Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In Solidarity: I Stand with a New Last Name

In honor of the righteous anger and justified rebellion that has been unfolding in this country, I have decided now, 3 years and 9 months to the date of my marriage to my life companion, to change my last name.  I do this now, in part, because my husband is black in America and is Liberian by nationality and between Ebola and Fergeson, 2014 has been excruciating.  And, if, in this small gesture of solidarity, I can stand more united with my chosen tribe, than I chose to do this while screaming from the rooftops that I am incensed. 

I had kept my maiden name for both clear and unclear reasons.  I married late and like many others who had worked hard to define themselves professionally, I felt my branding had been complete.  I had finished a doctorate program and was published in professional journals and any other name felt like an alter ego and a jab at the feminist professional inside of me.  I had worked so hard to establish a trademark and I had planned to keep it.  I mentioned these feelings brewing inside of me to my soon to be husband as our wedding day drew near and, without a bat of the eye, he simply said, “That makes sense, don’t change it,” never to bring it up again.  Our names represented each of us and neither of us thought it was necessary to change anything.  

But, now, big gestures feel necessary.  Between Ebola ravishing my husband’s native land and Fergeson & Staten Island highlighting the faults in my own – every little detail seems to matter. There have been so many unfair and unjustified deaths in such a short time.  Each one of these deaths matter and they all feel personal. 

My Children
One day after my husband and I were married, we began the paperwork to send for his biological son, in Liberia, with his biological mother's full support and commitment to what she perceived as a better life for her son.  How do I tell her that he may be more safe there than he is here? 

23 agonizing months later, he arrived.  During the wait, we had our first child - a beautiful, intense, satisfied little girl named Sia (a Liberian tribal name for first born daughter).  Without discussion, she was given her father’s last name and gentle disposition and I felt unaffected by the fact my last name was different. 

Shortly after our son arrived, things started to stir.  First, his name (Prishad) was somewhat hard to pronounce here in America; and, given Alvin is the first name listed on his birth certificate, he started to respond to and wholeheartedly endorse a name he had never before embraced.  He did this without hesitation or an identity crisis and it made me think.  And, while I had loved this child from the moment I knew he existed, long before I had ever met him, I wasn't prepared for the unadulterated adoration, pride and respect I would feel for this young man.  He is gentle and compassionate and athletic and handsome and has singlehandedly made his sister a more interesting and interested individual.  There is a laugh inside of her that exists solely because of and for her brother.  

Now, these two little beings share my husband's last name and I have to admit there have been a few rare moments of envy over the last few years. A sense of separation; a sense of  ‘outsiderness’.  And yet, each time that envy struck, I was stuck with equal force by my investment in my own singular identity and it ended up being a wash. 

My quills started to go up when I was repeatedly asked to give ID and proof that I had a familiar connection to my son.  May it have been an after school program, a basketball registration or a library card certification - it wore on me that I needed to show multiple forms of identity to clarify our connection.  “Why the different last name?” I was asked repeatedly.  I say this knowing full well this experience has been exponentially more intense for the foster mother of one of my son's classmates: a gentle and kind African American woman, who decided to foster-to-adopt the fair-skinned young son of a man she briefly dated when she discovered he was being brutally abused in his home.  She not only decided to get as far away from this man as possible, she took this young boy, who was biologically unrelated to her, with her. I have no doubt her experience is ten times more intense than my own.  Once again my white privilege cuts me a break. 

But I digress, when it comes to these two young beings - I have a fierce desire to be as immediately and literally tied to them as quickly as humanly possible so there are no questions about who is looking out for them.  When a child is one color and his mother another, people hesitate.  They hesitate in an effort to make sense of it.    I want, no, I need, my connection to my son to be clear and undeniable. I want to make it as clear as possible that yes, he and I are connected, and, if anyone - even a badge carrying, gun slinging cop, decides to mess with him, than they are also messing with me.  With the current state of affairs in the air, I am concerned for his safety in my cells.  Sharing a name with him is a gift. It quickens the beat of my heart.

My Country
I believe the United States can be better and can work for systemic change.  In the few short years since my husband has arrived on his full ride scholarship to graduate school, he has been ostracized, marginalized, discriminated against and misunderstood.  He was locked out of the home of a young white girl in Tennessee for learning that a group meeting was being held at her home without being formally invited.  He showed up (with donuts) and she locked all the doors, closed all the curtains and called the cops.  The white cop who showed up and spoke with both parties and then told him that although he believed my husband's story, he best leave and talk to the professor about an alternative assignment. 

Given my husband is from Africa, he has also been asked if he had worn clothes before he arrived in America and if he had lived in trees and rode elephants.  This is a man who has a masters degree in IT engineering and was employed as the Senior Information and Communications Technology Assistant for the United Nations World Food Programme.  He is undoubtedly more traveled than the large majority of Americans. 

He has been pulled over by the police at least a dozen times; and, in an attempt to have a young white man be held accountable for stealing his backpack from the seat next to him in his school's library (with 3 witnesses including the librarian), he was forced to stand by while the white female cop asked the thief if for any he wanted to press charges against my husband. 

