Lynnell’s birthday post

Thanks for the birthday wishes. We’re in the last few months of this once-in-a-life-time-year-long traveling sabbatical trip. John had to return to the U.S. for a funeral. So I’m spending my 60th birthday on my own in a campground in Munich, Germany, yet thanks to email, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, I’m feeling lots of love and don’t feel lonely.

I’m sitting in the shade at our camp site, listening to the birds sing, with a cold beer in the cooler and a good wifi connection. I continue to be amazed that we can live this well and comfortably for the princely sum of between $20–$30 a night.

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This is our 4th trip camping in Europe. Camping is how lots of people travel here, so campgrounds are everywhere and they’re more like outdoor hotels than roughing it. Campgrounds come with clean bathhouses, hot showers; big communal sinks where you can wash dishes; a little café, bar or market where you can buy fresh bread and croissants. (But no picnic tables, so you have to bring your own tables and chairs. It’s a little weird, given that European campgrounds seem to have everything else.)\

Campgrounds are often located in cities too. So if you have three or more weeks to travel and can rent a vehicle, camping is such a relaxing and affordable able way to move around Europe. On our first three trips, we brought our tent and gear from home and rented a regular van (when we were traveling with three kids) and just a regular Toyota Corolla type car when it was just John and myself.

It worked great. Yes, we looked like a minor-league hockey team dragging duffles of gear through the airports. But once we loaded them all in our rental car at the airport, we were set to go.]

But on this last trip, we bought a camper van because we were going to be gone for a year and camping in cold weather. It was no small investment, but it’s worked out so well, we’ve decided to keep it, store it outside of London and use it on future trips, especially since our son, Carter, now lives in London with his wife. Retirement is still some years off, but at age 60, it beckons!\

At any rate, some people have a cabin on the lake. We will now have a camper van on the other side of the Atlantic.

Our van has a bike rack and we bought two bicycles. So we usually park the van in the campground and then use our bikes to get around. This has been especially great in Munich, which is like the Minneapolis of Europe in that it’s relatively flat; there’s a huge system of designated bike paths; the beautiful, clean, fast-running Isar River runs through the heart of the city and there’s theaters, concerts, parks and really great beer everywhere you look.

I mean, it’s a just a flat-out fantastic place. If you haven’t been to Munich yet, come! Here’s the cute campground restaurant overlooking the river. #LivingLarge.

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Munich was also the birthplace and the central headquarters of the Nazi party. A couple of days ago, I visited one of the city’s newest museums, the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism. Yeah I know. Maybe it sounds better in the original German. Anyhow, it’s a long, ponderous name for a courageous, thoughtful place that was built on the very site of the first Nazi party headquarters.

“Again and again, a democratic society faces challenges that demand we take a stand and show moral courage, “ says the centre’s guide in its opening sentence. “Right-wing radicalism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism call for a clear ‘no’ from a vast and often-silent majority”

As an American living in the Age of Trump, this immediately got my attention.

”….Munich was tied to and entangled with National Socialism more than any other city,” the guide goes on, noting that the Dachau concentration camp–the first model of Nazi terror and its ‘school of violence’—was organized out of Munich in 1933; the 1938 “Munich Agreement” annexing Czechoslovakia was signed here; the terrible ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom was first announced from Munich’s city hall on November 9th 1938.

“Munich citizens as well as Munich authorities bore a decisive share of responsibility for the emergence and spread of radical, right-wing ideology.” reads the guide. So in addition to commemorating what happened here, the question the center asks is, why of all places was Munich the fertile ground for the Nazis ideology and program? What were the social forces, mindsets and habits that allowed so many people to either actively embrace such hatred or pretend it wasn’t happening?

This is really a gutsy question because most common responses from a people or culture that commit an atrocity is to first deny it happened; then to minimize it; and then maybe, after a long time, to build a memorial to the victims, which can promote empathy with victims while also strangely letting the perpetrators off the hook.

I mean, can you imagine the citizens of South Carolina or Texas or Minnesota or really anywhere in the U.S. building a center that studied how its people or culture bore a decisive share of responsibility for the spread of ideology and beliefs (especially right-wing beliefs) that ended in human rights abuses….like, say, police being able to kill black people with no consequences?  Or police never really investigating black-on-black murders in places like Baltimore or Chicago?  Will there ever be a Chicago Documentation Center Center For The Study of Ghettoside? Or mass imprisonment? Or Jim Crow? Or the destruction of native people?

No, because that would strike pretty close to home…i.e. to the people who still hold the power, which is why most cities wouldn’t touch that kind of subject with a ten-foot pole.

So hats off to Munich for being willing to go there and especially the group of citizens who spent 25 long years trying to get this center built. It’s a fascinating exhibit. If you’re in Munich, go see this place.

I found the parallels to what happened in Munich and what’s happening in Trump’s America to be disturbing: how right-wing violence was tolerated and ignored; (because it wasn’t seen as scary as left-wing violence); how the courts system contributed to this with its leniency towards Nazism, especially during its key early days before Hitler seized power; how some extremely wealthy people financially quietly underwrote Hitler; how mainstream German conservatives felt they could work with Hitler to achieve shared goals and somehow control his worst tendencies and finally how Hitler used propaganda so effectively to frame his narrative and to tap into bigotry and nationalism.

No, I don’t think we’re on the immediate verge of the Third Reich in America. But damn, there ARE disquieting parallels.

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So one one side, Munich is a cautionary tale about what happens when democracy fails, which it did in Munich and Germany in the 1930s. And on the other side, today, Munich is an inspiring tale on how a society can rebuild and remake itself in really healthy ways after the unimaginable happens.

One thing that’s clear after this year of travel is that life is so full of paradox. People are awful. People are wonderful. Horrible, horrible shit happens. So does resurrection.

One last thing…I say this on every birthday, but it’s true. On June 26th, 1983, on my Golden Birthday, i.e. on the day I turned 26 years old—I met my wonderful husband, John Bellaimey. Thirty-four years later, he is still the gift who keeps on giving and the best present ever.  Here he is, after landing in his hometown of Detroit two days ago:

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Thanks for all the birthday wishes! We’ll be back in Minneapolis in mid-August. Love to all of you!!!!

