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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The discreet hiker 3

People keep asking how we're going to travel around the world with everything in a backpack. There are actually many good blog posts from people who have done this, and they're more authoritative than I am. But, as I'm also planning to trek Mt. Kilimanjaro, there's the gear I need for hiking, in addition to my everyday traveling. Here is how I am attempting to have as much overlap as possible and minimize the load for myself and my porter on the mountain.

I've already written about hiking clothes; layering is the key. Other than being able to wear every item of clothing with every other item, there's not much to packing except a few additional items I won't be taking on the hike. Swimsuit, shorts, an alternative pair of shoes (light/folding up), a few cotton items not suitable for the trek. It is important always to leave one full set of clean clothes, for laundry day--or the day you return triumphantly from the mountain!

Non-clothing, in no particular order:
  • Water bottles. A regular (reusable) water bottle is very handy to have, in addition to the water sack on the mountain (in case the latter freezes), and to cut down on plastic trash where possible. There are countries where you can't drink the tap water, and Tanzania is one of them. However on Kilimanjaro, the crew purifies the water from mountain streams--disposable bottles are banned from the national park.
  • Electronics. You know what you need and what you can live without. A cheap and old (or at least old-looking) phone or camera is less likely to attract unwanted attention. Ziploc bags (labeled) are handy for cords, chargers, etc.--keeping them organized and making me less likely to forget or lose something. Which brings me to
  • Plastic bags! Ziplocs and larger (strong) trash bags--not the junk from store checkouts that splits with a single use. The Ziplocs are good for organizing and packing out trash; the larger bags are for lining backpacks or double-waterproofing items such as clothing*. However many you bring, reuse and remember to dispose of them properly, i.e., don't leave them to add to the landfill (or worse, sea pollution) in a developing country that may not have recycling facilities.
  • Even better are packing cubes or compression stuff sacks (or dry bags if it absolutely has to be waterproof, such as for submersion). These are washable and you are sure to find a type that is right for keeping things organized inside your bag.
Speaking of bags, there are two types. The backpack I travel with now is large (but not too large) with a small, detachable daypack for carrying around while the larger backpack is locked away somewhere. For Kili the requirements are different. There, porters carry everything inside a soft-sided duffel bag (it needs to be soft so they can carry it on their heads!), except for the items hikers need during the day between camps. 

The daypack for the Kili trek probably needs to be a bit bigger than the daypack I'd normally use to carry a bottle of water and guidebook around town. Fortunately, I have an old 25L backpack I've used for hiking for years.
I also have a soft-sided tennis bag that is large enough to accommodate a sleeping bag and all the other gear (up to a maximum 15 kg in weight) that I'll need on the mountain. These, along with Kili-specific gear, can stay locked away until I get there. 

*Waterproofing will be extra important because my tennis bag is not. The sleeping bag is the most important item of all, but I'm not about to buy one and schlep it around the world. I plan to rent from my trekking company--the warmest possible. Be sure to count the weight and packed-down size of the sleeping bag and mat, in terms of which duffel bag to take.

