Let’s talk money!

linhas de mocambiqueI am known for being a jet setter for reasons that are only partially attributable to me. Frankly, all of my recent voyages (for the last 5 years) can be 90% attributable to my profession. When at 19, I signed up for a career I didn’t really understand, I certainly didn’t realize the impact my career choice would have on many aspects of my life. My last thought was how it would affect my finances. I mean, I was excited about stable income, since I was a hustling nanny trying to live in New York City. So, now, it’s almost a decade later, and reality is settling in. What the Facebook pictures don’t say is that I am a glorified postal worker. I get to scan the world while doing, largely, menial tasks. But, when I walk out of my office to find myself looking at the sunset on the Indian Ocean, I’m reminded that this is what my 19 year-old self signed up for. The travel adventure!

But this isn’t about silver linings. And I can’t eat adventure. Let’s talk money.

People really don’t realize how financially stressful it is to live a constantly oscillating life abroad. Let me explain: When you have no idea where you’re going to live 2 years from now, it certainly makes keeping a budget difficult. I can’t talk to financial planners, because they want me to budget my groceries and stick to that level forever. They treat travel as a luxury, instead of a source of income. They want me to keep a log of my spending habits, but I struggle to keep track of the currencies and exchange rates. How much is South African Rand in dollars today? And the Indian rupee last year this time? They don’t understand what it means to have to travel to another country to get cheaper groceries – do I add in the cost of 2 tanks of gas and tolls to my grocery bills? My situation is abnormal, but not unusual. Just ask my military friends – they get it! Anyway, my world is one of feast and famine.

I am recognizing the patterns of my travel transitions. I arrive in a new country. I spend 6 months going places, buying things, traveling with new friends, and paying for it all on my credit card. Mind you, I have no clue what this funny money is really worth and I’m working like a dog during the week. I tell myself I have to enjoy this. I, You, WE only live once! Who knows when I’ll be back here again? And, did I mention, I’m working like a dog during the week? Let’s call this a 6-month feast of fantasy. At some point, I wake up and realize that I’m over my head in credit card debt and that something has to give. Usually, I find some finance clean up book (think Suze Orman, The Budgetnista, Personal Finance for Dummies, I could go on…), steal some tips, get a plan together, work all 7 cylinders for about 1 year to get my act and my credit together. Great, so now there’s 6 months left in this country of my career’s choosing and I want to take full advantage. So, I hit the bucketlist – hard! I depart for the continental United States with what seems like a reasonable amount of debt for a woman of my age and station in life.

But now I’m back in America, where my job forces me to NOT work for a month. LOVELY! Finally, one Congressional mandate I believe in. I’m not used to living on my mom’s couch for 30 days straight, so I travel for about half of it. (Add up the cost of these plane tickets and “I’m back in Amurikah” spending sprees). I end up back in Washington for light work before I leave for the next destination. In Washington, I’m paying for expenses I’ve forgotten exist. Yoga classes? Gym membership? Cellphone bill? I’m not even sure how to use these services, but its nice to have the option again, so why not? Can you hear the happiness of my credit card companies growing? Oh! I forgot to mention that I took a pay cut for coming back to the U.S. of A., even for this brief respite. So, I’m spending like a princess, but my salary is that of an entry-level trainee at McDonald’s. This goes on for about 6 months or so. I tell myself that when I go to my next country, I’ll be able to catch up.

I get to the next new & exciting place. Trailing behind me are all the debts I’ve wracked up from leaving the last amazing city and floating my broke, overspending ass in DC for 6 months, and I still want to spend the next 6 months going places, buying things, traveling with new friends, and paying for it all on my credit card. You see this vicious cycle growing out of control? Well, I sure as hell do! And I’ve decided to stop this shit. Really!

How exactly? Basically, by going into my 7-cylinder year clean up sooner in the cycle. Why wait a whole 6 months before I realize that CapitalOne is milking me like a cow? And, by realizing that spending money is something I do, but I have to do more purposefully and carefully.

One thing that always worked for me when I was in college is the reminder that money is just a form of currency. It’s meant to move. It doesn’t grow unless it’s given and received. Life isn’t about hoarding – cash, experiences, or possessions. So, every time I needed my income to grow, I did something counterintuitive. I took it upon myself to give. I gave to charity, to the guy on the street I normally walked right past, to the kids raising money for their basketball team. Sometimes it was just a dollar. Other times more. But, it reminded me that not having money was never my problem. Having it and spending purposefully, instead, has been a life long struggle.

