Monday, October 31, 2005

The Long Road Home

E-mail response to my friend Mark who I went to college with back in New Mexico. He is a fellow traveler at heart, and wrote a message to me recently about how difficult it is when life gets boring and slow... Not originally meant to be a blog entry, but I got inspired along the way and decided to post the end result...

Ah, Mark. Kindred spirits we are.

I think perhaps half of my time is devoted to trying to escape boredom. No matter how exciting the situation I am in may seem at the start, it always gets old, much faster for me than I think for the majority of the population. As exemplified by my track record of moving to a different state/country every 1.5 years for nearly a decade now, I am always seeking out a new situation that will bring me the next lesson, show me next step on the path of enlightenment I insist on pursuing.

Sometimes this drive to continually find the new and exciting is a blessing. I end up doing things that most people would never have the courage to do. I have lived on four continents now, have worked in multiple fields, and have friends all over the world.

It is an amazing way to live, but it has major downsides. I get bored with work and want to move on, usually after about a year. I have to put my resume together with all the care in the world to avoid coming across as a professional flake. I have had more relationships than I care to think about, all wonderful in the beginning, but then not so much as I get sick of it all and realize that the person I am with is limiting me and my dreams (until now, but that's another story). I hop around feeling like an adventurous little nomad until I realize that I have no community, am far from my friends, and haven't seen my family in nearly a year. I get lonely, but somehow the drive to keep moving on, seeking out new things, widening my always wins out in the end.

I am the point now with my African experience where restlessness is starting to rear its head once again. I find myself perusing job listings in the back of The Economist, even though I have no plans at this time to leave my present consulting gig. I think about schemes to save money so that I can take off and travel aimlessly until I am ready for something else. I imagine going back to school, moving to India, dropping everything and isolating myself for a year to finally write a book. The urge to reinvent myself once again is strong.

Sometimes, though, I get hit with a wave of reality and start to think about pursuing a career "for real", making an attempt to consolidate all of my belongings onto one continent, much less into one house. I remember my love affair with the Casa Rosa in Santa Teresa, my desire to spend some significant time in Rio, put down some roots.

And now I have a new twist to add to the equation...a boyfriend that, if things continue the way the have been, I am quite certain I will be with for a long, long time. Thoughts of family flit through my mind even though I am light years away from wanting to have kids. Nonetheless, an image has formed that becomes clearer each day...a life together in Rio raising a couple of beautiful bilingual children, a new generation of 21st century nomads that will almost certainly struggle with the same issues.

So what do I do to fight away the boredom now that I've finally found a situation I think is worth sticking with? That, my friend, is my biggest struggle nowadays, especially since I live in the middle of nowhere. When I am working on a proposal it's not an issue. Grant writing keeps me super busy, and then I have to deal with the flip side of a schedule full of tasks - Procrastination.

When I'm in between projects, though, that's when it gets tough. I try and write, both for my blog and for myself, but most days I get lazy and put it off. I try and pursue artsy projects like knitting scarves and making jewellery, but crafts are more like therapy for me, not actual pursuits that will keep me occupied year after year. I cook lunch for 6 every day, invent recipes, walk on the treadmill, hand wash my delicate clothes...but still my days are long and, for the most part, slow. It takes a tremendous effort to be productive and purposeful when you have nobody enforcing deadlines or giving you a lecture for being a sloth. Worse yet, as I've found out in the last few months, I am quite prone to depression when I have nothing serious to which I can devote my time and efforts.

It's strange that I feel so bored at a time when my life is filled with excitement. I'm in Africa, for God's sake. I live with 5 nutcases, 2 of which are also my work associates and 1 of which is my boyfriend. I am experiencing first-hand the struggle of making your own business feasible, writing proposals for worthwhile projects, imagining myself as a modern Karen Blixen managing her coffee estate in the Ngong Hills of Kenya.

You asked how I am feeling lately. I guess the most honest answer is that I am inspired and alive 80% of the time, depressed and frustrated the other 20%. This experience is a challenge, the kind that I know I will look back on 20 years from now as the period of my life in which I grew the most as a person.

I hope you are well. Hang in there, even when times are boring and the pace of life in general is slow. If it is any solace, know that I am trying to follow my own advice half a world away.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

For you portuguese speakers out there...

From the site of a real estate broker in Rio de Janeiro, who offers in bold letters with animated American and British flags, customer service in native english for its customers.

We speak English!

