Tuesday, April 28, 2009

pollan fever

I love Alain de Botton. Travel, love, status anxiety, physical space - he wraps it all up in an artsy philosophical package that you just can't wait to tear open.

Michael Pollan has done the same thing for the tangible world, totally re-shaping the way we look at food - and writing about it in that page-turning way only Pollan can do.

pollan's writing house

While perusing the used bookshops in Melville last month, I came across A Place of My Own, Pollan's treatise on personal architecture. Written after finishing renovation of his own home and upon entering into fatherhood, the book winds elegantly between construction handbook and the individual's need for personal space.

my writing house?

When I was growing up, I had a little hideaway under the basement stairs. My dad creeped me out by telling me it was because it was only 8 years earlier that I was just a little seed in my mom's womb. Twenty years, later, it makes sense, but the desire to have a "place of my own" has never subsided. Pollan's place is a shingled writing shack in the woods near his home. I've visualized a whole range of my own places, from one of those prefab houses dropped on a plot in rural West Virginia, to a house on stilts in Belize with zero decoration - just warm wood tones and sea breezes. Or a Bon Iver-ish dark cabin in the woods with a hearth and blankets of snow outside.

Pollan's descriptions totally hit home - from my own dreams about place to his education on architecture. The book traipses from framing to Le Corbusier, from roofing to Frank Lloyd Wright, and from site selection to Peter Eisenman (eek! I still hate him!). Ultimately, he brings it back to architecture as shelter, and the very personal architecture of creating a space that suits who we are. Bravo.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

jumping ship - with both feet

go for it, and don't look back

No more of this one-toe-testing-the-water stuff. After spending three years gazing out at the vast, inviting and unsure waters, I just dove in head first.

It's been about a year since my friend Ivan gave me the book The 4-Hour Work Week. It took me a few months to not feel silly reading it - a business self-help book of sorts with a gilded guy in a hammock on the front. When I finally did pick it up (after removing the jacket), I hid myself away for a few days and emerged with a fresh perspective on life. The impact the book had on me cannot be exaggerated. Of course it provided valuable lessons for One Mango Tree - finding a good fulfillment service, outsourcing anything and everything you can, being comfortable with delegating. But bigger than that, I realized there were other people out there like me - people who felt completely stifled and discouraged by the 9-to-5 career existence.

There is another way to live.

When I left DC, I intended to stay with the day job I've had since moving there in 2005. All fall I'd been experimenting with working remote, and started taking Fridays off to work on my business. I'd convinced myself it was the office environment, not the work itself, that was killing me. Once I got to Uganda, I continued the remote work thing; checking in, doing my reports, trying to make the conference calls work. And then, suddenly, One Mango Tree really started working. And I started teaching yoga. And I realized how little it really costs to have a great life in Uganda.

And so on Friday, I took the leap. I quit AIR.

I dove in head first. And let me tell you - the water feels really damn good.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

on teaching

svasana adjustment at sipi river lodge
photo credits joe shymanski

When I was finishing up the "apprenticeship" component of my yoga teaching training last year, I had to teach parts of a few private group classes in my mentor Judy's home in Woodley Park. I'd head off on the Surly in the early summer light; the anxiety and the bike ride making me feel very much alive. Judy didn't like to prep me too much before the classes - she'd be teaching and then say, "and now Halle will lead us through balancing postures." At which point my brain would start to sift and scroll through sanskrit and posture nicknames. No matter how much my nerves would cause me to sweat and shake, I always left class feeling totally invigorated.

I moved to Uganda with the full intention of teaching yoga at Kevin and Gavin's studio in Munyonyo, but it took me almost two full months to finally accept an invite to teach. I'd just returned from South Africa, and Kevin suggested that I sub their Sunday morning class. I laughed nervously and then accepted. At 2:30 am on Sunday morning I was still burning incense and perfecting my playlist.

I love to practice yoga, but I'm coming to realize that I love teaching yoga in a completely different way. Much like giving and receiving gifts, there's something to be said for experiencing both sides of the equation. The giving part I like the most is svasana, when I can prance around the room with herbal eye pillows, adjusting all the students and giving them head massages. I love the squinty-eyed bliss that follows svasana after a class that really pushed you.

