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Le Tour de France

At 4am and 37,000 feet above the earth, there is rarely a call to action.

That is until you’re awakened by a passenger clutching his heart and asking for help. As I sprang to assist, Yaskara, the girl next to him woke up startled as though she was in the midst of a bad dream. I informed her of what was happening and made my way to Business Class through the darkness of a silent plane in search of the purser (lead flight attendant). Alarmed, she scrambled for the medical kit as I made my way back to the incident and began searching his bag with the assistance of Yaskara for the medications he said he’d previously taken that day. With the help of two doctors onboard and the flight crew, we managed to move him to a lay flat seat in Business Class for the final hour descent into Paris while he recovered…all in all, a well executed upgrade to Business Class.

Thus started the adventure that has unfolded in Paris. My buddy Jamie and I are on day three of this jaunt through Europe with little more planned than the Tour de France finish down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees at the Arc  de Triomphe. We’ve landed free lodging both nights and have managed to make friends along the way…it pays off to wheel a carry-on bag for miles and miles around “The City of Light” in pursuit of unknown lodging. As a means of journaling/blogging/sharing the adventure, I think it best to provide recaps of how the course of events has played out these first few days. As we meet travelers and are welcomed by hosts in different cities, I’ll stop to share their stories.

Saturday July 26th: The guy with heart issues lived to tell the tale of his connecting flight to Beirut in the story above. Jamie & I attempted to use my Delta Diamond status & his United Star Alliance club access to score free showers and breakfast when we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport. Due to security reasons, we were unable to access Terminal 2 and were thwarted in our resourceful plan. We paid 1o Euros ($13.50) for the local train (RER) into Paris…it’s currently the cheapest option into the city aside from hitchhiking. We set out from Notre Dame on an excursion to find wi-fi and options to store our bags. Within minutes, we picked up a new friend named Sean who had also just landed from Cincinnati and was willing to join our trusted duo of weary red-eyed travelers thus making us a terrific trio of Americans in Paris. We spent the morning trolling AirBnB in an effort to avoid homelessness that night and thanking Starbucks for their wi-fi. With miles spent on foot and the wheels wearing on our carry-ons, we met up with Yaskara, the girl who’d helped me with the distressed passenger enroute to Paris as she had discovered a free walking tour of Paris for the afternoon (http://www.neweuropetours.eu). The tour lasted 2.5 hours, covered all the key attractions, was a payment by choice donation, & we managed to be a hit with our carry-ons in tow the whole time. Through the power of social media and a request for lodging put out across multiple channels, I received a message that someone would meet us in a local park to pick us up for a room we could have that night…in the end, the person picked us up in his car and offered us shots of Absolute vodka while driving to go along with a selection of cigarettes and a recited knowledge of where we could find the best prostitutes in Paris. We managed to bail on the offer of lodging, get out of his car at a local metro stop, and as the sun began to set, it appeared we’d be homeless on night number one. After logging 12 miles on foot with bags in tow (come to find out later, you can store bags for 8-14 Euros at train stations across Paris), we made the executive decision to train 45 minutes back to the international airport and call home an airport bench. Upon arrival, we found a nice “bed” and as we settled in for zero star service, I received another message on Facebook via a connection from a friend in Nashville. This time, I was put in touch with Mathilde, a well-traveled Parisian who’s the essence of French hospitality. She offered up a couch (and in turn her bed when she saw we’re American sized) to us strangers, provided a beer after navigating public transportation mazes to her place, and set out with us at midnight to show us her neighborhood—the famous Montmartre. We strolled by Moulin Rouge, wandered by bar crowds spilling into streets, gazed at the Basilica Sacre-Coeur, and bought a bottle of cheap Bordeaux wine to share on the steps as locals listened to American Hip-Hop on a 90′s boombox. We talked world travel, laughed about the differences of America and France, thanked her for trusting us as strangers, and walked home to empty streets as we took over her bed at 5am. With little sleep on the red-eye flight over and a full day of exploring Paris complete, it was the perfect place to crash after just 4 hours of sleep in the 34 hour period since we’d left the USA.

