Monday, November 23, 2009

Nothing becomes great without discipline and intention.

Today I realized at 7:20am that my flight from Chicago to Kansas City did not actually leave at 10:10am but at 8:40am. Getting to Midway from Logan Square on the Chicago public transportation system in that span of time is an impossibility. I arrived at my gate 10 minutes before take off, with my shoes still untied, my belt in my hand and my hair pulled back but with significant chunks sticking out. This disheveled, panting person is not the image of a competent adult. Lucky and fast - but not together. I am trying to discern how worried I should be about this.

My friend's mother is a pediatrician and she once said that adolescence is not determined by age but by one's ability to financially support herself, create healthy relationships and love maturely. Perhaps manage one's own life logistics effectively should be added to that list. There are several sociologists and journalists who write about a trend towards extended periods of adolescence for my generation. A combined result of the four year college, delayed age of entering the work force, delayed marriage, delayed point at which you become responsible for another human being, etc. I am in full support of this delay period. Obviously. It let's you make sure you know who you are - so you can make decisions which will honor your true desires. Important business. Focusing and evolving those desires - figuring out how to create a functional life around them is the work of adulthood.

Part of my hope for the Peace Corps was that a capable adult that resembles me would pop out the other end. I certainly felt more capable at the end of my service - but capable in ways that are still being translated to this new life. I moved to Chicago for many reasons but an important one among them is my search for the details of my adult life. Post Peace Corps. In an American context. On my own terms.

What principles do I feel are true and worth sticking to? What decisions and priorities do I need to set in order to stand by those principles? What kind of food am I going to buy at the grocery store? How am I going to spend my free time? Where am I going to spend my money? What am I going to emotionally invest in? What is worth being a stickler about and worth going out of my way for? It seems that to live responsibly and fully all these details need some exploration and deliberate attention. A break from the willy-nillyness of youth.

It is possible that I need only to accept that, in adolescence and adulthood, I am the type of person who occasionally mixes up important details like arrival and departure times. Or the type of person who spends 15 minutes comparing conditioners at the store just to go home with two bottles of shampoo. If you have stars in your eyes perhaps you are blinded to the logistical minutiae of the earth. Perhaps this is but a comforting stronghold so I never have to change.

I want to be a fully capable adult who still has stars in her eyes.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New Speed Racer

I bought a bike. I sold $100 worth of chotskies at our garage sale and $35 worth of used books then bought a bike for $125. Good trade. And I am pretty sure the bike is exactly what I want.

The day I was going to pick it up a friend of mine warned me that I should make sure to ride it home. "If you put it in the back of a car it stays in the back of a car." Symbolic logic but really true. I suppose with most things you do define your relationship from the get go. If you are going to be committed to living in the ways you want to live the decision is now. Starting tomorrow is always too late.

The bike was only 4.5 miles away and I planned to run that far anyway so why not run towards something I needed to do? It was threatening to rain and I did consider the option of driving. But then I also reminded myself that I was in the Peace Corps and have been wet before.

It didn't rain. Perfect running weather. Good distances for a run. And riding my new bike back was so quick and easy in comparison.

I have been hanging out with my grandparents alot - in a caretaker capacity. It takes a lot of time but today I got to witness my Pawpaw hunting flies in the courtyard for a good 15 minutes. As well as the corresponding dialogue between he and my grandma who was directing through the windows from inside. The urgency on one side of the glass and determination on the other side really made the whole episode so enthralling. And endearing.

Sitting there watching all of it I thought about how being open to experiences gives you these kinds of little treats (or "goodies" as Pawpaw would say), if you are willing to accept them. Spending half a day with your grandparent when you didn't intend to is an ok thing to let happen.

I feel the same way about running to my bike and riding it home when I could have easily picked it up in the car. As far as choosing the type of experience you want. Or being open to allowing an experience to be pleasant. I feel like I learned this in the Peace Corps. Good to know it hasn't all drained out of me.

I might write more about my grandparents ways. There are a million endearing things to tell.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Back in the U.S.A.

I have been back in the states for two months and I still have not entirely figured out how to explain the transition. Partially because it is difficult to understand. It would be easier if it was tangibly difficult but really turns out to be very vague. Like a quiet undercurrent of emotions I can't quite name. I figure trying to write about it might help.

