Returning Home: A delight of the senses, a delight in the memories.

Oh, the delightful sensations and feelings of home. Oh, the wonderful whirlwind of a first week back. Oh, the memories. Oh, the possibilities. Oh, Canada!

Nothing beats the feel of soft warm grass underfoot, or a late night swim under never-ending stars. There’s the magic felt from holding the earth in my hands as I’m pulling fresh vegetables from the garden. (Of course, this coincides with the pesky feel of incessant mosquitoes!). My heart swells at the touch of the perfect globe—an apple—in my hand as I turn it gently and release it from the tree, ready for its first crisp bite. And then there’s the rush of a cool Canadian breeze balanced beautifully by the warmth of the sun basking on me as I tilt my face up toward a clear blue sky.

Driving through the countryside, I see this crystal clear sky dotted with puffy white marshmallow clouds, the perfect compliment to an expansive green below. I recognize the sights of a rolling landscape filled with fields full of corn, wheat, alfalfa and soy interrupted by beautiful windbreaks of different varieties of my favourite trees. The rivers and creeks are sparkling in the sun. The towns with their old homes and shops are bustling with activity. The flowers are budding and blooming. The wide road stretches on in a Canadian style of forever.

How I recognize the sounds! The pull of the clothesline as the sheets are coming in, the creaking of old stairs, and CBC Radio One playing non-stop in the kitchen. The birds are singing and squawking, insects are playing their orchestra at night, and frogs are making themselves known in their own funny way. And oh, how I know that sound as I hear the clatter of pots going onto the stove and dishes coming out of their cupboards.

Oh, the food! I have missed the smell of fresh sweet basil as I pick it and chop it using scissors in a cup. A cob of corn gives off an amazingly distinct, sweet smell when you pull down its husks. New potatoes freshly dug from the garden share their earthy scent as you ready them in a pot of water. Even green beans have their own aroma as you wash them and take off their ends before boiling. And then there’s the sizzling scent of large slabs of local steak on the grill, flavoured with the neighbour’s special barbecue sauce—the smell of which I can already taste as it’s cooking.

That’s where our senses of smell and taste are so perfectly entwined. I sit down to an outdoor table topped with fresh salads, vegetables and meats from nearby gardens and fields. Good wine is flowing from home-brewed bottles. With every delicious bite from my plate I get a taste of my memories and a sense of belonging.

What ties all of these wonderful sensations together is the connection to the people who surround them. I am so blessed to feel the embrace of my dear friends and family. To see the growth they’ve encountered as they still hold those same smiles I know so well. To hear their laughter and to comfort their tears. And to share in the delightful smells and flavours of good Canadian cuisine.

Oh, Canada. From far and wide, with a glowing heart, I’m home.

Had to be local steak with veggies from the garden and neighbour's corn on the cob.

First meal back. Had to be local steak with veggies from the garden and neighbour’s corn on the cob.

And this is how you do leftovers!

And this is how you do leftovers!

Pig roast!

Carving the pig

Carving the pig

Neighbours all together with their incredible homemade dishes.

Neighbours all together with their incredible homemade dishes.

Rain can't stop us.

Rain can’t stop us.

Pancakes!

Freshly picked.

Freshly picked.

The views!

The views!

The scenery.

The scenery.

The gardens!

The gardens!

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It Takes a Journey

When I moved to Kaohsiung, this incredible city, I didn’t realize that I’d become so busy I would abandon one of my favourite crafts.

I have been longing for the deeper thoughts that come with maintaining a regular habit of writing. Over the past year, my thoughts have been filled with a bustling happiness, but my writing well ran dry. I had lost the ability to (what I like to term) ‘think in writingese’.

A spark has been reignited! I remember the language now! And I know the cure. I needed to take a journey.

Of course I’ve been going on many mini-excursions in and around Kaohsiung. It’s such a wonderful city where I revel in the food, language and culture around me. It is a city with beautiful mountains, beaches, a river, lake, and many parks. There are also so many other places just a quick drive or train ride away. Many of my weekends are spent finding waterfalls or exploring the surrounding Taiwanese countryside and cityscapes.

In these moments, especially on a long scooter ride, or while hiking a mountain, I find glimpses of my deeper, writing self. But then I return to a grueling 12hr-a-day teaching schedule that drains my body and mind from putting any words to keyboard.

Another big part of the problem is that I fell so much in love with Kaohsiung, I couldn’t envision when I would want to leave it. For many years I have never experienced such contentedness with a city.

This in itself put a huge block up in terms of writing. By settling in so much, I blocked myself from the ability to see the finer details that make traveling and living abroad so special.

Two things have happened to change this.

