Further North

After being all the way at the bottom of Africa, I’m back in the northern hemisphere and am on my way to Dutch Harbor, Alaska to join the R.M. Thorstenson for some fish-processing again. (Can’t eat, can’t travel, if you don’t work.)

And even though it’s backtracking to something I’ve already done before, in light of my previous post, I’m OK with that. Returning will give me a chance to do it better. Besides, the ship wasn’t in Dutch Harbor last time!

It’s possible I could be going dark. The Internet on the ocean is iffy. But if I get some, I’ll try to post.


In Favor of Returning

Because I am on this journey, I see it as forward trajectory and I dislike the idea of backtracking to places I’ve already been.

That feeling is changing.

On my way out of Madagascar, I spent five days in Johannesburg, South Africa. I’ve already been to Jo’burg before, on a college study trip around the country four years ago. I remember not particularly liking the city. I stayed with a host family in the suburbs and what I saw of downtown was pretty drab and empty.

Upon returning to Jo’burg and staying at a hostel downtown, that’s not what I found this time. Johannesburg is a city that has been rebuilt several times. Its thrive level depends on the current state of the economy, so it’s possible I came this time during a recent upswing. Or maybe I just didn’t look around enough before.

The picture I carried in my mind of Johannesburg since my first visit was of a long street between a small cluster of skyscrapers. The street glittered with rubbish and window after window after window said “for sale” with darkness behind each.

These are now the pictures I have in my mind:

A colorful skyline…

…with up-and-coming districts,…

…beautiful public art,…


…an extraordinary museum of early humans and rock art (Origins Centre). (I was so enthralled by the museum that I forgot to take pictures. This is probably the least impressive example I can offer. The exhibits are truly stunning.),…

…delicious desserts in steel truck trailers,…

…and (drumrollllllllll), the largest used bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere. Seven floors of magnificent literary chaos. Before I went in, I looked at the people next to me and said, “Someone hold me back.”

I stayed in two stylish and comfy hostels, one downtown in the Maboneng Precinct…

…and one in Soweto, the famous township outside of the city where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived and worked. (The trees inhibited a good picture. That’s Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers hostel, highly recommended for a relaxing, beachy reggae vibe and helping you comfortably get out and experience Soweto.)

I took a bike tour one day and solo cycled the next day, which inevitably ended up in another infamous African sunburn.

Had a drink at a local bar,…

…got up close to Soweto’s twin towers,…

…and saw the disparity between Soweto’s Maponya Mall and some of the township dwellings.


Culture Shock

Right now I’m sitting in the Dubai Mall having a hard time reconciling the simplicity and poverty of Madagascar and South Africa with the staggering excess of Dubai.

Fact I heard on my tour today: When someone buys real estate on Dubai’s man-made island, they don’t receive a bottle of champagne, like the regular dudes. They’re given a Lamborghini.

Cold Culture, Warm Culture

Nearly every day during break, the housekeeping team stayed a few minutes passed the end of break. We would be sitting around the dining room tables talking and our supervisor, a Sierra Leonian, would come over, tapping his watch and say, “Cold culture, warm culture. Come on guys, time to go back to work.”

African culture is warm culture. Time is not of the essence and relationships trump productivity. Cold culture is all of the West. We focus on punctuality, productivity and numbers and if we all happen to get along, that’s great, but not essential. 

When I came on the ship, I brought my cold culture disposition with me. I approached work with a divide-and-conquer attitude and approached social situations with as much social anxiety and hesitation as I do back at home. 

But my housekeeping team of 13 Malagasy people taught me to be different and we became dear friends in the process.  


They taught me that we work together in pairs even if it’s clearly more efficient to split up and meet up later and even if it seems ridiculous to squeeze two bodies in the same five-square-foot bathroom to clean at the same time.

They taught me to work at a reasonable pace without stressing about checklists. It will all get done somehow and if not, that’s OK.

They taught me that it’s a thing to buy a gift for someone in order to thank that person for attending a party you were throwing.

They taught me to say hello to everyone I walk by on the ship. The tunnel-visioned big-city mindset is quite offensive. 

They taught me not to seclude myself because everyone is always welcome and anyone is allowed to talk to anyone. Cold culture allows social anxiety to thrive, but in warm culture, it quickly becomes obsolete.

They taught me to shake hands with and say, “Hi,” “Salama,” “Bonjour,” or “How did you sleep?” to each person on our team in the morning, even if it takes a while, even if you hardly speak the same language, even if it seems awkward. For me, I got to start the day not lonely and not isolated, which is important because I feel lonely almost all of the time. Can you even imagine what that might look like in the States if everyone walked over to each person’s desk in the office at the start of the day, shook hands and said good morning? How inefficient. How wonderful.

Picture Perfect

Speaking of opportunity, I often find myself thinking about American healthcare juxtaposed with Madagascar’s. Mercy Ships came to Madagascar (and goes to other African countries) because the country’s healthcare system is terrible. Health insurance doesn’t exist here. If you need something, you pay for it in full. But because 90 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars per day, most people don’t get the treatment they need and if they do, it’s often inadequate or incorrect due to low-quality medical education.

