Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Denmark Trip Infects with Wanderlust

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This week ATW features a guest blog post from Jonathan Agosta. The Atlanta-area native lived in the same host family house as I upon my arrival in Lima, Peru. Jonathan’s passionate about language, always wanting to speak the local language like a native. He makes friends easily. His maturity belies his young 20-something age. What’s more, he works his way through college, saving money along the way to afford his international travels. Truly this guy has impressed me. Here ATW shares a tale of his first solo trip abroad.

SAS flight SK944 departing from Newark began boarding at 8:05 p.m. Jonathan had just turned off his cell phone and put it away in his backpack while realizing that that conversation would be the last time he would hear his mother’s voice for a few months. The blond haired stewardesses were greeting each passenger with a smile as they made their way into the Boeing 747 aircraft. Everything was moving fast, Jonathan thought, and now the plane was already in the air and the crew was serving beverages.

“Would you like wine or beer?” asked the Scandinavian stewardess. There was a brief silence as 19-year old Jonathan stared her in the face. “I’ll take a beer, please,” he replied to the attractive woman. “Tuborg,” he tried pronouncing as she placed the green can on the tray table in front of him. Once the cabin had all been served the seat belt sign turned off and passengers began walking freely about the plane chatting amongst themselves with either a beer or baby in hand, treating the seven-hour flight as a sort of social party.

“You’ll be backpacking around Europe all by yourself?” the middle aged women seated next to Jonathan asked. “Yes, I worked a lot of hours to fund this trip,” he told her. The plane flew through the night and Jonathan’s excitement prevented any attempt to fall asleep. He knew that soon he would be under the sun in a big field at Roskilde, the annual Danish music festival where young folks from all over the continent congregate for days in a sort of community listening to their favorite musicians.

Photos courtesy of Jonathan Agosta

The plane landed and pulled into the gate at 10:16 a.m. After completing customs and retrieving his backpack, Jonathan walked aimlessly around Kastrup International trying to locate the entrance of the train station as he listened to a new, strange language reverberating throughout the airport. Danish sounds quite harsh at first, at least to any native English speaker, but little did he know how beautiful it would sound later.
Jonathan arrived at Roskilde in awe. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. Stages, tents, a plethora of recycling bins, windmills, a bicycle-powered ferris wheel, blond haired people, deliciously healthy cuisine, and live musical entertainment were all located in one enormous field in what some statistics show as one of the happiest nations in the world.  The festival raged on as headliners like Nine Inch Nails and Coldplay played the last few nights, but it then came to an abrupt and exhausting end on Sunday when everybody collected themselves and crawled to the train station where they began a dreaded journey home. Jonathan, however, wasn’t heading home because he had plans of his own in store.

 

He had just finished packing away his tent into the depths of his pack as Sarah and her unborn child’s father, Lukas, were approaching.

“Well, we appreciate all of your hard work for the past couple weeks, especially since you came here directly from the festival,” Lukas told him.

“If you need any more days to fill during your trip I am sure we’ll have some more work for you later,” concluded Sarah.

Jonathan told them both goodbye and then started what would be a long hike back to the nearest city, Aarhus, and then it would be an additional four hours to Germany by train. However, sometimes things don’t go the way they were originally planned. A cool breeze reminded him to put up his hood as he trotted down the country road back towards the highway. It was early in the morning and the summer sun was starting to shine as he noted how peaceful the Danish country side was and

Work to Live Farm

that he was glad he actually went through with the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) volunteer program for the previous two weeks.  After less than an hour of walking Jonathan was sitting in the passenger seat of a tow truck on his way to Aarhus. Jonathan knew that he wouldn’t get to Aarhus in a timely manner unless he hitched at least some of way. It wasn’t the first time he had accepted a ride from a stranger either, as he remembered how his friend Marc and he hitched in the back of some truck during a backpacking trip in North Georgia. Except this time it was a tow truck and the driver was just as if not friendlier than in Blue Ridge.

