On Travel, White Guilt, and Moving Forward

I’ve been doing some housecleaning lately.

I’ve updated, rearranged, edited and (I think) improved the look and accessibility of this little site. I want it to be a place where people can explore ideas as well as cultural environments. Since this blog is my project, I want it to reflect my personal values and style. I’m still working on connecting this site to social media and photo sharing sites, which will be coming soon. I want everything to be in one place.

In addition to digital housecleaning, I’ve been doing some personal/spiritual cleaning as well. I’ve been reflecting a lot on my time in Memphis, my hometown, where I’ve been living for the past year and a half, trying to figure out just where I fit in to this great landscape of social movement. There’s a lot happening in Memphis right now. Revitalization, rehabilitation, and an increasing awareness of others are bringing people together in building a safer, more inclusive and accepting community. I’m honored to be a witness and beneficiary to this change.

Yet despite all of this positive energy, I am choosing to leave. The whirs of jet engines are calling, and I must follow. I have some amazing opportunities coming up, and I’ll be saying goodbye to my friends and family in a few months.

I’m very aware of the fact that I have this choice. I can choose to leave, and no one will stop me or tell me that I can’t go. This is because of the privilege that’s been afforded to me my whole life as a white, American citizen. No one ever told me I didn’t belong in a certain space because of the color of my skin. No one ever told me I couldn’t do whatever I chose to do. No one ever took away my passport, my civil rights, or my human rights and gave me some lame excuse about it. I was given an education that I didn’t have to fight for.  It’s unfathomable to think of how many people still don’t have those opportunities all over the globe–including in Memphis.

It’s easy, and normal, to feel guilty because of this. I didn’t choose my birth, nor did anyone else. So why do I get more while others get less? I don’t have a correct answer to that question because there is not one. There is only history and memory and law and empathy, which, if we are conscious enough, can work to our advantage to understand our place in society, how others view us, and how we want to view and be ourselves. And once we understand this, than we can put that understanding to work for justice and empathy in all corners of the globe.

I will forever come back to the power of words to center and guide me. I lean now on the words of three great champions of civil rights and human rights to remind me of where I’m going and why:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” –Dr. Martin Luther King Junior

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”  -Archbishop Desmond Tutu

And finally,

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”Aboriginal Activist Group, Queensland (often attributed to Lilla Watson)

I’ve learned so much in Memphis. I’ve learned how to be an ally, how to show up, and how to not always have the last word. I’ve learned that connecting with people is essential, and that letting myself be supported is wonderful. I needed these lessons, because where I’m going will be all about connecting with people and letting myself be observant.

I’m joining the US Peace Corps. I’ll be serving in Madagascar for the next two years as an English teacher and trainer. Finally, I feel as ready as I can be, and I am so grateful to Memphis for that.

It will be a long and complicated journey, and I can’t wait for it. But before I go, I’ve got some other trips planned for refreshment, restoration, and friendship. More on that coming up.

Thank you for being part of my journey and I hope you’ll stick around.

With love,

Mel

 

Ironies of Comfort, Familiarity

Alain de Botton ignites my soul. Every line in his traveler’s manifesto, The Art of Travel, has me nodding my head, biting my nails, scribbling frantic responses in the margins as I read on feeling validated, awed, inspired, humbled and humiliated by my own solidarity with his words. Botton describes with painful and beautiful accuracy the sensations of traveling alone and lingering in places of eternal transience: hotels, diners, train stations, gas stations, airports.  I am not alone as I read:

Continue reading “Ironies of Comfort, Familiarity”

The Savior Complex

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether.” –Khalil Gibran

 

If I had my way, I would be a bird. I would fly from place to place and peep in on other people’s realities, never getting too attached or involved. I would skim the surface of life, laughing at my reflection in oceans and dancing on telephone wires. As a traveler, all I have truly ever wanted is to sit in tiny rooms with friends and drink in laughter between paper thin walls, sweet, steamy chai wafting through our noses and thick, melodious languages dripping from our tongues. But I’m not a bird, and I’m not a wallflower. I exist; people notice me.

