Dispatch from Guereda

Disclaimer: This post was drafted on December 14, 2018 and edited throughout my winter break in Naperville. It is now February 7, 2019 and I assure you my mindset has done almost a complete 180. But the beauty of writing is keeping a log of the multiplicity of feelings/experiences that one person can have, even in a short time span.

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost Christmas when the ground is so dusty with sand. Winter in eastern Chad is definitely not winter in Chicago. I run around in my skirt tied up and short-sleeved tie-dye while Assad, one of the drivers, is decked out in his heather grey pea coat and white turban (though I’m told the turban is more for sun protection). Here at the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) base in Guereda, the house manager Farida has seven roosters tied up in the little pen just outside. When I first arrived ten days ago, there were three different roosters attached by the leg to the same sapling tree. I can’t really tell the difference between chicken and rooster stew.

I’m feeling unwell. My diet for the past ten days has consisted of round, fluffy loaves of bread baked directly on the dunes, perfectly spongy except for the occasional grits of sand. Farida noticed my addiction to the Chadian beignets, slightly sweetened pieces of fried dough, quickly. She served them in little tin pots decorated with red roses and in my depressed state I would consume an entire container every day, dipping them into strawberry jam. She must have thought I was crazy for eating so many, yet every morning a beignet-filled pot greeted me at the table.

Washing down all these carbs is no easy feat, but Chadian chai does a remarkable job. Unlike most North African or East African chai, the most popular variety in Chad is green tea, spiced lightly with a crushed blend of cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom and even black pepper. Though, of course like all chai in the region, each kettle of Chadian tea contains at least a fistful of sugar.

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The courtyard of JRS Chad – Guereda headquarters

My movements this year have been erratic, even for me, and eastern Chad constitutes my greatest adventure to date in terms of unfamiliarity (in both place and tasks) and remoteness.

For the past two weeks, almost every day, I take a humanitarian convoy out to the refugee camp Mile or Kounoungou, 20km west of Guereda. This means sitting squished in the backseat between my team leader and the hired Chadian military agent with his AK-47’s wooden handle jostling against my leg for an hour as we scoot across the barren landscape of the eastern Sahel. The car in front of us kicks up a curtain of dust. Its four-wheel drive eats full force at the desert path. Herds of goats would occasionally emerge; orderly in packs, yet I never could make out exactly where the shepherd is among the throng. Our vehicles always take care to part cautiously through this sea. We sometimes zip past groups of camels nibbling on (or around?) the thorny tree branches. Compared to the goats, they look especially tall and regal. We overtake herds of bovines and groups of women on the backs of donkeys laden with kindling wood.

The soundtrack for these trips is most often a mix of West African French rap and more traditional Bedouin Arabic classics. Sometimes I play my own music for the convoy and the enumerators would excitedly name the artists they recognize. “This is…Nicki Minaj!” “Drake!” “Do you have any Justin Bieber?”

Today is my last trip out to Kounoungou. I see the goats, the camels, the cattle, the donkeys. I heard the warbling voices belting out Arabic love songs. I see the miles and miles of sandy desert punctuated by shrubby trees. I feel the DPHR agent scoot further away every few minutes, annoyed, as the rocking vehicle slid us closer together with every bump.

The details may differ – but the fact remains that I have sat in hundreds of different cars with the seat belt on, going down roads in a foreign city or town, peering through the layer of glass separating the world out there from me. Maybe it is a Peugeot taxi or a Mazda Uber instead of a white Toyota 4X4. I must have travelled thousands of miles this way in the US, Europe, Asia, the Middle East – in a car, in a plane, a train. Eventually, does it really matter the specific mode of transportation? How many scenes have passed before me in exactly the same way?

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These questions popped into my mind when K mistakenly thought that I had visited Hong Kong recently. The one and only time I’ve visited Hong Kong was 12 years ago. “It just seems like you teleport all over the world,” he laughed. This year I travelled to 15 countries and lived in four of them. Yet I felt the biting chill of Copenhagen’s January air the most while I was already in Paris sitting on the 63 bus from my apartment at Albert de Mun to class at Saint Guillaume. I most vividly felt the cold bench under my butt in the small park near metro Anvers while hailing down a taxi in Hamra, Beirut with sweat dripping down my back. My consciousness seems to need a couple weeks to catch up to my body.