These events should not be dismissed as odd or peculiar; rather, they must be publicly acknowledged and understood before any resolution can be reached.  In all these examples something happened that is very difficult for us Americans to talk about, but clearly needs to be for the sake of clarity.  This is discrimination and although it’s a difficult topic for us to explore, it needs to be seriously investigated prior to putting recent events to rest. 

In my humble opinion, recent events showcase some of what makes the contemporary experience of race in America so different from just about anything this country has had to negotiate before.  In this era of political correctness, racism has become more subtle and perhaps more subversively dangerous than ever before. Today’s racism is a racism that is often difficult to see, touch, and define but nevertheless exists and tempers the ways in which people across racial lines react to one another and interact with each other.  How else can one explain the bizarre outcome of grand juries and the odd nature my husband's classmate reacted to his appearance on her front porch? 

 His Country
Now, I have yet to say what last name I am about to embrace with all my heart.  I imagine some of you are expecting a name that will have some flavor of "Africa."  If that is the case, I beg you to listen and listen carefully.  The name I am about to embrace is Mitchell.  Odd perhaps?  Well no, not at all.  My husband is a descendent of the freed slaves.  These freed slaves either chose to or were encouraged to return to Africa when slavery ended.  While I am looking towards Africa, the roots of my new name lie much closer to home.  Liberia literally means the Land of the Free and its current president is a graduate of Harvard.  Liberians see their country as the baby brother to America while the large majority of Americans would have a hard time finding it on a map or differentiating it from Libya.  I actually heard the following when I told someone that I was returning to Liberia for a second contract (in part, due to the fact I realized I was madly and deeply in love with a man and that it wasn't a mission affair to be forgotten): "Hu. I didn't realize Gaddafi let Americans in." While we should be ashamed of how we responded to the Ebola crisis, we should be extra ashamed of our lack of knowledge of our shared history. 

Being an ally in Liberia's development and recovery and America’s issues with racial inequality are integral to my decision.  I align myself with the dimensional story that is tied to my husband’s identity and I revel in how it makes me feel.  I have been granted so much privilege based purely on who I am (white, straight, educated, middle class) and I need to act.  While I can’t improve the experience of those who don’t have my access to power and resources, I’d like to let them know I stand united and I can’t breathe.

The Transition 
I have just submitted to the paperwork to make Mitchell my legal last name and move Vogel back to become my middle name. I am about to become Gwen Vogel Mitchell.

In the end, I took my husband's name as well as my children's and their ancestors. This name has ties both to Africa as well as America. Claiming Lorenzo's last name is my way of connecting us all a tiny bit more.  Whenever anyone says it, they are also saying the names of everyone I now feel intimately connected to even though some would want to deny it.  Soon my son will be 17 and I feel this incredible need to let everyone know that I am tied to this young man and nothing, I mean nothing, will happen to him on my watch.  

The Take Home
We are being naïve if we think that we can sit down and intellectualize ourselves out of the subtext of what has unfolded.  If we believe the general success of ending blatant types of racial discrimination means that we are done with racism’s awful legacy for good, then I fear we are gravely mistaken.  Little of what is being alleged can be easily proven or disproved and I’m certain it is difficult for some to digest, but I am not asking everyone to agree with everything, I am only asking for everyone who reads this to process and explore what has been happening so things like this happen less frequently. 

Shortly after President Obama was elected, former President Jimmy Carter made a statement claiming that much of the opposition to Obama was in fact racist in nature. Carter stated “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American.”   I used to think the problem was that modern racism is subtle and that it was rare that someone will make an overtly racist comment. Sadly, we have all learned that racism is alive and well, simmering beneath the surface, in the form of deeply held attitudes of disdain and mistrust. It may be unconscious – but we would be fooling ourselves if we tried to claim it isn’t still around. 

How does one fight such racism? How does one act against something so subtle yet potentially so powerful? Serious and honest self-reflection is perhaps a good first step.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

9.9 kgs

The adventure began with my inquisitive daughter stepping on the baggage weight machine as we checked in for the first leg of our 36 hour journey to Myanmar. I briefly glanced down and noticed she weighed 9.9 kgs. I quickly compared it to the 21 pounds I estimated her to weigh in America and moved on. I had not realized that exactly 72 hours later while standing in the local corner market, the knowledge of her weight in kgs would be essential to me purchasing the first of many strange brands of diapers across the globe. I was prepared for the big differences of travel with a baby, but it is these little things, like buying diapers based on kilograms, that come to mind when I think about sharing the story of my adventures in Southeast Asia with my 10 month old daughter.

 I’ve always liked getting lost in the streets of places I end up. I typically do this by exiting my place of residence and walking without a destination in mind. I am sure to put on a pair of comfortable shoes and activate my profound appreciation for witnessing daily life, in all its shapes, smells and tempos. What I have come to realize on this trip, is that the scope of my expos will be significantly shortened by the addition of 9.9 kgs to my hip, the extreme heat and humidity of July in Southeast Asia, and a keen realization there are no baby changing bathrooms in all of Yangon.