I hate that people notice me. Sometimes I wish I could just keep the inspirational experiences in my heart and leave the embarrassing ones behind. I wish I could help people when I want to help rescue them and not when I feel obligated to do so. There comes a point when one can feel so emptied that we cannot seem to be filled. Perhaps this is because “help” has turned into “rescue.”

The world doesn’t give us a break. We can’t decide when people need our help, and we can’t really decide when we need another’s help. But not asking for help when we are drowning doesn’t make sense. Yet how do we move on from a rescue?

No man is an island. But for those of us who have grown up privileged, it’s easy to think that we have some God-given power to help others because of our circumstances, because we’ve been told to go out into the world and make it better. But change isn’t a power, it’s a responsibility, and a very precarious one. If you’re not aware of your own impact, you can do more harm then good.

Reflecting on my time in Thailand, I think I felt a lot of pressure to live up this image of a rescuer that, at the time, I was not aware I had. Being part of a faith community, learning about the plight of refugees, I became very involved with the idea of saving others. I didn’t see it as anything problematic, but I wasn’t just a witness. I was an actor and people noticed me and started assuming things about me that I wasn’t aware of because I was not fully present. I was in my own head. 

I grew up in my head. I dreamed away my reality with visions of waterfalls, open fields, and a sense of life with a purpose. I am learning how to live a life with purpose, but a lot of this has been painful. I think that’s the point. The hardest part about wanting to rescue someone is needing to save them from pain. Sometimes this is absolutely vital; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where that line is and I never want to make that decision but I know that I will. Life is tough like that. I have a tendency to remember only the good things and forget the times I failed. But at the same time, failure can be life’s greatest teacher, even if it means giving up and moving home. A friend of mine asked me, “What do you want to learn from this?” I think that’s a great start.

I’ve failed a lot in my life, which is how I know I’m not a savior. I believe there is only one Savior. But even if you don’t, as travelers, teachers, explorers, we have to start acknowledging our own impact. We are not wallflowers and we are not birds. We might be called on to rescue someone, but we need to examine our motivations as well as our plans. Does this person need help? If so, what does that need to look like?

Never stop asking questions.

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Inle Lake, Myanmar: 2015

How To Convince Your Overprotective Parents That Travelling is Tremendously Useful for Life

In response to my last post, I’ve been reflecting on some of the incredible benefits of travelling and some arguments I would make to someone who was not an avid nomad or had maybe watched too much CNN. Here are five ways to convince your overprotective parents (or friends) that travelling is not at all like The Hangover:

  1. Travelling makes you self-sufficient. Unless you sign up for a tour, nothing happens abroad unless you make it happen–booking hotels, finding bus tickets, converting money, deciding to drink the water (or not)…it’s your impetus that helps you get places and stay safe.
  2. Travelling makes you brave. You never know how capable you are until you’re watching the last bus pull away from the station and you have to run after it, screaming and waving your hands like a chicken with its head cut off. You run into all sorts of unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations when in a new place, and you have no choice but to cope.
  3. Travelling helps you be more social. You become far more dependent on the kindness of strangers to get around. Slovakian Grandmothers, Vietnamese construction workers, and Israeli soldiers have become some of my best friends in times of navigational uncertainty (I get lost easily). When you don’t know where you are, you have to stop and ask someone, or in my case, five or six people. I’ve been delighted at the many times I’ve had a genuine conversation (in English, Hebrew, or with drawings in the sand) with a complete stranger. The desire to help people is palpable, and when someone takes time out of his or her day to stop and help you–a stranger–the world seems a little smaller and brighter.
  4. Travelling makes you more culturally sensitive. Visiting religious sites, eating the local food, and observing local customs are all ways that the traveler can develop a keen sense of cultural sensitivity. It also makes you more aware of your own way of doing things by virtue of comparison.
  5. Travelling makes you a better citizen. Less then 10 percent of Americans own a passport, and yet there is so much world outside the coasts. When you travel, you see how the rest of the world lives. You realize how much of an impact Americanism has on the world, how much of American culture is exported and mass produced and interpreted differently. Talking to locals about this helps you form your own opinions about the United States and its place in the world. Being informed is a cornerstone of democracy.

