Monthly Archives: April 2015

We’re creeping towards Morocco, and before even hitting our last port, we’ve begun the end. The winding down. Boxes are being packed. Speeches are being made. And very soon, the Explorer won’t be ours anymore.

When we say that we partially admit that we’re talking about ISE, SAS, grand, overarching organizations with boards and leaders and trustees. But really we mean us. We mean the student across the hall whose name I’ve never learned, and the people whose faces I seek out at breakfast every morning. Because we can’t possibly believe that she belonged to anyone else before us – that 22 semesters and 15 summer voyages have possessed her the same way we have. This is our baby, our home. She’s majestic and cosy and I refuse to believe that anyone else has ever lived in my cabin, nor that anyone will again.

Of course, to some extent that’s true. No one has lived in it exactly as I have – the same sand painting of Burmese monks by my bed, the same post card I picked up in an expensive paper store in Kyoto right next to it, and an ugly dodo magnet as the first things I see every morning when I wake up. And no one will again. It will be a hotel room, someplace people rest. Someplace men and women barge into, dizzy with Caribbean cocktails from the pool bar, and flop onto my bed, laughing about the couple across the hall whose name they’ve never learned.

We’re trying desperately to record. It’s an endless process, and an impossible one. On an official level, Evan is photographing everything, storing up vast supplies of digital photos that will end up somewhere, on an innocuous external drive. In some storage unit will sit the history of 22 years, the things we couldn’t carry off.

Personally, I am frantic. I want to pin down everything, every moment I know will slip, and am running around trying to catch them as they fall, knowing most will shatter, and disintegrate. Someone asked me about Amsterdam yesterday, and I told them I’d loved it when I went last year. As I talked, I saw the front of the houseboat we rented, a bridge where we paused for photographs, and the window of a single cafe. With work I could recover more, mostly things I have shown myself again in photographs. If I sat down and focused, really focused, perhaps I could get a second of a street sound, or the light on a canal. It was three of the loveliest days of my life, and now it is the front of a boat, a bridge, a window.

Everything in my cabin has a tiny story, and I go around, touching things and remembering. This book that I’m reading, this one with the blue cover: I bought it in a bookshop in Singapore. It was meltingly hot and everything was closed. The zoo seemed too expensive and somehow, by no mechanism I can remember, I had made the journey alone. I ate kaya toast, sticky and sweet, dipped in eggs, in a shopping mall and then took the subway (no durian fruit, no loud music) to a street that seemed not just empty but deserted. Sweat puddled in the small of my back and I felt faint. Far away it sounded like there was a parade, perhaps for the New Year. The bookstore was locked, so I drank coffee across the street and watched expats come out of yoga. After an hour they opened and a white cat sat on top of a stack of books. A Singaporean hipster excitedly recommended books by Burmese poets. The book is by my bed now, held up by the male half of a pair of green bronze lions and I’m on a street in Hong Kong, hungover and squinting at the sun, with Adam and Andrea and they’re both committed to finding me lions but we end up eating french toast and drinking iced tea with condensed milk instead. Beyond that is a beach in South Africa full of chatty, fussy penguins, then the pushy shop keeper in India where Dad thought I should buy the blue bedspread, and finally the cold rain streaming off the metal awning of a tea house on a misty hillside in Japan.

I can’t record it. I can’t keep it, I know I can’t.

It’s all too fast.

We write and we record. We sort through photos in our cabins and re-watch video clips of streets in Shanghai. We sit out parties we’re meant to be at to tell ourselves stories and then run to them, two hours late, desperate not to miss out on that either. Everyone is exhausted, worn to the bone.

And at the same time, we’re setting life back in motion, one by one. We buy plane tickets and arrange sublets, talking endlessly about the burritos we’ll eat. And we are excited, genuinely and truly. I can’t wait to see London again and I’m desperate for the first sunset at Blue Mountain. I spend much of my time now contemplating the exact shade of red lipstick appropriate to a Taylor Swift concert. I am preparing for home. I even think I’m ready. But the time is slipping by too quickly, the stories are fading away too fast.

Cleaning my room tonight, I find myself holding a piece of paper with unfamiliar writing, rows upon rows of black characters. It’s a fortune, I know that. A fortune from a temple. Tokyo? Kyoto? Japan, I know. It must be Japan. I must have paid for it. Shaken a box to choose which fortune would be mine. It would have been cold. I’d have been wearing my leather jacket. Sensoji? Meji? It was probably raining. It was always raining in Japan. The paper is creased from where I put it in my notebook three months ago, certain that with this to remind me, I would never forget that moment.

I fold it along the same crease and put it in a drawer. Later, I tell myself, I’ll remember later.

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“She is my sister, and as such, she is one half of me.”

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“Look what we found,” Jesse yelled, and I knew it right away: Teal was here. Teal was late. Teal was also, it should be noted, not meant to be with Jesse. 

For the moment it didn’t matter much. I jumped up from the stairs, knocking over my computer and ran to jump into her arms. I screeched. She screeched. We laughed and she cried. Teal always cries.

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Here’s what Teal and I had planned to do in Namibia: We were going to rent a car and drive up to Swakopmund, where we’d spend a night. It’s the seaside resort of what was once German South-West Africa, and we were at the Deutches Haus Hotel. My friends Whitney and Evan were at, and I could not make this up, Hotel Zum Kaiser.

Then the next morning we were going to set off across the desert for somewhere between six and ten hours of driving. It’s a tortuous road – paved but empty, and it winds towards a particular desert plain: Sousovlei. There, a petrified forest sprouts from cracked earth, and the largest sand dune on earth rises behind it.  We were going to spend two nights there, drinking tea, talking about things that mattered, and watching sunrises. Maybe doing yoga. It would be peaceful, quiet. Our hearts would slow, and minds calmed.

