Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chocolates and Charcoal

Today I feel especially blah.

I didn't sleep enough last night because the bulldozer the city of Maputo uses to clean up the heaps of trash around the city rolled around to our block and started to work at about 3am. There were all sorts of industrial-type crashes and bangs, lots of glass shattering, and that annoying bip-bip-bip-bip construction machines make when they are going in reverse. I was envious of Rico and the kittens as they slumbered through the entire thing and I lay awake for the entire hour it took for the bulldozer to do its thing.

I am also having a bit of a food hangover/addictive cycle prompted by our anniversary dinner at Costa do Sol on Friday evening. Rico and I are friends with the owner of the restaurant and he knows that our relationship started at one of the tables on the veranda this time last year. To help us celebrate, the owner personally selected our dinner menu. I'm talking baby clams and shrimp cakes for an appetizer, then a gargantuan platter of fresh fish, grilled squid, and butterflied king prawns with plenty of french fries and garlic sauce alongside. Then we had chocolate mousse for dessert. And, of course, a bottle of white wine and some coca-cola to ease the digestive pain once we were at home.

Since our extravagant anniversary celebration, it's like my stomach has doubled in size and I just crave food at every possible minute. Today my weakness was chocolate, which is strange since I don't really even like it that much. But since I'm tired and PMS-ing, I decided to-hell-with-it and ate a Mars bar and a Cadbury's mint chocolate bar all by myself (thins being after a proper lunch at our neighborhood Lebanese restaurant). I've been feeling out of control with food the last couple of days and am quite frankly too tired to really do anything about it. I'm just hoping that things will regulate themselves once our contract is signed with the IFC and we put our noses to the grindstone Wednesday (our contract was delayed by a week).

In the interim, this has all got me a bit depressed and feeling moody in general. I don't know what it is, but when I get depressed I get creative. So after pigging out on chocolate this afternoon, I took out my charcoal pencil and journal with the blank handmade pages and started to sketch. I don't usually draw (it's been over 2 years since I last did a drawing!), although I love to do art in general. I just usually stick to the more crafty things like knitting and jewelry making. But today I wanted to draw, and there's something about when I'm in the mood to draw that I almost always am satisfied with the results.

So I sat outside on our little veranda set about sketching the Vila Algarve, the massive Portuguese mansion across the street from our building that is in ruins. Here is a photo of the Vila, followed by my drawing. I did the whole thing in about 30 minutes, trying to use the drawing as a meditative practice...turn off my mind, shut out the voices in my head, and just draw. Don't judge my drawing, don't start over because an angle is wrong, don't try and be a perfectionist - just draw.

(Now the trick is to pick up the charcoal pencil and start to sketch before attacking the chocolates. In the long run I feel so much happier and more satisfied after drawing than after eating sweets.)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

My Winter Shadow

For my friend M.

This was the day before the darkest day of my life. I think a part of me knew it was coming.

I shivered in the late afternoon breeze and watched as my shadow shrunk down the wall of the sun-soaked verandah. The angle of the winter light as it spilled through the columns and onto the pink wall made me look as small as I felt.

In this moment I wanted to take a picture but couldn't bring myself to do a self-portrait. I knew that if I looked into my own eyes I would be forced to be honest about the situation and the effect it was having on me. I was afraid to confront the hurt I knew I would see. So I took a picture of my shadow instead.

The next day my world turned upside-down through no fault but my own. Had somebody handed me a camera, I don't think I would have been capable of photographing my own shadow, much less my face or eyes. On that day I believed I had fallen from grace.

Now, nearly 3 years later, I am ready to revisit my winter shadow and the days that followed. I am ready to write about what was in my heart and would have been reflected in my eyes. I am ready to tell my story, not because I have anything to prove, but because I know that in telling it I will find peace.

I hope you find yours, too.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Sunday Scribblings: First Love

My first love was a boy named Alejandro. He was a senior and I was a sophomore at the Albuquerque Academy. I thought Alejandro was beautiful and mysterious. He was half-Mexican and half-Russian and had a halo of dark curly hair, slightly slanted dark eyes, and a very prominent nose. He reminded me of what an angel would look like if there existed a diversity program for celestial beings like the one in place at our private high school to ensure the students weren't all white and rich.

We played together in the jazz band, Alejandro rocking the guitar and me trying desperately to sight read and keep up on the piano. I learned to play the piano when I was 3 years old using the Suzuki method, where students are taught to play by ear and by memory instead of being tied to a sheet of notes. The Suzuki method worked wonders for my technique in general, but I was never a good sight reader and struggled to play along with the other students in the jazz band until one day our director, Mr. Truitt, told me that I could improvise on the piano instead of trying to read the notes. That was a great day. Not only did my playing improve, I was free to sneak glances at Alejandro over the top of the piano as he jammed out on his guitar during band practice.

I developed a huge crush on Jandro (as everyone called him), but never imagined that he would like me back. In my eyes he was on another level - he was a senior, he had his driver's license and a blue Honda Civic, he was a snowboarder, he was applying to college, he listened to bands I'd never heard of, and he was an amazing musician. Even though I was somewhat in awe of Jandro, I was also a ballsy old-soul of a 15-year-old and I flirted with him just the same. I went out of my way to have intelligent conversations with him after jazz band rehearsal, smiled at him in passing while walking to class, and in general put on a very cool front to give the impression that I wasn't phased at all by the fact that he was gorgeous and 18.

I guess my efforts worked. One day Jandro invited me to go to a party with him. I could have squealed in delight and jumped around the room, but I played it smooth. "Sure, that's cool." I acted like I received invitations to senior parties all the time. "What time do you want to pick me up?" We made all the arrangements for the following Saturday and I walked away feeling butterflies in my stomach and my palms sweat. "Oh my God, he likes me!!!!!"

To be honest I don't remember any details about the party other than that I was the only sophomore and that Jandro put his arm around me at one point. When it was time to go home, he gave me a gentle kiss before unlocking the car door and said that he'd had a great time. I don't know how I didn't faint.

Thus began my first real relationship. Jandro and I hung out all the time after that first party. I'd go over to his house and he'd play the guitar for me and tell me about his musical inspirations: Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. We'd eat green chile freshly roasted by his mom and drink beer with his cousin and friends from school.

For my birthday, Jandro gave me a beautiful silver necklace and a big bunch of flowers. I still have the necklace, and still remember the card attached to the bouquet. On the front was a photo of a field of California poppies, and on the inside Jandro had written a sweet birthday message. I read the card over and over, tracing Jandro's strange and messy handwriting, memorizing his words, wishing he had written "I love you" instead of simply "Love" at the end of the card. A small difference, but one that meant so much to my sensitive little heart.

After a few months, I could sense our relationship fizzling out. The idea of losing this mysterious older boy made me feel desperate. I began scheming as to how I could make Jandro want to stay with me. I'd make lists of topics to talk about when we were on the phone so that I'd always seem interesting and intelligent. I'd invent new and dissonant chord progressions to play for him on the piano. I'd buy CDs of his favorite music and memorize the lyrics so that I could drop subtle references to the songs during our conversations. I tried and tried, but the relationship was near the end. I just knew it.

One afternoon Jandro sat down with me and we had "the talk." Again, I don't remember the details or the justifications for the breakup, I just remember how much it hurt. He dropped me off at home and I locked myself in my bedroom and cried and cried, listening to all of his favorite songs and mine at full volume with the lights turned off. I was sad for months.

Looking back, my breakup with Jandro came at the perfect time. For as depressed as I was, not having him in my life made the decision to do a student exchange the following year effortless. I filled out the paperwork, ranked my countries of choice, and submitted my application without a hint of doubt. Sometimes I wonder whether or not I'd have had the courage to leave behind my first love and go abroad had the relationship lasted... Would I have stayed put just to enjoy another year of puppy love? Would I have gone to prom and graduated high school just like the rest of my peers? Would I have gone to an ivy league school instead of making the practical decision to stay in New Mexico and go to university for free? Would I have ever traveled to Brasil???

Somehow I don't think so. For as independent and headstrong as I've always been, I think the idea of leaving behind my relationship with Alejandro at that point in my life would have been too difficult...


Eight years later Jandro and I reconnected through the internet. We sent a couple of e-mails and soon were talking regularly online. He was working in Colorado as an engineer with some top-secret aerospace program, spinning records and making house music in his spare time. He was still a musician and still mysterious. And he still had a hold on my heart.

For Valentine's Day, Jandro made me a beautiful digital card of a woman with long, flowy hair holding a bunch of calla lillies in front of a stained glass window. He wrote on top of the image, "Will you be my Valentine? Love, Alejandro." My heart fluttered just like it did back in high school. "Yes!" I thought, "Yes I'll be your Valentine!" and I quickly accepted his invitation to fly out to Colorado for a long weekend the next month.

It's amazing how we fall back into the same patterns over and over again until we learn our lessons. It didn't seem to matter that I was a college graduate with a promising career and a life of my own, I slipped right into how-can-I-impress-Jandro-and-win-him-over mode, just like I was an insecure 15-year-old all over again. I carefully crafted e-mails to him, short and witty and designed to leave Alejandro with a feeling of longing for that gorgeous, intelligent girl he broke up with back in high school. I sent him photos that I knew would impress. And in the weeks before my trip to Colorado, I worked furiously each evening at my lampworking blowtorch to craft handmade blue and green and yellow glass beads that I then strung together to make a beautiful windchime as a gift.

