Category Archives: Egypt

Saya bersyukur (I am grateful)

This afternoon, riding home on the minibus (angkot) from the city, I found myself slipping into a thousand-yard stare to the surprised looks, shouts my way, and pointed questions jeered from the street. A long day among days spent sticking out for my appearance and my origins, my kettle was close to boiled up.  But just as I began breathing slowly to lower my blood pressure, the adhan (call to prayer) rang out over the dusky road.  Suddenly, the water bottles and cookies and snacks popped out of bags and everyone in the angkot and joined in, jovially offering goodies to eat and drink to the eight other strangers riding along.

Traditionally, dates are the food of breaking the fast around the world, but sometimes a palmier will have to do.

Here, the days can sometimes be stressful, or hectic, or slow, or entirely mixed, but I live for these moments when the ageless tradition of breaking bread brings a flash of clarity to the question, “What am I doing here?”  The ibu (lady) sitting across the way smiled at me and offered me tofu stuffed with glass noodles and carrots, the mother sitting to my left cracked open seaweed chips and a chocolate milk for her toddler, the high-school-aged girl at my right passed a box of palmier cookies.  In an instant, a smile crept across my lips and stretched so wide that it could not fit.  Far from being a Muslim, or an Indonesian, what I witnessed was the creation of a community that would last as long as one of us remained in the angkot.  We smiled and laughed and thanked each other in Bahasa Indonesia, Sundanese, and English, speeding on into the night.


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Filed under Egypt

Ramadan Mubarak!

Ramadan Mubarak everyone!  It’s hour 5 today, this second day of Ramadan, and I am “masih kuat,” “still strong.”  Typing from the administrative office, and “Creep” by Radiohead just came on the radio.  Everything in Leuwiliang has slowed down significantly now that everyone is fasting.  After the squeezes of Pre-Service Training, nothing feels as good as a little down-time.  Still, I’ve been going through some of the materials that the ID7 I’m following left behind and stepping cautiously around my old and unsavory habit of an all-or-nothing approach to discipline…

So far, there is a “GOALs” board (Met the neighbors? √) up in my room and am almost finished with a ginormous wall calendar comprising the entirety of service, a technique I found helpful in Marseille, when a quick glance at the calendar gave me renewed spirit at the prospect of things to come.  But like these first few days of Ramadan, it seems better to focus on the short-term.  If I can make it through ten minutes, an hour seems shorter, the days slip by, and I gradually gain mastery over my time.

Masih kuat!

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Filed under Egypt

Hello from M.A.N. LEUWILIANG!

Hello from Leuwiliang, Bogor, West Java, INDONESIA!  I am a Peace Corps volunteer in the education sector, teaching in a public Islamic high school, a Madrasah Aliyah Negeri, with four fabulous counterparts and many, many bright and lively students.  This was also my study abroad blog for the 2011-2012 academic year, spent in Alexandria, Egypt and Menton, France.  Many of those experiences parallel things I have witnessed here, in cultural, religious, and sociological terms, but also in that I came to better understand my place in the world through them:

Sure of only my love of languages and my drive to explore, I saw Arabic among the offered courses as I planned out my first college semester. A line of poetry I had seen only days earlier flowed through my head: “Let the beauty we love be what we do/ There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” by the medieval Sufi poet, Rumi. Two challenging years later, despite the news of revolution brewing, I turned in my study abroad application for Egypt, fall 2011. My experiences growing up between cultures had already showed me that the best way to know anything truly is to see it for myself. So, in addition to pursuing my love of the Arabic language, I was fixated on the growing Arab political and social movements: I wanted to be in the eye of the storm, in a nexus of social movement, of revolution, and of profound change.

As with Peace Corps core expectation number 3, it was very challenging to adjust to a new culture and a different way of life. In Alexandria, as with experiences abroad since, my response was a multi-pronged approach. I did my Arabic homework and participated in class, but I was careful to add as much enjoyment to the experience as possible to never feel drained by the effort. I took dance classes, hung out in sheesha cafés with other students, tried local delicacies, traveled to all four corners of the country, and visited sites of modern and ancient significance, all the while seeking out conversations with people I met along the way. For the next four months, my professors, other students, the women I met on the tram, and everyone in between filled me with their stories and, oftentimes, their visions of a better Egypt. At the end of my semester, as my facebook feed flooded with proud posts of inked fingers—proof of voting in the first post-revolution elections—I knew that my study of Arabic and Egyptian culture was my way to kneel and kiss the ground, as Rumi had said. Likewise, I cannot imagine a life in which the beauty I love (languages, cultures other than my own, change) is not what I do. Peace Corps gives me the chance to pursue these passions and skills in a way that serves others, where, instead of coming into the nexus of change, I can be that nexus in my own way. Following my experiences conversant between cultures, my greater trajectory is to pursue a career in international development. Peace Corps will be a step forward on that track and the best way I know to use my skills fully to the benefit of others. With the aid of an ear for different means of communication, a confidence in holding my own in unfamiliar situations, and a determination to turn what I love into what I do, I am proud to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer.

