Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On God’s Turf

I really, really wanted to climb to the top of Mt. Sinai not just to know what it’s like from the top, or to breathe in the fresh mountain air - and get some much needed exercise - but I had a personal reason for making the trek; no, I actually had two reasons. My primary motivation was to carry out a tribute to a friend with whom I had lost contact with after my divorce. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a second chance to say goodbye and her passing 10 years after our last hug has had a more profound effect on me that I would have imagined. I still cry thinking of her.

We had lost touch years ago and family allegiances being what they are, I let go of far too many relationships that should have been nurtured. No one was choosing sides but me; at the time for some reason I felt that I had to. I met Diane through David’s Mother, so she was his half of the settlement and my loss. How wrong I was.

I had the privilege of working with Diane, so I got to see her often. She was a radiant beam of light during a rather dark period of my life. She touched me deeply. Diane was the kind of person whom exuded love; you could feel her goodness. She was good in the everyday kind of way that makes someone really, really beautiful. Radiantly beautiful. When you spoke to her, she heard you, I mean HEARD as in she completely took it all in and truly listened.  Losing someone who has touched you so dearly without so much as a good bye is not good. So I was hiking up to say goodbye to my cherished friend.

The second reason was personal. I wanted to have a chat with God. I know that I could do that from anywhere, but I wanted an occasion to really get down to the gristle. And since Sinai is kind of God’s turf, it was a pleasure to come to Him for a change. I had a couple of prayers to deliver, but mostly I just wanted to talk about my loved ones. This has been a tough year for my Nana. She isn’t doing so well and I wanted to make sure that he knows just how special she is and to be extra protective of her always…but if he doesn’t mind preserving her here in this life long enough so that I could make it back home to her, I would be extra grateful. I want to feel her sweet face and kiss her just one more time. But of course I am ok with him wanting the same, but you know, if he could spare her, I would appreciate it. Of course in a place as magical as this you can’t help but feel anything but gratitude so asking for anything seems a bit out of place. But asking God for anything usually seems out of place to me, so we just sat with one another for a while. I cried, but I always cry when I feel this deeply.

It was, how can I say it...


I could have stayed up there for days holed up in that tiny little church, but our Africa trip is coming to an end. From here we have 2 days in Alex to get our car cleaned, sorted and unloaded. We need to fill out the paperwork for its boat trip to South Africa (which could be a big, big deal…most business transactions in Egypt are) and one day to get ourselves to Cairo for our flight home. Wow, we are really coming HOME!

In just a few days I’ll really be kissing your cheeks! Well, many of your cheeks.

My love,

PS: While I’m doped out on gratitude I want to thank you all for joining us on our adventure. The letters and comments from home have kept us going and made the pain of slow internet connections totally worthwhile. Thank you for cheering us on. We loved every single word. And for those of you worried about our life after Africa, don’t. Our life is more or less always this exciting, I just don’t blog about it. There are fewer lions (we have Mountain Lions) in Oregon, but there are bears.

For more photos from Mt. Sinai click here

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Egypt's Baja

Sinai is Africa’s Baja. It’s warm, windy and packed with sun worshiping, water seeking, activity enthusiasts. The beaches along the Red Sea are stunningly outlined by the jagged Dahab Mountains, with miles of arid desert stretching uninterrupted to the Gulf of Suez. Halfway between Israel and Sharm El Sheik, Sinai’s southernmost point, is the small resort town of Dahab; in keeping with my Mexico theme, it is the Cabo of Sinai. Packed with seaside restaurants, trinket stalls, boardwalk artists and more dive shops than you can shake a fin at, Dahab is the perfect destination for some R’s: rest, recreation and relaxation. Unfortunately we have a lot of cleaning, sorting and packing to do and since none of these fit into our R theme, we decided to ignore them, for a while.

The Red Sea is renowned as one of the world’s best dive spots. The coral reef forms a near continuous shelf just a few flipper strokes off the beach, not to mention the narrow canyons, deep blue holes and caves that all need exploring. The underwater world is psychedelic forest of brilliant corals and crazy critters. It is magic. And I am not alone with these thoughts, Sinai attracts hoards of visitors each year. So it was surprising to be one of the only tourists here. Most places are more beautiful without people, but once in a while you come across a place that needs people…Dahab is one of those places. The beaches look sad without sandy bottomed babies running around sporting only a pair of water wings. The boardwalks need sun-burnt families. The pools look sad without swimmers.