Other gear:
  1. A sealable, floating waterproof container with a neck cord can be handy. Not so much for Kilimanjaro, but for the beach, or anywhere else you need to hold a few bare essentials. I'm talking maybe a card and a key, in case you're swimming in the ocean and must have one or two valuables with you. Personally I wouldn't try a phone...
  2. Bath bag. You know what is the minimum you can get by with (see word to the women below). In addition to recommendations there, a few drugs are useful--any prescriptions you need of course (with the prescription), whatever painkiller(s) work for you, and loperamide, which has the handy effect of stopping you going when you really don't want to go. Enough said.
  3. Two liquids I definitely need in larger than carry-on size, so they go in the duffel bag until I put them in my Kili daypack. One is mosquito repellent (with DEET) that is vital at lower elevations in malarial countries; the other is sunblock (factor 50 is recommended at high altitude). I am told to cover all exposed surfaces including hands, and to pack sunscreen from the West, as it's not as much in demand by Tanzanians!
  4. Zinc oxide--that ugly white cream--is not only useful for sunblock on sensitive places like lips, but also heals all wounds, like time. And if you apply it to heels/other foot surfaces before you set off for a day of hiking, it can even prevent blisters! I call it "magic cream."
  5. I also always travel with earplugs, as they're as useful on a long-haul flight as they may be at a noisy campsite. And an eye mask (although as in so many cases, a bandanna will do). 
  6. Laundry supplies, if you expect to do any washing in a sink. A universal plug stopper and some hand-wash soap are sufficient. This came in handy when I crossed Germany in 2008 carrying only a 25L backpack (I could get away with it because it was summer).
  7. A few clothespins or binder clips, if you expect anything to sun dry (from your daypack or anywhere else).
  8. Bottle opener. I have one on my keyring. I used to travel everywhere with my Swiss Army knife, but since September 11 this would force me to check luggage, which I try to avoid whenever possible. (This is a good reason to minimize liquid sizes too.)
  9. Travel towel. This is the pat-dry type that is less absorbent, but much lighter and more packable than a fluffy beach towel. It's the only kind to take up Kilimanjaro where nothing else will dry.
  10. Essential documents and cards, and copies in a separate place.The only documentation I'm taking on the mountain are copies, including of my insurance policy (high-altitude trekking required). Everything else stays locked up in the hotel.
  11. I do always take small notebooks with me (and pens--Ziplocs are handy here). Books are heavy but it's always handy to have one--at least a guidebook for the country(ies) you're visiting. You can always cut out sections with that knife you can't bring, and bind just the parts you need with duct tape (if you're bringing that). Some people are into e-readers although to me, it would just be another thing to get lost or stolen. See electronics!
  12. I was tempted by a small, lipstick-sized charger. There's no charging electronics on the mountain, obviously, and the cold can make camera/phone batteries run down more quickly. I've tried it but only at home.
  13. Glasses if you wear them; prescription, case and whatever you need to clean them with. And sunglasses! For Kilimanjaro wraparound sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays are recommended, and pretty much essential to prevent snow blindness at the top.
  14. I assume you can't leave home without a wallet. Remember not to confuse this with a money belt or whatever you're using to keep valuables in a secret place. A money belt never comes out in public; a wallet is for your daily cash needs, and should contain nothing else. (Only tip money is required on Kili--check with your trekking company for recommendations.)
  15. Spare laces for your hiking boots, just in case.
  16. A washable laundry bag is something I already have, but wouldn't buy, since a plastic bag would do.
  17.  A headlamp. This is essential for camping and for attempting the summit of Kili in the dark! But it's handy anywhere, and more so than a flashlight that you'd have to hold in your hand. Spare batteries too (don't throw batteries away on the mountain).
  18. Vaccinations are not a thing, but you need them for many countries including Tanzania. Photocopies of whatever you've had are vital documentation, as is a yellow fever certificate (mine is stuck into my old passport). It may be required for you to enter the country.
Are you seeing how all this can fit? Not in 55L worth of backpack, but easily so if you leave out the gear I need only for trekking (such as poles). And very few of these are things I've actually bought for the purpose. The one item I haven't had a chance to try yet is a combination stuff sack/camp pillow. This water-resistant sack can be used to stuff fleece or thermals inside my duffel bag; when turned inside out, it has an incredibly soft surface that will make a nice pillow. At least as nice as one of those neck things on the plane, and much less bulky. I will let you know!

Finally, a word to the women. Kilimanjaro has become so popular that you can find a ton of blog posts and packing lists now, many of them from women. Nonetheless you cannot miss the fact that you will be vastly outnumbered on the mountain. Even if you book specially with a group of all female hikers, you will be outnumbered by your crew and they will almost certainly all be male.

This is not a problem--but I've found it really helpful to get ideas from women who've been there: some female-specific and some general. Have a look at this list (ignore the company-specific information). You'll know which tips would be useful to you. And there's one more thing I know you all are thinking about (skip this last paragraph if it's too much information):

The loo. More specifically, what to do between loos, which you will be for several hours hiking from camp to camp. If you've hiked before I don't need to tell you how to go in the woods, but it's not really woods on much of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Some women recommend one of those devices that goes by a variety of brand names and, essentially, allows you to stay standing up without removing all your layers of clothing. If saving time and privacy sounds like a good idea, check it out. I will pass on one piece of advice a very wise woman told me: Practice at home first. "In the shower." And if you're thinking of an extra bottle, to keep from having to exit the tent at night...make sure you clearly mark the bottle separate from the ones you'll carry water in ;-)

Monday, March 27, 2017

How to travel with two passports: FAQs

To my surprise, the most frequently read post on The Discreet Traveler has been Top 10: How to travel with two passports. Because I keep getting questions about it--thank you, readers!--here are a few quick answers. Most questions seem to be from Americans.

