Part 1 can be found here: https://danfrank.ca/2019-round-the-world-adventure-part-1/
One of my favourite essays is an article in the New York Times by David Byrne titled I HATE WORLD MUSIC. Byrne, creator of the influential world music label Luaka Bop does not actually hate world music; he hates the idea there is something called normal music and some “other” that fits into one shelf at a record store, consisting of all genres of music created in the rest of the world as if they are the same and insignificant.
One of the strengths of Western culture is that is adapts the best of other cultures – staples like sushi, yoga and tacos. I used to believe that if the West absorbs the best, anything we did not adapt must then not be “the best” and inferior to what we have.
My biggest takeaway from this trip is a better appreciation for the depth and breadth of awesomeness that exists outside the West. There are so many wonderful forms of culture, ideas, customs etc. that I was never exposed to in Canada.
Many people travel for fun. I travel to learn. Travelling provides me with a level of understanding of myself, society and the world that I cannot experience otherwise. My greatest joy in life is to learn and travelling is the most effective way for me to do so.
One can learn a lot about the world by reading. However, they will only understand a certain class of things. Certain types of knowledge, essential knowledge, can only be acquired through immersion and experience.
Because I read extensively about the regions I visited, I often arrived knowing more than most locals about their country’s history and politics. Despite my superior “knowledge”, I was ignorant of country I was visiting.
Most people believe the society they were born into is either the only way, or at least the best way life should be. Without experiencing alternative arrangements, one will be fundamentally ignorant about what this actually entails. How can one know if they enjoy living in a more conservative society, a more egalitarian society; a culture where people have two hour lunches, a culture where people eat lunch at their desk; a community where people invite strangers over for tea, or a community where you stare at your phone and avoid meeting your neighbours without experiencing the alternatives?
Beyond learning about other cultures, travelling also gives us a better understanding of ourselves and where we come from. Without spending time away from home, we cannot understand what home actually is. It is only by being away and seeing the different possibilities can we appreciate what we truly value. Maybe you enjoy salsa dancing, cricket, Turkish massages or the infinite number of other things that are cherished in other countries but not at home.
At home, people are constrained. They are constrained by identity, routine, familiarity and fear of judgment. Travel frees people from these burdens and helps one experience the world with fresh eyes.
Travel is a spark for curiosity. Each place you visit is a gateway to new ideas. For me, visiting Kazakhstan is not just to learn about Kazakhstan, but a tool to get me interested in adjacent topics like Russian history, the spread of Islam, Genghis Khan etc.
Below are some of the observations I had during my trip:
- Prior to the trip, I was ecstatic to visit Ethiopia. I expected it to be the highlight of my travels and imagined I would come home telling everyone to visit. After spending one month there, I have mixed feelings towards Ethiopia. The highlights of Ethiopia were some of my favourite travel experiences ever but the country provided constant frustrations that soured my experience. Here are a few examples of what I experienced:
- Restaurants rarely have prices on their menu (if they have menus at all); after finishing your meal, most restaurants would ask you to pay much more than what the food ordinarily costs . Because every restaurant would serve the exact same dishes, I had to memorize how much things are supposed to cost (ie tea is 10 birr, shirro is 30 birr etc) and rather than asking for a bill, I would tell the server how much I would be paying.
- Tour companies collude to make it impossible to access many of the countries top sights without taking organized tours. To force travellers to take a tour of the Simien Mountains, groups will physically attack anyone who drives tourists into the park making it very difficult to enter the park without a tour. If you book a tour, you are required to hire an armed guard. This is clearly an attempt to make money rather than a concern for safety as I learned their guns have no bullets. In the evening, when the weather was around 0 degrees, the guards were forced to sleep outside with no jacket, blankets or a tent, leading me to offer up my gear and clothing. When I expressed displeasure at how the guards were treated, I was yelled at. I was told if the guards are warm, they will fall asleep instead of guarding me all night (really, they insisted the guards were supposed to go the entire 4 day hike without sleeping).
- Every hotel would happily tell you to your face they have wifi and hot showers only for you to learn they were lying when you got into the freezing cold shower.
- On a 287KM bus ride, our bus stopped at 12 military checkpoints to be comprehensively searched each time causing the bumpy, sweaty and overcrowded bus ride to take 14 hours.
- While very sick in Ethiopia, my friends and I negotiated for a private jeep to take us from Lalibela to Addis Ababa (two day bumpy ride through unpaved roads in the mountains). The driver shows us the jeep we will be taking and assures us nobody else can join the car. The next morning, the driver tells us his friend will be driving us instead… and shows up in a mini-bus (which cannot handle the roads). 10 minutes onto the drive, the driver starts picking up people on the street for the ride.
