My Australian family life is similar to that at home. They live in a good neighbourhood, which is situated five minutes from the sea and ten minutes from the super-rich. Nobody here is poor. The family I live with values good food and proper manners, just like my own. I realise with dismay and on several occasions that I don't understand the parameters for politeness here and that I might have misplaced some of mine on my two-year journey through Asia.
I'm sitting on the cliff, my head in the wind and once more I feel at peace. Unencumbered by the people surrounding me. I can finally look around in wonder.
My dear friend John has asked a question in the comments to my post, "A short glance over my shoulder", which has a very long answer: "I would be interested to know why you chose Iran as the most dangerous country and not Russia, India, Nepal or China?" Because its a long and winding answer, I start at the beginning...
Leo asked me a good question under my post "A Review in Short Form": "What was an encounter that you still like to think back to?" The answer is very long. Here we go...
Before I can immerse myself in my here and now and tell you guys about Sydney, I need time. Good stuff takes a while. There is a litany of things I want to review. So here it goes...
I take my big break in small steps. Change takes time, and I have learned that if I don't give myself enough of it, things go wrong. I change pace and take the pressure out. I start my work as a DemiPair, integrate myself quickly into the new family life and don't do much else at first.
Kuala Lumpur is big and crowded. From the bus stop to my hostel I take a taxi, which I share with a New Zealander and two Britons who rode in on the same bus. That's one of the things I've learned by now. It's likely that tourists stay in the same places. It always pays to ask and most of the time the other person is grateful that you dare. What scared the hell out of me two years ago, is the most natural thing in the world today.
The flights from Rome to Bangkok go smoothly, for the exception that I've brought a big European cold with me. I'm sure, when we get out of the (second) plane after ten hours, I gave it to everyone else. I don't know how I get from the airport to my hostel, but I fall asleep four times in the two different metros and a bus. For two days, I stay in my bed. I can't even go downstairs for the delicious breakfast. But, although I can't move, the thought of going home doesn't come to me. I'm here. I put one foot in front of the other, even if it feels like I'm dying.
The first thing that strikes me is the fresh morning air when I leave the plane. It's almost cold enough to get my fleece out, almost. The luggage takes a long time, but everything is there undamaged eventually. I buy my first cappuccino and make my way to the train. I drive past familiar old and rundown terra cotta multistory houses that make up most of the Roman dwellings. On the last chilly days before the summer heat hits, I'm lucky enough to see Rome at its best. We are old friends.
This is the first time that I write a text about three cities. I'm sure some people have experienced extraordinary things in these places. Only, I haven't. I found them terribly dull. As everywhere in South-East Asia, there is a night market and a few temples in each of these cities. In Chiang Rai, there is perhaps the most beautiful temple in Thailand, and even he couldn't catapult me out of my lethargy. The worst, however, are white tourists. Eighteen-year-olds are jumping around either topless or in spaghetti-tops and mini skirts. White men beyond their midlife crisis are looking for young Thai asses. They pull masseuses into their lab, who then jump up, screaming and indignant, and then catch a slap on the butt as if they hadn't made it clear enough that they didn't want to be touched. Most of the time, the young female colleagues disappear into the back room, and an older model takes over. Such observations remind me of my bitter experiences in Iran, and I get sick remembering the discussions that I have had with men who think that there is nothing "like that” at home. I'm ashamed of my fellow Germans. They are showing their true faces because the laws are not applicable to them. Because they believe, if it's forbidden, it doesn't apply to them. They run around with blinders and drink their beer without registering how the locals live, dress and move.
I have only one rule, and that is to travel around the world without a plane. I want to feel how cultures intertwine. I want to see how Christian cultures merge into Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and then Muslim or Christian cultures. I want to "perceive whatever holds // The world together in its inmost folds". That's how I put it at the beginning. (Goethe did, but who is splitting hairs.) That was two years ago. Once before I got on a plane to get ahead. At that time I reached my limits. It was up to me to decide, forwards or backwards. Other people who travel like me (without a plane), and fail at the very same point (crossing Pakistan) continue via Turkmenistan. At this point, it would have been possible to proceed without a plane. In principle. In my specific case, it wasn't possible. I bitterly regretted this flight at the beginning. Today, I am glad that I didn't travel through Pakistan. Not because it's impossible for me or because I'm afraid, but because I've learned that it's wiser to visit some Muslim countries accompanied by a man. One day, I will do that.
After almost 21 months of travelling, I have come to terms with my new normality. Having travelled through a lot of challenging terrains, I find Southeast Asia boring. No matter where I go, I manage to satisfy my basic needs with ease, and temples and palaces are always like some other place or just a little bit different. Lately, I've been wondering why that is. Am I spoiled? Or is Southeast Asia just not that spectacular?
After three weeks of pondering and waiting it's finally time to leave. I walk to the bus stop with C. to buy the ticket because the lady behind the counter cannot read Latin letters. Not even my translation app helps. I can get information to her, but she not to me. So I return to her counter with C. I get a ticket that doesn't take me all the way to Luang Prabang, but at least across the border into Laos, to the next largest city, Oudomxay.
I'm sitting in the dark in one of my host's dorms. From the street, I hear the karaoke bar around the corner and the subtle noise of the night market. For every traveller, these sounds are a lure. For me, the bait has lost its pull. I haven't been looking for adventures for months. I'm nervous, although there's no reason to be except that the internet is too slow to watch movies and my Dropbox is blocked by the Chinese state. I can neither save my photos nor correct my English texts. It's this unsecured status that makes me nervous. What if just now my computer decides to break? Then the pictures are gone forever. On the one hand, I want to get out of China, to finally move closer to Australia, on the other hand, I like it here. I have so much to learn and could eat my way through this fascinating country indefinitely. However, I will never learn Chinese, which makes a prolonged stay futile.