 

Why my Palestinian guide can’t take his seven year old to the zoo and other thoughts on being on the West Bank

SurfingPoem/grafitti on the Palestinian side of the Wall in Bethlehem

by Lynnell Mickelsen

We’ve spent the last two weeks in Israel, a country I long vowed to avoid until its government started doing right by the Palestinians.

It hasn’t. We came anyways. And I actually don’t regret it because I’ve learned a lot.

A preface: I know it’s risky to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So the recommended method is to carefully and delicately parse every word because, after all, the Holocaust was horrible; both sides commit atrocities, and a lot of people grew up with the whole “Land without a people for a people without a land” story via the young, blue-eyed Paul Newman as the heroic Ari Ben Canaan in “Exodus,“ (circa 1960) and really, who wants to mess with that primal piece of mythology?

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So in America, we mostly don’t talk about this conflict, which, not coincidentally, tends to serve the status quo.

Anyhow, my response is as follows: It is complicated. Both sides have done horrible things. Anti-Semitism is alive and well.

And the current level of injustice is starkly lopsided. The numbers of dead, injured, jailed and dispossessed are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side of the equation and Americans in particular almost never hear the Palestinian side of the story.

Soooo…. with all that as a preface: we spent our first three days in Israel traveling in the West Bank with a great outfit called Green Olive Tours.  I don’t know where to begin, so let’s talk about license plate colors, water tanks and walls.

1) The color of your license plate really matters. Israeli citizens get yellow license plates. Yellow plates rock. With a yellow plate, you are free to move about the country.

In contrast, Palestinians in the West Bank get white (or green for cabs) license plates. White or green plates are a drag because it means you aren’t allowed to drive on Israeli roads without a special permit from the Israeli army, which tends not to grant such things very often.  In the map below, Israeli plates get you onto yellow and red roads.  Palestinian plates keep you on white roads or carefully-watched on red ones.

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image from TheOtherSite

But it’s not just about cars. Palestinians in the West Bank also aren’t allowed to walk on Israeli roads or take public transportation into Israel without the special permit.

For the record, we’re not talking about a small number of people. Three million Palestinians currently live in the West Bank. Under Israeli rules, they spend most of their lives confined to a chunk of land about the size of the state of Delaware. An additional two million Palestinians in Gaza live under even harsher restrictions in an even smaller space. But we didn’t get to Gaza, so in this post, I’ll just talk about the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The inability to freely move around makes it hard for Palestinians on the West Bank to hold a decent job or participate in any kind of modern economy. I mean, they are cut off from all major Israeli cities. Even working in tourism based in the West Bank is difficult.

For example, our Green Olive Tour to Hebron and Bethlehem started out from Jerusalem because that’s where almost all tourists are staying. But our guide couldn’t meet us there. Muhannad has a car and lives a mere ten miles from Jerusalem, but he’s not allowed to enter Israel’s second-largest city.

So in order for Muhannad to do his tour guide gig, Green Olive, which is committed to using West Bank guides, had to hire a driver with a yellow Israeli license plate to make the 20-minute trip to the military checkpoint where Muhannad was waiting for us. We transferred to his car, which was parked next to this large, scary red sign with a message in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

West Bank red sign

“Okay, just for starters. the Palestinian Authority doesn’t ban Israelis from traveling into the West Bank.”  Muhannad said, pointing to the sign. “The Israeli government bans them, in part because it doesn’t want its citizens to see what happens here. And it puts this sign up in English to scare as many tourists away as possible and convince everyone it’s too dangerous to be in the Palestinian territories.”

Muhannad is a trim man in his early 40s who speaks quickly and in perfect English. He was born near Bethlehem. He and his wife have two sons, ages 7 and 9. Like so many Palestinians stuck in the West Bank with its high unemployment rates, they went overseas to find work. Their nine-year-old son was born in Denver and is a U.S. citizen.

Muhannad and his wife loved living and working in Colorado. But they missed their families and as Palestinians they also felt torn about living abroad. Ever since capturing the West Bank in the 1967 war, the Israelis have been squeezing Palestinians economically and hoping they’ll immigrate. Living abroad felt like a form of capitulation. So they came home.

But it’s not easy living in a place where one’s daily life is subjected to the whims of the Israeli army, imposed by soliders carrying automatic weapons, most of whom are young men in their late teens and 20s with all the wisdom and maturity that implies. And as his kids get older, Muhannad sometimes wonders if coming home was the right choice.

“For example…. our seven-year-old son is just learning how to read and is crazy about animals,” he said. “So he went online and discovered there was a zoo in Jerusalem that had lions and elephants. He begged us to take him there. It’s only 10 miles away.”

Muhannad and his wife are Christians; the Israelis traditionally allow Palestinian Christians to apply for travel permits to Jerusalem twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. So they figured that was their best chance to take him to the zoo. “But he’s just a little boy,” Muhannad said. “So he kept saying ‘why do we have to wait until Christmas? Why can’t we go this weekend?’”

Which brought Muhannad and his wife to the dilemma that every Palestinian parent in the West Bank and Gaza faces: at what age do you tell your children that they are effectively sealed in? That simple trips like going to a nearby zoo…or playing on the sand beaches of the Mediterranean which are a tantalizing 50 miles away are difficult or impossible for them…simply because they’re Palestinian?

cycle palestine 2015 317photo: emtainbikeblog.blogspot.com

2) Ye shall know them by their water tanks. If you drive around the West Bank for any period of time, you’ll notice that in some towns, every house has a big black plastic water tank on the roof. We saw this on multiple trips and our Palestinian guides said it was because the Israeli government controls the water supply and regularly cuts off the water to Palestinian homes without notice.

So people use their water tank reserve supply until it goes back on, which is usually in 24-72 hours. The tanks are plastic because a) they’re cheaper; b) if bored Israeli soldiers decide to shoot holes in your family’s water tank, people have learned it’s easier and faster to glue on a plastic patch than try to weld on a metal one.

