Nonexistent Lines

“We operate under the illusion that we are separate – individuals proudly defined by flesh and values and our differences from one another. And I think that’s how we got to this point.” Her words – her reaction to the collection of words I had shared with her the day before – suddenly injected new meaning into my own. What I had initially written as a direct expression of my physical surroundings at the time became, through her reframing, a larger commentary on the underlying essence of something at play in the turbulent social context in which we now find ourselves. It also reminded me of the beauty of art as something inherently relational, something that acquires endless variations of meaning in its capacity to be shared. Through this act of sharing, the creator in a way relinquishes ownership over the art and the meaning attached to it, whether or not intended, and therein creates the space for new dialogues to emerge not only between artist and audience but between artist and his or her own art.

I don’t write poetry. I am not a poet by any measure. But there are some experiences that feel only appropriate to express in an abstracted form. And as poets like Rilke have counseled to aspiring young writers, poetry should in fact be reserved for those things that you need to say, that you feel you would die if you were forbidden to say. If something “spread its roots into the very depth of your heart” and “commands you to write,” then you should write it. That is probably the best way to describe the sensation I felt when I had the privilege a few weeks ago to be standing in the most hauntingly beautiful landscape in Ireland. There was a point where I literally felt as though my own being was indistinguishable from my surroundings – a sense that I was seeing the reflection of my own soul in the things around me. The earth felt like a living being in every respect, one with a message that drew you in and made you listen with all of your faculties. It was a message I felt compelled to try to capture however feeble my attempt…

When I exhaled I felt the strong breeze let out its own breath
Melding with mine and carrying it across the soft copper horizon
Slanting the blades of green yellow purple red gold into a gentle curve
A suggestion of a question mark in their ever present slant.
The mist covers the horizon
Pleading with you to stop searching for edges and endings
Rendering everything into one endless expanse
Grass and boulders, heather and wildflowers, fern and moss, mountain and sky.
The sharpness of the individual parts fade into one soft blur of copper and grey strokes
Extending beyond the exterior
Denying you even those fleshy boundaries you take to be concrete
Blurring the lines between skin and air, the inhales of the earth from the exhale of your lungs.
The lines of the hills, the curve of the grass, the roughness of the stones
They define the contours of your soul.
The gurgling undercurrent of the streams that run beneath the ground
Invisible beneath the thick yellow cover but constantly carrying forth secrets
Working in unison with the wind
Leaving its trace in the tilt of the trees and the slant of the hills, the endless bow of the grass.
Concealing a desperate yearning to be heard
But reserving its utterance only for those who seek it
Letting out only whispers
Except
For those dark tangled roots that emerge between the soft brush
Unable to contain their desire to be seen
Jutting out sharpness, demanding your attention
Adding depth and contrast to the expanse of soft copper
But at their tips, nothing more
than pale pink buds.
The land is content in its solitude
But reverberates with a silent outcry all the same
The restless winds that call out for more,
The rough silence soothed by the echoing of birds’ songs
of origins untraceable
And by a conviction
In its own expansiveness
Not allowing high peaks or horizon lines to feign separation
That does not exist.

dsc08173

While my poem (if it can be considered that) was more reactionary than intentional in its message, it is interesting to place it in the context of the confusion of emotion resonating throughout the world at the moment, as my friend had done in her interpretation after the elections. As I look at my own words now again with new eyes, I want to draw from them the essence of what I felt not only in the raw material of the physical earth but in the social material that surrounds me now: evidence of our interconnectedness with each other and the earth at the deepest of levels.

And, just as I felt in the Irish landscape, the interconnectedness I see evidenced by the cries of the global community now is not one of an abstract idealism but one of a concrete reality. It is a thing at once so brazenly visible and yet at the same time, persistently suppressed into a false obscurity. Paradoxically, many even use the evidence of its existence as proof of the contrary. For this interconnectedness is perhaps most visible in the pain itself — even in the seemingly conflicting forms of pain that manifest in clashes between those who perceive themselves as existing on opposite sides of socially constructed divides. Underneath it all, the responses by all sides speak to the reality of our oneness as human creatures with the same fears and concerns, irrationalities and inner contradictions. It is a truth that, when ignored, allows for ‘othering’ based upon these self-created distinctions. It allows us to forget the humanity in those we feel most different from.

The visceral quality of the collective emotional response – the fear, the pain, the hopelessness, the desperation, the anger, and for some, the elation or new hope – emotions not just felt within the U.S. but in every corner of the globe, particularly underscores the recognition of the deep and complex ties that define our current world order. They reveal a comprehension of the stakes at hand for everyone, whether positive or harmful; of the way the outcome of one country’s election implicates each individual in one way or another, whose ripple effect goes far beyond the sphere of politics and national borders.

The reality of this fact is both beautiful and terrifying: terrifying in the implications of just how much our own actions affect the lives of everyone else on this planet, but beautiful in the implication of how much our actions have the power to affect the lives of everyone else on this planet.

In drawing light to this positive aspect, even opportunity, granted by the current moment, I do not want to minimize the validity of the pain and fear felt by anyone. At the same time, I do want to shift the focus of the conversation. I want people to engage with their pain and fear in recognizing the roots of the same emotions felt by the ‘other side’. I do not want people to condone behavior or views that are objectively racist, bigoted, or full of hate, but I do want them to recognize the beauty and hideousness we are all capable of and the very different contexts and realities that shape the lens through which each person comes to see the world. I do not want people to resign themselves to tolerance for the sake of some kind of utilitarian existence amidst insurmountable differences, but to strive for empathy and its inevitable aftermath – love.

Ultimately, I hope that amidst the hatefulness and destructive divisiveness, people come to recognize the reality of the interconnectedness behind it, and to translate this comprehension into something fruitful. While the conversations all come back to the politics or words and actions of one political candidate, it is equally evident that so much of the fear and pain surrounding it is not merely linked to this one public figure but of what the support for him implies of the values of the society more broadly; of the potential normalizing effect his position might have on racist or violent attitudes. This is also in a way empowering because it points to the fact that our fears are directed at things in our power to change, regardless of who is in power. And, whilst obvious in one sense, I also think it is critical to remind ourselves that such feelings don’t emerge overnight. Sometimes, certain events help symptoms of much larger issues rise to the surface and force everyone to confront them head on. Much of the shock surrounding the prevalence of these attitudes as embodied by the election result may also be said to speak to the suppression of critical voices among us – the voices of those who were not at all surprised by the results, of those who have long been the targets of these aggressions, of the voices listened to but never really fully heard.

