19 February 2011
18 February 2011
14 December 2010
Ubuntu is the Xhosa word that recognizes that human beings need each other for survival and well-being. A person is a person only through other persons, we say. We must care for one another in order to thrive. -Archbishop Tutu
09 December 2010
I’m so sorry it’s taken me this long to update my blog. China, Japan, a nasty Flu virus, and finals hit me at warp speed and now with just five days left in the voyage, I’ve finally found time to sort through the whole crazy mess.
China was absolutely epic. My roommate Amanda and I traveled on our own from Hong Kong, to Beijing, and then onto Shanghai where we were welcomed into the homes and private lives of two amazing Chinese families that work with my dad. Huanxin (Beijing) and Claudia (Shanghai) showed us this incredibly complex country through their hospitality and candor in a way not many of my peers probably were not able to experience. We did/saw/visited/discussed more in six days than I thought was humanly possible and by the end of it all as we were sleep deprived, overfed, and entirely overwhelmed. But… it was amazing. More stories to come with time, here are some of the highlights of the three diverse cities:
Hong Kong: crazy high-rise buildings, shopping mania, Star Ferry, Lan Tao Island, “Big” Buddha, ancient monasteries, incense parks, black sesame gelato, mochi balls, hairy crab bean curd, LFK nightlife, international hipsters, yuppies at dinner, overpriced airport eggs.
Beijing: screaming Scandinavian children, world’s largest airport, Olympic grounds, good Michael Phelps juju, traffic, silk-road markets, first home cooked meal in two months (!), Great Wall, Szechwan spicy animal organs, Tiananmen square, the (very forbidden) Forbidden city, ancient courtyards, frozen feet, traditional duck dinner (and survived, thank you), Peking Opera, ginger beer, rice pillows, Summer palace.
Shanghai: magnetic levitation train, spaceship buildings, semi-normal looking food, harbor walks, Chinese teenage social behavior, bean and oatmeal porridge, molded watermelon pork hash, brined duck eggs, stomach aches, laughing so hard we could cry, Starbucks (!), historical district, knock-off Christmas decorations, speed shopping (winter coat), manhunt for Japanese rail pass, foot reflexology (sexual assault), awkward dinner with dad’s colleagues (sorry Dad), clandestine manicures and kamikaze… you know, psycho drivers, five hundred pork dumplings for breakfast, faking sick (little effort required), first taste of Chinese communist inefficiency/evasion, illiterate taxi drivers, ship at last!
With just two days to recollect our bearings, we arrived in Kobe and started again. I had purchased a rather expensive Japanese ‘tourist’ rail pass that I could use on any JR train and subway line throughout the entire country, and boy did I put it to use. I didn’t really end up spending much time in Kobe, as soon as we got through immigration we took one tram, two subways, one train, and one bullet train to Hiroshima. We walked the A-Bomb Dome and the memorial grounds where the epicenter of the bomb hit and just took it all in. The park was absolutely beautiful. The leaves were just on the tail end of their fall lifespan and were bursting with deep reds and oranges – colors that reminded me of and made me miss home big time. Throughout this trip I have visited more peace museums than should be in existence because of the actions and devastation caused by European and North American power. I sat on a bench near one of several monuments, closed my eyes, and breathed in the cold fresh air and just felt so disappointed. Hiroshima rebuilt and moved on, but there are other places on this planet that are still in ruin. There are families who are separated, displaced, and missing members as casualties of war. And for what? Really? Nothing.
After Hiroshima, a small group of friends and I took (guess what) more trains to Kyoto where we saw dozens of wannabe Geishas, visited the Nijo Castle, discovered the proliferation of 7Eleven mini-marts, fell asleep on buses, and stumbled into a Moon Festival where Japanese gathered from across the country to celebrate the traditional end of harvest. Because of this convergence on Kyoto, there was not one hotel available in the entire city. We made our way back to the maze of trains and enjoyed 3 hours of relative peace to Tokyo where four of us shared the world’s smallest, and coolest, hotel in the “entertainment” district. Amanda scared the pants off all of us as we were walking around that night by sharing that 1 in 3 Japanese men is involved in the Yakuza, the Japanese organized crime syndicate. Yikes! Can you imagine?
My dad had hooked us up big time for our next night in Tokyo by waving his special Intel status at the Imperial Hotel, one of the cities oldest and finest hotels that sits basically caddy-corner to the Imperial Palace – which by the way, has a land value higher than the entire state of California, wow.
It’s going to sound silly, but one of the more difficult parts about the whole Semester at Sea experience at large is that given the short amount of time we have in each port, we feel a need to cram as much into each day as we possibly can and become burned out very quickly. After checking into the room at the Imperial, I remember just laying face first on the bed for 15 minutes, trying to gather as much energy as I possibly could muster, to carry on another day.
