Thursday, June 26, 2014

PCVs May Finally Get Coverage


Sexual harassment and unwanted advances are a huge, daily problem for female volunteers in Cameroon.  Being grabbed or having obscene things shouted as you walk by is inescapable and something you’re advised to “ignore,” “just deal with,” or “grow a thicker skin” about – the attitude, and sometime literal advice is, if you “can’t handle it,” you should “go home.”  Gender discrimination in workplaces is also often a daily reality and struggle.  Treating women like property or objects isn’t “culture,” it’s wrong.  Further denying women choices about what happens after their choice has been taken away is also wrong.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ambassador speaks Pidgin!


Well done, Ambassador Entwistle, for learning and speaking Pidgin on air!

But shame on NPR for calling Pidgin “broken English.”  Pidgin shares much of its lexicon with Standard English, but is a separate language in its own right, with its own grammatical structure and syntax.  While it is a first language for many in West and Central Africa, it continues to be disparaged and its use discouraged in schools, disenfranchising many from more than a basic level of of literacy and education.  Comments such as the one mentioned only serve to reinforce ideas of a hierarchy of language and the discrimination that attends such perspective.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An end of it

So I promised myself I’d finish this blog by the end of the year, so here it is.  It’s been harder than you might think.  I’d planned to write a lovely little post about how amazing Paris was, how lucky I am to have been able to visit that gorgeous city a second time in my life, and this time accompanied by my most favorite person in the world; and then I’d write about the beauty of Ireland, which really is every bit as lovely, and the people just as friendly and welcoming, as every song or tourism commercial has ever promised; or maybe I’d go all out and write first about the great history of Dublin and the juxtaposition of a fully modern sense of place alongside the history of an ancient and proud people, and the surrounding marks of their fight to retain (and sometimes reclaim) their freedom and identity and the right to simply be, and be peacefully, then follow that up with Cork!  Hurling!  Cousins!  Green that even HD can’t reproduce!  I thought I’d end with something cute about homecomings and landing on our feet again and looking for the next adventure.
But here you go instead, and like I said, harder than you might think.  Because our trip home was amazing, and our friends and family have been wonderfully warm and generous and welcoming; yet once the dust settled off our backpacks, more than just our breath has caught up to us.  No, it’s not all bad, but how to assess and evaluate and put in place not just a year this December 31st, not even two years, but rather what has come to feel like an entire lifetime of joy and laughter and beauty and grief and regret and struggle and what-have-we-accomplished and where-to-go-from-here…  They weren’t kidding about that roller coaster we’d be on with Peace Corps.
It’s been interesting to come home, yes, because of the “reverse culture shock” (I sometimes still get stuck gazing at the sheer variety of options of everyday things – it’s best to have a list, know what brands you like, or just get what’s on sale), because of the things that have changed (is everybody a hipster now?), and things that haven’t.  Because of the knowing looks when I mention that my pagne has shrunk in the wash (it did!), and questioning whether what I’ve put on is actually appropriate to leave the house in (I often find I’m a tad overdressed, but sometimes there are colors and patterns that just don’t get put together in America).  I watch what I say - if I mention Cameroon am I going to be thought of as one of those horrid people who starts every sentence with, “When I was in Peace Corps…”?  When someone says they like my dress, sometimes I smile and say, “Thank you, I had it made in Africa,” (no one knows where Cameroon is anyway) even though they don’t know, couldn’t possibly know, that my dress is one of the few things I feel is unequivocally lovely from my time over there right now, and sometimes people will smile back with more admiration than they should and say, “Really?  I bet that was great!” and other times they will smile in a less nice way and make a mock of it, “Well, lah-di-dah!”
It’s made difficult because people who love you want to get it, and think they do, and maybe they do understand in pieces – military members who’ve been deployed knows what it is to be far away from the people they love – but it’s a different story.  We weren’t actively being shot at; we didn’t have any logistical support.  And I don’t want to go back, but I am proud of my service to my country – which I nevertheless hesitate to say, never having entered an active combat zone (though, in entirely unrelated incidents, there were guns, and I was otherwise injured, as I'm reminded anytime the weather changes), because some might say, for being less a uniform, mine was a lesser service.  And while people may be ready to accept either that it was awful (and it was, and wasn’t), or that it was great (and it wasn’t… but it was), it’s very hard for someone who wasn’t there to understand that it was both, in spades, in conjunction.  Then there are those well-meaning (?) individuals who smile and nod and say it sounds like life, sounds like anywhere in the world.  And those whose eyes glaze over if they think to ask what it was like, and those who don’t ask at all, because everyone has plenty of stress and their own hardships and tragedies, and you feel like a bit of a boor for thinking that the worst time of their lives still includes access to American grocery stores and hot showers, and where you’ve just been was at times so cheap, dirty and ugly, with grasping and hateful and fearful moments (but not only that) – but of course, your non-Third-World-living American friends don’t know, and it isn’t fair to expect them to.  All suffering is suffering, as the man says.
We have been so grateful for those friends, though, who have asked, and who do really want to know, and so keep asking and listening to our often contradictory answers as we try to sort out for ourselves what it was like, and what that means, and how to reconcile it with the lives we had before, and our lives moving forward, and what does that mean for us, and what do we think about it.  How could we even hope for someone else to understand what we don’t yet ourselves?
And maybe four and a half months back in the country is a bit soon to try and have it all neatly wrapped up and packed away - and only three of mostly not living out of backpacks, looking for work (which is just never fun for anyone), not getting work, and deciding we’ll move to where we want to live anyway – but it’s the end of the year, and time to put away things past so we can take up the new.
So be gentle and kind to yourself if you’re going home; be patient with your friends who are coming back.  Yes, it’s America.  Yes, it’s familiar.  Yes, it’s home.  And yes, it’s good and it’s amazing and it’s also hard.  And that’s okay.

