As tensions mount between Iran and Israel, an Iranian Jew is asked to pick a side

February 29, 2012                    Seattle, WA

This is a piece that was written by me and published on the Seattle Globalist Blog. Please click here to follow more stories and see the original post.


“So are you on team Iran or Israel?”

A few days ago I walked into a coffee shop to meet my friend and that was the first thing she asked me.

A quick Google search revealed the headlines like “Iran Says Preemptive Strike on Israel Possible” “Israel Threatens to StMosque in Damascusrike Iran’s Nuclear Facilities” “Iran and Israel Accuse Each Other of Attack.” The decades-long feud that sits at the cross section of my identity has ignited once again, involuntarily placing me in the middle of a potential war.

As a native Seattleite of Iranian Jewish descent, the question she posed in such blunt terms has become the perpetual conundrum of my life. Each time politics between these two powerful Middle Eastern countries are ruffled, I somehow find myself forced to take a stance solely as a consequence of my contentious identity. Then comes the never ending list of questions from perplexed people trying to place me into a category. “Are you aligned with Iran’s politics or Israel’s?” which translates into “Do you feel more Iranian or Jewish?”

In 2005, when Iranian president Ahmadinejad declared that ‘Israel must be wiped off the map’ I felt protective of my Jewish heritage and the struggles of the Jewish people. But now, with an attack on Iran by Israel appearing increasingly imminent, my allegiances waver at the prospect of violence in a country my ancestors called home for centuries.

Last year, I spent 3 months traveling in the Middle East. With each day I feverishly vacillating between the two pieces of myself as I attempted to locate my identity among the mist of complicated political upheaval. I quickly learned that ‘taking a side’ was no longer a choice but a matter of survival.

During dinner with a powerful Lebanese hotel owner in Beirut, after learning I was Iranian he abruptly said to me, “I hope you are not one of them…the Jews.” Feeling like a guilty imposter, I lied and told him that I was a Shia Muslim which he instantaneously replied, “Good, I knew you were one of us.”

While crossing the border between the West Bank and Jerusalem I was held for 3 hours by an 18-year-old Israeli soldier who was convinced I was a terrorist due to my Iranian namesake. He was adamant that the Lebanese and Syrian stamps in my passport, in tandem with my Iranian heritage placed me in the enemy category. I had to resort to emphasizing my Jewish origins as a way to prove my innocence.

At the Western Wall in JerusalemI resented constantly having to deny one piece of my identity in order to legitimately claim the other. As the trip went on I realized the only viable option was to let my Iranian and Jewish selves co-exist.

I’m not the only one who struggles with this. There are tens of thousands of Iranians living in Israel. And Iran is home to the largest group of Jews in the Middle East (outside of Israel). The connection between the two now combative nations is deeply rooted. Iranians in Israel still speak Farsi and maintain their cultural ties, while Jews in Iran still go to synagogue and practice Judaism.

Although now it’s hard to imagine a time that Israel and Iran were amicable, for the 30 years prior to 1979, Iran maintained gracious ties with Israel. During that time, Iran was one of the only majority-Muslim countries to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation. Like much of the Iranian Jewish community, my family enjoyed relatively good lives in Iran and never contemplated leaving. My parents share stories of feeling part of a country, culture and community that did not oblige them to ignore their religious roots.

After the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran severed all ties with Israel, marking the beginning of the rivalry between the two nations and driving many Iranian Jews, like my own family, out of their native country.

With a feeling of loyalty to both Israel and Iran, the current tension makes it difficult for Iranian Jews to embrace both homelands. We don’t have the privilege to distance ourselves from the controversy in the Middle East, because our very identity represents the forces that are fighting each other, implicating us without an escape route.

So what do you do when two things that you hold so close to yourself are in conflict in the outside world?

Iranian and Israeli politicians have traded aggressive rhetoric for years. But I’m living proof that there is nothing fundamentally at odds between the Iranian and Jewish people. Still, with war between the two countries looming, I may have no choice but to pick a team. I could never support war on soil, whether it be in Israel or Iran, that holds a piece of me and my history. So if I have to choose, I’ll choose against the side that turns words into deeds and strikes first to harm my people, whether they’re Iranians or Israelis.

