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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cow's Blood and Milk, Yummy - The Safari Circuit

We're back. And as of tonight I will be on my own again. It has been great, and somewhat elucidating, having my parents and brother here. But it will be nice to be the most opinionated person in the house again - instead of being the 4th most opinionated person in the house.

(Believe it or not, my friends, I am the quietest person in the Ed Mahler family!)

Today I will use the Socratic Method to tell you about our trip.

Question 1: Is being on safari like driving through a Six Flags Adventure Wild Kingdom exhibit?

My brother thought so. Especially since this was the height of the tourist season. In Ngorongoro and Lake Manyara, if there was a predator there was a traffic jam of 10 to 15 safari cars - each with its cargo popped out of the top with mega telephoto cameras and infra-red binoculars. Perhaps it speaks to the preparedness of my family that no one thought to bring binoculars and the only camera we had was my Dad's every day, automatic Olympus. Still... we got plenty of fabulous photos - especially of tourists popped out of the tops of their vehicles looking at animals. (Seriously, sometimes that was more interesting than seeing an elephant for the 20,000th time.)

A unanimously favorite moment came on our last day of safari. We were just about to leave Serengetti when we noticed a car on the side of the road looking at something. We pulled up and our driver pointed out that there were two huge male lions sleeping on the side of the road. This is a spectacular find! Male lions are generally hard to find, and having two asleep just 5 feet from our car was amazing. While we were watching, the car that had been there first sped away and a new car came over. Out of the top popped a male, East Asian-looking tourist with super-binoculars. He spent 5 minute scanning the plain, desperately trying to find whatever it was that we were stopped to look at. We even pointed down at the ground for him to try to help him see what was just at his feet. (His car actually nearly ran over one of the lions.) Eventually he got frustrated and drove away. He never did see the lions. But we got some great photos that I just know will come in handy for a PowerPoint presentation some day.

It is important to let you know that it wasn't crowded everywhere we went. It was, in fact, quite possible to get away from the crowds and break out on our own - even in the very crowded parks. But a major highlight for us came from the fact that I was late making reservations and all the hotels in the very popular southern Sernegetti were sold out. This forced us to drive an additional 4 hours north (all while game viewing) to the northern Lobo area which was spectacularly beautiful and totally empty. The next day we went on a game drive even further north to the Kenyan border and saw only one other safari car. That afternoon we sat by the pool of our hotel on top of a rocky mountain and watched the scenery unfold. On the plain below us we saw zebras, giraffes, buffalos, elephants, gazelles, impalas, warthogs and others graze and just generally hang out. Rob (my brother) said this seemed more like a scene from Jurassic Park - and I must agree with him. But it was also exhilarating.

Question 2: Can 2-year-olds possibly get anything out of an expensive safari?

Absolutely. But don't be sad if for hours on end they want to play with stuffed animals instead of looking out the window. I think that Jaden and Rowan really enjoyed their safari experience. They got to spend lots of quality time with the people they love locked up in a car for 8 hours a day. And as a bonus they got to ride without their car seats. (Once we were on a game drive we let them sit on our laps.) Some piece of every day they actually looked at the animals. Rowan loved to ask the grazing elephants, "What yah doing?" in her cutest little nasal voice. Jaden became a bit of a car nazi - ordering our driver, Kchewi to stop every time he saw something interesting. Jaden was drunk with power.

But my favorite moments with the kids were when we were stopped for lunch or at night. They would run around exploring their new environment. Rowan liked to pick up and show me "doo-doos" - which is a Swahili word for "bug". She is so hardy. She would walk around our lunch stop areas with a stick, uncovering rocks and and bringing me pieces of rodent shit to examine. I loved seeing her this way - my little tom-girl all dressed in pink.

Of course it was a little stressful - what with mom thinking that a lion was about to pounce out of the bush and eat one of the kids. But I thought it was important for the kids to have an opportunity to walk around and explore.

At night, all the hotels we were in had African bands playing local music and sometimes dance performances. This was the moment the kids loved the best. One night, Jaden and Rowan danced before a crowd of many for nearly an hour straight. They loved the music. Sad to say, however, Rowan dances a bit like Elaine from Seinfeld while Jaden is all about karate chops. But Secunda is working on their African dancing and before long I think they will be shaking their booties like a native Tanzanian.

