After spending an entire week with childhood friends in CDMX who I hadn’t seen in 12 years, I decided it was time to go on another mini adventure before my Mexico trip was over. I weighed cost and time options and settled on the little town of Xilitla in the state of San Luis Potosi. Most known for the surrealist castle built by Sir Edward James with the help and labor of many local Xilitlans in the 50’s, this little town is a wonder of natural, fresh pools and waterfalls.
I couchsurfed with someone who had moved to Xilita five years ago from Mexico City. When I first got off the bus at 7am, I wandered through a barely moving small town, messaged my host and got no response. I decided to settle down on some steps near where his house was supposed to be. I decided to wait one hour and if I still got no response, I would find a hostel nearby. While I was waiting, I noticed that the whole town was built on a really steep hill, so the streets were practically walls in terms of incline. In order to move up without getting exhausted I saw people walking in a zig-zag motion. Almost an hour later Sergio messaged me back, apologizing for not being awake and missing my messages and calls. I made it to his house and crashed for a nap.
In Xilitla I spent most of my time immersed in fresh water pools and under waterfalls. The first waterfall I visited was Cascada Comales. A burst of water in the middle of a forest. I can’t imagine what it felt like for people living in the area 100 years ago to come across such a miracle of fresh water. When I got there, I noticed no one was getting in the water but every hair on my body wanted to be under this powerful stream coming down from 25 meters up. An older woman getting under the waterfall in her full clothing encouraged me and I decided to jump in. Eventually everyone around me was getting in and under the water.
One day I tried going to another popular fresh water pool called Las Pozas but found it to be way too crowded. Deciding to leave and see if I could dip in Cascada Comales again before they closed access to it for the day, I ran into a French girl who was also visiting the town. She told me to join her and her friends at another fresh water spot. I said I could meet up with them later. When I finally got there, no one was there but a friendly dog had followed me down so I decided to walk with her down the fresh water stream and finalled dipped in when it got deep enough. We played fetch and she stayed with me until I made it back to the top. I would have to say this was my first dog love and the first time I really connected with a dog. She seemed to be able to read my mind and I enjoyed the encounter like I would have enjoyed the moment with another person.
One night Sergio, my couchsurfing host, invited me to the bar he managed Casa Viejo. I got there to find out that not only was he the manager but also bartender, DJ, and general mood creator. I joined him at the bar and watched him make drinks. Bartending has always been a skill/art I am fascinated by. A plate of quesadillas and a mojito later, Sergio told me “hey there’s a guy who offered to pay for your account but I said no it’s not necessary cause you’re my friend etc.” I looked at him with arched eyebrows and responded, “I am way over my budget on this trip if he wants to pay for my drinks and food and even flight home let him.”
El Nacimiento de Huichihuayan
The next day Sergio drove us to what he calls his alberca. The images speak for themselves with clear blue and green fresh water that feels like cucumber bath and facial. It’s even more beautiful in person. At one point all the family that had joined us in the water left. There was the most serene quiet with bird chirps and water drips. Every time I got out I had the urge to jump back in again and I did several times. Until Sergio told me there would never be a time in which I felt satisfied enough to not jump back in so we left. Most people I spoke to from Mexico City had never heard of Xilitla, but I am glad I decided to go anyway because it is a haven of fresh water pools and nature.
I’m sitting in the back of an Uberpool listening to Omar, the driver, speaking to Marianna, my co-rider. While I’ve gotten used to what words mean literally in Spanish, I’m noticing something else about the way these words move between people in space. The words, simple exchanges of “where would you like to be dropped off?” and “not really sure, if this is what the GPS says then it’s good”, roll between Omar and Marianna in a dance. Their back and forth consists of phrases which don’t have a finality, almost never reaching the point. Marianna makes a joke about not actually knowing which address she put into the Uber app and Omar says something about bothering her with asking in the first place. Yet I had the feeling that they were saying something more which I couldn’t grasp. Even though I understand the literal words, I am left with the feeling, which I often get around speakers of Mexican Spanish, that I am missing something.
Often times when I am sitting around with people who are emphatically in conversation in Spanish, I will eagerly ask my friend “what are you talking about?” because I might have lost the thread or had no idea in the first place. The answer my friend gives me will be something simple, like “he’s just telling me how the avocados he bought for dinner were not ripe”, and I’m left feeling disappointed because I could have sworn they were talking about something more interesting.
I started to realize that the conversations I witnessed but didn’t quite understand felt like more not because of the words but because of the way they are speaking. The way conversations flow among people in Mexico leaves room for something more. People speak in a circular way that surrounds the point, or rather a point since we don’t know which it is, and moves around it instead of heading straight for it. This means that conversations last a lot longer and that there is always the potential for the conversation to become more or to fugue into something else.
