4 Travel Stories That Taught Me Something

Japan

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We arrived in Yokohama, Japan midday and decided to find a hostel somewhere deep in the city. Knowing no Japanese other than a few greetings we maneuvered our way through dense streets and located a hostel that would suffice for a few nights. Our hostel was no larger than a closet, no furniture, no beds, simply two large blankets, one for me, and one for my friend, Henry. We left the hostel and walked the streets of Yokohama in search of a restaurant that someone recommended. With no cell service, meaning no Google maps, we resorted to the old fashioned physical map. While that seemed like a great idea, our understanding of the map and language on the map left us confused. We were forced to resort to the oldest and simplest form of acquiring knowledge, communication. Choosing who to ask for help/directions was not difficult, though communicating our struggles would be. We engaged with a couple and their children who were walking through a street market. As we approached and began conversing they quickly realized the obvious language barrier before them.  Assuming the language barrier would end the conversation, they seemed to understand the name of the restaurant, and by simple body language they signaled to follow them. We exchanged names and smiles and soon were on our way, somewhere. While following, we assumed maybe they were leading us astray, playing some joke. The path they took us in certainly seemed completely irrelevant from where we thought the restaurant was. Regardless we followed, twisting and turning through markets and streets, while they pointed out fascinating architecture as well as street vendors selling an array of foods that were open for sampling. After 15-20 minutes of walking, the couple’s children pointed to a restaurant, the one we happened to be looking for. The family, likely going somewhere completely different, took us miles out of their way to help. Somewhat bewildered by their act of kindness, all we could do was show our gratitude and say “arigato”, thank you in Japanese. That type compassion and assistance seemed almost routine for them. We clearly would never have found the restaurant on our own. And therefore learned a valuable lesson from them. People want to help, and so should you.

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While at the restaurant, we decided to experiment and taste everything. From sakes to Japanese beers, from ramen to raw horse. Yes, raw horse, with a cracked raw egg on top with spices. We drank a lot, and ate even more. We watched while the itamae, or Japanese chefs rolled sushi right in front of us, all while drinking more sake. From the restaurant we continued on exploring Yokohama, its temples, bars, and working to make some Japanese friends along the way.

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Our ambitious minds would lead us from Yokohama by train to Tokyo, exploring more temples, parks, sushi restaurants, and bizarre night clubs. From Tokyo we made our way east by trains and buses to Nagano, a ski town. We spent a day skiing/snowboarding at the Hakuba resort while in the evening we relaxed at natural hot springs, a completely new and different sensation for the body. From Nagano we caught another train south to Kyoto. Upon awaking in Kyoto, we found ourselves in a surreal city. Ancient architecture, traditions, temples, and cuisine. After sampling numerous types of sushi as well as mint green tea ice-cream, we hiked a top of a mountain through beautiful bamboo forests. A top the mountain were views overlooking Kyoto, surrounded by hundreds of Japanese macaque snow monkeys who were fierce and tricky.

Morocco

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A group of my friends and I took to the streets of Casablanca indulging in its mystique. We spent time at the Grande Mosquée Hassan II or Hassan II Mosque (pictured above). From Casablanca we caught a train to Marrakech, sitting in the door way, with no door in sight. The train at full speed, we peered out the door opening to what would change from green pastures to red sand with dozens villages along the way. Often times we saw women carrying water, though mostly both the men and women were sitting, enjoying the sun seeming as if they had not a care in the world. When we arrived a few hours later in Marrakech, the cities energy was completely different than Casablanca’s. Hundreds and thousands of people on the move and working. There was an abundance of street food, shops, and riads. So many different types of sales going on, from people holding chained monkeys for tourists to take pictures with to vendors selling baby turtles apparently for their medicinal use to snake charmers. We endeavored into the city market, more of a maze than anything else. Miles and miles of walk ways, almost like tunnels throughout the market. We never knew what shop’s products we were looking at because they were all so bunched together. We spent hours in there, and finally needed a meal. As we continued to the outer rim of the market, hundreds of street vendors were selling themselves and their restaurants. All claiming to have the best this or that in all of Marrakech, though they wouldn’t just sell you, they harassed you. They would follow you throughout the market, claiming I must try their chef’s chicken kabobs. Turns out they were right, or at least one lucky vendor was. The chicken combined so many ingredients, orange juice, cinnamon, cumin, as well as a traditional yogurt sauce, all on top of a Moroccan salad with Harissa, carrots, cucumbers, parsley, raisins. More color on a plate than I could have imagined. The meal would cost somewhere between 2-3 dollars. We would order numerous plates.

