Snakefruit, Sambal & Sustainable Schooling: An Adventure in Bali

Posted in Uncategorized on June 9, 2011 by racheltobias

Welcome to Ubud, a place that combines a magical sense of being with the deliberate beauty of art and nature. This blog refers only to the people and landscape of Ubud. We spent the majority of our time in Ubud and other village areas in Northern Bali. The two days we spent in the south of Bali were filled mostly with wishing we were back in Ubud. Kuta, Seminyak, and its nearby areas are, well, not somewhere I wish to return. I am happy to answer any questions for those looking to plan an itinerary in Bali.

There’s a tree that grows in Bali called the Banyan Tree. While it can be found in many other places around the world, it seems to have a special presence here. Often you will find it’s trunk tied with a sheer yellow or black & white fabric, which marks it as sacred; this is, of course, the same tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. Even more often you will find that a small shrine has been built nearly into the base of the tree, and the Balinese will bring offerings to the shrine daily in thanks.

There’s something special about the Banyan tree that seems to parallel in many ways what it means to live here in Bali. The tree grows vertically, with roots that take on massive forms and spread to cover huge areas deep under the earth and across the surface. The tree itself can shoot hundreds of feet into the air, with the wisdom of seeing for miles, home and shade for creatures and humans alike. The Balinese seem to grow like Banyan trees, in a very vertical direction. They often stay in the same place forever, sticking their roots deep into the same place. Most Balinese live in these gorgeous and spread-out family compounds with their extended families. Family and community occupy much of the Balinese value system, and indeed, anyone would happily and graciously provide a home for anyone else. But  the Balinese do much more than simply take care of their families. In the area of accomplishments and fullness of the soul they are as tall as a Banyan tree. They are the hardest workers of anyone I have ever met. They find just as much worth in creating art as they do earning a wage. It’s no wonder that Ubud attracts all kinds of artists and creators. People stay in more or less the same place for their entire lives, fulfilled by family roots, traditional ceremonies of thanks-giving, a skill for trades and handicrafts unmatched by any culture I have ever seen, and a soul-endearing belief in karma.

For those of you who read about my travels through Egypt and the Middle East, you may remember the emotional and physical struggles I experienced around being a woman in that part of the world. Even in the U.S., everywhere in fact, there is a downside to being of the fairer sex. I work in a relatively ok part of LA, yet I still walk carrying my pepper spray on my way to my car after work. I am always conscious of being kind, yet not too kind, to strangers on the street (how sad to have to worry about being too kind), and am anxious to avoid the wrong types of looks from the wrong types of men.

The number one reason why I love Ubud and would in a moment move my life here is that I appreciate being able to walk up and down the street, alone if I chose, and smile without even a thought.

Here, a smile is just a smile.

It is not a lewd invitation, or an implication that I’d like to make a purchase of some kind. You walk around without fear, without judgement, without pressure to fit in a specific role. On the road, people don’t beep at each other in frustration; they only beep to let each other know they are there. People love each other and are grateful for each other.

One day, we were driving down the road with our guide Dana when suddenly he came to a screeching stop and pointed out the window, “It’s a wedding,” he said. “Let’s go in.” We peered outside and saw a family compound with steps decorated in the Balinese fashion of woven palm and banana leaves in bright colors and intricate designs. We scrambled after Dana to catch up and ran up the steps into this house of strangers preparing for a wedding. They welcomed us as if we were family, invited us to explore and walk around their home as we liked. After we were finished, one of the men who was busily preparing the ducks for slaughter left his work and came over to us. He took my hand and with a slight bow, thanked us for our presence, told us he was so grateful for us to have come to his home.

He thanked us. We had done nothing except unexpectedly intrude into his home and upon his work, yet he was genuinely grateful to have met us and had the opportunity to provide us even with brief hospitality.

This is Bali.

The practice of being grateful in Bali puts the American Thanksgiving to shame. Every single day, women prepare offerings for their own family temples and homes, from very small square packages filled with bits of flower petals and rice, to large offerings of lavish fruits, meats, and flowers piled atop each other in a beautiful package. It is not rare to see women walking up and down the streets with piles of oranges, apples, and roasted chickens packed neatly in a balanced heap upon their heads.

The day we arrived in Bali was the day after the beginning of Tumpek Landep, a ceremony to pay gratitude and respects to all things made of metal. Small offerings hung from the rearview mirrors of motorbikes, sat upon the dashboards of vans, dangled off the ends of musical instruments.

At my last Thanksgiving dinner I gave thanks for my family, my friends and my health; and food was graciously accepted by me, I gave no offering, to anyone, except perhaps an offer to wash the evening’s dishes. I can’t think of a time when I gave individual thanks to everything made of metal in my life. Families in Bali have few possessions – even fewer made of metal: cars, instruments, tools and farming equipment perhaps. They waste nothing, take advantage of nothing, use everything, frequently.

I could write pages of the things I own made of metal.

But I’ve never thanked them.

We began our trip to Bali with a very specific itinerary in mind. Having used a service called Jetsetter (compliments of my TED gift bag), which provides travel and itinerary planning for a well-worth-it fee, we arrived with 5 pages worth of detailed information about where we would go, what we would do and who we would visit. We had planned ahead of time to put together some travel stories on the different economic cornerstones of the traditional Balinese economy, such as a master woodcarver, silversmith, healer, etc. We had planned an ambitious route which took us to as much of the island as possible, while still leaving time to surf with our good friend, who had given up the LA drill for a bit to do some self-realization and improve his surfing in Bali.

Of course, when we arrived, everything went differently than expected, as it should.

We had arranged to stay one night at a small hotel called Bambu Indah, the soulchild of John and Cynthia Hardy. John and Cynthia ran a very successful silver jewelry company for many years, John Hardy jewelry, until they sold the company and built The Green School, which I will tell you more about in just a skip.

When we arrived at Bambu Indah, we immediately fell in love with the place. It sat admist the palm trees and moist air, overlooking a deep valley of jungle and rice terraces. In the mornings sometimes, we could hear the percussion sounds of a ceremonial procession from clear across the valley. John and Cynthia hardy feel very passionately about being green, and not in the sense that we like to use the green hand soap or drive the green car. They are really green. Every space that is not occupied by a building has something growing on it. Not roses or pretty landscaping fixtures, but fruit and vegetables – things to feed us. Bean sprouts, tomatoes, exotic fruits, all kinds of things grew around our small jungle bungalow, ripe for the picking and ours for the eating!

Through John, Cynthia and Bambu Indah, we were introduced to the wonderful expat community of Bali. The island attracts the most wonderful odds and ends of Western society: artists, kooks, and wild spirits reign free. Our first day in Bali, we had the pleasure of meeting a few of these new friends at the Green School, meetings which serendipitously changed out entire itinerary for the better!

The Green School was built by John and Cynthia Hardy, whose dream to build a sustainable school with a prominent green curriculum has been excecuted with great success. The school, which goes from Pre-K to 10th grade (soon to be 12th grade), attracts students from all over the world, and has a scholarship program available for local families. Like Bambu Indah, every inch of the school is covered in food; in fact, every class is in charge of its own garden on which grow all kinds of produce that is then cooked and eaten every day for lunch! A full barn is almost finished with livestock of all kinds including pigs, cows, and chickens! Cacao, papaya, tapioca, and other tropical fruits grow rampant throughout the landscape. As does bamboo.

Bamboo plays a very special role at the Green School. I suppose it should since everything is made of bamboo. The Heart of School, or the main building which houses the admin space, the library and several classrooms, is comprised of three bamboo vortexes which seem to melt together in perfect harmony. The rest of the classrooms are spread over the acres of land belonging to the Green School, all similarly made of bamboo. Everything in the classrooms is a creation of bamboo: the chairs, tables, cubbies; even the dry erase boards are made of recycled car windshields held together by thin strips of bamboo. To read more about the Green School, please check out my article on the TED Blog.

Sitting in the warung (Balinese equivalent to a cafe) that day at the Green School, we spent time visiting with parents and learning more about the life journeys that had brought these families to Bali. Parents sat with each other under the shade of the thatched roof for hours that morning, no rush to be off somewhere, nobody glued to their cell phone or stuck in their car. Instead, sitting together, in the open air, embracing the wonder that is human connection and the beauty that is nature in its most pure form. As I observed the children running around us, I realized that there was indeed a very different idea of how life is to be lived, and how children are to be taught. Kids were given glass cups (not paper or plastic) and nobody seemed to worry that they would break them. Kids climbed up on high on slippery rocks; teachers gave a warning to be careful, but allowed the children to explore the freedom of adolescent curiosity.

In particular, we connected with one family, a couple by the name of Asher and Avara, and their beautiful young daughter. Asher and Avara moved to Bali from Oregon; now, Asher is chasing his passion for coffee and Avara her love for raw food, incorporating them into the Green School. Asher’s coffee, which he grows in Northern Bali and roasts himself on the roaster he invented is called F.R.E.A.K. coffee, which stands for Fresh Robusta and Enak Arabica from Kintimani. He makes it at the Green School every morning for the parents and faculty. Avara, also an active parent at the school, is in the process of building a “rawung” right across from the existing warung where she will teach living food classes and sell other delicious goodies.

Intrigued with the lives of this wonderful couple, I began questioning Asher about his coffee and his farm (as I ravenously drank down cup after cup of his delicious coffee!), and he generously offered to drive us up to Kintimani where he grew his beans. The next day Benny, me, Asher and another fellow coffee lover from Spain piled into Asher’s tiny blue jeep-like car and journeyed high into the mountains, about 2 hours, to Kintimani. There he showed us how the bean grew, the different types of bean (robusta and arabica), showed us how they shelled the berry, and explained how they were experimenting with different processes (the dry process vs. the wet process). Asher’s aim is to see if keeping the bean on the berry for longer, in other words, aging it, would create a more flavorful and valuable coffee.

I learned more about coffee that day than I ever thought it was possible to know. It is a beautiful thing to watch someone absolutely explode with joy about what they’re passionate about: Asher could have talked about coffee for days on end, quite literally, and I would have been captivated for every minute of it, quite truthfully. I learned that it is not necessarily important where the coffee came from or how it was grown; the key to good coffee is that it is freshly roasted, as in roasted that day.

We also learned about kopi luwak, a very highly valued coffee in Bali. Bear with me: kopi luwak is coffee made from coffee beans that have been digested by the civet cat. The cat knows only to eat the ripest and best beans, which are ideal for the tastiest coffee. The cat only eats the berry, and the bean goes through its digestive tract still with its outer membrane on, which is then shelled and the bean is processed for consumption. Originally, farmers would go around their farms and remove the beans from the cat’s excrement. Now, sadly, they cage the cats and try to simulate the situation. Kopi luwak sells for 10 to 60 times the price of regular coffee.

Yes, we tried it.

No it wasn’t bad. It tasted pretty much like normal coffee, although it had a distinct flavor. However, I didn’t think it was better than Asher’s FREAK coffee, and certainly not worth 10 times the price.

After our journey through the coffee plantation, we headed back to Ubud, where we met up with Avara in their gorgeous all-bamboo, open-air home. Avara made us the most delicious raw food feast: vegetable rolls wrapped in her homemade rice paper-like wraps made from mango and coconut, a delicious salad with all types of fresh vegetables, and the most delectable desserts you can imagine: fresh chocolate made from local cacao, starfruit, jackfruit and pineapple drizzled in a fresh vanilla bean sauce, and a tart made from local dates. Before we ate, Asher walked outside and cut down a big banana leaf from a nearby tree, on which we then ate our meal.

We spent a little time venturing away from the Green School (although reluctantly). We took a phenomenal cooking class at Casa Luna Cooking School (which we highly recommend!) where we made nasi campur, or a mix of dishes found in a traditional Balinese home and served with rice.

