Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Extremely Random Rantingness

I should be writing my thesis, or pounding away these keys on any of the 70 pages of assignments that are still haunting me from Asia. But I am not.

No, I am instead cleaning my house (I can't have my family know what a bad housekeeper I really am) and ruminating over various things that are probably of little importance to anyone but myself.

Boycotting the Olympics...
A long conversation about this last night got me to thinking about the ludicrousness of such a "boycott." Please, like any of us were really going to go all the way to Beijing for the Olympics this year. Now, the Paralympics, maybe, but not the big Olympics. I am all for raising awareness about Tibet, but listen up people: WE MISSED THE BOAT. You see, China now has America by the balls. Once upon a time, before they owned our debt, before we were dependent on their cheap exports to fill our longings for "nice shit" on the cheap, that was when we stood a chance of exerting our influence. Now, we can protest all we want, but no one is going to strong arm China into anything. You'd be better off boycotting McDonalds or Coca Cola. Good luck with that.

The "exploitation" of teenage pop stars...Really?! A teenage pop star posed for a provocative picture? NO, say it's not so! Oh, for crying out loud, people. Get over it. You are allowed to complain about the exploitation of teenage girls when they are posing in exchange for crack, okay? Or when they are being kept in a basement by some sex-crazed weirdo. NOT when they are multimillionaires before they are old enough to buy cigarettes. And certainly not when they are publishing memoirs at age 15. Seriously, what in the hell has happened in a 15 year lifetime that I give a damn about? Are you going to talk about the trauma of potty training or the difficulty of transitioning from elementary school to middle school? Yawn. Yeah, not interesting. If anyone is being exploited, it is the parents of all these little girl (and flamboyant little boys) who are shelling out for this crap.

Bird Feeders, and Seed Trays... I like birds. I also like to garden. A couple of weeks ago, Chip and I installed a new bird feeder outside our dining room winder that does not already have a bird feeder visible through it. It is a wonderful feeder, with...okay, nevermind, you don't really want to hear about the details of this feeder. The point is that, after 2 weeks, we finally had our first customer! ONE. One bird. Two weeks. Now, I sit by the window at all times, hoping to see this stupid little bird again so that I can look it up in my bird book and feel all warm and fuzzy. No dice.
As I mentioned above, I also like to garden. This will be my first summer of actually living in Muncie full time. I'm pretty thrilled. I also don't have a job. So I'm pretty broke. Which makes the whole vegetable garden thing that much more appealing. Here in the Midwest, it still freezes at night in May, and yes, sometimes that makes me murderously angry. So I planted seed trays so that I could get my plants all healthy, rocking and rolling before I put them in the ground. I think I planted them a week ago. It feels like a month ago. I have them in front of a window in the dining room. I check on them at least 30 times a day. They are not sprouting. Actually, to be precise, the compost mix I planted them in is sprouting, but just these itty, bitty sprouts that I know for a fact will never grow up to bear yellow crook neck squash or swiss chard. It is agonizing!
Now listen, I know that I am not the most patient person in the world, but this is ridiculous. I should probably start "working"(AKA staring at bird feeder balefully or checking on seed trays obsessively) upstairs, away from all these distractions.

Or get some discipline. Jeeze. I may never complete anything but this house cleaning ever again.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

It is Really Happening!

Just a quick note to remind everyone that I am FINALLY graduating, next Saturday, May 3rd, to be exact.

I'm quite honored to be giving a 10-minute speech at the ceremony, which I was nominated by my class to do. I can scarcely tell you how shocked and delighted I am by that.

Hopefully this poison ivy on my neck and face will be faded by then. Stupid nature!

I wish you all a happy beginning of spring, and love, and love, and love.

I never though this moment would actually come.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Prodigal return

Dearest Darlings,

I am exhausted, and beset with a nasty cold. But I am home. I partied like there was no tomorrow in New Orleans for my dear Dana's wedding celebration, for which I donned victorian undergarments in the endearing role as a bridesmaid.

