Friday, December 24, 2010

Looking towards West Africa

"Don't tell me how educated you are; tell me how much you've traveled." The quote, attributed to Mohammad, still very much rings true. As I join the rest of the world in watching the continuation of violence in Cote d'Ivoire, I'm reminded of this - how much our experience in the world informs and taints how we see it, inextricably and forever altering the way in which we observe, react, and interact with our surroundings.

When I hear of violence in Abidjan, I think of Ghana's Cape Coast and Accra, just a few hours down the coast. When I hear of a damaged mosque, I think of the mosque just down the street from my home of two months, where little boys paused in their game of "football" to stare in curiosity at the "obroni" (that'd be me) walking by with a smile on her face and curious look in her eyes. When I see photos of youth in the streets - some wounded or killed, some actively taking part, some seeking refuge - I remember the Ghanaian youths I so often saw this past summer, selling plantain chips or groundnuts along the street or wearily manning phone credit stands, ranging in age from some 6 or 7 years to 20 and older.

I think of Simon, David, and Solomon, the young men who'd come to Accra in search of work and found themselves striving to sell their carvings and paintings in the local craftsmarket, telling me about how they came to the city and explaining the details of their trades before slyly asking for my number and inviting me out for drinks. I think of my friends and coworkers, or the young men who elected themselves my guides through the village of Aburi or on a hike through the canopy walk of Kakum National Park, young high school graduates or college students who grilled me about what the U.S. is "really" like or teased me about the World Cup, congratulated me when I was able to respond in the few rough phrases of Twi I'd picked up thus far.

I see all of these places and people and more. I can almost smell the spiced plantain frying along the side of the street at night, almost hear the incessant honking of tro-tros or the bustling of the market or Accra bus station. As I read and watch about the Ivory Coast, Ghana's next-door neighbor, I can't seem to get these faces and voices out of my head - and it makes the photos and clips that much more real, the numbers of those killed or wounded that much more poignant. That much closer to home.

When you visit a place, meet its people, speak with them, explore the country, it can no longer be a distant idea, just as those people can no longer be defined by numbers and statistics. You learn quickly that it isn't just "Africa," this distant and vast place you've only read about. The same goes for every place, but perhaps all the more so for the continuously generalized and misunderstood continent of Africa. Nearly every day, I'm that much more convinced that one must set foot in a place, listen to its citizens, before we can truly consider ourselves familiar with it. Not surprisingly, our perspective on the world tends to shift as we see more of it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday consensus: "we're getting old."

When I sat down to delve into some Elie Wiesel this morning, chocolate labrador happily returned to my side, I had to pause in consideration of the sight in front of me: a very Christmasy, warm-and-fuzzy sort.

For as long as I can remember, my brother and I have been forced to patiently make our way through our stockings (always with a tangerine at the bottom, wedged into the red velvety toe) before tearing into the presents we were really interested in. Even before that, every day of December we'd race out to the homemade felt calendar to see what ornament we could pin to the tree sewn above the pockets, always ending with the star on December 24. 

As years went on and time and life played out, a stocking would be subtracted, then a wave of four new stockings one year as remarriage more than doubled the stocking count, bringing us to a grand total of seven. The December calendar still came out every year, though taking turns to put an ornament on the tree every day became more of a semi-forgotten and obligatory ritual than an exciting pathway to Christmas. Names on the aging stockings began to wear, ultimately redone in glitter glue along the furry white top of each.

This year's return for the holiday will be, I'm sure, one of the most eventful: one child is in the midst of wedding planning, one is on the verge of engagement, and it's just a waiting game for a third (which leaves me next in line - goodness gracious.). Drama of all sorts entwines the house and its original members, though its numbers have been cut save for holiday returns. In short, the half-joking phrase "we're getting old" has become a common one. Our conversations have morphed into wedding plans and engagement rings, home renovations or moving, or, from my end, gadding about from DC to West Africa to DC to, in the near future (hopefully), Denmark. ...This from the kids who used to sit on the floor in the midst of Nerd parties (because the idea of tea was nothing compared to the colored sugar water resulting from dumping Nerds candy into tiny plastic cups of water). Instead of spending my summer battling my brother in Duck Hunt, I'm jetting across the ocean while he wires houses, vaguely catching up with one another on holidays when not field tripping it to the local wineries to procure the necessary holiday survival kit.

If there's anything 2010 has drummed into my head, it's that life truly can be a peculiar creature... never quite sure where it'll land us. Here's hoping that, wherever we land, it's on our feet. Happy holidays from the mound of snow that is North East, Pennsylvania.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"This is my letter to the world..."

Blogging is a curious beast. Just the other day, I received a mysterious email from someone reportedly on the promotions team at CSN stores, somehow interested in my blog (though I'm curious as to which she's referring to) and commenting on the possibility of my doing a review of a product or some such thing... the insanity of research paper deadlines and other matters whirling about in my head has since prevented response, but intriguing/odd nonetheless.

More than that, however, is the intrigue of the fact that people do just run into things semi-randomly while cruising around the wonder of the internet. Take this, for instance: according to the blog stats here, this week the blog received about 3 times the number of page views from Germany than it did from the US. Finding this, admittedly, I'm terribly curious as to how that came about (really, how goes it, Germany? I should be in your area for the summer - any tips?). My initial doubt about blogs, frankly, was the potential for total self-involvement, pending how one chooses to use it... but then there are so many fantastic pros to it, an open letter to anyone who comes across it and is inspired to comment, carry on the conversation, etc.

