Nothing to do with travel but since the post ended up on this blog and since these women are two of my heroes it will stay. I wouldn’t be roaming around the world without fear if I hadn’t had so many examples of strong brave women in my life.
Lydia Jackson (my sister-in-law’s mom) and Grace Williams (my friend since 1972) died this week. Strong, important women who influenced generations of students and community activists. Lydia and Grace were both in their 80s with too many friends to count and daughters who do them honor by being the kind of brave and smart women—and loyal and attentive daughters—of which any moms would be proud.
Lydia was born and raised in Minnesota and never left except for a brief sojourn in Florida with family. She taught school for something like 50 of her 80+ years on earth. Her ex-students populate a big slice of northern Minnesota life and would all say they are better for having been taught by Lydia Jackson.
Grace Williams came here from Oklahoma by way of some other temporary locations but New Mexico was completely home for her and the politics of New Mexico her life passion. Her commitments to the ACLU (which she directed for a number of years) and the Democratic Party were well known and widely admired, certainly by her fellow Democrats and maybe by more than a few Republicans.
Both of these women were dedicated family and community members but they lived life on their own terms as well. If anyone had tried to take Lydia out of the classroom or Grace out of party politics they would have had an unwinnable fight on their hands. These were opinionated women—about education and human rights and, it would probably be safe to say, Lydia could be a trifle stubborn on occasion and Grace more than a little outspoken…especially if George Bush’s name came up!
Here’s to Lydia and Grace then. Two of my heroes. To lives well lived.
Sara, my 12-year-old granddaughter, was with me in Washington DC when Lydia and Grace passed away. While she is an excellent student (Lydia would be proud) she has only the normal amount of kid interest in history museums and political institutions—that would be little to none. Sara has a long life ahead and whatever her interests and passions turn out to be, I hope she lives it as well as Lydia and Grace lived theirs.
My fortunate grandchildren have first-rate parents and just the right mix of grandparents. The one with the pool, the one with the lake, the one who made all of the special party decorations and the one who especially encouraged sports and studies. And then there’s me. Trying desperately to infect them with the dreaded ‘travel bug.’
This is my first big trip with Sara, 12-year-old honor roll cheerleader tumbler tweenie. The trip began with a meeting in Boston and a few hours to get a bit of a feel for one of the places where it all STARTED—the United States of America that is—on to NYC for a day and a half of where it all IS and finally here in DC for a Capitol Fourth—just Sara and me and half the rest of the world celebrating who we imagine ourselves to be.
BOSTON: We left Albuquerque a week ago today—Sunday. Some brief airline rerouting…but into Boston in time for a walk down to the Harbor and a very nice little pizza of flat bread, arugula, grilled smoked chicken, goat cheese, fresh tomatoes and caramelized onions—Sara’s first venture into gourmet pizza!
The next two days were occupied for me by meetings at the NEFA/NDP headquarters in Boston while Sara set herself up with books, iPod touch and drawing materials in a cozy little spare office—only coming upstairs for food to take back down to her lair.
We did manage an evening walking about the Commons and Boston Gardens with spaghetti and risotto at a hip little Beacon Street restaurant. Sara thought the spaghetti was ALMOST as good as her dad’s.
BAD New York: Tuesday evening at 6+ PM, we left Boston on the train for Grand Central Station where we were scheduled to arrive around 10 PM. All went well until around the half way point when we lost power and came to an abrupt halt. An engine problem, the announcer said, to be fixed by trusty Amtrak mechanics shortly or we would be pushed into the next station by a substitute engine from somewhere up or down the line. It was dark by now but the only panic came from the loss of power for all of the iphones, ipads, itouches and other istuff. The book-worms on board crouched at the end of the cars where emergency lights made reading barely possible. While the power lasted Sara played games on her itouch angled in such a way that light was cast on my book page—hence we survived the emergency.
Into Grand Central station about 1pm. Fortunately we have hotel reservations I say to Sara. The Milford Plaza near Times Square. Sounded okay on Expedia and only about $200 a night. If it sounds too good to be true…..
IT IS…this was bad. Remember it is 2AM. Sara lives in Albuquerque, has traveled to smaller cities and to her cousins in San Diego but this is her first moment in THE CITY. It’s supposed to be exciting…not traumatic! The cab drops us off and right away we both know…this lobby does not portend good things…you know that sort of tawdry look…like something shiny covering something dirty. But we still have hope. Down the long dirty hallway. Losing hope. Open the door. Hope is gone. We sit on the bed…our last tiny tiny bit of hope is that nothing will bite us while we contemplate our situation.
Once, when my sons were small and we were returning to New Mexico from a trip to Minnesota in one of my string of miserable cars and, as usual, quite broke we stopped at a cheap motel in northern New Mexico—just too late and tired to drive on into Albuquerque—and entered a room somewhat like this. In all fairness to the Milford Plaza, the New Mexico room had an actual hole in the wall while here in midtown NYC, only the plaster was peeling off. But the level of cleanliness was approximate and that smell of haphazard cleanings with cheap and nasty cleaning fluids was the same.
In New Mexico all those years ago we took our suitcases and the family dog, which was of course along, and moved up the street to a brand new motel I really couldn’t afford (probably cost $30 or even $35!).
