Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The day of wheat and worry

[This is part of a series of posts chronicling a walk across Israel. For previous parts of this story, click here. For the how's and why's, read The Time We Walked to the Sea.]

Everything is wet. Having stayed up all night, I am photographing dew on flowers. A voice bellows from inside the tent and interrupts the daybreak.

"I hate camping!"

The night after Elijah and I met, we were sitting in a group of soon-to-be friends and talking about the types of things expats talk about when they gather in groups outside their home country. You know: food, travel bragging, poop, etc. We got to the subject of sleep and Elijah was sharing that he is a very particular sleeper. "I need to lie in a particular position, completely still, in complete silence."

None of this was unreasonable. Considering, however, that this conversation was taking place in Cairo, Elijah's preferences meant that he spent most of the nights in the next few months watching me sleep. It was neither the flies alone nor the heat that kept him up; neither the car horns nor the flutterings of the heart. It was just, well, Egypt and particularness. The latter is what is keeping him up this morning, in our little tent, outside Cana, Israel.

"This tent sucks..."
"These sleeping bags suck!"
"Everything sucks. I hate camping..."

I crawl back into the tent and observe its moisture drying slowly in the early morning sun. Elijah closes his eyes and I smile. In the past few weeks, he has been remarking on the fact that I have a loud smile. You can hear my lips turning upward.

"No", he protests to the sound of upturned lips.

Through our open tent flap, I see a bird fly by. In Greek, it is called "karakaxa". Who doesn't love a funny-sounding bird?

"You know what this bird is called in Greek?", I ask too cheerfully.
"Go awaaaay."
Ms. Freckles (captured with Instagram)
A few hours later, between Golani Junction and Kibbutz Lavi, I am the cranky one. We are lost. We are not really lost, but we are off the trail and for someone who was formerly (?) neurotic, "off the beaten path" is best embraced metaphorically. Walking off the trail meant we walked on the highway, with buses and cars wheezing by and every step feeling heavier because it was a step taken on tar. We have also walked through wheat fields. It is just before the harvest, so everything around us is golden and swooshing in unison. I am tired and prickly plants are making my legs itch and the pack feels heavy on my back and I am too consumed in myself to acknowledge the beauty.

Elijah takes his pack off and sets it on what I am pretty sure was manure.

"Hi, Freckles." He smiles.
"Freckles? Me? I have freckles? On my face? Where?"
"Yes, you. Hi, Freckles."
 I squint.
"You know, in America, we think freckles are cute." Elijah smiles again.

He kisses the freckles under my right eye, we put our packs back on, and continue walking through the wheat fields.

I worry. I worry professionally and thoroughly. I worry about people and places. I worry about the familiar and the unknown, I worry about loved ones and I worry about those I have never met.

The sun is going down and we are pitching our tent near Kibbutz Lavi. In the distance, we can see the Horns of Hattin, where an important battle took place during the Crusades. The rocky hills forming the Horns are purple at sunset and do not look nearly as intimidating as they would the next morning, when we would have to climb them. Gusts of wind are forming and the wheat dance near us becomes loud.

We pitch the tent together and feel its resistance in the wind. "Do you think a Crusader died right here?", Elijah asks.

I spot one mosquito, then another.

"Let's get in the tent," I suggest to Elijah. Mosquitoes love me nearly as much as he does and I do not take my chances.

Then the worrying kicks in. It's not the harpaxophobia I have experienced in conflict zones before. It's an all-encompassing worry that stemmed from nowhere. Some would say it was panic, and they would probably be right.

"Do you think we are safe here? In the middle of a field? In the middle of nowhere? What if something happens to us?"
"Darling, we are very safe. We have not seen a single person in hours." Elijah tries to comfort me.
"That's my point! What if something happens to us? We are so vulnerable out here. Nobody could help us."

Nothing would happen to us, but I kept on worrying.

I hear a sharp sound in the distance. Before I say anything, Elijah says "someone is shoveling cow poop." I make a mental note to write Kentucky a thank you note for instilling this knowledge in him and continue to worry.

"What if a tractor comes early in the morning, ready to harvest the wheat and runs us over?"
"Are there wild animals here? What about snakes? All that wheat and high grass! Of course there are snakes!"
"Do you think this tent fabric is thin enough for a snake to bite us through it?"