This shrinking of my new world has not however depreciated my adventure, but rather, it has quickly deepened my familiarity with, and connection to, what lies much closer to my home base (which happens to be a quaint little unfurnished two bedroom apartment with a water basin and bucket shower in a building full of locals). In only 5 days, I have a mango vendor picked out who adds in one extra mango for free each time due to an appreciation of Sia’s curly hair. Next there are three precious little bread shop sellers who eagerly grab Sia from my hip to click and hum at her while I browse. There are also a fleet of local Shan soup shop waitresses who are all smiles and wave each time we pass.  Last but not least, there is a little girl a few months older than Sia at the local dress shop who always pounds on the glass as we pass to say hi, beckoning Sia to pay her a visit.  All we adore for their efforts to make us feel at home in our new home.

 I’m sure there will be much more to come but these are the top ten things I have learned about traveling to a foreign land as a mommy of a 10 month old:

 1) As David Sedaris so aptly pointed out, folks in different countries make different sounds for things such as how a dog barks or how a cat meows. By simply getting here, I discovered that people from different countries make different sounds when they encounter a baby. While I think we would say people in America say goo-goo-ga-ga (although I have never actually heard an American say that to my baby and in reality most people tend to either ignore babies or make direct comment to the mother about something they noticed about her parenting style). In Japan, folks tend to make a sort of hissing sound; in Singapore it is more of a click, and here in Myanmar folks click from their cheeks followed by a big smile.

 2) It is much easier to feed a child with a pair of chop sticks than with any of the 10 dollar specialty baby spoons we are suckered into buying in the West.

 3) Bucket showering with a small baby is a delight. They appear to feel much more in control of their bathing experience and really get into the splashing it takes to gets things done.

 4) A baby is the best bargaining chip out there. I feel 10 times less hassled with “foreigner prices” this go around, even though there are significantly more foreigner around raising the prices. Taxi drivers and street vendors alike appear to give discounts instead the minute they see this exotic looking 10 month old on my hip.

 5) If Sia were able to answer the “what meal would you choose if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life” she would, hands down, say Shan Noodles. Tonight, we had it for the third time in five days, and when I opened the container she flew across the room to get to it but then sat down patiently to be fed with the chop sticks. Then, after a helping had not quite made it in her mouth, she busted up in giggles when she got to suck up a long noodle that was hanging out of her mouth. To top it all off, a few short minutes after I believed we were finished eating, I turned my head to discover her sucking noodles off the floor. Sia clearly needs a t-shirt that says I heart Shan Noodles.

 6) My child has lost all angst over bedtime and sleeps soundly throughout the night. For a week straight the minute I see her rub her eyes I grab her bottle and she lies back in my arms and closes her eyes. She then finishes her bottle and blissfully transitions to bed. I don’t know if it is the sheer exhaustion of processing everything new she has been experiencing, or the heat or something about our new environment, but it is indeed, amazing.

 7) I had no idea I would feel this way, but I like places where people feel it is only natural to grab the child you are carrying out of your arms the minute they are close enough to reach for them. Everywhere I go here, women and men alike, are constantly grabbing Sia from me to hold. Either while I browse, or simply because they couldn't help themselves and wanted to hold her, they grab for her everywhere I go. Sometimes she is fine with it and lays a smile or a ‘high-five’ on them, and sometimes she is not and reaches back for me. These strangers are fine with either one of her responses and simply hand her back or hold her and pass her around with clicks and giggles. This tendency is true in Africa as well and I think it is a bit sad that the comfort zones of Westerners have become so large and defined that even the thought of reaching for the child of a stranger (even if the mother appears in need of any extra hand) would instantly set off the amber alert app on at least 10 phones in the nearby vicinity. It is worth noting that this comment is coming from a girl who has a history of having a rather large comfort zone and a zero tolerance for the unplanned hug. Nowadays, I am the one forcing the hug on the unexpected and tearing up with my child places a slimy open mouth kiss on my nose or mouth.

 8) My favorite quotes I have heard thus far about Sia include: “Oh those lips, I just want to eat them” "her hair! It so curly!" and “’Is that baby part African?’ ‘Why yes.” ‘Oh my! You have a Barack Obama baby; she is half African, half America and is living in Asia. She is charmed. She will do great things.”

 9) What can feel exhausting as an adult – the process of trying to understand a foreign language, appears to be the most interesting and stimulating experience to a little baby. I constantly see her turning her head to watch someone talk as if recognizing it is not familiar and yet knowing it is utterly possible.

 10) There are no boundaries to being a proud mama. Today in the furniture shop (I splurged and spent 50 bucks on a table, chair and a few floor pillows for the empty apartment), Sia was cruising around checking out all the furniture and a woman asked me how old she was. After I told her she was 10 months old she walked away. A few moments later she had returned with 5 other women talking very fast in Burmese. When I asked my friend what they were saying, she smiled and said, “She is telling them all that your baby is only 10 months old and look at her walk!” They are all very impressed.” Proud, proud, mama, indeed.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Defining moments

I just had a friend tease me about the stories that I tell connected to my adventures as a humanitarian aid worker. Specifically, she found it admirable that I still regularly take bucket showers when I am living in IPD or refugee camps and it is rare for me to have hot water when working in the field. To her, “bucket showers” was not even a term. I’m not sure it is either but it just feels right. I go to a well or a faucet, I gather water in buckets and then I go somewhere with those buckets and I take a shower. Bucket showers, right?

