Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reliving the past in light of the present: My reflection on the Trayvon Martin case

In the fall of 2002, I was visiting a friend who was studying a semester in Turkey. It was my first time to Istanbul and I was excited to explore the city while waiting for my friend to get out of class. I had about two hours to kill and was enjoying walking through the winding streets, visiting the different stalls at the markets, taking in the magnificent architecture, delicious smells, enjoying the stunning colors of the city. It was shaping up to be a lovely afternoon.

Shortly into my exploration of the city, I noticed someone was following me. He was a Turkish man, looked to be about 30, and he gave me this disconcerting leer from a few feet away while I was looking at some artwork. I decided to ignore him, thinking he would just go away. He didn't. As he proceeded to follow me, all I could think about was that I just had to stay safe for 2 hours, then I would reconnect with my friend and be out of danger. I stayed in public view as much as possible. I went in and out of stores, talking to sales clerks and vendors so that I always had a person near by. I stayed to the main streets but made sure they weren't too crowded. I didn't want to get lost in the crowd because any assault he attempted could go unnoticed if there was too much going on around me. I went over and over in my head the different self defense techniques I knew, practicing in my mind how I would respond if he grabbed me by the arm, the neck, the hair. All the while, he kept following me. I looked for police officers but was wary of approaching them. Would they understand me? Would they believe me? It didn't matter. I never saw one. I visited places with mirrors or some sort of reflecting surfaces so I could see myself and know how close he was without having to look at him directly. He was always just a few feet away. This went on for almost two hours. I arrived to a plaza nearby where I was supposed to meet my friend. I was grateful my wait was almost up but then realized my pursuer was getting bolder. He was coming closer, saying words I didn't understand to my back. I decided that this was the moment I had to take my stand because he wasn't going to go away. I tucked the fear away and turned around to face him. And as I expected, he attacked me. He grabbed my arm and tugged, looking at me with such spite. He thought he had an easy victim. Some foreign girl lost in a big city. After nearly two hours of going through every defense scenario possible, I was ready for him. I punched down forcefully to loose his grip. I elbowed him in the stomach. As he doubled over, I kneed him with all my strength where I knew it would count most. He fell over, shouting what I could only assume were obscenities. As he shouted, I ran and made my way to the meeting place. I almost broke down in tears as I saw my friend. He wasn't late. He was waiting for me. I was safe.

I've never written this story down. It comes up occasionally when I'm with fellow travelers and we are regaling each other with crazy travel stories. But when I tell it, I get to the ending quickly, impressing my listeners with my self defense moves, leaving out the utter fear and helplessness that I felt for those two hours. Is it because I don't want to relive those feelings? Is it because a funny story is always better than a scary story, especially for a female traveler who loves to explore the world on her own? There's no room for fear when you have been two 56 countries and 6 continents. But in light of recent events, when a jury effectively concluded the Trayvon deserved to die for defending himself against an aggressor that fateful night, I felt compelled to relive my own experience of being followed.

Who knows what actually happened those minutes leading up to Trayvon's death? I can only speak of my own experience, of the fear I felt when being followed by someone who was larger than I was, stronger than I was, and in his own element. I can only convey the sense of helplessness I felt and the apparent lack of options I had. I can only give thanks that my story ended up well, with the attacker on his knees and I free from his grip. Had he been carrying a gun, this could've been a different outcome. Would he have used it? Would a court have found him justified for using self-defense because a girl had taken him to the ground? It was his country, his laws. Would I have been depicted as the aggressor thus deserving my fate? Did I give up my right to be the victim when I stood up for myself? Fortunately, these questions in my case are hypothetical. I still have my life.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I complain. When I reached the Kenya-Tanzania border, I was indignant that American citizens were the only ones who had to pay $100 for their visas. We have a new president, I argued. Surely, that counts for something. (Actually, I guess it does because the officer said Tanzania’s legislature was in the middle of negotiating a new price for us.) The point is, while I was not thrilled about paying an extra $50, I could pay it. Sure, in the land of living off $25/day (as a backpacker, not a local), $100 is a lot of money. But if I were ever in serious need of cash, I would have reserves. Mozambique. One of the most expensive countries I’ve traveled in. I had to pad my budget, even though I was taking those horrid local buses, sleeping on people’s couches and floors, and eating at non-touristy places. I estimate that prices were about triple what they were in neighboring Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. While I groan and wince at my depleting stash, again, I can afford it. I might prefer to think of myself as a poor student and a starving artist, but those adjectives are mere jokes. I have never known starvation, and while I like to think I come from a humble background, I have never tasted poverty.

