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.


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.

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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You can add more lives to your life

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. 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! 

This month’s topic for the Blog Carnival is to discuss “how living abroad can make you a better person.” Check out the other wonderful articles written by bloggers on the same topic.

 

I’m a Canadian who has lived “abroad” in Ghana, France, the UK, Tanzania, and am now living in Taiwan. I’ve also traveled to many other countries all over on shorter adventures.  So it turns out I find there is a fair bit for me to think about on this topic! Hopefully as I contemplate it here, it can help you too! 

Why learning is awesome

To begin, I’d like to share with you a bit of what I think about learning. Whether it’s learning through the thoughts and experiences of yourself, or learning through the thoughts and experiences of others.

Yann Martel’s witty book implores the necessity of living a life that both challenges and adds to your own lived experience. He relates this importance of expanding your horizons with reading books. I’m hoping to take his lead and then show you how you can expand your horizons by way of analogy, while in the process of doing so very literally.

An excerpt from his introduction starts us out quite eloquently:

“The great thing about reading books is that it makes us better than cats. Cats are said to have nine lives. What is that compared to the girl, boy, man, woman who reads books? A book read is a life added to one’s own. So it takes only nine books to make cats look at you with envy.

And I’m not talking here only of “good” books. Any book—trash to classic—makes us live the life of another person, injects us with the wisdom and folly of their years. When we’ve read the last page of a book, we know more, either in the form of raw knowledge—the name of a gun, perhaps—or in the form of greater understanding. The worth of these vicarious lives is not to be underestimated. There’s nothing sadder—or sometimes more dangerous—than the person who has lived only his or her single, narrow life, unenlightened by the experience, real or invented, of others.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Martel. Reading is such a wonderful way to open up whole worlds and lives that you never knew existed. I am the type of person (and I have a feeling you may be too) that has an endless wish-list of books I want to read. This gets to the point of dreadful guilt, because the list will never fully be realized. On the otherhand, the books I do have the privilege to open and to read have invariably always added a new scope—even in the most minute way—to how I then live and interpret my life.

Once your mind has been expanded, it is never undone. We may—in fact, we definitely do—forget things we’ve read or heard, or even lived. But we’re in a constant state of building on prior knowledge, and seeing new encounters through an ever changing renewed lens. It’s our choice how we want that lens to change. (See this inspiring talk for how we can play a little tetrus with the brain).

A type of learning that will add your own lives to your own life

Let’s expand Martel’s example of reading books to traveling and living abroad. I believe that by stepping outside of your norm, your everyday, you will continuously add life to your own life, creating an infinite lifeline that any cat might envy.

Pushing beyond the wonderment of the contents laid out between two covers (or now an e-reader), l do think a lived experience is much more profound and definitely more enjoyable than any word that can be found on anyone else’s page. Your sights, your sounds, your smells, your tastes, and your textures are yours, and yours alone. And they are yours to experience as you are taught, and as you choose.

Traveling can be a great start to step outside of your norm and to add new dimensions to your life. Take a week, or weekend trip somewhere, or even just spend a few hours in a new place, and you will have opened up whole new ways of thinking, living and experiencing for yourself.

I like to think a person can gain a lot from just a short traveling adventure. In fact, I think there’s a real—and wonderful—phenomenon that when we travel, our multiple senses are heightened to the beauty of our surroundings. We see wonder in things that if we were to live them every day, we would neglect and ignore them.

On a short trip I catch myself thinking something like, “Wow, let me take a picture of that alley (for example). It is so beautiful with the old stones and there is water coming out of that random but perfectly placed pipe over there. This place is absolutely perfect. And it is beautiful. And life is beautiful. And the earth is beautiful. And whoever built it, and whoever now lives here is also beautiful. And wow, I’m lucky to be here.”  I’m sure someone who lives around the corner from that alley probably never gives it much (if any) notice.

