Thursday, December 31, 2009

The View From 12 Days Away

Today was my last day of work.

You know how when you're a kid, waiting for Christmas or your birthday or whatever to come is absolute torture? And when it finally does come, no matter how awesome it is and how much icecream cake you eat, you're always left feeling just a little let down? Well, today was nothing like that. Leaving my office at five o'clock with no plans to return feels like what I'd been waiting my whole life to do. The walk home was one big choreographed dance party.

(Full disclosure: I left at 2, took the bus and didn't technically see any animated birds,
but everything else you see here is
a pretty accurate depiction of my experience.)

I was thinking about writing a post about all the things I am thankful for regarding this job, lessons I have learned over the past 16 months toiling in an office, pretending to be genuinely thrilled by the very act of showing up to work in pantyhose every day. But then I remembered who I am (a cynical ex-office worker) and that plan clearly went up in smoke.

Then I began writing a list of petty, small annoyances about this place that I won’t miss (the sound of the photocopier jamming, the awkward elevator rides, the curt tone of one person in particular) but then I decided to live and let live. It's over. And no matter how much I want to pour bleach in the coffee maker or pay tribute to the Office Space printer smash scene, I've decided to keep my dignity intact. I am moving on and up and all of those platitudes.

I am going to Africa. Holy [long chain of expletives redacted for the protection of innocent eyes and ears everywhere]. It's been in the works for months (years?) and with just twelve days to go, my mind is beginning to panic. In a good way -- I am positively panicking. The Africa that has eluded me for so long is finally within striking distance and I could not be happier.

It is often suggested (by people more poetic than I) that Africa gets under your skin and into your blood. Which is to say that once infected (choice words, my dear) with the beauty of the land and the affection of its people, it is difficult to distance yourself from it -- literally or figratively.

Although this trip will be my first experience of Africa, already I am enraptured by this amazing and utterly unique continent. The excitement, the uncertainty, the element of risk -- it fascinates me. It represents so much freedom from the conformity and monotony of life as I know it. It represents freedom from plodding to work in the drizzling rain to sit around and watch the time tick by, day after day after day after day.

But I must remind myself that I am romanticizing it too much. At the mere mention of Africa, my eyes brighten, then glaze over as I look longingly into the distance (invariably east), thinking only of sweeping savannas and uninterrupted blue skies. Worried voices mention something about corruption, violence, disease, but I need look no further than photos of African children laughing and chasing cars, to convince myself that they have been deceived, that this is a wonderful, euphoric place. At my core, I know that their concern is warranted -- there is greed and suffering and poverty here too, just as there is anywhere in the world.

I've been thinking a lot about what I want from this trip, a justification for a year's worth of obsessive budgeting and planning and eager anticipation. Do I want an "authentic" African experience? What does that even mean? Is it the life experience of a typical black African, something I could never have, something I wouldn't even want if I could? I suppose that is about as authentic as you can get: a rather miserable experience that international aid organizations, doctors, politicians and volunteers are working hard and spending billions of dollars annually to improve.

Whether it's what I want or not, it's not something I'll ever get. The closest I'll get is an experience manufactured to keep me within a safe viewing distance of the authenticity I'm after. Because I'm white. Because I can afford bottled water, and malaria tablets, and a flight out of there when things turn ugly. Like it or not, mzungu, you've got it made.

We are all visitors, whether we're there for three weeks or three generations, and we're all asking ourselves whether we're doing the right thing, or the wrong thing, or the right thing in the wrong way, and finally we settle -- albeit uncomfortably -- on "our intentions are good". We mean well, and though it might not always seem like enough, it's all we can do.

In the end, I know that we will return home affected -- changed by what we've seen, struggling to describe our experiences to ourselves and to others. Right now, I tell people that I am travelling to Africa to experience it -- to run with shoeless children, to bear witness to incomprehensible poverty and injustice, to hear the stories that break hearts and then heal them. But I know that it won't take long for me to want to change it. And bleak and preemptive as it may be, I think that the ultimate discovery of this trip might be that I cannot change very much.

