Saturday, August 30, 2008

A strange sense of relief

Something funny happened to me this week that I thought I'd share...

I lost my headphones. I'm pretty sure I left them behind on the flight I took from Sao Paulo to New York. I only realised they were missing partway through the flight from New York to Dubai.

And I was relieved. It took me a while to realise that that was how I felt, but it's true. It actually came to me as a huge relief that I'd lost my headphones!

You see, it seems like the first sign of stress in my life is that I lose something. Not too long ago, within the course of about two years I lost: a Palm Handheld (which really was more of a mini-computer), an Mp3 player, a mobile phone, a pair of eyeglasses and two pairs of headphones. And I've had a tendency to do other funny things to my eyeglasses, like break them and scratch them. My history with glasses is so bad that when I got my current pair of glasses, which are the cheapest pair I've ever owned but I just so happen to really like the design, I had an intense prayer session over them, asking God to keep them with me and in one piece. They're now almost a year old, which for me is a record.

The last thing I actually lost disappeared from my life more than a year ago, so it had been almost a year and a half. The past few months have been very busy and intense for me, and usually it's during those seasons that I lose something. So almost every day in these months, and increasingly over the course of the past few extremely stressful weeks, I have wondered what I would lose next. Because my history guaranteed to me that I would lose something. With the list above, it seemed the most likely next candidate would be my passport, or maybe my wallet. Those would not be easy things to replace at all! Or maybe my computer power cord would go missing, and my computer would taunt me... "Ha Ha You didn't lose me but you can't use me!" So I was beginning to panic that I was overdue for a serious loss.

Thus, while I felt like I should be irritated at myself for leaving my headphones behind, and while I felt like I should feel upset about having to lay out cash for a new pair of headphones, I was overall extremely joyful and relieved! I lost my headphones, one of the least pricey commodities that travel the world with me, on my way to, of all places, the Dubai airport, which is famous for its Duty-Free shop! I'm now listening to music on a new pair of headphones which cost me very little and have very good sound. I will miss the ones I lost, but I'm very relieved to have that loss behind me.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Scenario #8: A Bit of a Social Critique based on Metro riding

As I rode the Metrô across town to meet some friends last week, I enjoyed a good half hour of people-watching. No one person jumped out at me, but I found myself pondering just how different the Sāo Paulo Metrô was from another big-city metro line that I've recently used: the Cairo metro. The two cities have much in common: enormous population, terrible pollution, crazy traffic, a huge income disparity with typical scenes including homeless men sleeping on the streets outside posh rich restaurants, etc. The subway lines of the two cities are of a similar size, serving what I suspect is a similar number of people each day. But here were the differences I noticed:

- There were women standing while men sat on the Sāo Paulo metro. On the Cairo metro, there is a separate car for women, so there aren't really all that many women in the other cars. But for the women who do find themselves, for one reason or another, on a car with men, it is not unlikely that she might be offered her seat by a gentlemanly man - simply for being a woman. In Sāo Paulo, gender seemed to have no bearing on who was offered a seat. In fact, the seats were almost entirely first-come first-served, with the exception of the elderly. In both metropolis', someone was likely to stand up to offer a clearly aged and frail person his/her seat.

- It took me a while to get used to the fact that there was not a single woman wearing a head covering on the Sāo Paulo metro. Considering Brazil is not a Muslim nation but Egypt is, this must seem obvious. Nonetheless, it felt strange to me. It wasn't just the lack of Islamic headscarves, though; it was a general sense of disarray. At 19:00 (7 p.m.), in Sāo Paulo, everyone was heading home from work, and the women on the Sāo Paulo metro car looked like they were coming out of a long hard day in the office. Their clothes and hair were, though clearly fashionable to start with, a bit dishevelled. Most of them looked tired. In contrast, on the Cairo Metro at 19:00, most women would be head-covered but almost all women would be sporting carefully chosen outfits and headscarves (or hairdos if their hair was exposed) that have nary a stray strand. This reminds me of the fact that many Arab women don't work, that many Cairo women would be on the way to do some shopping or to visit family. Those that are headed home after a long day at the office would still be dressed nicely, having gone to great lengths to not leave the office looking like they actually did any work (or maybe the scarves just cover up the signs of exhaustion, and bottles of gel do the job for uncovered Egyptian ladies).

