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Mauritius- not enough time

Posted by: | November 16, 2011 | 1 Comment |

Have you ever met someone once, and knew that you needed to see them again because you wanted to get to know them better? Mauritius was like having a great first date where you wanted to know more, but there just wasn’t enough time! We only had one day- a few hours, really- in Mauritius. While we arrived the night before, we could not get off the ship until the following morning.

Because many people from Mauritius are of the Indian diaspora, I had a great time connecting with the immigrations officials who were on the ship. They were just as surprised to meet me, as I was to meet them. That day was Dusshera, and we were even invited to a Dussehra pooja at one of the official’s homes, but we did not have clearance to go.  The people of Indian descent from Mauritius originally come from Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai, and are descendents of indentured laborers who were brought to work in sugar cane fields, construction, factories, and as soldiers in the mid-1800’s. Coming from the US, and being only 2nd generation Indian American, it was fascinating to see how much a culture transforms, evolves, and repurposes itself over multiple generations.  The officials we met had desi names, with no attachment or necessary understanding of their names/identities, but an attachment to the heritage of those names.  It felt like a trip to the future in terms of polycultural fusion.

The thing that I most wanted to do was find the University of Mauritius, which is where one of my favorite, very cheesy, movies, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, was filmed. Due to our limited time, I was not able to go there, but I did get a gazebo shot that reminded me of the movie from the botanical gardens we visited.

This country really is paradise, with the most beautiful beaches and natural environments on earth. By this point in the voyage, we were really missing good desi food, and Mauritius spoiled us with amazing desi food in the mall food court along the pier. Unfortunately, I cannot say more than this for now, but I will be back to this beautiful country some day!

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The city of Cape Town reminded me a LOT of Austin, TX.  At points along the freeway, I felt like we were in Southwest Austin, in the Westlake area, only Cape Town is far more green and lush.   Our last day in Cape Town was very special because we had the chance to meet Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.  More about his visit later.

During the day, I had no plans, and found myself with some colleagues on a trip to the University of Cape Town that was put together by the International Academic Programmes Office, thanks to Mr. Jonathan Mitchell who took time to show us the services/resources for international students at UCT.  I have never experienced a more warm/welcoming visit to a college campus as I did on this trip.  I was very humbled by the way in which international students are cared for at UCT, and I questioned whether we in the US offer the same dignity and care to international students in this way.  We had a chance to visit the Student Orientation and Advocacy Centre (yes, the Orientation person in me was jumping up and down!), where we met Orientation Leaders gearing up for a new summer session, and the director of orientation, Ms. Joy Erasmus (who took the time to explain the entire structure of student affairs at UCT to us).  UCT has a student population similar to my campus at OSU, but they have ten times the number of Orientation Leaders.  That was not a typo- 250 leaders to welcome new students, with 20 students assigned to each student leader, and each leader assigned to different academic colleges.  Just like the US, orientation leaders and the office are highly regarded and respected as entities that know everything about everything.  I would really love to come back to UCT to do a self-directed professional internship in their Student Affairs and Center for Higher Education Management areas.   I would also love to get a deeper understanding of how higher education is funded in South Africa- particularly UCT and other institutions.

In my casual conversations with people during our travels in South Africa, I noticed that many people came from Zimbabwe to Cape Town looking for opportunity- as the economy in Zimbabwe is not doing so well.  Additionally, it was very clear to see the impact of the political and environmental climates of other African nations on each other.  While I am not an environmental scholar, I feel that all issues ultimately connect to access to water.  Water can grow food, without water there is famine and hunger, and sometimes desperation that turns to violence for the sake of survival.  If we over consume or waste our precious resources like water, people disproportionately suffer in ways that are very dramatic.  I also feel like I can see similar parallels in Asia with the Himalayan glaciers melting so quickly.  I think I need to study water more deeply to understand my role in being a good steward of resources.

That evening on the ship, we had the great gift and opportunity to meet Desmond Tutu.  He has sailed with Semester at Sea before, and is truly a blessed person.  Aside from his inspiring message for us to stay strong as compassionate change agents (“You are awesome!”), I was most moved by his general sense of presence even more than his words.  For someone with such a significant impact on South Africa, he had a lightness about him.  His eyes were peaceful and mischievous, and his laughter infectious.  In this I realized a major life lesson that I wanted to learn- doing the work with passion and detachment, and leaving the world a joyous spirit as my byproduct/precipitate.  I feel like this is a chemistry-class reaction that makes a lot of sense, but is hard to do (which is how I felt in college when I sat in Organic Chemistry class).   As part of the admin team, our family was able to join Archbishop Tutu in a small private reception, where he blessed us with his presence and joyful spirit.

