Written on the 1st April 2019
It has become something of a
tradition of mine to reflect in writing on my travels to new countries whist
traveling homewards again. Part of the tradition generally includes listening
to a mix of new artists and old favourite songs on the onboard entertainment
system while I write, links to some of which I will scatter throughout my
writing, as songs are such evocative memory-keepers. So, as traditions grow and
continue as long as they serve deep needs and purposes, I thus find myself embracing
this one of mine once again, with a joyful heart.
The past week saw – to my surprise – my first trip to the United States of America. Why should it be a surprise? It is not a country that I have ever had ambitions to visit, and somehow never expected to set foot in. It was a trip that arose fairly last minute, when an opportunity presented itself to be part of a roundtable discussion in Washington DC on Redistributive Agrarian Reform for the 21st Century – a highly pertinent topic at the moment in the work I do, and for South Africa as a country, and I was thus eager to share our experience and new thinking in this regard in a broader forum. The aim was to stimulate dialogue between Government, Civil Society and the World Bank, using examples from Colombia, Indonesia and South Africa to kick-start the discussion.
So, I found myself unexpectedly in a country I have never held in high esteem or intended to visit, at a Conference on Land and Poverty hosted by the World Bank, which felt uncomfortable in itself: in the complicated and shifting politics of land rights, the World Bank is one of many international institutions with a rather contentious history and influence, and wasn’t a place I had expected to find myself.
To my surprise, I found myself easily charmed by Washington, despite my ideological scepticism. I have a way of separating out different elements of things, which can bring great benefits as well as having its limitations, and my optimistic and fundamentally happy heart seeks out beauty and appreciation wherever I go.
The week began with a most serendipitous meeting – as I wandered down 16th Street, excited to be in a new city and delighted to find myself surrounded by the beauty of spring, but somewhat lost in trying to figure out the bus system, I was assisted by a helpful soul who, once we fell into further conversation on the bus, turned out to be both interesting and engaging. Fortunately, the chance meeting turned into further (this time being well planned, leaving nothing further to chance) connecting, meals, deep conversations and laughter towards the end of the week, which left me with a deep sense of appreciation for those rare moments when – despite entirely different histories, countries, experiences and personalities – we find one of those few people who resonate deeply with our own values and we can talk about absolutely anything with quite comfortably, and so conversion flows endlessly.
Running in new places is one of my favourite ways to explore, and I couldn’t wait to get out on the road on Tuesday morning. The darkness was anticipated, and the cold – while also foreseen and planned for, with thermal underlayers, gloves, a warm hat and thick socks – was more of a shock to the system than I had expected. While at first I was a little thrown off track by finding the road I had planned to run along, through Rock Creek Park, had no pavement and was far more full of bright lights flying towards me than I had expected at 06:30 in the morning, I took a deep breath and plucked up my courage in the darkness, jumping out the way of oncoming traffic onto tree-filled banks and muddy puddles, eventually being rewarded for my persistence by reaching a wide and comfortable footpath along the riverside.
Slowly the skies began to lighten, the moon to pale, and the forest seemed steadily less intimidating as it rose around me. Further delights waited around every corner, from hillsides filled with daffodils to quite graveyards in the woods, elegantly curving bridges high overhead, and the Potomac river spreading wide before me as the sun rose gloriously at last, shining through magnolia blossoms and making the walls of the quirky apartment buildings glow.
Jazz will certainly be one of the overriding memories I will carry of Washington, and my Jazz education began on Wednesday evening at Twins Jazz on U street, with a talented trio of young musicians providing a solid grounding to the experience while we enjoyed Ethiopian food, appropriate as the twins who founded the club came to Washington from Ethiopia as young women.
When the music was over for the evening at Twins Jazz, we moved on to JoJos nearby, which was where I became entirely enthralled.
A steady stream of old and young, white and black musicians took their turn on stage, blending together the rich sounds of the Double Bass with a series of trumpeters, saxophonists, singers, drummers and guitarists that was utterly mesmerising and deeply soul-stirring.
As my final day in Washington dawned, a running tour of the Monuments brought with it the full delight of the cherry blossoms, which had finally been tempted out into full bloom by the arrival of milder weather.
A gift of friendship from Japan to the United States many long years ago, the blossoms are a sight to behold indeed, and with my life-long love-affair with flowers, and spring blossoms in particular, I couldn’t have been more enchanted.
The monuments themselves each had their own beauty, and their own complicated history which once again raised the spectres of slavery, imperialism, war, patriarchy and injustice. For me, the most striking and powerful was the Martin Luther King Junior memorial, which had me tearful at the ongoing relevance of many of his powerful ideals, and left me inspired and determined to continue striving for a more just, loving and equitable world in whichever ways I can.
Explorations in new corners of the world never fail to excited and delight me, widening my perspective and always providing unexpected moments of connection and learning. I never fail, however, to equally appreciate how utterly joyful I feel traveling homewards to my favourite place of all: my home, my centre, my calm space of comfort and peace; my husband’s arms and my children’s waiting smiles. While homecomings are also not uncomplicated – there is always a period of adjusting to one another once again, a slight distance between us to begin with that slowly eases back into closeness, the mess of unpacking and often an aching exhaustion – I know that we will once again settle into our comfortable and loving routines soon enough.