1. If I'm a United States citizen, do I have to travel on a US passport? 
The short answer is Yes, to and from the USA. The fuller answer is that you must (by law) show your US passport to US immigration officials when you enter the USA.
The law says you must enter and leave the USA with a US passport but in practice, the US does not have exit immigration like most other countries do. So the only requirement to leave the US with a US passport is that you must have the passport with you. Checking into a flight out of the US using your other passport is not a violation of the law. Airline officials are not immigration.

2. I am a citizen of X country. If I have a passport for that country, can I travel there without restrictions?
Yes, you can. It does not matter if you were born in that country or if you have never been there before. Being a citizen of a country means they have to let you in, and you never have to leave, and you have the same rights to live and work there as someone who has never left.
Now as with US citizens (1), the country may have rules about entering with its passport, and common sense says check before you travel to any country long term. But if you are a citizen of a country, it cannot refuse you entry. (A US citizen trying to enter on a foreign passport might run into fines or other problems, but s/he can't be refused entry to the US.)

3. But won't immigration officials think it's suspicious if I present a passport without any stamps in it/that's never been used before? Won't it look like I haven't gone anywhere?
This seems to be the most frequently asked, and the answer is No. First, stamps are irrelevant because many border crossings don't even stamp anymore. Electronic systems can show where you came from. If you are a citizen of a country, that country has to let you in!

4. I entered country Y with my US passport, and now I'm going to country Z. Can I use my Canadian passport instead?
Yes. You can use any passport you want anywhere in the world, except the USA. Of course, if you plan to use your other passport and need a visa, make sure to get the visa in the passport you're going to use.
Do be careful when leaving country Y if it has exit immigration (as most countries do): if you entered Y with your US passport, you need to show the same passport to Y's officials when you leave. Then, put it away and show your Canadian passport to country Z's immigration officials (and again at exit).

5. I accidentally used the wrong passport to exit/overstayed my visa/got a ban from a country the last time I visited there. Can I just use my other passport and pretend it never happened?
The short answer to this is No. You could try this, but it would be a mistake. Getting caught trying to "fool" immigration officials always has more serious consequences than just making a mistake in the first place. If you're asked a direct question, you need to give an honest answer.
Always remember that you are a person, not a passport. If you break a rule, don't try to use a different passport to get around the rule. Find out what is involved in rectifying the problem.

6. What information do I put into the Advance Passenger Information when buying a ticket online? The website only allows one passport.
Put the information for the passport you will use first. In other words if you are flying to the UK and will use your British passport to enter the UK, put the British passport information. This is the passport you will show the airline when checking in for your flight.
At some point during the trip you will probably need to show your other passport (for example, at exit immigration from the country you're flying from). Just show the immigration officials the passport they need to see. It does not matter if it's not the same one you used to check in.

7. I'm still confused. Isn't it better just to show everything to every official and let them pick what they need?
Not really. They tend to be to-the-point people and don't want unnecessary information--which is why you should keep your answers short.
Having said that, if you're asked something that can only be answered by your other passport, just tell them. It is not illegal or as uncommon as people seem to believe.

Travel safely. Have a great time. Don't worry; be happy!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kraków, Poland, March 2017

My last post was a look at evil and the past. Here, I want to write about Poland's present, of which my first impression was a good one, and future, about which there is reason to be hopeful.

We've been to two UNESCO World Heritage sites in as many days. One was the memorial and museum, and the other is Kraków's Old Town. One thing I forgot to say about the former is that it must be the last place on earth where adults behave with true respect. No one visits that place who doesn't want to go. No one was acting inappropriately or taking selfies, and yet there were busloads of people there. Agniewska told us it is like this every single day.

