Monday, November 30, 2009
I belong to the second category. It took me twenty-eight years, a BA in Latin American Studies, an MBA in Marketing, jobs in sectors ranging from public health to agriculture, and extended residencies in seven cities on three continents to get the message. It didn't come as a flash epiphany, however, as if one day over a cup of coffee I decided it was high time to become a jeweler. Rather it was a gradual crescendo, an internal voice over the years whispering and eventually shouting that life is too precious to spend going down a path that, although adventurous and intellectually stimulating, deep down I knew wasn’t the one I really wanted to follow.
Creating art brings me an unparalleled sense of inspiration, fulfillment and joy. This is a simple realization, but one that took me quite some time to mull over, unabashedly embrace, and then finally decide to act upon. After all, it takes a healthy dose of courage and determination to announce to family and friends that one is abandoning a successful career as an international development consultant to follow the dream of making jewelry. Suffice to say I was met with more than one raised eyebrow and concerned but polite, "Oh, really?" I am confident in my decision, though, and know that my journey thus far has been essential in acquiring the tools and experience necessary to make the goal of being a full-time, self-sustaining artist a reality.
Five years ago, I was living in Austin, Texas and working as the director of an HIV prevention program for a local non-profit organization. I enjoyed - and was quite accomplished at - my job writing grants and managing a team of health educators. Still, I longed for something more. I wanted to live abroad again, a seed planted by a childhood spent between New Mexico and Italy and nourished by two fabulous student exchange programs to Brazil, one for my junior year of high school and one for a more extended period while at business school. I wanted to shake things up a bit, reinvent myself, ensure that I wasn’t on the fast-track to a string of managerial desk jobs in a field that I liked, but didn’t love.
One day I got a call from a couple of old classmates from Rio who had moved to Mozambique, a country in Southern Africa, and were working as freelance consultants supporting local private-sector development. They were in need of a partner with proposal writing experience, a background in business and fluent Portuguese, and wondered if I might be convinced to move halfway across the world to join their efforts. I jumped at the opportunity and within two months had resigned from my public health job, sold my car and the bulk of my possessions, and packed what was left into two giant suitcases, ready to dive into my new challenge.
In Mozambique, my primary focus was to help local businesses identify and obtain the resources - financial and otherwise - they needed for growth, sustainability and success. The underlying belief was that private-sector development could be a powerful tool in poverty alleviation in a country that ranks among the 10 poorest in the world and is still struggling to recover from years of civil war and colonial injustice. As a consultant, I helped clients write multi-million-dollar funding proposals, develop business plans, conduct strategic planning and forge market linkages. Together with my colleagues, I worked on projects ranging from the expansion of Mozambique’s largest commercial banana plantation to the establishment of an eco-lodge. Sometimes our work would be directly with a community entrepreneur; other times it would be through a donor or similar organization supporting private-sector development. It was challenging work, but quite satisfying.
My time in Africa was exactly what I’d hoped for: a chance to further develop my business skills, travel to exotic places, and immerse myself in a culture and context very different from my own. One of the aspects I most appreciate about living and working abroad is the opportunity it presents for examining one’s identity, beliefs and goals through a new lens. Being from an international family, I have spent countless hours pondering the expatriate experience. Questions such as, “Where am I from?” “What is my relationship to the various cultures that have shaped me?” “What are my values?” and “Where do I belong?” have been on my mind since a very early age. The answers are complex, often unclear, and constantly shifting in accordance with each additional journey.
While in Mozambique, I began to explore my ruminations on life as a global nomad through art. Specifically, I found jewelry-making to be the ideal creative outlet: it served as a delicious counterpart to the feasibility studies and financial equations that occupied the bulk of my day, didn’t require specialized equipment, was travel-friendly and, most importantly, allowed me to incorporate materials from around the world in my pieces. I discovered it was possible to express ideas through jewelry that I struggled to put into words or otherwise define. For example, I could combine 300-year-old Venetian trade beads found on the beaches of Mozambique Island with turquoise nuggets from New Mexico to create a necklace that reflects my unique experience as an expatriate. Through the provenience of the component pieces and the designs in which they are arranged, my jewelry manifests the confluence of cultures, identities and traditions as experienced on an individual level in the context of our increasingly global existence.
