Thursday, September 23, 2010

An American in Ireland

I'm in culture shock because the people here are so gosh darn NICE. I thought the contrast between Prague and Moscow was dramatic, but surely Russians and Irish are not the same species of animal? People stop me on the street if I look the least bit lost, and they walk me in the right direction. Others ask visitors if they have a good place to stay. They do this just to be friendly, not because they are trying to sell something or promote a particular place. People strike up conversations while waiting for the bus. In stores, the staff are happy to see the customers, and again with the helpfulness. It is as much of a breath of fresh air as the healing salt smell of the sea coming off the water. I have a lot more energy here, and am aware of feeling happy and content more than any other time on this journey. I think at least partly this is because getting around and taking care of basic needs is effortless compared to the other places I have been due to language and cultural barriers.

I am in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland after a couple of days in Dublin. Suddenly I am meeting tons of Americans for the first time on my trip. Lots of folks here on genealogy expeditions, exploring their Irish roots. I feel a bundle of mixed emotions about being around Americans. I have not been around native English speakers much in the past 6 months. For some reason, the American accent seems very twangy and harsh to me. I can hear it in my own voice. Not the gorgeous Irish accent or the fluid French. Not the rolled Rs of Mongolian and Nepal or the rich Indian accent. There is swagger in our accent. There is drawl. There is down home cooking and country living. There is a touch of apple pie. It's not bad, but I've never heard it so plainly before, and not so strongly in my own voice.

I love my country. I am lucky to be a woman from the States rather than so many other places where women don't have access to education, employment, or have childbearing and marriage as options...I love that we don't have to bribe our judges and most of us don't live in fear of the police. We usually have someone to appeal to if we have a grievance in almost every situation. We can express our opinions, even if they are unpopular or are against the government. I love the land in the huge variety of places and national parks, from sea to shining sea. And, whenever I am away, I see more clearly our weaknesses, the dirt under our nails, the bloody laundry hidden under the bed. This is partly why I wanted to come through Europe, so I can do some reconciling with my American-ness. I can remember more of where I come from, because I was away long enough to start to forget.

Today was "Arthur's day" which celebrates Guinness beer. At 17:59, there was a world-wide toast (1759 was the year Guinness was founded). The streets were lined with revelers, most taking full advantage of the opportunity to be loud and boisterous. I had an obligatory Guinness, with black current syrup to take the edge off the bitter. This was suggested to me by another woman who wasn't a huge Guinness fan. It didn't do much for me except make the Guinness taste like cough syrup. I'll stick with hard cider and whisky. Speaking of whiskey, I did a tour of the Jameson distillery in Dublin and learned why Irish whiskey is the best in the world (it is triple-distilled). I won a spot at the table to be talked through a whiskey tasting, where the guide talked us through the flavors and reasons for the different results. Now I can claim to be a bit of a connoisseur. I even have a certificate to prove it.

Tomorrow I take a ferry across to the Aran Islands for some cycling and time on the water. The next day I make my way to Killarney, then down to the Buddhist retreat center which was my main reason for coming back to Ireland. I will have 5 days there to think, write, walk, meditate, and talk to the other amazing people that have also come there. As the place is quite hard to get to, it attracts quiet intentional people. Not all Buddhist, either. Last time found it felt like home after feeling like an alien among my pub-hopping peers. It is good to be here as I work to make sense of what I did, while learning to talk about it in a more concise way. I have gone from feeling freaked out at the idea of coming home, to a mild ambivalence. I plan to move through to acceptance and then into excitement in the coming weeks. More soon!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A taste of home

Through rolling verdant countryside, mountains and lakes, my bus brought me from the Czech Republic to Switzerland. The signs changed from Czech to German (in Austria and Northern Switzerland) to French in the Southwest corner where my cousin Heidi lives. It has been about 26 years since we saw each other. I remember her as a spunky, mischievous and clever girl who intimidated me a bit with her daring. Seeing her all grown up, a mother of four, and a good partner to her husband Ralph, she is still full of spunk and life. Her intelligence and daring shine through the eyes of her kids as well.

