Friday, May 30, 2008

The road to Macondo

A friend of mine is off again shooting documentaries all over the world, and I am always glad to get the customary email updates which he sends out. This time he is telling tales of Colombia, amazed at the similarities between Latin America and Africa (my Latin American pals and I can totally relate). He raves about the Caribbean coast, the scenery and the villages; and in one line dismisses talking about Bogotá saying he found it "to possess very little soul and character". I owe it to Bogotá and to the pot of Colombian coffee living in my kitchen to set the records straight.

My visit to Colombia was a quite pleasant surprise. In Madrid I had made friends with many Latin Americans, before that I was an avid reader of Marquez and other masters of magic realism from the continent. Naturally, I was dying to get to know many countries in Latin America and my friends the Middle East, so we made plans of visits to each other's homelands in a couple of years. When I came back to Cairo looking for a job, I fell upon one which sent me to attend a conference Colombia in my first week on the job (the memory has served as an anesthetic during many working weeks). My travel buddy and I have photos of this business trip labeled "what we went to do" (2 photos) and "what we ended up doing" (close to 40 photos); she still vows that this is the best business trip she ever went on.

From the minute we landed and took a cab to our hotel everything screamed Welcome to Colombia, the colorful buses and the lively music, the courteous people, the military presence and the chaotic traffic.

The view from my hotel room in the 14th floor was different from anything I had seen before; even though I had been warned about what I was about to see, the minute I pushed the curtains back I was speechless. My Colombian pal had reminisced about the view from downtown Bogotá on many occasions, but I had reverted that extraordinary portrait to extreme nostalgia; I shouldn't have... for nothing I have seen in my entire life looked as surreal as the view of Bogotá, skyscrapers and adobe buildings against really green mountains! Our
conference was held in the Universidad de los Andes, therefore its logo was a graph depicting a curve on top of which symbols of a house and a cross were perched; that's the view you get from the university, the mountains, the Monserrat sanctuary and a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe with arms wide spread.

The surreal mood was complimented bit by bit ...
meals of fried bananas,
people living in an eternal spring and going for summer holidays on weekends
(a veranear they say),
colorful markets full of crafts which could be made by the Inca gods themselves,
a private tour of the Museo del oro where you enter a dark room and suddenly the floor lights up to reveal sunken golden treasures which have been rescued from the sea,
waiting for a bus to take you to the ceremony and finding a wooden chiva party bus instead (Egyptians can try to picture the bus equivalent of a felouka with all the electric lights and blasting music),
finding whistles on tables in a club,
asking the taxi driver to just go straight ahead and finding he's not surprised (seemed like a 40s movies saying: طوالي يا أسطى
drinking fresh berry-juice (that's surreal to me, I'm from the desert),
finding a Barrio Egipto in a city a zillion miles away,
seeing emeralds of all shapes sold in La Candelaria as if they were blue stone scarabs sold by the dozen in Khan El Khalili bazzars,
a Cali Carnival ensemble entering the room as red, yellow and blue balloons fall from the ceiling (how cool is it to have a flag with the three basic colors! you can get any other color by mixing those on a palette),
seeing a Lama and remembering how it spat on Captain Haddock in Tintin's adventures in South America (Prisoners of the Sun),
thinking you're in Bogota whenever you listen to El Negro Zumbon and dancing wherever you are.

It is in Montserrat where that I was tempted to take my only photo of the trip (the rest are stolen as you know), that of a whitewashed gate with a bell on top (see above) which in my mind's eye was the gate to Macondo. Macondo, a fragment of Gabo's imagination*, exemplifies for me any remote place which lives as if the world around it does not exist, it comes as no surprise that this town belongs in a land where people are cultured, happy, courteous and embracing life in the midst of meager safety, drug cartels and fierce inequality.

Colombia's people are as generous as its land, a land that bestows magical fruits, unique coffee, emeralds and narco. Colombia's music makes you forget how complicated life can be in other spots on planet earth (Salto del Ángel by Parque de la 93 is the ultimate Salsa club, highly recommended).Even the art in Bogotá goes in bolder brush strokes that do not fear to stand out (Botero fans can testify).

Weekends in Bogotá are also unique, whether you hit the student barrio of La Candelaria filled with cheap eats and music blasting from all cantinas from as early as 5pm on Friday evenings, or you rush of to the plains of the mountains to eat Ajiaco elaborately prepared from five different breeds of potato, or go visit uncle Andrés Carne de Res and dance the night away while noticing a new weird trinket hanging from the ceiling every 2 minutes, you are guaranteed to get a treat for your senses.

In all honesty, while in Bogota and even before going there safety was a major concern; it started before getting there, when my Colombian friend's idea of a joke was snatching my bag while I was getting cash from the ATM machine, and then grew with the sight of the military presence in the streets as we arrived to the hotel, for such a sight instead of reassuring me made me question the need for it. The feeling grew with everybody advising me to stay very alert after 9am and preferably not go anywhere on foot nor hail a cab from the street.

