It’s September 4, 2020. That means it’s officially the ten year anniversary of when I jetted off to Nome, Alaska and started living my life. I say “living my life” with much enthusiasm because, as is the whole point to this website, I really didn’t take advantage of all life had to offer before the magical date of September 4, 2010. I think of this date, today, as my anniversary. It’s so significant to me that I even think of it as more important than my birthday or any other holiday I was taught to care about throughout my youth. This is the date that I, as an adult, chose for myself. It’s cool to make decisions that benefit you, solely for the betterment of yourself. This is my day. It’s the Day I Broke Up With Normal.
I didn’t actively get on that airplane ten years ago in hopes of turning my life into something entirely different as to what it was. No, that came in time. But, prior to getting on that airplane, I was just ticking the boxes.
High School? Check.
Job? Ehhh, sort of…
The rest is now history. I’ve got ten years of stories “in the books”. There’s no house, no kids, no spouse, no American dream to speak of. There’s just ten years of stories, and a whole lot of stuff crammed into my brain. In celebration of this most momentous occasion, I’ve decided to launch a new piece to this website. While this blog has been rockin’ and rollin’ for eight years now, I figured it was time I branch out, even just a little bit.
This is why, I now present to you, my veracious reader, a new podcast. It’s got a similar theme to this blog and website, but it focusing a bit more on the people, the best part of the last ten years of my life. It also highlights a number of different individuals who are living lives as unconventional as my own. I’m good and ready for a new chapter, and I hope you are too.
When I first booked a ticket to Athens three years ago, I had no idea what a big part of my life the country was about to become. Here’s an edited-down journal entry I wrote while I was there and once I’d left…
Late November 2017, and the thoughts went something like this:
East Meets West
Athens. I’d never given the city much thought prior to going there, but when round-trip tickets bounced back on my search engine in the “very affordable” category, I just booked ’em without much of a second thought. Having had my heart-strings pulled on a few times by the horrifying news stories of Syrian refugees crashing upon Greek shores while escaping war torn cities, I had been searching for a way to become part of the solution all summer. With my current ticket getting me within a few hundred miles of the refugees, I got to work searching for a way to get involved. In short, I found my way “in”, but the organization I’d be working for/with didn’t have an opening for me until January.
With my ticket already booked, I decided to just enjoy my time in Athens in November. It was the perfect time to be there, escaping the encroaching winter of New York and cashing it in for the typical sun and 70’s of southern Greece. I spent my first week in solitude and then my friend flew over from the Netherlands to accompany my second week.
Athens defines the idea of East meeting West. The buildings, the people, the language. It’s something my cab driver told me on my way into the city from the airport, and although there wasn’t anything to base his words off of, it just sort of came together bit by bit, making more and more sense as my time in Athens grew.
My cabbie also alerted me that Greece was “new poor”, meaning that they’re not used to being poor, it’s something that they’re still getting used to. They don’t know how to be poor yet. I didn’t experience many indicators of this newfound poorness–that’s not something one necessarily picks up on while wandering around a city, especially one that has a lot of tourism attached to it. I will say though, the few conversations I did have with people about money were certainly intriguing. One man suggested to me to leave a one or two Euro tip for every meal, coffee, or cab ride that I took. He further elaborated that if one tourist per day did this, it could significantly assist someone with paying their rent. Another man was far more frank about his financial situation: “It’s only a financial crisis for the people who don’t have money,” he said dismissively.
In what I can only assume is buried deep in my character at this point in my life, the first morning the sun rose in Athens, illuminating where I was in the world, I saw this massive hill that the apartment I was in sat right at the base of and knew I had to climb it. So, I did. The vantage point was enticing, the abundance of greenery at the peak was calling to me, but mostly, dammit, a hill, I have to climb it!
As I was soon to discover from the top of the hill, Athens is a sprawling sitting, situated between mountains and sea. In a few spots, the natural geography protrudes above the city buildings, disrupting the human construction with a handful of hills that present as too difficult to build on. I snapped photo after photo of the unique setting from this hilltop and then proceeded to revisit the top of that hill 10 more times throughout my stay, both during the day and in the middle of the night.
I don’t know what the regulations are for Athens, or if there’s some structural benefit to it, but all of the buildings in Athens are the same color, beige. This made me feel that East meets West vibe even more as, from afar, the city seemed to resemble some of the Syrian cities I’d seen in documentaries I was using to preview the conflict the people I’d be working with were escaping. Geographically sepaking, Athens really is East meets West, as it borders the Middle East, is close to Africa, and acts as the gateway to the European Union. I was grateful each time I was able to sit atop this city. Of all of the apartments in the city, I’d rented out one that was within proximity of this crucial hill.
At night, even after midnight a time or two, I ventured up the hill to gaze out at the city lights, my favorite part being the Parthenon–illuminated on another hilltop a few kilometres away. To me, it looks just like a miniature replica they sell at tourist shops. The night bares nothing to worry about in Athens. You can walk the streets with no issue, so I was told, and so I encountered. I’d also noticed that women didn’t seem to take much issue with being alone. They didn’t cross the street accordingly, or even seem to need to be especially aware of their surroundings. Athens isn’t America. The people seem to police each other, which seems highly effective. The police, I was told, are useless. Due to numerous laws, they aren’t really allowed to do anything. One man told me that you could literally walk up to a cop and start peeing on his shoe and there’s nothing he can do about it.
They do patrol the streets though, so people openly see them doing nothing and wasting tax payer dollars. Other interesting tidbits I learned from Greeks: When you’re in prison, you’re allowed to check-out, tool around in the free world, then check back in later. What? Also, if you murder someone, you get a “life sentence” which is not to exceed 15 years. 15 is the maximum sentence you can get in Greece. Also, if you’re assaulted, you need to be careful or you may end up in trouble. You can’t “respond” with more force than is being inflicted upon you or you’re the one that gets in trouble. For example, if someone attacks you with a gun, you better only defend yourself with a knife.
Food & Coffee
I feel like Gyros and coffee are everywhere in Athens. And for good reason–they’re both perfection. Even the vegetarian gyros are baller. They stuff them with french fries! And the cappuccinos here put all of the other cappuccinos I’ve ever had to complete and utter shame . There’s a coffee place just around the corner from the apartment, so it was fun to order from the same two baristas and help them practice their English.
