Category Archives: Travel Diaries

31 Countries and Counting…Reflections, Memories, and Lessons Hard Learned

What Happens When You Put an American on a Hot Crowded Bus in Sri Lanka

She was the end of my rope, this fat, bare-armed Buddhist woman. Before this I thought I could handle almost any challenge posed by the transportation world. I had mastered the art of tolerating airplanes and the odor of humanity wafting through.  I had endured a freezing sixteen-hour bus ride through the snowy Balkan Mountains. Just fine. I had settled in to the communal bunks of the Indian sleeper train well. I had even come to enjoy the places of our world where – when there is no room left on the bus – they find a way to fit thirty more bodies aboard.

But this was it.  I was sure to crack.

On the hottest day, on the middle of the Equator, in a packed city bus, this abundant woman stopped right in front of me.  My American judgments against obesity and my individual need for space collided in slow motion. But there was no time to react. Over her shoulder, she eyed the vacant half seat I was using for balance.  Then down, down she came.  I moved my arm just before she would have snapped it like a birch twig.   I felt our bodies melding together, her hips into mine, my thighs with hers.

Our bare arms and shoulders—I was sleeveless too—pressed into one another and stuck like a naked back on a leather seat.  I closed my eyes resisting every temptation to flee (where was I going to go in this sardine can?)  I needed something quick before I lost it; I was going to explode.

What if I had taken a few more classes on Theravada Buddhism?  Would it have prepared me for this moment?  What of intercultural theory? Could I have reasoned my way through it? No.  This was pure emotion and the unmasking of something buried deep inside.  It was anger. Though my wisdom has grown since, I doubt I could reproduce the miracle that happened to me that day.  No, she did not move to a different seat.  I found the will to love and abandoned myself to the ancient practice of appreciation.

As I centered my mind in that fateful moment, something happened I did not predict.  It was as if a flood of appreciative power swept over me. Where did it come from?  I had no idea. Not from the reserves of my own impatient spirit.  I knew that much.  My anguish turned to serenity. “I am touching this person, bare arm to bare arm”, I thought.  “How lucky I am to be able to touch another person.  How many humans in this world, in my homeland, live their lonely years without ever feeling the warmth of human-to-human touch?”  Don’t get me wrong.  This was not a perverted thought.  Trust me.  I was in no way attracted to this woman.  It was a letting go of the need for control.  It was a moment where I perceived the hidden nobility in this woman, and we shared a moment of unavoidable contact.  I experienced a form of power that day.  It was not the kind that demanded entitlements or sought to justify my superiority.  It freed me to love this life even when everything else seemed to implode. Appreciative abandon saved me on that momentous occasion, on a hot bus, in Sri Lanka.

 

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25 of the Best Pictures I May or May not Have Taken from Around the World

1

Boating on the Li River: China

2

Concord Grapes from Boyd's Orchard, KY

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Gulf of Gonaive: Haiti

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Red River Gorge: KY

5

Haw Par Villa: Singapore

6

Palau Ubin: Singapore

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Palau Ubin: Singapore

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Singapore Zoo

9

East Family Dwelling: Shaker Village, KY

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Trustee's House: Shaker Village, KY

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Pendleton, Indiana

12

Leaf

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Shaker Village, KY

14

Wilmore, KY

15

Christmas Village, New Hampshire

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Angor Wat, Cambodia

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Erawan Waterfalls, Thailand

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Democracy Monument: Bangkok, Thailand

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Saarnath, India

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Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

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Livno, Bosnia

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Zagreb, Croatia

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At the Roots of the Caucusus, Azerbaijan

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Budapest, Hungary
Budapest, Hungary

25

Great Wall, China

26 (Okay, one more)

Tiger Sanctuary, China

 

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Travel Diaries: A Christmas Pilgrimage to Bethlehem of Palestine

Read Part I:

7.00pm Eastern European Time, December 24th, 2004.