That gives me hope: that every day, many, many people, too young to have lived through World War II, remember, and are willing to do the hard work of keeping memory alive. 
Like the English couple, now resident in Spain, who started chatting to us over dinner (kielbasa, pickle & potato casserole--can't remember the Polish name!) They'd been on the tour the same day. Sue used to nurse an Auschwitz survivor, a woman who lived to be 96; Neil used to work as a firefighter with a man whose father was a survivor. Always had a smile on his face, Neil said.

When we look at the past, we remember six million, but think about eleven million. For that is how many Jews were living in Europe before the war, and most of them were in Poland. We in the West are accustomed to thinking of Poland as Eastern Europe, but if you look at a map of Europe spreading out to Russia, Poland is right in the center of it. Poland was the heart of a great civilization that had been part of Europe for 800 years.

In Kraków we chanced upon a free walking tour being given in English. This thirtysomething man was as knowledgeable and passionate as Agniewska, about his country and its history. He wanted to show us all around Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Kraków, where both Christians and Jews lived for much of Polish history. This is the key point: Most of the Jews lived in Poland because for most of that history, this was the only country where they were citizens, like their Christian neighbors. They spoke Polish and paid taxes (and collected them, a profession that earned Jews peasant enmity but stemmed directly from their tendency to educate all of their sons). Look at the wall next to this synagogue, the oldest in Poland: Jews participated in building the defense of their city, because they belonged to that city. 

(The history of the Jews and anti-Semitism in Poland is a huge subject and I am not trying to elide it here.)
There is a saying that occurs more than once in the Talmud, that whoever takes a life takes an entire world--the world that would have come from that person, had that person lived. Our guide referred to the Talmud too: that whoever saves a life saves the world entire. A little more than a kilometer from the Old Synagogue was the ghetto, where the Jews of Kraków were initially forced to move by the Nazis. (Jews were then a quarter of the Polish population.) Before their final deportation, over a thousand of them worked in a nearby enamel factory, run by German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler. If you saw Schindler's List, you know that Schindler, at cost to himself, went against his country's government in order to save the lives of his Jewish employees.

Everywhere there are "righteous among the nations": Gentiles who took risks to save Jews. In Poland, the only penalty for this, if you were caught, was death. Why were Poles who helped Jews treated especially harshly? Because Poland was different. Jews and Gentiles knew each other; the Nazis hated Poles too. They imposed an especially high price on Poles who treated their neighbors in a Christian way.

Jan Karski with The Discreet Traveler, wondering about the great unanswered question of the last century, Photo by T.

So what about Christian Kraków? 

This is Wawel Cathedral, where centuries of coronations and burials took place. In those days, Kraków was the royal capital of all Poland. It's still full of reminders of some of Poland's favorite native sons and daughters: Copernicus; Marie Curie, née Skłodowska; and of course the Polish pope, St. John Paul II. 

Going along the wall of Wawel Castle,

there's an equestrian statue of Tadeusz Kościuszko, who was a Polish-Lithuanian war hero and later was made brigadier general by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. (After immigrating to the United States, Kościuszko had the vision to will his American assets to the freedom and education of slaves; unfortunately his wishes were never carried out.)*

Hmm, first Tadeusz (Polish and American), later Marie (born Polish, naturalized French). Poland has a history of accomplished dual nationals. If you want more examples, look at the early leadership of Israel; despite the Hebrew names they were later known by, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion were both born in parts of the Russian Empire that were once Poland. 

But back to the Old Town. Our first trip, disconcertingly, was not to St. Mary's Basilica but next door to the Hard Rock Cafe (a brand now owned by the Seminole nation of Florida!) This was at least a sign of how far Poland has moved towards the West since the fall of communism in 1989. It being International Women's Day, there was a protest in full swing around Plac Mariacki; Poland is currently under a right-wing government and a lot of women are not happy about the direction it's taking the country (sound familiar?) T. pointed out one man at the demonstration wrapped in a rainbow flag. My heart warmed.

I mentioned before the guide who shared with us the history of Kazimierz. Poles have only been free to speak the truth of their history since 1989, and young storytellers like this man and Agniewska seem to be on a mission. He told us of the variety of groups he's shown around his city, like "Faith and Rainbow" which comprised fifteen gay couples. He'd never known before that LGBT people could be Christian.