I continue to carry the guilt of not making it to Robben Island- I just don’t feel like I learned enough about Nelson Mandela during this trip.  So, I did the next best thing.  I have purchased his book (Long Walk to Freedom), and will read this book to get a better understanding of his life through his lens.  Given that apartheid formally ended only twenty-ish years ago, I am very impressed by the progress that has been made to heal by the many communities of South Africa.  I think there is so much more work to be done, and by no means have wounds healed, but I do believe that dialogue is more present than in the United States.  When I think that it has only been twenty years, I think we in the United States can learn from our sister South Africa about how to have the courageous and realistic conversations about race and racism.  I know I need to come back here to learn more and give more, and I look forward to that day.

Pictures here.

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Adventures in South Africa

Posted by: | October 27, 2011 | 1 Comment |

As an educator, I felt a lot of pressure about coming to South Africa because this was the one place about which I probably had the most context.  I am not sure what I was expecting, but I was still astounded by all that Cape Town had to offer.  A clear sign of our amazing journey, our ship was greeted by a double rainbow as it came into port, after which we had an amazing view of Table Mountain.  It was a glorious sight, and as rainbows remind me- with sunshine and rain miracles can happen and do happen.  I was feeling a bit homesick as well, and rainbows remind me of Oregon and Oregon State University, because on my first day at work, a cherished colleague and I saw a rainbow.  So, it was a sign of good things to come.

Enough about rainbows.  Cape Town was the first port which we entered that was a passenger port (our previous ports were all cargo ports).  So, upon exiting the ship, we were greeted by the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, which had two malls, restaurants galore, and was our gateway into the city.  On our first day, we literally took the time to rest and just stay in the Waterfront area.   In the mall, there was a restaurant called Dodge City Diner that served the BEST BEST burgers and milkshakes I have eaten- ever.  I went back for milkshakes a few more times during our stay.

Our next adventure was one of our intentional family trips.  Up until South Africa, we made it a point to travel on SAS sponsored trips, all of which were wonderful.  We made the decision to travel independently as a family and have quiet time to just enjoy each other, the people, and the ambience of Cape Town.  So, we rented a car and drove to Simon’s Town (recommended by my friend Sunny Lee), where we stayed at the Cheriton Guest House (LOVE Denise and Dirk).  Initially, I struggled with this decision.  I struggled because a part of me felt that I should have arranged a stay in a township, or that I should have gone to Robben Island, or that I should have done something with more ‘substance.’  While I still hold that struggle in my heart, I have to say that I am glad that I made the choice to be with my family and get away from the ship and ship related activities because it was fuel for the soul.  I really enjoyed the adventure with our family- this was one of the first ‘true’ road trips that Saaya has been on, and it was fun to welcome her into the Jos & Mamta driving adventures.  As a family, this was the first time we have been away, with no other agenda- no conferences, no family events, no other plan other than each other.

The drive to Simon’s Town was probably one of the most powerful aha! moments for me.  It was interesting to notice our language… They (South Africans) drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.  The stoplights are called ROBOTS.  Traffic comes from the opposite direction of what one would expect, and of course, the driver’s seat is on the ‘wrong’ side.  Our default language choices really made me think about how ingrained our biases are, of any subject, really.  Even our simple assessments of cars/driving were unintentionally value-laden.  I really had to pause and interrupt my language and correct myself from words like ‘wrong’ to more descriptive terms like ‘right-side’.   Our ship journey from Ghana to South Africa was already fascinating, because we experienced all four seasons in about five days.  In the southern hemisphere, we were entering the Spring season in Cape Town.  So as familiar as Cape Town felt in terms of appearance, our adjustment to basic things like the weather and driving were challenging.

From Simon’s Town, we drove to Cape Point to see the Cape of Good Hope and the historic lighthouse.  We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day, and Saaya just loved every moment!  Our first stop was the lighthouse at Cape Point.  Typically, there is a funicular that goes up to the top, however it was under renovation, so we decided to walk to the lighthouse.  We asked a staff member in the area how long it would take to get to the top, and he estimated about 15 minutes.  Not true.  It was (for me, at least) a mini hike that took about 45 minutes.  Saaya actually walked most of the way!  We were so tired after we reached the top, that we decided to take one of their rented shuttles going down (ironically most people choose to take the ride up, and walk to the bottom).  At the lighthouse, the views are breathtaking, and the cool breeze is the perfect answer to an exhausting walk.

