IHPacking Up

“I’m tired but resolute; that I’d rather be striving than settled, Oh I’d rather be, moving than static.

Oh I’d rather be by your side.”

It’s Sunday. Tomorrow is Monday. That’s how days of the week work, so I’ve been told. Tomorrow’s a big day. Back home, it’s graduation day. Four years ago, I would’ve told you that it would be my graduation day, but life intervened and I listened. But tomorrow’s a big day here, too. Tomorrow I’ll wear my backpack (under 30 kg, I hope) instead of a cap and gown, and I’ll be grab hold of a plane ticket and custom forms instead of a diploma. Tomorrow, I pack up and go home.

I think about that alternate year, sometimes, because the prospect of IHP was the reason I almost stayed enrolled. In that alternate universe, I’m sitting on campus reading Marina Keegan’s Opposite of Loneliness, tying up loose ends in the form of wandering around dark streets with a bottle of wine wondering where the last four years had gone. Instead, I’m in Bolivia. Ebba is asleep with a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. My computer charger keeps sizzling because my $8 converter from Vietnam broke. My bags are half-packed, but my heart overflowing. If I’d stayed “on track,” if I’d pushed myself to graduate “on time,” I wouldn’t know these 30 faces (and the three outfits associated with each of them). Sure, I’d have known different faces, held different hands, laughed different laughs, but it wouldn’t be this group, precisely. As sad as I am to say goodbyes tomorrow, when I think of how this semester very easily could’ve never happened just as it did, I know that what tears I’ve shed have been ones of joy and gratitude. I’m in Bolivia, writing and wondering, where did the last four months go?

San Francisco was just yesterday…Trader Joe’s trips and biking up and down the hills, the terror of snapped brakes, swimming in the cold bay water, the never-ending Bay model. We were in Vietnam this morning…iced coffee and karaoke, hiking Bach Ma and biking the rice fields in Hoi An. And didn’t we just have lunch in Morocco? Abdo called us all together for tagine and khobs and oranges to calm the hanger on the patio in Ben Smim. We played thirty rounds of Oh Hell as we digested. Our adorable Bolivian host families picked us up this evening at the Cocha airport; we still have another three days to spend splashing naked at Los Toucanes, don’t we?

Hardly. In a mere 46 hours, I’m gonna land in New York…in 48 hours I’ll be pulling up to my house and ringing the doorbell…in 60 hours I’ll be riding my bike to Blue State for an iced latte before work.

It doesn’t seem possible, but then again, none of this did.

The nonstop travel, on bumpy roads in uncomfortable buses, sometimes hungover, the altitude, the salmonella, the afternoon lectures, the crowded ‘M,’ the contradictions, the group photos under blazing suns, the stupid number of plastic water bottles we consumed (see: contradictions), the lost toenail, the dozens of dong/dirhams/Bs spent on hot chocolate in exchange for wifi–it was such a small IHPrice to pay for all the cool shit we got to do together. Tomorrow is the end of our (first) intimate trip–we might not text about our bowel issues after tomorrow  (but who knows, we might). The future, as we know, is  behind us, unseeable and unknowable. It’s a scary thing. But now that I know all of you, I know that your 60 hands are out there, grappling, climbing, pouring coffee, turning pages, tapping on desks, raising questions–probably about funding, or gender, or hydroelectricity–and I feel a whole lot better. Thanks to each of you for being precisely and unapologetically you. May these next hours, and the years they lead to, be, in the words of our favorite Hue bar, never sad and always funs.

With so much love,

~~Tori

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see you @ brown eyes. 10pm. ladies night on friday.

Tunes:

Shattered & Hollow — First Aid Kit (1st quote in post)

Ruminant Band  — Fruitbats

Save Tonight — Eagle Eyed Cherry  (throwback. fitting)

Rivers And Roads — The Head and the Heart

Sahara Sunrise

Dear family and friends,

What a time to be alive— am writing you from a hotel bed in La Paz, Bolivia. After three months of circumventing the planet, I’m now back in EST time zone! Hooray! I have just arrived after some thirty odd hours of travel on several continents. My altitude is 13,310 feet, double that of Denver and Ben Smim. Thinking it’s time to kick my workout routine up a knotch–nothing like some good altitude training. But that’s tomorrow. Today I’m going to focus on breathing extra deep, drinking coca tea, and enjoying some rare wifi.

I spent the last week in Casablanca, but before that I went on spring break with a group out to the Sahara desert. On the drive out, we saw ancient kasbahs (castles), that had been occupied centuries before but are now used for film sets (most recently Game of Thrones) and backdrops for tourists photoshoots. We drove through several oaises that were bursting with color and life, a complete contrast to the dry desert that lay ahead.

