Archive for September, 2010
It is said that sometimes reality can be understood only by its imitations. This cannot apply to Africa; there are no possible imitations of African reality. Living nine months in Tanzania gave me an experience that could not be simulated, could not be buffered, could not be lightened.
The only paved roads in Tanzania are the roads that connect the cities and large towns. The majority of the roads are a combination of dirt and red African clay, which is susceptible to washing during the frequent heavy rains. The typical road has deep ruts and gullies, as well as downward slants on either side. The mode of transport can vary anywhere from a fifteen-seat van to a thirty-seat bus, all of which were manufactured in the 60’s. For most of the ride the vehicle is at a constant rough jerking tilt. Sometimes I came away from a trip with nothing but a splitting headache — inside and out because the bus hit the ruts so hard I was catapulted out of my seat, hitting my head on the roof or luggage rack.
Just because a bus had thirty seats didn’t mean there were only thirty people on board. The bus drivers in Tanzania have no concept what “too full” is, for there is always room for more.
Most of the time the capacity nearly doubled, and that’s just counting the human beings. Africans do not travel lightly. Some look as if they had their entire house packed up and ready to load on the bus, for others, fifty-pound bags of flour or potatoes were common pieces of luggage. Due to these circumstances, I spent many a bus ride standing in the middle aisle leaning over the seated people with my hand on the window for support for two hours. A bench isn’t the only possible seat on a Tanzanian bus; I’ve used plastic crates, flour sacks, and bus floors as my paid-for-seat. Chickens frequently got better seats than I did.
Needless to say I have been uncomfortable for many, many hours, but my most common feeling while traveling on the local buses was terror. Very over-loaded vehicles coupled with slanted and rutted roads meant I was usually praying to God not to let me die on the Tanzanian highway. If I was going to die abroad, I was sure it was going to be amongst chickens and flour sacks in an overturned bus.
Even before I stepped foot on board, these trips tested my patience. I had to arrive at the bus stop an hour ahead of the scheduled time and could still be waiting an hour after. It all depended on the day. As a schedule-oriented person, this loose sense of time frustrated and annoyed me to no end.This all sounds like a complete nightmare, and it was, but in time I began to realize that this was true African reality — hard-core, no escape, no turn-back reality. Back home we can demand better, we have options; we can escape troubles, at least for a while, inside the simulated reality of television, internet, books and video games. Africa’s uninhibited reality heightened every sense and every feeling; I became more aware of who and what was around me. There was a rawness and tangibility that made me feel as if I had never truly experienced reality before nor lived so fully. The long waits for the bus still tried my patience, yet I found myself enjoying the peaceful dozing on the grassy mound that was my bus stop, listening to the old man who lived in a nearby hut tell me when the bus should be coming. My head still hit the luggage racks, but the constant bumping sometimes became soothing and I would just sit back and let myself go. It was a strange comfort to physically feel myself moving forward, to feel the road going somewhere. Every trip I was surrounded by people on all sides, pushed together to make room for others. It was suffocating, but I felt as if I was in the very definition of humanity. We usually talk about humanity as the all encompassing word for the eternal human experience. In Africa, humanity is in the here and now. It is strangers standing so close that they can feel each other breathing. Humanity was looking into eyes I’d never seen before and knew they were experiencing the same pain-staking ride with me and that we all would endure it, and the one after that, and then the next.
Africa’s reality was enticing and repulsive; my feelings of love and hate were tangled and each was pulling in opposite directions until I was eventually torn in two and I left Tanzania feeling nothing at all. I discovered that Africa doesn’t deal with emotions, it is purely physical feeling. Africa touches you until you are crushed; it keeps hitting you in the head until you fall peacefully asleep, and it chokes you until you are able to take that deep breath. I tried to love Africa and I tried to hate it, but Africa cancelled every emotion and just shouted at me to feel the experience.
