I had the craziest weekend in South Africa, so I figured I’d take crappy phone pics and try to retell the happenings…
Outside of my hometown, I consider myself to have “lived” in very few cities. Soon to join New York City, New Delhi, and Zaragoza is Maputo, Mozambique, which makes for four continents over the course of 15 years! Unlike Raven Simone, I actually know the difference between a country and a continent, so I’d say that’s kinda a big deal. I’m quickly coming upon my one year anniversary in this southern African town and it’s got me reminiscing on the biggest lessons I’ve learned since embarking on a life of travel and subdued mayhem. People often ask me for tips and tools for life lived abroad. Usually I’m stumped by the combo of negatives and positives, much like the “Giving Tree,” but for this occasion I’m going to share the top ten lessons I’ve learned from living on the road…
10- Race is a figment of many people’s imaginations, but it’s real. – I’ve been stared at like I have 3 heads in India. I’ve been called “Negrita” in a loving way, really. I can speak 4 languages, but I still have very few close friends that are of a different race. There is no such thing as post-racial. No matter where you go, people codify color in ways that will make your head spin. One isn’t worse or better, it’s just the stories people tell themselves to understand where they fit in a social order that you may not yet understand. You can’t wig out every time someone does something “racist” or else you will be the subject of multiple international incidents. I’ve learned that understanding people’s thinking isn’t the same as accepting it. Understanding is something you can achieve with time & travel.
9- Life is better lived when you can eat everything you’re offered. – Just friday, I was browsing the menu of a hot spot in Maputo and noticed ‘hamburger de espada.’ I asked what ‘espada’ was and I was told it was a fish. “You know, it’s mainly for the vegetarians,” the waitress said with a straight face. As a person who has traveled the world with food restrictions, I can tell you that I feel like I’ve been restricted from taking full advantage of the cultural connection food offers. I’ve been handed chicken and told “but it’s not meat.” When I turn down the dish, then I feel bad and undoubtedly I’ve just offended my host. It sucks. If you can eat everything that comes your way, you’ll be the better for it.
8- Being bilingual is a gift. Being multilingual is best kept a secret. – I learned my first second language when I was 15 and I always used my powers for good. I always helped the Spanish speakers who looked stranded on the subway tracks staring at the English map. But then once Portuguese and Hindi started to muck up my brain waves, I’ve become very strategic about when to reveal my tongues. Seriously, it just makes my head hurt to switch between languages, and I’m always second guessing if I said the right thing in the right language. It stopped being cool the time I went to the nail salon and could actually understand all the languages being spoken by the workers – and they weren’t saying anything worth listening to. And just last week Thursday I went to a Zumba class and knew the words to all the songs. It was pretty cool at first, then I started to trip over my own feet while trying to translate “Chori chori..hum gori se pyar karenge.” Seriously, I almost long for the days when it was ok to just listen to people talk and not know what their words mean.
7- Money doesn’t make the world go ’round, but you’ll never make it around the world with no money. I’ve never said that I travel on a shoestring budget. Rather, I’d say that my travel style is modest – I like guest houses and family owned B&Bs. I think my approach comes from the reality that I don’t have the luxury of treating travel as a luxury. It’s a part of my life – much like brushing my teeth twice a day and checking emails, it’s so integrated that it’s hard to consider life without it. That said, many people blame their inability to travel on money and that’s just a thinly veiled lie. Travel is not about how much money you have. It is instead about how you choose to spend it. Some people will blow all their cash on souvenirs to show others that they’ve been traveling. Some people will eat through $300 on an exotic meal and great wine. Some people will not go anywhere because they value spending their money on things rather than experiences. Either way, money isn’t what matters in life, but travel is about finding a way to be comfortable in uncomfortable settings. That doesn’t come for free. It really does hinge on a cash flow that suits your travel needs and the currency of friendship, which can help you save your tour guide money and explore the joys of couchsurfing.
6- Art is life. No one remembers a city because it looked intelligent. You remember cities when they strike you visually. Barcelona and Chicago have a special place in my heart for their artsy architecture. Bangkok’s street graffiti juxtaposed with traditional Thai residential neighborhoods left an impression on me. I fell in love with every street corner in New Orleans’ Marigny and French Quarter neighborhoods, because of how delicately history and art were interwoven. Art tells all – the cultural struggles that exist or don’t. Even the absence of art can leave an outsider with very strong impressions about how little a people value or can access this mode of communication and expression. Beyond the galleries and sculptures, a city’s art scene (or lack there of) says a lot about what is important to the city’s inhabitants.
