Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

Making Waves in Brazil

I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to get to travel the world with the Clinton Curtis Band, from Santo Domingo to Turkmenistan. This month, we returned from a 3-week romp through Brazil in the midst of World Cup fever, organized by the US Embassy and consulates. The guys at b2 Filmes did a fantastic job with this clip, detailing 4 days in the state of Pernambuco, engaging in concerts and workshops with Brazilian artists such as Maestro Forró in Recife and Projeto Batuque in Garanhuns.

The problem with Brazil, though, is that the more time you spend there, the more time you want to spend…

Congó drummer Sagrilo in Vitória, Brazil

Subdiversity Blog’s Top 10 Travel Tips

I recently compiled this list of travel tips for my younger sister, traveling on her own for the first time. Influenced just as much by the mistakes I’ve made traveling as by the successful experiences I’ve had, here is a manifesto for getting outside the guidebook, off the beaten path and getting the most of the journey.

Santorini, 2008

1. The People You Travel With Define Your Travel Experience
I’ve always gotten more out of places when I know someone there. They don’t have to be from there, but if they live there, or have spent some time there, they will know where to go and introduce you to other people, and take you to places that aren’t just the normal tourist traps. You don’t even have to know them well. In Perú, I met up with two grade school friends– acquaintances, really– who I hardly knew before we shared an unbelievable few days in South America. In Cairo, I had the time of my life staying with the brother of a friend. In Istanbul, I met up with a dude I had met once in New York through a former professor. In Barcelona, I met up with a fellow bassist who had found me on Myspace. In all of those places, they showed me a fantastic time, introduced me to some amazing places and people that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. And it helped me form lasting bonds with them through shared experience.

2. Meet People Wherever You Go
Meeting people when you’re traveling is much easier than when you’re at home in your own social circles. So even when you don’t know someone where you’re going, strike up a conversation with a stranger. Get lost. Be friendly. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, be safe. But there are lots of amazing people out there and I’ve made some lasting friendships and unforgettable experiences through the people I’ve met randomly. In South Africa, I struck up a conversation with a Muslim woman at a university cafeteria, who the following day took me out to a shantytown where I got to hear Zulu children singing songs. So don’t be shy.

3. Keep In Touch With People
You never know when you might be able to meet up with someone on the other side of the world. Facebook is MAGIC for this sort of thing because you can do it passively. A Colombian friend I met at a gig in New York years ago was awesome enough to take my whole band out in Bogotá this past March. I met musicians in Barcelona who then visited New York, and tons of people on board a cruise ship who then allowed me to visit South Africa and Argentina. Travelers tend to pay forward hospitality and generosity, sort of like hospitality codes among Bedouin nomads. (If you’ve ever read the 1001 Arabian Nights, one of my favorite compendiums of crazy travel stories).

4. Not All Good Friends are Good Travel Companions
Obviously, you want to be safe, and traveling with friends can be lots of fun. I would be wary of traveling with too many of them at a time, lest you wind up as a bunch of tourists everywhere in a way that blocks you from really experiencing the places you go. If traveling alone isn’t your thing, try and find a friend who is open to new experiences and challenges you… not one who wants to go hang at an Irish pub when you’re halfway across the world in Thailand!

5. Stay Connected… But Not Too Connected
Document stuff, and share it on Facebook, all that crap. It’s really worth it to keep in touch with people back home. Just don’t let it cut you off from everything you’re experiencing. Take breaks, disconnect… and then reconnect. Lack of 3G/cell data service is wonderful for this, because then you’re limited to where you have wifi.

5b. Travel With A Local Cell Phone
I’ve traveled with and without a cell phone, and you get to do much more when you have a local sim card to get in touch with people wherever you are. There are a couple ways of doing this.

1). You could jailbreak your smartphone to take local simcards. I don’t recommend this for various reasons, not the least of which is that it’s easier/less worry to travel with a cheap cell phone.

2) Get a cheap travel phone and a local SimCard in each country you go. The phone will be maybe $60, simcards can be around $20 depending on where you are. That way, you have a local number where you can be reached by friends and people you meet– and you can reach them.

