Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Rakhiv, Ukraine: Musings from the Road

”Musings from the Road” is any post where the content is not constrained by chronology. This gives me more freedom to write about whatever comes to my mind, though the content will almost always be influenced by the tour in some way.

The Plan

This one isn't so much a musing as a logistical update: I bought a plane ticket from Istanbul, Turkey to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on November 2nd. Normally I'd just bike to Ethiopia... but if I did that, I wouldn't get there in time to meet up with Jacob, a cyclist who I meant to meet around November anyways, before both of our plans changed. This will also put me in Cape Town, South Africa, around next March, so I can fly back to Istanbul and continue my route through the Middle East. Going through the Middle East, especially the Pamir Mountains and the Himalayas, is inadvisable if not impossible in the winter, so “escaping” to Africa seems well due.

On the way to Istanbul I plan to visit Transylvania, including biking the Transfăgărășan, a stretch of highway running through the Carpathians, as windy and challenging a climb as it is beautiful. I'll also visit Greece – as much of it as I can see in the time I have.


Back in July when I decided not to go to Africa via Spain, I was relieved. I wasn't looking forward to doing Africa. Maybe the timing wasn't right, but my gut said “no.” Now, I can't wait. Especially after reading an article Jacob sent me on one of our possible routes, around Lake Turkana on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia.

The only downside is I'll likely need a new bike because Louisa will only take tires up to 35mm (1.37”) wide, and I'm guessing I'll need at least 1.5” if not 2” tires to make it through Africa without walking half the time. To be honest, Louisa is getting old anyways. It's sad but true: her drive-train and front wheel are due to be replaced, the brakes are difficult to adjust, and the shifters are getting feisty. It's my fault for putting together a bike with used parts. Though they are good touring parts meant to last thousands of miles – no doubt “forever” for the bike of someone living in one place – I've ridden well over 6,000 miles now and have at least 6,000 more to go. I suspect I can have all the work done for roughly the cost of a new bike in Istanbul anyways, so it seems a new bike would be well worth the cost. Louisa and I have some wonderful memories together and it will be sad to part, but it's been a good run.

Also I've started learning Swahili.

Privilege and Gratefulness

This tour has had me periodically thinking about how privileged I am. It's been dumped on me twice now:
- Once, after a host felt I was ungrateful towards them due to a terrible communication error on my behalf, they lamented how “easy” it must be to go from host to host, sleeping and eating “for free,” and that I should try working a day or two in my life. This isn't how I see my hosts, of course (an apology was most certainly in order), but it does highlight the privilege of being hosted: often, I do eat and sleep without paying money.

I do, happily and proudly, give my time, personality, and stories, and I think that's really the exchange most hosts are looking for. I did work hard (three years) to save up for this trip, but I am still privileged in that I got paid enough to have something to save – many people just get paid enough to afford the bare necessities, and never get to leave home, much less for months or a year at a time.

- I was talking to a host about my time in India, where I was “the white guy” working in a lower class bike shop under a subway station for free. One of my customers had complimented me on pursuing my passion (bicycle repair) despite the fact that many people in the US would never work under a subway in India and many Indians would strive to “advance beyond that.” But my host had a different perspective: what if he was thinking, “Look at this ungrateful idiot, who has so much he can afford to work here for free, and isn't taking advantage of it by living in a house on the beach?” In that instant, I became again grateful for having the ability to travel and do what I wanted without needing to do it for money.

But some of the privilege is a bit more subtle. The way some people look at me as I bike by them – the construction workers on the side of the road, the shepherds, the cashiers on a smoke break – is a desolate jealousness: look at thus guy, going where he wants. Most people are curious, but sometimes you can see in their faces a despondence: I will never have that. The eyes of one construction worker in particular spawned this realization, and I will never forget the way he looked at me.


A lot of the time when I travel I quote costs and say “this country is cheap” or “this country is expensive.” While this is a valuable perspective to the traveler, I'm not sure it's a valuable perspective as an ethnologist. When I was nervously trying to figure out how to spend my time in Odessa I read an article along the lines of things to know before you go. I can't believe I didn't think of this before, but the article suggesting looking up the difference between what people make and what things cost. Because if a Snickers bar at $0.30 is cheap to me, someone from the US where the average income is about $55,000 a year, it might be expensive to someone from a country where the average income is only $8,000 per year. In fact, if I expect that Snickers bar to be $1 since that's what I'd pay in the US, that's 0.000018% of the average US income. At $0.30 on an $8k salary it's 0.000038%, so even though to me, $0.30 is cheap, it costs more than twice as much of the average income here (note: I pulled $8k/year out of the air, I have no idea what the average income is in Ukraine).