We were beginning to wonder if the solitude was a product of the revolution. The owner of the hotel where we’re camping told us that season begins the 9th of April, but by the looks of things on the 6th we weren’t so sure that there would be a season this year. Boy, were ever wrong. It was like being in a port town when a cruise liner docks. Shops filled, restaurants were packed and the discotheques washed the salt rhyme off of their doors and thumped well into the wee hours. What a contrast. Gone are the days of snorkeling along enthralled by underwater world, now you need chameleon like skills to keep one eye on the fish and the other on traffic at the surface. I nearly had a head on with another snorkeler. Holy smokes. Maybe it didn’t look so lonely before.

With the poolside lounge chairs all covered in striped towels, dive trips sold out and the good bicycles all rented, it is a good time to start packing. Besides, you can only take so many man bikini sightings in one day. I’ve had my quota.

See you all soon!

My love,

For more photos of Sinai click here.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

It’s Revolution Time

If you have ever visited a country in the midst of a revolution you understand the paradox of fearful hope; otherwise normal urban events seem less mundane, heightened. For the rest of you, just play along for now. Since Hosni Mubarack’s resignation on February 11th the people of Cairo seem to exist in a space somewhere between optimism and uncertainty. Understandably, young Egyptians are much more hopeful than previous generations - both groups embrace the change, but the youth are keeping the pressure on; they want more from their country than what their parents have known. After all, they were the force that rallied the hardest and brought forth the revolution and one can argue that they have the most at stake. They want the same opportunities that we in the developed world have. They see their cohorts around the world and don’t see why they can’t obtain the same. Technology has a way of dividing AND uniting.

Three weeks after the Military took power, Tahir square is still the gathering place for protesters. You can feel the energy in the air as young men and woman bustle in and out of the now infamous square. Our second night in Cairo we looked up a few restaurants and settled on Birdcage, tripadvisor’s top pick; the restaurant is in Tahir Square. It was Friday. Friday is the Islamic holy day. Fridays are when the revolutionaries gather in the square keeping pressure on the government while maintaining a sense of purpose in this evolving revolution. Of course, I wanted to go and check it out…especially over a plate of Thai noodles, but GP wanted no part of it, so we stayed in camp and ordered in watching the spectacle on Aljazeera. We did head into the square Saturday morning.
If you had been pent up in a cave for the past few months and suddenly woke in the middle of Tahir Square Saturday afternoon, you would have thought nothing of the scene around you; other than a curious glance at the burned out government building looming black and sinister to the north, or the profusion of armored tanks mounted prominently around the square, daily life pulsed on as usual: vendors were selling their wares, young people perfecting their struts walked from end to end occasionally glancing around for approval, shopkeepers stood-watch like smoking sentinels outside of their shops. If you were a well socialized caveman you might have tuned into the elevated pride exuding from everyone young and old alike. More than a few times we’ve heard that being Egyptian is now a good thing to be. The people of Egypt pulled off what millions of others one day hope to accomplish, to be heard. To be understood is to feel loved and these guys are feeling the love big time. ‘Welcome to Egypt’ has taken on a whole new meaning and it is remarkable to be here in the midst of it all.

Egyptians love to talk and think nothing of sharing their thoughts on just about anything you want to know, you can feel the pulse of a nation through its citizens and right now Egypt is pulsing with youthful vibrance.


For more good graffiti click here.
For shots of Cairo click here

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inside of Ancient

Spending time inside the oldest (and most intact) Wonder of the Ancient World is a trip. Especially when accompanied by a group of energy seekers chanting up a storm in peaceful defiance of the raging pinstriped Egyptian dude who apparently thought that all of the chanting hippies needed to go, us included. There were no time limits that we knew of, you have to pay extra for the privilege of entry and only 300 lucky guests are able to enter on any given day. But Mr. Pinstripe wanted us out. Of course a madman shouting in Arabic wasn’t a focus for any of us inside the ancient tomb, but I did look on with more than a healthy amount of curiosity as his ranting reverberated throughout the tomb. I wanted to see what the chanters were going to do, how Mr. Noisy was going to conclude his rousting and what, if any, success the young local men would have diffusing his fire.