Question 3: How do the Masaai keep their robes from falling off?

My father asked me this question just yesterday. But I thought about it too, when we were up north. The area where the national parks are in northern TZ is Masaai country. It was not uncommon to see a group of Masaai - draped in their highly recognizable red and blue blankets and adorned with tons of beaded jewelry - tending huge herds of cows in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Better yet, you would often see a lone warrior walking across the massive plain with no obvious objective in sight. My dad called them the most macho people he's ever met. I think he was also in shock over the Masaai diet. You see... their main diet is cow's blood mixed with milk (the anti-Kosher). They rarely eat vegetables. And they almost never kill their cows since they are more valuable alive than dead. Hungry for lunch when you are on the road tending your cows? Select one, cut its vein and pour the blood into a cup, then milk the cow and mix it with the blood and ummmm, enjoy. You have to admit, it is pretty convenient when you are walking a herd across the wilderness. And as Rob pointed out, it speaks for why they are so skinny. They are on the Atkins Diet.

I've become pretty familiar with some of the Masaai ways over the past three months because our receptionist at T-MARC is Masaai - and at least half the week he is dressed in his Masaai clothing. But it was an entirely different thing being out in the bush. We did the tourist thing and stopped in a Masaai boma (compound) and paid money to learn a bit more about the Masaai, get a tour of their compound - including their elfin size huts, and take some photos. It was actually rather interesting - the people in the compound were lovely. They were especially interested in holding Jaden and Rowan. Mom threw a fit at that and tried to keep the kids from touching people - she was worried about disease. In the end, however, it was tough to avoid shaking hands with the guy who had just blown his nose into his palm and wiped in on his skirt. Sometimes you just have to do it and then wash yourself in Purell - that's just the way things are here. Still... we got some good photos. I'll let you know if we also got TB.

And to answer the question above - they wear a belt.

Question 4: Did you get to see Mt Kilimanjaro?

Yes. And we were very lucky to see it, because it is rarely clear on top of the mountain. Rob, however was obsessed with wanting to climb Kilimanjaro. He seems to think that he is in good enough shape to do it. I think not. But because he talked about it incessantly, the kids started talking about it too. Now, a week later, Jaden still asks to go to "tallest mountain" (part Kilimanjaro, part Dora the Explorer reference) every day. It was cute at first. Now I'm over it.

Question 5: How was the beach?

Very relaxing. The three days we spent at the beach after the safari were great. The kids got to run around. We had Secunda with us so we got to rest from running after the kids. The weather was perfect. And they even managed to come up with nice vegetarian food for dad.

Question 6: What did Rob and Dad think of Dar es Salaam and your life there?

My father told me yesterday, "I can see how you can get used to this place." And I think that after the initial sensory onslaught caused by large crowds of people in markets, the smell of burning garbage, the lack of internet access (for them) while I'm at work (with my computer) , and adjusting the the fact that you are a white minority in a black world it is easy to get to like this place. Rob, however, seems to feel a little bit stifled. He harped on the lack of a gay hang out. And he teased me (a lot) about how my life feels to him like the movie Truman. Do you remember that film? Jim Carey played a guy who was raised from birth on a giant movie set but didn't know it. Every time he tried to go off the set, the people in his life (who were actually actors) tried to get him turned back to the set. Well Rob thinks that the peninsula on which I live (this area of mainly ex-pat suburbs) is like that. There are only a few stages on this set that everyone visits. He and Dad tried to go for a walk yesterday and they only got a few blocks away when my driver, Paul, showed up and told them... "You don't want to go that way, why don't you get in the car?" Rob says that clearly no one wants them to leave the set.

_____

And so Mom, Dad and Rob get on the plane tonight and I will once again be on my own in my own house, making decisions about my own children.

But here in Dar Jaden, Rowan and I are still on safari. Come and join us.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Mahlers Are On Safari - Really

Greetings everyone,

I wanted to write you a short note to let you know that the Mahler Family is actually leaving on safari in two days and so you won't be getting a new blog from me until next weekend.