This included a fish curry, a tempeh curry, a fern tip coconut salad (which was my favorite, and for which I’m confident I can sub out the fern for kale), a pepper salsa-like dish called sambal (Benny’s favorite), fried eels and peppers, and green coconut crepes drizzled in fresh palm sugar. (Palm sugar will change your whole relationship to sugar.) Overall the food in Bali was pretty delicious; it’s a blend between Thai and other island flavors.

We were lucky enough to be hosted by families for many of our meals, but when we did go out we went to the Cinta Grill and Siam Sally, both in central Ubud, and both pretty good. And every morning, we took our breakfast (a banana crepe drizzled in palm sugar with fresh fruit grown right at the hotel) on our quaint wooden porch overlooking a valley of rice terraces.

We took some beautiful drives with our guide, Dana, and visited temples, art galleries, and family homes, where on one occasion we were unfortunately and intriguingly witness to the slaughter of many ducks for a family wedding. I have never seen a bird be slaughtered before and it was perhaps one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I will spare you the details however. Let’s just say it gives you a new relationship to and appreciation for your food. My favorite part of our guided journey, however, was venturing up to the Jatiluwih rice terraces, which were just stunning.

We watched men and women harvesting rice: there were different roles for the men and women, but each played a critical role under the heat of the island sun. We even watched the village boys searching for eels in the muddy harvested fields  which they would later take to market.

Our last stop was on the coast to visit our friend Doug, who took us out surfing at Ulu Watu. We surfed alongside people from all over the world, who, similar to Doug, had left behind their modern life to be in the sea, chasing their passion (quite literally).

Overall, I could not imagine a place more perfect than Bali. Of course, it is not perfect, perfect, as no place can ever be. There are of course problems that come along with many developing countries, for example, people burn their garbage, which results in piles of garbage along the streets and the constant smell of burning plastic here and there. But on the whole, for the most part, it is a wonderful community of people, living in the most beautiful natural setting. I most definitely recommend it.

I am of course always happy to answer questions if you are considering travel there! Please leave a comment and I will reply as soon as I can!

Isla de Pascua

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2010 by racheltobias

As I sit aboard the LAN flight to Easter Island, Chile, I marvel sadly at how little the world has changed, after all of its mistakes and pitfalls. The history of the island I am about to explore is tragic, marred by the depletion of natural resources, and further destruction of the population by warfare and culture clash with the conquistadores. My flight is jam-packed, ironically, with a group appropriately named “Conquistadores Aventuros” a Seventh Day Adventist missionary group, seeking to “civilize,” in a way, not unlike European and South American predecessors as they pass out booklets entitled Tiempo de Esperanza, (Season of Hope) to the locals. Later, I will leave the island with chunks of obsidian dug from a crater’s edge, shells collected at Anakena, the sole beach on the island, and bones rescued from tidepools along the coast, as well as with photographs of natural and human creation which astounds even my Nikon. Along with the missionaries sitting around me, I struggle with the idea that we constantly continue this pattern of taking without asking permission and giving without considering whether or not we should.

And onward we fly.

By some unfathomable stretch of human strength, intuition and survival, a boatful of Pacific Islanders, likely Polynesians, made their way an estimated 2,000 miles across an empty and desolate ocean to an island called Isla de Pascua. No map, no compass, no GPS, perhaps they didn’t even have a destination in mind; it was simply the boat, the stars, and that dear hand of providence.

This is, at least, the presumption of how the Rapanui arrived on Easter Island.

Life on Rapanui proved to be something south of Paradise. Although nobody knows for sure exactly what happened to the Rapanui, archaologists and historians are nearly certain that the downfall of the civilization was a result of a rape of natural resources both by the locals, initially, and later, foreign intruders. What used to be an island of lush forests was transformed, over years, into barren plains on which nothing of use to its inhabitants can grow. This island may have simply been hostile to the demand, without the supply to satisfy a population; however, it is theorized that these islanders wasted thousands of trees in the transportation of the moai, the large stone tribal icons scattered around the island, to the coast. Without wood to burn and food to cook, the Rapa Nui are presumed to have resorted to tribal warfare and perhaps cannibalism, their population further decreased after wars with the Spanish.

Destroyed by disease and warfare, less than 3% of the Rapanui remained by 1877. Along with the more than 1500 people killed went the culture and traditions of the island, something that has been barely re-stitched together by the current population, a blend of Chileans and Polynesians.

The island itself is beautiful, despite the lack of forest life, which is easily forgotten when presented with the panorama of lush green hillsides, yellow and purple wildflowers crouching in bunches, and giant, pensive moai admiring the turquoise surf crashing against twisting volcanic cliffs.

Isla de Pascua is approximately 15 miles long by 8 miles wide, and claims a tip of the Polynesian triangle, which includes Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island. There are two main roads; one curves around the eastern coast, while the second cuts through the middle of the island. The west coast above the main town can be accessed by mainly gravel and dirt roads, although most of the action (“action” being a relative term) is on the east coast. Volcanic caves and lava tubes can be found along the northwest coast, and moai are visible everywhere, both standing and fallen, broken and whole, although the most exciting spots are the Rano Raraku volcano and rock quarry, and Ahu Tongariki.

The town of Hanga Roa is the only town on the island. Its main street has a number of car, motorcycle, and bicycle rental stores, a plethora of restaurants, and numerous “supermercados.”

Supermarket is also a relative term.

The Rapa Nui people are striking, especially the women. Their beautiful, long, jet-black hair frames their exotic Polynesian features beautifully. What I heard of the Rapa Nui language, I liked; apparently it is quite similar to other Polynesian languages. However, I did not find the people to be very friendly; I’m not really sure if I blame them:

Tourism is the sole source of income for this island; Isla de Pascua must import the majority of its food and resources. Without the moai, it is likely that this island would have been abandoned long ago. I constantly wondered, as I failed to encounter very much joy and friendliness among the local people, if they lived with a slight resentment, a resentment etched into the stone faces gazing into the distance, which we furiously clicked away at with our cameras, as if the scene was ours to capture, pocket and take home. I can understand the frustration that the Rapanui must feel, as tourist after tourist, with deep pockets full of pesos and ignorance, march obliviously across the island for a couple of days, and then are gone, not likely to return. It occurred to me that the worldview of an islander, most of whom have never been to the mainland, must be quite interesting in comparison to the wide scope of information and experience we encounter on our giant, seemingly boundless continents.

Sure enough, I felt the “those damn tourists” vibe as we posed in front of a moai on our first day, apparently too close, and were yelled at by a Rapanui on horseback policing the archeological sites. I felt only slightly less foolish than the Finnish tourist Benny read about in our guidebook, who was apparently caught trying to remove an ear from a moai to take home as a souvenir.

For my fellow travel and monument-sighting junkies, Easter Island is a must-see. It is a trek, about 5 hours east of Santiago. But it is worth it. However, I must warn anyone with the inkling that it is horrendously expensive; if I had been warned of this before my trip, I would have only stayed 2 days, which is plenty of time to see the whole island. Everything is marked up, since, as I mentioned, this is the island’s only source of revenue. For example, to get into Rapa Nui National Park, which you must do to see the main archeological sites, is $60 USD. Also, we never had a meal for less than $50.

One night, in an attempt to save money, we decided to cook, since our hostel had a small communal kitchen. Cooking turned out to be more of a hassle and almost as expensive as eating out.

1 cucumber + 1 onion = $4.00

1 bunch of basil = $2.00

1 potato = $2.00

1 small bottle of olive oil = $7.00

3 tomatoes + 1 head of garlic = $4.00

1 package of tomato sauce = $1.00

1 package of spaghetti = $2.00

And this didn’t even include meat. We ended up with some decent spaghetti and a half-decent salad, although our kitchen had no pepper or spices, and barely any cooking utensils.

Benny decided, after our disappointing cooking experience, which is usually one of our favorite activities (as a young and broke couple), that we needed to put together an emergency cooking kit for all future travel. This is what we came up with (inspired by everything we lacked during The Easter Island Spaghetti Fiasco:

Emergency Travel Cooking Kit

- OLIVE OIL

- BALSAMIC VINEGAR

- PEANUT OIL (this was Benny’s idea; he is quite particular about his oils)

- MATCHES (we ended up lighting the stove with Benny’s flint fire starter, which I had made exceeding fun of him for for bringing on the trip, certain that he would not need a fire starter; turns out I was wrong)

- SALT

- PEPPER

- OREGANO (we’re spoiled)

- TABASCO

- ZIPLOC BAGS (I had to throw away a whole salad, which I gladly would have put in the refrigerator and eaten the next day

- CAN OPENER

I also thought it would be fun, since we were on an island!, to do something islandish and make pina coladas. We bought a $5 bottle of rum, a $5 can of pineapples and a $5 can of cream of coconut. Very excited for my afternoon treat after a long day of scuba diving and hiking, I rushed to the kitchen. I found the blender covered in fruit flies, but refusing to get discouraged, washed it off (the kitchen had no hot water and no soap), and powered through. I put in the pineapple and the rum, and went to retrieve the ice from the freezer, then discovered someone had spilled papaya juice all over my bag of ice (this was not a closed bag of ice). Still undeterred, I salvaged ice from the bottom of the bag and threw it in. Finally, I went to open the coconut, and found that it was thick, almost like jello. Keep going. As I scooped it out, I discovered the bottom half of the can was brown, which really didn’t look right to both Benny and I. The hostel owner walked in and I asked him what he thought. After looking at the expiration date, he said it was fine, and then looked at the expiration date of the pineapples, and informed me that they had been expired for one year. I wanted to cry.

We threw out the pina coladas and settled for rum.

Aside from our cooking debacles, the rest of our stay was quite lovely. We spent our first day driving around the island in our rented “jeep,” finding many platforms of fallen moai along the coastline. Our hostel, Hostal Akapu, was about a 15-minute walk from Hanga Roa, and the walking path sat next to several ahus, or moai platforms. One moai, which we could see from our cabin porch, was the only one on the island I saw with bright white eyes. Another ahu, a few minutes walk past this one, had four slightly deteriorating moai. So, by the time we got in our jeep and bounced along the innumerable potholes to see more coastal moai, the facedown fallen statues seemed to lack very much excitement.

Just as disappointment began to set in, we made a sharp turn off the road toward Rano Raraku, a volcano and rock quarry, according to my map. As soon as we approached, however, I realized that the dark spots I had seen on the hillside of the volcano were not shrubbery, as I had assumed, but moai, hundreds of them.

This quarry is where the Rapanui harvested the stone for the moai; from here, they transported them to the coasts and created the ahus, or ceremonial platforms. Archaeologists have postulated that the moai signified deified ancestors, most likely chieftains and other powerful males. The moai, were probably created from around as early as 1100 A.D. by the Ancestor Cult, and ended in the 1860s, during the Birdman Cult and the arrival of Europeans and slave traders. These moai number 887 throughout the island, although only 288 of them made it to their final destination at the ahu. The rest lay scattered around Rano Raraku and throughout the island in-transit and unfinished, yet no less majestic. Moai range in size and can be anywhere from 15 to 70 feet tall. The biggest moai weighs 145 tons, but the average weight is usually around 15 tons.

The trail at Rano Raraku winds around the side of the volcano through individual and unfinished moai which stand towering and erect beside the trail. The scene was truly quite incredible, with the powerful dark statues standing upon green and yellow fields of grass, covered by some of the most incredible arrays of clouds and blue sky I have ever seen. It made for some lovely photography. After finishing the trail, a second trail takes you to the less famous crater lake of Rano Raraku, which was surrounded by wild horses and more moai.

After the rock quarry, we drove further along the main road to Ahu Tongariki, the most famous ahu on the island, and the one you have likely seen in pictures advertising Easter Island. It is a row of 15 moai, each unique and different. It almost reminded me of a portrait of some old businessmen from the before-smiling age of photography: all standing, serious, looking at the camera, some short and stout, bellies hanging out; others tall and thin, one even with a version of a top hat, some with more distinctive facial features, others less extraordinary. They made me giggle. We decided to return to Ahu Tongariki the next morning early before the sun rose, in order to capture the majestic statues against a warm orange morning sky.

