Archive for July, 2010

The Soul’s Final Journey: A Funeral in Tana Toraja

Perched at the doorway of his raised house, an old Torajan man stares out at the spectacle below: pigs strapped to bamboo stretchers, buffalo guts lying in the mud. The man’s brother has died, and after months of keeping the embalmed body in the house, it is finally funeral season. After a lifetime on earth, the man’s brother is returning to where all Torajans believe they came from: the stars.

I took a long, queasy bus ride along the edge of Sulawesi to reach the mountains of Tana Toraja, and the cool air is a relief from the usual Indonesian heat. The endless tiers of rice paddies look impossibly alive, the clouds so huge they leap out of the blue sky. But in all this life lurks death: dank caves house countless coffins, and doll-like effigies watch the living from tiny balconies built into the mountainsides.

Villagers dressed in black sit on decks and under canopies, surrounding the scene of the funeral like spectators at a bullfight. Pigs scream as men slit the animals’ throats, packing the guts in bamboo shoots to be cooked. Twenty feet in front of me, though, is the most important sacrifice: three skinned buffalo in a pool of blood.  These buffalo will guide the dead to the afterlife, aid him in his journey towards the land of souls. On earth, his family will feast on the buffalo for days, celebrating the liberation of this man’s soul, reveling in the most important moment of his life.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

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Riverside Park

After 2  and a half years in Maryland, 4 months in Indonesia, and 5 weeks in Ontario, I am back in New York, sleeping in a Morningside Heights dining room on a pull out couch.

Most days I spend alone hunting for apartments, writing in cafes, gazing out the window to watch the people shuffle by. I try to see myself there in the crowd where I hurried along for 6 years, try to remember New York and the years I spent with it. I do not often find myself: It’s a strange, floating feeling, the New York summertime with no real routine. For these couple of weeks, the only unfailing ritual in my life is walking the dog, morning and evening, through Riverside Park.

New York parks in the summertime can be a little insufferable if you’re feeling lonely. Couples line the benches of Washington Square, college girls splay out in groups on Union Square’s grass. On the streets, people move quickly, eyes trained on their destination as the sweat drips in beads down their backs. The parks are the afterthought to that destination, a place where to and from and how much and how fast are finally punctuated with a sigh. This is where New Yorkers lay themselves out.

But Riverside Park is different. Riverside Park, I’ve come to find, is the park of the solitary, the lonely. It’s where the marginal and forgotten come to feel the sun on their shoulders: The old Jewish lady in horn-rimmed glasses, reading cheap paperbacks at the entrance on 111th street. The black nanny looking tired and a little lost as she rocks a blond-ringleted child in her lap. The man with skinny legs and Birkenstocks who comes to watch the sun set over the Hudson every night.

And there are of course certain types, a changing cast of characters who fit the bill: The pretty, single 30-something sitting on the grass with her dog. The hustler disguised as a business man, his suit jacket hanging from the corner of a bench. The girl in a summer dress standing against the cement barrior between herself and the river below, collecting the things in her purse, collecting herself.

And that’s the difference: New Yorkers don’t come here to splay out but to regroup. They come here to collect their worries and gather them up like stones before returning to the harried streets. This is where they piece together the parts of themselves that have been fragmented by the city’s crowds. And for those who never go down those streets anymore, whose routines are confined to a few blocks surrounding their pre-war, rent-stabilized apartments, this, too, I think, is a place where they come to put themselves back together, to give their lives a discernible shape.

I would be lying if I said I weren’t one of these people, at least for a little while. In the morning, I turn my bed back into a couch, pull on a pair of shorts too big for me, and walk into the day, sleepy-eyed and unshowered. My head is still fuzzy, but my dog and his leash keep me tethered to the ground.  In the evenings, I return, the sky turning pink, the light slanting against the avenue’s buildings. In the quiet, my dogs’ nails hit the pavement as a mournful saxophone comes from somewhere on Broadway. I am alone with the rest of them, and for a moment, I am home again.

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Showcasing Life’s Balance: An Interview with Travel Writer and Photographer Lola Akinmade

Lola in the Bahamas

Take one look at Lola Akinmade’s website of photography and writing and you’ll quickly realize she’s been just about everywhere you’ve marked down on your travel wish list. The girl gets around. Lucky for us, she documents her travels with photos and writing so vivid you feel like she’s brought you along for the ride.

It’s this vibrancy that’s kept me following her work since I stumbled upon her website a year ago. Since that day, I’ve been curious about the trajectory of her career path, why she left a cushy job to work freelance, and how she carved out a place for herself in the world of travel writing and photography. I knew instinctively that I could learn something from her.

In this interview, she sheds a little light on her plans and successes, and talks about the patient, determined steps she’s taken to get where she is today.

Simone: How did you get started traveling?

Lola: For the first fifteen years of my life, I lived in Nigeria and my family always traveled, taking extended trips to the US, UK, and Europe. I went backpacking solo for the first time around 2000-2001, and have been traveling ever since.

Simone: You worked in Geographic Information Sciences ten years before making the leap to freelance travel writing and photography. What prompted you to make that transition? Was it something you had always wanted to do?