My experiences in the field have been exciting and monotonous, developmentally promotional and developmentally regressive, overwhelming and unremarkable. In other words it has been a life like any other. If I choose to start all the way at the beginning my memories are hazy and I don’t know what’s important. Once upon a time a girl was born. Is that the appropriate place to start or is that overdoing it? If not there then where? Without my childhood my adulthood may not make sense.

It is difficult to capture how the monotony and the extremes have impacted me. Defining moments that either broke my heart or filled me with joy are not truly known at the time they happen, they only became known with time, life and reflection. They things that have ended up getting ingrained into my defining narrative are not all exactly what I would have predicted. Had I known what was happening in the world as a small girl, or I had known what was to come, I would have borne the insults of childhood and my college years with more fortitude but at the time they felt monumental. The tragedy and the gift of living is that we cannot and will not know which will be our defining moments.

But then again, maybe all of this doesn’t matter and I am over thinking this. Maybe the unknown is the adventure and the monotonous is what we all relate to. Looking back I see many different versions of me, all me, and yet somehow not.

When I think of myself at the age of 12 I feel as if everything was scary and everyone around me was moving at a lightning speed pace towards adulthood and I was shaking in my boots. I didn’t want to grow up. I wanted to play in forts build deep in the woods with my brother and Jeff and I wanted to ride skateboards behind bikes and play badminton late at night. I didn’t want to think about spin the bottle or tight rolling my faded Guess jeans. I was constantly afraid of being teased and I didn’t know how to make my hair feather like the cool kids. I was desperately distraught, almost constantly, and yet maybe that angst was good for me, giving me resilience and character and had things been too easy for me back then, then maybe I would have taken the wrong track and ended up pregnant and alone by age 20.

When I think of myself at the age of 14 I feel as if I was just the right age then. More able than I ever was before, or since. I loved my dog, I worshipped my father. I respected by brother’s fervor. I adored reading and I passionately played sports.

My twenties were a rollercoaster. I studied hard and I played hard and I loved my downtime with my college pals. I fell in love with a guy who walked into Rhetoric class one day and played his guitar and sang a song for an assignment and he loved me back. My only regret is that I was so wound up with anxiety and fear that I couldn't enjoy it completely. I got good grades and I studied abroad. I worked hard in restaurants and I was proud of my hard earned money. However, I never felt comfortable in my skin and I worried that although people saw me as grounded and centered, I was anything but and I would forever be a doubting, fretting woman, desperately afraid of letting go but wanting to appear empowered; a fake in feminist clothing.

Things got better in my thirties and now when people ask me why I do what I do, I say I have done it for two reasons. The first is I have decided not to live my life like an ostrich with its head in the sand. The world is a messed up place. War and hatred and racism and discrimination are everywhere like an airborne disease, stealing the souls of the innocent. Wars are started and no one is warned that children will definitely die and souls will forever be lost. If for no other reason, I hope that I am remembered for trying to ease the suffering. It is small but hopefully it is something. The second reason, and this might sound strange, but I know it like it was written in my DNA. The reason is simple: I was and always have been searching for one man. Maybe the Buddists are right and we are constantly reborn searching for our one true soul mate. Maybe in my last life my soul mate happened to have been a woman like me and thus I now feel so passionately about GLBT rights. Or, maybe a few lives before that I was a dog and my soul mate was a human and I was loyal to the bone and this human treated me right and I told myself that if the table was ever turned, I would be sure to always treat my animals, all animals with loving kindness and compassion. But this life was different. This life my soul mate happened to have been living on the continent of Africa and fortunately, due to a few small life choices, I ended up in Mamba Point on the right day at the right time and I met him.

When it comes to my international aid work, I feel like I only have scattered and unattached recollections: a long walk with nomadic Housa at the tail end of my stay in Yelwa; a small boy sweating in his school uniform hot with malaria fever in Foya; students vigilantly reading their torn and tattered school notebooks underneath a street light persisting in their refusal to accept farming in their small village as their predetermined destiny and that secondary school is only for the lucky few; mosquitoes and moths trying desperately to break the seal of many malaria bed nets; a goat being slaughtered facing Mecca; Housa/Kpelle/Madingo/Bassa/Shan/Thai/Burmese/Arabic being spoken all around me, both shielding me and excluding me from the nuances of everyday life; the taste of souya, mojinia and benniseed on the streets where the local language mixes with broken English in the service of guaranteeing themselves a paying customer.

These are the things I think of when I try to collect my stories into some sort of formable tale. But now what? What’s next? I fear I can’t do it. It’s simply too hard. How does one gather all their recollections up into one flowing story? It’s as if my memories are like a large disordered Japanese cartoon book and the child filling it all in didn’t stay within the lines and doesn’t understand the language. Maybe the key is to keep trying………………for now, I suppose I will.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dancing Peacocks, Red Dragons and Tuskless Elephants:

The work…
Sitting in the small room with no furniture and black and grey carpet on the ground, my feet bare and my chin resting on one knee, I was transfixed. It was, beautiful; at times tragic, at times tender, but constantly and unrelentingly beautiful. I could feel the connectedness of the participants in the room and could sense the change in everyone. I could feel warmth in space that had previously been neutral. It was a feeling of presence rather than absence and I knew it had worked. We had hoped to create an experiential space for feeling what it’s like to be in safe space where you are able to say anything and feel anything and it had worked. We all chose to participate and rather than facilitate a space of academic learning we had all created a space of emotional learning. This is, in my personal opinion, what it takes to truly be a great counselor. Not theory, not supposition, but the capacity to build a relationship and to sit, just sit, with intense emotions.
Interesting, and to the credit of my talented local trainers, it seemed that with time I became less and less noticeable. I, the tall, looming, foreigner with big feet and a strange name, had become background noise and with time it appeared participants tended to notice one thing about me when I spoke up – that they hadn’t noticed me earlier. I became recessive and long stretches of time would pass before anyone realized that I was there. Impact assessment interviews suggest the real meaning behind the work is simple: helping people realize every human being has dignity and value and that we are all human beings. A small group of HIV+ women here reminded of this simple truth and once again I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given to simply be with people and to see their burning capacity to be great. Although the experiential trainings I have facilitated here have been some of the most powerful experiences of my personal and professional life, I will stop there in my description of recent events because everything else belongs to the group and we all promised the important promise of confidentiality.

What I have been reflecting upon….
My time in the developing world always offers me one thing, intellectual refuge. I typically notice but don’t truly recognize how noisy my life in the developed world is. And, although in some ways I have no doubt that my life in Yangon and Fang and Gbarnga and Voinjama and Yelwa have actually been surrounded by more noise than I am surrounded by in Denver, I find I am still able to sit in almost total silence when I am away. Strange scents waft over me and new flavors dance on my tongue but the visual vistas seem to be more defined and my mind gets a little more free, my time a little less varied and unbroken. I realize when I am out of my home environment that it is important to take a break to roam and that it becomes evident that if I allow it to happen my mind making quick and clear connections and my imagination is unfettered and supple. I can stay with these thoughts for as long as I able and then I am back to my baseline way of being, slightly anxious, undoubtedly neurotic and slightly odd. My only hope is that I can hold on to some of this for a while because I have found that the fast paced American way makes it even more difficult for me to simply be and the minute I land my mind and my body just start to run.

Dream about californication…..

First imagine the beat that accompanies a well dressed, well rehearsed, lathered up lounge singer. The beat is smooth but slightly reminiscent of elevator music and every song, no matter what its original form, comes in long drawn out stanzas. Now stop and take a minute to place the following words on top of these loungy beats…………….

Beautiful girls. All over the world. I can get chasin my time would be wastin. They got nothing on you baby. You shouldn’t worry casue they got nothing on you baby. Nothing on you baby.
Loungy harp beat……………transition and then…Tic toc on the clock. Trying to get a little tispy tonight I’m going to fight until you see the sunlight. Tick toc on the clock the party don’t stop. Got a care in the world…Whoo whoo who ohhh

There it is. My attempt to capture one subtle aspect of what I love about this place is to describe the way they manage to make a lounge song out of every single hit that comes their way. Every time I show up it seems I have briefly forgotten this playful pastime, but the minute I walk into a coffee shop or shopping center the sounds coming out of the speakers quickly remind me where I am – lounge singer heaven.
My thinking about why this is so is as follows: Due to tight sanctions and economic oppression, the community at large has plenty of troubles to worry about and plenty of threats to keep them quiet and under wraps; but, this country is also a place that simply refuses to be oppressed and has the sneaky savvy and brains to make it happen and to laugh at those in charge may they be politicians, millionaires or superstars. In some ways this is a place frozen in time and one can glean from the 80s style fashion and punchy humor that they have been exposed to little that has unfolded with regards to pop culture over the last three decades in the rest of the world. With that noted, this place may actually be ahead of the curve with regards to fashion and style (given 80s is once again retro) and are able to pull out the true gems as they come along and hold onto them much longer than the fast passed easily bored masses in the West. They get access to things in slow sneaky ways and need to savor every moment they are doing something they shouldn’t be – which quickly adds up to just about anything. For example, it is illegal to gather in groups of more than 4 people and suicide is a crime punishable by death and if you leave the country and say something against the ruling party and then come back you get a free taxi ride to the nearest prison. So there it is – my analysis of fashion, music and style in a place I have come to love deeply and a place that constantly makes me smile.

Very soon I will post something a little more serious.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

391 meters below sea level

Today I visited the Dead Sea. This extraordinary body of intense blue water, polished smooth like an oiled skin on a windless day in winter, is a sea like no other. The water is 9 times as salty as that of the ocean – 31% to be exact; and, it makes for an almost intolerable environment for all but the most microscopic of life forms. At one point I was relaxing at the edge of a trendy resort infinity pool, surrounded by locals swimming with their prayer beads and foreign couples engaging in insinuating acts of public displays of affection, and I peered out over the horizon and simply gazed at the calm blue water and salt dunes in awe. In that moment I was overwhelmed by gratitude for the adventures I have been able to embark on thus far in my life.

Interestingly, the concentration of salt has nothing to do with the Dead Sea being below sea level; rather it comes about because of the high evaporation rate. The water’s oily minerals also contain healthy properties. I read that German health insurance covers periodic visits to the Dead Sea for psoriasis patients to visit and luxuriate in the healing waters. It made me wonder if Kaiser will reimburse me for my visit when I get back home. Although the Dead Sea is 3 million years old, it has shrunk by 30% in recent years due to evaporation and the demands of the potash industries from Jordan and Israel.