I’m currently at the start of a journey. I’m bound for Singapore, where I will meet one of my good friends who happens to be the cultural anthropologist onboard a big, beautiful boat. (Even boats need a resident anthropologist! Obviously!). So, he has invited me to join him and embark on a ten-day tour of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

The other difference comes from my recent decision to leave Taiwan. I will be returning to Canada in August for my cousin’s wedding, and the time feels right to make a change in career and location. I’m not yet sure what that entails, but the prospects are enticing.

With the scent of travel in the air, my senses have been reawakened to the beauty of life. I have re-donned the travel goggles that I hadn’t realized I’d taken off. With a renewed lens and fresh perspective, I’m experiencing things around me in the way that I want and love. In the way that I had forgotten a bit.

It’s so easy to get used to daily routine. The comfort of the every-day. The contentedness of settlement. These are wonderful things! Especially when being settled allows for a developed ability to effectively live and communicate within the space you inhabit.

But from this comes danger. The danger of blindness to beauty and excitement. The danger of the mundane.

I read once that you should regularly try to change your route to work. By following the same path everyday, we desensitize ourselves to what is around us, which actually limits brain stimulation. Almost robot-like, we can navigate our way easily on an unsurprising track.

This is okay, especially if your route is known as the fastest and most efficient. And quite frankly, I think we all require and search for the element of comfort and safety that comes with the predictable. But it can also dull our brains and limit the growth and stimulation that comes from attempting a new and unknown path.

In these moments of discovery, our senses are alight observing the unknown. We look for recognizable features and pay more attention to difference. Neurons are firing as we search for road names, landmarks, direction, and even logic. It’s the art of orientation, and I believe it’s incredibly good for us.

Despite the roads of Taiwan feeling like a video game with the dodging, beeping, red-light running, turning without looking and wrong lane changing, I still recognize monotony on my drive to work that comes from taking the same path for too long.

In Kaohsiung, there is an easily navigable grid-like pattern of roads, augmented by many other roads that veer in very unpredictable ways. By taking unknown and new directions, maybe I don’t end up where I want to be right away, but some very meaningful things come from this off-my-beaten-path endeavor: I’ve heightened my exploratory and observation skills; I’ve seen things that I otherwise would’ve missed entirely; I’ve found that a destination might actually be more reachable later because of knowledge gained from a previous wrong turn; and I’ve found even better routes that I never knew existed.

I think the same is true on a much grander scale for me.

I can’t help but remember Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk about our creative writing genius. It’s a concept that there’s an entity outside of ourselves that assists in any creative endeavor, like Dobby the house elf helping out around the house. I’ve written about this before, but it really stays with me and I feel it’s worth mentioning again.

I thought my writing elf had forsaken me. But it seems I just let her sleep for too long in too predictable a pattern. The impending travel and the lure of adventure has awakened her. Has awakened me. The words have since been pouring into my head in the language I had forgotten for too long. I hope to revel in this as I heighten my experience of Taiwan, and of any future place I may encounter.

I’d love to hear your experiences with the balance between finding a settled routine, and reaching out for the unknown. Share below! 🙂

The view touching down in Singapore. The boats in the background are incredible to watch - especially knowing I'll be on one tomorrow! And landing in a new place, seeing this golf course that I know my Sikh granddaddy in Tanzania must've played on, brings a lot of thoughts about the past and future, and the amazing realities of space and place.

The view touching down in Singapore. The boats in the background are incredible to watch – especially knowing I’ll be on one tomorrow! And landing in a new place, seeing this golf course that I know my Sikh granddaddy in Tanzania must’ve played on, brings a lot of thoughts about the past and future, and the amazing realities of space and place.


The Giving Tree

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 4th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.com, and he will let you know how you can start participating! 

This month, the topic is, “What moment are you most proud of in the classroom?”

I’m really lucky at my school here in Taiwan. I’d been on an overdose of academia for far too many years, and one of the best things for me turned out to be teaching Kindergarten  English.

At my school, we are given a lot of flexibility with our teaching style and lesson plans. I know some teachers have to follow strict guidelines, and they are already given lesson plans to teach the material. This can be a good thing, as the time spent prepping for lessons can be overwhelming. However, I’m glad I found a school that lets me really dabble in exploring my own artistic creativity. It’s like a whole side of my brain has opened up that had been dormant for the duration of my academic lifespan.

One of my favourite classes is a ‘story telling class’. I’m given two classes a week where I can focus on a children’s story, and relate it to movement, song, dance, and crafts. I think the best class I have yet taught was my lesson on the wonderful story, “The Giving Tree” By Shel Silverstien.

From the depths of my childhood memories, I have a vague but present recognition of the impact this story—and others of its kind—have had in my life.

With the topic in mind, I found a little help from google (what did teachers ever do without the internet I wonder!?). In the first class allotted to the story, I read the story and showed the youtube version, and went over the meaning of the key words.