On this, my latest trip across the Atlantic Ocean, I decided not to wait for a whole 6 months or even a New Year to resolve to make a change. It’s time for me to go back to giving, rather than spending. And when it’s not purposeful or meaningful, it’s time for me to go on a fiscal fast. Oddly enough, most people don’t know what my fasts look like. And that’s part of why I’m sharing this lesser known part of my journey.

I don’t take travel out of my budget, because for me it’s not a luxury, it’s a fact of life. But, that’s my reality. In times like these, I’ve turned off my cable all together. I only put $20 of gas in my car and made myself make it work each week – to/from work only. I bought only fresh vegetables from the local market, rather than going to the overpriced supermarket with lots of variety, but imported packaged prices. And as I say it now, I know some people are saying, “what kind of fast is that?” The point here is that my fast is my fast. I have to do what works for me, not the cookie cutter budget from a book for people who lead a more predictable life than mine. Being a nomad is how I make my daily bread, but it’s up to me to decide how I slice it and if I can afford to butter it.

“So what’s the point of this long rant?” you may ask. Well, it’s 2 fold:

1 – I’ve found myself in many conversations lately where money was a topic. Particularly in Mozambique, people count your money for you. They ask what brand you’re wearing. They would rather travel to South Africa for an afternoon to shop for food than to spend the night on the same trip and see a nature park. It’s all about letting people see what you have, not about enjoying 1) what you have, 2) who you are, or 3) what your money can afford you. In this space (and even my hometown in New Joizey) being humble doesn’t translate. And no matter how honest I am, people always I assume I have money – lots of it. Let’s be honest. Since I’ve become a career woman, I’ve become part of the working middle class, who – once you actually count their incoming/outgoing cash flow – is actually cash poor. BUT my profession provides the basics in fabulous fashion. Read: Don’t be fooled. If you walk into my house, none of this shit is mine!

A lot of people’s self worth is tied to how much money they have and how much money others think they have. We are all victims and perpetrators. But, this is my latest attempt to shake myself free. This is my attempt to remove the veil that social media and distant allure perpetuate. Remember? My McDonald’s sized paychecks are provided by the employer that let’s me be a glorified postal worker in cities you’ve never heard of. It’s as simple as that.

Financial freedom is an individual road that we can all travel. Mine has taken me to two countries on the edge of the Indian Ocean, but yours may take you just down the street. Both are valid. Either way, walk your own path and be honest in that truth. Cash rich, debt free, and all the ebbs and flows between.

2—I haven’t been giving like I should. I haven’t been giving, in any real sense of the word. I’ve been spending. And it’s time to make a change. I thought about doing this in 2014, but somehow my own wants got in the way. But 2015 is a different time and yet another opportunity to be better than I’ve ever been. Each month I will give $25 to a different charity in honor of or in support of people/causes that have touched me. Let’s be clear, I’m declaring this publicly not show off (or even inspire, frankly), but to hold myself accountable to a group of peers and family members whose opinion of me I value. Sometimes declarations said in silence are all too easily forgotten. A la 2014. So listed below are the 12 charities that will receive a donation from me next year.

1- Whitman-Walker Clinic, DC

2- Community Foodbank of New Jersey

3-Livro Aberto, Children’s Literacy in Mozambique

4-Newark Arts Council

5-The City School, Boston

6-The Susan G. Komen Foundation

7-Deepalaya Foundation

8-The Newark Museum

9-Harlem Children’s Zone

10-Children’s Aid Society

11-American Civil Liberties Union

12-Common Good City Farm

In 2015, I’ll be sure to send you a monthly update reminding you of the month’s chosen charity AND the connection I have with its cause.

Here’s to keeping me honest (Maybe that’s something else I can attribute to my profession) and showing the reality behind the passport stamps. May my journey be one you grow context from and one you see as a source of ideas. And may my every day as a public servant jet-setter continue to be as fun and exciting as the 19-year-old in me had hoped it would be.

Here’s to toasting up Martinelli’s instead of Moet… for at least another year.

