How did I become a Citizen of the World? Why do I have these itchy feet? Where does this greed for exploring come from? Why this fascination with foreign customs’n’cultures? Was there a specific moment? Or did I get injected this yearning for travel in homeopathic doses?
I’ve put together five anecdotes about my earliest – and most impressive – travel memories that might explain a thing or two.
It’s really amazing what my brain remembers, how these trips sank in and anchored in my mind and soul.
I’m often asked how it is to travel by myself. If I’m not scared. If I don’t get lonely. If I’m not afraid that the sky may fall on my head tomorrow.
The answer has always been no – and meeting Sri Lanka’s only ski instructor was clearly another proof that travelling solo is a great chance to come across people that open up to you in a blink of an eye.
Yes, Cuba is a wonderful place with days on endless beaches and nights at hot bars. Nevertheless, brace yourself for Cuba.
Obviously, the difficult monetary situation and the unimaginable economic difference between locals and visitors might lead to misperceptions. Grub first, then ethics – as a matter of fact, in Cuba, you are often reminded of this sober truth.
Arriving in Sri Lanka end of January this year, it struck me that over the past one and a half years, this was the third country with a really dreadful past that I was travelling.
Visiting a country and learning about its history can lead you to quite dark places.
I’m not talking ’bout Stalingrad and WWII. No, here, dreadful past has been so recent that I do remember it being present, watching the news as a child.
How is that even possible? Am I subconsciously searching for terror and horror? Am I a dark tourist? Or is the world, sadly, just a quite somber place?
So between November 2017 and February 2019, I’ve been i. a. in Cambodia, Croatia, and now Sri Lanka. Albeit all three are beautiful countries with a rich cultural heritage, breathtaking sceneries, and very friendly people, I knew about them mainly from the news. Bad news. Civil wars. People slaughtering each other. Ethnic cleansing. Unspeakable things.
And actually, at least in the blogging community, I seem to be one of the very few travel writers mentioning these things – and explaining backgrounds in the measure they are explainable.
I wonder why that is. Isn’t also a somber side of a country still a side of that place? It certainly has an impact on the locals – I mean, I’m talking about conflicts that took place in the 1970s and even more recently.
The other day, a woman got defensive in a travel group on facebook: That specific page wouldn’t be about politics. How can a travel group possibly not be about politics? Even if you are an airhead who doesn’t really care on which beach you’re hanging out – already that is a political statement; and a very bold one.
When you go to Dubrovnik, you actually don’t need to take a Game of Thrones tour to get goosebumps: In 1991 and 1992, the city has been under siege for more than seven months – this is far more spine-tingling than any fiction.
The Graves of Croatian soldiers who died in the Croatian war between 1991 and 1994 shows that there has been more violence than GoT shows.
Although I was born in Czechoslovakia, I do have a German passport and I’m based in Germany; in a country that initiated two world wars and left a bloody trace throughout the European continent. Albeit WWII ended 74 years ago, Germany is packed with memorials and these Stolpersteine*, tripping stones, located in front of houses where Jewish people used to live – Germany seems to be in a neverending process of coming to terms with its past.
The “Stolpersteine” – tripping stones – remembering German painter Felix Nussbaum and his parents in front of their erstwhile villa at the Schlosstrasse 11 in Osnabrück. All three of them were murdered at the concentration camp in Auschwitz.
Maybe that’s the reason why I was so shocked that other countries like the former Yugoslavian people where ethnic cleansing took place, too, villages including their inhabitants were basically erased, people were put in camps….crimes very similar to those that German soldiers committed….they seem to have moved on so quickly and easily; and visitors seem to be totally unconcerned by this recent history.
In Sri Lanka, where the civil war ended only ten years ago so that many of the victims, as well as the perpetrators, must be around, you don’t notice anything if you don’t want to. You basically have to search for traces and scars – in books, in the media like for instance the award-winning documentary called Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, produced by the British TV station Channel 4. Before I opened this link on YouTube, I was asked twice if I wanted to continue due to the more than disturbing images this documentary contains.
This film shows events that happened where now package tourist groups are enjoying their vacation.
Judging from these placards, picking tea is not the fanciest trade; a job mostly done by the Tamil minority.
What to me is far more irritating, though, is the fact that even individual travellers, backpackers, flashpacker – my peers – don’t seem to be aware – let alone care.
However, it’s a bit different in Viet Nam. You must be living under a gigantic rock if you haven’t heard about the Viet Nam war – respectively the American war, as the Vietnamese call it. And probably that’s exactly the point: This war has been covered by the media also because the United States were involved.
