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I was fortunate to work with author Anisa Mahmoud Ulrich to help self-publish her book, Lifting the Chaderi: My Life as an Afghan Refugee.

Lifting the Chaderi: My Life as an Afghan Refugee

It was a great experience and I highly recommend the book – we have many positive reviews on Amazon, and it’s available both in paperback and for Kindle.

“Lifting the Chaderi” refers to lifting the veil to reveal unspoken cultural attitudes. Anisa’s candid story documents her change from a shy girl with a speech impediment to a strong woman who escapes not only an escalating war but an abusive relationship.

We had the amazing experience of first publishing the book at Sacramento Library’s I Street Press on an Espresso Book Machine. If you’ve never seen one of these it’s basically a huge copy machine that prints an actual book! It was exciting and we were interviewed during this process – see the video below. Anisa and I appear around minute 3:01.


Cacao fruit: Where chocolate comes from.
Cacao fruit: can you believe this is where chocolate comes from?

Top 10 most memorable foods eaten while traveling:

  1. Giant sea snails cooked on a barbecue – we had to use a stick to twirl them out, almost 1 meter in length (Miyazaki, Japan)
  2. Raw horse (Kobe, Japan)
  3. Ants that taste like lemon and *pop* in your mouth (jungle near Tena, Ecuador)
  4. Sour cane (caña agria) that is a remedy for diabetes and dehydration (also in the jungle near Tena, Ecuador
  5. Chicken soup served with the feet in it (Tena, Ecuador)
  6. Cacao  – the chalky, purple seeds taste nothing like the delicious chocolate it eventually becomes (Tena, Ecuador)
  7. Warm, raw milk, straight from the cow (Kızıltepe, Turkey)
  8. Snails again, but this time the small, land version, collected that morning and prepared with lots of butter (Crete, Greece) 
  9. Ouzo – (ούζο) I will never forget the first time I drank Ouzo (Greece, 1989)
  10. Shochu – distilled from sweet potatoes, shochu is another beverage I will never forget and it will never forget me (Miyazaki, Japan 1990)

What have you eaten and lived to tell about it?

There is a group of idyllic islands a short hour-long ferry ride from Istanbul. Turkish citizens and foreign tourists go there for fresh air, sea water and a retreat from the grime of 15 million people.

They are the Princes’ Islands, or Adalar. No cars are allowed there, just horses, buggies and bicycles. It’s a place to relax, swim, eat at restaurants and sip tea by the harbor.

One day, after getting off the ferry, there was a commotion on the normally quiet island.

Several swimmers wearing their street clothes were out in the Sea of Marmara. They were frantically looking for someone.

The boy they were looking for had been on a break from his job. He was a waiter at one of the seaside restaurants. I could imagine the impromptu laughter, the “let’s go for a ride!” as his friend picked him up. The boy probably couldn’t swim well. He had fallen into the sea when a rented yacht accidentally rammed his little silver motor boat. Now, he was still underwater and swimmers had been looking for him for 20 minutes.

“You’re a strong swimmer – you should jump in and also look for him,” my friend said. I hesitated. The sea was green and frothy. I had swum in it many times but now couldn’t see deeper than the first foot of the stormy water. Sometimes very calm, today it was fierce. How could anybody find him in that?

Miraculously, they did. They pulled him into a small motor boat and rapidly brought him onshore. A doctor was waiting. The body was limp, and probably dead. I noticed a little girl in front of me, watching, a finger in her mouth. She was probably only 5 years old. We distracted her away from the front of the circle where perhaps 20 people gathered around the body and to the back where she couldn’t see. We watched for several minutes while the doctor and two men tried to revive him. I could feel that we all hoped he would be OK.

A man was yelling and pointing at the big boat out in the harbor, maybe 50 feet away from us. Several people were crying. I kept quiet and gave room to the grieving and angry.

The yacht that caused the boy’s death was rented by American tourists.

The Americans in the yacht had not jumped in to try to save him. They had thrown him a lifesaver. But the boy, probably around 19 years old, had not been able to grab the lifesaver. He went underwater and did not come back up. Or maybe he simply hit his head on the boat as he fell out and was immediately unconscious.

I started to understand why the angry man was yelling and pointing.

“Jumping into the Sea of Marmara to save a drowning man could likely wind up in an additional drowning”– I imagined that’s what the Americans thought. But the folks screaming from dry land were in misery, looking up at the yacht bobbing in the harbor for an explanation. It looked like an explanation was not going to happen.