Hopefully now we will actually start to hear each other. And hopefully our politically-charged dialogues can give way to greater recognition of the reason we care about politics at all: to collectively create a community that we all want to live in. No doubt, the actions of one person in power can have very real and direct effects on the society at large; policies can change and the institutions they shape can render the achievement of equality that much more challenging. But in the end, the underlying cries for change and reform are at their core cries for reforms of the heart, for empathy and understanding. And I wish there was a way to express this that didn’t come across so idealistic and light-hearted, because I think it is something that we all too often cast aside as less weighty than real ‘political’ issues and that so many still struggle to envisage in the same concrete, practical terms, and so I am saying it anyways, as deceptively simplistic and reductive as it may sound. Because really, how can we possibly hope for a better future, for any different outcome than what we are seeing now, if we aren’t engaging with the emotions and spirits of the individual humans that shape the institutions that represent them? And how can we claim to embrace diversity as a progressive society if we don’t humble ourselves to the fact that maybe the so-called diversity we claim to embrace is still primarily confined to those who hold the same values and world-views as ourselves?

I myself am still grappling with the dimensions of my own initial reaction of shock, of what it implies of my own ignorance and of the voices I am yet to fully hear out. All I know is that the strong ties that hold us all together, while painful at times, are more visible now than ever.

“Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious.  Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world.” – prayer excerpt from the Bahá’í writings

dsc07903

“…anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

Anything. Or anyone. That does not bring you alive.

Is too.

Small.

For you.

I’d once heard poetry described as language against which we have no defenses. It is a language whose words at times bring with them truths we didn’t want to hear, didn’t feel ready to hear. They render us unable to deny or hide from some reality we felt hesitant to confront, because confronting new truths usually means confronting our own vulnerabilities and the uncertainties we all possess as humans.

These brief, poignant words from one of David Whyte’s poems had seared themselves into my consciousness since I’d first heard them. Some words are too significant, too evident, too loud to be ignored.

Equally so, some experiences are too loud to be ignored.

DSC02898.JPG

A few weekends ago, I had a chance to briefly visit Johannesburg, the city I had called home for two years before moving to Zimbabwe some months ago. The moment I had stepped off the plane and into the airport, it was as if I had breathed in new life. As I rode the train into the city, the outlines of familiar shapes blurring past my sight amidst the evening lights reflecting off the large glass windows, I continued to inhale the strangely satisfying air. It was as if my lungs were just now able to fully take in the air necessary to expand to their full capacity, whereas for the past months they had only taken in what they could to sustain life, unsatiated yet laboring on in their capacity.

This fullness literally felt in my lungs continued to define the rest of the two days spent in that city. One day felt like a week – from driving through the city centre and taking in all the beautiful grittiness I had always loved about it, even amidst the very real danger and need to remain alert in turning each corner; to revisiting the familiar artsy spaces carved out throughout the town, in the hipster cafes and markets and in the fashionable and unavoidably cool youthful city residents who occupied them; to catching up with familiar faces and friends whose vibrancy, intelligence, and beauty I had the privilege of appreciating anew, the way periods of absence always seem to re-introduce us to the things we come to take for granted in others by way of familiarity.

DSC02896.JPG

Our experience of time is so deeply intertwined with our experience of people and place; of the emotions and diversity of experiences we allow ourselves in each moment of each day. This could not have been more evident than in that one Saturday in Joburg. One day can easily assume months or even years of meaning and depth, depending on how we fill it and what we let in. It is both frightening and liberating to realize the extent to which we control or relationship with time – the way in which one day can seem to pass by in a second, accumulating to months or even years of fleeting empty moments, but equally so, how one day can be filled with so much life that the concept of time in itself seems to become irrelevant and meaningless.

DSC02910.JPG

Relatedly, it is both a deeply beautiful and yet in some ways painful phenomenon to be reminded of the manifold ways our existences depend on our connections with other people. Such reminders may come in the inevitable moments where we find ourselves kept afloat and able to keep at this business of living simply by the grace of those in our lives, but they may also come in those moments where we think we are fine, living, moving, but then jolted suddenly more alive by the influence of another.

I am all for learning to love oneself, or at least learning to be at peace within one’s own self – to recognize the wholeness that is already there, and find a sense of grounding in that alone. It is no doubt dangerous and unhealthy to expect that anyone else can complete us or to rely on someone else to build up those things we must ultimately build up in ourselves. But I’ve also found the beauty and mystery in the power of another person to sometimes expand our sense of completeness. It is not that this other comes in and fills some hole we thought needed to be filled in our lives, but rather, that he or she literally stretches the space that once represented the totality of our identity and human experience. Inevitably, this may end up leaving a sense of loss or incompleteness once that individual is no longer in our lives, but not because we had relied on him or her to fill a certain absence. Still, in stretching the canvas of self we started with, that person ends up leaving some sense of emptiness in the stretched out space they had made for us, but a space whose emptiness is only an illusion – one that, with time, we find a way to fill with our own color, adding ever more shades of beauty to our existence.

It is this sense of expansion I had the privilege of experiencing on multiple occasions throughout the course of that Saturday in Joburg – in the unexpectedly diverse and profound conversations had with both old friends and new. While naturally not all conversations in life must serve to elevate or inspire, I find that for me personally, I rely on such conversations for sustenance. Lately, I’ve come to realize that maybe bringing up my confusion over the nature of reality with random colleagues on a coffee break or delving into the meaning of life with drunken strangers at a party or discussing colonialism and racism on a first date may not be typical contexts associated with certain types of conversations, but I’ve also realized, why not. More often than not, regardless of the context or ‘norms’ for discussion topics in certain settings, simply allowing people the space for expression on those things that matter most creates an instant connection and opportunity for something meaningful to emerge.

DSC02935.JPG

In many ways, these moments transform mere conversation into a form of art: a molding of two or more experiences into some new idea or expression, something never before revealed into the world in that precise way. Simply by nature of the uniqueness of the elements – of the perceptions and experiences and personality of each person – brought together to produce the interplay of thoughts and meaning making in that specific instance, the conversation unleashes something that ripples out in tiny invisible ways into the ocean of meaning that shapes the world.

While the following quote from Rilke was written in the context of marriage, I think it also applies to the beauty of connection, facilitated through the types of conversations had between people in any context: “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

20160428_190755.jpg

When reminded of the immensity of depth and wholeness embodied by each and every individual in our midst, it is that much more incredible to imagine what is possible by the interactions between them. As Rilke articulates, the point is not a merging together, for such a task is impossible in light of the infinite distances between any two people, but rather, an appreciation of the distance in itself. Conversation is one means of delving into the depths of another person’s immense sky and in the process, finding the horizon of your own sky shifted into ever-farther expanses.