NOW I did the latter-day version of the same move. Called my American Express concierge and I finally feel justified in letting an AmEx rep talk me into the platinum card some months ago; now he lines up something for early check in the next morning, Ritz Carlton in Battery Park. That cannot be bad can it? Except for my budget. Then I called Expedia who immediately cancelled our second night in the Hotel from Hell. Phew! The worst is over and we managed to sleep fitfully for about four hours. Left the hotel without even showering before 8am and checked in to our new life—for 24 hours!
GOOD New York: Obviously the AmEx concierge wasn’t going to find a cheap hotel for us! But we do not care—for only $425 for the night we can take a shower without worrying about odd things pouring forth from the tap. Two BIG beds, a bathroom the size of my apartment, view of the Statue of Liberty…and a $100 credit for room service or meal. Of course I cannot afford this; on the other hand I certainly do not want to turn Sara away from a life of exploration in strange places. Since room service was part of the deal we had to try to use up our $100 voucher for a lunch…..turns out we are just not $100 lunch girls…much as we tried we only got to about $75. And this time Sara said her dad’s pasta was definitely BETTER.
A DAY IN THE CITY: Freedom Tower/911 Exhibit: Sara, let’s go here to see the 911 exhibit. What is 911? WHAT? I am stunned. How could she not know about the EVENT that so effects our communal psyche and military policy and foreign policy and ‘who we hate’ policy? She’s an A student in a good Albuquerque school. But then I thought…okay a generation is growing up NOT consumed by 911—it’s good I think.
The Met and the Alexander McQueen Exhibit: The Alexander McQueen exhibit was amazing!!!! It had so many weird outfits, but the outfits were beautiful! They had the stuff you would never think of! Many of the dresses he made Lady Gaga had! I bet she loves the stuff too! I hope Alexander McQueen had a great life, to me he had a wonderful life with his designs and money!!! This one dress was my favorite it was a gold dress/jacket and it was feathers! In the inside was a silk white dress! Another one of my favorites was a dress made out of real and fake flowers!!!! There were all different colors so it made it as pretty as can be!!
LION KING: OMZ!!!!!! The lion king was the best play of my life!!!!!!! I thought they wouldn’t tell the story just dance. But they actually did tell it! And in a beautiful way!! My favorite characters were the bird and Simba’s friends!!!!! I loved it and if I could I would see it 10 more times…haha!!! The lion king story was about a lion being born and sooner or later him becoming a king!! But when his dad dies his uncle tells Simba to run away why he did that was so he can control the kingdom! Later Simba has to find his true destiny to become king and to talk to his dad again!
The next morning was a bit anti-climatic. Sara was not actually so impressed by the Empire State Building. Too many people she said…boring she said. NYC was crowded and noisy and a little scary to an Albuquerque kid. Grand Central Station and a quick train ride to DC—SARA’S FAVORITE!
On to DC. A SARA ALBUM.
There is a trip to be made when I come home to northern Minnesota. It is about who I was and am, made to remind myself how important this place is to me. It is HOME.
Today’s journey: Grand Rapids on 2 and 46 to Northome, 71 out to the Old Place, then Blackduck (where I was born) for a hot pork sandwich for lunch, back to Helen and Barb’s for cake and coffee, retracing 71 to Northome and to the Forest Hill Cemetery, and finally home to Grand Rapids. Now drinking Baileys and checking in on MSNBC and the Wiener.
Grand Rapids is a pleasant little town on the banks of the Mississippi, which flows to Grand Rapids from its headwaters in Itasca State Park a hundred miles of so away, and on south to the Gulf of Mexico. We drive west and then south through a pine forest to Northome, the non-descript village, 7 miles from where I grew up. We go west again on Highway 71 to the Dead End sign that marks the gravel road down to the end of the road—formerly known as the Neset’s.
The ‘old place’ as everyone in the family calls it…sinking into the ground. Hey, the voices of the family and the smells of the roasts and pies and the sounds of the animals and the anticipation of the approaching rain or snow or hailstorm are all there. OKAY, so I am getting quite sentimental…always happens.
Lunch in Blackduck. Another small town of absolutely no distinction except that I was born there. We had hot pork sandwiches in honor of mom and pop because they always ordered them on the very rare occasion of ‘eating out.’
Helen and Barb Weeks. Dear dear old family friends. We’ve known each other since we were born. Back in the day—when people went visiting. Meaning you collected the kids and went to your friends where the men talked and talked and the kids played and the women sat in the kitchen while the hostess stuck a cake in the oven and laid out sandwich meat and homemade bread and jam and sweet pickles and butter and Kool Aid and coffee.
We often went to Louie and Helen’s. Louie may have been my dad’s best buddy. He was a natural-born humorist and often dad was his straight man. Now Louie is gone but Helen is as sharp and funny as ever (at 89) and daughter Barb who takes after her mom—sharp, funny and maybe a little sarcastic about life in general—lives next door and is her mom’s best friend in many ways. We enjoyed some talk of the old days, current ailments, evil Republicans, and the antics of the three dogs while we ate banana cake and drank coffee.
Back down 71 to Northome and the Forest Hill Cemetery. Hi Mom, Hi Dad, Hi Uncle Ike, Aunt Sally. Grandma Asborg, Grandpa Torgus. It’s all green, mosquito-rich, and fake-flower filled. It’s somehow reassuring to come here. My sons must dig a handful of my ashes down between my mom and my dad.