The next class I had for the story, we made crowns of leaves out of red paper and green crate paper (finding construction paper and tissue paper has proven quite a challenge here). Then, wearing our crowns of leaves, I read the story again. After this, we wrote our names on hearts (for 3-4 year olds, learning to write your name is quite an exciting task). We then ‘gave’ our hearts back to the tree.

I choked up a couple of times during this lesson! Not only from the message of the story (which is quite heart wrenching), but also thinking about the potential impact participating in such a story can have. I’m sure my little students don’t grasp the full meaning of it now, or maybe they’ve already forgotten the lesson. But I can only hope that a seed has been planted. It’s the type of seed I continually attempt to nurture and cultivate as their teacher.

Thank goodness for story time, crafts, music and dance!!  These are by far my favourite classes this year.

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Stuff. A Traveler’s Dilemma.

My best friend as we toured the stuff in the Arusha Market, Tanzania

Touring stuff with my best friend in the Arusha Market, Tanzania.

As someone who has moved multiple times to multiple countries, I have found accumulating stuff to be especially stressful. I once stared down piles of boxes that I hadn’t seen in a year, and near tears, thought I was about to lose a thankless battle. But with the necessary help of a friend, I persevered and sent most of the stuff in those boxes to a second hand charity shop before I had to get on a plane in another direction.

I feel comfortable knowing I now only have a couple of boxes with my most precious items stored for me with family. These boxes mostly consist of childhood treasures, and special souvenirs from my travels. Oh, and a box of shoes and boots… Couldn’t let that one go just yet…

There is a fine balance to be had when it comes to settling into a new country. How much stuff should I buy? How much can I live without? I want to be comfortable and to feel at home here. But I don’t really want to buy things unnecessarily only to have to give them away in a year. For someone that owes as much money as I do to the bank, these questions become even more poignant.

Certain necessities take priority: bed sheets, blankets and pillows are obvious yeses. But the mattress-top to avoid the shockingly hard sleep on a shockingly hard bed takes a second thought. Is it worth it? In this case, I also said yes. Picture me, in my first week here, riding through the winding streets of Taiwan at night, clutching a huge mattress cushion (bigger than myself) behind me on the back of a scooter, whizzing by the lights and traffic of winding roads at the whim of a new friend driving me through my new city toward my new home.

My apartment came ‘furnished’, but other random things I’ve also said yes to here include: a broom, a mop, a pot, a lemon squeezer, a ladle, a phone, a scooter, boots (that are too tight), flip flops, some clothes, teaching supplies, decorations for holidays, speakers, a table cloth, and a lawn chair.

But what about an oven? I miss having an oven… Or even a big toaster oven. This is my most current internal struggle that I am negotiating with myself at the moment. To buy a big toaster oven, or not to buy a big toaster oven?

When you finally deem an item worthy of purchase, seeking it out is never an easy task when living abroad. Especially living in a small city in a country that uses a different language for both speaking and writing.

Almost every one of my above items involves a story of frustration, exploration, confusion, extensive dialogue and discussion, and disorientation. Thankfully, when said item is finally found and purchased, a real sense of triumph and success can also be found.

This is just one (of many) reasons to make friends as soon as possible when you move somewhere new. Local friends are great (for so many reasons, but today I’m reducing everything to talk about ‘stuff’). They can help you navigate the city and search for your needs, even if they don’t really understand why you feel your ‘need’.

Expat friends are also important, as you can help each other through a broad network to find the most basic things that your local friends just really don’t have on their own radar. You don’t have to feel stupid asking, “where in this country do I buy [insert mundane  household item here]?” Because chances are, your new friends either a) don’t have a clue, but understand your concern and thus offer grave sympathy; or b) have conducted the search themselves already and will happily delve deeply into a discussion about where [mundane household item] might be located.

Contrasting this to living in Canada where I understand and exist within the dominant culture, and speak the dominant language, there are a few good things that can come from such a different take on ‘stuff’.

Creativity Skills are Enhanced. I think outside the box a lot more when I’m living abroad than if I easily had access to everything I wanted.

I have discovered I can be more artistic than I had ever remembered. I once lost the search for little party hats for my kindy class, and after visiting three different potential stores (yes, I actually tried three in very different parts of the city!), I gave up, went home, and took out the scissors, some pom poms, and coloured paper, and made them myself. I also recently discovered I have the capability (as I think my grade four self once did), to make paper mache. With a lack of piñatas for Halloween floating around my city, I was determined to provide one for my kindy class, and one for my friends at a party later that weekend. Thus, a bat and a spider were born, and my dexterity skills were reborn.

Beyond amateur artistry, I have learned many ways of doing many things.  I even managed to roast eggplant with my mini toaster (that only has a toaster setting), and since it’s so small, I also skewered eggplant on a fork and held it over a gas hob until it cooked. This works!