Lhasa is a special place. Here the beggars walk around with bags full of money (even if they are filled only with penny notes) and the locals wear Indian cowboy hats. The sunlight falls glistening into the unprotected iris of every fool that leaves sunglasses or a hat at home (or like me, forgets it in the back of a taxi). Almost everyone seems to be a pilgrim. Three pilgrimage routes lead through the city: along the former city limits (Lingkhor), around the Jokhang Temple and parts of the Old City (Barkhor), in the courtyard of the Jokhang Temple (Nangkhor) and around the Winter Palace. The monotone murmur of the Buddhist mantras, the rhythmic spinning of the prayer wheel and the scraping noises made by their hand protections as the metal surfaces scrape the pavement. Their bodies stretch out, and the head humbly descends to the earth. I expect sparks, but there are none. It's a routine movement. Sometimes, people glide effortlessly, other times illness slows them down. They meet in small groups that sit side by side, drink sweet-tea or butter-tea together, or they are lonely penitents.
Once again I get on a bus to Kathmandu and tumble out, after being thoroughly shaken for 8 hours and 18,837 potholes. I make that journey together with a new acquaintance from Delhi, we have booked different hostels since the season has now started and the tourist accommodations are overflowing. We decide to meet for lunch and dinner, regardless. I learn a lot from her. About brahman women and the expectations towards them in the upper classes of Delhi. Often her descriptions cause me to shake my head. Roughly once a week, for example, she has to go to the hairdresser, get a manicure and a pedicure. It's more about the work that she invests in her beauty than her natural attributes. A woman isn't considered beautiful unless she is well maintained. Only if she goes to the salon often enough, she is regarded as a proper lady. Like in Iran, the slightest hint of body hair is scandalous, natural nails (as I wear them all the time) are a sign of limited means and a lack of style. When I try to formulate what our beauty ideal looks like, I realise we're not better. The concept of natural beauty is as unfair as senseless. Who evaluates whether someone is beautiful or not? And if you look into western society long enough, beauty isn't so natural either. What a boring topic, but that's whats on my mind.
I decide to go on another trek: the Anapurna circuit. I get the permits, buy some pecks, walking sticks and provisions. When the day comes that I'm supposed to leave, I stay where I am. I don't understand what holds me back. I meet a young American at breakfast and tell her about my hesitation to go on the trek. She did the Anapurna base camp trek and understood me immediately. She tells me about the near-death experiences on mountain slopes and about the two tourists who died on her way up. One because he ignored his symptoms, the other because the helicopter didn't fly in on time due to bad weather.
One morning in my second week in Nagarkot, I wake up and find an e-mail from China. My planned entry into Tibet is impossible because the Tibetan New Year falls on my travel dates. Either I'm going to Tibet this week (early February), or I have to wait until April to cross the border.
Wild stories abound in Nepal. Sometimes I get the impression that this is a ruleless space, this country in chaos. And yet, there are rules. The mess is not quite as limitless as one would expect at first sight. But for a Brahmin woman (top layer of the caste system) to open her door to unknown foreigners, to share her food and her home, a lot has to happen. She must discard/reinterpret her religion, distance herself from her family and be the master of her destiny. P. has chosen that path. She lives separated from her ex-husband, supports her children, both of whom are studying (her daughter is on a scholarship in America) and hosts foreigners in her home. She is thus, the link of her village to the western world. She conducts cultural exchanges, explains, communicates, laughs and communicates some more. S. helps her. She comes from a mountain village and is therefore not part of the caste system. P. gave S. the opportunity to escape from unbearable employment and gave her a new life that allows her to support an old mother and an ill brother. P. does development aid on a small scale. Local and exactly where it makes sense. She lives what I've heard so often referred to at home: think globally, act locally.
My lodging consists of a series of bamboo huts that reach far into the banana trees. I crawl into the smallest with the name "Stillness". It stands on stilts that raise it one meter above the ground. It's an idyllic little paradise, the cabin big enough for a bed and a narrow corridor for my backpack. The sounds of the jungle are louder here than those of the village, and yet, we are surrounded by houses. The building rage of the Nepalese strikes me for the first time. On the neighbouring plot, a colossal concrete monster rises from the ground. Directly behind it is the Rapti river disappearing into the fog. It is home to crocodiles, rhinos and countless birds. Here, I see a kingfisher that flies in the air without moving forward. My camera is too slow at that particular moment.
To travel, I have left behind the people who populate my orbit and make it a lovely place to be. I have friends with whom I can conduct intellectual discussions, talk about the written word and recorded images on the same wavelength, cook, eat, laugh, make music, drink wine and whiskey, laugh at trivial things, and ponder over world events. I knew I would spend my life eating, drinking, talking without ever doing anything myself if I didn't leave. In other words, I was willing to neglect my circle of friends to get to the point where I have something to say about the world and the experience to back it up. While travelling, I sometimes lose track of what I need. In Delhi, thanks to my friend J. (my half Indian study buddy from home), I encounter people that remind me of what I'm missing. And the number one thing I miss is conversations about art. I meet P., a photographer, and S., a journalist. Both have a lot to say about pictures and the written word.
