|And I think
they happen a lot. The strange and unpredictable coincidence that I describe
in this story is not only a serendipitous “goucher”; But also a testament
to the possibilities that arise when you remove yourself from the safety
of familiarity; the benefits of vulnerability.
My great friend,
Zach, and I backpacked through Europe from June 13 – September 6, 2002.
We covered continental Europe quite extensively during those three months,
including (in order of experience): England, France, Italy, Netherlands,
Greece, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland,
and Spain. Having never ventured beyond the borders of North America
in my life, this trip was a large, unguarded step into the unknown.
In fact, the explosion of panic-inducing information that has pervaded
U.S. media since September 11, caused me to harbor serious doubts about
the safety of travelling. My timidity quickly faded though.
This was an opportunity for me to personally experience the variety of
cultures and wealth of history and tradition that I had previously only
read about, or seen on TV. I was determined to make this possibility
a reality, and so I began to steer my focus towards the goal of world travel;
to actively pursue and take advantage of every travel-related coincidence
that I could.
Zach and I
had been thinking seriously of traveling through Europe for nearly two
years, before we stepped onto the plane this June. We each graduated
in May, 2001, from different Universities within the state of Wisconsin,
and reunited to work for the summer at a small restaurant called the “Park
Café”, located on the eastern border of Glacier National Park, Montana.
When we weren’t busy exploring rocky summits, we were asking our co-workers
about their travel experiences, slowly building confidence and gathering
information for the journey ahead.
Next, we moved
back to River Falls, Wisconsin, our hometown. We spent six months
working, saving money, and opening every possible door that might lead
to a crucial bit of insight or useful connection overseas. Our flight
from domestic familiarity was going to catapult us into strange new territory;
all the more reason to be prepared.
paid off, too. We met three groups of friends overseas, stayed with
an incredibly accommodating family in Germany, and hooked up with my parents
in Prague. Research and planning before departure gave us a reasonable
knowledge base, from which we could draw confidence about the general direction
of our trip through Europe. This confidence allowed us to adopt a
flexible itinerary, so that we could remain receptive to favorable cues
and friendly suggestions along the way.
that we received came from a dread-locked, Swedish youth that we met in
Budapest, named Christian. Christian and I bonded over a long conversation
about quality music at a funky Frank Zappa bar in Buda. That bond
was strengthened on a claustrophobia-stimulating caving tour on the other
side of the Danube, in Pest. Christian was on his way north from
Romania, and recommended that I visit Brasov. I’m a bit of a Dracula
buff, and the thought of exploring the wild Carpathian Mountains of Romania
had crossed my mind more than once. Brasov sounded like a fine place
from which to begin exploration of Romania. With little hesitation,
Zach and I packed up our meager equipment, bid Christian a bon voyage,
and continued our trip into the unfamiliar.
In late July,
we departed from Budapest for Brasov, Romania, on a hot and painfully slow-moving
train. The Romanian landscape was dominated by agriculture and rolling
green hills. The pastoral setting was interrupted occasionally by
tiny run-down villages, in which there was more visible garbage than there
were people. We shuffled off the train in a sleep deprived, zombie-like
state – which was somewhat fitting, considering Brasov is located in Southern
Transylvania; Dracula’s legendary feeding grounds. As my foot touched
the platform, I was swept away in a verbal tornado, whirling from the lips
of a short and sturdy Romanian woman, named Maria.
Maria and her
husband, Greg, worked the platform with impressive efficiency. They
circled the incoming trains like hawks: scanning the new arrivals with
keen eyes and practiced precision, recognizing the subtle and ostentatious
tourists alike for the potential prey (or business) that they were.
Greg’s rugged appearance and prodigious ebony mustache practically frightened
people into accepting his assistance. Yet his warm glance offset
his intimidating profile, and his soft-spoken recommendation to go to his
wife suggested to me that he had long ago accepted the futility of resisting
was so robust that I feared it might discharge like a lightning bolt into
the energy sink that my weary body had become. Not only was Maria
an entrepreneurial tour agent, but she was also a meteorologist for a local
news company. She unflinchingly raved that she could simultaneously
arrange our transportation, organize our sight seeing schedule, and provide
an accurate prediction for that week’s weather.
REAL Maria”, she exclaimed as she pointed to a photograph of herself
printed in a Lonely Planet Guide.
proudly listed the many reasons why we should book accommodations through
her, she managed to assist a trio of Indonesian travelers, corral a young
Scottish gal into the seat next to us, and do about six other things at
the same time. All this activity only increased my sleepiness.