Become observant. Instead of just heading down a store’s aisle with tunnel vision, like an arrow toward a target, seeking and grabbing the exact thing and the same brand I always buy, I now take better heed of my surroundings.

It’s pretty much out of necessity, because I don’t actually know where anything is; but I have developed a fresh sense for registering my eye to brain connection a little better. I might not want a certain thing now, but perhaps I (or another friend) might find a desire for it in the near future. Besides, I’m curious! What are all of these different looking things all around me?

My eyes have closely inspected almost every little jar and package in my local grocery store. For the vast majority, I can’t understand the writing on the packages. But often I can figure it out, or guess at its contents. Users be warned: based on such a guess, I accidentally bought stinky tofu (yes, that is what it’s called) instead of regular tofu to make a stir-fry. Thankfully the moment the package was opened my senses were warned before I added the stinky stuff to my beautiful vegetable mixture already simmering. This serves as just a reminder to try to be more observant next time I purchase tofu. Or anything.

Granted, I take a pretty long time to go for a simple grocery shop now, but I think being more aware of our surroundings is a wonderful way to really get a sense of what our surroundings actually consist of.

The best things in life aren’t things.” Seriously. The more times I travel, the more times I am struck with this reality. We can own as much stuff as our hearts and our credit cards desire. But we can also open our eyes to the realities of the harmfulness our over-consumption really does cause. Not just on ourselves, but also on our planet. We can take a step back and pause to really appreciate what ‘things’ matter most in our lives.

I do appreciate the adventure that seeking out, enhancing, or creating physical things can offer. I appreciate the joy that can come when giving and receiving things. I even appreciate the endorphins that somehow are heightened after a successful shop. But I would also rather be the type of person that places a much higher value on appreciating my relationships and the wonders our world has to offer us.

In short, I refuse to stare down a pile of boxes in distress ever again.

A few years ago, a good friend of mine described her experience of witling her entire belongings down into what could fit into one backpack. She was making a move from Canada to tour the world before settling into another country with her boyfriend (now husband). I wondered how she could fit all of her things into one bag. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but the essence has stayed with me. She described that it might’ve been hard at first, but she felt really good about it. Liberated even. I know she’s settled into her new country with her lovely beau, and they have undoubtedly accumulated things again as they build their new home there.  But I hope a lesson can come from that moment she found herself able to pick up and move with the love of her life, unattached to any ‘thing’, and able to explore and enjoy the wonderful things that aren’t actually things that our beautiful humanity and world have to offer.

On this subject, I remember the revelation Jennifer Connolly’s character had with the junk lady in Labyrinth (1989). In the end, it really is all junk. We can enjoy it, but let’s not let it become ourselves, nor let ourselves become it.

 

Want a good read? Check out one of my favourite author’s books, Twelve by Twelve in his struggle to find a more meaningful life with a smaller footprint on earth.

Teaching and Learning in the ESL Classroom

It’s time for the third edition of the Reach to Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival. This is a monthly series that provides helpful tips to ESL teachers around the globe. This month, I’m hosting the amazing bloggers here! If you’d like to get involved in next month’s carnival, please get in touch with Dean at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.com

The topic this month is about the learning we do as teachers. We aren’t just fixtures designed to instruct from the front of a classroom. As teachers, especially teachers abroad, we are given the wonderful opportunity to learn just as much as (if not more than) we teach along the way. Read the entries below from these amazing teachers (and subsequent students) to see just how teaching and learning truly do go hand in hand.

Shay Delagarza and Zach Zine – Teachers in the Students’ Seats

Hello!  Our names are Shay and Zach and together we make up the team that is “Internationally In Debt.”  We are both Chicago natives, have been dating for over seven years, and have lived in Taipei for about 16 months now.  We love our lives here and live them to the fullest despite the fact that we have a combined student debt load of over US$140,000.  We hope to prove that you can do it, too!

Sometimes in our classroom we become the students.  We have learned so much in the past 16 months of teaching here, and we wish we could explain every last detail.  But, alas, we cannot.  In our post, though, we have compiled a few of the things we have learned that we see as very important. Enjoy!

Dean Barnes – What Teaching ESL has Taught Me

My name is Dean, I have been traveling for around 2 and a half years now with a small stint back in my home country. I’m from the UK and I began my teaching career on the island of Bali. I then made the move to Taiwan where I currently reside. Here I have the joy to fulfill my passion for writing by providing ESL/travel related articles to the Reach To Teach website.

Teaching ESL can teach us a lot about ourselves as people. Here I discuss what teaching abroad has taught me about myself and my personal life. Teaching English in Taiwan and Bali has given me two different ESL experiences that have taught me a lot about myself.