It is as if deciding upon a final point is to let the conversation die and the potential of what the connection could be or the meaning of the interaction becomes final. Although I found this confusing at first, it was through conversations with my friend Oscar that I was able to begin to understand the purpose and intelligence of this. I would always be interested in Oscar’s responses to my statements. I asked him several times “Ok, but what does that have to do with what we’re talking about?” Sometimes he would bring it back in a way I had not foreseen at all and other times it did not matter what it had to do with our original point. Not heading straight for the point is about not ascribing meaning to an ever-changing interaction.
Once we decide what the final point is, we do not leave room for interpretation and further understanding. This is important because meaning is highly contextual and ever-changing. If we limit ourselves in what we mean, we limit our understanding of each other as well. I think it is particularly interesting that this limits our access to the subconscious and it’s ever-changing nature or meaning. Without trying to rub in the point too much, the nature of conversation in Mexico feels rather surrealist. I find it interesting that Mexican social interactions emulate this in many ways. People speak to each other not as if there is a final answer but that they might get closer to it by interacting. And often the point is the interaction itself and not what is being said in the interaction.
Understanding Surrealism in Art
The work of Leonora Carrington, now on display in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Chapultapec Park, is quite the dive into the surrealist world. Her paintings have no illusion that they are paintings and not real life. As such she uses elements of painting, traces, lines, perspective as parts of her strange esoteric world which does follow any necessary reasoning. By reasoning I mean that there is not necessarily any consistent meaning. Elements you might ignore, such as the shadow of a figure or the smoke wisps or even the faded background become important elements of the paintings as they are contain animals or faces or both.
What I find interesting about her paintings is that they are incredibly inconsistent. So to try and ascribe meaning to it once you think you’ve gotten the hang of the symbolism of one painting or another is useless. Any meaning you ascribe will be inconsistent. This makes you dive into a deeper world closer to real life than any realist painting I have encountered. Most of life and its happenings can be quite inconsistent. Once you think you’ve gotten the hang of what something means, then it will dismorph itself to reveal that it is only the perspective of that moment that gave you that meaning and that the meaning is not there at all. Looking at Leonora’s work, especially with the intention of discovering what it means, is to realize that the primary message is that “there is no answer.” This is similar to the way people engage in conversation in Mexican culture.
When I was eight years old and we were sitting on that striped Amazigh blanket on the sand, my mother told me about a woman who swam into the ocean, then laid on her back and closed her eyes. The ocean slowly and carefully carried her out into its belly, when she opened her eyes she could not find any piece of earth above the water.
When I was eight years old I wanted to be this woman. Not because I wanted to disappear into the blue but because I knew she had survived. I knew for certain she was alive.
When I was floating in the calm pool-like waters of Playa Boquilla, an obscure beach that took 45 minutes to get to, and a part of my 23 year old self wanted to close my eyes on top the waves and be carried away. Not because I have any particular nihilistic desire but because I wanted to know what it’s like to feel safe enough to keep your eyes closed long enough to be swallowed by the sea.
Sometimes there’s not enough words to describe the fullness of knowing you can take care of yourself. It’s a knowing that you can, finally, trust yourself. Similar to being small in a big ocean, you’re there floating, and no part of you is too big or too strange for the vastness around you. You are being held by a force or being that has been there for a millennia before you and will exist long after your kind die out. So let’s say an ocean opened up inside me on this trip to Mexico (with a brief stint in Costa Rica).
Learning to say no when something doesn’t feel right to leave room for better things has been a lesson on repeat for me on this trip. My first day and a half in the beachtown of Mazunte in the state of Oaxaca was somewhat lonely. I had just left the huge Mexico City where walking around solo and anonymously was the norm. Here in this small beach town, everybody stared and wondered what I was doing here on my own (or at least this is what I imagined). On top of that, not speaking Spanish well enough left me feeling isolated and unable to use my usual charm and wit to find a new friend or two. Let’s just say I really began to appreciate the power of a small talk at that point. I arrived on Thursday and by Friday I was bored enough to see what was going on in Zipolite, the next beach town farther south on the coast line.
As I was waiting for a taxi on the road out of town, I decided at the last minute to stick out my thumb and hitchhike since there seemed to be few taxi colectivos going in the direction I wanted. Lo and behold a small dark blue Volkswagen stops and two guys ask where I´m going. When I said Zipolite, they said hop in. I sensed the situation was fine so I got in. We arrived in the next small town of Zipolite and the driver, a man in his late 30´s, told me about a precious little mezcal place right on the beach in Zipolite. I was already bored so I joined them for a taste of mezcal, some with scorpion soaking in it, others with cannabis, and the ones I tried with orange and one with lavender. I wasn’t having that much fun but I was still interacting with someone. Plus this guy was paying for all my drinks. Not that I drink that much. But the conversation got weird when the guy told me that he owned a bunch of hotels in Mexico. And the last straw was when he casually said he was going to visit his friends in Israel next month. I decided it was time to leave and I would rather spend another quiet night wandering solo on the beach than hang out with this clusterfuck of entitlement.