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The views and anecdotes expressed here are intended to offer a window into my experiences during my Peace Corps service in Indonesia and a chance to share what I have learned in the process. The stories, jokes, and videos provided here are in good humor and my experiences alone.  They do not reflect any position of the U.S. government, the Peace Corps, or Indonesians, but mine alone.

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Filed under Egypt

“I’m Actually a Wookie!” The Advantages of Multilingualism

Contrary to popular opinion, it can be to your social advantage to speak in tongues.

Errrr… no.  Tongues, by which I mean other tongues–as in other languages (where was your brain?).  In my life I have found a few excellent benefits to keep my love for words growing deeper by the day.

In case you ever needed convincing, here are some prime reasons to pick up another people’s parlance:

  • Obviously, facilitated communication with a wider range of people other than those of your own culture or country (or within it! who knows?).
  • Practical skills to gain job market cred, especially internationally.
  • TRAVEL.  In my experience, the roads are friendlier, the welcomes warmer, and the deals better if you put in the effort to learn a little of the local argot.  Also it’s a lot easier to stay calm if you can communicate what’s going wrong. 
  • You become instant friends to expats wherever you are.  I will never forget walking into a cafe just off of Times Square in New York City and as the cashier rung up my tea and cookie, shouted to the manager how much the cookies were in Arabic.  A quick glance to the display case and I responded, in Arabic, that my cookie was $2.50.  He thanked me, did a double take, took another look at my face, and started up a conversation.
  • Your brain, in getting used to switching between sets of inputs, is statistically better at monitoring a changing environment and adjusting to varied stimuli. New York Times 
  • You get a lot better at sounding interesting while insulting people.  A good example: Dutch soccer fans broke with the tradition of hurling curses at the referee, players, and whoever else when one fan, pissed off at the home team’s (Ajax) loss, shouted at legendary former footballer and then-manager of Ajax, Marco van Basten, “Je wordt bedankt, pannekoek!” (“Thanks a lot, pancake!”)  The incident was widely reported and Dutch soccer fandom has never quite been the same.  
  • It keeps your gray cells a-pumpin’ making you less likely to develop dementia later in life.   The Guardian and Medical News Today.
  • Eavesdropping gets all kinds of interesting.  Just sayin.
  • You often get a better sense of the culture through the idiomatic expressions that dominate conversation and you can use them for your own purposes.  A good example is to count how many Dutch expressions involve water, cows, the weather, and ditches.  One of my favorites: “Alle beetjes helpen, zei de mug, en ze piste in de zee” / Every little bit helps, said the mosquito, as it pissed in the sea. (the meaning is pretty much self explanatory)  If you share a common foreign language with a friend, that’s one more way for you to maintain your “best friends never tell” secrets, just “best friends only tell in Catalan… or Korean
  • Faking the foreigner gets all the easier when you can just string a bunch of words together in Greek or Quechua.  Don’t want to deal with the guy handing out have-you-found-Jesus? leaflets but don’t want to look totally rude, just smile and give him your best “Ne, ačiū!”

    What's up with it, Vanilla face?

  • Mad vocal skills.  I was, and in many cases still am, that weird kid in the back of the room who walks down the hall making wookie noises to myself.  Why? Because I can!  I’m just waiting for the day that somebody shouts back “work it, grrrrl! USE THAT UVULA!”



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Filed under Egypt, France

SACRE BLEU! an essay contest!

Hey guys and gals!  I need your help.  The deadline is fast approaching for the Road Less Traveled Literary Magazine run by my home university and though I want to enter, I have no idea what I should submit.  According to the website, “Diverse and unique submissions are encouraged, but must be related to studying, living or traveling abroad,” so that could really be ANYTHING.  Arrrr…

This is where you come in:  what was your favorite piece of writing or photography you’ve seen on this blog?  Was there a particular theme that touched you?  Was there a piece that made you laugh, think or view something in a different way?  Let me know!

The following are my favorites, but if you have other ideas, please leave a comment below.

Thank you! Danke! Bedankt! Grazie! Merci! Shukran!


Filed under America, Egypt, France, In Transit

Shop til you…

Aside from monuments, historical sites, and museums, one of the ways you can learn a lot about a place within a compact experience is by going shopping.  No, I don’t mean the hunt for that umpteenth pair of pumps or waiting in line to buy postcards, I mean this:

Confession: I am obsessed with supermarkets.  Not only are they generally a cross-cut of society, a place where people of all kinds might find themselves doing the same basically mundane task, but through cross-comparison it is very easy to see the kinds of things a certain group of people value in their lives or don’t, how they see themselves, and how they would like their lives to be.

(The pattern extends beyond food.  In Egypt, for example, you’ll be hard pressed to find tampons, even in the high-end grocery stores we visited.  This could be attributed to the value placed on women’s virginity in Islam and therefore anything that goes up there is not a risk worth taking.)


In Carrefour outside of Paris, the aisle for chocolate was almost as long and comprehensive as the one reserved for cheese and equally mixed in price and quality.  While I could see an American scoffing at how unhealthy it might be to load up on chocolates, cheese, pastries… 

…the French went about their business unharried.  The idea that French women are all skinny is somewhat of a myth, but there is an element of balance in what I saw.  The variety I observed seemed to say, of course, you can have your macarons, but you also have fresh vegetables, fruits, and a good supply of protein on a regular basis, combined with consuming less overall (this I saw at home, not out shopping).  Eat until you are satisfied, not until your plate is clean.

which leaves fewer reasons to deny that you really would like some galette des rois, SOME being the operative word.

