Wednesday, December 26, 2012

One month out: Why Rwanda?

One month to the day from my flight to Rwanda! Having survived finals and my little sister's surgery I can think of nothing else. I am bringing back my travel blog for the time that I will be gone and will update it now and then before I leave. So today: Why Rwanda? 

When I say 'I'm studying in Rwanda next semester' I get one of three reactions: “Rwanda eh? Don't stay in any hotels, har har” or “Uhm, where is that again?” and finally “Why?”. I will try to explain. Why would I leave my lovely university, friends, family and boyfriend to study in an obscure African country famous only for violence?

Because I can't stop thinking about it. Because to me Rwanda is a broken heart, my addiction to darkness, my St. Peter's gate, and above all: a question. Because for me, Rwanda embodies the problem of evil and the mystery of resilience. Beyond all things this is what I seek to understand of the world. How can an ordinarily, loving, flawed, special, ordinary human being be twisted to take up a machete and break apart the bodies of the neighbors they once called friend. And following this, how can a country made up murderers and victims go on to become one of the most successful in the region? In Rwanda, all are stained by history. It is a place of trauma so deep I cannot comprehend it, and yet it is the golden child of central Africa, boasting a rapidly growing economy, universal health care and the strongest military in the region. How could it fall so quickly into hell? And even more mysteriously, how did it find it's way out?

This is what I seek to answer in Rwanda. How people found hope and life in the darkest moment of modern history. Want nothing more than to learn enough to help transfer some the lessons of Rwanda to other people struggling against darkness. I am going to Rwanda because I can do nothing else. I would love nothing so wildly as this.  

The beautiful lake Kivu:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Berlin's Dreamscape

Though I've been to Berlin before when I was young, every time I turned a corner the city held some new surprise. Berlin doesn't feel so much like capitol city as a sprawling student town in love with art and music and beer and freedom.

Berlin was a reunion with my friends from Cambodia. They are some of the best people I know, and where my family while I was on my gap year. During my week in Berlin my friends dropped in and out from all around Europe. It was strange to see them away from Asia. I kept expecting to look out a window and see a Tuktuk or temple, but I cannot imagine better companions for exploring! D Every night was a new adventure: from trying to avoid elderly nudists at a open air concert by a lake to watching the sun rise along a canal with a random pair of hitchhikers from Belarus in a camp set up to protest rising rent, to wandering quiet streets through the night.

At an incredibly relaxed concert

My favorite place we visited: Techalus, a old building plastered with graphetti and occupied by artists who passionately resist the efforts of a bank to retake the building. The dusty, dark walls seemed alive with art and light filtered in colored by paint on the windows – strained glass of the modern age. A rabbit warren Alice in wonderland dreamscape of everything from intricate murals to political statements to scrawled slogans.

Perhaps one reason it has taken me so very long to write a blog for Berlin is how contrasting it is: a vibrant, but chilled out city delighting in its present but haunted by a history which catches you by surprise. In English there is no word for a monument to say you are sorry, but in German there is. Some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen was at the memorial for the holocaust, and the Jewish museum where the shadows seem full of ghosts. The past and present blur together here, skyscrapers hover over a skyline of old towers and domes. There is a lot of soul to the place.  

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Faithless Pilgrim: Jerusalem

A typical street in the old city

Israel is the best city for wanderers in the world! When I am alone this is how I travel – with a map in my pocket I wander down a random street and see where it takes me. Not practical in many places, but in Jerusalem it is perfect. I spent most of my time in Jerusalem wandering the maze of stone alleys that is the old city, and every few minutes I would stumble into some ancient holy place.

Nowhere in the world is there such a concentration of faith, I think. In one day I followed Jesus' footsteps along the Via Delarosa, touched the western wall, saw the dome of the rock and wandered the mount of olives. I am a faithless pilgrim, bewildered by the deep belief of those swaying or singing or crying around me in their holy places. And though I lack the faith to grant me such a powerful reaction Jerusalem is filled with an inexplicable joy. I am in love with the diversity of the place – my last evening I perched on a rooftop and listened to Shabet songs, church bells and Ramadan fireworks as the sun set. It was a moment of perfection!

Now I can understand the importance of Jerusalem, and why it is the center of so much love and so much hated. But I read something on way here which argued that the conflict and cruelty that have surrounded this city, the great evils committed to capture it for the glory of God is a kind of blasphemy. If people behave in a way repulsive to the commandments to love their fellow man for the sake of Jerusalem, it becomes idolatry – the stones lose their holiness when they are soaked with blood. The peace I saw here: Muslims and Jews worshiping just blocks away from each other, headscarves mingling with Hassidic fur hats was beautiful but it is a fragile thing. Like an infant who one night may simply stop breathing. I do not have a god to pray to, but as I leave the city I pray for peace.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

How Can I Keep From Singing? Palestine

A mural at Dehashem Refugee camp. 

