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Published: April 2nd 2009
Lilongwe market bridgesLast weeks in Malawi
Rickety old wooden bridges connect the two sections of the Lilongwe marketthe vegetable market, and the second-hand clothing and fabric market. Each bridge is "operated" by a different person, who charges a 10 kwacha fee to cross his or her bridge.
Soon after my return from Zimbabwe something many of us mzungus
had been looking forward to for months was finally happening: 'Indecision 2008' to use Jon Stewart’s terminology 😉. Chameleon’s, a mzungu
-owned bar in Lilongwe, had promised to stay open all night and broadcast the U.S. presidential election live on CNN for us. After sleeping for a few hours, Maki, Avik, and I, as well as most Americans and a great many foreigners, all congregated there around 1am and plopped down on couches or on the floor to watch John King get frazzled by his touch screen malfunctions and Wolf Blitzer talking to a hologram
(?!). (I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year to keep people from changing the channel—topless anchors? Good grief.) Anyway it was a unique election experience, I will never forget the night nor the way it felt when it was finally announced that Obama won. We all knew the outcome by maybe 4am, but everyone at Chameleon’s stuck it out until 7am when Obama finally gave his acceptance speech. I can’t say I was awake the whole time; I definitely dozed off between each state that was
Lady crossing market bridge with head balancing
I am always so amazed that they don't even need to use their hands!
“called” only to be nudged my Maki saying, “Hey, we won Florida!” or “They’re about to call Colorado!” When it was all over a bleary-eyed me ran home to change just in time for the UNHCR car to drive me out to the camp for a day of interviews - and a long day that was!
The following week UNHCR and JRS (the organization I worked for in 2007, you may remember) were planning a joint workshop on working with survivors of trauma, and I was lucky enough to be invited. I say lucky, not only because the subject matter was really interesting and important, but also because it was being held at the Livingstonia Hotel in Senga Bay 😉—one of Malawi's swankiest hotels. My roommate Dalia was handling the logistics for the whole thing, so she managed to score us the nicest suite in the whole hotel! We had a huge bedroom, a huge living room overlooking our own private beach
. We headed to Senga Bay a day early so she could get things ready for the conference, while myself, Maki, and our friends Joe and Enoch relaxed at the beach.
On Saturday night we heard the
hotel was hosting a night of traditional Malawian dancing. It ended up featuring a very traditional Malawian performance in the style of the wale gamkulu
, which is a sort of secret society of the Chewa (majority) tribe. I say it was a performance 'in the style of' because the real wale gamkulu
only come out at the request of a village chief, and their dances are supposed to ward off evil spirits. This was a performance for hotel guests (many of whom were Malawian) so although they were wearing the same costumes and performing the same dance, it was not the real, authentic wale gamkulu
. The dancers wear costumes that are designed to scare people, so they walk on stilts, don scary looking masks (including the creepiest one of all—a mzungu
mask which you can see in the video!), and wear cloaks made of animal skin or thin strips of fabric, and they kick up dust to further obscure themselves and enhance the mystery surrounding their identity. Sometimes when driving to the refugee camp, you see members of the wale gamkulu
jump out of the bush wearing their scary masks and wave their arms at the UNHCR car, intending to
Maki waking up for yet another state "call"
Avik and Jersey Girl next to her watching CNN on the big projector
frighten whoever is inside.
After the performance Maki and I set up my tent on the beach, while Dalia, Joe, and Enoch just slept on the sand…until a rainstorm rudely woke us all up around 4am! My tent is actually a mosquito net and thus provides no protection from the elements, so Maki and I ran for some small thatch-roof stands that had been leftover from the Lake of Stars Festival. We set up camp inside one, but within half an hour so much rain was blowing into the stand we were soaking wet. We waited for another half hour or so as the sun came up, when finally the rain stopped and I went back to sleep for a couple of hours before Dalia and I checked into the hotel in preparation for the trauma conference.