Here’s what Teal and I did in Namibia: we ate worms with a man we met in an alley; we slid down dunes on snowboards, getting bruises where we fell backwards; we tore out into the desert on quad bikes to where there was nothing but us, silence and sidewinder snakes; we learned South African drinking games in bars and took mini-road trips with near strangers. We tumbled out of a plane at 10,000 feet. It was far from peaceful. It was not quiet. And our hearts? Our hearts were far from slow.

It was perfect.

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So what turns out to be true is this: neither Teal nor I can drive a manual shift transmission.

Look, I know. I know we’re adults, I know.

When I explained this to Catrina, of the ‘stitching her husband’s hand up with a vaginal needle rather than sacrifice the pizza in the oven by going to hospital’ fame, she first yelled “unacceptable” and then turned to Teal, whose hand she had shook less than 30 seconds earlier, and said “get it together.”

But Teal only got her license at 22, and then helped teach 20 year old me how to drive while winding through the Vermont mountains. In an automatic. Teal was afraid of the quad bike we rose in the desert. I can’t ride a bike.

We are not natural born gear heads, is what I’m saying.

And the road, this romantic road to Sousovlei? It gets a lot less romantic when you’ve taught yourself to drive stick in the parking lot of an airport. My friend John replaced two flat tires on the way back from Sousovlei alone. Another student hitched a ride with a car that broke down entirely – never mind burning a clutch out.

“Two American women, 33 and 30, headed out into the Namibian desert in a rental car they could barely operate” may be the opening line of a great memoir. But it’s also the leader of an article entitled “Brown sisters missing, presumed dead.”

So when she discovered after 28 hours of flying that the only car was manual, she walked, vanquished, back into the car rental center (which was a shipping container. As was the airport. And part of the hospital, some hotels, and what looked like an apartment building. Namibia appears to be built out of sand, salt and shipping containers.) Two Americans were standing at the Hertz desk, looking confused and a little irritated, because the Hertz rental man had just disappeared, leaving them stranded. They saw a bedraggled, exhausted American wander in, looking defeated, with the keys to a manual car.

“Are you Teal?” my friends asked Teal.

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So we stayed in Swakopmund, because we are not insane.

But we wanted to do something special, something a little different. Something that we had never done before. Somehow, eating worms in an alley did not fulfill this wish.

So we jumped out of a plane. 

The fall from a plane, I had been told, does not feel like falling. And that, it turns out, is true. It’s something like floating. A very, very loud floating, while a plane falls upwards and away from you like something sinking underwater.

Teal, who was, I want to reiterate, afraid of a quad bike whose top speed was about 20mph, was completely unfazed by the lead up to skydiving. I, on the other hand, stayed up a good third of the night before our jump. By morning, fear had tightened into a solid ball in my intestines. One of the students told me that the death rate for skydiving is only 1/150,000 which sounded plausible enough for me to latch onto it in blind faith. When we boarded the bus out to the jump site, the students asked me not to report them (skydiving isn’t, it turns out, against the rules, but we all, reasonably, assumed that it was) and I promised I wouldn’t as long as they told no one if I wet myself. I wasn’t sure I was kidding. I peed four times in the half hour before my jump. 

On the plane ride up, six sardines in a rattling can, Teal kept her cool. She looked at the view. She smiled benignly. I continued to descend into a crippling fear. We reached 10,000 feet. Our tandem guys prepared for the jump: Matthais hitched himself to the back of me and I felt straps pull tight at both my shoulders and at my legs. Tied firmly to Matthais I began to calm – he’d done this before, and if one of us died, both would. He definitely didn’t want to die. I would be fine.

I looked to my sister, who had begun scooting towards the open plane door, to show her that I, too, could be zen about this. I could share her calm joy, and placidly contemplate the fall. She had now reached the door. Her face had changed completely. She was in a blind panic, barely able to breathe, eyes wide with terror, a scream caught in her throat. She put her legs out of the plane, there was a thiwp noise, and she was gone, falling fast, a speck beneath us.

I hope, I thought, I remembered to tell her I love her. 

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On our last day we took a road trip. Well, sort of.

Teal and I had become somewhat obsessed with the idea of going somewhere, anywhere. We had researched by the time tested method of asking everyone we met what we should go see.

The woman at the quad bike booking office looked at us incredulously when we asked what, within two hours, she would go see.


“There’s nothing,” she told us, “absolutely nothing.”

We decided to try again. 

The next day we asked the driver who took us out to the jump site.


“There’s nothing!” he told us, “have you ever seen truly nothing? It’s incredible. I’ve never seen so much nothing – you have to see it.”

So we started the process of booking a car and driver to drive us through two hours of nothing to eventually get to a nearby mountain. But the night before we were leaving we went to The Lighhouse, a beach bar, for a drink.

It turns out that if you want to meet strangers, like a lot of strangers, while traveling there’s one simple rule you have to follow: be two young women. One will not be approached because you might scare her off, three constitute their own crowd. But two? Two are, it turns out, the correct number of women to buy drinks. 

Teal and I were unable to avoid this. Everywhere we went, we met people. The first night it was Seko, Louis and Ella – who were in town from Windhoeke to pitch a new office of Saatchi and Saatchi. Seko won me over from “nice guy in a bar” to “person I must follow to the next bar and befriend” when he, a black African, said to me “may I play the ultimate devil’s advocate? I will argue to you tonight that Nelson Mandela was the worst thing to ever happen to southern Africa!”

This I had to hear.

