Flat Butts, The Meaning Of Life, And An Untranslatable Heritage
It’s honestly a little bizarre to be writing this now. As we type away at a computer, and make ourselves mentally go back in time, we are mid-air, sitting in the very familiar array of uncomfortable seats; an unforgiving flat-butt factory. All for Kiona (the founder of this blog), who, might I add, travels a lot but has curiously un-flat butt. Maybe she stands the whole time on planes, or travels mostly on foot, but I digress… So here we are trying to make sense of experiences that are in the past, but not entirely behind us, because they continue to change our world view forever and on.
If you think for a minute, every person that comes to your mind has a very personal world. One that in a way, just can’t be fully revealed -despite the immense amount of effort (or the lack of) that that person puts on the table. It’s a difficult effort though. It requires tons of exploration, flexibility and an open mind because one’s world can’t be easily unveiled in full. Just one trip can’t justify sharing the very individual, some times private meaning of this thing called Life.
We are Mariele and Leo Verí. Yes… with a ’tilde’ on the “í”. That little symbol is important, because it completely changes the sound of the word. If you put the effort on the ‘e’, it sounds like the English word “very”, which rather sounds like squeaky chalk on a board, while you’re waiting in line at the DMV… in the middle of the summer… with no AC. Where we come from, we have ’tildes’ which are basically small diagonal lines you write on the top of a vowel to denote where the effort should go when pronouncing a word. We have a few of them and some of us are very proud of knowing how to use them.
We were born and raised in Dominican Republic. It is a beautiful country on an island called Hispaniola, in the Caribbean Sea. There is vast historical heritage on our little island, as well as beautiful beaches, rivers and mountains, and a wonderful array of cultural expressions. We share the island with another beautiful country called Haiti. The relationship between the two countries has been a little on the hard side over the centuries…
WHEN A STUPID MISTAKE CHANGED OUR LIVES
Mariele: During our first year in the US, before Leo had a shiny blue US passport (I have been a US citizen since I was young) and before we had caught a serious case of the travel bug, we decided to take a trip to the south of France for our 3-year anniversary. I had it planned down to the local bus routes, and snack stops. I had been lost in a sea of travel guides and internet forum rabbit holes for the better part of 3 months planning this trip. On our way to the airport, the car broke down so when we got there, the flight was already boarding. We were so relieved when the check in agent said they would make an exception and personally escort us through security. Miracles happen!
They took my US passport and checked me in. Then, when Leo handed in his Dominican passport, they kept furiously flipping the pages, and shooting each other looks, as if they were sure he was smuggling something in between the paper. They looked at us and sneered “Where’s the visa?” “What visa?” I replied. “The visa for Mr. Very to travel to France”. I nonchalantly said “Oh, he doesn’t need one. He is a US permanent resident. I handed you his green card”. They laughed and proceeded to call the gate and told them to close the plane and leave without the ignorants they were going to escort in. So in my basicness, a couple of months earlier I had quickly searched the internet for the visa requirements and was sure to have read somewhere on the all-knowing Google that US residents did not require a visa. I was clearly wrong. I later realized that as a US passport holder, there are very few countries (none that I had been to at that point) that required me to apply for a visa, thus, travel paperwork was just not something I concerned myself with. I have realized how privileged I have been, especially when we left the airport that day.
I had bought our flights with points, so we had flexibility to get our points back and rebook flights to somewhere else. The first thing I did when we got in the car was go on Wikipedia (I just couldn’t trust lying Google anymore) and search for which countries Leo could travel to without applying for a visa. My mom (who was driving) was trying to convince me to go to some all inclusive in Cancun and call it a day. I refused. I wanted to travel and I wanted to go far! I had wasted so much time planning this trip that I refused to even go back home. I seeked maximum butt-flattening power on this trip so I focused on the farthest possible destinations. It wasn’t very hard, since there are all of about 3 countries Dominicans can go to without a visa and they are mostly in Asia.
Leo: By the time we got to my in-law’s house, Mariele had already rebooked us on a flight to Singapore, which departed couple of hours later. We had always wanted to visit SE Asia. It seemed so far off though, we never thought chance would bring us there sooner than we expected. We sat at her parents’ kitchen table as they quizzed us about Singapore… What language did they speak? What currency did they use? How was the weather? We had no answer to any of these questions. We refused to go home and “mess up” the trip (more than it already had). So we did, in fact, fly with clothes unfit for the weather, no local currency, and not knowing what we would do there for 14 days. We only booked a hotel night for the first night.