- Considering the above, it was even more striking, sitting there on my seat on the SP Metrô, that it smelled good. Very good. Like fresh soap and deodorant and light perfume fragrances. Everyone smelled clean and fresh, and the overall effect was that, though the metro car was crowded to the limit, it was not an unpleasant atmosphere. The Cairo Metro, I'm afraid, varies from not-smelling-too-great to barely-able-to-breathe. Last year I rode the Cairo Metro with some men and so had to take the men's car. At its most crowded moments I... well, I leave the scent to your imagination.

- On the Cairo Metro, there is almost always a woman or a child coming through selling things. I have bought from Cairo Metro salesfolk, among other items: hair clips, tissues and band-aids. Lots of band-aids. This phenomenon does not appear to exist on the Sāo Paulo Metro. However, what I did get this week was entertainment. The guy singing and dancing on my metro car didn't seem to be doing it for tips or to provide us with any kind of a show. He just seemed to be that animated. It was neat to see how he managed to capture a few of the weary commuters surrounding him into his web of fun.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Portrait #48: Catupiry

Everyone who ever moves away from home develops some sort of mental list of things-I-must-have-when-I-go-back-to-visit. Usually, it seems like these things are food. Maybe it's because food is easily and frequently consumed, and because it's not something that's always easily shipped elsewhere. For whatever reason, a bit of something we remember eating at home is often just the thing to kill, or inflame, that nagging longing we have for home. Whenever I come back to Brazil, I have a long list of food cravings to satisfy. This time I was only in town for a week, so every meal was carefully planned to hit a certain taste bud.

One thing that I always try to stuff myself silly with is a product called Catupiry. I've never seen it anywhere outside of Brazil. And I love it. It's an acquired taste, I know - I haven't always liked it and when I bring friends with me to visit they often aren't impressed. But oh is it good! The closest equivalent I know of in other countries is Cream Cheese, but Cream Cheese is nothing like Catupiry. To give you an idea, though, using Cream Cheese as a starting place, imagine it just a tad yellower, rougher in texture, saltier, and fluffier, and you're beginning to see the picture. It makes a great filling for potato rolls, a great counterpart to shrimp or chicken in pastries or casseroles, and it is the best topping EVER for pizza. Catupiry pizza knocks Muzzarella pizza well out of the stadium.

My hosts, very knowledgeable persons, introduced me this week to the secret of Catupiry. It turns out that it's true that Catupiry is a Brazilian specialty, produced and marketed exclusively in this fine country. It's been around for about three generations, and the recipe is still a secret. To know how to make Catupiry you've got to be from the Catupiry family (they must be stinkin rich for having taking a country by storm, redefining its entire cheese palate).

They have a factory and the factory has employees, but they are carefully separated from each other. Each step in the production of Catupiry is kept uniquely distinct from the next, in a separate division of the factory, with different employees. Catupiry staff have no cross-division contact with one another whatsoever. Employees are replaced as necessary so as to minimise the risk of one beginning to unravel the Catupiry secret.

According to my friends, many have tried to imitate Catupiry, but no one has come reasonably close to succeeding. There's another Brazilian cheese which is also a local speciality called Requeijāo, but that has been easily imitated. Meanwhile, Catupiry continues to hold a monopoly on yellowish-fluffy-rough-salty cheese that tastes good.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Portrait #47: O Cara das Casinhas

(I'm back! Funerals, Goodbyes and Reunions all behind me for a few more months... This week I'm sharing some portraits from my trip to Brasil last week.)

O Cara das Casinhas

or, the Little House Man. or, the Doghouse man.

I didn't meet him, but I saw him, for a split second as I zipped past him on the highway. He wore dirty baggy jeans and an even dirtier even baggier t-shirt. As he stood over his workbench, almost floating as his hands deftly worked the wood, a cigarette hung out of his mouth as if it was a permanent part of his physique. I got the impression he was short. Behind him was displayed an array of doghouses. Behind the doghouses was some sort of a quarry, but for wood that appeared to be scraps from construction projects.

Come to think of it, I'm not sure that the man I saw really was the Cara das Casinhas, because 200 metres further down the highway, as we went under a bridge, I saw half a dozen more people also working scrap wood to form different creative designs of doghouses. They all looked to be hard at work and highly productive, and I had the sense they knew how to work as a team. It looked like an efficient doghouse factory had been set up right there on the side of the highway.