Vanessa Long – Learning from Teaching

After 26 years in Texas, I decided to take a huge leap and move to South Korea to teach English for a year. As the time zoomed by, I quickly realized that one year just wasn’t enough time to spend in Asia. I currently teach at a public elementary school near Daegu, South Korea.

I’ve been a teacher for many years now. I studied Elementary Education in college, and have worked with students in various ways for over 10 years. Every experience has been very different, especially teaching in Korea. Here are two things I’ve learned, and been able to greatly improve while teaching ESL in Korea.

Eteri Chatara-Morse – Being an Entertainer… and sometimes an Educator

Eteri has lived/studied abroad (Germany and Japan) and lived/taught abroad (Republic of Georgia and Czech Republic). Her blog started as a way to keep her various family members abreast of what she was doing while teaching in Georgia and has carried on into further travels.  She occasionally finds time to remember adventures from her time spent studying abroad in Germany and Japan.  So with no further ado, welcome to her mind. 

This post is a glimpse into my years teaching abroad and how each location influenced my teaching style. My first year teaching abroad was in Kutaisi, Georgia (the country, not the state!). They are a developing country and have a fairly terrible education system. While my next experience was very different in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. Their education system is much more developed and my imagination soared with games and activities. It certainly helped that there was a plethora of materials for me to use at my fingertips.

Lisa Vinish – Things my students have taught me 

My name is Lisa Vinish and I’m a 20-something Canadian with a passion for education and travel.  My first international trip was to Kenya in 2008 and I’ve been traveling nearly non-stop ever since.  In 2010 a combination of disillusionment with academia and an overwhelming urge to travel again led me to abandon my graduate studies and move to Asia.  This continent has been the greatest love affair of my life, and I’m not quite ready for the inevitable “break up” yet.  Currently, I live in Pohang, South Korea and teach at a small private kindergarten.

After over two years of teaching in an ESL classroom I’ve learned so much about myself and teaching.  Over time I’ve figured out what does and doesn’t work; however, I think mistakes are unavoidable.  Every day spent in front of a class is a new opportunity to learn and grow.  This blog post details the top 5 things I’ve learned from teaching.

Liane Nichols – Teaching the Teacher: The things I’ve learned from students abroad

Liane is an independent foreign English teacher and travel writer.  She graduated from Texas State University in 2010 with a B.A in International Relations.  During college, Liane interned with the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Institute, and volunteered as President of the International Studies Club and Sigma Iota Rho Honors Fraternity.  Since then, she has been fulfilling her dream of traveling the world by teaching English in Thailand, Georgia, and the Czech Republic.  Follow her experiences by visiting her blog at Nicholsaway.blogspot.com.

I’ve learned plenty of useful information from my students, but my favorite lesson was learning how differences in pronunciation can really change a words meaning.  Thanks to my lovely Thai students at Wangchanwittya, I accidentally learned a new word!

Chris Schannauer and Jenni Burdge – The student in all of us 

My name is Chris Schannauer. My girlfriend’s name is Jenni Burdge. We both teach at Jungchul Hakwon in Gongdo, South Korea. We have been in Korea for a little over four months now. We hail from the United States. I was born in Pennsylvania, and Jenni in New Jersey. We are both certified to teach secondary history in Pennsylvania. We decided to teach in Korea with hopes to boost our resumes, but also to take this opportunity in our lives to travel.

This entry speaks about two of the things Jenni and I have learned from our students.

Samantha Baker – Master Becomes Student

Samantha Baker is an American who has been living and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for 7 months.  She previously lived and taught English for 15 months in Taipei, Taiwan.  Samantha is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she was a Special Education teacher for 4 years.

This post is what I’ve learned about teaching ESL by being a student of foreign language.

Tiffany Molyneux – The Teacher Becomes the Student

Hello! My name is Tiffany Molyneux. I am a 28 year old from South Florida. I completed 6 years teaching in Florida, before moving to South Korea. I am in my second year teaching English in South Korea. I love God, people, and adventure.

This is a brief entry of some of the things I have learned while teaching in the ESL classroom.

Sarah Steinmetz – What I’ve Learned in the ESL Classroom

I am a New Hampshire native and a proud graduate of the University of New Hampshire. After teaching at a high school in New Hampshire for a year, I decided to leave my life behind and move to South Korea.  I am currently teaching at a High School in Jeomchon, South Korea with amazing co-workers and students alike. 

When I finished EPIK orientation about two and a half months ago, I felt like I had been through the most overwhelming whirlwind of my life. Everything in my life was suddenly different, and then BAM! It was time to start a new job.  Over the past few months, I have learned countless lessons about students, teaching, and my own strengths and weaknesses.

