What it looks like when twelve Indonesian aunts, uncles and cousins; six extended family members in Japan; and two Canadians converge for a family reunion in a country that manages to juggle both sides of spectrum – tranquil and energetic, modern and historic, structured and alternative, business and punk.
Hello there. Let me introduce myself. I’m Amira, a lass who wrote thirteen pages dictating adventures, life lessons and everything in between in Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Greece and Spain, only to have my hard drive crash; and thus, lose not just those written synopsis, but everything else held on that hard drive. I’m Amira, and if I can be of any inspiration to you, please let it be that you backup all your shit on your main device to an external drive, or upload it to some Cloud space. The end.
Psych! You think I would just leave you there without an update on life since June when I got lazy – or, put more positively: caught up in all the wonders of the South and Central Asia, and Europe. Ho ho ho, you are wrong, my friends. So after binge watching Narcos and Community upon my arrival home two months ago; living in a constant state of nostalgia; and, as mentioned above, losing all the items (e.g., photos, notes, etc.) that help jog my memory to conjure a blog post, I sit here in front of a Google Docs draft with the intent of filling y’all in on nutty Nepal, kaleidoscopic Kyrgyzstan, godly Greece and saucy Spain.
Right, so we left off with me having a wicked food hangover in Swayambhu in early June. Rather than filling you in on every itty bitty detail, let me share with you the ‘dancing lessons’ I learnt in the last month and half there. A little caveat here, the term ‘dancing lessons’ is something my pa and I have derived from none other than the late Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 publication, Cat’s Cradle, to guide our adventures: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God”. (Or Buddha, Krishna, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – whatever floats your boat – no religious innuendo intended.)
- Don’t let age, schooling and careers be defining factors of your wisdom: This comes across as a bit redundant; but this doesn’t exclude the number of times where I (or you!) have been undermined because of the aforementioned. This became especially apparent when I engaged in conversation with the kidlets rescued, housed and cared for by the NGO I was volunteering for in Nepal. Ranging from years just shy of teenagehood to the sassy sixteens, their aspirations, curiosities, and life experiences (either tragic, humorous, or enriching) emanated into a type of wisdom I can’t quite put my finger on. Their abilities to dream big and question everything, largely because of their life encounters, were inspirational and educational. It allowed me to take a step back from how we conceptualize knowledge, and look at the bigger picture. Sure, university has truly taught me how to become a more critical thinker – especially in the International Studies programme – but just through casual chit-chat with the youngins, it was an even further reminder that sometimes speaking from the heart and mind shaped by life circumstances can expose a whole new body of knowledge. Not only was this present with the chilluns, but even in the office I was working in. As a young gun in the workplace, I somewhat anticipated the classic intern experience: coffee-runs (or in this case, milk tea), menial work, and whatnot. Instead, I felt like a valued member of the team, regardless of the age and culture gap, my level of education, and lack of ‘professional’ career experience. I don’t want to come across as pompous, but perhaps my ideas shaped by my own life experiences trumped any traditional trademark of wisdom.
- No subtitles, no problem: I’m specifically talking about Bollywood and Nepaliwood (?) movies, but reflecting on this now, I should also note that informal sign language gets you a long way (it also helps that a lot of folks in the Kathmandu district at least know basic English). Right, so the gals and I went to see Gajalu, a highly-anticipated Nepali film, mainly focusing on Kumari culture (essentially the living goddess in Nepal), with an overdose of cheesy romance and random dance scenes. I managed to follow the story in the most basic sense, but what is more, I got to make a story of my own, although I could have fucked up the entire plot. From this dancing lesson stemmed another…
- The mosh pit: Are you a metalhead, but don’t want to hit up Thamel’s Purple Haze Rock Bar in order to get tossed around? Do you want to experience the hustle and bustle, and the shoulder-to-shoulder experience of Nepal in closed quarters? Well have I got the place for you! Forget the lavish and secure movie theatres of Nepal located in the country’s larger shopping malls. Go to a local one. That’s right, amigos. The line in the box office to get into a the actual theatre essentially functions as a mosh pit. We’re talking security guards getting physically and verbally aggressive with shit-disturbers who cut the line; a chorus of attendees howling at each other; and the knocking over of barricades which serve as a (failing) attempt to form a queue. If it wasn’t a mosh pit, it at least seemed like a blob of people swarming to see Hendrix play a show at Isle of Wight in the 21st century after resurrecting from Greenwood Memorial Park. This also goes to mention that the theatre seemed like some concert or show itself: playing the national anthem, which everyone rose to; intermissions; and taking photos (even answering/making phone calls) while the film was playing. A final cautionary note for those who are uncomfortable in ‘unconventional’ bathrooms, make sure you’ve broke the seal before coming: you either have the option of taking a wee in a dark closet with a hole in the ground, or squatting over a ledge which is within sight of fellow pissers.
- You can’t force recreation of memories: I’m smacking you in the face with yet another cliché, so let me give you a bit more grounding. Circa 2015, Gonzo Sr. (i.e., my pops) and I headed to Chiapas and Oaxaca in the Southern Mexico. As this was our first trip together since I completed my high school education, and therefore, having one through a lot of personal development and changes in our individual lives, the trip resulted in a wonderful journey of learning about each other in one of our favourite settings: abroad. I should also note that (a) Southern Mexico was one of Miguel’s stomping grounds back in the day when he lived in Latin America (e.g., getting lost in the jungles of Palenque while trippin’ on ‘shrooms), and (b) Spanish is his second language; so – despite the intense modernization of Mexico – this was turf pa was somewhat familiar with, and therefore, he showed me the ropes. Fast-forward a year later, and it was he that was coming to me in Nepal, after I had lived there for two-and-a-half months. Picking up a dazed and confused father at Tribhuvan International Airport, and haggling down a taxi cab with one of the most essential Nepali phrases I know (“kati ho to…”), we began a classic Loosemore father-daughter adventure in “bat country”. After catching up after a few beves, and acquainting him with the Nepali staple, dhal bhat, I was the grandest daughter, and parted ways with him in the heart of Thamel so I could tend to the weekly pub trivia nights that my co-volunteers and I host for fundraising; while he ventured off to Swayambhu to his guest house – only to get lost with his taxi driver, and me, attempting to give him directions over the phone in an inebriated state. (Sorry about that, dad.) Anyways, after partaking in excursions here and there in the first half of our time together, we realized that there was something different about this trip; some je ne sais quoi that we experienced way back in Chiapas and Oaxaca, which was absent here. Was it because this was my turf (I say this in the least colonialist sense)? Was it because I had my buddies here (although dad didn’t mind at all if I ventured of with them – in fact, he encouraged me to live my Nepali life as I would on a regular basis)? Was it because we couldn’t get our hands on 100% agave mezcal? Was it because the activities I partook in (e.g., trekking; long-ass, crazy bus rides) reflected the physical/age gap between us (I still refuse to admit you’re old, pa!)? Who knows. But, while sitting and skulling beves at a reggae bar in Pokhara the afternoon after we cancelled a trip to Chitwan due to landslides (and the fact that I stupidly left some essential belongings there the night before which I had to retrieve), we chatted about this absent je ne sais quoi. We concluded that you can’t force the recreation memories (as per this dancing lesson’s title). Interestingly enough, in accepting this fact, our adventures henceforth seemed to organically become unique and extremely memorable in their own ways: getting lost in rice paddies; running through monsoon rain to find one of the best Turkish restaurants; dad poking fun at what a vicious bargainer I was; meeting other travelers, running into them on the street, and waving to/yelling at them as if they were our neighbours; and so on. In a nutshell, dad if you’re reading this, thank you for being humble, accepting and encouraging of a nomadic life, no matter what realities it dawns upon us. You’re overall charisma inspires me to welcome both the good and bad, and actually address those things (no matter how unfortunate the truth may be) in order to make the most out of my/our experience. I love ya’, and hope to venture off into more bat country-esque environments with you.
- Travel buddies: Okay, so for avid Gonzites who have been following this blog since 2012, y’all know that I went to Southeast Asia on a five-month excursion that consisted of doing a homestay/casual au pairing; teaching; and good ol’ traveling – which was largely on my lonesome. After that trip, I had the mindset of “aw yeah, solo travel is the best and only way to do it”; I shut doors to traveling in pairs/groups. Indeed, this is logical in a sense (e.g., breeding grounds for crushing friendships, social distractions from seeing the world around you, etc.); but this was also very stubborn of me: I, myself, was confined to my own idea of travel, and didn’t even have the experience of gallivanting with friends. Sure, I was going to Nepal (and Kyrgyzstan, Greece and Spain for that matter) on my own – but there would be an organization and/or people there who I would spend my time with; and I had a fucking blast with them. This isn’t to dismiss the fact that you could find yourself with not-so-compatible individuals; but in my case, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people I loved and had similar mindsets – specifically, if we needed the space, all power to you. Darren and Monica, this one goes out to you: thank you for being the best brother/sister, roommates, traveling partners a gal like me can ask for. We weren’t constantly glued to each other, we welcomed the fact if one of us wanted to go somewhere on our own, and we respected each other’s privacy. Not to mention the crazy adventures we had. You two opened up a new method of traveling that has influenced the remainder of my trip, and those to come. Bless!
- Mind the banda: “What’s a banda?” you may be asking. Well essentially, folks, it’s a protest/strike. Back in the day, especially during the peak of the civil war, this would consist of tire burning, road blockades, large demonstrations, and so on. While these things are still present, bandas are toned down a notch, and are generally manifested in workplace and transportation closures to avoid potential Maoist attacks. I should note here, that this isn’t to scare off any potential visitors – if anyone is a target for the Maoists, tourists are probably at the bottom of their list. Another side note: after speaking with some locals, my impression of the Communist Party of Nepal is some sort of skewed or neo-Maoist ideology that is loosely related to the anti-Revisionist, New Democracy and agrarian socialism objectives of Maoism (which was bastardized and/or taken to extreme proportions by Mao Zedong himself), in that it’s all about money and power. Anyways, although the bandas – which on average, occurred once every two weeks or so – didn’t really affect our duties while volunteering for the NGO (hell, there were even times where Monica and I would walk to Thamel to do our trivia nights), there was one incident where dad and I nearly missed our bus back to Kathmandu from Pokhara. Fortunately though, we found one brave soul who was driving a car, so we hitched a ride with the lad for a non-negotiable price to drive us to the bus depot. He was definitely hauling in the big bucks that day with travelers desperate to catch their bus on time (and by “on time”, I mean “Nepali time” – i.e., at least 30 minutes after the set departure time). Contrary to my banda experience up until this point, this one seemed to be a big deal: our bus was escorted by police cars, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic on the usually unclustered highway, and I in fact saw some charred trucks en route.
