Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Arabic Influence in Modern Europe - a research paper by Conor

Conor McManamy
The Arabic Influence in Modern Europe

            If you were in Spain between 711 and 1492, you may have been surprised to find the Spaniards speaking Arabic, or to see minarets on the skyline. The Arabic impact in today’s modern Europe is larger and more widespread than one would think. The Arabs possessed the majority of Spain for 700 years, and left a definitive mark. While the rest of Europe was in the throes of the Dark Ages, it was quite the opposite in Al-Andalus, the Arabic-ruled part of the Iberian Peninsula, and throughout the Islamic empire, which, in its heyday, stretched from the Atlantic to India. The Arabs were some of the best scholars, and made amazing discoveries and achievements in a range of topics. The Arabic influence on today’s Europe is visible in the sciences, the arts, architecture, medicine, mathematics and many more areas.
            One influence that is relevant on a daily basis is the food brought by the Arabs. Saffron was brought by the Moors from the south, and is used all over the world for flavoring and its noticeable orange color. Saffron is used in particular with rice dishes, rice being another staple brought by the Arabs. Rice was soon made into paella, a rice dish made for more than one person, mixed with vegetables, and usually seafood or meat. It is commonly associated with the region of Valencia, in southeast Spain, although paella is actually an Andalusian dish originating in the south of Spain (Spanish Food-Marbella). In addition fruit was a very important contribution to the Spanish diet. The Arabs brought olives, lemons, oranges, figs and dates. Along with fruit, they also contributed almonds, which were used to make pastries, sweet cakes, and marzipan, which has now grown into the specialty of Toledo, a city one hour south of Madrid (Spanish Food-Marbella). Cinnamon, nutmeg, sesame, coriander and mint were all brought by the Moors. Mint was especially valued, as mint tea from Morocco, and other parts of North Africa, is a well-known delicacy (Spanish Food-Marbella).
            Another effect of the Arabic presence that appears daily is in language. Words relating to science, math, architecture, and household items are the most common categories to have originated from Arabic, although there are plenty of others (Aula Hispanica). In fact, in the Spanish language, a large number of the words beginning with A or Z have Arabic roots. This is because in Arabic, the word for the, is al. In Spanish, the masculine word for the is el, which some think came from Arabic. For example, aceite is translated to oil, almohada for pillow, zanahoria for carrot, and algodón for cotton, which the Moors brought. Even the Spanish word for hello, Hola comes from Arabic (Spanish Language-Marbella).
            Alcàzar, a word which appears on town maps and guidebooks frequently for castle or fortress, comes from Arabic recollecting Moorish fortresses which stretched across the Iberian peninsula (Spanish Language-Marbella). Also appearing on maps, are the words “La Frontera”. This comes from the time when the Christian reconquistas, the Christians reconquering Spain from the Moors, were pushing the Moors out of Spain, and these towns were ideally the line the Christians wouldn’t cross (Aula Hispanica). For instance, Arco de la Frontera is 75 miles from the coast of Tarifa. Olé!, an exclamation used in two completely Spanish traditions, associated with bull fighting and Flamenco dance, is believed to have originated from invoking Allah (Don Lorenzo). Though the Muslim faith prohibits the drinking of alcohol, our word comes from their al-kuhl (Aula Hispanica). After a closer look, we find that Arabic appears everywhere in all topics such as law, science, math, home life, and many more in our current day languages.
            The arts were a big focus of the Moors, and their passion is evident in their work. The Muslim religious book, the Qur’an, forbids artists to portray people or animals, for fear that pictures of people or animals would lead to idolatry, which was not permitted in the strictly monotheistic Islam. (Muslim Canada). Because of this, artists channeled their creative energy into making beautiful calligraphy, tiles   and tapestries (ADC).
            Calligraphy was one of the areas of art in which the Arabs excelled. Because the Qur’an is written in Arabic, calligraphy used to make the Qur’an particularly beautiful a top priority. Calligraphy decorates mosques, religious buildings, and buildings left over from the Arabic time in Iberian Peninsula (ADC). One amazing enduring example of Muslim art is the Alhambra. It is named the Alhambra, “The Red” in Arabic, because of its red tinted soil. The Alhambra is a fortress in Granada, which was the last refuge of the moors as the Christians pushed them out. It is also the home to the room where Christopher Columbus asked Isabel and Ferdinand for funds for his history-changing trip to “India”. The inside is beautiful, with wooden carved ceilings, meticulously laid tiles and calligraphy engraved into stucco. If one could read Arabic, walking around the Alhambra would be like being inside a poetry book.

            Tessellations in tiles appear throughout the Alhambra. A tessellation is a repeated pattern or design with no gaps or overlaps (Muslim Heritage). These Arabic tessellations usually have 6 main colors: white, black, blue, green, yellow, and red. These geometric patterns are on the walls, the floor, and sometimes even in the windows, serving as a blind to filter the light and provide one-way views. . “If when touring the Alhambra, you think it looks Escher-esque, you’ve got it backwards, Escher is Alhambra-esque” (Rick Steve’s Spain). This quote refers to the similarity between M. C. Escher and the Alhambra. Escher actually visited the Alhambra, and had inspiration for his famous modern tessellation art.

