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Being American Makes me Bad at Visiting Other Countries

Sometimes I think growing up in America makes me incapable of understanding the mentalities and challenges of other countries.
This is Armenia.
This is too, only zoomed out a little more.
I used to think that Poland was the most geographically unfortunate country in the world, but now I think Armenia takes the crown.
Before it was a country, Armenia was a group of people, a cluster of Christians on a small, jagged patch of the South Caucasus.
Stuck between the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, the land under them got passed back and forth, conquered and divided, burned down, built up, bargained for, traded, given away. Always the subject of history, never its designer.
Most of us know ‘Armenian’ as the word you hear before ‘Genocide’ every once in awhile, but we’re less familiar with why so many Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire in the first place, how the lines on the map hopscotched under them dozens of times as the great powers traded their territory back and forth.
Armenia’s national symbol, Mount Ararat, isn’t even in Armenia. It’s in Turkey, across a border Armenians aren’t allowed to cross.
After World War II, Armenia was unified, but under the control of the USSR. In 1991, it finally got independent, became its own master for the first time in 70 years. These days it’s no longer a client state, just a poor, landlocked country that has closed borders with two of its four neighbors.
To the right, Azerbaijan is pissed at Armenia over an ongoing border dispute from the early ’90s. The two countries don’t even have embassies in each other’s countries, no trade or cultural exchange whatsoever. They communicate through intermediaries, like a couple going through an ugly divorce.
To the left, Turkey not only supports Azerbaijan, but still refuses to admit to the aforementioned genocide. Borders are closed there too.
So Armenia can only trade to the top (Georgia) and bottom (Iran).
But in the middle, away from all the economics and the politics, you don’t see any of that. All you can tell about Armenia is that it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
You get the feeling the Lord of the Rings movies were actually shot here, and that New Zealand is just faking it for the tourism.
The country is also, considering all the factors stacked against it, doing OK economically as well.
A per capita GDP of $6,300 ain’t Belgium, but it ain’t Burundi either. The infrastructure is good, and since 2008, the country has grown at around 5 percent a year.
On the overall tale of the tape, though, Armenia’s biggest advantage is probably its diaspora.
Only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia, but an estimated 8 million live outside of it.
Every year remittances, tourism and investment come home from the US, Lebanon, Australia, Italy. The joke here is that Armenians are successful everywhere except Armenia.
The population is still shrinking. All those Armenians living abroad, everyone’s got a friend or a cousin or a company that can give them a reason to leave.
The countryside is dotted with half-empty villages,
factories someone switched off when the USSR abandoned them and never switched on again.
Maybe it’s because I’m American and maybe it’s not, but I find it difficult to process the sheer depth of Armenia’s roots–and its conflicts.
I think of the citizens of my country as a ‘people’, I guess, but not in the ethnic or religious or historical sense, not the way Armenians feel connected to their past.
The idea that the land where I grew up, where my grandparents come from, could be taken by another country and locked to me, is utterly unfathomable.
This, I think, is why I struggle to understand conflicted parts of the world like the South Caucasus or the Balkans: Nothing here reflects the relationship I have to my own country, nothing reminds me of myself. There’s this part of me that hears about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and thinks ‘Why don’t they just get over it and move on?’
Which is shitty and myopic. And maybe why I like visiting this part of the world so much, why I’m so keen to come back, why I find the reasons to ignore that question in my head so fascinating.
It’s like reading fiction. I’m entering this world that my imagination doesn’t permit me to invent, but doesn’t want me to leave.
Not until I can see myself in it.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Random Thoughts From a Week in New York City


You thought visiting New York City would make you feel cool, but actually it makes you feel poor and un-busy.


You thought it would be sooooo different from the rest of America.


But really it’s the same, just better.


People talk like movies.


And the street names and landmarks are recognizable from your favorite CBS crime dramas.


Jogging through Central Park is a cliche, like everything else you do here.


Going to museums and making ‘hmmm’ sounds


does not diminish the fact that you went to MoMA primarily to scout for Facebook cover photos.


And that Prospect Park was a 585-acre struggle not to shout ‘why are you so fucking twee?!’ at the dogs and their walkers.


And that, fuck the locals, tall buildings are amazing and you’re going to stop every few steps to capture them.


You’re acutely aware that everything you can say or do or think in this place is already said, done, thunked.


So instead of trying anything new, you might as well spend it like a week at home.


See friends, eat meals,


take long bike rides as dangerous as they are destinationless, 


take pictures of pedestrian shit like snowblowers, mouth open like some kind of Appalachian.


