Monday, January 10, 2011

Our Niagara This Week Interview

For those of you who read the article Monkey Poo, Spiders and People, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. Paul Forsyth of Niagara This Week asked us several thoughtful questions, so that he could draw upon a larger resource than just our blog to aid in the creation of the story. We had been thinking, talking and hoping with each other over the previous few weeks about how our particular travelling experiences have helped to mature our understanding of what travelling is and does (or, can be and do). Conveniently, we found some overlap here with some of the questions Paul recently asked us in relation to his story. It was a great opportunity and exercise for us to share some of these ideas that have hitherto only been stirring around in personal conversations and journals. Here's the more in-depth interview:

Paul Forsyth: . How do you finance something like this? Any idea what the trip will end up costing all-told?

Kristen: We have travelled around Europe quite extensively and every where we went we met travellers on long term trips. Particularly Australians, for whom it seems to be a right of passage to leave Oz for a couple of years after finishing school to work and travel around the world. We always thought 'We want to do that one day!' When we got married, we saved all our wedding money and since then, we have been extremely frugal with all our spending. It was especially hard for me, because, like most females, I like to shop. Every time I saw some article of clothing I thought I 'couldn't live without,' I would think, ' How many nights in a guesthouse in Asia could I afford with this money' or something like that. Obviously, in the end it was completely worth it... and it turns out I could live without that sundress. Our main goal is that this trip doesn't cost more money than we've saved up. We keep track of all the money we spend and what we spend it on, so when we get home we will have a pretty good idea of where all our money went. We plan to have a comprehensive blog entry about the finances of this trip at the end, so anyone who is thinking about a around-the-world trip can have an idea of how much they might need. We would have found it helpful to have more information about the costs when we were planning. NZ and Australia were very expensive for us. Our goal now that we are in Asia to spend an average of $50/day. This affords a comfortable standard of living, which includes accommodation, food, drink, entertainment and transportation.

Jonathan: A person who really has a desire to travel will get creative and find a way (and there are many) to make it happen. For us, we took a 'two-step' approach. The first and easiest step is to figure out what exactly your priorities are. What is important to you? What is less important? Being specific and staying honest with yourself is an important part of doing this. Having a list of priorities helps you to envision how you might like to begin structuring or shaping your life. If you have a partner, your list should be a reflection of both people. For Kristen and I, travelling is more important to us than, say, watching television. The next step can be a difficult one, but it is very important. If it would be a helpful way to think about it, you might call it budgeting, but that word isn't always greeted happily. Either way, the important part is to make a real effort to spend and save in a way that reflects your list of priorities as much as possible. And that's all we did. As an example, we decided we didn't want to own a television or to pay the related monthly bills from having one. Instead, when we want to watch something, we will rent the film or TV series on DVD and watch it on our laptop. Over the course of a year, the money saved from this alone can be quite surprising. Being travellers, we often see this saved money in terms of being however many nights accommodation somewhere or however many meals while abroad it would pay for.

PF: Can you elaborate on your philosophy that much of the conflict/mistrust among differing cultures comes from ignorance of different cultures?

K: Most people don't look too far past the widely broadcasted media for all their international updates. This is fair enough, since this is the easiest and most obvious way to get information. Unfortunately the news focuses more on major international incidents,which tend to be of the negative variety. It's not often that there will be a front page spread on the Galungan Festival in Bali or all the hard work of an NGO in Cambodia, and therefore people don't know about it. Sometimes, when we don't understand another person's culture we think it is weird or wrong. We don't have to hold the same views with some other person to have a meaningful relationship with them. We do believe however, that knowledge of and understanding between different cultures helps to break down barriers and become communities in cooperation with one another.