3) Get a Global Simcard – like this one. You pay a cheap subscription fee and it finds local networks wherever you are.

Note that the point of these is to keep in touch with people wherever you are, not people back home (which you can do with Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, etc). I actually like to keep those lines of communication separate– part of my axiom of staying connected, but not too connected.

6. Don’t Be Afraid To Spend Money
I can be very spendthrift, and I have all sorts of ways for gaming the system for cheap flights and housing. But don’t let the price tag of things keep you from experiencing where you are. This was a mistake I made big-time on my first trips. Would you be happier with $100 in your bank account, or a night that you will never, ever forget? I’ve recently discovered a term for quantifying the value of these experiences– identity capital. According to Meg Jay, in her book The Defining Decade:

“Identity capital is our collection of personal assets. It is the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time. These are the investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough, or long enough, that they become a part of who we are. Some identity capital goes on a resume, such as degrees, jobs, test scores, and clubs. Other identity capital is more personal, such as how we speak, where we are from, how we solve problems, how we look. Identity capital is how we build ourselves – bit by bit, over time. Most important, identity capital is what we bring to the adult marketplace. It is the currency we use to metaphorically purchase jobs and relationships and other things we want.”

6b.…but the Most Expensive Experience Isn’t Always the Best!
Taking a 12€ train ride might afford you much cooler experiences for meeting people than renting a car for 200€. The touristy 30€ meal might not be anywhere near as good (or as genuine!) as the 3€ dive in a back alley.

7. Earn Frequent Flyer Miles
It sounds like a pain in the ass, but it’s VERY easy to sign up for different frequent flyer programs and you’ll be able to use those miles somewhere down the line. You never know when. And nowadays, with the proliferation of airline alliances, you can consolidate your miles on just a few different airlines, track them via AwardWallet, and use that value to generate more experiences for yourself down the road. There’s a whole subculture to travel hacking, but even if you don’t want to dive in that deep, JUST SAVE YOUR MILES.

8. Be Prepared…
I like to read the Wikipedia article on a place before I show up there, giving me more context to know and feel what I’m looking at. Also, it is invaluable to reach out to any friends you might have in a place, or any friends who might have friends in a place! You never know where it will lead, and at the VERY least, they’ll be able to give you good recommendations, if not a place to stay and a great meal. If you’re halfway around the world, aren’t you wasting your time if you’re not meeting as many people as possible?

8b.…but Play It By Ear
Don’t be too regimented with your plans. The best experiences are the random, unplanned ones. Get lost. Get into crazy situations and trust your ability to get out of them.

9. Stay With Friends
AirBNB is awesome– you should definitely try it out. But also, if you have contacts who are generous enough to put you up (and don’t be afraid to ask), it will help you get more out of a place.

10. Always Bring A Bathing Suit
…because, you never know.

Travel is a skill that takes time to develop just like any other skill. The more you do it, the more you’ll have experience to fall back on. When I see people go on vacations that keep them isolated in a resort or a tourist trap, I cannot understand why they would place themselves in the middle of a place that’s different, exciting, exhilarating– and then close themselves off to it. Be open to everything around you.

Why Keep Doing What You Love?

We’ve met lots of kids here on our travels through Latin America: kids fortunate enough to learn English in American schools and visit family in the US, other kids who have never left their hometown. We’ve seen kids 8- to 12-years-old working on construction on a poorly maintained mountain highway.

Clinton Curtis and Gray Reinhard pose with local children after our concert in Danli, Honduras

Last night, before our open-air concert in Danlí, Honduras, some disheveled-looking kids asked me for change. I apologized, but as I asked them about their town, their home, their expressions changed from miserly to curious. It was as if they had never before met an American who wanted to know about their lives. They asked about the band, about the kinds of music we play, about who we are and where we come from.

