Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It Comes Back

I let the couch gasp for air as I finally got off of it to meet Chiara for dinner.  She picked me up in her car and we drove down the mountain and back up another one.  Chiara has been in Swaziland for 2 years now and we have grown close during my many visits.  Tonight we would join her friends at their cottage for dinner before heading out to a party.  The cottage was warm with beef stew and the bottles of delicious South African wine just made it warmer.  I immediately liked the women but when they brought out chocolate cake for dessert I knew I would marry them.

It was ok that we were roly from food and drink, because we only had to roll a few feet from the cottage to the party.  It was Swaziland Art night, Swarty, and bands from South Africa came to perform in the sunken living room of an empty mansion.  Every expat within a 100 mile radius heard the siren call of booze and music and packed in.  The mansion was meant for Airbnb guests and so it felt like we were children playing in an empty adult house, unchaperoned.   Anyone could pop behind the fully stocked bar and pretend to be bartender, making concoctions just like I used to do as a kid in the schoolyard.  But this time my drink was made of Jameson instead of mud and fancy berries instead of the leftover ketchup in the fridge.

I felt comfortable.  Besides knowing many people from my previous visits, it was so easy to lean back into that swaying feeling that comes from being more than 8,000 miles from home.  A feeling of freedom and recklessness and familiarity with the unfamiliar.  I love the small talk that happens seamlessly at an expat party but would make me feel like a douche anywhere else.

“Oh I just got in from Johannesburg.  You’re headed to Uganda?  Nice!   Say hi to my cat for me.”

We danced under a disco light (??) to songs that were popular 2 years ago.  We played in a sunken bathtub and slid around the kitchen.  I ran outside, to a hill on a mountain and called the boy. 

“I’m calling you from SWAZILAND.  OMG TECHNOLOGY. I MISS YOU. OK GONNA GO BACK AND DANCE NOW.”


I’m happy that I’m here for 2 weeks but excited to go home to my sweet apartment in Harlem.  I never once regret not taking the job overseas.  I like my happy hour on Thursdays and my bagels on Saturday.  But when I get antsy in my cubicle and miss the freedom of distance, I know I’ll be going to Namibia next month, and Ethiopia after that, and then…who knows?


Thursday, October 13, 2016

New in Namibia

You can drive for hours without seeing anyone in Namibia.  A tumbleweed might literally cross in front of your car.  The capital Windhoek, is surrounded by tall, sandy mountains making the horizon look like Mars. 



I was in Namibia for work.  Helping to run a workshop to adapt materials for our nationwide HIV survey.  Unfortunately this meant I saw these mountains mostly from the window of my conference room.  I insisted that even though it made the projected materials a little harder to read, we have the windows open every day.  

Over lunches, I made friends with Frida, a Namibian woman who worked at the Ministry of Health.  One day at lunch, I bumped into a waiter and said “lo siento”.  Because I’m too old to be juggling all these languages and random ones just pop out.  (Most embarrassing is when I’m speaking to a taxi driver in Africa and I start wagging my head like I’m in India.  I’m confused.)  Frida turned to me “Tu hablas espanol?!”

During the Namibian War of Independence, children were smuggled out of the country to safety, many never to see their families again.  Frida’s boat went to Cuba.  Not knowing a word of English or Spanish, Frida and the other children spent the next 15 years growing up in Cuba. 

“Most of us are now back in Namibia.  Once a month we roast a big pig and dance salsa all night long.”

Frida is trying to get into the University of Michigan for a Masters Program.  I told her to tell her story and she’d be a shoo in.

On Friday night we all went out to for Namibia’s famous beef at Kapana.  We ducked under the large blue tarped area and pushed through the wall of smoke.  In the center of the large outdoor market were butchers using machetes to cut large pieces of the cow laid on the wooden tables in front of them.  The meat was  passed up front where men arranged the pieces on open grills.  The men called at you to come and try their beef.  Theirs is the tenderest.  I took a few pieces from their hands, chewed, deliberated, and decided on the best vendor.  

