Category: Anthropology

On Seeing the Real Thing

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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.

 

Picasso’s (and Miro’s) City

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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.

Later I asked someone what was going on and basically it was a political gathering of people who are in favor of Barcelona seceding from Spain.

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.

The highlight of my trip was my visit to the National Museum of Catalonian Art. There were so many magnificent work by artists I had never heard of, like Joan Llimona, Ramon Casas, Ramon Amado, and Antoni Badrinas.

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.

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Epiphany in Ethiopia

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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.

Life in a Maasai Village

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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.

What Freedom Looks Like

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Portrait of Nelson Mandela at the Apartheid Museum

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.

True beauty.

Stopover in Seoul

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My first meal in Seoul. On a scale of McDonald’s to Fogo de Chao, it was about an Arby’s. Almost everything else that I ate in Seoul was delicious.

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.

I also had some great food. Some things I love:

While my initiation to the city was a bit rough, thankfully, it got better. I will definitely go back!

A Little Recap (Where I’ve Been)

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Machu Picchu wasn’t on my list of ‘Things I MUST See,’ but I figured since I was so close, I couldn’t leave South America without seeing it. It was awe-inspiring. I had to keep reminding myself that humans built it. It was foggy in the morning when I visited, which bummed some of my fellow tourists out, but I was so thankful for the fog to get this great shot, which appropriately creates a mysterious feel. I was not disappointed.

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.