Category Archives: Travel Diaries

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

Travel Diaries: Uppsala, Sweden

18 years old, I was a freshman in college, and it was my first international experience. Our choir toured through Sweden, the motherland of my kin.

There are certain moments when life impresses its  beauty on you unexpectedly.  This was one of them.  I had been lucky to land a spot in our college’s premier traveling Choir.  At the end of my freshman year we packed up our things, secured our passports, saved all our cash for Swedish fish, and caught the redeye to Copenhagen.  Ahead of us, hundreds of Swedes awaited the music, which we had spent a whole year memorizing.

Most of our time was taken traveling from city to city filling small and large Lutheran churches full of eager Swedish souls.  Yet,  we took in as many sights as the arts director could squeeze in.  We visited castles (the Castle), ancient viking ruins, country cottages, and other historic sites. I remember even getting the chance to wear a thousand year old vestment of some bishop we met.  One stop gave us the evening to rest at what seemed to me a summer camp.  There were cabins and woods.  My good friend Alice and I shared a walk in the woods (where we almost didn’t make it back before dark) and took turns on what seemed like an ancient rope swing strung from an older oak.  We also made our way to the cities.

Uppsala and Stockholm. Our choir had scheduled  a concert in the great Uppsala cathedral, the largest and tallest church building in Scandinavia.  It seemed to me to fit a thousand seats, which ended up surprisingly all filled for us in the end.

You often don’t realize when it is happening that life brings you unforgettable moments of pure joy.  Before our final concert our brilliant director took us behind the altar where the acoustics were most potent.  We sang a round through Rachmaninoff’s Bogorodise Dyevo (perhaps one of the most beautiful songs ever written for chorus).  As we sang through the unfolding harmonies, our eyes caught one another’s and as our voiced echoed through the spires,  it seemed as if thousands of angels had joined us.  We were pouring our hearts out in unison, yet somehow it seemed that we were not even partaking.  Surely this was a moment of ministry meant for us, lonely souls who joined voices in that day to transcend soul and body.  I will never forget it.

 

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Travel Diaries: Azerbaijan

We stayed up until 3am the previous night playing Risk. We were three American boys attempting world domination. As we drove home from this countryside experience, I reflected as the mountains passed away into the sea.  Baku was approaching in the distance.

I was trying to think of one aspect of this culture that I could explain in depth.  So I picked a tough one.  Life in a system that emphasizes honor and shame.  Here is what I wrote then:

The bottom line: don’t trust anybody. Deceit is rampant and the highest good is to save face.   If someone challenges your honor, or if an accident happened and the other person says that it is your fault, the battle begins. No matter if you know without a shadow of doubt that it was your fault you will fight to the bitter end defending yourself. Usually the bitter end means that you pay the other guy to say that it was nobody’s fault.  Never admit that you are wrong. This is a huge topic that no one knows about at home, but it is essential as the west and the east operate in extreme opposites.   The east tends to live in honor/shame as we tend to live in guilt/innocence.

Well, I was awakening then.  Now I understand the complex reality that honor shame, guilt innocent are a mixed part of every culture. And it would take me a while to realize the honor/ shame rhythms of American life.

In the final Azeri days, we visited some sites and began the detailed survey of our trip ahead. We planned to visit the roots of Western Christendom in Italy and Greece.  I wish I could tell all Azeri stories here, about getting lost on the bus with Mark or walking past the rich suburbs and the ongoing work with our kids in the refugee camp, or lavishing ourselves in the Turkish bath, or almost getting arrested without my passport (our English students saved me that time).   I wish I could describe the fellowship among the workers or the countless faces we encountered.  But this journey would pull us onward and away from those we began to love. It would take us into the ruins of Phillipi, Corinth, and Thessaloniki, to the bullet-ridden buildings of Sarajevo, on to the Holy Sepulchre, then to the east and into the heart of ancient Asia.  For now, a boy whose internal myths were being pulled apart at its seams would find rest on the flight from Baku to Rome.