Even though it was an eye-catching sight, considering all the activity of the doghouse-makers and the pure size of the operation, I'm not sure I would have noticed them if I hadn't been told to look out for the Cara das Casinhas. My friend who was driving told me that her exit came right after the Cara das Casinhas, so we had to keep an eye out for him.

As we drove, she told me his story. This guy was a homeless man who lived under a bridge, presumably the very bridge under which there now stood a bustling doghouse production line. Somehow he got into his mind to take advantage of the scrapwood in the surrounding neighbourhood and of the fact that there was a generous shoulder on the highway for cars to pull over right under his bridge. Somehow these two factors led him to start building doghouses. He put his creative juices together and made his home into his workshop, creating unusual designs of doghouses. Then when he had some houses to sell, he made a cute little display in the generous shoulder space under his bridge and started hawking his masterpieces to drivers commuting around the Marginal, the Sao Paulo "Beltway."

And it worked. The houses sold. He has now hired a staff of at least half a dozen, from what I saw that day, and he has moved away from the bridge, managing to buy himself a humanhouse with the doghouse proceeds.

Monday, August 18, 2008


A week ago today my grandmother, my Babci, passed away. It's been a crazy week and I was surprised how impacted I was by her passing. Though I was in the Middle East on my way to Brasil, I was able to make it to her funeral in New York. Anyway, I just wanted to share here my little tribute to Babci...

I am just back from Syria where I've spent much of my summer working with Iraqi refugees, and in the course of learning about their lives, I feel like I have come to understand my own Babci so much better. I thank God for giving me a grandmother who had the perspective and the experiences that she has. In my own unusual life path, she always understood and always encouraged me. She would tell me to go with the Lord Jesus and I would reply for her to stay with the Lord Jesus. She knew the way God took me was the way to go.

My refugee friends have taught me so much about how to live life. How pointless it is to worry about the future or revel in the past. It's too painful for them to look back and, anyway, everything they knew is gone. They desperately want to look forward but can't. They don't let themselves dream because they have no control over tomorrow. Even in the struggles of the present, they learn to live today with depth and intensity.

I think of my Babci. A woman known far and wide for her stubborn generosity. Some of her quirks, like drinking the juice produced by boiled vegetables and hopping the fence to go to church every day, those were just Sophie being Sophie. But her ability to just do what has to be done, I think that was a well-honed character quality. Even though she lived a fulfilling life in Patchogue most of her life, her broken English and her lack of a passport always tied her to a previous life that none of us knew. She knew Jesus, and her eyes were always on him. She had honed that ability to keep her eyes on Jesus through a lifetime of pain and uncertainty.

Babci was one of the most practical women I know. She was the most difficult person I've ever known to shop for - I just about gave up buying her birthday and mother's day gifts after a few times that she just gave them back to me on my birthday or at Christmas. She always focused on the needs of the present. If she had let her hopes and dreams move her the way that they still move me, I think she would have gone home to see her family, she would have become a U.S. citizen, she may have done many other interesting things. I always wondered why she didn't, but now I see that she mastered the art of living in the present. She walked step by step with Jesus, and Jesus didn't take her on any more adventures. Her heart still bled for family far away... and for today, the day she would see Jesus face to face... but she always obeyed day by day.

I have learned from my Babci that I need to walk everyday with Jesus, but haven't mastered the art of doing so. But Babci always understood that even in my own stumblings I have always been in the right place because this is the today God has given me. I am now learning to spend less time wondering where I will be in two months and instead spend more time loving the people that I see today. I am now the age that Babci was when she moved to the U.S. Maybe someday, just like my Babci, I will find myself in a place with a husband and family who needs me and live out the rest of my days there. I am going to miss my Babci, I am going to miss her commitment to always speaking the truth and giving me nuggets of wisdom on how to live life - nuggets that I didn't always want to hear! I'll also miss her obsession with feeding us, the "babci store" stash of clothes, her home remedies, walks to Pathmark and crossing the highway, and so much more. I never lived near Babci, but it's hard to imagine a world without her. Even from thousands of miles away, she was the foundation of who I am and who I want to be.

