The magic of the Ganges River

Wow, it feels like life is speeding up recently. I think I am finally getting the hang of this long-term travel thing– just in time to stop doing it and return to the US next month.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been on the road for more than eight months now, but at the same time it’s hard to believe that it has only been eight months.

In some ways it feels so much longer; I’ve been so many places and had so many experiences. And life in the U.S. feels so far away and kind of like a dream at this point.

After my last post, I spent eight days at a yoga/meditation retreat at an ashram in Rishikesh, an Indian city known as “the yoga capital of the world,” at the base of the Himalayas and on the banks of the Ganges River, which is holy in Hinduism. Rishikesh itself was not a pleasant place for me; it is not at all the serene town you might imagine a yoga center in the mountains to be. It is dusty, chaotic, clogged with traffic and big tourist jeeps going up and down the mountains, and the air is filled with the sounds of honking vehicles.

But the ashram where I stayed is huge and has a beautiful campus with sprawling lawns, huge trees, and an incredibly peaceful atmosphere. It is like a bubble within the chaos of the town, and I spent most of my time within the calmness of its gates.

IMG_0577

An ashram is a place of spiritual retreat, and the people you meet there are all on some sort of spiritual journey. It’s a beautiful energy to be around and I met some lovely people there.

At the ashram, my days started with yoga at 6am. The first few days of this felt like torture. I am usually NOT a morning person.

I have very rarely gone to 6am classes of anything in my life.

IMG_0481This is my “WHY 6AM??? face”

But by the end of my time there, I so enjoyed starting my day in this way. Of course I vowed when I left the ashram that I would continue with the practice, but unsurprisingly, I quickly reverted back to my non-morning person ways after the structure was gone.

There was a second yoga class at 4pm every day (talk about hot yoga – in 95 degree weather, in a room with no fans sometimes), and then immediately afterwards, there was a beautiful Hindu ceremony, called aarti, on the banks of the Ganges River. The holy Ganges is extremely important to Hinduism and Indian people. The aarti ceremony is a collection of devotional songs and prayers and rituals, and it’s open to everyone who wants to attend.

IMG_0472

I really appreciated this about Hinduism – it is very inclusive.

It didn’t matter to them if I was Christian or Muslim or not practicing any religion; I was still invited to participate in the ceremony in whatever way I wanted to.

IMG_0599At the end of the ceremony, a holy flame is passed around in various forms and people have the opportunity to pray with it and bless themselves with the heat.

It was a very spiritual eight days with so much time to do yoga and meditate and reflect on what is important in life. I did feel a transformation, however small, in my body and spirit during my time there.

After leaving Rishikesh, my next stop was the beautiful and ancient city of Varanasi, which also lies alongside the Ganges River. (The two cities were not close together, however – it took me 24 hours by train to get between them!)

8ae531bd-9089-476c-9f9f-c7c6b9d40b90

I remembered learning about Varanasi in high school, when Mr. Ross, our well-traveled geography teacher, told us about the Hindu tradition of cremating loved ones’ bodies on the banks of the Ganges. In my memory, the image he painted of this city was a dark, sad, muddy, scary place where bodies were burning everywhere and people were drowning in the water alongside and the water was swirling black with ashes from the cremations.

In reality, Varanasi was completely different from how I imagined it all these years.

(Of course, the city has likely also changed in the 15+ years since Mr. Ross visited and described it – I would love to talk to him about that some time if I ever see him again.)

fullsizeoutput_285f

The Varanasi that I experienced was a beautiful place, full of joy and life and color.

Though an important part of its identity (and economy) does relate to death and the cremation of bodies, it is not a depressing place. Instead, it’s a hopeful place. When people are able to cremate their relatives’ bodies here, they believe that they are helping that soul to move on from this life in the best possible way.

We spent some hours throughout the week at the Burning Ghat, where the cremation ceremonies take place. Though seeing the first human body being engulfed by flames was jarring, overall there was a quiet grace surrounding all these people sending their loved ones out of this world in the best way they could.

IMG_0895Boatloads of wood waiting to be used for cremation ceremonies

Many people also come to Varanasi on a pilgrimage totally unrelated to death simply because it is a holy city and it hosts a very important temple in Hinduism. They come to bathe in the holy water of the Ganges in a holy city and to offer prayers that they believe will be magnified in such a holy place.

fce7d977-fa8d-4442-8f77-825e5eb29821People bathing in the Ganges around 6am on a Saturday

It was an absolutely incredible place to experience. I spent a week here with a friend from Germany whom I had met at a hostel earlier in my India experience. We each went our own way for a few weeks and then met back up here.

We took a break from staying in hostels and split a room in a guesthouse, which was simply a room in a local family’s large house. The house was in the old part of town, where the alleyways are too narrow for cars or even rickshaws to drive, and the door opened directly onto one of the main footpaths (on which motorcycles also drive). It was a fun experience to live closer to local people and to tumble out of our door each morning directly into the chaos of the city.

54d56179-9804-4d06-9792-6768a927aed1Eating delicious street food in an alley

We spent our days wandering around the alleys, which are narrow and dark and stay relatively cool even in the 100+ degree heat at this time of the year, and our evenings walking along the river. We made no plans for our time there and just stayed open to whatever crossed our path on a particular day. One day we stumbled upon two men who were working with an old-fashioned printing press. They invited us into their tiny shop to watch how they used the press to print a bunch of neon-colored bags for a local store.

IMG_0754

Another day, we encountered three men lounging with a very docile cow along the river bank and we spent several hours talking with them about Hinduism, cows, and the meaning of life. Another morning, we met a young man who took us on an impromptu walking tour of some of the most beautiful (and well-hidden) temples in the city. At the end, we invited him to share a meal with us and then we parted ways, wishing each other well in life.

Beautiful small moments.

It’s so interesting to me that often the most memorable and magical parts of traveling are the things that are not planned, that don’t cost much money, that aren’t on “the list” of things to do in a place, but are simply found along the way if you’re open to them.

