Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Grateful for Grace

 I started writing out a list of the things for which I'm grateful, and found myself lingering on Grace.

Grace is something I want to ponder more and more. I am continuously at the receiving end of it. I may be (or feel) unlovable, but I experience grace over and over and over. Grace feels a little like a pity party - what we extend to people we can't love but who we know could use some loving - but I am grateful for grace nonetheless. I bask in it.

I feel it being lopped into my lap from all ends. Well, almost all ends. Maybe it's more accurate to say that the experiences of grace fill my heart all the more because they stand in such stark contrast against the withholding of grace. Some people have indeed been inspiring me by their grace lately, and some of them are the people from whom I may have least expected it. But they just do it. It's as simple as that. And it's beautiful.

My definition of grace this week is as follows: grace is allowing another person their space, but doing so in community. Maybe that's not the best definition ever, I mean it obviously isn't the most brilliant definition ever. But that's the grace I need these days: I need to be given my space but know that people are still nearby.

Grace is the person who sits next to you on the sofa helplessly watching you cry. They don't get up, they don't tell you to stop, they don't try to sneak in a hug because that's-what-cool-friends-do. They just sit there and nod, pray or wait until you're ready to talk. Grace is watching you spin and spin and spin yourself dizzy until you collapse, perhaps doing a little spinning along just for the fun of it, or perhaps just smiling. But they don't egg you on to spin harder, they don't try to stop you, and they don't calling in a crowd of others to watch you make a fool of yourself. When you collapse, Grace is standing there ready to help you back up, or is sitting on that sofa making sure there is space for you to sit, inviting you to take a breather if you want.

As the recipient of grace, perhaps I am being terribly selfish and self-centered, but that's not the point. The point is that I'm becoming more and more grateful for the experiences of grace in my life. I'm going to cry and I'm going to spin - that's just the phase of life that I'm at right now. And those people who accept that about me, without trying to try to make it more intense and without trying to make it stop, I'm so grateful for them. Those people who walk away have every right to walk away - no one wants to be around a weepy spinner - but those people who stick it out are emulating the character of God. I hope to learn from them, return the favour someday, or perhaps pay it forward to someone else.

Merry Christmas, dear Emily and everyone else who is part of the Imperfect Prose community. Loving the grace I feel amongst you!

Monday, December 19, 2011

the first twitch of the itch

Yesterday I was catching up on the news, as I tend to do over the weekends - how people stay on top of the news everyday is beyond me! I need to schedule time on the weekends to catch up.

Anyway, being December, there were a lot... A LOT... of "year in review" kinds of articles out there. Here is how I read them:

One year anniversary of Arab Spring... already? It's been a year? I was there for part of that.
A new country was born this year... I was sitting around with the Northern Sudanese fretting in resignation about the referendum.
Famine in Somalia... yeah, this has been intense indeed for my colleagues.
Flooding in Thailand... I wonder if I'd be there today if I were still in the Asia programme.
Syria's ongoing struggle beginning to be dubbed a 'civil war'... Oh how I wish I could have seen my friends in Syria one last time before going back wasn't an option anymore.
End of the war in Iraq... a million memories of my work with Iraqi refugees flooded back to me.

And so on and so forth.

As I read, it slowly dawned on me that world events will likely cease to be as personally relevant to me as I begin to settle into my more geographically defined life. My friendships with Egyptians, Timorese, Sudanese, and Syrians will always be there, but they will fade a little bit in my consciousness. I won't read the news with as much personal investment as I have for the last several years.

And so I felt the first twitch of the itch. I don't want to give that up. Yes, I do want to give up the instability, rootlessness and emotional fall-out. But I don't want to give up the sense that I am somehow connected, albeit in a distant manner, from the challenges facing humankind around the world. Reading the news and receiving the odd email from a friend out there isn't going to feel as intimate to me as being there myself. I'm escaping and they can't escape.

I know it's different on too many levels to compare, and I think my reaction is part-guilt, part-adventurer and only part-solidarity. For all three of these motivations, there's something very tantalising about re-subjecting myself to the whims of a major international relief agency. I'm not going to do it, but I've got to brace myself against the itch which is unlikely to calm over the course of the coming months.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

There are things I can't bring myself to write

Are there things that you're too ashamed to admit to, even to yourself, even in your deepest heart?

I think I have a lot of those. They're not even dark secrets or horridly embarrassing things; they're just things that I don't feel comfortable admitting. Sometimes, I write them down and then I look back at the paragraph I just wrote and feel like someone else wrote it; it just doesn't look right. But usually, I can't even bring myself to write them in a private journal or say out loud to an empty room.

These things generally have to do with my deepest desires and fears. I think I'm unwilling to put them into words because I'm such an analytical person, and so I know that I'm not really sure I want or fear those things and that my heart can be so easily affected by external circumstances, as I explored in my previous post. So they stay unformulated. And so they are not realised. I don't face the fear, I don't pursue the desires.

I wonder if I should change that. I think I probably should change that.

But it's not happening today. Maybe I could bring myself to do it, but not on this blog because this is that moment at which I realise that I do, indeed, care about what other people think. I don't want you to know my deepest desires and fears. I'm not sure why, but I think it's because I fear your reaction. I don't quite know why I should fear your reaction, but I do.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Life is flying by too quickly.

Way too quickly.

I feel like I should have had certain goals for my youth which I have not yet achieved, and really, I'm not sure I want to have achieved them yet. I am perfectly fine with living my life.

But I'm at this age where, on average once a week or once a fortnight, I learn of another friend who has met the love of her life, or proposed to his girlfriend, or is pregnant with their first child, or something equally moving-on-ish.

I don't want to begrudge them their joy, but I am not moving on and I miss them.

Do I wish I'd met the love of my life and set a date for wedding bells? Do I yearn to hold my own baby in my arms? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, but I almost inevitably feel some degree of peace and confidence that those things are not for today. But every time I get news of a friend hitting these life changes, all of a sudden I feel that longing, even while I know that it's not for the right reasons.

This week, there was one day where I felt perfectly content with taking transition slowly, and figuring out, one day at a time, what I was to do, so much so that I didn't want to talk to anyone at all. Then the next day, I received one of these bits of news and my entire emotional state was reversed. I imagine I should land somewhere in between: never complacent but always content.

It's funny, really, because I think I have a reputation as a person who moves fast, who jumps into change and transition quickly. To some extent I agree: once I've made up my mind about something I don't see the point in faffing around in preparation. So yes, it's true, that I put an offer on the 6th house I viewed, only a day after I'd started viewing properties. It's true that more times than my loved ones care to count, I've called up a brother or an uncle or a parents and said I'd be moving back from Timbuktu and arriving in two days' time, could I please crash at their place for a coule of days/weeks.

But these are the little things. And my loved ones also know that I've been studying listings and even had an estate agent on the hunt for my perfect flat, for several years already. They know that I was applying for jobs for two years before accepting the job which had me floating around the world as if I was driving from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Staten Island every day. It takes me a while to be ready for the change, but once I'm ready I'm ready.

One thing I know is that life is about the journey. I've learned several languages, obtained several academic qualifications, and done pretty well at work. These were the doors that opened for me, and so I walked through them. I don't regret them. What I do regret is that life would...not...stop long enough for me to enjoy those experiences and still have time for living the rest of life. I struggle with the fact that now that I'm back on solid ground for a while, the people I used to jaunt and scavenge and dream with, now have spouses and children and homes of their own. They are still my friends and I dearly love them, but their lives have moved on and mine has not. Yes, I suppose it's true that I walked away for a while, but while I was gone, that relational-hole in their lives has been filled up by others and there's not the same kind of space there once was for me. (Perhaps as a parallel, I could say that I haven't filled my hole, I just threw a lid over it.)

The other day, a friend was commenting about how women need to be careful because our childbearing years don't last forever. Sadly, this is true, but it honestly doesn't bother me so much for the sake of myself, as it does for the sake of the fact that if I do someday have kids, they'll be so much younger than my best friends' kids and than their cousins. I know I can't ask everyone else to stop living while I savour today's adventure, but sometimes I really, really wish I could.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Living with Uncertainty

You're standing in a doorway. Not a doorway to a house, but a doorway to a train, or a motorhome, or maybe even the hatch to a big boat.

