Countries Worth Only One Word
When the border control building was out of my sight, I was relieved. Now I just needed to catch a ride, then I would be totally free!
However, to catch a ride was a real challenge, as you might have noticed, I was back in the US again…… Although Vermont was probably the most progressive state in the region, hitchhiking was not going to be as easy as in Canada, especially considering the fact that obviously only 3 cars passed every 10 minutes.
I thumbed up anyway and in my heart I still had the positive energy from surviving the intense border check and then……
Miracle happened! WOWO! The car stopped! I am serious fellows. I waited only about 15 minutes and a car stopped! WOWO! Sorry, I started WOWOing too much again… will try to stay clam. 😀
A brown-skinned middle-aged man with sunglasses said smilingly: ‘Come on in!’ That was how I met Luis, a native Guatemalan living in US. He was traveling from Canada to home with his daughter. The kid was a bit shy. Luis and I talked a lot about the situation and society in Central America. I had only been to Panama and Costa Rica in this area. However, I had heard much about Guatemala. Anybody who was venturing in this area of the Americas would surely know something about Guatemala, with one of the highest crime rate in the whole world. Let’s be serious for a moment, I felt that most countries were rather deprived of the chance to be known simply because one aspect of them stood out and overshadowed all the other aspects.
For example, two people were talking about various countries in the world.
A: So, what do you know about Nepal?
B: They have a lot of mountains
A: Anything else?
B: Eh….. nope.
A: How about Afghanistan?
B: They are in war!
A: Anything else?
B: Eh…… nope.
A: How about Kenya?
B: They have wild animals!
A: Anything else?
B: Eh…… nope.
Therefore, for most people, Nepal = mountains, Afghanistan = wars, Kenya = games and Guatemala = crime. That’s it!
I am sure you don’t need to go there in person to learn that besides mountains Nepal also is the birth place of Siddhartha Gautama, aka the Buddha, Afghanistan has the Bamiyan Buddha statue which was destroyed by Taliban (nasty nasty) and Kenya’s capital Nairobi has a reputation for robbery and is thus nicknamed Nairobbery (creative nickname). OK, the last one might be a bit hard but you get the idea. Similarly, Guatemala surely also has its perks and societal complications. such as the high number of active volcanoes. Guatemala has been a major producer of jade. Curiously enough, both the native Americans, in this the Mayans and Eastern Asians were much found of jade while in Europe it was never the case.
As I was telling this unfortunate phenomenon to Luis, he laughed and said: ‘You know what? There is even a more unfortunate scenario. Some countries even do not earn one word. If you ask somebody what they know about El Salvador. They would not know a damn thing! Same when you ask about Burundi or Namibia. They might just tell you that they have never heard of these names.’
That is true. Countries associated with just one word are already miserable enough. Countries even not worth one word are even more miserable. I am sure you have seen those maps circulating on Facebook called ‘the world in the eyes of Americans’ or other similar ones. Funny they are indeed, but sad they are also.
I feel I am drifting away from the original topic…… OK, let’s get back to the road. We started talking in Spanish. I was telling him that when I was in Peru the local accent was a bit difficult for me to understand as I learned my Spanish in Spain. When I got near the Argentinian border in Chile, the accent was even more difficult as the Argentinians and the Paraguayans spoke with such distinct accents! He laughed.
It was not long after that we arrived in his residential city — Burlington! Yes, obviously Burlington was a popular name around here. After Burlington, Ontario, Canada now I was in Burlington, Vermont, US.
Luis: I am stopping over at the gas station, do you need anything? There is a store and it’s my treat.
Me: No! I am fine man. A ride is already a great gift!
Luis: Ok, amigo. Here is my contact. Let me know if you get stuck. My place is not big, but a warm meal and a warm bed I can provide for you.
Bernie Sanders Was the Mayor
From the gas station it was only 10 minutes walking to the best spot to hitchhike further south to Boston, where I had a couple of friends who would host me. I had previously told them that I might not arrive today as hitchhiking would be super hard in US, but as it was only 4 PM and I was already in Burlington, it seemed that I would be arriving. I started texting them.
Me: Sorry guys, I think I will arrive today after all. Might be a bit late but will arrive all the same.
Lijun: What?! I thought you were not arriving today so I have not done the cleaning! Ah!!!!
Me: Come on! It won’t be necessary. I’ve seen plenty of dirty houses and trust me, yours won’t surprise me.
Lijun: Ah!!!! You have no idea! :O :O
We were classmates in Tsinghua University while doing our bachelors in Biology together. Perhaps you have never heard about it, but anyone who knows the basics of contemporary China would know that the current president, his predecessor, the former prime minister and a legion of high officials of China are all graduates of Tsinghua. It boasts also two noble prize winners and other major scientists including ‘the father of contraception medicine’. It is essentially the best university in China. OK, Peking University might claim the same honor but fuck them (just kidding). It is much more difficult to be admitted than Harvard and Cambridge combined. For example, in my year 2008 in my province (Shandong) alone, Tsinghua only allocated about 150 positions for a total of 650 000 students. You are seeing it right, more than half a million students and only the top 150 would get in, OK, more or less the top 250 to be accurate.