This is a picture of a tessellation from the Alhambra

            The Courtyard of the Lions is a particularly amazing artwork within the Alhambra. The lion fountain is a fountain supported by 12 marble lions. This is an exception to the prohibition of portraying people or animals. The fountain used to function as a hydraulic clock. At every hour, water came out of the mouth of one lion. At the next hour, water would come out of two lion’s mouths, then three, four, and so on (Rick Steve’s Spain). When the Christians conquered Granada, they took apart the fountain, but couldn’t figure out how to put it back together.
            Along with the arts, the Arabs were quite advanced in mathematics. The Alhambra is full of aesthetic designs based on math. For instance, the kiosk, an architectural form that appears often in the Alhambra (see picture below), its columns and windows are based on one ratio of the height and the diagonal. If one takes a rectangle, the diagonal of that rectangle can be used to make the height of another larger rectangle, while keeping the same base. Continually enlarging the original rectangle in this way, results in a progression of rectangles. The fourth rectangle in the series is double the height of the first rectangle. This sequence forms an appealing pattern. The beauty is subconsciously noticed, it looks pretty without one knowing why. The feeling is similar to the harmonic effects in music made by combining different notes (When the Moors ruled Europe 2/11).

This is an example of the progression in use in the Alhambra.

            An interesting room in the Alhambra is the Secrets Room. One can stand in one corner of this room, and whisper into the corner. The sound travels over the curved ceiling and comes down to the wall directly across the room, so one’s friend can hear, but someone standing in the middle wouldn’t be able to hear (Rick Steve’s Spain). To have been able to engineer this in the Middle Ages is amazing.
            One very famous mathematician was called Al-Khwarizmi. He is given credit for founding Algebra. This too had a religious importance, as they needed a precise and accurate method of land division to obey the Qur’an in the laws of inheritance (Al-Bab.com). Al-Jabr as it was called, when it was invented, became Latinized to the term Algebra. The idea behind algebra is that quantities may be moved to the other side of the equation, and in doing so, they are altered from positive to negative values. This is the concept of canceling out a quantity (Muslim Heritage.com). The numbering system we use today is Arabic. Some say zero was introduced by Mohammed bin Ahmad, although zero surfaces at different points in mathematic history, with the Mayans, with Fibonacci, and it surfaces in the West in 1200. Zero is not a number that has origins that can be easily traced, and is still in dispute.
            The Arabs were also very skilled in architecture, and several Arabic designs are pre-eminent in European architectural language. For example, the idea of a courtyard is very Arabic. It first started with nomads. The nomads would set up their tents around an area, with a blocked off section in the middle. They would put their cattle in that area, which was safe and protected (Muslim Heritage.com). A courtyard house usually has three levels: the basement, ground floor living area, and first floor private areas. The basement keeps an even temperature all year, which makes it an attractive space when temperatures are at extremes. The windows facing outside and the ones facing inside are very different. The ones looking out into the street are small and plain so pedestrians can’t see in from outside. Conversely, the ones looking in are fancier, and let in more light, as they open onto the private courtyard (Muslim Heritage.com).
The cloister, a type of courtyard that was frequently used throughout Europe starting in the Romanesque period of the 12th century, is a form of the Arabic courtyard. Citrus trees are frequently present in different courtyards, some private, and some larger, for instance in a mosque or a palace for their fruit, nice flowers, and calming aroma. Courtyards also provide a safe place for children to play in a busy dangerous city (Hispanic Muslims.com).
            Some of the most common exhibitions of Muslim architecture are mosques. The most distinguishable section of the mosque is the minaret. A minaret is the tower from which the call to prayer is broadcast five times a day. Yaqub Al-Mansur was an Almohad king that came up from Morocco and took control of Al-Andalus in 1184. Among the mosques that he commissioned, three stand out, one in Sevilla, one in Marrakesh, the capital of the Almohad Empire at the time, and one in Rabat, the current-day capital of Morocco (Archnet.org-Digital Library). Yaqub’s Koutoubia mosque in Marrakesh, built first, was the model for the other two and all three look very similar. There is a local legend about the four golden globes atop the Koutoubia mosque. Some say that in the design there were only three globes, but Al-Mansur’s wife ate three grapes during the month of fasting called Ramadan, and felt guilty. She melted away her gold jewelry and donated the fourth sphere (Morocco.com).
            In Sevilla, almost the entire mosque has been demolished and replaced by a Cathedral. Only the minaret is still standing, although it has a belfry and a giant weather vane, and now bears the name, La Giralda”. It now serves as the steeple for the biggest gothic Cathedral in Europe (Hispanic Muslims.com). The last of the three sister mosques is the Hassan Mosque in Rabat. The Hassan Mosque was built to commemorate a major victory over the Christians. It would have been the second largest mosque in the entire Islamic world had it been finished, but it was not, as Yaqub Al-Mansur died four years into the construction. Also, an earthquake hit in 1755, reducing most of the unfinished work leaving only the columns standing (Archnet.org-Digital Library). Currently, the site is home to the mausoleum of Mohammed Vth, a beautiful spectacle. The Moroccan flag is all over the room. The tessellations are very intricate, and the body is buried in a marble coffin. Guards dressed in intricate outfits, with muskets topped with bayonets, are posted at the doorways.
            Along with mosques, Arabic architects also built hospitals and irrigation canals, improving public health through engineering. The Arabs made getting clean water a practice for their citizens. Water storage facilities popped up all over Granada, so residents could obtain access to clean water brought down from the Sierra Mountains in acequias, irrigation ditches. When the Arabs came to Al-Andalus, they found primitive Roman irrigation remains, studied them, and then greatly enhanced them. After finding underground water, they cut channels into rock, and built dams to alter the flow of the water. The Moors also brought the waterwheel and the windmill to grind corn and other grains.
