Gesellschaft German Article: an interview by Anne Kirchberg

by Anne Kirchberg, January 28th, 2012

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10 Important things that travel has taught me

1.) Time Management: I´ve learned how to guess what time is by looking at the sun; I figured out flights don´t wait for you if you´re late, and they´re expensive to re-book; and seeing Rome in 3 days is impossible, so save sleep for some other time

2.) Math Skills: different numeric systems and currency values have made me good at calculating exchange rates off the top of my head, as well as translating Celsius to Fahrenheit, kilos to pounds, cm´s to inches, km´s to miles, and using a 24 hour clock instead of this am/pm business.

3.) Lower your hygiene standards – shower less, drink dirty water, eat street food, and poop in poopy holes in the ground. Your immunity just gets stronger, and you´ll realize you’re less susceptible to contagious diseases or an upset stomach.

4.) When your pee smells bad, you’re dehydrated. Drink more dirty water.

5.) Have incredible patience and tolerance for things that, in any other situation, would be crazy and cause for incredible alarm.

6.) Pack less stuff. The more luggage you have, the more your material world starts to weigh down on you, figuratively and literally. You start to realize you have too much, need much less, and that your back freaking hurts.

7.) Leave your guide book at home; you´ll just end up going, eating and staying at the exact same places as every other backpacker does. And, by the time its published, its outdated anyway.

8.) If you´re really brave, leave your map at home too. You´ll realize how strong and reliable your sense of direction has become. Besides, its more fun getting lost in strange places than in a place where you´re supposed to know where you are or where you´re going.

9.) Don´t get stuck behind your camera lens. Its much more impressive to stare at the Pyramids of Giza with your own two eyes than through a viewfinder or 2 inch LCD screen.

10.) You´ll always run out of time and money before you´re ready to go back home, so embrace homesickness as a good sign that you´ve managed to stay traveling long enough not to run out of either, and keep on going til you do!

Lotourism: a new philosophy of travel

My friend Tom who works with the London Zoo created a new word that recently got added into the English Oxford Dictionary. He’s a post-doc researcher that works closely with penguins and became a self-acclaimed “penguinologist.” If you google the term, he’s the second hit.

Likewise, I had the idea to invent a new word. I have a dialect of English my friends call Katrin-speak, but this is isn’t a word I’m pulling from my bad English vocabulary – its more like a philosophy of travel that I’ve adopted. “Lotourism.” Its a theory of tourism that isn’t captured by any other, one word. After completing my MA thesis on the discrepancies between defined and actualized ecotourism, I realized the term ecotourism is a vague, green-washed term, whose definition is undecided among academics, and sometimes unidentifiable in practice.

I liked to think I was an ecotourist, also called an alternative tourist, sustainable tourist, or an environmentally friendly tourist. But then these terms lead us to more definition inconsistencies, since “eco” and “environmental” and “sustainable” are all buzzwords overused and often misunderstood.

I like to think I travel sustainably, but not just natural resource sustainably – Im financially resourceful, with minimal luggage, staying with locals, and traveling slowly but steadily over short-haul distances.

Im not really a backpacker, since I avoid hostels and hate being defined by the stuff in a bag on my back. Im not always a tourist, since I try my best to camouflage into my surroundings and see things from a local perspective. I’m definitely a traveler, but so is the American guy sitting in business class flying to Dubai for a 2 hour business meeting before returning to London via Dakar for dinner in England’s most authentic Turkish restaurant. So I’ve realized there are different types of travelers, doing different types of travel, and when asked how I travel, my new answer is “I’m a lotourist.”

Lotourism is, in a nutshell, is kind of like ecotourism, redefined and on a budget. It is travel that is low-impact, low-cost, localized, and lonely.

1.) Low-impact: your footprint on the natural environment is minimal, which means your carbon footprint is low, your use of exhaustible or non-renewable resources is low, you create minimal or no waste, you dont contribute to the degradation of natural environments, your touristic activities and choice of transport/accomodation/or anything else travel related is based on an educated, informed decision to be as low impact as possible. Your footprint on the local culture or host is minimal, which means you learn and engage in cultural exchange so far as you do not negatively impact any local traditions or customs, you are a low-profile and low-maintenance guest, imparting little change or judgement except for what is beneficial or desired.

2.) Low-cost: you travel on a tight budget, which requires you to avoid tourist traps like all-inclusive vacations, hotels, and organized tours. You avoid shopping and buy almost nothing but necessities, spend your money on simple travel (preferably terrestrial, like trains or buses, going short distances rather than long-haul flights), and stay with locals that you know through friends, family, or travel communities like couchsurfing.

