Saturday, June 30, 2012

5 Things I Could Not Leave Home Without

When looking for study abroad scholarships, I came across one that asked for a list of the five things I wouldn't study abroad without. At first I ran through my ever-faithful mental packing list, a bunch of non important physical items: toothbrush, clean underwear, silk scarf, passport (duh Sharlene, you can't go anywhere without your passport!)

I also realized that I don't have any real sentimental items, except for a box of random photos and ticket stubs that wouldn't be of much use in a Ghanaian village. But there is no lucky teddy bear, family heirloom, or anything else that holds much significance to me.

Then I thought about what really comes in handy when I'm abroad and rustled up a list of things that cannot be contained in a suitcase, a ziplock or backpack.

1. Courage

One thing that I’ve learned in my pervious travel experience is that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to leave it all behind. My family, my friends, my world as I know it. Out of fear that I may seem like a self interested narcissist, I understand that I wasn’t born with this courage; no one is. I’d like to think it was given to me by my life long anchors, my creators, my parents.  
2. Memories

Whether in the form of an old journal or my biological hard drive (my brain), memories are an important keepsake that can pull me out of any slump, feeling of doubt or homesickness. I find them handy in all times of need, not just when I feel down. Funny, quirky, strange, even bad ones. Refection is useful when embarking on any kind of journey to separate where I’ve been, where I am and where I’m going.

3. Values

In my case, my values are not connected strongly to any religion. Despite my spiritual skepticism, I was instilled with core values: to work hard, respect myself and respect others. These have been in my back pocket since childhood and have traveled with me ever since. 

4. “Common sense”

I am a big fan of attribution and in this case I have no idea who to credit for what my mother calls “common sense”. On one hand I think it is the quiet confidence my family places in my ability to take care of myself. On the other, I think it is a natural/biological instinct that helps me sense danger or anything that isn't helpful to my current situation. The jury is still out on its origin, but I never leave home without it.

5. Gratitude

Especially during my travels, I recognize that it took a village of family, friends and institutions including my university to give me all of these keepsakes that I couldn’t leave home without. With every ounce of my being I am grateful for the sacrifices that people have made on my behalf, not only monetarily which is a major obstacle that I continuously hurdle with help from scholarship organizations and my university, but with their time, effort and kindness.

Mt. Fushimi Inari - Kyoto, Japan

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Birthdays in Bintan & Steamed Rice For All

Since my arrival in Singapore I have been swept off my feet by life. Work, friends, food, and other extra curricular activities have been my knights in shining armor; well, work not so much. Investor Central and Hong Bao Media have made the time fly with constant booking, stories to file and shoots to produce and assist on. This can really allow time to get away from me during the work week. As for weekends, I've spent some hitting the town, the small town that it is. Hot spots like BluJazz on Arab street, clubs such as Attica (both I & II) and my favorite after work watering hole and gold bar, Urban Fairways. Others I've spent doing my grandma thing reading, cleaning and whatever else doesn't cost me any money. I've made little effort to travel on weekends like my roommates since I plan to make my rounds about Southeast Asia when I finish working in July. Also, my sister will be visiting then and accompanying me on this journey and back home, so it will be nice to have a familiar traveling companion.

However, if you know me, you would take that "me not travelling on the weekends" line and call it crap. In the meantime, in between time I ventured into Johor Bahru Malaysia and celebrated my 22nd birthday on a weekend trip to Bintan, Indonesia. I wanted an easy weekend holiday which turned into two nights and three days of total debauchery. The party started right at the ferry departure gate where a hoard of around two hundred of exchange students and interns raided the Duty Free shop. We weren't buying perfume or handbags. Soon after passing our purchases to the front of the line and avoiding the long queue, we boarded the ferry which by now should have been renamed The Spirits of the Sea.

After a few frantic moments at immigration, where I lost my passport for all of about five minutes and nearly had a conniption, we had made it to our hot and sticky destination. And I thought the humidity in Singapore was bad. The Indonesian sun would prove to be mightier than that of the lion nation. Of course the bus ride to our resort wouldn't go without incident. The engine started smoking, choking everyone inside and soon gave out. Stranded on the side of a red dirt road without streetlights or anything that resembled life in sight around 11pm on a Friday, we did what any forward thinking exchange group would do. Cracking open our tax free purchases, we hunkered down and passed the bottle.

