I’m sick of corruption! Maybe this is how most of the world works, but I’m not accustomed to it and it’s fucking stressful. It’s getting exhausting having to constantly be on guard. Just in the last 48 hours I’ve encountered corrupt, dishonest people about a dozen times. I miss the world where people are relatively honest and where you can walk five meters without someone attempting to rip you off or scam you.
Last night I walked down to the bus stop in Skopje and asked the attendant at the official Currency Exchange office which claimed to take no fee if he would exchange some Serbian dinars for Turkish lyra. He glared at me like I was wasting his time. Perhaps he was having a bad day or perhaps he was pissed that he had to use the global business and travel language: English. He said OK, so I counted out my 2,850 dinars (worth ~$34) and handed them to him. He handed me back a 5 lyra bill, worth about $2.50. Fuck that, give me my money back! He threw my dinars at me.
I boarded the bus to Istanbul with a wallet full of dinars and no lyra. The bus arrives at the border between Macedonia and Greece and a stern looking border agent gets on. He checks everyone’s passport. He gets to me. He asks me why I’m headed to Istanbul. “I’m traveling. I’m a tourist.” I say. “That’s a strange destination, my friend” he replies. You need to come with me. I am quickly told to pack up my belongings and follow him. I follow him into a little booth outside of the bus where he proceeds to go through all of my belongings, digging through the clothes in my suitcase and rummaging through all of the food in my bag. He keeps telling me that I have such a strange destination and asking me where I’ve been and why I’m going there. He finds no reason to detain me so he tells me I may go. I pack up the rest of my belongings and get back on the bus.
Not long after, we stop at a store. I get off to pee, get back on, and sit down. I close my eyes to sleep. Suddenly I find myself being handed a bag with a box in it. Confused, I look inside the bag. It’s a box of cigarettes. Not just a small box, but a huge carton. One of those boxes of 1,000. The bus attendant motions for me to hide the box of cigarettes in my bag. I shook my head no and attempt to hand the cigarettes back to him. He shakes his head and pushes them back to me. After being so thoroughly searched by the Greek border patrols, I sure as hell am not about to hide undeclared cigarettes in my bag. A little more stern, I shake my head and say no. I put the cigarettes on the seat across the aisle from me. He is not happy, but he gives up and hurriedly continues to try to stash the cigarettes under other seats around the bus. It does not stop there: I see that he has two huge duffle bags pack full of these cigarettes. He quickly runs around the bus scattering the boxes of cigarettes among other passengers and in the overhead compartments. Once he’s sufficiently scattered the boxes around the bos, he yells to the driver to continue. We continue through the Turkish border.
Finally I get to Istanbul just as the sun rises. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. I nearly immediately fall in love with the city. Compared with the rest of the Balkans, it’s enormous, clean, orderly, and modern. I felt safe walking around today, but I also lost count of how many times I was approached by people trying to sell me useless tourist bullshit. In the city center there was even a guy that approached my friend and I and pretended to recognize us from our hotel. He was not from our hotel. We weren’t even from a hotel, we were from a hostel. He was a scammer trying to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists.
Then for dinner we went to a section of the main pedestrian area with lots of Turkish restaurants. We were immediately approached by dozens of men pushing menus in our faces trying to sell us on their restaurants. They were literally pushing their menus on top of each others menus yelling at us why their restaurant was the best, like a bunch of hungry dogs. We figured they were all probably about the same after comparing a few prices and decided to go with one. The service was slow, the air was smokey, the portions were small, and the food was terrible. Then they brought our receipt. It was a few lines scribbled down that were completely illegible, so we called them over and asked. They told us the first one was for “bread and water”. 16 lyras just for bread and water. Then on the bottom was a “tax”. Restaurants in Turkey don’t charge separate sales tax. We were pissed, so we each put in the exact change we owed for our meals, not including the “bread and water” or “tax” and then bolted. Travis, Ella, and I made it out quickly but they grabbed Ted by the sleeve and tried to block him. He sternly told them we’re not paying for the bread and water. They tried to block his exit, but he pushed past them and made it out as well. They were used to ripping people off.
We were all a bit riled up after the restaurant attempted to rip us off. We came back to the hostel for a beer. Then Ella went to pay for her beer and realized someone had given her a 50 Swedish Kroner note (worth ~$7) as change instead of a 50 lyra note (worth $25). She was furious.
And to make things worse, I also went to lock up my belongings in my locker at the hostel to realize that not only does the door on my locker not close, but the keys to lock the lockers are all the same. Anybody can lock or unlock anybody else’s locker! There is no safe place to keep valuables in the hostel. And to be honest, this is not the first hostel that I’ve noticed this to be true for. Many of my hostels here in the Balkans have used the same keys and locks, rendering them completely useless as secure places to store belongings.
I find it absolutely exhausting to constantly deal with this. Having to constantly be hyper-paranoid about getting ripped off is draining.
I was only nine years old when NATO bombed Belgrade to stop the war in Kosovo. I was too young to follow the news and too young to know what was going on, although I absolutely remember hearing the terms “Milosevic” and “Yugoslavia” enough. I knew very little about it except that it was a scary place full of war and conflict. For the next 14 years I heard absolutely nothing about the region. It was an informational vacuum to me.
Fast forward to 2013, and I’m now here in Kosovo, one of youngest countries in the world, second only to South Sudan. It has only just declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is still working quickly to organize itself into a fully-functional autonomous state. In fact, because Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country, you cannot enter Serbia from Kosovo unless you have already entered Serbia from a different country already. From a political perspective, this is undoubtedly the most interesting place I’ve ever been. So what’s it like here?