But who knows what we'll see, and what sense (if any) we'll make of it. These are just thoughts rattling around in my skull as I try to anticipate the upcoming changes in my circumstances and perspective. For now I'm happy to be officially unemployed and about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Tomorrow (figuratively, for now) is another country.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from the Both of Us

(Maggie would also like to express a rather sullen holiday greeting)

Having just had my first Skype conversation (with my mother in the next room), I feel compelled to take a moment to write a word of gratitude to the Internet. Are you there Internet? It's me, having my mind continuously blown by your greatness.

Thanks to the magic and wonder of the Internet, I can post words and images here, and within minutes have them read by faraway friends and family, some of whom I haven't seen since I was *this big*, some of whom sent me incredibly generous donations to my travel fund, some of whom I hardly know or have never even met. Thank you for your interest and support; it means the world to us.

So wherever you are, and whatever you're doing, happy holidays and we look forward to sharing our journey with you in the very, very -- 18 days very -- new future.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fear and Loathing

Moments ago, I opened up my Internet Explorer browser to see this feature story on the Globe and Mail website: Canadian Couple Attacked in South African Nature Reserve. And then I scrolled down and read a about the 737 that overshot the runway in Jamaica, jostling and bloodying passengers before skidding to a halt, metres from the Carribean Sea. "This does not bode well," I said to my co-worker.

My first thought was something along the lines of "Oh god, more fodder for the fire, I'm going to spend the holidays futilely talking my way out of the 'Africa is dangerous' spiel." But once I'd finished rolling my eyes at what I tend to dismiss as Westernized sensationalism, I decided to see what the South African papers were saying about the story. As it turns out, in the Mail and Guardian – a paper that dedicates an entire section to "Crime" – there was not a single mention of the story. Why? Because stuff like this happens all the time. As it turns out, the helicopter that airlifted the Canadians to hospital was diverted from an area just outside of the reserve, where it was attempting to airlift another body.

And then (because I'm a masochist) I decided to read the comments and reactions of the readers. There was the usual idiocy of people praising Apartheid and people suggesting that the victims could have defended themselves had they been properly armed, but there were also a few that I feel bear repeating. Comments which I don't entirely agree with, but which for one reason or another struck a chord with me as this whole 6 months in Africa thing becomes increasingly tangible.

"Let's face it -- this isn't a "one-off" attack. Caucasians in South Africa have been targeted as part of a "reverse-apartheid" for years, and if you're not obviously African, in my opinion, you should not go -- there are many safer, beautiful places to visit. It's not worth risking your life over."

"This is one of the reasons I left SA to come and live in Canada, and why I will not return with my family until the SA government gets tough on crime and Mugabe-- the risks of traveling there are very real and very high (we had our car broken into the first night that we were in Cape Town several years ago, and on the same trip my wife was accosted on a train)."

"Is there no hope and future for that continent? The birth place of homo sapian seems to be rushing into utter chaos and anarchy. A shiver goes down my spine if Africa is only a preview for the rest of the worlds future."

I am not dissuaded and I'm not afraid, but I am sobered. "The risks of travelling [to Africa] are very real and very high" and that is something that I need to be reminded of. I am going to encounter people there who are well-versed in xenophobia, people who despise me for my skin colour, my gender, my affluence. I am going to encounter people there who have nothing, people who are desperate. Despite what I may have said in the past, this is not the same as travelling to Europe or Australia. This is travelling to a place where women are more likely to be raped than learn how to read. This is a place where you can be killed for your camera, your cell phone, those fake pearl earrings that cost you $8 at Claire's. This is not the same thing.

"Why Africa?" It's still a question I get asked a lot, and while once I fumbled my words - landscapes, people, animals? - now I am constantly improving my answer, responding with a conviction I once lacked. I am going to Africa because I strongly oppose the fear of difference that has seized societies worldwide, from the right-wing evangelicals in North America, who make their life's work the denial of gay rights, to the autocratic regimes of leaders like Mugabe, who systematically rape women to maintain a hegemonic rule that is destroying Zimbabwe.