Heidi and Ralph (a gentle, even-keeled, native Swiss man) live in a beautiful big country house. The house is 3 stories tall, with strong bones and old wood. The rooms connect together in a network of cozy burrows. When Ralph talks to the kids, it is often in German, and they will answer in German or French. In their play, they speak together in French. Heidi can speak both, but uses English with the kids. The primary language of the region is French. Fun to hear such a mix of languages. Old high school French has begun appearing from the language closet in my brain, dusty and sleepy. I understand a lot more than in Mongolia just getting around, and when people speak to me I can get the jist of simple things. Sentences and phrases occur to me to say, but usually after the opportunity to use them has passed.

Ralph and Heidi took me with their family for a weekend in the Alsace region of France. Curving byways linked little villages that looked like scenes you would see on the wrappings of fine chocolate. Every town featured a chapel with a spire surrounded by rows of brightly colored row houses with tile rooftops, wooden shutters, and flower boxes. The rolling vibrant green countryside a perfect backdrop for the towns and little castles nestled in comforting hills. We stayed in a cute little apartment in Eguisheim I was able to spend some time on my own in Colmar, wandering the cobblestone streets and walking along the little canals that are the reason that area is called “little Venice.” (

Heidi and Ralph traveled widely before they started their family, so we had many good conversations about travel. Heidi and I were able to take a day and do a beautiful long walk through vineyards and get reacquainted after the long time apart (the photo is from that walk). I very much enjoyed their company and hospitality. A chance to rest and feel at home.

My idea to go overland to Ireland couldn’t work due to ferry schedules and expense, so I took a cheap flight to Dublin. I have about 2 unfettered weeks here, I plan to wander the southwest coastline. It feels really good to be here again. Ireland was my first trip out of North America in 2001. I wanted to see if I liked to travel on my own. On that trip I met many inspiring women that were traveling the globe alone, and found that I did indeed love traveling. It is fun to return 10 years later, one of those well-traveled women.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cesky Krumlov and the Painted-on Castle

Prague is an amazing city, but I wanted to see a small town in the Czech Republic. To find one, I Googled "best little town outside of Prague" and most of the top responses cited Cesky Krumlov. When I read it is a Unesco World Heritage site, highly recommended by Lonely Planet, and has a castle, that cinched the deal.

An easy 3-hour bus ride south of Prague, I passed through beautiful countryside, farmlands, and other small towns. After finding my hostel, I walked through the old town of Cesky Krumlov. It felt like a movie set, but I knew it was a real place. It looked like the town had been built on a slightly larger place, then somehow crumpled and squished so all the buildings were touching and sat upon pitching heaving cobblestone walkways that careened up and around at crazy angles. I wandered past buildings covered in bright colored plaster with frescos and some baroque details and beautiful doorways. The famous castle added to the movie set illusion as all the stone work was frescoed onto a flat plaster surface. I looked up information about this, why the castle was just painted on, but no one mentions it as anything strange. It felt like I was in the story, "The Emperors new clothes." No one else is acknowledging that the castle is just painted on? Is this common? Maybe I haven't seen enough castles.

The best thing I did in Cesky Krumlov, other than relaxing by the river and taking a nature walk up a small mountain, was to take a tour of the old Baroque theatre which is one of only 2 left in the world. It has 17 sets, costumes, props and the old mechanized stage for doing fast scene changes. It has been nearly completely restored. The theatre was dimly lit with electric lights that mimicked candlelight. The smell of old wood with a bit of musk thickened the air. The stage was set with a forest scene, clouds and cupids hung down from the sky. The use of perspective made the stage look much deeper than it was. The guide showed us sound effect machines used to simulate a storm, and invited volunteers to help make a storm. I got to use the machine that made the sound of rain. When I went up, she said "What is your name? Where are you from?" I said "Rain, from the United States." She said, somewhat under her breath, "The Americans always volunteer." Not sure what that meant. I thought she would have reacted to a woman named "Rain" coming up to play the rainmaker. I enjoyed being able to sneak a closer look at the old stage as I made the sounds. Exceptional place. You can see pictures of the town and sights at

Finally over the culture shock of leaving Asia and landing in old Europe, I feel I am re-Westernizing. I also get to talk to many other travelers and get to practice telling the story of my journey through Asia for different kinds of people. This will help to crystallize and make some sense of what I did, in preparation for doing more writing and talks about it when I get home. Now I am back in Prague for a day before catching a night bus to Geneva. I will visit my cousin Heidi about an hour from Geneva, then September 20 head to Ireland.


