Waiting Around (or, Americans and Greeks and Arabs, oh my!)

Still no news about when I’ll be going back, though I’m hopeful it will be soon. Basically, the way medical leave works, from my understanding, is that you sit around, sit around, sit around, attend an appointment, sit around more, yada yada…. then PC tells you to get on a plane in 24 hours. So there’s no actual telling what will happen. But initial evals are done at least, so we can start planning.

It’s been interesting being back home. Also odd, because I constantly feel like I don’t belong here. My home and work are back in Africa right now. Of course, the fact that it’s been snowing here and in single digits (Fahrenheit) might have something to do with my newfound nostalgia.

It’s interesting coming back home and comparing it to South Africa. And I’ve found that I’ve become much more interested in exploring my own culture and its own folk traditions since studying those of KwaZulu-Natal. I spend time thinking about the course of most people’s lives in my little suburb of Detroit, one which still has barns randomly strewn along city roads in people’s back yards, one where many people grow up and remain their entire lives. I’ve also been out to Milford with its country feel a few times, which makes me think on how my own family’s rural roots compare to those of my little African village. (Though African rural sites do tend to have fewer gastropubs and microbreweries.)

Other than that, I’ve been learning languages and music, two of my biggest hobbies (/obsessions). My goal is to read Homer in Greek by the time I’m done with Peace Corps, and perhaps even to translate some of it into Zulu. Can’t you just see the stories of Achilles and Odysseus being set in the times of Emperor Shaka and his conquests?

In addition, I’m currently fascinated by alternative tonal systems in music. Not that this has anything to do with Peace Corps, but I’m bored of sitting around right now and have you reading this anyhow. Arabic music is fascinating (http://www.maqamworld.com/); as usual, I’m floored at the level of sophistication of their theoretical analysis and how little we pay attention to it in the West. My overall impression of Arabic scales is that they are circles and curves to the straight lines and squares of classical Western music. Western music is better for harmonies, but there is a sort of roundness and artistry about Arabic scales which smooths out melodies by playing around with quarter steps and microtones. Also: the Bohlen-Pierce scale (http://www.huygens-fokker.org/bpsite/index.html) is a harmonic scale which builds a set of tones from scratch that don’t fit into the traditional 12-step chromatic scale. Listen to some samples here: http://ziaspace.com/_microtonality/BP/. It sounds to me like the key keeps changing around almost atonally, yet there remains an odd coherence which atonality lacks. I think the music actually sounds quite lovely and wish I had an instrument which could play around with it.

Ok, geek mode off. Or at least hidden for the moment.


Service Interrupted

It looks like I’m going to be back home in the States for a bit. I’m being medevac-ed (a fancy PC term for “medical evacuation”) for various reasons. No clue at all how long it’s going to be for; maybe a week, a month, up to a month and a half. So no new Africana here for the time being.

Ethics and Development Work

In an Ethics class a while back, the question came up of whether it is better to go out and do development work, making the world a better place, or stand around being a philosophy professor, who might perhaps persuade a couple students to examine their lives and live better.

At the time, this presented a rather large moral dilemma to me. Now that I’ve left philosophy for Peace Corps, though, ironically I see less force to the conundrum.

First, let’s not pretend like people doing development work are making a huge difference in the world. We make small differences, and hope that they take root. They may not always. But we do not necessarily change the world any more over here than doing something else. Honestly, there’s not a whole lot I can do here until South Africa changes from within.

Second, one must keep in mind one’s own strengths. I was reading something by Brad Warner of Hardcore Zen fame. I forget the details and am having trouble locating the post right now (it might have been in one of his books, anyhow), but the point was that he had been doing a job that was regarded as being all nice and humanitarian and what-not. And stunk at it, probably making problems for people instead of solving them. So instead he went and made monster movies; a “lesser” job, but if he could work his values into something he actually could throw himself into, this was better than forcing himself to do the “right thing” and doing it poorly. Being a half-arsed teacher out here isn’t helping anyone and might harden communities against making the changes they need.

Third, there are all sorts of ways to be effective. Seneca, tutor to the Roman emperor Nero, was asked why he didn’t spend more time in the public life doing something. He answered that his writings would last far longer than the political actions of his day. Considering that I read that from him almost 2000 years later, and yet there is no more Roman Empire, Seneca seems to be on to something. We need some people helping raise the standards of humanity around the world. We also need some people in scholarship to remember our past, some in more “normal” jobs keeping things running, and creative sorts showing us visions of what life could be like. If everyone were to become a PC volunteer, or otherwise go and give up their lives to “be good people,” society would crumble.

Sometimes, doing the right thing might be enjoying yourself where you are.

Return from the Dragon Mountain

Just returned from the Drakensberg. If you want to know what it looks like, go watch Lord of the Rings, particularly Fellowship, and you’ll get a pretty good idea. Which is why we started most days singing the walking music to LotR, and why we identified all 9 of us with characters from the fellowship. (Aragorn, btw.)

The hike was intense. On one day, we hiked I believe about 700 metres straight up over just a couple kilometres, steep enough that we had to at least grab at the grass on the sides to pull ourselves up when not crawling up on all fours.

But the scenery was unbelievable; we probably passed through 3 or 4 different regions of plant life on that one day, to say nothing of the views. Baboon and jackal sightings rounded out the experience. One morning we woke up for the sunrise, and saw a sea of dense clouds below. Literally, or at least as literal as a metaphor can be. A couple odd mountain tops stood out as islands amongst the frozen fluffy waves. Two nights were spent sleeping in caves, falling asleep to the sound of waterfalls.

After our climb, we found ourselves at the top of a pass into Lesotho, the “Magical Mountain Kingdom,” a country completely surrounded by South Africa. It really did give the appearance of being its own isolated state lying on top of the mountains, with herds of sheep and goats after the mostly-empty wilderness of the Draks. The weather at the top of the pass was odd, to say the least; part of the sky was clear blue with scattered white clouds, other parts were reflecting the reds, pinks, and purples of the sunset, and yet another corner was oddly black and grey and gold. This is to say nothing of the violent thunderstorm right outside the pass, stopped as if by an invisible wall.

Then we stayed at the highest pub in Africa at the Sani Pass (around 9400 feet); rather underwhelming by that time, though. And the drive down hairpin turns at the Sani Pass certainly was not the best thing after New Year’s Eve. But memorable occasions, nonetheless.

Unfortunately, my Blackberry wasn’t able to catch the most interesting views, so you’ll have to just come and see them for yourself sometime.