Monday, May 31, 2010


I've been waiting to write this entry for a long time. I've had a million ideas about what to say. Sometimes, only halfway through my journey, I'd think I knew exactly what I was going to say at the end. But those things are not what I thought they would be. They were what I thought at the middle.

As much as I hate writing it, this is the end. For this trip. My backpack is sitting in my closet, empty. This trip is over.

I'm not technically home, but in some ways I'm closer to home now than I could be when actually there. I'm sitting in the house my grandfather built out of stone, all those years ago, after coming back from World War II. I'm sleeping in my mother's old room, which wasn't ready for her to sleep in until she was almost a teenager. It's very pink.

Outside is the river valley my mother and her brothers played in up to adulthood. If you see how my uncles spend time with their tractors and dirt bikes, you could argue they never stopped. Halfway down the dirt road between the stone house and the barn is a half-disintegrated truck, the back of which was the playhouse for my cousins and me when we visited. I think we spent most of our time making gourmet meals out of mud. Maybe they were just pies.

Surrounding us is the garden my grandmother spent most of her life tending. Just up the hill, along the road that bears our family name, is the stone that marks her final resting place. The cows we kept have been sold, but the horses are still around. I can't remember being somewhere with so many birds and wild deer, something I never really appreciated much before leaving.

This ranch is one of the few places I know with no cell phone reception. My aunt and uncle's place on the other end of this part of our property has the only internet, connected by satellite. Every month, my mother comes for a long weekend. Growing up, every couple of months, depending on my school schedule, I would come up with her.

I used to think of it as being not that worthy of note compared to the other wondrous things in the world. But now I've seen those other things, and, this spring, this place looks as beautiful and deep as the best of them.

It makes sense to end my journey where my journey began. It's not exactly the same place it used to be when I left, but I'm not the same guy I used to be when I left it, so I guess fair's fair.

Ever since I turned about eighteen, my life has had a lot of goodbyes. I got good at them. Either they came with leaving Seattle for college in Chicago or coming back, every break, or to some other place entirely and home again. Parting ways with people and places is like going to sleep. Part of life.

The secret to handling it is knowing that, short of death, none of them are permanent. I never really say goodbye. I just say "see you later." Because there's no way of knowing you'll never see each other again.

So when I say goodbye to this adventure, it's not goodbye to adventure. Adventure and I go way back now, and I expect we'll cross paths again sometime. Maybe sometime soon. But for this trip, it's time we went our separate ways.

I've learned a lot. I've become more of a risk taker, comfortable with anyone I meet, adaptable to any circumstance, and resourceful in any situation. I hope for new chances to put all those things to good use.

So while I sit here at one of the places that smiles when I call it 'home,' I can relax, trying my best to hold on to all the memories of the world, knowing at least half of them will slip through my fingers back to where they came from. I'll have the photographs, the journal entries, and the tidbits I wrote here. Beyond that, it's going to be me trying to hum the tunes somebody played for me somewhere far away, hoping I still get some of the notes right.

So, what's next for me? Well, I'm in a play, going up in the end of June, in Seattle (EDIT: No I'm not. The show has been canceled. Twice.). I'll be making some music, spending time with my family, keeping myself busy with all those things I could never do on the road. After that, unless some big opportunity grabs me somewhere else, I'll be heading to the next adventure in New York City. Before that, I have a lot of things to sort out from this trip. Tickets, guidebooks. Pictures. Videos. And I'll keep writing.

This blog will be reorganized, to put emphasis on the places I've been, rather than the most recent thing I've written. And any future public announcements regarding my travel, writing, music, new blogs, or anything else interesting will show up here, the usual online outlets (twitter, Facebook, google buzz), and on a new website I'm tinkering with (as of this writing, still under construction):

But this will probably be the last blog post of its kind. I'd like to post a few more tips. Maybe a "where is he now" sort of post in a few weeks. I might even upload a couple of those videos I mentioned, if I think they're good enough. That's all.

Thank you, everyone, everywhere. This adventure has been everything I hoped and more. I will leave you all with three words that I think sum up my feelings nicely:

Best. Planet. Ever.

Check out this entry's Photos.

What I Think

Halfway through the trip, sitting in the Beijing bus station, before heading to Mongolia, a Chinese man asked me about my trip. I told him what I was doing.

"Well, what do you think?" He asked.

"What do I think about what?" I asked.

He looked confused. "You're going everywhere. You've been to many places."


