Adventure Shopping

I love open air markets, and even ones that are not so open air. The main streets surrounding the central market here are full of shops and people selling old clothes, new clothes, kitchen-ware and electronics, all within easy view of the passing taxis and congested traffic.

However, going into the market itself means getting out of the taxi and descending into the labyrinth. Off of the main streets, there are a dozen narrow, twisting alley-ways covered with makeshift plastic roofing that leaks when it rains. These pedestrian only channels feed into the mass of shops: hairdressers, fabric stores, tailors, vegetable stands, plastics, knickknacks, and who knows what else! I have yet to make an extensive exploration of each section (although I do want to); I’m usually just happy to come in the same place I did last time and to find my way out.

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Would you go in?

Although it sounds intense, it is actually much more manageable than most markets in Cameroon. The vendors are respectful, and although they will call out to you to convince you to come into their shop, I have never felt unsafe.

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So many treasures!

The entrance my friends and I took involves a ramp sloping sharply downwards and passing by a set of old concrete stairs where women selling vegetables sit with their goods under the staircase. I wanted to get a picture, but the entrance is congested and people here are very sensitive about having their picture taken. Alas for the photo journal, but I think you get the idea.

The best part of the market for me is the fabrics. Although some Westerners may view African fabrics as a visual assault with the vibrant colors and busy patterns, I absolutely love them and enjoy picking out the perfect fabric for my next idea or project.

Here it is common to have fixed prices per meter (sans white-man inflation): 1000 francs (about 2 US dollars) for the cheap quality fabric, 2000 francs for the better stuff. Negotiation can happen, but it’s rare to find people who will deviate from those prices unless you’re buying a lot at once.

I was wanting a variety of fabrics to cover throw pillows on my couch. Although nothing is sewn yet, I like the combination of the various fabrics and finding cohesion through the very lack of it, a pattern in a chaotic jumble (life metaphor, anyone?).

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All in all, the market is a great lesson in adventure shopping, and seeing all the colors and patterns always brightens up my day.

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On Creativity and Home Improvement

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything. I thought that a year in Cameroon would have loosened my pen and that the words would jump onto the page of their own accord. The opposite was true. Living in a developing country for the first time was overwhelming. There was so much to take in, I found that I could barely process all the events myself, much less write about them.

I was searching for the big picture, but I ended up only seeing the minutiae, the details that weave themselves into my subconscious until they no longer stand out. Perhaps the big picture will come after years of experience, or maybe it won’t. Until that point, better to describe the small things, and then—perhaps—we can arrive at the larger whole.

I’m still learning, but a couple of things have changed. I’m in a different central African country, one I think is a better fit for me in a lot of ways. I’ve also had some time and space to process, recovering from the cultural whiplash of living in three countries last year and four this year. Two were repeats (so five countries in two years), but it isn’t something I would recommend.

So now I’m trying a new thing: settling. It’s an odd word to me, perhaps because I haven’t done it in so long, but I’ve moved in to a new place and am learning how to make a house a home.

It’s not always easy. In Cameroon I was spoiled, having a housing department to prepare a furnished apartment with a fridge, stove, electricity and running water. Here, apartments are rarely furnished, and tenets are responsible for figuring out their own water and electricity. Thankfully, I had help from my team in installing a water tank outside to collect rainwater. Although we’ve had one storm since I got here, I am praying for more rain so that my tank can fill up. [Update: it rained all night last night and we got more than 12 inches of rain. My tank is now almost full!] It’s amazing how much water we use every day: washing our dishes, ourselves, cooking, cleaning, drinking, and even flushing the toilet. Here, we learn how to conserve.

Working on a house here requires a good measure of creativity. Like using string in a crisscross pattern to hang a shower curtain, since curtain rods aren’t sold in stores. Or running extension cords from your one outlet by the front door through the wall to your kitchen, so that your fridge can be plugged in until a more permanent electricity solution is found.