 

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Travel Diaries: Hungary

We continued our journey through Europe now making our way to the eastern borders of this land.  When we emerged into the terminal in the Budapest International Airport, it was another wake up call: new currency, no place to stay, and a new culture.  And Mark was taking in the lessons of intercultural interaction 101 afresh. In Budapest, what you ask for is what you get.  This is what Mark discovered upon asking the McDonald’s cashier for an ice cream cone.  Needless to say, Mark had then to ask for some ice cream to put in that cone.

Not knowing a lick about Hungary, or Budapest, we spent three hours in the airport surveying maps and squeezing the airport dry of information.  That proved to give us our bearings, and we set out for a campground auspiciously located near the heart of the city.

We followed a lead in the yellow pages to “Biker Camp”. On our way, we strolled upon a men’s soccer game.  We rested our shoulders there for a time, and the grass gave us reprieve upon our still jetlagged bodies. Mark, the eternal napper (he can sleep anywhere) rested, and the sun sank low in the sky.  We finally found “Biker Camp” which was, yes, the backyard of a biker mama’s house converted into campgrounds right within the limits of Hungary’s capitol.  This is what we called home for the few nights we spent in Hungary.

There we visited a museum, which during WWII acted as a gulag first for the Germans then for the Russians and now chronicles the torture wrought with its walls.  I had learned about WWII, but, now being here in this place had struck some deep string in my soul.  I had no idea that this was the beginning of our unexpected lesson about the cruelty of humanity.  Men and women had viciously imprisoned their brothers and sisters here for the sake of identity.  I was then so glad then to not live in a country that wrought such torture. I had a lot to learn.

 

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Travel Diaries: Spain

From Salamanca, we traveled to Segovia via Avila.  Little did I realize then, we were traveling through the heartland of Medieval Spanish Mysticism.  The writings of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila were birthed in these regions.  It was a fateful ignorance that we rapidly traveled through these lands.

Only a half-decade later would I set my eyes on Dark Night, Living Flame of Love, and the Interior Castle. For us, then, our road led us to the exterior castles of this decaying civilization. Our Spanish journey culminated in Segova as we toured the Roman Aqueducts and the Alcazar, the city’s 11th Century Castle.  We camped outside the city and met there two young men from Belgium.  Interestingly, our conversation led to Christianity and their disdain of priests and suspicion of all clergy.  Our fascinating conversation back-dropped our rugged tour through the ruins of Christendom gone by.

Thursday, September 9th

After our long bus ride back to Madrid, we found our way to the airport where we would catch our flight to Belgium.  As our jet streamed over Western Europe, I reflected on our first week.  There was so much ancient history living in the walls of these lands.  My mind had been enflamed with its mystery.  And yet, one sensed that an era was passing into the annals of history.  The Christianity enshrined here seemed like the skin of some ancient serpent nearly shed.  But the new coat of these lands seemed more like a mosaic more vividly akin to its pre-Christian past.  Well, it was all just a feeling then, a slow opening of eyes.

 

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Travel Diaries: Germany

Frankfurt’s subway intimidated me as did the size of the city.  Though my home town was not rural (Frankfurt’s urban setup would extend the first of many subtle invitations for me to love the City), I had far to come.

We were learning by trial.  Navigating a city with foreign currency would become an art to master. After some wandering, we found shops and a walkway down to the city’s Min River.  Exhausted from our travels, we discovered a nice grassy spot on which we enjoyed some snacks.  There, in a moment of rest, we took in the sights of dogs and their people.  We glimpsed familiar faces going about their busy lives uttering strange words.

After wandering for a time around the river and into a few large churches, we came across a wood ensemble in practice.  In another church, we found a small boy coloring while his parents were busy at some task.  We sat with him and colored for a while.  Mark had the chance to test out his German.  I had no idea what they said to one another.  We ate some pizza and found our way back to the airport.  Our flight for Spain was leaving in the morning, and we chose to sleep the night in the airport, traveling at first as cheap as possible.  Mark reflected on the night that would redden both our eyes.

“Next time I will be quicker to just pull out the sleeping bag, lay flat, and do it right.  The process of leaning back, then to the side, the more to the side, then laying on the seats, then pulling your feet up, then stretching out, and still wanting to cover up, well it is just the long way to get to where you wan to be.”

