Saturday, November 19, 2011

Recollection Shelf #1: The India Angel

     I'm going to start a series about my Recollection Shelf.  This is an area on my bookshelf where I keep random mementoes of my travels.  It helps keep me tied to who I’ve been and what I’ve done, and I still need that.  Each item has a story behind it, and no story is without significance if told the right way!  So when nothing else is going on here in Germany (like this week, study study study!) I’ll tell the story of one of these items.  This week:  The India Angel 
My Recollection Shelf

         For a long time I believed that exhaustion, stress, frustration, or panic were all “mind over matter” problems, that I could always talk myself out of them and stay in control.  After two months in a rural orphanage in India, I’d stopped believing that… or at least I had to realize that when my mind had reached its limits, it couldn’t overcome even the smallest thing.  It was time to leave.

       Why this experience was so intense and impossible for me to bear any longer is very difficult to explain, and it would take much longer than the story I intend to tell here, the simple and stunning events of my last night which somehow reached into my shell-shocked soul and became a memory that will stay with me all my life. 
      There was an old man who lived at the orphanage.  No one seemed to know where he came from, or why he was here.  After a couple weeks I asked about him, and Vinod, the director, told me “He just came one day, and he stayed.”  “What’s his name?” I asked.  Vinod looked surprised.  “Everyone just calls him old man,” he answered, and that was that.       Old Man couldn’t speak much, and when he did it was in the coarse, too loud voice of the nearly senile.  He seemed to have assigned himself the job of sweeping the dusty grounds every day, and afterwards he would sit on a log outside the main building and occasionally yell and the children or me.  It took several weeks before I realized that one or two of the words he was yelling were English (at least in origin), but there was no question of trying to communicate… not only because of language problems, but more because I was already overwhelmed by the barrage of communication failures on every level and I’d started rejecting any extra effort that seemed futile from the start.  So, for two months, I ignored him, like everyone else, and I focused all my energy on keeping myself sane amidst the flood of frustrations, noise, alienation, loneliness, and anger.
    On my last night I was sitting outside my hut with a few other volunteers, talking about the situation in which we found ourselves.  I was sad to leave the children who were sweet (despite the fact that they’d nearly driven me insane), and I was disturbed by the way the experience was ending.  Still, not much was in my mind but getting away and getting some peace.  So when Old Man shuffled across the yard towards where we sat, I nearly started smiling and nodding him away even before the inarticulate screeches began.  He stopped in front of me, looked into my eyes, and said loudly, gravelly, but shockingly clearly: “My….name….is….Mallappa Kamati.”  I was take so off guard that I immediately stood up and shook his hand, as if we’d just met and not spend the last two months “together.” But he wasn’t done.  “This..” he waved his hand unsteadily toward the schoolhouse I’d been building that stood shrouded in the dark,  “Thank….you.    I…. am….. protestant …..Christian.”  My eyes must have widened to their limit at this.  It was inconceivable!  I’d not met a single protestant in a year!  But there’s no way he could have known what this meant to me.  I exclaimed “You are?!  I am protestant Christian!”  He looked up at me again, smiled, and slowly reached out his frail arm to shake my hand again.  Those were the only three sentences he said, and looking back I can’t imagine how anyone could have packed more meaning into so few words, meaning that touched me deeply.  I suddenly had a thought, and motioned to him to wait there while I went into my hut.         
     I don’t know what put it into my head, but it’s a testament to the many tangled emotions I was dealing with.  I suddenly thought of my cross, which used to be nearly a part of me (I wore it every day for over 10 years), which I’d stopped wearing several months before.  I’m not entirely sure why… it was a combination of things: in Japan realizing that it meant almost nothing at all (or meant something completely different than I intended), while travelling in poor countries for the first time I realized I still had more questions than answers, and meeting people from so many different places I realized I was being held to represent idea or assumptions that were no part of the reason why I wore it.  But mostly, I felt that something in me was changing, and putting away this symbol of my identity left me feeling like  a blank-slate with no bias between me and the new world I had jumped into.  I still carried the cross with me for many months of travel, and I think I assumed I’d be ready to put it back on at some point. 
     But I knew this was an opportunity to do something better, and maybe, in some small way, make up for all my personal failures which were all suddenly embodied by one lonely old man whom I’d deliberately dismissed.  I came out of the hut with the necklace in my hand, and I carefully put it over his head and laid the cross on his chest.  He held it in his hand and looked at it, then looked up at me and smiled, not widely but deeply.  He nodded several times, slowly turned around, and shuffled away into the dark.  I never saw him again. 
     There’s always someone watching in India.  No small part of my daily stress was from the complete lack of privacy, from locking my door only to find a line of eyes peering intently at me through the whicker weave, to fleeing to the hills for some solitude only to attract the attention of half the village children who then sit down nearby to get in a good long stare at the foreigner.  So until this moment I didn’t even realize that several of the orphanage children had been sitting nearby watching us for quite some time, and one especially had taken careful note of the exchange between Mr. Kamati and me.  “You wait,” he told me, and ran off. 
     This was Depu, one of my unabashedly favorites at the orphanage.  You could immediately tell from his eyes that he was bright and sharp, and you could tell from a few days with him that somewhere in his dog-eat-dog environment he’d picked up an instinct of decency and empathy for others.  He wasn’t perfect, far from it, but he was the only one I felt I could “count on.”  
     Depu came running back, and taking my hand he pressed into it a small, shiny, beautiful angel strung on a piece of string.  He closed my hand around it and said very matter-of-factly, “You Christian, me Hindu.”  “Depu, where did you get this?!”  “Girl in Goa,” he smiled back.  That made sense; a few weeks earlier we’d all made a trip to the nearby state of Goa, the only Christian state in India, and we’d stayed with a friend of Vinod who had two daughters, one of them Depu’s age.  I’m sure she liked him, and maybe he liked her.  This angel had been a parting gift from her that he’d keep in the weeks since, probably the only possession he could call his own besides his clothes.  But I didn’t think of all that at the time, I only felt the weight and power of the gift, that it was from the heart.  And even if I’d realized at the time what this angel might have meant to him I still would have accepted it; after all, Depu’s gift was prompted by seeing that a possession can be made more valuable by giving it away than by keeping it close.  We all have the power to imbue objects with great significance, and in no way more than giving it away in an act of love and selflessness.  Somehow Depu understood that, and I never would have denied him the poetry of that moment.
     I left the next morning, walking over the fields as the last sunrise lit up the orphanage behind me.  If nothing else came of those two months, one thing definitely changed:  I went from carrying a cross in my backpack, to wearing an angel around my neck.  This angel immediately symbolized more things than I can list here.  But more than anything else it symbolizes my snatched-from-the-flames hope, the hope that even faced with all the divisions of culture, language, religion, stress, anger, and the limitations of our humanity that none of us escape, that even through all that people can still reach out and touch another human being… almost like an angel.      