Happy New Year, goodbye, and good luck from your

Wandering Gaines’

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Central Africa’s Bushmeat Crisis

As a PCV in Cameroon, what you should know about Central Africa’s Bushmeat Crisis
by Sean Denny
(We weren't able to include some of the images and content from the original document, but feel free to e-mail us for the full PDF.)

What is the Bushmeat Crisis?
The bushmeat trade is the commercialized killing, selling, and trafficking of wildlife for consumption. The trade in Cameroon is much larger than many people realize. For example, millions of pounds of bushmeat in Cameroon are not consumed in the rural areas where wildlife is hunted; instead, this wildlife is smuggled from rural villages and forests—often on logging trucks—to urban markets of all sizes, including those of Yaoundé and Douala. In fact, 90-100 tons of bushmeat arrives in Yaoundé every month for sale. And the numbers surrounding the entire Central African bushmeat trade are staggering. For example, it is thought that at least 2-3 billion pounds of wildlife is extracted from the forests of Central Africa each year for the bushmeat trade. Although a significant amount of this wildlife is consumed at the local level, bushmeat hunting in the last several decades has become increasingly commercialized, as well as increasingly illegal, which has resulted in a dangerously unsustainable commercialized trade.

In short, the bushmeat trade is one of the world’s largest and most intense threats to our planet’s wildlife, and the bushmeat trade of Central Africa is the largest of its kind in the world. Illegal bushmeat hunting in the region is nothing short of a disaster to conservation efforts. In due time, the bushmeat trade may spell the end of some of Cameroon’s—and Africa’s—most spectacular wildlife.
imageimage  From top left, clockwise: A putty-nosed monkey for sale at a market in Batouri, East region; An African dwarf crocodile, killed for the bushmeat trade, Southwest region; Monkey stew and meat (including a monkey skull), East region; Smoked monkey bushmeat, Littoral region. Photographs: © Sean Denny.

It is well known among biologists that Cameroon is a marvel of biodiversity. The country not only contains an unusually high number of animal and plant species, it also contains a large number of animal species that live nowhere else on Earth, or only in Cameroon and one of its neighboring countries. This means that unsustainable bushmeat hunting in Cameroon has the potential to wipe out entire species, particularly rare and endangered primates, of which there are many in Cameroon.

