How to Turn Conflict-Zone Living into a Video Game

Welcome to the first Packing Lust post of 2014! I'm so excited to get back to posting after a nice, long, good-for-the-soul holiday break. Let me set the scene for you. It was mid December, and Charming and I were looking forward to our family's visit with warm anticipation.  We decorated. Charming made a star-shaped tree topper out of aluminum foil whose star shape would later be called into question.2

Morgan (BFF, land lady, and co-owner of the cafe downstairs) did an AMAZING job decorating the restaurant, turning its already warm atmosphere into a festive tribute to the season.

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And then, as if perfectly timed, it started snowing. How quaint. I took this picture with plans to show you what I assumed would be a light, pre-Christmas dusting.Dusting

But then it kept on snowing.

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And snowing.

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And snowing. Until we were completely snowed in. Except for Jelly, who is an unstoppable canine force.

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The power was out for days. Propane was running dangerously low. Charming was fielding calls from freezing employees who didn't have a way to heat their homes, but who were more concerned about the run-off flooding Gaza and displacing thousands. I spent a day downstairs with Morgan and Saleh complaining about how cold I was. They let me sit in the spot closest to the fire, piled blankets on my shoulders, and put their dog in my lap. I went out at one point and got into a life-or-death snowball fight with strange men. I survived and promised Charming (and myself) I wouldn't leave again during the storm.

The roads out of town were closed. My vision of greeting my family at the airport wouldn't come true.

When they landed at Ben Gurion Airport, they had to  make their own way to a hotel in the city. Little did we know, Tel Aviv was sunny and practically balmy.

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As soon as it was remotely possible, we got into a 4-wheel drive vehicle and headed for the beach. Getting out of town was like leaving the wreckage of a zombie-desolated city. Cars were sliding all over the road.  At one point, I left the safety of the Jeep to make a mad dash over ice for an ATM. Armed with cash, a first aid kit, extra water and blankets, we started our journey to the coast, neither of us sure if the roads would be open or passable.

We made it. It took twice as long as normal, but once we were out of the treacherous hills, it was an easy trip. It was so great to finally see my family and enjoy a Tel Aviv coastal sunset.

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I should note now that this isn't my entire family. My dad and two more siblings weren't able to make it for this trip. Maybe next time.  We had such a wonderful time with our smart, funny, loving, and very patient and gracious family. We made sure their trip included lots of good food, starting on our first night together in Tel Aviv.

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The next day it was back to Ramallah, where the snow was melting.

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Charming outdid himself with his breakfast spreads. We ate.

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And ate.

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And ate.

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and ate.

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And went all around both Israel and Palestine, including an emotional visit to Hebron. Very few people were around, except for the TIPH observers. (Temporary International Presence in Hebron).

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The family were good sports the whole time, turning the challenges of 3rd-world living into levels 1-5 of a video game. Level one being getting through passport control, and level five being a moment in Hebron when, upset Charming hadn't tipped them enough for their (unrequested) services, a huge gang of boys surrounded our vehicle and tried to trap us in the parking lot they had lead us to by closing the gates. We escaped our would-be captors by a very narrow opening. Perhaps our good luck was due to all the holiness, including a trip to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Here they are stooping low to go in the door that was made small to protect the Church of the Nativity from marauders on horseback, and presumably, tall people.

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We took them out to Ein Kenya, which is a beautiful spot of nature near Ramallah, and home of Juthour Arboretum.  We got our exercise, and my mom, brother, and sister managed to hang out looking like models for sunglasses and active wear.

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We went to Jericho and on down to catch a view of the Dead Sea.

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The trip gave me the opportunity to do some Gensplaining. I love pretending to know what I'm talking about.

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Prince Charming got to do some tour-guiding as well. It was a pleasure when our visitors were so open-minded, curious, and eager to talk about the joys and challenges of the region.

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Seriously, family, your visit and wonderful mindset rocked and made every minute fun.

I thank all three of you for being intrepid & adventurous,

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positive and resilient in the face of obstacles and setbacks,

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and extremely stylish and radiantly attractive.

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I was so sad when you packed up to leave.

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We love you!

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Heroes and Villains

Sunday, May 26, was a lazy day for me and Prince Charming. We had some movies lined up to watch, and the first was a documentary called Five Broken Cameras. Just a couples hours later I've still got post-cry shakes. However, I also feel very glad that this documentary exists, because the end is hopeful, and the story is so human.

It's about a Palestinian man, a peasant who lives off the land, and gets a camera to film his kids childhood. His youngest son is the cutest little guy ever, and I fell in love with him over the course of the documentary.

The story is told through the five cameras he gets in succession, each after the last one is broken, often by a flying gas canister or related accident. Through these five lenses, we see what the camera saw in its life, and we see the story of how each camera met its end. Of course, what we are really seeing is the story of the families in this Palestinian village that is on the edge of several Israeli settlements. We see the wall go up, and we see the olive trees burned over and over by the settlers at night. We see the soldiers come to the homes at night to take children. We see people tear gassed, we see them throw rocks, and we see a man committed to nonviolent resistance gradually become scarred and angry as he sees what is happening around him. We also see, most hopefully, that he is always trying to heal in the best way he knows how.

I loved this film as a reminder that we must heal ourselves and each other, and to heal we must, like a doctor, first see the wounds. We must be witness for each other to the atrocities that take place in our lives.

Once you've seen the wounds in Five Broken Cameras, go watch another film. This one was part of a coaching training program in leadership, indirect negotiation and strategic intervention. Anthony Robbins has been studying what makes people change their lives for a good for many years now.

He had a conference on leadership planned on September 11, 2011. Instead of canceling after the terrorist attacks, he somehow got people to stand up and really speak the truth about how they felt about the event. There was a Muslim man who got up and said "this is retribution." Well, of course many people wanted to attack him, and even tried to there at the conference. One man, an Orthodox Jew with relatives in the West Bank (fundamentalist settlers - the kind of people who burn Palestinian olive trees) got up and offered to talk peacefully with the Muslim man.