I gave the man the equivalent of 5 dollars, and he chopped up a section for us and slid it to the bottom of the grill.  Then me, my friends and the smoke stood around eating our pieces of the meat.  Large piles of salt, chile, and MSG were on pieces of cardboard next to the grills for dippings.  My coworker handed me a plastic bottle cut in half with a sloshing brown liquid in it.  “Dip it in this.”  It was like eating raw garbage.  He laughed.  Was cow bile.









After filled with beef and MSG, we sat in the back of the tarped market on plastic chairs.  A woman dipped a ladle in a bucket of swamp water (?) and poured us each a glass.  It  was a traditional fermented brew.  Slightly warm, it tasted like coconut water meets butter meets cholera.  I drank my whole damn cup. 


Super full, I said goodbye to everyone and told Frida I would bring her back some Cuban Coffee from Key West.  She laughed and said “get me into the University of Michigan.”
Sunday, July 17, 2016

What I do not Hear

It was a bright and crisp day at 9am when I first got to the clinic in rural Uganda.  A line was already wrapped around the single clinic room and women were resting in circles allowing their fat, naked babies to play in the middle. 

“Afoyo, hello!”

The kids laughed at the white lady speaking their language.  Today I would be looking over the record books to get a sense of how bad the most recent malaria epidemic had hit this village.

Just before greeting the nurse, a woman grabbed my arm. She was panicked and her nails dug in.

“I prayed, but nothing. Help me sistah docter.”

At first, I did not hear her.  So many people call out to me every day that I have become good at not hearing. 

She almost threw her little girl into my arms. The girl was too light and her eyes were glassy.  I was trying to explain that I am not a doctor, I am just a scientist studying malaria when, like a horror film, the little girl turned and I could see the back of her head had been eaten away by disease.  The pulpy flesh was rotting and covered in flies.  I gave the baby back to her mother, went into the bush, threw up, and then went into the clinic to count the cases of malaria.

I do not believe in god.  I pray again and again for strength of faith but I have heard no answer.  Maybe I’ve spent too many years looking down through a microscope to hear the god above me.  I’m a scientist and thus a skeptic.  We’re taught to be wary of religion as it is unfounded in evidence (the only scripture of science.)  But there is a woman in front of me, just a baby herself, praying that her little girl doesn’t die.  How can I help her if I don’t understand her? School did not teach me what sustains people beyond the antibiotics.

It’s the big questions, the ones that catch in your throat, unasked, that are all around me in Uganda.  The questions about death and faith.  I’m terrified because if I fail to save you, you will not live on in another world.  I will be here, and you will be gone.  I am afraid that if I do not figure out a way to hear some god, I may not be able to continue doing this work.


Sometimes, usually when I’m lying in bed at night, I feel a tingling at the back of my head, and I have to reach up to feel if I’m whole. 
Sunday, July 10, 2016

Red Hook, Love and Basketball

I told her I grew up in Red Hook.  Which was only kind of true.  I grew up in Gravesend and Park Slope, in Red Hook, Key West, Gainesville.  But Red Hook, those were my formative years. 

We lived in this brick house at the end of Beard Street.  It’s still the house of my dreams.  Wooden staircases, restaurant stove, tin ceilings, fireplaces, an English garden.  This house could eat my 400sq foot studio for breakfast.

My mom worked at a nonprofit on Van Brundt street.  My other mom owned an international shipping company that worked out of the warehouse down the block.  My parents were heavily involved in the community and we went to city hall meetings to make sure the garbage dump wasn’t built in Red Hook.  We went on marches protesting that “DAMN DAIRY PLANT” down the block.  We built gardens on the waterfront and worked to restore  the old trolleys.  I was extremely helpful by bringing art into Red Hook by way of an outdoor performed modern dance to Let it Be. 

Not many of my school friends would visit me so I made friends on the block.  There were 2 apartment buildings across the street and I guess they didn’t have doorbells (??) because I would shout “Elissabeeeeth, Nelllsoooon” over and over until their mom opened the window and leaned out.

“Can Elisabeth come out to play?”

Then the two of us would call for Kris.  Oh my god Kris.  I looooooved Kris.  I spent hours looking out my window into his window wondering what he was doing.  Asking my magic eight ball if he and I would get married some day. 

