Posts Tagged ‘People’

Flying East to the West

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

The arrival at Beijing International airport was my third time in a Chinese airport (I had transited through Hong Kong International on my way to and from Lao 4 and 5 years earlier), and I went through the standard arrival procedures of checking my connecting ticket to LAX. This time things were a bit different, however, because Swine Flu was apparently on the mind of the Chinese government. Upon arrival all passengers were asked to fill out and sign a form saying that they were not suffering from any of the symptoms of the flu. Unfortunately, I have always suffered from allergies to airborne allergens and had been congested that day because of this. So, being the honest Mennonite that I am I dutifully checked the “Nasal Congestion” box and handed the form to the customs official along with my passport. This earned me a trip to a specially cordoned-off waiting area from which I watched all my fellow passengers pass by on their way into the international departures area. About 10 minutes later a man and woman in scrubs and white lab coats arrived with my form and the man started asking me some questions. “Where have you been traveling?” had a difficult and lengthy answer, but eventually we got around to the reason I had checked the “Nasal Congestion” box. The man spoke English fairly well so it was easy enough to explain about my allergies. “Ah, yes.” He said, “That’s alright.” Five minutes, several stamps, and a few signatures later I was on my way.

I had over 5 hours to kill before my plane to LAX left and I had decided that I would try to get out of the airport if at all possible. When we had been planning the trip we had decided against going to China because of a visa cost of over $400 per person. However, Matt had told me that he had met someone in Beijing who had been allowed to leave the airport for a few hours during his layover without a visa. This gave me an idea and as I talked to the customs official at arrivals I asked if it was possible to leave the airport for a little while before my flight left. He said yes and told me where I needed to go get out of the international terminal. So, when I finally saw the terminal entrance I walked toward it exuding as much confidence as I could muster. I was walked upstream through the flow of arriving Chinese travelers arriving at the arrival customs counters from the wrong side. I watched two stewardesses and a few captains walk out through a small gate along the right side of the room and headed that way. When I arrived, however, I was firmly but kindly stopped by a security guard who told me in Chinese and pantomime that I was going the wrong way and pointed me toward the departure lounge. I didn’t take no for an answer, however, and, apologizing to the guard, went to the nearest customs box. I politely got the attention of the young woman stamping passports and tried to explain my hopes and dreams of being able to walk around outside. All I succeeded in doing, unfortunately, was confusing her and so she made me understand that I was to wait there and she would call someone to help. A few minutes later a man who must have been a supervisor approached and in clear English asked me what the problem was. There was some hemming and hawing and a few more questions about reasons (”There are very nice restaurants in the departure lounge.”). But my polite persistence eventually won the day! The supervisor gave my passport to the young customs official to stamp and told me which monorail line to take and off I went.

For about 2 hours I walked the streets of Beijing in the area near the airport. It took about 20 minutes to get from the airport to a nearby market where I went to a bank and found that the ATM only offered currency in RMB (renminbi). I had literally never heard of the RMB and was expecting to withdraw Yuan. It was a good reminder that there is still a lot out there to learn. I did eventually learn that the RMB was the official name for the currency with the yuan being the name for the unit of currency. Anyway, I withdrew about 100 yuan and used it to buy some delicious Dragon Fruit, a pomello and a few other things for a nice picnic lunch in a small park from which I could watch Chinese life go by. The sounds of bicycles, pedal taxies, a few cars and busses and many voices in a language I didn’t understand made for an appropriate backdrop for my last day in Asia and my last “Cultural Experience” of the trip. With just an hour and a half to go I headed back to the airport and got through security and customs with few problems and prepared for a long plane flight to LAX.