            In Valencia, the administrative system governing water use survives to this day, set up one thousand years ago. It still meets every Thursday at noon to settle water disputes (Syriatoday.ca).
            Cordoba was a flourishing metropolis in the Arabic empire which was at its heyday in the 10th and 11th centuries, rivaling Constantinople and Baghdad. Abd Rahman III, who was the king for a forty year period, installed 300 public baths, miles of paved streets, which were lit by oil lamps at night (Hispanic Muslims.com).
            The Arabs were quite advanced in the science of medicine. In Islam, the human body is appreciated as a gift from Allah, God. This makes medicine a religiously significant subject. Therefore, much time was given to learning how to keep the body clean and safe from diseases. Every major city in the Islamic world had very good hospitals, some for particular ailments, even mental ones (Science Islam). While the Great Plague was striking all over Europe, two physicians, Ibn Khatib and Ibn Khatima, saw how it was spread. They showed a simple conception of the capillary system, something not even close to being discovered by the Europeans (ADC). A very famous doctor was named Ibn Sina, or in the west, Avicenna. He wrote several important published works that became textbooks in Europe until as late as the 16th century (Science Islam).
            Another famous physician was named Al-Razi. He was knowledgeable about the science of contagion in his time of 932 AD. He diagnosed smallpox and measles first, and associated them with contamination and the spread of disease (ADC). In addition, Al-Razi wrote an exposition on the importance of hygiene in hospitals (Science Islam).
            Along with science, the Arabs excelled in astronomy. The Arabic mark on the stars is clear by merely looking at the names of stars. Since the Arabs discovered many new stars, they gave them names such as Deneb, Rigel, Algol and Aldebaran (Science Islam). Another significant addition is the astrolabe. It had existed before, but the Arabs improved it. It has many different purposes, including finding the local time with the latitude and locating the sun, moon, stars, and other planets. They used it also to chart the times for prayer, the start and end of Ramadan and for orienting the Quibla, the section of the mosque that points in the direction of Mecca (ADC). Observatories were everywhere in the empire, and with the astrolabe, they measured the earth with amazingly accurate results (Muslim Canada.org). By using the astrolabe, the Arabs became very good navigators (ADC). They helped Columbus reach the Americas, and were also used on Magellan’s trip around the Cape of Good Hope (Science Islam).
            After using the astrolabe to excel in navigation, the Moors started to make maps and become masters in geography. The Qur’an urges people to travel and see Allah’s patterns in the world. One Arabic geographer from 12th century Sicily was called Al-Idrisi. He was asked by Norman King Roger II to make an atlas that became the best geographical guide in its time. The atlas marks mountains, borders of provinces, and even the sources of the Nile River (ADC). There was a famous conversation between Abu-Hanifah, a geographer, and a Mu’tazilite, one who interprets the Qur’an more metaphorically than orthodox Muslims, in which the Mu’tazilite asked Abu Hanifah where the center of the earth was. The scientist replied, “Right where you are sitting!” This shows knowledge of the spherical nature of the Earth in 767. Muslim mariners also made the trip from Iraq all the way to China (Muslim Canada).
            The Arabs also had prominent philosophers. In particular, Ibn Rushd, was considered the greatest Islamic philosopher of Al-Andalus. Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the west, read voraciously, and was an excellent student. He started his career as a judge known as a Qadi, and later became a close advisor and physician to the Almohad caliph, and later to his son. Averroes wrote an interpretation of Aristotle’s work, at the request of the Caliph. Ibn Rushd’s most known work is the Incoherence of Incoherence, which talked about Fate. He said, “Man is neither in full control of his destiny, nor is it fully predetermined for him”. The Europeans liked this work, but it was criticized by Muslims, because they believe in Qadar, loosely translated to Divine Destiny, which says Allah has control over all things (Andalucia-Andalusia).
            Because of Qadar, Alchemy, the science of turning a lesser metal into gold, altering what Allah has made was somewhat frowned upon. The basis of Alchemy is that gold is the noblest metal, followed by silver. The theory was that one could transform a lesser metal into a noble metal (Muslim Heritage.com). Alchemy was essentially like the lottery or another get-rich-quick scheme, one could turn their own scrap metal into gold. The answer was well sought after, especially when the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages. Ibn Khaldun, a scientist, was opposed to Alchemy, saying that divine wisdom wanted gold and silver to be rare. If they became common, it would devalue profits, wealth, and currency. Al-Razi, the physician, made the distinction between the occult aspects of alchemy, and the respectable science of chemistry (Muslim Heritage.com). No one was in fact successful in finding a formula for alchemy.
            A scientist, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, who lived in 776, developed methods of evaporation, crystallization, purification and oxidation through the Arabic scientific method of experimentation, rather than the Greek method of speculation (Muslim Canada). Today, alchemy is not practiced very frequently.
            In conclusion, the effects of the Arab occupation of Spain are everywhere. Some are well known, but for the most part the contributions continue to be unnoticed. They are in the language, with a surprising regularity. Without the Moors, Spanish food would be very different missing valuable contributions including rice, almonds, cinnamon, and citrus fruits. The architecture they have given us is amazing, including the idea of a cloister, which came from an Arabic courtyard. The Arabs’ mark on math and science is undeniable, and the advances they made in medicine are amazing, which laid the foundations for today’s knowledgebase. Seeing the Arabic influence in today’s Spain, it leads one to wonder what life would be like without them.