IMG_0892

The city wakes up very early and a lot of its life is centered around the river.

A lot of people sleep outside in Varanasi, sometimes on the concrete by the shore or sometimes in the boats that line the bank. Some local people say they just prefer to be near the river, even though they do have homes in the city. I suspect that some of the pilgrims who visit want to be as close as possible to the river so they can bathe first thing in the morning, before sunrise, which is the holiest time. And I suspect that some also may not have funds to pay for another place to stay, but it’s warm enough to easily sleep outside at this time of year.

Boat taxis are available to go out onto the holy river in the mornings or the evenings – we woke up super early on two mornings to catch the sunrise over the river, and it was absolutely incredible. We met some very nice boat-rowers, too.

In the evenings, a lot of people board boats to get a good view of the nightly aarti ceremony (very different from the aarti in Rishikesh – this one is much larger and flashier).

IMG_0791

After spending so much time in these two cities, I do have a new appreciation for the Ganges River, a name that I always heard in geography class. It means so much to so many people, and it does feel like its presence is something special.

I love this about traveling – it is like getting to color in all the details on a picture I have sketched from information in books or school or TV. The concepts are abstract when I learn about them, but they’re all filed away somewhere, waiting to become real. Then when I get to see something in person, the sketch gets filled in with the rich details and everything comes to life.

960ed690-8e54-4256-8041-ec3f3f49e043

Such a beautiful experience…

India, the land of everything

I’ve been in India for more than a month now, and have barely shared anything about it here.

I’ve been too busy living.

India has been such an all-encompassing experience for me. It’s unlike anything I’ve felt in a long time, maybe ever.

The best way I can describe it is that I feel so full here. Like my body can’t contain all of the life that is coursing through it.

India feels like that too. Like it is bursting at the seams everywhere.

Food with so many spices and flavors that every bite is like fireworks in the mouth. Trains with people crammed in so that some are hanging out the doors and the last ones aren’t able to get on. Saris and shawls so vibrantly colored that a group of women anywhere looks like a work of art. Smells so intense and varied – incense, sewage, frying food, dust, smog, curry. So many sounds of humanity – horns blaring, tongues chattering, music drifting, coughs sputtering, brooms sweeping, cows mooing. A pervasive sense of spirituality in the temples that are everywhere, the Namaste or hari om with which people greet each other, the religious necklaces worn by so many. Sun so intense that my skin burns through my sunscreen, heat that completely engulfs the middle part of the day. And so much natural beauty: the powerful and sacred Ganges river that courses through the east, the Himalaya mountains in the north, the tropical forests in the south, and the enchanting desert in the west.

India is everything all at once.

It’s too much for some people; it’s too much for me some days; but I’m captivated. I can’t look away, I just want more and more and more.

I started my India trip planning to spend a few days in a bunch of different places so I could see a breadth of the country in the one month I had allotted for exploring India.

But after two weeks, I realized I was too in love with this country to leave after 30 days. And that I would prefer to get to know a smaller number of places in more depth than to briefly breeze through more places.

A few days is nothing to spend in any place. You can see the sights and take pictures for your Instagram, but you don’t get any idea what the place is actually about, what makes the world go round there, what is important to its people.

With a fruit vendor we got to know in Pushkar

A week or so is enough to just start feeling the pulse of a place. Of course you need months or years to really understand all the intricacies, culture and language. But in a week or ten days you can settle in, build a few relationships, notice what a normal day looks like in that place and what people do in the place.

And that, connecting to and learning from people and places, is what creates meaning in travel for me.

So, on that note, here is some of what I’ve learned from the first few places I visited in India.

Mumbai

A supremely varied city (India’s largest), full of amazing energy and even better food. A lot of colonial architecture left here, and so interesting to me to see the way that the tropical climate intersects with these old buildings, covering some of them in vines and framing them in palm trees. It just seems incongruous to me, since I associate that type of architecture with cold European countries.

Mumbai was described to me as India’s City of Dreams.

I definitely understand why. It is a modern city, the Bollywood capital of India and a financial hub, full of businessmen in suits and commuters flooding in and out of trains at rush hour. It reminded me of a tropical New York.

I spent two days doing nothing but walking around the city, sampling the street food and taking in the energy of the city. When the heat got too much for me (the pictures look grey but it was so hot and humid), I took refuge in one of the nicest Starbucks locations I have ever been in. I had a cold drink and wrote in my journal while a group of young women worked on a project for school, some young professionals interviewed some candidates for a job and businessmen came in to get their expensive drinks to go.

Mumbai street food

But Mumbai also has a darker side. Sixty percent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, in which the conditions of some are pretty rough. I didn’t visit the big slums because again, I don’t believe in treating human beings as objects to be viewed, but I did accidentally wander into a couple of the smaller slums, just blocks from the more upscale parts of the city, and was struck by the disparity in this country.

Of course, we also have a lot of income disparity in the US. We have people living in mansions while so many are homeless or barely scraping by. So I’m not passing any judgment on India – simply observing.

There is a striking parallel existence between an India that is modern and growing fast, with its strong economy making some people very prosperous, and an India in which some people are stuck in poverty, with seemingly little chance of moving upwards. The tide of prosperity is rising in India, but it’s not lifting all the boats.

Still, I liked Mumbai, and it gained a place on my list of “places i could see myself living someday if the right situation arises.” Maybe it’s the wandering spirit in me, but I always assess new places to see if I could ever live there. Just in case.

Udaipur

A beautiful, prosperous city in the Rajasthan region which is a tourist destination for locals and foreigners alike. Some describe it as “the Venice of India.” There are two big lakes, lots of parks, and an amazing palace that takes two hours to walk through.

I met some lovely people here – a couple of young women who were on a break from volunteering at a nonprofit in neighboring Jaipur, a young pre-med American man who shared my love of books and provided some great conversation, and the sweet hostel manager who was trying to learn French and spoke a few words with me each day.