"So... what do you think?"

I wasn't prepared for that question. I still only think I understood the gist of it. But it's something I thought about a lot over the next half of the trip.

After getting back to Seattle for the first time, I had lunch with a couple good friends of mine. They're smart people who I've known for a few years now. When I made an offhand joke about how everybody asks me what my favorite place was, one of them immediately nodded and said:

"You see, Joel, what they mean when they ask you that is, 'what did you learn?'"

Whether or not that's always true, it's a good question. Reminded me of Mr. "What do you think."

I've spent a lot of time writing. Not just this blog, but just... stuff. Things I thought were interesting. True stories that were too long for posting. Fiction, and lots of it. And some of the things I read, was told, and observed that made the most sense to me.

Often I get cagey about my opinions or life lessons. Partially it's because I'm only 23, no better than anyone else, why should I try to pretend I know something others don't? Partially it's because I don't want find out I'm wrong, and have someone in the back of the room get up and yell that everything I just said is a lie

But I've been around the world now. And I have learned a few things. Maybe they aren't all correct, but after going halfway to everywhere, they make sense to me. Now that I'm home, I figure I could share some of those things.

We humans are great at finding what we look for. When we travel, we look for something new, out of the ordinary. When we're at home, we have the same opportunities, but don't see them because we're not looking for them. People are fascinated with what is foreign to them. Things that are far away. So much so that sometimes, when they come that distance, they keep everything around them far away. When they come home, it's as if they were never actually close to where they went.

Time may be money, but good information can be worth more than the two combined.

People usually believe anything you tell them, unless they have reason not to. We tend to obey authority figures, or even just those who seem to be authorities/have symbols of authority.

Telling people you care is often better help than just doing their chores or feeding them. Everybody loves to be given a genuine smile. People have a hard time focusing on altruistic things if they are dealing with personal things.

When you're the last of your kind, you get stuck in conservative ways to preserve your culture and status. When you're in a big group of your kind, you try to do things differently, to innovate, to stand out. People all over the world want to be accepted, yet they want to stand out. They refuse labels, but they will vigorously defend those they feel to be like them. People have a nasty disposition to decide people who aren't like them are less than human, or at least inferior to those like them. Usually they will have logical reasons. If you treat people like scoundrels, they'll often start acting like them. If you treat them like responsible adults, they'll often start acting like them. Peace usually isn't bought about by moderates. Lasting peace is when two most extreme enemies come together in agreement.

The fastest way to convince people of your point of view is not by arguing based on shared facts. It's by teaching them different facts. Most disagreements come not because people disagree about what should be done about a problem, but because they are operating on a different set of facts. The easiest way to get people to do something is to offer it to them as a choice. Nobody wants to be acted upon, everybody derives satisfaction from control. Some people think that's where happiness comes from. Let them choose as if it is completely of their free will.

People often observe their actions in order to determine their beliefs, instead of letting their beliefs guide their actions.

People love to say the world is getting smaller every day. Well, I've seen the world, and I'm here to tell you it's still pretty big.

Maybe you don't agree with everything I say. Probably a lot of it is wrong. But I hope it will make you think about yourself, people and the world we live in.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Trip by the Numbers

This is a rough idea of my route, thanks to Google Maps.

I've been spending the free time over the last couple days re-reading my journals and sorting the photos I took. I'll have some big fancy homecoming blog entry for you in a few days. But first I thought I'd throw this and some facts at you to make curious people happy.

So, here's the trip breakdown. Request other statistics and I might add them.

Departure from home: Sept 23rd, 2008.

Departure from USA: Sept 27th, 2008.

Continents visited: Seven.

Countries visited: 63-69, depending on how you count.

Country list (*-indicates v. brief stay, layover, or not really independent country): Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands*, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile*, Antarctica*, Brazil, Uruguay*, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong*, China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland*, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Italy, Vatican City, France, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestinian West Bank*, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, USA.

Return to USA: April 27th, 2010-- 19 months after departure from USA.

Final(?) return home: May 23rd, 2010-- 20 months after departure from home.

Longest bus ride: 3 days, Ushuaia to Buenos Aires.
Shortest plane ride: 25 minutes, Quito to Guayaquil, en route to Galapagos islands.
Longest plane ride: 13 hours, Buenos Aires to Auckland (slept through the whole thing)
Number of times crossing equator: Six
Plane rides: 18
Long distance boat rides: Six
Long distance bus/train rides: 1 metric f--- ton.
Photos taken: More than 11,000

Sunday, May 23, 2010

In Memory of Tommy Nez, 1926-2010

A picture of pictures. Us sharing memories of Tommy most of us were too young to ever have ourselves. This was after the service, before we came to his home to find his final message for my father. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, our arrival.