Let’s start in the rest of the Balkans, since that’s where I first began to learn about this young state. The owner of my first hostel in Croatia was an incredibly friendly, young, and educated guy. While talking about my planned route through the Balkans, he stopped me upon my mentioning Kosovo and warned me not to go. It’s dangerous. Barbaric. Full of drugs and organized crime, he said. He was correct that it is full of drugs and organized crime. Some unknown but large percentage of the marijuana supplied to Europe is grown here in the countryside of Kosovo and the police have no power to enforce otherwise: they would be greeted with machine guns were they to try and stop it. Not to mention, the economy in Kosovo is still in the process of developing, so it seems the government would be nearly foolish to squash such a large industry so early in the country’s development.
But the part about Kosovo being dangerous and not to be visited is wrong. It’s actually relatively safe here, the violence of the war is over and most Serbian-Albanian political tensions are concentrated near the northern border. While there is crime here, it’s probably not much worse than anywhere else in the Balkans.
Foreigners are mostly loved – especially Americans. The university has an American Corner with books from the US. Some American professors teach at the university. There is a statue of Bill Clinton, a Bill Clinton Boulevard (“Boulevar Bila Kilntona”), and a George Bush Boulevard – all renamed after the war and all thanks to the Clinton and Bush administration’s involvement with Kosovo’s independence via NATO. On the bus from Belgrade to Priština a man in the seat behind me asked me if I was American. I said yes, and he wanted to know more. He asked where we were staying and insisted on researching the route to the hostel for us; in fact, he offered to walk us all the way there from the bus station. While he most certainly had only good intentions, we were not ready for this kind of hospitality. Then, at a store just across the Serbia-Kosovo border, I stopped to buy some oranges. A kid about 10 years old was working the cash register and wanted to know if I was American. He was thrilled when I told him I was. They truly do love Americans here – quite a strange feeling in contrast to most other places I’ve been that are a bit prejudiced against Americans. In fact, it’s overwhelming. To be fair, however, there is at least one major group opposing the foreign aid situation who believe that Kosovo is not better off with the UN and other organizations meddling in their affairs – and their political graffiti from them is apparent all over Priština.
Prišhtina has a fascinating feel to it as well: it’s an odd mix of modern glass and concrete high rises, beautifully designed pedestrian malls, and old districts littered with abandoned buildings that are just shy of being awarded the status of “ghetto”. There is both a feeling of extreme chaos and incredible optimism and pride; all of the feelings that you’d expect from such a young country. People drive like maniacs and the sidewalks are littered with parked cars. Walking around is an adventure as I find myself walking in the middle of the street just as often as walking on the side walk in order to get around cars parked just in front of the doors of shops. In the city center there are university students, politicians, foreign aid workers, and every sort of person you could imagine in between. The center feels modern and familiar. But walk even just a block outside of the central area and there are few foreigners. I find myself being stared at by nearly everyone I walk past. Although I suspect it’s mostly out of curiosity, I have to admit, there’s been a few moments where I’ve felt a bit uneasy… perhaps even unsafe.
Staying in the hostels here (this is my second one) has been interesting too. Unlike the rest of the balkans, I have met more temporary residents than I have travelers. The majority of hostel goers here are not here for fun but rather to somehow participate in the birth of a new nation: a Dutch guy who is working for an NGO, an American photojournalist here working on a story for Reuters, and a Swedish girl interviewing locals’ stories about the war to bring back to Sweden. The foreigners here are adventurous, courageous, and ambitious; they’re not here on holiday and they’re not here to party.
If you stop to take a look at the Museum of Kosovo, you’ll find huge plans for Priština: the city is to be boosted into an economy of knowledge and service. There is already a coworking space, the Innovations Lab Kosovo. This weekend it’s hosting a Startup Weekend event – a weekend-long hackathon. There is a large influence from the US and western Europe here and you can feel this deeply: they aim to make Priština into a hub of innovation, startups, and entrepreneurship. The university is large and much of the plans for central Priština focus around this. The future here really is all about the youth, which, after all, make up the majority of the population. Half the the population is under 30 and the average age here is just 23.
I find Priština to be a very unique but intimidating place. It is changing quickly – even on a daily basis. It is growing and rushing to find it’s bearings economically and politically. It still has a lot of real problems with corruption, organized crime, lawlessness, and lacks some very fundamental resources, yet, it’s growing up quickly under the support and guidance of the UN and rest of the developed world. It resonates with incredible optimism that the future will be bright.
I find myself fascinated and curious to come back in another ten years to see how it has matured and changed by then.
We made our last stop at a grocery store in Mostar, aiming to get enough supplies for at least two days, though we didn’t know how long we’d be. We then returned to our hostel, made our last hesitations, and grabbed our daypacks. The sun was getting low in the sky. In just a few minutes it would duck below the beautiful mountain skyline and leave us in the shadows, yet, we had a voyage ahead of us and I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. We proceeded our march to the edge of town. The road was getting narrow as we gained elevation. We had a spectacular view of the town with the last orange and red beams of daylight striking the mountains behind it, but we had to stop frequently to let cars pass as the lanes were too narrow for two backpackers and a speeding car.
