A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: mpho3

Getting Sentimental over You

Amsterdam - April 19-21, 2008

overcast 53 °F

The last few days abroad the Oceanic II, aka, The Scholar Ship, were very hectic. We had two days to de-construct the entire library and pack it in such a way that it could be readily reassembled for the next TSS voyage in September of 2008. In the interim it will be sailing as the “Mona Lisa,” carrying regular cruise ship passengers on a more typical and usual cruise ship itinerary.

It was strange to walk past what had been my “home away from home away from home” and see it festooned with Lancôme and Chanel signs for merchandise I never got to see. The computer, which had caused so much strife earlier in the voyage were boxed up and the desk which served as the LRC’s nerve center was disappeared as well.

Meanwhile the goodbyes became pretty dramatic for more than a few. Even before our heavily programmed “graduation” and closing ceremonies, students and staff could be seen clutching each other in tears and promising to stay in touch via Facebook. Though my eyes remained dry, I can’t say I had no emotion – only that I had very little. Mostly, I hankered for my freedom and a chance, at long last, to relax unmolested by the needs or requirements of others. I looked forward wholeheartedly to Amsterdam, and though I still felt a desire to chuck it all and go to South Africa to see my dad, I felt it was more important to respect his wishes and thus carry on.

Our morning arrival into Amsterdam on April 19 was slightly delayed, but I made no haste in getting off the ship as soon as I could. Of the many who had planned to meet me in Amsterdam, only Marie made good. Though she had booked a hotel room, I suggested that for budgetary reasons we share an apartment with a few folks from the ship. This idea was partially promulgated by N. who approached me near the end of the voyage. She and B. were trying to avoid rooming in a hostel. In the end, N., B., S., Marie and I shared a place I found on Craigslist.

Located in the DePijp neighborhood, it turned out to be a nice location with easy access to public transportation. It was turned out to be much smaller than I expected. Marie and I wound up taking a room with bunk beds; S. and B. traded off on the couch in the main room, and whoever was left over duked it out for the two full size beds in the master bedroom, which required ascending a very narrow and steep stairwell with the feel of an attic trapdoor at the top. Nonetheless, the place suited our needs, and though I was originally skeptical, I found the shower to be amazing. My only real complaint was that the owners’ dog had clearly spent time in the apartment as evidenced by the many hairy surfaces. So much for the €55 cleaning fee.

At this point I had no desire to see any “serious” museums or take in anything even remotely edifying. All I wanted was to unwind, which took a couple of days, for sure. That process was a little complicated for me by the fact dealings with the apartment people. For starters, everyone was somewhat concerned about handing money over to strangers – yet all went along with no coercion. Still, when there was a mixup with the €120 deposit that B. had submitted via Paypal, I felt responsible and covered it. When S. and I showed up at the apartment, “John” was expecting the rest of the apartment fees in cash. I explained that I wasn’t willing to handover the rest of the monies until we had cleared up the discrepancy about the deposits – the first sent by B. and accidently cancelled on the receiving end and the second from me, also via Paypal. He agreed yet demanded our passports as collateral, and thus I was trapped between a rock and a hard place. I didn’t find it wise to hand my passport over to a stranger and yet the others would be arriving and I didn’t want to deal with five of us on the streets. S. pulled out her passport but I put my hand out and gave up mine only, which turned out to be an unwittingly bright move.

When Marie arrived from the airport, the first thing I did was to give her a hug. The second was to announce that “I might have done something stupid,” and I proceeded to tell her about the passport situation. Although I didn’t really think anything untoward would happen – and nothing did – I told her I wouldn’t really be able to begin decompressing until I had my documentation back. N. and B. spent the first night on the ship, so I had to wait until the next day to collect their monies and then call John. He came promptly, and we discussed the money situation to everybody’s satisfaction. But when I asked for my passport, he shook his head and said “not until you give the keys back on the last day.” Foiled again!

I decided to let it go. But 20 minutes later he was back, this time with his boss or partner or wife on the phone. She was the one with whom I had exchanged email from the ship. She was angry because John had told her we had five people staying in the apartment, not four. This mattered because we had to pay per person. I had already given her the names of the four of us who would be staying. S. was a last minute addition about whom we decided to keep mum, so balked and told her that John was mistaken. S. was just visiting but staying elsewhere. She immediately apologized, and thus it was that I was glad I hadn’t let S. give up her passport. If she had, we would have been caught in a financially necessary lie.