I really am in Europe. The row houses and solid walls of old buildings towering over cobblestone streets and sidewalks. Faces and other baroque accents adorn windows, eaves, and porches. Occasionally gargoyles hiss and cringe as I pass and look up to see them. Prague is a popular place for tourists of all persuasions, and I am one of many people wandering around, our necks straining to take it all in.

I have had a good stay at a hostel in a female dorm. The place is clean and a 10-minute tram from the historic old town. I visited the castle twice. First on a tour I wouldn't recommend, then on my own. The highlight of the castle complex is a huge cathedral dedicated to St. Vitus. I've never seen anything like it. The old section was begun in 1344, with work and a dramatic additions being done through the 1600s. How do those spans of stone arches hold up the ceiling without pillars? It is beyond my understanding.

I splurged on a ticket to hear Vivaldi's Four Seasons performed in a gorgeous art deco concert hall. The sound was crystal clear, even though I was in the cheaper seats. Nude white people from the 1930s frolicked in garden frescos on the ceiling. Marble women in sweeping gowns contorted to hold up the balconies. The detailed inlaid wood of the stage glowed deep brown in the lights as the small symphony whirled through the seasons. It is one of my favorite pieces of music and seemed a perfect thing to do in such a fine old European city.

I have been endeavoring to learn more about communism, as it has been a thread running through China, Mongolia, Russia, and here. With my capitalist biases, I read the information at the communist museum, including the propaganda posters against the evil West that Russia used after WWII. One shocking thing is that Marx’s principles are widely believed to be the cause of over 100 million deaths. The push for industrialization and increased production seem so far from what I understand to be the ideals of communism. Maybe I am confusing socialism and communism. I need to learn more about it.

In the Jewish part of town, there was a ghetto for many hundred years before WWII that limited the work and lives of the Jewish inhabitants. In 1389, a local priest accused the Jewish community of "host desecration," that they had attacked a monk carrying a wafer. All 3,000 Jews in the ghetto were killed. It took awhile for the community to rebuild, but in the 15th and 16th centuries it was a thriving city within Prague. When the Nazis came, rather than razing it, they planned to keep it as a museum of an extinct race. Because of this, some very old synagogues, graveyards, and historic buildings survived the war. Tragically, most of the Jews from that time died in concentration camps. It was good to understand more about the persecution the Jews faced in Europe throughout time. Hitler was extreme in his plans to exterminate, but came out of a long history of vilification.

Prague has seen many wars and conflicts related to religious tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants as well. This has left the current population rather disenchanted with religion. Over 60% of Czechs don't believe there is a God. Though the city is full of beautiful churches and cathedrals, most of them are now used as concert venues rather than places of worship.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Take a picture

Technology is amazing. To be able to easily have a presence on the world-wide stage, turn on the computer and my pictures suck through the air into space to be viewed by any who visit them. My thoughts and stories zipping into the ether to be retrieved at whim by others.

Technology is also a trap. Snap! Click! I have a picture to prove I was there, that I’ve “done” it. This is part of the drive-through life I have been working to avoid. It’s the easier thing, to run around breathless snapping pictures. To see, but not to look. To rely overmuch on the visual sense, rather than soaking in with the others. What did the Taj Mahal smell like? Did I notice? As the guide rattled off some interesting facts and took me to the places where I could get the best photos, did I notice the feeling of the place? Now I’ve “done” the Taj, what does it mean to me?

In Europe I’ve entered a stream of other travelers, most of which are trying to “do” Europe in 1-2 months. They can rattle of lists of place names, common or not, and they have the photos to prove it. Did they, as my grandfather demanded to know, find out “what the local people eat?” Did they talk to the locals at all?