Elijah pulls me closer. At this point, I am wearing nearly all the layers I have brought on this trip. It is cold and windy and I am shivering with irrationality. All our clothes smell like backpack. He puts his arm around me, which also smells like backpack, and does not let go.

"White chocolate and hazelnut cake. Why don't I get you some of that? You love that cake." Elijah's suggestion works.

He tries to open the tent flap and we hear a siren-like sound. Or a wail. Maybe the wind?

"NOT THE WIND!", Elijah says as he hurriedly closes the flap before he can get to the cake. "What you heard out there was the sound of at least 250 mosquitoes dancing outside our tent."

In the moments the wind dies down, we hear them. We can see their bodies sticking to the outside of the tent. When the wind picks up, the mosquito sirens are silenced. Somewhere between wondering whether a Crusader had died at our camping spot and worrying about getting run over by a tractor, we neglected to check whether we had camped right on top of a water pipe.

What do you know, we had.
"I feel a little better." I announce to Elijah after forever. "I think I might have to use the bathroom though."
"Go ahead, I do not hear the mosquitoes anymore. I will hold the flashlight for you from inside the tent," he says.

So I go ahead. There I am, pants dropped, amidst the thistle and the prickly plants and the wheat and under an enormous night sky. Elijah and I bicker about which way he is shining the light and I insist that he keep his eyes closed (even though the tent flap is closed too). There is only so much poop a relationship can survive.

We make fun, we laugh, we are all alone in a valley. Once Elijah's flashlight-holding duties are done, he steps out and joins me under the stars. We look behind us, towards the Horns of Hattin and survey tomorrow's path. In the thistle and the wheat and the darkness, it is hard to make a trail out.

"Hey darling? I think you may have just pooped on the trail." Elijah informs me and we go to sleep.

Next: The day we made it to the sea

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The day Messi rode past us

[This is part of a series of posts chronicling a walk across Israel. For the how's and why's, you can read The Time We Walked to the Sea. For the first segment of the hike, read The Day We Failed to Walk and for the second, The Day Storks Changed My Mind.]
Shadows of sunrise, viewed from inside our tent in the valley past Cana
One of the unexpected joys of being a perpetual expat is seeing something written in your own language. When your language is Greek and is spoken in few corners of the world, the joy doubles. Cana greeted us in Greek:
Αγοράστε εδώ το κρασί του γάμου!
Christians believe Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding of Cana, where he transformed water into wine. Entrepreneurial souls in modern-day Cana beckon to religious pilgrims and romantics alike to renew their wedding vows, or - like the Greek sign requested of us - to buy some Cana wedding wine. 

Elijah and I were more interested in the water part of the miracle. Having walked thirteen and a half kilometers that day, we needed to refuel and be on our way. A butcher shop was the only open establishment and Elijah stood by a slaughtered cow as he refilled our water, fully aware that this drink may have been E.coli's free ride into our bodies.

For some people, hiking is effortless. They casually trot to the top of a mountain, shake the dust off their aerodynamic jacket or other Necessary Hiking Gadget and express their amazement that they are here "already." I am not one of those people. I look like my effort, beet red and hunched over. A man drives past us in a pick-up truck. He whistles, honks, winks. I roll my eyes. 

Two steps later, Elijah and I stop at a fruit stand. We buy apples for the road and Elijah asks the owner how much they cost. The owner says something, Elijah asks how much they cost again, in Arabic. The owner repeats, slowly, "Free. They are free for you." They continue to chat and I do not understand their conversation, so I prefer to lean against the stand and catch my breath in the company of strawberries and pears.

"The apples are free because you are so pretty," Elijah says, planting a kiss on my cheek and inviting looks from the boys dragging a horse up the hill. I attribute the gift to the strain on our faces and packs on our backs. Just as I am about to argue, the man in the pick-up truck drives past us one more time. He whistles, honks, winks and gives Elijah a thumbs-up. 

Even though I am walking behind him, Elijah knows I am rolling my eyes. "You really need to learn how to take a compliment."

A sound comes from behind us. "Tooth extraction," Elijah decides. "Definitely a tooth extraction without anesthesia." 

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!," again.