“I’m going to have to drop you off here,” the driver said as he pulled into an auto shop parking lot located on the outskirts of Aarhus. “I really appreciate the lift and I’ll enjoy walking the rest of the way, too,” Jonathan told him.
He walked through the town and even through the university campus where people were zipping along the sidewalks by either bike or skateboard between classes. It was a well-kept little town, charming, he thought. A long, but enjoyable tour of the city finally made him realize that he was not finding the train station. However, at that point he had already crept down Havengade and was standing in front of City Sleep Hostel which automatically seemed more decent that the European hostels he had been told about. He let himself in only to find that the reception was not open during the mid-afternoon, so he decided he would wait in the courtyard, where he unexpectedly bumped into seven girls from Copenhagen who were vacationing for the week. He soon was able to check into his dormitory where he became acquainted with his Belgian and French roommates. The three of them began the night with a short walk with drinks in hand cruising down some of the city’s main streets laughing at the kind of jokes that only guys think are funny.  Later, they returned to the hostel and quickly assembled a group in the courtyard with the Danish girls, a brother and sister from Colorado, and two road-trippers from Switzerland. One of the Danish girls, Louise, had her iPod speaker system that blared music as everyone tried to talk over each other. The next few nights consisted of the entire group prancing down what seemed like streets paved in gold getting to know the town, and cheerfully singing, “Jonathan, giv aldrig op! Glem de nederlag!” (Jonathan, never give up. Forget the defeat)

The last night together Jonathan and his friends spent one more time enjoying each other’s company in the hostel courtyard and around Aarhus. As much fun as everyone had had, the thought of separation seemed unbearable to them all. The following morning, however, Jonathan was riding in the backseat of a Honda CRV on his way to Germany with two Swiss friends up front. He was thinking about how much fun it had been the past few weeks coming all the way from the United States to Copenhagen, to Roskilde, to the farm, to Aarhus, and now to Germany with two months remaining in the European tour. He especially thought of Aarhus and how his experience and the people he met there made him feel overwhelmingly happy and alive.

Walking on Purpose, Do You?

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This is the final post in a series of three about walking and walkability in the Phoenix area. Read posts one and two.

The winter sun is warm, not hot yet in Phoenix’s desert climate. It evokes a first sigh of pleasure, joined momentarily as my legs start flexing and stretching. Blood starts pumping through my circuits like electricity restored after a blowout. Moderate rush-hour traffic cruising along 13th Street beside my apartment complex reminds me of the time of day but doesn’t molest my mental peace as I plug my earphones in and press play of a “Fresh Air” podcast. One, perhaps two, bicyclists kklickkk past. Their Arizona State University backpacks indicate their status.

 

I purposefully work my legs, turning from the section of Judd Street that runs through the complex, then briefly onto 13th Street before opting for the reconnection of Judd Street. If one were watching my journey from a bird’s perspective, it wouldn’t look different from a meandering zigzag. BMWs and Audis, nor newer model Cadillacs and decked out Hummers are found among the street parking. These houses don’t have expensive lawn furniture outside; they rarely have outdoor decor at all, actually. A sticker on a Westfalia van reads “Who are the Grateful Dead, and why are they following me?”

A man in a jumped up American truck passes after halting at a stop sign. The burr cut, the white skin, blonde hair, and militant face give me pause, make me wonder if there’s a shotgun in his cab, something not uncommon in a state where denizens are allowed to carry guns in public (but not in bars).

 

Near the stop sign where he paused is an artful form of infrastructure. These appear especially on the sidestreets of this neighborhood. Each of the dozen or so I’ve seen is unique, as if part of the street’s identity. Their purpose has evaded me, though my friend tells me they’re outdated and no longer used for whatever their original purpose was. Some are square, some like round chimneys. They’re painted or sculpted. They’re amateur but never pretentious.

 

Something similar are the sculptures that adorn the narrow roundabouts. These also appear to have been built by the residents. As an infrastructural element they gently bring attention to the roundabouts, which Americans simply don’t understand. They’re also public art. Their homegrown feel lends far more appeal than some public art I’ve seen in China or Sarasota. At each roundabout I stop and take a closer look, enjoy their whimsy, their light-heartedness.

Occasional glimpses inside the houses’ windows shows a lack of art, reveals floor plans that don’t aren’t open or spacious. Some landscaping is pristine. It looks like a point of pride for some homeowners. No garage is open. Front doors rarely present greeting mats or decorations. They are not open and do not bear screen or glass doors. Yet in no way would I say the air is one of hostility or fear. It seems to be an end to a means. People go to work, they go elsewhere, then they return to their homes later at night, looking forward to their beds.

 

Toward the end of the half-mile-long street two people are walking. I keep an eye on them. Are they actually out for a delightful stroll like me? But then, no, like the other walkers occasionally spotted in our neighborhood, they are on a mission. They appear to have left a house to get in a car and drive elsewhere.

 

Seconds later we’ve passed each other silently. They get into their car and drive off. The memory of them falls behind like footsteps at the shore. Filling that space instead is a giggle.