It was at this point in my trip that I was beginning to feel the power in saying “no this is not for me”. This would prove very useful to me later when I arrived in San Jose at Casa and find myself in a not so ideal situation. I left Zipolite to head back to the hostel in Mazunte and call it a night.
This was when I met Rodolfo and Carlos. Two friends who would make the rest of my night and next days extremely playful and adventurous in Mazunte. They had checked in to the hostel that night and just when I had settled into the hammock for a quiet night I thought it might be a good idea to strike up conversation. Rodolfo and Carlos are just as adventurous as I am with a propensity for late night star gazing and philosophical conversations that can just as easily devolve into daredevil shenanigans like skinny dipping in the sea under the moonlight.
It was in Mazunte that I fell in love with Mexico and its people. Mostly, I think I appreciated how much I trusted myself to connect with the right people. Gama and Esther who run the Hostal El Manguito were super generous and friendly, inviting me to join them for dinner or a hike to the natural jacuzzi. It’s this sense of extending companionship with all other human beings around you, with ease and not with forced extroversion, that I love about Mexico.
The point is that I learned how to say no this is not for me, and open space up for possibilities. I did not feel blocked in my need to find another route to what I wanted or needed. I learned that I can take care of myself. Even though I had planned on staying in San Jose, Costa Rica for 3 weeks, I left and switched the course of my entire trip because I felt that I did not need to be there. I honored my intuition and made my way back to Mexico where I had connected with people and felt a lot more at home. I really wanted to be in Mexico as I have had a lifelong crush on this country and culture, but it took a roundabout way for me realize this. I am grateful for the Oaxaca sun for not carrying me away into the ocean and for letting me realize the power of listening to my inner voice, she knows, like the ocean, what I really need and want.
One of the first feelings I have when something goes wrong, I mean really wrong, is embarrassment. Not despair, not worry, not panic. No, it’s “how embarrassing”. How embarrassing to try and do something crazy and then have something go wrong. I can already hear all the comfort zoners adding another reason to their list about why they would never go on a solo trip through Central America and Mexico. The people who warned me about danger are going to be using my story/experience as a cautionary tale for the next young daring femme who wants to go on a solo journey. Too bad for them my experience turned out much more good than bad.
I wish people would understand two things about when something goes wrong. First of all, you’re doing something outside of your comfort zone, if you didn’t have something go wrong did you really ever leave? Secondly, the moment I tell my mother or my sister or friends about my experiences, especially those involving having my debit card getting cloned or my phone stolen, I want them to know that I am proud of these stories because they’re about how I made it through with skill and smarts, they’re about the wonderful people who helped me with the situation, and most importantly about the deep strength I found within myself when I got to realize that the most important thing is that I am alive. You know how often you get to experience that? Isn’t that the reason for leaving your comfort zone in the first place? If you don’t have at least one moment where you develop a Jesus-like appreciation for the fact that, shit I am alive, and there are nice human beings helping me out, and this is the actual best worst case scenario, then what are you really doing.
So yes, I left my phone in an Uber on my first night out in Mexico City. I went to a salsa night advertised on the couchsurfing app, met someone there from Trinidad and we decided to go to another bar, with Mexican trap music.It wasn’t until an hour or two at this other bar that I realized my phone was nowhere to be found. Did I panic? Yes, I was crying in front of a stranger I had just met. Did I worry? Yes, I thought about how I was going to get around without google maps and google translate. Did I despair? Yes, I was in a random bar at 1am in Mexico City with no phone after the metro had closed. Most of all, though, my initial thoughts were, how did I fail at this so quickly. It wasn’t until the nice stranger whose name is Kevon helped me out immensely, offered to take me to buy a new phone the next morning, and more that I started to realize it was actually going to be ok. I don’t need to be embarrassed. Because as my mom used to say whenever I climbed up a tree too high (yeah I had that kind of childhood), if I got myself into this situation I can get myself out. It ended up even better than that because after finding my Mexican number online I called my phone and someone answered! They said they had found my phone in an Uber and were trying return it. They told me where to meet them to get my phone. Within 24 hours I was reunited with my phone and still ever more grateful for life.
“How lucky”, some people said when I told them I found it. Before that, some people had said how awful, Mexico City is really dangerous. So I’m wondering am I lucky or could it be that Mexico City also filled with equally as many people who would return a found phone as those who would might steal it? I’d like to add this story to the list of reasons why, yes, you should visit Mexico City if it’s on your heart. Yes, you should go on a trip by yourself. Yes, you will experience both good and bad. Yes, you will be a stronger person for it.
