To be or not to be in Congo

One of the things I appreciate most in living in Congo specially when we travel  is to observe how the congolese spend their time.

Life in Congo is hard. Hard beyond concept to us – spoiled westerners used to having water at home, supermarket with all the vegetables and world-wide food at hand, not mentioning the living commodities that we all take for granted in our houses.

Life in Congo is hard specially to the congolese. I often see the women carrying heavy buckets of water followed by their shoeless children through muddy sands in roadless streets.

From dawn until dust they work. Most of the times in a slow pace and in the peak of the heat. I often think what if it was me? What if I had been born here in Congo what would my life be like? I look at these people eyes and I see my face in them, the same hopes and the same fears but under different circumstances.

Life is hard specially to the congolese. So when it’s weekend and I go out of Point Noir, I try to see what they do and how they enjoy themselves.

The answer is quite surprising. The congolese sit when they have nothing to do. They enjoy just being and sitting alone or together. They are comfortable with being bored. They don’t feel the need to fill their time with activities, they don’t look for TV for distraction, and the children don’t play with toys because very seldom they have. So they sit.

Sometimes it seems that we – raised in fast doing paced societies get usually uncomfortable with ourselves. As if we have to have something to distract us from thinking too much or maybe that is the exact problem we think too much and we need  the outside world to prevent us from looking directly at what is happening within ourselves.

The congolese have a hard life and they are acutely aware of how difficult it is.

So on the weekends I see the children sitting in plastic chairs playing with something they found near by, usually plastic garbage. And if it’s the aftermath of a rainy morning they will be playing in the muddy puddles. The elders will be enjoying their company most of the times without speaking. Other times they will be enjoying the sound of the local radio as hours fly by.

But if by any chance, we go near the beach, then some of the children will be putting sand to block the roads and if our cars get stuck we will suddenly be helped ( in exchange of a symbolic contribution) by the whole village who will do their best with shovels to release our car wheels from the sand pits they had previously built.

Sometimes when I look at the children so patiently waiting and observing what is around them, I can’t help thinking on my own children. I’m afraid that I haven’t allowed them and helped them to be bored. I am always giving them distractions or things to do, or suggesting thing to play or activities to go. So I’m trying to have them learn to be in touch with themselves respecting the silence around them and to be comfortable with the inner silence or not that it may arise for not having anything to do.

Sometimes it’s good to just be instead of doing. Life is hard in Congo specially for the congolese but in the mist of their hardships they know more about themselves than most of us. I wonder it they realise that too.

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When no place feels like home…

Since I started this life of a modern nomad one of the things in time you start to get use to is the ability to detach oneself from things and material stuff. It becomes more evident when you stay one year or less in one place. At that time the feeling of home just doesn’t ring a bell anymore.

The sense of having something secure is not there anymore.We have to say goodbye to people and friends more often than not. We sell or give away our things so many times that after a while we feel like it’s a waste of time to buy anything more. And the houses or apartments we live in always have this temporary feeling carved on it.

When I arrived now to Congo, not having  dishes, I just bought one of each and have to say I was really tempted in buying plastic or paper dishes, and just didn’t do it because of my environmental consciousness.

Don’t get me wrong this type of life has the ability to open us up, to give all sort of  life meaningful experiences but what to do when no place feels like home and we know that all this is meaningless?

Do we close ourselves trying to find that permanent feeling somewhere? Or do we open even more and try to go with the flow, allowing everything to collapse without any safety net? Do we try to grab onto an ideal of something somewhere permanent, or do we accept that life as we know it, is this constant flow of changing conditions resulting from an interdependent flux of other changing conditions?

What would you choose?

I know by now that trying to find some safety in something unchangeable will never happen. Change happens all the time, every second of our days, we are bound to change. Our thoughts and emotions change in microseconds, what is to say about everything else?

So do we bravely connect with everything and everyone around us knowing that it will change?Do we flow like the river ? Sometimes diving in its rapids? Other times following its gentle course? Or do we close ourselves in a dam with all the possible neuroses that may come from it?

What to do when no place feels like home?