It is a pleasant place, nice to look at, easy to be in, but I didn’t feel much here. No energy, spirit of the city, etc. (Some Indian folks I shared this with later said, “that’s because you were alone. Udaipur is a romantic city!”) Anyway, I spent a relaxing long weekend and then moved on.

Pushkar

The day I arrived here, I shared a rickshaw from the train station with another young woman and when he dropped us off a few hundred meters from our destination, we were confused. But as we started walking, we saw that there was a huge festival going on, completely filling the streets. What a fun way to arrive in a city!

Pushkar is a holy city, with two important Hindu temples and a holy lake. There is supposed to be no alcohol or meat consumed within its limits.

But it’s not an uptight place. The people here are spiritual, they will stop you on the street to tell you about your energy or your chakras, but they’re laid back and friendly. It is a place that a lot of Indian tourists go on a spiritual pilgrimage, and where a huge number of foreigners are staying at any given time.

It felt like a magic place for me – i met so many incredible people here, both locals and travelers. We had beautiful nights of taking motorcycles out to the desert and watching the stars, days of visiting temples and exploring the surrounding area, and evenings spent hiking up to different hilltops to watch the sunset.

I celebrated my 29th birthday here and the staff at the hostel where I was staying surprised me with a cake which we all shared on the rooftop. And as a birthday gift, I treated myself to a massage from a highly-recommended Ayurvedic masseuse. He gave me an amazing massage and then inexplicably also told me some things about what was going on in my mind and some remarkably apt life advice, which he said he felt in my energy during the massage. He said that reading people was a gift he had inherited from his father, who did the same thing. These are the interesting people one meets in India!

I’ll end with this interesting tidbit about India. People here really like taking selfies with foreigners. Random people will just walk up to you and ask you if you’ll take a picture with them. I guess it’s a fun souvenir to show your friends later. When unknown men ask me, I usually say no. But for families or women, I say why not?

Happy Wednesday from me and this adorable Indian family:)

India

When I first turned up in Greece a few months ago, I had the idea that after spending some weeks there, I would be flying back to Africa to continue the trip that Daniel and I had originally planned. But months passed in Greece and I started to get my bearings as a solo traveler when I learned that Daniel was definitely not rejoining me (he was off chasing love in Italy – but that is his story to tell some day). So I spent some time reflecting on what I would most like to do with my remaining travel months, given the new situation.

And I was surprised to find that I heard Asia calling, not Africa.

IMG_9750Sunset on Goa beach

I so enjoyed the years I spent living in Africa, and I would love to go back and see more countries at some point, but at this time, I decided that I wanted to go somewhere new.

For me, I realized that returning to Africa would be going backwards in a way, retracing steps I’ve already taken (especially because I know I wouldn’t be able to travel in Africa without making a stop in Benin to visit old friends, whom I miss dearly). I would have loved to do it, because that time in my life was so important to me and it also seemed familiar, as opposed to Asia which is completely new to me. But ultimately, I want to move forward, to experience new things, venture to the unknown instead of dwelling in what is familiar and comfortable.

And sometimes you just have to leave the past in the past.

P1010276Already five years ago

 

So I chose to continue east instead of going back west. And I set my sights on India.

I’ve always wanted to visit India – I was captivated by the photos and stories from this diverse country for years. It seems like a place that is very real. A place where one can see clearly what it means to be human. And, of course, Indian food is pretty incredible. I always say that at least half of the point of traveling is to eat new and delicious food in different places.

I flew from Greece to Goa, India in a 24-hour journey consisting of 4 flights (Greece –> Romania –> Dubai –> Goa). It was long, but the price was less than what you can pay to fly across the US, so it seemed worth the extra time

The plane dropped below the clouds and I saw India come into a hazy focus. Dark green forests alternating with water, and light brown dirt roads and houses of varying sizes. Pollution is bad in India and the day I flew in, it had rained and the smog seemed to be trapped beneath the clouds, so I couldn’t see the ground very clearly. When I finally stepped off the plane in Goa, I had the familiar feeling of walking into a wall of thick, humid, hot air.

Ah, back in the tropics.

I was already sweating as I carried my backpack through the airport, got my 60-day visa for India and my passport stamped, withdrew some rupees from the airport ATM, and pulled out the directions for getting to the AirBnB that I had reserved for that night.

Leaving the airport, there was a rush of taxi and rickshaw drivers trying to feast on the fresh blood of new visitors to their country. They know that foreigners exiting the airport are the most likely to drastically overpay for transportation. You’re exhausted, you have luggage, and maybe you’ve never been to the country (like me) and you don’t know how much things usually cost. Some travelers are offended that people try to take advantage of them in this way, but I don’t begrudge the drivers seizing the opportunity to make some extra money for their families. I’m sure I would do the same, were I in their position.

It was a bit overwhelming, the rush of people, the heat, humidity, and so many new things, but I had some information from my AirBnB host that helped me get the right price to her place in a trustworthy taxi. The fifteen minute ride reminded me of what it’s like to be in the developing world – old cars, bumpy and dusty roads, traffic laws that are more like guidelines, and lots of horns blaring.

Out the window, I watched as we bounced past small shops with packets of useful items hanging from corrugated metal roofs, women in brightly colored clothing, full-sized cows that were strolling along the road nonchalantly, small dirt roads that darted off from the main road, old men hanging out in front of the shops and groups of kids playing barefoot in the streets. My eyes took it all in hungrily, and I felt part of myself relax in recognition of something familiar.

IMG_9853

I’ve missed this kind of world.

India is of course quite different from the African countries I’ve visited, but there are some similarities. And in a strange way, being here feels a bit like being home. India feels so much less different from Benin or Uganda than Morocco did, even though India is thousands of miles away and Morocco shares a continent with those countries.

My five days in Goa were spent almost exclusively at the beach. After somewhat accidentally spending the majority of winter in Europe, I was so excited for warm weather and swimming in the ocean, which was gloriously warm and so pleasant for swimming.