So you see, there is so much more to travelling then Bengal tigers and giant skyscrapers. Going in curious, confident and with a sense of humor can yield tremendous personal growth and a heck of a lot of great stories (to share with those family and friends back home…or not). You don’t need a tour or an itinerary to do it; you just need a good pair of shoes.

What I missed: Travelling and Mental Illness

I cried all the way down the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps you could say I was overwhelmed by natural majesty. But what was probably closer to the truth was this: I had recently quit my job teaching English in Southeast Asia, ended a trans-continental relationship and moved back home, only to realize that everyone I knew had moved away in the five years that I had been gone. So I felt utterly alone as I traipsed down the narrow, winding pathways of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim Kaibab Trail. The tears fell in droves. I wiped snot away with my teeshirt sleeve. I had to stop at every corner and take a breath so that I could continue down alive. This wasn’t the Western adventure I had had in mind.

We were halfway into our week-long road trip west. Me, my older sister Emily and my dad Bill packed up Emily’s Honda civic to move her to her new tech job in San Francisco. None of us had been to the Grand Canyon before and I convinced the team to stop en route. I had visions of donkeys dancing in my head and was eager to spend the day sweating and struggling over cliffs and mountain peaks. When we got there, however, we spent a long time deciding on a plan of action, and I got frustrated. Emily’s dog was with us, and dogs are not allowed inside the Canyon (they’re allowed on the scenic trail up top but cannot go down into the crater). Poor guy. But I wasn’t about to let him ruin my Grand Canyon adventure.

In the midst of our planning and discussing, I took off, almost at a run, feeling like I would burst if I sat still a moment longer. I climbed down part of the outer rim and peered over the edge: fur trees, alabaster stone and birds flying high encompassed me. I breathed it all in. In my mind I went back in time to when I hiked Sde Boker by myself, in a similar situation, feeling so frustrated with life that I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to climb higher and higher until the world ended and I fell off the edge. Evidently, that feeling hasn’t gone away.

I’ve had depression all my life and I know how oppressive it feels. I know it gets worse in times of high stress or drastic change. Turns out, moving overseas and teaching ESL is both.

Have you ever met a lactose intolerant person who loves ice cream? That’s how I feel about travelling. It makes me nauseous, but I love it anyway. Yes, planning a trip can be stressful. Your plans don’t always work out as you’d hoped. It might rain. Your hotel might be completely booked, or worse, non-existent (shout out, Vietnam). Or you might end up shouting at your wonderful family because you had unrealistic expectations of how much hiking you could accomplish in half a day with a tiny dog and an aging father (sorry, Papa).

I lost it at the Grand Canyon because I hadn’t seen anything so beautiful since Myanmar–and I missed that time in my life. Suddenly I wanted freedom, to roam, unattached, transient and visible only to those whom I chose to allow in. I’ve been struggling with accepting the modicum of stability I have now at “home” in the United States.

Upon deciding to move home, I remember thinking that this would be a good idea because it would “stabilize” and “normalize” me. But I think I didn’t give myself enough credit. There is nothing abnormal about working overseas. It all depends on who you ask. As I get older, I realize: people are going to think what they’re going to think. Don’t live your life based on other people’s comments, and don’t apologize for being who you are. Travelling is not infantile, criminal or glamorous. It’s just living, a different way.

 

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New host!

Blogger, we’ve had our fun, but I need someone more serious. I need a hosting site that’s going to challenge me to become better, not let me settle for mediocre. I’m moving to WordPress.

