Category

Africa

teaching, facilitating
Africa, Culture

How I’m Overcoming the Tension of Teaching Storytelling in Africa

In my first workshop meeting, I share a TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and she discusses how throughout history those in power—especially colonialists—have dispossessed others by choosing how to tell their stories.

I am a young, white, American woman facilitating a workshop in Cape Town, South Africa sponsored (I think) by the U.S. embassy.

The title of this workshop? Storytelling for Social Justice.

As my “students” introduce themselves at our first of five meetings, they speak with courageous vulnerability about identity, hope, passion, and overcoming adversities I can scarcely imagine—genocide, violence, disease, loss.

They are mostly African, mostly POC, and mostly ten years older than me.

Sitting at the table with these eight extraordinary individuals in a bland classroom in the “American Corner” of the Central Library, I facilitate a discussion about “finding our authentic voice.”

Am I following in the well-worn tracks of those colonialists and neo-colonialists who sought to dictate how the stories of the African continent should be told?

Am I, too, somehow disempowering my students by seeking to facilitate their storytelling? Is “facilitate” just a nice word for “control”?

Damn, I sure hope not.

But I also hope that my race, age, and nationality do not disqualify me from sharing what I know with this exceptional group of human beings. They have honored me with their trust, their time, and their attention—and I feel humbled and motivated in equal measure. I want to support them in telling their stories, and I want to do it in the right way. So, as I do, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the “right way” would be.

I’ve never quite faced a situation like this before. I’ve taught dance and yoga, but writing is another level. When we talk about telling stories—our stories—we step into sensitive territory.

For too long academia has arrogantly claimed ownership of the world’s stories. For too long,  media and politics have propagated incomplete stories, visiting a kind of violence on their subjects by flattening them into one dimension. For too long, those who possess privilege and power have thought to police the self-expression—the stories—of those who have less.

And on and on and on…yes, storytelling is sensitive territory.

But, I’m still facilitating the workshop. This is how I’m moving past these stumbling blocks:

1. I choose the word “facilitate” over “teach.”

I would not presume to teach a group of people older, wiser, and more seasoned than me. I prefer to understand my role as that of facilitator, enabling my workshop participants to learn from one another and from my experience. (I also expect to learn just as much from them as they do from me!)

2. To that end, I focus on the knowledge I do have to share, which may be of value.

Introducing this workshop, I told my group that I came to them primarily as an editor who has worked on thousands of articles and several full-length books. I also come to them as a writer who has published for years on many online platforms. I believe the knowledge I have gathered from that work could benefit anyone wishing to improve their writing skills.

3. I accept the tension.

I think there is an inherent tension to my position. There are layers of nuance whenever a person steps into a teaching role, travels in foreign countries, or enters any cultural context other than their own—and I’m doing all three. That’s okay. I hope that by keeping those nuances in mind I will manage to avoid any particularly inappropriate gaffes.

 

***

 

Photo Credit: Zen Monkey Photography

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wild
Adventure, Africa, Nature

The Wild-Tame Peculiarity of Safari (and 10 Wild Photos)

Sabi Sand Game Reserve, Mpumalanga, South Africa

A male leopard wakes from his nap and stretches lazily.

Three safari cars—Land Rovers, I think—have parked just meters away.

The leopard yawns, stretches again, and begins to move.

His eyes are amber-grey, and he gives us only the briefest of disinterested sidelong glances before deciding to ignore us entirely and amble along the road. He remains impervious as the three cars crisscross his path to allow their passengers optimum angles—a bizarre new animal behavior pattern to which he and many other species in the bush appear wholly adapted.

At one point he passes so close to my side of the car that I can see the individual hairs that make up his spots and the supple play of muscle beneath his skin.

***

There is something both bizarre and breathtaking about finding yourself within hand’s reach of a wild animal and knowing that you’re safe.

That is the wild-tame peculiarity of safari. Or, at least, of my safari.

Over the course of three days, my family and I found ourselves nose-to-nose with elephants, zebra, giraffes, leopards, and lions, thanks to the skill of our third-generation guide and the collaboration of the game reserves. We observed hippos, white rhinos, hyenas, and vultures from just a couple meters away.