Rwanda 17 Years After

May 7, 2011                  Kigali, Rwanda                                                   

During my time in Arusha, Tanzania I sat in on one of the hearings of the Rwandan Criminal Tribunal at the UN that were well under way. After going through extensive security measures, I entered a dark corridor where I was given a headset translating the trial in different languages. I took a seat behind the glass wall that separated me from the accused defendants facing the UN panel. I watched as they questioned a man (whose back was to me and face was hidden behind a curtain for security purposes) about his whereabouts in 1994, his connection to the Rwandan uprisings, and the hand he played in ending the lives of millions of people.I was left with many questions: How did the UN determine who should be tried and who would be let go? What instigated so much hatred that resulted in the death of millions of people? And who was really responsible?

Exactly two weeks later, I boarded a tiny propeller plane and thirty minutes later landed in Kigali, Rwanda, attempting to get some answers. Lynette, a Kenyan girl I had connected with through couchsurfing, had arranged for a driver to pick me up from the airport and take me to her home where she had a spare bedroom I could stay in.  I walked out of the airport terminal and someone stopped me and said, “Hi are you Roxana? I am Kolfi, the driver Lynette sent.” I loaded my baggage into his car and was immediately struck by how jovial this man was. In his limited English he eagerly explained what a wonderful country Rwanda is to live in, how much he respects the president, and how everyone has so much love and compassion for each other. As he was depicting this glorified portrait of Rwanda I thought to myself, are we talking about the same country that less than 2 decades ago experienced one of the most savage genocides the world has seen?

As we drove through the streets of Kigali I was shocked. I saw a developed, cosmopolitan city filled with modern grocery stores, high rise buildings, elegant homes, and sophisticated young business people all set along the backdrop of beautiful green rolling hills, giving Rwanda its namesake, the land of a thousand hills. After 2 months of being in Africa I had become accustomed to the chaos: cows roaming the streets, people pushing one another, unpaved roads and garbage everywhere. In stark contrast, in Kigali I saw streets that were spotless (plastic bags are illegal), structured traffic signals with crosswalks, police guards on every corner, and even people queuing to board the bus. My initial impression was that, ironically, Rwanda was one of the most organized societies I had seen yet.

After a few days in awe of what is Kigali, I finally mustered up the energy to achieve what I had come to Rwanda to do –learn more about the genocide. I hired a boda boda (tiny scooter motorcycles and in Rwanda they actually give you helmets) to drive me down the 1 mile of winding green hills until I reached the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum.

I entered the stairs of the museum and felt a wave of heavy solemnness take over. I glanced across the courtyard and saw the torch that represents the eternal flame that will always burn for the genocide victims. On the other side were rows of Rwandans sitting on wooden benches mourning their loved ones.  Some appeared to be numb, others cried, most tried to comfort their parents or siblings; they all wore purple ribbons or t-shirts representing remembrance and commemoration of the genocide.

I crossed the courtyard of the museum, passing the mourners and unsure of the appropriate protocol for places of grieving; I was curious to look and acknowledge their pain yet uncomfortable with intruding on others’ traumatic recollections.

I made it to the entry of the museum and approached the reception desk.  As the staff person was explaining the set-up of the museum I heard a screeching wail come from the stairs. I turned to see a woman almost fainting being dragged up the stairs by two men as she howled and cried.  I have never heard screams filled with so much pain and terror.  The museum receptionist leaned into me and explained, “This woman, like many others, lost her son in the genocide. The museum triggered all her traumatic memories. If it’s too hard for you to see you can just look away.”  The truth is I did want to look away – seeing someone else in that much pain was in fact too hard to see.  Yet, that was the reason why the genocide happened in the first place; the whole world looked away. So for the first time since I arrived in Rwanda, I bore witness to the pain as the scars of the genocide rose to the surface and hit me like a ton of bricks.

The Rwandan Genocide

The killings began in April of 1994 and lasted for 100 days. In the course of 100 days, 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally killed making it one of the most tragic and violent incidents of ethnic cleansing our world has seen. Women were raped, children’s heads were bashed in and millions were killed with machetes and other low-grade weapons.  Each year, April (coincidentally the same month I arrived in the country) marks the beginning of the time of commemoration that Rwandans observe to remember the tragedy that struck their country; this year marked the 17th anniversary.