Sunday July 27th: We awoke to the sun and sounds of kids playing in the street below. It was quintessential Paris as we looked out on classic Baroque architecture & set out for breakfast at the local cafe. Mathilde fueled up on croissants, Jamie settled for a double espresso, and I finished with the signature jambon/fromage baguette. We set out on rented bikes (1.70 Euros for 24 hours! A steal of a deal compared to other cities for hop-on-hop-off access) and conquered neighborhoods across a 4 mile stretch towards the day’s mission…watching the finish of the famed Le Tour de France bicycle race that is held annually in Europe. As the parade started, and people looked for vantage points from all angles, Jamie and I napped in a park nearby while trusting we’d find a unique spot to watch as the crowds pressed against barriers hours before riders were scheduled to arrive. We awoke to the masses and many nappers who followed suit with our energizing idea to sleep after a 5am night on Saturday. As we circled the Arc de Triomphe, I noticed a 7-story building that was covered with well concealed scaffolding and tall spiked fencing. As has become the custom when Jamie and I travel together, we decided this would be the best spot to witness the Tour finish and it was time to get climbing. We circled the block, saw that two Embassies were next door, and did our best to translate the signage on our building to ensure we weren’t about to scale an Embassy, and staked out a way to avoid the roving patrols of security officials and police who were managing the crowds. In the end, it was decided that I’d solo the building since I had the camera and Jamie would watch from below while mingling with the masses. I found a cornerstone that allowed me to essentially boulder my way 10 feet up the fence and onto the first level of scaffolding while darting behind the concealment that covered my climbing route. As I made my way up the scaffolding, it was apparent that no one had seen me climb and I was in the clear. Sitting  7 stories above the crowd, I was primed to have the best view of the course. It was unreal as I looked across rooftops, the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and the Arc de Triomphe looming before me. As I settled in and worked with my camera as racers neared, I was welcomed with a thundering fly over by 6 French Air Force jets roaring right over my head. The peleton neared and lapped the Avenue des Champs-Elysees time after time while I snapped photos from my perch, kept low to avoid wandering eyes, and took in the moment of cheering crowds and the world’s best cyclists. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that was made better by the fact my feet hit the ground without getting caught. As we walked the course towards the winner’s podium, I was witness to a pro-Palestinian kid who hopped the security barriers screaming freedom in the name of Palestine while getting promptly tackled and arrested by the French Gendarmerie. His bold move to capture the attention of the crowds and chants to remember the dying citizens that are embroiled in a bitter Middle East dispute made me pause to remember the struggles of others that don’t have the chance to peacefully sit and soak in a global sporting event. It was a poignant reminder of the world in which we live. Jamie and I met back up with Yaskara from the day before and the three of us continued our very own Tour de France as we biked Paris and weaved throughout traffic in search of wi-fi and another waning sunset without secured lodging for the night. At a local Starbucks where we searched for housing options, I was able to have some fun with the world’s most popular coffemakers by helping them assist a passed out drunkard on the street outside the store who couldn’t even sit upright in his stupor. He was ranting about France and sprawled across the sidewalk as tourists turned their kids attention away while passing. While those of us helping got a good laugh with his rambling, it was off to the drunk tank he went when the police/paramedics arrived…not amused. We were unsuccessful in securing budget lodging so we decided it’d all work out and we picked up a bottle of wine to take to the steps of the Grand Palais and overlook that last bit of light behind the Eiffel Tower. The steps were packed as darkness fell but we hopped some barriers onto a ledge alone as Yaskara joined our duo again for wine night and the sparkling Eiffel Tower. Rain settled in as we biked back to Montmartre for our bags and what appeared to be another homeless night. With another turn of luck at 11pm, Jamie landed us lodging through an old co-worker who now lives in Paris…night number two of free lodging! We climbed onto a roof around midnight for what we hoped would be spectacular views of Paris in the rain, but were met with a false summit at the top and decided to hangout on the top of the ladder and just look across the rising spires of church steeples in the opposite direction. As the rain fell, the streets emptied, and the cabs cruised the quiet streets, it felt as though I’d stepped into the scene of a number of Paris based movies…in this case, I’ll pretend it’s the Jason Bourne series. We rolled into the apartment at 3am and crashed after recapping the day at 430am. We need to address this pattern of not sleeping until almost 5ish in the morning.

12 Miles of Baggage

12 Miles of Baggage

Joan of Arc--Heroine of France. Burned at the Stake on May 30th, 1431.

Joan of Arc–Heroine of France. Burned at the Stake on May 30th, 1431.

Found Him!

We Started the Napping Trend

We Started the Napping Trend

From the Rooftops.

From the Rooftops.

 

Le Tour de France Flyover

Le Tour de France Flyover

The Climb

The Climb

The Race is On

The Race is On

Paris from the Top

Paris from the Top

Pro-Palestinian Demonstrator

Pro-Palestinian Demonstrator

Paris from the Ledge

Paris from the Ledge

Caught' Gramming

Caught’ Gramming

The Friendly Skies?

Seldom do I turn down the chance to talk all things Canadian with our neighbors to the North. Last week while I was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the FIFA World Cup, I found myself on Copacabana Beach talking with a Canadian couple. We touched on topics that drifted towards hockey, poutine, great white winters, and then back to hockey.

Today, as I landed at Reagan National Airport (DCA), in Washington, DC, I was met by another crew of Canadians…this time, with a video camera and boom microphone as I deplaned and headed for the metro into Washington. The film crew requested an interview on a topic that I feel might appeal to international readers.

I was asked my thoughts about today’s decision by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ban all flights to and from Israel for the next 24 hours as tensions mount and rocket strikes escalate between Israel and the U.S. designated terrorist group, Hamas. The FAA reached this decision after a reported rocket strike landed within one mile of Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv today. International airlines have followed suit with cancellations to Israel by Air Canada, Lufthansa, KLM, and Air France to name a few.

