Cheap, plastic, tacky constants

When I was in Shaolin China, in a temple town in Henan province, I always felt it was like a dream simply because everything was different. There was no one I knew, my decision to go there was sporadic so I went with little research, there was nothing that I related to at first or recognized. You name it: language, culture, how people looked and dressed, even going to town for a visit to the supermarket was an exercise in cultural shock.

I was too afraid at the beginning. I travelled alone, no guides, and no Chinese language skills. No one spoke English in this part of China, it was very far from the ‘civilized world’ as we know it. For the first few days, I couldn’t stomach the food and I lived on steamed rice and water. I didn’t understand when people spoke about me around me, or when they spoke to me. I felt threatened if I walked a bit too far from my school, fearing I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. Even having a phone was useless; because there was no one I could call in China in an emergency. My first Kung Fu Shifu spoke little English, and I had to use sign language a lot and gesticulate dramatically to get small things across. Even the silence at night on Kung Fu camp used to scare me. On my first day in the Kung Fu school, I woke up thinking it’s a mistake, after I went to bed crying the night before and shaking under the covers. What the hell did I do? I thought. How did I ever think this was a good idea. “I’ll book my flight back to Egypt next week,” I said to myself, “or as early as I can. Until then, I’ll hide in my room.”

Then the change happened, I fell in love with the place, started liking Kung Fu training, got used to every single aspect of the strangeness and moved from scared alien to lover. To the point where the phrase “Made in China,” now printed on almost every single merchandise in the world thanks to a tigerish economy, became an endearing thing, and a bag of memories.

However, the feeling that Egypt is so far away, almost like a fantasy land, never went away. I was in Middle Earth. And Egypt is some mad version of a post-apocalyptic futuristic movie. If not for discovering VPN three months into my stay and getting re-connected to familiar “avatars” and “status updates” on Facebook and Twitter, I would’ve been mentally stranded in this bubble or would’ve sworn Egypt and its worries existed only in my imagination, and that things like Starbucks, fancy restaurants, “City Stars,” and even McDonalds are mere hallucinations; the Matrix that I can’t see for what it used to be anymore.

Surviving without familiars can confuse you at first. It reminds me with this fictional character in Lost, the Sci-fi TV series, I think he was a Scott, who needed some sort of a “constant” as he traveled back and forth between time. I remember his lover was called Penny, and she was his constant.

Now, when I came back to Egypt, I felt the opposite of that. It was time for the reverse shock. Mind you, I spent over a year in Europe, and despite finding some difficulty adapting at first when I moved back to Cairo, it’s nothing, nothing compared to a change from a secluded martial arts boarding school in the Asian mountains to a big bustling city in the Middle East.

I came back to the same people, close loved ones too, family, friends, albeit people who haven’t experienced or have seen what I’ve seen. I felt like I was in a coma for 9 months, or to me, they were. Like going to sleep, then waking up a year later. Things have changed; There’s a new president, new graffiti on the walls, some big and small changes, and some things that didn’t change at all. They got back a girl, who looks the same, but not so much; a subtle difference is there and they can’t quite figure it out.

I was quiet at first. I mean, what should I say? And it seemed to me, they didn’t know where to start either.

Have you seen what I have seen? … No, you can’t imagine. Have I seen what you have seen? No. I can’t imagine too.

But I think, at least in my case, they can see some signs. My disenchantment, staying in my room for hours on end, keeping quiet, or just being suddenly explosive and angry, sleep disturbances because no matter how much Abbas El Akkad is quiet, it’s not quiet enough, not remotely. Going out becomes a burden, and I almost developed a phobia to driving in Egypt traffic.

And now ever since I got back, my closest companion is a water bottle. In China, where I was, everyone had a plastic water bottle, young or old, even Kung Fu masters and policemen carried them. The bottles were filled with strange looking herbal teas, carrying some flowers or seeds, or just plain hot water to sip on. It’s second nature there. Especially with water.

And I picked the habit.

Now, my water bottle has become my constant.

No, not my pictures and videos from there, not my Kung Fu uniforms, or my Shaolin weapons or Buddhist accessories (because these seem like things bought from a souvenir shop, and my weapons look like heavily-used movie props. In Egypt, they look so out of place, drowned in clutter. I look at them, and I almost can’t believe I know how to use them. Sometimes I see in them the same alienation I feel in my heart).