It was on this day that we discovered just how expensive this island really was. Our first meal on the island was nothing special: we ate at a small café called Café Ra’a (Sun Café). I had chicken curry and Benny had a fish sandwich. We ordered 2 Cokes. The bill was $50. It was yummy, but not 50-dollar-yummy.

(Photo by Benny Haddad — bennyhaddad.com)



After lunch, I was dying to get to the beach, so we headed back across the island to the one and only beach, Anakena. It was a beautiful white sand beach, flanked by palm trees and a lawn packed with wild horses, guarded by an ahu of smaller moai all wearing those funny red hats, which we still do not know the significance of. Wehad a lovely afternoon reading on the beach and sitting under the sun, although the water was not quite warm enough for a pleasant swim. As we watched the sunset, Benny snapped away on his camera and I headed to the tide pools to collect sea urchins and bones and shells and other “treasures.” Of course I could not forget to fill a water bottle with the white, dainty sand for my mom’s famous sand collection.

(Photo by Benny Haddad — bennyhaddad.com)

On the way back to Hanga Roa, while the sky was still tinged with light, we pulled the car over to watch a group of wild horses galloping across the island plains. It was beautiful. I have always wanted to see wild horses run.

That night, we had an incredible dinner at a restaurant called Varua. It had an express menu for 9 mil pesos, or about $18 per person, which included a salad, an entrée, a pisco sour, and a fresh squeezed juice. When our salad came, we were overjoyed, since we had been desperate for vegetables after a diet of mainly bread and cheese over the last week and a half. We had a lovely Mediterranean veggie salad, I had grilled chicken, Benny had delicious steak skewers and we each had fresh squeeze pineapple juice. We couldn’t have felt like our money was better spent.

The next morning may have been my favorite part of our trip. We woke up at 5:30,while it was still pitch black and the millions of stars still twinkled above our cabin. We still had the rental car, and we packed up a blanket and a pseudo-picnic of canned peaches and oatmeal cookies (the “supermarket” was slightly lame in the way of breakfast foods) and headed back to Ahu Tongariki. Racing against the sun, we made it to the ahu just before the sun started coming up.

We took pictures for about an hour and watched the sky change against the row of moai, first black, then dark blue, then purple, then orange, and finally a lightershade of blue pocked by glorious white fluffs of clouds that seemed to love the day. After we had taken our fill of photos, which actually never quite happens, we sat down on our blanket to eat our canned peaches and enjoy the cool morning air.

Not soon after that, we saw an old disgruntled Rapanui woman heading towards us. In Spanish she tells us that we are not allowed to camp here, she is pointing at our blanket and yelling to the point that I got completely lost in her words. My stomach knotted up with embarrassment and slight fear as I tried to explain to her that we had not camped we had only just arrived earlier that morning, but she didn’t believe us. Finally we told her we would just leave, and we folded up our blanket and left. A rough end to a perfect morning, but a good story nonetheless.

Exhausted from an early morning, we spent the rest of the day exploring Hanga Roa close to home, shopping for our pricy spaghetti dinner ingredients, and collecting obsidian, Benny’s favorite island treasure, as we made our way along the trail that led back to our hostel.

Earlier that morning, we had met the 6-day old puppies that had been abandoned by their mother at our hostel. They were still shaky from being born, and as adorable as they were, seemed to have a dim chance of survival since nobody really had the means or time to care for them. When we arrived back to the hostel that day, we met our second friend, a tiny little kitten who snuck into our room and curled up at the foot of our bed as we uploaded pictures and napped. Joined by all of our animal friends, we cooked dinner and curled up to watch Groundhog Day, excited at the next day’s prospect of scuba diving.

(Photo by Benny Haddad)

We dove with Scuba Mike, one of the two scuba outfitters on the island. I chose this one over Orca Dive only because there was a delicious homemade ice cream place right next door called Mikafe, and I really wanted to have ice cream after our dive! Benny was the most excited out of the two of us, mostly because he had his brand new underwater casing for his Canon G11, and was anxious to add someunderwater pictures to his portfolio.

It was just Benny and I and two dive guides. We dove to about 25 meters, a short dive of only 45 minutes or so, but exciting nonetheless. There wasn’t a ton of sea life offshore, but there were some nice coral gardens, giant black sea urchins, an eel that looked like a giant cobra, and a variety of colorful fish. We also swam by a moai underwater, which looked incredibly well preserved and out of place; we were pretty sure it had been placed there specifically for tourist scuba diving. It was neat, anyway.

(Photo by Benny Haddad)

Scuba diving rejuvenated us, and after ice cream (of course!) we set off in search of the caves that supposedly were common on the west side of the island. One of the adult dogs who lived at the hostel took a keen interest in our walk and guided us the whole way. When we finally did reach Ana Kakenga, a small cave, and disappeared into it, his loyal and protective vein kicked in and he hesitantly followed us, but definitely wasn’t happy about it. At first, controlled by my claustrophobia, I was just as reluctant to go into the cave; granted, from the tiny lava tube entrance it was impossible to know if and when it opened up. But finally an island guide and another couple arrived and went right in, and I knew I couldn’t let myself pass it up. We followed them in, luckily I had brought my headlamp, and ended up in a cave that had two separate openings to the sea, right on the edge of the volcanic cliffs and the striking turquoise water. If the dog could do it, I had no excuse.

After a long walk home, unwilling to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a snack, we boiled the potato left over from the night before, sprinkled it with salt, and snacked on it along with potato chips and fruit cocktail. Very healthy. We were simply conserving for yet another meal at our favorite restaurant, Varua: this time Benny tried the ceviche and I had the most delicious (white) sweet potato fries I’ve ever had…don’t forget the free piscos!

Our last day on Isla de Pascua was a lazy one, just what I needed. We convinced ourselves yet again to rent a car to drive up to the Rano Kau crater, the most famous of the island’s volcanoes, which ended up being quite lucky since it proceeded to rain for the rest of the day. You can also hike to the top of the crater to find a lovely panorama as you hike higher and higher. At the top of the crater, which is filled with a swampy and overgrown lake and surrounded by patches of bright yellow flowers, is the ancient village of Orongo, build by the Birdman cult, which began after the Europeans arrived in the mid-1700s, and ended after Catholic missionaries began to construct churches on the island in the last few decades of the 1800s.

The Birdman cult was characterized by the “Birdman” competition. During springtime, the sooty tern, a type of seabird, would arrive to lay eggs on the Motu Nui islet. When this tangatu-manu competition began, chiefs (or their representatives) of different tribes would climb  to Orongo and prepare for the annual competition. After climbing down the cliffs of Orongo and swimming the great distance to the islet, the hopu would wait for the arrival of the birds. The first one to collect an egg, swim back to Easter Island, and once again climb the cliffs to Orongo, would be called tangata-manu, a sacred title which he would hold for a period of one year, until the next competition. I couldn’t help but wonder why this tradition has disappeared; perhaps it was because so many died from the fatal falls off the treacherous cliffs, or were claimed by the sea in drownings or shark attacks. Valid reasons, to be sure. Isn’t it interesting, though, that very few of the people who are given power around us had to prove any ability whatsoever. I think I’d rather have a political representative that could retrieve a sacred bird egg than could talk and B.S. his way to the top. Plus, he’d be fit.

We ended our day at the restaurant nextdoor to Varua (apparently we like to stay close to home), called Te Kape Restraurant, which had a similar express menu for only 8990 pesos instead of 9000…a deal! It turned out to be slightly more impressive: the best part were the bright purple mashed sweet potatotes; apparently the purple sweet potato is native to Easter Island and does not grow anywhere else. Too bad for TSA, or I could have introduced it to the lovely gardens of South Central L.A.

After dinner, we saw what was described as an “not-to-be-missed” (of course)traditional Rapanui dance and music show, which actually was very entertaining. Through a story told in the Rapanui language, men with gorgeously toned bodies  covered by feather loincloths (yes!) and voluptuous hula-dancing girls donning colorful hula skirts and coconut bikini tops danced and sang. Of course I was brought on stage twice to dance, my worst nightmare, made only slightly better by the fact that Benny had to come dance the second time as well. The gyrating hips and sweaty chests that I struggled to both dance with and avoid touching all at the same time made an interesting end to the night.

With the vacation coming to a close, we enjoyed one last night and one last cold shower in our slightly mangy hostel, glad to be headed home. However, since I had perhaps the best company in the whole world, I could not have asked for a more amazing trip, far away from big cities, bright lights, pollution and noise, surrounded by only the starlight, the full moon, the lapping waves, and the protective eyes of a lost and ancient civilization.

Santiago de Chile

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2010 by racheltobias

Un lugar es un ciclo de lugares

Así,

Otros ambientes son irrelevantes

La distancia no existe

Y el sentido Occidental de la dirreción y el espacio se hace innecesario.


A place is a series of places

Therefore,

Other areas are irrelevant

Distance does not exist

And the Western sense of space and residence becomes unnecessary.

And so we meet Santiago. At first glance, quite similar to any other familiar urban sprawl, despite the difference in language, among other things. As we explored the city, and I encountered the art exhibit of Juan Downey (see above quotation), I pondered the question “what is travel?”

Where am I?


Am I in a completely different place? Foreign? Unknown? Distant? Strange? What is home? Do I have one?

I think I may have the heart of a nomad. A few nights ago, I counted the number of times I have moved in the past 12 months: 9 times. The house of my family is of course home in terms of heart and history. Yet, I have had so many physical homes, both short and long, that it seems to have become a blurred concept.

So, when we travel aren’t we really just entering an extension of home? What if, when we traveled, we simply considered it as an introduction to a new room in our “house,” a new view from the porch? Why not?

Is distance only a figment of the human imagination? Something we created so that we could send boats and planes and trains tumbling across the sprawling lines of latitudes and longitudes? A way to package this massive space into something our brains can comprehend and manage, in a way?

Perhaps.

Chile does not necessarily feel like home sweet home, but it does not feel strange and exotic either, a pattern I have begun to notice in my travels of late.

SANTIAGO

Anyhow, wherever my Soul Sister is might as well be home.

It was a joyful reunion between KK and I, as she showed us her new life, her new home. We spent time visiting the different barrios of Santiago, including Bellavista, which was a glorious array of vibrantly painted apartments and homes: bright purples, greens, turquoises, and oranges. When did our lovely American suburbs decide that color was to be avoided at all costs?

Color changes everything.

One of our favorite discoveries of the trip occurred in this colorful barrio: Yogen Fruz. We were famished upon our first taste, so perhaps I exaggerate the goodness (but really, it’s quite wonderful). Apparently Yogen Fruz has more than 1000 locations across 25 different countries (including Los Angeles! Yay!), and has a concept even simpler and more graceful than the million other franchises dotting our street corners like Starbucks in this new Age of Frozen Yogurt. You simply choose two or three different fruits to be pressed with a block of plain frozen yogurt, and voila!: a beautiful cone of frozen yogurt. My flavor of choice: piña y frambuesa, pineapple and raspberries.

Other than Yogen Fruz, we lived mostly on empanadas or other bread/cheese concoctions; understandably Yogen Fruz was a much needed breath of fresh air on many occasions.

While in Santiago, we stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast called the Vilafranca, which aside from the loud and creaky staircase (not surprising for a building of such age), was a wonderful experience. Although the owner felt more motherly than concierge-y, she was very helpful and very sweet.

The introduction to KK’s life abroad in Santiago was so much fun, and opened my eyes to a completely different kind of study abroad experience. Of course, Santiago and Egypt consist of two wildly different cultures in terms of history, religion, and language. I spent my time in Egypt mostly with Egyptians, and had very few American friends whom I spent time with, which accounted for a lot of my frustration and homesickness, a result of not always being able to identify with or articulate my feelings to my peers. However, KK has an excellent mix of both Chileans and Americans, which seem to get along together perfectly, encouraging each other to improve acquired lanuages, whether Spanish or English, and introducing each other to the cultural wonders of Chile!