1: Hispanic Muslims.com
2: Marbella-Guide: Arabic Influence in Spanish Food
3: Muslim Heritage.com
4: Al-Bab.com : Arab-Islamic History
5: Aula Hispanica: Arab Influence in Spanish Language
6: Marbella-Guide.com: Arab Influence in Spanish Language
7: Don Lorenzo.com: The Influence of Arabic
8: Archnet.org: Digital Library
9: Morocco.com: Koutoubia Mosque
10: When the Moors Ruled Europe (Part 2/11)
11: Science Islam
12: American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) – Arab Contributions to Civilizations
13: Muslim Canada.org
14: Syria Today.ca
15: Andalucía-Andalusia
16: Rick Steve’s Spain 2010

Home for Christmas

We’re home for a few weeks to gather our thoughts and prepare for the next part of our trip, Latin America. Most important, we’re home for the holidays! Time to appreciate our wonderful friends and family and to count our blessings. Best things about being home for Christmas:
Evan: Getting a chance to work on my silkscreen
Conor: Being able to drink water straight out of the tap
Laura: Hugging my cat
Martha: Skating on a clear frozen stream (or 10) with the kids

Wishing a very happy holiday time to all!

Flat Tire on Safari

Dennis ready for anything
What happens when you have a flat tire in Maasai Mara, right in front of the lionesses and their cubs resting in the grass? You get out of the car very slowly and carefully. You get your knife out of its scabbard and lay it down carefully in front of you, along with your club. If there are other jeeps around, you ask them to form a cordon protecting you from the lionesses. Then you try to change the tire, quickly.
This happened to us on our visit to Maasai Mara Game Park. Since we were barred from shooting the lions as did Robert Redford and Merryl Streep in Out of Africa, we had to rely on other more peaceful means. Of course, our role as clients was largely limited to a spectator’s job. But we felt a part of the action, especially when we saw the binoculars of the other safari-goers swivel around from the lions’ direction to our direction! Apparently we became suddenly more interesting than lionesses and lion cubs in the wild.
To appreciate this picture of our guide Dennis, you should know that it is very dangerous to get out of a vehicle in the game park. It is just not done. In several days, this was the one instance where we saw anyone get out of their vehicle.

Flat tire and lion watching consultants

We got to participate a bit more than just looking out the window and praying that our driver and guide would not get killed. It became quickly clear that the muddy terrain would not allow the jeep to be jacked up. As everyone’s attention was held by the mechanical problem at hand, we remembered that there may be other lions in the reserve, and we helped by looking around to be sure that we would not be attacked by a sneak attack from the other direction. Since we were not allowed out of the jeep, we all piled up on the opposite side so that they would not have to lift our weight as well. Finally, with the aid of a large rock to support the jack, the tire was changed and we were on our way. The adventure provided a memorable moment for our guide as well as ourselves.

Lioness looking at lunch menu with her cubs

Lioness on the move

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Safari Time

Having spent the first week in Kenya with Quaker communities and other friends, visiting and volunteering, we did not want to leave Kenya before taking a safari. So yesterday we were driven to the far western side of Kenya where it borders Tanzania. On the Tanzania side is Serengeti National Park, and on the Kenyan side it is called Maasai Mara Game Reserve. That is where we are. We are staying in a campground with some amenities – iron beds, those big canvas tents that you can stand up in, and a bathroom with running water. I would compare the level of luxury to an AMC hut – in other words, luxurious camping. We are provided beautiful hot meals, chicken and mashed potatoes with a tomato coriander sauce, and fresh fruit. Since it is the off season, we are the only guests. It is quiet and lovely.
We are in the forest, and the nights are very dark. Though the campground area is surrounded by tall thorn bushes, two Maasai men stay awake outside all night protecting us. Last night I heard their quiet talk in the dark, punctuated by long silences. Then came the unmistakable sound of lions roaring in the distance. This morning I hear fabulous and exotic bird sounds, with the lowing of Maasai cow herds as they are taken out to pasture.
To give a list of the animals we saw would be as boring as looking at someone else’s safari slides. Perhaps I should say that when our van approached the first herd of zebra, their dramatic black and white stripes absolutely filled my field of vision. Watching the baby elephants splash in the water within a few feet of us, seeing the gorgeous colors of the lilac-breasted roller bird or the head-feathers of the Abyssinian crane, the national bird of Uganda – all these things took our breath away. We saw one of only 2500 black rhinos left in the world, as so many have been killed for their horns. It stood near us regally, then turned and trotted off with a surprising speed despite its huge backside!
This morning we got up before dawn to see the animals at their most active. We saw lions eating a fresh kill – a wildebeest, those strange dark grey hoofed animals with the bearded faces. The tiny dik-diks raced away from us behind the bushes, and the refined impalas with their brown racing stripe and curved horns cavorted with each other on their elegant hooves looking like dancers.
The hooved animals are all variants of each other. The poor hartebeest drew the short straw, with stubby horns, a long face, and a dull brown hide. On the other hand, the topi with its beautiful glossy brown fur has a black burnishing on its flanks that is exotic and lovely.
We went to where the Mara River meets the Tanzanian border, and there lie the crocodiles in the rushing brown water. The stench rises from their recent kills, whose bodies lie bloated in the shallows, while bones from their earlier kills lie bleached along the river banks.
We were accompanied on our trip by David, our taciturn driver, and Dennis, a young Maasai man who knows best where the animals can be found. Dennis sat in front wearing his short red tunic and his clan’s trademark yellow shawl with enormous red polka dots. He told us this fabric identified him as a young person. Dennis has a year to go in boarding school, after which he hopes to attend university in Nairobi and become a surgeon. He is preceded by another young man in the village who is attending university now, the village’s first university student. Dennis is home over the holidays with his mother only, since his father was killed a few years ago by a water buffalo and his older siblings are away. His English is very good, and he is interested in sharing his culture with us.
We visited his village, where we were impressed at the cultural pride of the Maasai people. Maasai men can be seen all over western Kenya, wearing their bold red, pink and purple cloaks. All around the game reserve where we were, Maasai people have their villages, their enormous herds of cows and goats. They are wealthy in cattle, and they live very close to their animals. Their simple mud huts are built in a circle surrounded by thorn bushes, and at night the animals are brought into the middle of the circle for safety. Calves and baby goats sleep in a room in the hut with their masters. The Maasai alone among Kenyan tribes have chosen to retain their traditional ways, relying very little on money or the dominant culture. Though I am glad not to have been invited to share their traditional diet of cow’s blood, milk and meat, we all were so glad to have visited Dennis’ village and to see his people’s way of life. The image of tall Dennis with his shy smile and downy growth on his chin stays with me, and I pray that he is able to move through the modern world and bring back his training to help his people as he hopes.