Robbins led an indirect negotiation between the two men ON 9/11 itself that transformed both of them. They formed a Jewish-Muslim organization for understanding and peace.

I laughed and cried watching that film. It's called Negotiating Conflict: Leadership in Times of Crisis. According to this website it's available in full-length for free, although you can watch a 7 minute summary here.

We all wonder how peace will come to the Middle East and other areas of ethnic and religious conflict. The sorts of transformative moments shown and experienced by the viewer in these two films is our only hope for peace.

And now may I bring you from May to July?

A few days ago:

"What do you think happened? It had to be something tragic." I looked at my American friend, who has lived in Palestine for much longer than I have.

"I don't know. Something beyond tragic, I think," she said, looking at me intently.

I didn't know exactly what she was getting at, but I did know that is not what you say when someone loses a child. Losing a child is tragic, and one of the worst things that could happen to a parent. I could think of few things beyond tragic.

We were talking about a mutual acquaintance we both saw on occasion, ____ , a woman who lives in a nearby village. We had both known _____ to be cheerful, with a quick and genuine smile. Although she spoke little English, I enjoyed when I got to see her, since she would always communicate through her shy, dazzling smile. Knowing that she was a poor, kind, and intelligent woman who worked hard to support her special needs daughter and her dissolute husband only made me admire her more.

The last time I saw her, she tried to smile as usual. And her mouth moved. But her eyes failed to hide a pain that was too big to push behind a smile. I am haunted by that telling look - her attempt to smile as I said goodbye to her.

"I think someone must have done something to her child," my American friend said.

At first, I was confused. But then I realized -- "If her child had died, she would have just told us."

"Yeah."

The next day, my American friend looked rather pale, and told me she'd seen an article in the paper. A 14-year old girl from a nearby village had been gang raped by a group of seven men, each between the ages of 17-26.

I grimaced. "That's horrible."

"Have you put it together yet?"

"You think… it was ____'s daughter?" I didn't want to believe it.

"It must be."

"How do you know for sure? We have to find out."

How do you call someone and ask, in imperfect Arabic, if their daughter was recently gang raped? I don't know, but my brave American friend managed it, and later confirmed that the victim was indeed ____'s daughter.

My friend also told me that this group of men had gang raped before. Yet that time, each of the families of the men had paid off the victim's family to not press charges.

The story showing up in the newspaper meant ____ had refused to take a bribe from these seven families and was pressing charges.

I likely don't know all of the ramifications of that decision, but I do know that this poor woman is turning down much needed money to support her daughter and fight for justice. She's making a decision that some other parent her in village did not make for her little girl. She's a hero.

I also know that means there are seven families in her small village who want nothing more than to shut her up. Seven powerful families who are now aligned as her enemy - this poor woman whose special needs daughter was lured into an apartment only to be beaten and raped by their sons.

How can we help her? We are working on connecting her with a lawyer specializing in women's legal aid. My hope for her is that, if she wants it, she can gain refugee or other status that will allow her to leave with her family to start a new life in a place where her daughter won't spend the rest of her life fearing the seven men who will likely not be brought to justice. Then again, we can hope for justice.

And you know I wouldn't leave you without a way to take action - to do something to help ____. The Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling is reaching out to support her. You learn more about them here and donate here.

Seriously, Why Isn't This a Bigger Deal?

I want to know: why is the Tour de France such a big deal in the cycling community and among sports fans all over the world, but the Race Across America is relatively unknown to the general global public?

Named by more than one media outlet as the the toughest sporting event in the world, Race Across America (RAAM) is one thousand miles longer than the Tour de France.

It's completed non-stop, with minimum breaks. It's generally completed in half the time.

Just like the in Tour de France, racers push themselves to their limits, but unlike the Tour, they aren't allowed to draft (ride behind each other) and there are no regulations on when they must stop and sleep.

It's an event that can savage an athlete like no other.

And my mommy is competing this year. Tomorrow I'll be flying from Tel Aviv to Fayetteville, NC, and from Fayetteville to Oceanside, CA after that.

There's bound to be drama, emotion, exhaustion, elation, and instagram photos of the three thousand mile bicycle ride across the country. I'll be there, crewing as part of the 3000 miles to a cure team for my mom, Maria Parker.

Part of my role is to help update the race fans all over the world, so I will make sure you get updates. However, I won't be updating Packing Lust for another two weeks (Charming might, but we aren't sure yet).

Therefore, please SIGN UP for race updates here if you want to hear about the highs and lows of the race. It's going to be the experience of a lifetime for Maria and the crew.

Here's Maria talking about her secret weapon - her Vendetta Cruzbike.

Along with crewing for the race, a small documentary film team and I will be shooting footage to continue the documentary begun by DAAM (Drive Across America) which you can see here:

In the above DAAM video, you'll meet Charlie and Tim, my wonderful cousins whose mom, my Aunt Jenny, was diagnosed with brain cancer.  I think they did an incredible job with the DAAM footage. They created amazingly clever, funny, and musical videos on their trip all across the country, which they recently completed to raise awareness for 3000 Miles to a Cure.

Jordan: Amman and Petra

Amman I was reminiscing recently about how fun our 2013 trip to Jordan was. Then I looked here on the blog and found nothing. I remember blogging the trip, so that means the post must have disappeared when I changed blogging platforms later that year. What a shame.

Here we are two years later on May 1, 2015. I'm going to backdate this to May 1, 2013 since I know our trip to Amman and Petra, Jordan happened around that time. It'll be interesting to see what details I remember (or misremember) two years later. I don't think I'll remember much so this post will mostly be photos taken by Prince Charming.

In some of the photos (like the one above taken in Amman) I appear to be bursting with Spring-induced ebullience. That was probably true, but it was also true that I'd recently been inspired by this photo series to dance in as many photographs as possible. Thus the leaping, the arabesques, and the generally whimsical feel of many of these pictures, like this one:

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We took this trip with Prince Charming's dear friend Eric:

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Charming mocks me while Eric politely refrains.

