Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tuk Tuk

There's a lot going on in our world right now. High level things which will take up their own chapters in the next generation's history textbooks. Many of these events are happening within a stone's throw of where I sit, involving people that I know. There could be a whole shelf in your local library dedicated to the things happening on one side of where I am, and at least a shelf dedicated to the things happening on the other side. And things are far from boring here where I stand!


Last week there was a major protest on the highway near where we live. We use this highway for two purposes: going to our favourite Syrian restaurant, and going to the Nile to walk by the river. So we know this highway well, as do most people in this fine town. It has many, many lanes (I don't know how many - there are no lines to define them) and it's never too busy but it's always got a lot of movement.

As you enter the highway, there is a sign announcing that TukTuks are not allowed. I wish I had a photo to share with you, it's adorable. A TukTuk is a type of rickshaw: a three passenger little buggy hanging over a motorcycle engine. The driver sits up front, and two people can bounce along in the back. It can't go very fast, and I doubt the drivers attended TukTuk driving school, so it's fair to say they are a safety hazard, especially on a major highway. The sign has a picture of a TukTuk with a line drawn through it. That seems pretty clear, right?

Except this has never seemed to stop the TukTuks from driving on the highway, and they do often get tangled up with cars. So last Thursday morning, apparently there was a major accident involving a TukTuk and fatalities, and apparently such accidents are not uncommon.

So in response, a crowd a thousand strong swarmed to the highway to protest TukTuks and traffic safety. It became a major event, I'm told, and when we tried to get to the Nile on Thursday afternoon, traffic was stopped and there was a feel that something major had just gone down. In response to the protests, workers had started fixing some median strips and putting up poles for more traffic lights.

Now, I must say that TukTuks truly are a headache. They are noisy, they share the road with cars that drive three times their speed, and because they have no doors the drivers are always pulling up next to me when I walk, trying to give me a lift. They often wait at the end of the street I'm walking on and even follow me for a few metres in the desperate hope I will avail of their services. But, of course, this is a sign that TukTuk drivers are working for their survival; their lives cannot be easy. And THEY were the target of the big protest of the year.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

a bit of introspective mulling

I love a good walk, and walking to work in the morning generally is the perfect bit of brilliance for starting off the day with a fresh perspective and a smile.

This morning, for the first time, I was ready to leave at the same time as my housemates. Four people piled into a vehicle with the driver, and they could have squeezed some room for me. But I declined and agreed to walk - there was still time to get to the office before our meetings started! They shut the car doors, then I had an afterthought: "But do you think you could take my bag for me?" And I handed my computer bag to a colleague before setting off on my own.

Why did this bother me? Because I got what I wanted. And in crazy guest-house living, we need to bend over backwards to help each other out, just so that we are all reasonably content at the end of each day.

So during the fifteen minute walk to the office, I found myself praying for grace, for help, for mercy that I can share with others. By the time I was a hundred metres away, I felt ready. I was walking into the office with a smile on my face, a smile to share.

So then I remembered how last night I was feeling so worn down and worn out, and that I had nothing left to share. And, flashing forward... Sure enough, by the time I'd been in the office a mere half-hour, my ability to give had been spent. And only by grace did I get that smile back on my face and keep it there for most of the day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

why I blog

Today I was walking my typical route to work, zig-zagging through the neighbourhood, and as I walked, my thoughts chanced upon my blog. Here's what I thought:
It's been a few days since I wrote a blog. I should write a blog tonight. I wonder what I should write about... I don't know... I guess I'd better start paying attention to the people and scenery while I'm walking right now, so I have something to write about!

Yup, I need my blog

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Nubian wrestling and the loo

This is the week of catching up on local cultural activities. We don't know how much longer we'll be here, so we'd better get out and see this town!

Yesterday, four of us girls piled into a Landcruiser and asked the driver where the Nubian wrestling was. It took a while to figure out what that meant in Arabic, and then for him to figure out where it happens, but we made it. Next to an outdoor furniture market, an arena had been constructed out of two-meter poles spaced at a two-meter distance, with tent walls hanging between them. So we had to buy a ticket to see what was going on inside. It was not expensive.

I won't get into the fighting itself, you can see it in action thanks to youtube.