One Minnesota story per day…maybe. Today is about the wild dead deer of Minnesota and a sick dog! Buddy, Robert and Marsha’s dog has IBD, inflammatory bowel disease, for which there seems to be no cure. He has been to regular vets, specialist vets and holistic vets. Nothing so far has worked; the only thing they all agree on seems to be a high-protein diet that cannot include any easily available meat products. So the dog must have venison (occasionally turkey can substitute)…and one vet suggested kangaroo if the first two didn’t work! Robert and Marsha’s acquaintances have been pretty much tapped of any freezer stock of venison (leftover from last hunting season) at this point and Buddy is easily tired of turkey. What to do?
This morning, driving home from the vet’s where Buddy had a weekly blood test, Robert spotted some very fresh road kill, a recently dead (within the 15 minutes they were in the vet’s office) young deer. Dead deer are sprawled all about the highways of the north woods, victims of semi’s, pickups, old cars, and even new cars on the first trip off the lot. Deer are suicidal creatures that wait along roadsides for the sole purpose of leaping in front of unsuspecting vehicles. But in this case, it is all for the good of Buddy the dog.
Robert brought the deer home in the back of the truck, backed into the garage, laid the still-warm limp young body on the big blue tarp and started hacking and slicing. My brother used to be a hunter before enlightenment so he knows how to do this gory business. The sight is not so bad, no worse than NCIS for example, but the smell is horrendous, rank offal odors, bloodied hairy hide, warm flesh—like an African market.
The deer’s good parts have been cut up and are slow-cooking on a grill in the garage. I am drinking a beer called Nordeast, “Named after the hardworking neighborhood where the original Grain Belt Brewery established its roots back in 1893. ‘Nordeast’ is an endearing term which comes from the Northern and Eastern European immigrants and their language which helped shape Northeast Minneapolis. This amber American Lager is our way of honoring the storied past of Grain Belt and the people who helped to make it legendary! Cheers!” (from Nordeast’s website)
Lunch is served—hot dish, cold cream cheese-based pizza, sandwiches, sour cream raisin bars and ice cream…just a little something.
Tuesday’s tale from the banks of the Mississippi in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
The question continues to be…how to approach my last—of three?—big life tasks of these next (and last) 20 years. Before that it was all about raising children and working and paying bills and getting degrees; getting through all that is simply one big first half of life goal. Once that lengthy stage of life is completed individual, certainly more considered, probably more selfish, goals can emerge. My first goal of this new era was to be a better grandmother than I was a mother. In this I have at least succeeded in the travel department since I am working hard to get all grandchildren to distant places as often as financially possible. My poor sons were only treated to long rambles across country (which generally included many miles of Kansas and the Panhandle—sorry guys!) in wretched old cars with a dog or two sharing their back seat space.
The second of these three goals was to make a program something like Global DanceFest although I really was not aware of that as a major goal until now. Did that!
NOW for Goal Number Three: To go to every country in the world before I die. It seems that I have been working on this every-country-in-the-world thing since, at about age 5, I started obsessing over the photos in Essentials of Geography/Brigham and McFarlane/First Book, Copyright 1916 (I hasten to add I am not THAT old…it was my mother’s in elementary school.). In a cabin in the snows of northern Minnesota that book was my magic carpet to the outside world.
This goal and this ‘starter’ book have been mentioned in previous blogs. However, NOW, in the summer of 2011, it is really time to get serious. The first time it seemed likely that this pipe dream could actually become reality may have been in 2010 when I crossed the border into Burundi on the bus to Bujumbura and chalked off country #68.
Suddenly the whole idea appeared possible—far-fetched—but possible. 194 countries to go (I think that is counting South Sudan) minus 68 is 126. I can do this I said…I say. I work 10 more years and I go to 12.6 countries a year (during 3 weeks’ vacation time!). A goal. A reason to work and go to the gym and not eat too much butter. A reason to have a blog. SO HERE’S TO THE BOOK THAT STARTED IT ALL!
Saturday, April 9 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/world/africa/10ivory.html?hpThings are not good in Cote d’Ivoire which in its heyday was called “The Paris of Africa.” The battles between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara are turning into a civil war but there has been a low-grade battle between these parties for much of 2000s so conditions have already deteriorated to a new low for what was a prominent and successful West African city. Today’s Times brings more bad news after a week of battles which seemed to be leading to Gbagbo’s ouster. Not that the other guy is a prize but I suppose it says something that he was elected.
In 1999 and 2001 I went Abidjan to the Arts and Spectacle Market or MASA as it was known. The city was experiencing unrest and even a minor coup or two on either side of these events but the show did go on in those years. My notes describe a calm sunny city, friendly, good food, artists everywhere. I stayed at the Hotel Ivoire and saw my first African contemporary dance. Lots of it. Much of it powerful and original—some pieces like Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula , vivid and unforgettable however many times I see it. So, even though the city and country were fraying at the edges the dancing never stopped.
Paul Theroux has a brilliant piece in the Times travel section today. Why We Travel. And, as usual, travel addict Theroux gets it right. It is about knowing and feeling the places of the world as they are in good times and bad. He talks about being in Northern Ireland when it was dangerous and Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Columbia when they were on the ‘dangerous places to travel’ list and found all to be interesting and generally pleasant places to visit.