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Making Dream(er)s Work

“Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential.”  -Winston Churchill 

     I’ve been thinking about work lately.  No, not a in the sense of a job, and not in the sense of “function,” but about general old-fashioned, nose-to-the-grindstone, roll-up-your-sleeves work.  I know this isn’t a crowd-pleasing subject, but it’s a recurring theme for me, usually popping up again whenever I have to do something I don’t want to do.  See, the problem is I’m a dreamer.  And what is a dreamer but someone who wants to be somewhere else, or be doing something else, or thinking something else… what were we talking about?  Ah right, work.  Well, suddenly my life is full of it.  That sounds whiny and childish, and just let me say that it IS, because the point is I’ve gotten lazy in the last few years. My travels have not been all fun and games, and much of it has been difficult and uncomfortable, but it’s been rare that I’ve absolutely had to do something I absolutely don’t feel like doing.  And it shows.  Sure I still can (and do) spend 14 hours on weekend days in the deserted library, but would you like to know how much of that time is spent staring out the window, or dozing on the table, or clicking “refresh” on facebook?.... No, I don’t want to know either.
     The above quote from Churchill has been firmly stuck in my head ever since I read it six months ago, knowing that I was coming up on a period in life when my determination and aspirations would be truly put to the test.  “Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential.” It’s a different perspective than what you usually hear in our instant-success, skilless-stardom, inalienable-right-to-the-spotlight generation.  I guess I’d actually accepted the message that “dreams” or “full potential” are things that would HAPPEN to me, sooner or later, or if I’m lucky enough, or if that’s my destiny, and I’d always been led to believe that it is my destiny, by sports commercials, or by the manifest-destiny version of my religion, or the unconditional assertion of my parents that I could do whatever I want to do… I don’t think they realized that already Spiderman, Michel Jordan, and Bono had decided that what I wanted to do was take over the world one fan at a time……  now what was I talking about?
     It’s hard to find anyone talking about hard work anymore… at least, anyone we can take seriously.  Most of them are too old, or too old-fashioned, or look too much like an English bulldog (I wonder which category this blog post will get me thrown into?….).  In fact this IS a faint-hearted new world, where hard work is NOT necessary for the most glorious success on offer.  There are other ways, and why not hope for that?  The plan to do our best has changed to the hope of being given-a-shot, to a chance of being “discovered,” to waiting for our god-given 15 minutes to arrive.  And I’m ranting because this is about me, because I bought it, I believed Walt Disney when he said "If you can dream it, you can do it."  I believed R Kelly when he sang “If I just believe it, there's nothing to it! I believe I can fly!”  I believed Obama when he chanted “Yes We CAN” full-stop.  The strange thing is that all of these people (some more than others) WORKED, and worked HARD, to get where they got.  But no one wants to hear about that, it’s such a downer. 
     It’s the word “continuous” that makes this quote so Churchillian, so ballsy.  That’s what really hooked me.  I keep waiting for it to end, you know, to finally reach my potential and be DONE with all this stress and effort and WORK.   Listening to Rusty Berkus who said: “There comes that mysterious meeting in life when someone acknowledges who we are and what we can be, igniting the circuits of our highest potential,” I’ve been waiting for someone to acknowledge me and spark my potential; it’s like magic that adults can believe in, too.  I’ve been counting on my intelligence to get me to the top, while I watch some sit-coms and wait to “arrive.”  After all, why should I exhaust myself when so many people get their dreams dropped in their laps?  Why should I read 100s of dull pages a week, study foreign languages, develop my writing, or exercise my body, when one lottery ticket, one TV camera, one viral youtube video could make all that irrelevant?
     I guess the important difference is the 21st century’s division between “success” and the “potential” Churchill was talking about.  Potential is about what we CAN achieve, not what luck we stumble upon.  I honestly think that if I can fulfill my potential on a day-to-day basis, then I won’t care if anyone else knows about it.  I think so, at least.  It’s up for internal debate…  But in any case that unlocking of potential will now require luck (which can give me what I want but not in the way I want it), not intelligence or strength (which gives me potential but no substance), and not dreams (which gives me ideas but no reality)…. It will require effort.  Continuous effort, because as soon as I stop, as soon as I’m distracted for a moment, my potential sprints ahead of me and leaves me clicking on facebook and watching leaves fall off the trees.  Endless work.
    So that’s the way of it, that's how dreams come true.  I would like to believe that Disney, Kelly, and Obama aren’t sugar-coating reality, but truth is rarely so comfortable or easy to live with.  Churchill speaks with the cold, hard, sharp ring of truth: there is no rest for those who want to live fully, no easy way for those who aren’t satisfied with dreams alone, there is no finish line but the final one.  So if that’s possible, if I’m even capable of that anymore, only one question remains: is it worth it?  I’ve put a lot of thought into that…. and I have no idea.  I think the only way to be sure is to ask Churchill himself.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Is I Where?