As I walked through the museum I asked myself the same questions I asked in the killing fields in Cambodia. How can human beings inflict this sort of cruelty upon one another? How are mass killings of this scale executed and why couldn’t anyone stop it?

The more time I spent in Rwanda, the more I began to understand. The genocide didn’t just happen but was being designed for decades. Early in Rwanda’s history all people of the land were one. Soon after, ethnic separations began and divided people in Hutus (the majority) and Tutsis (the minority). Though the colonizers did not invent these distinctions, Belgian colonialism played a major role in establishing the tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu people as they conquered and divided. Under Belgian rule, ID cards were issued to separate ethnic groups and a system of granting privilege to Tutsis was established – those who owned land or a cow were named Tutsis, while laborers were Hutus. Though not consistently the case, Tutsis also tended to have lighter skin and more European features as compared to Hutus who had more tribal African features. After colonialism ended, Europeans continued their legacy by putting a small number of Tutsis in power. This created a great deal of resentment among the Hutu majority and propaganda through media was used to generate hate and fear of Tutsis. A plan to transfer power from Tutsis to Hutus began in the 60’s and by the early 90’s had transformed into a full-fledged plot to ethnically cleanse all Tutsis from Rwanda. A list of Tutsi names was circulated by the Hutu Militia, or the Interhamwe, and an order that all Tutsis must be “cut down like tall trees” was made.

On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying the then Rwandan and Burundi Presidents, was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali, killing everyone on board; the attack and deaths of the two Hutu presidents served as the catalyst for the genocide. From this day, the Interhamwe systematically set out to murder all the Tutsis they could reach along with the moderates Hutus that did not corroborate with their plan. They incited Hutu civilians to participate in the killings using radio broadcasts to tell them to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Though UN officials in Rwanda gave warning of the preparations of the genocide to the headquarters, the UN did not take these warnings seriously and then pulled their peacekeepers out of the country once the violence broke out, turning their backs on Rwanda.

The now lakeside resort town of Gisyeni, a place I visited during my time in Rwanda, was the first location of killings on a genocidal scale and was also the center of anti-Tutsi sentiment. This spread quickly and once the genocide was underway, road blocks were employed to trap Tutsis. Since Tutsis had already become geographically segregated execution plans were easy to carry out. Most victims were killed in their own villages, homes, churches and school buildings, often by their neighbors and fellow villagers. The militia typically murdered victims by machetes, although rifles and other weapons were also used.  In the course of 100 days 1 million people were massacred; that means 10,000 murders every day, 400 every hour,  and 7 every minute. Only 300,000 Tutsis survived as the country lost 20% of its population.

Faces Behind the Genocide

I visited the Kigali Genocide Museum twice during my time in Rwanda trying to soak up as much as I could about the Tutsi genocide but still, I was determined to learn more. I called Kolfi, the taxi driver who picked me up at the airport, and asked if he would be willing to take me around to some of the various memorial sites; he warmly agreed.

The next day he arrived in his car and explained that first he will take me to a church about an hour from Kigali. On the way there we spoke very little as he played some native Rwandan music for me on his car stereo in the same cheerful way he did the day I met him. We arrived at the site and as I approached the entrance I saw Kolfi following behind. Unsure of his connection to the genocide I told him he did not have to come with me as it may be too graphic. He nodded but followed me anyway.

I entered a small village church where 10,000 people were murdered in one day. Bullet holes covered the walls and ceilings. I looked at the pews piled high with the victims’ clothes. I walked around and picked up their items one by one: watches, necklaces, ID Cards, children’s jackets, and blankets. I felt oddly detached. I couldn’t make the connection that these people had come to the church for refuge and were murdered a week later and now, only their belongings remain. I walked down the stairs to what use to be the bathroom of the church. Now it is occupied by a tall bookcase full of mutated skulls. I looked at the thousands of skulls and eventually built up the courage to reach in and pick one up. The jaw was bashed in, head cracked, and the remaining parts mutated. As I held the skull in my hand I felt numb – I wanted to cry but tears wouldn’t fall, I wanted to scream but no sound would come out. I turned to see Kolfi standing behind me as he watched me put the skull back in the case and said, “Come on Roxana, let’s go. We still have more to see.”

