August 2012


I was overjoyed to discover that finally, finally after all my work trips, I had one that was connecting through Paris. Not only connecting, but having a long enough layover on a Friday afternoon that I could truly justify overnighting. When all this came together as I re-booked my flights in Dakar, I only had enough time to select a hotel. The Hotel Delavigne was recommended by a friend as a true small French hotel in the heart of the Latin Quarter. (Note to travelers, it was significantly cheaper to book online than when I arrived comparing posted prices.)

Stepping on the RER from the airport, I recalled the first time I had really left the States. Mom had dragged us off the international flight, onto the RER where we got off exactly where I would be exiting in half an hour. We had promptly marched through Notre Dame with our little carry on suitcases trailing behind us, then stumbled around the courtyard of the Louvre before laying exhausted on the grass in front of Gare Montparnasse as we waited for the train to Biarritz. It was only twelve years later as I wandered through the Charles de Gaulle airport that I realized my mother had gone to a lot of trouble to give us that whirlwind tour; there was a direct train to Biarritz from the airport. I had always thought we had had to go to Gare Montparnasse.

My dad had taken my sister and me to Paris for a week the following year as a congratulations of getting through my junior year of high school, which to this day I still credit as the hardest academic year I’ve ever endured. That was when I had actually seen the city and learned that my favorite places were not the top four tourist sites. I fell in love with the Musee Rodin, the Musee du Cluny (medieval), and  Pont Alexandre III though I found I had more than enough room to fit in le Louvre, le Musee d’Orsay, l’Opera Garnier where we saw an opera, and all the gardens.

In fact as a teenager, despite being disguised that the baguettes were spread with butter (not that I was a mayo fan) and that the meats were not really cooked (Southerners only understand well done, not “smoked”), I was genuinely convinced I would never really love another city the way I loved Paris or another country the way I loved France.  Even touring with Ceci around Western Europe in college only ensured that while I found more countries and places to love, Paris would stay near to my heart.

This half weekend was more of a homecoming than anything else. I couldn’t believe it had been twelve years since I’d first come. Paris was the beginning of my desire to travel and see the world. While I am by no means done, this layover was much more a homecoming than anything else. I had very big plans: to photograph Paris as I had not been able to do before. I was too exhausted from the last two weeks of traveling to  be up for much more.

Having settled into my hotel room, I wandered about in search of good photos. Sadly, it was cloudy. Still, I walked along the Seine from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower. I was amazed at how many buildings I remembered along my ramble. I was also thankful to be out walking after two weeks of sitting on planes, cars, and auditoriums. But as wonderful as the walk was, I found myself missing my family. It was a bit of a shock to realize that I had never been to Paris without family (or adopted family).

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After a delayed departure from Aligers, the usual passport queue shuffle (where lines close and open randomly), and a rather long queue to exchange currency, I was with my driver headed from Tunis to Monastir. Tunis had some very interesting modern architecture, but I was much happier when we passed through the countryside you see to the left. For the last hour or so, it was too dark to make out the fields and homes we whizzed past.

Monastir was the location for the USTM event we were sponsoring. It is a breathtakingly beautiful coastal town that has been built up for tourism because it is the hometown of former President, who is buried in a mausoleum there (see below). Our hotel was right on the water outside of Monastir in Shankes. I was really thrilled to spend a few days getting to chat with Tunisian, Moroccan, and Libyan students about engineering and technology commercialization.

At one point, I was asked up to the mike to say something to these kids, and I briefly said how much I’d enjoyed talking with them and how glad we were to be able to help fund the workshop, and promptly sat down. During the afternoon break, a bunch of them cornered me to ask “how you learned such great public speaking techniques.” I was surprised but flattered that thirty seconds could make such an impression. Really though, I was thrilled they felt comfortable approaching me to talk about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Without a doubt, one of the best events of this whole country series was when several of the professors took me to El Jem, a “nearby town” that was hosting a local music group. Completely exhausted I figured I could manage (having taken an afternoon nap) an evening concert since we’d be home by midnight. Little did I know that nearby really meant 2 hours each way, it was like hanging out with my Uncle Billy in Montana.

 

 

The concert location was in an ancient amphitheater, which turned out to be an elliptical Roman Colosseum. (Ok, so some say it definitely isn’t a Colosseum, but I say it looks more like that than all the other amphitheaters I’ve seen, including the one in Athens.) It was nighttime; it was superbly lit with colors and we took our seats for the Scholars and University Symphony Orchestra. We were an hour late, having arrived at 10 P.M. The first half was Vivaldi and other European composers, and I was eager for the second half to begin to hear the Arab songs I had really come for.