I’m not sure why exactly the conversations in Joburg stood out so much as compared to the ones I’ve been having in Harare. It’s not that I haven’t come across moving people or interesting things worth reflecting on here, but maybe it is also that my excessive focus on work has left me more closed off to the influence of these conversations. And then, there is also the fact that some people just have a deeper effect on us than others, who make us feel more alive for whatever reason. As with most things, this reality becomes more evident in the absence of it. In this case, my experience of leaving those individuals who had been a part of my life in Joburg made their uniqueness and inspiring qualities that much more worthy of appreciation in having the opportunity to once again feel a unique kind of alive in their presence.

These moments of heightened aliveness in the past few months however have by no means been confined to my weekend in Joburg. They’ve appeared in countless and usually unexpected ways throughout my time in Harare, yet often in short fleeting bursts rather than in a sustained and embedded way.

One day, in returning from a work trip to the field, I had been driving back to Harare from Mwenezi, a dry, dusty rural district in the southern region of Zimbabwe, at dawn: the sky was painted with a deep red along the horizon, as the rays of the luminous waking sun pierced through the dust, casting shadows of hazy pink brightness in every direction. The vibrant red horizon softened into lighter shades of pink, mingling with strokes of blues and wispy forms of white, eventually settling on a bluish grey expanse as the eyes journeyed upwards. The reddish pink horizon rested along the outlines of ridged mountains in the distance, appearing in layers of various depths and darkness, broken only by the rounded outlines of trees in their midst. Something about the way the dust from the rocky dirt road we traveled along filled the air around us, lit up by the warm hues of the morning sun, seemed to encompass our vehicle with an inexplicable warmth. This combined with the thick morning soundscape of nature’s silence – rooster calls, cattle bells, and singing birds – felt almost like a warm embrace by the earth itself. Breaking my attention from my concerns of the work awaiting me in Harare, of the millions of things I thought mattered here or there, the embrace brought me into my surroundings, reminding me that all that mattered was what was there, then in that moment.

20160423_062115.jpg

Why do I bring any of this up in the first place – this concept of feeling alive, and of allowing oneself to be drawn to those things and people which bring us to feel this way?

Preparing for grad school and working through all the confusing and necessary life lessons and growth that comes with the early career experience, I’ve spent much time reflecting on decisions over the past few months, thinking such reflection necessary in setting a fruitful path for whatever is to come next. But really, I don’t know what the future holds, whether it be 10 years from now or even 10 seconds from now. It is a futile and vain human imagining to think we have any control over our futures – that the decisions we make now will determine exactly where or what we will be doing later in life. I do not know what decisions now will put me in the best position to achieve what I want to achieve in the future. I don’t even know what it is I want to achieve in concrete terms. Or whether I should care about ‘achievement’ in the first place.

What I do know is when I feel alive, and when I don’t. I know what beauty feels like and what the absence of it feels like. I know that beauty – in the world, in other people, and in contributing something meaningful to both – makes me feel alive. I know that I do not want to live a life devoid of actually feeling alive.

DSC02891.JPG

This may all sound extremely basic and simple, and in fact, it is. But how often do we abstract ourselves from those evident truths that are so deeply obvious and glaring in our lives that we forget how important they are to begin with? Amidst so much uncertainty in life and the paradoxical necessity to continue making big decisions anyway, it seems that a useful guiding force (which could be what some already define as ‘intuition’) should simply be whatever makes us feel alive. In making a decision affecting our life context or path, the question to self should always be “does this bring me alive?” and take it from there. This is the accumulation of what the past few months have taught me, and, for the moment, is probably the only basis upon which I feel I can stand firmly with any choice I make affecting how I live my life.

Scratched and Faded Letters

I’ve lived in Johannesburg for nearly two years. I tell people I can’t believe it, that it doesn’t feel like two years has passed, that I don’t know where the time has gone, but the words fall short of the depth of bewilderment which underlies them. I have significant memories from these past two years, no doubt, and I know that things have happened, time has passed, things have changed, the world has been moving, but at the same time, I struggle to fully grasp and feel the weight of what it would seem two-years worth of memories should contain. In my mind, they feel light and fleeting…as if the time barely existed…as if I just stepped foot off the plane into my new country, my new job, my new life. Somehow that is the memory that bears the greater weight, the deeper sense of reality, than the compilation of two years as a post-graduate adult living life thousands of miles away from what once was home.

This sentiment has felt all the more troubling when juxtaposed with the physical signs of the passage of time, the signs that force the resistant mind to admit to the reality of the fact that time keeps moving. And strangely enough, the one that has incited the strongest emotion has been my travel coffee mug: the thin, translucent tumbler with the Northwestern emblem detailed in purple on one side. The tumbler which, when first receiving it, I so distinctly remember thinking “good thing I came to this one,” after realizing I’d get to keep it as a free gift from one of the many graduation ceremonies I went along to mostly for my parents’ sake in my last days of undergrad. The tumbler which sparks memories of the long, decisive and deliberate packing process I embarked on days before my journey overseas – determining it would make the cut as one of the necessary items to receive a spot in my precious luggage space. The tumbler I remember carrying in my brown leather adult-like work bag, filled with sub-par instant coffee, as I walked into my new office filled with uncertainty and expectation my first day of work, and proceeded to carry with me every single morning since that day. Since then, it has become an invisible staple of my surroundings – an item rendered insignificant by its practical utility and regular presence and use in my daily life.

But recently, something about it caught my eye – something which I found more disturbing than I perhaps wanted to admit: I saw that the royal purple enamel which once formed the perfect block lettering spelling out the name of my alma mater now revealed scratched out remnants of letters – the S and H only half remaining, the Y completely etched away; and the ornate and detailed emblem above NORTHWESTERN now reduced to a barely visible outline of circles, its edges traced by indiscernible symbols and letters – a shadow of what it once was.

As strange as I know it sounds to be rendered dumbfounded by the scratched out lettering of a coffee mug, it was in that instant that a realization of something I was already well aware of in some unconscious part of my mind finally forced its way to the surface and refused to be ignored: that this was undeniable, physical, tangible, concrete evidence that time that had passed.

On the one hand, each time I reflected on my own life with the introspective eye of expectation for what the passage of time and growing up is supposed to look like in an individual, I felt unsatisfied with the inability to see and feel what I knew to be true: that I’ve changed, that I have lived, that things are different now. Looking at myself, I still felt exactly as I did two years ago – not in a negative way exactly, or in a way that implies we all must change drastically with the passing of each year or that any certain milestones must happen, but just simply that it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right because we essentially are our experiences. None of us are constant beings – from our physical cells to our brain activity to our ever-evolving souls. And with these experiences that become us, with this constant motion all around us and within us, it follows that something should be evident…felt…noticed.