Animals in Cameroon most threatened by the bushmeat trade:
Monkeys (all species)
Forest Elephants
Bongos and Sitatungas (antelopes)
Forest Buffalo
Goliath Frogs - largest frog on Earth
Water Chevrotain (an antelope)
Pangolins (all species)
African Dwarf Crocodiles
Fruit Bats

Some Mammals of Cameroon
The Cross River gorilla is among the rarest animals on Earth, with only 200-300 invdividuals alive today. This animal is only found in small portions of the Southwest and Northwest regions of Cameroon, as well as the Cross River State of Nigeria.

Drills are consistently ranked as one of the most endangered primates in Africa, and their numbers are still declining. Mandrill (Rafiki from the Lion King) populations are also declining rapidly as a result of bushmeat hunting. Each of these species is found in only three countries, yet Cameroon contains them both.
The western lowland gorilla is listed as critically endangered. In addition to bushmeat hunting, Ebola outbreaks are seriously threatening the long-term survival of this iconic species.

Forest elephants (a separate species from savannah elephants) are being mercilessly slaughtered across Central Africa. In the last 10 years, 62% of all forest elephants on Earth were killed for their ivory or meat. In another 10 years, the species could be gone.

The excerpt below is from a document published by The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force. The excerpt provides further information about the bushmeat trade and It also mentions why large-bodied species are especially threatened by bushmeat hunting.

“Deforestation still threatens habitat in tropical forests. But when the equivalent of 4 million cattle in wildlife—many of which are endangered species—are hunted and eaten each year in Central Africa, tropical forests face a more immediate threat, known as the “empty forest syndrome.” It turns out we can “defauna” a forest quicker than we can “deforest” it. Tropical forests, in contrast to tropical savannas, are particularly susceptible to over-hunting because they harbor less wildlife—by at least an order of magnitude. Hunting intensity is increasing as demand for meat increases with human population, as new, more lethal, hunting technologies such as wire snares and firearms are widely adopted, and as roads and vehicles open once isolated forests and significantly reduce hunters’ transportation costs. Hunters consider all wildlife fair game; and they prefer large animals such as apes, elephants and large antelopes because they generate the highest returns on investment. They will continue to take the more profitable large animals whenever they can, regardless of their scarcity, even when other smaller wildlife are sufficiently abundant to make hunting returns economically viable. ”
imageLogging companies in Cameroon are creating new road networks in once-remote forested areas, giving hunters unprecedented access to some of Cameroon’s last remaining healthy forests and their large-bodied wildlife. The trucks in this photo are coming from the forests surrounding Lobéké National Park. Lobéké is one of Cameroon’s most remote protected areas, but it is increasingly suffering from large-scale poaching. Photograph: © Sean Denny.

Steps YOU can take to avoid participating in the bushmeat trade during your service in Cameroon:
1. Never eat endangered or near-endangered species. These include all monkey species, chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, African dwarf crocodiles, pangolins (they look like a bizarre, scaly anteater and are called “katabeef” in pidgin), forest buffalo, goliath frogs, and any antelope/deer species (because you don’t know what type of antelope you’re eating—it might be an endangered species)... OR, even better, choose to not eat any kind of bushmeat.
2. Never eat bushmeat being sold in an urban setting, including small towns and bus stops along roads. Eating bushmeat in an urban setting directly supports commercial bushmeat hunting.
3. Never buy any animal or animal part, including animal skulls and skins. Doing
so only increases incentives for hunters to kill and sell more wild animals. Even if you see a live endangered animal for sale, never buy it. You can take action by calling LAGA or the Limbé Wildlife Center (see below).
4. Never keep a wild animal as a pet, especially a monkey. Primate pets are almost always orphans whose parents were killed for the bushmeat trade. Many PCVs may like the idea of having a pet monkey, but keeping monkeys as pets sets an unfortunate example, as people may view a PCV’s enjoyment of keeping an orphaned pet as support for the killing of animal parents. Although this obviously is not true, it is easy for Cameroonians to misinterpret our motivations and attitudes, and it is very likely to happen in this case, regardless of what you say.
5. Never go bushmeat hunting.
imageA blue duiker and flat-headed kusimanse for sale at a market in the Southwest region.Photograph: © Sean Denny

