Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Visit to the United Nations

I've always been interested in visiting the United Nations.  It was my idea of a "dream job" when I was a kid.  I thought it would be great to be able to meet people from all over the world just by going to work each day.  I never got that job, but I finally got to visit the building.

We arrived about 1130 AM on a Monday and the line was nearly a block long to get into the gate.  I was glad I'd made a lunch reservation on-line, and took out my ticket to check instructions before we got into the long line.  Turns out if they are expecting you for lunch, you give your name to the security people at the head of the line and they make a phone call.  We were in about five minutes later, though we still had the mandatory bag check and security stop that everyone goes through. Our reservation was for noon.

Once you're inside, you present a form of identification in exchange for a badge.  If you have a passport, bring that, even if you're an American and you don't expect to leave the country.  The United Nations has an office in the basement where you can get a special stamp for your passport because technically it is international soil. How cool is that?!  We had our badges and a personal escort who took us to the Delegates Dining Room upstairs. You can read about making a reservation at their website.  You won't pay in advance, so bring a charge card or cash to pay for your lunch.  It's a flat fee of $34.99 per person for a buffet with three courses of international cuisine.  Your drinks are extra. You must wear business attire or you won't be allowed.  This is the space where visiting dignitaries, heads of state, and tourists meet to enjoy a meal prepared by some of the best chefs in New York...maybe even the world! Our lunch that day consisted of foods prepared from six different countries.  The escort said the menu is never repeated.
The place you swap your ID for a visitor badge
A waiter brought us drinks and a bread basket which was filled to the brim with a variety of tasty breads and crackers.  The white breads were fluffy.  The dark breads were dense with flavor, and the baked crackers with browned cheese were simply amazing. Be sure to go hungry!  First we tackled the table of salads.  There were selections of veggies, greens, pickles, fish, cheese, beans, and fruits. Omar is a picky eater and only 10 years old so he skipped this table completely.  He wasn't much happier with the table of main course items because there was no pizza or plain pasta.  I, on the other hand, was excited to try roasted lamb, eggplant dishes, kebabs, potatoes cooked a variety of ways. Not only were the foods cooked to perfection, but they included sauces which kicked it up a notch.  The ultimate destination though was the dessert table.  Actually Omar ate only bread and desserts and somehow lived through the experience.  Cheesecake, truffles, pecan pie, OH MY!  This was a great deal for the price.  I would recommend it to anyone with an appetite.  The views from the dining room were pretty nice.  Be sure to check out the toilets too- the toilet paper is readable!  Whoever thought you'd get a lesson in economics, better health, etc. from reading a toilet paper roll?  Great call!

After our lunch we had about a half hour before our tour so the dining room cashier called us an escort who showed us to the gift shop, where they had a mini replica of the United Nations done in Lego bricks!  Omar found a really nice travel coffee mug for his teacher, but the selection is good with toys and books too.  You can buy a tour on the day you visit, but it's easier to buy on-line so you are sure to get in.  Children are half price, but no one under the age of 5.
All done in Legos

We joined a tour with about 15 people.  There were 3 tours at the same time in various languages.  We had to strictly follow the guide.  The artwork in the building was really interesting, but the rooms were equally as nice.  We saw three of the meeting rooms and Omar tried out one of the earpieces, used to translate the meetings to a different language.  Of course, there was no meeting at the time so there was no talking- just white noise.  Most of the displays focus on the international mission of peace.  I didn't realize that anyone representing the military for the UN just wears their own uniform. There isn't a special military force just for the UN.  There are 193 member states and the organization is 70 years old this year, formed just after WWII to prevent all future wars.  You can read all about it at this link for the United Nations. The tour took just about one hour, and then we were free to visit the public areas and walk the grounds outdoors.
Our tour guide with a selection of landmines

Omar trying out the translating listening device

One of the assembly rooms

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Would I do this all over again? Are we still together?