Or being Kelly Moore for a day, mixing your own paint colors. Here, paint chips are rare, but white paint and dye are fairly cheap, and you can see a plethora of bright colors on the buildings throughout the city. To paint my house, my friend and I experimented with blue and yellow dye. (Everything I know I learned in kindergarten: Primary Color Paint Mixing 101!) I was looking for a seafoam green for the main room and a sunshiny yellow for the kitchen. For the green, we undertook the process scientifically, measuring drops and determining the perfect ratio for a nice pale green (a 3:1 yellow to blue ratio, in case you’re curious). For the yellow, I just dumped the remaining dye in the paint and hoped for the best. They both turned out great, and I enjoyed the process a lot more than choosing from paint chips and not having it meet expectations.

Bottom line: life is so different here, and some things may even seem unbelievable to people back home. But this constant state of disequilibrium keeps me open, open to new ideas, people, and experiences. In the West we think of creativity as something artistic, to be used in leisure time. Here, creativity helps us all get by in day to day life. A house is formed not only with cement, but with ideas, creating solutions to problems.

Villablino

In January I had the privilege of traveling to Spain to teach a linguistics course in Villablino, León. I lived in Granada for one year while I was studying Spanish in university, and being in Spain felt like being home again. Nevertheless, Northern Spain has a very different culture from the South.

Villablino is a smaller mining town, nestled in the mountains and practically forgotten except by those who know it’s there. Skiing is the main attraction for outsiders; there are no must-see historic sites or ancient cathedrals. When I was there I couldn’t even find a postcard.

Yes dismissing the town would be a mistake. It’s a special mix of city and country; there are about four main streets with plenty of shops and stores, but it’s easy to wander out of the town and into the hills. Stone walls guard horses and donkeys, but I’ve seen sheep wandering freely on a deserted hillside road. A stork nests on top of the stone bell tower of a church. A particularly warm year, winter was an interesting mix of damp rainy days, warm sunshine, and heavy snowfall. The fate of backyard gardens would look grim if it were not for the hearty kale plants growing everywhere, their thick leaves a splash of green peeking out from under the snow.

When I was in university, I learned that Spain was home to four languages: Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician. The reality is far more complex with obscure little Romance languages scattered throughout the Northern mountains, isolation and time creating a perfect recipe for linguistic variation. The Laciana valley (where Villablino is located) is home to a language called Pachueso. Essentially moribund (linguistic speak for “practically dead”), there are next to no native speakers, only those who attempt to keep it alive through classes, public readings, songs, and conversations. It is sometimes sprinkled into the Spanish here in surprising ways. The majority of the cafés in Villablino have their open/closed signs in Pachueso instead of Spanish. My upstairs neighbor speaks it, and I had the privilege of listening to him read a story in the language. The story had a particularly rustic theme; it was about a boy who got chased up a tree by a wild boar and ended up arriving home late at night and being locked out. When my neighbor read the story, it seemed similar to Spanish, but not quite intelligible. It sounded as old as the mountains, a forgotten language that rolled off his tongue like water from a hidden spring.

Although the weather was unpredictable, it was generally cold and I was grateful for our heating system in the apartment. We had a coal stove. That’s right. Coal. Since Villablino is a mining town, coal is a relatively cheap resource and has been used to heat houses in the Laciana valley for years. It takes some maintenance. Hauling coal from the basement to the apartment in buckets every couple of days, scraping the grate from below daily so that it wouldn’t get clogged with ashes, emptying the fallen ashes once a week, and—if the fire happened to die—restarting it with newspaper and wood before adding more coal. It was labor-intensive, but I liked it. I felt like I was taking part of a tradition far more interesting and rich than simply pushing a button on a thermostat.

It’s hard to say exactly what makes Spain feel like home to me. I have lived abroad in other places for just as long or longer without having the same feeling. And despite having never been to Villablino and knowing no one before arriving, it still felt like home right away.

I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching linguistics in Spanish. It was a small class, but the students were eager to learn. I taught an introductory grammar course, covering the basics of morphology and syntax. The best part for me was investing in the students and seeing them grow in their linguistic skills. At the beginning of the course they did not know what morphemes were, and by the end they were writing grammar descriptions. These are students who are interested in serving across the world in linguistics, literacy and Bible translation. It will be exciting to see where they end up. I like thinking about how God brings people together for a certain time or season and then scatters them across the world. Yet the connection and the impact everyone has had on each other remain.

