I’ve been meaning to write this entry for a long time now, but I never could find the right combination of free time and energy. Now I’m on a short break, and I’m happy to be doing this; this kind of structured reflection is helping me realign my goals, gain perspective, and know how to better proceed when I revisit that book that still isn’t quite finalized.
It’s been more than a year now since I checked out of Ethiopia after 3.33 years’ service as a Peace Corps Volunteer there. It wasn’t until looking back through my photos that I realized how much I did and did not do during that first year as an RPCV (Returned – or “Recovering,” as some joke, Peace Corps Volunteer). It’s all too much to try and cover here, in word or in pictures, but I’ve collected a small sample of images and am about to write a set of similarly disconnected summaries that, together, will have to sum it all up. Please note that any photo can be viewed in a larger size with a simple click on the image.
As a preamble I’ll just say this: although I’m not and never was the typical PCV, I still fall within the fold in many respects. I indulged in the almost obligatory post-PC travel. And, although I attempted to avoid the typical ‘reintegration’ issues by staying detached, with no intention of reintegrating, I still experienced some of the typical identity issues and feelings of being out of place amongst happily employed, pop-culture pacified, consuming Americans. Then again, that’s nothing new.
Without further adieu, then, let’s get down to business.
Addis Ababa, Fall 2014
Time to say goodbye to friends, co-workers, and random associations. It’s a cliché to say it was bittersweet, yet accurate in this case. The end of my service was tinged with a palpable bitterness for reasons that I won’t go into here – a bitterness that I can still occasionally taste, although it’s fading gradually, displaced by the sweet flavors of Myanmar. It was also hard to say goodbye, especially to the co-workers I’d become attached to after spending so many hours together, through thick and thin, at home and on the road. Still I was happy to be escaping. My wife and I enjoyed the last of what must have been a thousand shai-bunna breaks during our time as PCVs, and prepared to enter the next phase of life.
Central and Eastern Europe, Fall 2014
This was almost a whim destination, just a place to land after extracting ourselves from Ethiopia. I’d been curious about it for decades, and was looking forward mainly to checking out the natural thermal baths that the cities of Buda and Pest are famous for. They didn’t disappoint – but the coffee did! We especially enjoyed the refurbished Turkish bath called Veli Bej, down near the tip of Margaret Island on the Buda side of the Danube. As luck would have it, this place was also one of two in the whole metro area that I found to serve a decent macchiato.
It’s pronounced “Debreten,” which caused plenty of confusion when trying to but train tickets in an environment where just using English seemed to provoke a wide range of reactions, including hostility and fear. It was fun to take a train again and see the far east of the country, my first real taste of “Eastern Europe.” But the city, Hungary’s second largest, seemed like an illusion propped up on nothing but the university, almost too perfect and functional with its gleaming new trams, fountains, and municipal buildings with well-lit, yellow facades.
We only came to Debrecen in order to get here, a wildlife area that promised a chance to see thousands of migrating cranes. We saw them from the train in the early morning mist, but not inside the park. That didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the day trip, though; we rented bikes from an inn and poked around inside and outside the park, exploring to our hearts’ content.
We decided to go to Croatia after determining that our “Plan A” – Southeast Asia – was off the books due to continuing, heavy rain. Now I had the chance, obligation really, to finish a project long in the making. I’d follow my old travel route (well, sort of – the original route’s not possible anymore) from 30 years earlier. This experience would form the backbone of my upcoming book, “Reconfigured Memories.” Since the account will be found there, I won’t write much about it here. Suffice to say that all of Croatia in 2014 offered the most pleasant kind of tourism, with comfort, great food, history, art, culture, etc. It was almost too perfect at times, believe it or not. To balance this trend, we tried, as we had in Budapest, our hand at some budget travel. This meant staying in some hostels with shared bathrooms, stuffy interiors, and odd decor. Not bad at all, but still overpriced.
We took a day trip to this wonderland of nature, something that really needs to be experienced firsthand to appreciate its unique appeal. It was equivalent to The Temples of Angkor in cognitive dissonance for this visitor: there’s so much, too much in fact, for the eye to take in and the mind to comprehend, but that’s just the local setting. The other half of one’s brain needs to pay constant awareness to negotiating with, and also trying one’s best to ignore, the inestimable mass of tourists.
I also shot this brief video clip, which, perhaps, combines some of the dominant aspects of the experience:
A perfect place for a holiday; I wish I’d had a week or ten days here so that I could have kayaked around the offshore islands and visited the national park in the mountains up above the city. As it was, swimming, museums, walking around, and dining easily and pleasurably filled our days.