Often I get messages from people thinking about marrying Muslim/Christian and they want to know if we are still together and are we happy.  Did it all work out? Back in 2003 when we had the Islamic marriage ceremony, I was so naive.  I had no idea what lay ahead.  The family struggles. The conflicts because of being raised on different continents- even the foods we eat are so different. The class differences because he was raised as a privileged kid with a house full of staff, while I was poor with a single parent home where my mom always worked 2 jobs. Though I no longer practice a specific religion, he's incredibly disciplined and prays 5 times a day, which sometimes causes me to lose patience because we are always leaving something in a hurry so he can get back to the house where he prefers to pray. I still hate ramadan, or at least the inconvenience of what it does to our family for a month, which I admit is rather selfish on my part.  Then throw in our differences like race, language, social norms...and the list goes on...and on.

I won't say it's ever been easy.  It's been more of an adventure.  I still work on trying to see things through his viewpoint, but rarely do I feel he does the same.  I have to be twice as accepting because he is rigid.  When I married him, I gave up my familiar home, moved to Milwaukee, quit working and had a baby.  He then had a domestic partner who would take care of all his family needs so he could concentrate on growing his passion- an engineering business. He gives me an allowance nearly equal to what I was making when I was working, if you consider he pays the bills and lets me live here for free.  I wasn't on the fast track to being a CEO but I always had jobs I loved.  I had been a military officer. I managed programs at the Dept. of Transportation and had fun doing it. I often feel bitterness well up because of what I may not have, when I should be concentrating on the blessings I do have.  It's crazy in this age, that we still have division of the sexes.  Women still don't get the same things as men.  I will never know what I might have achieved, but he's convinced what I have now is nirvana.

He created this wonderful, mostly successful business, but I am not entitled to claim any portion of that success.  It's hard to explain this, but when he wanted to create a will, he asked me to sign away my Wisconsin rights to marital property (the business and home), because he believed the Koran should take precedent and I should be allowed 1/16th of his property, and he believes that everything we have is 100% his, not 50/50.  Even the lawyer who met with me on his behalf was taken aback, yet according to Muslim rules, my husband felt I was being unreasonable.  Recently we had a discussion about debts.  I acquired a lion's share of debt, thinking that I would one day return to the workforce, and it still hasn't happened.  He said he would pay it if I would agree to give up my rights to the business and home as marital property. I wouldn't so he didn't. Neither of us see the other viewpoint as being fair to our own way of thinking.  We've talked about divorce dozens of times and I almost went through with it, but quit after spending $10,000 in legal fees, because I still felt there was something in our relationship. Anyone who has been through divorce knows how much pain and bitterness is there.  It's very hard to forgive and move forward.  Someone once told me divorce is about selfishness and I believe it is.  There comes a time where you just want to call the shots, have it your own way, go it alone.

It's both enlightening and antagonizing when you pair up with someone who is so very different.  If I had to give us animal selves, I'd say he was more like a hardworking, incredibly focused earthworm, and I'm a butterfly.  He keeps his nose to the ground creating highways and bridges.  I'm floating about meeting people, experiencing art, music, culture, and creating things. We are so incredibly different that sometimes I don't understand why he worked so hard to capture my attention.  We were never meant to be together. Given our own devices, we should never have met. He enjoys sports while I never watch a game.  I enjoy writing and he rarely reads a book (and has
never read my books!). He unwinds with TV.  I go for a walk in the park or do some gardening. But we both love our 10 year old son and that brings us together for common good now that we are together.

Where will the future take us?  Who knows? For the time being, we are still together and still struggling to find our place in the sun.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How Travel to Africa Changed Me

Children near the Kibera slum at Nairobi

I've done a lot of traveling in my life.  From humble beginnings in a Chicago suburb to being an exchange student in Denmark, to an Air Force Career, and then marrying a man born on another continent.  It has served me well. When we planned trips in the past, I always tried to make the most of every day.  Find adventures.  Meet people.  Share stories.

