Questions from Hong Kong

Posted on 10 January 2019


How is the public transportation so good?

How is it so cheap?
So clean?
Why do their buses have seatbelts and ours don’t?

Why do I see so many bike share brands and so few shared bikes being ridden?

Why do I feel so safe?

How is it that I haven’t been sexually harassed?

How do they build so high on such steep slopes?

Is the slope maintenance environmentally friendly?

Why do the street crossings take so long to change for pedestrians?

Who are the people behind the dueling Falun Gong/Dafa protest displays?

Who would pay over $1,000 USD for a pet fish?

Are the caged birds in the market alright?

How is the coffee so good here?

When did they start serving it at exactly the right drinking temperature?
Why don’t I have this at home?

Why do they pave so many of the hiking paths?

How do they have so many free public restrooms?

How many people use the squatty potties and how many people sit?

Why do monasteries tend to be built on hills?

Why do I see so few beggars?

Who are the few beggars that I do see?

Why haven’t I seen anyone who is obviously mentally ill and on their own?

How do you shape social norms?

Why do people care about brand names?

Can I eat more seaweed at home?

Or mung bean cakes?
Or pineapple buns?
Or egg tarts?
Or egg waffles?

Why do people here walk so slowly?

And why do they put vests on cats?

If you allow it, travel opens you up to the possibilities. What exists at home is your norm but often not the norm. We can learn from each other, and snatch some ideas to improve our own homes.

Hong Kong from Victoria PeakLaterns in Man Mo TempleBonsai at Chi Lin Nunnery

These are some of the questions I have been thinking about since spending a week in Hong Kong. I’ve started researching some of them; some may not have answers. But I would love to discuss with those who have thoughts or insight.

The Enchantments in a Day

Posted on 26 November 2018

The Enchantments. The name holds an aura of glittering mystery and the hurdles to access them add to the impression. I’d heard whispers of them, always conflating their beauty and the luck of the permit draw. But on Labor Day weekend, my friend and I smashed away the perception of unattainability.

Enchantments Trees

To camp in the Enchantments you need a permit, and to get a permit, you either have to get lucky in the permit lottery or try your hand very early morning at the ranger station. The Enchantments, a series of lakes in the Central Cascades, are a fragile alpine wilderness and it’s quite fair to limit the number of people pitching tents up there. This also meant that I didn’t think I could get to the Enchantments anytime soon. That is, until a couple days before my friend, Sierra, and I had planned to do some adventure, undecided as to exactly what, and she came back with the idea of the Enchantments. The permit is for camping. If you make it through in a day, you can go anytime.

The hustle of spontaneous decisions ensued. We got the last couple of seats on a shuttle from the Snow Lakes trailhead to the Stuart Lake trailhead; since the hike is point-to-point, we were thus able to leave our car at the first place and start our trip at the second. After arriving in Leavenworth midday, we luckily found a campsite a few minutes’ drive from the Snow Lakes trailhead so we could meet the shuttle early next morning. And with that, we got ready for the day ahead.

I was nervous. I’m a runner, but I have done very little trail running, which is what we were planning on. The Enchantments have quite a bit of elevation gain and the total hike is about 20 miles. Before heading into our tent, we sat at our picnic table and I munched through popcorn, partly for the carbs and partly for comfort.

Our alarm went off in the morning, we shuffled around, packed up, ate some bars for breakfast, and made it to the shuttle with a little time to spare. The others in the van with us were through-hikers and trail runners as well. We chatted amongst ourselves and with the driver as he delivered us to the Stuart Lake trailhead. From there, Sierra and I began jogging up through the forest to Colchuck Lake.

At an early viewpoint, while I took photos on my camera that I insisted on lugging around, Sierra chatted with a father who had apparently had to spend an unplanned night on the route with his two sons. So, before anyone makes any plans know this: hiking the Enchantments in one day is hard. It is a lot of distance, and a significant amount of elevation gain. Sierra and I ran large chunks of the route (counterbalancing all of the stops I made for photos) and we still didn’t finish very long before dark. Sierra is a very experienced trail runner and I was in top shape, having recently run a marathon and biked from Seattle to Portland. I found the Enchantments very tough. My legs ached at the end. If you’re not an experienced hiker in really excellent shape, try for a permit instead. Spending more time up there would be lovely, anyway!