They ask me how I know…

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.30.57 PMComing from a woman who is two weeks away from being married, it may come as a surprise that I’m thinking a lot about my exes, i.e. ex-boyfriends, ex-friends, ex-“dudes I used to mess with.” I always teased my fiancé that no matter how many skeletons I had in my closet, there’d never be a need to think twice about where the bodies were buried. Trust, they were always a continent or two away! But as the wedding approaches, I can’t help but laugh at the irony of the exes who have cropped back up, who have asked to come to the wedding, who are going to be in the country, who might be around after the honeymoon, who we’ll probably hang out with more than once, and who I never – in a million years – thought I’d welcome as friends into the ‘happily ever after’ phase of my life.

Really, this isn’t about them so much as it is about me. The woman who entertained them then isn’t the same woman who appreciates them now. I expected to carry animosities forever. I expected to be embarrassed by the idea of my husband meeting living reminders of experiences I haven’t always been that proud of. Yet, the years and experiences that lay in between have shown me that now I must be smarter, must be more practical, and must be in love!

I actually asked my fiancé if more than one skeleton could walk his way into our wedding party and break bread at our – very exclusive – celebration. And what’s more shocking than the fact that I even parted my lips to ask, is that he actually said “Yea, whatever.” That may not seem like much. But for a guy who actually doesn’t like guys that much, this is about the best I could have hoped for. And for a guy who I still torture to this day about how many “popcorn hoes” he exposed me to in the beginning of our courting, this is big. Moreover, for a girl who took a very long time to find her way into a mutually supportive, trusting, and communicative relationship, this is huge for me.

For some, thoughts of an ex bring the wedding jitters. For me, thoughts of an ex (or two… or three…) make me more and more excited about being a wife to the man I chose and who chose me.  All I can say is thanks to all the dudes of yesteryear and good luck in this lifetime. For those who I’ll see soon, my interest in their lives is genuine. It’s lovely to know that we’ve grown up in parallel, if not together. And for those who I’ll never see again, I wish them neither ill will nor well wishes. If this relationship has taught me nothing else it’s to save all my energies, positive and negative, for the present. Being here, fully here, has made all the difference.

I’ve heard it said that some people are only with you for a phase. I’m not exactly sure what it means when people pop up in random phases and happen to be in Africa when you least expect it, but I’d like to think that it means that friendships evolve with time, I can’t trust my 18-year-old self for my entire lifetime, and I’m ready for this next phase of life, called forever ever!

 

Cult Movie Classics

I am not what you might call a “movie person.” The thought of a theatre experience reminds me of paying goo gobs of cash to sit in a cushy seat probably infested with bodily fluids from strangers. Needless to say, I’m not often moved by the images on the big screen, unless there are a lot of things blowing up. Yet Netflix has been my homeboy for some years now, shipping cult classics and obscure foreign titles to wherever in the world I may be. In honor of the 28 year anniversary of one of my absolute faves, “She’s Gotta Have It,” here’s my top ten list of must-see movies that you probably haven’t seen (or at least not in a long time):

1.

Gomorrah is a 2008 film from Italy, based on a Robert Saviano book. This is not your typical mafia movie. In every form and fashion, it’s better.  It weaves five individual stories of people trying to make their own connections with the Casalesi clan, a crime syndicate within the Camorra.

2.  Borders Frontieres is a 2002 film from France/ Algeria that focuses on African clandestine immigration to southern Europe. Comedic and tragic, the film charts the journey of seven people traveling from Senegal through Algeria and onward to Spain.

3. Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall is the pre and post-mortem tale of a relationship between two seemingly incompatible people, who once fell in love. It’s romantic and whimsical, and also shows scenes of back when NYC was gritty.

images-44. First of all, “Dilwale Dulhania le Jeyenge” stars my absolute fave Bollywood actress, Kajol and, second, it involves a young woman traveling on her own. What’s not to love (maybe SRK’s hair cut)?

This is the story of two kids who, against their own wishes, fall in love while taking the Eurorail. Both are non-resident Indians, raised in Britain, and both are struggling to meet their parents’ expectations for adulthood. But, when the first meet, neither knows this about the other… and hence, the comedic elements of this 1995 romantic comedy.

5.

In the 2003 drama, 21 Grams, an accident brings together three people who couldn’t be more unrelated or disconnected. The words love, faith, guilt and revenge all crop up, a lot. The movie stars Benicio del Torro, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, and is directed by the Mexico City native Alejandro González Iñárritu.

