Today I rummaged around until I found a 2008 Obama for President campaign button, and proudly affixed it to my battered day pack. No repeat of the Bush years for me – I want to deflect as much awkwardness as possible when interacting with foreign locals on my future travels.
Going abroad as a U.S. citizen during W’s years in office I was often aware of a certain wariness on the part of others, and of a hesitation to fully engage – no questions, and certainly no hostility, just guarded looks suggesting that people were evaluating my likely voting record. I got in the habit of trying to work subtle references to our unfortunate election outcome into conversations, and the dynamic would shift perceptibly. People relaxed, and despite whatever reservations they might have about us for other reasons, that particular sticking point was removed. Now, of course, it has returned in spades.
However history evaluates him, there is no questioning the fact that Obama was an inspirational figure to much of the world, and one that travelers could be proud to own. I was in a Korean truck stop in 2008 when its big screen TV broadcast his electoral victory. Locals cheered and, realizing there was a group of Americans in their midst, gave us high-fives. It felt at that moment as if the whole world had breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Nowhere, I suspect, was his ascendance to the highest office in our land more celebrated than in Africa. The photos accompanying this post were taken in Ethiopia, where I experienced the twin novelties of having strangers approach me to express their good will, and of seeing my president’s name in the unlikeliest of places.
My bags are packed and sitting by the door. The car awaits.
Whether the destination is Kalamazoo or Kuala Lumpur, I pass through my house in silent reflection
Visiting each room
Grateful for our common experience
Thankful for the people who have shared it
I beseech it to remain safe and strong until my return.
Every departure is an intimation of the last.
In a week that saw both the forty-year sentence handed down to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for his role in the massacre at Srebrenica, and the decision of Bosnian Serb authorities to name a school building in his honor, I was moved again to reflect on the difficult and contentious path Bosnian citizens must walk towards their goal of reconciliation.
Here’s a joke that was making the rounds when I visited the country in 2015:
Three friends – a Serb, a Croat, and a Bosniak – go to a bar. After one beer, everything is OK. After two beers, everything is still OK. After the third beer someone asks “So who really started the war?” After a hasty fourth beer things are OK again.
Sometimes you can visit a country justly renowned for the beauty of its mountains, lakes, and castles and when you get home your favorite picture was taken at your hotel…
This striking assemblage of folk art on the beach at Ouidah, Benin illustrates two ever-present themes of the West African experience: the terrible legacy of slavery, and the fact that nothing ever goes to waste.
The setting was the annual Voodoo Festival which, to this uninitiated viewer, looked like a massive meet-and-greet. The beach marks the point of no return from which slave ships sailed for the new world or, as the sign so eloquently puts it, the beginning and the end of history.
In response to the question “How was Mongolia?” there is only one adjective that comes to mind, pushing all other qualifiers out of contention: vast. The extent of the vastness can only be appreciated once you leave the capital of Ulaanbaatar and realize that you will be spending hours and hours, day after day, traversing huge distances in a rugged and bumpy vehicle, relying on GPS to guide you through roadless and unvarying landscapes.
Among this vastness you will see the country’s justly renowned sights, to wit:
The Monastery Complex at Erdene Zuu
The Flaming Cliffs
The Wild Takhi Horses
But meanwhile there is no denying that the days are long, the challenges of the road are many, and the novelty of the occasional settlement or camel herd is apt to wear thin. So while in Mongolia I found that the best strategy is to embrace the unexpected, and delight in the fact that you are in a country where:
There are vegan karaoke bars:
There are monuments to phalluses:
Angels perch atop baroque silver fountains at the edge of the desert:
The bartender at your ger camp is always ready to serve:
Genghis Khan (or at least his boot) still stands tall after eight centuries:
And museum placards leave you really wanting to know what else is registered in the Red Book of Mongolia…