unfortunate allergy to them which, if not treated immediately, results in significant swelling and possible infection. The downside to this allergic reaction is obvious but the upside is that I now know almost immediately when I’ve been attacked by bed bugs which helps identify exactly where they came from and treat them before there’s a risk of taking them with me to my next destination.

Bed Bugs Are Everywhere

While only talked about in passing (it’s a taboo topic after all) it appears that bed bug infestations have really gotten bad over the last few years.  The common traveler’s wisdom is that you’ll only get hit by bed bugs in cheap and sleazy accommodation. The first thing most of us check for when booking a hostel is the fateful “I got bed bugs here” review.   For my part, I avoided entire hostel chains because they still allowed people to bring in outside linens and sleeping backs for use – a practice the majority of modern hostels did away with a long time ago explicitly to help combat bed bug infestation. But, if this past year has shown me anything, it has shown me that bed bugs are everywhere. They’re not just in dingy sleaze pits, they’re in the best hotels and the cleanest hostels as well. This past year I’ve been hit by bed bugs three times, each months apart and each occurred on a different continent.  The first time it happened I was in a mid-level hostel in a historic city. The hostel went out of its way to be clean…in fact, it even had custom toilets in the bathroom rigged with automatic plastic seat covers that changed with each use. The second time it happened I was in one of Europe’s flagship hostels. A hostel that goes out of its way to keep its rooms spotless, custom packages all of its sheets in plastic wrap after washing, and carefully cleans its rooms each day.  The third time?  At a popular and well respected five star hotel. The take away?  Bed bugs are everywhere. You can get bed bugs anywhere.

How I Treat Bed Bug Bites

Before I continue let’s be clear that I’m not a medical professional and that I’m not providing medical advice.  This is what works for me after a series of trial and error experiments, nothing more, nothing less. I’ve found that the key to dealing with bed bug bites is to treat them immediately. As soon as I realize I’ve been bitten I take a strong dose of Benadryl and Ibuprofen.  Over the following several days I’ll continue to take the maximum recommended dosage of both. I’ve also found that about the worst thing you can do is itch a bed bug bite.  The combination of these two medications helps reduce swelling and discourage infection while simultaneously helping to reduce itching.  Unfortunately, I find that bed bug bites are extremely slow to heal and that even up to a week later scratching or disturbing the bite releases agitatants that can cause swelling and itching.  When available I’ll also apply bug bite lotion.  While these vary widely from country to country they’re usually a fast drying white or beige liquid which includes (in part) Zinc Oxide and Talcum.  If needed, just ask the local pharmacist what the best local option is for treating severe bug bites.

Preventing Future Bed Bug Bites

After taking my initial (strong) dose of Benadryl and Ibuprofen I immediately take the hottest shower I can stand and then change into clean clothes. Make sure to keep whatever clothing you had on, and which may be infected with bed bugs or bed bug eggs, separate from your bag and other clothing.  Place the potentially infected clothing in a plastic bag and then either have the hostel/hotel wash the clothing at high heat (at least 60 degrees C, though I prefer 90 when possible) or do it yourself in a local washing facility. Hopefully your jacket, bag and/or backpack were never in direct contact with the bed or another bed-bug prone area.  These items are the hardest to clean because they’re the most difficult to wash and/or to expose to sufficient heat to kill the bed bugs.  My understanding is that bed bugs have about a two week life cycle though they can live much longer so you’ll need to be extremely vigilant.  When doing spot checks for bed bugs remember that they dislike bright light and are often found inside pillow cases, along seams, and love mattresses.  Luckily, they tend not to travel very far and unless you’re looking at a major infestation will have fairly limited mobility. Remember: Don’t just assume that because you’re staying in a hygienic  room at a nice facility that you’re safe from bed bugs.  It’s always worth taking a few minutes to spot check the bed, sheets and pillows. Especially if you’re somewhere where the bed is pre-made for you. Not sure how to identify a bed bug?  They actually vary quite a bit in appearance, size and shape depending on their age and how well fed they are.  Young bed bugs tend to be red/pink in color and almost look like small ants while older bed bugs tend to be brown in color and rounder in shape.