But first he had to pee. Then we moved bars. Then we were introduced to friends and there was a long conversation about advertising and race in business in Namibia. When I returned to the key point an hour later, Seko had crossed over from tipsy into drunk.

“Seko,” I asked, “You still haven’t given me that argument about Nelson Mandela being the worst thing to happen to you.”

“Yes!” he said, “I think in the future that this Western obsession with technology and your restlessness will lead you to trying to condense all human knowledge onto a single chip and sending it out to start a new civilization in space.”

There was a pause.

“Seko,” I said, “I don’t think that really answers the question.”

“You’re right!” he said, clapping me on the back, “it doesn’t!”


“So…. Nelson Mandela?”

“I am naturally very shy. Right now though, I am feeling social. Would you like to come make new friends with me?” he said, looking longingly at the patio where a couple dozen people were milling around.

“So, no Mandela?”


“Shots!”

I gave up.

Then there was Jacko, a South African fisherman with a sunburned nose in a rainbow hat, rainbow hoodie, and tie died rainbow fisherman’s pants, who thought everything was awesome and was really interested in Burning Man. Din, who argued for an hour that an atheist shouldn’t be allowed to teach religion classes. And countless others, leading, finally, to Elmi and Will, a couple from the North, who we met our last night in Swakopmund.

“Cancel your car!” Elmi told us, “we’re taking you everywhere!”

They picked us up the next morning at 9:30, an hour late because no streets in Swakopmund have signs and they, it turned out, did not, in fact, know where our hotel was. We were out of time for our two hour adventure to the mountains, so they drove us up the coast instead, sandwiched between desert and sea on a long, dark highway made of packed salt and tar. We stopped at a shipwreck and had lunch in an even tinier beach town than Swakop. On the way back, we stopped at broad, cracked plain dusted with rocks. In the very far distance, mirages shimmered in the heat, almost blocking out the mountains behind them. It was silent and hot. Elmi’s little dachshund sniffed a rock.

There was nothing, absolutely nothing. And it was beautiful. 

Teal cried.

Teal always cries.

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“What do you think is the biggest challenge facing South Africa?”

Our Uber was winding up and over the road that runs between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. In the back, I sat attempting to find a way to get the seat belt to not actually touch my stomach, distended with steak and wine and liqueur and prawns. My father had just asked him the question that had become almost ritual whenever we met a South African.

“Bigots”

I perked up, interested to hear this. The driver obviously lead a very comfortable life, judging from his car, and his talk about beer and beaches. And yet clearly he was aware that there is a problem, a bug in the system. That his comfort, like mine, comes at the expense of others’ suffering.

“If I gave a rand to everyone who asked me for a rand I’d be working for them.”

Oh.

Beggars. He said beggars. 

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“Do you find it difficult to work with your old jailers?”

We were standing on the historic pier at the Victoria and Albert waterfront, inside a preserved building that used to be where ferries to Robbin Island launched. Mom and Dad and I had just come back from a tour of the island, where, standing in the room that had served as a church for the block where Mandela spent so many years, our guide had told us that two nights earlier, at jazz fest, he had run into one of the men who tortured him when he was arrested in the 1980s. “They had used electric shocks, and beat me, and used my private parts as an ashtray,” he said, “but now he offered to buy me a drink.”

Back on land we met Vusi Mncongo, a man who had himself spent many years imprisoned on Robbin Island after he was arrested as part of a peaceful protest. Today he works in the museum, alongside men and women who served as his jailers.

“No,” Vusi said, “that is past. That is part of history. We have signed a new constitution now, and they can’t do that anymore.”

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“I am talking,” the professor said to our Anthropology class the day before we reached Cape Town, “about a country that until recently divided the races by law. Their schools, their housing, everything – divided. Now it’s not law, but one race still has all the money, the other none. One race still has all the education, the other very little. It is a country where more black men go to prison than college.

“I am talking, of course,” he said, “about the United States.”

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“There’s this thing with the word, “them,”” Mary Anne began.

We were sitting in the kitchen of a wealthy, energetic Italian woman, four glasses of wine in. Emma had been teaching us how to make pasta and crostini and carpaccio and panna cotta with espresso and grappa. Isobel, the daughter of a famed wine farmer, had been walking us through wine pairings (and sharing with me her fear of Vietnam, ‘I had never seen poverty before.’) The curated gardens of the house sheltered two rotweilers behind a high gate with barbed wire on the top. Beneath us the moon glinted off the ocean. It may be the most beautiful kitchen I have ever seen. I was a little tipsy.

We had just asked the room – expats and immigrants from Switzerland, Ireland, England, and Italy what they thought of South Africa, the country they had committed themselves too. All spoke glowingly of the entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to overcome hardship. “I would never,” the Irish woman declared, “want to live anywhere else.”

As conversation rolled on, Mary Ann turned to speak to me, her voice covered by the cheerful clatter of several red-faced men and women exclaiming over the quality of salmon.

“South Africans I mean – white ones. Black people are always, ‘they.’ I have this bush in my yard that grows a berry I hate, but all the maids pick them and eat them on their way to work, and my South African friends always say, ‘oh, they love it.’”

She looked at her wine for a second and sighed. “I’ve asked my South African friends about it, and they say, ‘oh, but we love them!’” Mary Ann made a sour face, “we love them.”

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“What are you most interested in?” Ibrahim asked. We were speeding down the highway towards the airport – I had just landed in South Africa and was racing to make a flight to Kruger. Ibrahim had told me a little of his life story: he had grown up, at first, in a mixed neighborhood at the foot of table mountain. But when he was a little boy it was declared for whites only. His grandmother sold their house at a little under $200, and they moved to a new Coloured township. He remembers going back to sit on his old lawn, and weeping.