Bushmeat and livelihoods An Important Topic
When learning about the bushmeat trade, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that bushmeat is an important source of protein for millions of impoverished people living in the rain forests of Central Africa. Additionally, hunting and selling bushmeat can be a valuable source of income in economies offering few other alternatives. To ignore these realities would undermine the complexity of the bushmeat crisis and it would fail to address the issue in its entirety. From a development and humanitarian point of view, not all bushmeat should be considered bad. For example, cane rats, rat moles, porcupines, snakes, and snails (and fish!) are good and reliable sources of protein, as well as the abundant blue duiker antelope (frutambo). These animals reproduce quickly enough to withstand hunting pressures. But there are species that do not reproduce quickly enough (for example by having long pregnancies and long maturation periods) nor live at high enough numbers for their populations to survive the demand. These are the species being pushed to either global extinction or localized extinction in Cameroon.

While legal subsistence hunting may be justified, illegal and commercial bushmeat hunting must be stopped—or, in the case of commercialization, at least severely reduced in villages while fully stopped in all urban settings, including the smallest of towns. This is necessary when one considers both the unsustainable nature of the trade and the welfare of human beings that rely on bushmeat for food. Bushmeat is a resource that is being depleted at an alarming rate. Its depletion will result in a much reduced food supply in the coming years for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of Cameroonians. Moreover, tropical rain forests rely on fruit-eating animals to disperse and germinate seeds, which allows these forests to regenerate.

Cameroonian forests need their wildlife, especially fruit-eating animals such as primates, elephants, antelopes, hornbills, and fruit bats. Furthermore, many Cameroonians are heavily dependent on Cameroon’s forests for ecosystem services (i.e. the production of clean water, food, fuelwood, building materials, tools, medicine, etc.). Therefore, not only are wild animals in Central Africa valuable for their major contributions to African and global biodiversity, they also have crucial ecological roles in productive forests and are currently a vital food resource for many poor, rural-dwelling Africans.

Lastly, all PCVs come to Cameroon with the intentions of improving the lives of the poor and to promote sustainable solutions to poverty. The sustained health of natural ecosystems is crucial to the livelihoods of almost all impoverished people, who are often deeply reliant on ecosystem services for subsistence living. It is therefore in all of our interests to promote the health of Cameroon’s wildlife and ecosystems. An easy way for a PCV to start this process is by removing him or herself from the bushmeat trade (see above), educating others about the unsustainable nature of the trade, and safely alerting authorities to illegal activities threatening the survival of Cameroon’s wildlife.

Wildlife Crime: The Bigger Picture
Wildlife Crime is a grave problem throughout all of Africa, and indeed throughout the entire world. A great deal of wildlife crime in Africa is of course connected to the bushmeat trade, but wildlife crime goes further to include the poaching, capturing, and trafficking of animals and animal parts for ivory, traditional medicine, pelts/skins, trophies, pets, artwork, and souvenirs. A large part of the wildlife trade, particularly the ivory trade, is driven by China’s immense and growing demand for wild animals and their parts. Buyers of illegally obtained wildlife, however, are found throughout the entire world. The chain, of course, starts in countries that contain the sought after wildlife, such as the country of Cameroon.

Wildlife crime is rampant in Cameroon. Cameroonian foresters and park rangers will often turn a blind eye to wildlife crime—or become active in it—if the right amount of money is promised. In fact, it is not uncommon for park rangers and government officials in many African countries to be involved in poaching activities and other acts of wildlife crime. Corruption itself may be the single greatest threat to our planet’s wildlife. Wildlife laws are rarely enforced in underdeveloped nations even though these countries often harbor the most threatened of species. Today, a huge number of customs and port authorities—and other government officials—are bribed to ensure their complicity in the illegal wildlife trade. In fact, reveling in their triumph over authorities, traffickers and dealers will sometimes boast about the success of their global undetected trading networks.