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Amman

One of the first places we went was the lovingly restored ancient Roman Amphitheater in Amman. Although it was built over 2000 years ago, the acoustics are so good you can hear everyone on the "stage" from the very top row. I remember that it was funny to sit in the seats and hear everything uttered by every tourist who wandered in the front entrance. We also tested the acoustics by reciting some Shakespeare. ("To be or not to be...")

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Next we went to see some ruins. Hold a moment while I try to find out the name of the ruins.

Okay, got it. The area is called the Citadel. Wikipedia says:

The Amman Citadel is a national historic site at the center of downtown Amman, Jordan. Known in Arabic as Jabal al-Qal'a, (جبل القلعة), the L-shaped hill is one of the seven jabals that originally made up Amman. Evidence of occupation since the potteryNeolithic period[1] has been found, making it among the world's oldest continuously inhabited places.

The Citadel is considered an important site because it has had a long history of occupation by many great civilizations

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Petra

After 1 or 2 days in Amman, we went to Petra for a day and a night. Wow. Two years later, that visit stands out as one of favorite my travel experiences of all time.

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After the trip I went back to Ramallah, Palestine and Eric and Charming continued on together to visit Beirut, Lebanon.

Bulldozer on the Beach

I almost decided not to write about this weekend's experience, because I've already complained so much about what it means to live under a military occupation, but I know you like to read about what goes wrong here. Otherwise, you'd get too jealous of me and my sweet life, right?So this weekend we decided to go to a new beach, one north of Tel Aviv. It was to be one of the first weekends of warm weather this year. And this time, we had a real, live Palestinian in the car.

Also, a real live Scot.

So with two Americans in the front, a Scottish lass named Kate, and a Palestinian habibti in the back, we set off for a beach we'd never been to called Herzaliya.

Now, normally, I'm prepared with my realism and slight cynicism about traveling to and fro between Palestine and Israel. It's always hard. We always get lost. There's always traffic. Checkpoints suck. Blah, blah, blah.

But lately, things have been easier. We've been making local friends who've helped us through the more difficult parts of life here. We sort of know where things are, and when we need to avoid certain checkpoints. It's about time, since we are just a few months away from the one year mark.

So as we rolled up to the checkpoint, I made a swaggering comment about how I'd bet money that the guard would just wave us through.  I was willing to put money on it. Seriously.

No ma'am. They asked for all our paperwork, and our Palestinian friend pulled out her I.D. and her special card from the UN giving her permission to enter Israel.

Holding our passports hostage, they told us to pull the car over, and open its cavities.

Then we had to get out, and put our bags through the x-ray machine. We had to pull out water bottles and for some reason, our Kindles had to get scanned multiple times.

Then they pulled aside our Palestinian friend to get her alone to interrogate her. In the end, they told her she couldn't pass through this checkpoint.

What was so frustrating for me is that I'm pretty good at negotiating with the teenagers who run the entry points to Israel.  (Yes, it helps that I'm a white American female.) I realize that negotiating with teenagers  is always a delicate and unpredictable process. And I'm aware that negotiating with teenagers who are CARRYING FIREARMS  is a delicate, unpredictable, and dangerous endeavor. However, I've done it before. with success and the help of an adorable puppy.

So I asked the soldiers what was up, and where our friend could get the information that said she couldn't pass. Turns out, she needed to find out from the  DCO (which stands for District Control Office or something) to find out which checkpoints she is able to pass through. At that point, I was thinking of trying the puppy method, which I'm pretty sure would have worked.

However, as I talked to the guards, the other members of my party were giving me "let's get out of here," looks, so I didn't continue to negotiate with the guards.  However, I think that, given another year of experience here, I will have the confidence to negotiate more effectively with the guards. It's all about confidence, whiteness, and having a few phone numbers of U.N. representatives in one's pocket. We seriously needed to get to the beach, and I was and will be willing to negotiate with armed and brainwashed teenagers both now and in the future.

But the story doesn’t end there. We turned around and drove maybe three more hours, getting lost and irritated as our planned time in the sun dwindled. We finally made it to another checkpoint where we had to get out again, and went through the same x-ray process, right down to having to scan our Kindles twice.

This time, they let all of us through.

But then we got lost again. Charming simply gave up, his foot cramping from driving so long. Our normally bubbly and outgoing Palestinian friend felt so humiliated that she stopped talking. That left me and Kate to figure out how to get to the beach. We pulled over, and thankfully, Kate offered to ask some nearby people for help.

They gave us directions, which matched Charming's suddenly operating phone GPS directions.

We finally made it to Herzeliya beach, with just a few hours left to enjoy.

But we did enjoy them, filling up on sushi overlooking a marina.

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Then we met more friends (who'd come from a different direction and arrived hours before us) and settled in on the beach.But, I kid you not, just moments after settling in, a huge bulldozer came over in front of me and started creating a pile of sand that blocked my view of the water.

Seriously.

This was a huge beach, and the bulldozer was just a few feet away. You can see from my body language  how pissed off I am.

(Charming has decided to appear photographically on this blog. I'm so happy! This is a rather mundane photo for him to be making his first appearance in, but I'll try to add more shots that show his good looks later.)

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If this had been an American beach, they would've been handing out hard hats.If this had been an American beach, they would've done the beach improvement work at 5 am when no one was there, instead of the middle of a Sunday afternoon.

But this was Israel, where if someone wants to plant a pole on the beach on Sunday afternoon, they are going to do it.

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And they told us it would take  5 minutes.  Of course It took 30, and made me feel personally in danger of being squooshed by a giant wooden pole.By this point, the day was just hilarious. There was nothing to do but laugh.

And fly a kite.

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I'm dancing, because after seeing this project, I decided I would dance in all future posed photos of me.Thanks Charming, Kate, and our dear Palestinian friend for contributing to a wonderful horrible adventure day. Seriously, life is so funny and crazy and wonderful.

