Tuesday, December 29, 2009

consuming my time and my money....

No, I didn't all of a sudden get kids- those classic money/ time consumers- I got an apartment. Well, rented, an apartment, rather, which already makes me dread the moment I need to move again. That event needs to be avoided at all costs. So until I marry and/or buy my own place (what dreams!) I'm hunkering down. I'm happy to let you know that I am no longer camping out in my apartment, but sleep in a real bed. (What luxury I tell you!)

The living room has also much improved, as evidenced below.

I've also taken one giant step towards turning the enclosed balcony into an acceptable dinning room with the acquisition of a table. (Yeah, below the giant purple table clothe.) And no, I didn't find invisible chairs, I just haven't found chairs. But we'll ignore that issue at the moment. This is the "progress" update.

My magnets have found a happy home on my new fridge, which is now neighbors with my much beloved magnetic white board which totes the remnants of my "to-do" list.

Not to be forgotten is my favorite feature- the magnetic fort door, covered in postcards I've received since moving to Israel. It's a lovely sight to see before going out in the world every day.

And my grand finale- a simple reward to myself- flowers. The first I've bought for myself since coming to Israel. And they're in a beautiful vase gifted to me by wonderful friends on what may be my most memorable birthday to date. (And a very hard act to follow!)

Friday, December 25, 2009

New City; New Transportation

Back in May I posted a video of a colleague's drive to work in Dhaka. To give you a little taste of the difference between my current city and my previous home, here's a video made by a fellow oleh (immigrant) of taking the bus down Yaffo Street in Jerusalem. You'll notice lots of construction as well as Yaffo is in the process of becoming the main street for the new light rail train. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bragging Rights

Freshmen year of college my roommate, Liz, and I established a few rules. One of them was bragging rights. We both understood that no one really likes a braggart but, it's also important to have someone with whom you can share your accomplishments in that 5-year-old, "Look what I did, Mommy!" kind of way. So, today, I am claiming reverse bragging rights. Now I can tell everyone, "Look what my MOMMY did!"

Here are three very different creative pieces from my mom. (Yes, she would be the one of Gypsy Queen fame and blog title inspiration.)

Functional art: a window at my brother's house that Mom painted to avoid the need of a window treatment.

Cool, funky elephant. (Yeah, and who said math teachers are not creative?!?)

My favorite, an awesome quilt. (I have to say, she can do a lot with a few piece of fabric!)

May you all be blessed to find pride in your loved-ones' abilities! Long live the bragging rights!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Shawn is at it again

In my travels, I have been blessed with meeting many interesting people. People who see the world just a bit differently and maybe, aren't willing to accept the world as it's presented. While living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I came across Shawn, a rather optimistic Canadian with ties to Bangladesh who was willing to turn his life on his head to make a difference.

I have to admit, I'm not quite the optimist as he is, but I'm sure glad he's out there. Here's his lasted youtube video. I think his work speaks for him. Enjoy.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Camping out in my apartment

I think one of the deepest yet least contemplated about cultural characteristic is TIME. Sure, there is the classic "Spanish time" where people arrive hours after the hour stated on the invitation (woe to the punctual American) and I've also discovered "African time" which has no concept of a linear progression. "I'm coming over now" could have the speaker arriving in five minutes or five days. I'm not quite sure I understand the concept of "Israeli time" although it seems to be just as unidentifiable as the population that creates it, the blend of Ashkenazi Jews from western (European) countries where seconds matter, Sephardic Jews coming from Arab nations, Ethiopian Jews, whom may never have seen a clock before immigrating, and of course, Arab Israelis, Beduins, and Druzes. But what I do know is this- settling into my apartment is taking .way. .too. .long.

Maybe everything is just that much easier when not navigating cultural norms and a language that are neither "normal" nor natural for me. Every step is at least five times as difficult when functioning off of only 5 months of Hebrew study. (Blessed be the friends who are also my translators.) Simply knowing where to go to purchase items and know what is a "good price" in this economic environment- so small, but so challenging.

To put this in perspective- between hunting for an apartment, negotiating and signing a contract, getting the shipment delivered, searching for appliances, searching for appliances, buying appliances, waiting for appliances, complaining to store about lack of appliances, waiting for appliances, delivery of appliances, waiting for appliances to be installed, painting walls, cleaning, etc- has taken over a month. At this point I'm still 1) without a mattress (it came from Bangladesh moldy) 2) without a functioning kitchen 3) without a roommate with whom I could split the expenses.

But not to be on a kvetch-fest; at least I found a place, have a wonderful landlord (who actually ending up taking me appliance shopping), have been supported and aided every step of the way by wonderful friends. I'm just ready to hang the pictures and be able to walk across the floor without navigating the homeless objects and bedding in my path.

And I still get frustrated because for all my travels and adventures, I still tick by an American clock. But in the face of my frustration, my Israeli friends say, "le-at, le-at"- "slowly, slowly".

So, without further ado, my current campsite:

STUFFED- the wall unit that made this place look so appealing. Which is good, since I forgot how much I owned!

STUFFED- The floor artistically decorated with as-of-yet still homeless items.

Primary campsite, i.e. the living room- complete with make-shift floor-bed.

The still unusable kitchen, including a band new fridge (delivered an hour ago). Exciting but not pictured; an oven and range (hooked up a couple of hours after I almost cried on the phone when informed of the "three or so days" it would take) and a washing machine (still in a box, on the attached balcony). And yes, all the dishes still in their boxes waiting for the exciting trip to the mikva.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


After six months of living out of three suitcases (plus carry-on) I have be reunited with my STUFF. It's a day I've been alternately anxiously awaiting and dreading. As you may well know, I seem to have a complicated relationship with my STUFF. Finding a space for my STUFF was a large part of the apartment hunt, and even as I cut tape, open boxes and try to organize, I feel comforted and suffocated. I can't help but feel that if I've lived half a year without it, none of it can really be that necessary. Yes, I like my framed highly complex woven silk textile from the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan- it reminds me of my lovely trip there- but I don't need it. Even before everything was carried up the stairs by the moving company, I'm already dreading the day I'll need to re-box it and schlep it all out. I'm still digging around looking for the transformer so I can plug in my 110V massage chair- a decadent and thoroughly enjoyed item no doubt- but the world wouldn't end if I didn't own it. I was just giddy to pull out the handmade fair-trade puppets and play with them- so many items I could list here- countless pieces of wall art, piles of clothes, boxes of dishes- maybe once everything is in it's place and nicely tucked away and I can actually see the floor again the weight of the STUFF will not overwhelm me. Not until the next time I need to pack it up-

I watch my peers here in Jerusalem with envy- for them, stuff seems to come and go with so much more ease. I still feel incredibly lucky that I had my shipment from Bangladesh to Israel included in my previous work contract. I'm happy that I don't have to start from scratch- or three suitcases. But I can never seem to shake the feeling that for one person, I own too much. But selling it all off doesn't seem that appealing to me- not quite yet. There is still something freeing in the feeling that the choices I made are not as controlled by the quantity I own but rather the quality of my relationships and the improvement of my spirit. Even as I write this, and how weighted I feel with my STUFF, I guess it's never really stopped me from going anywhere. Maybe I'm doing better with my STUFF than I imagined...

Friday, November 27, 2009

Courtney goes to the Paint Store in Jerusalem

Above is one of the most beautiful sights I've seen since moving to Jerusalem- the KEY to my very first apartment in Israel! That beautiful piece of metal and plastic is the result of many hours of work- many with the help of a wonderful Israeli friend since everything is in Hebrew- from reading postings for apartments online, making many phone calls to set up viewings, traipsing across Jerusalem to find the places, contract negotiations, more contract negotiations, understanding rental obligations in Israel and finally check writing and contract signing. I'm absolutely thrilled with my new place- although there is still much to be done to transform it from random apartment to HOME.

First stop- The hardware/ paint store.