When Lijun was doing her master degree in Tsinghua, she already published an article on Science, which was the wet dream of every scientist. She then did her PhD in the same group and now she was doing her Postdoc in Harvard in the group of a Nobel Prize Laureate. Most extraordinarily of all, while education in Tsinghua was in Chinese, Chinese was not even her first language. She was born in Thailand to Thai Chinese parents. Thai was her school language up until high school.
I was flashing through how awesome and hardcore Lijun was in the years we shared in Tsinghua and at the same time waiting for rides on the ramp leading to the highway.
For the first time in US outside New York City, I saw bikes! not one, not two, but a group of bikes! even on an official biking lane! I felt the left wing energy flowing through this town. I buckled up and thought: ‘if a place is more left wing, then it should be easier to hitchhike’!
Nope, the hope was ill founded.
I walked around and saw that there was a big huge gigantic sign just behind me. On it it was written clearly that ‘hitchhiking is forbidden’. That was very disheartening. I had the impulse to smash the board. As a professional hitchhiker, I calmed myself down with the last bottle of water I had and let the board be. You know, smashing the board would be highly unprofessional. 😉 😀
I lost hope after two hours, especially considering the 1st ride I got from Luis only took me 15 minutes of waiting. I started to sing. Even the bikes came back already from their rides. I swore I could already recognize some cars that passed me. It was a small town indeed, with only about 42 000 inhabitants. I was sure that if I stood there long enough I would eventually meet all the vehicles of Burlington.
3 hours passed and my neck started to ache. I was so tired that I could hear the bones of my thumb cracking. Another possible explanation was that I was fast becoming old and my bones were losing calcium at an alarming speed. I preferred the former explanation.
4 hours passed and it started to become dark. I wished a werewolf would come and eat me, because I had consumed the last bit of my water and the energy bars I brought were fast becoming distasteful as it contained high concentration of salt.
I prayed with all my sincerity: Most revered Werewolf, please come and eat me so to end my suffering! Ah!
Looking around, I saw this place a very unpleasant location for camping, too near to all the cars and the highway…… I was trapped, only Werewolf could save me……
Nope, werewolf did not come. Instead, two young people with rocking music in their car stopped and the girl had the most beautiful smile on her face: ‘Are you going to Boston? Come in!’
I tried to move my body and instantly realized that since I had been in one posture too long my body had more or less frozen. It took some massaging of different body parts to get moving. I was not able to smile until half an hour later. I totally felt like a grandpa.
That were Hannah and Charles, two friends spending their summer vocation in their hometown Burlington. They were enthusiastic people.
Hannah: We saw you earlier with your sign saying ‘Boston’ and we saw you again and again. We called our friend in Boston and she said’yes! come along!’ so we decided: ‘Yes, why not go to Boston today!’ so we can take you along!
Me: WOWO! You guys are angels! I don’t know what to say!
Charles: No problem! We just need to stop by my place to pick up some stuff before getting on the road, if that is not too much trouble for you.
Me: No no, no problem at all!
The moment we turned into downtown Charles exclaimed: ‘Look! That’s my stepfather in the car next to us!’ Apparently today I was in the state to induce people to meet their parents while driving.
They picked up some stuff and we were on the road again, into endless forests. There were even dead deer along the way. Different countries feature different dead animals on the highway. In Australia one finds dead kangaroos; in New Zealand dead rabbits and here dead deer.
Hannah: Do you know that Bernie Sanders was mayor here years ago?
Me: What? Bernie Sanders? WOWO! Had no idea!
Charles: Yeah, some of my friends used to deliver newspaper to his house. Eh… he did not give tips.
Hannah: At the election we all voted for Bernie!
Now I truly believe that the bikes were not a coincidence. Vermont, a state with its apparent name of French origin, was left wing.
Even the most left-wing state in this area was far too right-wing on an European scale. European Union was undoubtedly the most left-wing polity in the west, followed by Canada, which I felt was the most European country outside Europe. US? It easily made the most right-wing country in the west, the only one without universal health care among all industrialized countries.
First I thought they were a couple, but I was wrong.
Charles: My girlfriend has to study today so I am hanging out with Hannah. Oh, my girlfriend actually studies Chinese and she is really good at it!
Me: Is she American Chinese?
Charles: No! She isn’t! She is just so talented!
Hannah: I did 6 month au pair work in China. It was …… so different from here!
Me: I totally understand what you mean! It is even more different than the Netherlands!
Hannah: Did you study in the Netherlands?
Me: Yes, in a beautiful town called Leiden. You guys study in Boston?
Hannah: No, we study in a town near Boston but we have many friends in Boston.
Me: Did you guys have crazy parties?
Hannah: Yes, sometimes. Once our friend came over to Vermont. It was her first time. We threw a party for her and told her that it’s the tradition in Vermont when a visitor comes over at a party she has to be mouth fed the drinks. She really believed that!
Lovely young people!
We took a break in New Hampshire. When we approached Boston, I saw the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge at night, shinning like swans. It looked pretty much like the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam but instead of one swan, it had two swans on it.
When I said goodbye to them and finally found Lijun with her clean apartment, whom I had not seen for 9 years, she did not seem to change a bit, while for me not just the past 9 years, just today already seemed to be a whole lifetime.
To be continued