- Children constantly harassing and throwing rocks at you.
- After Ethiopia, the country I was most excited about was Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is home to some of the most interesting history, fascinating culture, warmest people and beautiful nature you will find in any country. Unfortunately, similar to Ethiopia, it also can be incredibly frustrating to travel in. I went to Kyrgyzstan to hike and here is what I experienced on my three hikes in the country:
- Ala Köl Lake (3 days). Most popular hike in all of Kyrgyzstan. Before setting out, I spoke with the main tourism office and was assured the hike was in good condition and I would have no problems. On the second day, I approached the mountain pass during a snowstorm (in July) to find the other side of the mountain covered with between 2-3 metres of snow and a significant risk of avalanche. Due to the snow, the path is non-existent and as the mountain is so steep (people can barely walk down the path when there is no snow), the only way down is to slide down the mountain for ~100 metres until the path resumes. Nearly every person who went down the mountain I met had some sort of injury.
- Robber’s Canyon loop (1 day). Half way through the hike, the trail disappears in an area with multiple indistinguishable mountain passes to choose from (which the official tourist hiking map does not describe). Fortunately, despite taking the wrong mountain pass, I was able to find an alternative route back to town.
- Song-Kul Lake (3 days). Similar to Ala Köl, this is one of the most popular hikes in Kyrgyzstan and before setting out, I spoke with the main tourist agency and was assured the hike was in good condition and I would not experience any problems. About one KM away from the first campsite, I came across a river with a the remnants of a broken bridge. The river was too fast and deep to cross. I walked an hour in each direction and could not find any safe points to cross. A few hours later, two Slovenians arrived who paid for food and accommodation at the camp site (therefore, had no food or shelter) and were stuck in the same situation as us; my friend and I give them one of our tents and our remaining food. We ended up waiting 18 hours at the river for someone to come by with a horse to help us cross.
One of my favourite aspects of travelling (and hiking) is how it forces you to be sharp, mindful and deal with adversity.
While traveling in difficult countries, you need to be cognizant of everything. Every bus may go the wrong direction, every meal might make you sick, every offer may be a scam, every taxi needs to be negotiated etc. If you are not “on” at all times, aware of all of the risks around you and ready to fight, you will pay a price.
Unfortunately, travelling in developing countries (especially while hiking) can also be dangerous. Living in a place like Canada, nearly everything you encounter will be safe. To do something dangerous requires you to go out of your way to specifically do something dangerous. The unfortunate side effect of this is that most travellers from rich countries do not appreciate things can actually be dangerous unless they are given several warnings and asked to sign waivers. With no warnings or waivers given, many travellers end up following the crowd and at times, put themselves in grave danger.
One of my brother’s best friends died while motorcycling in Vietnam. Beyond mourning his death, I am still angry at this because of how unnecessary it was. There is no reason why someone who does not know how to ride a motorcycle should be riding through dangerous roads in foreign countries, yet, most travellers do this because they believe if they are allowed to and others do it, it must be safe.
Ease of travel:
One of the inspirations for visiting Central Asia was reading Tim Urban’s (from Wait But Why) spectacular blog on visiting Xiinjiang, Kyrgzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 2007. Tim experienced a truly foreign world; he dealt with language barriers, visa issues, money problems, insufficient information and challenges at every step.
By 2019, Tim’s trip no longer exists and the challenges he experienced have all been solved. There is boundless information online about every place one can visit, an ability to take out money easily in any country, almost no visas to worry about for Westerners and a greater fluency of english/Google Translate that removes almost all language barriers.
While some people are saddened by the loss of adventure in their trips, I appreciate how amazing it is that travel has become so cheap, easy and accessible.
Tourist attractions and photos:
One of the reasons why I love hiking as a focus for travel is it gives my trip an outline and purpose. I think one of the reasons tourist attractions (no matter how bland) are so popular is that people feel a trip has no purpose or structure without them; people need a reason to travel somewhere. While I enjoy the “highlights” what makes traveling meaningful for me are the things that happen everyday. Rather than centre my day (or week) around attractions, I typically use interesting restaurants, large parks, book stores or synagogues as attractions for my day, and otherwise spend my time walking as far as my feet take me.
In 2004, the City of Amsterdam built a sign displaying “I AM AMSTERDAM”. The iconic sign was a tourist hit as it allowed everyone to share with the world they were travelling in Amsterdam. Slowly, these types of signs spread to almost every city with tourism in the world, something I attribute solely to how useful they are for posting on Instagram. Ironically, Amsterdam removed their sign due to complaints of promoting mass tourism.