The trip was remarkable only for the length of time it took and the packed 747 on which it took place. I chatted a bit with a Chinese family returning to their home in LA and an American business man who had been working in Beijing for a few weeks and then everyone settled down to some fitful, airplane sleep. As we approached LA many hours later, I spend the last 20 minutes of the flight looking out of the window, watching the coastline of my home country approach after 4 months away. The city bustled with cars, and few bicycles or pedestrians could been seen from the air. Roads were clean and it seemed like ads plastered every visible inch. Just before our gentle landing I caught a glimpse of a flaming hillside and billows of smoke just outside the city. The huge forest fires I had read about while waiting for departure.

A uniformed, American customs official kindly welcomed me home and, after picking up my bag I walked outside into the warm, California air. Waiting me were my girlfriend Rachel, my sister Elizabeth, and my Great-uncle Ned. Elizabeth, Rachel, my brother Levi and roommate Chris had all taken a trip through the American Southwest to pick me up. They had stopped at Ned and Marge’s house and then come to pick me up. It was nice to see some familiar faces after almost two weeks on my own and Ned and Marge prepared a wonderful supper for us during which all of us talked about our adventures.

My time overseas had ended but I still had a few days of adventure driving back across the US before the trip would be at an end.

A Mongolian Life

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I waved goodbye to Matt at Chinggis Khaan International Airport and made my way to the taxi stand downstairs. I was on my own in the middle of Asia in a large, dusty city where my camera had already been stolen and where my friend had been pelted by a chunk of sidewalk. It was a bit nerve-wracking to me. I wasn’t sure how I would do on my own! My confidence returned, however, after wrangling a 5,000 togrok trip back to the city from some taxi drivers who had claimed it was impossible to get me back to the city for anything less than 20,000… then about 5 minutes later, 10,000.

So, for 9 days from August 18-27 I was on my own in the central-Asian nation of Mongolia. I didn’t have a lot of money (I limited myself to $10 a day, $6 of which went for lodging each night I was in Ulaanbataar, leaving 4 for entertainment, travel, and food). I spent some of my timing working on this site cleaning things up and uploading photos. I spent some of it (the daylight hours at least) walking the streets of the city seeing what I could see, from large markets to street-side DVD stands. Ger Restaurants on the sidewalks to road works projects. The city was bustling and I was just another citizen. Unfortunately for me, I was a citizen who looked like a tourist and couldn’t speak the local language. So, that limited my interaction with the real citizens of Ulaanbataar to what we could communicate with sign-language, my extremely limited Russian, and their broken (but better than my Mongolian) English.

It was a relaxed time schedule-wise for me, but a bit stressful as I tried to learn the ropes of a new city by myself. Most evenings I would hole up in the hostel’s public area to avoid the less savory citizens of the city. This gave me the opportunity to meet the people who were staying in the hostel. Most people stayed just one or two nights at the hostel, but some were there for longer. An Irish fellow getting over a bad intestinal parasite infestation was there for three nights. He had bicycled by himself from Beijing to Ulaanbataar and was going to take a horse-ride to the Gobi and western Mongolia eventually getting back on his bike and heading for Russia. He had been delayed a week, however, by his unfortunate illness.

Two Israeli men and a British girl stayed for a night, they were on their way to the Gobi to explore it for two days. Three French men were planning a walking trip to Western Mongolia. Two girls waiting for their plane flights out, one from France and one from the US, were at the end of their Asia trip which had taken them to several cities in Eastern China, the Gobi, and eventually Ulaanbataar. One girl was at the end of a year-long term working at a school for underprivileged children from the ger district—an area with about the population of the city proper people with nomads who are in and out throughout the year and live in their gers—which surrounds Ulaanbataar. It was an interesting place to be and made the evenings less lonely. I was even invited to join two French students who were traveling by horse around the Gobi for two weeks and had an extra horse leaving me to only pay the daily expenses, unfortunately I was leaving well before they would have returned so I had to turn them down.

