Archive for January, 2009

Agents of Change: Watching President Obama From Afar

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaObama Brownie

Domestic politics bore me.  The characters are always the same, the issues unchanging, and the scandals not particularly scandalous (or maybe I’m just desensitized to old white men doing salacious things in public spaces).  Above all, the United States is a functioning democracy that respects human rights and protects and serves its citizens, at least for the most part.  And there just isn’t much room for outrage or outcry.

International politics are where the real action is.  There are megalomaniacal leaders, coup d’états (both failed and successful), weapons of mass destruction (both real and imagined), balances of power, unions and break-ups, protocols and conventions, embargos and treaties, violations and trials.  Foreign affairs are the Mexican telenovela of political science.  Even the name evokes drama.

In college, I loved discussing theory, history, actors, issues, and most importantly, solutions in my Economics and International Studies classes.  Naturally, I imagined that living in South America would only heighten my passion for and awareness of these subjects.  However, since moving abroad, I’ve felt more cut off from the world than ever.

When I was still in school, people helped me to navigate through current events.  Teachers assigned readings, friends and family recited and debated headlines over dinner, and The New York Times and The Economist dictated what was worth knowing and had a monopoly on the facts.  On my own, I found myself drowning in the sea of information.

Suddenly, there were stories about conflicts in countries that I had never heard of between cultures and nations that I didn’t know existed, in languages I was just learning to speak.  I didn’t know which region of the world was worthy of attention, which crisis deserved the most time and energy, and which point of view to trust and respect.  Everything moved so quickly, it was hard to keep up.  Yet at the same time, nothing ever seemed to change or improve.  Frustrated and overwhelmed, I turned inwards, escaping from the ugliness and brutality in the world, and focusing on resolving my own issues and finding inner peace.

Before moving abroad, I at least absorbed important news through osmosis.  But in Argentina, if I don’t actively seek information about current events, I am totally out of the loop. It was during my headline news boycott that Barack Obama entered the scene.  Of course, I heard people about the Obama mania that was sweeping the nation, but I had no notion of the depth or importance of what was happening.  But then my parents started to fight, my mother almost reduced to tears when my father expressed doubts over Obama’s chances of winning.  “Your father is so cynical,” she would sigh when we spoke on the phone.
“I’m not cynical.  I’m realistic,” he would yell in the background.

When my friends began taking time off work to volunteer for the Obama campaign, I decided that this election was worthy of attention.  To get to know The Candidate better, I went online and read a transcript of Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.   I was moved by the power of his words, and saddened that I was missing out on an opportunity to be inspired.  I began to question my own political inaction, and to feel  guilty and selfish for having abandoned the fight, and for not contributing to the cause.  Until a friend helped me understand that disengaging is a strategy for change.

I read that when confronted with an unsatisfactory situation, you have three options: accept it, change it, or remove yourself from it.  More and more of my peers, it seems, are choosing option C: walk away.  We are not apathetic or disinterested.  We are just tired of waiting for the world to change.  Personally, I was bored of hearing the same rhetoric recycled and regurgitated.  I was tired of watching us turn in circles, applying the same ineffective strategies to persistent problems.  And I was disheartened by the fact that people are still killing and dying to protect or get things that aren’t theirs or aren’t necessary.  At some point I said, I don’t want to live under these conditions, not when I have a choice.  So I left home, hoping to create a microcosm that reflects my values, interests, and priorities.

Most of us are no longer looking for a temporary solution.  We demand fundamental changes, but we are bluffing.  There is no “or else.”  There are no ultimatums.  Paradigm shifts cannot be imposed from the top down.  Communities, local and international, are comprised of individuals.  And social values, norms, and institutions reflect, or should reflect, the beliefs, behaviors, and needs of the people. The world will change when a critical mass of individuals change the way they think, act, and live.

If enough people concerned about the environment move to big cities with public transportation or small towns where they can walk or ride a bike, maybe other cities will change in order to retain their residents.  If enough people worried about human rights and social justice refuse to buy products made in sweatshops or under inhumane conditions, maybe other manufacturers will change to appease their customers.  If enough socially conscious CEOs take pay cuts and invest profits in human resources, maybe other companies will change in order to compete for employees.  If enough of the best and brightest concerned with social welfare move to countries that offer universal healthcare, social security, and work-life balance, maybe their own countries will change in order to prevent brain drain.  And if enough politically active youths dedicate their vacation days to presidential campaigns, Barack Obama becomes President of the United States.