So… we ventured out to the infamous Harajuku and Shinjuku shopping districts of Tokyo to find some of the most impeccable, and bold fashonistas on the planet. There were people everywhere. Despite the masses, everyone flowed in and out of stores, restaurants, and train stations like the professionals that they are. Standing in the middle of it all, looking rather dowdy in my jeans and sneakers, I literally felt like I was in some kind of utopian dream world. I had been exposed to Japan in school, but primarily through pop-culture, and never could have put the pieces together to create the picture we were now standing in.
Overall fatigue, the bright lights, big buildings, and overall dream-world nature of Tokyo set me in a daze for the rest of my time in Japan. Riding the train back to the Imperial, I couldn’t believe that for the first time on this trip I was actually counting down the days until we got back to the ship. But boy did I rally those last two days. In fact, I didn’t even sleep that night because I was so determined to experience the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market that opens at 5 am and requires visitors to stand in line for starting at 3 am. I fell asleep on the floor of the market’s waiting room (gross) and eventually did get to see the live auction and the meticulous arbitration of the giant Tuna. It was so cool, but again, more out-of-body-is-this-for-real feelings ensued. I slept for all of three hours before hyping up on coffee and walking around the stunning Imperial Palace Park.
At this point you’re probably thinking… get this girl some sleep! But sometime earlier in the voyage, probably in October, I had signed up to do a home stay with the family of a college student from Yokohama City University on the final night in Japan. I did a quick change on the ship after making my way from Tokyo, got to call my parents (yay!) and then headed out the door to meet Natsuko, a beautiful and intelligent freshman studying gender policy at YCU. We made a two-hour commute to her hometown, Odawara, that she takes every single day to and from school. When we finally arrived around 10 pm, I shared stories with her family about my trip while sitting on seat cushions around a low table in the family room and ate persimmons and sweet potato candies. I slept in Natsuko’s room, on the floor, and arose early again the next day for a trip to a massive working monastery and temple hidden in covered forests Odawara. The Japanese maples there were absolutely stunning, I kept thinking about the few we have in our backyard in Loomis – my parents would have loved the huge ones I stood among there. After a quick Sushi lunch and more incredible conversation, Natsuko and I got back on the train and
headed home for the ship.
Ship. At last. I loved Japan, but was ready to say sayonara. I will definitely need to return with a less crowded brain, on more sleep, and with more time to just wander. I’m sorry if that whole Japan narrative seemed like one giant run-on sentence, but in all honesty, that’s pretty much what it felt like.
Departing Japan was the ready… set… go signal for “the crossing” which Amanda and I have been lamenting over since the day we got our schedules. Ten days at sea. Ten. And that was just to Hawaii. The majority of the ship had managed to procrastinate all of our hardest assignments until this ten-day block and, of course, this only added to the misery. The day immediately following Japan, Amanda and I literally slept the whole thing through. We got up to go to the gym, eat, and use the restroom but that was about it. One day down, nine more to go. Next day: Thanksgiving, epic disappointment. Thanksgiving initiated the dire emergency that was our homecoming… or as Amanda posits so eloquently “it highlighted the urgency with which we needed to go home.” Any way you cut it, the death march that is this study abroad experience moved onward.
Day three hit me like a freight train and I can’t tell you much about the five days following because I spent them in bed, trying to sleep off the worst flu bug I’ve ever come down with. The swells were rolling in at about 5 meters with crazy wind that only accentuated my delusional feverish state. I didn’t actually start feeling like a human being again until about the night before we reached Hawaii. At that point I was seriously like, okay, let’s skip Hawaii and just book it to San Diego, but the four days in the sun and salt water was about the most healing thing I could have done for myself.
Here I am, now, with one final and four days left standing between the beautiful San Diego harbor and me. Almost home. The waters have been relatively calm (knock on wood) and the weight of all that I’ve seen/heard/felt is starting to make me a little loony. I’ve already emphasized my eagerness to be home with my family, but I also have formed an amazing family on this ship too that I will miss more than I can possibly understand at this point. It’s all very bittersweet. Packing, final meetings, and final goodbyes are going to be here sooner than I know it and in a week from today I’ll be sitting on the back porch of my house in Loomis with my Mom wondering what in the heck just happened to the time.
I’ll try to update again before we arrive on Monday, but I suspect that the next time you hear from me it will probably be in person over tea, or through a blog post that is much more articulate and poised about the nature of this experience than I’m feeling right now.
09 November 2010
had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life."
I was not personally friends with this young man, but no member of our shipboard community has gone unaffected by his passing. A young life, gone too soon. It’s a disgusting reminder that no matter how smart or capable, we are not invincible.