Colchuk LakeTrees by Colchuck LakeAasgard Pass

Colchuck Lake put big grins on our faces. The morning light was bright and the lake hovered before us, dark blue beneath grey cliffs. We rounded it, scrambling over some rocks, and then saw our next move: up Aasgard Pass.

Aasgard Pass is an ascent of over 1,900 feet in a mile over not entirely stable rocks. People have stacked cairns to mark the path, which would otherwise be quite impossible to pick out, but with the sun shining over the ridge, seemingly right into my eyes, it was still not easy to wayfind. However, there was a trickle of people before me who I could follow. At first, I excitedly pulled myself up—and got even more excited when I saw my first mountain goats and pikas of the day. But, as I got higher and the rocks felt looser, I started getting fearful. Shaking slightly and trying not to freeze up, I slowed down and inched my way to the top.

Aasgard Pika

Cute little pika on the way up Aasgard.

Enchantments Mountain Goat

Mountain Goat!

And there we were. In the Core. We looked down at Colchuck, now a deep blue puddle in the distance, and then turned to face a deep blue pool, literally sparkling in the sunlight, surrounded by white rock. Sierra and I took a break to eat and take photos, and some mountain goats wandered by. Once we started trotting again, we realized we wouldn’t really be able to run the Core area, despite it being a runnable elevation profile again, because it was simply too beautiful to rush through.

Enchantments Cairn Enchantments Core Enchantments Core II

Pool after lake after pool, flanked by larches, white stone, and patches of snow. Every body of water we passed was deeply colored. New sharp peaks arose on the horizon as we made our way further along. More mountain goats wandered by. It was so bright, and harsh and delicate, that I could just laugh in wonder.

Enchantments TrailAnother Mountain Goat!

We took our time through the Core, though that didn’t stop us from missing, or being misled, by a cairn and having to backtrack. Since it’s so rocky, there are stretches where there’s not an easy trail to pick out. Once, we found ourselves at a cliff we backed away from—too steep for sure—and after re-tracking, found the correct path, marked by a different cairn, which was also steep but at least had rods bolted into the rock that shoes could grip.

More EnchantmentsLake Shore EnchantmentsEnchantments Mountains

The descent, though not as steep as Aasgard, is long and not without its tricky sections. We reached the forest, passed Snow Lakes, and from there it was through the woods, past a roaring waterfall that seemed to be spit out from the cliff, and then a series of switchbacks to the trailhead. At this point my legs were aching with each impact and I was fantasizing about the butternut squash enchiladas I was going to eat in Leavenworth when we finished. The miles jogging downhill were punishing, but that’s the price of getting to the Enchantments. We finished dirty and hungry, but we did it.

End of the Core, Enchantments

After scarfing down those enchiladas and able to think about something other than food, I was able to let the excitement and sense of accomplishment wash over me. And as much as I would dread Aasgard Pass, I would do it again, perhaps in larch season next time.

Me in the Enchantments
Check out my Instagram story for more fun and images.

Enchantments tips

  • Do not attempt this hike unless you’re very physically fit and have hiking experience
  • Bring a filter for water—there’s lots to be found so don’t carry more weight up than you need
  • Take an extra layer since it’s much colder in the Core and weather can change
  • I recommend starting at the Stuart Lake trailhead; Aasgard would be a brutal descent on tired and shaky legs
  • Take advantage of the trailhead shuttle so you don’t need to deal with extra transportation
  • Watch your food closely; I set my snack down for one minute and a chipmunk quickly tried its luck
  • Wear shoes with good treads
  • Respect the earth and take it in