The day of my trip finally came around and I caught the first flight of the morning out to Denver. I recognized Alejandro immediately in the crowd of people waiting outside the baggage claim. He looked slightly older, slightly heavier, and his nose stuck out slightly more than I remembered, but I was still smitten. We hugged and he handed me a thermos of tea, a special blend of peppermint and white tea and mate that he'd mixed at home with me in mind.

We spent the day hiking and drinking tea and reminiscing in general. In the evening, Jandro and I went to the natural foods market and bought ingredients for dinner. I made fish with a lemon butter sauce, and he made a vegetarian green chile stew with butternut squash and mangoes thrown in for an exotic twist. Jandro spun records on the turntable in his living room while we cooked, and things felt so comfortable, so unlike high school. We ate by candlelight and after our meal Jandro reached over, took my face in his hands, and kissed me. "This is so special," he whispered. My heart fluttered and glowed.

The next day I woke up early, looking forward to a day of holding hands and walking in the snow and enjoying Jandro's company. But over our breakfast tea I knew things were off. There was a strained silence in the air, and I found myself searching for something to talk about just like I would do back in high school. I became hyper-aware of our body language. Jandro was closed, always turning away from me, avoiding that our eyes should meet or our skin should touch.

I hoped that things would improve over the course of the weekend, but they didn't. Jandro remained distant, never talked about what had happened, and to my great disappointment didn't kiss me again. It was like I was hanging out with a completely different person compared to the night before. Did he regret kissing me? Did he not want to have me as his Valentine anymore? Didn't Jandro think I was good enough, or pretty enough, or interesting enough for him?

The rest of my trip was unbelievably awkward. As much as I wanted to, I never mustered up the courage to ask Alejandro what had happened between us, both in high school and on my trip to Colorado. My visit ended with a forced hug in the airport, and me stammering out something like, "You're such a bastard. You can't do something like this and not explain!" I laughed a nervous laugh, embarrassed about my outburst, then turned around and walked towards the securty checkpoint.

I felt like such a fool, like the same desperate and insecure girl I'd been back in the 10th grade. Crying, I called up my mom and explained everything that had happened. Sometimes the only thing that makes the hurt start to go away is to hear my mom's voice and listen to her wise advice to love myself, trust myself, not let anybody else suck away at my self-worth. I cried until I boarded the plane to go back home, then fell promptly asleep.

I haven't talked to Alejandro since that day, and I doubt I ever will again... Not out of hate or resentment, but out of a desire to be good to myself. I don't want to give Jandro - or anyone else for that matter - the power ever again to make me feel small and insignificant.

My first love taught me that some things are best left in the past.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Anniversary of Africa and of Love

One year ago today I arrived in Mozambique. On the same day, eight hours later, Ricardo and I started our beautiful relationship. Ricardo and I met 5 years ago in Brasil, but my move here was not motivated by a desire to reconnect. In fact, Ricardo and I had totally lost touch with each other, our only communication before my move to Africa consisting of a few e-mails to confirm flight numbers and arrival times. Even though I didn't come to Mozambique to be with Ricardo, I can't imagine being here now without him, without our relationship and the life together that we are creating.

Tonight we will celebrate with dinner at Costa do Sol, the same waterfront restaurant Ricardo took me to for my first meal in Africa. We will eat boiled crabs and king prawns, drink white wine and watch the moon rise over the Indian Ocean just like we did a year ago. Only tonight, instead of sleeping at a friend's apartment and living out of suitcases, we will return to our flat and snuggle up in bed together with our kittens, enjoying the wonderful feeling of being at home with the person you love.

As you can imagine there is quite the story behind this double anniversary, and I look forward to sharing it soon.

More Reality Sinking In...

(Written on Wednesday)

Today was a strange and unsettling day.

It started this morning when Rico and I were having coffee and guava cereal bars for breakfast. I took two sips of my coffee, felt my stomach bubble and groan, and promptly ran for the bathroom gagging the entire length of the hallway. I'm not the kind of person that vomits easily, and while coffee has the tendency to upset my stomach I've never had a reaction like this before. After throwing up I felt instantly better and started to go about my day as usual, reading blogs and celebrity gossip, looking over a business plan, checking my schedule.

About half an hour later Rico got a call from our colleague B. in Chimoio. "What?? Are you serious? How did it happen?" From the intonation of Rico's voice I knew it wasn't good news.

"Caralho, que sinistro cara." Holy shit, how sinister. Rico looked at me across the table with wide eyes, shaking his head in disbelief. "You're sure this really happened? God. I don't know what to say..."

Rico hung up with B. and broke the news. "Rob Dawson was killed in a car accident last night driving back to Sussundenga."

I felt like someone had thrown a brick into my stomach. Rob Dawson was a client of ours, and his project was one of the first for which Agrolink successfully raised funds about 2 years ago. I met Rob a few times while living in Chimoio but didn't know him well by any means. He was a tall thin Zimbabwean with scraggly hair and a long beard, one of the white farmers that came to Manica Province after losing his commercial farm to Mugabe's land reform program.

Perhaps a reflection of this displacement, Rob always struck me as a person who was eternally struggling - to adapt to a foreign culture and country, to make ends meet, to basically pick up and start fresh at age 55 without being consumed by rage and remorse over the hand that life had dealt him. I also got the impression that Rob's main ally in many of these struggles was a good strong whisky, sipped with a stoic face as to never hint at the pain he was trying to drown.

Along with his brother and another Zimbabwean farmer, Rob set up a flower production project outside Chimoio for which we raised several hundred thousand dollars in grant funding. When it came time to pay the company's consulting fee, however, problems arose. Rob and his partners refused to honor the amount originally agreed upon for our compensation, saying that it was too high for the services provided. Instead, Rob offered to pay us 20% of the originally determined consulting fee. I don't know if he truly thought our services weren't worth that much, or if Rob was just broke and wanting to save face. Either way, Ricardo rejected his offer and so began a dispute that would last for nearly 2 years...

Up until a few months ago, Ricardo had refused to accept any payment from Rob Dawson that weren't for the full amount owed. We were working on other projects and had other (paying) clients to dedicate our time and energy towards. Ricardo figured that when things slowed down, the company would approach Rob again and either find a solution or take him to court to enforce our agreement.

But then all the uncertainty and the shareholder fights within the company started, and we found ourselves with some cash flow problems. To tide us over, Ricardo approached Rob Dawson once again to discuss the matter of our payment. This time, Ricardo reasoned that any payment was better than no payment, and that once the company covered its expenses for the month we would start haggling again with Rob for the full payment.

The only problem was that now Rob was actively avoiding any payment, even a partial one. Ricard would call Rob just about every day to try and arrange a payment, and each time the guy would come up with some excuse as to why it wouldn't be possible. Either his car was broken, or the month's installment of the grant funds we'd raised for his project hadn't been deposited yet, or he was out of town, or he simply would avoid Ricardo's calls. This runaround lasted for over a month, then last Thursday Rob finally went by our Chimoio office and dropped off a check with B. for the partial amount owed.

We couldn't believe it! B. deposited the check in the company account and we were told that we'd have to wait 3 or 4 business days for it to clear. Then this morning, not a week after finally receiving our payment, B. received the news that Rob had been killed in a car accident as he drove home to his farm last night along the dirt road that links Chimoio with Sussundenga, a small village in the middle of the bush.

Apparently, Rob has been at a friend's house to have dinner and discuss the state of his business. According to this person, Rob was really agitated and nervous, talking about how he was having problems with his project, how the bank was giving him grief, and that he was even considering leaving the country. Rob also mentioned that he needed to speak with Ricardo, about what we will never know.

On the way home from the friend's house, Rob's car hit a tree along an isolated stretch of the road. He managed to get out of the vehicle after the accident, walked about 20 meters towards a grassy patch, they laid down and covered himself with vegetation for protection from the cold night. Rob passed away a few hours later. The next morning some local villagers found his body, and the news began to travel through the close-knit farming community in Chimoio.

After Ricardo finished telling me the story, we both sat at our desks in silence for several minutes, wrapping our minds around the sudden and unfortunate nature of Rob's death. With a slightly sheepish look on his face, Ricardo wondered out loud, "So do you think his check will clear?"

"I think so," I answered. "Why would he pay if he didn't have the money in his account to back up the check?"

"I don't know. Maybe that was what he wanted to talk to us about, to let us know that the payment wouldn't come through?"

"Who knows. I guess we'll find out soon enough."

What an awful situation. On the one hand, we were touched by the sad news of Rob's death and reminded that it could have been any of us on that dirt road at night. How many times, on road trips through isolated areas of Mozambique, have I not contemplated death myself, accepting the fact that if an accident happened we wouldn't be able to reach a hospital and would likely die in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, Rob's money would bring a much-needed cushion to our company's cash flow. Ricardo and I discussed the palpable guilt we each felt waiting for a dead man's check to clear, as if in the face of this tragedy money should cease to matter at all...

