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When you fly into Chiang Mai, you can see it, up on the mountain to the west of the city, sparkling in whatever light shines through the smog. A huge temple, gold and white, draws the eye. I nudged Donn, in the next seat. “What do you think that is? Let’s try and go there.”

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Cursory research gave us a name and lots of information about how to get there. Our hotel had flyers. Everyone said to go in a tour, pay about $35/person to troop obediently into an air-conditioned new van with wide seats, be driven there and back, be provided with a small bottle of water, see a hill tribes village as a bonus. We declined. You can get a red bus for $7/person each way! These are pick up trucks with covered backs which have benches along the sides. We had met up with a Brazilian friend*, Tell, by walking to the plaza of the 3 Kings and getting a Grab, which is Thailand’s version of Uber, to the edge of town.  While there, we were chatting with our Grab driver, and he offered to take us and bring us back for a total of about $35 for the 3 of us! I felt that sitting in air-conditioned comfort was worth it, and we quickly agreed.

We drove past the zoo and began our journey up the steep side of the mountain. Northern Thailand is mountainous and forested, although the trees are of course different species than I’m used to in the Pacific Northwest. The road wound through hairpin bends and past tiny outcroppings teeming with people selling things, which reminded me of Morocco.

The temple entrance proved to be just another wide spot on a steep road, albeit one lined with permanent shops. We arranged a pick up time with the driver, and then began the steep ascent to the temple itself. The name of the temple is properly Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, but everyone calls it just Doi Suthrep, after the mountain on which it is located. You can learn a lot about it by just reading the wikipedia page, but for this blog, I’m just going to relate our visit.

Start with 309 steps! They are cleverly lined with the long, sinuous body of a dragon. Thailand is so colorful!

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That’s Tell, and I can tell you in private that we were both dying! 309 steps! I am not sure if that even counts the first 50 or so from the street up to the start of this. Although it wasn’t the “hot” season, it was still really hot and bright and, of course, humid. It was always humid.  We trudged our way up to the top, where we paid our entrance fee (I’ve forgotten how much it was), passed the guardian at the gates, and entered the temple complex.

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The hands on the hips stance was very no nonsense. Do not mess with this guy!

As with all temples, proper modest dress for women was required, and there were parts that were off-limits to women altogether. I amused myself by guessing which women were actually wearing wraps provided by the temple around their hips or shoulders, hiding tiny white shorts or plunging tank tops. We were okay. We added our sandals to the growing pile and entered the main section.

There were innumerable representations of Buddha in all sizes, shapes and forms. The temple grounds are extensive, and every corner and niche is full of statues. Some are green, some are gold, some are white, some are wood. Some have peaceful expressions, some look more like they’re in pain.

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A blog post we’d read mentioned the large number of collection sites, and I can attest to the truth of that. If you want to give money at this temple, you don’t have to go more than about 5 steps to find a box or slot just waiting for you to do so.

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There were masses of people there. This is considered a very holy site, and so there were masses of serious Thai people, paying money and pacing round the center in prayer, or kneeling before statues and being blessed by monks. There were also masses of tourists, their bare feet perfectly pedicured, snapping selfies in the bright sunlight. (I was one of these. Seriously, pedicures are $6! I got three in two weeks!)

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We walked over to see the view down the mountain to where the city of Chiang Mai is spread out under a blanket of smog on the plain, and joined with a woman who was scolding her partner to get off the parapet. We were highly amused to round a corner and discover this tribute to motherhood.

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hashtag sorry kids. hashtag some days are like this. hashtag I feel seen. 

Of course Donn took a pic and immediately sent it to our 3, all of whom seemed to relate far more than I would have thought.

There were tons more statues and buildings to see and admire. But you reach a point where you can’t take any more in. We headed down that long stairway and met up with our taxi driver, who whisked us down the mountain the 15 kilometers back to our hotels.

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*While on this trip, we also met up with friends who live in Morocco and a friend from Portland. Chiang Mai is a place to see old friends!

 

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My attempts to revitalize the blog aren’t going so well. The problem is time, time management, and time sucks like Twitter, where people are so much funnier than I am.

It’s a really long time since I’ve written at all regularly, and I would imagine pretty much anyone reading this is new here. So here’s a bit of background and an update. I live in Oregon, but I spent 9 years of my life in North Africa, plus a year in France. I started this blog while we were living in Mauritania, which was so different from anywhere we’d experienced before that we used to say in wonder, “It’s like another planet.” Our nickname for Mauritania was, in fact, Planet Nomad, since they still retain a lot of their very-recent nomadic past. And that’s where the name of the blog came from, although of course it also worked well as a name for us, a family who moved internationally 6 times in 9 years, and who continue to live cross-culturally wherever they land.

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Random pic of Latourell Falls, down the Columbia River Gorge. Oregon is beautiful! 