When I told my sister about my trip to Central America, she commented that it’s funny how we prepare for our trips with the same amount of time as we are going to be traveling. If we are leaving for a weekend, we take two days to prepare, and if we are leaving for a month, then we take a month to get ready. What about a trip that you feel like you’ve been preparing for your whole life?
When we were five and Mama took us those once-every-four-year-trips to the US to visit her (our) American relatives, I remember getting excited and wanting to go and explore around the airport. My dad sternly told me that it was not even an option and to not forget where I was- some place where kids like me should be scared of being so bold? So this adventurous spirit has been welling up in me for a while. Even though I have been lucky to make multiple trips, including moving to the US for a college degree, it’s been through a program of some sort navigating my path in travel. Finally, I get to be my own damn study abroad program.
Two days until I leave for Mexico City and in the same way that dreams still feel like dreams even when they physically or materially manifest themselves, it only hit me that I was actually finally going on a solo trip through Central America when I had to actually let people know I was going to be gone for the month of July. Oddly enough I began to feel frivolous. My flight to Mexico City felt like arranging to meet someone you’ve only spoken to on OKCupid. Leaving for five weeks became a long expanse of time for “vacation” (even though I originally wanted to go for longer). How do I have all that time for a vacation I imagine some people wondered (especially my various employers). Then most of all there is the business of not having some sort of program or project to serve as the reason behind my travel. I began to ask myself a question I’d never thought of before, why am I traveling? But I also did not remember needing to ask this question when traveling solo was still a dream of mine. Why was I asking it now?
While I kept preparing for my trip, I had to make more concrete decisions about how I was going to get around, how I was going to sleep, or eat, and what I was going to do. The question of why kept popping up, hanging out in the back of my mind, like all worms of self-doubt do. I felt like I was doing something more frivolous than real.
Why did I choose Central America and Mexico specifically? I have always had a close or best friend who was Mexican. In Morocco, as a child, I had two good friends who were siblings who were half Mexican and in college my best friend was Mexican and Salvadorean. The similarities and connections between Moroccan and Mexican culture that we discovered with these friends are so strong to me that I have always felt a pull to visit Mexico, as well as Central America. Still this did not seem to be a satisfactory answer to me about why exactly I have to travel and why now.
Mostly the self-doubt came from my five year old self who was chastised for having such silly and dangerous ideas of adventure and exploration. As I was sitting on MARTA on my way home, I thought about the great feeling of transience I get from being on the move. I realized traveling is the reason to travel. Like jazz, it’s not about the perfect melody or end goal but the improvisation of the moment that is so obvious when traveling.
Traveling is a form of meditation. A meditation of knowing only where you are now because you are moving and you can’t be attached to where you were or where you’re going to be. Traveling is not just vacation. I’ll admit I crave the transience like a drug, and find that everything is more beautiful even in my day to day life when I am about to travel. There is movement in travel that brings me a sense of calm I am never able to grasp in the day-to-day routine of living and working. So traveling has always had the beauty of being the process and the end goal. I don’t need a reason or a purpose when traveling, I’m not living up to a standard (except the one to decolonize travel which I will be writing about next). When I am on the journey, I am exactly where I need to be.
My trip to L.A. felt like a lesson in feeling small. Still, even when I got lost, I felt strangely at home. The streets of Santa Monica and Koreatown reminded me of the beach town of Assilah and inner-city of Fes simultaneously. Of course there is a constant contrast and contradiction in moving between L.A.’s neighborhoods. The socioeconomic stratification is different from what I have experienced in other U.S. cities. L.A. has vastly different communities. Although many locals move through seamlessly, there is always the unspoken question of whether you belong in certain areas and spaces. In Santa Monica, for example, due to extensive gentrification, a lot of the time POC are assumed to be visiting for the day or working there as very few actually live there.
On the third day of my trip, I knew I was going to get lost. I was leaving the house of a new friend in a neighborhood I had discovered, and I had a destination in mind: an art show at a brewing warehouse someone invited me to. Still, the city is gigantic and it gobbles you up if you don’t know where you are going. Because it is so spread out, going in the wrong direction can cost you hours. Which is exactly what happened to me. It took two hours to get from an apartment somewhere in Culver City to the warehouse venue somewhere in downtown L.A. (this trip usually takes 45 minutes to an hour). Somehow, I was still going the right way the whole time.
Without internet on my phone, all I had was a static Google maps directions of which bus to get on and where to get off. It took me no time to get on the wrong bus and get off at a different stop. I was at a corner several blocks away from the venue and was met with beautiful rose shops, fragrant and humid, reminding me of the central market back in my home city of Fes in Morocco. After smelling the flowers and following the row of rose shops down the street, I made a few turns and found myself on Skid Row.