Cut-offs can happen weekly, so most Palestinians carefully ration and monitor their water use, especially in the hot summer. On the West Bank, no one takes long, leisurely showers.

Actually, let me re-phrase that. No one with black plastic water tanks takes long leisurely showers. About 400,000 Israeli Jewish citizens also live in the West Bank in so-called “settlements” where the only tanks on their roofs are small, white solar water heaters. Cut-offs don’t seem to happen in the settlements; their water runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Thus the fastest way to tell if a West Bank community is Jewish or Palestinian is to just look at their roofs.

A few years ago, Muhannad said he came home to find his wife near tears. It was a hot summer day and their sons wanted her to fill up their bathtub with cool water and let them play. But she was afraid to risk using so much water—there had been so many cut-offs, they needed to save as much as possible just for drinking.

Look at us, his wife said, we can’t even let our kids play in a bathtub. Meanwhile, the children in the settlements have swimming pools.

The word “settlement” makes these communities sound quaint and rustic, but they look more like large, sprawling gated suburbs, albeit surrounded by high walls and razor-wire fences, and guarded by soldiers. Settlements can easily have 10,000 or more residents. They often come with their own shopping malls, office buildings, schools, libraries, public parks, beautifully irrigated gardens, tennis courts, artistic fountains in roundabouts, and swimming pools.

settlement poolHilltop water tower (no tanks necessary), apartment buildings, and public swimming pool complex at Ma’ale Adumim, a West Bank Jewish settlement, population, 37,000, photo from 972mag.com

Under international law, none of these Israeli settlements are legal because they’ve been built on Palestinian-owned land illegally seized from its owners and controlled by an occupying army. But the Israeli government continues to seize land and build more.

In addition to the 400,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, another 350,000 settlers live in houses and land in East Jerusalem, almost all of it illegally taken from Palestinian owners. Combine the two areas and you have three-quarters of a million Israelis living on Palestinian land, in violation of international law.

The settlements are a huge barrier to any hope of creating an independent Palestinian state. Which is precisely why the right-wing Israeli governments keep building more.

The stark contrast between the lives of Palestinians (whose families have lived on the land for hundreds, if not thousands of years) and Jewish settlers (who are often recent immigrants from the U.S. or Russia) can make the military occupation even more unbearable for the Palestinian side.  Jewish settlers get yellow license plates and are free to commute back and forth from Jerusalem on yellow-plates-only roads like this one we took to Nablus:

The government builds these special highways to let settlers more easily drive around or through Palestinian areas. It posts thousands of soldiers and guards at military checkpoints, to make sure Palestinians stay in their restricted zones.

And then there’s the Wall. Even though I’ve read a lot about the Wall, I was still shocked by the massive barrier that snakes, and stretches, and envelopes the West Bank.

West Bank wall yahooWest Bank Wall; photo: Yahoo News

3) With a length of over 400 miles, the West Bank Barrier is four times longer than the Berlin Wall; nearly half the length of the old barrier between East and West Germany. Built at the cost of $2.6 billion, it’s the single largest infrastructure project in Israeli history.

The Israeli government started building the wall in 2002, during the second Palestinian uprising when Israelis were being terrorized by suicide bombing attacks. The government first said it needed it for security, but it soon started also using the wall as a way to advance and secure more settlements, which is why the wall has kept expanding.

The wall has made the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank even more miserable and prison-like, cutting off more roads and turning what was once an easy ten-minute commute to schools or work or to visit elderly parents into hour-long detours.

LM Bethlehem wall jpggraffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem

But has it worked for the Israelis?

In the short run…. maybe. The suicide bombings have drastically decreased, although whether that’s due to the wall or better security and infiltration of terrorist groups by Israeli’s Shin Bet is hard to say. Hundreds of Palestinian laborers regularly sneak over the wall to take day jobs in Israel, so it would still seem possible for someone to climb over with a vest full of explosives. And random acts of violence still happen here—as they happen all over the world.

In the long run…honestly, I don’t know see how any of this is sustainable.

In two months, Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its “victory” in the 1967 Six-Day War, which led to its capture of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. But how has that victory turned out?

For 50 years, Israel has kept millions of Palestinians in these captured areas in limbo; not allowing them to become citizens of Israel or a free Palestinian state; controlling them ever more ruthlessly; and building bigger, longer walls. But this the process has also transformed Israel into a country that veers ever farther from functioning as a democracy and ever-closer to an apartheid state.

Jerusalem, South Africa Bag

Israel is also facing a demographic dilemma. This year, the number of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and Israel proper is about 6.5 million—or roughly the same number as Israeli Jews. But Palestinians have a higher birth rate; by 2020, they are predicted to outnumber Israeli Jews, putting Israel on a collision course with the very reason for its existence.

Israel was founded as Jewish state; it gives preferential treatment and refuge to Jews, who have historically suffered from discrimination around the world.  This systematic bias has always been problematic. But what will it look like as Jews increasingly become a powerful, well-armed minority that denies basic human rights to the majority of people it controls?

I’m writing this in Jerusalem during Passover, when Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh and it’s hard not to ponder how things change over history and roles reverse.

A protester holds a placard as she stands next to Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beit Fajjar town south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem

And I’m writing this on Easter morning, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, one of the biggest plot reversals in human history. And it’s hard not to wonder about how death becomes life and vice versa.

little Palestinian boy

This is a place with a history that goes back thousands of years. So 50 or 100 years is just a blink of an eye. I don’t know what will happen next or when. But as W. B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem: the center cannot hold; the ceremony of innocence has drowned.

Meanwhile, Muhannad’s nine-year-old son is  thinking about his Second Coming. He was born in Denver. He knows he’s an American citizen. He’s already imagining a life without checkpoints and soldiers. His dream, says Muhannad, is to live in a country where he can drive to the beach.

