TEDx Drobeta-Turnu-Severin (Romania, November ’18)

My TEDxDrobetaTurnuSeverin talk is out 😀 I want to thank my friend Dana once again for bringing all those speakers, volunteers and audience together, and for inviting me to be one of them.

I don’t mind the title given by the publisher, though that’s not quite the question i’m asking — what i’m wondering is whether we’re not confusing privileges for basic needs. Western society sets us up to prioritize the former, crystalizing an ever narrower and more homogeneously accepted notion of what constitutes a position of advantage. Attaining (or maintaining) that doesn’t always yield contentment.

In hindsight, i acknowledge that having the resources to ponder over the distinction between needs and privileges is itself a tremendous privilege, and i should have made that explicit in the presentation — i wanted to emphasize that this privilege is cast wider than many of us notice, and might have made neither point salient enough.

There are some issues with the audio towards the end. Rather than compromising the result, i’d like to think they enrich it. You’re invited to think about the way i dealt with the problem at the event (and the editors dealt with it afterward) as a metaphor for what i wanted to say — indeed, it was when the microphone stopped working that i finally woke up — i wish it had happened in the beginning :p

Other than that, i still stand for the bulk of what i said — i hope i will manage to pack my message more clearly, and deliver it with more confidence and energy in the future. I also hope my name in the video title will be changed to Mika, which is more than just a pen name to me.

Thank you for watching 🙂

Featured photo: courtesy of TEDxDrobetaTurnuSeverin

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A guest post by my partner and, sometimes, also travel companion Nastia.

Parô, parô, parô!! Where are you going?! STOP, NOW! You’re not crossing the blockade!” – we’re stopped by a group of angry truckers soon after we finally leave Rio.

“I just need to see my friend who’s running out of supplies on the other end. I am not going to cross the blockade,” calmy says our driver Luis.

“I don’t give a fuck. Tell him to come here. Nobody’s passing,” they demand.

Somehow, he persuades this bunch of his good intentions. But there are another four kilometers of the blockade, and we are stopped every few hundred meters “Encosta aê!” Luis calmly repeats the same thing he said to the other men before, but this one wouldn’t listen – “Encosta aê, caralho!” – the man’s eyes start filling with blood, and a hand is reaching out for a gun. “Please, just stop somewhere,” I’m begging our driver in my mind.

The night before leaving Rio de Janeiro my husband Mika and I learn that truckers went on a strike over gasoline prices and blocked major roads throughout Brazil. This caused a massive disruption because the country relies on trucks to transport everything – from food to fuel, making it difficult to hitchhike. But Mika has to be back home in Brasilia, a thousand kilometers away to give a presentation about his travels in a week. We don’t have a choice except to trust the gods of hitchhiking and kindness of the few drivers left on the road.

After several local rides, we get out of Rio and eventually find a truck who isn’t on strike (yet). He’s going where we want to arrive today. Naive of him. Soon we’re stopped by a group of enraged truckers. But Luis convinces all of them to let him get to his friend. “How?!” – “I simply knew what I was doing, and that it was right.” Unbelievable! It’s like in those movies – a cool cop calmly facing down an angry or scared young man pointing a gun at the cop. “You just need to know what you’re doing and confiar em yourself that this is the right thing to do.” Just trust yourself . . .

Luis and his friend share their food and “home” giving us some space in the cargo compartment where we set camp for the night. However, there’s one issue – I’m the only female among a mob of angry truckers, and I’m afraid to go pee. But our driver being a protective host reassures us “We won’t let them hurt her,” pointing to his machete, “And I also have something more, in case this won’t be enough,” implying a gun.

Yes, just about every trucker carries a gun because they’re often robbed. That’s why they’re not allowed to give rides and have trackers indicating a passenger in the car. But those who want to help travelers find a way to trick the system, risking their jobs and even lives. Hitchhiking in Brazil is quite challenging – people don’t trust strangers. Nevertheless, sometimes after we nearly begged for the ride, the drivers were holding back tears when goodbying.

Along our way, we have encountered so many helpful and kind people – they trusted to let us in their homes, they cooked for us, both they and we shed tears when leaving. After all this kindness, we wanted to pay back to the world somehow.

And the opportunity presents itself the morning after we arrived home. A shabby-looking man with the skin revealing that he works a lot in the sun rings the doorbell asking for a bag and some food. He says he knows Mika’s grandmother who’s out for some time. We decide to do something Mika would never have thought of before this journey. We invite him to sit with us for breakfast and ask to get some bread with our money. Not only he comes back with the bread, but also gives back the change. He was very humble and almost didn’t speak, and we were shy to ask his story watching him being clumsy with the fork and knife. The man was very grateful for the breakfast and sandwiches we give him for lunch. And we feel like this is the smallest but not the last thing we could do to give back what we received from the world.

