Tag Archives: war

Travel at the Speed of Thought

For the past few days, I was reminded that, even close to home, one can immerse oneself in cultures that seem very different from one’s own. In this case, I’m not referring to an ethnic culture. In our everyday life, we encounter cultures built around occupations, or interests, or dispositions. Often they have their own specialized languages – sometimes we call them “jargon.”

Visiting such a culture can create an experience very similar to visiting a foreign land: our curiosity is piqued; we have to pay attention to a language we may understand only slightly; we’re trying to understand how they “do things here.” Just like visiting a new place, this can bring presence, aliveness, and excitement.

Can you travel into this young man's thoughts?  Try it!

Can you travel into this man’s world? Try it!

I hope to be able to write about my recent “trip” before long, but I have not yet processed its many inputs, so it will have to wait. But there are many ways to travel.

I was reminded of an exercise I did a few years ago. I was shown a random photo of an elderly woman standing in front of her barn, and instructed to put myself in her mind. It was a fascinating exercise, and I felt as if I’d traveled to another time and place.

If you want to give it a try, grab a photo somewhere, or use this one.  Don’t think about it too much.  Just do it. Let me know how it goes.

Meanwhile, here’s what the elderly woman was thinking…

Remembrance Day

Shutter’s broken outside the guest room, Jim. Heard it banging away in the gale last night. Guess you’ll have to take a look if it’s fair tomorrow.

Oh, what am I saying! You’ve been gone these six years now. Won’t likely be doing any more fixing for me, I suppose. If I can’t do anything with it, I’ll have to give Pat a call and see if her Roger can come over with his toolbox.

Haven’t seen so much of Pat and Roger lately. I figure they’ve got other things to attend to. Roger’s fixing up that back bedroom so there’ll be more room at Christmas. You know, they’ve got seven grandkids now. The youngest came just last Spring – cute as a little garden mouse he is. Bit of a handful already, if you ask me. Must have known that when they named him after our Tommy.

Damn! Just spilled tea leaves all over. Let me get a broom and set things right…

He would have been fifty the other night. Our Tommy fifty! Can you believe it, Jim? He would have married that nice girl Selena when he got back. There’d be grandkids. Maybe great-grandkids, cute as that little garden-mouse grandson of Pat’s: a house-full of happiness to keep the memories in their proper place.

I sometimes can’t believe I ever turned fifty myself. But I remember the day like I could smell it. You came in the door with that parcel all wrapped up, and told me we were going to the city for the weekend. Surprised me completely, you did, booking that fancy hotel room down by the river. And it was a beautiful sweater you gave me, even if it was the warmest night of the year. I used to feel you next to my skin when I was wearing it.

But that was a long time ago. I found that sweater in the bottom drawer after you’d gone, when I was cleaning up. I didn’t want to get rid of it, but I figured the memory needed to move on. Besides, it didn’t fit any more.

Some memories won’t move on, though, Jim. Not that I haven’t tried to make them. You remember that crazy song about American Pie that Tommy used to play on the record player all the time? He used to dance around the room – called it dancing, anyway – and sing about Chevies and levees and something about a day for dying. A catchy sort of tune, I guess, though it sure went on. Sometimes, when it gets real quiet here of an evening, I swear I can still hear it playing in the other room.

Got a letter from Pat’s boy Alec the other day. He was going on about some Christmas truce back in World War One. Said for four months, the soldiers on both sides refused to fight. Found they had more in common with each other than with their commanders. Alec wondered how it would have been if he and the other boys had refused to fight. Made me real mad to read that. I didn’t want to write back to him for days.

He’s a good boy, though, Jim. Just wants a future for those little nephews of his.

Alec came back from the War kind of all turned around, you know? Didn’t smile so much – laughed a bit louder than he used to. Started hanging around with those peace groups. I know you thought he was disloyal. God’s sake, maybe we both blamed him for coming back at all!

Wait a minute! I’m so distracted tonight I forgot to plug in the kettle. There! Got it. Now where was I? Oh, yes.

Jim, this is going to be hard. You won’t like it, but you’ve just got to hear me out.

I think Alec’s right, Jim. It wasn’t right what happened. Wasn’t right that Tommy’s life got used up that way. He wasn’t just a means to some do-gooder’s dreams. He was a living, breathing boy of 19, with a whole damn life ahead of him! He never got a chance to move on past 19. He just got stuck there for me. I aged, we aged – and we had to move on. But Tommy couldn’t go with us. I guess that’s what a life stolen from you feels like. All that time, we were growing and changing and tasting life. And Tommy was still singing about American Pie.

