Why I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture to show solidarity with Paris.

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If you’re on Facebook you’ve probably seen it around. The feature where you can layer the colours of the french flag over your profile picture. It’s a nice gesture. You can now show solidarity and support through a single mouse click. This might read as sarcastic, but let me clarify, I have nothing against this. In fact, I think it’s a great idea.

I do, however, feel a bit awkward about it. And this is why:

Bombings, shootings and terrorist attacks of all kinds happen every day. They happen in parts of the world that we’re so used to hearing these kind of horrid news reports from. Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Then they also happen in parts of the world we mostly hear nothing about. After all, when was the last time a news outlet properly reported about the Crisis in the Central African Republic? About South Sudan?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.

And I get it. I get that this is a difference, because it happened in a country where terrorist attacks do not belong to day to day life. I get it because it’s Paris. It’s a city in a western country, peaceful, modern, beautiful. It is shocking to us because it happened in the midst of Europe, a continent that has been at peace for 70 years now. It is shocking because it could have happened to any of us. It could have been me and my family spending a nice evening in a café. It could have been my friends at a concert on a friday night.
We feel shocked because we’re so used to this security. We don’t know what it’s like to live in constant fear. We don’t know how to react when we’re confronted with so much hate, so much brutality.

We are so incredibly privileged. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you live in a European country and don’t have to fear for your life on a day to day basis, you are privileged. We should be more aware of this fact and never, ever, take this for granted.

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I am utterly heartbroken about what happened in Paris. Of course it has affected me as well, how could it not?

However, Paris is not the only city where terrorist attacks happen.

I am not just Paris. I am Beirut. I am Baghdad. I am every city that was recently affected by senseless tragedy and bloodshed. I am every town where parents kiss their children goodnight and don’t have to be scared for them and I am every refugee camp where parents worry about what kind of future their children may have. I am everywhere safe and calm and peaceful. I am both, because I am humanity and I am the world.

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Balance

Thinking back at my life – and mind you, I’m aware that I’m not even that old yet, – I can’t help but think that I am an incredibly lucky girl. I was able to attend a good school, lead a quiet life in the suburbs. My school was surrounded by woods and meadows and even when I got home in the evening the first thing I often did was throw my backpack in a corner and run outside to explore the forests surrounding my house. I played there for hours. I waded through small streams, climbed trees and built snow castles. I often fell. I had dirt beneath my fingernails and scrapes on my knees.
I was also lucky enough to live close to a major city that offered everything you could ever want in terms of culture. I’ve seen great works of art, been lost in major museums, went to concerts, the opera, musicals and jazz festivals. I’ve eaten at fancy restaurants as well as enjoyed simple, homemade meals.

For me it was an ideal childhood. It is still ideal living now.

And not just at home. My parents let me tag along every trip they made. From an early age I was used to seeing sights and eating unusual food. And now, at 22, I still continue to live this life.
During the week I walk the streets of Vienna, marveling at the breathtaking architecture. On weekends I make my way through the forest, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot.

I travel alone to countries in Africa and Asia. I travel with friends to cities like London or Rome. I still travel with my grandparents and parents and I treasure all these moments, covet all these memories.

I marvel at the things my eyes have been allowed to see. At the sand my feet have been allowed to walk on.
Red in Togo. White in Thailand. Black in Tenerife.

I still have dirt beneath my fingernails, scratches on my arms and bruises on my legs. And yet, I wear heels as well. I put on lipstick and wear a dress to head out for a glamorous night in the city.

It never has to be either or. It can be both. Always. Life is about balance and I hope I will always be able to keep this.

What I’ve seen in Tanzania so far

Things in Tanzania started a bit slow for me. I arrived on Friday to a very subdued atmosphere, since one of the girls working for this organisation has died a few hours earlier. The situation must have been quite awful. A group of volunteers went to the beach, the waves were to strong and while all three of them were in danger, two managed to save themselves.
One girl didn’t. As you can imagine, the next few days were pure chaos. When I arrived they told me that the project I was supposed to work on didn’t exist. I talked to a woman working for an NGO on the phone today – which would have been my second choice and she told me she doesn’t have enough work for that many interns. That many would be three – including me.
I guess it’s okay though – not the best possible outcome but still kind of fun. Let’s see with what project I’ll end up with.