Since then, I’ve been to three different cities and I am quickly falling in love with India. I only planned to spend one month here when I arrived – I was hoping to also visit Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam – but I have a feeling I will stay here for the full two months that my visa allows.

There is so much to explore here, I feel like I could spend years traveling India and still not experience everything.

Short post today but here are a few pictures:

IMG_0122Climbing 900 stairs to see a sunrise above the town

IMG_9921So much amazing food here

IMG_9825Mumbai has amazing architecture

IMG_0181Traffic!

Monkeys watching the sunset

IMG_0057Colors

Coconut water straight from the coconut:)

Sunset scene by Pushkar Lake

 

Lesvos in the time of refugees

In 2015, when refugees first started streaming into Greece by the thousands, boat after overcrowded boat landing on the shores of Lesvos and a few other islands, I felt the pull to go help. Agencies were calling for volunteers to help keep people safe, and I wondered whether I should go. But I didn’t feel like I could leave my work at the time, which was keeping other people safe. Still, it stayed on my heart and mind for years, as I followed the refugee crisis in the news. Finally, three years later, I found the opportunity to go do the volunteering that had been in the back of my mind since then.

img_9120Mytilene, Lesvos

I flew to Lesvos from Athens on a 50-person propeller plane and landed in Mytilene, the main city on Lesvos.

I took the only bus of the day to the community where I would be volunteering, Skala Sikamineas, a tiny village on the northeastern corner of Lesvos. It is one of the closest parts of the island to Turkey, which is why it is a hotspot for refugee arrivals. It has a lot of fishermen, one mini market, one bakery, a handful of restaurants, and one cafe where both old Greek men and young international volunteers hang out. I stumbled out of the bus and right into this café where I promptly met like-minded volunteers and got my orientation from the volunteer coordinator. My first shift was the next morning.

img_9237Skala Sikamineas – out the window of the volunteer house

I was part of the land crew for an agency called Refugee Rescue, and we had two jobs: one, to watch the sea from above and spot any refugee boats that entered Greek waters, and two, if a boat was spotted, we would open the transit camp where the refugees would stay until they could be transferred to the main refugee camp on Lesvos. We distributed blankets, hot tea, and helped everyone get dry clothes to replace anything that was wet. And we also got to distribute toys for the kids, which was so lovely! (And prior to that, the Hellenic Coast Guard and other official boats would be notified and either they or the Refugee Rescue boat would meet the refugee boat and escort the people safely to shore.)

6b54f417-cc2b-4689-b9fb-77342da607d8Looks pretty but it was FREEZING

Why is this work even necessary? International refugee policy and migration routes are ridiculously complicated and ever-changing subjects, but here’s a simplified summary. When refugees flee their homes in Syria, Afghanistan, or other countries due to unsafe conditions there, many of them aim to resettle in the European Union, where living conditions are better and their families will be safe. They make their way overland from their home nation and end up in Turkey where they try to cross by boat to land in Greece, where they seek asylum.

(The process of seeking asylum is a political request that an individual puts in, saying that the country they have left is unsafe for them, and asking for permission to resettle in a new country. It’s a time-consuming process and not all people who request asylum are granted it.)

Refugee Flow

The distance of sea between Turkey and Lesvos near Skala is fairly short (only five nautical miles), but the journey is dangerous, which is why boat spotting is important. Most refugees cross on dinghies, small boats made of rubber with an engine attached, and most crossings are at night. The dinghies that arrived on Greek shores while I was there contained 35-60 people each.

There were a surprising number of small children on the boats, including a 4-day old baby.

Dinghy(I never personally saw a dinghy in my three weeks, but this photo was taken a few years ago by Boaz Arad from IsraAid. This agency was on Lesvos doing great medical work while I was there.)

Lots of things can go wrong on a journey across the Aegean. Most dinghies take at least an hour and a half to cross, though sometimes it can be faster and sometimes it can take up to 3-4 hours. The engine can stop working on the boat, stranding the people in the middle of the sea. The weather can change, as it did one night that I was working and a boat came into Greek waters during a thunderstorm – it had been calm when they left Turkey but by the time they made it to Greece, they were totally soaked from rain and there was lightning in the sky. The boat can develop a leak and start taking on water, and eventually sink.

And, something sinister I learned while I was there is that though the smugglers who organize the boats provide life jackets (which of course the refugees pay an additional fee for, on top of the huge fees they are already paying for the service of being smuggled – sometimes people’s whole life savings), they are often fake. Fake life jackets look real, but when they get wet, the material inside absorbs water instead of repelling it, and they will end up dragging a person down instead of floating them.

So the danger of attempting a crossing is quite real.

Fake life jackets cut open to reveal the inside

The volunteer work we were doing was important, but it was not glamorous nor fast-paced.

fullsizeoutput_2610Two of my colleagues watching for boats around midnight one night

It meant a lot of nights spent standing out in the cold and wind (yes, Greece is cold in the winter time too), scanning the sea through a night vision camera or binoculars, looking for refugee boats. Most nights, nothing happened. But every night, it was possible that we would see something and so we had to be out there and alert.

img_9219An official boat patrolling the Greek-Turkey border, seen through the night vision camera

We did night shifts that went from 10pm to 7am, which were spent on an exposed promontory which had a good view of a large section of sea. Working in teams of three, we watched the sea throughout the whole night in shifts, each getting a couple of hours to sleep in the car, huddled under blankets, when it wasn’t our shift.

It was highly unpleasant on some nights, trying to keep the [very expensive] camera and your body steady in huge gusts of wind, waiting out rain for hours locked in a soggy car with two other exhausted people, etc. The sea looked pretty unfriendly in the dark, especially when there was no moon and there was wind or rain.