I’ve been flooded with all kinds of perplexing emotions. Shock, sadness, love, and bucket loads of gratitude. I feel like I want to tattoo the mantra “I will not waste this life” on the backs of my hands after all the amazing life experiences I’m having on this trip. Time is precious. My heart aches terribly for his family and friends at home who are plagued with questions, confusion, anger, and sorrow – comprehending the loss of such a young soul must be unfathomable for a parent.
There is an eeriness to the whole thing, too. This week we lost a 20-year old boy in Vietnam for no good reason. During the American war, we lost 20,000 20-year boys for no good reason. And for what?
I may attempt to revisit a blog about Vietnam in time, but now this is all that seems relevant to share. I ask that regardless of your faith orientation, you keep Andre Ramadan, his family, and our community in your thoughts in prayers as we heal and move forward with this journey.
03 November 2010
Passed out? Some of you are like, what happened to Kelsey... hater of all things conglomerate? So okay, that's a little strong; but this pit stop really couldn't have come at a better time. Two days was just the recipe to get my bearings and gear up for another fabulous 40 days of non-stop adventure.
Singapore was really nothing like I have ever seen or experienced. I'm starting to sound like a broken record with that line, I think. What sets this nation-state apart is that it is, so far, the most developed and modern port on the itinerary. Per capita GDP hovers around $55,000 and unemployment is at a shocking 1.8%. Singapore has also claimed the title of fastest-growing economy in the world, with GDP growth of 17.9% in the first half of 2010. All of this plus a spotless city, efficient public transit system, world class shopping and dining, theme parks, botanical gardens, and a thriving tourist culture make Singapore worth loving and hating all at once.
Love: safety, tolerance, health foods, fast internet, not having to brush my teeth with bottled water.
Hate: a-culturization, mass consumption, paying a months wages for a Ghanaian for a Mojito .
What's strange is that Singapore is made up of 42% foreigners. You'd think there would be some crazy special juju going on with everyone intermixed and intertwined. I took the subway everywhere and not once, not once, was I ever looked at as a "them" in the whole "us v. them" dichotomy. For all anyone knew, if I didn't have a giant orange backpack strapped to me, I could have totally been a foreign national. All this is to say that there is both incredible diversity and homogeneity. I feel like in 2nd or 3rd grade I had an art docent teach me that if you added all the colors of the rainbow together, they would make white? Maybe in some bizarre way, that's what happens when you're mixing cultures too. Everyone agrees on a baseline standard and the rest just fades? Hmm... a lot to think about with all this.
Amanda's cool dad hooked us up with a free room at the Hilton with honors points, and oh boy, it was absolutely blissful. We probably could have vegged all day, but we had things to do and people to see. Friends of ours splurged on rooms at the Marina Bay Sands, an out-of-this-world resort, and we met them for dinner at a restaurant on the very top floor connecting all three buildings overlooking the entire city. It was unreal. Seriously I felt like a movie star. It was amazing and awful all at once. Coming from India, it definitely felt more like what we were used to back home, but I just knew, sitting there watching lightning way off in the distance, that I would never in my life partake in such glittering luxury again. And that's exactly the way it should be.
I realize that this isn't really a deep or profound post, but really there wasn't anything too terribly profound about the 48 hours I was here. I lived in princess-land, and I'm glad to have moved on (I'm actually in Vietnam right now writing this!).
I'll leave you with some crazy laws in Singapore that keep this place tidy and in top form:
The following are illegal: peeing in an elevator, spitting, throwing gum on the ground, not flushing the toilet, jaywalking, eating or drinking in the subway, catcalls at women, bungee jumping, and many more.
On a more serious note, Singapore has a mandatory death penalty for all narcotics offenses. Vandalism, being drunk in public, pornography, immigration violations, carrying a firearm, child abuse, and "outrages against modesty" (Defined as an assault or use of criminal force on any person with the intent to, or the knowledge that it may, outrage the modesty of that person; i.e, making inappropriate comments, gestures, or dressing like a skank) all result in public caning, severe fines, and long term imprisonment. Gulp.
If you were wondering, the entire shipboard community somehow by the grace of God made it back on to the ship without a legal innuendo. Phew!
Someone needs to use the public computer I'm on, sorry no time to proof read! Love you all!
31 October 2010
15 October 2010
If ever you have the urge to pick up and get the heck out of dodge, call United Airlines immediately and book the earliest flight to this tiny island off the coast of Madagascar. You probably never even heard of this place before you saw it listed on my itinerary and that’s exactly the reason why you must go, like now.