It was an intense time, as it was my first time teaching my own class. There was a steep learning curve for preparing materials and exercises, outlining lesson plans, writing and grading exams, and balancing all of that with day-to-day life. I taught three hours a day, five days a week, and did all my prep work and grading in the afternoons and evenings. Add processing everything in my second language to the mix, and it’s no wonder I was tired at the end of the day. But at no point during the course was I so stressed that I regretted coming, and although I was exhausted after several weeks of this rhythm, I always felt like it was worth the effort. I lit up when I got to explain complex ideas or when I tried to show how beautiful language could be. It was a great fit, and I hope to be back.

And now my life seems full of contrasts. There was snow on the ground when I left, but now I am sticky from the humidity in Cameroon. I felt so comfortable and confident in Spanish, and now I am speaking halting French, trying to remember the syllables that have become rusty from disuse. There are more transitions down the road, but I will enjoy the bright moments and thank God for His provision and His dreams for me, far better than what I could think up on my own.

The Things We Carry

When I was younger I was enchanted with the idea of having a personal library. I would frequent used book stores, hunting for the perfect prize for my collection. I amassed several bookcases of tomes, mostly novels, and was content to whittle the hours away reading and writing.

University slowed my pleasure-reading habits to a crawl, as there was always something else to be doing that was seemingly more important. While my reading faltered, my book collecting did not. I picked up books here and there, convinced I would read them later. My shelves grew, and dust collected.

I gradually became cognizant of the fact that I was becoming more in love with possessing books than reading them. I would read the occasional story and set it proudly on the shelf like a trophy. My bookshelves were not just furniture; they were an extension of myself, my tastes and interests displayed for the world to see.

Then I moved away and left my books behind.

And somehow, strangely enough, I began to read again. I found the English section in the public library, and a small international library with books in hundreds of languages. In the cold winter months, I had a break from classes and more time on my hands than usual. The words kept me company and I flipped through story after story.

I discovered Hemingway, which is quite possibly the start of a long, literary love affair. I’ve read two of his books and am starting a third, all of them borrowed. None will sit on my shelf at the end of the day as a physical reminder of what I’ve read.

But I own them. Not in the sense of property, but I own these stories because they have moved me and stayed with me even though weeks have passed since I closed the covers. In reading them once, I’ve placed them forever where age and mildew cannot touch their pages.

And now I realize I would rather own few books and read many instead of owning many books and reading few.

The sickness of ownership extends far beyond books. When I was in Santa Cruz, California, I walked along the famous West Cliff Drive. Stunning ocean views and multi-million dollar houses. People pay big to own their little view of the beach. And while I may not have access to that view every day like the West Cliff-ites, there is a path that wends its way along the street where anyone can look out over the water. I love the Pacific and I love Santa Cruz. I have a piece of it, not in deed or on paper, but as a part of me.

I am surprised at North American culture’s obsession about ownership, as if owning something is a prerequisite to enjoying it. If something is not our private property, the sharing somehow sullies the wonder of the object in question. The problem is that the focus is shifted and we no longer care about what we are owning so long as it is ours.

But there is a freedom in letting something pass through our fingers. Because who can take away what we don’t really have? Or perhaps more accurately, we have hidden what we love, cached it away in a secret place where it remains and where no one can take it away.

This year has been a process of losing all my repères, my landmarks, my points of reference. God has been stripping away everything I used to depend on so that all that remains is Himself. And I am beginning to realize afresh and all over again that His presence is the only constant in my life.

The truth is when I feel adrift, He is unchanging. My emotional state has no impact on His holiness. And His presence is something that can never be taken away from me. It is through this lens that I realize I am richest through what I do not actually own. And what I cannot possess paradoxically becomes mine in a way that is not physical, but no less real; always there, ever-present, and packed safely away in the things we carry.