The first thing we did was to get ourselves a hotel room. That way, when we visited each family, we could say "Oh, no, thank you but we already have a place to stay!" The next was to figure out who to visit first. There was no right answer to this. So we just went. The next tricky bit was remember not to compliment them on any of their material possessions-- if we did that, they would insist on giving them to us, and would only be dissuaded after a lot of haggling. Hosts don't get more hospitable than this, and I've met some hospitable hosts.

Weirdly, what it all reminded me of was my experience in Japan. It's a very different culture, but it's similar in that I was expecting a somewhat closed, subtle people with cold undertones. Instead, I met friendly, vibrant, easygoing people who could chat about anything seemingly without end.

There are some rules to observe. Eye contact is not encouraged. If you shake someone's hand, a firm handshake is not appreciated nearly so much as lightly holding their hand for a second. Silence is not the awkward absence of conversation, but the presence of something familiar. If you do say something, there's not much need to be short and to the point, or to connect it to whatever anyone else happens to be talking about. Things like touching and hugging happens between only close friends and family.

Which is why it was a surprise to me for my father, mother and I to get warm, long hugs from almost every person we met. That's what really drove home the love and respect my father commanded in this community. He'd lived in the area for about 17 years, so I shouldn't have been surprised. I don't think I heard a single person call him "Bob." It was always "Dr. Bergman," or "Uncle." Tommy's son, upon meeting us before the service, gave him a very long hug and told him "I guess I'm going to be calling you 'father' now."

While the hugging is unusual, a friendly greeting to everyone present is customary. The morning of the service, we got full demonstrations from each person who drove up to the front of the little church, just over the border into Arizona. Like all the other dry, high plains I'd been too, it was cold at night and hot in the day. We were out early enough to still be comfortable in jackets. We stood in a circle, quietly chatting. Some crying, most smiling. Ron, Tommy's son, was smiling when he excused himself, and as he walked away, called over "Uncle." My father and he stood apart, talking quietly for a moment before coming back to us.

"He want's us to come back to the home after the service" My father said. "Apparently, Tommy left something for me."

I'd known that Ron had moved into Tommy's old house on the part of the reservation called Wide Ruins. We'd heard how he had performed the traditional rite of keeping a fire burning there for the four days after the loved one has died.I had only the vaguest memories of the place, small buildings at the end of a dirt road in the Arizona desert.

The Franciscan monk, charged with leading the service, arrived, and promptly showed his lack of cultural know-how by walking right through the crowd, acknowledging it, barely, without a single handshake volunteered. He was surprised when the one person at the end wanted to shake his hand. A few minutes later, we followed him inside.

The pink-beige stone church was tiny. We had come early, and were asked to sit in the very front with the immediate family. The place filled up slowly, even as the ceremony began. The first and main part of it was awkward. It was Catholic. Very catholic. The monk had the repeated and awkward habit of talking about how devoted Tommy was to Jesus. Some of the principal mourners clearly had no intention of participating in this. After all, this was the funeral for a road man (spiritual leader) of the Native American Church. In the sermon, the monk admitted freely that had actually never known Tommy. But I did like the story he told of talking with the family: "I asked whether I should call Tommy by the name of Thomas, or Tommy. They told me 'if you called him Thomas, he probably wouldn't answer.'"

The service went on, accidentally skipping the eulogy, on out to the procession to the graveyard.

To my mind, this is where the real funeral began. A tall Navajo man with two eagle feathers in his hat stepped forward, and explained he would be singing a few songs and saying a few words to the best of his ability, and that those who could were welcome to join him. He was the head of the local NAC.

He started with a long, thin whistle. An eagle bone. It made a noise that made me think of seagulls. He dipped an eagle feather in water, and flicked it to the four directions: east, south, west, then north, to follow the course of the sun. And then he, and those around him, began to sing. It was a desert kind of song. The melody wasn't so important. It was the rhythm and words, rocks bouncing on the ground in the wind. More whistle, more water. Some from the feather, some tears.