After a while, one of the men grew a little restless at simply sitting and hearing the music. As a group, we got up and began to explore the monument while listening. Thankfully we were not in the U.S. where there would have been designated seats and handrails for the seats and where the rest of the amphitheater would have been closed off during the concert. Instead we navigated our way in the dark down to the Lion’s Den, which was full of light. From there we traveled through the underground passageways to the other side of the Colosseum, where we climbed the four stories to the top. It was spectacular! About this time, the musicians took a break for intermission; it was 11:30 P.M. Then they started back up for the Arab portion of the program, it was midnight. Everyone indulged me enough to stay and hear one song and then we crawled back on the bus for the long trip back.

Our last night in Monastir, we had a wonderful dinner with our new friends and I (unsurprisingly) danced to the Arabic music. Sometimes I really miss the culture that I learned to love. Tunisia is definitely somewhere I really want to return to.

The next day I was back in Tunis, where I learned a lot about the current government, which has been formed for the sole purpose of creating the constitution. Each region that is sending representatives had to select three: a young person, a woman, and a third person. How cool is that!?
That evening was the night before Ramadan, the month of fasting in Islam. After having a lunch overlooking the sea in Carthage, we went to a different part of the city for supper: Sidi Bou Said, which made me wonder if I had been secretly flown back to Mykonos Island in Greece. We had a nice dinner and then wandered the streets, which were filled with cafes, trinket shops, and one very long line to buy the local doughnuts. Safe to say, I loved Tunisia.

I remember studying the Algerian revolution from the French during the 1950s and 60s back in college. I hadn’t given much time to what I thought Algeria would look like. If pressed, I likely would have said, “desert like in those WWII movies where you see in fighting on the North African front.”

The center of the Maghreb region, Algeria is a large country ranging from the Sahara desert to the green hills next to the Mediterranean. Algiers is a very modern city with many highways and high rise apartment buildings, yet I liked the older part of the city for it’s European architecture. It is known as Algiers the White for its iconic white buildings and blue shutters that pop out from the sea and go up along the city’s high hills, reminiscent of the Greek islands in color scheme.

Jeff commented that driving along the highways near the sea reminded him of the San Francisco Bay area. They reminded me of the sulfur fumes rising up from a particular swamp area on the campus of William and Mary. He sounded slightly nostalgic as he said this; I was not. I used to try and avoid the sulfur pathway.

Due to several constraints, we didn’t see much of the city or the surrounding countryside. While we were on Gorée Island, many of our colleagues were exploring the Roman ruins and swimming in the Mediterranean outside of Algiers. (If you try this, please watch out for the sea urchins, who are very good at ruining trips for work or pleasure.) I was quite jealous when I saw the pictures of the countryside. Clearly the landscape of the country is as varied as Morocco.

As a former part of France, Algerian cuisine has more baguettes than pita. Oddly to me, they substituted cilantro for parsley, a deep disappointment. Lamb was a very popular entree as was fish. Both were excellent. Ordering wine or an alcoholic drink with a meal was much easier than in some of the Middle Eastern locals. I really wanted to stay another week and really explore, of course that would have overlapped with Ramadan, so it’s just as well I have to come back later.

As a predominantly Muslim country, I was surprised at how much it reminded me of Ibillin in the code of women’s dress. Almost everyone wore long pants or skirts, but the women, again like Senegal, often showed their arms, sometimes even if their heads were covered. Variations among Muslim countries in how to observe has been something I’ve been very interested in for the last four years.

Lyes took Jeff and me downtown for lunch and shopping right before we left. It was the only time on the whole trip I had a chance to actually shop and I bought a beautiful local painting of a ruin close to the Moroccan border that Lyes recognized. It was such a great day that I didn’t want to leave and head to the airport.

Perhaps I was more eager for Algeria than it was for me. I arrived at the airport in plenty of time to board before my 12:50 AM flight. Even that late at night, the airport was hot and humid. I located my gate, which was sharing a space with a flight to Lisbon that kept being delayed, likely due to the thunderstorm. I found a seat and sat to read my book. The boarding time on my flight passed without an announcement. I went up to the front to check with an employee when it was about fifteen minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave. I was told in French “not yet.” People started lining up for the Lisbon flight, and I reasoned that mine would be afterwards. Finally half an hour after the scheduled departure time (and several announcements that were completely incomprehensible except for the word “Lisbon”), I could swear that the next announcement started with “KathrynElizabet,” and I rushed through the line to the counter. Sure enough my flight had been called earlier and was about to leave. I boarded with the two other gentlemen who had missed the announcement. Soon I had a whole beautiful row to myself on board the aircraft and attempted to catch an hour or two of sleep before arriving in Algiers.