When I was a university student, just a little before Dzia-dzia (my grandfather) went, I did an interview with Babci and I just so happened to dig out the paper I wrote about her a few months ago when I was once again preparing my things for a move to an as-of-yet unknown location. I saved it out and so I just so happen to have it with me now. Here is some of what she had to say:

I never talked to my sister. We write, but we don't talk. Only my sister is now living. My brother have a three sons. My other sister has three children living in Russia. The sister is living in a small country between Russia and Poland. So you see, they're all in different countries.

The Russians took the two sisters. Only my brother stayed. He was in a different part of Poland which became free, after I was already here. I would wanna go back now for a visit. You know, from the beginning I worked to go back. Because, you know, there was home. Here, I had to learn everything, the language, the responsibilities.

The Lord gave me three families. The first was when I was born. The second was in Germany, people loved and supported me. Then the Lord gave me the third family which is here in the United States. He replaced the things with what I needed in life. Here is good, but here is a struggle for survival. People say here is everything, and they are right, here is a everything, but you have to struggle to survive. You have to know how to do something, how to get places. You see, these kinds of struggles, they are every place existing. We have to adapt, we have to know how to conquer.

I love my other two families. You don't lose the attitude, you don't lose the love. I cherish them all. Now I have bigger number of people to love. Yes, I would love to go back to Poland to visit! But I know in my heart it is impossible for me. It is hard to travel when you are old. I have a husband who is needing care. Someday, when we see the Lord, we will all see each other.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Portrait #46: Little Boy

I have a friend here who just so happens to know quite a few young men, chaps who are several years younger than herself. She knows them from work and from her studies, and they are nice people, but they are quite young and rather immature. She often refers to them as "walad saghir" - Little Boy. Grown up and yet still very young.

Another character from my border-crossing taxi experience would definitely qualify as "walad saghir". He introduced himself by saying, "You and your friend are so skinny, what do you do, eat nothing but salad?" And that may have been the most mature comment he made all day.

He and his friend decided that since we are foreigners we should flat-out give them money, or at least give them money to buy them and ourselves some breakfast. But we weren't hungry, so they went and bought loads of food on their own dime and tried to share it with us - to fatten us up. They said that there's no point trying to live these days, there's no hope of getting married anytime soon, life is work-eat-sleep with little chance for distraction in between. They were justifiably frustrated and figured that the answer was for one of us to marry them - just long enough for them to get a visa to our respective countries. That's easy enough, isn't it?

When we got to the Duty-Free Shop, things got very interesting, when our Little Boy decided that he would recover a bit of his expenses in travelling across the border for 9 hours (yes, he was only here for a total of 9 hours before catching a taxi home) by buying cigarettes at the Duty Free and selling them back home. He said the cigarettes were for his family, but no one in the car believed him.

The problem was, all his cash was in the wrong currency. He asked if we'd change it for him and at first I said no. Then he was desperate so I asked him how much. It was an enormous amount of cash, so I reiterated that the answer was no. He said, "Half that, then, just enough for me to buy the cigarettes." So we started talking exchange rate, and no one has ever offered me such a terrible exchange rate in my life!

I ended up taking pity on him and putting the cigarettes on my credit card, having him pay me back in the correct currency when we got to the other side of the border - in the meantime I would own four boxes of cigarettes (one per passenger, which is the customs limit). He wanted me to buy two litres of vodka as well, but that was a bit too racy for me... with much begging of everyone standing near the duty-free cashier, he managed to recruit someone else to purchase the alcohol.

Then he and his friend got into a fight and his friend disappeared. With his friend gone I now owned a pack of cigarettes that would be confiscated. So I started worrying, and began to panic when he left the car as well - in search of his friend and also in search of an official who could explain to him what exactly the duty limits were.

In the end, the cigarettes got in fine, he paid me back and all was good - until my friend got taxed on her alcohol purchase because (a) she didn't know the rules, and (b) our Little Boy had raised the custom official's attention. He came to us demanding 12 JD - a large sum on two packs of beer. We refused to pay, but he dragged us around the facility until an official told us that yes, my friend did owe duty and it was even more than 12 JD... The Little Boy turned to accusing us, somehow.

Then he accused me of demanding too much money of him when he paid me back for the cigarettes. But he was confused and when I explained the expense breakdown to him, he was convinced and apologised. He counted and fretted over his vodka and cigarettes and chatted at the poor driver the whole way into town about customs and duty free and travelling and marriage.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Portrait #45: Saudi?

