One Story We Can All Relate To

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I lay in my hostel bunkbed, listening to the girl across from me, wanting to both soak in every word, and put my hands over my ears at the same time.

The girl was raised in Australia, but had Syrian origins, including family who still resided in the war-torn country. She visited them nearly every year, although recently her visits had become more infrequent, for obvious reasons. This year she had gone again, despite the bombs dropped from jets sporting various flags, aimed at different groups according to the beliefs of the owners of those bombs.

My interest was piqued when she mentioned that she had just come from Syria where she had been to visit family. Eager to have a conversation outside of the usual “where are you from, how long are you traveling for” traveler formula, I asked her about Syria. I had never met anyone with Syrian origins before and I was keen on getting her perspective. However, I had heard one story, or at least one version of multiple stories for so long that it soon became clear to me that what I wanted to hear wasn’t her perspective. I wanted her to agree with me.

The thing was, I hadn’t even imagined that she wouldn’t say the things that I had heard from numerous talking heads on dozens of news stations for years. These stories were so ingrained into me, I hadn’t even imagined that there was another story.

But there was, and I heard it from this Syrian-Australian woman that night. As she talked, I felt like I was looking at the negatives of a reel of film, or listening to a record backwards. Things I had believed to be true started looking twisted and had all the wrong colors and sounds. The slap-on-the-wrist guilt I had tentatively accorded to my country for bungling foreign relations issues in the past swelled in size and weight until it had its own gravitational pull on other previously-held beliefs. Honestly, this story made me feel sick to my stomach.

I suddenly felt an outrageous sense of righteousness and an overwhelming need to defend my country that I’ve rarely experienced before. It was a sudden and harsh reflex to something foreign, like when the body rejects an organ transplant.

But at the same time, this new gravitational orbit was pulling in old beliefs and swallowing them whole. I felt sick not only because I was attempting to reject this new information, but because I was trying to assimilate it simultaneously. As I started feeling the new shape of this other story, I also felt helpless at the hands of a nation that only tells one story.

But I realized later, after I had recovered, that the story she told me was complementary to the story I already knew. It had a similar plotline and facts, but it was told by authors with different experiences than my own. Each word she laid down only worked to give substance and dimension to a previously one-dimensional story.

At the end of our conversation, I conceded that the only way to really know the truth is to go there and see it for yourself. Again, a reverted back to the only story I knew; one of violence and intolerance. I mused out loud that I would fear for my safety as an American in the Middle East, to which the woman responded,

“They would welcome you with open arms. These are a people who understand what it means to be judged by the politics and the stereotypes of their nation.” Is this not something we can all relate to?

This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week two: The Danger of a Single Story.

 

 

 

 

When Everywhere Is Home

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A year ago, I met a boy in Cambodia who could belt out “Since You’ve Been Gone” just as powerfully as Kelly Clarkson herself. He did it with a smile and a satisfaction that told you he knew how good he was.

He was an employee at a convenience store on the notorious party island, Koh Rong. Pardon me, he was the employee at the convenience store. He had come from the north of Cambodia where there were few job prospects and had found himself gainful employment on the island. The owners of the little beachfront store left him to singing songs from the west while he worked all day every day, selling beer and mosquito repellent to westerners who came and went as quickly as the tide changed.

He snapped his singing to an abrupt stop and started chatting animatedly when I stepped up to the cash register. I discovered he wanted to go to Rome and make a new life for himself in the glittering gem of the west.

I told him, naively, “Cool! You should go. It’s really nice there.”

The story continued. He wanted to go there because he’d seen pictures and thought it was beautiful. He wanted to learn Italian and become a famous designer. He laid out these ambitions like he was discussing the storyline of his favorite show; something real in his mind but intangible from behind the counter of the convenience store.

As the story spooled out, I could see visible cracks in the plot. He worked endlessly at the convenience store and sent every cent he earned to his family in the north. The owners of the store provided him with accommodation and food, so he never had to spend a penny, even if he had any. He had never even seen the other side of the island that he now called home.

After I had paid for my water bottle, I booked it to catch the boat back to the mainland. I was off to a new adventure; I could go wherever I wanted and do whatever my heart desired. I was free; a citizen of the world, so to speak.

But the more I travel, the more I realize that the only thing that makes me a citizen of the world is my American passport. My passport is a skeleton key, able to open nearly every door on the planet. For others, their passports are more akin to an ankle monitor, designed to keep them where they are.