When we got to the edge of the desert, we left our bags in the van and boarded camels. The views were unreal. We rode for an hour out to our camp and then climbed the dunes to watch the sunset. As I was looking out, a young boy came and sat by me—he took out a bunch of souvenirs from his bag, keychains and stuffed camels, etc., and arranged them in rows in front of him. His own portable gift shop. Then his friend came and set up right next to him. I smiled at them, but motioned that I had no money on me. They continued to sit there with me, and so we three watched the sun set. I glanced down at beaded camel eyes, a random pair of earrings, and up to the boys’ four eyes, which looked at me, then at the sunset, then back me. I remembered I had some Moroccan dirham in my overnight bag, so I motioned for them to stay while I ran down to grab it. Aziz and Mohammed, aged twelve and thirteen, helped me pick out a couple souvenirs that were in my price range. They priced out everything in Spanish, and so I was hoping we would be able to talk a little more, but they only knew Spanish numbers. They spoke Amazigh, or Berber, which is a classification of indigenous dialects in North Africa. The dialects are being lost, though, as French, Arabic, and English are “valued” more highly by society. I knew the words for thank-you and my name is, so that was helpful. Through gesturing and doodling in the sand I learned their ages and that Aziz lived in the valley below where we sat, but Mohammed lived somewhere on the other side of a very large dune. The sun set and they went running home. I joined my crew back at the camp for delicious tajine dinner and stargazing.

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The next morning we woke up super early to catch the sunrise. We boarded our camels and set off. I noticed pretty quickly that my camel, let’s call her Sal, wasn’t doing so hot, but there was little I could do, as our guides were at the front of the line, and my legs couldn’t possibly take me ninety minutes through desert sands. The wind picked up as Sal teetered over the edge of a dune. I turned my head down and closed my eyes tight. With Sal’s unclear condition, I felt pretty uneasy about this steep decline. As I opened my eyes, I caught a glimpse of my friend, Jackson, sliding off the side of his camel right behind me. His camel freaked out and started running toward Sal and me. I don’t really know how to explain the noises the camels made as they were wigging out. It was nasal-y and distressed. Jackson’s camel ran up into the back of mine, and as mine turned around to say “WTF,” I was ejected off the side. I let out my own nasal-y distressed screams as I went tumbling into a sand dune. The crew turned around to look at us, sitting confused in the sand. I soldiered on, Sal soldiered on, and Jackson and his camel were taken to another part of the line.

So that was my trip to the Sahara–albeit brief, I had time for a few selfies with the dunes, a keychain purchase, and to form a memory of being thrown from my camel at sunrise.

The altitude is making me sleepy–that and the dearth of sleep I’ve found this week, so I’m going to sign off for now. I’ll keep you posted on what adventures await in Bolivia.

Peace out–yours truly,

PJ

Through the Dark

i wrote some stuff but it was all scrap so I started over. this is a draft, but so is everything.

Hi reader. It’s been a while. Have you missed me? I’ve been missing me.

I meant to write from roof of my school in Rabat, but the sun blinded me, so I did cartwheels instead. I meant to write from the bus to Ben Smim, and then a week later on the bus to Agadir, but I got carsick, so I slept instead. I meant to write from the train up to Asilah, but I stared out the window for three and half hours and listened to The Shins instead (ditto for the ride back).

I want to tell you a lot of things; I want to write pleasantries and “wish you were here”s. I want to tell you how stunning the clouds are. Cumulus, cirrus, doesn’t matter what kind; they are stunning and every day I dream of floating away on one. I want to tell you about the church Jess found in Rabat, about the simple stained glass and franciscan cross; about how much peace I found in those pews. I want to tell you all about the winding walls of the medina I live in, how cats lurk around every bend, how they make me uneasy and sneezy. About the discomfort of every fifth guy winking at me in the street, about the comfort of my host mom’s cornbread, jam, and eggs. About how my host grandma sleeps in the room adjacent to mine and Jess’s, how she snores, and how one night she came home with a pet hamster named “Hamster.” I want to tell you about how the living room opens to the sky, how birds fly down to eat breadcrumbs out of a pan next to the couch. I want to tell you about the street art I bought and how psyched I am that it’s made out of recycled trash. I want to tell you I’m having a great time.

If someone told me that I wasn’t actually in Morocco, that I was actually in an industrial blender, I would be like oh, yes, that makes a lot of sense……

 I saw hundreds of cases of plastic water bottles, shrink wrapped in more plastic, in a bottling company that exploits its workers and natural resources despite widespread drought in the region: set to “shred.” I held a packet of hybrid seeds and listened to the farmer discuss how the seed company, in conjunction with national agricultural policies, forces him to grow a single type of tomato based on market interest, how it won’t grow without pesticides sold by that company, and how the plants aren’t pollinated by local bees, but rather by mail order bees from, yep, the same company: set to “pulverize.” I saw french colonialism booming in the form of a lavish resort, but I ignored the contradictions because the pool looked inviting and the cocktails were complimentary: set to “puree.” My brain whirs. Constantly. Every now I hear a crack, followed by some grinding, a surprise piece of ice I’d thought had melted, then back to whirring.