Another man was screaming in Turkish. I glanced up at the Americans standing in the towering safety of the yacht’s bow, looking confused and immobile. A girl in a bikini. A tanned man in shorts holding something. All eyes were on the boy now lying on the paved shore, just alongside the restaurant tables.

One man was massaging the boy’s back. Another was holding up his arms. The doctor started to administer CPR. But we could see that he would not be revived.

I could picture the boy there, not 30 minutes earlier, waiting on tourists just like the ones in the yacht. I wondered what would happen to them. I wondered what would happen to me if the angry crowd knew I was another American.

What I noticed most was that the boy seemed very peaceful. He was still in his waiter uniform – black pants, white button-down shirt. There was no suffering on his face. He was gone. All the suffering was now left to his family and friends on the shore.

Panama was fantastic. But it wasn’t the beach volleyball, the fresh ceviche, the tropical weather, or the Abuelo rum that made the trip special (although all of that helped). It was spending an entire week with extended family and friends. I loved being called “Aunt Lisa” by all of Joe’s buddies, who I’ve known since they were little 10-year-olds. Now they’re almost 30 and really fantastic people. And Billy Frank, Jr.? To have a whole week for long conversations with him was a dream. And to top it all, it was a fantastic wedding. Fireworks and vows…and a great party afterwards, with amazing food, a combination of Carnaval and Cumbia. Congratulations Joe and Joann. I’m so proud of you and all that you did for us. Thank you for the opportunity to be together and for all the fantastic memories we share!

Mardin, Turkey

I was in Manhattan Beach over Thanksgiving, sitting in the sun and chatting with a pleasant, blond woman at Coffee Bean. I detected an accent, but being the polite traveler that I am, waited a full 20 minutes before asking where she’s originally from (I figured she gets that question a lot). We had been discussing languages and travel, and so it was the inevitable next question.

“The Middle East.” She replies vaguely.

“Any particular country?” I ask.


“Oh!” I say, “I was near Syria, and almost crossed the border from Eastern Turkey. I was in Mardin.”

“Oh, Mardin! Yes. Mardin  – sometimes we used to go over the border to Turkey to shop.”

“What city are you from?” I ask. It turns out she is from Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, and perhaps one of the oldest cities in the world. I tell her I almost went there.

She says, “I tell some Americans I’m from the Middle East and they say, “Where’s that?”

I am embarrassed for my fellow Americans, and a little shocked. “They really say that?” I ask.

I describe my travels through Turkey and the Balkans and when I’m done, she asks me, “And why do you do that?”

The question catches me off guard – I’m used to getting something like “Oh, I’d like to go there!” or, “I was in Italy last year.”

I don’t think anyone has ever actually asked me, “Why do you do that?”

I give her sort of a global answer about America’s size and influence, and if I really want to know what’s going on outside of America, I have to physically go there.

She looks at me and frowns slightly. “Most Americans want to see other US states. They’re not really interested in the rest of the world,” she says.

Now don’t get me started…but, well, she’s right. However, you can find this in Switzerland, too. A woman I met in Zürich said, “You’ve seen more of Europe than I have.” I met plenty of Bulgarians who had never been to Turkey (and vice versa) although they are neighbors (and have plenty of opinions about each other). And as for me, I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon or Disneyworld. Most foreign tourists have seen more of the USA than I have.

However, Europeans do know where the Middle East is. And most of the rest of the world knows a) our state capitals b) our language and c) that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governator.

I try again to answer her question. “I enjoy meeting people from different cultures, learning a little of their history, their language.” She still seems mystified.

And so am I: I mean, why do I travel? Really?

Why do I take a bus to some random country and stand out in the freezing cold at the border while my luggage is being searched? Why do I haggle a fee with a psychotic chain-smoking taxi driver to take us over the border from Albania into Montenegro? Why do I buy a second-hand coat in Sarajevo and give my North Face jacket to a Roma woman sitting on the street who wants money instead? Why do I meet a friend of a friend of a friend and travel to Crete and eat freshly cooked snails? And why do I try to hitchhike in Croatia with two Australians one of whom is so bizarre (endearingly so, but drivers don’t know that) no one will ever pick us up…(that’s another story)?

I could give many answers. But let me put it this way: In all the above scenarios, did something bad happen to me? No. I made lifelong friends and lifelong stories. Adventures that will stay with me until I’m too senile to remember, and then I’ll have this blog to remind me. Strike one against American xenophobia. Against human xenophobia, for that matter.