J: The state of world affairs in the public language of many politicians and much of the media is not a very cheering picture. These are the forums that tend to exert an undeniably wide degree of influence in shaping public opinion regarding any number of given topics. The trouble with this doesn't arise when these public figures and institutions decide to 'make a story' of the conflicts or the perceived external (or sometimes internal) threats that may or may not be actually looming on our horizon. Ignoring such realities would be a tragic shaking off of responsibility in itself (although it is too often expressed with an unhelpfully feverish tone). Rather the larger problem is when the same people make the decision to prematurely close off the story, which is often done quietly when the common fever begins to wane. To relegate a population recently considered worthy of front page news because of the blood shed in their community or whatever the circumstances might be to the back pages or, worse, as old news, freezes those people or that country in time—an awful one to be sure—in the minds and memory of the wider public. It fails to acknowledge that there are people in the middle of the crisis, tensions or disaster left standing and they have no choice but to pick up the pieces and move forward together. Vietnam hasn't been forced into the average Canadian life since the daily reporting of the atrocities of the Vietnam War, for example. Because of that we met more than several people before we left on our trip who's picture of present day Vietnam was a mirror image of how they had last thought about it: war torn and full of unqualified and irrational violence. They weren't given much (if any) indication that in the last few decades the Vietnamese have moved forward and, among other things, groomed their country into an increasingly attractive tourist destination, even with the heavy memories of that violent time in their history. Being brought into the actual rhythm of present day Vietnam (or any country, for that matter), whether by travelling there yourself or by reading the experiences of people who have been there marks a real step forward in breaking down misunderstandings between communities around the world.

PF: By telling stories on your blog about real people you're meeting, you hope to erode some of that fear?

K: We hope, through our personal experiences, that we will be able to put actual human faces, names and lives to cultures that, before this trip, we would have no personal experience with. It wouldn't be fair to think that every person who shares a culture, religion or nationality would be the same soley for those reasons. We hope that through the stories on our blog that we can introduce our readers to real people with real lives, real concerns and real interests that we can relate to, regardless of the differences in culture or religion. We hope to show that the majority of the world's people are friendly, honest, welcoming and travel is not as hard or intimidating as one might think. Maybe, after reading our blog, people will be more open to travelling in places that they would have previously thought to be dangerous or scary.

J: It is an exciting privilege to be brought into a new circle of friends through a friend. We have a growing circle of friends from around the world and are very happy to invite others into that circle through The Adventures of J&K. If when you think of Bosnia Herzegovina, the bloody conflicts there in the '90s come immediately to mind, for example, you and your understanding of the country would be much better served if took our friend, Milos, who lives there and always has as your metaphorical 'entry point' into that beautiful country. In so many cases, friends help friends to view things more clearly.

PF: You're finding that, around the world, people really aren't all that different?

K: People are people, which shouldn't be as surprising as it was for us. Although people's lives, experiences and circumstances can be shockingly different than what we know, they still have families that they love, friends that they appreciate and activities that they enjoy. It seems as though the love of food is international and the sharing of a meal can be one of the most rewarding travel experiences I can think of. People like to share in the preparation of the meal as much as in the indulging into it afterwards! Yesterday we met a Malaysian man who is a Chinese Tea Master. He owns a tea shop in Melaka, Malaysia and sells fragrant tea leaves, exquisite teapots and shares his wisdom through 'tea talk.' He also runs a class where you can learn all about how to conduct a proper 'tea ceremony.' We listened intently as he explained the importance of your 'Eight Senses' when preparing for a tea ceremony, the 'Six Steps' of the ceremony itself and finally the 'Three Steps' to properly serve the tea. He explained the link between balance, patience, wisdom, respect, giving thanks and following rules in relation to tea drinking. Tea was served in tiny teacups at the exact right temperature, with a perfectly calculated ratio of leaves to water. I don't know about you, but this is tea drinking as I have never experienced it before. I thought you just boiled some water, dropped in a tea bag and doused the whole thing in milk and sugar. Afterwards 'Yee Tea' told us all about his children, who were all away working, but would be coming back for a family celebration of the Chinese New Year, about his plans to organize more tables in his shop for the growing number of tea drinkers, and about his religious beliefs. Our conversation went from something as foreign as a lengthy, calculated Tea Ceremony to a life that could have been interchanged with anyone in the world. A father, excited to see his kids. A businessman looking to expand. A person with religious conviction.

