Sunday, October 21, 2012

Election Day

It's election day in Cuba.  Many will argue about what that means and the extent to which it changes even the slightest detail of Cuban life, but I will spend the day thinking about the beautiful people on an island I love: the social gatherings at local polling places, the quiet debates between friends, and the hope that someday Cuba's elections really will give the nation's citizens a say in the direction of their country.
(Much more detail to come when I get time to complete my research project on Cuba's election process.)
Havana Times

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What's Up, Windhoek?

We squeezed in one more meeting on our way out of South Africa, and it was an impressive one: we met with a roomful of union representatives at the Congress of South African Trade Unions.  As far as powerful lobbying groups go, this one sets an alarmingly high bar.  COSATU is directly and irreversibly connected with the ruling political party and with many South Africans' daily lives.  The fact that many employers are directly connected to the ANC only increased my admiration for the young people we'd met who worked with and for the opposition parties - it can't make them popular in many work and social environments!
Freezing outside COSATU House - those stereotypes about all of Africa being a hot desert?  Totally untrue.
The meeting with union representatives was cut far too short - especially because I really wanted to spend the day hearing a conversation between the Republican elected officials with whom I was traveling and the union activists - but we did manage to make a few quick friendships before we were herded out the door.
On our way to the airport we speed-walked through a local craft market.  It was very similar to the experience I had at the market in Havana: amazing products, pushy salespeople and an environment of negotiations that makes me very uncomfortable.  I don't want to fight about money with anyone - just tell me what you want and I'll decide if I want to pay it.  (Side note: I loved my Saturn car-buying experience because they agreed with my policy on haggling...I dread the next car purchase without that as an option!)  I made it through the market without spending too much money and then took time to befriend these wonderful men who were doing woodwork under a sign that read "Crafters at Work."

These side-by-side paintings captured my summer of travel pretty well!

More lines, more coveted stamps in my passport and a two-hour flight later, we left South Africa behind us to add Namibia to the "been there done that" list of accomplishments.

I didn't doubt Freddie (our friend at the Namibian embassy in D.C.) when he said Namibia looked like Arizona but I guess I did secretly think the perspective would be different for a first-time visitor.  I was wrong.  When the plane's wheels touched down at the Windhoek airport I was convinced we'd hit a time warp and they'd brought me back to Phoenix...a less inhabited, less polluted Phoenix.
To prove my point, the photo above is Namibia...the one below is between Phoenix and Tucson.
Not a single road in Arizona, however, has a sign this cool. 

And yes, in case you're wondering...I did in fact hum Hakuna Matata every single time I saw one of those signs.

Windhoek looks like another European capital city, with orderly traffic signs and blooming flowers planted on corners and in front of houses.  Tribal cultures are still tantalizingly close to the city here, however, and traces of them crept even into the downtown area where we stayed.  I enjoyed a few delightful free moments with two members of my group, and while enjoying sky-high cappuchino foam (seriously, these baristas are impressive) in the middle of a mall we glanced up to see a stunning African woman with no shirt, tribal jewelry...and an iPod.

I didn't work up the courage to talk to that woman in the mall (who was apparently just taking a bathroom break from the area where women from her community sell their jewelry and trinkets at an open-air market across the street from our hotel) but we did meet amazing women at our reception that evening.  The U.S. embassy hosted the event and invited a wonderful collection of young Namibian professionals who had traveled, or were going to travel, to the U.S.  There were very nice men there but it was my conversations with the women that I'll never forget.  Regina became a stay-at-home mother right after she finished college, but then started her own highly successful IT company when her child was older.  Mind you, she did this while fighting for financing in a country where the average citizen makes US$7,500 a year and in a society so paternalistic that men sometimes push women out of the way to get through doors first. Other women worked for non-profits or entities working to get young people politically engaged...all of them were beautiful and so impressive that I could have heard them talk for days.

This was another rooftop reception, which provided the perfect opportunity to appreciate another Arizona-like quality about Namibia: the sunsets.  People talked and laughed, glasses clinked and silverware tinged against plates as the food was served but it all blended into background noise as another busy day came to a glorious, rose-hued close against the skyscape of Windhoek.