Irritatingly, the Cu Chi memorial is a bit Disney Land-ish: Viet Cong dummies at your disposal. You can buy some of their attire at the gift shop.
In Viet Nam’s neighboring country Cambodia, things are a bit different: No trip to Phnom Penh is complete without a visit to the Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields. It’s good that here, the horrific genocide against the own people is documented – however, I found it more than disturbing that it is referred to as an attraction.
Yes, there are still bones. And there are rags that the people were wearing when they were murdered.
When you advertise for an infamous place like this as if it was just another tourist attraction, you cannot be surprised that people treat it that way: Everyone takes pictures of the victims’ skulls that are stacked in a stupa.
While I understand that in a Buddhist country it has a meaning storing these remains in a stupa, I presume that no one needs to see a picture to understand that these people were killed. When you visit and you see the mass graves and the tree they smashed the babies and you listen to the audio guide, you really don’t need a picture of a tower of skulls.
I don’t like the idea that the remains of these poor victims are being used to get the creeps.
Whatever happened to R.I.P.?
Most people take pictures of the skulls that are on display at the Choeung Ek Pagoda as a memorial for those who were murdered there. To me, these pictures have something almost voyeuristic to it. Everybody knows that we have skulls and what they look like. I find that a sign that stops you from trampling on mass graves underlines the horror in a much deeper way.
Whether Viet Nam, Cambodia, or Sri Lanka, the internal differences that lead to conflicts and eventually to wars were seeded by colonialism: The Portuguese came, exploited, imposed their language and religion and what not on the people until the Dutch took over and later the Britons.
Agreed, colonial architecture – like this wall around the Galle Fort in Sri Lanka, built by the Dutch – is pretty. But the historical and political background is much less so.
Actually, there was little tension among Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups. The conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils was fueled by the British Governors of what used to be their crown colony Ceylon: They filled governmental positions with Tamil officials and a Tamil, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, was even appointed a representative in the national legislative council of both – the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese. Naturally, this lead to a counterblow by the Sinhalese who began to discriminate against the Tamils who then intended to establish an independent state on Sri Lankan grounds, Tamil Eelam. Point is, if the British didn’t mess things up in the first place, the mutual adversity wouldn’t have been there or at least not to the point of a civil war.
French colonial landmark Notre Dame cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, once called Saigon. that besides the name has nothing in common with the Parisian relative: instead of Gothic, this one is built in a neo-roman style from stones imported from Marseille.
Same goes for Indochine, i.e. what now is Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos: The French settled down, introduced what for them was the savoir vivre, brought their culture including Catholicism which divided the people. Some wanted to become some sort of an Asian version of Europe, others wanted to preserve local culture and heritage. Together with first European and later US-American economic and mostly political interests, it was an – literally – explosive mix.
Unfortunately, Europeans didn’t have the wish to explore, they felt the urge to conquer – and many Asian, African, and Latin American countries are still suffering from the ramifications.
Monuments like this one in Belem heroize the brave men who set out to crusades but never mention how they behaved at their final destination. What happens in the colony stays in the colony. Sad.
I do not want to botch things up for anybody and of course, nobody is obliged to dig in the past. It’s just that to me, every aspect of a country I’m visiting is relevant because I’m convinced that it has an impact on the locals – the locals I’m dealing with so obliquely also on me. And since I’m a travel blogger and do want to inform people as good as I can, these information are also part of my guides.
There are still voices claiming Leopold’s great deeds for Brussels. That’s a bit like when people are praising Adolf Hitler for construction of the Autobahn. Merits that are drowning in the blood of the people aren’t merits at all.
Being a traveller, I am responsible for where I’m going and how I travel.
Being a travel blogger takes this responsibility to a whole different level.
But do you know what’s nice?
In the countries I’m referring to in this post, the terror and the wars and the bloodshed are over.
Some of them could still work a bit on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but now, in 2019, we can pay them touristy visits –
and that’s a silver lining on my personal horizon**.
* You can learn more about the historic, political art project Stolpersteine on this site.
** I’m very sad that by the time this post has been written, a terrible terrorist attack overshadowed the positive development on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. I feel very deeply for all these wonderful people that I met on my recent trip.
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…and what I am needs no excuses – the beginning of Gloria Gaynor’s evergreen is the perfect intro to this post, which deals with my perspective on the Carnival in Rio, an extremely gay event – gay in every sense of the word.
Bar on the Copacabana beach
Carnival in Brazil – yay or nay? Spoiler alert: I am what I am, and what I am is not a person who likes carnival; anywhere in the world.
