This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Helsinki from above (today)

HELfromtheairThese are the Eastern suburbs of Helsinki from above, at night. The bright spot to the far left is Vuosaari harbor. The black triangle cutting in to the top third from the right side is Vartiokylä bay. I grew up running around it and taking a plunge at the end. When my family moved to this part of town in the early 80s, our street was unpaved and ended in fields of crops and horse stables. The houses were all built right after World War II. There was an old broken horse-pulled rake of some kind lying by the side of the road for years. There were meadows and forests and a brook.

Now most of that is gone. The brook is still there, protected. But the meadow is tiny, and the forests, fields, and horses are gone. I am glad I had a childhood where I got to climb trees, jump around in ice cold water, and roll around in the meadows. The kids who grow up there today will not have such a childhood.

(Helsinki, Finland; March 2018)

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About Amsterdam and existentialism

amsterdam-1After 6.5 years I was back in Amsterdam. It was beautiful, as always in spring, and every cell in my body screamed “get me out of here!!!”. For four days I stayed on the South side of the Singel, and mostly even on the South side of the Amstelkanaal. At least I got to explore areas new to me.

I am currently reading a book on existentialism (Sartre, Beauvoir and the likes. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche if you are liberal). Existentialism as a philosophical movement claims that nothing has a purpose and that everything just Is, until you yourself make a choice and thus make meaning out of chaos. While existentialism is not my cup of tea, I can see how liberating it is to just let go of every meaning, memory, and association to pain: simply stating that I am free to choose and if I do not choose to make meaning out of it, it does not exist. It never did. Pain only exists when we choose to give it existence and meaning in association to something else important in our lives. If we just choose to be free, pain is gone. Poof. Neverwas.

(Thank goodness I could return home after just 4 days)amsterdam-2(Amsterdam, The Netherlands; March 2018)


What is beauty?

factoriesWhat do you think, is this photo beautiful? Do you see light, color, and fluffy clouds matching the fluffy smoke? Or do you see a planet in destruction, no trees and no Nature anywhere?

Is there a collective, pan-human sense of esthetics, or is what our mind considers beautiful conditioned by the surroundings we are subjected to? How much of our sense of esthetics is objective, focusing on for example form, color, and light; and how much is subjective, weighed down or lifted up by our personal values, memories, and associations?

Complicated thoughts one morning above the Netherlands.

(The Netherlands; March 2018)

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A glitch in time

zurich-3Just for a moment I slipped in-between the seconds of time. I was not happy nor sad. Not awake nor asleep. There was no sun nor shadows. Nothing brand new and nothing very old. Nobody coming or going. Nothing beginning or ending. Just an old tree and a lady reading underneath it.

I wish there were more of these in-between moments, these glitches in time.

(Zurich, Switzerland; February 2018)

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Hasa diga eebowai

musicalThe Book of Mormon made me laugh so I shed tears. Yes, it is insulting, intelligent, and vulgar. My colleague in London told me she saw it when it was new, and one-quarter of the audience walked out during intermission and never returned to their seats. But what most people miss (perhaps?) is the sweetness in the second half: how people try so very much their best to live in a harsh world seemingly filled with limitations. The deep lessons in the ending: how another’s culture is always understood through the filter our own culture, programmed in our minds when we grew up. How, in the end, the characters on stage were all trying their very best to help each other live as good lives as possible, all in their own ways.

It seems that most viewers remember the phrase “hasa diga eebowai”. “F*ck you God”. This is also the reason many people leave the musical in the middle of the show. But what many do not seem to remember is that it was used as an expression of survival and strength in a world where individuals are targeted with numerous inexplicable sufferings: AIDS, poverty, natural disaster. “If you don’t like what we say, try living here a couple days. Watch all your friends and family die; hasa diga eebowai!”.

There is strength in words. And sometimes those words are terrible. Because the world is sometimes terrible.

(London, United Kingdom; September 2017)


In transit

pajeboatDear Africa, after two months it is time for me to go home. It would have been easy for me to spend another two months getting to know you better, but then I would have much explaining to do for those back home. I have barely seen anything geographically, but experienced vastly greater expanses.

A year ago I went through the apartment following the KonMari method, removing every object that does not spark joy and keeping those that do. Surprisingly many Ikea bags and garbage bags left that relatively minimalist home. For the past two months I have carried my entire home on my back: clothes for 4 seasons, including outdoors, yoga, and beach wear, a yoga mat, books, and much else. Twenty kilos plus a daypack. I really do not need much else either, and yet I have so much more stuff waiting for me at home.

Perhaps life in transit means life without a proper home. But life in transit also means only taking as much as one can carry, and being sure about the essentials and the superfluous things. Being sure about what, physically and emotionally, we want to carry on our backs from point A to point B.

Some years ago the blogosphere was raving about the Burning House challenge: what would you take with you from  your home if your house was burning? You would need to be able to carry it yourself, and take a picture of everything at once. I am going back home to a reverse Burning House challenge: from being able to carry my entire life for two months to further minimalizing my life so the “click-point” of Marie Kondo’s definition for “enough stuff” is much lower than what it used to be.

During this journey of two months I have carried more mental and emotional weight than physical weight. I have not shared much of it here and do not intend to now, either. It has been a difficult journey and in my private journal I have written pages and pages about pain. But in the spirit of a deeper insight, when I dump my backpacks on the floor at home I will let it all go and see what stays. And that which stays will need to be laundered, tended to, thanked, and made ready for the next adventure.