——Lynnell Mickelsen

Why I love being on a Muslim beach

by Lynnell Mickelsen

women on th beach

We spent our last two days in Jordan on the Red Sea, snorkeling off the beach about 8 miles south of Aqaba. I love the beach. I love to swim, but I’m an extremely pale person who sunburns easily. So I pour on the sunscreen, but still have to spend a lot of time swathed in long sleeves and pants to avoid sun poisoning while everyone else freely cavorts around in swimsuits.

So I can’t tell you how great it was to finally be on a beach where where all the women were as covered up as I am….if not more so!  Which means, for once, I wasn’t the lone freak. 

Except I still sort of was. As a person with blonde hair and blue eyes, I’ve been a novelty in Morocco, India, Egypt and Jordan. Nearly every day, for the last four months, people have stopped, stared, pulled out their cameras and insisted on taking selfies with me.

 I don’t get it. Yes, we’re independent travelers. Yes we can get a bit off the tourist track, but not that far off. So I think surely these lovely people in these lovely countries have seen plenty of blondes before. Plus, I’m almost 60, and most of the people who want to take my picture are under 30. I mean, it’s just weird.

But yet, as a traveler, I like to take photos of local people. So fair is fair. Grin and bear it.

On the Red Sea, I wanted to take pictures of Jordanian women on the beach, but I was feeling shy because many Muslim women really are modest and do not want their photos taken by any Westerners. I was trying to work up the courage to ask, but it turns out, I didn’t need it because pretty soon,  a young woman came up and asked to take a selfie of the two of us. Then another woman came up. And then another.

Taking photos with women and kids is almost always cool, but I’ve learned to be somewhat wary of taking photos with men because too often they can pull me in a little too close and hold on a little too long and a few of times, I’ve gotten groped. Of course, this is nothing compared to what younger solo women travelers put up with. But still. It’s gross.

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LM on Muslim beach 2

None of the women on the beach spoke English. I don’t speak Arabic. But they were all very nice and after taking photos, each of them motioned me over to meet their friends or families and drink tea.  I declined because I was feeling shy and because John was snorkeling off by himself in the ocean with high winds and a strong current, so I was walking along the beach acting as his lifeguard.

 But on other days, I’ve gotten tired of being a novelty. In India and Egypt, especially,  the photo requests could be unrelenting.  A few weeks ago, in Alexandria, Egypt, I was standing by myself along an ancient fortress wall, waiting for John to buy entry tickets to the site, when a young woman, who had been staring at me for while, came up laughing and said, in heavily accented, broken English, “My friends and I want to put you in the zoo.”

 I felt a flash of irritation. Enough, people!  I wanted to say. Yes, I look different, but hey, talking about putting me in a zoo really crosses a line. But I don’t speak Arabic and even if I did, as Minnesotan, I’ve been long-socialized to stuff my anger and channel it into passive-aggressive brooding. So instead I just scowled at her.

 She hesitated and then said the same thing, covering her mouth and giggling some more. I rolled my eyes. And then I realized she was actually saying,  “My friends and I want to take our picture with you.” And she was giggling because she felt so nervous.

 Okay, Okay, I said. So we took the these photos and by the end, they were all so sweet and happy and goofy, my irritation evaporated.  This ain’t profound,  but one of my takeaways from this year of travel is that most people around the world are actually really nice if you just relax and hang out with them.Alexandria zoo

Alexandria selfies

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Alexandria zoo 3

——Lynnell Mickelsen

Riding the Indian Rails in Which We Are Saved By 20-Something Indian Millennials and Their Apps And Later By The World’s Greatest Stunt Driver.

by Lynnell Mickelsen

A few days ago, we took our first trip on the Indian Railway system, which the Lonely Planet Guide includes on its list of top things to do in India because it’s a classic way to see the countryside and hang out with ordinary Indian travelers.

We decided to start off easy with an overnight side trip to a Bodhgaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage site about 150 miles from our base in Varanasi. We’d put our big backpacks in storage at our hotel, take the  five-hour train trip  up to Bodhgaya in morning; stay overnight at a Buddhist retreat center; come back the next afternoon and stay one last night in Varanasi. We had bought our tickets a week in advance.  I mean, what could go wrong?

As it turns out….plenty. Riding the Indian Railways can be so confusing, it’s inspired an entire cottage industry of ways to cope

We got a preview of this when we first tried to buy the tickets on-line. The Indian Railways website was so confusing and difficult, John ultimately gave up and went to an Indian travel agency. It took hours for the experienced  travel agency staff to book the tickets. But thanks to their heroic efforts, we were able to reserve all our scheduled Indian rail tickets in advance and emerged with printed confirmation sheets showing we had paid in advance.

But in India, paying for tickets doesn’t necessarily mean you actually have a seat. Instead, you are put onto a waiting list. There are phone apps that can let you track your  ever-shifting chances for getting on…40 percent….70 percent, etc.

We were blissfully unaware of all this the morning that we arrived at the vast and aging Varanasi train station. We stared at the big electronic departure board, which shifted from Hindi to English, and eventually figured out our train was scheduled to depart on platform 9 and was already a few hours late.

varanasi-junction-train-stationVaranasi Junction Station,  photo courtesy of jabalpur rocks/Flickr

We spent a few hours in the station, killing time with crowds of Indian travelers, some of of whom looked like they had been waiting for their train for weeks. Eventually, we made our way to platform 9 and encountered the next problem: there were no car numbers or seat assignments on our printed confirmation sheets, so how would we know which car to get on and where to sit?

We watched as several crowded and extremely long trains pulled into the station. Crowds of passengers then pushed their way on. We were baffled We tried asking our fellow passengers how to get a seat assignment, but no one spoke enough English. We searched for conductors or any other Indian Railways employees. Never saw anyone. Eventually, two young 20-something Indian Millennials, seeing us wandering around confused and helpless, took us in hand.

train-arriving-in-varanasi-courtesy-india-raiuTrain arriving on the platform at Varanasi Junction , courtesy India Rail Info

In order to get seat assignment, they explained, we needed to find our 10-digit reservation number, which was located in tiny print in a tiny box on our confirmation sheet. Who knew? Then we needed to go on-line to the Indian Railways website, type in the number to get our train car and seat assignments. Except the Indian Railways website is infamous for not working. So instead we should download some of the phone apps like Train Man, which which give out the same information and seem to be more reliable.