 

Stay tuned.

Adventures at Home: Trying Out Mountain Biking

 Earlier today I was talking with someone about how I love to write about my experiences but that lately I’ve felt like I haven’t had many exciting experiences to write about. His response: “write about the unexciting ones.” 
 
I attempted mountain biking for the first time without any prior experience. I ended up walking most of the trail, dragging my muddy bike along side me, because I had no idea what I was doing, until I came to a deep ditch full of water. This ditch stared at me, and I at it, for what felt like an eternity. All at once a blue blur of a mountain biker zipped through at high speed, leaving me and my self-doubt behind. Suddenly I heard a voice. “Do you need help crossing that ditch?” The blue blur had stopped. I hesitated, looking around nervously, and shook my head. “Uhh, no, I’m alright,” I stammered in response.  Of course I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to tell her that.
 
But she ignored my obvious lie, turned around and biked back down the hill to where I stood, my weight shifting awkwardly to one side. She zipped past me, splashed easily through the ditch, and came up on the other side. She dismounted. “Don’t look at it,” she said to me. “That’s the key. Whatever the obstacle is, whether it’s a pond or a log or whatever, don’t look at it. Look ahead of it. And just keep pedaling.” I nodded, listening intently to her instructions, debating my options as she spoke. I could just turn around and climb back up the hill, I thought to myself, but that might be awkward. This woman had stopped what she was doing to help me. She was the first mountain biker I had met that day to have done so. I had no choice. I had to go through with it.
 
“Go back a little ways so you can gather enough speed,” she instructed. She was being extremely detailed and thorough. She spoke with confidence. I trusted her advice. “Aim for my bike tracks and look up here.” She raised her hand to her shoulder. Ignoring all signs of impending disaster, I mounted my bike and started pedaling, gathering speed as I rushed down the hill on two wheels, my confidence disappearing like the wind. I looked up at her hand and kept pedaling. The wheels moved like air, without any pressure or resistance. The front wheel dipped down–zippp–and whoosh. Suddenly, I was up on the other side. 
 
“Yeaaaaaah!” I heard behind me. I stopped and turned around. My spontaneous coach was cheering me on with a big grin on her face. “Whatever the obstacle is, just look ahead of it and keep pedaling,” she reiterated through her grin. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe that had worked! “Th…thank you!!” I stammered. She gave me a hearty thumbs up. I turned away and just kept pedaling.
 
The “Tour de Wolf” Trail, Shelby Farms, Memphis, Tennessee
 
 
 

The Wonder of Angkor

Today I am disappearing into pictures from Cambodia. It’s cold today, and Memphis finally got some snow (very dusty, powdery stuff). As I reminisce, I realize that I never wrote a post about the Angkor Temples. For something so wondrous, and vast, and well-known, it surprises me that I didn’t blog about this part of my trip. I want to improve my reporting skills, going back in time to report events that already occurred, instead of only writing things down as they happen. I have a lot to learn and improve upon. In Cambodia, and in my processing of experience in Cambodia, I caught myself up in the recent history, the tragedy of genocide, the hatred and the bloodshed. 

Journalist Joel Brinkley attributed a lot of Cambodia’s current, utterly corrupt state of affairs to part of an ancient culture of tribute made to kings, lords, rulers and so on down the line of power. Those in the king’s favor won land, titles and wealth, mostly in the form of commodities like grain, which was always in high demand. Mr. Brinkley argues that this was how Pol Pot (the genocidal leader of the Khmer Rouge party) and his cronies, and how the current leadership “gangs” still function today. He makes a very convincing argument.  But there’s more to ancient Khmer culture than just warlords and cronies. There is magic that exists today, still painstakingly preserved, in northern Cambodia.