Ibrahim would be guiding my parents and me for a day of touring in a little under a week. There was a tour of the Cape all set, but he could switch it up, show us whatever we wanted to learn about: “history? nature? politics? What would you most like to see?”

“Penguins,” I told him, “I am very interested in penguins.”

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“What are the biggest challenges facing South Africa?”

We were in Ibrahim’s car, speeding back down the highway. We had just bought strong, fragrant coffee at a deli that was filled with wooden crates spilling over with fresh fruit and racks selling South African wines. Tiny flakes of buttery pastry were scattered over my jeans from the pain au chocolat I was finishing. 

“Education is the biggest one,” he said. The car turned and revealed a dazzling view of craggy cliffs over a glistening ocean, white villas clinging to the side of the rock, “and unemployment. And crime, but the crime is mostly because of unemployment, which is mostly because of the education.” Below us, white sand beaches were dotted with sunbathers and walkers – it was a perfect morning, breezy and warm. “And corruption, I suppose.” 

“Do you think South Africa can face those problems?”

“Don’t call them problems” Ibrahim said, smiling, “call them challenges.”

He swung the car off into a lot filled with cyclists looking out over the Pacific and parked.

“We ended apartheid without a war. Anything is possible.” 

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“I don’t like it,” Erich said, “when you look at my shoe that way.”

He looked at the lion. The lion looked at him.

“I really don’t like it at all big guy.”

The lion continued to look at Erich and then, casually, turned and sauntered away. 

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There are many game reserves in South Africa that stock their land with the appropriate beasts. They have the South African Big Five (lions, elephants, cape buffalo, rhinos and leopards – the five deadliest land mammals in the country), they have giraffes and hippos (the actually deadliest mammal) and kudus and impalas* and warthogs, most of them in their own enclosures where they are fed meat diets.

Ngara is not one of those reserves.

It is a private piece of land entirely within Kruger national park, and it does not have a single fence to keep anything in, or out. Whatever you find there, perched in a four by four with no sides or roof, is a wild beast.

Like, say, that lion. We met him on the first day in Kruger, and watched his pride as the sun set over them. They flopped side to side, yawning and grooming themselves, a clutch of overgrown house cats lounging in the dying sun of a dusty afternoon. Then they decided to pass over to another clearing, just the other side of our jeep. One by one four females and a male sauntered past our vehicle, slack skin thick with fur rolling over sharp shoulders as they swayed past.

Two thoughts about these lions:

1. Lions are bigger than I thought. I don’t know why I didn’t know how big a lion was. Maybe they’re far away in zoos. Maybe because I watched the Lion King a lot and they really play with proportion in that film. Hornbills are not nearly that big. The factual inaccuracies of Disney extend beyond the fact that warthogs don’t sing and I, for one, feel betrayed. Nothing prepared me for lions being so, well, so big.

2. They were a foot away from me. I could have reached out and touched them. In fact, the part of me that has to stand far back from high ledges and subway platform edges nearly did. I leaned away. I don’t know how a lion would take to being scratched behind the ears, but it would not, I don’t think, go well. (This was tested to an even more extreme limit two days later when we watched the lions return from the hunt and call their young – five cubs came spilling and sliding across the grass a yard in front of us. I am making nothing up.)

And another thing: When I saw these lions, slowly slinking past my knees, I’d been in South Africa for, I think, not quite 11 hours. And I’d already seen a giraffe bend down, nobly knee knocked backwards, for a drink, flicking his head to get the blood back down his long neck before he stood. And a mother leopard call to her daughter. And warthogs nibbling the grass three feet from where I had tea. And an elephant tearing a tree apart. And a dazzle of zebras grazing by the road. In fact, the lions were the last step in our accidentally succeeding in seeing all the big five within four hours of getting to Kruger.

SOUTH AFRICA! You guys. South Africa!

A LEOPARD CALLED HER DAUGHTER AND SHE CAME.

A GIRAFFE DRINKING.

SOUTH AFRICA!

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The lions trapped us for a little. We suddenly found ourselves between a pride of lions and their seven cubs, animatronic stuffed animals who could not have been real. The cubs and the second male had just arrived, and immediately collapsed to nap in awkward piles of limbs and fur. Another thing about lions you might not have known: they sleep a lot. In fact, so far as I can tell, there are only two major strategies for survival in the South African bush: eating constantly, or eating once and then napping for a week. I can really see the appeal of both.

Eventually, when it seemed like the cubs weren’t going to join the lionesses, and that everyone involved seemed totally uninterested in our actions, Erich started the engines. Three or four of the cubs looked up, a little startled, before deciding that we were no fun. The 4×4 creaked gently past them and onto the road. The sun set. Tom, the spotter, handed out beers. The unfamiliar stars of the Southern Sky came out and Erich explained how to see the Southern Cross and Leo. A warm breeze blew across the clearings as we rumbled back to the lodge, carrying the dry, hot smell of dust and burnt grass. The night was filled with calls I have never heard before.

Our first day in South Africa came to a close. 

*Whose name I could never quite remember – I could only think “it’s like an antelope but it’s not’ and then the word “cantaloupe” would pop up and I would get stuck there, staring at a herd of cantaloupe. IMG_3540

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Two days ago, we’d been standing barefoot in a temple after dark. The complex was vast – a city of marble. The temple walls blocked out the traffic and horns of Madurai, a city more ancient than Rome, the trading partner of Greeks. On the long  walk in towards the dual sanctums, vendors sold offerings, paintings of Shiva’s avatars, and marriage threads. Conversations faded into echoes of whispers, bouncing through pillared halls. 