However, my curiosity and the contagious love of life that the city transmitted made me roam its different neighborhoods day and night, thinking I was safe as long as I can fake a Colombian accent (that much I thought was possible since the lady at the embassy back in Cairo insisted I was coming to issue a new passport not to get an entry visa).

I thank my friend who transmitted to me love for Colombia and familiarity with it before I got there. Before I got to Bogota, I had helped cook patacones, I had learned all the formules de politesse which exist only in Bogotano Spanish , I knew
how to ask for a tinto instead of a café, got my verbal conjugation messed up, I knew better than to be surprised or offended when people shouted marica, was giving one kiss on the cheek instead of two, and felt almost like a local when I recognized the guava candy wrapped in leaves and packed in wooden boxes at the supermarket.

Bring back some coffee for me if you go, will you?

*Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic "A 100 years of solitude is set in the imaginary town of Macondo"
' recipe for patacones

Menu at 80 sillas a Cevishes restaurant at Usaquen (trust Latin Americans to come up with unique names such as 80 chairs).
Gate and Bell tower at Monserrat, the sloppy photo is the one I took of course, and the neat one with blue skies in the background is from Travelog

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On destinations

فلا نزال في سفر أبداً من وقت نشأتنا ونشأة أصولنا إلى ما لا نهاية له، وإذا لاح لك منزل نقول فيه هذا هو الغاية انفتح عليك منه طرائق أخر تزودت منه وانصرفت فما من منزل تشرف عليه إلا ويمكن أن تقول هو غايتي ثم إنك إذا وصلت إليه لم تلبث أن تخرج عنه راحلاًً

ابن عربي - كتاب الإسفار عن نتائج الأسفار

And so we remain constantly travelling from the day we are born till the end of time... On the road we see a house and think it is our final destination, when we get there we find that there are still more roads ahead, so we take provisions from the house only to set off again. For rest assured that you will not stay for long in any place which you might perceive as your destination, for soon enough it will be time for another journey.

Ibn Arabi -Unveiling from the Effects of the Voyages


-A very good article on the different notions of voyaging as perceived by Ibn Arabi's and a good introduction to the book (and interesting podcasts on some of his works) can be found at the page of the Ibn Arabi society
-I took some liberty in translating the quote, a more faithful translation is available on the page specified above
-Email me to get a copy of the e-book (in Arabic)


“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” - Lao Tzu
"and all the roads we have to walk along are winding, and all the lights that lead us there are blinding" Wonderwall by Oasis:
A partner for the journey:
"You have no idea where I came from
We have no idea where we're going
Lodged in life
Like branches in a river
Flowing downstream
Caught in the current
I carry you
You'll carry me..."
Delusion Angel
by David Jewel (Before Sunrise the movie)

Photo: door in Goa, India

Monday, May 12, 2008

Paris has two faces

"whether blue or gray be her skies, whether loud be her cheers or whether soft be her tears [...] I love Paris" Ella Fitzgerald, I love Paris

"I walked down your streets, alone and cold like a lost child, and then you took me in your arms" Enrico Macias, Paris tu m'as pris dans tes bras
"I walk down your streets which step on my feet" Souad Massi & Marc Lavoine, Paris Paris

"Oh but the sky of Paris cannot remain too cruel, it quickly seeks forgiveness by offering the island a rainbow" Edith Piaf, Sous le ciel de Paris

They all sang for Paris, a city that serenades visiting love birds while crushing resident vagabonds.

On my first visit I could not bring myself to like Paris! I could only feel the harshness of life in this place, the rush in the metro where people would give you the cold shoulder. Paris to me was like a person with perfect features but no warmth, plastic surgery beauty. I was impressed, that I cannot deny, I had a great time and the greatest host, I felt like I finally saw Paris which everyone was raving about. I concluded that maybe I preferred more imperfect yet lively beauties, same as I liked attractive guys with imperfect features. And so I went, telling my friends and my mom who adores Paris: yes beautiful city...but I'd never live there; insisting all the while that I definitely preferred the more chaotic cities of Spain (at the time I was spending winter in Alicante for work), I quote a dear friend saying "si, Madrid es más cutre pero nos gusta más" cutre is slang for low quality.

The second time I went to Paris I had to board a plane there after a long journey on the road, I thought I'd spend a day there, encouraged by a friend who absolutely loved the city -and by the colorful Paris in
Ratatouille- to seek reconciliation with the city of lights.

Once again, I discover that our own mood and expectations as well as the weather set the scene for how we enjoy a place and how we remember it later on. In contrast to the cold wind scratching my skin in February, sunny mornings and breezy nights welcomed me in August (sorry Ella I tend to disagree,
I love Paris only in the summer). Having been on the verge of a breakup in my first visit (luckily things worked out after that) and then simply enjoying my single student life in the second visit also made a difference.