Oh awlright, here are some photos....

Almost life size giraffe

Elegant Impala

Comparing notes with a baboon

Zebras with flamingos in background:  Lake Nakuru

Our tent at Maasai Mara

An old pal

Evan with Dennis and Steve

Going home for Christmas with live chickens on top

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stories from Kenya

Children’s Care Centre, Kakamega, Kenya:
This week we are living at the Children’s Care Centre. It is a home for children who were orphaned by AIDS. It was founded by Kenyan Quaker women, with the assistance of New England Quakers. The women had noticed children coming to their church service in search for food, and decided to build an orphanage for them to live in. Later, an organization recognized as a US non-profit organization, Friends of Kakamega, was founded to support this wonderful program. It operates under the care of the international United Society of Friends Women, USFW.
The Care Centre currently houses 35 children aged 6 to 12, with 10 others attending high schools who continue to receive support from the Centre. We visited after school had ended for the Christmas break but before the children had left.
The children are encouraged to maintain relationships with extended family and neighbors so that they will not lose contact with their areas of origin. But their home is really at the Care Centre. The staff members who live full-time with the children work to promote a caring, family-like environment.

Evan leading a drawing class

With the children, we played, sang, did arts and crafts programs, and introduced them to Frisbee. We had huge Frisbee and “football” (our soccer) festival at the local park. We also made individual photo portraits for each of them.
Conor helping create spinning tops

Pastor Ida at the Care Centre
  What was most remarkable was the caring and love that the children show for each other. They are encouraged to work out their problems with each other like brothers and sisters, which they seem to do. They are incredibly patient, waiting all day until we are ready to present an activity to them.  I think we all need practice in these skills! Their generosity is especially remarkable among children who have so little: generally only one outfit each, and very few personal possessions. At home they have few to no relatives, sometimes returning to an empty house for the holidays.

Kakamega Rain Forest:

Rain clouds over the Rain Forest

Today we met Job Ilondanga, (jobilondanga@yahoo.com, tel. +254 720 866 455) who works as a guide at the Kakamega Rain Forest. It is a gorgeous forest in the middle of the Western Province, near the equator. The green trees appear suddenly as a quiet oasis among the farms and villages of the Maragoli Hills in Kenya, one of the most most densely populated agricultural areas in the world. Job showed us colobus monkeys, all kinds of birds, and a cave where fruit bats live. The cave was dug by hand in a vain attempt to look for gold in the 1820s. After walking straight back into the hill for 40 meters, we came on the bats hanging from the ceiling. We woke them with our lights, and they rushed by our heads with a whoosh of air.
Job has dedicated himself to restoring the rain forest and educating people about it. With his earnings as a private guide, he visits schools and community groups, training them about forest ecology. He is restoring a forest corridor by planting trees that he is growing in his own nursery.