While swimming in the salty waters, the first thing I noticed was every minor cut on my body. After the sting subsided I was slightly annoyed by the water that had managed to get in my eyes and mouth. But, a few moments later I was acclimated and blown away by the sensory experience of “swimming” in the Dead Sea. The best part about it was that I was actually bobbing rather than swimming. You literally float on the top of the water and at one point I watched a local man covered in mud literally float while he read a newspaper. It appeared as if he was sitting in an invisible lounge chair. The other interesting thing I observed was swimwear made for the women in the region. A nylon cotton combination of fabric covers women from head to toe. Although it may have been the novelty of it for me, but I have to admit I found these prudish suits to be much more enticing and alluring than the two piece bikinis I saw many French, Germans and Danish swimming around in.

My departure for and arrival to Jordan was filled with many emotions. While on the one hand, I was touched and honored to have been asked to help with this very interesting and meaningful program aimed at offering mental health services to Iraqi torture survivors, I was also in the midst of processing some pretty intense recent events and I wondered how the two would mix. My contract will have me in Jordan for one brief month. I am already well aware that this is not enough time to do justice to the work or the experience. Fortunately, it appears this trip has indeed been good for my mind and my soul and each and every day I seem to heal a little and learn something about this very interesting country and its people while still being able to process my own material and recent events.

The first thing I noticed about the country was the chalky white gestalt of the buildings laid on top of the hills and in the cracks of the valleys of Amman. It’s as if an elaborate city has been drawn on a chalkboard and the fragility of the beauty could be erased with one foul swoop from an angry God. The suspected vulnerability of it makes it all the more breathtaking.

The next thing I noticed was how much is going on here beneath the surface. Jordan has sheltered millions of refugees in recent decades which have changed the demography of the country forever. Palestinians now account for the majority of the population and their struggle, their beliefs and their desires have seeped into every element of the culture here. Clearly, there is much I am not seeing or understanding and, yet, what I am seeing suggests that nationality and religion are only a few of the unique threads that bind Jordanian society.

Alomst every single person I have met has wanted, maybe even needed, to tell me that they are Palestinian. They may be second generation Jordanian, born in the UAE or America, but each one of them has taken the time to tell me that they are first and foremost Palestinian. Just last week I asked if there were any museums in Irbid, the town I am living in (which is also the second largest city in Jordan), and I was informed that while yes, there was, and I could get directions easily, a few of my female staff members quietly told me they could not accompany me to this museum because their Palestinian families would be confused, or maybe even upset, by their child’s expressed desire to visit a Jordanian historical site.

While first generation kids in America often report they are in fact American because they were born there by the time they turn 10, third generation kids in Jordan will proudly report they are Palestinian with a Jordanian passport. Nationality here is defined by the father’s blood and thus there is a continuous chain of passing on Palestinian nationality to children. Therefore, it appears Palestinian immigrants altogether avoid the overt process of assimilation while integrating with ease. There is much the American immigration movement could learn from the Jordanian situation as it appears Jordanians are confident enough in themselves and their country to not be insulted by refugee or immigrant national pride with their home country and Palestinians feel connected to both identities, forever and always. In many ways the conversation has been changed from an issue of giving up the old and accepting the new to accepting the new and holding on to the old.

The first thing I noticed about myself since my arrival to Jordan was that that time and space opened up once again for me to be reflective and thoughtful. While it is painfully hard to be in another new country where I do not know the language, it is strangely freeing to have such a huge bubble created around me where I am not influenced by the passing comments of strangers. The most pervasive and looming thoughts I have been having about my time in Jordan thus far have been about gender.

In just a few short days one thing has become glaringly evident to me. The impact of gender permeates everything. Interestingly, every travel book and memoir I have read about the region in preperation, including a memoir writing by an American called Live for Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East, were all undoubtedly written by men and did nothing to preapre me for this simple fact. While educational and instructive, nothing in these insightful books, aside from a few “warnings” for the female traveler, speaks to the experience of being a lone woman navigating a Middle Eastern County.

The experience is difficult to capture with words. I had come here thinking that with my dark features I might be able to “pass” as an invisible Jordanian mute. That, as long as I wasn’t asked to say anything, I could simply watch and learn in the moments of quiet exploration on the streets and remain unremarkable. I was however gravely mistaken. Excluding the fact that I have not been covering my head (which is somewhat uncommon here), there appears to be something about the way I walk or the way I carry myself that outs me to every man, woman, and child on the street. Every single moment that I have spent on the streets of Jordan (which admittedly is much more than the average woman or man because my dog Tuesday has taught me to be a lover of the long stroll), everyone around me has been fully and evidently aware I am not from here. Male taxi drivers drive up, honk and slow down, assuming I must be looking for a ride because no woman in her right mind would walk alone here on these relatively safe streets. Restaurant staff appear baffled by my bold attempts to engage, discuss and connect. I know some of this is cultural, but the feminist in me struggles to control herself as there are times where I can tell I am being judged for being self-assured. Over the course of the day, it gradually starts to wear on me and I start to intentionally make eye contact with men or attempt to talk and engage with women and children while I explore alone because the strong, confident, feminist in me wants men and women in this part of the world to know that WE are indeed equal and should, in fact, be treated that way. A few times these encounters have ended wonderfully with young teenage boys and girls laughing and asking if they could practice their English with me. Other times it was less clear what the impact was.

