The Life Ball in Wien, Austria, is Europe’s largest charity event and, from the looks of it, one hell of a party. I didn’t know it was happening until after I’d arrived and started seeing people painted gold and wearing little more than ivy leaves. The costume ball, this year ‘earth’ themed, is a charity event for AIDS treatment and research. In 2010, it is in association with the UN AIDS Conference and even former President Clinton was here to celebrate.
The beautiful people were out in force, looking to see and be seen, as they made their way toward the red carpet in front of thousands of on-lookers. Every costume, from fairies to centaurs, was carefully designed to avoid covering his or her washboard abs. Even if I had known, I would have had to work out for months just to feel comfortable looking half as good as the other guests, let alone dressing up in ram’s horns and a speedo.
As I wandered around the Viennese Rathaus Platz where the party was getting started, I noticed hand lettered signs stuck on bushes, or pinned to fences. The notes were scrawled on notebook paper, and written in at least French, German, and English. They said “HIV is not the cause of AIDS.” The revelers didn’t take notice of them. One soot painted pair of men whose costume consisted of torn swim bottoms and red AIDS ribbons picked up one of the notes to glance at it and then set it right back down. No angered crumpling, no sneered looks.
Since when, I thought, is HIV not the cause of AIDS? After dinner, I made my way back to my hotel room and the big event was being televised. Impassioned speakers thanked the guests for the money raised in search of a cure, and spoke of progress with retro-viral drugs—drugs which wouldn’t have had much effect if AIDS were not caused by a virus. Young groups of musicians from nations with high risk of AIDS such as Cambodia and South Africa, performed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on mirimbas, gamelans and recorders even as rain showers began and drenched them.
While they were getting soaked, I discovered a new conspiracy. 9-11 was a government plot. Global Warming, a liberal elitist sham. The moon landing? Fake. HIV causes AIDS? No way. Who knew? I didn’t even realize there was a question and meanwhile, like the member of the herd that I am, I’d gone on believing that HIV is actually the cause of AIDS.
I’ve always been a skeptic, so I didn’t immediately believe the AIDS deniers. What could be their motivation? Anti-gay racists? The good news is, unlike Holocaust deniers who seem pretty clearly anti-semetic, AIDS deniers don’t have a clear agenda at all. Some of them believe that AIDS is a disease brought on, not by a virus, but by the sinfully delicious act of homosexuality (what’s so delicious about it, is as much a mystery to me, just as heterosexual sex is to many gays.) Others see it as a corporate plot by pharmaceutical manufacturers to sell expensive medication.
One thing is clear. The scientific establishment, with its thousands of researches on the government and drug company payrolls, is ignoring the views of a tiny minority of bonafide scientists, at least one or two of which actually studies in the field of biology. AIDS denialists can’t all be lumped together either. Some believe that HIV is a virus, although a harmless one, while others insist that that AIDS itself is only a disease of poor people and drug users weakened by their situations. (Of course, blacks are poor and gays use more drugs than everyone else!)
The rain and storm didn’t hold back the revelers from their party and hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to feed the establishment’s hunger for money and AIDS research, even if they just can’t see through this scam that the whole HIV thing is just a blind alley. Seemed like a really great party to me.
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A faithful reader pointed out that the Traveling Hypothesis tagline “Travel places, look at things, think about them, write your thoughts down” is dumb. Um, yeah, you think? Like the blog’s title, it was a settings field I had to fill out in order to start publishing my stories. I should have given it more thought, but it’s not too late.
Essentially, this blog is about being a tourist. Not the annoying white socks and shrill voice type, but being a tourist with your eyes wide open to observe and learn about what you see, instead of complaining how it’s not better than home and wondering why you left in the first place. A lot of people hate tourism and want to be anything but a tourist. They’re probably in for a big disappointment, spending they’re wondering how much they stand out in a French beret (a lot) or in an Indian sari (even more, but the Indians will love you for it.) Quite a bit of this blog is defending the short trip, vacation trips that are the only kind the majority of us will ever get around to doing. Of course, you don’t always have to go very far to be a tourist, so there’s other nonsense in here too, but all of it is (hopefully) the kind of things I’d like to talk about with the people I meet while traveling.