As the questions came from reporter Adrienne Arsenault and the cameraman zoomed in, I was pressed to give my opinion on whether or not this could be striking fear in the minds of travelers OR if this was perhaps a new wave of government agencies implementing precautionary measures in the midst of world events and crisis. I answered that I was in agreement with the FAA’s decision to place a temporary ban on flights into Israel as the events play out and circumstances dictate the airlines next move. I went on record as saying that airline passengers automatically relinquish a sense of security and control when we hand our lives over to a pair of pilots at 35,000 feet and entrust them to move us to and from across the globe. If the FAA and other international airlines have reasons to believe that our security and safety could be compromised in transit then I’m for enacting precautionary steps until clearer evidence prevails. The Canadian reporters seemed to insinuate that the FAA dictating flight paths would do more to heighten fears. I was quick to reference the tragic events of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 last Thursday and the loss of 298 innocent lives in what appears to be rooted in a missile strike across open commercial airspace. As events have unfolded, it has become clear that regional airlines and other countries surrounding the strike had closed commercial airspace before tragedy struck. Should air traffic control in Ukraine have done more? Is this the FAA being overly cautious? Are we moving towards a new wave of circumventing danger in commercial aviation?

I’m curious as to what readers think. Do you think the FAA made the right decision in suspending flights into Israel? Are we building a sense of fear in the minds of skittish travelers? Should international airlines fall in line with the FAA decision? Please comment below.

The crew that interviewed me is from THE NATIONALthe signature news program that airs during primetime in the evenings across Canada on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television. If my segment airs, I’ll post it here.

As always, thanks for following, contributing, and venturing back to the blog I’m resurrecting.

BEAR

Varying the Viewpoint in Veracruz, Mexico

I’ve always been cautioned that there are two sides to every story…and remembering that has saved me on multiple occasions.

Until this trip to Mexico, I’ve never truly stopped to consider the fact that moments of historical significance also share two sides of the story.

Growing up, I was the mischievous student who found ways to get in trouble—until it was time for history class. As the pages turned and my teachers went on about exploration, battles, and conquests, I was zoned in until the bell rang. It’s naive of me to admit that I’ve trusted the history books and accepted the viewpoints of my teachers all along.

This city of Veracruz is rich in historical significance. The Spanish Conquistador, Hernán Cortés, led an expedition against the natives and triumphantly laid claim to the eastern coast of Veracruz, Mexico on Good Friday in 1519. It was here that he anointed it, “True Cross” or Veracruz as a seaport of riches and new land for the Spanish.

Fast-forward 494 years to today and you’ll find me wandering around the “centro histórico” here in Veracruz as I try and place all of the history while attempting to decipher Spanish. Sound the “gringo” alarm!

In this moment, Ricardo Cañas Montalvo, saved the day. He’s the curator of the City Museum of Veracruz and has been for many years. He pulled us inside the courtyard of the museum and beautifully recreated the imagery of 150 children running around and playing on the Italian marble that had been laid where we stood in 1861 when this building was constructed to house an orphanage. It became the museum after serving as a home to orphans for 97 years.

Ricardo spoke of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Totonacs, and other ancient civilizations from Mesoamerica. He captured my attention with stories of ancient burial grounds on islands off the coast of Veracruz and spoke of years when this port city was the center of trade for Latin America. As we moved through the museum, I was anticipating that we might get to that little piece of history when the United States moved into Veracruz and occupied the city during a push to assert power in the midst of deteriorating relations with Mexico during their revolution. The anticipation wore off as my new friend dove right into the story.

Mexico vividly remembers the details from 99 years ago. I listened to a different perspective from Ricardo. It wasn’t told with bitterness. He simply stated the historical facts and actions of the United States and Mexico during the U.S. occupation of Veracruz in 1914. He was incredibly intelligent and recalled the story from historical accounts and pictures on a laptop computer inside the museum.

As the Mexican side of the story goes, eight U.S. Marines rowed into town one day from their ship that was just off the Mexican coast in April of 1914. They proceeded to buy gasoline and other necessities before returning to sea. When encountered by soldiers of the Mexican military, they were held for a couple of hours until the confusion of U.S. soldiers wandering ashore in the mix of the Mexican Revolution could be sorted out. All was well until President Woodrow Wilson caught wind of our soldiers being held without cause in Mexico. He ordered a U.S. Naval blockade of over 180 naval ships just outside the port of Veracruz. Tensions never boiled over in the port city and as a result, it was passed by leaders from both sides that the standoff should cease in Veracruz. Mexico ordered their troops inland towards Mexico City to engage in offical battles of the revolution and also as a demonstration that they intended no hostilities towards the American troops. President Woodrow Wilson had issues with the newly instituted president of Mexico, Victoriano “The Jackal” Huerta, because he was involved in a coup d’état and usurped the Mexican presidency in 1913 to establish a dictatorship. With the Mexican military moving inland, President Wilson instead sent 5,000 U.S. troops onto the shores of Veracruz in what was described as a “peaceful occupation” of the city. The civilian population feared for their lives as the U.S. cut telegraph lines and seized critical strongholds like the train station and buildings of key infrastructure. With no Mexican military present, the citizens of Veracruz broke into various weapon depots throughout the city and issued a call to arms against the occupation of U.S. forces. Additional forces from the American side were called in, which resulted in street fighting as Veracruz was bombarded with artillery by U.S. ships along the blockade. The occupation lasted for seven months until November of 1914. The U.S. had 22 casualties, yet Mexico lost thousands upon thousands of  militiamen and civilians who were shot and left in the streets. An official count of the casualties has never been tallied due to the fact that those who lost their lives were piled into mass graves surrounding Veracruz. The city never forgave the U.S. invasion until generations had passed.

