Sketches of favorite cities, part 3

Berlin

Upon my initial landing in Berlin, I hadn’t set foot on European soil for a decade, and in this central part of Europe, ever. Consequently, it grounded my expectations of the surrounding continent. Since then, when I think of Europe, the image of Berlin is the first to appear.

Let me provide a back story behind my fascination with Berlin and Germany. Before, during and since my travels to Berlin, I’ve had virtually none other than positive and stimulating interactions with Germans. I could likely trace this inherent sympathy towards the country and people to my first long Asia trip. There I continued to encounter large groups of German travellers, share engaging conversations and be inspired by those famous antics of efficiency and resourcefulness. Eventually, the idea of Germany being a cool country permanently implanted itself.

In Germany I also noticed something oddly peculiar. Both Germans as well as immigrants had a tendency to perceive my physical aspect as notably German. You look German! I thought you were German! You look like one of us! These were the common reactions upon hearing me speak, further strengthening my disposition. Rarely, if ever, would this occur in prior experience.

Berlin allows outside alcohol. And this doesn’t seem to have degraded the city streets. While not strictly a model in the sense, the city still respects the educational European standards of proper sanitation. On the other hand, the open consumption gives it that edge. It’s fun to see masses improvising nighttime picnics along the ever spanning river or throughout the pedestrian bridges of Kreizberg.

The phenomenon also led me to the discovery of Späti crawls. What is that, you ask? A Späti is one of the small liquor stores situated at one too many street corners. And what does one of these crawls entail? Simply speaking, a group embarks on a relaxed evening stroll through a number of neighborhoods. A group of all manner of sociability and sobriety. Mostly everyone carries a beverage and refuels at these Spätis. One could say, it enables an alternative and inexpensive form of tourism, when compared to a traditional pub crawl. Now, the trend could suggest a certain decadent undertone. However, within my tolerant and hopelessly imaginative framework, it evoked not disgrace, but charm, enriching the multifaceted identity I came to associate with Berlin.

On the topic of cultural variety, I found this to be one of the more diverse enclaves of central Europe. The impressive Turkish immigration represents a significant contribution to that pool. But then one also notices presence from not only much of the European continent, but also the Americas. As such, a visitor hailing from these parts should not become encumbered by too grave a case of nostalgia. Similarly, someone of a polyglot, keen on active language practice, need not endure too much effort to find these opportunities. At least languages among Russian, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic, and Italian I found extremely mainstream.

Granted, it’s a city of frightening proportion. And yet it became a rare case of so much of the area notably inspiring for healthy exploration, getting lost, discovery of curious phenomena and enjoying the ever pervasive park territories, mostly unconcerned with tension of any sort, short of occasional night-time drug trafficking carnage around a select group of shady train stations.

I noted something for everyone. The Eastern Germany portion of Berlin anchors towards the traditional. The Western part explores the more visually progressive. Hypnotic daylife and nightlife opportunities seductively await in all variety of neighborhoods. You’ll find a bit of the artistic and a bit of the underground, with something for innovators, technologists, artists, linguaphiles, environmentalists, yogi, or social recluses even.

Without indulging in too sensitive of a socioeconomic analysis, leading into territory of critique and deconstruction to no foreseeable end, I found the city as accommodating and pleasing as I would desire of one of this stature.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I once spent a memorable 5-week period around the northern Thailand region of Chiang Mai. Back then I lacked previous solo travel experience and yielded much to hype. It payed off. It also helped arriving with few preconceptions.

The small town divides itself into an inner and outer regions. The entire inner region takes the shape of a square, separated from the outer by a river from all four directions. Much of the considerable tourist activity takes place within the inner region, but really, the lavishing environment stretches far beyond. I found this geometrically friendly layout quiet desirable to my geospacially obsessive navigational mind.

I further imagined the setting a product of a role playing video game, with fractals of passages, sub passages and conspicuous entryways to the provocative realm of a fairly tale. Beyond the square shaped river divider, imposing medieval-like gates towered on all four sides, evoking a further yet mythical quality to this citadel.

I dedicated hundreds of hours inhabiting such RPG fantasy worlds in the late 20th century, each more enchanting than the last. It was an express route through adolescence and a mechanism to cope with the marginalized existence I projected onto myself.

Choose your role and quest. Perhaps you’ll commence in a safe haven of a small village. Interacting with the villagers, you uncover some malady having stricken the area, purchase the necessary supplies from the town merchants with whatever minimal bartering power you were bestowed upon this world, proceed to exit the town gate, and set out into hostile territory.