Today I spent the entire day at the funeral of the girl I’ve never gotten to know. It was kind of a surreal experience. We were at their parent’s house for a small gathering and food, then we went to the church. This was really hard. At some point everyone stood up and walked around the coffin – which was open. It was my first experience like this, so I wasn’t sure how and if I could handle that. I’m still not sure about it. I felt a bit awkward there. Her family and friends were crying so hard, you could see so much pain and sadness, it was incredibly hard to witness and I don’t think I’ve fully realised what happened yet. From the church we went to the cemetery for another short mass. Mind you, all these masses and speeches were held in Swahili and although  I’m busy learning some basic words and expressions, I obviously couldn’t understand a word they were saying.

The whole thing lasted from around 10am to around 5pm. And while we were only sitting around, waiting and listening, it was still very exhausting. Just to be clear: a funeral in Tanzania was definitely not on my list of things I want to experience while in Africa.

On another note: we also nearly got robbed already. I went to the city centre with a chinese guy and a czech girl yesterday – for the girl and me it was the first trip to downtown Dar es Salaam, so we were glad we had that guy with us to show us around, since he’s been here longer. Not even 10 minutes after we got off the ferry we were approached by a beggar, asking for money. We said no and kept walking, when he suddenly grabbed the shirt of my friend. They started fighting, the chinese guy finally managed to get that man off of him, shrugged his shoulders, told us to walk on and said “Well, that doesn’t happen that often. If you see someone like that, just cross the street to avoid them.
Right.

But I guess that’s Africa for you.

To sum it up: In Tanzania so far I’ve seen incredible danger but also overwhelming kindness. Kindness like the young man today at the funeral who let the little boy have some of his water. A gesture so simple and true, yet somehow worth mentioning.
I’ve seen pretty beaches and sun, but also poverty and sickness. I’ve experienced a lot of friendliness and eagerness to teach foreigners something about their culture and their way of life. I’ve tasted some pretty great food and already tried the local alcohol.
I’ve become fast friends with a girl from the Netherlands and a girl from the Czech Republic.
Apart from the fact that my cat broke his leg (again!) while I didn’t even leave the country for a whole week. This time I’m not to blame (obviously!)

Excuse my ramblings (and possible typos, this keyboard hates me, I swear!)
Pictures will follow as soon as I put them on my netbook and have time to upload them :)

Reflection

What did I know – or thought to have known about life? About living standards? Adventure? Poverty? What did I know about myself?

I was in Kathmandu in February once, and I remember being so, so cold. The cold was inside of my bones, seeping through my entire body. I felt like I’d never get warm again. We didn’t have warm water for showers, no heating, next to no electricity, and I woke up more than once in the middle of the night because I was freezing.

So I thought I knew how to appreciate electricity and warm, running water. I thought I wouldn’t take it for granted anymore because I knew what it was like to have to live without it.

The reality is different, though. It’s frightening how fast and easily you adapt back to what you consider normal and take things for granted again once you’re home. And how, from that experience onwards, you think  “Oh well, I can go through anything now.”

How wrong I was.

My days in Africa were filled with difficulties: the language barrier was the most obvious one for me, but it was something I expected to be hard. What I didn’t know about was the complete lack of electricity whatsoever. The lack of plumbing or running water – never mind warm water took me by surprise, too.
I carried buckets of water from the cistern to the main house, making a ten minutes walk seem like eternity. If we wanted hot water for the shower, we had to heat it up over open fire. Toilets? Ha! How about a hole in the earth that was used by the entire village?

Cooking dinner? Awesome when you can’t see anything at all. We sat around a tiny bench, torches in our mouths trying to cut tomatoes and the chicken that was, until a day ago, still living right next to our room.

I thought I’d seen everything. I thought I was conscious of poverty and I thought I was able to handle it all. Culture shock seemed to be a word I thought I didn’t know.  And in a sense I wasn’t shocked, it just took me by surprise. Never once had anyone mentioned that this was how I’d spend those two weeks. Never once had I thought all these things would end up complicating my stay – adding to the already established difficulty I experienced because I couldn’t speak the language that well.

However, my days were also spent with playing with kids, “teaching” mathematics and French, cooking meals, washing the dishes or collecting water. I went on wild taxi moto drives up to a waterfall – the true speed never to be known because the speedometer was broken. I was in a car with four French girls when the driver got lost in the African bush at four o’clock in the morning.

I danced around the fire, clapping and laughing to the sounds of a drum, drinking Togo Gin, eating Fufu, and having a great time.

It was difficult, yes. More so than I ever could have imagined. Was it worth it though, in the end? Yes. A thousand times, yes.

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