3.) Localized: you stick around in an area long enough to know it, see every corner (especially outside the city center or touristic attractions) and the surrounding suburbs or country side. You stay where you want to be, living a day in the life there. You spend your money in such a way that financial resources go directly into the pockets of locals (locally-owned businesses, local guides, surrounding farms instead of imported/mass produced foods) and you support the local economy (avoid international tour operators or foreign-owned companies in all your purchasing decisions).

4.) Lonely: last but not least, travel alone. Travel by yourself to be better immersed in your surroundings, alone with your thoughts and feelings to fully take in, process, and understand your new environment. Be vulnerable, meet local people, avoid speaking your own language, catering to the needs of a travel companion, or doing anything that you don’t feel like doing or going anywhere you don’t feel like going.Leave your Lonely Planet at home and just ask people for help as you go, talking to as many strangers as you can. Don’t stay in hostels where you’ll get swallowed up into a group of other tourists, don’t travel with a tour group or on a big bus with “rich tourists, coming your way” printed on the license plate. Travel more spontaneously, irresponsibly even, at the mercy of a local tip, with the adrenaline-rush of taking the wrong bus or the long bus, ending up on the wrong train, showing up in a place you have no clue about, learning from scratch and not a guide book. You can go for as long or short as you want, book one-way tickets, have undefined destinations, a flexible schedule, and a trip planned only one day ahead at a time.

So, for any other lotourists out there, get the word out on the new word. And, if you get it and you like it, spread the word so more lotourism can exist in this traveling world of ours.

 

Holiday Feasting and Dysfunctional Families

My parents had 3 daughters together, all of us born in Iceland, but raised most of our lives by our mother in Canada. Though we kept many of our Icelandic traditions and some Icelandic culture, we lost the language and became more Canadian. My mother is Guyanese, and imparted much of her British Guyanese influence onto us as well, so we grew up in quite the international, multi-cultural home. She dated an Italian, a Brit, most recently a Chinese guy, and married and divorced an Indian Guyanese guy during the time we lived in Canada. But we never really had a man around the house, since my grandmother helped raise us and we were barely allowed to keep male company without being chastised.

I went through a tomboy phase in my teenage hood, had only male friends, dreamed of having a brother, and wished I had a father. When I graduated university, I decided to move back to Iceland and be with my dad back home. Since then, I had the dilemma every year to decide whether I should spend the holiday season in Canada or Iceland, and always hoped the family could have just one more Christmas together.

my family feast on Christmas Eve

This Christmas and New Years was the first I spent in Iceland together with my entire family since 1992. My mom, dad, sisters and I had Christmas together in Canada in 1994, but it didnt turn out so great since my parents had just recently divorced and my mom had emigrated us all to Canada without telling my dad. I guess time does heal all, so 17 years later, they talked about things other than custody or money, and us sisters all grown up appreciated having both our parents in the same room to contribute to another happy family memory.

It was quite the dysfunctional occasion though. My parents get a long okay when we’re around, but they couldn’t be left alone since my dad has no patience for my mom and my mom didn’t think it was appropriate to stay at his house. They both know they’re excellent cooks and want to parent us, but now we’re all grown up and scolded them more than they scolded us. My youngest sister is engaged to be married and somehow acts like she can’t wait to start her own (more normal) family. My eldest sister wanted everything to go smoothly but is an unspoken, passive aggressivist, and I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to keep everyone busy and entertained… which wasn´t easy with record snow falls keeping us on the verge of getting stuck every time we had to go anywhere or park the car. But we only had a week and couldn´t let weather get in the way of or plans, so I was still the 24/7 driver, tourist guide, daily planner and phone secretary. However, I never minded since I was royally awarded with food feasts centered around family time every day they were here.

the first seconds of 2012

My mom has a sister in Iceland who married an Icelandic man and started a family here. My mom stayed with her and we visited our Aunty and cousins often for breakfasts, lunches and dinners prepared large enough for an entire army. We ate traditional smoked lamb with fixings, grilled leg of lamb with Icelandic mushroom gravy, lamb saddle and sheep head. On Christmas night we had lamb curry and roti, and Christmas morning we had Pepperpot, a delicious Guyanese dish made of oxtail and lamb

adding oxtail to the pepperpot

neck that takes days to cook. My friend Þráinn, one of the top chefs in Europe, came over and cooked some fine-dining langoustine for us one night. We tried every Christmas beer brewed in Iceland, and stuffed our bellies full of cookies and chocolate after every meal.

We visited our half brother, our old neighbours, and met many of my friends, including 3 hunters who fed us reindeer steak and reindeer carpaccio. We made it through the days with coffee and tea, leftover dinners, and hot dogs from hot dog stands. We rang in the new year with sparkling wine and almost got blown up by a wayward firecracker my cousin Svanur lit up too close to the balcony. We tried to make it to Vestmann Islands to visit our relatives from Dad´s side, but the weather wouldn´t allow it, or else we would have gotten to try some puffin and dried sea weed.