Emily Dickinson famously wrote "This is my letter to the world/ that never wrote to me...." There's a certain undeniable power to it, this 21st century ability for anyone to write their own digitized letter to the world, but more importantly, the opportunity to interact with the world through the same medium - it can read your letter, and write back if it so chooses. Wonderful.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On the worth of writing (and writers?)

Somewhere between a 10 page paper on postcolonialism, an 18 page paper on coalition governments, and a 20 page paper on Shakespeare, a thought presented itself quite forcibly: writing to any real extent truly does require believing that whatever we're writing about is worth it. Worth my time writing it, worth someone else's time to read it. Ideally, it'll make a statement- maybe even make a bit of a difference, if I'm lucky.

It's something I'm reminded of when I come across something fantastic, something so in-tune that I have to actually pause mid-page to appreciate what the author has just accomplished. It has to be more than eloquence or wit, more than a finely crafted phrase or sentence. It has to truly say something. I've got to read it, shake my head in wonderment, read it again, and sink into a moment of thought and/or marveling.

As an avid reader, this is my inspiration, validation for taking the time out of a busy schedule to read. As someone with an interest in writing (not to fancy myself a "writer" - is there a certain authority attached to that word now, or not so much anymore?), it's still inspiring, but also terribly disconcerting. How does one attain such power through the written word? Amazing.

Not the first time it's struck me that it must take some amount of self-confidence to write for serious publishing, at least in my mind. To think that you have something worth saying, something worth proclaiming to others "Hey, you have busy lives, but really you ought to stop and listen to what I have to tell you. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about; you'll like it." The potential self-involvement that accompanies writing if one has any hopes for an audience. ...On the other hand, it still seems as though some things must be written, must be said, even if we don't feel quite up to the task. 

Something I mulled over while sitting on a runway in Dakar this past summer, recalling conversations with young carvers and painters in the Accra crafts-market the day before. I don't consider myself quite worthy enough to tell their stories, but someone ought to, no? ...And if those who felt themselves the true authority were the only ones to ever write... why, that'd be a lot of egotistic and didactic literature, now wouldn't it? Many stories that would be left untold, and the world deserves to hear them, just as they deserve to be told and heard. Must be told and heard, perhaps.

...Babbling. Back to work.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Unforgettable... surreal, but unforgettable

The insanity of finals week is very much underway (I'm vaguely afraid that I'll end up like Tom Hanks in a scene of Money Pit), and I can't help but think of what I was instead doing just seven days ago, speeding through northern Virgina with a Cuban and an Iranian, blasting Kurdish music like there's no tomorrow. A bit surreal, come to think of it.

To the times and people in our lives we'll never forget, to the moments at which we realize we truly will never forget them, and to the anticipation of making more unforgettable memories - cheers.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The power of the written word, via Grossman

Because the man's brilliant. And because I can't seem to stop my brain from automatically linking back to that which he's put into words so well. It is amazing, isn't it, when someone is able to fit words so perfectly to that which we've been thinking. ...I'm absurdly envious of this man's talent. Unspeakably appreciative, but envious nonetheless. One person insisted that I read this essay collection, and I feel the need to share the recommendation.

David Grossman, Writing in the Dark:

"To me, writing, the writing of literature, is partly an act of protest and defiance, and even rebellion, against this fear - against the temptation to entrench myself, to set up an almost imperceptible barrier, one that is friendly and courteous but very effective, between myself and others, and ultimately between me and myself.
...The more I write, the more I feel the force of the other urge, which collaborates and completes the first one: the desire to know the Other from within him. To feel what it means to be another person. To be able to touch, if only for a moment, the blaze that burns within another human being."

"I write, and I give my most private and intimate names to an external, unknown world. In some sense, I make it mine. So do I return from a land of exile and alienation - I come home. I change, just slightly, what previously seemed unchangeable. Even when I describe the cruelest arbitrariness that determines my fate - whether man-made or preordained - I suddenly find in it new subtleties and nuances. I find that simply writing about the arbitrariness lets me move freely in its presence. That the very fact of standing up against the arbitrariness gives me freedom - perhaps the only freedom man has against any kind of arbitrariness - the freedom to articulate the tragedy of my situation in my own words. The freedom to articulate myself differently, freshly, against the unbending dictates of arbitrariness that threaten to bind me and pin me down."

"In this world I have described, literature has no influential representatives in the centers of power, and I find it difficult to believe that literature can change it. But it can offer different ways to live in it. To live with an internal rhythm and an internal continuity that fulfill our emotional and spiritual needs far more than what is violently imposed upon us by the external systems."

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Step 1: Realize; Step 2: React; Step 3: Encourage change

Confession: today, I spent a small chunk of my life flipping through photos of the recent wedding of Vivek Oberoi. I blame both boredom and curiosity, an undeniable love of Bollywood, the draw of Indian culture, and the distracting yet engrossing powers of the internet.

While flipping through the abundance of Khans, Kumars, and Kapoors, I gave nods of admiration to the artistry of various saris (recalling having once worn one myself, truth be told - please ignore that awkwardness that is my shirt; we were testing it out pre-occasion) and half-jokingly decided that I wanted to be a wealthy Indian, if only for the sake of indulging in such things and, of course, an abundance of samosas, naan, and aloo parathas. The thought was a fleeting one, not simply because I lack the utter materialism such a desire would require, but more upon consideration of one of the worst moments in my time spent in Ghana last summer.