I’ve seen it many times since then. Introducing myself to a goat herder in southern India, he proclaims his honor at having an American standing in his goat field. In Nepal, a man’s eyes light up at the mention of my origins and swears he will one day make it to the land of the free. On buses in South America, the immigration police ask for everyone’s papers, but their eyes slip right over my fair hair and skin. I am a world citizen because of circumstance.

Mainly I am a world citizen because I am an American citizen. The concept has changed for me over the past year, starting out as an undeniable fact of life; this is where I come from, these are my roots, this is who I am. Over time, I’ve watched the fact of my citizenship closely, as if it were an entity of its own, which is sometimes how it feels. Out in the great big world, the concept of citizenship blurs around the edges, like saying a word repeatedly until it loses all meaning. But sometimes the recognition that I’m an American, instead of an individual in the world, snaps up at me out of the clear blue sky, and I remember everything that it means.

It means I can travel nearly anywhere in the world either without a visa, or with very few visa requirements. It means that me and my spending power are welcomed with open arms across almost every border without a question. It means I get to be a world citizen if I so choose.

I haven’t stopped traveling because of this. The truth is, I still glow when someone asks me how long I’m traveling for and I can say, “I don’t know.” These three words carry with them the weight of new unknown adventures as vast and limitless as the horizons that I strive toward. The not knowing is an incredible freedom. It’s acknowledging that I will be welcomed in nearly every corner of the world, like all those corners simply make up the cozy shape of my living room. Every place is my home and I feel at home everywhere.

But every time I head off into the horizon, my departure underscores the differences between myself and the people that I leave behind, and I realize that as much power as I have to be able to traverse the globe, I’m powerless to give this opportunity to others. As a community of global wanderers, we need to take notice of this, and remember what a powerful, unique, and privileged thing it is to be able to call home wherever we put our backpacks down.

This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week one: Global Citizenship.

 

 

A Counter-Cultural Shock

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All I had wanted to do was buy some new gauges (the type of ear jewelry that stretches your ear piercings) that didn’t feature your standard marijuana leaf and Playboy bunny designs. I hadn’t planned on shocking the bejesus out of my conservative, devout Catholic, Ecuadorian host mother in the meantime. But you know… life happens and all that.

I had bought a pair of beautiful white elephant hangers (the type of ear gauges that hang down) to replace other “going out” hangers that I’ve lost in the past from too much head whipping action on the dance floor. But later that night I was admiring my new elephant hangers in the mirror when I noticed that a key element of elephant-ness was amiss in my new ear bling. One of the elephants had no trunk.

I was determined to find the shop and swap the ear gear STAT. The next day, after spending hours wandering the clean, busy streets of Cuenca with a pace that spoke of resolution, I had to admit defeat and head on over to a lunch date with my host family and fellow volunteer. Over soup, avocado, rice, maduro, and pork, I told them of my distress. I described the plaza where the shop was located and, god bless them, they knew instantly the place that I was looking for – only three blocks away from where we sat at that very moment.

Soon after, we made a family outing to the tattoo and piercing shop. I entered, and in followed my fellow volunteer and my extremely conservative, devout host mother.

As I stood explaining the case of the missing elephant trunk to the shop attendant, my host mother grew eyes as wide as saucers as she gazed around the very first tattoo/piercing shop I believe she had ever seen in her 64 years of life. I watched in mild horror and amusement as her now dinner plate-sized eyes drank in the anatomically correct models of phalluses and labia complete with glinting steel piercings. Her expression said that her eyes were only reserved for Jesus, and that nowhere in the Bible did they mention genital piercings.

Here I am trying to have a cultural experience and I unwittingly end up giving my Ecuadorian host mother the counter-cultural shock of her life. Well, what is cultural exchange if not shocking?

 

 

 

 

 

A Look at the US Election from Abroad

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I was determined to do my civic duty abroad. I found the online ballot, downloaded it, printed it, and filled it out to elect the first woman president of the United States. California law does not permit voters to send their ballots through email, so my other two options were to mail it in, or to fax it.

I don’t know if you know this, but mailing something, even five pages spelling out a possible political future, is really expensive from Colombia. I also don’t know if you know this, because California leaders seem to have missed it, but fax machines are all but obsolete. Searching Bogotá for a fax machine was like searching for a democrat in Texas. They just don’t exist.