You have just arrived at your destination, and by all accounts it is an amazing place. But you've never been here before. So you're standing at the doorway, waiting for the train to stop at the platform, for the motorhome to pull into the driveway, for the boat to dock, because the moment you feel the motion under you stop, you are going to jump out and explore this new land!

The train stops. The motorhome turns its engine off. The boat anchors. You're now free to open the door and so you eagerly reach for the button, or the handle, or the lever. The door opens. The rays of sun hit your eyes, the chill of the cold fresh air attacks the nerves on your cheek. It's glorious.

But once the door is open, you don't run down the stairs or bound onto the platform as you'd imagined you would. You stand there, enjoying the rays of sun and the fresh air on your cheeks. You breathe deeply and sigh.

After a couple of minutes standing like that, the other passengers start to nudge you. They saw you anxiously waiting to land, pushing up against the door with urgency and anticipation, and now that you're here, you're not getting out. You turn around and SHHH them, telling them to enjoy the moment.

But then you start to wonder, Why haven't you gotten out? Why haven't you started to explore this new land that you've so anxiously awaited?

So you turn around and look into your little motorhome, or train car, or boat hold. You look at the things you know and are oh-so-tired of seeing: the same drab walls, the same smudged chairs, the same piece of paper eternally stuck under the leg of that same table with the same set of scratches. The artwork looks so familiar you could probably create it yourself, and the fact that the edge of that frame is chipped has never irritated you more than it does today. You are ready, oh so ready, for this new land!

Now the others in your group are rushing past you and disembarking. They've given up on giving you the coveted first-one-off status. Soon they will have left you on-board, all by yourself. You should get off.

What keeps you on this boat/train/motorhome? Are you (a) scared of what's out there? Are you (b) more in love with your drab familiar surroundings than you thought? Or are you (c) dreading the moment when the unknown mystery becomes, itself, familiar? (Or are you (d) thinking this is a silly illustration because you've already got off the boat like a normal person?!)

I suspect for me it's a little bit of all three, but I think option C is a huge part of it. I love the mystery. I like asking the questions. I love learning and I love the answers, but I probably love the unknown even more. This makes the days spent in transit to a new destination a fun adventure, and makes the arrival somewhat painful. I'm still going to walk down those stairs into the new world, but if I take slow steps then the unknown will last a little bit longer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Be patient, or Just get on with it?

It's been a very, very long time since my life has resembled anything which I might consider 'normal'. And, of course, since 'normal' is such an elusive concept, I should probably think about how I define that. I think the way I define it is in terms of role models: 'normal' means that I can look to someone else's example and feel like their reality bears enough in common with mine, that I can learn from them. There are a great many people I admire in this world, for sure, but I don't see them as role models, because I feel like their world is too different from mine to bear any fair comparison. Is this wrong? Perhaps. But I can't help but feel that most of the advice I receive is based on assumptions thadon't apply to me. For example, most of the people I admire are married with children, and got married at a much younger age than I certainly will; so it feels like the wisdom they share from their experience of relationships or friendships is based on a reality which revolves a lot more around family than my life can. That's just an example, and perhaps it's a terrible useless cliché and I should think of a more valid example. Anyway, maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like that.

At the same time, I do know people whose life has a lot in common with mine, for sure! But I have a hard time respecting their decisions. Many of them have a fundamentally different set of values from me, and others seem to have become embittered in a way that I desperately try to avoid being (the jury's still out regarding my success in avoiding bitterness. but I want to try, anyway).

So all that is to say in a roundabout way, that I'm really struggling with how much of my life I shoul djust accept. And how much of it I need to resist. When I feel so tired, so emotionally worn-out, should I indulge that and rest up? Or should I struggle against it and just keep trudging forward? Since I've spent most of my life trudging, I'm inclined to err on the side of indulging now. But I really wish I had the answer. I really wish I had a good sense of whether I should watch a film while eating dinner, then do some light tidying up tonight. Or if I should try to reply to emails, find friends on skype and write an article? I don't know.And I don't know who can tell me.

So inevitably, I will likely spend the next five hours alternating between the two. Watch half a film with dinner. Then start some work but not finish. Then sit and stare at the wall while I listen to Christmas music. Then pull out the revision I'm working on and re-re-re-revise the first page while not sticking it out long enough to revise the subsequent 5 pages. Then watch 10 more minutes of the film before thinking I should check if so-and-so is online, then reply to some emails but not the important ones. And thus the evening will end. I'll get some stuff done. I'll feel a little rested. But would it not be better to choose a path and commit to it?

Is this procrastination? I don't think so, because I kind of think the resting option might be the right option. I've read books and I've sat through many sessions of receiving good advice, but none has yet felt like it matched the situation. I'm open to more advice but not sure if I'll feel I can follow it??

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Contradictory symptoms

I'm lonely and I'm tired.

And that about sums it up.

Especially because to resolve the one seems to be a big step backwards toward resolving the other. Lonely --> go out and try to bond people --> exhausted. Tired --> rest and sleep --> no human interaction.

Tired is a much easier problem to address, so I will probably continue - as I have for a while - to put more energy into resolving that one. (Did I say put 'energy' into resolving tiredness? Yeah, I guess I did.)

Actually, I suspect I'm feeling the loneliness a little bit more acutely this week because maybe I'm a tad less tired than I've been for a while. Up til the last week or two, I was so tired that I only really thought about addressing that. Now I'm tired but not so tired that I can't feel my loneliness.

Soon I'll be rested enough to start addressing the loneliness. I'm going to have to put all these new skills I'm learning about loving and being loved into practice! Am I ready? Do I know what I need to know? Is my heart ready for the risks? Do I have enough wisdom to figure out what, exactly, I'm supposed to be doing?

I do hope so. I sincerely hope that a year from now I am not writing about being lonely and tired. May I have different problems in a year.

And, since during the last year, one place where I have decidedly not felt lonely has been Imperfect Prose, it seems appropriate that today be the day when I am finally, after a 4+ month silence, linking up once again with Emily's lovely community.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Every so often I go through a day or two of feeling unlovable. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that every so often I realise just how much I feel unlovable.

If you're reading this and you're someone I know, chances are that at one point or another I have wondered why you can't love me. (Unless you're my parents... my parents have never given me reason to doubt their love for me... but I have a feeling that has more to do with them than it does with me.) But anyone else, why can't you love me?

Now, at this point, I feel fairly confident that you are having one of two reactions. Either you are mentally listing off the reasons why you can't love me. Or you are pitying me for feeling unlovable because it's not true.

I ask myself why I feel unlovable, and I have a good idea that this is one of those self-fulfilling prophecies. If I believe I am unlovable, I am unlovable. Yes, I suppose I do push people away. For a long time I had to keep people at arm's length because it hurt too much to draw near and then sever ties. Actually, I write that in the past tense, but this still describes most of my friendships. I didn't want to love because I didn't want to feel guilty for walking, as I inevitably would. And now I've forgotten how to draw near.

But I think there's something else that I fear. As any true introvert might, I'm realising that I am actually scared of people. I am passionate about people and care for humanity, and I'm a sociologist who has made a career of people, but even so I'm scared. I know my little corner and I like my little corner. I like the predictability of my space and I like having time to sit by myself. People distract me from time spent by myself. I love people, too, but I'm scared of losing that little bit of comfort, the only comfort I've been able to count on for quite a while. My introverted comfort. Well, that and West Wing.

So I find myself refusing to love, even when I don't mean to. And so I seem to be unlovable.

I wonder how many other women struggle with feeling unlovable. I'd venture to guess that a lot of us do, even if for different reasons.

I wonder how many men struggle with feeling unlovable. I can't help but suspect not as many.

Since my last post was about rejecting the lies in our lives, I do want to say here that I acknowledge the lie inherent behind what I've written just now. But I don't yet have a truth to counteract it. And if anyone is reading this, and wants to say that the Truth is that God loves me, then I will reply by saying that that tells us a lot more about God than it does about me. And if that's just the way it is, then maybe I just need to accept my unlovable-ness for what it is.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I'm back!

CulturTwined is still going strong and is where I'm focusing my efforts, but I've felt the need to be a little more contemplative in my writing than I have in the past. A good friend has always been telling me to have an "open heart", something that in theory I think I have, but in practice I know I don't. I'm open to the idea of having an open heart, and I want to be open, but the reality is that the life I've lived has taught me to shut down.