At 7:15 I was walking through the automatic doors and into the Algiers airport’s lobby; I located the Hilton’s airport desk where I could catch the shuttle to the hotel. It wasn’t opened yet, so my luggage and I found our way to the second floor café to wait it out. The grill over the desk lifted about 8:30. Soon I was on a shuttle, whizzing past the highways of Aligers, and then checking in at reception. Except of course, that I was early for that too. I sat in the lobby till 11:20 till a room had been cleaned. I was so grateful for the lack of humidity, even if there was a lack of air conditioning, that I didn’t really mind; I just played Sudoku.  Once in my room, I revealed in the silly bottles of goods in the bathroom, the strong internet connection, the very soft bed, and the pre-furnished iron and ironing board. I crashed for four hours then got a call from Jeff to say that he had arrived from his connection in Casablanca.

I had just finished ironing when some of our new friends picked us up for a dinner near the Monument des Martyrs, which offers an amazing view of the city and bay below from the hilltop. Driving up the hills and then seeing the view from the Monument was déjà vu from my time in Haifa. The restaurant was down a narrow road and off into the brush. It was chic, especially since our large group had the back room reserved. The dinner lasted three hours, until midnight.

The two days of the boot camp were logistically similar to what we’d done in Senegal. One difference was how much higher was the participants’ English comprehension. Another was that while in Dakar only a few of the students came up and talked to me, in Algiers I was surrounded by the male entrepreneurs. I swear it’s a Middle Eastern phenomenon.

While we learn about the countries which encompass the Francophone world in French class, we very rarely do more than listen to their accents for a few sentences in audio exercises. This trip has been wonderful for learning more about places with a French background that are outside of say…France.

In 1960, Senegal, which got its name from the Senegal River, won its independence from France, who had acquired it when the African cake was cut up. Islam was introduced by Berber merchants in the 8th and 9th Centuries, was later seen as a venue to fight colonialism, and is now the religion of about 90% of the population. Like much of West Africa, Senegal is known for its music, specifically mbalax, which focuses on percussion.

Tuesday and Monday nights out for supper had been all we had seen of Dakar beyond the hotel. Tuesday night several of the locals had taken us to a nearby bar to eat dinner. It almost two hours for the food to arrive; we were famished by that point and it was about 10:45 PM. The perk was listening to a local band; I love West African music.

Thursday morning we woke up to notice that the hotel’s electricity had gone out during the night. The generator only covered the reception area, so Jeff and I spent the morning in the lobby with our laptops plugged in, frantically trying to get work done. About the time we were wrapping up, Julie arrived. Julie works with startups in Nigeria and regionally in West and Central Africa. With her big smile and warm heart, she is a pleasure to know. We insisted she accompany us to for our afternoon adventure on Gorée Island.

Gorée Island is only two kilometers west of Dakar, however the quick ferry ride reminded us how much hotter today was than the earlier in the week. Within fifteen minutes, we were all terribly sweaty despite being in the open air, covered part of the boat. It was interesting to see women wearing elaborate braided hairstyles while others sporting hijabs. We arrived on the island and let most of the others descend ahead of us as we were in no hurry. Almost immediately, I stopped to photograph all the kids playing in the water. Then we were approached by locals claiming that since we didn’t live on the island we had to pay a 500 franc ($1) tax each. They communicated this to us in French, and I automatically became the translator. I was on my guard, not believing this tax was legitimate. I had heard several Nigerians speaking English on the boat. No one had stopped them. We were the only ones with skin that screamed that we didn’t belong. I just started arguing in French, asking when the tax had started, saying our friends hadn’t had to pay it. They said it was new, then five years old. Finally we decided $3 wasn’t worth losing our time on the island.

We wandered around and found a restaurant. Gratefully, we accepted the table just under the ceiling fan. We ordered the local fish and a very large bottle of water. After eating, we wandered around the small island’s streets. I enjoyed watching the goat kids butting heads together in jest. The vegetation on the island was beautiful. I even found one of the fragrant trees I had loved in Bali there.

What I had not realized was that part of the island’s history was as a slave trading post though apparently so small as to be considered inconsequential by experts on the subject. Once again I was with someone of African descent walking through a slave housing center and feeling decidedly uncomfortable. This time, the discomfort came from my thought that this was so much less movingly depressing than the enormous establishments in Ghana. That was not to say that my throat didn’t constrict when I peered into the small cell labeled “young girls;” there were other rooms for men, women and children. Something about one for young girls sounded sinister.

Coming out of the tourist attraction, we were cornered by one of the female owners of a shop that we had met on the ferry. She insisted we come visit her shop. I was expecting it to be a small room in one of the buildings we passed. Instead she led us past the church and away from the buildings. On a hill were a series of lean-to’s that were souvenir shops for tourists. I was very excited, thinking I could buy one of the palm fans that everyone had; it would be an excellent souvenir and welcomed in the heat. However, all that was for sale were bead necklaces and clothing. Being the only customers in sight, the other shopkeepers, all female, wanted us to buy from them. We walked away from disappointed and upset vendors.

We boarded the next boat back to Dakar. I ate dinner, literally wrestled with my room safe to extract my passport minutes before my driver arrived, and by 10 P.M. was ready for my red eye to Algiers.