For me, I chose to open myself freely to whatever happens outside while being in an inward retreat, which means I try to protect my mind while knowing the absolute ridiculousness of dwelling in ( getting attached to) thoughts and emotions

It seems more easy to say than to do because most of the times no place feels like home and, as I try to follow the direction of the teachers, I have to be aware the thought and feeling that kind of emotion brings and not let go astray in a hopeless depression.

One of the great buddhist masters of the last century Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said:

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“When we engage in the practice of discovering space, we should develop the feeling of opening ourselves to the entire universe. We should open ourselves with absolute simplicity and nakedness of mind. This is the powerful and ordinary practice of dropping the mask of self-protection”

 

The great Tilopa also said:

“Have a mind that is open to everything and attached to nothing”

Though this seems that we stop caring about others, it is far from being that. It means to have an openness and a malleable mind that care for others while not being over run by the whatever conditions we/others are facing.

The renowned teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche says: ” Happiness comes down to 
choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them”

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So  when I struggle with this familiar feeling of “no place feels like home”, I always find some comfort  in what Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said: “When sunlight falls on a crystal, lights of all colours appear, yet they have no substance that you can grasp. Likewise, all thoughts in their infinite variety are utterly without substance”.

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Tender Heart

Yesterday I had to say goodbye to a friend. I had been saying farewell for a few months now since she had been first diagnosed with bone cancer. Nevertheless, when the day came it was as difficult as the day I was first told.

I guess, we people, even knowing the inevitably, always have a secret hope of a different outcome. Isn’t that silly and strange? Attachment is a b*tch!

Fourteen years ago, a dog with a broken leg asked for help. She was scared. We took her to the vet clinic and after a brilliant surgery, I took her home.

Over so many years there are many stories with Rita, but there are two that show how special she was.

You see, when I adopted Rita I already had another dog. A little black  senior dog who had been suffering from hernia problems and heart disease for a while ( he was eleven years old when Rita came to our lives and he died eight years later with nineteen years old).

Pirucas was his name. Now this dog was a little crazy, specially during those days. Probably the pain that he was going through made him want to bite for no reason. I would be walking in front of him and if, unluckily, he had a pain at that moment, my ankles or legs would be targeted. I have to admit sometimes I got scared of him even though he had been my dog since I was 13 years old.

Of course, when this beautiful blonde tigress came to our house, Pirucas got rejuvenated as if he had drunk a miraculous youthful love potion and ,oh the things he would do to Rita.

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In the beginning we would separate them both. Rita would stay in the kitchen with one of those baby safety gates, but that never stopped  Pirucas. He would go under the gate, and with his back , lift the door until the lock opened. Once inside, spring would take over Pirucas and Rita would patiently suffer the harassment even though she was triple his size. No, no babies came out of that platonic relationship but not because lack of trying from his side.

Anyway, one day I was laying down in the bedroom carpet while reading a book, and suddenly Pirucas jumped on top of me while having a rage fit. One moment I was reading, the other moment I had a dog with a lunatic look showing his teeth millimetres away from my face. I was aware at that moment that whatever move I made he would attack and bite  my face off. Pirucas was out of control. But Rita was there. At the moment I thought he was going to attack, Rita jumped on top of me as well and gave an inward growl to Pirucas with her mouth close to his neck.

I was paralysed. I had a dog showing his teeth at me and another one with 30 kg threatening the first dog. I thought “That is it, I’m screwed and I’ll be lucky if I’m not bitten and Pirucas dies“. But somehow, after listening Rita’s soft inward growl and her breath near his ears, he started to relax and started to be his usual self. His eyes relaxed and both got off me.

This was the first time Rita protected me.

A few weeks after and quite early in a winter morning, I was walking the dogs before going to work. The roads were silent and the only light was the early morning dew. Rita being so young and full strength would go running to the park, while Pirucas and I would slowly walk. As we were climbing the stairs onto the park, a man was coming down. Because I was alone with Pirucas with no one at sight and no lights, I immediately felt unsafe. Worst was when the man thought it was a good idea to corner and harass me. Rita who was nowhere to be seen, must have felt something because she came back to the top of the stairs and seeing the man around me, flew over eighty steps straight to him and while barking cornered him away from me against the wall.  As I noticed he was reaching for a pocket-knife, I called Rita who followed me, this time always behind and still barking at the man who had to decided to run away.