What’s that, Jim? Yes, it’s just a little water in my eye. You know, he would have been fifty the other night.

There, see what you’ve made me do! I’ve gone and put too much water in teapot again.

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Travel, Allophilia, and World Peace

From time to time, I ask myself “What is this thing about travel? It’s a lot of hard work, and usually costs more than staying home. So why do we do it?”

The answer usually isn’t long in coming: I’ve enjoyed and profited by the different perspective that meeting other cultures provides. Travel is one of my favourite activities for satisfying my incessant curiosity. It engages me fully: most of the time when I’m visiting some place new, I find myself solidly in the present moment. And in every culture I’ve visited, I’ve found some aspect I like better than my own.

Similarly, learning other languages has let me see where my own language constrains my view of reality. Knowing different ways of thinking gives a certain freedom from one’s own unconscious inherited biases. Plus you get a whole new set of proverbs.

Hiroshima destroyed

Destructed Hiroshima with autograph of “Enola Gay” Bomber pilot Paul Tibbets

Recently, I got to thinking about the connection between international travel and world peace: “See the world, while helping to prevent World War III!”

A possible WWIII had been one of my personal bugbears since watching – in my teen years – a 1960s documentary depicting the horrors of an atomic attack. With the war in Vietnam heating up, it didn’t seem so far-fetched. The decades that followed offered little indication that wars were going out of style: the Cambodian civil war, the Iran-Iraq War, the Rwandan genocide, the Afghan conflicts, the war on Iraq, the Ugandan civil war punctuate a long list of lesser conflicts. Today there is conflict in the Ukraine, not to mention ISIS. The world’s nuclear missiles have yet to be mothballed.

Hiroshima injuries

Hiroshima, Japan. 1945-08. Hiroshima street scene after the dropping of the atomic bomb of 1945-08-06

Still, being anti-war brings a certain negativity to life. Is there more to peace than just the absence of war? I was pondering this recently and wondered if the growing discipline of positive psychology had been applied to this question.

An internet search for “world peace” together with “positive psychology” led me to discover a new word: “allophila.” The neologism was coined by Todd Pittinsky, the author of “Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” when he realized there was no word to describe the opposite of “prejudice” or “intolerance.” Tolerance, the absence of intolerance, was not really it. There had to be a word for more “positive attitudes of behaviors towards the members of another group.”

Us Plus Them

“Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” by Pittinsky

In Dr. Pittinsky’s research, it turns out that decreasing intolerance does not equate to increasing allophilia. Furthermore, high allophilia seems to be much better at guaranteeing peace than does mere tolerance. As we’ve seen recently in several world hotspots, political demagogues have been able to wipe out years of tolerance in short order, sending formerly peaceful societies into internecine warfare. Perhaps what was missing was a higher degree of allophilia, manifested in terms of curiosity, comfort, engagement, and even kinship, affection and enthusiasm for members of other groups.

What organizations, I wondered, were fostering curiosity, engagement or enthusiasm for other cultures?

The obvious first answer was the original hospitality exchange, Servas International. Founded in aftermath of WWII by an American conscientious objector, the mission of Servas is “to help build world peace, goodwill and understanding by providing opportunities for personal contacts among people of different cultures, backgrounds and nationalities.” Their system of “open door” directories made it “possible for people of various nations to make visits to each other’s homes.” Servas now has official UN status and boasts of about 20,000 hosts in about 100 countries. Cheryl and I have been among those opening their doors for the past two decades.

Servas International

Peace through cross cultural understanding

Lately, Servas has been facing some stiff competition from the new Internet hospitality exchanges such as Couchsurfing. The old paper-based organization is having trouble quickly adopting the new technologies used by Internet startups, and their membership is ageing. Travelership is down.

A debate is ongoing about whether these new Internet exchanges represent the same peacebuilding ethic, or whether they’re just about cheap travel. Site names like GlobalFreeloaders and WarmShowers suggest the latter. Cheryl and I decided to join Couchsurfing as well as continue our Servas association. We have hosted and traveled with both organizations. In all cases, we try to adhere to the original vision of cultural interchange: hosts and guests interact like friends, often eating or cooking together. The Servas and Couchsurfing hosts we’ve stayed with have all done the same. It’s not just about accommodation: when we’re in that I-wanna-be-alone mood, we book a hotel or AirBnB.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Meanwhile, while Servas struggles to bring their 100 constituent national organizations into the Internet era, a Servas discussion group within the Couchsurfing site expresses two opposing views. The first tries to encourage Couchsurfers to adopt the more allophilic perspective of Servas. The second suggests this was never the intention, nor should it be. We hope the former view predominates – although we never discount the value of free accommodation.

