Even in the day-glo hued, go-go 1960s, the old world ways still held sway in many parts of the world. Eric Janus, born and bred in the civilized suburban precincts surrounding Washington, D.C., felt as if he needed to see and experience some of those old world customs and cultures before the modern age swallowed them whole.
A baby boomer by birthright and also by temperament, Janus emerged from his undergraduate days in college well-educated, eager to make a difference, and still undecided about his career direction. Fortunately for Janus, the U.S. government had a few job openings at the time for college graduates willing to work in foreign countries for low pay and little in the way of modern creature comforts — but with a real opportunity to help people.
Janus signed on for a two-year stint to teach English and math to Turkish high-schoolers, courtesy of the U.S. Peace Corps. The corps dispatched Janus to a dusty provincial capital in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border, but a long way from the comforts and conveniences of 20th century America.
“It was always cold and raining,” Janus remembers. Contact with the outside world was difficult at best, limited to snail mail that took three weeks to make the rounds between Turkey and the U.S. or the rare phone call from a pay phone at the U.S. embassy — subject to ruinously high international calling rates.
Just the place for a liberal arts grad, fresh out of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, to hang out before deciding on a real career choice, and close enough, in both time and place, to his family’s ancestral roots in the Russian steppes.
“I loved it,” he says. “That world was probably much like the one my grandparents lived in in the early 1900s.” People still traveled mostly by horse-drawn carts, and it was not unusual to see caravans of camels marching through the city.
Last glimpse into a vanishing way of life
Janus’ grandparents emigrated from southern Ukraine around the turn of the 19th century, before the 20th century arrived in full force with its onslaught of tragedies for the region. Years after his first Turkish adventure, Janus visited the area where his relatives had lived in Ukraine. He found no relatives — family lore held that they all were lost in the Holocaust. The Jewish families that remained in the area all retained survivor stories passed on from the World War II generation that endured the Nazi invasion. Many families fled east to Uzbekistan, he was told, and returned after the war.
After completing his Peace Corps obligation, Janus and his fiancee, soon-to-be-wife and lifelong travel companion, Carolyn Chalmers, embarked on an overland journey from Turkey to India. “We basically followed the same path as Alexander (the original Great one),” Janus says. Crossing Iraq and Iran proved to be interesting and pleasurable; crossing into Afghanistan proved wild and unsettling.
“We had an incident at the border, that kind of made us realize that we weren’t in control of anything,” says Janus. “It was like, we didn’t understand the rules,” and didn’t have much hope of learning them either. So they canceled the cross-country road excursion, caught a flight to Kabul, and carried along on Alexander’s trail to the Khyber Pass. Crossing the Khyber Pass “was really an amazing experience,” Janus says, “You go from a desert culture where hardly anybody lives to a country — Pakistan — where millions and millions of people live.”
The Peace Corps mission helped clarify his career thinking, Janus says. He wanted to do something with a “social justice” component, which led him to earn a law degree from Harvard Law. Upon graduating, he took a job with Legal Aid in Minneapolis, where he worked for many years prior to joining the faculty at Mitchell Hamline Law School.
He and his wife cut down on their international travels while they raised their family in Minneapolis, but still managed to take their two kids to Greece in the mid-1980s. Of the 30-some countries he’s visited, Greece ranks near the top as a favorite. “It’s magical in the spring,” he says.
He and his wife like to get off the beaten path when traveling. “One of the things you discover when traveling is that at all the A++ tourist sites, the parking lots are full of tour buses,” he says. “But if you go to the A+ sites, they’re also beautiful, and nobody’s there!”
As to in-country transportation options, the Januses like to go by foot or bicycle as much as possible. They enjoy tramping along country roads in France, for example. “We love to spend four to five days walking from village to village in France,” he says. The French make such slow-motion travel all the more enjoyable by serving up great food and wine for dinner, no matter what the village, he says.
Years later, Facebook connects Janus with former Turkish students
Thinking back to his Peace Corps days, Janus marvels at how different the world is for travelers today. Thanks to Facebook and the internet, he’s reconnected with some of his former students in Turkey. Now in their 50s, they have entire life histories to recount. Some, he was pleased to note, moved into positions of prominence in the country. One of the girls from his classes now works as a physician in the area of nuclear medicine.
When Janus was younger, Russia — then the Soviet Union — was off-limits to ordinary American citizens. No one really knew what lay behind the Iron Curtain. “We thought that whatever was on the other side of Turkey was the end of the world,” he says. The end of the world revealed its name after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Uzbekistan. Janus has seen it from the mountainous reaches of northern Turkey, which he and his wife hiked into recently.
Janus made his first-ever treks to countries in Africa and South America in just the last couple of years. Both continents deserve more of his attention, he says, He also visited Iceland for the first time last year, although he had no doubt learned much about Icelandic history and literature over the years from his brother, who has a Ph.D. in Icelandic literature. “Iceland is a beautiful country,” he says. Uninhabited until the 9th century, Iceland just absorbed the incoming Vikings of the time with no internal resistance. The Vikings didn’t have to fight over the land with the indigenous people. “All they had to worry about was getting along with each other,” Janus notes — which they apparently managed to do pretty well.
For all his travels, Janus may feel most at home — when he’s away from home — in Turkey. He speaks the language — a necessity for traveling in the hinterlands, he says — and visits as often as possible. It’s not an easy country to understand, he concedes. It’s certainly not the same country that he encountered in the 1960s, with its caravans of camels and dependence on 19th century modes of communication such as the telegram. The bigger issue today, he concedes, is the country’s apparent political drift away from the European Union.
Then again, there’s much to be said about finding your place in the world, which might lead Janus and his wife back to those walking tours of the French countryside again, with no greater expectation at the end of the day than to settle in for a sumptuous sampling of the local cuisine.