Korean Tea Ceremony

I went to a Korean cooking class today to learn how to make Bibimbap, a classic Korean rice dish with meat, mixed vegetables, and lots of sesame oil. It was delicious and satisfied my longstanding craving for Korean food. I learned from the instructor that there are only around four Korean restaurants in the entire country of Switzerland, and none in Neuchâtel. This was surprising to me, because I think I could find four Korean restaurants within walking distance from my house in California. But I digress…

Aside from the obvious deliciousness, I think my favorite part was the tea ceremony after the meal. There is something special to me about the tradition in the ceremony, knowing that people have been drinking tea this way for generations. The porcelain cups were a wispy turquoise; the matching kettles had small cranes painted around the base. Our hostess heated up water in an electric kettle, but from there, all traces of modernity disappeared. After pouring the water into one of the porcelain kettles, she poured it out again into every cup in order to heat them up and prevent the tea from going cold. While the water was heating the cups, she took several spoonfuls of green tea and put them in the main kettle. This green tea was expensive, as it was made from the tiny new tea leaves that the plant produced. She poured the water back into the secondary kettle, poured that into the main kettle, and waited for the tea to steep.

We talked as we waited, and when it was time she poured the tea into the other kettle, lifting and lowering as she poured to cool off the tea. After that, she poured the cups and served us, clockwise around the table. The cups were arranged in two rows of four, the order fixed so that we would know whose cups was whose.

She showed us how to lift the teacup and that we should treat it like a fine wine: smell it, sip it, swish it around in your mouth to experience the flavor. Part of the ceremony is drinking the tea from the tiny cups in three sips. When I asked about this, she said she didn’t know the significance, but that it was always like that. Maybe it parallels to the number of cups of tea we have during the ceremony. Because in between each round, we return our cups to their original position, ducks in a row, waiting for the new cup of tea.

Proverbs on the Walls

Disclaimer: I have not yet visited Africa, so what I write is based on information gathered from one exhibit in the Smithsonian. My views are limited and my interpretations are my own.

The Museum of Natural History was a zoo. Hundreds of hot, sweaty bodies coming from the outside humidity were jostling and pushing toward the exhibits. Mammals, Egyptian history, the butterfly dome–all packed and overflowing. Instead of a receptacle of knowledge, the crowds stifled and bodies blocked the crucial information.

One the verge of despair, I made my way to the hall of African Voices and found a sanctuary. A lesser known exhibit plus a few select individuals created a haven from the storm. Here were the chronicles of collected proverbs, stories and cultural artifacts from many countries in an extremely diverse continent.

It was here that I discovered that in Ghana, different patterns on clothing represented different proverbs or messages. Some were regarding marriage; for example, a picture of two birds leaving a cage meant that the wife would go where the husband went. Another had an eye symbolizing jealousy. One message meant “God knows” and another “My life has been turned upside down by death.”

The fact that patterns on clothing could be associated with proverbs was fascinating to me. Proverbs represent a collective body of knowledge that the community can access to enrich their daily lives with teaching and wisdom handed down through the ages in the oral tradition. While I wish I had copied down more, two that I remember well (not necessarily from Ghana) involved eating. The first one is “He who eats alone fights alone.” The second one is, “It is better to wait for the food than to have the food wait for you.” In other words, don’t be late for dinner!

In one people group in Somalia, women often own their own homes and keep them in their families. Thus the proverb goes: “A man without a wife is without a home.” The homes are made from acacia wood and can be collapsed and packed onto the backs of camels for when it comes time to move. When assembled, they resemble domes.

In Mali, there are builders who work with mud for a unique architectural style. The mud also extends to dyeing clothing in sharp patterns. While Mali is home to several archeological sites, there have been problems with stolen artifacts, so much so that any sale of Malian artifacts must have a certificate of authenticity. These pieces are valuable, so it’s easy to understand the motivation, but what is being stolen is not just pots and utensils, but rather pieces of Mali’s cultural history.

There was a Moroccan lute and a display discussing how 10th century Spain became a place to mix Christian, Islamic and Jewish styles of music. When the Moors were exiled from Spain in 1492, they carried the music back to Northern Africa with them, where it is still used as part of the region’s cultural identity today.