But I promise you, whatever I write then is likely to be insightful, witty and entertaining after having spent 5 days in a Land Cruiser - locked up with a set of 2.5 year-old toddlers, my parents and my brother and wild animals all about. It's a Mahler family extravaganza!!!!

Still... before I go, I want to leave you with one last mini-story.

Here on Mrikao Road in Masaki (a suburb of Dar es Salaam) all the houses are locked away behind giant metal, stone, or brink gates. (And more often than not, some combination of these materials.) On top of the gates are electric wires, shards of broken glass, barbed wire or metal spikes. In other words, the houses are designed to keep people out of them - including - seemingly - one's neighbors.

I've always known that the two houses across the way from me contain US Embassy folks - and I knew that one of them contained the CDC representative and his family. I often thought about walking over there an introducing myself but that would be kind of unusual for here. And anyway, I'm the new person in town. The fresh baked welcome pie should be coming over here instead of going over there.

So imagine my surprise two evenings ago when I got a message passed to me by my gardner/pool guy that the gardener/house guy across the street delivered to him, that the lady of that house wanted to come over and say hi. I passed a message back through my gardner/pool guy to their security guard who gave it to their gardner/house guy who told the lady of the house to come on over.

I assumed that I had committed some sort of offense. After all, why would she show up now, three months later?

Phew... that wasn't it. She had met someone who knew someone who knew me. So she thought - with this high recommendation - that she'd come over and introduce herself.

She didn't have a pie with her. But it was nice, nevertheless.

Aside from being a bit embarrassed when the kids came running, wet and naked from the bathtub onto the patio, it was a nice short visit.

When I asked her what she was doing in Dar (knowing full well that as an accompanying spouse she was likely not working) she give me a big long list of domestic but interesting activities - she is on the International School of Tanganyika School Board, she sails, and she is the Secretary of the Corona Club.

I had heard of the Corona Club. It is a club for accompanying spouses to socialize, but also to volunteer and do other "good works".

I mentioned that I had two friends moving to Dar in the near future with their husbands - both of whom expressed an interest in getting involved in volunteer activities.

"Oh no," she said. "The Corona Club is only for women. We have different issues here and this is a safe space to express ourselves."

And I thought - OK - Gunnar and Phil will probably not be that interested in an all-female club where women sit around "expressing" themselves anyway. But hell... they should form their own all-male club.

They can call it the Budweiser Club.

Or maybe the Rolling Rock Club.

Or perhaps the Guinness Club.

That way when the Corona Club and the Budweiser Club hold joint parties twice a year - there will be plenty to drink.


Talk to you next week.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Joe

It has been a year of so many wonderful transitions for the children and I.

But not all the transitions have been good. Last year I suffered two big losses. Both were untimely. Both took men in the primes of their lives. Today I want to write about one of them – my friend, Joe.

I was sent to Jamaica for the first time in 1998. In the briefing I had with USAID when I arrived I was told that there was a brilliant but over-the-top director of a theatre troupe cum NGO who had written a masterpiece of a sex education curriculum but that the US government could not allow it to be printed in its current form.

See, this man, Joseph Robinson, wanted to talk about sex openly. [Gasp]

He wanted to address issues that people in Jamaica face in their daily lives, but no one wanted to talk about – issues like violence against women, forced sex, and homophobia. He also wanted to talk about sex as a healthy expression of self, sex drives, and even how to have good sex. (Guys… find the clitoris. Now rub.)

He wanted to talk about these things with teachers from the Ministry of Health who teach school children.

He was brilliant – but generations ahead of his time. Or rather, he should have been born Dutch instead of Caribbean.

Before I met Joe, I thought I pushed the limits when I trained. But clearly I knew nothing.

Joe spent the next seven years teaching me so many lessons - and pushing my limits. My two favorites are:

1. How it is possible to live openly in a society that hates you for something you have no choice in. (And how to compulsively work to improve that society – all the while being hated for your essential being - in this case being gay.)

2. How to love your enemies so that they have no choice but to love you back.

For a number of years I spent at least one week out of every four in Jamaica working with Joe. I never did tame him into the dumbed-down sex educator many would have like to have seen. But I did spend a lot of time editing his brilliant work. And it WAS brilliant – most of the time.

