The Death Of A Good Travel Companion

This week I learned the sad news that a friend and coworker in Harar, Ethiopia, had died. Mohammed Jami Guleid helped me out countless times while I explored the Horn of Africa. If you enjoyed my series on Somaliland or Harar, you have him to thank.

I first met “Dake,” as everyone called him, on my first visit to Harar in eastern Ethiopia as I was searching for a way to get to Somaliland, the breakaway northern region of Somalia. Everyone told me to meet with Dake. He was a Somali who had made Harar his home and had many contacts on both sides of the border. Within days I was riding through the desert with a couple of his relatives on my way to Somaliland. It was one of the best adventures of my life.

From that point our working relationship grew. Dake was an expert on Somali and Harari culture. He even wrote a book titled “Harar: A Cultural Guide.” My signed edition sits next to me as I write.

We meet lots of people on our travels. Most of them soon fade into the past, remembered only in old photographs and journal entries. Others last through a few emails and postcards before they, too, become memories. Only a few become lasting friends.

That was easy with Dake. He had an open, relaxed manner and was always quick with a joke. His deep interest in Harar’s history and architecture was infectious. Once he woke me up at five in the morning so we could photograph the town’s winding medieval alleys as the sun rose. I didn’t mind, even when his insistence on getting “one more shot” kept me from my morning coffee for far longer than I liked.Here he is in the narrowest of Harar’s alleys, called Megera Wa Wiger Uga, “The Street of Peace and Quarrel.” In local tradition you have to speak to anyone you pass here, even if you’re angry with them and aren’t otherwise talking with them. Since it connects two busy areas, a lot of people pass through this alley and a lot of arguments get resolved.

Dake had been an outsider to Harar once himself, so he sympathized with my efforts to adjust to the local culture. He was always ready to help out with advice at a moment’s notice and saved me from more than one cultural blunder. Having an insider who knows what it’s like to be an outsider is invaluable when studying a new place.

We also explored Ethiopia’s Somali region. Dake had big hopes of developing the region’s tourism potential as a way to expand his own tourism business while helping his people.

When we weren’t working at documenting eastern Ethiopia’s heritage, we spent many relaxed hours at birtchas or spinning tales in local cafes. Friendships can be fleeting when you’re traveling, but Dake and I became good friends and kept up a regular correspondence when I was back in Europe.

When you make a real friendship on the road, treasure it. Keep in contact and head on back to see them. I wish I had made it back to Harar at least one more time while he was still alive. As the list of my friends who have died relentlessly lengthens, I find myself more appreciative of those I still have, and more determined to pack as much life into the years left to me before my own inevitable end.

Authors note: my pay for this post will be donated to Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working to help Ethiopia’s children. Dake had a son about the same age as mine so I think he’d appreciate it.

Couchsurfing: more than just a free place to stay

Here at Gadling we’ve talked a lot about Couchsurfing, a very cool organization where members host each other. It’s an amazing example of how the world can work if you have a bit of kindness and trust. Millions of people have slept for free on millions of couches and made millions of friends in new places. I’ve been a member for a year and I’ve gotten a lot out of it, yet I’ve never once surfed a couch with them.

The two times I’ve used Couchsurfing have been when I’ve come up to Santander in Cantabria in northern Spain to explore the city in anticipation of moving there. Both times my wife was with me and she prefers hotels over couches, so we didn’t try to couchsurf. We both had great Couchsurfing experiences, though.

Before we visited last October I got onto the Couchsurfing Cantabria forum and announced we wanted to meet locals and learn more about life in the city. They organized a party for us and 25 people showed up! We got heaps of restaurant and bar recommendations, an invitation to a hike, and my wife got a list of local yoga studios.

We stayed in touch with the friends we made and this week we visited again. This time we got more suggestions of places to go, my son was introduced to a kid his age, and one of the Couchsurfers turned out to work for a rental agency, just the thing we needed! One well-connected woman is going to hook me up with a writer so I can tap into the local literary scene and a spelunker so I can get back into caving. Thanks to Couchsurfing, we won’t be moving to a city of strangers this September.

Couchsurfing puts you in touch with interesting, open people the world over. If you’re interested in exploring a new place to move there or just to visit, get your free membership and start networking!

Postcrossing celebrates five years of postcard revolution

There’s something very special about sending or receiving a postcard. It’s one of the simple joys of travel, yet in the age of email, Skype, and social networking, you’d think the old-fashioned postcard would have become a thing of the past.

It hasn’t. Thanks to Postcrossing, a postcard trading organization, postcards are undergoing a revival. Postcrossing turns five years old this week and in that short time it has racked up some staggering statistics–more than 4.7 million postcards have been sent by more than 190,000 members to about 200 countries. Those postcards have logged 25,771,990,953 km. That’s 643,093 laps around the world!

One odd aspect of Postcrossing is that most correspondents are complete strangers. Postcrossing wants to start a “postcard revolution” by getting people to start sending more postcards, not just to their friends and family, but to random fans around the world.