Being that the capital of Accra overlooks the Equator from its seat on the coast, Ghana lacks seasons beyond "wet" and "noticeably less wet"... well, ok, "rainy" and "dry." Further, being that it is also a developing country with correspondingly limited infrastructure, handling such seasons is difficult, limited, and wholly inadequate. West African flooding is notoriously destructive - something I, unfortunately, got a small taste of during my stay. That is, I got a taste of it in the increased difficulties of attempting to navigate the roads (totally ruling out any unnecessary travel more than once), and I got a taste of it as Mr. Agyare, his son Kofi, and I slowly drove towards the Accra Mall for an evening at the movies, upon Mr. Agyare's suggestion.

As we made our way down the highway, many walked along the side of the road, some stood awaiting tro-tros (taxi-like transportation in the form of large, over-occupied vans), and others set off across the sodden fields in a shortcut of necessity. It didn't take much to note that a dirt road running parallel to the highway had been totally flooded, the former site of a bridge now yielding to a raging river, with crowds of people on either side. The flooding would ultimately hit national, region, and global news, as thousands of homes across West Africa were ravished by the rains and torrents. 

I don't think I'll ever be able to forget the sinking feeling in my stomach as I looked on helplessly, the overwhelming sense of guilt as we drove by them in one of the most advanced vehicles I've ever found myself in. My thoughts cried for us to pull over and help them, or just commiserate with them - because what could I do to help them just then? ...I have no idea, but it didn't prevent me from feeling sick to my stomach.

Lately, it seems that many things have tied back to a passage from Grossman's Writing in the Dark, which I referenced earlier. Again, he's put into words an unfortunate but thought-provoking point:
"It seems that most of us manage to lead a life of almost total indifference to the suffering of entire nations, near and far, and to the distress of hundreds of millions of human beings who are poor and hungry and weak and sick, whether in our own countries or in other parts of the world. We are capable of developing apathy and alienation toward the suffering of the foreigners who come to work for us, and toward the misery of people under occupation - ours, and others' - and toward the anguish of billions of people living under any kind of dictatorship or enslavement. With wonderful ease we create the necessary mechanisms to separate ourselves from the suffering of others."

For this reason, if for no other, I'm painfully well aware that, frankly, being wealthy in India is something I wouldn't wish on myself - does that sound odd? Of course, one could do a great lot of good towards development organizations and charity work, etc etc (though this certainly can and has been done without riches, as well, to some extent)... but I know myself enough to know that I'd be stricken with guilt in the very knowledge that I was so well off in the midst of abject poverty and homelessness. My trouble isn't with capitalism, though, nor is it with the unavoidable forces of nature that may wreak such havoc upon those ill-equipped. My trouble's with just how large that gap is in the distribution of wealth and, perhaps more so, the concern and genuine fear that there are so many troubles in the world beyond my ability to fix. 

I was struck with the same stomach-sickening feeling as I realized all the more that even my coworkers still saw me first and foremost as a white person - even if that was to remark in surprise how humbled they were by the fact that a white woman could be so rooted and kind, understanding, etc. Where they meant to compliment, they upset. As I spoke with my friend Kofi about it later that evening, he asked, rather rhetorically, what I could do about it - "it" being the racism still so horrendously prevalent, the self-abasement that so sickened me. He, understandably, advised me not to upset myself over something it seems I can do so frustratingly little to change, no matter how hard I might try or protest it. My answer, however, remains the same - if everyone thought that way, so easily allowing for the status quo under the assumption that they are incapable of improving it, nothing would ever change, would it? Change for the better, that is.

Potential ways to help, beyond raising awareness, giving time, food, blood, etc:
Variety of Ways to Donate to Pakistan Flood Relief
American Red Cross
local organizations, food pantries, churches, etc.
Keeping on top of things and getting suggestions from the likes of
Country-specific organizations like the Association for India's Development (of which I'm proud to call myself a voting volunteer - had to get that plug in there somewhere)

...and the list goes on.  Other ideas? Please do share. :)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A glimmer of "the Other"

We've all heard that the eyes are the window into the soul... trite, I know. But the idea... the idea is a terrifying one if we stop to think about it, isn't it? That someone might be capable of looking straight into us - straight through us? Terrifying.

Frankly, my mind has been all over the place for the past two weeks or so (thus the lack of posts is more due to too many thoughts than lack thereof) - research for this, that, and that, writing for this class and that class, working here, editing there, contacting this person about an internship, sending my editorial to that person, the inevitable personal items that can be both entertaining and troubling, but always thought-provoking... etc. Tonight's whirl of thoughts, however, had little to do with my life and much to do with the consideration of another.

This evening, I set aside the piles of books (of which there are now eight covering my desk- piles, that is) and walked a few blocks to the Carlisle Theater for a showing of "Lebanon," a much acclaimed 2009 Israeli movie, directed by Samuel Maoz, about the 1982 war in Lebanon. As though the subject matter weren't weighty enough, the entirety of the film takes place in a tank. Inspiration for my attendance: general interest in the topic (also recommended: "Waltz with Bashir"), and the panel discussion to follow it, featuring one of my favorite profs and advisor, who was serving with the IDF at the time.

