Miracles and Maybes in southern Africa

DSCF2492Last week was one of loss. A coworker lost her unborn child. One of my staff members lost his 8-year-old daughter (after having lost 2 daughters some years before). And a colleague lost her life and was laid to rest on Tuesday. I reached out to a woman who has been a priceless resource for my archival work and she recounted that she, too, had lost someone – her father.  As a distant bystander to it all, these past few days have taken a lot out of me, so I can only imagine the loss of those more immediate.

India was full of near tragedies. Almost collisions were saved in the nick of time by a ‘Sai Ba Ba’ or a ‘Hail Mary.’ Lives lost had some kind of meaning – disease or illness or some sick twisted bastards brought together by male bonding turned on its head. Senseless death is something I understood from Newark, not from New Delhi. Some idiot with a gun can steal you away in an instant. A misfit with a death wish can definitely take you with him or her whenever they so choose. But, even that kind of death still has an explanation that you can sleep with at night. Wrong place, wrong time, but there is surely someone to blame. Those deaths leave a cause in their wake – something to fight for, or better yet, something to fight against.

Random death, however, with no explanation or sense of understanding, is not something I’ve ever known until I arrived here.

On my very first visit to Maputo, I was greeted by what would soon (-er than they thought) become my family. Drunk on laughter and cheap South African wine, we awoke jet lagged the next day to hear that a cousin – who had been present just the night before – had woken this morning only to lose her life just hours later. In a battle with what exactly? No one seems to know. Just in her third decade of life and with only so much as a stomach ache to show as a preamble to death, she was snuffed out and there was no one to blame. There was no autopsy to understand. There were no inquiries to explain. We never found a smoking gun. She was gone in an instant and everyone seem to accept it without question. The requisite week long death ceremonies began at once.

I had forgotten that sense of emptiness and fatigue. But it all came back with a vengeance.

What can you say to someone who lost an 8-year-old to a choking accident? Do you blame the maid who wasn’t watching? Or the mom who decided to leave for the market and thought she could trust the maid for just a few short hours? (Can you ever really trust the maid?) Do you blame the object itself and risk blaming the kid in the process?

There is no cause to rally behind except, perhaps teaching the Heimlich in grade schools. But, then again, most school-going 5 year olds here don’t recognize even one letter from the alphabet, so that’s an idiotic ambition. You get no peace no matter which way you manipulate your well-intentioned mind and your dear creative heart.

Here in Mozambique, I find people who are deeply religious and deeply reckless. There is the sense that you can go at any time and it will be when you least expect it, and probably for reasons you least deserve. You can be taken for reasons that have nothing to do with your will to live or your exposure to nefarious elements or your contribution to society. Mozambicans aren’t likely to die from some senseless act of preventable gun violence, like their African neighbors to the South. Actually, with the proliferation of free ARTs, Mozambicans are more likely to thrive with HIV than to die of AIDS than ever before in the nation’s history.  So, when death does come it comes like a thief in the night, into the homes of people who until that moment thought they were too poor to steal from.

In a place with no police protection; where ambulances are only available from private clinics and, even then, it’s a taxi for a gurney not a life saving vehicle; where power cuts plague the country, but the government is negotiating to export electricity to South Africa; where Julius Nyerere Road looks like the pock-marked face of a hormonal 14 year old boy with acne, rosacea and eczema topped off with sunburn… people pray.

They pray for everything and nothing, at the same time.

This is a place where luck, steeped in religion, lives supreme. Every day that one wakes up alive, is a day worth celebrating to the tilt. Those that drink until the wee hours of the morning in celebration, also tend to wake up at the crack of dawn to pray. They find their solace in believing that a God somewhere has spared them. These people have a faith unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s not about knowing God, or even loving God – really. It’s about begging for an other worldly protection, since it sure as hell isn’t going to come from the living.

I’ve heard people ask if God has forsaken Africa. For their sakes (maybe our sakes?), I have to hope not, but my own observation leaves me pondering.  Until I came here I didn’t fully understand the question.

Of all the quick saves. All the split second decisions. All the life saving measures that I’ve seen spare human life its final phase. I’ve never seen it happen here – not ever. Not once have I heard someone say, “You won’t believe what happened…” end with a positive outcome. Every car accident I almost saw happen, happened. Every coma wasn’t followed by an other-worldly recovery. In my humble experience, miracles don’t exist for Mozambicans.

Why not here? Why not now? Why not these people?

