Sunday, May 17, 2009

In a Far Away Land

The flight from São Paulo to Johannesburg reminded me quite a bit of the flights from Washington or New York to the various, less-expensive step-offs in Europe: London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris. And it came to me in stages.

First, it was at departures. I was later than I should have been to check-in, and was traveling in economy at a time when I no longer have any privileges with the Star Alliance. I dealt with the minor stress of it all by drawing on how it was for me on the endless number of flights I used to take for long weekends in Europe when I was in my 20s (and winter fares from the East Coast could sometimes fall to $400 or less). I wouldn't care at all, and it made little difference to my life then; why should it now? (How we easily forget.)

Then, it was sitting back in economy class. I had already let go of about fifteen years of self-inducing stress patterns by the time I'd boarded the flight, so settling into my window seat was actually something I was happy about. If I'd wanted to sleep, I'd have a decent shot at it. And SAA's A340-600 is a pleasantly spacious and comfortable alternative to the rickety 767 and 777's of some choice U.S. carriers. (As it turns out, the flight is also about as short as a transatlantic flight, leaving at 6pm in the evening. Why sleep?)

I just decided to let it all flow - much like I did with nearly everything in life when I was in my 20s, before my career really began to bite and the sense of responsibility to other people's expectectations of me steadily rose in my priorities.

It was a lovely trip. I was comfortable; I was entertained. I was even a bit excited to glimpse the pre-dawn lights of Africa down in the mist as we headed east. This was my first trip to Africa, a very rare "first" in this current life of mine. It was conducive to some feelings that I've actually come to miss in life - that sense of wonder and excitement, even if it was under a couple layers of undeniable, well-earned wisdom. Again, it's a decision at 41 years old: you allow it to happen.

Johannesburgh's airport was indeed fascinating. I think I told Vini that it's like if Iguatemi Shopping back in São Paulo had planes taxiing around outside. It's an impressive spread of shops filled with beautiful things, and the folks ambling around it in the early hours of a Sunday morning were largely my peers. I didn't feel a sense of alienation as I might have expected upon arrival in a country so foreign, on a continent so desperately poor - folks had iPhones, nice purses, laptops. They weren't casting their eyes about nervously, nor looking at me sideways. I didn't feel like my mere presence called attention to me (which I hate). I just blended in like I wanted to. Much like I craved to back in the early 90s when I'd step off a plane at Heathrow or Schipol and march confidently through the terminal like I lived there (even if I had no idea where I was actually going; I'd still make sure it didn't show).

And then I made it to my final destination: Maputo, Mozambique. I'm here for a 10-day business trip, on a project that is really the more satisfying kind of consulting work I do -- furthering social objectives through the private sector, using my strategic skills and whatever power of persuasion I have to make it happen. It's satisfying work, but it's also the fruit of my age and experience, and a chance to really put myself to the test against very challenging goals and expectations.

It didn't take me too long to start absorbing how things happen here, how they get done. What's more, I had to really take in how desperately poor this country is. It was a leap. I am used to working in the Americas -- we have poverty back there, no question. And we have our share of long-endured social problems, inequality, brutality, colonialism - the works. But this is a very distant land in nearly every respect. This corner of the world is marked more by the effects of desperate poverty than anything else - more than religion or politics or even history. The names of old Communist icons adorn the street signs all over Maputo, long after communism departed this land forever. Nobody cares much. I asked my local collegues about holidays here - they don't really observe the religious ones much. There are many Muslims in the north of the country, but by and large, religion is not a feature of Maputo. I also got to ask about how gay people are treated, and a Brazilian colleague told me that there isn't much talk about that here. Others told me that sexuality is "neither taboo nor terribly celebrated, it's a part of life." And given the HIV/AIDS problem here, it appears to be a part of life that many use as a refuge from misery - even for those who earn a living wage. "Somebody wants to have sex and a little fun, who am I to tell him no?"

Indeed, I am told that the stigma around HIV in Mozambique has nothing to do with any of the things we see back west. People here are terrified for folks to learn they have HIV because there is a terrible stigma around illness here. In a land where there isn't enough of even the basics to go around, nearly everyone in this society spends his or her life right on the edge of being written off. Only the very strongest survive here, and if you've got an illness like HIV, folks begin writing you off - starting with your neighbors, your employer, your village and then basically the whole society. And the tide of circumstance can carry you out to sea like a tiny crab clinging to the rocks of a turbulent coastline. They see it happen all around them, and their greatest fear, their main motivator in life, is the fear of it happening to them.