- Bird shit, cow shit, and buffalo shit: In the first sense, while going to Budhanilkantha Temple – a sacred Hindu place that holds an epic statue that symbolizes Lord Vishnu – with the girls, Darren got crapped on by one the many pigeons that flock here. (I should also note that after I got a tikka from a holy man, Darren was charged for one. The girls were outraged at the man who was doing a religious act for the sake of monetary gains.) Dancing lesson: bring an umbrella or extra shirt (and look a bit more Nepali for a tikka blessing free of charge). In the second sense, after visiting Boudhanath – the largest Buddhist stupa in the world, surrounded by 50 Tibetan Gompas – and walking to Pashupatinath Temple – a sacred Hindu temple, which is well-known for the cremations that take place along the Bagmati River – Darren and I took refuge for a bit to avoid the monsoon downpour. Once it cleared, we continued our walk, only to encounter flooded streets, which meant taking our kicks off and wading through the water. At the end of our ‘swim’, we noted the occasional passing cows dropping a deuce. Dancing lesson: make sure you get your tetanus shot before prancing in the feces-infested water. And in the final sense, while going on a three-day trek to Poon Hill (queue laughter), with my guide (but more so, homie), Mila – which consisted of playing cards and drinking raksi with other trekkers and guides at tea houses; having clothes dry by the fire at night; and overall making sure mind was over matter in the course of heaving uphill and balancing yourself downhill – you gotta be sure to not to mistake buffalo poop for convenient stepping stones. As you probably are anticipating, I did indeed penetrate my foot into the abyss of a large buffalo turd, instead of what I thought was a sturdy boulder. Dancing lesson: know your shit.
- Family isn’t defined by blood: Obviously, right? But let me be clear here, compañero/as: I didn’t anticipate getting this close with the people I would be working and living with. The individuals in the office I worked in would ensure that I felt comfortable and safe in Nepal as if they were my parents. The kids at the childcare homes laugh at (or with?) me, and asked questions as if they were my younger brothers and sisters. The tutors and youths joked around with me, and we went on adventures as if they were my cousins. My roommates became my unromantic common-laws. In case you aren’t getting my drift here, folks, the team at the NGO I was working with became my family. It didn’t really strike me until my farewell ceremony – when I was decorated with khata and tikka blessings; the staff, kids and volunteers made farewell speeches; and Darren Brother so kindly made a video montage and scrapbook consisting of the team’s kind words – and I failed to hold back my tears (not to mention that I cried on the plane to Kyrgyzstan via Delhi). Dhanyabad to my Nepali family, and welcoming your nakali Canadian sister. You will forever be in my heart, and I will always cherish the moments we shared, and the bonds we formed. Jaya Nepal!
Well guys, that pretty much wraps up the Nepal segment of this post. Although it doesn’t nearly capture the detailed life and times of Gonzo, I hope it nonetheless gives you a jist of this colourful (despite the dark past), humble (despite the urban rambunctiousness), and aromatic (despite the occasional whiff of sewage and animal excrement) NEPAL (Never Ending Peace and Love).
Let’s head to Kyrgyzstan, shall we? But before doing that, let me answer your potential query of “where the fuck is that?”; to which I would respond, “do you know the super inaccurate film, Borat?”; to which you may reply, “yes”; to which I would respond, “well just south of the border of Kazakhstan – where the film is set – is Kyrgyzstan: home to some of the most epic valleys, beautiful and strong people, and chasing your vodka with dill-ridden salad”; to which you may reply, “ah, yes. Tell me more.” Your wish is my command, baby.
So after leaving Nepal – and yes, as mentioned, crying on the plane – dad and I slept in Indira Gandhi International Airport (i.e., Delhi) to catch one of the two weekly flights to Bishkek. There, we would be meeting Robin, the divine lady who hitched my parents 20-something years ago, who has landed a gig as a counselor for one of the leading universities in Central Asia, which was founded by notable individuals such as His Highness the Aga Khan. This, my friends, is the perfect window for me to let you know my intent of coming here (other than visiting a country and culture I have never been acquainted with in my former travels; and of course, being reunited with the woman – other than my mom, and all her biological/reproductive accessories – responsible for my existence). So the university hosts a three-week summer camp in Issyk Kol for university candidates who are entering their final year in high school. As I was somewhat in the neck of the woods at the time, Robin asked if I could co-facilitate workshops with her on resume-building, stress-management and emotional language. Of course! How could I pass up such an opportunity? I would be doing two things I loved: (a) venturing off into unknown territory, and (b) being in a camp setting (for those who don’t know, I was a camper and staff member of a residential camp back in Canada for over ten years) – both with my second mama.
However, before indulging in that adventure, there was some acquainting with the country that needed to be done. Following our landing in Bishkek, Miguel and I were picked up by Samat, a lad who showed Robin and her daughter (who was visiting and working in Kyrgyzstan a month before; and who I probably shared multiple bubble baths with in our childhood) around. After catching up with Robin; being brought to attention that – as with Nepal – I physically blended in here; and crashing at her apartment that evening, we decided to head up to Song Kol Lake near Kum-Bel Valley the next morning with Samat, where we would spectate some of the pre-World Nomad Games. En route to the Lake we stopped at some trailers on the side of the road, which functioned as little dining spots, and munched on fried fish and boorsoq (which us Canadians found quite similar to bannock). The games were especially meaningful as it was Samat’s first time watching them, to which he expressed excitement. On top of that, the location was fascinating: rolling hills that looked like they went on forever; the herds of different farm animals; the bumpy terrain that functioned as roads; and just the overall sheer vastness of Kum-Bel Valley.
After spectating some horse trotting, we headed to Samat’s family’s pasteur, with, of course, a stop on the side of the road to share shots of vodka and salad with some folks from Bishkek visiting the Valley. Nearing sunset, our first sights entering the valley, which the pasteur was located in, consisted of herds of horses, goats and sheep; a running river; and ultra green grass that blanketed the setting. One of the most notable sights, however, was Gulbarchen, Samat’s cousin who was running around with a stool and bucket from horse to horse to get the last bit of horse milk of the day. It was this sort of activity of constantly moving around and working that we constantly saw Gulbarchen in for the remainder of our time here; we looked up to her as some sort of Super Woman. That night, after Gulbarchen (unsurprisingly) whipped us up an extravagant meal in a massive stir-fry pan, dad, Robin and I headed to bed in our new abode – a yurt: essentially a portable, round tent covered by animal skin or felt, which is most commonly used by nomads in Central Asia.
Our time in the Kum-Bel Valley was largely that of eating and forcing ourselves to drink kumis (a sour, fermented horse milk, which we attempted to dilute with honey) in order to get our daily probiotics (still cannot fathom how four cups are skulled back with each meal by the locals. Cheers!); hiking up the edges of the pasteur; playing cards with Samat’s first cousins once removed (that’s a mouthful) and their buddies; and watching Gulbarchen wear the pants in the household. Robin and I even partook in churning cream and milking some of the cows, of which I was pathetic at in the case of the latter (their nipples are slippery, okay?). The assiduous charisma of Gulbarchen was also echoed in her family: her son, about half my height, galloping on a horse to herd in all the animals; the same son, his brother and father who conducted the Qurbāni (sacrificing of livestock) of a goat for our lunch; and her daughter who was always spectating Gulbarchen’s day-to-day tasks and keeping her company. Overall, our time spent in the Kum-Bel Valley was an amazing way to get acquainted with Kyrgyzstan. Big shout out to Samat and his relatives for hosting and introducing us to their country’s mind-blowing surroundings, nomadic traditions and cuisine, and overall warmth.
We then headed back to Bishkek, which also meant approaching the fork in the road where my dad and I would be parting ways – me to the summer camp in Issyk Kol, and he to wherever he planned to go next (his itinerary was somewhat open, so long as he ended up in South Korea by a certain date to catch a flight home back to Vancouver). Robin and I headed to Issyk Kol a couple of days after arriving back in Bishkek. Meanwhile, back in Bishkek, Mick decided to head to Uzbekistan, partly because of the fact it had seemingly loose visa regulations with Canadian citizens. Lo and behold, once he arrived at the airport, the check-in agent showed pa that Uzbek visa regulations’ fine print revealed otherwise. So, as what any sane traveler in such kerfuffles would do, dad of course bought a last-minute flight to Ürümqi in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China – duh!
Anyways, the summer camp was excellent. To reiterate, I was not only (a) venturing off into unknown territory, but had the opportunity of (b) being in a camp setting. Despite the fact that I had to do some minor adjustments in my performance during the workshops (i.e., my use of slang – classic!), Robin and I got delightful feedback from the staff and students. It was not only such a pleasure getting to know the students who came to the camp from Kyrgyzstan and the rest of Central Asia, and the staff who came from all over the world; but working with an individual such as Robin was an absolute treat. Collaborating with a person who had professional counseling experience was both engaging and therapeutic. And on top of all of this, we were located by Lake Issy Kol – the second largest saline lake in the world.
With two days left to spare until I had to catch a flight to Athens, Greece, Robin (who so kindly cut her time short with the summer camp to keep me company in Bishkek) and I headed back to the capital, just a day before the summer camp’s farewell ceremony. Before hitting the road with our driver, who was essentially a former Nascar racer (we surprisingly made it home in one piece), I managed to stock up on some munchies for the drive home. Getting the goods was both one of the most prominent language barriers I have ever face, as well as one of the warmest encounters I’ve had with a stranger. The chef – who, put most simply, can be described as your classic babushka with a full set of gold teeth, and about two feet shorter than me, yet could easily kick my ass – conjured some bruschetta for us, when I only asked for slices of chicken salami and cheese; and to top it off, two big sloppy kisses on my cheeks.
The next day involved packing my bags, doing laundry, eating horse meat with Robin at a swanky restaurant her and her daughter went to, and stocking up on toothpaste for the next leg of my journey. Our final night in Kyrgyzstan closed with munching on veggie kebabs, drinking port and beer, watching Netflix, and going to bed early before heading to the airport at 2:30 AM. Robin, who so graciously arranged a ride for me to the airport; and – being my second mama, and because of having a few near death experiences in our drive from Issy Kol to Bishkek – advised the driver to go slowly. Mad props for Robin for not only welcoming my dad and I into her home, taking us on the most unique adventures, and inviting me to work alongside her; but, for introducing my ma and pa to each other! If it weren’t for you, Robin, half of me would still be an itty bitty sperm cell, and the other half would still be an egg in the ovum. Love you.