Once you get into downtown, it seems hard to get out of, with a grid system that leads right back to the same street you started on. I was officially lost. As I passed an older man in a light blue and white track suit standing on the corner in front of a convenience store something told me to turn around and ask him for help. He knew right away what I needed, and directed me to the bus stop for the 60. He said he came “down here to check on people and help out” but he lived in West Hollywood.
Then Yvette showed up. She had on a blue uniform t-shirt with a circle logo in the corner that read “Help for the Homeless”. Her aura was a commanding one of generosity and humor. She pulled up directions for me on her phone and told me she had once been living out on Skid Row and struggling with drug addiction and now she helps a non-profit to get people off the streets. We got on the same bus and I finally found this hipster art show I was supposed to go to where I found myself in a vastly different environment.
This is when I encountered Ronald Weaver’s photography. The aerial shots he produces of gorgeous, commanding landscapes captured at a direct 90 degree angle 500 feet or so from the ground are stunning. This makes for an image that looks much like observing an ant colony from the 5ft human eye perspective or seeing a snail crawl on pavement. Except you’re looking at people on a huge landscape. These images are captivating because while you may not realize what you are looking at first, in the split instant that you do, your mind does a quick rewind and zoom out to see how tiny we can really be and see ourselves as the small beings that we really are.
Los Angeles is a city that feels like a natural force of creativity and experimentalism and hence on the brink of chaos. It is made of dozens of communities, each of which contain their own culture, and no particular “center”. A city that feels on the brink of chaos also has its own flow. So you can feel small in the wide open expanse of nature and get lost in the bustling chaos of a city that stretches for neighborhoods and neighborhoods. Another part that reminded me of Morocco was the people-centered interactions were significantly common in this big city.
For an introverted person, this trip was intense because I was trying out the solo traveling thing and I ended up spending a lot of time talking to and meeting people I didn’t know. I found that being lost and feeling small made me a lot more open, vulnerable, and loving towards others. I appreciated others’ kindness and recognized it for the benevolent presence of the loving universe. I believe it is so important to get lost. I don’t believe everyone is ready to get lost, but when you are you will find yourself doing it naturally. The chaos that ensues with getting lost makes you look for a compass, and often that calibrating force is yourself. I was never really lost, I was taking the long way to exactly where I needed to be.
When I first got to my friend Miriam’s room in Santa Monica on the outskirts of L.A., I put down my stuff and rushed to the beach. Scrambling through the sand, I sat down on the warm earth, soaking in the sun, and watching the waves. As I closed my eyes… the mountain of worry, stalactite salt mounds of anxiety, dissolved and dissipated at the immense sound of the ocean. Filling the space in between in my ears, there was stillness. I was at the edge of a continent, the ocean before me was big enough, deep enough, blue enough, with enough energy and love than I could ever want or need. Next to its roaring, foaming, never ending, older-than-you-will-ever-be and-still-here-after-you-die, pain-absorbing, waves-crashing self we are all small. To feel as if the universe is big enough to hold me and my contradictions, my complexity, all I have to give and all I have to lose, and still have room for many, many, many more is to feel small, and loved.
The ocean always commands me to be here, now. Whenever I go to the beach with it’s wide open expanse of moving water, always stretching blue sky, and the deep continuous pull of water on sand fills my ears so roundly, my mind quiets and is silent for a while. With the deep sense that there is nowhere else to be, the sound connects me to an infinite source of life and power. It brings salt water to my eyes to know that the ocean remembers me every time* (*nayyirah waheed.)
The importance of feeling small for me comes from the significance of feeling as if I am part of something bigger than myself. When faced with the power of a natural force, you let go to something bigger than you. We begin to understand how we are not the center of the universe, but a part of it, and knowing that is much more fulfilling.Not to be confused for nihilism, however, feeling small is can make you feel more whole and filled in the sense that the universe is big enough for you, your thoughts, your being, and all of your existence. While much of this trip was spent traveling alone, it was refreshing because I felt connected to the whole of people, of the city, of the beach and the birds, the waves, the sunlight, the natural flow of livings beings.
In honor of reaching my twenty third year of life yesterday, I’ve reflected on what this past year has taught me, showed me, affirmed for me, and given to me:
Time is a circle, not a line. It moves out from a center, radiating in a wider and wider circle, and this center is with you at all times because it is the present moment. Do you know how blessed we are to be in the present moment, that is to be aware of the center of the universe, to be a manifestation of the universe’s own consciousness, and aware of it in this present moment?
Achieving your goals is not necessarily a series of calculated steps and more of a projectile vomiting yourself/work/ideas all over everyone until something sticks.
Manifestation through thoughts is powerful. You can spend as much time manifesting your fears as your dreams, so being positive is part of a powerful algorithm of manifestation.
“Behind-the-scenes” is really the main stage, this is where the magic of your life happens, what it looks like is what happens after.