By the time
my brain had adjusted to consciousness, I found myself with Zach and the
18 year-old Scottish gal, Joanne, unpacking our belongings in a small,
ceramic trinket filled room that reminded my of a grandmother’s bedroom.
In fact, Maria had taken us to the apartment of a 65 year-old man, named
Gee Gee. Gee Gee perpetually wore sweat pants tucked into his mismatched
socks, and showed no hesitation in flashing his six-toothed grin. He also
had an idiosyncratic habit of rearranging our belongings when we were gone,
for no apparent reason other than possibly to satisfy a sort of Feng Shui
compulsion. Gee Gee’s grandfatherly Romanian charm came unglued though,
when Zach attempted to use his phone for a toll-free call to the U.S.
Fortunately, Maria was there, and like a welcome rain on a hot summer day
she cooled the raging Gee Gee.
of this particular story is that Joanne had been to River Falls (the town
Zach and I grew up in) for two weeks, on a student exchange program when
she was in 7th grade. The “goucher” is that she stayed with the Brady
family, whose eldest daughter is one of my sister’s best friends.
Not only had Joanne met my sister and many of her friends, but her family,
and many of her friend’s families, had hosted students and parents from
River Falls in Scotland as well.
decision to head to Brasov, sparked by the suggestion of a randomly encountered
kindred spirit in Budapest, had inexplicably brought us into an eerily
comfortable situation. Our open-mindedness to Christian’s suggestion
and vulnerability to Maria’s assistance allowed this “goucher” to develop.
Zach and I ended up spending four days with Joanne, touring Romania.
The three of us got along wonderfully. We visited Bran Castle (falsely
advertised as “Dracula’s Castle”), Sighisoara (genuine birthplace of Vlad
Tepes-“Dracula”), and wandered the charming cobblestone streets of Brasov
an ideal travel companion, with a sharp wit, a hair-trigger smile, and
easy-going attitude. I still keep in contact with her via email.
She began college in Leeds this September. Our conversations about
homey River Falls, and the socio-political situations in Great Britain
and the U.S. were unrestrained and natural, despite our completely novel
If the Joanne
coincidence, or “goucher”, could make sparsely populated and poverty-stricken
Romania feel like home to me, what was to stop me from accessing that same
feeling anywhere in the world? Undoubtedly, our common life experiences
made it easier for us to connect quickly and with minimal discretion, but
I don’t think that such a serendipitous encounter is necessary to precipitate
a convergence of people and open sharing of philosophies. In fact,
my travels through Europe this summer, and current adventures in Asia,
have made it abundantly clear to me that people everywhere are much more
similar than they are different. I think that it is possible to find
a seed of familiarity, or comfort in even the most novel environments.
There is a substantial quality of continuity about life.
On a broad
scale, the similarities in molecular composition and physiological mechanics,
among all living organisms on earth are unequivocal. Further evidence
of inter-species uniformity continues to be revealed with incredible consistency,
and at an astonishing rate. For instance, some DNA sequences are
so highly conserved that they appear in identical forms in both humans
On the molecular
level, humans are virtually identical. Over 99% of human DNA is homologous
between any two given individuals. That is to say, if I were to compare
my genetic makeup to a motorcycle-taxi driver from Thailand, it would be
greater than 99% the same. In fact on average, genetic composition
varies more within ethnic groups than it does between them. The fact
that all groups of people have basically the same genetic potentials has
lead to the idea of cultural relativism.
emphasizes that each culture has its own integrity and is therefore worthy
of respect. Cultural diversity is a source of human resourcefulness
and creativity, just like biological diversity provides the raw genetic
material for adaptation and survival. On a very practical level,
biological diversity plays an important medical role as a fountain of potential
cures to present and future physical ailments. Similarly, cultural
diversity provides a generous and largely unshared supply of treatments
for mental, physical and social problems. Each culture’s method of
dealing with common human conditions is effective in its own way, and so
is important to understand and communicate.
contain just one ethnic group or a single cultural identity. Instead,
cultural boundaries continually change and can be found on many levels,
from regional to national. This cultural evolution is something that
everyone contributes to and participates in. A seemingly innocuous
meeting between two people from different cultural backgrounds can create
a substantial shift in their individual cultural stereotypes. These
people may share their experiences with friends and family, and eventually
the summation of many such meetings will have an impact on the new, broad
cultural stereotypes that are formed. For better or for worse, these
stereotypes play a key role in determination of how groups of people interact,
and interaction is essential to survival.
