Distance

First Prize in the 2011 Harvard Undergraduate International Travel Writing Competition

A mile is a long way to go when you're running late, but too short for a leisurely afternoon stroll. Distances up to two miles I can still figure in my mind and attach to times walking; longer, and I think of a jogging pace and my familiar running trails. Much further, the distances traveled by car, and I begin to remember only start and finish, the journey in between reduced to a view from the window, rolling by – a filmstrip, a painting, some two-dimensional world – and I can believe that I am actually still, and the world is moving past me.

I’ve tried to teach myself to comprehend vastness. The 7,000 miles from Boston to Namibia, where I spent the two months of June and July, is a distance that would just be walkable in about that span of

a summer, provided of course that you never stopped to eat or sleep. I’ve spent the better part of two years in the square mile around Harvard Square, and I try to imagine a space so big that 7000 of my everyday worlds could fit comfortably, end to end, within it.

But past a certain point, the enormity of space ceases to mean anything to me. I simply can’t imagine the huge distances you can cover by car, still less by plane. Like those famous tribes who supposedly count one, two, many, my mind can only understand a puny space fitting my own importance in the world – one mile away, two miles away, far.

I’ve had no shortage of quintessentially African experiences. I’ve sat in a combi for hours waiting for it to fill up, and hitchhiked down a bumpy, dusty road in the open back of a pickup truck. I’ve stood next to termite mounds twice my height and narrowly avoided bushes and trees with vicious thorns that could easily pierce straight through my entire hand. I’ve seen 270-degree rainbows at Victoria Falls. I’ve eaten ostrich, crocodile, zebra, and kudu, but prefer well-cooked donkey meat.

I’ve had (several) deeply scarring encounters with baboons.

I’ve been offered food from strangers and children, and I’ve offered food as well. I’ve encountered a foot-long (dead) snake on the road to town. I have not eaten mopane worms. I’ve been told in perfect seriousness that if I went to the other side of the mountain, I’d never come back (while climbing I luckily managed to stay on the correct side). I’ve watched sunrises and sunsets and a lunar eclipse, and seen

the Milky Way from my front door, set against a blanket of unfamiliar stars. I’ve been asked, those nights and mornings the temperatures dipped near freezing, if I’d ever felt anything so cold. I’ve speculated at length if the world was ending, the one morning I saw clouds.

I’ve been asked a million times by students, teachers, and once, the police, to take a photo (one more, one more! Me and my sister, miss!). I’ve been asked many times what artists I’d seen in America, and disappointed the askers each time. On all but a few occasions, I’ve managed to ignore my school’s 5 AM siren. I’ve had my hair stroked by both girls and boys while I wasn’t paying attention. I’ve stood calmly with students and teachers and watched a brush fire next to the school. I’ve watched my students make a bag of popcorn disappear in three seconds flat, and dive after the pieces that fell onto the floor.

I’ve heard my teacher colleagues talk seriously about witchcraft. I’ve been in town and had a drunk, old white man tell my students, who were carrying my groceries, that he would slit their throats if anything happened to me. I’ve worn the brilliantly pink, striped traditional skirt of the Ovambo tribe. I’ve seen families living in shacks made of rusty sheet metal and old street signs, cooking in three-legged pots over fires outside. I’ve discovered, while trying to teach algebra, that my students can’t add consistently. I’ve been told tearfully that I reminded a girl of her deceased older sister. I’ve watched kids playing with tires in the riverbed, and tried to help an 11-year-old boy carrying a 10 kg bag of maize meal back home at dusk.

There’s a certain exotic quality to my experience when I describe it that way, a quality almost completely absent from my actual living of

it. Any place is rife with assumptions and expectations, and so much of what seems strange and foreign in pictures and stories seems obvious and natural when you’re there. While in Namibia I was never surprised that I walked a mile over sand to get to town, or that women regularly walked down the street in bright, heavy, multiply-petticoated dresses, or that I often encountered donkeys and chickens in town. I never thought much about the fact that all my students were black, though the camera begs to differ, and I stand out like a beacon in my pictures with the kids. Of course the kids jabbered away in multiple tribal languages in class, of course my students had school-banned cell phones in class, of course I greeted everyone I passed on the street. Of course I was spending my summer teaching high school math and physics in Omaruru, Namibia; what an obvious place for me to be.

But now, looking back, there’s something intensely strange about the 4x6 prints I’ve put up, 24-square-inch patches of cleanly cropped Namibia. They clash with the corkboard and cinder block walls. There’s something striking about the muted desert colors and simple, open landscape that I took for granted while there, something that now makes them feel like snapshots from someone else’s life. Now, I feel intensely the gaping distance and clashing dissonance between the crowded, busy streets of Cambridge outside my window, and the wide open spaces of Omaruru. Hard as I try, I can’t figure out how they could possibly coexist in any world, least of all mine.

And I suppose this is the real distance that I’m trying to grasp, the fact that up until now my memories from Namibia have been neatly packaged in a box, to be opened and closed at will; that this box sits

alongside another box, open and sprawling, that holds my life in Cambridge; that the space between the two boxes is at once a day’s travel by plane and the span of a world.

They say travel broadens the mind; well, my mind hates being broadened. I can put my body on a plane, but my mind will do everything in its power to resist going the distance; it shrinks things and diminishes them instead, to fit what it already knows. This is what I mean when I say that for all the time and effort you take to travel, it’s the hardest thing in the world to actually be there, 7000 miles away, and understand what that distance means.