I nervously twiddle my thumbs as I wonder if anyone will arrive. A man walks into the pub with a tentative look on his face, scanning the bar. “Are you here for the meeting?” I ask. Fifteen minutes later, a dozen people are in the bar, some of whom are proxies for those who can’t make it. I take a deep breath, step forward and speak up. “I suppose we ought to start this meeting,” I say. They all quiet down and look to me.
Moving to a new place can be a waiting game. Waiting to find my neighborhood hangout, my grocery store, my circle of friends, my niche. All that never totally materialized for me in Galway. Cardiff seems to be a different story. I’ve made more of an effort to head to professional meet-ups, social events and some cool-but-terribly-named events called Tweet-ups. It’s paid off because at one of those events I met a film director and producer who owns his own production company. He was just starting production on a TV sketch comedy pilot. After a few conversations, he asked me to join his team as one of his two line producers. Which brings me to the meeting at the start of this story. We shoot in a week and I find myself responsible for recruiting and managing a crew of about thirty people. It’s all quite exhilarating (if not a little overwhelming). It’s been nearly a year since I moved abroad, and since that year of working consisted of not doing much career-wise, it’s been nice to get back in the saddle of (one of the things) I want to do with my life. If you’re in Cardiff and want to come check out the show for free, check out our facebook page.
But in a perfect example of “when it rains, it pours,” that’s not the only thing I’ve got on my plate. Two days after we wrap production on the television pilot I head to London to take a sort of standardized test not unlike the GRE — it’s a test I’ve spent most of my non-existent free time studying for. Meanwhile, at the hostel I’ve been asked to take on a bit more responsibility, ordering stock and communicating with vendors. Oh, and I’ve also launched this blog and been working behind-the-scenes to get more guest writers and more exposure.
It’s a lot of work, but I sure prefer this over what had become my habit of spending my weekends switching between Facebook, XBox and sleep. I’m finished with the waiting game. It’s time for my liftoff.
1. Do Americans like the British?
2. Do Americans like the English?
“Uh, didn’t you just ask that?” Seriously, we’re utterly baffled by the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England. Don’t even try to ask us what Wales is.
3. Do Americans care about the World Cup?
That’s the only time we do. And even then, we’ll really only watch the American matches. If it’s convenient. And we’ll be switching between that and whatever baseball game is on.
4. Do Americans like the English Accent?
Completely. That scene in “Love, Actually” with the American women going crazy for the English accent? Only slightly hyperbolic. Very slightly.
5. Do Americans watch Top Gear?
No, although I bet we’d love it if we gave it a try. Witty host, celebrities and fast cars: Its got it all. Unfortunately, we have the habit of trying to turn it into American productions sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.*
6. Do Americans eat custard?
We do, but in the midwest at least, the first thing we’ll think of when we hear custard is what you consider ice cream. That’s all thanks to a place you really must try: Culver’s.
7. Do Americans like British accents?
Again, didn’t you just ask that?
8. Do Americans drink tea?
Not with the same fervor you do. In America, tea is a drink just like coffee or hot chocolate or soda is. In the UK, it’s a ritual. My American cousin who lives in the UK and I both commiserate about being unintentionally rude by not offering tea to guests upon their arrival. In the UK, offering tea is every bit as important to welcoming someone into your home as asking to take someone’s coat or giving them a chair.
9. Do Americans like soccer?
We try to, we really do. But that forward-counting play clock too darn confusing. Even if you know the game lasts ninety minutes, the clock never stops at 90:00. We’ll stick to our downward-counting play clocks, thankyouverymuch.
10. Do Ameriacns say mate?
Only when we’re doing bad Steve Irwin impressions. To us “mate” = Australian. You Brits stick with “cheerio” and “’bout that time, eh chap?”
*Upon doing some research, I found out NBC has actually been trying to adapt Top Gear to an American series for the past few years. How about that?
This idea was stolen from my friend Chris’ fantastic blog about being an American living in Canada. You should really check it out.