The acoustics deep inside of the pyramids are incredible. Upon entry we could feel the oms vibrating throughout the cavern. I slid down against one of the walls, closed my eyes and took it all in. It was perfect...until Noisy Pants came in. After watching the ruckus for 10 minutes or so I decided to shift my attention to the grumpy man. I focused my love straight at him. A few minutes later I opened my eyes and caught his glance. I smiled a calming, it's ok smile. Surprisingly, he settled down for a minute, stared back and a tiny crease appeared on his cheek and he let loose a hint of a smile. Ah, it was working, I closed my eyes and kept my attention on him. He took my look as an opportunity to try and evict me since he wasn’t getting anywhere with the spirit seekers, but I ignored his effort.

After a while we got up to leave and Mr. Slight-Smile decided to cheerfully be our personal guide through the tunnels and corridors of the pyramid. He graciously took our hands, guiding us through the narrow spots, showed us a secret tunnel and even relieved Glenn of his burden of carrying an empty water bottle by chucking it down a deep shaft inside the pyramid. Gulp. We would have gladly carried it out and placed it in the trash, but it will forever live somewhere within Khufu‘s tomb. When our tour was over he even allowed us back inside with our cameras for a photo. Wow, the power of a little love.

The next time someone is going a little crazy send them love and see what happens.

We did tell the guards outside that there was a pinstriped madman loose in the pyramids. This guy they asked holding up his arm like a prize fighter. That’s the one I said. No, no, they retorted. He is a good man. Maybe it was just a simple language barrier. The Egyptians do communicate with a distinct mix of verve and urgency at a notch just below a shout. A little unsettling even for noisy Americans like us. 

We never did see the hippies emerge.

Sending you love,

For our photos and a hilarious sequence of Glenn getting manhandled onto a camel named Michael Jackson click here

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Long Way From Where We Began

We left the Nile River a few weeks ago setting out into Egypt’s Western Desert. On the map it looks dry and desolate. The ‘towns’ are few and far between and not even noted on our Michelin map…humm. We stocked up on water, lots of water. What little did we know. Now looking over the map we have a completely different perspective. The tiny oasis towns that dot Egypt’s western frontier are alive in every sense of the word. We fell in love with the slow relaxed atmosphere and the remarkable fortitude and generosity of the people living in these isolate outposts.

So much has happened…where to begin?

We began traveling with Rouven and Christine, a German couple who left Germany 16 months ago, circumnavigating Africa in a bright yellow Iveco caravan. Our paths kept intersecting, so we decided to merge. We ended the journey sand boarding the windblown dunes outside of Siwa with a couple of American students studying Arabic and a South African guide living in Alexandria. In between these jaunts we met and hung out with: Egypt’s fastest desert racer (who holds two Guinnes Book records, working on a third), an internationally acclaimed artist creating magic out of sand, a few recluses on the lam (we didn’t ask), an attorney cum coffee shop owner, an organic mint farmer/soap maker, two Namibian agriculture students and a third from Burundi, a water buffalo rancher, a few hash smokers, a few more artists and a couple of date/olive farmers. What a bunch. The short end of the story is we had a blast, we were welcomed with open arms and fell in love with these sandy little heavens far away from the tourist madness that is Egypt.

Today we reached the Mediterranean coast, four hundred nineteen days and 50,200+ miles from where this whole journey began. Looking back on the early photos is a trip. It seems so, so long ago. Ages ago. Lifetimes ago. We were clean back then. Wow, what a year.

Tomorrow we’ll drive east to Alexandria where our real work will begin. We need to get our car back to a dealer in South Africa who will sell it to another lucky family who will call our little Toyota home and begin their own journey. Our airline tickets have long since expired, so we’ll have to sort out a return flight. Just the thought of life back in the USA freaks us both out, but we’re more than excited to come home in spite of the madness that we call the developed world. We’ve gone feral. The transition will be an interesting one.  But returning to our own little paradise in Oregon makes the prospect so much more appealing. I miss you like crazy and can’t wait to wrap my arms around you, have dinners together and talk, talk, talk. Living with a man for a year has really cut into my daily allotment of words and I have 14 months of pent up chatter just waiting to let loose.