The participants included representatives from all the NGOs and government staff working in the camp, as well as refugee interpreters and refugee volunteers trained by JRS in counseling for survivors of trauma. The workshop lasted three days and was absolutely amazing; I was astounded to learn about the symptoms trauma can have on a person that might affect their ability to
The election night stalwarts
Most American expats and some fellow concerned citizens of other nations inlcuding some of my colleagues.
appear credible in an interview, such as a refugee status interview like those I was conducting every day. I also learned about the kinds of things that can trigger a person's trauma—things that would never have occurred to me, like making an interviewee sit with his back facing the door, or keeping bars on the windows—anything that would be reminiscent of a cell or torture chamber where trauma would have occurred. It was also really insightful to hear the feedback from our refugee interpreters and counselors, who had probably the most useful information to contribute. It made me reflect a lot about how I speak to refugees during interviews, and the effect my tone, hand gestures, or any indication of annoyance or impatience might actually have, thereby making it more difficult for a refugee to share their story which is crucial to my being able to make a decision about their status. What I learned in that workshop will undoubtedly inform my interactions with refugees for the rest of my career.
During the workshop our African colleagues had some very unique ways of leading the group to take breaks and relieve tension; after one particularly grueling morning session a
Malawian employee at the Red Cross had everyone play a speed game where if she said "river" everyone was supposed to stand up, while if she said "bank" everyone had to sit. One by one people were eliminated as they stood when they were supposed to sit and vice versa. It was great fun, and I am proud to say I was one of the last two standing...but eventually sat when she said "river" and we all had a loud, cathartic laugh. One of our refugee interpreters also led us in a Chichewa hymn on the last day which was a great way to relieve some of the tension that inevitably surfaced throughout the course of the workshop and remind us that we were all there to work together for a single purpose. These moments reminded me of what I love about working in distant countries with such different cultures, etiquette, and practices—imagine a business meeting in the U.S. ending with everyone singing a song!
Soon thereafter Dalia was returning to Germany, which meant not only that I was saying goodbye to yet another friend, but it also meant that I would be sleeping in my flat alone again!
One of the typical Gule Wamkulu costumes
I apologize for the bad quality but it was very dark so difficult to get a good photo!
I only had a month remaining in Malawi but I was dreading those nights. I contemplated hiring my own security guard at night, but decided against it because...well, they sleep at night anyway so I don't feel a great deal of added protection through their presence. Furthermore, plenty of women live alone in Lilongwe and I figured I was being paranoid. I stuck it out and everything was fine though my sleep was not sound.
My foodie friends Avik and Maki were planning to spend all day cooking a real turkey on Thanksgiving, and very kindly invited me to join them. Given that I couldn’t come until after work hours, I showed up at that perfect time when all the hard cooking labor is done so any offer to help will inevitably be moot 😉. I sat with them in the kitchen nibbling on cheese and fresh mango until other guests started showing up and I had to assume some modest entertaining duties. Wouldn’t you believe it, two more
New Yorkers showed up, along with one poor New Jersey girl who had to listen to us going on and on gloating about how amazing the city is. I have
to admit, we were pretty insufferable; she was attempting to highlight some of NJ’s better qualities when I reminded her that New York City’s trash is exported to her state. It was a lot of fun and the food was amazing; Avik even cooked a pecan pie from scratch
which I actually ate a whole slice of.