We got back in the car and as soon as we started driving Kolfi said, “What I remember about that time was the dogs were healthy and full.”  I assumed this was from consuming human flesh.  I was silent. He quickly changed the subject and asked me if I had gone to see the gorillas (the major tourist attraction in Rwanda) or trekking in the mountains. I responded no and said I had come to Rwanda to see this. Surprised he nodded his head and said, “Thank you, for seeing our history.”

We arrived at the next site, again another church. The guide seemed grim and sad as she gave me a tour of the memorial. She showed me the suitcases and items such as pots and pans families had brought with them from their homes to the church. She said, “No one thought they would die. They had always been safe in the church and they had no reason to believe this time would be any different.” The difference was that many of the priests and pastors were forced into collaborating with the Interhamwe and disclosed the churches where Tutsis were hiding. I walked into one of the backrooms with a huge hole in the brick wall. The guide explained a grenade had been thrown at the room killing thousands at once. We walked inside of the room beside it and she said, “This was the Sunday school for the church but once the soldiers arrived, they used this room to murder the children.” I could still see the stains of blood on the brick wall.

We left the memorial and again Kolfi was quiet. I asked him if he wanted to go to lunch and suddenly in broken English he pointed to a river and said, “See that. I almost died there. This whole river was filled with human blood. The soldiers caught me and put a machete to my head.” He leaned over and bowed his head to show me the scar. His optimistic nature, that was ever so present when I first met him, suddenly disappeared and he was brought back to a place of pain and tragedy.

He continued, “They thought I was dead and they had done their job so they left me and honestly, I thought I was dead as well. But I wasn’t. Somehow I survived.  I dragged myself away and got some help and then escaped the country. That is the only reason I am alive today.”

Every person in Rwanda today has a story like Kolfi’s. As my time in the country progressed I heard more narratives that echoed his experience and further solidified the magnitude of tragedy that took place in this country: Jocelyn, a Tutsi whose family escaped to Ethiopia for refuge and is now a journalist telling the stories of others whose lives are determined by their ethnicity.  Hubert, also a Tutsi, born and raised in neighboring Burundi, forced to escape to France when the genocide hit both countries, with no choice but to live in a country (France) that was providing the weapons to kill his own people. Finally, Aileen and Serge, a young Tutsi couple who moved from the Congo back home to Rwanda after two generations of being refugees. These people all make up the Rwandan diaspora and as I spoke to each of them, I realized there is something that children of all diasporas like myself share. We live in the gray. Like me, they all felt deeply connected to a country they could not see or visit for  most of their lives, yet never felt accepted or at home in their birth country.

During my stay, Serge and Aileen invited me to visit a small girl’s school built by wealthy Seattleites where Aileen worked. On the hour drive through the countryside, Serge would point to various schools and churches along the way strewn with purple ribbon and the words ‘never again’ as he explained, “This is where thousands were massacred in one day.” I still had not become accustomed to these words. Noticing how distraught I was, Serge went on to say, “If we weren’t in the Congo we would all be dead now as well. My mother came from a family of 17. Of all 17 of her siblings only two of them have survived: my mother and one of her brothers.” I realized this is the meaning of whole families and generations of people have been wiped out. He continued on to tell me, “Death is no longer the same meaning or tragedy for us as it is for you in the west. We have become accustomed to it. We have lost so much in our lifetime that we have almost become numb. Death has become a part of our lives. We don’t feel the sting of it anymore.” I was confused and conflicted. What are the implications of this? That people have become immune to pain? That their pain is less significant than ours in the west? That they have been forced to adapt by making numbness their coping mechanism?