Friends, both locals and expats, began to take notice of my pieces. They recognized the Mozambican elements - antique trade beads, precious hardwoods, horn and soapstone - and appreciated the fusion designs and precious metal findings. With their encouragement, I began to sell my jewelry alongside local artisans at small markets and at events sponsored by the diplomatic community. Along the way I gained confidence, and was accepted to show my work at the 2007 and 2008 editions of the Mozambican National Crafts Fair, a juried event organized by an affiliate of Aid to Artisans. I was thrilled by my modest success, but far from satisfied. Each new collection was an opportunity to professionalize my jewelry a bit more, both on the creative as well as the business side.
True to my roots, I set up my jewelry business with the same critical eye and bottom-line approach I would offer to any of my consulting clients. I built a comprehensive spreadsheet to control my inventory, help with costing and track my sales. I developed formulas for pricing and profits. I put together a marketing plan, had a logo designed, and set up a small shop online. Soon I was devoting more time and energy to my “hobby” than I was my day job, not to mention deriving much more joy from the former than the latter. The day someone asked me what I did for a living and I responded without hesitation that I was a jeweler, I knew it was time to follow my heart.
In late September 2009, after nearly 5 years in Africa, I relocated to the Bay Area to be closer to family and to pursue my new career. I am still producing and selling my fusion jewelry, but again I am not satisfied. I want to take my jewelry to the next level. I want to learn how to work with silver and gold. I want to take a gemology course and do my own lapidary work. I want to learn the history of my trade and meet fellow jewelers taking it in new directions. I want to receive critiques from peers and industry veterans, and further develop my image and refine my technique.
I believe that a Bachelor’s Degree from CCA is a fundamental next step in fulfilling my vision. I greatly look forward to joining the school’s community in Spring 2010 and to sharing my experience as student with an unconventional background, an appreciation of the important relationship between business and art, and an unshakeable desire to grow and succeed as a jewelry artist.
Friday, November 27, 2009
It was really nice to be with family, but I have to confess that part of me longed to be back in Maputo to be able to enjoy the Thanksgiving tradition we established there. We'd cook a traditional turkey dinner for about 30-35 people each year, and let me tell you, the logistics of tracking down a turkey in Maputo without dropping $100 isn't that easy. I was always in charge of that part of the meal, and the logistical adventures were plentiful.
Two years ago, I couldn't find a turkey in Maputo to save my life (other than the horrendously overpriced ones at Talho Polana and SuperMares), so I gave money to a colleague at Hugh Marlboro's banana empire, who gave the money to a friend who was going to Johannesburg. That person then gave the money to an auntie who bought two frozen turkeys, only to pass them off to someone else who was taking the overnight bus back to Maputo. I got a call around 7am from an unknown number two days before Thanksgiving saying could I please go down to the bus station, that there was a package waiting for me. I sent Zeca, the taxi driver, who arrived at our flat with two completely thawed turkeys in plastic grocery bags. The person who had brought them on the bus had neglected to put them on ice, or even in a cool box. The turkeys were still somewhat cold to the touch, so I decided to cook them anyway and taste them myself prior to serving to the Thanksgiving crowd. I figured that if I got ill, then we'd have roast chicken or matapa or some alternate main dish for the holiday. If I didn't get sick, then I'd serve the two turkeys and simply not tell anyone of their thawed adventure on the bus until well after the meal was over. In fact, this is the first some people are hearing of the story, I imagine. I'm happy to report that Thanksgiving 2007 did not involve any food poisoning, and all were treated to two beautifully cooked, tasty turkeys. :)
Last year there was drama as well, of course. I ran out of cooking gas halfway through turkey #2, prompting Dona Lidia to run to the outdoor market near our house and haul a new canister home balanced carefully on the top of her head. On the heels of that fiasco, the gas ran out at K and M's house, so Rico dashed home and hoisted our new gas canister on his head and brought it over to save the day in their kitchen.
It was a very special tradition, our Maputo Thanksgivings. Somehow we always managed to get all of the traditional foods on the table - turkey, cranberries, stuffing, giblet gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans, mashed potatoes and pies galore - as well as some great multi-cultural contributions from our guests. Only a couple of us were actually from the US, but somehow everyone got into the spirit of the holiday and pitched in to make a great meal happen.