We live together
in a primarily self-contained ecosystem (earth) where symbiotic relationships
(beneficial for both participating parties) are the dominant form of interaction
between organisms. There are more digestion aiding bacteria living
in the average human intestine than there are people on the planet.
Likewise, there are energy transforming organelles in most cells of all
animals, called mitochondria that are absolutely essential to the life
of the organism. Mitochondria have their own DNA, and in humans they
are passed asexually through the maternal lineage. The cell provides
a cozy and nutrient-rich environment while the mitochondria provide the
type of energy that the cell can use. This mutually beneficial relationship
is crucial to all animal life on the planet.
Not only do
we rely on other species to perform essential life-sustaining processes,
but we depend on other humans as well. This intra-species cooperation is
as basic as a newborn baby’s need for parental care, and the irreplaceable
emotional benefits provided by the newborn to the parents. Step outside
the family sphere, and it is apparent that even as adults we depend on
one another more and more for nearly all of the necessities of life.How
many people could successfully grow their own food, if the need arose?
How difficult would it be to obtain drinkable water without treatment plants?
Of course, farmers and treatment plant employees get paid for their efforts,
and thus this system is a symbiotic one.
The earth can
be fairly accurately compared to an autonomous cell. Like a cell,
it has a semi-permeable atmosphere acting as both protection and transportation.
Global air currents carry essential materials, like water, to specialized
climatic zones. Just like a cell’s membrane is its primary means
of transporting materials. Meanwhile, the atmosphere protects the
surface from high-energy light waves emitted from the sun that would otherwise
fry most life on the planet. Similarly, a virus can only invade a
cell if it can successfully attach itself to and penetrate the protective
reasonable comparison could be made between the earth and a complex organism
whose adaptability hinges on the diversity and efficiency of its components.
Regardless of the organizational perspective that is adopted, it is apparent
that an intricate system of interdependence exists. We count on fellow
humans as well as fellow organisms for survival.
A key aspect
to any symbiotic relationship is vulnerability. If a cell’s membrane
were impermeable, rather than semi-permeable, the cell would survive only
as long as its internal energy reserves provided. Likewise, neighboring
cells would be deprived of the favorable materials normally secreted by
the invulnerable cell. The unavoidable need for physical openness
can be carried over to the human-human level as well, but it is mental
vulnerability and compassion that allows symbiotic relationships between
societies and cultures to be effective.Peaceful relationships between groups
of people require an understanding of differences. In order for these
relationships to be mutually beneficial, there must also be recognition
of similarities. Discovery of these similarities in mind-set is,
for me, one of the most rewarding aspects of travel. It is a truly
joyful occasion when I can sit down with somebody who lives on the other
side of the planet, and discover that we really have a lot in common.
At the same time, I find that comprehending cultural variations can be
challenging. Although demanding, I think it is a healthy process
that stimulates the destruction of intercultural communication barriers;
therefore, allowing the vast wisdom of our ancestors to flow freely between
us. My experiences away from home have strengthened my convictions
to continue pushing the boundaries of familiarity, to experience a diversity
of cultures fist hand, and to remain open to the many possibilities, perspectives,
and coincidences that exist in the world.
everyone to step away from the hectic and well known. My travels
have helped me to recognize the familiar aspects of new things and
identify some of the fundamental similarities inherent in life. Equally
enlightening is the ability to step outside the daily grind for a moment
and identify the unique aspects of the familiar. These two concepts
are really two sides of the same coin, one that can provide an infinite
wealth of happiness to the holder. Even though I have a long way
to go to find it, I think travelling has opened my eyes to the existence
of that coin.
beyond the borders of your native country is an excellent way to experience
new things, increase sensitivity, and recognize the coincidences that go
unnoticed on a daily basis. First hand experience of new cultures
can broaden perspective and cultivate increased compassion for humanity,
because ultimately we’re all much more similar and interdependent than
most people realize. By cultivating a supple and vulnerable mind-set
we can reduce the occurrence of the stresses associated with unnecessary
defensive positions. We can take a more active role in the breaking
and reforming of cultural stereotypes that heavily influence present and
future human interrelations on the planet. We can be more receptive
to fortunate opportunities when they arise. And finally, we can use
the perspectives and vulnerability of travel to enhance our everyday lives.
So why not make a habit of taking a light-hearted step into the unknown?
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