“Well, this seems like as good a spot as any…” I said, feeling a tad out of place. Emma agreed. A line of cars came speeding around the bend below us. We extended our thumbs and arms as if to give the cars a thumbs up. We smiled and made eye contact with each passing driver. Most of them ignored us, some smiled, and a couple even gave us confused shrugs. “Where were we going?” “Where were our signs?,” they must have wanted to know. We waited awkwardly as another line of cars sped past. Then another, until we lost count of how many cars had gone by. No luck. The mountains had lost their sunset glow and it was quickly getting colder and darker. I began to think we should begin our shameful march back to town to find a place to stay when another caravan of cars came around the bend. One last try: again we extended our thumbs. A new Mercedes-Benz began to slow down. It pulled over. I opened the door. It was an older gentleman. There was a rosary hanging from his rear view mirror. He said nothing. I handed him the receipt with the sketchy map that I had drawn, pointing to Široki. He glanced at it and then nodded. “OK”, he said. And to be safe, I asked “Kostenlos?” “Nicht,” he agreed, shaking his head. With nervous excitement, we threw our packs in the car and jumped in, feeling a slight guilt for holding up the cars behind.
Holy shit, it worked! I couldn’t believe it had actually worked. We were on our way. But also, holy shit, was this a good idea? Would we actually get to where we were going? Would we ever see our families again, or would we mysteriously disappear never to be seen again like they do in the movies?
The sky was brilliantly lit up with pink, red, and blue with the texture of the ripples on a pond on a windy day. The man was eerily quiet. I pointed to the sky and commented on how beautiful the sunset was to break the silence. He said something in Croatian and nodded his head. He had understood. It’s amazing how in the absence of a common language, even the simplest gesture and tone of voice and go so far to bring two people together.
As we approached our town, he asked us something in Croatian while pointing around as if to ask as where we should be dropped off. “The center – the bridge with the white cross,” I told him. We came around a bend and suddenly a huge white cross next to a bridge came into view. He had understood. A rush of euphoria swept over me as I realized that not only had our first attempts at hitchhiking succeeded, but also that the coming days would be spent relaxing in the rural hills of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As we were unloading our packs from the car, we heard someone yell “Chris?” “Emma?” A lively girl with curly hair was cheerfully waiting for us. It was Ivona. She proceeded to lead us to her apartment just a few blocks away. After arriving at her apartment, she began to pack for her trip to Slovenia. Emma and I sat around comically comparing our American and Australian accents.
Fast forward three days: we had survived the stay in Rasno… almost. We just had to get back. It was already 11am. We finished cleaning the house, I grabbed the tattered envelope off of the kitchen table, and we locked the door behind us. We began walking away. “Perhaps we should ask someone what time the bus comes?” Emma suggested. Not a bad idea. Conveniently, the next door neighbors were in their yard. “Bok!” I said. “Bok!” replied the smiley man and his wife. They looked to be in their late forties. Judging from their attire, we could have easily been in rural Tennessee.
I pulled the envelope out of the back pocket of my jeans and showed it to him, pointing to the question that Ivona had written on it. He looked slightly confused, but nonetheless, he smiled and started to write down something in Croatian. He must have thought that we had written the question because he was under the impression that we could read Croatian. We couldn’t. “Široki”, Emma said, gesturing as if she was driving a bus. There was laughter among all of us as we realized how silly the entire situation was. He smiled and wrote down “deset minuta” – one of the only phrases that I was actually able to understand. He was going to give us a ride. We said hvala and much less than ten minutes later, he let us into his blue 1990′s VW wagon.
But he turned left onto the main road in the village; Široki was to the right. Confused, we wondered how to explain. He could tell that we were confused. He gestured for the envelope. I handed it to him. He pointed at another sentence, also in Croatian. I had forgotten: Ivona had also written “Take us to the cave.” on the envelope. We realized he was bringing us to a cave in the village, not to Široki. Shit! We didn’t know how to explain that we just wanted to go to Široki, so we decided to accept our fate. A ways down the road he pulled off and parked the car in the grass. He got out. We followed him. At first it just looked like a big rock sticking up out of the ground next to the lake, but as we got closer, the ground led downward until it became obvious that we were standing in front of a a massive entrance to a cave. He led us around the area making all sorts of excited motions with his arms, indicating that there had been built a dam to hold back the water and let it trickle into the cave through an underground stream which then irrigated the village.
As he began driving us back towards the house, Emma and I pondered how we would make it back to Široki. Perhaps we would just have to try hitchhiking again. But this time we did not turn back into the driveway and instead went right past it. He drove us all the way to Široki. Things worked out after all. The gentleman was so kind: he even drove us all the way to the bus station from which we were able to get a ride back to Mostar. Not only had we survived, but we had gotten quite the authentic and hospitable experience of Herzegovina.
Sometimes you just know it’s time. I woke up yesterday and knew it was time to move on from Berlin. It’s been a phenomenal two months here and I’ve made a great deal of friends, visited five countries, written a shit ton of code, and spent some serious time contemplating my life trajectory.
Tonight I will be flying from Berlin to Zagreb, from which I will be taking a bus to Split. I have intentionally left my plans after that entirely open. I may stay in Croatia for a week. Or perhaps a month. I don’t know yet, and I’m excited to be flying by the seat of my pants for awhile.
I’m looking forward to sailing, hiking, and retreating into my apartment to get some reading, writing, and research done. I plan to be mostly off the grid during my time on the Croatian coast, so don’t expect to hear from me for awhile.
After living here for two months, I’m happy to say that Berlin is the most amazing city I’ve ever been to. Here’s why.