As one would expect, the film was intense and thought-provoking. In fact, it'd be relatively easy to rattle on about it and the backdrop of it, historical facts and controversies, etc... but somehow that did not turn out to be the most thought-provoking feature of the evening. No, instead, it was finding myself watching a movie about the war in Lebanon while sitting beside a veteran of that very war. I'd come to the theater on my own, grabbed a seat at the end of a row, and did some low-key fiddling while waiting for the start of the movie; not long into the fiddling, however, I was greeted and joined, with a volunteered accompanying but brief comment of nerves and the danger of the film's being so close to home for a man who'd spent his fair share of time in an Israeli tank in Lebanon.

Backtrack to last Thursday, end of class, when I was pulled aside for a quick chat - to lend me a book, as it turns out. An amazing book. A book so intriguing I nearly ran into several people and a table as I walked from place to place with my nose stuck in it, eyes devouring the pages in front of me. David Grossman, Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics.* What my professor had failed to warn me about, however - or chose not to - was the intense... well, the humanity of it. The intensely personal, the soul-digging, the looking-straight-through-you.

"We human beings are uneasy about what truly occurs deep inside the Other, even if that Other is someone we love. And perhaps it is more than unease; perhaps it is an actual fear of the mysterious, nonverbal, unprocessed core, that which cannot be subjected to any social taming, to any refinement, politeness, or tact; that which is instinctive, wild, and chaotic, not at all politically correct. It is dreamlike and nightmarish, radical and exposed, sexual and unbridled, at least according to the social-order definitions that prevail among "civilized" people (whatever that term may mean). It is mad and sometimes cruel, often animalistic, for good or for bad. It is, if you will, the magma, the primordial, blazing material that bubbles inside every person simply because he is human, simply because he is an intersection of so many forces, instincts, longings, and urges. It is a magma that usually, among sane people - even the most tempestuous - hardens and cools when it comes into contact with air, when it encounters other human beings, or the confines of reality, and then it becomes part of "normative" social fiber."

I could read it time and again (and did). ...but get to the point, Kate. As to the matter of the film, you should see for yourself. I should warn you, however - it is one of those things that may leave you with a certain expression on your face, if you get to thinking about it. More specifically: after whispered comments and explanatory side notes throughout the film, this increasingly intriguing character (everyone is, when you get down to it) stood up, joined the small panel at the front of the theater, and proceeded to give a [somewhat typically] matter-of-fact perspective - what was realistic about it, what was unrealistic about it, etc. If one was watching closely, though... if one was watching closely, they'd have noticed a pause before the spiel, a slight staring down at an empty seat while thoughts whirled, unspoken.

Every once in while, we are lucky (lucky?) enough to catch a glimpse of another person. Something as seemingly simple as meeting eyes for a moment, and that person has suddenly become more real - more vulnerable. Quick, look away; avert your gaze, you both risk seeing more than either bargained for. How intriguing, though... how intriguing.

To revert to Grossman: "I wish to clarify again that the primary urge that motivates and engenders writing, in my view, is the writer's desire to invent and tell a story, and to know himself. But the more I write, the more I feel the force of the other urge, which collaborates with and completes the first one: the desire to know the Other from within him. To feel what it means to be another person. To be able to touch, if only for a moment, the blaze that burns within another human being." 

...but it's not just writing that inspires this, is it? Sometimes, it can seem to come from the smallest of things, the quickest of moments. One thought, one word, one look, and it's a glimpse into something infinitely larger than ourselves - and frighteningly so.

*One essay from the book, adapted from Grossman's Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2007, may be easily found online, courtesy of the NYT:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Opportunity, come and gone

I've been kicking myself for the past half hour. No, no, not because I did something and it turned out poorly or otherwise than I'd hoped - because I failed to do something. Speak. Darn it all. 

I can go to school where I know no one, intern in DC for a semester, again knowing  no one, or fly to Ghana for the summer, yet again potentially not knowing anyone (in the entire country.... or continent.), and now checking flights to head off to Denmark for next summer, in which case, again, I've met briefly a grand total of two people in the whole of the country - and I'll be living with one of them. But here I am in Carlisle, step into the cafe on campus to grab a quick dinner, and I find the 22 year old Spanish poet I'd watch perform last night sitting at a table by himself, slowly making his way through some sushi, and could I work up the mental power to say something to him? No, no I couldn't. Or didn't, rather. #lame.

In Dickinson's (sometimes obsessive) spirit of global connection and for sheer interest's sake, last night I attended a Semana Poética reading by two poets: David Leo García, 22, of Spain, and Tatiana Shcherbina, 56, of Russia. García, not surprisingly, could blend right into the Dickinson population, and I'm guessing that a fair number of the students in The Quarry when I came upon him this evening had no idea that he was not on campus to take classes. So why on Earth was I so completely incapable of simply dropping by and saying "Hey, I really enjoyed your reading last night," or "Hey, I saw you lighting up outside of the Stern Center last night and I'm concerned about your health".... ok, not the latter, but the former? Really, Kate, how old are you? Argh. Prime opportunity, missed.

Honestly, it's moments like that that bother me most. The "what if"s of life really are the scariest features, aren't they? The most troublesome, the most frustrating, the must mind-numbingly unavoidable. What if I'd had the courage to do this, say that, approach that person, try that? Even the smallest things - say, trying alligator when you find it on the menu in a New Orleans restaurant - can result in some level of regret. Some say it tastes like chicken, the waiter said it tastes like veal... but when will I next have an opportunity to decide for myself? It could taste like goat, for all I know (at least I know what goat tastes like). The potential scrumptiousness of carnivorous jaws with four legs and a tail is besides the point, though.

