October 3, 2015
Because I spend so many days traveling, and so many nights at hotels, I am sometimes asked if I get lonely. Quite simply: no, I don’t. I’m extraordinarily lucky. I have friends all around the world that I’m pretty much always down to spend time with when I’m around. Even if it takes me all day to get somewhere, if I have friends I’ve made plans to see once I get there, I get re-energized. But it wasn’t always this way.
I’ve always been fascinated with the world around me. My parents told me that as a child I began speaking at a late age, but they weren’t worried because it was obvious to them that I understood what people were saying to me. Listen and take in my surroundings first, and ask questions later- I’d like to think that I still have this attitude today, more or less. I feel that this approach to life has naturally drawn me to people. It blows my mind how diverse people are in terms of not just appearance but also how they choose to present themselves to the world. Are they shy? Bombastic? Are they the same with everyone or do they have different personas for different social groups? Definitely by the time I was in 5th grade I was accustomed to sitting quietly by myself, sometimes removed from others, in order to people watch. The problem was, I was painfully shy during this period of life, which lasted until college. I never felt like I had anything of worth to say, that people would find what I had to say pointless or just flat out ignore me. In my mind, everyone else was doing noteworthy things and I was just a spectator along for the ride. I watched the children around me awkwardly smile and hold hands to show affection. I watched them narrow their eyes and twist their mouths to spout vile insults at each other. I watched dyads fully engage each other and ignore everyone else. I watched large groups often led by one loud, decisive, charismatic individual. But I would struggle if any of these elements addressed me individually. What was the “proper” way to present myself? I didn’t have it figured out yet.
I left high school with a nagging sense of having accomplished nothing. I felt like I had a deficit in my social life, though I would later realize that such perceived deficits have had a profound effect on shaping my personality. I had a few friends, yes, but they knew me as someone who hung around them but spoke very little and just followed the plans of others. I received pretty good grades and most of my teachers loved me, but these didn’t feel like significant achievements. When I went home at the end of each day, my teachers were no longer there to engage me. I just had my books- and yes, I did study and read a lot. I watched a lot of TV and played a lot of video games. But there was no excitement- each of these items had its set time and was fairly predictable, to be honest. I spent a lot of time lying on my bed, listening to music, trying to pry new meanings from song lyrics I had listened to dozens of times before.
And then college came. I left for the University of California, Santa Cruz and found myself delighted to be in a brand new, beautiful place. I was away from that same old school, same old house. I didn’t know what each day would bring….and I fucking loved it. I’ve since come to realize that I crave new experiences- I crave uncertainty. I was determined to get engaged in as many activities as possible- I joined a community service club, Model United Nations, Alternative Spring Break to travel to Mexico to build homes…I threw myself into the newness and felt immediately rewarded. I started to make a wide variety of friends, which after a while became way easier than I thought it would be. I had always been terrified of looking stupid, but if I introduced myself in a self-deprecating or light-hearted way, not only would my nerves be calmed but so would the nerves of the other person. This would make me endearing and boom, a friendship was formed!
Some of my new friends were exchange students. And then I felt another major deficit in my life: travel. Yes, I had been to Mexico with family before, but never anywhere else outside of the United States. I would hear students on the bus talking about their summer trip to Paris, and obviously my exchange student friends knew life outside of North America. I became determined to travel, determined to know what life outside of this continent was like. I applied to live at UCSC’s International Living Center (ILC), which houses half exchange students and half American students. I was one of 2 sophomores selected to live there for the 2006 school year. I felt honored, and I felt thrilled. And that was when my exposure to the world truly began. That year alone, I lived with someone from France, Zimbabwe, South Korea, Japan, and 2 Chileans. I started drinking that year, having been opposed to it throughout all of high school and my freshman year of college. Before 2006, I viewed alcohol as something troublesome that caused people to act foolish and then be ashamed the next day. I had really only been exposed to high school and college students who didn’t know their limits and didn’t drink responsibly. But at the ILC, I rubbed elbows with foreigners who viewed alcohol as a normal part of growing up and something to be enjoyed, not social lubrication and an excuse to act on feelings and emotions that were repressed while sober. That’s not to say that my first experiences with alcohol were particularly positive: I did some things that I regret, and I didn’t initially realize that my emotions prior to drinking would only be amplified by the alcohol. But through the guidance of my responsible foreign drinking buddies, I came to know my limits and to see alcohol as something that is neither inherently good nor inherently evil.
My time at the ILC was intense. Most of the exchange students had an amazing time, but also moments of feeling like outsiders who didn’t belong in US culture. I wanted to experience that. I wanted to go somewhere and be surrounded by a foreign language or languages. I wanted to see new things, try new foods, and really feel out of my comfort zone. So for the first part of my senior year, I did my psychology studies at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. All of us from the University of California system were placed together for two weeks for a quick language and culture course. I didn’t get much of an opportunity to practice Dutch, but I worked hard at making the proper sounds and at the end of the two weeks I can confidently say that my Dutch was much better than that of most of my fellow exchange students. I initially went out with my fellow UC students, but I slowly started hanging out more and more with people of other nationalities: Italians, Turks, Canadians, Germans, Australians, and of course, Dutch people. I joined a club of Dutch psychology students and subsequently I got invited to parties of mostly Dutch people. Everyone knew my Dutch was poor and initially tried to speak to me in English, but I would just say, “Nee! Je moet spreek met me in Nederlands! (No! You have to speak to me in Dutch!)” They loved it, and while I’ve since forgotten the vast majority of the Dutch I learned, my pronunciation has stayed somewhat strong.
After studying abroad, it seemed only natural that I would want an even greater cross-cultural experience, and so I joined the Peace Corps. I’ve written much about my time in Mozambique, but one of the greatest lessons I learned while I was there was the result of one of the worst nights of my life. In the middle of one night in February 2012, while a group of us volunteers was sleeping, a group of Mozambican men armed with machetes broke into the house we were in and demanded our valuables at knife point.