He told us this story outside the Isaac Synagogue, a seventeenth-century house of prayer. Today it is used by a Hasidic community. We couldn't go in on Friday afternoon, as it was almost Shabbat and they were getting ready for services.

Sometimes he shows school groups their own history, and there is always one young Polish kid with a shaved head who thinks he's a "nationalist." "Though how any Pole can have any sympathy with National Socialism is beyond me." The guide tells these boys what made Poland great: "It was a melting pot!" And by the standards of the sixteenth century, it was. 

Today the population of Poland is 1% Jewish. Yet Kazimierz is full of restaurants serving gefilte fish and playing live klezmer music. We heard "Hava Nagila" played on a fiddle and accordion in view of the Old Synagogue. It may be a museum today, but there is a living community.
Yes, there are Jewish Community Centers in Poland.

In the airport line, there were two Orthodox Jewish men standing behind me. For all I know, they were coming to Poland to start a business. But they were here.


*The tallest mountain on the Australian mainland, one of the original Seven Summits, is also named after Kościuszko.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Teach them that evil dwells

Sometimes you visit places that are really important. Not enjoyable, but important. That was what I found about the (strangely beautiful) D-day beaches in Normandy in 2000. But I will never visit anywhere as important as where we were today.

Oświęcim and nearby Brzezinka are towns in Poland, better known to the world by their German names. The Nazis originally built a camp at Oświęcim to kill Polish political prisoners, which they did, along with tens of thousands of Roma (people once called Gypsies). When the Auschwitz camp was expanded to Brzezinka (Birkenau), however, the world got its most infamous atrocity: the murder of Jews on a ghoulishly industrial scale. Auschwitz II was not the only death camp the Nazis built in Europe, but what is hard to grasp about it, even today, is the cold-blooded calculation and sheer numbers. It was built like a factory, for the efficient killing of human beings. More than a million Jews were murdered here.

I know we've all heard about Auschwitz, but let that sink in for a minute: More than a million Jews murdered. Here.

Here is important because it is a physical place, on this earth, and you can go there. For free, although  we paid for a guided tour in English, and it was the best tour I've ever had anywhere. It started with someone giving the direction "This bus is going to Auschwitz." There was something chilling even about hearing the words. As soon as we were on the bus (about an hour's journey southwest of Kraków), it started to rain. 
Somehow it seemed appropriate that it was raining, gray, and chilly the rest of the day. All those black and white pictures give the impression that it was forever winter at Auschwitz. You get there by a road that goes through miles of woods. The Poles who lived in Brzezinka before the war were forced out, in many cases to concentration camps in Germany, and the bricks from their buildings were used to construct Auschwitz II--Birkenau, the death camp. 

Birkenau, where the trains arrived straight for death. You have to pace it out on foot to grasp the scale of this place.

“One person’s death is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic.” This quote has been attributed to Josef Stalin, and while it cannot be verified, Stalin would know. Not only because of his own murderous regime, but because the USSR lost more millions during the Second World War than any other country. Thousands of these were Soviet prisoners of war killed here. In one of the great, grim twists of history, it was the Soviet army that finally liberated the camps in 1945.
Cattle car. The train journey from Greece (Poland has hot summers too) took 11 days, so most Greek Jews did not even make it to the camps to die.
Auschwitz I was only partially destroyed by the Nazis as they fled, leaving us this evidence of their crimes. I am trying to give the impression that I got, because "millions" does not tell a story. If you are lucky enough to have a guide like Agniewska, she will tell you that she is not a guide, but a storyteller. The only people who truly know what went on in the death camps, she said, are the survivors. And there are fewer and fewer of them left.

But what has made the strongest impression on me has been meeting survivors, and what most moved me today were photographs of inmates, and records of their names. For each one was a person. If you had glasses, if you were a professor, etc., among the Poles, you were the first to go to the camps, because the Nazis regarded Poles as a slave race, and didn't need any intelligentsia.
Rows of barracks at Auschwitz I

Today, there is a giant pile of glasses on display at Auschwitz. Each pair belonged to someone. There are prayer shawls, and room upon roomful of shoes. I saw the match of one pair flung on the other side of the room, in a different pile. "This is the only place on earth we find shoes without people." 