I spent three days and two nights in the wilderness camping by myself and finishing out the supplies in a little town called Gachuurt, to the northeast of Ulaanbataar. It cost me almost 20,000 togrok for the taxi out there, but I found it was worth it to save the $6 a night for the hostel. It was a calming time and not altogether bad to be by myself somewhere I felt completely comfortable. Making the half-hour trip to pump fresh water, scouring the parched hillsides for sticks to make a fire and clearing a rock-free tent-site for myself made for good exercise and a great way to pass the time. When a goat-herd passed my little camp with a flock of 75-100 as I was reading my Bible, a nod and a smile told me that I was welcome there.

When I got back to the city, I was a bit disappointed to be back in the dirtiness of the city. I had discovered over the trip that cities always feel dirtier than the countryside. I have yet to find a city where I would be comfortable eating a grape dropped on the sidewalk, even if I washed it off. But in the countryside, a grape dropped on the dirt would be brushed off and eaten without a second thought. I walked back to Gachuurt and caught the 500 togrok bus to Ulaanabataar.

The last 4 days in the city were uneventful for the most part. I talked to the hostellers, watched a movie about a Mongolian nomad during Soviet days. Apparently the Soviet government had attempted to control all meat production which up to that point had been the purview of individual nomadic families. In order to do this, they offered buyouts to the farmers and gave them palotes (small apartments in large concrete buildings). At about the same time (coincidentally?) the government also released news of a plague which would ravage the flocks of the nomadic farmers and required that the animals be burned to prevent the spread of the disease.

It was a sad movie, but interesting in its (delectably accurate) depiction of the history of Mongolia during Soviet control. The movie was shown at a small coffee shop called Café Amsterdam and was attended by about 20 Dutch people and a group of about 30 mixed French, Yankees, Mongolians, and other peoples.

By the time it came to leave Ulaanbataar, I was ready to leave. It’s not that Mongolia struck me as an unpleasant place, or that I didn’t enjoy my time there, I was just done with the city and ready to be traveling again.

At 10 AM the Mongolian segment of my trip ended with the departure of my no-frills trip on Air China from Chinggis Khaan International Airport to Beijing International. Since 5:30 that morning, I had been getting ready, walking toward the airport, and, when the time was right, getting a 10,000 togrok taxi ride to the airport, and waiting after customs. My trip in Asia was coming to a close, but I still had almost a week before the true end of my trip.

Relief

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

The morning of the 23rd, I (Matt) drove us across the Latvian border and into Riga. I felt relief that we had been able to contact the Millers regarding our financial plight and the ol’ Volkswagen had withstood the strenuous drive north without a mechanical breakdown. Little did I know, the capital of Latvia would ultimately add to my relief.

A little before noon, I found a parking space along a busy street near the train station and a block from our previous parking spot during our visit several months before. This time I had the same intention, finding a free Wi-Fi connection. We hung there for several hours, sharing the computer. When I fell asleep, Dan left to inquire at the station for two train tickets to Moscow for the next day. He returned with a couple price figures and the two times trains would leave each day. We agreed to leave the next night at 6 pm on the lowest class train for only 22 Lats or about $44 each. So far so good. Instead of following through and purchasing the tickets, we were distracted by the wonderful World Wide Web. I returned to the station with the group debit card to make the purchase but, after visiting two information desks and three ticket counters, I discovered the tickets had seemingly jumped in price to about 56 Lt each. Alarmed, I returned to the car, and we began discussing alternatives like air and bus fare. We had to make it to Moscow by the 27th to catch our expensive Trans Siberian Railway train. We weren’t, however, willing to pay roughly $230 to train there. Stress.