The sound grows closer and a young boy on a bike overtakes us. He is wearing a Barcelona soccer jersey and turns around to look at us. We attract a lot of attention on the road. Among the hijabed women, my auburn hair, sleeveless shirt and leggings stand out. The backpacks, tents and sleeping bags are not the typical fare of Cana. There is a particular demographic with which we are popular: The Barcelona fans. 

Soon, we meet the 'tooth extraction' screamer too. He is wearing a jersey with Messi's name on the back. Pique, Iniesta, and David Villa join him. Five boys on bikes, five Barcelona jerseys. Half a soccer team is towing us.  I have cheered on Barcelona in four continents. I have shared Messi's delight in a dusty Be'er Sheva bar and wished for Iniesta to be playing in the Champions League final in a Cuban restaurant. The New York Times recently profiled Lionel Messi, but in Cana, away from digital subscriptions and the sports section, he already has his junior fan club.

The Barcelona Bicycle Gang follows us all the way until the entrance to the forest. That would sound ominous had they not all been twelve years old. Elijah greets each of them in Arabic, using the names on the back of their jerseys. 

"Marhaba, Messi!"

At the edge of the trail, "Messi" is spotted by a screaming parent. He instantly becomes Ahmed, turns around, and speeds home with the rest of the Barcelona Bicycle Gang. 

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!", we hear in the distance.

Elijah had pitched a tent in the living room in four minutes and forty-eight seconds. It took only a touch more than that to set it up on twigs instead of living room tiles. Our temporary home seems to be pitched in the social crossroads of the youth of Cana and the surrounding villages. In the rocks above the trail, we find a lone shisha coal and bottles - the remains of a good night. Two women pass by and greet us, saying that they drink their coffee daily at 'our spot'. We eat a dinner of white chocolate macadamia cake and salami and throw night essentials into the tent: toilet paper, flashlight, rolled up sweaters. 

The sun has barely set, but Elijah and I are fading. In the distance, there are sounds of celebration: music, fireworks, a gunshot here or there. I quietly worry about the forest burning down because of the fireworks. I worry about a bullet piercing the paper-thin tent.

Elijah does not worry. He puts his arm around me and, in the blue glow of our tent in the twilight, he falls asleep. 

I stay up all night. At 4.15 AM, the call to prayer echoes across the valley. No sound except that, and the crackle of a loudspeaker. This hike was not a Christian, Jewish or Muslim religious pilgrimage for us, nor a way to make a point about co-existence. Yet, at 4.15 AM, camped safely between Arab towns in the heart of Israel, I cannot sleep because my heart swells with the beauty of it all. 

I make fun of my own corniness, letting out a chuckle that startles the insects on the tent tarp. Beauty beats cynicism or fear any day. I succumb to it all and wait for the sunrise.

Next: "Do you think a Crusader died right here?"

Friday, May 20, 2011

On talking about sexual assault and Dominique Strauss-Kahn

In a Greece that is crumbling under the recession, people are, perhaps understandably, looking to place blame. The IMF has been the recipient of lots of Greek anger and the recent sexual assault and attempted rape allegations against former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn have prompted a conversation on not only finances and management, but also on victimization and personal integrity.

I am a Greek, a feminist, a specialist in gender-related development in conflict zones, a writer on "women's issues". But mostly, today, I am angry. Regardless of whether Strauss-Kahn is innocent or guilty, I am frustrated by the way the conversation on sexual assault has been unfolding.

In a conversation with a Greek woman yesterday, I heard that Mr. Strauss-Kahn is "simply too intelligent to have sexually assaulted a maid." The allegation that sexual assault correlates with intelligence and only those who are perceived to be less intelligent commit such acts grants unwarranted reprieve on those who are perceived to be smart. Attempting to determine our own intelligence, let alone that of others, is a nightmare. Now try to think about doing that in order to gage the inclination towards sexual assault.

Many are arguing that the incident was a set-up to destroy Mr. Strauss-Kahn's political life. If that is the case, then I am ashamed for how this degrades the gravity of sexual assault and the pain that victims carry with them. This is too serious an issue to pin on someone as another move in the political chess board. However, I am equally bothered by the fact that some automatically assume that politics can be the only motivation for this scandal, that the woman's story cannot hold truth on its own, as she told it.