But it wasn't over after that. Next was the military. An honor guard of ten Native American veterans had come to honor their fallen comrade. A speech, a three-round gun salute, and taps on the bugle. The American flag on the coffin was removed, folded, and handed from ranking officer to private, with a salute. Several men in the audience, veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, quietly joined the salute. Then from male soldier to female soldier. Then from female soldier, to Tommy's widow. Another salute. Then a big hug. A man in the crowd gave two sharp hoots and an "oorah" of the marine corps.

The coffin was lowered six feet. Then its plywood cover. Then the first flowers and fistfuls of dirt, one mourner at a time. Then we pulled aside for the earthmover to do the rest of the burial. It was there that the family finally got to read Tommy's eulogy.

This is where we finally got to tell the world about the Tommy Nez, born into the Red House People Clan to the Towering House People Clan, February 6, 1926. Veteran of WWII and the Korean War. Roadman to Navajo, and throughout the western United States and Canada, receiving his fireplace from one of the originals, and heralded by his family as the last of his kind. A father, brother, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather. A charismatic and compassionate leader with a legendary sense of humor and love for seemingly all people. Loved in his life, much missed in his passing. With this, and the flowers on his grave, the service ended.

A few hours later, after we had shared photos, memories, and a lot of food with the "dearly beloved gathered there that day," my parents and I set out in our rental car, and made several false turns trying to find Tommy's old home. Even though the desert is made of rocks and not sand, Wide Ruins' dirt roads have the habit of shifting when your back is turned for a few years.

When we did find the place, we were invited into one of the buildings-- a one-room home, the kind I'd seen in so many developing countries, with simple walls covered in posters and calendars, and in this case, an American flag. Ron sat on the bed, My father on an overstuffed easy chair and a blanket. Ron pulled out a case, opened it, and lifted out two ceremonial rattles. Then he glanced up at us, gave a mischievous grin and said, "No. No." Just the way tell off a dog staring at your dinner.

He dug a little bit further and pulled out what he had been looking for: an elaborate, beautifully decorated ceremonial fan, made with white feathers.

"Before he left, my father said you'd come down here." Ron said, "He said 'when your uncle gets here, you honor him, and you give him this.'"

"You think he knew that he probably wasn't coming back?" My father asked.

Ron nodded. Tommy knew.

Driving away from it all, my father said that part of him still doesn't believe it. I've never known anyone who called me brother to die, but from what I know, it's a long time before any of us will believe he's gone. Maybe we never really will.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

We're Not Done Yet.

I thought my trip was over. I was wrong.

Thursday, I leave for my next destination. Something tragic has happened. I love travel, and I'm going somewhere I wanted to go. But I didn't want this to be the reason why.

A long time ago, there was a young doctor who went from Chicago to the southwestern corner of the United States. To avoid being drafted into a war he didn't believe in, he had taken a job with the Public Health Service. The job was on the Navajo reservation. Most people who came to Navajo for these jobs do it for two years and then leave. 

This doctor didn't leave. He stayed. Soon after the two year mark, he was approached by a medicine man of the tribe named Tommy Nez. It's not clear what expectation either man had of the other. But it's doubtful that either could have predicted then what later occurred: the doctor was adopted into the Nez family as Tommy's younger brother.

The doctor rose became the chair of mental health programs for the Indian Health Service. While he climbed the ladder of his career, his adoptive brother showed him things he didn't think were physically possible. Miracles.

Years later, after the doctor had given his position to an Indian man, as seemed proper, he fell in love with a young woman who lived in the north. They married. They wanted to have a child, but they weren't able to. The doctor told his brother, the medicine man, and asked for his help. Together they held a ceremony in a sweat lodge.

Nine months later, I was born. My father still credits my existence to my uncle, Tommy.

Since my father's time on Navajo was long before I even existed, I don't know that much about that side of the family. I've been to the reservation only twice when I was old enough to remember, and most of the time I spent playing with kids. The last time I saw Tommy was when he showed up at our door one day when I was about fifteen. I was the only one at home. Neither of us recognized the other at first.

He was up in Canada these last two weeks, visiting his friends and family. He suffered a heart attack and had to be hospitalized. My father came out to see him. They spent some time together there. My father knew that Tommy wasn't in good shape. The doctors didn't think he was in any condition to undergo any procedures. It could very well be the last time they saw each other. Knowing all this, as the visit came to an end, my father said goodbye, and left the room.

He went down the hallway, turned into the washroom and looked at himself in the mirror. Then he turned around and went back to get the hat he had forgotten in Tommy's room.

