A Simple Way Travel Humbles You

You never forget your firsts.

The first time I stood beneath the Eiffel Tower I was almost two weeks into living in Paris. I’d spent those two weeks getting settled into my neighbourhood (14eme arrondissement), figuring out the metro, getting terribly lost on the metro (several times), trying to get ahead on upcoming classes, and moving into my apartment. A lot was happening, and with all of it came stress. The final hump to settling into my home of four months was getting a French bank account. I walked into a nearby Societe Generale, nervously clutching my proof of residence form and passport, hoping that I knew enough French banking vocabulary to get through this step. My final step. To my own surprise, I did and as I headed towards my bus home, full of pride, I saw another bus stop sign with the words Tour Eiffel printed on it. In that moment it occurred to me that in all my stress and worry, I’d failed to stop and take a look around. I was in Paris. So, I waited the five minutes it took for the bus to reach me, and, if I’m honest, prepared to be underwhelmed. As the bus approached her, and she grew so high that her apex seemed to almost reach up into the heavens, I instantly felt anchored. It was the most peculiar feeling. For a moment, after the confused, anxious haze those first two weeks had been, I knew where I was and felt the true weight of what that meant. But this post isn’t so much about Paris, but instead, about Rome.

My arrival to Rome was bumpy. In an attempt to save money, I’d booked a ticket with a 18 hour layover in Lisbon, which after a five hour flight (which I did not sleep on) and jet lag,  left me exhausted. The following day, I boarded a 6am flight to Rome from Lisbon, sensing the achy beginnings of the flu spreading throughout my body. Getting into the city from the airport and to my hotel seemed like another feat, marked by the inconvenience of a closed metro station (due to a worker’s strike), and two men following me as I frantically searched for a cheaper way to get to my hotel without needing to speak any Italian (which I speak zilch of). As I settled into my queen-sized bed, I immediately felt my body clinging to the clean sheets, begging for rest. And this time, my body won. I spent the first day, of a four-day trip, sleeping.

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Planning out how to get around on foot.

The following day, determined to keep the cold creeping up in my throat at bay, I walked out onto Roman streets with my camera and cough drops in reach. Now I’ve trekked through my fair share of cities, but never have I explored any city like I did Rome. I walked everywhere. I walked past everything, to everything and encountered beauty on several turns. But you never forget your real firsts.

The first time I saw the Colosseum was by accident. I was trying to find it, looking for signs, with only a weak cellphone signal, a vague idea where it might be and how I might get to it. In all my confusion (and hunger—I’d skipped lunch) I’d almost missed it. I was stopped at a red light of a random intersection and looked to my left and there it was.

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Caught by surprise.

The moment felt all too familiar. Suddenly, after the drama that it was to get to Rome, to my hotel, and all, I finally felt like I was there, in Rome. My frustration quickly turned into excitement. I walked to him, and well, it’s hard to put into words. Many people go to  popular cities and look for the “insider” experience, trying to find where the locals are and trying to do what the locals do. They steer clear of what’s touristy and too commercialized. I get it. I’m mostly the same way. But there’s something about seeing for yourself the iconic symbols you’ve only seen in magazines or in film. Famous images of tall buildings with all that history you’ve only read and wondered about. No matter how riddled with tourists those places are, when you finally reach them, they pull you in.

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It’s like for so long the most you could do was touch the waxy coating of the image, and then suddenly there you are. Not only are you the one taking the picture, you’re inside of it, interacting with it and then it’s not image at all. It’s real and so are you. It grounds you. That’s what it felt like seeing the Colosseum, like my feet were on the ground after a day of feeling like I was still stuck in the air. I love so many things about cities like Paris and Rome, things that are less well known, the people, the art, but, the things I appreciate most are those big, famed buildings. They are a sign that you’ve arrived to your destination. They’re a sign that you’re not alone in this world. People, hundreds or thousands of years ago, built those places. Those buildings have been pillaged and broken and worn with time, yet still they stand as they stood before you were ever anything and they’ll continue to exist when you are once again nothing. It’s truly the most humbling experience. A unique experience I can say I’ve only gotten from going out and seeing the world.

So, here’s to firsts! And to Rome. And I suppose to Paris. And to all that grounds you.

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Happy traveling!

-Afia

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The Greatest Showman: Hollywood’s Habit of Romanticizing Racists and Sensationalizing Diversity

 

Diversity. Lately that word has been everywhere, from college campuses to all sorts of industries. It has specifically been the latest buzzword for anything and everything related to movies and television. It’s almost like everyone is trying to be more “diverse” — at least seemingly so.