Feeling like I’d pulled some minor victory out of my ass, I was ready “to party.” Well, that might be extreme, but yes we did go out and try some of the offerings at the Amsterdam cafes. It was a lovely experience. I hadn’t felt that free about it since Cali, and CA is nothing by comparison. On the other hand, I never got truly stoned. If we’d wanted to, it was possible, but for me, the fun of that is walking around, and it was too cold for a proper walkabout during our visit. Instead S., Marie, and I walked until we could no longer stand it, then we’d go inside any place that seemed reasonable – like the Sex Museum, for instance. Maybe the Van Gough Museum would have been more cultural, but the Sex Museum was €3 and right next to a Belgian fry place. Who could turn that one-two combination down? Our grand plans for cooking at the apartment fell by the wayside once I saw the size of the kitchen, so we ate “on the road,” as it were. We had one especially incredible meal at a Thai restaurant called The Bird or something like that. It was recommended to us by the doorman of a hotel. We knew he wasn’t off in his recommendation because when we got there, there was a line out the door. I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait and suggested we try the empty Vietnamese place across the street, but I was thankfully outvoted. The food and service were well worth the wait.

I’m a bit ashamed to say that the first two evenings I culled Marie into doing something I normally would never do: we showed up at one of the several Bulldog hostels, where people from TSS were supposed to be meeting up. I think I went along with these little reunions for two reasons. One was that it was freaking cold outside, and in lieu of going back to the apartment early each night, it was a way to go inside and get warm. The second reason on the first night was a mixture of sentiment and curiosity. Those reasons evaporated and were replaced on the second night by the desire to see one person who never showed up. I was hoping, at the very least, to find out where she would be hosting her birthday party, but the crowd at the Bulldog didn’t include any of her friends. I suppose it’s not a big deal, but when we were packing up on the final morning, I mused about how kinda … dumb it was that we had lost a few hours where and how we did.

No biggie though – that last full day was a pretty nice one. Marie and I struck out on our own – enough of TSS nonsense! – and wound up finding our way to the Anne Frank Museum after a circular and rather hilarious goose chase. I can honestly say that the Anne Frank Museum was one of the best museum experiences I’ve ever had. Both Marie and I walked out feeling like we’d gotten close to at least some small taste of what it must have felt like to have suffered what the Franks – and thousand of others like them – experienced. It was really intense. We also enjoyed two great meals that day, one at a place we stumbled upon before the museum called Pancakes. I LOVE pancakes, and the two muesli cakes I had were delectable. I know it sounds dumb, but they were really good. I don’t remember what Marie had, but she liked hers too. Later that evening we ate at a dive-y looking Indian place that only caught our attention because we were exhausted from all the walking and too cold to make the last few blocks. I think both of us were shocked by how good the food was.

The next morning we packed up. Marie went to hide at a diner down the street, and then I called John. I turned over the keys and he handed me my passport. The odd thing about the exchange is that he almost seemed sad to see us go, and I wished that I'd actually taken the time to chat with him. On that morning of our arrival, he just seemed like some squirrelly guy, possibly on drugs, who'd made off with the most important thing I had on me. But he was actually an alright guy. But I didn't have the means or the time to rectify the situation. He shook my hand and called us cab, which we shared a cab with B. who was flying back to the U.S. I had the cabbie pick Marie up, and we were on our way to Athens. Oh the fun that awaited us!

Posted by mpho3 14:37 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

The Hand of God Throws Another Curve Ball

Istanbul - April 1 to April 7, 2008

semi-overcast 58 °F
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From Barcelona, we pushed through the Ionian and Mediterranean seas to Istanbul. The days at sea were jam packed with activities and with the addition of 25 or so study abroad professionals from various institutions around the world; several staff members from the TSS home office in Baltimore, and the TSS President. Meanwhile A.G. had left to attend her father’s funeral. I was immersed in getting things done and not getting swept up in the politicking that seemed to be materializing amongst those who want a piece of the action on the next voyage.

In the LRC we found ourselves having to crack the proverbial whip in order to focus our student assistants on the fact that after Istanbul, there are only 10 days left on the ship and in that time we will need to have fully inventoried and packed up the library materials so that the space can be reconverted back into the gift shop. When the voyage ends on April 19, the ship will be immediately turned back to its original state in order to carry its full capacity for a summer’s worth of traditional cruise touring.

My mind was mainly preoccupied with the day-to-day stuff and the routine I’ve created for myself on the ship. Thus, I was fully caught off-guard by a message I received the day before we arrived in Istanbul. My brother had sent me a message with the subject line “Important News from Africa.” To be honest, I thought he was forwarding a news article so I skipped to other messages before opening his, and my heart sunk when I read that my dad had had “some kind of accident.” During the next several days, we pieced together bits and pieces of information gathered from long distance phone calls over barely audible phone lines to aunts and uncles. We found out that our father had suffered a stroke and was in critical condition.

As of this writing he has been released from intensive care, but I still have no details about his treatment or prognosis, and I’m not sure how to proceed. I have spoken to him directly three times since this awful event has struck our family, and he is adamant that my brother and I continue living our lives where we are. Of course, that’s difficult to do.

Istanbul has been forever tainted for me by this seeming cruelty. When I say that, it’s not to meant to scapegoat god, my father, or the universe. Though Istanbul was the place that I was most excited about encountering and even though most of the people on the ship would number it among their favorite destinations, I now believe that I wouldn’t have taken to the city under any circumstances, even without this monumental occurrence. I’m not sure what I expected or wanted to see, but I do know what I wanted to feel.

In his Istanbul: Memories of the City, native Turk Orhan Pamuk writes about a form of melancholy known as hϋzϋn. In discussing it he starts with two descriptions offered by others:

“[Robert] Burton, who was proud to be afflicted, believed that melancholy paved the way to a happy solitude; because it strengthened his imaginative powers, it was, from time to time, to be joyfully affirmed. It did not matter if melancholy was the result of solitude or its cause; in both instances, Burton saw solitude as the heart, the very essence, of melancholy. By contrast, while El Kindi saw hϋzϋn both as a mystical state (engendered by the frustration of our common aim to be at one with Allah) and as an illness, solitude was not a desirable or even admissible condition. The central preoccupation, as with all classic Islamic thinkers, was the cemaat, or community of believers. He judged hϋzϋn by the values of the cemaat and suggested remedies that return us to [community]; essentially he saw hϋzϋn as an experience at odds with the communal purpose.

Pamuk then goes on to formulate his own definition and the purpose thereof, stating: “… We begin to understand hϋzϋn not as the melancholy of a solitary person but the black mood shared by millions of people together. What I am trying to explain is the hϋzϋn of an entire city: Istanbul. ...the hϋzϋn in which we [Istanbulis] see ourselves reflected, the hϋzϋn we absorb with pride and share as a community.”

He proceeds in describing the city which he was lived in all his life, showing rather than telling the reader that the hϋzϋn of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, lies in its heritage as the former seat of the Ottoman Empire:

“In Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner … inflict heartache on all who live among them. …The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amid the ruins. Many western writers and travelers find this charming. But for the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power and culture. It is no more possible to take pride in these neglected dwellings, which dirt, dust and mud have blended into their surroundings, than it is to rejoice in the beautiful old wooden houses that as a child I watched burn down one by one.”

In my first and many readings of these passages, I was reminded of my woebegone yet beloved Detroit, a living archeological specimen. Once the seat of the auto empire, scars from the fiery 1967 riot and the resulting “white flight” are still painfully present in the Motor City of 2008. When I read Pamuk’s chapter on hϋzϋn, I felt a kindred spirit. Perhaps mistakenly, I approached Istanbul as if I would already know it. And of course the differences between his city and "the fabulous ruins" of mine proved too great to ignore. It’s not that I sought to find a bit of Detroit in Istanbul, but I wanted to meet others with the same fluency in the “black mood” – a shared cultural literacy unique to very few places in the world as I’ve seen it. Of course what I found is that Istanbul is its own animal.

Just as I have been disoriented by this twist of fate with my father, I also found myself lost among the mosques and hills of Istanbul. Everything looked the same to me on both the Asian side and European side. I never knew where I was or where I belonged except for the day we were given a river cruise of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. At least then I knew I was in the middle of two continents, but I would have been hard pressed to identify which was which. As we sailed underneath one of the two bridges, we spotted a jumper, and I was forced to conjure scenes from a documentary called The Bridge, about the many suicides committed at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, my other “home city,” each year. We stared up from down-below, some people willing the man to get back in his car. I had to look away; I didn’t want that lasting image seared on my brain; that’s not hϋzϋn.

The things that usually serve to rouse me from this near-tangible mood pollution did nothing to provide me with a respite from thoughts of my father, my family, my self, life itself. Food sometimes serves to ground me, and though the Turkish cuisine is not without its charms, I am not in love with it. I had the best dolmas I’ve ever had and some wonderful lamb and eggplant dishes, but never did I feel an urgency to eat my way through the city as I had in Thailand. Food is sometimes a comfort in times of distress, but aside from the sumac juice I guzzled one day, I wasn’t able to tap into my usual culinary excitement.

Nor did the sun warm me as it has the tropical destinations from earlier in the voyage. Like the spring that I know from Michigan, the days were hit or miss with the first and last days of our visit being very cold and grey and accompanied by drizzles. But the in-between days often became only teasingly warm and slightly overcast. Just when I needed it most, I couldn’t take refuge in the weather.

My visit was also marred by the overbearing sense of patriarchy in Turkey. Even amongst the modern Istanbulis, feminism is largely nonexistent. The men are quite domineering and accustomed to flaunting their status. In my experience, it was not uncommon to be asked for a kiss (or more), to be called “baby,” or to be suffocated with unwanted attention, yet it was equally common to be derided in one way or another – whether through exclusion or dismissal. Sometimes I felt like men didn’t see me; other times I wished that they didn’t.

S. and I went to a hamam, or Turkish bath one afternoon. Massage and sauna always gives me hope, and I thought the experience might rouse me from a sort of electrified numbness. Nowadays, Turkish baths are mainly a tourist activity so we chose a hamam that caters blatantly to out-of-towners. Typically, men and women are separated, sometimes even using different entrances. The men’s facilities are usually more ornate and well-kept, while the women’s sides are utilitarian only. I chose Cemberlitas because the experience is said to be more egalitarian – not much difference between the men’s and women’s sides. As it turned out, it was the one place that I didn’t feel the overt downside of being a woman in Turkey.

The process of a Turkish bath is pretty simple. First you are “cooked” or “baked” by reclining on a “hot” marble slab. This produces sweat and opens your pores. Then you are doused with a soapy, bubble bath and scrubbed and exfoliated from head to foot with various types of loofas and sponges. I had to laugh when the woman bathing me exclaimed: “DIRTY!!” and made me feel the stuff that was coming off of me. I wasn’t surprised because the water pressure in my cabin isn’t very good, the water itself is often yellow or brown, and many times that bathtub drain is so clogged that I’m up to my ankles in dirty water as I shower with water that refuses to get hot. Of course, I couldn’t tell her all that, so I let her believe I’m just a filthy pig, though surely she’s encountered worse. They even wash your hair, though mine was braided so I skipped that part. Then you are rinsed. Some elect to have an oil massage, which I did. It was very nice – about half an hour. My friend also had a facial clay mask, which I skipped. The whole event took about 2 hours.

There were some other highlights in a trip that wasn’t entirely grim. Before we arrived, I happened to chance upon the discovery that the International Istanbul Film Festival was taking place while we were in town. One of the features was a restored, uncut version of Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) – starting Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon and another of the film’s stars, the wonderful Italian femme fatale Claudia Cardinale, would be appearing just before the screening. I have always wanted to see The Leopard, which many contemporary directors cite as being an influence on them, and my friend Mary Letterii is a huge fan of Cardinale as well has having turned me onto another of Visconti’s great film’s Rocco and His Brothers (1959). I was thrilled to be able to acquire tickets and I took F., our resident ESL expert and proud Roman Italian paisan, as my “date.” We had a nice time both during and afterward when we maneuvered our way away from Taksim Square to find an alley named Bastille, filled with cafes and restaurants. It reminded me of the Bastille Alley in SF.

Taksim, by the way, is one of several centres of the city. I laughed the first time I went there because I had been warned by a Turkish man that it is “perhaps the busiest, most crowded street you’ll ever see in your life.” I didn’t have the heart to tell the guy that I’ve just come from China and India. While it’s true that Taksim is an astoundingly crowded thoroughfare lined with global and local brand name stores, filled with lights and groups of friends (usually male), couples out on dates, and tourists, his warning still made me smile. Taksim is a bit like London’s Piccadilly Circus, where, if my memory serves correctly, the crowd sweeps you along and to try going otherwise is akin to a salmon trying to force its way upstream.

To add to this feeing of being swept along by forces – the forces that have temporarily felled The Bishop aka The Ox aka The Bull aka my dad – and the invisible forces that have taken me so far from what I might have wished for myself in the past year and half – being in Istanbul made me feel like I’d escaped from the zoo. People stared and they ogled me quite open and blatantly. Many of the Istanbuli migrants from rural Turkey simply haven’t been exposed to very much outside of their culture, though perhaps they are hungry for it. When I was with J., who is Chinese, we joked that maybe they were looking at us and seeing chocolate and a banana, like in cartoons where one character looks upon another and sees only a tasty morsel. Though I understand where it’s coming from, I didn’t like it – especially when I was already feeling a bit raw.

Thus I can easily say that Istanbul was not for me. The sites such as the Grand Bazar, Hagia Sophia, the Basillica Cistern, etc. were all “typically awe-inspiring.” To use that phrase is to indicate that perhaps I am now dulled by all I’ve seen in the past few months and the wow factor is diminishing. Or maybe it’s because I was working during the first part of Istanbul, fulfilling my contractual obligation to serve as a Participant Leader for the students signed up for the Academic Field Program in the department with which I am affiliated – Global Cultures and Social Change. The first day, we attended some very thought-provoking lectures at Bilgi University on topics like “Turkish secularism and its petition to join the EU” and “Global Lifestyles and Consumerism.” Then we went to the Blue Mosque. The second day our group heard lectures at the Sabanci Foundation, the Sabancis being an overly wealthy, philanthropic family akin to the Rockefellers. We learned a lot about their efforts to boost the country’s failing higher education initiatives with scholarships and a private university, and similar projects in health care. After their presentations, we visited their private family museum of Turkish and Ottoman empire artifacts. On day three we visited the Kadikoy Market on the Asian side of the city; ate at Chiya, which is supposedly one of the Top 50 restaurants in Europe (it was good but not all that); followed by a cruise up and down the Bosphorus attended by all students of all the Learning Circles. Surrounded by dolphins and jelly fish, it was kind of like a dry rehearsal of the goodbyes that will be coming soon enough; the students were sentimental, endlessly snapping photos of themselves and each other and cuddling in the cold wind.

Working the AFPs is always more grueling than one expects because the days are long and the students, though mostly well-behaved, constantly have to be reigned in or corralled and accounted for. In the midst of all this I was making phone calls to South Africa and the U.S., monitoring the situation with my dad as best as I could. The whole of it wasn’t easy, but I gave myself plenty of slack. I was far from a party mood or even a people mood, so aside from the hamam and film, I never pushed myself to go and do or see anything. Aside from getting coerced into making an appearance at a staff member birthday party at a bar in the Taksim area, I spent a lot of time alone in my cabin on the quiet ship, taking advantage of the fact that the students were out and about. But I didn’t isolate myself either. I just tried, as I have been doing for so long now, to roll with the punches.

And now we’re back at it. In six days we’ll reach Lisboã. Four days after that, the grand adventure comes to a grinding halt. I am ready for it. Not sure if I’m ready for what comes next, but I am ready to express myself on land again. I have some ideas but no confirmed plan as to what part of the world that will be. Armed with prayers, I have been gathering no moss. And that’s okay. I’m really okay.

Posted by mpho3 17:26 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

New World (Barcelona)

61 °F
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The night before Barcelona, we had another marathon hair-braiding marathon. It took A.J. five hours to comb and braid my hair, but the effort was well worth it, I believe. It’s colder in Europe than it has been in the other ports of call we’ve been visiting, so I’ve been wearing a Billabong beanie most days, and I’ve enjoyed removing the cap at advantageous moments to capture and stun unsuspecting onlookers. Unfortunately, I’ll be lucky if it wears well until Istanbul, which means I’ll have to endure one more “session” as it were.

The following morning, Easter Monday, we awoke to Barcelona’s Port Vell, which is nearly as accommodating as Cape Town’s Victoria Harbor, with a plethora of shops, restaurants, and other facilities in the immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, this was the also the day that would link me and A.G. for the rest of the voyage. Both of us were taking advantage of port arrival excitement to use the staff lounge computers. Thus it was that I was sitting next to her when we received news from home. My own dad had written to say that he hadn’t heard much from me but that he assumed we had left Cape Verde and were probably arriving in Barcelona. While I was glad to hear from him, I was annoyed by the lack of content. We hadn’t communicated much since Cape Town and I had written long messages that he hadn’t responded to. Just as I was about to say as much to my neighbor, she gasped in horror and read the message she’d just read: that her father had died of a massive stroke six hours after her last phone call to him. The contrast between our two messages was stark and unforgettable, although clearly her life had temporarily come to a standstill, and I was free to go on with my own.

Thus, aside from financial considerations – Barcelona is currently one of the most expensive cities in Europe and the dollar is taking a thrashing against the euro – I was able to experience Barcelona to the fullest. I really enjoyed it. If anything marred my experience, it wasn’t the news about A.G.’s father, but a recollection of my college past. I had attended K College for the sole purpose of undertaking an extensive foreign study program for which the school was heralded, but the year I was to go, I was forced – mainly because of my poor academic performance, which affected my monetary resources – to transfer to a state school. I never got to do foreign study, and it was at that point that my motivation for language development began waning. I remember well the feeling of knowing that all my classmates were abroad somewhere, and I was in my own kind of cultural immersion program – acclimating to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, home of CMU, a place where I would never feel good about myself. Meanwhile, though I’d visiting family in Portugal many times in my life, I never made it to Spain, where I was to have studied as K student.

As I traversed the streets of Barcelona, I was never able to forget that it had taken more than 20 years, but I finally made it to Spain. It was a bittersweet feeling because I immediately loved this part of Spain and part of me lamented the fact that I couldn’t go back in the past and rewrite my own behavior so that I could do what I had wanted to do at the age of 19. However, I also know that the person I was two decades ago wouldn’t have responded to this environment differently and, perhaps more importantly, Spain was a very different place 20 years ago. Spanish society has made great strides in social liberation only in recent years. Maybe the Barcelona of the late-1980s and the me of that time wouldn’t have meshed quite so well. And anyway, it’s more like that I would I would have been in Madrid, which is yet another kit and caboodle.

Anyway, these were the only thoughts that sometimes gave me pause about my experience of Spain. Though they were constant companions, they were easily brushed away whenever I turned a corner and found a marvelous new nook and cranny of the fabulous city. In general, the thing that I loved most about Barcelona is one of the things that I always loved about San Francisco – both are large enough to provide a cosmopolitan feel and to draw or provide world class events and yet they’re both small enough to be walkable and to feel relatively safe. Both cities are located on the sea and have lots of green space with urban parks and conscious efforts to “provide” a bit of nature in the city. Art and food are highly appreciated in both places as well and public transportation is handy and prevalent. However, to say that SF and Barcelona are sister cities cosmetically or culturally would be misleading. Barcelona is, to the American eye, most definitely a European city.

In Europe if you don’t look up, you miss out on a whole ‘nother vista. The ornate-ness and detail is incredible. Yet you must always have an eye to the cobblestones, lest you trip and fall. And the ear quickly learns to distinguish between Spanish and Catalan, which sounds a bit like a hybrid of Spanish and French as well as the wealth of languages spoken by the many tourists who are learning to invade Barcelona.

On the first day, I simply walked. Since we were berthed near the foot of mile-long La Rambla, the most well known promenade in Spain, filled with street entertainers; flower, newspaper and bird vendors; and the patrons of cafes. La Rambla is sometimes called a metaphor for life "because its bustling action combines cosmopolitanism and crude vitality. I walked in ever-increasing concentric squares in and around the areas in the vicinity of the avenue. Every time I turned a corner, I saw something that made me smile. I passed through Barri Gotic, El Born, El Raval, and north of Plaça de Catalunya, I went into L'Eixample and several other prominent neighborhoods. In this sense, it felt more like a NYC experience though not as dirty. In some ways I felt like I had the city to myself because we had arrived during the Easter holiday, which is almost universally observed there; like Christmas in the U.S., almost everything closes and people are home with their families through the weekend or take advantage of the long weekend to travel. The calm allowed me to cover an extraordinary amount of ground, though I earned myself an enormous blister.

Not to be deterred, I rented a bicycle the next day from underneath the Christopher Columbus statue and rode through Parc de la Ciutadella with its green parrots chattering from every direction and then headed towards Barceloneta, the beach. To confirm that I was headed the right way, I asked a man carrying a tuba and he told me to follow him and his bandmates. When we reached the boardwalk we went our separate ways. Later, I came upon him and the rest of the international “gypsy” ska band Gadjo playing in the sand. Moments later, the police came to disperse them, but it was clear that the authorities weren’t too concerned about it – just doing their jobs.

On day three, I took in a plethora of Gaudi sites, including the still unfinished cathedral Sagrada Familia, which is like a three-dimensional Dali, and the mosaic-laden Parc Guell, which is simply stunning. Another day I wandered up to Montjuic, a park atop a mountain, and another day I took the tram to Tibidabo, which is the first time I’ve seen a full-on amusement park in front of a church. One night I went to see the Castellers de Barcelona, a 17th century Catalan tradition whereby the locals of all ages participate in the building of "human towers"– and then later went to see DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist perform at Razzmatazz. While Barcelona I heard flamenco, Bach and Vivaldi, Spanish guitar and almost went to an opera. I ate the obligatory paella, which I have to admit wasn’t nearly as good as my dad’s, and I had tapas, churros con chocolate and rich coffee.

One of my favorite places was the Harlem Jazz Club and one of my favorite stores was a little shop called Incas, which had some marvellous. I also stumbled upon a masquerade shop that was fun to check out although the masks were incredibly expensive. It’s too bad since we’re having a masquerade ball on the ship as one of the closing TSS activities.

Interestingly enough, just as we hit Cape Town during Gay Pride, it was also Pride in Barcelona. I did go to one bar, but the community in Barcelona, mostly centered in L'Eixample, is tinier than a pin prick. There is also an extent to which these things don’t interest me much anymore anyway, so I didn’t go out of my way to experience that part of Barcelona. I was happy just to walk around and to try out my now very rusty and limited Spanish. I found that I can communicate enough to make myself understood, which is encouraging, but I’d really like to study that language seriously again.

On the evening before we left, I had the pleasure of dining with Nieves, a friend from Esalen, with whom I’ve stayed in touch. She was in Casablanca for the Easter holiday, but she came back a day early so that we could get together. She grew up elsewhere in Spain but moved to Barcelona a few years ago. She is a blood bank organizer who is finishing up a degree in psychology. I told her about my misgivings about the past, and told me that Spain the 1980s, might have been difficult for me for the reasons that I suspected, so I felt good about that.

As with most of our destinations, I would love to go back sometime and experience the culture more deeply and to visit other regions. I don’t know when that will happen, but it was nice to feel so comfortable so quickly somewhere outside of the U.S. At the same time it was almost too easy - not as dreamlike as Thailand but not as challenging as Chennai. Along with Cape Town, it has been one of my favorite stops. Next Istanbul.

Posted by mpho3 09:07 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Pride, Power, Privilege

Atlantic Ocean - March 5 to March 21, 2008


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In the days that intervened between Cape Town and Barcelona, I decided to take a workshop being offered aboard ship. I can’t give away all the secrets we learned about the “Theater of the Oppressor,” but I can say that it was an interesting series. Co-facilitated by C., A., B., and N. – all from Onboard Life - they did a great job of walking 25 of us through a series of exercises designed to stimulate thoughts and feelings about what it is to be human within the constructs that we place upon ourselves and one another. Some of the exercises were taken from the pages of actors’ improv and others wouldn’t seem out of place in a therapist’s office. However, PPP was neither about acting nor about therapy. It was a chance to get real with ourselves and each other, and I think for many of us, myself included, it struck at the core of our identities and being.

The first night we did a lot of “ice breakers,” an activity that I usually loathe, but I really wanted to divest myself of some of the baggage that I brought with me to the overall TSS experience so I went along with it. We did some role plays about the concept of power, allowing us to physically flesh out a sense of what it means, who has it, who doesn’t, ways of getting it, etc. At the end of the night we broke into small sessions where we were permitted to reveal personal things about ourselves – the kinds of things usually kept secret from others for reasons ranging from shame and guilt to various forms of fear. For some it was truly an emotional experience. The things I revealed – like the fact that I have fibroid tumors – weren’t necessarily shameful or things to which I feel emotionally attached, but they did qualify as things I wouldn’t normally say to anyone other than close friends. For that reason, I almost felt like I had “cheated,” because some of the things said were really intense. However, that night I laid awake for a long time as an ancient memory came to me … something that had happened in my childhood that I hadn’t thought about in years. I was surprised that this little nugget had been unearthed, though I hadn’t consciously buried it. The more I thought about it, the more I became aware of how much of an impact it’s had on me and how much of my behavior and reactions stem from that event from so long ago.

During the next session, which came some days later, we went from examining power to talking about privilege. Again, we did a series of activities designed to get us thinking about the role that privilege plays in our lives – the moments that we have it and the moments that we don’t and how that impacts us. The outcome, again, was very powerful. Unlike the first night, I easily fell asleep but I had very intense dreams. I had also noticed that the dynamic between the participants had shifted between our first meeting and the second. I think we all realized that each of us has been through a lot in this life time – that you can’t live life and escape all the hurts and anger and pain, no matter your age, race, gender, religion, financial status, etc. But the workshop isn’t about feeling sorry for yourself or dwelling in the past. It’s about making conscious choices and making connections by letting down one’s guard.
Before PPP I fancied myself well aware of the walls I’ve built up in order to survive this trip, but I wasn’t aware of how high I had made them nor how thick. Nor had I thought about how the foundation of that wall had really been built during that long siege in San Francisco and my return to the D.

After each PPP session I felt refreshed, as if by punching a few holes in those walls I’d given myself more room to breathe and made more space for people to enter my world. I also felt more freedom to visit the others in their worlds, and as hokey as it sounds, I felt like maybe it is all one world – neither mine nor yours. I began to feel an empathy for some of the students with whom I had had a difficult time prior to the workshop. (I will admit that in a couple of instances, the result was the opposite – I had less empathy for some people). But I really appreciated being able to interact with everyone on a new, level playing field, and writing this some weeks later, it’s stuck.

During the third and final PPP session, we put it all together, exploring all of the concepts by looking at real world examples taken from our own personal experiences. I told them about an incident in San Francisco where I had been riding a crowded bus when I saw two youths blatantly harassing a third one. It was clear that they were threatening him, both physically and emotionally, but not one of us passengers did anything. We all sat there mute, blind and deaf as this kid was punched, kicked and forced to give up his watch. I remember feeling hot all over as it happened, yet frozen stiff in my seat. At one point, I made eye contact with the victim and his expression clearly begged for help but in the same moment one of the attackers leered at me so I turned and faced the window. I remember the extreme guilt I felt the rest of that night, alone in my apartment in San Francisco, refusing to answer whenever I asked myself why I had done nothing. The fact that nobody else had helped only made it worse.

We heard all kinds of stories that night from the Middle Eastern student scarred from being taunted by schoolmates as a child to the story of an Australian woman who debated picking up a bleeding aboriginal from the streets only to encounter a racist medical professional who suggested, “You could pick these people up your whole life.” We spent a lot of time reconstructing that event to show how it could have played differently. It was an intense night. We ended by telling each other what we had come to admire about one another. And once more, my mind and heart were released from their cages.

PPP was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had on the ship and on the voyage. I wouldn’t say it changed my life, but it did have a meaningful impact on me. For the first time since I’ve been with this group of people, I felt connected. It’s a good feeling.

Posted by mpho3 10:30 Comments (0)

Old World (Cape Verde)

Atlantic Ocean / Cape Verde - March 5 to March 15, 2008

sunny 82 °F
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Clearly the voyage has gotten ahead of me – at least from the standpoint of “salty ruminations.” Perhaps, therefore, it makes sense to rotate my gaze backwards at the risk of turning into a pillar of salt. Regardless of the outcome, I do so with no regrets.

