Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I left New York in October. I thought it would never happen. You see, when you go from surviving to living and almost thriving in a place as hard and beautiful as New York it is almost impossible to leave.  But I did, after eleven years. I also left the job that took me around the world (literally).  I have to be honest, the idea hasn’t fully settled yet, but I also feel proud of myself. This seems to have been one of the biggest detachment exercises in my life. It’s now four months since we arrived in Mexico City and it doesn’t feel as bad as I expected. Mexico City is quite a vibrant city, full of contrasts but also inspiring. We’ve managed to land in the neighborhood where most of our friends live, we bike everywhere, architecture is amazing and we get lots of sunshine in our apartment.  I miss New York, being a New Yorker, and being Programs Director (my former job title), but it also feels good to strip yourself from any labels and concentrate on what is left – yourself.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Some people think my life is glamourous, but traveling around the world is not only left for jet-setters, it  also includes missionaries, doctors, theatre troupes, backpackers and regular people like me.  It has been a week since I came back from Liberia and my body is slowly catching up. Cold sores, a sinus infection, cramps and now one of my molars is fractured, as it seems I’ve been grinding my teeth at night out of stress. “I don’t understand how you do it?” Alex asks, “You go to these places and listen to these stories. How can you come back to your reality and not feel affected?” Truth is, I sometimes do. I still remember the story of the man who witnessed the killing of his son by armed guerillas some years ago. “They opened his chest with a knife, took out his heart and eat it. They believed my son’s heart would make them powerful.” This story kept me awake for a few nights. I also got to see the other part of the story where people are rebuilding a country and children are being raised without images of war.  It’s funny how you can feel emphatic and at the same time, it is hard to relate. I have never been at war, but I certainly understand resilience; I am from a country currently fighting a war, but I know that violence is not the only thing that exists. “I will never buy a house or invest outside Liberia,” Shadrach mentioned during one of our conversations, “I’ll go to Cambridge and get my pHd but I want to live here.”  My friends emphasize that we take certain things for granted, electricity, Sunday brunch, public libraries, street jazz, transportation systems and nail polish. What is that which is taken for granted in the places I visit? Possibly cassava leaves, spicy food, children raised by entire communities, festive funerals and drumbeats.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Night out in Sekondi, Ghana

I try to absorb in as much of Africa as I can while drinking Star beer at the makeshift bar on the street in Sekondi. We’ve been working in Ghana for four days, but we haven’t seen much besides the office and our hotel. The Veivaag Hotel, built with Norwegian investment, hosts mostly European engineers working on the oilrigs offshore. After drinking a couple of bottles of South African wine my colleagues; contrary to gender stereotypes, shared their love stories.  Will and his wife managed to get married after contradicting Indonesian traditions; Glenn met his wife at age 5, and Ali, who is getting married in a month, is planning for a Muslim wedding under the Ghanaian tradition. “Will I ever get married, again?” I wandered as I took pictures of young well-dressed men dancing to high-life on the street. There are so many pieces of my life-puzzle to get resolved; the challenge is both scary and exciting. I love my life, even when it is reign by ambiguity. A dog sits on the middle of the street to eat a piece of fish, flower-printed curtains decorate the surrounding houses, loudspeakers play African Pop and women on our neighboring table start circling their hips to the music. The weather is just perfect, warm and slightly humid. We are heading back to New York tomorrow and as a glass of Amarula is brought to our table I breathe in as much of Africa as I can. “Are you sad?” I ask Ali. “Yes, because I do not know if I’m ever going to see you again,” he replies. “Are you ever coming back to Ghana?”  I hope so. Breath-out.