There have been so many maybes in our whirlwind of goodbyes.
Now I understand the question.

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Descanse em paz nossa Rabeca e Teresa

Majestic Mixtape

RajasthanIn honor of cupid’s impending arrival, I’d like to dedicate a few songs to a few of the people I love dearly. If I could send you flowers and candies I would. If I could shower you with hugs and kisses you’d lose count. If I could send you Hallmark cards…well, I’d be broke. So, I decided to combine two themes I’m obsessed with these days – family & friends AND Majestic Casual music. For each of you, here’s a Majestic Casual tune that either reminds me of you or that I think might brighten your day. So, here goes…from the depths of the internet, through the bottom of my heart, to the innards of your ear canals!

P.S. Obviously, not EVERYONE I love has a song here. My bad son… don’t hate me. If you want a tune, let me know before Wednesday and I’ll post your selected lil’ diddie before Valentine’s Day.  See, we have to work together! Your forgiveness is appreciated in advance.

Ivan

Mom

Dad

Ameer

Elyse

Alyson

Charlie

Akintola

Leo

Julien

Ana

Juanita

Kai

Trudy

Jay

Websites We Love!

Unknown-4Not all websites are created equal. I talked to some people yesterday who told me that they spent weeks trying to get a passport in India, because the website only functioned for appointment scheduling from 5:59pm to 6:00pm. I am not making this up. Having a whack ass website can really kill interest in a product or service, and – frankly – having a great website can convince a consumer that poo-poo paste is foie gras. This is the nature of web-appeal, defined as the Babyface approach to internet usage (P.S. You can’t really snap your fingers with gloves on. P.P.S. *watch the video*).

Easy to use, giving loads of bang for their – mainly free – buck, here are five websites that have me wow-ed:

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Everybody knows I’m a http://www.mint.com slave, but now I’ve become just as addicted to award wallet. Every credit card, store, hotel, airline has some kind of reward program and, really, who can keep up? But these entities pray that you never keep up, so that the benefits expire and dissolve into thin air. You, my friend, have no reason to be a victim of reward expiration ever again. There is a rub though – the major airlines do not allow http://www.awardwallet.com to link to their sites, so you have to manually load your point balance and periodically update it. It’s a little bit of pain for a lot of free gain. It’s simple to add programs. And once you get everything loaded you’re more likely to keep track of your earnings rather than lament all the miles and hotel stays laying in wait in your spam.

Unknown-3Akanksha is a great a charity and social-service program based in the Mumbai-Pune area. Using a charitable teaching platform, college students or grads can volunteer to teach students in any particular field. Further, the organization raises funds though art projects and sales, corporate giving, charitable donation, and paid summer workshops. The stores to buy student produced merchandise are apparently just in the Mumbai area, but hopefully they’ll expand to other places and an online store (fingers crossed). Either way, the site is well-organized, easy to navigate, and clear to understand – a huge boon to donor confidence.

UnknownThis site is no hidden gem – it’s already been out there for a long, long time. Actually, it was about five years ago when I discovered it and thought “Urban Outfitters, the Salvation Army, and ebay had a web baby!” This site is a clearing house for hand-made and antique items. Selling is as cheap and easy as on ebay. And if you’re a buyer, you can practically find anything you could ever dream of. This year alone I bought custom rubber stamps, a Taj Mahal wall decal, and a bearded baby cap. And I’ve been eyeing a cast iron oven roaster pan. Who said being a hippie consumer was over rated?

flavorpill-logoI have to admit that I’m not in love with the email newsletters from http://www.flavorpill.com. That may have something to do with the fact that I signed up for four cities at once, and right now I don’t live in any of them (I bet you can’t guess which four!). Let’s just say it’s information overload about cool events I can’t go to. But, if http://www.meetup.com and Yelp are sites you already frequent, flavorpill.com is in the natural progression of your city search. They always have interesting event listings and off kilter articles about books and culture. Word to the wise, http://www.flavorpill.com’s culture blog is flavorwire.com. And http://www.flavorwire.com is where I learned that I’ve read two of the 15 books they say you should NOT read in your 20s. I already read one in high school and have another on my shelf right now – just ripe for the reading. Thirty is, in fact, NOT the new twenty.

Unknown-2To bring out the inner linguist in you, I suggest you bookmark the BBC’s world news language service. I’ve never found a more useful website for getting your bi-lingual on! The BBC offers their world coverage in many different languages (and variations of languages). Now the trick is that you should have at least a basic understanding of the newly acquired language, as well as some basic knowledge of current events in the country/region being covered. Hence, you actually should read some articles in English before listening to (or reading) story in the language of your choice. So after your Rosetta Stone courses are done, give the BBC a whirl to see just how much you’ve retained!

