Saturday, January 27, 2007

To the January birthday club

To the January birthday club members Dan, Karen, Conor, Melanie, Brianna, Visnja, Charles & honorable member Rach (even though your birthday is in February, hee hee): HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO US!


Why does it feel as though time is accelerating? Because, relative to you, it is!

When you were 1 year old, 1 year was your entire life. When you were 2 years old, 1 year was one-half your life. When you were 20 years old, 1 year was one-twentieth of your life. So you see, as we age (ahem!), it feels as though time is accelerating and relative to oneself, it is.


In recent past years, how I spent my birthday, with whom I was and what I was doing was indicative of the year. Last year I was traveling; the year prior I was working insane hours (yes, even on my birthday); the year before that I was drinking cava and eating sweets with someone I loved. This year I spent my birthday in the company of family and good, long-time friends, those who know me, my foibles and my follies and love me anyway. It is my wish for that to be indicative of the year and the years to come.

With friends

I'm in the tranquil harbortown of Flensburg, in northern Germany, in visual distance from Denmark. The confluence of Danish rule and German rule flavors this agrarian landscape, and we've spent the last few days enjoying the fresh and wintry air, making small day trips to the coasts (Baltic Sea and North Sea) to see the fjords and salt marshes and to search for the wild horses.

Yesterday chefs Sasha and Melanie prepared the best tagine I have had in my life with their homemade ras al hanout (spice mixture which is the soul of Moroccan cuisine) -- no, they are not Moroccan either! I am happy and serene to be in the company of long-time friends, friends whom I know will be my life-long friends.

The chefs declined to have their (very cute) photo incorporated into my blog, but here is the coast:

In Hamburg:

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

From Chicago to Flensburg

Morning condiments for the preparations to leave (sans boric acid):

I had a 'riding your bike mid-day past the three-piece suits (to fruits, to no absolutes, to Absolut, to choice, to the Village Voice, to any passing fad, to being an us for once instead of a them...La Vie Boheme**)'-moment, taking my backpack onto the commuter train from the suburbs to Chicago (so I could retrieve my passport with Brazilian visa the morning before my mid-day flight because those lovely people require 5 business days to perform the 20-second task of granting the visa.) I might have been imagining, but despite my heavy load (including the addition of 1 bag to the freight as of Chicago), some of the commuters looked envious.

((**Love of these music and lyrics is something I share with some of those closest to me (with whom I could sit and sing enthusiastically through both discs of the original cast recording -- ahem Melissa!). I love that some years ago I heard my brother in CA playing it while we were talking on the phone, and we could know by guessing (guess by knowing) on the first try each others' favorite songs of the 40+ tracks.))

And so that morning I walked around downtown Chicago with one large backpack on my back and one smaller one on my front. I am sure if my skin were darker I would have been followed, stopped, questioned and searched (more than once), but my tan has faded of late. I made it to the airport in plenty of time for my delayed flight.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Typical tidbit of my mother

At a store, perusing the audio CDs

Mom: Look what I found.

Me: Let's see, "20 Piano Classics."

Turns the CD over and looks at the song list

Me: Mom, you already have these songs.

Mom: Emphatically Yeah, but not in that order!


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sweetest home

Whenever I go home my mother no longer asks me what I want to eat -- she knows without asking... duk mandoo guk -- Korean soup with rice cakes and dumplings (very garlicky, yum!). Koreans eat this soup for New Years day (traditionally celebrated on the lunar new year), but I love it year round, and only my mother's version, of course.

Chicago has been a site for sore eyes (mine) and I realize how lucky I was to have this as my foundation in life. Though I used to feel a bit 'trapped in the suburbs' (especially growing up), I am so appreciative of the pristine roads (no life-threatening craters and potholes!), the hygenic environment (no piles of trash or various animal excrement to avoid), and the ease of daily living (not to be taken for granted in the places I've recently visited).

While here, I stayed over at my eldest sister's one morning and saw the family off to work and school and appointments. Though it is quotidian for them, I enjoyed being part of the morning rush. Now, when I miss them I will carry that time with me and see them in my mind's eye.

My sarster* Sharon who certainly knows me better than I know myself has been a constant presence in my travels (via several dozen emails, sometimes a dozen in one day), but certainly nothing replaces the face-to-face.

(*This deserves an explanation. Once when we were very young, Sharon was reading the book Little Women. In it, they call their mother Marmy. So, since then, we have been calling each other sarster and brarthar, or sars (abbreviated) which you might have seen sprinkled throughout my blog. Because there are 3 sarsters, sometimes we use numbers, for example, I am sars-3.)

Despite the fact that my family gave me Christmas and birthday presents in advance before I left on my trip (despite my protests!), my family will celebrate my birthday on Saturday at a nice restaurant. Only missing will be my brother, Richard, and sister-in-law, Dosun, who live in the L.A.-area, though we are planning to coordinate our visits when I return to the U.S. in May.