All in all, I really love teaching, and I'm truly enjoying being the newbie teacher in town.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

the things i carried

You can't get fresh asparagus in Kampala. As Hitesh wrapped up his meetings at University of Pretoria, I spent a lovely morning wandering the beautiful aisles of Woolworth's Foods. After much pacing, I picked up two packs of asparagus. A stop at Pick-and-Pay for Ouma Rusks and a couple of bags of biltong at a local vendor rounded out my shopping trip.I tried my first rusk at Ginnegaap, curiously dipped it into my coffee...and fell in love. I then proceeded to DEVOUR the muesli rusks at Mosetlha, at one point eating more than a dozen in one 24-hour period. At home in the US, I sometimes make tomato soup solely to dip my grilled cheese. After finishing my sandwich, I make sure no one is looking and pour the remaining soup down the drain. I found myself doing the same at Mosetlha, making just enough tea or coffee to submerge my rusk, and never even drinking the liquid.

Rusks and biltong evolved during South Africa's early pioneering days - a way to preserve bread and meat in the dry climate. Both were also used extensively during times of war, for people traveling long distances.

And so I traveled my long distance home, about four hours on South African Airways, from Johannesburg to Entebbe, keeping my fingers crossed that customs wouldn't find the little goodies hidden in my big red suitcase. Success!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

on the road in south africa

sunset on a walking safari with chris, owner of mosetlha bush camp

Hitesh and I set off early from his B&B in Rivonia, tucked into his little rented Yaris and zipped northwest across the superhighways into the South African bushveld. Tasked with navigating our journey, I wasn't sure if the road signs were pointing to furniture bins at IKEA - Roodesport, Zeerust, Swartruggens - or actual places. My mind started shuffling again outside of Jo'burg, attempting to place the landscape - some mix between Tuscany and northern California - rolling yellow hills dotted with cypress. We stopped off at a gas station. I filled up on Lunch Bars and water. Hitesh dove into his vegan stash of nuts and Green&Black chocolates. We both brought music, but didn't even attempt to turn it on, as two professional bullshitters in a little Yaris on a road trip, we simply chatted for the entirety of the 5 hour ride. We had much to catch up on.

I first met Hitesh back in 2007, after having a few phone calls when a friend put us in touch to talk about conservation issues in Kenya. He'd already started writing his forthcoming book, Authentic Ecolodges, and our paths crossed one evening in Kampala as he was wrapping up visits to an ecolodge in Zanzibar. Hitesh is a Kenyan citizen, and a trained architect and landscape architect, with all the fervor of an avid environmentalist. He's the world's leading expert on ecolodges, and walks the walk more than anyone I've ever met. I've always been interested in ecotourism, more as a tourist than anything else, but this time our crossing paths was more strategic than originally intended.

The Ohio State architecture program kicked off its spring Uganda studio at the same time Hitesh and I were traversing the South African landscape. 14 students began researching building materials, climate issues and culture in northern Uganda, in the attempts to collaborate with One Mango Tree tailors to design a green, off-the-grid production facility. Over our four days in Madikwe, Hitesh and I discussed community ownership models (visiting Buffalo Ridge, an ecolodge in the reserve fully-owned by the local community), ventilation improved pit toilets, water-heating methods, alternative energy models, and site planning. Who knew that an ecolodge, meant for a traveler's enjoyment, could so fully inform the design of a production facility? We stayed at Mosetlha Bush Camp, a fine example of how people can (and do) coexist with ecosystems without destroying them. I can't wait for Hitesh to share his insight and experiences in East Africa with the Ohio State students.

On our way back to Jo'burg we got a bit lost in the yellow hills so close to Botswana, listening to Habib Koite and planning our next journey. At OR Tambo the next morning, Hitesh headed off to a full moon-lit massage at an ecolodge in Namibia, and I back to Kampala. Home.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

this should be in a museum!

one of the pillars of the new constitution outside the apartheid museum

I remember the scene from my beloved Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when he's chasing the bandits at an archaeological dig, trying to rescue this big, golden cross. He's breathless running around and pulling his incredible stunts on trains and across the desert, clutching at this cross, trying to protect it. Perhaps ridiculous to link up Apartheid and Indy's golden cross, but I couldn't help but think of that scene, while sitting in the little veld outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

As I was finishing Yunus's Creating a World Without Poverty, I remember him dwelling (for a few pages) on the concept of poverty museums. Museums are for remembering - pieces of our culture, pieces of things that make up the history of man. Just as much as that big, golden cross belongs in a museum, argues Yunus, so do the social ills that plague society. On my recent travels in Africa, I've visited three museums - none of which commemorate culture or art.

Kigali Genocide Memorial Center - Kigali, Rwanda
The Hector Pieterson Museum - Orlando West, Soweto, South Africa
Apartheid Museum - Johannesburg, South Africa

Perhaps in creating a beautiful space to commemorate the horrific things we've done to each other, that violence and hatred can be a thing of the past. After reading through the history and seeing the exhibits about Apartheid's creation and demise, I sat down in the veld and realized that there is a piece of me missing. I cannot fathom hatred. This has been bugging me lately - first when I was in Rwanda, and now in South Africa.