The sheer size, power, and wildness took my breath away—and it made me wonder about this paradoxical dynamic whereby wild animals accept wacky, camera-toting tourist behavior as the norm and an ecological system seems to evolve to accommodate it.

Predator and prey alike enjoy the ease of travel on dirt roads cut for the convenience of safari trucks. A mother leopard defends her cubs against hyenas as you would expect, but observes our approach with indifference. Some—though not all—impala (a species of adorable antelope) fail to shy away at the no-longer-alien sounds of car engines and human voices.

One thing is certain: This industry is a boon for the anti-poaching efforts across the safari-regions of the African continent. It brings revenue to places that desperately need it, and government protection to the wild animals responsible for it.

Perhaps even more important, it has the potential to raise awareness about and appreciation for species and environments slipping into endangerment or collapse. A key element of environmental protection not to be underestemated.

I hope to share more as I learn more, but in the meantime, here are some “up close and personal” photos of the wild animals that allowed us to share their space:

Mama leopard with cubs.
 
Fun fact: A herd of zebras can also be called a dazzle.

 

“They look at you like you owe them money.” — Unknown, on water buffaloes
No introduction needed.
Who wants to go for a swim?
So many elephants!
The animal that evolution seems to have forgotten.
 
My brother, the rarest of the wild animals.
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Africa, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Don’t Take My Word For It

Everything I have ever written, everything I will ever write, represents an infinitesimal slice (mine) of an infinitely complex whole.

I may speak of the universality of experiences such as fear, joy, loss and love. And I do believe in the value of sharing knowledge. But still, someone else’s words will never be enough.

A single truth only brings us so far.

I can write that it is Saturday, that I am in Muizenberg, South Africa, that the sun is hot and high for so early in the day. And that is all true.

I can write that I am sitting at one of the southernmost edges of the world watching the waves roll in against a backdrop of rocky peaks; that the wind and my hair and the sky taste of salt; that my shoulders ache from surfing; that seashells crunch under my feet as I walk. And that is all true.

But this information is mine only. What of yours?

The Buddha was fond of saying, “Don’t take my word for anything; go find out for yourself.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) In the Jewish tradition, debate and inquisitiveness are encouraged. We are not to simply take another’s words (or even doctrine) as truth, but rather—to fall back on a much-overused phrase—to discover our own.

I believe much of the world’s wisdom boils down to this:

Go and see.

Today, I was going to write a snapshot of Muizenberg, a small coastal town just a thirty-minute train ride from Cape Town. But I changed my mind.

You can Wikipedia that, and I think this is more important.

“Go and see” does not necessarily mean, “Drop everything and go travel the world.” Although, if that is within your means and your calling, I certainly recommend it.

“Go and see” means, “Experience the world—any world, your world—for yourself. Don’t just take my word for it.”

Perhaps you won’t venture to the southernmost edge of the world, but touch the edge of something.

Maybe you won’t be crossing international borders, but find a limit, a frontier, and surpass it.

You may not “watch the sunset from every coast,” but you can watch the sunset every evening—and if it’s the watching that counts, then that’s kind of the same thing.

There are many ways to seek, many ways to wander, many ways to cross borders; I share only mine. And while I hope you enjoy seeing a certain world through my particular gaze, I also hope you will go and see, because these words, these truths, are only the beginning.

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dance
Africa, Culture, Poetry & Fiction

When the World is in Chaos: Dance

“Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougotta dance. Don’teventhinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you’restuck. Sodon’tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. Yougottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhatyoubolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou’re tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon’tletyourfeetstop.” ― Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance

7:00 p.m. Table Mountain summit, Cape Town, South Africa. 

The sun is setting, and we are dancing.

Two hundred participants, most dressed in white, headphones on—we are praising the earth, this mountain, the clouds streaming across the rocks and bathing the world in dreamlike mist.

It’s my first time at a “Secret Sunrise” (or, in this case, Secret Sunset) event.

I’ve taken the hard way up, along with one friend and two strangers picked up along the way, and my endorphins are already surging after a two-and-a-half-hour hike.