Esabalu, Amesbury’s sister community in Western Province:
Laura and I are staying at Sherry Otwama’s house, and Conor and Evan are staying with Priscilla and Jacopo Awasa. We are in the small village of Esabalu, sister community to Amesbury. The two homes are very well kept with lovely  gardens, flowering trees and tidy lawns. Just outside our bedroom door, two hens are being allowed to hatch their own eggs in the hall. They sit so calmly and quietly, hardly moving. Outside our window is the animal shelter with cows and dogs.
Our hosts are very courteous and kind. We are offered tea and bread whenever we go to see someone new. Everyone we meet in the village is introduced to us, though we will never be able to remember all their names. Our names are hard for them, as are their names for us! Conor has become Collins as this seems to be easier for them. Evan is generally Even but he doesn’t mind. This suits his temper well, actually.
Literacy class at Esabalu with 75 children
Sherry is a very motivated community organizer. One of the main organizers for the Sister City project, Amesbury for Africa, she coordinates local action on the water project, tree nursery, the health center, and other work that is being done through the Sister City. Right away, I can tell she is a strong and effective organizer. She watches the boys playing soccer with a critical eye, and she tells me she will not hesitate to correct a child who needs it. Children are raised by the whole community in the traditional way here, (though she tells me that this is changing as teens are more resistant to authority recently). Outside her outhouse she has a “tippy tappy”, a cleverly designed water dispenser for cleaning hands. She is promoting this concept in the village as an important sanitation device. She is very good at bringing resources and people together and volunteers all over the community.
One difference between Kenyan and Moroccan women: in Morocco, the hamman or baths are a place of retreat and relaxation. Women go to the hamman to clean and pamper their bodies, to breathe the warm air of relaxation, and to visit with their friends.  I do not see such an option for Kenyan women. Women in Kenya universally work very hard. Up at 5:30 to clean the livestock areas, feed the chickens, sweep out the dirt floors, milk the cows, and prepare breakfast. They work all day taking care of the children, preparing all the meals, bringing water from the spring (5 times a day up the muddy path), sweeping, and farming. The Quaker women attend their conferences and prayer groups in addition to their regular jobs. Walking down the roads we frequently see women representing all the different churches. They stand out in their freshly cleaned matching dresses and head scarves.
At the Care Centre orphanage in Kakamega, the staff members sleep in regular bedrooms and share the facilities with the students. They are available around the clock for the children, only going home for holidays to see their families. It is known that Kenyan women are the ones who do more of the work, and the ones to trust with money as well!
We were able to reduce the load for the few days we were at Esabalu, helping to carry water, do the washing, and harvest the beans for seeds.
Getting up early, I went out to the yard and saw the hibiscus flower blooming.  There were no stars since the cloud cover was complete, and no lights anywhere in the village. It was completely dark except for the white hibiscus flowers blooming quietly in the pre-dawn darkness.
 Our friends say electricity is coming here eventually. For now, some have a small solar unit to power their cell phones, the only electricity being used. Others go to kiosks for their “charge up” as well as their “top up” (adding minutes). Kerosene lamps are used in the homes, though the orphanage had electricity in every room and running water, being close to the town of Kakamega.
Here one can see the disparity in energy use between parts of the third world and our energy use in North America. With no electricity or running water, almost everything is made by hand. Packaged bread and juice are brought out only for visitors, while our hosts generally purchase unprocessed foods cooked on a charcoal or wood brazier. Night is dark, and day also inside the small houses. The markets are an efficiently designed processor for our discarded goods. T-shirts, shoes, magazines and other items that we all donate are sorted and sold according to a definite system. Within the market, there are separate streets for used clothing, shoes, cooking pots, hardware items, rehabilitated electronics, etc. An entire section is devoted to fresh mangoes. I was in heaven there!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

finches at Casa Encendida, Madrid

The most interesting artwork I saw today was a roomful of colorful finches. There were grasses and nesting areas set up for them. There were also several electric guitars and cymbals set up at the right height for them to perch on. When they did, they effectively played music on them. Random music for sure, but with a certain grace reflecting their finch-like ways. Hopping up and down  the neck of the guitar, dropping bits of hay on the strings, etc. One little bird fell asleep on one of the guitars, resting its beak among its feathers.  They were not shy, and we could watch them from very close by.
What was most lovely to me was the way people who entered became part of the artwork. People tended to slow down and wander around quietly, and sometimes to share glances in a bemused way.
Unfortunately photos were discouraged. But I am inserting several photos from our last few days in Madrid, as autumn turned to winter.

Quaker Meeting in Madrid

Holiday lights

Lucifer statue in Retiro Park

Snow in Madrid November 29

Ham for sale

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Where have Laura and Conor gone?

All this week and the last, Laura and Conor have been busy researching and writing on their chosen topics. Laura will place Picasso's Guernica in Spanish history and the art world. Conor will detail the Moorish contributions to modern Spain and Europe. Perhaps they will choose to publish their papers here!

Thoughts on words and other themes

Upon listening to a lecture on engineering in the third world: Three solid hours of listening hard, trying to understand the scientists’ university lecture. Sometimes I repeat the words silently, let them roll around in my mouth, hoping that their hard shells will give way to reveal the soft sweetness of understanding within. The Spanish words are like flamenco singing, strong consonants like castanets, alternating with guttural soft “g”s where you do not expect them. Sometimes the speech goes too fast to hold onto a single word, and my mind skims over the cold hard stones. They escape my grasp, and I cannot crack open any of them. Tired, I let them slide by.
Signs: English-language signs are in fashion, lending a sense of the latest style to the goods being sold. We English speakers snicker at the way that foreigners put words together. Instead of “Dunkin’ Donuts”, the name of the chain is altered here to “Dunkin’ Coffee”. What is being dunked? A nearby cafeteria is called “Flunch”, altering the word “lunch” with a zesty “f”. Doesn’t it make you want to try the food? I love the sign on a store “So JHappy!”, reminding Spaniards that in English the “h” is not silent.  
When we’re done snickering, we go back to trying to understand the fluent Spanish all around us. When you trip over verb tenses and can’t find basic vocabulary words, it’s hard to remember that you’re a capable adult!
Thanksgiving: It is of course a day like any other here. We decided to move it to the weekend so that our hosts could join us in a meal. We looked high and low for cranberries without success. We did find a turkey, and chestnuts and wonderful ice creams. Calabaza (squash) will substitute for pumpkin, though we did hear that the large orange variety we call pumpkins are sometimes available. We’ll be making stuffing by hand, which will do us good. And apple pie can be made everywhere!
Weather: Yesterday was the first frost. Almost a month later than at home, where we usually can count on a frost by Halloween. I went for my morning run and the grass was crispy and white. We do not have our winter coats, so each daily drop in the temperature is greeted by a sense of foreboding. Not wanting to carry extra clothes with us to warm Kenya next week, we tough it out with sweaters and the old standby, layering. I tell the kids that it doesn’t matter what we wear here. Shirts under shirts and socks over socks – who cares?
Flamenco: It is Spanish to the core. A mix of Moorish music in the minor key, red and black and drama for Spain and its bloody history, and gypsy mystery, from the Roma people who originated in India many centuries ago. Many of the songs voice the same familiar laments as cowboy tunes, the words just as cheesy. But still they give me goose bumps. A people (or peoples, since flamenco was born in the gypsy/Jewish ghettoes of Spain) oppressed, singing about the tragedy and injustice of life. The songs give voice to the deepest sadness in the world.
What I see in the marvelous dancing is a pride, a regal bearing. The woman tosses her scarf over her shoulder and gives the man a haughty look. The insistent tap dancing moves call attention to the strength and pride of the dancers. Yet the people who created this music originally lived in caves in Granada, in the Sacramonte hills, where they worked as potters and rag sellers. Metalworking was the most elevated profession, one to aspire to. The holy spot for flamenco today is a warehouse in the urban Roma ghetto outside Sevilla, the Poligono Sur. Flamenco today is mixed with drugs and violence, yet flamenco dancers have an incredible mystique. To be a flamenco star is to be a hero in Spain.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Annunciation - Conor