“Give us money,” they demanded in awkward English. We tried to talk to them in Portuguese, explaining that we knew the language, but in their minds they must have seen us as rich foreigners far removed from their culture; they continued in broken English. Things went south rather quickly when one of the volunteers brandished his own knife- he was slashed on the arm, but we were able to get the assailants out of the house and block the door. After they left with my bag, wallet, and everyone else’s cell phones, we had to get our friend to the hospital to get stitches. Fortunately the cut wasn’t too deep.
We were all shaken up, of course, but the four of us handled things differently. Two of the volunteers went to Mozambique’s capital for counseling. One of them eventually quit the Peace Corps. Two of us, myself included, seemed to be okay. I didn’t feel like I needed counseling, and though I hardly slept the following two nights, things eventually returned to normal. Somehow I proved resilient, far more resilient than I could have imagined. But I didn’t know why. Eventually I discovered the reason- I talk about the robbery pretty openly. While I was in a fugue state for most of it, I can recall some details quite vividly. In this way, I make the story my own and do not shy away from it or let it haunt me. Only once have I had something trigger me back to that night: last winter while it was snowing, the doorbell to my place rang. I was the only person home, and I went to answer it. Standing in the doorway was a man holding a snow shovel. Behind him on the side walk were a few other men holding snow shovels. No words for spoken for a few seconds- the men were latinos and I think they were taking a little time to find the right words in English. For some reason, my heart started pounding.
“Do you need to be shoveled?” The man in the doorway asked, pointing at our yet to be shoveled driveway.
In Spanish I told him that I didn’t own the house, but that I didn’t think so. They walked away. But my heart continued pounding for a few moments. Something about a group of men holding large objects in their hands, staring at me intently…it brought me back to the night of the robbery. Fortunately, my panic was mild and this has been the only time something like this has happened.
Ironically, it has been through making myself vulnerable that I have been able to be satisfied and at peace. My gift of gab not only helps me create friendships easily, but it doubles as a coping mechanism for my stress and anxiety. A general rule of thumb (most of the time) is that if I seem very quiet, I’m uncomfortable or ruminating about something. I am feeling my best when I’m chatty.
I honestly feel that my sometimes dry, self-deprecating attitude has helped people feel at ease around me and become my friends, and that by openly talking about the horrors of being the victim of a home invasion I am able to actually put it behind me. I remember these things when I’m not in the best of moods- that I’ve been in worse spots before, and that a negative experience can somehow have lasting positive benefits. Feeling down on myself for not having traveled when I was younger has driven me to seek a traveling lifestyle. Not feeling able to properly socialize drove me to become the social butterfly I am today. I make friends easily, but sincerely. I am grateful to all those who choose to be a part of my life, and while there just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to have a strong, consistent bond with everyone, I know that with most of my friends we can always pick things up again where we last left off.
Last night I got to experience just how different things are now from when I was in high school. Yesterday was my high school ten-year reunion. We were at the gorgeous Hotel Maya in downtown Long Beach, with views of Shoreline Village and the Queen Mary. Despite the impressive scenery, it amused me to see some people limited to the same social groups they were a part of ten years ago. As for me, I wandered the event, barely sitting down, moving from group to group. I have never been comfortable leading large groups of people, but I damn well love engaging with several small groups. Words cannot describe the pleasure I felt in moving from dyad to dyad, like I was the host at a fancy cocktail party. A few times I even said hello to people I didn’t actually know, an unthinkable act for me in 2005. I would go up to them, stick out my hand, and say, “I don’t think we know each other, but I’m Vicente. How have the last ten years of your life been?”
September 10, 2015
As I checked in for my essentially midnight flight at the Reno airport on Monday night, I noticed the dusty bodies and suitcases of dozens of people around me. This tiny airport was being overrun that week by people coming and going from Burning Man- and while I had shaved (slightly), taken a shower and washed my clothes, the bad shape of the suitcase I was checking gave me away. It was late at night and I boarded the plane after my fellow Burners. I was exhausted, but satisfied.
I was sharing a jumpseat at the back of the plane with two flight attendants working the trip. I got that seat because the flight was overbooked- I was still on the flight though, so what did I care? The flight attendants began chatting me up right away:
“Do you see all these disgusting dirty people?”
“There’s a cloud of dust on this plane from all those gross bags!”
“I’m going to get sick!”
I calmly listened to them bitching about Burners before I pulled out my phone and showed them photos of the event we had all just been to, revealing that I too had been roughing it in the Nevada desert for the past week.
They seemed shocked that I had been there. After some hesitation they said, “Well, at least you’re clean.”
One of the two flight attendants seemed to go out of her way for the rest of the flight to avoid talking to me. I’d like to think I made her uncomfortable by not fitting into the stereotype she has of people who attend Burning Man- or maybe just knowing I had been there was enough for her to feel justified in ignoring me. I don’t know, but what I do know is that I once again questioned my thoughts on the people who typically go to this event in the middle of the Nevada desert.
Even just a few days ago, in the middle of Burning Man 2015, I was sitting on an (imported) grassy lawn with my buddy Trent and told him about how I don’t feel like a typical Burner.
Wisely, he said, “What the hell is a typical Burner even supposed to be?”
Rather than conjure up negative opinions, the best qualities I have seen in Burning Man attendees came to mind: A nonjudgmental demeanor. An empiricist who bases decisions on facts and tried and true methods. And most of all, someone who appreciates the significance of stepping out of his or her comfort zone- someone with an adventurous spirit. I think that as long as a person has those three traits, they will thrive at Burning Man. They’ll “get it”.
I have been asked, “Why go to Burning Man multiple years? Haven’t you already experienced it?” How can you tire of something that is different every year? Each year has a different theme, different participants, different art, different stories to hear and different adventures to be experienced. The theme for my first year was Evolution. The eponymous man, facing a flaming death at the end of the week, stood atop “a tangled bank” that is referenced in the final paragraph of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.