So I'm going to attempt a deeper level of introspection, of self-analysis, here. It's a little scary to consider... I've always worked pretty hard to not bare too much to the world in these parts. But I feel like God has convicted me about starting to slowly pick away at my defenses, and this is the best place I know to start. So I don't know how this is going to pan out, I have no idea how often I'll be posting here or what I'll be writing about, and I don't necessarily expect anyone to read it - after all, who wants to read the self-examination of another human being? But I'm declaring myself "back" - to myself, anyway.

And see? Here is where I'm stuck. The message at church tonight really convicted me about something in my life: it was about acknowledging the Truth of God in our lives and challenging the Lies we tell ourselves. The preacher-lady gave several examples from her own life of how this plays out and, I can't remember which of her stories sparked it, but I realised that I'm dealing with a lie in my life. She said something about the opposite of faith being fear. Faith obviously equating with Truth, with Fear obviously equating with Lies.

Because just earlier today I was thinking about how scared I am of things that I really want. So then I begin to question whether I really want them - how can I want something when I fear it? And therein lies the lie: it's actually not a question of whether I want it or not, maybe I do and maybe I don't. But God has promised me what he's promised me, and I have to have faith that he's going to do what what he promised, without fear - regardless of my own desires which, to be fair, I don't even understand.

So that's my lesson for today. Have faith, learn how to let the faith defeat the fear. Believe the promise and stop wondering whether I want to or not, because the Truth is the Promise, not my desire. The fact I need to want it is the Lie. And then God will do what he'll do.

But it goes a bit further than this, to be fair... if I don't learn how to do the above, then there's no reason to expect God's promises to come true, is there? Which may be what I want, but it shouldn't be, should it?

Was this ridiculously cryptic? Probably. I'm not very good at this open-heart thing.

Friday, September 2, 2011

It's time!!!

Rev your engines... switch your RSS feeds... and consider joining in the conversation!

Today was the first post on my the blog. Check it out at:

To subscribe to the feed, use...

And if you're a writer or a picture-taker or someone who likes diversity, please consider contributing a story. I want this blog to be a conversation, and the culturtwining that happens there will be all the better the more cultures we have to intertwine.

I'm going to miss this blog. The past few years that I've spent here, and the lovely people I've met through this space, especially in the Imperfect Prose community, have meant a great deal to me.

I might keep it alive when I just want to rant about my angst in life or things like that. But I'm not sure I can keep up with two blogs so that may or may not happen.

Monday, August 29, 2011


After I first got back to the U.S., I was watching TV with my brother one night when a commercial for some kind of medicine came on. I honestly can't remember what kind of medicine it was, except that it was targeting men around their 60s.

The main character of the commercial said something along the following: "Before XXX, my life was awful. I couldn't do this, I couldn't do that, this and that were always hurting... Then!" And he took on a very positive tone. "Then! I discovered such-and-such medicine. Now, I can play ball with my grandkids, barbeque..." He was walking in a green area with a fence as he said this. "This doesn't hurt anymore, and this actually feels good! Plus!" The tone of his voice was truly joyful now. "Plus! This can cause backache, headache, kidney failure, migraines, heart failure, brain aneurisms, etc. etc. etc.!!!!!"

It was only toward the end of the litany of potential disastrous side effects that I realised that he was listing potential disastrous side effects.

After all, he just sounded so happy about it that I almost missed the fact that there were side effects at all.

I mentioned this to my brother who told me that there's a new law stating that side effects need to be an active part of the commercial, not just a quick mutttered-off list at the end. Well, ok. This commercial followed that rule, but the side-effects sound better, not worse, when communicated this way.

THEN... I learned about the new rules for cigarette label advertising. The FDA is also wanting to make sure customers really, really, really, understand the risks. So much so that now cigarette companies need to advertise anti-smoking campaigns on their products. They need to advertise against themselves. Not just warn, but promote... in pretty graphic ways! Check out these ads from the FDA site if you haven't already seen them...

I don't know, I tend to think they're going a bit overboard. Exaggerating can have the opposite effect, can't it? This all just seems a bit weird to me, that's all.

Friday, August 26, 2011

bloggers in Libya

This article is fascinating! A bit long, though, so here are some of my favourite quotes:

Six months on and it is heartbreaking to look at how eerie the Libyan blogosphere is, row upon row of bloggers in Libya are silent because of the on-going war. From the silent ones you realize that they are in the cities under Gaddafi control and therefore have no access to the internet.

[Ghida's] old blog is gone and only the one with poetry is left up.

Six months on and it is heartbreaking to look at how eerie the Libyan blogosphere is, row upon row of bloggers in Libya are silent because of the on-going war. From the silent ones you realize that they are in the cities under Gaddafi control and therefore have no access to the internet.

So if you are in the liberated parts of Libya you can expect to express yourself freely against the Gaddafi government...

I don't know yet if you can criticize the National Transitional Council though!

one of the few blogs which is not with the rebels... If posting from Libya then it must be manned by Gaddafi's electronic army because ordinary Libyans in Tripoli do not have access to internet unless they got hold of a VSAT or Thuraya phone. However, obviously the person running the blog is putting a lot of effort into finding news, links and photos that aim to counteract the news in the MSM about rebel gains...

The blogger is wondering why his or her voice is not featured in the media...

Thanks for the insight...

when a good idea goes terribly, terribly wrong

A few months ago, I blogged about how an anti-female circumcision campaign MAY have resulted in an increased rate of girls being circumcised. Well, today I have another example of a well-intentioned (I think) idea that may have made a problem worse: Fake Cigarettes.

I suppose I could post a photo here of them, but I'd rather not advertise them. Here's why...

I have now encountered these items three times.

The first time was on an airplane. As I walked up the aisle to the w.c. I noticed a man sitting slouched in his seat with a relaxed look on his face. A trail of smoke was wafting up by his face. I followed the line of smoke down to his hand and found a cigarette there. Alarm bells screamed in my brain as I envisioned the fumes reaching a smoke detector somewhere on the ceiling of the plane, setting off whistles and causing an emergency landing. Plus, he was only three rows behind me and I hate that smell! So I started glancing around the cabin in search of a flight attendant. Not immediately sighting one, I looked at the man again and realised that there was a little glowing light bulb where the embers would usually be burning, and then realised I couldn't smell anything. It was not a real cigarette, just a brilliant imitation.

The second time was actually a sales booth hawking the things on a Friday afternoon on Canary Wharf, near all the young professionals in suits chilling at pubs. A friend and I stopped to ask more about these strange inventions and the sales rep was thrilled to give us a demo. He said he especially enjoys selling them to non-smokers, as my friend and I were. I have no idea why he likes that particular challenge, since we didn't have much positive feedback to offer him and certainly didn't buy any. He explained to us that they still burn, but not enough to exceed regulation levels of fumes - they work a bit like arguile (i.e. hookah or shisha). Fake cigarettes do have nicotine, but much less than regular cigarettes. Actually, they come in three different strengths: almost-full nicotine, reduced nicotine, and no nicotine. In that sense, they can be used for cutting down. But the sales rep said that he doesn't see that as the point. He likes that he can smoke without having to worry about no-smoking zones and without feeling like he's inconveniencing others with the stench. They make being a smoker easier.

The third time was in a Target superstore. As on the airplane, I saw the distinct fumes of cigarette smoke and traced them to a man's hand. As on the airplane, my first reaction was that he was dangerously breaking the rules. But then I remembered the airplane and the demo, and understood what was going on. And I thought to myself, How strange that this commodity allows this man to smoke in a place where he usually can't. He can now be a true chain-smoker and not adapt his lifestyle at all.

The first story was in Egypt. The second story was in England. The third story was in the U.S. This is an international phenomenon.

In all three stories, a man (yes, a "man"... I wonder if that's significant) was able to use this device to smoke more, in places and at times where it is now illegal and inappropriate. Even if he is cutting down on the nicotine, he's still smoking more, not less.

Were these things created by a corporate monster who saw a great new market for smokers in a world that has grown unfriendly to smoking? Or were they created by a well-intentioned group hoping to help people quit? If the former, clever move. If the latter, OOPS.

Have I helped make the problem worse by writing this blog? Have I become publicity for a bad idea? Oh well.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

glazed eyes

After a full month doing "other stuff" which has included a good bit of resting as well as things I love doing like writing, I went in to the office this week. I'm not really working, just catching up with various colleagues, doing a bit of networking, and gearing up for starting a new project soon. It's not really that intense, and it's nice to see my colleagues again after a full month not really thinking about work.