And for the second time Rita saved me.

She would die first before allowing anybody hurt me and I knew that.

She travelled with me for ten years all over the world. Because of her I travelled inside a dog’s kennel for six hours, because of her we had a wild moose running towards us, and because of her every time there was a thunder I slept in the floor next to her. She loved snow and she loved the beaches. She was there when my first was born, and she used to ask to go to the garage during the toddler years so she could escape the crazy horse plays.

She loved to run after iguanas but what gave her the thrill was to chase after cats. She used to cry every time I left the house and suffered from separation anxiety. She was my alarm clock long before I had children.

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In the last months, when she had no strength left to go the second floor, she would gently cry if there were thunders or if she wanted me to take her walking. Somehow I would hear her, and half-sleeping, I would bring my pillow down and tuck near her in the floor.

The days that there were no thunders, and before coming down I would start listening to her tail banging excitedly, and I knew she was there waiting for me.

Few people will understand this, but what can I say she was my dog and she never left me down.

 

I hope I didn’t let her down as well.

Rita was a special dog, a one of a kind to me. She was loved and she is missed dearly. She was born is Portugal in 2003, she travelled to Canada, Mexico, Russia, and Norway. She died in March 2017 in Congo not before giving us funny stories to write about.

To all the people who have lost a friend like Rita : hang on there! Even though our hearts hurt and we miss them to the aching point, we are better people because they loved us so much.

Better to have a heart tendered with pain than never having felt at all.

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Dodging bullets while parenting

I think there is a moment in life that every parents dread. To be honest I thought I would be ok, you know I have this idea of myself being quite upfront and open, but the moment my seven-year old asked me how daddies put the “seed”in the mommies belly, I froze.

When she was younger, and she had inevitably asked me how babies were born I had told her: “daddies place a little seed inside mommies belly” and that had seemed to be enough to satisfy her curiosity. Actually, I had been quite satisfied with myself thinking I had dodge a bullet quite skillfully, but yesterday I wasn’t very resourceful.

Actually I even considered emending myself and telling her that it’s the storks that bring the babies under a special order, but being her already seven years old I knew she would roll her eyes and look at me as if had stepped into Lala land.

It’s incredible how in the space of seconds we can have uncountable thoughts. While my daughter was still looking at me, I was remembering how my own mother had dealt with my questions.

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She hadn’t answer back in the first moment, and looking back I remember her face as well thinking on what to say while trying not to answer and pretending she was busy cleaning the kitchen. A couple of weeks after she  gave me two medical encyclopedia books: one of them was called “What every girl needs to know” and the other I can’t even remember the name but had detailed explanations about the physiological process of getting pregnant and everything about the girls and boys physiognomy.

images-5.jpgSo good so far right? Well I must admit I was quite knowledgable of sexual education thankfully to those books, although a little bit resentful because the first book was like an almanac of how to be a “good girl”,  which went really against my sense of freedom and being quite wild and rebellious child with a strong feminist view, the worst thing you could have done at that time  was to try to indoctrinate on how society thinks a good girl should behave.

Thinking back at those days, I was a really pain to my mother. And so in a fate twist, I saw my mother in me when my daughter asked me those questions. Not because Catarina is like myself but because I like my mother was too embarrassed to explain  to my daughter the normal facts of life, and so I missed a great opportunity to connect with my child.

While I was thinking about all this, my daughter noticing that I was blushing and not knowing what to answer, asked me in a very disgustedly manner while pointing to her belly button: “They put their finger in our belly?”I looked at her and I could see a spark of amusement in her eyes. She was having a blast seeing her mom feeling awkward.

It’s quite funny if we think about it. Me being puritanical with my seven-year old! Gosh people are always changing, aren’t they? Ok mom, just laugh at will with this!