B. called and was apparently thinking about the same thing. "Look on the bright side," he said. "If Rob's check bounces we can always tape it on the wall and put a sign underneath that says 'The first client that gave us a bad check died one day later.'"

Ricardo and I groaned at B.'s cynical take on the situation, permitting ourselves a quick laugh to relieve some of the tension caused by waiting for a dead man's money. At least B. found a way to deal with Rob's death - black humor. Sometimes I wish I could do the same, just make a cynical joke and move on with life, but I'm just not made that way. Even though I didn't know Rob very well at all, I feel so touched by his death. I can't stop thinking about it, imagining him on the side of the road, wondering what was going through his mind in those cold hours alone. Did he know death was coming? Was he in pain? Did he make amends and find peace with himself?

I can't help but think my early morning vomiting session was somehow related to this news...

(Update: Yesterday Ricardo went to the bank and found out that Rob Dawson's check cleared. Despite having solved our cash flow problem, I still feel horribly unsettled.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Volta por Cima

After yesterday's bad news, today we received some good news.

We have been awarded not one, but TWO contracts to do consulting work for the IFC (International Finance Corporation) here in Maputo. We will be working on their behalf to develop business plans and investment memoranda for two local small businesses. Our consulting team for these projects consists of myself, Rico, B. and a Zimbabwean guy named Monty who is an agricultural economist. The two contracts will be carried out simultaneously during the next 6 weeks. Since the workload will be so intense, B. and Monty will fly here to Maputo on Sunday so that we can work together more effectively and meet our deadline.

In order to keep our costs low, B. and Monty will be staying with us instead of paying for a hotel. That means Rico and I have to get the flat in proper guest-receiving and working conditions. We will spend the next few days buying 3 mattresses (1 queen and 2 single - FINALLY!), having a trundle bed made so that Monty and B. have adequate places to sleep, buying fabric to make into curtains, and purchasing a laser printer and assorted office supplies. I am optimistic and excited about this experience, but am a bit curious as to how 4 people and 2 kittens will get along in our modest flat...

Seriously, though, this is the break we've been waiting all year to get. Our work with the IFC will open so many doors for us as consultants here in Mozambique, and it should definitely help us put the instability of the past months behind us for good. I am so proud, but also anxious. We have a LOT of work ahead of us in the coming weeks.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Reality of Africa Finally Sinks In

Zeca, our night guard from Chimoio and the local person with whom I felt the greatest connection during the 9 months I lived in that crazy shared house, just found out today he is HIV positive. He was convinced to take the blood test by one of my ex-housemates. I question whether or not Zeca would have ever found out his positive status had our friend not urged him to go to the clinic.

Zeca has been quite ill for several months, a fact he attributes to a curse put on him by jealous neighbors. Back in March, when he was feeling especially sick, Zeca went to the local healer for a consultation. The traditional doctor said that a curse had been put on Zeca because he enjoys a relatively good life for a night guard from a dirt poor village. And it's true - the members of the collective household where Rico and I used to live make a special effort to look out for Zeca, and for Dona Margarida the maid, and for everyone who has worked to make our lives a bit better.

We would always give Zeca small presents, things that for us were insignificant but to him made a huge difference and were meaningful tokens of our friendship and respect. His favorites were the free socks that South African Airways puts in their international flight kits in economy class. These socks are knee-high and come in not-so-subtle colors like highlighter orange, grass green, sunshine yellow, and turquoise. Zeca loves those socks and proudly wears them, stretched up to his knees, with shorts and a beat-up pair of sneakers and a knit beanie on his head to keep warm.

In addition to the small gifts and a higher-than-average wage, we also all pitched in to give Zeca the money necessary to build a house, an upgrade from the mud hut where he lived with his daughters (we did the same for Dona Margarida). Because of all these luxuries, the traditional doctor said that Zeca's neighbors cast an evil eye on him, causing his health to deteriorate. Without a treatment, the healer said that Zeca would only get worse.

According to Zeca, in an excited play-by-play recount of the events the next day, the traditional healer pulled all sorts of strange objects out of Zeca's body including feathers, bones, animal claws, and hairballs. Zeca wasn't clear in his narrative as to how or where these things had exited his body, but there was no doubt in his mind: his neighbors had cursed him and the spell was manifested in these strange objects in his entrails.

After the first treatment by the traditional doctor, Zeca's health improved slightly. At the time, we all were unsure what to believe. Perhaps Zeca's illness had been psychosomatic, and the treatment by the healer had been sufficient to cure him because he believed that it would. On the other hand, maybe Zeca really had been cursed and this was the necessary remedy. Or maybe he was sick with some other illness and had gotten slightly better because, once again, of his faith in the traditional doctor's treatment.

A few weeks ago Zeca's condition began to worsen. He started losing weight, had diarrhea and stomach problems. Once again, Zeca consulted the local healer who told him that the neighbors had re-cast their curse and that the only solution was to receive a treatment from a traditional doctor in Cabo Delgado, the province where Zeca was born. So Zeca asked our ex-housemates for permission to miss work for a week so that he could travel to his homeland and consult with a healer. At this point, seeing Zeca's fragile state, one of our friends convinced him that perhaps it would be prudent to get an HIV test before spending so much money and time on a trip back to Cabo Delgado.

Zeca agreed, and this afternoon he went to the local health clinic for a blood test. Not surprisingly, it came back positive. Zeca will go back later this week to determine his T-cell (CD4) count, and only then will we have an idea of how severely the virus has attacked his immune system, and whether or not he already has an AIDS diagnosis. I don't know whether or not Zeca will have access to anti-retroviral medicines. With all the billions of dollars that are being donated and spent in Africa on the war on AIDS, it is an outrage to me that there would even be the chance of a seropositive person not having access to proper treatment. Unfortunately, this is the reality...

In the central region of Mozambique where Chimoio is located, more than 26% of the population is HIV+. One in four people. And Zeca is now part of an unfortunate statistic. With this news my heart grows heavy with a cloud of rage and indignation and sadness. I wonder how Zeca became infected, whether his daughters are also positive, whether he will ever receive the treatments so easily accessible to patients in the developed world, whether he will die before I am able to see him again and let him know that he was the person with whom I felt the greatest connection in Chimoio.

Zeca and I didn't communicate much, the result of language barriers and, quite honestly, social barriers as much as that disturbs me and leaves me feeling guilty. But the interactions we did have were always energetic and upbeat, full of smiles and genuine laughter, the result more than anything of Zeca's incredible charisma. Just today I was looking at one of the few pictures I have of him, remembering fondly one of the few highlights of my time in Chimoio.

And now this...

Were I back in the US, in my previous job as Director of HIV Prevention Programs at The Wright House Wellness Center, I would have such a different perspective regarding Zeca's diagnosis. I would think, if Zeca walked into my office, "Well, this is terrible news but with the right medical care and the support of community, family and friends, Zeca will be able to live a good life for another 10, 20, who knows even 30 years." I would offer Zeca references to counseling and support groups, and would encourage him to become a client of the Center so that he could receive low or no cost acupuncture, massage, reiki, and other energy treatments to help improve his quality of life and lessen the effects of the virus and of the medications. I would encourage him to become a volunteer with the Center, to share his story with others and find power and peace in knowing that his words and experiences could save another person's life. I would hope to witness Zeca walking the path of so many friends and clients that I've known, people that refuse to be limited by a virus and who have seized the opportunity to transform their lives.

But I live in Mozambique, and Zeca is a poor Mozambican, and the situation couldn't be more different. My hope for Zeca is that he has access to treatment, that his daughters are not infected and that they will be cared for, that he is able to live his last days with dignity, that he does not suffer, and that he is able to find peace with this diagnosis before his death. I fear that it will be sooner rather than later, and the undeniable injustice of the entire situation makes me feel sick myself.

I wish there were something I could do. I'm sure there is, but I am lost at the moment and don't know where to start.

The Beasts of Africa

Well, at least what I've seen of the beasts of Africa thus far. I must admit it's a pretty sad lot considering the incredible animals that can be seen not too far from here in game parks and reserves. I will get my first chance to see the *real* beasts of Africa next month on safari in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, a vacation that my uncle and his family have generously invited me and Ricardo to come along for. I can't wait!

Until then, here are the exciting animals I've seen in my year of living in Mozambique:

Speaking of snakes, here is the only one I've encountered so far in Africa. We passed it on Day 2, Hour 10 of our road trip from Maputo to Chimoio last November. Ricardo was infinitely patient and turned around the jeep just so that I could get a look at the squashed snake. Despite my phobia, I have an enormous fascination with snakes...

An impressive millipede that Ricardo picked up while we were touring a banana plantation in southern Mozambique.

Termites are considered a delicacy in the rural areas. Our night guard Zeca back in Chimoio used to spend his entire shift catching the termites that would swarm around our porch light, then pluck off their wings and roast them for a snack the next evening. In an attempt to be macho, Rogério (of the purple toilet paper nose blowing fame) asked Zeca if he could sample some of his termites and put them in a whisky glass to take inside the house. Rogério never got the courage to eat the insects, and this glass of termites sat on a shelf in the kitchen for a week afterwards before someone finally threw them out (or ate them, who knows?).