Stand here! Our guide told us. So we stood, and we waited. “It begins in five minutes, but that’s Indian time” he told us. We waited.

From deep inside one of the sanctums – Shiva’s sanctum – past the sign that banned non-Hindus from proceeding further, we heard the drums. Then began a horn, one, then two, then three and four and five. The blasts were each a single, long tone, like six shofars played together. The beats grew closer, the horns deafening. The first man with a horn emerged in a white loin cloth, the marks of Shiva on his forehead in yellow. His long white beard reached down to his chest. Behind him came another dozen men with drums and horns, and four carrying a palanquin, only large enough for a baby, carved in marble. 

We followed the procession, our guide hurrying us place to place, crabbing my arm to hurry me along and stop me from stepping on a carpet that marked the path the palanquin would take. We stopped behind an urn with holders for a hundred tiny oil candles. The procession wound around and stopped in front of us, placing the palanquin on table outside the second sanctum, the temple dedicated to Parvarti, Shiva’s wife. Men came out and placed a footstool covered in pounded and worked silver beneath the door of the palanquin. A man sprinkled incense. Another laid three wreathes of jasmine on the stool. A minute passed. Two. Then the drums, the horns and the men recessed into the second sanctum. Shiva had gone to bed. 

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Now I was watching a perpetual wave in a box lit by a small strip of glowing blue. The box, inlaid in a white wall, shook rhythmically to create and recreate a tide. A white plaque on the wall told me that the artist was Dutch, the attempt was to capture the ocean in a box, and show the impossibility of such a project. I stepped back out into the blinding light of the sun-bleached courtyard, and walked a cement path past some parched shrubs to join Mom and Dad. They were in a room whose floor was covered in thousands upon thousands of photographs of Vietnamese families, all of them faded with time. Floating on the sea of images was a traditional canoe, behind it the image of a shipwrecked galleon flickered on the walls. The artist had fled Vietnam with his family as a child, one step in a long history of men and women taking to the sea to attack, and taking to the seas to seek freedom. An artist from just outside Madurai, near the spice hills of Kerala, created giant bronze structures of alternate earths.

We spend two hours and saw less than a tenth of the Kochi Bienalle.

We would have seen more on the previous Friday. But there were 15 elephants being decorated for a temple fair, and so we went there instead.

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The novelist Chimamande Adiche warns of a “single story.” In her TED talk she tells a story from her own childhood: her family, like many middle-class families in Legos, had a servant, a young boy from a family in a village outside Legos. All she knew about him, all she’d been told, was that he was poor – very poor. That’s why he had to come work. So when her family went to visit his, she was astonished when his mother gave her a beautiful basket she had weaved. Artisanal skill like this was not, for Adiche, what poverty had looked like in her head. 

Ten years later, she went to University in the States. Her roommate was so excited to have an African living with her. She asked her to play some of the traditional African music she listened to. Adiche pulled out a Mariah Carey tape. 

When we only hear one story about a culture, we come to believe it. This is the heart of Orientalism – the West defining itself as modern and dynamic in contrast to an unchanging, static East. This is what allows Westerners to think we know what’s best – the only modernity we know is a modernity that looks like ours, and look! just look at these poor people who don’t have access to our modernity!

We have very few stories about India. We have elephants, and chants, and mystical men with long beards. We have snake charmers, and the holy Ganges, and women in bright saris. And we have this too: poverty, Slum Dog Millionaire, and theft.

Our students were warned endlessly, lavishly, ostentatiously about how dangerous India would be. 

And when they came back, they were confused, disoriented, and many of them angry. The night after we reembarked the Explorer I had a craft night with my ship family. Four of my five kids came, and I asked them how their time was. All four said the same thing, “I don’t really feel like I went there.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. These are four bright kids, who had four very different experiences. One went on an eco-trek through the Spice Mountains (“it wasn’t camping,” Scott told me, “it was glamping. I didn’t even carry a tent. But it was beautiful?”), one went on the attempt-to-see-a-nation-of-over-a-billion-in-five-days SAS special: Delhi, Agra, Varinassi and Jaipur (no, I’m not kidding), another just went to the Taj (“just” went to a place 1000 miles from where we docked) and the last went to the beach. But what they all had in common was that they didn’t feel like they went to India.

They complained of being coddled, shut off, and not allowed to wander cities. They complained that they’d been made to be so scared about India that they felt like they HAD to sign up for a field program, thinking independent travel would be impossible. And one thing they all thought: India wasn’t what they’d been told it would be. It wasn’t scary. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was a place – a place they desperately wanted to explore, but felt they weren’t allowed to. 

Their conclusion was that India was out there and they weren’t allowed in. But thinking back to the Bienalle, and to the temple ceremony, I can’t help but wonder if they feel like they didn’t go to India because the India they’ve been told about doesn’t exist.

Because India is so much more than that. 

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It’s Very Big

India was the first port in months we had some time to prepare for. After a series of ports two days apart, where ship time consisted of a whirlwind of “what did you do”s and laundry and plans for the next port, we were relieved to have some time to think. Five whole days: time for a study day and multiple lectures and a number of explorer seminars.

On the official side, SAS made the interesting choice to use this time to terrify students. For five days they shouted a message that went something like this “THEFT! RAPE! POVERTY! TOUTS!”

They didn’t really, of course. In reality they attempted something that looked like a cultural introduction. But everything was colored by this fundamental idea: “You think that India will be the most overwhelming experience of your life and boy are you right.”  A resident director spoke about the difficulty of being stared at all the time. The doctor talked, again, about traveller’s diarrhea.* They warned endlessly about getting on to busses and into cars you weren’t absolutely sure of. There are reasons for this – SAS has endured wave after wave of lawsuits after students have been injured – some fatally – when, on land, they have signed up for trips with unlicensed providers. But it didn’t exactly lead to a lack of racism. 

