Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Hi. My name is Sizwe.

So, I've been in South Africa for a lovely little spell now and I have yet to really write about it. In fact, I haven't written about anything since my last entry proclaiming that travel was my new everything. Without any further ado, here are 5 lessons I've learned in my short three weeks here.

#5 - I miss Southeast Asia

Or, maybe that's not exactly correct. I miss the culture, for sure, but I'm feeling homesick for a world where I had the privilege and honor to become friends with the best people life has to offer. And I think it's good to miss something - a person or an experience or a place - because that means it/they really meant something to you. It/they were worth missing. And I miss my experiences there. I miss the people I met there. While I'm for certain I will see many of them again, the experience of us there is done and only for the memory books For that, I am sad, and I miss it, terribly so. But, I also miss the food stands and the chai sold on long train trips (though, not the ones at 3am in the morning), and the batshit crazy tuk-tuks, and the Buddhist culture. I miss it all at the same time that I feel so blessed to have experienced it all. I love you all, and I miss you.

#4 - Johannesburg is LIKE EVERY OTHER CITY

I'll be perfectly honest. I was scared shitless of this place. I swear that every person I have ever met, or will meet for that matter, has told me of the dangers of this city. Here, check out this article and see if it doesn't terrify you. When I first got here, I was scared walking down the street in broad daylight, with every house that flanked me containing a concentration camp worth of barbed wire. One of the first nights, a group of us got too worried to even walk to a convenience store that was a mile away! So here's what I've learned since those first few days, as I've made Joberg my official South Africa hub. It is scary in some parts, like any city, but its also an absolute blast of epic proportions, like any city. Thanks to a load of people, I've been shown that this city is amazing and vibrant and bouncing with life. The last day I was there, for example, I was taken by a new friend, Brandon, all around town. We stumbled into Chinatown after a bar run, and ended up in the middle of an epic Chinese New Year, one without the American lawsuit tangles that allow you to be right underneath the firework display AND light your own fireworks. The city was bursting to the seams with people who weren't afraid. And suddenly, neither was I. We left and headed to a local bar down the street from our hostel. Our hostel (one of the guys that works there is a grandson Desmond Tutu, by the way, small world), you see, was on the very prestigious Fox Street, with armed guards and couples huddled close together and movies and art and, yes, lots of MONEY. One street down though, and you are in the literal hood - no guards, no working street lights, and tires rolling down the street for no good reason at all. So Brandon took me to see this local bar off the main scene and, dear God, was it fun. I was the only white person in a bar of over a hundred people and I was welcomed so incredibly well and from that moment on I fell in love with the city. If there's one thing I've learned time and time again is that you have to step out and experience the world outside of Lonely Planet (this bar is not even listed on TripAdvisor) and say yes to adventure. Of course, practice safety, and such, LIKE YOU WOULD IN ANY MAJOR CITY, but follow the path not usually taken.

If you let go of the guidebooks and just go to a place, you'll meet people and go on an adventure that is unplanned and not full of preconceptions. I am a firm believer that you should go to a country without any preconceived idea what it will be like. Don't let anyone paint a picture of a country before you craft your own. That goes for this blog,  too. I'll be writing a lot about Africa in the next couple months. But realize this, it's only through the eyes of a poor backpacker who attends far too many bars. It's all an opinion and don't let it change you.

If you do this, let go of the fear, and go to form your own opinion, you'll see a world past the tourist spots and a city that lives and breathes past the media hyper machine. You'll see what you need to see when traveling: the very good, the very bad, the very tragic, and the absolutely gorgeous.