The most notable popular dissent for lack of diversity on screen, in the last year or so, culminated in last year’s #Oscarssowhite movement. The hashtag, which arose from the lack of non-white Oscar nominees in 2016’s Academy Awards, led to a social media movement for those dissatisfied with the lack of non-white characters in film. People wanted to see faces that reflected the world they live in. They wanted films that didn’t box the stories of those in marginalised groups into predictable and often insulting tropes dating back to the days when human beings could be owned like cattle. Yet, for all the demand for new voices and all the support for entertainment that puts black and brown faces at the forefront of human narratives (such as Broadway’s Hamilton, which for all its shortcomings, helped make the conversation on diversity and inclusion cool and hip, but more importantly digestible for a rich, white audience) not much has actually changed. The kind of spaces that need to be made for acts that are as diverse as their audience is something that, unfortunately, no hashtag or one musical can orchestrate overnight. The entertainment industry has a diversity problem. That’s not new. Unfortunately, what feels new is how instead of this outcry making room for actual diversity within films (both in front of and behind the camera) and throughout film genres, it has instead made ample room for “false diversity.” This diversity is the kind where actors of color can be main characters, but only if they play the same sidekick roles to their white counterparts. The kind where actors of color are only put in leading roles if their image aligns with popular, Eurocentric beauty standards. The kind where non-trans actors are playing trans persons. The kind where disabled people, more than capable of representing themselves, are played by able-bodied persons. It’s the type of diversity that meets the minimum requirement for what can be considered diverse story-telling, while maintaining the focus of the narrative on the same characters we’re used to seeing in lead, speaking roles: straight, white, cis, men. And there’s no better example for this than in 2017’s The Greatest Showman.

The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and the ever so dazzling Zendaya, is, in of itself, a decent movie. Loosely based on the life of showman and politician, P.T. Barnum, it tells of Barnum’s beginnings as a poor, orphaned boy in New York and follows his successes in show business, as well as his personal and professional downfalls through song. It’s a musical that chooses to tackle an enduring and beloved American story motif: from rags to riches—but even in this, such a presumably easy mark, it fails. Somehow, though, that is not its biggest disappointment. Anyone who looks up the name “P.T. Barnum” will find information on a most despicable person and that is who the entire film is based upon.

When I first saw the trailer for the film earlier this year, I made the incorrect assumption that, first, it was fiction, having never heard of Barnum before. My second assumption was that it would tell of an origin story of the circus that showed an inclusive haven for its performers. After all, who would make a feel good, family film based on a truly despicable and disturbing world? I thought, based off the trailer, and admittedly the twinkle in Hugh Jackman’s eye, that like many parts of entertainment industry born out of the need to create art in a world that is unwelcoming of you at face value (such as hip hop for example), the circus began as a welcomed place for the mistreated and disenfranchised. With exposure and popularity, it would then be degraded by greedy capitalists looking to supply popular demand at whatever cost, leading to the exploitation and mistreatment of its performers (something I vaguely kne  to be true about the circus). I could never imagine that its founder would be the Source. To be brief, I was willfully naïve and hopeful. Silly me.

 The Greatest Showman in of itself is not terrible. Hugh Jackman, who plays Barnum is, unsurprisingly, charming (it’s Hugh fucking Jackman). Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer we have to thank for Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012), pulls us in once again with stunning visuals. The music is camp and exuberant. The actors are wonderfully charismatic; their voices meld together in exquisite harmony, and the dance numbers are just fun.  This musical really wants you to have a good time watching it. It’s all great…that is, until you actually start paying attention to what the characters are doing and saying.

Barnum is portrayed as an overarching benevolent figure, a wonderful father, and devoted husband whose only negative trait is that he wishes to be loved by a world that constantly rejects him for his humble beginnings as a poor tailor’s son. Barnum’s mistreatment of his performers is hardly addressed. His need to be loved by the elite, leads to one number where Barnum casts his circus’ performers out of a formal after party after a performance by singer Jenny Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson), who happens to be the only act he produces acceptable for New York City’s upper class. Classism is his only rival, and his need to conquer it at any cost, even to the dismay of his family and his employees, his Achilles heel. His critics are the only ones depicted as close-minded, backwards bigots, who just don’t understand unique art when it smacks them in the face. They’re the racist, ableist ones, no one else, especially not Barnum. It’s positively nauseating once you read even just one article about the actual person.