6. Mexico’s 2008 Sleep Dealer has to be one of the most engaging sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. (Sci-fi is not my genre of choice.) The plot is not as blatantly transparent in its allusion to specific political events as South Africa’s District 9, but it definitely made me think – how far away are we from this being a reality? The long and short of it is that technology has developed such that people’s bodies can be in one place and through the use of a physical attachment, they can use robotics to operate machinery and perform tasks that are actually located in another place. The dynamics of immigration being the same, this dynamic interestingly means that there is migrant work with no workers, but at what cost?

7.

Leon is probably one of the most gangster movies I’ve ever watched and enjoyed. A hitman teams up with a little girl, and they start whooping ass! Natalie Portman + Jean Reno / circa 1994 = You’ll have to just watch it.

8. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, made me appreciate that Hitchcock isn’t only about scare and gore. In this mid-century tale, an American family travel to Morocco, only to get caught up in a murder mystery, an assassination attempt, and a kidnapping. There’s drama and travel, mixed in with politics and music. Apparently there are two versions of the film, from 1934 and 1956, and I don’t remember which version I saw.  So, have your pick!

9. Dirty Pretty Things is based in modern-day UK, and tells the story of a clandestine African immigrant who is a trained doctor by profession and a Turkish woman whose visa to the UK allows her to stay, but not work. Both are tied by mutual interest and genuine affection, and they are only brought closer together when Senay considers harvesting an organ on the black market in order to get a fake passport to travel to the U.S.A.

10.

The Gods Must be Crazy is to South Africa what Coming to America is to the United States. Released in 1980, it is said to be the most commercially successful film from South Africa (but maybe that’s changed since the release of District 9). The movie is set in the desert of Botswana, where Xi, a Sho of the Kalahari Desert (played by Namibian San farmer Nǃxau) lives with his tribesmen. None of them are conscious of the world outside of or different from the desert they know, until Xi stumbles upon a Coca Cola bottle.

Out of curiosity, how many of you have actually seen any of these?

 

5 things people never told me about Maputo…

Teardrop, Matola, Mozambique (2014)When people talk about Mozambique, they often say positive things like “The people are really friendly,” and “The seafood is really great.” Both are true, but they only take you so far. When you stick around for longer than a holiday weekend, reality starts to set in and this ole’ girl called Maputo starts to show her crow’s feet. She’s not an impressive city in comparison to neighboring Joburg, but she has charm and class. And the people are friendly, but with a healthy dose of sass and wit. Let’s just say that there are a lot of things I had to discover on my own. Here are the top 5 things that nobody ever told me about Maputo:

10402678_10101267023870802_5432848354976959553_n5- The seafood is good, but it gets boring. Most Mozambican meals boast 4 main ingredients: oil, onion, tomato and salt. Put it on meat. Put it on fish. Marinate it all day. It’s going to taste like a slight variation on the same thing every time. And most of the vegetable sides are potato, chima, and/or salad with white lettuce. I love the flavors (even when they are doused in MSG powder), but after having such culinary variety in the U.S. and India my tongue is bored.

4- Mozambican women are BAD! So…I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this and not get my “heterosexual card” pulled, but really these women are effortlessly pretty. They are all well proportioned. Most work out actively. They have kids and still look good in bathing suits. They actually have lovely skin and awesome cheekbones. And, well, it’s all-natural (ish). People don’t believe in the botox or the injections, though they do have an affinity for new weaves/wigs every weekend. But what’s a little fake hair when your butt is real? Fair trade.

3- Nobody actually gets in the water. The drive along the Marginal every day really reminds why the hell I put myself through the torture of 9 hour workdays. But, nobody tells you that you can’t actually get in the water. It’s just decoration. It contains lots of gross matter that no one should have on their bodies, because it only recently came out of someone else’s body. The Indian Ocean looks so tempting you just might be tricked into wanting to dip a toe in on a romantic stroll on a hot summer’s day, but that would be a fool’s errand. Look, but don’t touch!

