Where have all the flowers gone?

Wednesday’s journey was long. It started with a private bus from our hostel in the Quito’s center to the city’s bus terminal an hour outside the capital. Once there, we transitioned quickly with everyone running to the bathroom while PLs counted heads and packs incessantly. We loaded ourselves in a coach bus that took us through the breathtaking sierras to the less-than-stunning city of Santa Domingo. Then everyone jumped into the back of a truck— packs and people piled high— to journey thirty minutes outside the city into a rural community of the Tsa’chila nation.

As we bounced along the dirt road leading out of the city and into the Tsa’chila territory, I surveyed the land, noticing a factory and several construction projects that were not underway just six months before when I visited last.

Rounding the final stretch of our trip, we entered my favorite part of the ride where the road weaves under a canopy of trees that line the path to the cultural center. It is the only aspect of the drive that hints at what this territory once was: a flourishing rain forest. Continue reading “Where have all the flowers gone?”

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The second hand’s turn

 Based on the interest and warm reception of my recent post, I decided to launch a series of reflections featuring stories which prompt an understanding of the world that better considers the experience of others. The series asks: how do I come alongside people within marginalized communities?; what have I learned from this pursuit of mutual-freedom?; and what do I do with the lessons imparted?. In all of this, you’ll encounter people, places, conversations, and moments that inform an understanding of what it means to be Standing in Solidarity.

We sit, waiting for the meeting to begin. The students set the time for 2:00pm thinking that this would facilitate a true start an hour later.

It is 3:30. One person is here, huddled in the Rwandan home of the community member who offered to host the design team meetings. The one attendee is not the host; he left the room at 3:00 to get ready for the meeting. I hear water splashing in the room behind us, where I assume he is bathing now.

By 3:45, people begin to trickle into the room. At 4:00, nearly everyone is here and the group mingles, catching one another up on their families and farms. At 4:30– two and a half hours past the allotted meeting time, we commence.

I’ve experienced this scenario and ones like it in abundance during my time abroad. Hours draw out as I wait to board a bus in Tanzania; it will come, but when, no one knows. When we ask when the workshop will begin in India, we are told “fifteen minutes,” invariably as we watch two hours pass. Tree planting starts an hour after the scheduled time every morning here in Ecuador.

There are many reasons for this: Kevin does not have a phone and there is no clock in the truck, so where would any sense of urgency come from? In many places, roads and vehicles are inconsistent and unreliable based upon shoddy infrastructure. Beyond any of this, though, is an inherent difference in our relationships to time.

In many cultures, they operate on what anthropologists call polychronic time. That is, relationships rather than tasks are of utmost importance. In these cultures, the rude thing to do is to leave a conversation before its natural end based on some arbitrary figure declaring when you should be somewhere else. Walks through town necessitate organic visits with neighbors and friends. There is no such thing as being in a hurry; what would you be rushing to when the most important thing is right in front of you?

Conversely, monochronic culture is driven by tasks and routine; it is rude to be late and unproductive, as objectives are the guiding rule. The Western reader is familiar with monochronic living…it fills your day planner, Outlook calendar, and inner orientation to your mounting to dos. Based on a schedule, timeliness and productivity are the operative values.

Waking early to begin planting, I feel the students’ frustration build as they experience what, from their cultural lens, is disrespect. And I remember my friend and co-worker’s wise words in Rwanda, “As the visitors, it is your job to adapt to our culture, not the other way around”. There is so much wisdom here as he gently nudges us toward the volunteer’s role as guest.

The wisdom, too, is nestled in the cultural norms of the communities we visit. What can be gained from learning this other way? From slowing down and allowing the people in our lives to take precedent? Or from digging beneath initial disturbance to discover the values driving our ways of relating to others?

Solidarity does not come from imposition. It requires that we understand the perspective of another, pursuing concepts and frames beyond our own. It honors difference and respects local knowledge. Moving away from dualistic structuring of ‘right’ or ‘better’, it allows for a new orientation to emerge, one rooted in the realities of the world’s majority.

One such reality is that relationships are everything. When your community is the greatest– perhaps the only– capital that you have, you value it. You do not let a constructed number force its hand.

Time, then, becomes a fluid concept. Culturally specific, unbound from Western bias of efficiency and Reign of the Clock.