There are times when my practical nature questions the value of encouraging others to pursue artistic pastimes. For as many who are fortunate enough to carve out careers in what we love to do, there are countless more who flounder. If it’s so hard to make a living playing music with all the opportunities available to us in New York, is it right to encourage a child in a developing country to pursue their passion when it may frustrate their ability to build a stable life and family?

Students at La Casa De Cultura, Danli

But somehow, meeting these Latin American kids with (often, though not always) less opportunities than I’ve had gives the phrase and sentiment “keep doing what you love” new resonance. Why is it worth shooting for, no matter what your background? Because it’s difficult. Because not everyone gets to do what they love. But because some of us can, and because when we lead lives enriched by our passions, we can share and exchange that wealth with everyone else we can reach.

Justin Goldner is a bassist, guitarist, producer, songwriter, language junkie and lover of culture in all its manifestations. Follow him on Twitter @JusBass.

American Music Abroad Tour: Merengue in Santo Domingo

This month I’m on tour in Central and South America with the Clinton Curtis Band, through a very special program called American Music Abroad. Organized by American Voices and the U.S. embassies in each country, they send numerous American musical groups around the world to perform and engage in cultural exchanges.

Colonial Zone, Santo Domingo

We just finished a week in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic filled with several concerts for absolutely outstanding audiences. We also had the chance to give several master classes for Dominican students, which has been one of the most rewarding parts of our tour so far. It’s as if we have the opportunity to rectify every sub-par educational experience we had in childhood, and the responsibility to pass on every positive educational experience from which we benefited to the next generation.

Moreover, we’ve met tons of incredibly talented kids who are eager to share their own talents and cultural background with us. Yesterday after our master class at UASD in Santo Domingo, music students showed us some traditional merengue rhythms.

Holiday in Turkmenistan

This Thanksgiving, I took turkey to the extreme with a trip with the Clinton Curtis Band to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan to perform at the American Culture Days Festival organized by the U.S. Embassy. For those unfamiliar with the Central Asian steppes, Turkmenistan is a former Soviet state nestled between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It’s capital, Ashgabat, lies 10 miles from the border with Iran.

Clinton Curtis & Geoff Countryman visit music conservatory students in Mary, Turkmenistan

Things started getting exciting when we arrived at the gate in Istanbul for our midnight flight from to Ashgabat. We were greeted by a plethora of women in gorgeous Turkmen dress who employed some serious puppy dog eyes when asking me to carry aboard some of their (abundant) duty-free bags. We were careful to walk the thin line between offending anyone and inadvertently carrying contraband onto an international flight.

When we landed at 4am after about 24 hours of traveling, we were informed that Americans rarely fly in via Istanbul, because in the case of bad weather, the flight diverts to Tehran. My initial disappointment was supplanted by relief when we learned that Americans in Tehran without an official invitation are promptly jailed. Guess we dodged a Persian-rug-sized bullet.

Turkmen Ministry of Water building, shaped like a plunger

The city of Ashgabat is dotted with enormous, gleaming monuments, built since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and set against the backdrop of mountain ranges surrounding the flat desert city. The Ministry of Gas is designed to look like a giant Bic cigarette lighter, while the Ministry of Water is somewhat reminiscent of a plunger. The ornate “Palace of Happiness” is where newlywed couples go to register their marriages.

Portraits of their current president adorn the interior– and exterior– of most buildings and the national airline. Not only a dentist, he is an avid equestrian as well as a guitarist and accordion player. We were given complementary encyclopedic volumes that he wrote on “Medicinal Plants of Turkmenistan”.

Monument to former president Saparmurat Niyazov that previously rotated to perpetually face the sun

The trip was particularly special because we were able to experience a taste of Turkmen culture with companions, including the phenomenal bluegrass band Della Mae, the jazz virtuosi of Ari Roland Quartet, and New York breadmeister, founding owner of Sullivan St. Bakery and Co., Jim Lahey.