2010’s Burn was themed, “Metropolis”. That year, the Man stood atop a skyscraper under construction, and we Burners contemplated the rise and development of cities, not least of all our beloved Black Rock City.
2013 was my first Burn after my Peace Corps service, so I was very exited to hear that the theme was “Cargo Cult”. Not knowing the Cargo Cult history of the Melanesian islands, I looked it up. A small chain of Pacific islands were used as bases by both Japanese and Allied forces during World War II. The native islanders saw these westernized peoples bring with them crates of army rations, radio technology and other fancy things they had never seen before in their lives. After the war, the foreigners disappeared almost overnight and without a trace, and the native islanders have been emulating their manner of dress and customs ever since, in the hopes that a god by the name of John Frum will return to them bearing great gifts and ushering in a period of advancement and prosperity. It was a great thing to consider as I wrapped up my service in Africa- striving to make a difference wasn’t key, did I strive to make a sustainable difference, and could I ensure that my time in Mozambique didn’t cause more harm than good? That year, the Man stood atop a rotating spaceship. Perhaps he was John Frum, waiting to usher in a new era and way of life.
Finally, this year’s theme was “Carnival of Mirrors”. Carnivals, like Burning Man, are a place for strangers to come together and explore new and wonderous things. They seek to be inclusive of everyone, so how can we ensure that we strive for this inclusivity in our everyday lives? This year, the man towered over a midway of strange and delightful games like “Strip Skee Ball” and “Cock Ring Toss”. The latter is where you try to throw a ring around some fake chickens. Get your mind out of the gutter. The Man was dressed in the motley colors of a jester, inviting all to have a good time, to not take themselves too seriously, and to engage with the strange and sometimes terrifying things that would be seen.
So each year is different, but what exactly does one do to pass the time? Answer: Whatever the fuck you want. There truly is something for everyone at Burning Man. I’m no libertarian, but the playa seems like a libertarian’s wet dream. A lot of people immediately think of people getting naked, taking lots of drugs and having copious amounts of sex. Well yes, there is an Orgy Dome where people in a relationship of some kind can go to have sex in front of and even with other people if they so choose. This impression of Burning Man isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s woefully incomplete. Burning Man is so much more than its sex, drugs, and rock n roll electronic dance music. My first year at the playa, I attended a lecture on electromagnetism. I heard a man talk about his experiences with having tiny magnets implanted into each of his fingers so that he could “feel” electrical currents when he was near functioning outlets and other electricity sources. This year, I got to see a giant Tesla coil in action and watch it shoot lighting bolts into the air around it. Yes, Burning Man attracts a lot of hippies. But it also attracts engineers, PhDs, explorers, dreamers; it attracts people looking to share their history, expertise and experiences as well as those seeking to learn these histories, expertise and experiences.
For a true Burner, each year provides both moments of serenity and frustration. Being a longtime trivia fan, I hosted a trivia night at this year’s Burn for the first time in my life. Answering trivia questions is one thing, but generating your own and keeping the audience entertained at the same time seemed like a daunting task. Fortunately, my amazing campmates assisted me in writing questions about the past, present, and future, and the trivia night went remarkably well. I was impressed at the general knowledge of the attendees. The trivia night went so well that after the participants had left, I felt so happy that I began to cry tears of joy. I hosted an event at Burning Man for the first time in my life, and I pulled it off. I was so proud of myself.
If that seems a bit melodramatic, good…it was meant to be. The playa is an emotional place for one to explore their relationships to themselves and others. This year I found that I was doing a lot of things with my campmates for the first few days and starting to get burnt out. One morning, I woke up early and took a bike ride to center camp, where I sat in on some talks on the history of the founding of Burning Man’s café and read the local newspaper in a corner by myself. It was just what I needed. While I view myself as incredibly social and like to spend most of my time around other people, I used to be very introverted and still need occasional isolation to reflect and process things.
I knew that when I was done being alone, I could return to the hospitality of my camp as well as Burners in general. And Burning Man’s Black Rock City is definitely one of the most hospitable places you will ever find. It is no place for misanthropes. Every day dozens of camps offer free food and drinks, free lectures, free stickers, free hugs, free anything. You can strike up a random conversation with just about any Burner and be treated with respect and humility. I’ve contemplated why this is, and it has to do with the environment. We’re the crazy ones who have decided to spend a week of our lives one year (sometimes several years) to rough it in the harsh, dusty Nevada desert. We bring out own food, water, and commit to using nothing but smelly porta-potties for that week. Because our environment is so inhospitable, the people MUST become hospitable. We might see a dehydrated neighbor, and so we know we must provide them water to survive. The waste of land must give way to a spirit of cooperation and understanding in the people that dwell there. In this way, it is not dissimilar to the legend of the founding of Mexico City. The Aztecs, having been a nomadic peoples, were told by their gods that they would send a sign when they came across their new homeland during their wanderings. The sign was determined to be an eagle killing a snake while on top of a cactus. The problem was, the land where the sign was encountered was swampy and not conducive to farming. This did not perturb the leader of the Aztecs. He felt the gods were telling him to settle there because it would be a tough place to live. The struggles of settling there would surely unite his people, strengthen them, and make them resilient and ready for anything.
Yes, Burning Man can be irreverent. But to those who may be offended by some of its occurrences, I ask you to put aside your indignation and have a sincere talk with people who attend the event (preferably those who attend regularly). I guarantee that it was will be one of the most heartfelt and genuine conversations you’ll ever have; you’ll be genuinely listened to and treated with respect even if you’re disagreed with.
I can say with certainty that my time at Burning Man is not yet over. Every year, I learn something new about myself and about the way I interact with people and the environment around me. The year when I no longer take anything new from Burning Man is the year I will stop attending. Intrigued? There’s way more to this event than I can ever tell you or show you pictures of. I urge you to attend and see its wonders for yourself.