We offer personal attendance in the English language for customers to whom desire to buy or sell immovable in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Our real estate mainly works with the quarters of Barra da Tijuca, Recreio dos Bandeirantes, Vargem Grande, Vargem Pequena and Angra dos Reis. We have a gamma of preoperty of high quality: mansions, houses, penthouses, apartments, stores and commercial room.

Do not leave of consulting us when negotiating your property in our city.Only purchase and sell. We do not work with rent.

Fabulous, just fabulous.

Another great one I heard the other day was about a brazilian guy from Santos that attended an exchange course in Cambridge with Ricardo several years ago. The young student came into the classroom (which was full of brazilians as well as other people from around the world studying english) and proudly announced that he had, "Passed machine two on my head."

I guess when you think about it, compared to other languages it is somewhat complicated to say that you've gotten a haircut in english!!!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Aid that Hurts

This is from an interview I read recently onboard a flight from Maputo to Chimoio. Controversial, without a doubt. But I also see a large amount of truth in what Mr. Shikwati says...For what it's worth, the proposals we are trying to obtain would subsidize African-owned and operated organizations during the first 2 years of operations, giving them a chance to compete in an unequal market before going it on their own after the grant period terminates...

"For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!"

The Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati, 35, says that aid to Africa does more harm than good. The avid proponent of globalization spoke with SPIEGEL about the disastrous effects of Western development policy in Africa, corrupt rulers, and the tendency to overstate the AIDS problem.

Economist James Shikwati: "Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa...

Shikwati: ... for God's sake, please just stop.

SPIEGEL: Stop? The industrialized nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty.

Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor.

SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this paradox?

Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.

SPIEGEL: Even in a country like Kenya, people are starving to death each year. Someone has got to help them.

Shikwati: But it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. When there's a drought in a region of Kenya, our corrupt politicians reflexively cry out for more help. This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program -- which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated. It's only natural that they willingly accept the plea for more help. And it's not uncommon that they demand a little more money than the respective African government originally requested. They then forward that request to their headquarters, and before long, several thousands tons of corn are shipped to Africa ...

SPIEGEL: ... corn that predominantly comes from highly-subsidized European and American farmers ...

Shikwati: ... and at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unsrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN's World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It's a simple but fatal cycle.

SPIEGEL: If the World Food Program didn't do anything, the people would starve.

Shikwati: I don't think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders -- drawn by the Europeans by the way -- more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.

SPIEGEL: Would Africa actually be able to solve these problems on its own?

Shikwati: Of course. Hunger should not be a problem in most of the countries south of the Sahara. In addition, there are vast natural resources: oil, gold, diamonds. Africa is always only portrayed as a continent of suffering, but most figures are vastly exaggerated. In the industrial nations, there's a sense that Africa would go under without development aid. But believe me, Africa existed before you Europeans came along. And we didn't do all that poorly either.

SPIEGEL: But AIDS didn't exist at that time.

Shikwati: If one were to believe all the horrorifying reports, then all Kenyans should actually be dead by now. But now, tests are being carried out everywhere, and it turns out that the figures were vastly exaggerated. It's not three million Kenyans that are infected. All of the sudden, it's only about one million. Malaria is just as much of a problem, but people rarely talk about that.

SPIEGEL: And why's that?

Shikwati: AIDS is big business, maybe Africa's biggest business. There's nothing else that can generate as much aid money as shocking figures on AIDS. AIDS is a political disease here, and we should be very skeptical.

SPIEGEL: The Americans and Europeans have frozen funds previously pledged to Kenya. The country is too corrupt, they say.

Shikwati: I am afraid, though, that the money will still be transfered before long. After all, it has to go somewhere. Unfortunately, the Europeans' devastating urge to do good can no longer be countered with reason. It makes no sense whatsoever that directly after the new Kenyan government was elected -- a leadership change that ended the dictatorship of Daniel arap Mois -- the faucets were suddenly opened and streams of money poured into the country.

SPIEGEL: Such aid is usually earmarked for a specific objective, though.

Shikwati: That doesn't change anything. Millions of dollars earmarked for the fight against AIDS are still stashed away in Kenyan bank accounts and have not been spent. Our politicians were overwhelmed with money, and they try to siphon off as much as possible. The late tyrant of the Central African Republic, Jean Bedel Bokassa, cynically summed it up by saying: "The French government pays for everything in our country. We ask the French for money. We get it, and then we waste it."

SPIEGEL: In the West, there are many compassionate citizens wanting to help Africa. Each year, they donate money and pack their old clothes into collection bags ...