Greeted by guards in balaclavas carrying M-16s who jovially asked “hey! Where are you from?” as I was going through security in Manas International Airport, Bishkek, I was ready to embark on the next leg of my journey: Greece. After catching a connecting flight through Istanbul, and boarding a bus from Eleftherios Venizelos (i.e., Athens International Airport – just trying to add some pizazz here, folks) to the city of Piraeus, I met Georgios – or as I would pronounce: “YER-GO”. Georgios, a fellow university classmate from back home, was visiting his motherland for the summer; and since planning to volunteer in Nepal in February 2016, and having found out that he would be abroad at the same time that I was finished my work there, we decided to make a reunion out of it. Being able to see each other in far-off lands was a treat in multiple senses: (a) we had both finished our degrees in April this year; (b) Georgios would be moving to Toronto to complete his Master’s; and (c) this was the first time in a while that he has been back home. With all of this in mind, not only was it was an absolute honour and pleasure to have my brother from another mother welcome me into his home, and show me around his country; but an excellent way of commemorating our friendship and university experience now that we would be living in different provinces (and not to mentioned me pestering him with last-minute text messages about class assignments).
Now, I didn’t partake in the whole Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants shit (though I did love the book back in the day), and hit up Santorini, fall in love with some son of a family’s enemy, see mules climbing narrow alleys, et cetera. Rather, the bulk of my time in Greece revolved around a road trip to the Laconia region that Georgios and his long-time buddy, Dios, had been organizing since Georgios planned to go to Greece. That being said, no, I didn’t go island hopping, but instead, saw some of Greece’s hidden gems, and partook in the country’s classic activities – all with some of the coolest and intellectual dudes you will ever meet.
So after getting acquainted with Piraeus, celebrating Kostas’s (Georgios’s brother) birthday with a divine ice cream cake and what would have been the first of my many swims in the Aegean Sea, and meeting the third musketeer of our road trip trio (that is, Dios), the lads and I set forth on our adventure; first stop: Sparta (this one goes out to all you 300 aficionados). However, we didn’t follow King Leonidas’s footsteps and kick Persians into a well; rather, we traveled back in time by visiting Mystras: a former municipality during the Byzantine Empire. The land which it stretched over, its epic views of Sparta, the architecture and purpose of the many structures that occupied it, and the fig trees scattered across the site are just some of the prominent features that resound in my memories of Mystras. After time traveling, we commenced the longest leg of our trip: driving from Sparta to Virginia’s – Dios’s mother’s – humble abode in Velanidia.
Arriving a couple of hours before midnight, we were welcomed by Virginia and her pup, Hermes. Unlike the 5:00 PM dinners in Nepal, evening feasts in Greece commenced no earlier than 8:00 PM; our fixins that evening was tomato and pepper gemista, and homemade white wine. This glorious meal crafted by Virginia was just the introduction of the other delicious spreads she would make for us during our stay at her home. The next morning, the three of us jumped back into Dios’s Suzuki, and later, a small ferry, to head to Elafonisos – okay, so maybe there was a bit of island hopping involved. Situated between the Peloponnese and Kythira, Elafonisos harbours a variety of beaches; the one that we perched ourselves on: Simos, which is not only absolutely stunning because of its turquoise blue waters, but has twin beaches. Super. Fucking. Cool. After turning as red as the tomatoes we ate the night before (which of course, turned into a radiant tan due to our godly skin), we headed back to Neapoli on the mainland to partake in the Greek timeless classic: ouzo, seafood and watching the sunset. A true Kodak moment that none of us captured on camera, but one that will forever be vivid in our minds. Once we returned home later that evening, Virginia – unsurprisingly – had a mouth-watering meal of chicken sauteed and stewed in tomato sauce waiting for us.
We woke to some gnarly winds the next morning, which rendered a day of hanging out in Velanidia. After grabbing some coffee at the top of the village, Dios, George, Hermes and I went to tend Dios’s late father’s farm; we went on a quest to pick the freshest figs. Not only was this a tranquil experience, but meandering through the narrow plateaus stacked on the hillside; being surrounded by grapevines, honeycombs, and oregano; and overlooking Velanidia’s coast, made for one of the most scenic and mellow moments I’ve encountered. We topped off this portion of the day with Virginia’s home-made moussaka – another one of her culinary treats – and taking a siesta before heading to Monemvasia later that evening.
Crossing a bridge that connected this small island off the east coast of the Peloponnese, and approaching the walls that hugged the medieval fortress, I anticipated antiquated buildings and out-of-date infrastructure. Instead, most of the structures inside Monemvasia’s medieval fortress were that of old buildings that had been restored into restaurants, bars, guest homes, and souvenir shops! In fact, we actually ended up having drinks (and puffing on Georgios’s Cuban cigar that he held on to since his visit to Cuba over a year ago) crafted by Greece’s best international and national bartender nominated in 2014 at Enetiko Cafe & Cocktail Bar. The remainder of the night comprised wandering through the municipality’s alleyways, listening to the waves viciously crash against the fort’s exterior, and admiring the Peloponnese skyline under the moon. We ended up driving back to Velania late at night, while yours truly burritto’d (is that a verb?) herself in a sleeping bag in the back seat – sorry, team, for being that girl; and thank you Dios for driving, and George for co-captaining.
We had our last breakfast at Virginia’s the next day, as we were heading the Vathi to sleep under the stars (but aren’t we always technically doing that?) – that is, to go camping. This was especially meaningful to Dios, as camping here was a family tradition of his back in the day, and the first time since then that he has visited. It was honourable and flattering to be the companions that he would be with in reacquainting himself with his old stomping grounds. Our two nights and days here involved wandering around Vathi; trekking out to Areopoli (to see the Diros caves, Limeni’s crystal-clear waters, and the abandoned houses, towers and chapels of Vatheia); parking the Suzuki at different beaches and driving to the next to repeat; and just good old philosophizing and chit-chat by the water with a beve or two. Vathi was also home to where Georgios and I would be parting ways with Dios to head back to Piraeus. After scarfing down souvlaki and fries by the bus depot, we said our short and sweet goodbyes to Dios, and boarded our bus on the dot. To Dios: thank you so much for teaching me all the essential Greek phrases (e.g., “mati malakas!”, “frappe soúper”, “gamísou”); taking an odd lass like me into your home; and even more so, being open to me joining you and your long-time homie on reunifying adventure. The conversations that the three of us shared – as ‘informal’ and casual as they may have been – were humorous, eye-opening, inspirational, and made me more confused about life (but in the best way possible – isn’t that the best way to approach it? Without certainty?). As you said in Vathi: “Amira, if you want a career that makes a change in the world, do something you love. A lot of people don’t pursue their passion in professional – you can be that change.” Wise words to live by, my friend – a true modern-day philosopher. Yamas!
After drooling and swaying my noggin side to side as I passed out on the bus, and a short stop at the Corinth Canal, we arrived back in Piraeus just short of midnight. With a blank itinerary, and only so much time to spare in Greece, I decided to embark on the gringo trail and hit up the Acropolis Museum. The Museum, perched at the bottom of the hill that the Acropolis itself is located on, is home to four stories that incorporate mini models of the Acropolis floor plan from the Bronze Age to Byzantine Empire, and all the miniscule ceramic figurines, and marble structures significant to the life span of the Acropolis; as well as glass floors that hover above important and ongoing excavations. Something I didn’t notice at the time, but was brought to the fore by Kostas, and might be of interest to current or future visitors is the missing Parthenon Marbles – an ongoing controversy between the Brits and Greeks since the 1800s when some bloke named Thomas Bruce transported half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon to the Commonwealth through a scandalous permit; the sculptures (which, to reiterate, are native to the Ottoman Empire, now Greece) currently sit in the British Museum. How juicy!
Pacing slowly through the Museum in an attempt to soak in as much as possible, I later met with Kostas, who would be guiding me to the next stop on the gringo trail: the National Archeological Museum. Located next to Athens Polytechnic University – home to the 1973 mass demonstration against the Greek military junta, and currently functioning as a space for squatters conducting different political movements – the National Archeological Museum hosts and extensive collection of important artifacts from all over Greece. As its collections span from prehistory to late antiquity, it goes without saying that the National Archeological Museum is extremely rich and dense, and needs a lot of time allocated towards a visit (i.e., bank for at least three hours – twice as much as I had anticipated). After witnessing the most ceramic, bronze and marble structures I have ever encountered in one day, Kostas and I explored his stomping grounds: Exarcheia, which is most famous for being, as Dr. Wikipedia puts it, “a home for Greek anarchists”.
Our gander (complimented by our beves-on-the-go) consisted walking up Strefi Hill to get a sweet panorama of Athens; checking out some of the many graffiti art that decorate the entire neighbourhood; and what pulled on my heart strings the most: getting to see a piece donated by none other than Subcomandante Marcos himself. The latter was donated after the police shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in 2008, noting Subcomandante Marcos’s admiration for the political activity conducted in Exarcheia prior to the shooting; and after, the ongoing objective to improve standards for living for younger generations, and fight against police brutality. It was as if I was in Chiapas all over again. We topped off this super cool spin-off the gringo trail with something I reckon would be on most bucket lists: seeing the Acropolis at night. Although there was a full moon that night, and therefore, free entrance into any of Athens’s archeological sites, Kostas and his buddies who we later met up with decided to spectate the monument (that is, the Acropolis for those who dozed off) from a hill adjacent to it. Chatting over a couple of plastic two-litre bottles of vino, we shared conversation about Chiapas and its politics, orphan tourism in Nepal, and Kyrgyzstan and where the fuck it is on the map; but in addition to this dynamic, the views, the location, and the fact that you could still wear a pair of shorts and a t-shirt in the warm Mediterranean night, made for quite the evening. How fucking splendid.
After a somewhat go-go-go type of one-and-a-half weeks here in Greece, the pace of life naturally and soothingly slowed down a bit. Highlights include:
- The Temple of Poseidon – for which we got in for free! Save your extra shillings for some souvlaki and whatnot by flashing a student ID card that doesn’t include the city’s name (unless it’s located the EU). Laws hold that students attending academic institutions in the EU get either free or reduced admission to Greek sites and museums. Practice your Swedish, Czech, Estonian, etc. accents; or pretend you’re an exchange student in one of the Member States, and you’re good to go.
- Finding the perfect slices of the Aegean Sea to swim in. The one that struck me the most was a mini inlet with a floor decorated with urchins and seaweed; and where Georgios found it hee-lar-ious to pretend he was some aquatic monster by grabbing my smelly feet under the water. Dick. What’s also pretty groovy about finding a little inlet to swim in: the cliffs that surround it. Although I grew up with jumping into different bodies of waters in the Kootenays as a young(er) padawan, I was a bit rusty and decided to opt for the smaller cliffs; while Georgios, Kostas, and some chilluns about half my size, bravely hopped off taller ones. Regardless of the height, it’s still a wedgie-inducing jump.