So in the end, the only thing I could answer was : “Can we talk about this another day, maybe in a few years, when you are old enough to understand?”.

Fortunately (sigh) she agreed. Of course we both know she has already clues for the answer, and she knows the door is open for her to ask again. Meanwhile, I’m just waiting for her to grow up a little bit more just in case she gets too shocked with the reply.

Wow, this thing of parenting consciously is hard!images-4.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going beyond a confined identity

From the moment we are born we are under a conditioned identity. Even unaware at the moment of our birth, our genetics, parents and place of birth  and overall our cultural/environment background conditions us to play the role that we perform as adults.

imgres-1.jpgUnder labels and stereotypes we tend to see the world and everything around us covered  by a judgmental and conceptual blanket.

The first brick in the construction of our cultural identity starts right at birth with our dear parents. Actually, if we consider in retrospective, the way that a six month year old is introduced to solids and the food chosen is grossly due to the geography or nationality of the parents.

imgres.jpgSo before hand we have already an important pillar that shapes our identity which is the food and how we eat it. I will never forget going to a party in Mexico and seeing four-year olds licking themselves over an eight chilli combo type lollipop. For me, a chocolate addict since I was introduced to Nutela in my young years, the thought of chilli lollipop was just too absurd, worst was when I tried it out the chilli from the first outside layer( supposedly the softer chilli) and was enough to have me drink water hippopotamus style .images.jpg

So our cultural/geographically induced identity shapes our definition of “I” even if unconsciously.

Psychologists who study this identity construction came up  with the notion that what defines an individual is the conglomeration of a big portion of cultural identity such as geography or race , a smaller portion of co-cultures or stereotypes to which we belong such as smaller groups,  and even smaller part of personal traits, that is,  the values that we have and how it molds the way we interact with each other.

This induced blueprint that we have at birth can change. In fact because culture itself involves a flexibility and a willingness from the individuals themselves that belongs to it, cultural-identity-and-intercultural-business-communication-21-638.jpgand because it evolves when facing challenges, the identity construction of the individual that relies on that base also changes. That is to say the induced blueprint conditions us but it is not definitive because there is a sense of permeability and adaptability to the constant changing experiences that belongs to the nature of being human.

When I think about my own experiences travelling the world for ten years, I come to the conclusion that what used to bring a sense of definition to my personality is long gone. In the mist of so much diversity, I have become less and less portuguese and a product of portuguese references, but more and more a combination of cultural experiences gained either though living in other countries and continuous adaptation to their culture, or either though a unconscious cultural assimilation of the friends that I have from all over the world. In a way, a bit of all the people whom I have been meeting through all these years have stayed with me, either in the way I cook or dress or reflect about the world. So much that those definitions that enables your identity collapsed in my own particular case.

imgres-2.jpgAs I think about my daughter who is seven and how she equally and enthusiastically celebrates the Chinese New Year, or the Dutch Day, or the Hindu Light Festival or how now she is learning about civil rights and reading, one after another, the lives of Martin Luther King, Anne Frank, Gandhi or John Lennon or of Florence Nightingale, I cannot help but end up thinking it is possible to reshape this conditioned blueprint and expand our cultural borders into  an open and wider sense of identity. Ideally would be to have our sense of identity and ego totally collapsed while still maintaining our sense of self.

This willingness to break our stereotypes and to look at what really constitutes our self forces an openness in debunking our dictated “I”.  In the end, only through analysing this idea of what constitutes “us” can we go beyond the confinements of a constructed identity.

What do you think?

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Note: I couldn’t resist and posting the image above about quantum physics since it is so mind-boggling and goes beyond  prejudgment of our relative reality and our relative sense of I

 

 

The day my cleaner asked me for my hair

Not so long time ago I went to Portugal for a few days, and as usual every time we go back home we usually bring something to the personnel who works with us.

Often are things that are hard to find here, or we can find but it is usually over priced.

So far so good right?

Well, that was until the day before I left and my cleaner asked me if I could cut and bring her my hair.

It all started with her calling me aside in the kitchen and trying to ask me something. As I usually don’t understand french, our conversations require an amount of patience and effort from both sides ( in Russia I would communicate through google, here I have become lazy so I just mix words and hope someone understands me).

