The Worst Interview of My Life

As you may have read from the last post, I spent more than three weeks in tiny Guinea-Bissau during my Great West African Tour of 2012 (four months, five countries, two occupied territories – surely the name of my trip is not much of an exaggeration?). 🙂

Besides liking Guinea-Bissau a whole lot, one of the reasons I stayed there for some extra time was that I was reporting on a new museum that is opening up soon. It’ll honor freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral, Africa’s “Che Guevara,” who fought for the independence of his home countries of Guinea-Bissau and Capo Verde in the 1970s. The museum is housed in Cabral’s childhood home in the town of Bafata, which was recently renovated by UNESCO.

I visited the museum and wrote the story for Passblue.com, a website that reports on issues related to the United Nations. The article can be read here and I’d love for all of you to check it out! After all, this piece was very challenging to complete, so please show it some looooove. ❤

Why was it so hard, you may ask… Well, mostly because I don’t speak Portuguese Creole, the official language of Guinea-Bissau. And people there don’t speak much English. So there was a bit of a communication barrier…

But one language I do speak fairly well is Spanish, and many Bissau-Guineans can also communicate in Portuguese. So rather than spending time (and money) looking for a translator, I decided to try to somehow manage on my own.

So I traveled to the town of Bafata, organized some interviews, went over to meet the people of UNESCO, called the governor of Bafata, and dug up some relatives of Cabral and thought everything would just be smooth sailing from there on…

And boy, was I wrong.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that speaking Spanish does not equal understanding Portuguese, no matter how closely related the two languages supposedly are. And understanding Portuguese Creole is next to impossible, as at times it sounds nothing like the language it’s based on.

This was painfully evident during my interview with Amilcar Cabral’s niece, Iva Helena Gomes. I’d ask her a question in Spanish and then she’d give a great, long-winded answer in Portuguese (and/or Portuguese Creole), detailing the complex life story of her uncle… and I’d understand about 1/10 of each sentence, if even.

Every time the friendly lady spoke, it felt like a knife was being twisted in my stomach.

“This is the worst interview I’ve ever done, without a doubt,” I thought to myself as she went on in a language that might as well have been Chinese. I was totally lost, no matter how much I tried to search for familiar words. I have never left less in control of an interview.

In the end I had scribbled down just a few words out of the entire 30-minute interview. It was a sad, sad day. I left Gomes’ house without any spring in my step. Only a bit of panic in my heart. (“How can I write this story without any good quotes??”)

My interview with Bafata Governor Adriano Gomes Ferreira was also not the greatest of all times. Despite knowing Spanish, he would occasionally shift to Portuguese without even realizing it.

It was only during a lunch meeting in the governor’s house that the conversation got a bit easier. I think at that point the guv and his wife finally realized the limits of my Portuguese… Well, better late than never. 🙂

Luckily my other interviews went better, as they were conducted in proper Spanish and one even in English. So at least I learned I feel comfortable reporting in Spanish, but that I already knew from last year when I covered an HIV march in Guatemala City.

In the end the Cabral article turned out fine and I managed to work around my limited quotes. The editor of Passblue.com, Dulcie Leimbach, certainly seemed to like the outcome based on her email.

“I’m impressed you could use your Spanish so well in a Portuguese country. You deserve a Pulitzer!”

Well, thanks Dulcie but I’d hold off on the Pulitzer Prize for now. 😉

And while I did okay, I can’t help but wonder how nice would it have been to be able to choose from 20 great quotes instead of using the only two I understood?

So note to self: Next time I am in a Portuguese-speaking country, I should definitely hire a translator! Spanish is not the same as Portuguese. 😛

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So, how was 2011 for you?

A decade ago around this time of the year I spent a balmy night soaking in a hot tub in San Marcos, California, surrounded by a group of international students from my college. It was just another one of those evenings spent chit chatting about school and the end of the semester, when suddenly Matt, our Brazilian friend, asked us all:

“So, how was 2001 for you?”

Huh?

Everyone was quiet for a little while, not knowing whether Matt really wanted a reply, or whether he was just getting ready to crack another one of his jokes. But it turned out he was asking it in all seriousness, and wanted a more profound answer than just “good”.

Now, I don’t remember what any of us said, but I do remember how this one little question changed the tone of the entire conversation. Instead of the usual blabber, we each started to really think about the past 12 months, the dreams and wishes we had, and whether they had come true. For many of us, they had. One of my big dreams had been to study in the US and that at least had come true.

In asking his surprise question, Matt made me start a tradition. At the end of each year I like to take a moment to think about the year that went by: what I learned, what types of things I encountered, who I met and how I changed as a person.

Back in 2004 I created a set of questions to measure my year. So I figured that today, the last day of 2011, is just the right time to answer those questions again. So here we go!

2011 QUESTIONNAIRE

1. What overall grade would you give 2011 on a scale
from 1-10? Why?

-Hmm. That’s a tough one. I guess I’d have to give it a 9, as it was a nicely balanced year: I spent about a third of it it New York, another third in Finland, and the final third traveling the world. I met lots of lovely new people, reconnected with old friends around the globe, experienced amazing things (such as a flight over the rainforest in Guyana to visit one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls), had really interesting work opportunities and found inner peace. Well, maybe not quite, but almost! Hah.

