September 2008

I spent last weekend feeling closer to the earth than ever before during my suburban, East Coast and generally nature-disconnected life. I took the lead from my new family members in San Clemente, an indigenous community two hours north of Quito that my program lived with for three days.

Quichua, the language of the Incans, is still spoken regularly and Spanish is often barely known by the oldest. However, a lack of bilingual teachers in the local elementary school has precipitated a diminishment of the younger generation’s fluency in its forefathers’ tongue.

Members of the community are proud descendents of the Caranqui, a pre-Incan Andean culture whose fierce resistance against the Inca is still commemorated by the distinctive deep red of San Clemente’s traditionally-worn poncho.

These are men of the earth. They breathe its essence, feel its murmurs, respect its power, and pay it homage with modern songs and ancient ceremonies passed down for centuries. They are irrevocably connected to the earth in a harmonic symbiosis I’d imagine difficult for many Westerners to understand without witnessing it first hand. Community members, and those of other Andean indigenous communities who live autonomously and remote from excessive external influence, live by the life philosophy known as the Andean Cosmovision. This world-view assumes the connection between all things akin to that of Zen, which lies directly at odds with Western philosophy’s emphasis on individuality and subject-object relationships. In San Clemente, man and nature are one.

The community subsists on semi-communal organic farming, and utilizes ancestors’ agricultural practices. Tractors and insecticides cannot be found. To supplement income, the community has started a small-scale tourism service, and outsiders with seeking a different side of Ecuador are now welcome into numerous community homes.

Community members, such as the family with whom three of us stayed, were eager to share their way of life and thinking and dispel the stereotypic notions that indigenous people are dirty, primitive or unintelligent. I did not come in with these assertions, but I certainly left feeling overwhelmed. We were let into their homes as sons and daughters with no preconditions and no expectations. The unjustified generosity of a people so repeatedly persecuted by outsiders will never be forgotten.

My next few posts will describe specific ceremonies in which we had the incredible fortune of participating. Nothing will better demonstrate this communities’ intimacy or devotion to the earth and Cosmovision.

Lastly, I need to congratulate Ecuador on its new constitution’s overwhelming victory on the 28th – the day of going to the voting centers, watching polls and celebrating jubilantly with family and friends was thrilling, and almost as nerve-wracking as this November Forth promises to be. Progressive provisions for the inalienable rights of nature, water, education and health could finally give a voice to the silent, humble majority and hope for a new politics and a new Ecuador. Of course, the constitution is nothing without strong leadership to guide it…

If interested, check out this article on the constitution’s breakthrough on environmental policy. The New York Times’ coverage or the constitution’s passing is ok, but I found this CNN article terribly biased. As of yet, there is little to no evidence that President Correa will follow in Chavez’ footsteps. I’ll be on the lookout for more good English-language articles on the subject.


The opera house, the harbor bridge, the Olympic stadium… you always hear about these places in books or on TV, but the reality of their existance doesn’t really hit until you’re standing outside of them. Two weeks ago, I did my first major trip outside of Brisbane and visited the capital city of Sydney, which is about a 2-hour flight into New South Wales. 


I went with a couple of other Americans and stayed with friends from Duke. The trip was incredibly exhausting with all of the sight-seeing and our determination to save money by walking everywhere! What most amazed me about Sydney was its metropolitan feel. Brisbane, with about 2 million residents, is certainly by definition a city, but compared to Sydney’s international flair and neon spectacles, Brisbane looks small and quaint. Dare I compare their differences to New York City versus Durham? This might be a slight exaggeration, but there was an unexpected marked difference between the two cities.