Featured photo: a kilometers-long line of trucks picketing near Juiz de Fora, MG where we spent the night in Luis’ cargo compartment (Brazil, May ’18)

Long before we met, Nastia was already a devoted traveler, having hitchhiked around much of Eastern Europe and Germany. Besides exploring the world, she’s also interested in education (she’s an English teacher), the environment, and femininity, about all of which she reflects regularly on her blog — mostly in Ukrainian, sometimes in English. After we got married, we traveled together for several months in 2018 visiting friends and family across Europe and around Brazil. This is one of the many pieces Nastia wrote in reaction to her experience in my home country, adapted and translated into English for a travel writing scholarship application.

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Guest articles: Nastia MF; hitchhiking; Brazil

The Other Side of the Fence

A conversation with long-term traveler Rico Noack.

I’ve been feeling a bit worn out by my own stories lately — perhaps also a bit pressured (even if just internally) to keep churning them out.

I feel like it is once again time to surrender to the present — and because i want to keep up with my weekly newsletter output, i decided this would be a good opportunity to try something different: to share stories from other travelers’ perspectives!

The first one is a conversation with Rico Noack, a Couchsurfer from Germany who stayed with us for one night with his friend Kristin back in January. Rico and Kristin were especially energic guests. While we were sharing travel stories over dinner, i felt inspired to revisit an idea i had first considered a couple of years ago — to record and share conversations with fellow long-term travelers talking about their experience on the road 🙂

After they left, Rico and i kept corresponding, and eventually had a couple of calls during which we recorded the conversation below:

The Other Side of the Fence – A conversation with long-term traveler Rico Noack

If you prefer, you may also download the audio.

In our conversation, Rico told me in more detail about how his travels evolved, from typical family holidays while growing up, to his first independent trip to visit a friend in Bulgaria (and also first time Couchsurfing) in 2012, his time living, traveling in and falling love with Romania between 2014 and 2015, and finally his half a year cycle touring and backpacking from Azerbaijan to Georgia, then around Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and back to Azerbaijan in 2017. This last adventure is where we spent the majority of our time talking.

We also talked about his process documenting his journeys, which started as a method to manage sensorial overflow and developed into an ethical duty to share the experience with others back home, as well as where he traveled. Rico has written a chronicle of his 2015 trip to Romania, Moldova, and Italy, and is now in the process of composing another book — developing from his journals from his 2017 expedition in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and enriched with passages by Kurban Said and Chinghiz Aitmatow. He told me (via email) that “[s]haring these experiences, promoting those countries ([in] written or [spoken form]) is a way to stay in touch with them for me. And to give something back.”

Here’s a more detailed index:

  • 0:00:00 Preamble: Some words about my intention with this experiment;
  • 0:04:47 “Who’s Rico”: Introduction, and first travel experiences on the other side of the fence;
  • 0:14:51 “You should start working and make some money”: Or maybe not — arriving, staying, and falling in love with Romania;
  • 0:21:20 “I have to write this down, otherwise [my head] will explode!”: From managing sensorial overflow to an ethical duty to share;
  • 0:24:02 “And then I had the feeling that everything started”: Azerbaijani hospitality, from strangers to friends;
  • 0:38:15 “To German and Georgian friendship!”: Experiencing (literally) a different flavor of hospitality, and pondering its meaning and sources;
  • 0:45:34 “in Georgia, you always have your tent in a really beautiful place”: Everyday life on the bicycle;
  • 0:54:51 “Oh come on these mountains are just too high to cycle them!”: Backpacking in Central Asia, starting in Kyrgyzstan;
  • 1:00:30 “It’s a really cool concept I think”: Volunteering at the Community-Based Tourism in Sary Mogol, Kyrgyzstan;
  • 1:05:33 “She was hitchhiking alone to whole Tajikistan”: Getting curious about the country;
  • 1:19:22 “Dog sticks and baking soda”: Some of Rico’s practical solutions for dogs, personal hygiene, and other practical matters.

It’s flattering that i can help him fulfill this duty! Truth be told, editing the audio was more challenging than i anticipated, but i enjoyed our conversation very much and learned a lot from the whole process. I hope you will also enjoy listening to it!

Questions and feedback to Rico may be addressed directly to him via email: riconoack1 [at] hotmail [dot] de.

More about Rico

Rico is a 29-year old social worker from Germany. He currently works part-time counseling refugees and people with disabilities for an NGO in Leipzig. Parallel to that, Rico is writing a Master’s thesis on the circumstances of disabled refugees in Germany, aiming to give the topic more exposure in the academic community. He was featured in an article (in German) on ADZ-online about Social Work in Romania, where he spent eight months as a volunteer (http://www.adz.ro/artikel/artikel/der-aufbruch-der-rumaenischen-sozialarbeit/).

When Rico is not working or writing, he enjoys cycling small dusty roads and forest trails in the countryside, spending time with his flatmates, friends, and family, as well as playing his guitar or harmonica. He invites you to listen to some of his recordings on soundcloud.


Some books, opportunities and resources mentioned in our conversation:

  • If you can read German, he will be happy to send you the chronicles from his five weeks traveling in Romania, Moldova, and Italy in 2015 — just send him an email!