Last night I took a shower. On my way upstairs, I looked up at the moon. I laid down on my couch-bed and recited the first two pages of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to Jess. (In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf. One day the warm sun came up and pop out of the egg crawled a very tiny, and very hungry caterpillar. He started to look for some food.) I closed my eyes and tried to allow for some settling. But even as I was still—as I rarely am—I could feel these last days, weeks, months stirring around inside.

 

and as per usual, a music suggestion from my playlists of the past: 

I used to talk with honest conviction of how I predicted my world

I’m gonna leave it to stargazers, tell me what your telescope says.

 

 

So Long, Vietnam

a recap of the last four weeks! warning, it’s a bit lengthy. 

Xin Chao, reader,

Greetings from 36,000 feet. I left Vietnam at 20:00 this evening, and will arrive in Morocco at…some point tomorrow…but I have a paper due about the negative externalities associated with “green energy” development, particularly as it pertains to food and water supplies, when we land, so I’m not exactly rushing the flight. (Though sleep at some point would be nice. I dozed off for a minute on the runway at our layover in the UAE, and next thing I knew an hour had gone by…Some might call it exhaustion, but I’ll just say I’m a little sleepy. Nothing a cappuccino can’t fix. ^.^)

I’ve checked in sporadically throughout the last month, but let’s just recap: First stop was Hanoi, a very large, bustling city. While there, we had a number of lectures and very few site visits. It felt like very traditional schooling the first week, but that was necessary to get some basic understanding of the Vietnamese government and the power dynamics between the communist party and citizen activist groups. Then we moved to the central coast of Vietnam, to Hue, the economy of which relies heavily on agriculture. The central coast isn’t just vulnerable to future impacts of climate change, it’s already happening. We visited several farms, and the members of each farm told us about how the summers were hotter and drier, the winters colder and wetter; these changes are not flukes, but are emerging patterns, and farmers have to work quickly to learn what adaptive techniques are possible.

In one commune, we met with a farmer, Hoa, who switched over from industrial agricultural methods to organic composting. We pulled up in a massive, pink, Hyundai bus. 31 tourists clad in sunburns and string backpacks, equipped with pencils, notebooks, at the ready with our iPhones in case a water buffalo walked by. We looked ridiculously out of place walking through the dusty roads that intersperse the rice paddies. We did not fit in the landscape. I was very aware of how unnatural it was for me, a white, twenty two year old student from the United States, to be standing in Mr. Hoa’s front yard as he turned his pile of manure and rice stalks, his bare feet caked in compost.  He poured us tea. He didn’t talk too much; the organization who sponsors his organic farming did most of the talking. I had some questions answered for my research project (which will focus on the historical use of pesticides and their impact on agriculture, human health, and climate change). We walked out to his fields and saw his stunningly green lettuce. It looked better than any of the other crops near by. His land was healthy, as were his hands. He noted that the burns he used to have from using chemical pesticides had healed since switching to organic. But organic agriculture is arduous. It takes a lot of time, and sometimes the yields won’t bring in enough income, especially for families with children.

In Hue, we also visited a hydropower dam—one of many that have been commissioned by the main electric company, EVN, which is owned by the government. We had an incredible opportunity to meet with several people who had been displaced by the dam; these individuals were part of the ethnic minority in Vietnam, and have been inhabitants of the region forever. With help from our translator, we were able to talk with them about what the implications of the dam were for their families and work. Even though the government has promised to give them reparations for their lost land, these reparations have been inconsistent and at times ineffective. Some of the positives are that these groups now have access to roads, schools, and medical centers. They also have access to electricity and running water, but they have no money or capital, and so they can’t afford it even though their new homes are set up with that capability. Additionally, they houses and neighborhoods the government moved them into are arranged differently than before, so families and communities which used to work together are now split up. They government also granted them forest land to use, but the land is a long motorbike ride from their resettlement, and furthermore they do not know the plants or forestry or animals in the new land. Many of the displaced individuals are now food insecure because they can’t hunt, fish, and forage like they used to. Everything has its trade-offs, I suppose, but these individuals did not elect to move to a community with roads and schools in order to receive those benefits, they were forced to do so. And while the government is trying to provide assistance, these populations won’t get a cut of the (large) profits gained on their previously occupied land. Instead, they’ll feel the negative climate impacts that will come along down the road as a result of the dam’s construction. Stellar.