My favorite part both years was the spontaneous prayer circle that happened in the kitchen prior to serving the food. People from 20 different countries or so joined hands and said a few words about how thankful we were for the family we'd found amongst our newfound friends in Maputo, how nice it was to feel at home and part of a tradition despite being so far away from our own relatives and holiday celebrations. It was really special, something I will never forget.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Our Austrian neighbor, however, not only knew where Maputo was, he'd just been there the previous week! Apparently he is an avid birdwatcher and had taken a trip to South Africa to look at rare birds. He'd read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that Maputo is considered to be one of, if not the most beautiful African capitals, its streets lined with sidewalk cafes and acacia trees, its nights full of music and culture. Enticed by that description, he and a fellow birdwatcher drove up from the St. Lucia Wetlands to get a taste of the Mediterranean-Latin influenced city.
"Maputo is really a shithole, isn't it?" he said, sparing no judgment. "We expected something nice, but the whole city is run down, there are potholes in all the roads, there's nothing interesting for tourists to see, and we couldn't even find any good food. What a waste of a day."
I valiantly defended Maputo, saying that despite its tired infrastructure and the fact that you have to dig to find some of its most brilliant treasures, it really is a great city and that we enjoyed a very high quality of life there. Let's be honest: Rico and I - and the majority of expats and wealthy Mozambicans - lived like kings in Maputo.
It became obvious that we weren't going to convince the Austrian that Maputo was worth anyone's time, so I let the conversation die. It got me thinking, though, about exactly what makes people like a particular city or not, what things we value in our experiences, and the giant role that high expectations (or low ones, for that matter) have in finding satisfaction in the new things we do and places we visit.
Maputo, in particular, is a hit-or-miss kind of a place. I don't know that many people who feel lukewarm about the city. It seems you either love it, or are counting the minutes until you go somewhere else easier, more civilized, more convenient, more kept-up. I know plenty of people on both sides of that fence, for sure. And although Rico and I were ready to move on to the next chapter after 5.5 and 4.5 years in Mozambique, respectively, it wasn't out of dissatisfaction with the city or with our lives there. More than anything, we were burned out in our jobs and both felt the need to follow our hearts professionally speaking. For me, that meant going to art school and becoming a jeweler; for Rico, it meant a return to his roots in investment banking and finance.
But back to Maputo. I've had countless people ask me over the years if it's worth it to visit. My answer is highly dependent on the person. For example, I'd never recommend to Rico's dad that he spend time in Mozambique's capital - he's much more of a Medjumbe, Cape Town or even exclusive Kruger lodge kind of a guy. My friend H. from high school had memories of fun-filled trips visiting me in Rio in her mind and ended up sorely disappointed by Maputo, and by Mozambique in general. My mom, on the other hand, heard from the minute we set foot in Maputo how much I thought she'd enjoy a visit. She ended up coming twice, and loved both trips.
What makes someone love Maputo or not? Would you recommend it as a destination for friends or family on vacation? Would you recommend it as a place to live? I suppose these questions are at the heart of why many of you read my blog in the first place, but I thought I'd open it up to commenters to add to my thoughts.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Other than the people, there are definitely things I miss about Maputo:
- fresh, delicious piri-piri at all restaurants
- plentiful, cheap seafood
- the slang!
- grunts, groans, whistles and other exclamations that help spice up a conversation
- weekend trips to Macaneta, Bilene, Inhaca, Kruger Park
- the tropical rain and lightning storms
- looking out over Vila Algarve
- jacarandas and flamboyants thick with lilac and scarlet blossoms
- vinho verde as our summer drink of choice
- using the pool at Hotel Terminus
- pastel de natas, rissois and good curry
- having such an international group of friends and colleagues
- telling my life story and not feeling at all different or pretentious
- music at Gil Vicente, CFM, the Franco-Moçambicano and Africa Bar
- dancing (when we actually managed to stay up that late)
- eating carvoada (grill-it-yourself fillet mignon, prawns and fruit) at Manjar dos Deuses
- the Macau restaurant, still the best Chinese food I've ever eaten
- text messaging everyone, from friends to the Minister of Agriculture
- mani/pedi at DeCali with Dona Celeste
- Zeca, his wife and little Alizinha
- fantastic Halloween parties
- the cooking and logistics that went into our annual Thanksgiving celebration
- lazy afternoon braais
- relatively easy access to beads from Ilha de Moçambique
- minimal cold weather
- being 6-10 hours ahead of everyone (the time difference living in California is killing me!)