Mary Ellen Dingley – What I’ve Learned in the ESL Classroom

Mary Ellen has volunteered, studied and worked in South America, Eurasia and the Caribbean. She graduated from the George Washington University where she studied cultural anthropology and creative writing. She currently resides in New Orleans where she dances as often as possible, talks about food a lot and spies on other people’s puppies at the park. 

ESL teaching abroad is difficult in all the regular ways that teaching is difficult, but compounded times five when you throw in cultural differences and language barriers. Here, a few unorthodox lessons from the classroom! 

 

Describing the Indescribable: A weekend in a sacred place—Makindu, Kenya

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. If you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with me at appetiteodysseys@gmail.com, and I’ll let you know how you can start participating! Click here for the fabulous blogs in the carnival writing on the same topic!

 

 

In all of my travels, there’s a lot I could share with you for this month’s Reach to Teach Blog Carnival, but one special experience trumps them all.

The topic is to share my most memorable travel experience. I can undoubtedly say that this moment came to me one special weekend when I stepped off of a joyfully crowded bus (that was emitting bongo flava music on loud speaker) and I pressed my feet to the rich, reddish-brown earth along the roadside of Makindu, Kenya. What makes this experience the most memorable is a feeling. It’s a feeling that words can only do minor justice to. What I’ve written are the words I’ve found in my attempt to share my experience with you.

I had been traveling for a couple of days, starting my journey in Tanzania. I lived in Tanzania for my field research, where I studied the relationships of food, religion, diaspora, and development surrounding the Sikh communal meal, langar. Almost any time I mentioned my topic of study there, I was told I should definitely see how langar is done in Makindu. “That is the real langar” they would say. It is considered an important site of pilgrimage for the East African Sikh community, and both Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike flock to the gurdwara (temple) gates daily.

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langar in Tanzania

Makindu is a little town nestled on the road between Nairobi and Mombassa. To get there from Tanzania, I had to change busses in Nairobi. I arrived at my stop hoping to go directly to Makindu the same day, but was advised to wait until morning. As a single, foreign female, it probably wasn’t the safest idea to be traveling the road at night.

Following an enjoyable evening in Nairobi, I woke early in the morning and hopped on a bus that was traveling to Mombassa. I could only hope that the driver understood that I needed to get off at Makindu. Time on an African bus is often evasive—hours are undeterminable as delays and unexpected stops, drop-offs, and pick-ups can give you only a very general idea of the length of your journey. So if it’s your first glance at the landscape, you are often left wondering where you are along the road in relation to your stop.

As my head was nodding along with the bumps in the road, we came to another stop. I felt an instinct spark just seconds before the driver started speaking quickly in Swahili, and soon everyone was staring at the mzungu (foreigner). “I must be here!” I thought. Sensing the road calling the wheels of the bus to start turning again, I leapt to action. I grabbed my bag and repeated “asante, asante sana,” with a smile that I hoped conveyed the mixture of things I was thinking as I maneuvered my way off of the bus and onto the roadside.

It was a dry, stifling hot day and the sun was up in its full, African splendour. I wiped the sweat from my brow, and stood for a few moments taking in my new location. I didn’t see a road sign, yet I felt like I was in the right place. The roadside had a little line of tables with vendors quietly displaying their fresh vegetables and goods for sale. I looked down the road I’d come from to Nairobi, and then toward the direction the bus had gone off in. I took a breath, and started walking the way the bus had taken. I was looking for the Nishan Sahib—the flag that proudly beckons your arrival at any Sikh gurdwara.

Before my journey, I could only picture Makindu as a place centered on the Sikh stories I had heard of the gurdwara there. The gurdwara is connected to the town from the tales of early Sikh railway workers. Upon completion of the railway in Makindu, the little gurdwara that had been erected at the time was left attended by a local Kenyan (non-Sikh). There are many versions of the story, but in a nutshell, it is told that the attendant saw a vision of Guru Gobind Singh who asked the man to take good care of the gurdwara. Since that time, a fusion of non-Sikh African and Sikh African and Indian employees and devotees have cared for the gurdwara with its very sacred connection to the tenth Sikh Guru.

The gurdwara has grown over time, and it has become a sacred site of pilgrimage that bonds a multi-ethnic community together through an enjoyment and celebration of spirituality and good food. Like any gurdwara, anyone, no matter what your religion or ethnicity, can enter. You can partake of the free food that is always available in the langar kitchen, and you can sleep overnight free of charge. You can also help out, participate, and donate as much as you are able or want, all in the spirit of seva (selfless service). I was informed this happens in Makindu on a scale and a level unseen in the rest of East Africa. As someone hoping to specialize in the study of langar, you can imagine my excited anticipation to find this special site.

But before I saw the flag, my eye caught a magnificent sight across the road from where I was walking. It was an elaborate and ornate mosque. It took me a moment to realize this was not the gurdwara I was seeking. I had gone there with the impression that the town was quite small, and only boasted the gurdwara. I hadn’t realized that it would coincide in the same town as one of the most beautiful mosques I’d ever seen.