Wow. I'm tired.

Right now my eyes are having trouble opening completely, my limbs are dull, and I'm having a bit of trouble putting together complete thoughts in this blog.

Here's what I think happened. I was more worn out than I thought. I knew that the last several years of traveling and working in intensive zones took a lot out of me, but maybe they took even more out of me.

Then again, maybe it's just pure old culture shock. After all, things like driving cars and ordering food at restaurants are disproportionately irritating to me. That's usually a symptom of culture shock.

I'll get there. Tomorrow's a new day, with fresh energies. There's so much exciting stuff I want to do, and I can't wait to do it. After I just lay my head down and sleep for... just a... few... minutes...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Libya... freedom or stability?

The news services of the world are going crazy. The media is having a heyday. Reporters have something glorious to report.

Not only is it big news, but it's happy news. We don't get happy news very often that's also worth sharing and selling. But today we have it.

The rebels are finally going to win in Libya. Gaddafi's claim to rule will shortly be over. In fact, the latest news I've seen reports that all he's really ruler of right now is his own compound. The rebels have won the rest.

We are supposed to be celebrating. This revolution of the Arab Spring has not gone smoothly as did Tunisia or Egypt, but in the end everyone's efforts are paying off. Freedom has won. Dictatorship is over.

Or is it?

I don't know much about Libya, but last month I spent an hour with a man who had lived in Libya for the last 15 years. He said that, while he never felt free under the previous government, he also has little hope for the future of Libya. The rebels are not really freedom-loving teenagers; they are actually Muslim extremists supported by big money in support of a religious movement. I don't know if he's right, but his stories reminded me that Libya is a complicated place.

My friends in Egypt, the home of the famed mass of humanity that overturned a regime in 18 days, are now facing the reality that revolutions don't actually end in 18 days. Or six months. The so-called revolution in Egypt was the end of the prelude, the end of the introduction, the end of the launching event. The real revolution is a long, dragged out, painful process.

I'll be surprised if it's different in Libya. After all, Libyan people don't know much about running a country and they don't have much experience with democracy. They've always had a dictator taking care of those details for them.

So, a Western-style democracy of majority rule with minority rights and respect for human rights, may be the end product, but it will take a long time to get there. Or, maybe some amazingly dynamic leader of the rebels, someone who reminds us a bit of Mr. Muammar, may just step in and take over. Or, a religious authority may exert itself and become the new leader, ensuring majority rule but with little respect for minority rights.

Either way, it's a long road ahead. I'm glad the media is celebrating today, but I hope we don't forget Libya tomorrow.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


During my vacation back in June, I read a book called Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley. It's about spiritual disciplines based on liturgical practices. And it met such a precise need in my life at that moment that I copied quite a bit of it into a journal that is almost always with me. From time to time I pull it out and follow the instructions the book set out for a particular discipline.

I just opened it and opened to my notes on the introduction: "Longing"

And thought to myself that I'm having a trouble longing at the moment. Usually I very much relate, perhaps too much so, to longing. But not here, not now. At the moment I'm seated in a shop near Georgetown in D.C. Everything around me is so geared to satisfaction - the opposite of longing. Good food, conveniently located cafes, shops, predictable traffic. At the moment we even have good weather.

I don't know that I am really satisfied, but there's too much effort going into my satisfaction that I'm left with little effort available to long.

Longing in the book is for a number of things... Life, healing, change. It asks, "Isn't there something better I should be doing with my time?" And then acknowledging authentic desires to touch the reality of God at heart and of how much God himself longs to do things for us.

That's good stuff, more satisfying than life, even.

Ironic, then, that I've known this longing intimately when in places like a walled compound in Darfur, a desert monastery in Syria or a rice field in Indonesia... But find it so elusive when at home in more 'familiar' surroundings.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Angry Birds

"Can I play some Angry Birds?"

"No more Angry Birds today. You've already played your fifteen minutes for today."

"Well, then, can I watch you play Angry Birds?"

This conversation has repeated itself almost daily since I've been in Virginia. The lover of Angry Birds is my almost-three-years-old nephew. The nay-sayer could be any adult in the household. The boy is truly enamored by that game. As he drifts to sleep at night, we can hear him over the baby monitor talking about pulling birds in a slingshot, using egg layers and bombs, and hitting the pigs with the birds. The greatest achievement in his short life has been winning levels on Angry Birds.

At first I though that this was my nephew being three. Little kids get obsessed about things, usually the most obscure and unexpected things, right?

Well, not this three-year-old. He's totally down with the latest trends. Last week when I ventured out to visit some extended family, I was reading about smartphones with my aunt. She's looking to buy a new phone. One of the features most commonly advertised was the ability to play Angry Birds on such-and-such a phone. We read the reviews to see what consumers thought of these phones, and some of the comments we read included things like: "This phone gets really hot while playing Angry Birds", or "Angry Birds runs slow on my phone."

That afternoon, I walked by a phone shop and the display was a big picture for a Samsung Tablet featuring Angry Birds. In big bright colours.

I've played a bit of Angry Birds. It's kind of fun. I'm far from addicted and my only motivation for playing is to unlock levels for my nephew so he can play on my phone. But it's kind of fun. I guess. But really? What is it with this game that has taken over the nation?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The demise of the independent coffee shop

After three years without spending any substantial amount of time in the U.S., I am seeing things through fresh eyes. Again.

One of my first destinations upon returning to town was my favourite little independently-owned coffee shop in Northern VA. It's a cozy joint with old overstuffed sofas, rickety chairs painted in pastel colours, mighty good coffee with cheap refills, and a substantial after-school and summer vacation clientele consuming ice cream. I estimate that almost a full half of my novel was drafted sitting at Stacy's Coffee Parlor, which gave me free Internet and a smiling face every afternoon.

I never really bonded with Stacy, but I saw her talking with her old-timer customers and wondered what it would be like to be a part of the community. The staff were also friendly and gracious even after my third hour banging away at the keyboard. I often wished I bought more from them than just coffee, but coffee was all I wanted, and I was broke and unemployed. Once in a while I would get into an interesting chat with another customer, and I remember once someone almost convinced me to go work for an elevator company.

You may already guess where this is going. If not, let me add that there is a Panera Bread right across the street and a Cosi's coffeeshop a block down. Both have opened within the last 4 years or so. There's also the token Starbucks a little further down the road. The road is named Main Street... doesn't that break your heart?

And so it is true: Stacy's is no more. Sometime during my romps around the globe, Stacy closed her doors for the last time. I'd like to think that she joined the Peace Corps or moved her shop to another much larger location. But the plethora of boarded-up shops in the U.S. I've seen this visit, combined with the even bigger plethora of Starbucks I am seeing just about everywhere tells me that this is wishful thinking. It's not just a moral desire to support the little guy that breaks my heart - Stacy's just seriously had more PERSONALITY than any Starbucks ever will.

The other day, some friends and I wanted to go out for coffee. The only place we knew of in the area was (obviously) Starbucks. None of us wanted to support the giant so we asked a local waitress if she knew of any independently owned coffee shops. She pointed us in the direction of a quaint neighbourhood with plenty of cute cafes.

But it was 6 p.m. on a Saturday. They were all closed. C'mon guys! We want to support you but you have to get with the programme! After guzzling our fair share of gas looking for a S'bucks alternative, we gave up - if the indy guys aren't going to hold up their part of the bargain, we can't give them the support we so greatly desire to give.

At the very last moment, right before we pulled into the Starbucks driveway, we were saved. This one awesome coffee and pottery painting joint was open for business, and the joyful smile of an independent barista welcomed us at the entrance. If you're anywhere near West Baltimore or Howard County, please please honour them for good service and flexible hours and free wireless: Find them at their website

(photo credit:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A personal update

I can't remember the last time I've gone so long without posting on my blog! It's been almost three whole weeks. Maybe no one is reading anymore.

But as is usually the case, I've been racking up a list of topics just itching to be talked up. I'll start writing again tomorrow.

In the meantime, let me share what I have been doing.....


I don't think I've slept so much since the summer after my sophomore year at university, that is, after going 9 months averaging 3 hours of sleep a night. This time, I don't have an excuse. Most people are thinking I must need to catch up. Perhaps my soul needs to catch up.

Either way, it sure feels nice, except for the kink in my neck from too much pillow time.