I at first thought Yunus's proposition of a "poverty museum" a bit laughable, but I'm coming around on the concept. Surely the phrase "never again" must have a broader breadth than genocide alone.

Friday, April 03, 2009

where to stay in jo'burg: melville

Ever an urban planner, I'm always drawn to walkable cities, vibrant street life, cafes that induce people-watching. When I heard that I'd definitely need to rent a car to get around in Jo'burg, I was bummed. Then a friend recommended that I stay in Melville - a few blocks of cafes, bookshops, boutiques and bohemia in a suburban area on the outskirts of the city. It did not disappoint, starting with where I stayed. Ginnegaap Guest House is adorable, with wood floors, beige walls, white trim and pressed ceilings, framed black and white photos, simple white down comforters, rain shower head in the bathroom. The dollar is really strong in SA right now, so four nights at Ginnegaap only set me back $150. Upon arriving, I announced that I would not be leaving the confined of the cute guest room and adjoining patio. But then I would have missed:

A visit to Audrey at Bookdealers, a second-hand bookshop on 7th - where I spent over an hour selecting titles, finally settling on four (for a grand total of less than $15):
Siddharta by Herman Hesse
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
Snakepit by Moses Isegawa
A Place of My Own by Micheal Pollan

Dinner at Cafe Picobella, with delicious wine less than $2 per [huge] glass and some amazing things done with butternut, including a butternut and sage lasagna.

Dinner at Cafe Mezzaluna, on their adorable garden patio, with more delicious wine and apricot chicken with couscous.

And when feeling adventurous, call up Maxi Taxi and discover the hideout of all the white South African hippies at the Bryanston Organic Market every Thursday and Sunday. Smells like nag champa, sounds like flautists, and [the best part] tastes like savory crepes with roasted veggies and pumpkin seeds, plus an almond polenta cake. Definitely worth a visit for the crowd and the food.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

the psychology of fear

juxtaposition in jo'burg, hot coffee and hot fence

When I decided I'd meet up with Hitesh Mehta in South Africa to help out on a case study for his forthcoming book, Authentic Ecolodges, he suggested I spend a few days on the front end in Jo'burg. I'd been interested in opening up the market for One Mango Tree products in South Africa, so I booked four nights ahead of my trip with Hitesh to meet with owners of boutiques and yoga studios interested in carrying our line.

Jo'burg has somehow become synonymous with violent crime. I'd envisioned a dark, gray, concrete city - something akin to City of God. In complete contrast to this, I arrived in Jo'burg on the first days of autumn, and quickly noticed how green the place is. There are trees everywhere. I met my friend Stephanie at the airport, and we took a cab to Ginnegaap Guest House in Melville, an area recommended by a South African friend. As we drove through the city and surrounding suburbs, everything looked so familiar that my mind kept racing, trying to place the landscape and architecture with places I've been in the United States and Europe.

I was struck by many things in South Africa, but more than anything I was confused by the whole concept of fear. Flying into OR Tambo Airport, the suburbs of Jo'burg looked a bit like Beverly Hills from the sky - huge mansions with pools and rolling acreage - but you can't miss the thin outline of a wall around every residence. The city is filled with gorgeous architecture and landscape, but the majority of it is well-hidden behind tall walls with electrical fencing across the top. Ginnegaap itself is an urban oasis, nestled behind a clay-colored wall. Our key ring had no less than 8 keys, and when we came in at night, we used all 8 to un-lock the gates that lie between the 4th Avenue and our room. On the first night we stayed in past dark, only to realize that the place had been locked down. While we were eager to explore the area, the many gates convinced us that maybe it wasn't the safest thing to do.

On driving through the city center days later, I saw the concrete and gray city that I'd envisioned. The fear in South Africa makes sense when you combine the still-present (though not forced) segregation and xenophobia. The city center houses much of the unemployed population, which looks like a lot of Nigerian men loitering on street corners. Unemployment is at 30% in SA. This, in contrast to the jacaranda-lined streets of Houghton, where Nelson Mandela now resides; the incredibly smooth and modern highways that criss-cross the nation; the beautiful golf courses; the strip malls that line the suburban roads.

We visited Soweto, and even there I was surprised to find such a developed area. The separation was the more appalling piece, and the fact that the race lines are still so clearly drawn in where people live. One night at dinner, Steph and I talked to two South African men. They shared the story of their recent adventure into Soweto. They'd befriended a black South African woman, who invited them to a restaurant in Soweto. The recalled the intense fear they'd felt as they drove into the area, and how they'd so much enjoyed the food and atmosphere in the restaurant. When we asked if they'd ever go back, their response:

"No. No way."