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The Guereda Airport

When you hop around too much, you begin to feel like you exist only within the cocoon of your body; nothing external to that remains consistent, so nothing immediately penetrates anymore into your experiences. It’s time and only time that allows a place to seep through your skin and enter your lived experience as you live it. Otherwise you’re seeing but you’re not really being, almost like reading someone else’s travel blog through the screen of your computer. And if that happens, what’s the point of even being there in the first place?

Wholly absorbing an experience was much easier a few years and dozen countries ago. As a twenty year old in November 2013, I walked along the Seine for the first time and was hit by the total-body feeling of being in Paris – excitedly thinking “I’m in Paris!” when I was still walking around in Paris. But that feeling of being present is fewer and farther in between now at age 25. After five years, half a decade, 20% of my life, the means through which I achieve that same grounding experience have become more extreme, more base, more primal.

There are two memories from my weeks in Chad that prompted this realization.

The first was the Sunday market in Goz Beida. Thousands of people travel overnight by donkey to arrive at the central trading place by daybreak. The men and women sell everything from imported perfume to dried fish to spare car parts. The butchery is located in the middle of a massive dusty field, slightly on the outskirts. I remember the eyes still open on the severed camel head, an ironic grin stuck permanently on its bristled lips, unceremoniously upside down with ears punctured into the dirt, like someone forgot about it. The single trail of intestines, the blood dripping down into the sand, the horror of realizing I had worn my Birkenstocks to tread through it all. Turn left and there’s a hack of meat being fileted off with a machete, turn right and there are organs spilling out of ribs. In the very front of this vertically integrated operation, there’s a pyre featuring beef (I’m told) skewered on six feet tall metal pikes, roasting over an open flame. “It doesn’t smell that bad,” I had remarked in measured tones. “….yes it does,” my program manager smirked. I had been holding my breath without realizing it.

The second incident features the famous Chadian chai. In the local culture, it is customary to invite all guests for a small cup of sweet chai, and for guests, it is extremely rude to decline. So to hell with my lactose intolerance, the lack of refrigeration, and God knows whether it was cow, goat or camel milk – the people-pleaser side of me couldn’t possibly refuse, even though my stomach most certainly refused it an hour later. The sinking feeling in my stomach was accompanied quickly by the realization that “ah yes, the toilets do not flush automatically.” I had to first scoop out my own water from one of the three massive water tanks. The weight of it sloshed around the plastic purple bucket as I hurriedly wobbled to the toilet. A single stick of incense was propped up in the middle of an empty cardboard toilet paper roll; one of many rolls tied together in a decorative wreath that lay on the toilet tank. On the spare chair next to it (but why?), someone had left an Italian play script printed out on sheets of paper. Indeed, at that moment the experience was truly inside me, and then promptly outside of me.

I am beginning to think that this is an unsustainable lifestyle if it takes the bloody scene of a massacre and repetitive food poisoning to make me feel present.

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Everywhere I look in the JRS living room, I am projecting signs of a woman attempting to stay sane. This living room belongs to A, the only Western expat living within a 100km radius, who arrived in Guereda nine months ago. Her watercolours of young kids dancing and of flowers are scattered around the room, some framed and a few propped up against the windows. I often see her out swinging on the hammock, sometimes reading but most often on the phone with family or friends back home. At breakfast, I watch her carefully ration the yogurt she had brought back from Ndjamena because there just weren’t any to be found out here.

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I’ve been rereading Joan Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That,” one of the American classics I reread to ease my homesickness. It captures my feelings of progressing through my early 20s – totally free for the first time, scared yet excited to prove my worth, the intoxicating high of knowing that an adventure awaits with every new day. One passage in particular has been looping through my mind –

‘It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.’

For so long my greatest dream was to live abroad – to stroll down Parisian streets in a stylish wool coat, to fly in 12-seater planes over remote corners of the earth, to have adventures powered by my own two feet in cities I cannot pronounce and with people ablaze with the same sense of restlessness. I don’t know yet if this is the end of that life. I don’t know what changed, but as Joan Didion suggests, maybe one can never really pinpoint what spoils a dream fulfilled. Maybe it’s because we start to dream different dreams, maybe we need to embrace disillusionment. Do we need a reason to make life-changing decisions beyond simply feeling unhappy?