What feels right is what should dictate your life, tell you where to go, and what to focus on, not what looks right. What feels right comes from within the self, the quiet space of the heart, not the critical, conscious, judging eye.
Love yourself. Love yourself first, last, forever, now, tomorrow, then, after, before, yesterday, when, until, during, still, always , even if, even when, just because, over it, for it, in spite of it, despite, because, right now, on time, slowly, quickly, really, seriously, deeply, righteously, and always, always fearlessly.
In “Black Museum”, the last episode of the latest season of Black Mirror, we came across the conclusion that there is one person to blame for the evils of technology, with a “Get Out”-esque ending that was very satisfying. Yet, a character seeking the thrill of technological advancement, but more importantly acclaim for their popularity, seems too easy of a reason for the destruction technology causes in this series. This brings us to a debate about whether technology is inherently evil or technology at the hands of questionable human morality is the true evil. I’m more inclined to believe that Black Mirror is about what happens when we are faced with moral issues that aren’t obviously right or wrong because technology has complicated them and provided us with even more degrees of diffusion of responsibility than we currently have now. Phew, run-on sentence.
The point is, we are faced with questions which we never had to think about before. Because it is a new situation, we are left with no reference point and instead must figure out the moral question ourselves, instead of reverting to commonly held notions, like “of course killing or hurting someone is bad”, we are asked to think who is doing the killing, who is enabling it, how many people are involved, did they have the intention to kill, and whether or not it’s really killing (in some cases). This is what morality demands of us with or without technology, that we consider the complexity of a multi-dimensional issue. So each Black Mirror episode leaves us wondering to ourselves over and over “what would I do in that situation?” When dealing with copying someone’s consciousness and having it exist, fully sentient, to do the original consciousness’ bidding, the question is not how could technology be so evil but why do we think this is wrong? What moral weight do we give to a copy of consciousness manifested through technology? And most importantly, would we consider doing that?
When I first started watching Black Mirror, one episode would leave me so perplexed about the meaning of life that I could only watch one at a time. With season 4, I whipped through the entire season in a matter of two days. Maybe I’ve become inured to the psychological trial of Black Mirror episodes. Or maybe there’s something different about season 4. The endings provide more closure and triumph. For the most part the “bad guy” loses in a lot of these episodes. There is a denouement in the end in which characters are left with hope and the option to start another chapter after we leave them. This is a first for Black Mirror plot lines, which normally leave us with a feeling of hopelessness as the characters are faced with impossible situations which they must live with for the rest of their lives.
Some part of the British satire element is lost in the fourth season. This season gives a sense of righteousness at the end of the each episode, more reminiscent of Hollywood ending than British parody. Or perhaps the series are just as shocking but the ultimate message leaves us with a more tranquil moral consciousness instead of the unanswered, ambiguous conclusion to the episodes of the former seasons. That is to say, that the characters have figured out how to control technology in a liberating way. (INTERESTING!). Consider a comparison between iconic episodes from seasons 1-3 and their related episodes in season 4.
San Junipero (series 3) : The characters, Kelly and Yorkie, find their true love only after they are past their prime age in a simulation over which they have very little control. In the end they find themselves living in the simulation instead of real life and ultimately ceasing to exist in the real world.
Hang the DJ (series 4): The characters in this episode find each other in real life after their simulations have undergone 1000 tests of love in a simulation designed to match couples with 99.8% accuracy. They are using the technology to their benefit, and as we find out that we have been watching a simulation for most of the episode, we discover the real people or original consciousness’ have been in control the entire time.
Playtest (series 3): In this episode, virtual reality and games are also the main theme, except the protagonist has no control over the virtual reality as it takes over his mind. He is not in control, the game creators are. Eventually we find out that a malfunction killed him 5 seconds into the game but created a simulation in his brain which lasted several weeks (months?).
USS Callister (series 4): In this episode a woman finds herself in a game- or rather a copy of her consciousness- that is that is run by an ego-driven, self-gratifying man. The woman is also a computer programmer in real life and she works at the company this man helped found. She ultimately takes over the virtual reality from the inside and triumphs over the perverted game her and others had been subjected to. We are left feeling hopeful for the future of the characters- even if they are copies of consciousness inside a game.
So what changed? As far writers go, writer and creator Charlie Booker is still behind the plot of Season 4. Although not all episodes in season 4 have a happy-ending, MetalHead, for example, there is undoubtedly a change in the writing and message the show leaves us with. Ultimately, it’s a feeling: I feel more hopeful for the future than dejected after season 4. And to be honest, I’m not sure how much I like that.