 

I can’t really be seeing this. The sun creeps below the rooflines, and shadows grow taller than the single-story 1950s block houses lining most of the streets, sometimes marring my sight. Well, it’s nothing new to see a black and white cat standing regally in his front yard. But the rotund little cow seems to have…a length of thin rope connecting his collar to the chain-link fence enveloping his throne. His stillness– no, his statuesque serenity, the very fact he barely blinks when my tennies halt before his house– seems to void the need for the leash. He couldn’t care less than I’m walking by. Unlike the people I saw on my first walk, this cat barely recognizes my presence. Far be it from him to stare at me, let alone run in the opposite direction.

 

A giggle escapes my throat as I turn on my little red camera and take a snap.

 

“Watching over your dominion?” I chuckle before continuing on my way. Momentarily the air fills with sweet scents of local flora. I don’t know what bushes or trees or flowers filled my olfactory sense. Its sweetness echoed that of jasmine. It became stronger as I approached a quaint old house on another corner. Here a boxy white house bore an equally boxy air conditioning unit atop the roof. Suddenly my mind went on a different journey, back in time along the home’s journey. There was construction sometime in the 1950s. Twenty-some years later, when air conditioning became common, the house cooled itself against the average summer temperatures of 100-plus degrees. Sitting quietly on that corner, I wondered about the original owner, thought that the perfect visual complement would be an octogenarian owner, enjoying the newspaper from a wrought iron rocker on the front porch. The For Sale sign before the house makes me wonder if that potential memory is already in the past. Who knows how many reincarnations the house has seen over its life?

 

A skateboarder’s ca-zzushhh breaks the quiet air and wiggles its way past my earphones and into my ears. It’s been several minutes since I’ve seen any other sign of movement, other than an occasional car passing. Where are the homeowners come home at the end of the workday? Where are the retirees who might be enjoying a tea on their front porches? Where are the children? The void of people makes me feel like I’m walking through a ghost town until I turn a corner where a church hides the park behind it. There a smile lifts my face as I see parents playing with their children, dog owners treating their “kids” with some fetch and the ability to frolic with other four-legged fellas. A couple of older people sit together languidly on a green, wood park bench.

 

My mind flips back its mental files to an earlier walk. On that walk too I found people enjoying their neighborhood park, that time with a barbecue and some frisbee. It’s this skateboarding and bicycling, and outdoor activity at the park and at South Mountain (the largest city park in the country, if not the world, and part of a local mountain preserve system) that keeps most of the locals so thin. I’m reminded that all this thinness came as a surprise when I’d landed here from Ohio a month ago. Suffice it to say that in Ohio, volume was the surprising element. The reality reminded me of Phoenix’s proximity to California, where the waif is the norm. Most people here in the Phoenix Valley aren’t waifs, but they’re getting their exercise somehow.

 

Located just a few miles from the apartment where I’m temporarily residing, South Mountain’s parking lots fill almost to overflowing with truck after truck and SUV after SUV. A runner friend took me there a few weeks ago for some exercise. Finding my own spot to rest after a walk in the roasted river bed was a cinch, though. Mountain bikers were plentiful as jock straps in a locker room. Running teams and individuals were abundant as stars in Arizon’s clear skies. Families enjoyed walks together. I even overheard a couple on their first date there. Evidently this is the way of outdoors exercise. A neighborhood walk is just so…trite.

For me, though, a neighborhood stroll makes one of the best possible means of familiarizing yourself with the locale. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Peru or India, mainland China or Hong Kong. It cleans out the cerebral cob webs but relaxes the muddled mind. It stimulates the blood but calms the heart.

 

What would revered 19th-century British essayist Robert Louis Stevenson say on this?

“It seems as if a hot walk purged you, more than of anything else, of all narrowness and pride, and left curiosity to play its part freely, as in a child or a man of science. You lay aside all your own hobbies, to watch provincial humours develop themselves before you, now as a laughable farce, and now grave and beautiful like an old tale.”

 

Indeed, on the final stretch back to my friend’s apartment, I feel humored and beautiful, curious and purged. I see a blonde, middle-aged woman walking toward me on the sidewalk. There is no purse on her shoulder, no pet leash stretching before her, no keys to a nearby car dangling from her hand. There is a peace to her face. She approaches and we look at each other. We smile, and I’m happy that someone else can enjoy a neighborhood stroll.