Indeed, poachers, traffickers, and dealers of wildlife are disturbingly successful. The international wildlife trade is now the third most profitable form of organized crime in the world (after narcotics and human trafficking). An equally concerning fact is that the money generated from the trade frequently goes to funding rebel or government militias in Africa. In fact, one of the largest events in wildlife crime in decades was recently perpetrated by a notorious Sudanese militia, the Janjaweed. During January and February of 2012, the Janjaweed killed three-hundred and fifty plus elephants in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park. 
This atrocious event in more detail below.

Sadly, wildlife crime is growing and the technology used by poachers is becoming increasingly sophisticated and lethal. Poachers are now using helicopters to map out the movements of large animals (such as elephants and rhinoceroses) in national parks. Military weapons, including machine guns, mortars, and grenades, are being used to kill both wildlife and park rangers. In many parts of Africa, it seems that a war has broken out over the continent’s wildlife.

Despite rapid and expansive urbanization in Africa, and the concomitant destruction of its natural habitats, wildlife crime is the most significant and immediate threat to Africa’s wildlife. As a PCV in Cameroon, it is important to be educated about these destructive activities. The following page discusses how you can report wildlife crime if you come across such activities during your Peace Corps service in Cameroon.

Reporting Wildlife Crime in Cameroon: The Choice is up to You
At some point during your service in Cameroon, you are likely to come across an act of serious wildlife crime. If you wish, you can report the case to the Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), an NGO in Cameroon that partners with the Cameroonian government to take action against wildlife crime OR you can report the case to the Limbé Wildlife Center, a rescue center for orphaned wildlife. Below are some good examples of cases that you can report to LAGA and/or the Limbé Wildlife Center (LWC).

Cases of primates being illegally hunted or sold or illegally kept in captivity. Contact the LWC or LAGA if you see a live or dead endangered primate for sale, or an endangered primate being kept as a pet. You can also contact these organizations if you have any other substantial knowledge regarding the hunting and selling of endangered primates. Endangered primates include chimpanzees, gorillas, drills, mandrills, and other lesser-known species, such as colobus monkeys and the rare De Brazza’s monkey. If you give the LWC or LAGA a detailed description of a particular primate, they can help you determine the species. Note: A protected wild animal is being illegally kept in captivity if it is being kept anywhere outside of an established wildlife/rescue center.

Cases of other wildlife being illegally hunted, sold, or kept in captivity. See the end of this document to learn which animals are illegal to kill, sell, or posses in Cameroon.

Cases related to elephant poaching and/or the selling of ivory. If you have knowledge of elephant poaching activities or the selling of ivory, call LAGA. Additionally, if someone offers you the opportunity to purchase ivory (this has happened to PCVs before), call LAGA and report the case.*
imageLeft: A male chimpanzee illegally kept captive in a village in the Southwest region of Cameroon. Photograph: © LWC
*It is important to know that both LAGA and the LWC will never expose your identity if you report a case. Always keep in mind, however, that the safety of an animal should never be prioritized above your own. Therefore, you are encouraged to alert LAGA and the LWC to wildlife crime at your discretion. For clarification on this issue, you are welcome to call either of these organizations.

Contact Information
The Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA)
Vallee Nlongkak, Yaoundé

The Limbé Wildlife Center
(email is preferable)

The Massacre at Bouba Ndjida, Cameroon
imagePhotograph: © WWF Cameroon
Highly intelligent, social, emotional, and immensely powerful, elephants are surely among the most magnificent creatures on Earth. Yet the future of elephants in Africa is disturbingly bleak. This elephant (above) was one of three-hundred and fifty plus elephants that were slaughtered in January and February of 2012 inside Bouba Ndjida National Park, located in the North region of Cameroon along the country’s border with Chad. This massacre was one of—if not the—worst poaching events in the world in decades. It was perpetrated by the Janjaweed, a Sudanese militia that fights on horseback, mostly in Darfur.