After each of us had made several more intensely stressful trips to and from the station, we understood that Dan, when he originally found the ideal tickets, hadn’t been informed of the seats’ availability, only of their existence. The one friendly clerk told Dan that only six similar tickets were next available for the 26th. That inspired more stress as we tried to determine whether a train departing that evening would allow us to make the TSR’s departure the next day. Dan searched his e-mail account but couldn’t locate the crucial time of departure from Moscow. Sweating, I returned to the ticket counter to find the clerk had taken a fifteen minute break. I was ready at the counter when she returned to confirm that the tickets were refundable and sell them. Smiling, she informed me I had purchased two of only four remaining tickets. Back at the car, I sat there, overwhelmed and holding a pair of tickets to Moscow at noon on the 27th. Then Dan found the TSR itinerary in a previously undiscovered e-mail, the moment of reckoning… We would make the TSR’s departure. Utterly relieved, we high-fived from our seats in the car. We had two of the very last four affordable tickets to make our connecting train. A few minutes later and we would have had to spend nearly three times as much. Instead, we would travel for the lower price, arrive in time to pick up our tickets, and possibly see Red Square. Relief.

We celebrated with two McDonald’s apple pies. We finished on the Internet, I fell asleep, and Dan drove us a little out of the city and parked in a pull-off. We woke the next morning early, determined to sell our car. We emptied the car, packing our main bags and collecting a significant trash pile until noon. We followed a Google map Dan had loaded to two junkyards and a couple car repair ships. No one bought used cars and I began feeling a little stress. We didn’t want much for the car; we merely needed to dispose of it somewhere before training across Asia. The next shop bought such cars, including Volkswagens. Dan received an offer from two rough-looking Latvian men eying the Passat, of €600 and successfully asked for €700. A little shocked, we grabbed our stuff from the car. We walked away with Euro bills in our pocket and our current possessions on our backs and in our hands, before they could change their minds and refuse the deal. I am in awe of the Lord’s provision on this trip. This includes my disbelief in the fact that our station-wagon, purchased in England for about $2 thousand, returned $1 thousand off the Baltic Sea, three months and 20,000 miles later. Relief.

Suddenly without wheels of our own, we caught a bus back to Riga’s train station and walked to a youth hostel in Riga’s old town. Our day’s goal completed, we settled into a comfortable dormitory room for a two-nights stay before our train journey began the 26th. Dan and I spent some time on the Internet and I walked around the old town, seeing the touristy shops and restaurants, buying some provisions at a grocery store, and touring the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The Museum outlined the plight of Latvia under the German and Russian regimes from 1940 to 1991. The country, centrally located between the East and the West, has seen its fair share of occupation and oppression. We shared the 12-bed hostel room with a man who was studying the result of Russia’s practice of deporting thousands of citizens in the Baltic States to scatter them across Russia and replace them with Russians. As a part of his Master’s thesis, he had researched for three weeks in Riga before soon moving to Estonia for two more.

Still rebuilding from its Soviet past, Riga is a pleasant city. The next two days, Saturday and Sunday, allowed us to explore its back roads. Saturday night I left the hostel and its frustratingly sketch Internet connection and intentionally got lost in the confusing network of roadways. I enjoy getting intentionally lost and I believed I could easily find my way back to the hostel by following the three impressive church steeples in the old town. Not so when, an hour and a half later, I ended up in a residential part of the city with only apartment buildings and only business buildings on the horizon. I tried to ask a few people but no one could direct me in the direction of the old town or the train station. Several people gave me the numbers of the buses I would have to take. I had gotten lost on purpose; I wouldn’t concede defeat by busing back. Finally, I had a young woman point the general direction and two hours and 45 minutes after I had left, I walked, into our hostel room. Relief.

Dan and I walked another hour, tentatively looking for a cheap restaurant before returning to pub near the train station. We enjoyed mushroom pizzas and soups while discussing acceptance and correction according to the Bible and their role in the intended Body of Christ. Fascinating. After attending two churches the next morning (merely because I slept in), we ran into each other, Dan walking with four people from his earlier English-speaking service. We joined them for a delicious meal of Latvian potato pancakes, delicious courses with sour cream or jellies. Keith Trampe, with his wife Andrea, were Nebraskans, nearly done with their year-long post as minister at the Riga Lutheran church. We shared a wonderful conversation about Latvian, Nebraskan, and Indonesian culture and our European travels with them and another couple, an Indonesian woman and a German man, the German police liaison to the entire Baltic region. I thought visiting 40 countries was impressive; the German had spent time in over 90. Fascinating.

