Forgiveness – Our Visit to a Reconciliation Village

I shook hands with a killer and thanked him for his time.

Or perhaps I should say I shook hands with a man looking for redemption. It’s powerful to think how easily the words we choose can demonize or humanize someone.

Forgiveness can be difficult to come by these days. No mistake, past or present, seems to go unexposed and unpunished. Sometimes that guilt and punishment is self-inflicted, and onerous to dig out of.

The following is a story about forgiveness.

Our Arrival

We made our way to a small town via a bus driven by our Rwandan tour guide who insisted on playing his mix tape, which he sold for a cool $5, on repeat over the speakers. We all fought the urge to dive out of the small rectangular sliding windows.

The bus eventually pulled to the side of the orange-tinted dirt roads found across the country and let us out in front of a cob-constructed homes. We all gathered into a small square area filled with logs and hand-made benches for sitting. A village representative came out and welcomed us to the area before introducing traditional Rwandan dancers. A group of young men and women came out, drummers in the back and dancers in the front, and began their musical display. This never ceased to be beautiful to my eyes and ears, but one can’t help but feel that this was done to appeal to the foreigner rather than its original intended use for celebrations.

When the spectacle was nearly done, the dancers came out and pulled the audience into the square to dance along with them in a joyful act of unification.

After a few minutes of this warm event, we were all asked to sit down to listen to how this town came to be.

Genocide Stories

A man and a woman walked out in front of the group. The each introduced themselves before beginning their respective stories, each pausing occasionally for our guide to translate the words. The man began by telling us that he had been one of the people who had participated in the 1994 genocide. He explained that there was bad leadership teaching Hutus to kill Tutsis and that after the President’s plane was shot down, the Tutsis were blamed and the leadership started the mobilization to hunt down Tutsis. Identification cards were used as a way to identify Tutsis to be killed, and others were hunted down and killed where they were hiding. After the genocide came to an end and the RFP government came in, he served 8 years for his crimes.

The woman followed with her own story. She explained her experience about one day she would never forget. She had left to get some milk for her family. When she arrived back home, her family had been killed at the hands of aggressors of the genocide.

These two spoke, calmly, a shoulder’s length apart.

A Bit Of History

You may ask why this man only spent 8 years in prison.

It was explained to us that after the genocide, a great portion of the country were incarcerated for their crimes. It was acknowledged that the country would not be able to move forward this way. A deal was made: ‘lower-tiered’ criminals (ones with less egregious offenses, were not in positions of leadership, or were determined to have been pressured into their crimes) would be given a chance to re-enter society provided that they spoke openly and honestly about what they had done. Speaking about the crimes on record was vital, and the country makes an enormous effort to make sure that the genocide cannot be denied and will not be forgotten. The man himself made a seemingly conscious effort to say, “the genocide happened.” In addition, he explained that asking for forgiveness from the victim’s families as well as the government was a requirement for the release. There were two pastors that would teach him the gospel in prison, and follow up with him after he returned home to urge him to meet with the victim’s families.

As a part of the country moving forward, these reconciliation villages were created. They are villages where individuals who were victims of the genocide live among people who committed crimes during that time.

New Generations

The woman pointed to her own home, and then to the mans. The two structures were separated only by the narrow dirt road and small square area we stood in. She explained the difficulties of living near someone, knowing they had killed people, and explained that, unsurprisingly, the transition took much time.

Then she said something that I’ll never forget:

“Our kids are inseparable.”

Indeed, anyone looking in the faces of the children running and playing together, of course, would not be able to distinguish a victim’s kin from an abuser’s.

These children would not carry the emotions tied by the sins and losses of their parents.

That little game of tag they played,

is reconciliation.

_____

The two finished their stories and asked, “Does anyone have any questions?”

“Yes! Thousands!”  I thought.

Everyone remained silent.

____

A Moral Dilemma

After their talk ended, I did something I had done a hundred times with speakers before. I asked for a picture and reached out for a handshake.

The moral ambiguity hit me – should I shake hands with a man who killed innocent people in one of the most prominent examples of our human potential for evil?

We boarded our bus and drove away.

I almost didn’t believe it was true.

Forgiveness

A few things passed through my mind on that bus ride back.