After enjoying Christmas so much, I'm planning a similar evening on New Year's Eve. I take the beer in the fridge, cuddle up in a chair surrounded by candles, and write. I make some tough decisions concerning my onward journey and clear up my mind. I also decide to stay in India for a week longer. I'm feeling too good here, and my adventurous spirit hasn't stirred up yet. Both clear signs that I need even more peace. And since rest has become the most valuable and rare commodity on my journey, I hesitate to let it slip away again. Since my hosts are the friendliest beings, they offer me to hibernate here (like, through winter). For a moment, that thought lingers in my head, but as my budget deteriorates, my helplessness drives me to take action. I will continue into Nepal, then to Tibet, for a short week and a three-day train ride through China to Laos. Then I will almost be in Australia once my budget runs dry. With a bit of luck and volunteer work, I might still be able to do it. I would have to skimp and turn around every penny twice (which I find very difficult), but that would be worth it.
This is my second Christmas on my journey and contrary to any plans I made before, I spend it in Delhi. I am so busy with myself that no Christmas feelings occur. Somewhere in my head, I have the idea to bake cookies in order to get a little bit into the christmas spirit. On the 24th I go into the local supermarket around the corner and find no flour, almonds or eggs - not because they don't exist, just because I am blind - I give up my plan quickly. I don't have the ingredients, nor do I trust the small electric oven in the kitchen to meet my requirements. It seems too risky. My solution is Starbucks. I buy a piece of chocolate and carrot cake - because I can't decide, a pack of Oreos and Indian chocolate biscuits. Then I ask A. to show me the way to the "liquor store", whereupon he puts me in the car, drives around the corner and carefully accompanies me into the dark alleys of the dilapidated shopping center. I buy two beers and a red wine recommended by A. ("Miss J. always drinks it, it's good.") I wish I could mimic the Indian accent. Unfortunately, my imitation is an insult. I will forever smile when I hear it though.) Then I ask A. to let me out at N-Block Market. It's the fancier local shopping square (if you can call it that). I buy another cappuccino. To move a little, I go around the whole place. When I arrive at the opposite end, I see an Indian Santa Claus on a carriage pulled by a white horse. From one of the many shops a British version of Jingle Bells blares into the street and suddenly I'm in the mood. By chance, my eyes fall on a deco shop and following an impulse I buy two hands full of tea lights with lavender scent. I know exactly what I will do. I'll take a hot shower (a luxury), wrap myself in lavender, eat cake and sip red wine, read a book and Skype with my family. Not very Christmassy in the German sense, but fully satisfactory and to my taste.
My first trip to Delhi takes me to Lodhi Garden. Online you can read a lot of nice things about it, J. has mentioned it at some point, and on the map, you can find it easily. Also, it's not a major attraction and promises a relaxed visit without too many people and tourist traps. A. drives me right up to the west gate, and we make sure to find each other in the same place in two hours.
I want to spend my time in India in an Ashram, do yoga and find myself. I want to experience India how it appears between the pages of magazines. I want to realise my very own "Eat, Pray, Love", but as always, nothing is as it seems. Thanks to J. and her family, I encounter an India deeply rooted in the here and now, a culture that is so different and yet so similar to mine. Similar to where I come from, my situation in India is privileged. Encountering this vast and diverse culture on a social dimension I understand, helps me to find common ground. I quickly realise that what seems strange to me, is normal here. For example, to have someone working for my benefit 24/7 feels strange. The households I visit all have one or more house managers. Sometimes it's the job of one family to take care of another. I quickly get used to it but catch myself not wanting to give away some tasks. I postpone them to the evening hours and thus turn them into celebrations. What, to Europeans looks like a precarious life, is, in fact, a desirable occupation. As always, the spectrum between rich and poor is much broader than I could have imagined.
The monotonous hum of the engine and the slightly quivering wings of the enormous white bird that I reluctantly climbed into in Dubai - no, let's be precise - in Sharjah are heading straight for an inscrutable white wall. We leave behind the pretty pink skies, the unobstructed views and the idyllic island air. Dehli.
After 484 days I finally start writing my 100th blog post. In fact, it's my 105th blog post, "but who's counting"! On the 537th day, I finally edited, translated and published it. Everything takes longer than you think.
The full extent of my two months in Iran only becomes clear to me in Dubai. First, I spend five days in a third-rate hotel. I feed on chips, cola and brioche. Everything to not have to go into the street. I sleep and watch Netflix. I cherish my isolation and am hard at work building up my defences. I find it hard to put into words how my head looks from the inside until the tennis-training-metaphor comes to mind. Travel is like a successful tennis lesson. I react quickly and spontaneously to the balls coming towards me. At best, I meet and smash them back to the other side of the net. Now and then I let one bounce into mine, but rarely does the tennis ball hit my own body. In Iran, too many tennis balls hit me. I stood there with my arms crossed over my head. A position of defence that doesn't do anything against the balls that rush at me. I was helpless and still am. A damn uncomfortable feeling.
Hitchhiking is easy and adventurous. We continue telling our fake origin stories we tested in Alamut, but I can't avoid feeling like we are exploiting the people. It's not about making a financial profit. I feel uncomfortable because people only help us if we give them specific narratives. Besides, people don't know what hitchhiking is here, nor do they know anyone who travels around the world. Traveling is always the equivalent of holidays and tourism. In their minds, we have to be infinitely wealthy to afford it. As a couple, all this may be acceptable, but it's unimaginable that we could be doing it on our own. Especially as a woman. For men, however, it's not much different. It's against nature. Don't you have to think about marriage? For only those who marry are allowed to be sexually active. How can you stand staying single? A valid question and a dilemma that drives boys into marriage. The truth, therefore, isn't an option.