But my water bottle is different; it’s a simple, small reminder that I was part of a different culture, at least for a while. No one around me sips on hot water; some make fun of me. But that makes it even more precious, because it’s a part of the China experience that they can see, touch, poke fun at me for. The water bottle is cheap, it’s not something I can order on ebay or ship from a Kung Fu shop abroad, or want to. I couldn’t have got it unless I was there.

It’s kitsch, it’s used, it’s scratched from multiple falls to the floor, it’s too normal to be a fantasy and I fill it with steaming hot water and sip on it like my friends the Chinese do.

My plastic water bottle –which sells for 15 yuan a pop– with the plastic pink top and the faded Chinglish writing is the proof I was there, that China didn’t happen in my head while I was sleeping.

I was there because my plastic water bottle is here.

Just knowing this gives me peace.

Image

My plastic security blanket; I owe it a bit of my sanity

The Shaolin Letters: Genesis

If you’ve missed reading about my little adventure leaving it all behind and pilgriming all the way from Egypt to the Shaolin Temple in the north of mainland China to learn Kung Fu, Qi Gong meditation and zen Buddhism, here’s a recap:

That Awkward Moment in Kung Fu camp 

Shaolin Temple Kung Fu School

Snapshots

Kung Fu Cuteness

Breaking Through

Xiao Hong Quan – first form

They Don’t Sell Deodorants in Dengfeng

Post-It: Time On My Hands

World Knowledge in Dengfeng

Bridges Make Me Smile

It’s All Relative

Post-It: Gunfire and Whips

A Glimpse Into My Training

Post-It: Kung Fu Graduates

Buddhology

Shaolin Humor

From the Center of Heaven and Earth (aka Shaolin China)

Dress Rehearsal

Mànhuà-inspired Silliness

Post-It Shaolin Tip

A Documentary on Shaolin Wushu and Zen Buddhism

Snakes, Maspero and Shaolin Dreams

Post-It: Rain

Post-It: Qi Gong

These were all posted less than two weeks into my journey, and I have been here 10 weeks and very prolific. Take a look at the entire archive of my Shaolin China posts if you’d like to jump forward to a date and see my May and June posts, or to get the whole batch of letters I’ve written to the world from ‘the Center of Heaven and Earth’: http://pakinamlights.tumblr.com/archive

Hope you enjoy reading them, please do send me your feedback, here or via email at pakinamamer at yahoo dot com.

Love and light x

Into the Petrified Forest (not the one in Hogwarts)

Download the PDF version of this story with pictures here: The Petrified Forest – pdf

In this city, sometimes I feel like I’m watching people through a giant fish tank, one that I’m trapped in. Through the glass, I can see their lips move but I can’t hear a word. Other times, I feel like a solid object floating in a sea of noise — an incessant chatter. And I could hear neither my soul nor God. The universe is closed to me.

The Bedu, those who roam and wander in the desert (and we all know thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien that “not all those who wander are lost”), are very silent people. When I meet some of them in journeys that go into the depth of the Sahara (Arabic for desert), I always regard their “silence” with a mix of envy, reverence and dread — the latter resurfaces when I remember my own episodes of silence. It’s not easy, sometimes, to be alone with your thoughts. We have also been conditioned to associate silence with loneliness, waiting — and worst of all– with separateness.

A pot of hot red tea mixed with "marmariya" herbs

Silence is a presence, and on that day less than a month earlier, I felt I craved it.

I was at a rowdy party with some friends, including a young avid traveller who takes frequent sojourns with his ghosts into the desert, when the notion of going away popped up. It began with the both of us saying that we miss the desert. “Do you want to go now?” He suggested. “Right now?” I asked, with a smile. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. We managed to find two other friends who would join on the spot, and a couple of hours later, we were heading to the nearest strip of desert in the vicinity of the Greater Cairo: The Petrified Forest.

It was a small spur-of-the-moment decision, and all we needed was an able 4X4, which my friend owned, some food, drinks and enough water. One of us had an iPhone to track our route once we’re on sand, and the friend with the car provided jackets for everyone. His car already carried a blanket, a head-torch and two carpets. A matchbox to light a fire using wood from the small ‘desert’ was all we needed.