Plot-wise, The Greatest Showman has many eye-rolling points. The rags to riches story which threads the entire movie is weak. In the end, Barnam just comes out looking greedy and reckless, needing to be inspired by the people he rejects, the circus performers, to pull his life together when he loses his investment in Lind and the circus building to a fire. The film doesn’t actually address ableism in the circus industry. It addresses racism so lightly that if you knew nothing about race-based micro-aggressions and, well, racism, you wouldn’t understand why Zendaya’s character, Anne Wheeler, and her brother, W.D. (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) feel uncomfortable when the circus is invited to meet Queen Victoria. It downplays it to something that you have to interpret, when racism at the time was incredibly overt culturally, socially and systematically, especially in entertainment. There is one other scene where Anne and Philip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron, attempt to have a date at the theatre and are interrupted by his parents, who voice their disapproval of the interracial pair and call Wheeler “the help”. That is as explicit as it gets. Showman never shows how Barnum’s first act was a black, enslaved elderly woman named Joice Heth. Or how he wore blackface. Or literally any other horrible thing he did or said. The Greatest Showman exemplifies where this cry for diversity leaves us. It has all the makings of a film that could humanize people of all skin colors, physical ability, and gender identity; people who have a hard time being humanized in popular media as it is. Yet, it never addresses the truth about the person on which its based and except for the curious (that’s putting it nicely) love story between Zendaya’s and Zac Efron’s characters, treats the circus’s performers as mere background dancers. Even the phenomenal Tony-nominated Keala Settle, who plays Lettie Lutz (also known as the bearded lady) seems to only be used for the very high notes in song. Tragic.

Showman does what is bound to happen again and again, if people don’t continue to pay attention and take issue. It has the diverse cast filled with the sorts of people you wouldn’t expect to get lines in a big studio film, but they’re really just the props behind the tall, strapping, straight, cis-gender white guy. It’s wasteful and insulting. So, I have only one thing to say about it and those who wish to create films like it: do better. Stop using black and brown bodies, disabled people, trans persons, gender non-conforming persons, basically anyone who you’ve seen come out on your Twitter feed or Facebook home page lately to demand better treatment in our world, as “curiosities” in order to hoodwink butts into seats. Instead, make movies about those people, movies that show them in their fullness, as the living, breathing, complicated human beings that they are. Produce these films, put your full weight behind them. Do not keep making movies about the types of people who, were they alive today, wouldn’t even see the people you overlook as human beings. People who exploit them. People who hate them all but for what they can do for their coin purse. Or if you are going to make films about them, do so honestly.

To be brief: do better.

-Afia wa Mwenze

 

 

15 Pieces of Advice From My 21-Year-Old Self

So, my birthday was last week. I am officially 21 years old. Despite hiding behind my age for practically my entire life, here I am, saying it out loud (or rather writing it publicly): I am 21.

I know that for a lot people, I’m not at an age I should feel embarrassed by, but I have always been ashamed of my age. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I am the youngest. Before my little brother, I was the youngest of three. At 16, I was the youngest in my high school graduating class. At 20, I was the youngest person I knew graduating college in my year. All my friends have been at least two years older than me, if not older. I am always “the baby”. It’s always felt like a burden, a reason for people to assume things about me before getting to know me. So unless I needed to be truthful about my age (for legal reasons), I lied.

No more lying. It’s time to start settling into myself. I now feel that I have acquired enough little nuggets of wisdom worth sharing.

Here it goes:

  1. To my pre-teen and teenage self: do not put so much weight on what a person says just because they are an adult. Conversely, to my adult self: do not put so much weight on what a person says just because they’re older than you or in a position of authority. You can respect someone without allowing them to put their fears and frustrations on you. You’re not a blank canvas for some high school counselor, professor, or parent to paint themselves onto. Go after what you want, not what they tell you you can get.
  2. Molding your life around one person is usually a bad idea. No matter how permanent they may feel at the moment, you never know what will happen. It’s okay to look after yourself first. It doesn’t mean you care about the other person any less.
  3. No one can love you as much as you should love yourself. Often, especially as women, we’re led to believe our value as people is tied to the worth we’re given. That mindset leaves you craving  approval. “Am I thin enough, tall enough, smart enough, beautiful enough to be loved?” Consequently, when you’re not being approved by others,  you devalue yourself. Loving yourself unconditionally is the only way to combat this. You should love yourself fully, faults and all. It can be hard, but it is vital.
  4. One of the many keys to life, which will open many doors for you, is discipline. I still struggle with this one. Just this morning, I smashed my snooze button three times before rolling out of bed. Nonetheless, be it in your work, in your eating habits, in anything, learn to be disciplined.
  5. Never mix light and dark liquor. No matter how strong you think your stomach is, it’s never strong enough.
  6. Do not downplay your interests. My mother likes to say, “Don’t sit on your talents.” It took me a really long time to express to people that I like to write. I would always be self-deprecating and downplay my interest and my ability. Doing that with all kinds of things I liked to do–acting, photography, illustrating–left me feeling stuck and denied me the practice necessary to cultivate my skills. It left me stuck between what I was doing (nothing) and I wanted to be doing (everything). Now that I want to pursue these interests, professionally or even merely as hobbies, I feel behind. I could have finished my 10,000 hours by now. So annoying.
  7. He is not that important. Get a hobby.
  8. Learn to ride the wave. I have the habit of deleting too many things, people, and memories from my life. It’s a coping mechanism that has robbed me of remembering the good things in order to forget the bad. Learn to ride the wave. Being uncomfortable is not always a bad thing. Remembering the mistakes, the embarrassing moments, as painful as they are, can be helpful. It helps you learn and grow.
  9. Stop making room for people who don’t value you or your time —i.e., you don’t have to like everyone. I learned this lesson at a very young age. It’s not that you should go around disliking any and everyone who rubs you the wrong way. It is okay, however, after knowing someone or talking to someone for a little while, to distance yourself from them. Every person you meet is not meant to play a role in your life.
  10. Family is whatever you define it to be. Just because you share a grandparent with someone, doesn’t mean they love you more deeply than someone who’s shown to value you throughout your life. You can make your own family. You’re not betraying anything or anyone if that’s what you choose to do.
  11. You are no one’s punching bag. We all need to vent to people we feel close to, sure.  If, however, you’re not a licensed counselor or therapist, you are not forced to absorb someone’s bad energy or negativity all the time. When someone is always venting to you and takes what they’re struggling with out on you, it may mean that it’s time to let that soul-sucker go.
  12. If you’re on a road and you feel you’ve made a mistake, turn back.That’s another piece of advice from mom. It’s hard to start over. It’s hard to turn back. It’s hard to admit a mistake. But it’s worse to live in regret. I’ve seen it destroy people. Don’t be afraid to turn back and go elsewhere.
  13. Be kind to yourself. For this, I like the quote: “If someone spoke to you in the way you speak about yourself, would you be friends with them?” At the end of the day, you are the only person that you will have to live with for your entire life. Do you really want to spend all that that time, the only time you’ll ever have, hating yourself? Seems like an enormous waste to me.
  14. Things will happen how they’re meant to happen. You might have read this one in a fortune cookie or heard it in the form of a song (Que sera, que sera, anyone?). I’ve found this nugget of wisdom, as cliché as it is, to be the truest and most unchanging thing in my life. Many of my accomplishments, many of my closest friends, many of my most cherished memories are a result of life taking an unintended turn. It might have made me stumble onto things I’d never imagined doing, but often, they become the best things I’ve ever done.
  15. Nothing lasts forever. This should be intuitive, but I think being young has a way of making you feel like where you are is where you’ll always be. That is a dangerous way too look at life. In truth, the only constant thing about life is that it isn’t constant. There’s comfort in remembering that; at least, there is for me.