While I know some readers may be thinking, ‘but Gwen you are in a foreign country and it is good to respect the norms and values of the country you are visiting.’ To that I shake my head in agreeance and nod solemnly and promise to check myself and try and control my assertive feminist streak; but, mark my words, the minute I get back out there on the streets and I notice some gesture of inequality or injustice towards women, my thoughts and feelings will go unchecked and I will proudly start acting like a woman empowered. For example, just the ohter day I noticed a basketball/football court near my all women’s apartment complex and I boldly stopped to watch the men play a pick-up game. No one else was watching and the men kept looking up to see if I was still there and what I was doing. My first thought was I could hold my own with them, if only they would let me play. When I told Lorenzo about this thought, he laughed and said you better be sure to make sure every inch of your skin is covered before you step out there to play. I love that he laughed and I love that he didn’t say ‘no you can’t!’

Right or wrong, being a assertive, sporty, playful woman is simply who I am and I only hope that a few women here, maybe the ones who have been blocked from studying abroad simply because they are women and their brothers got first dibs, or the ones who are forbidden to drive or get a job, will see me and smile secretly under the veils and whisper – one day.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

boats, bikes and horse carts.........

It was 4 in the morning and I awoke to pack. I would need to grab a taxi and get to the domestic departure gate by 5:30 am. True to form, I was notably early so I grabbed a coffee and tried to get comfortable in the hard airport seats while working on another book on my beloved kindle. The flight was uneventful and upon arrival I quickly identified the taxi my hotel had arranged for me because he was proudly holding a sign that said: “Jeun Voghel: Party of One.” I smiled immediately as I have seen many strange variations of my name in Asian countries and on taxi signboards. The taxi driver caught my smile and grinned back proudly, clearly excited that he had found me pleased with his practical sign.

In the vicinity of Bagan exist some of the most amazing Pagodas, stuppas, temples and monasteries I have ever seen. They are sprinkled haphazardly across the rolling green country side. Rather than discovering one massive monument to a king or honorable Buddha, I found a paradise so unique its vista had never occurred to me before, not even in my dreams. Once upon a time Bagan, with its enchanted stories of sovereign love affairs and twilight air, was a thriving capital for royalty and a famous center for Buddhism and I felt like I had traveled back in time.

Having completed checking into my hotel, I took off on foot consciously aware I only had 71 hours left to conquer this enchanting city. I sauntered down the road stopping first at a temple that highlighted the seven stops Buddha made at a similar temple in India. There was a place for sitting meditation, standing meditation, walking meditation, rest in the shade and protection from rain. Next I read a randomly placed rock with a carved out story of a peasant and his undying love for a princess. I then continued on the main road until I reached the brick gates to Old Bagan.

My horrific sense of direction failed me once again and rather than taking a right, I went left. A few short paces later a couple of locals riding a motorbike did a double take and then awkwardly braked and backed up to chat with me. Apparently my dark hair had thrown them for a loop and they thought that it was possible that I was a Myanmar native returning from the Diaspora. Clearly I was too “healthy”, tall, and oddly dressed to truly be from around there, but my dark hair and universal features once again tricked a few natives (as they have done in Bosnia, Morocco, Egypt and the Czech Republic during prior travels).

Their names were Aung Aung and Ko Lat and although they were “off duty” they agreed to show me around, not as a tour guide per say, but as a “friend.” I was skeptical as this newly formed friendship had blossomed in less than 43 seconds and I could see dollar signs dancing in their eyes, but I liked their style and the way they laughed and I figured it was better than being lost and alone for the day.

Bagan has a savvy tourism industry full of registered government “approved” tour guides, locals with horse carts available to rent by the hour, racks of bikes for use for a small fee, and flocks of kids selling post cards, clothing and paintings. They all speak uncanny, albeit limited English, full of sales industry speak like; “hey! Where you from? I’ve got a great deal for you, just ten for a buck”, “I’ll take lipstick”, “you got pencil?” and, “Oh my Buddha!” Their ruthlessness to make the sale only accentuates the untamed beauty in and around Bagan. In many of the pagodas and stuppas old Pali inscriptions and Buddha images can be found. As sunset approached the quiet seemed to deepen and I had this strange feeling it might actually be possible to see a magical white elephant glide across the country side adorned in royal dress.

As the day came to an end Aung Aung had been a perfect gentleman and Ko Lat was his lingering shadow, secretly formulating how they could get the most out of their mark. Although I had yet to let my guard down and I feared the lingering up-sale, I was eventually talked into a two hour horse cart ride (which I will never regret) and I warmed to these two playful cousins who were willing to talk about the darker side of Bagan with a forthrightness that is rare to come by in a country of unspeakable truths. As soon as the sun set I agreed to meet them the following day for a bike ride to New Bagan. Aung Aung wanted me to meet his family and I was hoping to get off the grid.

The next morning I rose at four am once again because I wanted to see the sunrise and hoped to see a few monks start their day asking for alms and offering a way for locals to make merit. I had expected to be suffering from the after-effects of a day of travel and time spent in a simple horse cart, but, in fact, I had slept extremely well and suffered from no aches or pains.