In early 2012, the Janjaweed road on horseback from Sudan, through the Central African Republic and Chad, and into Bouba Ndjida National Park, where they used machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and other powerful weapons to kill hundreds of elephants. Chainsaws were used to cut off the elephants’ faces (below), which allowed the Janjaweed to quickly obtain the elephants’ tusks. (Many elephant poachers now use chainsaws for this purpose.) The Janjaweed have been selling elephant tusks for decades now to fund their warfare activities in Sudan. Sadly, organized elephant killings conducted with military tactics and weaponry are becoming increasingly common in Africa. It is important to remember, however, that many elephants in Cameroon are not murdered by highly organized foreign militias, but instead by Cameroonian poachers. For example, in June 2012, three men from the Cameroonian military were caught poaching elephants inside Campo Ma’an National Park, located in the country’s South region.

For more information on the Bushmeat Crisis and Wildlife Crime, visit the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force at and the Last Great Ape Organization at You are also welcome to email Sean Denny at

Below lists just some of the species that are protected by law in Cameroon. Unfortunately, despite the fact that these species are officially protected, some have already become extinct within Cameroon, such as the cheetah and black rhinoceros.
-Zorilla (also known as the striped pole cat)
-African wild dog
-Guereza (also know as the Eastern black-and-white colobus)
-Preuss’s red colobus
-Preuss’s monkey
-De Brazza’s monkey
-L’Hoest’s monkey
-Agile Mangabey
-Bosman’s potto
-Cross River Allen’s galago
-Giant ground pangolin
-African manatee
-Beecroft’s flying squirrel
-African savannah elephant
-African forest elephant
-Black rhinoceros
-Red-fronted gazelle
-Yellow-backed duiker
-Mountain reedbuck
-Water chevrotain
-Forest buffalo
-Roan antelope
-Defassa waterbuck
-Giant forest hog
-Bush pig
-African civet
-Genet (all species)
-Chawless otter
-Bay duiker
-Peter’s and Harvey’s duiker
-Spotted hyena
-Striped hyena
-All other monkey species in Cameroon
-Long-snouted crocodile
-Nile crocodile
-African dwarf crocodile
-Green turtle
-Olive ridley turtle
-Leatherback turtle
-African spurred tortoise
-Eisentrau chameleon
-Pfeffer’s chameleon
-Four-horned chameleon
-Mount Lefo chameleon
-African rock python
-Royal python
-Muller’s sand boa
-Burrowing python
-Egyptian cobra
-Spitting cobra
-Black mamba
-Black cobra
-Green cobra
-Burrowing cobra
-Nile monitor lizard
-African savannah monitor lizard
-Bell’s hinged tortoise
-Common tortoise
-Elegant turtle
-Senegal turtle
-African turtle
-Goliath frog
-African gray parrot
-Brown parrot
-Red-fronted parrot
-Senegal parrot
-Cameroon mountain pigeon
-Bannerman’s turaco
-Yellow-casqued wattled hornbill
-Grey-necked rock fowl
-Mount Kupe bush shrike
-Cameroon mountain francolin
-Lesser flamingo
-Greater flamingo
-Cameroon montane greenbul
-Dja river warbler
-Nubian bustard
-White stork
-Black stork
-Saddle-billed stork
-Crowned crane
-Secretary bird
-Green turaco
-Yellow-billed turaco
-Almost all birds of prey found in the northern half of the country. Eagles, hawks, falcons, and vultures are all birds of prey.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Then we flew to Barcelona

Spain is a place we’ve always sworn to visit “one day.” We love the wine, we love the food, we love the occasional Anthony Bourdain visits shown on television. We’ve always wanted to go, and figured we’d get there “eventually.” When our plans to leave Cameroon in June collapsed colossally and two of our dearest, most beloved friends invited us to join them on their way home via Barcelona, we took it for granted that this would be our silver lining.  During the hardest days as our time in Cameroon came to a close, we would sing “Barcelona!” to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