I think tourist attractions have become more magnified lately due to the rise of Instagram. I remember visiting Machu Picchu and feeling as if I was at a massive photoshoot rather than a historical ruin. Many people use their adventures as a social currency, and tourist attractions frequently make great Instagram bait.
While I’m bothered by how much time I waste taking photos and how it takes away from the moment, I love having travel photos. I find I am much more likely to positively remember a place if I have cool photos of it.
Having locals show you around and teach you about the country you are visiting is the most effective way to enhance one’s travel experience. Meeting “locals” while travelling is easy, but meeting locals who speak english and are knowledgable in the things you care about is more challenging. I try to do this anyway I can. I will message people who read the same blogs as me, the same books as me, academics I like, friends of friends, anyone Jewish, or anyone else who seems interesting to help show me around. When this fails, the best alternative is something you may be surprised to hear: Tinder. Tinder, the dating app, is an incredible resource to find english speaking, educated, internationally cultured people in practically every country around the globe, eager to show you around their country.
One of my main sources of learning is reading blogs and long form journalism. I omitted to read any online content while travelling with the intention of catching up after my trip ended. When I returned home, I had no interest in reading the backlog of content I missed as none if it seemed important or relevant. It goes to show how ephemeral most information is, especially in comparison to how enduring the knowledge I absorbed while travelling is.
The spirit of travel is also ephemeral. Most travellers have bold plans for altering their lives when they return home only for their lives to slowly revert back to how it was before they left before the trip. And then after a while, it feels like they never really travelled at all.
I can already feel this happening to me. While travelling Central Asia, I was determined to purchase a set of floor pillows and a small table so I could start sitting on the floor when having friends over for tea. After arriving home, I discovered how difficult it is to buy the pillows/carpet/table, then I started questioning if my friends would think it is weird to sit on the floor if I invite them over, then I realized my friends do not even drink tea. Confidence I would buy floor furniture while travelling: 90%. Likelihood I will actually buy the floor furniture after travelling: 10%.
In many places I visited, there is one dominant form of culture; people eat one type of food, listen to one type of music, play one sport. This makes it easier for communal bonding as more people are likely to have a significant overlap in their background and interests. It also ensures a minimum set of skills and fluency. Most of my friends do not know how to cook and rely on services like Ubereats. If you grow up eating one type of food, you almost certainly will learn how to cook it. If you grow up eating many types of food, it is much harder to know what to learn how to cook.
International culture may be a more helpful term than Western culture in the context of travel. I would frequently hang out with non-Western travellers/migrants from countries like Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Russia, Rwanda, Venezuela and feel as if we shared the same culture. We would talk about our favourite movies, music, sports teams, make the same jokes, eat the same foods etc. In contrast, I often found I had minimal cultural overlap with many locals I met in “Western” countries. I realized the relevant categorization of if I am likely to have a shared culture with someone is not if they are from a Western country but by the culture they choose to consume.
On this trip, I visited some of the poorest nations in the world.I was surprised to discover that no matter how poor a country it is, it almost always has areas that are very nice and feel like a wealthy country. Walking through the capitals in poor countries like Tajikistan or Mozambique will deceive you – they have functional amenities, expensive restaurants, fancy cars and many nice buildings. This does not change the fact that most people in these countries are destitute.
While GDP is an important metric, it is deceiving in many ways. Often GDP per capita figures appear misleading in countries with large rural populations of subsistence farmers not integrated into the economy. When one looks at economic statistics about a country, the numbers often do not correspond to what the country looks like in its nicest places. Additionally, in many countries, a significant portion of the economy exists off the books, causing economic indicators to appear much lower than they really are. Just because Ireland’s GDP per capita is more than 15X greater than Albania does not mean Ireland is remotely close to 15X wealthier than Albania is.
Once a new business idea is tested across the globe, it is only a matter of time before its implemented everywhere. In all the countries Uber is not operating in, there is almost always a knock off Uber taking all the business. When you use the Ethiopian imitation of Uber, Uber does not make a penny, but ZayRide does. Silicon Valley innovation is an underrated form of philanthropy and replicating popular Silicon Valley apps in developing nations seems like a free lunch for local tech companies with funding.
- Travelling through Africa, you can see the presence of China everywhere. New roads, bridges, ports, trains or any other new infrastructure I saw were almost always built by China.The largest Chinese presence I saw was in Ethiopia where beyond the infrastructure, I frequently saw billboards advertising Chinese investment and Chinese workers at trendy restaurants and bars all over Addis Ababa. At the airport in Addis, there is a lounge that appeared to be exclusively for Chinese nationals working in Ethiopia.