Ricardo opened my eyes to a fresh perspective. This story isn’t a fond piece of American history. Therefore, it is overlooked and wiped from the books we studied as students. There isn’t much to be researched about our occupation of Veracruz. The years passed and America moved on. However, it is still a critical piece of Mexican history. Monuments stand tall in the center of plazas throughout Veracruz as a somber reminder to those who proudly took a stand for their city against an unjustified occupation.

I don’t write this post as a knock on America. Ricardo didn’t share the vivid details and pictures of Mexican patriotism with animosity towards me for being an American. He simply told history. He shared perspective. He provided the details that we as a nation have chosen to forget. Ricardo didn’t rewrite the history books. He simply showed me the story through pictures and documentation.

As travelers, we tend to see the world from various perspectives and different means. I for one choose to dive into cultures and seek the experience of living like a local. I take the risks on local foods. I push through language barriers and I communicate through smiles. I walk for miles and I wander through slums. It positively changes your perspective and outlook when you put yourself in the element of someone else’s routine.

It wasn’t until today that I really stopped to consider—not the routine of someone else, but instead, the history and perspective—of someone who has been brought up with an entirely different vantage point because of those that have lived and in some cases, died before them.

Next time you travel, I encourage you to seek out the other side of history.

Vary Your Viewpoints,

Barrett

Monkey’n Around…

Life moves rapidly here in Nigeria. It doesn’t ever seem to slow to a comfortable pace. We’re escorted in armored cars by armed men with AK-47s. We’re alerted as pirate attacks, kidnappings, and robberies occur. We receive reports when the extremist group, Boko Haram, launches terrorist attacks. It’s a wild place that demands a heightened sense of situational awareness. It’s exhilarating as you compete to cross traffic with drivers that will hit you, witness fights in the streets, and talk with locals who describe life in Lagos as a battle to survive.

Today, we escaped the chaos and moved outside the haze of Lagos and into a nature preserve east of the city. The Lekki Conservation Centre is a seldom-visited hideout that the government has established as a place to explore and appreciate the stillness of life amongst the clamor of 21 million people.

It was refreshing to be somewhere we could unwind. That was until I noticed one simple rule as we entered the jungle, “Swimming is prohibited in the crocodile pool and any survivor(s) will be prosecuted.” Ahh yes, the straightforward logic found in Africa. I love it. We moved into the canopy as the sound of honking horns, the smell of diesel, and the dusty streets gave way to the screeches of birds, the buzzing of insects, and a world canvassed with varying shades of green.

We quickly established that our mission was to find monkeys. I hopped off the path and moved through lowlands while doing my best to mimic the calls of what I thought sounded like an excited monkey. Based on the fact no one came to play, I should probably watch Jumanji again. We moved deeper into the nature preserve and tried to anticipate what might be watching us. Signs told us to be wary of crocodiles, monitor lizards, antelope, and, of all things, the large ground squirrel. I just wanted to find my monkey.

At last, the warning cries of a Mona monkey sent the treetops shaking. It was Tarzan in full effect as they swung from branch to branch and laid low for cover when our eyes met. It quickly became a game of spy versus spy. I’d hide in the undergrowth until they thought I had moved past their playground. They’d quietly move to lower branches and swing about while eating fruits from the hardwood trees. I’d move slowly for my camera and even slower to close in and investigate. They had a keen sense of awareness but also a Curious George-like curiosity as they observed us, possibly wondering why we showed up to spoil their party.

In an effort to be one with the monkey, I climbed up on the boardwalk railings to balance and walk like the ones who watched me. This gesture of solidarity came crashing to a sudden end. During my short performance of balancing like Gabby Douglas, the boardwalk and railings collapsed thanks to the work of termites and I landed hard and fast where it counts.

We moved into the open grasslands towards the back of the preserve. Kevin cried wolf—well lion—in an attempt to scare everyone. We wandered about in the sweltering heat of Nigeria while telling the others we were lost and off the trail. This led to planning where we would camp and how we would combat the ferocious ground squirrels and swarms of malaria-infested mosquitos. In the end, we made it back to the jungle and the boardwalk that took us back to the armored car and eventually, the chaos of the city.