March 13, 2015
In Kyoto, there is a bridge that essentially divides the city in two: one side is typical Japan- tall buildings, bright lights, organized chaos. The other side, while also busy and chaotic, houses the city’s central temple. As such, that side of the city has some building restrictions: they cannot be beyond a certain height (as to not compete with the temple) and colors are much more muted and less bright, as to not compete with the temple’s fantastic and bright orange color. More buildings on that side of the bridge are made of wood in the pre World War II style. Kyoto strives to be two distinct and opposite cities.
I rolled in late Wednesday night with my college friend Armando, and when we checked into the hostel we discovered there was a “sento” nearby. A sento is a communal bath house which is very popular with Japanese all over the country. Japan, it was explained to me, is generally both a nation of social butterflies and evening showerers. Japanese people are expected to interact with coworkers and classmates outside of work and school- if they don’t, they’re sort of looked down upon for not contributing to a positive group dynamic. People host friends at their homes quite regularly, and in a genius effort to conserve water and prevent inconveniencing hosts by taking over their bathrooms, guests spending the night often shower at a nearby sento before going to bed in the evening. Aside from being a more efficient way of bathing large groups of people at one time, sentos are also a way to turn one of life’s most private moments into a social bonding opportunity. There are other explanations for the Japanese phenomenon of sentos, but it’s too much to get into here.
So after we checked into our hostel, Armando asked me if I was okay being naked in front of both him and random Japanese strangers. I figured, “why not”, so off we went down the quiet and serene to the bath house. There are separate entrances and bath rooms for men and women, so it’s a good thing Armando can read the Japanese kanji characters for “men” and “women”. It was almost midnight, and the sento wasn’t too busy, but there were a handful of naked Japanese men submerging themselves in the scalding hot pools to cleanse themselves. Getting into the pools myself, I started to think that the point of sentos was not to wash dirt off but to burn it off. Most of the pools were so hot that Armando and I could only put our feet in. We did soon find a slightly less hot pool in the corner, and that’s where we sat and relaxed after a long day of travel. That pool was also, unlike the others, bubbly and lavender scented. When we left the sento, I did feel a lot cleaner and more relaxed. And smelling like lavender was also a nice touch.
The following day was a whirlwind of temple and shrine explorations. While Japan is not a particularly religious nation, it contains innumerous temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto). Some are associated with a particular animal and some are not. Our first stop was Kinkaku-Ju, the famous golden temple. It was beautiful, and when we first got there it was sunny, bright, and picturesque. Within the compound, we stopped to partake in a brief green tea and sugar dessert ceremony where a woman in a kimono served us. There were also a few places in the compound where some pots had been set up between rocks- visitors attempted to throw their change into the pots, which is believed to bring good luck. Fortunately for me, a particularly bad throw banked off a rock and right into the pot on my second try!
We also visited a bull shrine, a castle that even had a moat, and a temple that housed a beautiful, iconic painting of two dragons on its ceiling. The painting took about two years to complete.
But my favorite place of the day was the Inari (fox) shrine in the Fushimi region of Kyoto. It was built scaling a mountain (Mt. Inari). The path up the mountain is adorned with thousands of orange gates, all donated by various Japanese business owners, families, and businesses from all around the country. There are various breaks in the path for smaller fox shrines, but the gate path goes all the way up and down the mountain. I wanted to walk the whole path, but Armando and I got to the shrine as the sun was setting and as it began to rain. It apparently takes an hour to get to the top of the mountain, and then you still have to turn around! The reason I liked this shrine the best is because the bottom of the mountain is busy, hectic, swamped with tourists. But the farther you travel along the gate path, the fewer people you encounter- and those you do encounter are less animated. Maybe they’re tired from climbing the mountain, maybe they’re in silent reverence of the expanse of the shrine, maybe it’s both. I loved looking at all the individual fox shrines, built right into the side of the mountain. There were also dozens of cats living along the path, and people often stopped to feed them.
The mountain path was so quiet and serene, quite a sharp contrast from the bottom of the mountain where several vendors were hawking their wares. Still, Armando and I were tired from our climb (and I think we only went between ½ and 1/3 of the way up), so we stopped to buy octopus in a ball of fried batter.
That evening we went to the city’s main temple to see the “illuminations”. I wasn’t quite sure what the illuminations were, but I was pleasantly surprised. There was a festival going on inside the temple’s compound- Armando told me it was a festival to mark the transition between winter and spring.
A smaller temple within the compound had a crazy light show going on. It was a little bizarre, and set to strange music, but it was fun to watch.
At one point, we walked through a bamboo forest that had spotlights on the ground, projected upwards. That created a pretty cool lighting effect that seemed to make the bamboo seem even taller. Through the bamboo, I could see a giant Buddha statue on a hill, itself gorgeously lit.
At one point, we spied a procession of people. Curious, we moved closer. At first we just saw people banging some instruments and carrying paper lanterns with fox images on them. But then we noticed someone was being led- and it was person dressed in a white robe and wearing a fox mask. I was told that the white robe was representative of a bride dressed sometimes used in Japanese weddings. The fox woman stopped to ring a bell, and then was led by her posse into one of the smaller temples, where she disappeared from view of the large throng of people that had assembled to wonder what was going on. I apologize for not having any clear pictures of the fox woman, but I’ll post some of what I do have.
We weren’t quite done yet with temples and shrines, so the following morning we made the long trek to Nara, out in the boonies, to see the deer temple. In Nara, large groups of deer graze near the temple. People love to come pet the deer, and some Japanese women even began opening a cart that sells “deer food” for 150 yen ($1.20).
I loved seeing all the ancient temples and shrines, but modern city life was omnipresent as well. Vending machines were in or near all temple and shrine compounds: even as we climbed Mt. Inari! It must be quite a hassle to restock those machines. Japanese and foreign tourists alike took photos of themselves on selfie sticks at all the Buddhist and Shinto locations (myself included, minus the stupid stick). And to return to our hostel, we had to cross the bridge from the traditional side to the modern side, where the buildings were taller and the lights were brighter- but the past was always just a short walk behind us.