Plaza de la Virgin, a place I had walked through just four hours earlier after a few glasses of wine, was now empty. Last night people sat on the steps drinking cans of beer, conversing and playing music. Now all that remained was empty beer cans, pigeons and the low hum of the florescent street lights. I spied three old, well-dressed Spaniards standing outside the closed doors to the Basilica de Virgen de Los Desamparados. They created quite a contrast to the post-party war zone of crushed aluminum that littered the plaza. A moment later, a priest entered the plaza and made his way through the back entrance. I approached the old man waiting outside the door and attempted my broken Spanish.
“Hola…no hablo español…que hora es…um…” I made a sign of the cross and pantomimed receiving communion.
He smiled and held up seven fingers. Mass would begin in a half hour. “Gracias,” I replied just as the priest opens the doors and the four Spaniards that were waiting make their way into the church enter. I follow the lead of one man into a chapel when a woman behind me started speaking to me in Spanish. She was middle-aged, and while I can’t understand what she’s saying, her warm smile told me she was trying to welcome me. I gave her a phrase that had become my mantra on this trip, “Lo siento, no hablo español.”
“Ah!” she replied and proceeded to talk to me in a Spanish (or Catalan or Valencian, I can’t be sure). As she spoke she pointed to a collection box that was bolted to the wall, then to her pocket, then to the box again. She pantomimed putting money in the box, then gestured with her arms “big” and “small” and flicks her wrist to say “it doesn’t matter.” Through charades, she’s telling me that I can put some money in the box, it doesn’t matter if it’s a lot or a little, but I should give something. She still wore her welcoming smile, so I thank her and put a few euros in the box before following the man into what I think was a chapel. After a while, he got up and moved to the next chapel. Other people kept coming in, genuflecting, praying for a few minutes, then leaving. I eventually realize the devout Spaniards are praying in all the smaller sub-chapels before making their way to the main church.
I found a seat in the big church across the aisle from the woman with the welcoming smile. I must have brought the average age of the congregation down by about 30 years, so I think the woman wanted to go out of her way to make me feel welcome. She greeted me with an “hola” and I sat through a mass I didn’t understand. The choreography was all the same but the words were different — even though I haven’t been to mass since last Christmas, if you were raised Catholic you never forget when to kneel, stand, sit or go up to the alter. Twenty minutes later when mass was over (gotta love the super-fast pace of daily mass) I genuflected, stood up and said goodbye to the woman with the welcoming smile, who was now kneeling and praying. She responded by waving her arm frantically as I walked away. Not quite a goodbye wave but the meaning was lost in translation. She says something to me in Spanish and I, unable to interpret her meaning, go to the back of church and snap a few photos.
A few minutes passed and she was still praying with no indication of leaving, so I made my way out of the church and into the Plaza de la Virgin again. It’s now flooded with the light of dawn and sanitation workers are cleaning all the beer cans up. Nearly out of the plaza, I heard a familiar voice shout after me. “¡Para! ¡Para!” I turned around to find the woman with the welcoming smile running toward me with a church program in hand. She handed me the program and opened it up to the inside cover, where she had scrawled her name and phone number. “Mii numero de telefono es.” She must have assumed I was new in town and attending her church for the firs time. Although we had no common language, she wanted me to have a friend in town. Stunned by her sincerity and unable to explain that I’m only visiting Valencia, I simply reply with a “Muchas gracias.”
“Hasta luego,” she says and walks back to the church to resume praying.
First, a simple one-question quiz. You have 30 seconds. Begin.
MINNESOTA : CHINA ::
A) snow : humidity
B) “hello” : “ni hao”
C) flannel : silk
D) hot dish : hot pot
Don’t know the correct answer? To be frank with you, neither do I. But I have spent the last several months reading books, watching movies, and asking every schmuck with the faintest connection to the People’s Republic to draw me a parallel between the place where I live now and the place where I will live soon. And although I have the works of Lao Tzu, Sun Zhou and Peter Hessler to guide me, I am still unable to wrap my head around the realities of Chinese life.