This afternoon of monkey’n around was much needed after 37 days in the center of Lagos. Africa’s largest city has given me opportunities to witness people fight for what they want and work hard for what they have. I’ve watched as men stand in knee-deep water and break apart raw sewage so that it and trash can continue flowing towards the river. I’ve seen grown men fight in the streets over a one-dollar tip received for standing security over a parked car. I’ve talked with crippled men who drag the ground on skateboards asking for money. I’ve seen politicians show up for anti-corruption meetings at the prime hotels in their Bentleys.

Stepping away from it all and into the natural beauty of Nigeria was just what I needed to escape, think, and relax. If you’re ever caught in the rapid pace of Lagos, head east for 16km towards Lekki and you’ll find yourself alone in the jungles with monkeys calling and crocodiles waiting…

Barrett

FEATURED: National Geographic Traveler’s “I Heart My City—Barrett’s Charleston”

I started this blog 5 weeks ago with a mission to capture cultures, explore untracked paths, and highlight the good found in others as I travel the world. I’ve been pushing content that I hope challenges, inspires, and educates those who choose to read. The comments you leave on the blog posts and the interactions I’ve had through FacebookInstagram, and Twitter have been encouraging and motivating. I ask that you continue to spread the word via social media and engage with comments on this site as I move forward with new posts, new ideas, and new adventures. The travel community is catching wind that I’m out to focus on the story of others and the impact they have on my life…it’s an exciting time and the avenues for writing are endless. With that, some big things are in the works and I’m pumped to share that I’ve been featured for the first time on another website…and not just any website….try the pinnacle of all things awesome and great in the world of exploration, conservation, and travel!

I’m humbled and excited to announce that  while detailing my travels, adventures, and experiences with you all here at Bearly HomeI’ve been able to reach a broader audience thanks to the fact I was published this week on National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel blog.

The superstar staff over at National Geographic Traveler provided me with the opportunity to showcase the city I’ll forever call home…Charleston, South Carolina…”The Lowcountry.”

Growing up over the span of 18 years in Charleston meant dodging tourists, preparing for hurricanes, loving the outdoors, and never wanting to go anywhere else on vacation. It’s a remarkable destination defined by history, culture, cuisine, the arts, and most importantly, the people. I hope you’ll be able to relive some of my favorite things through the I Heart My City: Barrett’s Charleston post I did for Nat Geo and when you do, that you’ll share your experiences in the comments below.

Many thanks to those that swing by my tiny corner of the internet and share in part, the life I’m livin.

Barrett

 

A Community Forced to Disappear, but Fighting to Stay Alive in Lagos, Nigeria…

I pointed at what appeared to be a temporary encampment on the shores of an overgrown island. Mkpa, the Nigerian who captained our boat, hesitantly reconfirmed that this was indeed where I wanted to come ashore. We maneuvered between two large river barges that were rusted, battered, and grounded in the shallows just off the beach. These monsters of floating steel had found their final resting place among the other ships that were left for scraps in this “floating graveyard.” We idled towards a partially grounded tanker ship, seeing that a beach landing was impossible, and climbed a rope ladder that dangled off the starboard quarter. A startled group of men on shore appeared confused and threw their hands up in alarm as we climbed aboard their ship. Quickly, my Chief managed to descend another ladder to the trash-riddled shore and peaceably extended his hand as they laughed and realized we weren’t the prowling pirates who routinely attack ships here in West Africa. With a friendship forged and safely on shore, we approached the temporary encampment.

As we moved closer, I could hear shouts of joy from a lot of children running through the tall grass as they closed in on our position. Out of the grass emerged not three, not six, but nine children who served as the community’s ad hoc welcoming party. They held our hands, played with the tennis ball I gave them, and smiled for “snaps” as I started taking their pictures, much like in my previous posts.

Immediately, I noticed signs that pointed towards this serving as a permanent residency instead of the temporary encampment it appeared to be from the water. There were foundations of huts that had been destroyed. Men were hewing the wood of felled trees in a painstaking attempt to make canoes. Ladies in the community were cleaning dishes in the oily and filthy water that lapped the banks of the beach on which we landed. Children poured out from what appeared to be trash piles, wearing nothing more than underwear. Island elders asked why we had decided to stop here of all places and visit them. We stated that we chose this community at random because we could tell it was a welcoming island of friendly people…at least I hoped.

I saw the bright smile of a middle-aged woman who gestured for me to follow her and walk about the small village. I asked her for a brief history of the island. She said the ship building company down river had come in three weeks ago and destroyed all the homes since islanders were squatting on their property, even though they were far removed and out of sight from the shipbuilders area of operations. They left nothing but the foundations. Others in the community told me the shipbuilders had destroyed their homes five years ago. Others said nine years ago. But the largest number of people told me that the razing of their homes had occurred 11 YEARS AGO. The lady who had shown me around and opened my eyes to the encampment was merely trying to save face for a community that was unwanted and told to disappear.