The when we were together the friendship was intense. Joe liked to analyze every little detail of his relationships, people, world events, and of course, gossip about people’s sex lives. And he would keep me up until 4 AM – talking my ear off until I had no choice but to drift off to sleep.

Joe was also an incredibly loyal friend. He could be distracted for months – like many creative people, totally immersed in a new project. But then, out of the blue, he’d do something wonderful.

Like showing up at my door on my birthday – having flown out of the warmth of Jamaica to submit himself to the cold tremble of Washington, DC in mid-January – totally unannounced. He did that twice.

[And both times he promptly ran out for bagels, cream cheese and lox because once, years before, I told him that I loved to eat that for breakfast.]

And again he showed up unannounced at my baby shower. He just walked in the door like he was expected – a tremendous surprise – a beautiful act of friendship.
_________________________________

When you have children it is only natural that some parts of your life fall by the wayside. One of the great losses of Independent Hally in the early days was my 2nd life – the one I had in Jamaica working side-by-side with Joe. Joe and I talked on the phone and he promised me that he would come visit. But those were difficult times for the NGO that he ran and he never made it to Washington, DC. He never met Jaden and Rowan.

And I only made it back to Jamaica once – a quick visit with no play time. When I saw him then, just about 7 months before he died, he didn’t look right to me. In the old days I might have said something to him, but we just weren’t as close anymore and so I said nothing. It was just a month later that he was diagnosed with cancer.

It was a very aggressive form. But I didn’t know that. He didn’t tell me. He was an optimist who believed in the power of the mind to heal.

He told me that he was getting better. He told me that it would be too much trouble for me to visit him (in the hospital in Reno where he first got sick and then later in Miami) – that I should say home and take care of my kids – which I did. He said that he could come to Washington, DC to visit us soon.

I really regret that now. I let parenting get in the way of a friendship that I really valued. I should have come out of myself to be there – to be by his side – for a least a little bit. But instead I let his friends without children play that role.

I was finally planning a trip to see Joe in early August last year when Joe’s best friend, Reg, called to tell me that if I wanted to see him it had to be now. I couldn’t wait any longer.

And so I did what the old Hally would have done. I used my frequent flyer miles. I made arrangements for the kids. I flew down to the Bahamas where he was in the hospital to see him just two days later.

But it was already too late. I arrived at 5 PM. He died a little bit after midnight.

I never had a minute alone with him. And he was comatose when I arrived.

But for a few minutes that evening I managed to carve a space for myself right next to his bed. I leaned in close and I whispered in his ear how much I loved him. That I learned so much from him. That even though I had been so busy being a mom that I didn’t manage to make it for one last all-night conversation I never stopped thinking of him as one of the most important persons in my life.

And then I told him it was OK to go.

I love you Joe.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Mama Wa Wili and the Battle for Independent Hally

Those of you who know me well (and most of you reading this blog know me pretty well) are well aware of the fact that I didn't come by motherhood easily or in the of most traditional ways.
I thought for a long time about whether or not I even wanted to be a parent. I liked my life the way that it was before - traveling the world and whatnot. I didn't even tell you about my parenthood deliberations until the scale tipped and I made the decision to break with society and become a mother the brave new world way. (And let's admit it - some of you were quite surprised and maybe even a little bit upset that I didn't ask your opinion earlier.) Sorry about that. But even public Hally has private thoughts.

It took me 12 long, emotional and sometimes painful months of trying to get pregnant via multiple fertility treatments. Looking back, I think I took my eyes off the point of trying to get pregnant around month 7 and just focused on the misery of being in a failure cycle - something that doesn't happen to me very often.

When I finally got pregnant I experienced complications... most importantly bleeding in the first trimester which kept me from believing that my body was going to do the work of growing babies, and of course the gestational diabetes at the end. However, if you'll allow me, I think the gestational diabetes was actually good for me. It kept me focused on how much I wanted to have healthy babies and made me see that I was capable of doing the "right thing" by them.