Across Hemispheres

Posted on 12 November 2018

I walked into the hostel’s lobby, agitated after the most harrowing taxi ride of my life, during which the driver threatened to veer off the mountain road at each bend and then tried to raise the price when we arrived, spurring a Spanish language argument with me. Thus shaken, it took me and my traveling buddies a bit to correctly navigate through the streets of Potosí to the hostel we’d booked. After all of this, I just wanted a bit of security and dinner for the evening. I remember plopping into a chair in the lobby, plugging my phone in to charge, and conversing with a French woman who was traveling through South America solo. We realized we’d met the same fellow traveler at different points in our journeys and she told me a bit of where she’d been so far. She joined my group for dinner, and the next day, joined my friend and me on the bus to Sucre. We found our way to another hostel for the night and spent the next day wandering through the city. The evening before I left to go back to La Paz, then back to Peru, we got trenzas together, which we both kept in our hair for months. This woman was Kymia, and it was December 2012.

Goofy in Sucre

Goofily posing in Sucre, 2012.

In a recent group conversation, someone stated that their friend traveled by themselves a lot because they didn’t have anyone to go with. That started a gush of sentences from me: traveling solo isn’t anything less, it’s merely different, and to me, sometimes preferable. The thing is, traveling solo needn’t be solo at all. Sure, there will be moments in transit, or in cafés, where you sit alone and chart out what’s next. But, on the whole, every time I’ve traveled by myself I’ve been surrounded by people. I’ve made friend with hostel roommates and couchsurfing hosts. I’ve been pointed to some of the best activities by locals. I’ve woven threads of positive human connection when flagging down a car for a ride. Traveling solo splits you wide open where the world can rush in.

Nice BeachNice Building

After those couple December days, Kymia and I kept in touch on Facebook. For all of the negative that can be said about the platform (and not a small amount is warranted), it has been a way to keep in touch with people who I’ve met, with whom I’ve shared something, around the world. I care about these people, even though I likely will never see some of them in the flesh again.

Both Kymia and I moved and travelled over the years, exchanging messages periodically. And then, I was headed to France with my partner, Ben, who had a work conference in Nice. Kymia had recently moved there. This was April 2018 – almost five and a half years since we had spent a mere two days together, a hemisphere away. And we were to meet again.

Nice Pigeon

We met in Massena Square. We’d changed, and Kymia had even had a kid, but we hadn’t changed as well. I recognized her from across the square. We had lunch together, talking easily, then split for the afternoon. Ben and I walked all over the city, my legs aching from the marathon I’d run the day before, and we were periodically spattered by rain, but interested and happy. In the evening, Ben and I met Kymia at her apartment and when her partner got home from work, we all headed to the narrow streets of the old town, streetlights glistening on the damp streets, for a meal and a shared bottle of wine.

Nice, FranceNice at Night

There are different reasons we latch onto people. It may be out of necessity, shared space and experience, shared interest, or something less tangible that nonetheless serves as a bind between two souls. I’ve lived in places where I haven’t found many people I feel truly comfortable and open around. Perhaps we were searching for different things and thus, reaching past each other. But, during my travels, I’ve spent only a day or two with certain individuals that I instantly connected with, readily laughing and speaking seriously, both. Maybe, on the road, we were reaching out for similar things from similar souls, though shaped a world apart. More people are closer to me than I thought – there’s just distance, sometimes. I throw myself across this distance to reach the ones I know and the ones I will meet.

Me and Kymia

Lunch in Nice, 2018.

Who Gives, Who Loses, Who Receives

Posted on 2 November 2018

The train station is impeccably shiny with lights reflecting from the ceiling off the floor. The platform is long and it took a few minutes to traverse the underground and emerge into the rainy day hanging above Monaco. As we wandered out onto the sidewalk, a few cars passed us by; I don’t know cars, but I could tell these were expensive. We walked up stairs abutting what was a fortress to Monaco-Ville, the older part of the city-state, turning around periodically to look out at the tall buildings climbing up the steep hill before us, and to our side at the port, where mega-yachts were anchored.

Climbing to Monaco-Ville

Monaco is one of the very richest countries in the world. Every third person in Monaco is a millionaire, and one in 56 has at least $30 million. The per capita income is over $115,000. As we strolled along the neat streets, I couldn’t help but think about another country I’ve visited: Burundi, which is one of the very poorest countries in the world, where people earn on average $700 annually. Arriving in Bujumbura by bus, we exited onto a square of packed dirt surrounded by bus fumes and directional ambiguity. Same earth, opposite conditions.