I can trivialize distance. I can look at the four-thousand-person town of Omaruru and see only the cafes and restaurants; I can sit with my laptop and iPod and sip a strawberry milkshake, and create an imaginary zone of Americana. I can magnify distance, and turn Namibia into an exotic dreamland, an alternate universe hidden in the back of a wardrobe or behind Platform 9 ¾, filled with tales of tribal customs and being chased by baboons.

I remember standing in front of the thundering Victoria Falls and thinking it looked just like the pictures I’d seen online, as though the mist and spray were just another part of an elaborate virtual reality. I remember being disturbed by the thought. I wonder if that’s what our overabundance of media has done to me, that in a world where a few minutes with Photoshop can bring imaginings to vivid life, the virtual, animated world seems richer and more real than the real one.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can’t understand Namibia. Impossible, cannot do. I don’t know how to experience it without collapsing it down, shredding it into glorified images and tall tales. A mathematician’s conjecture about Namibia: it’s somewhere between next door and infinitely far away. I can imagine what goes on at both extremes, but in between is where the details and complexity come in. I don’t think my mind knows how to deal with complexity, and whatever the spare, brushy landscape may suggest, there’s nothing simple out there.

I think the best hope for me is the kids, who are adorable, frustrating, confusing, complicated, lovable, with personalities that somehow defy reduction and easy categorization. Round and big-eyed Vaanda with his infectious, buck-toothed grin; I never understood why he could answer everything in class but did poorly on tests. I found out quickly that Salmi didn’t know her times tables, but I sat down with her and we worked through the quiz. “Salmi?!” exclaimed Veziruapi when she saw Salmi’s name on the list of those who’d passed, and she finally stopped wandering around the classroom and passed on her next try. “What happened to your hand?” I asked her once, and she answered calmly, “I was stabbed.” “By whom?!” “My sister.” Michael did stab Moses in the head with a pen the day that I was out sick, and the boy who called himself King Herodes had gotten stabbed last year, I heard. Megameno always caught my eye on her way out of class, and each time we’d share a small smile.

I never heard Vetenguavi talk, except to answer questions, but his answers were usually right. Alfons was tall and gaunt and described to me as a trouble kid; he cared nothing for math but drew beautifully. Gerson could draw, too, and he told me about a drawing he was doing on the side of his house. I happened by his house one day and met his grandparents; he ran inside and brought out a drawing he was working on for his sister. Clementine was tall and thin and had a lazy eye; one day after school she silently walked up to me and offered me her orange. Heroldt told me about riding horses, playing rugby, and how he wanted to be a physicist, because he liked being able to understand the world around him. “Miss, I have homework for you,” Jerry told me once after class, and sketched out a puzzle I was never able to solve, and that he never gave me the answer to. When McBright got far and away the highest score on the math test, I tracked him down and congratulated him, and the tall, imposing boy buried his grinning face in his hands. “Thank you, Miss!” he said over and over, practically jumping up and down. Raykan wanted to be called Tasha; “if you want to be called that name you will have to cut off that penis,” snarled the physics teacher. He wrote me a note before I left; the last line: “I liked the way you called me Tasha.”

Damion, Lolo, and Ephraim accompanied my partner volunteer and me into town our first weekend; for six solid hours, they told us stories and walked us around town and carried out groceries, and afterwards, we started referring to them as our three musketeers. Damion played rugby and worshipped American football, and both he and Lolo loved hip hop and rap. One day I substituted for their class,

and Lolo was missing; when I asked him about it later, he explained simply, “I had to talk to a girl. She was thinking about leaving school, but I told her to stay.” Ephraim brought me drawings that I put up on my wall. He spoke mostly in short bursts. One evening at dusk we’d walked into town, and I remarked that the sky was beautiful. “Yes,” he said, “it looks like a honeymoon.” Another time he said suddenly, “When you’re gone I will miss you. I’ll miss you all day.”

Freddy drew the letters for the mural, enormous neat block letters done with no ruler, just a pencil and friends’ eyes from below, and while we both worked he told me he wanted to go to college in America. I don’t know how Friendly found me, but one day he was just there while I was at the wall, painting, and he was there the next day, and the next one, too, bringing me a chair to stand on and helping me wash the brushes, rarely speaking, and through the long days of painting, I came to draw comfort from his presence.

I think the kids were the most real and genuine part of my experience, because they refused to be simplified, because they challenged and surprised me at every turn. I learned too late how much they loved stickers and my stuffed Tyrannosaurus rex Mr. Fluffy; I overestimated how long I could hold their attention while just talking, and I underestimated how much they’d make me care.

Maybe it’s a good thing that I can’t begin to understand how much distance separates us now, and how unlikely it is that I’ll see them ever again. But I’m friends with some of the kids on Facebook, and occasionally I’ll get an email out of the blue:

“My name is Faith from Namibia, i have a masseage for u from my young brother Michael one of the learns that you give them Math grade 8 B in Omaruru, He just wanted to say hi n how you doing, and weather you arrive safe..”

And two months and 7,000 miles vanish like that. For a moment at least I can pretend I’m there again.

About

The Harvard College Writing Program is pleased to publish Yiren Lu's essay, which won Second Prize in the 2010 Harvard Undergraduate International Travel Writing Competition. The Competition, which was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Writing Program, the Office of Career Services, and the Office of International Programs, invited Harvard undergraduates to submit travel essays written about their experiences while studying, volunteering, interning, or working abroad as undergraduates. The panel of judges included Writing Program faculty as well as Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay Harris.

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