I have been told that for only studying Hebrew for four and a half months that I can communicate pretty effectively. It still frustrates me to no end- and I feel I have a pitifully small vocabulary. Also, I realized that I probably couldn't say some of these words in Spanish or French either- much less try to explain what I want in Hebrew. So, instead of setting myself up for a game of Charades in the paint store, I opted for Pictionary. (The top half is trying to describe plaster putty to patch up the holes form nails and the second half is a list of items.)

Needless to say the guy at store was well humored when I said in Hebrew, "Can you help me? I need these things" and then pulled out my drawings. I would have to say though- extremely effective way of communicating. He also went and showed my pictures to the other men working- and my favorite part- gave me a discount off the sticker price. :)

So, I'm in the process of painting and cleaning. I have a lot to do before my shipment from Bangladesh comes out of storage on Monday (so excited! I get my massage chair! - which my back desperately needs after all this work!) Also, it's pretty normal that apartments don't come with washer, stove, oven, or fridge- so I'm also on the look out for those items. And a roommate.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Rain in Jerusalem

It's raining in Jerusalem.

This is not the powerful storms that I grew accustomed to in Bangladesh. Rain that pounds the earth, overwhelms the land, floods homes while suffocating and washing away desperately needed crops. This is not rain that yells furiously as it pounds, causes the roads to swell with knee deep muddy water that bone thin rickshaw wallahs peddle through, plastic bags on their heads, desperately pushing and looking for riders. This is not the rain that seems to come both from the sky and the earth as the rivers overflow their banks, accenting the tenuous life of delta living. This is not rain that pushes you inside, searching for cover...

... this is rain to dance in.

The soft, slow drops plop on leaves and drip down into the parched Jerusalem soil. The touch of rain and soil gives raise to the most refreshing and blessed smell- a freshness that could never be captured- It enters into a soul and refreshes the many voices that have been desperately praying for rain, to relieve a parched land. It is tranquility, comfort and joy.

This is Jerusalem rain.

For all the joy that the rain brings, maybe the sky is crying- today is a day of remembrance in Israel for the Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Today during class time the students put on a small assembly in his honor and his memory. Such a light and hope of peace, shattered.

But rain in this land must always bring joy- regardless of political alliances and religious beliefs. Rain is life. The soft comforting sounds of drops dancing and bouncing on leaves and branches combined the pleasures of the sweet smell of rain on wanting soil must bring out that childlike glee- which for me is accompanied by my mother's voice telling me, "Rain is liquid sunshine."

I too want to join the rain, to seep deep into the soil, to be soaked into the reaching roots and brought up through the tree trunks and reach upward, while simultaneously growing into the land.

As of three months from my aliyah date I am able to apply for a temporary Israeli passport. The date came, and went. I didn't even think about it. I'm not going anywhere. I'm quite content to wait for the one-year mark when I will receive my official Israeli passport.

After a lifetime of flitting from one place to another- a childhood where ever move had a defined start and end date- that matured into personal lifestyle defend by the same bookends of time- my mind argues that is should feel at least a tad bit strange to not have an exit date, a moment from which I'll move onto the next adventure and leave the life I have built for another- But nothing about my choice to commit myself to Israel feels odd to me. It's exciting as well as comforting.

Next week I start the government funded year-long course to become a certified English teacher. Also, as we roll into November, I'll be searching for roommates and an apartment. I'm excited to move out of the bubble of the absorption center and closer to integrating more fully into Israeli society.

Throughout my process I feel such gratitude- mostly towards Israelis who have welcomed me into their country and their homes. Just today I spoke for half an hour on the telephone with a woman I've never met. She explained the various options of for English teachers, offered to make a few phone calls on my behalf and then invited me to come spend Shabbat with her family.

My friends here are equally amazing. One Israeli friend, a few weeks after I immigrated said, "Just let me know when you want me to speak to you only in Hebrew." She's constantly helping me learn. Another friend presented me with Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes in English and Hebrew and sat with me for close to two tedious hours as I tried to read out-loud and understand the poems presented. Next week, another friend will sit down with me and our computers and guide me through the Hebrew language Craig's List like sites as I hunt for a place to live.

Up and moving to another country is not the easiest task in the world- although I'm getting surprisingly good at it. But it's never before been this pleasurable.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Gush Katif Museum/ Israeli Disengagement of Gaza

Yesterday, as part of a goal to visit a different museum every week, I went to the Gush Katif Museum. Gush Katif was one of the Jewish settlements in Gaza that was forcibly dismantled by the Israeli government in an one-sided effort to proceed with the peace process.

The museum did not take a political stance- and the rights of which people to live where is not what I would like to discuss here. I left the small museum with very strong impressions- not on government, political definitions or territory lines- but rather on the nature of the Jewish Israeli population. The part of the museum that struck me most was the video of the forceable removal of Jews from their homes by Jews. Yes, it was the fact that it took place- but I didn't need a video to tell me that- but more so, how it took place.

As I said, the hot political argument is not what I want to share or discuss here. I recognize that the question of land is a hard one. There is another story here that I would like to try to tell in words, although the video footage was so powerful I do not think myself properly capable.

Start with the settlements. For clarification points, settlements are not made by taking Arab families out of homes and then putting Jewish families in. They are built, from scratch, on, well,- controversial land. The neighborhoods of the many now-dismantled settlements in Gaza were lovely white houses with red tile roofs that give one more of the impression of a beautiful beachside suburb in California. Obviously, the people who chose to create these settlements felt very strongly about their right to the land on which they build - again, a point that I do not choose to discuss at the moment- but so strongly that they were willing to stay there regardless of the years of living under quassam rocket fire.

Then take the police and military personal that were required by their government to take these families out of their homes. They were following orders and had to take the hardest job in, the most personally trying aspect of, a very emotional decision. Everyone was told this was for the sake of peace. Whether or not dismantling the settlements in Gaza has taken us a step closer towards peace or set us back is a thorny and complicated issue that I do not want to discuss here.

So- What do I want to talk about? What impressed me so deeply? Not the "How did we get ourselves into this position?" Not the "What is politically right" Not the "What is morally right?" Not the "Who has rights to which land?" I'm sure if you care to explore those topics, you can find plenty of perspectives on these issues floating around. What impressed me is this: two groups of people, the settlers and the military sent there to remove them, whose very specific goals in this moment are exactly opposite- to stay, and to remove those who try to stay. Two groups from one people- the Jewish people. A hard place of strong beliefs, masses of people, right next two each other who are pulling in opposing directions.

What would one expect to see? What happens when two groups clash like this in many parts of the world? Rock throwed? Knifes yielded? Guns fired? How many people in the world, individuals and groups, value their own belief structures more than than human life? How many people are willing to kill or be killed for their idea? To not listen to "The Other" because their own ideas are right- Think of protests, mob scenes, terrorists, suicide bombers, war- It doesn't even have to be a life or death matter for people to die- how many people have been killed or injured due to sports fanatics? My team, your team, burning cars, we lost, kill the player that accidentally scored on his own team? When emotions and beliefs run high, bodily injuries and body counts can too.

But, that is not the story here. First- start with the government that let the entire process be filmed. (In fact, all Israeli military units are filmed constantly- there are video cameras on all the vehicles, one on each side.) Then take the settlers, who were literally pulled from their homes, carried out by the military as they hung onto objects, door frames and each other. Each person, thousands of them, carried out, yelling their perspective. But, did they try to physically harm the people tearing them from their homes? No. It was peaceful resistance of the most compelling sort. And the removing forces, did they try to beat the resistances into submission? No. Both sides, opposing, value life and agreed to no violence.