Everywhere on my trip (less so in Nepal and India) I have been in exceptional places surrounded by people with their noses buried in their cell phone, sending messages, pulled away from the now. One particular example was when the teenage daughter of my Mongolian family was trying to sort sheep while texting. After a few got through that were supposed to stay in the corral, her mom curtly told her to put her phone away. It is one way I check in if I find I’ve drifted away in my mind. “Are any sheep getting away in my distraction?” I can hear Enhee’s voice pulling me back into the present.

Sometimes on this trip I was somewhere I wasn’t allowed to take a picture. I felt stripped somehow. The reflex to click moving my finger of my camera-less hand. I’d try to take a picture with my mind and my senses. What is there to see and feel here? Other wondrous moments I would be immersed then think, “Oh, I should take a picture!” In Nepal, Niraj and I walked past 5 ladies young and old sitting on their porch of a stone house doing some kind of sewing work. They laughed and chatted in the sun, a wall of bright colored flowers ran beside and below where the house sat on a rocky ledge. I stopped and smiled, waved at them, and they greeted me warmly with “Namaste!” Niraj said, “you can take a picture,” but I had the feeling it would cheapen that moment. Instead I worked to fix the details of it in my mind.

In Asia, most of the time I wasn’t around other Westerners. With the exception of the Taj, I was able to sink in with my senses and soak it in. My pictures trigger memories that inform the surface image. Now that I am one of many travelers, in a cultural norm of passing through and checking off lists, it is much harder to remember to use all my senses. It makes me wonder how well I will carry what I’ve learned into the drive-through culture of the US. I have the picture. I must have been there, right?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Belarus airport sans visa big no-no

Traveler tip: if you ever have an international connection in Minsk, you need a transit visa even if you don’t leave the airport. You are required to get this before you get there. In all my travels, I have never encountered this. My ticket to Prague went through Minsk. Having not brushed up on my European geography recently, I didn’t know where Minsk was. It was a good price on the ticket, and got me out of Russia before my transit visa expired, so I booked it. I didn’t go through Russian customs before boarding the plane to Minsk, so I was thinking it must be in Russia. Turns out the Russian customs and Belarus customs are done by the same agents, in Belarus. When they couldn’t find my visa, and I said I didn’t think I needed it as I had a connecting flight, the Russian agent huffed and puffed and roughly told me to wait to the side. She made me wait there an hour, standing as many planeloads came through customs. I stayed calm and curious, one of the gifts from living 5 months never really sure of what is going on. I thought, “They could send me back to Russia, and then my visa there is expired.” Or, “They are going to fine the heck out of me.” And, “Interesting. Wonder what will happen?” Almost anytime unexpected snafus happen on this journey, I have stayed calm and said “Okay, what do I need to do, and how much is it going to cost me?” So I waited patiently. Another guy didn’t have a visa and was made to stand by me. He was very agitated and sweating bullets. Pacing from the place we were told to wait then returning. We didn’t speak to each other. His approach to the situation gave me a chance to see I was making a better choice staying calm until I had more information.

Once all the flights had been processed, they took me and the other man to get our luggage and then through a series of hallways and security checkpoints. We arrived at a consulate services desk, where I thought I would have to buy the visa with a penalty. Instead, the guy had to go there, and the agents kept walking with me. The Russian agent, who kept throwing disgusted glances at me, knocked on a door that was answered by a Russian man. They exchanged a heated dialogue where the only word I caught was “transit” several times. It was as if he didn’t want responsibility for me, but she insisted. Finally, he waved me through the doors, and though he appeared angry with her, he was neutral to me. He even spoke a few words of English. I still didn’t know what was going on. My flight was due to leave in 1.5 hours. He led me to a waiting area, a large room with windows and many chairs, and told to wait until someone came to get me. A Belarusian women sat there in a uniform. “Will I be able to board my plane? How will I check my luggage and get my boarding pass?” She went and got someone to help translate, and finally after 1.5 hours of mystery, it looked like I was going to get through without even a fine.

