Monday, September 14, 2009

The Mosque That Gets a Facelift

     Mali is home to the oldest and largest mud structure in the world, the Mosque at D’jenne. We were lucky to be there on market day, when the vibrant primary colors of fruit, vegetable, and clothing against the backdrop of the huge tawny colored Mosque shows D’jenne at her best.

     As you might imagine, a mud building needs a lot of maintenance. But no governmental office based in Bamako is going to come to D’jenne to maintain a building regularly, even if it is a world heritage site. In Mali villagers take matters into their own hands and the people of D’jenne turn building maintenance into a festival. Each year groups from D’jenne and surrounding villages come together to resurface the entire Mosque. For several days heavy buckets of wet mud are carried from the river to the Mosque where the mud is mixed with straw. Then boys and men hang from timber scaffold to slather the entire Mosque in a new coat of fresh clay. It turns into a friendly competitive rivalry between villages to see who can supply, and apply, the most mud.

     We were part of just a handful of travelers in D’jenne so we were prime targets for the hat, blanket and trinket sellers who, laden with dozens of conical hats and colorful blankets perched on their heads or draped over their arms, roamed the marketplace. One such seller spotted us on our first day and seemed to find us wherever we were- in the market, in a restaurant, near the mosque or outside our guesthouse each morning. He spoke no English and we didn’t know but one word that he understood, “no.” He tried to communicate with us in French, German, Russian, and a few other languages I couldn’t identify. One of his blankets was particularly beautiful. Scott and I both liked it but it was far too large for us to carry in our backpacks so we said, “No, thank you.” But the blanket seller was persistent. We knew enough French to understand that it was a special “wedding” blanket. Such a blanket would be given to a Malian couple at their wedding ceremony.
     “Tres chic. Beautiful,” I said while insisting that regrettably, we could not carry it. Yet our twosome became a threesome as the seller followed us everywhere over the next few days.
     On our last day in D’jenne the blanket seller waited predictably by our guesthouse gate. “No, no, no,” we said firmly while showing him how small our backpacks were.
     Never underestimate the power of a blanket seller in D’jenne. The blanket looks lovely on our bed at home in California.

The Potato Truck

     Getting from The Gambia back into Senegal was a challenge, one that reminded me what it is about Africa that makes me cry, laugh, despair and hope. We waited hours, asked many drivers, even bribed an official but could not get a ride into Senegal. Finally, a man transporting hundreds of pounds of potatoes to market in Senegal let us pay him a considerable sum to ride with his cargo.
     In a vehicle that was once a small truck but was now made up from parts of several other vehicles, he crammed all his potatoes and sixteen people. Like sardines. My husband lay on his back atop a mountain of potatoes like an upside down crab, his knees to his chest and his arms seeming to hold up the potato laden roof sagging only inches above him. Another man thinking he had found the sweet spot on the roof fell off and the roof suddenly bowed a bit less.
     I sat in the front seat, my arms across the shoulders and out the windows of the driver and the passenger next to me. My job was to hold both doors shut for the four-hour journey. The man next to me taught me a few words of Wolof and I taught him some words in English such as “spuds” and “overcapacity” and “unsafe.” There was no reverse gear so when we had to turn around (to pick up the man who had fallen off) we all had to de-wedge ourselves from the truck and help push the vehicle around. And we must have come in the back door to Senegal. We never did see a border post.
     The next day we made our way to the local police station in Tambacounda so that we could get a stamp in our passports making us official. After we had tea with the policeman he wrote in our passports in French the date and, “seen passing through Tambacounda.”

Friday, September 11, 2009

Meat is Meat

     During a trip to East Africa in 1999 we stopped to overnight in the colonial city of Bulawayo. From our window on the Blue Arrow bus we saw a large billboard advertising “Business Days, Zimbabwe Trade Zone” so as a diversion and to see what business people in Zimbabwe were promoting we decided to attend.

     When we arrived at the entrance they weren’t sure what category to put us in or which badge to give us. After some time we were issued guest badges.

     The tradeshow floor was crowded with  salesmen representing companies doing business in Zimbabwe and a multitude of  import-export companies marketing their furniture, crafts and services. There were also a few safari lodges represented. One, located in Hwange National Park, was offering trade show attendees a full board package, including game drives, at their Ganda Lodge for an incredible price. We paid for two nights and received a very official looking voucher.