Shikwati: ... and they flood our markets with that stuff. We can buy these donated clothes cheaply at our so-called Mitumba markets. There are Germans who spend a few dollars to get used Bayern Munich or Werder Bremen jerseys, in other words, clothes that that some German kids sent to Africa for a good cause. After buying these jerseys, they auction them off at Ebay and send them back to Germany -- for three times the price. That's insanity ...

SPIEGEL: ... and hopefully an exception.

Shikwati: Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livlihoods. They're in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria's textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide.

SPIEGEL: Following World War II, Germany only managed to get back on its feet because the Americans poured money into the country through the Marshall Plan. Wouldn't that qualify as successful development aid?

Shikwati: In Germany's case, only the destroyed infrastructure had to be repaired. Despite the economic crisis of the Weimar Republic, Germany was a highly- industrialized country before the war. The damages created by the tsunami in Thailand can also be fixed with a little money and some reconstruction aid. Africa, however, must take the first steps into modernity on its own. There must be a change in mentality. We have to stop perceiving ourselves as beggars. These days, Africans only perceive themselves as victims. On the other hand, no one can really picture an African as a businessman. In order to change the current situation, it would be helpful if the aid organizations were to pull out.

SPIEGEL: If they did that, many jobs would be immediately lost ...

Shikwati: ... jobs that were created artificially in the first place and that distort reality. Jobs with foreign aid organizations are, of course, quite popular, and they can be very selective in choosing the best people. When an aid organization needs a driver, dozens apply for the job. And because it's unacceptable that the aid worker's chauffeur only speaks his own tribal language, an applicant is needed who also speaks English fluently -- and, ideally, one who is also well mannered. So you end up with some African biochemist driving an aid worker around, distributing European food, and forcing local farmers out of their jobs. That's just crazy!

SPIEGEL: The German government takes pride in precisely monitoring the recipients of its funds.

Shikwati: And what's the result? A disaster. The German government threw money right at Rwanda's president Paul Kagame. This is a man who has the deaths of a million people on his conscience -- people that his army killed in the neighboring country of Congo.

SPIEGEL: What are the Germans supposed to do?

Shikwati: If they really want to fight poverty, they should completely halt development aid and give Africa the opportunity to ensure its own survival. Currently, Africa is like a child that immediately cries for its babysitter when something goes wrong. Africa should stand on its own two feet.

Interview conducted by Thilo ThielkeTranslated from the German by Patrick Kessler,1518,363663,00.html

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Perfect Proposal

I wish I could go back and write the microfinance proposal again, edit the parts I know are weak, supplement the parts I know are lacking. I would tell a much more compelling story that the one contained in the 1.5 kilos of documentation couriered to Belgium last week. I would better illustrate the hardships faced by Mozambique’s micro-entrepreneurs and small-scale farmers. Write about how these people, who are already achingly poor, are severely limited in their capacity to improve their lives because they have no access to credit, no access to safe savings facilities. The soil is rich, the demand for goods and services is tremendous, yet nothing moves forward. There is no money to help the poor help themselves.

Sure, there are ample pools of donor aid set apart for Mozambique each year. But the more time I spend here, the more I am convinced that handouts are not the solution. In fact, I am truly starting to believe that they are a huge part of the problem and an ever-growing impediment for the economic empowerment of the country as a whole, not to mention the poorest segments of its population.
But I digress…The problem of donor dependency will be a topic for another blog entry, as right now I am more inclined to vent about my perfectionistic tendencies and recent work-related adventures.

Our client for the microfinance proposal is a Mozambican owned and managed credit union with a mission of providing financial services to people that do not have access to banks, particularly women. Most of the credit union’s clients are micro-entrepreneurs (market vendors, carpenters, seamstresses, etc.) and teachers; the credit union has plans to expand its outreach to include agricultural credit and increasingly target small-scale tobacco and horticultural growers. The credit union has been able to provide small loans (between US$ 50 and $175) and savings facilities to people to help them meet household expenses, grow their businesses, and prepare for crises like drought and death in the family.

Access to credit is a huge problem in Mozambique because banks have no incentive to lend to risky clients (i.e. the poor, especially the rural poor dependent on agriculture). This is because the Mozambican government offers bonds with an annual return rate of 20%. Why would any financial institution decide to loan their money out to a market vendor or a cabbage farmer (likely a small sum with a high risk of loan default associated with it) when they could invest instead in a high-return investment guaranteed by the government?