We ate some snacks and went back to our car, and made our way to the Cape of Good Hope.  The Cape is often mis-represented as the southern most tip of Africa- and this is not true.  It is the most ‘south-western’ tip of Africa.  Between here and Cape Agulhas (the southernmost tip of Africa) is where the currents of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.  I like to think of this as a special spot for us.  Just as the east and west meet in this spot, the confluence of these oceans represents our identities as Indian Americans.  Saaya enjoyed seeing the ostriches along the beach, and Jos gave her a few introductory hiking lessons.  We also made it pretty far up the rocks that were up against the ocean!

After this adventure, Saaya konked out.  We used her nap time to drive to our next location, a spot that I highly recommend if you are looking for child friendly activities.  Jos found a spot called “Mineral World/Scratch Patch” where you could pick up a bag polished gemstones for a fixed price.  When you walk in, there is an area that has gemstones all over the floor, and you can sift through to pick out your preferred colors, sizes, shapes, etc.  Saaya and Jos had a great time doing this, while I was shopping indoors for gemstone jewelry.  It was a win-win situation, and an awesome time.

We spent the rest of our time enjoying Simon’s Town.  It is a wonderful beach town with an old-fashioned Main Street, and boutique style shops and restaurants.  We stopped for ice cream, and then made our way to see the famous penguin colony in Simon’s Town!  Unfortunately, we made it to Boulder’s Beach too late, but we were able to walk along the boardwalk, and Saaya had a chance to see her penguins and play with them.

The next day we made our way back to Cape Town, and enjoyed the local food options at the pier near the mall.  Inside the mall, I ran into a man wearing an Oregon State University sweatshirt!  Can you believe it?!?  Seeing his shirt, I had to stop and ask him his connection to OSU. His name was Mr. Knight, and his daughter goes to OSU (shout out to Chelsea Knight in the college of Engineering!)  Beavers really are all over the world!

We at a Turkish-Portuguese fusion restaurant called Tasca, and everything we ate was a culinary party.  This was the first time I tried peri-peri sauce, apparently a ‘really’ spicy sauce (if you like spicy Thai or Indian food, this is about the same).

The next day, we learned more about Cape Town thanks to the Hop On- Hop Off bus.  Before the bus adventures, I spent time in the red/blue sheds looking at amazing arts and crafts from southern Africa while Saaya and Jos went to the Aquarium.  From the Aquarium, the Hop On- Hop Off double-decker bus took us around the town, and we were able to plug in headphones to learn about the history of Cape Town.  This was also our route to Table Mountain.  Along the way, Saaya also listened to the commentary on the headphones, and she would often repeat certain facts that she heard.  We took a cable car up to the top of Table Mountain, and spent some time walking around the top of the mountain.  We met a Gujarati family from Botswana, who had a daughter a few months younger than Saaya named Kavya. It was nice to see fellow desis and hear about their life journey that brought them from India to Botswana.

All over Cape Town people asked me if I was from Durban (there is a large Indian population there).  In general there are a lot of desis in different African countries- Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe… so it is not a far stretch to assume that we might be from the continent/neighboring towns/countries.  All in all, Cape Town was a refreshing and much appreciated experience.

Pictures coming in the next post!

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Neptune Day

Posted by: | October 13, 2011 | 2 Comments |

After we left Ghana- the closest geographic area to 0 degrees latitude and 0 degrees longitude, we hit another major cultural moment- the crossing of the Equator.  There is a ritual associated with the crossing of the Equator, and it is called Neptune Day.  For those of us who had never crossed before, we were mere polliwogs, and the others who had already crossed before and been through the tradition are called shellbacks.  Neptune Day was a no-class day, and we were awakened in the morning by the clanging of pots and pans, and then summoned to the 7th deck by King Neptune’s court.  There, those who wished to participate in the Neptune Day ritual, were given instructions.  I didn’t think I would go through it- I actually woke up pretty seasick that morning- but when I got to the 7th deck, I just couldn’t resist.  So, as of Sept. 17, 2011, I am  officially a Shellback, and I am going to keep the rituals to myself… there may or may not have been kissing of fish involved.