But here are some of my observations:
  • There were exactly ten women in the crowd, in comparison to perhaps 500 men. Only two of the women were Sudanese. We were all ushered to the only covered bit where we'd be safely segregated from the men. But we didn't get chairs.
  • The wrestling teams were tribally defined. You fight for your family-slash-village. Each team had jerseys: green and white, purple and white, yellow and blue. But they took their jerseys off when they were in the ring, so I could never figure out who was from what team.
  • Most wrestlers rolled up one of their pants-legs to make it super super short. Why?
  • An Egyptian wrestler was in attendance and really wanted to get into the ring. Out of what appeared to me to be hospitality, they let him have a go, but it really was a joke. They didn't seem to be wrestling very seriously, and his competitor was about twice his height and twice his weight.
  • One wrestler didn't make it into the ring because his team's time ran out before he got his turn. He was so upset he almost caused a riot!
  • Older, distinguished looking men, would give cash prizes to the winners by counting bills on their foreheads: Five, ten, fifteen, twenty... take it it's yours!
  • There was an old man there who played the role of mascot, saying enthusiastic unintelligible things. He took a cut of the winners' prizes.
  • More often than not, the defeated wrestler was chuckling on the ground, and his victor would reach an arm down to help him up - often ending it with a friendly embrace. In fact, there was a lot of laughter all around. I like the happiness of this culture.

When it ended, we headed back to our landcruiser that we'd parked by a very long bright-green wall (I guess the other side of the wall was a row of shops). And this was the most memorable scene of the day for me... About 30 men, maybe more, were squatted facing the wall. Not standing, squatting. There were so many of them all lined up with maybe no more than a meter separating them! I think one or two of them were even doing Number Two. We couldn't help but watch since they were RIGHT in front of our vehicle.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A grin that heals

Today was one of those days that felt productive and interesting, but it was a day that just. would. not. end. I even made myself a cup of coffee at 5 p.m. so I could keep going.

So when I was ready to leave the office, I opted for walking. It was nearing sundown and I'd forgotten to bring a scarf or cardigan, props I generally use to feel more culturally appropriate when I walk. So I earned a tiny bit of verbal harassment, but the sky was beautiful and it was still precisely a good way to end the day.

After greeting the guest-house-mates, I headed up to my room and set about doing some yoga. This was a day that begged for a good yoga workout. And so I did my balance poses, my flows and my breathing on the purple yoga mat in a little nook by the balcony. I was facing my bed.

Next to my bed I have taped two photos courtesy of my sister-in-law. One is of my parents, brother, sis-in-law and nephew. The other one is of me with my nephew. The grin he sports in this photo screams that this is a happy boy who knows he's loved. Yes, he is. And so, with every readjustment of my tired limbs, I'd start counting the breaths and feel my soul rejuvenate as I absorbed the cheery-faced image of a two-year old who I love very very dearly.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentines Day

I'm not a huge celebrator of Valentines day. I'm not a hater or anything like that. It's just never been a big deal in my world. Life goes on.

Well, as the details of life would unfold, we scheduled a team workshop for this week, with me facilitating. My housemates reminded me that the first day of the workshop was Valentines Day and if I was going to make them sit in a room and think on the Holiday of Love, the least I could do was bring chocolate.

And so I did. And then one of them came up with the brilliant idea of starting the day with asking for a participant or two to share stories about a good Valentines Day memory. A few people did so over the course of the morning, and it served as a cheesy joke that kept us moving. Good thing I had chocolate to give to those brave souls who shared! And then there was chocolate for everyone.

I'd forgotten that V'day is a good excuse for chocolate.

But then it got better. The internationals on our team are currently 5 men and 4 women, split between two guesthouses. One guesthouse is in the same building as our office and home to 3 men, one of whom is our boss. So as us girls were leaving the office for home, we stopped by their guesthouse to drop off our used cups. Brilliantly, one of the girls said as we walked out, "So you guys are taking us out for dinner for Valentines Day tonight? Great. Pick us up at 8."

(By the way, all five of the men on our team are married with families back home.)

As we drove home we chatted about what us girls would do this evening. Since the next day is a holiday, we figured we should at least go out for dinner or something. When 8pm rolled around, I was finishing my shower after going to the gym and the next girl was heading into the shower. Two girls had not yet returned from playing tennis. (wow, we actually do life a pretty nice life here in exile!)