#3 - South Africa is (only to a point) a lot like the Europe of Africa

I expected, in the most American ignorant way, that I was going to see lions and tigers and crazy things (sample sentence from a SA Rugby player I met: "Bet you thought you were going to lions and shit roaming the street."). I expected something ripped straight from National Geographic. You know what I found in Johannesburg and Capetown and Durban? First world country cities with some third world problems. The people here are trendy and smart and awesome and they are in the know about the latest technologies and trends. South Africa is not what you think. That being said, I did get a chance to go out to small little town next to Nqutu (this is said with a rolling click of your tongue where the 'q' is. Trust me, it's fun. Try it at your computer right this second!) and met an absolutely brilliant (I've picked up a lot of British terms traveling, thanks Ollie. I blame you.) Peace Corps volunteer named Mikayla, who is teaching English at a primary school for the next two years or so. This is out in the middle of nowhere, where you're afraid of snakes in the toilet (okay, maybe that was just me), where the nearest store is far away from town, and where you have to take a shower in a tub. It's a different life, that's for sure. But in all that it may lack in Western terms, it more than makes up for the vivid people and unbelievable hospitality. I have yet to tackle poverty on this blog, but I'm believing more and more that poverty has nothing to do with what you have or don't have (I have met both miserable and ecstatic people that have little more than a tarp and string for a house [Cambodia]), but society's ability to give you a chance to do "better". But that's a heady issue though, and I'll dive deeper into what that means later. Side note: that's hard to do here since there is currently an energy crisis in the country, and everyday the government does something call load shedding, meaning they cut power, sometimes to entire cities for 4 hours to days at a time. But I'm rambling. Know this: I've seen both the country and the city here, and both are beautiful and tragic in their own ways. Both should be experienced if you ever come to Africa.

Oh, and I was able to spend time with the best kids in the world. They were polite and caring and beautiful. By the way, my Zulu name is Sizwe, which means "nation".

#2 - Always, always, always take the train

This is a lesson I learned back in India, but it has only been reinforced and hammered in here. You will meet the most interesting of people this way. For example, I took a train down here to Cape Town and here's a list of characters, very briefly, of who was in my cabin:

-Myself, a writer and social worker, who always says "yes" (this is both an excellent and horrible trait of mine)

-Martin, a very intelligent man who is about to publish his book about his own Darwin-conflicting idea of evolution. He speaks fluid English and Afrikaans and can rattle off just about anything about South African pre-colonial history.

-Kenny, a South African man, also highly intelligent, who insists on buying people drinks and dinner and who can talk a man's ear off (and he does). His trigger to talk more: alcohol.

-?, a man who arrived drunk and I already couldn't understand what he was saying to me and who had a whole backpack full of six-packs and who repeatably asked me about my Queen. He also hit on every lady with two legs.

Can you see where this is going? 4 wildly different men, with a lot of free alcohol, and a small living space for the next 30 hours?

It's almost like a punchline to a joke. But that's what trains do, they force you to talk with people in Harry Potter-like cabins. It' great and essential and beats buses and airplanes every day. No cramped spaces, just good conversation and cultural exchanges. 

#1 - The purpose of this blog

Martin asked me an interesting question while on my train trip: who is the audience I'm writing for in this blog of mine? Essentially, what's the point?

Good question. Hell, a great question that I've tried to answer many a times (if you're bored, here is the link to me trying to answer this question in the first few months of my travel).

Another thing happened to me that relates directly to this question. While at the school mentioned above, on the last day, I took out my laptop and showed all the kids pictures of places I've traveled. They were, and I put this ever so lightly, enthralled. They wanted to go to all these places with a fierce passion. All of sudden, as they shared their journal entry in front of the class about the place they most wanted to go, I felt deeply ashamed that I was traveling FOR FREE and these kids would have to work their asses off in order to do the same - the fight the lottery of life that was oftentimes much too unfair. In fact, realistically, many would never get even the inkling of a chance to do the same. This saddens me to no end.

So, I have to think about what I'm doing. Because I'm not just traveling. At least, that's what I don't want it to be, travel for travel sake. I feel like I'm doing something here. I don't know what it is, but I hope it's something warm and good and just. I like to think that if I could answer Martin's question it would be this: I'm writing this blog for the people who can't travel, for whatever reason, and for the people I want to push to travel like this. I want people to see what I'm seeing. I want people to get away from tourist packages and see the world with complete abandon. I named this blog for a purpose. To live a life you must live it unfiltered. So, for the time being, I'm writing this blog (very infrequently and I promise I'll do better!) to inspire and to inform. To tell people about the world and to get people excited about LIVING. I want these pictures and entries to inspire others to travel - to skip that vacation to the Bahamas and to strap on that used backpack and experience the world so that the world can in turn experience them.