As I learned of their despair, it became apparent that this community had rebuilt itself over the last decade or so with trash and debris as it floated ashore or was gathered by canoe. Any refuse they could collect was added to a “home.” The more trash they piled up, the better shot they had at staying dry during the six months of monsoon season between April and October. It was an incredibly sad state of affairs. Leaking oil drums served as walls for their homes, palm branches thatched the roof, and they were served the option of sleeping on the sand or on the hardness of wooden pallets. Used gas cans collected rainwater. Buckets pulled from the passing river served as cooking pots. Weathered tarps and half sheets of plywood sheltered residents from the 94-degree heat and humidity. Honestly, it was living conditions unlike any I’ve seen in all my travels around the world.

They walked me to a hole in the ground. It was a well the men had dug for the community’s source of freshwater. The maddening problem was the noticeably thick layer of oil and sand that sat on the surface of their drinking water. Another hole in the ground nearby served as an unkempt outhouse for those who chose not to relieve themselves on the ground outside their homes.

The good I sought out in this destitute community was the joy of the people. The parents shielded what they knew of the outside world from their children. The kids and teenagers simply knew of nothing better off the island. Kids climbed on the members of my team, showed us termite mounds that grew to 12 feet high, and played chase with us through the tall grass. The tennis ball and American football we left them were the first gifts they’d been given, and it was as if they’d received that one Christmas or birthday gift you always wanted. Children younger than six or seven rubbed our skin and played with the hair on our arms, as it was the first time they were up close and personal with something different than their own. Kids ran their hands through our hair repeatedly as it was a texture they’d never felt before. They smiled with pure joy for my camera. These moments were beautiful in a way I can’t describe. An innocence I’ll never be able to share through words.

We had personal interactions with every resident in this abandoned and disregarded community. Just across the river—within eyesight—sat the Port of Lagos and the center of the commercial shipping industry. There were jobs. There was a livelihood. A freedom or independence found in employment. A lifelong tease that for this village was unattainable and just out of reach. The river served as a simple metaphor for the great width and breadth that distanced this community from life “on the other side.”  A painful reminder that there was lost hope for a community that outsiders saw as a lost cause.

I don’t know where this blog will take me. I share stories and adventures from around the world as they happen. As stated in my first post, I’m out to share truth and vivid accounts of life lived outside the modern comfort zone. We as citizens of a developed country tend to encapsulate ourselves within the bubble that nicely fits our career, our family, and our friends. While I’ll be the first to admit that it’s nice to catch a few routine days back in Williamsburg, Virginia, I know there’s so much to be shared as life takes me from place to place and culture to culture. My comfort zone bubble bursted long ago and as life unfolds and opportunities arise, I’ll be sharing more and more in the hope that others can see the world through this blog. As it grows, ideally I’ll find a way  for others to get involved as I step ashore into the lives of people long forgotten.

Thanks for caring and most of all, thanks for sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

Humbled and Determined,

Bear

 

The Island Party…

After class on Friday, our students changed out of their uniforms and told my team, “It’s the weekend! We will take you to party and a new place to explore.”

We piled onto boats, laughing and listening to a mix of English and their native tribal languages. Here I sat, on a boat with armed escort, off to an unknown destination, with 15 Nigerians for an afternoon of adventure. It doesn’t get much better.

The engines roared to life as we turned upriver and moved into coastal wetlands. We passed abandoned ships, island communities, and villages built around the sand harvesting industry. In shallow bays like this, islanders craft boats for the purpose of filling them to the brim with sand. They move up and down the river finding shallow areas where men can dive with buckets and collect the sand that is then sold to other villages and homebuilders. It’s a very dangerous profession, as these boats are loaded down with several tons of sand and ride just above the waterline. The smallest wake from a passing boat can swamp the sand canoes, thus sinking their vessel and wrecking their livelihood. Many people die in this industry because they’ve never been taught how to swim when their boat succumbs to waves.

As we slowly idled by each sand boat, we moved closer to our destination…an island village known as Ibeshe that sits on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a community that survives on a niche they’ve developed. They use their sand boats and handcrafted canoes to supply the massive cargo ships that sit at anchorage on the horizon, awaiting entrance into the port of Lagos, Nigeria. Villagers set out at dusk or dawn and spend hours motoring miles through the ocean and offshore to ships well over 1000 feet long. If the sea and currents cooperate, they arrive to deliver food and freshwater. I spotted massive storage drums attached to these handcrafted delivery boats and assumed they were for the delivery of water. While that’s true, I learned that many also hold illegally purchased diesel fuel from the ships out at sea. The community provides potable water to the ships and the ships in turn hustle fuel, which locals use or sell at a higher rate. It’s a unique give-and-take enterprise that enables the village to survive.

As I learned about life on Ibeshe, I also delved into the personal stories of the students I’ve been training these last few weeks. One student, a quiet and reserved man named Egwu Sunday, wasn’t body surfing or battling the ocean waves like the rest of us. When I asked him why, he somberly explained how his story on this beach was dramatically different than the one I was creating today with students. At this spot three years ago, he lost his firstborn son, Calvin, and his son’s best friend when they were carried out to sea and drowned. He shared the events of that day and how it has impacted his life. He tenderly supports his other five children with a renewed since of devotion. He is a pillar of strength for his family. He lives with a better understanding of love. It was sobering to witness him partake in all the fun of a party—while only myself and two other guys knew how this sandy strip of beach had changed his life forever.