We landed at nearly midnight, found our tragically dirty luggage (giant camping backpack behind, standard sized backpack up front, and, oh, yeah, duffle bags, etc., over each shoulder), and hobbled to the taxi stand. After collapsing in bed in our little efficiency apartment, we woke to find ourselves in a land of sunshine and joy. Glorious, dignified old apartment buildings stretched upward on every street, offering comfortable shade, while balcony windows dripped with verdure. Occasionally a fine cooling mist would drift down on us as apartment dwellers nurtured their mini gardens above. We walked seven or eight miles every day, reveling in the freedom to do so, marveling when cars and busses and even the occasional motorcycle stopped at the edges of crosswalks and waited patiently for us to pass by. Barcelona is by far the most walking and biking friendly city we’ve been in. We ate asparagus and strawberries and cherries and bibb lettuce and all the things that were something other than the slightly over-ripe Roma tomatoes, onions, and garlic we’d had in everything for two years. We laughed, overcome by the absolute joy, and at the absurdity of being so overjoyed at the taste of a perfectly ripened strawberry, and tried not to drool over the delicious abundance and possibility down every aisle of the Mercat de La Boqueria.

We needed the time to reintroduce ourselves to Western culture. Daily the conversation would ensue:

Friend 1, ‘Do you think there’s a bathroom?”

Friend 2, doubtfully, ‘Mmm… probably…?”

Friend 3, ‘I’ll go check.’

Friend 3 absents and, after a brief interval, returns.

Friends 1, 2 and 4 look on expectantly.

Friend 3, ‘There was a bathroom!’

Friend 1, ‘How was it? Was it clean?’

Friend 2, ‘Was there toilet paper?’

Friend 4, ‘Was there water?’

Friend 3, “Yes, yes, and yes.’

All sit and grin like lunatics at the greatness of such an unexpected convenience.

We also needed to begin the readjustment process to shopping (as in, simply buying basic necessities). We needed new toothbrushes and walked into a supermarket. We made a beeline through rows upon rows of random things to the toiletries aisle. Apparently, one does not simply purchase a toothbrush. What kind of toothbrush did we want? What kind of toothbrush best represented each of us as a unique individual? There were toothbrushes of every color on the spectrum. There were flat headed ones, round headed ones, bristles that changed color, handle with or without grips, ridged ones, spiny ones, rubberized ones, vibrating ones, weird grippy things on the backs of the heads, inexplicable pointy things that flipped out from the handle. Are we still looking at toothbrushes?? After a moment of panic Kiyomi grabbed the two immediately in her direct field of vision and asked Jack, “Red or green?” Decision made. Crisis averted. All around reintegration success! We bought toothbrushes.

In Sagrada Familia we found a place that met, and perhaps even surpassed the majesty of Istandbul’s Blue Mosque. In simple human terms, the structure was first imagined by Gaudi in the 1880s, and is finally set for completion in 2026, following the design and instructions left behind in a feat that has transcended time, war, politics, religion, secularization, generations. When we first visited the basilica, we ran into a four hour line in the sun to purchase tickets, so we just walked around the outside. The Nativity façade at the back of the church (from the current tourist entry) shows the birth of Christ as the ultimate culmination of nature. Visions of the natural world – vines, animals, doves flying between abstractions of fruit and flowers, giant turtles or tortoises supporting the whole thing on their armored backs - climb the building, which stretches up, it seems, as far as the eye can see, culminating in a giant, richly green Tree of Life, reminiscent of an archetypal Christmas tree. In the midst of all the edenic (yeah, I made up a word) glory sits the artfully sculpted holy family in traditional stance. By contrast, the Passion façade is almost austere, with human figures rendered in spare abstraction meant to be reminiscent of skeletons (like the Deathly Hallows in Hermione’s telling of the story in the Harry Potter movie) gathered around a crucifixion. We, of course, bought tickets online to go inside the next day. Inside, it is as though Gaudi was the inspiration for every depiction of elfin architecture ever filmed. Stained glass colors the light green and red as you walk between support pillars designed to resemble massive tree trucks, drawing the eye up and up and up to a ceiling carved in leaf design and windows that let in a gentle, dappled sunlight. It makes you feel small and insignificant in the very best way; the way of spaces that are truly magical, that are holy, that are reverence itself. Each of us, with our varying degrees of traditional faith, varying degrees of question and doubt and trust and unknowing, found ourselves, in our own space, in our own time, pausing, deeply moved, feeling a sense of connection, of mystery, of some great unknown peacefulness.