But really... the biggest shock was the fact that I was having twins. It changed everything. It meant that the image I constructed of myself as a mother - the one I spent all those months thinking about and never telling you about - was totally out the window. I would not be a mom who straps on her compliant baby and jumps a plane for Bangkok or Calcutta or Dar es Salaam. (And YES I'm well aware that I probably wouldn't have been able to do those things for long even if I had had just one. But we are talking about my fantasy world here, so please do indulge me.) News of twins brought images of being burdened. Of never having a moment to myself. Of never leaving my apartment. Of needing to move to (god forbid) the suburbs for public schools and backyards. And all of this was NOT what I had in mind when I pictured parenthood.

Even after Jaden and Rowan were born and I fell in love with them I was still burdened by the loss of INDEPENDENT HALLY. Independent Hally is an extremely important person to me. She is the Hally who had Bill Clinton tell her (with his hands on her shoulders) that she was doing a "great job". Independent Hally is who hung out with her gay friends at JRs until 3 AM - trying to get everyone properly hooked up before the night was out. Independent Hally roamed the island of Jamaica with one crazy but special Turks islander who thought he could change the world. And independent Hally managed to work in or visit 60 + countries prior to procreating.

Mom. Mama. Mother. Maman. Mommy.

These are words that compete with Independent Hally. They are words of Hally's dependents. And all of what I've said above is to tell you that I spent the first 2.5 years of being a mother struggling with my identity.

And so I find it ironic that it is here in Tanzania - a place where EVERYONE calls me Mama - that I have come to find a happy place between Hally the Mommy AND Independent Hally.

Seriously... everyone calls me Mama here. All the people working for me. The lady I buy my vegetables from. And even my colleagues. Here in Tanzania a woman - even one as young as I am - is called Mama as a sign of respect. Actually, many women choose to give up their birth name and start calling themselves by their Mama name... which would be Mama ________ (insert name of first born child). As a mother of twins, I have special status here. Instead of Mama Jaden - which would normally be my name, I am Mama Wa Wili (Mother of Twins).

In the beginning I couldn't stand it. It was like every Tanzanian knew that I struggled with motherhood and they were trying to rub it in my face.

But, three months in Tanzania seems to have cured me my reluctant parenting identity. Seriously. I can't quite explain it. But I think that the level of household support that I'm getting has allowed me to enjoy being a mom better than I have in 2.5 years. I get lots of stress free - no need to cook, no need to run around, always a second pair of hands - time with the kids. I am such a better mother for it. And for the first time I am a seriously happy mother. I feel like I'm doing a good job. No, a great job. All the guilt of urban parenting in the US is gone and I'm able to make decisions and choices without worrying about what I should do (because god knows the neighbors are watching and even though I always thought, screw them, a piece of me still cared what they thought). I never wake up in the morning wishing I could just get a break for a day. I wake up to my babies and I'm happy for it.

The morning battle of Jaden and Rowan - deciding whose mommy I am ("No, my mommy." "NO, MY mommy." Etc.) now makes me smile instead of cringe. I love reminding them that I am indeed both Jaden AND Rowan's mommy.

And funny enough... I'm also Independent Hally.

Here in Tanzania, away from the pressures of home, and with the help and assistance of lovely nannies, housekeepers, etc., I am BOTH Independent Hally AND Mama Wa Wili.

And you know what? I'm really happy about that.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wherever There Is Coca-Cola, There Are Jews

"Are you a Jew?"

Our friend and hero (NOT) Mel Gibson asked this question recently to a LA County Deputy Sheriff and it got him in a lot of trouble - deservedly so.

Here in Tanzania, the only person who would even think of asking you such a question would be another Jew. As I explained a few weeks ago - Jews are just not on the radar screen here. Even with the Middle East all aflame. We just don't register.

But, it turns out that there is a nice little group of American Jews here in Tanzania - and we seem to all know each other, or at least have heard that so and so works with so and so who is Jewish. It is like we are constantly working on our Yom Kippur break fast guest list. I gather it often this way when a community is small.

But there is also an Israeli community here - about 40 people from 10 families. One of the families owns a Middle Eastern restaurant called Nargila. Jane and I ate there about two weeks ago and we went back tonight for some more top quality hummus and falafel.

When we sat down in the lounge area - done up as a Bedouin tent - the Israeli folk music was blasting. I must admit that I was looking for a reason to "come out" to these people, and I took my opportunity to do so when I told the waitress (who is also the owner's daughter) that the music reminded of my summer camp days.