I feel my words cannot capture even 30 seconds worth of the footage filmed- of screaming, yelling, crying, praying, morning, weeping, pulling, carrying, lifting, removing, clinging, hoping, resisting- settlers holding onto settlers, weighted bags on their backs, bodies wrapped together, holding onto each other, clinging to their beliefs, yelling them out- military men and women reaching down, trying to pry their hands away, to pick up the resistant individuals, again removing hands that had once again grabbed on, four military personal per resistance individual, carrying them carefully so with all the kicking, resisting and trying to break free, to go back to the ground, injuries would not result. The moments before- trying to break into the buildings, to gain access, soldier next to soldier listening as settlers mourned and prayed. Settlers crying out the Shema, praying with all their might, tears streaming, clothes rent in mourning- and the soldiers standing there, some crying, some stone-faced, as they too said the Shema, praying. United and divided, divided but still united. Emotional torment, beliefs crashing, conflicts rising. And in the heat of the moment, in the sea emotions tormented in a storm of conflicting ideas, maintaining respect for human life.

One film I saw focused on a specific family being removed from their home. The father of the family also wore his army uniform. Why? As he explains to his children- yesterday when a soldier approached you, you ran away in fear. You mustn't be afraid of this uniform. Although we don't agree with the actions of these men in removing us, people in this uniform as also the ones that will protect and defend Israel. This film segment also includes the stricking moment of the father of the family and the head military commander hugging and crying together- not just dripping tears- clinging to each other and sobbing, gasping for air. Then they both do what they feel they are obliged to do- to remove the man you have just cried with by physically carrying him out of his home and to resist as much as non-violently possible every effort to be removed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Raging for a Woman

As I read the email I had to keep tears back- not tears of happiness, not tears of sadness- tears of RAGE. The sender is was just passing the information along and had no idea that her little tid-bit fit into a much larger, much more complex story.

Where is the line between yelling for Justice and Lashon Hara (Evil Tongue)? In this whole event, I've been careful to guard the name and identity of the person I think is playing foul- To not drop hints to others but rather to address him directly; to not expose his identity, to not spread rumors. I am just so upset! I'm not raging because any injustice has been done to me personally- but rather the injustice that is habitually committed against women in many places in this world. The part of the story I loath at the moment is this- the underlining expectation a specific man has that a certain women who is routinely beaten up by her husband- even as she works to provide food for him, his parents and their children- should just remain silent and take the abuse. How dare she bother anyone else with her personal problems? The woman in this story lives in a world where her voice has no value, her gender, no rights and consequently, today, her children have no food.

Misogyny is not just an irrelevant textbook word- it's a foundation, a base assumption, a unquestionable cultural norm- all over the world- it's simply the depth of misogynistic beliefs that vary from place to place. A quotation on a t-shirt without attribution reads, "When men are oppressed, it's a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it's tradition." Ironically enough, the t-shirt was being sold in Bangladesh. Why are some societies so reluctant to value women? I'm even more saddened that some of the worst reports about women's rights come from countries where Islam has a strong influence on the culture. "Cultural clash" cannot even come close to summing it up. More like cultural non sequitur that leaves me shaking my head in confused frustration.

I am so proud of women who are fighting for their rights. In many places, their insistence and persistence is a life-threatening and arduous battle. Even simple rights, like wearing pants or more dramatic ones- like repercussions for attacking and deforming women with acid. Unfortunately, the world as a whole is silent to the culturally accepted bias against women that leads to bride burnings in India, marital abuse all over the world and ridiculous restrictions on women's movements. The control exercised by men over women in Saudi is appalling- women cannot even travel short distances without the consent of their 'gaurdian' male!

I have no illusions about the control exercised over grown women or the advantages given to young boys (education, access to health care, food) over their sisters. At one point in my world wonderings, I was discussing female genital mutilation (FGM) or "female circumcision" with my host father in Mali, West Africa. He was very blunt about why he was going to circumcise his newborn daughter: "Women must be controlled to prevent the perversion of society." Still, seven years later, his words burn and I rage.

Where are the protesters? The meetings at the United Nations? The voice of world leaders? Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights not apply to women? Why is the world so silent?

Here's one of the monologues I wrote about my experience living with a host family in Mali.

N Bah

This is for my mother
The second wife
I don’t know
How to thank you
I don’t know how to comfort you
Because our worlds don’t touch
And I can’t bring them together
Because we don’t speak the same language
Nor the same culture

This is for my mother
The house servant
I tired to say thank you in bambara
I ne ce
But I don’t think you understood
Because you just smiled a smirk
Your husband explains that I don’t need to thank you
For cooking my food
For washing my clothes
For drawing my bathe water from the well
For fanning me when I was sick and hot
Because that is your life
To serve
Without thanks

This is for my mother
Whose beauty is hidden away
Under rags
Next to my sister’s new clothes

This is for my mother
The first to rise
The last to bed
Who sells the food she makes by the open sewer
So that she can provide for her family
And listen to her jobless husband
Complain of fatigue

This is for my mother, n bah,
Who is half the age of her husband
And who carries his child
Yet never relaxes from work
I don’t know if you want me here
Yet another child who is not yours
But you have no choice
Because your husband has decided

This is for my mother
The second wife
The household servant

i appreciate you
i recognize you
i see you
i thank you
i love you

Thursday, August 13, 2009

From Language Teacher to Student

Okay, I have to start with a title disclaimer- of course, all teachers are students (well, all good teachers) in the sense that we keep on learning. I'm constantly discovering more and more, often at the bidding of my students or my curriculum. But, in the formal, titled, roles, I have made the great SWITCH!

I like the idea that I'm learning to learn, that my gauge is that I know more today than I did yesterday. I'm not checking off credits for a degree or jumping through hoops to appease a teacher, a program or a school. I am a learner in the freest, most natural sense. My goal is to acquire as much language as possible in order to provide ample foundation in establishing myself in Israel. In less stuffy terms, play with the language, hang out with people, and point to things and ask friends, acquaintances and total strangers to identify them in Hebrew for me.

Towards the end of the previous school year when I was discussing my transition with some of my then students, one commented, "Geez, I feel sorry for your teacher!" I laughed, but now I'm kinda wondering what she meant by that comment. Was she worried that I'd overwhelm the class with my energy, or try to teach it myself? Was it just a meaningless sideways remark? But I must admit, as a rather opinionated language teacher with a decade of instructional experience (I love saying that- here it is again- I've taught a combination of Spanish/ French for the past ten years- Five of which have been in a classroom and five summers in Concordia Language Villages, and a couple of years one-on-one tutoring at the college level... just in case you wondered how I got a decade of experience in) So, where was I? Oh yes, opinionated (read critical) with a very defined sense of the most effective instructional methods.

I happened to be in the absolutely lowest level of Hebrew possible (I'm quite proud of my accomplishment, thank you). The great part about being the bottom of the barrel is that everyone knows more than I do and can be pestered with questions. I'm actually quite happy that another former Concordia Language Village staff member is here (and thus, we have similar language passions, nerdy love for grammatical details, and instructional philosophies) and he happens to be an expert in Hebrew grammar (bonus!). As another student told me just this evening, being in the lowest level I get to learn the most... or rather, I have the most I have to learn! At this moment, 4 weeks into the 5 month program, I'm thinking that doing a subsequent 5 month block would be the most beneficial. (Aka, if I don't have a solid hold on Hebrew when I walk into my own classroom next year the students will eat me alive!)

So, I have to say, despite what my own students would think, I'm a very nice student to have in the classroom. I still remember my 10th grade Spanish teacher taking me aside and telling me share the airtime with the rest of the students. (I was just so excited to have finally busted through my language failing trends, thanks to Concordia- I didn't really mean to have diarrhea of the mouth... but at least I was spewing Spanish!) Needless to say, I let the other students speak and content myself with writing ridiculously long sentences in Hebrew in my notebook. (Although today the teacher had to ask me to stop explaining additional grammar concepts to my neighbor so that we could both rejoin the class... )

As far as teaching pedagogy, I agree with a lot of what takes place in our classroom. (Which is nice, because as a student, I don't get to direct the class... alas) We have two teachers who alternate days. I had to laugh to myself because one has such a similar teacher style to mine- the same hand gestures, questing style, and way of over-enunciating words- that it was almost like watching myself teach. I understand too, the emphasis on verbs, in lieu of nouns, and general sentence structure. (Although, I must admit, at this point I have a pitifully small vocabulary.) At the same time, I have to wonder at the choice of vocabulary taught. I can tell people where I'm from, what I used to do, and where I study and where I'm going-- but I can't ask for directions or understand the answer. (Since obviously, every single person I meet will be exclusively interested the information I can share with my autobiographical skills but I won't actually want to know how to get anywhere and will never get lost.) If I could make one change to the curriculum, I would throw a directions unit in sometime soon (like now).

