Athens, Greece—Whenever I’m able to see a historic site as I travel to a new city, I try to make it a priority—even though they’re usually teeming with tourists. Greece was no exception. On my second day in the country, I visited the Acropolis in Athens. The Parthenon was the most memorable structure (mainly because it’s the one that I remember most from Humanities classes in school).
I like to see art/architecture in person for many reasons. It helps me to understand the creative process, and the context in which it was created. When art is presented out of context—in a textbook, for instance—there’s a danger that it will just become an abstract idea (like the Parthenon was to me before last week). Being in the environment sparked questions about the culture, religion, politics, and daily life in ancient Greece which led me to trace the design/function problems that artists potentially faced with their creative process.
My theory is that understanding the context in which art is created can also help one to understand its culture/perspective.
So if ever you’re able to see art and/or architecture in its original context, you should definitely consider it. It could potentially help you to solve problems in your own work.
Barcelona, Spain—It was a warmish morning. I had just purchased a museum pass to visit multiple museums and I was ready to plot out my next several days. I sat down on a bench on a sidewalk and was engrossed in the museum pass booklet; toggling between it and the city map, trying to plan a sensible route. After several minutes, an elderly man walked in front of where I was sitting and spit on the sidewalk directly in front of me. My first response was, “Gross!” It took me several minutes before I realized what had happened. It was racially or culturally motivated.
It’s an insult of the worst kind and I almost missed it. It’s a universal passive aggressive sign of disrespect and disgust. Usually it’s in direct response of something or someone that you’re familiar with. I think everyone encounters people at some point in their lives and think, “This fool has lost his mind!” Well, I thought that (it was my natural reaction) but as I sat there for several minutes, wondering about the mind of a person who would do something like that. Don’t get me wrong, I was less surprised than curious. The irony of it all is that my purpose for being in Barcelona is to understand its people and culture.
That single action made a significant impression on me and shaped my time in Barcelona. As I continue to study art in other cultures, I’m learning that it’s imperative to make connections with every aspect of life of a place. For instance, history is critical when trying to understand people…so is religion, and politics, and family, and media.
Everything is connected.
People’s ideology is shaped by their experience and contributes to how they perceive others so having an understanding of all cultural aspects is going to help me understand why people do the things they do, why they create and how they communicate.
A couple of days later, I revisited the Arc de Triomf. It was my second attempt. The first time was on a weekend and it was crowded. The second time was less crowded but something was happening. There was a large crowd gathered on the mall waving the flag of Catalonia.
The rest of my time in Barcelona was fruitful. I visited the Picasso Museum and saw a lot of his early work. Picasso was one of those artists who was always working, always creating. It’s fun to look at his early work to try to identify stylistic clues characteristic of his later work. I also visited the Joan Miró Foundation. It was fantastic! His work is thoughtfully whimsical and inventive. I’ve never seen more than a few pieces at a time so it was a treat to be able to see multiple works at various stages of his career.
While I was disappointed by how I was treated in Barcelona, I decided to consider it a teachable moment. It only affirms the necessity of intercultural education. It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last. At least I learned something.
Lalibela, Ethiopia—This happens to me a lot. I land in some place with no agenda, only to find out that something spectacular is going on. When I arrived in Lalibela, I hadn’t coordinated a plan. The historic rock-hewn churches are the main attraction, so I decided to start there.
The churches were impressive, no doubt. But after several hours of tours, I needed a break. I was headed back to my hotel when I noticed something in the brush along the side of the road. There was a cow laying on the ground and another being guided by a group of men. After staring for a bit, I realized what was happening. They were in the process of slaughtering the cows.
I asked my guide if we could get closer and if it was appropriate to take photographs. I was in the clear.
I learned that this particular slaughtering process happens every year for Epiphany. It is a process that involves several people. At one point, my guide was recruited to help the men drag the cow to the shade. The cows are slaughtered and skinned by a group of men. Afterward, women come and cut the animal into smaller pieces. The meat is dried underground for one day, then prepared by women the next day. The slaughtering process was relatively quick. I took lots of pictures. A group of children came by to watch and we had similar reactions, mine being a bit more exaggerated (I was simultaneously gagging and snapping photographs.) While I don’t think the photographs are as disturbing as actually being there, I will spare you the gore.