But the world is in chaos.

I can’t glance at Facebook, work a shift at elephant journal, or even have a casual conversation without this truth becoming painfully apparent.

I, like many, feel compelled to do something say something change something—but, paralyzed by the overwhelming madness of it, I do little, say little, change little. And yet, and yet, and yet—every day I work to promote mindfulness. Every day I write to nurture cross-cultural understanding. Soon, I will return to school to study the art of peacebuilding.

And yet, and yet, and yet—more importantly, in my humble opinion—every day I seek joy.

The world is full of fear. So I fight my own demons. The world is full of chaos, and so I strive for inner balance. The world is full of uncertainty, so I dance with it.*

And here we are. Dancing.

Piano keys draw clouds through the sky. Eighties rock compels bodies—eight years old to eighty-eight—to move to the same beat. House music lifts feet up, gravity-defying, and down, solid and real.

Each of us in our own headphone-cordoned world, we dance. Alone and together. And hell, if that’s not an apt metaphor, I don’t know what is.

Alone and wrapped up in our own worlds, we are all nonetheless connected to one another by the same melodies in our ears, the same rhythm in our blood, the same music in our bones. We are all dancing, whether we realize it or not, on the same sacred ground.

So, is this an odd time to be turning to joy, music, community?

I don’t think so. In fact, I’d say that moments of chaos, uncertainty, fear are very much the right time to dance. To connect, however we do that. To create. To keep pushing for meaning.

Because if we lose that now, then we’ve lost.

So dance—not in spite of the chaos, but for it, with it, and through it.

Dance—”as long as the music plays.”

Dance—and don’t stop, because the world, chaos and all, is still spinning.

*This is a poetic response to turmoil; none of it is meant to underplay the value of activism in our current global climate. Act. Protest. Make change, by all means. But don’t forget the value of personal growth. I genuinely believe in “the power that living a good life can have,” as a friend once put it. Ideally, do both!

 

Photo Credit: Juliette Bisset Photography

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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

White Spaces: Combatting Racism with Subtle Awareness

Here’s a totally irrelevant picture of penguins to lighten the mood…

Late December, Sea Point, Cape Town

The walls and tables are painted a matte black, with the name of the cafe written in white. The decor is rustic-chic—a style I’m beginning to identify as a hallmark of upper-middle class Capetonian hipster culture. Bonobo plays on the stereo.

When I look around, I’m not surprised to see that all of the customers here are white. The servers (just as predictably) are black, but let’s leave that aside for now.

While the prevalence of these “white spaces” no longer surprises me here (or anywhere, for that matter), I still find them troubling: the climbing gym, music venues, bars, cafes…

A conversation with my new housemates this morning brought this subject to the front of my mind, though I’ve repeatedly followed this line of thinking during my time in Cape Town—both this year and last. And I think it’s pretty relevant to any society (not just South African) that is both highly stratified and intricately diverse.

Disclaimer: This is one tiny, ~800-word slice of a massively complex issue. I am not offering any solutions. If I make you stop, think, examine, I will be more than satisfied.

So.

The reason for which these white spaces exist are plentiful and fairly obvious. A massive wealth gap divided along racial lines, cultural differences in taste and recreation—the list goes on. Rather than discuss why we have them, however, I’d like to focus on how (or even if) we can confront this phenomenon.

To be precise, I would like to share how I confront it, in the hopes that it may help someone else. Note that I’m sharing from my position as a white woman experiencing “white spaces”—I’d be curious how the response changes (or doesn’t) when the deck shifts.

Situation One:

You walk into a funky little cafe, bar, concert, fill-in-the-blank, and the homogeneity of the whitewashed crowd immediately strikes you, given that you’re in a country whose population is less than 10% white.

Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t turn around and walk out, because you actually dig this band, the coffee’s awesome, or you’re getting super hungry. You don’t harangue your fellow customers with your guilt-laden complaints about the bitter vestiges of apartheid ruining your cappuccino, because that’s pointless. And you don’t call up your non-white friend to see if they want to hang out—immediately—because, well, I think it’s obvious.