In 2010 we moved back to Oregon, and started working with Iraqi refugees, and that’s kind of when the blog died. My kids were teenagers, and as funny and infuriating as ever but much more aware of social media. And my new friends were internet-savvy and had such dramatic stories that I didn’t feel right telling them. I’ve always been careful, changing names and some details so that my Mauritanian friends would never feel exploited if they ever stumbled across the blog, but this felt different. Plus, so much of it was about raising kids and living in a culture not your own. So the blog died, in spite of my efforts to write of our visits back to North Africa and France.

So now, my kids are all grown. Elliot lives in Iceland, where he’s in grad school, getting a very practical MA in Medieval Norse and Viking Studies. That’ll just open doors for him around the world, right? He speaks about 6 languages now*, and I am v smug about this, because I told him that someday he would be grateful to me for making him go to French school, that first year when he cried every Sunday and said he didn’t want to go and refused to speak French. There are few things in life more satisfying than telling your kids, “I told you so!” The essence of good parenting in a nutshell!

*(I counted Icelandic but I really shouldn’t, since he is learning Old Icelandic by translating the sagas, so all he can say are phrases like “Thor swung his hammer and shattered the giant’s skull.” Fun, but probably not going to be super helpful if you need to know where the bathroom is.)

Ilsa is going to art school on the other side of the continent, in Rhode Island. Donn suggested she go straight to homeless as a way to avoid having school debt plus being homeless, but she declined. She is majoring in Painting, and will someday no doubt have a gorgeously-decorated section of the sidewalk to call home. She is very talented.

Abel lives at home, which makes me happy. He is working, photographing a lot, and keeps very busy with needing to rewatch “The Office” and “Parks and Rec.” I assume he does other things as well? He is never home and when he is, he’s either editing pictures or glued to his phone, watching Netflix. I think he’s doing well? Seriously, he’s a talented photographer, in an age when it’s nearly impossible to earn a living that way. Between our kids’ choices, Donn and I are almost certainly going to be joining them on the sidewalks in our old age. At least they will be beautiful, and we can pass our golden years learning about Thor and his hammer, and maybe adding some Icelandic vocabulary to our requests for spare change.

Donn and I now have an official non-profit. (Ilsa did that pic on the homepage, if you click through that link). Donn is the president. I am the Director of the ESL program, and we’ve grown a lot–we now have 5 levels and about 60 students if everyone comes (which they don’t), plus a small army of volunteers teaching them, ferrying people back and forth, watching little ones so their mothers can concentrate on English for two hours straight, etc. I actually love my job, except that it keeps me from spending hours staring out the window, reading books, and drinking tea, but all my jobs do that. I do drink a lot of tea but it tends to be in my students’ homes, accompanied by a lot of food and conversation.

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Many of the attendees at the ESL Thanksgiving Party. We ate turkey and qubbah and potatoes and dolma and biryani and pumpkin pie and baklava. 

And now that we’re all caught up, I will resume my travel writing. Come back for more pics of Thai temples, a treatise on the toilets of SE Asia (no really, I have to show you these signs), and if you’re lucky, pictures of various lunches! You know you care what I had for lunch, at least while in Chiang Mai!

 

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Abel ready to go! 

This summer, Donn’s mother broke her hip. They live in the Southern California desert, and she went outside barefoot in the blazing sun to get the mail, and fell. We rearranged our lives and spent nearly a month total with her after she got out of rehab, and she was stubborn and determined and did really well. Then, in November, her heart stopped. Happily she happened to be at a concert held at a retirement center, and a nurse stepped in. But that fire and determination were lacking the second time around. She just wasn’t fighting as hard. And so we put our heads together and decided to drive down the 1200 miles and surprise her for Christmas.

Every year, we hold a Christmas party for our Iraqi refugee friends, and every year, it just gets bigger and bigger. It’s always held the Friday before Christmas, which was of course the 22nd. This year, we had about 250 guests, mostly from Iraq, with a good representation from Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iran as well. It was a huge success. The food was fantastic! We had it catered by a local Iraqi restaurant which does great dishes, and we went all out…kabobs, chicken skewers, falafel, hummus, bread. For dessert we had baklava and then a friend made hundreds of orange-fig shortbread cookies and coconut lime shortbread cookies that were amazing. We had an awesome program for the kids, run by talented people who run our church’s all-day summer camps, fantastic live music, and SnapBar donated their services!

We had tons of help but it was still exhausting. And so, it was with no great joy that we dragged ourselves out of bed the following morning, loaded the car, and headed south. Abel, who is still youthful and energetic, was the only one excited at that point. Donn and I were just trying to make sure we’d packed everything–the air mattresses, the presents, the snacks, the plates of food that Iraqi friends had made up for us to bring. Because yes, that was a feature. We had a plate of leftover kabobs, plus an ENORMOUS platter of fresh falafel and 2 plates of hummus from another friend, and a plate of quba from someone else. It was, frankly, a bit much. We drove to Eugene and Elliot’s house, where we ate lunch and left some falafel and hummus for his roommates to enjoy.

