Europe Day 1- Back in Berlin

I’ll be back-dating these entries to the day they happened. There probably won’t be a blog entry for each day, just whenever one pops into my head and I finally get a chance to write it.

By my count, this flight was my seventh round trip over an ocean since 2000, so they’re kind of becoming old hat. But I haven’t gotten any better at sleeping through them, which is disappointing. Heck, for this trip, I even bought one of those pillows that are shaped like a horseshoe and wrap around your neck. Dang– I thought for sure that would do the trick.

In the end, I got maybe twenty minutes of sleep, which is pretty much par for the course for me. (Actually, to be honest, I might have been able to get more, but Invictus was on, and I wanted to see Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela.)

(Yes, I’m a weak man.)

So we landed at the airport at about 9:30, and I got to the train station shortly after 11 (getting there was WAY more of a chore than it should be, thanks to the otherwise-efficient Berlin public transport system.) I’m meeting a couple of friends, Mark and Roberta, in a little town called Quedlinburg this evening, but Quedlinburg is only a three-hour train ride away– which means I’ve got time to kill.

So I stash my luggage in a locker to go for a walk around Berlin. I love walking around the city– I got to do in 2008, and I loved how green and modern the city feels, while at the same time retaining a lot of character in buildings like The Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate.

The day is beautiful, sunny but not too hot, and despite operating on no sleep and almost no caffeine, I’m feeling no sign of jet lag as I walk. So far so good.

Australia Day *error*- Back Home

Well, I’ve been back home from Australia for a week now. The jet lag from the return trip wasn’t too bad; the worst side effect of coming back is that every morning, my alarm clock goes off at 7 am and I can’t get back to sleep, because I have to drive to this place called “work”.

The return trip was about 2 hours shorter than the trip going over, due to the vagaries of global air currents, but somehow it seemed a lot worse. Maybe it’s just that there was no anticipation of two weeks vacation to insulate me from the stress of air travel. Or maybe it’s that I lost weight over the trip (the result of entire days of walking around and/or diving), so there wasn’t quite as much cushioning between my pelvis and the uncomfortable airplane seat. Or maybe it was the much-more-noticeable security. On the return trip, I got to:

-Go through customs twice (Australia makes you go through customs on the way out, too)
-Go through airport security twice (including dumping my water bottle and doing the whole “take off your shoes” routine both times)
-Watch a security officer root through my carry-on baggage
-Get wanded by the aforementioned officer
-Have my checked baggage X-rayed at US customs
-Watch another officer root through said checked baggage (from which I derived no small amount of schadenfreude, since it was pretty much a dirty clothes hamper at that point)
-Have my passport double-checked (thankfully no one on the terrorist watch list shares my name)
-Redo security at LAX because I left my metal-free wallet in my pocket instead of putting it in one of the plastic trays (for some reason, I was reluctant to let it out of my sight while surrounded by strangers in LA)

To top it off, my baggage didn’t show up in Raleigh until about six hours after I did. Admittedly, if the airline is going to lose your luggage, better for it to happen on your return home than when you get over there… but still. The ideal scenario would be for it to not get lost at all.

And now I’m back, poorer financially but richer in experience, which sounds sappy and cliche but is pretty much why I travel: not just to see new things (though that’s certainly a large part of it), but also to put myself in new and unfamiliar situations, surrounded by new and unfamiliar people, and prove to myself that I can successfully navigate my way through.

I’m naturally very introverted, and part of me would love to lock myself in my room and never come out. Trips like these don’t change that (one thing I’ve learned is that your insecurities will follow you across the ocean), but they do provide an opportunity to challenge myself. In that sense, I’m sort of like an arachnophobe who keeps thrusting his hand into a box full of tarantulas. Maybe one of these days I’ll get the hang of it… or at least it won’t freak me out quite so much.

Another reason why I travel is to gain a wider perspective of the world. When all you see is your own city, or your own state, or even your own country, it’s easy to be dismissive of the rest of the world, or to group an entire country or region in with a single news story or stereotype that you’ve heard. (For an easy example, just look at the way some people group all Muslims or all Arabs in with radical terrorists. But pretty much any national or ethnic stereotype falls into this category, some of which are more harmless than others: the Irish are drunkards, the Jews are stingy, the Brits have bad teeth… or, in reverse, Americans are loud, obnoxious, gun-toting hicks.)

When you travel, though, and immerse yourself in the people and places of another country, you see not just the stereotypes, but the entire humanity of a place. Sometimes the stereotypes are even largely true, but they’re still wrong, because they only encompass one aspect of a place or a people, who are at least as varied and colorful as the people where you’re from, even if it’s not obvious from the way they look.