All I remember is the blinding halogen lights, the constant flipping of the departure signs and an inherited worry about sleeping in public spaces. We would eventually have to enjoy the skin we were in and take our rest among the passers by.  We awoke tired and boarded our flight to the western shores of Medieval Christendom.

 

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Why Every American Should Travel Around the World…

(In 2004, I backpacked across 22 countries exploring the world with eyes wide open. I wanted to discover the Kingdom of God.  Driven by the inspiration of my faith and its humanitarian impulse, I joined to other young men and discovered the declining face of Western Christendom. We also wandered outside the borders of the West, and we could not have been ready for what we found.

September 2004-

My life as I knew it was ending. When a physician attaches, “terminal” to your record, you know that nothing will ever be the same.  As wise men and women have noticed over centuries, new life, better life, emerges only when we fall like the seed to its grave. Only then can we resurface.  As we pulled up to the gateway through which all must pass, I knew then why they called this place, “terminal.”  Any world traveler must pass through one if they hope to journey onwards.

As a wanderer of the globe, you live and die, and live again every new day, and as the road leads onward, the path to self discovery must pass through some of the darkest paths.  As naïve boys we approached our first gate with far less trembling than was merited for a 7 month journey to lands and places our parents had never dreamed of.  This journey would destroy me from the inside out.

O’Hare’s “International Terminal 5” would be the first of a hundred gateways for us this year.  We arrived with our mothers and loved ones by our sides.  The ticket desk attendant printed all our 31 tickets and stapled them together in a book that would be worth more than gold these next months.  As we kissed our loved ones goodbye near the point of no return, my mother must have had her worries reinforced when the attendant came running after us. “Sir”, she yelled, “you forgot your tickets!”  I chuckled in order to mask my nervous embarrassment. This first expression of wanderer’s grace came to me as a warning: “you are on your own now, boy.  Shed your careless ways.”

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The Journey of Destiny: From Greece to Bosnia

They told us not to do it.  But what did we know, young lads out on our prime adventure? They said getting from Greece to Bosnia was too dangerous,  the remnants of the war too flammable.  But did we listen? No.  Did we take to the shelter of the Adriatic ferry?  Not a chance. Our path would lay inland, through the Macedonian mountains and into the heart of Serbia.

4pm Eastern European Time, November 15, 2004.

We say goodbye to Greece after two long weeks of great exploration.  We three kings turn our eyes to the north.  Our wait at the Thessaloniki train station comes to a bittersweet end as Paul and I finish our masterpiece: a makeshift checkerboard on which to arrange our new plastic chess set. The vagabond’s pleasures are, after all, simple and light.  We double check the timetables again and board our train from Greece to Skopje, Macedonia, destined to arrive at 6.45pm.

We find our car, and as two and a-quarter hours  pass, Paul poises himself to deal the final check-mate.  Our watches tell us we have arrived.  “That was quick, I said to Mark.” So, gathering up our bags and supplies, we do what now seems like the most foolish choice.  We hop off the train, despite the fact that the Macedonian capitol looks strangely like the countryside.  Then falls our first stroke of fate. The car master, as the train begins to inch away, yells out to us, “SKOPJE!”.  We point to the ground beneath our feet with great pleasure and call back, “SKOPJE!”.  He urges us back to the train, “SKOPJE!”.  Now, nerves beginning to bubble, we raise our hands to the sky, and plead back, “SKOPJE?” Then, in a genius act of inter-lingual transcendence, the master stretches his arms like a desperate grandfather: “SKOPJE!”, he cries.  Our light-bulbs light.  And with out hesitation, we bust our move back to the train, calling out our unnerved praises, “SKOPJE!!!!”  While we boarded the moving train, we had no idea that our second stroke of destiny was peering out his window watching three ignorant lads get a second chance. By the way, did you know there was a time zone on the northern border of Greece?  Yeah, me neither.

::

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.

::

8.50pm Central European Time, November 15.

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.

::

10.50pm Central European Time, November 15.

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.

::

6.10pm Central European Time, November 16

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.