In my own family, there are people who have severed relationships for past wrongdoings or simply to avoid bad interactions and emotional repercussions. We all know family or friends who don’t speak to one another over some inconsequential family drama. We’ve all had situations where we’ve found it difficult to forgive someone or had trouble receiving forgiveness from someone else. We’ve all had times where we had trouble forgiving ourselves.

Yet there I had stood, in front of someone who was able to forgive and trust another person enough to sleep in the next house over, despite being on opposite sides of a massacre. That is a level of forgiveness I didn’t think possible. In the case of Rwanda, not only was it possible, but necessary to move forward.

If people can find it in themselves for this level of forgiveness, perhaps it’s time to forgive Aunt Sally for knocking over that vase on Thanksgiving.

Just as important is that reconciliation is a necessity in conflict resolution and in attaining peace. It’s something that African nations implement well, and, I would argue, western countries don’t always. There, punishment tends to dominate here, but it’s ultimately not conducive to progress towards peace.

The children playing together spoke volumes. Perhaps it’s not enough to only inform of, but also separate the next generation from the emotions and mistakes of previous generations. Maybe we’re doomed to be divided if we separate people into good, bad, or different from birth.

This carries as well to forgiving ourselves. How long can we carry our wrongdoings of our past? How long before we accept that maybe we may be better than we were?

The Handshake

I look back at that handshake and my hesitation in the moment. I don’t regret reaching out. I don’t regret joining hands with a man who had lived up to his wrongdoings, and presently lived in peace with others. A wish well for the children he raised, for their innocence, which will hopefully guide them to shape a better, kinder place.

I wonder if the man could forgive and reconcile with himself.

I thought if those victims could forgive him, perhaps we could all learn to forgive a little bit better.

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My First Death Café

My First Death Café

‘ I’m gonna die on my way to a Death Café – what an ironic way to go.’

That’s what ran through my head as a security guard sprinted full-speed towards the escalator, darting and dodging between groups of teenagers and families at the Providence Place Mall. Alarms rang out repeatedly, complimented by rhythmically flashing white lights. Occasionally, the alarm would be interrupted by a muffled robotic request for evacuation in the case of a something. The recording was too garbled to make out the rest of the words and too easily overtaken by the alarm. I question the effectiveness of this system.

Despite the alarms, no one seemed to react. There was uncertainty in everyone’s expressions, but the majority of people in the food court kept eating and texting while vendors quietly lowered the doors to their shops. None one made an effort to move – a phenomenon, I assume, that is well documented textbook psychology. I wondered if just a few people running in the opposite direction would be enough to turn this food court into Black Friday at Walmart.

As it turned out, there was an electrical fire on top floor of the mall. This doesn’t actually have anything to do with this story, because despite the emergency, I didn’t die.

However, I will someday. And so will you.

Did that make you shutter? Maybe just made you a little bit uncomfortable, or leave you wondering what’s wrong with me for writing it?

If so, great! Because that’s exactly what I was there for, sitting among of those alarms.

I was waiting to attend my  first Death Café.

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Discovering Death Cafés

A couple of months back, I was in New York visiting one of my fellow Martians. We walked around the famous Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn.

The cemetery is somewhat of a tourist attraction – complete with an art installation. Graves range from small tombstones to large mausoleums, proving that wealth gaps persist even in the afterlife. Not only could some of these people afford business-class tickets in life, but they also had extra leg room in death as well.

We walked around, admiring the variety of stones and trying to solve puzzles of family drama and ancestry that was hidden underneath ambiguous relationships and overlapping dates.

In one of the cemetery’s entrances was the last thing I would expect– a bulletin board. I didn’t think many events took place in a place that’s so dead (yuck, yuck).

One flier advertised a death café – a place where people meet to discuss death. According to the flier, this was created by Jon Underwood to “increase awareness of death with a view of helping people make the most of their lives.”

At the bottom of the page was my favorite part of the flier which read:

“Tea and light snacks will be provided.”

I read the event details and promised myself I would find a way to go.

My First Cafe

After some quick googling, I found out that there are Death Cafés all over the country, including the alarm-ridden mall I found myself in.

Eventually, the alarms subsided and the firemen left after extinguishing the hidden fire. I walked into the Panera bread which was empty from the earlier evacuation. I stood around awkwardly, a state I have perfected over many years, and scanned the room for a possible host. After a few minutes of waiting, I wondered if it may have been cancelled due to the emergency, or if I would be able to spot the host even if it weren’t. I reassured myself that in these types of odd meet-ups, people make themselves obvious.