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Too Fast Too Furious?

I’ve been pushing it pedal-to-the-metal these past two months. Even for me, I’m starting to find my international mobile lifestyle a bit excessive. After two years in Europe, I am moving to Nairobi, Kenya for my first “real” job in migration research, armed with a recently minted masters diploma and yellow fever vaccine. For the past month, I’ve been in Beirut, Lebanon implementing a passion project that’s been a year coming – an artist development program focusing on digital tools. And right now, I sit in a board game cafe in Taipei, Taiwan, waiting for Kevin to get off work so we can stuff our faces (again). I think my friend captured it best when yesterday he remarked, “You’re a master at getting people to pay you to live in dope places.”

It’s a much nicer statement than the ones I hear from my parents which run along the lines of “When will your craziness settle down?” and “I can’t wait for this wild phase to be over.”

But don’t you worry mom. If anything is the killer of dreams, it is the French bureaucracy and I have been dealt a crushing blow. Cancelled debit cards while abroad, bank counsellors unreachable by email nor telephone, exuberant charges for what should be free services, impossible to cancel transportation subscriptions — all served up with a delightful tone of exasperation from your friendly neighbourhood French bank teller. So as I sit here sipping my coffee, cash-less with a frozen bank account and about to move my entire life to a new continent, I think to myself, “This may just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” All these oceans and continents traversed, halted by a hostile personal banking system from the 1980’s. Sounds about the perfect au revoir to my chapter in France.

 

Tell me where you are in the world

It wasn’t until a coworker asked me for recommendations in Copenhagen that I realised my memories were slipping away. Unlike for Cairo or Paris or even Beijing, I did not chronicle anything – no lists kept of favourite cafes, no photo stories, no poetry. What does that mean, if it means anything at all?

My childhood friend just sent out an address spreadsheet to our high school gang group chat, titled “Tell me where you are in the world.” There’s 6 of us in the group, but the title was directed at me. She said she missed the postcards we used to send to each other and wondered when I would blog again and make zines again. As I tackle down what may well be my last semester of school ever, evaluating (or at least musing over) my life choices has become a daily ritual. Making zines has not crossed my radar. For the first time, I’m starting to think, “Am I too old for this?”

Do it for the memories, for the ephemeral experiences, the shot of adrenaline straight down your spine, take charge of the vivacity of youth, see the world, run after it, hunt it down, wrestle them until you swallow whole excitement, wonder, devastating beauty, loss, longing. I do it for those damn fenceposts I wrote about on this blog in 2014. Sometimes I think back on the past few months, or year and I don’t know what I did. Where did it all go? I need something extraordinary upon which to drape my time and staying on the move is how I stake a claim. But I’m starting to feel like it’s losing effectiveness and maybe it’s better to just stay still for a while, to stop being greedy, to embody slowness. Seeing more is not depth.

Anyways, I intended to write a bit about my half-year spent living in Copenhagen. Suffice it to say that I was very content there. I was healthy, I was active, I read books, I drank coffee, I had a rhythm to my life though no friends. And I was content with that. But life doesn’t offer counterfactuals, so maybe I should construct my own.

Unavoidably Immersed

“Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, on learning the Italian language

There’s no way around it – Arabic is a daunting language for English-speakers to learn. When I practice, sounds come from places in my throat I never even knew existed. The script, while beautiful, blends into one long strand of arabesque.  Unlike most of the other interns, I had never studied Arabic before. I literally looked up how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” while sitting in my airplane seat en route to Cairo. Thankfully, my new friends and co-workers at AUC have enthusiastically helped me grow my vocabulary over the past three months. But no one has been as encouraging and influential as my Arabic tutor, Arwa.

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All interns receive six hours a week of private Arabic tutoring as part of our program. For me, this meant spending the first month learning the alphabet, the number system, and simple greetings. Now, after almost six months, I have graduated to directing taxi drivers and exclaiming my excitement for various food items. Arwa is an amazingly patient teacher. During our lessons, she repeats words and phrases many times over until their sounds became familiar to my ears.