Hue was damp, rainy, and muddy, but the sun came out when we got to Hoi An. Another small city in central Vietnam, Hoi An is touristy beyond belief. The entire city’s economy relies on the industry. Young people from surrounding rural areas are abandoning their farms at home to move to Hoi An to work in restaurants, shops, and hotels. In the ancient downtown district, the only Vietnamese people you see are those working to sell their wares. Everything is catered to European and American tastes. Every block is just shop after shop of scarves, toys, and snacks (mangoes were a group favorite and iced white coffee. Lots of iced coffee). Custom tailored clothing is huge, but the selection of patterns is fairly repetitive from shop to shop. All the foreigners walk and bike around dressed in the same 10-15 popular fabrics, with slight variations in their rompers or maxi-dresses. I felt weird about all of the consumerism. It was aggressive, and for someone who doesn’t like shopping, disconcerting. The streets are lined with magnets, postcards, and straw hats, all of which reproduce stereotypical, orientalist views of Vietnam. They’re produced en masse for the Anglo-tourist, in other words, me. I am a tourist in this country. I fumble with the local currency (which customarily must be handed over with two hands to cashiers, waitresses, etc.). I botch the pronunciation of what few phrases I know. I am trapped and confined to a Vietnam that was constructed for my pleasure, for profit.

But I am also a student, and in my adventures as a student have had endless conversations about the environmental and social impacts of tourism. It’s not all bad. For instance, Hoi An is one of the most environmentally sustainable towns in Vietnam, and has become so because green is in vogue, and so having eco-tourist attractions boosts traffic to the region. They were one of the first cities to implement a composting program in Vietnam (most other places don’t recycle, let alone compost. A lot of trash is burned.). There is also a rise of organic farming and agriculture throughout the region. Many people visit the city to tour local, organic farms, stay in bed and breakfasts on property, and consume food grown on that land. But there are still people who travel to the coast to visit beaches. And the beaches, they’re not too fond of tourism. The construction of multiple resorts along the coast has caused a massive—and I mean massive—amount of erosion. In just two years, 100 meters of beachfront has been swallowed by the sea (I wrote a post about it <here>.). Tourists who come for beachfront property are shocked when they arrive, and are kept up by the sounds of mechanical attempts to keep a sea wall up. While tourists must muddle through a disappointingly short beach volleyball court before they return home at the end of the week, resorts and local people struggle to find solutions.

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hand rolled incense in Hue 

One of the redeeming qualities of staying in such a touristy town, though, was that we were staying with local families. My family spoke very little English, but they were incredibly sweet and welcoming. Mealtimes were always an adventure as we tried to communicate basic stories about our days. For more involved questions, my host mom would smile, and flutter out of the room, returning with her phone, open to the Google Translate app. They fed me and the other two girls living with me extremely well. Every night they would keep filling my rice bowl long past the point when I was full, and after rice topped with meats and sauces and freshly grown lettuce (all produced in Vietnam…the country imports very little food, and consumers do not typically buy things for home consumption that are not grown in Vietnam.), we would have fresh fruits. Green bananas or pineapple with salt or lychee, and always a glass of tea. Breakfast was usually noodle soup, again with some kind of meat or peanut sauce or bean sprouts. Every day we biked to school, which was a terrifying experience, but after a day or two I got the hang of it. Like I mentioned before, there are very few rules of the road, mostly just customs you need to know how to follow. Most importantly: don’t stop. You have to find a break in the traffic line and just pedal at a consistent pace, and pray you make it to the other side. By the end of our two weeks in Hoi An, I was zipping through pedestrians and motorbikes like a pro.

It was tough to say goodbye to Hoi An, my host family, the Nguyens, and my bicycle, but it’s time to move on. There’s a lot left to learn and explore. At the tail end of our time in Vietnam, we spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh City in South Vietnam, but I spent much of my time in HCMC working in coffee shops and the hotel lobby on various assignments. This has been enough of a break from my essay, so I better get going. It’s currently 11:00 in Vietnamese time, and so we’ve been traveling for 20 hours, only six(ish?) more to go to get to Rabat!  Might be time to ring for another coffee….

Hope all is well at home. I’m following the primary season closely from abroad, so if your state is still up to vote, please register and do that!!!

Peace out,

PJ

Falling Into Touch, The Sea

Sophomore year, my best friend and I had a piece of orange construction paper on our wall titled “Discoveries.”  Whenever we figured something out, we would put it on the paper. Some were literal discoveries, like Harold, the small mouse that would run across our floor every so often. Others were theoretical, sayings or mantras we needed to keep in mind in order to keep going. I don’t remember the context, but one night I shouted “The squeaky wheel gets the cheese!!” I was in a slaphappy state and mixed up metaphors (something I love to do, so hold on tight), but Susan dug it, so we put it on the wall. Another one I keep revisiting is: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” On the “Discoveries” document I wrote it in the wrong order and had to write a numerical key next to it so that the sentence made sense. Perhaps the silliness of these two entries solidified them in my memory, but I think there’s a better explanation for why I keep revisiting them two years later.