I was not wrong.

A young girl walked in and pulled out a stuffed knitted black and white skull and placed it on the table. I recognized it from a picture on the Death Café website.

I approached the host and introduced myself. Her outfit confirmed my suspicions – a suit jacket complimented by a metal skull lapel pin and a skull-filled pocket square. I explained to her that I was glad a previous meeting was cancelled due to the snow storm because I wouldn’t have been able to come otherwise.

“Yeah,” she responded. “The purpose of this is to talk about death, not drive into it.”

I laughed and after a few minutes, we found ourselves at the table with another guest. She began the session the same way she always does:

“Ok, is there anyone with something specific they want to bring up about death?,” she asked.

Death Culture

Death is an interesting subject in American culture. It’s something every living thing on this Earth must face, yet it is taboo to speak about. To speak of death is to be unnecessarily depressing or negative.

That’s not true in every culture.

Many of us here learn about Dia de Los Muertos (The day of the dead), for example, in school, but there are others who have days celebrating and remembering the dead. Some celebrations include dancing, drinking, and eating rather than mourning. This is particularly true for cultures who don’t believe that death is the end.

However, as our Death Café host pointed out, not talking about something doesn’t make it go away. In fact, I would argue, it gives it more power. It breeds more fear, like a name you can’t speak. If we plan and live our lives without ever considering the possibility of death, we’re doomed to miscalculate. If everyone started every Monopoly game with the idea that it would end well for each player involved, they’d be gravely (yuck yuck) mistaken.

And this is what the Death Café is all about – giving people a safe place to speak with others about a topic that’s typically dismissed in their lives as being too negative or uncomfortable.

Truth be told, I personally find death to be terrifying. Perhaps that’s even more of a reason to confront it.

Death and Mac’n’Cheese 

I was impressed at the variety of conversations at this event. Death and possibilities of the afterlife or no afterlife at all were all discussed, judgement free, in earnest and intellectual ways. Emotions were shared about how and why we think about death and dying the way we do. I expressed that I often think that our experience with death can really shape the way we view and tackle life.

On this occasion, there were only three people in attendance, so our death talk was sporadic and complimented by personal stories and thoughts that weren’t always related. However, the host recounted a much more intense previous event:

“The entire table was so full, people were pulling up seats,” she explained. She went on to explain how she opened up the floor, as usual, by inviting anyone to bring up a death-related topic of their choice. After a period of silence, a man spoke out. His hands shook as he spoke and told everyone he had a terminal illness. The result, he explained, was that he had only several months to live. He was trying to come to terms with his own life’s end.

This obviously weighed heavily in the air, even when retold second-hand. Then another attendee said, “Yeah. I came in late that day – in the middle of the conversation. I felt pretty awkward.”

It may sound like inappropriately poking fun, but that’s the reality and the beauty of the duality here. The space creates an opportunity to mesh one of the more serious and scary aspects of life with the awkward, clumsy feelings that come along with living it.

We would talk about the possibility of the existence of a soul, and then a bit about Panera’s brick-like mac and cheese. One attendee noted that she was just happy to have an occasion to wear her skull jewelry.

Life is beautiful, brief, strange, and impermanent. No one here ignored that.

Last Words

The Death Café was a great experience and the event provides a positive place for those who want to discuss any aspect of death with others in a welcoming environment. It’s a respectable endeavor – to work towards fully accepting our existence and to use that to empower us in living our lives the best we can.

And much like life, and thankfully – that mac and cheese, the Death Café also had an end.

I thanked everyone for their time and kindness, and walked to my car, making sure to look both ways before crossing the street.

 

 

 

 

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Reflections (The 30’s are coming!)

Reflections (The 30’s are coming!)

It’s come to my attention that some of my blog posts have been read out to students, so I thought I’d put a disclaimer on this one. This one is a bit less kid-friendly. If you skipped this warning, well then, you’re a bad example. You should always read the prompt fully before answering the question.

You’ve been warned.

Just a few more weeks left.

My brother looked over at me one afternoon. “So, you got a 9-5 job and turning thirty. Thiiiiiirty.” He paused and looked out of the car window into the distance, took a deep breath, and exhaled before turning back to me. “So that’s it, huh?”

I searched his face for a sign of sarcasm. There were none.