The thing about travel is that you tend to lose your innocence at some point.  That's usually a good thing.  The more you travel, the more your mind is open to new experiences.  You lose ignorance, idealism, misconceptions and gain an understanding about your fellow man.  When you travel, you consider other people and their contributions to the world.  You feel a responsibility to the global community.   I have found that the more I venture into new situations, the more my heart and mind are open.  I've become more curious about the world around me.  I have more compassion.  I appreciate what I experience and know I have more to learn.  I've realized I really don't know much.

I remember a few years ago we visited Uganda.  I'd ride in a nice car through the shacks on dirt roads watching road construction being done by men with shovels, but sleep in a gated luxury hotel where we had a huge buffet waiting for us every morning. Or we'd visited schools in South Africa where the kids walked for miles without shoes, feeling it was important to get there because it was the only meal they'd eat all day.  They were being raised by an older sibling, who was maybe 12, because their parents were dead from AIDS. There were women sleeping on sidewalks with babies crawling towards traffic.

I've been face to face with poverty. Heard horrendous stories about escaping war.  Lived in some shabby places.  I always felt I was on the outside looking in.  I wasn't feeling a part of it.  I did as the tour books advise and walked past the beggars.  I could sleep at night dreaming about the comforts of my own home, knowing I'd return to my own life, pretty much unchanged.  Most of the time, we sleep in some pretty nice hotels with all the comforts of home. And in many cases, the hotels are better than we have at home.  Going to Ethiopia this summer was a life changer for me though.  We lived in a neighborhood where we saw how real people lived.  I experienced life as they live it.  I lived with people who had escaped war in Somalia with just their lives.  They lost loved ones and all their material possessions. Somehow they felt blessed and were moving on in life.  Omar befriended the gate guard for a gated community who was living in the small guard shack with no blanket.  He didn't even have shoes that fit.  It's a tough existence.
Omar with the gate guard and one of the local boys

We visited the mountain top village of Lalibela where we spent a day with a local man meeting people and just seeing how they lived.  It was like going back 600 years.  The ancient rock hewn churches were still being used by priests today. The people lived in huts made of sticks and manure.  Donkeys and goats shared the streets with tuktuks. Women carried large bundles of firewood on their backs.  Men shined shoes and carried the luggage of tourists.  Life was very simple.
Desale, our tour guide in Lalibela

I did something different this time.  I made connections.  These people I met at Lalibela came home with me in spirit.  I remembered their stories.  The internet has made it easy for us to write to each other every day.  Our lives are enmeshed now.  I know about the struggle to find food.  I know how the weather affects what they do.  I hear first hand how their poverty affects choices for education and future jobs.  I hear about how they lost family to massacres and drought. And I have to act.  I can't sleep if I don't do something.  Now it's on a personal level.  I realize I can't fix the entire world, so I have chosen just a few and do what I can to help them, but they are helping me too.  Having a real friend who treats you like a mother or sister on the other side of the world is so enriching.

There are two guys I hear from nearly every day.  Eyayaw is a student at an elementary school who lives with a friend, like himself.  They came to the village to attend school but they are from very rural homes.  His choice would be to continue school but his family wants him to come home and take care of the farm. His needs are few, so I can help him by myself.
Eyayaw, the student who calls me mother

The other is a young man Desale - our tour guide.  Omar loved him.  He was like a son to me immediately. I want them both to see success in their lives, so I help them when I can.  I started a Crowdrise account to raise money for a used vehicle for Desale.  He is an excellent tour guide but needs a vehicle so he can take tourists outside of the village and earn a living for himself and the village orphans.  Desale's name means 'happy' so his new travel agency would be called Happy Day Travel.  I hope if you've read this far, you'll click on the Crowdrise account and add your donation to the fund.  Every little bit helps.