2-Maputo is everywhere you want to be. The city is only a three-hour drive to Swaziland and South Africa. Sure the roads are kinda unmarked and poorly lit, but those are no match for people with an adventurous spirit in need of widely spoken English interaction and South African supermarket products. I always thought it was the scarcity of consumer goods that drove people over the border, but it’s more than that. The grass isn’t always greener, but it’s definitely more orderly. And South African magazines like Bona and True Love are my new favorite addiction.

 

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1-Mozambicans are the biggest haters on earth. This is a real photo, from a real wall, on a real street in Maputo. No lie! I have never in my life met people who celebrate with suspicion, instinctively. Tell someone that you graduated from college or that you got a new job! It is not met with unfettered happiness and congratulations. It is met with a slow and deliberate questioning of just how you did it. Somebody must have helped you. You could have paid somebody a bribe. The very last thing that will come to people’s minds is that they should be happy for and with you. Actually, it’s as if most people don’t even think ‘positivity’ is an acceptable reaction. I chalk it up to the country’s socialist history, where having more than the next person made you the brunt of suspicion, not the example of accomplishment. The sentiment lingers on well into the present and today I wouldn’t call it socialism. I just call it hate.

Well, you’ll have to come and see for yourself all the good and bad things Maputo has in store, including the exclusive beaches and resorts throughout the rest of the country. There you can get in the water and the women are still drop dead gorgeous. It hasn’t been determined if the hater quotient is still a national phenomenon or a localized epidemic. Be suspicious ya’ll, be very suspicious.

Speechless

Sphinx in ParisI’ve been at a loss for words of my own since I came to Mozambique 8 weeks ago. What started off as a career journey, much like others before it, has turned into a much more enigmatic scene. I’m on an assignment that makes me sometimes wonder why I chose this career – sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it’s a bad thing. I’m struggling to make sense of the things around me, but they are not innately problematic. I just don’t understand everything that’s going on. But, I’m not the type to need to know everything, generally speaking. So, there are superficialities I’ve come to tolerate and others that raise questions I don’t have time to find answers to. Another thing I tolerate.

I’ve been in pursuit of stability, but it continues to allude me. It’s taken two months to finalize an application for a PhD program across the border. It’s taken two months to realize that my house is always going to be half complete, because I’m always in the process of packing or unpacking. I considered staying here for three years, rather than two, but many things have made me doubt that I should. I’m struggling to get to know my in-laws and at times I struggle with whether or not I should try. I’m planning a three-part wedding on two continents, all while battling a sea of people that very openly question my relationship. I’m drowning in demands at precisely the time in my life when I had hoped I could coast. And that, my friends, has given me few words to pen.

Instead I’ve called home to a sorority of sisters who have never failed to listen to my tales. While Charlie, Juanita, Leo, Elyse, Alyson and Melissa have suffered through my litany of complaints, I’ve been holding back from you. I blame myself for being too much the Capricorn, seeking perfection where it’s not necessary, making ‘appropriate’ the enemy of ‘happy,’ being demanding to a fault, and having standards for myself that far exceed realistic expectations for one life time. I’ve bored these girls to bits with the agony of things that aren’t perfect, but are absolutely fine for normal people. And I’m tired of my own stories. So, shoot me.

Some people would call this stage burn out. You know the moment right before you give the hell up. I call it being speechless. That said, you may see an awful lot of photos and videos on this blog over the coming weeks. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you.  I very much haven’t. I’m just trying to be in the moment, be present, be here – in Mozambique – and figure out what exactly that means.  For now, please forgive me while I follow my good friend Miller’s advice to make like this sphinx and “go sit down somewhere.”

Faces and Facets of Mafalala

Miudos, Maputo, 2014Perhaps what Harlem is to New York City or, say, Rocinha is to Rio de Janeiro, Mafalala is to Maputo. The neighborhood predates the colonial era, but was defined by its colonial era evolution. In separating the natives (read: Africans) from the Europeans (read: Portuguese), the town of Lourenco Marques – common day Maputo – had a variety of Jim Crow or apartheid-like racial boundaries. One being that the Africans were not allowed in the center city – near the train station and seaport – without proof of employment in those areas. It goes without saying that Africans most certainly were not allowed to live in that area, but they needed to be close enough to work in these hubs. Bordering neighborhoods like Mafalala were just a stone’s throw from the Portuguese part of town, but a world apart.

