Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Listening to the Lessons from a Summer in South Africa (and a few other places)

With the swarming vuvuzelas still ringing in our ears, it is time to sit down and reflect on our summer experience. Taiwan is fast approaching (we'll land in our new home in one week - now, we're already here (because it has taken me over a month to finish this post) and memories of Curacao are already being overtaken by the excitement of South Africa and the anticipation of the coming culture shock (yes, it has been shocking). The questions are the same at the end of every summer: how have we grown; how have we changed; what fresh new perspective can we take with us into the coming school year; when is Dan going to shave that beard? (The answer to the last question is 'when you least expect it.')

Along the right hand side of the blog you'll find our series of slideshows from all of our travels since getting married two and a half years ago. The slideshow from South Africa is at the top of that series. We hope you enjoy those photographs and can begin to unravel our visual experience for yourselves. You can also check in with us on Facebook for even more pictures, or on YouTube for a few videos; and I'll be sure to include a few of our favorites here in this post. This post, however, will be about the lessons we learned and the teachers who taught them to us. Our adventures this summer were some of the most exciting and dramatic of our lives.  Through sharing our most memorable experiences we hope to shed some light on what we feel are the most valuable insights we'll be taking with us into our new lives in Taiwan and beyond. As one of our inspirations, Gandhi, said, "My life is my message" and we hope by sharing our lives we are also able to share our message.

Lesson #1: Saying "Good-bye" OR Leaving a Place Better Than You Found It OR Being in Love

Curacao will forever hold a special place in our hearts.  When we arrived on the incredibly small Dutch island two years ago we didn't know what to expect.  I had hardly heard of the place before we accepted the positions to work there. In the midst of wedding preparations, Nicaraguan adventures, our bachelorette/bachelor weekends, Final Exams, the Wedding Weekend, Tim's Harvard-Westlake School graduation, and our incredible honeymoon voyage to Singapore and the Maldives, we had little time to develop any actual expectations - let alone some actual knowledge of the place we would soon call home.  In fact, it was the first place we could honestly call home as a married couple, and until our recent arrival in Kaohsiung, the only place.

Life in the Dutch Antilles may sound idyllic, and truth be told, in many ways it is pretty ideal.  Beautiful beaches, palm trees swaying in the constant tropical breeze, an eclectic blend of cultures and ethnicities from all corners of the globe, and turquoise blue water teeming with an abundance of sea life.  We spent our last weeks there enjoying sunset cruises, happy hour cocktails, and some spectacular diving; but that wasn't our whole life there.  We lived in the frantic traffic and sometimes suffocating pollution.  We dealt with long lines and customer service in dire need of a training session.  We paid exorbitant prices to escape the tiny rock and venture out into the pulsating surrounds.  We taught, and learned from, people young and old who sometimes weren't much interested in learning or teaching - only existing on some fairytale tropical island we couldn't seem to discover.  In our two years in Curacao we truly made it home.  We understood the discomfort of 'island fever' and we came to feel passionately about 'our' new island abode.  Many people talk about how much they 'love' a place, or something, or someone; and often we see that they 'love' the idea that place, or thing, or person represents.  Perhaps, they even feel an intense connection to the wonderful things that it offers; but I have a sense that a more meaningful version of love entails looking at a place, or a thing, or a person and reflecting on all of the faults, the ugliness, the bad habits, the chaos, the problems and still allowing that connection to grow.  Maybe love is not naive - maybe love is knowing everything, good and bad, and then loving even more than you did before you knew.

While we were living in Curacao we sometimes got caught up in trying to 'fix' it.  We sent emails, stayed up late, showed up early, started committees, recycled, conserved water and electricity, signed petitions, attended meetings: all in an attempt to make Curacao better.  We did these things out of a kind of love that wants to change.  In all honesty, it may have left us a little disappointed.  You see, we believe we did change the island, but not in any of the ways we set out to.  It doesn't need to be changed after all; it needed to change us; and we needed to learn to love it for what it was, and probably always will be.  Erin has always said to her students and athletes, "Be sure to leave a place better than you found it," and while I'm not sure we managed to leave Curacao a better place than we found it I can definitely say we left Curacao better people than we were when we found it.  There's a small chance that was the intention all along (and if it wasn't ... well, maybe it should have been): just be sure to grow a little bit better every time you show up someplace.  Take a piece of it with you. So even if we didn't leave a big mark on Curacao, rest assured it left its mark on us, and we're just fine with that because it means we never have to really say "Good-bye".