He wore a white suit and aviator sunglasses. He was short and round and part-bald, and he carried a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. He surrendered the front seat of the taxi to me, the woman, but assumed that I and the other passenger would join him in paying extra so he wouldn't have to squeeze into the backseat. He spoke only English with me and Arabic with the Arabs and somehow through his bilingual status managed to take control of the business of sharing a taxi across the border. I hope I didn't disappoint him too much when I started speaking directly to the driver, in Arabic.

When I asked him where he's from, he told me he is Saudi, but later on in the drive it came out that's he's from here. But he lived in Saudi for a while and he and his family obtained citizenship there. He worked with government and non-profit organisations doing environment projects for many years, but he took early retirement to come home with his family, especially his daughters who are studying at university. In his retirement, he has a "Luxurious Homes" business in which he buys out flats in Amman and Damascus and remodels them to high standards then rents them out to foreign women with means. In our shared taxi he was on his way back home from Amman, where it's his second wife who runs the business.

His niece is studying psychology and I had some interesting ideas about networking and job opportunities for her in the Middle East, but he kept saying that he didn't have any connections and didn't know of any jobs. I kept suggesting connections and jobs and he kept saying that he didn't know any. I began to understand why we had that miscommunication later on in our taxi ride when he started trying to convert me to Islam, explaining how Islam within its first 100 years of existence spread from the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco, to the Pacific Ocean in China! He asked me if I know who Muhammad was, and seemed surprised I'd heard of the founder of Islam. A bit later he began explaining to me that local taxis try to take advantage of people new to town and so I should consider taking a bus home (even though there is no bus route from where we were dropped off to my home). I reminded him that I've lived here on and off for 7 years now, and he respected that but soon forgot again when he began explaining to me how the taxi system works.

He was very friendly, discussing local development work, and then offering me a discount on one of his luxury homes if I was interested. But then he failed to give me his contact information. He very much seemed at home in Damascus but he sported his Saudi passport with pride, nonchalantly handing it to the official while leaning back in his seat and puffing on his cigarette, endowing me with a lecture on the glories of Islam.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Portrait #44: Falahyeen

Today as I rode down the highway, I passed tent after tent set up for tomato harvest season. These tents sat up on the fringes of enormous fields of greenery. Outside one of the tents, there was a celebration going on: I could see the men dancing traditional dabke folkdance and the women sitting around clapping. But this was the exception. Most of the falahyeen were working hard.

Along the side of the highway there were fruit and vegetable stands set up in which about 80% of the produce offered were ripe red tomatoes. In the fields behind the produce stands, I could see the women in their long skirts and long-sleeved shirts and covered heads, tirelessly picking tomatoes off of vines.

Near one of the produce stands, there were half a dozen women crossing the road. Most of them had enormous buckets of tomatoes - there must have been 20 kilos of tomatoes in each bucket - resting on their heads as they sprinted across the south-bound lanes, then walked across the grass median strip to the north-bound lanes. They stood in the median strip waiting for us to zip by.

As we sped past them, I noticed they were wearing very bright clothing. One woman was wearing all red with faux gold coins adorning her headscarf and her waist. Another was wearing a blue skirt with a bright flowery blouse and a headscarf in another bright colour that I can't now remember. These women walked tall and strong and with unending energy.

On one Saturday a month ago, we actually joined three falahyeen women in their work. They were picking rocks out of a field that is used for a eco-agriculture project, and we joined them for two hours to help them clear the rocks away. We worked for two hours and went straight for the cola and tea. They had had been there before we arrived, but they managed to make a dazzling party for us out of the arduous task. Each girl wore a long skirt and trousers under the skirt, a warm long-sleeved blouse and a headscarf. But I don't think they wore it for decency - after all, they were happily flirting with the boys in our group. But it's what they wear.

Some of us stopped by their home after the work was over for the day, and they had cleaned up from a dirty day in the fields. Their faces were still dark and sunburnt, their heads still covered, their smiles just as wide. And their clothes just as bright. They looked about ready to start making their lunch but wanted to stop and drink tea with us before we headed back into the city.