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P.S. All photos in this post are by Kate Aykroyd. Thank you Kate!

There is No Cure

At my pre-wedding ladies brunch back in May in North Carolina, I was surrounded by loving family, friends, and neighbors. I was touched at how many people came to Lumberton for the wedding - even most of my mom's big family, including her best-friend-sister, my beautiful Aunt Jenny. Aunt Jenny came to the brunch with all the other women, but she looked like she was in pain.She wrinkled her brow as she looked at me and said "you look beautiful, honey." I could see that her eyes were a combination of glassy and glossy from pain and perhaps tears. I asked her if she was okay and she said she wasn't feeling good, that she had a terrible headache.The headaches she experienced that wedding weekend were the first of a series of telling headaches that eventually led to a diagnosis of  stage IV Glioblastoma Multiforme, the most aggressive and malignant type of brain tumor. Currently, there is no cure. Mom and Aunt Jenny (in pink).

This is a "worst nightmare" sort of situation for Aunt Jenny, her husband Ray, her children Charlie, Ethan, Timothy, Grace, and Joe, and all of those who love her.  Yet she and her family are handling it with the knowledge of being loved that is the only way they can find grace for each moment.My mom, Maria Parker, happens to be a world record holding cyclist, and she has a HUGE new goal.She's going to raise one million dollars for brain cancer research. Before you balk, I should tell you that my mom's world records are in ultra-distance cycling. She holds the women's world record for biking the most miles in 24 hours. She does not give up and she has stamina and persistence.
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I love my mom so much, and she inspires me with her passion, her warmth, her loud laugh, and her kindness. In addition to being an endurance athlete, she is a counselor and Life Coach.  If you met her, you'd probably tell her all of your problems, she'd give you some down-to-earth advice, and you'd feel totally loved.  She seems to radiate pure love, and as someone who knows her very well, I can tell you that's the real her. It's authentic love all the way down. She's a leader worth following on this long path to raise a million dollars for brain cancer research.

Me and my mom before my wedding.

She's going to raise this money via a very Packing Lust worthy event: a Race Across America. Yes, she's going to cycle across the entire U.S.A. in June 2013. I'm going to crew, so I'll make sure you know all about it as we travel from state to state, following my mom on her bicycle.Remember how I said there's no cure? It's true. Aunt Jenny will leave this life and go on to the next unless God steps in. Another word for God? The best part of you. The Love part. God is Love, and with the love in each of us, we can do this. We can change the outcome for future brain cancer victims by sharing the story of Jenny and Maria, and funding brain cancer research.  If 200,000 people give only $5 each, we'll meet our goal.Would you be willing to give $5 to brain cancer research today?And if you like this challenge, "like" it on Facebook.

With huge warm thanks,

Genevieve

Puppies and Soldiers

They might be able to sling guns and yell at elderly Palestinians all day, but when a puppy this cute was involved, it was a bit of a different story.

I drove up to my building with my new friend Eden last Wednesday night, and there was a tiny, adorable puppy hanging around outside my apartment. It wasn't Jelly, the puppy I previously introduced to you, but another puppy. That's right. After months of seeing zero puppies, two puppies came into my life within eleven days of each other. Naturally we asked around, realized she'd die soon if left alone, and took her in.Unsure whether my new guest was carrying any diseases, I took Friday afternoon to get her to the vet who was visiting the Atarot shelter where we adopted Jelly. The trip required my first experience with walking through Qalandia checkpoint, the area's most infamous checkpoint, and the one with the wall painted with graffiti that is featured in the news when they show the wall separating Israel from Palestine.

Usually I go in a car or taxi, but my taxi didn't have clearance to go through Qalandia. However, I was very motivated because this puppy had cried throughout two nights and I was worried he might be sick.

I waited and waited at the first of several prison-like turnstiles, where they have people walk through one by one, yelling, occasionally, through loudspeakers in Hebrew. I'm was holding the puppy in a box because I was afraid that he would poop or throw up in the taxi. It was cold and rainy, and the atmosphere at the checkpoint was filled with a mixture of fear and boredom. A young well-dressed woman translated for me and to asked the soldiers to open the handicap door so I could go through with my box, which was too big to pass through the turnstile. As she went through the tiny turnstile, which was only meant for one person at a time, an older man tried to squeeze in behind her. He had thick yellow fingernails and was playing with his cell phone, as if oblivious to what he was doing. What he was doing was pressing his body against that of the woman who had helped me. I watched as she turned around and spoke some harsh words in Arabic which had him backing up and apologizing for his obviously feigned non-attention.

Finally after several people who'd arrived after me had passed through the turnstile and a brief interrogation, I got to go through.

"What's in the box?" said the boy soldier, who looked like he was around 17. I opened it, and he said. "You are not allowed to bring dogs with you."

So I hold this tiny puppy...

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...up to the glass window where the guardians sit. And you could see the two soldiers' little teenage hearts melting. Their eyes showed that they were calculating whether they could live with themselves if they denied this shivering adorable puppy access to health care. I could tell immediately that the answer for both of them was no. They might be able to sling guns and yell at elderly Palestinians all day, but when a puppy this cute was involved, it was a bit of a different story. Seeing this in their eyes kept me standing there as the seconds ticked by.But rules are rules. "I'm sorry. You can't," said the girl soldier, avoiding eye contact with the puppy, and then being drawn back into eye contact by the puppy's tractor-beam cuteness.

The puppy shivered. The two teenagers tilted their heads, thenconsulted each other quietly. The boy turned to me.

"You can't technically bring a dog with you. But," he smiled, "If the puppy followed you across the border, then why would anyone care?"

I sighed with relief. "Put the puppy on the ground, take your box, and just call to her," he whispered quickly.

After they looked at my passport, I set the puppy down and he pranced right across the border with me.