I have not been in dangerous situations but I have been in places considered dangerous. People say “should you go there now?” Like Theroux I do not imagine myself in Somalia at this moment in time…or Afghanistan…or Libya, but I do see myself in pretty much any other place on the globe whatever the exceptional or deplorable qualities of the food, hotels, transportation and weather, even walking in some of those holiday parades and political marches that are usually accompanied by a good deal of optimism or tension.
My travels have taken me to various African dictatorships but only once have armed soldiers aimed their guns at the vehicle in which I was traveling. And that was only because the African driver did not come to a full stop at the entrance to Mobutu’s personal theme park back in the days before Zaire became the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the new crooks and abusers came to power.
I followed the first political get-out-the-vote marches around Budapest, a rare gay rights march in Madrid and a protest rejecting Chinese takeover in Hong Kong. They were peaceful, celebratory actions and far more interesting than the local cuisine or most museums.
Crossing the border to go into—not being in—the West Bank and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was scary—not in terms of personal safety but rather fear for the future of a place where the hostility is so thick it can be cut with a knife—or shot through with a bullet!
This weekend I am thinking about Cote d’Ivoire where I spent a couple of fine weeks in 1999 and 2001. Abidjan was a big messy interesting vibrant city with troubles already looming (one coup and one attempted coup took place during this time) but not obvious to all of the African, European and American performing arts presenters there for MASA (Marché des Arts du Spectacle Africain). We walked around town, ate at the neighborhood pizza joint and bussed out to a village only slightly tarted up for tourists. All in all an ordinary visit to a new (for me) country. Now the war of Gbagbo versus Ouattara commences and Ivoirians will shoot and be shot at, go hungry, stop studying, get ever more used to the sound of bullets in the night. What I am saying is this: I travel because I want to ‘get it.’ The world brought to you live, not screened for your viewing pleasure. Abidjan is a real place full of regular people who eat pizza and don’t really want to die.
It is my birthday today. My gifts to me are the time and new maps necessary to figure out how to get to the125 countries I must still reach before I die. Because then when I am old old the very mention of a place, any place, will bring back a smell, a taste, a song, a friend, a sight, sound. And I will know what they are talking about. Because. Well read the article!
My sons gave me a new TV, my FB friends are brightening my day with many ‘happy birthdays’ but Paul Theroux gave me the best present of all…putting into writerly words the things I know about why I travel.
In Beirut some years ago feuding gangs murdered the sculpture of dead heroes. In a couple of weeks I will travel to Beirut again to see dancers dance their dances made for the Middle East and North Africa as it is NOW!
Road Mode: Up and out in the thick black of February pre-dawn. Fuel 26 miles to the gallon, Gaddafi clings to power and gas will be $4 somewhere along the way. Food Two venti non-fat lattes, two berry coffeecakes, one Green Machine, a bag of cherry tomatoes in the glove compartment. And eventually the guilty pleasure of a bag of Cheetos to go with the second fill-up. Peeing Preemptive peeing is best to avoid that edge of stress that comes with a nagging bladder. Also rest stops are sometimes closed at inopportune times on lonely stretches of high desert freeway.
It is about 870 miles or 13 hours on the 25 to Hatch cut-off to the 10 to the 8 to the 15 to Mennonite Drive in Rancho Peñasquitos. The first hours fly by in a contemplative but productive state of mind; the non-descript but supremely drivable road south to Hatch lending itself to early morning musings. This glorious space is really what New Mexico has going for it above all. And the idiosyncratic outposts like Hatch, the epicenter of chili (red and green?) where they still have tie-dyed t-shirts in neon pink and yellow with peace signs on the front and green chilies on the back.
Once Upon a Time: Deming to Tucson to the 8 to Yuma. Midway solitary thinking exhausts its potential and it’s time to switch to the slapdash collection of DVDs collected over the years for just these road trip moments. Kenny Rogers sings of youth and idealism… “Look at that photograph…is that really me/you?” The best soundtrack of all times, Oh brother, where art thou? Then there’s Lucinda Williams and The Dixie Chicks and Sarkozy’s wife and Judy Collins. An old Simon and Garfunkel album has practically turned to dust in the years since it’s been played. Therein lays a travel story of sorts:
Once upon a time there were young lovers and it didn’t work out and he moved away—and 30 years later they connected and she thought those passions were still alive—and she was so sad and flew across many states to a Simon and Garfunkel concert because “bridge over troubled waters” reminded her of those long ago days and she wanted to revel in her melancholic funk and some months went by when listening to S & G was just too painful and then she went walking on the beach in Oceanside and realized it wasn’t the old lover at the root of this depression it was the loss of youth and desirability—and she drove back to Penasquitos from the beach and somewhere around Escondido realized all the sadness was GONE but she never dared listen to Simon and Garfunkel AGAIN in case it came back but NOW that’s been several years ago and today is the day to reevaluate the emotional hangover of sentimental pop music from one’s past and it seems there is none. PHEW!
The 8 comes over one of the many small ranges that together form Peninsular Ranges of southern California and make up most of San Diego County. It’s a windy rocky drive that transports one from the western desert and Imperial Valley farmland straight up and over into ocean air and California freeway traffic.
California Dreaming: Scott and Sandra live in a big house on top of a hill in Rancho Peñasquitos a far-north suburb of San Diego offering perfect California views of misty green hills and valleys and, if you stand at just the right corner of Teresa’s small balcony and it is a perfectly clear day, you can catch a glimpse of the Pacific. Now they’re anxious to sell and move to a condo in yuppie Hillcrest and become foodies and almost empty-nesters. Although with several engineering and business degrees on their children’s’ horizons that could be some years!