Even more fundamentally when traveling, you begin to ask questions. Whether these questions are about your new surroundings, or of your own previous existence—they will fundamentally change who you are and how you see the world. This can be something as basic as, “There is hardly any water in this toilet. Why is there hardly any water in the basin of this toilet? Are they short of water? Or do I overuse water? What is the state of water in this world? What can be done about it?” (and the list of questions can continue in this fashion if you let it). This is not even to mention the moments of having to use a toilet that looks and functions nothing like a toilet you’ve ever encountered—there will be skirt lifting or awkward moments of trying to hold your pants (I mean trousers for you UK folk, though underwear/pants are awkwardly in the way in these moments too), standing or crouching you have to improvise and use muscles you never knew existed when you encounter non-western toilets!

But regardless of the encounter, or the seemingly trivial (or awkward) experience, questions can lead you to a whole new path in life. And this IS worthy of exploration. And these moments and your questions can certainly provide some lively storytelling for yourself.

In short, I tend to think, traveling is da bomb.

But living somewhere different than you’re use to takes this experience to a whole other dimension.

You can find yourself experiencing these moments of wonderment and fascination at any point throughout the duration of your stay in your new home. The smells, the tastes, the nuances of communication, the adventure of it all is still magnified in your new existence. But it coincides with a heavier dose of reality. You will experience different ways of thinking, and certainly different ways of being. This will, I can assure you, change how you think about the world, and how you live your life thereafter—and it augments any book you’ve ever read, or travel experience you’ve ever had, by the thousands.

I think most especially, it allows you to really get to know other ways of thinking, being, and behaving in this world—by actually doing it. For me, living abroad is the apex of learning. Which is the apex of giving yourself new chances and opportunities to live more fully.

And here’s why:

1) You learn about yourself.  An incredible amount of soul searching can happen when you embark on a new destination to start a new life. This soul searching can approach you at the craziest times when you live abroad, and can deeply affect the life you then lead. I generally experience the most intense bouts of inner reflection when I’m in the actual process of moving.

You pick up whatever belongings you deem worthy to keep with you, stuff them into a bag—though I’ll admit to often using two, I’m still a heavy packer despite knowing better… something for me to keep working on! Either way, it’s very liberating to give away and leave behind “things” that no longer seem important. You can disconnect from the ridiculous amount of ‘stuff’ our society tells us we need, and you can realize that what you really need is to be happy. And happiness can come in so many more exciting ways than in the ownership of “things.” It can come from you.

As you leave one place behind, you are entering into the realm of the unknown. This is the perfect moment to reflect on your experience and thoughts of the past and your hopes for the future. I can assure you, a long airplane ride by yourself gives you ample opportunity and inspiration to think about these things.  These moments of deep internal reflection have been a vital way for me to connect with my own hopes and dreams, and even my thoughts and philosophies on life and meaning.

Starting a new life somewhere will challenge you and bring out strengths and weaknesses you never knew you had. At first, you learn to prioritize. Find a place to live, find where to get food, learn how to communicate. If you can navigate your way through even these basic tasks in a new place, you might find you’ll be surprised at your own saviness, strength, and resolve. I can tell you after a few weeks of living in a shared room in a hostel in London without any apartment in sight, my inner strength was at one of its most tested. There will be breakdown moments (mine happened in a public bathroom stall since I had nowhere to cry in private). But even after any serious bout of crying, you can pick yourself up, talk to some new friends, and the moment you ask for help and imply the need for a little sympathy, you WILL find what you’re looking for.

This brings me to our second stage of learning, which involves needing and being surrounded by other people.

2) You learn about others. As I’ve mentioned, reading and traveling is a great way to do this. But living abroad allows you to actually experience a life with new ways of thinking, seeing, communicating and yes, of course eating.

I have yet to really understand people who cannot see that there are infinite ways to be in this world. Difference does not imply inferiority. Nor superiority for that matter. Through learning and expanding our education of how “other” people live, we can only expand our own way of life. Whatever direction that may take.

There is a whole wealth of literature on the experience of “othering.” For some reason, we humans have an unfortunate disability when it comes to thinking of “self” vs. “other.” It’s the very basis of conflict, stereotypes, and discrimination.

I do see the pride and joy we can experience in “self” and “we” identifications. For just one example, I gladly don my Canadian identity in multiple ways, and lament moments where I cannot encounter things that are very substantially “me.” This would be compared to where I’m living which might be very substantially somebody else’s “me.” (Longing for certain foods is the best tangible example of this).