We’ll probably spend a month sorting out the logistics, checking out Alex and Cairo and maybe Sinai if we can swing it. I know a MONTH! That is longer than most American vacations (sorry to rub it in), but we’ve grown into the rhythms of life in Africa and things here take time. Sometimes just checking Facebook seems like a noble daily accomplishment. So keep posting photos of flowers and signs of spring, we need all the motivation we can get. 

Sending all my love,

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Oooo Lucky Man

An Egypt without tourists could mean two things: one, that we would have the monuments and sights to ourselves without bumping shoulders with thousands of other tourists, or it could mean that the energy of the Egyptians would become so concentrated on the few visitors who have braved the revolution that you’d find yourself holed up in your hotel contemplating skipping the second meal of the day just so you don't have to face the desperate mobs. Both turned out to be true.

It is really wild to drive into empty parking lots that are usually filled with busses and take pole position by the front gate. In Edfu we were two of a handful of other visitors; in the three hours that I spent roaming the temple complex I came across two other families. Ours was the only car in the parking lot. The guard told us that on any given day the lots would be full; people are trucked in here by the busload. Two different ticket sellers working at the Edfu and Karnack temples estimated daily ticket sales of 7,000 – 7,500 respectively. It is great if you don’t like gaping tourists in all of your photos, but not so good if you’re an Egyptian merchant relying on the tourist industry.

So before you get caught up empathizing with the Egyptians I must tell you about a call I made to my Granddad last night. He was stationed in Egypt during the Second World War. I wanted to ask him what the Egyptians were like back then, just to get a feel for the people, a sort of mental gage. I wanted to know if the palpable desperation is a new phenomenon or are they just class act scammers from way back when, prying on your sympathies. Well, I won’t repeat my Granddad’s words, but let’s just say nothing much has changed.
Yes, I know it is sad to see a country digging out from decades of corruption on a mass scale, but these guys are really good at reinforcing compassion fatigue. After decades of scamming a good wake-up call might be in order.  It got so bad that we even decided to violate a basic family rule, no hotel food, and ate dinner at the Sheridan one night just to avoid the street scene. That dinner only reinforced our rule, but that is another story. We’ve met other travelers more bright eyed than we are who remain somewhat torn between pity and irritation, a bit worn down by their persistent whining, but GP and I are road worn and salty at this point. We don’t want to hear it.

With our ‘thick skin’ on we’ve spent the past two weeks wandering alone through some of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen. Everything is bigger and more ornately carved than I had imagined. Incredible. Now those of you who know me know that I have an appreciation for all things aesthetic, it’s in my blood. Both of my Grandmothers have/had a deep love for excess. My Nana loves anything over the top: sequins, rhinestones, ruffles and anything pearly or opalescent. My Grams had a flare for red: red and gold flocked wallpaper, red velvet boudoir furniture,  fur bedspreads, nudes hung on the walls (very risqué to my conservative young memory) and tubes of Channel Red that she’d stock up on when in Portland…oh and she even had an Egyptian room. My gaudy streak runs deep. I am in heaven here.

In keeping with the theme established over 3,500 years ago the shops are crammed full of every conceivable Egyptian trinket most of which are gilded and glittered. At one point all of these gorgeous temples were painted in primary colors from foundation to roof, it is hard to imagine these elegant sand blasted stone structures were at one time the height of gaudiness. But the modern day Egyptians are keeping the tradition alive and well and it is a sight to see. I would love to wander into all of the shops, but I can only subject myself to a few hours of their begging and finagling a day. Imagine hearing [in creepy slimeball voice] ooooh, lucky man 100 times a day *shiver*. Surely there are more original ways to make a buck. 

Sending my love,

Monday, March 7, 2011

6 Pitas and Change

Egyptians will do anything to get a pound out of you. The world watched as Hosni Mubaric was ousted from power, his legacy of corruption lingering long after the scent of his aftershave evaporated (Egyptians are a perfumy bunch). Infamous corruption on such a grand scale isn’t relegated to a few top dogs, it trickles down through the government and into the private sector. These guys are scammers. They come across slimey, but you can’t really blame them for trying to rip off tourists who pour into Egypt by the bus and boat load? If they can get 10x or 20x the price out of one of these pudgy, pink legged, goucho wearing tourists forking over fistfuls of play money for a tacky trinket, why not!