Monaco’s wealth is in part due to its status as a tax haven. No income or capital gains tax is levied, and to be a resident, you only need reside there for half the year. This plus easy access by land or by sea and the Mediterranean climate have attracted the wealthy from all over the world. Today, Monégasques make up less than a quarter of the population. Brits make up almost 15% of the population, Swiss nearly 23%, and Russians 12.5%. A quarter of all Monaco residents moved there since 2008. Self-employed workers or company directors make up a third of the population. All this is to say that the ultra-rich from across the globe have come to Monaco and squeezed into less than a square mile which is bursting the seams with luxury real estate of limited supply. Land is being claimed from the sea to make room.

Monaco Octopus StatuePort de Fontvieille

In one part of the world, I feel disturbedly aware that what I am carrying on my body alone (phone plus camera) is greater than the entire net (monetary!) worth of the individuals I am passing on the street, whereas in another part my life’s likely earnings will not equal a year of theirs, and my not-perfectly-fitting hand-me-down jeans are a laugh. We walked by a second-hand shop in Monte Carlo that had items in the window listed at several thousand dollars.

This global income inequality, as well as income inequality within countries, has ramifications. As the rich grow richer, and many of those without become more desperate, social unrest can grow, there is greater political volatility, and a basic lack of trust. It’s hard to relate to someone who is operating under entirely different financial parameters; I’ve been on both sides of this. And as an inability to understand grows, empathy can decrease. Greater inequality also corresponds with more carbon emissions, greater resource use, and more waste. The social and environmental impacts – and how they intertwine – is worrisome, to say the least.

Mega-yachts in Monaco

Yachts upon yachts are docked in the harbors of Monaco. Even big yachts appear small, dwarfed by even larger ones. These mega-yachts were bought to the tune of over 200 million U.S. dollars. They’re owned by Saudi businessmen and oligarchs who are close to Putin. These yachts require crews of 20-some people and feature swimming pools and helicopter landing pads. Meanwhile, we face a climate crisis. Meanwhile, people starve. The kicker here is that not only do the wealthy owners of these yachts share the same world with these tragedies and are passively complicit in the disparity, but they in fact actively contribute through their powerful political actions.

After grabbing a meal at a supposedly environmentally-friendly lunch joint, or so they claimed, flanked by yacht and private jet insurance offices, with iPads for menus and memorabilia from the rich and famous decking the walls, we wandered back out into what was now a heavy rain. Monaco is built essentially on a cliff, and elevators can shuttle you from one street level to another as shops, casinos, and apartments cling to their bit of space. The beautiful Mediterranean, more grey than blue in the weather, stretched out before and below us. But what variety of people gets to enjoy it?

MonacoMonaco Levels

I remember looking out at beautiful Lake Tanganyika, white shores and blue water, from the outskirts of Bujumbura. The beach was largely empty and I wondered how many bodies, how many victims of genocide, rotted in those waters. That day we met two foreigners, one of whom was military and another of whom was working for a Chinese mining company. Money gained from those minerals does not stay in Burundi. It’s flittered away and, along with the mineral products, enjoyed by others. Perhaps by the very same people whose yachts are docked in various harbors around the world, perhaps even those tied up before me in Monaco.

The pursuit of luxury stretches far further than the pursuit of comfort and mutates into something that is falling down from the edge of a dark pit and pulling others in with it. Frankly, I don’t want to get too close. So, soaking wet, we turned our backs on Monaco and headed to the train station.

The Stories We Tell and the Stories We Take

Posted on 7 October 2018

Use of the Hammer and Sickle

in Former Soviet Territories and Outside These Areas

What do you say when someone tells you their father was sent to the Gulag? He came back from the war and off he was sent – Stalin’s orders, to the lager! Z.’s back was to me as she hunched over my bed, fixing the sheets, curling into even less space than her short body could claim. “He came back from the war, from the front, with children’s books in German, because I was studying German, you see?” A German book claimed a life where a war could not.  