Two men were seated at the gates of the mosque; I assumed they were security guards. I walked across the road and intended to ask them if I could take a picture of their breathtaking structure. My idea to only take a quick snap and be on my way was very mistaken.

One of the men rose and we exchanged greetings in Swahili. I gestured to my camera and asked if I could take a picture. Feeling at first nervous tension, I was immediately put to ease with a broad grin and a hammering of Swahili that welcomed me. I returned the grin, and asked him to speak slowly. He gestured for me to follow him toward the mosque, and in his broken English and my broken Swahili, we began a tour that felt like a dream. It still feels like it was a dream.

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He took me into the quiet mosque, I removed my shoes and raised my scarf above my hair (thank goodness I have a tendency to always wear a scarf when I travel—it’s good for so many reasons beyond providing a blanket or pillow on a long bus ride). The mosque compound had many different buildings and rooms, and he took me into almost all of them, where a scattering of what I assume were regular devotees went about their business of praying, working, and socializing. I kept questioning if it was okay for me to enter the different rooms—he even took me to an observation area where Muslim men were praying. He assured me it was okay for me to be there with him as my guide. The gender and religious neutrality in that moment was both surprising and inviting for me.  He led me up a winding staircase of a narrow tower that went to the rooftop of the mosque. From there, we overlooked the mosque grounds and spent a peaceful moment of stillness above the town.

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We headed back down, and he suggested taking me across the road to a different, traditional mosque. I knew I was on a mission to begin my ‘real’ research at the gurdwara, but I didn’t think a little time exploring the area beforehand would hurt. I think I even justified it as ‘providing context’. I agreed, and he took me along a winding pathway that led to a little one-room building. Again, I removed my shoes and covered my hair. We entered the little structure. It was dark inside, but cozy and intimate. Arabic prayers were written on documents beneath a cloth adorning a little separator in the middle of the room. A red rug covered the floor, which couldn’t have been more than four squared meters.

After pointing at the different readings and showing me around the little room, my guide sat cross-legged against a wall and gestured for me to sit across from him. I did. He produced a set of prayer beads and placed them in my hand. He held his own beads, and began reciting an Arabic prayer.

He indicated that I should join him in repeating the words as my fingers worked the beads.

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I have always been fascinated by religion, yet I do not consider myself to be at all religious. Spiritual? Sometimes. I once coined the idea of myself as a pluralist agnostic. I perhaps believe in… something… but I can never place a name or a practice to that something.  So I have spent my time learning about and appreciating the multiple ways other people have found to name and practice their beliefs.

As I started to say the Arabic words, they felt at first awkward and uncomfortable. But I persisted out of respect to my wonderful guide. Soon, I was overcome with emotion. I can hardly describe the feeling I had in that moment, but I can share that I had goosebumps all over, and warm tears began streaming silently down my cheeks. They weren’t tears of sadness, or even of happiness. They were just tears, and I was not sure why they were even there. A rush of thoughts, from earthly questions of place, family, and friendship mixed with transcendental questions of humanity, spirituality, and religion. And in all of it, I felt both peace and confusion. I became suddenly embarrassed. Why am I crying!?

My guide only smiled knowingly, and began speaking soothingly in his few English words and in Swahili. I can’t recall exactly what he said to ease my thoughts, but soon we were walking around the grounds of the traditional mosque where he showed me an even more traditional African mosque-structure of perfectly placed bricks aligned with spaces for the devotee’s prayers.

A haze had lifted, and it was time for me to move on to my ultimate destination. My guide gave me the prayer beads as a gift, and directed me toward the gurdwara.

I didn’t think my newfound spiritual self would experience anything greater than in that special moment in that special little mosque. But it turns out, it acted like a catalyst for the depth of sacred and profound peace I was then to encounter during my weekend at the gurdwara.

It was a quick visit, but in that weekend I was met with a completely awe inspiring experience. So much of what makes this whole experience worthy as my most memorable travel moment, is that (despite the length of this post), the most memorable part for me is what exists beyond any words that can be spoken or written. I’ll reiterate: it’s a feeling.

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The Nishan Sahib flag of the Makindu Gurdwara

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The immaculately kept grounds of the gurdwara are adorned with flowers, lush green grass, and fountains that serve as an inviting and peaceful setting with a hospital, offices, sleeping quarters for staff and guests, three major diwan (prayer) halls, a large kitchen, and a dining hall. In an open alcove men and women, elderly and young, Sikh and non-Sikh sit organizing, cleaning, cutting and piling vegetables. A few steps away inside the kitchen, mostly women form an assembly line of shaping, patting, rolling, frying, buttering and stacking roti. Massive pots simmer with smells of dhal, sabji, and chai, stirred occasionally by passionate devotees and gurdwara staff. Dishes clang together in a nearby sink as stacks of trays, cups, and spoons are efficiently cleaned.