One woman whose picture hangs on the wall was named Amelia Biezker. I hope I have written her name down right. What struck me about her picture was that she has a lopsided smile--despite the cropped hair and the prison uniform. She was a unique person, who lived from 1912 to 1942. Perhaps hers was one of the everyday stories of people trying to make life better for others, even as they faced their own deaths.
The Germans recorded details of their prisoners--giving every Jewish man the name "Israel" and every woman Sarah.

After a while the Nazis stopped photographing prisoners. They learned that after a few weeks of emaciation, the people were unidentifiable anyway. That is when the tattooing with numbers began. And it only happened here. For the rest of their lives, anywhere in the world, if you saw someone with that tattooed number, it meant that they were at Auschwitz.
Used gas canisters. Zyklon B was a pesticide until the Nazis realized it could kill more than lice.

There is a room in one of the barracks where no pictures are permitted to be taken. When the women were gassed with Zyklon B, all their hair was removed. You have heard these stories of it being braided into rope. These were cheap supplies and, as any businessman knows, that's the way to make money. Companies profited from this place; it was a production line. At the time of the liberation of Auschwitz there was still a pileup of women's hair from the most recent trip to the gas chambers. The Soviets preserved this roomful, wall to wall on both sides. It represents the remains of 40,000 women.

It has to be emphasized: no one ever survived the gas chambers. We know what happened there from the few who survived of one group--the Sonderkommandos, inmates (usually Jewish) who were forced to remove the bodies of the dead. It is because a few of them gave evidence that we have eyewitness accounts. 

Gas chamber 1 at Auschwitz. The Germans did not dynamite it only because they used it as an air raid shelter. You can go in.

After Agniewska told us her father-in-law survived Auschwitz, and after we thanked her for the tour, only then did I think of the word for what she is doing. It's a mitzvah. A good deed ("commandment" in Hebrew). Yes, she is paid to tell the story but it's personal for her; it can't be easy to see and talk about these things every day, that affected someone close to her. It is a mitzvah to tell these stories and to keep the memories of survivors alive.

Today, we live in a world where free people are told to deny evidence, even things their own eyes have seen. Where facts are dismissed and the very pursuit of truth questioned. I am not just talking about the obvious: Holocaust deniers, who are in the curious position of denying Nazi atrocities ever happened while simultaneously applauding Nazi ideology. I am talking about the subtle. 

A Holocaust remembrance that somehow never mentions the Jews. A massacre in Orlando that some were quick to link to Islamism, while omitting that it was the largest single mass killing of homosexuals since the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered queer people too. I've been to the Homomonument in Amsterdam, which stands right next to the Anne Frank House. These are real places you can go and see.
Ruins of gas chamber 2 of 5 at Birkenau. Each killed 2,000 people at one time. Electric elevators then raised bodies to the crematoria.
Few people would dispute the particular evil of the Nazis, unsurpassed by any other evil in the history of the world. But with time and distance, it is too easy to feel far removed from the butchery that happened here, in Europe, in the lifetime of people who are still alive today. Cree songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie sang:

“Teach them that evil dwells across the sea
Lives in a mountain
Like they see on TV"

What Auschwitz teaches us is that evil is not just bin Laden in a cave or something on television. Evil is a human thing, ever present, part of our world. Evil can be routine, mechanical, someone's everyday work. It doesn’t dwell across the sea but in the heart of every human being—which makes it everyone’s responsibility to fight. It lives in the vandal attacks on American Jewish cemeteries--twice in one week in February. It lives in the dozens of bomb threats against Jewish schools and community centers across the US (eleven states on one day). 

Block 25, where women destined for the gas chambers waited for death.
Yes, this is a travel blog, but how can I go to Auschwitz and not talk about the anti-Semitism happening every day? No one--leader or private citizen--should hesitate, or not know how to answer, when asked "What do you say about hate crimes against Jews?"