In A Nutshell:
The purpose of this post is simple, to knock this blog out of its seven-month coma, to explain my past absence, to establish the present, and chart the future. Explanation of absence: Tanzania, Kenya, Turkey, France, Germany, France, South Korea, France, Germany. As for the present: I’m one month into an MA program in Modern Global History at Jacob’s University in Bremen, Germany. As for the future, I plan to post something (SOMETHING, I say) here once a week. That’s the nuts and bolts! If you’re honestly interested in all the confused personal details (especially about the last seven months) then read on!

I'm Back!
     A few months ago a student in Korea asked me “Please to tell, is I where?” I immediately recognized that this is exactly the question I’ve been trying to ask myself for months, but hadn’t been able to find the words. I’m still trying to find the answer.
Since my last post:
2 Foot Injuries.
5 homes established and abandoned in 4 countries.
5 times reunited and separated from Celine.
7 different planes.
29 different beds.
250+ official/bureaucratic emails.
28,000 miles (more than the circumference of the equator).
     In what seems like the blink of an eye I’ve gone from sitting crippled and alone in vast African wildernesses, to settling into luxury a Korean bullet-train, picnicking under the Eiffel Tower, eating squirming tentacles under faux-bamboo, days and days of jet-lag, languages like a soup in my head, intimate candle-lit dinner with the woman I love. I’d be a fool to try to summarize it… so here it goes.

1.  Out Of Africa:
    The last thing I had to do in Africa was my Pilgrimage to Ol-Doinyo Lengai, The Mountain of God. Everything was perfect, terrifying, and thrilling, except for my choice of shoes. Two days into the trek, miles from even the smallest drivable-track, I had baseball-sized blisters and was barely able to stand. I had to be rescued by a friend from the city, and I was eventually driven out crippled, dehydrated, helplessly enchanted with the wildness I’d walked into with my own two feet, and completely humiliated that my feet got me just far enough to leave me stranded.     
     By the time I could walk again it was time to fly out and close my time in Africa… and in some ways to close the time of world-travel I’d planned out five years previously. About Africa, a couple months later I wrote my academic mentor Jaime O’Neill this:
“The most I can say about Africa is that it's a REAL place, with all the power and thrill and  horror that entails. For the first time in all my travels I stepped onto completely unrestricted places, places where I could do anything that I had the strength to do, and anything could be done to me if I didn't have the strength to stop it. If nothing else, there's a forceful blow of truth in places like that, and you realize how much is artificial... and how grateful one can be for some artifice! Even in the worst moments I loved my time there. I think the only thing I really require out of life is to FEEL alive, and Africa is the kind of place where you cannot escape the bracing grip of life, until you're dead. And I mean that in the completely non-morbid pragmatic way of the Africans themselves.”
     I miss it, in many ways, and The Mountain of God still lies in the distant dark behind my eyes.

2. Reunion
     From Nairobi I flew to Istanbul to meet Celine, after seven months apart. It was a powerful moment, but the strangest this was how normal it felt. Even in that exotic city straddling Asia and Europe and separate from both, as soon as she was by my side, I felt at home, at peace. Celine completes me in a way I didn’t know was possible, and every time we part I feel like she’s taken a bigger and bigger piece of me away with her.     
     After Istanbul we flew to France, where we got to stay together for two months (the longest time we’ve been in the same country during our 15 month relationship), and I met her family, food, and culture. During this time I spent 5-8 hours a day hunting for and applying to summer jobs in Korea, America, UK, Germany, Thailand, and Japan, sorting through nearly 300 English-taught MA programs in Germany, and gathering in the scraps of paper that prove my life from all corners of the world. I rarely went a day without communicating with three continents, but I rarely went outside. Other than that, it was all about getting to know Celine. During this time I wrote my Grandma: 
      “Every day I'm stunned anew by some new evidence of how well we fit. Of course I knew about all the big things before we got together, and all the essential things checked out perfectly... I never counted on her pacing when she talks on the phone, or blowing her nose very loudly, or disliking deep water, or being fascinated by swords, or being messy... LIKE ME! :-) She's so easy to be with, so laid-back and rational about what is and isn't a big deal, so ready to talk about anything.”
     In April my parent arrived in France for a visit, and we spent a whirl-wind three weeks in Paris and all over “Celine’s France,” covering the main sites in her current state Alsace and her home-state Lorraine. Then it was time for my whirl-wind tour of German Universities, hitchhiking and couchsurfing through 9 cities in two weeks. I met amazing strangers and wonderful old friends, and I got excited about studying in Germany.
I returned to Celine just in time to catch a flight to South Korea, where I’d landed a job that fit my needs perfectly…