- Attending one of the many outdoor cinemas in Greece. This isn’t like your average drive-in theatre in North America, however. Rows of canvas director’s chairs, snacks and alcoholic beverages, and tables with ashtrays are just some of the amenities you can anticipate to be graced with here.
- Checking out Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, which is home to the country’s National Library and Opera. What was super cool was the architecture, which meshes urban activities and facilities with a green space.
- And last but not least, authentically smoking shisha and meeting up with Kostas’s pals in a Turkish enclave in Athens on my final night in Greece.
To my (not so physically) “big, fat Greek” family, as the saying goes, I’m indebted to your hospitality, kindness and conversation. To Liliana (Georgios’s and Kostas’s mama), thank you for opening up your home to me; for giving us spectacular travel suggestions; for introducing us to the super haroupi; and for being a motherly figure – it certainly made me feel like I was at home. To Maria (Liliana’s mama/Georgios’s and Kostas’s grandma), thank for whipping up amazing dishes; and caring for me as if I was your granddaughter. Despite our language barrier, there was some sort of quality that transcended this, and our use of sign language when it was just us two in conversation seemed to cut it. I can only hope to be the soft-hearted yet strong powerhouse you are in the future. To Kostas, I will forever poke fun at how your accent is conducive to misleading phrases (e.g., the “beach”, you “can’t” – I’ll let the audience figure those ones out); to which you would probably rebuttal to with a .gif covertly taken of me (click here for Exhibit A). Punk. Thank you for taking me off the beaten path, and showing me other necks of the woods seldom known to the gringo eye. And last but definitely not least, to Georgios: my friendship with you dates back to when we first met each other in a course on ethnic peace, violence and conflict – minus the latter two topics, a course that accurately captures our friendship. We continue to recall this moment with you questioning your English language proficiency with other students, as my English (i.e., slang) was so out of this world, it didn’t even (and still hasn’t) entered the mainstream rhetoric. Since then, we’ve collaborated on a number of projects and exchanged ideas; you’ve given me grounding at times when I nearly broke down in tears and sweat the small stuff when it came to some class assignments; and you’ve consistently gave me clarification and further insight when I was met with confusion. Your kindness, however, was not limited to Canada, as seen in our excursions in Greece. Your intelligence, humbleness, and appetite for adventure are just some of the characteristics that make me look up to you as a big brother; a friend. Yamas, my dude, and may we share more memories and ouzo in the future! Thank you for sharing your beautiful (and fucking hot!) country with me this summer.
All in all, I couldn’t have been a more lucky traveler, considering the people I was with. Screw getting grapes fed to me, and getting fanned with palm leaves; my “big, fat Greek” family is all I could ever ask for in order to experience godly Greece at its finest.
After bidding my final farewells, boarding a bus to Eleftherios Venizelos (again, pizzaz), and wrapping up a phone call to my pa (who asked, as any father would, “did you have fun and drink enough [alcohol], Amira?”), I hopped on a flight to my next destination: Barcelona. Boarding yet another bus once landing on Spanish turf, I finally ended up in the Sarriá-Sant Gervasi district, where Serg – a lad who I met at a music show back in Vancouver a little over a year ago, and who was coincidentally doing an exchange at the university I went to at the time – so kindly met me at a café to guide me to his abode (rather than disorientedly trying to find it myself). After balancing me and my huge-ass backpack on his scooter, and taking a siesta, I headed out the door again to meet with a fellow classmate, Pily, who happened to be visiting Barcelona at the same time as I. Her, Su (a friend of hers from another academic institution in Vancouver) and I ended up meeting each other on La Rambla, one of the most touristy streets of Barcelona. Now, as a caveat, this isn’t to sound like a worldly, super-cultured, pompous granola traveller and completely bash the street, but if I speak with wholehearted honesty, it’s this: you’re immediately overdosed with restaurants selling sangria and paella, and different venues advertising for the oh-so authentic flamenco show. In fact, from the Middle Ages until the 14th century, La Rambla was known as the Cagalell, which translates into “Stream of Shit” – go figure! I do admit that partook in these kosher activities; but, fortunately, hanging out on La Rambla only took place on my first night in Barcelona, thanks to Serg’s insider scoop on city’s hidden gems. Regardless, it was excellent to reconnect with Pily, and my company with old and new friends made me oblivious to the sensory overload unique to La Rambla.
Considering the fact that Pily would be heading to Berlin the following afternoon, we decided to take advantage of the time we had together, and meet up again the next day; this time so Casa Batlló in the Grácia district – a visual sensory overload, but in the best way possible. The masterpiece, crafted by Antoni Gaudi back in the late 19th century, is divided by wavy walls, adorned with psychedelic (and ironically, mushroom-shaped) door frames from room to room, provided with a hint of mosaic art here and there, and accessorized with aquatic-like stain glass. Debriefing with Pily and Su later on, we all had the burning question of hallucinogenic Gaudi took at the time.
After giving Pily the classic two kisses on each cheek – which I still had not mastered, even after two weeks in Greece – and saying our goodbyes, Su and i went for lunch, and of course, took a siesta at her Airbnb. That evening, I met Serg at Hotel Pulitzer, which overlooked the Gothic Quarter to see Holy Bouncer, whose vocals were similar to those of Tom Waits, and dance moves as contagious as Axl Rose; both an auditorily and visually stimulating event, indeed. We later met up with Serg’s buddy and Su to see noise musician, Vatican Shadow, play at CaixaForum, an art gallery in Barcelona. It was the first time I’ve ever heard such music in this type of venue, and I gotta say, it was a pretty groovy thing.
The next day was another one of the days I anticipated most: Jay, one of my mejores amigas from Vancouver – who I did training and worked with at the summer camp back home, and overall, just being straight up rabble rousers together back in Vancouver – would be taking a little sabbatical to Barcelona from her internship in Hannover, Germany. As a gal pal of Serg’s as well, the three of us had a line-up of adventures ahead of us. Now, in order for y’all to fathom my excitement at this point, let me give you some context: Jay is one of the most chillest, philosophical, intelligent, hilarious and crazy broads I know. On top of this, our long-lasting friendship is conducive to her being a sister from another mister. Further, she is super well-traveled. Yet, we have never been together on international turf. All of this in consideration, this unequivocally meant that the times ahead would be some of the best days in my travel experience.
In order to tone down my excitement, as she would be arriving late that evening, I focused on other things: wandering around the Gråcia district; going to a library to work on internship applications; and heading to Carretera de les Aigües to see the sun set over Spain with Serg and his friend. While munching on the pukka Spanish dish, sushi, at Serg’s place with his other amigos, we got the much-anticipated phone call from Jay, saying she was en route to his house (i.e., “CATCH YA’ ON THE FLIP, HOMIES!”). As we crossed the street to wait for Jay at the planned meeting point, a lass who was hollering and squaking contagious laughter, and whipping out one litre bottle of duty-free mango vodka from her knapsack came running towards us – yup, you got it: it was Jay. Us two gals ended up staying awake until the hours just shy of dawn sharing our stories of life in new places; filling each other in with some juicy gossip; reminiscing on the past; and just all around giggling about the silliest things.
As Hannover isn’t the most accommodating of places to hit up the beach, Jay and I decided to go to one of Barcelona’s nude beaches to next morning. As yours truly is a rookie in this department, I decided to take baby steps and take my toggs off in the water – which later proved to be challenging as the ocean’s waves don’t really permit you to put your bathing suit back on while in the water. We then went to go see the Making Africa exhibition at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB; Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona), where we ended up meeting some of Jay’s colleagues from Hannover, who were also on the same internship as her, and therefore, fellow Vancouverites as well. To prove what a small world we live in, one of her colleagues actually knew of my brother (and this time I’m speaking in the biological sense!) when I mentioned my surname.
We continued our artistic rendezvous by meeting Serg at a jam session, which was almost quite hard to believe it was actually impromptu: the tunes created by individuals who went up to play an instrument meshed together so well. After this little shindig, Serg and the Vancouverites went to La Festa Major de Grácia. The main concept of the festival revolves around a competition between different streets in the barrio for the best decorated lane. Papier–mâché, funky lanterns, mini concerts, and food/drink vendors on the street are just some of the things you can anticipate during La Festa Major de Grácia. Some of the impartial music venues occupy larger areas; in fact, while trying to get my salsa moves on (my hips do lie), I managed to catch one of the CDs that the band was chucking into the crowd – I truly felt like a grandma from Florida winning something on The Price is Right in that moment. We wrapped up the evening by cracking open Jay’s one litre bottle of duty-free mango vodka, and strenuously trying to drink it straight. The hint of mango flavour didn’t help, but the good company and conversation certainly did.
Hungover as shit the next morning, Jay and I had to cancel some Airbnbs we foolishly booked, and confirm that we actually did reserve beds at one of the cheapest hostels in Barcelona – as we were inebriated while doing both after skulling the duty-free vodka. Because Serg’s abode was soon-to-be full with returning family members, we had to get our asses in gear, and fend for ourselves. Mad props to Serg for welcoming us into his home, and giving us the most bountiful experience in Barcelona – however, just because we were leaving him in peace in his home, this did not mean that the legacy of shenanigans ended here.
After taking a powernap at our hostel, and revitalizing ourselves with goblets of sangria, Jay and I met our fellow Vancouverites at one of the must-sees in Barcelona: Sagrada Familia – another far-out work of Gaudi. If Gaudi had been taking hallucinogens for the sake of creating a masterpiece, this would have probably the most permissible time to do so; afterall, he was creating the Lord’s house, am I right? The erect spires, insane height, and the interior columns that mirror trees and branches exude a sense of sheer verticality; and the colourful stained glass offer a sense of vibrancy. Despite being under construction for over 100 years (which remains ongoing), the entire building was a optical overload, and left us, for the most part, speechless. Once our eyes could gather all they could gather, our gang disseminated for a brief period, so Jay and I could meet Serg to partake in what we coined, “The Tour de Serg” (i.e., Serg’s guide around Barcelona).
One of the main highlights of this mini excursion was El Raval, a little neighbourhood in the Ciutat Vella district. Formerly, the town was known for crime, prostitution and nightlife. While these traits remain prominent to a lesser extent, El Raval is now more well-known for its diverse immigrant community, which in turn, makes for some of the most unique bars, restaurants and nifty shops in Barcelona. Although we didn’t tend to any of these, Jay and I ‘sampled’ some perfume from a little boutique shop in order to mask our body odor that had been building up throughout the day – and damn, did that perfume smell good.