This is the kind of thing that makes me happy, sad and angry. I'm happy because I had a human-canine moment with the guards. But the other emotions are because this event demonstrates the kind of inconvenience and arbitrariness that most people here experience constantly. The Israeli military is filled with teenagers because it's mandatory to give two years of service at that time. Few volunteer to be in the army. They have to. And they really are young... sometimes they seem like kids. They have dangerous, stressful jobs, and they don't know what they are doing. They really don't. At the vet, the manager said that if you simply have a letter saying, "this dog needs health care at this clinic," they let you bring the dog across without a problem.

The happy ending to this puppy story is that, after he spent some time playing with Jelly…

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...we found a home for him. One of Charming's co-workers has a home, yard, and family that is perfect for the little puppy, who we took to calling Newby, and who will soon get an official name from his new family.

Things We Yell From Cars

128808I was reading Half the Sky, the 2009 book about the state of women in the world earlier this year. When I read the part about maternal mortality, and exactly how preventable these deaths are and how many happen, I put the book down, squeezed me eyes shut, and said a silent prayer that some day, one day, I could do something to help the lonely women ostracized by their communities, curled up in their shacks, soaking in their own urine and feces and waiting - perhaps praying - to die. Well, that day has come. I can do something small, which is to urge you to buy and watch the Half the Sky documentary  DVD when it is released by Amazon on October 20th.  Two respected journalists and authors - Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn - have selected oppression of women worldwide as the single most important issue of the 21st century. What's exciting is that the book and the documentary are so well done  in terms of production quality and research that there's a lot of positive attention on this issue and I think we as a world can make amazing progress within our lifetimes.

Curious about some statistics?

Here you go:

  • 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur in the developing world.
  • The U.S. ratio of maternal deaths is higher than 40 other countries, despite spending more per capita on maternal care than any other country.
  • More than 1 million children a year are left motherless due to maternal mortality.
  • 135 million girls living today have undergone female genital mutilation, greatly increasing their risk of maternal mortality.

Source: http://www.halftheskymovement.org/page/-/fastfacts.pdf

So you see that this isn't just an issue "abroad," but at home in the U.S. too. Maternal mortality is just one cause of many highlighted in the book - there are other issues we can help with, mostly by talking about them and being aware of them, although giving money helps to0 , as does writing letters.

When I was a little girl, and I'd complain about how "unfair" something was, my dad would smile and say "You know what? Life isn't fair. If it was, you'd probably be sitting on the ground in Africa with no legs because an old landmine blew them off."

In addition to being a man who can create an unsettling  image with just a few words and a knowing smile, Dad was right. Life isn't fair.  He'd seen enough as a doctor to know that. But I didn't really understand what he meant by what he said. How could I? I had never seen anyone who was very poor, injured, or oppressed.

Here, I've witnessed it for myself.  I've seen children joyfully gathered around what gives them life - yellow dirty plastic jugs of clean-ish drinking water. I've see women who haven't had the opportunity, freedom, education, or diversity of experience to know they don't have to put up with polygamy or body shrouding. Perhaps saddest of all, I've seen men who don't have the blessing of free, spirited, educated, irrepressible women in their lives. Every day that I walk in Palestine, I see them, men on whose faces there's a  story written about their hunger - their hunger for the other half of the sky. Of course there are many enlightened, egalitarian men here in the Middle East, and I'm thankful for them. They will teach their sons and daughters and continue the progress that is happening here.

I'm writing this blog because there's so much beyond where our eyes can touch, and I want to help others - and myself - see these far away things and wake up. I write about lust -  wanderlust, lust for life, lust for a better world. Lust is not a bad or sinful thing, and there's no evil in the human heart - just reactions that either hurt or help people. All that's necessary to live a good life is to wake up (also known as learn, be present, be enlightened, be aware, be here) in this present moment and to form each action so that, whenever possible, we are helping ourselves and others- not hurting either party. In fact, people should party more.  More parties, and less explosions,  is my prescription for the Middle East and for humankind.

I was trying to party through the pain here this weekend. Charming and I were taking a trip to Tel Aviv to celebrate our six month wedding anniversary (I know, I can't believe it's been six months either). We were stuck in traffic  on our way to an infamous checkpoint. I was driving, and decided, perhaps unwisely, that to express my frustration I was going to yell. I announced to my Prince that I was going to yell in the style of men who yell barely intelligible things to women from the safety and comfort of their cars. "Uooo Lips!" I yelled to one man in a car as he cut me off. "Uck my Deeee!" I yelled to another. Charming was rather entertained, and so was I. I continued, with an "OO  you so beautiful!" to a man walking on the side of the road. I felt I had pushed it a little far. Yelling at cars was one thing, but yelling at some poor car-less soul breathing the traffic fumes? It was a little much. I stopped.

We arrived at the bottleneck that is Qalandia checkpoint.  Very quickly, we realized the lane I was in was behind a massive bus. It would take forever for the soldiers to check every single passport in the slow and ponderous way they go about that task. So I tried to switch to the next lane over. I made eye contact with a car with two men in it. They motioned to the spot in front of them with a smile that seemed to say "Go head." I fluttered my eyelashes in thanks. As soon as there was a gap in front of them, they gunned it and took up the space, almost hitting my car. Undeterred, I tried the car behind them, making eye contact with the female driver of a white car packed full of veiled women. They gestured angrily, making it clear that I was not going to get into their lane. Well, at least they weren't effing with me like the last car.

I tried a few more times, until the cars behind me were getting angry at the space growing in front of me. I zoomed ahead, only to wait and wait while the soldiers made everyone on the bus ahead of us get off and walk through the checkpoint. Soon the white car full of women passed us. In my  frustration,  I stuck my hand, palm up, out of the window and yelled, "You are so beautiful!"

I couldn't help but smile as realized how silly I was acting - and how silly the moment was. I saw their faces go from bored and frustrated, to confused, to broadly smiling - even the grandmother in the back gave me the most twinkly and crinkly of grins.

Suddenly, they were all so very beautiful. They waved, and all of us were laughing together.