I feel spoiled beyond belief to have been afforded the chance to run around an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean with my closest friends without any responsibility whatsoever. We made it to port early yesterday morning, jumped off the boat with our bathing suits and towels, and booked it straight to the beach. I can’t convey to you how amazing it felt to actually swim in the pristine waters we sail through and stare at day in and day out. I felt like a broken record because I kept saying to everyone “I am soooo happy! This is amazing!” Swimming, floating, lounging in the sun, volleyball, and great conversation made for an absolutely perfect day.
Because we only had one night here and many of us had trips planned for early this morning, we opted not to stay over in a hotel and camped out in our floating dorm room instead. It’s definitely strange being “at home” when you’re definitely not “at home.” There are however some phenomenal resorts that I hope one day I can come back and share with family and friends (family reunion? Hint hint).
It wasn’t a total lounge fest though… today I had the opportunity to survey the variety of Mauritian health facilities with visits to a traditional Chinese medicine shop, nursing school, public hospital, an ayurvedic wellness center, and a private hospital. Get this: healthcare is free for everyone. Even alternative medicine practices are free. Private hospitals are available for those who can afford them, but only 10% of people actually utilize them. This isn’t a public service announcement for socializing healthcare in the states, but people here really do seem to be impressed with what they’ve got going on.
Now I’m back at it. So long Africa, get ready India. Four days until my trip is officially half way complete, I truly cannot even believe it.
Until next time :)
12 October 2010
His two hour lecture, if you could call it that, was a pinch-me-am-I-awake-or-this-actually-a-dream type of amazing. Albeit a wavy day I was able to capture a fair amount of video footage that I just can’t wait to share with you all soon. Under the umbrella of apartheid he spoke about Nelson Mandela, the townships, raising a family, unity and individuality, reparation and reconciliation, justice, and most emphatically… being joyful and keeping the faith. I was completely transfixed. Here is a man who has seen the absolute worst of human nature, of ruthless hatred, and still believes that people are made for goodness, that truth will prevail, and that laughter will heal a broken world. It never ceases to amaze me that it is the people in this world who have experienced the most evil that end up being the most hopeful for the future.
There were so many treasures he shared, but one of the most important before traveling throughout his homeland was the following:
“With all of its faults, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the best thing that happened to South Africa. Let people tell their story, it was… it IS therapeutic. The wounds have not yet been healed, but they are still festering. There is still work to be done.”
Even though there is so much reason to rejoice, South Africa is still in the middle of quite an identity crisis. Apartheid ended just sixteen years ago and its legacies are still very real for most of the country. At least 35% of the population is HIV positive, the country ranks highest in the world for homicide and crime, 28% of men are unemployed, and millions of families live in squatter camps. There is still work to be done. Just because there is freedom doesn’t mean there is equity or justice. I knew that within its geographic beauty there was something heavy and ominous lingering throughout. Don’t be fooled, I thought, tread lightly and with eyes wide open.
On the morning of our arrival, I sat in a dewy pool chair, bundled in a blanket on the seventh deck, taking in the beauty of the new day with gratitude and anticipation as we slowly pulled into the V&A Waterfront.. The stars behind me were fading over Cape Town as the horizon before me morphed from the deepest navy, magenta, orange, pink, until in an instant the sun made its grand appearance. My friends and I spoke no words, exchanged no glances – there was this sense of profound fellowship though, as we all processed independent thoughts and truths about the world and ourselves. It’s funny now looking back because our arrival in South Africa and this sunrise seems so long ago, but I remember having one of those out of body moments where my mere existence was absolutely mind boggling and the fact that the sun rose and set every day without fail gave me so much comfort. Maybe I’m just hyper-aware of the phenomenon because I watch it take place almost every day now. In any case, this small epiphany helped ease some of the apprehension or eagerness for discovery that I had accumulated from my pre-port lessons on the history of this fascinating nation.
Par usual, I tried to cram each day with as much I possibly could without sacrificing too much of my sanity or sleep. The V&A Waterfront was a total tourist trap, but at least had a full-fledged grocery store (where I spent the best $75 of my entire life on oatmeal, dried fruit, and nuts) and some nice restaurants. I was happy to head out of the port and spend three full days hiking up and picnicking atop Table Mountain, visiting a local medical clinic that works with HIV/AIDS patients, and playing with children in the Marcus Garvey Rastafarian Township.
I spent the remaining three days on an amazing Safari in the middle of Kruger National Park. Making our way from Cape Town to Johannesburg and onto Hodespruit, I stopped in an airport bookshop to pick up any form of news I could get my hands on. I spotted TIME and Newsweek, and gleefully made my purchase. Back at the terminal I opened up TIME to page 27, a photo of none other but Desmond Tutu. WHAT! Crazy, right? The photo accompanied a feature article on his retirement from public life made official on his 79th birthday. The article is titled “The Laughing Bishop” which I’ve titled this blog in tribute.