Brazilian carnival is world famous, on many travellers’ bucket lists, so you probably have to be a major grouch not to have a great time and enjoy yourself like crazy.
However, I don’t like carnival.
You might think I’m just a pathetic loser with no sense of humor whatsoever.
But that’s not true, you can ask anybody who has known me for five minutes that I am great fun and ready to say the darndest things. I’m just not the dropping pants-falling water buckets-smashing cream cake-red nose-funny hat-kind of humorous.
Party crowd at the otherwise rather idyllic Largo dos Guimarães in the Santa Teresa district.
And I detest crowds. Even if I would participate in a freedom march, I’d prefer to march by myself than in a crowd. But especially vinous party crowds give me the creeps.
This pretty lady – a street vendor in Belo Horizonte – came closest to the image I had of the carnival in Brazil.
I do like the carnival-ladies in the micro sequin bikinis shaking there not so micro behinds. I like the drummers drumming with vigor. But this takes place only at the Sambadrome where the Samba schools compete.
The real carnival is a bender at every corner in the city.
I’m actually not that crazy about ridiculously accessorized drunks. Nowhere in the world.
There is a carnival in Germany, too. Fortunately, it’s outsourced to the Rhine-Main-area so you can give it a wide berth. Surprisingly the German carnival is pretty much the same thing like the one in Rio: Hordes of disguised drunks are stumbling and staggering through the streets, their make up slowly dissolving, bumping into each other, blocking roads. Since in Germany it’s cold at carnival season, they mostly cover up (big thumb up!). In Rio, it’s 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit) at 9 p. m., so people walk around basically naked.
It’s only February and I’ve had my share of bare chests for the rest of the year.
Bare chests – unadorned version…
….bare chests – glittering version.
The latino macho’s favorite costume is a skirt. Skirts seem to be the most hilarious – or maybe coolest – thing a man can wear. I wonder whether the Scots are aware of that.
….group tutu – and of course bare chests.
You might think at least the music is rhythmic and latino and hot so you cannot stand still.
Well, it’s not, take it from me.
Some tacky techno-merengue-mix-songs are blaring from boom boxes and the crowds are blaring along. My Portuguese is sufficient to understand that some of the lyrics must be quite X-rated.
Makes me wonder whatever happened to Barry Manilow’s Lola, the showgirl, with yellow feathers in her hair.
Nope, no yellow feathers.
The worst thing is that as people drink a lot, nature calls; and as soon as they hear it calling, they open the door naked; metaphorically and unfortunately literally.
The sharp stench of ammonia is everywhere; sometimes mixed with the stink of vomit.
#CoisaBOA is a campaign by Antarctica beer dealing in a fun way with different issues that might occur during the carnival. Here it says that it’s a good thing (= coisa boa) to make xixi – I presume that you don’t need a translation for this one… – only in a bathroom. The bad thing (which for the record would be coisa ruim) is that obviously, not many people took notice of this billboard.
This makes me think of another song, the first big success of one of the earliest hip hop bands, namely Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “….people pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care” (from “The Message”)
Furious Five – that sounds pleasantly grumpy. I think I would spend a great carnival in the company of the Furious Five: We would drink just a bit, maybe get a hit or two from a spliff and roll our eyes on all these self-proclaimed clowns.
We would use the mobile toilets that are everywhere at people’s disposal – and I bet the Furious Five would keep their shirts on.
Wanna know what happened before? Here are the previous lessons:
Note to the curious reader: Like I did during my former trips like e. g. Cambodia, while travelling, I’ll be posting little stories and reflections on my stay. At the end of the entire tour there will be an extended travel guide with all the relevant information including addresses, links etc. Until then, just enjoy some special moments with me.
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Coming from Europe and remembering how things were back in the socialist days, the way Vietnamese are dealing with history and politics baffles me.
Uncle Ho’s Cabin – and Uncle Ho’s Statue in Ho Chi Minh City.
In Eastern Europe, politics were a serious, serious thing. No cracks about the government, no doubts, and certainly no marketing schemes with the emblems. One wrong remark and you were in big trouble.
This seems not to be the case in – still socialist! – Viet Nam. Although there is pure and utter pride and propaganda everywhere you look – the red flags with the five-pointed star, the super animated young pioneers cheering into some glorious future et cetera et cetera et cetera. On the other hand to our standards, the memories and its symbols are not treated with much respect.
Red flags are flying in bulks.
In Hoi An, which happens to be one of the most touristy places, at one of the many souvenir and knick-knack stores along Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, one of the most touristy streets, they are selling communist propaganda posters from the 70s -which, besides possible dates, do not differ a bit from today’s propaganda that you see everywhere.