The cow slaughtering experience was so much more interesting to me than visiting the churches. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was sad and fascinating all at once.
The following day was the eve of Epiphany, part of the Timket celebration. I observed the late afternoon portion of the ceremony which included a processional of the priests and deacons walking through the streets of the city, delivering sermons and prayers. The day of Epiphany was the actual carrying a representation of the Ark of the covenant to the church, The House of St. George.
Boma Ng’ombe, Tanzania—I have a name that needs to be repeated upon first introductions. This has been the case for as long as I can remember, so I’m used to it. However, this didn’t happen while I was in Tanzania. Someone would ask my name and after I told them, “Myiesha” they would smile and say, “Maisha means life.” Sometimes I would be asked if I spoke Swahili.
I spent some time in a Maasai village in Tanzania. Maasai tribes are traditionally nomadic. The community that I visited had been in their village for several years. When I arrived, my hosts gave me traditional dress to wear during my visit—Brightly colored cloth and handmade beaded jewelry. We gathered around a circle and I was welcomed with a song and dance by members of the community. After a few minutes, I was summoned to the center of the circle to dance. I was uncomfortable the entire time but I wouldn’t dare offend my hosts by declining to participate. And so I danced. No one will ever see that footage.
After the welcome, we walked around and visited a few of their homes. I have an obsession with architecture and how people create their living spaces so I had lots of questions. The houses are circular structures made from a mixture of clay, dung and straw.
Life in the village is similar to anywhere else. They wake up and work. Some members work in surrounding cities. In addition to caring for children and preparing meals, the women create handmade jewelry, which they sell to visitors. The men tend to the herd of animals.
The Maasai tribes keep their traditions and also incorporate some contemporary conveniences. One of the leaders had a cell phone which he used to post photos of our visit to their Facebook page. Now that I think about it, there may be a video somewhere on the interwebs of me dancing in the village. That’s unfortunate.
Johannesburg, South Africa—I couldn’t go to South Africa without visiting Johannesburg. My first stop was the Apartheid Museum. I remember, as a child, watching the film Sarafina and not understanding what was going on. Probably like many people, I had a vague understanding about apartheid. Later during the week, I visited Soweto and discovered the integral role school children played in fighting the apartheid regime.
The Apartheid Museum has lots of online resources. I highly suggest learning about South African history from South Africans, to fully understand. Start with The Origins of Apartheid. There was an exhibition about Nelson Mandela. I read his autobiography several years ago so it was a good refresher about his life and the lives of other freedom fighters.
The entire time while I was walking around the museum, I was asking myself how could something like this happen, and for so long. It was a similar internal dialogue that I had when I visited the Slave Lodge in Cape Town, and the history of my ancestors in the United States. Trying to wrap my brain around injustice usually leaves me exhausted and angry.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
— Nelson Mandela
So after my wandering around the museum, I allowed myself to be fully engaged with the complexity of human history and I came to the realization that freedom looks like the sacrifices people make to ensure the freedom of others.
Seoul, South Korea—My entry into the country was seamless, which I always take as a good sign. Everything was going well. I had a good wi-fi connection in the airport so I was able to coordinate the directions to my hostel, I was well rested and my feet were comfortable (it’s little things that can be annoying on travel days so I try to mitigate those when possible). I was also able to buy a 5-day subway pass while at the airport, which is my preferred method of transportation (cheap, reliable and usually no surprise fees). I was so productive!
I found the train and I was on my way to the hostel. According to Google maps, it was a direct commute from the airport. When I reached my stop on the train, I kept thinking, ‘wow, that was easy!’ (That should always be my internal cue to brace myself). Nothing is ever easy. When I reached the top of the stairs of the subway, I immediately started walking while at the same time looking at my phone to check the blue dot on Google maps to make sure I was going in the right direction. The blue dot wasn’t responsive. So I would stop on the sidewalk and wait…I may have shaken my phone a bit. For some reason, the Google maps directions for Seoul are in beta. So, the directions were a bit off. I kept the app open, checking it frequently while I hauled my luggage around for about an hour.
Then my phone died.
