Welcome back: North Africa part 1

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

Nine hours to kill in the airport. I hunched over a Burger King coffee and read.

Traveling dehumanizes people. We turn into frantic, herded animals. Carrying our belongings with us everywhere: hanging over-stuffed carry-ons on wimpy bathroom stall hooks (and watching in helpless horror as a scarf or jacket slides to the floor), propping our feet on suitcases to pretend we’re relaxing when we’re really just looking out for our stuff, and even getting desperate enough to sprawl across the grimy airport carpet and rest our head on the knobby bulk of our backpack. I have done all of this, so I know. I also know about frozen water bottles and trying to eat my lunch before I check into an international flight… just in case they try to confiscate my hard-boiled eggs.

Seven hours on an overnight bus just to wait 9 hours in the airport. But I was feeling surprisingly human. A cup of coffee and a good book can do that, I guess.

A couple of hours later, I touched down in North Africa, only a little queasy. Not enough to use the handy baggie I was gripping. But just enough for the man across the aisle to eye me nervously.

I had the equivalent of $3.35 in my pocket when I emerged from the airport—not enough for a taxi. And the 40 cent bus was pulling away. I waited for an hour with a diverse crew of other penny-pinchers.

As the bus seats filled, I chatted with a young family that piled into one seat beside me. The 3 children were almost as charmed by me as I was by them.

“Auntie, how long are you here?” Ilyas, the oldest boy asked.
“Until Thursday.”
He was crushed. “So we won’t see you again? You won’t have time to visit us?”
“Ilyas.” His mother took him by the shoulder. “We have her here—” she tapped his heart. “And here—” she tapped his head.

When they got off the bus, someone rapped on the window behind me. Ilyas was there, grinning and waving his final goodbye.

Darkness had fallen by the time we reached the heart of the city. The landmarks had changed since I had lived there and it was hard to stay oriented in the dark. I missed my stop.

I jumped off at the next stop and walked, hoping to find a place to exchange my euros. But exchange stores had closed early this Saturday night. So had phone stores.

At random, I popped into a tiny store and asked the owner if he had any SIM cards. He pulled a box out of a dusty drawer and dug through it until he found one. He was scrawling my passport number on a scrap of notebook paper when I remembered I didn’t have enough of the local currency.

“No problem,” he assured me as I emptied my coin purse on the counter and offered to pay in euro.
“No problem. How much do you have?”
Together, we totaled $2.95—five cents short.
“No problem!”

Since he didn’t seem to care, I decided not to care either.

With my new number, I called my former roommate and made a beeline for her house. She wasn’t home yet, but had left the key with the upstairs neighbors. A short chat and a key later, I entered the apartment to find that I had been much anticipated.

Handwritten notes were stuck all over the house, guiding me to my bedroom, the shower, tea, and waiting food. After almost 24 hours in transit with very little sleep, such a welcome brought me near to tears.

20 even more things I’m thankful for

  1. Dreams I can climb out of
  2. A quiet market
  3. Syrupy tea poured from a neighbor’s kettle
  4. Observations so true they hurt
  5. Little boy grins that come shy and blushing
  6. Remembering the awe of a blessing forgotten
  7. A cheerful chat at the bus stop
  8. Hearing my name on the street
  9. Language lesson over towers of fruit and vegetables
  10. Cicadas
  11. Damp outlines around fallen leaves
  12. A speedboat skimming along the horizon
  13. Middle of the day thunder
  14. A pale lizard running along the boulevard just ahead of me
  15. Opening a door to find a cool breeze
  16. Fresh paint
  17. Humor when I’m not expecting it
  18. Heads bent in prayer
  19. Conversation so long we forget to clean up dinner
  20. A Kindle full of waiting books

No loaves but plenty of fish

I left for Almería after work. The morning had been long, but my errands were more important than my lunch. The errands went so smoothly that an hour after arriving in Almería, I was on board the bus again.

But so was someone else.

Due to our prior acquaintance, David and I greeted each other, he with an excited “God bless you!” and me with a polite, please-don’t-try-to-talk-to-me smile. Fortunately, the seat beside me was occupied, as was the seat across the aisle.

But we hadn’t even made it out of the city when suddenly a dripping bag of fresh fish came from an arm reaching over my shoulder. I was astonished. My seatmate was astonished. The two passengers across the aisle were astonished. One seat ahead, a teenager looked at me and rolled her eyes.

“This is a gift from God!” David told me gleefully. He opened the bag wider so I could have a look at just how good God was.

Fat fish decorated with twigs of rosemary stared up at me.

“Thank you.” I tied up the leaky plastic bag and continued to smile even as fishy juices dribbled over my groceries.

At home, I messaged my friend, asking her to teach me how to prepare fresh fish. She willingly adjusted her schedule and came to the rescue. We prepared the sardines together: she taught and I absorbed her instructions with naive horror.

Then I prepared American snacks and we sat to eat, study, and talk about our unique immigrant experiences.

David was right after all; the fish were a gift from God.