J: It really shouldn't be too shocking to find out that health and happiness of one's family and friends are just as primarily important to someone in Indonesia as it is to someone in France as it is to most people in Canada. Because some people might wear a sarong rather than pants,or might outfit themselves with a turban, or eat with their hands rather than with cutlery, doesn't automatically signal an unbridgeable gap between 'us' and 'them'. What it does mean is that they, like me, or you, live within a particular framework that might partly be inherited through tradition and family and partly thought-over and chosen. It is when one or both parties decide not to take this seriously that a real and entirely unhelpful gap does begin to appear. So, while there are indeed cultural, religious, or other kinds of differences that demand and deserve respect, the bond capable of growing through the sharing of respect and further nurturing that with the mutual enjoyment of the many common interests possible between two or more people can't be denied.

PF: Have you been surprised at the generosity of people you've met?

K: What we find amazing is the generosity and kindness of strangers. It makes me wonder, 'would I be this helpful to a tourist in Niagara?' It is especially surreal when you experience such genuine generosity from people who you know have so much less to give, materially, than we do. In Bali we were invited into a family festival and were treated like one of the clan. We were able to witness the family's elaborate offering, share in a huge dinner buffet and join in their procession to the beach for the apex of the ceremony. It was overwhelming.

We are also members of the Couchsurfing organization, who's mandate is "Participating in creating a better world, one couch at a time." We have had so many good experiences with people we have met through this organization. The premise is that every member has a detailed profile on the couchsurfing website. In your profile you specify where you live and whether you are willing to have other members stay at your house, or whether you would prefer just to meet up for dinner or drinks with travellers passing through your city. Profiles have tons of information and photos, so you can get a good idea of a person's personality before you decide whether or not you want to meet up with them. Everything is completely free. You offer only what you feel comfortable with. We can't imagine travelling without a healthy infusion of couchsurfers. There are over a million members world-wide. That's a lot of couch selection! Meeting locals gives you a completely different, and personal view of the city and country you are visiting. You could read all the guidebooks published on Singapore and it still wouldn't be as rich as spending a couple nights in a Singaporean family's spare room. Plus, locals always know where to find the best ice cream, cheapest local grub, and most scenic out-of-the-way viewpoint. For us, it is what travel is all about. The generosity we have experienced has been hard to believe at times. We have been picked up at the airport, toured around the city by expert locals, invited to join in family feasts, sailed in the Sydney Harbour, and shared many many stories over many many cups of tea, and mugs of beer. We just finished reading a book written by Aussie travel writer Brian Thacker called 'Sleeping Around.' It's an entertaining and funny read. Brian documents his experiences of couchsurfing on a quick jaunt around-the-world. I would recommend it for anyone interested in the idea of couchsurfing.

J: Every single time someone extends a genuine and warm welcome to us, we are reminded of exactly what we enjoy most about travelling: the realness of connecting with people. We have been recipients of many a person's kindness and generosity during past travels. So, in that sense, I might say we are more refreshed by the generosity of people than surprised by it. Too, we have been Couchsurfers for a few years. It would be impossible to belong to without being aware that generosity and hospitality are alive and well in very many places around the globe.

PF: What was the reaction of people you know when you told them of your planned adventure?

K: Our parents have become accustomed to our travel antics, so I don't think they were really that shocked. We really do have a fantastic support system from across the ocean.

J: I think the length of this particular trip still surprised them a bit, though.

PF: Is it fair to say that this is a once in a lifetime adventure?

K: I hope our passion for travel will only grow with this trip. I don't know if taking another year off for travelling would be possible any time in the near future, but if the opportunity did happen to arise again, it wouldn't take much to convince me to pack my carry-on!

J: It will be once in a lifetime in that we don't plan to do this exact trip again. Learning through travelling is a priority to us, though. We don't ever plan to cut this form of education out of our lives.

PF: Do you hope a story might get people to contact you with volunteering opportunities? Any particular kind of activities?