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I suck at selfies

We drove down through the forests of Oregon, which don’t seem like much until you leave them behind. Of course it was dark shortly after 4. We wound our way through the foothills of Mt Shasta, then hurtled down I-5 to Sacramento, where Ilsa lives.

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Blue winter’s sunset, somewhere at the bottom of Oregon

We picked up Ilsa and saw her new apartment and met her puppy, who wiggled out of her arms with joy at meeting new people. We went for pizza, crowding round a small table in a noisy bar because the restaurant end of things was already closed at 10 p.m. on a Saturday. One thing I did not expect to find in Sacramento was the best Starbucks I’ve ever been to, serving juniper lattes and affragatos and all done in cool blonde wood and stainless steel, huge and beautiful and open till midnight.

After that, we settled into the dreary part of the trip. Because we hadn’t been able to leave till December 23rd and because we needed to get to Hemet in time for me to do some shopping on Christmas Eve before the shops closed and because we were now 5 and that meant 2 hotel rooms, we’d decided to drive the night through. We’d rented a car–our Volvo sedans don’t really have room for 5 adults, 4 air mattresses, presents, luggage, etc–but the kids were still too young to be able to drive. Donn and I spelled each other, the passenger trying desperately to sleep while the driver played music to stay awake. Amazingly enough, no one got grumpy. We were all too happy to be together again, excited to surprise Grandma, tearing through the night which stayed dry and bright.

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These photos are from my snapchat

We stopped in a rest area for a while, where Elliot and Donn made fun of my desire for an eyeshade to help me sleep under the glare of the street lamps. “Something to cover your eyes? What about eyelids?” they quipped while I glared at them. Then we drove on again, into a terribly bright sunrise where all was certainly bright, and mostly calm too.

We stopped at Starbucks time and time again. I know all the arguments against this store but I don’t care. You can get decent coffee all the way to the inlaws now, and that’s always a good thing. We stopped for breakfast at one point, playing for time as we were in danger of arriving before my mother in law was up.

Finally we arrived. Abel knocked on the door. “Come in!” we heard her yell. We all trooped in, holding our phones like shields in front of our faces as we filmed her. “Merry Christmas!” we yelled! She just sat there, in shock. My father in law appeared with tears in his eyes. We’d made it, we’d surprised her, and, as they’ve told me approximately 1000 times a day, we were the best Christmas present ever! All together now, “Awww….” Also, I am, as always, their favorite (and only) daughter-in-law. So there’s that.

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Christmas in the desert. I personally think they’re trying too hard… 

 

Happy New Year to you all! Any plans for 2018?

In 2017, I didn’t leave the USA at all. (yes I know I still have 2 weeks, but I have no plans to do so) I went neither to Canada nor to Mexico. More notably, I didn’t go to Mauritania, or Morocco, or France. No Spain. No Thailand. I didn’t even go to Florida, as I did in August 2016. I didn’t leave the West Coast of the United States.

This blog came by its name honestly. I get itchy feet. Our family moved internationally 6 times in 9 years, and we lost count of all our temporary housing along the way. Then we kind of washed up in the suburbs of Portland, and we’ve had the same house, and almost the same neighbors, for 7 years now, which is mind-boggling to me. But even though we haven’t packed all our belongings into boxes and inexplicably lost things along the way, we have still traveled. We went to North Africa 3 times, once to France, once to Thailand, and once to Korea.

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this year, I didn’t go to Marseille. pic taken Nov 2016

This year, I didn’t go to Marseille. Or Arles. I didn’t wander the dusty streets of Oudane, an ancient village in the Sahara, or sip coffee in the uptown shopping district of Rabat, Morocco. And I feel fine about that.

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Looking down at some ruins in Oudane, a city  built in the 12th century in the middle of the Sahara desert. Another place I didn’t go this year. Picture taken in October 2016.

Because somewhere along the way, dealing with jet lag and exhaustion while still trying to maintain an everyday schedule of full time work, I got really tired. I was ready to stay for a whole autumn in Oregon, to pass out candy on Halloween and take a language class at PSU and not be as tired.

We still did some scary things this year. For a start, we remodeled our kitchen. Elliot, now 22, was very stressed when I told him this. “So this means you’re never leaving?” he asked. He’s innocent, poor lad. We explained that the element caught fire in the oven so we needed a new stove, which meant we needed a new floor, and if we were going to do that we should repaint the cabinets, right? This should probably have its own post. We managed to choose a new cabinet color without even mentioning the words “divorce,” “over my dead body,” or “of course your mother would have loved this color; she had no taste either!” Success! We didn’t even scare the salesman at the paint place, as we rapidly went from our first choices (wildly divergent) through our second, third and fourth (question: how have we stayed married 27 years?) until we landed with a thud on our fifth choices, a lovely spring green we could both live with, although it gets mixed reviews from our friends. The most common reaction is, “That’s bold!” which of course means, “You’re crazy.”