It gave me a lot of time to think about how desperate and scared I would have to be to decide to put myself and my children in a boat in the middle of a frigid, windy night and try to cross that scary sea.

img_9161

I took this photo around 3am one night during my shift. I was sitting out at our viewing point, having my 5-minute break between scans. I was thinking about the refugees who were likely hiding in the woods somewhere in Turkey, trying to decide if tonight was the right night to attempt a crossing. I had prepared a thermos of hot tea to bring with me, something to try to keep a bit warm, and when I looked at the little saying on the tag, it just hit me straight in the heart with its relevance to what I was doing.

Indeed, we are one soul, you and me.

Myself, the refugees who are crossing, the people who live in Skala Sikamineas… we’re all the same. We’re all human. We all want the same basic things in life – safety and freedom for ourselves and our families, enough to eat, a roof over our heads, employment that pays enough to live, etc. I happen to have been born in a stable country with no war, to a privileged family, and that puts me in a position to help. These folks on the boats happen to have been born in a country that is unsafe for one reason or another (and I won’t get political, but our government had a lot to do with the reasons that some of these people are fleeing their homes) and that puts them in a position of needing help right now. We were born in different places, but we are one.

Those are my sisters and brothers. We are two sides of the same coin. We are the same.

IMG_9411Lifejacket graveyard

Shortly before I left Lesvos, a few of the other volunteers and I drove a short distance from the spot where we watch for boats to see this ‘lifejacket graveyard,’ an unintentional monument to all the refugees who have passed through Lesvos in the past few years.

The life jacket graveyard is just a pit in the ground, not far from a cute tourist town called Molyvos, where life jackets started collecting, and now there are thousands upon thousands just disintegrating in the elements. There are pieces of dinghies and different flotation devices mixed in, and a bunch of boat motors arranged near one edge like tombstones.

IMG_9376

It was powerful to witness.

When I first got out of the car and took in the magnitude of all those people who left their homes and everything they knew to make this dangerous journey, the hairs on my arms stood straight up and I got goosebumps all over.

One of the other volunteers said, “the feeling I get here is the same feeling as when I visited Auschwitz and saw all the shoes left behind.”

The crisis continues.

The volume of refugees that cross through Lesvos these days is diminished from what it was in 2015 when the crisis began. The European Union is paying Turkey quite a bit of money to try to prevent refugees from crossing into Greece; there is a Frontex patrol boat on the border at most times, as well as a NATO warship patrolling the border, in addition to the Turkish and Greek coast guards. And yet, people continue to cross.

Once they arrive in Greece, they spend months or years trapped in Moria, the main refugee camp. It is like a prison where they must stay until they are either deported back to Turkey or allowed entry onto mainland Greece. (I didn’t visit Moria because I didn’t have any work to do there and I don’t like to treat humans like animals in a zoo to be viewed, but click here for some good photos and reporting on the camp.) Overall, the presence of a huge number of refugees on Lesvos was much less obvious than I thought it would be, because they are all contained in the camp.

But people continue to arrive. I just saw an update from friends who are still there, and they had four boats land in the last 27 hours, with nearly 130 people on board.

There are also boats landing on the Greek islands of Samos and Chios, and a growing number of refugees crossing into Italy from Africa. A huge amount are moving overland to Jordan and effectively resettling there, which is rarely mentioned in the news. And of course there are other refugees and mass migrations across the world.

Most countries don’t want to take in any more refugees, but it’s not safe for them to return to their home countries. And remaining in subhuman conditions in refugee camps is also not a viable solution.

I don’t know what the answer to this huge issue is, but I do know that this work both shook my faith in humanity and renewed it.

The coordinator for the agency I volunteered with posted a picture of a dinghy that arrived on Lesvos one morning and ended her description with the hashtag, #Godisdead.

I can understand why. Bearing witness to the suffering of so many people, the terrible things they encounter that force them to leave their homes, the arduous journey they take, the treatment they receive by some people and authorities along the way, the animal-like conditions in which they exist in Moria camp, and the likelihood that in the end they will be deported anyway…it can make you question why any God would allow this.

But on the other hand, as I got to know the community I was living in, I learned about how the residents of this tiny village reacted when refugees suddenly started showing up on their shores in droves. And that buoyed my spirits and my hope for humanity.

The few hundred people who live in this village were there when the refugees first started arriving, and they rose up to help their fellow humans, doing their best until the international NGOs and other assistance arrived months later. The women cooked and helped care for the children, the local café donated food and drinks, and the fishermen were nominated for a Nobel prize for their work rescuing people from boats in distress. (Here is a beautiful photo collage by the Guardian showing the incredible work of this community.)

It’s so beautiful to know that despite what we see reflected in politics, the basic human impulse is still to help others.

And that is what I’m going to try to keep in my heart from this experience.

Magical Greece

I scheduled in about five days to make the journey between Thessaloniki and Lesvos, so I could see some of the sights that Greece has to offer before heading to my volunteer placement.

img_8996.jpgRock formation at Meteora

My first stop was Meteora, a large rock formation that hosts a bunch of monasteries and nunneries built atop the rocks, which was absolutely incredible.

I spent two nights at a hostel in the town of Kalambaka, just below the rocks, and hiked from there to the various monasteries.

IMG_8682Monastery of the Holy Trinity

The first day, I set out after my arrival to explore what I could before dark. I hiked for an hour or two going up, up, up and eventually came to the above view – the first monastery on top of a huge rock.

I learned that monks have been living a secluded life here since the 11th century, when they started inhabiting caves in these rocks. The monasteries were built a few hundred years later, and at that time, the only way up was to climb a rope ladder that the monks at the top would lower or to be hauled up in a large human net, both of which could break when the ropes got too weak. Talk about a leap of faith.

IMG_8845

Nowadays there are hiking trails and a big paved road that go from Kalambaka to most of the monasteries. Getting to some from the road still requires some climbing of stairs, but most can be accessed easily by car.