Here’s what I actually do; it’s something I’d call subtle awareness, and I believe it to be meaningful:

> First, I acknowledge that I have indeed entered a glaringly white space. I’m not going to ignore it or deny it. The first step to addressing any issue is being aware of it.

> Second, I examine my motives for being here. Am I drawn to this cafe because it is comfortably, familiarly, safely white? Or have my 25 years of cultural conditioning simply predisposed me to seek out cafes, bars and activities that equally appeal to others of my socioeconomic and cultural background? It’s probably the latter, but it’s always good to check in—honestly—with myself.

> Lastly, I enjoy my goddamn cappuccino and write this blog while I’m at it, because at this particular moment, what else am I going to do?

Situation Two:

You start to notice a pattern. You seem to be consistently ending up in these homogenous spaces, and you’re worried that it’s not helping you become a more aware, cross-culturally fluent or educated individual.

Here’s what you don’t do: Dig in your heels and maintain your status quo, all the while patting yourself on the back for being more enlightened than “those” people at the table next to you. You don’t immediately dump all your friends and hobbies and look for better ones, either, because that’s silly.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past:

> If I think I’m ending up in these spaces because my neighborhoods of choice are problematically homogenous, I may choose to spend time in other, more integrated areas.

> If I notice that one of my activities (like salsa dance) or one of my favorite bars appears to be more inclusive, I may give that preferential treatment when deciding how to use my time.

> If I observe one of my regular cafes promoting exchange and openness of any kind, I will offer it my patronage more frequently.

I don’t know that any of these actions are solutions, really, but I believe they are steps we can take as individuals to ensure that—at the very least—we are not unconsciously supporting subtle segregation in our cities.

And, I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for homogenous spaces. Religious, ethnic and other identity groups have every right, and valid need, to assemble as such; however, when we never step beyond our insular spaces, everyone loses.
Don’t you want to meet and learn from as many (and as many kinds of) people as possible? I certainly do.

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Africa, Nomadism

Familiar Things

Sea Point, Cape Town, South Africa

I’ve been in Cape Town for less than a week now (after nearly a year away), but it seems much longer. In a way, it feels like I never left.

I’m living (per total coincidence) 15 minutes up the road in Sea Point from where I lived before; the mountains have not changed; I recognize the roads and know the bus routes; friends welcome me back.

Here are a few of the sights, sounds and sensations that feel familiar, this time around:

The knobby summit of Lion’s Head Mountain, which has never—not once—looked like a lion’s head to me.

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Adventure, Africa, Europe

Johnny Cash and Slow Travel

8:15 a.m. Self-Service Restaurant “Mediterraneo.” Grandi Navi Veloci ferry from Tangier to Barcelona.

I look up from my breakfast—a somewhat sad assortment of boxed orange juice, cold croissant and drinkable cappuccino—and observe the other diners. Some are in groups or pairs. Many are young Moroccan families. Many are alone.

Of this last group, few are doing anything (checking phones, or even reading). They’re just sitting there, drinking coffee, looking around. For some reason it reminds me of Johnny Cash’s famous response when asked for his definition of paradise:

“This morning, with her, having coffee.”

I’m not even a particular Johnny Cash fan, but something about that phrase—or more, the slowness it implies—fits this mood.

People choose to travel by ferry (around thirty hours from Tangier to Barcelona, rather than two or three by plane) for many reasons. The slightly cheaper cost. The relative ease and comfort of sleeper cabins and lots of space to roam. The vaguely romantic allure of faded, Titanic-style old world luxury.

And—I suspect—some people choose it for the slowness.

Sitting in a deck chair for hours watching the boat’s trailing wake. Pacing the endless red-carpeted hallways, hands skimming smudged brass banisters, stepping inside and outside and inside again with no special aim.

Sitting there, drinking coffee, looking around.

Because there’s nothing better to do. Because the boat will get there—slowly—and we have time. Because, just like Johnny Cash, we recognize that the smallest moments contain the whole universe—if we slow down enough to dwell there for a while.

For me, that is the essence of slow travel: dwelling in a moment while everything shifts around us, knowing that we’re on our way.