It was very strange to remodel a kitchen. I felt like a real grown-up at last! We’ve never remodeled anything in our lives. In Morocco, we lived with a kitchen designed for Wile E Coyote after he falls off a cliff and turns into an accordion; there was no other person it could possibly have been designed for. I’m 5’2″, and the counters were too short for me while I had to stand on tiptoes to reach even the lowest shelf of the cabinets. But we didn’t change a thing.

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Outside one of our favorite restaurants in Rabat, just opposite the medina. Another place left unvisited in 2017.

Overall, I’m okay with my lack of travel for a year. But every so often…

…Donn’s sister just moved to Amsterdam.

…Elliot might move to Iceland.

…We just had coffee with a friend who is moving to Jordan, a place I’ve wanted to go for years.

In the meantime, it’s snowing on the blog, there’s a fire in the fireplace and Christmas jazz on the free-trial of Pandora Prime. Life’s good in Oregon.

For now.

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This kitten’s not going anywhere! Taken at the Chellah, Rabat, Morocco, in October 2016. 

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Colosseum at Arles, France. Taken on a sunny but freezing day in November, 2016.

Since I have such a bad habit of never finishing my accounts of our travel, I’ve decided to do this one backwards. How will that help? you ask. Because we’ve gone to Morocco and Mauritania 3 times now in the past 6 years, and I’ve never finished an account of a trip yet. In fact, I never told you the two funniest parts of the 2013 trip. Maybe I will do so now.

Funniest Thing #1: Moh is in many ways a typical Mauritanian man; generous to a fault, proud yet insecure about his country. No matter what we said, he tried to out-do it. We were telling him about how we now live in Oregon, which is known for its tree-huggers. We know, of course, that this is a metaphor. Oregonians don’t typically actually hug trees. But he was not to be outdone. “I love trees so much, I kiss them!” he announced, going up and kissing a tree.

Funniest Thing #2: We had just finished tea on the dunes with Aicha and were heading back into town. It was after 11. Elections were coming up, and we began to see the familiar tents and men in voluminous white and pale blue robes gathering in them. (Here is a post about Mauritanian elections) We turned onto another road and found ourselves behind a truck with a loudspeaker. As we drove, the people in the truck turned on the loudspeaker and began to broadcast a song extolling their candidate’s virtues. Frustrated, Aicha glanced at the clock. “It’s only 11:30,” she fumed. “Elections don’t open until midnight! They don’t have the right to disturb people until after midnight!”

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On this most recent trip, we went once again to the dunes to drink tea. The weather was pleasant, even a little cool at midnight as we stumbled in the moonlight to the top of a small dune at the edge of town. Here’s a picture of the herd of camels who were right next to us, silent shapes in the gloaming, until the headlights of a car turning around caught them in its beam.

We’ve been back 2 weeks now. We’re over jet lag, and we’re mostly recovered from traveling for an entire month. We visited friends in 3 countries, were served everything from exquisite cheeses to couscous in rancid butter, wine in stemware to camel’s milk in wooden bowls. In many ways, the month flew by. In each country, the time was too short to see everyone we wanted to see. But it’s good to be home.

 

 

Day One: The new airport is really impressive. Built since our last visit 2 year ago, it boasts AC, and lit signs in 3 languagues (Araabic, French and English).  You no longer have to walk outside to board and deplane, the hot air in your face like an oven welcoming you to the desert.

A local friend has sent a driver for us, and he manages to get past security and meet us coming off the plane. We ask how he managed this. “Oh they all know me,” he says. “Also the son of my sister works here.” The more things change, the more they remain the same…

Yes, we are traveling once again. This is our third trip to Mauritania since we moved away in 2007. “Are you back to stay this time?” people ask us, but no, no we’re not nor are we even planning this. But it’s good to come and enjoy a bit of desert hospitality and see our friends. And I’m once again attempting to blog it. I meant to write about our summer but never did, as you can see. We’ll see how far I get this time.

Late October in Nouakchott. At dusk a cool wind blows, and the sky fills with torn-wing bats, like black construction paper cut-outs pasted unevenly against a pastel orange sky. The city has changed a lot. There are more paved roads, more traffic lights, although people sail through red lights wtthout even a cursory brake or glance to see if there’s oncoming traffic. There are highways lined with solar-powered street lights, a brilliant plan in a place with excess sunlight.

This time of year, the camel herds are here. Throughout the city but especially on the edges of it, you will see herds grazing on bushes in the distance, or loping across the road, or hobbled outside a store. The result is fresh camel’s milk for sale, and people are taking advantage of that. So far we’ve only been given it once, in wooden bowls, served to us in a fancy living room (salon), chilled. I don’t like milk so it’s not my favorite, but Donn managed a whole serving. It’s thinner than cow’s milk and maybe slightly sweeter. I don’t know. I never drink milk. It’s supposed to be really good for you.