The goal is that by this time next year I can have diarrhea of the mouth in four languages- now won't that be fun!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Transitioning to Home


Last night (yes, on a school night) I went with two people close to my age (really, this is where the differences start) to an international art festival and music concert held in downtown Jerusalem. I was smashed and bopping in a space of modern stage and stadium places on old Jerusalem stone, surrounded with other Israelis singing along to Yehudit Ravits onstage. Life in Bangladesh is one filled with population density, but the experience couldn't have been more different. Bangladeshi crowds were primarily men dressed in lungi or tailored pants with very few families around. Women could be seen on the street primarily as beggars or walking in large flocks of colorful salwar kameez and saris when the textile factories changed shifts. Last night, I switched places, instead of being stared at unrepentantly, it was me who could barely tear my eyes away- so many dads carrying and playing with their small children, families with strollers, more observant individuals bouncing and singing along with their less observant copatriots. From mini skirts to ground-length flowing skirts to pants, to head scarves, to kippas to bare heads- all at an art festival celebrating diversity and creativity and enjoying the beautiful Jerusalem summer nights.

My heart sings here.

Somewhere near the end of my time in Bangladesh, I realized that I had become more guarded with my emotions, myself and my attachments. Too few were the occasions where I felt the giddiness gurgling up and exploding into laughter. The two years there held plenty of beautiful moments and wonderful friendships, and I do miss my students so much... dancing and laughing and singing with them... But it's not the same inherent giddiness that characterizes how I feel in my new home.

And my soul rejoices.

Last Thursday after classes I hopped on a bus to צפת (Tzfat/ Sefed) and headed up north to spend time with the wonderful friends I met over the past two years at Livnot. I watched the dry flat land turn into rolling green mountains (or hills if you've seen the himalayas). I spent my time walking through the beautiful old city, so much of which has been dug out, repaired and made inhabitable by decades of Livnot volunteers. I was so happy I though the sun was shinning from my insides out...

So many moments... walking down those twisting stone walkways and coming upon a couple of musicians playing in the shade of a tree for a group of young soldiers... the sounds of shabbat where car engines are replaced with the sounds of children and the buildings seem expel all their inhabitants outside, dressed elegantly to welcome the Sabbath bride... Watching the sun set over the rolling mountain tops and singing kabbalah shabbat and dancing on the Livnot balcony- quite possibly my favorite place and time on earth.

I sit here in my dorm-like room writing and thinking of how pitiful the words are in their vain attempt to encompass my experiences. I could write pages about each moment- from exploring the beautiful quarters of the walled Old City in Jerusalem, to walking through the park to discover figs, olives and pommegrantes growing calmly and gracefully along side the promenade with a spectacular view of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock The freedom of being able to jump on a bus and go to any corner of the country - which I plan on doing again next weekend to see friends in Tel Aviv.

And everywhere I go, I meet more people, amazing open people, who give me their numbers and tell me to invite myself over (it's the Israeli way) and actually mean it. I have more invitations for Shabbat than I can make in any reasonable period of time. Everyone tell me that I'm welcome here- in Hebrew, in French, in Spanish and in English.

Last weekend I was sitting on the stone benches of a plaza in Tzfat next to a dear friend and I realized... I get to live here, in the same country, and allow our friendship to develop over years and years and be in the same space... For people who grew up in the same place, you have childhood friends, who live stationary lives and have known and lived near their friends for extended periods of time... this is not an amazing thought. But the longest time I've even been able to live near any one friend is four years, not counting summers. And I'm so amazed at the idea.

I've spent my afternoon bugging students with more advanced levels of hebrew (aka everyone) for extra help and explanations and now I should actually settle down and do the homework assigned in class- as opposed to the homework I assign myself. *sigh* language teachers, I tell you.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

First Impressions as a New Immigrant

As of today I have completed one full week as an olah hadesha- a new immigrant in Israel. I don't think my head has stopped spinning long enough to clearly synthesis my experience thus far... However, I would like to leave you with a few stories and impressions.

1) I'm wanted! This is so clear by the fact that the government has a Ministry of Immigration that focuses not so much on hunting down and kicking out "illegals" (think US) but welcoming and processing new comers. After one week in the country, I am an official Israeli citizen (actually- I was the moment I passed through customs at the airport as much of the paperwork was completed in advance), I have my Israeli ID card and my immigration papers. I've gone to a "fair" for new immigrants that had various cell phone/ internet companies, health care agencies (health care is provided by the Israeli government but I get to choose my provider), and banks. (How convenient is that!) And it was at said fair where I could pick up my Israeli ID card- a process that took about five minutes from start to finish.

2) I'm wanted! I've also been about town (Jerusalem! Ani garah b'Yerushalayim! I live in Jerusalem!) Every time I go into a store, the bank, etc, the other citizens welcome me. And it's like I'm living in a city full of Hebrew teachers... People with patience to allow me to try out my Hebrew even though we could complete the transaction in much less time in another language. Additionally, people take the time to teach me new words and phrases. I don't think any experience could be more welcoming. These experiences are not limited to my immigrant experience- last summer I had an amazing Hebrew teacher for a cab driver -he was so patient and clear as he used our time stuck in traffic to teach me!

3) Highlight of the day: Today on my bus I gave my seat up for an elderly lady with some bags. When the person next to her got up she stopped other passengers from sitting down in the vacated seat and pulled me towards it. Then we had a little conversation based on what I've learned in my first 4 days of ulpan (Hebrew class). She was so sweet and she invited me to her house so that she could help me with my Hebrew! (I was just so happy to have enough Hebrew to carry on a ten minute conversation... a very basic conversation, but nonetheless!)

4) Being trilingual is no longer such a big deal. Most people who are studying at the same ulpan with me already speak 2-3 languages, in addition to studying Hebrew. The primary non-Hebrew languages are Spanish (Latin America), Portuguese (Brazil), French (France, Morocco, Algeria), Russian (Ukraine, Russia) and English (USA, Canada, South Africa, UK). Other languages spoken here include Hungarian, Turkish, Italian, Yiddish, Afrikaans and Japanese. (I'm sure there are many more!) I'm having amazing fun living in a place full of polygots!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Second Morning in Jerusalem

There is something beautiful and calming about the early morning. Those precious hours where the coolness of the night still lingers and the soft sunlight gives the Jerusalem stone of the buildings a rosy golden hue. I wish I could distinguish between the different bird calls I hear. Most people, including my roommate, still lay asleep in their beds, recovering from the joyful night before. A few men in rush to shul, prayer shawls in hand.

I've always loved the morning- whether it be the pristine snow-covered winter wonderland in Wisconsin, a moment of footprint-less white and glistening tree branches- or waking from a tent on one of our many family camping trips as a child, the previous night's fire ashen, the dew bringing sweetness to the air.

And now- morning in Jerusalem. A moment of sacred tranquility to comfort me before I set off into the vaguely familiar setting of my new life. Even with my experience of plopping down in a myriad of different countries and the remarkably efficient way Israel processes and welcomes newcomers, I am slightly overwhelmed with the transition I have undertaken for myself- but I'm still anxious to start picking away at the challenges- new language, new norms, new rhythms- and I am awed by the determination of the Immigrant- be he from Ireland going to the United States, or the Russian Jews who found their way to Shanghai, and all the billions of wandering humans, pushing, searching, stretching, reforming, redefining their limits, their lives and ultimately, their new communities.