Beyond a certain population, it doesn’t matter how big a city is because you can find anything or anybody that you want if you look hard enough, and Berlin is well beyond that population threshold. Berlin is simultaneously massive, yet inexpensive; spread out, yet walkable; and historic, yet modern.
For just €360 ($486) a month I am able to rent a bedroom in the southern part of Kreuzburg – the neighborhood most notorious for outgoing people, lively 20-something’s, nightclubs, and spontaneous events. I am a short 20 minute walk to Mitte – the central district with a lot touristic sites, shopping, and offices, a 20 minute walk to Tempelhof – an airport that was closed down and converted into a park where people can bike, skate, and kiteboard down the runway or stop and listen to live music and drink beer while enjoying some of the most beautiful urban sunsets I’ve ever seen, or two stops on the U-Bahn (the subway system) to Neukölln – an vibrant and inexpensive Turkish neighborhood full of thrift shops and flea markets.
Berlin truly feels livable, balanced, and practical in every sense of the word. It offers:
- Air. Some of the cleanest air in Europe.
- Transit. The U-Bahn (underground train), S-Bahn (above-ground train), and bus system make getting around extremely efficient. With the exception of Tokyo, I’ve never seen a rapid transit system that is as reliable or easy to navigate.
- Balance. A great culture that embraces a healthy balance between work and life.
- Bikes. Extensive network of wide, dedicated bike paths. Almost every road has one.
- Public Spaces. Parks, playgrounds, football (soccer) fields, plazas, fleamarkets, live outdoor music, outdoor seating at most restaurants.
- Families. Everywhere you look, there are a lot of parents with strollers and kids.
- Dogs. Every day I see dozens of people walking their perfectly trained dogs without leashes – even on the U-Bahn. In fact, a lot of companies even allow them in the office.
- Safety. There is generally no need to worry about walking around alone at night.
- Centrality. You can get to almost anywhere else in Europe via plane, bus, or train within just a few hours.
Although the economy here is not especially strong and unemployment is high, people seem to be generally happy, healthy, and well educated, and the infrastructure and topology feels powerful enough to handle a growing economy. After spending eight weeks here, I feel that Berlin has an overwhelming amount of potential to be one of the top cities in the world for quality of life and livability. Settling down here seems wise regardless of whether you are a student, just-graduated 20-something, parent, or retiree. It feels appropriate for every age group.
And all while being such a livable place, it still maintains a feeling of youth, grunginess, and grassrootsism. Graffiti and artwork fill nearly every blank public surface you could imagine. Picture beaurocratic soviet-era apartment buildings covered with blossoming flowers and make-believe animals. It’s a constant reminder of the city’s past; a reminder that this is a city of people who have persisted and endured through difficult and changing times and never stopped believing in their city. It feels very much like a city that belongs to the people, and perhaps this is why it feels so special.
My journey from NYC to Berlin was long and painful. I used Norwegian, a discount airline based in Oslo that is gaining international popularity due to its cheap flights ($250 flights NYC to Oslo, and my flight to Berlin was only $390!). My flight was originally scheduled for Monday, September 2nd, but a few hours before the flight I received a text that its was delayed from 9pm until 4am. Then more texts that it was delayed until the next morning. Finally, after about three or four delays I received a message informing me that their Dreamliner was having technical issues and that they had leased a plane from HiFly and that the flight would be at 10:15 the following Thursday morning. I took a cab back to Manhattan and stayed two extra nights. Fortunately the cab rides will be reimbursed (I hope). Anyhow, I ended up spending the night in Stockholm before a connection to Oslo and finally my last leg to Berlin. The overall experience was terrible. First, it took an unnecessary trip to the airport to find out that it was going to be delayed by one day. Then there was an entire series of delays. And finally, when everyone showed up again on Wednesday, three hours before the flight, there was nobody even at the airport to help us. Norwegian’s staff finally showed up around 8am, just two hours prior to the flight and were unable to help us with reimbursements for travel expenses. They just kept telling us to go to the website to get reimbursed. Then on the flight they did not even serve meals unless you had pre-ordered one. I did not preorder one because I had not been planning on having a flight that left in the morning, two days late, so I went the entire day without eating. When we did finally land in Stockholm, it was 2am local time and nothing in the airport was open, so even with a food voucher, I had to wait until 4am to find open restaurants. How frustrating. All of that said though, I got the impression that this entire experience was a fluke and that Norwegian is usually a decent airline with a very new aircraft fleet. It seems that they simply lack customer service and feel no need to go out of their way to help customers if they screw up.
We arrived at Schönefeld Airport which is a tiny airport that serves discount airlines. I was surprised to walk right off of the plane, into the airport, and out the door. There was no checking of passports or customs check in. Nothing. I was especially surprised given that we were arriving from Norway which is not even a member of the EU. I even tried talking to the customs officer who had a tiny office upstairs in the airport and he simply gave me a funny look and laughed, asking why I would ever need a stamp in my passport. And that was that – I was in the country. From there I made my way to the S-Bahn at which I found a confused cluster of newly arrived visitors. Both foreigners and German natives alike were equally confused as to which train to get on and which way to go. Although the S-Bahn/U-Bahn is a very efficient and easy to use system, everything is in German and the trains are described by their final destination, so if you don’t have a good understanding of Berlin’s geography, you’ll be completely lost. After collaborating with a few other tourists (mostly from the UK) I finally decided to dive in and use Google Maps to see if I was going the right way (I had no cell service but my GPS still worked). We had guessed correctly and were on our way.