My remaining two weeks in Malawi were spent finishing up work, packing, selling off the various furniture and household items I’d acquired during my stay, and trying to find a home for Schnuren Niaffenzegen, my adorable cat. My last day in Malawi I spent at the office, trying to clean out my desk and make sure I had transferred all my work over to Hilda, our office manager. John Paul’s brother then picked me up from my office and took me to see his family, who insisted—despite my protests—on cooking me something in honor of my departure. I relented, but insisted it had to be small, so his mom made samosas (one of which was almost too much for me to finish). They gave me a Malawi t-shirt, which was the one thing I had managed to forget to pick up for
myself. I wished them all goodbye and then went home for the last bits of packing before the UNHCR driver picked me up at 5am to take me to the bus depot where I boarded a bus to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Starting the long trip home: Lilongwe to Lusaka to Johannesburg to Dubai
After one night in a hostel in Lusaka, I spent the morning at the market—where I picked up those Zairean CDs, Jim!—trying to find a big enough suitcase to put my backpack and half of my other suitcase in. See, I had been warned by the taxi driver who picked me up at the bus station that based on the weight of a sack of maize meal, my bag was certainly well over 40 kilos (i.e. overweight for the plane). So I had to try and partition everything between two suitcases to get it on the plane without paying excess baggage fees. The driver was so sweet, he actually helped me transfer things from one bag to the other and compare each bag’s weight until he estimated that they were both around 25 kilos. His maize meal sack standard must have been pretty
accurate, because the bags made it on the plane hassle free!
I flew from Lusaka to Johannesburg, then had an overnight flight to Dubai where I had an 8-hour stopover. My friend Steve, from my International School of Prague days, had kindly offered to pick me up and show me around the city. We hadn't seen each other in ten years, but thanks to Facebook I am back in touch with people as far back as elementary school at Awty International—which can be great in situations like this, especially considering how many classmates I had who were international students from all over the world. First we went to a hip little restaurant where I got my first glimpse into all the Western culinary delights I had to look forward to in the next few weeks. (As I had been telling people for the last month in Malawi, as thrilled as I was to be getting back home to my family and cats, the food was one of the things I was most excited about.) After brunch Steve drove me to what he said was quintessential Dubai: a very luxe shopping mall, the highlight of which—I kid you not—is an
indoor ski slope
! Ski lift, snow, and all. After my time in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, I was more than a little aghast at the contrasts I was witnessing. It was a pretty surreal experience: marble floors and skylights, after my year surrounded by dirt floors and mud brick walls; women in full hijabs walking through a La Perla lingerie store; people in full ski suits when outside it was near 90 degrees. Steve said that as we walked through the mall, my mouth was hanging open, though I didn’t even notice it.
We then proceeded to one of Dubai's most famous hotels—not the Burj Al Arab, but the one right next to it, where Steve had to pick up his pass for the Dubai International Film Festival that night. In addition to working for the UN in its emergency operations in Lebanon in the aftermath of the Israeli attacks, Steve recently produced a documentary on Palestinian hip hop which had been featured at several festivals including the mother of all film festivals, Sundance. We rode the glass elevator up to the top floor of the hotel, which provides an amazing view of the
Burj Al Arab hotel and the gorgeous turquoise water it rises from. Istanbul
Steve then got me back to the airport in time for my connection to Istanbul, where I landed around 6pm. My hostel sent a shuttle to pick me up; for once in my life I was one of those people who has a man with a little sign with my name on it waiting for me at the arrivals doorway. I got to the hostel just in time to clean up and get dinner. (I’d been living in Malawi for ten months, plus, it’s Turkey…needless to say food was on my mind!) I was staying in Sulthanamet, the top tourist neighborhood in Istanbul which is supposedly extremely safe at night thanks to loads of tourist police and video cameras strategically placed all around. It was drizzling a bit so I didn't wander far, just far enough to see the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (which I have been waiting to see since my freshman year of college) lit up at night, and to find some dinner. The next morning I woke up early to make my way through the long list of sights I had
been dying to see for years—the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern…the list was endless. I had a blast just strolling around soaking up the architecture. I ventured up to the hill where Topkapı Palace sits, and had a bottle of water (the cheapest thing available) in order to gain access to a Bosphorus-view table at the hilltop cafe. There were only Turkish people sitting at the cafe, chatting over pots of tea; even on this cloudy day it was a stunning view.
I found it remarkable that Turkish men lurk around waiting to accost you (by you I mean Western women) even during the daytime when you’re just sightseeing. In the evening in the tourist areas they are truly insufferable, hassling you from every restaurant, every doorway, but in broad daylight? I wonder if there was some kind of human trafficking angle to that. Needless to say it was very irritating, so as a solo woman traveller be prepared to deal with it, or bring a male companion along.