Eventually, we’ve also started to take our meetings outside of the AUC campus. Once, I learned how to order Koshary – a quintessential food staple of Egyptians – at a Koshary shop near Tahrir Square aptly named Koshary El Tahrir. Koshary is a quick, easy, cheap fill-‘er-upper consisting of pasta, rice, vermicelli, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and topped with hot sauce, tomato sauce, and tangy vinaigrette. Inside the store, Arwa refused to say a word as the waiter came around to our table, forcing me to slowly choke out the Arabic equivalent of “Koshary. Small. Extra onions. Thank you.” It is quite easy to resort to English and get by in Cairo, so I very much appreciate Arwa persistently urging me to speak Arabic.

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Perhaps most empowering is the freedom that comes along with speaking Arabic. Even armed with just four months of lessons, I feel more assured to explore Cairo by myself. It has been a gateway to the city because now I know that if a taxi driver does not speak English, I can navigate. If I believe I am being overcharged, I can bargain down. Furthermore, I have been able to strengthen relationships at the workplace with my co-workers. Taking a genuine interest in the language, and by extension, culture of any country not your own demonstrates to others one’s assertiveness, curiosity, and open-minded nature – all of which helps in making new connections in a foreign place. So even though Arabic is difficult and the learning curve is low, I am encouraged to putter through it because knowing those words means freedom and understanding.

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My new oyster.

“I like slice-of-life.”

I am tired. There are so many ways that a person can be tired and I have felt them all this week.

When you’re young, you can have an infinite number of dreams. One morning you can fancy being a conceptual artist. By dinner you can want to be a human rights lawyer and that’s fine because by the time you go to sleep you can dream of being a rapper. Growing up is giving up on having endless dreams and aspirations as you realise there is only time enough to do a handful. It’s not the giving up on any specific dream that breaks me – it’s the loss of the idea of unlimited possibilities.

If I were to move back to the States, I would only really want to live in Chicago. If I were to live in any American city other than the one I call home, I may as well live across the globe. I guess this means I’m homesick.

Running is freedom distilled into a physical movement. You don’t need anything other than what you already got, to go on forever and ever and ever.

I hate how it’s sometimes considered a bad thing for a girl (or a guy) to be really into dressing up, doing their hair, and/or makeup. I appreciate a carefully cultivated aesthetic. The image of a woman is a construction of smoke and mirrors and a spritz of fairy dust. There’s power in that visual. Own it.

I like hugs (but not from strangers).

My 25 Euro Cornetto

I just missed my train and am drowning my sorrow in a giant cappuccino at the station café. Is there anything more depressing than a train station waiting room at 7:00am? Maybe the Reg bookstacks during finals week.

My original plan for this morning was to stopover in Florence for 2 hours before my train to Naples. I had already day tripped there last week but I did not get a chance to see the Galleria d’Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s David. But this dummy here just had to stop to get the pisctacchio cornetto she spied in the bakery window, didn’t she? So now I get to spend two extra hours in Bologna Central Station – 25 Euro poorer and kicking myself over and over again for making such a rookie mistake. I am angrily chewing. The brioche should taste perfectly sweet and doughy, but all I taste is salt.

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Sometimes these were filled with strong rum cream. Venice was pretty great because of that.

I should rewind and first say, Buongiorno! Back in November, I spotted a $350 round-trip ticket from Cairo to Rome for January and I went for it. The great thing about working at AUC is that we get the American, Coptic, and Islamic holidays off, allowing me to take a 15-day (!!) vacation this month. What’s not so great is the little spending money I have saved up from my job. But through proofreading and babysitting gigs, I’ve managed to scrape enough together to travel quite comfortably for two weeks.

After five months of living in a Muslim country, I kicked off in Rome with a huge fanfare of prosciutto. Melon-wrapped prosciutto, prosciutto Panini, prosciutto and mozzarella sampler plate, cheap supermarket prosciutto on a 1Euro baguette – alas, I am now officially done with prosciutto.

From Rome, I went on to Florence and then Venice, which together constitutes the holy Trinity of any Italian trip. Though each city has a distinct individual history, they all are located in Northern Italy and you just feel the reliance on tourism in the restaurants, stores, and sights. Well of course there are natives (even native Venetians though they only number 66,000), but I couldn’t easily shake off the “Disneyland” vibe from any of those cities. If you will allow me a few myopic generalizations, Rome is for the famous monuments, Florence is for Renaissance art, and Venice is for honeymooners.