But the Turkmens’ response to us was also overwhelming. Volunteer students, seemingly from the upper echelons of civil society (many were ethnically Russian), flocked around us before, during, and after the concert. After gigs with Ryan Beatty and Ed Sheeran, I’m accustomed to how to act around starry-eyed teenagers (hey, I was accustomed to being one), but the distinctive element here was that we too were bubbling over to have been catapulted here halfway around the globe, meeting these people whose lives and experiences differ widely from our own but whose interests and aspirations are so familiar.

Clinton Curtis & Della Mae sport traditional Turkmen hats

Della Mae and Ari Roland’s group put on tightly calibrated, wonderful shows for a very receptive audience. We stepped on stage last, unsure of how an auditorium filled with dignitaries of conservative generations and students of arts institutes would respond to our overly cranked amplifiers and raucous posturing. Clinton is, of course, incapable of playing it safe. We opened with “Best You Can“, and tossed each other sidelong glances as he delivered ambiguous lyrics on Cat Stevens. As the set ground on, we repeatedly elicited unison clapping from the audience. It soon became clear that there were widely different factional responses, from hardened women in traditional dress with intractable scowls, to younger kids whose enthusiasm was contagious. Experienced in drawing some reaction, anything from a crowd, we quickly resolved to leave our everything on stage, do with it what they would. As we skanked through “Only Way Out”, Clinton left them with an impromptu screaming guitar solo worthy of Marty McFly. In that moment, I wondered how many Turkmen teens were developing plans of musical world domination like those that we in the band still nurture.

My own inclinations for the situation were perhaps a little bit safer, but once the gauntlet had been thrown down, I had to follow. “Riverside Hotel” tumbled into a drum and bass breakdown, but how do you communicate to an audience who may never have seen such explosive live drumming just what is happening on stage? I climbed onto the bass amplifier, unaware that it was perched precariously between two levels of the stage. 15 seconds of energetic wobbling could have ended in physical and diplomatic disaster, but somehow I managed to stick the landing right as Clinton and the band flung us into a double-time coda. Springsteen would have been proud. The Turkmen Minister of Culture was not as easily impressed, later requesting that I not repeat the stunt for our closing concert.

4 out of 5 of us discovered the hard way that many foreigners get sick the first time they visit central Asia and we spent several days bowing to the porcelain throne. In the midst of digestive troubles and band members dropping like flies, Clinton, saxophonist Geoff Countryman and drummer Drew McLean toured the city of Mary, once a major stop on the Silk Road, and put on a moving improvised performance there for local students and dignitaries. Fortunately, the rest of us were able to pull ourselves together for our final concert Sunday evening. After our performances, we were invited back on stage to join the native performers in a 15-minute disco clap fest. (By that point, half of the audience seemed to be on stage with us.)

We were also surprised to discover that the American Culture Days Festival was sponsored in part by Chevron, ExxonMobile and the Ashgabat-Alberquerque Sister Cities Foundation. According to Wikipedia,

Research conducted by the World Pensions Council (WPC) suggests that Turkmenistan’s political isolation ended remarkably in the years 2011-2012 as US, Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Turkish institutional investors courted Ashgabat, vying for a piece of the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas.[25]

On the way back, a few of us made a stop in Istanbul, which after a week of no sleep seemed rather like Valhalla. Istanbul is one of the most beautiful, enchanting, historically rich and cosmopolitan cities in the world– an onion layered with thousands of years of eastern and western culture.

Stepping into one of the scores of local music shops near the Galata Tower, constructed after the 1453 Ottoman capture of Constantinople, our noodling quickly sparked an impromptu jam session with passers-by. Not to be outdone, the store owner whipped out an Ottoman military double-reed called a “zurna”, which is easily the noisiest and least in-tune instrument you will ever hear. Gray Reinhard shredded on a bağlama sax, whilst Clinton Curtis and each I brought home a fretless “cümbüş” (pronounced joom-boosh), a hybrid instrument between a banjo and a rice cooker. You can expect the sweet smell of rice and some vaguely out-of-tune noodling at a Clinton Curtis show in the near future.

Here you can see even more photos from our trip – taken by Geoff Countryman and Clinton Curtis. Thanks to Clinton and Geoff for the generous use of their photos and videos in this post, and to the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan as well as the Turkmen government for making such a unique trip possible.