“Krriiiiisss, can you come out to play?”

When the heavy door to his building squealed open my heart skipped a beat.  I bet if I heard that door today I would still catch my breath.  Then I’d hear the basketball dribbling on the concrete sidewalk.  Squeal of door, bounce of ball.  Those are the sounds love is made of.

“Hey,” he’d say and pass me the ball. 

“What’s up,” I’d say, and dribble the ball between my legs like a goddamn pro.  I was all curly hair and jammed fingers.  An 11 year old lover in baby blue Air Jordans.  (I scrubbed those beauties with my toothbrush once a week.)

We’d play until the sun set and then some.  We drew a square on the warehouse next to my house.  Hit it with your ball for a point.  (We once burned out a soda crate and tied it to a fence for a hoop.  But someone stole it…) Quick 10 point games, every man for himself.  Nelson sometimes joined us before he got too old to play on the block.  When no one could come out, I would play by myself, practicing bouncing the ball against the wall and catching the rebound for an ally-oop.  If I was going to join the WNBA and if Kris and I were going to live out my Love and Basketball fantasy, I had to start getting good.

When we weren’t playing basketball we were at the corner store buying candy.  None of that chocolate crap either.  We liked the hard stuff.  Pure  sugar packed into tubes that would turn our mouths blue or maybe a pack of sour straws that we smoked like cigarettes.  We  would  shake up soda bottles and leave them in the street for cars to run over.  Because. Hilarious. 

In the winter we crammed into the hallway and played monopoly.  Yelled at  people when they had to walk over our board to get to the stairs and messed up our house placement.  The hallway was dark but warm and thick with the comforting smell of Ecuadorian food.

If it was summer, we would lay our bellies on the sun warmed bricks in the garden and roll roly polys to see whose went farthest.  Or me and Elisabeth would draw a whole house out on a piece of paper and see where our slug babies would go.

“Look, yours is going into the bathroom!”

Elisabeth taught me all the Spanish words to the Macarena. 

We rigged a skateboard with a rope.  One sat, one ran, both fell.  Most of my scars are from those days.  But the trick was never to go inside.  Not for a band aid or to use the bathroom.  Because that’s when the parents would remember you existed and make you come in for the night.

Things changed after 9/11.  My mom took pictures of the towers burning from our roof.  My other mom lost her shipping business.  My parents went to 6 funerals.  The experience gave them pause.  They were tired of the New York rat race and wanted to slow down and live the life that New York collectively realized could be gone in seconds.  Within a few months, they sold our house, enrolled me into Key West High School and my sister into Montessouri.  3 months after that, my fifth generation Brooklyn family moved to Key West.

I stopped playing basketball at school because the nearest away game was an hour away.  I lost touch with Elisabeth and Nelson.  Kris and I, despite the magic 8 ball predictions, did not get married.   It was 7 years before I visited Red Hook again.  There is an Ikea now and a Fairway.  There are man buns in Sunny’s and a candy shop selling only chocolate.  My mother’s warehouse is owned by some artisanal artist brewing beer with wood or making wood with beer.  The English garden has no light anymore because of some crab shack minigolf monstrosity blocking the sun.  I passed my house and saw a blonde boy playing with his phone on my steps.  But I could still see Kris’s name written on the sidewalk from that time he wrote it in the wet cement with a stick.


I’m  back  in New York, living  in Harlem now.  It feels good to be back here.  My world weary body is ready for it.  I’ve lived in 5 different countries, 10 different cities.  When people ask me where I’m from, I’ll say New York.  If I feel they’ll get me, I say Brooklyn.  But if I’m feeling real, I’ll say “I grew up in Red Hook.”

Red Hook: May 2001, Van Brundt Street.  Aunt is wearing Red Hook G.A.G (Groups Against Garbage) Shirt

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Breathless

Tonight I went to celebrate the Shabbat at Zahara’s house.   A group of 20 people crowded into the living room, in chairs, on the floor, perched on end tables covered in books.  A  Visit Palestine poster was framed next to texts about the Torah and the window was open letting in the smells of the Dominican Chicharones from Broadway. We talked about queer activism, and the Torah, and what we were most proud of.  This is New York Pride week after all.  We sang ningunim, wordless songs, that felt like they have been sitting in my throat all week waiting to be heard.