Our week went too quickly, and, as at every stop on our way home, we found ourselves promising, “next time…” and “when we come back…”

Paris was waiting.

Monday, August 19, 2013

And we landed in Istanbul

Which is far too wonderful for how little we’ve been told about how it should be top ten on anyone’s bucket list of places to visit (are those still a thing?).

We got off the plane with a ten hour layover ahead of us and plans to take the Turkish Airlines-provided tour of the city and lunch.  After quite a bit of wandering around (it seemed like every line would lead through a security check with no guarantee we were getting where we wanted to be, or that we could come back) and five very kind, very patient members of airport staff maintaining that, tour or no, if we wanted to enter into their country, we would, in fact, need a visa, we made it to the Starbucks (hey, we’re still Americans) on the other side of the immigration check (incidentally, thanks to our confusion, we were able to direct three other families to the lines they needed to be in).  We got our bearings, only to learn we’d just missed the tour, but we met up with a few other returning volunteers and set out to explore on our own.

We took the tram to the Grand Bazaar.  The city we saw fly by us was clean, warm, bright, an intriguing mix of pastel skyscrapers and the pregnant domes of neighborhood mosques.  Nobody stared at us.  No one seemed to find the group of us, obvious tourists, the least bit interesting – we reveled in our anonymity.  The Grand Bazaar was both of those things, and it was easy to imagine the city centuries ago as a center of world trade, culture, education.  We saw only a small bit of what was there, but we easily could have spent the entire day exploring if we weren’t all so hungry by that point.  We came out of the Bazaar and crossed the street, considering the pictures of meals posted outside of various eateries, when an older man introduced himself in flawless English as the owner of the tea shop across the street.  He placed our food orders for us in Turkish and then led us back to a little sun dappled avenue, shaded by grape vines, lined by low tables, peopled by old men engaged in an older dice game while sipping hot tea.  We were sure we’d stumbled into some antechamber of paradise.

The proprietor brought us all hot tea in small curved glasses and moments later, our food was delivered from across the street.  We could not have been more content than in those moments, but when the meal was done, we wanted to make sure we saw more of the city in our dwindling hours there.

And we were rewarded for our effort.  We walked to the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque (which really is blue), and directly across a wide park, the Hagia Sophia.  With its towering minarets and nine enormous domes, the mosque is an impressive building just to look at, more impressive when you consider it’s four hundred years old; but inside is where you really experience the majesty of it.  We were asked to remove our shoes and checked to be sure we were appropriately dressed (no exposed legs or shoulders for women or men; but there are robes and wraps available so everyone can go in).  Our voices dropped to whispers instinctively when we walked in.  Our eyes were immediately drawn up by the at times ornate, and at times perfect simplicity of the dominantly blue tile work.  The main dome swooping gracefully overhead felt protective.  Blue, our impromptu guide told us, is the color of good fortune.  This, we felt, standing there in socks and borrowed wraps, was reverent, was worshipful, and put one in mind of the majesty of the Divine.  We couldn’t think of a church that could compare.

Due to time, we were unfortunately not able to go inside the Hagia Sophia, but we promised ourselves, “next time.”  Yet, having always wanted to visit, and never (not really) expecting to get there, standing in front of the ancient basilica dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God and modern day repository of culture and knowledge was a privilege.

From there, our clock was running out, but we and our fellow sojourners squeezed in a toast, after climbing up, and up, and up (and up again!) to the terrace at the top of a restaurant (the waiter smiling to himself the whole way… he knew what he was giving us), where we sat in a perfect, warm breeze and sipped some of the local brew, and took in a view of the Blue Mosque to our right and the Hagia Sophia to our left, and beyond that, the Sea of Marmara, and beyond that… oh, only Asia.