Picture of Neptune Day here.

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The Shipboard Community

Posted by: | October 12, 2011 | 1 Comment |

In addition to experiencing communities around the world, we have a thriving shipboard community that has a unique culture unto itself.   For the most part, the community of students, ship crew, faculty, staff, life-long learners, and family members is quite the inspiring bunch- for those community members who build my character and the characters of others, I will refrain from commenting on them.   The Student Life team is just plain outstanding.  If you are looking to hire some brilliant generalist professionals with strong affinity area expertise, I highly recommend Thais Bouchereau, Christy Burke, Tracey Dowling, Dave Eng, Cherjanet Lenzy, Katherine Murray, Remi Nagata, Joi Ngo and Katherine Wheatle.  When it feels too exhausting to manage (and life for the Student Life team is pretty intense), I always have our 12:00 noon student life staff meeting to remind me of the reasons why I chose this profession.  I must add that the Institute of Shipboard Education colleagues on the ship, Myla Edmond and Annie Rappeport, have also been adopted by the student life team- or rather they adopted us.

Even though the predominant community on the ship is the student community, we have a strong family environment that makes the ship a very special place.  Saaya is the youngest person on the ship (there are two other kids a few months older than her), and there are a total of 24 dependent children on the ship.  So, when the university students are in class, Saaya “goes to school” with her teacher, the amazing Jane DeGeorge.  Ms. Jane (we don’t have Saaya call her ‘aunty’ so as to maintain the teacher presence) is AWESOME.  She continues to expand Saaya’s imagination by creating a space where Saaya can be curious, adventuresome, and unabashedly inquisitive.  Ms. Jane is patient, and has a gift of keeping the joy of learning in Saaya’s world.

When our voyage first began, there was an intensity that came from learning our roles on the ship, as well as bringing alive the infrastructure that was thoughtfully presented to us during our orientation experience.  We had to do that, while navigating seasickness, and a whole series of adjustments.  While many students compare Semester at Sea to “freshman year all over again,” I would say this is true for all participants of the program, not only students.  We all had to build community.  We all had to learn resources.  We all had to learn a brand new methodology of doing, being, and learning on the ship.

So, for the first week- literally- I did not see the ocean once.  I hadn’t even stepped outside.  The work was non-stop.  I rarely saw my family, except for Saaya’s naptime, and bedtime, and this took a toll on my spirit.  With the reminder of many friends and colleagues, I learned to develop a system that incorporated well-being into my schedule.  I found time to disappear.  I made time to sit on the outside decks and stare at the open ocean.  It is by far one of my favorite things to do.  Having spent many many hours staring at the ocean, it is interesting to note the subtle changes in the color of the ocean waters as we approach different ports.  The water near Morocco was a beautiful turquoise, and the water near Mauritius was aquamarine.  I would have never distinguished those colors apart before this trip.  The ocean waves have a texture to them- some times they rock, and sometimes they roll.  Sometimes they are so calm, I imagine that we are like ants on a floating leaf.  At night, it feels like we are going on a ferris wheel, but that is just the illusion created by the undulating movement of the waves.

The ship’s crew was probably the most unanticipated gift of this experience.  This crew is amazing.  Captain Jeremy leads with a gentle firmness, and yet brings a dry humor that has many of us crying in laughter.  Our hotel director, John Knaggs, brings new definition to precision- simply, this man is the reason we all feel at home on the ship.  Saaya has become the darling of everyone, especially the crew.  The crew have become her aunties and uncles, bringing her chocolates from each port; watching her dance on the Union stage; bringing her favorite cereals to her at breakfast time; and maintaining boundaries so as to not spoil her.  There will be a significant crew changeover due to duty rotations when we reach Hong Kong, and I think that she and I will be very devastated.   The Indian crew members have talked to her in Hindi, and have really made her feel comfortable in a way that touches my soul.

Aside from the crew, I am fortunate to have yet another outstanding supervisor who teaches me and challenges me in ways that I could have never imagined.  Dr. Jill Wright has sailed 8 times!  Even when she is anxious about something, she is not anxious.  She is a mediator, and she is firm when she needs to be.  Another group of colleagues who feel like my soul sisters in the profession are Dr. Kat Murray and Dr. Laurie Casteen.  In both of them, I see ways to be my best self, and there are times I feel as if we communicate without even speaking.  I admire both of them, and hope I have a chance to sail with them again.  I can completely understand now, when I hear SAS alums reference the ship as one of their ‘favorite ports’…

In this ‘port’ I am reminded of the role that I play in creating a welcoming culture and interrupting an unhealthy culture.  We all make a difference, and we all have the capacity to shift the dynamics of a culture.