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The next day we wandered back into the bustling market and this time I was looking for a large blanket to buy. Spending hours in the market, I found a shop that seemed ideal. The vendor himself was not. The blankets were hand knitted with beautiful Moroccan designs. I began slowly sifting through a number of options, putting a few aside that I believed I may purchase. The vendor kept assuring me that each of my choices was perfect and fit me well, clearly looking for a few sales. A few of friends were doing the same, and he became even more enticed with the amount of cash he was about to make. As I continued, I realized there was no way I could be able to transport such a large blanket back, and therefore worked on an exit strategy. I put the blankets back, discretely, and noticed a number of my friends had done the same. The vendor was becoming irritated and was stunned when he saw me place mine back. It was as if the few minutes I spent talking with him and exploring his shop had created a relationship in which I must purchase a blanket, and if not, he and his family may not eat for the next few days, and that may have been true, but the next few minutes involved actual harassment. As I put the last blanket back and began to exit, he threw a fit. He also had a white patch over his face, with a small blood stain poking through, which gave him a savagely aggressive aura. He walked over to me, getting completely in my direction and facing his chest toward the sky as if he had the power of Citizen Kane. I quickly maneuvered around him, though I quickly felt a jerk on my arm. He grabbed me and whipped me around so we were face to face. He went back and forth from standing in my way to grabbing me and holding me from exiting. My friends, realizing the situation made their way to the exit, as other vendors began to approach. The vendor claimed that I must buy them, that even though I simply touched them, meant that I had to purchase them. No such agreement exists anywhere, maybe except restaurants, this was a wool blanket shop. As more men approached, clearly trying to force me into a purchase, I made a final decisive move and barreled through the pack. Inches away from the smell of food market, the same vendor lunged and grabbed my body. He came in close, very close, with his head leaning in to mine and said, “If you don’t buy this rug I am going to cut off my own penis”.

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The lesson I learned, sales of any type is a difficult profession, but threatening to cut off one’s own penis will not lead to a sale. From Marrakech we made our way east, aimlessly riding camels miles into the desert to a campsite.

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Myanmar

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After spending a few days in Myanmar’s (formerly Burma), largest city Yangon, I travelled with a group of friends to Bagan. Myanmar is a country with more civil war than any other country. While we were there, civil war had broken out again. Myanmar certainly has a list of its own political and societal issues, largely due to past colonization and religious clashes. The majority of people I came into contact with, or what at least seemed to be the majority were practicing Buddhists. Dating back to the 10th century, thousands of pagodas were constructed in support of the Buddhist religion. Throughout Myanmar’s history, over 10,000 pagodas were built, though due to earthquakes and wars, only 2,500 still stand. Pagodas are certainly a symbol of Myanmar and Buddhism, representing a place of worship and sacrifice for one’s family. Learning this all prior to arriving in Myanmar meant that I would likely be spending most of my time with Buddhists as well as going from pagoda to pagoda.

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While 2500 is certainly a lot less than 10,000, seeing even a fraction of the pagodas meant that I needed an easy and efficient way of transportation and therefore rented a moped. The moped would allow me to see hundreds of them, stopping off to explore the insides of larger ones, usually containing large Buddha’s representing different spiritual meanings. While I have certainly done my reading on Buddhism, becoming immersed in it in this manner drove me to seek other answers Buddhism and its practicers tried to answer. After days of pagodas, a group of friends and I went to volunteer at a school led by Buddhist monks. While engaging with the students, dressed in robes, who have devoted their lives to become monks or nuns, I couldn’t help but think of their teachers and older monks. I wanted to understand the direction they were leading the students in and how Buddhism was going to get them there.