Postcrossing is free to join. Members put their address into a secure database. When you request to send a card, another member’s address is sent to you. Once your card is received and registered, you’re next in line to get a card from another stranger! It’s a lot of fun and a good way to spread international friendship and teach geography to your kids. I and at least one other Gadling blogger are Postcrossing members. So if you’re tired of only receiving junk mail in your mailbox, give Postcrossing a try.

In case you’re wondering, this is the mailbox just outside the post office in Harar, Ethiopia. That’s the left arm of yours truly sending some cards to my son and some fellow Postcrossing members.

A Canadian in Beijing: Dealing Inspiration

One of my many aims of coming to Beijing was to embark on some music research (as described in my first blog). I spent the first six weeks gathering names and ideas and talking to people about my intentions to see what they thought of my research plans. I think taking time to settle into this community and carefully select who I ought to speak with and eventually interview was a good choice.

The project is going wonderfully.

The topic is women in music. The specific approach is a cross-examination of what it is like to be a woman who makes music (writes, composes, plays, sings) in this urban center (Beijing) as compared to what it’s like to be a woman making music in these ways in Toronto, for instance. The possibilities are endless. So far, my findings have been truly diverse.

Tuesday evening, my friend Traci and I headed to a local café and met with two amazing women, one who fronts a famous contemporary all-female Chinese punk band called “Hang On The Box” and another who was a member of the (now defunct) world famous and FIRST all-female rock band in China called “Cobra.” Both women, Wang Yue and Xiao Nan respectively, were a joy to meet and had so much to say about this amazing world of music.

But, it’s Traci who needs a shout out here. She is amazing. I just learned a new “chengyu 成语” (Chinese idiom) in class today and I immediately thought of her: yijian rugu “一见如故.” It means that someone feels like an old friend after the first meeting or, like you’ve met before because you immediately fall into a rhythm with each other. That’s what it was like when I met Traci and I am thrilled that she’s in my life.

When I first told Traci about my research plans, her eyes got wide and her pupils jumped with excitement. She told me that she had wanted to do similar research about ten years ago and hadn’t ever fully actualized her vision. She leaned forward in her chair to hear more and she got more and more excited about the ideas. She offered to help me on the spot and I, of course, eagerly accepted.

After all, she knows everyone in this music scene (it seems!) and her Chinese is impeccable after being her for thirteen years straight (and seventeen years on and off). I already knew that I would need a translator for certain interviews and certainly some help navigating this world of Chinese music. What’s more, having someone like Traci involved is like locating the missing piece – the essential bridge between two worlds.

I’ve found a perfect research partner and she’s been enormously helpful. Without her, this work couldn’t be done.

For instance, I’m extremely awkward on the telephone here. In fact, I still get really nervous speaking Chinese on the phone because I don’t have body language or any kind of energy context for what they’re saying. What’s more, people speak quickly and loudly on the telephone, which often blurs and distorts the sound. I have found myself completely lost in several conversations, which is just embarrassing, especially when I ask them to repeat themselves several times and the meaning doesn’t get any clearer with each repetition. When this happens, I begin to feel more and more anxious and stupid, which makes me more and more unable to understand: 越着急,越听不懂 (the more one worries, the more one doesn’t understand).

When I told Traci about my anxiety, she immediately offered to make the calls and set up the interview times with all of the Chinese artists that I wanted to interview. When she offered, the heavy dread lifted from my body. I visibly relaxed and sat back in my chair with a sigh. She laughed and completely understood. And, now that we’ve had an evening of interviews, I can see that without her, each interview would have been long and arduous with many misunderstandings and much frustration on both sides.

Traci’s such a good translator and is extremely gifted at making people feel comfortable that she should really do this for a living. She was unbelievable. Because she’s been a self-described “professional fan” of the music industry in China since the 90’s, she also is really knowledgeable and has no problem understanding the content of what is being said either, even though she is not a musician herself. That makes her a double expert – both in music and in Mandarin – and that is the ideal element of this project. What I offer is my investigation and writing skills. We form a perfect team.

All of these words have a (Christian) religious context, but I’m not sure what else to call her except one or all of the following: an angel, a saviour, a God-send? She is all and more. There’s got to be a more fitting word here . . .

Well, now that I’ve gushed for an entire post about my new friend, I should also tell you that my research will not be compiled here. I’ll be writing for several publications and websites when I get back and I’ll let you know where to find the articles.

In general, the biggest learning so far on this topic is that we, as women who make art, lead very similar lives no matter what the political, social, cultural, historical context. We want to be heard and have a voice, and we see how our contexts both restrict and enable those desires from being realized. There are times when we acknowledge and celebrate the “femaleness” of our art (both in perspective and approach) and times when we would just like to be seen as artists because the division is so tiring, so limiting, so annoying.

We did a lot of laughing on Tuesday at our mutually similar stories and experiences. While so much has changed in the past twenty years in both countries and in both the Canadian and Chinese music scenes, so much has also remained the same and may never change.

I left the café positively buzzing with new ideas. This philosophical cross-cultural exchange was like an injection of inspiration and I stayed up way too late writing and thinking and letting it settle in my bloodstream.

Inspiration is addictive.

Traci is the bridge to that high so I guess I ought to call her my “dealer.”

Which makes me an addict…