Downside? Pollution. There were so many spots where I felt like I couldn’t escape the fumes from the cars. It just seemed to get trapped between the concrete and the buildings.
Ads or Politics?
A time or two in Guyana, specifically when I was in Corriverton, a coastal town that borders Suriname, a car drove by with loud speakers on top of it. The loud speakers ran a recording of advertisements for sales at the local shops. Retro–but effective, since a thirty-minute slow drive around town would be all that was necessary for everyone to hear about the sales. I was woken up by similar cars many times in my initial two weeks in Athens. The language though, made it so I couldn’t tell what the messages were about. It was probably Greek, but honestly, it could have been something else. Given the tone of the city and what I was learning, I don’t think these were ads being projected into the streets. I was also woken up one morning to a massive mob of people calling and responding through an adjoining street. Politically, some sort of mild unrest was going on.
It’s intriguing to exist in a culture where the language is so foreign. Not everyone knows English. And the Greek language is everywhere, on road signs, and in the air. Unlike my time in Guyana, I don’t stick out like a sore thumb in Greece. In fact, I actually somewhat blend in. It seems like 90 or 95% of men in Greece around my age seem to have dark hair and beards. This may seem silly, but the number of people who’ve approached me speaking Greek is staggering. I still haven’t been able to navigate how to politely signal to them that they need not complete their statements to me because I’m already clueless as to what they’re saying. A few times, I thought it best to let them finish, but then when I didn’t respond right away, they thought I needed the question rephrased. It’s comical. Especially the inevitable, disappointment Greek equivalent of “Oh” when they realize they’ve wasted their time on me. And then they march away…
Aaaaaaaaaand that’s all I got in terms of journal entries from my random first stint in Athens. I stayed for two weeks and then jetted back to the U.S. for a road-trip with my brother, Christmas with the family, and then made my way back over to Greece in January for my first round of volunteering with Echo100Plus, which ultimately rerouted my life. Now, I’m off to Greece again, for the fourth time. Each stint has grown in terms of time I’m over there, so I expect to be stateside again by 2025 or so. Just kidding. Maybe.
When globetrotting, you meet a lot of beautiful people who have been to a lot of really fascinating places. Without fail, whenever I meet fellow adventurers, we end up talking about where we’ve been. There’s almost a hint of competition to the conversations sometimes. Has the person I’m conversing with been to cooler places than me? Have they been to more places than me?
The idea of visiting and living in different places has always been of interest to me. But, what constitutes having been to a particular place and what constitutes having lived in a particular place? My roommates and I used to have fun little discussions like this. We used to joke about how we had “lived” in Trinidad for a few hours when we passed through the airport on our way to Guyana. So, here’s a breakdown of some of the places I’ve definitely been to…for sure, and some of the places that, depending on who you are, you may or may not count as me having been there:
The countries in question:
The first thing worth talking about, is when you’re so close to a country, but you haven’t touched it
Eyes on the Prize: Countries I mostly just stared at.
Brazil – I encountered Brazil twice when I lived in Guyana. First, I experienced it when I went to visit a waterfall in the interior of Guyana that borders Brazil. This waterfall flows into a river that divides the two countries. I swam in this river and waded through it, specifically trying to find a spot in the water where I may be able to get across to the land on the other side. I didn’t have any luck, the current was too strong, but I wondered if the river was shared between the two nations, divided right down the middle. Then, maybe I could say I’d waded in Brazilian waters. Along with this odd encounter with (maybe) Brazilian waters, the plane I was on also had to circle over Brazil upon landing and taking off. I vividly recall soaking up the moments we were over the Brazilian grasslands and taking a hard right turn to fly back over Guyana. My second encounter with Brazil happened a few months later when I went to the town of Lethem, Guyana, a community on the border of Brazil and the only legal entry point between the two countries. It was here that I was able to walk directly up to the border. I stood right beside it. I even asked the men at the checkpoint if I could walk across. I took pictures with a fence behind me, thinking it was Brazil and then later found out it was just a fence and it was just empty Guyanese land beyond it. I spent two days glancing over at Brazil from Lethem before heading back to the coast.
Suriname – For three days, I stayed at a hotel in Guyana on the Corentyne River. This river divides Guyana and Suriname and the two countries are connected by a ferry that glides from one coast to the other every few hours. There are also ample fishing boats that slide back and forth (illegally) from country to country all day long, but it’s not really policed. People just live on one side of the river and work on the other. While I was at this hotel, I thought about taking an illegal ride across, just to say that I had done it, but something about neither nation being my home country made me really uneasy. So, I stayed firmly planted on the shore and just observed the greenery of Suriname from across the water.
Turkey – I landed at the Istanbul airport on my way to and from Kenya back in 2012. Although I never left the terminals, I felt like I was getting a chance to experience the culture while I was in the airport as Turkish people kept mistaking me for one of their own. Not to mention, I had a great view of the city from where I plopped myself down to wait for my flights. For 4 months in 2018 and for 11 months in 2019, I lived less than 15 kilometres away from Turkey and could literally see the Turkish landmass on a daily basis from the cliffs and mountaintops of the island that I was living on. At night, the city lights would illuminate the horizon. Not to mention the connection of where I was to Turkey. Almost daily, people sailed across the water from Turkey in search of a better life in Greece. The connection was constant, and my life was directly impacted by the country’s proximity.
The second thing worth talking about, is when you actually set foot within a country, but it’s such a small amount of time, or the experience you have there is so limited, that it just doesn’t feel like it should count.
A Foot in Both Worlds: Countries I set foot in.
Costa Rica – In 2010, I went to Panama for an 11 day excursion. At one point, we crossed over into Costa Rica for all of ten minutes. Some of the students I was with even took photos with cars that had the Costa Rica license plates. The only thing I really remember about this blip of time in this foreign country was that there was a man walking around with a giant gun, supposedly border patrol, but clearly not doing his job. I slipped in and out of the country with no issue or second thought. The border was also through a store. I’d never experienced something like it before and I’ve never seen it again since. The place was so poorly policed that people literally walked in the front door of this store in Panama and exited through the back to Costa Rica. It’s actually pretty cool if you think about it!