Afterward, we head out to the edges of town to drink tea on the dunes. The moon is one day past full, and I take pictures in the brightness of it. A lot of peope have had the same idea. You park and there are little stands set up where a guy will make you tea and bring you 3 rounds in small glasses, sweet and minty. He brings each glass with foam in it and pours the tea in with a flourish, then hands it to you. (The foam is made from pouring the tea back and forth ahead of time) We sit in the moonlight with a Mauritnian friend and drink tea and savor the cool air, the soft sand, the lowing of some nearby camels. A group near us starts to sing.

 

 

Well this was the year I basically let the blog die. I only posted 5 times all year, and the last time was in April!

Blogging is basically dead as an art form. Few read, fewer comment. It seems the only ones still going are some sort of niche. But I’ve decided that I’d like to revive the old girl (my blog is a girl. Yours?) after all, and post sporadically about whatever I feel like. So let’s start with me getting you all caught up about last year chez the Nomad family.

2015 was a good year with lots going on. So much, in fact, that I’m going to put this into two posts. See? 2 posts in the first week. I’m off to a great start! In the meantime, here is Jan-Aug.

January: we come home from an afternoon out to find ourselves banned from the kitchen. Ilsa is applying to art schools, and one requires that she draw a bike. Since we live in Oregon where it’s cold and dark by 5, she has put the bike in the kitchen and is lying on the floor, drawing and drinking tea. We are not allowed to bump the bike. We manage to get out cheese and crackers for dinner.

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She got in! This was for her first choice, RISD (riz-de), officially known as the Rhode Island School of Design. We’ll get to the implications of this in September.

January also saw a friend from Mauritania visit. It was his first time visiting a Western country. A lot of things were new to him. For example, he had hoped to meet with some local officials, but really didn’t understand how far out he would have needed to schedule something like that. Seat belts were also very new to him. He was a good sport, although I know this had to be like another planet to him.

February is lost to the mists of time, which keep growing thicker with my advancing age. Seriously, I suppose we did something?

March: The twins turned 18. Ilsa always chooses cinnamon rolls for her birthday breakfast. I accidentally doubled the recipe–which makes tons even normally–so we had a million or so cinnamon rolls. The neighbours, random Iraqi friends, and of course the twins were very happy. I use the Pioneer Woman’s recipe, modified to not kill us quite so quickly (i.e. 1% milk instead of whole, half the amount of butter, etc), and with cream cheese frosting instead of that nasty muck she puts on hers.

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April, May…I dunno. Life. Stuff. Hiking, visits from people. Oh I dyed my hair red! I’ve always wanted to be a redhead. As I’d suspected, I looked good, but it quickly faded to orange, which didn’t look good. Also I went to Memphis as part of a blog tour for St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. It was a really cool time and I only managed to blog half of it, as is my wont.

June: This is where it gets interesting, as we began the Summer of The Visitors. Seriously, we had out-of-town guests almost nonstop from June through mid-August.

First of all, the twins graduated from high school.

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Donn’s family came for graduation, and his parents stayed for a week, which is always a bit like having Archie and Edith from All in the Family to stay. Happily we didn’t have to go camping this time. Donn’s sister Kris, who reads this blog, and her husband came for the first week and then decided to stay for an extra two weeks. They stay in a hotel, so they are very easy visitors. We went down the gorge, ate giant ice cream cones from Salt & Straw, ate fresh berries, and did other summery, family-type things, like going to Powells.

Elliot came home for 2 days and then left for a summer in Jordan, where he spent the summer in an intensive language program. This was a government-sponsored scholarship, starting with a day of orientation in DC. When his 6 a.m. flight was cancelled, we waited in line for several hours only to have the airline clerk tell him they couldn’t fly him out till midnight that night, which would mean he’d miss orientation. We agreed, and were leaving the airport while he called the program to let them know. “Unacceptable, soldier!” they told him. (Not really. That is just a line from a Bourne movie.) And they put him on a flight leaving at noon. How? The person working for the airline couldn’t do it. Only the government. (Cue creepy Twilight music here).

I told Elliot that someone had probably gotten bumped. He was thrilled when they actually paged a “John M Caine” while he was waiting to board. Oh, we watched the Bourne movies too often when he was younger.

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This picture was taken after his flight was cancelled and he was put on another one 5 hours later, so we took him out for breakfast. It’s still very early in the morning, which is probably why he looks so bleary.

He had a great time in Jordan. He lived with a host family and took classes and went on cultural excursions and saw ancient ruins and was tired and busy and hot and actually missed us.