Sometimes there is no clear separator between the safe and hostile planes. Sometimes the world is what we imagine, full of characters of all manner of dispositions coexisting among each other, each driven by individual criteria and meaning, reacting to and projecting onto the endlessly differential stream of causality.

The initial journey may represent but a speck in the range of mysteries and adventures lurking in this world you hardly conceptualize. A series of quests and sub-quests await, followed by a series of discoveries. Along the way, your resources accumulate, your strengths amplify and your abilities diversify. At some point, you may encounter a calamity, or many even, but if you prevail, they ultimately lead to a triumph. What begins from sheer curiosity, transitions into what we know as the hero’s journey.

I loved exploring the citadel back and forth, corner to corner, each setting more charming than the previous, in search of a glorifying journey to undertake. Yet the environment presented nothing but opportunities of retreat, entertainment and meditative exploration. I found myself in an enchanted paradise, full of overwhelming spices, exotic culinary options, strange libations, inspiring cafés, nature excursions, live entertainment, markets full of unsavory butchered meat and insects, beings of uncertain gender and all manner of tourism and vice one may envision.

One day, following a series of spontaneous quests, sub-quests and intermissions, I landed at a coffee plantation an hour or two beyond and 900 meters above the city limits. I was looking for hard work, and I found it.

I would later curse under my breath while carrying ultra heavy bags of fertilizer along frighteningly steep mountain slopes, spreading the content around the tiny coffee trees. This being an organic farm, the pigs produced the fertilizer. They were the catalyst to the operation.

Among fairly diverse labor, I was tasked with filling those pig bowls with food, performing my duties with military discipline. Regretfully, I didn’t always execute them with grace or precision. This fact would become clear as I scaled a steep mountain with an entire trunk of bamboo mounted on my shoulders, wearing sandals, petrified over my desperate state of affairs. I would later endure a 15-minute barely comprehensible spiel from the intoxicated owner, to the extent that you’re a good man and all, but, alas, you’re clumsy and hopeless, emphasizing, meticulously, and repetitively, how good of a man he deemed myself to be.

Of course, no one imposed this labor upon me. I projected the idea of servitude and obedience on myself to give the mission greater meaning. Each day I approached the indigenous owners and appealed for hard, self-degrading work. They, in turn, calculated what they could safely delegate to my spoiled western hands, unaccustomed to hard work and unable to match the jungle-like dexterity the natives so effortlessly showcased.

Climbing into those cages with buckets of pig delicacy filled to the rim, I initially struggled with the unsavory ceremony. The creatures squealed with excitement as I descended into their purgatory. I never felt certain to the extent of their predatory instinct. Notably impatient, immediately soaking those plump pig noses into the bowl before I even had a chance to fill it and extract my hands, they greedily consumed the repulsive content. In the course, the squealing would gradually diminish.

At times, we would plow soil. This activity I favored to the rest for it’s simplicity and raw peasant-like appeal, something Tolstoy embellished in rich literary form. It required nothing short of brute force and endurance, which my muscles happily delivered.

At one point, we embarked on a project of paving the dirt road leading to the coffee farm. I despised that project. On another occasion, we proceeded to build a sauna on the neighboring territory. This I despised a little less. I can’t recall the amount of skills I adapted only to immediately discard and forget.

Much of the routine involved accompanying the workers, for hours, as we explored the plantation, chopping through thick obstructive growth with our machetes, picking the darked coffee beans off the trees, leaving the red ones intact. The workers only spoke the indigenous language, of which I learned but a few words and expressions by means of which we communicated to the extent of basic operation. They traversed those slopes lazily, effortlessly, humming their exquisite indigenous tunes while swinging the machetes in harmony. Compared to the other authentically hard labor, this constituted a pleasant jungle retreat.

I proceeded in this fashion for a 2-3 week period, sleeping in a tent to recuperate at least some of the continuously diminishing strength, eating kilograms of rice, eggs, chicken, and vegetables cooked over fire and, naturally, consuming unhealthy quantities of fresh, unparalleled coffee straight from the source. Each of those meals seemed a blessing from heaven in light of the labor I barely endured.

With regard to hygiene, I followed a laissez-faire approach of hand-washing the few expendable and soon to become torn and barely usable clothes I disposed of, and only when they seemed too ravaged to wear. I also remember one barely functioning cold-water shower on the property, of which I made use maybe once in a few days.

Mosquito and fire-ant bites were a constant issue, in spite of the mosquito net, in spite of the fully covering garments, and in spite of that chemically induced insect spray. But I felt too exhausted to care.

Once back in the citadel, I spent three days in recuperation, evading further role playing adventures at all cost.