One day, and that day will come soon, I'll come back to these places and really help out, either directly or indirectly. I'll do something much more concrete than just visiting and making friends. I absolutely, pinky promise. My life, like I've mentioned, will mean something. This travel is just the tip (that's what she said). I'm feeling the water of the world before I submerge in it (which, by the way, being underwater is my largest fear).

Last tiny, little story: a student that was helping me hail a taxi back to town told me this, in a whisper, when I was in conversation with her about her wish to visit the bright lights of New York City: 

"I wish I was white."

That sentence broke my heart.

This is what it makes me want to do: I want them to know that it's possible to travel and see the world. Maybe not now, and maybe not, realistically, even for their generation. But it will happen. And, promise to God, I will have a hand in making those dreams come true. I have big dreams and I think this blog is just the beginning. We'll see (And Mikayla and Michelle, if you're reading this, thank you million times over for getting me there. Being there was life-changing. Those learners have a piece of my heart).

Just like Southeast Asia did, Africa is changing me. One experience at a time.

Long story short. Save your money. And come and experience this. 
You can. 
I promise you can. 
My next entry will be tips about how to travel cheap and see the underbelly of the world.

Glad you're with me on this trip.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A life on fire

My life was on fire. Bright and surreal and imminent.
That's exactly what it was - life was now - while I stood on a shifty Bangkok pier wondering how wild all this was. Flanked by over-lighted temples and pagodas and high risers kissing the dim clouds. 
A life on fire, I thought, and I liked the thought of that.
Currently: my time in Southeast Asia is fading and dimming.
A week or so more and I'll be gone. To a whole new continent with new foods, new people, new experiences. New everything.
The old - the now I'm in this second - will be just that, old.
Time is a strange thing, you know? Present and future and past collide in the most peculiar of ways.
I have a mix of emotions right now as I move forward to Africa.
But one emotion is stronger than the others, infinitely more ruthless and more precise in its intensity.
I've mentioned this before, but at that time I was a little drunk and writing like a madman without a plan. The last week I've been very anxious because this post, and the words it contains, has been boiling in my head - making me feel like it was those scrambled eggs in those stupid DARE commercials - waiting to be released (that's what she said?). I've talked with my family about it, briefly, but nowhere near as long as with all my new travelling friends from across the sea.

Asia has changed me, along with the locals and fellow travelers. I think this whole blog is a testament to that, so I won't ramble on again about that.

On a boat a few days ago, I was asked if I was nervous. Not that nervousness that precedes telling a girl you like them or at that single moment before you cross a busy Indian street in Mumbai during midday traffic. No, he meant that I probably had a persistent nervousness that has followed me along this journey like a cancer, that has maybe trailing me even longer than that.
I laughed when he said this, but then I felt it.
Had I really been ignoring it all this time? I was a madman. I was without a plan. And I was indeed nervous. My friend elaborated, knowing I'm a man of goals, both extravagant and tiny, and I'm nervous right now because I'm indeed goalless.

I'm wandering without a main goal. Except for one.
Which is simple and complex all at once: 
I have to keep my life on fire.

I can't go back to my life when it wasn't this way. I can't go back home and get stuck in an office cubical staring at that poster of a cat hanging off that wire. Not after who I've met, what I've seen (both great and horrible), and what is out in the unknown still left to find and experience. This fellowship is that double-edged sword cliche. I'm thankful - more thankful than anything I can ever describe with words - but at the same time, I hate the fellowship for doing this to me.

For giving me this opportunity, this incredible taste of life, and then letting time snatch it back after these 8ish months. And then, just like that - a snap of the fingers, really - and I'll be back home, feeling trapped. You ever feel an emotion before you know you're supposed to have it? Like knowing you're going to love a person before you actually love them. Sorry if that doesn't makes no sense, but that's what it is.
So I've made a plan. Sort of. Kind of. Not really.