I'm still overwhelmed with my own STUFF, even though I managed to tuck it all away in drawers and cubbies. Creature comforts in excess...

My goal today is simple. Go to the shook (market) and wander amongst the many people shopping in preparation for Shabbat. Simply to go, to watch, to enjoy. And to find a few fruit treasures of my own to take back with me. Maybe I'll also find a chance before sunset to wade through some of the paperwork and try to sketch out a budget for myself. Maybe I'll find the perfect mug for tea to accompany me on this beautiful patio for the many mornings to come...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


With all of the flying and visiting, I've been remiss about writing- whether it be journaling or blogging. When I come back to the USA, one factor of life here hits me more than any other- STUFF. In the context of owning or buying, decorated homes or stadium sized shopping centers, the clutter of our American lives overwhelms me. Commercialism and materialism... and I find it much harder to resist when I'm reinserted back into my own country. Another pair of shoes to join the 50+ I already own, or another pair a pants that are just a tad different from the drawers, boxes and suitcases full I already lay claim to. I feel the fight in my head- the arguments- what I already own far exceeds "need" in any stretch of the imagination. But maybe buying more would provide a job for just one more Bangladeshi or another person in a similar situation. Consuming makes jobs. But it also uses up resources and creates waste. I feel that I'm constantly on purge mode, re-evaluating what I own and trying to convince myself to let go. And even as I purge, I binge, trading old for new.

In 2002 I studied abroad in Mali, West Africa. Mali is decidedly fourth world to Bangladesh's 3rd world status. To help me process my reverse culture shock and to share my experience, I wrote and performed a series of monologues that chronicled my voyage from conception to return. (And because Lawrence is that cool, one very generous theatre professor helped me with my project and I even earned credit for it!) Below is a monologue from that performance that touched on the same theme: Stuff.

The night I left the whole neighborhood came to see me off. Little Awa kept crying my name as we drove away: Masaran, Masaran, Masaran. Kind of like the game we played where we would chase each other calling out each other’s name. But this time, I wasn’t calling back. I held my tears back the entire ride to the airport, holding my mother and my host sister’s hands. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a hard time leaving…

Coming home. Wow. Now there’s a process. Flight cancellations and all the usual holiday airport fun. Didn’t bother me though. I was in no hurry. I was still in Malian existence. I left at night, December 30th and got back mid-day January 1st. I can’t imagine that I smelled so good that point, although I had tried to take a bucket bath in the airport restroom sink. I’m sure it helped… a little. (okay well, at least I thought I was cleaner.) When I got home I wanted to beeline strait to my beloved shower and it’s legendary hot water. Mom however, wanted to stop by the grocery store because “there was no food in the house”

That statement froze me solid. No food in the house. No food. None. Was this possible? I had just come from a house where food purchased was consumed daily and afterwards there truly was no food. I remember waking up hungry in the night and just laying there because midnight snacks was a revolution that hadn’t hit Bamako. How could there ever be no food in my American home. The entirety of the United States has more food than its gluttonous population could ever consume, try as we might. When I arrived home I found the fridge and pantry overflowing with good things to eat. Apparently Mom’s definition of “no food” that night was no lettuce, for which she was in the mood.

Funny how so many familiar objects were new again. It’s quite a visual shock to move from no trinkets to countertops overflowing with picture frames and candles and statues galore. I have so much stuff! I couldn’t believe it. All this STUFF for just one person. Who gave me the right to hoard all this STUFF? The next day my brother called and asked me if I wanted to go to the mall. I said, ‘Are you crazy? I have the mall in my closet! Who could possibly want to buy more stuff?’ I was disgusted with myself. I went from 2 pair of pants, a skirt and 6 T-shirts for 4 months to the Mall of America in my closet. I emptied out my drawers onto my bed and I tried on ever article of clothing. I must be crazy to need all this. I tried it on, and looked in the mirror and thought about when I’d wear it, how often, if it were worthy of occupying space in my dresser. I wanted to throw it all out. But after I tried it all on, and threw it about my room, I folded it all back up and put it back into its well-known places. My society required the owning of STUFF. To always have something appropriate to wear, to be chic, stylish, trendy.

To free myself from STUFF, I walk my dog around the block I stare up at the massive brick constructions with solid doors forever closed to strangers. What would happen if I just walked up, ringed the doorbell and said hi and did that everyday until I knew the entire neighborhood? Those Big Doors are foreboding in comparison to open courtyards filled with laughter.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Tourist Courtney hits the US of A!

I'm homeless and unemployed... and on the road again! It's transition time! After finishing up two years in Dhaka, I'm headed to Israel to study Hebrew (it's about time!) So, in my great transition from cushy expat life with housekeeper and driver to student lifestyle in a dorm with a roommate, I've decided to attempt a crazy tour of the US. Here are a few excerpts:

After landing at my dad's house in San Antonio, I head out to my old stomping grounds- DC metro area. I managed to go swing dancing at my favorite place- Glen Echo, go to synagogue at Magen David and spend time with many of the wonderful people who bless my life. And I even managed to meet my future roommate- who is, for the record, AWESOME! On my last night, a dear friend cooked a scrumptious meal which I happily devoured while sitting on her patio and enjoying the view above. As the sun set, more fireflies than I have seen in many years came and dotted and twinkled in the grass, tress and bushes. It was a truly lovely evening.

After DC metro, I headed out to the country side in Jersey and pulled out the camera to be the über tourist across the boarder in New Hope, PA. Above is a photo taken from the PA side looking back at Jersey. It's not quite the Jersey most people think of, but it's just gorgeous!

And what is tourism without the great tourism companion ? Number one traveling tourist buddy pictured above. :)

And while we're at it, all great tourism must include random pictures with the locals- especially locals in uniform! (Here we are with the bridge police.)

While waltzing down the the quaint streets of New Hope, we (the übertourist duo) spied an Israeli flag! It was a bit folded up I shimmied up the railing to unfurl the world's most beautiful flag (only slightly biased here) for all to see.

However, when I spied another Israeli flag all curled up at the Rockefeller Center in New York, my friend advised me against any similar unfurling attempts. So, one curly Israeli flag photo is all I have to offer.

And what would be more iconic than a New York City cab? (especially when they're going hybrid!) And what could be better than a iconic New York City cab than a cab and a a friend? :) I guess I just have life made.

And tomorrow... to the Bay Area...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Good-bye Dhaka!

Good-bye Dhaka. Good-bye ogling, groping men. Good-bye rickshaws. Good-bye heavily polluted air and waters. Good-bye overpopulated delta sinking under the weight of your people and rising waters. Good-bye scary microbes and malaria carrying mosquitos. Good-bye fabulous students. Good-bye my little expat bubble. Good-bye Morshida. Good-bye driver. Good-bye bowling ally apartment. Good-bye tailor. Good-bye American Recreation Club. Good-bye heart wrenching poverty. Good-bye awesome bosses. Good-bye beggars with stump limbs and skin sack babies. Good-bye sunny classroom. Farewell to the friends who actually talked me into walking around Dhaka as Miss. Tex-ass, hopeful contestant in the Miss Glitter Galaxy Pageant. May we meet again (but... maybe with me in more clothes and with less ogling men about?)

*disclaimer* This photo was for a good cause (we won hundreds of dollars that have been donated to charity.) Oh yeah- the other good cause was us making our own fun since there is no pre-fabricated fun to speak of (no cinemas, no malls, no night clubs, no good restaurants... no where ever you go to have fun) But making your own fun... ah... that produces blackmail quality photos. :)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


All the curtains have been taken down, the walls emptied of their decorations. My packed suitcases are waiting for a few more items- clothes, pillows and small last-minute purchases- until they’ll be zipped and locked, ready for the never-ending Friday. Traveling across the globe with the sun will allow me to arrive in San Antonio in time for dinner on the same day I leave Dhaka- but only some 35 or so hours later. My eyes are so tired that I’m seeing double and want to flop down on the couch that has been my bed since my shipment was packed out last week. The fans whirr… I’ve always been amazed how quiet my apartment can be- such that the major noise I hear is the ceiling fans. My apartment has been an abundantly large refuge from the clanking of rickshaw bells, honking car horns, calls of street vendors and streaming masses of people that characterize so much of Dhaka. Its still purple walls make me smile in comfort through my weariness.