But with a celebration of my own self identity, I think it is also equally (if not more) important to celebrate and learn from the identities of others. Once you do this, you will realize the humanity we all share. Living abroad will actually take this to a whole other level, forcing (in both pleasant and unpleasant ways) your own identifications to change.

I still catch myself wanting to move money or food into my right hand instead of my left (a trait I picked up in Ghana), as your left hand is polluted and considered highly disrespectful for passing or receiving things or for eating. I catch myself wanting to use words that just don’t have a translation in English, or that simply sound nicer and feel better on the tongue in another language. One example: the Swahili word mvinyo is really the only word I can use for wine now. I mean, mmm-veen-yo! Yum! That’s what that is.

Even more profoundly, after leaving a place you’ve lived abroad, you can find yourself truly longing for parts of that culture. Reverse culture shock is a very real and yes, shocking, experience. But beyond that, I know I couldn’t live a life without tasting kili wili (fried plaintain bits) or fufu ever again. Or more recently when I visited Canada, despite only being there for a little over a week and being surrounded by all the favourite foods I’d been longing for, I actually also craved Oden—the Japanese soup I’d grown very fond of here in Taiwan.

This all brings me to my final point about learning abroad:

3) You will learn about the world. By inhabiting a part of the world you’d never before considered, you will open up your life to living as a more globally conscious citizen. You will learn other ways of thinking and being as they relate to your own past experiences of thinking and being. By doing so, you start to see the world as it works both within and across designated borders.

You will become a pro at understanding international time zones. You will have multiple random acronyms for airport codes stalk-piled in your brain. Despite any deficiency at doing math (like I truly have), you will still be able to translate multiple national currencies in your head at least within a close approximate. You will (somehow) learn to navigate the incredible bureaucracy and red tape required to enter and to stay in different countries—and If you don’t know it off the top of your head, you will definitely know where to look. See this awesome meme that anyone living abroad can probably relate to. I don’t identify with their use of the term “third-culture” but I definitely relate to most of their posts as someone who enjoys living abroad.

In addition to these pretty valuable (or useless, depending how you look at it) skills, living abroad will also help you recognize the world as the wonderful and sacred planet that it is.  You’ll find new ways to question how the world is treated, and hopefully, just hopefully, you can be part of the forward thinking dialogue that will shift the way we treat this big yet fragile earth.

So, in conclusion, I think there are about a million ways living abroad can better your life. But the most poignant for me, is that you will learn. You will learn about yourself, about others, and especially, about the world. You will experience amazing and exciting new things, and you will add new and beautiful colours to the invisible glasses through which you see the world.

Not all lenses are rosy—you will most likely also experience heartache and even deep personal crisis. Questions of home, identity, and friendship permeate the experience. But these questions can only strengthen you as you take on anything to come in your future.

I do not neglect the fact that I’ve felt incredible envy for those who stay rooted in one place. There’s something I find very respectful about people who get their ultimate happiness in the place in which they were born, and/or where they intend to stay. If there is genuine happiness in whatever life you live, then by all means, live it as you choose to live.

I am merely telling you why I am currently living the way I live.

“Somebody told me don’t stare at horizons unless you are ready to run.”** Well you can only broaden your own internal horizons by moving toward the actual horizons that call you, and by choosing to stay there for a time. In doing this, you then (even if just by osmosis) broaden the horizons of anyone else you encounter along the journey. You add life to your own life, and to the lives of others. My goodness, we really are luckier than cats with their meagre nine lives.

 

**These are lyrics from a great song by one of my favourite musicians, Michael Franti. Here’s a live performance of the song, “The Long Ride Home”, or you can check out his new album All People on itunes (I think anyone who has made it to the bottom of this post would love it).

Liminality and Airplane Food

Reading a beautiful passage while enjoying some Turkish wine enroute. I still prefer books, but frequent travel has turned me into a Kindle carrier.

Reading a beautiful passage while enjoying some Turkish wine enroute.
I still prefer books, but frequent travel has turned me into a Kindle carrier.