The time came for my flight to board, and no one had come. I went searching and found the Russian man. He pointed stiffly back to the waiting area. “My flight is leaving in 15 minutes, and I need to check my luggage.” He looked up at the clock. “Your flight was delayed one hour. Someone will come for you. Please, (the stiff pointing again).” Thirty minutes later, someone from the airlines came for me, along with a customs agent. I was escorted through the airport, checked my bag, frisked in security, and taken to my gate. I was so glad to be getting on the plane without further incident, when I looked at my seat assignment. It was 001C. “Uhh, isn’t that first class?” I asked the flight attendant and she kindly showed me to my seat right up front in a cushy first class section. I didn’t argue, just enjoyed. The whole time until we were in the air I thought someone might come and say there had been a mistake, so I had my diet coke and read my English language newspaper. Then I had a nice chicken lunch. More diet coke. No mistake. It was excellent. I felt very grateful and also kept thinking, “lucky, lucky girl.” I think Niraj (my guide in Nepal) would say it was the dimples on my cheeks showing their power again.


I arrived in Moscow on the train about 2 p.m. on September 4th. My cabin mates pointed me to the metro and helped me make sense of the map before they ran off to catch their bus. Since Mongolian uses the Cyrillic alphabet like Russian does, I was able to fairly quickly read the metro map. I followed the directions and found my hostel with only one wrong turn. I had made an error and never changed my date of arrival at the hostel when I had to postpone my train ticket. For them, I was 4 days late, and they were nearly full. A nice man from New Hampshire with a passion for customer service runs the hostel. Even though it was my error, they fit me in. I was relieved to have a spot, and it had a great location. As I went through the next day in Moscow I realized how lucky I had been to get that kind of help.

I hit it off with an adventurous man named Ian from UK that had just spent 2 months motorcycling solo from UK to Mongolia and Russia. We shared stories and drank cheap Russian beer. The next day we toured around Moscow by boat, foot, and subway together. Fun to have a partner in crime for the day. We took a river boat for an hour and saw many of Moscow’s famous buildings from the water. Next we walked to see the largest cathedral, and an old ornately tiled apartment building that I really liked. We made our way to the Kremlin, but because of a holiday, Red Square was closed. I was able to get a picture with St. Basil’s (the crazy candy striped cathedral in everybody’s Moscow pictures), just not from the Square side. Alas, when you have one day only and that’s the day it is closed!

After the walking tour, we went underground and toured the amazing subway stations under the center of the city. The trains are clean, fast, and frequent. This means it is easy to hop off, take some pictures and enjoy, then hop on the next train. Some stations are quite extravagant, like cathedrals underground. They mostly have a nationalist theme, many mosaics of the hammer and sickle, Lenin, and Stalin. They were built huge to help house the population of the city in case of nuclear attack or cataclysm. Apparently there are several secret lines built for KGB and to run supplies during emergency. They have glitzy chandeliers, ornate and gaudy grates and sculpture. Many have huge mosaics on the walls and ceiling. Each station was designed by premier architects and artists of the time, mostly between 1930 and 1970. I had a lot of fun doing this, and loved that the 2 hour tour cost $1.50 (one ticket lasts the whole time, until you come above ground again.)

I was impressed with how grand Moscow is. In the city center, the buildings look very European. Colors are bright and varied. Not the cement square bunkers that Mongolia inherited from them--though these are also in the suburbs of the big cities. What I found difficult and surprising is that the people are very harsh and unwelcoming of visitors, as a rule. Every encounter in stores or restaurants was unfriendly. If I asked for help, or asked if anyone spoke English, they were very offended. If I had to ask a second time because I didn’t understand their reluctant Russian response to my initial question, they became irate. I found 2 metro workers that were neutral and helped me, 4 very sweet Russian girls at the hostel, and 2 random people on the street that helped me, but otherwise interactions with locals were cold or openly hostile. It was wild to arrive in a country of white people after so long in Asia and have them be more foreign to me than anywhere I have ever been. I didn’t mind having so little time there. The people in the Czech Republic as a people are wonderful, especially so in contrast. But I get ahead of myself. First, I have to share my gratitude for not being jailed or sent back to Russia in Belarus for a visa violation.

Riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad

I now can say I have ridden the Trans-Siberian railroad from Beijing to Moscow. What a pleasant way to travel! Most tourists go from Russia to China, and since I was traveling the opposite direction, it meant I brought a trainload of Mongolian students heading to Universities in Russia as well as smugglers getting goods across the border tariff-free. There were only a few travelers like me on the train, but enough to have time to talk and meet some other Westerners.