An understanding of development that equates it with better integrating people into world markets demands movement away from such an ethos. Time enforces its rule as quotas, production, cost, and demand prevails. The clock crushes rhythms and pace of relationships as it settles in its favored position: central to human interaction. But, what are the costs of such a shift?

Furthermore I wonder, how might our lives be better if we were to put relationship before scheduling? How might our policies change were we to slow down enough to know the people whom they impacted? What can we do to let people trump numbers– be it the digits behind a dollar sign or the click of Grandfather’s second hand?

My bebes in Tanzania, aunties in India, and amigos in Ecuador offer another way to approach life. No longer taking for granted the dominant narrative that our [Western] ways are the best ways, I learn. And I discover the beauty that these lessons on time are both an activity of and movement towards solidarity itself.

Gender buffet has a whole new meaning

When I arrived in Jaipur, I felt as if the gender dynamics people spoke of were exaggerated or sought out. I sensed that we came expecting to see sexism, so we looked for it and then cried out against it: a ladder of inference filtering our experience through our pre-conceived bias. The longer I am here, the more this view changes.

At first I was unfazed.

Walking into the club, I feel the familiar rush of the feeling of the base vibrating below my feet. Beth smiles and shakes her head to the beat, lip syncing the words. We grab hold of each other and push our way through the crowd, finding a pocket on the dance floor where we can settle in.

Letting the music take hold of me, I dance. I feel at home in this place: unaware of my surroundings, only tuned into the music that surrounds. I let go.

Suddenly, Beth calls me out of my rhythmic stupor. She motions around the dance floor. Leaning towards my ear, she shouts over the music. “Are we the only women here?!” she asks.

I look around and see what she means. We are in a sea of Indian men. A swirling shirt catches my eye and I notice one woman dancing in the corner with her beau.

Smiling, I shrug. Pointing to the girlfriend, I reply: “not the only women,” and dance on.

Then irritated.

I look up from my book to realize that the group of men on the benches in front of us has doubled. Averting their gaze, I shift my eyes only to discover a man sprawled beneath the tree blatantly propped up so to see us better. Sitting up to turn my back to the onlookers, I face yet another set of men, unabashedly perched in the middle of the park. Just. Staring.

Literally surrounded by gawking men, I turn to my friend. “This is getting a little creepy,” I say. She agrees and we pack up our things and start down the path.

We hear the footsteps behind us and silently confer with one another. We veer right and step back into the grass for our uninvited guest to pass. He does not take the hint and turns with us. “Your names?” we hear as we notice him pull out his phone for the camera.

“No.” My friend says strongly. “We will not take a photo and we don’t want to talk. Please go.”

Now it’s him whose startled. Bewildered, he defends his past hour of staring and now pursuit, “Me? I am not a bad boy.”

It made me feel vulnerable.

I notice he is keeping pace with us from across the street. My co-workers and I are walking from the restaurant we just ate at to karaoke a handful of blocks away.

When it lasts too long for my comfort, I share my concern under my breath. “We have company,” I inform my friends. Fortunately, it is at this moment that Jaipur’s streets fool us once again. We turn right, one block too early.

When we realize our error, we turn back and head down the long road we strayed from. Crossing the street, I see the man cross so he is opposite us yet again. I watch as he slows his pace to meet back up. We counter by slowing ours.

When he nears the next intersection, unable to anticipate our move, he crosses the street and stands in the alley waiting, watching, for which direction we will go. We warily turn right and enter the restaurant.

As we get our hands stamped, I explain to the bouncers. “There is a man following us. Will you not let him in?” I give his description, but the man with the stamp is too busy laughing with his friends, inching towards us so that we have to contort our bodies to squeeze through the gate without making contact. Our request goes unnoticed while our presence and bodies certainly do not.

There was no reprieve.

I have come to acknowledge this: friendship with men here comes with undertones of something more. No, contact with men here comes with undertones of something more.

After all, they’ve seen our TV shows. They know what American girls are like.

Our favorite tuk tuk driver, the one about whom I was preparing a post because of the freedom and thrill of dancing through the city when he turns on his flashing lights and turns up the music, ended our evening with a crash and burn.