The pain and frustration of oppressed women - whether it's traffic that's oppressing them or the patriarchy - can shift. It can turn into something positive.

I'm really lucky to be married to someone who helps the less fortunate of the world in a very active, full-time way. However, he can only do that through the support of people who live comfortably far away and donate a little money to organizations like his.  So there's no hierarchy of who is helping the world more - someone on the ground in Gaza, giving a tank of clean water to people trapped there, or someone who donates a few bucks a month to a high quality charity that helps out. If everyone on Earth would take one, small, tiny action, then we could solve all the problems described in Half the Sky.

What action do you want to take right now?

Probably you want to turn on a mindless TV show and eat chocolate, and try to forget about the poor women and children of the world. Me too. That's normal and fine, actually. Just donate your ten bucksbefore the chocolate fest, and you can feel good (extra special good) about the world while you watchModern Family.

One last note - if you liked this post and think it could inspire anyone, you can take the action of reposting it to your blog or facebook or twitter.

Thank you  darling friend!

YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL.

Cairo and Giza: Crying Over Pyramids

Egypt is a land that dominated my imagination as a homeschooled youngster. We studied ancient Egypt a lot. We danced with Steve Martin to King Tut and one year I dressed up as a pyramid for Holloween. Really. I have a great family. I read young adult fiction about a slave girl  who dressed in fine linen and gold and searched for freedom on the Nile. I think she found love with a tomb thief who stole her heart. Earlier, I colored in ancient Egypt coloring books and pored over Dorling Kindersley full-color photographs of artifacts.

So I  intentionally dampened down my expectations on Saturday, preparing myself to be disappointed at the real thing. The flights from Tel-Aviv to Amman and from Amman to Cairo were a humbuggery of the normal indignitities and inconveniences with some beautiful desert views thrown in:

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I expected a mundane and gritty end to our travel day upon arrival in Cairo… and tried to stay level-headed.

Pyramids

But as the plane descended at sunset into the Cairo airport, Charming nudged me. "The pyramids are out there somewhere." I pulled myself out of whatever daydream I was in, and searched out the window. It was all gold and dust. I looked and looked, blocking out the sun with the shade to get a better view of the ground.

Suddenly, there they were.

One big, and two small pyramids on the outskirts of the thick city.

I gasped. They are real. The sight of the pyramids from the air set up an emotional chain reaction that took me back to childhood and awakened a deep sense of awe and gratitude.  Out of this happy well of emotion and exhaustion from the long day of travel, I began to sob. I turned to Prince Charming. "Why do I get to be here? I'm the luckiest. My whole life, I've dreamed of seeing the pyramids. I thought one day I would. I imagined it, but I never really, really, thought I would get to see the pyramids." I cried happy tears again, and nothing bothered me for the rest of the day. Almost.

We Raised Eyebrows

Until a little bump in the road. It wasn't exactly a rip off, but when we arrived at the Cairo airport, we first had to purchase visas for 15 USD each from the Bank of Cairo booth that comes before passport control. The Bank of Cairo there gave us an old fifty dollar bill as change. We raised our eyebrows as high as we could. We hadn't seen an old-style bill in the US like that in a long time. But the bank workers assured us the money was good. It would be accepted. It was good. It was good. They were a little too insistent.

Upon arrival at our hotel, we tried to pay for the taxi the hotel had sent to pick us up  at the airport. They took USD, so Charming gave them the fifty dollar bill.  They took it to the Bank of Cairo booth in the hotel which looked just like the booth at the airport. Ten minutes later, they found us in the lobby, returning the fifty dollar bill to us. They wouldn't take the bill. It was too old. I couldn't believe it. The bank of Cairo had stopped accepting the old bills. "It will work in your country, but it won't work in this country." So the dudes at the airport bank were unloading old currency on us that we couldn't use until we are back in the U.S.  I've never heard of a bank giving out currency that it won't accept back the same day. I'm guessing this is an example of what happens in a country with weak or corrupt infrastructure.

A Welcoming Culture

A man named Peter, the store guard at Vodafone in Cairo says "You are most welcome. You are German?" "American," I tell him. "Ah, good. USA. Very Good!" He gives a wide, warm smile. Of all the palces we've visited in the Middle East, Cairo is where I've felt the most welcomed by residents who seems almost star-struck. Maybe that term is too strong.

Struck with profit-potential may be more accurate. We find that often, when money changes hands, a little bit extra is kept by the vendor. Especially taxi drivers. The consistency of this short-changing is striking. After only three days here we've learned to count change carefully and inspect restaurant bills line by line. Here's a receipt from a recent meal out with some of Charming's co-attendees at his work conference here:

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What's a cover charge? Is that not the same as a entrance tax?  In the U.S., those fees are usually charged upon entrance to a club, not at the end of the night. But this was a restaurant, not a club. Or, was it? What's the difference? The 12% service charge (tip) is fine, but the 10% sales tax seems kind of steep. Don't worry, the total is in Egyptian Pounds, not in USD.

The restaurant, Sequoia, was on the Nile, which glimmered and added magic to the otherwise hot and uncomfortable atmosphere.

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A boat pulled up to the restaurant at the end of the evening and began shooting off large fireworks very close to us. We didn't know whether to ooh and ahh, or to be afraid and run for cover. A nearby building had been burned and cars set on fire not that long ago.

Street Life

As I walk down the street, the smog is so thick I can taste the air -- it has a grainy texture as it goes in my mouth and down my throat. A particle went into my eye yesterday,  partially blinding me for a few steps. It felt like ash from a charcoal grill.

Sidewalks are rare, often broken up with potholes and crowded with parked cars, scooters, and abandoned bags of soggy food. Most of the roads are four lanes, but people drive for miles right on top of the painted divider lines; traffic is therefore serpentine.  The lack of sidewalks forces people to walk in the street, adding more chaos to the congestion. Yesterday I saw two cars parked in the middle of a the road for repairs, their hoods open like dead birds' beaks.  I walk in a long skirt and long sleeves, despite the heat. I wear my thickest, ugliest shoes.