Feeling that I had reached a point of comfort and trust with Serge I asked him the question that everyone warned me never to bring up. I said, “How often do you ask someone what group they belong to? Do you tell people you are a Tutsi?” He responded, “We prefer not to talk about it because there is still too much pain and also that’s how Rwandans deal with things. We let emotions bubble under the surface until they explode which is why the genocide happened in the first place. But in this case, the wounds have not healed. If I tell a Hutu I am a Tutsi it is possible that his uncle may have killed my aunt. It is too fresh so it’s better to leave the wounds alone at least for a generation. Some people may think it is avoiding but ignoring and not confronting it….giving it time to heal, is the only option we have.”

I then asked him what he sees for the future of Rwanda – what will the experience of his children be? He said, “The next generation will be different. Our children don’t see these differences or even understand them which gives us hope. Now, everyone is a Rwandan, period.” Interestingly, the coming generation is having the reverse experience – instead of ethnic differences being at the forefront, they are almost totally ignored. In terms of identity, Serge and Aileen’s children are also having an opposite experience. Though Aileen and Serge’s experience as a Rwandan was somewhat removed as they navigated life as an immigrant in the Congo, their children are growing up in Rwanda, their country of origin and feel even more connected to their homeland then their parents. I thought about how it would feel if the regime changed in Iran and I was to move back and my children were to be raised in our home country, feeling more Iranian than myself.

I shared this with Serge. I told him that although I could never understand the trauma his family and country had experienced, somehow I could relate to the feeling of not having a home anywhere and being torn between where you really belong. He listened intently and then said, “You know what Roxana, here’s what I think about that….if you have money, education, and a good career, you have the opportunity to transform the complexity of identity, and turn the experience of being a displaced person into a strength, just as you and I have. But if you remain in poverty you will oppress this and the pain will bring you down. So our only option is making it in life, otherwise the pain is too much to bear.”  I was left thinking hasn’t it already been too much?

Rwanda Moving Forward

Clearly, Rwanda has come a long way since 1994 but the scars still run deep and the past cannot be forgotten. Unlike other post-conflict countries, Rwanda has miraculously rebuilt itself in a short time, making it one of the fastest growing economies in all of Africa. Much of this is due to the efforts of President Paul Kagame who has pushed for development and moving past the tragedy of ‘94. He also has worked to eliminate corruption, minimize poverty, and most importantly cultivate respect and trust in Rwandan citizens.  Just like for Hubert, Jocelyn, Serge and Aileen, Rwandans are now proud of their country and want to be a part of bringing it back to life. They want to be remembered not only as that tiny country in East Africa that experienced a genocide but for how they have risen from that and overcome the ethnic tensions that once dictated their lives.

So instead of focusing on the tragedy, it’s time we start looking to Rwanda to learn how we can improve our own societies: seeing the innovative ways they are dealing with their prison population, how they have strategically used investments to alleviate poverty, and how they have built a bridge between people once deeply divided. Most importantly, we need to look to Rwanda to remind us what happens when we turn our backs and look away. ‘Never again’ is the hope, now it’s up to us to make sure that hope is in fact a reality, not just in Rwanda, but everywhere in the world.

To learn more about the Rwanda and the horrors of the Tutsi genocide:

  • Strength in What Remains by Tracey Kidder 
  • A Thousand Hills :Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It by Stephen Kinzer 
  • We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch
  • Hotel Rwanda (film)

Tanzania: This is Africa

April 24, 2011                                                   Arusha, Tanzania

Tanzania is the quintessential Africa. Everything I ever thought Africa would look, taste, smell, and feel like is Tanzania.

After spending some time in Zanzibar, I took a boat back to the mainland and then a bus north through the countryside of Tanzania finally arriving in Arusha, the city my sister Jessica was doing her graduate school internship in. Jess showed me around and also took me to the early education center she worked in located in a small run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of the

city. After visiting the ex-pat or tourist hang outs, it was so insightful to actually go to a local neighborhood and see the disparity between their lifestyles and that of westerners living in Arusha.

 After a week in Arusha, we set out for a safari to the nature reserve of Ngoro Ngoro. From the window of our open-air jeep, we watched as the countryside grew greener and greener. As we approached the reserve, we parked our jeep overlooking the crater and watched the gathering of all the different animal species. Ngoro Ngoro has been hailed as one of the greatest animal migrations of all time and I definitely saw why. It was incredible; Jess and I suddenly turned to each other and started singing the Circle of Life from the Lion King. Yes, cheesy but we had to do it.