Lola: I’ve actually been working within the GIS industry since 1997. Always been a geography nut, and will continue to have a soft-spot for developing interactive maps. While I truly loved my GIS work, my creative side eventually won over my technical side, and I began freelancing on the side.

When it was time to leave, the transition was actually situational because I was relocating to Sweden and my current employer didn’t have any international branches. I still do a bit of consulting and web development through my company, Lemurworks, LLC.

Simone: Can you tell us a little bit about your personal career path in freelance? What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?

Lola: My first “break” occurred when I was chosen to be one of 100 volunteers working with the Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in Fiji. I worked as a field journalist where we were to trail the teams all over the islands and dispatch daily via the website.

Our team of four was writing up daily press releases, doing competitor interviews, filing travel narratives, and so much more. Working behind the scenes of a production of that caliber (producer Mark Burnett, the man behind Survivor also created and produced the Eco-Challenge) taught me so much in just three weeks.

Simone: Did you start out online or in print? If online, was it challenging to transition to print work?

That stint with Eco-Challenge got me interested in travel writing. Then one day, back in 2007 while researching round-the-world trips, I stumbled across a budding online community called Matador Travel at the time and one of my favorite editors on earth, David Miller. David was willing to take a chance on my writing, and spent time mentoring me through my first pitch.

Today, Matador Network is the largest interactive travel magazine and one of the coolest communities on earth.  Plus, I’m now the editor of Matador Goods.

After collecting enough online clips, including creating a website for showcasing work, I felt confident enough to start pitching to various print outlets with links to online samples.

Now I regularly write for a couple major print publications.

Simone: Your blog is an enviable chronicle of travels all over the world, told vibrantly through the lens of your photography and writing. To fund these travels, have you ever had to do other work to make ends meet?

Lola: I’m blushing….thanks! I started freelancing on the side while holding a cushy  fulltime job as a GIS System Architect, so I was blessed to be able to afford traveling without worrying too much.

In anticipation of transitioning into fulltime freelancing, I started saving a lot more. Now as a fulltime freelancer, I’m more cognizant of expenses and also try to be smarter about what types of  writing and photography gigs I take.

It’s more time-efficient for me to write a 500-word article for $500 than 50 blog posts for $10 each. I’m also open to taking a few press trips to help offset some travel costs.

As mentioned earlier, I do some freelance web development as well through Lemurworks to supplement.

Simone: Are there any writers or photographers that have inspired the character of your work?

Too many to list. Seriously. I love traditional photojournalism. While I appreciate hard-hitting war documentary photography, I’m drawn more to daily slice-of-life photojournalism that showcases life‘s balance.

I really like Ed Kashi’s work from the oil-rich, conflict-prone Delta region of my home country, Nigeria. I also admire Glenna Gordon, Ami Vitale, and Alison Wright.

I love working with nonprofit organizations, documenting their field work in different countries through writing and photography. If I could find a way to earn a living solely doing this, I would in a heartbeat.

In terms of writers, again, too many to list. Though I admire and respect dozens of writers, I draw a lot of  inspiration from simple quotes and music lyrics.

Simone: Many travel writers say that in order to be successful, you need to occupy a niche—cover a specific subject, region, or theme. Do you find yourself doing this?

Lola: It works both ways. If you’re just starting out, you can write for a variety of resources while still building a niche with one or two publications. Or if you happen to find yourself in a region where there isn’t too much coverage, you can definitely leverage that.

For example, I’ve written a lot about Sweden and Stockholm because I live there. One of my print editors knows this and usually approaches me with last minute pieces needed from the region.

To be successful, you need to be good at and confident in what you do and this takes practice, regardless of whether you’re covering a specific subject or writing for a wide array of outlets.

Simone: You do an array of kinds of travel writing – from narratives, to how-tos, to service pieces for magazines. Does the versatility keep travel writing interesting, or do you envision a time when you can focus on one kind of writing?

The versatility definitely keeps it interesting for me. It’s a lot more strategic, though. How-tos and service pieces pay more than narratives which tend to have limited outlets…unless you’re writing a 2,500 word feature narrative for National Geographic or similar, and those types of gigs are usually reserved for industry veterans and writers they’ve developed decade-long relationships with.

As a freelancer, you need to be flexible enough to be able to dabble in various styles.

Simone: Do you any future plans for a book or photography exhibition?

Lola: There are so many half-completed projects and ideas floating around at the moment. As an oil painter, I’ve had many exhibitions in the past.

I’ve got specific portfolios from my photojournalism work in Nigeria, so I plan on exhibiting those in the not too distant future along with other photography.

Simone: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in going into travel writing?

Patience. This is one trait everyone needs to develop. Chances are “success,” however you define it, isn’t going to happen overnight. Be reasonable and practical. Life does come with some responsibilities and if you have them (bills, family, mortgage), you can’t just neglect them for the sake of pursing a dream.

One of my favorite lyrics from U2 says “…what you thought was freedom was just greed.” There’s a very thin line between living your passions and doing it at the expense of your personal responsibilities.

