Tag

being foreign

Africa

Zanzibar!

Have you ever written a sonnet?*

A sonnet’s beauty and difficulty both lie in the restraints placed around its form. Fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, and a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b;c-d-c-d;e-f-e-f;g-g, the sonnet is no quick jaunt on a summer day. It is hard work to fit depth of thought and poetic sentiment within its narrow frame. But when it works, it’s magic: the sonnet emerges as just reward for the poet’s pains.

This trip I have just begun (arriving in Paris on November 17th, and checking in now from Barcelona) is a bit like writing a sonnet.

Why?

Have I mentioned that I am traveling with my partner? And have I mentioned that said partner is traveling on a Ghanaian passport– a document that grants today’s international traveler few privileges?

Well, I am, and he is.

We arrived in Europe knowing that we would have to leave within 30 days– the length of his visa. Yesterday, we returned from the Moroccan Consulate in Barcelona giddy with disbelief. We would not continue on to Morocco by ferry as we had expected.

Why?

Because one week prior the Consulate had received instruction to grant Moroccan visas only to residents of the Barcelona area. We would have to return to the U.S. or Ghana now to apply.

And so we are back to square one. The fourteen lines, iambic pentameter and strict rhyme scheme of travel sonnets and bureaucratic poetry close in ever tighter.

The following two maps represent our respective “green zones” for international travel. Green and yellow mean we can obtain visas on arrival or do not need them. Gray typically entails a lengthy visa application process, and often the necessity of returning to the U.S. to undertake it.

Were you to lay one map on top of the other, the world would be mostly gray.

Add to that the places we do not wish to travel, for various safety concerns, and the gray spreads farther still.

Yet even as borders tighten and possibilities shrink before my eyes, I feel an odd sense of freedom then, faced by our obstacles. When our plans shatter and we are forced to return with all haste to the drawing board, we have to opportunity to create a sonnet of exceptional spontaneity.

Where will we go now?

To Zanzibar! (You may have guessed it.) City of rare consonants that beckons my imagination to wander. To East Africa. Nairobi, Kenya first, in fact– though its lack of Z’s renders it a less tempting contender for title line– then on to Botswana and Tanzania and maybe South Africa.

I hope the sonnet that emerges is worth all the trouble.

~

*[The credit for this analogy goes to a friend– he managed to express perfectly the nature of this trip.]

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Everything is Possible; Nothing is Free


The hub of my front tire was bent at a worrisome angle. The brakes screeched so loudly they forgot to perform their intended function.  The bell did not ring and my feet did not reach the ground, but paying 10,000 kp, or $1.25 per day, I couldn’t complain about my rented bicycle.  It carried from the northwestern tip of Don Dep four kilometers along a wide dusty path to the southern side of the island, across a bridge to Don Khone, around, and back—about 25 kilometers in total—and never once muttered about the heat of the midday sun, which is more than I could say.  Don Det and Don Khone are two of the largest of the four thousand[i]islands that break up the Mekong River at the south of Laos.  I stayed on Don Det for four nights instead of my expected two, lolled into oblivion by the heady lotuses of palm trees, green water, good company and late-night bonfires.
Both Don Det and Don Khone are incredibly flat, and my bicycle and I managed to navigate them easily enough. I stopped to see the Phapheng Falls—the massive series of cascades and rapids that thwarted 19thcentury French efforts to chart a water route from Vietnam to China.  I still haven’t seen the Phapheng Falls because when asked to pay a 25,000 kip entrance fee (approximately $3 and by all accords an inconsequential sum) I had a minor breakdown and went on my way instead.  Let me explain… I am more than happy to give my money to fledgling tourism industries, support the countries I am visiting within my means, and in normal circumstances I would never forgo a stunning natural sight over three measly dollars.  However, at that particular moment, something inside me snapped, perhaps triggered by the cold and offhanded attitude of the ticket taker: I wanted my humanity back! I was tired of being a wallet on legs, and I could not bear, at that moment, to pay for one more thing.
A few hours later, repenting somewhat and feeling rather silly, I thought about doubling back, but the distance left to travel and the thought of the ticket taker’s face deterred me and I continued on without another thought for the waterfall.  I am not the only foreigner to lose patience with the aggressive profiteering in Southeast Asia, and I think I conducted myself relatively well.  In my two weeks in Laos, I witnessed shameful shouting matches between backpackers and tuk tuk drivers over a couple of dollars’ misunderstanding; I watched haggling turn ugly over the last quarter, and I saw smiles turn to anger in countless market interactions.
In most of Asia, where haggling is accepted and even expected, the problem lies not in the bargaining itself, but in its tenor.  Backpackers especially complain that the locals try to cheat them and see in them only potential profit; locals complain that backpackers, who measure their poverty by a different scale, are stingy, want everything “cheap cheap” and ask rudely.  Both sides give reasonable cause for the other’s accusations.
Everyone wants to be treated like a person. No one wants to feel like a tray of samosas or a wallet on legs, or a scheming villain.  In my opinion, for tourism to truly succeed someplace, a country’s motivation for drawing visitors cannot be solely monetary.  Obviously tourism is an industry and its purpose is to generate income, but when the desire exists to share one’s culture with outsiders, welcome them into it and benefit from their presence not only in a financial sense, transaction takes the leap to interaction.  In this best case scenario, we break the too-common boom-bust cycle of the tourism industry and see the birth of a new sustainable development model, with tourists returning regularly to places that are welcoming— neither “untouched” nor “ruined,” but real, warm, and human.