The Depth and Broad Reach of Communal Music

On the way back from a gig last Friday, I was lulled from my late-night subway stupor by a dude serenading straphangers with his 12-string. I had run into Darrell a handful of times before, occasionally sung him songs at his prodding, and always listened to his renditions with pleasure though he understandably never remembers me among the ocean of weary-faced New Yorkers he attempts to rouse with song. This time, he handed me his guitar and entreated me to sing some Beatles tunes together. A girl sitting across the subway, an invisible face only minutes before, joined in. Other subway riders looked up– pleased, irritated, or distracted.

It’s a pretty fantastic feeling to be making music off stage with someone you don’t know. In a city of invisible walls, it’s even more special to reach across and make an instantaneous, if momentary, connection with other human beings.

Karen Loew published this beautiful column today in The Atlantic on “How How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life (And why we should bring it back)”.

The reasons why are legion. We are insecure about our voices. We don’t know the words. We resent being forced into an activity together. We feel uncool. And since we’re out of practice as a society, the person who dares to begin a song risks having no one join her.

This is a loss. It’s as if we’ve willingly cut off one of our senses: the pleasure center for full lungs and body resonance and shared emotion and connection to our fellow man.

The more I work in the music industry, the deeper I get into the craft of making music– which I love dearly– the more that I believe that the richest music lies not on stages and concert halls, not in headphones or subwoofers, but in the spontaneous joining of voices. For thousands of years before BMI and ASCAP, before sheet music, wax cylinders, the phonograph or the mp3, music existed as something possessed jointly by everyone in a community and open for anyone to participate in its creation.

One of the (relatively few) places where this paradigm continues strongly is within Gospel music and churches of various denominations throughout the country. While pop artists are “dumbing down” their melodies and rhythms, simplifying their music in order to reach the widest potential audience, in churches, it is shocking and inspiring the number of non-musicians– “laypeople”, if you will– who feel so strongly attached to and participate in what is incredibly sophisticated, demanding music.

It’s not surprising, then, that gospel music has played an in-extractable role in the development of American music for at least the last century, and that churches have produced many of the best musicians and performers from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Billy Preston to Chris Dave.

During a trip to South Africa last year, I had the great treat to meet Fatima Asmal-Motala, who graciously took me to visit a small Muslim after-school program in a Zulu “township” about half an hour outside Durban. The poverty was absolutely shocking: as far as the eye could see, slums thrust about on the sides of hills, people living in overturned shipping containers, walls thrown together from various discarded sources makeshift dwellings.

The real treat, however, was to get to hear the children, ranging from what might have been ages 7-15, sing devotional songs together in Zulu, English and Arabic. The sound of their voices together and the smiles on their faces were as inspiring as the desolate setting left me, a sheltered product of the first world, speechless.

In her article, Loew points out the few instances of its survival in American society, including during the seventh-inning stretch at baseball games:

Belting at baseball games is an example of something essential, Schmid said. “No one there is worried about whether they’re good enough. That’s a wonderful feeling—that’s what I think we need to restore. That sense that: I’m good enough. I’m a happy amateur singer. I’m just going to let it out.”

As I mentioned in my most recent post, along with the Clinton Curtis Band I’ve been selected by the U.S. State Department to embark on an American Music Abroad tour later in 2012 or 2013, during which we’re excited not only to propagate and provide a vessel for American folk music traditions, but also to engage with and learn from the communal music of wherever they choose to send us.

One other related aside– I recently got around to seeing Béla Fleck‘s 2008 film Throw Down Your Heart, in which he journeys through Africa in search of the roots and progeny of the banjo, performing with talented artists and folk musicians from a number of countries. Great music and inspiring fare from start to finish.

Speaking Spanish on TV

Last weekend at the Miami Music Festival with Delexilio was an absolute blast; we played some great gigs and met some incredible bands.  Beyond enjoying the sun and city’s Latin blend, I was thrilled to be able to spout out a few words of Spanish when Telemundo’s Mariana Rodriguez interviewed us live on Acceso Total:

Later the same day, I pretended to be cool on comedian Alexis Valdes’ show Esta Noche Tu Night while I could hardly understand his Cuban accent.