And while travelers may view a hospitality exchange as merely a cheap way to travel, it’s hard to see what hosts get out of offering free room and board if it’s not the opportunity to connect with people from other lands and cultures. So perhaps the allophilic spirit is alive and well in the new Internet world.

Santiago de Cuba

Our boys jamming with a couple of local musicians in Santiago de Cuba (circa 2006)

Will it help? Is WWIII becoming less likely because of the humble hospitality exchange? Perhaps these words from the founder of Servas provide a clue.

“This story is not only about the beginning of Servas but the awakening of a mind on a slow overland trip from Norway to India. Confrontations with divergent cultures replaced my colored glasses with an often diamond clear vision. An ever deepening awareness from immersion in diverse ways of life shook up my ingrained assumptions. From shades of gray suddenly rainbow colors burst into my consciousness. Freed from the shackles of my upbringing and a classic American mentality I began to soar with the perspective of a global citizen. The human community emerged as a magic quilt of life styles and manners of thinking and living, a single tapestry of myriad designs unfolding before me.

“Shifting from a tourist absorbing scenic vistas to a traveler actively searching the central ideas of cultures happens gradually. At first the subtle thought/observation changes are unnoticeable. Then one discovers that a once passive and barely opened mind has blossomed into an inquisitive flower hungry for pollination. As I learned to listen with empathy, the most humble persons from distant corners of the globe became my mentors, pulling me into undreamed of chambers of thoughts and insights. I was no longer a touring observer looking in but a participant savoring many ways of life.”

Near Plitvice

Near Plitvice Park in Croatia, a 1990s war memorial stands guard over a bombed out home.

As I continue my investigation of this new concept, I have a question for you: which organizations are you aware of fostering world peace through intercultural allophilia?

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Question:

Which organizations foster world peace through intercultural allophilia? Please leave a comment below.

Mi Smo Tako Sretni – We Are So Lucky!

It was on the Island of Korčula that two opposing visions began to converge.

While we were cycling in the southern Dalmatian Islands of Croatia, one of our riding companions began to exclaim at every opportunity, “We are so lucky!”

“Why is that?” I asked.

Our transport awaits at Prigradica, Korčula

Our transport awaits at Prigradica, Korčula

“Look at us,” Heather would say. Here we are, riding on this beautiful island on a warm September day. Friends, all in good spirits, surround us. Everywhere we look, there are stunning vistas. We get back to our luxurious yacht for a fine meal, and first we go for a swim in this clear, warm Adriatic ocean. The roads, the villages, and the countryside are so peaceful. Think of all the people who aren’t able to be here and enjoy this right now. “We are so damned lucky!”

While I couldn’t fault Heather’s logic, after hearing this several times a day, it began to grate on me. So I asked one of our guides for a translation into Croatian. “Mi smo tako sretni,” he said. It had a ring to it – once I got the pronunciation right – so I began to prod my shipmates with this from time to time. “Mi smo tako sretni!” The phrase began its work while we began to absorb some of Korčula’s history.

A small-town church on Korčula

A small-town church on Korčula

While today, this island of anglers, vignerons, and hosteliers feels pretty laid back, it was not always so. The history of invasions and takeovers reads like a “Who’s Who” of the continent.

Between 1000 BC and 900 AD, Korčula was invaded by the Illyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Slavs, and the Byzantine Empire. Then the pace picked up. Over the next 500 years, the Island’s rulers included the Serbian kingdom of Raška, the Slavic kingdom of Zahumlje, the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), the Republic of Venice, the Croatian kingdom of Krka, the Hungarian monarchy, the Republic of Genoa, Venice (again), the Kingdom of Hungary (a couple more times), the Kingdom of Bosnia, the Serbian Kingdom of Zeta, and finally ended up back under the thumb of Venice in 1409.

Impromptu a capella performance. Some say that Marco Polo was born in Korčula during its Venetian occupation

Impromptu a capella performance. Some say that Marco Polo was born in Korčula during its Venetian occupation

In 1571, the Islanders repelled an Ottoman Turkish attack, and then – except for frequent attacks by pirates – things settled down. However, in 1797, a new series of takeovers began, including the Hapsburg Monarchy of Vienna, the French under Napoleon, the Kingdom of Montenegro, France again, the British, and finally ended up under the rule of the Austrian Empire in 1815.