A corollary of this is the too-old "blame the victim" approach. It infuriated me when this reaction surfaced in response to the news of Lara Logan's sexual assault in Egypt and it infuriates me now. Ben Stein argued that he has had some maids who have been "complete lunatics", thus calling into question the mental soundness of the woman who pressed charges. Jon Stewart and MenSpeakUp have issued responses to Ben Stein on this matter. Whether we are talking about Strauss-Kahn or a case of sexual assault that will never receive this magnitude of press attention, starting with the assumption that the person who pressed charges is not credible, or - worse - that she or he invited or deserved the assault is not the way to do anyone justice.

Finally, a note on justice. Last night there was a poll on a Greek prime-time news program: "Did Strauss-Kahn do it or not?" It is problematic that we are attempting to adjudicate a sexual assault case from our armchair. Strauss-Kahn deserves the presumed innocence that governs court cases, just as the woman who pressed charges against him deserves for those charges to be treated seriously and investigated with dignity. Ultimately, only those with access to testimonies and evidence are equipped to make a decision on Strauss-Kahn's innocence. The rest of us are merely extrapolating from assertions on the two parties' characters to adjudicate an issue we do not have the information or the mandate to determine. In doing so, we are undermining the process of justice, the defendant's right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the gravity of the issue of sexual assault and attempted rape.

Ultimately, I cannot know if Strauss-Kahn "did it", though 79% of my compatriots who answered the aforementioned poll think he is innocent. I cannot know if the charges are fictitious. I cannot know the motives. But I can know that the immediate assertions that are popping up in the discourse about this topic, from "intelligent men do not rape" to "the woman made it up" to "he is a womanizer, therefore, he definitely did it", are dangerous and harmful to women, men, sexual assault victims and the justice process alike.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The day storks changed my mind

[This is part of a series of posts chronicling a walk across Israel.  For the how's and why's, you can read The Time We Walked to the Sea and for the first segment, The Day We Failed to Walk.]
Flight of the storks
Since the accident that left the upper half of my body resembling braised ribs, the most strenuous exercise I had indulged in involved wiggling my toes or swimming in the Dead Sea. When one cites floating in a body of water so salty that it is impossible to sink (or swim, for that matter) as 'exercise', walking across a country is only possible if she employs two significant weapons: Humor and Denial.

"You know, if I pull this off, it will sort of be my own Forrest Gump journey," I quipped to Elijah.  "I, too, can say one day I walked out of bed and walked 60+ kilometers."

On Day 1 of the hike, this Forrest Gump could barely get out of Nazareth.

Now, in my defense, getting out of Nazareth involved climbing 250 wide stone steps. "Oh dear Jesus," I muttered to myself approximately 80 meters into our walk, only for Elijah to point out the irony in the timing of my blasphemy.

On one of my breathing breaks, we met the only other person those days who had thought it was possible to walk across the country. Two million Israelis went hiking on the weekend we started our walk - Vince from California was the only one to select that path. I came to find beauty in the solitude of our trail, but had you told me that only three people had thought this was a good idea during that breathing break, I would have given up and now I'd be writing about the medieval church bells of Nazareth instead.

Vince came and went, and I was still negotiating with my heart to slow down its beat.

"Honey? We cannot let a 60-something man kick our a$$es this badly," Elijah said.

Oh but we could, and he did. And though Elijah may have joked about our snail-like starting pace, he followed it up with a "We Are Young And Can Do This" comment of his own:

"I have to say  -- Vince is not carrying as much weight as we are. No tent, no sleeping bag. Just a tiny rucksack."

Hiking can be a competitive sport, in that subtle "Oh, haha, how curious! You got altitude sickness climbing Kilimanjaro? I didn't feel a thing!" sort of way. Vince got a smile out of sailing past the panting twenty-somethings and we found solace in our load of salami, sleeping bags and socks slowing us down.

"One kilometer down," Elijah proclaimed, and we kept on walking.
We sit in a bus stop to eat some of that salami. The location of our snack break bruises my ego a little. I want the world to know I am walking and I will not be mistaken for a bus rider. Not today. Cars start to pull over right by our bus stop and, just as I wonder if bladders in Northern Israel are on a coordinated schedule, a siren sounds.