My Colombian friend, Cesar, and I scoured the streets of Colombia. We went to libraries, photocopy centers, and internet cafes. In every scenario, we received quizzical looks. Then I had to explain. I was an American and I needed to vote in this election. The responses were the same across the board. The quizzical expressions melted into wide-eyed stares and they were compelled into political commentary. Trump, they insisted, couldn’t possibly win. They were sorry they couldn’t help me.

This was not the first time I had run into this Trump-aversion outside the US. In Cambodia, India, Nepal, Taiwan, and Thailand, I always had to answer for Trump. European, Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American backpackers abroad would catch a whiff of my all-American accent and question me about the absurd possibility of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. How could I explain something so incomprehensible? How could I possibly explain that the United States that Trump described, one of bigotry, sexism, hatred, and fear, was not the United States that I came from. How could I separate myself from the vulgarity that spewed from his puckered mouth? Now that he’s been elected president, the trickle of questions have become a river.

When I finally figured out how to vote at the US embassy, I found myself on US soil abroad with other Americans attempting to derail the impending train wreck of a Trump presidency. Most were Colombian immigrants, the very same people that our new President wants to keep out of the country. The sentiments inside the building were strong. Many were worried for their families, and how their rights would change if Trump were elected. Some were small business owners who resented the billionaire’s tax avoidance and refusal to pay the businesses that he hired. These were the immigrants that he insulted and the “little guys” that he swore to look out for, doing their civic duty to keep this duplicitous man out of power.

After I cast my ballot, I checked into a hostel. I overheard English, Dutch, and Scottish backpackers discussing the election. They brushed off the possibility of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States, despite the creeping red line on the election polls. All that night I bit my finger nails and watched as the red Republican line representing Trump came closer and closer to closing the presidential gap. But I wasn’t the only one. The Scottish and Canadian girls in my dorm room also kept a live feed of the polls. I heard one of them wake the other up at 3am to announce the results, and this is how I found out.

I don’t think those who voted for Trump realize the extent to which the world is affected by his presidency. I don’t think they’ve considered how his exclusion, vulgar words and actions, unthoughtful policies, and overall poor character, has made the world a sadder place.

Wednesday, November 9th started just like any other day in Bogotá. Cold, rainy, and cloudy. For once it seemed to match the mood of the travelers in the hostel. Backpackers from Malaysia, Scotland, France, Canada, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, and more gathered at the breakfast table and expressed disbelief, sadness, and incredulity. The Venezuelan woman asked if I was okay. Being no stranger to appalling leadership herself, we commiserated together.

Traveling has not only given me a broader understanding of the world, it has changed my understanding of what it means to be an American. I often run into criticism from other backpackers who expect me to be vulgar, loud-mouthed, and keep bad politics. I meet others who expect me to be friendly and kind. I’ve found myself in the middle of a cow pasture in India awkwardly accepting thanks from a villager who was honored to have a real-life American in his pasture. In any scenario, we always have a lot to answer for. And this, among many other things, is what makes me feel so disappointed with this election. The way my country voted today tells the world that we favor fear-mongering, hate, and vulgarity above everything else.

Today I carried on as normal. I wrote and I socialized and I cooked and sometimes I would forget that my country has taken a step back from progress. But then I would look at my Facebook feed, or receive a message from a friend or family member. Women dreaded the rights to their bodies being violated, people of color feared violence and racism, the LGBT community were in terror of having their rights rolled back. And then I would remember and I would feel empty.

It is inconceivable to me that one man who causes so much fear and pain is now my president and that this man who threatens so much freedom is now the leader of the free world.

Let’s stick together, stay safe, and spread love not hate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons in Spanish: Did the mosquito a.) kiss, b.) punch, or c.) bite me?

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One of my biggest goals while traveling South America is to improve my Spanish. Being naïve to language immersion, I thought it would be easy. It’s not like I’ve never had a Spanish class before. But after being in Colombia for two months, my conception of language-learning has changed dramatically. I thought I could simply translate from English but I had forgotten the vast complexities of language; how the link between saying and meaning is sometimes tenuous.

Since we don’t always use the same words or phrases to mean the same thing, directly translating doesn’t always make sense. For example, in Spanish there are two ways to know something and two ways to be, and I’m forever mixing them up. It becomes almost an exercise in philosophy. Am I really familiar with something or do I simply have knowledge of it? I can be really intimate with a place or I can simply know about it, and I’m not sure which one is appropriate.