We finished, exchanged contact information, headed for the hostel, late, and checked out. Lugging out bags behind us, we found a bench in the park by the train station. Dan read while I walked an hour to a cheap grocery store before we cooked a meal of ham, tomatoes, and macaroni stew. Soon, we left for the station, two hours early. On the way, I gave our large pot, with the stew we were unable to finish and a plastic fork, to a homeless man on the other side of the park. Dan reminds me that he may not have been homeless. Perhaps he was just a normal guy who enjoyed digging through trash cans. He accepted the pot gladly and it felt good to share out humble dinner. I explored the station and wrote a postcard to my family. Unfortunately, I only had 20 Lat cents, 30 short of those necessary to mail a postcard to America. Wolfers, if you’re reading this, know that I still have your Roman Colosseum postcard and I’ll send it asap. I returned to a nervous Ziegler, 10 minutes before the train’s departure. We walked nearly the entire length of the long train and struggled to work our way into the full car to our seats with our stuffed bags. The car portion of the trip had satisfactorily completed and the train portion had successfully begun. Relief.

Matt

Swimming: a Picturesque Beach, a Trashy Beach, and a Five-Story Diving Board

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

The morning of July tenth, we drove south along the beautiful Dalmatian coast. Croatia’s impressive Dinaric Alps mountain range runs close to the sea and provides beautiful vistas of rugged peaks and cliffs above gorgeous water. Our path ran through numerous coastal towns of picturesque white villas with clay roofs, ornamental gardens, and roadside cafes. Our enjoyment of the coast was slowed by tourist traffic. Apparently, others had heard of the coast’s fame as a less crowded alternative to the French Riviera. The result seems ironic. We stopped in the early afternoon at what an advertisement proclaimed to be the “Best Beach on the Croatian Riviera.” After a quick lunch, our Ramen noodles and tomatoes attracting the curiosity of some mature Croatian women, we hit the beach for a few hours of relaxation. Swimming in the waters of the Adriatic Sea, wonderfully clear and warm in the Mediterranean climate, soothed our tired bodies. I found the water salty as well, especially up my nose. Each of us was weary, still adjusting to life as one of only two travelers. We were content to read and sleep on the beach of fine pebbles, content to rejuvenate from saying goodbye to our friends, longer stints behind the wheel, more one-on-one time, and our recent stress at the Croatian border.

By-the-way, the Dalmatian name comes from from the Delmatae, an Illyrian tribe that lived along the coast in the 1st millennium B.C. The Dalmatian, “Dalmatinac” in Croatian, is a breed of dog thought to have originated in the area though it’s not known for sure. We didn’t see any Dalmatian dogs. Nevertheless, we continued through a tiny section of Bosnia before stocking up with provisions at a Croatian Lidl, tomato soup, and stopping for the night. We couldn’t understand why cars kept pulling in behind us in the small parking lot at the edge of the mountain until the explosions of fireworks began appearing above a nearby coastal town. Croatian Independence Day? Tardy American Independence Day? The only thing of which we were certain was that we had two borders and roughly 500 km between us and Lezhë, Albania, where we planned to meet our friends, Leon and Naomi Zimmerman at 1700 the next night.