If funded, the proposal I put together would solve a small part of this dilemma. The credit union is trying to secure funds to open a new branch, develop a rural microfinance program, and expand its current offering of credit and savings products. If funded, the institution would be in a position to serve some 7,000 additional clients, most of whom currently subsist on about US$ 2 per day.
The problem is, the proposal I sent in isn’t perfect. I worked for nearly two months reading case studies, meeting with the executive director of the credit union, analyzing income statements, and developing objectives to be met and a budget with which to accomplish everything. I definitely worked hard on the proposal. I spent a good time of what was supposed to be a vacation in San Francisco in front of my laptop, and worked for 18 hours straight the night before the proposal was due to wrap up all of the last remaining details. But it wasn’t enough. I was rushed at the end because I had procrastinated during the first month of my work on the proposal, and underestimated the time it would take to finish everything. I ended up completing the document 20 minutes before our delivery deadline at DHL, and didn’t have time to thoroughly revise the proposal. I got everything in on time, but felt sick as Ricardo and I addressed the envelope and sent the huge stack of documents on its way to the European Commission. I knew I would later revise the proposal and find a dozen errors or oversights.

I finally worked up the courage to reread the proposal last night and, in fact, I came to the conclusion that my work wasn’t good enough. I forgot to describe in detail the two new savings products that the credit union will launch, and put together a sloppy justification for the project. As I looked over the document, I started to cry. I felt embarrassed that the proposal wasn’t perfect. I was afraid that Ricardo or the director of the credit union would look at my work and be disappointed or chastise me for not having done a better job. I felt guilty about the whole thing, convinced that the proposal would not be accepted and that it would be entirely my fault for not having been more disciplined.

Being a perfectionist is such a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it drives me to produce excellent work when I put my mind to it. On the other, it sets me up to never be satisfied with myself, no matter how hard I work. If every last detail isn’t perfect, the whole thing was a failure. I am a failure. I know this is no way to go about life, but it is so hard to sit back and accept that you made a mistake, that you are not perfect, that you gave it your best and that is good enough.

Ricardo sat with me as I cried, reminding me of all the time and effort I’d put into the proposal. He complimented my work, telling me that in his opinion after working in Mozambique for nearly two years, there is nobody in the country that could put together a better proposal. It was nice to get his praise, but he gave me something even more valuable. He took my face in his hands and said softly, “Ali, I’m telling you this as your boss, not as your boyfriend. The proposal has already been delivered. You can’t make any more changes. Beating yourself up for something you have no power to control will only make you bitter and unhappy. You did your best and I accept that. Now you need to accept it as well and move on, otherwise you will only be feeding the part of you that is intent on self-hatred and that is a waste of your beautiful energy.”

I wish I had another week to work on the microfinance proposal. I wish I had used my time more wisely so that I’d have less regrets right now. But more than anything I wish I could take Ricardo’s advice to heart.

Letting go of the addiction to perfection is a frequent topic of conversation between me and my mom. The night I arrived in Chimoio after my pseudo-vacation in San Francisco, Ricardo and I watched the movie “Something’s Got to Give” with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton on the refurbished TV (it has since exploded again, but that is also a story for another blog entry). I called my mom the next day and told her how much Diane Keaton’s character reminded me of her – the perfectly furnished home, the vases full of perfect white stones from the beach, the perfectly developed career, and the realization that the rigidity of a perfect life is supremely unsatisfying. Over the years, my mom has become impressively less perfectionistic and, I belive, a much happier person as a result. I struggle with the same issues and, while I haven’t been able to fully let go of my need to be perfect in both my professional and personal lives, at least I am conscious of where I stand in that battle.

The day after my birthday, my mom sent me a lovely e-mail with the following advice (which I hope she won’t mind me sharing here):

“After we spoke yesterday I went to the Safeway and bought myself a slice of chocolate cake - yes, they sell cake by the slice, just like pizza - and celebrated with you all from afar.

Had I been with you, I would have told you the point of the Diane Keaton movie is the most important point of all. Love and relationship are life. Perfection is not. That is the something that has got to give. Yes, love and relationship, for better and worse, are fraught with pieces of Bob, Ricardo, Bruno, Patricia, Gina, Hugh, Unc, inside of us and outside of us. No matter. Love and relationship are alive and nourishing. Even if they feel sometimes like your blog on being an American. Being alone in the perfect house can be a sometime refuge, but fulltime it is empty and deadening. Black stones belong with white stones.

Live this truth and your life will be rich with meaning while being messily imperfect.”

