Sunday, February 28, 2010

I'm in fucking oregon
what the hell?

there are blossoms in february
where am I?

I'm outside smoking

tangible manifestation
of my response to what I'm learning

this shit doesn't taste good

like a vegetarian who denies that meat is appeasing

this cigarette tastes like escape

like I'm running away from the social webs of western norms for individual interaction

what does it mean to be an individual in a society where who you are, what you want, what you consume and want and desire and pursue for yourself is dictated by marketing, by a small minority of individuals who possess the wealth and capability to determine for you the answers to these existential dilemmas

is our conception of who we are even close to reality?
or have we accepted the options presented to us for what that means? to be something?

why must we be something? Where does that desire come from?

the smoke drifts away from my lips

like my will

after 5 shots of tequila I've reached a closer version of myself

do we ever really change as a person?

or just more fully become the authentic version of ourself?

to respond to the internal tension brewing between enlightenment and action

we know its hard and our will is limited

what does it mean to be in relationships?

with friends, romantic partners, family, etc.?

why do we feel close to some individuals over others?
do we truly connect with some genetic and personal manifestation of humanity over another?
OR just fail to acknowledge the forces determining the traits that make me despise and disparage you?

Are you and I really that different?
OR are we captured in a gulf of misunderstanding of the factors (nature and nurture) forcing that divergence?

I'm drunk...and confused.

Or maybe just one step closer to reality.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


“It's summertime in Cape Town!,” the cheesy radio announcer's faux-sultry voice crackles out of the speaker adjacent to my ear as the minibus taxi hurls down the familiar simmering tarmac towards the city center. The smooth beats of Akon, a popular Senegalese rapper, ease onto the station and the driver cranks up the volume to levels that would make even the most self-proclaimed “ghetto” of American college freshman boys cry. I glance up at the “Maximum Capacity: 12 Passengers” sign and smile to myself as I sit sandwiched between two well-endowed mamas in the back seat. I count 19 passengers excluding the driver and his gap-toothed guard. Grimacing as I draw my giraffe-sized legs closer to my chest, I struggle to liberate my hand from the clutches of my fellow passenger as I seize a few greasy coins from the depths of my jean's pocket to cover my fare. The passenger on my right, a beautiful Xhosa woman whose tribe forms the black majority in the Western Cape Province, chides the driver for missing her stop and issues a toothy grin as she tells me in the silky rhythmic tones of the Xhosa people to “Have a blessed day.”

The minibus rattles onward down the center line, swerving past a collection of victims—Volkswagon, Chico, city bus, all no match for its holy trinity of size, speed and insanity. I disentangle my legs and move towards the now vacant seat next to the window. Plunging my head out into the roaring Cape Town wind, I gasp for air and sight of my final destination: the top of the Cape Town MetroRail Station. As I sit there, head lolling about like a bobble-head doll whose awkward jolt failed to make the cut for final sale, my eyes catch a glimpse of Table Mountain looming protectively over the city's main streets. A sense of awe washes over me and I bury my head in my hands, "I'm going to miss this place so much," I think to myself. And soon I forget about the harrowing minibus experience as my thoughts wander across the path that lay before me.

Home. College. America. My own bedroom. Graduation. Matt Lauer. Shitty Health Care Legislation. Myley Cyrus. Snow. Pizza House. Neoclassical Economics. My stuffed Walley. Conventional Paths in Life. Starbucks. Rush Limbaugh. Reeses Pieces. Sorority Girls. Rent. Ashley's beer. Communism. The Jonas Brothers.

But as mixed and bent and twisted as my feelings are about leaving, I've learned to make the most of the time life gives you for where you are. I relish Cape Town for being such a fucking crazy city that I had no choice but to step into myself. I savor its streets, its history, its people. But I love my home...home meaning the people with whom my life has become so deeply intertwined that no person stands alone but is wrapped up in the delicate web of humanity. Ubuntu: "I am because you are."