Dhaka. You’ll miss it Priya tells me. I know. I will- and I won’t. I won’t miss the poverty that is so fiercely juxtaposed with my opulent lifestyle of hired help and world traveling financial freedom. Images crowbar themselves into my brain. A woman walking down the street on all fours: She looked like an overgrown teddy bear pushed over from its forever seated position and wrapped in a salwar kameez, her stiff limbs sticking out at seemingly useless angles. A child’s toy pushed hobbling into life.

My life as morphed into a series of to-do lists; growing as I check off, scratch out, crumble up and toss out. Tomorrow- my last day in Dhaka- I’ll check out of my classroom and officially finish my two year teaching contract at a most wonderful oasis tucked into the bustling capital of a challenged nation. Figure out how to remove the mezuzot from my many, many door frames. Say good-bye to Morshida, the wonderful and cheerful woman who has blessed me with her kind dedication- to break these last two stable years for her. And finally, decide what to do with my ziplock of partially used batteries.

I’ve been bemoaning this choice for weeks. In the States, I would have dealt with them in small quantities, placing the then useless batteries on my counter top for a few weeks or a month or so. I would look at them, knowing I should figure out where to drop them for recycling. Then I’d weary of batteries rolling around on my cooking space and I would, with a slight twinge of guilt, lazily toss them into the rubbish bin. (Which I used to call a trashcan but I’ve been converted… I’m actually waiting for the day I can used the phrase “rubbish lorry” in conversation.) I would ignore catchy phrases such as, “Live simply so that others can simply live.” I would think green, close my eyes tight, and plop the batteries in the bin, to leak slowly into the earth, buried in some dump.

But a presentation at school last month by a gifted Bangladeshi photographer Shehzad Noorani forced me to stop. I wouldn’t be throwing my batteries and all their polluting chemical components into the earth- I would be throwing them into people.

Two and a half years ago I sat at my neighbors’ kitchen table to use their landline for my job interview. One of the last questions I asked my now boss was about recycling. (I like to think I’m green, even if it’s not so.) His response was honest- recycling happens- just not the way I think of it. Every morsel of garbage in Bangladesh is rustled through by the poorest of the poor in order to find anything of value. Everything is reused. It’s recycling by the most crass definition possible. Now when I toss out food I think it too old to eat, I wonder about the starving child who will pass through that segment of rubbish and find it.

And now, I’m wondering about batteries. Shehzad's photography is moving, powerful and gut wrenching. For years he has gone to the community of the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh. The water of the river is slimy and black. The community’s industry? – battery recycling. Without a shred of protective gear, the children and women break open the batteries and separate them into their components. Shehzad calls them the children of the black dust. I feel my words can do no justice to the images. Please take the time to look at them, study them, go to his flickr site to read the stories with each photo.

So. I have a bag of partially used batteries. My first impulse was to lug them out of the country and find a proper battery-recycling center in the States. When told my plan to Ashley, a NGO worker here, she said that by taking the batteries away, I was actually robbing these women and children of their livelihood. Without the batteries, they have no jobs. Shehzad himself suggested throwing the batteries away in a plastic bag so they would be easier for the children scavengers to find them among all the other discarded waste. So, I could throw them into my rubbish bin, knowing full well I was contributing both to the black dust that covers their skin and enters into their lungs- and also to the 20 taka (30 US cents) a day that these workers earn to survive (if one could call it that).

So, I have my bag of partially used batteries. I need to make my choice tomorrow. I wonder how much that choice will depend on convenience- the same factor that won over my good battery -recycling impulse in the States. This time it won’t be the whereabouts of a recycling center but rather the space left in my luggage.

No, I won’t miss abrupt confrontation with poverty every time I step outside into the muggy air. But I am grateful for the way I have been forced to reevaluate my choices.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Clearing out

Approximately four weeks (26 days/ 3 shabbats) to go. Logistics are taking over. My to-do list grows faster than I can scratch out (yes, I'm past nice calm tick marks that check off items- scratching them out to oblivion feels so much better) completed tasks. I've sold off many of my belongings, donated others to charity and still have some for sale. I've taken pictures of items that didn't make the Israel cut to post on the teacher's lounge at work (it's paper saving, tree hugging friendly electronic 'teacher's lounge').

For all my desire to be in Israel and start a new chapter in my life- a drastically different chapter- I'm amazed at my ability to still stay mentally present in Bangladesh. I think the overwhelming weight of things left to do keeps me anchored.

I've preemptively started missing my students. I have the urge to hug them at the beginning and end of each class- but that would put me in the same category as the creepy aunt that brings weird gifts and pinches your cheeks too hard- so I restrain myself.

Stickies cover my home and work computer with items that overflow from my to-do lists.

Every day after school seems to be stuff with multiple social, moving commitments and errands galore.

I've started packing. I'm waiting for the shipping company to drop off boxes so I can keep going. For a year, I've looked at every object in my home and mentally weighed its value to me. I've finally gotten to the point of acting on long formed thoughts. As my apartment empties it's like a giant purge. It's cleansing and therapeutic. I love the letting go. I love being able to let go. As much as I enjoy the comfort of physical things, I enjoy more the purge that reminds me that they are just that... things. It's a personal rejection of consumerism that has become pop culture- a consumerism to the point of consuming one's soul- the need to acquire that drives ambition and sometimes bends morality. It's a beautiful balance between appreciation of certain objects, comforts, with the recognition that life is so much more than creature comforts and status symbols. The purging takes on a spiritual tone.

Reminders of the fragility of life still surround. Out of our small staff, two members are currently in the hospital- one with appendicitis, another recovering from a stroke. A third member has finally made it back after a month dealing with heart issues. One day last month 20% of the teachers were out sick. And if illness is hitting us, the privileged and protected with balanced diets and clean water, imagine the 150 million Bangladeshis, most of whom are not so privileged. The hospitals were overflowing, in the most literal sense possible. With all the reminders sprouts a determination to really live, really experience, truly enjoy each moment, each interaction, each person. In a world full of unknowns, I find comfort in creating quality of life since I can find no guarantees for quantity.

At some point I imagined that I would post a weekly picture for life in Dhaka. It never really manifested itself that way. But I did take these pictures last month. To me they are so totally Dhaka- the masses and masses of bundled wires, the bamboo ladder reaching upward, leaning against the same wires the worker is fixing- so precariously positioned. The clear blue sky despite that pollution and amazing masses of green that push through an otherwise cement city. And just life as usually continuing on below.

Friday, May 1, 2009


Okay- the long promised photos- with captions! Just so you know, I whittled the 900+ photos down to 130 or so... which is still gobs... but hopefully a reasonable amount. ENJOY!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Driving in the 'hood. :)

Here's a video that give you a great idea of what my neighborhood is like- it's a friend's drive to work. Keep an eye out for the rickshaws, the CNG's (motorized rickshaws), people walking to work, and my favorite- the kid cages- a bangladeshi rickshaw version of a 'school bus'.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Back in Dhaka

Yesterday I got back from the most wonderous vacation in Bhutan. (Yes, everyone make a guess of where it is before you get out your maps.) Bhutan blogging will come once I start getting photos uploaded- I have a little over 1000 to choose from so some level of editing is required.

One of the fabulous parts about vacationing in Bhutan is the direct flight is a little under an hour so virtually no time is lost due to travel and I never even left the time zone. (Compared with my original flight from the US to Bangladesh which was 27 or so hours, starting from LA and has about 13 or 14 hours time difference, depending on daylight savings time- yes, my definition of travel time has be dramatically altered.)