In the ensuing interview, though, Delexilio frontman David Sandoval took the lead as he spoke about “Cell Phones for Cuba“, a nonprofit run by Raices de Esperanza (“Roots of Hope”) that aims to help the people of Cuba get connected.

After our show Friday night at Transit Lounge, we met with Isabel Betancourt, who wrote a great article (in English) for I promise I said “persecuted”, and not “prosecuted”.

Delexilio article on

Vos nokh? With Delexilio, I’ll be playing at NUBLU in NYC on December 9. In the meantime I’m working on finishing producing some EPs for some promising artists, playing at CD release with Abby Bernstein (on whose new record I appeared on bass) and MDing a joint show between 2 of my favorite people who happen to also sing the highest: Carrie Manolakos and Morgan Karr.

Happy t-day, y’all.

Blogueando en vivo desde Miami

¿Qué bolá aseres?

Blogging live from the set of Cuban-American comedian Alexis Valdes‘ show Esta noche tu night here in Miami, where I’m here with bilingual Cuban rock band Delexilio recording our appearance that will air tonight on nationally syndicated Spanish language channel MegaTV.

For my first time in Miami, the city is blowing up with the Latin Grammys last night and the 2nd annual Miami Music Festival. We ran into the Wayans bros this morning on the set of Telemundo’s Acceso Total with Mariana Rodriguez, and we’re rockin it Cuban-style, live tonight and tomorrow for the festival at Bardot and Transit Lounge.

This pobre gringo is enchanted with the Latin culture down here, the mescla of Spanish and English and Spanglish and the celebration of cultures simultaneously Latina and of the United States. Generations now have grown up here in south Florida and maintained their heritage, their language and identities while taking on another as children of the US- children del exilio, of the exile.

Our conguero Igor Arias put it starkly:

“Ésta es la música de la nueva generación nacida aquí.”

“This is the music of the new generation, born here [in the US]

As a judío and great-grandchild of inmigrantes, I can’t help but have a great deal of respect for the new generations and olas that make this country and city the cultural hodgepodge that it is.

Carrie Manolakos vids up; Disappearing languages

First, videos are up from Carrie Manolakos’ sold out Joe’s Pub show from August. Below is one of her rockin tunes showcasing this girl’s vocal fireworks, “Don’t Lie To Me”. We’ll be playing a joint set coming up December 14 with Morgan Karr at the Bitter End.

Completely unrelated but equally fascinating– Ross Perlin, a linguist and “New York Jew in China” posts some great footage from his work to preserve languages of rural China in danger of dying out.

Two Kingdoms

I won’t fool myself into thinking I can come close to capturing what was a whirlwind 36 hours in Egypt. But I’ll share with you some impressions before they fade from my mind, while I’m still worn out and dazed from the experience.

Cairo is like no place I’ve been. It’s hot and bustling like New York, sans the expectation that everyone be provided a red carpet; people adjust and make the best of the present. The taxi meters don’t work? Everyone knows what a fair price should be. (Now THAT’S capitalism). Door on the train doesn’t work? You’d have to be an idiot to hang out there while the train is running anyway. The smog is visible and people often hock up half of what they breathe in. Crossing the road means sucking it up and jumping in front of a bus. Many people drive without their headlights at night for fear that their hand-me-down-from-Europe cars will burn out, but they’ll flash their brights to let you know you can cross (whilst they’re still speeding towards you). I didn’t feel my life was in my hands, however, until I tried the other side of the windshield, riding in a white mini-bus, whisking around highways that whiz past the city’s humongous mosques and cathedral.Traffic is terrifying, but I saw no anger or road rage. My taxi driver decided to make a third lane where there once were two; the other cars on the road followed and adjusted appropriately. Instead, as my friend Dan described it, the constant honking is echolocation, letting the others know, “I’m bearing down on you, don’t hit me!”