So, can you help? What would be a better tagline for Traveling Hypothesis? Oh, the blog name is stupid too, but it’s probably too late to change that…! (Well, unless someone comes up with something great!) Please leave ideas in the comments! (Remember, I don’t save e-mails or use them in anyway whatsoever other than to weed out spam–don’t be shy, comment!)
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You know why you should be reading this blog? Because big news media outlets like CNN have clearly just run out of things to say. CNN is amazed that Facebook now has over half a billion users. “Who in the world isn’t on Facebook” the headline asks. The overwhelming majority of the planet and even plenty of people who own a computer, according to the statistics in the article.
I’m on Facebook, but don’t bother to look for me there. I’ve never updated my “status” and my pictures there link to flickr. I’ve nothing against Facebook and think it has quite a lot of value. Letting people know where I’m headed next week so they can give me tips or, even better, meet me there, sounds like fun (although I’ve never taken advantage of it; I just send an e-mail). Facebook has enabled me to actually have some fun while I am stuck in a tiny apartment in Frankfurt for work. I’ve met a few people through the groups hosted by Facebook and I am invited to ride my bicycle every Sunday through the hills of Hessen (if only I brought it to Europe with me…) I enjoy hearing many of the things my friends and acquaintances have to share and comment now and again on their pictures and links and I see pictures of my nephews and nieces there, which I only rarely received before.
I think the privacy concerns that many have are about as ridiculous as their need to share what they had for breakfast or what time they’re finally giving up and going to sleep. If people are honestly worried about privacy then, simply, don’t share! As for the rest, I have a blog and share photos regularly on a photo sharing sight; I am sure the online world gets more than enough of me.
Meanwhile, while paid and trained journalists whine about the death of journalism, this very blog and thousands like it (you know, the ones that were never the “what I had for breakfast” type have at least something to say. We may not be all that great (and some of us really ought to have better editors (I’m looking at my own reflection here)) but at least you didn’t come here expecting breaking news, so you’re far less likely to be disappointed.
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Flyers in the budget hotel in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, had a variety of activities on offer. Among the charming outings was a sunrise hike up Gunung Merapi, the 3,000 meter volcano hanging in the mist above the city. The description read like an easy hike. I remember wondering if I should wear my sandals, but eventually, I wore hiking boots because I’d brought them this far; seemed a shame not to use them.
In order to make sunrise, the bus collected us from the hotel at around 10 the previous evening and brought us to a cabin at the base of the mountain for a short sleep before we were awoken at 1 am to begin the hike. Our large group joined several other large groups at the base of the mountain, each with a pair of guides, and we were handed dim flashlights to begin our hike.
I was living in Holland at the time, so my acclimatization to altitude was sketchy at best. Another Hollander was in our group, but he lived with his buddy in Switzerland and both regularly climbed mountains. I don’t remember anyone else in the group because we kept dropping them on the rush up the mountain. At around halfway, the groups had trailed out and near the top, very few were even following us. How my traveling partner and I got this far this fast could only be explained by the draw of “see a live volcano at sunrise” written on that flyer back in the hotel.
The last 300 meters to the top were steep, rocky and sharp. The volcanic rocks were just like those in the gas fireplace of my old 70s style rental back in the United States. Dark red to black with little bubbles in them and sharp like glass. The path was so steep, we were forced to use our hands and, while I was suddenly glad to have the boots on, I noticed that our guides were managing with old torn shoes and a pair of flip-flops. The sky was brightening and I was straining to summit before sunrise.
I got very sweaty, racing to the top, and by the time we arrived, my shirt soaked through, I suddenly realized how cold it was. Indonesia is hot. Humid, tropical hot, but a high mountain is chilly and with a wind blowing my damp shirt next to me my core temperature began to drop rapidly. My teeth were chattering as I looked over the lip of the crater to the faint glowing of lava below. My body was shivering frantically while I tried to enjoy the sunrise over the edge of the mountain. I tried to warm my quaking body in steam vents puffing from the sides of the volcano but they only made me wetter and I was driven off by the sulfur. Nothing could warm me and finally, our new Swiss friend, more experienced and more prepared than I, noticed my uncontrollably chattering teeth and offered a dry t-shirt. I changed and was able to avoid hypothermia.
