An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, First Impressions

We woke to African birdsong.

The travel was from St. Louis was long. Three planes, more than 36 hours travel time. Namibia is not set up for travel from the US. It’s easier to get here from Asia or Europe.

Americans simply do not have a concept of the size of this continent, partly because our maps are wrong. Africa is drawn smaller than it is. It’s really time to change our maps. But that’s another issue.

The drive from the airport to the city, about 45km, shows the beauty of the desert. Springbok were everywhere! Windhoek was founded by German Colonialists who were shown the deep water sources here… an oasis in the desert. The surface is dry but the water flows below. LIfe can be sustained and lived well.

It is hot. And the altitude is that of Denver. I felt it this morning on a walk to the market for supplies.

Just a brief description. Namibia is bordered by South Africa on the southeast, Angola on the north, Botswana on the east. It is the twice the size of California, but with only 2 million people. It was part of the South African Apartheid system until Namibian independence in 1990. The first free election in South Africa was 1994. This is a young country. Inequities still exist, of course, but Namibia has done a better job of finding reconciliation between whites, blacks and mixed race people. Many people still live in traditional ways, though much of their land and cattle stolen by colonials have not been returned. It’s still an issue, but one that is managed in the Namibian way.

What is the Namibian way? Slower, kinder, friendlier. People are helpful and open, but unemployment is 40%, so there are men who will watch your car for a coin or offer you directions. They aren’t beggars, but they do want a little something.

I was told that white women generally do not walk. White tourists walk. And students, I suppose! The taxis “beeped” at Hannah and me constantly as we walked to the market. The city is not “city like,” but more like a rural town with lots of room between homes and businesses. There is no bustle, there are no “blocks,” but wide roads lined by walls and gates that protect the homes or businesses within. There is petty crime, not violent. Mostly the walls create private outdoor living spaces, not armed fortresses.

The feel is organic, slow-paced, and not as materialistic or commercial as North America, Europe or Asia.

We are staying in a guest house that is a compound of smaller buildings.
We have access to a kitchen in a separate building. There is no AC but the slower pace and the building construction — and the lack of humidity — make it bearable. The city does not generate a lot of heat from air conditioning and industry, so the temperatures dip to the 60s at night and the sky is remarkably clear. The air is clean.

There is a garden of succulents, a small pool, a patio and an open eating area. The food is wholesome, fresh and tastes amazing.

Today, we rest and explore a bit. Still I hear the African birdsong.

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View from the garden.

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Jumping Off a Cliff: The Next Journey Begins

Queens, NY

It’s almost midnight and my daughter, Hannah, and I have arrived at our hotel for the next 7 hours. Tomorrow morning we board a South African Airlines flight that 24 hours from now will land us in Windhoek, Namibia.

Haven’t heard of it? Most Americans haven’t. It’s ok. Look it up. It’s stunning.

But this isn’t a story of geography… it’s a story of trust.

Hannah is the main character, but every student I’ve met, ever aspiring artist and photographer who has ever asked me for advice, also plays a role in this play.

Just a little background: my daughter was born to me when I was 40. I was of an age when dreams start to fade. Moms of my generation often realize that we have to launch our children early, or not at all. From birth, she wanted to be around animals. And she has my love for travel, longing to experience new people, new places, new sensations. Long story-short, she is attending university in Namibia to study natural resource management. Not semester abroad… four years.

How can you let her go? I’m asked that a lot. Because that’s who we raised her to be.

But why? Because dreams are unreal until you are brave enough to take the first step. How many dreams are deferred because it’s not practical, or expensive, or misunderstood?

There’s a cliff looming in front of you. And you have to be brave enough — and supported enough — to step off into the unknown. And you have to be trusting enough to know the net will be there.

That brings me back to the artists who call me for advice. They seem to think I have “made it” ( I haven’t), or I know the secret (I don’t.)

What I do know, is that fear stops 90 percent of people from taking that first step toward their goal.

So, what’s my advice? KNOCK IT OFF! Be brave. Take that step already!

You’ll be surprised who’s holding your net.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 11 July 2014

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The Western at the Great Wall,” photo by Iris Lau

Every student in the workshop had to have their photo taken with me. I was a “famous artist” from America, even though I told them I wasn’t. They thought I was being modest. No, really. I’m ordinary. Not to them.