I didn’t panic. I just shook my head, because, Murphy’s Law. I found a Starbucks and ordered coffee so I could charge my phone and also use their internet. Then I remembered that my outlet converter was buried in a bag within my suitcase. It’s one thing to walk into a coffee shop in a foreign city with luggage but it’s another thing altogether to start rummaging through said luggage. I had to draw the line somewhere. Then I thought, ‘Aha!’ My iPad is charged, I can use that for directions. Now, imagine walking down a city sidewalk with luggage while your eyes are glued to an iPad. That was not a solution. So, I decided that as much as I hate paying for cabs, in this instance it was justified.
I finally hailed a cab and once I got in, I realized that I didn’t have the actual address to the hostel written down, it was on my phone. I only had the cross streets and the website on my iPad. The cab driver said (well, I’m not exactly sure what he said because it was in Korean, but I got the gist) that he needed the exact address to take me anywhere. I got out of the cab and had to start over with the directions from Google maps.
Three hours after landing in Seoul, I finally made it to the hostel. Exhausted.
I was only in the city for a few days so my schedule didn’t allow me to see much of the city. For the most part, I stayed in my neighborhood. I observed the youth culture (by default, because my hostel was located near a university). I encountered music, fashion and graffiti clearly influenced by hip hop culture. I heard a lot of ’90s hip hop and R&B. Apparently, hip hop is a growing trend in the city. I’m always fascinated by the global reach of hip hop.
Whew! These past 4 months have flown by. My time has been dedicated to wrapping up a project which had a mid-October deadline and because I’ve been moving around so quickly, I haven’t been posting as many blog updates as I’d like. Also, the lack of consistent internet prevented me from getting a lot of things done, which was a source of frustration. Well, I met my deadline and I am now in a place that has reliable internet so expect more frequent updates! Also, check out my Instagram (@myieshagordon) as I post there pretty frequently.
Here’s where I’ve been so far:
NYC > Dallas
Dallas, Texas > Detroit, Michigan
Detroit, Michigan > Miami, Florida
Miami, Florida > San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico > São Paulo, Brazil
São Paulo, Brazil > Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil > Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires, Argentina > La Rioja, Argentina
La Rioja, Argentina > Uyuni, Bolivia
Uyuni, Bolivia > La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz, Bolivia > Cusco, Peru
Cusco, Peru > Lima, Peru
Lima, Peru > Santiago, Chile
Santiago, Chile > Punta Arenas, Chile
Punta Arenas, Chile > Liberia, Costa Rica
Liberia, Costa Rica > Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama > Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City, Mexico > San Francisco, California
San Francisco, California > Tokyo Japan
Which brings us up to date! Yesterday I arrived in Tokyo (one of my dream destinations). I’m looking forward to exploring the city and telling you about it.
Besides my incessant ashiness and a couple of nosebleeds (because of the high altitude), I had a good time in Bolivia. Nevermind the fact that I was in the country illegally.
Let me explain.
One of my strategies for saving money while I travel is to use the cheapest form of transportation possible. In South America, that usually means taking a bus. Sure, it takes 3 times as long to get anywhere, but because I have more time than money, I don’t mind. Flashback to a couple of weeks ago when I arrived to the Argentina/Bolivia border by bus. It was a relatively simple process, albeit long. I stood on line for about 30 minutes to exit Argentina. I got my stamp and was ready…to stand on yet another line to enter Bolivia. Here’s where I messed up. While waiting on line with what appeared to be Bolivian citizens, the guard patrolling the line yelled at me to “pase!” At first I thought it was a little unusual but because that was my first time crossing the border into another country by land, I thought maybe that is what’s done. And so, I crossed…without getting an entry stamp.
Fast forward to a couple of days ago when I tried to exit Bolivia from Copacabana with a bus full of people headed to Peru…”Where is your immigration card?” The bus attendant asked. “My what?” All of a sudden, my stomach sank. This is going to be a problem, I thought. Now, you have to understand that I’m a rule follower. Not in a pretentious goody two-shoes kind of way. It’s just that I don’t like getting yelled at or reprimanded so I just choose to follow the rules the first time as not to get in trouble.
So when I realized that I have been in a foreign country without permission for a whole 2 weeks, my mind immediately goes to Brokedown Palace territory (if you haven’t seen that movie, I suggest that you do BEFORE traveling if possible. It’ll be more meaningful). My story is not as dramatic. The Bolivian officials were kind, professional and were all about that paper! They instructed me through the bus attendant what I had to do: pay for the Bolivian visa and an additional fine, which was about $30. I had to wait a day in Copacabana before crossing into Peru because I wasn’t carrying enough cash to pay for both the visa and the fine. So I got some rest and took care of everything the next day. It all worked out.