"I guess I'm reluctant to leave." My dad said. Tommy smiled at that.

The next Friday, Tommy died quietly in the hospital.

I'm going with my mother and father to his funeral. We fly to Albuquerque Thursday morning, rent a car, and drive a few hours from there to look for his family. Our family.

This isn't the usual sort of adventure I like to post about on here. But it seems like it may be a story worth telling. I don't know what we'll find. The service could be Catholic, or if could be Native American Church, or something else entirely. But I'll see what I can share, in honor of a man who might have made me possible.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I'm home. I'm sitting in the room I grew up in, typing on the laptop that lasted me all through college.

I didn't know for sure that I would be coming home until about ten minutes before the flight from O'hare left the gate for Sea-Tac. But that's exactly what happened. So I'm back in Seattle.

First impressions: Look at this picture. This is my room. I have way too much stuff. Part of it is all the things I sent back home, some of it is mail that piled up while I was gone,  some of it is stuff I never sorted out after coming home from college. The rest is just me having too much stuff. You look at the amount of stuff you own differently when for a year and a half, all your worldly possessions fit in a 55-liter bag.

I was looking forward to wearing stuff I haven't been wearing every day for a year and a half. But none of it feels right. It looks funny. I feel funny wearing it.

But my first few minutes in  my room were... well, I felt like I was somewhere more foreign than I'd been in years. What is all this stuff? Who was this mysterious person who owned and arranged it all? He's disappeared, and nobody has heard from him for a long time. But I did remember something he did. He wrote a note on his old laptop. For me.

I found the old Compaq in a backpack in my closet. At first it didn't want to boot up, giving checksum errors, and the power giving out completely halfway through the little windows XP splash screen. I went into the BIOS, fixed the clock, got the charger plugged in more securely, and booted. It was very slow. But on the desktop was a little word file. "Letter to self.doc"

I didn't expect it to be so sad. Some of it's pretty personal, so I won't go into details, but there's a lot of uncertainty. Nowadays, I think that's exciting. But this was a letter of doubts, written by a lonely guy. It's signed "I hope you’re a better man than I am. I’m sure you are. Good luck in whatever you choose to do next." I just want to go back in time and give the poor guy a hug.

But if there's one thing I came home or, it's my family, and I've already seen all five of my amazing nieces, both my siblings and siblings-in-law, and of course, my parents. I've eaten the pac nw oysters and dungeness crab cakes I've been craving for months. And I have some very big plans for my immediate future. But this blog isn't about that, is it?

I'm going to need some more time to adjust. It's all very intense, new and old all at the same time. I'm excited to be back to get started on sorting out my past and future. I'll have a lot more to say here once I've adjusted and am able to process things. But there's a lot I want to say with this next entry. Figure out some take home thing for what happens after you go around the world. Say something from what I've learned. But I'm going to need a few days to process the here and now before I can reflect on what I've done and where I've been on this adventure. When I do, I'll have something worthwhile for you. So do check back.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Back to ..."Normal Life?"

This picture was taken on campus of my alma mater, The University of Chicago. Inside this building, Rockefeller Chapel, around 10:00pm, Friday May 7th, Jane Goodall had just finished giving a speech. She had moved to the front vestibule. The area inside the vestibule was quiet, and reverent. Ms. Goodall sat and smiled patiently while she autographed books and had pictures taken. She was there for each and every one of her admirers who had attended, being let in from the outside at a controlled trickle. On the other side of these doors, beneath the vaulted neo-gothic ceiling was a throng of giddy fans waiting for Goodall. They lined all the way up to the altar.

Past them was a small group that looked a little out of place. For one thing, they were all wearing tuxedo-print t-shirts with green tentacles printed on the front and back. For another, they weren't that excited about Jane Goodall. They looked nervous.

I was one of these people.

I was standing there, looking at the line and hoping, when my friend Daniel, also in a tux t-shirt came up to us.

"Go out to the front."

We stared at him. And all started talking at once.

"What's there?"
"Who's there?"
"Do you mean they--"
"But its not 10:30 yet!"

"No," he said, "Just-- just go and look!"

I darted for a side door out of the chapel and ran with a couple others down the lit-from-the-bottom stone wall of the church to the grand front entrance, and stared.

Roughly a hundred people were limping their way to the front door, groaning and occasionally screaming. Their clothing was dirty rags, their faces were covered in blood and boils, and a few of them were missing limbs and chunks of flesh. The seething mass was inching closer to the heavy front doors of the church. The ones with Jane Goodall and several hundred fans sitting sedately and reverently on the other side.