Other fun things I've been doing include playing with my almost-3-year-old nephew, trying to avoid stressing about two visas for which I'm applying, and planning my new blog. Yes... please do get excited, there's a great new blog coming your way. I know it's great because my brilliant brother came up with the name.

Friday, July 29, 2011

replying to comment

I just had a first-time experience... I got some hate mail on my blog! The following is what I wrote in the comments section on that particular post. I love dialogue and feel bad about having taken down the comment but it contained information that shouldn't be on my blog. I may be opening myself up to a huge can of worms, but I want everyone to be happy and I love to talk things out, so here is the comment:

"I'm sorry Anonymous, but I had to delete your comment. My blog is about exploring ideas, not tearing down individuals, which is what I felt you were doing. If you feel I am tearing down individuals in my blog, I apologise - that is not my intention. My intention is to seek a deeper understanding, and if you can pinpoint what exactly I said that attacked an individual, or a group of individuals, I will gladly delete or change it.

"Also, as a point of courtesy, I do believe 'hate' comments should not be posted anonymously. My understanding of internet etiquette is that comments such as yours (particularly because you used my full name which I never do on my blog) should be connected to your identity. Please if you re-comment, I'd appreciate if you identify yourself.

"Thank you so much for understanding and I hope we can talk openly and get to a deeper level of dialogue.

"Finally, the one point you made in your comment to which I can reply is the following: I believe immigration and multiculturalism is a beautiful thing, and I definitely think my Muslim friends contribute a great deal to European society. I also think that Muslims have the right to proselytise just like Christians have the right to proselytise. I believe we are all equal as human beings, under God. If you interpreted my words differently, again, I apologise."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I've learned

(If you haven't yet, please do take a moment to advise me about what my blog can or should look like in the future: everything is changing! Please comment.)

Today I was walking back home from Central London. I crossed the Thames and navigated past Waterloo Station during rush hour, then made my way to the flat of some friends who have been gracious enough to let me consider their place home while I figure out what I'm doing with my life.

I decided to pull out my ipod - after all, most of the other people walking on the streets had headphones. Apparently that's what Londoners do. I'm all about cultural adaptation.

The second or third song that came through my mix was "Painting Pictures Of Egypt" by Sarah Groves. By the middle of the song I was struggling with tears. Why was this, I wondered. Was it because it's a beautiful tune? Well, honestly, I've heard better. Maybe the words? So I rewound to start the song again and started to pay close attention.

And I was take breathless. This woman was singing MY heart!

(let this be a warning to any of us who think song lyrics don't really matter - somehow they went straight to my subconscious without passing through my noticeable brain.)

Here are some excerpts, some of the lines that most touched me. Note the boldface especially.

And the places I long for the most are the places where I’ve been. They are calling out to me like a long lost friend.

It’s not about losing faith, it’s not about trust. It’s all about comfortable when you move so much... and the place I was wasn’t perfect but I had found a way to live.

The future feels so hard, and I wanna go back! But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I've learned. Those roads were closed off to me while my back was turned!

If it comes too quick I may not appreciate it. Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?

You see, this morning as I was praying I was reminded of how much fear is in my heart. The excitement of transition, of a new phase of life, and of being in a place where I can cook and walk (!!) have helped to distract my heart from the sense of dread that I just might not make it. I can't help but wonder if I'll only last three months and hit the road again, because transition is all I know how to do... or that I won't learn how to live in community, instead hiding my head in the figurative sand of wherever becomes my home and never learning to share anything. Then there are the little fears, that the various practicalities of moving to a new place won't work out.

While I know I need to do this, it's so much easier doing what I've been doing. The future feels so hard and I want to go back! Well, I don't really want to go back, but I know how to do that. I don't know how to do this.

Because I'm worried that the places that used to fit me, before this decade of insanity in my life began... I'm worried they can't hold the things I've learned. I'm worried that the roads of friends, relationships, a home, a routine, that those roads were closed off on me when my back was turned.

I'm full of hope for this exciting new phase, but... yeah.

(this would have been an imperfect prose post, but as we say in Arabic, MABROUK to our lovely hostess Emily who just became a mother once again!)

Monday, July 25, 2011

everything is changing! Please comment.

So I owe a heartfelt thanks to the many of you who read and commented here in the last few weeks as I've processed my pre-move. Your words have encouraged me tremendously. I suppose after sharing my angst of the last few weeks, I'm probably owing you an update, something along the lines of 'first discoveries upon moving to London' or something like that. But it would be a pretty boring post, as the last three days have been doing little other than sleeping and catching up with old friends. I'm sure I'll have a bloggable reaction to London soon and then I'll be happy to share it.

But today, I wanted to ask your opinion, your help. Today's post is about asking for your advice. I know I don't have millions of readers, but I am sure some of you are reading this on your RSS feed, happily lurking and never commenting. I know who you are... well, some of you... and will be sad if you don't comment today. Please, today, I'd really really like your comment if you would... (picture me right now with a puppy-faced tear dropping from one eye as I write this in the faint hope that I still have at least one or two friends who will take the 2 minutes to comment on my blog)

Now that I've ended my Egypt assignment, I feel like I've crossed into a new phase of life. OK, I don't really feel like that, but I feel like I should feel like that. A lot about my life is going to change in the coming months, although I don't really know what or how.

What I do know is that it's time to start being a bit more intentional about blogging. Right now, I write whatever I write here and give it little to no strategic thought.

But as a part of my new life, it is now time to revamp the blog. Or start a new blog. Or replace this blog. Or all of the above. I want my blog to be a bit more focused, to fill a niche. Maybe I'll keep this blog as-is and add on another topical blog. Maybe I'll switch over entirely.

I need your wisdom here... What do you want to hear from me? What would make this blog interesting and relevant to your world? What bloggy niche do you think I might fill? Are there any features my blog should include? And if you come up with a title for that niche and I choose it, I'll probably owe you a prize.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

A chilling thought indeed

So I was just doing a bit of websurfing and came across an article from the Associated Press which posted some excerpts of a manifesto written by the gunman in Norway who went on a killing spree this past Friday. Here is a particularly disturbing quote...

"Multi-culturalism (cultural Marxism/political correctness), as you might know, is the root cause of the ongoing Islamisation of Europe which has resulted in the ongoing Islamic colonisation of Europe through demographic warfare (facilitated by our own leaders)."

My first reaction on reading this was that these are the railings of a truly deluded crazy person. But re-reading it, I realised that there are probably a lot of people who agree with him. People who think that society's problems these days are largely due to a fear of being 'politically incorrect', because the media generally favours things like immigration and diversity over preserving the way things used to be. An open policy welcomed a large number of Muslims to Europe and which invited Islamisation which is slowly taking over. This is the classic Clash of Civilisations at its best.

Yes, actually, come to think of it, I know a lot of people who, I suspect, agree with him about this. I don't expect the people I know to translate that belief into killing sprees that take the lives of a hundred people in one day, because they are actually good-hearted people. Plus, obviously the killing spree was not an effective way to prove his point. In fact, this man has managed to make the 'white nationalists' look bad and thereby make the 'islamists' look good.

If I am completely honest with myself, I actually have to admit that this man has a point. It's become strangely 'politically correct' to support Muslims and Islamists when similar support for 'Christians' or, for that matter, 'white people' is labelled as racism. If it weren't so incredibly sensitive, I could tell some striking stories here which would sadly illustrate how uncool it has become to be that which used to be dominant.

But, really, you've got to give what you take, right? If we are truly multicultural, then Muslim and Christian should be on equal social footing. Islamist and white extremist should evoke a similar reaction. Americans, Brasilians, British, Syrians and Indonesians should all be equal before God and before man. So why is it that in liberal circles, people who are 'different' get put on higher social footing? I know some people would answer that it's corrective, because minorities are disadvantaged from the outset, but I would reply that I think maybe it has gotten a little bit out of hand. I think my stories would illustrate this better than the statement, but sadly, I just need you to trust me that the very fact I don't feel comfortable sharing the stories proves my point.

And why is my asking this question so incredibly politically wrong? Can anything be done to start calling a spade a spade? I certainly do not advocate for murderous rampages. But it'd be kind of comforting to think that there might be some other way to restore respect to the good old boys while still learning to respect people who are different from the majority.

Friday, July 22, 2011

nice people

In Arab culture, a woman has the right to not want to sit next to a man who is not her relative. In conservative families, this is a requirement: so much so that women won't leave the house if not accompanied by such a man. In less conservative families, it's still generally a good idea.