I miss Zambia. I miss my house and my village. I miss my way of life there and the work I was doing. But I think the most difficult part now is not that missing but that my life there feels so distant and inaccessible. It is difficult to find parts of my life now that relate. I was talking to one woman I don't know very well about being back in the US and her response was "well you must be so happy to be back!" I said yes I was but I was also happy in Zambia too. To which she said, "Well but you wouldn't want to live that way forever."

There are some really nice things about being in America. There are LOTS of really convenient things about being in America. But for every thing that is easy or nice (like hot showers, grocery stores, washing machines) there are things in Zambia that I really miss and can't have (like outdoor showers, leisurely Sundays doing my laundry by hand while listening to the BBC). So though taking a hot shower is really nice, cold milk is really nice, it also just doesn't matter that much.

It is strange that for every convenience here it seems there is something very peaceful forfeited.

I told my friend once that the great thing about living in the village is you are forced to have amazing experiences. For instance, I hardly ever choose to get up at sunrise but having to catch the bus at 5:30 in the mornings made me be regularly present for the very peaceful experience of walking though a quiet village as the sun comes up. You really learn to appreciate the opportunity instead of getting stuck in the inconvenience. Experiences of equal peace, exhilaration, beauty or novelty are very easy to avoid here.

So it comes down to what new decisions will I make in this old context- now that expectations have changed and my perception of happy living has widened.

I said many times while I was in Peace Corps that I expected this experience to allow me a step back - a greater freedom from the binds of American life. It is distressing to find that is actually still easy to get swept up in that current.

I have been cleaning out my room - an overwhelming process simply because I am a pack rat - but also turning out to be strangely emotional. Having a room full of useless stuff feels disgusting. Evidence of an excessive culture- evidence of how personal that excessive culture is within me. The difficult part is feeling disgusted by the stuff and also, at the same time, feeling emotionally attached to it. It is turning out to be a neat little example of my struggle. Wanting something else, having a different perspective than I did before, but still feeling the force of habit and nostalgia which make it hard to change.

I have been thinking about why it is so hard to change personal habits or even collective cultural habits when there are better ways and when it is obvious our routine is not working. I think some of it is laziness or maybe I should say
overwhelmedness, because figuring out how exactly you want to change things takes some work. Some of it is cultural pressure because other people want to feel validated in not changing their own habits. Some of it is an addiction to luxury. But no one is entitled to luxury. Some of it is nostalgia for every detail about one's way of life. I think this is an interesting thing to think about - the nostaligia of lifestyle. When things are tied to memories, loved ones, and tradition the answer to the question "is this good for me?" is not easy to embrace. It isn't easy to even ask.

I am trying to decide what is worth doing, what is worth being forceful about. This is what I have so far.

1. Don't drive places that are easy to walk to
2. Don't own a car at all
3. Prioritize local food - which may mean more money but from what I will save on buying fewer TVs and fuel it should work out
4. Eat real foods
5. Don't buy things that I won't use a lot
6. Borrow and share stuff
7. Use what I already have and use it until it is unusable
8. Reduce the amount of new manufacturing required for my life
Limit the amount or red meat and diary products I consume
10. The amount of packaging waste created should be a factor in purchasing

It is a start at least. It is not a new story but it matters. The system is perpetuated by millions of tiny, daily decisions.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The two day long first of June

I woke this morning, June 1st, and went hiking up a steep mountain to look out over the fijian beach below and the ocean beyond. Tonight I will arrive in Kansas City in the last hours of June 1st. It is the best June 1st ever.

Fiji is pretty great. You may have heard stories about how unpretty and unamazing and unfun it is. These are all lies. It is pretty amazing and fun. I went swimming with manta rays that were at least 2meters from wingtip to wingtip. It was pretty much the most amazing experience of my life. or one of. Manta rays are the most graceful things I have ever seen. So much more graceful than anything that has joints. These were seen while snorkeling while be dragged by a rope behind a boat. Manta rays need a strong current and we couldn't keep up with our own jointed and inferior limbs. (Don't worry Sissy I kept my heart far away from their tails. I did not try to put one in a boat which I think was what really saved me.)