Mexico – For this one, I actually got a stamp in my passport. I was in Big Bend National Park in November of 2017 and my brother and I exited the park via the Rio Grande. We were rowed across the river and then brought to town by a guide. We explored this small little town for a few hours, ate lunch, and then went for a hike in the Mexican desert. We spent the whole day there. Neither of us had ever been to Mexico before.
Bahamas – I went on a free, two-night cruise with my sister in 2016. The cruise went from Miami to Bimini, Bahamas. It was originally supposed to go to Freeport, but the city had just been struck by a hurricane, so we ended up just a few dozen miles off of the coast of the U.S. on the microscopic island of Bimini. We disembarked from our ship and spent 8 hours on the island. Then, we got back on the boat and headed back to Miami. We legitimately only had 8 hours on the island, but we were still able to walk the entire length of it. We explored the towns, saw some of the local activity, ate authentic food, went to the beach, and got rained on. It was a great day. We did all Bimini had to offer. But, it was only for 8 hours.
The third thing worth talking about, is if passing through a country’s airport terminal counts as having “been” there.
Airports: Terminals don’t count, right?
Trinidad and Tobago – Flying from Miami to Georgetown. I had to layover in this airport for maybe 4 or 5 hours, my first experience in the Caribbean.
Australia – After 16 hours in the air from Dallas to Sydney, I had half of a day to kill in the airport before flying on to New Zealand.
England – In 2015, I went to Italy and we had a layover in London. When we switched terminals, we had to ride on a shuttle that took us from one terminal to another. This was noteworthy because it was the first time I ever rode on the opposite side of the road. Being a teenager at the time, it was also the only country other than Canada and Italy I could claim having been to.
Spain – Dang it, I passed through Spain twice, once in Barcelona and once in Madrid. Other than a couple of “hola’s” from the flight attendants, I didn’t get much out of either experience. I missed my connecting flight in Barcelona though, so I got to have some fun trying to sort my life out in Spain for a few hours after that.
Portugal – Connecting from Cabo Verde on my way to Athens, I had to spend 12 hours in Lisbon, many of which I spent outside of the airport, but not traveling anywhere. I just gulped in the fresh air from outside and relished how happy I was to have not been questioned on my way into the Schengen Area.
The last thing worth talking about, is if you just have a really out-of-the-box experience within the borders of a country.
More Ambiguous: Tell Me a Story
Croatia and Slovenia – I spent a few days in Austria and a few days in Bosnia. I got between the two countries by driving through Slovenia and Croatia. It’s one of those things…you see a lot of a country when you’re driving through the entirety of it. Both Slovenia and Croatia were beautiful, lush green and mountainous from the highway that we cruised through them on. I didn’t love the border crossing aspects of them, especially Croatia, but I more less enjoyed the few hours I spent in each. Driving through a country is a bit more of an experience than flying over it.
Russia – This one gets me. I would never get invited into Russia, so I certainly haven’t been there legally, but I did get pretty close, so much so, that there’s the chance I was on Russian sea ice. When I lived in Nome, Alaska in 2012 I got to travel to the village of Diomede. This little settlement of just over 100 people is positioned on the cliffs of Little Diomede, an island in the Bering Straight. Directly across from Little Diomede is the island of Big Diomede. Little Diomede is the United States, Big Diomede is Russia. The plane I was on landed on a runway on the sea ice. There isn’t any flat land for an airport or a runway to be built on, so each winter once the ice is thick enough, a makeshift runway is plowed out on the sea ice. Each year, depending on the ice, the runway is built in a different place. The year I went, the ice we landed on was Russian ice. There’s more of a story to tell here, but I’ll have to wait for another time…
Ultimately, it’s probably up to the traveler to decide where they’ve actually been. But, at the same time, when you’re in a friendly face-off with another travel-junkie, they may not count some of the circumstances you’ve been in as significant enough to “count”.
For me, I don’t count any of the countries I’ve listed above as classified in the “I’ve been there” category. Except for these exceptions:
The Bahamas. I was there. I experienced a whole island. Obviously there’s more to see, but I’ve been there.
Mexico. I had a fairly memorable and fun experience there. Though the hours logged were brief, they were significant. I’ve been there.
Suriname, Australia, & England. Where as I do NOT count any of the above experiences as having “been” to these countries, I have since traveled to all three countries for a more significant amount of time and created bigger experiences in each.
The rest of the above listed countries? I wanted to throw some ideas around. But I certainly do not claim to have been to these places.
What do you think? Where have you been? What “counts” for you?
Auto Pilot No More stands in solidarity with the Black community as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. For this reason, this blog will rest for the foreseeable future.
For days, maybe even a week, I was so inspired by the number of things I was seeing related to the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, protests, and people riding the momentum of this unique time in history with the goal of structural change. And while we’re all different, and I welcome the viewpoints of those who may have a different one than me, what I struggle with is the individuals choosing to revert back to “normal”. Recently, when scrolling through different social media platforms, I have found myself bothered when I came across posts that have nothing to do with justice, progress, and creating change. In short, I’m not interested in seeing what anyone ate for lunch or the time they’re spending at the beach.
As this blog typically revolves around writings about travel, I feel taking a pause right now is a small step I can take in standing with those who are tired of the injustices they have experienced throughout history and throughout their lives due to systemic racism.
While this white man will be marching in the protests and continuing to educate himself about his privileges and what that means going forward in an effort to create a more just world, this blog will rest. While I recognize that this is but a microscopic piece of the internet, it doesn’t feel right to focus any energy or attention in a different direction at this time.
I had this thought. Way back before anyone could have predicted what the world was about to turn into, I was starting a new job. The time between when I was hired and when I would actually begin the job was a process. There was a lot of time that was just spent waiting, and then a second period of time that was loosely labeled as “orientation”. As this period of about two months went by, the world changed. I don’t need to elaborate on how things were in early February 2020 and how they are now, at the end of March 2020.