And of course, who could forget the goats tied to the top of the trailer as seen at the gas station where we filled up the jeep on our road trip? No, this photo is not a montage. This is actually a really common site in Mozambique. I've seen live goats and chickens tied along with suitcases and cardboard boxes on the top of busses, trailer trucks, cars, and chapas (collective transport vans).

Poor things...In addition to these beasts, I have also seen vervet monkeys on the side of the road as we drove to Espungabera to visit our tea factory partner, a couple of impressive-looking spiders, and a 4-inch leech that I found on the bathroom floor one morning back in Chimoio. And, of course, all the cockroaches that inhabit our flat...

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sunday Scribblings: Three Wishes

If the wish fairy appeared at my window this evening and granted me 3 wishes, I would be unabashedly selfish. Today I am in the mood to wish things for me, for my benefit, for my delight and enjoyment. Most certainly there are other days on which, if the wish fairy came knocking at my door, I would choose selfless wishes like world peace, a cure for AIDS, or happiness and healing for all mankind. But today is not that day...

Here are the 3 wishes that would make my life markedly better:

1. I wish that the palms of my hands and soles of my feet would stop sweating profusely.

Clinically, it's called hyperhidrosis. Practically, it makes my life a slippery, clammy, uncomfortable hell. A person is diagnosed with hyperhidrosis when s/he perspires in excess of that required to regulate body temperature. The increased sweating is most common in the armpits, the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, and the face.

When I was a teenager, my sweaty palms and feet were a cause of great embarrassment. I never wanted to hold hands with my boyfriend because I was certain that he'd be grossed out by my cold, damp hands and never want to go out with me again. I hated shaking hands with people, and perfected a cupped-handshake technique so that the center of my palm would only come into minimal contact with the hand of the person I was greeting. (Blessed was the day that I moved to Brasil and entered a society where the custom is to greet people with kisses on the cheek, not handshakes!)

When I played capoeira, my bare feet and damp hands would slide all over the wooden floor, giving me a tremendous sense of instability as I kicked and spun and cartwheeled and flipped. As a result of my hyperhidrosis, I was afraid to try many new moves in capoeira, not because I didn't think I had the skill to pull them off, but because I doubted that my hands and feet would support me.

I have a hard time holding onto handrails and poles in crowded busses and subways. If the vehicle makes a sudden lurch, I am likely to fall because I can't form a sturdy grip with my sweaty palms against the smooth metal.

I can't wear many types of sandals because my feet will sweat and literally slip out of the straps. I have nearly broken my ankle trying to walk in high heels, only to have my foot slide off the sole of the shoe. Even if I wear flat sandals or flip-flops, the hyperhidrosis still causes me problems. Since my feet are almost always damp, they are a prime collecting point for dust and grit and any other pollutant in the street. When I come home from a day walking around the city, my feet are literally black and filthy from catching all the grime that other people with dry feet just brush past.

Although I love the sensation, it is horribly difficult for me to get a massage. I spend the whole time stressing out about when the therapist will touch my hands or feet and feel how clammy they are. The worst part is, the more I think about my excessive sweating, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I wish the wish fairy would take away my hyperhidrosis and the social and physical suffering it causes me. There are a few treatments available for this condition, like super-concentrated aluminum hydrocholride lotion and botox injections, but they don't work for everyone and are not as effective for people that sweat on their palms and soles. There is also a surgical procedure that kills the nerves that control sweating, but I'm not even near the point where I'd consider going through this kind of an invasive procedure. So unless the wish fairy shows up sometime soon, there is really no solution in sight for this problem other than to just live with it.

2. I wish that I didn't have a phobia of snakes.

When I say phobia, please understand that I am talking about a crippling fear that makes me cry and shake and nearly go into shock if I happen to come across a snake. My fear limits me from fully enjoying hikes, swimming (fear of sea snakes), reptile houses at the zoo, people's pets, and any other activity or situation where I think there is a remote possibility of me coming into contact with a snake.

Perhaps because I am so frightened by snakes, I have had several close encounters with them in my life, the highlight being my freshman year of high school when I found a 6-foot western diamondback rattlesnake in the front yard of our house in the foothills of the Sandia mountains in Albuquerque. The snake crept its way around our patch of grass, closing in on a rabbit that was having an afternoon snack. I felt like a documentary from the Nature channel was unfolding before my eyes. Sobbing and shaking out of control, I had to keep watch over the snake from our deck so it wouldn't disappear into our storage shed or any other hideout, while my mom called the firefighers to come take the animal away. Thankfully the firemen arrived before the snake was able to strike at the rabbit, and I ran into the house and locked all the doors. The firemen carried the rattlesnake away using one of those snake handling loops. I watched through the window as the big snake writhed and twisted in the loop, the sound of its rattles reverberating all throughout our house. After that incident, I had terrifying nightmares for over a month.

Once when I was 19 I came into close contact with a highly poisonous coral snake, nearly stepping on the creature as I hiked through the Atlantic rainforest on an island off the coast of Rio. Again, I had terrible nightmares for weeks after the incident and was afraid to go hiking for quite some time.

My fear of snakes comes up quite frequently in my dreams, even if I haven't had a real-life encounter. I'll dream of snakes slithering over my body, striking to bite me, chasing after me in an endless cycle where the snakes are always present and, no matter what I do, I can't escape. After these dreams I often wake up screaming or crying, and spend the rest of the day with goosebumps as I remember the images and sensations.

I wish for the wish fairy not to take away snakes from my life and dreams, but for her to change my reaction to them. I wish to never feel my blood run cold, never to opt out of an activity again because I think I might see a snake, never wake up in panic because of a serpentine nightmare.

3. I wish that my mysterious allergies would be diagnosed and cured.

I have a debilitating and totally random case of allergies. Approximately once every 10 days I get an attack that lasts for 24 hours. My nose fills with clear drippy mucus, I sneeze compulsively (think 30 - 40 times in a row), I feel terrible pressure in my sinuses and jaw, and my eyes itch and run. Basically, I am totally useless for an entire day and the only solution is to sleep it off and hope for no allergies when I wake up. Medicines don't work - I have tried Benadryl and Claritin - and am currently taking homeopathic remedies with mixed results.

I am not allergic to any foods, I am not allergic to any pollens, and I am not allergic to animals. I get these allergy attacks no matter where I am lately - San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Maputo, Chimoio - always at seemingly random times. My current theory is that these are emotional allergies, triggered by stress. I have read several articles on the internet that document that your body sets off a string of chemicals in times of stress, and that it is possible for a person to be allergic to his/her own hormones. I am almost certain that my allergy attacks come the day after a very stressful event in my life. When I am in a stressful period in general, the attacks are constant every 7 to 10 days. When I am in a calm phase, but have a stressful day or phone call or some other trigger, the attack comes the day after and will not reappear until the next stressful event.

The first time I ever experienced these symptoms was immediately after the huge crisis in my life in mid-2003. I had attacks consistently for 1 year after the crisis, and the finally stopped once the acute effects of the crisis had been resolved. I then spent nearly 1.5 years allergy-free, until moving to Chimoio last year. I had allergy attacks regularly the entire time I was sharing a home and working space with Ricardo and several other friends. As those of you who've been reading my blog for a while know, the situation in Chimoio was horribly stressful for me and, ultimately, unsustainable. Now that Rico and I live in Maputo, my allergies are still present but (I hope) starting to die down. I recently went for 3 weeks without a single attack, only to have a stressful meeting with the IFC set me up for an attack this past Saturday.

Currently, I am still taking my homeopathic remedies and trying my very best to reduce the stress in my life (or at least release it in a healthy way). It would be wonderful, though, for the wish fairy to show up and not only cure my allergies, let me know for once and for all what in the world causes these mysterious and random attacks.


These are my self-centered wishes. Perhaps another day I will share what my altruistic, community-minded wishes would be. Until then, I hope that you enjoy your 3 wishes, whatever they may be!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sweet Parceiro and Pria

Parceiro and Pria are now 6 weeks old and they are growing like weeds. They are more agile than ever, and each one has easily doubled in size since we brought them home...

Parceiro and Pria on the day they learned how to jump up on our bed. This is now one of their favorite spots for lounging and wrestling.

Curious as ever... They now take up about half of the meditation pillow. When we brought the kitties home, they were just little spots of fluff in a sea of fabric when they'd lie on this pillow, and Parceiro could fit in the palm of Rico's hand.

Me and Pria after a long day's work. I had stayed up until 2am working on a proposal for the IFC, and Pria kept me company by sleeping on my shoulder while I worked at the computer.

A quiet moment for our kitties. Shame that they only settle down during the day, and at night all they want to do is play, bite our ears, pounce on our toes. We've had to establish a no-cats-in-the-bedroom rule at least twice a week, otherwise Rico and I get no sleep at all.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Creative Obsessions

It started on Monday. I got out my box of jewerly-making supplies and allowed myself to spend time and energy on being creative. It has been an entire year since the last time I did an art project or made some jewelry or colored a picture. (Okay, I've been knitting, but that is my airplane passtime so it doesn't really count.)

This lack of creativity in my life is more than absurd, it's unsustainable. There's something about creating with my hands that melts away my stress, that allows me to be free and juicy with my ideas. I don't know how I went an ENTIRE YEAR without doing any art!!!