     The next day we took a bus to Hwange National Park where Happiness, Shamu, Fortunate and Cleaver, all employees of the Ganda Lodge, met us. I didn’t know who they thought we were but we received the royal treatment. It turned out we were the only guests. Upon arrival at the Lodge we were shown a selection of two story cottages to choose from. We took the one fronting the water hole and swimming pool. This in turn overlooked a grassy savannah shaded by acacia and mahogany trees. In a branch of a thorn tree overhanging the upstairs viewing platform, a lilac breasted roller came spectacularly to rest not two feet from where we sat.
     After we settled in, our guide David took us on a game drive. We drove through the park and stopped near a herd of over 200 elephants. One juvenile performed an impressive mock charge and, while I held my breath, another young elephant walked directly over to where I sat in the back seat of our open topped land cruiser and draped his trunk briefly over my shoulder.

     It was extremely hot when we returned from the game drive so we changed into swimsuits and chilled down in the icy cold pool. As we hung on to the edge of the pool we could see Zebra come to the water hole and drink. Cuthbert, the bartender, brought cold beers to the pool. It was heaven. We had paid $14 per person per night. Total for everything.

     At noon, a dapper African named Boniface served us a plentiful lunch on a covered terrace. During our meal he asked us which meat we would like to have for dinner.

     “What are our choices?” we asked.

     “Chicken, or beef, or pork,” answered Boniface.

     We felt like having chicken so that’s what I told Boniface. He seemed disappointed by our choice.
We were called to dinner at 6pm. Again it was a buffet with copious amounts of food, way too much for just the two of us. And there was plenty of chicken. It didn’t take too long for us to realize that the staff of Ganda Lodge and their families would eat what we couldn’t finish. We also understood that when there were no guests at the lodge there are no leftovers to eat. We took modest portions of food to our table and ate while the staff watched.  From the terrace we could see impala and wart hog and giraffe come to the waterhole.

     “It is so beautiful at the waterhole,” I said to Boniface. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have breakfast next to it?”

     The next morning, after we watched 800 buffalo cross the savannah, we headed to the terrace for breakfast. Cuthbert met us at the step and swept his arm around until it pointed down to the waterhole. At the bank there was a table for two beautifully set with white linen, china and a vase of flowers. “Today, you will eat breakfast at the waterhole.” I almost cried. To this day it is the most special place I have ever dined.

     As we finished our eggs, Boniface came to our table and asked, “Which meat would you like for lunch today?”

     “Which meat do you think we should have, Boniface?” we asked.

     “Well,” he paused. “Meat is meat,” he answered with a shrug as if it did not matter. “But”, he added quickly, “I don’t think you like the chicken. I think you like the beef,”

     “I think we like the beef too so that is what we will have,” I answered.

     And that is what we all had for lunch that afternoon. There was enough beef on the luncheon buffet to feed twenty.

     After lunch Boniface again approached us with, “Which meat would you like for dinner?”

     We smiled at him and said, “Do we still like the beef?”

     Boniface smiled back. “Yes, I think you like the beef most of all.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Finding Serendipity in Sri Lanka

      Are you in need a new dishwashing machine or vacuum cleaner? As you exit passport control in the Colombo Airport in Sri Lanka, even at 2 a.m. as we did, you can buy these and more without leaving the airport. An appliance store in the departure lounge displays washers, dryers, and microwaves while eager salesmen stand by ready to arrange delivery. Weeks later in the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle Fort, we met a woman who actually bought a dishwasher at the airport. She said it is useless because she couldn’t find dishwashing soap anywhere.
     Sri Lanka is a place like no other. That’s what the marketing posters say, and why not state the obvious? But if I were in charge of marketing for Sri Lanka my slogan would be “Feel in the mood to drop down the rabbit hole? Come to Sri Lanka, a Wonderland where the unexpected happens and serendipity is the rule.
     In Colombo we stayed at an old colonial hotel, the Galle Face, which still feels veddy-veddy British and where ex-pats working or passing through Colombo gather nightly for drinks on the terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean.

     Despite the location and many amenities of the Galle Face, room rates were reasonable in 2008. The cease-fire that lasted from 2002-2008 during the decades long civil war did little to bring tourists to Sri Lanka. In January 2008, the cease fire officially ended causing tourism to fall even more. At the time of our visit in mid 2008, most of the hotels or guesthouses were empty. In the former ancient capital Polonnaruwa, for only $41, we stayed at the Polonnaruwa Rest House in the same room Queen Elizabeth the Second rested her crown in1954. Not as much of a bargain as it sounds. The room hasn’t changed much since then. The loo definitely dates from the 50’s. Still, we called each other Liz and Phillip for two nights. Me: “Oh Phillip, I do wonder how the Corgies are doing back at Windsor.” Scott: “Liz, are you done there on the throne yet? Consorts gotta go too you know!”