Mallorie, Phil, Johnny, Hannah, Emma, Philip, Mom, Dad, Keri, Sheena, Angie, Andrea, Sarah, Molly, Shannon, Meg, Hannah, Stina, The Benj

My journal entry from the Johannesburg airport reads: "Friday, December 12th, 2009: And now, as I leave, my heart aches and I sob like my thirteen year old self watching A Walk To Remember. But while these are tears of mourning for saying farewell to what was the best time of my life thus far, these are more tears of GRATITUDE for how this experience has carved me out of the clay...has given me the confidence to continue the adventure. I guess that's the beauty of Cape Town. I'll see it, breathe it, feel it, LIVE IT, even when I'm away.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Dirty Bird in Southern Africa

Oooooo man it has been too long since my last blog....or too long that I allowed my last one (which may or may not have been written under the influence of alcohol, my last week of work, farewell to my best friend here, and the general emotional volatility that is a single female introvert in urban South Africa haha) to remain on the page. Granted writing is my Dr. cozy chair in a hippie psychologist's office decked out with chia pet plants, technologically ridiculous fountains and soothing grocery store jazz music. But some of you must identify with my experiencing this overwhelming surge of expression, be it writing or art or whatever, to create this work that you think is awesome at the moment but then return to some time later with an OBJECTIVE lens and think “damnnnnn...that shit is messed up.”

Dr. Phil would tell me to honor my feelings at the time and respect my last blog as a reflection of my experience.

I agree, but will seriously reconsider writing under the influence of depressants in the future.

Kentucky Fried Chicken. Also known as the “Dirty Bird”, actually has quite an impressive menu of sandwiches, wraps, salads and.......chicken. You all may be wondering where I am going with this, or in a socially conscious rebellion against KFC, may have decided to stop reading here. To the former group, I respect you. As for the latter...I question your morals...or maybe your health.

My love affair with KFC began a little over 3 weeks ago when I flew to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe for a 3 week camping trip through Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Northern South Africa. I went with Africa Travel Co., an overland travel company that takes 28 trucks of about 27 young people each all over the African continent. Two days prior to my departure, amidst saying farewell to my amazing friend Cate and a boy that I as an indecisive female may or may not have had a crush on, I was robbed after visiting the bureau de change to obtain US dollars for my trip.

Go team.

That, in combination with the poor financial management of a typical American led to what was not to be the first financial crisis in Julia's history. So broke in Zimbabwe (never a good idea given the government's affinity for bribes), needing to buy a few meals before my trip actually commenced, and contemplating slaying one of the 15 baboons that enjoyed roaming outside my hut, I turned to the only company that I knew I could trust (and the only fast food chain in town): Kentucky Fried Chicken. Little did I know that this wouldn't be a one or even two night stand. After avoiding the raging hormones of Zimbabwean men and departing Victoria Falls for Chobe National Park (where we took a cruise down the Chobe River to see Elephants, Hippos, Crocodiles, and Baboons just meters from our boat) and the Okavango Delta (the word's largest inland delta) in Botswana, I acquiesced once again to the wooing of KFC in Namibia.

Namibia, population 1.8 million (one of the least densely population countries in the world), is my new favorite place on Earth. Beyond its easy access to myriad KFC, Namibia possesses a landscape unlike any other on the globe:

The hot and dry Namib Desert, the oldest desert on Earth.
The rolling red sand dunes (including Dune 45, the highest on earth) into which the setting sun melts like lava oozing over its conquered terrain.
The magnificent red rock faces piercing the sky and providing shelter for the San people, the earliest inhabitants of Southern Africa.
And mmmmm....the deliciously purple mountains silhouetted against a horizon over which the full moon rises and calls across the desert “THIS PLACE IS NO ACCIDENT”

From Rundu in Northern Namibia to the fabulous game drives of Etosha National Park, all of my meals were included. It wasn't until we arrived for 4 meal-less days and 3 nights in the lovely German coastal city of Swakopmund that I realized I was the proud bearer of $15 (USD) and fucked. Putting on my khaki shorts and sash of patches all too reminiscent of Nazi Germany or Afrikaaner attire, I decided to draw upon my girl scout skills. Exploiting my own labor to wash my fellow travelers dirt and poop stained camping clothes at a ridiculously low wage, I turned once again to the Dirty Bird for food and comfort. One night found me walking to the beach for a fabulous Namibian sunset, double fisting a grilled chicken burger in one hand and a twister in the other. Meanwhile, pieces and flakes of chips sprayed like debris from the party in my grease stained mouth to the ground.