“So, you have boyfriend?” he inquires as he pulls up to our house.

And I just wanted to leave.

It is not just that these advances feel unending. It is that I feel my humanity being stripped from me as I am collapsed into what I represent: sex, promiscuity, desire. I don’t feel seen as much as consumed. I then watch myself participate in this cycle of violence, no longer seeing people or accounting for cultural difference. I deny a friendly handshake and glare at the laughter between friends as I pass by. I am defensive, on-guard. Disinterested in connecting to the humanity of others with the anticipation that it is not my being whom they seek, but instead my body that they crave.

When I look in the mirror and don’t like what I see

“Miss! Miss!” he calls after me as he crosses the street and jumps over a pothole to join me on the road. He runs a bit to keep up with my pace. “Please, miss.” Something in his voice- was it desperation?- causes me to pause.

“Yes?” I inquire, the impatience of an unwanted connection thickly accenting my voice.

“Why does no one want to talk to me?”

The question lingers for a moment in frozen time. His eyes implore an answer beyond what I have to give. He continues, “all of these people, they come to India, but they no want to talk to Indians. I drive the tuk tuk. And I want to talk to people, to learn culture, to hear about your place and tell you mine.”

As he talks, the street children I already declined crowd my feet. Their eyes seek mine as they motion with their hands and touch their mouths. “Give me money; feed me,” they silently cry.

I shift my weight and move my bag closer to my body, uncomfortable with the demands that surround. Or maybe it is my dismissal of them that causes discomfort? I turn my attention back to the man. Awaiting my response, he stares at me with eyes boring a longing even greater than the begging children who now engulf us both.

“Ummmm.” I stall, searching for a reply. He takes this as an invitation to elaborate, “I went to Thailand last year. And the people? Very friendly. All people. But here, no one wants friendly. They ride in my tuk tuk and they don’t talk.”

“Yes.” I affirm him, aware that even now, I don’t want to talk. “I, I think people can find India overwhelming.” I say weakly, asking myself if I dare share that his approach to offering a tuk tuk ride just before he chased me down is precisely what I mean by overwhelming.

I don’t elaborate, though. Instead, the insufficiency of my response hangs in the air between us.

Switching gears- still seeking the connection foreigners neglect to provide- he asks, “which hotel you stay?” I explain that I am not at a hotel, as I am living in Jaipur. I wonder to myself if this makes it all better or worse.

Finally conceding to my body language and clear lack of reciprocity, he concludes. “Well, you are hurrying to your home now. Maybe another time we will take chai. Me? I am Shiwa. You have Rajasthan number? Here is mine so we can have the chai.”

I extend my hand for the scrap of paper he is scribbling his number on and nod. My head is spinning with excuses of safety and colleagues waiting at home, my face flushed with the truth that I have nowhere to be. I turn on my heels and walk back down the road.

When I round the corner, I step out and raise my hand in search of a tuk tuk.

Shifting Gears

Like many teenagers, it was a bit disastrous when I learned to drive. My dad took me out first and decided we would stay in the confines of the gates of our neighborhood. Just one hill and cul-de-sac into the lesson, I veered too close to a garbage can for his liking and he warned me too strongly for mine. Flustered by his “yelling,” I turned bratty and his tone and volume grew. Within ten minutes, we were driving back to our house, him in the driver’s seat, both furious. We decided that my mom would teach me to drive.

My driving lesson in South Africa did not start off feeling all that different, sans angry father and hormonal teenager. I found myself picking up the manual rental car after a brief lesson up and down a street in Portland, many kind offers in San Diego which I did not follow through on (thank you for your willingness), and one practice run on a dirt road an hour before we got the car. I literally pulled out of the rental car lot and up to a stop sign on a hill. I was to make a right hand turn (the equivalent of a left in the States) onto the tarmac. There was some traffic and I knew when it was time to go that it was a perfect window. Naturally, I stalled. The line of cars behind me grew.

My companion smiled. “You got this,” he said in his charming South African accent. The look on his face made it clear that he was not so certain. I took a deep breath and started over: neutral, e-brake (already up, pulled by Steve), engine on, clutch in, shift to first, look both ways. There was a small window, but a window. I eased off the clutch and waited for the bite to put the brake down. As soon as I felt it, I wrestled the brake down and went to accelerate as the car approached. Steve cautioned, “I would maybe wait.” To wait, I’d have to break again and likely stall again. Pressing down on the accelerator, I quickly jumped out and around to make my turn before the driver passed.

