Friday, August 12, 2011

Highest Mountain in the Newest Nation & I'm still that girl

(2 for the price of 1 because I haven’t blogged in too long)

I remember the early days of my first year in University, so bright-eyed and green—I’d spent a bit of time in Azerbaijan, Palestine, and Kashmir and was planning my next summers in Tibet and Bosnia and Herzegovina—I was fired up about the right to self-determination. I’ve come a long way since then—the agitation for and transition to an independent nation is much more complex than a passionate and well-meaning but ignorant young woman who wants peace and justice for everybody everywhere in the world can grasp, but originally, that was part of why I got into this work. And then last month, there I was up on a mountain— celebrating the independence of a new nation--allowing the contagion of hope that permeated the air to swell a little in my lungs. We were witnesses, part of that historic moment when the flag of the Republic of South Sudan was raised, the new national anthem was sung. A nation was born.

Before starting the drive north from Uganda T and I picked up a tent from a friend who previously worked in Darfur and South Sudan—he jokingly waved us off saying, “you go be idealistic on your mountain.” Experience has left a little taste of cynicism in his mouth—“well, at least it means daddy’s gonna have job opportunities,” he said, kissing his new baby’s head. We laughed, and began driving—about 7 hours on what was a lousy excuse for a road and in some places might more accurately be called a river until we got to the middle of nowhere, Eastern Equatoria, also known as Isohe. In Isohe, we met up with G and 3 other fellow trekkers and stayed on the AVSI compound. The next morning we drove to Torit and then towards where we were told we’d start the climb. Supposedly, the trail up Mount Kinyeti, the tallest peak in South Sudan, began from a little town called Gilo and it would take about 6 hours to summit. When we reached a place called Katire we saw a dilapidated and bullet-hole ridden signpost, which read “Gilo.” But it was pointing straight into thick jungle bush. It was raining, so we sat in the car and wondered what to do until someone passed by. We found out that the jungle in the direction of the Gilo signpost used to be a road—in the 70s . And there used to be a town called Gilo—in the 70s. Now there is no such place as Gilo and no road to reach it. (in case you are ever climbing Mount Kinyetti, just note that it takes about 15 hours and that you start from Katire. “Gilo” and “6 hours” are total fictions.) So, we found a guide/farmer/hunter that knows the mountain well but has very few readily obvious people skills or ability to estimate distances. When we would ask how long to a particular point the totally ambiguous answer was always the same, “still.” We would ask, how many more valleys do we need to go down before we start climbing the actual mountain that we are trying to summit? “many”. Right. It was an exercise in staying present. Letting go of control. Literally willing our feet to take one step at a time. The first night we hiked in the dark until 10pm, tripping on vines and who knows what, calling out warnings to each other “hole” and “log” so maybe the person behind you would be luckier than you who just fell into the hole or over the log. Thank God the moon was out. Then July 9th, Independence Day, we started before sunrise and reached the peak around 3pm. We were sad because we thought we’d missed the delegation that was supposed to arrive by helicopter for a flag raising ceremony that morning. There was only an empty pole when we arrived. An hour later we were enjoying the view and discussing food and water rations when a helicopter came up over the horizon. And from nowhere we found the energy in our weary bodies to waive shout and jump around like crazy people as if we’d been shipwrecked and our rescue depended on it. We joined the governor of Eastern Equatoria, a few other South Sudanese dignitaries and UN mission staff and a bunch of Russian pilots to sing the anthem (which they didn’t know--but we did, thanks to G who sang it repeatedly on our journey. I don’t even know Uganda’s anthem but I can now sing South Sudan’s word for word.) They opened 2 bottles of cava and we all toasted the newest nation in disposable cups. Then we painfully had to decline the offer of a ride off the mountain in the helicopter because we had to go back down the mountain a ways where we’d left one of our companions who hadn’t been able to make it to the peak. We camped again and the next day I felt euphoric despite the knee-grinding descent that I still haven’t fully recovered from. Coming down is never easy. I had several days of existential angst after we got back before I equalized at my normal elevation. Doing things like that feed my soul—an adventure, secret identities (I left that part out because I’m not entirely sure it was entirely legal…) , expanding the limits of my physical body, opening up more space in the world where I have breathed deeply, appreciated life, taken in the beauty and let go of some of the baggage that I pick up along the way of the mundane. I felt free. Alive. An open road. the top of a mountain, windows down, music blaring, singing, shoes off—in no man’s land, between borders—as if borders are irrelevant. The limits of real life fade, and we could do anything. be part of everything. We don’t live on mountains and there are a thousand tethers on our heart whose gravity roots us back down. Something in me tries to possess both--to hold on to the necessarily finite state of abandon. I brought back some wild banana plants from the mountain. I’ll plant them near the super hut. There is something beautifully paradoxical about their wild roots growing down into the soil of our first owned home. I had planned to blog, not about myself, but about South Sudan, a little analysis, and some observations from when I was in Yei in 2007 and ideas about where they’re headed, but instead I’ve indulged all these naval gazing muddles. This new nation, born through decades of labor pains is the bigger story—which I haven’t told.