 Something major is missing from the current political structure, aside from humane treatment of constituents and fair voting processes. Little regard is left for ancient cultural and religious traditions–at least in the government halls–that helped to grow the Khmer empire into the most expansive kingdom in southeast Asia long ago. The beauty is lost, but thanks to extensive restoration and preservation efforts by the colonial French, the Angkor Temples tower over the Cambodian countryside today, testifying to the sacred wonder of a glorious bygone era.

 Angkor Wat

View of the main temple complex from the lily-padded lake.

























Angkor Wat is the most famous of all the Angkor Temples. Its renown and majesty is comparable to El Castillo, the famous Mayan pyramid, if you’re familiar with Mexican heritage. But Angkor Wat was built to honor a Hindu god. When the empire later converted to Buddhism, new statues were built to honor these gods. If you ever go to Angkor, get a guide for Angkor Wat. The other temple structures are less detailed and far more open, leaving you free to wander at your own leisure. But the stories that are packed into every stone of Angkor Wat demand that you understand them to appreciate the temple’s full worth. There are usually English-speaking guides standing outside the main entrance to the temple, and they wear beige shirts and carry books of photographs. (And if my memory serves me correctly, my guide wore a name badge around his neck as well.) These men are well trained and extremely knowledgeable. You can negotiate a price, but I believe I paid mine $10. He will also take you all the way up to the top of the temple, which allows you to see for miles around and stories below, a breathtaking sight. 

Bayon Temple
Do you see what I see? These sweetly serene faces are carved into the peaks at Bayon temple.



Bayon temple, a little ways away from Angkor Wat, is much 
more open and ruinous. In fact, I think we just wandered in to this one. Bayon has not been as neatly preserved, but that makes for much of the fun. You cN wander in between the half-open hallways and climb up and up until you come to the rooftop. These smiling faces greet you, but don’t let the photo fool you; each one stands several hundred feet high. 

Bayon is part of a long strip of open, ruinous temples where you can wander. Many are just as grand in structure and purpose as Angkor Wat, but not nearly as protected. 

When you hire a tuk-tuk driver, as you must (because the temples are located some 20 km outside of town), ask him to take you to Bayon temple and to wait for you. Take your time, and don’t allow yourself to feel rushed. As a thank you, you can buy him lunch at one of the conveniently located tourist restaurants erected in the fields across the way 🙂
Ta Prohm, aka “The Tomb Raider Temple”




This was my personal favorite. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie (so did everyone else, probably). Ta Prohm temple’s level of preservation falls below Angkor and Bayon, and for good reason. No where else in the world have I seen nature attack man-made structures so violently and remain such a powerful presence. The root structures of Siemp Riep’s trees have split the bricks of temples during centuries of abandonment, creating a space so magical and other-worldly, you can’t believe your own feelings. Just take a look at some of the effects of mother nature having her way:







Exploring these magnanimous temples, I felt eight years old again, as if I were wandering through the woods behind my house, feet muddy, streams trickling behind me, everything quiet save the crunch of twigs beneath my shoes. Nothing compares to that feeling. If I could, I would spend a week just sitting in these temples, breathing in the ancient mystery, pretending I’m on a quest for a hidden treasure. Who knows, there very well could still be some buried underneath these giant trees, waiting to be unearthed 🙂

References and Further Reading:
https://sacredsites.com/asia/cambodia/angkor_wat.html
http://www.amazon.com/Cambodias-Curse-Modern-History-Troubled/dp/1610391837

Sticking (Or Playing With Words)

We stick together like glue,
We, who don’t know what to do.
We wander, or dance, in dimly lit halls,
Entranced in mirrors
Looking askance
articulating
expressionism
Acutely certain of myself.

Don’t think too hard–you’ll hurt yourself–
When you smile until your face cracks.
Forget the facts;
stretched like rubber bands,
truth dances on wire.
we stand, arms erect,
with fishing nets
below.

(Just let it fall
until you find
what you are looking for.)

To walk through the door
like we did before
when we were young
takes a monster’s courage.


Picture taken in the Angkor ruins, Siem Riep, Cambodia