The falahyeen I saw today lived in tents on the sides of the fields. They are a sort of migrant worker, going to the fields where there is work, when there is work. Right now the tomatoes in the south need picking. The sun in August is relentless here, and they work all day in the fields. But their energy doesn't let up. They jog and laugh and party, and the girls talk with boys and the boys with girls. They get the tomatoes picked and even take them to the produce stands to be sold on. Their clothes are as bright as their smiles, which are just about as bright as August tomatoes.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Portrait #43: Images

I have several very brief little images running through my mind, so instead of portraiting one person, here are a few photo snapshots...

- A green baby shoe resting on the wheelwell of a minibus (service). It was bright and clean and looked brand-new, and was resting gently on the side of the wheelwell as if it were stuck there with glue. Who did that shoe belong to? How harried was the mother, or were the parents, when they got on and off that service? When did they notice the shoe was gone and where are they now? Did the baby girl notice that her own shoe was missing... is she crying right now because she lost her favourite new green shoe and her mummy won't let her go out wearing only one green shoe?

- The doorman at the UN office I've visited every day this week. Though there is a metal detector in place, he hasn't been checking bags lately, and someone else is responsible for checking ID cards, so his job is simply to open the door to let people into the facility. He has come to recognise me and shoots a huge grin my way whenever I arrive and whenever I leave. He shook my hands a few times. He does little but smile and shake my hand, never really chats beyond the expected "Good morning" or "Welcome". He must love his job because he pops that door open with such zest. Or maybe he just loves seeing lots of foreigners come and go.

- The man who is fixing my purse zipper right now. He has a tailor shop barely large enough to hold him, his sewing machine and his pile of mending. He promised to have the job done by last night but when I went to pick it up because he was stressed out by the fact he hadn't been able to find a perfectly matching zipper. He said he'd looked all over town for the right colour, and I found myself believing him. The zipper he found was of a similar colour, but he wasn't going to start the repair until I agreed, and then it would take an extra day. I can just see him standing there in his little room, around mid-day yesterday, holding his wrong-colour zipper in one hand and my bag in the other hand... trying to decide whether to start with the wrong zipper or not and deciding he'd best check with the customer first.

- The woman who came in to change the sheets in my room the other day. I told her not to bother because my sheets were still clean, but that proposition frightened her. "But today's the day to change the sheets!" she protested. I insisted that I have been staying here for two months and it's unnecessary to change my sheets every two nights, especially as I don't always even sleep on them. She very hesitatingly agreed to not change the sheets, and proceeded to remove, remake and straighten the existing sheets, giving the me impression that she didn't want there to be any pretence for anyone to accuse her of not doing her job.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Portrait #42: Priest

Today we went to visit a village with a large new private university and a church that has an impressive collection of antiquities. The priest of the church was our host for the day, and he took his job very seriously. Actually, I think he took pretty much everything seriously.

His original plan was to take us to see the antiquities at the church and to see the university before treating us to lunch, but when we arrived late, he quickly amended his plan to cater to our growling stomaches. We followed him, him in his car and us in our bus, to a very nice restaurant on the edge of the university campus. When we got out of the bus, he came up to greet us. Even dressed in traditional priest's garb, a black robe over black trousers, black socks and black shoes, with a black button-down collarless shirt pulled over it all, I know this priest could have been a bouncer in another life. In his super-thick yet fashionable eyeglasses and cropped black hair and thick beard, he towered over us all and smiled shyly. He wore a wedding ring but gave us his undivided attention all afternoon - I don't think he spoke on a mobile phone the entire time we were there!

He quickly said hello to us all in broken English and led us into the restaurant, where he'd reserved a very nice table. He asked how many of us wanted soup and we all eagerly raised our hands - we haven't had soup all summer! So he and the restaurant manager had a bit of a chat in which he proceeded to order enough appetizers to feed five times our group - plus onion soup. Then he pulled out a notebook and a pen and handed it to the person closest to him, asking her to write her name, hometown and email address down for him so that he could keep in touch. This got passed around the table and when we finished, he read our names out loud to make sure he now knew us.

I learned an interesting lesson this afternoon. It is dangerous to order food for other people when one is fasting. See, the priest was fasting today, and I'm sure treating us to our best lunch all summer was a labour of love for him. But he ordered much, much more food than we could ever eat. By the time the main dish came, many of us barely ate more than a bite, and we felt bad for wasting it. When we commented, half-jokingly and half-seriously, about the inordinate amount of food he'd ordered, he smiled and said, "Mit Ahlan wa Sahlan." One hundred welcomes. When we mentioned how good it was and how amazingly full we were, he smiled and said we were very welcome. I don't think he quite grasped the fact that we actually were stuffed to the brim. So in general, I'd recommend that you not order food for others when you yourself are fasting. In this case, I just hope someone got to eat all the leftovers.