As soon as I arrived in Sydney, I felt a hustle and bustle absent in Brisbane. People rushed past you unaffectedly. Everywhere you turned, there were more bright signs, shopping, food, historical spots and tourist traps. I could constantly hear different accents from across the globe, but ironically enough, rarely (never?) heard the laid-back Queenslander accent I’ve come to be so familiar with and associate with Australians. To be sure, the sights in Sydney are amazing. The Royal Botanical Gardens overlooking city central and the harbor were beautiful, the Opera House was even more amazing up close than from TV and the Blue mountains we visited about an hour outside of the city could give Yosemite or Yellowstone a run for their money. Darling Harbor was a lot of fun: right next to the heart of downtown, complete with delicious restaurants, gelato, an aquarium, the largest IMAX in Australia and Saturday night fireworks. The atmosphere was electric and intriguing. On the flip side, the small town of Leura in the Blue mountains was merely a two-block downtown spread of small shops, cafes and a specialty candy store. For the Durhamites and Dukies reading, think Brightleaf Square or Ninth Street in the middle of the mountains and minus ‘gourmet’ places such as Mt. Fuji’s or Piazza Italia.



I think the reality that I’ve been to Sydney – you know, the famous Australian city that hosted the 2000 summer Olympics – only really hit me once I got back home to Brisbane. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, and I can safely say it’s impossible to do Sydney justice in only four days. But isn’t that the case with any city really? Most visitors to Australia completely overlook Brisbane, but it’s a wonderful city and I am so glad it’s my home these four months.


Favorite Sydney memories? I can narrow it down to three:

  1. Playing in the circular spiral fountain at Darling Harbor
  2. Riding a jet boat around Sydney Harbor, seeing the sites, and making sudden stops and spin outs at random moments
  3. Taking a tour of the Opera House… it was amazing inside, but nothing like I expected. Most great theaters I’ve been in are ornate and classic looking, but this was simplistic and modern (it was only completed in 1973)


Next stop: tropical Cairns!




















When you’re living in a foreign country, there are bound to be times when you have no idea what’s going on.

Like, for example, this Saturday when I walked out of my aparment and stumbled into this:

(That’s my friend Michelle’s voice you hear talking about booking a hostel in Vienna.)

I am living with a host family in an apartment in the 11eme arrondisement (sort of like the Parisian version of a zip code). Our building is right down the street from le Place de la Bastille, the former location of the famous fortress/prison that was stormed by the disgruntled poor of Paris in July 1789 to kick off la Révolution.

These days, le Place de la Bastille is a traffic circle recognizable by the tower you see in the video. That is to say, there is usually a lot of traffic there of the vehicular sort, which was why I was so surprised to see the streets crowded with thousands of punky teenagers bobbing their heads along to the techno music blaring from all directions.

We found out eventually that in the process of trying to get last minute tickets to the New York City ballet that night at the Opéra Bastille we had wondered into the TECHNOPARADE, which Wikipedia demurely defines as “a parade of vehicles equipped with strong loudspeakers and amplifiers, along the streets of a municipality, which are closed down for this purpose.” I think a proper definition would have to mention something about the broken glass, extreme hairstyles, and general chaos that seem to come along with the Technoparade.

It was not the first time I have assumed the role of the confused American. I spent a solid half hour yesterday in a paperie studying vertically-lined French notebook paper. I spent my first week in the city pushing the button to cross the street and wondering why a recorded voice would yell the street names at me before I realized that the button was for blind people.

I’m pretty confident that there is more confusion to come.

In India, on the backs of trucks on on the sides of buildings were murals that proudly proclaimed “My India is great!”

Alternatively, in Egypt, painted above shops, scrawled in elevators and plastered on bumper stickers you’ll find Azkar Allah, remember God.

If we take graffiti to mirror national priorities and interests – and why not it’s probably more accurate than polling – it seems clear where Egypt’s heart lies.

But a return to religion, doesn’t necessarily mean fundamentalism, just like Indian patriotism doesn’t necessarily equate to jingoism. There are dangers to be sure, but let’s try to avoid the Fox News logic of religious Muslim = dangerous Muslim.

Nobody thought WWJD bracelets were a bad idea.

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Claire Kane, but she was unable to post it. Why? She believes our site is blocked in China. I’ll inquire in a few days if this indeed is the case or if perhaps we’re just blocked by one service provider or in one internet cafe.