That which we don't know often scares us the most... but what if it's something we could know, or rather, could have known? Darn it all. Can you imagine if everyone walked around literally kicking themselves when they'd missed out on something? What a sight that would be- highly entertaining, but, at root, incredibly depressing. Sometimes, of course, I see the logic in thinking "Why worry about it now?" Perhaps more often than not, though, I can't help but be bothered anyways, even if there's nothing that can be done to change it - heck, all the more so if there's nothing I can do to change it. Peter Pan flashback as we realize that, ultimately, we risk running out of chances to come back through that window if we keep passing them by.

The conclusion of this self-rebuke, this opportunity missed? Well, a determination not to miss it again, should the occasion arise. Let's be honest, though - I'll miss other opportunities in the future. A lot of them, probably. It's an unavoidable fact of life, isn't it? Sure, I'm fortunate to come across many other opportunities I would never have expected... but I'll still miss some in the mean time, and it's something I'll just have to live with sometimes. Other times, though... well, I'll be darned if I can't lower that rate of missed opportunities, or at least repair it when missed.

[Yep, I've just realized that the above is in nearly direct opposition to the previous post- part of the frustration/ lameness (indeed.) of it. C'est la vie.]

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Leaping into the unknown... again

When I packed for DC last winter, I had little idea of what I was getting myself into - an internship for the spring in a city I'd only visited briefly, living in an apartment with three girls I knew nothing of, working with a paper that I, frankly, knew little of, taking the metro in to the city for a 9-5 as though I were an adult rather than a 19 year old girl from small town Pennsylvania. ...and I loved it. The roommates were a bit nutty, truth be told, but I fell in love with the city and value the people I met there and experiences we had more than I could have imagined.

When I signed up to volunteer with the Association for India's Development - that is, found them online and emailed a current volunteer to express interest - I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew TWC asked its interns to perform some kind of "civic engagement" during our time in DC, I knew I wanted something to do with a non-profit working for developing countries, and I knew I had a growing interest in India. Ultimately, I found myself sitting cross-legged in a circle of maybe eight Indians-turned-Washingtonians, discussing literacy and anti-corruption initiatives in the basement of Dr. Mohan Bhagat, preparing for upcoming fundraisers, speaking with social activist Sandeep Pandey, celebrating Holi, and enjoying dinner and chai with some of the best people I've met in my college career.

When I boarded my flight in JFK this past May, it had not yet completely hit me that I was, in fact, on my way to West Africa. Africa... I was going to Africa? I'd been planning for it, informing friends and family, getting myself psyched for the summer... and, yet again, had no idea what I was getting myself into. Not surprisingly, it was a summer I'll never forget. As we crossed the Atlantic, I peeked out my window to enjoy a fantastically clear view of the stars and it struck me - yep, I was going to Africa. I had to allow myself a moment of congratulations, quite honestly: the first in my immediate family to get a passport, much less use it (let alone the destination), I'd always wanted to travel, though it seemed a vaguely distant possibility in the sleepy town of North East... and here I was, en route to Accra, Ghana for the summer. It was actually happening.

Today was a wonderful day. I'd completed two back-to-back midterms yesterday, received surprisingly positive results on a paper (it must've been the help of the General Tso's I ordered to inspire the writing of this essay on Chinese politics), successfully completed a class presentation on Henry V, got out of class early... and learned that a friend had skipped a class because I'd warned him earlier that I might not make it, so he'd have to maintain his sanity without me. Now, I know I shouldn't approve of that last item, but really, must admit it's an ego booster. And what capped it off, on top of the fantastic beginning-of-fall weather? Further news on an offer I'd received earlier to spend next summer in Denmark working with a pair of IT/communications fellows I'd briefly met in Ghana. The more feasible it seems, the more excited I am - and in awe of how things seem to work themselves out from time to time (with a bit of help, naturally).

Of course, planning is still very much in the process... but, naturally, if this is actually made to come to fruition, I'm positive I'll still have no idea what I'm getting myself into - and I relish that knowledge. Where's the adventure in knowing, eh?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

El mundo está mirando

I am currently sitting at the circulation desk of Dickinson College Library in Carlisle, PA, and watching the rescue of 33 Chilean miners between perusing the battles of Henry V and overseeing the check out of materials to weary Dickinsonians in the midst of midterms. Watching live, that is - wee hours both here and south of the border, and miner #3 has just surfaced and hugged everyone in sight. Amazing..... Louis Armstrong did say "they'll learn much more than I'll ever know," did he not? As I watch live the rescue taking place in the Southern Hemisphere, from far far away, he might have to say  it once again- what a wonderful world. ...And one that seems smaller by the day, doesn't it?

El mundo está mirando, Chile. Felicitaciones!!

Monday, October 11, 2010

The art of listening

Ok, ok, I give in: breaking from a furor (does that work here?) of researching, reading, and Pandora listening to briefly yield to the impulse of reflecting on a comment from a friend earlier today. Namely: "I wish that I had your ability to talk to random people, who turn out to be the most interesting people in the world."

First things first: I'm flattered. It may be silly, but this is one of the greatest compliments I could imagine receiving, behind two prior remarks regarding my apparent ability to deal with whatever comes my way (one learns to take punches and work with the cards we've been dealt, really). The flattering factor here: what a fantastic thought. I do love talking to people - or, more importantly, listening to people. Anyone. They're just such fascinating creatures, aren't they? I'd love to think I have the ability to do this with relative ease... though I suppose the important part in this case truly is that other people think I have the ability to do this. (Too Machiavellian? In some cases, I really do have to agree with the man that what seems to be the case is more significant than what the case actually is.)

