A sober reality

I haven’t written all summer because I have been at a loss for words. Besides that first day I wrote about, I have found that being a woman here has been an uphill battle in a way that I never experienced in Morocco – sexual harassment is very real and present here despite that one peaceful day. Numerous times I thought about retracting my previous post or writing an amendment to it, but its hard to share such personal and unfortunate experiences with such an unknown audience. Instead, I opted for silence. I tried to grow accustomed to this place and relish in the beautiful and interesting things about it in an attempt to forget about the low and horrible characters in it.

I will let you know how that goes.

Not everything about Sri Lanka is how I am making it out to be. There are absolutely beautiful beaches, there are gorgeous mountains, and the wildlife is amazing. Despite all of this, I am really excited to leave in two weeks. This summer has made me realize that I no, I will not love everywhere I travel. I have realized that even though I try to be patient and open-minded numerous bad experiences will color a place. That does not make me a bad person or culturally insensitive – it makes me human. Maybe if I would be here longer, I would grow to love it or maybe I would grow to hate it more, I’m not sure. Maybe if  I had lived in a different city or maybe if I had been able to meet more locals. Again, I’m not sure. I can only describe Sri Lanka based on my experiences and perceptions using the lens that I was given.

I will write another post wrapping up my summer and what exactly it is I have done on this island, but I wanted to first share my more sobering thoughts. I just needed to explain the meaning behind my silence in a hopes of finally being able to move past the negative and onto the positive.

Again, I’ll let you know how that goes.

Posted in Random musings, Sri Lanka | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A look at harassment

So I have been in Sri Lanka for almost a week (one-week tomorrow to be exact.) Granted, in this week, I have been entirely in Colombo and mostly working. However, I have been able to explore the city a little and in my evenings, my fellow housemates and I pick a new restaurant to try or world cup game to see. I’ve gotten started at work and I’m slowly getting my bearings. This isn’t a sprint, it’s more like one of those 10K family runs in which you can take your time and everyone that finishes gets a ribbon. I realized that I often ‘hit the ground running’ when it comes to my travel and for the first time, I am trying to take a step, breathe a little, and just see what comes up.

As I am reflecting on this calm week in Sri Lanka, I told myself that I would write about the most interesting cultural experience that I had in the entire week. This blog is about culture, so I should comment on it. However, to me, there is not one single interaction that stands out in my mind, but a disturbing acceptance on my part that seems to continuously occur.

You see, I have spent the majority of my formative travel years in Morocco. Although I’ve traveled a fair amount to other countries, Morocco was my first outside-of-the-US experience and as such, my sort of ‘travel defaults’ are from this time. I realized that one of the most disturbing defaults I have is my acceptance of harassment. In Morocco, and quite frankly most other Arab countries, women get harassed. It’s just a fact of life. I couldn’t walk 5 feet without someone wanting/needing/demanding to talk to me and enter my personal bubble. This could have been for a variety of reasons, and not all of them malicious, but like it or not, I could never get from point A to point B without drawing A LOT of attention to myself.

This is not normal, nor is it ok. I accepted a lot of it because “it was a cultural thing” and I knew and understood the variety of reasons around it. That still doesn’t mean it’s ok for a man can walk up to me, get in my face, and I just bow my head and walk away. It might be a necessity and a fact of life, but it shouldn’t have to be.

Sri Lanka is not like this at all. Granted, Tuk-Tuk (motorcycle taxi) drivers are a little aggressive and there isn’t a huge walking culture here, but just because I’m a woman no one feels like they have the right to just come up to me. I walked for almost 3 hours on Sunday and I was not harassed once (in my mind). I honestly could have been but because it wasn’t incredibly blatant, I recall the most peaceful 3-hour walk that I have EVER had in a developing country capital. In talking to my other housemate, I can hear the frustration in her voice with the tuk-tuk drivers and how people are a little more in your personal bubble than usual.

To me, this place is heaven. Why? It’s because I am assuming that once I leave the US my right to have a personal bubble is gone. Even in Ghana, I would walk outside and the children would shout “white lady!” (which opens a whole different can of worms for me being that I’m half-black, but I wont get into that) and even in Spain and Italy I drew the unsolicited comments of males passing by. Instead of getting outraged, I have become complacent. I’ve bowed my head and just moved on.

I cannot tell if this is a good thing, but it leaves an unsavory taste in my mouth. On one hand, I have found my week in Sri Lanka to be incredibly enjoyable and relaxing because it exceeds my (clearly low) expectations. I have found Sri Lankans friendly and helpful and so respectful of my space and my existence. On the other hand, I have become complacent about harassment. I know it’s not a black and white issue and I can argue all day long why this attitude became a necessity, but as I am sitting here going over my interactions in the last week, I’m beginning to want to argue otherwise.

When is harassment ok? When is the bombarding of females just for the sake of being a female an acceptable practice? Why do some cultures allow this and others have evolved against it? I do not mean that cultures that accept harassment are thereby less evolved, but I do mean to wonder this variance exists. I am also aware that the definition harassment varies greatly and that the American definition of the ‘personal bubble’ is quite a large amount of space.

None-the-less, in the world of ‘cultural sensitivity’ should accepting the varying degrees of harassment as a fact of life be something you pride yourself on? No, I don’t think so. I’m not proud of that and I don’t feel like it’s a box I can or should check off. I am proud that I was able to set aside my personal beliefs to try to really understand the reasons behind it without my own personal prejudices. I really wanted to evaluate my set of beliefs especially in regards to the large American personal bubble and rebuild them from the ground up. Maybe that’s what I’m doing at this moment – rebuilding my beliefs. In fact, I hope I am constantly doing it. Either way, I’ve to come realize that every person deserves to be treated with respect and although there are serious cultural differences as to what ‘respect’ means, I want to continue to seek out what it to means to me because really that’s the only culture I can control.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to accept the plus sides of my “cultural sensitivity” and enjoy walking on the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Posted in Random musings, Sri Lanka | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Day and Night

Currently, the song that receives the most plays on my iPod is Kid Cudi’s ‘Day and Night.’ For me, you can always tell a period in my life by a song. When I was dumped by my last partner, Nina Simone’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ filled that role. Needless to say, I was a little upset by the break-up. But now, a rap song with a mash-up music video offers the key to my inner feelings.

So what does that mean? Do you think that there is some deeper meaning to the lyrics? Normally, I’d say no and that sometimes you just want to listen to a rap song, but because I have your attention, let’s explore the world Kid Cudi created and see if it matches my own…

“Day and night, I toss and turn, I keep stressing in my mind. I look for peace, but see I don’t attain, what I need for keeps this silly game we play…”

To be honest, I haven’t slept in weeks. I have spent my nights turning over everything in my mind, letting the stress of the day leak over into what should be my only period of rest. It’s because during the day, I continued to work on Haiti crisis mapping continuously looking for a way to help and looking for a way that the Ushahidi Haiti Project can truly be value added to those on the ground.

“Now look at this, madness to magnet keeps attracting me. I try to run but see I’m not that fast, I think I’m first but surely finish last.”

On May 12, I tried to phase out of the project. I planned this entire Strategic Planning meeting and I fully intended to walk away after that. The meeting went really well, we analyzed our strengths and weakness in a productive manner and paved a way forward after that. I should have stepped away. I should have seen that my personal life was in disrepair and needed my attention. But the project called again, they needed me, and despite my best efforts to run away – I was dragged back in.

Now I’m going to skip the refrain (because really that’s just a hook) and go right to the end, in an attempt of keeping your attention and maintain relevance.

“Slow moe, when the temple slows up and creates that new, he seems alive though he is feeling blue. The sun is shining man he’s super cool.”

Despite my whining and my apparent burn out, I love the Ushahidi Haiti Project. The summer team really has its head on straight and they are going to do amazing things despite all odds against success. I’m proud to have been a part of it, but for me today is a new day. The sun has come up and I board a plane to Sri Lanka, regardless of anything that I have done before.

“The lonely nights, they fade away, he slips into his white nikes. He smokes a clip and then he’s on his way. To free his mind in search of, to free his mind in search of…day and night.”

I am not comparing my work with the Ushahidi Haiti Project to the ‘lonely nights.’ I am saying that I got into unhealthy work patterns. I sacrificed my person life and my sanity for my job and despite the toll it took on me, I do not regret that decision. Instead, I relish in the lessons I have learned. You see, I’ve come to realize that nothing is worth this type of burn out. I have seen what sleepless nights do to my productivity and my mood, and I’m not happy about it. This move to Sri Lanka is the best thing not only for me, but also for them. I would have worked myself into the ground and taken other people with me.

I will truly process this entire experience later, but for me, this was an excellent exercise in understanding the phase of my life that I am in while still being in it. As I finish packing, and get ready for a summer as an intern at the US Embassy Colombo, I hope to take the lessons I learned from my Haiti work to my work there. I hope I take weekends to remember myself and remember that just because I can work 15 hours a day, it doesn’t mean I should.

“Cuz day and night, the lonely loner seems to free his mind at night.”

Posted in Haiti, Random musings, The US | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Resilience. Perserverance. Continuity. You Choose.

I have been in Haiti for the past two weeks. Actually, mentally, I have been Haiti for the past three months, but this has been the first time that I was physically in the country. You see, I have been working with Ushahidi to map need in Haiti. We have been reading text messages sent to the number 4636 and manually locating them on the map (based on information inside the message.) I have looked at so many maps of Haiti, I could tell you the coordinates of the Caribbean Market in my sleep. I thought that meant I knew Haiti like back of my hand. However, this trip taught me that I knew the map of Haiti like the back of my hand – I can tell you that I did not know Haiti.

The first time I saw the Caribbean Market (in person), I lost my breath. The building was flattened, and I mean flattened. I had seen this from satellite imagery, but the power of seeing this huge piece of concrete reduced to rubble was awe-inspiring. Yes, I say awe-inspiring. The work of hundreds of humans can be reduced to nothing by the simple moving of the earth. In a purely poetic sense, the concept is mythical; however, the more I was driven around Port-au-Prince, the more I realized that breathing and comprehending were difficult tasks. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the rubble and the destruction that this earthquake caused. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the camps of people who are too afraid to return to their houses out of fear of being one of the ones trapped underneath the rubble. It’s so easy to think that nothing but destruction is everywhere.

However, as I am preparing to leave, I can tell you that a destroyed building is not the most powerful image in my mind.

One day, I was in the car being transported to yet another meeting about technology and mapping in Haiti. I was driving down a street in Babiole, I believe, and I kept seeing flattened house after flattened house and I felt overwhelmed with sadness. I just kept thinking – what in the world can I do? I am mapping need, but that doesn’t mean I am doing anything to alleviate need. I saw house after house and I was feeling so small and powerless.

We turned a street corner, and I was instantly transplanted to New Orleans. You see, a few years ago, I did a research project evaluating the social cost and benefit of redeveloping housing in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and as part of my research I traveled to the devastated city. I drove around N’Orleans, and when I got to the Lower Ninth, I saw nothing – literally. Houses had been cleared away, and only a few (barely stable) structures remained. When I turned down one street, I saw one standing ‘double shotgun’ house – the staple of building design in the city. This house still had the water lines on it, and it even had the search and rescue ‘X’ on it. However, the house itself was not what drew my attention. There was a woman, sitting in her rocking chair on the front porch. Her house was clearly empty, besides a few necessities, and it was obvious that soon it would be torn down with the rest of them. However, she was sitting in her rocking chair, drinking sweet tea, and just basking in the New Orleans sunshine. She didn’t seem to notice the destruction around her, and she had this look on her face that said, “This is my house, and it has always been my house. I will be here as long as it is.”

When I turned the street corner in Port-au-Prince, I saw a similar image. There was a man in a plastic chair sitting beside a pile of rubble. This pile of rubble had clearly been his house at one point in time, and instead of looking distraught, he simply sat there as if nothing had changed. It was clear that this was his afternoon activity, and rubble or not, he was going to sit in the shade of his house and enjoy the Haitian sunshine.

This is the image that I take with me as I prepare to leave Port-au-Prince: life goes on. Whether we like it not, we have to just understand that tomorrow will come and all we can do is continue to live regardless of rubble, floods, or strife. I amazed by the Haitian people and their ability to just continue. I can’t tell you how many times in my life that a simple failure has overwhelmed me and I have been afraid to continue because of the consequences. I have thought that life, in and of itself, was too much, and that it would be better just to give up than go on. However, my time in Haiti and New Orleans has truly taught me resilience. It has taught me that despite everything, you just have to continue.

So, as I am spending my last days still trying to understand the complex country I find around me, this is the big lesson that I take with me. Yes, I could talk about the camps, and the poverty, and the destruction. Instead, I prefer to remember the perseverance the strength. I hope I can continue to be like these people who I try to ‘help.’ They clearly understand more of life than I do, and I hope that I can just take a page out of their books – life goes on and the best thing we can do is just embrace that life and just continue.

Continue to what? I really don’t know – maybe the next disaster will teach me that, but in the meantime, I will just bask in the Haitian sunshine and strive to be like those around me.

Posted in Haiti, Housing Restoration, Random musings | 2 Comments

Confessions of a Mixed Girl

There is actually a really good reason as to why I haven’t written in a two months. Usually, I can give some half-baked excuse about my world has just gotten too busy for a blog post, but this time I would say that excuse has been baked fully and could be over done. I have been on crisis mapping for the earthquake in Haiti using a tool called Ushahidi (www.ushahidi.com), and this simple mapping tool has become the forefront in disaster and humanitarian response. My jobs have ranged from mapper, SMS coordinator, SMS manager, Urgent Response Team Lead, and now, Director of Crisis Mapping. I actually wrote a blog post detailing one of my experiences over the past few weeks, which can find here.

However, this blog to me is a commentary on culture and traveling, and although there is a very interesting culture around crisis mapping, I am actually going to write a post that I have been dying to write for a while.

I am a bi-racial woman. My mom is of Irish descent and my father is African-American. Until Obama came on the scene, this combination of ethnicities was not only unusual but it was also unwelcome in variety of settings. According to the black population, I wasn’t black enough. According to the white population, I was too black. I know these are gross over-generalizations of populations, but sadly, this is based on my experiences.

For instance, “Well, you know, you don’t count, you’re not fully black anyway” or “Well, you know, you could pass” or my favorite “So, exactly what are you?” I have heard these phrases more than one. Hell, more than 10 times.

I find it interesting that when I wrote a blog post discussing women on motorbikes in Morocco, it received more attention than any other post I’ve written. In my opinion, this is because that is the ‘hot topic’ of conversation – how women are treated in the Middle East. Whenever I have commented on my time in that beautiful country, the first question I hear is – “Well, what was it like, to be a woman in a Muslim country.”  The thing that I find interesting, though, is that the Middle East is actually the place in the world that I have been unanimously accepted.

Let me illuminate –
A Moroccan cab driver: “So where are you from?”
Me: “America.”
Moroccan: “No, no, where are you from?”
Me: “Really, America.”
Moroccan: “Ugh, no, where is your father from?”
Me: “America.”
Moroccan: “But he isn’t from America.”
Me: “Well, he’s black.”
Moroccan: “Oh! He’s African. So it’s like you’re from Morocco. Ok. Good.”

This conversation didn’t happen once. It didn’t even happen 10 times. This conversation took place every time I sat down in a cab, every time I ordered food at a cafe, or every time I talked to someone on the street. Moroccans were unbelievably willing to accept me into their culture. Me. The girl who has been completely rejected from both races to which I am supposed to belong.

What does that say about American culture? It is not easy being mixed and I refuse, even in 2010 to push it under the rug. I refuse to stop discussions about race because they are no longer relevant. Yes, the civil rights movement is a crucial part of American history, but I don’t think it’s over. It’s not over when I have to defend my place in the middle of two races.

Guess what – you can be both. I am proud of my black heritage. I am proud to be Irish. Yes, my ancestors were slaves. My ancestors were redheaded, beer drinking, potato farmers. Some picked cotton. Some choose to come on the boat. Some were property. Some were brought on a boat. I am proud of each one of those people. Without them and all of their trials, I would not be here. I am product of every person that has come before me – black and white. To me, discounting either one of those parts of me disregards their mutual experiences and sacrifices.

I am a mixed girl, and dammit, I am proud of it.

Posted in American Culture, Rantings and ravings | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

What happened to main street?

A few days ago, I met up with an old friend for lunch. This, in and of itself, is not the inspiration for this post; however, the location of this encounter has given me much pause for thought over the past few days. We had decided to meet halfway between our two homes, and middle Georgia is the equidistant location between Atlanta and North Florida. So, I looked at a map of my state and there was Cordele, a small southern city near the Andersonville Civil War site. I had this vision of us catching up over a long lunch, sipping sweet tea while some super friendly waitress constantly calls us ‘sugar’ and ‘honey’ knowing perfectly well we’re not made of sweets. I saw a walk down Main St, window shopping at all of the little Mom and Pop stores that have been around for ages, where they know the strangers from the locals but are just as friendly anyway. I saw the beauty of a Southern afternoon, where the sun shines despite the chill in the air.

However, as I drove into Cordele, past the KFC and the Wendy’s, towards the direction of posted ‘Historic Cordele,’ I was painfully shocked. There was no Main Street. ‘Historic Cordele’ was reduced to signage as I drove into a city that clearly once embodied that quintessential Southern afternoon but portrayed it no longer. The stores were closed. Windows were boarded up. The city was a ghost town. A lone person walked across the street towards the court-house, probably in town only to pay a speeding ticket or parking fine. They didn’t even seem to notice the desolation around them. I stared at the scene confused. I drove through the little Southern town, one that I had been to probably 10 years before on a visit to the famed Civil War site, aghast at what I saw – nothing. It was as if the town had a big sign that flipped from ‘open’ to ‘close’ for the last time. As I drove away, leaving the silent city behind, I noticed one place was still open as I drove away – the funeral home. Headstones stood out in my rearview mirror as ‘Historic Cordele’ faded away.

All was not lost as I drove back towards I-75, and my friend and I had lunch at the Cracker Barrel. An imitation of Southern cooking and hospitality, pre-packaged and served on a silver, albeit franchise platter. However, this mock-up of my home did not impress me or ease the weight that was now on my mind. Since then, I continue to think, “Well, what happened to main street?” and “Is that all Southern towns are good for now, rest stops along the super highway?” The only things that were surviving were situated close to I-75, and it was clear that the farther you moved away from the transportation hub the less money they had to claim.

This led my mind to think about the stimulus money that the federal government dulled out to help America get back on its feet. You can see signs all throughout Georgia, mostly in the city and suburbs, ‘stimulus package at work,’ and newscasters are constantly ‘tracking your tax dollars’ to make sure the money is put to good use. However, in cities like Historic Cordele, there is nothing left to stimulate. Federal money, instead, is going towards small projects and short-term work instead of long-term local rejuvenation. The small towns that make up the heart of American culture are not even on the stimulus map because frankly, they aren’t even on the map anymore.

I’m not offering any solution. I guess I’m just being one of those bloggers to point out the defects in society without actually pointing out any answer. All I know is that unless there is some focus returning to main street, I feel like what we know of American culture will be reduced to super highways, franchises, and culture served on a plastic platter.

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Empire State of Snow

Clearly my attempt to fix my blog dilemma didn’t work. Well, it was a shot, and now as I have begun to travel again, I have found myself with plenty of things to say. It’s funny how things work like that.

Now, before this past weekend, if you asked me what cities in the US I loved, I could tell you that New York would not be at the top of that list. In fact, New York wouldn’t even have been towards the bottom. Despite numerous trips to city, the Big Apple never appealed to me. It just seemed like an over-crowded, over-commercialized version of a city I saw in a movie once. The people were not nice, and my experiences were lack-luster at best.

However, in my mind, every place deserves a second (or 8th) chance.

So, over this past weekend, when a friend of mine was in need of a ride to the city, and I had nothing planned to do on a snowy Saturday in Boston, I happily agreed to take him. Now, if there is one thing I have learned about road trips – they can either be incredibly fun or you are constantly looking at the clock waiting until you can finally turn the engine off and go home. This road trip was definitely of the former variety. Driving into New York, watching small pieces of snow fall onto the ground, and having interesting conversations with a new friend were just what the doctor ordered. I was finding a cure for my intense apathy for the Big Apple, and in fact, a small inclination towards the city was growing.

Now, I had originally planned to try and meet up with a fellow Fulbright friend. She had no idea I was coming, I did not have her US phone number, and I had no idea where she lived; however, none of these things hindered me. I had done crazier things in crazier places in the world, so that trying to find one person in New York City did not seem like a foreboding task. Needless to say, I never found her, but quite frankly, I didn’t look that hard either.

Instead of merely dropping my friend off, I found myself going to dinner at the oldest family-owned Thai restaurant and then walking around Times Square with him in the snow. We occasionally ducked into stores to avoid the flurries, but not long enough to miss the creation of a white blanket across the city. The rest of my evening was spent eating and drinking the night away, as New York was becoming a genuine winter wonderland.

Now although that doesn’t sound like it should have had ground-breaking effects on my perceptions of a city, it did. I saw that New York is full of possibilities, and sometimes you just need to be with the right people to realize them. Or maybe you just need to be in the right state of mind. I stopped expecting New York to create a good time for me, and instead, I created it for myself.

So, like I said, every place deserves a second chance. I had a magical weekend in the Big apple, and if I had let my apathy make my decisions, then I would have never gone. I would have never gotten closer to a new friend, and I would have never seen the beauty of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree lights as they compete with the brightness of the city around them. I would have spent my Saturday content and warm in Boston, none-the-wiser that perceptions can and do change especially when you’re willing to change them. So although I will not move to New York anytime soon, I can definitely say that it is now on my list, and it’s quite high up there, in fact.

Posted in Happenings, The US | Tagged , , | Leave a comment