Being at home also is for seeing long-time friends. For me, they include Rachel (whom I've known since the first day of sixth grade, and of whom I've before spoken on this blog) and Manolo, Timmy (whom I've known since I was 17, who stuck by me as a friend despite my Dorothy Hammill-haircut and eggplant-coat days), and Dan (another long-time friend from volunteer work in the area of harm reduction and HIV-prevention). Add to that a friend from college (college for me, grad school for her) with whom I shared first major life events, and my loving friends in Germany (also from Chicago volunteer work-days). We will be friends when I am old and gray.

In family and friends I am so, so blessed.

Family birthday celebration mayhem:

Friday, January 12, 2007

from On the Road Home

"..."Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye."..."

Sadly, I am no longer able to write poetry, only quote it. My crisis of language began several years ago and has made barren the fields and has massacred the seed. In me, language has not known cultivation all the while.

Tonight I start the journey from Luxor to Cairo to Madrid and to Chicago where I will be in the family fold for one week, so I'll be away from email for the next few days and not on the internet a lot in the next couple weeks.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Temples of Karnak in Luxor

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

'Deep January'

Well, my trip to Abu Simbel was a failure -- the hotel failed to wake me up (despite a prolonged discussion the night prior about the timing of the wake-up call) and the tour agent failed to fetch me at 3:30am for the 4:00am convoy (all vehicles carrying foreigners must travel together at pre-defined times with police escort). To top it off, after awaking and knowing by the light of day that I missed the convoy, I tracked down the tour agent who then yelled at me. Well, at least I got my money back.

And yet I am happy here.

I know how to avoid the touts (and it doesn't bother me one bit to brush people off when necessary or to yell "DON'T TOUCH ME!" when a particularly persistent (male) tout (it's never females) offends me in that way, or to make an about face when someone tries to block my way. I know they would never do any of these things to an Egyptian woman.) And while I'm not always sure when someone is overcharging me (when I can't for example see what the last person pays, but sometimes I can, and I can and do walk away), I generally know where I am going and how to get around Aswan and the little things are joyful and I am happy!

I have met enough good here to take a serious liking to this place. I have shared conversations about the sacred and the mundane. (With one Israeli intellectual/academic/journalist and 2 activist-writers here in Egypt, I partook of a conversation until 3am in a hotel bar (after we left another bar where by just walking in I offended the male-only patronage). The connection between these men though recent acquaintances was genuine -- love of truth and freedom is a bond above nationality. The conversation was fluid -- what when wrong in Iraq and 'if you were President Bush what would you do about the Iraq problem now?' The thesis was that radical Islam is inextricably linked to dictatorship which is the historical political prototype and vile reality for this region. Most of all these men spoke out of a deep love for their countries and ardent desire for genuine democracy. They made some provocative statements with great wit and sarcastic humor that at times I had to laugh; if taken out of context they would bring extreme reactions from all "sides." One of these writers has been harrassed and suffered death threats, yet he is about to publish his third book because as much as he loves his freedom he loves his country.)

And while dealing with the tourist industry invariably brings headaches (or in my case, my stress reaction, stomach distress, and in this case, near death due to poisoning by boric acid:

I went to the pharmacist to get my stomach problem cure-all, Alka Selzer. Of course, they don't carry Western brands, so I asked for it by molecule name, sodium bicarbonate. The English-speaking pharmacist brought a box with packets of powder briefly pointing out the name of the active ingredient. I asked if I could drink it while pantomiming drinking, she said yes. With a bottle of water I was preparing the elixir when the fact that the box said washing powder (few English words on the box) puzzled me. I took another look at the ingredient list and notice that included was Borax. Borax is boric acid. Boric acid is poison.))

..and though Egypt is notoriously difficult for independent female travelers (especially if one is or acts oblivious to local customs), I feel I can handle it, and beneath that I've found the vitality and the beautiful contradiction that is Egypt, for me a treasure.

Tourist souq:

Local souq:

Bankrupt of God

ROMAN CATHOLIC clergy members in Poland are resigning upon divulgence of former collaboration with Communist secret police, and the same CHURCH protects, harbors and ENABLES serial PEDOPHILES across the world, stonewalling all attempts of police investigation??!?


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

On the Nile

In Aswan, on the Nile, in Lower Egypt of the Nubian south (more pictures to come!)


Some of the joys of travel (27 of them)

I have 27 bites on the inner side of my right leg below my knee, most of them flea bites (from Lalibela where to see the interiors of the churches one removes one shoes and steps into damp, flea-infested straw that lines the floor). That body part has more bites than others, but I shudder to think how many bites in total I have on all parts of my body.

For a while after Lalibela, new bites continued to appear daily despite my diligent and thorough clothes washing following each visit. I became suspicious fleas were living in my hiking boots. The new bites finally subsided, but most of the wounds are still open and raw.