A favourite pastime of mine is staring up at the sky and watching airplanes flying overhead. You can almost be certain if I’m around when there’s an airplane in flight, I’ll at least be staring at it, if not pointing it out. There are so many souls on just one airplane, and I wonder, where are they all going? Where do they all come from? And then my next inevitable question, when can I go too?

I generally have a craving that can only be fulfilled when I grab my bags and start out on a journey. I get a natural high when I arrive at the big beautiful building—a gateway to the rest of the world: the airport. This high lasts for the majority of my journey. What is it about travel that gets me so elated?

I’m clearly not the only person to feel this way. And yet I know I’m blessed to revel in the experience the way I do. At this very moment you are reading this, just try to contemplate how many travelers are enroute from one place to another. The number is countless. I’ve actually tried researching the number of passengers in transit via airplanes in one day, or more broadly in a year. I can tell you, the numbers are almost impossible to define without spewing some statistical web of confusion and probably misinterpretation. The only honest answers I seem to find are the sources that state how ambiguous and near impossible it is to actually define the number of travelers or even planes taking off in a 24 hour period. (If anyone can direct me to a source that can clarify this, I’d gladly learn of it!).

Since the dawn of humanity, people have always been in motion, migrating and traveling for an infinite number of reasons. Devastatingly, it’s far too often because of force. But it can also involve more hopeful circumstances. Sometimes it involves aspirations for better economic means. Or it can be the search for love. Or perhaps an overall search for greater happiness. It can be a sense of adventure. Or even just a passion for cultures and languages. I am lucky to fall into a mix of the latter categories.

Whatever the number of passengers in this world, and for whatever their reason, it is undeniable that there are a lot of people making their own journey every day. For me, travel is the ultimate life experience. There is something very fascinating to be said about being in transit. It’s the state of the liminal. The betwixt and between. (Victor Turner rock my world). The space where life is turned upside down, and where inner reflection and unlimited possibilities are your cozy yet challenging travel companions.

In the state of the liminal, exciting things can happen, and the possibilities can be endless, and are often outside our norm. We are neither here, nor there, and yet are still very clearly somewhere. To me, that somewhere is very special. It’s the threshold of change. The reflection of the past. The contentment in the present. And excitingly, it’s the possibilities of the future.

When we cross into this threshold, the doorway in this instance begins with the airport. We ceremoniously go through a series of rites that initiate us into the realm of the liminal. We flash our government issued identification and pass through a series of checks—especially slightly heart racing examinations of the things we’ve deemed worthy of traveling with us, and sometimes undergoing full body scans and critical personal questioning.

Once through the gate of security, at leisure we can explore the many shops and restaurants, and partake in one of my absolute favourite things in this world: airport people watching. I love nothing better then to sit with my book and a big glass of wine, strategically perched in an airport bar where I can observe flights taking off and landing, and the many travelers going to and fro within my vicinity. Heaven. On. Earth.

Of course it’s not all paradise. I can equate it a little to a new romantic encounter. There are often either speedy departures or boring delays, mixed up schedules, strange and foreign encounters, and even accidental moments of just being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, on the wrong vehicle. And yet despite these awkward encounters, the mere possibility that the most liberating and unearthing moment of your life is just around the corner makes it all well worth the effort. What I’m referring to here is the height of the unknown. The adventure of the spirit. An unlimited potential.

On my most recent journey, as the plane was taking off, I overheard a young boy say to his mom, “I like this part.” I smiled to myself, and agreed internally, “Me too.” Of course when on the airplane, you have given yourself over to the rules of your very limited immediate environment. You must follow a strict set of both written and social controls put in place for your own safety and out of respect for your fellow travelers. (See this great book for an insiders perspective of the daily drama aboard airplanes and what happens when these rules are tested.)

One of these controls that interests me the most: airplane food. I generally like to travel with healthy snacks on hand—a bag of veggies, nuts, and some cheese tends to be my go-to emergency food kit when traveling. I also like to explore what airports have to offer in their restaurants—most recently I enjoyed a delicious salad from the advertised ‘local’ menu in the Vancouver airport. BC blueberries, with amazingly seasoned locally raised chicken on a bed of fresh greens, served with a tasty BC Sauvignon Blanc springs to mind as a wonderful welcome home meal upon landing in Canada. But otherwise, especially on a long flight, our palates are at the whim of the airline.