We reconvened with the Vancouverites at a cute little restaurant. Since they already had their fixins of vino, we decided to get on the same level as them by taking a detour to Serg’s house to finish off the duty-free vodka that we pathetically failed to do so the night before. After drinking, chatting, and grooving to some tunes, our posse went to some jazzy club playing motown music (I think? From what I could remember…) This was also another much-anticipated evening as Monica – a fellow volunteer from Nepal, as you may recall if you’ve managed to read this entire post – arrived in Barcelona earlier that afternoon, and we made a spur of the moment plan to meet at this club via good old Facebook. Let’s just rewind to May 2016 for a second here…
Our water tank in our flat in Nepal broke; and after a week or so of having to gather well water to shower, Monica and I decided to shell out 100 rupees (a little over $1.00 CAD) to use the showers at a local swimming pool. While yelling at each other in our stalls – under a fucking shower head as opposed to the bucket showers; what a foreign feeling! – and rinsing out all the sweat and dust accumulated in our hair, we found out that we would both be passing through Barcelona at the same time in August: her, en route to an internship in Morocco, and me, back to my dull life in Canada. We made an agreement to meet again three months down the road.
So back to this jazzy club that was potentially playing motown music. Out of the things I could remember that night while doing my gringo jive on the dance floor, it was the feeling of a sharp tap on my shoulder, and a battle cry roaring “I WAS TRYING TO FIND YOU, AND THEN I THOUGHT, WHAT WOULD AMIRA BE WEARING? AND I FOUND YOU!” And sure enough, there I was – in my Hawaiian-print baseball cap, Nepal Ice t-shirt, chutney-stained boots, and smelly shorts – speechless to see the lass I had shared so many memories with in one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been to. I held Monica in one of the most aggressive and loving vice grips I’ve given in my life.
Recovering from this evening, Jay and I wandered to meet Monica, who was in the middle of chomping on the oh-so authentic churro when the three of us converged. We were en route to meet Serg and a couple of his pals at Brunch in the Park Barcelona, an event that runs every Sunday in the summer in Jardins De Joan Brossa, where music is played, and beves are sold by the jug (or cup – but why opt for that when you can get a better bang for your buck with a litre of an alcoholic bevvie of your choice?). After jiving and doing voice-overs with Jay to the lyrics of camp songs over the electronic music, we called it a night. The following days/evenings were that of parting ways with my amigos; first up: Jay.
I had brunch with this one-of-a-kind broad the following morning, and we wished each other the safest of travels. It wasn’t entirely sombre though: being the generally optimistic gals we are, we have high hopes of reconverging in Germany before Jay comes back to Vancouver next year. Posting this online, I feel like it gives me even further imputes and obligation to do so (and hey, y’all know I’m always up for an adventure – not to mention to be doing it with one of the homies). Jay, I don’t know when I’ll see you next, but I don’t have a single doubt in my mind that our adventures will be genuine, crazy and extremely memorable. You are a true pal, and I am immensely humbled that we had the opportunity to share a slice of our life abroad together. Stay wild, my Moshi Moshi sister.
Later that day, I added one more item to the list of things I’ve lost during my time away from home: my cellular device – and I wasn’t even inebriated! I’m entirely responsible for it; but let me just say, that when I was meeting Monica for dinner that evening, she caught me off guard looking suave as it gets, and I carelessly got sidetracked and left my phone on one of the ledges of a metro station in the midst of being in awe of her jazzy look that night. (Hey! During our time in Nepal we were super unhygienic, and to see her in heels was certainly a head-turner.) In the company of good people and salsa dancing (which I suck at), I managed to let this go quickly.
The next evening, Serg and I said our farewells as he was heading off to Southern England, and I, to Buñol, Valencia, with Monica on an overnight bus for La Tomatina. To Serg: thank you for being a super accommodating host and showing us the hidden gems of your beautiful city. If you have gone out of your way to lodge us, take us to events, and overall, make sure we had a superb time in Barcelona, let me just say, you exceeded our expectations, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to see your neck of the woods. ¡Salud!
Okay, so La Tomatina – let me just rant for one hot second here: getting there was an absolute shit show. This isn’t to belittle the entire organization of the event – no, far from it. It just happened to be that the bus that we were on was terribly organized. First of all, all the other buses had at least two coordinators responsible for making sure that all the passengers got a wristband (which worked as an entry ticket), and a shirt (which promised all the other fixins that came with the boarding pass: a free shower, a meal, and a cuppa sangria). Our bus, on the other hand, had only one coordinator, who didn’t have wristbands or shirts for us. On top of that, he spoke little English and Catalan, so communication was very choppy. As I was slightly hungover, I made pretty pathetic attempts at trying to get past the gates, so Monica took the reigns on that. Eventually, through word of mouth from fellow pissed-off passengers, we found out security was aware of the situation, and we made it into the nucleus of Buñol.
The tomato fight was simply epic: over the span of an hour, volunteers in trucks filled with tomatoes threw the fruits at participants, which eventually became a full-on war with the residue left on the cobblestone street. The flats that overlooked the street were covered in tarps, and the residents even partook in the fight with their advantage of being in closed-quarters, and having an aerial view of the war. Some individuals came quite prepared with plastic pouches attached to drawstrings to hold their valuables; goggles; and ear plugs. Obviously, Monica and I didn’t fit this category, with euros stashed in our bras, and acidic tomato juice burning our eyes and ears. It was so worth it though. After having the juices crusted onto our hair, skin and clothes under the Spanish sun, the two of us got aggressively sprayed down with powerful fire hoses, and hopped on our bus back to Barcelona.
Reflecting on this leg of the trip in hindsight, it’s interesting that Monica and I have shared contrasting modes of transportation in two different continents: (a) the abruptly turning, passing into oncoming traffic, cliffside roads, crazy drivers, broken seats, people-puking-out-the-window, no-bathroom-break bus rides in Nepal; versus (b) the well-paved, gently curving, calm drivers, spacious, bathroom-break bus ride from Valencia to Barcelona. Not something you can say you’ve done with someone everyday; and two experiences I wouldn’t have any other way. Arriving back in Barcelona marked the fork in the road for Monica and I, as she would be heading to Party Island (i.e., Ibiza), and me to Donostia (i.e., San Sebastián) in the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain. Monica, you have no idea how cool it was to reunite with you in Spain, considering the fact that we only met a few months prior in Nepal; but nonetheless did some stellar fundraising, shared some insane memories (some of which will remain confined between you, me and Darren), and fought for and continue to raise awareness about a crucial global issue. I am honoured to call you my sister (literally though – everyone refers to everyone as brother or sister in Nepal), and I hope the remainder of your internship in Morocco brings you new knowledge and wonderful adventures. Hajur (ft. head bob), namaste and dhanyabad!
Upon arriving in Donostia, I decided to brace myself for the challenge of taking a public bus to my hostel, despite the ambiguous directions on both Google Maps and the hostel website itself, and the fact I had no idea of what or where some of the suggested landmarks were to help find my way around. After having to open up my map over and over again, and frustratingly trying to pronounce the different areas (the “x” pronounced like a “ch” really threw me off), I succumbed to my initial optimism and hopped into a cab. Despite the cleanliness, helpful staff, and other amenities of my hostel, I then found out why it was the cheapest: it was located in butt-fuck nowhere on top of a hill of some park. Nonetheless, I came to not only embrace the hostel’s isolation, as it was surrounded by greenery and overlooked Donostia’s rolling hills; but managed to navigate my way around town. Although I arrived in Donostia somewhat bummed-out after having parted ways with some close pals, I consider myself quite a fortunate traveler: that evening, I met Kieron, a lad who biked from Liverpool all the way to Spain, who was also staying on Donostia for the next few days. He became one of my Basque buddies who I would laugh, converse, eat and drink, and tend to beaches with here. Not to mention get (lovingly) teased and bullied by; but hey, when you’re as weird as me, you’re only setting yourself up for that kind of treatment.
The itinerary here consisted of the following:
- Swimming at La Concha, and later, cracking open a bottle of bubbly and body surfing at Playa la Zurriola with Kieron.
- Eating pintxos.
- Shaving off Kieron’s Jesus (or shall I say, Jesús) beard, which made him look like a prepubescent boy (just kidding, brother).
- Going to La Tabakalera, a centre for contemporary culture, which was hosting an exhibition on modern art in Morocco; and later, the San Telmo Museum, a Basque society museum. I’m not sure what festivity was happening when I visited the latter – as the final day of Aste Nagusia of Bilbao was before this day – but there were folks sporting red or yellow bandanas, and taking shots of liquor outside the museum. Maybe a post-Aste Nagusia?
- Hitting up Playa de Ondarreta, and seeing the famous Los Peines del Viento.
- And of course, eating Chinese food with Kieron, who apparently has a knack for this culinary category. (Hey, as long as it’s stir-fried with some chilis, ginger, scallions and sesame oil; chop sticks are at the table; and is accompanied by a shitload of MSG, and sweet and sour sauce, it’ll pass for me.) Shout out to Kieron for sharing his tales along the road with me; eating all the food with me so I didn’t feel like the only fat ass; and allowing me to shave off bits of his majestic beard. I hope that my company was as equal of a treat as was yours, you bloke!
After hopping on the wrong bus in my dazed-and-confused state, I eventually got on the right bus heading back to Barcelona at the crack of dawn. With a day left to spare before heading back to Vancouver, I went to El Pachuco to nosh on THE BEST nachos I ever had with some chick from my hostel; and did some last-minute souvenir shopping at Mercat dels Encants, a super groovy flea market in Barcelona, as I would no longer have the burden of carrying around a hefty bag. By the same token, this also meant that I would be leaving my life abroad behind, and coming to terms with reality back home. I’m not going to lie, about a week before my departure, I tempted the idea of staying in Spain a bit longer. The furthest I got, however, was messaging my dad about the cancellation policy for my ticket, which turned out not to be that pricey. But, considering the money that I did have in my pocket, and the fact that I was struck with a flu that did not digress even after a week, I figured it was time to be babied by my family – my biological one, that is.