The sun had risen and lava was invisible now in the dawn. Little left to do at the top, we began our descent. This is where the miracle happened. It may not sound like much to you, but it represents the only supernatural experience I’ve really had. More important things happened during this trip, (like not dying of hypothermia in a tropical climate) but this is the only one not explainable by coincidence. Neither I nor my traveling partner can explain it. It may not sound like much to you, but its utter inexplicability is what makes it a wonder to me.
The return was a steeper slope than the way up, and the same rocky sharp fireplace rocks were scattered as obstacles for the first 3 – 500 meters. There was no trail to speak of and we gingerly tried to rock hop our way down, now, with only one guide as the other had to stay back with the rest of our group who hadn’t made it up in time for sunrise. My partner is afraid of heights and, while she could certainly manage getting down on her own, it wasn’t going fast enough for our guides taste. She had taken 10 minutes to move only about 20 or 30 meters and we had a long way to go.
He took her hand and started running down the slope. Running down. Pulling her by one arm, her legs floating over the rocks barely touching the ground once every couple of meters. Everything I saw as she flitted past us, and even her personal description confirms the miracle. She floated down the mountain, defying the laws of physics for impact and held outside of the gravity by the magic flowing through the guide’s hands and into her. She later described feeling no impact; that somehow his arm pulled her lightly and she found herself moving down the mountain, wondering how she neither tripped, nor fell. My new boots were worn and scratched by the time we made it down but she danced down the mountain like a ballerina, not a scratch anywhere.
We sped down the mountain passing by old women gathering wood for their villages (they looked old, but given their daily regimen, they might have been only thirty) and arrived back at the bus in record time, never meeting the rest of our group again. I returned the t-shirt to our kind fellow hiker and we shuttled back to the hotel.
Five days later we were on the next island of Bali riding a moped through the only rain we experienced during the so-called rainy season. At one of our stops I saw man reading a paper, the front page showed a photo of smoke, a mountain and what looked like evacuees. The headline read Gunung Merapi blah, blah blah Indonesian. We asked for a translation. Apparently the safe little hike up a live volcano also includes the small chance that the thing can explode and cause whole villages to be evacuated and at least a few injured hikers. It didn’t say mention like that on the flyer.
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It’s been over half a century since World War II. It’s about time Germans were comfortable being patriotic. So it’s been actually quite nice to see Germans painting black-red-gold stripes on their cheeks. Their joy is infectious when they’re dancing through the streets blowing German equivalents of the South African vuvuzeulas, all in support of their national team at the 2010 World Cup.
So why am I secretly glad that Spain just beat them to the finals? When Germany routed Australia 4 – 0 on their first World Cup meet-up, the fans were just ecstatic! For hours after the game was over, young and old continued to celebrate, even people who only watch soccer once in four years. ‘Schland! ‘Schland! came the cheers and you couldn’t help but appreciate a reunified Germany, strongest economy in Europe, finally allowing itself to be proud! Go Germany!
Then, on the train back to my apartment in Frankfurt I sat across from a young, quiet, Turkish looking woman. Another couple, speaking a slavic language, continued their conversation as best they could, as a large group of young male soccer fans boarded. Frankfurt exceeds Germany’s national average of nearly 20% immigrants and this little train car was a good example. Police walked the train and gave the carousing rowdies a disapproving look, but wandered off, ignoring their bellowing chants and songs.
The revellers continued for a few stops, swaying drunkenly as the train lurched from station to station, and finally, stretching one hand each straight into the air, palm down, they began shouting Zieg heil! Zieg heil! The young woman, tugged lightly at her hijab and barely looked up at me. The couple across the way exchanged a nervous glance and went silent.
OK, they were young, drunk, kids. I am sure any Germans on that train, both immigrant and native alike, were disgusted. Such embarrassing and naive references to Germany’s Nazi past is exactly what makes them so uncomfortable with patriotism, even if most of them were born well after the war ended. What’s more, the cross-border rivalry between Germany and the Netherlands would have made for one heck of a good time in the World Cup finals. But just thinking about those hooligans, I find myself a bit glad Spain managed to keep Germany from the final. A little self-esteem is well deserved, but too much pride is rarely a good thing. (A notion U.S. Americans shouldn’t forget as well.)
Update: 11 June, 2012, I see I was not alone…a campaign to rip German flags off of cars because they promote nationalism–
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