This thought that I had, as the virus was taking hold and spreading, was about love. I remembered encountering the book “Love in the Time of Cholera” recently and thinking about what that title actual meant. What would it have been like to love in the time of cholera? And so, my brain kind of ran with this idea as I oriented at my new job. There was someone in the room with me on most of the days as the newbies all listened attentively to powerpoints and watched procedures happening on mannequins that I took note of. That was the end of it, but it put the idea in my head about what it would be like to forge a new love in this hopelessly awkward and uneasy time in the world.
Almost instantly though, I remembered that love is all there is, truly. And romantic love is this construct that adds this layer of “special” to how we interact with our fellow star dust. I happened next upon these words: Great Pause. Divine Pivot. Shift in Universal Consciousness.
And there you have it, LOVE in the time of Corona.
When I returned from Guyana back in 2015, I wrote a post after 100 days of being back in America. I wanted to take a moment to check in with myself about how I was adjusting to everything. I’m now at that point again, having returned from Greece 100 days ago. This is the tried and true process of transition–my favorite!
I am off the refugee trail. I’m no longer a part of what is going on, I just get updates about what is happening. It feels a little bit like sitting on the sidelines, but at the same time, it’s a relief. I’m experiencing the all too familiar feelings that come with having existed in another piece of the world for a length of time before returning “home” or to “normal”.
At this point in the process, right at that magical mark when the number of days since the return clicks from double digits to triple, I find it’s the time when the universal “you” is at the bottom of the canyon. On one side, a towering cliff, the same on the other. And there before you is a valley, with no direct path to guide you toward either piece of yourself, who you were or who you’ll be. You’re just at the bottom of the gorge, watching the river go by, wondering what might be on the other side, knowing that the only place to go is up the steep cliff on the other side.
This time around, this time while transitioning, I’ve payed as close attention to my thoughts as possible. Are they fleeting? Do the same people and events and squabbles and disasters flash through my brain over and over again from my time abroad? Do the memories tend to come and go like waves on the beach, accepting them for what they are? I’m here now. I’ve been here for a while and the experience of Greece is behind me. But, at the same time, I’m still at the bottom of the canyon. I don’t know what I’m suppose to be doing exactly. There isn’t a grand plan, there’s just the day to day. There are ideas about what this time should look like, and there are sometimes thoughts that become actions, but still…I’m not sure.
I think, in general right now, I wake up in the morning and I just kind of…”do”…the day. I work a little bit. I spend too much time drinking coffee. I wonder about different people that I’ve cared about throughout my life. Sometimes I read a little. Sometimes I read entirely too much. I watch “Madam Secretary” on Netflix and wonder what it would take to turn the State Department into the Peace Department. My time in the canyon has also allotted me more time than ever before to pay close attention to the elections. I think about all of the candidates and why some of them seem to be doing better than others, then I have lengthy discussions with my brother about it.
I look for work a lot, too. Every time I get a phone call or an interview with a potential job scheduled, I hop back on the internet, almost out of instinct, and start submitting resumes again. I think this is my way of keeping my options open, of always having a few irons in the fire. In this 100 day span, I’ve officially applied to more than 50 jobs. Unfortunately, with the internet being as sterile as it is, so many of my applications disappear into cyber space. But even still, I’ve garnered quite the expansive list of interviews and job offers thus far. It’s one gigantic, hilarious rabbit hole, and it looks like this:
Not knowing exactly where I want to be or what I want to be doing, the following has occurred since the beginning of November:
I had a phone interview to work at a pharmaceutical company in Manhattan. I don’t even remember applying for this job, but the interviewer made my prospects sound promising. I never heard from her again. Probably for the best, considering I would have had to work for “the man”.
I had a phone interview to be the personal assistant to a fashion designer in New York City. The interviewer admitted that I wasn’t your everyday applicant, and was curious as to why I had applied for the position. I openly admitted to having no experience or interest in the world of fashion, hoping that this might peak their interest in me as a candidate. Again, thankfully, nothing came of this. I don’t think I would be happy working in the world of upcoming fashion trends.
I went through the entirety of a four step interview process, all the way to a two-day trial period to be an administrative person at a Charter School in the Bronx. I was signed on to do two ten-hour days, to see if I liked the job and to see if the job liked me. I left about twenty minutes into the second day, well aware that I would not be compatible with the position I was one step away from getting. I walked out of there with my sanity intact, reminded that I’m not meant to work behind the scenes in environments that are suppose to be helping empower people. I like faces.
I had an in-person interview with a community center in Manhattan that services seniors and low-income individuals. My job would have been organizing volunteers to help with a variety of different organizations that the center worked with. It was all really promising, the environment was pleasant, I really liked the people I was meeting, and the job seemed right up my ally, it’s just that the pay was frighteningly low, and I’m trying to put a literal price tag on my worth right now, so I turned it down.
Most recently, I was hired (yes, actually hired) to work as a case worker for young adults between the ages of 18 to 26 who have aged out of group homes. I would have assisted them in securing and keeping jobs and housing for themselves. The pay was also insultingly low, but this time I decided to accept the job, just because I was ready to start working more full-time hours. A week after being hired, I backed out of the job.
In January, I had an interview at the local LGBTQ Center to work as their Program Director. I wasn’t offered the position, but I was also skeptical about taking on such an important job in this part of the world since I’m not stoked about the idea of living here long-term.
After walking away from the position at the school in the Bronx that I knew would eat my soul, I applied for a job working at a center in Queens that caters to individuals with refugee backgrounds from Arab speaking countries. I was really excited about this place as a potential chance at employment, but none of the open positions were anything that I would have been a good fit for. I did score myself a phone interview, but there were too many questions that I found myself answering, “no, but I’m willing to learn!” to.
For three weeks in December, I was offered, accepted, and actually completed a seasonal job at Kohl’s. I think it was my first time working retail during a holiday season. I learned a lot, and it filled some time.
I also took a job working weekends at a local bakery. I’m still currently holding down this position.
I also took a job teaching English online in the mornings back in October while I was still in Greece and continue to pull my bones out of bed in the dark morning hours each day to chat with Chinese kids thirteen time zones away right before they go to bed.
I’ve also been hired at a local hospital to work as a medical technician. This is the reason that I opted to step away from the case worker job, because this position was offered to me two days later and sounded like quite the adventure.
