Reading Around The World: Update 5

>> 18 February 2015

After the disastrously depressing reads in South Africa (and to a lesser degree, Fiji), I intentionally focused on something more light for this week. Although, light reading brings with it new problems...

The Road Less Graveled, Wendy Laird
This is the true account of a family who left their comfortable life in Seattle to go live in Italy for a year in the recent 2000's. I still haven't the slightest idea why. From the author's description, it seems the family had become too.... comfortable? Organized? Well-cared for? Rich? And so under the great weight of their own ennui, they acted on their inconceivably privileged arrogance, moved to the Italian countryside, and had the gall to complain about it for a few hundred pages. They speak another language there! The don't have clothes dryers! People are bad drivers! They burn their trash! Our guesthouse only had 3 bedrooms and was on someone else's property! Sometimes animals exist in the world! Basically, I found the entire story contemptible. They made no attempt to integrate themselves in any meaningful way, and their 'cultural victories' were superficial at best (I learned to not be angry about having to wait in line!, declares the wife smugly). I already knew a lot about Italy, but now that I've seen how much these Americans complained about it, I think I will like it all the more when I go there someday. Compared to South Africa or Timor, it's a dream.
Complaininess: 5/5
Ennuiness: 5/5
Personal growthiness: 0/5
Feels: annoyed, irritated, irked, disgusted, impatient

Love and Truth, Kathryn Perez
Sorry, but this book was OH MY GOD KILL ME bad. The story follows a young girl who travels to Japan to spend a year after high school at a ballet institute. She, of course, meets a boy and falls in love and they go back and forth between love and hate as he continues to betray her again and again. This is the sort of story that convinces girls to stay with an abusive partner, and it sickened me. When the girl had a negative reaction to something the boy did (hiding the fact that he had gotten another girl pregnant during a drunken one-night-stand), she was being too sensitive. When she wanted to have sex, he told her she wasn't ready. When he was unhappy because he did something wrong, it was her fault for making him feel bad about it. Utterly nauseating, and it rang too much like a true story. These are the kind of ideas that girls are brought up to believe (a man's emotions are your responsibility, not his; decisions about your body are up to the man you're with, not you), and they are horribly damaging to creating loving and trusting relationships. Disappointing all round, especially because Japan was less of an immersive environment and more of a painted background. I have GOT to stop reading these young adult novels.
Kissiness: 5/5
Patriarchyness: 5/5
Karaoke-and-photobooth-ness: 3/5

The Saint, Oliver Broudy
This book follows the adventures of a complete madman as he enlists the aid of a journalist to do... something crazy in India or possibly Tibet? Fortunately, the journalist is also suffering from what I'm now going to start calling ennuienza, so he was perfectly poised to leave behind his comfortable and privileged life to do... something idealistic. I still don't know what the pair were trying to accomplish. Something about sneaking across the northern India border into Tibet? Or invading Tibet in a helicopter? And also there was something about a vial of Ghandi's blood? The reason I'm not really sure is that for the majority of the story, the delusional ideologue was fasting, and he became increasingly incoherent. Even after he broke the fast, he was no more coherent and revealed himself to be nothing but a fake and a liar, spouting pseudo-intellectual bullshit so pungent it'd make your eyes water. I've known people like this; they're big thinkers, man, and if you only knew how smart they were and how well-connected they were, and oops, let me just drop another name and tell you about another 'book I wrote that's gonna be huge'.... ugh. Gag me. There were a lot of really good quotes throughout, though, and the author does make a good case for the necessity of occasional travel:

"I could see that if I pursued this course I might easily end up a cosseted fool, the proprietor of a well-upholstered life drained of vibrancy and challenge. But I didn't know what else to do. In short, I was confused."
Not awful, not great, just boring; especially for a true story.
Indianness: 2/5
Irritatingness: 4/5
Interestingness: 1/5
Feels: confused, annoyed, REALLY annoyed, impatient, dismayed


My weekend in Liquica

>> 16 February 2015

I wrote the following last week. I've had a chance to let it sit and stew, and now I'm posting it.

I needed to get out of Dili. I've needed to get out for a while. You start to go a little crazy if you don't escape about once a month, and I was long overdue. Last week I made a desperate request to my friends, and with only a few hours planning and preparation on Friday afternoon, we were off to Liquica!