There was another side, though. The unofficial side. The inter-port lecturer got up to give a lecture about how exciting India is. Two inter-port students sang for us, sat at tables at lunch, and set up a table in the center of the ship for information. (I went to them once and asked a young woman, “what’s the most common language in Kerala?” “Malayalam” “Great! How do you say thank you, sorry and please in Malayalam?” I asked. “You say, ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘sorry.’” she told me.) And then we have our own Indian students – four of them. They are from all over a huge, diverse, country, and I feel terrible for the questions they must have fielded.

The students were thrown. Who were they to believe? And what on earth was India going to actually be like? Somehow, I had let slip that I spent six weeks in India once. They swarmed me: what could they expect? I felt a grave responsibility here to be honest, unbiased and fair. The official SAS line seemed to be to prepare every student for the sole experience of standing outside a tuk-tuk rank with their passports hanging limply from their hands and cash coming out their back pockets in the middle of Agra, and I didn’t want to support it. I thought hard, nodded gravely and told them this, “it’s really big.” I perfected a smile that seemed to say “there! I’ve answered all your questions, haven’t I!” At least, I concluded, they walked away from me annoyed, rather than scared, which I considered a step up.

I didn’t know how to prepare them. India was an incredible experience for me. My six weeks with Kate in India, from the first night in Vijay’s apartment, eating mango and drinking beer in a house in Mumbai, through bouts of heat wave in Rajasthan, tea in palaces in Udaipur, monkeys stealing my water bottles on climbs to temples, through Rishikesh and Haridwar and all the way through the rather humbling experience of breaking down completely in the back of a truck an hour outside McCleod Ganj, had become a myth I told myself. They were stories: fragments of color and sound and smell and memory that I had wrestled down into neat narratives. I couldn’t remember how it felt so much as how I had talked about how it felt. And above all this I knew that I had only seen a tiny bit. I’d be like someone who’s only seen New England telling another what Santa Fe looks like. 

On the night before we pulled into Kerala, our Indian students decided to teach us to dance to Bollywood music. “Just do anything,” Anish said, “but then do it bigger.” We blasted Bollywood music across the back deck, and students gathered in the humid night to dance very badly. In the middle of the circle, Shweda, a student who grew up in the red light districts of Mumbia, was teaching the Executive Dean’s wife “screw the lightbulb, pat the dog,” the hand movements famous from the Slumdog Millionaire dance scene. We cheered. A chant went up, and with a sudden, enormous wave of clapping, Vijay, the head waiter, burst into the middle of the circle. The three of them danced and we watched, standing on tables and railings, clapping and screaming along. The last of the sunset faded just as Kerala came into view.

The next morning, we woke up in India. We were sailing past giant Chinese fishing nets (I have been told that my ability to describe the various fishing strategies of the world is limited, at best. Perhaps my mother has a picture of the Chinese fishing nets. If not, I’ll just tell you this: they’re big, and super cool) and on either side of the Explorer, ferries full of trucks and vans and motorcycles and bicycles idled impatiently as we blocked their paths. After an endless immigration process I stepped out into a place I remembered loving, a place I hadn’t seen for six years, and, I quickly learned, a place I’d never been before.

Because Kerala isn’t Agra. And Kerala isn’t Mumbai. Not to mention that Mumbai is not Agra.

We talked endlessly before port about how diverse India is. One of the inter-port students said that “India is so diverse that being diverse has come to be what it means to be Indian.” Which is a nice thought, but one I didn’t really get. Because, honestly, I thought it would be like New York and Santa Fe – one’s quieter, hotter, less populated. But they’re both American, right?

And Kerala is still India, of course. But it’s an India that’s 20% Christian, an India with ancient Synagogues and the first resting place of Vasco di Gama in a sleepy church. It’s an India where streets move slowly, and where the town of Kochi itself is fairly sleepy and laid back. It is a place where when someone tried to sell me postcards and I said no, he said “so no chance?” and I said, “no chance,” and he said “oh.” And then he just walked away. 

In five days, Mom and Dad and I travelled from tranquil backwaters, where we spent my 30th birthday on a houseboat with rattan furniture, puttering through little towns, past villages and fancy summer homes to high, green mountains growing cardamom and pepper and tea and tigers (we took an hour cruise in a tiger reserve, and I was pretty set on seeing one. I later found out that in a several thousand square mile forest there are 43 tigers. We did, however, see some deer.), and back down to the agricultural heart of India and into a bustling metropolis, over three thousand years old.

The more we travelled, the more I saw, the less I felt like I’d failed to answer those students. What could they expect from India? Well, after the second of what I hope will be many trips, I can only offer this: it’s big.

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Saw narrowed her eyes and looked intently at me. She leaned forward conspiratorially, sizing me up, and frowned a little. 

“You know Taylor Swift?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, meeting her focused gaze.

“You like her?” she asked.

I sensed this was a moment of great importance.

“Yes,” I said, “I love her.”

She sat black, clapped her hands, and laughed, “So do I!”

I was in.

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Myanmar stood out on the itinerary as the land of mystery for most of us. The very terms we use to refer to it (“since Myanmar opened up”) encourage us to think of it as somehow more ‘foreign’. Even with the rampant China-phobia on the ship (and boy, let me tell you, it’s rampant) it was with Myanmar that our most Orientalist tendencies took control.