Here is an example: The other day I queued up for some hot pitas fresh out of the oven. I put three pitas in my bag while sampling the fourth. I asked the baker how much. Since I was fresh off-of-the-boat I had no idea how much they should cost. Ten pounds he shouted. No I said, knowing they weren’t that expensive, so I handed him one pound ($.30). He demanded more so I upped it to 2lbs and walked away.
Later I found out that the food riots at the heart of the protests earlier this year forced the government to subsidize bread throughout Egypt; now, pitas are 10 piasters a piece, one tenth of a lb.

So the next day I cued up smugly and asked for 6 pitas. I didn’t ask how much they were, I just quietly handed over my 1 lb coin and waited. The man held out his hand expecting more money and I did the same asking for my change. There was a roar from the crowd of vendors who had gathered around with their empty boxes waiting in line for fresh hot pitas which they resell all throughout the city. They loved it. The baker put a 10 piaster coin in my hand and cautiously looked up. I motioned with come hither fingers that I expected more. He finally busted up laughing amidst the cheers from the other buyers and forked over 50 piasters, giving me one free pita for my moxy, I think. The waiting vendors hooted with approval, I am sure they were delighting at the shrewdness of my negotiation skills. They love this stuff and have somehow managed to make a sport out of it. It’s hilarious. I nodded my appreciation as I turned back toward the car swinging my piping hot pitas and munching on my prize.

How on earth am I going to buy bread at home? There are no cheering crowds in Oregon lining up to watch money change hands. There are no winners and losers.  It is going to feel so mundane. I am going to feel so ordinary.  

Sending you kisses with wheat bran specked lips,

Friday, March 4, 2011

All Aboard

Despite the horrors recounted by other travelers the 18 hour ferry ride from Sudan into Egypt was relatively mundane and almost pleasant. It was the bureaucracy that was painful. For some reason the only way you can cross from Sudan into Egypt is by sailing up Lake Nasser to the port town of Aswan. There are roads crossing between the two countries, but no border posts. Everyone and everything must go by barge. Crazy? Beyond crazy. And the kicker is that you cannot travel on the same barge as your car (and are usually forced to relinquish your keys). And…the ferry only leaves once a week! So in order to get to Egypt from Sudan you need to arrive in Wadi Halfa Sunday or Monday (to load your car, apparently the car ferry takes 3-4 days). You’ve no other options than to hang out in the dusty border town until Wednesday when you check in at the ferry terminal at 11:00 am for a ship that finally sets sail around 6:30 pm; the next 18 hours are spent sailing up the Nile. If you’re lucky (and we were) you car will be waiting for you at Aswan. If you’re not so lucky you get to wait in Aswan until it does. We’ve heard some grizzly accounts of travelers stuck in Aswan wondering where there car is…for days on end.

We docked around 9:00 am. By the time we cleared customs with the necessary paperwork stamped and filed, the standard Egyptian slimeball ‘tax’ extracted and doled out to the various ‘officials’ and ‘helpers’ it was 4:00 pm Thursday afternoon: a 4 day border crossing, our longest yet.

But we’re here and loving it so far.

My love,

PS: If you’re en route to Egypt via Wadi Halfa and come across an Egyptian ‘fixer’ named Kamel beware. 

Monday, February 28, 2011

On Being Canadian, I Mean American

Just today I was standing outside of a café waiting for Glenn to clear emigration and load the truck onto the ferry for its 3 day journey up the Nile into Egypt. As I was sitting on a dusty concrete porch - watching a kid chase after a tottering wheel with a lead stick - a large robed Nubian man approached; in perfect English he welcomed me to Sudan and asked my name. During the course of our conversation Qutpi asked where I was from. I told him The United States, a truth reserved for officials but generally withheld from passers-by. His lips betrayed his narrowing eyes, a wry smile spread out across his face; he asked, “aren’t you afraid to be here?” “No,” I replied playfully. “Should I be?” I asked raising an exaggerated eyebrow to mirror his mockery with my own. We laughed at the absurdity of policy and he went on to tell me of his family living all around the United States and welcomed me to Sudan with a warm handshake.