Shiraz was special and yet very typical. One of the female solo travellers I met on my journey tipped me off, so I knew to ask for a single room with shared facilities. Basically, a single room for the price of a hostel bed. There I spent a good week, slept long and did only the bare necessities. I was very lucky because at breakfast I met some other solo travellers, with whom I could vent and from whom I could gather advise. I took a guided tour of the main places nearby (Persepolis etc.) with M. a French woman, who, like me, is a long-term traveller, but uses aeroplanes. We spent endless beautiful hours discussing our discovery of feminism, exchanging podcasts and telling each other about our dreams and plans. Rarely we find people with whom we become intimate friends so quickly. I don't know what I would have done without M., the world traveller, M., the cyclist and M., the performance artist. I was so caught up in my frustration and exhaustion that the calm from the South had vanished within seconds. Both M., the world traveller, and M., the performance artist, had experienced things similar to mine. M, the world traveller, was as shaken and exhausted as I was. M., the performance artist, had found her ways and her people. She stayed in Shiraz for the entire time of her visa, so she built up a network of artists and could give us valuable tips.
Suha, one of the protagonists of the book "Women of Sand and Myrrh. A novel "by Hanan al-Shaykh, answers her husband when he asks why returning to the West was suddenly so incredibly urgent: "Nothing's happened. I'm going to explode, that's all." A feeling that I can understand and words that I've often said to myself. I have to get out of here, or I'm going to explode. I can no longer travel to the even more religious eastern part of the country to possibly get a visa for Pakistan in Mashad or Zahedan, although both consulates have already denied me any chance of success by telephone. I am exhausted, my nerves lie bare. Often I think of the words of my aunt who asked in my Patreon what that would change on my journey if I had to get on a plane. I can not give her any reasons, other than cosmetics. "I wanted to travel around the world without a plane.", "I want to understand the slowly changing cultures and maybe learn to understand them a bit better", "the chain would break", and "other Germans have already done it, why should I fail?".
I would not have survived my time in Iran without the knowledge that there is a world where women like me exist. Much of what I describe here, I've read or heard many times before. It's nothing new, but I have understood it in Iran on an emotional level like never before. Iran has made me a masculinity hater. I can spend hours talking about how dreadful men are and merely hint that I do know great ones as well (but most of them not here). I met exactly one trustworthy Iranian. A single one. Everyone else thought sooner or later I would have to sleep with them, that they had a right to my body. Even writing this makes me angry, and the hatred rises in hot waves up my neck.
On July 8, 2016, I wrote my first fictitious blog post. I never published it. Here is the first paragraph:
"SHOES. If all goes well I will wear this pair of shoes for the next five years: every day and on every tour, in town, by the sea, in the desert (ice or sand), on the mountains, in the valley, on the plateau. A pair of shoes for all situations, without me knowing exactly WHAT I would see. As with everything I had to organise for this trip, I was looking for the impossible."
Anger. Every word in the following text is saturated with incomprehension and rage. Also, two weeks after I wrote it, I can still feel the anger fresh in my stomach. I leave this text as it is because this is part of travelling alone as a woman. However careful you are, travel long enough, and it will happen to you, too. Not to write about it would be unworthy of my travel documentation, and I would feel dishonest. I have talked with many travelling women about it, and everyone has lived with similar or worse things. (Which doesn't make it better.)
Women in Armenia are seen as either saints or whores. And since European women cannot be saints per definition, they are whores. Neither inclination nor age plays a role. The difference between the rural and the urban population is huge in this regard. In Yerevan, I often feel like I am in Berlin, in the provinces constant honking reminds me, that you are seen. An unpleasant feeling.
Fear plays an important role. It's omnipresent. It's next to the backbone of my trip.
Many women whom I meet tell me: "I would like to do what you do, but I can't. I'm afraid."
I understand. I'm afraid, too.
The last time I was really happy, I was ice bathing in Finland. All my senses were present in the situation, busy figuring out what was happening with my body. Fascinated by the thousand unknown sensations and thoughts that triggered this experience, I was unable to ponder on the past or the future. It seemed meaningless to the here and now. I describe this state as happiness, but I am not sure if that's what it is. I was busy exploring the spectrum between pain and pleasure. Not necessarily a spectrum everyone is ready to explore.
Georgia. The Caucasus begins here from one second to the next. At the place where my Russian taxi driver drops me off, the valley is broad, and the mountains look like adolescent boys. The border crossing to Georgia is one kilometre south in the notch of a mighty canyon. The three thousand meter high peaks rise in self-confidence on all sides and command awe. Instead of the military, the border is guarded by a monastery. There, I take my first break and congratulate myself on crossing the border. I have started to celebrate the small stages because sometimes the stretch in my head is so much wider than the kilometres, I physically travelled.
Russia! Time flies. For too long I looked at you without seeing you. Understanding my surroundings was hard work, and when I finally managed to get it, I had to leave. The huge black spot on my map, Russia, is now filled with anecdotes and ideas, people and life plans. I can contextualise prejudices and thus relativise them. I learned a lot.
For one last time, I feel the bustling of the Russian train tracks. We drive towards the mountains, slowly approaching Georgia. My head travels in the opposite direction, back into Russia. So much happened in this country. I finally began to understand. Some moments helped me to keep going. They are often small, quiet moments and perhaps that's why they stay so fresh in my mind.