That’s right. Only a few more weeks before my youth is gone forever and my body begins to slowly degrade.

First look in the Mirror

A look in the mirror was all I needed. How did I go from looking like a 22-year-old at 28 and a 30-year-old at 29? One stressful year (before the habitat) sticks in my head, much unlike the hair that used to sit on top of it.

Why does turning 30 feel so damn scary? It’s the question I’ve been asking myself for the last two months.

How much of it is in my own mind, and how much of it is the external pressure? I haven’t started to feel old yet, but does anyone ever? Do most 70-year-olds feel like a 20-something year old kid stuck in an ever increasingly shittier body? I’m guessing the cool ones do.

This post is simply an attempt understand and file those feelings, which is difficult to do, probably because of the Alzheimer’s kicking in.

The Realization

After the mission, I found myself waiting for a plane to get to the U.K. In the waiting area, a young man approached me with an odd mix of trepidation and confidence. “Excuse me…are you Brian Ramos?”

My brain raced. Should I break into a run? Hit him preemptively?  “Get away, creep!” my brain screamed. “Stranger Danger!”

My mouth denied the request. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“Oh, great! My friend said you would be on this flight. She told me about the Mars thing you did and I wanted to ask you about it.”

“Oh, yeah. Sure.”

A few minutes later, we found ourselves in separate airplane seats, at least until I heard a voice behind me say to the stewardess, “Can my friend sit near me?”. She looked around the empty flight and obliged.

I joined him, somewhat begrudgingly because for once I had been seated next to a beautiful woman sitting alone. I had concrete plans to sit there and not make conversation while simultaneously playing twelve scenarios in my head about starting a conversation with her until it was too late in the flight to do it without feeling like a weird person.

He ruined all of that.

I was then put through a life-interview from this guy who at first, I looked at as a peer. After some-time he explained his motives, “Thanks for answering me questions. You see, I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life.”

“You and me both, man,” I answered.

He seemed to ignore the comment. I remembered feeling that older people were supposed to know better because they’ve been through more.

But that’s a positive of getting older – realizing that older people are and have been basically full of shit forever. Because we’re all figuring out what it is we’re here to do. I mean, isn’t it curious that the most miserable people around always seem to know exactly what others have to do to be happy?

In one instance, the boy leaned over. “Can I ask you a personal question? And I don’t want to be offensive.”

I smirked but tried to hide my excitement. “Of course.”

“You said you went to your Master’s degree at 27, right?…..Well, why did you wait sooooo long?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Holy crap. I’ve become the old guy. I didn’t know.

Must be the dementia.

Just days earlier, I gave a presentation at my old university. I had added an advice based on lessons-learned slide before the presentation – something that tied my living on ‘Mars’ to their experiences at ISU. During the talk, I looked up at it and said, “This is some advice for you guys I thought I should share.”

When I turned back to my peers, I was struck by the moment. What appeared to be about a quarter of the class leaned forward and touched their pens to paper, taking notes on my advice. Holy shit. For the first time in my life, adults are taking notes on something I’m saying.

“Stop! Don’t write anything I say,” I wanted to yell. “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

After all, isn’t that who we all are? A bunch of people trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing in one way or another.

A second look in the Mirror

A brush of my hair shows a thinning head. Still in its early stages, but if genetics are any sign, the future isn’t bright. If hair retaining is the U.S. economy, my dad and uncles are reflections of the great depression.

Why?! Why does my lower back hair seem to only grow stronger with age while the hair on my head slowly moves out of the neighborhood. Is it the same hair traveling? Are they just snowbirds moving south for the winter as a part of the grey migration?

What biological imperative does that serve? Why is it that old pubic hair thrives like federally protected everglades while head-hair increasingly depletes like the Amazon rain forest?

Romance.

For a few years, it was difficult to see the progression of my friends’ relationships. We are, after all, creatures of comparison. I watched as everyone settled down, got apartments, engagements, etc. They seemed so happy.

Now they’re beginning to have kids. Thank the lord for them. When I hear those children scream and see them bite other humans, I feel at peace with my life choices.

But the thoughts still roll in.

I’ll wonder if I missed my chance for young romance. Am I too late for the gaze of a woman who doesn’t want to let me go? Did I give up the chance at having a long time for a relationship to grow and blossom? Is there even such a thing?