During WWI, the Island was caught between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Italians (after they switched sides.) Italy won out in 1918, but in 1921, Korčula became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. For the first two years of WWII, the new central authority was the Banovina of Croatia, but between 1941 and 1944, the Island fell under the control of Mussolini’s Italy, then the communist Yugoslav Partisans, then Nazi Germany, and finally the Allied Forces.

Close call.  Not far to the Pelješac Peninsula on the mainland.

Close call. Not far to the Pelješac Peninsula on the mainland.

After 1945, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was in charge, until Croatia declared its independence in 1991. The war for independence largely bypassed Korčula although most of the nearby Croatian coast was less fortunate. However, it would seem that the Islanders have had to endure a considerable helping of violence and upheaval over the past three thousand years.

As the reality of this history began to sink in, I began to see our good fortune in a new light. Because my grandparents located in a relatively peaceful part of the western hemisphere – one that was to become quite prosperous – I have not had to grow up in the shadow of war and cycles of violence. Instead, I had the opportunity to become better off financially than the overwhelming majority of the world’s inhabitants. We can afford to cruise the Dalmatian Islands on a well-appointed yacht, and have our every need catered to. As our friend Heather said, “Mi smo tako sretni.”

Mi smo tako sretni - we are so lucky. Near Lastovo.

Mi smo tako sretni – we are so lucky. Near Lastovo.

As we toured a number of other areas in Croatia and nearby, the contrast between our good fortune and the recent suffering of others kept bubbling up.

It started in Dubrovnik as we sat with our friendly Airbnb host on his balcony, admiring the spectacular view of the Old Town spread out below us. Not twenty years earlier, our host had been unable to venture onto the balcony for fear of sniper fire from Yugoslav forces on the hilltop above. At age 13, he was stuck inside with his grandmother, while his parents worked as medics in a nearby war zone.

From high on Srđ, destruction rained down on Dubrovnik

From high on Srđ, destruction rained down on Dubrovnik

Later, on top of that same hilltop – Mount Srđ – we could see the view the gunners would have had as they shelled the city of Dubrovnik below. Built as protection from medieval forces, the famous walls were of little use in protecting the citizens from late-20th-century armaments. Srđ now hosts a sobering museum filled with photographs of taken during the siege of Dubrovnik. As you wander the streets with thousands of other happy tourists, it’s hard to imagine the pain and destruction of the 1990s.

The rustic shelters high up Mt Velebit served as refuge from coastal pirates for centuries

The rustic shelters high up Mt Velebit served as refuge from coastal pirates for centuries

In the Islands, there are echoes of slightly more distant wars. The Island of Prezba, adjacent to Lastovo, was a Yugoslav military base during the Cold War. With the Italian coast less than 200 km distant, this area would have been part of the front-line in the 45-year standoff between East and West. Now, fortunately, the island flora is reclaiming the fortifications. Up the coast, similar tunnels dug into the base of Mt. Velebit will become a new tourist attraction next year. Perhaps Tito intended to hide out here if the Russians and Americans started lobbing nukes at each other.

Mostar from the Bridge. A war zone not so long ago.

Mostar from the Bridge. A war zone not so long ago.

In the middle of our week of cycling, our tour bused us all out to the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar is famous for the Old Bridge (Stari Most) after which it is named. The bridge, now a UN Heritage Site, was built in 1566 when Bosnia was under Ottoman rule. During the ethnic fighting that took place in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the bridge was destroyed. In 2004, the bridge reopened, having been reconstructed from original plans and using original material that had fallen into the river during the bombardment. It now serves as a symbol of peace.

Remnants of war for sale at the Mostar bazaar.

Remnants of war for sale at the Mostar bazaar.

Still, the signs of the recent war are all around in Mostar. Plaques in the market read, “Never forget 1993.” A cross on the hill above town commemorates some of the victims of the war. Here and there between the tourist shops are the bombed out shells of buildings that have yet to be reclaimed from the fighting. In the part of town that divided Croat from Bosniak ethnic groups, apartment buildings are still pockmarked in shrapnel wounds. It’s sobering to imagine what those years must have been like. Over 100,000 people died in the Bosnian conflict. Today however, the only visible conflict seems to be among tourists for open-air tables or the best views of the young men who once again jump off the new Old Bridge.

Some of the falls at Plitvice Lakes

Some of the falls at Plitvice Lakes

The week after our cycling trip, we traveled to Croatia’s famous Plitvice Lakes National Park. This is a unique region of unparalleled beauty, where calcium-laden rivers of unbelievable shades of blue create a “Land of Waterfalls.” It’s impossible to convey the scope of this landscape with a single picture. As you walk down the trails and boardwalks, it’s as if you are right in the middle of the cascading falls. Between the falls are peaceful lakes, and the entire scene is surrounded by forest.