March 8, 2015
A year and a half ago, I published my final blog post from Africa, at the end of my Peace Corps service. A lot has happened since then…and I’m happy to say that due to my new job as a flight attendant, I’m back to traveling the world. For a while now, I’ve considered restarting my blog, but I wanted to wait until I had an extensive trip to do so. Well, I’m off to Japan in a few hours, and I’ll be there for a week, so I figure that this is a good a time as any to start blogging again.
Yep, I was able to rearrange my work schedule to have 8 days off, so I’m heading to Japan to see a few buddies and hopefully catch some cherry blossoms. I’ll blog whenever I have a spare moment, so I hope to have a lot of cultural adventures and insights to share here in the coming week!
August 4, 2013
So this is my final blog post from Africa. Tonight at 10:50 PM Ethio time, I start my long flight(s) back to Los Angeles.
I’m a bit nervous to head back to the States. Its been so long…I don’t know how reintegrating will be! I know the pace of life will speed up again, so that’ll take some getting used to.
I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my service, and I will have plenty more time during my flights. But I can confidently say that Mozambique has changed me more than I’ve changed Mozambique, and I’m completely fine with that. I’m much more comfortable with myself, and I’ve had a pretty zany two years, full of adventures. I don’t think a single day has gone by where I haven’t been frustrated at something, and I did try at first to control these frustrations…but at one point, I just realized that being a foreigner in Africa is eternally frustrating, and it’s easier to just laugh at the tough moments and enjoy the ride. Things went wrong all the time, but I’ve learned to embrace the chaos and embrace the absurdities of life. Saving face quickly became a non-issue once I realized that the mere act of me walking down a street could cause gaggles of children to erupt into laughter.
We all have our own struggles. Being a foreigner in Africa provides challenges, but obviously being a rural African has its own different struggles. That’s why I was sent to Africa: to engage in cross-cultural interaction and try to understand the Africans I was living with, while trying to make my own cultures and experiences understood. In order to do that, it was necessary to take time out of my day to get to know the people around me, and get to know their lives. I hope I take the time to do this back in the States, but I think I will.
And thanks to all of you, dear readers, for following my escapades these past two years. Hope it was entertaining!
RPCV Mozambique, 2011-2013
July 28, 2013
Hey everyone! Trying to give a quick blog update from an internet café in the great Walled City of Harar. There’s so much to write about though, so I don’t know how I’m going to cover it all without being here too long and paying too much for internet.
Thursday night, I arrived in Addis from South Africa. I haggled with a taxi driver to take me from the airport to the hotel for 150 birr (Less than 10 bucks), but the ride was very short and I still feel I got ripped off. The first thing I noticed was that the prostitutes were out in full force. But I also noticed that there were lots of other people walking around, white people included. I could tell just from that taxi ride that Ethiopia would prove to be a very intriguing place. Checked into my hotel room at about 10.15 and went straight to bed.
Friday was all about exploring the capital. Addis Ababa means New Flower in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. When most people think of Ethiopia, they probably think of famine and poverty. I know I did. But in recent years the country has had an economical explosion. There is now a burgeoning middle class, and GDP continues to strengthen every year. A lot of Ethiopians attribute this new age of prosperity to Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of the country from 1995 until his death last year. He fought tirelessly against the poverty in his country. And one way or another, things are improving now.
I ate some amazing food in Addis! Food in Ethiopia in general is awesome. Just walking down any street in any city, my nostrils are constantly flooded with the scents of sandalwood and curries. I went to the touristy Meskel Square, but wandered outside of it for about twenty minutes before I walked into a random restaurant that was advertising St. George beer and its bright yellow label. I only intended to have a few beers, but the food smelled so great that I ordered Special Dulet. I had no idea what that was, and I still don’t, but it was damn tasty. They brought out a small bowl with the spiced food, with what appeared to be a brown sanitary napkin next to it. I unrolled the napkin to discover it was injera (flatbread), which reminds me of spongy naan bread. Like xima in Mozambique, injera seems to be eaten with practically every meal, and you dip it into the food. It was so tasty! The beer, however, was kinda mediocre. St. George beer is way too light for me, though St. George Amber is pretty flavorful. Harar beer is okay, but Castel beer is a bit more Belgian-style (in a Belgian bottle)- heavier and more flavourful.
Later on, I had some traditional tej bet (honey wine). It’s a yellow alcohol that is served in a strangely shaped bottle. It had a wide, round bottom, but a skinny neck and a tiny opening in the top to drink out of. It kinda looked like I was drinking out of an upside down wine glass. But it was pretty tasty, if not expensive for Ethiopia standards (65 birr, $3.61). It was very, very sugary and also had a subtle smoky flavour to it. I’m told that in Addis, tej bet is made with sugar and not honey, but that outside of the capital it tends to be made with actual honey. I’ll be looking for tej bet tonight, and I’ll let you know if I taste a difference!
The tourism industry in Ethiopia is just now starting to take hold. I’m currently writing this from Harar, one of the bigger cities in the country. I expected there to be more tourists, considering how cheap touristy things are here. For example, last night I fed the hyenas outside the city wall, and did so for only 50 birr- less than 3 USD.
One of the reasons for this surprising lack of tourism might be because Ethiopia (like Mozambique) is only just emerging from a devastating war. Mozambique had a civil war in the 80’s and 90’s, but Ethiopia was at war with neighboring Eritrea from 1998-2000. The Peace Corps Ethiopia program shut down once the war started, and only a few years ago opened back up.
Another reason for the lack of tourists? Possibly the proximity to Somalia. I am basically in Somalia’s backyard right now. That being said, I feel very safe and secure in Harar, and feel I have no reason to be concerned. I was speaking to some Ethiopia PCVs, and they told me that Harar was off limits to them until 4 months ago. So maybe things were tense here for a bit, but things have calmed down. That being said, this makes me one of the first Westerners I know to visit the famous walled city, which I’m told is the 4th holiest city for Muslims. Very exciting!