July: For most of July, a friend from Morocco was here. (She’s Moroccan, but I first knew her and her family in Mauritania) We had a great time. We went hiking down the gorge, went to the coast, went downtown and ate giant ice cream cones at Salt and Straw, went to the Rose Garden and Powells, and just generally had a good time. It was her first time in America. We have now seen each other in 3 countries, and we are wondering where we’ll meet up next. Any ideas?

It was the hottest summer ever. It was terrible. We had a dry winter, a normal spring (wet and cool), and then a hot, dry summer. Sumi and I went to a lavender festival in Hood River on a day when it was over 100 degrees. Even though we lived in the Sahara desert together, we both agreed that we hated the heat.

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This may not look like drought to you, but nonetheless it was a bad year. Lakes and rivers were really low, and several Oregon counties had to declare emergencies.

At the end of July, another friend came to see Sumi. We were all in Mauritania at the same time. Michelle now lives in Kansas, from which it’s easier to fly to Oregon than Morocco. We had a whirlwind few days of it, including eating giant ice cream cones from Salt & Straw. This was a theme of the summer. Actually, it’s kind a theme anyway. Come visit! We are used to people visiting and will eat ice cream anytime of year. The lines are shorter in winter.

August: Sumi left, then Michelle left, then the next day we got a visit from some French friends of ours, a family we knew in Morocco. It was blazing hot during their visit, so hot that we couldn’t enjoy being outside, even though we took them for giant ice cream cones. We went down the Gorge to Hood River on a Friday and it was 104 degrees. The next day we went to the beach and it was 65, and so foggy we couldn’t see the water while actually standing on the beach. Obviously, Oregon hates them. I don’t know why, as they are actually very nice.

Also, we saw a seal! Seal in French is “phoque” and if you exclaim that word excitedly to children on a public beach in America, you will get some side glances.

Elliot also came back mid-August from Jordan and was actually home for 2 entire weeks. Donn and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, although we waited to celebrate properly till November. More on that later. Ilsa got all 4 of her wisdom teeth out at once and was really funny while coming out of anesthesia. Also really difficult. Pain Med Ilsa is not very nice.

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Tintype (taken with app on my phone) of restaurant where we ate on actual 25th wedding anniversary. We are officially old now, although according to Ilsa, we have been for years. Oddly comforting, in a way. 

So I’m going to Memphis tomorrow. And every time I say or think that, the song starts in my head.

Going to Graceland, Graceland,

Memphis Tennessee

I’m going to Graceland.

I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.

I don’t actually know if I’m going to Graceland. What am I doing is joining a group of bloggers at the invitation of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I have never done a blog tour before so I’m kind of excited. In preparation I am making sure the Paul Simon song is on my phone, so that I can listen to it on the trip. Although I don’t really need to, since it is well established in my head. They did say we might do some touristy things, which to me means Graceland. (All together now, “poorboys and pilgrims with families and we are going to Graceland…”) I did go on Graceland.com and found that not only can you stay at Heartbreak Hotel, where they feel the need to mention that every room comes with its own hair dryer and microwave (sooo posh!), but you can enter to win an Elvis-themed wedding in Vegas and Priscilla Presley will be your matron of honour. I am not making this up. I want to do this so much! Can’t you see it? Donn and I can renew our vows. There’s no way I want to start over with anyone else–I’m finally getting him trained! The pictures will be priceless; me, Donn and Priscilla. Her hair will be the biggest, I suspect. And who could you ever get as best man to match this? Seriously, who? Please comment.

Donn is somewhat bemused. He’s actually a big Elvis fan, which is that part of him that is mysterious and beyond understanding to me. He even likes sweaty 70s Elvis, and songs that make me want to fling myself from a moving car onto the pavement, like “In the Ghetto.” (Or the one where he’s something something with a stone in his shoe, searching for yooooouuuuuu! I hate that one! I can’t hear it with any patience. Happily I’ve got Paul Simon so thoroughly in my head that I’m not worried about any Elvis sticking.) So Donn is happy but suspicious of my huge interest in going to Graceland. But I want to see it. And I want souvenirs too. I would pay good money for a bobble Elvis that swayed its hips instead of its head. Wouldn’t you?

In all seriousness (Memphis Tennessee I’m going to Graceland), I am looking forward to this trip. I went on St. Jude’s website and watched a video with an Iraqi friend of mine yesterday, and we were both in tears by the end, so I expect to be a total mess but that’s okay. I’ve reason to believe I still will be received.

Aside from that, I am going to have a break. I will not be cleaning for example. Not that I ever do, but the pressure to do so will be removed. Nor will I cook, teach, visit, advocate, or any of my other daily responsibilities. I will have time to read in the evenings, alone in blissful silence. This could be nice. I have packed in readiness.

And I’m mostly going to blog over at 5 Minutes for Mom, but I plan to get in some stuff here too. I have such a good track record of blogging my trips after all.

For reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland.