On the other hand, I get the impression that only the conservativist of conservative men have that right (i.e. not to want to sit by an unrelated woman). And even fewer men avail themselves of that right.

So generally when a couple is traveling together and they are assigned two of the three seats in an airplane row, the man will take the middle seat so that his wife is not sitting by an unrelated man. As a lone traveller woman who has absorbed a bit of Arab culture, this always irks me, because it means I end up sitting next to an unrelated man, but because I'm an independent woman (verified by the fact I'm traveling alone) and a foreigner, no one seems to care. I feel like pointing out to those men that I'd rather sit by their wives than by them... i've never had the guts to say it but I probably should.

This was all a rather long prelude of context for what happened on the airplane to me today. I boarded the plane and when I arrived at my row, I was ever so slightly dismayed to find an Egyptian-looking man in the middle seat and a woman - presumably his wife - at the other end of the row. Once again I was stuck by the man.

But when I started to put my bag in the overhead bin and prepare to sit in that chair, I saw the couple exchanging looks. It almost seemed like they noticed I was a girl... but no, it couldn't be.

And yet, sure enough, the woman stood up and went to get something from her bag on the other aisle. Then the man stood up. The woman soon edged her way back in to take the middle seat. Glory be! This was the first time ever an Arab couple had thought of my feelings on this rather petty but quite sensitive matter. (I suppose the wife could have been looking out for her husband's integrity but I prefer to think they were respecting me.)

Then the niceness continued. The man rummaged around in overhead bins until he found blankets and pillows. He passed a pillow to his wife and she handed it to me. Then two more for them. Then he gave her a blanket and she handed it to me. Then two more for them. I smiled and said 'thank you.' Really, I was a bit speechless at such a display of unobtrusive niceness on an airplane.

As we all settled into our seats, they didn't try to make small talk with me or interact me with me in any other way. I hope they weren't waiting for me to reach out because, if so, I didn't get the hint. But I could hear them chatting with each other, laughing, giggling: talking like life-long friends and lovers should. This, as we all know, is not something that is seen everyday on an airplane.

It occurred to me that being a nice person and being a happy person are connected. To me, it seemed like because they were nice, they had the freedom to be happy too.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Egypt obituary

I thought of this blog title because I am leaving this country in 36 hours. Assuming flights aren't delayed, exactly 36 hours, as a matter of fact.

And it's time to look back on yet another four-month posting and think about what I will miss and what I won't. (I did this after my abrupt departure from Timor Leste... see here. Or here is what I wrote when leaving Indonesia... although I wasn't even leaving Indonesia yet!)

But in those blogs, I used the words 'reminiscing'. Why is it that today the word 'obituary' comes to mind?

Is it because the tents are still up and the revolutionaries are getting antsy? Is it because the elections have been postponed because no one is even remotely ready to think about who could run this place? Is it because we are all scared of something but we don't know what?

Or is it because I came to Egypt to help scale up an office, but the staff is now half what it was when I arrived, and there's a general sense of resignation floating around? Is it because I don't yet know whether I'll look back on this season as a time that I did anything, at all, to help anyone because all the projects we're supposed to be starting may or may not start?

And all of this adds up to a difficult list, but I'm going to try:

Things I will miss about Egypt:
  • Feeling completely justified about feeling exhausted at night and vegging in front of the TV
  • The Kempinski bed
  • Full-time access to a treadmill
  • Some absolutely lovely colleagues
  • Being able to lean out the window and see the Nile
  • Sunsets over the Nile
  • The feeling of possibilities (like going to the Sinai for a weekend!)
  • How cheap things are here
  • per diems

Things I won't miss about Egypt:
  • Customer service at the Kempinski
  • The humid heat
  • The fact that my world is 300 square metres big
  • Avoiding harassment whenever I walk on the street
  • Negotiating taxis, what I want to order at a restaurant, and just about everything else
  • The 100 soldiers between the hotel and the office (a 200 m walk) who stare at me every morning
  • The isolation of living in a hotel room
  • Other people coming in and cleaning my hotel room however they want (that is, rearranging things)
  • Office politics
  • sad news and intensity of emotions
  • feeling braindead
Dear Imperfect Prose friends, it's been so long! I hope I can read your blogs but I am getting ready for a big move again so we'll see if I pull it off. I've missed you and I share this with you with all the kindest of wishes

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

software recommendation for you writers out there

So, this week I switched my RSS feeds over to Google Reader. I should have done this ages ago, but better late to the game than never joining at all, right? I was inspired to do this because I plan on joining the Android revolution within the next few weeks (the conclusion of my iphone-induced panic moment last week), so making myself google-friendly may make my life easier. It also may mean Google has the capacity to steal my soul, but I'm just not going to think about that for now.

One by one, I took the feed addresses from my AppleMail reader and typed them in to Google. Each of the blogs and news feeds that I read popped up in perfect user-friendly order. I was so impressed!

This is actually NOT a blog about Google Reader, so I'd better get to the point.

There is a blog that I had signed up for several months ago, but AppleMail had never syncked it properly so I hadn't actually read it. Google opened it just fine, though, so I was finally able to read this Brasilian author's blog.

For your Portuguese-speakers out there, this was what Google Reader produced for me:

For you non-Portuguese speakers, in summary, this blog gave the most glowing review ever to a certain application, aptly named "OmmWriter" (as a casual yogini, I totally get the concept of using a one-syllable humming word to centre my thoughts). She said that as a writer easily prone to distraction, this programme does 50% of the work for her. That's quite a claim.

Well, after reading a raving review like that, I just had to check it out. As it turns out, the timing was pretty good, because I've been working on writing a report all week. And, you know what? It is amazing, with potential to revolutionise my life as a writer. Except for the music - I prefer my own.

In short, what OmmWriter does is white out your entire computer screen so you have nothing but a plain-text writer visible on your computer. This sounds a bit cliché, but Ommwriter does it so artfully and tactfully that it totally works. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the report this week, and time just breezed by because I was all into the writing and forgot to wonder if anyone had emailed me.

If you are any shape or form of a writer, and have any inclination whatsoever to distraction, you should totally check it out. (Oh yes, and it is free.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hotels in the Saieed

So after my little angsty interlude yesterday I'm back to sharing some travel tales of our week in Southern Egypt, aka Upper Egypt, aka the Saieed. Incidentally, many Westerners seem inclined to call it "the Upper Nile" and that one is wrong. It's got enough correct names so there's no need to tack on a wrong name, right?

Today I thought I'd share a bit about what it's like actually traveling there as a foreigner (and why I was so shattered upon return - although to truly appreciate that you'd probably also need the schedule of meetings we had lined up in each place. It was a lot):

Day 1: Wake up at 2:30 a.m. for 3:00 departure to airport for 4:45 departure to Luxor. Luxor is a hot tourist attraction here in Egypt, home to the famed "Valley of the Kings", a very hot desert with some amazing historical artifacts. So they have their own airport but it would be a little cheeky to start ahumanitarian programme there (although right now that tourism is low, they really are suffering). Arrive Luxor 5 a.m., drive to Qena city, which is 1 hour north.

Night 1: Make history as the first women ever to stay in Hotel Hamd. This entailed occasions such as reception forgetting to give me my change, the clerk not understanding why I was asking him to go down to the all-men's café to order my coffee for me, management failing to stock the hotel with toilet paper and all staff refusing to go out and buy some, the hotel not giving us towels or sheets. Oh, and the best moment was waiting 15 minutes because there was a guy praying in the middle of the lounge area outside my room, and I didn't want to "ruin" his prayer because a woman walked in front of him during his prostrations. All these special moments aside, we were absolutely exhausted from the previous night's travel schedule, so I couldn't tell you for sure, but I think the room was very comfortable.

Day 2: Travel 2.5 hours by hired car, north to Soheg. On the way to Soheg get picked up by the fuzz because we're approximately the third foreign people in a decade to go on a road trip from Qena to Soheg.

Night 2: Enjoy the Nileside breeze, with a cup of tea and some cats in a stately old mansion which has been converted into a hotel. The rooms were spacious but not luxurious, but the air conditioning worked and the showers spewed hot water. What else does a girl need? Meanwhile, consider celebrating someone's marriage with them downstairs as the dance music wafts through the facility, and brainstorm ways to not only feel pity but actually help my poor Egyptian friend who is fielding phone calls every 10 minutes from some 'official' asking questions about us (including things like 'where did you go this afternoon?' as if they weren't trailing us the whole time).