Yesterday I went to a café right to the wall. The wall was built by an emir in the 16th century to protect against neighboring Christians. I pondered this as I ordered a Harar beer (locally brewed, of course), and felt quite content staring at the wall as I drank the city’s beer. Because I was so visible, a few passersbys asked me for money, and a group of children mimed drinking a beer and staggering around drunkenly. I was in a good mood, so it was all pretty interesting.
Last night I wanted to feed the hyenas- this was more or less the reason I wanted to come to Ethiopia. All morning I had asked around town as to where I could meet the hyena men, and everyone told me it was really close to the main gate entrance to the city. I showed up at 6.30, half an hour early. And thank goodness I did, because I could not find the hyena men anywhere. I frantically started running around the wall, asking anyone and everyone where the hyenas were. But most people in town don’t speak English, and I certainly don’t know any Amharic other than the word for hello (hallo/selam). Finally at 6.50, a local kid hailed me and asked if I was going to the hyenas. I said yes, and he said he would take me. We trudged through the mud and the darkness for another 15 minutes before we stumbled across the clearing where the hyenas were fed. I was a bit flustered because I thought I was late, but it turns out I was one of the first people there. I went up to one of the guys in charge, saying I wanted to feed the hyenas. Only then did I see them: about four or five of them, 5 feet away from me. I didn’t see them at first in the darkness. I had a split second of fear, but then I realized they were actually pretty docile. They looked like a cross between a dog and a small bear. I saw a few of them smile once or twice, but for the most part they just looked scared at all the people around them.
Because I was one of the first people there and loudly stated my intent to feed them, I was the first faranji (foreigner) to feed them. A hyena man handed me a short stick, and he placed a piece of raw meat on it and told me to lift it in the air. I did so, and the bravest of the hyenas immediately snapped it up. I did this one more time, and then the hyena man said, “Now it’s time for you to put the stick in your mouth.” Maybe I should have been afraid, but I was still so tired from the power walking from the city center that I really didn’t think and just did as I was told. And yep, the hyena snapped his jaw at the meat that was two inches from my face. It was pretty awesome! Then the hyena man held a piece of meat above my right shoulder, and that too was a very close snatch. Sadly, I didn’t have a camera on me…but there was a Spanish couple there, taking photos. I asked if they could email me a photo they had taken of my feeding sessions, and they agreed to. So as soon as I get that email, I’ll post the photo on Facebook. Not having a camera did make my feeding sessions cheaper though. The hyena men tried to charge me 100 birr ($5.55), but I told them I couldn’t take photos and talked them down to 50 birr ($2.77).
Tomorrow I head back to Addis, because the day after I am going to South Ethiopia to visit some Ethiopia PCVs. I pondered staying in the north, because that’s where all the historical sites are, but after seeing the largest Ethiopia cities, I decided I wanted to go bush one last time before I go back to the amazing land that is the USA. So I’ll be heading to Hawassa and Dila in a few days- in the coffee-growing zone of Ethiopia. Yum!
July 6, 2013
Back in 2008, when I was a junior in college, I led an Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans to help with post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. All the previous trips had been to a small community in Mexico. Issues had arisen with the logistics of that trip, so my supervisor informed me in the summer of 2007 that I would be the first coordinator to lead a trip to New Orleans instead of Mexico. All preparation beforehand led me into unknown territory, and I wasn’t positive if I was doing everything I should have, because no one could tell me one way or another. On the actual trip itself, I discovered that the New Orleans culture is very relaxed, and on the numerous occasions when my group had down time, the project supervisors merely encouraged us to relax and enjoy myself- a message my gung-ho group did not particularly want to take to heart. As a result, I was extremely stressed for the entire week we were in New Orleans.
Looking back on the trip afterwards, I discovered that everything did come together in the end, and I satisfied everyone’s concerns to the best of my abilities. By stressing out the entire time, I couldn’t really enjoy the overall experience of being in the South, a part of the country I had never visited before. The part of the trip I remember the most, and enjoyed the most, was eating beignets while watching and dancing to a live band. It was near the end of the trip, and I finally let myself relax and unwind a bit.
All of this crossed my mind during my Peace Corps pre-service training. I heard some volunteers talk about the frustrations of opening a site, but also the great opportunities presented by being the first American to work in the community. I realized that I really wanted to open a site, as a way of sort of redeeming myself for the way I stressed out in New Orleans. I knew I wouldn’t accomplish much project wise, but I wanted to focus on interacting with Mozambicans and sharing my culture with them.
And here I am two years later, about to leave site on Tuesday and reflecting on my experience. I realize that, yes, I did stress out at times about not getting projects off the ground. I stressed out about the lack of organization and the relaxed culture of Mozambique. But I’ve dealt with it all before, so I focused more on just enjoying my experiences and making friendships. I had two years to do some projects, and I did succeed in some areas. I organized a nutrition training for the local women’s organization, and they can now spread the knowledge on their home visits to the communities within the district. I also successfully formed a photography group for high school students, and have even managed to put some of their work online for all of you to see.
Most importantly, though, I interact with community members on a daily basis. I have a lot of friends here. While in many cases the relationship is not as deep and meaningful as I would like (since I am still expected to provide money or provide food at times), it’s an important first step for Mozambicans to understand Western culture. So many people in Mecanhelas have never talked to a white Westerner before. They have lived and worked in Mecanhelas in the past, but they mostly stay in their homes and only travel in a car. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a white person walking around town, more than ten feet from their car. I have had a great time showing Mozambicans that foreigners can be willing to mingle with them. It has been frustrating at times, when people ask me, “Where is your car?” But I realize now that those were teachable moments rather than moments to groan at.