3. Asia Redux: South Korea
     I’m going to burn for this (Koreans nurture an intense dislike of the Japanese), but the conclusion that stuck in my head is “South Korea is exactly like Japan… only less so.” It’s smaller, less intense, less foreign, less mono-lingual (easier to find an English speaker in Korea any day), less socially-exclusive, less expensive. I greatly enjoyed my time there, for one simple reason: the Korean people. My students all warmly welcomed me as a friend almost from day-one, and I’ve never spent such a short time in a place and been so sad to leave.
     Besides the visit of two close Czech friends and Celine during my final month (I think I used every word I know (doesn’t take long) in Czech, French, Japanese, and Korean in a week!), I traveled very little, explored very little, studied very little. This was the closed I’ve ever come to a “working holiday,” and I needed the down-time. The inactivity (along with surviving on spaghetti and sandwiches) allowed me to save nearly $3000 in a summer, which was essential for the next stage of the plan.

4. À Nouveau en France
   I flew back to spend another session of jet-lag and double reverse-culture shock (white people everywhere!!! Speaking French!!!!!) with Celine in her new home near Mulhouse. During this time I again spent hours daily on the computer, this time looking for a flat in Bremen. Between her work and mine we discovered a mutual dormant love of retro computer games, a shared talent for breaking glass objects, and shocking signs that she might succeed in teaching me to cook! All too soon it was again time to put a national boundary between us.

5. Hallo Deutschland!
    I didn’t mention that while in Korea the acceptance letters came in, and with much hemming and hawing I chose Modern Global History at Jacobs University for a variety reasons. I’ve now been in Bremen for exactly a month, and already immersed in another life. I’m comfortable and engaged here, not to mention over-my-head busy, and I rarely have time to reflect back or look very far ahead. When I do look back, it’s strangely unsettling to try decide where I’m actually coming from, and when I look forward it makes me as panicky as excited. The Challenge is not over, not by a long shot.
     For a long time I’ve been aware that life is about priorities, and somehow that’s always gotten me through. But I’ve known for many months now that I would have to face too many Number One Priorities during this chapter of life:

-Priority Number One: School. It is a master’s program, and it is serious. The program could be more intense, but I’ve been out of school for years and the readings and presentations already keep me in the library more than out of it. If I don’t make this my Number One Priority I’ll fall behind immediately.
-Priority Number One: Learn French. Celine speaks perfect English, but I’m never going to feel fully comfortable about our life together until I can actually speak with her parents and not feel like a baby when I’m in her country. I’m taking a French class and trying
(often failing) to spend an hour a day on it. If I don’t make this my Top Priority I’ll fail in the most important element of my future.
-Priority Number One: Part-Time Job. If I don’t find a job soon then all these other plans might not matter. Savings from Korea got me here and give me a buffer for a few months, but I always knew this was something of a leap of faith. I counted on getting a job on campus but didn’t realize that my program starts a month later than all other students at Jacobs… Not speaking a word of German makes other opportunities frighteningly limited. I’m applying to language schools and international bars. No luck so far and this is Priority Numero Uno.
-Should-Be Priority Number One: Study German. I can survive without speaking German here, but I hate the thought of spending two years here and not learning a good bit of the language. I can’t make myself give up entirely (nor find time to really start).
-Should-Be Priority Number One: Writing. The only career goal I really get excited about is writing. And however much it’s obvious to you that 6 months without practice leaves its mark, you can be sure it’s more obvious to me. I’m determined to post something here every week.
-Should-Be Priority Number One: Website. More and more people (many of them friends of friends) have asked me for advice about living abroad. I realized that the main ways most young Americas do it is by studying abroad, teaching English, being a missionary, volunteering, or long-term travel. I’ve done all of those in several countries. In fact, living abroad is the only thing I feel legitimately knowledgeable about. I’ve gotten the idea to create a website called “How To Go Abroad.” It would take a great deal of work, but it could be awesome. When? I’ve no idea.
-A Close-Second Priority (aka: Never Going To Happen): Exercise. I haven’t exercised for months, and I feel myself getting weaker. Must… move…. my….lazy…..
-A Close-Third Priority (aka shouldn’t give it time but will anyway): Socialization. My classmates and flat-mates are awesome people and I want to spent time with them. And let’s face it, I need a social life.

     There’s not enough time in the day to do half of this, even if I was absolutely efficient, which I’m not. The problem is deciding what to give up when all of it is either essential, or extremely important. Something tells me the next two years in Bremen will fly by.

6. La Vie Internationale, Mezinárodního života, Des Internationalen Lebens, 국제 생활,  Uluslararası Yaşam, 国際的な生活, Maisha Ya Kimataifa....

     It’s never far from my mind that I’m living a life that is far beyond my own wildest dreams, with all the awe and struggle that comes with it. On one hand, everything has gone off without a hitch. Months of research and work produced a workable compromise between reality and the ideal, and then hammered out the details. I did spend the summer working in South Korea, I was accepted to MA programs in German. It has all worked out exactly as I wanted. So why does that make me nervous?...