So in January, we got our first visitor ever from Mauritania.

beachNo, not Mauritania. This is Ecola State Park, on the Oregon coast. Where the Ewoks were filmed, where the forest planet of Endor is .

No, scratch that, that’s not true. This guy’s best friend actually came–remember?–with a group of people from all over the world. But this was the first time we knew someone was coming ahead of time, and we planned on it. (well sort of.)

We saw him in November in Nouakchott, on that trip that I’m taking so very long to tell you about. “I’m coming to America in January,” he told us. “I’ll see you then.” We gave him all our contact information. He’s a great guy, genuinely nice, a former student who’s doing really well and has far outpaced us in life.

On January 1st, he wrote me privately on Facebook, telling me he’d arrive in San Francisco on Jan 10th and come to Portland 2 days later. I wrote back, welcoming him, and asking him to send us his flight info and itinerary. He cunningly maintained radio silence. I wrote again on the 8th, 9th and twice on the 10th, since this was the only contact info I had for him. Finally on the 10th I wrote his friend back in Mauritania, who told me he was supposed to arrive in New York that day. He contacted me late that night and told me he was going to buy his ticket to Portland next day. And so he showed up at the airport about 10:30 on the night on the 12th, Monday. He had hoped to arrange several meetings with some local government officials, but they were unable to fit him in when he called them on Tuesday morning.

Things he experienced for the first time on his first trip to America:

  • wearing a seatbelt
  • Thai food
  • wearing a seatbelt every time he got in the car, no really, every single time, it’s not optional, put it on please
  • Mexican food
  • sitting next to someone who was drinking. (Mauritania is a dry country, and he had never seen someone drink alcohol before. He flew Air France. He told Donn he was afraid his seatmate would go beserk after the small bottle of Merlot. He had no idea what to expect)
  • forests
  • fish and chips
  • how to successfully put on a seat belt (clue: it doesn’t go behind your head)
  • jet lag
  • indoor heating

The weather was glorious, freakishly warm, in the mid-60s. We took him to the Oregon coast, where Donn and I walked round in shirtsleeves and he wore a thick parka that we’d loaned him. He commented on how much he liked that the sun wasn’t as warm, the light more diffused this far north.

trees at oswald

We walked through a small bit of old-growth forest on the way to the beach. He was amazed–he’d never seen trees like this before, thick and hoary, moss-covered, reaching far into the sky overhead. We all enthused about the air, so sweet and refreshing, and we all took great gulps. He commented on how great trees are–“except at night, when they can kill you,” he said. What? we said. Kill you? we said? What? we said.

Yes yes, he explained. Everyone knows that trees put out oxygen during the day but carbon monoxide at night. Um, no. No they don’t, we said. Really. Truly.

We knew Mauritanians didn’t like trees. They don’t have many of them, living in the Sahara desert as they do, and the few they have they tend to cut down. It’s common to visit a house and find the entire yard has been paved over. But we thought this was because they believe trees attract mosquitoes and because they needed the wood for charcoal.

I think we convinced him.

He also told us tales of life growing up in a small village. When he was in high school, his mother paid a local woman to serve him zrig every morning on his way to classes. Zrig is a mix of milk (usually powdered, in the city at least), water and sugar. It sounds innocuous but I never really liked it and my kids all hated it. The story he told us gave us a reason why. Apparently in parts of the country they add sheep’s urine. No that’s not a typo. Even he agreed it was gross. He said it gives a sort of astringent quality to the drink. I say it gives me an excuse to never drink it again.

On another day, Donn took him down the Columbia River Gorge, an area of breathtaking natural beauty, lush with green ferns and flowing with waterfall after waterfall. They stopped at Multnomah Falls, the biggest, and hiked up to the first lookout, along with many many other people. We’ve been there countless times, and have seen prom pictures and wedding pictures and myriad tourist pictures being taken. (aside: don’t people taking photos with tablets look silly? Remind me to never do that)

A woman and a photographer were there, and her top fell off–twice. So this was the first experience of topless photos done–and it would be done in front of someone from one of the most isolated and inhibited cultures in the world. You just can’t plan things like this. I can only imagine the stories he’s telling.

He left on the Friday, early, still jet-lagged. He is, always, unfailingly polite, but I think he had a good time. Overwhelmingly new, but good. I think he’ll be back.

Several people have started following my blog recently, and I wanted to say hello and welcome. Also, I love comments! And now, back to our regularly scheduled overly-long story…

Our trip to Oudane, continued from parts 56 and 7.

Our visit was short, just 2 full days in the village with a day each end of travel. On our second day, we went to visit a family that lives at the very edge of the plateau. Let me tell you about how we met them…

When Yahiya first moved to Oudane, in 2002, he invited us to come and visit. At that time, Oudane had no electricity, no cell phone reception, no telephone, no internet, nothing but wind and sand and innumerable stars in a sky that stretched on to infinity. “Just come, ask at any house in the village, and they will come and find me,” he assured us.