While I have no figures, from speaking to various locals, the average monthly salary in the cities is around 2000 meticais ($80). My bus from Beira to Maxixe, in which I was the only foreigner and paid the same as everyone else, cost 650 meticais. That is a third of the monthly salary. I had an enlightening discussion with Diana, a Mozambican couchsurfer, today, asking her how that is possible. She just shrugged and said, we are a creative bunch. We make do with what we have. Food. Outrageously priced. Apparently, while chickens are raised in Mozambique (I can attest to this, having sat with several a chicken in my many tedious bus rides), the market is flooded with chicken from Brazil. The Brazilian government pays Mozambique to insure that their product has a monopoly. A chicken meal would cost me a couple dollars in Tanzania. Here, I’m lucky to get it for $8. I don’t even want to spend $8 on a meal in the US. But what about the basics: milk, eggs, flour? Diana says she’s lucky to get milk twice a month as it can cost as much as 500 meticais (1/4 the average monthly salary). By the way, that salary is supposed to feed, clothe, and shelter an entire family. Mal-nutrition runs rampant here. Her friends in the poorest townships in South Africa live like kings, she mused, because at least they get a daily ration of dairy and a weekly taste of meat. This being said, her mom made sure I was fed when I visited their house (and it wasn’t even meal time).

A country emerging from a civil war has its challenges and the lack of natural resources and infrastructure complicate the situation. I leave Mozambique tomorrow with the sense that I’ve only scratched the surface. I don’t know what I make of these situations, these places where the vast majority seem to have nothing. It is easy to feel sorry for them; and it’s true, no one should be dying of starvation when others are drowning in excess, no one should be succumbing to easily curable illnesses when others are overdosing and overmedicating. However, what constantly astounds me is not what people are lacking, but what they are giving. When I was unable to take out money in Nkhata Bay, Malawi because the ATMs had something against Mastercard, without missing a beat, the owner of my guesthouse gave me my room for half price and prepared a meal for me free of charge. His gesture was not an isolated incident. I’ve had people all over Africa, with a fraction of what I have, sharing whatever they can with me...just because. A subtle but prevalent theme in my travels is that the less you have, the more you are willing to give. Blessed are the poor.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Safe Passage

Since I never managed to arrive at a destination before sunset in Mozambique, I tried to have things set up so I wouldn’t be crawling around in the dark. In Beira, Lisette, my Dutch couchsurfer, picked me up from the bus stand, having employed her friend to graciously pick me up. I was not so lucky when getting to Maxixe. It was 7pm before I arrived there and Maxixe, not the tourist destination that its sister town across the bay is, was void of any guesthouses. The last ferry had already left, and it looked like I would have to go door to door until someone let me sleep on their floor. A few others were stranded, all Mozambican, but they were all familiar with the area and could make do if a solution wasn’t found. A guy with a dhou offered to ferry us across but was asking too much, even for ten people to split. Most of the people there had little to no money as Mozambique is an incredibly poor country. I was also low on money as the ATM was on the other side of the bay in Inhambane. A student from Beira who had been on my bus the whole way started rallying everyone and I joined in, trying to convince people that we should take this guy up on his offer. Finally after 30 minutes of deliberation and my stuffing a power bar into my mouth (it was the first meal I had all day as it was the first time in 15 hrs I had not been on a vehicle), everyone agreed to put in what they could. We raised enough, after some haggling, to get passage across the bay. At that moment, our ‘captain’ stripped down naked, jumped into the water, swam to his boat, and brought it over to the dock. He got out, put his clothes back on, took two canisters and ran to the nearest petrol station. About 15 minutes later, he returned, filled up the boat’s tank, and started the engine. We all piled in and set off across the bay. While I was fatigued, dehydrated, and famished, I was almost overcome with the beauty of the scene. The moon, in all its brilliance, was a giant orb lighting up the sky. Its reflection covered the whole bay, blinding us. Bundled in my fleece and scarf, I sat in awe, mesmerized by the shimmers that danced on the water’s surface. As we approached the other side, he cut off the engine. We were a few hundred meters to the left of the dock as he informed us this was a clandestine trip. Since he was illegally transporting us across, he couldn’t drop us of where the ferry does. I felt like an illegal immigrant, huddled en masse with others who had escaped their lives for a new opportunity. As we arrived to the beach, he disembarked, and dragged the boat to shore. We had made it to the other side.