We arrived back around 10:30am still leaving plenty of time for a full Dhaka day. I came home, unloading the dirty clothes from my pack, gave Morshida money for groceries and had her start making cranberry and orange zest macaroons that I had been dreaming about all week. (Really, what is Passover without macaroons?) Then I popped downstairs where my driver had the car waiting (hey, I only have two more months of the princess lifestyle and I plan on living it up to the last second!). I made a quick run to the US commissary (Seriously, I think I have a love affair with that place. Every time a friend asks me where I found a certain food item, I say, “US Comm.”) I dropped off the dry cleaning, a picture frame that needs to be fixed and then told my driver to head to the salon! (Yes, totally princess points here.)

I’ve gotten into the habit of reading in the back of the car. First off, this is one of the joys of not having to drive oneself, and secondly, it deters many of the beggars and street merchants. Currently I’m reading Tales of a Female Nomad and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It also helps distract me from the horrors that are traffic in Dhaka. (I am so happy to have a safe driver!)

I usually pop around Dhaka in my personal car with A/C and good book bubbled bliss with only the occasional determined rapping of fingers and rasping of “madam” at my window. I look up occasionally to see where we are and then dive back into my book. We got to a right turn (for those of you who don’t drive on the left side of the road, read obnoxious left turn on a busy street with no light and cars inching by bumper to bumper to prevent anyone from trying to turn and blocking up the two adjoining streets) and sat there and waited. Page after page I sat and read, looking up at finding myself in the only barely inches forward. This is so silly! I thought so I went to jump out my door- oh wait! A small green motorized rickshaw (CNG) had pulled up an inch from my door- so I jumped out the other side, jumped over the hood of a car and right into the middle of the bumper-to-bumper traffic. (Hence the need for jumping cars to get anywhere in the gridlock.) And then I started directing traffic, standing with my legs touching the front bumpers of various cars with aggressive drivers. Once my car was through, I waved my driver forward and kept waving one arm towards the turning cars, CNGs and rickshaws while holding an authoritative “stop” hand to the obstinate drivers who started this mess. I stayed until all the waiting vehicles had turned right and vehicles on the other side of the road could once again advance. As I jumped back into my car, which was waiting a few meters ahead, a rickshaw wallah called out enthusiastically to me in English, “Thank you Madam!” I gave him a smile and was quickly off to the salon.

I got a nice head/ shoulder massage with a hot oil hair treatment and a manicure/ pedicure where my nails got buffed to a shine that would make even a new Mercedes Benz blush. Then I walked back home. I took advantage of having electricity at the moment (it goes off about 5-10 times a day) and snuggled into my massage chair.

It is a crazy life I lead: In one day I’m eating breakfast on a beautiful terrace in a magical Himalayan Kingdom and directing traffic in a crowded and dirty developing city! Oh yeah, and don’t forget- it all has to be done with nicely cleaned, shaped and buffed finger and toenails. J

Sunday, March 29, 2009


I finally did it- I admit it! I never thought I would. I've resisted and resisted. But I've succumbed. There's no use denying it, I'm guilty as charged. After a year and a half of mocking the idea, belittling it- such ridicule I've spouted when people suggested or implied it- my face distorting with half mocking lines of surprise and disgust. But today I finally relented. I couldn't hold back any longer. I must just say it, this thing I've done. I called my driver to have him pick me up from work to avoid walking half a block. There, I said it.

But wait! Don’t judge me so quickly, so swiftly- don’t view me unkindly. I promise you I had reason and I blame the season- it’s true. Don’t mock me with that look, those eyes. I’m not wasteful- that I despise. Don’t call me spoiled and pampered and all things unjust. I usually walk that half-block, at daybreak and dusk. Let me tell you my reasons- really it’s a must!

I’ve been watching and waiting, biding my time, for I knew it was coming but not understanding how strong.

For these past few weeks I’ve wondered. On my walk I’ve watched barren trees sprout small leaves. I wanted to watch so carefully this year- the magical development of spring. But I blink and looked up and all the brown dusty branches were bathed in the soft yellow green of new growth. I tried to imagine each cell splitting – mitosis after mitosis- daughter cells growing, chromosomes replicating and being drug to each end, their legs and arms failing unwilling behind. Cell walls being constructed faster than I can imagine… maybe for some, the science kills the mystery and the beauty but for me- it just increases my amazement at the leaves that seem to appear fully formed, straight from the air. I walked with my eyes lifted high, appreciating how the distance is somehow so much greater has newly crowned trees blocked the buildings and sky behind… what a contrast those fresh new leaves form next to the deep ages green covered with a dry winter’s worth of dust and pollution.

And I’ve been thinking… it must be time for the rains to come. Those rains need to come to wash the trees and rinse the streets. Those rains that give life and steal land it in its river-swelling floods, shrinking Bangladesh and squeezing its people.

And today… as I start my last term teaching in Dhaka… as I begin to clean and prune my existence here, to sell, box, ship and store… As I carefully prepare for my own new post-Dhaka beginning… the rains have come… with golf-ball size hail, rancorous thunder and lighting that explodes like an instantaneous moment of midday thrust into night…

So, rather that subject my work laptop to the hail and shoalsh my way home, I relented and called my driver- thankful that he was still at the covered parking in my apartment building, waiting for me.

And as I enter my apartment without a drop on me, I see Morshida’s shoes waiting outside. She welcomes me into my home, filled with fresh white ginger flowers. I notice that my balcony furniture sits completely dry, inside. And as I sit to write, and admire the storm that echoes into my living room, Morshida comes to sit on the floor by my chair. And, with tears in her eyes, she tells me that her husband disappeared in February. After a month she called and he informed her that he has taken another wife and will not be coming back. He wants her to leave her job, take their children out of school and come live with his new wife in a place she has no hope of finding a job even near as good as she has in Dhaka. And still, her mother-in-law lives with her, telling Morshida how wonderful her son is and what horrible wife Morshida is.

It pains me to let her walk out into the hail that pounds down. She insists, what is she to do? She must go home to her children. She cannot wait out the storm. I lend her an umbrella and she walks into the angry weather with the benefit of its flimsy protection. I cannot help but notice the metaphor – as she walks from the temporary sanctuary of my home back into her world where women of her status have no rights and may be pounded with fists like the angry stinging ice that falls from the sky. I have to wonder if she takes more than thin borrowed umbrella from my home… does she gather some self-esteem? Self-worth? Can this job in my home give her anything, no matter how weak or temporary, to shield herself from the harsh realities of her life?

And a few moments after see leaves, the angry grumbles of thunder quiet in the distance as the storm calms… and I pray for the little woman whose life is controlled by the storms of her nation.

Friday, February 27, 2009

peanut gallery in the cross fires

According to an AP article, many of the people killed in this past week's paramilitary mutiny have been civilians. Well, when civilians crowd around military tanks and a compound that is being held by mutineers as if it were the 1960's and the Beatles were inside, I think it's fair to say, some of them are going to get taken down.

Again, if it were me, I'd be going the opposite direction. Obviously, the host culture mentality of stand, crowd and stare hasn't quite taken hold of me.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mutiny in Dhaka

Political unrest can be just so... tiring.

Long story short (to the best of my understanding): The boarder guards- aka the BDR- have been upset that they get less benefits/ pay than the primary army. They mutinied in their headquarters in Dhamondi (a neighborhood in Dhaka), killing a general and some other people. (Not to say I don't care who they are, I'm just not sure). There are also reports of violence caused by the BDR in other regions of the country. The new (old and reoccurring but newly reelected?) prime minister offered amnesty to the mutineers if they surrendered, disarmed and disbanded. The mutineers accepted. The actual surrender is in the process as I type.

Now, apparently all this happened in a region near New Market. (Actually, a friend of mine was down there at the time.) I must agree that if I were in a crowded place and their were mortar and gunshots fired, I'd probably be in the picture below.(credits to the Daily Star) Please note, it's mostly women running for their lives.