(Dar es Salaam airport, Tanzania; August 2017)

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On voodoo and the reason for illness

lowtideAs our bungalow driver drove me to Stone Town he told me he had just driven his son to see the witch doctor, with pains in his stomach. It happens from time to time, he said, and the doctors at the hospital cannot find anything wrong. The boy has been helped by the witch doctor every time, with potions, magic, and by recognizing that someone wants to hurt the family by causing the boy to be sick.

According to other stories I have heard, too, this witch doctor seems to be famous and receives patients from far away African countries. It is said he can raise people from the dead. Somewhere on Zanzibar there is a forest of the dead. When you go there properly prepared by the witch doctor, taking a potion, you can see a dead friend or relative. Perhaps you have unfinished business, or simply want to wish goodbye. The witch doctor also has the ability to bring the dead person back, completely so she or he can continue life as if it never ended. This of course costs money, some 5 million TSH (approximately 1,700 EUR). The best proof of this medicine is the story of a local man who should be dead many times over, but always returns to his home.

Voodoo is still common on Zanzibar and nearby islands. Pemba is a globally known center of black magic, so famous that practitioners from Haiti do pilgrimages to the little island to learn. My knowledge of voodoo is limited, and so I listened with a growing perception that in voodoo the main reason for ailments is not disease or bad spirits, but that someone, a specific person, wishes to harm the sick person or his or her nearest family. Evil spirits or djinns may occupy a person, but most often an unexplained illness is due to ill-will of a person known to the victim, who sets the evil spirits after the victim. The witch doctor is able to both point out who this person is, as well as cure the illness.

Is this just the viewpoint of a successful, envied businessman? The underlying attitude is alarming to a European. On Bali, disease is seldom caused or wished by one single individual. The Balinese believe everything is a struggle and balance between good and evil, and that diseases are caused by bad spirits. They are typically not the fault of a human being. Here on Zanzibar the view portrayed by the driver is that most unexplained illness stems from people wishing to harm other villagers or relatives they know well.

There is scientific evidence for that illness can be propelled by our own minds: depression causes inflammation in the brain, and many difficult-to-diagnose pains and aches end up as psychosomatic, meaning they are caused by the patient’s mental pain and unwellness. But there is something more alarming to the concept of illness in voodoo. I could not help but follow the trail of my European-conditioned mind: if the reason for illness is inflicted by other people there must be much anger, envy, and hate around. After all, people do get sick from time to time, and every time they do they get to hear of a person who has something against them. Such a contrast, then, to the impression I have of the Swahili people: friendly, caring, people with a strong community feel. Kindness and charity are important aspects of Islam. None of these attitudes fit what I am now hearing: of a society where blame is easily pointed and many personal problems explained by ill-will by a community member.

But then again, I am not an African and am possibly missing about 99% of the cultural context of voodoo. Lovely ones, if anybody of you know better, please educate me!

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Calm like a crab’s heart

watersedge.jpgSitting in the shade of coral rocks on the beach. A crab is cleaning out its dwelling in the sand, after the receding tide swept its front door shut. My dwelling is a simple bungalow with wood worms eating out my bed from the inside. Nature is (still) everywhere on Zanzibar.

I am trying to tell my mind to not be everywhere and to just be “here”. It is not easy, but yoga is helping. One of the core mantras of ashtanga yoga is “practise, and all is coming”, meaning that even if one is only instructed in asana (poses), the other 7 limbs of the practice will find their way into one’s life, too. This balance of spiritual vs. physical instruction is what I have been searching for in ashtanga practice since I started. I am too impatient, too demanding, too curious. Twice I thought I found it with an instructor, but both times I have been turned away by the ego of the teacher.

A yoga teacher acquaintance once told me that there are many people who seek for a personal guru for a long time, discarding one “candidate” after the other. I think he meant that many (including myself) hope to find a perfect person to follow, when such perfect persons do not exist. In the end, we all have within ourselves the key to the answers. Perfection is not a requirement for knowledge.

Before each practice here on Zanzibar we are asked to set an intention. The one I set myself every day is to calm my heart. I think the crab digging out its beach house has a calmer heart than I have.

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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The backside of Brandberg

damara-1The vast emptiness of Namibia is astounding. We have driven in landscapes where hours went by without us seeing a single human-derived shape. Gas stations are unheard of. Yesterday we were directed to a country lodge for gasoline. They directed us some 3 km down the road, and when we almost gave up hope and turned around, there in the middle of nowhere, was a car body shop and a fuel pump.

We arrived during the one lunch hour when it was closed, of course. So we drove up into the yard and asked two ladies if we could obtain fuel anyway. Yes! and many smiles, and we were directed to the body shop where we found ourselves crashing the car mechanics’ lunch break in the shade. “No problem, I come” one of them said, and ignoring our protests, interrupted his lunch to walk all the way out to the pump to give us fuel.

Had we not thought of asking someone for refueling options hours before, we would probably have emptied out our tank in the middle of the desert.

It is easy to imagine that Namibia, like many African countries, hosted many tribes that were somewhat distinct, with their own languages. The country is in many parts so inhospitable that one could only imagine pockets of space supportive of human habitation. And yet, the people here are all desert people. Somehow they feel comfortable in and environment that withstands up to +50°C heat during the day and +10°C  at night, years without rainfall, and in good years 4 months of intense rain during the hot season.

It is even crazier to think that, as far as science knows, we humans originated from here. Perhaps the climate was milder, then? Or perhaps it was precisely this challenging environment that pushed the ape to adapt and evolve into humans?damara-2(Brandberg, Namibia; July 2017)