     Anyway, timing is everything and as guests of the Galle Face Hotel we were invited to watch an annual race called the Cannonball Run. In the 1840’s the area adjoining the hotel was used as a practicing ground for the British Royal Artillery Company. One day a young Ceylon Lascar got the yips and shanked a 30-pound cannonball; it went off course and ended up in the hotel dining room, unexploded. Each year the hotel commemorates this accident with a two-man race and a big party. In 2008, the British High Commissioner and the American Ambassador competed for the title. At 5pm the pomp commenced, as did the steady rounds of cocktails. British or American flags were offered to the crowd. Scott, I, and, inexplicably, a German family took the US flags, but not due to any nationalism on our part. In the same way you check out a horse before a race, we noticed that the US Ambassador had very long legs and looked a few years younger than the long nosed British High Commissioner.
     The runners had to run only a short distance but they had to carry a full glass of champagne on a tray without spilling it while they ran. (Don’t you just love the ex-pat lifestyle?) The first to touch the cannonball would be declared the winner and “…be honored as Champion of the Cannonball Run. His title will remain only a year but his name immortalized forever!”
     The British High Commissioner won by a nose. With such long legs, I felt sure the US Ambassador sandbagged for diplomacy sake. Or maybe he was off his oats. No matter. The race was over and the party commenced in earnest around the pool bar overlooking the Indian Ocean. And a Navy gunboat patrolling a short distance offshore.
     Food and drink was plentiful and delicious. The German family was fun. The two US Coast Guard officers who crashed the party were also fun. I would never have guessed we would someday be at a swank party in Colombo Sri Lanka singing the Sponge-Bob Squarepants song and reciting dialog from the movie ‘The Quiet Man’ with two career coast guard officers. But like I say, the cocktails were flowing.
     While all this was going on about twenty young men tried to move an old London double-decker bus that the British contingent had rode in on but was now firmly stuck in the sand. The sunset behind the men pushing the bus while the driver gunned the engine and dug the wheels further into the sand was spectacular.

     After 10pm when the waiter said, “Beer finished. Only whiskey left” and the Coast Guard Officer (the one who had excelled at the Sponge-Bob refrain) said, “Well then, let’s have that!” we knew the party would soon be over. Fireworks exploded overhead illuminating the double-decker bus, men still pushing, driver still gunning, tires buried up to the first upper deck step.
     So our first day in Sri Lanka was pretty good. Two days later on my birthday, as we fell further down the rabbit hole, I bathed an elephant in a river. (See "Bathing an Elephant in Sri Lanka)

     Sri Lanka was first known as Serendib and this might have been where the word serendipity was derived. They should never have changed the name. It fits the Sri Lankan experience and her people so well. To be there is to experience serendipity in action.

     Despite being identified mostly by her war, Sri Lanka is intrinsically gentle. The first sound you hear in a Sri Lankan morning is someone sweeping (the street, the dirt, the grass…) with a broom made of long thin twigs. “Swish. Swish. Swish.” Every morning the same rhythmic sound awakens you. It’s a place where bar snacks are called “small munch.” Where if you ask, “What do you call that type of monkey?” you will be answered with patience and extreme enunciation, “We call this “monkey.” If you leave your shoes outside your guesthouse door, someone will come along and warn, “Monkey take shoe” or if you try to eat your lunch out on the porch, someone else will caution, “Monkey attack food.” Where no matter how posh a hotel is, there is still a man who stands patiently all day on the grounds using a slingshot to keep the crows and monkeys at bay. Where the only gem store we were enticed to enter was the one called Schmuck Jewelers because at least he was being honest. It’s the country where we have enjoyed bed sheets with the highest thread count yet in all our travels. But pillows are still mostly hard like bricks.
          The people of Sri Lanka love you to love their country. Everyone we met asked “How do you like my country?” We always answered truthfully, “It is very beautiful! You have so much nature and so many interesting cultural sights. We love it!” And they smiled broadly, happy that their country pleases others. What we wanted to add was, “No country has been more humid or made us sweat more” but I don’t think that would please them as much, even though it is the truth. The men in Sri Lanka are the best fathers I have encountered in all my travels. They are incredibly affectionate with their children- holding, cooing and smiling at them as a mother would.

