Tag: Culture

Getting a Second Wind

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London, England—It’s 12:38am. I’m sitting in Heathrow Airport, camping out overnight for an early morning flight (which is always fun). After almost a month, I’m leaving London. I didn’t expect that it would be over a month before I posted an update, but here we are.

I was never one to pine for London. Ever. I mean, I had nothing against the city. To be honest, it just seemed…well, boring. Probably because the extent of my knowledge of English culture was limited at best.

Well, I can admit when I’m wrong. It’s a lively city, and there’s a lot to see beyond the typical tourist sites. One of my favorite things is that many of the art museums are free, not to mention the art in public places. During my commute one day, I noticed some beautiful mosaics on the subway walls of Tottenham Court Station. When I got home and did a little research and learned that they were created by Eduardo Paolozzi in the ’80s and were removed a couple of years ago (recently back on display.)

They are really beautiful and you have to see them if you visit London. I think sometimes we miss beautiful things because they’re out of the context which we expect. These murals are not in a museum. Rather, they are the backdrop for crowds of people hurriedly going from point A to point B. I don’t even know how I noticed them when I did. I had been to that station several times before but didn’t see them.

Being in London has been a respite of sorts, probably because there isn’t the language barrier that I’ve experienced in other countries. Yeah, there’s the occasional confusion because of different accents and British slang, but for the most part I understand fully when communicating, navigating, planning…it’s wonderful. When I first arrived a few weeks ago, I was so relieved to be able to understand people that I didn’t realize how taxing it was on my brain to be in places where I don’t speak the language. It made me think about how isolating and exhausting it must be for people who don’t speak English to navigate the U.S.

The beauty of being in one place for an extended period of time is that I’m able to have a more consistent and predictable schedule. The longer I travel, that doesn’t get any less important. I work throughout the day, with intermittent breaks for wandering. I’m learning how important it is to actually build in time in my schedule for daydreaming, wandering, having time where my brain isn’t being occupied by any specific demands. I’ve had some great insights while taking breaks from my work and just walking around.

One of my favorite things was searching for traditional English tea cups for a friend. I thought the search would be easy but it took me a bit longer than expected. After asking around, I found Camden Market, a kind of touristy spot. I first went to an antiques shop and the owner sent me to a place that sells, almost exclusively, tea sets!

Being surrounded by so many different designs gave me an appreciation for the artistry and history of the English tea culture. Also, the owner of the store was so knowledgeable, I became even more fascinated.

And so, I’m leaving London. It seems like I’ve only been here a short while. I guess a month really is a short while relatively speaking. I didn’t see the typical tourist stuff like Big Ben and I resolved that I’m totally fine with that. There’s always next time.

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.

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!

Kimonos in Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan — Ah, Kyoto. It encompasses so much of what I love about Japan: Clean public restrooms, delicious food, escalators that work, reliable public transportation, chic fashion, art (I could go on). But one of my favorite things about Kyoto is how comfortable it feels. Even teeming with tourists like myself, it still seems ‘small-town’ in the best possible way.

One thing that I desperately wanted to do before leaving Japan is to learn about kimonos. Prior to visiting Kyoto, my knowledge of the kimono, was extremely limited. Okay, so everything I know about kimonos I learned from the film, Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the novel by Arthur Golden by the same title. The visuals in the film are breathtakingly beautiful. While I can’t speak on the historical accuracy of the film, it does give some insight into the artistry, skill and thought that is central to the profession.

“…the very word ‘geisha’ means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.”1

So, there I was in a kimono rental shop on a Saturday morning. It was like being at Macy’s on Black Friday…a bit overwhelming. Many tourists who visit Kyoto rent kimonos to take photos at one of the shrines. I resolved to go back the next day with the hope of missing the crowd. Luckily, day two was a lot quieter.

Putting on a kimono is an arduous task. It’s not something that one can do comfortably on her own. First, there are several layers involved, with lots of binding and pulling, smoothing and folding. There were three ladies who helped me with my clothes and hair. I learned about the structure of dressing and how to coordinate colors, which was a lot of fun.

The result was a work of art.

  1. Fisher, L. et al. (Producer), & Marshall, R. (Director). (2005). Memoirs of a Geisha [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures Corporation.

Making Sushi

dscf0070Tokyo, Japan – Sushi is one of those things that people either love or hate. I don’t remember when I first tried sushi, it was sometime during my freshman year in college. I just remember trying to convert my skeptical friends, like a sushi evangelist. One friend was adamantly opposed because of the raw fish. I think if you strip anything down to its disparate parts, it has the become unappealing but sushi is more than just raw fish. The combination of freshness and immediacy makes it special. An experience. Add to that the skill of the chef and well, it can be a bit intimidating.

Today I learned how to make sushi. It was quite simple. Notice I said ‘simple’ not ‘easy.’ I imagine a person could spend half a lifetime trying to perfect the art of making sushi. I have a great deal of respect for people who make (good) food. They’re artists. Anyone who has ever had bad sushi recognizes that there’s an art to it. From material preparation to presentation, there seems to be a purposefulness to everything.

Having a teacher is my preferred way to learn most new skills. There is no substitute for it (pun not intended). Our teacher today has been making sushi longer than I have been alive. I had to let that sink in. I observed him, how he placed his hands, how he moved, everything. When you’ve done something for so long, it becomes second nature so when trying to explain your technique, some things may not translate (another pun, BAM!).

In Tokyo, it’s acceptable to eat sushi with your hands. You have no idea how happy I was to hear that. My chopstick skills are at an intermediate level. I mean, I can use them just fine, but it takes effort. Removing them was like removing a barrier between me and the sushi. It became a more informal and enjoyable experience.

My only problem now is that I can’t wait to get into my own kitchen and practice.