Annotated maps of Rico’s travels in the Caucasus and Central Asia:

Some photos from Rico’s travels (click for full view):

Featured photo:Rico, sunburned in a Kakhetian vineyard (Georgia ’17)

Enjoyed this interview? I plan to make more like it in the near future and will announce them on my newsletter whenever they go live — if you don’t want to miss it, then subscribe!

Interviews: cycle touring, hitchhiking, hiking; Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Central Asia;
Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Poland, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

Trelograms #28 — Beware of People in [Fill in Your Next Country]

Speaking of borders, i was recently watching long-term traveler Tomislav Perko’s stimulating TEDxTUHH talk. His remarks towards the end resonated with something i’ve experienced myself traveling overland across international borders:

Incidentally, i first remember experiencing that when crossing from Croatia to Serbia as well — i was warned by one of my acquaintances that Serbians are xenophobes to be approached with caution.

Passing from Serbia to Romania, i was advised (at least twice that i can clearly remember) to keep my possessions always within sight, and be very watchful of the sneaky Gypsies, who will take any opportunity to rob me — “they believe they have been cursed, and have no other choice but to live like that,” said one of my acquaintances.

Leaving Romania into Ukraine, i was discouraged by the border officer to proceed into a country at war.

In Ukraine, i was then warned by another host to expect rampant corruption from authorities in Belarus — and so the anecdotes continued . . .

Granted, the Croatia-Serbia-Romania-Ukraine-Belarus outline above was the longest border-to-border streak i can account for. I also don’t know what percentage of the underlying populations is represented by each of these anecdotes — these are just notes and memories from some of the occasional conversations i manage to have at length and in clear English on my way.

If you’ve been following me, you know that my experience has been dramatically different — some Serbians have become my warmest friends from the road, and Romanians have actually offered me money (cash) on the road at a greater rate (times per days traveled) than anywhere else i’ve traveled — that must be the exact opposite of being robbed!

I have also felt safer from violence in West Ukraine than in just about any other place i’ve lived before (except Denmark), and i haven’t had to pay any bribes into, in or out of Belarus, at least not so far.

Just a couple of generations ago, Germany invaded Poland marking what is widely held in the West as the beginning of World War II. I felt especially joyful being able to cross the (now open) border between the two nations along a cycle path and a beach where Germans, Poles and any other affiliations around may refresh themselves without even knowing in which side of that imaginary line they might be peeing.

I hope more controlled borders between nation states will also become beaches, parks, monuments or museums across which nobody feels pressed to give travelers any nationally charged warnings.

Featured photo: cycle touring across the Polish-German border from Swinoujscie to Ahlbeck (Summer ’16)

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Trelograms’ is a wordplay between ‘telegram’ and ‘trélos’ (Greek for ‘mad’)

Trelograms: inspiration; cycle touring, hitchhiking; worldwide

Trelograms #26 — “Don’t Forget to Shower”

— “you may even want to use some soap,” said my partner the other day, just before heading out.

Anybody who knows me will attest that i don’t normally like to shower any more than i enjoy doing the dishes — it’s a largely instrumental procedure. Perhaps for that same reason, bathing when i’m on the road is a priority — i do it every evening, with very rare exceptions!

“And how/where the hell do you do it,” people interested in my process will often ask?

My partner especially loves to bathe — she’ll actually soak in the bathtub for at least half an hour almost every morning — this is one of her greatest sources of apprehension about our upcoming journey later this year. Even if i don’t care that much about a shower at the end of a whole day sitting in front of the computer, a whole day on the road has always been a whole other story — the uncertainty of an evening bath was also one of my greatest sources of apprehension until i got used to the wealth of solutions available out there.

In hindsight, there’s actually nothing exceptionally creative or unusual about them. Besides the occasional “standard” showers you’ll still find at some of your hosts’, you’ll also find lots of lakes, creeks, rivers, waterfalls, beaches, buckets and ladles (photo below), public restroom sinks, rest stops, locker rooms at the local public pool or whatever, portable camping showers (photo below) — plus all the variations and inconspicuous implementations therein — and counting.

I’ll add that, no matter how cold the water is, it’s totally worth it — and i’ve bathed from glacial streams in Iceland to a partially frozen lake in the Romanian Carpathians — “freezing cold” was not an understatement in either of those cases!

Even if none of that is available, or if you don’t have access to much water or it’s polluted (i always ask the locals), i will still take a “surgical” bath with my water bottle (use your imagination) — just about half a liter of water has turned out to be plenty.

By the way, i also change and wash my underwear every day. If there’s not enough water for that where i stopped for the night, i’ll just do it at the first gas station along my way next morning, and then hang it to dry throughout the day on my rear rack 🙂

So, if you want to clean up at the end of the day, you will find a way — many ways — you might even wonder whether it isn’t that shower back home which is the most unusual and counterintuitive of all methods?

Featured photo: A skinny dip in the Neman River, Lithuania ( Summer ’17 )

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Trelograms’ is a wordplay between ‘telegram’ and ‘trélos’ (Greek for ‘mad’)

Trelograms: inspiration; cycle touring, hitchhiking, hiking; worldwide