We are two days until one of the greatest Tsunamis in all of recorded history hits, but we are grappling today with evil of another kind.   We are at the heart of Christian origins, where the birth of one babe sparked the greatest world movement ever to be known.  And the air is potent with violence and tension.  What would tonight hold for us?  This is no longer the little town with a placid baby.  These are the borderlands where centuries of hate have piled one upon the other.  Yet, we are gratefully ignorant of all that has happened.  We simply have come to celebrate a savior.

As day fades into night, we decide we have come too far to be shut out on account of five tickets.  Surely somebody has an extra. At least one or two of us will get in.  So we do what any sensible American might: find a monk.  There are plenty walking around.  So, we come up to the gated entrance and ask the hooded man about extra tickets.  He sizes us up and down and says, “you need to get your tickets in advance.”  “We know now.  But we have traveled around the world for this moment.  Surely there is room.”  He pauses, ponders, and then reaches into his cloak.  With a smile, he hands over three tickets. “These are extra.  But you are lucky.  You may not find any more.”  Any more!?  We are virtually in.  But, I don’t know at that moment how serious the monk is.

Hours pass and the rain grows stronger.  The women are taking shelter, trying to stay calm even though there are mostly men out now in the revelry of the evening.  That’s one thing that really surprises me.  In Muslim countries in 2004, the women mostly stay in at night while the husbands socialize throughout the town.   Mark is finding food, and Paul and I head out in search for more tickets.  We walk back to the gate and are set in to terror when we turn and see a commotion.

Our senses flare as we see a motorcade heading our way.  It is classic.  A dark car with tinted windows is coming our way.  Surrounding the vehicle we see at least fifty Muslim men shouting, pounding on the metal, running alongside.  This was it: The last Christmas in manger square.  The mob begins to erupt, the car explodes, our women are caught alone in the mob, and I shake myself back to reality.  We come to find out it is Mahmud Abbas, the soon to be President of Palestine.  Every year the Church of the Nativity saved a seat for Yasser Arafat.  He never came.  This year Arafat died.  The leading candidate comes and takes the seat.  It is a gesture of goodwill.  He gets out of his car and gets escorted in.  Now we simply have to see what this service will entail.

Mass begins at midnight and it is 11.00pm.  We have three tickets and are beginning to decide who gets to go.  But before we make that decision, we get aggressive.  “Let’s go to that gift shop,” somebody says, “ and see if the owner can help.”  Inside we are greeted with a glittering mound of nativity treasures.  The owner speaks English.  “We need two tickets.”  He grimaces,  “That’s not easy.”  “Let me make a phone call.” After a few minutes he comes back and directs us to his brother who is serving cider across the square.  Confirmation.  Another ticket.  We need one more.

The eleven o’clock hour moves by quickly with no success.  So we try our last option.  We head back to the shop owner.  “We just need one more. Do you know anyone who can get us in.”?  He pauses again, looks at us, and reaches in his vest.  He begins to unfold the most impacting moment yet. “Here is mine,” he offers.  “I live here.  I go every year. You can have my ticket.” I retort quickly, “No, no. We don’t want to do that.”  He gets firm. “You will take my ticket.  We are both Christians.”  I am shocked to hear he is a Christian.  I have no idea Christians live here. “Now go,” he says. “Doors are opening.”

We take his ticket given as a miracle on this bleak midwinter night.  We enter through the half sized, “door of humility” where only two years ago at least ten were killed during the second Palestinian Intifada.  After a short tour of the holy sites, we find our way to the Roman Catholic section of the church.  There the Mass begins in full regalia. It is a herald of the New Creation with flavors of the old paternal order wafting through the air and around the CNN cameras.  The night was supposed to be magical.  It was filled with miracles, no doubt.  But our experience became colored by what was happening to us in general.  We had been traveling for four months. And we were beginning to see Christianity and religion for what it truly is.