As I wrap up my time here at site, I can’t help but think of this year’s Burning Man Theme: Cargo Cult (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult). The term originated on the Melanesian islands, supposedly in the aftermath of World War II. During the war, the islands were used as bases for both Japanese and American soldiers. Both sides often had cargo delivered to them. The islanders had never seen outsiders before, and they were mystified by the cargo that seemed to arrive out of thin air. Then, as quickly as the foreigners and their goods appeared, they disappeared after the atomic bombings of Japan, and Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. Unaware of what had happened, some factions arose on the island claiming that all the food and goods they had witnessed would return one day, brought by their ancestors. This visit would usher in a new area of prosperity and material wealth. Some of these cults still exist to this day, with some members mimicking the actions and dress of the soldiers, in belief that acting as the foreigners acted will cause the arrival of the cargo goods.
The Japanese and American soldiers failed to think about how their actions would affect the native islanders, and I can’t help but equate them with some of the aid workers I have seen here in Mecanhelas. Limiting their actions with the Mecanhelanos and insisting on driving everywhere only perpetuates the divide between foreigner and Mozambican. White people are thought to have unlimited sums of money, and we are something to be envious of, as if it’s just our white skin alone that promises prosperity.
I try to be cognizant of what I’ll leave behind. Not just physical things, like my old computer, which I’m selling to my photography club counterpart so that he can use it in the future if he needs to send work-related emails to other Peace Corps volunteers or Peace Corps staff. I know that conversations I’ve had, and behaviors I’ve demonstrated, will have a much longer-lasting impression. I don’t want to leave here feeling like I haven’t given my time in Mozambique my all, that I haven’t done my best to foster mutual understanding between Americans and Mozambicans.
When I first got to Mozambique, I couldn’t help but feel I would work hard and be able to bask in the glory of all the new benefits I would provide to my community. We Americans come from a culture where we like to think that our hard work will create some tangible benefit, but that isn’t the case for a Peace Corps volunteer working in a developing country. You can design all the projects you want, but if the community isn’t involved, no one will want to do it, which I discovered the hard way when I created a nutrition survey in December 2011 and tried to give it to my coworkers to distribute on their home visits. Instead, I have enjoyed all the changes I have seen in my community that I’m certain have had nothing to do with me. When I first arrived here, there were only about three minibuses a day to Cuamba. I had to get to the station before 9 AM or I would have to wait all day for the minibus to fill up and leave. Now, there are usually three minibuses that leave by 8 AM, starting at 6 and within an hour of each other. There are now also rice and bean stands where you can buy quick, cheap lunches or dinners (Mecanhelas fast food, as I call it). They didn’t exist here back in 2011. Electricity is also much more stable now, and power outages are rare, compared to when I first got electricity installed in September of 2011. I can only be optimistic about how much further things will have developed in another 10 years.
I’m happy because I do think I’ve given Mozambique my all. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also played hard and enjoyed myself, traveling cross-country several times and having great conversations with Africans everywhere I’ve gone. I haven’t accomplished any huge technical projects, but I’m damn proud to have opened the site of Mecanhelas.
I know that my time here has created a positive effect on my community, and I have no regrets.
July 5, 2013
The road between Cuamba and Mecanhelas: 90 kilometers of unpaved dirt, at times completely impassable in the rainy season. There are patches where there is absolutely no cell phone signal; maybe because there are a lot of areas on that stretch of road where there is absolutely nothing, just the occasional mud house and water pump. Yet several minibus drivers make the trip every day, sometimes several times a day, transporting people between the two districts. One such driver is a man named Ze, but more commonly known as “The Rasta” because of his “Rastafarian” dreadlocks.
I first met Ze in August of last year. I hired him to transport my English theater kids to and from the competition in Cuamba last September. He took all of us, but when I called him as the competition was ending, to take us back to Mecanhelas, he told me he was already back in Mecanhelas. Angry and unwilling to continue speaking to him, I hung up on him in discuss. A few minutes later, another driver came up, saying Ze had called him to take us back to Mecanhelas. I was really embarrassed, because Ze was probably trying to tell me the plan when I hung up on him. I apologized, but he wasn’t mad at all. I’d say we’ve been friends ever since. He’s a really nice guy and loves talking to me about his work, and sometimes buys me sodas and beers and discounts my journeys with him. He wanted me to give him English lessons, which I tried to do, but it never worked out because he’s always driving so damn much.
Today I got into Cuamba from Lichinga, and wanted to immediately get back to site because I’ve been away for a little while and in a few short days I’ll be leaving for good. I was pleasantly surprised to see Ze behind the wheel of the next minibus headed to Mecanhelas. He was dressed in a bright red shirt and blue overalls, which obviously made me think of Super Mario Brothers. He always has some interesting clothes on- quite often, he’s rocking leather cowboy boots as well. After I got in the minibus, another guy got in and asked someone else if the driver was the famous “Rasta” he had heard so much about. Everyone else confirmed that he was, and the man said, “We should leave soon then. I heard he doesn’t waste time.”
We did in fact leave shortly thereafter. He’s not the fastest driver, but he’s very safe and he doesn’t waste his time on bullshit like most of the other drivers: stopping to chat with another driver going in the opposite direction, stopping to let some random passenger’s aunt or some relation come up to the car to give the passenger some extra money, stopping for twenty minutes in the middle of nowhere to buy a chunk of goat leg that some kid is waving around and trying to sell- the list of possible distractions goes on and on. But Ze doesn’t like to deal with any of that. He just likes to get to the destination as quickly (but safely) as possible.
On today’s trip, he was doing something that I had never seen before. He had bought a bag of assorted hard candies in Cuamba, and whenever a random kid along the road yelled “Rasta!” as we passed, he would throw some candy at them. Maybe he’s done this before or maybe he hasn’t, but somehow he’s earned a reputation, and quite a lot of kids yell out to him. So Ze was constantly throwing candy, and it was amusing watching the kids scramble in the dirt and fight each other for every piece.
It suddenly dawned on me that this is the Mozambican equivalent of an ice cream man. The kids must see the dust clouds picked up from the wheels from far away. They hear the Bob Marley blasting and they run up to the car. Once they see the dreads, they know they’re in luck and scream at the top of their lungs, hoping to get something sweet to snack on.
