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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On Recognizing the “Devine.”

Tanya Everett is an actor and writer in New York City. Her latest endeavors have included staged readings of her one-act play, A Virgin Christmas, with David Zayas (Dexter). This fall, she will be starring in “Munched,” which will partner with W.O.R.T.H., a nonprofit organization that helps formerly incarcerated women to begin anew. Her website will soon be live for viewing: http://www.tanyaeverett.com

 

Last night, I boarded a Chinatown bus at 8:54 pm in New York City. It had just begun to rain, and the city streets were slick and iridescent. I headed to Lucky Star, only because the bus ratings are marginally less offensive. I settled myself in for an evening of work, but found that the bus seemed to be coming apart at the hinges, and I’d be better off taking a nap. When I awoke, we were already bouncing into South Station. We arrived just before 12:45, so I bounded off the bus, hoping to get to the Red Line before the last train.

After midnight, South Station is tied up like a virgin before her wedding night, so I knew getting home would be more difficult than catching the G train in Brooklyn on a bad day. Downstairs in the station, I asked the guard if the last train had left. His monosyllabic “Yep,” was unconvincing. I figured I’d try my luck and test the waters, so I trotted over to the station. I was let in by another guard to the main terminal and, with another gentleman in tow, bounded down off to the Redline entrance. I asked the MTA employee and her colleague, and they insisted that the last train to Ashmont was coming. I bought a ticket and I headed towards my train.

At the bottom of the stairs was a lone woman. She asked me “Is there a train coming tonight?” I said, “There should be.” She insisted on checking, so she rode back up the escalator, and received the same answer I had received just minutes before. She then proceeded to hoist her suitcase back down to the platform for a second round of waiting, this time more patiently and less nervously.

With nothing left to do but take a watch and wait approach, we struck up a conversation. We had gone to neighboring high schools. She was in town from Oakland for her mother’s 80th birthday; I, for my grandmother’s 75th. We both dance and write plays. Both of our families are the clingy types that insist that when we visit we spend every waking moment in their presence, kissing babies and washing dishes. I secretly hoped she’d have some insight as how to CHANGE that predicament, but we were too similar for that to be a realistic expectation. Her mother is Jamaican and set in her ways. My grandmother is of Ukranian and Polish descent, hence as stubborn as the day is long. It seemed like no coincidence that she and I met on that platform in that moment. Perhaps we both needed the good vibes of someone similar, but different, to remind us that we were on the right track – and I don’t just mean in the T station.

I saw a light in her eyes that shone from faith, perseverance, and experience. She mentioned more than once how much she enjoyed my energy. When the train finally arrived, a man in a Red Sox cap mustered the nerve to interrupt our vigorous chatting. He stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Excuse me, miss, I don’t mean to bother you, but I was just tellin’ him, you have star-quality.” From the looks of ‘him,’ they didn’t even know each other. But I was pleased by the content of this interruption, so I asked his name. “It’s Devine.” “Huh? I’m sorry, can you say that again?” asked like a bumbling fool, unworthy of his compliment. “Devine. It’s spelled with an ‘E’ though.” He went on to tell me that I had something that caught his eye and that he told a complete stranger about it.  It may have just been a pick up, but for me in that moment, I had the sense that this second encounter with this second stranger was also no fluke. It could have been a lack of sleep, but finding a new friend from the other side of the country and meeting a Bostonian with the name of a demi-God felt like exactly what I needed in that moment.

Admittedly, I have a tendency to attract all kinds of people, celebrities and homeless vagrants alike. My roommate thinks it’s hysterical, because I make a new acquaintance daily – even the kind some people don’t want to meet in a lifetime. I believe it all stems from my grandmother. See, Linda (my grandmother) turned seventy-five that night, while I was chatting it up on the train platform. Oddly enough, she has spent my entire lifetime paving the way for me to have choice encounters just like these. She’s the one to speak to strangers on the subway at one in the morning. She’s the courageous, go-getter that never stops, despite limited means. She has always been ferocious and fearless. She is an avid believer that you can accomplish anything with a “glass half full” outlook on life.

Sometimes it is hard to keep her outlook handy in my own life. Lately, I’ve been struggling to find my voice as an artist, to create value in my work. And the weight of these burdens can sometimes undermine my grandma given optimism. What’s worse is that I find myself struggling against what is simply the natural order of things, begging winter to be spring (faster), asking lean years to become fat years (sooner), demanding that life slow down now so that I can catch up and grow at my own pace.

I have been known to ask for too much, but I have also been known to deliver great things. My own flare on grandma’s wisdom is that when preparedness meets timing, and a little bit of grace, all things are possible. But we wouldn’t be human if, every now and again, we failed to recognize that we are perfect in our imperfections. We forget that the very things that seem like character flaws are our most interesting characteristics. As an actor and a writer, I constantly mine for unique character traits. I’ve come to celebrate the triumph of the hero over her toughest opponent: herself.