The two of them whipped out their phones, punched in our reservation numbers and told us our car and seat numbers. They were so busy helping us, they nearly missed their 0wn trains–one had to chase the train down and leap onto one of the last cars as it pulled away.

Have we mentioned that we keep meeting the nicest, most generous people in India and everywhere else on this trip?

trainman-appThe life-saving Train Man App

After they left, we got out our phones, downloaded the Train Man App—this is one reason why we labored long and hard to get Indian SIM cards.  You really do need data to negotiate India as independent travelers. We punched in our reservation and voila—-there was loads of information. The good news was that we were off the waiting lists and our seats were now truly confirmed. The bad news was the train was five hours late, which by Indian standards is actually just an eensy weensy delay—-we’re learning that Indian Railways makes Amtrak look like it’s run by the Swiss.

crowds-waiting-at-varanasi-staitonTravelers waiting for trains in Varanasi station. Rail traffic in India means a lot of waiting. 

When our train finally pulled into platform 9, a guy was in one of our of our seats. We eventually got him to leave, but we never did see a conductor, nor did anyone ever come by to check our tickets. John and I were in different compartments. There were no announcements about what station is coming up; most of the signs were in Hindi; and we weren’t always able to glimpse the station signs in English as we went by. So we had to ask our fellow passengers where we were or try checking it on Google maps if our phone cell data was available.

interior-of-carjpgThe second-class sleeper cars–pretty basic. Courtesy India Rail Info

It was dark when we arrived at our peaceful Buddhist retreat center in Bodhgaya. The next day, before we starting out tour of various temples. John checked his new Train Man apps, which said our return train was delayed by five hours and would now arrive back in Varanasi around 2 a.m.

Trust me, you do not want to arrive in Varanasi at 2 a.m. as 60-year-old Americans carrying cash, credit cards and passports and try to get an auto-rickshaw back to the area near our Hotel Alka, which can only be accessed on foot through a maze of walkways, all of which are completely dark at that time of night.

The alternative to Indian Railways: driving in Mad Max convoys

So with the help of the Buddhist retreat center, we arranged for a car to drive us back to Varanasi. It cost $75—or about triple the cost of both of our Indian Rail tickets. The dispatcher said a driver would pick us up at 2 p.m. and the 150 mile trip would take at least six hours because route was known for particularly bad truck traffic jams.

Our driver seemed to be in his mid-40s. He spoke almost no English, so we communicated through hand gestures or on occasional notes on our phone translated into Hindi via Google Translate.

And man, what a drive. The roads in India are intensely crowded and/or bumpy.We drove through a never-ending cloud of dust with the usual collection of cows, people, dogs, bicycles, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, horse-carts, cars and trucks.

We spent most of the ride on a divided freeway that seemed to be under continual construction. And we discovered the dispatcher wasn’t kidding when he talked about truck traffic jams. Again and again, we found the highway completely obstructed with lines of semi-trucks, clogging up traffic and standing still. The backed up traffic stretched out for miles.

Our driver’s solution for this was to turn around, cross over the median—over huge bumps or weaving between a break in the concrete lane barriers– and then start driving the wrong-way, directly into the on-coming traffic, flashing his lights because the jams were generally only on one side of the highway.

At first we thought he was crazy, But we soon realized he was amazing.  When our driver encountered traffic jams that couldn’t be solved by simply driving the wrong way,  he would take back roads—along with plenty of other drivers. We always seemed to be part of a Mad Max kind of convoy as we hurtled down dusty back roads, some of which seemed more like paths, dodging cows and food carts  But eventually, we always found ourselves back on the freeway, past the latest crazy traffic jam.

The man was a genius. And don’t even get me started on his hair-raising, surgically-close, but ultimately successful passing techniques that NASCAR drivers and Hollywood stunt men wouldn’t dare attempt.

The whole ride was like a wild, wild virtual reality video game.  Naturally, there were no seat-belts.

At 8:30 p.m. we arrived in Varanasi, feeling vindicated because according to the trusty Train Man app, the train we were scheduled to take still hadn’t even left Bodhgaya and was now scheduled to arrive in Varanasi the next morning.

In Varanasi, however, the traffic was too crazy for even our driver to negotiate, which tells you a lot. So he parked his car, hailed a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw for us, negotiated the price and jumped in, determined to personally walk us to our hotel, if need be.

It was a Sunday night, so in addition to the usual dense-packed traffic, the streets were crowded with massive wedding parties, floats, bands and horses carrying the bridal couples to the next party. Our rickshaw driver pounded his horn, ducked and weaved, but there wasn’t much room to negotiate, so he too ended taking back routes that were so rutted and bumpy, I thought the whole rickshaw would dump over.  Even our fearless car driver, clutching the handgrips, at times appeared wide-eyed.

maxresdefault-1Wedding procession moving through Varanasi at night, courtesy YouTube

Eventually, the rickshaw driver got us close enough to the hotel to start walking in. All three of us got out. After a few blocks, we convinced our car driver that we knew our way from here, thanked him profusely and gave him a big tip.

We never did understand how to pronounce his name and didn’t speak the same language. And yet he was such a heroic sweetheart to us. I wanted to hug him, but that’s not done in India. So we put our hands together and said Namaste.

Bottom line……..travel in India is never dull.

——-Lynnell Mickelsen

Reflecting on Trump from Spain

Well, it’s been almost two weeks since the election. We were in Madrid on November 8th–which is six hours ahead of New York’s time. So we  went to bed that night anxious but hopeful that the U.S. would soon be electing its first woman president and woke up to Trump.

Like almost everyone else we know, we were devastated. Numb. Nauseous.  Our first impulse was to pack up and go home because that’s what you do when someone you love suddenly dies, although in this case it was the country we thought we lived in.