Mind you, we were not all dressed for it — but this turned out to be one of the fondest memories of this small adventure.

In ‘V for Vendetta’, both the Graphic novel and the movie adaptation, there’s a scene where V’s girl Evey Hammond –played by Natalie Portman in the movie– ventures out on a balcony after a horrifying albeit liberating episode in her life. Under the pouring rain, Evey stretches her arms, soaking wet, and announces, “God is in the rain.”

I pondered.

God is in the darkness, I thought as my friend maneuvered traffic in Cairo with his bulky Wrangler, the music of Dream Theatre emanating from the vehicle’s stereo.

No, I corrected myself moments later, he’s in the singularity which encapsulates both the darkness and light, and all the opposites, the feminine and the masculine, space and sea, Yin and Yang, good and evil. He’s in the silence. And the silence is Him. Whoever is your God — even if it’s yourself– you’ll find Him in the desert, the silent womb that hides us from the world when it becomes too mundane, too un-God-like … too loud.

We were soon driving through the ‘circular road’ (al-da’ery) heading to what is crudely known in English as The Fifth Settlement or al-Tagamu al-Khamis, which the Petrified Forest is near. The ‘forest’ itself is a small protectorate surrounded in the distance by gated communities and some roads. But some parts of the forest are less elevated than others, drowned between small hills, so they hide any sign of civilization from view, including the nearby dirt roads.

The area is void of any flora or fauna — but insects and small snakes, and perhaps fennec foxes, have made appearances to visitors of this area. There are of course petrified trees, which the forest is named for — and if you are lucky, like my friend, you can find an ancient log of wood which you can carry or pocket (depending on its size) for keepsake.

Entering into the forest was a bit tricky, since the strip of desert was surrounded by small hills of rock. We scoured for a suitable entrance for a few minutes, driving along the stretch of sands on both sides of the road, before we found a small passage (for those of you who would like to visit. These are the coordinates of the entrance: 29°59’22.33″N  31°28’6.58″E. Use Google Earth). We were solo, and getting stuck alone was something we tried to avoid — our friend who was driving was confident he could press past a rather nasty-looking pile of rocky sand, very well near the entrance, which was what stood between us and the desert ahead.

But of course, the desert mocks in its own peculiar ways, and we were soon stuck, a minute later actually. Mind you, we left the party back in the heart of Cairo and went straight to the desert — without changing. So you can imagine how out of place I might have looked in that barren area, digging out sand from beneath the tires, in my short dress, coat, and ballet shoes, pushing and shoving rocks, along with others, and trying desperately not to make a hole in my favorite pair of pantyhose or chip off my fiery red nail varnish.

Four people, and it took us around 20 minutes to get unstuck, the last five of which, we were pushing the feisty vehicle like there was no tomorrow. Then again, the remote area near the suburbs of Cairo is infamous for thieves and pillagers, and we didn’t want to catch their attention so close to the road — where only a dull-looking tractor passed in the time it took us to release the car.

But the God who lived in the silence of deserts was generous, and we merged our wills with His, and after a thrust of force, the car moved past this spot reeling into the desert, its engine roaring triumphantly. Cheers and high-fives followed — the stress we all seemed to mask so well while we wondered minutes earlier “What if we can’t get out of this?” was released from bondage, and we were laughing with relief again.

Two kilometers in, we chose a nice spot to set camp — the flatest ground we could find– since sitting near a small hill or rocky pile meant insects and creeping lizards could pop out. One of our friends kept insisting that the area had ‘vipers’ — not a good thought when you’re already there. We soon brushed off the image of ‘vipers’ from our heads, instead diverting our attention to making a bonfire. We used wood from the area. We started brewing aromatic tea with “marmariya” from Sinai — its smell bringing sweet peace to our small gathering. The stars twinkled above, and the silence was … beautiful.

Nearing dawn, a fog started to creep in. So did the cold. I pulled a blanket tightly around me and was soon lost in thought.