Getting my phone set up was important – I needed a way to call people, send texts, and use Google Maps and check the internet while out and about. My first stop after leaving the airport was Saturn at Alexanderplatz (a huge electronics store) and bought a SIM card for €10 and a US to Germany outlet converter for €8 (which was too much). I walked over to a coffee shop and used Skype over Wifi to call Verizon and unlock my iPhone (free) which then allowed me to activate the SIM card with O2. It didn’t work at first which I later realized was because you have to go to O2.de and activate it. This requires a valid German address, so I used the address of the Airbnb rental that I’m staying at.
- Very dog friendly. Dogs are allowed on the U-Bahn and into a lot of shops and restaurants.
- Very international. Lots of ethnicities and languages are spoken. It’s as diverse as most cities in the US. It’s not uncommon for waiters here to be foreigners that don’t speak much German. You’ll run into Americans everywhere.
- Everyone speaks English. Fluently. And they are happy to speak it. However, menus, place names, train stations, etc are all in German, so German is still helpful to know. Most of the Turkish shop owners and street venders in Neukölln (my neighborhood) don’t speak English. Ordering Turkish food is an ordeal without speaking German.
- Berlin is a completely safe city. There are occasional problems (like any city ever) with bike theft, purse snatching, etc, but there is virtually no violent crime here and even pickpocketing on the U-Bahn is not really a problem (but still be careful, it is a European subway). There are no bad parts of town, only parts where you might be solicited to buy drugs. And yes, we were solicited to buy drugs in a good part of town by a drug dealer on my second night, but there was no feeling of being unsafe. We just said no and he was polite and left us alone.
- People make small talk less than in the US, but they warm up quickly once you meet them and are friendly.
- Rent is cheap here. €200-300 ($260-$390) gets you a shitty yet livable room in a multi person flat. €400-€600 gets you a nice place. €600+ gets you a one bedroom place.
- The architecture is mostly old style housing. Stone, solid wood beams, tall (REALLY TALL) ceilings, gigantic bedrooms big enough to put couches and tables in. Thick wooden doors.
- I’ve heard repeatedly that the winter here is dreadfully cold and dark. More dark than cold (sunrise is at 8am and sets at 3:30pm at the heart of winter) Supposedly it’s one reason rent is still cheap here.
- Berlin is a fairly spread out city. Streets are wide, rooms and hallways are wide. However, it is still easy to get around using the U-Bahn and biking. Most people do not have cars. There are numerous carshare programs around the cities that are easy and common to use.
- Dress is casual. T-shirts with logos. Jeans. Comfortable jackets. People dress perhaps a tad nicer here than in most of the US, but it’s not extreme. It’s more casual the NYC.
- There is a strong tech and startup presence here. It’s probably comparable to Seattle. Maybe a bit smaller. It’s small and new enough that there’s still room to stand out and have an impact.
- It’s a very laid-back place. People like to chill, party, go to flea markets and concerts. It’s a party city, actually. Clubbing is big, nightlife is huge. The chill-ness factor is comparable to Seattle or Boulder.
- You can walk around in public with beer – and people do it often. You’ll see people walking down the street with beer in their hand.
- Some of the clubs are intense. People will get to the club on Thursday night and stay until Monday. Apparently there are couches in the clubs for them to sleep on.
- There is a lot of graffiti. Everywhere. And most of it is beautiful and artistic, although there is still a fair amount of grungy graffiti. But graffiti does not equal sketchy or unsafe.
- There is a lot of litter, but the city still feels mostly clean and the air quality is good. There’s not a lot of gum on the sidewalk and there isn’t smelly sewage. You can get .50c or €1 back for bottles, so people will come by and pick them up to get money, so it’s OK to leave bottles sitting on the sidewalk – it’s not littering.
- There are lots of nice parks and open spaces.
Within the community of young entrepreneurs, there is a a romanticism of doing a startup when you are young. It’s almost become an expectation of young ambitious, bright people. Because I have been involved in the entrepreneurial crowd for the last four years, many of my friends that I made in this time era see me as an entrepreneur and expect me to be working on some new idea.
Meanwhile, I’m also expected to get a job and have a career. This is apparent when I meet new people that want to know what I do and when my parents constantly ask me how I’m surviving without a job and how I have enough money to get by without working full time.
By now, I’ve spent some time on the university route, the drop-out-to-be-an-entrepreneur route, the freelance consultant route, and the full time job route. Now I’m taking time to travel the world, and surprisingly, this has been by far the most controversial route I’ve taken, although I can definitely say that no matter what I do with my life, I’m often confronted with judgement and people that try to convince me to change directions and do something else. I’m finally getting good at ignoring everyone and doing what I feel like doing. It’s easier to ignore people’s judgements and advice when you realize that you’ll be judged and advised no matter what direction you go with life. There’s no escaping it, so you might as well go with the route that makes you happy.
That said, after having done the freelance route, the entrepreneurial route, and the full time job route – all sub-routes of a single career and industry, I have a thought or two on what I would do differently had I known what I do now and experienced what I’ve experienced. There’s a lot of support and romanticism around entrepreneurship and getting a shiny new ambitious job when you are in college and recently graduated from it, but I think that romanticism is misguided.