This is not the two-tone wailing that has sent us diving into bomb shelters before. It is a high-pitched drone and, once a year, it sounds across the entirety of Israel at the same time to commemorate fallen soldiers. 

Everything stops. Truck drivers stand at attention. Drivers exit their vehicles right where they are, without pulling over or parking. Elijah and I are the only pedestrians. I am holding the salami that is missing a bite at the top and, though I have not lost anyone in this conflict, I am contemplating the solemnity of coordinated collective grief. 

Two minutes later, the siren goes quiet, the buzz of car radios returns, and we leave the bus stop and concrete behind to take to the fields.
I had never been a bird lover. Perhaps it was because they have a knack for identifying my head as the perfect place to defecate. Or maybe it was the way Alfred Hitchcock's bird thriller eerily replicated itself in a friend's apartment. From now on, I will forever be thankful to the fields between Nazareth and Cana for changing my mind on winged creatures.

We saw the orange beaks first. Then the black and white body, the golden red feet.

I spot the first one, Elijah findss the next. "Herons?", he wonders. "Maybe pelicans?" 

"No -- storks," I reply, shocking both of us with my first ever correct bird identification.

We turn the next corner and the two storks become dozens. One stork prepares for flight and, not unlike a plane, she takes off by running first, then leaping, then opening her wings wide and giving in to the wind. 

The storks gain height by soaring in circles, higher and higher, until they are almost out of sight. Black dots in the sky. 

"They are big birds!", Elijah remarks. "I wouldn't want to be pooped on by them..." 

Sure enough, a bird obliges within minutes. She was kind with him, though, leaving only a small white token on his cheek.

Next: The Barcelona Bicycle Gang of Cana

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The day we failed to walk

[This is part of a series of posts chronicling a walk across Israel. For the how's and why's, start here.]

"Four minutes and forty-eight seconds!", Elijah declares.

There is a tent pitched in our living room. Bolstered by his record-setting tent setup time, Elijah suggests I take a break from ziplocking socks and granola bars and get in the tent. We lie in it together, backs pressed against the floor of our apartment. Through the skylight, we can see the glow of our fluorescent bathroom lights.

To walk across Israel on our chosen trails, we first have to get from the deserts of the South to the mountains of the North.  The bus to Nazareth is one of those demographic experiences one can have in few places outside the Middle East: Men in kippot, women in hijabs, Christian pilgrims retracing the footsteps of Jesus, and backpackers in sleeveless shirts share the journey northward. We drive along the wall between Israel and the West Bank. The politically-correct term for this structure is "security barrier", but really -- 'wall' will do. Sometimes it cuts straight through fields; other times, past the watchtowers and barbed wire, we catch a glimpse of mosque minarets poking the sky.

Nazareth boasts the largest Arab population of Israeli cities and we arrive to its main square to be greeted by a mosque. It has been erected directly in front of the Church of the Annunciation, where Christians believe Mary learned she would be the mother of Jesus. A sign on the mosque reads, in both English and Arabic: "And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers." 

We quickly learn that Nazareth does not mince her words.
A mosque and the Church of the Annunciation share space in the center of Nazareth.
Now if you are looking for a tale of pre-hiking stretches and camping stores, I will disappoint you. We did not go to Nazareth to look at North Face jackets, unfurl our tents and pretend to understand the thermal prescriptions of long underwear. We went there looking for the trailmarker that would signal the start of this journey. We stayed because, instead, we found the sunset, arak, and apple-flavored smoke.

Elijah would have to wait one more night before applying his miraculous tent-pitching skills outdoors. Having arrived in Nazareth past sunset, we make our way to a hostel and are greeted by the smell of Taybeh. The aroma of this Palestinian beer transports me to the Christmas Eve of 2009. Chock full of malarial parasites (courtesy of northern Uganda), I found myself outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Whatever sanctity was transpiring within its walls did not drift outside, where a Samoan singer took a break from her Reggaeton performance to inform the crowd of mostly Palestinians and maybe ten North Americans that she is African, just like the rest of us. "The rest of us" washed down this surreal Christmas Eve with shewarma and Taybeh. It seems that, a year and a half later in a hostel in Nazareth, Taybeh is back and its scent will soak my sleep.