At 8:00 sharp, there was a knock on the door. It was the guys... all five of them, three from the other guesthouse and two from our guesthouse... asking us if we were ready to go? Well, it took us about half an hour to round up the girls and get us all ready to go, which come to think of it made it feel even more like a date. Even if it was five married guys treating four single girls.

We (the girls) chose a Syrian restaurant that had just opened this week (not the guys' first choice but they gallantly respected our preference). The restaurant made quite a few mistakes with our order, which was to be expected of a restaurant that has just opened up, and since we didn't have work the following day we weren't too, too bothered.

But to make it up to us, the restaurant provided tea and desert, on the house. The desert was fruit crepes with chocolate and strawberry sauce on top. So VALENTINESY. And then when the bill came, the guys wouldn't let us girls pay, and I realised this really was a Valentines to remember.

Friday, February 11, 2011


I walked down the driveway and through the gate, and set foot on the yellow sand that covers our street. It hit me. As I turned right and started walking towards the office, it accompanied me for a good 200 metres or more.

Sandalwood. I've been told that that is the base scent for the best Sue Dan ese perfumes: homemade scented oils made with Sandalwood. It's beautiful, but its lustre has been lost on me.

It's also used in incense, which often burns in front of homes, at the entrances to stores, on the tea-making stands by the river.

As a matter of fact, there are countless dozens and dozens and dozens of scents here, all home-made. Apparently if you have a baby you need to have 24 different scented oils and colognes and flavours of incense ready to perfume the newborn and the space in which he or she lives. A married woman will regularly stand over the smoke of incense for long stretches of time in order to absorb its beauty.

They are beautiful scents, this sandalwood + dozens of other combinations. But they've lost their lustre for me. It seems odd to walk on the street to the office and feel like a woman from the Dar is walking alongside me because her scent is exuding from the street, or maybe it's coming from the houses that line the street.

I'm generally pretty sensitive to smell - I remember last year when something outside the house smelled icky and my housemate emptied out a bottle of air freshener to mask that smell and I thought I was going to die because two scents were most certainly worse than one, even if the second was not as awful as the first.

And smell evokes MAD emotions in me - I remember when I left Sue Dan for my first vacation in early December. The airplane was full of scented woman. Sandalwood. And it ruined the flight: I felt like I was back in the stresses of the workplace I had just left. The smell is now inevitably associated with a very difficult and challenging job.

It's too bad the supermarket we shopped in today had this smell. It's too bad the ladies making tea by the river fill their stalls with this smell. It's too bad my colleagues from the Dar are covered in this smell. Because it's a good smell, but it's lost its ability to please my world.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hope... Women on display...

This evening God did an amazing thing. He created a display of the women of this land, in their vast array of bright colours and strong scents, and set it out for my heart to see.

As I walked up and down the Nile Corniche right before sunset, I realised that all the tea-makers setting up their plastic chairs and washing their cups and glasses, they were all women. Many of the socialisers were women, and women were manning the random food stall halfway down the road. They made the sandy beach into a garden with their bright clothes of turquoise, green, yellow, red, blue, and every combination of bright colours you might think of.

Some women were focused, frighteningly so, on arranging the jars of different types of tea leaves, sugar, spices, and incense on their two-foot-tall tables. Others were chatting with friends. Some looked like grandmothers, or older. Others looked like they may have been studying at school all day before they came to work in the evening. One young lady smiled at me every time I walked by, as if I were a good friend.

Have you ever tried to keep a scarf loosely covering your head while you lifted boxes and moved chairs in the riverside breeze? Maintained a small business in the evening hours while caring for your family at home and very possibly going to school or holding down another job during the day? These ladies are amazing.

As I walked and saw pairs of teenage girls chatting, mothers walking with one child's hand in each of hers, fully and decently covered women exercising in faux-'converse' walking shoes, I was struck with the deep needs of the women in this land. They work so hard and earn so little respect. Though they hold their community together, they are kept in their place by little things like the fact that it was always the men driving. They are strong but they don't believe in their own value. They might even know they are amazing but they don't imagine that anyone else might realises how just how amazing they are.