5- You always have it better than someone else, you just may not yet have met that someone. Many cities I’ve visited have had their flashy sides of town and their gritty underbellies. Usually people in both sides have a rivalry based in their lack of mutual understanding, nevertheless this tension can really be palpable to a traveler. What comes with more time and travel to different places is this sense that the rivalries in that one small place are just distractions from bigger issues. In Dubai, I was disgusted by the labor camps and the practices to help build this town of glitz in the middle of an inhospitable desert. But then I thought, well having seen some slums in Delhi, I can imagine why someone would choose to be the lowest in the Dubai hierarchy, rather than somewhere in the murky middle in Delhi. Even when it seems like life in a particular place is unfair and unjust, there is always another place where people have it far worse. Sometimes it’s best to focus on the positive affirmation of what’s going well where you are in that moment, rather than focusing on the negative rivalries that seem more present and palpable.
4- It’s best not to compare traumas. Piggybacking off #5, I can’t tell you much I value people who can understand history and not compare traumas. People have asked me if I think slavery was worse than the holocaust. I’ve been asked in Portuguese colonization was worse in Cape Verde or Mozambique. I actually dropped my Spanish history class in 1999, because my instructor said in class that “Spanish colonialism was better than all other kinds of colonialism, because at least the colonizers mixed with the locals.” Whatever makes people sleep better at night is their own business, but I would caution against statements like these that pit one place/time period’s inhumane treatment against another atrocity of a different hue. Can we just all agree that none of us really know (and we should quit before someone ends up saying something hella racist)?
3- Friendships come (and go), but they ARE the journey. Much like seasons, friendships have their moment. Good ones are cyclical and they are consistent despite the changes. Others, not so much. Each is important in its moment, no matter whether the lesson is learned from a negative or positive experience. I’ve traveled around the world, often staying with people who I knew, but didn’t really know very well until I shared a night under the same roof with them. Some connections were brief. Others dwindled, but I do feel that the friends I’ve met and made in many towns all over the world were really the reason why I have certain travel memories in the first place. I’ve been to carnival in Bahia and I can’t separate that from having met Urania. My first trip to Jamaica was spent at Teelie and Leslie’s place in Gordon Town. Were it not for them, I suppose maybe I wouldn’t have grown this lust for travel and the assurance that no matter where I am I’ll make the friends I need to make in order to enjoy that space to the fullest.
2- Social media is the best thing that’s happened to me since birth. I got my first cell phone while living in Spain. I was 15 and it was a necessity. Our school had a computer room with 2 computers with internet and 50 students had to take turns sending emails and chatting with friends between classes. I remember thinking then that one day we wouldn’t have to ration our time spent staying connected. So, long gone are the days before Skype and Twitter and Instagram. Perhaps, now, there is the opposite challenge – it’s harder to unplug while traveling these days. I doubt I could have stayed as far away for as long as I have if I didn’t have the modes of modern communication to feel that I’m not as far away as it might seem on a map.
1- Being a critical thinker is priceless. Being judgmental is useless. From the likes of #4, #5 and #10, I hope you can tell that I learned to form my own opinions from a variety of experiences. Being an analytical thinker is the only way you can travel, absorb, and benefit from the experience. However, India in particular taught me that it is okay to strive to respect behaviors and practices you don’t fully understand and, even from what you do understand, you don’t like. Being overly judgmental runs the risk of having others be offended and shut you out, then you’ll never even have the opportunity to be exposed enough to learn more. Respecting isn’t the same as accepting, it’s being tolerant. I’ve learned that I don’t always have to have an opinion about something or someone, sometimes the curiosity to continue to explore is good enough – especially in a foreign setting. I’ve become a big advocate for learning and respecting, with no strings attached.
Since the clock struck 12, just 25 days ago, much has happened. Yet for weeks, I’ve felt that not so much of it has been worth writing about. I went to Joburg for my poor, poor friend’s wedding (you remember her, right?). I went to Durban to celebrate my birthday. One of my very best friends came to town to enjoy it all. I went to work a lot. I met exciting new people for my research. I made a few new friends. I bought the Minaj’s album (as well as that of Mafikizolo, Chris Brown, Drake and Liquideep). I even made my first donation, as promised, to the Whitman Walker Clinic. All great things…I tell you. And none of that has seemed worth writing about.
I’ve always been a bit of an Eeyore, i.e. the cynic (borderline pessimist) who never understands what the big deal is about things that other people considered big deals. But the problem now is that I feel like I’m doing so much that I just don’t get a chance to stop and smell whatever this flower is called, much less appreciate it enough to write about it. My whole life my parents have reminded me that I’m “never satisfied.” No matter how much they tried to make me smile or enjoy a good day, I was always looking for more of a good thing, so much so that it negated their efforts in the moment. And what’s worse, I think I’ve lost the ability to understand how stressful chasing the next satisfaction really is on me and the people I love.