After lunch, the priest took us to his church and showed us the ancient stone carvings behind the altar. The Orthodox girls in our group were shocked that he took us behind the altar at all. But he insisted that we must see it - and proceeded to guide us carefully around the altar, not in front of it. Then he led us to the room that held ancient icons and books, and described each one to us in detail.

His English was good but his vocabulary was very weak. Whenever he got to a word he didn't know in English, he'd stop what he was saying and stare at us blankly. Then he'd say the word in Arabic, hoping one of us bilingual people would translate it for us.

When telling us the names of places and people, he'd repeat each name very very clearly for us, then repeat it again, in a tone that suggested he expected us to be taking notes.

Finally, he took us to the university. We were running quite late for our next appointment, so he had us walk quickly, but he still found a young man who works at the university to give us a full tour and took us up to meet the VP of the board of trustees. He took his job as host very seriously and apologised for not showing us the entire village, even though in Arabic I heard him register some surprise that we wanted to see such a minor village in the first place.

Then he followed us all back to the bus and bid his farewells in a sad tone that suggested he was disappointed he could not spend more time with us. He said he hoped we had had a good afternoon and hoped that our next rendezvous went well. We applauded our priest, by far the most devoted tour guide we've had all summer. Then he bid a very warm farewell to our bus driver and went on his way.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Scenario #7: Is this an abuse of women's rights?

One thing I love about here is the local service system. A service here is 12-passenger van that transports people along a set bus route. I really love them because they are extremely frequent, often one per minute, and quite cheap. Because they are relatively small, I maintain that there's a sense of community on them that one doesn't get on big impersonal buses. Unfortunately, I've heard they're phasing out services and replacing them with full-sized buses, so public transportation may soon not be as much fun as it is now.

There's an interesting phenomenon that sometimes happens on services. Because they have a limited number of seats, they fill up quickly when traffic is heavy or when there is a lag between services on a given route. When the twelve seats are full, that's it, no more space. If you're a girl, that is. If you're a girl and you flag down a full service, it won't stop for you. And if you're a girl and there is a full service stopped at a traffic light, you're expected to not get on.

But if you're a guy and you flag down a full service, it very well may stop because the driver assumes you'll be willing to stoop in the aisle in order to reach your destination - after all you don't know how long it will be until a non-full service might come by! And of course, if you're a guy, and a full service pulls up at a red light, why not open the side door and crowd yourself into whatever empty space is left?

Last night I was heading home during rush hour and waited quite a while for my service. A full one had come by and not stopped, me being a girl and all... Then a service came by that had an empty seat or two but didn't see me waving madly at it because there was another van blocking my line of vision to the driver. Then about 20 minutes passed before the next service came, which was not only full after such a long wait, but also had three men crouched in the tiny aisle space.

So when the next service headed in my direction pulled up to the traffic light, I got in. Even though all the seats were taken, the aisle had not yet had any takers, so I crouched down over the wheel well. I'd been waiting all this time with a friend, and when I told her I would do this, she had been shocked. Then when I'd told her that before long someone would give me his seat and take the crouching position himself, she had laughed and nodded.

And that is exactly what happened. I settled in for a long uncomfortable ride, but about 300 metres down the road, a gentleman in a military uniform got up and insisted I took his seat.

Now seated properly as a woman should, I began to feel a bit guilty. I've generally thought that it's an injustice to women that we are not given an equal opportunity to board a full service, and for that reason I've assumed the crouching-in-the-aisle position many times in order to reach my destination and assert my equal rights. Why should only men have that right?! But then I looked at the kind older army dude who had given me his seat and I realised that he'd waited 300 metres to offer me his seat because he'd been waiting to see who else would be a gentleman first. When no one else offered, he felt he had to. It wasn't really fair to him that, because of his culture's moral values regarding respecting women, I forced him out of his seat. Perhaps this 'injustice' is in fact only an unexpected consequence of the respect shown to women in Arab culture.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Portrait #41: A business consultant

The other night we were invited to dinner-with-the-Bishop. This was billed as a big deal. And since, even though I don't know him personally very well, I love this bishop who has been our host for the past two months, I did feel honoured by the invitation. Also invited were several members of a family community group that he leads. The dinner was out at a church that was built as a monument commemorating where Paul had his vision of Jesus and was knocked off his horse. It is in an idyllic setting just out of Damascus, surrounded by farmland and marked by a constant gentle breeze.