But this didn’t seem the case when I looked at myself or filtered through my thoughts or sorted through my memories. Only in looking at the scratched out purple letters of my mug…or of the gigantic Builders’ Warehouse that stands erect across from the apartment where I used to live – in a spot where once only dirt and bricks stood…or of the mall which has doubled in size, with shiny new stores and large glass windows down my street where once there was only empty space…or of the friends to whom I once ventured in taxis across town to see every other weekend who are now scattered in all corners of the world…or the fellows with whom I had shared the continent a year ago who have now started degrees, found new jobs, established new lives on other continents…or of the high school friends I have long ago lost touch with who I see getting married or having children as I unwittingly yet instinctually click through their wedding or baby photos on Facebook…or of the dear souls I had the bounty of meeting in South Africa and briefly crossing paths with on this earth who are now no longer on this physical plane…

Only then, for a brief instant, do I feel the true weight of time.

But while these concrete signs of time’s passage each capture my attention and open my eyes a bit wider to their deeper implications, they’ve also made me that much more anxious to reconcile the physical and concrete signs with those less tangible. I wonder as well whether time without the physical markers of its passing, or time without the arbitrary numbers we assign to it in an attempt to make it more concrete and feel as though we wield some control over it, would hold the same weight in our minds. If I could not define it as two years of time that has gone by, or define myself as 24 – a constant reminder of my own time on this earth that comes with its own implications – then would I still expect something from it? Would I let time exercise its control over me the way I know I do now?

Maybe it is the misleading impression that time brings with it forward motion which creates these feelings of disconnect and disjointedness. Forward motion implies motion towards something – a direction of some sort that we have envisioned for ourselves or for the things around us. But time does not inevitably bring us towards anything. In fact, it could even take us backwards (or what we would perceive as backwards in relation to whatever it is we subconsciously – or consciously – thought we were moving towards).

I would try to put this in more concrete terms, but in my own case, I am still trying to figure out what exactly it is I had expected to be moving towards that has left me feeling as though time has deceived me…enlightenment? wisdom? understanding? or something more tangible? something to show for when thinking back at how I’ve spent most of my hours these past two years – impact on other people’s lives? new skills and talents from my work experiences? more confidence, more self-assurance in my abilities? or something more abstract? some new experience of love? the capacity to distinguish reason from emotion?

I don’t know. But I can’t help but look back with a longing for more evidence of time’s marker in myself as much as I see it in the physical changes around me. But in saying this, I also recognize the passivity latent in such a desire….one implying again that time itself provides the force for motion in a direction…if there should even be a direction to begin with. But if there should be, then one of the characteristics of time that I find most frightening is that if we choose to not act towards something or initiate changes or make things happen, our lack of ‘motion’ does not reflect stagnation in the wake of potential progress, but in fact represents regression – because time never stops moving. And if we exist in the context of this ever-moving force that is time, then the act of not moving in some ways becomes backwards motion.

I think I find this frightening because, as is well known, when we grow older, time seems faster as each year becomes a smaller fragment relative to the amount of time we’ve spent living. And with each passing year, I feel myself scrambling to hold onto each piece that meant something to me, to internalize and make something of what has passed and ensure that it does not become lost in the accumulation of too many layers of memory and self. I can’t even fully say why this feels so necessary, but perhaps it is to feel that my time has been well-spent and that I am capable of some kind of forward motion — that I have not wasted the opportunities presented to me by the people and experiences that have come into my life, nor failed to enact some kind of positive change, some sort of progress in the world – no matter how small or insignificant…

Home

I’ve recently returned from visiting ‘home’ (the United States) for the first time in a year and a half – the longest I’ve ever continuously been out of the country. Having prepped myself for not only reverse culture shock, but also for potential feelings of estrangement and distance from old people and places, simply for having not been in contact with them for such a relatively long period of time, I ended up instead finding myself more shocked by the lack of shock. Being back in the states, it felt strangely as if the life I had built in South Africa over the last year and a half suddenly belonged to a distant, abstract memory; another life in fact. For whatever reason, my mind simply couldn’t reconcile the life abroad with the life I left behind – not in any positive or negative way, but simply such that returning to the U.S. felt literally as though I never left. Just as coming back to South Africa after a month away felt as though I never left. Each time, the perception of the latter place quickly fading into that strange distant memory, reflective of a life somehow disconnected from my present.

I’m not sure if this is the experience of most, or if I’ve even managed to articulate it in a way that makes any sense to other humans, but I feel like many people return to a home place unconsciously expecting things to be just as they left it, only to find that life continued on after they left – and that the friends and places of their past were not the stagnant images their minds had expected. Yet somehow, for me, things did feel the same. Obviously people had grown, lives had evolved, and places had changed as is inevitable with time, but the feeling of never having left still pervaded all of my interactions.

Amidst this unexpected, and no doubt deceptive, feeling of sameness, I felt more hyperaware of and attuned to the nature and effect of my interactions with these places and people both in the present and the past. By this, I mean that faced with such unexpected sameness, and simultaneously recognizing the absurdity and falseness of this perceived sameness, I began to wonder whether it had more to do with my lack of astuteness to the obvious changes outside of – as well as within – me that had inevitably occurred over a year and a half. It quickly evolved into a desire to not only consider what changes I failed to immediately grasp in my return ‘home’ but also to re-examine what changes I had failed to notice over my entire childhood/young adulthood throughout my interactions with these various home-places I was now revisiting.

To give an example, one thing that struck me when first seeing my dad after almost two years, and my sister after something like three years, was that: they’re black. I realize this makes me sound like an idiot. And I don’t mean that I didn’t realize this before. But what struck me was how I never remember really pondering on this very evident, and pretty significant fact when I lived with them up until high school….as in, how did I never have great cause to wonder whether they’d ever faced discrimination in life due to this fact? or how did I not notice what society perceived of our mixed family and the various interactions that would have resulted? And also, how did I never feel pulled towards defining my own race any earlier than college (when I was forced to concretely check a box that would define it)? Obviously, it is an extreme privilege that such questions didn’t come up…and I’m sure a lot of the world would love to frame this example of someone not noticing such things within their own life as evidence of progress in the world or how it is possible to be “color-blind”, but the reality is that the world is still far from achieving such a stage, and “color-blindness” in the sense in which it is typically used is generally an excuse by those in already privileged positions to deny the privileged basis upon which they are able to function in the world. Being color “blind” in today’s world essentially means choosing to be blind to (as well as perpetuating) all the inequalities and discrimination that continues to shape how much of the world lives.

Returning home after a year living in South Africa – a place where the memory of institutionalized racism is so recent that it is impossible to deny its links to the present systems; while viewing life overseas in my own home country through the lens of an outsider – seeing all of the news of Ferguson and riots and race dialogues emerging through clips and articles; it was impossible not to compare the two and arrive at the troubling yet evident and telling realization that America is no better….only more in denial. One of my favorite parts about Joburg specifically has been this overall sense of realness in what it has to offer as a city – a complex place with incredible people, culture, and diversity, but a place which also doesn’t try to hide (or perhaps, is incapable of hiding) its issues: the inequality, the violent crime, the way in which a long history of racism does not disappear overnight and is still present in the structures and systems around us. America, on the other hand, seems like a place intent on masking all of its parallel issues under the guise of progress and politically correct language and emphasis on the policies intended to correct the injustices – all the while failing to fully grasp and give light to the reality of things beneath this veneer. In any case…this combination of realities and realizations remained in the back of my mind as I re-engaged with the people and places of my past…leading to the many questions I was surprised to not have been forced to deeply grapple with previously.

