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.
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.
Cape Town, South Africa—I took one of those double decker tour buses to Signal Hill. It was the most efficient mode of transportation when trying to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
Immediately after we arrived, I hurriedly exited the bus and walked around to find the perfect spot. I didn’t know what I was looking for but I knew it would be far away from the large group of people perched on the ground in front of the parking lot. The farther I walked, I discovered that I was in my element – trodding through rough terrain, almost barefoot…Totally free. It reminded me of when I was a kid, climbing trees and exploring the unknown.
I finally found a quiet spot, perfect for watching a sunset. And I waited. As I set up my camera to take photos, I turned around and there it was, a beautiful rainbow.
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.
One of the most difficult things about long term travel is trying to develop a daily routine. Having a routine is important to me. I have a propensity for going with the flow so I know how important it is (for my being productive) to create schedules, goals, lists, and order for my daily life. Travel interrupts my ‘normal’ daily life so there are a few things that I make sure I do to create some stability while I’m on the road.
No alarm clock. This is critical for me, and has been one of my life goals for as long as I can remember. It may seem counterintuitive to not have an alarm clock to wake you at the same time every morning but I have found that my body naturally wakes up around the same time everyday and I feel more refreshed when I get sleep that is not disrupted by an alarm.
Establish a work schedule. Each day I have things to do – reading, writing, planning, editing, designing, researching, creating and then there’s the coordination of travel, which is fun but also time consuming. I have a set schedule for what time I will work each day. I usually do more mundane tasks in the morning, take a lunch break, then do more fun work in the afternoon.
Make lists. Lists help keep me organized and just the act of making a list helps me to remember other things that I have to do.
Incorporate comforts of home. I can honestly say that I’m not home sick yet. I know it’s coming but until then, I try to cultivate my own ‘norm’ while on the road. I am still traveling frugal but I have splurged on basic things like lotion and good food. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting to be in foreign places for long periods of time, so it’s important to have a connection to home. I recently ate at an American fast food chain while in Peru that reminded me of home and it was a great experience.
Schedule meals. I try to have meals around the same time every morning. When I was in Argentina, my schedule was thrown off a bit because my host family ate dinner at 10:00pm every night, which I wasn’t accustomed to. The good thing about having a routine is that it gives you freedom to deviate from your normal schedule and come right back. Muscle memory, perhaps.
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.
Several weeks ago, I was in a bookstore in Rio de Janeiro buying coffee. The cashier, a friendly middle-aged Brazilian woman looked at me curiously. She knew that I was a foreigner but couldn’t pinpoint from where. “Boliviana?” she asked. I smiled and replied, “No, Americana.”
“Why would she think I was Bolivian?” I thought. I wasn’t offended but I was curious. I had actually never thought of visiting Bolivia before that encounter. That’s all it took. “I want to go to there.”
Fast forward to a few days ago. I took a bus from Argentina to the Argentina/Bolivia border and crossed with relative ease. Once I was in Bolivia, I rested at a cute, simple hostel not far from the border. I rested and watched TV (a Portlandia marathon in Bolivia, who knew?!?) and prepared for another bus ride to Uyuni.
The next day, I arrived to the bus station and it was just how you would imagine a bus station to be, no frills. Although, there was one difference. Upon entering the door of the station, travelers are surrounded by a group of vendors shouting and competing for you to purchase a ticket from their company. It’s only funny when you’re on the outside looking in. I had already purchased my ticket online so I was able to walk directly to the counter of my bus with confidence. After checking in, I waited a few hours for my bus, which I didn’t really mind because I have lots of things to keep me busy. I purchased some snacks and a quart of apple ‘drink’, the majority of which I consumed while I waited. The bus arrived and we piled in.
We weren’t 30 minutes into the 10-hour trip when we stopped for what I could only assume was customs. The customs officers climbed aboard the bus with flashlights in hand looking under seats, in overhead compartments, everywhere. They found several bags belonging to what appeared to be a family who had packed multiple cartons of white whine (I was nosey and peeked in the bags as the officers stored them next to my seat, which was near the door.) They confiscated several cartons of wine after much pleading and arguing. What I gathered from the whole ordeal was that the family had purchased the wine outside of Bolivia and was planning to sell it in Bolivia, which according to the customs officer was “prohibido.”
That took about 15 minutes to sort and we were back on the road. Now that I wasn’t distracted, I began to look toward the back of the bus where the bathroom is typically located. There wasn’t one. I assumed it was on the lower deck but I remembered that the luggage was stored there so it was logistically impossible. I didn’t have to use the bathroom at that moment but my brain was several hours ahead of me. Then panic set in: “THERE IS NO BATHROOM ON THIS BUS!” I tried to talk myself down. Surely, they will stop at a rest stop on the way, everyone will get off and grab peanut M&M’s and Cokes. My hopefulness had turned into delirium. I thought to myself, just try to sleep and maybe you’ll experience a miracle and not have to go (although you drank almost a quart of apple drink).
A few hours later, and like clockwork, I needed to go. Thankfully, only minutes after I had this realization, the bus stopped. The attendant walked up the steps and yelled “Bano!”
“YES! YES!” I thought. I breathed a sigh of relief as about a dozen people whizzed past me, down the stairs and out the door. I stood up preparing to follow them. It was dark but not too dark that I couldn’t see clearly. There was no building. The ‘bano’ was the side of the road. I saw men walking away from the bus 10-15 feet with their backs turned and women squatting behind dirt mounds.
“Oh, Lawd!” I haven’t reached a level of maturity that would allow me to use the bathroom, basically exposed in public! Nope. I sat in my seat completely uncomfortable but with my dignity intact.
The total trip to central Bolivia was approximately 24 hours between 2 buses. I’m looking forward to discovering Bolivia and I can’t tell you how thankful I am when I see the word “bano” somewhere.
The hardest thing about living on the farm in Argentina was how disconnected I was from everything and everyone. So much of the work that I am doing right now is Internet dependent. Also, it was extremely cold, mostly at night (it’s winter in South America). I’ve never been more thankful for hot water and wool. On any given day, I was layering practically half of the clothes that I packed.
One of my favorite tasks on the farm was managing the vineyard, and by managing, I mean cutting a bunch of branches. However, it wasn’t as easy as I initially thought it would be. It was quite rigorous work. Although, it was peaceful. My directions were simple: trim the branches to create a single trunk with two main branches and three smaller branches that grow from the two. I thought, “I can manage that.”
Then the (existential) questions crept in: How do I know which branches to cut? How can I cut the branches that will yield the most (and best) fruit?
The fact is you don’t know. You do your best and keep in mind the vines’ need for balance and nourishment. I approached this task in a similar way that I approach creating sculpture. The only difference is that the vines are living things and even with the most cautious of care taking, the results are not up to me.
I’m still learning how much of life is that way too.