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.

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From savior to solidarity: An alternative for White girls and anyone else considering international service

While Pippa Biddle was building a library in Tanzania, I too was there studying East African History and Culture during a semester abroad. Biddle’s post that went viral last week shares a thoughtful reflection on the nature (read: problems) of relationships between volunteers and host communities within international service trips. She asks many of the questions I confronted during my time in Tanzania and following six years of travel and service. With our parallel journeys, I appreciate Biddle’s attention to the positionality of international volunteers in efforts toward sustainable development. Yet, I was left unsatisfied with a conclusion that suggests the solution lies in applying our skills-sets more strategically and potentially just staying home.

Contrary to her framing, Biddle’s critiques are not particular to race but span the many privileged identities that afford someone international service work. As Westerners who choose to travel outside of the “developed world”, we all need to sit with the implications of our presence and any volunteerism undertaken. It is true, though, that White folks especially have a learned tendency– not to mention histories– of dominance that must be combatted to respectfully engage across culture. Additionally, White women and girls are in the significant majority in terms of who participates in the sorts of trips in question. International volunteer and education organizations have a lot of work to do to improve access and inclusion– particularly for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, people of Color, and the LGBTQ community– for this inequity to be addressed.

From my experience in international service as both a participant and educator, the key to being mindful of my privilege is not to make sure that I am in a position to best serve according to my skills, but to move away from a paradigm of service entirely. The root of most problems with voluntourism, service-learning, and development itself is our orientation to the relationships involved. Without addressing how we understand and engage with global partners and friends– whether from home or abroad– we still cause the same detriment, dependency, and cultural degradation that Biddle outlines so clearly. At the crux of my international work is a challenge offered by an Aboriginal activist group, Queensland, 1970s:

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This woman’s message is not ‘help me from your country where you can apply your best skills to my cause’. Instead, it screams: stop seeing me as your cause. Until we can connect to the humanity in one another rather than minimizing people into mere depositories of our benevolence, we should stay home. But not because we can best serve from there. Because we do harm when we continue to perpetuate the racist, ethnocentric, and hegemonic messages of colonial rule that still– albeit tacitly– prevail in the industrial complex of development-aid. It is when we stop trying to help and to save that we are in a position to connect, to learn, and to grow.

International immersion with this ethos is revolutionary in the counter-narrative that it provides. In 2008, I arrived in Tanzania with neocolonial notions of “poor Africa”. Yet, my time in the rural south of the country awakened me to the strengths and beauty of a people different than my own. I became aware of the Western bias implicit in my then-constructs of poverty and notions around development’s aims. I came to know and love a culture and a handful of individuals, and was forever changed by the experience.

Was this benefit one-directional, making my time abroad exploitive to local people and an appropriation of culture? I do not believe so. When the message was no longer “I am here to help” but instead, “I value you– I want to know you, learn from you, journey alongside you,” the exchange shifted from a model of welfare to one that honors local capacity. Defying narratives of dependency and need, there was  space for the community to see themselves as knowledge holders and creators. Both local hosts and volunteers benefit from this pursuit, one that celebrates diversity, culture, and relational living instead of perpetuating the proliferation of Western values.

From a humble disposition of co-learning, we transcend hierarchies of racial, ethnic, and national identity. It is through our experience of communities like this that our aspirations of what humanity is capable of are formed. We ignite our social imaginations while gaining a sense of agency and network of support to create change. Having glimpsed moments of social emancipation, all parties begin to see the way that our liberation is truly bound.

My description of such a process is grounded in my experience of programs that do this well. In January 2012, I traveled to El Salvador through a Jesuit immersion program. For twelve days, we met with Salvadorans to hear their stories and learn about their inspirational work in the face of environmental and human rights controversies. With solidarity as our aim and liberation our vision, we did not participate in any service except to listen and to acknowledge our deep connectivity. We affirmed local efforts and voice while interrogating the way our politics, lifestyles, and choices impact a peoples in the neighboring Americas.

In the world in which we live, global connectivity is inevitable whether voluntourism and international education continues or abates. El Salvador’s fate is intertwined with my own whether or not I am aware of these influences. Discovering and fostering our interconnectedness becomes imperative to creating the change that the world so desperately needs. I believe that international programs are one such way to do this. The crucial questions become ones of structure and approach; we need to ask how these programs are happening and what purposes they serve.