It's safe to say, however, that I've made up for lost time. As of Monday afternoon I've logged a good 50 hours at the crafts table and have created 14 necklaces, 12 pairs of earrings, and a bracelet. They are all beautiful and I am a bit obsessed with staring at my jewelry as its laid out on the table. Every time I pass the living room on my way to the bathroom or to the kitchen for a cup of water, I am compelled totake a detour and admire my creations. I am very proud of myself!

Here are some photos of my work:

This is a close-up of a long necklace I made using turquoise, shells, and purple beads. It can wrap twice or three times around the neck. I hand-made the clasp out of wire and am especially proud that a lack of materials didn't hinder my jewelry-making efforts.

This necklace and earrings set was made using seeds from a belt I bought in the Amazon that burst apart last year, and some round beads made of ivory and wood.

Here is a long necklace made with hishi-style seeds, purple iridescent beads, and large round wooden beads. It is one of my favorites.

This necklace is made out of seeds from the busted belt, shells, and a lovely curved shell pendant I attached with wire.

This is a treasure necklace inspired by New Mexico, crafted from turquoise, handmade one-of-a-kind glass beads made by me, and the spare bits of a necklace of my mom's that broke apart.


For some reason blogger won't let me upload any more photos. Very frustrating, especially since I've yet to show off my favorite creations. Because of the lack of beads and beading supplies here, I've gotten super resourceful with wire. Necessity really is the mother of invention; my most beautiful jewelry I would have never created had I not run out of hooks and clasps and beads. Hopefully I will be able to post some photos tomorrow.


In other news, I just got back from a dance class with my friend Nana. I was the only foreigner and the only white girl in the class. Today we learned some African dancing and some contemporary coreography. It was both aerobically and intellectually challenging to actually do the moves properly and then remember in which order I was supposed to do which one. I must say though, for someone who didn't grow up dancing these dances and listening to this type of music, I held my own pretty well. I just kept going back to the Nia principles of grounding my energy, moving authentically, and remembering that my body is a synergetic, connected system.

I have signed up for a month of classes - Mondays are belly dancing and samba, Wednesdays are salsa, merengue and an African dance whose name I don't remember, and Fridays are contemporary/modern dance and another African dance whose name I don't remember. I am looking forward to becoming more comfortable with the new steps I'm learning, and to possibly making some new friends. There is something about dancing together that makes it easier to build community. Who knows, after a while this might even be a good space for me to introduce Nia...

Monday, May 15, 2006

New Flavors

Today for lunch I made a spinach lasagne, one of Rico's all-time favorite meals that I cook.

I asked Dona Lídia if she liked lasagne and she looked at me with a cocked eyebrow and a smile and said, "Do I like what?"


"What's lasa-, lasen- ?" Dona Lídia struggled to pronounce the new word.

"Lasagne," I repeated. "It's made with noodles, tomatoes, cheese, spinach and ground beef and you cook it the oven. It has lots of layers." I stacked my hands one on top of the other to pantomime what the dish looked like.

"No, I've never had la-sa-nya," she said, slowly rolling the sounds off her tongue.

"Well, you'll get to try it today. I'm making it for lunch."

I turned to go in the kitchen and Dona Lídia called after me, "Senhora, there's a surprise for you on the counter next to the oven."

"Really?" I could tell from the sparkle in her eyes that she'd brought me something special, perhaps as a way to say thank you for the lemon pound cake lesson last Thursday.

I went into the kitchen and found the tupperware container Dona Lídia had borrowed to take home part of the cake for her children, sitting on the counter and returned to me full of cooked manioc (cassava) root! I love manioc root and had a big piece along with my lunch, the flavor enhanced by the fact that it was an offering of friendship from a humble and beautiful woman.

Dona Lídia ate a big piece of lasagne for lunch, smiling as I explained to her that it was typical food from Italy, the place where my grandmother's family is from. "Aaaah," she hummed knowingly, "this explains why it is so good. When we cook the food of our family, of our ancestors, it comes alive with flavor because we are honoring tradition."

What a touching observation. I decided to keep quiet and not tell Dona Lídia that my grandmother has never once cooked lasagne for me and that nobody really eats it in the region of Italy where my family is from. It's the concept that counts, I suppose.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Cooking with Dona Lídia

Dona Lídia is our maid who comes to clean our flat every Monday and Thursday. She lives in a poor neighborhood near the airport of Maputo with her husband, a taxi driver, and their 4 children. One of the strongest women I have ever met, certainly physically but also emotionally, Dona Lídia is a blessing. She cleans unbelievably quickly, is willing to help with any task and, in contrast to 95% of the Mozambican women I've met that are maids or waitresses or servants of any kind, Dona Lídia is outspoken and proactive and self-assured.

I knew immediately that we would get along well when, on her first day here to clean the flat, Dona Lídia let me know straight up that the place was full of cockroaches, that I needed to buy Cobra floorwax, that she'd like a uniform to work in, and that she'd like her salary on the last day of the month. What a welcome change from Dona Margarida and Dona Gina, our maids back in Chimoio, who despite our kind gestures (like financing D. Margarida's house) and generous salaries, never outgrew the subservient patterns pounded into women from years of a colonial regime and male-dominated tribal traditions. Our relationship always smacked of white and black, rich and poor, hope and hopeless. I felt endlessly guilty every day they'd scrub our floors and iron our clothes.

Dona Lídia, however, is different. From day one we got on really well. I asked about her children and her home and her favorite foods. She wanted to know whether I had ever been an actress in a novela in Brazil, and why Rico and I lived so far from our families. Despite our significant language barrier (Dona Lídia speaks Shangaan as a native language and thickly-accented Mozambican Portuguese, while I speak English as a native language and carioca accented Brazilian Portuguese), we manage to tell each other stories and laugh quite a bit at the misunderstandings that arise from the different versions of Portuguese we've each learned.

The main way that we've bonded, though, is through cooking. I feel guilty for the low wages that maids in this country get paid, so one of the ways that I compensate is by including Dona Lídia in our lunch on the days that she cleans for us. This way, at least, I know that she has a good nutritious meal and I often send things home for her children to snack on. This is practically unheard of in Mozambique, and it sure came as a shock to Dona Lídia, albeit it a pleasant one, that her senhora would cook for her and not vice-versa. When I make lunch, Dona Lídia always hangs around the kitchen interested in what I'm cooking, watching me with an amused expression, wondering what new and unusual recipe I will come up with for her to try.

One day we came up with the idea that we would teach each other recipes and use food as a means of cultural exchange. Our first session was a couple of weeks ago, when Dona Lídia taught me to make one of the most traditional Mozambican dishes, a type of stew called matapa. Dona Lídia brought the main ingredients already semi-prepared because of the lack of proper kitchen implements at our flat, namely a 2-foot tall mortar and pestle for smashing leafy greens into a pulp, and a special kind of grater that looks like a washboard and is used for grating coconut meat into shreds.

The main ingredient in matapa is cassava leaves, the namesake of the dish, kindly mashed beforehand by Dona Lídia. The first step is to boil down the leafy greens until they are tender and you have a thick green glop in your pot, as seen below.

The next step is to take several cups of shredded coconut meat and put them in a big bowl with some scalding hot water. Dona Lídia then instructed me to mash the coconut and water with my hands for about 5 minutes until a milky liquid was produced. Then she showed me how to scoop out the shredded wet coconut, press it firmly between my palms to get out all the liquid, and then discard the squeezed-out coconut bits for later use in a cake or another dish. The result was a rich white liquid that smelled divine. It ocurred to me that I'd just made coconut milk by hand, the kind I usually buy in a can imported from Thailand! Here is Dona Lídia supressing a giggle as I try out my awkward coconut squeezing technique.

After making the coconut milk, the next step is to pour it into the pot with the bubbling matapa greens and add in several cups of raw peanuts pounded into a fine powder. Lucky for me, Dona Lídia had already put in the hard work required to smash the peanuts and all I had to do was pour the nuts into the pot.

At this point you have to stir like crazy so the oil from the coconut milk and the peanuts doesn't separate from the rest of the ingredients. After everything turns a creamy, smooth green you add in some raw shrimp, a boullion cube, and some mashed garlic and let it all simmer away for about 30 minutes. At this point the smell is beyond delicious and I couldn't wait to try out our matapa. Here is the final presentation, along with some rice and brazilian-style black beans.

The whole time as we ate, Dona Lídia laughed and kept repeating, "A senhora fez matapa! A senhora fez matapa!" I think it was quite literally the first time she'd ever seen a white person, much less a foreign white person, ever attempt to make matapa. She certainly got a kick out of being my teacher for the day, and I loved learning how to make my first traditional Mozambican dish.

Last week it was my turn to teach the cooking lesson, and I showed Dona Lídia how to make a Lemon Pound Cake with a lemon syrup poured on top. She loved it, and took home half the loaf to share with her children, assuring me they would never believe that their mom had really made that dense, delicious cake.

Happy Mother's Day

I send out my love today to the mothers in my life:

Katherine, my beautiful and wise mom, the best friend I could ever ask for. I am always with her as she is always with me, be it in person for a soothing hug, at the other end of a long-distance phone call, or in the realm of spirits, intiution and dreams.