The bishop was late, and we ended up sitting enjoying the view and the breeze on a covered patio for over an hour. It was pleasant enough, but we were hungry and so perhaps not as friendly as we should have been. On this large patio which could easily seat a few hundred people, a dozen foreigners (us) hunched together on one side, and about three dozen families from the church chatted amongst themselves on the other side. We started to joke about how they were sitting on one side of the table gearing up for the food arrival, and we were sitting our side of the table doing the same. On your mark, get set, GO GRAB FOOD... and hence would begin the third world war. So much for the noble goal of reconciliation which brought us here in the first place!

When the kind and dignified bishop arrived, he led us in prayers and introductions for about half an hour before the food was served. It was nearly 11 p.m. by the time we ate our dinner, which was distributed by half a dozen volunteers, thereby evading any potential fights at the serving table. And as soon as we were done eating we were pretty much ready to go home. But the bishop, late though he was, had somehow picked up on our failure to blend with each other. He went to his side, where his community group members sat eating, and instructed them to come socialise with us. Then he instructed our leader to pass on the word that mingling was good. So we couldn't leave until we'd chatted with each other.

A man in his late fifties came up to me to mingle. He asked me in broken English if I speak Arabic and when I said yes, he continued the conversation in a mix of classical Arabic and English, in a very quiet voice. When he talked he leaned in close to me and I had to lean in as well to make out what he was saying. At this late hour, the surrounding farmland was beginning to smell a bit like manure so I will always have the impression that this unsuspecting gentleman smelled bad. But it wasn't his fault at all, it was the fault of the neighbouring cows.

Between the noise of other similar conversations happening around me and my own exhaustion, I had a terrible time making out what he was saying. So he pulled me over to a bench and we sat down for a chat. He asked me two questions about myself, the usual suspects: where am I from, and how long have I been in this country? These are two somewhat complicated questions for me to answer, and I think he took my confused answers as indicating I'd misunderstood the questions, so he asked them again a few times. Then I don't think I asked him anything before he dove into a description of what he does.

He is a business consultant. Right now he is working for a Dutch pharmaceutical company that just this summer got bought out by an American pharmaceutical company. His former employer had an office in Brazil, but he never had an opportunity to go there. But he has been to Europe, sometimes for several months at a time, and with this new merger maybe he'll get to go to America. His job is very interesting, especially because he changes employers every five years or so. Always something new. He gets to travel a lot. He's worked for several of the major multinationals operating in this country. And he's very good at his job: any company he works with succeeds. So even though he wanted to leave his current job at the beginning of the summer, they persuaded him to stay through at least until the merger was complete. He does get three weeks holiday per year and travels with his family but, honestly, he's so used to First Class seats when he travels that it's hard to switch back. He loves his job because there is always something new.

In this midst of this conversation, which entailed a lot of glorious praise for his successful career as a business consultant on his part, and a lot of nodding on my part, I asked him if he had family. He pointed to a woman who had not taken the bishop's advice - she was sitting on the far side of the room chatting with a friend - and said she was his wife. Then he pointed at a girl who was chatting with other members of our group and said that that was his daughter. Then he went back to telling me the name of a company in Switzerland that he'd worked at and being surprised that I'd never heard of it. He has always worked locally, never been permanently posted abroad, so his wife and daughter have always lived here, but he has done well for himself nonetheless.

At first I thought I'd never met someone who loved his job quite so much, but in retrospect I think he simply wasn't sure what else to chat about. In my state of exhaustion I wasn't good at suggesting different topics of conversation, and this was the thing he knows best. I felt a bit sorry for him when I realised he felt forced to come chat with me, and then found that he didn't know how to make small talk with a foreigner who wasn't able to follow his classical Arabic-English combination. Somehow, a bank that he works with came up in the conversation and then he mentioned that the director of a local bank was also with us that evening. He called that man over and introduced us, then he escaped to chat with someone more interesting. In turn, the banker and I chatted for about two minutes, then we each went our separate ways as well.