I made it to Hodespruit and let my mind get swept away by the amazing scope of the African bush. Safaris are basically everything you imagine, but even cooler. Hippos, Elephants, Rhinos, Giraffes, Lions, Warthogs, Eagles, and Impala are the names you’ll recognize, plus many many more. I felt the same feelings here that I experienced in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Alaska, even the middle of the Indian Ocean… I hope one day if I have children, they will be able to see this. I get nervous. The more I read about the combinations human footprint, mass consumption, rapid economic development, resource depletion, and crumbling biodiversity, the more anxious I become that future generations will not experience the natural profundity of our planet, our home.
Here’s an armchair perspective (literally and figuratively) of what I see taking place in South Africa after dabbling in a few different facets of culture and society:
On my flight from Johannesburg to Hodespruit I sat next to a South African national who worked for USAID administering and assisting with HIV/AIDS treatment. She was traveling to a small village in the northern region of Kruger to check on a trial drug some members of the community were testing. We talked about a range of topics – family planning, treatment options, and stigmas associated with the disease. On the flight back to the ship from Johannesburg to Cape Town I sat next to a business man who has lived all over the world working for Dow Chemical in plastic resource manufacturing. I had requested a water and peach juice from the flight attendant, he pointed to the containers and the accompanying cups with ice and said to me “I work to round this up all across Africa,” and smiled. It gave me the shivers.
South Africa is a country of extremes: wealth and poverty, overabundance and famine, both diversity and racism. Apartheid is over but the gaping cleavages it left are just getting wider and wider. It seems that the country is being carried in two opposite directions – one toward recovery and rehabilitation, and one toward capitalism. It emphasizes our mentors wisdom: There is still a long way to go.
My Grandma Beard has this great saying, “God can’t move a parked car.” Despite the paradoxes glaringly present in South Africa, if we think of the state as a car, it certainly isn’t parked at all; it’s moving all right and it’s trying hard to figure out where it really wants to go.
There is still a long way to go. But it is going, and that is a blessing.
01 October 2010
Walking up from the beach on our last afternoon we passed a little deserted apartment complex with a sign out front that read For Sale, Yours Now. I looked at the tattered and faded pink building, fairly amicable compared to its distant neighbors, and had a very dangerous idea: STAY. Stay? Are you kidding? You’re almost twenty-one years old and you think you can do this, now? The moment was fleeting, and soon interrupted by the myriad of wisdoms that took a vacation for that passionate split second. Ghana just had so much more to teach me, and saying a premature goodbye was difficult.
I’m staring a blinking cursor, thinking of what to share, and my (amazing) roommate Amanda says to me, “Kels, you’re stressing out about this way too much.” She’s probably right. I’m bombarded by not-yet-formulated ideas and conclusions about my time in Ghana so trying to lasso a good sentence together, let alone a report on the matter, feels impossible. Well okay, that’s what the perfectionist control-freak side of me nags at least. Amanda suggests I write something like: “Ghana was amazing, I’m alive and safe, not much to say yet, come again soon.” But I think that would be a cop-out because this blog is just as much for me as it is for any of you lovely people who might be reading it. When I look back in 30 years and cannot make any sense of what is written in my journal, I can turn to this and say, “Okay, there was a literate human being in that 20 year old body somewhere.”
So instead of trying to make something pretty here, I’ll give it to you in skeleton form. There are four things (of I’m sure many) that make up Ghana: poverty, community, resilience, and happiness (okay, well maybe gratitude but you can decide that). They’re everywhere, all at once.
Poverty: It’s everywhere. Despite the fact that Ghana has twice the per capita output of poorer countries in West Africa, at least 30% of the population still lives on less than $1.25 a day. Acquiring basic human needs like clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing, and shelter for many Ghanaians is a daily struggle. In Takoradi, most housing consists of scrap wood, concrete blocks, or corrugated tin – affluent areas outside the cities are rare and are still well below most Western standards of living. I spent two days in Cape Coast, two hours east of port, and took a cooking class from a women’s co-op called Global Mamas using Ghanaian staples like: yam, cocoyam, plantain, cassava, okra, canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, peanut butter, palm nut oil, and a few spices. Health note… I notice that these primary starches are easy to grow, but lack the nutritional punch of other complex carbohydrates that our bodies really need. What they do, however, is fill you up quick and keep you full for a long time – extremely important when getting another meal for the day is not always guaranteed.