Lesson #2: How to Cook Triggerfish OR Stand-up and Paddle OR American Soccer Fans OR Family Matters

Summer-time family vacation ... it's a Kinzer family ritual.  This year, the entire crew got together in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a week of good 'ole fashioned, southern-fried, sunburnt, beach livin'.  Seeing the family and running around my old beach haunts of Vandy Surf Club days was the perfect relaxing start to our summer of adventure.  Erin and I learned to stand-up paddle surf with my dad, went fishing for bluefish with the New York contingent, and watched the last remaining World Cup group stage games alongside the entire Kinzer clan as most of them pretended to care, if only for a brief moment for Erin's sake, about the great game of soccer.  As I observed my family over the course of our few days in North Carolina I realized how truly magnificent the notion of family really is.  Erin, of course, is a natural Kinzer woman and always fits in perfectly when it comes time to put the Kinzer men in their place or make sure that everything is in proper order.  It just reveals how even those with the mighty challenge of being married into the Kinzer family bring not only their unique and 'outside' experiences to the family table, but also manage to find such a comfortable and permanent seat.  You would be hard-pressed to find more diversity in imagination, demeanor, religious or political views, and character across all the nations of the world than you would find at the dinner table of our guest house on the Outer Banks.  Yet, that is not what is remarkable.  It's the unconditional, if not sometimes difficult to muster, love that we offer one another at that table.  As different as we all are, we all know that family matters.  It's incredible to me that in the midst of such diversity we can be so willing to stay connected; perhaps it can be explained through evolution and genetics, but perhaps we've evolved past those simple explanations.  Or maybe, and this is most likely to be the case, I am blessed with a family that has moved beyond minor differences to see the beauty of unconditional love.  Here's to wishing the same for everyone else.

Lesson #3: Shifting Gears Left-Handed on the Right Side of the Car on the Wrong Side of the Road OR Playing African Instruments Made in China

I went to South Africa with only two major concerns.  While others were concerned about robbery or other forms of crime, the logistics of accommodation and transportation, and dangerous wildlife I was predominantly consumed with worries about ... the vuvuzela and driving on the wrong side of the road.

First, the vuvuzela: a loud, but not especially alluring instrument with its roots in tribal southern Africa.  I could understand its role as a sounding horn to call the tribal community together, but in a soccer stadium?  Even before arriving in South Africa I was wary.  Will these things leave us with a constant headache?  Will we suffer permanent hearing loss?

As it turns out, you are more likely to get a headache from wanting to play your single-note vuvuzela than from listening to your neighbors, and as far as hearing loss ... who needs their hearing anyhow?  The World Cup variety proved a great deal of fun as long as you were willing to join the party, which was no problem for us.  To make the vuvuzela situation even more compelling was the fact that the World Cup variety had to be manufactured in Chinese factories thousands of miles away and made with plastic that I'm sure will turn up as toxic.  Add this to the fact that the World Cup theme song, Waka-Waka, is performed by none other than the great African ... I mean Colombian vocalist, Shakira, and the only beer available for purchase in all World Cup stadiums was that fine African ... I mean American ale, Budweiser (not even Bud Light?!)  If there was anything I should have been concerned about it was the corporate takeover of World Cup by FIFA endorsed contractors that left South Africa with far less than what they deserved for doing such an amazing job of hosting this epic event.

Second, driving on the WRONG side of the road: it's just wrong.  I know that all formerly British colonies can be expected to behave in similarly ridiculous ways as the British, but you would have thought they would have rectified at least this one Victorian brain fart with independence.  I only had one other experience on the wrong side - 4 years ago in Australia and New Zealand, and while I enjoyed exploring both of those countries I struggled to accept the silliness of sitting in the passenger seat while driving.  So after making the decision to explore South Africa via rental car I began the long and arduous task of shifting all of the left brain to the right side and vice-versa in hopes that this would somehow help.