After an hour of introductions made less awkward by booze, a much nicer bus rescued us. When we reached the Sun Moon Restaurant for dinner around midnight, the place seemed a bit eerie. Its was built on stilts at the end of a long dark and creaky dock. When we entered, to our surprise the rest of the group waited for our arrival. The weekend's festivities would turn out to be the most fun I've had on a birthday not surrounded by family and close friends ensued. A mountain of delicious entrees, Bintang and "steamed rice for all" christened new friendships and ushered in my twenty second year on this planet earth.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Singapore Savvy

The last four days in Singapore have whizzed by so quickly that I've forgotten to write. Actually, I've gone back to the rudimentary form of writing, scribbling down addresses, phone numbers and notes for work in a spiral pad. I've since dubbed it my "Book of Life." From the moment I touched down at Changi Airport it has been my faithful companion; helping me during house hunting and orientation at Investor Central. It was the only thing that gave me peace during the first few days of anxiety when I was unsure about where I would be living and whether I could afford a place I liked. They say moving is one of the hardest things to deal with besides a death and a birth. I definitely felt the pressure. For three days, I browsed Craigslist and other housing sites, figured out how to get around on the MRT and buses, got lost and viewed places. It was a great way to get to know the city and meet some interesting people. I learned very early not to work with agents, especially if you're only looking for a room to rent. It is a huge rip-off. Their fee is half of a month's rent and they also charge the landlords. They are also very pushy from my experience. The woman I dealt with refused to let the spaces sell themselves. She also showed me expensive places even though I had given her my budget. Overall, it was an unsettling experience. Once I started dealing personally with landlords, things started to go better. They got straight to the point and didn't sugarcoat anything.
The pad and a little bit of luck have since helped me find the room I am writing from now. It's not very flashy, but by Asian standards its pretty big for a non master room and it came furnished with a queen sized bed, a spacious wardrobe, a wooden desk, an end table and a mirror. With a little sprucing up, it'll be home in no time. The common area and kitchen are pretty nice as well. The place also has a good feeling, like its actually been lived in, unlike some of the others I've seen. My housemates seem pretty nice as well, they are from all over the world. Sioban is from Ireland, Angel - the Philippines, Yohan - Germany, Kelly -The States, and Jenny - Korea. Maria, my landlord, has to be the coolest landlord there is. She seems to have a knack for befriending young professional foreigners and has housed people from almost everywhere. She's also famous for throwing huge parties she calls "SingBashes." I'm really glad I found this place, so far everything couldn't be going better on the home front.
As far as work goes, this is where I've been the most surprised. From what my boss had told me, I knew it was a small company, but I was very unaware of how small. The office is located on the edge of the Central Business District in a building that houses numerous other small businesses and a few schools. The place is literally a room about the size of my dorm and a fairly small studio. A lot of the equipment is a bit dated, but the place has a certain charm. From the run through of the position, there is a lot to be done. It seems very demanding for such a small operation, but I think I'll get a lot of hands on experience and I like my boss' scrappy nature. My co-workers Mattina, Sarah, and Amy quickly filled me in on the environment and their relationship with our boss, which seems a bit shaky since he's very demanding, but I think he's trying his hardest to be successful and steps on some toes in the process.
Lucky for me, I arrived just before the Chinese New Year! This means I have a 4 day weekend for the festivities including a parade tomorrow. I hope to unpack and unwind slowly while getting a chance to explore a little bit more. I'm really looking forward to the next 6 months here.
Stay Tuned!


Original Post: August 10th 2011

Looking back on my time here in Bahia, I find that its been filled with life and learning. There is a certain energy here in the squares of Pelerinho, on the beaches of Barra, and ilhas on the coast of Bahia that gives off a sense of excitement. Salvador is a city in preparation waiting for its big break onto the world stage. The not only for the world cup and the olympics, but to be known around the globe for its rich traditions and history. It sounds silly, but soon, people from all over the world, will get a glimpse of orixas, eat quejo quente, and maybe learn a bit of caporiera. I had never heard of the Candomble or orixas before coming here, and I am fascinated by how imbedded this belief is in Bahianos' everyday lives. (Example: My host mom has ritas along with a rosary tied around the gear in her car.) From this experience, I gathered that Bahianos take great great pride in their history and culture, no matter how dark the circumstances. As exemplified by the Ballet Folklorio, they've embraced traditions that have passed from the times of slavery and darkness and chosen to put them on display. This and the many charms of Bahia have had a lasting impression on my view of Brasil. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here and look forward to returning.

Oh, how the time flys!