Cats so malnourished they never lose their kittenish looks roam the streets. The opposite has happened to the street children. Life begging all day on the hot street has made them  lose their kittenish playfulness too soon. Nothing curious or sparkling appeared in the eyes of the little girl asking me to buy her new clothes on Sunday. Instead, I saw the same dull, hardened look I usually see in the grown men trying to hustle us into overpriced taxis. (Security advisors say not to give anything to children here, as they are sometimes part of a long con. It's hard to imagine what the con could be, and heartbreaking to see these kids.) Thinking of that girl, I'm reminded of Egypt's shameful superlative, that of all the countries in the Middle East, it has the lowest literacy rate for women.

On the few streets where there are continuous sidewalks, every few meters, cold, dirty water splashes down on me from the window air conditioner units stacked up for stories above on the dingy high rise apartment buildings. One of them on a nearby building fell down. What caught my eye was the man they sent up to investigate. We took photos from our hotel on the eighth floor:

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He's sitting in a sling. After I took this photo, he started chatting on his cell phone. I could barely look at him, but I couldn't stop staring.

Sights Yet to See

Due to the dubious nature of paying for anything and the exhausting nature of being a female walking alone (Charming is in a conference all day) on the street, I haven't yet seen the pyramids up close. They are far away from the city center.  I haven't seen much of anything. When I do, if I have any good photos or sights to report, I'll be sure to update the "bright spots" section of this post below.

I have been doing some guidebook reading, and following suggestions not to make eye contact when walking on the street.  Although it's not natural to me, since to me eye contact is a way to offer respect and friendliness, I've tried it here in Cairo, and it's been a helpful way to avoid harassment. Just as I was thinking that very thought yesterday, two men walked by me. One said looked at me and said "So cute." The other said "Milf." It's possible the second man was talking on his cell phones, and "Milf" is a word in Arabic. Very likely.

Bright Spots

As is often the case in the Middle East, the hospitality and kindness of the locals shine. Most people here in the city speak English and some French, which means I get called "Madame," and "Madmoiselle," which I find charming.  The housekeeper who cleaned our hotel room yesterday chatted and laughed with me warmly and then said "All finished, Madame!" And left without pausing for a tip. In fact, all the service at our hotel, Safir, has been wonderful. This is a great hotel, and although it's expensive, the prices seem fair and no one has tried to rip us off . We've spent some nice times hunkered down in the cool hotel. There's a grand lobby that has beautiful flower arrangements and a piano lounge. There are also a lot of good shark shows on the TV.

I'd like to feel compassion and gratitude towards Egypt because their government situation is so delicate right now and their revolution was mostly peaceful. I'm glad that there isn't open battle taking place on the streets of Cairo. However, I can't deny that deep inside, I feel sad for this culture that peaked so long ago.  I hope that democracy and the protection of human rights and civil liberties will be secured and will lead to Cairo's renewal.

*UPDATE*

Cairo got a lot better after a lovely evening of seeing the Pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx with a light show dramatizing some of the history of those structures. In real life, they are JUST AS AMAZING AND HUGE AS THEY SEEM TO BE IN PICTURES.

I also got to fulfill yet another life dream of riding a camel. Woot!

Quick! Stop-the-taxi-on-the-highway-and-jump-out-and-take-a-picture-I'm-about-to-pee-I'm-so-excited-there-they-are!!!

Cheops, Chepren, and the Sphinx the night we saw them and the light show.

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This was right after the camel had bent it's front legs. I felt like I almost fell, off, so this is the happy relief moment.

More cool stuff? Yes, it happened. We got to see Tahrir square, where the revolution got started. Some people were still Occupying.
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Finally, a Felucca ride on the Nile so magical it was fit for a Disney movie.
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Nine Ways to Skip (or Minimize) the Travel Adjustment Blues

When you move or travel to a new country where you don't speak the language or understand the culture, there is bound to be some transition-related stress. Prince Charming and I have not been immune. In retrospect, there are some things I personally could have done better, or could have tried to avoid to make the transition a little easier. I'll share nine of them.

1. Don't expect anything to be the way you expect it.

I had counted on all of our connections in the Middle East being, somehow, an easy 15 minute taxi ride away. However, they are scattered all over the place, and between the traffic and the checkpoints, meeting up with people can take hours, not to mention a hefty toll on the mood.

2. Don't start a new diet at the same time as moving.

I became a vegetarian shortly before arriving in the land of spinning cylinders of meat on every corner. I have stuck with it (although I  sometimes eat seafood) and I'm glad because I think it has improved my health. However, it would have been one less thing to worry about had I done it six months or a year before moving.  Every new habit or new activity you pick up before moving is just another new thing added to the overwhelming mountain of the unfamiliar that you are about to dive into.

3. Don't start a new medication before leaving.

In my case, I started taking a different kind of oral contraceptive almost immediately before leaving. My body needs time (about 3 months) to get used to a new hormone combination. Lesson learned. This lesson could apply toward any kind of medication, especially a long-term or brain chemistry altering medication such as an anti-depressant.

4. Go easy on yourself.

If you are like me, you want to jump into every possible activity, and understand where everything is, and be fluent in the language YESTERDAY! Celebrate the amazing victory of learning just one word a day. Eventually, you will feel like your normal, productive, fast-learning self, but for now, enjoy allowing yourself to not have any of the answers. This is a hard one for me, since I don't relish feelings of confusion and complete ignorance. In fact, they make me feel ashamed and sometimes humiliated. Those feelings lead to isolation and weight gain. So, I get lost. I learn to lean into the sense of freefall and disorientation, and just go with it, like jumping off a cliff into a cool lake.