“School bell go ‘Ding! Dong! Ding!’
The children all line up
They do what they are told
Take a little drink from the liar's cup"
--“Suffer The Little Children” 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Fareweel and fortune

I’ve been to Scotland many times, for pleasure or business. But I haven’t written much about it, and this visit to Edinburgh (for the day job) is the last time I can foresee. So here’s my farewell to Scotland, some impressions of it and the theme I can’t get away from, no matter where in the world I go.
National Gallery of Scotland and Walter Scott Monument

The first time I went to Scotland, like almost every subsequent time, the sun was out as I traveled by rail across the English border. It’s like a little joke between me and the country. To be sure, the weather can be more, well, Scottish. The last time I was up here was with some American family last June, and the summer was relentlessly rainy (see also: Wales). But 23 years ago I was traveling by train for the first time around the United Kingdom (it’s more expensive than the coach, or bus), and I was as enamored of the “standard class” experience as I would become of first class. 

Just picture me, fresh out of university, swigging from a bell-shaped bottle of Bell’s whisky bought from the buffet car, while the backpacker in the next seat thumbed through his Rough Guide. It was the true beginning of The Discreet Traveler. We were going to Glasgow to stay with an elderly lady who had moved to Scotland from England decades earlier and, as the saying has it, gone native. She felt Scottish and, to my ears, she even sounded Scottish. She was an elder in the Church (kirk) of Scotland, cooked delicious salmon, and had an umbrella in a tartan pattern. She belonged in her new country.

I didn’t appreciate until years later why this “Scottishness” of hers was dismissed by anyone south of the border. After all, where I come from, a person can move to a new city, state, or country and adopt it. There are Hoosiers who weren’t born in Indiana and Canadians who weren’t born in Canada, so why not a Scot who was born somewhere else?

But nope. That is not the Old World way of doing things. In the Old World, where a person was born can be the most important thing about her, even though it’s something over which she clearly has no control. And increasingly, this is becoming true in the New World as well.

You see, as much as I try to go local myself (eating a delicious smoked haddock soup called Cullen skink for supper, haggis and black pudding with my breakfast), I am where I was born, wherever I go in the world. I didn’t choose to be born in the USA, and while it’s certainly part of me, I don’t take any credit for it. It comes with many privileges I didn’t earn, and I don’t even think about all of them.

Do you have a passport? Most Americans don’t, but when they apply for one, they’re unusually fortunate. A US passport, like Canadian, British, and European Union passports, get you into most countries in the world with minimal hassle. Often you don’t have to apply for a visa at all, and if you do, it’s usually not a big deal or very expensive. 

People with passports from some other countries, however, find it very difficult to travel anywhere. Then there are the many people who aren’t able to get passports, because their own country denies them one (Syria), or because they are refugees, or because they are stateless. And then there are the people who are citizens of privileged countries, but because they were born somewhere else, they are still held responsible for that one unchangeable fact about themselves. The crime of where they were born.

Like Maher Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen who was "extraordinarily rendered" by the United States in 2002. That is to say, deported back to Syria, which tortured him. Mr. Arar had lived in Canada for fifteen years, but his Canadian passport did him no good, because the USA decided to treat him on the basis of where he was born. Being born in Syria of course is not a crime, but it’s nothing new to treat it as one.

Or a British doctor I was speaking to in Edinburgh, who explained that he can’t enter India at all, because he was born in Pakistan. “I’m Christian,” he told me; “I don’t even have a Muslim name. But India’s decided we’re all terrorists.” The world’s largest democracy has deemed anyone born in its neighbor to be inadmissible to the country.

It was already difficult to travel to the United States, he said. Ever since September 11, just having dark skin, it was such a hassle. (I have heard this many times before, but of course, I don’t like thinking it’s true.) Now, this British-accented physician expects never to travel to the US again. Pakistan isn’t yet on the list of banned countries, despite an actual history of terrorist attacks both internal and external. But being Pakistani-born is enough trouble even for someone with a British passport, who lives here.

Nationalism is on the rise all over the world. English nationalism has led to “Brexit” from the EU and Scottish nationalism is reacting against that. Jill Stephenson, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Edinburgh, wrote in The Scotsman of how “cybernats” tell her she “hates Scotland” because she voted No in the Scottish independence referendum. Their view is that there is only one way to be Scottish, and she is not it. I have also been told that I “hate the United States of America” when I’ve expressed a way of being American that was different from the speaker’s. 
Glaswegian beer

What if we belong to more than one nation? What if we want to be part of a United Kingdom, as Jill Stephenson does; or a united Europe; or the world? The UK prime minister has said, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” My acquired nationality has been dismissed in words like these: “You were born in America. End of.”