I was in top form.

But despite the monetary crisis and selling my soul to KFC, I had the most amazing experience in Southern Africa. Back in Cape Town for 1 week before flying home on December 11th/12th, I know that I am not saying goodbye but “see you later.” For if there is one thing I know beyond the fact the eating too much KFC will contribute substantially to your waistline, it is that life in America is not for me. The culture of fear of stress of materialism...I despise it. I am addicted to travel, to experiencing other cultures and to being challenged by their fresh insights and understandings of this crazy thing we call LIFE. So to the beautiful people of Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, the country in which I finally moved beyond discovering into becoming myself, I say “I will be back.” Back to learn, to be humbled, to understand, to know, and to find out how to live life together rather than at the expense of one another.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I'm not who I was

My experience here in south africa has been challenging: witnessing with the disparity I've already discussed, engaging with the issue of race and the associated legacy left by my fellow white people in this nation, the now normal anxiety regarding crime and safety, and the constant sense that I am a guest, an intruder in my host family's home. It's almost as if introverts like myself don't survive here. Darwin's rule, natural selection, has pushed us out of the cycle of reproduction as the conditions are not ripe for my kind in south africa. to travel alone, to retreat into one's head, to not only desire but need solitute to function, is dangerous in this country. Thus I struggle. How do I engage with such suffering everyday, in combination with my own sensitivity, without become an emotional and psychological wreck?

I find myself drinking a lot. mmmmm savvanna hard cider. One night after work...ok then maybe escape from the dissapointment I feel...for my fellow man...and for myself. There's blood on my hands, on all of ours'. We want to think we live in a bubble. We claim that we don't overtyl harm our fellow man.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Star That Won't Play False To Me

It's almost 3am in my quiet neighborhood of Southfield.

I'm dreaming of paragliding off Lion's Head when I remember that story my whale watching tour guide told me about a man who bought his wife a tandem paragliding trip off of the same mountain for her 40th birthday.

They caught a bad air rift and slammed into the side of the mountain.

Hanging there...with her 2 broken legs against the rock face...waiting for 4 hours for paramedics and a helicopter to get to them.

"Happy Birthday sweetheart"

The squeal of car tires and blasting of anothe lame Akon song creeps into the soundwaves of my dream


I awake with a start. Not to see Emeril from the food network sauteeing mushrooms in my bedroom, but to the sound of metal crunching against a concrete security wall. A car just ran into the security wall of the apartment complex across the street. No one's hurt but there's a huge gaping hole in the wall. Oooo dear.
Things at work are frustrating. The way are office is structured is positive in that it allows one to be exposed to and gain a deeper understanding of such a broad range of human rights abuses in this country. But because we don't specialize in a specific area, any attempt to do so is done through partnership with another organization. Communication here is a bit slow, so by the time you set up an initial meeting and arrange your tasks, you have only a month or 2 left. You already a foreignor with relatively little understanding of the culture and issues that organization is addressing, and are thus essentially seen as an "add-on" to which they understandably can't devote much time or energy into training. So while I'm grateful for the understanding I now have of so many facets of South African society and the range of experiences I've had (planning panels on gender based violence, supporting a transgender educational drag show, going on the radio to talk about service delivery pertaining to gender based violence, consulting refugees on their status, meeting with former sex workers, etc.), at some point I'd like to develop the skills to act upon such understanding.

