Dispatch from Guereda

Disclaimer: This post was drafted on December 14, 2018 and edited throughout my winter break in Naperville. It is now February 7, 2019 and I assure you my mindset has done almost a complete 180. But the beauty of writing is keeping a log of the multiplicity of feelings/experiences that one person can have, even in a short time span.

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost Christmas when the ground is so dusty with sand. Winter in eastern Chad is definitely not winter in Chicago. I run around in my skirt tied up and short-sleeved tie-dye while Assad, one of the drivers, is decked out in his heather grey pea coat and white turban (though I’m told the turban is more for sun protection). Here at the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) base in Guereda, the house manager Farida has seven roosters tied up in the little pen just outside. When I first arrived ten days ago, there were three different roosters attached by the leg to the same sapling tree. I can’t really tell the difference between chicken and rooster stew.

I’m feeling unwell. My diet for the past ten days has consisted of round, fluffy loaves of bread baked directly on the dunes, perfectly spongy except for the occasional grits of sand. Farida noticed my addiction to the Chadian beignets, slightly sweetened pieces of fried dough, quickly. She served them in little tin pots decorated with red roses and in my depressed state I would consume an entire container every day, dipping them into strawberry jam. She must have thought I was crazy for eating so many, yet every morning a beignet-filled pot greeted me at the table.

Washing down all these carbs is no easy feat, but Chadian chai does a remarkable job. Unlike most North African or East African chai, the most popular variety in Chad is green tea, spiced lightly with a crushed blend of cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom and even black pepper. Though, of course like all chai in the region, each kettle of Chadian tea contains at least a fistful of sugar.

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The courtyard of JRS Chad – Guereda headquarters

My movements this year have been erratic, even for me, and eastern Chad constitutes my greatest adventure to date in terms of unfamiliarity (in both place and tasks) and remoteness.

For the past two weeks, almost every day, I take a humanitarian convoy out to the refugee camp Mile or Kounoungou, 20km west of Guereda. This means sitting squished in the backseat between my team leader and the hired Chadian military agent with his AK-47’s wooden handle jostling against my leg for an hour as we scoot across the barren landscape of the eastern Sahel. The car in front of us kicks up a curtain of dust. Its four-wheel drive eats full force at the desert path. Herds of goats would occasionally emerge; orderly in packs, yet I never could make out exactly where the shepherd is among the throng. Our vehicles always take care to part cautiously through this sea. We sometimes zip past groups of camels nibbling on (or around?) the thorny tree branches. Compared to the goats, they look especially tall and regal. We overtake herds of bovines and groups of women on the backs of donkeys laden with kindling wood.

The soundtrack for these trips is most often a mix of West African French rap and more traditional Bedouin Arabic classics. Sometimes I play my own music for the convoy and the enumerators would excitedly name the artists they recognize. “This is…Nicki Minaj!” “Drake!” “Do you have any Justin Bieber?”

Today is my last trip out to Kounoungou. I see the goats, the camels, the cattle, the donkeys. I heard the warbling voices belting out Arabic love songs. I see the miles and miles of sandy desert punctuated by shrubby trees. I feel the DPHR agent scoot further away every few minutes, annoyed, as the rocking vehicle slid us closer together with every bump.

The details may differ – but the fact remains that I have sat in hundreds of different cars with the seat belt on, going down roads in a foreign city or town, peering through the layer of glass separating the world out there from me. Maybe it is a Peugeot taxi or a Mazda Uber instead of a white Toyota 4X4. I must have travelled thousands of miles this way in the US, Europe, Asia, the Middle East – in a car, in a plane, a train. Eventually, does it really matter the specific mode of transportation? How many scenes have passed before me in exactly the same way?

——–

These questions popped into my mind when K mistakenly thought that I had visited Hong Kong recently. The one and only time I’ve visited Hong Kong was 12 years ago. “It just seems like you teleport all over the world,” he laughed. This year I travelled to 15 countries and lived in four of them. Yet I felt the biting chill of Copenhagen’s January air the most while I was already in Paris sitting on the 63 bus from my apartment at Albert de Mun to class at Saint Guillaume. I most vividly felt the cold bench under my butt in the small park near metro Anvers while hailing down a taxi in Hamra, Beirut with sweat dripping down my back. My consciousness seems to need a couple weeks to catch up to my body.

