December 28, 2011

Five Invaluable Lessons: My Gifts on Christmas Day!

With the festivities of Christmas behind us and the prospects of a New Year ahead, this present space in between has afforded me some time to reflect upon the invaluable lessons that I’ve learned this holiday season.

Circumstances dictated that this year I spent Christmas away from my blood family and close friends. Being an only child, especially for my ageing mother, I am the star that sits atop her proverbial tree. With daily phone calls from across miles and shores, with deep love, we kept each other’s flame lit.

As the day approached, I realized that it wasn’t a matter that it didn’t matter – because actually it does – for me the importance lie in whatever I chose to do and with whom I surrounded myself. This gift of Christmas is one that we can grant ourselves daily.

Two days before Christmas I decided to gather four women who throughout the year, had supported me along my journey, perhaps more than they even realized.

A Feast of Abundance and Celebration was how I entitled our Christmas meal and I dove into the joy of cooking; one of my favorite, meditative past-times. For anyone who knows me well, cooking is always an indication that my heart, soul and mind are in sync.

Gathered at the table for a magnificent feast, we were truly a representation of the United Nations, the bread-winning reason why we were separated from our loved ones at this time of year. Five amazing women – from Bosnia, Eritrea, France, Jamaica and Liberia respectively – we shared stories filled with laughter – discussing everything from shoes to sex.

Already over-indulged, by the time dessert rolled around – a la Jamaican Rum cake served with rum butter frosting, mince pies and fresh pineapple – I felt satisfied at every level with how my Christmas had turned out.

Christmas with all of its expectations and fanfare gave me a refresher course in one of life’s key lessons; acceptance. In choosing to accept being here in Bangui, Central African Republic, I experienced the festivities of the season through curious eyes. To see, for example, tinsel and glitter mixed in with deep, rich, red African dirt against the backdrop abject poverty led me to yet another reminder – the human quest for happiness, even if it lasts a mere 24 hours.

On the morning of 25 December, along with my French kindred spirit, we headed off to Batalimo, an area approximately 100 km north of the capital Bangui, and is home to one of the last remaining areas of pygmies in the world.

Even though she had explained to me that we would be staying with a family who owned property close to the Pygmy area and that they would arrange everything for us, somehow I hadn’t managed to grasp the depth and context of what she said. My only question was, “how much will it cost?” and her response was simply, “nothing.”

As we embarked upon our journey into the unknown without a map – only a cursory guide scribbled on a paper napkin – another lesson came to me; surrender. Out of range for any cell phone communication, we meandered along, listening to our iPod on shuffle and being pleasantly surprised with each tune that serenaded us along the way.

The Residence

Upon our arrival at our destination, I was surprised and amazed to find ourselves in the midst of a wood cutting factory, owned and run by a Portuguese family who had resided in this remote location for 35 years. Facing the expanse of the river, the grounds, though run down, are palatial and echo centuries of untold history. We learn that for each tree that is logged, a sacred ceremony is held.

We spend the remainder of that afternoon lazing and taking in the sublime natural surroundings that we are blessed to be a part of. I am in awed by how far removed this experience is from my previous reality of Christmas. Inwardly I say a prayer of gratitude for this opportunity that some can only dare to dream of.

Like a mélange of roasted nuts, I am a mixed bag of overwhelming emotions mixed with fatigue.

Bright and early the following morning, we board a motor boat which takes us across the river to the land of the pygmies. Forty minutes later, we arrive at our destination. Upon approaching their village, what I encounter is beyond my wildest imagination. I feel as though I’m in the midst of a dream and have awoken in an area long forgotten by civilization. There is dirt and squalor everywhere. As alien as we look amidst this scene, these inhabitants appear to be more at ease with seeing white foreigners than they are with seeing me, even though we share ancestry and skin color. 

The pygmies, a breed of hunters and gatherers, I am mesmerized by their innate ability to communicate with animals within their habitat. They possess a natural pitch and as explained to us by our dignified Central African tour guide Bertrand, each sound they make is specific to the creature that they are communicating with. Bertrand further explains their knowledge of each plant and bush that surrounds them and their medicinal benefits.

Destination, Unknown

As we trek through their village, like a thief, I feel as though I am trespassing with my Western infiltrated curiosity. It is impossible to tell their ages from their physical appearances. I am nauseated by the harsh presence of malnutrition, as is evident by the children’s distended bellies and rotting teeth. Judgment confronts me with a stream of questions – what am I doing here? Do they even want us here? What happens after I’ve had my National Geographic experience and their lives continue, largely unchanged and left entirely to the fate of nature?

Pygmy Huts

The only thing that each person we encounter asks of us is whether we’ve brought along any cigarettes. Bertrand explains to us how for them, cigarettes serve as a [white] Western/European way of being through which they can create some sort of bond. Clearly it is this interpretation of what a cigarette represents that intrigues them as certainly they have some bush of their own that they smoke?! Bertrand confirms my hypothesis.

An hour or so later, we’re back on the boat, speeding our way back for lunch at the idyllic residence of our hosts. The over-arching lesson that occupies my mind is that of immense gratitude. This latest expedition has shown me the extent to which I am blessed, and gives me a first time ever appreciation of Bangui. A mere three hours away I now realize that this semblance of a city must seem like Paris for the majority of Central Africans.

After lunch, we begin our journey home, passing along the way, men and women carrying loads of chopped wood, bananas, whatever, at least five times their body weight. Glistening with sweat, these rippled bodies reflect not even a glimmer of body fat given their endurance formed from the hard labor that is their daily life.

So in closing the curtains on Christmas 2011, here’s what I’ve come to understand and appreciate:

  1. Christmas is an emotional time.  In acceptance of this, I allow whatever emotions that appear to, like cream in egg-nog, rise to the surface.
  2. Christmas is whatever we choose to make it; it is the sentiment that we assign to it that gives meaning.
  3. It is a time of community and sharing.
  4. Christmas, like every other day, is an invitation for us to be who truly are.
  5. The greatest gift that we can ever present ourselves is to live FULLY with acceptance, gratitude, humility and LOVE.

And so it is.

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