It's so easy to get frustrated with oneself here. To so engage so deeply in another person's suffering, though I can never fully understand it, but to feel so unequipped or unqualified to respond in any real impactful way. I just constantly have to remind myself of where I come from. That really this office is structured so that the greater impact is on us as interns who are given the foundation to create the lasting change we all really want to see in the future. So many interns come into this office wanting to "make a difference," but from where we come from and the skills we have, not only are we realistically limited, but we must realize our role as students of the staff here, and more importantly, the people that we are trying to help. Patience is a lesson I am learning. Patience with myself and the learning process.

If there is one thing I know, it is that there is no other field for me. Human rights are universal. They are, as a white activist explaining his call to fight for a free south africa during apartheid says in the book Cry the Beloved Country, "a star that will not play false to me." Insecurity, what the world views as acceptable, even sprituality have tormented me and led me astray in the past. But human rights....human rights I cannot question or deny.

"I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie." It will take time, but no cause, for me, and I am not speaking for anyone else, could resonate deeper within my heart:

Excerpt from Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton:
"I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie...Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true. I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another. I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that. I understand better those who have died for their convictions, and have not thought it was wonderful or brave or noble to die. They died rather than live, that was all. Yet it would not be honest to pretend that it is solely an inverted selfishness that moves me. I am moved by something that is not my own, that moves me to do what is right, at whatever cost it may be."

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The World In One Country

YIKES. It appears that in typical American fashion, my inferior American immune system is making imperialist attempts to conquer lands that it isn't prepared, qualified or entitled to defeat. Ok, that was a bit hyperbolic, but seriously, I've had 3 different illnesses since I got here and I'm a bit tired of lying in bed sweating and excreting foul smells whenever my host mother walks into my infirmary of a bedroom (She's absolutely wonderful for putting up with me). Someday call the WAMBULANCE and order me a WAMBURGER and a WEINEKIN ....hahaha. Among other things, South Africa has contextualized my view of suffering, so I'm going to stop being a damn whiny American and tell you what I've been up to these past few weeks.

A few weekends ago, I made the preposterous yet gratifying decision to climb Table Mountain with my three roommates. Somehow, in preparing for the hike, the fact that I was climbing a MOUNTAIN didn't register....go team. It was brutal man, but after 2 hours of climbing what was basically a giant staircase of jagged rocks and wishing that I hadn't eaten so much artichoke pita dip from the restaurant I worked at over the summer in Traverse City, I found myself walking amongst the clouds on what felt like holy ground and gazing...yes, cue cheesy the most spectacular view of Cape Town, the Cape Peninsula and the ocean below.

That same afternoon, my roommates and I went on a tour of Cape Town's townships, where the majority of its black population resides. Most of the townships are located in the Cape Flats, a region of land on the periphery of the city. Prior to the development of the townships, the Flats were considered a barren and sandy wasteland, subject to the Cape's notoriously brutal winds and rain. The architects of apartheid however, had no qualms about forcibly relocating the black (and some coloured) populations to the strategically located townships of Gugulethu (“our pride”), Langa (“sun”), Nyanga (“moon”), and Khayelitsha, far from the metropolitan decadence of the city center. Overall, the tour was incredibly enlightening-- visiting the District Six Museum to learn about the forced removals of non-White populations and the creation of “Homelands” for Natives (blacks), touring a typical hostel where male migrant workers were forced to stay (the one we visited was built for 16 single males, it currently houses 23 FAMILIES), visiting a local shebeen and tasting african beer (NASTY!), visiting a local bar and feeling like an awkward white person who can't dance.