"Ach... so you are Jewish?" She asked with a strong Israeli accent.

"Yes," I said.

"Well then, we will have to put you on The List," she responded.

Evidently there is a List. A List of Jews. A List of Jews in Tanzania - maintained by an Israeli family that has been living in Tanzania on and off for 24 years.

"We have Passover, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and sometimes Hannuka," I was informed. "Last year we even had Rabbis."

Which leads me to a story I've been wanting to share...

You see Jaden and Rowan had a teacher, Rita, at the Temple pre-school in Washington, DC last year who has a son, Dan, who was a Fulbright scholar here in Dar. Come Passover, Rita was very worried about how Dan would get his fill of matzoh for the season and so she called the Chabad Lubavitchers to come and take care of his needs and those of the rest of the wayward Jews of Tanzania She told me this on the eve of my move to Tanzania and since I hadn't heard of the Chabad movement I looked it up online. According to Wikipedia:


"Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, spurred on the movement to what has become known as shlichus ("being emissaries [performing outreach]") after becoming Rebbe in 1950-1951. As a result, Chabad shluchim ("emissaries", sing. shaliach) have moved all over the world with the mission of helping all Jews, regardless of denomination or affiliation. They assist Jews with all their religious needs, as well as with physical assistance and spiritual guidance and teaching. The ultimate goal is to encourage Jews to learn more about their Jewish heritage and to practice Judaism. All over the world Lubavitchers assist and support the religious needs of tens of thousands of Jews worldwide. In jest, emissaries have commented on various occasions that "wherever there is Coca-Cola, there is Chabad"

If we are to believe this, the Chabad have Jewish emissaries strategically placed all over the world, just waiting for opportunities to help the rest of us be more Jewish. So, just days after Rita's desperate call to the Brooklyn Chabad brotherhood two Hassidic Rabbis were dispatched from their regional office in Kinshasa, "Democratic" Republic of Congo and arrived on Dan's doorstep in the staff housing section of the University of Dar es Salaam.

My friends, try to picture this. It is 90+ degrees and 100% humidity. Dan is at home in Dar es Salaam, Africa. There is a knock on the door. He opens the door to find two men in long black coats and heavy beards and hats - Lebavitcher Rabbis. Tanzanians on the street are staring - they can't imagine who these people from another planet are. The Rabbis invite themselves in and announce that they have arrived to help him and the Jews of Tanzania celebrate Passover. And as if to prove their readiness, they hand him a box of matzoh.

Personally, I would die.

But Dan knew just what to do. He called the Israelis. The ones with The List of Jews.

The next night, the Friday before Passover, all the Jews of Tanzania (well most of them at least - half the Israeli community evidently doesn't talk to the other half of the Israeli community - but that is a story for another day) showed up at the Nargila restaurant for Sabbath dinner, courtesy of the Chabads. Curiosity would have definitely driven me there, too, if I had already been in country. A few days later, they were also host to a 5-hour long Passover Seder. And the killer of it all is that the Rabbis brought 500 lbs of their own food with them. They couldn't eat a thing in Tanzania - it wouldn't have been kosher.

As soon as Passover was over, and the Jews of Tanzania had reconnected with their roots, the super Jews from Congo (well from Brooklyn via Congo) got back on the plane and all returned to normal here in Dar es Salaam. But mark my word, the next time the Chabads come through Dar, I'll be ready to join the rest of the Jews of Tanzania for an out-of-this-world cultural and religious experience. And I plan to take photos, too. Sabbath be damned!

Which brings me back to the Israelis with the restaurant. Jane and I ended up sitting with them for about 40 minutes after dinner this evening as they each smoked a full pack of Camels and peppered me with - what in another context - would have been inappropriate questions. (So you have kids? Where's their father? Are they going to end up marrying their half-brothers and sisters if they don't know who their father is? What if your daughter fell in love with her half-brother but didn't know it until it was too late?)

I think that perhaps Jane was a little bit surprised at their directness and the way they shared their strong opinions without censorship.

But not me.

I felt at home - with my peeps.

After all, I am on The List.