President Obama promises change, but he doesn’t necessarily promise to be the one to make those changes.  Let’s be honest, the new President has inherited a mess, and will likely spend the next four years trying to relieve the disaster left by his predecessors. One of the sentiments from Obama’s nomination acceptance speech that most inspired me was reiterated in his inauguration address:

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon  which this nation relies. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly….  This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

When Barack Obama accepted the presidency, he didn’t just give people hope. He gave them a mandate.  One man cannot manufacture a miracle, but we’ve seen what can happen when the interests of a nation of disaffected individuals align. Perhaps President Obama’s greatest legacy will not be the policies he implements, but the responsibility and authority he delegates to his people.


Just Say No: Letting Good Opportunities Go

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaPainting

I just found out about an incredible opportunity: STA Travel’s 2009 World Traveler Internship. STA Travel is the world’s largest student and youth travel company.  For obvious reasons, both commercial and social, they actively encourage young people to travel abroad.  The summer internship program is a two-month, all expenses paid trip around the world.  In return, the interns must document their experience through videos, blogs, and photos.  This year, STA is sending two people to Fiji, Australia, India, Kenya, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Scotland, and Ireland.  Candidates must be between the ages of 18-26, active, and have a strong desire to travel the world and share their experiences with others; excellent creative, written and verbal skills; an outgoing personality, and basic computer skills.  The first thing I thought when I learned of this program was, “Damn.  Now I’m going to have to apply for this.”

Rarely does such a perfect opportunity come along.  I have no plans for summer ’09 (in fact, after March my dance card is wide open).  Not only do I meet the requirements, I had already been hoping that in the future New Zealand would serve as the jumping off point for a trip around the world.   And if I were to globetrot as an STA Intern, I would be able to develop my writing, photography, video, and journalism skills.   This program was clearly meant for me.

Every one who knows me knows that I am annoyingly and inappropriately competitive. (Except when it comes to bowling.  There’s just no point competing at something when you know there’s no chance of winning.)  In college, my friend and I made another girl cry while playing Sorry! (Although, I’m not sure that was entirely our fault.  Seriously, who actually cries over a board game?)   So, if I am generously sharing this information with potential rivals, it can only mean one thing:  I’ve decided not to apply.

The day I learned of the program, I was so distracted that I couldn’t even concentrate during my guided meditation.  Instead, I took advantage of the time to mentally write the script for my application video.   By the end of the day, my roommate, who studied film production, had agreed to help with the concept and editing, and my friends had been recruited as actors.  Driven to insomnia, I stayed up all night picking out music and pictures to include in the video.   In the morning, after having slept on the idea (albeit fitfully), my enthusiasm started to wane.   I tried to motivate myself: “You might as well apply.  You’ve got nothing to lose and nothing better to do.”  But by afternoon, the pep talk had turned into: “I kind of hope they don’t pick me.” And there’s just no point applying for something that you don’t even want.

I already have a plan A: moving to New Zealand, looking for a job in writing, getting my own apartment, meeting new people, and staying in one place long enough to build momentum and move forward.  After three years of perpetual motion, my goal for 2009 is stillness and stability.  And this trip would be the exact opposite.  Maybe I don’t have anything to lose by applying, but I would have a lot to lose if I were selected, like my sanity.

I’m not done traveling yet.  There are too many places to discover, cultures to explore, foods to taste, dances to learn, sights, sounds, and smells to experience, ways of living and points of views to consider, and stories to hear and tell.  I’m just done backpacking, budgeting, and traveling and living light.  I’ve been doing it since I was nine, and I’m exhausted. When I was drafting a fantasy itinerary for my own trip around the world, I was planning on visiting fewer countries in a year than the program has scheduled for two months.  The internship is a great opportunity, but for someone else.

Let’s be honest. I’m just too old to travel like a rock star.  Nothing has made me come to terms with how not young I am like this program.  In June, I will no longer fall into the under 26 category, which means no more free trips, discounts, or health insurance.  Certainly, 26 is not “old,” but it’s not “youth” either.  At 26, society considers you an adult, capable of fending for yourself and/or too grown up for child’s play.  Hypothetically, if I were to get the internship, I would turn 26 four days into the trip.  Not applying for this internship is like asking that there please be no strippers at your bachelor party – you’re astounded and horrified by your own maturity.  I think I know how Wendy must have felt when decided to leave Never Ever Land.

Truthfully, I’ve been waiting for years to turn 26.  The summer after my first year of college I worked at a country club.  One day, one of the other waitresses began to lament her upcoming birthday and getting old.  She was 22.  The youngest member of the club (in his 30s) was eating lunch at the bar after golfing.  To console her, he confessed, “The best years of my life started when I turned 26.”  His thesis was simple: at 26 he finally had the perfect balance between security and freedom, and responsibility and leisure.  He was still young enough to have fun and experiment, but wise enough to do so without compromising his individuality, health, priorities or values.  He was still learning, but he suffered less and he knew himself well enough to avoid uncomfortable and awkward situations (like agreeing to travel to ten countries in two months with a stranger and document the entire trip).  And most importantly, he had the resources to do things his way.