I find now that all the stuff I have means nothing.  I want to live more simply.  So much of what we do in the first world is superfluous.  I want to live more authentically.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

So You Want to go to Africa? Packing and Travel Tips

So you want to take a trip to Africa?  Africa is a large continent- much larger than most people realize.  But since there are similarities among developing nations in Africa, I've lumped them together for simplicity as you pack your bags.

You will need to check weather for your destination to determine clothing needs.  Remember seasons may be flip flopped according to proximity to the equator and in spite of what we see in TV, it isn't hot there all the time. We went to Ethiopia during their summer and it was cool and rainy every day. Someone on another blog said I should bring rubber boots, so I did.  I never wore them.  Everyone was wearing sandals, so I did too.  That blogger was pretty wise as it turned out.  I had to have an industrial size pedicure towards the end of my stay because the bacteria from the mud/manure/rainwater mess had come through the soles of my feet and created cracks.The lady who did it used something like a brick of lava stone.  I've only seen them that large in construction projects!  She said there are lots of feet problems related to bacteria in the soil in Ethiopia and Sudan. Keep that in mind when you choose your shoes.  After that I put on sock and shoes every day.  Lesson learned.

You probably need fewer items than you prefer to pack.  You can wear your clothing for several days if you don't get too dusty or dirty.  I took way more than I needed.  I could have gotten by with 3 complete outfits.

windbreaker/waterproof jacket
wool jacket or sweater
comfortable walking shoes
headscarf for ladies if traveling to Muslim countries
undergarments- you can wash these daily in the sink so microfiber is preferable to cotton
shirts that are easy to wash
maxi skirt for women
pants - you're better off leaving shorts at home. People tend to dress modestly and if you're hiking, there are plenty of ants, centipedes, snakes, etc. that will have access to your legs so better to cover.  lightweight fabrics are easier to dry than jeans.
microfiber towel- takes up less space and dries well

laundry bag, clothesline, and laundry soap.  I brought washer sheets only to discover that no one where we went used a washing machine.  All laundry was washed by hand.  You will not need dryer sheets for the dryer (because there aren't any dryers), though I have seen it on so many packing lists just to keep your clothing fresh in the suitcases.  If you stay at a hotel, most will have a same day or next day laundry service. Sometimes we used it but usually I just washed in the sink and hung in the bathroom or on the patio to dry.

A medicine bag with a minimum of Benadryl, alleve, cipro, and band-aids. Actually that liquid bandage stuff was a good idea, if I had just remembered to take it.  I took essential oils also- peppermint, lavender, and tea tree oil which worked for burns, bug bites, upset stomach. A good probiotic and daily vitamin are helpful too. We still ended up with tummy problems, but I think it made it easier to get over.

Bug repellent- I found that the skin so soft from Avon worked well and it wasn't so unpleasant we could put it on at bedtime when the majority of bugs were biting. They have moistened towelettes in individual packets, which was very convenient.

Sunscreen, lip balm, cetaphil soap, tea tree oil shampoo (great deterrent for lice- I know that now because I did get lice and I wasn't using tea tree oil in my shampoo), toothbrush & toothpaste, wipes (these are good to have at all times because running clean water is often not available when you need it).  Don't ever use your toothbrush under tap water.  I forgot once and it was all it took to give me diarrhea for a couple days.  Use bottled water for everything.

Pen & paper/journal- you will want to write down something.  I was surprised that I filled nearly an entire journal over the summer. We used paper to share our email addresses with those we met too.

Travel guides.  I had downloaded trip advisor's city guides for Addis Ababa and Nairobi in my phone too, but so many times there just wasn't Wifi access or electricity so we used the paper copies more often.  I often took screenshots of the maps in the paper books and used those to get around the city. Screenshots are helpful when there's a language barrier to ask people how to get somewhere, and can help you remember hotel names, street names, landmarks, etc.

Passport, Yellow Fever/Immunization Record.  Take photos of these and keep them in your phone or camera if possible.