I was kind of disappointed to find the proximity of the road when I had hiked all the way up from the back, feeling pretty spiritual about the long journey on foot to discover these holy places that were so remote. Then I rounded a corner and saw a tour bus heading towards me on this nice road and I thought “oh no…”

IMG_8747

But I kept hiking, ignoring the road and the cars passing, and I visited all of the monasteries easily in the two days I had. Walking to each one was definitely the best way to do it for me, though it’s nice the road is there for people who aren’t physically able to do the hike.

IMG_8719St. Stephanos Nunnery behind me

The weather was clear and perfect for hiking – not too hot and not too cold. And because it is the low season for tourism in Greece, there weren’t many other people around, so I could take my time in all the best spots.

IMG_8836Meteora feels like a thin place to me: a place where the space between God and earth is diminished.

Thin places don’t have to be religious places, and honestly, before this trip, the places I experienced as thin were rarely of the religious sort.

I first discovered a thin place in Uganda, in a rural school my study abroad program visited, where hundreds of smiling, uniform-clad children ran around joyously. When I got home, I found another thin place when I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Boston where weary, cold people sat at round tables and encouraged each other over a meager meal. Then I moved to Benin and experienced even more thin places: the dirt road where I would run each morning and see my neighbors heading to their fields as the dew glistened on the crops growing next to the road; a tiny mud church with a straw roof in the middle of nowhere where we stopped to vaccinate the children against polio one day on our way to another village. Then of course I discovered the Sahara Desert in Morocco, a magnificent and sweeping thin place.

And in Meteora, I swear I could feel the presence of the monks and nuns at each monastery/nunnery. It was like a kind, loving spirit in the air and it was beautiful. I am so glad I visited this place.

IMG_8750

When it came time to leave Kalambaka to go to Delphi, there were only two options for the train – either 5:30am or 5:30pm. And because the train didn’t go directly to Delphi but rather to Livadia nearby, where I would have to get a bus to Delphi, I figured the sensible option was to take the morning train, though I am NOT a 5:30am kind of person. I avoid that time of day if at all possible.

The 5:30am train turned out to be the most magical transportation experience of my life.

IMG_9009

The first hour was in the dark, and then we had to transfer and wait in the cold for a while for the next train as the sun rose. I fell asleep almost immediately upon boarding the second train, and when I awoke, we were high up in the most gorgeous mountains, bathed in a beautiful early morning light.

My face was glued to the window as I took in the blanket of dark green that covered the mountainside, and the sun peeking over one mountain and illuminating the snow-capped peaks of the others. There were wispy clouds suspended in midair, tinted red and yellow by the sun, standing out brilliantly against the bright blue sky. Below, groups of sheep and goats huddled under tin-roofed structures on the mountainside.

Each time we passed through a tunnel, there would be a new valley, or a new perspective on the same valley. There were farmlands in a checkerboard pattern, bright green squares next to dark brown, with villages nestled into the corners and small orchards dotting the plains.

A flock of birds glided around in the open air of the valley and then soared under one of the metal bridges the train had just gone over.

It was truly magical. I tried to take several pictures, but each time, all that came out was my own reflection in the train window. I guess it was destined to be a memory that I have to keep in my mind, not on camera.

IMG_8666Out another train window

Once I got to Livadia, I was so thankful that I chose the early train, because the bus to Delphi proved to be elusive. This particular bus does not depart from the bus station, for some reason, but from an unmarked bus stop near the edge of town. It took me more than two hours of traipsing back and forth across the town carrying my bag and asking random Greek people if they knew where the bus to Delphi was before I finally found the bus stop.

Then there were another two hours of waiting while bus after bus came by, none of them apparently going to Delphi. But when I finally boarded the correct bus, it only took about 45 minutes to drive partway up Mt. Parnassus to the town.

IMG_9052The town of Delphi from above at sunset

Delphi was another incredible place. Full of history and ancient ruins, being there was a powerful reminder of so much humanity that has preceded us. Delphi is most famous for being home to the Pythia, the high priestess at the Temple of Apollo, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. People would come from all over to consult with her, and her counsel probably influenced some major decisions that changed the course of history.

IMG_9034Temple of Athena at Delphi

Though I usually enjoy missing out on the crowds and spending less money by visiting places in the off season, I think Delphi may have been the exception to that rule. It was so quiet and deserted that it was almost spooky. I could walk through most of the town without seeing another person or hearing sounds of life anywhere. I ate dinner in empty restaurants both nights I was there, and though the food (and the service) was amazing, it was a bit disconcerting.

Incidentally, I learned that the Oracle of Delphi was never available for consultation in the wintertime, so apparently Delphi is just a place that is meant to be visited in warmer weather. Good to know!

IMG_9026

Some of the sites were also not open to visit while I was there because it was the off-season, like the gymnasium, pictured above. Considering that I was pretty sore and tired from all the hiking I did in Meteora, it didn’t bother me too much to miss out on more walking, but I didn’t realize before I arrived that I wouldn’t have the option to visit all the sites.

Still, I feel like I was able to experience the meaning of the place and definitely able to see its magnificent beauty.

IMG_9047

Thessaloniki

I arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece’s 2nd largest city, in early January. My arrival coincided with the Greek Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 6, which marks the end of the Christmas season. This meant that I got to celebrate Christmas yet again on my first day here!

IMG_8314Coffee cup on January 6

By chance, on my first morning, I stumbled upon the Orthodox Christmas tradition of a bunch men in Speedos diving into ice cold water to retrieve a crucifix that has been blessed by a priest. The man who gets the cross is supposed to have good luck for the coming year.

It was quite the event, judging by the number of people who crowded along the waterfront to watch.

IMG_8380

The young men boarded a big ship, took lots of selfies of themselves as they prepared to dive, and a fleet of small rescue boats floated nearby, with medics and lifeguards ready to jump in if needed. Some of the elite of Thessaloniki watched from a yacht near the coast.