Above all else, this re-visiting of home-places also became a reminder of the centrality of people in defining home, and even more, defining self. Re-connecting with family members and friendships I had only minimally engaged with over the past year and a half felt a lot like reconnecting with fragments of myself I forgot that I had. In my last blog post, I talked about the uncertainty I felt surrounding the role that relationships do or should play in our lives, and while I still don’t know about the ‘should’, this return home allowed me to see just how much relationships ‘do’ define me. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but reuniting with the various people from various parts of my life and with varying depths of involvement in my life left me with the sense that the person that I am at any moment is largely an amalgamation of each person that I’ve crossed paths with in life – or, better said, an amalgamation of my interactions with each person – extending beyond the people still in my life, or even the people I can recall being in my life, to even those fleeting interactions with individuals now forgotten.

And, as I’m sure is the case for many, it’s usually the negative or most traumatic remnants of relationships that end up leaving the greatest impact or wielding the most influential power to shape us. There’s something about returning to the physical settings and people that intersect with an old relationship assumed to be forgotten and left behind that seems to reveal the deceitful power of our own minds — pulling out fragments of memory and understandings of not only the relationship, but also ourselves, that we’ve subconsciously buried away. At least in my case, simply having contact once again with the people and places still connected to a broken friendship forced me to realize just how much fear I still held in actually coming face to face again with the memories I had essentially suppressed — not so much of the friendship itself or events even, but really, of myself: of the person I perceived myself to be through the friendship, of what the friend had perceived of me, of what the broken friendship would mean for the mutual friends that had remained at the periphery, or in this very specific case – being reminded of the state of being and thoughts my mind was capable of during depression….and grappling with the thought of who I was in that state, and whether I could claim to be a wholly different person now having moved on from that period or state of being; whether I could claim to be fully immune to such thought processes now or the potential of even falling back into such a state.

It made me realize that, being in another country, and as it felt, another world, from the events of my past — of the broken friendship and the symbolic reminder it continued to hold for my period of depression as a whole — it enabled me to achieve the distancing from memories necessary for what felt like moving on, but this was still to some extent superficial; as distant as they felt, the memories still haunted me. The hesitance to even confront them again was evidence of this. And, only in returning home, did I also realize this fear stemmed largely from wanting to claim complete forgiveness of the past and happiness in the present – to prove to myself that I had grown from the experience and that was the end of it; and that to admit otherwise was essentially weakness. And, if I’m being completely honest, it was not only about proving to myself, but in doing so, somehow proving to the friend that was never able to separate her image of me from my depression – from all the irrationalities that defined my actions during that period but which now seem to have belonged to another person entirely – that I really never was and am not that person. I had assumed that only in ‘moving on’ in this sense of proving this to myself and to the abstract idea of ‘her’ (regardless of whether or not the actual ‘her’ ever came to know or care that I had moved on), that only then would things make sense and I would come to find myself stronger and better off as a result.

But if nothing else, coming in closer contact to these thoughts again allowed me to finally admit to myself that I’m still not over it. And as paradoxical as it may seem, allowing myself to not be over something has felt like a much stronger path to peace of mind and greater understanding than to claim otherwise. And I may never be completely ‘over it’: I am not over it because experiencing a friendship break-up shattered the idealistic and essentially unrealistic worldview I had held up until that point of how friendships worked. Of how people worked. Of how I worked. I am not over it because in each relationship I now have – from the oldest friends to the new close bonds I’ve formed – I can’t help but wonder now whether any of us really know each other. ….I know it sounds melodramatic worded in this way, and perhaps it is, but truly, how can any of us really know each other? Often, we hardly understand what’s in our own minds, and often we try to convey who we are to others using the tools of communication we have in our midst: words, gestures, actions….but in the end, how can we know how these things were truly intended to be conveyed by the other person…especially when the things we convey in words may not even be accurate portrayals of what we truly feel or think to begin with? And how much of our perceived connection and mutual understandings of each other is truly understanding versus projections of our mutual desires to be understood; a reflection of us each grasping at what we want to be true and willfully ignoring what might otherwise be the reality: that even those closest to us and those that care for us most still don’t really know us.

Again, I don’t know how to word this in a way that isn’t melodramatic, and I’m not saying that because we may never be able to truly ‘understand’ another human, that we are all just alone in this world (although this existential-y view does actually seem like one that has crossed the thoughts of many based on conversations I’ve had, and for some, instilling actual consternation at the thought of just how alone they are because of this fact)…but I just think this realization has left me with less certitude when it comes to the assumptions of constancy we often seem to attach to the people in our lives without even realizing it (again, not necessarily in a negative way, but more so in just recognizing the reality of life and change and people)…and perhaps more frustration at the limitations of words. Even in writing all of this now, I can’t help but think just how feeble the words I’ve just written are at actually conveying the thoughts I really want to say (particularly in considering the abstractness of the mind and what often feels like a billion different ideas floating around and intersecting and overlapping and sometimes never even converging into what can be defined as a concrete ‘thought’…as something tangible enough to be translated into a ‘word’…as something which can actually be interpreted by another person through a limited medium of communication). And I also know that whoever is reading this is interpreting it in a certain way – all based on their own experiences and worldviews and personal lens of understanding, as we all naturally do as unique individuals – inevitably rendering the meaning somehow different or altered from the way in which it was intended.

At the same time, I know that regardless of how capable we are of fully understanding another person, we are fully capable of loving another person – and acting in a manner reflective of that; and I think that in itself is the basis on which friendships should be and are grounded in legitimate substance and worth. It is the basis on which people at the very least make the attempt to know and understand other people – which almost renders the end outcome irrelevant in my mind: if someone makes an effort to understand you, purely out of love and respect for who you are as another person (something which is in their power to do), then why should it matter if they actually achieve a point of fully understanding you (something that is ultimately beyond any of our powers). This conclusion became another overarching realization of my visit home. At first, in realizing how even some of my closest friends seemed to have no comprehension of the way the broken relationship with a mutual friend had affected me – of the casualness with which they approached the whole situation, in juxtaposition to all the confounding and unresolved emotions that seemed to flood my thoughts at the mere reminder of all that had happened or of what the memory of the person still symbolized in relation to my own self-concept – the existential thought of aloneness did momentarily cross my mind…but only to be quickly replaced by the reminder of how much these same individuals cared for me, and I them, and how, in the end…the rest didn’t really matter.