Will there still be someone out there that will love me and support the oddball lifestyle I’m pursuing?

Not quite old, but with 10 years of history being an adult, there’s a natural tendency to reflect and regret. How many hearts did my insecurities selfishly break? Did I make a mistake by letting great women go?

Other times I remember that those decisions let to knowing what it was to kiss someone in Paris who made you forget the rest of the world existed. To know why poets wrote poetry.

I remember the things people would say when I was younger. “You don’t want kids?! That’s going to change.” “You’ll never get married that way.” “I think you’re just afraid.”

This is an idea that has baffled me from day one. “I want 3 kids!,” people in high-school would say. “you can’t have just one!”

People talked about having children like they were ordering cheeseburgers at McDonald’s. No thought went into the lifestyle changes they would bring, nor the sacrifices necessary to be a good parent.

I recently spoke to a friend of mine and told him I was working on gaining European citizenship. He made a joke about being able to offer European and American citizenship to a future wife. I laughed at the realization – perhaps I can replace my hair and physical attractiveness with money and opportunities.

This may be my only chance.

Goals and Dreams

The worry here is mostly self-inflicted. I have in the past worried that I’m going to lose my wanderlust, or ability to be creative. I’m afraid that one day, I’ll walk into the woods and the crackle of the leaves and sound of the wind will not overwhelm me with calm and belonging. I worry that one day I’ll witness a sunset and not long for an adventure, or look into a fire and not become cognizant of the beauty of existing. In that world, only tax exemptions and Rite-Aid© reward points will get me all hot and bothered anymore.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to travel. My heart wants to be a nomad – not running away from the world – but towards it. I’ve wanted to show that it was not only possible, but a way to live in understanding rather than fear.

Despite turning 30, those around me continue to say what they’ve said forever: what I’ve never bought into, but somehow stopped myself and rode the line in my life choices just in case.

“It’s good to travel now,” They’d say. “Do those things now. Because once you get older you can’t do that anymore. Your only choice will be to get married, have children, check the weather on t.v. every day, grow resentful, and complain about taxes while you wait for your inevitable death.”

Ok, they don’t say that last part.

In every part of the fear is the one question: Is it too late? What will people think of an older traveler?

The hardest thing to deal with isn’t not knowing what you want to do with your life. It’s having known what it is you wanted, but realizing you’ve let external social pressures, self-doubt, fear, secondary dreams, and poor planning stop you from making it happen. While many people look at the places I’ve been and say, “you’ve done things right,” I can’t help but know I could have done it better.

I hate everything.

With each day, it feels like the grumpiness grows. Not in my heart, but certainly my brain.

The other day, a 21-year-old told me age is just a number. I fantasized about punching them in the face.

Another time a kid said, “You need to make the most out of every day,” right before taking a sip out of his PBR at a shitty bar. I shoved him on the ground in my imagination so that I would not break a hip.

Feeling Old

At 29, sometimes I feel like I’m 12 and other times I’m 80. I will still hop on a plane to anywhere in a moment’s notice. Only a year ago, I was climbing a Nicaraguan volcano without issue. Sometimes I run up the stairs too fast and feel like I need an inhaler. WTF body?!

Maybe it’s trying to tell me something about where I thrive.

My most immediate example of old age is my step-father. For as long as I can remember, each morning he would start the day off the same way. Three simultaneous sounds would pierce through a bathroom door, hallway, and my bedroom wall.

First, I would hear his pee stream hitting the water in the toilet bowl. At precisely the time of splash-down, a loud fart would begin and sustain itself as long as the pee stream like a musical note held to the limits of a flutist’s lungs in a well-timed orchestra. Meanwhile, the percussions would come in with a deep guttural sound of hawking a loogie into the bowl, completing the trifecta. These three sounds would be my haunting alarm clock for years.

I’ll never forget the day. About two months ago….I was in the restroom, using the urinal. I squeezed to start relieving myself. At the same time, without warning nor permission, a small toot came out from my butt.

I was mortified.

Had I lost all control?! Is this the end?! My body is starting to disobey me. How long before I need diapers? Days, probably.

Time is ticking. In just a few weeks, I’ll be old and decrepit.

Still the deadlines race in my mind.

How much longer can I stay focused on the future, and the goals I need to accomplish before leaving this Earth? How much longer can I live in the past mistakes or missed opportunities? How many doors need to open before I’m convinced the Language of the Universe has not closed itself to me?