We drove down into the crater and were feet away from zebras, wildebeests, buffalos, gazelles and many other animals grazing the land together.  We ate lunch 20 feet away from a sleeping lion which ironically didn’t jolt us until a hawk grabbed the sandwich I was enjoying out of my hand and flew away with it. The pinnacle of the safari for me was seeing 3 African elephants gracefully walking towards our jeep in a perfect symmetrical line; I almost lost my breath.

After our day in the crater, we headed off to stay in a local Maasai village.  During the few weeks I had spent in Tanzania I learned a bit about how the Maasai tribes have been impacted by tourism. Many have lost their land, which has also meant forgoing some of their traditional lifestyles, due to the land being commodified by the government and private entities for safaris. To combat this, many Maasai villages have started cultural tourism programs to bring money back into their communities but have encountered one slight problem: Most typical tourist don’t want to stay in a bare bones Maasai village. They will struggle to climb up Kilimanjaro, often risking their health, but staying in a village for more than a few hours is usually out of the question. Though the Maasai have been a draw for tourist for many years now, particularly because their warrior and preserved semi-nomadic lifestyle is regarded as the ultimate symbol of East African culture, this reputation has also left them vulnerable to exploitation and is precisely why tourists usually get a superficial interaction with the Maasai.

Knowing this, Jessica and I struggled with the idea of staying in a village, wondering if we are objectifying or supporting the Maasai people and finally agreed that it was a little of both. Like everything else, we realized it is a complex issue with benefits and consequences on both sides and finally decided to do it with the caveat that a majority of our money would go directly to the people of the village.

It was dark when we finally we arrived at the Massai village after our safari. We entered a small Boma hut constructed of cow dung and wood while we waited to be shown to our beds. Though it was pitch black inside the hut I suddenly proclaimed, “I think there is an animal in here.” I turned my head, shining the light from my REI headlamp in the corner, and there I saw a baby cow tied up with a goat sleeping at its feet.  When I asked why the cow was inside the house the response was, “This cow is a marriage deposit for that girl. The groom’s family gave it to them to ensure their daughter’s hand in marriage and they don’t want it to get stolen so they keep it indoors at night.” I looked over to see an 11-year old girl cooking quietly in the corner preparing us a cup of hot spicy tea.

That was my first introduction into how much Maasai life differs from mainstream Tanzanian culture particularly because their economy is based almost entirely around cattle livestock. For centuries, cattle have been the sole measure of wealth for the Maasai and unlike the other 26 modernized tribes in Tanzania, not much of the Maasai’s traditional customs have changed today. For men, the more cows they have, the more wives they can marry, which also translates into their level of prosperity.  Along with polygamy being the norm, female circumcision is still preformed on women and the Maasai have been slow to take up formal education.

Once we finished our tea, we were shown to our own Boma hut where we slept on a slab of cow skin stretched out and held in place by 4 wooden sticks. The next morning, we walked around the village set on a green mountainous hillside, meeting many different people from the community.

We visited an elder midwife who, with the help of our Maasai guide serving as a translator, told us about the birthing process and how she has delivered over 100 babies in her lifetime. She shared her thoughts on the status of women in the village and in Maasai culture all while re-plastering her hut with the cow dung and water mixture.

We met an 80-year old Maasai man, enthusiastic about sharing his culture and experiences with us particularly because we are foreigners. He boasted about his victory killing a lion with his warrior stick and bare hands, a highly regarded accomplishment in the Maasai culture. He then told us about his 9 wives and 72 children, the youngest of which is 3 years old. When we asked him why he needed or wanted so many wives his response was, “I’m a rich man so I can afford to support 9 women and all my children. I have 300 cows so each child will get about 4 cows to their name.”