The Annunciation
While visiting the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, one painting in particular stood out for me. I had seen a lot of religious paintings from the 15-16th century, with Flemish and Italian painters. When I saw the Annunciation by El Greco, nicknamed the Greek for his long and cumbersome actual name, I was surprised by the fluidity and freedom of his lines. Although this subject was portrayed with a more Gothic style, El Greco’s take on the scene was refreshing. Here is the picture:

At the Art Museum - Laura

At the Art Museum
A bright pink flower and a bright pink bird, splashing color onto the stormy mountains. Bird and flower sing fragile, handle-with-care songs, but those water balloon clouds don’t seem to be listening.  Helpless, they wait for the clouds to pop and the wind to roar and gobble them up. So small, so beautiful, so colorful, they wait.
                A child watches the sea. It rolls; a fascinating jumble of green and blue and purple, and bubbly white at the edges.  The bubbles reach their fingers out to her, pleading her to throw off her shoes and let the cold climb up her feet.  Laughing shrieks from barefoot children tug at her legs, willing her to come in and play. But she tells them not now, because right now she is very busy. Right now, she’s tying the sand and the sea and the sky into one big bow on the back of her dress.
                 Gray shards of reality mash together.  Somewhere, an orange slice moon washes the world in blue strokes of light. Sometimes, a hand flies over an instrument’s neck, bathing the world in music. Or maybe the moon plays the music and the hand paints the light, and all around them, reality bends lines into geometric shapes. Where and when are thrown away, here is there, and now is never. Time has gotten confused and is running circles around a musician, who plays lonely songs under the moonlight.
                                How still everything is. Not a leaf flutters or a wave crashes. Even light stops moving.  Everything is caught mid-thought, mid-storm, mid-song, all stopped by a paintbrush. Each painting is a world on pause, and I’m free to explore every detail, until I could slip into the canvas. Until I could jump in next to the bird and the flower and feel dizzy because we’re right on the edge of the mountain and the ground is so far away.  And when I leave the museum, my whole world is moving a little slower, and it seems like everything is just waiting to be painted.

Remembered Moments

In no particular order, below are some remembered moments from our recent travels.
Archeological Museum, Madrid - La Dama de Elche sits tall and monumental, life size, despite the fact that she is 2500 years old. She gazes straight ahead, her dark hair pulled up in combs in a style adopted much later by residents of the south of Spain. She is the first Sevillian woman, two millennia ahead of her time. With her beautiful mantilla (scarf), her dark hair and strong nose, she could have stepped out of last year’s photograph of the traditional Holy Week celebration. In fact, she is a burial urn, containing her own ashes. I can tell from the work that she was loved and revered, a holy woman from ancient Iberia.
I was struck by another pre-historic piece, the small statue of a woman whose body is a goblet. The drink is poured in at the top of her head and comes out in a wide bowl that she carries, breast height. The effect is of her breasts offering drink to the hungry traveler. How innocent and unguarded, the desire to return to mother’s milk as refreshment!

Roman chariot racecourse, Tarragona

Tarragona Chariot Races – (a historical vignette) See how the chariots burst out of the tunnel and around the corner! Who will be first? Will I win my bet? One horse is bloodied – it must have grazed the side of the tunnel as it rushed along. The tunnel is barely wide enough for one chariot pulled by a team of four horses. Overtaking might well lead to injury or even death for a horse or rider.  Standing with my family in the amphitheater, I am surrounded by summer’s heat, amplified by the spectators and the dust thrown up by the winning chariot as he takes a victory lap around the stadium.
The Alhambra in Granada, as understood by a modern photographer - “Granada es Oriente y Occidente. Hasta ahí se extienden las piedras germánicas para encontrarse con el Islam. Las columnas del Palacio de Carlos V con las fuentes del Palacio de la Agua de la Alhambra. Granada es el producto de dos ríos de sangre y de dos culturas en un encuentro vivo.”  Translated: “Granada is East and West. Down to here extend the Germanic rocks to encounter with Islam. The columns of the Palace of Charles V with the fountains of the Water Palace of the Alhambra. Granada is the product of two rivers of blood and of two cultures in a living encounter.” This is a statement by Jose Val del Omar, a Spanish photographer who has produced a film project being shown in the Reina Sophia Museum in Madrid. It is an impressionistic piece with water flowing, children laughing and fish swimming. It feels like a dream.