I see patients in the wards while I’m cleaning the hospital and some of the deformities are horrific. Large tumors disfigure people’s faces, children hobble around on club feet and some struggle to move properly because of severe burn injuries. Many people also have black, decaying or missing teeth. Next to the patients, the nurses (mostly from western countries) look flawless.

I picture myself and health-wise, I’m nearly picture perfect. I do a mental head-to-toe scan of my body and note the medical care I’ve received during my 26 years of living: cyst removed from forehead, chipped front tooth mended, cavities filled, wisdom teeth extracted, braces worn, large gash in chin stitched closed, spider veins removed from skin, brace and physical therapy for torn knee.

If not for health insurance and western medicine, I probably would have lost many of my teeth, my smile would be jumbled and showing half of my front tooth, I would have a large scar on my chin along with a bump on my forehead, which could have grown who knows how big by now, and my knee might cause me to limp.

That’s a different picture than what I look like now.

It would be good for every westerner to picture this for themselves, simply as an exercise in thankfulness.

Western medicine prevents and mends so much for us. Women who need them, can receive cesareans. In Madagascar, they can spend days in labor. The baby dies and the mother ends up with an obstetric fistula injury and can no longer hold onto her urine or feces. In America, if a baby is born with club feet, its legs are in casts just hours after birth, so it grows up without ever noticing the deformity it was born with.

We gripe about our healthcare. We debate whether it should be private or public and whether or not Obama overstepped his constitutional boundaries by creating the Affordable Care Act. For me, I’m simply grateful my government has the ability and cared enough to create a plan so that everyone can have health insurance and health care, no matter their economic situation. Many people in the world can’t claim that privilege.

Here is an example of a recent Mercy Ships transformation:


The Stuck and the Unstuck: A glimpse at a land lacking opportunity

I am obsessed with the tiny house movement. I spend hours scrolling through Buzzfeed pictures of tiny houses, watching Netflix documentaries and short YouTube videos and daydreaming about my future tiny house with solar panels, an outdoor compost toilet, a cozy loft bed and bookshelves cleverly built into the furniture.

Being in a developing country, like Madagascar, I find myself looking jealously at the tiny bungalows and houses like these:


It’s exactly what I imagine for myself. (A tropical version, at least. I usually picture a snowy hideaway.) There’s the one-room tiny house, the solar panel, a modest patio and a scooter to zip around town on. And the occupants live a simple life of accomadating tourists, fishing, surfing and sitting together on the porch.

As I sat outside the bungalow next door on the night of my stay in Mahambo thinking about these things, I realized the difference between me and them: Opportunity. I might wish to live the same as them, but most likely they wish to live like me (or at least the me that represents middle class America). I have the opportunity to live like them. I can live small if I want to. But they can’t choose to live big. They can’t travel abroad, scour their country for a job or put away money towards a down payment on a big house.

Even though I thoroughly enjoy camping, I’ve always found it a bit laughable. It’s like we’re playing at being poor. Here, let me wander into the countryside, sleep in an unstable shelter, cook a meager diet of macaroni and canned fish over an open fire, poop in a dirt hole and wash up in the nearest pool of water, because it feels good to temporarily shed the burdens of “convenience culture” and put some distance between me and my gaggle of things

But that is the real level of poverty for many in Madagascar. (Not all. Many have cellphones  and other modern technology and housing. Plus, there’s a middle class.) That is what they’re given when they’re born and it’s nearly impossible to depart from.

I know, as an American, if I ever find myself unemployed, hungry or on the brink of homelessness, I can go to the government for help. If I can’t find a job, that actually means I can’t find a job that suits me. I can always suck it up and apply to take orders at McDonalds.

In Madagascar, it’s extremely hard for people to find jobs – any jobs at all. I have talked to several of the local crew that Mercy Ships has hired as housekeepers and translators and they are especially thankful for their job and quite nervous about what will happen to them when the ship leaves.

They tell me that you must have connections or special favor with someone to get a job in their country. It’s not just a run-to-every-storefront-with-a-resume-and-wait-for-a-callback kind of situation. And if you want a higher-up job, such as working on an airline or for the government, you have to pay people off to get a position. Basically, the people who already have money can get jobs.

The ones who do land a good job and work hard at it and support their families, they get harassed and even attacked for it from people – even family members – who are jealous.

A man from Sierra Leone told me about witch guns. He said it’s dangerous to get a good job because people who have them are often shot with witch guns. Juju men make witch guns with bullets of lead or sugar and use them against people as a superstitious, sinister weapon meant to kill.

During my regular shift one day on the ship, I was mopping the floor with my Malagasy coworker and chatting in a mixture of broken English and charades. He talked about the job corruption in Madagascar and his face turned somber as he said how his brother once  had an important job in town. His brother went to a bar one night and someone put poison in his drink. The man who did it was never arrested or punished and when my coworker came home that day, he found out his brother was dead.

His mom told him not to cry.