Egypt’s past and future jostle against one another when traveling down the side streets of Cairo. Taxis, mopeds, and old pickup trucks share undivided roads with camels that rest under the shade of tall red brick buildings and donkeys loaded with goods or people that bump along hard packed dirt roads. When these two sides of Egypt meet, mopeds veer off onto sidewalks, trucks honk and brake, tall camels pull up their long necks and flutter their eyelashes and donkeys lower their heads, stare at the ground, and trod along in stubborn disregard to the strange machines that now live beside them.
A boy stands in the shallow water off the coast of Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam in the village of Rạch Vẹm and plays with two other children. Styrofoam containers and other debris float close to the shore in the crystal clear waters and lap the white sand beach. Fishing net partitions a section of the sea to trap the locals’ daily catch, and in the homes hugging the coast, old people sleep in hammocks while others process fish and crab. A few satellite dishes poke out from the three-sided corrugated metal buildings that sit on wooden stilts, and incense wafts through the air from the sticks that sit smoldering in front of small shrines. Roosters peer out at us from under wooden cages that sit in front of houses. A red powder dirt road leads to this village. Jungle presses in us from all sides. We try to speak to some of the locals, but not one knows a word of English. Other than the satellite dishes and garbage, the only sign of modern civilization comes from the older children who arrive later in the afternoon dressed in school uniforms and curious enough about us to say hello, giggle, and run away.
Although it was years ago, I can still vividly recall a particular afternoon driving down a rural highway in the Algarve of southern Portugal with my mom. It was a beautiful day. A beautiful summer. Neither of us had ever been to Portugal before and we had all the windows rolled down in the car as we drove through the countryside. It smelled incredible outside. We kept remarking on the smell to each other because, mixed with the rural highway, the perfect light, and the rural beauty of Portugal, it was utterly magical. What in the world smelled so good?? This place is amazing!
It is the fall of 2014 in Argentina, and I need some cash. I have read enough about Argentina’s political situation to hear that going to an ATM machine here is a bad idea. As strange as it sounds, word is that I can get around twice as many pesos per dollar on the street versus a bank. And the strangest thing is it actually turns out to be true. From the hawkers yelling out “Dolares!! Dolares!!!” on Calle Florida to the exchanges hidden behind scary unmarked doors surrounded by burly guards to the random Western Union stores with unadvertised dollar exchange desks, it seems to be an open secret that the official government exchange rate is something that only a fool would follow. Welcome to Argentina. Don’t use the ATM machines.
It is October, the midpoint of southern spring, and I am in Buenos Aires for an as-yet undetermined amount of time. I’m looking for something productive to do with my time and trying to find some balance between the joys of idle travel and the need to do something productive… Something worthwhile. I have volunteered on farms before but I want to live in the city this time rather than out in the middle of nowhere. After a random internet search I find an organization called L.I.F.E. offering volunteer opportunities and I set up an appointment for an orientation and head over.
The lady answering the door in downtown Buenos Aires tells me that for forty bucks, I can volunteer for two weeks and that for sixty, I can work for up to a month. The idea of paying you volunteer is a new one for me but apparently quite the industry. The office is filled with young volunteers when I enter – one woman gives me and two others a welcome speech. Another sits behind a computer and takes my money. Three others sit at a table playing cards. A white cat lounges on the staircase of the office. Hundreds of Toms Shoes spill out of a closet in the back. The only person there who is not in their 20s or visiting from abroad is an interesting looking Argentine man with a friendly grin who tells me that he lives in a room above the office. Is he a paid employee? A permanent volunteer? The answers are not immediately clear.
From his front porch, while smoking a joint and playing dominoes with a friend, my new neighbor sits across the street and watches me out of the corner of his eye while I move in. Although I will later come to know him as “Big Dave” and we will trust each other and help each other as only years-long neighbors can, on this day, I am an outsider – I am in the racial and economic minority for the first time in my life. Because of this, as I unload my IKEA furniture, I cannot help but feel wary about moving here. I find myself abruptly cast into a foreign culture – within my own town. Five miles east of downtown Austin has taken me across an invisible border dividing class, income, education, culture, and color — and I find my white, educated, moneyed, and gentrifying self to be alien to this place. The contrast between my life and that of my black neighbors around me is baffling and difficult to exaggerate. I have never lived anyplace with such a difference of race, culture, or income between my immediate neighbors and me.
I awake to wind. “Its the bad wind,” they tell me over breakfast: “The Spanish wind. The Levant.”
The wind rumbles out of the east and enters our small valley farm with a constant dirt-churning rush. The eucalyptus trees roll like the waves of the ocean, the chickens and turkeys hide within their roosts, and the plants of the farm bend under an energy and fury that seems both impossible to resist and destined never to end.
What groups of people around the world eat meat on a regular basis? What groups of people are vegetarian? Or how about countries? Which countries eat lots of meat and which countries have large populations of vegetarians? Before going to India, I always felt confident about where and why people did not eat meat, but India proved to be a major outlier that did not fit with my preconceived notions of vegetarianism. In India, I found a country with a thousand year old history of not eating meat independent of wealth or modernity. Why? How had this come to be? And why only India?
The first time I walked through a city in South Korea, the conglomerations of identical retail stores changing from street to street seemed so extreme that at times I felt it could not be real or “natural”. In one case in particular, I felt like I was in a dream landscape because I turned a corner in downtown Daegu and was confronted with store upon store, cart upon cart, alley upon alley, of nothing but apples. Not even apple products or different types of apples or apple picking equipment, or apple seeds, or apple trees or ingredients to accompany apple recipes, but merely apples. Thousands upon thousands of them.
There are moments walking down the streets of Daegu when it is easy for me to forget I am in one of the richest countries in the world. Nestled among the cafes and pubs and modern supermarkets, street vendors huddle in narrow alleyways, old people rummage through trash, and bicycles cycle by overflowing with cardboard. In particular, the elderly people spread out on wide sidewalks selling produce beneath the shining lights of convenience stores and traffic signals always catch my eye.