The man who had asked if Ze was the famous Rasta had been sipping on faux Bailey’s Irish Cream for the entire journey. As we got farther along, and as Ze threw more candy and the man got progressively drunker, he started hooting and hollering along with the children.
“Rasta! The hero of the street!” he would yell. “Everyone knows who the Rasta is! THE HERO OF THE STREET!” And I had to agree that most of the people we passed did seem to know the driver. He’s more famous than I’ll ever be, and that’s saying a lot because I’m the first white person a lot of people in my district have ever interacted with.
I’m only taking one more minibus in Niassa province, when I head to Cuamba next week to start my journey to Maputo for JUNTOS handover/my Close of Service. I hope my final minibus ride in this province is with Ze. It’s comforting to know that even when I’m back in the States and living a more high-paced lifestyle, somewhere out there a man is throwing handfuls of candy at screaming children along a long, dusty road. Some things should never change.
June 13, 2013
Today I found out that one of my supervisors, Bernardo Canhaca, died yesterday. He had been sick for a long time, so it’s not entirely surprising, but it’s still sad. He used to be my supervisor here in Mecanhelas, with Conselho Cristao De Mocambique (CCM), but back in February his illness worsened and he ended up moving back to Cuamba where his family lives. Near the end of 2012, I had seen him get progressively skinnier and haggard-looking.
When I first got to site, my supervisor for CCM was a man named Getulio. Bernardo was his number two, but within two months of arriving at site, Getulio opened another office in Cuamba. He left to work there full-time, leaving Bernardo as my supervisor. We actually didn’t get along that well most of the time- he had a knack for missing monthly report deadlines, and then calling me after the donor organization began hounding him. He would always demand my help writing (not editing, completely writing) the report and claim that completion and sending of the report was “urgent”. At times, I would be working on other projects and would tell him that he would have to wait, and this would make him angry. A few times we yelled at each other- at other times I would silently fix him with a stony stare that always seems to make Mozambicans extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately, we managed to repair our working relationship before he began getting seriously ill.
I didn’t see him much right before he left town in February of this year, but I went and visited him in Cuamba in March and he was bed-ridden, emaciated, and losing his voice. He was only able to speak to me in a hoarse whisper. He was deteriorating quickly.
The last time I saw him was May 30th, two weeks ago. I was on my way to Nampula to fly to Maputo to help with training of the new volunteer group. I met up with Getulio in Cuamba, and on our way to Bernardo’s house, I was told that Bernardo was much, much worse than he had been in March. I saw this for myself the moment I walked into the bedroom of his house. He was sitting up, but only with the help of a family member (his mother, I think). Without her shoulder to lean on, he would have collapsed onto his bed. He was breathing heavily, which made me suspect his lungs were damaged. He had lesions on his face, hands, and feet. He could no longer speak, and even though I greeted him when I entered the room, he did not look at me and gave no sign of recognizing me. He was extremely emaciated. Getulio told me that his family members had to carry him to the bathroom so he could do his business, since he could no longer walk. It was obvious that he didn’t have much time left.
The lesions made me think of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, though to be honest, I’m not completely familiar with all the symptoms of the top of my head. But if he did have Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare illness, he almost definitely had AIDS. No one spoke of the cause of his illness, which probably supports my theory that he had AIDS. For all the talk of condom use and the catchy slogans for AIDS awareness in this country, it’s still a frightening and stigmatized disease here. To be one of Bernardo’s family members, taking care of him and watching the illness worsen, must have been truly awful.
The CCM office here in Mecanhelas has since shut down- it shut down in February when Bernardo moved to Cuamba. It was a new office when I arrived at site, only having opened a few months previously. It’s a weird feeling, going by the old office where I used to spend so much time doing reports and giving computer lessons.
Although Bernardo and I weren’t very close, I still saw him regularly in 2011 and 2012, so for better or for worse, he played a large role in my integration here in Mecanhelas. He accompanied me on my first chapa ride from Mecanhelas to Cuamba. Also, he loved Western music. He said it was so much calmer than Mozambican music, which admittedly does often have weird high-pitched noises and sound effects. I once put a variety of music I like and listen to on his flash drive, from Elton John to Okkervil River. A month later I went to Cuamba and he invited me to his family’s house to have a beer. We sat in his yard having a brewski and listening to the tunes I gave him. Because all the music was in English, I’m sure he didn’t understand 99% of the lyrics, but he still thought they sounded great.
What’s sad is that Bernardo’s deterioration is not rare in Mozambique, or Africa as a whole. I became a Peace Corps volunteer to learn about things like this, and to do my best to spread awareness and encourage prevention. Even though it was tough to see Bernardo in the final stages of his illness, I’m glad I did see him one last time before he died.
May 19, 2013
Hey everyone! Really sorry that I haven’t updated this thing in…a long time. I don’t know why that is. I guess I just wasn’t sure what to write about. But I’m going to make an effort to do as many posts as I can in my final two months (!!) in Mozambique. Also, I’ll briefly be in Ethiopia and Egypt after Mozambique, so I’ll try to do a few posts from there as well!
For the past few months, the kids in my photography group have been taking photos of their community that they feel can be used to teach Westerners what life is like in Mozambique. I’m proud to say that a Facebook album to showcase their photos was finally created today. You can see the photos at: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100790357164768.1073741825.6711633&type=1&l=074d0e9357
They’re very excited to show off their work, and I hope you find their photos both enjoyable and informative.
This photo project doesn’t stop with them though. I told them I would ask my friends and family back in the States (and elsewhere!) to take photos that can be used to teach them what life is like in the States or other developed countries. So please send photos and a brief description for each one to firstname.lastname@example.org! I know my photography group would love to see snapshots of the world outside of Africa.
In other news, I’ve been selected to help with the training of the incoming Moz 20 health group. I’ll be back in Maputo province for a week in either June or July, and I’ll know next week when I’m going.