Fear is a weapon that divides, a concept known all too well by people throughout the world. Sometimes it is dressed in a cloak of culture and other times faith, it is the classic us against them mentality. It usually boils down to unfamiliarity, all too often we fear the unknown. This Nubian man understood such divisors, and felt propelled to thank us for coming to Sudan. He asked me to write home and share our experiences of what it really feels like to be here. He understood that something as simple as a familiar face is often times enough to turn an adversary into a friend.

I must admit that the media machine helps perpetuate these imagined divisions between people. My first day in Sudan I was walking through the souk (market) sussing out the various array of Sudanese produce, taking stock of the new ingredients on offer. As I traversed the alleyways tasting and sniffing my way through I was welcomed to Sudan no less than a dozen times. The question that follows is: ‘where are you from?’ Up until now we’ve been pretty stoked to be American since Obama is nothing short of a demi-God in Africa. But Sudan is another story and one not so easily bridged by skin color or bought with food aid.

So are we afraid? We claim Canadian citizenship to the casual asker, so yes, in a sense we are. But I do feel more than a twinge of remorse lying to these beautiful people who simply ask out of curiosity. I am torn between portraying the truth and extending another face of America to a population as unfamiliar with us as we are to them. So why the lie? Good question. Of all the countries we been through this past year we’ve yet to feel as safe as we do here in Sudan. Glenn says that it is a safe bet, everyone like Canadians, but I think there is something else, a reason that isn’t as easily explained. Perhaps it is out of fear, but the answer isn’t one that I can put my finger on.

My conversation with the Nubian man changed my perception of the banality of that lie. I am withholding information that might break down that fear by replacing it with a human face; every day I have the opportunity to be the familiar face of America. Come to think of it, we traveled under Bush for 8 years, talk about hated, so what is the big deal? Is it because the Sudanese are Muslims and we’ve been told that Muslims are ‘bad’? How much of the fear mongering has actually taken hold? I don’t know.

From here on out we will claim our rightful nationality. Not everyone likes Americans, so what better reason to be American? We might be the only Americans presently in northern Sudan, so we’ll do our best to represent y’all.

My love,

Thank you Qutpi…

Our photos around Sudan can be accessed here and here

Monday, February 14, 2011

Getting Closer to God

Islam is grossly misunderstood in the west. In The United States where freedom of religion is one of the cornerstones of our country – not to mention one of the freedoms many of us cherish the most - one gets a sense that those religious freedoms were not intended for Islam. Besides, Muslims are different from us. Their God is named Allah*, very unlike our God. Sometimes I wonder if freedom of religion actually means freedom to choose your preferred version of Christianity.

Sudan is 70% Muslim with most of its adherents Sunni, so it is best to know a thing or two about Islamic culture if you’re going to be out and about. I have more than a slight aversion to the term ‘culturally competent**’, but I try my best to keep any major guffaws to a minimum. Besides, Sudan does not have a friendly relationship with the USA, our government’s long history of foreign policy precedes this little micro adventure of ours and we’ve certainly felt the effects. As diplomatic as Glenn is, he hasn’t been able to iron out the wrinkles we’ve created in this part of the world, yet.

Without getting too off course on policy issues there is a breakfast dish here called Bush. It is a thin gruel of bean water; no beans, they were too precious after Bush cut relief to Sudan in response to Sudan’s backing of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war, just bean water and a slab of onion, which pretty much sums it all up. And financially Sudan is cut off from the world: no visa, not ATM’s that are not Sudanese owned, so our credit/debit cards no workie here in Sudan. Just two little strangle holds the western world imposes when you choose not to play ‘their’ game. Ok, back to Islam.

So when we heard about Omdurman’s Sufi dervishes we had to check it out. How many of you hear whirling dervish and conger up an image of the Warner Brother’s Tasmanian devil spinning up a dust cloud? Surely I am not the only one. As famous as the dervishes are, I didn’t know a thing about them - apart from my comic imagination - until we joined them one night in a ritualized chant of la illaha illallah (there is but one God).