I’ve been thinking about these two ideas (squeaky cheese & scary dreams) in the context of the U.S. presidential race. Donald Trump is a nightmare and a true squeaky wheel–one that should fall off the wagon, crash into a tree, and remain there until it rots, leaving behind nothing but a few  golden strands of synthetic hair. And as expected, the media is rewarding  him with a lot of cheese…White American cheese product, obviously. But what’s grosser than cheese product is that people are eating this nonsense, even though there’s some amazing Brie sitting in the kitchen just waiting and try’n to be served. But you wouldn’t know it listening to the news, because the media is spurting clips of Trump’s xenophobia and racism faster than blood from a punctured jugular. When it comes to the other wheel in this race, though, the media’s reading a dead pulse.  That other wheel, who is the squawk to Trump’s squeak, is, of course, Bernie Sanders. Mainstream media refuses to make a big deal about Sanders, despite his tremendous success, particularly in Michigan’s primary. But that’s not surprising.

When you consider that  90% of American media outlets are controlled by just 6 corporations, referred to sometimes as “the big six,” it’s pretty easy to see why Sanders gets no air time. After all, why would a network that’s owned by a massive corporation want to give Sanders any cheese? He can’t even get a crumble of sweaty blue cheese, and the logic is simple. Bernie Sanders sees the strings that control the system, and has spent the last thirty-plus years pointing out that they look awfully similar to the strings coming from the hands of our nation’s best puppeteers <drum roll>…The big six and other similar (read: identical) corporations. While Sanders calls these behemoths on their bullshit, the other “democratic” candidate, Hillary Clinton, sustains herself on their lifeblood–money. Not sold? Take a look at Hillary Clinton’s top donors. Between 1999-2016, Cablevision Systems made her top 10 list, donating more than $300k in the last two decades; turn the clock back a bit further to Clinton’s whole career and you’ll see that Time Warner makes the top 10 for Hillary supporters, having donated nearly $600,000 to her political campaigns. While Bernie Sanders refuses PAC money, Clinton thrives on it. So, yeah, she’s “winning” in the eyes of the media.

Free speech may be our first constitutional right, but don’t be fooled. The media as many Americans know it is anything but free. The six corporations I mentioned (which, let’s face it, are all the same in everything but name) aren’t covering Sanders out of personal interest. The thought of a president who wants to upset the system terrifies the board members of these corporations. As it should.  The system supports them; the system is the reason for their success. So of course they’re doing everything they can to keep Sanders and his success out of the spotlight. They have big money, which we all know can and does influence politics.  That should terrify you. It terrifies me. Why? Because these corporate moguls aren’t just throwing big bucks at the candidates they want in office, they’re abusing their position as purveyors of “information” by deliberately skewing election-related coverage. They are giving Trump more air time so that people feel the need to vote for Clinton out of fear, because no one with two brain cells can stomach the thought of a Trump-(Palin? Probably.) presidency. And, if you’re watching mainstream media, you’re being told that Sanders is a risky, unelectable candidate, so naturally Clinton is the safest option. If you look at what’s actually happening across the nation, you would see Sanders is anything but. Independent media tells a different story, a story this author buys, or rather, doesn’t buy.  Trump is scary. Corporate power is scary. We need to fall back into touch as a nation because the skewing of political news by corporate media isn’t just twisted…it’s criminal.

And while U.S. politics appears to be cracking, 

Vietnam is falling into the sea. Yesterday we took a trip to Cu Dai Beach in central Vietnam. Located in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site, this beach draws a lot of tourists annually (2 million, maybe? Unclear. Just know that it’s a whole lot). The sun beat down on our group of thirty-one as we stood on a strip of sand not more more than 4 meters in width. Two years ago, this same site had a hundred yards of beach. A crab made its way through the crowd as our translator shouted depressing facts about erosion into a megaphone. People pointed and took pictures of the crab. A large wave crashed on the hair-thin beach, splashing the half of our group that stood seaside. My toes curled in the sand, my etchings were washed away, my shoes wet. But my eyes were not on the ground, or the crab, but on two chubby, white foreigners walking out of their hotel room. They were clad in bathing suits, seemingly oblivious to the destruction that lay before them, which they, in a round-about way, had contributed to. Which we all, in a round-about way had contributed to. Our translator mentioned that many tourists complained to resort staff; they said that the photos they saw online showed much healthier, luscious beaches and they were disappointed. The tides change quickly round these parts, and the web-designers can’t (and for good reason won’t) keep up with the rising tides. The local economy relies on tourism, so even if the sea continues to encroach on the shore (and it will), people will continue to draw tourists to Cu Dai Beach. So, sorry tourists, that your vacation included 95 less yards of beach. I’m pretty sure you’re  going home to a La-Z-boy sofa, flat screen TV, and delivery sushi, while the natives of Hoi An and similar coastal towns try to figure out how to adjust to changing tides which impact way more than one’s ability to tan and play volleyball. I thought about these tourists rotund waistlines, Vietnam’s shrinking shoreline, the waves crashing, the crab crawling; it took every effort not to burst into tears. I wished the tide would take me with it. Some contradictions are too heavy to hold.