     On the other hand, I often feel that things have spun completely out of control, and I seriously wonder how long I can keep my grip. In the last five years I’ve lived in eight countries, and I’ve gone from spending a full year there (USA, CZ, Japan), to six months in the next three (South East Asia, India, Tanzania), to three months at a time (France, South Korea). My mind has started doing funny things to me, taking strange things for granted (often wrongly), and getting stuck on things that should be normal. “Listen to that chanting loud-speaker…Is it time for Muslim evening prayer already?”… “No, Caleb, you’re in Korea, and that’s the loud-speaker on the vegetable delivery cart.” “Not again! Those kids are giggling at me just because I’m a foreigner.” “No, wait, you’re in Germany and everyone is white here. They don’t know you’re a foreigner.” “Did I just start speaking Japanese to the Korean shop-owner, Germany to the father of my French girlfriend, and Czech to my Serbian classmate?” “Yes, yes you did.” At this point I’ve stopped wondering whether I’m experiencing jet lag, culture shock, reverse culture shock, inverted culture fatigue, or maybe just fatigue… they’re all crushed up against each other and lying in a snarled heap, as are the mountains of paperwork I’ve had to do for each step.
     But this is a confusion that has been slowly bubbling up for many months, and the need for a bit more stability has led me on a topsy-turvy ride to the here and now: looking forward to two years in the same place, happy to be on the same continent as my girlfriend. It’s still a foreign country, and I’m still 100s of miles from the person I want to be with, but the Merry-Go-Round comes to a stop very very slowly, and I’ll take it with gratitude, since I was getting pretty dizzy. As I slowly make my way around the plastic Unicorns and Zebras and carefully step off this ride, will I finally stumble out of the Circus, or be sick on my shoes, or get pushed onto a real roller-coaster? Your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


     It’s been a while since I’ve been truly flabbergasted.  That word sounds funnier than its real meaning, which is a shame when it fits a particularly unhumorous situation.  In any case, chuckle-worthy or not, that’s exactly what I was a couple days ago as I took a few minutes to assess this moment of my life in the big picture: flabbergasted.  Be careful about exploring the big picture unless you’re ready to take a good, long look… more often than not, it’s really big.  Some might say TOO big… 
    Can you tell it’s late at night and I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say?  That’s exactly the point, though.  Because while I was sitting and thinking, and sitting and thinking, all about my last three weeks in Africa, how much I had to do and how fast it would go, how fast it had already gone, and how fast it was coming at me (“it” being time, of course, not an albatross or something silly like that) I realized that I have only been focusing on my time in Africa ending and the next chapter with the girl of my dreams beginning, and not what any of that means.  I flashed back to another moment, when I was sitting and thinking… thinking how to explain to my parents my wild idea about heading off into the wild blue yonder and living in East Asia, India, and Africa for the next 2-3 years.  After 30 minutes of breathless and scattered explanation, they leaned back, looked at each other, and said “sounds great, go for it!”  That was four and a half years ago, and it all seemed so dreamlike, so far away, even when I was right in the thick of it.  But for the first time it now hits me that in three weeks that plan, every step of it and more, will be finished.  The path I’ve been walking on for years has come to its conclusion, and I have absolutely no idea how I feel about that, except for one word:  Flabbergasted. 
     What I do know is how I expect the next month to feel… and the closest I can come to describing it forces me to use “tornado” as an adjective.  The next month with be extremely tornadoy!  The week in front of me must produce a first draft of my survey report.  This project has taken up most of my working hours (a motley collection of sporadic lengths of time, I confess) in the last four months, and the database of results 
alone has taken four people working most of the last three weeks to complete.  Now it’s time to start churning out charts, graphs, and ideally lots of intelligent words to explain the charts and graphs, with very little time to do all that churning.
Ndelilio and Sig translate tirelessly

Kirsten dives into data-entry!

Jacob crunches the unrurly numbers

I run about waving large stacks of paper...

...and twitching nervously whenever
piles of data rear their...stacks.

     The following week (Feb 5-12) I intended to set out on my long-planned trek.  No, not up Kilimanjaro ($1000+ is a wee bit out of my price range after 18 months of gallivanting), and not even through any national parks or any place that a tourist has heard of ($100 per day is still out of my price range).  But I was determined to find something to match to my Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan and Hindu Pilgrimage in India, so when I heard about a large volcano in the wilderness north of the Serengeti which the Maasai call
Ol Doinyo Lengai - The Mountain of God
The Mountain of God,”I knew I had to go there.  And it’s only 150 km from Arusha, why not walk there?  Okay, 150km across sun-baked wilderness, where water is scarce, people are scarcer, roads are nonexistent, and animals are not scarce enough for comfort… but hey, who wouldn’t call that fun?!  Yes, I’m nervous about this one, it will not be easy, and I’m not in good enough shape for it.  And I hope to end 5 days of walking at a massive volcano, and still have the energy to spend a day climbing up to its steaming bubbling peak.  The guys I work with at Pamoja have found a guide for me, a local guy they refer to as “Bushman,” who lives “about 15 km off a path that is about 50 km past the middle of nowhere” where he lives traditionally as a hunter-gatherer (seems it’s not unlikely that I might get to sample antelope that was killed by an arrow while on my trek).  He’s agreed to guide me, though he lives on the other side of Arusha and doesn’t know the area around the Mountain of God: “But Bushman,” says Jeremy, my director, on the phone with him, “won’t you get lost?”  “I CAN’T GET LOST” he thundered back.  At least I’ll be in very confident hands!  And I know what the first words of my chapter about the experience will be!
The next chapter...
Need I say more?
     When/if I return from that trek, I’ll have 5 days left in Arusha to tie up loose ends, maybe try to fit in an actual safari (unlikely, which means I will have spent 6 months in east Africa without seeing a single lion), maybe visit a few more schools to do some meta-surveys (“80% of your friends want to meet Obama, why do you think that is?”), do some last minute shopping, then bussing up to Nairobi and flying out on the 20th to Istanbul.  Celine will meet me there the next day, and then I’ll have 5 days in a new exotic city to do nothing but walk old streets, eat good food, and be with the woman I’ve been falling more in love with every day for the last 7 months.  Enough said. 
    After that we fly to France, and I try to understand the notion of slowing down a bit… while I work on finishing the Tanzanian survey report, getting a summer job in Korea, applying to universities in Germany, learning French, and continuing to spend real time with my girlfriend that’s not interrupted by power-outages or time-differences.  Hmm, maybe “slowing down” won’t be that slower…
     If you want to know the plan from there, it surprisingly hasn’t changed since my most recent “THE PLAN” post. 
     I realize this post isn’t that interesting, but I haven’t been able to pull together anything more interesting in the last month, and probably won’t have time to post much in the month of February.  Never fear (and don’t go away!), I’ll be back in force in March, if not before, with tales of Maasai volcanoes, Turkish rendezvous, and French cuisine!  Until then, thank you all for your messages, interest, and friendship!   I’m constantly reminded that the best and most intrinsic part of this amazing life I’m leading is you, each of you reading this now.  You so often leave me flabbergasted! I’ll see you on the other side of here-and-now! 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Wild West