I think that a lot of the problems in our world stem from fear - fear of change, fear of difference, fear of losing the ability to define one's country, religion, self. When you travel, you become more exposed to the world; and when you are more exposed to the world, you understand it a little better than you did before; and when you understand it better, you fear it less. To realize that, sometimes you have to put yourself in uncomfortable, perhaps even dangerous situations. Certain experiences are worth the risk; I'm inclined to think that this is one of them.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Oreo Cookies and the African Disposition

*Alanna and I have got under a month left here on planet Normal Life, so I figured it was about time I showed my e-face on what has been up to this point a single-user (though lovely) weblog. As Alanna has been doing a great job of writing about things that actually exist (i.e. real information, facts, maps and graphs and numbers etc.) I've figured it's up to me to write about things that don't exist (i.e. half-baked theories, things that may well be very incorrect, etc). So here goes:

Early in our Africa-related internet-perusals Alanna and I came across this video of a man conducting Kiswahili lessons via youtube:

Basically, it's a man standing in the middle of his wife's kitchen, plucking up objects seemingly at random and naming them in Kiswahili – the catch being that the majority of the objects in his kitchen he proclaims as having "no Swahili word." He also complains about his kids leaving globes everywhere ("what are these things doing here, in the cooking place?"), and at the end pulls out a giant yellow sign to plug his travel website, which he calls "Kenya's official website."

Anyways, Alanna and I found the video pretty funny. I've tried describing it to a few people but it doesn't really translate, so to speak. But in doing so I got to thinking about why exactly I found it funny, and got to worrying that the humour I saw in the video comes from a place of condescension or even benign racism. Alanna and I talked about it and I decided that this isn't true, because for the same reasons I find Mr. Mutooni to be funny, I also find him to be awesome. He's awesome in a way that (to generalize and over-simplify) I've noticed many Africans to be, and in a way that as a Canadian I find enviable.

For me, the humour in the video stems from its amateurishness, and Mr. Mutooni's lackadaisical attitude towards presenting himself on video: he is somewhat unprepared, the kitchen is cluttered, and the camera-person (I'm assuming his wife) endlessly fidgets with the camera (and whispers "peanut butter" when Mr. Mutooni can't remember the name of the jar he's holding – hilarious!). And you'd think that, when conducting a Kiswahili language lesson about kitchen objects, one would make sure the objects that one picked up would, y'know, actually have Kiswahili names.

But that's what makes him so great! If it were a typical North American conducting a similar lesson, he would have adopted a phony on-camera persona, maybe cleaned up, rehearsed, and basically tried to make himself seem cooler, and therefore different, from the person he actually is. And through one of the great Paradoxes of Youtube, the video would have been dull, not to mention I wouldn't have remembered a single new word (as I did with Mr. Mutooni's video: kisu! Knife!).

Though Mr. Mutooni is not typical: perusing his other videos we learn he's a smart, opinionated man who is obviously passionate about his culture, language, and the promotion of Africa and Kenya as tourist destinations (though I'm pretty sure he lives in New Jersey, I'm not sure what is up with that). And it is Mr. Mutooni's lack of need to put up any fronts, to depict anything to the world other than his true self, which I find admirable. Lately there has been a focus in North American culture on personal branding, and in the most superficial of meanings, what with Twitter and iPhone and all the requisites. Yet I seem to find such great examples of people of the African Continent being so comfortable and confident in their own identity, regardless of how others may see them. And it is funny, a lot of the time: dudes doing quasi-traditional dance in front of a giant suburban hedge to a Soulja Boy parody, for example. But it is also fantastic, because there's no whispers of 'trying too hard', or being 'ironic' – it's just untainted pride and fun, which I feel is tougher to achieve in this 'western' world of ours.