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left side: resort hotel rooms. right side: sea wall, constructed in the last two years, projected to last two years.

But I can’t end there…so let’s try for this: If there’s one thing that’s keeping me going, it’s this: physics doesn’t negotiate, but neither do revolutions. Bernie Sanders has sparked a revolution that’s exactly what a political revolution should be: by and for the people. Some people–those listening to corporate media–won’t commit to Sanders because they don’t think he’s serious enough. He’s too much of a dreamer, they say. He won’t get anything done with Congress. Well, to that I say, if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough. (And also, 435 seats are up for election in 2016, so get out there and campaign and vote). Bernie Sanders is a dream we can’t give up on. What’s happening in the U.S. is too big to ignore, and with any hope, too big to fail. When I fall asleep (five minutes from now), I’ll be dreaming of a nation that cares less about capital and more about community, of a world that doesn’t salivate over prospects of gold but strives to support social justice. In my dreams, I’m pushing back against Time Warner Cable and the South China Sea. Hope to see you there.

PJ’s listening for the week:

Handle Bars — Flobots

Beautiful Lasers 2 — Lupe Fiasco

Don’t Fight It — The Panics 

 

 

In Pursuit of What?

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Xin Chao from Hanoi,

It’s a congested city, a lot of smog and smushed rats, but lots of color, too. The streets are lined with small businesses, people selling fruits and pho and knickknacks. Personally, I don’t like cities, so Hanoi has been a bit stressful. Visiting a pagoda and the Temple of Literature, which was Vietnam’s first University, offered a reprise from bike horns and pushy taxi drivers, but that was but one afternoon. Visiting the marketplace in Hanoi was wild—There were street shops, like in the rest of the city, but then there was a massive warehouse that was stuffed wall to wall with fabrics, dried mangos, bags, underwear, sunglasses, literally everything. The aisles were extremely close together, and the proprietors would often sit in little caves carved out of their inventory; some ate and talked with neighboring sellers, others napped. I’ve never seen so many things in one place. It was hot and overwhelming, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything.  But the wildest part of Hanoi, by far, was the motorbikes.

There are 7.5 million people in Hanoi, and every one of them has a motorbike. The women wear chic skirts and high heels as they ride. The children stand in between their parents and the handles. Baskets containing sacks of rice or pigs are often strapped to the side or back of bikes on the freeway. Bikes buzz through the streets and alley ways like bees. And much like bees, they use some kind of intuition to swerve in and out and around one another without colliding. Traffic lights, stop signs, and road rules of any kind don’t really exist in Hanoi. Drivers self-regulate at intersections, aside from a handful of major roads which contain lights (though these, too, seem like suggestions). Parked motorbikes get first preference on sidewalk space, so pedestrians mostly take to the street. When a pedestrian needs to cross the street, the instructions are as follows: Look for a gap in traffic. Walk with confidence at a steady pace. DO NOT STOP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD. Also don’t run. Keep going and the bikes and cars will go around you. They see you. Crossing the street is extremely necessary, though. The first few times were terrifying, but then  I started to get the hang of it. I’m not comfortable, per say—I definitely get an adrenaline boost every time I safely  make it across. It’s like human Frogger…exhilarating.

On Saturday night, I successfully crossed three streets and made it to church, where I attended Mass. I didn’t understand a word. Well, I got Amen, but other than that, nada. Because Mass is the same in every country, more or less, I could follow along a little bit, but mostly I just sat (and stood, and knelt, and sat, and stood, and knelt) and let the foreign sounds flow over me. Even though the space looked Catholic—stained glass, pews, crucifix—and even though I was able to take communion (which was a rice cracker, by the way, gluten free host for the win!!) I didn’t feel like I was in Mass. Without readings, songs, or a homily to grasp onto, the whole tradition felt devoid of meaning. (I was also fighting a chest infection and was pretty doped up on Amenflu and antibiotics and had slept for roughly sixteen hours the night before, which could also have contributed to my inability to focus…) Lost as I felt, it was a pretty cool experience. I took some holy water on the way out and went home to sleep another twelve hours.