At times, I have to ponder the nature of things or the nature of self. Am I a certain way temporarily or is this how I define myself? Saying “I am cold” the wrong way might mean that I’m cold-hearted, not that I need a jacket. Am I happy now or is my disposition a happy one in general?

We seem to define ourselves in different ways. In English, I would say “I am hungry,” but in Spanish I would say “I have hunger.” In my mother tongue, I define myself as 27 years old, but in Spanish, I only have 27 years at the moment. Spanish makes room for more flexibility in defining oneself. I am not hungry in general; I only have hunger right now.

With a limited vocabulary, I’m constantly muddling concepts. Saying something like “the end of the bed” could mean the untimely death of the bed and saying the paint feels wet could mean that it has damp sentiments.

Needless to say, when telling a story, the theme often becomes misconstrued, diluted, and sometimes changes course altogether. When trying to explain to my friend that I had mosquito bites, I ended up telling him that I had mosquito kisses instead, which is not at all how I would describe the horrible swollen bites on my face. Kindly, he corrected me.

“It’s not picos, it’s picaduras.”

“Ok,” I said, and promptly repeated back to him the wrong word.

“Picoduros.”

“No,” he said, and to demonstrate he began a pantomime of smashing something with his fist.

Hence, my simple, nondescript story became a tale of mosquitos tenderly kissing my face in the night only to change suddenly to a gang of hardened criminal mosquitos smashing my face to steal my blood.

One time I attempted to tell him that my friend got married recently but it came out instead as “She was tired,” the words for married and tired being very similar.

“What’s the difference?” I tried to joke after being corrected.

Somehow I can still manage horrible dad jokes to my delight and to the chagrin of everyone else. I was telling someone that I bought jeans in Medellin. Because Colombians pronounce the double “l” with a “j” sound, Medellin sounds like Medejin. Hence, I joked, “Medejeans!”

But language-learning is not all bad jokes and story-telling. It’s a two-way street: speaking and understanding. Hearing a story is just as befuddling as telling one. I hear words and the story takes on an indefinite shape, the colors faded, the actions subdued. I know that there is a cat and a cake involved but I don’t know who did what to the cake and in what order things happened. Sometimes I meet someone who is patient with me and will carefully comb through the story with me, searching for the missing pieces and investigating what happened to the cake. When meaning finally comes, it’s like seeing after being blind; a flood that slowly fills my brain with color.

Sometimes not speaking the language properly is a source of comfort for an introvert such as myself. When introduced to a group of new people who don’t speak English, I can use my lack of common language as an excuse to shy away from conversation. Other times, making a genuine or heartfelt statement is easier because I don’t yet know the power of the words I’m using. To me, I’m only making abstract sounds that carry a shadow of significance, hence profound conversations carry the light weight of sincerity and innocence. But many times, I feel bound tight by the absence of known words and concepts. It’s a strange feeling to have something to say but not the tools to do so.

In many situations, I simply describe the things that I don’t have words for, to varying results. When I want to ask for a fan, I say “the thing that makes wind.” To describe the concept of rent, I say “when you buy something temporarily.” Sometimes it turns into a guessing game. If “when you buy something temporarily” doesn’t work, I say, “Ok, so when you don’t want to buy an apartment, but you want to live there, you…?” By the time we get the word figured out, I’ve already forgotten the story I wanted to tell, but I’ve learned a new word.

Thus, with guessing games and bad jokes, a backpack and hiking shoes, I will master the Spanish language.

 

 

 

 

Scoober Tuber on the Palomino River

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It was difficult to swat mosquitos, carry an inner tube, and walk uphill through the sweltering Colombian jungle all at the same time, but I’m a determined kind of person. The trick, I hoped, was to keep swatting my back and left arm with my right, inner tube-free hand as I trudged through the muddy trail. It was a practice in determination, for I would make it to the Palomino river.

Erlend, laden with eight beers (Aguilas) that we had brought with us as a requisite for the trip, responded with typical Buddhist wisdom to my mosquito complaints.

“It’s only real if you believe it is.”

“It feels pretty real to me.”

“The monks say, ‘Those who believe in reality are stupid. Those who don’t are even more stupid.’”

“Well, there you go.”