The next morning, we spent some money on vehicle insurance to travel through Montenegro and then some more at the Albanian border about twenty minutes before the Zimmermans were expecting us. Montenegro was beautiful but the roads there and Albania proved disappointingly less than the major thoroughfares we were hoping to find. Our 8-year-old roadmap was alarmingly up-to-date. It was, we reminded ourselves, the Balkans. It took us well over an hour to travel less than 80 kilometers to Lezhë, over some of the sketchiest roads we’ve encountered on this trip. The barely two-lane road, with its occasional patches of pavement, often became three and four lanes as confident locals with significantly better suspension systems then ours passed at unbelievable speeds. They were all Mercedes-Benz vehicles. In fact, I counted. Of the first ten cars we encountered, eight of them were old model Mercedes. Most are stolen or illegally brought into the country, we learned later. Our humble and dirty VW pulled into Lezhë an hour and twenty minutes late when Caleb hailed us with a loud, “Matt Wolfer!” The men of the family, missionaries in Albania, were with Raphael, a man from their church who immediately sized up our car’s condition as needing new shocks. Absolutely, especially after that road.

The two of us and the entire family took off to the beach, an interesting collection of trees, trash, cows (seriously), swimmers, snack shacks, and bunkers. The latter were the remnants of the Communinist era where they were erected around Albania to convince the inhabitants that they were in need of protection. It was a change of pace from swimming in the Croatian Riviera. The boys, Caleb, Micah, Josiah, me, and Dan) rented a petal-boat and set sail for the open sea, braving treacherous waves, partially submerged bunkers, and stories of 2-foot jellyfish before returning to shore. We returned to the family’s small weekend apartment for delicious fajitas and a great, new card game, Bohnanza. We walked one of the town’s two main streets and hit the sack. The next morning Dan discovered someone had attempted grand theft auto, trying to punch out our passengers’ side door lock. No success. We had success, instead, attending the Sunday morning meeting the Zimmermans organize, following their “organic church” concept. After Caleb led worship in Albanian, the group participated in a engaging discussion following Leon’s printed questions about the Samaritan woman’s interaction with Jesus in John 4. It was a refreshing change from the sermon and seemed more beneficial in a society focused on relationships.

After the meeting, we drove an hour to Kruja’s castel where Scanderbeg, the Albanian hero, held off the Ottoman Turk hords, restraining the Muslim expansion from reaching more of Europe. We reenacted such a competition with the boys before appreciating a delicious meal of pizza and salad. It had been so long! We continued on to Tirana where the Zimmermans live most of the week. A enthusiastic game of Scattergories, some time on the Internet, sleep, and we woke to a overwhelming breakfast of pancakes with peach or banana slices with whipped cream or a ham and potato topping, perfect with homemade syrup. We explored the city center with the children and then Dan and I accompanied the two youngest to a nearby swimming pool facility. We spent three hours tossing the football and frisbee into the air above the water for each other to dive after and team keep-away with the frisbee. Then we faced the high-dive boards. It was a structure of diving boards on every floor for five floors. At the end of the fifth board, however, it suddenly became quite death-defying! Naturally, Dan and I had to try pencil-jumping from the fifth floor board. There is nothing like jumping from five stories into water. I started at the fifth story.

That daring feat completed and my ears still stopped with water, we walked home for kebabs and conversation about colleges with Caleb, planning our trip, and romantic relationships (sort of). We then walked the town to a high-rise with a rotating restaurant on its top. Slowly rotating 360 degrees an hour, we enjoyed coffee and Leon’s explanation of the organic church. We must have made it 480 degrees before returning to earth and the Zimmerman’s house. I handily (ha!) beat the two youngest at two more games of Bohnanza over the midnight hour as Naomi cut Dan’s hair. One last night with the incredibly gracious family and we set our sights for Greece.

Disappointment and Esperar from Granada to Madrid

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Warning: The following post involves various forms of disappointment. Reader discretion is advised.