But instead, we spent that Wednesday walking around like zombies in central Madrid. It was a beautiful, sunny day and a public holiday, so the streets were crowded with families and kids doing an extended version of the Spanish paseo, i.e. just walking around and enjoying the street and each other’s company. Their happy normality was both reassuring and a sharp contrast to the dread John and I carried.

I don’t know when I’ve felt this level of grief. It’s really physical and as everyone says, it’s not linear. I go up and down.  Sometimes I feel almost normal. Other times, my heart feels so broken and heavy, I can hardly breathe. As my late friend Denny Schapiro once put it, “I make the daily commute between hope and despair.” And a lot of times, I do wish we were home, gathering strength with our family, friends and political allies.

Yet it’s been instructive watching this unfold from Spain, a country that went through a bloody civil war from 1936-1939. The fascists won and General Franco ruled Spain with an authoritarian grip for nearly 40 years until his death in 1975. So Spain had the longest experience of dealing with right wing, religious, authoritarian rule of any other country in Western Europe.  Here I am asking a museum historian in Guernica about the complicity of the church in Franco’s authoritarian reign:

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I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War before arriving a couple of weeks ago except that it was pre-cursor to World War II; Hemingway and Orwell wrote about it and Picasso painted “Guernica, etc. But here’s the gist: in 1936, a right-wing military and political class staged a coup against a democratically elected, center-left government. Historians say that in the next three years, about 500,000 Spaniards died– the equivalent of the U.S. suffering 5.5 million dead.  About 250,000 were murdered outright; the other half died of injuries, malnutrition and abuse. Another 500,000 people went into exile. Another 250,000 spent the next decade in Franco’s gulag of labor camps.

Did you know this stuff? I didn’t. Growing up, I read endless stories about repression in the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc and China–which really were bad. But I knew almost nothing about right-wing repression because during the Cold War, authoritarians who were anti-Communist pretty much got a free pass from our government and the media.

And Franco’s regime was really bad. At one point, he announced he’d be willing to kill one-third of the male Spanish population if that’s what it took to “purify” Spain of its leftist tendencies. Franco didn’t just want to roll back 100 years of 20th century progress. He wanted to take Spain back to the pre-Enlightenment days of 1492, i.e. when Ferdinand and Isabella presided over a powerful  theocracy, with the Catholic Church controlling every aspect of life; wealthy people operated with impunity and Jews and Muslims were expelled.

It was Franco’s version of “Make Spain Great Again,” except instead of greatness, he turned Spain into a corrupt backwater, frozen in time.

So here are three lessons that I’ve thought of while reading Spanish history after the election.

1) When you’re up against a ruthless right-wing authoritarian regime, you really don’t have the luxury of lefty internal battles and utopian schemes. Franco and his followers were vicious, well-armed and organized. In contrast, the Spanish left fractured into various splinter groups and spent an enormous amount of time fighting each other, pursuing anarchist utopias and refusing to compromise or cooperate.

Maybe Franco would have won regardless—after all, he had the support of most of the military plus Hitler’s Luftwaffe. But the divisions on the left were a disaster.

My son who lives in New York City says he was stopped on the street the other day by a young guy trying to sign him up for the Socialist Party who instantly launched into a rant on how Bernie Sanders had sold out. There are still people on my Facebook feed who want to re-litigate Hillary vs. Bernie. People, please. We don’t have time for this any more.

2) We must commit ourselves to non-violent resistance…. because it’s both morally right and more politically effective in the long run. According to historian Anthony Beevor, the Spanish left killed roughly 36,000 people, including 7,000 priests and nuns, mostly in the first year of the war. Anarchists also burned churches and desecrated graves. Their actions were morally repellent and indefensible.

Meanwhile, Franco’s forces murdered six times more people, over 200,000, including priests and nuns not considered sufficiently loyal. At one point, the right wing vowed to kill 10 leftists for every fascist death…and if you add in the people Franco imprisoned and exiled, the right wing basically met its ten-fold goal.

And yet the two sides were routinely portrayed as morally equivalent or equally dangerous.

Violence is wrong no matter who does it.  Which is why non-violence needs to be a key principle especially for those of us who fight to uphold the norms of a democratic, civil society.

3) In the long run, fascism can’t be sustained. Resurrection happens. Under Franco, the laws passed by the previous left-center government were declared void. Unions were suppressed or banned. Men suspected of being gay could be killed. Franco outlawed divorce, contraception and abortion. Women were not allowed to become university professors, judges or testify in court.  In the early years of the regime, church attendance soared because local priests reported the names of people who were lax at attending mass—which was enough to get you tagged as a leftist and arrested.

I could keep going. It was an endless list of terrible policies.

Franco spent four decades trying to shape Spain into his conservative, religious vision.  . But almost soon as he died in 1975, Spain began rapidly shifting into the modern, progressive, secular nation it is today. Nearly  everything Franco tried to prevent came into being…at a speed which seems astonishing, given what the country had been through. Gay marriage is now legal in Spain. So is abortion. Spaniards rarely attend church. And they are fiercely devoted to democracy—they want to vote on everything.

I don’t write this to say that there was no cost or that the recovery was easy or even complete. The human toll from Franco’s rule was huge and horrendous and the Spanish mostly still don’t talk about it. “My grandfather was shot by Franco’s troops,” my neighbor at a campground told me. “He was hauled out of his house, lined up against the wall and killed, simply because he was considered an educated man and therefore suspect.  But as Spaniards, we still don’t usually discuss it because we never know whose relatives were on which side of the rifle.”

So Spain is hardly perfect. And yet…. there are no monuments to Franco.  No streets named after him. No statues.  A few days before the US election, we visited Franco’s grave at the infamous “Valley of the Fallen” where Franco forced his political prisoners to build him a massive dark tomb in an underground cathedral. The place reminded me of the long hall in The Wizard of Oz—it was that gloomy and foreboding. We were there on a sunny weekend day and the place was nearly empty. John noticed with satisfaction that the cave-like building was leaking—there were buckets everywhere.

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I  don’t want to minimize what’s ahead for the U.S. We are entering into a dark period, although hopefully not as horrific as the Spanish Civil War. But some of the most vile people in America now have their hands on the levers of government power and terrible things will be done.