Liquica is the name of both a district and it's capital city, and is about 30k west of where I live. On a good road in the US, this would be about a 20-30 minute drive, but this is Dili so it can take anywhere from 1 hour to 3. My friends all loaded up in a taxi, and I opted to take my motorbike. Not the wisest decision perhaps, but I've become a pretty confident and competent driver. I was to follow the taxi, but the roads were washed out and muddy and the driver crawled along at under 15k/h, which became more and more dangerous for me. Going that slowly on a motorbike significantly reduces your tires' traction, and thereby your directional control.

I slid around behind them in the mud for over an hour before I was saved in the most Timorese of ways. Julio, a friend from work, drove up behind me on his bike and then slowed down to keep pace with me. I was really surprised and pleased! We chatted while driving, and I found out that his family lives really near to the resort where were were headed, so I asked if I could follow him instead. He agreed (especially because it was almost dark at this point), we took off and left the taxi behind, and 30 minutes later I arrived safe and sound and not much the worse for wear. My friends arrived after another 30 minutes or so, and we had a great evening together.

The next morning, I woke up at dawn and slowly made my way out to explore the resort and the beach. I walked to the east until I found a good place to watch the sun rise. I kept walking, enjoying the quiet, waving to the fishermen, and saying hello to the people I passed. It was very peaceful, and exactly the escape I needed. Until...

Eventually I made my way back to the resort and was only another hundred meters or so away when I came across a young man standing back from the beach in the brush. I could tell from a long way off that he was watching me, but I'm used to being a spectacle in this country and so I thought nothing of it. At some point, I got close enough to realize that he was standing there and staring at me with his pants half down and his penis in his hand. I stopped suddenly and turned away, not at all sure what to do. At first I laughed, and then I realized that I was alone and unprotected and being watched by this man who was blocking my path to safety. I started quickly in the opposite direction, thinking I would go back and chat more with some of the people I'd seen, but the beach was deserted. Every time I turned around, the man was following me, eyes wide and mouth open, waggling his equipment in my general direction.

Suddenly, I remembered that I had my phone. I called and called my friends but none answered. Still he followed, but from further away. I think the phone made him nervous. After a time, I lost sight of him and sat down to try to figure out what to do. I had two choices. Sit and wait for someone to answer the phone and come meet me, or be brave and try again (and pick up a few big rocks). I chose the second option, and was serendipitously joined along the way by a young boy on his was to get water. I talked to him while we walked to make sure he stayed with me, and I arrived back at the resort without incident.

I told my friends what happened when they got up and they were all really concerned and kind, but it ended up getting worse. At this point I was angry and grossed out but didn't want a bad incident to ruin a good weekend. We put our bathing suits on and headed down to the beach for a swim, but for some reason, the leaders of my group decided we were going to walk a few kilometers before committing to a location. So, after being an object of prey to a pervert, I then walked around in front of most of Liquica in a bathing suit and sarong tied around my neck (but let's face it, I might as well have been naked to these people). Beneath the shade of every tree sat 2-3 people who either laughed at us, elbowed each other and made jokes, or just open-mouthed stared. Gangs of boys followed us for most of the walk, and more than once, my housemates Galen and Fergus had to position themselves between me and someone who was getting too close. All the while our fearless leaders marched on ahead, oblivious.

Finally my housemate Galen got sick of it and called out to them and asked if we could go back because we'd been walking half an hour and no one had brought any water (bless him). As we headed back, I recognized the very same man from the morning sitting under one of the trees, staring at me disgustingly as we passed. I told Galen and his vigilance increased. We stopped not long after to have our swim but I stayed on the beach and cried about how vulnerable and powerless I felt, how unfair this situation was, and just how afraid I had really been that morning. It's hard to explain what I was feeling, but I remembered reading something a few years ago that summarized it pretty well:

Women are taught so many messages about how we need to behave in order to "prevent" sexual assault and sexual harassment in public spaces. How we need to look, how we need to dress, how we need to walk, how we need to make ourselves small and unremarkable, how we need to anticipate the behavior of others, how we must not "attract" the wrong kind of attention. Even though I resent that these messages fundamentally imply that women bear responsibility for insuring sexual assault does not occur, I still, almost in spite of myself, take all of these things into account when I get dressed and when I go out in public. To have already engineered your behavior to meet the threat of assault and then to still face criminal harassment just feels like an added injustice.
Writing this has made me angry and nauseous again. What could I have done to have prevented being an object of prey to this stranger? And why is it my responsibility to make sure that the men of the world can behave themselves? I refuse to stay cloistered in my house, hidden from the world. I refuse to accept that my body belongs to anyone else but myself. I refuse to accept the blame for this harassment.