At that age, you are probably going to be somewhere in the 18-25 range and you are probably going to have no roots. You are probably going to have no home base. You will likely not be stuck owning any property. There’s a good chance you don’t have kids and are single. I see this as the perfect opportunity to travel and explore relationships – things you won’t have time for if you’re busy starting a company or have to schedule your life around being in an office five out of seven days a week. It’s the perfect age to take off with a backpack, a good friend, and a round the world ticket. You may never get the opportunity again – you’ll get stuck with promotions on the job, you’ll be managing people, you’ll have an equity cliff to hit, you’ll have a two year lease on a nice apartment or a mortgage, you’ll have a dog, a kid, a spouse, a car to make payments on.
And I can say, after a year living comfortably in Boulder with a full time job, that being rooted and having a home base feels amazing. Perhaps the largest reason to travel while you’re young and before you settle down is because once you’re comfortably rooted somewhere, you won’t want to leave. You’ll have a close group of friends, a comfortable apartment, a significant other, and a job. The hardest part for me in leaving Colorado to travel was simply convincing myself to give up my comfortable lifestyle and group of friends for a quite uncomfortable although much more satisfying and meaningful adventure.
A few months into my travels, I can say I’m really, really, really, really glad that I’m doing this right now and not when I’m older. While you can certainly travel at any age, the style of travel seems to change between the young and the less young. The vast majority of people staying in hostels are in their twenties and are excited to meet up with other people their age that are ready to make new friends and form new relationships. Travel can and should be about relationships, and relationships are readily formed when you’re surrounded by young single people that want companionship and connection while on the road. This is something that I imagine would be much more difficult to find when you are older – at a certain age, CouchSurfing and hostels seem to get replaced by hotels and Bed and Breakfasts, which are not oriented toward forming friendships and relationships.
And here’s the argument that we travel to make ourselves better, more enriched people. As my grandpa told me in one of our recent conversations, travel is one of the learning experiences of life. It’s all part of growing and becoming a more worldly citizen. It’s its own category of life experience and is valuable for its own sake. It’s worth cannot be fully described. You just have to try it. Nobody can completely explain how it will make you a better person. It’s important to travel while you are young and your world view is still forming so that you have the experiences to draw from for the rest of your life. Travel will probably change your views on every aspect of life and influence your long term career goals, so why not let it influence you at the beginning of your career when it has the maximum potential to affect you, to mold you into a better person, and to change your life’s path forever?
There are always going to be career opportunities out there – the economy goes up and down like a roller coaster. Job offers come and go. Startup ideas come and go. Companies are born and they die. And the problem is, so do people. Your age is only going to go up, so I find it a little bit insane to spend the best years of your life – the years that you are in peak physical condition and maximally sexy – working your ass off toward some goal that you have not yet fit into the grand scheme of your well-traveled world view. If you have not seen the world, there is so much room for your perspective on life still to change, and these changes will influence how you go about your ambitions. You would not start a company the same way before and after your travels – you learn things along the way. Different cultures do things differently, and it’s important to understand these differences so that you can better appreciate the way you do things and get ideas on how to do them differently.
And lastly, if you want to see the world, but you also want to settle down, you have to travel first. If you settle down and decide to travel later, you’ll find a constant nagging urge to leave and travel. That urge will get louder and louder as you get older, but you will also find yourself more and more settled and the gap between what you want to do and what you are doing will continue to grow. Get it out of the way while it’s still acceptable to be foolish and young. You’ve got the rest of your life to settle down and be responsible.
Japan was ordinary at first.
We spent the first day struggling through the foreign language and the JR train system in our attempt to get to Shimizu where our host would pick us up from the train station. It was difficult without speaking the language, but it eventually worked and we managed to find our way. We marveled at the small things – drinks in vending machines that we had never heard of, types of food we could have never imagined, and car models that we had never known existed. It was a foreign place, but we found ourselves noticing more similarities than differences: at the end of the day, it was just another hard working, capitalist nation that loves its food, cars, and movies as we do. There was no initial culture shock.
As we got further into our trip the differences finally began to emerge – especially in Tokyo. Ten days of driving around the Japanese countryside, two days in Kyoto, and another two exploring Tokyo, and we had seen no crime. I would not have hesitated to walk Tokyo end to end alone at night. Even in the densest areas, bikes were left sitting on their kick stands unlocked. At no point for those ten days did we a see a bike lock. Our host in Shimizu did not lock his front door or his car while he was away. Even in the safest neighborhoods of the US, I would never dream of leaving my house, bike, or car completely unlocked while away. Especially not in a big city. Yet, the largest metropolis in the world leaves every bicycle unlocked to the trust of 35 million strangers.
We found the sidewalks clean enough to sleep on yet no homeless to sleep on them. They often looked as if the bricks had been laid the day before. Nine out of ten bathrooms were cleaner and smelled nicer than the toilet in my apartment, which I keep spotless. The stalls were their own little rooms with full privacy, toilets complete with electric bidets and playable recordings of flushing sounds to mask unwanted real sounds. Restaurants had sinks to wash hands before and after eating, and additionally provided washcloths or wet wipes. The sick and those who feared getting sick (which was not a widespread problem) wore face masks as if they were statements of fashion.
People were incredibly hospitable and eager to help out, despite their minimal English skills. While I was embarrassed to have arrived in the country and not taken the time to learn their language, the locals were often outright ashamed to not speak better English. “Do you speak any English?” I would sometimes ask. They bashfully would reply, “no” or “only a little bit” and then proceed to speak nearly fluent albeit deeply accented English. We often had subway attendants come up to us and ask us if we needed any help just because we had our maps out and looked lost. When entering the homes of our host’s friends, we were greeted with gifts and home cooked meals. Smiles and bows were exchanged in place of conversations.
