Sunday, May 27, 2007

Shalom Y'all!

Shalom! Yep, I am greeting you from the Middle Eastern paradise of Israel. I made it here in one piece, and Mike and I are enjoying ourselves as we tour around this amazing country.

Okay, first, I know you are dying to hear about the success/failure of my Starbucks mission. My plane landed in Paris 30 minutes early (6:00)…so I thought I was golden. I disembark and easily make my way to the metro station to go to downtown Paris. I met several nice people—I know, I was surprised to find nice French people too—who helped me navigate to the central train station. I was told to hop on this other subway and take it all the way to the end. I would be able to find my elusive Starbuck’s. Everything was going exactly according plan…as I passed the stops for the Louvre and the Arc de Triomph I couldn’t help but smile to myself. That’s right…I was doing it…I was in Paris. In your face all you naysayers!! It took a bit longer than I thought, but I finally made it to my station and realized that I was in a shopping mall…and there was a Starbucks. I got a little nervous when I saw that all the shops were closed…but there was no way that a Starbuck’s was closed. It’s a coffee shop, they open up early right? I make it up the stairs and my mecca comes in to view. My face drops as I see that the metal doors are closed…and locked! CLOSED? CLOSED! How could that be? It isn’t possible. I felt like Clark Griswold from Family Vacation. I should have broken in and make my own damn Caramel Macchiatto. At this point, the time at this point was 8:00 and the Starbucks didn’t open until 8:30. My flight left at 10:30 (boarding at 9:40)…did I have time to wait? I tried fruitlessly to find another neighboring—and open—Starbucks, but to no avail. Do I (A) wait until 8:30 for the Starbuck’s to open and get my macchiato and risk missing my flight, or (B) get back on the train…I am crazy, but nevertheless reason won out and I boarded the subway to go back to the airport. I felt so dejected as I rode the subway…to make matters worse some old lady boarded the train at the Louvre stop sipping on a steaming Starbucks beverage. I have never stolen anything, or ever felt tempted to hit an old lady…but I came pretty close here. I felt like she was taunting me with that thing. Anyhoo, I get back to the main station and switch over to the train that is going to take me to Charles de Gaulle. There is a HUGE crowd of people, and there is a lot of talking going on over the loudspeaker. The first train is being held up, and according to the monitor all the trains for CDG are “Delayed Departure”…commence heart attack please. At this point it is 9:15 . I have 25 minutes to make my boarding, and 1 hour 15 minutes until my flight takes off. Mike has already arrived at the airport and he has NO way of contacting me…so I am sure he is seething in the airport—especially since he called me about 5 times before I left Burkina to persuade me not to go on my insane mission. I board the next train which says that it is going to CDG, but as soon as the door closes the person standing next to me says…”Pardon me, this train isn’t going to Charles de Gaulle”…commence 2nd heart attack. He tells me I have to get off at the next stop, and pick up a different train. 9:25…clock is ticking away. I get out at the next stop, and once again the loudspeaker is going full blast, and I can see countless travelers throwing down their tickets, cursing, and running for the exits. OH SHIT! What? Then I listen very hard to the loudspeaker…what is this that I hear…”All trains departing for Charles de Gaulle are cancelled. Service has been interrupted.” At this point I about passed out…it was 9:30. I run out of the station and decide I am going to have to flag down a taxi. It is about 25-30 minutes to the airport from where we are, but all I have is 20 Euros…so I need to get some cab sharing partners. I spot an American couple from across the station and I dart over. Luckily, they are VERY nice…and we quickly decide to share a taxi. The only problem is that it is us, and every other person that wanted to go to the airport that is trying to hail a cab. We try for a while to get a cab, but none will stop. I am whispering expletives under my breath, and I continue to repeat, “This is my nightmare. Oh my gosh, Mike is going to kill me.” I see a man departing a taxi 20 yards ahead and I run and flag down the taxi man…because of some weird taxi laws he can’t pick us up there, but he will pull around. I was relieved to see that he actually did like he said. In the end, I made it to my gate at 10:10…with a very unhappy Mike glaring at me from across the terminal. All that craziness, about 30 Euros ($40 or so), and what did I have to show for it? Definitely no Starbucks…but I can laugh about it only because I made it to my flight…and I can’t ask for much better than that. Plus, little did I realize that Israel has the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf…and I like that A LOT better than Starbucks!