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The Guereda Airport

When you hop around too much, you begin to feel like you exist only within the cocoon of your body; nothing external to that remains consistent, so nothing immediately penetrates anymore into your experiences. It’s time and only time that allows a place to seep through your skin and enter your lived experience as you live it. Otherwise you’re seeing but you’re not really being, almost like reading someone else’s travel blog through the screen of your computer. And if that happens, what’s the point of even being there in the first place?

Wholly absorbing an experience was much easier a few years and dozen countries ago. As a twenty year old in November 2013, I walked along the Seine for the first time and was hit by the total-body feeling of being in Paris – excitedly thinking “I’m in Paris!” when I was still walking around in Paris. But that feeling of being present is fewer and farther in between now at age 25. After five years, half a decade, 20% of my life, the means through which I achieve that same grounding experience have become more extreme, more base, more primal.

There are two memories from my weeks in Chad that prompted this realization.

The first was the Sunday market in Goz Beida. Thousands of people travel overnight by donkey to arrive at the central trading place by daybreak. The men and women sell everything from imported perfume to dried fish to spare car parts. The butchery is located in the middle of a massive dusty field, slightly on the outskirts. I remember the eyes still open on the severed camel head, an ironic grin stuck permanently on its bristled lips, unceremoniously upside down with ears punctured into the dirt, like someone forgot about it. The single trail of intestines, the blood dripping down into the sand, the horror of realizing I had worn my Birkenstocks to tread through it all. Turn left and there’s a hack of meat being fileted off with a machete, turn right and there are organs spilling out of ribs. In the very front of this vertically integrated operation, there’s a pyre featuring beef (I’m told) skewered on six feet tall metal pikes, roasting over an open flame. “It doesn’t smell that bad,” I had remarked in measured tones. “….yes it does,” my program manager smirked. I had been holding my breath without realizing it.

The second incident features the famous Chadian chai. In the local culture, it is customary to invite all guests for a small cup of sweet chai, and for guests, it is extremely rude to decline. So to hell with my lactose intolerance, the lack of refrigeration, and God knows whether it was cow, goat or camel milk – the people-pleaser side of me couldn’t possibly refuse, even though my stomach most certainly refused it an hour later. The sinking feeling in my stomach was accompanied quickly by the realization that “ah yes, the toilets do not flush automatically.” I had to first scoop out my own water from one of the three massive water tanks. The weight of it sloshed around the plastic purple bucket as I hurriedly wobbled to the toilet. A single stick of incense was propped up in the middle of an empty cardboard toilet paper roll; one of many rolls tied together in a decorative wreath that lay on the toilet tank. On the spare chair next to it (but why?), someone had left an Italian play script printed out on sheets of paper. Indeed, at that moment the experience was truly inside me, and then promptly outside of me.

I am beginning to think that this is an unsustainable lifestyle if it takes the bloody scene of a massacre and repetitive food poisoning to make me feel present.

——-

Everywhere I look in the JRS living room, I am projecting signs of a woman attempting to stay sane. This living room belongs to A, the only Western expat living within a 100km radius, who arrived in Guereda nine months ago. Her watercolours of young kids dancing and of flowers are scattered around the room, some framed and a few propped up against the windows. I often see her out swinging on the hammock, sometimes reading but most often on the phone with family or friends back home. At breakfast, I watch her carefully ration the yogurt she had brought back from Ndjamena because there just weren’t any to be found out here.

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I’ve been rereading Joan Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That,” one of the American classics I reread to ease my homesickness. It captures my feelings of progressing through my early 20s – totally free for the first time, scared yet excited to prove my worth, the intoxicating high of knowing that an adventure awaits with every new day. One passage in particular has been looping through my mind –

‘It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.’

For so long my greatest dream was to live abroad – to stroll down Parisian streets in a stylish wool coat, to fly in 12-seater planes over remote corners of the earth, to have adventures powered by my own two feet in cities I cannot pronounce and with people ablaze with the same sense of restlessness. I don’t know yet if this is the end of that life. I don’t know what changed, but as Joan Didion suggests, maybe one can never really pinpoint what spoils a dream fulfilled. Maybe it’s because we start to dream different dreams, maybe we need to embrace disillusionment. Do we need a reason to make life-changing decisions beyond simply feeling unhappy?