I think most of these have to do with the decisions we make and how we deal with them. I realize more and more how much my life is a culmination of every choice I’ve ever made and how I deal with the consequences of those choices. I think we forget how much power and control we have over ourselves. I know I do. I chose to endure a year at a school I was being bullied at because of a boy, who ended up publicly humiliating me in front of my whole class and his.

I’ve chosen to be lazy. I’ve chosen to give up on myself. My life, as good as it can be, as great as it has been, has been of my own making, even when things have gone horribly wrong. Sometimes, especially when things have gone horribly wrong. Knowing this doesn’t mean that I’ll stop making bad choices or that I am now immune from failure. Life has a way of bringing the bad with the good, no matter how much you try to avoid it. It just means that instead of tearing myself down for those mistakes or failings, I can pick myself up a little faster and, maybe, a little gentler.

Anyway, I’m 21. At 13, I didn’t think I’d make it this far, but here I am.

Until next year,

Afia

 

PS: It’ll be interesting to read this at 30. Perhaps, I should make an alarm for 9 years in the future. Or is that bad luck?

Copenhagen: In Search of Hygge

Denmark is cold in October. And by cold, I mean freezing. I know this for a fact, because a year ago I was in its capital, Copenhagen. As someone who finds my own personal hygge (the Danish word for a feeling of extraordinary comfort) in 80°F weather, the idea of a cold vacation seemed laughable. Who goes from a cold place during winter to an even colder place for vacation? Well apparently, as I’ve come to learn, plenty of people do…now, including me.

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I arrived at night, taking the train from the airport into the city using my Copenhagen Card, and trekked to my roomate’s friend’s apartment, where I was staying. I had ignorantly left my coat at home in Paris, so that walk goes down as the longest and coldest one of my life. Delirious and exhausted (from what, I’m not sure), I crashed instantly, but not before making a pact with my roommate, who I was travelling with, that we’d wake up early to take advantage of the meagre four days we had.

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Spoiler: we slept in much later than we ought have.

Architecture:

 

I have a few friends who’d been to the city and rave about Danish architecture. From the royal family’s palace, Amelianborg, to the greenhouse in the botanical gardens, to the classic row houses found on its river’s banks, Copenhagen’s buildings are breathtaking. If you’re an architecture buff, you’ll find a lot to fawn over. I’m not sure how they built the roof over the aquarium, but woah, am I right?

Food:

I travel to eat. There, I said it. It’s my favorite part of visiting a new city. I like trying traditional foods. I like trying foods from immigrants, because they tend to blend the local cultures with their own in interesting ways. This is especially true at Papirøen, or Paper Island, a warehouse filled with international street vendors. There, I ate the best Turkish falafel, best Brazilian barbecue, and best apple fritters I’ve ever tasted. If I weren’t vegan now, I would fly back to Copenhagen just for the Brazilian chicken and sausage at Paper Island.