Original Post: July 31st, 2011

So I was just informed that we have come to the end of our 3rd week in Brasil. Since last weekend, the days have somehow started to merge and blur together. I'm guessing this is my mind trying to distract me from the fact that we are leaving in less than a week. Nevertheless this past week did happen and we did some interesting things…

We started of the week visiting a public school where Prof. Fred teaches geography. He emphasized that the school was poor, and compared to the private high schools, I agree it was underfunded. However, just returning from a place where many children didn't have a proper classroom, resources, or trained professional teachers, the children of Bahia were doing pretty well. In the case of any urban school where kids are underprivileged and the school is underfunded, it will be difficult to teach. But in my opinion, it is not the funding that is the problem, its keeping the kids motivated to stay in school. Afterward, we visited a "favella" which turned out to be a lower middle class neighborhood. Some of the houses, while still being stacked close together, had swimming pools and satellite TV. There were nice cars in neatly built garages and even a very clean, modern public park. This made me realize that I have to change my understanding of poverty when I hear about it in class and see it for myself.

The highlight of my week had to be attending the Ballet Folklorio in the historic district, Pelerinho. The performance was an ode to the mix of African, indigenous, and latin culture in the form of dance. There was chanting, singing, and amazing dancing! I apologize for the lack of photos, none were allowed during the performance. Most of the performance was centered on the "orixas" (oh-re-sha). Dancers were dressed in each god or goddesses' traditional wear and took on the personality of their orixa. It was fascinating. There was also a section focused on the mixed martial art and dance capoeira. This fight/dance scene was worthy of comparison with action movies, only it was live! I really enjoyed this performance and hope to see it again, hopefully in the states. The company has taken the Ballet Folklorio to the US in the past, as well as Germany and France.
On Friday, the group traveled to a town city called Cachoeira. It is a historical town located on a river. From what little I gathered from the tour, it was important to the founding of Brasil by the Portuguese. We had lunch at a really nice farm and went to a hand-made cigar factory. I'm not much of a smoker, but from the tour, they were pretty high quality cigars and the aroma in the warehouse from the dried cigar leaves was rich.

Priah Do Forte, Tortugas & Thoughts in Week 2

After settling into my second host home, I find that I am starting to understand Portuguese a bit more. As far as speaking, it's still a work in progress. The week was filled with lectures focusing on Brazil's economy and government. In many cases they were linked due to Brazil's former military dictatorship government owing and operating many of its businesses. We also discussed the future of Brazil and the changes the government and people need to make in order to make Brazil a power player on the global stage. Honestly, most of my research before coming here had to do with colonization and the slave trade. I find that these discussions helped me get a more well rounded view of Brazil, something other than the beautiful beaches and tourist attractions. Brazil's young democracy, growing economic status, and possessing the bid for not one, but two major international sporting events while exciting, seems a bit overwhelming for the average Brazilian. Many locals have the "let's cross our fingers and hope" outlook when asked about Brazil's ability to erect stadiums, train a new workforce, and properly expand its airports among other logistics nightmares. Nevertheless, the future of Brazil looks bright all things considered.

On Friday, we took a field trip to Priaha do Forte. Built by the Portuguese sometime in the 16th century, it was very first building in Brazil. Now, left in ruins, we walked around what used to be a feudal castle that began the colonization of Brazil. Complete with slave quarters and a chapel, there wasn't anything different about this forte than any other castle/forte from the colonial era. Like others from its time, the property was situated on the coast, north of Salvador and offered a breathtaking view of the Atlantic. After visiting the forte, the group spent the day in the very tourist friendly beach town. It offered an array of typical gift shops and themed restaurants, but also contained a turtle (tortuga) sanctuary. This beach is famous for the turtle mating season, and of course it is properly capitalized on, offered tourist a look at everything to do with turtles. Although they are cute, there isn't a lot to do with turtles.

On another note. Iwent on a one woman mission on Thursday to wax my eyebrows. Another girl in our group went with her host mom the day before and we had the afternoon off. So off I went on the search for this salon and of course the directions were a bit faulty. The numbers on the buildings were confusing and not in order. (not that I expected them to be) But i couldn't even located the building by name! After asking several people, them all pointing me in the same direction and still not finding this almost non-existent salon. I took a turn and wound up in a twilight-zone reminiscent mall. There were dozens of stores BUT they all were either formal/prom dress stores, or wig/hair beauty shops. With evening approaching, and after almost 2 hours of looking for this place, I gave up. In defeat, I began my walk back to my apartment in Campo Grande. Only i stopped for two seconds to check out items from a street vendor and there it was. This beat up building with the name barely visible with the number in the most obscure corner. The salon was located in a rented space inside of what looked like space used for offices, maybe twenty years ago, But in i went, and found a pretty top notch hair and nail salon with all the decor and trimmings. Eyebrows were taken care of to my liking and I rushed to get home before dark.