And to think, if something like a Snickers bar could be so important to someone that they'd spend x amount of their income, how hard it could be to get enough money to move from a poor country to a rich country? It might take two or three times as much work for someone here to make the money to move to the States than it would someone in the States. This hit me pretty hard – at a $55k salary, most people in the US can afford to fly from almost anywhere in the world to the US. But making a few cents a day, how long must to take to save the money?

Meaning, Culture, and Travel

There's no beating around the bush on this one: the US's number one export is culture. Sure, some products here are “designed in the US;” when in India in 2013, I saw apples imported from the US. But by far the greatest influence the US has is cultural. Las Vegas, LA, New York, and California t-shirts, inspirational quotes (in English), the American flag, and the desire to learn English (they sometimes have a “word of the day” on the news): all these things are prominent almost everywhere I go.

Unfortunately, it seems this drives a lot of consumerism. Marina and I talked about this a lot: people here want to be “cool” just as in the US. They buy what they see in the ads, and even if they don't speak English they wear English phrases and Western places on their shirts – much like some Americans wear Chinese characters on their clothing or have bags labeled with places they've never been to. I'm not judging but for me personally, I'd never buy something that costs more unless it's meaningful to me, and the words “Amsterdam” aren't super meaningful to me since I've never been there (yes, it's the bicycle capital of the world, and for that reason it's meaningful – but it could be I go there and it's not what I expect, and then suddenly, I don't really want that tattoo anymore...). I can't tell people what's meaningful to them and what isn't, but spending money to “be cool” to other people has never been my game (I acknowledge some people buy things with words they don't understand or places they've never been because it's meaningful to them – cool).

Consumerism also drives commercialism, which, in my opinion, ruins a lot of touring. I don't travel to buy things, I travel to experience things. This slapped me in the face when I saw some doves sitting in a line on a monument in Odessa. “Cool!” I thought, “this will make a nice shot.” I took out my camera and walked cautiously around them so not to scare them, looking for a good angle to take a picture. Just as I was kneeling down to take the photo, two guys walked over from a bench ten feet away, picked up the doves, and held them out to me. My heart sank and I felt a little betrayed – mostly, I admit, by my expectations. I knew immediately the doves were a tourist trap and these guys wanted money to take a photo.

I put away my camera and must have repeated the word “no” fifty times as they put a dove on my shoulder and my arm, outstretched to hold my jacket. “It's safe. See?” one said. That wasn't the problem – the problem was I didn't want to pay them. I assumed they wouldn't leave me alone because they thought they could trick me into giving them money, so I asked, “how much?” Quoted the price – 50 UAH, about $2 (a fair bit of money here) – I said “no” one last time, and finally, they took the doves and I was able to walk away, frustrated and upset. What I'd thought was a natural occurrence was just something staged for profit.

In retrospect, there's nothing wrong with that: you could argue any theater production is “staged for profit.” I think it hit me hard because it was unexpected. Doves on a fence are simple enough I was caught completely unawares by someone asking for money. I don't want to have to expect that everything I want to take a picture of will cost some amount of money.

To do

One thing I've been doing as I've been traveling is thinking about ways I want to live differently when I get back. Being so removed from both US culture and living in one place has afforded me a lot of clarity; it's also possibly afforded me a lot of naivety. We will see. In any case, here are some changes I'd like to make, maybe not permanently, but at least long enough to see if I enjoy the change. I'd like to make these changes as soon as I get back – from day one if possible – since putting off leads to more putting off. We'll see what happens. And, I'll likely update this list as the tour goes on, or at the least, when/if it ever ends.
Fewer video games: When I left the US I wasn't playing video games nearly as much as I did in my teens (sometimes 40 hours a week or more); in fact, sometimes I only “got on” once a week or less. I don't think video games are necessary bad, especially in moderation: I've made many good friends through video games, found them a great way to relieve stress, and depending on the game they can even have benefits to your mental health.

But, they eat time, and there are other things that I think would make be more meaningful, like reading, exercise, and being outside (all of which are on this list). I'm still undecided if I want to quit cold turkey. I have been daydreaming about two games in particular, both extremely difficult strategy games (Rome: Total War and X-Com: Enemy Unknown, for those wondering). But I'm worried if I “give in” to the urge when I get back, it will never end. Sometimes quitting things cold turkey is the best way to ensure you don't get addicted again. And honestly, while I miss them, I could certainly live without them. It would certainly help to use the time for other things, like all the ones I've listed below.