So there we were. She near the kitchen counter and me waiting patiently for her to ask whatever she wanted.

imgres.jpgShe pointed to her hair, she pointed to my hair,and with her fingers she pretended it was a scissor, and then she pointed to herself again. I looked and stared at her thinking that I really didn’t understand this one. I mumbled something like :“Je no comprehii”. She sighted. I could see this was really important. And so again she tried, really hard, to make me understand she wanted hair.

Of course I thought I was still misapprehending. I had seen her before with one wig and I had seen how it was important here for African women to have this natural hair look. Actually it is such an important market, that is, the wigs with natural hair and a sign of status quo that it is assumed that only people with money can have several wigs. I have heard as well that it has happened, when expat women go to the local market with their hair loose, sometimes they get their hair stolen much in the style of “grab and run” but with a scissor and  a flock of hair.

Actually I have to confess that sometimes, more often than not,  I don’t recognise immediately my african friends, well actually I fail to recognise my cleaner as well, because most of the days I see them with a different wig that changes their looks. From red hair or short yellow or long brown it is very difficult to keep track. Once I’m getting used to a certain look they decide to change again. It seems lots of fun not to be stuck to a certain assumption of how we should look.

images-11.jpgAnyway, so there I was trying to comprehend that someone wanted my hair and how to react to the request. To be sure that I was understanding well, I tried to call all the french people I knew and had on speed dial just because I still thought I wasn’t really sure I understood it quite right.

As soon as could reach my friend and explained my ordeal, I passed the phone to my cleaner. I could hear, in the background, my friend repeatedly asking the question as if she wasn’t sure of what she was listening, and so it seemed my assumptions were right and  she was asking for  hair.

Of course in Portugal there isn’t so much need of hair as here, and at first glance I could only remember the wigs shops that are for cancer patients. As I tried to explain this to my cleaner, I could ser her looking at my hair and I thought” *Sh*t! Now what I am going to do?

And now, if any of my buddhist friends are reading this, please be ready to grab your bellies, because this is one is to die laughing.

imgres-2.jpgYou see, Buddhists practitioners have an ideal besides the ultimate goal of enlightenment, that is the goal of the bodhisattva* ( actually it is believed that it is not possible to achieve enlightenment unless you enter the bodhisattva path)Now being a practitioner means a way of life and not something that only stays in a shrine room or in special days, it also means to tame our mind and to have a sense of egoless( not selfless) and to try to oppose our worldly concerns ( you know why worry about the way you are going to look without hair if we are going to die anyway and it will all decompose, and if someone is asking you why not give your hair to fight your sense of ego).

So I told my cleaner I needed to think but I would try to bring her something even if not all my hair.

So I went back to the bathroom for a shower, and while I was at the bathroom my head was spinning with thoughts most of them a confrontation of ideals:

-“Why was I so reluctant in giving her my hair?”

-“Was it because I was scared of looking bad? “You know, hair is an important part of women consider a beauty reference.

And there I was trying to decompose my thoughts and emotions related to this.

It is said that the teachings and teachers come in the most unexpected ways. And my cleaner had given me an opportunity to really reflect on the teachings and how I was applying it to my daily life with a mundane request.

I thought to myself : “If it had been a cancer patient asking me for my hair, would I still be so reluctant? “The answer was immediately no.” So why was I so stuck with this?”

Well, the answer popped in : “If I am fighting my own vanity while contributing to an another person’s vanity, then I’m far from the bodhisattva goal ain’t I buddhist friends?”

This inward discussion got stuck in my head for a few days still. I know,  buddhist practitioners are crazy or maybe it’s just me ( I’ll get to that one once I have the answer, although I’m pretty sure for my family I am the insanest person because, honestly, who cares about this???)!imgres-3.jpg

So the day my cleaner asked for my hair it propelled a philosophical debate in my mind, and the final result was I didn’t get near a hairdresser and haven’t cut my hair for almost nine months.