Day 3: In a different hired car, trek 2 more hours north to Assiut. Because of traffic and a late arrival, we had to go to a meeting before checking in to our hotel, which actually turned out to be nothing but delayed gratification.

Night 3, Day 4, Night 4: Sleep, and enjoy the only few minutes of downtime all week, on a boat.

Our rooms were Nile view, which meant that out of my enormous window I saw lots of water and palm trees on the other side of the river. It was perfect. Except that the airconditioning in my tiny ship cabin didn't work and I couldn't open my window, so the best solution I could come up with was to keep the curtains closed with the hopes that no heat from the sun could enter the room. One of the mornings I did so happen to wake up for a potty-break right at sunrise and it was gorgeous. Unfortunately the appeal of the still beat that of the sunrise and I lasted no more than 3 seconds.

Day 5: Though we were supposed to catch a train at 7 a.m., we managed to hire the car of a friend of a friend and leave at 9:30 a.m. to travel 2 more hours north to Minya. Arriving in Minya felt like we'd exited the badlands and were back in civilization. Not that Assiut or any of those places were really badlands, but Minya felt posh.

Night 5: Stay at a hotel right on the Nile which was also breathtakingly beautiful and the site of a wedding party. It was only a pity that we were way, way too exhausted to enjoy it. I was also getting a bit sick from some bug combined with bad diet and no exercise for a week.

Day 6: Three hours further north and we were back in Cairo. The Kempinski never felt so much like a homecoming.

Friday, July 15, 2011


One week from today I will be making the *BIG* move. Though nothing at all is in any way whatsoever decided yet... don't know where I'll be living, how the job thing is going to work out (though I feel peace about that being an ongoing question), or in fact whether I'll be allowed to stay... I am going back to the country where I've most recently lived for more than a couple of months, the country where my parents live, a place where I have friends and mostly understand the logic behind 'the system.' I plan on sticking around for a while. In my world, I'm setting a very ambitious mental/emotional goal of two years, which seems a bit over-ambitious - after all, I haven't pulled off anything more than 4 months for nearly a decade now. But I'm trying to think big.

I woke up this morning and realised that I'd been dreaming of choosing an iPhone. I have never actually wanted an iPhone, but I decide that once I move to a country with 3G technology and plan on staying there more than a couple of weeks, I want to get something that lets me take advantage of that. I dream of catching up on blogs and writing in random remote places, of talking on skype on a phone, even occasionally going places without my computer (yes, I know, I'm a bit of an addict). For those of you who so kindly read and comment on my blog and to whom I so rarely return the favour, maybe I'll get better at actually interacting.

And so this has started a day of processing all the things that are going to change for me in a week. Most of them are terrifying me: they are ways in which I have grown dysfunctional and skills I will have to re-learn.

For example, what do you do when you have met up with a friend for a cup of coffee, enjoyed catching up but didn't make specific plans for hanging out again? In my world, I never make plans because I'll be leaving soon and will call them for coffee when I'm in town again. I haven't done do-over cups-of-coffee for years! This concept has me a bit frightened.

For that matter, how do you schedule social activities knowing that you can do them anytime in the next year because you'll be around all year? I'm used to there being a sense of urgency to all socialising due to impending travel and am not sure how I'm to deal with a blank slate.

How much shampoo should I buy? How many toothbrushes? Those decisions are always based, for me, on how long I'll be in a location where I won't have easy access to a drugstore. So, does that mean I should only buy one of each? But what if I run out one day... shouldn't I have spare?

Similarly, how does one choose a good towel? My previous logic of the-best-quality-that-takes-up-the-least-suitcase-space/weight probably doesn't apply anymore.

And subscriptions? How do those work for phones, websites, magazines? Three-month, six-month, year-long... Those have never even been an option to me before so I've just rejected them out of hand. But the advertisements point out that you save money with a longer subscription - how do you decide?

As I write this, I am reminded of how incredibly simple my life has been. It's me, my laptop, a suitcase with clothing and a few special items like a coffee press and portable speakers, and my passport. I haven't changed my status with my bank in any way for years, hardly ever use my credit card, don't really have any friends outside of work colleagues. It's not going to be so simple anymore, is it?

But from everything I've seen and read, I think it will be more manageable. All this moving around, combined with long hours and stressful work, has diminished my capacity for complexity in life. I'm counting on that, and that all these things which seem so overwhelming to me now will actually be more manageable than a constant state of culture shock.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

death by powerpoint

On our trip to to Upper Egypt last week, our assigned task was to find out everything there is to know about women, specifically their needs for economic empowerment.

So we did a bit of networking, called around to friends of friends, most of whom were former colleagues of current colleagues, and rather quickly managed to arrange dozens of meetings with local NGOs. Meeting other types of people (businesswomen, professors, average women) was not so easy but we managed a little something. But the local NGOs were eager, even thrilled, to meet with us.

Because it gave them an opportunity to do this:

I know it's not a new concept, but can I just say, again, how effective powerpoint presentations can be as a lullaby?

Apparently someone, someday, probably a representative from some donor representing some wealthy Western country (I couldn't imagine which) came to town and trained local NGOs on how to be a good organisation, including how to make a splash. I'd wager that that visit happened sometime after the invention of powerpoint but before the coining of the phrase "death by powerpoint", and well before anyone invented guidelines such as "no more than four lines per page and no more than five words per line."

No, these powerpoints are thorough and long. Some NGOs have years and years of experience and every... single... project... gets... its own slide. For example, one NGO we met told us they have implemented 43 projects, and every single one got its own powerpoint slide filled with words. Fortunately, this particular NGO was also hyper about photos so there was something to look at, but still. After the introduction slides and the concluding slides, which included things like a full organisational chart and a description of their decision-making mechanisms and the history of their founding, we were treated to 43 project slides.

That's not what we wanted to meet them for! We wanted them to tell us about the needs of women. We wanted to - heaven forbid - ask them questions! But when you only have one hour scheduled for a meeting and 43+ powerpoint slides to navigate, there is not much time left for question-asking, especially because by the end we were in that peaceful sleepy-dreamy place of an afternoon nap.

There is, in fact, a reason why they put us through this torture. It's not entirely because they thought we'd be entertained or educated. It's because, misguided though it may be, they were thinking they could impress us. They'd love to work with us, and were hoping we would be so pleased with what we've heard that we'll go back to our main office and tell them how amazing such-and-such an organisation is.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Upper Egypt... they're not really that scary

This is a post I would have not thought to write before going to the Saieed (Upper Egypt), but we got a great photo, and I AM back safely, so here goes...

Can't you just envision bandits hiding in those mountains and attacking us as we drive through? I'm just saying.

Apparently Upper Egypt has a bit of a sordid history - while the rest of Egypt is so excited to have freed itself from the strong hand of a 30-year regime, the southern states never seemed to care about that in the first place. Instead, they have their own ruling parties of tribes and clans.

These 'rulers' are considered by many to be the reason that FGM is so widespread and women's rights in general so limited, and they are also the ones who have ensured that very few people in the south seem to care that Egypt's government was recently toppled. They never cared for the police or security in the first place. Instead, there are stories of bandits hiding in mountainsand attacking, even lynching, people they don't like - like the government and the police (making our police escort all the more ironic).

Fortunately, I didn't put much mental energy into thinking about this while we were driving on the desert roads. It only occurred to me afterwards that I might be perceived to be on the side of the government, not the side of the Saieedi tribes, and thus subject to attack. And fortunately, there was no reason to think about it because nothing at all happened.

Instead, I'll remember cute moments like the time one of our drivers told us he owns a tree in the desert. We didn't really believe him, but sure enough as we drove by a break in the rocky mountains, there was one lone joshua tree. His tree, he claimed with a twinkle in his eye. And so, as much as the legend and lore make me think I'm supposed to be scared of the Saieedis, I actually found their culture to be kind of adorable.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


official statistics range from 93-97% prevalence in Egypt.

There are billboards all over Upper Egypt - that is, Southern Egypt, but referred to as 'upper' because the Nile flows from south to north - warning people that circumcising their daughters (FGM) is not recommended. I wanted to get a photo of one of these billboards while I was there, but it took me a while to work up the courage to ask a driver to pull over and by the time I got to guts I didn't see any more billboards. (A friend said she has a photo; maybe she'll give it to me and I'll share it with you.)