So we went from Mariele having planned how many breaths we would take every day in France, to flying for 16 hours and figuring it out as we went. It was the best 2 weeks of our lives up until that point! We met a family on the plane, who out of the blue, invited us to their house in Penang, Malaysia. Mariele also had a work acquaintance living in Kuala Lumpur, so we made Malaysia our first stop after Singapore. I had long dreamed of visiting Thailand and once in Malaysia, we learned it was really easy to get a visa at the Thai consulate. As it usually happened, the clerks at the consulate looked at my passport for a long time and did not know what “Republica Dominicana” was. Regardless, I had a visa in about an hour and off we were to Thailand!
In the span of two weeks, we visited five cities and had the time of our lives. We knew very little about the countries we visited, so we learned on the go.
A SHINY BLUE PASSPORT
After 3 years of due diligence, Leo had to surrender his ‘tilde’ when we discovered that legal identification documents in North America don’t allow any foreign alphabet symbols. In order to keep this citizenship process going, we had to leave at home this part of our names, which distinguished us from people just thinking we are saying “Hi, I’m Mr. Very…” (very annoyed you had to ruin my last name). Our proud Latino heritage just wasn’t a thing that mixed well with bureaucracy. And there goes the one constant, palpable connection to our roots, one we felt every time we wrote our names… sinking in a sea of language.
Leo: When we first moved to the US, we realized that a lot of the things that had meaning in the DR, had another in the US. Some of the things that raised our mental models of pride, shame, success and security back in our country, had to make way to the roads, avenues, SUVs, architecture, and economy of this new country… because a country is born again every time an immigrant finds his way into it.
It is something that comes into sharper focus the more of the world we see. Simple things, like how we were taught you should eat everything on your plate out of good manners and gratitude for what your parents could provide. This is something we have also seen as customary in poorer places like Malaysia, the Argentine countryside, Mexico and Nicaragua. But how can you eat everything on your plate when part of what we foster in the USA is the “more is more” culture? When you are served typical (gigantic) dinner portions at most restaurants and the food that is discarded could feed a small African nation?
We were raised to believe that owning a car or a house is a lifetime achievement. You are lucky if you can change your car for a newish model once or twice in a lifetime. In the US, if you are economically clever, those things are as flexible as the paper dollar bills are made of. It is customary for people to change their cars every couple of years! It’s easy to enter into a “which-culture-places-more-value-on-material-things” discussion and we could go on and on about cultural discrepancies, but our intention is not to shame US culture or traditions, but rather to point out that for us, as Latinos coming from a third world country, a lot of the things that were our baseline, and what made us who we were, simply did not work here. So we had to adjust.
As we travel more, we realize how much those discussions (let alone material things), matter so very little in the grand scheme of things. When we find ourselves walking through every aisle at Costco, filling our cart with things that we don’t need (making sure we don’t have to return to the supermarket in the next century), we stop, and adjust. When one of us is away and Skype is trying its best to ruin our marriage, and we find ourselves wanting to curse the living daylights out of technology, we try to be grateful for how privileged we are, and adjust again. We adjust our pride, our preconceptions, our misplaced expectations and we adjust our gratitude level. That seems to work every time.
WE AREN’T TRAVEL BLOGGERS
We are not travel bloggers (far from it), there is no blog, but there is travel. We are musicians and produce music for artists and movies (mostly in Latin America) and have mastered the art (lies, we often still mess it up) of the traveling recording studio. That’s why, despite not often traveling for work, our job allows us to travel often.
Music is also a big part of what we try to bring (and take, graciously) from a place. We find ourselves coming back to Paris, for example, because of the songs we have written there and continue to write when we visit. There is something in the air in France. It’s almost spiritual. No, it is spiritual. We rarely visit the tourist sites when we are there, because it isn’t about outward beauty. We like to roam random streets around the Canal St Martin, sit on dirty stoops Le Marais, and take our 2 year old to Le Jardin d’Acclimatation. Yeah yeah, we get it… maybe Paris isn’t your speed – too overrated, overdone, overexposed, blah, blah – but we aren’t travel bloggers, just regular people, feeling the vibe of a place and going with it!
To us, it’s almost like every destination has an air to it that is just so intoxicating, it makes you a little bit of a different person. When we land, there are internal twists and shifts inside of us, and we become an iteration of ourselves. Do you ever experience this? This… internal shift? A sense that you want to go back to a place, just to experience being who you were while you were there?
Now, we plan very little before we travel. Instead, we spend the time leading up to the trip trying to learn about the people that inhabit each place and strive to discover more about their personal world and what gives all of us different perspectives and different paradigms. Above that, we try to be conscious of our own paradigms and how we see everything filtered and colored by our personal experiences and where we come from. From there, we can better position ourselves to understand others. Stripped of preconceptions, even though we realize this can never be done 100% and traveling will often highlight both how imperfect and how amazing we are as human beings.