I woke up at 7:00 the next morning, and had more than enough time to eat, shower, make-shift-sauna, and clean my room a bit before the 10:30 English Mass. I walked in and saw English missals on sale for 40,000 VND (about 2.00 USD), so I bought one, borrowed a hymnal, and took my seat. Though I was hearing these readings for a second time, it was nice to understand them a second time around.  I was also happy that the English Mass included female readers and Eucharistic Ministers. At the Vietnamese Mass I noticed a lot of subtle sexisms, or maybe divisions based on gender would be a better way to put it. For one, the pews were divided: left set of pews for men, right for women. Though the women outnumbered the men practically 3:1, not a single reader or EM was female. The catholic church is rife with sexist traditions which likely won’t change soon, even with Francis at the helm. For this reason, I think it’s especially important to have female voices at every service, even if they won’t be the ones presiding over the Mass or reading the gospel.

I believe in scrutinizing one’s faith and religious choices—we must allow for periods of doubt and questioning in order to grow and accept new truths, new Truths. This morning was not one of those times. Rather, it was one of the times when I felt it all snapping into place. You won’t connect with every mass, I remember hearing back at home. And I certainly don’t. But this was a good one. The priest said a few things about the readings, and then went on to say, that we cannot know ourselves until we know god—and we cannot know god until we sit in darkness, silence, and prayer. Without attempt or proper planning, even, I spent the last year doing just that. I wouldn’t say I know anything for certain after my year “off” (more like a year “on” but we’ll let that sit for a while), but after this mass in Hanoi, an additional piece slipped into place. “The pursuit of god,” the priest said, “is not a pursuit of knowledge, but rather a pursuit of love.” Woah. Everything I believed and practiced before going to church can be summed up in pretty much that statement exactly—except it can’t, because that would dilute the meaning too much, but you get the point. Love, which can hardly be described, though a lot of poets have tried, is bigger than us all. It’s noble; it’s pure; it’s messy and imperfect, but that’s just part of the deal. Knowledge—scholarly knowledge, that is—requires proof and consensus. It requires sources and footnotes. The pursuit of god is not a pursuit of knowledge, but rather a pursuit of love.

In the Gospel reading this week, Peter and a few others are on a mountain top with Jesus. God appears with Elijah and Moses from a cloud, and tells them Jesus is his son. Some guys witnessing something mysterious and important on a mountainside, pretty typical as far as the bible goes. But when they came down from the mountain, they could not talk about what they’d seen; it wasn’t as if anyone would have believed them, anyway. (And you better believe if it’d been Patricia and a few others, they not only would not have been believed, but also persecuted…but let’s table gender & the bible for a bit). So they kept their questions to themselves, holding in their hearts the strange mysteries they had witnessed.

The mystery of faith as it is described in the catholic tradition is exactly like crossing the street in Hanoi. You have to look for a gap, close your eyes (ok, maybe don’t do that in the street) and go for it. They say the motorbikes will move around you if you just set your eyes straight and go at a constant pace. Don’t run and don’t stop. Just set your sights on the other side and trust.

While I was writing, this great song by the Avett Brothers came on, and it totally fits this post, so here you go:

Listen to Avett Brothers “February Seven”

 

Setting and Jetting Off

First letter home, February 15

Hi all,

I’m writing you from 30,000 feet in the air above San Francisco. Current speed: 533 miles per hour. I can’t sit still–thankfully I’m in an exit row, so I can kick my legs freely in anticipation and excitement. Time is moving so quickly this semester, and I can’t possibly tell you everything I’ve thought about and learned the past two weeks, but I’ll give it a shot.

The beginning, that’s always a good place to start. I first learned about IHP two years ago in the spring of 2014. I took a few side steps and deferred my abroad program by a year so that I could take time off. But now it’s February 15, 2016 (a day I will mostly skip over, as it will be the 16th when I land in Hanoi) and I’m here. The first two weeks have been a whirlwind. My mind has been buzzing since the minute I arrived in San Francisco, but I’m finally in an academic setting that aligns with the topics, ideas, and philosophies that I’m most passionate about. The environment, restorative justice, food sovereignty, corporate greed, the commons—not an hour goes by without mention of these. We spend some of our day in class, some day listening to guest lectures, and some days going on site visits to farms, solar plants, or community gardens. 31 students comprise this new learning community—we all come to the issue of climate change from different perspectives. Although IHP has arranged many formal elements of teaching, I’ve learned so much through conversations in the hostel kitchen or on walks to Trader Joe’s. Though we’ve only known each other a week, the group consensus is that we are ready to travel to the other side of the world to learn, think and play together. And good thing we are, because the seatbelt sign is on. There’s no turning back.

