Sunday, April 19, 2009

What's the Written Word?

It's become clear to me that most of my reflective writing on my experience here in Uganda comes spontaneously. Most often it is in response to a friend's email. Upon reading Peter or my sister or Whitney's life logline and inquiries I find myself taking on the challenge of putting my experience here into some words with the hope of being able to connect. One of the difficulties of traveling or living abroad is the disconnect it creates with friends and family during your time away, and perhaps even in a more impacting way, when you are back. You try to relate your experience but there is just no way that language can be used to fully describe the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, interactions and spiritual moments individually let alone the sum of them all, which does amount to much more than its parts. Like a photograph provides perhaps a flash of insight, but not whole, continuous, and in-context visual information the vocabulary, syntax and creative use of the written word amounts to not much more than a very rough idea of someone's experience.

Nonetheless, we try. We try to connect with others through writing because we want to be understood and have the ones we love and that knew us at home to be able to relate somehow. How I wish I could share the jokes made by Charles: "English was born in England, grew up in America, fell sick in Africa, died in India and was buried in China" - his accent making them that much more funny to the American ear. How nice it would be to not have to paint or write a thousand words but just have mom or dad or sister there to be walking with me through a maize and cassava garden following a barefoot boy through the huts and jackfruit trees, the height and thickness of the rain forest trees and vines looming enchantingly a few hundred meters ahead (and of course so much more than that). How much more easy it would be to come home and have friends understand why you feel a bit different now about life at home and American culture, that some things you appreciate and are happy to be enjoying again while others seem trivial and become annoyances as you watch your old friends be overly concerned with them.

It's true that your own identity actually changes when you travel, and especially when you live abroad for several months time. The new information your brain and body has taken in by being in a different natural environment and culture are undeniably significant. You cannot think the same way you did before leaving home. The pattern on the kaleidoscope lens you see the world through has been altered. And so we seek ways to help our family and friends keep up with and know our changing view. We share photographs or we write hoping the picture that is only a few degrees of the field of vision and a nanosecond of the day or the story that may be only 1/100th of the full story is enough to save us the alienation from what we knew before we found ourselves talking to a Ugandan medical student about the state of medicine in his country while on a bus through sugar cane and tea plantations.

So from now on with this blog I am going to post selected parts of excerpts of letters I have written to family and friends in addition to essays. In some ways I will get more travel blog mainstream. I will post smaller items like funny quotes from my colleagues or pictures when I can. I will post bites if not meals of reflection all with the aim of sharing with you, attempting to help you know better what is going on here even if just the tip of the iceberg, hoping to maintain connections with you all that I have not seen or touched for days, weeks, months so that when we finally do meet again we can still know each other's lives despite the continents and oceans of experience that separated us.

Of course, I also hope my postings inspire you to be more curious about what is going here enough that you will seek more information. Maybe you'll even read Aidan Hartley's The Zanzibar Chest or John Reader's Africa: The Biography of a Continent or better yet make a visit to this beautiful part of the world. Here you will see people living in ways that just don't exist in the US or Europe. You'll see children or old women from the road as you zoom by wearing rags hoeing in the gardens or lugging heavy bags of grain how but find when you stop and meet them you share common values with that villager who has never had electricity or shoes. Here you will feel more in touch with the story of humanity, the evolution of our species beginning right here on the dirt paths I walk every day and the way that modern economic systems have shaped the stark differences between East Africa and California or England. You will feel the sun and water and plants and animals and earth working in ways that change the way your heart beats and expand your mind to consider new physical possibilities.

In the meantime I will write and look forward to hearing from you.

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