I've Met my Match

People look incredulously at me when I try to convince them that I like bus travel. I can withstand long distances, inevitably falling asleep in any moving vehicle. I also have trained myself to read on bumpy roads, having successfully conquered my childhood car-sickness when as a high schooler, I needed the precious 2+ hours of car time spent going to and coming from school for homework. With beautiful sceneries, colorful characters, and African music blaring from the speakers, why wouldn’t you like to travel by bus, or better yet, by the local minivan version of a bus: matatu, dalla-dalla, chapa. You get the opportunity to ride with livestock as a chicken or two seems to almost be a prerequisite on one of these. Normally, you don’t even know it’s there until midway through the journey, someone accidently kicks it, having not realized that the space under the seat was already taken. Then the angry chicken squawks, flaps its wings in vain, and tries to free its legs that are tied together. It soon gives up, however, and order is restored. The most impressive part of riding the “bus” in Africa is that you finally learn that yes, it is physically possible to fit 100 clowns in a Volkswagen beetle without performing magic. From a western perspective, these vehicles should not be able to hold more than 18 passengers, plus the driver and the money collector. This is a generous estimate as there are enough seats for 14 passengers. My favorite game is to see how many they actually succeed in cramming in, with the record being 27 (two children included). No one seems to really mind and as long as the journey is under three hours, I’ve learned to not particularly mind as well.

The value of taking this type of transportation is that you get to experience the lives of the local population, and you get to mingle, learning much about the places you are visiting. On my chapa from Vilanculos to Maxixe (Inhabane-Tofo), I procured a prime spot in the front along with an elderly professor who was not amused when I begged him to keep my bag between his legs. I was sitting next to the gear shift, and since he insisted on taking the outside position, there was really no other solution. However, he proved friendly enough and struck up a conversation. I picked his brain for the next four hours (occasionally reading my book and sprinkling in naps when we briefly ran out of things to talk about), touching on everything from the civil war that only ended about 15 yrs ago, the current education system in Mozambique, governmental policies, imports/exports, and a variety of other topics. He looked like the quintessential grandfather and I became quite fond of him. He made sure I knew when to get off the chapa and took my email address so that the day he finally gets an email account, he can write me. It is an experience like this that sedates me when I have a nervous breakdown before getting on the long distance Mozambican chapas.

I used to not be so feeble but Mozambique transportation has managed to weaken my resolve. It’s not the lack of space, I’ve conquered that. It’s the inefficiency that makes an 11 hr ride into a 15 hr ride. It’s the fear of the driver refusing to make pit-stops that leaves my body dehydrated as I refuse to drink water. It’s the leaving at 3 am only to arrive at the destination after dark, defeating the purpose of leaving so early in the first place. After the third 12+ hour ride of not drinking or eating all day so that my body would reach a point of stasis and practically turn off, I realized I couldn’t sustain this lifestyle. It took me three days to recover in Beira, and another three days to recover in Tofo. The fact that I will soon be reaching South Africa gives me the strength I need to make one more trip, Tofo to Maputo, which is supposedly much less painful. If I can survive this, I will be home free. Mozambique, I concede. I’ve met my match. Through a war of attrition, you have brought me to my knees. However, I will happy continue my bus-riding regimen as soon as I escape this country’s borders.