I boarded a plane to Frankfurt to connect to a Vancouver-bound flight at 10:30 AM on 08 September 2016, jumbled with emotions, and the tune of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash playing in my subconscious. I decided to abide by the latter half of Joe Strummer’s and Joe Ely’s vocals, and hopped on that flight. I was fortunate enough to sit next to a well-traveled German lass, who was not only pleasant to converse with in general, but really heard me out on the where I was at mentally. All you can really do in those situations is listen, and boy, did it ever sooth me. Contrary to this moment of tranquility, however, I realized our plane landed at 12:45 in Frankfurt – a ginormous airport – while my boarding pass said my connecting flight to Vancouver indicated that the departure time – in another terminal – was at 1:30 PM. Fuck. I knew I should have listened to Strummer’s and Ely’s follow-up lyrics: “… if I go there will be trouble”. Literally running like one of Escobar’s spotters from the DEA through Flughafen Frankfurt am Main, and getting through EU inspection points (super multi-cultured analogy, I know), I made it to my gate at 1:28 PM (i.e., two minutes left to spare before my plane flew away – not board – flew away). Lo and behold, however, there were a bunch of Vancouverites still lounging in the boarding area (I knew they were from Vancouver, because I never saw this much Lululemon in one place since I left home). What the fuck? I thought. Still full of adrenaline from the marathon I ran, I bewilderedly and frantically asked some people if they were waiting for a flight Vancouver, repeating the flight number over and over again to them (despite the fact that all the information was projected on a screen). Looking somewhat scared of the frazzled hooligan (i.e., yours truly) that was asking them this, they reassured me that they were boarding the same flight, and that the departure time was 2:30 PM. My boarding pass lied – the flight was not delayed, it was always scheduled for 2:30 PM, dammit.
After retrieving my luggage, and running into a former classmate from high school who was actually working in customs, a gringo, holding a sign that said “Welcome to Tijuana!” (as per Manu Chao), and a Micronesian-looking lady holding a rose caught my eye – it was mum and dad. Immediately following their chants of “welcome home, Mira!” I broke down in tears. It was awesome to reunite with my parents – the people who support my excursions the most, and gave me vicarious momentum to trek on; the ones who brightened my day with simple words of wisdom throughout the course of my travels; and the individuals who make sure I’m happy and healthy where ever I am in the world – but at that moment, there was that lingering question of what if I “stay[ed]” and didn’t “go”? (The Clash, 1981).
I still don’t know what pulled me home – maybe the money, maybe the incessant flu, maybe my longing for some parental care – but a road trip to the Okanagan the following day gave me some closure. It was my baby brother, who said:
“I’m happy you’re home, Mir; it was about time.”
Heightening Awareness: Narratives on the
Dis/advantages of Correctional and Post-Correctional Services
This past semester I have had the pleasure of taking a course on human rights under the instruction of Dr. Shayna Plaut. As part of the course, students were to engage in a specific human rights and/or social justice issue of interest, and present it through a medium of their choice. Having exposure to photo collaging and its method of communication, I chose to couple my familiarity with a subject I was (and continue to be, to a lesser extent) not so familiar with: the mental health services provided to inmates and ex-offenders both in correctional services, and in the wider society following their release.
I am indebted to all the folks that (a) lent their ears to listen to the kerfuffles I faced during this project; (b) provided resources to not only connect with participants, but to actually get to different destinations to conduct this project (i.e., means of transportation); (c) had their arms go numb and necks go sore while setting up the display after making sure each and every image was balanced; and (d) offered their thoughts and opinions about this issue I am still wrapping my brain around.
What are you Looking at Right Now?
Participants for this project are (a) those from a range of occupations that have some link to correctional facilities, and work first-hand with the individuals who are still in and/or have gone through ‘the system’; as well as (b) formerly-convicted individuals themselves. I initially presented the very general question to participants: “what are your views/opinions about the mental health services provided to inmates/you in British Columbia’s correctional facilities, and the mental health services provided following their/your release?” and to present their views/opinions through creating a collage. While these images, for the most part, speak directly to the questions presented, the conversation broadened as participants not only discussed their experiences in correctional facilities, but the stigmas and stereotypes in the wider society that contribute to what can generally be rendered as a downward spiral in terms of health and well-being.
To be sure, these pieces are not to entirely portray the deficits in mental health services in correctional facilities and/or post-correctional environments. Rather, the images created and reflections compiled by participants should offer an idea of what types of support and services have/have not worked, and can perhaps provide some guiding points in future services focused on mental health as it pertains to inmates and ex-offenders. Hence the title HANDS: a suitable acronym; the very organ photographed; and most importantly, the message to lend a hand – a strategy used by these individuals to work around some of the factors impacting the health and well-being of inmates and the formerly convicted.
“These images reference the culture of masculinity for boys and men and how these roles and beliefs shape behaviour. There is an inevitable link between the criminal justice system and mental health system. Behind unhealthy behaviours are unhealthy beliefs and often unhealthy environments. One of the images demonstrates the importance of a positive childhood mentor in navigating these challenges. The quote, “just fine, thanks” references the history of silence around mental health and the ongoing impact of that history.
As a probation officer, I have found that part of my job is to seek to understand – sometimes even what is on the surface incomprehensible. It has been very sad to witness the tragedy of those struggling with mental health who never accessed help, for either lack of opportunity or lack of insight.”
(CS [pseudonym], Probation Officer)
“The pig is what we used to call the cops in the ’70s. Even now they call them that. If we gave them respect, maybe they’d respect us. They’re good people. A rat is someone who tells the police the truth. They make deals with the cops. You’re told to be solid; keep your mouth shut. I used to believe that lie. The Lord has changed all that. One of my little sayings is ‘baby spoke’. A wheel is someone who’s really important – a top dog. I turn that around and say I’m just a baby spoke. I do lots of thinking.
I went into Kent penitentiary and it was on Cemetery Road. Not too many people go to Kent and get out of Kent. It was kill or be killed. I thought ‘what am I doing here?’ One guy got stabbed seven times for being in PC [protective custody] with population. They were gonna kill him just for that. Under the Canada Evidence Act if you got charged with a murder beef one of your friends would go up to the judge and say he was the one who killed him and explain how he did it. You’d both walk. We had total run of the jail. We used to make moonshine in there.
Prison is a cage. Locked up. Confined. Dogs get locked up and confined and they turn vicious. That’s what happens to guys in prison.
The word ‘guns’ represents surviving multiple shootouts. I was shot through the neck and that’s just one of the stories…
Growing up isn’t easy. When I look around my church, one of the priorities is taking care of our kids. How do we do that? Lots of grace and lots of love. I never had any of that. My dad’s girlfriend taught me how to steal and I was molested as a child. There was no love.
When I was in Mission Penitentiary I had a drop dead gorgeous girlfriend. She visited be every day for a year and a half. I’ve been very blessed in my life. I’d always wanted a Harley Davidson and I got a Harley Davidson.
The Lord’s been watching over me like crazy.”
(John, Former Inmate at Kent Institution)
“Creating a collage helped me reflect upon my eight years of working as a Correctional Educator within the provincial system, a time in which there has been so much attrition in the provision of services to yet another vulnerable sector of the population.
I hope the collage speaks for itself, and allows for personal interpretation. However, I would like to elaborate on a few of the symbols. Many of them speak to the restrictions on educational materials, and the consequent effect on inmates’ abilities to re-integrate into society. The central image refers to the fact that students have no access at all to computers – and I would invite the viewer/reader to reflect upon how the lack of basic computer skills would impact their own lives. The ‘Dollarama’ logo illustrates the source of cheap calculators which the teachers have to purchase themselves.
Despite these and multiple other barriers, it has to be said that the School District is extremely supportive of the program, and deserves thanks. But there is always a sense of fragility in the continuing support of the program.
Many of our clients have upbringings which would boggle the imagination of the ‘average’ viewer: poverty, physical and sexual abuse, previous parental and personal addiction issues, racism, neglect, and so forth. And yet, mental health services are minimal at best, in a place where they are most needed. Almost every day, I realize that, in multiple ways, ‘There but for the grace of god go I.’
It is well-known that the Correctional system is largely a revolving door; what is less well-known that dollars spent on education, mental health services, and other interventions are value-added services – that for every dollar spent on these services, the overall savings for society are multiplied many times over. And that is only the financial cost. More important is the cost in terms of wasted lives, in lives that could have been turned around if governments had the political courage to invest in these services, and make ‘Correctional’ systems truly that, rather than mere systems of punishment.”
(ML [pseudonym], Teacher at Disclosed Pre-trial Centre)
“In my experience in [British Columbia] corrections, the services offered are very limited, and difficult to access. Your [television] becomes your school, drug and alcohol counsellor AA [alcoholics anonymous] and NA [narcotics anonymous] meeting, and your mental health caretaker. I have waited ten days after putting in a request to see a doctor, only to see a nurse who makes an appointment for me to see a doctor in three or more days. I have seen guys wait two or three weeks to see a drug and alcohol counsellors You are basically on your own to deal with your own problems.”
(Tanner, Resident Trilogy Houses operated by The Realistic Success Recovery Society)
“My collage represents a portrayal of some of the real-life experiences of individuals and families whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system. The artwork also reflects some of the broader social problems that seem to target specific members in Canadian society, such as Aboriginal persons, who experience adult incarceration rates that are an estimated 10 times higher than the incarceration rate for non-Aboriginals (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2013).
The theme of imprisonment affecting one’s mental health is displayed through the confluence of dreary-looking eyes with the images of chains, fencing, and workers standing solemnly in an empty yard. Pre-existing mental health issues are exacerbated in the institutional environment, which is often under-stimulating, unsafe, and highly regimented. Everyday creature comforts are stripped from one’s enjoyment, forcing inmates to adapt quickly to an alien world where they are under the constant supervision of prison staff, as well as experiencing being profiled by other offenders who have little to do but spend time analyzing the most common social interactions.
Working in a non-profit community-based setting has led me to become familiar with many of the barriers offenders face as they attempt to reintegrate back into their communities. Entire neighbourhoods- like the Downtown Eastside- have had a large percentage of their population being uprooted by our legal system, which extracts deprived members of our society from their homes and registers them into a cyclical experience of re-traumatization, stigmatization, and marginalization. The advertised opportunity for a “fresh new start” is somewhat ironic, when the only available affordable housing often comes with the promise of pests, a lack of quality infrastructure, and substandard management practices.
For a person to find things like housing, a job, or even getting ID in the community while living on parole/probation results in the individual bearing an incredible amount of pressure to succeed, often with few to no supports, and having door-after-door being closed on them as they seek out for aid. The eagle, a prominent symbol of freedom, is shrouded by the face of the law, resulting in the “glass ceiling” effect encountered by individuals making an active effort to re-enter their communities.