A bit about San Francisco: It’s a city plagued in contradiction. NorCal has a reputation for being socially progressive, crunchy, and liberal, but the number of homeless individuals is higher than any place I’ve visited in the U.S. In addition, surrounding towns such as Richmond and Oakland struggle with hardcore social and racial injustice. In our time here, we have discussed climate change as a racial issue. We visited Richmond, for example, home to a large Chevron facility. Low-income residents—mostly black and hispanic families—populate the neighborhoods adjacent to Chevron. The waste products from the facility are poorly managed, despite efforts of community activism to clean up the surrounding area. The children of Richmond suffer from asthma at disproportionately high rates compared to the national average. Chevron’s pollution does not stop with water, soil, and air; they heavily fund politicians who they know won’t disrupt their business flow. Though about 75% of the revenue generated in Richmond comes from Chevron, the plant employs hardly any of the residents in the town. Though many residents know they are being poisoned by the company’s activities, it is hard to argue against the industry that provides the economic backbone for the society. Twisted stuff. And that’s only scraping the surface.

In an attempt to untangle all of this and try to relax, I took a run down by the bay. I started out at our hostel in the financial district. I had a huge cramp from the Chipotle and chocolate brownie I’d eaten a few hours earlier, and so spent the first mile focused on moderating my breathing to reduce the knife-like sensation in my stomach. But as I got down to the interstate, my pain subsided and I started to look at what was going on around me. Men and women sitting outside of small shops on milk crates, cardboard boxes, asphalt—really dirty dogs—a lot of feces—broken bottles—street music—shopping carts filled with cans—men draped in cotton comforters decorated with cartoon characters which I imagined were items discarded from well-rested kids in another part of town who outgrew snuggling with Finding Nemo characters. This went on for blocks and blocks and my former cramps turned to a sharp pang of dis-ease. This isn’t my city. These aren’t my neighbors. Objectively speaking, the homelessness and poverty that plague San Fran are not my problem. But in many ways, they are.

Then, on the other side of the bridge, the pier. White, fit yuppies jogging in their Nikes. Me, jogging, with my iPhone strapped to my arm. Jazz music pouring from open doors. Outdoor seating at every one of the pier’s restaurants.  Tubby professionals sipping from wine glasses as big as my head—they’d leave rings of Merlot and an 18% tip on the tablecloth. The sun setting, innocently, over the bridge. A mother walking with her young, identically dressed daughters. A barge bringing satin seat covers and plastic iPhone covers and other “thneeds” from China. A bunch of neon lights decked out on a modern art sculpture. There was no sign of struggle on the pier, save one or two people picking through bins for cans. I thought about the tents under the interstate. About Chevron. Fracking. Super Bowl 50. I broke into a full on sprint and just kept going. I ran back through the financial district. It was 6:00 and there were a lot of blazers. Blazers and cigarettes and hills. Dinner plans and taxis. Cans clinking with change. Drunk individuals in alleys and shadows—they’d been there all day and they’d stay there long into the night, hollering at their demons. I drowned it out—my demons, my guilt, my all—with hill sprints. I turned up the volume on my trashy running playlist and focused on the way my body was feeling. I left my heart and stomach out of the mix and instead focused on the pain in the ball of my foot, the tightness in my shins, the shortness of my breath.

San Francisco looks different than New Haven, looks different from New York. Hanoi will look different than San Fran, ditto to Rabat and Cochabamba. Our courses teach us to look for differences among these communities; how have issues of power, privilege, and capital growth affected nations and cities differently? How are communities around the world adapting to climate change (the root cause of which is expanding global power, privilege, and capital)? But we also look at the similarities—what can we learn from these communities that will be useful when trying to help solve problems at home.

I’ve spent the last few years addressing my own contributions to climate change. I’ve made a few “radical” changes to my consumption habits, but composting and shopping second-hand and drinking from a mason jar instead of a to-go cup isn’t going to save the planet. And on the other side, my meat eating and car driving isn’t the sole cause of environmental destruction. I’m learning to hold my contradictions—to be as conscious to “green living” as I can be, but also to recognize that my ability to make certain ecological choices comes from a place of privilege. Our global economy and political process needs a massive overhaul. We need revolutionary change. We need to go back to basics. But what does that change look like? How can it possibly be implemented when behemoths like Monsanto and Chevron and Halliburton have so much control? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I’ll have a better sense by the end of May. But what I am sure of is this; I am so, so fortunate to be surrounded by individuals who care about the future as much as I do. Who think about these issues day and night, and not just because they’re headlining the syllabus. We’re teaching and learning at every turn. San Francisco has brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings which has added a lot of weight to my carry-on bag, but luckily Eva Air did not notice. Vietnam, here we come.

Peace out,

PJ

2016-02-11 16.07.55

preach

2016-02-14 22.13.34

light packing = happy trekking