Locals from the community made their way out to us on the beach. Here, I was introduced to local whiskey and the skin-baking sun of West Africa. I can confidently say those are two things I don’t need more of. Students danced, we played soccer, and some guys “fell in love” with the local women. After hours on the beach, we loaded up the boats and raced back to base.

Yesterday left me wanting more time on this great continent. I love the culture. I love the people. I love the happiness they exude. It’s the true spirit of Africa and while I was faced with a father who’d lost so much and a community sustained by illegal bartering, I was still captivated by the fullness with which they embrace life—albeit, a hard and trying life.

Burned and Baking in Bed,

Barrett

Our Return to the Island of Change…

 

The return visit was an entirely different experience.

The children didn’t cautiously emerge from the homes their parents had constructed from the trash that floated ashore. We weren’t pale ghosts this time around. There were no more timid approaches and greetings with shy glances.

No, this time, the strangeness of Westerners on the island had vanished. Instead, seven days later, some of the same children spotted us at the dock as we came ashore…and then dashed off to tell their friends. We all met in the center of the village as children came running from their homes.

The children came asking for the American football that they were introduced to last week. They held our hands, and in what felt like a game of charades, beckoned for the camera that, just a week ago, allowed kids to see themselves for the first time.

My team had promised that we’d return with gifts for the “forgotten island”. This past week, we ventured into Lagos, Nigeria and purchased soccer balls—what they know as footballs—and butterscotch and local fruit candies, known by locals as “sweets”.

For perspective, Nigeria has an estimated population of 175 million people, of whom 70% live below the poverty line. This equates to 123 million Nigerians living entrenched in the unrelenting grip of poverty. The educated and job-holding residents live on less than $4 a day. Where does that leave the uneducated and unemployed? Do the math, and you’ll start to realize the odds are grossly stacked against the  stricken 70%. The soccer balls we purchased were $20 each. The bags of candy? Each rang in at more than the daily average income of the educated and employed.

This past week, many of you have responded to Seen for the Very First Time, the first blog post about my visit to the island. You “liked” my photos, left comments, and generously replied about what a blessing my team was to the island and what joy we must have brought its people. Every “like”, comment, and reply was appreciated. I sincerely mean that. However, the message I kept wishing I could convey was the fact that the families on the island blessed me and my team. 

These islanders are content and their children define the word JOY, because they have what’s important—family, friends, and an innocence of material possessions that we in developed nations can’t comprehend. They further cemented the overwhelming realization I’m seeing as I move in and out of countries—I don’t need what the USA tells me I need. I need what THEY have…family, friends, and a better appreciation of what matters in this world. I won’t leave this Earth with the possessions I amassed.

On our return visit, kids ate entirely too many sweets, buried their faces in our chests and cried when the soccer ball hit them in the face, held our hands, played chase, and obviously went nuts with their new favorite toy—my camera.

In witnessing all of this, I was hit with two thoughts. First, I didn’t hear any of the children say, “thank you” as they were given sweet after sweet after sweet. Why? Because they’re never given anything. Even the mom just smiled, nodded, and asked for a picture as I presented her with a new soccer ball for the kids in her home. Secondly, I was continually noticing the acts of love and kindness that all of the children displayed. The older kids gave their sweets to the younger ones. Children took turns with the soccer balls. Kids said “sorry” when they knocked the smaller kids down in the frenzy. And there was an overwhelming amount of affection doled upon each other. It was remarkable. A truly humbling and poignant event to witness.

I’m not sure if we’ll make it back to the island…my team is exploring other ways to donate our time while we continue working in Lagos. There is a monstrous need for humanitarian assistance in Africa’s largest city. Time will tell, but I’ll forever remember—not the impact we made, but the impact that the island made on us. Pictures and memories are what last forever, not the material possessions we gather and collect. Remember that.

Committed to a Cause,

BEAR

 

Seen For the Very First Time…

No electricity. No drinking water. No toilets. No Police.

This is a forsaken island.

For 107 years, this island community has struggled to survive off the coast of Nigeria. It has been the home to lighthouse keepers, slave traders, runaway criminals, and castaways who are long forgotten by the mainland. Lagos, the continent’s largest city, is home to more than 21 million Africans, and is only 3 miles away.

We motored up to the island’s dock—its center of commerce—and were met with wary glances and confused looks by the 75 or so residents who clamored for delivery jobs when boats carrying drinking water and food arrived.

Led by our hosts, two members of the Nigerian Navy, we disembarked. I asked, “Can you show us the places no one ever sees?” His response, “No one ever comes here brotha.”

We wandered into the seaside village as residents appeared to believe my team was comprised of three pale ghosts descending upon the island.

Within minutes, one thing changed everything…

CHILDREN.

Some cautiously approached when they saw the joy on our faces. Others ran inside their homes made of the trash that had washed ashore, only to peer out with smiles as we bent down to wave and greet them. And others just cried at the first sight of us.