You don’t see everything,


Or maybe  even anything.


But you realize as you leave, you were busy after all. And maybe even rich.


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Look at your country. Now back to me. Back at your country. Now back at me.

I'm in New Zealand visiting my folks for Christmas

Like most of my vacations, it's primarily defined by what I'm *not* doing.

I'm not checking mails, I'm not reading the newspaper

I'm not freezing my lice off in Europe

For this, New Zealand is spectacular

It's a great place to just shut up for a few weeks.

And look at the country from different angles.

Exactly, Dad, or translate it into ink and water

It feels either abandoned or undiscovered, depending on your mood

The shags dive in the morning, then spend the day drying out so they can do it again in the afternoon.

That's pretty much been my approach here too: Idleness recast as activity.

I'm not lazy, I'm anticipating.

As long as I know what I'm not, i'm not concerned about what I am.



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Jakarta is grimy and sort of human.


The ubiquitous crowds and humid climate give it the ambiance of the inside of someone's uterus.


Everything moves slowly through the mud


There's shockingly little to do, for a city of 14 million people


Even the wildlife seems bemused by this.


They sell handerchiefs and fireworks on the street


The locals spend a lot of time negotiating traffic crises


or food crises, which are occasionally the same thing.


The constant chaos after awhile becomes soothing


And your internal cavalry surrenders to the gridlock.



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Helveticans tried to do me in

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Fjord focus

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How I ended up at a whale hunt

I was visiting my friend Rogvi in the Faroe Islands this weekend. The Faroe Islands is a colony of Denmark, a small island chain right between Norway and Iceland. It’s been inhabited by Vikings, and little else, for the last 1,000 years. Most of it looks like this:


Just after I arrived, Rogvi took me on a driving tour.

‘Where are we off to?’
‘I heard on the radio that they caught some whales in Kvivik,’ he said.

Apparently a whale hunt works like this.

  1. A fisherman spots a pod of whales.
  2. He broadcasts the location of the pod to all other fishermen in the area.
  3. The other fishermen rush to his location
  4. En masse, the fishermen use their boats to push the pod of whales closer and closer to the shore.
  5. Eventually, the whales simply wash themselves up on the beach
  6. The fisherman hop off their boats and club the whales in the head to knock them unconscious.
  7. The fishermen sever the whale’s spinal cord with a long knife they keep with them whenever they’re on the sea. Imagine a ninja cutting someone’s jugular, only in the back of their head instead of the front.

The entire process takes less than 10 minutes, and about 1,000 whales are killed like this every year.

Here’s what we saw when we arrived in Kvivik.




The intestines are the only part of the whale you can’t eat.



Though dolphins, humpback whales and killer whales are regularly spotted up here, Faroe Islanders only kill pilot whales. The carcasses ranged from golden retriever-sized infants to full-grown males the length of a Cadillac. One guy was hosing them down while another tried to arrange them in rows with a forklift.

It was about as effective as eating sushi with a blindfold. The whales were sliding all over the place.




Each of these hunts yields thousands of pounds of whale meat and blubber. The person who first spotted the whale has first dibs, and gets the largest share. All the fishermen who participated in the hunt are also allocated a ‘part’. After that, parts are reserved for village residents, local hospitals and old-folks homes. If there’s any left, people simply sign their name in a sort of guestbook and are also given a share.

A hunt like this can yield 500 parts, each consisting of about 100 pounds of meat. People eat it year-round, and some ends up in restaurants.

As Rogvi put it, anyone who eats meat isn’t allowed to be sickened or disturbed by this. Many of the industrial processes between ‘cow’ and ‘hamburger’ are significantly less edifying than these pictures. Humans eat meat. Meat comes from animals. This is just what that process looks like.

Rogvi also pointed out that, for about 1,000 years, whales provided one of the only sources of food for Faroe Islanders. Only about 2 percent of the islands are suitable for agriculture, and meat from fish and whales—raw, dried, smoked or boiled—was literally the only food available.

I’m definitely not convinced on the latter point. We don't own slaves in 2010 just because, hey, for a few hundred years there, it was the only agricultural labour available. The repugnance of human activity is not related to its longevity.

But there’s something to the former. I don’t know if I found the experience of seeing all those whales uncomfortable because I think whales are closer to humans on the sentience-spectrum than cows, or simply because I’ve never been that close to a bunch of large, freshly killed animals before. Either way, it's hard to stand within smell-distance of the consequences your consumption behavior and not feel compelled to defend it. 

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Describing friendship in six words

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Middle Easter: Beirut

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Middle Easter: Dead Sea, Jordan

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