Don’t take my word for it. Try these sites for yourself and tell me what you think. I’m not getting paid (or gaining rewards points) for getting you to test them out. But, if you like ’em I gain bragging rights and e-street cred – what more could a blogger ask for?

Resident Outsider

I would not consider myself a Delhi expert. There are people who have lived their whole lives here who would not dare say with a straight face that they ‘know’ Delhi. It is cities upon cities, villages reinvented as towns, farmers come urbanites all compounded on top of themselves. Suffice it to say that Delhi is dense. And quite frankly, it is a category of dense I’ve never experienced in any of my previous travels.

So, it is particularly interesting when I get to host other travelers, and I get to play tour guide to the foreign stars. They want the Taj Mahal and tikka, they must see Lodhi Gardens and Lutyens; and while I do my darnedest to make it happen, what I don’t always have the time to do is give them the gems of my day to day. Perhaps not the most glamorous or adventurous sights and sounds, these are the places I find myself feeling particularly guilty that I didn’t tell them all about. Now, my favorite places aren’t secrets by any means. Locals and expats have discovered them and frequent some with vigor – but they don’t appear in too many guide books that pride themselves on over glamorizing the Indian experience. As a tip, never trust a book that presents Old Delhi as magical (instead of a bustling haven for pickpockets and claustrophobia) and Qawwali as a calming religious experience (instead of a hot, outdoor graveyard packed to the brim with Delhi’s prayerful and pauper population).

I suffer from the great gentrifier’s conundrum – trying to strike the balance between sharing info about what’s new to me, without building a buzz large enough to draw the types of crowds that will destroy all the splendor. Suspending all that, with great reluctance and great enthusiasm, I’ll give you the top 10 Delhi sites that I wish each of my guests got to see (but never told any other tourist about):

1 – The Rose Cafe in Saket – As you approach the Garden of Five Senses, there is a one floor building, painted rose pink on the right side of the road. It’s a very pregnant pink. It makes you think there’s got to be something sweet inside. Oh, how the Rose Cafe doesn’t disappoint with tasty beverages & bites, served amidst pleasant, French country-house style decor. What a sweet respite from the dirt road outside.

2 – The ruins at Hauz Khas Village – I always thought that at the end of the road, there wasn’t much beyond the gates after Yeti. Alas, I couldn’t have been more wrong(er). There are so many little inlets and passageways in the ruins that border the lake. No one can seem to place the complex in a clear historical timeline, but perhaps it was a madrassa campus. Regardless, it’s a cool place to pass the day, except when the weather is hot – of course.

3 – My yard – It ain’t much to look at by normal standards, but in my neighborhood yards are not normal. My little patch of green, furnished with an apricot tree, potted roses, mint vines, and bougainvillea all around, is a sight for sore eyes. The tandori pit doesn’t hurt either.

4 – The pub at the British High Commission – Diplomats comprise a popular percentage of the expats in this city. So, naturally, Embassies hold a particular allure. The Brits’ pub isn’t special as far as pubs go, but Delhi’s bars aren’t known for cigar chairs and Strongbow. Maybe the pub’s endangered status is intentional, but I’m happy that one still lives on.

5 – The reservoir in Nizammudin – Step well, reservoir, swimming pool, same thing. Built by Hazrat Nizammudin 700 years ago, the structure houses a spring that is enclosed on all sides by sacred spaces and residential homes. While the enclave’s residents can now, more than ever before, drink the water (though I still wouldn’t) – they also take baths and make pilgrimages in it too. Through the geometric cut outs in the walls, I prefer to observe boys doing backflips off the steps into the brownish, greenish pool below.

6 – ‘The cave’ in Sarojini Nagar Market – Unlike Khan market or South Ex, Sarojini market is pretty pedestrian. Mixed in between the shoe string lady on the opposite side of the street from the mobile phone recharge booth and the mid-range sari shops is a little inlet known as ‘the cave.’ I’m not even sure that it is a structure, per se, but a clump of clothing vendors who have laid down and pinned up tarps to make a mini market to hawk their goods. Dresses for 400 rupees, shirts for 2? It’s an experience…

7 – Museums in Gurgaon: This one is a cheat. I know Gurgaon isn’t part of Delhi, but once you get here you’ll realize just how much it actually is. There is more to Gurgaon than high rises and multinationals – and no, I don’t mean malls all named DLF.  There are lots of museums and art galleries out there just waiting to be explored. Where else to house these collections except in converted farm land or on sprawling farm house properties? Have your pick: Sanskriti Kendra Museum, Museum of Folk and Tribal Art, The Devi Art Foundation… and more.