But, if she asked me again, I would say this:

“If I had not traveled to the region near the border between Turkey and Syria, I would never be having this conversation with you. I would not understand anything about where you are from; I could not visualize the dry, arid landscape. I would have no idea what it was like for you to leave that part of the world and acculturate yourself to Los Angeles, California. I would have had a blank look on my face when you said, ‘I’m from Syria.’ I would have had to be one of those Americans who say, ‘The Middle East? Where’s that??'”

In more non-news, Yahoo! tempted me to read the titillating headline about Michelle Obama somehow forcing a religiously conservative Muslim man to touch her.

I probably wouldn’t have been interested except that I once found myself in a similar position.

Istanbul is huge city. A confusing mix and match of shiny polyester- headscarved-women in Turkish hijab, non-religious city dwellers who look like they could be from New York or Seattle, transvestites walking the streets after midnight, Arab tourists wearing full, white robes, and women with tight jeans and high heels as can be found in any Eastern European city. And of course, there are religious conservatives.

I had not met one, knowingly, until I went into a bookshop and was introduced to the owner. I noticed that prior to this introduction he avoided looking at me. He also kept his hands behind his back. When finally he acknowledged me, it was to produce a small book as a gift, entitled “What is Islam?” I assumed the book was published at his shop. In a gesture of thanks I extended my hand to shake his. His hands remained behind his back and I awkwardly put mine back down to my side. It was later explained to me that his religion forbade him to touch women. Apparently, if he were to touch me, he would be unclean and would have to wash before he could pray again.

Being previously unaware of this custom, I was a little taken aback and offended. A woman can make a man “unclean?”

Washing in Islam is a big deal. If followed properly, washing oneself occurs at 5 times a day if not more, before prayer and after certain activities. Put into an historical context, perhaps there were serious reasons to encourage personal hygiene — like during the pre-hand-sanitizer, 14th century plague that wiped out half of Europe perhaps?

But in this case, the video shows it all: the Indonesian minister was clearly eager to shake Michelle Obama’s hand. Who wouldn’t be?

Rolf Potts is traveling around the world without any luggage. A few months ago, he issued his “Reader challenge #1: Lighten your load (and win a free plane ticket).” Some woman named Victoria won.

The challenge was to explain, in 500 words or less, how you will lighten your load in the next 12 months.

Some people talked about using travel vests, leaving luggage at home, or discarding old magazines hoarded over the years.

Here’s what I wrote:

“I will travel lighter by listening. I’ll be curious. I’ll discard my ‘tourist’ persona and save a lot of weighty mental-baggage fees. I’ll listen to stories from the Bulgarian musician who played in the Soviet Orchestra, the Turkish taxi driver who’s trying to extort our money, the Australian travelers who got their passports nicked in Barcelona. How about lightening the load for others when I travel? That is what I’ll do over the next 12 months. If there’s a way to help someone else be lighter I will do it. I will listen to their stories of war in Bosnia. I will ask questions. I will make sure to be a human being, reminded that the only thing that separates my brand of suffering from this person’s suffering is…geography.”

* * * * *

How do you travel light?

I think about food a lot lately. Actually, I am a little obsessed with it. I still think its true that we Americans have low standards when it comes to our food (see my rant in Re-entry March 3, 2010) . We’ve mistaken things like boxed orange juice, margarine and even soy products for “food”. Yeah, sorry to say — soy isn’t really all that good for you. Unless it’s fermented (miso, tempeh) it’s over-processed and can cause certain problems if you eat too much.

Roasted beets

From all of my reading over the past 3 months, including the fascinating cookbook by Sally Fallon, “Nourishing Traditions” and articles by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD (who developed the GAPS diet –a modified form of the Simple Carbohydrate Diet) it turns out that fermented foods were a cornerstone in our ancestors’ diets. I find it fascinating that grains and dairy – the two food groups most difficult to digest – were traditionally soaked or fermented. Fermented foods add probiotics to our diets, and it’s turning out that these little bacteria are ESSENTIAL for a strong immune system. How did our ancestors know that?

Or, to look at it another way, maybe there’s a little co-evolution going on. We need the probiotics in so many ways. Did they first come into our systems from foods, and then take up residence there? Did they evolve to help us? I’m sure you know someone who’s lactose intolerant. Someone figured out that fermenting milk made it easier to digest. But what made the lactobacillus bacteria decide to take up permanent residence in our gut? Thank god they did, because we really can’t do anything without them. And, without the good ones, the bad ones take over. If the good ones aren’t there, for example, we can become more susceptible to Salmonella. Now there’s a traveler’s health concern!