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Too Hot (Lazy?) to Write

Is it writer's block? Am I burt out from working 18-hour days and pulling an all-nighter on Monday to get the microfinance proposal finished? Is it sheer laziness? Or has the ridiculously hot weather here in Chimoio finally cooked my my brains and wiped out any capacity for writing?

Whatever the reason, the thought of sitting down to write a blog entry has been overwhelming lately. In my idle hours here, sitting with my sweaty back and legs stuck to the fake leather couch, I compose fabulous narratives in my mind. I create each sentence just like I'd want it to appear on paper, laughing alone at the funny stories I have stored away and can't quite seem to tell.

My aversion to the blog has resulted in at least one positive outcome - I've finally started to catch up on my personal e-mails. The old inbox was three pages long this morning, and I've managed to whittle it down to *only* one.

View of Maputo's central market and residential buildings from the window of my hotel room.

Big sunglasses, coordinating watch and polo'd swear we'd planned this photo down to the last detail. But was just a spontaneous moment that Nadeje caught on her camera after lunch.

Leo, Nadeje, me, and Ricardo at after a delicious seafood lunch at the Waterfront Cafe in Maputo last month.

Friday, October 14, 2005

My First Surprise Party Ever!

Just when I was semi-depressed, feeling guilty for not being satisfied with my small but lovely birthday celebrations from my housemates, I walked into the living room and saw a huge cake, chocolate cupcakes, indian fried goodies, and lots of beer and wine waiting for me. My housemates threw me a surprise birthday party, organized mainly by Rico and Lucky. I cried I was so happy, then ate until I felt like popping, and drank until I was silly.

Here are some photos from the celebration.

A birthday kiss and a bouquet of pointsettias from the tree in our garden.

Me, Pat, and Lucky in our newly re-decorated living room.

A toast wtih Patricia in front of the cake, cupcakes, and indian appetizers.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Big 24

Today is my birthday...happy birthday to me!

How is the day being celebrated here in Chimoio? Lots of work on the microfinance proposal, mercilessly hot weather and the drone of a small fan, breakfast in bed with mango juice, and a bacalhau dinner from Patricia tonight.

Working on a fabulous blog entry about my trip back to Africa and the 2 days Ricardo and I spent in Zimbabwe this week. Once again my promise for tuesday fell through, but good writing will be coming soon.

Monday, October 10, 2005

After nearly 4 days...

Just a quick note to let everyone know I'm back home in Chimoio, safe and sound despite being completely exhausted.

Working on a decent post that, despite my bad record for promising and not delivering on the blog, should be ready by the time I get back from Zimbabwe on Tuesday evening.

Until then, much love.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Oh, the excitement that awaits me!

This evening I will start my long journey back home to Mozambique. I leave at 8pm on the red-eye from Oakland to Atlanta, then cool my heels for 5 hours until my flight for Johannesburgb leaves at 10:30am. The only thing worse than a 17.5-hour flight at night? The same butt-busting trip during daylight hours. I will literally fly all day, arrive in Jo-burg at 10:30am on Friday, then wait for another several hours to get the LAM flight back to Maputo. (By the way, LAM was one of the airlines recently black-listed by France and Belgium...Not sure why, honestly. It seems like a pretty well-run airline to me.)

I will spend the weekend in Maputo working with the credit union that I'm putting together this rural microfiance proposal for, and hopefully accomplishing enough so that I can leave the capital with a finished document in hand. I fly back to Chimoio on Sunday (there are no flights on Friday or Saturday), then rest for one evening at home before leaving for Zimbabwe the next morning with Ricardo.

We will be near Chipinge in south-eastern Zimbabwe to prep our tea processing client (from my last proposal) for a conference call with the Dutch government, the potential source of funding for the project. Basically, if this conference call goes well and we are able to convince the funders of the company's financial stability, we will likely get the money to start a joint venture and build a tea factory in Mozambique!

I'm excited about going back to Chimoio, as odd as that seems given the isolated, boring nature of life there most of the time. I actually miss my housemates and their crazy ways. I miss the familiar mess of our living room, the bare dirt lot that we affectionately call a backyard, our dopey dogs...I even miss cooking for 5 on a regular basis.