Next, the background: While applauding her latest Norwich blog, I commented that I enjoyed "living vicariously through you, my friend, as my adventures at the moment have been limited to occasional jaunts down to DC to meet up with an older Cuban fellow I met on the metro last spring... very unEnglish of me." Now, to be fair, he struck up that conversation, not I; I merely allowed for its continuance. ...And he did turn out to be a remarkably interesting person, at least in terms of background- father died somewhere in Central America fighting one thing or another (so detailed, right?), an only child orphaned relatively young, moved to Moldova with a few cousins for political asylum, then relocated to Canada, where he lived with an Iraqi family for eight years, now in DC working with home renovations while taking classes at George Washington for a law degree. Intriguing, no? If that isn't inspiration to talk to random people, I don't know what is.

The beauty of it is, though, that people don't have to have such absurdly colorful backgrounds to qualify them as worthy to listen to, much less particularly interesting. In fact, I'd hazard to guess that one could find something interesting in everyone - their story, what they do and what they've done, where they've been and where they're going, who they are and who they've known... and the beat goes on. I firmly believe that even the dullest person out there has some interesting quirk about them - even if it is puzzling over how they came to be so horrendously dull. Sometimes they can surprise you... for better or for worse.

For better: owner of Larry's Ice Cream off of Dupont Circle, one of my absolute favorite people in the greater DC area. Name: Jimmy. Country of origin: Turkey. Dubbed by the Washington Post: "the Scoop Nazi" (Seinfeld, for those of you missing the reference). Why a man named Jimmy owns an eatery named Larry's: that's what it was when he purchased it and he just didn't feel like changing the name. Some people find him terribly rude and inappropriate, but I find him hilariously sarcastic, blunt, and endearing to no end. Happily, the feeling is mutual, as he's dubbed me his girlfriend, gives me extra ice cream, and ignores waiting customers to chat with me over the counter - even when I've just dropped in to say hello. (Note: one of those reviews, admittedly, is from me. Can you guess which? hint: I've never tried the cupcakes.)

For worse: the vice principal of my public middle school in small town PA, a former Benedictine nun. Source of knowledge: I was recommended as responsible enough to dog sit (3 fantastic labs) while she attended an event one night... and other nights, though I had the good sense to reject her after the first. Cause of distress: half-cooked chicken left sitting on the counter, fruit and vegetable crispers filled to the brim with beer, freezer full of pizzas, and, the last straw, underwear strewn across the staircase. I vowed never to return as I took a flying leap over the old woman undergarments, and it's a vow I've had no trouble holding to.

And on that note, it is most definitely time to get back to the work at hand. Moral of the story, if I had to boil down all this verbosity and relatively needless detail: let's do ourselves a favor and take a moment to listen to people. You might be surprised by how wonderfully interesting - or at least entertaining - they can be.

...Ooh, no, afterthought: also important to note that, of course, people enjoy being listened to; it's good for the soul. All the more reason to take a moment and listen. Once, while I was sitting deep in conversation at the fountain in Dupont Circle, a homeless man appealed to a pair sitting nearby, only to be met with the most frustratingly patronizing and simplistic outlook on life and moral guide I've heard in quite some time - I was fit to burst, as was noted by the observant fellow sitting next to me. He could see it in my eyes, I suppose. Thankfully, the daft pair ultimately ceased their haranguing and we beckoned the man over to give him what food we had, an orange I'd been carrying around with me that day... and soon enough, we were listening. I'll never understand what that man had been through, but I'd like to think it'd helped him in even the tiniest way, in that one moment, to share his thoughts with others rather than be talked down to. After another moment and a hug, he was off, and we were back to the fountain, now lost in thought as we considered what'd just happened. Turned out to be a perfect evening.

Kicking it up a notch... in the nude

Nude modeling. That’s right, this post is inspired by nude modeling. Turn back now if you’re uncomfortable.

When I learned last week that a friend would be sitting as a nude model, I was torn – intriguing and hilarious, endearing and disturbing, a yearning to witness it and simultaneous happiness that I did not have to witness it (though, annoyingly, my mind’s eye wouldn’t knock it off). Shortly after learning this enticing bit of news but just prior to the scheduled modeling period, I had the pleasure of running into this friend and took the opportunity to both congratulate and question him. Nude modeling may be known for paying relatively well, my friends, but that takes a lot of courage.

As we discussed it, he admitted to it’s now dawning on him that, oh my goodness, it’s real; he actually had to stand naked in a room of fully-clothed people, all staring intently at him. Naturally, I had to ask: what on Earth inspired him to do such a thing? You’d need to pay me much, much more to even consider it. Not surprisingly, his response was a typically insightful yet understated little remark: “Because it scares the hell out of me! And you can’t just have something out there scaring you like that.”

How interesting. This crazy fellow had signed himself up to sit in the nude for two hours in large part because it scared him? An intriguing idea… not a particularly new one, I suppose, this whole “face your fears” philosophy, but certainly a new realm of application. Nude modeling just isn’t one of those things that comes up every day. He had the option of turning back due to discomfort, but instead chose to run headlong into it.