I work in a lot of different offices. Correction: I work in a lot of different coffee shops around the city. There are other people at coffee shops who are working, and for someone who sets her own schedule most of the time, this is motivating. I decide where to work at based on my mood (and budget). A delicate combination of prices, WiFi strength, outlet availability, and general ambiance/mood is how I picked my favorite spots. I’ve been to a lot of different coffee shops and deciding which ones are the best in Atlanta comes down to how much time I’ve spent there.
The only two criteria I mention are price range and MARTA accessibility, since those are my first considerations when I am picking where to work for the day. Given that I am not exactly a thriving freelance writer or *insert career here* yet I have to pay careful attention to the amount I am spending in my offices every week. So read on to learn about some coffee shops with $1.50 tea as well as some places with steeper java and tea prices but whose general ambiance I find worth it.
So let’s go to office #1 on my list:
Javamonkey in downtown Decatur
This place has become me second living room. It is also somewhat set up like a living room with two couches, several smaller round tables, and two walls of counter space. This means there are lots of cozy corners to settle into and work. The outlets along the counters are plentiful but it can be a little harder to access the outlets behind the couches. My favorite thing about this place? Great $1-3 loose-leaf tea. Some of my favorite teas to have are: Tangerine-Ginger green tea and Peach Blosson white tea. Right next to the Decatur MARTA station.
Chrome Yellow Trading Co. on Edgewood Ave.
This place feels as if Instagram’s coffee pages all in one spot and you were inside it. It has great decor and great aesthetics. My favorite thing about this place is that I can focus for long periods of time. The natural lighting that comes in from the large windows as well as multiple skylights make it an airy space to get work done and be inspired. The larger round and rectangular tables are great for group meetings and work. This place is a little pricier, with tea costing $4-6, so I don’t go here every day but it’s definitely my first consideration if I really need a clean, streamlined, creative space to work in. It kind of feels like a co-working space with great interior design. This place is a 15 min walk from the King Memorial MARTA station.
Ebrik Coffee House in downtown Atlanta
Get off the MARTA station at Five Points and head down a block down Decatur Street, to the left of the station, and you will find Ebrik Coffee Shop on the corner. Having recently located to this larger space on the corner of Decatur and Pryor, this coffee shop offers lots of space, decent prices at a very accessible location (for MARTA riders). The best thing about this place? It’s run by Palestinian brothers from Chicago and the people that work there are always ready to say hi and have a conversation with you. POC vibes flowing all around. The music can get a little loud and the wifi is not so strong upstairs but I find I can get a lot of work done here on more quiet days. Tea prices are $2-3.
Condesa Coffee near the Old Fourth Ward
The best thing about this place is how quiet it is. Even though it is near a very busy intersection on Highland Ave, it feels tucked away behind the greenery and pleasant smell of coffee roast. This place is never too crowded, and is usually pretty quiet with lots of outlets everywhere. I also think this place has great natural lighting, something I find very important. This place is not entirely MARTA accessible but can be a good walk from the King Memorial station if you’re up for some exercise. You can also catch the 99 from King Memorial station and get there in a couple minutes. A little pricier, coffee and tea ranging from $5-6.
Joe’s Coffee Shop in East Atlanta Village
This is a great spot for meeting up with someone and having a conversation or getting some work done. It’s very cozy, with several couches, plenty of spots for getting up close and personal. They have great baked goods- try the key lime pie!! I’m sure they have great coffee but I’ve only ever tried the tea. The best part about this place is that it is covered in one of Atlanta’s most iconic artist’s work. Decent prices, $3-6. Accessible via MARTA bus on the 9 from Inman Park station.
I went to the Making Africa: a Continent of Contemporary Design exhibit at the High Museum here in Atlanta over the weekend. I caught the exhibit on a free Sunday before the it moves on. This exhibit is definitely something different for the High, which does not have a history of showcasing Afrocentric work.
When I saw the words “Making Africa” all over Atlanta’s billboards and the High’s logo, I was thinking something along the lines of interesting! And then, I was thinking “what does ‘Making Africa’ even mean?” My mind immediately rejected this phrasing in the way that it rejects any attempt at conglomerizing the concept of ‘Africa’. It wasn’t until I saw the rest of the title, “a continent of contemporary design”, on a flyer somewhere else that I considered the exhibit might live up to the vast, complex, multi-lingual, multi-cultural continent it is claiming to showcase and I decided I had to check it out.
I’ll admit that as an African, a North-African, a Moroccan from the Atlas mountains, my approach to anything that uses the monolithic term ‘Africa’ is always skeptical, always critical, always searching for the ‘but what do you really mean when you say ‘Africa’?” After looking up some details online, I found out some ingenious artists were in the exhibit, truly forward-thinking, brilliant artists. These are artists who don’t necessarily need the platform of ‘Making Africa’ or even ‘Africa’ to appreciate their work. Kudzanai Chiurai’s work, for example, speaks of political struggle relevant to a lot of the global South. So I found myself wondering, how is the western American able to view this as separate from stereotypes of Africa? In what ways does it challenge the American viewer to think critically?