This picture below is of what is surely one of my few treasured posessions, a painting given to me by my parents. The woman portrayed is not Sue Dan ese; she's Nubian (from a small ethnic group in Egypt). But she could be from here. Her scarf, the henna (all good wives here maintain henna on their hands), her breathtaking beauty... she could be here. But if she were here, her clothes might be orange with pink flowers or something equally dazzling.
This painting stole my heart because of the look in her face. Expectation, hope for freedom and for a future.

So as these sights, and the scent of the women's traditional perfumes, and the memory of my Nubian woman, overtook me... as the sun set and the music in my ipod crooned and the breeze wafted... I began to remember why I came here in the first place. And to ask: what difficulties am I ready to face in order to help these women? No one said it was easy, but surely it a woman should be reminded of how valuable she is.

Imperfect Prose friends, thank you for your kind words and comments during the last few weeks. My circumstances haven't changed and I still feel a bit paralised, but I am so grateful that at least I've found a few words to write. And grateful for this community - I looking forward to reading your words tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

stolen mirrors

Currently, only one of the residents of the guesthouse where I live has the right to drive company cars. We try not to depend too heavily on her good graces, but it's inevitable that she ends up doing her fair share of driving around. She's very gracious about the whole thing.

She also has a bit more of an active lifestyle than the rest of us, who are still wallowing around trying to figure out what to do with our lives. So one day last week, she went out in the morning while the rest of us stayed holed up in bed. She went to church. The rest of us slept. In our defense, things are very tough for us right now and a small level of social depression feels very appropriate.

She got home, we sat around and ate lunch and chatted and chilled. As the heat of the afternoon passed, she suggested a jog by the Nile, and us other three women of the house eagerly agreed. We threw on our best shoes (which in the case of one housemate is Tiva sandals because she has been tragically separated from her running shoes, just like I'm separated from my shampoo and duvet) and followed our driving mate out to the car.

As we piled in, she said something about mirrors. So I looked at the side mirror and saw that it was gone. "Did it fall off again?" They have a history of falling off. "They were stolen," she replied. Sure enough, I looked over to the driver's seat and saw that the mirror was gone from there too. "I've heard this happens. People sell mirrors for this car type in the market downtown... But in the middle of the afternoon, right outside our house?"

We agreed that at least no one would blame her since it was the afternoon right outside our house. It's not like she parked on the street at night, right? But now she must brave our narrow driveway every time she comes or goes. For, what will they take next... headlamps, bumper, break the window and go for the stereo that would sell for about 2 dollars in the market?

The next morning, when she fessed up to our admin manager, we learned that the nearest market is in fact right around the block from our guesthouse. We could have just bought her mirrors back the same day. Great.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

the cleaning lady and her daughter

This morning I awoke to the sound of the big fight scene in Braveheart wafting up the stairs from the TV salon below. I'm currently sharing a guesthouse with 5 other people, but none of them are likely to be up and about at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. If they are awake, they tend to be doing something more wholesome than watching Braveheart.

I wandered down the stairs, bleary-eyed and inappropriately dressed considering the mixed company of our house. I discovered what I'd expected: the cleaning lady and her daughter had arrived, and junior had turned on the TV. She was helping her mom in another room, though, so I turned the television off even though I knew I was done sleeping for today.

This wasn't the first time, nor the last, that our lovely Eritrean cleaning lady brings her daughter to work with her. The day I moved in to this house, the bi-generational team was here, television on, and they welcomed me with an almost fierce hospitality, insisting on carrying my light carry-on suitcase up the stairs for me. The girl is about 16 years old and out of school. She speaks good English and is eager to practice it with us. Her mother speaks only a little bit of English and even less Arabic.

I'm convinced they were of an elite class back in Eritrea, and they fled here for some gender-related reason. Ababa, the mother, is a dear woman, who keeps the house impeccably clean and spends much of her day wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out what she's supposed to do to make our lives more comfortable.

The daughter, who comes two or three times a week, seems to spend the entire day cleaning the salon with the TV in it, while she watches the TV. One day, I came home from work to grab my lunch. She was cleaning the TV area and watching Eritrean news. By the time I'd finished heating my food, she'd taken a seat and switched to the English-language film channel, so I sat down on the sofa and joined her. She asked me if I wanted to choose a channel and I waved so as to say "this is fine." I guess my hand gesture language is different from hers, because she took that as leave to switch back to Eritrean TV. Which she proudly explained to me was the channel of her country. Of which I understood not a word and invited a feeling of boredom as I stared blankly and ate my food as quickly as I could.