Balaklava is a small seaside town, former military base and tourist paradise. Old gentlemen sit with hats in the harbour, hold their fishing rods into the turquoise water and call out to each other from time to time. The people here are beautiful, like the landscape they are masterpieces of time. In the harbour are yachts from America, Europe and Russia. As usual, the rich of this earth know exactly where it's worth living. The coast is mountainous and rugged. The land in this part of Crimea falls in cliffs into the blue sea. Yellow dry grass dances with cornflowers in the evening sun and the crickets sing their evening song.
Crimea isn't the crisis stricken area that it's portrayed as in the Western media. Neither is it the paradise the Russians proclaim it to be. The truth is somewhere in between. On some afternoons, fighter jets fly over the beach. The girls don't notice them. The boys point excitedly to the sky. A few moments later we hear thunder like sounds. Can it be? Are they testing bombs? The children don't know. It must be thunder, they say. We foreigners are relatively sure that it must have been a weapons test because there are no clouds in the bright blue sky. The next day, no one puts two and two together, when deep-sea grass and jelly fish lay in unusually high numbers on the beach.
When I sat at the table for the first time, I sat in front of a plate of naked noodles and a piece of the whole chicken that I. had been cooking in the oven for five hours. The plate was as big as a breakfast plate in Germany but full to the brim. There was a small plate, the size of a saucer, with tomato and cucumber pieces. Also, without sauce. On the table were ketchup and mayonnaise.
In Russia, I am asked without circumlocution about my living circumstances. Often in the first hour of an encounter and mostly by other often older women. "Do you want to get married?", "Would you like to have children, you can handle them very well, you should have kids soon!", "Do you have a boyfriend?" And "Why are you in Russia?"
I've lost the overview of what I've already written about and what I haven't. One thing is clear to me; I can't write about Russian traditions. My experience of the culture is entirely different from that in other (European) countries. All of my previous knowledge is tainted with prejudice. The cultural differences go so much deeper than I ever thought possible. I have spent the last three months getting rid of them. I have no expertise that would give me an inner compass. It makes writing about Russian traditions very hard and potentially a painful read for anyone who knows just a little bit about this country. I can't get beyond my own experience of this culture, and that fascinates me. So, I will write about the moments that have made me understand or experiences this culture with new eyes. And because it's easier to start where memory is fresh, that's what I'll do.
The summer rain in Samara is heavy and loud. When it rains at night, it sounds like a herd of wild horses is running past my window. I don't know if this is because the rain drops are particularly large or particularly loud on the canopy cover. The rippling of flowing water in the downspouts sounds as if a medium-sized brook flowed into the Volga right in front of my window. The acoustics confuse me. They are incredibly unrealistic because the next morning there is no evidence of the imaginary masses of water of the previous night. Then the birds are chirping in front of my window, and the garden resembles paradise. On some mornings, when it's really quiet in the house, only the current of the electricity can be heard roaring through the walls, and the small guest refrigerator hums discreetly in the corner. Unlike in winter, the heating doesn't crack. In the distance of the house (or perhaps one of the neighbouring houses) I hear the first signs of life. Someone moves chairs.
Diana's ashes are dancing in grey clouds over the Appenzellerland. As if ordered for the occasion the mountains are dipped in a wet grey dress. The vast expanse of rolling hills, so impressive in the sunshine, is shortened by a foggy wall. Thus the landscape appears small, almost intimate, more protected than it would ever seem in the sunshine. The humidity is high, and many water drops linger on the meadows that are still uncut and in full bloom. As our Footwear ploughs through the grass, the water pearls down along the thin blades of grass or spreads out over our freshly polished leather shoes. We stand alone in this vast landscape. The gloomy weather protects us from the otherwise unavoidable weekend tourists. One after the other, we reach into the little linen bag and lift the ashes into the sky. It's strangely direct and un-ceremonial. At the front of the abyss, looking over the rolling hills, I am alone with my farewell and watch my grandmothers remains dance over the meadows...
One month ago, I wrote a whole series of texts about what will happen next. They had titles like "And now?", "And then" and "Arriving". I never hit publish.
I am on my way to Germany, and my heart, my head and my wanderlust are topsy-turvy. My lips peel themselves, and I develop herpes as big as a strawberry on my upper lip. It always happens to me with a very particular kind of emotional stress. Often, I only realise that I have a problem when I get this little pest. The nights are short, and sleep doesn't bring relief. On arriving in Germany, I am sporting herpes in the shape of Hitler's beard.
Sometimes life gives me lemons, and I don't make lemonade. That was last week. This week, I left the lemons behind and went out looking for strawberries. While I was struggling with my lemons (a slight stomach bug, followed by a mild cold, which turned into a bad virus infection and struck me down for a week), the (hypothetical) strawberries grew in all corners. Now I have harvested them and made a strawberry cream.
If I am proficient in anything, then in "being abroad." Here in Samara, it's the fourth time that I live in a country where I don't speak the language. By now, I know the problems that I will have to face and how I can deal with them. I know the steps that I'll go through before I feel comfortable for the first time. Of course, the experience is different in every place, but often my coping mechanisms are the same. This emerging template gives me security in communicating my needs. I can suddenly tell where I am at and what I will be able to do in the end, most likely. That fascinates me.
Sometimes I feel like I can't do anything, not really, not down to the last detail. Perfection escapes me. Although objectively, I know how to do a lot of things quite well. I need to remind myself of what I am capable of, here, in Russia. I am reminded daily, hourly, of what I don't know. Often it feels like I can't do anything because even the things that I know about, I can't practice outside of my person. I am once again a beginner. For me, this situation is a source of joy and horror.