After a week of hopping on and off trains in Central Europe with my backpack as sole companion, traveling on a tight budget to cover the maximum ground, I arrive in Paris to enjoy French delicacies on sidewalk cafes with a good café au lait in the company of a unique character. My friend whom I met in Paris had a big gossip's tongue and an artist's eye, a combination guaranteed to make you laugh your heart out while appreciating the details of fashion and life in the beautiful city. A companion so filled with positive energy that you'd say yes to crepes in the morning before your flight and end up expectedly missing the flight (most expensive crepes I ate, 90 euros).

I had covered the Paris essentials in my previous trip (I owe that to my great host and his friend, who planned all the sightseeing to fit into my weekend away from work even better than the lonely planet folks). This trip I just strolled along the Seine warmed by the familiarity that one feels when he remembers a place. As I watch the movie
Paris je t'aime later on that summer, I feel this is a city I remember vividly, even if it's still one I wouldn't live in.

One place I'll always miss and would really want to go back to just sitting to read the papers, have a
quiche and then strawberry macarons, I'd sit there and smile back at passersby in the only cheerful district of town: Le Marais. The quartier is characterized by shops that look like wooden doll houses, extravagant fashion and the general air of creativity that gay neighborhoods sometimes have.

Another favorite is the Ile Saint Louis for whom Edith Piaf has sang, and which will always have in my mind the color of caramel and the flavor of crunchy pecan (the ice cream place there has a dark green facade you won't miss it, it's where the bridge ends, it'd be a sin not to make a stop there).

Another spot which I would love to go back to but only with a loved one is the Pont des Arts, a wooden bridge where young Parisiens and adoptive Parisiens picnic. It'd be a waste to go to such a romantic spot on my own again.

Watching the sun setting on Notre Dame from across the bridge is very picturesque, and even though I did not feel the church's warmth on my first visit (specially as I compared it with Sacré Coeur's peace and hushed lights), in my second visit I weaved endless tales around it. It occurs to me now that perhaps I particularly like Sacré Coeur perched up Montmartre, the highest point of the city, because I have come to feel more sanctity in places that isolate themselves from the vicious world below in order to reach out to the sky, maybe I like it for no other reason but my love for heights and the view they provide? Or, maybe as much as I deny it, it is somehow connected to the fact that I studied in one of the schools founded under the Sacred Heart Society. Who knows, all I know is that I would've liked to light a candle on my second visit and had no time to.

Even though I felt somehow morose when I first visited the Louvre and got lost in the vast ancient Egyptian pavilions (that day I discovered a sense of patriotism I didn't know I had), my second visit, which was merely a visit to the grounds of the Louvre was just magical. I felt like an 8 year old on the rented red bike, forming part of a giant snake of bicycles which twisted and turned around the lights on the ground, with the glass pyramid in the background and a still starry night enveloping us, I felt like part of a movie -perhaps E.T.- and expect the front wheel of my bike to point to the sky any minute.

I have admit, as cheesy as it sounds, that I do like it when the Tour Eiffel starts twinkling. Having bought fruits and cheese in a grocery store in the posh neighborhood behind the Tower, I sit on the grass contemplating it, and marvel at this heap of iron bars which managed to symbolize everything
chic in our consumerist societies. I notice that I do not have the obligatory Paris photo with Eiffel in the background and dismiss the thought, as I remember I have a cooler photo, with a dear friend and I standing at the very top of the tower pointing to the flag of Egypt, according to which Cairo stood 3217 km away in that direction. Back then those miles brought sadness and perhaps guilt, as I had left behind at home a partner and had to spend the winter working in Spain. I now silently thank God for not worrying about anyone as I rush off to the Southern Hemisphere twice in alternate months; detachment is too appealing...

I leave without paying a second visit to the Quartier Latin, I prefer to keep the memory of going there with one of my best friends intact -I still burst out laughing when I remember how the waiter at the pizzeria -who was clearly not Italian- spoke French with an Italian accent.

I go back to Madrid with black and white postcards in my backpack, a Tour de France T-shirt, an inexplicable craving for macarons, and reconciliation in my heart, humming Paroles et Paroles on the way back (I sang this at the Dalida tribute museum Karaoke, and was happy to know that my
R roulé was absolutely charming and not unrefined as commonly thought).