My best stories almost always go untold because I wait until I have the time to tell them properly.. and that never happens! One of the main stories of my recent trip to West Tanzania is quite a yarn, and my girlfriend wanted to know what I'd gone through as soon as possible, so I summarized it for her as quickly as I could... and then realized that it's not half bad, so I'm just going to post it unpolished here, and leave it at that! Enjoy!

Hitching a ride with some
truckers, SLOWLY transporting
a massive amount of beer to Kigoma
for New Years Day.
 So the most exhausting thing physically I already told you, sitting on buses or trucks for 12-18 hours a day, on roads you wouldn't believe! Even Greg (French traveler, MUCH more experienced than me) was aghast at these roads, I don't think I'd like to WALK on them! From Kigali in the north, to Mbeya in south Tanz, covering over 1600 km ( 1000 miles), by bus, truck, and boat, the AVERAGE speed was about 19 km/hour (12 m/h). It's not just about sitting and waiting, it's about holding on to not fall off your seat! It's so bumpy (and the vehicles have no shock-absorbers) that usually my teeth hurt at the end of the day. Often the bus was jumping too much to even eat! Imagine that for 15-18 hours a day...

Always a sense that anything
could happen...
So THAT'S pretty exhausting! Mentally the greatest stress was that in Kasanga (the village at the Tanz end of lake Tanganyika), where you can see Tanzania, Zambia, and Democratic Republic of the Congo at once, we stayed with the wrong person (or maybe the right person, it's still hard to know!). This realization came very slowly, and it was rather scary when the truth finally pounced on us! We'd heard about criminal activity in the area: there were raids from the DRC into Zambia, all kinds of violence in DRC (happening just over the mountains we could see across the lake), and on the ferry we heard from some foreigners who decided to not leave the ferry in Kasanga because their friend claims he got kidnapped and held for ransom in Kasanga. It's a tiny VILLAGE, but so far from anywhere (by boat, road, or even plane, you'd need two days to get there from anywhere on the map); this IS the Wild West, for sure! Nothing is stable or certain. Well, you never know what information to believe around here, even from westerners (all the locals assured us it was safe (also not true), so we decided to believe the middle-ground and be very careful). We were careful, and maybe it helped.... or maybe not...

We're not in Kansas anymore!
 It's more rural than anything I've seen, and Greg and I were both looking at each other like "what have we done!". Still, it's a little like Eden; no electricity, happy children playing in the dirt and NOT begging, bare-chested women doing laundry in the lake, just a few huts, fishing boats, and the lake shore...
Beachside at the hotel
Anyway, this hotel on the beach about two km away from the docks was the only decent place, though the owner had a particular "Indian" attitude I didn't like (If Indians think they have any authority they'll make it very clear that they don't need to waste their time with you, like they're the most important person on earth. This guy had a little of that attitude). He had a very nice new speed boat that we thought could get us to the falls the next day, pretty nice facilities... strangely we noticed in the guestbook that this nice "beach resort" had had about 80 guests in two years... how could it possibly survive?!
Well, I didn't think too hard about it because I was focused on how to get to the falls in one day and then as far as possible out of town the next day. I'd spent nearly a week just to get here, and though it was more about the journey that did not mean I was going to let the destination slip away! However, within four days I needed to get back to Arusha, so we only had one shot at the falls and it was not going to be easy. They're in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of the Zambian border, either an hour by car and four hours on foot, or two hours by boat and two hours on foot, one way.
So, especially because I was pretending to be Russian (you have to sign your nationality into everything, and an American and French would be good targets, so I was Russian and Greg was Greek) I got into the role and did some very strong negotiations with the owner guy (Oscar was his name, but EVERYONE called him "Boss"). About accommodation prices (really expensive, considering it takes two days minimum to get there from ANYWHERE and the place was empty. I ended up paying $5 to pitch my own tent on the sand; at least better than the $12 he wanted!), and about renting the boat for the trip (from about $85 down to $60). The next day when he sent his speed boat off for his Indian friends (who run a trucking business... remember this), and our replacement boat was 90 minutes late, I was especially hard on him and pushed him a lot to fix the situation.. which is pretty normal; NOTHING gets done here unless you MAKE it happen, but because I was Russian I was a bit more direct than usual, and I didn't notice that his reactions to it were a little different than usual.. Russians don't care.
So Oscar finally recruited a passing fishing boat to take us (we were NOT pleased to see that one of the crew members was assigned to perpetually bailing out the leaky boat with a cup!), and I noticed that the HUGE muscular fishermen were standing with their heads down, nodding submissively to the orders of this short, fat balding man... strange.