Sufi’s are a separate order of Islam who abide by the sharia (Islamic law prescribed in the Koran) but they differ from Orthodox Muslims in their belief that the path to Allah is through more mystical means, like trance and meditation, not ritualized prayer. Sufis often garner skepticism from mainstream Muslims but their long and varied history in Sudan is a testament to the relaxed traditions of Sudanese Islam. And you would be hard pressed to encounter a population of people more welcoming and gracious than the Sudanese.

On Friday Glenn and I hopped in a cab and headed out for a night of chanting, whirling and spectating as the dervishes shortened the gap between them and God. Here are our photos of the weekly ritual. And despite being a woman wedged in between all of the men I was singled out by a beautiful Sufi chant leader who took it on himself to lead me in my own personal path to God. There was an indescribable tangible quality to the evening and I could almost grab hold of the love that radiated out from the dancers. For one night we were all Sufi and love ruled.

The rest of the photos are here.

Sending my love to you,

*Allah is God in Arabic.

**Do you actually think that one can become culturally competent in a culture that is not your own? Think about it.

 Is it possible to bone up on another culture in say a few weeks? a few months? I don’t think so. Cultures are so rich and diverse because you grew up learning all of the intricacies over a lifetime. They can’t be explained away in a book of etiquette.  So you see the rub. You can certainly become sensitive to other cultures extending a basic knowledge as an offering of respect, but to become competent without living in an environment seems like a nice way for westerners to strive to ‘understand’.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ahhh Addis

Glenn and I were a bit beaten down by the time we arrived in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. We were badly in need of privacy among other things; the constant harassment of the people over the past 6 weeks and the poltergeist that took up residence in my guts were taking their toll. We limped into Addis road weary, tired and wounded.

Ironically, amidst the bustle of the city we found privacy and anonymity. We only heard farangi a dozen or so times a day, the beggers were of the usual urban variety and we could eat in privacy with only an occasional glance from nearby diners. You’re probably reading this thinking, ya, so what. In Ethiopia normalcy is a big deal because it pretty much doesn’t exist.

I don’t know how to describe the Ethiopians without inserting my negative bias. They are lovely people, truly lovely but my personality runs counter to their culture. They love white people (farangis) and for some reason find us the most interesting thing in the world. We are constantly mobbed, watched, petted and followed. We can’t brush our teeth without a crowd, lunches are village affairs and any sort of outing is accompanied by numerous ‘guides’ pointing out the obvious the entire way, “that is a cow,” “that is a church.” Yes, thanks for your services now get lost.

We've both reached a tipping point. Glenn engaged in a rock fight with 30 or so children one day. I know you’re recoiling in horror, but rocks and sticks are Ethiopians most successful means of discipline in rural areas, so we gave it a go. Not successful for the farangi, the kids thought it was fun as hell and my poor husband nearly had a heart attack running up and down the hills chucking rocks like a madman after 30+ kids who, by the way, have very good aim AND thought the crazy farangi was the funniest thing ever. It was pretty funny.

Mine came during a violent bout of diarrhea, roadside, with a mob of children running at me full speed yelling, “YOU, YOU, YOU.”  I now know that I can poop, throw rocks and shout obscenities at the same time. I freaked out. I love this country but am OVER the people. That was until we reached Addis and rolled into The Lion’s Den Hotel owned by the sweetest couple in all of Ethiopia, Addis and Bubi.

Two days later we found ourselves weaving through the back roads of Addis in Addis' Mercedes SUV heading to dinner for one of the yummiest Indian meals we’ve had in a long, long time. Our new friends were a much needed breath of fresh air. Addis’ and his wife Bubi are 'new' to Ethiopia; having lived in the US for 30 years, they have just returned to their native country. A couple years ago they returned to capitalize on the vast opportunities available to them in a country that has been in some ways frozen in time.  