Today, I accompany students abroad on a global gap year. While traveling, students study international development and change-making through homestays, project work, and educational seminars. While our model includes international service, we encourage students to consider the problems and limitations of this approach, developing their critical thinking and social consciousness through reflection and inquiry. This type of experience, of course, does not require leaving the boundaries of one’s home country. Another valuable question that students consider is how we are being attentive to domestic issues and communities in equal measure.

My hope is that my students and the Biddles of the world don’t shy away from questions of positionality and purpose in the programs in which they participate. I hope too that they don’t shy away from deep, personal, and meaningful relationships with folks around the world– relationships that might even include intentional travel and work.

Author’s Note: There are many helpful questions to ask in choosing an international service program, outlined well by Learning Service’s recent video series. Additionally, there are questions that should be undertaken institutionally in terms of access, inclusion, and sensitivity when designing and running international programs. Though they are not covered in this post, those questions are a crucial part of the conversation.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it

If I told you the truth, it would be this:

I did not see India as much as the inside of my eyelids. The glare of my computer screen. Endless tricks of Pinochle from my iPad’s small frame.

I turned up my nose to the stench of polluted waters. I vomited out the spices, and with it all flavors of the city. I closed my door to its outstretched hand, letting the rapping on my door and my heart persist while I pretended to sleep through the sound.

What travel I did do? I left for a week to lay on a stretch of a beach, made by the Portuguese and maintained for the Russians. On our weekend away, I hid in my hotel room with marathons of shows from home. With relief, I saw the curtains on the bus and closed them with gusto.

What I did see? Western establishments: the cafe filled with ex-pats, a rooftop restaurant with a hotel below, the deck and dance floor of one of the few bars that serves women. More often, my own hypocrisy, or limit. The extent to which I do not live what I espouse. I stepped out each day to stare squarely in the face of a neighbor’s home that I did not frequent enough.

If I told you the truth? I stepped out every other day. The rest, I did not leave the building in which we resided and taught– the smog-veiled sun never meeting my skin, the shouts of welcome rarely penetrating my heart.

I do not want to tell you the truth, one so far from the traveller’s tale of wonder and awe. If I did, it would be this:

I did my best,
and it wasn’t very good.

If I told you a truth, it could also be this:

India was difficult. And I wrestled with her, lethargically, but persistently. I was slow out the gate, yet continued running. Towards understanding. Engagement. Relationship. Health.

I turned inward to my neglected self-care and then counted this against myself with every measure of my level of immersion. I opened the door of my heart and listened to need. I slept when I tired. I responded to illness by slowing down. I tended to both self and students and gave to India what remained in the reserve.

What travel I did do? I enjoyed my breaks and remembered that life is still life no matter where we live it.

What I did see? The same things I cherish in cities at home: coffee shops, people watching, slow dinners, and nights out dancing. The ways that lived-values are a daily, momentary choice. While I saw my limit, I also saw myself stretch. Reaching out– despite the sexism and beyond the classism, amidst the dust and chaotic streets–to find that which is there to be cherished.

I squinted through the smog to stare at the light. Simultaneously, I did not deny the shadows lurking in the alleys of the city and the chambers of my heart.

If I told you a truth? India was challenging.

And I faced the challenge. I allowed myself to rest and pushed myself to grow.

I did my best,
and sometimes it was good.

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.

Generosity

Sunday

We step into the chai shop and I know immediately we will not find a bathroom here. To be sure, I inquire at the front. “Toilet?” I ask, gesturing towards the back of the shop. Saying the word aloud amuses me, reflecting on the way ‘rude’ in one culture is proper in the next.

“No,” the shop owner confirms. I smile a thank you and bobble my head side-to-side (okay or yes in India).

Stepping back onto the street, I look around in search of a place to relieve myself. No stores look promising, so I amble down the road in the direction of the crowd.

Coming upon them, I wonder if it is a religious festival or wedding. People adorned in fancy saris crowd the street. They carry a shrine- is that Krishna?- and are singing and dancing with jubilation. I smile and bow my head slightly to those who make eye contact.

Suddenly, women surround me and pull me into the street. They nod encouragingly and slow their dance moves to show me the way. I lift up my hands and do as I learned at the Patel wedding this summer: twist twist holding door handles, step side to side, shoulder shrug. The pattern is unclear, but mimicking the women beside me suffices. The crowd roars in delight. People pack in tighter.