For example: don’t ask for pico de gallo. It means, well…something you definitely wouldn’t want on your dinner plate.

Another example: Chile is a democratic republic. However, this is a new development, one which the Chilean people are still growing accustomed to. There is much skepticism of democracy among the population, which the government seems to work fiercely to dissuade. Walking past any bookstore in the city, the front windows are filled with books of civic laws, available to the public in a display of national transparency. The Palacio de la Moneda, the Chilean version of the White House, is completely open. Unlike the White House of the U.S.A., anyone can walk right up to the front door. What a curious thing, to have no enemies, no fear that someone will leave a bomb on the front doorstep of the residency of the President of Chile, or threaten a public building in any way. Sure enough, the economy of Chile is booming and the country is the most stable and prosperous in South America.

Benny pointed out how former Presidents, long before international threats and modern-day weaponry of today, used to host public parties at the White House. President Andrew Jackson, even went so far as to leave a 1400-pound block of cheese, a gift, in the foyer of the White House with an invitation for any and all to snag a piece. Going through a security check later on our trip, of which there was virtually no security check at all, I wondered what it must be like to live in a place without the constant fear of attack, any kind of attack. Perhaps not noticeably in our day-to-day activities, but 9/11 completely changed the way we operate in the United States, and I think also, in large part, the way we, as Americans, view the world. While I understand the impossibility of a wide open White House in the United States, I envy the freedom and the ability of Chile to live free from fear and in pursuit of individual freedoms.

We spent the week visiting KK’s different universities: the public Universidad de Chile, and two campuses of the Universidad Catolica, the main campus and the fine arts campus, reminiscent of Hogwarts. I’m still convinced it was a school for wizards, but KK has yet to divulge this secret.

We spent each night in the company of her amigos, both the gringos and the Chilenos, both which I supremely enjoyed meeting. Unlike the group of American study abroad students I encountered abroad, all of KK’s friends were motivated and driven by culture, language, friendship and experiences.

Each night we went to a “pre-party” at someone’s house, which starts at around 9 or 10pm. Benny and I go to bed around 11pm in real life, so this was a bit of a shock for us. We tried to hang in there as long as we could most nights, but ended up only making it out to a club/bar one night, and still then retired by 2:30am, only the beginning of the night for Chileans.

Call me old, but I am.

However, I did very much enjoy the casual nature of Chilean nightlife: no high heels, no slutty get-ups, just whatever you’re comfortable in. And no judging eyes from hundreds of competing sorority girls either. We also got to try our first

PISCO SOUR!

apparently the national drink of Chile, as they love it any time of day! Pisco is not quite similar to anything I’ve had before, but it is a type of alcohol that they mix with lemons, sugar, and some other ingredients to make what tastes more or less like a margarita.

Other Santiago discoveries:

Lapis lazuli: a blue stone found in Chile, a deep, royal blue, variation of turquoise. My new object of desire.

Nescafe is the drink of choice. Brewed coffee is rare and difficult to find, hence the French Press and ground coffee beans I brought to KK, along with other coveted American items not to be found in Chile: Oreos, Reese’s Cups, Stacy’s pita chips, mini hair ties, and fiber, very difficult to come by!

Productivity: Chile might have discovered a solution to unemployment, although it was certainly more frustrating than efficient. In order to employ the most people, businesses assign a person not to do one whole job, but to be in charge of pieces of jobs. I will demonstrate with the Dunkin’ Donuts example. Benny, desperate for some real brewed coffee, surely to be found at Dunkin’ Donuts (not so), decided to try the reliable American chain, since everything else was closed on this particular day, a national holiday. (Also different, every single thing closes on holidays. Everything.) Below is a diagram of the Dunkin’ Donuts purchasing experience:


As you can see, a little bit excessive. It took three people to do what usually one person is perfectly capable of doing. Experiences like this were common in all kinds of different retail and food stores in Santiago.

My ability to speak Spanish: I didn’t know I had it in me, but apparently Spanish comes much easier when one is forced to speak it. By the end of the trip, I just automatically went to Spanish; I even got so good as to have to remind myself to speak English to my boyfriend. I was particularly proud of the lunch KK arranged with her host family in Macul, a charming suburb of Santiago, where KK resides in a lovely neon green bedroom with a stern yet loving mother, an eccentric Spanish father, and a gorgeous Chilean sister. They were kind enough to invite us into their homes for lunch: vegetable soup and fettuccini, which, according to KK’s mother, is the one dish everyone everywhere likes. I must say, I quite prefer fettuccini to stomach lining, which KK’s mother cooked for her earlier in the semester. Nevertheless, she was an excellent cook, and we were quite thrilled to have a break from the empanada / Yogen Fruz rampage we had previously been surviving on.

Even better than the home-cooked meal was the fantastic company. Also invited were the family’s elder son and his wife and daughter. They showered us with appetizers, champagne, a round of pisco sours, and finally wine. We discussed our approaching jaunt to Easter Island, the recent earthquake which had left Brother’s house badly damaged but thankfully everyone safe, and the television show preferences we shared. Although by the end of the long lunch I was exhausted from speaking and listening in a second language, I relished the experience of being able to converse freely and well about complex and compelling topics.

CAJON DEL MAIPO


Since KK had tests and school during the week, and we were anxious to do something active, Benny and I took off for the Andes in search of some hiking. At first, we had planned to take a bus to our hotel, but opted at the last minute to rent a car. This turned out to be a really good call, since Cajon del Maipo, our destination, proved to be in the middle of nowhere, and virtually empty in the low season.

Despite driving into the middle of nowhere, Benny somehow managed to get us to where we were going without getting too lost. I am convinced that if you were to examine a cross-section of his brain, you would find a detailed and comprehensive view of Google Maps. Thank goodness for Google-Maps-Brained-Boyfriend because the GPS that came with the rental car was as useless as my sense of direction.

It was a beautiful drive through wine country, trees beginning to turn crimson and golden with the onset of fall. Farm animals strolled along the road; rarely did we glimpse another human being. We had trouble deciding whether or not this was a popular destination, even in the high season, but resolved that it must be due to the volume of closed, but existent restaurants and hostels that lined the road.

Finally we arrived to the hotel Altiplanico, which I had been anxious to see, as its website and apparent presentation looked wonderfully quaint.

The Altiplanico exceeded all expectations.

It was a comfortable mix of Eastern style, a Big Sure Eco-lodge, and a quaint bread and breakfast. We were met by a darling woman who sat behind the front desk, who later made sure we had box lunches (2 sandwiches each, cookies, fruit, and trail mix!) for our hike through the Andes the next day. The hotel’s backyard sat right above a river which cut through a glorious valley of towering, snowcapped shadows. The yard was painted with flowers and crisping trees, and had a couple of patios which I would have likely taken advantage of had it not been the beginning of winter. What I found most incredible about the hotel was the wonderfully thoughtful and creative interior design. It reflected the design techniques of an old soul and worldly traveler; each detail had been carefully considered and planned. Each material, the beautiful log mantleplace and ceiling, the seashell / pea pod light fixture, the pillows decorating the sitting room lounge, the seashells cemented into the wall to resemble a piece of art, the symmetry of the triangular windows in one wing of our bedroom, the carved teak mantle art filled with peacock feathers like flowers in a vase, all were perfectly placed and well-appreciated. I had so much love for the time and creativity that went into each element of the design and décor of the hotel, and plan on hiring the same designer to plan my own house one day.

Although I could barely tear myself away from the intricate Tibetan wall hangings,

Benny and I still had an urge to be active and go explore the wilderness surrounding us on all sides. We dropped off our bags and got back on the road. Our Citroen, a little tiny red box of a car, was soon forced into the role of an off-roading vehicle (we were so proud of her!), and we followed a sometimes nerve-wracking dirt road for 30 kilometers or so until reaching our afternoon’s destination, Embalse el Yeso, a resovoir full of gorgeous turquoise water, flanked by snow-covered peaks. It was quite beautiful, although freezing, especially after sticking my hands in piles of snow. At the time, it seemed like a good idea.

After our Citroen got us safely back to our hotel, our “be active” drive had subsided for the evening, and we were content to curl up by the fire with a hearty glass of Chilean Carmenere and read: me, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which would prove oddly prophetic of the admiration of nature I would have the next day.

Sure enough, we awoke early the next morning, strapped on our hiking boots, our layers, and our backpacks, and set off in our poor Little Red Car That Could  into 4-wheel drive territory yet again in search of a trail that would lead to El Monumento Natural El Morado, a giant glacier in the Andes. If you ever take the beautiful trip into Cajon del Maipo, make sure you have a car and a valuable map, as it is easy to get lost, and there aren’t many people around to ask directions.

Before finally finding the main trail, we were stopped by some sort of mountain police, who informed us that we could only “caminar”, not “escalar” which I struggled to understand the difference between in the flurry of rapid Spanish and handing over license documents. Eventually I realized he was telling us that we could not hike, as the National Park is closed after May due to the onset of snow and cold weather. Since I did not quite understand that, nor did we really care to pay attention, we moved onward, in search of our trailhead.

The drive on the way was beautiful, the sun burning a golden crisp into the landscape, with towering sycamore trees bright yellow standing in neat rows every few kilometers, shading nibbling horses and cows from the high noon heat. Chickens, goats, and other farm folk jabbered across the road and greeted us as we sped along in our red trooper, and boy was she a trooper. After I insisted that the trailhead was one way, (I, of course was right, although it turned out to actually be gated and locked), Benny insisted on going a different way, and since he is Google Maps, I did not object too strongly.

Our poor car overcame obstacles it never thought it would have to bear, and we were so proud. As we bumped and jostled over uneven ground, I cringed with every oversized stone that shot against the bottom of the car like a bullet, and held my breath as we drove through puddles and creeks, sure that Citroen would get stuck in the land of No Other People Anywhere In Sight. Luckily, we made it safely to what was a pseudo-trailhead. We figured out later that it was a sort of back way, and we were lucky to have found it since the main entrance was closed anyhow.

We hiked for about 4 hours, getting closer and closer to the towering glacier, which breathed whisps of snow at its tips, almost as if it were impatient with its blanket of white. The colors of the mountains were breathtaking, stripes of orange and green from the copper-infused soil ran through the mountains, along with reds and yellows, complementing the deep emerald water of the river below. After a couple of hours we had reached the snow level. The sun was high and heavy, and I enjoyed a natural snowcone treat to cool off when we took a walking break. We eventually decided, after not reaching the expected glacier lake, that we had ended up on a wrong trail, and climbed upon a rock surrounded by an Andean panorama to eat our sack lunches and enjoy the snowy breeze. We were soon comforted by the sight of a pack of mountaineers emerging from the same trail we had been pursuing; they must have snickered under their breaths at us with our sandwiches and me in my almost-warm-enough Lacoste marshmallow jacket, as they trudged away with their trekking poles, ice axes, and weather-ready sleeping gear. Perhaps there was a reason the park is closed in May.

Exhausted after a cold, windy trudge back to the car, I settled into my UGGs, and we snacked on the Oreos I had brought for KK, but which she had dangerously left in my possession until she had a more convenient time to take them home. We would later meet KK that night at Starbucks, after barely escaping from paying for the dent left in the hubcap of the Citroen undoubtedly from a large flying rock, for a nice warm American cup of brewed coffee (only place to find brewed coffee in Santiago) and a yummy American slice of orange glazed cake.