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The white light gets me tired. It could also be effect of the malaria pills. It may be the fact that after a 24-hour flight delay, we got to Ghana and start working from the onset; or that I’ve been eating too much rice, afraid of getting sick by eating fresh salads. I’m resting in bed sleepless and upset that the only options on television are a Steven Segal movie or a Nigerian soap opera. I got Leonera with me, an Argentinean movie that I’ve been meaning to watch for a long time. One of those items that remain in my suitcase, trip after trip and yet to be used, along the ciprofloxacin and a small bottle of St. John’s Wart. “It is funny how you get used to the landscape”, I tell Will as we drive by fishing communities along the coastline close to Ivory Coast. I feel no longer surprised at the sight of women carrying heavy loads of all kinds of materials over their heads, ovens made of mud to smoke fish, barber shops filled with men and mosques across from grocery stores named after biblical passages.  I guess that is a good sign; when the different becomes part of the regular. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Late night thoughts in Sierra Leone

We crossed the river at night, the eventual lightning from the coming storm illuminated our way into the island, where we disembarked and lead our way to the camp using torches. It has been already a long day, riding for almost 7 hours from Freetown. I’m in a room lit by a candle and I can hear the storm and the bugs creeping outside. Will, Alex and Denilda are all in their rooms across from mine.  There is no running water and there is a big rat sitting immobile by the toilet.  I drink cognac and smoke a cigar trying to conceal the heat. We have no access to internet, no cell phone reception and we do not know precisely where we are. Chimpanzees and pigmy hippos live in this island, along with black mambas and a British researcher that spends her days observing chimp behavior. Being under these circumstances, adds to the feeling that there is a certain something that makes Sierra Leone really interesting. I’m not sure if it is the lack of infrastructure and electricity, the fact that candles are more common than light bulbs, the spicy food, the calypso music, the white sands, diamond mines, or the war-deteriorated buildings along the road. It feels vibrant and alive, crude and raw. Opportunities are rising from the ashes, as it continues to be a hot spot for foreign exploitation.  I’m sweating, the candle is consuming fast and noises from unidentified animals are coming from the bushes. This is going to be a long night.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

I can hear my Mom singing to a Janis Joplin song through Skype. “Are you listening?” she asks. “My generation was blessed with great music.” I call her often and we sometimes leave the speaker on as each of us do our stuff; I guess it is a way to keep ourselves company.  “I use to steal my father’s radio every day from 8:00 to 9:00 pm to listen to the Creedence Program,” she says remembering her teenage years as she plays Have you ever seen the rain? There is a nostalgic feeling to this song. My uncle Andres carried a Creedence tape in his car and played this song every time he dropped me at the airport when my summer vacation in Mexico City was over. “Do you like Home Sweet Alabama?” my Mother asks. I can’t reply, I’m ready to go to bed and for all I know she will stay awake until very late searching for old songs on YouTube.  Nostalgia and internet are a powerful combination.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Some of us have steady jobs, some of us have dead-end jobs, some of us have inspiring dream-like jobs, some of us are jobless. Some of us have children, some of us don’t. Some of us are married at 24, 34, 44, some of us are not, some of us are desperately seeking for a partner, some of us are gay, some of us wish to be single.  Some of us know our mission in life, some of us don’t, some of us don’t care, some of us walk endlessly to find it. Some of us blame the others for our bad decisions, some of us take responsibility to change the patterns. In life and personal decisions, no rules apply; inspiration does. There are many ways to milk a cow, to crack a nut, to write a poem, but there are many more ways to lead your life. We learn by observation, but again, there are many ways to observe, so we select what to get inspired by. The key, I guess, is to make sure you get exposed to as many different examples of paths to select your own. For the first time in a very long time, I feel finally walking on the right direction. Where am I walking to is still uncertain, but I don’t care about it anymore. “What happened to Brenda in Africa?” people have been asking continuously and I can only answer that I let go. “I imagined being naked, metaphorically,” I clarify as I share the Africa epiphany,“and all my belongings and attachments are taken away from me. What would I rescue? What would I keep with me?” The answer is nothing, I have myself. “Am I ever going to have full clarity on what I want?” Arloinne asks as we walk down