5. Go easy on your travel buddy.

There is nothing like travel to get to know someone better. I went to a spiritual guide when I first began dating Prince Charming, and he recommended I travel with him to see if he was someone I wanted to spend my life with. I did, and I do, and here we are. The reason travel is so great for getting to know people is you see their worst and best sides. You see them exhausted and thrilled. You see them hungry and with tired feet. You find out how they lift their own spirits and if they are willing to lift yours.

6. Go easy on everyone.

This goes, of course, for everyone you meet in the new culture you are in. You might meet someone, and be highly offended by something they do or say. In fact, what they do or say might be the kind, polite thing to do in their culture. I believe that most people are doing their very, very, very best in life, even if it doesn’t seem like that.

7. Rely on the kindness of strangers.

There is nothing like travel to get you over "stranger danger" instincts. The truth is, most people are trustworthy, kind, and willing to help.  The people who aren't probably won't make eye contact. In fact, you probably won't even see them before they take off with your hand bag.  Get good at identifying friendly faces, and then ask for help without hesitation. The worst that will probably happen is they give you the wrong directions. See item 6.

8. Establish a Routine.

The sooner you can establish your new "normal day," the better. Get up at a regular time, go to bed at roughly the same time. Find out where and when you exercise and stick to your normal healthy habits. Don't stick to it like a machine, though. If there's a new adventure or social opportunity beckoning, be willing to bend your schedule.

9. Journal, Photograph, Blog, Email, and Skype.

Everything hard and everything that goes wrong, happens to be the stuff people find the most interesting. (We are mildly sadistic, we human beings. Or, more kindly, we enjoy learning from others mistakes). The wonderful moments that you document will be even more wonderful, because, like in a good adventure story, they are earned by the part where we fought the giant spider. Or the part where we kissed the frog. Or the part where we ate the poisonous apple. You get it.

Even though transitions can be more stressful when they come in batches - getting married and then moving immediately, for example - I don't regret our decision to start our marriage off in this way. This is priceless time together. It's incredible to be able to share each new challenge. It's exhilarating to be able to laugh off all the pressure we put on ourselves each day.

Thank you for allowing me to share my happy and challenging moments with you on this blog.

Lessons With Mohammad

Cool Shey Tamaam

I've been taking Arabic lessons with this fabulous teacher named Mohammad:
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Thanks to his patient instruction, good humor, and abundant provision of coffee and mint tea (shai bee nana), I'm on my way to polyglot-dom. Polyglottony, perhaps.The arabic alphabet is, thankfully, just about the same number of characters as in English.

My  favorite letter is "sha." It looks like this: ش I think it looks like a cup of  شاي "shai" (tea) that someone is sprinkling some sugar into. When it's connected to another letter, it loses the big scoop on it's left, as you can see in the word "shai." Look at that word "shai." It has three letters. "sha" and two vowels "ah" (looks like a 1) and "ai or ee." (ي )My favorite words and phrases so far are: (Arabic is written right to left)

My husband = Zowji = زوجي  No problem  = Mish Moshkilay مش مشكيلة Tea with mint with sugar = Shai bee nana bee sukar = شاي بي نانا بي سكر Everything is perfect = Cool shey tamaam = كل شي تمام 

I'm still learning; I may have misspelled some of the words in Arabic.

I feel like I'm REALLY close to being able to read Arabic. I'm able to sound out many words on street signs if I give myself plenty of time. Knowing what the words mean is a whole different ballgame. But I have a fun feeling of a whole new world opening up. It's like being five and learning to read all over again.

A Better Use for Cable Ties

This post  might make you sad or angry. I'll keep it short, because while I think it is important to share about, I don't like feeling sad and you probably don't either.Two weeks ago,  on June 12, Thomas and I  went to a lecture by Gerard Horton, a lawyer for Defense of Children International. The lecture was about Palestinian children held in military detention. It was the first time here that I'd actually been faced with this much information related to the ongoing conflict happening here. A note about Gerard. He was a British man, and his presentation was straightforward and dispassionate, which I think is the best way to be when speaking about such a political issue. He gave us the facts. The Q&A came afterward, and then we heard the passion, anger, and frustration in the crowd.

He and the organization he works with, DCI-Palestine, http://www.dci-palestine.org/  completed a four year long study of the way Palestinian children are treated when they are detained by the Israeli military. [Background info: Since 1967, Palestinians in the West Bank have been prosecuted  in Israeli military courts.]

Although the report is 142 pages to hold  the data collected from collecting the testimonies of 311 children, Gerard distilled the information down the most important point, which is that the evidence shows a pattern of inhuman treatment of minors as defined in the UN Convention against Torture.

The number one detail that strikes me when reading the report is the brutal use of cable ties to hold the children's wrists together behind their backs. It was the number one complaint of detained children, present in 95% of cases.

One child said "Soldiers tied my hands behind my back with one plastic cord and tightened it so hard that I still feel pain in my right thumb which sometimes goes numb."

A better use for cable ties might be to hold cables in place, as illustrated in this picture I took in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem:

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There are many other issues of concern. Just a few of them:
  • Child is blindfolded (90% of cases)
  • Physical violence (75% of cases)
  • Arrested between midnight and 5 am (60% of cases)

Often the children are woken up from sleep by soldiers in their rooms pointing guns at them.

Gerard gave us a copy of the report. There's a lot of information in there, but the positive part that would improve the situation are four major recommendations DCI lawyers make that would "provide a series of simple and practical protective measures."

  • An end to night time arrests.
  • Children have access to a lawyer prior to questioning.
  • All interogations be audio-visually recorded.
  • Every child to be accompanied by a parent.

After the lecture and a short video, a man stood to ask the first question. He spoke in Arabic for about ten minutes. I was so bewildered that I almost left. I can't imagine a moderator at a U.S. lecture letting a question become a speech. Finally someone handed me a headset so I could hear the translation into English, which was happening simultaneously. It turns out that he'd been detained in the same prisons shown in the presentation and he was telling his story.

Others, both English and Arabic speaking, spoke with similar passion. "Why isn't the International community doing anything about the occupation? Why isn't United States doing anything?"