Another reason to take the ferry: They have puppies!!! (If you’re lucky…)
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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

It’s. A. Trap! (Fair Doesn’t Always Mean Equal)

Ourika Valley, near Marrakech, Morocco

“Very good price. Very low. Better than free.”

We’re standing outside the van on the road to Ourika Valley, a verdant, majority-Berber region about two hours from Marrakech, popular with tourists for its many waterfalls.

A half-dozen camels on short tethers wait for curious tourists to approach. It’s well past 11 o’clock, but the sun is just making it over the mountains to warm the deep valley.

The man speaking proffers a tangle of necklaces. Plastic. The artisanal products are waiting in well-planned shops, with tougher hagglers behind the counter. My companions for the day, a French couple from outside of Paris, laugh and tell him that’s a good marketing plan.

In a way it is, but then…maybe not.

You see, I don’t want anything for free (unless it’s a sincere gift). I don’t want the cheapest price (anymore). I want a fair price.

And that’s a very different thing.

Ostensibly we’ve stopped for photos, but the view was around the last bend, and we’re really here to have time to spend money. We’ll stop at three more tourist establishments (some would call them traps, but I won’t today and I’ll explain why soon) before actually reaching our intended destination.

> The Argan Oil Cooperative. Smiling women sit outside the building grinding argan nuts into a paste, which will later be separated into cosmetic oil and the base ingredient for savon noir (black soap). They beckon us to sit beside them. Ashkid, ashkid. (Come, come.) You can take pictures, we’re told. No problem. There’s a dish in front of the women with a few dirham notes in it. We can leave money there.

> The Berber House. A traditional Berber house, which I might have found more exciting had I not spent a great deal of the last five weeks visiting my Berber friends in their (yes) Berber Houses. We’re shown the kitchen, the store room, the family room, the hamam (bath) and the backyard. You can take pictures. No problem. On the way out, there’s a well-placed souvenir shop and a donation box for the welcoming Berber House family.

> The Guide. We stop in the village near the waterfalls to pick up the guide. We haven’t asked for the guide, but the guide is going to come with us. He accompanies our small group halfway up the trail, to the first set of falls, and then tells us it’s time to turn back. When we insist on continuing, and he insists on not going back without us, I convince him to wait at the halfway-up cafe while we finish the hike.

Now, I don’t like being forced to pay for things I didn’t ask for or want in the first place. I also don’t like not paying someone for work completed or services rendered. I don’t like feeling cheated out of my money. And I don’t like feeling I’ve cheated someone out of their fairly-earned money.

Most people in the world would probably agree with those sentiments.

I think all of these scenarios and concerns come down to the same fundamental issue: fairness. Fairness to local people working in the tourism sector, and fairness to tourists seeking to spend their money well (ethically, reasonably and in a way that feels good to them).

So, what’s fair?

I’m going to seriously oversimplify for a moment. The tourist-local marketplace dynamic—as I see it—breaks down like this:

Tourists don’t want to feel ripped off or trapped. (That’s a low bar.) These things are traps: Telling someone to take a picture (no problem, pictures are free!), and then asking them to pay for it. Insisting someone take a bracelet as a gift—and then insisting they pay for it. Following someone through the souk, though they have clearly stated they do not want a guide—and then asking them to pay for it. (These are all common experiences for unsuspecting foreigners in Morocco.)

Tourists do want to feel like they’re getting a good deal. Sure, some are pinching pennies, but most just want fair. Many, like me, will feel frustrated when they know an item’s market price, and then are asked to pay four times that because said item has been handily transported into a souvenir shop. They don’t want to pay “tourist prices.”

Local people want to make a decent living. They see foreign tourists and assume (reasonably) that if they had enough money to pay for a plane ticket to Morocco, they also have enough money to pay a few dollars above market price for a bottle of oil, silver necklace, taxi ride, and everything else. They might also encourage (or push) said tourists to spread their money evenly—a few gifts at the Argan Cooperative, a dollar to the Berber House, a tip to the guide. From this perspective, those tourist establishments mentioned above are not traps, but simply an integral component of the day’s adventure.

Some believe that tourists should pay tourist prices, because they can. And hey, I get where they’re coming from.