As we ride back to the old city, during the early hours of Christmas day, I think to myself:  violence and ashes in this world are everywhere. And so are some of the most amazing people.  Christianity as a religion has dirty hands.  In fact, followers of the child who was born in this place can conjure up the kingdom of darkness on earth, as it is in hell just as much as light as it is in heaven.  What is it that makes religion heal, and what is it that makes it destroy? I am becoming undone by these experiences.  And our mentors, if they knew what we were coming to see, may have advised us at that point to come home.  They might have told us not to explore lands further away from home, religious lands where we might get lost amidst the worlds growing economies and ancient faiths.  But, we were young and ready to explore.  And when we heard the growing news about the devastating waters rising in Asia. And when we realized we already had tickets to India next, we wanted to help at whatever level possible.

 

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Travel Diaries: Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part V

Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part I
Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part II:
Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part III:
Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part IV:

Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part V:

6.10pm Central European Time, November 16, 2004.

When we arrive in Sarajevo, after 10 hours in this bus, winter’s twilight falls.  At this point, I have read no history on the war.  When the youth of this ravaged land were hiding from mortar, I was but 15.  When I was struggling with cracking in my adolescent voice and devastated by young American depression– prompted by petty things– these young men were hiding their faces from the fires of racial and religious genocide.  My eyes fall with fresh shock on the bullet-ridden buildings of this majestic capitol.  How has life endured here? How could this be?  The pressures of traveling soon sweep us along to simpler worries.  I often wonder how long I could have stared at the shelled buildings if it hadn’t been for our need to find shelter.

We made our way to the Muslim section of town and get lost in awe of the minarets and the old streets.  We find a hostel and drop our things off.  The frozen winter’s night still has life, and we made our way through the bazaar.   We return the next morning to shop for some keepsakes and make sure to find our way to the station.   It was the 17th, our date of expected arrival.  Livno, Bosnia, our destination, lies somewhere West over the mountains, which dominate the horizon.  We are heading to a resource center for teachers, to live among this people for a handful of weeks.  Our hosts expect us today.  After another eight-hour ride through the snow-covered mountains, we make it!  We miraculously arrive from Greece to Bosnia.  It was stupid.  And it was truly a journey laced with destiny, for I knew not then how the strife of this country would inspire my imagination when I will encounter racism, violence, poverty, and ecological ruin in my country years from now.

We pull into to the small town, and I immediately smell the forest of chimneys smoking in the early winter’s dusk.  Our host sends us immediately to his neighbor’s house to help chop wood, the fuel of choice in this area of the mountains.  The whole place smells to me like the camps of my childhood youth.  I like it somehow. When we get next store, we met our new friend, a young man about our age who is busy chopping wood.  The whole yard is piled high with split logs.  He is an extraverted man, keen to tell us about when the first grenades hit.  He shows us the bullet-ridden fence.  Throughout his story and over our evening of chopping, this young man chants in his thick Slavic accent what appears to be his life’s song pulled straight from 1969,

“War, what is it good for? Absolutely Nothing!”

His voice gets seared in my imagination when I will remember those days of traveling, when the road was long ahead of us and there were a hundred lessons yet to be learned.  But in this evening, the sun seems to hang still as our hands grow ripened on the helves of our axes.  We swing them for hours in a millennium long ritual, preparing for winter in a land, which is trying to heal from a millennium of racism and violence. The ashes of war hang in the air of this town like the ashes kindling in the hearths of each home, in the mountains, on this night, where Christians and their guns changed everything.

Travel Diaries: Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part IV

Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part I
Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part II:
Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part III:

Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part IV:

10.50pm Central European Time, November 15, 2004.

So off belched the bus to Serbia, into the heart of the Balkans among the clandestine leaders of the Yugoslavian genocide.  We slept poorly bouncing along.  Morning arrived just as we pulled into what seemed to me soviet central.  We explored the streets knowing from our intuitions that we Americans were not welcome. Our breath came alive on the frozen morning air. The fish market froze the night before with its chests of fish suspended in a block of ice.  After a few short hours of pinched stomachs, we found bread and sip of milk.  Our bus would leave soon for Sarajevo, to travel along the roads of war.  I looked at our map and expected a three to four hour ride.  I had no idea we were heading into the heart of the mountains.