I’m not sure what it is about this desire to be understood….whether it is a natural need we all have as humans, or something we tend to equate with closeness to other people… but such experiences in revisiting home have rather left me with a desire to not desire it. But now, having just written this novel of rambling thoughts attempting to convey the realizations of my home travels to a general audience of strangers…largely out of a need to make some sense of everything and render it more concrete by sharing it with others – I am struck by the irony of how much this post seems to have risen out of an unrealized ‘desire to be understood’. So I guess I’ll just file this as another inconclusive life topic beyond my reach of comprehension for now.

You Go Ahead

“You go ahead,” I breathlessly exclaimed, no longer confident in my feet’s ability to maintain their balance as we inched higher up the rocky slope. 

“I’ll be right here when you come back down,” I assured my two friends, sensing their hesitation.  As they finally acquiesced, I watched as they continued up the mountain, shadowed by the crowd of children who hadn’t left our side since we first got off our bodas, and trailing behind our unofficial tour guide.

“The top is just a little further,” he urged them, “I know the way.”

He must have been no older than 10. “I will take you to Kibuye,” were his first words when we met along the trail – not so much an offer as a declaration. His floppy rubber sandals and skinny frame were strangely fitting with the nonchalant air of confidence he exuded. Our thick hiking boots, nalgene water bottles, and backpacks full of produce for the trek felt like neon signs of our musanze-ness as we were led up the mountain by a group of mostly barefoot children.

Allowing my body to collapse on a soft grassy patch along the steep hillside, I looked up to find that two of the boys had stayed back. Their hands frantically gestured towards the path from which the voices of my friends and their hiking companions were now fading. “No no, you go ahead. I’m staying here,” I said, forging my own awkward hand motions in an attempt to convey the message where words were of no use.

They finally stopped, looked at each other, glanced back at me, then sat down several feet away, keeping their eyes pinned to me all the while. I made myself comfortable in the tall, cool grass, grateful for the chance to fully process my surroundings:  endless layers of lush green hills spotted with dirt fields, clusters of trees and houses – all of which faded into soft grey outlines in the background. Mesmerized by its grandeur and vastness, I became transfixed in the beauty and stillness of it all. I allowed my body to sink deeper in the grass as my thoughts sunk further into my surroundings – getting lost in the contours of the mountains and taking with them all concept of time.

My awe began to wane as minutes started to feel like hours. I wondered how far my friends had gotten. I shifted my focus to the little boy in the distance whose tiny figure grew closer, whipping at some goats while repeatedly pulling his oversized shirt back onto his shoulder with his free hand. I watched intently as he hopped with ease up the rocks, his tiny bare feet seeming to mock the arduous battle I had faced earlier ascending the same path.

I soon became keenly aware of how alone I was. “I am somewhere deep in the mountains of Rwanda with no phone, no idea where my friends are, and no one in sight who speaks French or English,” I thought. I glanced over at the two boys still sitting a few feet away, now casually playing a game of cards in the grass. The glanced back at me.

As if on cue, the sky suddenly let out a monstrous boom, prompting the boys to duck to the ground. The clouds had turned a threatening shade of grey. For the first time in hours, one of the boys approached me and began to speak in a slow, enunciated manner, but again to no avail. He pointed at the sky and down the hill. “I can’t leave this spot, my friends won’t find me if I do.” But he was insistent.

As it began to drizzle, I followed the kids down the slippery mud path, the two of them running up to grab my elbows each time I stumbled, until we finally approached a mud hut. I crouched behind them through the open doorway and found a tiny room with several people gathered along two narrow wooden benches, all seeking shelter from the impending storm in a neighbor’s house.

The boys motioned for me to sit. I offered a smile to the strangers around me, whose dark figures were illumined only by the light which poured in through the small door, now half covered by a large wooden plank. I could hardly make out their countenances as I strained my eyes to find theirs, hoping that my shy awkward smile relayed to them what words couldn’t. The rain continued to beat down on the roof, quickening its pace and intensity, conveying a sense of desperation and force in its efforts to make itself known to every inch of the room. It was all at once dominant and subtle as it became the constant backdrop to the soft murmur of voices.

I looked around at the dim discernible shapes in the room – the corn stalks hanging from the ceiling, the large metal pot in the corner, the wide-eyed toddler on the bench across from me, his gaze as strong and constant as the rain on the roof. Unable to do much else, I finally stared out the crack in the door, watching each raindrop make its mark in the dirt as I soaked in the unexpected warmth of the small crowded room.

Travel Adventures Part 2 – Rwanda’s Haunting Beauty

I was recently struck by a comment I read on Humans of New York: “One day you lose something, and you say: ‘Oh my God. I was happy. And I didn’t even know it.'” It prompted me to ask myself, does this apply to me? In searching for the answer, the first thing that came to mind was an image – surprisingly crisp in its detail and still fresh with the feelings associated with it:

Me on the back of a boda (motorcycle taxi), my head starting to throb from the slightly-too-tight helmet around it, my eyes straining to stay open against the strong wind gusts that press against them as I hold up the helmet’s plastic visor in order to gain an unobstructed view of my surroundings: pure vastness. Green hills that extend far into the distance in such a way that even in viewing it in person, my eyes somehow struggle to comprehend that it is not a painting or a photograph – something about the way the mountains in the distance fade into perfect bluish-grey outlines, emphasizing the full depth of the landscape and standing in contrast to the bright green sculpted hills in my more immediate view and the long swaying grasses along the sides of the road. Passing so quickly before my eyes, it all begins to blend into one beautiful blur of greens and greys and browns and yellows…. a mud house, some goats and cows, children waving, people staring, my friends zipping past us on the backs of their bodas, and the varying contours of the mountains as we head ever higher up the hill. The ride is fairly long – at least a good 45 minutes. Even with the entrancing scene before me, my eyes slowly tire of trying to maintain their focus on any single object. With the strong wind gusts still wrapped around my body, its constant pressure beginning to feel like some sort of strange, cool blanket against my skin, my mind finally begins to drift away from its current surroundings and into a state of introspection. “This is beautiful. The world is beautiful. People are beautiful. I am happy.” The words begin to repeat themselves slowly and clearly in my mind. Once they’ve materialized, they remain stamped in the back of my head, softly continuing on in the background of my thoughts, eventually becoming blurred and intertwined with the scene itself…

It was one of those moments in life where I was keenly aware of my happiness. The kind of awareness that actually manifests itself into expression…in the moment. It took place during my trip to Rwanda, when my friends and I decided to take bodas up this road on the outskirts of Kigali – which our amazing friend who lives/works there suggested we do during our short stay in the city. The road led up to this giant regal tree, which is mythicized to have some link to the origins of the country itself…something about a king coming to this spot, throwing a seed, and declaring that wherever it landed would be Rwanda…or something. It was also super interesting because, despite its mythical status, well-known by locals, there was nothing physically there to identify the tree as anything out of the ordinary – no plaques or world heritage site or means of preservation. It was just there. Only to be discovered by word of mouth and some knowledgeable locals to show you the spot. As my friends brought up, it in a lot of ways reflected the general feeling we got from the country as a whole – a place full of incredible history and cultural significance, but a lot of which seemed hidden in relation to those countries where everything of cultural significance seems memorialized into a statue or museum or world heritage site. Although, Rwanda is a unique case of course…and still seems to be re-building and re-creating itself according to a very politicized and specific government agenda. (But also note that I was only in the country for less than a week and in reality, have no basis to make any valid commentary on most things there due to my lack of deep knowledge — but still, these were just some interesting things brought up while I was there).