And I expected that many artists wanted a photo op after my lecture and presentation. Only one artist wanted to yell at me… the rest wanted to be close to a “famous American artist.” Again, not so famous. Pop, pop, pop. I hope I was patient, as much as I hate to be photographed. Ironic, eh?

It happened a couple of other times. Someone would approach me: picture? Then every member of the family had his turn.

It’s fair. I ask to take pictures of people I find interesting or exotic. Not that many Westerns still venture here, so exotic. And I was somewhat approachable. I was traveling with a group of women, but was often separated from them as I sought the best angle or light, or examination of a detail. I hope I looked friendly. I know I looked odd.

The group at the top of the Great Wall were the most insistent… At least a dozen people had to have their photo with me. What were they thinking? They were friendly, but were they mocking me? Did they want their friends to see how large Americans really are? Were they just excited to put their arm around a stranger?

Was I friendly enough? I tried, but it was a strange sensation all around. All I hoped was: one more photo for world peace!

*****

Today was my last full day in Beijing, in China. A few brief impressions:

–This is a land of contradictions.

–The proper Chinese way to hand something to someone is with two hands, and a slight bow. It took some practice but now feels natural. I’m insulted when handed things with one hand. I’m being dismissed as unimportant. On the other hand, people seem surprised and honored when I do it the “right” way. Another “world peace” moment.

–Young people here don’t have hobbies. They work. They go to bars. They sing kareoke. Volunteer opportunities are rare, too.

–Chinese are a deeply spiritual people, many practicing Buddhism and Taoism. Western religions might have problems here, but traditional Chinese religions seem to have many practioners. Anyone who says China is godless is a Cold War bore.

–Roaches are everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

–I’m open to new foods, as long as they are vegetarian. I tried and liked dozens, including bamboo root, seaweed noodles, candied taro, dragon fruit.

— On hospitality on restaurants: there isn’t any.

–Also no napkins. Carry tissues. Handy for the squat tiolets, too.

–Police and soldiers are everywhere… and they are unarmed. Still, they are scary.

–Children are allow to run wild. Conformity comes later. I’m not a fan of this practice.

–Make no mistake: Capitalism reigns here. Everyone has a business. Everyone is trying to make a yuan. Everyone.

–Chinese are a fiercely patriotic people. Their middle class is stronger than ours. Don’t get cocky.

–There is pork in everything. EVERYTHING.

–Flowers are no where to be found. I was delighted to see roses growing along the highway in Beijing, but that was the only place. This is a land of extraordinary natural beauty, but there is no beauty in thier lives. It’s a gray place.

–The people who know you are wonderful. Strangers are not, with the exception of older women. Always a connection there.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 10 July 2014

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Fan Dancers, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

I row two -three days a week to try to be fit, I have a daughter who just graduated from college, I have a mortgage I will never pay off…. I do not think of myself as old.

In China, women must retire at age 56; men at 60. That’s the definition of elderly. Sure, lives are harder here. But still, this age feel young.

My guide in Beijing was shocked to learn I was nearly 58. That’s old! Of course, he was also shocked to learn there were many poor people and homeless people in America… apparently we all are rich! He didn’t believe that my family home is half the size of his family home. He was taught we all lived in mansions. But that’s another blog.

So, as a woman two years past retirement age, I should be dancing or doing exercises in the park, playing majong, caring for my grandchildren. I should not be working. Working is for the young.

I look at the women who are my age and they DO look old. They also look happy. I bow and smile and greet them. They bow and smile and greet me back. We are crones. Our children are raised. We can play. Our lives have been returned to us.

Crones know each other.

Younger people here are so rude to me, at least ones who do not know me. It’s not just me. It’s not personal. Push, yell, ignore.

The ones who have become friends are solicitious, making sure I find the step, hold an umbrella over me against the sun, pour more tea. The older women are kind, thoughtful, friendly. We don’t need a common language. We have one.

It’s a immediate sisterhood, this momentary connection we crones have. We know stuff. We know a lot of stuff. But if no one listens, we don’t care: we will fan dance in the park with others our age, knit on the bench together, play a game. Sing a song.