When I was a kid, I was too scared or stupid or stuck-up or self-loathing to act my age.  I knew that actions had consequences, and I knew what those consequences were.  Too afraid and vulnerable to get in the game, I waited on the sidelines for my turn to play.  And now my age has finally caught up with me.  Maybe I am almost an adult.  But that’s great, because now I can finally enjoy my youth.

Stuck in the Middle: Caught in Pre-Travel Purgatory

Somewhere between Buenos Aires, Argentina and Auckland, New ZealandMerry-Go-Round

There is a reason why I don’t make plans in advance: I can’t stand waiting for them to happen. There’s too much time for thinking, for raising expectations, and for talking myself out of it. There is too much time for daydreaming (or day-nightmaring).  And since things never work out the way you imagined, if you fantasize away all of the best outcomes, what are you left with?  Disappointment. Most people call this anticipation.  I call it purgatory.

Being noncommittal in my daily life is easy (especially when you have patient friends and family who love you, even if you RSVP or cancel at the last minute).  But there is a fine line between being relaxed and being flaky, and you can miss out on opportunities if you don’t move fast enough.  Sometimes, the circumstances require advanced planning.  Like when other people are involved, or you’re moving abroad.

The idea to move to New Zealand was inspired by a friend from high school.  She is marrying a Kiwi in March on an island outside of Auckland (the island’s name, which I can never remember, is Waiheke).  In a stroke of genius, I decided to go to the wedding and stay indefinitely.  (Or maybe it was a stroke of déjà vu considering that I ended up in Argentina for exactly the same reason.)

Even though the date was set and I was set on going, I dragged my feet on purchasing a ticket.  Because no matter how committed you are, until you spend $1,250USD on a nonrefundable plane ticket, you can always change you mind.  Trust me, I’ve done it before.  Like the time I told everyone that I was moving back to the States and then called my mother two weeks before to tell her, “Hey, remember when I said I was coming home?  Just kidding.  That was a terrible idea.” But prices were going up and availability was going down and I had to act early.  I booked my flight to New Zealand an impressive three months in advance.

With my ticket purchased, I had a new question to face: What the hell am I going to do with myself until I leave?  I quit my job a few months ago and decided not to look for work immediately.  I had been fairly miserable, and I wanted to give myself time to reclaim my soul, relax, and most importantly, think seriously about what I wanted to do with my life.  By the time I decided to move to New Zealand, there was no sense in looking for work in Argentina. Jobs, especially temporary, well-paying ones for foreigners, are hard to come by.

At first, I loved my stint as a desperate housewife.  I took meditation classes and breathing seminars.  I spent days running in the park, reading on the balcony, cooking, cleaning, and sunbathing. I took my time: no rushing, no obligations.  I became my own boss (and, it must be said, I am a phenomenal boss).  I discovered what kind of lifestyle suits me best.  I discovered my passion for writing.  And most importantly, I learned to enjoy life. (I highly recommend voluntary unemployment to everyone who is willing, able, and in the throes of an existential crisis.) And then the boredom set in.

One of the great ironies about being unemployed is that you finally have the time to do all of the things you were unable to do while working.   You just don’t have any money. And finding cheap, meaningful ways of entertaining yourself can be something of a challenge.  I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, or worse, like Pinky and the Brain. Every morning, I wake up and ask myself: “Gee Self, what do you want to do today?”
“Same thing we do every day, Self.”
“Try to take over the world?”
“No, go for a run, do a little writing, kill time stalking people on Facebook and checking my blog stats, prepare lunch, meditate, write a little more, cook dinner, watch America’s Next Top Model, and go to sleep.”
“Oh, right.  That.”

Yesterday afternoon, I went to a playground near my house.  I love to swing and was starting to take off when the most amazing thing appeared: a government worker who takes her job seriously.  Wearing a hall monitor’s vest with “Department of Open Spaces” stamped on the back, she informed me that the swings were not for adults.  She was like those teenagers who worked at the movie theater when I was growing up who actually kicked unaccompanied minors out of R-rated movies.  I think that one of the kids at the park had tattled on me.  That’s when it became clear that I am starting to overstay my welcome.