The trials of trying to look like a lady abroad =P


Original Post: July 17, 2011

First impressions

After the long journey from Boston to Bahia, I didn't really know what to expect upon setting foot outside the airport in Salvador. I can't really remember anything from the first few hours but the famous "chip! chip!" incident and the breathtaking sight of "favellas" carved into the hills. From the bus, I could immediately gather that these were poorer areas of the city, and seeing what looked like shacks literally stacked on top of each other like colorful life sized legos intrigued me. As for the rest of the city, quite honestly, I wasn't impressed. Arriving in Victoria, a more well off part of town, I was greeted with lines of skyscrapers. Some more fancy than others, it was a pretty bland plan of buildings, whether a private edificio, a hotel, or government building, all were built like standard condo skyscrapers. I was really disappointed that I was feeling like this, it was a first for me. I didn't have any out of this world expectations of Brasil, so I couldn't understand why I felt this way. Along with disappointed, I also felt a little overwhelmed. Over the first night in the hotel, I self diagnosed this nervous feeling as a sort of reverse culture shock. I have just returned from a far less developed country about two weeks ago, and barely had time to adjust to life in New York before shipping out to a different continent. After some much needed rest, I attempted to wipe my initial reactions from my mind and take a walk outside the cluster of skyscrapers. When my roommates and I reached la priah de Barra. All of my feelings of disappointed were gone. Every person I saw spanned every variation of skin tones. It quickly became apparent that many people here were of African descent. At this moment I felt a bit of relief, similar to what I felt in Ghana when I realized that here, I am not a minority.

How I Met My Mother

On our first day at ACBEU, our language and cultural school. We were oriented to the ins & outs of Bahia and afterward, introduced to our new mothers. Homestays are a major part of this program. They are supposed to help us get a better grip on the Portuguese language, and naturally integrate students into the city of Salvador. My mother, Arlene is a petite woman, recently divorced with a fourteen year old daughter, my new sister Maria Clara, and a cute dog named Lila. I also have another sister from NU named Janet. We were immediately given keys to the house, shown around and informed that Their casa was our casa. So far this has been a very different experience from other dialogues, we live in an upper middle class neighborhood called Graca, and have found our way around pretty easily on the frequently running buses.

Historia do Brasil.

After moving into our apartments, it was time to get acquainted with the rich history of Bahia, essentially the birthplace of Brasil. Dr. Fred (pronounced "Freh-gee") met us at the old town's center, Praca de Ser. This is also the location of les Levantras, elevators that connect the upper city to the lower city with an approximately 15 second ride. Fred began his tour by telling us about the first buildings built by the Portuguese in this part of the city. Part huge of Portugal's colonization included the trading of slaves. Many came from West Africa and specifically Ibo, Yoruba, and Ewe tribes among many others. Many ancient African traditions and religions have a strong presence in the lives of Bahians and Brasilianos in general. Including the widely practiced religion of Candomble. It is belief system based on nature, music, and rituals complete with deities dedicated to water, fertility, weather, etc. Many people in mainstream religious communities associate Candomble with devil worshipping and voodoo. While it has rituals and practices that delve into the realm of voodoo. Fred made it very clear that Candomble is NOT a devil worshiping religion. We visited an are gallery with an exhibition by photographer Pierre Verger, who was given a rare look into the sacred and secret traditions of Candomle.


At the end of the week, I got to visit one of the favelas i mentioned earlier. We were taken to a small after school music and dance program called Bangucaco. The children and adolescents there greeted us with a vibrant performance on various creatively crafted drums and other instruments. This program was started for the kids to stay off of the streets and give them refuge in music, dance, arts, and media. For most of the kids it is a second home. Parents and people from the neighborhood often help out at the program and kids who grew up in Bangucaco also come back to instruct and guide newcomers. After meeting the kids on the first day, and getting a brief background and tour of the place, we returned the next day for some fun activities. The kids hosted workshops to teach us how to play their drums and dance the Samba, Capoeira, and some traditional dances for carnival. The kids possessed an endless energy for their passions, whether it be music, dance, or both. One girl, Stephanie, insisted that I ,continue to dance after almost 3 hours of non-stop grooving to the live drumming supplied by the kids. At that moment, my energy spent, Stephanie's smile encouraged me to power through for, one, than two, than three more dances. The kids and this program are absolutely amazing.

Until next time, Tchau!