I made myself get in the water and enjoy it for a little while, but we collected a fan club of silent boys watching from a few meters away. I couldn't take any more, and I went back with Galen. James sent me a nice message about being brave, I cried some more, and that was the end of it.

Until it happens again, which it always will.


A Day in DIli

>> 12 February 2015

One important thing to understand about my life here is that there are no 'normal days', which is equal parts invigorating and exhausting. Last Tuesday was been pretty typical in this way, so try to imagine that this is just a normal day for you....

Inexplicable ambulance siren on your street. They have ambulances in Timor? And they haven't figured out how to turn the siren off when not in traffic?

Look at phone. Become angry about siren. Look out window. Watch ambulance back into neighbor's driveway. No answers.

Morning alarm goes off, but you've already been awake for an hour because of all the noise just outside your window. Call your boyfriend on Skype and tell him about the amazing day you had yesterday.

Receive a text from a good friend informing you of his sudden, permanent departure from Timor. Goodbye party scheduled for this evening. Sadness is a physical feeling. You think of all the songs you never got to sing together. You think of how much he will be missed.

Beg your housemate to make the coffee because you need to clean your room and shower and go to work. The maid is coming today. How is it already 8:15?

Realize there is an unusual amount of activity on your street. Look outside. Be dismayed at the dark and wet weather. Notice that some men are constructing a pavilion in the middle of your road.

Finally leave your house. Ask some women about the pavilion. Learn that Tiu So-and-so across the street has died, and this is part of the funeral wake.

Miss your turn to go to local office of International NGO where you are supposed to be facilitating workshops. Give up on everything and go to the bar for breakfast (smoked salmon, sauteed spinach, hash browns). Answer your emails, finally. Become extremely worried that the deceased uncle is someone you know. It could be Jose. What if it's Jose? Why wasn't he around this morning? What will his daughters do if he's dead? What could take someone in the night like that without warning? Did Jose have a bad heart? Is he unhealthy? He isn't the most fit of guys. And he *does* live over there. Oh god what if it's Jose. You can't handle this.

Get soaked on the way to a meeting. Go home. Change clothes. Go to meeting.

Meeting with Important People from more than one US Embassy in the region. Dread eats at your stomach, wondering who has died.

Go home again. Change clothes. Chat with maid. Talk to neighbors. Discover that the deceased is not your beloved neighbor Jose, but old Vital, who has succumbed to complications from diabetes. Feel sad, but guiltily relieved.

Finally arrive at the workshop.

Break for lunch (rice, sauteed spinach, fried breadfruit).

Write up meeting minutes and follow-up emails from Important Meeting. Send approximately one hundred emails.

Notice dark clouds in the mountains. Collect participant's work. Escape before the rain begins. Go home. Change clothes.

Try to read chapter of boyfriend's dissertation. Try to give helpful and insightful commentary.

Notice that your neighbors are leading a pig to slaughter. The noise is coming through your most-noise-canceling headphones but you have no choice but to finish this chapter, because you've made your boyfriend wait long enough and you're not holding up your end of this deal. Pigs sound like a combination of human toddlers and machinery. It's horrible.

Finish chapter, send to boyfriend. Attempt to leave your own driveway for about 10 minutes. You realize that you must enlist the aid of your neighbors, but of the dozens of people around, none are people you recognize. Finally someone who knows you comes to help you get your motorbike out through the tables and chairs and throngs of people. You work out where you will park that night when you return. You make sure someone promises not to let your motorbike get stolen. You finally leave.

You want to be a good neighbor, so you go to the store and buy candles, coffee and sugar to give to the family. You return quickly and give the bag to the only person you know, who seems surprised and pleased. Leave feeling a little better.

You go to Esplanada, the same place you had breakfast. Become confused when you pull in to the drive and hear actual jazz blasting out over the ocean. You are delighted to find that an incredible band is playing, and you get lost completely in your enjoyment. Your friends are there, and you cry when the guest of honor leaves, because you know you'll likely never see him again.

Go home. There are still dozens of people outside sitting vigil. Change clothes. Realize just before you fall asleep that you're teaching a workshop in editing principles early in the morning.

Get up. Write an outline for the workshop. Work on it until you pass out. Listen to people talking in hushed tones for the rest of the night.

Rinse, repeat.