Having the job search on the front burner this whole time has been an experience. I’ve been looking for work, but I’ve been wishy-washy about what I want, mostly because…I don’t know what I want. It’s been a ride listening to all of the thoughts in my head about these potential jobs. What was I thinking when I applied to some of these things?
The real trouble with all of this at the end of the day is that I’m not seeing any of them as overly adventurous endeavors. There isn’t anything magical for me about working at a desk, in an office, or as somebody’s assistant. I’m just holding out hope that I am able to look at the approaching positions as their own unique adventures, even if they aren’t taking place somewhere exotic or attached to a sexy title.
Time will tell. Until then, the cupcake slinging, early morning English squabbles, and venturesome task at the local hospital will have to do.
I’ve never paid so much attention to American politics as I have this past year.
The current president of the United States, at best, has me rolling my eyes. At worst? Terrified.
I believe this is a critical time in history, not just for the United States, but for the planet, for humanity. This is why I’ve had my eyes glued to the screen during the Democratic debates this year, and why I find myself searching the internet for the latest news bits and poll updates nearly everyday.
In 2016, when my choices on who to vote for to become the next president were narrowed down to just two, I was bummed. I felt like my vote was just to pick the lesser of two evils. I hated that feeling. I was not excited about either candidate. I didn’t feel like our country had any chance of moving forward. It felt like we were about to spin the tires or backslide.
When a friend asked me who I would like to be president, three years ago, I gave it a good think.
There are two ways to look at this question.
First, there’s the practical, societal-force-fed way of thinking about it: Which politician, who actually has a shot at the nomination, would I like to be president?
But, then there’s the second option: In an ideal world, if I can clear my mind, sit in the forest for a while, and remember that I’m having a human experience on this planet, then all of that other “stuff” falls away. Who would I trust to run this country? Who would lead with love? Who would look out for everyday people, for the climate, for general respect? Of the 7 billion people currently walking this earth, author and activist Marianne Williamson came to mind.
I would like Marianne Williamson to be the president.
And, oddly enough, two years later, she announced her candidacy.
It has been a journey watching Marianne run for president. I’ve met her before. I’ve sat in on some of her lectures where I used to work, I’ve had her sign my books and chatted with her briefly. Her messages are powerful, both on the campaign trail and off. I found myself agreeing with nearly everything that she said. My values are right in line with hers. She was a dream candidate.
Unfortunately, in this reality, dreams seem threatening, and the establishment made a joke of her. This was bound to happen, but it was still a bummer to see that the country wasn’t ready to put someone who (literally) wrote the book on love to run the free world. Again, I get it…I live here in reality too, but I loved being able to dream for the last year, knowing she had her hat in the ring.
On Friday, she announced that she was suspending her campaign for president. However, she already had two more events scheduled for the weekend in New Hampshire, both of which I was planning on attending. Since she didn’t cancel either event, I made the four hour drive up to this critical voting state to hear what she had to say.
Since I’ve been out of the country for the majority of her run, it was really nice to be able to meet other people who are putting their support behind her. Her final campaign event took place in a bookstore right off of main street in a very quaint, New England-y town. I sat amongst the crowd, listening closely to each policy she would have put into place, and as she inspired the crowd to take the baton and continue forward with the energy and ideas that had been created over the last year.
It’s sad, really, to see her go, but there was an energy in the room that gave me a little hope. It’s time to back a progressive candidate. In doing so, many of the ideas of Marianne Williamson will continue forward as the election draws closer.
I’m sitting in my living room watching the daylight fade away at about 4:00 here in New York. The sun is making it’s final stand for 2019, which means that, not only is the year coming to an end, but the decade is as well. With everyone else out of the house at work, I’ve had the afternoon to do a fair amount of reflecting. This can, honestly, be a little dangerous, but I’m glad I’ve had some time to look over what the decade of 2010-2019 was for me.
Fittingly, to add to the occasion, this also happens to be the 300th post to this blog. So I’ll be kicking off 2020 in a whole new chapter here as well. Although this blog has only been around since the end of 2012, it certainly has played a role in my creative outlets throughout the decade. There are more than 200,000 words making up these last 300 posts on this website. Kind of cool to see the statistics of it all.
This decade has brought a lot forth for me, so I thought I’d break it down a bit:
Being that this is, often, a travel blog, I thought I’d show gratitude to the places that have kindly taken me in as one of their own since 2010. The places that I’ve had the chance to call home include:
St. Louis, Missouri
East St. Louis, Illinois
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
I’ve also had the ridiculously large privilege of being able to visit the following countries, beginning the first week of 2010 with a college trip to the Republic of Panama, which ultimately turned me into much more of a travel bug than I ever thought I would be:
I wrapped up my time in Greece just two months ago and, seeing as my passport was created at the end of 2009, headed to the post office almost right away upon returning to the U.S. My passport was due to expire in December and the idea of not having one made me too nervous to delay getting a replacement. My new one is now in my possession and ready to go.
In national travel news, I also managed to get myself to nearly every state in the U.S. I didn’t manage to visit Oregon, Louisiana, Mississippi or North Dakota between 2010 and 2019, but I’m pretty sure I touched every other state at least once.
With travel comes relationships, which are far and away my favorite part about visiting new places. For me, human connection remains one of the best reasons for being alive. Thinking back to the beginning of this decade, it’s amazing to think about how far we’ve come in terms of connecting online and disconnecting in person. I feet like I spent a large part of this decade trying to navigate our changing world, making sure that I’m still able to maintain face-to-face contact and have fully human connections. That being said, I’ve seen how this simple gesture has grown more difficult.
I began the decade without a cell phone, and I actively did my best to avoid having a phone for as long as possible. When I could no longer resist not having a cell phone, I avoided getting texting and would only use hand-me-down flip phones from family members. My two years in Alaska, my year in Guyana, and my time in Antarctica were all perfect opportunities to unplug. Unfortunately, when living in the continental United States, unplugging has grown more and more difficult. When my digital camera bit the dust in 2017, I eventually got a smart phone since it was capable of taking photos that were nicer than any camera being put on the market anymore.
All of this is simply to point more directly at the fact that I love to talk to people in person. I’ll take your stinky breath over a keyboard any day of the week!