Laura, my step-mom. Warm and loving, the perfect complement to my quirky dad. My favorite moments with Laura are spent sitting on the couch in pajamas, each of us knitting with the company of at least one cat, a sports game on the TV in the background, and a tray of green-chile chicken enchiladas in the oven.

Emilia, my future sogra. I have loved getting to know Rico's mom. She is creative, makes a delicious cinnamon cake, and is always curious as to how we are doing in Maputo. More than anything, Emilia is a reminder to me of the quiet strength that lies in all women. We all have the ability to survive and rise above any circumstances life may throw at us.

One day I would also like to be a mother, to have the chance to give back the love that these women have shown me, and to implement the lessons we have learned together for the benefit of a future generation. That day is not here yet, nor am I ready for it to be, but I must admit I really look forward to it!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

They were doing more than marching...

This morning, as I was brewing my habitual cup of tea in the kitchen, I noticed strange black stains on our white tile floor. Upon closer inspection, my skin immediately began to crawl and I hopped around the kitchen scratching every possible inch of my skin.

Ants. Tens of thousands of little black ants, clustered together so tight they looked like dark vibrating puddles on the floor. The worst part was that they were everywhere - clustered on the counter, in thick lines along the door jamb and window sill, on the walls, and like a live carpet on the bottom of the cabinet under the sink. It was a bonafide infestation, an in-your-face reminder that we live in a shoddily maintained building in the heart of the humid tropics.

So I did what any girl would do at 7am faced with an ant colony invading her kitchen: I reached for the Baygon and sprayed away. A few minutes later, as I swept the ant carcasses into a pile several inches high in the corner of the room, I was hit with a pang of guilt. Today I am choosing not to believe in reincarnation across species of the animal and plant kingdoms. Instead of destiny playing a cruel trick and bringing me back in the next life as an ant, I'd much prefer the irony of being reincarnated as a perpetual contestant on Fear Factor.

Sunday Scribblings: The Books I Would Write...

I know, I know. It's still Saturday. But I have to work this weekend and I'm inspired to write NOW, so Saturday it will be for my Sunday Scribblings entry.

The books I would write would be about my life. I think my life is adventurous, unconventional, exciting, terribly lonely at times, and above all very real. I believe that all I've seen and felt and done would make for some pretty incredible reading, and I would start by writing novels about 3 definitive times in my life - my exchange year, my quarter-life crisis, and my time now in Africa. The second one I am not quite ready to share with the world. The last one I am in the process of living out and don't know exactly where the story would start or end. So I think the first one would be the logical place to start...

Novel #1 would be about my time as an exchange student in Maringá, a small city in Paraná state in Southern Brazil.

I would write about what it was like to live for a year with a Japanese-Brazilian family, how it was harder for me to adjust to having siblings than it was for me to get over the culture shock.

I would write about learning to play capoeira and about the fact that I never used the bicycle my host dad gave me because I was (and still am) afraid to ride a bike.

I would write about the amazing trip I took to the Amazon, where I spent 5 days on a riverboat watching the milky waters of the Rio Solimões marble together with the dark waters of the Rio Negro, and the month-long bus trip I took with 138 other international exchange students all across the interior of Brazil and down the northeastern coast.

I would write about my friend Hugo who was killed in a car accident, the first person I knew to pass away. I would write about his funeral and how I still think of him to this day.

I would write about how I met my boyfriend at the time, a guy named Fernando who loved alternative music, took me camping in a beautiful undiscovered canyon, and smoked way too much pot.

I would write about my decision not to go back to my high school in the US and apply directly to college, and how hard it was for me to make that decision because I felt my dad didn't approve. I would write about what it was like to be a finalist for my university's most prestigious scholarship and almost lose my chance at qualifying because I couldn't appear in person for an interview. I would write about how my mom lobbied on my behalf and got me a phone interview, an essential step to me being accepted to college at age 16 with a full ride for the next 4 years.

I would write about how self-conscious I was about my bad case of acne and the fact that I gained weight during the first months of my time abroad. I would write about how good I became at masking my hurt when my friends and host family would candidly comment, in good brazilian fasion, "You've really put on weight, Ali. You should stop eating so much bread." Or, "Wow, your skin has gotten quite bad lately. What have you done for so many pimples to appear?"

I would write about the first time I shoved my finger down my throat after a meal so that I would throw up all those shameful calories I'd just ingested. I would write about how I became a master of illusions, able to eat only 3 or 4 spoonfulls of rice and vegetables and leave the rest of the meal on my plate without anybody noticing. I would write about how I stopped drinking at bars and started smoking pot in the car before going out because it allowed me to forget my pain without the excess calories (somehow my will to be thin was stronger than the munchies that came afterwards!). I would write about how good the compliments felt when I was finally "thin" again, never mind the fact that I didn't get my period anymore and that my hair was brittle and falling out. I would write about how alone anorexia and bulimia made me feel, despite the happy face I always felt compelled to put on.

I would write about how I learned perfect Portuguese with no trace of an accent, and how I started to feel more Brazilian than I did American. I would write about how my shifting identitiy made me feel illegitimate, as if I were an imposter staking claim to a cultural heritage richer than my own. I would write about the increasing shame I felt for being an American, how I would go out of my way to not speak English in public, how I would dress just like all the other preppy Brazilian girls so I wouldn't stand out as a foreigner, and how much I hated when my friends would playfull call me by the nickname gringa.

I would write about how my mom came to visit me, despite the strict rules of the exchange program against visits from biological family members. I would write about how much fun we had together in Rio de Janeiro, the time we spent with my host family in Maringá, and the car trip we took together with Fernando to Iguaçu Falls. I would write about how much I missed the safe, healing feeling of being close to my mom, and how her visit came at the perfect time, when I was most in need of an injection of self-esteem and unconditional love.

I would write about how at Christmas time the main cathedral of Maringá (that looks like a rocket or a big cone with spikes at the bottom) is decorated to look like a tree with ornaments, and how all the palm trees that line the streets are covered in white lights.

I would write about how I discovered journaling as the best way for me to express my feelings, about the most exciting adventures as well as the darkest days of my loneliness and secrets. I would use excerpts of the journals I kept while on exchange to write this novel. I was a very dilligent writer back then and I wrote every single day that year, starting the day I left Albuquerque and ending the day I arrived back in the US in the Miami airport.

I would write about how much I enjoyed my host dad. He was a philosopher at heart, and many times we'd drive around aimlessly in his pickup truck and have these great debates about different cultures, and how hard it was to be a teenager, and what was missing for this world to heal itself. I got the feeling that my host dad only had these kinds of conversations with me, and every time we'd have a philosophy session in the truck I'd immediately feel less homesick and less troubled.

I would write about how cold it gets in southern Brazil, how my toes would go numb when I played capoeira barefoot, how I would go to school wearing a wool hat and gloves and 2 pairs of stockings under my jeans to stay warm in our open-air classroom, and how I learned to flip the circuit-breaker next to the bathroom at least 10 times before taking a shower to jump-start the electric shower head and get lukewarm water at best. None of the houses or buildings have central heating because it's just not worth it, no matter how cold it may get. The weather in southern Brazil is schizophrenic. One day there is frost on the grass and all you want to do is drink hot chocolate. The next day the sun is out and it's so warm you can wear shorts and go to the pool in the afternoon.

I would write about my good friends - Kelly from Australia who was also an exchange student and was like a mentor to me, Apache from my capoeira group who is a descendent of Guarani indians and gives the best hugs imaginable, my group of girlfriends from my high school class, and so many other amazing people that crossed my path during that year.

I would write about all the wonderful meat I ate that year (my host dad was the accountant at the local slaughterhouse and would bring home picanha for free) and all the new tropical fruits I tried - jackfruit, 5 different kinds of mangoes, cherimoya, acerola, paw-paw, açai, cupuaçu and so many others.

I would write about how I feel in love with a country and a language and a culture.

I would write about how my year in Maringá forever changed my life. Sometimes I think about what I would be like and where I would be living today if I'd been accepted to my 2nd or 3rd choice countries (Venezuela and Hong Kong respectively) for exchange instead of Brazil. I think it's safe to say I wouldn't have returned to study in Rio de Janeiro when I was in business school, wouldn't have met my current business partners, wouldn't be living in Mozambique, and wouldn't be together with Ricardo.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Friday Update

Just a couple of updates before the weekend:

1. The word "Algarve" is a proper name usually associated with a region in the south of Portugal. It derives from the original Arabic "Al-gharb" or "country of the west." Other than that, I am not aware of any other meanings.

2. Today Rico and I have a meeting with the IFC to discuss a potential contract for our business (the new incarnation of it, that is). As my mom and I say, put your good luck machines on for us that the meeting will go well and land us a paying job!

3. Pria and Parceiro are growing like weeds. Parceiro has almost doubled in size and can no longer fit in the palm of Rico's hand like he could the day we brought the kitties home. Yesterday the kittens discovered how to climb up on our bed by themselves and proceeded to spend the entire afternoon lounging on our bedspread.