Landed in Xiamen! I’ll be spending a semester here studying Mandarin at Xiamen University. With a population of three million – over a million of whom are migrant workers and not considered permanent residents – the place is not considered big by China’s standards.

The speed of construction here is like nothing I have ever seen. The first day I arrived there was a construction zone outside the gate of the university campus. Within a few days the dust had settled and a deluxe McDonald’s was over half-way completed. A few mornings later, the McD’s ice cream shop was open for business. Last night I strolled by again and noticed that a new concert venue is a few days into construction – in other words, almost done.

Today in Chinese class we learned a phrase: Xiamen university is not Xiamen, and Xiamen is not China. Is this the China that 1.3 billion people know? Is this the air that most Chinese breathe? No. But for some  – and for me, at least for now – it is.

PS. If you want to find Xiamen on a map, locate Taiwan and then scan the mainland coast directly parallel to it.

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Claire Kane, but she was unable to post it. Why? She believes our site is blocked in China. I’ll inquire in a few days if this indeed is the case or if perhaps we’re just blocked by one service provider or in one internet cafe. On a more positive note, this is the 100th post on Seven Continents! Congratulations to all the writers, and thanks to all our reader for stopping by.

I’m sitting in Flavor Tango, a fast-food Chinese restaurant in the Beijing airport. I’m feeling drained and dreamy. Air Canada flight 029 departed from Vancouver at noon and chased the sun across the Pacific Ocean until we landed in Beijing. Which means that it’s about 3am my time and I still haven’t seen the sunset.

After studying Chinese history and swallowing any article I could find on China for the past few years, I feel like I’ve just landed in my favorite storybook. I’m drinking hawthorn juice and crunching snow peas and all I hear through the airport announcements is a jumble of monosyllabic tones. After a few hours in this airport I find myself already escaping into the fiction pages of the latest New Yorker. Ah, the sweet relief of the Roman alphabet.

I try to ask a lady at a coffee stand how to say ‘gate’ in Chinese. Unfortunately, my year of Chinese language classes hide in a dusty corner of my brain and Spanish comes running out triumphantly. No, no, mi querida lengua, not this time.

I’m debating buying a beer and sinking into the sleepiness, slowing my mind for a few hours before my flight to Xiamen.

Over the summer I explained my trip to China to so many friends and family that it quickly became an abstract and distant idea. I reiterated the rhetoric of the relevance, timeliness of studying Chinese, and started to sound like another voice in the chorus of The Economist’s “China is Rising” choir, with all its epic mysticism.  Today in the Beijing terminal it is happening. I’m here. Instead of these logical, credentialist motivations for going to China, it is my heart that is pulling me forward: I can’t wait to land in Xiamen.

There is an advertisement that I have seen all over the Paris Métro. It shows a typical British Bobby who is badly beat up. He’s holding up his hand as if to say, “STOP! I’ve had quite enough!”
Iarretez de massacrer l'anglais

Stop massacring English!

The ad reads: “Stop massacring English!” The idea is, of course, that if you buy this company’s English courses, you will ostensibly stop “massacring” the English language.

I’ve been in Paris for a week now, and this ad got me to thinking, if there was some French guy (complete with beret, cigarette, and baguette in hand, naturally) who got a smack every time I made an error in speaking, what would he look like?

Well, he would probably be in pretty bad shape. In fact, he’d probably still be lying on the floor, quivering from the time I said I thought “the window was delicious.”

The language barrier was not something to which I gave a lot of thought before coming to France. I have been studying French since kindergarten (I have the Atlanta public school system to thank for that one), and I have been to France twice before and got along just fine.

But I haven’t taken a French class since my first semester freshman year at Duke, and it turns out that that is plenty of time for your brain to start to rot.

Yes, I remember the basics. I can order in a restaurant and talk to shop owners just fine. But it turns out that there is a big difference in being able to buy a stamp and being able to show your personality and wit in conversation.

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