Transportation was mind-blowing. Everything worked so perfectly smoothly and quickly that I felt like we were living in the future. The Shinkansen shot us across the countryside quietly and smoothly at close to 200 miles an hour. The subway trains showed up with perfect timing and were extremely easy to understand – with only an intimidating paper map and our sense of direction, we spent two days navigating Tokyo without managing to get lost. Even the bus system was perfect – the buses were modern, clean, quiet, and showed up and left right on time. Our night bus from Shimizu to Kyoto provided us with blankets and slippers. Train stations (which doubled as bus and subway hubs) dominated city centers, spanning multiple city blocks and housing enormous shopping malls, often reaching more than 10 stories tall. The Kyoto Station complex was one of the largest and most complex pieces of modern architecture I’ve ever seen.
We were surprised to find that Japan loves western culture too: French, Italian, Brazilian, and American restaurants were popular. The names of most places in Japan were in English so as to appear more westernized, despite the fact that English is not an often spoken language there. The government mandates that all students study English for six years. American products and companies are found abundantly: KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks, and 7-Eleven. Most cinemas play Hollywood films. And Hawai’i and France are two of Japan’s favorite vacation spots.
As we became more deeply exposed to Japanese culture throughout the trip, their society began to make sense. Emphasis is on the community, not the individual. While America values personality, independence, diversity, capitalism and loves its youthful counter culture, Japan values communalism, cooperation, and strives to put the greater good before the individual. Confucian cultural roots are felt everywhere: the Japanese are too shy and have too much cultural guilt to step out line.
While the intense orderliness and uniformity of cultural background allows for unbelievable societal progress and the lowest crime rates in the world, it felt like a utopia: a statistically perfected society. Yet it often also felt like a distopia. It was alarmingly undiverse at 98.5% Japanese ethnicity. Walking around towns outside of the big cities and even the less touristy part of Kyoto and Tokyo, we got our share of stares from locals. One local even asked us to take a photo with them while climbing Mt. Fuji. With my blonde hair and beard, I stood out. When we did see the occasional tourist, it was a sight worth pointing out. Most tourists were European – we did not see many other Americans. I actually enjoyed being in touristy areas at times because it was easier to blend in and we got fewer stares. The experience made me realize just how much I appreciate the diversity of my home country.
Overall, Japan is an incredibly well developed country, feeling more futuristic than the United States with faster trains, more urbanization, less crime, and cleaner, more orderly, and more navigable facilities and transportation networks. It loves its history, cars, entertainment, and technology. Its people work harder and longer than most anywhere else and feel more devotion to the larger society than most anywhere else – sometimes too hard. For me, it was an opportunity to see an entire civilization participate in perfect cooperation to create safety, cleanliness, and efficient transportation.
I am inspired.
It’s been just over three weeks since I left my comfy apartment in Boulder to see the world. The original concept was to visit twelves cities, living in each for one month. I wanted to get to know each city from the perspective of a local, making an effort to make friends and establish roots in each place as quickly as possible. This would allow me time to get comfortable and relax, actually get to know cities, and actually form some lasting friendships. After some meandering through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, I’ve spent the last three weeks in Seattle. In July I’ll head to San Fransico.
So far, I can say that I’m finding that people are generally the same everywhere. There are subtle differences – some cities are friendlier, or more liberal, or more diverse, but people are people. The largest differences have been cultural differences – Vancouver, being 50% Asian, very international, and not in the US, has been more more different than most US cities. But even with these cultural differences, Vancouver is not so different feeling than any other city of its size. The size of a city has been the largest differentiator in each place. Small towns are completely unlike large cities in how they feel – the pace of life and way that people interact are very different. And after living in Raleigh and Seattle, and Boulder and Asheville, I can say Raleigh feels a lot like Seattle, and Boulder feels a lot like Asheville. The commonality is size.
Second to size, transportation is a huge differentiating factor. This, aside from culture, seems to be the most important indicator for how a city works, feels, and the quality of life that residents can achieve. We spent a day navigating Vancouver without a car: we walked to the Skytrain, took the Skytrain downtown, took a water taxi to Granville Island, took a bus from Granville Island to the Vancouver Harbor, took a ferry to North Vancouver, bussed to North Vancouver, and then finally did all of this in reverse, catching rush hour on the Skytrain and ferry. It was a great experience and all of the busses, ferries, and trains arrived right on time and felt completely clean and safe.
In Seattle, I’ve had mixed results: getting from one neighborhood to another is a challenge. There is a relatively good bus system. Ninety percent of the time busses are on time, but the other ten percent they are late: I’ve had a few encounters with 15 minute late busses and busses getting stuck in traffic – and there is always traffic, with the exception of late at night, I-5 is eternally congested. Additionally, parking is painful and expensive. The 30-60 minute bus ride (depending on what time of day) from Lake City to downtown takes only slightly longer than driving and is much less stressful. In short, Seattle is quite automobile-oriented, yet still dense, causing bad traffic congestion and making parking difficult. Seattles neighborhoods tend to be very separate – often separated by bodies of water that make it possible to get from one district to another only by your choice of one or two bridges. Thus, if you are planning to move to Seattle, I would highly recommend choose a neighborhood such that you can live your life out entirely in that one neighborhood: working there, socializing there, and living there without needing to get to other parts of town.