     Sri Lankans make major decisions in life based on astrology and their horoscope. Weddings are held at odd days and times, because an astrologer has deemed it auspicious. Parents advertise in newspapers for brides or grooms on behalf of their sons or daughters asking that horoscopes be sent along with applications. There is a full page in the newspaper of parents advertising for sons or daughters in-law. Some even advertise for their children living overseas. Here’s one we read in the Colombo daily newspaper: “Parents of 40 year old PHD scientist working in California seek bride 30-35 for their son. Prefer if she live in California or a state close by. Caste and religion not important. Send horoscope.” Because the country was at war during our visit sometimes things were tense. But the thing that most frightened me in Sri Lanka was my daily horoscope. It constantly said things like “Piles or minor injuries likely today. Beware of contagious disease.”
This last one really worried me since a story on the front page that day was “Mysterious disease kills four, so far.” No wonder Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop.

     Most of Sri Lanka is Buddhist but the Tamils are primarily Hindu. Periodically during our 45-day visit we were advised to avoid large public gatherings which, during the war, could become violent. During the week long Hindu New Year celebrations we stayed inside the former Dutch walled city of Galle Fort, which is mostly Muslim.

     Life inside the old Fort walls of Galle is a delight. We had an airy room with a terrace overlooking the ramparts and the sea. Every morning as we had our coffee, we watched the same characters pass by on the rampart wall. First the kingfisher posted himself on the power line across from our balcony and waited for bugs to walk by. Then the total number of goats in the fort, four, grazed the new shoots of grass that cropped up overnight. Then one of the two monkeys in the fort came swinging through the coconut trees and sometimes landed on the terrace just to see me jump. Later, some of the human Fort residents strolled the wall for exercise. Fathers carried toddlers along the rampart wall at sunset, tending to their children as attentively as a male emperor penguin would.

     Everyday a man led his horse on a long rope, standing by it for hours while it ate its way down the street. It reminded Scott of a passage in a Terry Pratchett novel where a peasant holds his cow by a string and stands by it for hours in a field while it grazes. A man watching finally had to ask, “Why do you stand by your cow in the field?”
     “It’s good for the field,” said the peasant.
     “But doesn’t it waste a lot of time?” asked the man.
     The peasant gave the question due consideration and answered, “What’s time to a cow?”

That’s life in Galle Fort.
     I miss Sri Lanka. I miss her stunning natural beauty and friendly people. I miss the pink sunsets and stupendous nightly thunder and lightening shows. I miss the beaches and watching cricket games played on the sand. I miss the charming guesthouses. But the thing I miss most about Sri Lanka is the bird I call Curly. His song every morning sounds just like Curly from the Three Stooges. “Woob woob-woob-woob-woob!” without the “nyuk-nyuk-nyuk” at the end. It is a sound that cannot help but make you smile.

Tea With the Wife of Muhammad

(There are no photos with this post because the family asked that we not publish photos of them. Photos of Quetta will be added as soon as I scan them!)

"All Eyes are Hungry"
     The first time we experienced the warmth and generosity of Muslims was during a trip to Quetta Pakistan in 1995. Quetta is very traditional in the Islamic sense, including manner of dress. Even though I was covered head to toe in a loose fitting dress, leggings, a long sleeved shirt and scarf for my head the day we arrived, men stared at me and circled me on their bicycles. The next day, we purchased a traditional shalwar kameez so I that I would be attired the same as the women in Pakistan.

     As we walked through the town we realized there were hardly any woman in the streets or working in the shops. The few women we did see were escorted by a male family member who did the negotiating and carried all the packages. It turned out I too couldn’t shop alone. It wasn’t that I wasn’t allowed to walk into shops and try to purchase something. But when I did enter a shop I couldn’t get any service. I went into one store to buy sandals and the proprietor would not speak or look at me. He wasn’t rude. He simply didn’t know what to do with me. My husband had to do all the talking.

     At first we didn’t see women in the restaurants. We learned that the caf├ęs were segregated by gender; the men were in the front and the women in a room in the back. Some restaurants had a “family room” where families could eat together.

     I was irritated. It was an inconvenience to both of us that my husband had to do everything for me. “Why don’t the women rise up so they can work, shop and eat where they want?” I said to my husband as we walked around town, all eyes upon us.

     Later that week, fully covered in the local attire, I stood by my husband as he got a shave in a barber chair under a tree. The barber, after barely a glance at me said to my husband, “It is very good that your wife dresses this way,” he paused before adding, “because in Pakistan, all eyes are hungry.”