VALPARAISO


KK’s tales of accordian-playing gypsies, acensores to the sky, and colorful murals on every inch of wall, as well as her own feeling of kinship to the place, made me certain that I would fall as deeply in love with Valparaiso as she. Sure enough, we arrived by bus, about 2 hours outside of Santiago, to Valparaiso, a Chilean town built halfway on the sea and halfway into the hills. It is the place which inspired the heartbeat and pen of Pablo Neruda, a place covered by houses elbowing for space, painted every bright color imaginable. The story goes that sailors would paint their homes a bright color so they would remember which house was theirs upon arriving back from a long voyage at sea.

Sure enough, I felt at home in the strange, colorful bohemian wonderland. We took the funicular up to Concepción, a graffiti filled area of the Valpo hillside. We wove in and out of pasajes, admiring the diversity of wall art from the political to the artistic to the mildly frightening. There were stencils of Che Guevara, Amelie, The Blues Brothers, political slogans, Communist commentary, paintings of voluptuous naked women, scarved Eastern women, silhouettes of women, children, and men, colorful swirls and symbols in bright reds, greens, yellows, blues, and every variation of the color wheel. One of my favorites was a giant hand throwing paper airplanes, almost as though one could jump up off the sidewalk and grab one in mid-flight.

After a long sleepy bus ride, my coffee addicted amigos needed a boost, so we found the most amazing little café tucked into a side street called The Color Café. KK and Benny ordered their rare brewed coffee, and I got a hot chocolate, rich, thick, and creamy as it should be, all served in darling handmade pottery mugs. The café was cemented over with knick knacks of all sorts. From about eye level down, every inch of the wall was covered in napkins, written on by former customers from all over the world with little poems, anecdotes, thank yous. KK leafed through a giant album full of even more napkins. Above the napkins were strange toys, clowns, hanging butterflies, Abbey Road posters, old French illustrations, flowers, baskets, seashells, pinwheels. The place was full of the life and love of interesting souls, as if pieces of people had been left behind for years and years. Bohemia certainly came to nest in the Color Café: it’s own personal garage filled with the amazing and useless.

Despite the overcast day, the colors of Valparaiso still blazed brightly, and they were everywhere.


I felt so happy.

We ventured up to Pablo Neruda’s house, in another corner of the city, a five story apartment which overlooked the ocean, filled with old maps, quizzical art, a giant life-size painting of Walt Whitman, and intricate wood carvings from around the world. The house was apparently shared between him and another artist couple. An interesting anecdote:

After Pablo Neruda died, the sculptor’s husband, who also occupied the house with Neruda, heard a noise coming from Neruda’s empty sitting room a couple of floors above. When he went to see what the noise was, he found a giant eagle flapping around the room. It was unclear how the eagle could have possibly entered the room, since none of the windows were open. The man let the bird out.

At that moment, he recalled how Neruda had once told him that in his next life he wished to be an eagle.

I can only imagine how beautiful an eagle’s view would be of the magic of this place.

Valparaiso, and Santiago alike have claimed a piece of home in my heart.

Distance, I decided, really does not exist.

A Desert Dream

Posted in Uncategorized on November 18, 2009 by racheltobias

WARNING:[**The first half of this blog is quite pessimistic and a little boring, but the second half isn’t worth missing, so scroll down to the photos if you don’t have time to read!**]

**Note: Hold cursor over photos to see label

________________________________________________________________________________________________

I feel as though I have just woken up from a

Desert

Dream.

I’ve been privileged enough to visit a lot of places in my short life, but last weekend I finally discovered my favorite place in the whole entire world.

Siwa Oasis is located at the very northeastern corner of Egypt, almost kissing the Libyan border. It is about a 7-8 hour drive from Cairo, most of the way through desert nothingness.

We left Cairo at 5am, and man I couldn’t get out of there fast enough – I needed a break more than anything. Not that I don’t love Cairo. It’s funny actually: my mom told me the other day that she never knows what to tell people when they ask how I like Egypt.

It’s not that I don’t like Egypt. Actually I love this experience and it will be devastating to leave my life here.

I have a beautiful group of friends, mostly Egyptian, who I love. It had been so great to get to know Egypt through their eyes, and to teach them a few things here and their about my own culture. Interesting sidenote** In a past blog I think I may have written about how I didn’t believe the US really has a distinct culture, although after living in Egypt, I am 100% convinced that we do. ** On Halloween I made my friends dinner (chicken with mango salsa, coconut rice, and grilled aspargus) plus my aunt’s delicious pumpkin bread. I even tried to carve a jack-o-lantern (Egypt only has gourd-shaped squash, but I chopped off the top of it and it was basically a pumpkin) and after dinner we watched a scary movie. Almost the American Halloween experience. (KK if you had been here we would have done Dia de los Muertos instead…but I wore my earrings and tried to teach them about it anyway, just for you!) We also went to an Egyptian wedding a few weeks ago for our friends Soha and Tarek; what a beautiful wedding with so many interesting contrasts to Christian weddings. First of all, let me tell you, Egyptians know how to have fun. Everyone was dancing the entire time, the girls all knew how to bellydance which was so fun to watch, and when the bride and groom were presented for the first time, a giant band complete with drums, bagpipes, and Egyptian horn instruments play wedding songs while the wedding guests cheer on. Traditionally, the groom will not kiss the bride, and he does it will be only on the cheek or the forehead. We made a bet, and I won: forehead. The wedding was supposed to being at 9:00 I believe, and didn’t start until closer to 11pm. We bet on what time the buffet would be served, and I won: 1am.

Egypt is so much fun, but it certainly is quite an experience. Most of the time I face frustrating and wearing challenges. I may be critical of the way the country runs itself or the some frustrating elements of the culture, but I want to emphasize how much this country and this experience means to me. I didn’t study abroad to party, to hang out with Americans and get wasted, to speak English and flaunt some distorted idea of American entitlement. No, I came to Egypt to be challenged, to be faced with new peoples, new languages, new religious ideas. There are things I really do not like about living in Egypt. In fact there are things I despise, ideas that I can’t even begin to understand: but the process of learning, debating, discussing, observing, challenging my own belief system, this is why I came to Egypt and this is why I love my life here.

The American University of Cairo causes a lot of my frustration here. The university is composed of mostly upper class Egyptian students. Most of come from piles of wealth, and they are not afraid to show it. There is one hallway on campus where all of the Egyptian students congregate to the point where they block any hope of getting to class on time: the Americans call this Gucci Alley. Every Egyptian at AUC is dressed in exactly the same way: foreign-bought designer handbags, skinny jeans, designer sunglasses, designer boots, flats, or Converse (depending on the season). Individuality is not embraced (for those of you who know my quite eccentric fashion sense, you can imagine the looks I get on campus); in fact, if you do not have a designer bag or if you wear the same clothes more than a couple times, you are ostracized, forced to find a detour to avoid showing your face on Gucci Alley.

It’s a shame actually at AUC that the international students and the Egyptian students rarely mix. But there’s a strange tension that is very apparent: these kids (most of whom are actually much younger, 16, 17, 18, and therefore much more immature) chase Western styles, Western traditions. They all speak perfect English, and some of them no longer speak Arabic with each other. The sad fact that perhaps accounts for this tension between the two groups is that, no matter how much they try to dress like me and act like me, at the end of the day, I get to go home a free citizen and they don’t.

Nevertheless I know is that I rue the minutes I have to walk to class, because I know I’ll be given the

look up

and

look down

by every Egyptian girl who wants to make sure they establish and control whatever it is they need to establish and control between me and them.  The other day I was in the bathroom washing my hands, and an Egyptian girl was standing next to me. As I am doing my thing at the sink, she turns to me and just starts staring. 10 seconds. 20 seconds. 1 minute. Just staring. This happens all the time, by the way. Their parents never told them not to stare. I could literally feel this girl’s eyes on me. I glanced at myself in the mirror to make sure I didn’t have anything strange stuck to my face or growing out of my head or something. No, everything was normal. I sighed as I dried my hands off. Then I turned to her, looked her straight in the eyes and said in my most pleasant voice, “Can I help you with something?” She quickly hurried out of the bathroom in embarrassment. I’m glad she was embarrassed. I mean, really.

I get most frustrated by the hippocrisy of the place. Many of the female students, and this is not specific to AUC, will wear designer jeans, tight shirts and makeup, but will also wear the hijab, which is supposed to be the utmost symbol of modesty and religiosity for women. On another note, these students may crave and appreciate RayBan and American Apparel, but in class, they spew anything and everything against the United States system and government.

School other than that is comical, really. The students here, for the most part (I am speaking in generalizations about AUC…of course not every student is like this) don’t care about school, class, or grades. Notebooks can’t fit in a Louis Vuitton bag, God forbid, so the girls carry abound these tiny little notepads on which I suppose they take some type of notes. In my classes where the majority of the students are Egyptian, they talk back to the professors in the most disrespectful manner I have ever seen. Students leave their trash all over the campus for the janitors to take care of, probably because they have never had to pick up any of their own trash, ever.

I have been very negative about the Egyptian AUCians, but believe me, the American/International students are even worse. I’ve heard from others who have studied abroad here in past semesters that this particular batch of study abroads is just a bad group. Coming to Cairo, I assumed I would meet like-minded people who wanted to explore the world, explore the culture, learn the language. I assumed anyone who wanted to come live in a country like Egypt must be very worldly, respectful, and curious. Quite the contrary with this group of students. Most of them came here for one reason and one reason only: to party. Halas. Which is ironic, since alcohol is scarce and taboo in Muslim countries, and the drinking age is 21. Many of them spend weekend after weekend getting trashed in nightclubs, throwing fits at club entrances spewing things like “I’m an American, you have to let me in…” The girls walk around the streets without a care as to how they are dressed, breasts hanging out, short dresses or skirts; sometimes they’ll bring along a scarf to cover strips of exposed skin, but only if it goes with the outfit. Again, I speak in generalizations; not all of the international students act this way. But many of them do, thereby wrecking the reputation for all of us coming to take a very different experience away from Egypt. It’s no wonder men catcall on the street: it’s a well-known FACT in Egypt that American girls are easy. And how can you blame then when there are half-naked Americans running around Cairo?

The most frustrating part of Cairo however, at least for me, is being a woman. I dread walking to the bus every morning, not because I trip and fall constantly over the broken sidewalks or because my clean hair gets dripped on by mildewed air conditioners or because I have to sidestep the million cats scampering for the early bird special of leftover street trash. But because I know I must keep my head down and wear my sunglasses so to avoid making eye contact with any men.

Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to stare?

I’ll be honest, I’m waiting for the day some bowab (doorman) crosses the line and I get to punch him right in the face

you see, this is what Egypt does to us nice California girls.

I always dress conservatively, but it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference if I were naked: my blonde hair and white skin attracts attention everywhere I go. I’m not angry at the men, persay. But I’m angry at the situation: I’m angry that I cannot smile and converse freely with people in the street. I’m angry that I have to put on a façade, and a rude one at that, in order to get by without mushkelaat (problems).

Actually I have a lot of anger towards Egyptian policies and culture when it comes to women and sexuality. As much as I am tolerant and have made the effort to understand the Muslim tradition of the veil or hijab, I have yet to be convinced that it is anything but oppressive to women.

Actually

Let me restate.

In Egypt, women choose to wear the hijab. There is a growing percentage of women recently who have decided to don the niqab, or “ninja suit,” the black, full-body veil which leaves only the eyes showing. Many women I have spoken to tell me that they choose to wear the hijab because it is a way of bringing them closer to God and to their religion: The wives of the Prophet Muhammad were covered by a veil in the presence of visitors. One of my professors commented that her veil allows her to feel as though she will not be judged based on her sexuality; without flaunting her feminine features, she feels as though she will be listened to and treated like a person, rather than “just a woman.”