Again, as it turns out, our rental car was not the automatic transmission I had reserved, but a manual transmission 4-wheel drive.  Did I mention I don't really drive stick-shifts?  I mean, I know the rules - clutch in, shift gears, clutch out, and come off easy out of first - I just have nearly zero practice.  And wait ... I'll be shifting with my left hand while driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting in the passenger seat.  Accident waiting to happen?  Definitely.  But the first two weeks were safe with Erin at the wheel.  After a few brush-up lessons from my very patient (and extremely brave) wife I took the wheel, and the stick, and ... absolutely loved it.  Driving had never required so much of my attention, and there had never been so many interesting things to pay attention to.  Surrounded by beautiful South African scenery and blessed with what were surely newly-paved roads I found myself falling into a 'flow' - a sense of harmony - the feeling that I was needed as one part of a working system.  Conventional driving (that is ... driving from the driver's seat rather than the passenger seat) comes easily and happens with a frightening lack of attention and sense of purpose.  In fact (or close to fact anyway), in the United States they have to pass laws to keep people from trying to talk on their cell phones, design their new living room, and build model airplanes while driving on the freeway.  Driving in South Africa couldn't have been more stimulating and purpose driven.  At the end of it all, I can't wait to tell future generations about learning to drive a stick shift with my left hand while driving from the passenger seat on the wrong side of the road.  I love it when my biggest concerns turn into sources of great joy and insight.

Lesson #4: Penguins Are Funny OR Baboons Are Dangerous OR Jet-Lag Sucks

Penguins look cute and cuddly.  They are, although they stink.  Baboons also look somewhat cute and cuddly (see our photos).  They are NOT, and they also stink.  Immediately upon our arrival at the Baboon Road Block on the Cape we were screamed at by the Baboon Monitor (no joke, real job title - said so on the back of his vest), "Lock your doors! DO NOT get out of the vehicle."  We immediately scanned the area for the nearby lions, leopards, or South African rock pythons but couldn't see a thing.  It can't be that bad, right?  The baboons looked cute and I wanted to get a better angle for a photo.  So I did what any ignorant Western tourist would do - I jumped out of the car and started approaching the family of baboons.  Almost immediately the big male began his charge and showed me what I had to look forward to if I didn't beat him back to our vehicle and quickly lock the doors - his five inch fangs.  So now I would make a pretty good Baboon Monitor because I too have seen the angry side of a baboon.

Penguins and baboons were our primary wildlife experience while in the Western Cape and Cape Town.  For most people visiting this part of the world for the first time it would stand out as remarkable, but to me, it was simply not enough.  I came with grander plans.  The stretch of ocean where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet at the southern tip of Africa is home to what many people believe is the largest population of Great White Sharks in the world.  I have had a long-standing fascination and appreciation for sharks, and especially the king of the sharks, the Great White.  When we decided to travel to South Africa for World Cup one of the "Must Do's" was getting in the water (preferably knowingly, but without being in a cage) with these awesome creatures.  It sounds crazy to many, and some would guess I would be defeated in my attempts: by common sense, by bad weather, by a wife with a quick left hook; but it wasn't any of these things that stopped me.  It was jet lag.  Jet lag sucks.  To make it worse, it wasn't even my jet lag.  I have discovered that while experiencing jet lag (I rarely suffer from it) must be really lousy, it is actually far worse to be the good friend and travel companion to someone with jet lag.  So, with half the crew of four not really being up for our daily activities until sometime approaching noon, getting into the water with the Whitey's just wasn't going to happen.  Well, at least not this summer.  I'll be back.  Tell my big buddies in Shark Alley.

Lesson #5: It's Finally Good to Be Dutch OR How to Scare the Lions OR Finding the Best View in Jeffrey's Bay

The Netherlands defeated Brazil in what was one of the most exciting matches of the tournament.  We were there.  That is awesome!

At Sea View Lion Park you can enjoy the experience of playing with lion cubs ... big lion cubs.  It's unforgettable and will forever connect us to the wild side of Africa (watch the YouTube video).

Jeffrey's Bay will be our home one day.  I already feel as though it is.  We stayed 8 nights on the sand dune overlooking the world renowned Supertubes ... the surf was pumping ... for 3 days we watched the world's best surfers compete at one of the world's best breaks.  Yes, I'm addicted, and I'll never quit.  Even Erin fell in love all over again, and she never even got in the water.

Lesson #6: Shopping for Semi-Final Tickets OR Leap of Faith OR Suspended OR How to Find a Room in Idutywa

On the certificate I received for leaping (harnessed) from the edge of a 400 foot waterfall into the famed Oribi Gorge and experiencing the bliss of flight through the incredible canyon:

"Come to the edge," he said.  "We are afraid," they said.
"Come to the edge," he said.  "We are afraid," they said.
"Come to the edge," he said.
They came.
He pushed them.
And they flew.