In the future I’d like to stick to learning lessons that are not so expensive and risky. At least you can learn from my mistakes.
La Rioja, Argentina — I’m living on a farm in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town with people (and Internet access) is 187 miles away.
I have been interested in Homesteading for several years now. It all started with a book that changed how I thought about work, time and money. The premise is simple: if you don’t need a lot of money (i.e.an expensive lifestyle), then you don’t need to make a lot of money, and you can spend more time doing things you want to do.
So for the next 3 weeks, I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m living on a farm. The family that owns the farm has lived in La Rioja for over 18 years and they built everything from the ground up, including 2 houses, the plumbing system and solar panels for electricity. It’s modern and well-designed. While I’m here, I will be helping with chores; gardening, building stuff, feeding animals, whatever they need. In return, I’ll learn about managing a family farm and improve my Spanish (they don’t speak English). It’s basically a masterclass in innovation and sustainable living.
On one hand, it’s glorious (because I’m an introvert from NYC, so I know the value of quiet spaces). On the other hand, it’s a little terrifying because I have an overly active imagination, I’m a bit paranoid and low-key afraid of the dark.
In addition to learning Spanish, I’m helping them with their English. Just the other night, we gathered around the dinner table to play a trivia game on their iPad. While the words were in Spanish, the topics were international. There were questions about celebrities, religion, history, movies, popular culture…everything. Well, a question popped up on the screen and I laughed out loud. My Spanish vocabulary is the equivalent of a three-year-old’s, mind you but I knew what the question was about. They all looked at me a bit puzzled, waiting for me to explain myself. But I didn’t have the heart to tell them what ‘twerking’ was. Not yet.
I’m sitting on a bus headed to Rio de Janeiro, recalling my first week abroad.
Yesterday was July 4th, America’s Independence Day. Every year on that day, I try to meditate on how the birth of our nation was provoked by revolution; by rebellion. It was fitting especially after this past weekend in São Paulo.
On Sunday morning, I met a colleague for coffee. The weather was perfect: 80 degrees with a gentle breeze. Avenida Paulista, one of the main streets, is closed to traffic each Sunday so you’re likely to find vendors, locals, tourists, people hanging out and relaxing.
As we walked down Avenida Paulista, we noticed a crowd of about 80-100 people standing still in the street, being protected by police officers. My friend and I were curious and proceeded cautiously.
The crowd shouted in Portuguese, while holding signs. As we got closer, my friend recognized that they were supporters of a Brazilian presidential candidate, who is somewhat infamous in São Paulo.
As the group marched by, we stopped and joined a crowd of onlookers, most of whom were noticeably disturbed by the group’s endorsement of the candidate.
My friend yelled at the protesters in Portuguese, “You’re part of the problem!”
“I can’t help it,” he said to me. “This makes me angry.” He went on to explain that the politician has been known to say egregious things in public, particularly against women.
“He’s like an evil version of Trump,” he said.
We talked a little more about the political climate in São Paulo and everything was fine, until we had to run. Literally.
We witnessed a guy being hit with billy clubs by 4-5 police officers several feet in front of us. He was quickly able to escape and began running down the street only to be followed by the police officers who hopped on their motorcycles. For a moment it looked like they were coming in our direction so we all darted off the sidewalk, going in different directions.
After the police officers disappeared down the street, things seemed to calm down. My friend and I walked a few more feet and noticed more police officers and another group of people.
This time they were teenagers.
The police stood on one side, armed with their plexiglass shields, and the young people stood on the other side unarmed, some with bandanas covering the bottom half of their faces.
They weren’t carrying any signs, I’m not even sure of their cause but they looked like they had done this before, like this wasn’t the first time they were on the opposite side of those plexiglass shields. Their posture was like, “Don’t start none, won’t be none.”
Now, I have to explain. My usual strategy when encountering such a situation is to calmly and quickly walk in the other direction before things get out of control. But I was curious about why they were protesting. The environment was intense but didn’t seem to be dangerous. We stuck around for a few minutes to try to understand what was going on. We never learned why the teenagers were protesting but we suspect it has something to do with a financial scandal, which has left students without adequate food in their schools.