In this past decade, I’ve had relationships of all sorts. They can be categorized a little bit like this:
Small Town Friends
Residents of orphanages
Road Trip Companions
Group Circle Attendees
The trifecta Work/Friend/Roommate Combo
More Fellow Volunteers
And on and on and on…
None of this is to discount the difficult relationships that have occurred in the last decade, either. Those are more likely than not my greatest teachers. But I’m outwardly grateful for the hundreds of people who fall into the categories above.
Along with traveling to all of these weirdo places, I was also granted the chance to have some pretty cool jobs. Although there were a handful of jobs that almost broke me a time or two, for the most part, I’ve only worked jobs that I’ve been truly in love with. A lot of times, it was the people that I was with that made me love what I was doing, but there were many times where the work was honestly enough to keep me going. Working as a radio producer and DJ from 2010 to 2012, I often found myself putting in extra hours at work or burning the midnight oil simply because it was a place I liked being and going above and beyond was fun for me. It was also the kind of job where, the more you worked, the more results you had to play out over “the air”.
Each time I was in a school, in Kenya, Guyana, the Midwest, or Greece, I would often find myself getting chills over how excited I was to be in the classroom with eager students. Most of these jobs were, initially, just wishes that I had made, and all of a sudden they were coming true right before my very eyes. It’s interesting how life works like that.
On the negative side of things, there were a few jobs that I found myself in that I refused to allow to get to me over these last ten years. One lasted about a month, the other lasted just over two months. In both cases, the work was soul draining. That sounds dramatic, but, for me, I was very much struggling at these two particular times to get my head on straight and be okay with where I was in the world. In both cases, the work was not benefitting me and, worst of all, was detrimental to my fellow co-workers as well as the planet. I stayed in both of these positions just long enough to learn everything that they needed to teach me, and then I learned the beautiful lessons that can come with RUNNING AWAY.
Talking about finances is not something I do very often; however, since this is something that often comes up for people around the new year when they’re setting goals for themselves, I thought I’d tack it onto this post.
Financially, I came out of college with student loan debt. However, as of three years ago, my loan was completely paid off. Although I’ve been broke as a joke for the entirety of the 2010’s, and the amount of money I’ve made is likely laughable to anyone who would be doing my taxes, I am an American who, after everything is said and done, exists in the black. My net-worth is above $0.00. I’m pretty proud of that, considering the student debt crisis.
Finally, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if it wasn’t for all of the glorious opportunities I found to be a full-time volunteer. I spent the majority of my 20’s bopping around the planet doing cool stuff because of volunteer programs that make it possible for people to exist in exotic places while doing meaningful work. I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I catch a glimpse of all of the stuff I was able to cram into ten years. And although, as mentioned above, I may seem a little looney to the average American who has likely been paid a lot more for their time in the last ten years than I have, I know my life has been so enriched by the opportunity to focus on everything else that an experience has to offer, aside from money.
That being said, I do have the financial goal set to make at least $50 a year for the next decade.
And there you have it, my brief “Decade in Review”.
The best part about dropping all of these words onto this blog is that they’re a reminder of all of the stuff in between. It’s so easy to point out the places on a map that my feet have touched, to talk about the jobs and volunteering that I’ve done, to quickly mention the people that have mattered to me over the last ten years, but there’s obviously more to it than that. Ten years is a good chunk of time. When I look back on who I was in 2010, that person is gone now, he’s completely regenerated. And, when I think about who I may get to be ten years from now, I know that that person is going to be a brand new fellow as well. This is part of what keeps life interesting, I suppose. All of the “good stuff” is what exists in life between the cracks and spaces of everything I just spent 1700 words talking about.
So, my friends, thanks for having a read. Happy New Year, Happy Decade, and thanks for checking out my 300th post!
I’ll see you in the new year for the beginning of the next 300!
This issue of Refugee Trail is being written from the sweet comfort of the U.S. of A. I’ve been home for over two weeks now and it’s time to recap whatever the heck just happened over the month of October! We’ve just had our first snowfall, the first snow that I’ve seen since the “snow-pacolyse in January 2018, the last time I was not dodging the Northeast winter in Greece. I just got off of a video call with a number of my friends who are still stationed over in Leros, so I figured now was as good of a time as any to write.
To Close or Not to Close
October whizzed by like most of the other months in Greece did, but this time, I can see now that I wasn’t really viewing it as my last month. I was looking at it as a continuation of the months of August and September. Although I was always aware that my time in Greece would come to a close at the end of the month, and I was well aware of the date, it never felt like it was ending.
One of the most important things happening at the school in early October was the decision about whether or not to close the school to new registering students. We had been open for a month and, initially, thought this was an adequate amount of time for people to get themselves acquainted with the area of the city that we occupy and begin attending classes. Something that caught us off guard; however, was the large number of people that continued to come to the school each day, looking to begin classes.
If you’ll recall, initially, in August, I thought that I was going to be teaching the intermediate level English classes for the people who were juuuuust about ready to start taking the certification exams. September taught us very quickly that this wasn’t going to be doable at all, since most of the people walking through the door were looking for the very basics, the beginning language classes.
With the number of students looking to take Beginner English so high, I began teaching two beginner classes, allowing students the option of attending class at 10:30 or 11:30. Within a couple of weeks, both of these classes were full, but not overflowing. As October wore on, the number of students began to slowly decrease, which, based on what I’d seen in Leros and in Athens, was completely normal. By the time I was departing Greece, there were about 15 students in each class, for a total of 30 out of the 40 possible seats. The system was working well.
The perplexing nature of why people decide to stop coming to school never ceased to amaze me in all of my time with Echo. On the surface, you can’t help but think, “why would you stop coming to class if you don’t have anything else to do?” But, the reality is so much more than that. Athens presents different challenges than Leros, too. People are living city lives, with city problems. Given that they’re refugees, they’re also living “mainland” life, no longer confined to the Hotspots on the islands. The mainland gives them the option of waiting out the asylum procedure for years or making a run for it into Albania and through the Balkan route toward the rest of Europe. City life also presents more opportunities for work, different schooling options, and just a variety of challenges that don’t exist on slow, sparsely populated islands.