Some of this was abetted, almost encouraged, by the mere fact that Myanmar remains a logistically nearly impossible place. Question after question in the pre-port – the presentations and lectures we have as we approach a new country – were answered, quite simply, with “we don’t know.” Will there be ATMs available? Do bus tickets need to be bought in advance? Will we need to carry our passports? How long will immigration take? Are train tables reliable? And really now, but really, do we call it Myanmar or do we call it Burma?

No one seemed to know.

If there was ever a place to encourage us to slip comfortably back towards imperialist ideals of tattered glory and hot exoticism, it’s Myanmar.

Here, let me show you what I mean:

In the center of Yangon… no, no, for this to work right let me go full on:

In the middle Rangoon next to a shining lake the pinnacle of the Shwedagon Pagoda glows in the afternoon sunlight. On a hot afternoon the thick golden plates that cover the central stupa are painfully bright. It seems almost molten, slipping down the graceful curves of the pagoda. At eight shrines, worshippers reverently lift silver cups of cool water to ritually bathe the shoulders of Buddhas. The musical drone of chanting drowns out a thousand quiet conversations and the chattering of the birds. In the shade of a banyan tree, monks wrapped in elaborate folds of red cloth pad barefoot over cool white marble, carrying bright paper parasols to shield themselves from the searing sun of a tropical summer.

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Or how about this one:

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A man stands at the back of a flat boat, a roughly hewn dugout craft that floats only inches above the rippling water. He is balanced on one foot, an oar in one hand as counter-weight. In the other hand he holds the top of a bamboo dome, four feet high. lined with netting and mostly submerged in water. He holds the line with his toes, feeling carefully for the tug of fish. Behind him there are miles of lake, dotted with similar boats, beating the water with oars to scare fish into nets, or harvesting seaweed with long poles. The sun shines over a ridge of misty green mountains.

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Or wait, wait, this. This is the one:

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After the searing light, the darkness of the pagoda is blinding. It is silent. Under my feet the marble is cold and dusty. The only sound is our footfalls, dray, quiet slaps echoing in a dim chamber. At the end of the passage a single shaft of light pierces the shadows. It falls on a Buddha, twenty feet tall, sitting silently and alone. His red carved robes glow in the sunlight as they have for a thousand years. His face is still hidden in shadows. In front of him, vases hold bright red blooms. We are alone here. The only visitors. 

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There! Exotic enough? It’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark up in this shit.

But let me lift the gauze:

When we woke up the morning after pre-port, having finally arrived in this land of mystery, we were in an industrial port. Out of my window I watched huge barges load and unload shipping containers. At the Shwedagon, the monks in the shade of the banyan tree were on cell phones, because, frankly, why not? The man fishing on Inle Lake paused, looked at me directly, and then lifted his foot into just the right position for me to take a picture. I did. And outside that silent pagoda the dusty marble and the wooden Buddha in glowing red robes sat an airconditioned van, idling in the mid-day sun, waiting impatiently for us to get back since we had four more pagodas to see before sunset.

Also, Mom was basically a walking petri-dish with a cauldron of a stomach that was turning food and water into grotesque physical experiments.

And while sitting at lunch, a guide from a small town at the top of Inle Lake, who had spent the day showing us ancient ruins and floating farms and villages on stilts, bonded with me over Taylor Swift. Also Rhianna. We are both really in favor of Rhianna.

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None of that is to say Myanmar wasn’t remarkable. It was. Bagan is unlike anyplace I have ever seen – over three thousand pagodas and shrines scattered over a dusty plain, white and gold and dusty brown, glowing in the light of a setting desert sun — the relics of an empire that grew and died on this land over seven centuries ago. It’s a sight that will be hard to forget. And the fact that it is also a real place where real people live real lives with real dignity shouldn’t affect that. But there is a side of myself that has watched too many Merchant Ivory films for my own good

Thankfully, traveling with my beloved parents protected me from my worst self. Because, and I don’t know if you know this, my parents are fancy. The place we stayed in Inle had a bathtub that was shaped like a boat. A boat tub! But that is not the point. Boat tubs actually encourage a whole different worst self (excuse me, sir, there appear to only be five kinds of juice at breakfast, and those places of truly superior service serve at least six, I’ll have you know.) But there is a different kind of fancy that had a much more positive impact. Fancy people, I have learned, hire guides. 

Now, my natural inclination with a guide is to run, quickly, the other way. Or to pretend they’re not there. Or, actually, to pretend that I’m not there. I truly believe that my blonde hair and American clothes and profuse sweating were totally unnoticeable until suddenly I had a guide. I was getting away with it! And good God, now ALL these people know I’m a tourist.

I will defend, nearly endlessly, the merits of getting lost in new cities and the sociability of hostels (even without boat tubs, which, frankly, who doesn’t have a boat tub these days?) and the wonder of discovering new places all by yourself. These are experiences you can’t have with a guide. These are experiences that seven kinds of juice at breakfast, frankly, preclude. But I am having to learn to re-assess my guide-phobia.

Because I will say this about guides: they don’t let you get away with any of that neocolonial, Indiana Jones, I’m-the-first-person-to-ever-discover-Burma nonsense. They’ll actually tell you what you’re seeing and explain how tomato insecticides are poisoning the lake and really drill down to see if you understand why this Buddha is here. And ,actually, I think, they feel even more uncomfortable than you do about the part where they take you to see the Paduang women bent over their weaving, posing for pictures with eleven rings of copper pushing down their shoulders.

On my own I would have probably joined friends in renting and ebike. After I emerged from the hospital visit this would immediately incur, I would have driven around Bagan, temple to temple, knowing nothing about what they were or where they came from. Perhaps the smartest and best and most thoughtful among us can do that without getting lost in a romantic daydream of exotic discovery, but I am not the smartest or best or most thoughtful. I would have written a romance novel, and a bad one at that. My parents’ irritating insistence that we actually learn things about places may well have saved me from a fruitful career at Harlequin.