[i]An approximate measure which I suspect was chosen for its poetic appeal in collusion with the ministry of tourism.
~
Another beautiful waterfall in Laos, which I did pay to see. 🙂
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Asia, Culture

Fair & Lovely


[Also published at www.yourvox.org]
 When drugstores sell creams to lighten your skin, and your vagina, and women buy these things by the thousands, something is wrong.
 “Femininity itself has become a brand, a narrow and shrinking formula of commoditised identity which can be sold back to women who have become alienated from their own power as living, loving, labouring beings.”
― Laurie Penny, Meat Market
            “Oh, your skin is so beautiful. So white!” said my Nepali friend, Sariya, placing an exaggerated emphasis on almost every word.  I looked at her, speechless.  I and many of my peers have repeatedly been the object of envy and admiration here in Nepal, simply by virtue of our fairness.  In a typical gesture, wizened Tibetan women will brush their cheeks with the backs of their fingers, exclaiming “nying jepo!” (beautiful, Tib.) or smiling to express their approval.  Ironically, thousands of Americans flood beaches and tanning salons in the hopes of attaining the same flawless caramel-colored tone that Sariya laments.  In Nepal, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, we see the standards of beauty reversed.  Fair, clear, white, light—these are the terms of beauty, and of class.
            We can trace the obsession with fairness back many centuries before colonialism and British Imperialism in this region.  Vedic culture, which originated in Northern and Northwestern India, eventually spread through the subcontinent, bringing with it a lighter-skinned Brahminic class and the foundations of a caste system that exists to this day.  According to the creation myth found in the Rigveda (the oldest of the sacred Vedic texts at the core of what we now call Hinduism, but which one Tamang taxi driver aptly termed Brahminism), the primordial man was sacrificed so that the gods could populate the earth.  They dismembered him, and from his head they created the Brahmins, the priests and scholars; from his arms they formed the nobles and warriors; from his legs the merchants and traders were made, and from his feet the servants.
            In the intervening centuries, caste (far more complex than the four sections of the primordial man’s body) and race have become somewhat convoluted.  “Aryan” Brahmins from the Notrth, imposing their religious and social order on Southern, darker-skinned peoples, have often followed racial and cultural prejudice in assigning caste designations.  The European preoccupation with fair-skinned beauty that arrived with the East India Company and subsequent British colonialism in the seventeenth century only served to reinforce existing structures of race and power.  One might argue that whiteness, as a defining attribute of the new ruling class, acquired even greater value than before.  In Nepal, the history of the caste system is even more complicated, but the resulting standards of beauty are similar.  Here, in preparation for a wedding, beauty salons will coat the bride’s face with layers of lightening make-up to accomplish a garish (or beautiful, depending on your perspective) final product.
            With many Indians and Southeast Asians placing such a premium on fairness, it should come as no surprise that they would take to easy and “safe” skin-lightening options.  In 1975, Fair & Lovely launched their newly developed “fairness enhancing” formula, and finally “Indian women found hope in a tube.”  On Fair & Lovely’s website, the company’s entire illustrious history, from “The Early Years” to the present day is narrated.  The 1980s and 1990s, for instance, saw shifting paradigms “as women started to take charge of their love life.” Fair & Lovely, of course, “supported her every step of the way by giving her a never before fair and beautiful look.”  Analysts expect that fairness products will become a $10 billion industry by 2015.
            Today, Fair & Lovely hardly stands alone; Garnier, Dove, Vaseline, and many other brands offer their own “skin-lightening,” “anti-tan” and “fairness enhancing” products.  Now men, too, can achieve the fair look they always desired, but were too embarrassed to seek out—a legitimately revolutionary development in the Asian beauty market, and hugely profitable.  And now, thanks to Eva Beauty, women’s labia can be as fair and beautiful as their faces.  Fair & Lovely claims that their formula, based on the lightening effects of Niacinamide, or Vitamin B3, is complete safe.  At the very least, bleach does not appear on the ingredients lists of these products, as it purportedly does in some (unsubstantiated).  However, uneven application of skin-lightening creams and lotions results in blotchy, chronically dry and unhealthy skin.  As young women form a large portion of the consumer base—12 to 14-year-olds made up 13% of the market in 2008, according to one survey—customers will suffer these effects from an unfortunately early age.
            Since 2003, the Fair & Lovely Foundation has offered scholarships to girls, working towards economic and social female empowerment. Their entire marketing strategy and self-representation centers around this rhetoric of helping women realize their dreams.  Reading through these advertising materials and information about the foundation, I found that I had to confront my own prejudices, which were affecting my analysis of the skin-lightening phenomenon.  This is not the first time I have had the experience of being coveted for my skin color, but it never fails to make me uncomfortable, and angry.  Why do these fairness products seem so bizarre to me, while America’s tanning obsession dos not? It is probably because I am more accustomed to the latter, but also because skin does become darker in nature, while the reverse is almost never true.  Compared to women in America who undergo plastic surgery to make their sexual organs more symmetrical, is Eva Beauty really so shocking?  No more shocking, no more disturbing, but Eva Beauty is symptomatic of an entire set of social issues; these issues of caste, inequality, and the subjugation of women to impossible standards of beauty are, in my opinion, extremely problematic.  Fair & Lovely has a foundation aimed at empowering women; have I judged it too harshly?  Fair & Lovely may “support” women to achieve their dreams, but it does so by selling their beauty back to them, after reinforcing the status quo and teaching girls to believe that fair is lovely and light is superior.  I stand by my initial reaction: the skin-lightening industry is damaging; marketing capitalizes on deeply engrained social values and strengthens the association of fairness with success, rather than challenging it.
~
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