Not to mention it's strangely comforting, being Kenya-bound myself, knowing that out of an entire kitchen, the Swahili only have words for about six things. If I've got a hankering for broccoli, all I'll need to say is "broccoli," and that is a huge load off my shoulders.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Remember a while back when I wrote this post about why Africa is the way it is? And about how part of that has to do with its treatment by the media? And how I had that distorted map illustrating news coverage by continent?

Well, today I found something even better.


My love for graphs like this one almost makes me happy that the sociology department now requires me to take a course in quantitative analysis. Almost.

According to this researcher, "*Unhappy thoughts means some combination of foreign aid, immigration and refugees, civil war and guerrilla warfare, terrorism, 'war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity' (all one category), famine, drought, or AIDS." Also, "Over the whole period, this collection of negative topics averaged 28% of total articles on the continent."

I wish our news would stop filling our heads with these unhappy thoughts. I wish I could tell someone I'm going to Africa, and have them say, "Wow! You're going to have so much fun!" and not, "Wow! You're going to get yourself killed!" But I have my doubts that the New York Times is ever going to create a tag called Happy Thoughts. People just wouldn't take them seriously.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's All About the Benjamins, Baby: Take Three

Part Three: In which you suddenly have $12,000 in your bank account and are about to set off on a life-changing adventure

This is the part where I channel my inner Jillian Michaels and tell you that “I know this isn’t easy, but if I’m going to make big promises to you, I’ve got to give you a [financial formula] that’s going to deliver the results that you want and deserve” (pretty good, hey? I swear I’ve got that whole work-out memorized). Basically, saving money is just like working toward any other goal. You want to get fit? You jump around with Jillian Michaels for half an hour every day. You want to get good grades? You spend your weeknights holed up in the library. You want to save money and travel the world? You follow this guide and I promise, you will.

Money is not some big, scary thing that is by nature out of your control. In fact, money is one of the few things in life over which you have almost complete control. I don’t understand people who are so afraid of seeing their account balance, that they crumple up their ATM receipts and lament the day their statement comes in the mail. Sure, we all succumb to impulsive, frivolous spending every now and then, and there’s definitely a sort of sting that comes with dealing with the aftermath in the form of a Visa bill, but to actually be afraid of a number? It’s absurd. Get to know those numbers - the more conscious of them you are of them, the more they seem to grow.

The message is simple: anyone can do this. Yes, Scott and I were fortunate in that we had supportive families and decent(ish) jobs, but it is my belief that long term travel is well within anyone’s reach. All it takes is determination and a willingness to make a few short-term sacrifices. Before you know it, you too will have $12,000 in the bank and be jetting off to an exotic locale, whilst your unenlightened co-workers continue to toil at their desk jobs, bemoaning their dismal finances, feeding their addictions to caffeine and shoes.

Plus, saving for travel is just so much more fun than saving for the standard stuff like a new computer or car or a down payment on a townhouse. Life should be about the experiences, not the stuff, that you have. Learn to put that philosophy into practice, and just about everything becomes a whole lot more enjoyable.

That’s about all the motivational Jillian Michaels speak I can conjure up at the moment, but rest assured that I’ll keep you posted on how we handle our funds on the road (something I’m more than a little anxious about) and whether or not all this scrimping and saving turns out to actually be worth it (anyone care to speculate?) Thanks for tuning in, I’ve had an unusually good time writing this, and may have just discovered my true calling as a financial advisor.

Ha. Ha.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It's All About the Benjamins, Baby: Take Two

Part Two: In which you are horrified by how much your latte habit is costing you

Welcome to the second installment of How to Save Money and Travel the World, with your host and financial expert, Alanna Hardinge-Rooney. In our last episode, I showed you how to create a realistic and precise budget for your future travels. Today, I will show you how, with a little practice, patience and potting soil, you can grow money on trees!