While these barriers kept Africans out of the city center, it didn’t do much to keep Whites out of the ‘hood. So, Mafalala (like Chamanculo and other surrounding areas) became home to many mulattos - people of mixed race who often had access to educational and financial resources from their White parentage. Many were conceived in Mafalala between White fathers and African mothers (often ‘working girls’) after nights in the underground marrabenta bars. Mafalala bears its very name from the Portuguese mispronunciation of an indigenous word for a kind of folk dance, properly pronounced Um-faah-la-la.

Where conflict and cultures converge something new will always emerge. Such is the case in Mafalala. Word has it that as the city’s demand for English and French speaking workers increased, the Portuguese decided to expand their workforce by importing Africans from neighboring Comoros and Zanzibar. With them, these people brought a strong connection to Islam, which is still visible today, and the Arabic (and its Kiswahili derivative) language. It is said that over 60 percent of the neighborhood’s residents identify as Muslim and Mafalala is home to countless mosques and masjids. Imagine the trickery needed to hide a mosque from the eyes of the intolerant and bigoted colonial masters. Simply surviving was a defiant act of resistance.

In addition to the foreign residents, Mafalala is home to many internal migrants. Macua speakers from the north and Ronga speakers from the south find themselves next door neighbors in this enclave – and apparently it’s been that way for generations. Whether it be the draw of jobs in the city center, refuge from anti-colonial fighting in the interior, safety from starvation and poverty during the civil war, Mafalala has been home to many passersby with a diversity of reasons for coming. Even, poet Noemi de Sousa and ex-Presidents Samora Machel and Joaquim Chissano rested their heads there for a time.

Today, this part of town is part of legend and lure.  It is still home to many working poor and tough guys. Like in Rocinha and (what remains of) Harlem, many of it’s residents are still fighting to overcome historic external barriers, as well as just beginning to break some of the negative, self-induced behaviors that have held them back. Like any modern community, Mafalala is made up of lots of sub-communities and ethnic groups, the boundaries of which have always been in flux. Whether they arrived in the 15th century or just yesterday, the people of Mafalala help color a part of the city that deserves more kudos for its cultural contributions and recognition for it’s sheer existence after eras of extreme change.

Without further ado, the many faces and facets of Mafalala:

 

To learn more about the Mafalala Walking Tour and the Association of young people who run it, check out http://www.iverca.org

 

Bostonian meets Bedouin

JenniferJennifer Barefoot Smith is a world traveler who hails from the great city of Boston. She is a teacher  and college counselor who prides herself on making her students college-ready and world savvy. Jennifer spends her vacations traveling to far flung corners of the world – often alone. Her adventures are many and her experiences diverse. Her goal for this year is to bring her country count up to 70.  Whether she is traveling or at home, she enjoys taking pictures, talking (in various languages), dancing, cooking, and eating. The Howard University alum doesn’t shy away from the road less traveled. And somehow she always manages to return safely and with a smile!

I always enjoy traveling in predominantly Muslim areas: North Africa, Turkey, East Africa, and, this week, the Middle East, Jordan specifically. Generally, the atmosphere is family oriented, bright and richly colored, and inviting. As a woman, I always feel respected and safe—protected almost. As someone who travels frequently, and sometimes alone, this is refreshing and allows me to relax in a slightly different way. While every country is different, of course, there is something in being purposefully respectful and knowing that I will be respected in turn by choosing to be modest. It is also nice to feel that women are appreciated, as a group and as individuals, for more than just their bodies. Call me crazy, but I think that is one of the things that feminism has been arguing for and yet I find Westerners often have a problem with Muslim women covering and with respecting the norms when in majority Muslim countries. Two of my previous trips to Islamic countries have been through European tour groups where the majority of the tourists on the trip wore modest clothing (at least knee-length pants and shirts that were not revealing, i.e. sans décolletage), but there was always someone who insisted on wearing clothing that I would argue was not appropriate for walking around in public other than at a beach, let alone in a Muslim country in the middle of Ramadan. I felt offended. And their constant questions to the guide as to why he couldn’t just have some water or why women had to cover up really bothered me. They could not fathom that someone might be freely choosing to do these things, just as some Christians choose to go to church and others choose not to.