K: We are willing to help out in any way we can, really. So far we have commitments in Cambodia and Laos where we will be helping out with after school activities at a local high school, helping teachers with their English on their lunch break, and lending a hand in a orphanage organizing games for the kids. Jonathan has been volunteering at Bella in Chippawa, so even visiting with people that could use company would be a worthwhile venture for us. We understand that language barriers might make this difficult though.

PF: Why do you feel it's important to volunteer in communities you'll be visiting?

K: I feel very lucky to be in a position that we have the time, money and health to be able to travel. In 2006 we travelled around Europe for 4 months. At times during that trip I felt a little selfish. I felt like I was taking, taking, taking and other than the money we spent, there wasn't a lot of giving. I began to feel like both the traveller and the locals would get more out of travel if people could get more involved in the communities they were visiting. When we were in Lombok, Indonesia a couple weeks ago we met an amazing 27 year old woman named 'Ani.' She is a Muslim woman who divorced her husband 6 years ago, after the birth of their child when he insisted on marrying a second wife. She, her daughter and her elderly mother all live in the back of a tiny open-air shop where she sells sarongs and scarves that are hand-woven by her mother. Their living space is smaller than our apartment's bathroom. Ani has never even seen an Indonesian passport, let alone able to afford to actually obtain for herself and travel anywhere. Her courage and perseverance is so admirable. She is so open and honest about her life. Ani is one of the happiest people I have ever met. Ani, someone who has little more than herself to give had such a positive and inspiring effect on my life and we hope to pass along this feeling. I hope that through volunteering we can have even the smallest positive effect on people's lives. In many cases, I'm sure that we will get more out of volunteering our time than the people we are volunteering to help.

J: Simply because people are worthwhile. Every person is capable of making a unique contribution to their community that only they can share. The perspective or skill that you can offer is not exactly the same as what I can offer. Until all these different cards are laid out and offered, there is something that is being held back in the mutual connectedness with the whole. Volunteering is an important way of offering what small, yet unrepeatable gift that only you have. Voluntourism is a bit of trendy phrase of late in the world of some travellers. Essentially this is volunteering your time (and usually a lot of your money) in some sort of project working abroad. What is maybe a much more rounded approach to volunteering is to engage with the needs in your own local community. For me this desire to engage with the people and needs of the countries we wander into is really just a natural extension of my volunteering in Niagara. When in town, I regularly visit the residents of Bella Senior Care in Chippawa. Every community has needs that, if you look closely enough, you will find what and where they are.

PF: How long have you been planning the trip? Were you nervous about such undertaking?

K: The idea has been in the back of our heads since we met people on extended adventures in 2006. I am always plotting our 'next trip' and so potential itineraries have been swirling around for some years now. We seriously started planning and saving after we got married in 2008. I was both nervous and excited equally. It's hard not to be a little nervous when you are going somewhere completely different, and for such a long period of time. We have a wonderfully encouraging family and fantastic friends who we know are always behind us, which helps a lot if we ever start to feel down or frustrated.


Mom and Dad Mooney said...

Jonathan and Kristen - this is what you need to send to the Sun and Star to see if they will run an article or better yet a continuing series on your adventures. You could also try National Geographic!
Luv Mom and Dad

Gina said...

The interview was interesting! Now I have some questions for you guys:

How much luggage do you have with you? How often do you have to do laundry?

Do you buy souvenirs? If so, do you have extra space to carry them or do you just ship them home?

How much of the trip was planned out in advance and how much do you make up as you go? (Like, did you book every night's accomodation and buy every travel ticket in advance?)

If you don't feel like answering a list of questions you can just casually slip the answers into your blog entries ;)

(A couple of years ago I spent 3 weeks biking in New Zealand and packed as lightly as possible. Probably too lightly. I had to do laundry every other day while wearing my rain gear...)

BrewMaster B said...

Hey Guys!! Saw the article in the paper and had to say Hi! Its been awhile since the good ole beer garden days! Love what you guys are doing! Im definitely going to spend some time and read up on your stories from all your blogs! Keep up the good work! Cheers, have fun and be safe! Ill be keeping up to date on your travels!

BrewMaster B said...

Sorry... if you didnt know its Jeff Broeders posting here

BrewMaster B said...
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