However, the origins of the veil are oppressive to women. Even for the wives of Muhammad, the veil was something which they were commanded by a man to wear. All subsequent forms of facial or bodily covering have been developed by men who yearn to control women and their sexuality. Recently, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar in Egypt issued a fatwa banning the niqab from schools. This was the result of him angrily and publicly commanding a young 13-year old to remove her niqab, stating that there was no reason why young girls should be wearing this. When she took off the veil, he said, in so many words, “and you’re not even beautiful.” When I first read this I approved of his ban, assuming that this young girl had not chosen to wear niqab, rather it had most likely been imposed on her by her family. Then, when I thought about it more, I questioned what right this man had over her or any other girl. Even the fact that he was telling her to take it off is oppressive to women. Women should be able to choose what they wear and why they wear it, but it is a shame that this tradition has prevailed throughout the centuries since the life of the Prophet.

Why would God have created women in such a beautiful form if he wanted her to be covered?

This is my question.

The whole issue is really a question of respect. For example, Islam says that a man should lower his gaze in the presence of a woman. Do you think one man has lowered his gaze in my presence? Like hell he has. Men with long beards wearing gallabiyas who claim to be the most pious of Muslims abandon all of their rules when women walk past them on the street.

Another example: I teach refugees once a week in a an area of Cairo called Ain Shams, which is about an hour and half away from my house in Zamalek. The cab ride can get pricy, so usually I take the metro home since it costs 1 Egyptian pound (less than 20 cents). Each train on the metro has a car specifically designated for women. Men are not allowed in this car, although if you are a woman you are welcome to ride in the men’s car. My first time on the metro, I did not know about the women’s car, so I hopped onto the first car I found open. The train was so crowded; mostly men were pressed up all around me and each other. The smell, oh goodness. I felt someone’s hand touching my butt; since it was so crowded, I assumed it was an accident and started to move to another wall of the train. I realized the man who had been grabbing me was following me as I moved around the train, his hand on my butt the whole time with the most innocent look on his face.

From then on I rode in the women’s car.

But still, while it’s nice that they have a women’s car, it’s still a matter of segregation, and it’s still a matter of disrespect. Sure you can ride in the men’s car. But you’ll probably be groped. Sorry.

Halas. Back to the good part.

Anyway, Siwa Oasis was the perfect escape from ass-grabbing and the LongChamp invasion, so I welcomed it with open arms.

The characters of this story are

Me: Blonde American tourist with a giant camera permanently fastened to her face

Jimmy: Egyptian musician / pro-Sandsurfer / boyfriend of American Camera-Face

Mohammed Tarek: Best friend of Musician / Pro-Sandsurfer #2 / really awesome

Soha: Wife of Pro-Sandsurfer #2 / shopping buddy of Camera-Face / also really awesome

We drove through the desert.

Are we there yet?

No.

Are we there yet?

100 more kilometers

How many miles is that?


I offered to drive, but nobody was really up for that. We got to Siwa in the early afternoon, but were all so tired from the trek that we took a little nap. Soha and Tarek had arrived home from their honeymoon in Bali only the day before, so they were extra exhausted.

The hotel, Shali Lodge, was quite beautiful. The building was constructed out of something similar to adobe, but much sturdier. All of the light fixtures were made of salt, which of course I had to taste just to be sure (and they were salt!).

After our nap, we went to get dinner at the hotel restaurant.

Best food I’ve had in quite a long time, maybe ever.

– SALAD (hallelujah!): delicious white cheese and tomatoes, Greek salad –

– Freshly made pita bread –

– The most delicious chicken that I don’t really know how to explain –

–  Homegrown deliciously perfect olives –

Everything was fresh, organic, grown in Siwa. Since it is an oasis, they can grow all of their own food. Siwa is famous for its olives and its dates. As a result, everything was cooked with the most savory olive oil.

Perfectly satisfied, we took a little walk through the town. Along the way we met some of Jimmy and Tarek’s old friends from past trips. Siwan people are so nice, which coming from Cairo, is a huge change. But they’re not just nice relatively, they are genuine and kind people, more so than any place I have ever been or lived. We asked a couple people for directions once or twice when we were walking, and not only did they tell us how to get there, but they would leave their work or whatever they were doing to walk us there. I immediately loved the people of Siwa. Unconditionally.

Another early morning was in store for us. At 5am we met up with our guide and friend of the boys’, Nasser. Nasser is 21 years old, but the desert has scribbled age and wisdom into his face, so he appears to be in his late 30s. Nasser’s father taught him to read the desert; he is like a human GPS, literally. One night, we drove probably 30 miles from the middle of the desert to a Bedouin camp also in the middle of the desert; Nasser took off across the desert in the middle of the night, no road, no lights, no trail marking, and we somehow ended up in the right place.

As we penetrated the Great Sand Sea in my dream car, the 1980s Toyota Land Cruiser, we were enveloped by towering dunes. Nasser raced

up

and

over

the dunes. There were a couple times I thought that truck (and its precious cargo) was for sure done for. But he knew exactly what he was doing: he knew every inch of his cars capabilities and exactly how the sand would fall around his heavy tires. He was in it. And so were we.

We watched the sunrise over the desert, and immediately the temperature rose about 10 degrees, although it was still chilly enough for my North Face fleece. Nasser stopped the truck and climbed on to, unfastening our snowboards and passing them down to the boys. Soha and  I crept to the edge of the dune we had stopped upon, and looked down the steep decline, then back to the snowboards, then again to the bottom of the dune. We are supposed to do what down this dune?

The boys immediately strapped on their boards and took off like pros down the dune.

Of course, not all of their runs went that smoothly…Tarek had a pretty fantastic fall which left his ears and mouth caked in sand for a week following the trip. Nasser called it a “sandwich.” The boys finally got us girls on the boards…it took us a couple of times to get the hang of it (especially since I am not not not a snowboarder…and it’s a much different feeling than wakeboarding), but once we did it was quite a feeling. The board literally glides upon the sand, and as you ride down, especially the steeper ones, you become parallel to the ground, and it is though gravity has lost all control over the situation. I won’t lie, gravity played its part once or twice, and I had a couple nice falls myself.

After sandboarding, we headed to a hot spring to warm up. It was a fabulous little spring surrounded by palm trees. It was a much needed Jacuzzi sesh, and we relaxed until our skin turned to prunes, marveling at the quiet of the desert and drinking asir ananaas (pineapple juice) from a juice box…my favorite! After the hot springs, we set out towards another spring. Along the way we stopped at a field of fossils, which had hundreds of giant sand dollars and sea shells fossilized in the sand, left over from when this desert was covered by water. Nasser prepared our breakfast in the fossil field: fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and goat cheese with pita bread, as well as honey and yogurt. What a way to start the day.

The second spring was much larger than the hot spring, and freezing cold. The boys splashed into the water, and Soha and I followed. Jimmy and Tarek convinced us it would be better to just jump right in ——- yeah right. Soha and I (I have finally found an appropriate use for this saying) screamed like the dickens when we came up. The water was icy. We both immediately started chattering away, standing still with the sun on our back getting warmed up by the boys, shaking with cold. I think the boys found it our predicament much more amusing than we did.

By the time we finally emerged from the cold pond, it was time to go back to town, since after 10 or 11am it would start to get too hot to enjoy the desert. We headed back to the hotel for a nap and a shower. After another delicious meal that evening, Soha and I did a little shopping, and we climbed up to the top of the Shali ruins, leftovers of the ancient Siwan city.

One of the most fascinating things about Siwa is that you will almost never see a woman. The only time you will see any women is in the morning or early afternoon, in transit on the back of a donkey cart.

Women wear garments that cover their entire body, even their face. I did not see the face of a woman while I was in Siwa. However, the garments that they wear are incredibly beautiful: they hand embroider the most glorious and colorful designs. There is a different traditional garment for every ocassion: one for everyday wear, one for going out of the house, the most beautiful one for marriage, etc. I wanted to take a million photographs of all the women I saw, but taking pictures of Siwan women is forbidden. However, I bought several Siwan garments handmade by Siwan women, whose means of income is usually through selling Siwan clothing or jewelry. Women in Siwa are not permitted to go to college; marriage is the ultimate goal for any woman. They can attend school up until the time they get married, which is generally today around age 16-18.

The thought constantly crosses my mind since I have come back from Siwa that it is somewhere I definitely want to return to on a regular basis. I would love to be able to teach girls or even women if the culture permitted it. We’ve been talking and brainstorming about concepts for opening some type of Eco-Lodge in Siwa that offers visitors real interaction with the culture and the desert. We met a family that owned a jewelry store while we were shopping who was from the UK and lived in Siwa during the winter months. During the summer they lived in Transylvannia, and the rest of the year they lived in England. Their two young children were homeschooled, and raved about their life. Their father made a wonderful point: these kids were able to see that they are the same everywhere and that different perceptions of you only exist on the surface. These kids are able to live in three different cultures at peace with people. This is how I want to live – this is definitely how my children will live.

The next day in Siwa, we slept in a bit, and went out exploring. We saw the ruins of an old temple, where Alexander the Great visited to consult the Oracle stone. The temple sat atop of a hill which overlooked miles of palm trees, revealing the beauty and succulence of the oasis.

A few hours before sunset, we piled back into the LandCruiser with Nasser and ventured back into the Great Sand Sea for some more sandboarding and for a beautiful sunset. Soha and I had finally gotten the hang of sandboarding, although we were still a little shaky about trying the big boy dunes.

As the sun burned orange and purple into the dunes as it retired for the night, I looked out across the hundreds of miles of desert surrounding me, and knew that this was a perfect moment. I don’t know if it is the sand or the wind or the water, but Siwa had seeped inside of me, infected my brain with its witchery, and captured my heart. There was nothing more that I wanted in that moment: sitting with nature and with people that I loved, listening and feeling nothing but the earth – it was literally like heaven on Earth; it was I think one of the most spiritual moments I’ve ever had.

The perfect end to the evening was dinner and dancing at a Bedouin camp, where we ate roasted potatoes and carrots and chicken, rice, very strong Siwan tea, and smoked shiisa (again, there is no drugs or nicotine in Shiisha for those of you, like my mother, who I need to convince of this over and over again….I am drug free and always have been so don’t get your knickers in a twist). Tarek and Jimmy played guitar with the Siwi band under the stars as we looked on, dreading the end of this beautiful night.

I dragged my feet all the next day, not wanting to leave Siwa and return to noisy and dirty Cairo. The honeymoon (literally for Tarek and Soha) was over as they say. We enjoyed a delicious fresh breakfast at the hotel: foul (like bean dip), dellliiccious goat cheese (gibna) pita bread (ayeesh), eggs (bet), olives (zaytoon), and the most incredible fig jam I have ever tasted (I don’t know how to say fig jam in Arabic).

Breakfast combined with shopping was a good way to end the trip, although I know it is not the end. I plan to go back without a doubt to Siwa.

To conclude: I will leave you with the lyrics of the song that I wrote on our last day in Siwa. Jimmy sang and Tarek wrote the music – for some reason they made me write the lyrics. And, as you can tell, I have no future in songwriting. But it’s fun to read anyway.

Once upon a time in Siwa

There was such a good group of friends

They came from the big city

To find solace in the desert

Beneath the desert wind and the towering dunes

The magic of the place swallowed them whole

They ate their meals fresh from the earth

And swam in the bubbling veins of the sand

Chorus:

Yeah yeah yeah, masbuteen

You’re in Siwa

Yeah yeah yeah masbuteen

Your’e in Siwa

The girls they let out squeals of shock

As they dove into icy springs

Their darlings held them close and tight

Until four pairs of legs turned numb

Together life was good, they felt at peace

Walking hand in hand to nature’s whisper

Lamps of salt lit their darkened path

And when she tasted them, they were salt

Chorus:

Yeah yeah yeah, masbuteen

You’re in Siwa

Yeah yeah yeah masbuteen

You’re in Siwa

In the Land of Insha’Allah

Posted in Uncategorized on October 3, 2009 by racheltobias

Montserrat

Ciao Barcelona! Ciao drinking from the tap. Ciao ensaladas frescas. Ciao gelato. Ciao tank tops and shorts. Ciao espanol. I spent about half of my plane ride from Barcelona to Cairo translating English/Arabic customs forms for all the Spanish who couldn’t read English. Once I had helped one person, word spread up and down the aisles, and before you know it, they had a makeshift stewardess working the runway. Ah, but I loved every minute…twas my last chance to speak a language fluently before returning “home.”