But aside from transportation and culture, I’ve found most other factors about a place to be minor in differentiating a city and influencing its residents’ lifestyles. Other things – crime, education, health, economy, green spaces, law, etc – do matter, but they tend to be similar in all places. There are always going to be open spaces, schools, hospitals, crime, safe neighborhoods, bad neighborhoods, etc. This does not tend to change from one place to the next that much (at least not within US cities).
That said, I’ve found that my personal situation affects my lifestyle and quality of life infinitely more than the city itself. A city that’s a good fit is important, but if it’s a city that is larger than a few hundred thousand people, there’s almost guaranteed to be a little bit of everything and everyone. The times in my life that I’ve been happiest have had everything to do with my personal relationships, career, and living situation, and less to do with the place itself. This is especially true in big cities. This is less true in small towns, because small towns are more limited in what they can offer. I think of small towns as niches: Boulder is good for outdoorsiness and startups, but not so good for sailing or most large companies. Asheville was great for tourism, but not so great for tech.
Hidden in the upscale suburbs of Vancouver is an ordinary looking house: likely a Canadian-Asian family that works a nine-to-five and is raising 2.1 children. It has brown wooden siding, stucco walls, and a trampoline in the front yard. But looks can be deceiving.
It’s dark outside. Not more than an hour ago we were being interrogated by the Canadian Border Patrol. We walk up to the door and are greeted by a black bumper sticker in the shape of a bat. Next to it is a welcoming sticker informing us that we’ve arrived at the correct house: CouchSurfing, it says. We knock and a friendly, accented male silhouette tells us we can bring our luggage in and leave it in the closet. The closet is overflowing with about a dozen other suitcases and a few dozen pairs of shoes. We walk about four feet to the left and find ourselves between about thirty pairs of eyes staring back at us and Michael Cera. Scott Pilgram vs the World is playing on an overhead projector. Had it not been for the few mumbled “halo!”s, we would not think they noticed us come in. I sit down in an office chair, the only visible spot left to sit. Adrienne comes in behind me and squeezes in between two guys on a couch. They greet her with British accents.
After the movie, the lights come on and we meet the personalities behind all thirty pairs of eyes. “So who lives here?”, I ask. A blond girl with a french accent tells me that she lives there, and lists off another half dozen names of the house’s residents – they are not in the room at the moment. We stay up for another two hours and talk with the house guests: about a fifty-fifty split between friends of the residents and travelers. Among the travelers: half a dozen guys from the UK, three girls from France, four guys from Australia, and another few from Germany. We are the only Americans. There are no Canadians.
On the wall directly to the right of the projector is a jet black bat, wings spanning two metres, created from cardboard and ducktape. Across the room, black sheets made of denim clippings, presumably from old jeans, are draped across the ceiling in thick layers, as if to mimic the entrance to a cave. This is why the call it the Bat Cave, I realize. In the room are five couches, the one to the right of me sitting squarely on top of a coffee table such that the two French girls sitting on it are elevated half a metre above the rest of the cave dwellers. When the time for sleep finally comes, we pick up the couch off of the coffee table and set it where the project screen had been. We open it up into a bed that sleeps two. The couch stakes off a one and a half by two metre portion of the living room for us. All other couches and every last inch of floor space is filled with sleeping bodies. As I grab a quick glass of water before heading to sleep, I even encounter a girl in the corner of the kitchen floor, deep asleep on a camping pad.
I am awakened by the sound of zipping backpacks and shuffling feet. One guy wakes up, awakening another with the sounds of a zipping sleeping bag and a crinkling camping pad. The second lad wakes up a third, and so on, until all dozen of us are awakened in domino fashion. The chatter of a dozen European accents fill the house as we walk out the door to catch the SkyTrain to downtown.
When we return in the evening, there are about half a dozen CouchSurfers in the front yard sitting around in a circle talking. Adrienne says hello as we walk inside to plug in our phones, making use of the valuable WiFi. Without Canadian data and calling plans, our phones are of little use. A few minutes of down time later, Sam, our CouchSurfing host and the Bat Cave’s creator, mentions that a few of the locals are going to Temple for dinner and asks if we want to join. We accept. There is no discussion of how to get there; instead, we join in on their weekly routine of stuffing thirteen people into a minivan: two people in the passenger seat, five the in middle, four in the back, one in the trunk, and a driver. We arrive not at a restaurant called Temple, but an actual Sheik Temple. We enter and there are ten rows of tables, each surrounded by white people with bandanas, a lot of dyed hair, flowery skirts, and too many body piercings to count. There is exactly one Indian family eating amongst them. After waiting in line and having our trays loaded up with Indian food by turbine-bearing Sheiks, we sit down and eat, not stopping to make conversation. About ten minutes and a stuffed stomach later, we load all thirteen of ourselves back into the minivan and head back to the Bat Cave. “How often do you guys do this?”, I ask. “Every Monday, at the very least – and sometimes more” tells me one of the French girls.
We wander to a nearby park and play basketball: the game where throwing the ball into the hoop before the person in front of you gets them “out”. If you’re the last one to get out, you win. I was the first one out. A bit more humiliation and a few games of soccer (using maple longboards as goal posts) later, we start to head back, but make a detour. There’s a house under construction: wooden framed with no windows or walls. Following our host in, we walk up two flights of stairs and a wooden latter to end up on a tarred off roof. We are met with a perfect view of downtown Vancouver backdropped by a fluorescent pink sunset. We sit and watch the sunset.