Eighteen-year-old Steven and I eat Afghan lamb chops, veggies and Nan and talk upcoming travel to Australia and New Zealand. It’s his graduation gift so surfing the Gold Coast and diving the Great Barrier Reef consume most of the itinerary. Steven has discovered he really likes subjects like accounting and economy. I have asked him swear on the family Lonely Planet that he will never become a Republican and so far he agrees.
Then, for the semi-annual test of whether I am officially old, Scott and I climb Black Mountain. While not exactly Everest it is steep enough and high enough to test that old saying, “you’re only as old as you feel…”
Checking out Hillcrest condos and eating chicken livers at City Deli with a banana gelato for follow-up. Nice down here. Will be fun to hang out in the city now that going to visit the family means visiting several interesting individuals instead of simply a trip to adore the grandchildren and appreciate their parents for bringing them to life.
Teresa, Yusuke and Panaibra at Highways
Girls Gone Smart: Finally up to LA for performances at Highways with Teresa and her friend Yusuke and two nights and a day with Teresa and fellow UCLA students in their apartment in the Westwood student ghetto. Four great young women, smart, beautiful, working out what they’ll be and do and who they’ll do it with… What a pleasure they are. They are studying to be engineers and biologists and doctors and lawyers. The apartment is full of clothes and books and odd accoutrements like a clothes presser that resembles a large medical device in an accident victim’s hospital room and the biggest microwave I’ve ever seen in one corner. They seem to eat mostly cabbage and beets with an occasional pan of brownies thrown in… And how hopeful it all is—a sense of the future in good hands! (But what if they are in the minority and the forces of ignorance prevail?)
Teresa studies, I write, we pause for tea, chat, today a drive over to Culver City and a lovely little French café for salmon and shrimp and bacon pasta and cheesecake and apple tart and I can have wine because Teresa is the driver. Back home, girls in and out on errands and gym and lunch with moms and Teresa and I study and write some more. We are so pleasantly compatible. Let it always be so.
In 1989 I quit my relatively secure government job and, with the meager retirement funds accumulated over 10 years, hit the road. The two-month trip took me to professional meetings in Europe and the DRC (then Zaire), to family time in Asia and finally to EGYPT. I have thought of that trip often in the last few weeks, remembering how much I liked that place and those people—and cheering the Tahrir Square revolutionaries on as they, in turn, now post support for Wisconsin public employees. Viva La Revolution!
In the last years of African travel, I’ve passed through the Cairo airport a number of times, sometimes spending many hours in the wifi-enabled food court, tucked cozily between Starbucks and Cinnabon. In my quest to visit ALL African countries, I have not paused again in Egypt, but now I am very happy to revisit, through old scribbling, those wondrous days in 1989.
Wednesday, July 5, 1989: Manila to Singapore to Cairo. Singapore Airport. Flight to Cairo 10:30pm. Took a chance—couldn’t get my flights confirmed—and headed for the Manila airport–early. Good thing! The first cab got a flat, the second got stopped by cops and then the engine failed but the third cab finally deposited me in the right place with time to spare. After crazy chaotic Manila, clean and organized Singapore is something of a shock. Lots of Filipino workers on flight out of Manila—they are the workers and caretakers of the world, sending their wages home to sustain their families and the Filipino economy.
Thursday, July 6, 1989. Arrived in Cairo about 6am, taxi to the city through the brown desert and the New Mexico-dry air. Pigeon penthouses top brown apartment blocks—at first I think they are tiny apartments without walls. Can see smog but after Manila it hardly registers. Turns out my hotel has almost no water, a poor whirring blade trying to be a fan and no bedside lamp. But I had room service tea at 2am for 70 pence—about 25 cents! Some streets are wide like Kinshasa, some just narrow lanes between mud-brick almost-hovels. It is a very brown, tan and beige city—but coming from Albuquerque the tones are familiar. The eerily beautiful calls to prayer sound more at home here than they did in Indonesia a few years ago. I thought traveling alone as a woman in a Muslim country might feel awkward but it doesn’t seem that will be so; in fact I feel very comfortable.
In my late morning wanderings I met Hamid at his father’s perfume shop. This is salesmanship carried to the nth degree… ‘you must come to my house tonight and meet my mother’ he repeats endlessly while I, as relentlessly, demur thinking I cannot just go off to a strange Egyptian home on my first day here…and then I’m saying ‘okay, that would be nice.’ Hamid picked me up at dusk and we drove to his family’s 3-story house on a mosquito-rich Nile canal. Dirt yard, lots of trees and openness. There are chairs on the patio but we go inside where plush red-velvet couches line the walls. The family is gracious, the father asks me questions and the mother serves hot sweet tea to the accompaniment of Egyptian pop on the radio—it is lovely and stilted and strange. Hamid suggested we go to meet some of his friends. His family is unperturbed. Is this all the friendliness of the Egyptian people or a sort of closing-the-sale tactic related to a potential next day’s perfume purchase? Or some combination thereof? In any case it is all perfectly enjoyable.