Never have I been to a place so profoundly hopeful and devastating. I began my trip to Bethlehem by visiting a refugee camp, which tore apart all the expectations of poverty and hopelessness I hold with this place. Dehashema refugee camp began as a tent city decades ago, and now blends easily in with Bethlehem – a neighborhood decorated with murals and scattered with schools, shops and medical care centers. A cultural center proudly displayed trophies won by the camp sports teams, and advertised social services and psychological care. No where were the starving children scratching in the dust – the camp was not home to victims. As I wandered between apartment buildings and chatted to curious children I was struck by the reality of the place. Everyone here had been through incredible hardship, but supermarkets open, children go to school, people met married. A powerful reminder of the strength of human resilience.

Many of you know I want to work with refugees, hopefully in psychological care. It seems a dream most days, but today I saw a model of my future. It has never been so real.

Then I went to the wall. The wall between Israel and Palestine creeps, ugly and imposing against the edge of town, garages and businesses huddled just yards away from the angry concrete expanse. The amazing thing about the wall is the open gash the graphetti on it show into the soul of Palestine. Slogans of hope blur into images of the dead, bible verses next to commandments to 'burn this wall'. This is Palestine. This odd balance of hope and hatred, the future stalked by a crippling past. A refugee camp that has become a welcoming town. A swastika shakily scrawled on a wall. The smiles and bright eyes of children in my taxi as they play with my bracelets and shyly tell me their names. The furious repetition of the word 'yahud' (Jew) in the Ramadan sermon broadcast over the sleepy town. Bethleham is a mystery, a paradise, a timebomb.

I came to Israel for understanding. I wanted to know why this scrap of sand and stones has caused so much death, so much hatred, and yet is so loved. Every minute in Israel has been amazing, but I leave with more questions than I came with. I only know I want to come back. I want to return to Bethlehem, and walk on the bits of concrete where there once was a wall. I want to tell my children how I saw the wall, and the sinister towers that guard it, but that now – thank god, thank god, thank god, there is peace. Having been to Palestine, I want this future so much it aches. But, having been to Palestine, I do not know if it will ever be.

(Update: I am leaving for Germany tomorrow! I have been adventuring at such a breakneck speed I have not had time to write as much about Israel as I wanted – look for a post about the beautiful Jerusalem in the next few days.)  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Waaaaadi Ruuum: Land of Adventures!

After running through Petra our bus took us to Wadi Rum: the most beautiful desert in Jordan and, in my opinion, the world. We immediately hopped into the back of a pickup truck with our Israeli friends from the bus and bounced and screamed across the desert, swerving through the sand on a race to catch the sunset.

And what a sunset! I have never seen such a beautiful one, the sky and the mountains stained red by the sun as shadows danced across the mountains. Breathtaking!

And as night fell our whole camp turned into a party with music blaring from loudspeakers and everyone dancing together under the stars. To my delight they played Salsa music (truly, it's everywhere...) so I bullied Saif into learning. Perhaps in revenge he taught me a complicated Jordanian dance (for me) and the sight of a white girl shuffling through the steps after a line of Jordanian men was very amusing for the onlookers! After the music died down, I went out into the sand to look at the stars. I have never seen so many, they filled the sky until the darkness almost disappeared.

The next morning I couldn't sleep, and wandered to a nearby to watch the sunrise. It was so beautiful it ached. It seems like time has ceased in this land, and the sun shifts and plays across the sand isolated from the rest of the world.

Our last stop was Aqaba, a seaside town within view of Israel and few kilometers from Saudi Arabia. It was stiflingly hot, but we cooled off swimming in the sea and riding boats around the crystal blue waters. And I fell of a speeding Banana into the red sea!

We made some great friends on the tour, which brings me to now! I am staying with my Israeli friend Yasmine in a small Arab town in the north of Israel with our friend Semah, a Belgian girl who was also studying Arabic in Jordan. I am amazed by the hospitality of Yasmine and her family, who seem genuinely delighted that their daughter was followed home by a couple of students. Today to Jerusalem!  

With my new friends on the boat! Yasmine is in front and Samah opposite me. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Where the world begins and ends: Petra

I have left Jordan (in Israel now), but in my last weekend I went on a whirlwind tour of all the amazing sights of Jordan by bus with Saif! 

One of the most breathtaking moments of my life: rounding a bend in our rattling bus and finding myself at the edge of the world. The landscape around Petra... I cannot describe it. An eternity of sand and stone which stretches out forever like the cradle of the world.