- Despite the significant chinese investment, smart phones and Chinese electronics were relatively rare in the African nations I visited.
- I was surprised to discover how small the Chinese presence was is in Central Asian. With the exception of Chinese truck drivers in Tajikistan, anything connected to China, whether it be culture or Chinese brands was hard to find. The former Soviet states are firmly in the Russian sphere and despite their proximity to China, are minimally integrated.
There is no better place to see the impact of economic policies than Argentina and Chile. Everyday travel leads to important economic insights: why are Avocados twice the size in Chile, why is steak so much cheaper in Argentina than other countries, why can you pay for McDonalds in Chile with multiple instalments on your credit card, why are electronics so expensive Argentina, why can’t you find peanut butter in Argentina? They all have simple explanations stemming from the economic policies of each country.
100 years ago, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, integrated into the global economy. 50 years ago, Chile was running out of food and very isolated. Argentina is seemingly in a perpetual state of crisis while Chile is the wealthiest nation in South America. Chile embraced free-markets and international trade while Argentine relied on economic protectionism. Argentina and Chile are in very different political positions today largely due to pursuing different economic policies over the last 50 years.
Chile and Argentina also share a very interesting political phenomena; every political conversation still references political figures who are long dead (Pinochet in Chile and Peron in Argentina).
If Chile and Argentina are the best places to learn about economic policy, the Balkans are the best region to learn about nationalism. The Balkans nations are filled with fake histories, overstated culture and bigotry to highlight the differences each “nation” has from the others. (I feel comfortable making this statement because each Balkan country would agree it’s true, just for all the other nations).
I remember being surprised by the first few conversations I had in Bulgaria. They invariably steered towards how a Bulgarian invented the Cyrllic alphabet or how much history happened in Bulgaria. Then I went to Macedonia and experienced something similar; every conversation was about how terrible their neighbours are, how much they hate their new name, and how historic Macedonia is. Ditto Albania. Ditto Bosnia. Ditto Serbia.
In the divided city of Mostar, Bosnia, the hills are filled with large crosses to make sure every Bosniak knows the city is dominated by Catholics. Nearly every conversation I had with Bosniaks included some rant about Serbs or Croats. In Serbia I once asked someone about Novak Djokovic and was given a 20+ minute lecture explaining why Serbia is the best nation in Europe, and at no point mentioned Novak Djovic (or anything remotely relevant).
One cannot take a step in the Balkans without feeling the effects nationalism has on all of the respective countries. For every person who has recently become more sympathetic to nationalism lately, I encourage you to visit the Balkans and observe how fierce nationalism looks like from the outside.
Why don’t drivers wear seatbelts?
- Despite how dangerous the roads are, very few drivers in developing countries wear seatbelts. Seatbelts unambiguously make one more safe, so I am truly baffled by this. My best guess is that in societies with a severe distrust or authority, after hearing so many lies about other issues, people don’t trust the evidence that seat belts actually improve things. However, as a passenger, I am glad when I see my driver is not wearing a seatbelt; I get the benefit of wearing the seatbelt and my driver now has more incentive to drive safely because a crash is even more fatal for them (see the Peltzman Effect).
Why are people obsessed with fake Gucci?
- One of the reasons people wear luxury brands like Gucci is to signal they are the type of person who wears… and can afford to wear brands like Gucci. In almost every poor country I travelled to, the hottest fashion is fake Gucci. In a place like Toronto, wearing fake Gucci products makes sense because it is plausible the Gucci is real, allowing one to convey a meaningful signal at a low price. However, in countries like Kyrgyzstan, nobody will ever believe you are wearing authentic Gucci, so there is no signal being sent. It is a mystery to me why people wear fake luxury brands all over the developing world. (My best guess is wearing fake Gucci signals a person embraces international culture, but I really have no idea.)
Why does everyone in Albania drive a Mercedes and how do they afford it?
- In Albania, almost every car you see is a Mercedes, a bit surprising for one of the poorest countries in Europe. My ad-hoc explanation I’ve pieced together is this: during communist rule, party officials drove Mercedes and it became a sign of status. After the fall of Communism, Albanian emigres would show off by driving their Mercedes on visits home. In response to this, aspiring upper-class Albanias wanted to appear on the same level, but without the money to actually buy Mercedes, they started buying stolen Mercedes, which were poorly policed in Albania. As Albania’s economy grew, the country’s infatuation with Mercedes remained; Albanians began buying up almost the entire European used Mercedes market. In Canada, used Mercedes represent bad value due to their high costs of parts and repair. Albania has solved this as most mechanics specialize in repairing used Mercedes, allowing one to drive a Mercedes at a low cost.