A fog tip-toeing from all directions was a different sight in the desert — the white clouds created a surreal dreamy atmosphere as it hugged us and concealed everything else from view. At this point, we were all huddling in a small circle around a dying fire. The friend –the traveller– was struggling to keep the burning timber alight. He had once told me he liked looking at the light of fire. And it looked like, as he turned the wood, blew at the flames, and just watched it grow, that this was his form of meditation.

Bouts of silence punctuated the quiet chatter, and the stillness was a field of energy in its own right.

The desert, and its elements, teach you to love your mind, I thought. But you have to hate it first. You have to endure its venom, before you learn to forgive it. Unlike the heart, it’s the only piece of us that feels like someone else’s — like a different person. Antoine de St. Exupery once wrote that, “one must have ruined oneself for generations keeping a crumbling chateau in repair before one learns to love it.” My mind is this crumbling chateau, and in those hours, when I’m blessed with a friendly encounter with stillness, is when the repair takes place. I tell my thoughts I forgive them, and I love my ghosts, like Saint-Ex, “with the only love that matters.”

At some point, looking at the fog (or failing to look through it) as we sat in its stomach, I thought to myself, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, God was in the fog after all. Or maybe like religions profess, he’s everywhere — and the fog is his hand, reaching out.

Listening to: Radio in the a.m.
Useful tip: this trip can be made in Wadi Degla, however the gate closes at 5:00 pm there
Wants from the Universe: more travel, more stillness, more inspiration, Love and Light, as always. Friends.

I turn my hourglass …

… and lose myself in thought about the journeys we make.

Journeys. Such a loaded word.

As I read Eat, Pray, Love –a book which I was fiercely cynical of until I started leafing through and relating to the author Elizabeth Gilbert– I wondered about my own personal journey.

During a ride back from a festival in Wadi El Gemal, down south, I began a brief conversation (more like a monologue where I was reciting the lines) with a travel companion, one which later continued on in my head, about the nature of travel, and the kind of people it attracts. I came later to the loose conclusion that the people who travel cannot be classified, simply because everyone does — in one way or another. Gilbert traveled to forget a man, to connect with God, to eat and to find love. Others do it to escape war, death or poverty. Some do it to bring those three on others.

We travel, therefore we are.

I thought of my own journeys in the now aged 2010. The Cairo-to-Shalateen trip was about the conflict near the borders with Sudan, the mystery of tribes I have not met and the companionship on that trip — I was curious, not about destination per se, but the prospect of discovering myself in the process of talking to people and seeing a place that, as me and my co-writer have put it, is stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” Perhaps, on some level, I related to Shalateen’s demise and innocence. On another I related to the journey — to the idea of crossing points on a map but not stopping on each for too long; the “not belonging” feel of a roadtrip was part of its magic. All the better, I didn’t feel the need to belong anywhere.

On my return to this spot earlier this month where the tribes of Beja (now more familiar to me) lived, I confess, part of it was about tasting again that bitter sweet Jabana coffee made with ginger, seated on the ground, in wadis between the mountains. It was also an exercise in familiarity, or rather the flaunting of it. The pride of feeling or saying that “yes, yes, I’ve been here before. I know the laws, and the dances, and the coffee — I even have my own Jabana set.”

Bedu men making Jabana, the Wadi, November 2010

Recently, a friend talked about a “treasure hunt” he had done with the Bedouins using a metal detector in the Sinai desert. The prospect immediately fired me up, and suddenly Sinai was not just a place to observe the mountains as they hug the sea, but a place perhaps to explore and search for hidden things. If he keeps his promise and takes me with him to hunt for shiny metals, it won’t be for destination –like always– but the very, very small and rare possibility of finding something precious beneath the sands. And it’s more about the process of finding, the hunt if you will, than the object sought.

Same with the desire to explore the Gilf, that stretch of remote land elevated over a plateau whose name means “The Great Barrier” and who’s been enchanting travelers like Lazlo Almasy and Mohammed Hassanein with tales of lost armies and a dried oasis hidden from our eyes. For me, it’s about the caves that have yet to be discovered, not the ones that already are. It’s also about the silence — another reason I go to places. I search for it in the hope that the silence without will create a silence within, that the gibbering voices in my head will finally decide to let go and move out.

Am I the kind of traveler who wants to stumble into places, get to know the culture and people, eat local food and take pictures of temples and revered walls? No. At least not at this stage.