Did that mean I was the less stupid of the two?

When at last we reached the river, the sky was ominous-looking, as Hurricane Matthew had been wreaking havoc through the Caribbean recently and bolts of thunder could be heard rumbling through the jungle. I had inquired earlier weather or not holding a can of beer on a river while it rained was an invitation for lightning to strike. Erlend responded in the negative, too casual for my liking, and I had wondered whether or not I would forego the libations for this trip down the river. Fortunately, with every Aguila I drank, the less afraid of sudden death by electrocution I became.

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The river carried us, sometimes swiftly, sometimes languorously, through green jungle alive with the sounds of unidentifiable fauna. Sometimes we were shoved into the tree root-entwined, high-walled banks of the river, under low-hanging branches. We would emerge on the other side, scraped from slimy branches, with leaves poking out of our open Aguilas cans, as if the trees themselves were thirsty. Every time we would see the current carrying us into another bramble trap, we flapped our limbs uselessly and watched in helpless slow motion as we were carried into yet another inevitable twig assault.

When we had rented the tubes, we were also asked whether or not we wanted a guide. Erlend and I, with appropriately raised eyebrows, mocked the need for a guide. It was a river. It flowed one way. It ended at the beach. End of story. We chuckled at the family in front of us who had hired a guide and called them fools. Now, seeing the guide flail himself out of his tube in a move reminiscent of taking a bullet, and pushing the family clear of menacing tree branches, it was suddenly very clear to us the wisdom of having a guide.

At times, these encounters with nature would force us apart, wrenching our hands away from each other’s tubes in favor of shielding our faces. The current carried us dizzily away from one another, and in an attempt to find our way back, I would sometimes stick out my foot like a rope and watch as Erlend, horrified of everything feet, would grab on like someone picking up a dirty tissue from the gutter.

Reunited, we heard the deep bass tones of reggeaton coming from somewhere within the jungle, like we were in some alternate version of reality where reaggeaton explodes out of leafy canopies. The farther we drifted, the louder it became. Eventually we approached a bridge where locals were shooting the shit on this tropical thunderstorm day in the shallows surrounding the base of the bridge. On the bank to the left was a bar in the middle of the jungle that had the most ear-exploding sound system I have ever encountered. The jungle was awash in the musical renderings of Sean Paul entreating sloths and lizards alike to “shake that thing.”

When we were finally out of Sean Paul earshot, we began to see the horizon where the black clouds and rainfall of Hurricane Matthew loomed. The river met the sea in a series of choppy salutes that attempted to deprive me of my inner tube and Erlend of his flip flops. Soaked, drunk, and happy, we climbed up onto the shore, another couple of tipsy gringos that this river always seems to spit out.

 

 

 

Overwhelmed.

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To say that I’m easily overwhelmed is an underwhelmingly simplified statement. Finding myself in large bustling crowds, ears ringing with the sound of traffic leaves me tunnel-visioned and grim-faced. I walk through hordes of people with my teeth set on edge.

You’d think becoming easily overwhelmed would make me a terrible candidate for world travel. Every day there are a thousand tiny decisions to be made. Each small decision grows arms and legs, vocal chords, and opinions of their own. Decisions are never one way streets. They come in twos and threes, yes’s and no’s, maybe’s and perhaps’. I’ve rarely met a decision that didn’t grow at least one other head by the time I’ve thought it through.

Sometimes the decisions seem silly. Many times they revolve around food. Where do I want to eat today? Should I stick to the chicken place around the corner, or step, harried and tight-lipped into the bustling city crowd to find a cheap arepa place? And how many arepas are acceptable before I can no longer fit into my jeans?

In supermarkets, the tunnel vision sometimes squeezes itself into a tiny pinprick of light where I can just barely make out prices and the shapeless mass of strolling colors and noise that form the human population.

It’s in these moments that I receive practice in patience and perspective. As I start to breathe again, the shapeless mass become individual people once more. Here is a woman picking out a week’s worth of lunch for her daughter to take with her to school. Here is a man helping his elderly mother pick out the ripest tomatoes. Here is a lover’s quarrel in the soda aisle, or a group of school boys picking out an after-school snack.

In these moments, the tunnel vision widens, draws in all the small life matters that happen in the fruit section of the grocery store in a foreign country, finding yourself holding unidentifiable fruits and trying to remember just what you were so upset about.