As I rushed towards home that night, I was reminded that all the world’s a stage and it’s about time that I applied some of this leeway I give to my scripted protagonists to lil ole’ me, the girl that makes besties with late night commuters. The conversations on that platform reminded me that my inherited positivity is what attracts people, and that my own darkness is what makes me human. I was reminded to enjoy the discoveries along the journey, not just the destination. And there’s something simply perfect about celebrating my own divinity in the wee hours, at the crack of dawn, on the day the earth welcomed the source of my greatest gifts. Don’t think my grandma doesn’t make me repay the favor. Did I mention that August is her birthday MONTH??

Teaching to the Choir

Takiyah Gray is a Brown University alum, who is currently an elementary school teacher in Vietnam. With her Trinidadian passport in tow, she treks the world in search of good eats, teaching opportunities, and sane couch surfers. She is a talented dancer and yogini, whose Trini roots keep her near tropical beaches as frequently as possible. Existabovethenoise.com readers may remember her as the friend I was staying with in Thailand back in January – check out the My Thai post.

We’re not in Thailand anymore, Toto. Sure, there are still roosters crowing at all hours of the day. Yes, there are street vendors hawking their wares—from fly-flecked pork innards to hanging pieces of chewy, salted squid, to the ever present random assortment of locks of various shapes and sizes. But this is Vietnam, and the people here sure do not like to smile at the odd looking stranger.

Some people think that the best moments of life unfold when you put yourself outside of your comfort zone. In her latest book, Committed, a mere $2.50 per Xeroxed copy in the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City, Elizabeth Gilbert agrees. She says that “I had ago learned that when you are the giant, alien visitor to a remote and foreign culture, it is sort of your job to become an object of ridicule.” For better or worse, I have been happily toeing that uncomfortable line for much of my existence, ever since my mother decided to bring me from Trinidad to America at the age of 2. Maybe this initial trip is what sealed my future as a world traveler, because since then, I’ve been crafty and fortunate enough to peak into life in countries like Sweden, Brazil, and Spain. (I say crafty, because anyone that knows me KNOWS that there had to be an ulterior motive to joining the glee club back in high school– clearly it was the summer trip to France). Not surprisingly though, nowhere has that discomfort been more present than here in South East Asia. Here, I am a complete foreigner, and boy do I stand out. In this part of the world, it’s not just my language that pegs me as different, but my height, my skin tone, everything that I’ve ever used to define myself. And believe you me, wherever I am the locals cannot wait to figure out what a tall black woman is doing in their country of size 4 shoes and K-pop idolizations. Though we in America are proud to have elected our first black president 4 years ago, many people on this side of the world are still incredulous that Americans can look like me. Add to this the fact that I still retain my Trinidadian citizenship and people are all the more confused. I, myself, pause to figure out which country I will say I am from today—do I go for the mildly puzzled look when I say that I am from the US or the completely dumbfounded look as I try to explain about where the Caribbean is?

No one needed this geography lesson more than a woman I recently interviewed with. Now, as a visitor in South East Asia, I am grateful for the opportunity to work as a teacher. It’s a downright privilege when my peers and I can travel, work and realize a standard of living that is generally higher than most of the population around us (simply because we speak English and carry TEFL degrees). My year of living in a beachside house on a Thai island was made possible by precisely these things. But they aren’t always enough, and apparently, having made the move to Vietnam, I was starting at square one all over again.

At this particular interview, I quickly learned that I was missing — what in the Dominican Republic they call — “buena aparencia.” Instead of a normal interview, where the trained and professional interviewer and skilled and eager interviewee go back and forth about the school, expectations and relevant work experience, I spent the entire time trying to prove that no, Trinidad and Tobago was NOT a country in South Africa (?!) and that YES I grew up with English as my first language. The interview ended with a cold, “If you are short-listed for a position, I’ll let you know in a few months.” The entire “interview” lasted a grueling 10 minutes. I had spent more time that morning trying to figure out an updo for my twists! Never before had I been in such a hostile interview environment. Later that night I spent many hours plotting the exact flavor of the very pointed email that would say thanks but no thanks, up yours, and oh yeah, I’ve attached a world atlas for your convenience.

Was I surprised that this level of ignorance could come from a fellow educator? The sad truth is no, not really. The fact is, before embarking on this journey almost 2 years ago, I had braced myself for many more scenarios like this one. Fortunately for me, Thailand never presented an issue, and I was able to find work without problems. Now that I’m in Vietnam, however, other brown-skinned expat friends, namely Filipino teachers who face similar prejudices, have warned me about this kind of overt racism. I’ve heard of many different ways to this overcome the issue, including lying about citizenship and leaving out the requisite photo that most schools ask for in their applications. What’s a girl to do?

For the most part, I realize that I travel to learn and to have others learn about me. So I put up with the stares, the odd looks, the oogly eyes, and the scores of parents with varying levels of discretion nudging their children as I go past, to make sure that they catch a glimpse of me. I spend the extra 10 minutes at the grocery stores, hunting out the soaps and lotions and deodorants that don’t have whitening ingredients in them. I choose the work environments where I know I will be treated with respect. I know many expats, mostly men, who are happy to make the permanent leap over to this side of the world. Me? I am grateful for the experience to observe these moments; at the end of it all, I’ll be glad to get back to my little corner of Kansas..erg…Boston.