The candle lit the wall with shadows as the room grew dark and our singing came to an end.  And in the dark I realized, I had caught my breath.

Because I have been running through this city breathing in short little spurts until events like Orlando knocked what little breath I had right out of me.  Days follow days without singing, having a real conversation, without being in the dark, without breathing.

Last week a man shot and killed 49 people.  This week the Britain left the EU.  Yesterday, I signed up  to campaign for Hillary because I’m damn scared. 

I could run away to another country again.  Pretend the world is bigger than it is.

But I’m tired.  And my feet hurt.  And I want to sing not shout..


I took a deep breath tonight because things were good enough to slow down.  But I think I might be holding that breath.  Rationing it.  Waiting for the next Orlando, around the corner, to leave me breathless again.
Friday, May 13, 2016

Tsujiki Fish Market and Sushi Dai

At 3am, I woke up wide awake.  Jet lag! Ugh!  Why hasn’t science fixed you?! But figured, I might as well head to the Tsujiki fish market to see the fresh fish being unloaded from the boats and catch a glimpse of the famous tuna auction!

SO at 3am, I walked through my neighborhood to the subway which all guides seemed to promise was open 24 hours.  It’s not.  They were wrong.  But I found a taxi guy and managed to finagle a ride to the market for $30.  (It should have been $60 but every time the driver tried to let me out of the cab I kept pointing, silently and urgently ahead until my google maps told me I arrived.)

It was dark in the fish market but men were already there unloading their trucks with fresh fish and setting up their shops.  As I made my way to the arena for the giant tuna auction, I saw groups of white people walking away dejectedly.  When I got there I was told that they had sold out of tickets at 2:30!  Earlier than any guidebook had said possible.  I stuck a 2,000 yen fresh note ($20) in between my fingers and saddled up to the guard. 

“Sir, my friend is in there and she is waiting for me.”   I casually laid the money by his hand. 

“No sorry, tickets sold out.”

Drats! That would have totally worked in Africa!

“But sir, my sister is getting married in there!”

“Please leave now.”

With nothing else to do at 3:30am, I decided to head to Sushi Dai a sushi restaurant in the heart of the fish market and the proclaimed best sushi in the world.  The fish was unloaded from the boat and straight into the back of the restaurant where the chefs take great care to tamper with the fish as little as possible before serving.  The freshest in the world.  Already there was a snaking line.  The restaurant opened at 5am and there was already about 30 people in front of me.  And the restaurant seats 12 at a time. 

Oh well, still wide awake with nothing else to do, I settled in and made friends with the group behind me.  6 fortysomething native New Yorkers.  It did not surprise me that the New Yorkers were where the good food was.  We took turns holding our place and exploring the market place, going to the bathroom, getting coffee, and purchasing delicious tamago (sweet egg) on a stick. 

Tamago


It was fun being so still.  As a tourist, you’re always rushing trying to see the next thing but missing everything along the way.  The line had me watch the sun rise over Tsukiji market and almost get hit (several times) by men whizzing by on their trolleys, cigarette lit in their mouths.  The air was so laden with fish you could taste it. 


The sun rose and the non foodies, noodies if you will, started to meander into the market.  They often came up to our line.

“What’s this line for, brah?”

“Sushi.”

“Oh sweet, how long have you been waiting for?”

“3 hours.  We’ve been here since 4.”

“Whaaaaa.  That’s insane!”

We smiled at their naivity.  They don’t know what it’s like to truly want something.  To wait for it.  To yearn for it.  Noodies. 

Meanwhile, I’m on the phone with my mother who is salivating cathartically.  She read the reviews over the phone to me. 

“Try the fatty tuna, I hear it’s out of this world.  OH I’m so JEALOUS.”

When it was my turn, I was waved in.  The benefit of being a solo traveler, I ate a full hour before the group behind me.  It was 7:30 am. 