Deep into old memories and, simultaneously, the future I’d missed while traveling backward in time in the Horn of Africa, Split was a nice antidote to overly touristy Zadar. The new development and attempts at chic were offset by a classic crustiness and the locals’ dedication to their own routines, tourists be damned. Loved it!
The second stop on the Plitvička to Italy express for well-heeled Asian tour groups, Dubrovnik was the most beloved place of my three decade old memories. By 2014 it was still captivating but had lost a lot of its charm and innocence and seems to have become an overpriced maze of high-end pastries. Not that I didn’t try my share…
Bosnia Hercegovina (BiH) was a welcome relief. Outside the EU now, the signs of the war were still readily apparent 20 years on. The cultural flavor was strong (I was taught, for instance, whether I wanted to learn it or not, the difference between Bosnian and Turkish coffee), and the honesty and directness of locals made me want to come back for a Bosnia-only touring adventure. If only I can get that chance in the future! More than anywhere else, this region still reminded me of the sights, sounds, and smells of my ’84 trip.
Travel can’t really be profound, can it? The vantage point of the tourist, pampered and superficial, just doesn’t allow for that. But this was as close as it could get as I chased 30 year old memories and tried to reckon with more recent history.
Leaving Europe, Returning to the US, November 2014
After finishing the rough retracing of my ’84 route, it was time to face the music and head back to the U.S. in time for Thanksgiving. The strange, crouching woman who had first appeared in Zagreb and had followed us everywhere since was on hand again when we took our holiday ride to the airport.
Iowa, 2014 – 2015
Iowa is not where I belong, but it’s a place where I still feel very comfortable. Spending time with family and old friends was especially comforting. Because I was gone for 3.5 years? Maybe. Because my parents have passed away and the rest of my immediate family and dearest friends have passed the half-century mark? More likely. Almost all the photos that I took during these months have inexplicably disappeared from my computer, but the memories are still in my personal hard drive, the one composed of tissue and cells.
Portland, Winter 2014
Another chance to spend time with old and dear friends, thanks to their generosity in hosting us. We spent most of our time at the neighborhood library, my wife working on her thesis and I working on my book. In between we hung out with our hosts and watched movies, ate great meals, went on bike rides and long walks, (even a fascinating night walk) visited museums and galleries, and discussed everything that merited discussion.
Turkey, Early 2015
Just after the start of 2015, we had a chance to work at an English language camp in Turkey. Istanbul was our entry point.
Although it was increasingly annoying and hard to ignore the harassing vendors, restaurateurs, and carpet shop owners trying to drum up off-season sales, the history and culture of the city didn’t disappoint. I especially liked the historic, underground cisterns near our hotel that could have so easily been missed.
It was a great chance to visit, and we would get another taste of it after the camp was finished, but I wouldn’t recommend it too highly to would-be visitors. There are just so many more authentic, less expensive and clamer places to investigate.
This was the closest town to the location of the English camp. Usually this sort of scruffy, dumpy, beaten-down atmosphere would be most fetching to me, but when I saw the cheap consumer goods and fur shops catering to Russian tourists, I just couldn’t get with it.
We visited this historic theater and surrounding ruins twice and saw what I always imagined Greece must look like. The first time was with staff and the second was with all the students on a field trip. I was a far cry from Belek, and almost timeless in a way. What a great experience and opportunity we had to work with youth from Afghanistan in Turkey! I wish them all well, those youngsters. I wonder what kind of world they’ll be in by the time they get to be my age, and whether this place will still be intact.
This was a different type of travel from anything I’d done previously, a working vacation in a small fishing town on the Mediterranean. We rented a room in a hotel/condo of sorts up the hill above the town. Every morning we’d go down for a generous breakfast spread with the owners. We were the only guests, off season.
Then we’d go back up to the room for more coffee and work on the thesis and the book for the balance of the morning. By mid afternoon we’d usually set out for a long walk, or occasionally jog, most often on the scarcely developed peninsula that took us even closer to that Greek island, just offshore, that we were curious about but never reached.
After our day’s exercise and exploration we’d stop for dinner at one or another unpretentious eatery and sample the delicious, unprocessed, healthy local dishes. It’s a kind of travel experience that will be difficult to replicate, but that I’d love to try again. We really got to know the town well, became regulars at a couple of dining spots, and started to feel more or less at home in the town. That was before the real tourists arrived, of course. We were just beginning to see hints of the coming horde when we were preparing to leave town.
We spent a day or two here on the transition back from Kaş to Istanbul. It’s a quirky, historic, beautiful, and slightly depressing place.
Washington, DC – Spring, 2015
I finally had a chance to visit my nation’s capitol … and I took it. I was surprised by the nondescript quality of the city … it felt like a larger Des Moines in many ways. And there was the scrubby National Mall, devoid of any character, and over there was The White House, looking like something plopped down, out of place.