(My friend was ushered into a jewelry store. Her daughter explained to me today that's because jewelers are armed to deter burglars. I don't know if that works, but it just deterred this potential shopper) My friend (reports her daughter) is perfectly okay. Although she reportedly suggested to a blond in the car that she stick her head out the window to show off their "white people pass" and get out of the area faster. As much as I would not want to stick my head out the window when there is potential gunfire, here in Dhaka flaunting the 'white skin pass' isn't such a half baked idea. Of course, I say this as a brunette who would not be the first candidate to flaunt the "whiteness' of my hair.

It can also be comical-as when one of the mutinying boarder guards stated that one of their complaints was not being sent on peace keeping missions. This from Farid Hossain of the Associated Press
During Wednesday's standoff, one guard in combat dress, his face covered in a yellow handkerchief, emerged from the compound and complained to television reporters that "army troops are sent abroad to work in U.N. peacekeeping missions and they get fat salaries. But they don't take border guard personnel for peacekeeping."
They don't send us to keep the peace! Shoot someone! Great complaint and follow through. (FYI, Bangladeshi is one of the primary suppliers to the UN peacekeeping forces.)

Now, I know I've previously mentioned my white-women in Bangladesh super-power of being able to effortlessly draw a crowd of 30 men in less than a minute. I would like to put this in context. Please ask yourself, "If I were in a country where the political stability is a bit dubious, there has been bullets and mortar-fire and the army has lined the streets with cannons, what would I do?" If you answered anything to the effect of "run like hell in the opposite direction," you'd be with me and the women in the picture above. However, if you're a normal Bangladeshi male, the answer is something like that picture below. (credits again to the Daily Star) Please look closely at the background.

Yes, that's right. Get closer, stand around and wait to see if there will be more live 'entertainment'. I just wish I could find another image that was in the print edition- it really shows the crowd and stare mentality in all its packed, land-covering, oxygen smothering glory.

Life in the diplomatic zone- where I live and work- has been effected in a way I would categorize as more overly cautious to the point of annoyance than anything else. One of the school's buses didn't run yesterday afternoon or this morning because it transports students outside the dipzone. We've had our after school and weekend activities postponed since yesterday. -This includes the middle and high school music concert, the high school play and the middle school boys basketball and girls soccer tournament. Also, the entire middle school had various trips/ activities planned for today. The sixth grade was going to do activities on campus associated with Shaheed day, or mother tongue day. This is a huge day because the War of Liberation (the civil war that separated East and West Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan) was provoked by the insistence that Bangla people abandon their mother tongue and adopt Urdu. The eighth grade was actually going to go downtown to the War Liberation Museum. And the seventh grade (that's my group) has been planning activities to teach English to the orphans at Families for Children (FFC), an organization with whom we have a formal and ongoing relationship. We were going to go to the orphanage, which is also quite an experience for our rather privileged kids. Also, we got some of our passports back from the Indian High Commission where they were being processed for visas. (The Thai Embassy didn't release the passports we have there.) (We have the passports in preparation for the class trips full of camping and outdoor education.) Some parents wanted the passports back for the weekend- just in case.

So- I originally wrote 'minimally effected' - I guess that's more than minimal. But, as far as political unrest goes, I'd classify all that more as disrupting curriculum and being a tad vexing than anything serious. After work today I went out to my balcony, ate tuna salad on a multigrain bagel, some fruit salad and read a little while listening to the birds and admiring my plants. I still plan on popping into our school's mardi gras party tonight to say hi to everyone.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Did I just really...?

I think I just had my strangest moment in teaching: I, the Jew, stood frozen in front of my class, which is composed of students representing a cornucopia of world religions, but is primarily Hindus and Muslims. The whole class had just cheerfully and in unison yelled out, "the resurrection of Jesus Christ!"

And I had to say out loud- "This is so weird." I had to give a little giggle at the utter absurdity of it all. And then I looked over at my own lone Catholic student. He was totally in his element and was radiating happiness, finally knowing all the answers in French class. He glowed, "This is just like Sunday school!" And in fact, it did seem that way- minus the fact that there were only a spattering of Christians or quasi-Christians in the Hindu/ Muslim mix and it was being lead by me, the Jew.

How did I get to this point of multi-religious students expressing a seemingly overwhelming enthusiasm for the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

First of all, my French class had earned a party. I'm not one of those teachers that just hand out parties willy-nilly. You have to work for it in my class. And each student had taken on the challenge of speaking only in French for an entire class period (and the additional challenge of wearing an absolutely ridiculous hat. The two options are: 1)shaped like the Eiffel Tower and says "Super Français" or 2) a satin black top hat with a silver map of Africa that says "Super Africain". It is amazing what you can have made here in Dhaka.) So they earned their party and I promised to bring the pizza. (I am not above bribing my students with food to encourage their use of the French language.) Then the before mentioned Catholic boy said, "Hey, it's almost Mardi Gras! Can we have a Mardi Gras party?!" And I gave in to the facts. I'm supposed to teach culture with the language and the unit we had just finished was all about fêtes and they had earned a party. And what was so seemingly innocent and didactically sound slowly turned into the episode mentioned above.

You see, I still can't just have a party. I need the students to be exposed to the underlying ideas of the cultural celebration. I'm so appalled when, as in previous years, students who claimed to be Christians couldn't tell me why they celebrated Christmas. (Language curricula tend encompass holiday units.) In fact, one self-identifying christian student didn't even know it had anything to do with Christ. (Santa was the big man of the moment in his mind.) So much of what is taught- to me at least- seems to be the superficial outward acts and paraphernalia associated with any given religious holiday- the candles or trees or sacrifice or food or presents- and lost is the reason and beliefs that inspired the Holy Day.

So before I would allow the reveling to commence, I needed the students to be able to give one sentence definitions for such words as Lent, Ash Wednesday, Fat Tuesday and Easter. I wanted them to know that this is indeed a Catholic holiday, which is attached to the lunar calendar because it is based on Jesus, who was indeed a practicing Jew and thus following the lunar based Jewish Holy Days. I wanted them to at least start to put it together. And I told them what I find to be so fundamentally true- to understand a people, you must speak their language; to understand a language you must, in essence, speak their culture; and the fundamental basis of so many cultures is religion. So, here I found myself, the Jew, teaching Catholicism, in Bangladesh, the Muslim country.

Of course, I couldn't just tell the students everything. I wanted them to engage. Thus I put my key terms on the board, and started reviewing for our favorite game that involves competition, speed, fast thinking and putting ideas together- and requires two fly swatters. (Really, don't ask.) And to prepare for the game we were reviewing the terms in unison- and that's how I managed to have "the resurrection of Jesus Christ" ring throughout my classroom carried on my student's enthusiastic voices.

I have to admit, though, I have been thinking quite a bit about how fluid culture is. I think about this a lot as a Jew, a member the people who are notorious for clinging to their own identity and culture and refusing, as a group, to adopt other culture's celebrations. We have refused to integrate and dilute, disperse and dissipate. I watch in amazement how Christian/ Catholic holidays are readily adapted by the world- Saint Valentine is world renowned, Mardi Gras (and closely linked to it, Carnival) are widely feted with much spirit (internal and distilled) and I've personally seen the Christmas done up by Buddhists in Thailand and now, in Communist China. And the cultural fluidity comes back into Christianity from Pagan rituals lending some of the most recognizable symbols- the Christmas tree is much more iconic than the original manger birth scene. Ask someone to draw an image of Easter and you'll most likely get a fertility celebration decked with cute bunnies and painted eggs in lieu of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But I guess this is what happens when a Jew goes to teach French language and culture (and thus Catholicism). The instruction is founded in a deep need to scrap away the superficial, dig into the origin and meaning and remember and recognize the roots of the traditions.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Balcony flowers

Here's a picture I took of flowers on my balcony. Just thought I'd share. Now I need to write a test- which is not quite as fun as looking at pictures of pretty flowers. Surprisingly.

Okay- decided to procrastinate just a wee bit more and give you more flowers from my balcony. (Although I prefer the composition of the first photo.)