The seafood aisle in this particular Carrefour was unparalleled. Thiais, the town where I stayed, is right next to a major food distribution center called Les Halles de Rungis, the modern-day equivalent of the old Les Halles market, which closed in the 1970s due to overcrowding and sanitation concerns.  Here some of the freshest produce around (without going directly to the farm for your potatoes, the orchard for your apples, the sea for your fish) will hit the final leg of the minutely-controlled French chaîne du froid, to be sent off to restaurants, grocery stores, and the like.  Just ask the lumpfish below, the emphasis here is on fresh fresh fresh.



Only briefly did I wander into a Danish supermarket, but this was enough of a taste to satisfy my curiosity.  The place was immediately friendly, with bright colors and kransekage (Danish New Year’s cake) out on display.  I was also immediately smitten with the particular Scandinavian sensibility of the shopping baskets.

It was the first store in which I’d seen electronic price labels.  Makes sense for fresh produce, doesn’t it?

While the French have their chocolates and cheeses, the Danish have their herring and other pickled, preserved, and brined seafood.  

My friend Malin was quick to lead me to one of the foods I miss most from Holland: black licorice.  Let America say what it will about the stuff, but I felt at home with a people who shelved theirs by sweetness, salt, texture… and we both went a little nuts.


Panda Licorice, Haribo Pirate Mix, “Turkish Pepper” (a little bit spicy), Haribo Skipper Mix, and Licorice Larvae 


There were a few things that struck me as immediately DUTCH when walking into C-1000 and Albert Heijn.  There was your usual drop (Dutch licorice), Stroopwafels (caramel wafer cookies), refrigerated Poffertjes (traditional mini pancakes), Ontbijtkoek (a kind of spiced cake eaten for breakfast), and Hagelslag (basically sprinkles you eat on toast–way more delicious than you’re probably imagining).

At  C-1000, a Dutch grocery store chain, they had a barrier set up by the automatic doors behind which a forlorn tweenage boy was standing.  It turns out that the store offers collectible soccer stickers for every purchase above 10 Euro.  The average adult isn’t too wild about them, but kids have been mobbing stores to collect more.  In an effort at crowd control, the barriers have been set up in stores around the country, behind which the kids were supposed to wait and politely ask for stickers from shoppers leaving the store.

Much like the pre-Halloween or pre-Christmas fervor in the States, Holland was starting to get ready for Carneval by the time I arrived the first week of January.  You had your regular old bumblebees, your cowboys and firemen and clowns, but nestled in there was this cheeky little getup, missing only the wooden shoes.

Maybe I'll dress up as Dutch this year.

To the French their chocolates and charcuterie, to the Danes their pickled herring, to the Dutch, mayonnaise.  I never realized you could make so many variations on this emulsion of egg yolk, oil, and vinegar or lemon juice.

Holland has a very large Indonesian community, which means that the Indonesian specialty store right next to Albert Heijn was making a steady business.  I drooled over the wall of Sambal (a paste made of chili peppers) and caved for a bag of Krupuk (Indonesian prawn chips).   

Inside the C-1000 grocery store building was a Turkish market, where one could pop olives and cheese and (oooohhhhhh) Turkish bread to one’s heart content.  My friend Laurie and I picked up a Turkish pizza and I felt I understood myself a little better taking each pungent, peppery bite.  In that moment I wanted to hug my parents for letting me have this opportunity to expand my palate from my earliest memory until now simply because I grew up in this place, shopped in these same shops, and ate these same things.  No wonder I like to try a little bit of everything–in this tiny country, one can find decent, if not really friggin’ good, food from all kinds of places and I, gratefully, benefited.  You have your spicy, your sweet, your salt, your dairy, your bread, your meat, your little bit of everything.

Even if you can find peanut butter and marshmallows in so many places now, is this just another part of the hodgepodge (or stampot)?  I am just as secure in my American-ness eating lumpias or panettone or koshari as I am eating a hamburger and grilling some corn on the cob (now available at your local Dutch Albert Heijn).   Are there now more expats asking for this stuff, or like in a store called America Today in central Arnhem, is it the Dutch who are asking to be fed American fare, one Oreo or Nerds rope at a time?  

Perhaps we are approaching a global cuisine, where people are starting to feel comfortable expanding their palates.  My hope is that it isn’t just the new chic thing, but a lasting shift, one that doesn’t just cover acceptance of food, but acceptance of cultures other than familiar ones.  If the way to a man’s heart really is through his stomach then, boy, are things going to get interesting.

Tjendol anyone?


Filed under Denmark, Egypt, France, Netherlands

Happy Birthday, Oma A!

It’s my grandma’s birthday today!  She is a wonderful artist and I wanted to thank her for encouraging all my pursuits by posting a few of the more interesting photos from the past semester. 


Filed under Egypt, In Transit