Michael Jackson

I had no intention on writing a post about Jacko’s passing. While I had always respected him as an artist, probably the greatest visionary of my time, I had never been impressed with his image. The self-loathing that culminated in an attempted race change, a loss of a discernible nose, numerous molestation allegations, and a slew of other personal problems, gave him a dubious distinction that did not warrant a post on my behalf. Besides, there are plenty of people obsessed with MJ to make sure that he will be immortalized on the web as he has already been in discography and in other forms of media. However, MJ has come up so often in my travels these past couple weeks that I cannot ignore him, and must give him props for being most likely the most well-known human on the face of this planet.

I found out he had died in Mbeya, Tanzania, amidst French people who thought that CNNs around the clock coverage was comical. But just because the French in Mbeya weren’t impressed, that didn’t mean that the rest of Tanzania wasn’t reeling from the shock. Monica quickly sent me condolences from Dar, as if he was a family member of mine, and my other Tanzanian friends that I met up with later looked genuinely distraught. The music channel ticker was populated with messages of grief from its viewers, many of them expressing thanks for the hope that MJ embodied for Africa. Even if MJ wanted the world to see him as white, Africa (an acknowledged generalization of course) seemed to think he was the symbol of a black man rising against the odds and taking his position as King, a source of inspiration to all on this undervalued continent.

Malawi was no different. When people found out I was American, they would apologize for MJ’s passing and talk about what a great man he was. The clubs played MJ tributes and two of my friends that I met in Lilongwe, would blare MJ’s music as we drove around the city. The energy that vibrated through the seats and jarred the windows was electric. I had forgotten how much of a genius he was. No one had the magic touch like he did. As we sang “Smooth Criminal” and other hits at the top of our lungs, while wondering in the back of our minds what the hell “Shimore”, or whatever he says, meant, I realized that he could never be replaced.

I was in Beira, Mozambique for the memorial service. The Staples Center, really? It was a huge production. Not really what I think of when I think funeral. However, I had always loved the New Orleans style funerals with the brass band playing in the streets and everyone following behind singing and dancing. What better way to celebrate life than through music? Death was not given credence. It was stamped out by the power of harmonic vibration. I could see no other way MJ would’ve rather been remembered. Huddled around my Dutch couchsurfer’s neighbor’s tiny TV, squinting our eyes to neutralize the static, we all somberly watched the event as a mist of sadness wafted through the room. We had an impromptu remembering session, each recalling MJ moments in our lives. I realized that MJ was one of those people that no matter how far off the beaten path you reach, you would never find someone who didn’t know who he was. True, I’ve never been to remote villages concealed by the jungles of the Amazon. Perhaps I could find a couple people to disprove my theory, but I do believe that MJ reached a level of fame that no one will ever challenge. And while I’m not willing to overlook his shortcomings, I am willing to admit that no one has touched the lives of as many people as MJ has, and what a wonderful way he accomplished this: through music.

Baby Beluga in the Deep Blue Sea...

I have always been a water baby. My parents made sure I learned to swim around the time I learned to walk so that if I accidentally fell into a pool I would know what to do. Years of swim team made me appreciate the value of swimming laps (especially butterfly, surprisingly my favorite stroke) and when I got to Berkeley, the heated marble pool set against the backdrop of the Berkeley Hills, invited me daily to take a swim in its waters. My kilometer/day swim was a welcome distraction from all the pressures of grad life: teaching, writing, studying; and it served to calm my mind and relax my body. This daily ritual is probably one of the things I miss most when on the road as six months is a long time to forego any sort of exercise regime. However, venturing into the unknown means that other opportunities await and diving is one of those I’ve seized.

I decided to get my PADI license in Ko Tao, Thailand. Perhaps learning to dive in Thailand is clich├ęd but rightly so. Beautiful waters, cheap courses as diving is an excessively expensive hobby, relaxing atmosphere. I was let in on a secret, yet another from the Wiseman Smiley (if you have been following my blog you will remember him from Siem Reap, Cambodia), about Scuba View Resort and Dive, nestled on the opposite side of the island, far away from the mammoth diving schools near the ferry dock. It seems that this place relies on word of mouth as the only way to get to this part of the island was to be shuttled there by the staff. Making a reservation in advance was your passport to an alternate dimension where Scuba class teacher-student ratio is 1:1, where your confined water dives are actually done in a cove that opens up in the ocean allowing you to instantly see a myriad of aquatic life, and where you are given a whole bungalow overlooking one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever laid eyes upon, all included in your class price. The sun also rises here and flaunts itself in front of my window, showing off its gorgeous orange and red hues and giving Carmen Miranda a run for her money. Just writing about my experience there, two months after the fact, catapults me back to that week of grasping a new world of underwater bliss.