I wish I could say that my blunders stop there…but of course I had to make an idiot out of myself at least one more time. Mike and I spent our first few days touring around the magical and ancient city of Jerusalem. From there we had booked a tour to Masada—this mountaintop Jewish fortress built by King Herod, and the site where over 900 Jews committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans—and the Dead Sea. We arrived at the hotel where we were waiting for the tour bus to arrive and pick us up. With all the hounding I get as a white person in Burkina I have become quite good at ignoring people that are trying to sell me things or bother me. Anyhoo, Mike walks away for a second to get us coffee and this man approaches me. “Taxi, Taxi?” is what I thought I heard him say. I quickly reply, “no, no…no thank you” and go back to ignoring all of those around me. Mike comes back from coffee, and we continue to wait. 20 minutes rolls by, and the tour company is late. About 10 more minutes later the tour company calls Mike on his cell phone. “We are here, where are you?” Of course Mike tells them we are waiting out front. They tell him they are going to come around again. So, another 5 mintues later the same taxi man that approached me before, approached again. At this point I’m like, “yo dude, I said no taxi…damn.” He keeps repeating himself, and Mike starts going over there. I kept telling Mike to ignore him, he is just a taxi guy. Well, as it turns out the man was not saying, “Taxi” but “Dead Sea”…as in our tour group. For 30 minutes about 8 people were waiting in a van, staring at us, and all because I thought this guy was trying to offer me a taxi ride. I even tried to pull Mike back when he went to talk to the guy. You would think he could have made an actual sentence like, “Tour to the Dead Sea” or “Are you going to the Dead Sea.” Oh well, they didn’t leave without us. I have just gotten so good at shutting out unwanted attention…

Anyhoo, besides a few minor blunders on my part, the trip has gone amazingly well. I have been very pleasantly surprised of the beauty of this country, and in our 10 days here Mike and I have managed to dot our way to several places. We went to Jerusalem for 2 days, spent 1 day touring Masada (a fortress built by King Herod on top of this plateau where all 900+ inhabitants committed suicide when the Romans defeated them) and the Dead Sea—you REALLY float…it is amazing. I had a few rashes and cuts left over from Burkina, and when I stepped in that water my whole body was on fire! Salt may be good for the wounds, but it definitely limited how long I could stay in the water. After that we returned to his Aunt’s house where we took a drive to a little mountaintop village. After that we headed up north to the Sea of Galilee (not really a sea, a lake…and the place that Jesus walked on water, and fed 5000 people with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread). This I have to say was my favorite place. I love lakes muich more than oceans, and we had access to natural hot springs. We laid out on the “beach” and swam in the lake. We also took a drive up to the Golan Heights (not as dangerous as it was before). This area is AMAZING! We went to a nature reserve, checked out some waterfalls, ate at this really cute kibbutz, and just drove around admiring the scenery. After that we headed back and stopped off in Haifa—the 3rd largest city in Israel—a city that is built right into a mountainside. There we toured the Ba’Hai Gardens. This is a garden/shrine dedicated to the Ba’Hai faith. This garden was unbelievable, and built all the way up the mountain. The gardens were impeccable…I will try and post some pictures because there is no way I could do it justice with words. It houses a shrine to their founder—they believe that all religions are equal and at their core the same. They believe that men and women are equal, and await a day when there is one world government and one world language. I don’t know what I think about that…but I like the whole everyone is equal, we are all the same part. After that we headed once again back to Mike’s Aunt’s house where we relaxed, saw Pirates of the Carribbean: At World’s End—which I thought was quite good except for several plot holes/undeveloped characters, but on the whole a fun time.

I know some of you feared for my safety while I was in Israel…but worry not. As wars rage less than 50 kilometers away in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the rest of Israel goes about their daily lives…they live and exist, in spite of all the violence and danger, normally and happily. Yes, every place you go you have to walk through metal detectors and have your bags searched, but it is a small price to pay, and it is a way of life for them now. Imagine if whole sections of your state…were completely off limits to go…an invisible line that you absolutely don’t cross! I was talking to Mike’s Aunt about the suicide bombings, and how she lives with it…I could never imagine that in America. I can’t imagine living every day thinking that a bomb could go off in a shopping mall or a movie theater. In such a calm and sure way she said, “Oh, it will come to America. It’s only a matter of time.” It was a shocking statement at first…but sadly a statement that is all too true. How long until the conflict and the fight comes knocking on our own doors? Before metal detectors and security guards start popping up at coffee shops, malls, and outdoor parks? All for what? For a religious ideal…it seems so absurd to me…but I guess you can’t make sense when you are talking about people that don’t have any…well…sense.

We are now preparing to go our separate ways—I to Africa, and Mike back to New York. I think it will be harder this time, not only to leave one another, but also to go back to my life. It is so difficult to wrap my head around the idea that a world like this—modernistic and capitalistic—exists outside of Burkina. How one place can have SO much, and another place have virtually nothing at all. It doesn’t seem fair, but at the same time that’s life…it isn’t exactly always fair or just. Plus, do I really want to see a place like Burkina become “Amercan-ized” with shopping malls and McDonald’s dotting the landscape? I put my third-world life on hold to join the first-world…and now I must go back. At least I have the option to switch around…

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Let Operation GSCMBSKS Begin

Hello from Ouagadougou...again! I hope everyone is doing well out there. It is, as always, HOT here! Today is Thursday, which means I am a little over 24 hours away from boarding a lush Air France flight on my way to Paris! It doesn't even seem like reality to me...I am so worried that I am going to turn into a Beverly Hillbilly the second that I load the plane. TOILET? There is a toilet? What...I get a choice between chicken or beef? Um...YES, wine please!! "Well, I'll be...kick me over and call me Susy, cause by golly I think them there attendants are gonna play one of them movin' pictures up on that little screen...Yee haw!" Hopefully I can clean enough dirt off me so as not to scare the other passengers. I am still plotting on how I can smoothtalk the flight attendants into letting me sit in business class...coming from village in my ratty clothes I can't certainly rely on my looks for this one...maybe my Burkinabe charm?