Such profound poverty, which has lasted for generations and woven itself into the social DNA of a whole nation, is not something I've ever experienced before in my life. And what's more, there's no time for tears or pity. This is what I have to work with, and I have only ten days to get things really moving in my project and show some immediate results. So, I can't stop the process that started back at check-in, back in São Paulo, when this trip began. I have to keep deciding to let things in, not let anything get to me. I have to navigate the streets of a city far more crumbling and disheveled than anything I've seen in Latin America. Roadside poverty far worse than I've seen in Jamaica. I asked a Mozambican where the stray dogs are - something ubiquitous in so many poor countries I've visited. She asked me what that was. I explained it. She laughed and said if a dog went astray in Maputo, it would starve to death in short order.

No tears. No time for depression or taking things personally. I'd be no use to these good people here, given the money my client is laying out for me to even be here. I can't sit and feel sorry for myself as I lay on the bed in the hotel room for hours on end, with nothing to do, no one to meet with or talk to socially. And I can't carry on about being separated from Vini and my life at home. This is my career - this is what I do very well. I'd built a whole business around doing this stuff well, and creating outcomes that can change people's lives for the better.

And I'm doing it. Lo and behold, I can do it. And I can even find a way to enjoy myself, and not let any of the challenges of the work monopolize my head. I've had some interesting meals, great conversations. I've had a walk on the beach. Watched the sunrise over the Indian Ocean. Meandered through Maputo's "luxury" shopping mall.

But most importantly of all - at least on my evolving hierarchy of priorities - I have kept the torch burning for home. For my husband, my household. My real life. Despite the energy needed to do my job well in Maputo, I haven't lost touch of who I am, not one bit. And while I'm forever counting the days for when I can be home again, it's not out of sadness for the place I'm visiting. It's because my life - my real life - is so good that I can't wait to get back to it. I am so in love with Vini, with São Paulo, with Brazil, with who I am, that every day there is a joy. (To quote Charlotte Goldenblatt, I may not be happy all day. But I'm happy every day.)

Which brings me back to those twenty-something trips to Europe back in the day. Yes, I would march faux-confidently through the arrivals terminal of a European airport, much like I'd charge confidently down a blind Paris street, or through the S-Bahn system in Berlin, in part to avoid drawing attention.

But after several of these trips - 90% of which were taken alone - I began to write things in my journal, questioning why I was on them. What was I doing? What was my goal? I would come to a city for four days or so, and just walk. I'd go places, pretending I had somewhere to go, someone to meet, or whatever. But I didn't. It was an exercise of pretending I had something to do. And a pricey one at that, after five or six trips under my belt.

I had to be honest with myself in the day and admit that I was trying to be someone else for a couple days. I didn't want to be me. I didn't like being me. I didn't like my life back in Washington. I didn't like sitting alone in my room, or feeling nervous at a bar or a nightclub because I could see exactly how my boring, uneventful evening was going to go from the start. The only way I knew, at the time, to have a life was to feign a life. But those trips also were full of going to gay clubs, gay saunas, gay bars. If I was going to have a lonely evening back in D.C., I'd might as well have it in Amsterdam - and maybe it wouldn't be so lonely after all. I started having all sorts of adventures. But I never had one single lasting tie to any of those cities from those trips. I never made one friend, or had a single real romance. How could I? It wasn't real, nor was I.

Life is real now. I'm real now. And I'm having it all, just the way I wanted to. I'm living the happy life that I myself built for myself. And in the end, after years of therapy and wandering the world searching for some kind of answer, it wasn't rocket science.

It was just a matter of letting it happen.


Fly Brother said...

This is an amazing post, Kevin, on so many levels. I guess what resonated with me most was the idea of having a life, versus feigning one, with the overarching idea of being open to letting life happen.

Thank you for sharing your experience and your wisdom.

Kevin said...

Thx E. :) I'm glad it meant something to you, too. xo

Lucrece said...

Well, it turns out that you do have a knack for meeting or exceeding expectations ;). What a delightful post.

It's nice to know that at some point in life, people can start feeling satisfied with what they do, instead of feeling asphyxiated by the seemingly vacuous and the perfunctory.