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Ghana- May it never happen again

Posted by: | October 2, 2011 | 2 Comments |

From the moment I learned that our trip included visiting Ghana, I knew that I had to see the slave castles/dungeons.  (It feels so odd to call something a ‘castle’ when there is nothing majestic in nature about this topic- so I am going to use the term ‘dungeon’ to name the impact of this history, and this experience in general).  I felt really uneasy that I ‘wanted’ to see these monuments, and I felt even more uneasy about taking pictures.  In one way, it felt inappropriately voyeuristic, and in another, it brought to life in a deeply human way the magnitude of the slave trade.

The first site we visited, Cape Coast Dungeon-Castle, was originally build by the Swedes, and later acquired by the British.  Although it was used as a place for other trade, by the time the British acquired this space, it was primarily used as a distribution center for the Triangular Trade route.   When we first walked in, I could smell the salt water air of the ocean.  It was an overcast day, and since we arrived in the morning, there were no scents of vehicles, or food, or anything other than the general ocean spray air.  Our guide first contexualized the tour for us in a way that really made the trip even more meaningful, allowing me to feel comfort with the discomfort I was already feeling.  He said to us that the reasons Ghana opened these dungeons and wanted people to see them and take tours, were the following: 1) to understand the magnitude of the slave trade and its impact on African countries; 2) to invite people of the African diaspora to come back and personally heal from the impact of this history, and to heal the spirits of their ancestors by returning to their motherland; and 3) to remind all of us about this horrific history, not for purposes of assigning blame, but for purposes of making sure that we all play our part to never let something like this happen again.

I really appreciated our guide’s perspective.  I had a queasy physiological reaction to this visit- it is so amazing how these dungeons have been standing for over 500 years (in the case of Elmina Dungeon/Castle), and yet in the spaces now, you can still smell the combination of human waste and decaying bodies.  On the ground in Cape Coast Dungeon/Castle, you could see grooves in the ground from shackles that had carved out these indentations as a result of captured African people doing anything to pass time.  Keep in mind, the only light came from one tiny window in each room (perhaps 6in x 6in) at the top of each room for ventilation, with each room holding anywhere from 300-500 people (16ft x 16ft).  On the ground, there was a central trench that gathered biological waste, and it was cleaned maybe once a day.  So, the makeup of the ground that we were walking on was a combination of compacted fecal waste, blood, and dirt.  As I stopped to process this thought, along with what I was actually walking on, tears just started streaming down my face.  I didn’t even realize it was happening.  I was just so overwhelmed with feelings I couldn’t even sift from each other.  In the holding spaces for women, the set up was the same, and again, fecal waste, urine, menses- all maybe cleaned once a day, and people would not have access to showers/water for days on end.

We walked through both dungeons (Cape Coast, build by the Swedes, and occupied by the Danes and British; Elmina, built and occupied by the Portuguese, and later occupied by the Dutch), and while there were some differences, the basic structure was the same.  The ‘Door of No Return’ was the door through which captured African people would board ships headed through the Atlantic passage to the New World, and it was the last time that many would set foot on their homeland ever again.  In Elmina Dungeon/Castle, that door was so tiny (I barely fit through it), so as to allow only one person to exit at a time, to ensure precise counting of people as they boarded ships.

We had some interesting conversation and debate about the participation of the African people in the slave trade.  The common misunderstanding, is that African people participated in slavery even before European contact.  This statement needs to be contextualized, and is not true.  African people did participate in the capturing of other Africans, meaning if two tribes were engaged in political conflict, the outcome of such conflict might be the absorbing of the losing tribe’s people, making the losing tribe a lower caste that might serve the winning tribe’s people.  This kind of slavery was common around the world, and cannot be equated to the deliberate and violent capture of people for economic profit.  While some tribes did participate in the capture of other Africans for the European slave trade, it was not in the way that some people might portray.  Ghanaian historians have done profound amounts of research on the development of the slave trade, and I really hope that we rely on their research to correct the incorrect assumptions we have been taught in our own classrooms in the US.