Overall the city didn’t seem real, yet fell well short of surreal.
It was great to reconnect with some fellow RPCVs and a colleague from Ethiopia who, by chance, was there for a conference. Most of all I loved the museums and monuments, some profound, some curious, and others clear exercises in myth-making.
Minnesota, Summer 2015
Here we had more chances to reconnect with old friends, familiar faces and places. I even helped out with a couple of Peace Corps events. Mostly I relished the chance to indulge, all over again, in long walks by the river and around Lake Nokomis, to hit the bike trails and eat delicious Vietnamese food at Pho 79. I spent a lot of hours throwing frisbee with friends who served with me in Ethiopia, ate Habesha Migib and enjoyed some wonderful mircrobrews, just a tiny sampling of the explosion of craft brewing that happened while I was away. Still there was a hollowness, a fraction of what immigrants must feel, I suppose – stripped away from the rich, cultural context of our Peace Corps host country, we were left as cutout figures with nothing but the traditional clothing we brought back … and our disconnected anecdotes.
Isle Royale, May, 2015
This is the place I dreamed of most intently when I was in Ethiopia. Why? The pristine environment, the absence of domesticated animals and vehicles, the trees, the rocks, and more than anything, I suppose, the never-ending presence of clean, clear water in all its different forms and flows.
So when my wife went to India for a work assignment, I set up a little challenge. I’d done backpacking before, but never gone solo. I’d been to the island a handful of times, but resolved to visit new trails and new campgrounds. I set a challenging hike for my middle-aged body, over 11 miles with all my gear on my back, as my last.
I was surprised by many things:
- The sheets of ice and pockets of snow along portions of the shoreline seen from the ferry on the way in.
- The hot morning weather after getting off the ferry, which made me strip down to my t-shirt before starting my first hike.
- The thunderstorm that soon followed and made me take refuge under a tree near a pond where spring peepers chirped happily.
- The mosquitoes, so early in the season.
- The fact that my gear failed, most notably my “waterproof” kayaking dry bag that allowed my sleeping bag to get soaked … also the seam-seal coating of my backpacking tent, which disintegrated into plastic dust.
- The incredibly cold nights with my sleeping bag, which didn’t even come close to satisfying its stated temperature rating. I almost froze every night, but the last night was the worst. I’d chosen an unoccupied shelter at Malone Bay. All five were unoccupied, in fact. I was the only one there for two nights running, and in the course of three days I only came across one other human (this was the isolation I’d been craving). The shelter I chose was the closest to Lake Superior (for the view, of course!) But this positioning also allowed the frigid wind to whip in off the lake and straight through the screening of my wooden lean-to. After the trip was finished (I succeeded in my challenge!) the closest temperature reading I could find online was a low of 28 degrees that night. Sounds about right.
I also decided to try a new experiment in documentation. Having taken hundreds of photos on my previous visits to the island in different seasons and circumstances, I resolved to only shoot short videos this time, “samples” of the environments I walked through.
After I got back home, I edited many of the samples together. Here are the links to the finished products:
UP (Upper Peninsula of Michigan) – Summer, 2015
This is another area I’d dreamed about many times, for many of the same reasons as Isle Royale. My wife and I had been up here more times than I can count and still weren’t tired of it, although on this trip the previously unseen and unthinkable appearance of local yokels on ATVs in the protected areas of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore made me wonder if it wasn’t finally time to find a new getaway spot. We had some nice hikes, but it was a crowded time of year, so finding camping spots and quiet wilderness time was more difficult than usual. We still managed to find some new things in between revisiting old favorites. We spent a little more time in Marquette, which we’ve tended to avoid since it became the big, sprawling metropolis of the U.P. in the last decade or so. But hiking around the park on Presque Isle was quite a treat, and we even saw some fledgling merlins in a tall tree over the roadway.
Madison, Pre-departure – Summer, 2015
This was my last chance to visit a couple more old friends before departing for Myanmar. Again, the depth and breadth of conversation was the primary, sustaining factor. I also got a chance to check out Madison’s network of bike trails. They can’t compare to those of the Twin Cities, but I was pleasantly surprised by a few features I hadn’t seen before, such as the electronic metering of trail users at one junction, and the handy bike repair stations at a couple of others. I wondered how Madison and other ‘progressive’ urban areas would fare in the coming era … the slow political drift in Wisconsin, seemingly pushed along by outside forces, seems only to hint at the greater dehumanization that’s to come. For now, though, my friends can still live in this pleasant bubble and grow their own organic brussels sprouts … and I can still pay visits to such comfortable and comforting spaces with people I’ve known for so long.