At the Top

Beijing is not really a city of surprises. I mean, the Chinese people are kind of predictable, in the most fantastic of ways. Even the corruption in this country (which there is, plenty of) is a fairly predictable act, certainly in comparison to the corruption that is rampant in every little crevice of East Africa. And at the very least, when the corruption here is reported on the reporting is good and well-documented. Ha.

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This city of Beijing; this culture of China; it’s predictable for a slew of reasons, mostly because of the remnants of communism, but also because of the values of the people. Same difference? Maybe. Regardless, the values of the modern day Beijing ren, the Beijing people, shoot for the sky–I mean this quite literally, with construction cranes in every direction as I look out my 16th floor window, and more glass and concrete piled in odd forms (pants building!) than I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Also metaphorically, though, with its pursuit of higher goals in education, community, governance, youth, food; really, it seems like they want to be the best at everything. How they go about it is different than our American free-for-all, willy-nilly, Wild West sort of way. It’s with a Chinese anything-goes sense of disorganized chaos, most exemplified by their eight-lanes of moving traffic. It’s something a foreigner will only understand after spending some time here.

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So, a thrilling and confusing ride at times, but definitely no surprises. Of course in this there are problems. With every yin there is a yang– with great infrastructure comes heavy pollution, with its shining value of the common people comes massive government oppression, in its many forms of breakthrough technology there is insane levels of censorship. With a new generation, it must attempt to remember the generations past. But in my short time here I see these negatives are tolerated and accepted, and I believe it comes because everyone knows the end game: let’s be better, let’s be Chinese and let’s let people know who we are. They will get over pollution if it means their buildings will be great. They will overlook the strict government mandates because they are One People. They will deal with censorship because they can scan a QR code and be my friend. And they are slowly learning how to use organic farming, how to re-invent their cuisine, and how to forge meaningful relationships with the West, all while remembering their forefathers.

Upstairs is more wonderful

So, I’m living in my relatively predictable state with a culture that presents no major surprises every day, but that doesn’t mean there’s no sense of new or exciting, or that there’s nothing special about it. Limits are being stretched, the culture of China is changing. I look forward to being in a country that is so quickly going through a pubescent stage of modernization, and look forward to personally getting to know this place in what will be, I’m sure, a fast four years.

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Last time I wrote an entry, my time was winding down in Dar. There was great anticipation and a bit of sadness, as there always will be when leaving a city you call home and people you have come to know as friends. Since that last time back in May, I’ve taken a quick trip back home to catch up with family and the old friends that I hadn’t seen in years, and the Diploman and I went up to the Great White North to spend two weeks in what is, and I challenge otherwise, the most unique state in the union. Then I went back been back to Dar, where I spent a month explaining why I was back (work) and justifying time missed back in the states (in the end, absolutely worth it). And now, I’m finally happy to announce, I’m back with the Diploman on our newest of adventures, which is to say– resuming a somewhat regular life.

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You may forget it, but life is an adventure, always! Currently more so, since getting a haircut and finding a yoga studio qualify as novel and adventurous, for the moment. I am finding myself with a bit of country mouse syndrome in this big city, though, after the last two years in Tanzania.

But still, there is a familiarity here in many things. It seems that no matter how many decades of progress will erase the chinese medicine stores and three-wheeled taxis and brooms made out of bamboo and hay. A simple ni hao rolls off my tongue for a greeting, and I’m satisfied that I can somewhat become one in the crowd of a billion. This sense of familiarity provides a buffer, and allows me the pleasure and excitement of being new in a new city.

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I’m currently in between jobs, waiting for some paperwork to go through so I can start at the Embassy. In the meantime, I’m scoping out some opportunities at a local city publication and with some random folks that I’m meeting. And, I’m using this time to dust off some pretty thick cobwebs from the corners of my websites…so stay tuned!

Home is where the home is

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As my time here in Dar winds down– two more months!— I find myself in a typical state of emotional schizophrenia. Each day goes by with me wavering between great anticipation for what is ahead, and some melancholy sadness for the things I’ll leave behind. Plus enormous piles of to-do-lists. Until ultimately I find myself just blocking out the idea of moving across continents altogether and instead spend my time philosophically musing about the entire concept of home. I’m telling you, this is typical.

So in the vein of procrastination, let’s talk about home here! What does home mean to you?

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Very early on–like, neanderthal early–humans were made to be on the move, right? Who knows if home even made sense then? We (in the neanderthal sense) moved to where food was, where weather was least severe, where water was plentiful. Home was a shelter that shielded us from the elements. Home depended on whether other things around us would kill us.

Later on, after we stopped walking on our knuckles and started walking upright, we built up villages and cities and barricaded ourselves behind city walls and castle moats. But still, our homes were only so permanent. We (in the mid-century peasant sense) found ourselves moving around–to where our enemies weren’t, where there was new land to farm, where the resources were abundant, where our families led us. Entire eras were defined by the movement of humans across sea and land to better and brighter opportunity. Home was easily transplanted, as long as new comforts were available, and freedom and land was offered.