Rollerblading: This one actually came to me in a dream. I dreamt I was rollerblading down University Ave, a main street in Madison with a separated bike lane, while dancing and listening to music, wearing a custom, light-up vest that read: “Caution: Roller Dancing in Progress.” The more I think about it the closer I've come to the conclusion that rollerblading is the ideal sport for me: as much as I love bicycling, you can't really dance on a bike. Maybe there are skilled bicycle dancers out there, but I need the freedom to move my body without worrying about falling over or having such a (relatively) large turning radius.

I suspect this has been floating in my subconscious ever since a friend of mine, Sam W, showed me this awesome music video which is a one-cut video of three roller-dancers behind a car. A little research shows some of the other cool things you can do on rollerblades, though I think I'd want to pioneer roller-dancing a bit more (I've pitched partner roller-dancing to a friend who is in a dance troupe I'd like to join when I get back).

And of course (because I'm me) this will require appropriately colorful rollerblades and a helmet.

Exercising every day until I break a sweat: This is never something I've done before. I exercised often, sometimes many days in a row, but never for more than a few days or a week. This will likely require coming up with a mix of exercises, from bicycling, to rollerblading, to karate, to yoga (which I tried with my host in Philly and loved), and will get harder in the winter, but I think it will be worth it. It would be especially cool to live somewhere with wooden floors so I could dance every day (can be done on carpet, but not the same).

Eating more vegetables: Maybe I'll research salads until I find a bunch I like and eat a salad a day, maybe I'll cook more like we did on the Color Farm (steam squash every day), I don't know. My previous diet wasn't bad, but after having vegetables be the majority food in my diet at the Color Farm, I know how effective they can be at making me feel energetic and in a positive mood. The US (and indeed, many other cultures per my musing above) doesn't really prioritize vegetables, which is a shame, but I'm going to figure this one out anyways.

Writing more: As you're aware, I currently take time every week, or at least every few weeks, to write about everything that's happened in my life. This, of course, has surreptitiously labeled itself as “blogging.” And it's really incredibly therapeutic. Since getting to the Color Farm I also started writing privately a bit more (I had journaled some since starting the trip, but at my month on the Color Farm I easily doubled what I'd written in the past four months of touring). But blogging has sort of accidentally been my way of journaling, and I'm sure there's some research somewhere to indicate that's healthy for you. So somehow – maybe not publicly, but somehow – I'd like to continue journaling so thoroughly, reflectively, and deliberately on a regular basis.

More of the same: Objectively – disregarding my depression, that is – I had a great life in Madison. I was a little nonplussed about my job, but in my free time, I danced, took karate, spent time with people I loved, sewed, and... well, did many things (I'm a bit of a jack of all trades). I don't regret leaving it for the experiences I've gotten to have on the bike, but it would be silly to say I was going to completely change everything upon my return. I really hope some things are the same. I can't wait to spend a Saturday night at karaoke followed by dancing at Plan B followed by 2 AM burritos at Burrito Drive, or having Bad Movie Night, or putting all my friends in an assembly line to home-make tortellini for my birthday party, or pushing social bounds and breaking social folkways by asking uncommon questions or hugging people a bit too long or dancing or singing or climbing in public when I'm not supposed to. Yes... more of that, please.

Spending more time with people I love: This is really an “enough said.” This tour has solidified something I suspect I knew all along: relationships are the most important things in our lives. I want my actions and the way I spend my time to reflect that value. I've loved touring and meeting people from all over the world. But the things I'm looking forward to the most are choreographing a roller-dance with Mandy, talking about childrens' books with Jill, biking with Grace, eating at Sofia's with Dubby, drinking tea with Casey, dancing with Sam, going to karate with Adam, playing rolfball with Donovan, AJ, and Emma, hugging Andrew a bit too long... the list goes on.

Finding more people I love: The one thing this tour has changed most fundamentally about me so far is this: the knowledge that there are an inexhaustible number of incredible people out there in the world. I like to think I'm collecting them – that I can start a new country when I get back, Kyletopia, which has in it all the wonderful people I've met. At the least, maybe this country can temporarily exist during my wedding or my funeral (much like the scene in Big Fish when all the characters from his stories get together) – hopefully it won't take until my funeral.

My one wish at this point, the one thing I want to change the most, is my ability to meet and draw more incredible people into my life and keep them there. This is no doubt complicated by the competing priorities the US has between working hard, getting rich, and appearing “busy” and being “cool.” But those are complications I want to overcome. That, I think, will be my first priority upon return.

1 comment:

  1. This may be one of my favorite blogs. Your insights into American vs. foreign culture are sensitive and insightful, as as those into yourself. I hope that, when you get back, you don't let that list of to do's slip away, and that you get your one wish. Love you, Mom