Naturally, I also get where tourists are coming from. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, and I think the fair solution is neither “equal” (tourists often do earn significantly more than the locals they’re buying from, so why shouldn’t they pay more too?), nor excessive (no one likes traps and cheating). Rather, it’s somewhere in the middle, where everyone is happy—or at least not pissed off.

So, when buying abroad, keep three questions in mind:

1. How much is this worth to me? (How much do I want to spend on it? Keep in mind, for perspective, what you would spend at home.)

2. What is the “market price”? (What would this cost a local?)

3. What can I afford? (What’s my budget for this day? Week? Holiday? Will this meal/souvenir/excursion put me over?)

The “fair” price exists somewhere at the nexus of those three answers.

Happy shopping!

*** 

And to justify this blog title:

 

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Africa, Culture

6 Awesome-Sauce Pictures of Morocco (or, Why you Should Follow Me on Instagram)

 

I haven’t been writing much the last couple weeks. I think sometimes, when it comes to writing about our experiences, there have to be periods of writing—and then periods of experiencing. So, let’s just say it’s been the latter, and I’ll get to the writing part again soon.

In the meantime, did you know I’m on Instagram these days? I share snippets of writing or travelogue with nearly every post. Here are five reasons to follow me:

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***

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How to Pour Tea, It’s Out of our Hands, and Other Lessons from the Moroccan Coast

View of Taghazout from one of my favorite cafes.

We watch the waves crash against the cliffs beneath our table, the spray catching the sunlight over and over again.

Our tea arrives—the classic combination of Moroccan mint and strong green that everyone drinks, but without the usual pound of sugar, per my request. A simple silver teapot with a long spout. Two small glasses (not mugs, but glasses).

I lift the teapot and pour, starting low, then lifting higher, and higher, and a bit higher, steam rising up from the cascade of tea and a slight froth forming at the top of each glass.

(If I wanted to mix in sugar, I would pour out glasses of tea and dump them back in the pot several times to avoid using a spoon—bad luck, I learned later. But I don’t, so I only pour once.)

I can’t remember where I first learned to pour tea—properly. I think it was in a Senegalese village when I was 16. Everyone laughed at my first attempts, of course. Even today I spill more than any veteran tea pourer ever would. But I know the technique, and I can make a few bubbles.

It’s a small thing, arguably, pouring tea well, and yet drinking tea proves such a fundamental aspect of so many cultures that I think it’s important, too. Worth learning. Worth sharing.

***

Let’s drink tea together tomorrow!

Inshallah.

You should open a cafe there—you would get so much business!

It’s a good idea. Inshallah.

Are you moving this week?Inshallah.

When does the high season start?

Things will get busy next week—inshallah.

Inshallah (also written insha’Allah). If God wills it. God willing. Used throughout the Arabic-speaking and Muslim world—and often. At times my plan-making mind gets irritated by the ceaseless string of Inshallahs spoken and exchanged each day.

Is nothing certain?

Well, no, it’s not—is it? To visitors from outside cultures, I think this nonstop Inshallah business can seem like a cop out. Noncommittal. But I suspect (I don’t know nearly enough to say for certain) that it stems more from a different perspective.

Everything—everything—is out of our hands. Maybe. It’s probably a good brain exercise to consider the possibility, even if you disagree. Living here, then, is like a daily mind workout.

***

Every day I learn here.

I learned that until the 1950s there was a small Jewish settlement alongside the Berber ones in the mountains behind Taghazout. I visited a new friend’s home in those mountains, and I could feel the history in the ground under my feet.

I learned that Friday is couscous day and that soup is a summer food.

I learned that no length of fabric will cover my foreignness here—no matter how Mediterranean I like to think I look.

I’ve learned that if you sit long enough in one spot it is really possible to see every person you know in this town, and that if you start walking you can spend a whole day just stopping in for chats with old and new friends.

I’ve learned how to roll under a wave with my surfboard, and that lip sunburn is real.

I’ve learned to count to ten (though I’ve forgotten at the moment), and how to greet.

There’s no other message today. There are lessons everywhere, every day and in every culture; I hope you’ll go find some!

***

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