I also snorkeled out side my resort which was a pretty fine view too. I really love snorkeling. I love it because it is meditative, and experientially beautiful, and because it makes me feel like a mermaid. Sometimes I even flip my flippers in unison to maximize this feeling. But then, what usually happens, is I run into a real mermaid, giggling in a twirl of fish kisses or some other magical mermaid thing they do. I make the universal underwater hand signals for "Let's be friends!!" and then she says, in her clickty dolphin language: "You aren't a real mermaid! You are just a snorkler!" I then try to respond: "If I am not a real mermaid than how come I can understand you! and how come I can talk underwater!?" but only manage to dislodge my snorkel in the effort. The mermaid flits away and I am left choking on salt water. It's the same every time.

But really. I went to this art exhibit in Sydney by Kusuma or something that I don't have time to verify right now. She is an artist that kind of came of artistic age in the 60's with art happenings and drugs. She did these rooms - like a black living room in black light with all these fluorescent dots on everything. And another room that was all mirrors and hanging Christmas lights - so it looked like there were just Christmas lights forever. Awesome. But this is kind of like how I think of snorkeling. Only snorkeling is better because you are floating. Floating and being moved by the waves and surrounded by a strange, beautiful, other worldly world. And it is real. MORE awesome.

The place I stayed is called Octopus Resort. It was ideal. Affordable, good fun, nice. AND they SEEM to have a really good respectful relationship with the neighboring village. The resort has a school fund for all the kids, scholarships, books, etc. and uses their boat to take the kids to boarding school on Sundays and brings them back on Fridays. They have a lot of activities that directly benefit the guides, supports the local rugby team or whatever.

It appears to be a win win win situation. Which is exactly what I like to see. The village benefits from employment and influx of money, the tourist get a good and affordable experience and real interaction with the people whose island they are visiting, and I assume the owners are making enough money to be happy without cutting anyone's throat. Nice.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Himba - Herero

It is raining in Sydney so I can't go running. Boo.

So -The Himba were one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Namibia. I had a friend visit about a year ago and he was telling me about two of the tribes in northern Namibia who live as neighbors but one maintains traditional dress of not much more than a loin cloth, bare chested, and the other wears full length dresses covering everything from their neck to the wrists to their ankles. I remember him saying something along the lines of "So in the same supermarket you could see a woman with no shirt on and a woman with a missionary style dress." That is what I wanted to see.

And indeed it is all true. The Himba, as pictured on my flickr site, dress in leather skirts, ankle cuffs, necklaces, and not much else. The women cover their bodies in a butter/ground ochre mix making them reddish in color. The other distinguishing and I think amazingly beautiful characteristic of their dress is their hair- packed with clay making long red chords. The children also have a particular hairstyle before they mature - the young girls' hair is braided in one big braid curling over their forehead. The women also never bathe in water. Instead they steam bath every morning with perfume herbs and different lotions. Apparently their main chores involve cooking, looking after the children, and making themselves look beautiful. They are traditionally nomadic people and many of the family groups do still move around frequently.

The Herero on the other hand, who technically are the same people as the Himba - Ovahimba is a subgroup of Herero, fell under the instructive control of german missionaries - hence the long dresses. And funny head dresses. Which are now kind of a mix between colonial style dress and african flare. I met some Namibian Peace Corps volunteers who said that- for whatever reason the style started - the Herero now consider it their traditional costume - explainging the massive petticoats and the horn like hat as a proud nod to their cattle. It is so interesting to me that a tribe would shift their norms in response to missionaries (maybe it was by force...), and now, a hundred years later, still work to preserve that tradition in the face of western culture all around them. Namibia is a not a densely populate place but it is far more developed than Zambia.

The Herero are not a homogeneous people. This is because the main group in central Namibia (called Herero proper) has been heavily influenced by Western culture during the colonial period, creating, thus, a mixture of the European and Herero cultures, that is a whole new identity. Even though the different groups share the same language, culture, and origin, their traditions differ sharply. The North-Western groups (such as Himba, Kuvale, and Tjimba) are more conservative, preserving cultural aspects that have been lost by the southern groups (Herero proper and Mbanderu). For example, the Southern Herero have traded in their leather garments for the type worn by Europeans in colonial times. The Southern Herero are involved in the economies of Namibia and Botswana, mostly as cattle breeders. The Kaokoland Herero and those in Angola have remained isolated and are still pastoral nomads, practicing limited horticulture.
(You can also read here about the masacres that took place during German colonialism... Ruben and I feel like Namibia is still a very racially tense place - unlike Zambia).