As you can gather, my first day was amazing; I spent many hours just wandering around on my feet and then rewarded myself with a döner kebab on
the street while I waited for my evening activity, observing a ritual “performance” by the famous whirling dervishes sect. It was a very beautiful ceremony, and the music was chillingly powerful (see videos), but I had mixed feelings about the whole thing that haven’t gone away. The whirling is supposed to be something the dervishes do because they are so spiritually moved they are in a trance. Yet tourists can pay around $40 and catch a performance almost every night of the week. It would almost be like paying a priest to go through Sunday morning service on demand, for money. As beautiful and mystical as it was, I worry that commercialising what is supposed to be a spiritual rite can’t be a good thing.
That night it was pouring; after heading home on the tram I had dinner at one of Istanbul’s famous fish restaurants, Balikçı Sabahattin, which is on a small cobblestone street in Sultanhamet just a few blocks from my hostel (convenient in the rain!). I ordered four small dishes and a glass of wine and paid around $35. I had a risotto with mussels, fried calamari, fava means in olive oil, and marinated octupus. It
Typical Malawian town house
A village house would not have as solid foundations or construction.
was wonderful, although the next day I felt quite ill—whether it was the fancy appetizers or the $1.50 döner, I will never know! But the restaurant really was nice, great service, totally packed despite the rain, with a primarily Turkish clientele and a few expats. They have tables outside on the cobblestone street that are probably gorgeous when the weather is nice; when it's raining they are covered with clear tarp and look very cozy.
The next afternoon although I still wasn’t feeling great I explored beyond my neighborhood, going into some very Turkish neighborhoods where there were no hotels or signs in English—and hence, no irritating oglers. I saw tons of mosques and feel like I got a better sense of what Istanbul is like for most people who live there. I eventually reached the Grand Bazaar and went into a famous tea house inside, Şark Kahvesı, where I was happily reunited with sahlep
for the first time since my high school days in Prague when I practically lived at the Roxy Tea Room. Sahlep is a hot drink made from ground orchid root that is stirred into simmering milk along with sugar, then topped with a sprinkle
Zain's "Obama" phone shop at the Zambian border
This was only December 15! I am impressed - I guess? - with Zain's rapidity in marketing itself as the Obama phone company throughout Africa.
of cinnamon. It’s totally delicious and unique, though very expensive (around $5 for a tiny cup) because of the high price of orchid root. The Grand Bazaar is quite touristy, but the cafe I was in was 100% Turkish—I didn't hear any English, French or German, and the waitstaff spoke no English. Mind you, it was incredibly smoky which is typical of most Turkish cafes, but it is an Istanbul landmark and a very cosy respite from the crowds and hawkers outside in the market halls. There is a really neat outdoor book market just adjacent to the Grand Bazaar, technically outside the compound but some of the stalls lead up against the Grand Bazaar’s exterior walls. It’s open after dark and was a lot of fun to wander through, though everything is in Turkish. I also explored the spice market a bit before heading in for an early night; somewhat incongruously, the spice market compound is surrounded by outdoor stalls selling pet food and gardening products.
The next day, my last day in Istanbul, I had very big plans to see the Topkapı Palace where Turkey’s sultans resided from the mid-15th century through the 1850s, the Islamic Arts
Not as timely but equally impressive
The "Last Don" Takeaway restaurant...Al Pacino would be proud
Museum which supposedly features one of the best selections of antique Turkish carpets in the world, the Spice Bazaar so I could pick up some sahlep and henna powder for Eva, Yeni Cami (New Mosque) which sits on a big square in Eminönü overlooking the water, and finally, the Law Courts to indulge the international lawyer in me. While I enjoyed visiting the sultans' palace, it was unbelievably crowded even in the rainy weather, and so I ended up being shuffled past most exhibits in a big horde of pushy tourists which I did not enjoy at all (needless to say that's just not the way to experience a museum). The harem exhibit requires a separate ticket and costs around $10-15, so that was far less crowded. It is unfortunately not an amazing exhibit; there are very few explanations to indicate what you are seeing. Also, I think like most people I naively went in expecting something truly exotic, when in fact it's probably one of the more boring places in a sultan's palace since it is basically just the residential quarters. There are some beautiful examples of Islamic tiles in some of the rooms that I felt made it
worthwhile, but it is after all just a series of apartments where the sultan's various wives lived with all their children as opposed to some of the more grandiose public spaces.