I know this phenomenon e. g. from Berlin where it’s the big hilarious thing for tourists to get their picture taken with a communist soldier’s hat – it seems to be something between the forbidden fruit – the demon’s hat on my head, hahaha – and a caricature, because, honestly, still hearing the same old lame slogans makes the whole thing a caricature. So while I get this in Berlin where it’s a mocking look back at their past, I don’t get it in Viet Nam where it’s still everywhere – in a serious sense – and a great part of everyday’s life in the present.
A revolutionary on sale: Ho Chi Minh in all stages and ages.
But as a matter of fact, the Cuban revolution with Che Guevara at their side had definitely the hotter symbol.
So my question is: What’s the difference between the ‚old’ propaganda posters and the recent ones? Why are the old ones knick-knack and the new ones a serious message to the people?
Because it’s not the motives and even not the style and graphic. And although I cannot really judge whether the wording changed, I strongly doubt it (because e. g. in Cuba I was able to judge it, and there the only difference is that now they add Chavez to Che and Fidel).
Propaganda in Cuba – it’s rather the message than the design (whereby the whole thing looks like they didn’t put much heart in it)
Communists tend to be quite conservative when it comes to marketing and PR.
To me, selling the ideology at a souvenir store is mocking – because, come on, nobody will buy a poster like this thinking „Oh, young pioneers should follow the lead of Ho Chi Minh – that’s an interesting thought, I think I want to hang this next to the TV set to not forget about it.“ They will buy it because they find it hysterical.
So obviously it is ok to sell out the great communist idea to create a better world and ‘new humans’ for a souvenir to some tourists – in a country where people are brainwashed every day by the very same ideology and designs?!
Another good example is the famous Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietnamese partisans hid from the US troops.
You can visit them on a day trip – that also includes a visit to the Cao Dai temple, which actually makes sense since the Cao Dai fought together with i. a. the communists and the buddhists against the French-oriented catholic oppressors.
So anyway, once you get to the site, they first make you watch a film that should be called “Viet Nam’s way to socialism for total morons”. It shows in an extremely simplified thus slightly tendentious way how great life in Viet Nam used to be: Women in traditional Ao Dais are sashaying over fields, mildly humming cheesy tunes, hardworking farmers happily working their rice paddies – it was pure harmony.
All of a sudden – and to emphasize the shock, the film at this moment turns darker – American villains came and dropped bombs and erased villages and razed the country to the ground; sadly, that’s the only part in the film that’s true.
But GI Joe didn’t reckon the brave Vietnamese’s – who of course were all devoted communists – resistance.
Not only the film itself, also the content is in very, very, veeery black and white.
Yes, it was bad that there was colonialism, yes, it was bad that the US got involved in the war, but no, Viet Nam and its people were not one big bundle of harmony. There were also many Vietnamese people who were not desperately longing for a communist government. It was not only an uprising, it was also a civil war, after all.
Not everyone was longing for a communist government; yet the red flag is waving everywhere – like here over the picturesque Halong Bay.
Anyway, I knew I was at a memorial site, so of course, they tried to feed me their broth. What confused me, was the entertaining Disney World-ish side to it: Getting down into the earth holes, there were puppets involved in all sort of crafts and chores – and once everybody entered the hole, the guide flipped the switch and the puppets got busy.
Let me tell you, the mechanism was not exactly the latest state of the art. Not only the bad technics ridiculed the whole scenario.
Then there was a couple of ruthless Viet Cong puppets in their fighting apparel to take your picture with.
So that’s what became of the Viet Cong now? Just another Minnie Mouse and Goofy at Disney World?
To top it off, at the gift store, they are selling the Viet Cong scarf and other goodies. I mean it’s clear that people will only buy it for fun – for mocking, not because they want to be ready as it’s time to join the Vietnamese army.
So first they are torturing the visitors with this tacky, bold propaganda and half an hour later you can mock them?! Come on, guys!
Viet Cong dummies at your disposal.
But there was another thing that for me personally took the cake: While walking along the trail and watching the dummies – I’m talking about the puppets here – doing their work and climbing into the narrow tunnels – I made like twenty steps and got out at the first possible exit; they wouldn’t have won the war with me at their side, that’s for sure – there was a constant gun fire in the background. Naiv me, I thought it was some sound effect to make the visit more realistic and dramatic.
Nope, turns out, there is a shooting ranch right next to the Cu Chi tunnel memorial!
Sorry, but placing a shooting ranch – yes, real guns, real bullets – next to a war memorial leaves me jaw-dropped.