Whether hoping to come across a steal on some World Cup Semifinal (Spain vs. Germany) tickets outside the Durban stadium only minutes before kickoff, contemplating your leap from the edge of a 400 foot waterfall overlooking the magnificent Oribi Gorge, dangling over a deep canyon at the center of a decades old suspension bridge, or looking for a place to rest your tired eyes in a seemingly run-down South African township, this profound little passage packs a lot of insight.  Take a few minutes to let it sink in and imagine yourself face to face with the edge.  Will you come to the edge?  Will you ever fly?

Lesson #7: The Difference Between a Whale and a Whale Shark OR Is That a Hippo on the Beach OR How to Spot the Big Five

Surprisingly, whale sharks are the size of whales but have none of the fearful characteristics of sharks.  They are beautiful beyond description.  Swimming alongside a gentle giant for several minutes in Sodwana Bay was definitely one of the highlights of our trip, and in fact, our lives.

The coastline along the northeastern stretch of South Africa is awe-inspiring in so many ways.  Making your way to the beach you're likely to encounter a family of hippos or a Nile crocodile sunning itself.  A drive up the coast to check the surf will take through the Greater Saint Lucia Wetlands Park where you have to keep your eyes peeled for Cape Buffalo, Rhino, Eland, and many other members of the African wildlife family.

We saw so much of this family, in fact, that we can nearly claim having spotted all five of the famous Big Five: Elephants, Rhinos, Cape Buffalo, Lions, and Leopards.  While we missed out on seeing the elusive leopard in the wild we were able to see the other Big Four plus some - giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, and warthog were everywhere as we drove through several of South Africa's finest game reserves.

Lesson #8: What to Do With 5 Hours in New York City OR A Happy Homecoming OR A Thank You Note for BP

Returning home after epic adventures is always a bit depressing, and this time would be no different.  With an oil spill still looming over the Gulf and a general depression sinking in along the Gulf Coast I wasn't prepared to deal with the post-adventure sinking feeling while surrounded by gloom.  Fortunately, on our long voyage back to Pensacola and then on to Los Angeles before setting off for Taiwan, we were able to spend an afternoon with friends and family in Manhattan.  We landed early in the morning at JFK, had to gather our luggage and hop the bus to La Guardia, check in our bags with United, and get picked up with our wonderful friend Marla - who was back in New York on a visit from Curacao to  visit her family.  It was off to Manhattan for a few hours to have some lunch with Aunt Jeanne and Cousin Julie, and then to venture through Downtown to grab some organic smoothies with our friends Alison and Zolton.  To wrap up our time in "The City" we scrambled over to Chelsea to check in on my other little brother from another mother, Timo, who is now moving out of the ranks of up-and-coming and into the realm of established fashion designer.  It was a packed few hours, but the perfect little layover break on our way back home.

When we arrived in Pensacola that night and were picked up by Mom Hirsh I have to admit it actually felt good to be 'home'.  It's a long journey from the southern tip of Africa to New York and back down to the Panhandle.  Our few days there turned out to be a lot more uplifting and enjoyable than I would have guessed - while the people of the Gulf Coast may have been down about the spill they always manage to be a friendly people, and it had been way too long since we had gotten to spend quality time with friends and family in Pensacola.  It's always a Happy Homecoming when you get to return to so many wonderful and inspiring people, and it never fails to amaze us how lucky we really are.  The same can be said, of course, of the Southern California crew - who we visited for a few days before embarking on the final leg of our summer bonanza.

Lesson #9: Turning Taiwanese OR Making It Home

I have always thought of 'Home' as an illusion that others succumb to simply because they never manage to muster up the courage, resources, or will power to hit the road and explore.  It certainly didn't feel like it existed for me: my life for the last many years (perhaps in some ways my entire life) has been spent in transit, and my mind always thinks forward to the next 'destination'.  That doesn't mean I don't leave a piece of myself in the places I've lived, and that they haven't left an indelible mark on my life - I have, and they have, as most recently shown in Curacao; but it does mean that I've never been able to call a place 'Home' in the way most people mean it when they say it.  Something about this summer, our past two years of married life together in Curacao, and this new move to Taiwan has made me think that perhaps I've misunderstood the notion all along.  It's not the place - it's never been the place ... it's clearly the people and the attitudes we carry with us.  I believe that technology is going to continue to change the concept of 'Home' and I believe it will happen in a way that I can embrace.  My friends and family in combination with myself - my 'Home' - has managed to follow me and Erin around the world and land itself alongside us here in Taiwan.  I can't express what a gift that is - to be so completely and utterly new in a place I have no comprehension of, and to feel, so remarkably, right at home.