Truly I can see how the old testiment was born in this land. A desert scattered with rocks and sudden cliffs, and the jutting red mountains of stone so weathered they look like bones of some giant beast. This landscape must surely have had a hand to create it. But this hand, this god, is as vengeful and untamed as it is magnificent. Beautiful, terrifying, and very very near. In every step. In the land of Abraham the stones speak the tongue of this ancient god. I begin to understand how modern faith came from this place. Where every blade of grass and drop of water is a gift, is it little wonder faith here is strong.

And Petra... where do I begin? Walking into Petra is like walking into the heart of the earth. The dusty road is swallowed by curving red cliffs which undulate like living things. The walk to the ancient city is long and dusty – interrupted by the occasional carriage or donkey – but I cannot stop smiling because the rocks are the most beautiful I have ever seen.

When at last I catch sight of Petra it explodes in golden sunlight through the cliffs. As always, that first moment as you stare at something as famous as Petra is one of disbelief, and the reality of it slow filters in along with utter amazement that such a thing can truly exist beyond postcards.

But Petra is so much more than a single ruin... it is a lost world. Beyond the treasury is a labyrinth of caves and temples and even a vast red roman theater. As we clambered over cliffs and stared out at this ancient city I felt we were wandering through a beautiful skeleton. I would have given anything to see it alive, the city as it must have been when the people who carved homes from mountains still lived in it.

Petra battles Ankor Wat for the most incredible place I have ever been. I am so sad we only had a few hours to explore before we got back on the bus to go to someplace maybe even more amazing... Wadi Rum: the most beautiful desert in the world! Will post about this tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


My Adventure this week: the Roman Theater! 

The place is a playground of history: I loved clambering over the dusty stones and imaging the thousands of years they have witnessed.

I was amazed by the scale, the engineering (I could hear the footsteps of playing children on the stage from at least three stories up), and the geometry. The way the Roman architects blend straight lines and curves, and the play of sun and shadow across this landscape of shapes was stunning.

Another week in Amman and I am finding patterns. As life takes a definite shape the world starts to make sense, fitting around the obstacles thrown up by my American expectations. Culture shock: that nagging shadow in your head that looks at something different and says 'but that's just not how it's done.'.

Arabic, too, is a language of patterns. Arabic is not so much about learning the order of words but the patterns of letters that surround them -- prefixes and suffixes can hold the key to a sentence. As my infamous spelling skills attest, this is not easy for me. My driving reason for coming to Jordan was to save my relationship with Arabic (never did I imagine I would be grateful for my first 'C' grade). But incredibly, I am making great progress. I can't really take part in other's conversations yet, but I can chat with Taxi drivers and new acquaintances, and hold a halting conversation with my infinitely patient family.   

The other day I realized with shock I have less than a week to go. I will leave for Palestine/Israel this Sunday after visiting Petra and the sea. I am so excited for another adventure, but also terribly sad to leave this one...  Time has a strange quality here. I cannot believe I have been here more than 2 weeks and yet I feel I have lived here forever... 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Layers of Empire (and ketchup and mustard)

Today's adventure: Jabel al'Qala: the mountaintop roman ruins

The ruins are desolately beautiful. Scattered pieces of empires, piled on top of one other as tribal kingdoms gave way to Romans who gave way to Byzantines. And now the place is surrounded by a new empire – whatever they will call us in a thousand years.

In truth, this modern empire was my favorite part, just staring out at the vast expanse that is Amman. The sand colored buildings blend together like a desert. From the mountaintop the cacophony of the streets is lost in the wind and the city seems still and ancient as the giant columns which lie like bones in the dust. I can't photograph this feeling – the partial city-scapes can't show the vastness– the way Amman seems to envelope of the world.

I couldn't capture the scale, but this picture shows how oddly seamless the ancient and the modern are here.

My host brother Saif with the old roman theater in the background, and me with Amman.

I am tenuously making sense of my life here. Life in Amman avoids movement during the day at all costs. I am quite sure the daytime opening hours of Jebel al'Qala were the reason it took a week of constant begging to get me there. But night is for adventures. Saif and I usually zip (or putter, depending on the traffic) through the city at night with his friends. We get coffee here, shwarma sandwiches there, or fetch dinner from a hole in the wall hotdog place called 'Wazzup Dog,' which is spattered in graffiti, caution tape, and 'BEWARE THE DOG' signs.

I know by the time I feel really at home here I will have to leave. But, for the little time I have it, I love this life.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Whole World is in Amman

Amman, Jordan

My dear readers, I do not yet have magnificent photos of monuments or museums for you. Alas, my host brother is struck with the double plagues of illness and final exams, and as the family is hesitant to release me on the city alone, my explorations have been very local. What I do have: stories of people.