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A Summer on Three Continents

NOTE — At some point in time over the course of the past two years, this blog morphed from reflections on travel/living abroad to vague musings that flirt with existential crisis. I can only blame the French. This post’s format is a blunt attempt to correct the trend. Inspired by college flatmate.

May – Not actually summer

Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah

One can’t really write a short post on visiting Israel and Palestine. I don’t want to leave anything out. But I had one of the most visceral spiritual experiences of my life at the Western Wall.  Thank you to N for being a wonderful guide and answering my hundreds of questions.

Warsaw

The history of Warsaw is heavy. I spent 4 hours at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, one of the most nuanced, sensitive, contextualised exhibitions on the Shoah. Moving past the violent history, Warsaw today is a cool, urban center offering green spaces, delicious food (shoutout to paczkis), and cozy hangout spots.

June – Winding down 

Paris

It’s the end of an era. The city I daresay I know the best out of any in the world is no longer mine to call home. No doubt my last few months in Paris were some of the happiest of my entire life, especially after I finished school in May. Endless stretches of time to take the long way home, to twist myself into weird poses at yoga in the Tuileries, to talk politics and love with close friends, to watch a World Cup match, to eat every imaginable type of carbohydrate. Every day from late spring to early summer seemed to leisurely bleed into each other. Every day was bright with the hazy summer light that melted into a deep cerulean blue only at 11pm. When I’m old and looking back on this period of time, I think I’ll remember this vignette — Walking down Rue du Faubourg at 8pm, with two bottles of chilled rose clinking in my tattered tote bag, nestled with a baguette tradition that has a premature bite taken out of it, heading to the Seine while chatting up M and K.

Graduation from my masters happened. Fete de la Musique rocked my world (and ripped R’s pants as we climbed over the fence to Buttes Chaumont). And just when I had committed mentally to staying another year, plans changed.

London June 2-5th

Only on my fourth visit to London did I really end up liking it, thanks 100% to A. Notting Hill is a charmer. The tea and coffee is infinitely better. Got smashed on Pimm’s. The pub by LSE even had Goose Island on tap.

Milan,Venice June 14-17

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Actually Burano

I met up with my parents in Milan, from where we journeyed on to Venice. Italy is a mesmerising country. It exudes sensuality and warmth (quite the opposite of Parisian cool), makes you want to drown in your Aperol Spritz, slowly…softly….  I think Venice was the best family vacation we’ve ever taken and (because?) it was only four days. I’ve never seen my mom light up so much just by being in a place. I also do not doubt that Italian food is an international crowd pleaser. Linguine is basically Chinese noodles anyway according to my dad.

 

July – Exhaustion

Beirut July 4- August 4

My month-long stay was more stress than relaxation. Many a morning I felt like never leaving my bed or the apartment to face the mammoth of responsibilities awaiting me outside. I was alone in an unfamiliar place. Really alone. I didn’t know a single soul in Beirut, yet was attempting to execute an intensive artist development workshop with two cancelled debit cards and two unexpected team member drop-outs. One can imagine how such a situation can put a damper on enjoying the Lebanese coast. Nonetheless, everything came together, despite my anxieties. Was it perfect? No. But it was accomplished with the invaluable help of classmates, new friends, my lovely co-founder and pints of Arabic ice cream. Next time, Beirut, I’ll come and enjoy myself.

August – Restorative eating

Puerto Galera August 5-6

My flight from Beirut to Manila was less than $300, most likely due to the high demand for maids from the Philippines in the Middle East (human rights abuses in this industry are worth educating yourself on). Happily reunited with my better half, K, in tropical paradise.

Taipei August 6-15

IMG_6171 What can I say about Taipei except that I gained five pounds, and happily so, while eating my way through all the city had to offer? Everyone eats well in Taipei – from taxi drivers to executives. K was the best tour guide. Always go eat with people who know exactly what you love and exactly what you don’t care for.