 

 

Aside from Paper Island, you can find cool eateries easily all around the city. Many of the restaurants we loved we found on the fly, desperate for substance and a place to sit. So just walk around and you’re guaranteed to find something yummy to eat. I will say, the deserts at Tivoli blew my mind.

Tivoli

There’s a lot more I could say about Copenhagen and, I admit, I’ve been having a hard time summarizing what it is that stuck out to me about it. In some ways, I think that’s the point. The city has a slow burning effect on you. One minute all you can think about is how cold your hands are and the next you’re staring at some of the most beautiful architecture you’ve ever seen or eating the best Brazilian food you’ve ever tasted, and all the little things that bring you down fade away. I didn’t really get to appreciate how much I enjoyed my time there until I looked back on some of the photos. Reliving this city in my mind, through the few moments I captured, solidifies Copenhagen as one of my favorite cities to date.

Don’t be afraid to book a ticket and get traveling!

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Eating in Montreal: the Good, the Bad, and the Poutine (Vegan/Vegetarian Edition)

Montreal was by far the best trip I took this year. Travelling solo can be daunting. Having to spend all that time by yourself, with yourself. In those times, my go to activities to keep my mind and body occupied are eating and walking. Montreal is a great place to do both. This post will be about the eating–where to find great food and what to avoid. I’ll tell you all about the wondrous and odd things I saw while walking the streets of Montreal some other time.

Changing from a meat-centered diet to a plant-based one was something I always knew I would eventually do. I never quite liked the way meat made me feel, most dairy makes me sick, and the older I’ve gotten, the more vegetarians and vegans I’ve come to know. Switching was just a no-brainer. Travelling, however, brings about a real challenge to maintaining a strict vegan diet. Exploring an unknown city is difficult. When you add dietary restrictions to the mix, it can be a nightmare. Often, Google will orient you to overpriced hipster hang outs, where everything is kale and in the form of a burger. Or you’ll end up in a seedy pub where the only vegetarian thing to eat is the fries. So, I did the only thing one can do in such a situation, I started with Tinder. My goal was not to date (I only had ten days). My goal was to find cool spots from the locals. Together with Google and Tinder, I found some great eateries and even stumbled upon a few. Here are all the meals I loved, liked, disliked, and hated in Montreal:

Loved:

 

 

 

My first dinner in Montreal was at Lola Rosa Cafe, near McGill University. Having matched with a couple of vegans on Tinder and scoured the internet for recommendations, this restaurant seemed to be at the top of everyone’s list–and for good reason! While I ordered the burger (something I thought I wouldn’t do, because I normally dislike most veggie burgers), I was pleasantly surprised at how delicious it was. It even led to me to order desert (an apple tart), which was also very good and vegan!

Speaking of veggie burgers, I am hereby petitioning A&W to open a location in Philadelphia. It would be nice to have a fast food restaurant with veggie options. One where they don’t just put grilled vegetables inside a bun (I’m looking at you Five Guys). A&W had a really convenient location in Gay Village, where I was staying, right by Berri-UQAM metro station. It was the perfect midnight snack, when everything else was closed and I felt the twinge of hunger at an unholy hour. It was also a good pick me up after a full day of walking around the city. The sweet potato fries were crazy good!

Walking back from a park near Sherbrooke metro station, I stumbled upon Mañana, a Mexican restaurant with a life-sized cut out of Frida Kahlo in front. It seemed like a good sign. When I walked in, having already eaten dinner, I was greeted by a cute waitress with a sunny disposition. The decor inside was breathtaking. Everything felt handmade; it was like being in someone’s home. The plates were hand painted, all the paintings were different renditions of popular Mexican pieces (mostly Frida Kahlo’s). I was in love. I sat down, charged my phone, and ordered not one, but two strawberry margaritas. Mañana advertises itself as having the best margaritas in the city. I can’t say that they’re wrong. The drinks were so refreshing. After a sweltering day in July, they make you feel like you truly deserve them.

 

 

There is a reason why you have to wait 30 minutes in line just to get into L’Avenue for brunch. It is damn good. When a friend took a day to come to see me in Montreal from Toronto, we decided the only real way to start the day correctly was by having brunch. We looked for a place and every review seemed to agree that L’Avenue is where you go. When it was finally our turn to get inside, we were sat down at a tiny table underneath a hanging motorcycle. Of course, a round of mimosas was in order. As I’ve warned you, I chose to go the vegetarian route for this trip, so I ordered eggs benedict (and I have no regrets). It was gooooood. L’Avenue has the best hollandaise sauce I’ve ever tasted. A little tipsy from the potent mimosa, and an even more potent bellini that followed, we walked out of there full and ready for the day.