Faces bright with kindness push through the circle of people to grasp my hands in greeting. An orange is pressed firmly into my palm. A woman- the bride’s mother- materializes and adorns me with a lei of marigolds. Another aunt shares some grain and signs for me to throw it at the shrine the men carry behind us. I oblige and continue moving down the street with the party.

As we dance, children join and squeal with delight. An old man- eyes crinkled in a friendly smile- brings sweets to my mouth, feeding me generously from their supply of candy.

I give myself over to the music and festivities and wish for this to be a moment remembered. Their hospitality envelops me like a warm blanket, making me snug and comfortable despite my unfamiliar surroundings and bursting bladder.

Monday

We sit in the tuk tuk, bouncing slightly to the drum of the motor: tut-tut, tut-tut. I remember dimly Beth’s question if the name came from this sound and listen closer. We sit at an intersection waiting for a break in traffic to make our turn.

I’m awakened from my daze by the tap of a walking stick against the railing of our vehicle. Its owner meets my stare. Her hand-motions sing a song of desperation and hope, gratitude and demand. They flow from the sky (a plea or a thank you?) to her mouth and conclude their dance with an outsretched palm to me.

“No.” I say and shake my head for emphasis.

Her routine continues. Sky. Mouth. Palm. Mouth. Sky. Palm.

I am asked for money daily here. What is it that makes this request different?

The wait feels endless as I sit in my unsettled conscience with the window of opportunity still before me.

Finally, finally, the tuk tuk revs into motion as we turn the corner and flee the scene.

Tuesday

The images play in my mind on repeat: an orange, pressed firmly into my Palm. Mouth. Sky. Sky. Mouth. Palm. An orange pressed firmly, into an extended Palm.

The making of a home

A thread throughout this blog has been a question of home. Where is it? What makes it? How do you define it? As I left Plettenberg Bay for our next destination, these questions resurfaced.

My time in South Africa was the first time I was responsible for my own groceries while living or traveling abroad. The Program Leaders shared a car. We were settled- with filled dresser drawers and wanting cleaning supplies. We bought spices and teas and paper towels.

Being the small town Plett is, I knew servers by name at every local favorite. They in turn knew my order, my reason for being there, and the sound of my laugh.

Every time we walked into the Market- a square of outdoor stalls with food and shops- we saw friends enjoying the sun and the lull of the off-season. In fact, with any errand, I’d see a familiar face: my surf instructor at the print shop, a friend of a home-stay parent at the gas station, a caregiver at the mall.

We were not merely visiting, but living. Yet, leaving felt far different than leaving Rwanda or Tanzania. While I had a house that I emptied, I don’t know that I had a home from which I departed.

In reflecting on these differences, I realize: my kitchen made it so that I shared meals with only my co-workers with whom I lived. Our car, and the streets itself, robbed us of the routine walk to work I enjoyed this summer in the village of Nkomangwa. While my material reality reflected one more settled than any prior travels, I shared home-cooked meals with locals just twice and I could not tell you my neighbors’ names. Though I knew a lot of people around town, little was really known of them- or them of me.

I spent my last night in South Africa in a backpackers in Johannesburg on my own. Sitting in the common area, I met several fellow travellers and we swapped itineraries and dreams. Hearing of their adventures helped me recognize the many ways there are to travel. Hostel hopping. Resort lounging. Couch surfing. Group touring.

I am not interested in making judgments on these different styles. Instead, I’ll ask: what values inform the way that I want to travel? What would I do differently if I found myself in Plett again? What learning will I hold onto from my time there?

And for now, I wonder, how do I want to live in India?

So many of the distinctions between house and home for me are rooted in relationship. Rhythm delineates a visit from a stay, but people color in the lines of these images. Bringing meaning and understanding, perhaps it is in turning to one another that we find a home within ourselves- that we become fully human.

As I adjust to life in Jaipur, I am transitioning from a small beach town to a large and over-populated city. Right now, the idea of this ever feeling like home seems allusive. And I don’t know that that is the purpose or a goal of my time here. But knowing Jaipur- people included- certainly is a part of my intention.

I am setting myself to this intention now. The house that I live in has a rooftop on the fifth story with a view of the city all around. Enjoying that view in the midst of Diwali a few nights ago, the students and I watched neighbors playing with sparklers in the street. With a smile, I suggested, “let’s go!”

We ran down the many flights of stairs. Crossed the street. And stretched out our hands.