Three mysterious bug-like bites remain from Chungdu (China) from early October. (I say bug-like, because I don't know what creature caused them, the wounds were deeper than usual, and the fact that they still remain means they are likely not ordinary mosquito bites.

Pyramids at Giza

These are, along with their contents, marvels of Ancient Egyptian technology, the Pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx.

The sand and stone reflects and reverberates the changing light of the sky, and so one can pass a whole day here doing nothing but walking, looking, breathing, being.

(I will upload more pictures later!)

Friday, January 05, 2007

In Cairo just now


I am presently in Cairo (just arrived this afternoon). So far, I like it very much! The architecture is gorgeous (mix of British colonial and Egyptian). I am staying in a more residential part of town (i.e., non-touristic) in a comfy, old hotel (high ceilings, hardwood floors). It's very clean.

Tomorrow, it's to the Pyramids at Giza. Also, tomorrow is Coptic Christmas Eve (same time as Ethiopian Gena). Maybe I'll witness some of that here.

So, I owe you an entry on Lalibela. I will get to that as the next order of business (in order, I reserved a space for it). I'll have to do that another time as I've been at this internet terminal for going on 4 hours.

I've been arranging (with the help of my sweet sarster and sweet friend Melanie) a couple upcoming trips -- trips within my trip! I decided that the antidote to my travel weariness is a visit home to Chicago to see family and good, long-time friends. I will be in Chicago from Jan. 14 - 22. Hooray! Following that, I will visit good, long-time friends in Flensburg, Germany. So all of this will renew me and refresh me for the rest of my trip. After Egypt, Chicago and Germany via Madrid, I'll travel to Morocco, briefly in Barcelona, then onto Brazil, Chile and Argentina.

This trip home and to see friends in Germany will make the rest of the trip happier, better, sweeter. I already feel upbeat just thinking about it!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Buy this book and read it

I read Martin Meredith's 750-page tome, The State of Africa. It tells the history of the last 50 years of Africa, since Ghana became independent in 1957. With most of the last 20 years or so I was already familiar, and I learned more of the historical background and complexities as well as the bigger picture and a sense of the momentum of events as they unfolded.

To read how Africa's post-colonial leaders were the most egregious plunderers of the wealth and of the human and economic potential of Africa leaves me incredulous and horrified, as if peering into hell. Should that I would be hardened to such stories of greed and atrocity and inhumanity, but I am not.

At Lalibela, devotees of faith

Lalibela's rockhewn churches date back to the late 12th/early 13th century, built by King Lalibela. Rockhewn means that the building materials were not transported to the site, rather, the churches were carved into or excavated out of existing stone, either cut into a vertical stone face or separated from all sides by a trench.

Lalibela is the epicenter for the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church. It is a holy place, and when you have escaped the touts and other hassles and are sharing the churches with the many devoted pilgrims who journey there (sometimes walking 20-30 days!) to pray, you feel it. Is said by other Ethiopians that these churches, priest and pilgrims keep and protect (Ethiopian Orthodox) Christianity for everyone else.
Lalibela has 11 main rockhewn churches, one group of 7 and another group of 4. These are connected by trenches and caves (and sometimes rickety bridges). At one point I had to walk through a completely pitch black cave of over 70 feet! With no flashlight (and no company in the cave) I walked slowly and ran my hand along the side of the wall for reassurance.

These pictures can't convey the wonderment of this place; I offer them humbly.
Bet Medhene Alem, the largest monolithic (free standing) rockhewn church in the world:

Bet Giyorgis (exquisite):

Bet Abba Libanos (FOR DAN, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!):

mmmm... Shampagne

After almost one week in Lalibela with no internet, ridiculously expensive land line (which I did not use), water shortages and the occasional power outage, I am back in Addis Ababa. Tomorrow I am on my way to Egypt. Yes, this is fast, I know.

I rang in the New Year with fellow travelers, including one German-Italian, one Italian (-German), two Japanese gals, and others. We went to the fanciest hotel/restaurant in town. It was quite festive! We dined, partook of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony with a traditional song and dance performance, enjoyed pannetone (Italian holiday sweet bread) as proffered by our dining neighbors, a tour group from Italy (it was so good, obviously they brought it from Italy!) Later, we drank "Shampagne," sang songs and debated life as an expat in Africa (theoretical for some of us, a new life for others). We even tried to knock back some tej (Ethiopian "honey wine" -- one of our celebration mates aptly described it (this particular batch) as "(the noun) sick" -- as in sour, rancid, former-food mixed with stomach acid and regurgitated.)

Our punishment was, taxis were not to be had after midnight! By the time we left the hotel, those of us staying on the other side of town had a long walk uphill! We walked back with a little kickin'-dance to make the time pass.

I wanted to stay in Lalibela for Gena, Ethiopian Christmas, but having seen the essential historical sites and admitedly being fed up with the hassle I receive as a female independent traveler, I decided it is time to depart.

Besides, I am not fresh for the adventure, I am homesick and I miss my family something terrible.