Now we're sailing!
 The 90 minute boat ride in the sun and the two hour hike UP through the hills was exhausting (though beautiful), and expensive! $60 is close to the average salary for a MONTH in this region! Oscar told us we'd also have to pay 5,000 shillings ($3) each as entry to the waterfall as well.. We were both reaching the limits of affordability, especially since I had no access to cash until I got back to Arusha and was running very low (in the end I arrived in Arusha with about $30 left!). So, money was tight.. so when we finally arrived at the gate for the waterfall (in the middle of freakin' nowhere!!) and saw the sign saying "entry $15 per person" (we didn't know at the time they'd try to charge for our guide also!! $45 after the major headache and expense of getting there!!) we were not pleased.

Kalambo Falls!  Finally!

BUT, no one was at the gate, it was new years day and a saturday, so we thought we might get lucky, and hurried past and down to the waterfall!! And there it was!! and SO amazing! We ignored the villagers washing their clothes in the river and started taking pictures, enjoying the success of our plans (for me made two months ago!). After 10 minutes when we tried to move higher up the trail one of the shirtless villages came to us, and said we must pay him the entry fee... THEN it got interesting. He demanded $45 dollars, we refused, he got angry, we got more angry, I was stupid and tried to move up the trail ignoring him, he got more angry and violent, I got more stupid and tried to intimidate him (works in India and sometimes in Tanz, but we were in Zambia now and the different character was clear). This guy did NOT like being challenged! I've never seen a Tanzanian get truly aggressive, but a few miles over the border was enough to make a big difference. He was pretty wild.

So, we kept trying to leave, he refused to let us leave, even grabbing our bags to stop us. He was screaming and flailing his fists so wildly for a while I was ready for him to attack us ( i would have been worried without our HUGE fisherman guide standing calmly and stable at our sides, with arms crossed and muscles bulging. With him there I wasn’t much worried about a fight, so we just held to our position. But he physically stopped us from walking away, and even though after a while it was clear he wouldn’t try to punch us (this probably would get him into trouble), the only way we could get away would be to fight him, which we were also of course not going to do. Stalemate! Then when he sent a boy to the village to call several men from there it got more interesting, everyone shouting and shaking fists and looking like murder. I actually got some of it on film, and it’s amazing and very frightening (more than being there!).
This went on for about an hour, with no end in sight. We tried EVRYTHING, and used every argument, constantly trying to just start some kind of negotiations (offering 5,000 shillings like we’d been told, making the case that he didn‘t tell us the price immediately, and when he did we tried to leave, that it was entrapment, etc.). Nothing, they all still talked like they were going to kill us, eat us, and then turn us over to the police to be beaten, killed, and eaten again. It got very tiring after a while. It was like arguing with a brick wall that is screaming at you and shaking its fist under your nose...
Greg did heroic work trying to resolve the issue and calm him down, and was just beginning to get a little success until suddenly the guard seem to think of something...
“Look, sometimes people are coming with note from that man..”
Greg: “what?”
“From the Big Boss, they come from him. You know? You have note?”
Greg: “Big Boss?”
“Yes yes, where you are staying?”
Greg: “In Kasanga, a guesthouse”
“Yes, that place! you stay with Big Boss?”
Greg: “What, Oscar?
“Yes Oscar! He’s my friend!”
Me: “He’s not a good friend! He told us 5,000 shillings for the waterfall, he’s made this problem for you!”
And suddenly, he transformed. It was like an angry demon mask was ripped off and an innocent baby face was put on. Seriously, Celine, I’ve never seen such a transformation ever. It still gives me chills thinking about it.
“Oh, no problem my friend! If you say this from beginning, I give you right price!!”
Did it seem like he was shaking a little bit?
“Come come, I show you all view point, please welcome!”
“NOW we can see it for 5,000?!”
“Yes of course! Please come! You know, you must tell me you are coming from Big Boss at first time, and no problems!” And he took Greg’s hand, put it around his own shoulder like his best friend in the world, and pulled him back to the gate.

Back to the Falls!
This time under the
protection of the
Big Boss!
 And in a second he became the best tour guide ever. He brought us back to the waterfall, he gave us fruit that was probably his lunch, he took us to extra views of the waterfall off the trail, he told us all about the history, he virtually laid down over puddles and had us walk over his body!! And Greg and I were officially in shock. All because we’d said one name....
And then it all made sense. In the tri-border region, with no control on the lake between borders, a sharp businessman has a shiny speedboat and control over a swarm of fishing boats... running a nice hotel with no guests... with enough power and influence to make a government employee 100 km away in ANOTHER COUNTRY tremble and talk quietly about “The Big Boss”... yes, we were staying with the mafia smuggler of the entire region. If there was any serious crime going on in the region (and that’s not a question, it IS the Wild West) we’d knocked on its front door and demanded to come in, at half price.. It was a scary moment, and I’ll never forget when the guard parted with us: “so, paying 5 is correct please” Me: “okay, you mean 5 dollars, 5,000 shillings, Zambian money?” “Oh, all okay sir!” (the difference is at least double). So we paid 5,000 each, and signed his book.. Then he looked each of us straight in the eye, one at a time, and almost whimpering said “and please, no need to speak about our discussion, yes? Please say nothing, okay? Yes? Please.” I don’t know what he was afraid of losing, but this big, strong, confident (and 20 minutes ago FURIOUS) man was terrified. Terrified that he’d insulted guests of the Big Boss, who lives farther away then he’d probably ever traveled, in a different country. THAT’S the man we were staying with.