The best was yet to come though—driving out to the pyramids…Giza City, a huge suburb on the banks of the Nile buried within Cairo proper. Traffic never ends and every vehicle has a working horn, used liberally, honking, beeping, hooting, tooting. It’s dark now with that warm desert softness and no street lights in the housing area we enter but it is gently lit nevertheless by lights from the small brown houses and shops.
Hamid’s friend invites me in to see his simple but comfortable house, puts on tea and brings a blanket into the yard where more young male friends congregate. A man in robes rides past on a small donkey, his feet almost touching the ground—it is a Sunday school picture come to life. I am served more more more tea and questioned about my life and how it is that I, a single woman, can travel around without a husband.
A newcomer to the group asks me where I’m from and when I say Albuquerque, New Mexico he leaps to his feet in excitement, makes me promise to stay until he can run to his house and get something to show me!. In moments he returns…with a copy of a page from the Albuquerque Journal! It is an article about a head-on car crash that occurred on Highway 491 just outside of Shiprock; two men were killed…one this man’s brother. He said he always wanted to meet someone who could tell him about the place of his brother’s death. So we sit on the blanket on the hard-packed red dirt of Giza, Egypt where I can see the very top of a pyramid looming over the small neighborhood…and I describe northern New Mexico and the dangerous roads and the ever-present drunk drivers—one of whom had caused his brother’s fatal accident.
On the way home at 3am or so we stopped for a tiny lamb sandwich and an orange soda. How could I not love Egypt with a first day like this!
Friday and Saturday, July 7 & 8, 1989. I’ve moved. Now I’m in a Garden City hotel. The American University is nearby and this is really a student hostel. I love it…hard bed, no AC or TV, fan, edible meals AND my balcony looks over the RIVER NILE. There’s just something about the world’s major rivers—they are more meaningful and powerful than any other famous sights/sites. The Nile looks big and slow and brown and ancient flowing gracefully through the center of this place and these lives.
There’s always a hot or cool breeze here in this room on the Nile. My large always open window overlooks the juncture of two main streets, large coke sign, underpass. Nile flows on. People walk about. Can always see people, can always see date palms. The traffic is ceaseless; drivers communicate their intentions with those talky horns and blinks of headlights—which are always off except when approaching another vehicle. Ah yes, national differences still exist. About $11 a night for all of this.
Yesterday morning I went to the National Museum, mid-morning sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette, a group of tourists spill out of a large tour bus. Among the first few coming towards me is a very robust blonde woman. Wearing a halter and shorts. This is a true fact—in conservative Islamic Egypt! I stare and think please god of travelers do not let this be an ‘ugly American.’ Phew! I hear her talk—she’s German!
Next a small cavalcade of black limousines drives up. I was waiting excitedly for President Mubarak (yeah, he was already well into his reign in 1989!) or at least a Saudi prince to step out when who should emerge but Jesse Jackson. I never identify myself to other Americans when I travel so instead of screaming ‘Hi Jesse I’m from New Mexico’ I shot a lot of photos and continued trying to decide if I liked him or not.
Pretty exciting here on the steps.
Then to FelFela’s for lunch. Ran into Trevor, an Aussie whom I met at the airport. We went back to the Museum and looked some more at King Tut memorabilia, then sat in the park restaurant all afternoon, funny overgrown place, all dust and trees and scraggly grass and old wicker furniture from colonial days and Turkish “sweet mud” coffee. Trevor is a traveler also. Really nice person, a sort of loner, bit shy but not so after he talks awhile.
Sunday, July 9, 1989. Today I feel surly, wanted to lie in bed and read all day. Must not. Went to the Pyramids instead. Met another perfume “friend” who says he’s Bedouin. My notes say we visited the Mayor’s house (but I can’t remember what that was) and then I bought some Sweet Pea perfume for mom. Finally I managed to fight off the guides and just roamed around sort of by myself—as much as that’s possible in Cairo. Pyramids are a stark place. Stark and hot. And dusty. Sort of anti-climatic. Too many photos already exist of them, why would I take more? I’m increasingly thinking about getting home and the agony of looking for a job! Oh well, tomorrow I’ll go walking with Trevor in the old city.
Monday and Tuesday, July 10 & 11, 1989. Walked around the streets of Islamic Cairo with Trevor and then more by myself. Dry. Dust. Sand. Earth. The ever-present sheep and their woolly-lanolin smell—the large red dot on some of their backs must mean they’ve been selected for slaughter (just discovered I like lamb which we never ate on the farm because all of the baby lambs became our pets!)—and donkeys and water pipes and incredibly handsome men and the smells of pita bread baking, honey-saturated baklava almost melting in the sun, rotisseries slowly turning, their meaty juices sizzling, smoke from cooking fires, pipes, cigarettes, candles flavors the air too. The dark little shops have different specialties on each street. Here furniture everywhere. Sawing and hammering noises, wood smells. Almost no women out and about. Just men, men, men everywhere. Their long robes drag, swing in the dust. From every angle you can see the top of a mosque or fortress or tower. The rich brown of apartment buildings are enlivened by dashes of color from bright-green painted front walls or doors, gold shutters. Maybe some red and blue and orange and purple clothes hanging out to dry. Garbage carts with small horses. And those mysterious looking dark cafes, all the beautiful men (only) smoking their pipes. I’d like to rent one (the pipe) for a smoke but I’m chicken.