     While it was difficult to fully understand the culture, we were struck by the constant generosity and kindness of the people of Quetta. Everywhere we went people were curious about us and made an effort to talk to us. They always seemed to end up giving us more than we asked for, be it a meal or a service. And every conversation, meal or visit to a shop always came with a cup of tea.

     We walked the streets of Quetta for a week becoming more comfortable each day. Most of our prior knowledge of Muslim culture came from watching a few public television specials. Being there and experiencing it was nothing like what we had read or heard.

A License to Drink Beer

     Pakistan is dry and by that I don’t mean arid. Muslims are not allowed to drink alcohol. In Quetta maybe all eyes are hungry but we were thirsty! As hard as we tried to respect the customs of the Muslim culture we really missed Happy Hour. We hadn’t had a beer in two weeks and, while we aren’t heavy drinkers, it is a tradition of ours to toast the end of a travel day with a sundowner of some sort. The happiest of Happy Hours takes place when traveling.

     Acquiring alcohol in Pakistan is not an easy task, but it is not impossible. First, we would have to go to the police and apply for a “permit as a non-Muslim” which we would then present at an unmarked building where we could purchase a case of beer. Not really that difficult and since traditions must be honored, my husband turned to me one morning and said, “I’m going to get one of those beer drinking permits. Be back in an hour!”

     An hour went by, then two then four and I was more than a little worried about what might have happened. I started thinking things like “If he gets back alive I’m going to kill him!” as people do when they are worried about a loved one.

     At dusk he returned. Here’s the story he told after I demanded, “What took you so long?” and, “Did you at least get some beer?”
     “Why do you look so angry?” he replied managing to actually look puzzled as to why I would be upset that he went missing in a city where almost all the men walk around carrying guns. He continued. “OK. So you saw me drive off in the auto rickshaw right? Well the driver didn’t know the exact office to go to get the permit so we had to pick up a friend of his who said he knew where to go. Then they took me to the place where I would ultimately get to buy some beer if I was able to get a permit but I was told I had to go to the police station first. Then the beer agent invited me to have some tea so we all sat and had tea and talked. Then the driver, his friend, the beer agent and I crammed into the rickshaw and drove to the police station where I was invited to have tea with the police officers while we waited for the man who supposedly knew about beer permits. After tea and the usual questions: Where are you from, how many children do you have… the man in charge of non Muslim beer drinking licenses arrived and told me that the police station wasn’t the place to get a permit but that he knew where to go. He led the way in an army vehicle, which for some reason made my rickshaw driver very nervous, and we drove in convoy to an office where, low and behold, a woman was working behind a desk! She looked at me with curiosity as the police officer, the auto rickshaw driver, his friend and I sat down to have tea with the other men in the office. Then the woman at the desk began speaking to me in Urdu. One of the men translated. “She wants to know how many children you have.” I told her none, but I took out your passport, which I had with me and showed her your picture for, you know, potential. Pointing at your picture, and at me she asked through the translator if we would do her the honor of coming to her home for tea! I didn’t know what to make of the whole thing but she wrote a bunch of stuff down in Urdu, which turns out to be directions to her home, and here it is!” he finished while proudly producing the piece of paper.

     I took it from him saying, “So it wasn’t your fault you were gone all day. It was the tea.”

     “Exactly! Anyway, what do you think about going to this lady’s house?” he asked excitedly. I took his extreme, definitely not Scott-like, animation to be due to his excessive caffeine consumption that day.

     “You’re Red Bulling on me. Calm down.” I said as I looked down at the scrap of paper. I couldn’t tell if I was holding it right side up. “What does it say?”

     “I told you. It’s her address and all we have to do is hand it to an auto rickshaw driver and he will be able to read it and will know where to take us. We are invited there for tea!” He said pointing at the squiggles on the paper for emphasis.

     “How do we know this doesn’t say “Take these two infidels up to the hills and sacrifice them to Allah?” I replied.

     “C’mon, Tris. It’s tea.”
     “Well…did you at least get some beer?” I asked, softening some.
     “Of course! After the woman gave me her address the paperwork was a slam-dunk. We all drove back to the beer vendor in the unmarked building and I was presented with a cup of tea and a case of warm beer. Want one?”
     “Why not?” I said, “It could be my last.”

     The next afternoon we handed the scrap of paper to an auto rickshaw driver and saw places in Quetta we never would have had my husband not been thirsty for a beer the day before.