Actually, there are some exciting changes awaiting back in Chimoio. Ricardo and Gemelli, in a surge of creative energy, decided to do a complete overhaul on our living room. They bought a new table and 6 chairs, all made of wood, so we can finally expell the plastic lawn furniture we've been using to work and eat on. They also picked up some large wicker chairs and some end tables that local artisans sell on the side of the highway from Chimoio to Tete, so now everyone has a place to sit and we can feasibly entertain company. The boys then varnished everything, repaired the holes in the wall where darts from an old dart board missed their mark, and rearranged all the furniture. Then came the final touches...Ricardo and Gemelli bought several capulanas, the colorful fabric sheets the local women use as sarongs, and turned them into curtains. Yes, curtains. Complete with measuring and sewing and color-coordination.

Finally, just to leave the decorating marathon on a masculine note, the boys decided to fix our poor tv that exploded in an electrical surge a couple of months ago. They took it completely apart, fiddled with the wiring, and somehow managed to rescussitate the whole thing. So now, not only do we have a working tv again, a household decision was made in my absence to get cable! This is so unbelievably exciting! A makeover for the living room and lots of mindless channels to fill our hours of boredom. I can't wait to go home!

Monday, October 03, 2005

I'm on Vacation, I Swear

Doesn't seem like it, though. All I've done since arriving back in San Francisco is work, work, work. So much for a relaxing trip where I'd get to lounge by the pool, party with friends, and shop in the city. Other than the occasional trip out to get a latte and bagel or some sushi, all I've done here is work, stock up on essential supplies for Africa, and be prodded at by doctors and dentists. Not much fun, although it's definitely been worth it to see my mom and Azul, and talk to friends and family on the phone.

This latest proposal has me super stressed out. I've been waking up every day at 5am to work on it, which even though I have jet-lag on my side is a feat that goes totally against my nature. I have to finish everything before I leave on Wednesday, as I am supposed to meet with the microfinance client the same day I arrive in Maputo, and I still have tons spreadsheets to tool with and descriptions of program activities to write. I'm even toying with the idea of buying a spare battery for my laptop so I can get in 5 hours work on the plane instead of the mere 2 that my current battery can handle.

Just as I started to develop a true hate for all things tea-related towards the end of my last proposal, I am at the point now where I can't stand to read anything more about rural microfinance in Africa!!!!!!

Saturday, October 01, 2005

On Being American

While waiting for my flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta I was, for the first time since leaving the US five months ago, surrounded by Americans. I sat in front of Gate 6 and played anthropologist, although unlike a good scientist I could not refrain from passing judgement. I watched families and couples, wearing safari hats and khaki shorts with sneakers, carrying kitchy souvenirs from the airport shop, talking in twangy accents about what they'd seen at the South African game lodges. Most of the travelers were pudgy, loud, and overly critical of everything that was not up to par with their comfortable lives back in Arkansas or Nevada.

I am different from them, I thought to myself. I am somehow better because I live in Mozambique, speak the local language, have traveled around the world, live modestly, am not a tourist, am aware of history and geography, don't wear socks and sneakers with shorts. I am not like them. I'm New Mexican. New Mexico has culture and its residents are bilingual. My family is Italian. I studied in Rio de Janeiro. My mind was on the defensive, searching for any and all justifications to illustrate that I was not just one of the flock. How dare anyone confuse me with this mass of stereotypical Americans?

I am, however, no better than any of the people waiting with me in front of Gate 6. Deep down I know this, but in my insecurity it is easy to forget. We are all American, each one of us a unique manifestation of the positive and negative attributes of our culture, our heritage, our surroundings. Being around a large group of my compatriots, especially when I'm in "international mode", awakens the deep shame of being American I've struggled with for years. It is not a reaction that I admire in myself. In fact, it brings out in me the same arrogance and feeling of superiority that I so criticize in my fellow countrymen.

What a hypocrite I can be. Some of the people, places, and things I love the most in this world are family, my friends that are passionate fighters of the good fight, free speech, entrepreneurial spirit, road trips, sunsets in Albuquerque, kayaking in Austin, shopping in San Francisco.

Even more perverse is the fact that I am an ardent defender of the US when on foreign soil. I can feel my blood boil when people in other countries start to criticize America with arguments wholly based in stereotype. I turn into a crusader, out to prove to any and all that we are more than McDonald's, Republicans, ignorance about world events, obesity, oil, and unfortunate government policies. I conjure up all of the examples I can to prove that Americans can be supremely intelligent, compassionate, liberal, health-conscious, and politically and environmentally aware. I become the most patriotic person possible, proud of my country and the fact that I am, along with many others, an exception to the stereotypical rule.

I can't help but wonder what this love/hate relationship with the US must do to one's identity. How is it possible to have a truly positive sense of self when part of you detests what you are and the place where you ultimately call home?