This wasn't a zombie attack. This was a scheduling conflict. The world-famous primatologist and UN Messenger of Peace had simply had the bad fortune of being scheduled to speak at the same place as an event from the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt.

Now, on your average scavenger hunt, you'll have a list of, maybe, 30 items to be completed by teams of two or three. Items will be things like, a licence pate from Hawaii, or a photo of a red robin. It might last a few hours. But  the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt is not your average scavenger hunt. It lasts four days, is completed by teams of around 30-80+ people, and has over 250 items. This is one of them:
Item 161: May 7, 2010, 10:30 pm. A foul wind tosses decayed leaves in my face with almost willful malevolence as I trudge toward the Chapel. Its soaring belltower, once proud, now seems craven, afraid of the unhallowed Mass it will soon host. The sagging gambrel roofs of the campus architectures likewise cower as we approach, their weathered walls and ruined faces a mockery of the pustules and pockmarks that cover my companions. Shunned by the campus, denied by the hospitals, we march onward, determined to revel in our grisly condition. Our masks may do little to conceal our Afflictions, but in a fit of gallows humour we have decorated them gaily, and will throw a Masque in our dying hours. Each family has appointed its most wretched specimen a Seed of Corruption, whom we venerate with savage glee; their twisted countenances defy description by even a madman such as myself. When the clock strikes midnight I expect we shall all be dead, but until then we shall dance as though to tire Death himself.

So we had a mass of university students and alumni in costumes inspired by nine or ten awful diseases (plus one one team inexplicably dressed in World of Warcraft outfits) descending on Jane Goodall and her fans.

Now what kind of crazy people would write an item like that, you might ask. Well, they're the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt Organizing Committee, but nobody calls them that. We call them The Judges. a.k.a. The Cabal, a.k.a. Hot Side Hot. They're a group of lunatics that cobbles together this list and awards each teams the points they deserve for completing the items. I've been a member of this group for three years.

Having been out of town for over a year and a half, I didn't have any part in making this year's list, but I was able to come to Chicago in time to help organize and judge the hunt itself. We walked campus watching the insanity unfold as each dorm's team (plus a handful of independent teams) did things like freeclimb math buildings to perform "extreme partial differentiation," carry around people on their backs in teams of four, whacking balls with a ten-foot-long mallet as part of "human elephant polo", play "lean on me" on a hospital crutch like a flute, sneak into firehouses to film themselves yelling "Theater," and doing anything and everything they can to get their hands on an authentic Stradivarius violin, cello, or viola. All the while their workshops back on campus were frantically making six-foot-tall pennies, antigriddles, life-sized marionettes that imitated a dancer's movements, plasma in a mason jar, and a lot more besides.

A lot of my old friends who had also graduated came back for this year's Scav Hunt, and when they weren't concentrating on constructing a Jollyball exhibit, they would ask me how my trip was and what it was like being back. I'd tell them it was strange being surrounded by things that were so familiar, like the voice on the CTA trains and the old campus buildings. The things that really drove home that I was back. But that it was good to see everyone wearing bizarre captain's costumes, having roller-skate dance-offs in the quads, and running from giant foam monsters roaring to reclaim #1 foam hands, "just like in the old country."

Every once in a while, people would ask me how I deal with culture shock, and what I think the weirdest cultural experiences I've seen have been. It wasn't until, four hours after the midnight list release, judge headquarters received its fourth or fifth delivery from scav teams of a fully cooked and glazed ham, bone in, that I started thinking maybe it's because, sometimes, the weirdest place in the world is right at home. As the hams piled up in the refrigerator, kitchen counters and hallway in the wee hours of the morning, it's hard to think of any place to call normal, anyway.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Also, if you're curious about U(c) Scav Hunt, check out this year's list, the hunt's official website, and also a blog written by a few members of Hot Side Hot.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

When I stepped out from JFK airport into the streets on New York City, it didn't feel real. It was like walking around a memory of some place that had been lost a long time ago, and that I'd wake up to the real world at any moment, the one where I was a foreigner adapting to something new. But the longer I walked, the more I saw that was American, and the less real it felt. Temperatures measured in Fahrenheit, distances in miles, weight in pounds. The month coming before the day in the written date. Streets running at right angles. People everywhere speaking my language with something a lot like my accent. And yet...