I was sat at a long counter with 11 other chosen ones.  Behind the bar was thick slabs of glistening fresh fish and 3 chef masters. I was given a ceramic cup of thick green tea and a hot towel.  I patted my face, readying myself.  First course was a seafood miso soup.  Fresh large clams and pieces of fish made the already salty miso taste like you were drinking the ocean.

Miso Soup

Next course was a cube of sweet egg tamago.  With a consistency of an omlette but sweetened with sugar and soy sauce, it was exactly what I needed to ready my palette this early in the morning.

Tamago


The sushi was placed directly on the counter in front of us.  The chef used a brush to glaze the fish with a hint of soy sauce and a dab of wasabi so it was ready to pop right into our mouths.  


The first sushi was the fatty tuna, the most popular sushi in the restaurant.  It was the best thing I’ve ever tasted.  So buttery and supple you barely had to chew, it melted in your mouth.  It was sunshine.

Fatty Tuna


A large pile of freshest ginger was available for a chew in between pieces to cleanse the palette.

Next was the snapper.  It had more of a bite to it than the tuna and almost had a citrus taste.   I took to closing my eyes when I put the sushi in my mouth.

Snapper


Then the chef put down a piece of sushi that was moving.  The  clam on top of the rice wiggled as if saying hello.  I put in into my mouth and I could feel it wriggling against my tongue.  It was creepy.  Definitely more of a struggle to get down than the grasshoppers in Uganda.



I ate red snapper.  I turned to my friends behind me still waiting just outside the restaurant, faces pressed against the window.  “It’s amazing,” I mouthed, and they cheered and high fived each other.

Red Snapper

The sea urchin was so flavorful, fishy and salty and almost meaty.  But the slimyness threw me off a bit. 

Sea Urchin

Then came the Spanish Mackerel or Sawara.  Sushi Dai you clever bastard, you had me reeling.  I Daid and went to heaven.  It was plump and flavorful and smooth.  Subtly fishy.  It took me there.

Spanish Mackerel


We finished the meal up with tuna, horse mackerel, tuna and cod egg maki, and sea eel.  When the chef asked me what I liked best, I said the fatty tuna.  And he gave me another piece!

Tuna


Horse Mackerel
Sea Eel



Tuna and Cod Eggs




I bowed to the master chefs and left.  Now 9am, the fish market was packed with fish and tourists and restaurant owners.  I was full and sleepy and walked around the market like a fatty tuna. 


I rolled myself back to the apartment and took a nap. I had tickets to see Sumo wrestling!
Thursday, May 12, 2016

First Day in Tokyo: Harajuku!

It’s Sunday!  The day the Japanese Harajuku girls come out to play in their platform shoes and rainbow hair and glitter makeup!  I’ve been obsessed with the Harajuku for years.  See vintage picture of me, 10 years ago: 17, dressed up as a Harajuku girl for Halloween.



I scooched on down to the Harajuku district and took a walk on the famous Takeshita street.  Everything was pink and smiley.  There was surround sound giggles.  The girls wore two main styles.  The innocent: lace bib shirt, tulle skirt, soft pink, barretes.  And the wild: 6 inch platforms, teal hair in pigtails, candy necklaces.  I crushed it in jeans and a tshirt.


Because I wanted to be supersaturated with sweetness, I went to the pompompurin café.  Pompompurin is one of the many famous Sanrio characters in Japan.  Hello Kitty’s cousin or something.  I ordered this cute little pompompurin cup of pudding with a chocolate beret hat.  I asked the old man next to me if I could take a picture of his pompompurin rice.  He obliged.



Just as I was leaving the district I saw what I thought  was a parade of Harajuku girls.  But no!  It was the Tokyo Pride parade!  I joined them for awhile, shouted for gay rights a little, took a few videos, and then took a nap.









At dusk, I went to the top of the Mori art museum and saw all of Tokyo from 52 stories high.  It was magic.  Made even more magic by the limited time only Sailor moon exhibit. 



For dinner I stuffed my face with fresh, delicious sushi and jetlagged home.