Since Ko Tao, I’ve not taken many opportunities to dive. The impression of the diving in Zanzibar was less than stellar as visibility was low at the moment I was there so I decided to pass. In addition, I don’t have the luxury to dive everywhere I go as my scuba budget lacks a healthy diet. However, when I arrived to Nkhata Bay, Lake Malawi last week, I knew that a dive was in store. It is one of the few opportunities to do a freshwater dive and one of a handful of places that still allow night dives. My magic touch when it comes to animals apparently holds true in the water as I got to see the most amusing spectacle. An otter kept swimming around me, jetting back to the rocky outcrop and then returning, obviously curious to why I was there. In all the time the dive instructors have spent at this sight, they have never seen an otter underwater, and only once saw an otter at the surface. They applauded my special animal powers. That night, after studying for my night dive, I embarked on one of the most eerie adventures ever. While people tell you that diving at night is nothing like diving at day, you figure they are just exaggerating. However, a night dive is almost surreal. Your bearings really are turned on their head, the dolphin fish follow you because your torch is the catalyst for their dinner, and the immensity of the ocean becomes almost a non-entity as the darkness envelops you snuggly. Albeit a little cruel, it was fun to shine my light on unsuspecting fish and watch the dolphin fish feast on them. The giant crabs were almost comical as they sat perched on their rocks, leering at you. Oh, aquatic life.

My final dive spot for this trip was in Tofo, Mozambique, famous for its manta rays. While my animal powers faltered for the first time ever, leaving me without a manta ray in sight, I did leave as a qualified deep water diver, now able to descend to 30m. Even better, on the way to the dive site, I had one of the most fascinating encounters ever, a swim with a 10m whaleshark. After grabbing my fins, mask and snorkel, I slipped into the water as stealthily as possible in order to not scare her and approached cautiously until I realized she was thoroughly enjoying the attention and the company. She slowed down and remained near the surface so we could accompany her. Her curiosity led her to the boat where she positioned herself vertical under it, trying to size us up. She was longer than the boat so didn’t seem too bothered. Bored, she continued her swim with us on either side of her. I was hovering around her eye, which was on the side of her head, but got ahead of her at one point, peering into her enormously long mouth. Even though she wasn’t much of a threat to us, her immensity was quite disconcerting. I, therefore, quickly resumed my position at her side, relishing in this singular opportunity. Who knows the next time I will get to dive. I need to get a real job before any illusions of a diving lifestyle can manifest themselves.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Hashing out my Linguistic Identity