As a result of all of this, coupled with the overwhelming task of learning English in general, it was never unexpected to have students stop attending class. It never got easier though, and I always found myself questioning whether I had done something horribly wrong or failed to explain a grammar rule properly in the previous class to warrant the decline in attendees. That feeling of dread never went away throughout the year, “Oh crap, this must be my fault!” Of course, who’s to say that English wouldn’t chase them away no matter how it was presented to them?
We decided to close the school to new registrations in early October. When we did this, it was almost like all of the energy in the universe conspired against us, because new people kept showing up looking to register. The problem was, every time new people were entering the classes, the teacher either had to backtrack to help catch them up, or leave them to their over devices in hopes they’d be able to figure it out on their own. We closed the school out of respect for our regularly attending students.
As the month wore on, I continued to be tired. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I was tired, but there was something inside of me that was just really ready to be finished with the responsibility of teaching other people the English language. It had been 11 months at this point and nothing was going to change. I could exercise as much as I wanted to, sleep as much as I wanted to, and eat as healthy as I wanted to, and I was still just constantly worn down. This feeling would go away when I was in the classroom, which was a relief, but anything outside of the classroom–prepping for classes, answering emails, sorting out student issues–it was all driving my growing pattern of tiredness.
For Old Times Sake
As my time in Athens was nearing it’s end, I was doing my best to take in the city. This normally meant just getting around in the neighborhood and weaving my way through the old city streets, but it was also not uncommon for me to unexpectedly find myself on some random hill protruding out of the beige city, with an Acropolis view. I also did my best to snag as much time as possible with some of my friends who were (and still are) scattered around the city.
One evening, for example, my friend Basel and I wandered all the way from our neighborhood to the touristy part of town on foot. My perspective was somewhere between local and tourist. I was looking at the city from an impermanent point of view for the first time in a year. We bought expensive smoothies from a tourist spot and then weaved through the mid-October crowds. I could appreciate the aliveness of the city on a Saturday night. The contrast of what is going on between refugee and tourist in Greece is never lost on me, still. People come from all over the world to see the city of Athens, the ruins, the Acropolis, but they have no idea that, just a few streets over, people are experiencing the most tumultuous years of their lives, just trying to get by.
Another time, when I wiggled out of work a few hours early, I met up with my friend Ebrahim, and we took two trains and a lengthy walk to get to one of the closest beaches to the city of Athens. It being mid-October though, we were the only ones looking to get into the water. This was fine with both of us though, as we recognized that the season was indeed changing, but still tolerable for swimming, especially the water. Knowing I’d soon be back in the brisk Autumn air of New York state, and knowing winter was coming for Greece, we both liked the idea of getting into the blue waters of the Mediterranean for one last hurrah. Ebrahim, in particular, has been a very beautiful person to have in my life, and I had no concern about losing touch with him, but loved the idea of having an afternoon with him, nonetheless.
I flew out of Greece on a Friday. The week prior, I was starting to plan how to hand over my classes to my successor. Part of my plan quickly became trying to figure out a way to return to Leros one last time before flying back to the U.S. for an indefinite amount of time. When I left in August, I had no intention of returning to the island, but someone randomly asked me if I planned to return one evening and then I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I really wanted to go back and put a pretty little red bow on the whole experience. So, I did. I handed my classes over two days early, scribbling out lesson plans and rules of the classroom to my replacement, and then I ran for the port on Friday evening, boarding the overnight ferry once again for yet another teleport-ish, magical ride to the island of Leros, crammed over there in the Aegean Sea nearby Turkey.
When I returned from Leros, the ship docked, I boarded the metro, bought a coffee, and walked directly to work. No sleep. Well, not really. I returned to the classroom for two more short days. My students were happy to see me, which is always a lot of fun to get a load of their faces as they walk into the room to see that I’ve returned, and I was able to begin the letting go process. Although, again, I’ll admit that things were different for me in Athens than they were in Leros. It was so much easier to connect with people on a heart level in Leros because, after class, they’d hang around, they’d mingle and ask questions, they’d play chess with you or volleyball. Leros was more community minded. In Athens, despite having numerous activities available, people tended to be more in the mindset of going to school and then leaving to return to their lives, or, perhaps, to study.
There were a few students, especially regulars who I was really enjoying having in class. There was one girl from Congo who would always laugh at me when I tried to speak in French. She was so good at English in class but then refused to speak English outside of class, opting to speak to the English-speaking volunteers and receptionists in French. I made a point of telling her that I wasn’t going to let anyone speak French to her anymore, just so she would have to practice. In my Intermediate English class, there were two guys in their mid-20’s who I loved to joke around with. One of them was almost consistently high, but he still didn’t mind when I picked on him. His friend usually came to class sober and paid a little more attention than his counterpart, but I knew that they both enjoyed when I picked on them or used them as examples to describe new vocabulary words. “Beard. Beautiful. This is a beautiful beard,” and I would obnoxiously gesture to one of their faces, poking fun. Those are the students I will miss, the ones who were striving to better themselves, and fighting through the curriculum, even when it was frustrating.
There were also many students that did not have too much of an impact on me. These were the usual cases of people who were too good for the level of English that they were attending, but didn’t want to challenge themselves and move up to a new level. I also was never a fan of those who called out in class or who never did their homework, despite my long explanations as to why homework was good for bridging the time in between classes. I won’t miss having to be that teacher.
Two days flew by. The next thing I knew, I was in the living room of my flat with my roommate, stuffing clothing into my backpack and making a pile of clothing that I was planning on “retiring” in Greece. I thought it would take me about ten minutes to pack, but being distracted by a number of different things, it took a few hours. By the time I was off to bed, there were only a few hours left to sleep before I had to head to the metro and off to the airport.
Between my classes on my final day of work, my co-workers made a surprise lunch for me and had a video made of my time with Echo, a slideshow consisting of photos and video clips. It was odd to be in the middle of a work day and then suddenly watching memories of the last year, but it was touching nonetheless. There were a few people around me who had seen me through a good chunk of the journey, but for the most part, the people appearing on the screen had all come and gone over time, volunteers and residents alike.
My final two classes of the day were completely normal. Nothing felt special about them, which I really liked. I was glad to end on an average note. The “A2” level class that I was teaching was particularly “normal” as they were desperate for me to do some grammar review with them. Having been out for the other two classes of the week while I was on Leros, the substitute teaching took note of the fact that some of the students had horrific grammar. So, I capped off my year of teaching English in Greece by trying to hammer some grammar into the brains of my unsuspecting students. The thing about grammar, is that it is so important, but everyone is always bored to tears learning it.