I don't have a lot of experience with house help, and even less experience with women who bring their daughters to work. In principle, I don't mind the girl enjoying herself while she's in our house. She probably doesn't have a television here in her new city and she must really miss watching TV like she did back home.

But this afternoon, as the four female of the residents of the house sat at the dining table and worked, something just seemed odd about the girl, and for a while her mother as well, watching the rerun of Braveheart in the next room over. As the sounds of the film wafted into our workspace some of us relished the soundtrack, some got distracted from our work and wandered in to watch a bit, and some didn't even notice.

I really don't know what to think.

Friday, February 4, 2011

ponderings from yet another temporary abode

I remember when I bought my first car. It was a small-ish car, definitely on the cheaper side, but it was brand new and it was the one I wanted, and I paid for it with money I'd earned. For the first few months I was in awe of the fact that I owned this thing that took up a whole parking space! I'd park in my assigned spot at work and look at my green Toyota and feel a little proud and quite overwhelmed that something this big was mine.

Then I wondered what it would feel like to own an entire house! Surely that would not be a good feeling, even though it was the natural course of life. It seemed strange to own something that was bigger than me.

That was more than ten years ago. Since then I've sold the car and given away a house's worth of other things. I now own little of value other than a macbook, ipod, e-reader, coffee press, and some brilliant portable speakers. It can all fit in my purse and a carry-on, and it frequently does. My less-valuable possessions fill another suitcase or two.

Last year I was reading a blog by a journalist in Indonesia right after the West Sumatra earthquake. She mentioned how at the end of a busy day, there was nowhere safe for her to stay, so she found an empty dry corner in a warehouse where all the aid workers were staying, pulled her jacket over her as a blanket and went to sleep. I moved there and left the lovely four-bedroom house that my job had rented for me to go help re-build shelters for families who lost houses in that earthquake. In Indonesia, unlike the journalist, I did get a room to myself!

Living in Sue Dan, I learn daily of people travelling from north to south. If they can pack up their entire houses, they do. Usually, they have a little bag with them, and it's sadly not uncommon for their slight belongings to be lost on the journey.

Currently, my world consists of a bed, two nightstands, my carry-on suitcase, and my macbook. I'm comfortable and happy, but I don't even sleep in a room with a door - the bed is in the hallway. I don't know what to make of this. Am I infinitely privileged in my flexibility? Or am I missing out because, with just a few key decisions, I could actually own something?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

a jumble of jumbled thoughts

I have started at least half a dozen blogs in my mind during the last week, if not more. These are interesting times! So I think... This is an interesting person, how would I describe him? That is an odd dilemma, how would I unpack it? There is a bit of true irony, and I know just how to narrate it!

And yet here I am with nothing to write, except for the lyrics to the song "When you say nothing at all" passing through my mind: You say it best when you say nothing at all. (go on, click the link and watch the video which will hopefully load MUCH faster for you than it did for me. It soothes the heart even though it's absolutely random with regards to this blog post)

Am I saying it best by not saying it? I probably am because there's a reason all of those mentally drafted blogs never made it to the typepad. If I were smart I would have written them but not posted them, but I'm not smart that way. I post because I have to write, not because the story needs to be put out there. This time the story can't be put out there, so can't be posted, so I don't write.

Clearly this is not as it should be. How awful that I can't explain here why I can't post because then I'd be giving hints into what I'd be writing about that I can't post. And, of course I don't mean it but feel like this is when I should say 'but then I'd have to kill you'. Seriously, have I already said too much? As I write this I don't know whether these words will actually make it onto the blog.

Should I be looking for things around me that are cuter, more mundane? Looking for the tiny flickers of lovely joy in the midst of the desert of disaster? If you know what part of the world I'm in and have turned on the international news anytime in the last few weeks, you know that no small things are going on around me. It seems petty to look for the little things. But as I write this I realise that probably they are the answer. The secret hidden writing is all well and good, but instead this may be a moment for returning to the reason I started blogging regularly in the first place: finding the value in this itsybitsy things, drawing little pictures with words.

I'm afraid, once again, this is the best I can do. Putting the "im" in Imperfect Prose! In fact, this is all I've managed to write all week. Here's hoping the words come back soon...