 

The last best meal I had in Montreal was completely vegan. Arepera du Plateau is, like many restaurants in the city, small in size and big in flavour. A friend who empathised with my vegan plight, recommended it to me. Excited to try Venezuelan food for the first time, I shuffled down to Sherbrooke station (again) to get there. I ordered a plate of sweet plantains, rice, beans, and an arepa. I sat in that restaurant, my above mentioned friend on WhatsApp video keeping me company, in awe. I have had my fair share of rice and beans(I’m African). I have had sweet plantains before (I’m African). But this, this was another experience entirely. Maybe it was the presence of the arepa, I’m not sure. All I know, is that I took a togo order of an arepa filled with plantains and beans. Not to eat right away, since I was already so full, but to have for later. So, so good.

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Arepera du Plateau Meal

Liked:

For the meals I liked, they were all from restaurants I stumbled upon, usually desperate and hungry.

 

 

The first was a pizza from, I’m not kidding, The Pizzeria. It was a block from my hostel. The waiters were all very attractive. It felt like a good choice. It was okay. I didn’t eat there again.

The second was breakfast. My first full day in the city, I decided to walk from Gay Village to Old Montreal to look at the river and have some something to eat. At first, Google failed me by making me go into a dingy cafe right by the Notre Dame Basilica; so instead, I was forced to rely on my wits. That’s how I found Restaurant Jacques Cartier, in Jacques Cartier square. The potatoes were really good and there was a bird (Fred, I called him) who hopped around outside as I inhaled my food, and eventually went onto better things.

The third and final meal was *drumroll* escargots! I know, I know. This is neither vegan nor vegetarian, but much like the ants, I had to try them. I can’t remember the restaurant’s name. It was an Italian restaurant in Old Montreal. I do remember, however, this dish. It was chewy like rubber, but full of flavour. I can understand why people enjoy it. I liked it.

Disliked:

Three words: Ant-covered Ice Cream

 

 

 

I’m no stranger to eating insects. I grew up in a country where larvae and caterpillars are delicacies. So, when I saw the sign for insect tastings, as I walked through Montreal’s shared Botanical Garden and Insectarium, I had to give it a try. Mind you, I don’t love eating bugs. In the past, they’ve either been really good or simply edible, with no flavour or texture worth remembering. (Except for the one time I ate fried termites, never again). Given all my experience, I thought eating some ants on chocolate covered ice cream would be fine, good even. I was wrong. It wasn’t horrible, but suffice to say, I would not eat it again.

I’m glad I gave it a try, though.

Hated:

Poutine

Poutine

Originally, my plan had been to stick with vegan options, considering as I mentioned, how many there are in Montreal. But given where I was and how accessible this iconic food is, it seemed a bit gauche not to give poutine a taste. In a coffee shop, on a break from a long uphill walk, my friend and I got advice from its owner on where to find the best poutine in the city: La Banquise. We stumbled there around midnight, sober, with hopes of finding the most vegetarian version of it we could. La Banquise is a rather small shop, and given its popularity, it was filled with people. To be honest, just the humidity and the smell of grease made me nauseous. I couldn’t bear standing in line. In the end, my friend braved her way through, got the classic, and went back to our hostel.

Perhaps this photo doesn’t do it justice. Perhaps I was too full on the dinner I’d already had. Perhaps I wasn’t drunk enough to need “fatty, drunk” food (which is what I’m convinced poutine is). I honestly don’t know. All I can say is that I found poutine to be revolting and inedible. I won’t insult it further. I have already received outrage from a few people for hating this dish so much. But I suppose the moral of this story is that not everything is for everyone. Poutine certainly was not for me (or my friend, who I think chucked it when I wasn’t looking).

Montreal is a huge city. I can’t honestly say that I have peeled off even one layer of all the delicious cuisine available. But, in only ten days, I ate some of the best food I’ve had all year. As a part-time vegan, part-time vegetarian, it was nice to have options (all we ever want are options!). It’s such a diverse city, culturally, so, it was very cool to get a taste of different cuisines that fit my dietary restrictions.

Basically what I’m saying is, if you’re looking for a city that is going to feed you well, look no further. Book a ticket and bon appetit!

-Afia

Falling in Love with Cali

Before joining a friend of mine on her solo trip to Colombia, I had never heard of Cali. My embarrassing ignorance of Colombia’s third largest city, led me to a light Google search, which only made me even more reluctant to pay sixty dollars for the two hour flight from Medellin (the first leg of my trip). Cali seems somewhat unimpressive on paper.  It was, however, only a three-day stop and the weather was meant to be pleasant. If nothing else, I had found a great Airbnb and was assured a good time with my friend. When I told a few people in Medellin that I was making a quick stop in Cali, they all reacted with the same word: salsa (the dance, not the sauce). This made me a bit more relieved; simply because I am tempted to think, where there are people dancing salsa, there is always a good time.