The Good / Checking Myself

You heard it here. There is some good about entering the 3rd decade of existence.

This is one thing people tell you that’s completely true: Getting older results in your caring what people thing about your life choices pretty much non-existent. I’m done with deadlines that aren’t set by me.

My ability to create isn’t fading with age. A big imagination is one of the things I was born with, and that’s not going away with any physical change. My fear should be procrastination and letting my creativity and ideas die with me, not losing the ability itself.

My ability to love has only grown stronger, and still deserving to be loved. It’s important to be thankful for the pain of goodbyes and healing nature of the embrace of someone you haven’t met yet. My fear should be in avoiding treating others badly out of insecurity, settling for someone I’m not in love with out of fear, or mistaking being alone for loneliness.

I need to remember that my dream is not dead, but stronger than ever. I am not too old to pursue it, just more sure about it. For those who have read The Alchemist, I need to understand that I need to work in the Crystal shop, but only fear becoming the crystal merchant. I need to be cognizant of balancing the oil in the spoon while seeing the wonders of the world. I won’t be too old to see the world, but will just need to wear a cap so as to not sunburn my balding head.

A third look at the Mirror

I look back at the man in the reflection. The smile wrinkles in his eyes are stronger than ever. He’s been lucky to laugh a lot over the course of 30 years.

“You’re not dead yet,” I say to him.

“So get the fuck out of my way.”

The Untold Reason to Get Dual-Citizenship

The Untold Reason to Get Dual-Citizenship

We Americans are lucky to hold the strongest passport in the world. There are few places we cannot openly travel to, and many of the restricted ones simply require some paperwork and a fee.

However, many of us also have a right to dual-citizenship, an incredible opportunity that’s not to be missed. I’m here to tell you one reason that you may not have considered for getting your citizenship:

Family Drama.

That’s right, you heard me. Now, let’s put aside the real reasons to get a passport for a moment. Forget that European citizenship, for example, gives you the right to work and live in 28 incredibly beautiful countries. It allows you to work with employers that guarantee nearly of a month vacation, respect worker’s rights, and give 6 months-1 year of maternity leave. Citizenship buys you the ability to get medical treatment should you get sick, and the peace of mind that comes with never having to wonder if your children will be able to afford a good university. If you’re a travel-nut like me, it also allows you to get reduced-fee or free visas, depending on the country you decide to visit.

Story 1: Reunited And It Feels So Good

Recently, a family member of mine decided to get their Portuguese citizenship. He was originally born there, so he took a quick trip to the embassy one afternoon. 20 minutes, 25 dollars, and a fingerprint later, he became a citizen of 2 countries with rights to 27 others.

The paperwork he was given in return held something of interest: The name of his biological father.

This individual hadn’t seen their father since he was a child. Consistently throughout his early life, he had been told that his biological father had left him and didn’t care about his existence. He was raised, instead, by a good man that his mom married later whom he called ‘Dad’. When he grew older and became an adult, he felt little need to reach out and find this man who left.

That was, until this little piece of paper showed his father’s (unexpected) last name.

That name combined with some Facebook searching didn’t lead to the discovery of a father, however. Instead, it led to the discovery of a sister he didn’t he had. Before long, the two began talking.

“She said that my dad would talk about me all the time growing up. She knew she had brothers somewhere.,” he told me one afternoon. “He searched for us for so long but lost track once we came to the U.S. because our names changed.”

A few months later, he found himself on a plane, nervous for a 20+ year family reunion.

The photographs he took on that reunion don’t tell the full story – a man sits at a crowded table with new family. Beside him are his father and new sister, and smiles fill the air. Behind those photographs are difficult conversations that piece together a broken, misinformed past. The tears are not reflected in the images either, but instead in his recounting of that day.

“We told him a bit about our upbringing. He became so emotional that he needed to leave the room.”

Story 2: Woes in Different Area Codes

I also went to get my dual-citizenship.

That morning, I walked into the embassy with confidence and excitement. Wanting to settle abroad, I didn’t think twice about taking advantage of the opportunity.

A funny aspect of getting Portuguese citizenship is that in addition to needing to have both of your parents be born in Portugal, you must also have their marriage registered there. So, I showed up with the necessary documents in hand:

One birth certificate. One marriage certificate.