A new travel idea I’m developing — a rather personal and private one which, surprisingly, I’m willing to share — is to go to Munich, where my father lived for six years as a young man. There, he knew a woman, who I believe was his first love (a very unfounded conclusion reached after listening to accounts and snippets of stories from aunts and uncles who recite them like family lore and profess knowledge that I think is beyond them, but nevertheless find entertaining).

My father (on the right, black shirt) in 70's Munich

I heard of letters (whose fate is unknown), and the investigator inside of me wants to find those letters, track down the woman in Munich and meet her — it’s a small journey inside the mind of my own father, as it is inside the city which shaped a lot of his beliefs and world-views. Needless to say, my father doesn’t get personal with me, and he would probably go berserk if he knew I’d want to go on such a privacy-inflitrating personal assignment (especially that I ritualistically lecture my parents on respect for privacy and the need for space even within a small, tight family).

It’s such an offensive on privacy, I know, to sift through someone else’s decades-old secrets.

But my nose-poking and shameless prodding is justified by one thing; I feel that my father’s history is also a part of mine. In a way, it’s part of my heritage. And yes, that includes his secrets. Even the ones that he doesn’t care about anymore. And perhaps his own father’s secrets, if I knew of a way where I could ever come to those.

It’s a flimsy argument, very shaky. And I might not even find those letters with the 35-plus-year-old-address of a woman, who might have moved out of the country, changed her name or gender, or died. It also carries the prospect of not hearing anything from anyone, having a door slammed violently in my face or ending up meeting an over-weight, foul-mouthed German who doesn’t speak English or doesn’t recognize my father’s name. The city itself has been reshaped over the years — perhaps it gained weight too, or lost it, in a manner of speaking. The Munich that my father loved is no more, and that “thing”, that needle in a haystack, which has made up a part of his inner him, may be lost even on a passion-filled, genuinely enthused, ever-optimistic seeker like myself.

My father as a young man, with his camera. He wrote letters too.

But this remains a small travel fantasy, that has nothing to do with “discovering a new place” or “flying by the seat of my pants.” Perhaps the fact that I blow its cover here, and talk about something personal to me and my father, has more to do with wanting something about my father to be exposed to the world — something that may stay on after the two of us are gone, and would keep us both alive. Perhaps it’s for my future kids, or his grandchildren. Here is something about your grand-dad, his story. The storyteller in me wanted something about him to be out there, something personal, a testimony to his presence.

“Here’s a man who loved and lived” kind of thing. “And this man is my father.”

In Wadi El Gemal, I listened to this astronomy session beneath the stars (one which helped me know where the direction of Mecca is at night for the following two days, and which works well when you want to boast about basic knowledge of star alignment to strangers). I looked up at the stars, and I wondered whether I travel because I can’t commit. My temperament is ever changing — this has been my constant– and so are my ideas. I wonder if the idea of “home” is one of them. I wonder if curiosity about new places, is actually a search for something else entirely, perhaps for a certain brand of commitment.

The journeys are personal — that much I know.

But I don’t know yet what makes them so.

Hmm, these two sentences rhyme.

Some time has passed since I began my musings. I turn the hourglass.

Listening to: Girl, the Beatles
Favorite bit: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story … All about the girl who came to stay? … She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. Still you don’t regret a single day.”
Mood: Happy and hopeful, perhaps without reason.
Wants from the Universe: Travel with purpose, with love.

Why do we travel – The complete series

The need to travel is mysterious

With the help of a friend, I have suggested and conceptualized a travel series for Al-Masry Al-Youm’s English portal, where I’m currently travel editor, that explores the question of why people travel. Inspired by two similar articles in Salon.com and The Observer, the series was launched and every week a new writer spoke of what made them leave the familiar or “home” in search of new land, new experiences and new faces. Why do we turn our back to what we know and seek novelty? For adventure? Because we’re lonely? Because we can? I put together here links for the complete series where writers and travelers meditate on this question and attempt to reveal the mystery that often shrouds the practice of travel.

Each recounts their personal experiences and their own philosophy of travel:

We have also accepted two contributions from readers:

On Twitter: @pakinamamer tweets for @ME_Traveller