Is the food itself betwixt and between? Food that is neither here, nor there? Most people I know complain about airplane food. Uttering these two words together illicits the immediate response, “ugh,” “disgusting,” and at least a furled eyebrow.

I do think, however, this depends a bit on the airline. My first encounter with airplane food that I remember was on a transatlantic flight as a teenager. I traveled with Air France, and I remember reveling in the excellent service and the exquisite feeling of being special. I enjoyed a delicious selection of food, the main course was veal. Here I was, a young teenager on my own, offered what was then to me, one of the most expensive and exotic meats ever imagined. I have since refined my taste for politically incorrect meats, but the experience of equating travel and food together with an excitement and a feeling of being ‘special’, can all be summed up in my consumption of that meal aboard Air France.

For a long time afterward, I didn’t understand why everybody else seemed to dislike airplane food. Of course I now see it for what it is worth. I have encountered the tasteless, indigestion wielding trolleys that threaten one’s tastebuds, stomaches, and intestines. I generally have a rule to despise food with preservatives and packaging. And I abhor food that has zero transparency about its contents or its origin. There will certainly be no instagraming of what Air Canada somehow considers dietary sustenance for hungry travelers. No photographic filter can make that look palatable.

However, I am still bound to some form of intrigue and appreciation for whatever might pass in front of my tray on what has become my inevitable, regular encounter with food in transit. There is the chance—just a chance—that despite the absurd amount of packaging, and the incredible lack of information about each meal, that I just might enjoy it. Throw in some free booze, and I’m even more receptive.

Let’s be honest, the length of a flight is generally quite boring, with a regular rhythm of the cruising hum of the jets, and the cathartic lull of hushed voices and sleeping passengers. In addition to the take off and landing, (hopefully) the only moments that break up the monotony are when the trolley makes its way down the aisle toward your row. There is something exciting that occurs for me when I see that trolley start to move. Will they give me a vegetarian option? Or what meats do I have to choose from? What will the little appetizer be? Will they give a little dessert? (Cause really, how cute is it when they do?). Very importantly, what will they offer me to drink? (By now, my buzz from the airport wine has generally worn off). How else will the airline decide to make this most profound moment of my entire airplane ride memorable?

One of the things I enjoy the most, is to learn what an airline might interpret as the traditional cultural dishes relative to its country of origin. Flying Turkish Airways, I have enjoyed a delicious lamb kabob with smoked salmon, and a tasty Turkish square for dessert. Qatar Airways had an equally tasty meal of meat and vegetable stew. Japan Airlines offers a mix of Japanese dishes, involving noodles, rice and salads. These three airlines are at the top of my list for their superior foods and superior service. (I don’t know if there is anyone more graceful on or above this earth than a Japanese Flight Attendant).

The reality is that everyone needs to eat, including those of us who are betwixt and between. Certainly great care has gone into the planning and rationing of foods upon the voyages of history. I wonder what Columbus or Polo ate while aboard their great ships? The interesting thing for me is that just as the journey offers up the height of the unknown, so too does the food. Unfortunately, I think this is a case where the ‘unknown while in transit’ isn’t really working in our favour.

There is a great deal of hope for improving the future of travel. The environmental devastation caused by each airplane’s emissions is shocking, and completely unsustainable. Check out this guy for an admirable example of what just one person can do to limit their impact through international and domestic travel. BBC just had a great post that explores the possibilities of travel in the future. I personally like the ideas of the hyperloop and the return of the airships. Whatever the future of travel may be, let’s hope the future of food for travelers also improves. Both for the environment, and for our palates.

Aboard Japan Airlines

Aboard Japan Airlines

Japanese Airline's French wine. What is the carbon footprint here I wonder? Probably the closest one can get to a label on their airplane fare...

Japanese Airline’s French wine. What is the carbon footprint here I wonder?
Probably the closest one can get to a label on their airplane fare…

Turkish Airways (probably one of my favourite airplane food experiences)

Turkish Airways (probably one of my favourite airplane food experiences)

Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways

Oh what dreams and possibilities can emerge from staring outside of that airplane window.

Oh what dreams and possibilities can emerge from staring outside of that airplane window.