On my way to my return train, I stopped in a little shop in Edinburgh run by a young Sikh man. He saw the red ribbon on my jacket and recognized it as the AIDS ribbon. This emboldened him to talk to me for a few minutes about the people of Edinburgh and how he found the larger cities of Glasgow and London to be more open. I asked if he meant different kinds of people, and he said yes.

Different how? Different religions, national origins, sexualities? I didn’t ask him where he was born or if he is a British citizen. Does he feel Scottish? Does Sikhism make a difference, or his skin color?

So let me nail my colors to the mast: I’m not Scottish, but I want Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom. The UK is leaving the EU, but I voted for it to stay. I have passports from two privileged nations, and I know I am privileged to be a citizen of even one.

People may “feel” Scottish or British or European or a citizen of the world. But what I mostly feel is fortunate.

Monday, January 30, 2017

An ordinary relationship

You think this is going to be an anti-Trump screed, but he wasn't necessarily wrong about this. Before he even won last year's Republican primary, he put his finger on something that the world has lost. And we didn't even realize until now that it was gone.

Sure, it gives me the creeps that he held hands with the prime minister of Britain, as it would to see him touch any woman. Ronnie and Maggie this was not. But Theresa May is part of the problem, too--waiting for French and German leadership before her government would criticize the president's latest executive order. 

What we are seeing is not just a new administration in the USA or a new, pro-Brexit British government. This is the end of leadership in the world.

Since World War II, when the Allies were victorious, it has become customary to refer to the President of the United States as "the leader of the free world." But like so much about the presidency, it turns out that this was only custom. It's not written in law anywhere that the president should lead the free world, and when he was a candidate, Donald promised not to do so. Think about how many conventions--of respect for other American institutions--he violated, and gained support by violating. He ridiculed former president George W. Bush, a fellow Republican, who all Republicans previously had said kept the country safe. He spoke what many Americans think but no candidate had dared to say: that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a waste. And he implied that the sacrifice of soldiers (like Humayun Khan) was in vain.

If you need more evidence that America has turned upside down, look at the other side. It was the Democratic convention, not the Republican, that played on patriotism, military veterans, and how great America already was. Never before had a Republican painted such a dark, pessimistic picture of America as a loser--or been rewarded for it. And until Donald attacked the Central Intelligence Agency, had you ever heard a good word on the left for the CIA?

He promised a new world in which America would be great--on its own, with no leadership role. Not in NATO, nor in world trade. He promised tighter borders and protectionist laws. No longer will China, the emerging global superpower, take advantage of the US.

Republicans don't normally campaign by putting down America, talking about how awful it is to be black in "the inner cities" or how other countries are always taking advantage of our "stupid" country. The irony is, by winning with such a vision, the president all but guarantees that it will come true.
By vacating that global leadership role, he is ceding it. To China (and Russia, which is still a nuclear superpower). Those countries have lots more experience being dictatorships than the US does. They will eat America alive.

The USA has always thought of itself as an exceptional country, but it's been a long time since it was anywhere near the top on a host of measures: human rights, education, violent crime, work-life balance. There's nothing written in the Constitution that says the US has to be a leader, let alone an example to the rest of the world. 

In trying to make America a great country "again," this administration is actually making it more of an ordinary one. Now, there's nothing wrong with being just one of many countries. Every other country manages it. British people love Britain, the French love France, yet it has been ages since the French and British empires battled for world supremacy. Canadians think they live in the greatest nation on earth, but that doesn't mean they think all other nations want to be like Canada.

But think about what the USA has to lose. World-class researchers will no longer come to a country that muzzles scientists. The best and the brightest won't come where immigrants are unwelcome. The finest health care in the world will be affordable to fewer of America's own people than ever.

And you know what? The CIA was wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The war was a terrible mistake. A lot of people around the world will be glad if the US really does mind its own business.

I just hate to see what steps up in its place.