What first meets your eyes at the exhibit is white text on a black wall introducing the pieces. The introduction confirms: times are changing, people are advancing, and Africa and its people are part of this advancement. Then it states: there are 650 million registered phones on the continent, this is significantly more than in the U.S. Although, you might know this particular statistic, it should really not be surprising. There are also a lot more people on the continent, given that it is, you know, 3 times larger. The introduction, did end, to its credit, with a disclaimer that this exhibit does not claim to represent all of Africa – which nothing can ever claim to do – but rather presents a new story or narrative for ‘Africa’ in the viewer’s psyche.
Without getting ahead of myself, I’d dare to say this statement is meant to guide you to the concept that Africa is not stuck in the Stone Ages. I will go ahead and say that this allows viewers to peek into the African contemporary art world from the comfort of their own lazy and tired perceptions of Africa. Here’s how: It puts together printed out explanations of African history with screenshots of popular African websites, updating the viewer on the current state of affairs in order to convince the viewer that Africa is advanced. If you have been following updates from the continent in even the last five years you would know not find it that surprising that some of the world’s largest urban areas such as Lagos, Johannesburg, and Casablanca are emerging tech and economic hubs on the continent.
Although this may be a lesson some people need to have, I would like to imagine that we can appreciate African art and contemporary design in a more well-curated fashion. The art is contemporary, yes, but it is also featured alongside mobile apps developed by Nigerian company Pledge51. Soccer-game phone apps, to me, don’t count. That is to say that a mobile app, just like the fact that the continent of Africa has more registered phone users than in the U.S., should not be all that surprising. Not that they don’t deserve a space to discuss and observe, still squishing it together with “art” and “design” is a bit of a stretch.
Imagine an exhibition that did not seek to explain or justify Africa but presented various African contemporary works as they are, with its brilliance and controversy. To have a show on African art without providing the African context, whatever this context is, is to radically claim that African art can stand on its own with its message, and reach a western American audience without an explanation centering that audience. I just don’t imagine you need an exhibit displaying apps made in the African continent in order to understand and appreciate contemporary African art. Then of course, we might have a less appealing show to mainstream audiences but then we could have more engaging conversation about what little understanding and interpretation there is of African contemporary art in the U.S. mainstream culture. The art itself does this, the context it is presented in then hinders us with fully engaging in the intensity of the message presented by the art.
KUDZANAI CHIURAI, POPULAR MECHANICS I, 2010
Take Kudzanai Chiurai’s Popular Mechanics series. The linocut prints are commentary on the nature of power in a post-war nation, in a nation where power is defined by money, and in a nation where man-hood is defined by violence. These are all universal concepts which apply to numerous societies.
Consider advising curator Okwui Enwezor’s words, “the future has happened everywhere else already.” There is this sense that Africa is catching up to the world, but I genuinely seek to flip that interpretation around. I think developed nations are starting to realize, after having produced their fair share of CO2 emissions, over-pollution, plastic waste, and lack of creative ways of living, that they may have been doing something. Then African nations actually have the answer. Africa will not only catch up to the future but will invent and lead the world into the future is what I am getting at. So the future is happening in the sense that it is being challenged by Africa’s creators, but people in various African nations have always been inventing the future in the way they adapt to various challenges.
In the spirit of centering contemporary African art and design, I want to move on to appreciating my favorites pieces in the exhibit, including some commentary overheard on my way through:
Black Veil, White Veil
This piece provokes the question of identity and background and how the context or background shapes identity. Notice how the same person, with the same features, looks different under different veils.
“I looked it up, it only comes up on Afro-centric websites…”
Do we ever say “it only comes up on euro-centric websites”?
“Mom, are those outfits that people wear in Africa?”
This is definitely one of my favorite pieces. The middle duratrans print features windows from each apartment – 12 across- on each floor – on 54 floors of the Ponte City building in Johannesburg, South Africa. Each image is put into a really small frame then into a mosaic so that you end up with hundreds of images side by side. These images all together give the impression that you are looking out of one large window. Although this project was completed over the span of two years, the consolidating of images into one space gives the impression that they were all taken at the same time and you are seeing a cross-section of people’s lives in one moment. Some windows have curtains in them, some have people’s silhouettes. On the right panel are all the doors in the building, and on the left are all the TV sets. Very powerful concept.
Jua Kali series, Tahir Carl Karmali
This photo series uses waste to create armor, gear, and fashion. According to the artist Tahir’s website: “JUA KALI is Swahili for ‘Fierce Sun’ – referring to the informal labourers that worked under the hot sun. Now it is a term used for people that work in any informal way and used to describe work that is substandard. I want to change this perception as in reality it is the Jua Kali sector that fuels the city of Nairobi.”