First of all: my family. I have been adopted not by one family but by a vast network of aunts and grandparents and cousins. As always, I am bowled over by Arab hospitality. I am showered with tea and sweets and whenever I manage to bumble something in Arabic I am the subject of great delight. My family is very progressive – many of them have studied in America. My host grandfather likes to tell off-color jokes and stories from his time in the States. When I said I was studying politics he delightedly exclaimed “ah! The study of bullshit!” and another time regaled me with the tale of his encounter with a stripper in Miami. I am growing quite fond of him. My life drifts between the house of my immediate family and the grandparent's, but there is little distinction between the two. Not a day goes by without one visiting the other, the family wanders in and out of each others homes as if they were separate wings on a single house. The view into the family is fascinating. Today I witnessed the now global ritual of trying to explain facebook to a dubious grandmother.

The other foreigners I meet are adventures in themselves, with nationalities as jumbled as my Arabic. The other day I shared a taxi with a Chinese girl doing an internship here for her masters degree in New York. At school I met several Turkish girls learning Arabic for their study of the Koran, who spoke to me in perfect English after having lived in America for 8 years. The maid, Fatima, is from Shri Lanka, and my teacher is Palestinian. The whole world is in Amman.

This weekend I hope to explore the old parts of the city! (Weekends here are Friday and Saturday) I shall share my adventures when I return to school. I am glad to hear that people are enjoying my blog! I hope it stays amusing!

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Journey Begins!

Before I left the states I tried to put into words the feeling I get before leaving on a trip like this. The best comparison I can make is how I feel before seeing someone with whom I am freshly in love – that giddy, happy nervousness that makes your stomach dance and steals your breath and your sleep.

On the way to Jordan I stopped in Vienna, Austria, where I will return in a few weeks time. Flying into the city is beautiful. The strangely, geometric organized landscape look to me like an impressionist painting, dotted with abstract clusters of villages.

It could not be a greater contrast to the landscape flying into Amman. Jordan is enveloped in a desert so dwarfing in scale that from above I though buildings were clusters of rocks. The landscape is as wild and strange as Austria's is meticulous.

Amman rises out of this desert like a mirage. The uniform white of the endless apartment buildings make it seem dreamlike, unreal somehow. But also very beautiful. It is a soothing city, in its own way, the clean cool white only broken by the occasional brightly colored sign advertising the endless western chains that line the main streets.

Jetlagged and watching the sun rise over the hills. Well worth being awake at 3 am.

Two days into Amman daily life is fantastic: my family is lovely and my school is excellent. More to follow later though, I only have internet at school and it is almost time for class.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Amman to Prague: Summer 2012!

This summer promises to be the best in my life! I want to come back to this blog to share my adventures as I bounce around the globe. Now, just three weeks before my departure I have completed my plans! It is finally all becoming real to me, and now is all I can think about.

First Stop: Amman, Jordan 
June 23rd to July 15th
I will stay Amman for three weeks to work on my Arabic. I loved learning Arabic in Cairo two years ago and have kept up with it in school this year, but it has been a major challenge. So I am going to practice and learn as much as I can! I will take classes at an Arabic school and stay with a host family. 

Amman is also close to some places on my life list, such as the incredible Petra: 

Second Stop: Jerusalem, Israel
July 15th to 21st
This is another place on my life list, and as it is close to Amman I thought this summer the perfect opportunity to go! I hope my life will involve working for peace and to repair the damages left by conflict. Jerusalem, so close to the hearts of so many, seems at least peripherally involved in many of our worlds conflicts. I hope that by breathing the air, walking the streets, I will better understand this place and the bloodshed surrounding it. 

Third Stop: Berlin, Germany
July 21st to 28th 
Germany is important to me because of the incredible friends I have who live there. While I lived in Cambodia last year I became friends with a number of volunteers from Germany, and we have stayed friends sense returning home.
Me, Tim, and Niamh in Bangkok. Niamh is Irish but she is joining me in Berlin to visit our German friends: Tim, among others. It has been over a year sense we have seen each other. 

Fourth Stop: Vienna, Austria
July 28th to August 6th
Here I will meet up my family! My mother, step father, uncle, grandfather, two sisters, Niamh and I will explore the museums, churches and restaurants of this beautiful city. 

Fifth Stop: Prague, Czech Republic
August 6th to August 12th
My final stop with my family this summer, and another place on my life list! 

I would like to end this blog by dedicating it to John Colborn, who made my adventures in Jordan and Israel possible. John is one of my favorite traveling companions and the best 'bio-dad' I could have ever hoped for. Thank you so much for supporting my travels around the world!
With an Orangutan and her baby in Indonesia, 2011