This, of course, is a temporary scenario until I actually make the great flight over the North Pole and land in Chongqing, at which point I will become a “foreign expert,” a teacher of spoken English and of all things Meiguo (America) to students at Southwest University.
Life in limbo, however, is somewhat akin to being suspended on a roller coaster’s first big drop-off, from the front car, while the ride operator frantically shouts to you that the thing has stalled and he’s going to get his manager for help. Is this going to work, you’re wondering? Is this all a big mistake? Am I about to die? Just drop the damn thing already!
And so, since waiting for an adventure to begin is never easy, I have spent this summer pretending that it already has. I bought a Chinese language study book for the evenings (“Learn Mandarin in Four Simple Steps!”) and I spent my mornings at the Bravo Bakery. Bravo — a coffee shop/bakery/Chinese restaurant in St. Paul’s Grand Avenue neighborhood — is run by a wonderfully friendly and talented Chinese family, the patriarch of which is a young man called Calvin. Calvin’s family is from Taiwan, and although he grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, he speaks perfect Mandarin and makes delicious dumplings. The place became my training ground as I tried to preemptively accustom myself to China.
It became a tradition for, Sean, my boyfriend/fellow traveler and I to sit in one of Bravo’s booths and chat with Calvin while taking advantage of his free WiFi. Calvin advised us of the best airline to use (Cathay Pacific) and introduced us to Doraemon, a cartoon robotic cat that is all the rage in Japan. Most importantly, he was the provider of a place for me to privately fumble around with chopsticks until I learned to eat my sesame chicken with relative ease. His customers also offered a few stepping stones on the path to departure. Sean met a businessman from Uzbekistan with whom he swapped contact information and promised to provide updates. We introduced ourselves to two middle-aged American women whose sons had lived in China and who were learning Mandarin. We also met their Taiwanese teacher, Michelle, who warned me of the heat in Shanghai and the xiaojie (young women) who would take one look at Sean’s blonde hair and blue eyes and see those two colors melt together to form a green card in front of their eyes.
And so it went that, with much dumpling and mango cake eating, the time came to leave Bravo and Minnesota behind to sit in my parents’ house in Kansas City, waiting the remaining two weeks until my adventure really does begin. So, until my plane’s wheels leave the tarmac, I will sit quietly with my Mandarin flash cards and the disposable chopsticks that come with cheap Chinese take-out, and I will conjure up the world of hot pot and silk and humidity and “ni hao” until it finally does become reality.
I’m among perhaps the final generation to remember what life was like without the ubiquity of the internet, and I have to pay it proper credit for getting me where I am now. If it were possible to travel back in time only twenty years, I would be lost. I certainly wouldn’t be in the midst of this crazy adventure. I can’t fathom a world without pre-booked hostels, FAQs on consulate websites and message boards to answer questions about moving abroad.
Yet, for the dearth of factual information about living abroad, there exists a startling lack of narrative stories. I’ve had the opportunity to stumble upon a variety of wonderflul blogs, but it takes some effort to find a handful of blogs that are filled with great stories. That’s why I’ve created Two Passports.
Readers from my old blog (the blandly titled johnfosullivan.com) can continue to find my writing here. I hope to continue sharing my journey with you from Minnesota to Ireland to Wales to who knows where? But in the meantime, I’ll be joined by some guest bloggers who are also living abroad. If you have a story to share from your time living abroad, I’d love to hear from you and host your story on Two Passports. Just email me on the contact page.
In the meantime, comment away on the stories. In recent months I’ve started to recieve some really excellent comments, and my hope is that as Two Passports gets more readers, we can start some great back-and-forth discussions in the comment pages. So without further ado, I’ll post Two Passports’ first official guest post by my friend and fellow writer Kelsey Gustafson. Happy reading!