The bus twisted and turned around the switch backed ravines in the land between Bosnia and Serbia. Time passed slowly on the frozen bus until the snow let down.  And it fell like a blanket of thick cream.  Our driver slowed some but pressed by the snowy cliffs.  The trees, in a just an hour were weighed down heavy, bearing eight, ten inches.  We stopped for midday lunch and carried swiftly on.  I knew not when we passed the borders.  They didn’t matter at this point.  All I knew was that we seemed lost in a land of wonder which held within it palpable danger.

Travel Diaries: Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part III

Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part I
Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part II:

 

Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part III:

8.50pm Central European Time, November 15, 2004.

By all grace, the man was good, an angel sent from above.  There was no mafia in this unlikely place.  It was the bus station, and the teller, she knew no English.  Yet, within ten minutes, we had our tickets to Sarajevo via Belgrade and only two hours to bide. The hyena-angel was indeed a NATO translator and a legit taxi driver.  He brought us to McDonalds, to their city square, and back to the bus station on time—all with the meter turned off.  As we said goodbye, he reached into his backpack and pulled out three plastic packaged muffins.  He was not the last vision of Christ we encountered, though his persistent compassion saved us days and at least a hundred dollars we would have eaten in Skopje finding our way.  We had toured the grand cathedrals of Europe, been pick pocketed in Rome, on our way to All Saint’s Mass at the Vatican.  But it was here we met Jesus, on a dark night in the South Balkans.  We were only beginning to learn about the dusk falling in our Christian West.  But on the streets of Macedonia, we found the spirit of Christ and his Church alive and well.  While the Christian dawn was rising for the global south, God’s angels were at work on her borders even in a land who knew genocide and war only five years before.  My education was arriving, though I had little clue that our next five months would be full of new visions of global citizenship which was also deeply Christian.

Travel Diaries: Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part II

Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part I

Getting from Greece to Bosnia- The Journey of Destiny Part II:

6.45pm Central European Time, November 15, 2004. Skopje.

Having been on the streets for three months, we knew better than to get in a stranger’s car.  That’s why I strictly refused to talk with the hyena-man who wanted to give us a “taxi ride.”  The man had just seen us hop off our train an hour early.  He knew we were vulnerable.  He did not know we thought we were wise.  “I am a taxi driver.  I speak English.  Let me help you guys out.”  “No thank you, sir,” I retorted.  “Okay, have it your way,” he replied.  Night was falling on the capitol of this ancient city, whose roots stretch back way beyond its biblical references.

This was a decisive moment for our hopes.  We needed to arrive in Livno, Bosnia on the 17th.  But, Skjope looked like a twilight giant.  Would we find the bus station?  Would we find a net-café to find the bus station?  Perhaps it would take until the 17th to get our money changed and to exchange that for the right ticket to Saraejvo.  As we leaned our packs against the train station bricks, the man drives up to us, in his taxi, and interrupts our meeting of minds. “Come on gentlemen, where are you going?  The bus station?  I can take you there.”

Either it was the stupidest thing we ever did, or it was the universe aligning our destinies with a kind soul.  We had no choice but to trust him. “We are going to Bosnia.  Where’s the bus station”?  Moments later we were off.  The man sped through the city like a bat out of hell and eventually pulled up to an unmarked building.  In the dark, we saw what looked like a small gas station with a few miniature cars parked outside.  Except there were no pumps or street-lights. This was it.  Inside was the most unlikely bus station, or it was the headquarters of our doom. I stepped slowly out of the taxi, pushed down my nerves, and walked through the smoky glass doors with my bags strapped tight and my dignity in tact.