Living abroad for a predetermined amount of time lends itself to a unique set of experiences. For me, it’s been equatable to living a double life: heartedly committed to what is happening in your abroad life while remaining emotionally – and electronically – connected to your home life, which awaits you, right where you left it.
I’ve been grappling with defining my experience and articulating it as it comes to a close and I spend my last three weeks in Uganda. This has been an indescribable adventure, my experience only slightly and superficially detailed to the public in the brief and sparse blog posts I write. I’m already distinctly aware that there are and will be no adequate words to fully recount what I have done, felt and seen in the last eight months.
The aspect for me I want most to articulate, and to articulate well, is what it is like living in a place so vastly different from what you are used to in every way possible. What it is like to be challenged in everything you do, even menial things, such as walking to work or choosing what you eat, are accompanied by apprehension and unfamiliarity.
I am (and have been) apprehensive to talk about these challenges because while I have faced them every day for the last eight months, they are not my reality. This is not my country and while I have lived here and adopted it as my home for a short amount of time, I, unlike the local people, still can and will leave at the end of the month. But I also think it’s important to talk about these challenges genuinely, because in facing them I have begun to understand where they derive from and how decisions in the face of them can define an experience.
In the past eight months I have complained and I have cried, I have been sick more times than I wish to count, I have seen things that have both shocked me and widened my understanding of the world, I have felt deeply lonely and isolated and I have grappled with the inhumanity of poverty, of inequality. My loved ones have listened to countless phone calls and read hundreds of messages, which surely account for the presence of all of these feelings (sometimes present in highly emotional phone conversations in which a combination of hysteria and poor internet quality leads to little-to-no actual comprehension of what I’m saying).
There were times when I succumbed to negativity and wished for home and for comfort, but this is to be expected, I think, because living abroad – for lack of a better word, and trust me, I have tried to find one – is hard. But without the hardship, without the challenges, I wouldn’t have been equally floored by the positives that I have felt.
Because through the challenges, and perhaps as a direct result of them, I have also learned an immeasurable amount about myself, the world and development work, I have felt undeniable satisfaction in the work that I am doing and in seeing how it contributes to a larger picture, I have met great friends with common interests from all over the world, I have learned to take care of myself without home comforts or western medicine, I have lived (and survived) in an entirely different culture and I have overcome challenges that at the time seemed too daunting to bear.
Of course, being home will bring about a new set of challenges as I attempt to re-integrate myself into a place that will be simultaneously familiar and strange. Familiar as my home, yet strange as I see with new eyes how much I have taken for granted and the vast amount of privilege I’ve been afforded. The challenges of living in this country are a result of my padded and comfortable life back home and problems like unclean water, poor food quality or facing inequality due to my gender are issues imbedded into the lives of a large majority of the world, day in and day out.
These challenges though, aren’t black and white and they don’t have to be defined as innately negative because in being here – and in writing this post and attempting to make sense of my jumbled thoughts – I have begun to recognize them as opportunities, to see them as a way to continuously push my own boundaries and limits. And despite having had a variety of experiences that have pushed me, sometimes a little too hard, I wouldn’t change the past eight months for anything in the world.
Because it’s easy to fall into a trap of emphasizing the negative, of allowing it to become a characteristic of the place you live rather than as a unique aspect of how you are adapting. It’s also easy to think about another life, the life you temporarily left behind when things are harder than you bargained for, but walking away from what is easy by traveling outside of your comfort zone is the only way you can begin to think critically and hope to redefine your world.
“Travel has a way of stretching the mind. The stretch comes not from travel’s immediate rewards, the inevitable myriad of new sights, smells and sounds, but with experiencing firsthand how others do differently what we believed to be the right and only way.” – Ralph Crawshaw
“You risked your life, but what else have you ever risked? Have you risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous about risking one’s life. So you lose it, you go to your hero’s heaven and everything is milk and honey ’til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That’s not courage. Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.”
This morning, in the midst of scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, overcome with pride at the numerous Canadian statuses celebrating our country’s early triumph at the winter olympics, I found this article outlining the viral twitter account and hashtag #SochiProblems as an embarrassment for America, not Russia.
As Sarah Kaufman writes, “Under pressure to quickly build a glorious Olympic village from a patch of mud, Russian corporations ended up denying their 70,000 workers wages, sanitary accommodations and, in many cases, basic human rights. As Ukrainian worker Maxim told Human Rights Watch about his experience in construction for the Olympics: ‘People work, they don’t get paid, and leave. Then a bus comes and unloads a fresh group of workers to repeat the cycle.’”