Men look, comment, stare; they’re friendly, not threatening, just ever present. Remember in Museum yesterday. Good looking Arab from south of here I think. Two kids in regular kid outfits and three wives and a grandmother totally covered in black—shrouded. The old woman’s face was bare, only the eyes were uncovered in three other women. Their body language, posture wasn’t happy. Anyone who says it’s their way of life, their traditions and they like it is in denial.
Actually it can be exhausting being a single woman here. If I sit down to have a coffee young men sit down with me and ask endless questions about me and life in the states. When I finally said I just wanted to read they said ‘oh please talk to us, we never get to talk to women just easily like this.’ Yesterday at the Museum again. A little elegant man kept passing me and whispering ‘I love you.’ This isn’t such a bad thing, just a little odd to be noticed so much when one is neither a raving beauty nor famous . There are worse things I suppose!
Say you’re a women in one of the really oppressive fundamentalist societies—Islamic—but same could be said for Mormons certainly or Hasidic Jews probably. You are maybe a bit educated but always in a sheltered guarded environment. You cannot get a job. Can’t even go out and apply. You are selected, married off. How do you escape with no money? Do you have a passport to leave the country? Hell no. Can you get on a plane or bus, no money, no passport? Can you go to a woman’s shelter? Are there women or men (fat chance) who will help?
Being in North Africa/Middle East remains this conundrum for me. It is one of a few place of truly ancient history, people are dignified and welcoming, the cuisine is delectable and I can love all of this. But then the issue of women and the ownership and abuse thereof rears its ugly head and I am so angry.
Wednesday, July 12, 1989. Yesterday was excellent. So why do I have a headache this morning? Because I ate a lot of fig pastries before I went to bed. Because the fan went off. Because I dreamed George Bush was the grandfather of one of my grandchildren, because I didn’t have coffee all day.
I shopped for books by Mahfouz and toothpaste and made a friend through my embassy contacts. Favia, who is anything but reticent about absolutely everything in her life. She’s 51 and gorgeous, teaches dance, is married to an older man who gave up sex a long time ago, so she is having an affair with her dentist. Egyptians, at least westernized ones, are certainly more open than the French or Brits…more like Americans…blah blah blah. She says it is getting more conservative here all of the time. But out in the suburbs life goes on with liquor and dancing and pool parties and affairs.
Thursday, July 13, 1989. It is 7:05am; I suppose they are killing the sheep all over the Arab world right now. To celebrate by feasting the return from Mecca. It seems barbarous. Favia said the whole city reeks of blood but I can’t smell it up here on my balcony. Hear the prayers. I like the sound of the prayers. Wish they weren’t prayers. Actually I like Cairo a lot. By 7:30am the sheep will all be dead. Wonder if they do it swiftly and cleanly, hopefully yes. It’s making me feel queasy. Like living next door to a packing house I suppose.
A final note about food, not so not heavy and greasy, more light and dry like the desert. Or thick and sweet like OmAli, the world’s best dessert.
From NANCY GIRGIS on Allrecipes website: 2011.
“It’s an Egyptian dessert that contains phyllo dough or puff pastry, milk and nuts. Use any kind of nuts that you would like and eat it with a spoon. Legend has it that Om Ali was the first wife of the sultan Ezz El Din Aybek. When the sultan died, his second wife had a dispute with Om Ali, resulting in the second wife’s death. To celebrate, Om Ali made this dessert and distributed it among the people of the land.” Here’s the recipe:
A skinny white guy in a suit of some synthetic taupe-color material drops his pack on the seat next to me and gets back off. I’m immediately nervous. An abandoned bag can mean only one thing. It’s a bomb. Left next to the one American in the bus. It is how we think now isn’t it? Many last minute boarders with big bags. Where’s the guy? How could he know there’d be an American on this particular bus? He really didn’t look very al Qaeda-like; his suit jacket was that of a wine-sipping European and he was clean-shaven. Ah ha, a new disguise—spy first, then those other explosive duties as assigned. I report the bomb…I mean bag…to the bus driver. He looks at me oddly and says the man will be back because he has a ticket. Yeah, like that makes a difference. But he is back before anything blows up.
It’s raining and very green as we climb out of the valley and low hills of Kigali. We’re driving on good roads in a comfortable bus through banana plantations and orderly villages. The spy’s on his cell phone. He has dark lanky hair, sharp features and speaks softly; all I can hear from his language is that its foreign! When he opens his bag I see some clothes and books, no weapons of destruction—but hey I’m an American and we know to look for bombs everywhere. Maybe he’s a German spy…has a LeCarre look about him. He is texting a lot. The spy and I are in the front seat behind the driver—which I booked in advance, not considering the dangers lurking in the most innocuous of places. And I could not possibly know the bus driver would talk loudly and constantly to his assistant for the next six hours all the while driving as though pursued by demons–a ride worthy of Hollywood.
Cool. Rain. We keep climbing. I don’t eat or drink before long bus rides therefore eliminating the need to eliminate so I’m always comfortable. It is an uneventful ride to the border. Past fine houses in the hilly suburbs, tiny villages dotting the banana-growing hillsides, people walking, biking, always with bundles. Black children in blue uniforms in red schoolyards. Red mud-brick houses, blue-painted concrete storefronts, green and yellow bananas. Nice. Gauguin-esque.
In an hour or so we cross the border with little hassle. I haven’t gotten a visa in advance and am told I must get it at the tourism office when I reach Bujumbura. I cannot, I say, because I will return to Kigali too early. Then I must bring $20 and the paper the border official has just filled out in long-hand to this office on my way back. I agree. We smile.