I am so grateful for this experience, and this particular visit because it really forced me to think about other patterns in our world right now that are heading in this direction.  The main thing that comes to mind is the human/sex trafficking of children/girls around the world, and how helpless human beings are being used for profit.  I made a promise to do my part to make sure something like this could never happen again.  I have not done that.  As we continue on this journey I need to figure out how I play my part…  how will you play yours?

Pictures here!

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Ghana- Purpose and Privilege

Posted by: | September 29, 2011 | No Comment |

It has taken me a while to prepare this post about Ghana, because my experience has been powerful, moving, and I continue to have reflections about this experience even though we have already left Capetown, and the continent of Africa already.

On our first day, we chose to do a tour of Accra, the capital of Ghana.  I think that this tour was one of the best organized learning experiences for me, and while I did not get to have the type of immersion I would have wanted, I still had a chance to triangulate and challenge things I learned (or didn’t learn) in school with real life.

Our first stop was at the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture, which is actually in his home in Ghana. Dr. DuBois’ work has shaped my own thinking, not only because of his popularly read “Souls of Black Folk,” but because his thinking has shaped the critical consciousness of many scholars whom have in turn shaped my own thinking.  I knew that Dr. DuBois was the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard University, and that he was a strong force behind a Pan-African consciousness and movement- I did not know that he spent such a great deal of his life in Ghana, nor did I have a sense of how broad his impact was in Africa and around the world.  Dr. DuBois is credited with being the father of Pan-Africanism.

Our next stop was an amazing lunch at the Coconut Grove hotel in Accra.  Ghanaian food is spicy and spiceful, so having the spicy plantains and jollof rice was a welcome change from our food on the ship.  I do realize that we were likely having food that was toned down so as to not upset American stomachs, and I enjoyed it, and have gratitude for the care that our tour operators offered to us in care of our well-being.

After our nourishing meal, we went to the memorial of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.  I never really learned about Dr. Nkrumah in school, but I did know of his existence.    The first president and prime minister of Ghana, he succeeded in unifying Ghana, and leading the effort to achieve Ghana’s independence from the British.  I think about the power of activism and how scholar-leaders like Dr. Nkrumah and Dr. DuBois really encouraged people to think about their identities and roots, and contextualize these concepts as we attempt to understand/transform our circumstance.  We look for leaders to guide us, and yet the leaders that I learn about find their strength from within, not necessarily from external sources.

Even though I am not of immediate African descent (all of us originate from Africa), I felt a strong kinship and thus a strong sense of pressure in Ghana.  Similar to my prior experiences in India, Ghanaian people are very warm and welcoming.  In a shopping complex for example, within moments you are someone’s sister.  Like India, negotiating of prices is very common, and yet you find yourself haggling with your ‘brother or sister,’ and it feels very personal.  As we entered a marketplace where Ghanaian arts were sold, I struggled with my own conscience about not making eye-contact with others so as to not attract attention from vendors, while also not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings.  I am not sure how to reconcile those emotions and actions, but perhaps I may have deeper wisdom at another port.

Everything about Ghana taught me about being purposeful.  Ghanaians eat a lot of fish, and there are several ways in which fish are prepared to maximize use of the fish.  Fresh fish is used in stews and/or smoked; average fish can also be used in combination with other meals or might be salted and dried, and finally the least fresh fish are dried and used to flavor broths.  In Ghana, nothing is wasted. A faculty member who studies architectural history pointed out that Ghanaians have actually stayed true to their maximizing of use of local/present resources- 200 years ago that might have been leaves/mud/trees, and today it is the modern version of the same practice- using old shipping compartments are made into storefronts or small homes in rural and lower income communities.  Cars are imported to Ghana to be refurbished and resold as used vehicles, and even though the vehicles may be old, mechanics are able to access vehicle parts from other old vehicles.  In my space of privilege, I talk about sustainability in superficial ways, and my behaviors are still driven by choice; in the case of Ghana, sustainability is about circumstance, and while I can be impressed by the resourcefulness of the communities here, I need to check my own privileged thinking about this… Just like any other developed country, Ghana has very wealthy communities and very poor communities, it is just easier to see as an outsider of the country.

I am confronted by my US resident/citizen privilege, and how while I may want to disassociate myself from that identity, that I cannot, and should not. On the first day, I fell in love with Ghana because in general, any person I met reminded me of the kind of person I aspire to be.  I continue to think about how I can be an agent of change and healing, and Ghana has offered me a lot of opportunities for reflection.