There have been a few moments like this recently where I’ve felt so intensely alive—like those early days in University. Sometimes I feel like I’ve moved so far from that person—maybe lost some things about her that I rather liked, but such moments suggest some fundamental part of who we are that doesn’t change. I’ve smiled a little to myself in those moments, because I think: “I’m still that girl.” That mountain-climbing, tree-hugging, cookie-baking, late-night-chatting, freedom-seeking, on-my-knees-praying, heavenward-fist-shaking, open-door-enthusiast that I was when I was 18. My grandmother died. My brother got married. And I climbed a mountain on a historic day. Each of these events invited contemplation and inspiration—and took place with beautiful dear friends around that think with me and bring out the best in me. “That girl” doesn't happen or exist in isolation—it’s like that proverb: “I am because we are. We are because I am.” Change is coming, and I always get a little overly nostalgic and contemplative when I know that something is coming to an end. Our house is a little emptier. My fellow-mountain climber moved out yesterday. In a couple months we will move out of this big communal house, we’re working on the super hut, Z&C are moving up town. We will still be each other’s community, but in the next chapter, we’ll do it from different houses--we won’t be making coffee next to each other in the morning. When Elliyah hears the gate she’ll get out of the habit of running through housemates names and running to door to see who it is. Our garden will only be the product of our own labor. We will miss the little everyday interaction of walking down the same hallway to our bedrooms, and coming home from work to friends sitting on the veranda.

I’ve been mostly writing the last few months so have spent less time “in the field”—and have felt disconnected with the undercurrent of purpose for doing this work. On Sunday night we had a going away party and I looked around at a wonderful group of people gathered around a cello and a guitar with bellies full of good food and wine. New babies were cuddled, hands held—and I just kinda felt “this is what it’s all about.” So, why am I spending all day long reading transcripts of my interviews with rape victims and writing about the ugliest and most awful things that human beings do to each other? (this is a rhetorical question, to which I do know the answer, I just wasn’t feeling the answer) I want to cook delicious meals and eat them with good people and have nice conversations. Of course, that isn’t really all I want because I’m still that girl that wants peace and justice for everybody and have a somewhat more nuanced perspective on what that means now than I did oh way back when—but I’m just not in the mood at the moment. It’s like Pete used to say “I want cocoa and cuddles not rape and murder.”

I haven’t blogged in too long, so this is a rather-bunny trailing one that isn’t really about any one thing—so coming to some resolution to wrap it up is a little difficult. Here’s what I think:

*Mountains are good to climb.

*What the independence of South Sudan will mean is complex, but mountain peaks are not for complexity they are for inspiration, vision and renewing hope in what is possible.

*I am intensely grateful for the time with all “commune-ers” past and present.

*I’m a little nervous, but excited about living with just my family.

*You can come over any time, because if you don’t I might shrivel up from lack of social interaction and die. (PS-there will be cookies).

*The hokey pokey might really be what it’s all about—but it might also be about peace and justice for everybody everywhere in the world--whatever that means.

*I’m still that girl.