The receptionist took my paperwork and began typing away. After a few minutes, she paused, looked up at me and said, “I can’t run this through.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Your father is already married to someone else in Portugal.”

Now, this is shocking for two reasons:

1.) My father isn’t alive.

2.) Wait, what?

Apparently, my father had a previous marriage that we didn’t know about. Presumably, this legal marriage was left untouched when he left the country.

I thought getting broken up by text was bad, but this man just hopped on a one-way flight. Hot-damn, Dad!

Story 3: Insert Yours Here

So, there you have it – two dual-citizenship trials led two a reunited family, new sibling, and an old marriage. And all I wanted was access to a job with a few extra coffee breaks!

If you have right to a dual-citizenship, I urge you to consider applying, even if it’s not something you think you need. It’s still easy to do, and change happens fast. The ability to get up and go is much easier if you have countries with open doors for you. Besides, I promise if you travel abroad enough, you will fall in love with one other way of life you never knew could be yours.

If nothing else, you may just learn a thing or two about your family and have a good story to tell.

Air-Goo

Air-Goo

There are few things I find more comforting than being on an airplane.

Once the HI-SEAS mission ended, the running around began. Our mission doesn’t end with stepping out of the habitat. Instead, we jump into debrief week – an opportunity to speak with all of the researchers to talk about the mission, improvements to the research projects, and to learn a bit of information that we were not allowed to know during the mission.

The week consisted of in-person interviews, Skype calls, and difficult goodbyes. Once it was over, I raced around Hawaii with a few friends to explore. After all, I had been living on the Big Island for 8 months without actually seeing any of it.

I stayed with various friends in different locations ranging from small cabins in the middle of the centipede-filled forest to the busy home of a native Hawaiian family and their pack of dogs. I was surrounded by gracious hosts and loving people, yet it felt very overwhelming. I would sit at a kitchen table, TV blaring in the background complimenting three or four people speaking to me at once. In these moments, my mind told me to smile but my gut told me to jump out the fire escape.

Though my trip around Hawaii was a fun-filled one: cliff-diving with a stranger, standing next to active lava flows, and giving a talk at a major National Park, there wasn’t much opportunity to decompress and process.

I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty at feeling strangled by the warmth others were showing me.

In fact, I didn’t feel like I could breathe until I was sitting in the warm embrace of a cheap plastic RyanAir chair.

Between Past and Present

Flying always feels like home. As soon as I sit down, it’s as if I have touched air-goo: finally safe.

There’s no more security to go through. Maybe for some unknown reason, I will be tackled to the ground at my destination – perhaps I brought gum into Singapore or something.

Either way, for the time I’m in the air, there is only the comfort of a familiar routine.

The stewardesses and stewards will give their safety speech. I will stow my tray table and bag below the seat to avoid making them remind me with disappointed eyes. Within a few minutes, the plane will begin racing forwards before lifting, almost unnoticeable at first, into the sky. Seconds later, my stomach will register the drop and my mind will imagine myself what it would be like to fly without a machine. The plane will climb, turning the airport into just one small square among other geometric shapes of cities, farmland, and mountains.

I will look forward to the complimentary drink alongside an ice-filled plastic cup. I will be inexplicable excited for the meal whose contents are individually packed, and will give each one special attention. It’s Lunchables, for adults.

Traveling is about transformation – leaving one world and entering another. You may embark from one location to reach another where words are no longer understood, or where offensive behaviors become compliments.

The transit, however, is about routine. For me, it’s a kind of home.

When we’re up in the sky, we are hanging for a moment in-between a past and future place of existence.

Need (less) Input!

Need (less) Input!

I’ve been out of the habitat for several weeks now and have been lucky enough to have a small sampler platter of the western world – some time in the U.S. (Hawaii), France, and the U.K.

Surprisingly, seeing people on exit-day itself was not as overwhelming as I had expected. Instead, my time re-entering the world has brought contrast to the life I lived in the habitat and the one I have ahead.

When returning to a home country after living abroad for a while, it’s natural to try and hold onto the parts of the culture that you felt were fulfilling. These inherently clash with social norms at home, making pulling this off quite difficult since you are ultimately left with two options:

  • Integrate back into the culture and only talk about the differences as an idealistic impossibility
  • Alienate yourself to a degree and keep behaviors that conflict with your society

Coming back from HI-SEAS isn’t much different. We developed out own culture and rules/behavioral norms for life inside the habitat. We were restricted in our resources, which in turn influenced how we conducted ourselves. After our release back into the wild, there is one thing that is abundantly clear:

There is a lot of input to be had.