This brings me to why this trip was so great. I was able to travel in the Islamic world with others, enjoying the knowledge that no one in my party would be offensive or disrespectful. Sometimes I think I like to travel alone just to avoid having to babysit someone. This week, however, I traveled with a like-minded friend from college; traveling with friends who know how to travel makes life so much easier. What made this trip even better was that another friend, who works in tourism in Jordan, arranged my itinerary and connected me with her Jordanian friends at each point of my trip. Having personal connections in a new place always makes the experience that much better, and having personal connections in a country as hospitable as Jordan, meant that we got the best treatment ever. (Big up Janine, yuh have Jordan pon lock!) Jordan, like many of the other Muslim majority countries I have visited, subscribes to a brand of hospitality that is unknown in the U.S. I had more tea in the last week than I have had all year, and I do drink tea regularly. Anywhere you go, any store you enter, you are offered, nay, required, to partake in several cups of tea. Everyone checked in with us every day to make sure that we were still doing well and to let us know that if we needed anything they were X amount of minutes away from our next destination and they could be there if we called. Let’s just say I felt taken care of.

As a travel location, Jordan was one of the good ones. Amazing historic sites from several different periods and cultures abound. There are Roman ruins at Jerash, Castles of all types left over from the Crusades and other eras, Holy Land sites in Madaba, Mt. Nebo, Lot’s Cave, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, and of course the Jordan River itself. If it were permitted and I wanted to get my feet wet, I literally could have waded across to the Promised Land. It goes without saying that the Dead Sea is relaxing and an experience without parallel on the planet. But it also forms a unique border, the boundary between the Muslim/Arab world and present day Palestine. The West Bank is across the sea, a constant reminder of the political conundrums that occur when a colonial power does what it wants with pieces of land it controls without regard for the people within that land and the future ramifications those actions will have for its inhabitants, and in this case, the world. At the Red Sea, where the snorkeling/diving is lovely and the vibe is very nice, I kept trying to figure out where Egypt and Israel were in the skyline across the water from me, but everyone had the same answer as they pointed to the lights across the way—Eilat. Eventually I surmised that this was a way of not recognizing Israel without stepping on any toes. By only referring to the neighboring land by the name of the city with whom they shared a shoreline, rather than the state whose existence is in conflict with their beliefs, they did not have to come right out and say that the land next to them was being illegally occupied. They also did not usually refer to it as Palestine either. In fact, guides, drivers, and other people we encountered referred to the cities across the border rather than the larger political entity. At the Dead Sea, I was looking at Jericho, full stop. As a country that is immensely affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with millions of Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan for several decades, I am surprised it did not come up more often, but I am sure if I stayed longer than a week in the areas most affected by the conflict, it would become more apparent. When I came home, someone said to me, “Jordan, aren’t they in the middle of everything?” And yes, they really are. There is conflict occurring around them on every side except for their southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia; in addition to the decades of Palestinian refugees who have sought safety within their borders they have been receiving refugees from Syria too.

But for me the best part of Jordan had nothing to do with it being a welcoming Arab country or the site of ancient Biblical events. For me Jordan’s greatness was in the desert. The night stars, the rocky cliffs, the moon, the peacefulness, and the timelessness of it all. Petra is breathtaking and unique—a funky architectural mix of columns, cylindrical shapes, caves and amphitheaters. Nestled in a valley of equally funky rock formations rising out of the ground, these colorfully changing, soft sandstone walls and craggy formations look simultaneously smooth and like God dripped melted wax in erratic designs that solidified into odd chunks that we behold, here and there today. Nature and wilderness abound with numerous wadis, nature reserves, and springs. We stayed at Feynan Eco Lodge where everything is run by solar power, or candles, and you can hike, star gaze, or be a Bedouin goat herder for a day. We viewed Saturn and its rings in a high-powered telescope calibrated for us by a Bedouin, who then showed us where to watch Scorpio rise over the mountains and stayed up watching shooting stars while he and another friend made us tea on a fire powered by the compacted resin refuse from pressed olive oil. We were lucky that our visit coincided with a yearly meteor shower, but I have a feeling that shooting stars are not an anomaly in this landscape. And thanks to Janine, we slept in the desert, not at one of the many camps that dot Wadi Rum, but just in the middle of nowhere next to her Bedouin friend’s jeep, on a carpet, with some Bedouin mattresses and sleeping bags under the stars, with some great food, and of course, more tea.

Jennifer’s photos from Jordan:

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