My next post will be a dedicated reflection of the slave dungeons in Elmina and Cape Coast.  I knew this experience would bring up a lot of emotion for me, but I was not expecting the depth of emotion I felt.  More in the next post.

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Oh Bollywood…

Posted by: | September 17, 2011 | 4 Comments |

No, we are not anywhere close to India yet.  Still reflecting on Morocco.  Funny story about something that happened to us in Marrakech.  The souq is a very bustling environment.  There are all kinds of sights and sounds that are first very captivating because it is unlike anything we have seen, and eventually it becomes normal.  So, when we were walking, I heard a voice calling in our direction, and eventually it occurred to me that I understood what the voice was saying (with Arabic spoken everywhere, it was a shock to realize I understood something).

“Shah Rukh Khan!  Eh, Shah Rukh Khan!”  That was what I heard.  When I turned around- I saw a man pointing at Jos, saying  “Shah Rukh Khan!”  Jos and I started laughing (Jos does not look like Shah Rukh Khan.)  In the meantime, Saaya, who also heard this, got excited, too.  She heard her favorite actor’s name, and started looking for “Shah Rukh Khan” not realizing that the man meant “Daddy.”  It was all very funny.  As we continued to walk, he began to name other actors- “Kareena Kapoor!  Kareena Kapoor!  ”…

The next day in Casablanca, we went shopping.  Saaya was wandering around in a store, and I called out to her in Hindi, “Saaya, aaja.  Aaja!”  (Saaya, come here.  Come!)  The store vendor asked me if her name was “Aaja”.  I said, no, her name is Saaya.  Aaja, means come, in Hindi.  His face lit up, and he exclaimed, “OH!!  Aaja means come!  Like “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy, aaja aaja aaja!”  He was so excited.  I laughed.  He was referring to a cult classic 80’s disco song from the movie Disco Dancer.  He was thrilled to understand the meaning of the song.

As you can tell- Hindi films and music are quite popular in Morocco, and there are posters for movies on random walls and soundtracks for sale on the street.

These moments remind me of my childhood when my parents would see random Indian things or people, and beam with joy if they found a shirt made in India, or an Indian person in an unexpected place.  I never fully understood the struggles and loneliness my parents must have experienced when they came to the US as immigrants, with nothing familiar to them.  To have that feeling for only a few days, and then have someone offer a tiny connection that reminds you of a piece of who you are, can feel like home in ways I never imagined.  The feeling of connection is a really powerful thing for the soul, and while I know that intellectually, it is great to feel and appreciate that in my heart.

I share these stories to point out how I have taken for granted some of the common elements among human beings of all cultures.  We all appreciate the smallest connection.  While we could not engage in a conversation with either of these men because of our language barrier – an exchange of smiles and laughter over the recognition that we were of Indian descent- was a meaningful connection.  There are meaningful connections everywhere, and while that concept is so obvious that we miss it, I cherish this opportunity to be reminded that what is obvious is ubiquitous and profound.

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Morocco- Marrakech

Posted by: | September 17, 2011 | No Comment |

On our second day in Morocco, we got up early to take our bus journey to Marrakech.  The bus ride was about 3 hours, and it was a great opportunity to see some of the countryside.  Midway, we stopped at a gas station, and had a short break.  Jos discovered MnM’s and Chips Ahoy cookies in the convenience store.  It was really nice to have a taste of home for a short moment, and it is amazing what you miss when you are away!

Marrakech is a beautiful city, and has a nice blend of modern malls, resources, etc. combined with the traditional elements in the medina, the older part of town.

Our first stop was the Majorelle Gardens.

These botanical gardens were very beautiful, but I have to be honest, I felt very rushed through the gardens, because we only had about 20 minutes to really experience them.  Of that time, the mom part of my identity was most salient, as I needed to be vigilant for areas with western toilets for Saaya.  My daughter did not fully buy my description of the squatting toilet as a “magic toilet.”  I digress.  Needless to say- the toilets at the gardens were wonderful.

We had the chance to visit the Bahia Palace, which was built by a vizir to the Moroccan sultan, as a place for his wives and concubines.  This palace is still used by the Moroccan government as a place to house visiting dignitaries.  The attention to detail, consistent with the places we have seen so far, is present here, too.  Everything from the type of window frames, door decorations, ceiling design, has been crafted with deep precision.  The gardens and general lush surrounding further adds to the beauty of this space.