And as far as I could tell, a traditionally dressed Himba or a traditionally dressed Herero could be sitting amongst Namibians in t-shirts and jeans at a gas station and no one really thought much about the variety. Except me. But I was a tourist.

I am of course not the only person who finds these tribes interesting. They receive a lot of attention and many of the Himba women have left the north for the bigger tourist attractions to make money by having their picture taken. The effects of interaction between western culture and people who have maintained consistant traditions is a long standing query of mine. On some level I want traditions to be protected. I want the world to house as many diverse histories and cultures as people have created. On the other hand, it isn't ethical to deny people in far flung places conviencies that would lighten their burden, or keep them from dying of things that are preventable. As far as the Himba go - their uniquness and beauty attract alot of outside attention - but is that attention giving them another reason to maintain their way of life or just drawing them away from their villages and throwing them into another world. If the rest of the country is become more and more modern, if jobs are in the big cities, than is it only a matter of time until everyone leaves the village in search of work, or education, or modernity. I don't know.
The Himba village I visited was a cultural village set up to receive tourist. It was a community project, all the money goes to the village and the people who participate for food, medicine, travel etc. Tours to the village are part of a scheme to care for orphans. That doesn't really seem like a bad idea- no one has to stay, they know what they are in for and they are use to dealing with tourist groups - who come on their terms. Fair enough. This village also said that most of the kids do not go to school because they do not want them to loose their traditions...

I hate being a tourist and all of this is just me trying to figure out how to be responsible tourist. I love traveling places. I love seeing things that are so different from anything I have ever seen before. I love being in beautiful places. I think the more people interact the more they care about and understand each other. And tourism is undeniably an economic opportunity and CAN be an economic opportunity for people who don't have many other opportunities. (That was another thing I thought was cool in Namibia. I THINK that some of the attractions we went to - the rock carving and cave paintings - were community projects - goverenment run but benefiting the people who lived there.) BUT I also know that tourism can be destructive. It can bring unwelcome things into different parts of the world, it can take advantage of desperate people, and it can cause environmental harm.

Where is my money really going? What am I contributing to? These are overwhelming questions for me. But significant.

Anyway. Namibia is really great. I want to go back. I want to go back in my own vehicle so I can get to hard to reach places. Like the very very north. Like the sand dunes that run into the ocean. Like Soussevlei which is probably one of the most spectacular sites in the world and I didn't go because of money. That seems stupid now. Another time. I will go back.

The more I travel the more I want to see - and the more places to which I want to some day return to.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

ooh la la

I've just returned from my northern Namibian tour. It was a small group, with the guide and camp assistant we made a cozy group of five. There was an adorable British guy who would say adorable British accented things like "I've got sompthin in me eye."
There was an adorable french girl who would say adorable french accented things like "When is zi love season for zi an-i-mals?" and I swear exclaimed "ooh la la" at least once. Then there was adorable me who said adorable American accented things like "Golly that sure is purrtty." It was totally relaxed and fun. Our guide was a very likable young Namibian. our camp sites were great. It was a really great way to leave Africa I think - eating around a campfire, taking outdoor showers which you know I love- all very similar to the village only posher - with running water, flush toilets, and even electricity sometimes, plus someone else did most of the cooking and washing up. We saw all the exciting African animals. We saw 7 black rhinos at the watering hole one night. We visited a Himba village where I got kind of filthy playing with the kids. We went hiking to see ancient rock carvings and cave paintings - through a shaded valley of white stoned streams and ethereal fluff of bush grass. The most famous painting is called the 'white lady' because the figure is painted in white - the first anthropologist to study it hypothesized that it was an early white visitor from the Mediterranean. This has long since been disproved - and it is now widely accepted as a male shaman figure with "an obvious male groin adornment" ...still it keeps the name white lady. oh white people.
More on the Himba tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The person who was suppose to replace me just left Zambia early... I am not pleased. I am less than pleased. I am crying in fact. There is more to say about Namibia but I am crying.