Tonight, however, is not for Taybeh - it is a night for arak. The Greeks, the Turks, the Syrians, the Palestinians all love it and all call it different names. Our enthusiastic server informs us that it is the Arak Festival. I mumble something about hiking and hydration and rest. Elijah asks for the arak menu. Once he makes his selection, the server assuredly disagrees. "No", she says, shaking her head. "This one", she counter-proposes, pointing her finger to another option. "Oh! Wonderful. Is this local arak?", Elijah asks to understand our server's insistence in changing the order. "It is from... here.", she says after thinking about it for a moment. 

The arak comes - and it comes from Ramallah, Palestine. In this corner of the world, "here" is a normative term. 
The arak from here is delicious, so is the bread, and the the labneh and everything else we consume before our server agrees to let us out of our seats. On the walk back, three young boys spot us. "You speak English?", they ask, and Elijah answers affirmatively for both of us. "F*ck me, f*ck, f*ck, f*ck you" is the response shouted in my direction. When I first encountered this behavior in Egypt, I did not know if I should attribute it to limited English or to limited respect for women, especially foreign women. Two years later, I am still struggling with the answer. Two years later, in Nazareth, Elijah and I keep walking, quietly, side by side.
Back at the hostel, Elijah and I share a shisha. Much like arak, there are many names for this water pipe: shisha, hookah, nargileh. In the background, the hostel owner is screening a soccer game. Earlier in the day, the Greek team I was raised to love, Panathinaikos, was playing for the European Basketball Championship title against-coincidentally-the Israeli Maccabi Tel Aviv. We ask the hostel owner if he knows who won that game. "I do not show Israeli basketball. Sorry.", he says emphatically. 

Not too long after that, the hostel owner and his friends walk out the door towards a sleepy Nazareth. They leave behind the shisha coals, kegs of Taybeh, and Elijah and me, puffing nostalgically. We met in Cairo, where public displays of affection are frowned upon. Unable to navigate a budding romance in public, we fell in the way some people choose to retire: We played domino, drank overly sweet tea and fresh strawberry juice, walked by the Nile, and smoked shisha. 

Two hundred and sixty miles away from Cairo, in a different Mediterranean country, we find ourselves once again enveloped in the sound of the last call to prayer of the evening. Holding hands in an empty courtyard, we greet midnight with breaths of apple-flavored smoke.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The time we walked to the sea

Drops of mist on the walls of our tent at sunrise.
Many have asked why I rarely write about my work experiences in conflict zones. It is a question I revisit often, puzzled by my inability to tell development stories in the way my fellow professionals do. Sometimes, the conflict mutes me with its contradictions and complexities. Other times, the confidentiality of the work and the protection of the stories and identities of everyone involved are more important than my desire to tell a story. This week I distilled another  truth: Life outside the 'conflict trail' is just as precious to me. The stories with which it feeds me and the beauty it infuses in my days fuel me with inspiration and the desire to continue doing my work with women affected by conflict worldwide.

In the winter of 2010, I found a companion in storytelling outside the conflict trail. Martin Fletcher was the NBC Middle East Correspondent and Tel Aviv Bureau Chief. In the book Walking Israel, he committed himself to telling the stories he unearthed during his walk from the border with Lebanon to the border with Gaza along the Israeli coast, avoiding  the regions of tension and conflict that he had covered as a journalist in the region. Inevitably, conflict still seeped into that trail, but war was not the lens through which he approached this particular story. When I finished the book, I gave it to Elijah who, upon finishing it, drew the only conclusion one could:

We, too, must walk.

And walk we did across this land, on a combination of trails, paths and barely-roads that would not meet the dictionary definition. We walked on the sea-to-sea trail, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee. The Jesus Trail (no, I am not making this up) took us through places of Biblical significance, such as Nazareth and Cana. The Israel National Trail brought us up hills that necessitated I later descend them on my rear end. We also walked on the special Roxanne-and-Elijah trail, which mostly involved finding the wheat field with the most thistle to prickle our legs or getting fenced into a cattle farm and trudging through poop to a chorus of moos.

We walked through a kibbutz and slept in a valley between Arab towns. We heard both the Muslim call to prayer echoing across a mountain at 4 AM and the sirens marking Israeli Independence Day. Even if this walk was not about The Conflict, the stories, plights, frustrations and sources of hope of Jews and Muslims alike wove themselves into our trail.