That said, life is definitely too short for you not to live your authentic self so start a steady transition. Be proactive and aggressive in connecting with other writers and editors without being self-serving about it.

Most people can smell a networking rat from miles away.

Here’s a piece I wrote that I usually refer people to who are trying to transition into fulltime freelancing.

If you’re not yet confident in your travel writing skills, I strongly recommend the excellent course offered by MatadorU.  Most of our students and alumni are now working travel writers.

Simone: What do you love best about the life of a travel writer/photographer?

While it may not be the most lucrative career path, the feeling I get from experiential travel and documenting it through writing and photography is deeply fulfilling. I’m only now enjoying the utter flexibility that comes with setting one’s own working schedule.

There’s a certain optimistic realism and down-to-earth vibe that comes from being a photojournalist and traveler. I feel much more connected to and invested in people, their lives, their aspirations, and their dreams, than I ever did when I worked in a cubicle.

And for this, I feel blessed and extremely grateful.

Find out more about Lola Akinmade’s work here,  or follow her on Twitter at @LolaAkinmade. Here’s just a taste of some of her slice-of-life photography from around the world.

Passages, Vows, and Love that’s Lived In

My friends Joe and Kelly Lepain

(Note: Yes, I have finally decided on the right blog template, and it’s not changing. Until I have my own site, anyway. Thank you for your patience with my inane indecision.)

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In the past six weeks, my boyfriend and I traveled miles up and down the east coast, gas station employees’ accents changing as we crossed state lines. Now, after five weeks in the Ontario woods (and a few days in Boston), we have reached the stinking summer streets of New York City. Funny thing is, in that distance we covered, the only moment I really felt like I was making a true, lasting passage was at a friend’s wedding.

I went to a couple of weddings as a kid, but, due to the fact that most of my friends aren’t conventional (or functional) enough to do things like get married, this was my first “adult wedding.” The first where I drank free martinis, danced inappropriately to Shakira, and was asked: “And when will you be tying the knot?” It was the first time the sight of a young woman in a wedding gown made me cry.

Grandparents and diamond advertisements tell us that this will be the stuff of our lives— birthday parties, anniversaries, engagements and honeymoons. I’ve always felt an odd combination of disdain, alienation, and wonder for all of it—wonder at how all of this meant so much to people. After my parents tore their marriage apart, after I was shuffled from one apartment to the next until, at 17, I threw myself into a world that seemed a mess of expectations and disappointments, I watched the ceremonies of people’s lives from a lonely distance. On the other side of a foggy window, I watched as women looked giddy at their engagement rings. I wondered how people took those awful family portraits at Sears and framed them on their bedside table. I wondered how they could hope for so little and so much.

Yes, I was a kid. A kid, it’s painfully obvious, who was scared shit of life. A kid who shaped the dream of her future around adventure and travel, but who wanted, at the root, to understand the meaning of that one-syllable word that everyone else seemed to know so naturally: Home. Home is what I wanted but thought I’d never find in my moving and traveling. So I looked ahead at the uncertain path before me and said: “At least I’m not ordinary.”

But I’ve changed a lot since those days, and I’ve come to understand that there is bravery in the ordinary. At the wedding in Boston I realized that maybe the most important passages we make are not our trips around the world but our rites of passage. Maybe what really sticks with us are these moments, ceremonial or otherwise, when we cross the few important thresholds that mark the maps of our lives.

I’ve come to believe that there’s a kind of grace that exists in life’s commitments that exists nowhere else. And travel, strangely enough, has taught me that. Everywhere, I’ve witnessed different versions of the same ceremonies, witnessed the ways in which people love and know each other. I have learned the pain of goodbyes and joy of reunions.  And all of it has led me to this: I want to marry the man I love, have babies, a home. And I want to fight to keep those things from unraveling. As my boyfriend says, half-cynically, half-sweetly: “What else is there to do?”

What else is there to do. This is the question that used to haunt me, and now brings a smile to my face. Six years ago, my father moved half way across the world; my boyfriend will literally be shipped off to war sometime this year. I live for the moments I have with these people, and the love that deepens through that time. It’s a love I didn’t know all that well growing up, the kind of love not of Neruda poems but of family dinners, of kids’ macaroni art. It’s the love that made the macho groomsmen tear up at my friend’s wedding as his little boy, the ring bearer, escorted his little girl, the flower girl, down the aisle. It’s the love that filled the hall with children’s screams and cries as the couple tried to say their vows, that rendered the groom so nervous and emotional he couldn’t repeat half of what the minister told him to.

I know I sound sentimental as hell. There’s really no poetry for this stuff, “no  vocabulary, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “for love within a family, love that’s lived in but not looked at, love within the light of which all else is seen, the love within which all other love finds speech. That love is silent.”*

There’s certainly no blogging for it either.

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* Kudos to Julie Schwietert for including that great quote in her blog about parenting, 9 mos. And one more photo for fun.


About Simone Gorrindo

Simone Gorrindo is a freelance journalist, poet, and travel writer who can't stay put.

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