We continued on and took a walk through one of the beautiful hills of the village watching the cows and goats graze the land. We interacted with children who told us about their daily tasks tending to their land and herding animals. As we made our way down the hill we saw one woman after another emerging from an underground tunnel with pounds of cement on their heads. As we got closer we discovered that the women were moving pounds of cement from underground to the main road to sell.  They did this over and over again all day long while the men “organized” the women, basically telling them where to go and what to do. In Africa, similar to the rest of the world, women bear the brunt of the work. Not only are they responsible for child rearing, cooking and cleaning but they also do much of the physical labor. A harsh reality to accept that slaps me in the face each and every time I witness it.

The last stop on our adventure was the Maasai market. While in route, I was expecting a market selling traditional beading and other tourist handicrafts but once I arrived I felt as if I was transported back 100 years in time. We entered the market and I quickly realized it was a livestock market; one side was designated for trading goats and sheep while the other side was for cattle.  Over 50,000 animals a day are sold or traded here. A goat goes for $50-$60 US dollars, a cow a little over $100.

I was completely mesmerized, as I had never seen anything like this in my life. Livestock was actually used as currency.  I looked ahead of me and saw a sea of men wrapped in brightly colored shukas  (traditional fabric of the Maasai) wearing sandals made out of tire while the women sat in a row on the opposite side selling vegetables and spices, their faces adorned with bright colored jewelry and beaded earrings stretching out their earlobes. It was one of those moments I wished I could be invisible and just sit there for hours watching the chaos go by.  The whole time I was in awe at how the Maasai continue to resist modernization and how little their traditions and lifestyles have changed in the last few centuries.

Our weekend ended and I thought about my experiences in Tanzania: the crater, the Maasai village, the children in the neighborhoods of Arusha and was left wondering why I felt so drawn to Africa. Why I had chosen to come back to the same continent where I had first began my international experiences almost ten years before. Africa doesn’t embody the sophistication of the Middle East, the booming economy of India, or the luxury of South East Asia but I loved it exactly for those reasons. In Africa, nothing is clean and separate. You see the goat they are serving on the table being slaughtered moments before you eat it, everything is chaotic and crowded, you are perpetually conflicted about your western identity and privilege, people yell at you in the streets even though you don’t understand a word they are saying, you get squeezed into a minibus meant for 10 people with 40 people hanging on it while a woman hands you her chicken so she can get her goat on board. You never know what is going to come your way. Yet that is the beauty, soul and life of Africa and why nothing in the world quite compares to it.

The Moment

July 19, 2011                         Bogota, Colombia

There is this moment were everything hits you. When things quite down around you and you actually see clearly for the first time what has happened in your life. It can either be an extremely depressing or uplifting experience. I feel so fortunate that for me, it is the latter.

9 months ago I left the USA and set out to travel the world. I arrived wide eyed and bewildered in Beirut but never imagined the amazing adventures and experiences that were ahead of me. I have been to 20 countries, on 4 different continents, in 7 various regions of the world and have had so many incredible experiences I never thought were possible.

On the last day of my 9 month adventure, I had a moment when I realized how incredible my life has been.  The sites I have seen, the people I have met, and most importantly, how much closer I feel to myself. For the last 263 days I have lived each and every moment to the very fullest and felt alive in a way I never have before.

The other day someone asked me, “So your travels are almost over. How do you feel?” I really didn’t know how to answer but the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “I feel so full. Full of experiences, full of confidence, full of life.” It was then that I realized just how much I am walking away with.

For some time now I have had this looming fear that once I return to the states, I will be back in the same place I was last summer and somehow this whole experience will seem like a dream that never happened, strangely disconnected from my normal life. Today as I was talking with someone about being sad to go home he told me, “We can travel inside ourselves more than we can in the world.” I know that although this trip is coming to an end, my journey will continue. There is no way that I can go back and feel the same because I am not the same. This experience has changed me in so many ways and now I have to find a way to integrate everything I have seen, learned and felt into my life back home.

Though it is very difficult to see this chapter come to a close, the only thing I can feel in this moment is gratitude. I am so extremely fortunate to have had 9 months to explore the world, see myself in a different light and meet people from so many walks of life. Although my travels are ending, I will never forget the days I spent “wondering and wandering” the world and I know this experience will be a part of me for as long as I live.

***Please continue to follow my blog as due to limited internet access I have not been able to post as I go but I will upload new entries upon by return on the last 4 months of my journey.

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