If only. In reality, when it comes to saving your cash, there ain’t no such thing as a get rich quick scheme or easy money – just hard work and determination. Look at what you’re spending your money on now, perhaps even track your finances for a couple weeks, and see what you can do without. Chances are, you’ll be surprised by how excessive your lifestyle has become, and how easy it is to cut back on things you’re better off without.

Tip number one: get cookin’. As a downtown cube dweller, I developed an unfortunate taste for bought lunches. This is fine if those lunches are going on the company credit card, but if you’re footing the bill, this habit has got to stop. Even seven bucks once or twice a week adds up to $50 a month – two days of traveling in Africa. Find recipes that appeal to you, make a shopping list, and go buy a week’s worth of food. Make large portions so that you can bring left-overs as lunches, eliminating the need to pop out for an overpriced sandwich or salad. At the supermarket, try to save anywhere you can – go for the generic brand, buy in bulk, pay attention to what’s on sale – but don’t buy food that doesn’t excite you. No matter how focused on the prize you are, no one can sustain themselves on oatmeal, Kimchi and K.D. for eight months without losing it.

No coffee. This doesn’t really apply to Scott or I, but from observing others, I’ve learned that the Starbucks addiction is an affliction of many. At our office, endless tea and coffee is provided for free, and most people still make frequent coffee runs downstairs (returning with disposable paper cups – oh, the horror!) This is total madness. You might as well be throwing your money in a landfill. If you really can’t live without your grande extra-hot no-whip soy caramel macchiato, treat yourself to one every now and then, but certainly not everyday and for goodness’ sake, bring your own mug!

Shopping. Working downtown, I have developed a new appreciation/abhorrence for consumer culture. People congratulate one another when they purchase things. Things they don’t need. Things that waste money, support exploitation, harm the environment. You do not need those shoes. You do not need that handbag. You do not need those Rock & Republic jeans, that Benefit lip gloss, that gaudy Juicy Couture charm bracelet. When you’re hiking Mount Meru, you’ll laugh to yourself how ridiculous you were, how little any of that matters. If you really can’t keep your debit card in your wallet for more than a few days, hit up your local thrift store, or head for an outdoor store, where you’ll find some stuff you can actually use on the road.

Entertainment. Prepare for your social life to take a bit of a hit. Seven dollar pints at the bar is just not economical. Restaurant are out of the question. Even an $8 movie on a rainy Sunday afternoon is one night’s accommodation up in smoke. What to do? Invite people over, host a potluck, play board games, have a dance party in your living room. Take this time to do some of those projects you’ve been putting off, pick up a new hobby, learn a new language. Go to the library. Seriously – if you’re anything like me, the library will keep you entertained indefinitely. Read some historical fiction, memoirs, journalism from the areas you’ll be visiting. Check out some guidebooks, look at their map collection, plan your route. Rent movies – for free! I cannot endorse the library enough, and though the prospect might not excite you now, replacing your bar nights with staying in to read, will save you hundreds, nay thousands of dollars.

Your place and your stuff. What are you going to do with it? Keep it or let it go? Unless you’ve got an amazing apartment with impossibly low rent, I say let it go. Pocket your damage deposit, sell your lumpy couch and unsightly shelving unit, and purge your closet of things you never wear. Inevitably some things will remain: a box of winter clothes you won’t be needing for a while (hooray!), a mattress, a stereo, a few kitchen appliances. Unless you really have no other option, do not rent a storage space. Ask your parents to store it, see if your friends will baby sit your house plants or CD collection. This will save you money – like, $500 or so – so it’s worth seeking out all your options, even if it means that you’re stuff ends up strewn all over the city (or in our case, two different land masses!)

There are a million ways to save your money. The main thing is figuring out where you can cut costs and sticking to your budget. I guarantee that once you’ve started saving, and seeing what opting out of things like salon dye-jobs and Starbucks lattes does for your account balance, living on the cheap almost becomes a fun competition with yourself to see how much you can save. Not to mention the added benefit of knowing you’re doing something good for the planet and society. Minimalism for the win!