4. Rico and I are still going to the gym! 6 days a week is our goal, but we are realistic about our schedules and work committments and are happy if we make it 4 days a week. We will go for an early workout today before our meeting with the IFC. I am happy to report that both of us feel much better health-wise already, even after just 3 weeks.

5. We desperately need a new mattress. Our current bed and excuse for a mattress (it's about an inch thick - really) we inherited when Dona Flávia vacated our flat in a rush. They used to be her teenage son's and are exhibiting the same problems as our old bed and mattress back in Chimoio, namely the hammock effect where the middle dips down and we each end up sleeping on an incline. My back hurts. Mattresses here are more expensive than in the US. I see no immediate solution in sight...

6. Rico and I have officially run out of Splenda. My mom sent us a 700-count family pack back in August and it is all gone. We have been forced to take regular sugar in our coffee and tea again. I do not like the taste, and keep thinking about how many calories are in those heaping spoonfulls I dump in my morning beverages just to make them palatable. I wish I could cut sweet tastes altogether, but my tastebuds have a fit every time I try. At least the sugar here is unrefined...

7. We cleaned up the flat last night and finally got my big blue suitcase emptied and stored in the closet like it should be. I feel much more "moved in" now that there are no half-unpacked suitcases in plain view anymore. Next step: organize the office! We are in desperate need of a filing cabinet and some of those inbox/outbox thingies to organize our papers.

8. My cell phone has been cut off for lack of payment. No surprise, the bill has been accumulating since January. I don't know how it took the phone company this long to actually disable my line. Anyhow, while I wait to pay off my debt (conservatively estimated at US $700!!!!!), I have resorted to using Skype. I wish everyone I know had high speed internet and a microphone. Life would be so much easier, and my phone bill would be so much lower...

9. Last night I made chinese food for dinner. It was delicious. I haven't had a meal seasoned with soy sauce in ages, and it hit the spot.

10. I am off to take a shower. Have a great Friday, everyone!

Arabic Influence

As I was eating a tangerine this afternoon, I had a major geek moment. I was looking at the Villa Algarve, the beautiful Portuguese mansion in ruins across the street from our flat, and started to think about the word "Algarve." I learned at some point (can't remember if it was thanks to my mom or Ms. Fernandez, my 10th grade Spanish teacher) that words in Spanish that begin with "al-" are of Arabic origin. The same thing applies to Portuguese, and as I ate my tangerine it clicked that the villa's name was of Moorish influence. Then I started to think about all the other words in Portuguese that start with "al-" and I realized that it's quite an interesting bunch:

almanaque (almanac)
almirante (admiral)
aldeia (village)
alquimia (alchemy)
álgebra (algebra)
algoritmo (algorithm)
alcachofra (artichoke)
alcaparra (caper)
alfarroba (carob)
alecrim (rosemary)
alface (lettuce)
álcool (alcohol)
alambique (distillery)
alcatrão (tar)
algodão (cotton)
almofada (pillow)
albino (white/non-pigmented)
alvará (a license to do business)
alfândega (customs (like border customs, not the culture of a country))
alfaiate (tailor)
algemas (handcuffs)
alcatéia (pack of wolves)

With a little help from Google, I also discovered that there are other Arabic words in Portuguese that don't start with "al-." Some of my favorites are:

açúcar (sugar)
açafrão (saffron)
berinjela (eggplant)
bússola (compass)
enxaqueca (migraine headache)
haxixe (hashish)
gergelim (sesame seed)
guitarra (guitar)
jasmim (jasmine)
máscara (mask)
marfim (ivory)
quintal (back yard)
recife (reef)
refém (hostage)
romã (pomegranate)
tâmara (date)
tarefa (task)
xadrez (chess)
xarope (syrup)
zefir (zephyr)

It's fascinating to me what you can deduce about a culture given its linguistic influences and contributions. Since moving to Mozambique, I have become particularly interested in the Arabs and their millenial tradition as seafearers and traders in these parts of the world. To read more about the Muslim domination of the Indian Ocean sea routes and how their control over gold and spices eventually led the Europeans to explore Africa, read this fascinating issue of Saudi Aramco World.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Book Tag!

Here is my take on the book tag passed on to me by Kerstin. Completing this tag made me realize that I have not read for pleasure very much since moving to Mozambique last year. Part of the problem is a sheer lack of books to read (unfortunately Amazon.com doesn't deliver to Maputo!). The other part is to be blamed on a combination of too much work, laziness, not enough time alone, choosing other activities (like blogging) in the time I could have spent reading... I love to read almost as much as I love to write, and I am going to make a concerted effort from this point on to incorporate good books into my life again. My uncle and his family are coming to Africa for a visit next month and I have asked him to bring 2 books for me. Hopefully they will be inspiring, and a good start to my reading resolution.

So here are my answers to the book tag:

3 most influential books in my life:

  • "The Power of One" by Bryce Courtenay. Once when I was 14 years old, my mom and I were stuck with a horrid 6-hour layover in the Denver airport. We went into a bookstore and I blindly picked something off the shelf. I had never heard of this book, nor the author, and the cover wasn't especially attractive. I don't know why I picked it out other than I was supposed to have this book in my life. At the time I related to Peekay's story of cultivating the "power of one," that fierce independent spirit in each of us that allows us to triumph even in the most oppressive and lonely situations. I never imagined that I would one day move to Africa, and I certainly never thought I'd ever take a bus right through the heart of Barberton and the kloofs where the story takes place (as I did on my way to the Nia training in February). This book is a blessing, and 10 years later I still return to it at least once a year for words of inspiration and strength.

  • "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho. A simple, beautiful story that reminds me to have faith in the workings of the universe.

  • "Morgan and Yew" by Stephen Cosgrove and Robin James (Serendipity books). This book was given to me as a gift when I was about 6 or 7 - it made me cry and cry back then, and it still makes me cry now. Yew, a dumpy little sheep, is best friends with a beautiful unicorn named Morgan. Yew wishes on the Morning Star that he, too, can have a unicorn's horn so that he can feel special instead of ordinary. When the Morning Star grants Yew's wish, Yew wears the horn for one day, but at the cost of his friend Morgan: the unicorn is gone! After crying of guilt and loneliness all night long, Yew pleads with the Morning Star to restore things to normal. After Morgan comes back to him and the horn is returned to the unicorn, the two friends play together forever and Yew never again envies his best friend. This book delivers quite the lesson in just 32 pages.

3 books I've read more than once:

  • "The Power of One" (see above).

  • All the books in the Weetzie Bat series by Francesca Lia Block. I discovered these quirky books in high school and would spend hours with my friend Meghan reading them in the library when we were really supposed to be studying. I loved all the characters (especially Weetzie) and the way the author described the little-known, wonderful bits of L.A. that actually made me want to live there for a while. These books are really a delight, especially when you need a reminder that being "plain and normal" isn't all it's cracked up to be!

  • "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4" by Sue Townsend. This was my staple bathroom reading while in middle school. The book made me laugh so much, and I loved Adrian's way of narrating embarrassing events in his adolescent life. It was such good toilet reading, in fact, that many times I'd sit for over 40 minutes on the pot just so I could read thos last few pages (I guess it never occurred to me that I could go sit somewhere else with the book...).

3 great books that I personally hated:

  • "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace. Way too long, way too pretentious, way too fucked up a story line and way too many footnotes for me to even begin to appreciate the genius many other people see in this book.

  • I agree with Kerstin in that The Bible never really did it for me... We had to read excerpts of Genesis and Exodus when I was a freshman in high school. Suffice to say I was not thrilled.

  • "The Prince" by Machiavelli. Part of an honors literature and philosophy course I took freshman year in college. Not a fan.

3 pure pleasures:

  • "O Doce Veneno do Escorpião" by Raquel Pacheco a.k.a. Bruna Surfistinha. The title means The Scorpion's Sweet Venom and is the autobiography of a call girl. This book has turned brasilian society upside-down because it breaks all sorts of taboos about prostitution and sexual/gender roles that until now nobody has really commented on from a first-person perspective. The most interesting part is that Bruna Surfistinha comes from an upper-middle class family and made the choice to become a call girl so that she could have financial independence and get out of her suffocating household. I read this book in under 3 hours on the plane from São Paulo to Johannesburg coming back from our last trip to Brasil. It's like a combination of someone's diary and a collection of letters to Penthouse - addictive, to say the least!

  • Garrison Keillor's stories about Lake Wobegon. I'm not sure which particular collection of stories it was in, but my mom and I spent an entire summer at my grandmother's house in Italy nearly pissing ourselves reading a story about a crotchety cocker spaniel that reminded us in more ways than one of our sweet little Lady back home. I have Garrison Keillor on a series of burned CDs that my dad made for me, but haven't yet had a chance to listen to the narratives. Note to self: bring these to Mozambique...

  • Any of Tony Hillerman's mystery novels. In addition to being well written, I appreciate his myseteries so much more because I am from New Mexico and my mom grew up part-time in Farmington, a small city in the middle of the Navajo reservation where most of Mr. Hillerman's stories take place. There is something about reading someone else's description of the things familiar to me and close to my heart that is such a delight.

3 great books I should have read but haven't yet:

  • "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera. I know, I even did a play on the title in a previous post, but I haven't read this yet despite tons of my friends having recommended it.