Shanghai August 16-19

My first time ever in Shanghai, can you believe it? Beijing and Shanghai are rival hubs, as naturally all political and economic capitals of a nation become. 1920’s Shanghai is the stuff of legends and a walk around the city still evokes that era. The influence of European powers is still visible in the Beaux Arts well-kept historical hotels and banks lining the Bund. Did you know that during the British occupation, the Chinese were not allowed to enter the park on the riverwalk? Problematic pasts, can’t really separate it from anything related to British imperialism. Nonetheless, I was absolutely charmed by the neighborhood in the former French Concession. Something about tree-lined streets…

September – Establishing new home in Nairobi

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Trying to get my hygge on

Give me some time to process 🙂

Too Fast Too Furious?

I’ve been pushing it pedal-to-the-metal these past two months. Even for me, I’m starting to find my international mobile lifestyle a bit excessive. After two years in Europe, I am moving to Nairobi, Kenya for my first “real” job in migration research, armed with a recently minted masters diploma and yellow fever vaccine. For the past month, I’ve been in Beirut, Lebanon implementing a passion project that’s been a year coming – an artist development program focusing on digital tools. And right now, I sit in a board game cafe in Taipei, Taiwan, waiting for Kevin to get off work so we can stuff our faces (again). I think my friend captured it best when yesterday he remarked, “You’re a master at getting people to pay you to live in dope places.”

It’s a much nicer statement than the ones I hear from my parents which run along the lines of “When will your craziness settle down?” and “I can’t wait for this wild phase to be over.”

But don’t you worry mom. If anything is the killer of dreams, it is the French bureaucracy and I have been dealt a crushing blow. Cancelled debit cards while abroad, bank counsellors unreachable by email nor telephone, exuberant charges for what should be free services, impossible to cancel transportation subscriptions — all served up with a delightful tone of exasperation from your friendly neighbourhood French bank teller. So as I sit here sipping my coffee, cash-less with a frozen bank account and about to move my entire life to a new continent, I think to myself, “This may just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” All these oceans and continents traversed, halted by a hostile personal banking system from the 1980’s. Sounds about the perfect au revoir to my chapter in France.

 

Printemps Parisien

Spring has always made me feel a certain kind of way. Specifically, the first warm breeze fluttering in through an open window sometime in April (sometimes in late March if we’re lucky), during a lazy late afternoon when you suddenly realise that it’s still astonishingly bright out.

I remember distinctive vignettes – sitting in the classroom after school for a AP World History review session, with the windows facing the tennis courts; walking home from the bus stop with Jack’s Mannequin blasting in my headphones as I just discovered angsty emo music to soundtrack my first quasi-breakup; slowing down my usual headlong dash across the quad to my Self, Culture and Society course to notice the sudden splash of green in all the scene; and most recently, laying out on a Oaxacan blanket in the most beautiful park in Paris, feeling the sun infuse my skin with warmth and freckles.

Spring embodies a swift change between extremes. And it always has made my thoughts and feelings veer on the extreme as well (unstable in a way). Spring is truly a dangerous drug for me to indulge in hazy thoughts of pre-determinism, buried memories, life’s inevitable cycles, second chances, uncontrollable circumstances, emotions beyond my  intention. Doesn’t all that sound perfect to pair with a rosé and strawberries?

A Parisian spring is beyond me. All day I just think of the physical beauty of the world and the palpable energy of an entire city rejoicing in it. It’s a wonderful atmosphere in which to immerse oneself for a few weeks. I’ll let you know when I emerge out the other side.

 

Tell me where you are in the world

It wasn’t until a coworker asked me for recommendations in Copenhagen that I realised my memories were slipping away. Unlike for Cairo or Paris or even Beijing, I did not chronicle anything – no lists kept of favourite cafes, no photo stories, no poetry. What does that mean, if it means anything at all?

My childhood friend just sent out an address spreadsheet to our high school gang group chat, titled “Tell me where you are in the world.” There’s 6 of us in the group, but the title was directed at me. She said she missed the postcards we used to send to each other and wondered when I would blog again and make zines again. As I tackle down what may well be my last semester of school ever, evaluating (or at least musing over) my life choices has become a daily ritual. Making zines has not crossed my radar. For the first time, I’m starting to think, “Am I too old for this?”