Okay, for anyone that knows me, my obsession with Starbucks runs deep. Up to this point I have been Starbucks free for 8 months. I consider the Peace Corps like detox really...forced detox, but whatever. Maybe Britney Spears should consider Peace Corps instead of Promises...anyhoo...after 8 months of instant Nescafe coffee, you can't blame me for wanting to get a decent cup a joe. So, I surfed the internet for quite a while and I have put together an action plan...we'll call it "Operation GSCMBSKS" (Get Stephanie a Caramel Macchiatto Before She Kills Someone). In using Google Earth and any other map program I have discovered that there are 28 Starbucks locations in the Paris, France area. NONE of which, by the way, are in the airport...HELLO!! My flight gets in at 0600 hours, and my connection isn't until 1000 hours. Mike arrives at 0800 hours...which leaves me a 2 hour window to complete the operation. If I can board the metro line to downtown Paris--which is approximately 25 minutes one way--I can hit up one of the 20 that seem to be centered around the Metro Stations. That leaves me enough time to take a glance at the Eiffel Tower, hop back on the Metro, and be there to greet Mike at our connection gate to Israel sipping my Tall (okay, lets be honest, it's probably going to be a VENTE) Skim Caramel Macchiatto. Oh, my mouth is watering on the keyboard right now...I can just smell it. Maybe I should buy a thermos and try to store some for later. Or, now that I have my car battery in my house, I could by an espresso machine for my hut...EUREKA! Okay, well, that is going too far, but it is a nice thought. I think back fondly on my last Starbucks Caramel Macchiato on my way to JFK airport. We stopped at a reststop and I told that barista to make the best damn machchiatto in the world, like his life depended on it. Oh, it was good...and now I am focused on my mission to procure another of those fine sweet delicacies. Oh yes, I shall prevail. Guided by my limited West African french, no knoweledge of the Paris transit system, and a nose that could smell a Starbucks coffee from a 10 mile radius...let's do this! I may be going to Israel, but the hightlight of my trip will be sipping that frothy, warm, sweet beverage...oh it's the small things in life now.

Okay, I don't want to toot my own horn...but bear with me for a minute...because I am glowing. The past couple weeks have been really amazing. As time goes on, I slowly am realizing where I fit my village, in my life, in my own skin. I don't know why it suddenly dawned on me, but I just had one of those moments where everything made sense and I was just content with where I was. I ride through my village and little kids chase after me and call my name, I greet my neighbors every morning on my run, I play soccer every evening with some boys in my village--and I am earning a reputation for my play...I draw crowds...probably not for skill as much as being white and a girl, but whatever. I love sipping my coffee on my porch in the morning, or reading/napping in the afternoon. I have even gotten several projects off the ground, that have thus far proven rather rewarding. I held my first health meeting with the women, and over 70 women showed up! I talked about Malaria, and we held a raffle at the end where I gave away 3 mosquito nets and some mosquito-blocking incense. The women LOVED it, and from what I hear--because of the prize raffle--there are going to be quite a few women there next time. They keep telling me 200, but I will see it when I believe it. Generally, I am opposed to prizes, but since they are topic-related, and the women have to answer relevant questions to win...I think it's fine. It was so satisfying to see that room bursting at the seams. I also started an English Club with the high school kids where I am going to show American movies--Pixar, or other fun kids movies--in English with French subtitles, as well as have meetings and open reading hours...I am sure I can spare some US Weekly's for them to read...HAHA! Relevant English, ya know. Lastly, I held my first meeting with the girls in my village about a Girls Camp, and over 30 girls signed up! I wasn't even expecting 20 at the meeting, but I had over 50!! I really want to work with young girls on their self-esteem and making relevant/wise life choices. I know you are thinking, but Stephanie you are a business volunteer, well that may be, but I have found that my work varies quite a lot, and I am happy to go where it takes me. I am teaching a marketing seminar in at least that is related to my focus. There is no way to determine how these activities are going to turn out, and I won't be happy or on a high every single day in village, but it really feels good to be doing this work. As much as I miss home, family, and friends--and I miss you terribly--things just feel very right...That is the only way I can describe it.

Okay, I am all done being all Mr. Rogers...I just had to get that out. Anyhoo, so village is good, my kitty is good, my health is pretty good, I am about to see Mike for the first time in 8 months, and I am 48 hours away from sipping on a Caramel Macchiatto...there is no way that I couldn't be content right now.

I have finally got my video camera up and running and should have a clip from village of my village women at work. It is amazing, and gives a whole new meaning to whistle while you work. I should have that posted after I get back from Israel...and I hope to continue posting video clips so that you can get some "Day in the Life", STAY TUNED!

Love you guys, and as always, Stay close!