More and more, poor struggling parents of autistic kids find that if they improve the intestinal flora the symptoms go away. Same for depression. Anxiety. Those epidemics we’re having recently–autism, obesity, asthma? There is a connection to the food we eat.

Recently some friends were having a conversation on Facebook about Free Range Kids.

Not being a parent, I didn’t feel qualified to comment. But instantly I thought of Kurdish kids — now those are Free Range.

I am awake at 7 in the morning. One of the smaller children I’ve met is playing outside in the street. I think he is about four. There are no adults around, no other children, he is banging a stick against the ground. We’re in a tiny village. The houses are made of mud. I can feel the sun just starting to warm the air. What is he doing all alone out there?

The answer is, there is no reason for him not to be all alone out there.

Kids in this part of the world are independent. There are about a hundred adults in the village to watch out for them. And virtually no dangers. No one is going to kidnap him, no sexual predators, just miles and miles of farmland dotted with small villages like this one.

Kids who don’t live in the village have already made a career for themselves.

In Diyarbakır, the historical capital of what would be “Kurdistan” in Eastern Turkey (just that simple statement is politically loaded; the historical Kurdish name for this city is Amed) I met this boy. He wanted to give us a tour of the mosque. Actually, his English and knowledge of history were pretty good. I imagine he makes a fair amount of tips each day.

This little spitfire (pictured below, with his sister) is only three years old. He roams freely, playing amongst the goats and chickens and wandering around practically on his own, to and from the playground, with minimal supervision from his older sisters. We’re in the suburbs now.

Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned. –Lenore Skenazy, Free Range Kids

Although Lenore Skenazy is a New York City parent who allows her 9-year old to ride solo on the subway, I see some similarities. Whatever the “range” of your living area clearly a child needs some freedom to roam inside it. Whether your area is New York City or a village in Eastern Turkey, kids need room to explore.

Kurdish boys, at least, must grow up to be independent. Girls may stay closer to home, but some go to university and leave their families. Much about their lives is both very traditional and very uncertain. That’s because of the ‘politics’ I mentioned earlier — war could be in their future, or peace. That’s not something a kid on the NYC subway deals with every day. Or is it?

What attracted Bill Carter, a guy from Chico, California to Bosnia during the 1992-1996 Siege of Sarajevo?

Bill wrote Fools Rush In in 2005 and it is one of the most intense memoirs I’ve read. A search for release from grief drove him to board an aid bus to Sarajevo, to die if that’s what happened, to save others if that’s what happened, or to get U2 to broadcast the Sarajevan’s struggle for survival, as fate would have it. All but his death actually occurred.

How did Bill end up in this extreme situation, evading sniper’s bullets that were not exactly meant for him? Partly a subconscious death wish after losing his deeply loved fiancée to a car accident, and partly his extreme selflessness that directed him to do anything necessary to help. It is an interesting dichotomy. When a person loses their ego, a sense of needing something for themselves, what are they capable of? In his case, something extraordinary. The satellite uplinks broadcast on a huge screen at U2’s “Zoo TV” tour happened because of him. You could even say he helped stop the war.

I had the luck of meeting Bill Carter at a Writers With Drinks literary event in San Francisco. I was still processing my 6 weeks traveling in the Balkans and our conversation couldn’t have been more timely. How do people survive through a war like that? How do they go on? He also made Miss Sarajevo, a film I have yet to see. The title is taken from the beauty pageants that went on underground while the bombing went on above.

Map of the frontline, based on the 1984 Olympics map

Sarajevo's frontline during the Seige

Sarajevo impacted me like no other city. Traditionally a model city where Muslims, Croats, Jews, Christians intermarried and did not label people by their religions, it is the true region where East Meets West. A ancient city that has hosted everyone from weary Arabian nomads to 1984 Winter Olympiads, Sarajevo feels like a city that survived. During the Siege, they planted vegetables in window boxes. They hid in their basements. They braved bullets to get drinking water each day. They drank, they partied, they fought.

I will never forget speaking with an ex-Bosnian soldier, now a tour guide, who was about 15 when the war broke out. “There was no choice. If you were living in Sarajevo at this time you either fought as a citizen or you joined the army.” He was shot twice. He could have had a military career, but he decided to give tours of the Sarajevo Tunnel to make sure people keep talking about what happened there. The adolescents who survived the Siege are now 30-somethings deciding the future of Sarajevo, of which Bill Carter is now an honorary citizen. Bill told me, “It’s odd. People don’t exactly miss the war, but they miss the way that people came together to help each other. The intensity of surviving, of living life each day.”