Summer in Immigrantville

Summer in Immigrantville, Spain is not an easy thing to endure.

Why not? For one reason, it’s hot. As I write, a breeze billows the curtain, bringing dust and the sensation of standing within range of a hairdryer. They say it has been a relatively cool summer so far. Fine. But I’m still turning on the fan.

With heat comes lethargy. Trying to think of something to ingest other than iced coffee. Trying to drag myself off of the couch to get out and talk to people. Of course, this whole “getting out” thing is over-rated anyway; very few people brave the heat of the day, so why should I? On the other hand, staying “in” should produce deliberate choices to study language rather than Dickens.

But heat and lethargy are not all that is wrong with the summer here. The worst part of summer is summer vacation. In Immigrantville, this means that families scrape together the means to travel back to their countries for months at a time. Slowly, the town empties and the streets grow quieter. There are fewer people to bump into. Fewer people to talk with.

But that’s the pessimistic view of summer life in Immigrantville. Fortunately for all of us, I can only think of 3 negative aspects. And I can think of a few more positive aspects from my experience so far. Like…

  • Volunteering to help a local thrift store employee reorganize her store. Mostly, I just put clothes on hangers and affirmed her ideas to rearrange clothing displays.
  • Washing my clothes by hand because splashing around in cool water helps beat the heat.
  • Preparing new recipes for foods that can be eaten cold.
  • Taking a grocery trip to a nearby city. Of course, the trip required a date with my Kindle at an air-conditioned café in order to fortify me to haul heavy groceries from store to bus station and bus stop to home.
  • Learning it’s okay to rest in the afternoon while the town is hiding in their respective homes under their respective fans.
  • Strolling down the boulevard after sunset when the remnants of the population emerge from their homes. In fact, one time I even walked home with an invitation to couscous and another to an afternoon tea.
  • And last and least but not least, studying. The quieter days provide a chance to brush up on my languages and pertinent topics. (Note: As much as I love the idea of this opportunity, I am still learning the art of self-discipline.)

See? Rather than wallow in sweat and loneliness, I might be able to enjoy my summer in Immigrantville after all!

Tarjetas and tourists: what’s been happening recently

“What has been happening recently?” you ask. I’ll tell you, even if you didn’t ask. 

One of my favorite big events was getting my residency card, my tarjeta. FINALLY. All of the paperwork, the trip to the Chicago consulate, the phone calls that drove me close to insanity, the corrections, the visa, the move to Spain, the various trips to the extranjería (and the wonderful roommate who accompanied me on all of those!), and finally… finally… on the last trip, the man across the counter handed me my tarjeta. “Perfect.”

We celebrated with a trip to the mall, coffee and tostadas, and getting lost (as is our custom while on foot in Almería).

Last week, my roommate and I took a trip to Berja, a small town in the province of Almería. Away from our immigrant town, we noticed a more defined Spanish flavor, especially in the thicker Andalusian Spanish.

At a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, a man (one who would fit nicely into one of those “anti-smoking” commercials) climbed on board our bus. He sat in front of us but hollered over our heads to the man sitting directly behind us. After several minutes of thick and raspy Andalusian exchange, he turned to face forward and lean back in his seat. The seat was broken and little by little, it voluntarily reclined so far that soon there were three of us in our seat. I giggled. I couldn’t help it! The day was going to be an adventure…

In la villa vieja, we freely roamed the Roman and Arab ruins and enjoyed the silence of the forsaken countryside.

We walked part of “the route of fountains” to find the oodles of little fountains throughout the town. But more fun than finding the fountains was seeing pretty pieces of the town I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

We topped off the afternoon with a sumptuous “choto al ajillo” (goat in garlic sauce) which we bravely tried… and liked!

Of course, lots of other things have been happening too that I haven’t described in detail here (at least not yet), such as:

  • setting up a library corner at the store
  • watching a bus driver threaten to call the police to remove a disruptive and cussing passenger
  • walking with a friend in time to a spiritual discussion
  • seeing God working miracles through brothers and sisters in Christ who are willing to be a channel of God’s power and love
  • multiple trips to the bank to set up an account… to no avail until the fifth time I tried and the bank teller threw up his hands and hollered, “IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT!”

And more. Much more. But that’s enough for now, because I’m off to have another adventure. After all, there is an adventure in every day if we remember to look for it.