The journey with the night train is uncomplicated and peaceful. I share the cabin with a Russian woman, who takes me under her wing, and two Russian men. My luggage is stowed away, and my travel companions explain how this will work through pantomime. Of course, I understand only half of what they try to tell me. For example, I didn't realise that we women were left alone in the compartment so that we could change into our nightgowns. Later we would do the same for the men. While I was still contemplating whether I could leave my luggage with them in the cabin, the conductor came and told us to move. He knows who is where and has the car under control. He later enters the cabin in the night to wake the travellers at the right stations and provide tea in glass cups. He has already set up a way to talk to me. He communicates by throwing one-word phrases at me. My cabin mates do their best to translate them into pantomime, and so Чай (tea) is the first Russian word I learn.
An hour before I arrive, I am still awake on my bunk, looking out of the window. Have we arrived? When will the city come? From the small strip of the window I can look out of from, I see only snow, bushes and street lanterns throwing their wandering light into the cabin. Here is nothing. Not even small garden sheds. No industry. Just rails. It cannot be Samara.
Then, suddenly, everything happened fast. I got my visa for Russia, bought my ticket, had my first big successes in picking up the little girl from kindergarten (breakout of enthusiasm and exclamations of pleasure at my sight), found a way to play with the middle boy and went cross country skiing for the first time. On the 31 of January my successor came, and I introduced her to the inner workings of this family. And then I sat on the train. Bang, bang, pow: Chapter closed.
There were some moments this Christmas that are burnt into my consciousness for eternity. One was the frozen sea and the wonderful summer house of my hosts, and the other was a walk that I went on with the dogs on Christmas Day.
I woke up one morning, and before I turned on the lights, I checked the time on my phone. There was a message: "Grandma died at two o'clock this morning after she had a brain oedema."
I'm sitting in the dark. Typical for my family, emotional messages are broken down to bare facts. It takes me a while to understand what that means. I don't know what to do, so I stay where I am, mumbled into the warmth of my bed in the otherwise cold room in Vantaa, Finland. Soon, I feel wet patches on my pyjama. Tears trickle over my cheeks, the black night is like a protective blanket, as if time had stopped as if the agony in my chest and throat could postpone the moment where this was my reality. The sunrise would inevitably come. With him, the day would start. The first day without her as part of my world.
In a way, I had prepared myself for this situation. Not really and actually, more in a playful and easy-going way. That's why I travelled to Helgoland with her before I left Germany. When I told her good-bye in Hamburg, she knew much better than I did, what the chances of a reunion were. She knew what farewell meant. I only thought I did.
She was one of my most faithful readers and wrote the best comments under my articles (1, 2, 3). She didn't understand where I got the courage and the confidence just to go. But she accepted it. She was a hard, passionate and sharp-tongued person and for me, she was one of the most important identifiers in my family.
This came from the fact that I was born as the only blond child in a family of dark-haired people. When I had questions about that, my parents always pointed to my grandma's blond hair. It's not surprising that I often looked to her for similarities. I found them.
In Vantaa, the morning had arrived, and the children were playing downstairs. It was a weekend and the whole family was in the house. I went downstairs, was welcomed and integrated into the morning routine. With R. and B. alone, I told them what had happened and that I might fly to Germany. Later it turned out that this wasn't necessary, but that is another chapter.
B. and R. know grief much better than I do. They met exactly the right balance between warmth, consolation and distance. They gave me the car keys and let me go. I was glad to take the time.
Outside in nature, I slowly managed to get hold of myself. I've never been that sad. I'm glad it was only the rabbits, the trees and my car, the Silver Bullet, that saw my tears. They were not an invitation to the outside world. They gave relief and, like laughter, expressed a feeling much more than demanded a reaction.
I am glad not to be at home. That way I don't have to deal with my family. Each one of us had very different relationships with our Oma Muck, and everyone has a different need to mourn.
I have never been sad like this. My sadness was without rage, shame or a feeling of impotence. A bit astonished, I find that this grief is like other pains, a tightrope walk between pain and comfort, as bitter as it is sweet. In the beginning, it's unpleasant and takes your breath away until it hurts a little less every second. Under the pain is the memory of moments, days and thoughts that have been shared and can no longer be shared. Boom. Another stab.
Never will I ever be able to delete this blog and her comments. I must continue. Even if the reader numbers have not yet risen immeasurably and my income is still generated from my savings. There is no way back.
On my journey I redefine luxury. The biggest is a cosy bed, and the second is time to linger. To guarantee these luxuries, I wear the comfortable bed on my back, and I take the time to stay in beautiful places. It's in big parts the reason why travelling long term is tolerable for me. In third place, is the luxury of routines. So far, I had assumed that these habits bring about the death of creativity. Here in Vantaa, however, I experience the opposite. The morning mocha coming out of the Bialetti (specially bought for me) provides a feeling of stillness every morning. The familiar smell of – sometimes maybe a little burnt – coffee, the sound of bubbling boiling water, and the thick black liquid in a medium-sized white cup, bring me half an hour of peacefulness. This feeling isn't created by the coffee alone. Rather, it's the passing through the well-known motions that this satisfaction produces in me: the slight smell, the noise, the coffee. It's part of a routine that I picked up and brought home from my year studying in Italy. I will take it wherever I go.
Here in Finland half-day jobs are rare. A circumstance that entails an above-average number of families that need the help of an Aupair. Since I didn't know what to expect on the site recommended to me for searching a host family, I had written to five or six different families at once. I had grown more cautious through my experiences on couchsurfing and the woofing sites. On this one they answered me within the next three days. I entered into conversations with two families. Both seemed nice, unaffected, and straight to the point. One family lived near Turku on the Archipelago (AN ISLAND!), spoke mainly Swedish and had never had an Aupair, the other one lived in Vantaa, the region north of Helsinki.