These days, our homes are fairly immovable. For most people, home is one place.  One structure that is, literally, and appropriately, a house. And when we expand on this idea, I suppose we could say home is defined by our many personal comforts: It’s where we can afford to live, it is where our parents raised us, it is where our friends live, it is where we can make the most money, it is where the schools/restaurants/daycares/bakeries that benefit us exist. Home is where it’s the easiest for us, I think?

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But for expats, the idea of home is a bit more difficult, both to identify, and to establish, and to put into words. Which is why, when I came across this article late last week, I practically stood up from my chair with applause.

Beautifully written as well as shockingly accurate, the last two sentences are the most poetic:

No one is ever free from their social or physical environment. And whether or not we are always aware of it, a home is a home because it blurs the line between the self and the surroundings, and challenges the line we try to draw between who we are and where we are.

Any expat can tell you- we talk about home a lot, and not always in the singular form. We talk about where we were from- home. We talk about what we like about our current location- home. We talk about where we lived before this- our previous home. We talk about visiting our families- also, home.

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Like the article says, we end up making distinctions between these homes, but they are all home, nonetheless. We steadfastly recognize that home is different in the West than in the East, for a neanderthal and a millennial. We know that home here is just as much home there. We know that we can make, wherever we are, a home.

So in my last two months here in Dar, I’ll be making the most of this home…with great anticipation of setting off to a new home in Beijing.

In the meantime, more to-do lists…

Holi Trinity

I learned three very important things this weekend:

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1) Some of the most creative and fun-loving people I know live in Dar;

2) Good light is arguably all a photographer needs for a good photo. This Saturday’s extended sunset was perhaps the most beautiful in all the time I’ve been here; and

3) Being an adult is boring. Throwing water balloons and playing dodgeball is way more fun.

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Memory Lane: Cairo

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One member of my book club here in Dar (side note: I’m in a book club! Read Americanah, it’s so excellent.) recently moved to Cairo, and when I read that piece of news in my email this morning I was immediately transported back to my trip to Cairo last spring. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you- I went to Cairo last spring.

As part of our R&R (gov-mandated vacation in the middle of our tour), the Diploman and I traded in our full-fare ticket back to the US for a whirlwind four weeks that I call the ‘Trader’s Route Holiday’: Dar to Ethiopia to Cairo to Istanbul to Budapest to Ukraine.

Cairo City View 2

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That architecture- amazing, isn’t it? But, I digress. I will share details about the trip some other time, and for now, I just want to talk about the fact that Cairo is an amazing city!

What I remember most about Cairo were: the people (who talked a mile a minute, and were so friendly); the history (pyramids! ancient civilizations! hieroglyphics!); and the energetic frenzy (Sim City-like sounds of a working, living city). This last part especially I clung onto far after I left: the clamoring, banging, bustling city, milling with people, animals, cars, horns, radios, construction. With Cairo, I found this vibrant and positively energetic pace of life very unexpected–which is the best way to find things, right?!

Anyway, this morning, when I saw the email that someone moved to Cairo, I smelled and heard and felt the vibrant frenzy of the city. That’s all. Does that ever happen to you? Where certain locations (or scenarios: sounds, songs, expressions, tastes, visuals) just prick the tip of your sensory factors?

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Mama Chapati

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If you have ever traveled through India, you may be familiar with chapati: the doughy, tortilla-like flatbread staple, coated with a light film of oil and toast-fried on a flat skillet. Floury on the outside and tacky and doughy in the middle. The chapati is just one of many elements of South Asian cuisine that has become a staple in Tanzania. Here, it is enjoyed mostly at breakfast time, or as they say in Swahili, when they ‘drink their tea’, or kunywa chai, alongside a grilled plantain, fried egg, or hot dog sausage, and of course a cup of tea with plenty of milk and dollops of sugar (not a contender for the lightest, healthiest breakfast in the world).

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Along with the oily, flour-y smell of the Chapati, those familiar with the staple usually recall the pat-pat-pat-pat-smack! sounds of the chapati maker, the sound of a tiny ball of unleavened dough thrown between well-greased palms. If purchased on the side of the road, where many of the chapati mamas set up, they are wrapped in old newspaper and thrown in a small plastic bag to go.

mama chapati collage

These photos were from a trip to Morogoro, a few hours’ drive west of Dar es Salaam. The region has this beautiful chain of mountains, and when my sister came to visit, I used her as an excuse to get out and explore the area. Morogoro has a ton of hiking trails, so we picked one suitable for a half-day hike. Midway up the mountain, just outside a small village, was the chapati mama pictured above, churning out chapatis for the residents dropping off children at the primary school down the road. They were tucked, piping hot, into a backpack, saved for consumption at the top of the mountain. Chapati as reward; not bad at all.

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