My November guests

In November, three guests traversed the Atlantic to visit me: my mom, my brother, and my friend. Some of our adventures included:

  • Finding each other at the airport… and managing to convince security that I was not a risk
  • Traipsing around the city as each phone place we had been directed to directed us to someone else
  • Arguing with taxi drivers who were even more stubborn than I
  • Tasting the old medina, literally and figuratively
  • Posing for awkward pictures
  • Sampling camel burgers and a salad that tasted “like donkeys”
  • Wiggling cooked snails out of their shells with wooden toothpicks…and sampling them too
  • Long talks
  • Laughing until we cried
  • Visiting my friends for tea, dinner, or just to say “hi”
  • Tasting uncured olives that pickled our mouths
  • Eating most of our meals standing around in the kitchen
  • Souvenir shopping in the rain
  • Souvenir shopping in the rain again
  • A long train ride in the rain
  • Walking along the bay in the rain
  • Two nights of cold showers
  • Spending a night snuggled in the musty hotel blankets
  • Staying in a concrete hotel room which reverberated with the early morning call to prayer and reading of the Qur’an
  • Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry only to find that the rain in Spain does not stay mainly on the plain!
  • A long bus ride around many many roundabouts…in the rain
  • A bus break-down which seemed to temporarily mend itself
  • A few days in Spain with friends, church, a birthday party,  an open air market, olives, churros, pastries, cocido, and tapas
  • Goodbyes

Aisha- part 2

Aisha was waiting for me on my way to school the next day. And the next. And every morning that I had the early hour of class. Because of her, I began to recognize the network of house workers who met regularly to chat on the way to their respective jobs.

Although I was glad for the chance to practice conversational Arabic, I still was unsure of what she wanted from me.

The day she had invited me to stay at her house grew closer. Because of my apprehension, I managed to whittle the overnight adventure down to a day trip. On the Friday before, we rehearsed what would take place on Sunday: I would meet her at the same place under the berry tree across from the bus stop at 11:00 a.m.

I don’t think she believed I would follow through with the plan. She tried calling me five times while I was in church. And when I finally answered, I was on my way to the meeting place.

“I’m coming!”

She spewed a string of sentences I couldn’t understand, but what I assumed to be a reason that she was behind schedule.

“Okay. Okay. No problem. Okay.”

And I waited under the berry tree until a taxi pulled up and honked. Aisha was in the backseat, bouncing in her excitement. She grabbed me in a warm embrace before I had the chance to close the door behind me. And she talked, one rapid sentence after another, often missing the fact that I didn’t understand.

The taxi wound through the new city, behind the old city, and up up up on a hill. There was no containing Aisha’s joy as she led me out of the taxi and into her world.

It was the first bite of a day full of exquisite North African hospitality.

In a dry and weary land

Right now, perhaps you are imagining me in loose desert garb astride a handsome camel under the blazing Saharan sun. Well, now you have pictured exactly how my trip wasn’t.

The Sahara trip officially started when eight of us girls piled into a tourist mini-bus. “Oh no! People will think we’re tourists!” It took a few kilometers of riding the tourist bus through my own city to realize that I was a tourist. I had just traded in my student identity.

The changing landscape sang the mighty power of God as we bumped along in our bus along paved highways and skinny mountain paths.

There were tree trunks covered in brilliant green moss, flat orange plateaus with snow-covered mountains beyond, and startling blue lakes.

shepherd with his sheep with looming snow-covered mountains beyond
valley with sheep grazing beside streams

We spent the night in a hotel on the edge of the desert. The next morning, a driver took us to the edge of the dunes. “Are these even real?” we wondered. The dunes looked exactly like the myriad pictures one might find anywhere. It was almost anti-climatic to see exactly what I had expected.

table and chairs perched on orange sand dunes

In the early evening, we started across the dunes on camels. The first 30 minutes may have been more enjoyable if a paparazzi hadn’t followed us to snap pictures of our camel train.

When we arrived at our desert camp, we ate a big meal and then strolled around outside of the camp to gaze at the expanse of bright stars that blanketed the dark sky. We contemplated the insignificance of man (Ps. 8) and then joined a group of other tourist around a campfire.

camel train

The next morning, we watched the sun rise over the dunes and then rode our camels back to civilization. On the way home we made several stops, one of them to have tea with our driver’s family who lived far up in the mountains. The scenery along the way was breathtaking.

white house among rolling hills
small shack among rolling green hills

But it was wonderful to come home again!

A morning of sounds

What does my typical North African morning sound like?

  • Mourning doves cooing outside of my window and a lonely rooster penned in someone’s courtyard
  • Slated shades being pulled up from various apartments
  • Water running, the electric kettle steaming, my own munching and slurping
  • A few mumbled “Good morning”s and “Have a good day”s
  • The bang of the door as I pull it shut behind me
  • Clomp, clomp, clomping down two stories of steps and the banging the apartment building door
  • The murmur of passing cars from a perpendicular street
  • A few snatches of conversation between school children and university students
  • A cat meowing as it digs through leftover garbage
  • “Bonjour!… Bonjour! Hola! Hello?”
  • Horns honking around a busy intersection as other cars and pedestrians assume the right-of-way
  • Motorcycles, buses, trucks, cars, bicycles weaving in and out of each other—the screech of brakes and more horns and perhaps some yelling
  • A jackhammer of busy men working on the street
  • “سلام”
  • The scratching of a stalk broom on a sidewalk
  • The buzz of the Arabic school’s call button and consequently the opening of three heavy doors
  • “صباح الخير. لا باس؟”  “لا باس الحمد لله.”
  • The sharp sound of chairs on a bare floor and the rumble of moving wooden tables as we all pile in and settle down for a long Arabic session