I took a tour bus with the crew down to Cairo from Alexandria. Our tour guide, a woman named Noaa had a laugh that could blow over trees. With the tourists of the crew in touristy spots, we were badgered with useless crafts, but the minute I split off from the others with a willingness to see the country on its own terms, I was bathed in the generosity of countless Egyptians eager just to communicate, to meet an American. Trading what few words we could muster in Arabic and English, the enthusiasm to reach out and meet a fellow human was unmistakable. Just about every person I met was eager to share something; this one studied Arabic literature; this one lived in Brooklyn for 10 years; this one worked as a pastry chef, on a ship and then in Italy– and then produced a handful of photographs of his life to prove it!

My companion on the train was a kind man who shared that he and his son were both pilots. He told me about the many places he had travelled, including to Israel on Sadat’s historical 1977 visit there (which resulted in the alliance of Egypt and Israel, as it stands today). “It’s beautiful there,” he reminisced, “green everywhere.” I asked him if he saw Israelis as friends of the Egyptian people. He responded affirmitavely. “As-salaam”, he said, “kwoyis li-kulam”: peace is good for everyone. I shared with him that I am Jewish and he reflected that our peoples are cousins. We exchanged numbers and kind words, warmth and a window into another life.Just about everyone showed an enthusiasm for American popular culture, and many a desire to live there. An exchange with a friend from the ship still makes me cringe. My friend uncomfortably told two Egyptians chaperoning our tour that he came from America. “U.S.A.!” they responded heartily. “Don’t do that,” said my friend. “You know you don’t like us.”

It concerns me deeply– distracts me while I’m working and walking by my way– that one particular American shown outward kindness by two strangers in their country reacts with hostility. Confronted with a living, breathing person showing him warmth, he saw only his prejudices, the images and propaganda that flash constantly on American TV. He is a good friend of mine, someone I respect for being genuine– but he left me deeply unsettled.

Along with their love of American pop culture, Egyptians expressed a distaste for George Bush (who supports their president, Hosni Mubarak). I didn’t pry into strangers’ opinions on their government, but Dan had observed a great deal of unhappiness with it. I have read analyses that posit anti-Americanism in Egypt is an expression of dissatisfaction with their own government when outward criticism would be banned.I estimate that 70% of the women I saw in Egypt wore some sort of hijab, headscarf, though it varied greatly in form, from flashy scarves matching tight clothes to fully-covered women with only their spectacles hovering outside their burka. I sensed here and in Turkey that many women choose to wear a headscarf as a way of claiming their own personal space. Stewardesses (stewardae?) dressed to attract attention received leers, but women dressed modestly commanded respect.

I’ve never before seen desert that stretches out as it does from the pyramids. The oft-repeated statistic is that 95% of Egypt’s population lives on 5% of the land, hanging onto the artery that is the Nile. On the train back to Alexandria, I watched people bent over in the sun, heaving to draw some bit of sustenance from that land. For the first time I comprehend what it takes for humans to settle down into societies; the precarious cusp on the sides of which lie a surplus of time and resources or a famine. Oxen stood idly by with skin stretched taut over jutting frames, like mummies with blackened skin, about to crumble back to dust. I wondered if in some remote corner of this wide land there remains an untouched pocket still speaking Coptic, the descendant of the ancient Egyptian language that was gradually replaced by Arabic after the conquests 1300 years ago.

Even just one night spent off the ship made me realize the energy that is missing on the ship, the static electricity of millions of people and ambitions bouncing off of each other all day. Returning to work, I feel like a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. I can still feel the air in my lungs, a concoction of sweat and smog and desert sand not present in the sterile environment on board. It’s a nice little tanning-bed of a time capsule here, a fantastic chance to window-shop different countries and cultures– but I’m ready to jump back into the water.

You can see some more photos from the last couple weeks here:

P.S…. For those to whom I’ve reflected on New York as a falling Rome, here’s a funny collumn from the NYT: “Num Roma sumus?