Now, I’ve done a few things that would be less than comfortable for a few people, I suppose (some intentionally, some I fell into). I flew to West Africa for two months of this past summer, starting out with a bang for the first stamp in my passport beyond Canada. While there, I rode in a death van of Ghanaian public transportation more commonly known as “tro-tros,” and I hiked the canopy walk of Kakum National Park, a narrow bridge of wood and rope strung from tree to tree, suspended roughly 30 to 40 meters above the ground. I climbed into a bat cave, and I wove my way through the central Accra bus station just minutes after Ghana’s kicking the US out of the World Cup. Even more frightening for me, I surprised a large lizard into granting me the right of way and shared a cold shower with a cockroach or two… but never would I have the courage to be a nude model.

As a double major with plans to graduate early, spending my free time working at the library, doing research assistance, and freelance editing, I appreciate a good challenge. I’d hazard to guess that we all do, in some little way. When I’m back on campus, though, it’s just so damn easy to get caught up in the little bubble that can be Dickinson (please don’t cringe upon my saying that, Global Ed. people; I hope you catch my meaning). I can drop myself into books, wading through websites and online journals, pages upon pages of Word documents, and not once have to go out on a limb that extends notably past academics.

Frankly, I’m not about to declare intentions of nude modeling, as that just goes far, far beyond my levels of self-confidence.  I might, however, see if I can’t pick up the game a bit beyond the typical and take a small step towards something less than comfortable… within reason, of course. Ahem…

Note: As with last week, admittedly, this is fodder for my Dickinsonian editorial of the coming week... more inspiration floating around in my noggin (which never stops running, even when I'd like it to), but lacking time to turn it into a post, unfortunately. Fall Pause can't come soon enough... much more productive on pretty much all accounts then, Scout's honor.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A glimpse of humanity

Lounging around Dupont Circle during a visit to DC this past Saturday, I was suddenly accosted by a vaguely horrifying sight: a very tanned, slightly withered old man, strutting his relatively obese self across my line of vision in a pair of baby blue, nearly non-existent short shorts. I gasped in shock and horror, unable to tear my eyes away before the worst of it: his walking away, giving me a prime view of that which I truly did not want to see.

Needless to say, I was profoundly glad I’d already consumed my ice cream, having lost my appetite forthwith. However – and here’s the important part of the story – one positive thing did come of it: a moment of mutual understanding with a complete stranger.

As I watched, wide-eyed and mouth agape, the wonderfully bold and unconcerned old man walk away, I heard a British accented gasp of “Oh my God,” and managed to pull my eyes away to note that the common sentiment had come from a passerby who had also just played witness to the unfortunate sight. He, having heard my own disturbed mutterings, turned towards me, made eye contact, and our looks of horror quickly subsided to smirks of mirth and, ultimately, flat out laughter. Were we terrible for reaching this mutual understanding at the expense of another? Perhaps… but no harm no foul, right?

Confession: though it may sound odd, I love moments like that. Moments when, even in the middle of a bustling city, one can pause to soak in a quick and unexpected connection with an absolute stranger. It seems in some way wonderfully humanizing.

The DC metro, for instance, is possibly one of the least such humanizing features I’ve ever come across: people packed in body to body, all silent, total lack of facial expression, filing down the platform and up the escalators with quick steps and steady gazes. Yet, one day, I randomly made eye contact with someone across the car, we found ourselves nearer together as we gradually approached the door and others exited at their respective stops, and we ultimately struck up a conversation. This was last spring, and truth be told, we just met to catch up over dinner shortly after the aged and exposed rear threatened to cause permanent damage to my retinas. One exchange, one moment of humanity, and it yielded an interaction I’d never have anticipated.

Back on campus, dinner in the caf. some time ago found me goofily bopping along as I sang the Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs from the ancient Christmas classic, “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” in an attempt to culturally educate my friends at the table. Now, don’t judge me, please, because my fellow Dickinsonian sitting at the next table over certainly didn’t. Instead, when he was suddenly given a straight-shot view of my less-than-dazzling solo, he caught my eye and burst into a huge, friendly grin. Even as I turned an absurd shade of pink in embarrassment, it was clear he was, in all sincerity, smiling and laughing with me, not at. I still have no idea who it was, but I applaud his friendliness.

Of course, the fantastic feature about all of this is the sheer unexpectedness of it all, the fact that it could happen at any time and anywhere, in a crowded DC metro or in a college dining hall. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love people watching, but perhaps even better than that are these such moments. No longer an outside observer, some random person in the world has just reminded you that you are a person of the world, too. And it’s lovely.

Sometimes the inspiration for the moment is disturbing, sometimes a completely random catch of the eye, sometimes entertaining, sometimes potentially mortifying… the list goes on. Every time, though, it makes me smile in proving that, no matter where you are or how large the world, there can and will always be such instances of unadulterated humanity, plain and simple.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Recollections of the Gold Coast

The internet is a terribly distracting place, isn't it? ...particularly when you link yourself to things like Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, Google Reader (the wonderfulness of which I'm learning to appreciate), etc. - there are just so many damn things calling out for your attention. Thus, in the midst - or rather, in the stead - of doing class readings the other day, I found myself linked to an online photo album from a fellow Dickinsonian's time spent in Uganda. In no time, my mind had relocated from the Middle East and China (where it should have been, had I stayed focused on my readings) back to Africa. The album not only offered a fantastic display of photos, but also - and perhaps more importantly - brought to mind my own time in Africa. West Africa, to be precise. Ghana.

Though Uganda and Ghana are, in fact, on fairly opposite ends of the continent, clicking through the album instantly transported me back to Tema, Accra, Aburi, Cape Coast, Akosombo, Krobo... I was back in Ghana.