What most might call “a first world problem,” has followed me wherever I’ve lived, wherever I’ve gone, no matter how much I try to run away from responsibilities. So, maybe it’s just a character flaw? I don’t know how to relax. I never have. Is it possible that I never will?
I’ve spent much of my adult life talking with counselors and therapists, friends and people who probably didn’t really care enough to listen with both ears, simply trying to find outlets to vent. But it has occurred to me now that talking about all the things I do, rather than actually limiting those things, will not offer much relief. I watched a really great Ted Talk on ‘work/ life balance’ a few weeks back and I thought “shit, so a gym membership won’t fix this?” (Nigel Marsh: How to make work-life balance work).
When I originally heard the term back in 2009, I was a skeptic of the value of ‘work/life balance’ debates. First, I didn’t have much of a family and I’d just started my job, so work was still exciting for me. Almost 6 years down the line, I’m figuring at this rate either my body or my brains will fight against any willful efforts at procreation, so there’s nothing to balance there. According to the IRS, my husband and I make a family. That should be enough to tear me away from my office, except my sense of work ethic keeps me attached to my seat complaining about people I don’t particularly like and work I don’t find particularly meaningful. Not to mention that at this very moment, my work eats a piece of brain and two pieces of my soul on a daily basis.
My poorly thought out solution was to chase my dream of completing a PhD. But, there’s a fundamental problem here. I didn’t actually quit my job. How many more hours of the day did I gain by pretending that work isn’t the real focal point of my life? Negative 8 hours.
I genuinely feel like out of a 9 hour work day, when I add the time I spend without my spouse and the time I should be working on my PhD, and divide that by the time I spend complaining, I end up losing 8 hours of life energy per day. The 1 hour retained was lunch.
So, of all the awesome things I’ve done in the past few weeks to take my mind off things and to relax, much of it – like my PhD – seemed to be fulfilling, but still stress-inducing. I made work out of relaxing and certainly didn’t take the time to stop and enjoy each moment.
Nigel Marsh says that even adding a gym work out to the mix won’t help me be more balanced, just more fit. And I’m inclined to believe him. It’s already one more thing on my lengthy and never-ending to do list… just above “read.”
Obviously, for me the question isn’t so much about the tension between work and life, but finding value in both accomplishments and happiness. Being a glutton for work punishment may be an outgrowth of my own inability to separate the two. My own personal sense of achievement comes from seeing something through from start to finish. I value measurable accomplishments. Taking the time to live out my own happiness is hard thing to step back and admire. I’m not sure how to celebrate my days spent at the pool. But, it sure makes me feel energized for the days ahead and it just feels good.
Perhaps 2015 is the year to figure it all out…
The more I read about tragedies in the U.S. and the more I travel the world, the more I think about leaving it all behind. There have to be places in the world that don’t tolerate atrocities like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin’s deaths. There must be other places where Kametra Barbour gets more than an apology, where the national news (ahem CNN) would actually carry the story of Renisha McBride’s killer being sentenced correctly, and where Lavena Johnson’s death is investigated by the government, military, and people in whose name she volunteered her life to serve and protect. I’ll never know if life is actually better elsewhere. No traveler ever can. My citizenship always gives me the gift of a speedy exit and the privilege of choosing when to see the grit and guts of local life. But, if I had to imagine 5 cities in the world where I – an educated Black woman with a small savings, a penchant for making travel my business, and a genuine appreciation for people of all hues – would be willing to give life a new go, I’d start here…
5 – Johannesburg – Apartheid wasn’t that long ago and South Africa is by no means perfect, but from the POV of an Af-Am woman who needs a vibrant city with opportunities galore, Jo’burg offers a lot: universities that are world renowned, a banking system that makes sense, competitive job options, and lot of Africans who know how to have a good time. The Rainbow nation rarely sleeps in this town.
* Watch scenes from SABC’s new show Sticks & Stones.
* Shop Thula Sindi
* Arts on the Cheap at WAM
4 – Sao Paulo
I love this city! Absolutely, positively love it to pieces. Much like Jo’burg it’s a huge city with lots to offer. And, again, much like Jo’burg it has it’s racial down sides. Looking around, you might not realize that you’re in (arguably) the world’s Blackest country outside of Africa. That said though, Sampa (as it is affectionately called) is home to every walk of life that Brazil calls native. Great sushi and German food abound. Italian designs and African hairdressers everywhere. Buses filled with all shades of the spectrum. If only they could do away with that horrible accent…
* Shop Oscar Freire
* Study & get lost at USP‘s campus
* See Carnaval pix!