Addis, recently retired as Ziggy Marley’s band manager of 30 years, was a natural story teller. He and Bubi are living proof that the American dream is alive and well. As we ate we learned of Bubi’s career opening NYC’s first Ethiopian restaurant which she successfully ran for 20 years. They talked of their kids, who Addis described lovingly (and with a twinkle of pride in his eye) as, “spoiled American brats.” Life back in Ethiopia hasn’t been an easy transition for these two. After more or less growing up in the states they’ve become more American than Ethiopian. Bubi described what it was like being an outsider in her own country. She even gets charged the Farangi prices, despite her flawless command of Amharic. “They can tell from my accent that I am not from here; I go to the markets with my girlfriends and have to stand behind them while they negotiate for me. I just pull out my money and pay, otherwise I get charged the Farangi prices.”  

I can’t even begin to tell you how nice it was meeting these two. Through their stories they eloquently described the clash of culture we’ve been experiencing for the past 6 week. They got it. We loved them and hope, hope, hope to see them again.

Addis and Bubi thank you for everything. And Addis, yes, our wrong turn down a side street in Addis Ababa was meant to be; we needed you.

 Sending my love from Ethiopia with Tomorrow People stuck in my head for a week straight. 
CP (and GP too)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Year in Questions

One year later.
Today is our anniversary; one year ago we landed on African soil. One year! Wow. We’ve not only survived driving through Africa (as many of you feared we wouldn’t) - living out of a car - but we’ve actually thrived. We’ve had plenty of fuel for our journey: your encouragement, the generosity of everyone we’ve met and the laughs we’ve shared along the way.  

Just starting out.
Over the course of this year I have frequently been asked different versions of more or less the same question: How has Africa changed you? It is hard to say how the people of a nation have impacted your life while you are still on the ground amongst them. When you’re in a situation you cannot realistically forecast into the future (or accurately assess yourself), you’re more or less trapped in your own perspective. Of course there are plenty of trivial changes, like my uncanny ability to suss out a fruit vendor down a ramshackle back alleyway constructed solely of scrap metal and plastic tarps, but I don’t think that is the point of the question. I’ll have to write a post return update and let you know how it is going.

People also inquire about the poverty in Africa, asking how we deal. My answer is a based on my own definition of poverty and it is a question of perspective, not of accumulation. I see poverty as not having enough of something; Americans with more than enough - yet never satisfied - always seeking more, chasing, chasing, chasing that elusive [fill in the blank] are just as impoverished as the African who deals with food scarcity. Yes, you can argue Maslow by saying that the accumulation of wealth cannot possibly compare with inadequate basic needs, but poverty is a question of perspective: abundance vs. scarcity. Hunger, filthy water and a lack of basic medical facilities are byproducts of poverty, but separate issues altogether. For those of you who have spent time in poor countries, you know that poor is a relative term.

 If you live in rural Africa and you have more of something than someone else does, you share with them. That is how African’s operate. It is a different way of being in the world. No, most Africans don’t have ipods, drive expensive cars and live in fancy houses like we do. They certainly laugh, sing and joke more than we do. They dance and have time for conversation. They stop what they’re doing to help you whether you need it or not. There is a spirit of community that our world has lost. So are they poor?

By my definition, America is the more impoverished of the two nations. Try crying into your cashmere sweater and tell me how comforting it is.

I’ve grown accustomed to the wealth of spirit that surrounds us every day here in Africa so I don’t really see the poverty as such. The real question is how I’ll deal with the poverty of spirit back home where the acquisition of: money, youth, power, etc. takes precedent over the development of self and soul.

I went into a gallery in Addis Ababa the other day looking for Ethiopian folk art. It was like walking into Barneys in the middle of NYC during a holiday buying frenzy. I was surrounded with rich white American women demanding price lists and grabbing up treasures faster than the staff could swipe their Visa cards. I think I stood there gaping in awe, but I am not quite sure, it was a bit of a blur. I handed over my price list to a woman shrieking across the gallery with an east coast accent to her rhinestone spectacled friend and slipped out the front door. That was a culture shock and a half, but a world so, very, very familiar. I am pretty sure the shock of returning to the western world will be more glaring than any I’ve experienced thus far. The real question should have been: Am I ready for this?

And one I’ve gotten a lot lately is: Are you ready to come home? The answer is yes. By my definition you are all rich beyond measure and Glenn and I have been so blessed by your wealth of spirit, love and vitality. I can’t wait to be home and kiss your faces, hold those babies and soak up your wealth. You will share with me won’t you?

My love,