But if we’re looking for hope…..well, Spain does teach us that fascism doesn’t last. We will need courage, unity and spiritual strength in the days ahead. But resurrection does happen….at great cost and not fast. But it happens.

—Lynnell Mickelsen

Travels with Toni, Our Sat-Nav Robot Lady

Back in the last century, John and I used to travel around using folding paper things called maps. Yes, I know. We’re that old.  But now, only six weeks into this trip, we’ve become total satellite navigation freaks, barely willing to move unless the robot lady in our Garmin device tells us it’s okay.

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I’m a newbie to sat-nav devices, mostly because none of cars we’ve ever owned came with one. Back home, if I needed directions, I just used Google Maps on my smart phone. Which worked fine— as long as I could get a cell phone signal and didn’t leave the country.

But now we’re frequently off the beaten path, out of cell phone range or crossing borders.  For example, two weeks ago, when we crossed over to Ireland our British SIM cards instantly went kaput. No data. No calls. No texts. No Google maps.Fellow travelers had warned me about this would happen, which is why I bought a Garmin device, pre-loaded with UK and European maps.

Which is how we ended up traveling with Toni, which is what we call our Garmin robot lady. It’s short for Antonia, female version of Anthony, the patron saint of finding lost things, people or places.

Every morning, we plug in our destination and Toni starts talking.  “At the roundabout, take the third exit,” she’ll say in her crisp British accent. She always sounds calm, professional and mature, but not too mature, more like in her mid-40s, i.e. before peri-menopause renders her too spacey or irritable.

Sat-nav isn’t perfect. Sometimes Toni says turn right when she really means turn left. The first time this happened, we spent about ten minutes continually looping through the same intersections in a mid-size city before we realized that even a professional British robot lady can occasionally get confused.  We’ve since learned that when there’s a conflict, we should follow the Sat-Nav graphic map, not Toni’s voice.  But mostly her record has been pretty good….unlike another robot lady.

Let me explain.

At the beginning of our trip, we spent two days in a rental car that came with its own built-in satellite navigation. We used the rental car to drive from central London down to southern England where we picked up our campervan.

I always knew the drive out of London would be hellish. London streets are narrow and twisting; they change names every five blocks; and the traffic is horrible. Plus, we were driving an unfamiliar rental car with manual transmission. This is Britain, so the steering wheel was on the right and the stick shift was on the left, so shifting seemed particularly tricky, especially since London can be surprisingly hilly and I kept killing the engine in stop and go traffic on the steeper streets.

In short, it was already a shit-show. But then the sat-nav robot lady decided to really screw with us. It was as if there was something buried deep her settings that said, “Take every back street in London before leaving town.”

“Please turn left now,” the robot lady would say.

“But it’s an alley!!!” I’d protest.

“Turn left now,” she’d repeat, only more sternly.

So I’d do it. It was the most insane route and it kept changing, maybe in response to traffic jams or detours or maybe because the robot lady was one sick nut job.

“Turn right at the corner,” the robot lady would order.

“It’s another back alley,” I’d wail.  (Note: vehicle in photo is NOT our van.  Our van is blue.  Alley width is, however, typical).

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“Just do what she says,” John would say, as if she had us at gun-point and he didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

After two hours of this, we were beyond lost. But what could we do? We didn’t know London. We didn’t have decent maps. We didn’t know where to buy a decent map. And even if by pure luck, we had somehow driven past an actual map store, we’d never find a parking spot, especially for our big van.  (Note: this is obviously not our van).

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To this day, we’re not sure how we got out of London. We never acted like free, independent adults; we just kept slavishly following her. So maybe the robot lady just got bored with toying with us. But anyhow, hours later, we eventually got to the town in southern England where we turned in the rental car and picked up our van and started using our Garmin device which featured the far nicer and more competent Toni.

But still, the rental car fiasco left me with sat-nav trust issues. At first, if I had access to a cell phone signal and my British data plan was working, I’d secretively type in the address in Google Map, just in case Toni decided to become evil.

But I couldn’t do this when we were in Ireland and utterly dependent on our Garmin device, which insisted we type in street addresses with house numbers, or at the very least, a postal code.  Unfortunately, many of the campgrounds and the historic sites we were trying to find in Ireland weren’t listed with house numbers, street names or postal codes.

Our campground in Killarney, Ireland for example, came with the following official address: Lissivigeen, Killarney. That’s it.

Which is apparently, that’s enough for the Irish. But the Garmin rejected it, insisting we put in something more detailed. Trying to appease the device, we typed in GPS numbers from a “Best Campgrounds in Britain” book and soon Toni was giving instructions in her usual clear, confident voice.

The first 200 kilometers seemed to go okay. But then the route kept getting stranger and stranger. The sun was going down. We were now 40 minutes past the town of Killarney, being directed down roads that kept getting more and more narrow and rutted. Hmm, we thought, maybe this campground is lot more remote than it sounded.

Then we heard Toni utter these fateful words: “Navigate off the road,” she demanded.

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We had arrived at an empty field.

We now know that “Navigate off the road” is right up there with “Drive directly into the sea.” It’s what Toni tells you when you’re totally screwed.

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So we turned around. By the time we eventually found the campground on our own, it was dark and we were exhausted and hungry.  ”The GPS numbers for your place in the campground directory are wrong,” I announced, somewhat hysterically to the man at the campground desk who paid no attention to what I thought was crucial information and began instead began talking, in a very precise, sort of Asbergery way about how the campsites were laid out and how the showers worked.

After the London and Killarney campground disasters, I was done with Sat-Nav robot ladies. “They’re sociopaths, “I told John. But he defended Toni, saying it wasn’t her fault the GPS numbers in the campground guide were off and that I was being unreasonable.

As a compromise, we started buying some basic road maps, sort of like a security blanket, so we could at least have a general idea of where Toni was taking us and feel less like utter sat-nav slaves.