Our home for five nights would be right in the park, in the small village of Korana, nestled on the banks of the same river that sculpts the waterfalls. Just a handful of houses, Korana boasts one of the few still operating water-powered grain mills. Our accommodation in a private home had no WiFi. The valley walls blocked cell phone reception. As we walked along the bank of the river that first early Fall evening, the smoke curled peacefully up from the woodstoves. The tranquility carried with it a soothing balm for the soul. But there is pain that lies beneath.

Our home at Korana Village - peaceful once again

Our home at Korana Village – peaceful once again

Our host explained to us that most of the homes had been destroyed during the Croatian conflict. All the men had spent a year in prisoner-of-war camps run by enemy militias. “If they seem a little strange now,” he said, “perhaps you’ll understand why.”

Right in the beautiful park at Plitvice were fired some of the first shots of the conflict that would rage for three years. Plitvice was the centre of the area of Croatia known as Krajina, which stretches in a big arc along 40% of the Croatian-Bosnian border. During the Middle Ages the Austrian Empire encouraged large numbers of Serbs to settle in this area as a “buffer” against the Ottoman possessions in Bosnia. In recent times there were several hundred thousand Serbs living in this area, with some areas having more Serbs than Croats. In 1991, as the Croatian government prepared to declare its independence from Yugoslavia, the Serbs in Krajina jumped the gun and declared their own republic independent of Croatia. When the war broke out, most of the Krajina Serbs sided with the Serb-controlled Yugoslav government. The fighting that ensued must have been brutal.

Plitvice changed hands four times during the fighting.

Plitvice changed hands four times during the fighting.

As we toured the area around Plitvice, most notably in Karlovac and the surrounding countryside, we pondered the still stark signs of devastation. Almost every home in this region had been war damaged. Apart from ruins that had not been salvaged, numerous homes were still peppered with shrapnel damage, almost 20 years later.

In the countryside around Karlovac, we passed extensive areas that appeared to be reverting to nature, with trees and bushes growing up around the ruins of farmhouses. From time to time, signs warned of uncleared landmines. Some of these areas were formerly populated by Serbs, but several hundred thousand left Croatia during and following the war.

Open air war museum in Turanj, a suburb of Karlovac

Open air war museum in Turanj, a suburb of Karlovac

Traveling through these areas really got me thinking about how hard many people have it. Meanwhile, Cheryl and I live in a peaceful, prosperous country. It’s not too difficult for us to afford a trip like this, where we can eat well, be well looked after, and have guides show us around or entertain us. We get to sail to beautiful islands on a yacht, or hike through beautiful national parks, or spend the day cruising the countryside on comfortable bicycles.

As our cycle guide explained it, “Mi smo tako stretni.” can mean either “We are so lucky” or “We are so happy.” Could this linking of “happy” and “lucky” offer a small insight into the Slavic temperament? Or perhaps we just need to acknowledge some of the good fortune in our happiness. “Mi smo tako jako sretni!” We are so darned lucky!

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Enjoying the peace of an evening stroll in Korana

Enjoying the peace of an evening stroll in Korana

Our five-day stay in Korana Village in Plitvice was arranged by Huck Finn Croatia Adventure Travel. It’s a reasonably priced and somewhat different way to see this part of Croatia. Our guide, Zlatko, picked us up in Zagreb, and spent the next four days leading us on a number of activities around the area: the waterfalls of Plitvice Park, hiking on Mt. Velebit, cycling in the Karlovac countryside, and rafting on the Mrežnica River. Each evening we enjoyed traditional meals in the riverside cookhouse in Korana. Zlatko turned out to be an accomplished classical guitarist, and one evening played a selection of his own arrangements of Balkan flamenco from Macedonia. Our group definitely enjoyed Huck Finn’s Croatia.

Some of us are very lucky. Some not.

Some of us are very lucky. Some not.

One of our most memorable activities in Dubrovnik was a visit to the galleries of War Photo Ltd. on Antuninska Street, just off the main thoroughfare. According to their promotional literature, “It is the intent of War Photo Limited to educate the public in the field of war photography, to expose the myth of war and the intoxication of war, to let people see war as it is, raw, venal, frightening, by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike.” There are several photo exhibits about the conflicts in Croatia and other parts of former Yugoslavia, but there are also revolving displays on war’s human costs in Northern Ireland, Syria, Chechnya, Colombia, Israel, Lebanon, and other hot spots. We spent a sobering couple of hours there, and once more came away thinking, “Mi smo tako sretni!”

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