First, the night of June twenty-fifth we headed north from Granada to Córdoba to see their famous Mezquita, a mosque with apparently really impressive columns dating back to the Roman period, its construction begun in 784 A.D. Christians converted it into a Cathedral after the Reconquista. Disappointingly, the building was already closed by the time we arrived. Ziegler and I (Matt) halfheartedly continued our quest for the cool pants we had seen in Granada, the really loose, comfortable, gypsy-looking pants. No luck. Disappointed, we continued to Seville. There we walked through the old town and saw the its cathedral, one of the largest of the Gothic style. It was closed so we missed the interior, the longest nave in Spain. Disappointing. We left and and arrived at Vila do Bispo, the southwestern tip of Portugal by the next morning. Along the way, we passed Huelva, Spain, where Christopher Columbus departed when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic is much prettier on its European shore, and in Portugal we played an intense game of Ultimate Frisbee before a refreshing dip. We passed through Lisbon, found disappointingly little to occupy our interest, and pressed into the continent.

We slept just outside Madrid Saturday night (June 27), completely unaware that the next day would hold the greatest disappointments of the trip thus far. Actually, it was early Sunday morning when we stopped, the Dans having tag-teamed driving into the night. Sunday morning David drove us into Madrid to the Mennonite church. There we enjoyed lively and encouraging worship and a timely message. Bruce Bundy reminded us that the Spanish word for to wait, “esperar,” also means to hope. Timely for 4 guys traveling together; we were able to apply its lesson that very night. Merly Bundy translated this for us to supplement my completely rudimentary understanding of Spanish. After the service we got to know the Bundys, Bruce originally from Zimbabwe and Merly from Cuba before meeting in Pennslyvania and working in Madrid, and their two boys. We joined the lovely family for a delicious meal and interesting conversation about the state of the Spanish church. After years of rigorous Catholicism, the backlash has unfortunately led to many rejecting all faith. Instead, Spaniards value family and friendships, a path the Bundys hope to pursue with their church plant and Mennonite Your Way involvement.

After heartfelt thanks, we set off with content stomachs into Madrid to its main park, Parque del Retiro. The park was created as a royal park of the palace built in 1632 by King Philips IV as a retreat for the Royal family. It was quite the lovely retreat. The park was full of Spaniards enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon lounging about on the forested lawn, rowing around the central pond, or simply enjoying some drums in a small amphitheater-like structure. A group of young men were performing a carefully choreographed African drum session. Meanwhile, Bohemian locals created their own rhythms on numerous drums around the semicircle. Around the crowded lake, numerous other musical performers entertained alongside dancers, magicians, and even a Minnie Mouse with definitely manly hands. We left the park and wandered around before finding a pub by 8:30, ironically an Irish pub in Madrid, to watch the Champions League final. It was the pinnacle of the year’s international soccer (fútbol) season between Brazil and the US. At the beginning of the match, we held reserved excitement that only grew over the first half as the Americans built a two goal lead. Then the disappointments began. The Brazilians began to play as I had expected them to play and won 3-2. Utterly disappointing. We worked on our esperar. On the bright side, we hope the match will continue to raise awareness in the States of the value of soccer, the international sport. We returned to the Bundy’s, keenly disappointed but doing our best to wait and hope.

The next morning, our disappointment continued when we found the El Prado Museum, Madrid’s largest art museum, was closed on Mondays and entrance to the Palace was way out of our price range. Instead, we visited the Hagia Sophia, a modern art museum. Among others, we saw numerous, fascinating works by Pablo Picasso. We also saw numerous, disturbing works by Salvador Dalí. The contrast between the two modern Spanish artists was significant. We left the two, took the subway back to the Bundy’s, filled our water jugs, and drove out of the city. Our disappointments were short-lived, however…

Short Thoughts on Morocco: Our Hosts

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Two weeks ago my primary connection, my primary understanding, of the nation of Morocco involved the Showalters. My family, one other family, and the Showalters have met at least once a year over pretty much all of my life. Phil and Twila Weber, my parents and Jon and Dawn are close college friends and began the tradition before my birth. For a few summer days, one family takes its turn to host the other two for warm fellowship and encouragement. Some of my best childhood memories are from these gatherings. My visit to Fez, Morocco, last week was the most memorable experience yet with this close family.