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Again, like the other countries, there was a serious language barrier. I spoke no Burmese, and they spoke no English. Luckily they had a translator, and when I got the chance I asked the interpreter to help me converse with the schools head monk or abbot. While I introduced myself and went through a list of translated questions and answers, I couldn’t help but asking one of the most philosophical questions ever. What did he believe to be the meaning of life? Throughout the majority of our conversation leading up to this question, the monk had remained mostly monotoned and expressionless. As the translator translated this last question to him, the monks body language reversed. He broke out into an almost monstrous laugh and a smile that stretched from ear to ear. He put his arm around me, leaned in close and said ‘today’. It must have been one of the very few English words he spoke, though the lesson I learned was that I was currently living the meaning of life.

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India

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After spending the morning hours wandering the Taj Majal in Agra, India with a group of friends we made our way in a number of Tok Tok’s back across the city. Having spent hours and hours in the recent days walking through Agra fort, the Jama Masjid (one of India’s largest mosques), and playing cricket with twenty or so Indian school boys and girls, our legs were tired to say the least. We began looking for a place to kick back, eat and relax, though unexpectedly our Tok Tok ran into what looked like miles of traffic. We couldn’t see much as there was so much dust in the air. We kindly paid our driver and made our way by foot. Instantly through the dust in the air, we found ourselves walking in piles of trash alongside numerous cows. Cows are a sacred animal in the Hindu religion and are usually never consumed as food. They roam the streets of India just as humans. After passing a number of them, we could feel the ground beneath us vibrating. We heard chanting and instruments playing. Up ahead, the vibration was not coming from cows, but by an elephant festival. Hundreds of worshippers were walking alongside or riding twenty-thirty massive elephants embellished in beautiful vibrant colors, jewelry and saddle cloth. Worshippers chanted and walked the streets with the elephants leading the way creating a dust storm.

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From out the dust we found ourselves in a quieter space. Thin alley ways and high buildings now surrounded us. Bewildered at the architectural mystique we entered an antique shop with thousands of beautiful hand crafted relics in all different sizes, from pottery, to weapons, paintings, jewelry and more than I can remember. After getting lost through endless routes within the shop, we wandered ourselves into a room filled with hashish pipes and hookahs. The owner kindly offered to pack us a variety of shisha flavors, likely having chose grapefruit or mint in a number of different hookahs, I can’t remember the exact flavor. We spent the next hour or so watching the sun set from the top of the shop, enjoying the shisha, beer and company from the owner and his sons. Finally realizing how late it was getting we decided to head to a small restaurant nearby that a friend was recommended. We ordered 10-15 different plates, ranging from biryani, chapathi, masala, palek paneer and a number of meat dishes. The restaurant, as are many restaurants in India, gave no silverware, custom in traditional Indian restaurants as you are meant to eat with your right hand, while the left hand is used for wiping one’s own butt after using the toilet, since toilet paper is very rare. Dish after dish we were blown away by the flavors, spices, and creativity of the place. I knew I wanted to finish eating before I went to the bathroom, as I assumed there would not be any toilet paper.

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I happened to be right about the toilet paper, but what I was taken aback by even more was the set up of the bathroom. Usually you find a toilet and sink, either above ground or a hole in the floor. But this particular restaurant’s bathroom was more like a small hall way or walk in closet, with no toilet, or hole in the ground for releasing one’s toxins, instead you simply squatted on the ground, placing your feet, hopefully with shoes on, in the tracks of others, and pooped straight on the ground. The floor was filled with remnants of poo and diarrhea; how the food tasted so good, how the restaurant didn’t stink, I will never know, but it none the less made for an ever more fascinating experience. The lesson I took away was that beautiful things are not beautiful in every way. Not everyone or every establishment can have what we often believe to be necessary. Not everyone can afford a drainage system. We assumed they likely cleaned out the bathroom themselves, not a fun job. Hopefully the person cleaning was not as well cooking, though we’ll never know. While they may not have access to the things we often take for granted they still had the ability to be personal, creative, hardworking and passionate.

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