When I stepped outside it was still dark. I have never ceased to be amazed by the sense of the world lying dormant and vulnerable, waiting to be awakened by the light of a new day lingering just beyond the horizon.

After breakfast and some time spent with my kindle, I started towards the front desk to rent a bike. After years of struggling to find ways to be still I have realized that stillness for me comes with a book in my hand and my imagination and mind in a world of words. Reading is my best form of meditation and after an hour with coffee and Wendell Berry’s The Art of Commonplace, I was ready for what the day had to offer.

As soon as I reached the gate with my classic cruiser loaded with a handy basket and bell I immediately recognized Aung Aung and Ko Lat waiting peacefully by their motorbike. The first thought that went through my head was that we had experienced a misunderstanding the day before and they hadn’t understood I had wished to rent a bicycle, not a motorbike. Upon inquiry they quickly shock their heads and said, “No, no, we understood but we have a motorbike so why would we ride a bike.” I had to laugh for the day ahead with me peddling hard on dusty paths alongside a modern day motorbike loaded with two locals was going to bring a few glances.

The first thing Aung Aung thought we should do was to go check out the local fishing village as his father was a fisherman and fishing was a large part of the local way of living. I agreed assuming this was another stop on the well traveled lonely planet travel book tour, but as soon as we arrived I quickly realized we were well off the usual path and today would indeed be an interesting adventure. The kids and mothers in the local houses looked strangely at me as I stopped to take a few pictures of adorable young puppies and fishing nets.

Upon reaching the waterside I realized there was much more to Bagan than meets the eye. The first thing that was striking was the poverty in the fishing villages, next came the large group of local men who appeared to be building a massive boat, welding it out of medal on the beach. Aung Aung quietly whispered, “no pictures of that” and pointed to a similar enormous craft floating in the middle of the Irrawaddy with a massive crane on it, proudly flying the new flag of Myanmar. I had no idea what it was for but it looked industrial and the flag indicated I shouldn’t ask any more questions. So we moved on.

We headed over to a small group of men, one was working on a fishing net and the other was cooking some tiny fish over a small fire. Aung Aung asked if I wanted to take a ride and I quickly agreed. He turned and asked the gentleman who was cooking and his eyes got huge and he asked, “is she sure she wants to ride in that,” pointing to his small wooden square framed canoe. I casually nodded in agreement and he giggled and said “let’s go.” The fisherman, Aung Aung, Ko Lat and I all carefully crawled on (me much more carefully than the others). We agreed to an hour long tour of the river with a quick stop at a hidden monastery in the woods that is known for its exceptional carpentry. About 45 minutes into the ride the fisherman briefly came ashore and indicated he needed to go chat with a friend. We agreed and about 5 minutes later he came back bearing gifts of fried fish cakes with onions and lettuce in it that was to be dipped in fish oil. I adored it and when I looked back after taking a large bite, I caught the old fisherman grinning a toothless smile. We sailed around for about 3 hours (2 hours more than the agreed upon hour for 3000 Kyat).

A seasonable cool had fallen in Bagan and I smiled when I caught myself shivering as I knew my cold blooded father and brother from Wisconsin would only shake their heads if they saw me suffering in 70 degree weather while they endured negative twenty back home. In recent years I have spent so much time in Asia and Africa that anything less than 75 degrees makes me run for sweaters and winter hats. On the trip to shore we discovered dozens of floating bamboo lanterns from a recent festival. Aung Aung carefully learned over and caught one that had a fragile blue shell and I secretly hoped we didn’t disrupt the wish that was likely made by the person who set this floating lantern adrift an evening or two prior.

Upon docking we grabbed our respective forms of transportation and started our hour long journey to New Bagan. Although New Bagan is indeed just that, a newly erected town outside Old Bagan with new hotels, gem shops and lacquer gift shops, it is also the home base of many monasteries and natives. Aung Aung and Ko Lat both live in New Bagan so we worked our way south through the active main streets towards old banyan trees and local tea shops. A few moments later we arrived at Aung Aung's house. A typical Burmese abode, it was sparsely furnished with a beautifully painted temple on the back wall and a TV set sitting on but unwatched on the other side of the room. The first thing I noticed was three large pictures hanging on the wall. The first, a picture of Aung Aung and his young wife; the second, a picture of Buddha; and, the third, a large portrait of a Japanese-Australian woman who had allegedly “adopted” Aung Aung a few years prior. Apparently, after spending a few days with Aung Aung, this woman agreed to buy him a horse so he could make a better income and adequately care for his family. He reverently spoke of her throughout the two days I spent with him and it was blaringly evident that this gesture of concern for a man this woman had briefly met on her own travel adventure had fundamentally changed this man’s life and the life of his family.

Aung Aung had apparently informed his wife of my pending visit and she had been cooking a modest but tasty meal all morning long. Because Aung Aung repeatedly expressed intense concern for not being able to offer me meat, I shyly bluffed and indicated it was OK because I was a vegetarian. After spending time with their daughter and buying what I will likely soon discover are fake gems from his neighbor, I sat down and enjoyed some rice and a spicy curry that was clearly cooked with generosity and care. I will always remember Aung Aung and his wife Ni Ni for this thoughtful gesture of kindness and I will never forget my two and a half day adventure in Bagan.

Total Pageviews