Around the end of last summer, the Jon and Dawn Showalter became expatriates in Morocco with their four sons. This trip allowed me the opportunity to see them for the first time since then and in their new home. Like the traditional gatherings I’ve experienced with their family, they generously offered their home, their resources, and their understanding with compassion and warmth. It was a blessing to experience such a foreign, unfamiliar part of the world under the guidance of close, trusted friends. They provided vital tips for exploring Fez that proved essential in a city with so much to offer tourists, both rewarding opportunities and hazardous ones. I was able to connect with and understand much more about Morocco by sharing a little of the Showalters’ lives.

While the week we spent with them may not have been truly representative of their normal, everyday lives in Morocco, I loved joining them in places where they’ve spent much of their time. Although Jon and Dawn had no language classes that week, they explained much as we walked the streets of Fez. Thursday was the boys’ last day in school but I was able to visit their classmates and the buildings where they have studied this past year. We attended their international church and had wonderful conversations with other attendees, the Showalters’ close friends. We shared delicious, local meals lovingly prepared by Dawn. (Thanks again!) We explored the Medina and enjoyed tasty local treats. (read: delicious 12 cent ice cream cones) I even joined their weekly traditions of frisbee and basketball games and released some pent up energy. Like so many people along this journey, the Showalters graciously opened their home and lives to four young men, allowing us to share with them in their wonderfully unique lives. It was a blessing which I have begun to pray that I have the opportunities to pass along.

Mennoniting Our Way to the Mediterranean

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Thursday afternoon (11th) we called the family we had found in our copy of the Mennonite Your Way book. Before the trip, David ordered the newest European edition of families willing to provide sleeping arrangements for travelers through their area. The MYW people sent the older version (2006-2008) until they could send the newest, published a month after we left. Currently, the 2009 edition is sitting in Rosedale somewhere. We had found the Wheelers from outside Lyons the most willing of the six French families listed. We made good time from Bern and arrived around 6, the time we had given them over the phone. Andre and Ruth warmly welcomed us to their home. After introductions and parking the Passat in their property, we sat and shared our backgrounds and Kefir.

None of us had heard of this drink and were fascinated by the liquid which appeared to be lemonade. Instead, it was a bi-product of a bacterial ecosystem. Kefir grains are self-contianed micro-ecosystems of bacteria living in a symbiotic relationship to process and ferment sugars. The drink is this fermented sugar water, a healthy drink as a bacterial live culture like acidophilus in yogurt and for it half a proof of alcohol. The drink is like friendship bread in that these grains are not commercially available and the growth from their fermentation can be shared to start new colonies. The Wheelers described the process, first discovered by a doctor in the Caucasus mountains, as the combination of the Kefir seed, sugar water, a lemon for flavor, and a fig. The fig, when it expands enough with water to float, signals the adequate time for the fermenting process. All four of us enjoyed the refreshing drink as we learned of their French Bretheren background.

We moved the conversation inside for a hearty meal of tomatoes, potatoes, and ham. By then the family had gathered, Jean David from the university where is was studying engineering, Jonathan from a friend’s, and Timothy, the youngest. We learned that most of the information regarding the Wheelers in the MYW book was incorrect and that they had not ever actually requested to be included. They had sent a letter of interest years earlier and we soon surprised when they found a book in the mail, containing their names and they apparently attended a French Reformed church and also spoke Spanish. They were, nevertheless, pleased we could stay with them. We explained how we met and decided to try this trip, Andre interpreting for the curious boys. After a lovely conversation, some time to unwind, a washed load of clothes, and much needed showers, we stretched in beds after weeks of sleeping in the car or on the ground. Lovely.

The next morning, I woke early (for me) and worked on catching up with email and photos on Flickr until the guys began to stir. Andre, a cook for a school, and the boys, themselves in school, had already left the house, so I worked for an hour until eating a traditional French breakfast of baguettes and delicious jams. A little after our planned 10 a.m. departure time, we each filled out the Wheelers’ guest book and hit the road.