And so, about 6 months later one February weekend, we packed our 4×4 with water and sleeping bags and food and set off, bumping uncertainly down the unpaved road. It took us 8 hours of driving, including the last part where the road is more than just a set of tracks in the sand, but not by much. We picked up a hitchhiker (it is safe, or was safe, to do this back then), an old man in a stained robe, who sat in the back with the kids and watched perplexedly as they snacked on raw carrot sticks. I had the feeling raw carrots had not played any kind of role in his diet up to that point.

Eventually we bumped up the plateau and pulled up in front of the first house we saw. We asked the boy standing out front if he knew Yahiya, a high school teacher. “No,” he said. He went to fetch his mother. We asked her. “No, I don’t know him,” she said, “but come in! come in!”

A little worried and perplexed, we allowed ourselves to be guided through a doorway, into a salon. We were sat down on thin matlas against a concrete wall, were given cushions for our elbows. They sent someone out in search of our friend, and in the meantime they served us a meal and told us we could stay with them for as long as we wanted, a week, two weeks, a month, no problem. When Yahiya eventually appeared and joined us for couscous, they still urged us to stay with them. They were a family and therefore better equipped to host a family than a single man, they said. We turned them down, but the experience has stayed in our minds for years, this beautiful example of the hospitality of the desert, of a people that would take in complete strangers and welcome them.

We sat once more in the same room, although it looked different now. There were lots of teenagers, kids we didn’t recognize, who made us tea and practiced their English on us. Our host send one of the girls out to a local shop (I am tempted to put that word in quotes, since nothing in Oudane looks like any kind of shop seen anywhere else on the planet) to buy me a muluffa, which they draped around me. Then we were served banarva, which is sort of a stew of meat and onions, eaten with bread. There were also little bundles of intestines, made by coiling intestines round one’s finger and tying the end round it. Eating intestines is a skill I never managed to hone, and our hosts noticed Donn and I skillfully avoiding the small clumps. They taught us the word for intestine in Hassiniya, which I used to know, forgot, relearned, and have forgotten again. (Debbie?)

Afterwards we sit back, full, which is a mistake, because the second course comes in. This is marou ilHam, meat and rice, and it’s tasty, well-seasoned (which isn’t always the case) and steaming hot. Of course we’re sitting on the floor, eating with our hands. I am going to admit that I don’t really like eating rice and pasta dishes with my hands, although my husband and kids do. When we lived there, I could do it, of course, but given the chance, I always used a spoon. My inability to eat with my hands greatly displeased my host. I would take a small bit, halfheartedly work it into a sort of egg shaped ball, and pop it in my mouth, often scattering bits of rice. He took it upon himself to feed me. He made me an enormous ball and slipped it into my hand, motioning that I should put the whole thing in my mouth. I tried and nearly choked. I was perfectly happy making my own, avoiding the more gristly bits of meat and making small balls of rice, but he kept insisting that I was doing it wrong and making me large perfectly-round balls of rice. Embarrassing for only one of us, apparently.

Later that evening, we walked down the hill to visit Chez Zaida, Oudane’s only auberge. When we spent that long-ago summer month there, we got to know Zaida, a warm, friendly, out-going woman who invited us for lunch and used to visit us and play chess with Elliot while helping us with our Hassiniya. At the time, Zaida was in the process of opening her auberge, and we were thrilled to see her success. The auberge is located on the outskirts of Oudane, built on sand instead of rock, and I heard stories of flush toilets!

Zaida remembered us, and settled us on thin matlas outside while we caught up a bit. She’s made many friends through her inn, and spent a month traveling through Europe staying with people who wanted to return her hospitality. We showed her pictures of our kids. Her nephews took good care of us, bringing out cushions that were as big as they were! Her friend let me hold her son, the only baby in Oudane who wasn’t afraid of my freakishly-coloured hair and eyes (blonde and blue).

IMG_0032

On our last visit, when Zaida was just opening her first auberge, she served us the specialty food of Oudane–luxoor. These are buckwheat crepes (or something like that) served with camel gravy. Traditionally, the pancakes are piled in a bowl and the gravy poured on top. You eat by digging your hand down through the layers. Tasty but weird. I mentioned to Zaida how much I’d liked them and how good they were, innocently, not realizing I was basically asking her to make them again. (I am truly clueless like this, and it’s embarrassing. I’m old enough to know better) Of course she invited us to stay for supper, so we settled in for the most Western-style meal we’d ever had in the desert.

Our food was served in courses. First came a bowl of savory, flavorful vegetable soup. Then came the luxoor, only we ate one at a time, on a plate, with knives and forks. Then we had tinned fruit salad to end with, plus of course the sweet mint tea.

We had a lovely evening, lying back in the warm dusk, drinking tea and chatting of old times, of trips taken, of new sights seen. Afterwards we walked up the hill to Yahiya’s home once again.

May 2019
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