Community: It’s everywhere. Not in my short life have I ever seen or taken part of a community so devoted to the welfare of each and every member. A Ghanaian university student sailed with us from Casablanca to Takoradi and she explained to us in pre-port lectures that if a child is out in public misbehaving, an adult does not ask who the mother or father are, they ask what village the child comes from. Villages raise children, literally, and each members contribution is a reflection of the community as a whole. There is no my house or your house – surpluses are spread to those according to their need so that everyone can be the most productive member of the community as possible. Theoretically, the college experience would support the “we’re in this all together” model, but so often we (myself included) get caught up in our own needs that we forget that we need to carry each other so that everyone can “survive” and be successful.
Resilience: It’s everywhere. I can’t tell you how many people I talked to who sang the same sort of tune “You know, life is hard but it is good, finding work is hard but I have my family and I have my health, I have freedom and I have justice.” This country was once the main hub for the trans-Atlantic slave trade where 12 million Africans were held captive in European slave dungeons on West African coasts and transported by ships to the New World between the 15th and 19th centuries. And even though the slave trade was officially banned in the mid-1800s, British colonial rule did not end until 1957. The people here are not angry though, rather grateful actually and hopeful for the future. Shaun and I share a magnet that says “Keep calm, don’t feed the pug, and carry on” and nobody epitomizes that better than the Ghanaian. They carry on all right, and they celebrate what they have with song and with dance and with light. I was in a cab one day heading to lunch or something and we passed by a church hosting a huge wedding. Attendees wore their brightest kente clothes and buzzed around the bride and groom cheering, singing, kissing, hugging. Life is hard, but there is always reason to rejoice.
Happiness: It’s everywhere. In my Global Studies class on the ship, we’re taught that prosperity leads to greater happiness around the world. On paper it makes sense – someone who makes $200 a day has a better chance at self-actualizing compared to the person who lives on $2 a day who struggles to meet his or her basic physiological and safety needs. But when you get down on the ground, this barometer is useless. If I’ve learned anything in life it is that everyone’s version of happiness looks different, so it’s absolutely impossible to judge. If you get your hands dirty or in my case get completely soaked in a rainstorm, you’ll meet people who have nothing and everything all at the same time. I spent my third day in Ghana trekking around the center of town, eventually winding deep into the cacophonous and pungent markets. The women at every shanty shop clamored over us, dropping buckets of shrimp or platters of plantain onto the muddy ground to welcome us. It was superiorly muggy when we left the ship and it didn’t take long for the equatorial rains to break the tension, ushering vendors and shoppers under the auspicious tin overhangs. We tried to keep walking; all decked out in our North Face gear, but were pulled by the arms to a fabric shop (F333) and scolded for “trying” to catch a cold. We were instructed to sit with her until the rain stopped, the women in the shops across and around F333 nodded in agreement. She began to tell us about her life and her family, asking us questions about school, about our faith values. She was so full of hope, full of gratitude, making us promise we would pray every morning and every night thanking God for our multitude of blessings. As the rain started to calm down she asked me, “where do you see God?” and I responded, feeling it with absolute certainty, “I think Gods light is right here, right now.” She smiled, hugged us both, and we went on our way. I’m not naïve enough to think that an hour spent with this woman in her lean-to fabric shop represents the spirit of an entire country, but the happiness she experienced was built upon the “attitude of gratitude” that literally everyone in Ghana was outwardly displaying for the world to see.
I loved Ghana. And not in the oh-how-precious, people-can-be-happy-with-nothing type of way that I’m witnessing a lot of my fellow sailors experience. I loved what it showed me about myself, and I loved how it pushed me to the edge of something big that I’ve sometimes tiptoed away from. That smack you up side the head reality check that says “you were lucky enough to be born into a situation where you can do anything you want in the world, you have the power to make a huge impact in whatever pulls at your heart.” I don’t love the poverty. I feel pretty strongly that people shouldn’t romanticize the struggle. But I’ll carry their experience, the struggle and the joy, forever. I’ll carry it and look at it and know that I can be as strong as them too.
Desmond Tutu, or Arch as he wants us to call him, has made several appearances in the past few days. I’ll log back on to share some of his stories and wisdoms about South Africa soon. He is SUCH a goofball, and on that note I’ll leave you with a funny encounter… some friends and I were eating breakfast in one of the dining rooms and he comes up to our table and asks “so were you glad to take your test yesterday, girls?” We laugh and respond “well, I’m not sure if we were glad to take it, but it went okay.” He giggles, looking off into the distance, “Well that’s good, at least you’re not a masochist!”