Our schedule was booked with media appearances as soon as we left the habitat : radio interviews, t.v. spots, and podcasts. Newspapers released their own interpretations of the mission. One of my favorites was a doodle about us:

HISEAS Cartoon

I left for 8 months. Just 8 months! I don’t know what the heck you guys did, but this is why we can’t have nice things.

My first experiences included traveling around Hawaii and rediscovering Facebook. The sentiment communicated in this doodle was echoed by those around me. “Thank God you were in there, and missed everything!” people would say. “Everything’s falling apart out here…”

Social media was all noise. Each morning I would fire up the app in hopes of catching up on my friends’ and family’s lives. Instead, I was met with political statements and articles/videos that helped solidify their stance. My feed was now made up exclusively of advertisements and reasons why no one should have guns, why everyone should have guns, or why trump was the worst or best thing to ever happen to the U.S. I wondered how long it had been that way.

I lived in a habitat, but it seemed that everyone had been living a bubble of their very own.

I wouldn’t recommend to anyone to be uninformed about what is going on. However, what I now notice is how much we are affected by constant input and relentless media from our respective bubbles. The resulting angst and frustration is plentiful, but conversations rare.

Within a few weeks, I already began finding myself slipping back into mindless zombie mode- scrolling through the same Facebook posts several times a day, or checking my phone whenever there was a small lull in a conversation or uncomfortable silence.

Recently, I was traveling around London with a friend. They used their phone’s GPS for finding and navigating everywhere. It proved to be quite useful – guiding us from place to place in a busy city. Then, my friend left and I found myself without the same modern tool. Instead, I went back to the stone age –  looking up directions, writing them down on a piece of paper, and asking strangers when I lost my way.

Surprisingly, I found that I made it to places much more efficiently. I began getting to know my surroundings and subtle cues. I began to understand how neighborhoods were ordered and work out bus stops and street layouts within a few minutes. I realized just how much information was lost by relying on the devices.

I had walked all throughout London, but my sightseeing was 95% made up of an iPhone 5.

When you tell someone that you’ll be going on this sort of simulation, the typical response is something along the lines of “you’re crazy”, or “I could never do that.” The average response from space people is “How do I sign up?”

After finishing the mission, people ask what you missed while you were inside, or how it is to suddenly have all the freedom.

The truth is that I’ve been spending my time thinking about how to keep some of the restrictions I had in the habitat. How do I find balance between being informed and filtering out noise? How do I make social media and technology a tool, rather than a distraction?

Despite a packed schedule, my HI-SEAS Mission V experience was one of the most productive periods of my career, in no small part because of a lack of distractions and an abundance of attention to my surroundings.

I’d like to recreate this environment to the best of my ability outside the mission. Between tv, streaming services, constant connection, social media, texting, etc… we all need just

need less input.

Talks Offered

An aside – I am offering talks about my experience at HI-SEAS and life lessons learned. If you know of an organization looking for a unique speaker, please feel free to reach out to me at:

brian_ramos@my.uri.edu

Final Patch Newer.png

 

 

Exit Day

If you’re reading this when its posted, then I’m currently leaving the hab. No really – check the news! I’m leaving, and I don’t even have a suit on.

Yesterday was our last day in the habitat. I laid down by the window after the crew had gone to bed and tried to predict what the next morning would be like – hearing footsteps and chatter from news reporters and mission management setting up for our ‘release’. By the end of the night my emotional currency was well spent and processing everything wasn’t an option.

Instead I thought of a story I read somewhere once. It was about a young child walking out of the grocery store with his mother. Innocently he asked, “Why does the sign say exit”

“Well, because we’re leaving, honey” the mom replied.

” But aren’t we entering the world?”

I’ve thought about that story many times this week. Now our crew is re-entering the world.

Some said we were crazy to step out of that world.

Now I’m waiting to say goodbye to a simpler, focused life here. A part of me isn’t ready to let it go. Another part of me is ready and just watching the clock count down. And instead of going to sleep, I write – sheltered by the habitat canvas blowing softly in the wind and in the silence of miles of empty lava fields around me.