On Walking: Mumbai vs Phoenix

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This is part two of a series of three on walking and walkability in the Phoenix area. Read the first and third installments.

 

It isn’t just I who relishes the neighborhood stroll. Today this piece came out in the Hindustan Times, an (East) Indian newspaper, reminding me of living in Mumbai.

Here in the US, one need not worry if there are sidewalks. It’s not troublesome to cross the street (though I do adore the thought of diagonal crosswalks) here, though the protocol does depend a lot on geography. For instance, crossing the street in a university town like Oxford, OH means, to paraphrase the Ritz Carlton’s motto: the pedestrian is always right. In suburbs, jaywalking easily earns a traffic ticket. Major cities like Chicago offer traffic signals, though what’s more important is attentiveness and conviction of your own speed.

 

Here in the US one need not worry about falling into a vertical cavern. On a late night returning home from work along a sidestreet in my Mumbai neighborhood, Santa Cruz, my rickshaw driver swerved enough to throw me to the other side of the seat. He had barely averted danger: there, in the middle of the dimly lit lane, a construction worker had marked a deep hole in the crumbled asphalt by placing a long, thick palm frond inside it. No manhole, no orange construction cones, no signs, no striped construction horses…just a palm frond arrested the attention of the rickshaw driver enough to avoid plunging half the blimmin’ auto into the mini-canyon. In safety-obsessed America, however, that hole wouldn’t exist, and heaven forbid something like a divet in the road actually appear, it’d be surrounded by the apparati mentioned above. Traffic would be diverted to another lane, therefore slowing everyone down…yet also keeping them far out of danger’s reach. If this happens on a sidewalk, construction cones surround the blemish and pedestrians might momentarily have to trouble themselves to walk in the bike lane.

 

“Unlike the US, where the majority drive and the pavements reflect the special attention paid to the minority who walk, India’s cities reflect the power and influence of the minority who drive, not of the multitudes who walk,” Samar Halarnkar wrote in the Times.

Or as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his essay, “Walking Tours”, “Uneven walking is not so agreeable to the body, and it distracts and irritates the mind.”

 

Suffice it to say riding a bike in Mumbai wasn’t something this expatriate would attempt– walking was hazardous enough! One encounter with a rock embedded into the dirt lane or a run-in with a shard of asphalt protruding from the side street, and there you are, head over handlebars and a thud into the midst of traffic. And no, of course, one didn’t see skateboarders, rollerbladers or roller skaters on the streets of Santa Cruz or Mazagaon. Families don’t walk their children in strollers. Never once did I see wheelchairs, though innumerable handicapped people I did see…transported by their family members in makeshift, wheeled apparati.

 

Where did I see sidewalks aplenty in Mumbai? In the affluent neighborhoods of South Mumbai, such as Colaba, Nariman Point, and The Fort, where most of the city’s wealthy live, work, and play. It’s also where almost all the tourists stay and international business men reside. It was here the women bore fewer, less deeply carved scuffs in their pumps. It was here people could more safely walk with their heads up, as opposed to constantly watching the ground beneath for human and animal feces, for cracks and crumbles in the pavement, for palm fronds protruding from holes.

 

Here in the Phoenix Valley, I’ll keep going for walks. The bicyclists will outpace me. The cars will outpace them. But I can enjoy the scenery, the scents of native flora, the warmth of this desert winter. From the ocean of asphalt surrounding the XTreme Bean at Butte and Southern avenues, I’ll wait until the walk lights illuminate at the crossing signal, indicating I can then walk across demarcated lane after demarcated lane. I’ll inherently cause drivers turning into Southern to wait until I safely cross the street. I’ll walk up a slight incline used by those in wheelchairs and assisted by walking devices until I come to another ocean. These oceans are homages to the driver, yet even here we have the beauty of clean, intact sidewalks to safely navigate.

 

I might be the only person walking. I might be surrounded by dozens– or even hundreds– of cars. But I’ve got these two legs. I might as well use them to see my surroundings on a closer scale, especially since there are no palm-frond filled canyons to ensnare me.

Let’s close with another thought from Stevenson:

“(The walker) becomes more and more incorporated with the material landscape, and the open-air drunkenness grows upon him with great strides, until he posts along the road, and sees everything about him, as in a cheerful dream. The first is certainly brighter, but the second stage is the more peaceful… The purely animal pleasures, the sense of physical well-being, the delight of every inhalation, of every time the muscles tighten down the thigh, console him for the absence of the others, and bring him to his destination still content.”