Anyways, this was the tree:

Image

And the surrounding area:

ImageImage

…and a cow:

Image

But back to the original question about happiness. The moment on the boda also made me aware of the fact that I’ve had a lot of these moments this year – mainly due to my extreme privilege to have had the opportunity to travel a good amount. But when confronted by sites that are new and foreign to your eyes and fueled by a heightened state of curiosity and alertness as a result of different surroundings and new people, it is no doubt much easier to instantly recognize your current happiness while you are feeling it. In those settings, you often feel a range of things along with the happiness – thrill, excitement, awe, wonderment – and a lot of the times it is those other feelings that prompt you to step outside yourself for a moment and acknowledge the fact that you are happy and that the world is beautiful.

But then there are those long, calm, extended periods of time when you are truly happy but not really experiencing any mind-blowing, life-changing experiences – times when, for many, you are less likely to spontaneously articulate your happiness (for the HONY lady who had spoken the quote, it had been her years of working in a local coffee shop and not realizing just how happy she was there until it one day closed). And I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but just that, for me at least, the act of actually stopping and recognizing the happiness in regular day to day events and general life circumstances is something I think I’ve gotten better at and found to be really useful. And I think having at least some of those out-of-body, life-changing experiences every now and then (which for me, just happens to be through travel) also helps you to become more aware of all the things that bring you happiness during the more mundane moments in life. So I guess I am just grateful to Rwanda for granting me a little more insight into happiness and beauty in a way I hadn’t experienced it before (which is kind of how I feel about each new place I get to see).

As much as Rwanda’s sheer physical and natural beauty captivated me from the beginning, though, there was also something so haunting about all of it – about the sense of peacefulness in the city and villages, of the cleanliness and orderliness of Kigali, of all the things unspoken but clearly still present. From going past the large, simple flat gravestones at the genocide memorial centre in Kigali, literally walking above the bones that testified to the atrocities of only 20 years past, to walking around the beautiful, peaceful streets of Kigali just outside, it was all just so mind blowing. To realize just how many people were directly affected by the genocide, and to recognize the fact that most people I spoke to had actually been in the midst of it and had their lives changed forever because of it…it was simply incomprehensible. Beholding something which from the outside appeared so normal – a bustling city with people just going about their day to day lives – and reconciling that image with scene of chaos and brutality that took place only two decades earlier was something my mind simply could not arrive at.

The role of silence in the midst of some of these transitions was another factor that seemed to contribute to the chilling aura around all of it. Something I honestly didn’t know much about before going there, there is a government ban on “genocide ideology” – which, while clearly a restriction on freedom of speech and likely difficult to enforce in a just manner based on the vagueness of its definition and the overall complexity of trying to enforce any law on speech or thought – in theory, still made sense in the context. I didn’t have a chance to actually ask anyone what they thought about it or how it impacted discussions surrounding the past (nor would it probably have been appropriate to ask anyone about it), but I did have one rare and unexpected interaction that I will never forget…

While sitting at a bar in Musanze (apparently one of the biggest cities in Rwanda but with not a whole lot going on) with two of my friends, this rather drunk-looking guy finally comes up to our table. He attempted to buy my friend and I drinks and then seemed rather perplexed when I told him I didn’t drink, and continued to ask me why I wouldn’t drink. We all began to talk some more – your average, rando-at-the-bar kind of interaction – we asked him about Musanze and Rwanda, to which he openly talked on in a slightly slurred manner. After some time, he suddenly expressed how happy he was to have met us: white people, and how much he loved white people. Clearly intoxicated but still also clearly stating his thoughts in a serious and matter-of-fact kind of way, he continued on to say that he hated black people (he was black, just to be clear) and that black people were all killers.

Still in mid-smile from whatever light, casual topic we had just been on a moment ago, we all just paused for a second to assess what had just passed. Finally, half-smiles still plastered on our faces in an attempt to lessen the awkwardness of the conversational turn of events, we attempted to negate his high opinion of white people – entering into a discussion on how white people are not that great either, how there are plenty of white people who kill as well, and how there are good and bad people of any color. Our words were going nowhere. Instead, we attempted to delve into the logic behind his strong, black-and-white thought process on the matter.

“But you’re black – do you think you are a bad person then?” my friend asked. This eventually led him to explain that it was not all black people he felt this way towards. He finally told us that he was a Tutsi, and that Hutus had killed almost his entire family – leaving only him, his brother, and his mother. They had killed his father and his nine siblings as well as his mother’s ten siblings. After that, we stopped trying to convince him to change his views on black vs. white, Hutu vs. Tutsi. We simply listened, and let him show us the pictures he had on his phone of him with his mother, and of him with his son. We discovered he was 23.

…23. My age. There’s just something about hearing another’s story and realizing that that person is the same age as you that makes their experiences that much more piercing. You inevitably start to compare your life to theirs, to try to imagine having gone through what they have – only to realize you have absolutely no basis to even begin to compare your experiences to theirs. It was also that realization that I think led us to halt our feeble attempts to change his views on people – when you have no point of comparison in something so completely traumatizing and life-altering, particularly when it happened during their childhood, how do you even begin to convince someone not to think a certain way?

After that interaction, I couldn’t help but look at the people around me and just wonder what they had gone through…how many people in their lives have been killed, how many people they have had to forgive. While I’m sure there are still many people with similar sentiments to the guy we spoke to in the bar – who’s feelings typically don’t emerge in day-to-day conversations given cultural and legal speech restrictions – there are also clearly so many who have forgiven. There is no way that any society could continue on in any kind of cohesive, functioning manner after such events if forgiveness was not somehow at its core.

I had spoken about forgiveness in a previous post – in the context of friendship and depression and misunderstandings. Arriving at forgiveness in that context was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But in having even a tiny glimpse into the aftermath of forgiveness in the context of what occurred in Rwanda, I am truly humbled by the strength of so many of the people there. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly suggest you check out this “Portraits of Reconciliation” photo series recently published in the NYT. Its photos and stories capture what I’m trying to express so much better than any of my words can, so I will just leave you with that for now.