Chip came down, and I think he is now quite under the spell of New Orleans, too. It is an enchanting place.

Here, it is cold, although I am told it is quite nice and warm. The type of quietude consuming the afternoon is just the sort of thing that reminds me that I am in a past-prime-place, a place in the midst of a slow, lumbering decline rather than a slow upswing, or even an epic climb up a grade that almost appears to be level, such as the sometimes pace of development in the developing world.

The birds outside are not astounding, although I do not love them any less than I did before. They are the very face of familiarity: cardinals and starlings, turtle doves and house sparrows.

No more mynas, no more peacocks. No more red earth bleeding out in every direction. No more jungle filled with the keening of monkeys. No more crashing of the ocean onto the shore, announcing that this is the place where shells come to be beaten into sand.

My skin is freckled and brown, but my cat, Dingo, recognizes me just fine. Dingo, on the other hand, has filled out in my absence, become a full grown man-cat.

New Orleans transitioned me from one wild and exotic place to another, and now I sit at my Muncie window, a fresh crop of goosebumps prickling my skin, wondering how long we will be here before we are able to depart for hotter climes.

It cannot come soon enough, I sneeze into my sarong, ears trying to find the chirping of singing squirrels in the decaying post-industrial ruins outside.


I graduate NEXT MONTH, people. It is all happening so fast.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Backdated: April 4, 2008 "Pilgrims"

It is one fourty-five in the afternoon, and I have just woken up. This morning, a motley crew composed of my dear Josh Perkins, Mona, and our own personal Sri Lankan patron saint, Pradeep--set out to climb a mountain. But not just any mountain, this mountain is Adam’s Peak.

I don’t actually know who Adam was. What I do know is that at the top of this mountain there is a Buddhist temple, and that this time of year pilgrims make their way to the top in the wee hours of the morning to see the miraculous apparition of the peak’s shadow floating on mist and to see the purported footprint of Buddha encased in a small shrine.

The trip began shakily, our train arriving many hours later than we expected it to, dropping us into darkness around 10:45 PM. We were immediately shuffled onto a bus, and were deposited a miserable, half-asleep hour later a short hike from lodging. And it was cold. Our friend Pradeep is from the tropical, southernmost province of Sri Lanka and has never seen mountains, or experienced cold before. This trip is our gift to him. As we all purchased warm clothing, we asked ourselves if he would be cursing us by the time we reached the summit of the mountain.

Mona and Pradeep:

We literally fell into bed sometime around midnight, wishing that we would not have to wake in mere hours. But we would do as pilgrims do, beginning at 3 AM in order to climb the 4,800 steps up in time for sunrise. The climb is 14 kilometers in total.

Mona woke us at 3 AM, and we all laid in bed wishing we were still sleeping. We finally rose, dressed, and set out into the night, accompanied by a dog from the guest house, Sudu (Sinhala for “white”). We had no idea that she would be our guide, but we quickly realized that she knew the way far better than us. First, we walked through a gate:

We passed a multitude of sellers in the beginning, vending water, food, and warm clothing. Then came the temple, where we were blessed by a monk, and made to ring a bell, signifying our first pilgrimage.

At first, we laughed and joked. Then, we had tea. Sudu remained by our side. More tea, more climbing, along the shambolic, crumbling steps. The night swelled out on all sides, mostly quiet, and presided over by more stars than I had imagined possible. As we tired, our jokes faded, and our hiking became more earnest.

Pradeep would stop and point to one of the Buddhist inspirational messages posted along the way in Sinhala. “You read, Francesca” he would insist. Everyone would rest while I slowly sounded out the words, finally asking what it meant. I think he is proud of my rapid learning, but the truth is that we all needed the rest.

At times, the lighting that instructed our feet would disappear, and we would be left with only a thin crescent of a moon and the endless splatter of stars to light the way. Eventually, the sky began to color, pale around the edges, revealing the mountains beyond, and the sea of mist many hundreds of feet below. With the sun came the twitterings and buzzings of all the fauna that had been silently present around us through the night. The beauty of our surroundings was disorienting.