     The driver spoke a little English. He told us the note had a street name and number and “The House of Muhammad” written on it. After many wrong turns and stops to ask for directions we finally arrived at Muhammad’s house.

     The eldest son, Muhammad Jr., greeted us at the door and invited us in. His English was excellent which was a good thing because I was wondering how we were going to be able to communicate. Muhammad introduced his father, his two brothers, his sister, and the woman my husband met in the office.

     In the sparsely furnished but tidy house there was a sewing machine, a dowry trunk, a few pillows on the floor and photographs of ancestors hanging on the wall. A small one burner stove with pots stacked nearby sat on a tiled area in a small courtyard in front of the house. In the largest room we were offered pillows to sit on and the family sat around us on the floor in a semi circle. Rather, everyone in the family but the 12-year-old girl who sat behind the family. Tea and several plates of pretty cakes and sweets were set down in front of us. It must have cost a small fortune.

     That tea party was and still is one of the most memorable encounters I have had with a local family in all our travels. The eldest son asked about our lives and we asked about theirs. My husband commented to Muhammad how surprised he had been to see his mother behind the desk the day before. The son explained that the family was not happy that his mother had to work. Several years prior his father had become very ill making it impossible for him to work. As I looked at the father I could see that something had affected his motor skills. We were told that the most he could do now was sweep floors at a clinic. So the mother had to go to work to support the family of six. Muhammad Jr. said that he was eager for the day when he could do his duty and support the family so that his mother would not have to work.

     We asked how his mother and father met. The mother told the story to us in Urdu and the son translated.
She began, “It was very long ago! My parents and the parents of a distant cousin arranged our marriage while I was outside playing. I was five years old,” she said with a smile. When she got to the part about playing in the street, she threw back the veil from her face to take us back to the time when she was just a girl and not yet covered. She had a beautiful smiling face and it struck me that she and I were about the same age. She continued, “When I came in from outside I met the little boy who was to become my husband.”
She was enchanting as she told the story. Despite not having many choices in her life, she seemed to be a very happy woman. As she adjusted her veils I asked Muhammad, “What is the role of Muslim women in Pakistani society today?”

     I could tell that he knew what he wanted to say but was struggling with how to make it understandable to us. Finally he said, “Are you familiar with computers and how they operate?”

     Coming from the capital of Silicon Valley we answered, “A little.”

     “Well,” he continued, “here women are like the motherboard on a computer. They are so important! Without them, nothing works. Nothing succeeds. Women are what give order to our world. They are also the moral backbone of society.”

     It was a pivotal moment for me. I had been walking around Quetta not getting it. The woman weren’t being held down. They were held high up, on a pedestal.

     As we sat talking with Muhammad Jr., I tried to bring his young sister into the circle and in on the conversation. “Your sister is very quiet. Won’t she sit next to me?” I said while indicating there was space to my right. Muhammad looked a little annoyed and didn’t answer.

     “Her clothes are very beautiful.” I said still feeling that she was being excluded.
     “She makes all the clothes for the family.” He replied dismissively.
     “Wow! They are very lovely and very well made. When she is older maybe she will be able to sell the clothes she makes,” I said naively. Men were the tailors, not women. And it would not be respectable for her to have to make an income.
     Tiring of me talking about something as unimportant as his sister, Muhammad said with some impatience, “When she is 14 she will be married and that is all.”

     It would have been beyond rudeness for me to say it, but I couldn’t help think that respect for women must only start when their backbone is fully formed, at marriage.

     We brought with us photos of our families. My husband and I with our mothers, a Christmas celebration, all 23 of us playing charades together as we often did…. Muhammad spoke to his family in Urdu translating my descriptions of the photos. As they looked at the pictures I could see they were puzzled about something. Muhammad finally turned to us saying, “Your family seems very close. We thought that all American families do not spend time together and that children barely speak to their parents.”

     “I think my family is a pretty typical American family,” I replied. “We get together often and we respect our parents very much. We have a lot of fun together.” I could tell that I had changed their opinions of Americans, at least a little. So much conflict in the world seems to be based on misconceptions so I was glad to give them a different way to think about American families.

     As we left The House of Muhammad that evening we had a new appreciation for Muslim society and the place of women in it. The mother gave me a headscarf, which she took from the dowry trunk, and demonstrated how to wear it properly. I was overwhelmed by her gift. Muhammad Jr. told us that we were the only foreigners who had ever been invited into their home.

     “Who would have thought that your desire for a beer yesterday would have turned into this wonderful experience today?” I asked my husband as we rode back to our guesthouse.