A couple of students snapped photos with me on their way out the door. And other than a quick conversation with my colleague who was sitting in the back of the class, ready to take over teaching on Monday, I more or less followed them out the door. I didn’t need to dilly dally in the school and get all nostalgic about what had just concluded.
For the evening, once the final classes had wrapped up and the school was closed, some of my closest friends, and all of my current co-workers came out for a goodbye dinner for me on one of the promenades a few minutes from our house. This particular location was selected so that we could sit outside and because they have delicious mushrooms, so naturally when we arrived, they had made our reservation for inside and they were out of mushrooms for the evening.
After a few hours and a few kind words from the founders around me at the dinner table, I said my goodbyes and my flatmate and I slowly walked toward home along with three of our friends who all live near to where we do. It was surreal knowing that that was the last time I’d be walking down the streets of Athens for a while. And it was especially surreal to be doing it with a group of people that had split their time with me over the course of the past year between Leros and Athens. Each of those people had had some serious ups and downs over the course of the year that involved both Athens and our little home of Leros. Each of them still had lives to live in this city when the sun came up in the morning, but my part of the story was over.
We eventually diverged from everyone and I slipped back into the Hub to get something that I had left behind before going to dinner. I was grateful in that moment, wandering around the darkened school with my flashlight, that the story was ready to continue without me. I’d had this big thought before while on Leros. No one should want to be irreplaceable. Sure, it’s a nice thought to feel like you’re needed and to feel like you’re adequate, but as a volunteer, and as a teacher, I’m much more interested in knowing that someone is capable of picking up where I left off, of taking the baton and running with it. These were my final thoughts as I looked over my shoulder at the darkened school behind me as I closed the door and stepped out into the street. The place was just an empty building two months ago and now, it was a school. A place where learning was taking place everyday and people were working, fighting to advance themselves. It was beautiful, and…it still is.
I’m sitting at 7 Gates in Lakki, Leros for probably the last time for a long time. I thought this before, in August, of course; however, being just one ferry ride away this whole time, it doesn’t seem completely inconceivable that I find myself in this chair once again. This cafe has become one of the places in the world that I think of the most. It’s an interesting blend of feeling like I’m home and feeling like I’m on an adventure at the same time. It’s quirky and perfect.
I really didn’t think I would be back to this place during this stint in Greece, but when I was making plans for my final weekend in Greece last week, someone casually mentioned to me if I would be traveling back to Leros. The idea hadn’t crossed my mind, but once it had, I couldn’t let it go. The next thing I knew, I had lesson plans written out for Monday and Tuesday for all of my English classes, and was boarding the overnight ferry on Friday to make it to Leros by Saturday morning.
I set myself up with a one-room Airbnb about a thirty minute walk from town. This was a bit excessive, but it made it so when I left my place in the morning, I had to consciously pack and plan as if I would not come back again until the evening. I think it also kept me in town longer than I otherwise would have stayed, which made for more time to create memories.
This return has been…well, it’s difficult to describe. Things have changed, but they haven’t, and that is the main problem I’ve been observing over the last few days. The people that I knew, the people that I know, they’ve been here for the two months that I’ve been gone. They were also here for 7 or 8 or all 9 of the months that I was here from November to August. I’ve done this once before, I’ve left and I’ve returned. But the last time I left, I was gone for six months, so there were only a handful of people still here from my previous stint. Of these people, I didn’t know any of them well, so I didn’t have much to compare when it came to their situations, how they were before and how they were when I returned.
This time around, two months removed, I’ve returned to almost entirely the same crop of people. And they feel heavier. There is no other way to describe it, they’re two months further into their “journeys”, but they’re not moving. They’re stuck here. They’re waiting. And, as they wait, they’re suffering. They live in close quarters, they’re treated as less than human. This wears on a person, this makes you feel a certain way, and as you’re stuck in this position, it becomes heavier. I can now perfectly describe what exactly two months of the weight of a difficult life looks like on a person. Although this is an intriguing “study”, I wish I didn’t know.
Beautiful people, people with so much life in their eyes and pep in their steps, have shriveled. Their lights have, not just dimmed, but gone out entirely. People who used to smile don’t so much anymore; they crack fewer jokes, they’re less tolerant of the difficult situation they’re in and the simple interactions around the Hub. Some of their bodies have withered under the stress, others have gained weight in self defense. Everyone is a bit more on edge. I feel like I could literally see the sadness in their eyes. If sadness were palpable, I could taste it. My four days on the island felt heavy. Heavy, heavy, heavy. These are people that I care about, and I was baring witness to their descent.
The thing about seeing so many people going downhill, is that the recovery process is not an easy one. What they are going through is something that they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives, in one way or another. They’ll get better (hopefully) when they escape the situation that they’re in, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t have to forever “have” this experience with them as they go forward. That may be the most difficult thing to think about. Of course, even just writing that sentence is a direct example of my privilege, to be able to think about what it’s like to go in the direction of “forward”, to be able to think about what a difficult experience will mean in the future, while it’s happening. Ah, I really don’t know where I’m going with this.
The island itself has stayed the same, but I’ve never been here in October before, so I’ve noticed a haze in the air that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I keep referring to it as “gray”, the island seems a bit…gray-er. I don’t know.
Numbers-wise, the population of refugees on the island has only continued to increase each week, setting new records each time there is an official update. When I left two months ago, the population of the Hotspot continued to swell, but it has since blown passed the 2,000 mark and is now quickly approaching 2,500. With this large of a number on the island, hundreds of people have now been denied access to the Hotspot and are forced to sleep outside of the camp, with no official place to lay their heads each night. With the camp being far beyond capacity, every new refugee who arrives now has to buy their own tent and pitch it either on the beach near the camp or squat in one of the dilapidated hospital buildings that have not been in use for decades.
Looking at the camp, it’s nothing compared to what is happening on many of the other Greek islands. There are still just a fraction of the people here; however, it’s still bad. And cool days and cold nights are just weeks away at the point.