Sudu, the World’s Most Heroic Dog:

She accompanied us every step of the way, joyously bounding up while we lagged achingly behind. Eventually we reached the top, one by one, all at our own pace, where we were rewarded with Buddhist blessings and the ringing of another brass bell in the crisp, chilly dawn air. The view was priceless, and the temple grounds at the summit were populated by hundreds of moths, many as large as my hand, in every color and shape imaginable. Perhaps it was a pilgrimage for them as well. I would have taken photos, but it was not allowed.

The view from the top was a splendid, multifaceted thing:

The quality of light on that mountain and in the hill country in general, is a pale, dancing wonder. It is simply a cleaner and brighter light that reflects back the intensity of the green tea plantations dappling the contours of every mountain here. Tomorrow I will backdate you a snippet with photos to show you where the world's best tea comes from.

One hint: it is breathtakingly beautiful.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The home stretch cometh

Exhaustion creeps in, makes itself at home beneath my sun-strewn skin.

There is too much to tell, and not time enough with which to do it.

My mouth moves in symphony to these marvelous new letters, the incredible strangeness of an entirely new alphabet. My ears have adjusted to the rhythm and cadence of the Sinhalese language...Sinabasa.

Mosquitoes lullaby my body into disjointed, heat-stroked sleep. Clothing has acquired its own form of accursedness, stiffening in the wake of the naked ministrations of my hands under an infinitude of cold shower streams. Nothing I own has been laundered by anything but my own hands in months. The freshness of these cold, purposeful showers wilts the moment I step out of my towel into the suffocating, chewy humidity.

The heat is dizzying and oppressive, setting itself upon the undoing of effort. It is senseless to move quickly in such a climate, so one resigns oneself to the slowness that marks this gorgeous island nation. Adaptation reigns supreme.

The constant stares and "hello, where are you going? country?" have become as natural as the flocks of house crows that "caw, caw, caw" throughout the day, endemic as pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

My eyes are trained to the dark skins of my countrymen and women, no longer feeling isolated and strange in my whiteness. No, instead, I feel at ease, toting my umbrella everywhere like a proper Sinhalese woman, accompanied by her own personal cloud, blotting out this tiny spot of sun.

Translating for hours and hours today with our wonderful and generous beyond compare friend Pradeep, under his gentle encouragement I began to realize that I was reading Sinhala. Not well, not quickly. But reading it, nonetheless.

Do not misunderstand. This is not an easy country. Nothing is even slightly simple here. It is endlessly complicated, all of it. It is a nation that has been spared the savagery of Western Capitalism because of a long, bloody civil war. The irony is not lost on the World Bank and the IMF, both with their fingerprints all over the aid packages that swept in after the tsunami, determined (with the blessings of the Sri Lanka government) to convert this impoverished coastal paradise into another Maldives resort island, at the expense of the poor fisherfolk.

Confusion reigns supreme, as the reality of each player in this enormous mess of opportunism and dispossession has surfaced. It is ugly, and unfair, but then so are so many of the things in life that we have already accepted as "just life."

Each one of us, with our American passports and our white skin, represents a world of opportunity to these people. We are each considered a one-on-one aid organization, and it is precious and rare to meet anyone who does not ask at some point for some sort of assistance. Not something as tangible as money. That would be too easy. People want jobs, and they want a ticket out of this place.

And they are willing to work harder than anyone to make life easier for those who stay behind.

You can never know what opportunity is, until you see entire nations that suffer a complete lack of it. Until you learn to love people who can never see what you've seen and done what you've done, by the simple virtue of unlucky geographic circumstances.

I am beginning to think that the only real sin in life is to do nothing with the opportunity that you have been given by the grace of birth in a prosperous nation.

Then again, the land of opportunity has driven me into the arms of every developing nation I can get to. So what does that say about me? I am either very foolish or very crazy, and quite likely both.

I can live with that. I guess I have to.