     The next day we scoured the few shops in Quetta wanting to buy something to give to the family in return for their hospitality. Finding nothing suitable we remembered that we had a large and well-designed daypack that we had never used so we gave it to Muhammad to use at computer school. He was very pleased and said that after he was finished with schooling it would be passed down to his brother and that brother would pass it on to the next.

     The following morning Muhammad Jr. brought us a special meal. He said his mother had stayed up all night preparing it and that it was a meal prepared once a year to honor their ancestors. What a gesture! My heart ached from that act of kindness.

     Later, we needed some stitching done on my tired old backpack. We took it to a tailor on the main road but instead of receiving a bill for service we were given tea. When we insisted on paying, the proprietor excused himself and came back with a gift for us.

     Whenever we went to a bank to cash travelers checks in Pakistan we were always taken to the office of the bank manager and given tea and engaged in conversation. It seemed impossible to give without getting something in return in Pakistan. It was very frustrating! -And very inspiring.

     Later we learned that the Urdu word for “guest” is “blessing from God”.

     I thought about the Muslim women in Iraq struggling for their right to work and attend school. Maybe a young Muslim girl in Pakistan will some day soon be able to design and sell the clothes she makes and not get married at fourteen. But the older generations will not have an easy time accepting change. A Muslim woman we know who immigrated to our city from Bosnia over fifteen years ago still refers to me as “Woman of Scott.”

Beaucoup Oeufs

     While lying in bed one morning in Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo trying to pronounce Antananarivo and scratching my various mosquito bites, I discovered a small hard lump on the bottom of my foot. Very small, but we had learned after seven months in Africa that little things could turn into something big so off we went to the clinic, which turned out to be a maternity hospital. This will become significant later. Through pantomime and our very minimal French I bared my sole to the doctor and tout suite she had me up on the gurney in her office/operating room. An attending nurse smeared my foot with betadine and the doctor placed the business end of her scalpel over the lump. I pantomimed "Ow! This will hurt! No anesthesia first? Numb the foot, s’il vous plait! Me no likey pain." The doctor pantomimed back, "We don't normally do that here; I’ll cut slowly and see how much it hurts. It's just a sharp knife, you big sissy!"

     While charades are being played between the hospital staff and me, Scott is flitting around the doctor and my foot, trying to be helpful while cheerfully proclaiming, "Maybe it's a maggot!" He said this in English though so they ignored him - until he brought out the camera. Then they were all smiles, pantomiming that copies be sent and becoming very cheerful. So everyone was cheerful but me. The doctor began to cut and all I could think about is the scene from Gone With the Wind when the Confederate soldier who is on the table about to have a leg amputated yells, "Don't cut! Don't cut!" while Scarlet looks on in horror. I think I even whispered, "Don't cut!" but I said this in English and my head was buried in the gurney table pillow so everyone ignored me.

     Camera clicking away, doctor cutting away, me looking away, when suddenly the doctor shouts " Voila!" Scott aimed the camera and said with anticipation, "Is it a maggot? La maggot?" The doctor, smiling for her close up said, "Non! Beau coups oeufs!" Which for you non-francophone types like me, means “lots of eggs.” My Mom always said what a good host I was but this was ridiculous.
“Eggs? In my foot?” I asked with horror. "Je deteste oeufs! Unless they're over easy with bacon on toast."
The doctor and nurse pantomimed a little insect drilling a whole in my foot and laying her eggs. I could tell it was their most interesting delivery of the day.

     I most likely acquired the stowaways in rural Madagascar or more likely in the garden of Karen Blixen’s home outside Nairobi in Kenya where pregnant insects like to live I guess. It's a lovely place and if I were a creepy bug I'd live there too.

     Making the most of my oeuf extraction, I thought it would be best to recover on a tropical isle. We flew to Ile Sainte Marie 25 miles off the NE coast of the Madagascar mainland and transferred by dug out canoe to an even smaller outer island, Ile aux Natte. The tiny island had a small troop of ruffed lemurs that are black and white with a very long black bushy tail and a white beard ala Uncle Remus. They leap from tree to tree looking like energetic koala bears. It was mating season though and of the six lemurs on the island there is only one female so there was a lot of yelling and screaming and crying going on when a suitor was rejected. The female was very particular and when her current mate fought off another male making advances, a big verbal fight ensued and the rejected lemur, I swear, cried while the winner gleefully groomed the tail of the female. We could hear them all the time, and see them most of the time, from the balcony of our simple bungalow on stilts over the Indian Ocean. We stayed longer than planned but we were enticed by the turquoise blue sea, the blindingly white sand, and the love struck lemurs. Ok, the real reason we stayed was because it took us awhile to adequately sample all twenty of proprietor Pierre's homemade flavored rums. Punch Coco was the hands down favorite.