I'm coming home after this journey, that's a given, because I miss my family and friends something fierce. There are times traveling where the homesick hits my heart like a brick and I need more than anything to be at The Swiss again, laughing and getting rowdy with people whose presence, love, and own hearts, make me feel so incredibly and completely whole.
And my family - my crazy, odd, family - that I miss more than anything in life. There is no one like them in the world and I love them with every single atom that I am.

But with all that said, the fact of the matter is simple: I need to go back to Tacoma, stay for a little while, and then, you guessed it, I must leave again (and of course come back home as often as I can).
This is pompous of me to say and downright makes me feel instantly full-of-myself, but I'll just say it: I deserve to do good things around the world. In an even more insane, narcissistic way, I believe my purpose in this life (Viktor Frankl believed his purpose in life was to help others find their purpose) is going out into the world and making it better.

I'm good at being self-loathing and can rattle off a list, longer than a Thanksgiving shopping list for a large Amish family, of things I don't like about myself or am horrible at, but I certainly know what I'm good at.

It has taken me a long time to embrace it, to really own it, and be proud of it.
But I believe I have one shining talent, the kind you scribble onto resumes as the being in the top %1: I'm good with people. Hell, maybe even extraordinary. 
I think I can change people. 
I think I brighten people's lives. 
I think I can make the world a better place one person at a time. 
I bring hope and a sick, almost delusional amount of optimism wherever I go.
Sometimes, I feel like this crazy cat lady. Except replace cats with people.

And I need to shine that light. My fire needs to be shared. Like any talent or skill or trade, you have to exercise it. So I must mold it like fresh, clean clay.

So, I will go out into the world and do just that.
To where and to do what? 
I don't know and that's, to be honest, the single most scary fucking thing I can think of - to know what you're supposed to do but be held back by fear of failure and cost, both financial and emotionally.

I know, all of this is absolute CRAZY TALK. I'm an asshole to think that I have the right to demand anything, really, from life after receiving the privilege to attend nine years of higher education and riding a free trip around the world.

The logical thing - the respectful thing - would be to payback what I've been given: go home, grab that 9 to 5 job, and somehow try to eek by paying off that $105,00 USD loan that hovers over me and threatens to drown me daily (this actually may scare me more than anything).

But what I've realized is that I can earn money anywhere in the world, so why not keep traveling and do that?

So I will. But I can't ignore my talent and I need to find a job out there that fits it. There's plenty of NGOs doing good humanitarian work the world over. There are jobs that teach English in poor countries. There are bartending jobs out there where I could change lives simply by listening to those in the bars who have no one who actually listens to. There are ways to help those in need working with colleges in remote cities. Etc., and so forth.

Whatever it may be, I need to calm this nervousness. I need to start planning.
Maybe I'll even convince some friends back home to come with me (looking at you, fellow social workers and artists and the rest of you lovely, talented people), but if not, that's okay. Another thing I probably don't deserve: the best, most loyal friends around the world (I would even venture to call them family). An added bonus that MasterCard would call priceless: they endlessly believe in me, who I am, and strengthen me when I don't believe in myself. I think my friends/family wouldn't forgive me if I didn't do this. If I did come home and stay put, do that American Dream, they'd be just as angry about it as I was.

That life, for now, just isn't for me. I once had someone at Pepsi tell me I was "too bright a bird for a cage" and what I need to do is finally take that to heart and accept the compliment. I've always been bad at that. Terrible even.
And more than just accept it, I need to own up to it.
To prove that I am just that.

I've fallen in love with these countries and it hurts me to see injustice and poverty and all the things that keep me up at night - all the things I don't post pictures on Facebook of.
I can make a difference here. Anywhere and everywhere.
And I'd be a fool to waste that God-given gift.
My life is on fire and I can't let it go out.
Most of all, by deciding this, I think I can help ignite others, make their lives burn with uncontrollable beauty and hope.

Actually, I know I can.
And I will.

So, I'm a madman with a shaky, undefined plan and debt up to my ears and back down to my toes.
I should do the smart thing. I should.
But I simply can't. I won't.
If friends and family and everyone in between already believe in me, in my talents, and my ability to do something really important and big in the world, well then, so can I.

And it's about time I own up to that, too.