 

March Travel Adventures. Part 1 – Uganda

This is one of those times where I force myself to blog against my will. Not because I have nothing to blog about but because there is just way too many things and I can’t even begin to decide which are the most worth mentioning. But, so I won’t hate myself for it later when I have no recollection of the things I’ve done this past month (since I’ve discovered that I don’t have that thing that most people have [a memory] and I only remember things that I write down..but like actually. it’s kind of a problem), I will attempt to record at least something – as haphazard and un-elegant as it may be (and it will be. so deal with it. it might also involve a lot of parentheses. you’ve been warned):

So March was an interesting month. It started with a 3-day, fully-paid-for (did I mention how much I love my fellowship programme) retreat to Jinja, Uganda which basically packed in like a year’s worth of deep conversations, good feels, and life reflections into the tiniest time-span possible. It was truly impressive. …like probably good enough to be ranked in my top 15 favorite moments in life.

And you know what, as one of my top 15 life moments (even though I completely just made up that number and I can’t actually think of 15 life moments just in general), I probably should at least mention some of the reasons. The first would of course be the other fellows. Each time I’m around any of them – which is not very often since we are all in different countries – I am just overcome with feelings of awe: Awe that there can be so many incredible yet humble people with so much passion for what they do. Awe that I can so easily relate to people who I barely know and constantly forget the fact that I barely know them. Awe that being around people who make me feel inferior can somehow simultaneously make me feel more confident in myself…like seriously, it is just so much awe that half the time I’ll be in the middle of talking to another fellow and realize I’m barely even listening to what they’re saying because I can’t stop thinking about how in awe I am (yeah, I should probably work on my listening skills).

The other reason I loved the retreat was in its ability to make the most-cheesy-seeming activities some of the most profound and memorable sources of insight. Take, for example, the skit. Probably the cheesiest form of lesson-conveying known to man. And yet, the skits we did on the ‘challenges of international development’ were some of the most scarily accurate representations of troublesome aspects of development that you could imagine. And since then, I’ve several times found myself in situations unable to control the laughter in my head as I realized how much my actual real-life situation resembled those skits. I guess it’s just helped me become more aware of the ridiculousness of a lot of things, some of which you can’t easily control or change, and maybe even come to find the humour in some of it (where appropriate of course)…if nothing else, so that you don’t go crazy from trying to work in a field where you will inevitably be faced with plenty of absurdities and frustrations as a result of the way most of the world still views things like aid and development.

Every conversation I had that weekend yielded some interesting new insight from the really diverse work and living experiences of the other fellows. Most were conversations that could have (and should have) gone on for many more hours…or days…but I am so grateful that our programme understood the value in that kind of meet-up and made it happen.

…and that they made it happen in this place:

ImageImageImage

Then.

Kampala for a day.

I figured since I was already going to be in that part of the continent, I might as well take a few extra leave days and do some traveling. It was the kind of traveling where almost nothing was planned out beforehand (believe me, I tried to plan things. but there’s only so much that google can tell you about about where to stay and how to get around a lot of these places. unless you’re rich and fancy), so I took it as an opportunity to embrace my ‘adventurous’ side. Luckily, it was also one of those trips where everything just seemed to fall perfectly into place…so much so that even when things went wrong, they ended up being kind of perfect in their own way. For instance, in Kampala, one of the things at the top of my to-do list was to see the Baha’i House of Worship (there’s one on each continent and the one for Africa is in Kampala). Fortunately, two other fellows decided to join me. Which was awesome. Because it turns out that it’s extremely hard to find…despite being all the way on top of a hill and clearly visible from a distance. We decided to take moto taxis and, being only my second time to ever be on a moto, I was still in that phase of clutching and clenching everything as tightly as possible, not yet having realized that sitting like a normal person actually doesn’t cause you to fall off the bike. Of course, our bikes first took us to a mosque. Not exactly the Baha’i temple. On the second attempt, they decided to to go off the main route and drive through a neighbourhood with no real roads, using uphill as their only real directional indicator to get to the temple. Didn’t work so much.

With a sore butt from the long, bumpy [but albeit, kind of scenic and lovely] drive and some minor leg scratches (from our slow-motion fall backwards off the bike when our driver had a little too much confidence in his moto to make it up the steep slope near the top), we did finally make it to the temple. And it was so completely worth it. I’ve been a Baha’i all my life and I just happened to go to school right next to the temple for North America – which is in Wilmette, Illinois – and I’d seen pictures of this temple before, which made seeing it in person just such a wonderfully strange feeling. It felt so familiar and foreign all at the same time, which is kind of also one of my favorite feelings at the Baha’i Faith in general. As a religion which promotes the oneness of humanity, there is always this sense of familiarity with the new Baha’is I meet or activities I see, regardless of where I am in the world – that knowledge in talking to the other person that there is a strong bond of unity in your vision of the world but also so much uniqueness in your backgrounds and the ways you see the world. Or that sense of recognition in the common purpose and spirit behind any devotional gatherings, fireside, or children’s class you see in any part of the world but the very different cultural traditions incorporated into each activity depending on where you are and who you’re with, highlighting the beautiful diversity of the religion.

In any case, not as good in picture-form, but just to give a little taste (and you didn’t even have to struggle your way up a hill to see it. you’re welcome):

 

After Kampala, another fellow and I were off to Kigali – for the even less-planned-out part of our trip. This, again, was mainly because googling things to do in Rwanda yields the saddest, most boring results ever…unless you want to pay $750 to hang out with gorillas. And Rwanda is not a boring place (..it could also be that I’m just really bad at googling). So, I once again decided to embrace the spirit of ‘adventure’ in my Rwanda travels (really just a euphemism for I don’t have a f*** what I’m doing but whatever).

Either way, as we neared the end of our surprisingly fast 9-hour overnight journey to the land of a thousand hills, I knew from the moment I was jolted awake at the border and groggily stumbled off our absurd country-music-playing bus into the cool, misty morning air, my eyes greeted with the most refreshing backdrop of vibrant green hills (behind the not-so-scenic border control office), that I had made the right choice of vacation destination. It was love at first sight. Not even the fact that I hadn’t peed in 10 hours and couldn’t use the one available bathroom at the border because it cost a fee, or the fact that the baggage inspectors confiscated the majority of my beloved plastic bags (plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda…kind of really cool from an environmental perspective. but also kind of annoying if you were using plastic bags to organize the contents of your bags while traveling), could diminish the instant love I felt for this beautiful country.

To be continued….

(just decided to split this post into multiple parts. because I’m tired of writing. and because there’s a lot to say.)

More of this to come in the next post: