A Humbling Trip to South Africa

I’ve just returned from a two-week trip to South Africa. Beautiful, intriguing and, unexpectedly, saddening.2016-05-14 16.02.11

Of all the things I thought about: Would it be safe?  Would it be cold? Would it be tiring to drive so much (as we traversed the Western to Eastern Cape in a whirlwind)?  Of all these pre-travel concerns, I did not once give thought to the culture of post-Apartheid. It just wasn’t on my radar.

I did not immediately feel how xenophobia was a topic of daily conversation. I did not expect the palpable economic divide. I was not prepared for the sharp contrast of beauty and struggle, of a country so bountiful in natural richness and yet so starved for a way to improve its future. There is still much I do not know or understand–but it left me grateful for the freedom and opportunity I enjoy and saddened at the idea of millions of South Africans just trying to live a basic life without much mobility or resources.

2016-05-22 21.09.27Though Apartheid has officially ended, every town or city has a township in the shadows. Township–a place where blacks, coloureds (a race, not an adjective) and poor were “shipped” away to separate them from the ruling white European (Dutch) class. Even in the most rural of areas, like Rhodes (population 26,) the system of Apartheid persists. Separate from the town of Rhodes, is the township of roughly 300 blacks living in mostly tin shacks with their own school, church and impoverished way of life that is so far removed from the quaint, little mountain town meters next door. My friend and I asked ourselves, how do 300 (black) people work for a town made up of 26 (whites)? How do they get food without access to modern transport and with harsh winters that make farming difficult for these months. How do they build community where there is little opportunity? We talked to the locals–the white business owners and black workers, alike. They all seem to make it “work.” One post office, one police department and a few farms–even a craft brewery that produces 226 bottles of beer per month. They have soccer games and marching bands. They have cell phones and wear hoodies that say things like “Dope Shit.” They survive. 2016-05-20 16.37.26

2016-05-25 16.04.23

And then there’s Joburg. Johannesburg–home to 12 million. Four million of which live in the township of Soweto, made famous by it’s one-time resident, Nelson Mandela. Soweto is so big that, even as a township, it has a lower, middle and upper class peppered with government housing projects and squatter camps off the electric grid. The people here must live on roughly the equivalent of UD$1.25 per day. Even if some get educated–as our Uber driver explained–the opportunity for work is so difficult to find that schooling doesn’t necessarily open any doors. With a degree in Accounting, he was more than willing to consider jobs as a cleaner, driver, and cruiseship staff member with the lure of access to other countries with better possibilities than home. Any job sounds better than none.

But there is still hope in education. In Lesotho, (an enclave within South Africa,) a hotel worker at our lodge sent her 13 year-old son to the capital of Maseru to live alone in an apartment while he studied at a more rigorous school than this more rural, agrarian community of Semongkong had. It was a familiar story–a mother struggling to give her children a better future through a better education–at any cost, including separating the family at long distance for a long time.

Educated or not, in many rural towns or urban townships, there is literally nowhere to go. Not that they’d necessarily want to leave as many South Africans and Basothos (people of Lesotho) are proud of their land and culture, happy to live and work in the place of their birth. But without jobs and economics resources, the idea of travel is unheard of. Many had never left their home towns or ventured further than a car ride or more commonly, horseride, away. Our hotel manager in Paterson where we went on safari had never even made a phone call outside of her country.

In America where we travelers frown upon others who have no curiosity to see the world, it’s different here. Economic hardships limit the imagination. You cannot dream of globe trotting if you cannot envision a life outside of your village.

As I travel around the world as a luxury of experience, I feel a twinge of guilt. I have paid for the insight into third-world living. I wanted to be taught about a way of life I doubt I’ll ever have to face. I walked through the simple stone and mud houses wondering how they stayed warm in the winter, where their produce came from in times of drought or bad weather, whether their traditional boiled wool blankets worn like cloaks was enough protection from the elements like my REI primaloft jacket and North Face water and wind proof shell.

Then I went back to my own mud hut rondavel, outfitted with a modern fireplace and comfy beds for tourists with hot water and electricity I didn’t have to worry about paying for. I could eat when I wanted from a menu of options. I drank wine and ate dessert–not far from homes not even equipped with running clean water…

I wanted to learn more. But felt then as I do now–helpless.

2016-05-25 16.03.30When I spent money on a tour ticket to see Soweto, I felt conflicted at the idea of commericializing poverty and the history thereof. I got on a tour bus because traveling alongside the locals didn’t feel safe. I was entertained with stories and jokes by the guide who grew up in the township. He taught us words in Sesotho, Zulu and a street language only spoken in the township that blended at least seven different Bantu dialects. This was a presentation his life, received through the lens of a tourist. He lifted the shades and cracked open dark doors to help people from around the world see his reality and hopefully feel touched enough to do something, say something, change something. Even if it’s just in themselves.

I’ve returned happy to be home in my own bed, to make meals from a big trip to the grocery store stocked with everything I need and to spend the holiday weekend resettling into my first-world life.

Travel should change you. Challenge you. Open your eyes to things you couldn’t imagine. And when it does, it’s up to you to do something meaningful with that privilege. I’m thinking of you South Africa. Just figuring out where to go from here.













36 Days in Italy–The Feeling Part

2015-06-28 11.05.48We are drawn to things in life without explanation.

But my trip to Italy was rational, not emotional. I had a leftover one-way ticket from a prior flight that I felt like I should use. Why not? I hadn’t been to Florence or Venice in over 20 years. I was a college kid last time I visited, so it would be interesting to see these two cities with new eyes. (Or older ones, I should say…)

I booked my first 4 nights and the rest, I would wing. I’m always anxious before a big trip, and this was no different. The solo travel is both freeing and wearing. I’d be working part-time, so there was that. But would I feel isolated? Would I feel safe? Would it be too long, too short? Was it right to put my life on hold?

There is no right or wrong in anything, only different.

And 36 days of wandering around northern Italy was just life. I had my good days, and my bad days and every shade of emotion in between. After the first two weeks, I was tired and wanted to go home. After the second two weeks, I was scrambling to see if I could stay longer. You can put yourself in a new place, a new situation, a new time zone, even. And, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I have a pendant I wear often with this saying. I find it so innocently true. I travel because I’m drawn to it. It’s not an “adventure” as people who sort of know me like to say. It’s just who I am. My life is just different from theirs. They have families. I have places. Maybe because I find places more honest, more reliable than people. Warmer, more interesting and more soothing to surround myself with. Is that sad? Or just different.2015-06-24 06.33.57

36 Days in Italy was both a lot and too little.

I put myself in an in-between state–not really on vacation, not really living–a little microcosm of the real me. Always in motion, aiming to get there with no real concept of where “there” is. Untethered. Like usual. Because that’s me–the life I was born into, the story that was written, the one that I recite by heart like a Greek tragedy. My fate is to wander until I find my way home. The joke is. I’ll never have one. And the soonest I can accept the punchline, maybe I’ll actually have a laugh.

I’ve always said the great thing about travel is

that it shows you how quickly possibilities can become reality. You can live another life. Step off a plane, and there you are in a whole new set of routines. Or anti-routines. Either way, you’ve flipped a switch and changed your life channel. Temporarily, if you wish. This trip could’ve been 36 Days in Westport or Seattle or South of France. The scenery didn’t matter. I spent my time there like I do here–gravitating to the quiet, relishing nature, having just enough company to keep me sane and seeing in the reflections of others what it means to be alone. “Are you staying alone?” “Table for one?” “Are you here by yourself?” Yes. Yes. Yes. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t always so pronounced. But this outside observation punctuated my time just enough that I started to wonder just how alien is it to be on one’s own?

Italy is a country centered around the family.

Grown men staying adoringly close to Mamma. Brothers and sisters and uncles and cousins living just down the street, working in the same family business, sitting around the same long farm table at the end of a workday. In Italy, you are your family. Your identity, your future, your way of life is forever (and proudly) tied to family. It’s very old-world traditional in that regard. And as I wandered around, an adult orphan, I thought to myself, ” We are drawn to things in life without explanation.” At least, it’s not always apparent.2015-05-31 18.13.06

36 Days in Italy–The Thinking Part

2015-07-05 08.50.15We Live to Tell

If a woman goes to Italy for 36 days and no one is around to see it, did it really happen?

Maybe that’s why I Instagrammed my solo trip through Italy…to ensure it’s existence. Each photo, a footprint that left traces of my path. I even Facebooked little anecdotes when I was in the mood. (Yes, Instagram and Facebook are also verbs.) And as I wandered and snapped pictures, alternating from my iPhone and my pocket camera, I wrote silly captions in my head. Documenting. Framing. Storytelling.

As I took my passeggiata day, in the vein of an Italian evening stroll, processing my trip and what it felt like to be back, I came to the conclusion that life is lived for stories. If all of us are here for human connection, that moment only happens when a storyline begins. If language is the foundation of culture, how we live is ultimately defined by what we say. In some ways, we are what we say we are–our stories are how we make meaning for ourselves.

“Dear Diary, You’re dead.”

2015-06-04 14.35.55I brought one of many travel journals with me. I think I opened it and wrote one entry somewhere in the first two weeks of my travels. The thing is, I cannot write for myself anymore. Our world–big and small–lives another life online. Privacy is dead. The knowledge that I am writing for an audience, even if my audience is anonymous and isn’t physically present, changes how I talk to my inner self. Hilarious or tragic? We are–any one of us who has a social media account at all–accustomed to having a 24/7 audience whether we call them followers or friends or connections. Even the definition of a selfie is about putting oneself on stage.

Say What You Want to Mean, Meaning from What You Said

And so I’ve come back to this blog to share my travels. And I asked myself why. As I asked myself weeks ago why is that I’m spending precious moments of my trip posting inane comments about this and that on Facebook. To tell a story, to share a thought, to communicate–is to create meaning, structure and purpose. (I also just like to write–both for and not for a paycheck.) We put words to what we want to matter. We shade experiences with emotion through language. Mine are words and Instagram pictures. Yours might be music and tweets. Videos (or Vines) and postcards or Pinterest pins. And in this case, the message is the meaning.

Making Moments into Memories

I also remind myself over and over that everything in life is fleeting. And travel teaches you that sad lesson each time you return from a trip. But our photos and posts and stories help us hold on to moments a little longer. Cementing memories. Producing proof. Saving little pieces of ourselves to share over and over again.

Normal is the new special.

It’s almost to the point where I feel guilty.

“Have a great time in Italy!” they squeal at me. As if I’m going on a cruise ship where confetti is tossed from the balconies upon boarding. “I’m so excited for you!!!”

I repeat unaffected, “It’s not a vacation.”

They look at me, confused. I let the silence extend itself to underscore my reply.

I put some thought to this. Why it bugs me to be misunderstood.

It’s a sore spot because I don’t intend my travels to be anything special. It is my regular, not my someday come true. Is it my lifestyle not my annual vacation. It is what I wish were more often the norm–for many others who say, “I’m so jealous.” It is possibility made possible. And this shouldn’t be so rare.

Wish me a good trip like you wish me a good day at work. Like you wish me a good run. Off the cuff, cavalier…as if just another day of countless many.

Because that’s the way it should be. Nothing special. Just another day in the life I choose to make mine.

The Dessert-first Life

I’m working with a new client in online education and learned this new term called flipped classroom–one that’s more engaged and more active in learning where the students own the experience, not necessarily the teacher.

I started to think, what about the flipped life as a whole? The 40-hour work week devoted to things we love, not have to do to get by. So it’s neither live to work nor work to live… it’s play for work. What if turning our lives around is literally about flipping the system? Dessert first…

This is my quest and I’m learning, it’s possible. I’m spending the next month in Italy–mostly in small towns and near lakes and mountains. I’m working 20 to 30 hours a week while I’m there but writing from la terrasse under the Tuscan sun. Fortunately, I have a client where working remotely is doable. I know this isn’t the case for other lines of work. But still, if I weren’t a writer, why wouldn’t I change my career path to fit how I want to fill my days? Why wouldn’t you? This. Is. Your. Life.

Why do we put off the things we want to do on the weekend to motivate ourselves to get through the week? What is the logic in trudging through five days to get to a two-day break, one of which is half spent preparing to re-trudge? What is this fence we put up around Saturdays and Sundays–premium time that we have to work our way up to week after week? It’s crazy. If you really analyze the norm–the norm does not set us up for happiness, for health nor for success. Who wants to trudge their way through life for small spurts of relaxation and joy?

Maybe some of us need that juxtaposition of boring and blah blah blah to fully appreciate the high points. I get the concept of ying and yang but even ying and yang is a balanced split and five out of seven days (workweek vs. weekend) is definitely weighted the wrong way.

I’m drawing the line for myself. And I’m rebalancing the scales.

I like the idea of turning things physically around. Playing all day and working at night to match my client time zone. Living in rural places but staying connected to a digital megalopolis. I’m changing my trajectory for now. Or maybe forever, who knows.

Some day I might love to trade the flight to the mountains for a front porch facing a mountain view, a short walk to the ocean or a lake and nowhere to go but the front yard. Hmm. There is an irony in traveling so far away to get closer to the idea of what I’d some day call home.

That’s what discovery is all about–to continue to venture out until you find what pulls you in. The more you seek, the more you see what fits you. And that experience alone is the sweet life.

Who’s with me?





Day 9: Passion. Possibilities. Ping!

2015-03-10 09.37.19This change of scenery has done me good. I’m happy as a clam–or quahog–out here. It took me a week to shake off the city jitters–and the WTF-am-I-doing jitters–but I think I’m settled in now. For now.

Day 9 was filled with lotsa loves. Yoga, a walk on the beach, wine and potato chips (best combo ever), some reading, some guilty pleasure House of Cards and setting up my paints to start a triptych project–today, maybe?

Dwell in Possibility - Emily Dickinon
I dwell in possibility. –Emily Dickinson

What makes me happy right now is that I see the possibilities. As a lifelong traveler, I’ve always said that what I love about crossing time zones is that you can experience how your life can change instantly–in a good way. There’s the life you flew away from and the life you just stepped into. And though it’s temporary–it’s happening, just like that. Kind of goes back to what Buddhists say about accepting that nothing is permanent. When you realize that, life’s big decisions are more manageable. (I realize that this is a very big train of thought.) Being here has shown me that my little pie-in-the-sky dream about living in the country in a converted barn with a 9-to-5 job and a box of paints and stack of books keep me company is not only doable, it’s easy and could be way cool. Add in a love and a shih tzu (which could be one in the same, says the cynical online dater in me) and voilà.

To get how much of a leap that’d be for me, you have to understand that I’m a driven career woman who has always, always been passionate about what I do for work. But now I’m thinking less about the job title and more about a new  40+-hour routine that taps into a giddy, child-like impatience to get my day on. Got me?

There’s a chapter in the Pema Chodron book I’m reading on why passion is a poison. (What?!) It’s about how your desires can get in the way of seeing clearly because you’re fixated on the thing you’re trying to get rather than staying in the moment and appreciating the now. This is where it falls apart for me… Shreds. Crinkles. Do not buy.

Passion is what makes you come alive. How could you live any other way?