Court of Myrtles, Alhambra

Granada is indeed a “mix of Eastern and Western culture”. It contains those “Germanic rocks”, the palace that King Charles V of Spain built after his takeover of the Alhambra fortress. The Spaniards were impressed by the Alhambra, built in the 11th century by the Moors, and amazingly did not destroy it completely when they took over in the 15th century. As a result, the languid pools are still full of fish, the Arab arches rise over the quiet patios and terraces, and the “fountains of the Water Palace” still flow with cool water. As to the people who created these wonders, they were oppressed, made to convert to Christianity, killed if their conversion did not seem genuine and eventually expelled to Morocco where they swelled the size of cities such as Fez.
Granada is not just the calm and beautiful, but the violent and bloody. The shield held by Boabdil in his final encounter, trying to defend the Alhambra before losing it, his last toehold on the Spanish peninsula, is preserved in the Royal Palace in Madrid. “Granada is the product of two rivers of blood and two cultures in a living encounter”. The same could be said of Spain as a whole. So much of Spanish culture came from this encounter, this mixture of East and West.
The Mezquita in Cordoba Even more so than the Alhambra, the Mezquita (or mosque) in Cordoba is a mixture of Moorish and Catholic culture. Moorish civilization is said to have reached its acme in Cordoba, home to scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers from the 10th through the 15th centuries. The production of paper was brought to Europe here, as was algebra, astronomy and astrology. Christopher Columbus consulted with Moorish scientific advisors before starting on his trip to the “Indies”.

Cathedral in the Mezquita, Cordoba

Synagogue, Cordoba

 Contrary to the tourist brochure newly published by the Catholic authorities, it is clear that the Moors who built the Mezquita in the 10th century respected and preserved the antique Christian Visigothic Church underneath.  Instead of erasing the past, they preserved it; remnants can be seen today in the sculptures inside the mosque. After the Reconquista of Spain by Christians, an entire cathedral was built in the center of the Mezquita. Surprisingly, the Christians did not destroy those old walls either. The forest of red and white sandstone columns built by the Moors is still the main event at the Mezquita. Horizontal, like an enormous forest, the Mesquita allows us to feel surrounded by the divine, not overwhelmed by vertical grandeur pulling us heavenward. Catholic chapels around the edge do not change this perception. The entire building seems a wonderful melding of Christian and Islamic, different faiths interwoven through time. A small synagogue with Moslem calligraphy on its walls nearby in the Jewish quarter adds to the understanding of Cordoba as the very center of Moorish civilization in its day, a tolerant community that welcomed scientists and worshipers from throughout the known world.  
House of the Indies, Seville – This building was originally built by Queen Isabella to house the riches brought back from the Americas to Spain. When we visited, there was a wonderful display on piracy. It led me to think more deeply about my own elementary school education. Though I had learned that Sir Francis Drake was the first to circumnavigate the globe, and that Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to set up an English colony in America, I learned in Seville that they were both scoundrels of the first degree, pirates and corsairs. Hawkins, Captain Cook, all those British adventurers were in fact bent on taking away land that had been rightfully claimed by Spain. Finder’s keepers? What is the difference between an explorer and a pirate?
The Spanish functionary is not dead – We have seen some incredible government inefficiency in Spain. The Prado is free from 6-8 pm every night. So at 6 there is a long line to the ticket office, where people must go to pick up their free ticket. Then, you must walk clear around the museum to the other door where you are allowed in. Though it might be sufficient to do away with the ticket altogether and have one person with a “clicker” at the door, this would eliminate any number of jobs.

My package

The post office is something out of Kafka. When you arrive you take a ticket depending on what you want to do: pick up a package, send a package, or buy an envelope to send something. Do you see a problem already? Then you wait anywhere from 20-40 minutes for your number to come up. When you get to the window, there is no rush at all to do your business. I had a friendly post office clerk help me to send a package to Morocco. He confided in me that though it would be easier to use a postal stamp, he is required to use so many stamps a day, and if he does not, he must buy them personally. So he decorated my package himself. There was no sponge for wetting down those stamps, nor was there a tape dispenser. He had to use his tongue and teeth a lot! Here is a picture of my decorated package.   
A Moroccan street - As I struggle to park the car within centimeters of the wall to avoid being hit on the street side, an old woman approaches the car, asking for alms. She is well dressed and carries a basket. “La, la”, I mutter, “No, no”. I am rushing and I do not normally give money to individuals. In the states, I contribute to organizations that serve the poor, rather than to individuals who might choose to spend the money on drink or drugs. How could I miss the fact that this was different? The woman gave me a look which indicated she was not used to being turned down, particularly on a Friday. Her look needed no translation: “You are going straight to hell, young lady!” It might have been helpful to have used the Arabic phrase, “May Allah help you”.
Traveling around Madrid - We are having fun with language. Here is a store whose owners wanted to ensure that Madrilenos pronounced "happy" correctly. So they added the "j" to help them remember not to use the silent "h"! An apt description for us!