This kitchen is indeed the measure of efficiency.

Row upon row of bags containing various flours, sugars, lentils, spices and tea decorate the pantry shelves, and a walk-in fridge is filled to the brim with onions, potatoes, carrots, turnips, coriander and other herbs and vegetables. All of these ingredients have been carefully sought out in the markets of Nairobi and along the road to Mombassa. A gentle breeze wafts through the doors of the kitchen, as nam simran (music chanting the name of god) repeats ‘waheguru’ over the speakers, the sound of the music penetrates the senses in sync with the breeze.

That music combined with the breeze infused the experience for me with the feeling that Makindu must be one of the most sacred places on the planet. (I was actually really lucky to find a very close version of the music on youtube, you can enjoy it here).

Tables in the dining hall are arranged in rows, and a variety of people enjoy food together. When I arrived, Kenyan nurses from the hospital were taking their lunch while chatting animatedly, and Muslim men from the mosque I had just visited made greetings. Weary travelers, happy holidayers, pilgrims, families, poor and rich, of all different races, backgrounds, castes, religions and nationalities are welcomed upon their entrance into the gurdwara to fill their stomachs.

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A lovely family was providing langar that weekend in thanks to god for the upcoming wedding of one of their daughters. This family immediately took me under their wing, and held my hand all weekend guiding me through the kitchens and the kirtan services (music prayer services), and answering my many questions providing insight I could never have imagined without their warmth and assistance.

On multiple occasions that weekend, I caught myself feeling filled to the brim with happiness and contentedness. I have visited many gurdwaras, and participated in many different activities within them, and I have always received warmth and welcome. But this was the first time I’d actually felt the simran wash over me during a prayer service. This time, I wasn’t just a ‘participant observer’. I actually felt something beyond my research and friendship interests. The tears that had streamed down my cheeks earlier found me again on a few occasions here, and I felt a profound sense that can only be encountered when you open your heart to such a sacred space.

“What sort of anthropologist does this?” I wondered. Theories in anthropology can leave an ethnographer befuddled with the amount of engagement or detachment one is supposed to have when in the field. I certainly wasn’t going to write my dissertation about the amount of crying I did (I’ll be honest, I cried over that dissertation for other reasons too). Yet above anything, that emotion I felt in Makindu was what drove the experience to another level for me. While I still live a life that can barely name an un-nameable, and I don’t practice what I still feel to be un-practice-able (for me); but I can share with you that in that special weekend in that special town of Makindu, I did encounter it. And I’ll never forget it.

I had to meet a friend of mine arriving on a plane into Nairobi early on Monday morning, so I left Makindu after just a short weekend. I didn’t want to go, but life has a way of moving on us, and I knew I had already gained so much in such a short time. Not only did I have more interviews and participant observation ‘gathered’ for my research than I’d ever imagined, but I knew I was a changed person. I had found a contentedness with myself, and a trust in myself and in my instincts that I hadn’t fully realized before. I hopped onto another crowded and bumpy bus back the way I had come. Yet the road and the journey seemed somewhat different this time.

I leave you with the concluding paragraph of my dissertation that I hope highlights how our memories are so connected to the senses that we experience along our journeys. These sensory experiences along with our memories are such an important part of how we develop our own identities, and how we become who we are. I have tended to dedicate my enjoyment of such connections to the relationships between the sense of taste and memory. But it can also be an interesting thought if we add in the element of a spiritual sensation as well.

In my last few hours at the Makindu gurdwara, I was asked if I would attend a lecture by the Giani ji. I explained that unfortunately, I had to be leaving soon, and that I had hoped to help a little while longer in the kitchen before going. The auntie who had posed the question nodded her head and smiled, “Yes, you must take the smells from the langar with you on your journey.” David Sutton explores the interconnected relationships between synesthetic [multi-sensory] experiences and memory, and the impacts such memories can have on one’s identity. Perhaps I can no longer physically smell the simmering dhal, nor taste the sweet khir and chai while chatting with a new friend. I can no longer feel the gentle breeze blowing my dupatta as I chop vegetables with a happy family, nor can I see the rows of tables lined with diverse Sikh and non-Sikh faces. But as I listen to a copy of the nam simran that played on repeat in the Guru’s kitchen that weekend, I know this auntie’s sentiment echoes that of Sutton’s. I have taken those smells with me, and so much more. I have gained a perspective of the potential that can come from reframing our constructed notions of religion, diaspora, and development, by considering food consumption habits as ‘spiritually powerful’—not simply to reduce such practices or beliefs to their function, but rather to celebrate the diversity and opportunity that can come from them.

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