Anyway, what I learned last week was that there has been an extensive awareness campaign throughout Egypt, during the last decade and a half or so, to try to decrease this incredibly high percentage. In addition to billboards, there have been television specials, educational activities in schools, and countless programmes by charitable organisations. Health institutions have also gotten involved, encouraging doctors to help decrease the rate of illness and fatality that is a fallout of FGM. If mothers are going to circumcise their daughters, at least they can do it hygienically and safely.

The other thing I learned last week is that it may not have worked. It may have made it worse. Some anonymous focus group discussions I read about indicated that before the awareness campaigns, men didn't really know much about it. Now that fathers have been 'educated', they have started to actively encourage their wives to make sure and circumcise their daughters because it's better for the family and for their reputation.

Furthermore, when all the doctors got involved, mothers who previously were unsure whether the health risk of FGM was worth the perceived advantages, became comforted to know that they could send their daughters to a professional doctor with good equipment in a clean clinic to do the job.

I'm not sure how to deal with these bits of information. If it's this widespread and growing, then that means that most women I know - even well-educated middle/upper-class women - have been circumcised. It also means that it's not a religious thing because Christians are also doing it, thereby shattering the image in the West that it's an Islamic fundamentalist thing (some say the rate has decreased dramatically among Christians but I don't know).

On the other hand, some figures suggest that it is going down. In the last generation it may have decreased 10% - at this rate, in 10 generations, women in Egypt will no longer have to deal with this!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Don't ever worry about the traffic police in Egypt

There is a rather odd security policy in Upper Egypt: Foreigners visiting the area are always provided with a police escort. It's for our own safety, they say, but I have to admit I felt safer when we were not driving 130 km/hour to keep up with our escort on a barely-paved rural road!

We'd been warned that we would receive an escort, and had hoped it would not happen. But right as I was dozing off on the outskirts of our destination city, I heard a police siren and felt the car slowing to a halt. I was hit by the dread of a girl who has been pulled over for speeding and so was rather relieved to discover that it was our escort.

A newish blue car with matching blue police lights pulled up alongside us. Four men in uniforms were inside. They asked what hotel we were headed to, then confidently pulled out ahead.

Seconds later, we came up behind a bus. The sound of the siren burst out, followed by the irritating sound of an emergency vehicle's horn. You know the noise: a scratchy, low-key beep that hurts somewhere in the gut to hear and instills fear because something must be wrong if you're hearing that sound.

No, the bus did not pull over, so the cops did what any driver would do: changed lanes into oncoming traffic, took advantage of the larger vehicle's halt on a speed bump, and pulled out ahead. What could our driver, who thus far had been exceedingly kind and cautious, do but follow? The bus was too fast, though, and it did the ambulance chasing thing, using the wake left by the cop car to pass a truck. Eventually we got around the bus and began the harrowing drive into town. Don't they know that we are already more likely to die from a traffic accident than bandits, even when our driver is being careful?
They stuck to us like glue for the duration of our time in that city. When we entered a poor neighbourhood to lead a focus group discussion with women, they followed us in. We were the affair of the week in this little rural community: a celebrity had come to town! When we finally emerged from the car, I heard one child say to another, "I wonder if they are American." I felt so much safer now (she says sarcastically).

Yes, we are. And that is why we had an escort. Ironically, though, when the cops first met me after we got out of the car at the hotel, they thought I was Egyptian. And now, thanks to them, all of the city knows that an American came to town. Yes, I felt so much safer.

And my poor Egyptian colleague! She got the brunt of it all, I'm thinking, because they took her number and called her every. single. half-hour. "Where did you go today? Where is that? Who was with you? Where are you going now? How are you getting there?" As if they hadn't been with us every step of the way.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Climbing Mt. Sinai, chapter 6 (and last)

About the Monastery

(yes, I am thinking six chapters is really truly enough rehashing of a 30 hour weekend tour, so I will wind down for now. In fact, no guarantee of blogs for a while, since for the next week I'll be trekking in the proverbial 'field' - that is, actually for once hanging out with the people my organisation serves! Hopefully this means there will be some great stories when I get back.)

I wanted to share some interesting facts about the Monastery of St. Catherine, which sits at the foot of Mt. Sinai and is a special pilgrimage destination for Eastern Orthodox. For me too.

The most important thing to know, I suppose, is that it feels like Disneyland. At least for the tourists - ahem, pilgrims - it does. It is open from 9 am until 12 noon every day. Only. There are brief prayers at quarter to 12 open to the public, but otherwise visitors are expected to do nothing but tour, see, photograph, look.

So the tour guides gather up their sleepy post-mountain little flocks between 8:15 and 8:50 to gather at the tiny entrance to the ancient concrete fortress, with a door that barely fits one-and-a-half people. At 9:00 the monk in charge of tourists - ahem, pilgrims - comes out and announces the rules, once in English and once in Russian (he doesn't bother with Arabic): don't talk too loud because this is a special place, please support the monastery by buying your souvenirs at the gift shop, consider lighting a candle in the church. That's about it. Then the crowds push their way through the doorway. (We went post-revolution when tourism is still low, in the heat of summer when hiking Mt. Sinai is not as desirable. I can only imagine the mayhem of entering this holy site, say, last December.)

In the monastery, there are four main features to see:

1. The Moses Well. Honestly, I never bothered to figure out what this is. I've been to the "Moses Spring" near Petra, where they say Moses hit the rock and made water come out. Is this a replica, or a competitor to that place? Or the original? Or something else? Dunno - it was an old-fashioned hand pump well with a explanatory sign in Greek and in Russian.

2. The church. It is Greek Orthodox and it is very Greek Orthodox. I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by all the chandeliers when I walked in. Barely a space in the air is free from silver chandeliers. I lit a candle and prayed for a prayer. "Mercy" is the word I felt God gave me. "Lord, have Mercy. Kyrie Eleison." So that is what I prayed. So much mercy is needed, it is true, in a world full of pain.

Also interesting in the church: Russian men wearing shorts had been asked to tie sarongs around their legs so they'd be decent in a holy place. Awesome. There was a monk in the church whose job was, it seemed, to identify the Orthodox visitors, presumably by their behaviour in church - that is, crossing themselves and kissing icons. He called them over to do some activity, I think to write out prayers. I wish I had faked it and been invited to write a prayer. Behind the divider (sorry, I forget the name for the place that separates the part of the church where only priests go with the rest of the church), to the side, we had a good view of St. Catherine's coffin. Also in the church on display was one of her fingers which I noticed many pilgrims kissing. I read somewhere that her fingers can allegedly be found in many churches, including Westminster Abbey.

3. The oldest manuscript of the Gospels. I didn't go in to the manuscripts museum area, as it cost extra and I didn't feel like I'd like it more than spending extra time in the church. But a friend went in and told me about it. It's full of some of the most amazing bits of church history imaginable including ancient texts in the languages of all of the ancient Christian traditions: Coptic, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac... A few items have been snatched away to other museums, to the great chagrin of the monks, but many are kept in the monastery. That monastery is worth a fortune, I'm sure.

And yes, among the items there is what is likely the oldest surviving manuscript of the Gospels. It was written on cloth and then erased, then something else was written over it. Over time, the initial inscriptions became visible again, due to the type of ink that had been used, and now you can see the old writing with the blind eye, apparently. This document dates to the 2nd century and matches newer manuscripts word-for-word! That and some other St. Catherines finds apparently went a long way to confirming the stability of Christian theological tradition.

4. THE BURNING BUSH. How did I not know to expect that?! There is a bush there that has survived for longer than the monastery has been around. That's about 1700 years. And the bush could be older. And if it's that old, who's to say it's not as old as Moses? And when you see that desert and see a verdant flourishing bush, you have GOT to wonder. They said they tried to replant parts of it elsewhere and it didn't survive, although they did move it over a couple of metres within the monastery courtyard. Apparently it produces some bright leaves which look a bit fiery, and so many people do believe this is the one and only and the same burning bush.

This is a real monastery, and when I say it's Disneyland-esque, I should clarify that I was only allowed to visit less than 1/4 of its property, as most of it is off-limits to the tourists - ahem, pilgrims. I heard one story of an American woman who was invited to stay there, which must be incredibly special and rare. If I had rated an invitation like that I don't imagine I could have said no!