 Museo del Salvador Dali

Speaking Spanish really did feel like a breath of fresh air. It gave me the confidence to plunge into new places and conversations, and it allowed me to make so many friends that I might not otherwise have made. There was Cristiano, my wonderful Brazilian friend with whom I shared three days in Barcelona, marveling at Gaudí, riding a ferris wheel on top of the world, and speaking a comical mezcla of Spanish and English. Then there was Elena, the Columbian from the train to Montserrat who told me all about her life in Columbia as a child and her cultural journey of moving to the U.S. and starting a life there. Then there was Tony, the Italian New Yorker on a Catholic pilgrimage to the Montserrat monastery who told me the tales of his wild life as an 18-year old immigrant in Nueva York, dancing in salsa clubs and beings seduced by stunning 55-year old women. There was Hayley (who I love dearly even after only knowing her for 2 days) from Zimbabwe, but now living in Australia and traveling on a round-the-world ticket for her gap year; we shared much discourse on African politics and global perceptions of Africa, as well as swapped stories of travels and friends made along the way. Most recently were Roman and Franck, the two French party planners who spoke almost no English, and with whom I understood virtually nothing, but shared some rather entertaining moments in the Hostel Kabul.

 Poetry of America DSC_0120

Traveling like this, alone and free, made me feel capable of anything. The other day the vending machine gave me two water bottles when I only paid for one. Two! Can you imagine? It felt like the perfect metaphor for my life at this very moment. Inhaling la boheme di Barcelona, brought to tears by La Sagrada Familia, squinting confusedly at Salvador Dalí’s schizophrenic works at his museum in Figueres,

DSC_0082listening to the wind and watching the sunset over the monastery of Montserrat, perched high up in the mountains of Spain, meeting friends of which I know I will meet again, all of it was like being handed more than I’d ever hoped for. Sitting in solitude on a mountain trail in Montserrat, I thought a lot about where I was, what I was doing, who I was meeting and why.

After the Rain

Why did I get two water bottles instead of one?

BasilicaWhat does this mean for my life, for my future. I know I’m being called to something, and I think I know what it is. But as I continue to drink down all of what life is handing me, I start becoming more certain and more uncertain at the same time.

 From the Gondola  Shedding Light

Pues, halas (that’s it). Ahalan Wa-Sahalan ala Al-Cahira. Welcome to Egypt. As I step out of the airport, I take a deep breath. The sweet smell of pollution greets my nostrils. Ahh, I am home. Jimmy and I head straight from the airport to the Cairo Stadium to watch Egypt play Italy in the under-20 FIFA World Cup. The game was incredible, the drive not so much.

Egypt v. Italy

I don’t think I took the opportunity in my last post to describe the roads of Cairo, which is perhaps the most indescribable part (ironically) of the city. Imagine a freeway in the U.S., which has four, maybe five lanes for traffic, most people use their blinkers to change lanes, people wear seatbelts. Back to Cairo:

4 lanes of traffic

7-8 rows of cars wedged in together

Cars cross maybe 3 lanes at a time, swerving here and there when they feel like it

Horns beep like mad – there is apparently a horn code: one for “F you” another for “excuse me please,” another for “I’m right next to you so don’t hit me.” Comical, really.

Literally whenever I am in a car in Egypt, I fear for my life. The speeds people go on surface streets — if you were to get in an accident (which is probable) going that fast, it would be over. Halas. Of course I always wear my seatbelt, that is non-negotiable. And I always make my friends wear their seatbelts, since they are under the impression that if you’re in the backseat, you don’t need to wear one.

So anyway, back in Egypt, back on the road, it was a white-knuckle adventure to the stadium. We parked and walked with the other frantic fans to try to make it in time for the national anthem. I was wearing pants, a tank top, and a cardigan over it to cover my shoulders. As we walked quickly past the rows of police officers stationed alongside the road, I heard the whispers begin, and the stares penetrate right through my shirt. I quickly stopped to button up my cardigan, having completely forgotten two of my rules: First, don’t give them anything to look at. Second, avert all eye contact.

 The Human Wave

However, for all the slimy looks I get on the street, an Egyptian would almost never try anything. When I walk at night in Egypt, alone or with girls, I have never once felt threatened in any way. Yes, it’s annoying to be looked at like a piece of meat, but these men would never act on it. And if anyone ever did, there would be at least 50 other Egyptians coming out of the woodwork to come to my aid. In Spain, when I walked with a group of girls to a club one night, I felt that my life was in real danger. The way men approached us and the comments they directed at us made me feel like at any moment I could be grabbed. In L.A. it is the same way…I would never walk alone at night because I know I probably would be raped. In Egypt, this would not happen, not likely. Also, in Spain I was robbed twice. In a Western country where people have a lot of money, have job security, and do not experience extreme poverty, I as robbed twice. In Egypt, I would never have to worry about being pickpocketed, unless perhaps I was in a very very poor area or a very very crowded place. Egyptians are a very proud people, and a very religious one. The chances of being robbed in the way I was in Spain are almost zero.

 Cheerleader

After the game, which Egypt won 4-2, we headed back to Zamalek, stopping for falafel and chicken shwarma…not quite tapas, but just as good. Boys with a death wish were hanging out of car windows, waving Egyptian flags, beeping the celebratory victory horn.

I returned to my apartment to find that we had no water and no Internet. Water apparently was down for the whole island of Zamelek. Today we still do not have water, so I am on Day 3 of no shower, and I can’t check my emails. And we all really have to use the bathroom. But don’t worry, I washed my jeans at the hostel in Spain, so life is good. When we asked the landlord about the water, he told us insha’allah by 5pm. Insha’allah may be the perfect way to describe Egypt in one word. It’s meaning? God willing. Everything in Egypt is God willing. We will have water by 5pm? Insha’allah. I will see you tonight. Insha’allah. The plane is leaving at 10. Insha’allah. May I please order dinner? Insha’allah. Well, Insha’allah I will post this blog and you will enjoy it.

 

Welcome back to Egypt.

CeaseFire

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30, 2009 by racheltobias

This entry is taken from another blog site: peace.ashokalab.org and focuses on peace and conflict resolution issues . I write a couple of times a month for this blog, and this is a past entry about an experience I had when I worked at Ashoka. It’s slightly dated, but still an interesting reflection. 


Ceasefire

Sometimes you find peace where you least expect it.

Last night, on a crisp Chicago summer evening, Tony’s teenage niece was shot 17 times. A few years ago, Tony would be standing on the killer’s doorstep, gun in hand and hatred in heart. Instead today, he sits in a room with 40 of his peers, developing specific strategies to prevent others from acting upon that same violent urge he has learned to suppress.

Tony is a Violence Interrupter. He, along with these 40 other men and women are employed by CeaseFire, a Chicago-based organization which aims to end gun violence in urban areas. To accomplish this goal, they take a multi-faceted approach, one which includes a hands-on public education and outreach campaign paired with the work of Violence Interrupters like Tony; these components are means to one end: to show people that shooting another human being is not normal.

As I sit in the Violence Interruptor meeting, I ponder the word “normal,” and flounce upon the idea of its subjectivity. My definition of normality would certainly take on a different shape than the kid who killed Tony’s niece. But then I recall a recent meeting with program founder Gary Slutkin, who noted that social norms are driven by one’s fear of disobeying them. The whole aim of Ceasefire and the work of these Violence Interrupters is to bring objectivity to normality; shooting someone shouldn’t just be abnormal to me and you, but also to the 14-year old drug dealer on the corner of 9th and Broadway, and the abducted child soldier in the war-torn corners of scattered African countries. Behavior change is not such an extraordinary concept; and certainly Slutkin’s goals are simple and realizable. For example: Twenty years ago, nobody would have blinked twice if I lit up a cigarette in this very meeting. Today, to consider lighting up would mean facing a looming sheet of scorn and opposition, one which would most likely deter me from doing so. So why not make violence, even in the most violent societies, unacceptable and abnormal?

The Violence Interrupters at this meeting at living proof that behavior can dramatically change. These individuals are former perpetrators, ex-felons and ex-gang members. They have a history of violence, a history of carrying a gun, and/or involvement in gang activity or leadership. They know the code of the streets; they know who owns the block, who has the last word, and who orchestrates business dealings. More importantly, they know what goes through someone’s head when he’s about to take another human life.

A hefty interrupter with a vintage handlebar moustache and a plunging voice raises his hand. He is leaning so far over the table with the excitement of engaging that it seems almost to be attached at his hip. When referencing any of his colleagues, he never fails to maintain the politest of airs, explaining the relationship between he and fellow interruptors “Mr. Joe” and “Mr. Ed.” “At one time,” he says, “we couldn’t stand each other. But now we love each other.”

If you poked your head into this room, the word “love” would most likely not be used to describe this seemingly rough and tough group of individuals. But there is a lot of love in this room. It is a room full of thought, heroism, compassion, empathy, and most unexpectedly, peace.

Also present in this room is tragedy. For the hour or two this meeting lasts, the Interrupters share the week’s conflicts. The 16-year old girl with the 5-year old daughter who uses her sexuality to play guys against each other. The 7 dead after a game of dice gone sour. The smashed-in face of a guy who looked at another’s girl the wrong way. The 4-year old caught in the crossfire of a fight no child should ever understand:

Homicide by firearm is the leading cause of death in African American males in the United States, and second leading cause of death among American youth. 90% of these shootings have been found to be group-based, directly related to group and peer pressures. As with a disease, we see violent behavioral symptoms spread through concentrated groups of people.

We normally see with lenses that distinguish certain aspects of life as black, others as white. We put “good people” in one pile, and “bad people” in another. It is difficult, terrifying perhaps, to see shades of gray. Shades of gray upset the tranquility of normalcy; and so we are afraid to see them. But what if, for a moment, we apply Gary Slutkin’s theory on social norms to our own perceptions of the world? What if shades of gray become the norm, so that eventually seeing things in black and white was no longer acceptable. What happens when you entrust a former enemy with helping bring the rest of the enemy population over to your side? What happens when you believe that there are only good and bad behaviors, learned behaviors, instead of good and bad people?

Tony happens. And Ginelle, and Ed and Joe and all of the Violence Interrupters happen. Ceasefire happens. And all of a sudden, you see expectations starting to shift. Perhaps understanding those we thought we could never understand is an answer we’ve been looking for.

An hour after the Violence Interrupter meeting has adjourned, we find ourselves in West Garfield, a rough neighborhood of Chicago. On each block corner stands a group of five or six teenage boys, no older than 17, in “uniform:” jean pants, a white t-shirt, and a blue or red baseball cap pulled shrewdly over the eyes, so as to make if difficult for the authorities to identify any specific individual after an incident. Girls who couldn’t be older than 14 or 15 push around strollers with wiggling daughters and sons. From shady front porches, grandmothers cast powerless eyes over parentless grandchildren as they frolic playfully through the streets.

We walk with Ceasefire outreach workers throughout the neighborhood, passing out bumper stickers like lollipops. Even the intimidatingly organized boys on the street corners give us a friendly smile and take the stickers with pleasure. They support Ceasefire; they don’t want to kill each other, but it’s the only way they know how to make their point. Right now, my definition of what is normal is vastly different than theirs. But I don’t believe it always has to be that way.

A street corner in West Garfield surrounded by echoes of violence and marked by the inner workings of gang culture was the last place I expected to find peace.

But sometimes you find peace where you least expect it.