 

In truth, there isn’t much to see in Cali. In comparison to Medellin, Cali is small and mostly uneventful. Its museums and major tourist sites can all be explored in three or four days with proper planning. It has beautiful churches, and though we arrived on the weekend when museums were closed, we were supplemented culturally by a festival celebrating music and art from the region. From what I gathered talking to a few travellers, most people visit Cali for the excursions offered outside of the city (mostly parasailing and hiking). What there is to see, however, is quite beautiful.

 

During the day, many people stay indoors, because of the intense heat. If you do choose to walk around before 3pm (bless you), you’re bound to hear the faint sound of salsa music coming from a dance studio. Or maybe, you’ll encounter the sweet smell of ripe fruit from outdoor merchants, fanning themselves on a street corner. The thick humidity is such that it makes you feel as if you could graze your fingers upon the air and touch something solid. So understandably, the streets are quiet, which allows you to admire the beauty of its oldest neighbourhood, San Antonio’s architecture and the city’s overall tropical verdure in peace. I was particularly fond of the murals. They are abundant and colourful. I also enjoyed La Ermita church, although it too was closed. Right by La Ermita is a small park, Parque de las Poetas. There you’ll find sitting statues of different Colombian poets, inscribed with their personal views of the city . It was nice to sit with Ricardo Nieto and Antonio Llanos and piece together (with my one-semester-freshman-year-of-college Spanish) what they too admired about the city. Cali is very much a city with all the dusty paved roads and boisterous traffic jams to be expected from one. Yet, it has a small town charm one can easily fold into.

 

At night is when the city comes to life. For one, more people are out and about. Only then can you truly get a sense of the culture for which the city is known. Though unexplored in its entirety, my travel partner and I ventured to Zaperoco, a prominent salsa club. The high ratings and abundant positive recommendations found online made us fearful that it would be filled with people like us, tourists wanting to watch people dance and not actual salsa dancers. Thankfully, we were wrong, and instead were entranced by the natural sway of the couples, who danced as if it were in their DNA to move to the sounds of Celia Cruz and Joe Arroyo.

 

The second night was all for Bad Bunny! The Puertorican musician was the closing artist for the Remote de ICFES, an end of the school year festival. Most of the concertgoers were young teenagers, making me, at 20 years old, feel old. But the repetitive beats and  “charisma” of the dancers on stage make you forget that you’re standing on your feet for three hours and surrounded by people who could not have been born before the year 2000. Afterwards, back in the comfort of my room, I could hear to friends, lovers covening in the park near my Airbnb, packed outside of restaurants, comparing motorbikes and enjoying an array of fried meats.

Which reminds me, I mustn’t forget to write about the food–or maybe more so the drinks. It would be a sin.

The best meal I had, a bowl of pasta, was from Museo La Tertulia‘s restaurant. The best coffee I have ever had was from my Airbnb hostess. According to her, the man she buys it from grinds and distributes his coffee from a van, that he drives around town making deliveries. Whenever she needs a refill, she phones him up and he’s at her doorstep the following day. It’s such a personal transaction, one most likely filled with brief pleasantries– an hola, a como esta, a quick ciao at the end. It added such a nice touch to the already small-town feel the city can give you.

 

Between the coffee, the lulada, a drink made from the lulo (fruit baby of an orange and kiwi), and the bread (there’s always breald), I was always loaded with enough carbs for afternoon naps and reading under the sun. Other than eating and walking, sitting and snapping pictures, hydrating on limonadas de coco and the Celia Cruz Mojitos (hands down the best mojito I’ve EVER had) was all I did. Filling up on french toast and walking in the hot sun just makes you thirsty.

 

All in all, Cali is an acquired taste. My travel partner’s fondest memory of the city is of her counting the seconds until she could board the plane away from it. I, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Perhaps it was because it was smaller and San Antonio is much quainter, and in some ways livelier, than where I stayed in Medellin. Whatever it is that made me fall in love with Cali, I am grateful for it. I am grateful for the cool breeze grazing my neck, after a long night being mesmerised by seasoned salsa dancers in Zaperoco. I am grateful for lulada. I am grateful for the afro and indigenous faces plastered on nearly every mural, celebrating the city’s racial diversity. I am grateful for my Airbnb hostess, Yelitza, who embodied the overarching ease and friendliness I often encountered often from the people I met there.  If I never opened my mouth to reveal my gringa accent, I would blend in.  If nothing else, that made Cali, even if just for three days, feel like home.

I look forward to a time when I can explore more of what the region has to offer.

Until then,

Cali es Cali, y lo demás es loma.

 

 

Why I Will Never Get Married

Qui va vouloir te marier?

When I was sixteen, I told my closest cousin that I did not want to get married. I wanted children, but not marriage. She, two years my junior, immediately got offended. In her eyes, I was a disgrace to my culture, religion, and my kids were destined to be bastards. “Tu me dégoûte,” she said. We don’t really speak, anymore.