- the occasional random peacock spotted wandering around the city streets
- sundowners with friends...
I could go on forever it seems, sappy old me...
Saturday, November 07, 2009
The definite highlight of the day was touring the caves at the Del Dotto winery. We sampled various blends right from the barrel using a glass tool called a wine thief. The wines were stellar, definitely worth the price of the tour (which was small, just 8 people or so). If I had to make a recommendation to anyone wanting to do a wine tour, this would be it.Tasting at the Robledo family winery, founded by a Mexican man who came to the US and was an agricultural laborer earning less than 1 dollar per hour prior to opening a very successful wine business. Not your typical immigrant story for sure, but then again, what is a typical immigrant story? San Francisco by night, near the Ferry Building. Love all the palm trees! My best friend from high school got married and we attended the touching ceremony and great reception afterwards at the Presidio. I believe the last time I dressed up full-on was for the Marine Ball in Maputo...or perhaps the infamous Irish Ball when a gust of wind spilled Guinness down the front of my white dress? Rico even wore his suit from our wedding. Men are definitely more lucky when it comes to formal wear - the formula is the same for most events, and they can re-use their suits for work. Us girls wear a cocktail dress once, then look at it longingly in the back of the closet, waiting for enough time to pass (or enough invitations from diverse social groups to come along) to be able to use it again. Me with the lovely bride.
A couple weekends ago, our next-door neighbor organized a block party. It was such a trip! Apparently a couple of the people on our street have a 60's rock band that plays semi-professionally for events and such, so they provided some fun music for the afternoon. There was a potluck, dancing, kids drawing on the asphalt with chalk, and plenty of dogs. Everyone, it seems, has a dog. Except us. We're cat people. Dog friendly, but definitely cat people. As a congratulatory gift after my successful portfolio review, my mom and I went shopping and I found this killer purple hat. I love it, and wish that I could wear it every single day. The wool keeps my head warm, and it is the best solution ever for awkward, growing-out-highlights hair.
More photos on the way soon. Tomorrow we are getting our next round of visitors - Rico's aunt and uncle from Rio - so I'm sure we'll have some fun touring around with them. Also, we're trying to get the house clean before their visit (they are actually staying here at Casa Cali), so perhaps it will be photo-ready as a result.
Friday, November 06, 2009
- Rico always jokes that he can spot people from the US in the airport - in particular men - because the travel uniform of choice always involves tennis shoes (running shoes/cross trainers is more accurate - I use one of the more incorrect regionalisms when it comes to talking about all-purpose exercise shoes). Now plenty of people travel wearing sport shoes, it's just that Americans many times wear their running shoes with an outfit that is nearly formal, like slacks and a button-down, collared shirt. I guess it's the clothes equivalent of the good old mullet: business in the front, party in the back. Except here it's business up top, comfort on the bottom. Seriously, I've never seen tennis shoes worn in so many different contexts. Sometimes it makes me cringe (prairie dress with 1980's Reeboks??), but there is an upside: I can wear my new Adidas whenever I feel like it and rest assured that there will be no questioning looks thrown my way.
- Why do we have so many ads for medicines on tv? Do other countries advertise health options like this??
- The California Accent. Yes, this pertains only to a portion of this great state's diverse population, but it's quite noticeable for someone from out of state (or country). The defining characteristic is that all statements, queries, prases, observations, etc. end with the voice going up in register. To me it sounds like everything is a question. I don't even know how to describe it in words. Maybe I should do a video blog to illustrate! Anyone know what I'm talking about here??
- New vocabulary: staycation, funemployment, ill (and illest), ending words with variations of -sheezy, -iggity, -izzle and other funny sounds.
- If we had a dollar for every time Rico and I are asked if we speak Spanish we'd be halfway through our mortgage payment by now. Poor Brazilians...I know this is a sore spot for many. Perhaps with the Rio Olympics more people will become aware that Latin America's largest country speaks Portuguese, not Spanish. Still, to be fair, many Brazilians are quite ignorant when it comes to their fellow Lusophone countries. For example, we were frequently asked by friends and family in Brazil if they speak French in Mozambique. Sigh...I guess we all could use a refresher in geography and languages of the world at some point.