Photo: Gargoyle at Notre Dame watching the city change over the years - according to Disney his name is Hugo (Photo by Jason Vic)

Songs: Sous le ciel de Paris - Edith Piaf; Paris tu m'a pris dans tes bras - Enrico Macias; Paris Paris - Souad Massi and Marc Lavoine; I love Paris - Ella Fitzgerald
Movie: Paris je t'aime, a movie that starts with the Parisian snail map (basically the different sections or arrondissements), and then zooms in on each of them to give a short movie, touching stories weaved by great masters of European cinema

Read: the smell of the métro posted my friend on his blog

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

objects, people and places

I find that I am in a constant state nostalgia, not bad nor sad nostalgia, but just a longing which casts an idealistic hallow on the object of affection whatever it is, while realizing one can't possess it again. Today* I
look up Saudade in a dictionary, I had come across the term in listening to Portuguese Fado, Cape Verdean Coladeras and Brazilian Jazz, I find that it describes my state of mind perfectly "The famous Saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness"

As I read a friend's reflections on friends coming and going, I remembered a day distant in my memory, almost 7 months ago, when I had to pack one of the most colorful years of my existence into a couple of suitcases and a cardboard box...

A Mexican sombrero found in the street after a great reggae concert
Trinkets bought at the Sunday market
A fridge magnet holding a note reminding us to pay our share in grocery shopping
Movies we stayed in to watch
Books bought with gift coupons from my favorite bookshop
A collage that took forever to make, with pictures from different cities, done to match its pair a poster with a zillion shawls, and both harmoniously forming a rainbow volcano-earth-grass-trees-sun-sky-clouds rainbow
Study notes with in-class gossip scribbled in the margins
Rugs and cushions brought in to make my room more living-roomish
A tea-ball attached to a miniature midnight blue kettle sprinkled with golden stars and crescents
A scrabble board which had to keep us company until dawn
My lucky bike which remained tied to a tree for weeks on end in a city where anything can be stolen
An old jar of Nuttela that caused disappointment time after time to a chocoholic friend as he found it was just my sugar bowl

All witnesses to endless stories and smiles. Deciding what to keep, what to sell, what to give away, what to leave with friends in hope of returning someday, was sheer agony.

As much as packing all my belongings
at the end of the journey caused confusion, it wasn't as great as the confusion that packing before the journey stirred. What object would contain memories that would keep me company the most? What would remind me of places and people at home without causing too much nostalgia? I decide on a few cherished objects and farewell gifts from my friends

Verses of Salah Jahin poems scribbled on coasters
My favorite black and white movie, esha3et 7ob
A Bedouin mirror
A puppet wearing a t-shirt that says "always on my mind"
(my bookmarks collection I had to leave behind)
Throws with Arab designs in blue and white from Khayameya, a place I always miss
A Bedouin outfit complete with burqa
An earring (a kirdaan) in silver and tourmaline from my favorite designer, a gift from once soulmate

The thought of moving again confuses me, the objects I'd like to take would struggle to contain all the perfect moments I am blessed with now. For how can one capture (especially if one never takes photos) days with just the right energy, weather, lighting, company, conversation, laughs, surprises or just times of recollection in the comfort of one's home. It'd start at silly gifts we exchanged on new year's (maybe pegs) and would end at my beloved bean bag... I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Fear of moving on from a setting in which we found happiness, fear of going back to a place of which we have created an ideal memory or quite the contrary, fear of letting go of short-lived perfection, refusing to close circles and living in denial ... I recall my friend's insistence on closing circles, and Paulo Coelho's words come to mind (I am not a fan but these words made sense) "It is always important to know when something has reached its end.Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over..."

Though not irreplaceable, each person or spot we walk away from (because of distance or of our own will) takes a bit of us away and leaves in us clear traces... so we keep on changing like splashes of oil paint on a palette, mixing and metamorphosing, the blue turns green and the red orange and if they both cross again they may not give the shade of purple which they once gave...but they'll live

Still, on evenings like this, when reminders like this
post hit you, you are very prone to suffer pangs of nostalgia. You are filled with a longing which causes you to cast a hallow of perfection on your past, bit by bit you create a space you can run when your imperfect present starts baring its teeth.

I feel that the soundtrack to my life in the past couple of years is Chambao's album Caminando of which the general theme is wandering, leaving to search for the unknown, getting lost, getting to know one's self during the journey, realizing the futility of wandering without direction, going back more enlightened to find reconciliation and joy, and then share tales of the journey.

PS: forgive me if this post is a bit schizophrenic, it was updated on different days (and accordingly under different mood swings)
* this paragraph updated 2 weeks after the blog entry was made

-Fairouz and a song about simple longing of which the object is unknown; a nostalgia so overwhelming that it makes her realize she has not forgotten people she thought long forgotten أنا عندي حنين
-Volver, a classic re-invented by Estrella Morente, going back to places and reencounters with the past
- Que reste-'t'il de nos amours, Dalida sings: what remains of our love? a photo, a memory, a wilting happiness perhaps?

-A few of my favorite things (photos by Andrea, Pancho and Myself)
-Lions at Kasr El Nil Bridge, Cairo and Lions at estanco del Retiro, Madrid (I took those)