8 – Normal people’s houses – It is hard to understand what ‘normal’ really means here in Delhi. But, visiting different people’s houses gives you a sense of the complexities of the term. Whether it’s a one bedroom flat it Mayur Vihar or a 5 house complex in Saket, you will only get to know Delhi-ites by being welcomed into their homes – where they spend time with the people they love.

9 – Lado Sarai – What a quirky little ‘hood this one is. I hope it’s the under-discovered, under-popularized Hauz Khas Village that people don’t ever go to – except maybe you and me. With its high end and niche brands in the Crescent Mall, and it’s design houses and odd shops, I’m cornering this part of town as my new playground.

10 – The India International Centre – I’m often rendered awe-struck by the kinds of programming this place has. Who knew it had an annex? Whether it’s book launches or movies, educational talks or cultural displays, I find myself going to the IIC about once a month to unhinge my inner academic and learn even more about India’s charm.

Ear Candy: Enter at your own risk!

I’m on a roll with these list posts, so why change a good thing? As some of you may have already heard, I’m planning an Afro-inspired Music party. This includes everything from reggaeton to kuduro. There will be a sign on the front door that says,  “CAUTION: Only grown folks who aren’t afraid of doing grown folks things, while listening to grown folks music should enter this house, on this night, for this party.” This is not a joke.

Yesterday,  I spent the day with 2 new friends, a hookah and Youtube. These two guys – Puerto Rican and Congolese – completely schooled ya’ girl on what needs to be played. That said, I have to represent for my Pud (Kimbella voice) Emily who I’m sure has already snarled under her breath “snitch you Black!” Translation: I am African American, straight Yankee, not from nowhere else but Africa somewhere and the U. S. of A. (represent!!). So, Gucci Mane, T-Pain, Lil’ Wayne and Wale already have a secured place in the playlist. And, since I’ve been listening to Mika Mendes’ MÁGICO (click for music) and Loony Johnson’s Kada Vez Mas Bonita (click for music) all week, the Zouk, Posada, Funana (click for music) are all covered. I didn’t say it’d be new music – just relevant music.

Nevertheless, the guys added a lot more vibes to the review.  Just to give you a flavor of the artists who will be getting big spins – read ahead, my friends, and click often.

5 – P. Square are Jos, Nigeria’s Ying Yang twins, except these two are actually twins. Identical even! I’ve danced to ‘E No Easy’ (click for music video)  many times, but never bothered to Shazam it.  I fully plan to walk around as a drum major when this song comes on. I suspect that even if you’re listening to it while cleaning your living room on a Sunday afternoon, your duster will turn into a baton too.

4 – Fally Ipupa is from the Congo and I have no idea what he’s saying in this song (or any others for that matter). But, Jupka (click for music video) makes me want to move my waistline and shoulder blades. And this video is an added bonus, because it gives me permission to wear sunglasses all night AND to have a blonde front and center in all the party photos. SCORE!

3 – Chino & Nacho are Venezuelan heart throbs who don’t look one lick of brown. But, everybody knows that cornrows, merengue and Venezuela have deep African roots, so we will be playing Niña Bonita (click for music video) and I expect there to be screaming girls.

2 – Romeo Santos (formerly of the Bronx bachata band Aventura) and Spain’s flamenco guitarist Tomatito need no introduction. But, I had never heard of their collaboration on La Diabla/ Mi Santa (click for music video) until yesterday. It will be played. I will pretend I know how to dance bachata. There will be no horses.

1 – Kingston Jamaica’s own Konshens wins not just because all the skrippers, i mean, dancers can actually wukk up and whine in Gal A Bubble (click for music video). But because they don’t all have faces like manbeastwretches the way MANY “dancers” in reggae videos do. Yup, I said it! Just cause you hot from the neck down does NOT mean we need to be subjected to your face for 3-5 minutes. Though, I can’t help but wink up every time I hear this song, rest assured, I will NOT be wearing poom poom shorts at my party. Nor will there be a hose for outdoor, car washing purposes. Perhaps, inside.

Enter at your own risk!