Meaning this chaos, the debris in hotel rooms and unfinished lobbies are a result of workers, people, being denied basic human rights.
And what’s the response? A twitter account to mock this inability to meet an impeccable, impossible Western standard of living that, just by the way, remains a pipe dream for most of the world living in absolute poverty.
I love the Olympics, I do, especially the winter Olympics. I love watching in anticipation as my country demonstrates what nearly 5 months of cold, harsh winter does to our athletes: makes them winners. I love the camaraderie that is born between a nation of fervent hockey fans, as Montreal Habs lovers, Ottawa Sens supporters and even Toronto Maple Leafs fans come together to cheer for our Canadians. The whole country is a sea of red and white, of maple leaf adorned mittens and hats, chests swelled with pride. This is what we do, we are winter.
This year, living in Uganda, I was torn between a desire to watch the Olympics and my contempt at Russia’s utter disregard for LGBT human rights, again for basic human rights. With pride for my country, I watched as mayors of major Canadian cities flew high the rainbow flag at their city halls, a distinct standpoint against anti-LGBT laws. We saw something happening and we dug deeper, we didn’t take it at face value, but rather stood up for those whose rights were being violated, a small show of support.
As I wrap up my eight months in Kampala, Uganda, sad to be leaving a city and country that has taught me infinite amounts about the world and the way in which other countries survive and thrive, I wonder how we got to this point. As a journalist, I have to ask, when did we start seeing conditions like the ones in Sochi and stop asking why? When did we stop asking about where these extravagant standards of living come from, about who contributes to them, and how they’re treated both at the Olympics and in our general, every day lives? Or, quite possibly, did we never ask to begin with?
In our bid for entertainment, it is so crucial to remember that these places we turn into Olympic cities with glamorous venues, restaurants and enormous stadiums, are also people’s homes. People who, in the pursuit of creating a bigger, better, more glorious Olympics than the last, pay the ultimate price.
As AP’s Nataliya Vasilyeva recently wrote, ”thousands of ordinary people in the Sochi area put up with squalor and environmental waste: villagers living next to an illegal dump filled with Olympic construction waste, families whose homes are sinking into the earth, city dwellers suffering chronic power cuts despite promises to improve electricity.”
I do believe the Olympics are a great international symbol of sportsmanship, of national pride, but maybe, just maybe these #SochiProblems shouldn’t be a twisted source of humour, but rather a call to action, to look beneath the surface and see more than Olympic grandeur but also the responsibility at a human rights level, of the host country, of all of us, to ensure that we don’t remain ignorant to the high cost – not just in monetary value – of the Olympics.
The water isn’t drinkable? The rooms are unfinished? The bathrooms aren’t up to standard? Hundreds of misplaced coatracks line the halls of lobbies? For the first time, we’re not arriving at the Olympics in a bubble of gleaming surfaces and perfected living quarters, let’s use this opportunity to make ourselves a little more knowledgeable on the process and a little less focused on the outcome.
“Consider that you radiate. At all times. Consider that what you’re feeling right now is rippling outward into a field of is-ness that anyone can dip their oar into. You are felt. You are heard. You are seen. If you were not here, the world would be different. Because of your presence, the universe is expanding.”
writing about the importance of current events for verge magazine:
“When you live abroad—more often then not without access to a television or regular Internet—it’s easy to lose touch. It’s easy to make quick observations about your surroundings and allow initial impressions to develop into solidified beliefs. The importance of context though, on your experience in a place or your perception of it can mean the difference between negativity and positivity, the difference between reinforcing stereotypes and spreading knowledge.”
“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it … In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins
“Everyday I wake up feeling a little scared of the big goals I have set out for myself this year… I tell myself I am not afraid, I tell myself I was born to do this. But then, it causes me to wonder why I feel so scared. And then it hits me – its a blessing that I am afraid, its a blessing that I have to stretch myself everyday to transform into the person who isn’t afraid of those goals. Each day, I work to better myself… With each passing moment, I look for what I can learn… With each confusion, I get excited. The aha moment got summed up by me realizing that my goals are not there to scare me but to stretch me – and if its not challenging you, its not changing you…
Find something you’ve always been scared to do – whether that be speaking in public or making that phone call or telling somebody you love them – and just do it. There is NO failure, only learning!”
- the beautiful Shamsha Shamsy, check out her website here