When I left the United States, George W Bush was president. iPhones were the rare toys of the rich and famous, and the really nerdy. Facebook was still mostly something for people in college or who'd just graduated. We'd pay $7 or $8 to go see a movie in theaters and complain about it being too expensive. Nobody really cared about Twitter. Looks like things have changed a little.

In some ways, it still doesn't feel like I'm home yet. While I've been to New York three times before, I've never lived there. It's been this weird hybrid of travel as I know it in a new destination and coming home. I've spent my days mostly seeing all these people who knew me before 2008. A couple of them before 1998. One even before 1988, though since neither of us was three years old yet, our memories are a little fuzzy on that point. But the neighborhoods, sights, and sounds are still fairly new.

You can learn a lot about this town by riding the subway. People talk to each other in more languages than you can count (it seems like everybody I meet is talking about this article in the New York Times). Strangers talk to each other, yell at each other and fight, and laugh and help each other. Some sit and mind their own business, others play their music for everyone to hear and dance in the middle of the car. The stations and cars are the dirtiest and most run-down subway stations and cars I've seen in the world. Seriously, formerly soviet Hungary and fiscally-collapsed Greece have nicer ones. But the people and thing happening inside the New York subway system are something to see.

The one thing I keep seeing inside the subway and around parts of town is an alert defensiveness. Signs that say "If you see something, say something" in English and Spanish. And emergency preparedness ads. Drills. Ads on TV for burglar alarm systems. This is city that has once been a victim. At first I thought it was a culture of fear. But that was what I'd seen in South Africa. This was slightly different. There, the people were divided and scared of each other. Here, they are united to keep an eye out for everyone, regardless of color or language. I didn't expect to see this demonstrated any further than reading the posters.

New York has some of the best theater in the world. I spotted a poster for a show entitled Behanding in Spokane, by a very famous playwright named Martin McDonagh, and starring Christopher Walken. My mom was born in Spokane. This was too good to pass up. So, yesterday, I got rush tickets in the morning (deep discount for the last minute).

I came down to 8th and 45th, right next to Times Square, around 7:40 for the 8:00 show, but had a little trouble figuring out a way to get to the theater. Some of the streets had been blocked off, including a chunk of Times Square. At first I thought it was construction, until I noticed the cops.

I backtracked a bit and tried to take an alleyway I'd spotted before, but the police had started blocking that off as well. I asked one what was going on. He said there was a car fire, and the street was closed. I turned back and passed the word along to some of the swirling theatergoers looking for the open part of the street they could use to go see their shows.

Everybody was backed up onto 8th ave. Nobody could go down the streets to the dozen or two Broadway theaters putting on shows within minutes. People were wringing their hands trying to figure out how they were supposed to get into the theater in time before curtain. One lady started asking a cop, who replied angrily "Why do you care about this show? You should worry about your safety here. Your safety is a lot more important than seeing your show."

I walked further and saw at least one other street had been closed. For a car fire? Exactly how big was this car, and why wasn't there any smoke? I found a number in my cell phone I'd used before-- telecharge, the NYC theater ticket agency. After five minutes on hold, they told me the shows were delayed due to fire.

That's when the cops decided to clear the street of the hundreds of theatergoers milling around anxiously with their tickets. nobody really seemed to know what was going on, but it came out that there was something unknown about the car. They didn't know what was inside it.

I walked back and forth listening to confused people confer with their spouses, kids, friends, speculating on what was happening. I told several what I knew. I asked a fireman sitting on the bumper of his truck what was going on, and he said that the car wasn't on fire, but that they didn't know what was inside it. Before I could ask more, I was interrupted by some 30-something women in short skirts and lots of makeup, gleefully making a beeline for the NYFD so they could have their picture taken with them. A couple fat guys passing by started laughing and loudly making fun of them.

Telecharge repeatedly said the shows were delayed. The cops stated yelling into the bullhorns that they were all canceled. But you could tell they just wanted the crowd to disperse. It wasn't until an hour and a half after the shows started that we finally started getting some of the story. The theaters had delayed but then started the shows with the few people in the audience who had come more than an hour early. The street was still closed, and would remain closed for an unknown amount of time. I asked some of the news crew that had arrived what was going on. Their two word answer: Bomb scare.

So I went back to my friend's place and found pretty much everything I had just experienced on the front pages of the New York Times, BBC World News, and Al Jazeera. This morning, we got this.

It's been an interesting introduction to being back.

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