As my heart rate slowed and I shifted to second with the expanse of the highway stretching in front of me, it hit. “You’re in South Africa,” I thought to myself.

Its been over a month since I last posted and there are countless “shifts” I’ve made. I transitioned from my family in Rwanda to my new staff in Vermont. Together, we dove into wilderness medical training and a discovered love of Portland. Finally, I enjoyed time at home as I adjusted to my sense of place being more transient and fluid. These changes- and all that came with them- felt as bumpy and slow to progress as my driving here does.

Perhaps the greatest adjustment, though, is my move to South Africa. I arrived two and a half weeks ago with sixteen students and two fellow Program Leaders.

One thing that immediately jumped out was the extent of wealth and access to things from the West. In general, it is far more “developed” than anything I experienced in East Africa. And as much as it is my pet peeve when people talk about Africa like it is a single country rather than an entire continent, these differences highlighted the ways that I still subtly thought of it as such in my mind. As I observe the culture, I find myself holding it to the cultures and communities I know and love in Rwanda and Tanzania. And honestly, I miss the “Africa” I knew before. There is no shortage of beauty here, to be sure. But, I grieve the simplicity and community of rural living.

There are a million blind-spots in this thinking. I acknowledge the obvious problems and questions of which areas of each country I’ve spent time in, how long I must stay somewhere to think I understand a culture, etc. Beyond these lie the questions I am interested in- the ones that raise deeply rooted inconsistencies and assumptions that shape my understanding of self and of the world.

For example, what criticism of my own culture is underneath my experience of South Africa? Is my preference for East Africa actually rooted in an underlying dissatisfaction with life at home? On the flip-side, in calling South Africa more developed, I must ask: in what ways do I conceptualize “development” as conforming to my own culture’s practices? And in doing so, am I not just placing the culture I escape as the marker or standard of what others should strive toward?

These two sets of questions alone reveal the paradox of my cultural identity. They demonstrate my push and pull between a critique of individualism and consumerism and an appreciation for the resources and comforts such systems provide.

To me, at the heart of this tension is a dualistic framework that I am seeking to transcend. In the preceding paragraphs, I begin with black/white sentiments of “developed” as bad, or at least disappointing. Simultaneously, I treat “rural living” as all things beautiful and lovely in the world, romanticizing the places I’ve previously resided.

My intention is to allow cultures to be merely different. Not better or worse. Not as static as any one adjective. Dynamic, changing, a marble of beauty and sorrow. I want to celebrate the things of the West that honor human dignity, and dig into the ways we deny it. I’ll rejoice in the ways the developing world lives into community values and think critically about the constraints and limitations present.

As I adjust to my manual car, I adjust too to Plettenberg Bay: a sleepy town with gorgeous views and glaring inequities. From my ocean-view at the flat I live in, I realize that my uncertainty around South African culture is predominately resistance to the mirror it holds up to my own contradictions. The similarities of my life here and at home remind me of the countless ways I neglect to live into my values. In thinking about inequity, I face where I land in this lopsided world- most frequently on the privileged side. And I wish for the world to be different.

I then find myself wondering how I stand in this wish and in my privileged reality with any sense of congruence.

It is not as simple as moving to a village in Rwanda, for this tension exists within my being, not place. When I make false dichotomies of good and bad between “the West” and the “developing world,” it is not actually about those places. Rather, it is about my relationship to the pieces of myself from both [all] of the cultures that shape my sense of identity. Just as I am seeking to hold the paradox that culture is, I must learn to hold paradox within.

The further I get into my twenties, the closer I feel to my teen years- not in my driving experiences- but in my nature. I am changing, in-motion, immersed in the discovering of self. This time around feels like a manual change. Unlike my tweens, I have the awareness to take each step with intentionality; I choose which gear fits. As South Africa’s coasts welcome me, they invite me into a series of choices. Sitting in this ocean of decision, I hold an image of cultural integration that allows for both/and- in my travels and in my being- and I move toward this place, sputtering and stalling along the way.