The second family had had an Aupair that decided to quit a month ago. That's why they were ready to take me on immediately for three months. Perhaps they were horrible? I mean, you never know. They could be Godzilla. During the phone call, however, they seemed very relaxed. The mother was talking to me while the father brought the children to bed. Besides the perfect timing, everything was spilt out. The communication was super-clear, from the beginning I knew my duties and their priorities. In conversation, it turned out that they had my best interest at heart. They were not concerned with getting the most out of me and thus save costs, but to fill the gap that they could not fill themselves. I was the solution to a problem. Mum and Dad could not be home in time to drive the children to their activities, as they both worked full time. There was no football, athletics, drums, music theory, or band rehearsals for the children without a car. To provide them with all the possibilities, they needed a chauffeur. If you know me, do not laugh! Since you saw me drive the last time, I have learned a lot.
It dawned on me that this might be exactly the right thing. I would be solving a problem outside of my own little head. I would also have three months to overcome my inner couch potato and apply for the appropriate visa. I would spend Christmas in Finland (OMG) and have time to get back into some comfortable routines. My next stop would be Helsinki anyways. I would go for a visit, and we would take it from there. In my heart my decision had already been made. I really wanted to try this.
It all started when I went to my first language exchange in school: 10 days in Toulouse. It was different, funny, friendly and impressive. My exchange partner was a boy with a migration background who lived with his mother, his sister and a small dog in a two-room apartment in one of the poorer quarters of Toulouse. In France, at the Lycée there were strict and often incomprehensible rules, as well as additional personnel, who insisted on their fulfilment. At school, many faces were colourful, quite different from the Catholic school in East Germany I frequented. The world in which our exchange partners lived was on the opposite side of the spectrum to what I was used to. We are four children who live in a family home in one of the richer neighbourhoods of our city. We have a garden, my mother was at home while we grew up, and we each had separate rooms. In school, there were only teachers. No additional personal to control us. Our worlds were very different. I am not sure we could have met any other way.
Back to Latvia...
Do you know people who, when watching a horror film, hide under a blanket or a pillow? Or do not stop talking, or call out things like: "No, do not go there!" Or: "Oh maaaan! How stupid do you have to be!" I am such a person, so I never, ever, ever watch horror films. Horror movies and sports are two pastimes that I do not understand or follow for the same reason. They seem pointless to me. One exposes oneself to unconscionable suffering without gaining positive, real effects. I find the thrill cheap and mostly without reward. (I know debatable ...) Since I watch no horror films, I always assumed that I could never write one. I just don't understand what's going on with the characters. Since I've stayed in this AirBnB, that has changed:
After my first week on the road, I had written a summary of my state of mind. When I wrote it I was still a little high from the previously experienced nature-high and totally not used to the feeling of power over me, myself, and I. Since then, much has changed. However, it is important to me to share it with you because it captures that moment and my state of mind.
"For the last week, I have been traveling to the east alone. It turns out that this adventure reveals more about myself than about the culture and the country I am visiting. I don't feel overwhelmed. After all, that was the plan. I really wanted to know where my limits lie before I entered Russia. I discovered the stranger in me. It's a fairly wide, fairly breathtaking landscape (metaphorically and literally) and I am regularly high of the feeling of absolute self-determination. I realize that I am experiencing this feeling for the first time.
I feel muscles that I have never felt before. It is not a painful muscle ache brought on by over stressing, rather the noticeable slow growth of the fibers with permanently increasing demand. My attitude is changing, too. I stand upright, walk with wider steps and feel taller. My body becomes a tool that is at my disposal. The exhaustion occurs much later than expected. I am much more present and look forward to my growing leg muscles. My body aesthetics adapt to my new goals.
After only one week on the road, I have already made some serious mistakes. I missed trains, overestimated myself, lost all my documents, and bought dubious tickets on the Internet. The resulting problems were quite serious and went way beyond my head. Problems that I can't solve alone are a complication. Just because something is complicated does not mean that it is impossible. The certainty that I will find a way to cope with whatever is thrown at me, is exhilarating.
A woman traveling alone is not a normality anywhere. It was commented on everywhere I went. I have already been called everything from brave to insane. When I feel threatened (almost never), I walk more decisively, my steps become wider but not faster and I breathe slower. Most of the time, however, I am confronted with complete ignorance or an instinct of protection. Between alien and baby, I feel equally uncomfortable. My vis-a-vis often doesn't know this, and most of the time I say goodbye with a friendly and helpless smile.
Planning approach (key realizations)
The planning of such a trip is not about my own security, but about giving the person I visit enough time to get comfortable with the thought of me being there."
My visit in Poland has left strong impressions on me and if you follow me on Instagram, you have seen this picture before... It's a regular high-rise in Swinouscje. I was impressed by its beauty and the care that the residents take of it. It stands in stark contrast to what these houses look like in Germany. To me, this picture shows what kind of lessons I have learned, just by leaving. They are small and mostly insignificant but they are adding up.
Here are some examples...