Through our participation in this project, our organization hopes to inspire action and critical thought among the next generation when it comes to thinking about criminal and social justice-related issues in Canada. Our criminal justice system is designed to keep members of society safe and to provide rehabilitative support to those who need it the most, in order to reduce harms stemming from crime and to mitigate the risk of crime in the future. As a non-governmental organization that supports offenders and multi-barriered individuals, it is our mission to do our part in promoting a safe and peaceful community by improving the lives of its members, one person at a time.”
(Eric, Program Coordinator at John Howard Society)
“My experience of accessing programs in prison is not very good. I have been in the correctional system for the batter part of fifteen years and have noticed the programs getting less and less, and the punishment greater instead of offering any work programs or schooling (other than GED [general education development] and mopping floors). They give us televisions and keep us inside. It takes weeks to see A&D [alcohol and drug] abuse counselors or to access health care, and although they are nice, they are limited in the way they can help. There are some good recovery programs that work if you are fortunate to find one once released although it sometimes isn’t that clear which ones are good and which are shady.
In my collage I put pictures of daily struggles we have to deal with: rats – people who tell on you or even dealing with being labelled a rat; the drugs; the organized crime; not having an address when released; God; and the picture of of fishes (the saying “new fish” means the new guys on the unit). The word “corrupt” represents the corrupt prison guards and the justice system in general.”
(Tyrone, Resident Trilogy Houses operated by The Realistic Success Recovery Society)
Wow, so after some strenuous defrosting of the ice block that I’ve apparently been frozen in, I emerge from my hibernation in the attempt to share an update on la vida loca. So, here I am breaking the ice (ha! Get it?). After five months of not writing a post (minus my coltan in the Congo paper), I fill you in to the tune of my clicking keyboard…
I begin with wishing my baby bro a happy belated 19th birthday. May the freedom of legality bring you the liberty to purchase booze and cigarettes at the flash of a government-issued photo ID. I’d also like to take this paragraph as a chance to thank him for teaching me how to better communicate with people. Because of your ability to be straight-up and honest with me, Kaleem, you make it that much easier for me to realize how much of a (1) nuisance, (2) royal pain in the arse, and (3) mellow-dramatic baby I can be at times. Further, I honestly do not take your trust for granted. Whenever you’re sweating the small (and large) stuff, and find comfort in opening up to me, I not only consider myself privileged to have a snippet of your trust; but I also see an opportunity of learning more about you and myself in this brief moment of “spilling the beans” as some would say. If you’re reading this, and rolling your eyes at how sappy this is, I’ve done my job right. Love you like a brutha – oh wait…
As a ritual in my writing, I usually touch base with the academics; followed by something travel-related; proceeded by alcohol references/jokes (I swear, I’m not an alcoholic, but honestly some of the most hilarious moments I’ve ‘remembered’ or witnessed, have been that much more funny thanks to a cheeky little bevvie); and most likely continued by how my dadi-o has been a consistent inspiration throughout these moments. But I feel the unwitting need to dedicate a good chunk of this post to the person who I consider to be the epitome of humbleness without effort, optimism that comes naturally, and all around loveliness; and that person is my forever-smiling mama.
Rewind to over 21 years ago to a time to when a newly-wedded lady emigrated from one of the Indonesia’s larger bodies of land, Sumatra, to huge-ass, chunky, Canada (to put it eloquently) in order to start up a new life with some gringo (my dad), who had a mustache that was strikingly passable for that of Tom Seliks. After a couple of years of putting a dent into the West Coast, a super excellent humanoid (who only gained her excellence through genetics) was sliced out of the Sumatran native’s belly, and two years later, the birthing process repeated itself, only this time, excellence came with different reproductive organs (i.e. dude, not dudette).
Fast-forward 21 years, and the Sumatran lady (my mother, in case y’all haven’t clued in yet) continues to be tough as nails, and I cannot fathom what an incredible person she is to this day. Now, let me just say that the idea of permanent residency in a foreign land poses as exciting as equally as it does scary to me, because of the both travel- and family-oriented broad I am. But my mom’s case is especially unique because of the large family she comes from, that consists of so many complex layers: all which make the idea of moving overseas near impossible.
Let me just paint a picture for you here: because of the former Dutch colonial rule, the idea of an Indonesian marrying a Caucasian lad challenges the pre-existing bitter dynamic between the two groups – although that’s a very general statement, but you get my drift. Out of the seven sisters in my mama’s household, there was a widely-held assumption amongst family and friends of their family that she was my Opung’s (Bahasa for “grandpa”) most ‘prized’ daughter (excuse the objectification). Because her birth followed the miscarriage of the only boy my Nenek (“grandma”) and Opung managed to have, she was like the son he never had. Furthermore, her against-the-grain demeanor (e.g. going to a Catholic school, when they weren’t even Catholic; majoring in Japanese in university just cause; informing her parents the day before departure that she had signed up for a CWY exchange to Canada) made/makes her distinctive to the already fascinating characters that are her sisters.
I find that having this relation at the core of her departure is not only inconceivable (because of her family’s deeply embedded roots on Sumatran turf – both mental and physical), but inspirational. By dedicating her life to the unknown, my mum’s kahunas and bravery are truly moving.
After a recent arrival from a trip back home, I can hear the sparkling nostalgia in her voice as she speaks of the rollercoaster of adventures she shared both solo, and with her sisters and their families. Despite the sturdy façade, I can’t help but question if that there is an imbalance of emotions (i.e. the longing of wanting to be in the motherland). Regardless, this Sumatran broad is what I consider to be the essence of compassion. Ma, if you’re reading this, I just want to say “terimah kasih, for all the sacrifices; the blood, sweat and tears; and the care that you have given to those around you on Canadian soil. I hope that the seeds that you have planted here can continue this legacy – NO MATTER WHERE WE ARE IN THE UNIVERSE. You inspire me to be kind; to not be engrained in my ways; and to treat the world as my oyster. You remind me that regardless of our location, we always have family and friends somewhere”.
So folks, let this post serve as an inspiration to be inspired, and to be grateful for gratitude and not take it for granted (I’m sorry, but all those Gs just make me feel like a G-G-G-Unit). Love you mama, dadi and Kaleem. You guys are not only my rock, but rock my world.
PS: MAJOR shout out to my dad for snapping these B-E-A-U-TIFUL photos back in the day.
PPS: while we’re here appreciating the small things in life, I just want to thank Mother Nature and all the farmers for peaches. Bought myself a bag the other day, and I speak the truth when I say that each bite was sheer ecstasy.
So once in a blue moon, Gonzo writes a paper that gets the brain juices flowing; and it just so happens that I take a tad of pride in this one. It’s not necessarily the style and and flow of the writing that struck me with this bad boy, but more so the disturbing information I came across while doing research. Enjoy the read, and I hope it gives all my compadres a little slice of awareness and consciousness as it did to me.
The ever-growing uses and features of mobile phones – a product used by 75% of the world’s population as of 2012 – contribute to its expanding consumer market (World Bank). In fact, according to a World Watch report released in 2013, because a number of mobile phone holders own more than one device, the sum of mobile phones has surpassed the world’s population (World Watch). Not only is this concerning as it reflects society’s dependence on technology, but the production of mobile phones has tremendous environmental and social impacts. In this life-cycle analysis, we will specifically look at the touchscreen component of mobile phones, and the extraction of a crucial ingredient in this feature: coltan (columbite–tantalite). Further analysis will look into how it is used in the process of primary production in order to create dry electrolyte tantalum capacitors, a vital component in touchscreen circuitry (Hayes and Burge 19). In addition, we will observe the secondary production (i.e. assembling the touchscreen); distribution methods; and consumption and disposal trends of touchscreen mobile phones.
Australia, Brazil, Canada and China are home to some of the world’s coltan mining activity. However, because 80% of the world’s coltan is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we will narrow our focus of extraction to the Kivu provinces, geographically situated near its border with Rwanda, where most mining activity takes place (The Friends of the Congo par. 2; Hayes and Burge 26). This process of extraction via manual labour (see Step 1 in Fig. 1) reveals a set of serious socio-cultural and environmental impacts.
It can be assumed that recent price hikes on coltan and increasing demand for mobile phones and other touch screen devices are just some of contributing factors to the many social and health impacts inflicted on civilians of the Congo. This booming industry worth billions of dollars a year (with prices ranging anywhere from $50 and $200 per pound) (Molinski par. 3), has become an incentive for militias from neighbouring countries including Rwanda and Uganda, as well as indigenous Mai Mai militias, to use forced civilian labour in order to achieve maximum extraction and regulate transportation of the Congo’s coltan (Hayes and Burge 28). The demographics exploited for labour in this industry are scattered all along the spectrum: from men and women of working age, to children as young as twelve-years-old. In addition to the brutal working conditions in the process of extraction, “non-bureaucratic organization [and occupation] of [profit-driven] warlords” have also been the underpinnings of breaking down Kivu communities’ social structures (Reno 218; Hayes and Burge 30). Deteriorating health and education statuses; escalation in sexual violence; collapsing judiciary systems; and other extreme violations of human rights are just some of the many harms that are tied to invading military authority and ultimately, the course of extraction (Hayes and Burge 30).
Not only does coltan extraction have immense socio-cultural consequences, it also has devastating ecological implications. One of the major environmental costs is the poor agricultural development because of labour transfer to the far-more profitable coltan industry. Because of this, “large areas that used to grow food crops … are now uncultivated” (Hayes and Burge 29). In addition to the ripple effect caused by the lucrativeness of this industry, coltan mining also has a direct impact on the indigenous fauna. In order to make extraction of this ore easier, forested regions with high concentrations of coltan – especially Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the Mountain Gorilla – have been stripped (Cellular-News par. 8). This not only raises the obvious issue of deforestation, but has also slashed the gorilla population in half from approximately 258 to 130 within the Kahuzi Biega National Park region (Cellular-News par. 8). Furthermore, because of the poverty associated with the displaced workers (who are either recruited by militia, or families urgently needing income), “bush meat” (i.e. slaughtered gorillas) is sold to miners and rebel armies who control the area (Cellular-News par. 8). In fact, according to a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report, “national parks in the region have lost up to 80% of their larger mammals” to the bush meat market (6).
We will now look at the earlier stages of assembling the touchscreen, following this immensely destructive extraction. Here, production requires the coltan to be refined into a heat-resistant powder known as tantalum in order to make tantalum capacitors, which hold high electrical charges. However, according to Judy Wickens, secretary general of the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center based in Belgium, the coltan exchange that occurs between rebel groups and local traders; local traders and regional traders; and later, regional traders and larger regional traders, makes tracing the origins of the coltan used by international manufacturers challenging (Essick par. 21). Nonetheless, statistics show that “more than 20 international mineral trading companies import minerals from the Congo via Rwanda alone”: a disturbing fact considering that Rwanda’s production in 2011 actually exceeded the region’s level of coltan (Essick par. 22; United States Geographic Survey 162-163). This illustrates how difficult is to calculate where and how the coltan used in tantalum is extracted – does coltan that is supposedly ‘ethically’ extracted in, for example, Canada, actually originate in the black market in Central Africa?