Ghosts occupied every shadow of the apartment. Molotov-Ribbentrop. A siege. Young girls, starving but never quite dead. An unlikely reunion shattered. Two old women. And I, in their home. I will tell a fraction of their story, but I cannot take it. It is not mine.

In 1918, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Anatoly Lunacharsky held a contest: what should represent their new regime? As the Bolsheviks consolidated power after the October 1917 Russian Revolution, they realized they needed a new seal, for symbols are powerful. The hammer and sickle won and in the summer of 1918, it was adopted by the Fifth Session of the Soviets and became the emblem of what would become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

2018, Seattle. The Soviet Union is nearly 27 years dissolved and yet its symbol lingers: I find it on t-shirts, on flags at protests, as bathroom graffiti. I ask—and argue—about it and two themes emerge. Its bearers either are complimentary of the Soviet Union, or at least of Lenin, or they assert that the hammer and sickle is not a Soviet symbol, but a symbol of the broader working class.

Left: Hammer and sickle graffiti in a Seattle bathroom. Right: Saint Petersburg House of the Soviets with Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle looking out onto the street.

If you ask what the Soviet Union was for those who lived in it, you will not receive one answer. Not even if you ask only one person. The experiences of that period span possibility. Some long for its return and I have seen them, resolutely gripping portraits captioned, “Stalin, our hero.”

And then there are some truths. From the start, the Soviet Union was a police state. Lenin founded the secret police, the Cheka, whose name later was the KGB. It was under Lenin that the first forced labor camps were created; these were the foundation of the Gulag. Under Stalin, between six and nine million noncombatant Soviets died from deportation, preventable hunger, and work in concentration camps. Different ethnic groups were systemically, deliberately decimated. The entire Chechen and Ingush populations, half a million people, were deported to Central Asia as punishment for “collaboration.” During the Holodomor, four million Ukrainians, 13% of Ukraine’s population, starved to death as food was confiscated in a government campaign. Through the decades of the Soviet Union, Jews could not hold certain jobs or attend certain schools. And on it goes. Some people had good lives; others were crushed by the regime, or if not crushed, subdued. I know people in both groups. And I hold the suffering of the latter as important.

“Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.” – Quotation in Anna M.’s story in Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Left: Lenin on a Seattle utility pole. Right: Lenin by Finland Train Station in Saint Petersburg after being bombed on April 1, 2009.

Who can claim a story? Each person can claim their own story, their own experience. Maybe they can even claim that of their family. Their lives are many little truths that coalescence into one larger grey and muddy truth, with its nuances and exceptions, its complexities and shortfalls. These larger truths are bound by history and stretch into the future.

Symbols are an attempt to encapsulate a story, to represent that larger truth. So who can claim the hammer and sickle? Who can tell its story? I would posit those who have lived it.

And so, in an admittedly non-scientific survey, I posed the following question, in Russian and English, to Russians and/or people who live in the former Soviet bloc: “What do you think the hammer and sickle represents? What does it mean to you?” The answers came in from friends and friends of friends, stretched across the world. Given my limited reach, relatively few people answered, but all who did have a story that interfaces with this symbol.

Feelings about the hammer and sickle ranged broadly, from horror to neutrality to slightly positive.

“To me it is a rather terrible symbol, like the swastika.”

“First remembered: “Вот вам молот, вот вам серп/ Это наш советский герб/ Хочешь жни а хочешь куй – все равно получишь х*й” (sorry) – In English something like: This is Hammer, this is Sickle. It’s our Soviet Blazon. May you harvest, may you forge – you’ll get f*cked anyway.”

“For me the symbol itself represents a regime that sowed fear, paranoia and suffering.”

“The hammer and sickle as the quintessence of the soviet planned economy and generally the state machine which grinds down people in every way: as a worker, as a professional, as a consumer, as a social unit of one kind or another.”

“For me personally, this is one of the state symbols, I don’t experience any emotions about it.”