E&P (the couple I visited) knew exactly where their place was in society, what they wanted and where they were headed, quite different from me. Every decision I have made in the past 10 years, they have made differently. “Different” is the only word I can think of to describe them that doesn't imply judgment. At the same time, “different” is such a weak word to describe anyone because it only means something in relation to something else. I will try to be more specific without sharing too much. Their response to resistance is to keep their ground (with great effort and humility) and to consistently work towards their goal. That goal is a family, a place to live, perhaps a house. Their way to achieve this goal is a profession, a job, and it lies in the conflicts with each of their families and their faith. Family is fulfillment. Especially their way to deal with faith impressed me. My reaction to restrictions and externally fixed notions of good and bad is immediate opposition. My neck hairs stand up and my index finger wanders to my forehead. Such nonsense! (Do not dare to make any attempts at regulating my life and be glad if I come into your churches at all.) I only give as much "good" as I can, or sometimes as much as I want to and I am ok with that. What that "good" is, is defined by me. It has to be given voluntarily, uninvited and from the heart. To me, this has more to do with humanity and community than with religion. These thoughts would never cross their minds. Despite my position, I am very much impressed by the fact that someone follows these old fashioned rules and as a consequence lives a balancing act. The two of them deal with these rules until they get to their core and make them worth living.
E&P took me to a service at their church. To my surprise it was wonderful. (I had been warned that services in Poland were exceptionally lengthy.) In spite of my Evangelic education and familiarity with the Catholic faith (I attended a Catholic school), the experience in this service was special. The faith in Poland is taken more seriously and more people make the effort to come. (Where I come from a church packed like that happens only on Christmas.) Almost everyone came in their Sunday clothes and looked very pretty. The intensity of the congregation that day was palpable and it helped, that the priest was a phenomenal entertainer. A truly beautiful experience.
Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas. The French film from 2006 has a very nice and catchy title track (which is also played in the trailer). On IMDB, the film gets only 7.4 points despite the young Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds). I saw it for the first and only time in the evening before my first backpacking trip to Spain. My former roommate and I were supposed to go on a relaxed, cheap and active vacation. She already traveled further and on lower budgets than me. With a backpack each, a tent and a student budget we went on the trip. After several days of relatively carefree vagabonding, we took a small train which brought us to the coast. We opted for a single-track railway station in the middle of the woods with a little manless concrete house. The forest turned out to be small, and the way to the coast took us no more than 30 minutes by foot. The cliffs fell 40 meters into the ocean. On the edge of the cliffs was a narrow road with a few houses. We realized quickly that sleeping on the beach (plan A) was not an option, as the beach was narrow and we could not rule out that the tides would surprise us in the night. If you walk carrying heavy luggage without knowing how long it will last, each meter is one too many. We walked the narrow country road towards some campsites and after 5 kilometers it turned out that all the campgrounds were full. It was the high season.
At this point, I was already in a panic about having to sleep under the open sky. When I'm tired I can be quite unbearable. Combined with fear, exhaustion, hunger and slowly rising panic, it may be due solely to H's equanimity that we still speak to each other. She had the foresight to get something to eat and a cheap liter of red wine and so we ventured on. In my youthful folly, I could not imagine that one could camp wild in Spain. (You totally can, like it's allowed.) The idea of sleeping "just anywhere" was unimaginable.
We walked the narrow footpath along the loose road, past a church, a forest, and a cemetery. I still distinctly remember the noises that night: the sound of the sea, the trees, the beating of the waves, the distant sounds of people and the single passing car. To our right and our left, it was dark. On one side there was the forest and on the other, the country fell into the sea. Whether the cliffs were as high as earlier or simply ran smoothly into the sea was left to our imagination. The darkness was absolute.
H went around knocking at various hotels in an attempt to get a room (Ha! Young and naive and, of course, to no effect). After that, we rejected the idea of sleeping at two more beaches because we heard watchdogs (or were they simply on their evening stroll?). There was a little street along a lengthy estate wall leading to a steep curve around the coast. As we were at our wit's end we saw the lights of two camping vans in the distance. Coming closer I heard familiar music. My heart swelled and I picked up speed: it was the theme music of Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas. Bad people don't watch good movies! H was a little surprised about my changing state of mind and followed me, a little confused. We had a quick talk in French (finally someone I could understand!) and put our tent up right next to them. That night we slept on the roadside, next to two French camper vans. Never a red wine tasted so delicious, never a nights sleep was so deep. To this day I am sorry to have put H through this.
I realized for the first time that in order to grow "anywhere" is sometimes exactly where I need to be.
The only thing that is incomprehensible to my father is: why alone? To him, it would be so much nicer if I wouldn't travel alone: "If you have to travel that far at all, travel with a partner!"
My previous experiences traveling alone have been very positive. It's incredibly exciting and liberating. Freedom (actual and absolute) is something I experience only then. For trips with one more or several other persons, there is always someone with different a agenda or need. This is not in and off itself bad - on the contrary - sometimes that's very pleasing. After all, everything is better when shared, especially experiences. I have no intention to travel like a hermit. I want to offer spontaneous chances space. Hypothetically: if I was in Helsinki and a band touring Finland would allow me to come into their bus in exchange for tour pictures, I would want to do just that. Even if the band does not have space for my travel companion.
A big part of this trip is going to be about self-discovery. What interests me especially is how I deal with the loneliness that I will be exposed to on a trip like this. I want to know what I need to live when I have to fulfill only my own needs and tastes. I'll never find that out if there is someone who can clear stones out of my way or find solutions for my twisted little brain.
As a counterpoint to the lonely road, this blog will serve as a connection to Germany and the world. I need a digital home if I don't have a physical one. It's a way to keep the communication flowing and keep a log of all the things that I have experienced. I hope to enter into a dialogue with friends, acquaintances, and strangers. I want to have a place where I can show my photography and share what I learn. A place where I can share when somewhere in the world somebody steps up. When everything fails and the fall is deep, but the landing is soft, because out of nowhere cotton clouds appear and soften the blow. You know, the kind of situation that never happens until it does...