Do it for the memories, for the ephemeral experiences, the shot of adrenaline straight down your spine, take charge of the vivacity of youth, see the world, run after it, hunt it down, wrestle them until you swallow whole excitement, wonder, devastating beauty, loss, longing. I do it for those damn fenceposts I wrote about on this blog in 2014. Sometimes I think back on the past few months, or year and I don’t know what I did. Where did it all go? I need something extraordinary upon which to drape my time and staying on the move is how I stake a claim. But I’m starting to feel like it’s losing effectiveness and maybe it’s better to just stay still for a while, to stop being greedy, to embody slowness. Seeing more is not depth.

Anyways, I intended to write a bit about my half-year spent living in Copenhagen. Suffice it to say that I was very content there. I was healthy, I was active, I read books, I drank coffee, I had a rhythm to my life though no friends. And I was content with that. But life doesn’t offer counterfactuals, so maybe I should construct my own.

A Post on Living in Paris

Perhaps I’ve been holding off writing about my Parisian year because of the sheer weight that the City of Lights holds over the American imagination. “We’ll always have Paris,” declares Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman. Quotes from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast swamp the #paris feeds. Perhaps the only thing more basic is a pumpkin spice latte selfie in front of the Eiffel Tour.

Paris is always a good idea

I do not have the original poster anymore, but I assure you it looked basic like this.

Or maybe I’ve put it off because Paris has held such a spell over my own life. For a year in college I hung a poster of Audrey Hepburn’s famous utterance, “Paris is always a good idea,” in my room. Superimposed upon an aerial view from the Arc de Triomphe of course. I tried hard to hide my longing for the most cliched of European cities, but alas everyone knew and everyone congratulated me wholeheartedly when I finally got the chance to live the Parisian life this year as a masters student at Sciences Po. The beautiful dream came true and the mythical city became my every day reality. How can I do it written justice now?

To be honest, I don’t have much to add to my past experiences of Paris on the subject of Paris itself. My lasting impressions this time are less about the chic fashion and croissants, instead they have turned inwards. As with any dream of epic proportions, its luster fades once we transform the dream into our everyday, lived experience. Once you live within your dream, it will eventually cease to be your dream because, by definition, the dream has become your reality. And when that happened to me, I learned that no matter how much living in Paris inspires me, how many beautiful moments I encounter along its streets, I am left with my same core personality, tendencies, and flaws. I think it’s too much responsibility to give to any city the power to fundamentally change people.

Since college graduation, many people have jokingly asked me what I’m running away from, citing the trope of the 20-something girl traveling the world to escape heartbreak, boredom or something equally tragic. I’ve always waved them off because I’m not running away from anything like that — in my view I’m chasing a professional path in international development. I guess you could then ask me what is it that draws me to a career in which the boundaries between professional and personal life are blurred. People in development, at various scales of self-righteousness, are motivated to do their job because they believe it will make a positive difference in the world. That one is easy to understand. But people who work in international development also praise the heavens when they get a contract that lasts longer than one year. People in development are ready to drop everything and pack a suitcase with their entire life inside at a week’s notice. And that kind of lifestyle is unreasonably seductive to me, despite the predictable giant wrench it throws in your personal relationships. It is also, to a degree, irresponsible.

Do you know that sometimes it feels good to be completely lost and disoriented? I’ve always conceived of life as a series of uncontrollable events and situations emerging from chaos. I like it when life such conceived hits me full force. I feel most alive when I’m trying to reign in the chaos– this feeling is most viscerally experienced when I’m plopped into the heart of a new city, a new culture and new code of behaviour to decipher. The feeling of living in a parallel universe is delicious. When things are out of your control, you cannot to be blamed. I love it when decisions are made for me, when some life decisions are automatic. But it’s wrong to try and live your life perpetually in this way. Isn’t this running away from responsibility? Kundera’s heaviness?

I apologize that nothing is really said about Paris in this post. Did Paris make me somewhat fancier, more stylish, and snooty? I will have to say yes, at least in part, to all three. However, Paris represents to me a broader disillusionment of dreams bringing to light my flawed inner realities.