Over the years, my attitude on marriage has remained the same. I want no part in it. Whatever value it has does not outweigh its detriments; and seeing as how easily marriages fail, I have no incentive to change my mind. That being said, marriage can be wonderful and for many is a defining step in their lives. It marks the progression of adulthood. It’s like a rising note, just about to hit life’s most anticipated crescendo, childbearing. I enjoy viewing marriages from afar, but never care to involve myself in the practice. This is unlikely to change.

What interests me, however, is how we as women, specifically African women, are reared to value marriage as the end all and be all of life. How did my cousin, at fourteen, grow to view an unwed mother with such disdain?  Was it culture or religion? Perhaps a mixture of the two. At its core, it boils down to how we value human beings. We are constantly reminded that much of our value as people is dependent on how “marriageable” we are. While I’ve known this for some time, I hadn’t realized how imbedded this viewpoint is in the elevation of young girls, until I spent time with my half sister, a few summers ago.

Eloise, my half-sister, who at the time of my visit was four, is a whiz. She is raw, fiery energy personified. The first time I met her, I was astounded at how I could be related to a girl so beautiful and so outspoken. When I was growing up, being a girl meant wearing a mask of demureness at all times. Your voice should be low. Your actions deliberate. It was a mask that never quite fit on me, and evidently neither on my sister. Like many four-year-olds, Eloise never stops talking, she never stops moving, and she has an unlimited line of questions ready for every conversation. She has a big personality, at times too big for even the most patient person. But what makes her untamed and rowdy to some is not solely due to her actions, but because she is a girl. All day, phrases about her marriageability are thrown her way. “If you don’t stop talking, you’ll drive your husband crazy.” “Who’s going to marry you if you keep acting this way.” “Ton mari va souffrir.”(You’ll make your husband suffer).  The last one was a favorite and each time I heard it, a wave of disappointment ran through me. Eloise was four. Four year olds should only have to think about toys and crayons, or whatever it is kids are naturally into. They should not have to worry about some imaginary man, getting down on his imaginary knee, to propose an imaginary marriage.

Marriage is important. I must make that clear. It is a tangible bond between people. It allows for people to feel committed, to feel connected. Its importance in history has brought families together, as much as its torn them apart. But it is not a pre-requisite for happiness or fulfillment. It is not required to have children. It does not make someone more than or less than. While it has been described as transformational for some, it is not on its own merit transforming much. It is what it is. I wish that could be the message we give young girls.  I wish more young girls knew that it is they who determine their value. A man can never and should never be at its center. I wish more young girls, especially African girls, could get stronger messages of that. And while, this is changing, I see how much these ideas of marriageability linger on. Let kids be kids. Let them exist in their fullness, in their rowdiness or timidity, without falling prey to systems which suppress them. Because, suppression is not a cultural attribute, no matter how you dress it.

The way Eloise was treated, how suppressed her outspokenness was, in preparation for a marriage yet to come reminds me of the article written by Tressie McMillan Cottom, titled How We Make Black Girls Grow Up Too Fast. The article was written in response to the recent accusations of R.Kelly’s pedophelia and the response by so many of his fans, excusing his behavior rather than rallying to support the young black girls he allegedly preys upon. So many of us fail to see how we, through our words and actions, tell girls that they are women before their time. We allow for them to be objects of sexual pleasure before we allow them to be children. Even though I personally hated being a kid, I look back now and wish the world could have allowed me to be one for as long as possible. Childhood innocence is invaluable. It is something that is bound to be taken, one way or another. Having girls worry about how they can be valued as wives before how they can be valued as people is a problem. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it best in her popular Ted-Talk We Should All Be Feminists,

 Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important…We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likable. We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons. All over the world, there are so many magazine articles and books telling women what to do, how to be and not to be, in order to attract or please men. There are far fewer guides for men about pleasing women.

Whenever I criticize the institution of marriage, and how for centuries it has been used to oppress and suppress women (this is a fact), I get pushback. I try not to get into these conversations about marriage with people from back home. If I do, however, find myself sharing my views, I am immediately seen as too Westernized. America, to them, has made me lose my values. I was once on a seven-hour flight to Kinshasa, sitting next to a man who, in between relentless and unwanted sexual advances, made sure to tell me how Congolese girls who go to America lose their morals. “They become sluts,” he said. Meanwhile, the girls from back home were better. They got married. Did not have children out of wedlock, like American girls do. Why he felt comfortable enough to say that to me, I am still unsure. I suppose, he had marked me as one of the good ones. He did, however, prove to me how much women are expected to live and behave beneath the male gaze. The cruel words he had for women who refused to do so, struck me. They hurt. They reminded me of my cousin’s words which hurt much the same. To that man, and to my cousin, and countless others, I have lost my culture, I am too American, (or must be gay, which is another issue on its own), and that is why, I will never get married.