2. What would you say was the best thing about 2011?

-Discovering Kangoo Jumps, the exercise shoes that make you bounce like a kangaroo!

I first came across these funky shoes at a Kangoo aerobics class in New York in February. I instantly fell in love and bought a pair of my own through Mario The Trainer, the US guru of Kangoo Jumps.

The reason why I love Kangoos so much is that I can’t help but smile every time I put them on and start bouncing. If I’m already happy, Kangoo Jumps make that happiness feel ten-fold. And if I’m feeling down, Kangoos make me forget about my worries. All that matters in the world at that moment is that I’m bouncing like a kangaroo and having a great time! Who needs depression medication when you’ve got Kangoos?

Here you can watch me bounce around Helsinki Airport:

3. And the worst thing about 2011?

-My dad encountered some major health problems, so that was definitely the worst news of the year for me. Luckily he is fine now (knock on wood!). In terms of the worst thing that I experienced myself – it would have to be getting my two bottom wisdom teeth taken out in surgery a few weeks ago. I spent my Christmas in a lot of pain and am still not fully recovered. I wouldn’t recommend that ordeal for anyone! To serve as proof, take a look at my “human vs. hamster” photo, where you can see how swollen my jaw was afterwards compared to normal.

4. How was 2011 different from other years?

-Not really that different as it was yet another year spent writing, traveling, meeting people, learning new things and enjoying life. Career-wise it was a great year: I wrote 30 long or medium-length articles for various publications, served as an assistant in a journalistic book project, did fact-checking for the United Nations Association’s Global Agenda book and got selected as a Quality Hunter by Finnair out of 2,000 applicants. So I can’t complain! But oh, I did turn the big 3-0 this summer, the number I had been dreading for years! So that was something different. But I’m still here, still kicking and having fun, so I guess it wasn’t that bad after all. 🙂  They say 30 is the new 20, and I believe that wholeheartedly. 😉

5. What song characterizes 2011 for you?

Benjai’s Trini for sure! Bring on the carnival spirit!

6. What was the best party of 2011?

Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago! It was one week of non-stop partying, as I wrote in my old blog:

“My personal favorite was the Veil breakfast party, which started at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning and went on until noon the next day (yes, the Trinis do party 24/7 during carnival!). Not many parties are more fun than those where you dance outdoors to the beats of great Soca songs, and watch the sun rise out of the horizon. Finally at noon, sunburned and all partied-out, you get home and just crash. It’s then that you know that you’ve really made the most out of your carnival, like a true Trini.”

A big thank you to my Trini friends for showing me how the islanders party it up! You have to see it to believe it.

Besides the carnival partying, there were also some epic nights in New York, Havana, Guyana’s Georgetown, Warsaw and many other places.

7. Did 2011 bring any new favorites to you? Bands, movies, food, songs, cities…?

So many! I loved all the Soca songs from carnival and I still listen to many of them weekly. Aside from Benjai’s Trini song that I mentioned above, I also grew to like this year’s Carnival Road March winner, Machel Montano’s Advantage. In the beginning of the carnival week I wasn’t a big fan, but then by the end of the week I was singing along to the frantic tune with everyone.

After spending nearly a month in Cuba I was also converted into a huge fan of Reggaeton/Cubaton. This song was playing non-stop in Havana’s bars and streets and car radios.

Another Spanish-language favorite is “Tu Angelito” by Chino y Nacho. It brings back so many memories of my unforgettable month in Cuba, and always makes me feel like dancing. I think I was probably a Latina in my previous life (although the fact that I’m totally salsa-challenged would speak against that…).

8. Did you travel anywhere in 2011?

The question is more like where did I not travel to this year… I spent the first few months of the year home in New York, then took off on a tour of the Caribbean and Central America. During the 2.5 months I visited Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. The schedule may seem a bit rushed, but I had visited the last three of those countries before as well and only passed by Mexico and Belize quickly. Then it was back to New York for a bit, before taking off to Finland for the summer.

In the end of the year I was selected as one of Finnair’s eight Quality Hunters, and thus spent the last few months of the year flying around the globe and blogging about it. I flew about 15 flights in seven weeks, so needless to say I was a little sick of planes and airports by the end of the project! Hah. During October and November, I visited India, Romania, Germany, the US, Japan, Poland and Holland. Thus for the month of December I decided to stay put in Finland and avoid all things related to traveling. But I’m over my travel exhaustion now and ready for new adventures in 2012!

9. Would you wish for 2012 to be anything like 2011?
-My routine answer to this question is, “In some ways.. but I hope it’s an improved version! :)”

10. So overall, how was 2011 for you?
-Unforgettable, fun-filled, busy, challenging, ever-changing and full of surprises. No two months were alike but each month I had at least a few moments when I thought , “I’m really happy right now.” So it’s safe to say it was a great year!

What about you guys? How was 2011 for you?