Some may ask "why walk?" I fall in love by walking. Cambridge, Massachusetts became my home once I spent consecutive mornings looping around the Charles River, avoiding patches of ice and goose poop in equal measure. I walked through Cairo during Ramadan nights. I walked through the Zona Cafetera of Colombia, soaking in the aroma of coffee beans and sight of waxed palm trees.

I make sense of the world by walking through it, piece by piece, village by village, drinking from the fountains along the way.
The tent, and our memories, are still drying out. Stories from this walk are forthcoming.
Until then, thank you for traveling by my side.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Mama, you've been on my mind

My mother was 40 years old when she had me. This was in the periphery of Greece in the 1980s, before Madonna was conceiving children in her mid-40s, before Barbie turned 40 herself, before pre-natal screening reached that corner of the world. On my father's side, there had been no daughters born for generations. When I came into the world and received my grandmother's name, I came into a family of love. 

As the first decade of my life drew to a close, loved ones grew old. Some of them became sick, some passed away. I experienced grief and loss and the injustice of feeling alone at a young age. It was not in moments of sadness that I missed my family the most, but in moments of joy. Graduations, handing in my thesis, receiving a fellowship to do the work I love, meeting a person who has changed my life on my first day in Egypt -- those were the times I felt the universe smile on me and I wanted to share the utterances of joy with those who loved me so dearly when I was a chubby little girl.

A couple of years ago, my friend Liz and I were having brunch at Aquitaine, my favorite sunny pocket of Boston. It was Father's Day and the hostess asked if our fathers would be joining us. My father had passed away and Liz was a child of divorce. That could have been a sad and uncomfortable moment at the doorstep of Aquitaine, but it was not. Over the years, in Liz, in Elijah, in Emily, in Tara, in Meghan, in Cooper, in Tais, in everyone who has loved me, I have found family. And so on Mothers Day and Fathers Day and Fifth-Cousin-Thirteen-Times-Removed Day, I now see the opportunity to celebrate a family just as intertwined, dysfunctional and and loving as the one I was born into.

Marianne Elliott acknowledges that there is room for more than our biological family on Mothers Day by teaming up with Epic Change to launch the To Mama With Love campaign. This campaign invites us to, as Marianne put it, "celebrate our love for anyone who has been part of the great chain of mothering that has kept us afloat." Marianne celebrates Suraya Pakzad, the founder and director of Voice for Women in Afghanistan. Suraya has committed herself to serving and supporting Afghan women through initiatives that range from literacy and education to shelters that enable women to leave violent homes or forced marriages. You can read more about Suraya and ways to support her here.

I am too far from all those who have loved me and supported me in becoming the woman I am growing to be to send flowers and baskets. Instead of those gifts, I will be donating to the To Mama With Love campaign to support Suraya and her initiatives for Afghan women.

My writing and financial contribution are in the name of Rebecca, Elijah's mother, who wraps up every phone call to us with "give each other a hug and a kiss from me." We do, every time, and we feel wrapped up in her love. Rebecca's food has nourished my soul. Her laughter makes the dogs bark and my heart smile. Her loving example gives me faith and hope.

I am also supporting Suraya in the name of Enid, who mothered me as I embarked on my very first field projects in conflict zones. She emailed to remind me to eat and sleep and that life is short and I should be living every minute of it. She emailed to remind me I am loved.

I am supporting Suraya in the name of Sophia, the mother who brought me into the world. In Greece, we celebrate name days. Most first names correspond to a day in the year that bears a special significance. My mother's name day is September 17th, which is the day we celebrate Sophia, Pisth, Elpida and Agaph -- Wisdom, Faith, Hope, and Love. I am thankful to my Sophia for having endowed my life with these very gifts.

Monday, May 2, 2011

How do you record your memories?

Some people scrapbook; others journal. Or they make playlists. Yet others create digital photo albums.

I am irreparably attached to notebooks. Unlined, ivory pages, stitched together. A colorful cover. Inside, you will find everything from travel reflections and lists of favorite songs to quotes that leaped off the page and grabbed my attention while reading.

Today, in my column at Gypsy Girls Guide, I am letting my notebooks tell their story. Please stop by, turn the pages, and share your own favorite way of recording your journeys.

Many years, and countries, worth of memories