19 September 2010
Morocco was a whirlwind, and I predict that most of my future blog posts will begin with this sentiment. We arrived early into Casablanca and made our way out of the industrial (phosphate, yuck) port and into the city to be introduced to our first real taste of the term culture shock. Absolute chaos converged at a four-way intersection with people, cabs, donkeys, trucks, and about 100 bright-eyed and bushy-tailed American students trying to cross the street with no lights signals or assistance. It took us 15 minutes to make maybe 400 meters progress.
Thankfully, the first hour in Casablanca did not characterize the entire visit… but it did set the stage for what I’ll be up against as the voyage inches its way east.
Over the course of the next 4 days, I made my way from Casablanca to Marrakech, Marrakech to Essaouria, Essaouria to Safi, then back to Casablanca. I did not know what heat was until I stood in the Jamaa El Fna, Marrakech’s most famous souk and square, in jeans, a sweater, and a scarf (for modesty). I’ll tell you, it felt like death. I have so much more respect and empathy for Muslim women who absolutely boil in the Sahara or Middle East in their hijabs, let alone burkahs. Jamaa El Fna is everything that you’ve seen in National Geographic and more: snake charmers, monkeys, hookah, orange juice, spices, brightly colored textiles, mint tea, berber rugs, and more. Bartering, yelling, drumming, flutes – noise, noise, noise. It sounds silly, but in Marrakech I felt like I had stepped into the behind-the-scenes version of the Disney movie Aladdin.
Other parts of Morocco, however, do not proselytize this famous enchantment. Quite the contrary – the humble and bumpy bus ride from Marrakech to Essaouria told a story of devotion to Allah, family values, and hard work. A splattering of stony communities surrounded by maybe a dozen or so argan or olive farms were the only semblances of life that interrupted miles upon miles of sprawling dirt and rock plains. Approaching the coast, we traveled through a number of small towns – each one distinguishable from the next based on the uniqueness and stature of their Mosques – where men sat outside cafés drinking espresso and children played in the dirt. Finally, at the seashore, young boys littered the beaches and the mood of the Medina and souk is much more relaxed and easy.
It’s amazing how across the globe the differences between dense urban cities, plains, and coasts are so pronounced. My time in Morocco would not have been the same without each special perspective of lifestyle and sense of purpose.
I spent my last day in Morocco at a slower pace, beginning with a mid-morning misty visit to the Hassan II Mosque – second largest and most impressive to Mecca. Wow. Unbelievable. I’ve been lucky enough to experience some of the world’s most elaborate Christian holy monuments, but nothing compares to the marvel that is Hassan II. The Mosque is set on a cliff that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, but on this particular morning the fog was so dense that the whole place felt like it was sitting on a giant cloud. The mosque was for the most part desolate so the reverie of the silence – next to the chaos that is Casablanca – was extremely humbling.
Faith is a huge, if not the most important, part of Moroccan culture. Luckily and unluckily, we arrived in Casablanca a day before the end of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month long holy practice that involves Sawn, the fourth pillar of Islam, of fasting during daylight hours. Beyond food, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity are also renounced from dawn to sunset the entire month as the entire community experiences solidarity in the practices of unselfishness and abstinence from desire. We were lucky in the sense that we bore exquisite witness to ending and subsequent celebration of such a sacred practice so close to it’s origins. We were unlucky because of our indiscrete American presence and the association we bore to the Floridian pastor who threatened to burn Korans. I didn’t run into any trouble, Moroccans are phenomenally hospitable, but some people I know did (and for good reason, to be perfectly honest). I approached the entire situation as follows: I am only one American, but my actions can work to remedy the ignorance and selfishness that define pockets of a nation. The Moroccans I communicated with received me kindly, and any inconspicuous thoughts they may have had about my culture or me were hopefully remedied by my respect and desire to learn about their families, their homes, their traditions. I could spend another 500 words describing the utter disgust I feel toward this pastor or whoever subscribes to his same worldview, but that too would be selfish and in the spirit of Ramadan’s close, I will refrain.
After some time to reflect, I realize that I left Morocco with only half the story. All of my encounters were with men. Men dominate this part of the world – banks, cafés, the souks, restaurants, taxis, tour operations, etc. The women were “around” but they were eerily silent. As most of you know, I’m absolutely fascinated by women and the Muslim tradition. I noticed the absence of female interaction maybe much more than my peers because I believe their experience to be especially unique to men. We stopped at an Argan co-operative in the middle of who knows where on the way from Marrakech to Morocco where I tried to make conversation with the female employees – much to my surprise, the women that did speak English-French were actually immigrants from Israel. Go figure. A community, a country, a world can only be half defined by its male population so I can’t leave Morocco with its entire truth.
I’ll come back to Morocco someday, and get the full story. For now I keep my short and wild time there in my heart as I continue my journey to sub-Saharan Africa: Ghana, another country of wonder and excitement, and the first of all Africa to gain independence from colonial reign.