Imports are primarily supplied to Asia, Europe and the United States. Two of the largest tantalum processors, German H.C. Starck – responsible for providing 50% of the world’s tantalum – and Amerian Cabot (CBT) (Essick par. 23) are responsible for separating tantalum from the ore through a combination of gravity and magnetic separation (see step _ in Fig. 1) (Gongyi Forui Machinery Factory pars. 4-5). Firms then sell the heat resistant powder to capacitor manufacturers (some of the largest being AVX, Epcos, Hitachi, Kemet, NEC and Vishay) where a variety of tantalum capacitors are assembled (see step _ in Fig. 1) (Essick par. 23). Though the companies listed above have a relatively ‘clean’ record of direct environmental impact compared to other industries, some have still been involved in ecological scandals. In one example, trichloroethylene (a chemical in industrial greasers that can cause cancer and other health problems) traced to an AVX plant located in Columbia, South Carolina was linked to contamination of local groundwater (Wren par. 5).
The finished capacitors are then sold to some of the largest companies in the telecommunications industry, including BlackBerry, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung, to name a few where additional inputs are used in constructing the screen (see step _ in Fig. 1) (Hayes and Burge 37). It is in the companies’ assembly factories that the environment and well-being and the social equity of their workers have been put to the test. According to Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics, Nokia ranks in third place from first due to factors such as being “just shy of maximum points on hazardous substances” (e.g. antimony compounds) and failing to meet their renewable energy target (par. 2). However, it should also be noted that Nokia has implemented production efforts such as using renewable materials in their cell phones (e.g. bio plastics, bio paints, recycled metals), and a renewable energy target of 100% by 2020 (Green Conduct par. 21; Greenpeace par. 1). Unfortunately, a majority of companies do not strive to be environmentally sustainable. While most firms provide targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the process of manufacturing, Canadian-based company BlackBerry (formerly known as Research In Motion Limited or RIM) not only has no target, but also gives no disclosure of their current GHG emissions (Gersmann par. 2).
The issue of human rights is also at stake during the process of assembling touchscreen mobile phones. Take for example, Chinese electronic manufacturing company, VTech: a 2012 report from Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights revealed that Chinese employees in a Guangdong VTech factory were described to be working in sweatshop conditions (e.g. 12-15 hour shifts, low wages, and no health or social insurance) in order to manufacture electronics at low costsfor telecommunication companies, including Motorola. Furthermore, Samsung has been notorious for over-working their employees. General policies such as “overtime regulations and a system of fines for employees that [are] late or absent” illustrate how the company has come to its reputation (Latif par. 3). For instance, in a 2013 case, workers “in the Amazon region [were] given just 32 seconds to assemble a mobile phone” with some accounts of packing as many as 3,000 phones a day (Page, par. 4).
Though these are just a few examples of the environmental and human capital used in the manufacturing process, it gives us a basic understanding of the ecological and social consequences that continue even after the extraction of coltan from the Earth.
Because the telecommunications industry is so vast, we will look at a few alternatives that companies choose when strategizing distribution methods. Packaging practices that sit at the more eco-friendly end of the environmental impact spectrum include using recycled material and using soy ink – an alternative to petroleum-based inks which is renewable, biodegradable and lowers the cost of the recycling process (CleanTechnica, par. 1-5). At the other end of the spectrum, many of these companies fail to implement a paper procurement policy (which would exclude suppliers that are involved in deforestation and illegal logging) for the remainder of un-recycled material used in packaging (Greenpeace par. 3). Among the many other resources used in packaging are crude oil (for plastics) and ore (for aluminum). Getting mobile phones from their manufacturers to the consumer market is done via air, rail, road or sea, all of which require the use of fossil fuels, causing a disruption to the climate (Environmental Protection Agency The Life Cycle of a Cell Phone).
Once a mobile phone has reached the consumer market, its uses provide a laundry list of functions in addition to its initial (but now diminishing) purpose for spoken communication, including being a portable music player; a game console; an Internet browser; and what writer Dan Tynan foresees, a portable television set (par. 3). Despite its many uses – or perhaps because of – the lifespan of mobile phones is increasingly short-lived. Regardless of their five-year-average life expectancy, owners dispose of their working devices after an average of 18 months (Milovantseva and Jean-Daniel par. 5).
Although major mobile phone companies have implemented e-waste programs for users seeking a more efficient way to dispose of their devices, the United States Environmental Protection Agency revealed that discarded mobile phones made up 8% of the 25% of electronics that users chose to recycle (Environmental Protection Agency Frequent Questions: ECycling par. 2). Furthermore, the regulation standards of various e-waste recycling plants fluctuate. For instance, in a recycling plant situated in Guiya, China where 60%-80% of families work, blood lead levels higher than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (μg/dL) were found amongst 70.8% of children in the area – who by definition have elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) (Zheng et. al 15-16). The remainder of disposed phones end up in landfills, with plastics, ceramics and trace metals that can leach into the environment for centuries (Milovantseva and Jean-Daniel par. 1).
From a dull black metallic ore; to the refining processes of international companies; to the hands of manufacturers for further production; to the lucrative mobile phone industry and multinationals for final stages of assembly and distribution; to its use by consumers; and finally to disposal in either landfills or e-waste programs, the journey of what has been coined as a ‘conflict mineral’, shows the social and ecological burdens that extend beyond the people and environment of the Congo. This life-cycle analysis illustrates the incessant cycle that stems from a seemingly-innocuous product used by 75% of the world’s population (World Bank). It then raises the ethical question of whether or not there is any rationale behind creating the touchscreen feature of this gadget at the expense of the environment, and the health and safety of humans. Is extraction and further assembly of this raw material really worth the gruesomely raw ripple effect?
CleanTechnica. “Soy Ink: Five Ways It’s Better for the Environment.” CleanTechnica.Sustainable Enterprises Media, Inc., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2014. <http://cleantechnica.com/2012/07/09/soy-ink-five-ways-its-better-for-the-environment/>.
Cellular-News.”Coltan, Gorillas and Cellphones.” Cellular-News.N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2014. <http://www.cellular-news.com/coltan/>.
Environmental Protection Agency. Washington, DC. The Life Cycle of a Cell Phone.By Environmental Protection Agency.N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2014. <http://www.epa.gov/osw/education/pdfs/life-cell.pdf>.
Essick, Kristi. “Guns, Money and Cell Phones.” Global Issues.N.p., 11 June 2001. Web. 27 Jan. 2014. <http://www.globalissues.org/article/442/guns-money-and-cell-phones>.
Gersmann, Hanna. “BlackBerry Maker Hits Bottom of Green Electronics Rankings.”Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 09 Nov. 2011. Web. 05 Feb. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/nov/09/blackberry-greenpeace-electronics>.
GongyiForui Machinery Factory. “Tantalite and Columbite Mining Processing Equipment From China Manufacturer.” GongyiForui Machinery Factory.N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2014. <http://www.frjig.com/news/tantalite_columbite_processing.html>.
Greenpeace. “Nokia Moves up to 3rd Position in This Edition of the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics.” Greenpeace. Greenpeace International, Nov. 2012. Web. 4 Feb. 2014. <http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/cool-it/Campaign-analysis/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/>.
HantouchUSA. “How It Works: 4-Wire Analog-Resistive Touch Screens.” HantouchUSA: Touch Screen Specialists. HantouchUSA: Touch Screen Specialists, n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2014. <https://www.sparkfun.com/datasheets/LCD/HOW%20DOES%20IT%20WORK.pdf>.
Hayes, Karen, and Richard Burge. Coltan Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo: How Tantalum-using Industries Can Commit to the Reconstruction of the DRC. Rep. Cambridge: Fauna & Flora International, 2003. Web. 24 Jan. 2014. <http://storage.globalcitizen.net/data/topic/knowledge/uploads/2010022412222515.pdf>.
Latif, Lawrence. “Samsung Supplier Audit Finds Overtime Violations but No Child Labour.”The Inquirer. Incisive Financial Publishing Ltd., 26 Nov. 2012. Web. 05 Feb. 2014. <http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/2227339/samsung-supplier-audit-finds-overtime-violations-but-no-child-labour>.
Molinski, Dan. “Colombia to Wage Battle Against Illegal Coltan Mining.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 25 Jan. 2014. <http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304537904577277902985836034?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424052702304537904577277902985836034.html>.
Page, Carly. “Samsung Workers Are given 32 Seconds to Assemble Phones.” The Inquirer. Incisive Financial Publishing Ltd., 14 Aug. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2014. <http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/2288775/samsung-workers-are-given-32-seconds-to-assemble-phones>.
Reed, Eric, and Marta Miranda. Assessment of the Mining Sector and Infrastructure Development in the Congo Basin Region. Awsassets.panda.org. N.p., Jan. 2007. Web. 04 Feb. 2014. <http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/congobasinmining.pdf>.
The Friends of the Congo.”Coltan Facts.” Breaking The Silence. Break The Silence Congo Week, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2014. <http://www.congoweek.org/coltan-facts.html>.
United Nations Environmental Program. The Last Stand of the Gorilla: Environmental Crime and Conflict in the Congo Basin. Rep. Ed. Christian Nellemann, Ian Redmond, and Johannes Refisch.Ås, Norway: Birkeland Printing, 2010. Print.
Vishay Intertechnology, Inc. “DC Leakage Failure Mode.” Vishay.com. Vishay Intertechnology Inc., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2014. <http://www.vishay.com/docs/49268/tn0003.pdf>.
World Bank. “Mobile Phone Access Reaches Three Quarters of Planet’s Population.” World Bank. The World Bank Group, 17 July 2012. Web. 24 Jan. 2014. <http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2012/07/17/mobile-phone-access-reaches-three-quarters-planets-population>.
World Watch. “Market Saturation Slows Mobile Phone Growth.” World Watch Institute. Worldwatch Institute, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Jan. 2014. <http://www.worldwatch.org/market-saturation-slows-mobile-phone-growth>.
Wren, David. “S.C. Supreme Court Justices Mull Damage Claims against AVX in Pollution Case Involving Myrtle Beach Property Owners.” The State: South Carolina`s Homepage. The State, 24 Jan. 2014. Web. 4 Feb. 2014. <http://www.thestate.com/2014/01/24/3224751/sc-supreme-court-justices-mull.html>.