The African sun beating down on barefoot kids playing soccer (correction: football), people working outside, lounging outside, living outside, milling through the streets. I'd never seen so many people along the side of a road in my life. Some older women sat frying and selling kelewele by the flickering light of oil lamps, some offered handicrafts, others hawked anything from side tables to windshield wipers or sold phone credit. Throughout the day, the dirt, pot-holed roadways that passed for streets were peopled with men selling wood carvings or hauling trolleys piled high with coconuts, machete at the ready to hack off the top for a thirsty passerby. Women sold tilapia and banku, bofrot, mangoes and melons, dresses and cloth, balancing trays of eggs or bread atop their heads and a child strapped to their backs... Mother Africa.

Forget the sheer beauty of the country for now, it's the people that come to mind. In a country that proudly notes itself as one of the most stable and democratic of Africa - what's more, claiming title as the first black African country to gain its independence - Ghanaians also hold claim to a reputation for friendliness, and for good reason. Naturally, I stood out in the country. Naturally, I was most commonly referred to as "obroni," or white person, foreigner. Never was it in a rude or negatively discriminatory manner.... somehow, I almost wish it was, at times. Perhaps that would've been a sign of pride in being Ghanaian (beyond supporting the Black Stars in the World Cup), a recognition that I was no better than they merely because I am lighter skinned. Instead, I was - and am - afraid to imagine how easily white visitors in particular could, and surely do, take advantage of the situation. Thus the danger of being too friendly, too trusting, too self-degrading in looking up to others.

But I digress. Upon my return, of course people asked about my trip - asking was, after all, socially obligatory. A girl goes to Africa and you don't ask "How was Africa?" Right. The trouble remains, though, that there is no way to accurately sum up a country, and even if there were, you'd miss out on the little details that truly made the experience what it was. I wouldn't get to tell you about the children following me through the market, let alone the sights, sounds, and smells of the place. And I wouldn't get to tell you about an afternoon spent wandering through the Accra crafts market and chatting with a few of the young craftsmen. David, Solomon, and Anthony... I'm determined to remember them, and their stories. David, who roped me in with a friendly manner and small talk, explaining his carvings and masks, their histories and origins, introducing me to his friends and fellow craftsmen, all men in their mid-20s. Solomon, one of the aforementioned friends, who led the group back past the dirt soccer field, brilliant blue ocean in the background, as he told me his story and wended the way back to his stall of paintings - the son of a village elder in Burkina Faso, come to Accra in search of work. And Anthony, the ridiculously tall and gangly young man who called himself their brother and shocked the Agyares' driver, Atta, by jumping up to greet me the moment I arrived at the market a few days after my first visit.

I had a good time pleasantly surprising Atta, when I could - the odd obroni girl who had friends in the crafts market, who stuck with him as we wove our way through the Makola market, the most absurdly large and overwhelming beast of a market I've ever seen. The oddity that insisted upon saying hello and "meda ase" (thank you) to the live-in help - or, what's more, learning to say "Please, I can do it myself" in Twi to stop the elderly woman from constantly attempting to clear my dishes or offer me food. Or, apparently the most pleasantly entertaining factors for him, holding my own when bargaining, in my own silly manner, or walking down the street to buy bofrot from a nearby vendor for a whopping 30 cents (pesewas). I was later informed of the apparently endearing peculiarity of this: tourists don't eat things like bofrot, only Ghanaians do - that is, working and lower class Ghanaians. I'd raised myself in this man's opinion without even realizing it.

The fact that I'm still babbling is evidence not only to my verbosity (though it's that, too), but to the many stories involved in getting to know any country or people. There's so much to see, do, experience, talk about, marvel at. On one hand, I wish photos could capture it. On the other hand, I'm glad they don't. It lends a certain value to the stories and the memories, written, discussed, and kept buried away in our thoughts.

The mysterious entrance to what turned out to be the Tema market... a massive and crowded labyrinth awaits you beyond that narrow entryway in the background.
The crafts market in Aburi, of the Eastern Region (also home of the Botanical Gardens): shanty upon shanty of wooden carvings, masks, local instruments, jewelry, and eager salesmen and women, each insisting "It's free to look! Come in, come in!"
The canopy walk of Kakum National Park, in the Central Region: 100% worth the vaguely terrifying trip there and the hike up to the start of the walk. I have no idea how people have time to be afraid in this situation - the sheer beauty of it all is much too distracting to be bothered by things like the ridiculously slim possibility of plunging to the ground.
Beginning the walk from Kakum back to Cape Coast, public transportation being limited to shared taxis and tro tros (aka death vans packed to the brim with people).
Cape Coast, just over four hours east of Accra along the coastline, and home of Cape Coast Castle, a former fortress and slave hold - the unavoidable evidence of the grim truths of the Atlantic slave trade.
Street vendors in Accra certainly made good on the Black Stars' impressive run towards the World Cup semi-finals. A sad twist of fate and a notorious Uruguayan by the name of Louis Suarez (who would be in physical danger if he ever again steps foot on African soil) ended their run in the quarter finals, but no one could say that Ghana did not make Africa proud - and had the whole continent behind her, in the mean time.
The town of Krobo, in the Eastern Region, Shai Hills in the distance.

Below: A mosque near the Agyares' home in Tema, just east of Accra. Though the majority of Ghanaians are Christian (nearly 70%), 16% are Muslim and nearly 9% are "traditional"... keeping in mind, of course, that tribal tradition can - and does - easily run deeper even than religion and remain an integral factor.