I just can't get over how calculated, imperialistic, and brutally racist the aparthied regime recently it was ousted....and how deeply its legacy lives and breathes through every element of this country. To walk into a township as a white person whose fellow race conquered, oppressed and subjugated these people to such often deplorable conditions is personally convicting, challenging and upsetting. How does one respond to such disparity? I'm tempted to just forcibly removed the whites from the posh Southern Suburbs and give the black population free reign over a territory that was originally theirs. But to allow history to repeat itself in this case is not the solution...and South Africa's leaders have passionately declared that this “Rainbow Nation” belongs equally to all those who reside within its borders regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

But how then does one resolve history? How can South Africa resolve the fact that while it is firmly committed to inclusive and nondiscriminatory policies in theory, its history of conquest, segregation and apartheid have fundamentally disadvantaged certain racial groups (in particular) from accessing and enjoying this equality under the law. Most blacks in Cape Town, for example, still live in the townships in which their families were forced. Here, a legacy of poverty restricts access to higher education, jobs, and economic advancement. Access to health education is poor, and living conditions are such that disease is rife and health care costs further the cycle of poverty. Even the educated face one of the highest unemployment rates in the world...around 25% for the country and 43% for the black population in major urban areas. What was once deemed a racial conflict is now revealing its true face: a class struggle divided along racial lines.

These are just thoughts, but one cannot help but notice that South Africa is living contradiction. There is arguably nowhere else in the world that such disparity exists. Every major metropolitan area contains pockets of the First, Second and and Third World....”The World in One Country” as some postcards refer to South Africa. And its South Africa one finds a microcosm of the larger world order--the global hierarchy of nations. I'm just struggling to understand how to live in and engage with such disparity...not just to adjust to this beautiful country, but also for when I return to the “land of the free” and the privileges that such citizenship... luck... or maybe randomness endows me. Now that I know, how do I respond?

miss you and sending you much love from cape town, Julia :)

Monday, September 14, 2009

men, meat and homophobia

So for you man readers out there, I gotta tell you about this meat joint that some interns and I visited 2 Fridays ago. Let's be honest--vegetarians have nightmares about places like this. The place is called Mzolis and it is located in one of the townships (for those of you who don't know, townships were created largely after the apartheid government's Groups Areas Act in the 50s and 60s that evicted the majority of the black and coloured populations from their homes near the city center to a barren land of shantytowns on the fringes of the city) called Gugulethu. The place is BYOD (bring your own drinks) and consists of about 30 round tables under a tent. You go inside the building next door to order in front of a giant counter with pounds and pounds of raw lamb, sausage, pork and chicken behind it. Your order your meat, pay and take it through a dark and sketchy hallway to a grill in the back. 15 minutes later you come back to the sweetest gift of the angels above: a giant bowl of mixed grilled meat in a savory BBQ sauce. You stumble tipsy-like to your table and join your friends animalistically fending off one another as they rip the meat apart in the bowl and stuff it into their mouths with their bare hands. 20 minutes and some major food baby later, you find yourself dancing around the table with your friends and grinning from ear to ear with meat sauce smeared across your cheeks, hands, arms and clothes. YUMMY!

While not spending every free minute packing on the pounds at Mzolis, I've been doing some really interesting work on women's and LGBT rights at the office. While South Africa was the first country to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, homophobia runs rife. Polls estimate that 80% of south africans are homophobic, and news of "corrective" rapes (where a man rapes a lesbian with the intent of "curing" her sexuality or punishing her), tortures and murders of LGBT individuals are all too common. Many social theorists link the violence to stress of unemployment and poverty that the majority of the perpetrators experience in the townships. Of the 36 reported murders of lesbians in south africa in 1998, only 2 cases came to trial, leading to only one conviction. My roommate and I are working with an incredibly committed and organized local NGO called Triangle Project to monitor the murder trial of Zoliswa Nkonyana . She was beaten by youths, aged between 17 and 20, who chased her, pelted her with bricks and finally beat her with a golf club a few metres from her home ( Unfortunately, events like this are all too common in south africa...and across the world.

I cannot help but feel that while an individual should be entitled to forming his or her own moral suppositions regarding sexuality and sexual identity, it is absolutely unacceptable for any person to express those views through physically, verbally or psychologically violent means. Ideologies and belief systems, similar to culture, are not inherently bad, but become problematic when they harm other human beings and violate certain fundamental human rights. To fight for the protection of another person's human rights is does not mean you must condone his or her lifestyle and behaviors. You simply recognize the other as a human being who, like you, is entitled to human dignity...for reallllzzzzz.