The dark peaks of the DR Congo were never far
from our sight or our thoughts.. I'd rather walk into
North Korea than over those mountains.
That evening, we had a nice chat with Oscar, while his 2 year old daughter slept on his lap and he told us about the “many very good possibilities for business here!” Turns out he’d spend two years in DRC searching for “ornamental fish” to export. Right, THAT’S what you do in DRC! Nice export cover, though! He said that ministers from Dar es Salam come to visit him in Kasanga, one was his partner in the hotel (the empty hotel... politics and crime are rarely separated here, and major criminals can’t survive without partnering with powerful politicians)... Fortunately, he seemed to like us, and of course he had no reason to ruin the tiny trickle of tourism in the region by foreigners having bad experiences and reporting it unsafe, so he was eager to please us, even cooking our dinners when the cook had to go to the village!
Still, that was VERY emotionally and mentally stressful, and I realized how careless I’d been to assume I knew how things worked in these places. The whole way back from the waterfall Greg regaled me with stories from his 10 years living and working in South East Asia, about westerners who refuse to play the game of bribery, or to submit to social hierarchy, or who try to throw weight around in a context where it means nothing... none of these stories ended well... considering our fight with the guard would have happened regardless, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing we’d stumbled under the roof of the Big Boss...
So many other things on that trip, like being left at 11:30pm in the middle of a dangerous border town on the Zambian border, and having to stay at an obvious whore-house in a very insecure room...

...or spending two nights on a 100 year old ferry going to the same unchanged villages, and being “attacked” by motorboats FULL of screaming people in the middle of the night all trying to catch the racing ferry and climb aboard...

...or taking a decrepit mini-bus packed with people and chickens in a FLOOD of a storm, and the insane driver racing over the turns until suddenly there’s an explosion and he starts to hydroplane straight into a 2 meter (6 ft) ditch, dodging just in time and skidding 20 meters (60ft) down the road, were we can’t start the engine and wait in the storm for other buses to take 1 or 2 of us at a time (if we‘d crashed off the road, I THINK I would have survived, but the people in front of me had about a 10% chance... In the same storm Greg‘s bus went into a ditch, but it was a big bus so everyone was okay, and some foreigners on the ferry said their bus tipped over on a turn and they had to climb out the side windows... NO ONE knows how to drive here, especially in the rain!)...
...or exploring into caves in Rwanda with candles, where in 1994 thousands of people hid during the genocide and were trapped there and slaughtered, and we found the bones to prove it, just laying there where they fell 16 years ago
.... and many other things! It was a challenging, rewarding, exhausting trip, and some of the most adventurous and actually a little dangerous situations I’d ever been in!
But those stories WILL have to wait, because I’m still catching up on sleep, and have a full day of work tomorrow!!  Good night for now my Love!

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Broken skulls of victims bear testimony
It all just... shattered. It's like an earthquake: the fissure is there, and it will stir, it will open, it must be fed. We've built our world on a fissure, dividing "us" and "them," defining our existence by the side and height and strength of where WE stand. Today we're trying to build a house for all, a happy home for humanity where we ignore the cracking and creaking in the basement. Sometimes, the chasm must open. In Rwanda, the walls, doors, windows, curtains, locks, and ceiling of civilization were swallowed in an instant... tearing down with it all rules, morality, relationships, ideas, and histories, except for the laws of hate, the instincts of the beasts, and the blood pooling on the trembling earth.

There were eight million people in Rwanda that day... in 100 days, one million of them were dead. It took Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, or Mao years to kill their millions... but they used bullets, gas chambers, detention zones; they had... a system, a system to separate the killers and the killed. How could anything make these murderers of millions look humanitarian? 
Machetes, and hammers, and sharpened stakes. Neighbor hacking neighbor, pastors burning children, protectors raping the dying. Rivers were stopped, streets flowed red, and screams were slaughtered by laughter for 100 days. All face to face, all done by hand, while the hunted beseech the hunters by name. 16 years ago. I was 12.
Bodies from a mass grave containing
250,000 victims, many children from
the nearby school.  They've been preserved
for display at the Huye Genocide Memorial.
And now I'm here, drifting through the florescent green hills, quiet villages, past little rivers and terraced slopes... Such a beautiful place, organized to fine detail, smiles and humility written across every face. It’s clean enough to be called sterile, its streets wide and smooth, and safety is assured by police on every corner. Today, Rwanda is eager to please (a little too eager?) and racing to join a higher stage (a little to quickly?)... It's very hard to see the young ghosts of the blood-washed past walking over the well-paved streets, pleasant hills, and spotless front porches. Where have they gone, so far beyond the world of today? Does it matter, if they've been put to rest? Does it matter, in a shiny new world for all?
Leaving a mysterious place of mist and low light.