- The Bay Area is the most incredible place ever for restaurants. You can find any kind of cuisine, any price point, any style imaginable. Want Nepalese food? Check. Raw food? No problem. Just in our 4-block neighborhood downtown we have the following restaurant options: Chinese, Thai, takeout pizza, Vegan, Mediterranean, Brazilian (yes! with feijoada completa on Saturdays!), Mexican, two delis, a high-end Continental restaurant in a hotel, and a Starbucks.
What more could we want?? :)
Thursday, November 05, 2009
Ring with blackwood disc (Mozambique) and 14kt gold-filled wire spiral.
Triple-strand bracelet with antique trade beads found at Mozambique Island, mixed silver beads and etched silver clasp.
Yellow trade bead disc from Ghana with blue matte glass and sterling silver wire spiral.
See my online shop at http://www.alexandraamaro.etsy.com for more pieces!
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
That's just step one, though. I worked very hard to prepare an essay that captures why I am taking this leap to become a full-time jeweler. It took me a couple of all-nighters, but I am seriously happy with the final document. Since CCA does rolling admissions, I should know in about a month whether or not I've been accepted for the Spring 2010 semester. Fingers crossed!
Now that my school application is finished, I feel like a massive mental space has been freed up. The ideas are flowing, I am excited to get my business properly set up, and I literally have to carry around a notebook all the time to be able to capture all of my thoughts. It's exciting, but the size of my to-do list keeps me in line. ;)
Rico and I spent a few days in New Mexico last week, which was very nice. I'm still trying to get over the fact that it only takes us 2 hours to go visit my dad, and that we can go to Albuquerque more frequently than once every 1.5 years. Living closer sure changes the dynamic of trips to visit family and friends, that's for sure. I'd almost forgotten what it's like to just hang out and not have to squash every single thing into an 8-day trip.
So we've been in the US now for just over a month and I'm still processing through the transition, the occasional bouts of culture shock, the saudades for Mozambique and our lovely life in Maputo. It's just as bitter-sweet as when we said goodbye, which is strange considering all that we are excited about and that we have to look forward to here in our Casa Cali life.
My friend Jose said, after moving back to the Bay Area after 1 year in Mozambique, that it felt as if he were in a black hole the entire first month or two he was back. I definitely appreciate that. It's been quite the transition. Only now do I feel rested enough, adjusted enough...ready to do anything but errands and school applications and sleep. I want to be social again, see my friends that live in the Bay, meet some new people, go to a Pilates class, start dancing Nia again, go hiking, purchase jewelry supplies, set up my studio, print business cards, design my website, work in the garden, cook delicious fresh meals...
Before I sign off, a couple of generalized observations about coming back to the US:
- Americans tend to be very casual, both in appearance and in speech...from the grown-ass women who go to the DMV wearing pajama bottoms and slippers, to the guy in line behind me at the grocery store who told me all about his son being evicted as if it were no big deal to chat with strangers about his family's private life, the level of "comfort" definitely stands out.
- Milk is a completely acceptable beverage to accompany a meal. Any time of day, any cuisine.
- There are coupons for *everything*. I find it hard to believe that there are people out there content to pay full price when it is so easy, with just a few minutes of searching per day, to find discounts. You do have to be organized, though, to take advantage of the savings. Nothing worse than arriving at Home Depot only to find you forgot the MiracleGro coupon on the kitchen counter.
- Infomercials are still going strong. I'm tempted to buy the fresh-forever tupperware kit, and curious about the prices I'd be offered for my mismatched jewelry.
- This country is in the throes of a severe Blackberry and iPod addiction. Many times I am the only person on BART not talking or listening to music. Rico and I still haven't set up voicemail on our cell phones, and I'm amused by the number of people who think we're out of our minds because of it. I suppose nearly 5 years without voicemail has made me forget about it as a communication tool, although I've become an avid text-er in the meantime.
Now that I'm carrying around a notebook, hopefully I'll be able to record more of these cross-cultural musings more accurately. ;)