Phone, camera with an extra battery and cards, chargers, adaptors, and a flashlight.  I needed a charger for my camera battery and figured I could just find it in Kenya.  I did, but I paid dearly.  It was $60 for an item I could have gotten at Amazon for $10.  Most chargers are available with dual voltage so check before you go.  We used the flashlight nearly every day.  There were many power outages.


Credit cards with a chip.  Know the code before you go.  Take more than one and just leave American Express at home.  Nobody we saw wanted to take it due to the fees.  When you pay by credit card they will charge a fee on top of the purchase.  Even though I had 2 credit cards and a debit card, it was good to have choices because some ATMs and stores only use a certain bank.  Most of the time, cash is preferred.  Especially if you're going into a rural area, you will need to have cash in the country's currency, though we were able to use American dollars in a pinch.

Snacks- I took Clif bars, gum and mints.  They were handy when we were traveling or thought the food was questionable.

When you consider what bag to pack, just remember that roller bags may not be as easy to use depending on your destination.  Sidewalks were pretty much nonexistent in Ethiopia.  Pack light enough that you can easily carry your bag a few blocks.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Africa's Largest Market at Addis Ababa

The merkato is something not to be missed, though after being there, I think it's much more for locals than for tourists.  You can find anything.  My husband went there in search of a camera battery.  The locals shop for their daily food.  It covers miles and employs thousands of people.  Anywhere there's an empty spot on the pavement, you'll find a vendor hawking something.  And it doesn't seem to matter that there are dozens of the same identical products just beside a vendor. You would think they could co-op and have some time off while making more money, but who am I to question a market that has been doing this for decades?
a lady mixing spices

and right beside her is another woman with the same ingredients

It is loosely divided into sectors of goods, though it is sprawling.  I was in search of coffee and sticks used to clean your teeth in Africa.  My husband grew up with them and in spite of using an electronic toothbrush, he believes they do a great job of whitening and removing plaque.  He asked the wife of his business partner to take me there so we had a ladies morning out. We found coffee almost immediately, but what I hadn't counted on was that the beans are not roasted.  They are divided by regions so you know the type of coffee you're getting.  Ethiopia is the home of coffee, and they export huge quantities.  This coffee is more what the locals buy to roast and prepare in their home and for coffee ceremonies.  Rather than try to roast at home, I ended up buying a few roasted, ground bags at our hotel.
coffee beans
It would be fun to walk around unnoticed at the market, but it's impossible when you're a white person.  I stood out and it made it difficult to enjoy just looking.  Everyone wants to sell you something and they are persistent.  If you find something you want to purchase, you're expected to barter.  I'm not good at that so it was nice to have a companion willing to translate and get the best prices.  We found some great looking spices and a multitude of other goods.
a variety of spices used in preparing meat and vegetables

baskets used for injeera

Industrial sized pots
Though this market is every day, there are some markets that only happen weekly.  Once you do your purchasing, it's a daunting task to get your stuff home with you in a country where few people own vehicles.  There were donkeys, scooters, taxis, and sometimes just ingenuity and a strong head.
heavy bundles on neck and head

strapping goods on the taxi roof

I was wondering how heavy those would be if they were full
If you want fresh meat, you visit a butcher who will cut the piece of meat you need and put it in a small plastic bag.  If he doesn't have what you need, he finds the goat, chicken, or whatever and kills it to order.
I eventually found the sticks my husband had requested.  You could get a handful for about $1, but there were so many choices.  What type of wood?  Any particular cut?  It was all here on trays like a cigar vendor brought to your car window. My friend picked out what she thought would be good and paid cash.
Though much of this market is still in open air stalls, the government is fast replacing this area with buildings and regulation.  Maybe it's for the better good, but it will be sad to lose the character of the place.  If you decide to go, bring cash and plan on several hours to see a big chunk of it. I doubt anyone sees it all in one day.