As I write this, my semester abroad in Brazil, South Africa, and France is coming to a close, and I’m anxiously preparing for the unfortunately dubbed “reentry” process. What will I say about the experience of traveling and learning all over the world when I return home to the Bay Area and am asked the inevitable, “How was your semester? What did you learn?” How can I synthesize four months and five cities into an acceptably telling, pithy response?
It’s impossible, especially if what I’ve learned is supposed to do with urban ecology, urban planning, urban politics, and urban culture—the subjects I’ve purportedly been studying as a participant in the International Honors Program’s Cities of the 21st Century semester. All sorts of information on all of the above subjects have entered my mind in the past few months, and invariably I will have forgotten many of the details of sustainable development projects in Rio de Janeiro; the rezoning of mixed-income housing projects in Cape Town; and the floor plans of a civic center to be erected in the Paris suburbs by the time I return to the States. I’ll fumble around trying to remember those details and probably give a grossly inadequate response to what is a relatively straightforward question. The truth is that I had a wonderful semester and learned a lot and I have absolutely no idea where to begin.
So in anticipation of failing to answer the question, here is what may get overlooked in my eventual recounting of the study abroad experience.
I learned that I love hammocks. From my host mother Ligia in Rio, I learned that every house should have at least one hammock, preferably by the window, so that you can read your morning paper swinging, with the sun streaming onto your face. And there should always be music, preferably sultry records with longhaired men and guitars on the cover, so that every day has a romantic soundtrack, even if you’re just hanging out at home. From Ligia—whose parting gift to me was a photograph of Yemanja, the Umbanda goddess of the ocean, crowned with stones she’d collected after her morning tai chi—I learned that 50 is not too old to wear sundresses and run on the beach.
I learned that there is such a thing as behavioral ecology. That there is sustainable living and unsustainable living, and that every single thing we do, eat, breathe, and want is adding to our individual ecological footprint. Like how much toilet paper we use. And plastic utensils.
I learned that going on safari does not necessarily mean seeing lions. Over spring break, I traveled to South Africa’s Kruger National Park for a wildlife safari, envisioning an open jeep (or game-viewer, to use the proper terminology), driving through the dry brush and heat, happening upon lions mating in the foreground, elephants positioned conveniently for photographs at their watering hole, and giraffes nibbling leaves from tree branches fallen on top of our vehicle. It was rainy and cold during my safari, and the first day out in the park we saw a dozen impalas, a pack of zebras, a small herd of wildebeest, and one or two giraffe off in the distance. I was deeply disappointed. But had it been easier to see the animals—had lions truly been lying out in the middle of the road, awaiting their glamour shots—I would have had cause to be suspicious. Doubtless, they could create artificial feeding areas along the perimeter of the park and near high traffic areas so as to lure the game to the paying customers. The fact that the animals were fairly inaccessible, that they had retreated into their caves and nests and huddles during the cold rainy day, was probably a more “natural” experience of the wild than it would have been had we easily seen the Big Five.
I learned that a 10-hour flight is not long. A 15-hour flight followed by a nine-hour layover followed by another flight is long.
I learned how to make flourless chocolate cake and butternut squash soup. And that peanut butter is totally underrated. And rice cakes. Both make excellent emergency snacks and can be easily packed into a purse or knapsack.
I learned not to make fun of social dancing. That even though I love to dance and profess to be interested in new experiences and consider myself something of an undisciplined anthropologist, I’m too inhibited to dance with people I don’t know. Tango, ballroom, the Brazilian forro. It’s all far too intimate. I learned from my host sister and mother in Curitiba, Elaine and Terezina, that there is an entire world of women and men, young and over 60, for whom there is nothing intimidating about a room full of dancing couples, making promises with their eyes and heels and feeling the sweaty necks of perfect strangers.
I learned that keeping a journal is not, as I’ve occasionally suspected, a self-indulgent exercise but rather a reflection of how interested an individual is in the outside world.
I learned that I am terrible at keeping a journal.
I learned anew what it means to be a minority in the classroom. As a Californian and a student at a private university with a respectably diverse population, I am used to being one of many Indians, many Asians, many “minorities.” On this program 83 percent of the students and 100 percent of the faculty were white. The majority of country coordinators we worked with and learned from were white. The dominant voice on the program was white. The visible face of the program was white. The vast majority of conversations and discussions were conducted from the vantage point of whiteness, with the oft-invoked disclaimer, “as white people,” or, the marginally improved, “mostly white people.”
Whiteness was allowed to function as a neutral starting point from which to interrogate the other: the Carioca favelado, the township resident, the immigrant from the Maghrebe. I walked the streets of Rio, Cape Town, and Paris conscious of my dual position as a person of color able to, or expected to be able to, understand or empathize with the struggles, the lives of people of color, and at the same time as a person of color amongst white people who were trying to understand, to reconcile the struggles, the lives of people of color who appeared to exist in opposition to them and their lives.
I learned that it is possible to be angry with a place and not its people, the streets and the sidewalks and the air and the streetlamps. There wasn’t a single day in Cape Town that I wasn’t filled with anger that such a beautiful city could have allowed itself to be degraded by apartheid. I learned that it is easy to walk down the street and partition the world into “black” and “white” and “colored.” Really easy.
I learned that the Paris metro is the best in the world, that not everyone on the beaches of Rio has a great body (the opposite, in fact), and that the best Sunday morning is spent watching the sunrise from atop Rhodes Memorial on the University of Cape Town campus.
I learned that the world is even smaller than the song says. I knew it when a graduate of UC Berkeley came to dinner at my host mother’s flat in Rio, and I knew it when I came across a photograph of my college campus in my French family’s vacation album. I learned that the world is small and beautiful and rich and poor and that people everywhere are the same and nothing alike.
And some stuff about cities too.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a junior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.