I was on a Russian train, where all the cars are sleeper cars, either economy (4 beds per cabin) or business (2 beds per cabin). I heard from other passengers it is much nicer than the Mongolian train. It is kept fairly clean--though my car was run by a couple of blokes that weren’t as tidy as the other cabin crew. My bunkmates were 2 nice Mongolian girls on the way to a University outside of Moscow, and a woman transporting goods. This woman got off at the first stop in Russia, so most of the trip there were only 3 of us, which helped a lot.

The bunks are 6 foot long vinyl upholstered benches, and they give you a little mattress and sheet sets and a towel and pillow. Quite cushy! In China, that little mattress would bump you into “soft-sleeper” class, which costs more. On this train, the upper bunks were always down, but there was room to sit under it without scrunching. The top bunk people usually share the bottom bunk during the day, and move up to sleep. The 5-day journey (really 3 full days with a half day on either end) cost about $200. (The Beijing-UB ticket was about $350 and took 2.5 days.)

I got on the train with Mongolians that had enormous packages and baggage. Immediately, the bags were opened and there was a mad dash to unwrap the items they carried, and get other people to stash them, a little in each cabin. The smugglers kept the info in little notebooks: where they had stashed each item and how many. One woman with a lot of goods kept putting stacks of packages on my seat. I was feeling claustrophobic with all the goods and people coming into my cabin, and I started putting the stacks back in her cabin. I also didn’t really understand what was going on, I just thought I would start kicking someone if I didn’t have some breathing room. The woman in our car was taking jeans across the border. We helped her take them out of the packages and remove the dangly tags. I saw people stashing jeans in their beds, stuffed in the sheets. They put on multiple pairs of jeans. Other smugglers came around with jackets, wallets, socks, sweaters, shoes of many varieties, purses and backpacks, bottles of vodka…sometimes they were quite pushy for the cabin mates to take their items. People hid 3-10 in their various bags, and the jackets were hung on our coat hooks, so that each cabin all the way down had the same set of 11 different jackets on their hooks.

I helped with the tags before I really understood what was happening, but refused to help hide any goods. On this trip I usually looked at what the locals were doing and then did that, but in this case I did not support the community effort. Turns out I could have made 50 Rubles per pair of jeans I stashed, but compared with the penalty and forfeiting my journey through Russia or worse consequences, I refrained.

The train goes through some stunning Mongolian countryside where I said goodbye to seeing the gers dappling the landscape. Lake Baikal, the largest inland sea in the world, was amazing. We spent 4 hours just going around the edge of the southern tip. For those of you interested in the Trans-Siberian rail, taking a stopover in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal would be the top of the list. After Irkutsk, it is long stretches of woods and farmland, dotted with small settlements of darling wooden cottages painted in cheery colors. I enjoyed time to nap, write, and visit. I read over my journal and notes so I can start to make sense of it all and prepare for travel talks I want to give.

The main downside of this leg of the Trans-Siberian was the amount of drinking the Mongolian men did. There were a couple of fights, and the bathrooms got kind of sketchy from many drunk men attempting to use the toilet while the train bumped and jostled along the tracks and they were sloshed. Not a good combination for aim. I had to set a limit with my cabin mates that their male friends could come in when they were sober, but not drunk. Otherwise, I would have had up to 6 drunk Mongolian men squeezing in to hang out in our cabin. If I had gone at a different time, or started in Moscow (as long as it wasn’t in June when all the students come home to Mongolia for the summer) this would not be part of the ride.

Also, after making it through 5 months of crazy hard travel, my camera suffered an attack. One of my cabin mates accidentally smashed it in the seat after she got something out of her suitcase stored under my bed. Only the edge of the screen works, and my camera doesn’t have a viewfinder. At least it still takes pictures, so I can limp through the rest of my trip. But I can’t get to any of the settings, and have to just point and shoot like a blind old school camera since I can’t see much to line it up. My travel insurance should replace it, but not until after I get home. I handled it really well, just felt a little bummed.