And since then, the last two weeks or so have been pretty smooth sailing, In Wales, we were impressed that Toni tried to pronounce the names of Welsh roads. “Turn left on Eglwyswrw Hwtra” she’d say.  (Which means, and I am not making this up, “Church Street.”)

It mostly sounded like she was gargling or clearing her throat. But still, I was usually too intimidated to even try to pronounce Welsh—I just went straight to throat clearing, so I gave her prop for that.

The other day, Toni suddenly announced, “Turn left at the white building ahead” and John and I were slack-jawed.  Toni had never mentioned the color of a building before. Heck ,we didn’t even know she could see colors.

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So far, she’s never mentioned a color again, so we’re still mystified. The other day she said, “Turn left at the knife point.” We looked. No knife. No point.  But we turned left anyways and it worked. The next day, she said something about a knife again.

“What’s with this new obsession with weapons?” I asked.  Then she got quiet.

Stay tuned.

——-Lynnell Mickelsen

The 90 percent/10 percent rule of travel

Just before we left on this trip, I heard author Elizabeth Gilbert explain that 90 percent of anything worth doing—whether it’s writing or raising small children or travel—is pretty dull and routine.

A whole lot of travel is sitting in airports, train stations and traffic jams, Gilbert told Krista Tippett in an “On Being” podcast. Or being in a museum that isn’t all that interesting when you’d really rather be eating lunch. Or getting lost in a town that isn’t as cool as it sounded in the guidebook But then there’s the transforming, amazing ten percent, which Gilbert says is the reason you decided to travel in the first place.

I’ve thought about that 90 /10 percent quote a lot in these last ten days because most of what we’ve been doing so far is the routine nuts-and-bolts stuff about learning how to live out of a campervan.

There’s a romantic myth about campervan life in which you drive around in a spacious, neat vehicle that at night magically transforms itself into a spacious well-lit bedroom, kitchen and living room. It’s sort of like the van version of Hermonie’s magical handbag in the Harry Potter books, which is charmed to allow her to carry clothes, medicine, an amazing tent with bunkbeds and cooking supplies, all in a small, beaded purse.

Alas, our van did not come with an Undetectable Extension Charm. Don’t get me wrong. The crew at Slidepods did an amazing job adding a pop-up roof, putting in a kitchen that slides out the back; driver and passenger seats that swivel around, a diesel heater for cold nights, and a great electrical system with USB plugs and lighting.

But still, it’s also only a little bit bigger than a mini-van. And we’re carrying clothes, food, raincoats, two folding chairs, books and toiletries, etc. So it’s sort of like living in one of those 15-piece little puzzle squares with one tile missing. You’re always shoving stuff around, trying to an open space for whatever you’re doing.

So it only took us a couple days of shoving our stuff around and observing how our fellow campers in the campgrounds were living to come to this fundamental truth: either you sleep in a tent and store a lot of stuff in your vehicle. Or you sleep in your vehicle and store your stuff in a tent.

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Since we are sleeping in our vehicle, it was a clear choice. We bought a cheap utility tent-–it’s basically a storage shed. I didn’t even know such things existed and in an earlier life, I would have mocked it. But man, now I think a utility tent is pure genius. If we’re going to be staying in a campground for a few days, we put it up, shove all our stuff in there and then, the van feels a lot more spacious. (Even then, it’s still small.)

Anyhow, I’m glad I heard that podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert because we have spent 90 percent of our time on the road so far doing routine thing: driving, going grocery shopping, finding the address of our next location, getting lost, fixing little things that broke, packing up, filling water tanks, buying utility tents, buying bicycles, figuring out how to get them on the bike rack, etc.

We travel to discover encounter new things, new worlds, but that also means you’re continually dealing with the unfamiliar. Which means you spend a lot of time every day trying to figure basic stuff like how to unlock the grocery cart at Sainsbury’s (it takes a one pound coin and you get it back when you return it); how to top off your British SIM card; how to find the bicycle paths in a crowded city or figure out the bus system or a hundred other things. I’m learning the key is to stay curious and patient (because on a practical level, impatience doesn’t help; it just makes everything harder.)

There are ways around having to constantly deal with unfamiliar details of life in a new place. Five-star hotel, guided tours or cruises can buffer you from it. But those options come with their own trade-offs and John and I have always preferred traveling as low to the ground as possible,, i..e. camping and hosteling, not only because we save money, but because it comes with its own rewards.

Last night, we took the car ferry from Pembroke, Wales to Rosslare, Ireland. The ferry docked at 7 p.m. We arrived at St. Margaret’s Beach Caravan and Camping Park around 8 p.m. It’s the last week before school starts, so the campground was full of kids chasing each other, riding bikes and scooters.

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We set up our van for the night and met our neighbors, Rebecca and George, who were camping with their four kids. They live only 20 miles away, but she said they come because the campground is only 500 meters from the beach and her kids love playing on it.

“It’s low tide, “Rebecca said, “so you could go right now and see it.” She looked at our bikes. “The sand is pretty hard,” she added. “If you can get your bikes down the rocky path, you could ride on the beach.”

The light was fading, so we jumped on our bikes. The campground is surrounded by farmland, so we rode down a narrow lane, past herds of cows, wandering around very green fields, amid vine-covered ruins of what looked like an old monastery or manor house. Is this Ireland or what? We went around another curve and then suddenly, there was the beach—-a huge, sandy bay with tiny fishing boats at one end. We walked our bikes down a rocky path. Rebecca was right—the sand was hard. So we rode around the bay.  Below is a quick snapshot of the beach as the sun faded.

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There were only a handful of people down there, enjoying the last few minutes after the sunset. A young woman waded out into the sea and carefully tied her long hair into a bun. While her companion watched, she took a quick, plunge underwater and squealed. He snapped a photo. I admired her fortitude. The sea is cold here. It was windy and only about 60 degrees.

We rode home and made tea out of our back kitchen. I stayed up for another hour, reading about Irish history in our van, which has lights and can feel very cozy on a cool, windy night.

I don’t know if this was transformative or amazing, but I think this was the ten percent that Elizabeth Gilbert was talking about.