We don’t care. We are happy.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 9 July 2014

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Atop the City Wall, Xi’an China, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios
There’s something about standing on a 700 year old wall, peering out at the moat through an archer’s window, taking in the ancient while dwarfed by the modern high rises towering overhead, that is humbling and a little terrifyig. What does this wall mean to me? What does it matter?

And what are national treasures, really? I just toured the Forbidden City. (Sorry, photos will have to wait until I return to the States… the iPad refuses to import more photos, though I will try again!)

It was crowded and boisterous. I was in awe of the artistry, the history, the stories of emperors and concubines and lives ruined or elevated on a whim. This expansive complex, with a garden I could spent a lifetime admiring, all for one emperor. Who needed walls? And gates? And 27 bedrooms to shuffle his sleeping habits so as to foil assassins?

The Forbidden City is a magical mystery tour. Yet, this treasure, this planetary historic masterpiece, had trash dropped carelessly on the marble courtyards, and bottles tossed in the ponds and moat, and one teen mindlessly attacking an ancient wall with a frozen water bottle. Thank god he wasn’t Western. But I wanted to run up to him and demand he stop, before more of the tiles cracked. This is our human hertigage! This is one of those places that shapes our worldview. If we don’t understand the nuances of the culture and history, it’s too easy to go to war. And the artistry! How DARE you attack the art, just because it looks like a common wall.

We shamelessly treat the treasures of our species like common tourist traps. It will hurt our hearts.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 8 July 2014

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“The Knitter,” ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

Most of the shop keepers and vendors were not yet open. This is a street that is keeps trading hours into the wee hours of the morning, and vendors open late.

She was sitting in front of her wares… I have no idea what they were… alone, near the end of the street. The few shop keepers around are yelling, cajoling, following the few early shoppers.

She was knitting. Buy something, don’t buy something. She was knitting. I greeted her in the few words of Mandarin I have. She smiled. I motioned to her knitting. I motioned to my camera. Could I photograph her? She waved me away, not harsh, but clear. Ok. I thanked her.

I few minutes later I caught up to the two young Chinese women, recent college grads, who I’m traveling with. I told them about the woman. Would they go talk to her with me?

Tell her I’m a knitter, I said. Tell her I love her face and want to remember it.

They spoke. She demured. They delivered my message. She, modestly agreed.

I do love her face. I do want to remember it. I will remember it.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 7 July 2014

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Bamboo rafting on the Li River, north of Guilin, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Digital Infrared
I’m watching the karst mountain peaks recede as the China South 737 lifts us away from what must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet… and one of the most familiar to any student of Chinese art.

It’s also a place of stark contradition, like everywhere you step in China.

The unusual peaks have an extraordinary beauty in their structure. Like the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the peaks are layered, one behind the other as they fade into the horizon. Look carefully, and you’ll see a ruined former temple or pagoda perched impossibly on a narrow crag, still proclaiming its purpose. Mist hangs between them.

Unlike other peaks, these formations sit amid large expansions of flat, arable land. Through them flows the Li River and her many tributaries. This is the fisherman’s home, and many still catch and cook right on a bamboo raft on the water’s edge.

If you have seen a Chinese brush paintings of the mountains, you have seen karst of Guilin.

Contrast this beauty with power lines crossing the rivers and hills, cell towers perched atop them… the magic is gone. There is construction every where to accommodate the people relocating here to work in the area’s main industry, tourism. The construction replaces the crumbling buildings, hastily built just a generation ago.

Guilin is certainly a tourist destination. Get out of the van and four women try to sell us trinkets. We’re taking a river trip on a bamboo raft.

This is a water craft like no other. Think Hunk Finn the on the Mississippi. Eight bamboo poles, each about six inches in diameter and maybe 12 feet long. There is enough room for two secured chairs, an umbrella, and a riverman who guides the raft by pushing the river bottom with a 15-foot pole. It often disappears below the surface of the water.

There are hundreds of tourists on these bamboo rafts, and yes, you can get wet.

Touristy? Yes. Stunning in beauty and a glimpse into the rural Chinese world? Without question.

This is the land of Chinese brush painting. Not even the cell towers can mar it for long.

20140707-180111.jpgBamboo rafts fill the river with tourists, but nothing can spoil the natural spendor. ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Digital Infrared

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