I’m thinking on doing it though. I have found this associations ( http://www.wigsforkids.org; http://www.littleprincess.org.uk;www.locksoflove.org)  who accept hair donations and I might do it the next time I go to Portugal. It seems the best way to end this and not have my cleaner look at me with a puppy look!

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( My unexpected teacher and I)
*I’m not going to explain buddhist terms here because I’m not a teacher and I don’t feel comfortable in explaining terms that only those who have a profound study and realisation of the buddhist path can do.

The art of shopping in Africa

It’s been almost six months since I arrived to Congo and I still get an amusement thrill every time I go to the local markets.

The first time I went to the market I had just arrived. The first thing one notices when going to the “plateau“is the smell along with the garbage piles, usually of fish and others leftovers. It is also the place where we see a type of bird that I haven’t seen in any other place, it is like a mixture of a white skinny pelican with seagull, or maybe it’s just an african seagull starving to death, whatever is the case it is usually sticking its long beak in the dirt pile and drinking the remaining filthy water from the rains.images-8.jpg

That day I was wearing long vintage style trousers with sandals. As soon as I putted my feet in the floor I immediately regretted. I could feel my frisky trousers becoming all wet in its bottom while my toes sunk in the muddy water.

Of course, the first thing that the local sellers notice is your awkwardness, specially when everyone tries to grab your attention. When we, foreigners, arrive to the market, the group of ladies who are usually just chatting along, stand up and start shouting:“Mamam! Madame! Mamam!

The first time I thought it would be ok to see what each one of the fruit sellers had and just tell them I would come back later. Big Mistake! Never ever have any of the sellers get the idea that by coming back later you will buy something from them. I learned that they consider a promise from you if you tell them something like that, and you really don’t go back and buy something they will be really, REALLY,  upset.

Most of the times, however, they are very happy to see us go there and gladly through something as bonus ( bananas or mangos) if you talk to them and buy all your fruit/vegetable grocery from them.

images-9.jpgI have to say they are usually so happy to see us that even though they have  never attended a customer service workshop they make us feel over welcomed. They really do their best and we often just overlook the smell and the poor hygiene characteristic of the place (you know we try to not think too much of the mice who are running near by).

The same happens when we park the car near one of the foreign targeted supermarkets and where are a few ladies trying to sell their veggies at the front door. They are so nice if you give them a chance and see what they have to offer. Of course if we stop to see, we may find it to be very difficult not to leave without buying anything, specially because we usually get cornered.

Today I went to the market where the wood carvers are. Immediately,  as I stepped out of the car, there was an agitation similar as one at the red carpet oscars with me being the movie star.

Seeing a white person there usually means money as if we have tattooed in our foreheads “I’m coming to buy things here”. The concept of browsing or just looking without buying is inconceivable for them. To be honest it is becoming for me as well as I’m starting to have less and less patience to do shopping.

So there I was, just trying to see something worth while as at the same time thinking to myself if I really needed any of it. There were many benches and huts full of wood carved elephants, giraffes, lions and typical african figures. I asked the prices, many times, more out of curiosity than really with the intention to buy, and that’s where I realised the lost art of bargaining.

Each one of the artisans would try to talk me into buying something. Invariably our conversation would start with :” Mamam, sister, pour vous, you first here, you say price, I give you“.

If  I dared (which I did with almost everyone until I looked at the time) to  enter the one person narrowed  hut corridor,  and if he still didn’t believe that I didn’t want to buy anything ( which happened also all the times), it would take around 5 minutes of him trying to persuade his sister heart ( that is me of course), and with me sign gesturing my way out.

I left with much difficulty but nonetheless with a smile in my  face. Some of them even shouted in the street for everyone to hear that they would wait until I had money to come back.  And understanding what it means for them having one person buy something,  I guess I will have to return one day.

Just between you and me: One of them was successful in selling me a giraffe that I have no use for it, not before we negotiated the price to  half of what he was asking and just because I was the first special client. I pretended I believed!

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Note: The pictures posted here are not from the markets I go but are very similar. Taking pictures in the street in Congo is usually not very safe and we can get in trouble by taking a picture to someone without permission.