After a week of stuffing our faces and functioning like a family unit once again, we all had a great time secured by hundreds of photos to keep every moment of the holiday  memorable. I like watching Modern Family to remind myself we´re just one of many dysfunctional families, with an ever-evolving definition of family unit. I appeciate how unique my family is – growing up apart, getting divorced, getting engaged, living in different countries – and learnt that it doesn´t affect our family ties, since these are just the things that make us normal. I guess all families have some dirt under the carpet, with some weird element going on, so we’d be abnormal if we weren’t a little dysfunctional.

Flying with the Icelandic Coast Guard

I had never flown in a helicopter before, and I’ve missed so many perfect opportunities before. I should have seen the volcano eruption last year by helicopter, but it was ridiculously expensive, and I could have seen the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon by helicopter, but the wait was too long. Then, a few days after returning to Iceland, my friend Frikki invited me to walk his dog with him. It was 6pm, dark outside, and we played fetch in Elliðaárdalur. He was bragging to me about how he got to fly with the Icelandic Coast Guard the night before. Then he smiled casually and said, “and I’m flying again tonight. Want to come?”

the pilots

The Icelandic Coast guard rescues farmers, tourists, seamen, and anyone else who gets into trouble when mother nature screws things up. They save injured fishermen from boats and evacuate tourists from glacier crevices – all very heroic, extreme stunts that require them to train full time. The coast guards are a group of manly men, and always fly with one doctor on board since the helicopter functions like a flying ambulance. They wear intimidating uni-suits and helmets fitted with mics, headphones, and some serious night-vision goggles, since they do almost all their training in the winter months after dark.

Frikki is a doctor, not for the coast guard (yet…), and they don’t mind flying with a couple extra people since they can practice mock-rescue situations. We were fitted with some fancy helmets too, and told to do exactly as we were instructed at all times, including the moment when we would get dropped out of the helicopter with just one cable cord as our life line.

After some debate, the pilot decided to fly us to Þórsmörk, a beautiful part of Iceland near Eyjafjallajökull only reachable by foot, horse, or helicopter.

The helicopter they fly is HUGE. Its blades are so long that you’re convinced it’ll fly even though it looks like an immovable tank. I sat in the front of the helicopter, between the two pilots, and watched them flip a bunch of switches, read check lists and make notes, over and over while the blades spun faster and faster. It was completely dark inside, and they had flaslights on their fingers. When it was time for take off, I barely noticed the helicopter lift off the ground, and hoover itself around the building and up into the sky, flying away from Reykjavik city in the most epic way I could have imagined. I put on my night goggles to see better, and everything glowed green.

The goggles are some super tech invention that the most advanced militant forces use, each pair worth more than a car. They transform a pitch black sea into glowing green waves, moving and shining like something from another world. The night sky explodes with billions of stars, and when the helicopter flies full speed, they zoom past the front window like a Star Wars galaxy scene. Lucky for us, the ground was covered in snow, and with the little light that added, our goggles could show us everything. We saw cars driving and people walking, horses running through fields, farm houses glowing with christmas lights, steam rising from geothermal hotspots, and waves break along the coastal cliffs. We saw the city glow of Selfoss as if it was as big and bright as Times Square, and even Hvollsvöllir seemed like an Oasis in the middle of nowhere.

the helicopter

While flying, I became hypnotized by the green world passing under me. The ocean looked possessed, eerily exposed when noone else can see it. The droning sound of the helicopter, almost silenced by my headphones, mixed with the background chatter of the coast guards, sounded like a lullaby pacifying my excitedness. But, my adrenaline quickly returned once we arrived in Þórsmörk; the coast guard put a rope around my body, held down only by my arms, and pushed me out of the helicopter. I dangled like a rag doll, trying to stay as stiff as a board so my cable wouldn’t slip off. On the ground, another guy caught me and held me up against the tornado winds the helicopter was creating, and untied me.

I remember looking up at the helicopter, without my goggles, and watching it like some supernatural, divine object. Without it, I’d be in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, near an angry volcano, blind, and lost. But, of course, it was thinkable only because I knew it wasn’t true, and the helicopter repelled us back up into its safety in no time. Going up was scarier, since I swung back and forth between the wheels of the helicopter uncontrollably for some time before they could drag me back inside, but I was helpless to scream since noone would hear me, and I couldn’t reach my arms out since I’d slip out of my harness. It makes me wonder how they manage to drag up deranged, hysterical or panicking rescue victims…

I wish I could share a picture from my photo memory, since no camera could capture that narrow, green world I saw through my goggles. But hopefully your imagination does it justice, or else I’d suggest making friends with some doctors who know the coast guards 🙂