There was almost an hour of buildup and the action was over in about a minute. One minute they were on the boat, then very suddenly all the men were flailing about in the water. Just as suddenly, someone got the cross and everyone was clambering back on to the boats.

After the swimming event, the priest gave a blessing in the street and then there was a small parade as he made his way to a nearby church, escorted by the Greek military. The giant bells on the church were clanging and Greek women were shoving to get a chance to kiss the cross that the priest had blessed and I let myself get swept along with the crowd and absorb their joy.

IMG_8328

It was a wonderful first day and after my Greek Epiphany experience, I wandered around, trying to get a feel for this new place.

IMG_8402

Whereas Tirana felt like it was on its way up as a city, Thessaloniki definitely feels like it had its glory days already and is in a decline. It’s a beautiful city, in the way that old things are beautiful, and also in the way that discord and honesty has beauty. The people are very welcoming and friendly, but you can see that Greece’s economic crisis has impacted them greatly.

IMG_8600All over the city, there are high-end shops with prices marked way down

The city is built on a steep hill, with the remnants of an ancient Byzantine wall at the top and layers of houses and apartments cascading downwards. At the bottom of the hill is the Aegean Sea and the city’s most famous monument, the White Tower.

IMG_8416

Interestingly, the city is covered in graffiti. And I don’t say “covered” lightly. Truly, most buildings are marked in some way Even in the most upscale part of town, you see this street artwork.

IMG_8463

Everywhere in the city, you see ancient ruins and historically significant items. In fact, the government has been trying to build a metro system for more than 10 years (right now the public transit in the city is limited to buses), but each time they try to dig for it, they uncover more ruins. One Greek woman from Athens who stayed in our hostel said that when someone suggests something you never want to do, it has become a running joke to say,

“Oh yes, we’ll do that as soon as Thessaloniki gets its metro.”

IMG_8468One such site below the city, glimpsed through a wire fence

My favorite part of Thessaloniki is the waterfront.

This has been recently upgraded and features broad sidewalks bordering the water with places to sit and some modern sculptures alongside the ancient ones. The local people use this space a lot, and on weekends and evenings the area is full of Greek people out enjoying the water and vendors selling koulouria (a thin, bagel-type item covered in sesame seeds) and other pastries.

It is also a great place for running, and I got back into a solid running routine here. This was good and necessary to offset my other Thessaloniki pastime, which was sampling the baklava from a different bakery every day!

IMG_8577

But the most meaningful part of my stay in Thessaloniki was that I had the opportunity to facilitate an English-learning conversation course for a group of men who are political refugees from Turkey. It was an honor to get to work with them.

It hasn’t been in the news as often lately, but Greece is still the landing point for hundreds of thousands of refugees each year.

There are many people living here who are seeking asylum – a legal status that will allow them to resettle in a new country because it is unsafe for them to return to their home country.

The group I worked with already had a pretty high English level, so we mostly practiced conversation – the most difficult part of learning any language. I taught them some idioms in English, like about the silver lining to a cloud and about crossing a bridge when you come to it (which it turns out, there is a similar idiom in Turkish – basically, don’t roll up your pants to cross the river before you get to the water). I also got to help with a women’s group that my friend facilitates and met some lovely women that way, two of whom graciously invited me to dinner at their houses even though they are refugees and new to the country.

IMG_8590I can’t tell you how amazing it was to eat home-cooked food after so many months on the road, eating out or eating cereal all the time!

I think we often want to think of people who are in a position of needing help as somehow fundamentally different from “us.” It’s an unconscious tendency to distance oneself, partly to protect ourselves from the idea of “that could be me.”

The thing that was so humbling working with these folks is that they are exactly like the people I know in the United States.

They are educated, they are informed, they are concerned about the world and their place in it. They are people who had high-level careers in Turkey, as educators and academics and engineers. Then suddenly their government turned against them because of their political beliefs, and their passports and assets were frozen, their jobs dismissed, and some were imprisoned. They had to flee for the safety of their families and now have to start all over again in this new country.

As I got to know them, I kept thinking, “wow, this could be me if I was born in a different country.” It’s just that America, despite its [many] shortcomings, is still based on freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom of the press; this all means that we cannot be punished for our political beliefs like these people were. The things we take for granted…

In my last week in Thessaloniki, I also connected with a large refugee assistance agency called Help Refugees. They are a British organization that acts as an umbrella, assisting lots of different agencies who work with refugees with funding and volunteers. It was a very informative experience, and I learned a lot. (Like, for instance, there are about 10,000 refugees currently in northern Greece, about half of whom are still in camps and half of whom have moved into housing.)

IMG_8593Map of all the refugee camps in Northern Greece

The work I did was remarkably similar to what I used to coordinate in my former job at HOPE, and it was fun and different to be on the other side – not coordinating but doing the small tasks that it takes to keep an organization like that running.

IMG_8597

I spent a day helping in the giant Help Refugees warehouse, which receives donations from all over and provides supplies to more than 20 refugee camps and refugee centers in the area, and several days helping in the Soul Food kitchen, which is a low-budget operation that prepares lunch and dinner for hundreds of refugees each day. Some of the food is distributed through a community center and some of it is packaged for an outreach service that reminded me so much of HOPE outreach.

IMG_8629

These experiences were so fulfilling (even though my hands smelled like onions for days after chopping pounds and pounds of them!).

This also reminded me that I wanted to volunteer on one of the Greek islands during this trip, to help with the new refugees who are just arriving on boats. So I went online and sent in an application to volunteer on Lesvos with an agency called Refugee Rescue, and I was accepted to help on their land crew for a few weeks. So I am starting that work this weekend – will certainly keep you updated on that experience!

The journey to Greece

So I was in a café in Tirana, Albania and I had decided I wanted to go to Greece.