First stop, Cape Verde aka Cabo Verde. We arrived there from Cape Town, an eleven-day journey that proved to be our longest stint at sea and the undoing of many bright minds. In addition to having lost a faculty member who threw in the towel and disembarked permanently on the first day in South Africa, a number of the students and staff began to show signs of wear and tear. The days at sea were one thing but the clash between academic pursuits and extracurricular ones became a battle royale. In between mixers, dances, cultural shows, performances, workshops, global scholar (i.e. guest scholar) lectures, the students began to feel crushed between the rock of entertainment and the hard place of course mid-terms in the form of presentations and papers. The faculty was just as pressed to produce exams; assign group projects and presentations; and turn in grades. In the LRC, I was unable to escape the stress which took many different forms – students close to or actually in tears because they had waited too long to begin their research, technology failures, student employees who needed micromanaging, a holdings inventory that seemed to be taking much longer than necessary, and other things.

But eventually, on March 15, we made it to the Cape Verdean islands, Cape Verde being a very different animal than the Seychelles. Whereas Seychelles is a bit of a paradise, Cape Verde is what happens when paradise begins to get lost. São Vicente, the island where we landed, reminded me a bit of Isla del Sol, ironically near the Cape Verde islands, except it is a rock in the middle of an Atlantic Ocean nowhere, a place where planes land to refuel. In a way, my characterization is unfair. Isla del Sol truly is just a rock with a landing strip and filling stations. São Vicente is peopled with pleasant folk - about a quarter of the people are African, from Senegal and other places and there’s a nearly negligible amount of Caucasians on the island - but I couldn’t shake the feeling of weary sadness, a sadness that is the basis of Cape Verde’s most famous musical style, the mournful songs of longing aka as fado or the Cape Verdean blues.

I was sad because São Vicente is dry as a bone – we were told by a tour guide that he hasn’t seen rain since 1984. I hadn’t imagined a place so brown. Once upon a time it used to rain on the island, and it was green. But that was then. Now they import all their vegetables and fruit from the next nearest island. It made me sad because I felt the absence of a future for those who live there. There’s not much to do except procreate and indulge in social problems. Two thirds of the population are under the age of 30 and less than 10 percent of are over 60. One of the sites we visited in Mindelo, the capital, was littered with used condoms and our tour guide told us that most people there have large families, and almost half the births there are illegitimate His grandfather had 47 children, his father had 24. He joked that the “energy” lessens with the generations – he himself, a young man in his early 20s, doesn’t have any children. Yet. In the center of town there’s a sculpture – a monument really – of an eagle with its wings spread. It’s meant to symbolize the first plane that landed on the island. I heard that the locals say that if a virgin walks underneath the statue, it will take flight. Despite the parade of women of all ages – pre-teen and up – the eagle remains.

Nearby is another monument of interest – a replica of Lisboa’s Torre de Belem, a five-story, fortified lighthouse on the Tagus. The influence of Cape Verde’s former status as a former Portuguese colony was evident everywhere. The citizenry is mostly Creole – a mix European with Blacks from the days of slavery. I bought very little of the currency – the Cape Verdean escudo - and was hoping that maybe they’d use the old Portuguese escudos that I remember from before the advent of the Euro, but they have their own currency, which like the Seychelle rupee is a soft currency. We were encouraged to pay for things in Euros or U.S. dollars. Other than lunch, I didn’t buy a thing. As is typical of such locales, everything is imported and thus expensive.

I think life there is probably difficult. I didn’t see anyone starving or in the streets, but the unemployment rate is tremendous and many of the buildings are in poor condition - crumbling, roofless, or otherwise unstable. Fish sells for three euros or less per kilogram, but meat is 11 euros per kilo. Feeding a family of 5 (the average household size) or more is probably a mean feat. The pace of life is slow and laid back, but it seemed monotonous as well.

For me, lunch was nice – I had creole-style amberjack fish which came with sides of baked yucca (or possibly cassava root), yam, sweet potato, russet potatoes and beets. The mixture went down well with a capharina and a beer, and I enjoyed my company that day – N. (a professor), G. (the Director of the LRC), and her friend and our newly added global scholar, Guatemala’s Minister of Education. After lunch, N. and I went in one direction and the other two women went in another. I was happy to stumble upon a killer band playing in a little Internet café/bar. Unfortunately, the place had already become a haven for a horde of (drunken) TSS students looking to stay out of the sun. I neglected to wear sunscreen that day and found myself looking particularly ashy for the next few. N. and I strolled around a bit, peeking into some of the shops and businesses. As for local products, many people were peddling homemade trinkets but nothing that spoke to me. I didn’t speak to many people either. Most speak Criulo, a Creole dialect, but Portuguese is the official language.

I didn’t get to practice either one very much because we had to board the ship by eight p.m. since our visit was only for one day to break up the monotony. In the interest of being frugal, I decided to eat dinner on the ship, which meant returning to the ship early. Once there, I saw no point in going back out. I’d had my fill of Cape Verde. When I listen to Cesaria Evora, I now know where she's coming from, both figuratively and literally.

Posted by mpho3 07:29 Archived in Cape Verde Comments (0)

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