     My foot was good as new after a week, sadly still size 9. We our left tropical paradise and made our way inland via bush taxi to visit some of the seventeen national parks and take a canoe trip in the south. We had to do this mostly by bush taxi because rebels blew up train track over much of the country in 2000. Africa is not easy to get around but it’s people, flora and fauna make it well worth the trouble. Just make sure you keep your shoes on.

My Gambian Husband

     I was walking alone on our first afternoon in Bakau, Gambia when an attractive and extremely fit young man approached me and said, “Do you have a Gambian husband?”

     “No,” I answered.” My husband is from San Jose, California.” He continued to walk with me and kept talking to me in a way that began to make me feel uncomfortable. I finally had to be rude.
     “I have to go now to meet my non Gambian husband who is very big and strong.” Then I made a Mr. Universe pose, arms inverse akimbo with fists in the air to demonstrate the mighty muscles of my husband.

     Despite the fact that I had just looked like a lunatic, another young man came up to me almost immediately and with a leer asked, “Do you have a Gambian husband yet?”

     Starting to get perturbed by all this attention I answered, “No, my husband is not Gambian. Why do you ask?” wondering what he meant by “yet.” He shrugged and walked a little closer to me until I gave him the strong man pose. After he left, a third attractive young man approached me.

     “I do not have a Gambian husband and you are standing way to close to me buster!” I said in a culturally sensitive way. I felt like there was a one-act play going on all over town but no one had bothered to give me a script.

     I cut short my confusing walk around town and headed to the beach where I had agreed to meet my husband. I wanted to share my encounters with him and show off my strong man pose. While I waited for my husband, I watched a group of young men playing volleyball. I noticed that all the Gambian men on the beach were good-looking with major six-pack abs.

     Then as I scanned the rest of the beach I noticed that there were several European women walking with very young, attractive African men. But the women were all older, much older than the young men.
I had seen this kind of thing in Thailand; older North American or European men with young Thai girls. But I had never heard of the older woman, younger man thing that seemed to be the main event here in The Gambia. We had evidently arrived in Cougar Country. Apparently, one can have a Gambian husband for an hour, a day, a week, a month, a lifetime…whatever the two parties arrange.

     Men and women are different. Mars, Venus I think we all agree. Lonely men may go to Thailand for sex. But women go to the Gambia for a relationship. I watched one such couple at the local store in Banjul, the aging European woman standing next to her Gambian husband as they browsed the cereal aisle. “Do you think we should get Corn Flakes or Muesli?” she asked while her “husband” feigned interest and said, “What ever you would like dear,” with a look on his face that said with frustration, “Why can’t she just use me for sex? Why do we have to have discussions about cereal? Or discussions at all?”

     European women, who are into Gambian husbands, go to The Gambia to play house for a while. I suppose some of them might be married to average guys back home and just want to know what it would be like to go grocery shopping with a stud. Some of the women end up marrying the young men and take them home to Europe where I suppose they live out their lives happily browsing the cereal aisles at Sainsbury.

     Other than sex tourism, the most in your face component of Gambia are the roads. They are so bad that drivers have entirely abandoned the heavily potted road and drive along the sides of what remains of it in the area usually reserved for a ravine. These are rutted and canted at such a very steep angle that when you are a passenger in a bush taxi everyone in the vehicle ends up perched on one butt cheek. A child, who had originally been placed on the lap of the person next to you, ends up teetering on your hip like a loose hood ornament.

It was the same in bush taxis all over Africa. But it was in Gambia that I had one of the best bush taxi experiences ever.

     On a journey from Seracunda to Georgetown a cute little boy, Sisi, sat wedged between my hip and his mother’s lap. He stared at me and I smiled at him and told his mother he was very handsome. She translated this to him and he told her he loved me. The mother laughed, placed Sisi on my lap and said, “Here! Now you have a Gambian husband!”

     Sisi used my lap as a platform for pits he discarded as he ate a fruit the size of small cherries, spitting out the pit with a silent “ptui” while gazing at me with the love only a Gambian husband can give. I was completely smitten. Misty eyed I asked, “What kind of cereal do you like?”