The Islamic Arts museum was really fantastic, I highly recommend it even more so than Topkapı. It featured a really fascinating section on women in traditional Turkish culture, which displayed dioramas of various Turkish ethnicities' unique nomadic tent interiors and their evolution over the centuries, as well as traditional clothing and shoes. They also have an amazing array of ancient manuscripts and religious texts that are beautifully and colofully inscribed by hand in several scripts, and household and religious items and relics. But the star of the museum is its rug exhibit, which ranges over many centuries and various Turkish carpet styles. Some of the rugs are 30 feet long and hang dramatically from a very high ceiling, which emphasizes the craftsmanship required to produce them centuries ago before graphic design software 😉.
The Law Courts are just adjacent to the Islamic Arts museum, but did not live up to my perhaps overly romantic expectations. The building housing the courts is modern and, frankly, boring, and I
Dubai under construction
Dubai is a very modern city; my friend Steve told me one quarter of all the world's cranes are in Dubai!
didn't see any judges wearing special Byzantine outfits So I hurried on to get to the Spice Bazaar before it closed. I wanted to walk through the university grounds, which are located just south of the spice bazaar, but ended up getting lost. Not a smart move as it was already dark; I wound up on a couple of pretty deserted streets which is never a good idea when you are a woman alone. But I did get to see two huge mosques, and eventually ended up back on a crowded street where a very sweet girl in a hijab saw me scrutinizing my map and offered to lead me in the right direction. She was a university student and was thrilled to practice her English on the way to the spice market.
As I had been warned, sahlep is a truly expensive item. If you go to a vendor in the bazaar and ask for sahlep, they will offer you an instant version that comes in a box containing packets of sahlep "mix" for pretty cheap, but this is not
real sahlep. As you can see if you read the ingredients, it is made with something called "artifical
My Dubai native
Steve was busy preparing for the Dubai International Film Festival that night, where his documentary about Palestinian hip hop, Slingshot Hip Hop, was being featured.
orchid flavoring" or something). Upon reading the box contents I said, "No no no—I want the real stuff." The vendor raised his eyebrows and said, "Very expensive!" to which I rolled my eyes and said, "I know, now hand it over!" He turned to his colleague behind the counter, and nodded; the man opened a cabinet and reached deep inside to pull out a small but very ornate jar containing a fine, beige-colored powder. There was no haggling over this stuff; several Turkish people had told me what to expect to pay, and the vendor didn't try to rip me off so I paid what he asked which was around 25 Turkish lira for 100 grams.
I then boarded my last tram ride through Eminönü to Sultanhamet; I am only slightly ashamed to say that I got McDonald's take out for my last meal; after having been ill the day before my stomach dictated that I get something completely familiar with no surprises. I then strolled through the drizzling rain from the Sultanhamet tram stop down through the beautiful lit up Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque one last time. I flew from Istanbul to Milan where I unfortunately had
As seen speeding along one of the city's sprawling highways
to spend a night in an airport hotel when my friend Alberto, who was originally going to house me and take me out for a proper Lombardian dinner, flaked out at the last minute! The airport hotel made up for it by ordering me a big pizza which I devoured in my room. The next morning I finally boarded my flight to the U.S. and...the rest you know: I was greeted by warm hugs and lots of delicious food in my first days back in Texas.
Ok now I can finally start posting about Thailand—after two weeks I already have several blogs worth of material to tell you about it!
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