Now that I know what I want to do and where I want to do it, I am eager to move forward.  But I am trapped in the present.  The reality is that the next six weeks will fly by, even if every day feels like an eternity. And before I know it, I will have to admit that for all my talk about wanting to move on I am not ready to go.  Saying goodbye is going to be painful and getting settled in New Zealand is going to be stressful, and I just want to get it over with already.  It feels like waiting to get test results back from the doctor.  You are scared and anxious, and despite your best efforts, your fear and anxiety taint everything you do.  There is no point in fighting or resisting. I simply have to accept the fact that I will not be at ease until I leave.

In the meantime, I am in limbo, trying to take care of unfinished business so that I can cross over in peace.  I spend my days writing, working on my tan, and waiting for my friends to get off work so that we can spend time together.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a savings account for quality time. No reserve that you can draw on in the future when you feel lonely.  You just have to enjoy your friends while you’re all still around. And that kind of makes it worth being stuck here a little longer.

Three Years in Three Suitcases: Packing for New Zealand

LuggageBuenos Aires, Argentina

My mother just confirmed that she is coming to visit me for a week in February.  Her timing could not be more perfect: she arrives exactly 20 days before I leave for New Zealand.  At first I was reluctant to have a guest so close to my departure date, but then I welcomed the idea of something other than my own neuroses nagging me for a while.  Plus, a week living like a tourist in Buenos Aires is a wonderful going away present.  But more than anything, I’m excited that my mom will be here to help me pack.

I am terrible at packing, which is somewhat humiliating given the number of times that I have traveled and moved.  My mother, on the other hand, is the Mary Poppins of packing.  When it comes to deciding what to bring, she is a disaster.  But when it comes to fitting all of the wrong things into a suitcase, she is a magician.  (I think her secret involves a combination of airtight Ziploc bags and sitting on the luggage, but I can’t be sure.) This talent will certainly come in handy when I try to shove three years of my life into two suitcases and a carry-on.

Truthfully, other than a ridiculous amount of shoes, I don’t have that much stuff.  I haven’t exactly been backpacking for the last three years but I haven’t had a permanent address either (unless you count my parents’ house in Michigan).  Since arriving in Buenos Aires, I have lived in eight different apartments, always renting a furnished room in someone else’s home.  I never had to invest in furniture or electro-domestic appliances.   Any consumer impulse I may have has been reined in by my limited space.  My last bedroom didn’t even have a closet. (Though it did have one of those clothes racks that you find backstage at a fashion show.)  This means that I have more discretionary funds for traveling, but it also means that I can’t bring back many souvenirs.

The last time I moved, I was horrified by the fact that I could barely fit the contents of my room into my roommate’s SUV.  Subsequently, I conducted a massive possessions purge, donating bags of old clothes and already read books to charity.  At some point, I convinced myself that I would make a scrapbook of my “trip” to Argentina.  That was back when I still thought that, like a boomerang, I would someday soon return to my point of origin.  So, I held on to ticket stubs from concerts, recitals, planes, trains, and automobiles, brochures from hostels, and maps from cities.  In one day, I threw almost all of it away.  Then, I read every single one of the holiday cards, letters, and postcards sent to me by friends and family.  I considered mailing them back to their owners, as they documented their lives and times more than my own.  But I got rid of them instead. I have regretted it ever since. (Note: some things are worth hanging on to, even if you only look at them once every few years.  Especially virtually weightless pieces of paper containing the private thoughts, events, and insights of loved ones.)

I’ve never considered myself to be materialistic.  When you’re a nomad, it’s easier to travel light.  But I like pretty things and posterity, and sometimes it saddens me that I don’t have more to show for the past three years. Of course, it’s better to experience life than to accumulate stuff, to constantly make new memories rather than live vicariously through mementos.  But one day, I will have my own house (I hope), and nothing to fill it with. My tastes will likely have changed by then, but I would like to be able to pay homage to the person that I once was, and trace the path that led me home.

When I shared this sentiment with my mother, she offered to let me store treasures from my travels at their house.  “All your other crap is still here.  What difference does it make?” But I could picture myself ten years from now, excavating my parents’ basement and coming across an old, dust-covered box. Gently lifting the lid, I would peak inside with excitement and anticipation, and discover serving pieces painted with toucans purchased in Guatemala and a bright blue pillowcase embroidered with an Incan monkey from Peru.  I didn’t want to collect trinkets that I would never use, which is all I can afford right now anyway.

I will have to leave a lot of things behind when I move to New Zealand (or my mother will have to bring an empty suitcase). It pains me to think about it, but how much baggage can one person carry? Besides, the most important things that I will take with me are those that are intangible: relationships, lessons, stories, and experiences.  My time in Argentina has changed me in ways as yet immeasurable and unimaginable.  It has a left an indelible impression, visible in the way that I talk, dress, think, speak, and interact.  What really matters can’t be taken away.  Not even by the Transportation Security Administration.

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