One reason I’ve decided to research language use and identity for my dissertation is because I find that my own identity is constantly in question, both by myself and by others. As an American living in the United States, my linguistic identity should be simple. I should only speak one language, English, and be indifferent towards the other languages of the world. Perhaps growing up in Texas would complicate the identity that others create for me. They might assume that I know some Spanish. Hola. Adios. Gracias. Yo quiero Taco Bell. However, no one actually speaks Spanish unless they have familial ties to a Spanish speaking country. When people learn I speak five languages fairly fluently, they fail to conceal their incredulity. My international friends (all of them are at least bilingual but most speak more than two languages) flat out say I’m not American. “American” has become synonymous with “monolingual”. Others have no problems stripping me of my American identity because I contradict the image they have of Americans. In all fairness, I was happy not to be labeled as American, especially from 2000-2008. I was more creative than most Americans abroad, opting out of the “I’m Canadian” lie and telling people I was Brazilian instead. At the moment, Americans, with our new president, have some clout and for the time being, I can admit to my true origins. Being in Africa has given me added incentive to highlight my Americanness. The word “America” has been replaced by the word “Obama” or “Obamaland”. Yes, I’ve heard numerous times “Oh, you come from Obama.” While traveling in Malawi, an armed guard at a road block boarded my minibus and asked to see the passports of my Australian companions and me. When he returned mine, he asked, “How’s Obama?” Taken by surprise, all I could say was “Go Obama!” Saying anything else might’ve landed me a fine.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, my identity while traveling in Africa is in constant flux, heavily influencing my linguistic practices and constantly jarring my sense of self. In Kenya, I was a Muzungo, unclear if that appellation simply meant foreigner or if it meant white person. Someone explained to me that in Swahili, “zungo” means to wander while the m- prefix is to denote a person. Thus, a Muzungo is a person that wanders, referring to the first European explorers in East Africa. The application of the word changes from person to person but you get the sense that if you are called a Muzungo, one is trying to highlight the fact that you don’t belong. Persistently being called a Muzungo was new territory for me. In Senegal, Toubab is the word used for foreigners. It means “doctor” in Wolof but as with Muzungo, its original definition has been amplified. I was never called Toubab and as such, saw it more as a racial distinction. Most Senegalese thought I was Peul, from a tribe in northern Senegal who has lighter skin than the majority of Senegalese. Only after speaking, did I betray my origins, but I still felt a sense of belonging that my white classmates in the study abroad program did not enjoy.

However, my changing identity was best displayed when traveling between Kenya and Tanzania, with these countries’ conceptualizations of language playing a role in molding my linguistic practices. In Kenya, I assumed that because I was labeled as a foreigner, I was spoken to in English. However, the picture is much more complicated than that when comparing Kenya to Tanzania. While these two countries are similar linguistically with English and Swahili as official languages and several local languages being recognized as well, their approaches to the official languages vary greatly. In Kenya, English is the language of instruction with Swahili being taught as a language course. Most students speak their local language at home, learn to read and write in Swahili through one or two classes a day, and receive all other materials in English. In turn, many Kenyans are quite proficient in English and Kenya is slowly being seen as a next great outsourcing destination. Tanzania, in contrast, places much more value on Swahili and considers their version more correct than the Kenyan’s use of Swahili (being very generous in their opinions of Kenyan Swahili). The language of instruction, at least in public schools, is Swahili with English being taught as a language course. Most of the young people I met did not speak a local language even though there are over 100 different languages spoken in Tanzania. This lack of local language is partly due to how Tanzania was formed at Independence. Its first leader, Julius Nyerere, heavily emphasized the need for a unified Tanzania (especially after its annexation of Zanzibar) and implored its citizens to see themselves as Tanzanian above any tribal affiliation. This desire for a national identity lead to placing importance on learning Swahili and being able to use it in all domains. While this policy might be detrimental to the other languages as well as to a strong command of English, it has meant that Tanzania has not experienced the tribal conflict that reared its ugly head in Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections.

As for what all this means for me, in Kenya, people spoke to me in English both because of their greater command of English and because my physical appearance did not place me in any of the ethnic groups found within Kenya’s borders. Kenyans use facial features, skin color, style of dress, and accent to tell to which group someone belongs. I did not fit into any of these templates and was thus registered as a foreigner. In Tanzania, where ethnic boundaries are much more fluid and stake less of a claim on the national psyche, I could easily look like a Tanzanian. My skin color fit within the national range, my facial features called attention to myself but with the Arab influence abound in Tanzania I did not look too out of place. When I chose to wear kangas (cloth wrapped around as a skirt) I could move among the population undetected. This ability to blend in, in turn, influenced my linguistic experience.

In Kenya, as a foreigner, it was hard to learn Swahili. I never got the chance to practice because I was almost automatically addressed in English. In Tanzania, because everyone assumed I was Tanzanian and couldn’t get over the fact that I was actually American, they were much more adamant on making me speak in Swahili. This pressure forced me to pick up Swahili more quickly, giving me the necessary practice to improve. My experiences in these two countries have compelled me to reevaluate the angle I want to take when conducting my dissertation research on Senegalese immigrants in France and Italy, and I look forward to applying what I’ve learned during my experience here to my future research.