Maybe Australia’s not the best example of this, because Australia is largely a Western country, not too different from my own. Even so, though, certain images and stereotypes dominate: Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin come immediately to mind. And even though we know these aren’t actually true (or at least say words to that effect), they don’t come close to exemplifying how amazing and diverse the place actually is: from the cattle farmer raising his herd amidst rainforest on the Atherton Tablelands, to the schoolteacher living with his girlfriend in Melbourne, to the Chinese immigrant in Brisbane hawking her wares in her native tongue, to the businessman working for a bank in the skyscrapers of downtown Sydney, to the real-life bush guide working on the edge of the Outback, to the twenty-three year old diving instructor working his way from boat to boat in Cairns… the reality is actually far more complicated and interesting than the stereotype could ever hope to be.

Every place, and every person in every place, has their own unique story, influenced by their upbringing, their culture, their environment, their beliefs, and by the long string of mostly-random events and occurrences that make up the history of their lives. And while you can’t learn all the stories of a place, you can at least begin to get a sense of what that place is really like, beyond the stereotypes and the news articles and what you heard from your Uncle Ray about that one time he went there twenty years ago.

There’s a lot more I could say on this topic, and I probably will at some point, but suffice it to say, this is where the tagline of my blog comes from: when you meet someone new, or explore an unfamiliar place, you also gain a new story, and through those stories you gain a little better understanding of the rest of the world. (I think this can hold true for fiction as well as nonfiction, but that’s a subject for another blog post.)

So thanks for reading this particular chapter of my story. More will come on this blog– though mostly about my own writing endeavors. Still, whenever timing and finances allow, I plan to do it again… it’s a big world, and there’s a lot to see.

Australia Day 1- Travails of Jet Lag

This is the first in several entries on Australia. There won’t be one for everyday, just whenever a good blog entry pops into my head. I’m also going to back-date them to the day they happened.

Australia. Oz. Down Under. It’s a place everybody claims they want to go, but very few people actually do- which is a shame. I mean, aside from the cost of a plane ticket and a 24-hour plane ride, why the heck not? Even the plane ride isn’t that bad these days, what with a library of movies, music, and TV shows at your own personal beck and call through the entertainment system. Just be sure to get an aisle seat (which I did), and get up frequently… which I did, but mainly because my digestive system was busy “filing complaints,” shall we say.

I had also procured some sleep medication, because if there’s one thing I’m not good at, it’s sleeping on planes. It’s like every possible discomfort is magnified threefold, whether it’s my back digging into the armrest, or the little kid shrieking ten rows up. (Side note: a surprising number of people think it’s worth it to fly to Australia with little kids.) (Side-side note: Ear plugs are awesome.) (Side-side-side note: now back to your regularly scheduled programming.)

The sleeping pill I took is supposed to give you eight hours of sleep. It gave me 3. So 15 hours later, I landed in Sydney (25 hours after taking off from RDU), I had gotten maybe 4.5 hours of sleep. And it was 6:40 am– a full day loomed ahead.

Said day started with an hourlong wait in the customs line. They take customs VERY seriously in Australia, to the point that I had to declare the granola bars in my backpack, and they asked if I was carrying any uneaten food from the airplane (because if there’s one thing worth saving for later, it’s airline food). Still, it’s understandable: non-native animals, plants, and diseases have a long history of wreaking havoc with the ecosystem (just Google “Australia rabbits” for an example).

So once I got through customs and got my bag (which made it- a minor miracle in and of itself), I found myself in Sydney. I took the train into the city center– the Sydney subway has double-decker train cars– and found myself at the hotel with more than four hours before check-in time, still somewhat dazed from the flight. What to do? I left my bag at the hotel and decided to start walking.

The day was sunny, cloudless, thirty degrees Celsius (or in Fahrenheit, “really nice”). I headed north, toward the harbor, along the paths of Hyde Park, with incredibly old trees lining the path. These were clearly trees that had been around since Sydney was a small penal colony on a pristine, wild harbor.
The path continued, past ornate fountains and palm trees that looked like they’d been shipped straight from Miami, until I saw a pair of white sails in the distance. They disappeared as I cut West, between a pair of apartment buildings, following no particular guide except my own feet, and suddenly I found myself at the water’s edge, facing Sydney Harbour Bridge in all its gray metallic glory. I made my way down the harbor’s edge, past restaurants and shops and the few people out and about on a Sunday morning, and found the sails again– except now they’ve resolved into the shape of the Sydney Opera House, glistening white in the morning Sun.

So there I am, standing on the edge of one of the greatest harbors on Earth, Sun overhead in a blue, cloudless sky, sea breeze in my face, in full of view of two of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. I can practically feel my batteries recharging as I stand there. Jet lag? What jet lag?