Either way, the children were the first to welcome us. As we moved into the center of the village, my two buddies started tossing something I always carry— something they’d never seen—an American football. The children met us with shy smiles as they tried to grasp the idea of throwing a ball, as they’d only ever used their feet to play soccer.

As word spread around the village, more and more children gathered under the shade of the tree we posted up under, emerging from the huts they called home. The islanders also warmed to us as I helped a fisherman scale fish, our Navy hosts greeted friends, and beer made its way to the table. As the tension eased and everyone settled back into island life, I pulled out my camera.

I began capturing the moments of joy I found in the children…an indescribable joy. A perfectly content happiness and innocence. A joy found in having nothing, except what they know in life: family, friends, and the island. It’s an innocence rarely seen in children from developed countries, who are often too quick to learn traits like selfishness and constant wanting as parents cater to their ever growing needs for more.

As I snapped pictures, I realized that these children had never seen a camera. They didn’t know what I was doing. They just knew what to do when I said, “Ready…smile!” I couldn’t capture the moments fast enough as their excitement became contagious. What started as a group of three kids grew to 20 kids. They started holding our hands, climbing on us, and wrestling to get in front of the lens. They thought that the closer you were to the lens, the more likely you were to have your picture taken…which I guess is true. But it would have made the Glamour Shots crew in our malls furious because none of the kids understood the concept of, “Sit right here as a group, look at me, and smile!”

As they danced for us, played chase, and did anything to get the attention of my team and the camera, I noticed that some of the mothers had gathered on a porch to witness the joy of their children. When I approached, they greeted me with huge smiles and utterances of “thank you” and “this is special”.

“Why so special?” I asked, knowing full well that this was more gratifying for me than I could possible voice.

“Because…some of these children are seeing themselves for the very first time. They do not know what they look like.” WOW. Reread that sentence. That statement gripped me in a way that few have. It was one of those moments in life when you have an epiphany, a reality check, a pure understanding of the immeasurable amounts the Lord has blessed me with.

We spent a few more hours playing with the children, wandering the village to the constant hum of generators attached to every home, and engaging in conversations. We promised to return with gifts for the kids next week.

We stepped into this village, led by the Nigerian Navy armed with AK47′s and left the community with the purest perspective of love and happiness. Such a paradox.

This is why I travel…People. Perspective. Experiences—Give me more of it.

BARRETT





 

Traveler Dilemma: Shifting the Barriers of Language…

I promise, I would NOT have ordered the colon and small intestine of a duckling that night at dinner—had I known what “Duck Dikke Darm” was on the menu…

As a guy who spends a majority of the year traveling, I’m often met face to face, literally by language barriers. Sometimes the barrier makes an introduction when clearing Customs, other times when trying to decipher the word for “transportation” on the curb outside the airport, and most often at the sound of a local greeting.

As Americans, we’re keen on the idea that “everyone speaks English”—or at least is versed enough to help us navigate the problems we encounter while traveling.

Well, I can attest to the fact they were NOT speaking English when I was searching for lost luggage at the airport in Paramaribo, Suriname, ordering seafood in the coastal city of Pointe Noire while in the Republic of the Congo, when I needed directions on a dirt road in Samana, Dominican Republic, or when the sunlight was fading and I was wandering my way out of the slums in Jakarta, Indonesia. Trust me—No English.

In fact, it sounded just like this each time I needed English:

Ik spreek geen Engels—Paramaribo.

Je ne parle pas anglais—Pointe Noire.

No hablo Inglés—Samana.

Saya tidak bisa bicara bahasa Inggris—Jakarta.

When hearing those phrases, I found myself wishing they “spoke English like everyone else” and frustrated that they weren’t there to help “the American” in my moment of need.

Currently, I’m writing this from the comfort of an English speaking country—Nigeria—and thinking back to those moments when it wasn’t easy. Back to those times I held native speakers responsible for their inability to adapt to me.

With rationale thought, I’m stopping and realizing how ignorant it is for me to get frustrated and hold them accountable for the fact they don’t speak English when I’m met with a language barrier that is no fault of their own. Is it justifiable to assert that when confronting these barriers, we’re wishing they’d throw out their culture and native dialect just because I’ve been groomed as an American to think they should help me when I need it?

Ultimately, I choose to spend almost half the year living “outside my element”. Away from home. In trying situations. In foreign countries—where they don’t speak English. Why? Because it’s a challenge. It’s difficult. It pushes me.

Isn’t this why we travel? Don’t we want to see life from another perspective? Isn’t it freeing to withdraw from the confines of everyday life and witness the everyday walk of theirs?

Maybe it’s because we have different definitions of travel? Maybe I’m touching on the idea of a tourist—one that takes a tour for pleasure—versus a traveler—one that goes on a trip or journey?

Either way, I started blogging for reasons just as this—to connect with others, read your opinions in the comments, and debate the dilemmas we face.

Is it time to shift from frustration to fascination next time you’re faced with a menu you can’t read?

Tot Ziens—Au Revoir—Hasta Luego—Sampai Jumpa Lagi,

BARRETT