Soon a stop but I haven’t changed money and I don’t have to pee so I don’t get out. Beautiful African urchins and their big brothers and sisters are selling candy, cookies, rolls, bags of rice and tins of oil, bananas, mangoes, papayas and loudly-objecting chickens.
The spy changes into a black t-shirt at the border and seems more relaxed, ready for a bit of conversation. Turns out he is Russian which is even more spy-like. He lives in Rwanda and works in computers. He claims. He’s coming to Buja to visit his friend, a French water systems manager. So he is a gay spy. Not very Bond-like…who would be the gay equivalent of Pussy Galore? Since my spy is an IT guy I ask for advice about my next communication device. He advises me to get a droid, not an I-phone. Says droids are the future. And he should know for god’s sake; he is, after all, a spy. He talks about his wife and kids in Russia. So he’s a bisexual spy. Wow.
Upon arriving in Buja and thanking Ivan or Serge or Vladimir or whomever for his valuable information, I take a cab to the Novotel because he said there are no ATMs in Buja but Novotel will take credit cards. I did not peruse or bring with me the Lonely Planet pages for Burundi. Where, in Buja, had I been better prepared, I could have had a fine hotel room for just a little cash.
Turns out this Novotel isn’t really a Novotel; the franchise has been cancelled undoubtedly due to its state of musty decrepitude. Besides rooms are more than $141 per night and they only take cash.
“Can you recommend a hotel that will take credit cards?”
“Maybe the Source of the Nile.”
“Where is that?”
“Just walk around the corner and up the street by the school.”
“Can you call them to see if they have a room?”
“I guess so.”
I feel a little less carefree then previously because of my temporarily worthless credit cards. However I am not a twenty year old who can sleep in any old corner on a dusty mat and make it an adventure so if I wind up at a luxury hotel I really can’t afford…it’s only for a night! I walk about three blocks past a park-like stretch to a fancily shabby and quite large hotel set back from the road in pleasant green surroundings. It is the Source of the Nile the sign announces.
“No, we don’t have any rooms.” Oh dear, I put on my tired little old lady face, well, actually it is already on, and say in my most basic English, “What do you think I should do? Where should I go?” An Egyptian flight crew is checking in, a rather demanding bunch…but my guy looks worried for me. Imagines I’ll just sleep on one of the lobby couches if he doesn’t do something and how would that look. “Wait, we’ll fix you a room.” Hundred plus on my AmEx but I’m happy. I motion that I will go and eat while they prepare the room.
At this moment it is 6pm in Bujumbura, Burundi and I am very happy. I did it. So I’m not Marco Polo but explorers come in all sizes, shapes and ages. All around me people are speaking Kirundi, French and Swahili; the words pour over me like afro pop without guitars. I am served une omelette parfait, browned nicely, not one of those nasty stateside omelets, all puffy outside and runny inside, with two glasses of fine red wine. I must be back at the bus by 9 am so I go to my room which is large and business-bare. I think it doubles as a meeting room in the day but it has a big sliding door and balcony, AC/fan and large flat-screen TV and I can look out at the mountains and the moon over Buja. A creamy sweet amarula is my celebratory nightcap. I have just enough Burundian francs to get to the bus in the morning and buy some kind of a souvenir before I board. Life is fine indeed.
Poolside for breakfast. First some really beautiful old guys come poolside, dressed in casual business clothes and discreetly, with the use of large towels, change into their trunks and leap happily into the water. They have noticeable pot bellies and sagging man-breasts, those universal accoutrements of aging, but it is true that the darker one’s skin the less visually distressing the aging process. Eventually some middle-age ladies in modest swimsuits join the guys. They all swim laps and chat and laugh and enjoy a warm rainy morning in the pool with friends. It has the feel of a Rotary club breakfast meeting and makes quite a charming tableau.
Breakfast includes trays of avocado-green avocados, thinly-sliced tomato-red tomatoes, translucent-white and green onions and cucumbers and fleshy orange papaya. Only the bread products are bad—how un-French-like. I consider the long bus ride ahead and only nibble.
At a nearby table Frenchmen are smoking, talking, smoking, eating, smoking, gesturing, smoking. Other side, another table, the Chinaman. This guy has been damaged by the infamous air of whatever Chinese city he is from. He coughs and hacks and chokes catching his germy mucus in the big white handkerchief. Cough, hack, spit into the hanky, flip flops flop loudly as he circles the food table; another Chinese guy joins him who looks embarrassed by the unsavory sounds of his companion. French and American pop music serenade us.
Breakfast over; it’s on to the bus station. What can I have for my remembrance of Buja? How about a shiny plastic bag with Barack on one side, Michelle and the girls on the other.
Home. My seat companion is African this time. We smile a lot at each other but cannot even share any words of French. She falls asleep slumped against me, but in African space it’s okay. And shares a cake with me later. Back to the neatness of Kigali. While Bujumbura isn’t quite as modern and spiffy looking as Kigali it is a fine African city I am pleased to have visited. I have learned some things; I’ll never make it as a writer of spy thrillers—my imagination just doesn’t extend to the part where there is actual sex and violence—and I know to get a droid when my cell phone contract expires in February. Oh yeah…and I have a NEW STAMP IN MY PASSPORT.