Alvaro Obregon from Roma to Condesa in Mexico City, “I came back from Europe expecting Mexico to bring back the possibilities, and now I miss Berlin and my life there.” According to my mother questioning hasn’t ended even at 60. My recent words of wisdom: It is what it is, so keep walking and make the best out of it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I listen to Norteñas as we fly from Lagos to Calabar, close to the Cameroon border. I'm so tired that the line between dreams and thoughts has become blurry. The music takes me to Sinaloa and images of man wearing Texan boots and cowboy sombreros get mixed with storylines of hunters and gorillas in the forest. We just spent two weeks in Sierra Leone working with partners to develop the initial story for a drama on chimpanzee conservation; tomorrow we'll sit down with scriptwriters from Nigeria and Cameroon to agree on the story for gorilla conservation in the border between both countries. I sometimes wonder how I ended up working in all these parts of the world, a question that probably many people wouldn't - or can't afford to - ask themselves. I'm lucky. Life has provided me with enough content to write a book, which makes me feel a sense of guilt for not even trying. Dream and reality remains blurry until the stewardess hands me a plate with chicken and yam. Next to me a Nigerian 20-something man plays with his iPad impatiently; he is returning home for the May 1st holidays. The cheap pink toilet paper in the restroom reminds me that this airline not only tries to cut any possible costs, but that is not really reliable. I rather go back to the dreamy state I was before. As we prepare to land, the Norteño playlist is coming to an end and for a moment I wish I was landing in Mexico. Why I did decide to leave in the first place?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

My guess is that the teddy bear was given to them by a Westerner, assuming that this will allow them to collect more money. In any case, they are not only beautiful, but after a long trip and while waiting for the ferry in the coast across from Freetown the least thing you would expect is to see two cute children smiling on the beach. We sit across from the Chinese and British that work for African Minerals, or so we assume as vans are bringing them in small groups from the airpot. It seems that every flight coming into Sierra Leone is bringing loads of mining workers, from engineers to security forcers. "Do  you think they are miners or mercenaries?" I texted some of my friends from the plane, as we waited in Conkary on our way to Freetown from Paris. For a moment I'm puzzled, the sight looks like this: men in their forties, all with deep Southern accents, covered in tattoos, wearing Harley Davidson t-shirts and John Deere caps and some even toothless. This may sound like prejudice, but this is definitely not the usual group of people I imagine traveling to anywhere in Africa. I get texts back asking me to stay away from them and a "please be careful". I assume my friends think I'll be snapping pictures at them - which by no means is a bad idea.  Victor texts right before departure to remind me that some kind of coup d' etat is happening in Guinea-Bissau. Sierra Leone's civil war ended 9 years ago. Seems so far and yet it is so close. In the meantime we wait under a palm tree for our ferry to arrive. It will take almost two hours to arrive into Freetown and I'm so hungry that I can only think on the promised "pepper-chicken" and a good glass of beer. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Life is happening everywhere at this very moment. Wherever you go you'll find people making transactions at the local market, laughing on each other, having a beer in the afternoon, playing soccer, or flirting at the corner. To an extent, I believe that creating beauty around us is a manifestation of "life happening".  Taxi and truck drivers add stickers and hang decorations to their vehicles in Asia and South America, flowers are displayed outside homes in flowerpots or empty tomato cans in Spain, Colombia and Nigeria,  Indian temples are covered in colorful dust, men in Rwanda wear golden watches matching their golden teeth, women wear lipstick and high heels to ride motorbikes in the mountain highways of Laos or to cross the Tijuana-San Diego border. Beauty dispels fear; it unifies and humanizes. A few years ago, at the peak of the Iraq war, a different image was shown during the morning (French) news, an old man was sweeping dust outside his grocery store in preparation to sell cardboard hearts and bonbons to celebrate Valentine's Day. When you think about this you might feel there is no place you wouldn't go. The biggest risk, as my friend Mario says, is that life could happen regardless of your involvement, and passes you by.