“Nothing is purely black or white :-) … just do not forget that back in 1917 peasants in Russia were owned by the local land owner like slaves.”

The most common sentiment within this array was not a strong reaction to the symbol itself, but recognition of it as a symbol of a regime that, while it impacted people differently, was ultimately judged negatively by the respondents.

“For me personally it’s an archaic symbol of the old and failed regime. I don’t particularly have negative or positive reaction towards it. I do believe, that the Soviet revolution was a negative turn for the Russian people, a lot of really bad stuff happened under Lenin and Stalin. However, a few good things that came out of it were women’s rights, one of the greatest education systems, industrialization and development of the agriculture. It all was on the verge of collapse at the end of the 80s, however. So for me personally, the symbol stands for a failed attempt at Socialism.”

“On a personal level, my grandma sometimes looks back on those times with nostalgia, thinking about how everyone worked together and lived in similar conditions, and was happy even though they didn’t have much. So, I have conflicted feelings and opinions about it……Overall, my feeling is that the Soviet leaders wanted people to feel like they were living in an era filled with light (the light of socialism) – but if one looked closely, one would notice that the blazing object above them wasn’t the sun, but just a cheap lightbulb…”

“For me a hammer and a sickle are a true symbol of the Soviet Union and collectivization. That’s it. It’s just a symbol. But speaking about my emotions when I think about the Soviet Union time, they are mostly negative.”

Feelings about the Hammer and Sickle

Within these answers, people also associated the hammer and sickle with different things, or with many things: the Soviet Union as a political entity, art and culture, the working class. Though a justification of the symbol’s use in Seattle is that it represents, among respondents that association was less common than the Soviet government connection, even though my question did not mention the Soviet Union.

Associations with the Hammer and Sickle

These are reactions, feelings stemming from lives lived under the story of the hammer and sickle. This symbol flew above them, their families. Should those without this experience, then, claim representation through this symbol; should they say what it stands for?

Or can we accept answers from those with experience, even when they vary, even when we have to hold many truths in one hand?

“I understand the ideals of socialism, but whenever I see hammer and sickle used to mark something “progressive” or “revolutionary” in the west by the young rebel socialist kids, I can only cringe, because clearly, they have no clue about what it was like to live in the Soviet Union.”

“As I lay awake on my plank bed, the most unorthodox thoughts passed through my mind—about how thin the line is between high principles and blinkered intolerance, and also how relative are all human systems and ideologies and how absolute the tortures which human beings inflict on one another.” – Eugenia Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind

Absorbing stories from people who were there has shaped my perspective. I’ll take it from them. Even if it’s not a uniform answer, it’s an experienced one, and each holds an individual truth. And I will hold the truths of those who really suffered above all, because this suffering cannot be negated.

It’s Victory Day and, as usual, the television oversees our breakfast. The news is, of course, showing us images of the war and the Siege of Leningrad. “I can’t watch it, change it,” I. says. Z. switches to the culture channel. Same thing. The omnipresent television is turned off. After we eat, Z. and I. leave to participate in an event honoring veterans of the war and survivors of the blockade. That afternoon, I stood next to a sea of Soviet flags as the veterans’ parade flowed by. My Russian friends had flowers to give to veterans and so I brought them home. The elevation and the suffering collided that day.


Left: Victory Day Parade in Saint Petersburg. Right: My blokadnitsi hosts, I. and Z.

Symbols hold stories. Do not take these stories if they are have not been lived by you and yours; rather, take the time to understand. Listen and share – but do not claim what isn’t yours. Claim the stories you have experienced. Create your own symbols to encompass them and to imagine the future.

Recommended reading (fiction and non-fiction)

  • Anything and everything by Svetlana Alexievich, but especially Secondhand Time
  • Anne Applebaum – Gulag: A History
  • Anne Applebaum – Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, 1921-1933
  • Masha Gessen – Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region
  • Eugenia Ginzburg – Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind
  • Nadezhda Mandelstam – Hope Against Hope
  • Andrew Meier – Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall
  • Sofi Oksanen – Purge
  • Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya – The Big Green Tent
  • Catherynne M. Valente – Deathless