  • "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving. Has been on my list for a while...

  • "Paula" by Isabel Allende. My mom loves this book and I know I will too as I am a big fan of Ms. Allende's other works. However, I haven't mustered up the courage to order it, much less read it, because I know I will cry and cry for days.

Last 3 books I ordered:

  • "Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town" by Paul Theroux. The review of this book by Cait, a peace corps volunteer serving in a village in South Africa, made me want to read it immediately.

  • "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" by John Perkins. This should be a fun read, especially since Rico and I have become increasingly cynical about the work of development agencies and NGOs from the US and other Western countries.

  • "A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique" by William Finnegan. Read this before moving to Mozambique to get a better understanding of the 16-year civil war that raged through the country up until 1992. It was a tough read, both content-wise and because of the sheer wealth of facts and figures (the author wrote for the NY Times) but a book I'm glad I put in the effort for nonetheless. Nothing worse than being ill-informed about one of the defining events in the history of the country you've adopted as your home.

I would like to tag Telfair and Alina, if they have the time or the interest.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Calm in the Midst of the Storm

All is well in kitten land tonight. We just took Parceiro to the vet for his final antibiotics shot and I am happy to report that he is not only alive and kicking, he is pooping out blood-free poo like a champ! I am so relieved. Thank you all for your good thoughts, both for little Parceiro and for his slightly panicked momma.

This comes as a bit of soothing news in the midst of an otherwise tempestuous day. For several months now we have been dealing with a really nasty power dispute that has cropped up in our business. There have been highs and lows in terms of the struggle, but in general it has really taken a toll on all of us - especially Ricardo. Today was full of accusations and uncontrolled egos, very unpleasant but hopefully for the best in that I think we have come to a breaking point. The options for us moving forward are clear. The time to make a decision is upon us, because working under these conditions is no longer feasible.

Having a business together with other people is tremendously difficult. It encompasses the best and the worst of any relationship, but has the added obstacle that money is at the heart of it all. You simply can't have a successful business based on love or common interests or faith alone. There is always the bottom line, always the chance for someone feeling cheated, always the chance for the ego to get in the way of progress because of a Title or a Salary or a Dividend.

I am feeling especially sad today because of the state our business is in. Mournful, I suppose, is a more accurate word. I am touched by the death of an idea, of a partnership that started off with nothing but the best intentions and has ended with bitter words and spite. The worst part is that this nasty end is not because the business is bankrupt or because there has been no success. Much to the contrary - the business has a good track record and a very respected name with our clients and our colleagues.

The end of the partnership, rather, is due to the EGO and the paralyzing grip it can have on even the most mature, evolved person. Once the ego takes control, it is horribly difficult to turn back. Pride steps in, along with envy and resentment, and together they cloud the judgement to the point that a peaceful and fair solution is no longer imaginable. The only thing left to do is to fight it out until all available energy is drained, all possible solutions are shot down, and the dream of a successful business is left as it started - an abstract idea, lifeless without the people to make it happen.

The hardest part for me is that I am technically not a shareholder in the business, although I am without a doubt an integral part of its existance and success. I sit and watch everything unfold somewhat from the sidelines. It all affects me, without a doubt. I am overwhelmed some days by waves of uncertainty about my professional life, about whether or not my salary will come next month, about whether I should be prudent and start putting together a Plan B. For now, I still believe in the idea of this business. I believe that once this power dispute is behind us it will be possible for a new incarnation of the business to rise up, phoenix-like, and continue on from where the last one imploded.

For now, however, I have to sit still and watch it all unfold. As much as I might desperately want to offer some feminine wisdom and heal the wounds that are tearing apart the business, I can't. I can't fix it and I can't expedite a solution and I can't ease the tempers that flare out of control. What I can do, though, is continue to do my work. I can also offer my strength and compassion to Ricardo as my partner, both in business and in life. Throughout this whole ordeal, even though he is at the heart of it, I must say that I admire greatly the way he has handled himself.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Sunday Scribblings - My Shoes

Inspired by several of my fellow bloggers, I have decided to start doing Sunday Scribblings.

Before I moved to Mozambique last year I had over 80 pairs of shoes (counting slippers and hiking boots and water shoes). I love shoe-shopping and I love shoe-wearing and am quite the sucker for anything colored, anything with a beautiful heel, anything comfortable, anything chic... It's fair to say that I have a small addiction to shoes and that over the years I've spent a much larger portion of my salary on footwear than I really should have. But shoes made me happy, made me feel beautiful when I thought I was fat, made me excited when I felt lonely, and gave me confidence when I felt alone and insecure in a new city with no friends.

When I decided to move to Mozambique, I obviously couldn't bring all 80 pairs of my beloved shoes with me. I would have to make some difficult decisions and whittle down my shoe collection to a manageable amount to travel with. Some shoes I gave away to my colleagues at work. Others I donated to Goodwill. Some I boxed up and shipped along with my furniture and books to my mom in California. When all was said and done, I had no less than 25 pairs that I absolutely *couldn't* part with. I simply needed to take with me a pair of black flats, a pair of black heels, a pair of low black sandals, at least one pair of Havaianas flip-flops, a pair of gold strappy sandals, a pair of running shoes, a pair of casual sneakers, a pair of walking shoes, a pair of loafers, a pair of brown wooden platforms, a pair of snakeskin pumps, and a pair of brown boots in case it ever got cold.

Really, at that time all these shoes seemed essential. So much of my identity was caught up in my shoes and clothes, it felt like I had a special relationship with each item. My red suede flats with the camel leather flower on top reminded me of how much fun my mom and I had shopping for shoes in Walnut Creek. They reminded me of how many compliments I got at work the first day I wore them with a pair of jeans and a camel suede blazer. My knee-high, velvet-lined black leather boots reminded me of the trip to Italy I took 5 years ago to visit my grandmother, and how corageous I felt shopping for shoes alone in a foreign country. Just looking at those boots made me feel sexy, independent, powerful. I hated the idea of having to leave behind any of my beautiful clothes or shoes, for fear that I'd also leave behind some essential part of myself in the process. So in went all 25 pairs of shoes, and a whole lot of clothes as well. I could barely carry my suitcases by myself, but it all seemed worth it.

Now, one year into my stay here in Mozambique I still love my shoes and clothes as much as ever. Unfortuately, most of my shoes just sit in the back of my closet accumulating dust. I have no reason to wear fancy shoes or snakeskin pumps or cute boots. I work from home and don't have many occasions that require me to wear professional attire. I live on a tight budget in a new city with few friends, so I don't go out often and therefore don't have a reason to wear my stilletos or my super cute sandals that make the balls of my feet ache after only 20 mintues. Even when I do go out for a meeting or a coffee with someone, I have to walk and the sidewalks and roads in Mozambique are in such poor state that I am almost forced to wear flats, sneakers, or platforms in order not to break my ankle. Most days I just wear my Havaianas flip-flops and stare longingly at my closet full of beautiful shoes, slowly collecting dust.

What's more, my shoes and clothes now fill me with guilt. What does it say about me as a person that I have all of these things just heaped up in a closet and never use them? What must Dona Lídia, our maid, think when she comes to clean on Mondays and Thursdays and sees the piles of unused clothes and shoes I have? She and her 4 children wear third- or fourth-hand clothing and have 2 pairs of shoes each if they are lucky. Sometimes I think I would feel less Western guilt if I gave away all of my unessential posessions and just made do with a couple pairs of functional shoes and some basic articles of clothing. Back in the US my ridiculously large wardrobe made me proud. I was independent, spent my money on beautiful things, dressed well, and felt confident and pretty. Now, living in Mozambique, I still love my clothes and shoes - don't get me wrong. But now, in addition to beautiful and fashionable, they also make me feel very superficial in the face of the real issues I've witnessed here...

A note about Havaianas...

When I was 15 I moved to Brazil for a year-long student exchange and discovered Havaianas flip-flops. Yes, I was years and years ahead of my time. Nobody in the US even knew what Havaianas were, and they were certainly not being worn by celebrities or being sold for $60 a pair at botiques in LA. Along with 99.9% of the Brazilian population, I fell in love with Havaianas and promptly got myself a blue pair with Brazil's flag in miniature on the top of each sandal. My Havaianas became my all-purpose sandal. I wore them to go to school, to go shopping, with jeans and a cute top to go to the clubs at night, and even to go hiking!

Despite my love for Havaianas, I seem to be a bit cursed. My first pair I lost when the tide unexpectedly came in during a midnight swim on an island off the coast of Bahia state called Morro de São Paulo. They were the only shoes I'd brought for the week-long trip and I spent the following 4 days barefoot. My next pair of Havaianas was dark green. One of them got swept into a river in the Chapada Diamantina national park as I hopped from boulder to boulder to cross the water. This time I had other shoes available, but the remainder of the 3-hour hike after I'd lost my sandal was less than pleasant. My third pair of Havaianas was white with the Brazilian flag and got destroyed by a friend's dog. My fourth pair, red and black with the logo of the Flamengo soccer team, was stolen. Now I've learned my lesson and have multiple pairs of Havaianas - one in the Casa Rosa, one in San Francisco, and two in our flat here in Maputo.