IMG_8272Albanian café

I pulled out my phone and asked the nice Albanian barista who spoke no English to connect me to the WiFi. I looked at my maps app and saw there was a town in Macedonia called Ohrid that looked like it was on the way to Greece from Tirana. A quick google search on Ohrid turned up some gorgeous pictures and reviews from other travelers saying that it was a pleasant place to visit. They said you could get there from Tirana easily, and it looked simple enough to get to Thessaloniki after that. Done. I walked to the bus station and bought a ticket for the next day.

The bus ride through the rural parts of Albania was a little more like what I expected from Albania. it was a dreary day, not exactly raining, but misting as we traversed dark tunnels through the small Albanian mountains and passed by small, crumbling houses in poor rural communities. I definitely had a case of what my friend Rachel calls “bus depression” – the unmoored, melancholy feeling you can have when leaving one place and heading to a new one on a bus.

The border crossing into Macedonia was much more intense than the one into Albania.

First of all, the border is basically on top of a mountain, so it was snow-covered and freezing and felt quite dramatic. We drove through a customs booth where they collected our passports. Then the bus pulled into this large concrete structure that was like a mix of a giant garage and a mechanic’s bay.

We were instructed to get off the bus, collect our bags from the storage area and form a line. Then a very stern Macedonian customs official went from person to person, asking us to open our bags so he could inspect the contents. Eventually everyone got back on the bus and we continued on into Macedonia.

IMG_8301Ohrid, Macedonia

Ohrid is not far from the border and is quite beautiful, with the feel of a small town that attracts huge numbers of tourists in the summer. There are many cobblestone streets and cute little shops and restaurants. It borders a giant lake and is surrounded by mountains, which creates a very striking image.

IMG_8303Local beer for one at a restaurant in Ohrid

I took myself to dinner at a restaurant on the lake, which was gorgeous and actually quite reasonably priced. It did get a bit chilly — it had snowed that morning and though it had melted by the afternoon, it still wasn’t warm. The waitress kept asking me if I wanted to go inside, but the view was so beautiful that I declined, saying I wasn’t cold. She must have known I was lying, because she brought me a blanket a few minutes later.

IMG_8307Sunset in Ohrid

Unfortunately the hostel I stayed at was awful: the owner was out of town and the friend he had asked to watch over things while he was gone seemed to wish that he was somewhere else as well. When I first arrived, I actually thought it was closed, because it took about 5 minutes of ringing the bell and waiting and my taxi driver pounding on the door before someone answered. Only one room was heated and it wasn’t the one that had the beds in it. I spent an unpleasant night there and decided it was time to move on.

I had done a bit of research on how I could get to Greece from there but I’ve found that usually asking the hostel staff is the best method for gaining up-to-date information. So when the guy working there told me, “oh yes, no problem, you can get to Thessaloniki from here easily. Just take a shared taxi to Bitola, then there are buses every hour from there to Thessaloniki,” I set off to follow his instructions. He said it should cost about 15 euros (about $20) for the whole trip.

A few hours later, I found myself standing in a deserted bus station in Bitola, being told that there were no buses from there to Greece.

Seriously?? What a nightmare.

“You can go to Skopje (the capital of Macedonia, a few hours north), and then go from there to Greece,” the woman working at the desk told me.

Back outside, the driver of the shared taxi I took from Ohrid said he would take me to the border and then I could get another ride from there to Thessaloniki. I didn’t like that idea too much, imagining myself standing on top of that mountain where the border with Albania was, trying to talk my way into a passing bus or taxi. And would there be any passing? I didn’t know, and wasn’t in the mood to trust another stranger about travel advice.

The taxi drivers from that town were also vying for my business. They said one of them could take me to Phlorinas, a transportation hub in northern Greece, from which there were definitely buses to Thessaloniki. However, they said the price would be 30 euros, on top of which I would have to pay for a bus afterwards.

It doesn’t sound like a ton of money, but the way I am able to travel for such a long time on a limited budget is by keeping my costs very low – staying at the cheapest hostels, flying on budget airlines, buying groceries instead of eating out all the time, walking instead of taking buses or taxis, etc. This trip was threatening to completely blow my transit budget for no good reason.

I wasn’t sure I even had enough cash on me. I was stressed and angry.

I explained to the taxi drivers what I had been told about buses to Thessaloniki and the price and they just laughed.

“That’s completely not true,” they said. “That person had no idea what they were talking about.”

Excellent.

I stood there, staring at the empty bus station and at the taxi drivers and the lack of other travelers who could possibly be going in my direction and want to share a taxi, wondering what to do.

I think the drivers were a bit perplexed with me. We didn’t have much language in common – one spoke some English, another some French, and the others just Macedonian or Greek.

But they made small talk, trying to put me at ease, and asked where I was from. When I said I was from the US, a fatherly gentleman said he had a daughter about my age that lived in the US, in Colorado! I asked where, and he showed me an address in Aurora, just a few minutes from where I was living last year in south Denver. Bizarre coincidence.

For some reason that made me feel a little better and I also realized that I had very little choice. It was already mid-afternoon and if I went to Skopje, I would spend nearly the same money and wouldn’t get to Greece until nighttime. I always try to avoid arriving in a new city late at night, especially when I’m by myself. So I agreed to let the fatherly man drive me to Phlorinas.

We chatted in halting English the surprisingly short distance to Phlorinas and he walked me into the bus station and made sure I got a (surprisingly expensive) ticket to Thessaloniki before he left. Nice guy, and I never would have met him if my plan had gone the way I thought it would.

Sitting on the bus, I was dismayed at how much of my money I had parted with that day, but as I wrote in my journal that evening, “even with everything that went wrong, I still made it here, and it was okay.”

It was a good travel lesson – even when nothing goes right, things usually still work out if you can just remain calm and go with the flow. I’m a person who likes to have a plan, so this is not always easy for me (OK, it’s never easy for me), but it’s true. Flexibility is essential in travel, and I’m trying to embrace it more.

And Thessaloniki turned out to be a lovely place, where I stayed for a month. More on that in the next post… For now, here’s a picture of the Aegean Sea from Thessaloniki.

IMG_8375