Until next time, love to you all.
08 September 2010
We made port in Cadiz, Spain which if you look on a map is basically the bottom southwest-ish tip of the country. I took a train with a new travel buddy, Michaella from CO, from the coast to Madrid where we spent 3-4 days taking in the city almost entirely by foot.
We made an effort to get to a few big ticket items (The Prado, Royal Palace, Reine Sofia, Plaza Mayor...), but wandering lead us to the best parts of Spain that were relatively untainted by the idealized and romanticized versions of Madrid that have been fabricated by the business of tourism. We both wanted no part of Flamenco, Bull-fights, or guided bus tours and therefore spent a lot of time navigating the metro, walking into bars asking for directions, getting flat out lost, and just stumbling into cool spots by accident. There is something so liberating about having absolutely no idea where you are, but knowing you're safe and will find a way back to where you need to be eventually. We probably walked three or four miles from wherever we got off on our first metro jump, and took in the most amazing sunset, sights, smells, and sounds before "dinner."
I put dinner in quotes because meal-patterns are probably the most foreign characteristic of Spain compared to other big cities worldwide. People rave about the food here, and I'll admit it's been fun, but I don't know how they do it! Spaniards basically eat some variation of the same thing for each meal: potatoes, olives, eggs, cured ham, tomato paste, bread, and cheese. The only place you can even get paella or any other "spanish" dish you've heard of can only be eaten at the restaurants with pictures outside the windows (tourist magnets). Oh, and beer, wine, or coffee is consumed all day long. Like seriously. Beer - for breakfast. Beer or espresso and potato crisps and maybe some toast and tomato paste spread.
Anyway, enough about food. Some highlights over the next 2 full days in Madrid included lots of time in the metro, some unplanned emergency shopping stops, great art, photography adventures, food, and countless attempts to order tap water, not bottled at the bars.
My unplanned emergency shopping stop? Zapatos. SHOES. Not even two hours into our second day walking around Plaza Mayor searching for El Rastro (a big farmers market type thing), my leather sandal broke! The part that attaches in-between your big toe and that second toe just straight up ripped out. We spent the next 45 minutes flopping around the square searching for shoes -- harder than you'd think because every store near us was either selling ham or postcards. I ended up blowing 15 Euro on a funky pair that I'll never wear again to get me through the day. We missed out on the market, but a good sense of humor led to other fun sights that day.
Michaella and I decided that on our way back to Cadiz we'd get off the train in Sevilla, put our bags in lockers, and see what the fuss was about because the SAS folks were totally raving about it. We spent the first hour trying to figure out how to get to the historic district and honestly, after all the hassle getting there, it wasn't even worth it. My experience might be tainted by just how tired we already were from our time in Madrid, but Sevilla is honestly the most touristy place I've ever been in my life. Uggh. We visited the big Cathedral, which was cool, but everything else was dedicated to that romantic imaginary Spain that I talked about earlier. Horse drawn carriages? Flamenco-style aprons for sale on every corner? No thanks. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad we made the stop, but only for the revelations that grew out of what we experienced. We opted to take an early afternoon train back to Cadiz where we parted ways and I spent the evening wandering on my own through this little fishing town.
The 6 hours last night and the 4 I've spent this morning walking around and dining alone,have been the most rewarding of my entire time here. Last night after I dropped my backpack off at the boat, I got as far away from the restaurants with menus printed in English and into this back alley little Cafeteria/Bar (everything is called a bar here) and ate all the tapas the bartender recommended and was treated to a glass of his favorite vino tinto on the house. :) I sat there for probably three hours just listening to all the people laugh, eat, and drink around me as I wrote in my journal. It was amazing. I felt relief and contentment in the truth of that place. Hard to explain.
This morning, too, has been equally rewarding. Just walking around, picking up some fruit at some side market, stopping for café con leche and listening to the chatter among groups of friends or neighbors. This pace and independence makes my heart happy! Tonight, we push-off at 8 pm and by late tomorrow afternoon I'll be in Morocco. So surreal. SO SO surreal. Go to sleep in one land, wake up in another. I've loved getting emails from you all! I'll get back to them when I can get internet again, in the meantime I'll say a mass "I LOVE YOU!" to everyone.
Adios for now! I can't get pictures to upload for some reason, I'll get some up sooner or later though.
03 September 2010
27 August 2010
24 August 2010
There are a few things that I'll miss out on over the course of the next four months, so please indulge wholeheartedly and often in the following as a way to keep me in your hearts too:
2. Hug friends and family.
3. Listen to National Public Radio.
4. Sweat it out in Hot yoga.
5. Feel the love for Oprah Winfrey's "Farewell Season."