The Mad Ones

Posted in Uncategorized on September 28, 2009 by racheltobias

Arabic word of the day:

 Asir bateekh — watermelon juice

DSC_0084

Ahora estoy en Barcalona, sitting in a Café, sipping a sangria and eating salad (for the first time in a month!…hallelujah!), and have finally found a fleeting moment and motivation to begin writing again. Living in Egypt has been such an abrupt change in pace, that it has been difficult to tear myself away from my daily routine and sit down to write. However, since you have taken the time to read this, I promise to continue to put words on a page.

(Disclaimer: I may often lose my train of thought because I am thoroughly engrossed in this feta-licious salad…)

In Egypt I have a new routine, a new group of friends, and a new home. I think I am quite blessed in that I can easily feel home anywhere. I won’t lie, living in Egypt is not the easiest thing I have done. There are many things I miss: for instance dryers. There is not a dryer to be found in this country – my jeans have stretched out beyond any hope of butt-fitting. I’m pretty sure they even line dry my clothes at the dry cleaners. But, as they would say in Barcelona, asi es la vida. The frustrations I have been having and the things I dislike only give me more joy when I think about what an adventure this has been and will be. I mean, if I can wear stretched-out jeans, I can do anything, no?

I live on a small island in Cairo called Zamalek, which sits on the Nile, connected to the madness of the city by straddling bridges which I must cross every day to begin my long journey to the American University in Cairo. Zamalek is a lovely place: it is one of the higher-end places in the city and its spattering of embassies makes it the primary place of residence for many diplomats and ex-patriots. There are an abundance of cafes, shiisha bars, delivery bikes, and taxi cabs, who beep their horns as regularly as they breathe.

The first month here was Ramadan, which is the Muslim month of fasting. During Ramadan, practicing Muslims should not eat, drink or smoke from sunrise to sunset, should not do drugs, drink alcohol, or have (or even think about having) sex. Therefore, there tend to be limited signs of life during the daylight hours: workdays are shortened and people sleep during the day, waking up at 6:30pm for iftar (breakfast). During iftar the streets are empty, the shops are closed; if you broke your leg, you might have to wait until iftar had finished before being tended to (only an exaggeration but almost).

Club Shot

Because I have made so many Egyptian friends and almost no American friends, it seemed only appropriate for me to follow Ramadan like everybody else. Otherwise I would be eating five or six meals a day since breakfast is at 6:30pm, lunch is at midnight, and dinner is around 3:30am. Fasting was not difficult; the only challenging part was to abstain from drinking water during the day, especially because the AUC campus is so hot. When Ramadan falls during the summer months, it’s a big bummer.

 A normal (week)day (during Ramadan) for me in Egypt goes something like this:

5:30 am: Wake up for school to catch the 7am bus to the American University in Cairo with my three other American roommates. Take a cold shower (since we still have not had the privilege of hot water. Think about how great it would be to eat a peanut butter-banana-honey toast for breakfast.

6:50 am: Walk to the bus stop with 50 other sleepy American students. Pass the landlord on the way out of my building’s elevator. Sabbah al-haier. Good morning.

7:00 am: All aboard the Bobblehead Bus. Ride about an hour to campus, during which everyone trys to get a few extra bumpy minutes of sleep.

8:30am: Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha) with my professor Neshwa. She is very strict, and just about strangles us with her veil when we don’t do our homework.

9:45 am: Walk down Gucci Blvd. on my way to my next class. The students at AUC are typically children of the Egyptian elite, and are not necessarily academically motivated. More pressing to them is their wardrobe – you won’t see an Egyptian student wearing sweatpants or a T-shirt unless they have some sort of death wish. God forbid I wear Levis instead of designer jeans – I get the “look-up-then-look-down” from every Egyptian girl. The girls are glittering in Prada sunglasses and Coach sneakers; they don’t carry books or notebooks to school…once in a while they carry a teeeeeeeeeny tiny notepad which I suppose could hold maybe a quarter of a century’s worth of notes in history class.

10:00 am: Egyptian Colloquial (al-meeia) with Neshwa again. This class is much more fun and relaxed – just talking and learning how to communicate in Egyptian slang.

11:30 am: Walk to my next class. I really really wish I could drink some water.

11:45 am – 3:30pm: My other classes, depending on the day include Intro to Development, Contemporary Political Islam, and the Rise to Power of Islamic Movements. All interesting, all with mostly Egyptian students. It is fascinating to learn things like Development and Islam from a completely non-American perspective. It is such a different take on the world. (Will elaborate after I have attended more classes.)

4:00 pm: Board the Bobblehead Bus home to Zamelek. God I wish I had something to eat. Is it iftar yet.

5:20 pm: Arrive back to the apartment after walking past a dead neighborhood, everyone twiddling their thumbs until they can eat again. Take a nap, so that I don’t think about how much I want water.

6:30 pm: IFTAR! Al-hamdul Allah!  Thank God. Eat iftar either with friends or have something delivered. Everything delivers in Egypt. Literally, if you wanted an orange and a falafel, you could have it delivered at anywhere any time. At my roommate’s boyfriend’s house, iftar is mouthwatering, with piles and piles of dishes of which it would be extremely rude to turn down any. I, who really won’t eat much seafood, have eaten during iftar mussels, clams, fried fish, prawns (with eyes!), weird types of fish, calamar, octopus soup, and shrimp. Mom and Dad, don’t ever say I am a picky eater ever again. But there are also many Egyptian things that I love to eat: koshary (rice, lentils, noodles, and a spicy sauce), sambousek (fried cheese), kebab, kofta, falafel, homos, fool (very similar to Mexican bean dip), yogurt and mint dip. More than anything though, the best thing about Egypt, hands-down, is the fresh juice. They have juice in every flavor, although I prefer asir (watermeleon) or ananaas (pineapple). These are nothing like juices that we have in the States. These are thick, fresh, and literally to die for. Usually at home, I feel guilty about drinking the calories in a glass of cranberry juice, I’ll take a Diet Coke. I’ve never regretted one glass of fresh watermelon juice in Egypt.

7:15: Food coma. Turn on the TV to take my mind off how full I am. Pick one of the four English channels we have: “A Walk to Remember” is on. I love that movie. Ah, thank goodness, Mandy Moore and Shane West are finally going to kiss. Hold it. Scratch that. No kissing scenes, no sex scenes, no excessive touching scenes allowed on Egyptian television. Alas, I’ll have to wait until I’m in the West to see any kissing. That’s ok, this movie sucks anyway. Movie goes to commercial. The commercial shows a group of men sitting in a room. They are smoking marijuana; laughing, high, in ecstasy, they run out of rolling paper. One of the men takes out a picture of his family, the only paper he has left, and rolls a joint with it. Another takes out a 100-pound bill and smokes it. It’s an anti-drug ad. Another commercial comes on. A man comes home from his day, removes his headdress and his robe, and goes to his liquor cabinet for a glass of scotch. As he takes a sip, the glass becomes red hot, and he burns his mouth. This is an anti-drinking ad. One of the most interesting changes here has been the lack of separation between church and state. In the U.S., we are so used to being able to say and do whatever we want, whenever we want. People who have religious beliefs can make their own choices. Here, the society and the government make your choices for you.

 

9:30 pm: After recovering, get dressed and meet friends for shiisha. For those of you who think shiisha is drugs, IT IS NOT. I just want to make sure we are on the same page: I am not out smoking pot nightly, as this is what my father thought shiisa was. Shiisa is quite simply flavored tobacco. There is no nicotine, no addictive element; of course it’s still not good for you. I’ve probably smoked enough shiisha in the last month to have lung cancer twice. But halas, that’s it, I really want some cantaloupe shiisa.

12:00 am: Order sohoor (dinner/lunch). Usually something light for me since I still cannot justify eating a full meal at midnight. Sit with my Egyptian friends and share stories. Beevis raves like a madman about his love affair with Los Angeles, a city which he visits as often as he can, mainly to gorge himself on Cheesecake Factory. Tarek and Soha talk about their upcoming wedding, the traditions that I will see when I attend, and the complications of arranging visas for their honeymoon. We discuss their recent katb kitaab, the official signing of the marriage license which takes place a month before their wedding party. Although they are technically married, it is haram (forbidden/sinful) for them to sleep together without first telling the bride’s father that they are to do so. Sary and Jimmy interrupt loudly to serenade us with Sary’s band’s latest song. Ingy and I begin discussing the problems with the Egyptian government and the challenges they face with a very economically divided society.  My friends speak mostly in Arabic, translating for me now and again, forcing me to practice speaking to them in Arabic and not English. Occasionally they teach me some cuss words or silly sayings, my favorite of which is heluwa nik (don’t say this to anyone who speaks Arabic), and means f-ing beautiful.

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2:30 am: Can’t stay up any longer. Ask for a ride home and go upstairs to the apartment, where I stay up for another hour or two writing emails, and talking with roommates. Eventually go to bed and start again the next day.

 

I love my life in Egypt truly. There are so many great things, great people. The city has incredible mosques, a beautiful and very romantic park which overlooks the entire city and to which I anticipate visiting often, good food, good culture. It is so cheap: you easily live on less than $20 a day if you don’t go out at night. Of course, not everything has been silly and sweet. We have had many a problem with out apartment. Apart from the water, we had a massive fuse blown, our air conditioning units drip so loudly we cannot sleep, and we found human feces in our washing machine, which is stationed in our kitchen. (You really don’t want to know.) Shopping in a local market one day, I had boys throw rocks at me as I walked by, even though my shoulders, legs, and chest were fully covered. I have had to train myself not to make eye contact with men when I walk down the street; I must walk with confidence and with purpose. My wardrobe is conservative in public places; even in the 100-degree weather a sweater is non-negotiable. Cabs are a nuisance, and you’re as likely to get hit by a car or in a car accident as you are to eat falafel. On one occasion, we paid a cab driver 2 pounds (the equivalent of 10 cents) for taking us around the corner and not even finding the right location, after which he chased us down yelling for more money. We recently took a trip to Hurghada, a lovely beach town about 5 hours out of Cairo. A few in the group stayed in a hotel, including one of my roommates. Although she was sharing the room with another Egyptian girl, she had to pay double the room price (in addition to what the Egyptian was paying) because she was American. In some situations, common sense and customer service in Egypt are severely lacking. But hey, Americans have high expectations of service.

 

Now, my university has been shut down for a couple of weeks because of the swine flu. After visiting Hurghada with my friends, I still had a week to kill, so I bought a ticket to Barcelona, left the next day, and here I am.

Parc Citudella   Gaudi

I am absolutely high on Barcelona at the moment. I have never been in a city quite like this before. The energy is so quirky and bohemian; it is one of the happiest and strangest places I have been. Everyone is beautiful and happy to be alive. One of my favorite strings of the English language is Jack Kerouac’s observation that

“the only people for me are the mad ones”

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…everyone in Barcelona is mad. And everyone is for me.

I am surrounded by the most incredible art and architecture. I have become obsessed with Gaudi and began to cry at La Sagrada Familia today, completely overwhelmed by its beauty.

Sagrada FamliaIt is really nice to be traveling by myself: I’m staying in a hostel, meeting so many people from all over the world, and most importantly, speaking only in Spanish. It is terribly refreshing to be able to speak fluently in another language, as Arabic is beyond broken for me. I got pickpocketed twice, and almost had my baby (my Nikon D200) stolen, but I still cannot complain about this city. I’m full of tapas, hot chocolate thicker than syrup and richer than Oprah, stunning vistas, psychadelic pieces of art, antique amusement parks on tops of mountains, dancing fountains, mucho espanol, and una clima muy muy linda.

Gaudi Casa Batllo  Magic FountainI can even wear tank tops! Gracias a Dios! Today I watched los Castellanos make human towers, which was quite a sight.

Victory

They can make up to nine or ten layers of people; I saw three teams do four different towers apiece…only one fell.

Concentration  Focus

Tower Built  Preparation

Steady  

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Entonces, I am so happy to be here, happy to be mad, happy to return to Egypt in a few days; quite simply I’m happy to be alive.

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