Afterwards, we had a delicious traditional lunch at a restaurant- couscous that was made with spices and saffron.  We had cooked vegetables, and others had chicken- with cooked dates on top of the meal.  For dessert, we had a fruit that Jos described as a combination of a cantaloupe and honeydew, and it was heavenly.

After our hearty meal we proceeded to our next destination.  Our guide, Triss, was really thorough in his explanation of historical landmarks, cultural norms, and general context.  In my experience, with any guide-led travel you need to be prepared for the guide’s personal lens to shape your experience, and be open to that experience.  So, while many of us were anxious to shop in the souq, our guide had a different plan for us.  We found ourselves in an herbalist/pharmacy shop listening to the herbalist (probably a friend of the guide) talk about all of the spices used in Moroccan food and cosmetic care.  For over an hour, he went through his entire pool of items, and then one by one, asked if we wanted to purchase those items.  From a maximizing of time point of view, it was a waste of time (although I did purchase a great deal of saffron for a very good price!).  However, from a point of view of a learner trying to understand another culture’s norms, I can appreciate a guide making the most of an opportune moment with a group of tourists.

Our experience in the Town Square was brief- I wish we had more time in the space.  In the 5 minutes or so we had, it was overwhelming to the senses to be in a space with acrobats, fortune tellers, monkey trainers, snake charmers, and a general festive environment.  If I have the chance to go to Morocco again, I think I would spend a few days in Marrakech to fully appreciate its glory.  For now, I am even grateful to have set foot in Marrakech.

Because we arrived to Morocco right after Eid, and on a weekend, we ended up getting stuck in serious traffic on the way back to Casablanca.  Our 3 hour bus trip ended up being over 5 hours (note to self: train travel is generally more efficient).  Again, salient Mom identity- I was not too concerned about the bus trip.  The only think going through my mind was how I would manage an impatient 3 year old on this journey.  While it has been a challenge in certain ways, to travel with Saaya, she has really surprised me in other ways.  Thankfully, she did not have to ‘pee’ along the way.  Thankfully, we had back-up entertainment on my iPhone for her.  And, thankfully we made up random fun games on the bus that ended up transforming an otherwise potentially dramatic trip, to a fun adventure that has her looking forward to future bus trips.

Pictures here.

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Morocco- Casablanca

Posted by: | September 8, 2011 | 4 Comments |

Prepping for arrival to Morocco was a lot of fun.  The partner of a faculty member taught us a few Arabic phrases so we could be equipped with basic communication in the markets/souqs.  While it was really fun to learn another language, I am not sure how much it actually helped, although I must say that “Shukran” (thank you) goes a LONG way.  We took two trips in Morocco- a tour of Casablanca and a tour of Marrakech.

On the first day, we did a general city tour, and visited several locations.  Of them all, my favorite was the Hassan II Mosque, which is the third largest mosque in the world.  It is really a work of art, devotion, faith and genius.  Everything is precisely designed- including a ceiling that opens from the top to let in the ocean breeze (which might be helpful when 25,000 people are praying inside).  The mosque is on the beach, and it was actually one of the first things I could see through our window when our ship arrived into the port.

Our guide, Najet, was Muslim and of Berber heritage.  We have learned a great deal about the Berber people, and how Islam came to Morocco.  There is a great deal of reverence for Fatimah here, so there are many decorations that show the “hand of Fatima” as a means to ward off the evil eye.

We also visited a Catholic church in the city of Casablanca- the Notre Dame de Lourdes Catholic Church.  The architecture of the church was interesting, in that it looked like a ship- which makes sense given that it was designed by a French admiral.  The stained glass in the church is breathtaking.

King Mohamed VI has palaces in most cities here in Morocco, and we were able to visit his palace in Casablanca.  Again- most striking- is the sheer detail on the architecture.

While it may sound silly to say- I feel like I am in another country, and I also feel very much at home at the same time.  When I see the people here, I feel a deep connection to my Sindhi identity.  Seeing pieces of Morocco (there is no way to authentically say we have ‘seen’ Morocco), really encourages me to think more on our polycultural identities, and how liberating it would be if we all really focused on the permeability and fluidity of our cultures, of course considering power and privilege, but still allowing for a shared ownership of cultural journeys. Visiting cultural and historic sites has been wonderful, but for me, just being with different people has been a greater source of fulfillment.

Pictures here!

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