3 – London – I’ve always said that after one has lived and loved NYC, there’s no place else to live but London. That statement still haunts me to this day. The weather and the pound make London a difficult place to call home, but aside from those two very important factors I’d be on the first thing smoking to Brixton! Just being able to go to the Tate Modern every day just might be worth those bloody cold winters. Maybe…
* Brixton is awesome.
* I could watch BBC News every day on my TV, without cable!
2 – Barcelona – I often have to stop myself from daydreaming about living near Las Ramblas and spending summers on La Mar Bella beach, for fear that I’ll just hop on a plane and never return. Talk about good food, nice people, arts beyond compare and falling in love with a city. I could start over, over, and over again in Barcelona and never get tired of the adventure.
* The Miro Foundation.
* Caixa Forum exhibits.
* Barca would be my hometeam!
1 – Toronto – One of the most peaceful melting pots in North America, Toronto would have to be the most likely place for me to cast away. They speak English (in addition to 139 other languages and dialects). It’s just a few hours flight from home. And they have Uber! I’d have to say it’s the most live-able and like-able city on this list. Maybe it’s just a matter of time…
* Immigration made easy. Checklist here.
* T dot has got lots of shopping options on Yonge Street.
*Never a dull moment when Rob Ford is around…
When people talk about Mozambique, they often say positive things like “The people are really friendly,” and “The seafood is really great.” Both are true, but they only take you so far. When you stick around for longer than a holiday weekend, reality starts to set in and this ole’ girl called Maputo starts to show her crow’s feet. She’s not an impressive city in comparison to neighboring Joburg, but she has charm and class. And the people are friendly, but with a healthy dose of sass and wit. Let’s just say that there are a lot of things I had to discover on my own. Here are the top 5 things that nobody ever told me about Maputo:
5- The seafood is good, but it gets boring. Most Mozambican meals boast 4 main ingredients: oil, onion, tomato and salt. Put it on meat. Put it on fish. Marinate it all day. It’s going to taste like a slight variation on the same thing every time. And most of the vegetable sides are potato, chima, and/or salad with white lettuce. I love the flavors (even when they are doused in MSG powder), but after having such culinary variety in the U.S. and India my tongue is bored.
4- Mozambican women are BAD! So…I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this and not get my “heterosexual card” pulled, but really these women are effortlessly pretty. They are all well proportioned. Most work out actively. They have kids and still look good in bathing suits. They actually have lovely skin and awesome cheekbones. And, well, it’s all-natural (ish). People don’t believe in the botox or the injections, though they do have an affinity for new weaves/wigs every weekend. But what’s a little fake hair when your butt is real? Fair trade.
3- Nobody actually gets in the water. The drive along the Marginal every day really reminds why the hell I put myself through the torture of 9 hour workdays. But, nobody tells you that you can’t actually get in the water. It’s just decoration. It contains lots of gross matter that no one should have on their bodies, because it only recently came out of someone else’s body. The Indian Ocean looks so tempting you just might be tricked into wanting to dip a toe in on a romantic stroll on a hot summer’s day, but that would be a fool’s errand. Look, but don’t touch!
2-Maputo is everywhere you want to be. The city is only a three-hour drive to Swaziland and South Africa. Sure the roads are kinda unmarked and poorly lit, but those are no match for people with an adventurous spirit in need of widely spoken English interaction and South African supermarket products. I always thought it was the scarcity of consumer goods that drove people over the border, but it’s more than that. The grass isn’t always greener, but it’s definitely more orderly. And South African magazines like Bona and True Love are my new favorite addiction.
1-Mozambicans are the biggest haters on earth. This is a real photo, from a real wall, on a real street in Maputo. No lie! I have never in my life met people who celebrate with suspicion, instinctively. Tell someone that you graduated from college or that you got a new job! It is not met with unfettered happiness and congratulations. It is met with a slow and deliberate questioning of just how you did it. Somebody must have helped you. You could have paid somebody a bribe. The very last thing that will come to people’s minds is that they should be happy for and with you. Actually, it’s as if most people don’t even think ‘positivity’ is an acceptable reaction. I chalk it up to the country’s socialist history, where having more than the next person made you the brunt of suspicion, not the example of accomplishment. The sentiment lingers on well into the present and today I wouldn’t call it socialism. I just call it hate.
Well, you’ll have to come and see for yourself all the good and bad things Maputo has in store, including the exclusive beaches and resorts throughout the rest of the country. There you can get in the water and the women are still drop dead gorgeous. It hasn’t been determined if the hater quotient is still a national phenomenon or a localized epidemic. Be suspicious ya’ll, be very suspicious.