One concept that really struck me was the different perspective about riches. While in the West, we tend to think of wealth as purely economical, the African definition is broader. Riches can be money or goods, but they can also be knowledge, personal connections, proverbs, stories, or cultural artifacts. It makes me think that we are all richer than we know. Perhaps it is time for us in the West to broaden our understanding of what it means to be wealthy.

La Callecita de las Flores

Probably the most popular street in Córdoba, it is little more than an alley tucked away in the twisting streets of the Judería. The locals will tell you that it’s amazingly picturesque…if you can find it. Even with a map, it’s easy to pass by the entrance to this inconspicuous spot. The geranium pots on the wall give the little street its name: bursting with red in the summer, or timid and bare in November when I took this picture.  Either way does not detract from the looming presence of the cathedral bell tower that used to be a minaret for a mosque. Religious sites in Southern Spain are often re-purposed, sometimes razed to the ground and built up again. It makes you wonder what kinds of stories are buried beneath these stones.

Granada

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Granada is sometimes known as the melancholy sister city to Sevilla. While Sevilla has a more celebratory air, Granada is still haunted by the ghosts of legends past. It was here that the last Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus fell, where King Fernando and Queen Isabel’s forces captured the Alhambra palace without a fight. Boabdil surrendered his kingdom, and the legend goes that as he shed a tear for what he lost, his mother reprimanded him by saying, “You do well to weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”

It is in Granada where the curious traveler can find the crypt of the Catholic Monarchs, the Moorish palace and gardens of the Alhambra, and a small Jewish museum where curators narrate a forgotten history. Despite the expulsion of the Moors and Jews in 1492, the eclectic mixture of cultures is still present in Spain’s architecture, in flamenco music, and even in the Spanish language through borrowed words and concepts.

Today if you were to climb the narrow, winding streets of the Albaicín, you might (either by map or by luck) come across the popular viewpoint, El Mirador de San Nicolás. From here, the Alhambra looms on top of the opposite hill, its reddish gold bricks catching the fading light. It’s not uncommon to hear flamenco guitarists and singers perform there. Flamenco is a form of music that is supposed to express the deep yearnings and emotions of the heart. The wailing melodies are evocative of past sorrows that are just as much a part of this city as its present joys.

Matisse

(Open Window, Collioure: Henri Matisse, 1905)

Last week in my French class, we had to print out a painting by Matisse and bring it to class. That day, the classroom transformed into an art museum. With scotch or masking tape, we hung our masterpieces around the room, eager to play the guide for our individual paintings.

I chose the Open Window, Collioure. I loved the colors and the way the doors were flung open for a view of the harbor. This painting is part of a movement called Fauvism. Bright colors, strong brushstrokes, and a lack of defined forms or shadows characterized this movement. It was a step away from imitating the natural world through art. Instead, art exerted its own reality and became something entirely separate from the source.

To me, this painting represents freedom. There is a freedom of expression through the bold colors, but there is also a freedom in the invitation the painting extends to the viewer. The sailboats beckon and invite us to wander the open waters in search of the place where sea meets sky. The doors are a permanent fixture of the apartment and offer stability, a chance to observe the harbor’s serenity while removed from the scene. The different brushstrokes (broad and straight for the interior, narrow and wavy for the exterior) emphasize this contrast. We are free to choose. Do we stay or do we go?

Patios

Patios

Touring patios in Córdoba is like participating in a scavenger hunt. You are given seven addresses in a neighborhood of the city. Add to that a rudimentary map and the hunt begins—finding houses, ringing doorbells, asking to see the patio. Each patio has its own unique features: an Arabic well, cooling fountains with fish for tenants, tiny rosebushes, or canaries singing in cages, but all of them are teeming with geraniums that cascade over the confines of their flower pots.

The Spanish patio started as a common area between neighboring houses that gave access to the communal kitchens. Back then, paint could be expensive, so people would take cans and other containers, fasten them to the walls, and plant flowers. This formed a living wallpaper that changed with the seasons. Eventually, flower pots replaced the recycled cans, and the patio evolved into a communal space to rest and relax. Now they are a source of pride for owners, who can easily spend two hours a day watering the plants.