Have you been to Viet Nam? How did you perceive the presence of religion, politics, and history?
Share your experience in the comment section below.
There were more incidents that left me a bit irritated – and I wrote about them here:
Well, in Hoi An I heard a very different story:
I went with a small group to the ruins of My Son, guided by a very sweet young tour guide. Very fit, very smart kid, great command of English.
Since private Ryan and his fellow occupiers thought it a good idea to also destroy part of the ancient temples we were looking at, the topic of the war came up and the smart kid told us about his father who fought in the war. Not only did that man fight with the Viet Nam National Liberation Front (also known as Viet Cong), he also lost his six (six!) brothers in the war.
So from then on he has hated Americans. All Americans.
But since he cannot distinguish Americans from other Caucasians, he simply hates white people. All white people.
I’m sorry for the guide’s father who lost six brothers and still couldn’t prevent cultural occupation: First American fastfood chains are here to infest Viet Nam.
„If he knew what I’m doing for a living, that I am working with foreign tourists, he would kill me“, laughed the smart kid. „He knows that I’m a tour guide, but he believes I’m working exclusively with Vietnamese people.“
Once he took some Dutch friends to his fathers house. The father obviously freaked out and swore at them. The smart kid allowed to get a great deal of what the man said lost in translation – and modified the rest to „My father welcomes you to Viet Nam; and now we have to go“.
I told you he’s a smart kid.
Monument in the Hàng Đậu flower garden honoring the Vietnamese freedom fighters.
Yes, these stories are funny. But I ask myself how people who feel that strongly about this topic – and I presume that these two are not Viet Nam’s most extremist but probably represent the average population – manage to live side by side without going for each other’s throats. Is it the aftermath of the war trauma? Is it the Buddhism? Do these people live and hate each other side by side as neighbors, or does the old division between the North and the South still exist so that they can hate each other from far?
I’m really curious.
To get the complete travel info on Viet Nam just click here. There you also find a precis on Viet Nam’s recent history.
Besides the propaganda everywhere I had the feeling that every day life is quite unaffected by the ideology, the past wars and the differences between people.
No hard feelings towards American tourists. When I asked about the attitude towards the once colonialist French, the guy, and it was no dummy at all, didn’t even get the question. So forgiveness – or forgetting – there, too.
“Communist from Dresden” or not – what I certainly do no like, is people shooting others holding the gun about five inches from their head. This mural depicts one of the three synonyms of war cruelty: There is the dying soldier by Frank Capa, there is Nick Ut’s picture of Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked from napalm, and there is this picture of South Vietnamese police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting Viet Cong member Nguyễn Văn Lém in the temple, photographed by Eddie Adams.
Today they are even some branches of American chains like McDonalds, Starbucks and Co.; thank God – or whoever is responsible in this part of planet earth – only very few of them and mainly in Ho Chi Minh City and some highly touristy spots like Nha Trang. Because it’s absurd to bring fast food to the cradle of street food and a coffee chain to the second largest coffee exporting country.
Funny: You would think now that the country tolerates this beacon of imperialist capitalism, they can slowly take down the red flags and save a lot of money fort the extensive propaganda, but now, they exist side by side.
And I had to learn it the hard way that not everybody is that chilled when it comes to political ideas and the past.
It was on my two day trip to the Mekong Delta that I took with a bunch of tourists guided by a rather unpleasant Vietnamese guide. On the bus he asked who calls HCMC Ho Chi Minh City and who calls it Saigon. I’m not even sure whether the other people understood the ulterior motives of this question, however, I raised my hand to Ho Chi Minh City – it’s the present official name, after all. „Are you communist?“ the guy barked at me over the microphone. I’m sure that besides one Vietnamese lady who had migrated to the US many years ago and was for the first time back to her native country nobody really got what was going on and why.
„I’m not answering that question“, I answered the question.
„Do you like communism, or do you like freedom?“ the tourist guide insisted – over the microphone in front of everybody.
Golly, I wish the answer was a teeny bit as easy as the question.
And in that very moment I wished the tourist guide was there to make my vacation pleasant instead of making me feel uncomfortable – for calling this damn city by ist damn correct, official name.
„Are you from the GDR? Are you from Dresden“ I didn’t even pay attention to him anymore.
That much for how relaxed things seem to be – you cannot even call a city by its name without being categorized.
What surprises me, though, is that someone who is working as an official guide with tourists can be that openly anti-communist…in a communist country plastered with propaganda.
To get the complete travel info on Viet Nam just click here. There you also find a precis on Viet Nam’s recent history.
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