It’s taken me a few days to try to think through all this and I’m still not done. And of course it’s not just Myanmar – it’s the accumulated moments of cultural discomfort and semi-imperialist unease from six countries beginning to set in. I’m not nearly as good at this as I thought; as I hoped.

How do we observe culture without dehumanizing others? What are the real ethics of tourism? How do we reconcile the superficiality of a short visit with the reality that we cannot stay in every culture for months at a time? How do we notice difference without exoticizing and romanticizing it? How can we understand wealth and poverty in context, without succumbing to a sense of noblesse oblige that is surely goodhearted but ultimately damaging? How on earth do we get through breakfast every day without nine kinds of juice?

I can only say I don’t know. I am wondering and worrying and trying to make it all fit together.

And really, all I know, all I surely know is this: I think I would be much more clear headed if someone would find me a boat bath, please.

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A Theory that Will Not Stand Up to Scrutiny

If you replaced the movie industry with financial services, within ten years LA would become Singapore.

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It was warm when we stepped off the ship, hot by the time I met a friend by the Chinatown metro, and blazing by the time we stumbled across a street filled with worshippers.

I was happily stuffed with rich, savory, spicy chicken and rice (Singapore’s specialty) piled on top of a breakfast of thick sweet coffee and kaya toast, which is, let me tell you as an expert on eating a lot of things, the best breakfast I’ve ever had. Toast is thickly buttered and then smeared with generous portions of kaya, a kind of coconut and brown sugar jam, and then dipped into soft boiled eggs. It’s buttery, fat, rich and unspeakably good. It shows little restraint, it isn’t particularly into your welfare, but it’s grand at the time. It’s Singaporean.

As we watched thousands of worshipers with burning sticks of incense wait in orderly lines, my guide – a dear friend’s colleague – ducked with me into a smaller temple along the side of the street. He laughed when he saw where we were. This, he told me, was normally a shop. They’d just taken the price tags off the Buddhas and were using them for worship instead. The store would have to be closed for New Year anyway. By Monday the price tags would be back in place.

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Here, let me offer this revised edition: if you replaced all of the arts with the financial services industry, within ten years, LA would become Singapore.

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Sitting over a beer in the Raffles Hotel, the grand old pile named – as nearly half the city seems to be – for the Brit who first colonized the island, we were talking politics. We had opted for beers since they were merely $13 US dollars. It didn’t take much persuading for me not to try the original Singapore Sling – mine for a mere $22. 

We were talking specifically about one of the don’ts: homosexuality is still, technically, a capital offense. But Singapore is open for business, and they know the West isn’t fond of draconian homophobic measures. So they have announced that they will not be enforcing this one of the million rules and regulations on Singapore’s books.

Why, he asked a Singaporean colleague, wouldn’t they just get rid of the law altogether? Well, the colleague explained, he’s a tax payer, which is to say, he’s paying Parliament to make his life better. So why would he want them wasting their time removing old laws when it doesn’t affect his wellbeing at all? That’s just a waste of his money.

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Okay, wait, I’ve got it, here’s the theory: if you replaced absolutely everything with the financial services industry then within ten years, LA would become Singapore. 

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There are benefits to this approach: it’s one of the safest cities on earth (canings for minor infractions of the law will do that) where an incredibly diverse population gets along with very little friction, and where even the poorest have a fairly high standard of living compared with neighboring countries.

But there’s a price to be paid. And the price can be seen everywhere. Each neighborhood feels like a Disney version of itself: Arab Street with its gilded mosque and streets of backpackers smoking houkka on cushions on the sidewalk, little India with groups of workers on six month visas spending their day off smoking in front of shops selling Bollywood magazines, and Chinatown with its strings of red lanterns. 

The government has realized that Western investors like the arts and are struggling to get a lively cultural scene going – a tough slog when arts education is almost unheard of, and censorship is rife. When one of my best friends moved back from Singapore I remember she told me that the arts scene was a little dry. It’s hard to get interesting theatre, she explained, when the government shuts down every other play.

So they’re trying other methods. They have one of the world’s greatest zoos, one of it’s largest aquariums, and stunning botanical gardens, laid out over an area that must be twice the size of Kew, teaming with life and free to the public. Their transportation is quick, efficient, and clean. Rules are posted everywhere (I created a 30 photo collection of Singapore telling me what to do: no durian fruit on the subway, no crossing outside crosswalks, please stand here, don’t sit there) and are followed. It is all ostentatiously, inarguably nice. Clean. Safe. Polite.

But… Well, but dull.

On the second morning I cheated. I broke all my travel rules. I skipped local foods for breakfast and went to a coffee shop full of Australians who had just finished bike rides and wealthy British mums with their well-dressed infants. I had a quinoa and beet salad. I drank juice from a vintage milk bottle. The coffee alone was $5.

Across the street was a bookstore that I’ve seen on dozens of lists of the greatest bookstores in the world. It, if anything, promised to give me that jolt of intellectualism, of culture and art, that I hadn’t found the day before.

Finally at 11:30 it opened. I downed by coffee, squeezed out between chatty South Africans in yoga clothes, and ambled across the scorchingly hot street. Inside the shop was cool and quiet, with a small white cat that darted past my feet and nestled on a top shelf. In front of me was a table displaying Singaporean literature. Here it was: here was the voice of Singapore, the art scene, the literary world. I picked up the first book I saw. It was a collection of recent Singaporean plays, tied together by one common thread:

They’d all be banned.

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