Thus, I’m dedicating an entire post just for Bologna because:

  • I think it’s under appreciated.
  • I had to hunt for the Bolognese tourist attractions amongst a sea of local spots, whereas the exact opposite was true for the Trinity.
  • There are already thousands of travel articles written about Rome, Florence, Venice.

I’ll definitely get that Bologna post up soon. Recently, a lot of my friends are planning trips to Europe and have asked me for backpacking advice. As I wrote my lengthy replies, I realized that I actually am qualified to share practical tips and design itineraries for 20-something kids who want an exciting yet affordable travel experience. A lot of travel sites with lengthy forums and discussions seem to be dominated by an older demographic and those with families. It’s probably because us youngins’ tend to wing it, which I’ve come to believe is always not the best way to travel.

But for now, I will say ciao to the North as I make my way South to the sun-drenched region of Campania. I’m planning on hitting Naples, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast. It’s also going to be my first time Couchsurfing! Please pray that no pistaccio baked good will cause me to miss another train. Grazie.

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The coat of arms for Rome, Florence, Venice, and Bologna. Sorry Rome, but why are you so basic?

An Egyptian Family Christmas

It was the morning of Christmas and my apartment smelled like cat piss. My refrigerator was painfully similar to that of a fraternity house – half a whiskey bottle, a couple of eggs, and some mushy apples. Scholarship applications rested unfinished somewhere on my Mac desktop, probably floating (sinking?) in my Chicago River screensaver. Worst of all, the meet and greet service guy who was supposed to pick up my parents in 12 hours still had not confirmed. But that was okay because all this stress meant that I would be with my family for the winter holidays, Egyptian border control be damned. 

It’s daunting to wake up knowing that you have all this stuff you must get done. Suddenly the world outside our bed just seems incredibly frightening. Nonetheless I dragged myself up and out the door to give my life and apartment a parent-friendly makeover. I started by waiting an hour for the Syrian pastry shop in Tahrir to open. Take note – almost nothing is open in Cairo before noon on Fridays. But the barista at the chain cafe across the street put a cute animal face in my cappuccino foam as I waited and apparently, that’s all it takes to brighten my day.

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I forgot to take a picture, but it looked as adorable as this one.

With a delicious assortment of honey drenched sweets in hand, I headed down to the jewellery stores in Maadi to pick out delicate silver bracelets for my mother, and to eat hearty Chinese dumplings with my Egyptian friend who made sure the meet and assist guy confirmed.

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Let it be known that the Chinese food in Cairo tastes better than most Chinese food in America.

By early evening I was back in my apartment and everything had turned out fine – I got the piss smell out of my apartment by thoroughly washing the litter box and throwing open all the windows. I even had time to whip up a quick dinner.

After a hasty hour of cleaning bathroom sinks and sweeping up mounds of cat hair, it was 8pm and I was in an uber on the way to Cairo International Airport. An hour ride later, and a half-hour of waiting outside later (for security reasons), I was in the arms of my mother and father. Just like that, after a six month absence, I was smelling my mom’s hair and kissing my dad’s cheek in the middle of the parking lot. It’s so weird.

We spent the last two hours of Christmas at my apartment unwrapping gifts and playing with the cat around my coffee table, spread with Syrian desserts and instant ramen. My dad had a cough for the past week and apparently all he ever felt like eating was instant ramen. As I watched my mom nibble at the kunafa, her shoulder hunched in that familiar slump- her mouth making circular motions as the chewed, I couldn’t stop thinking – one day, I will never sit across from my mom and watch her eat. Because one day she will die. Then I became obsessed with memorising the exact detail of how her face wrinkled and the color of her eyes and the movements of her hand as she tucked her hair behind her ear.

One day you feel infinite and then one day, you don’t. Over the past few months, I was so busy being annoyed at my parents and avoiding them that I overlooked their mortality. They’re getting older and it’s showing. Now everything seems like there’s a time limit, and I am fixated at counting the grains of sand I have left in the hourglass. Yes I know that that’s a rather morbid thought to end on, especially for a Christmas post, but it’s better to be aware of this now than to regret it when it’s too late.