Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A day trip to New York, New York

 Let me tell you something - I am one lucky lady.  Never has it been more apparent than coming home to America last week.  

After arriving in NY tired and with a heavy heart after leaving my sweet love - Annette, a friend I met in Mali, not only welcomed me into her home but also treated me to a delicious Indian dinner.  What a sweetheart!


The next morning I woke up after a few hours of sleep to catch the train down to SoHo for my free haircut with Eli, a stylist in training at the Sam Brocato salon on Wooster Street.  What a treat!
Lunch with the beautiful and talented Claire
Then I met up with Claire, an RPCV from Cameroon, for lunch at Hampton Chutney which I found from perusing this blog.  So lovely to catch up on our lives over naan and pumpkin chutney!
Dinner with treasures of friends I met at Monica's wedding in Lebanon
 I worked up an appetite walking around SoHo looking for warmer clothes before meeting the four smiling faces seen above.  Aren't they cute??  Michelle, Yamil, Brian and Aneesa all came to Monica and Samer's wedding in Lebanon this past summer and we hit it off instantly.  I was so thrilled when they could meet for dinner at Le Zie (thanks for scouting the location Michelle)!
Drinks at Yamil's restaurant in SoHo

 After dinner Michelle, Yamil and I headed over to Kittichai for some drinks and Bambara (many of the staff and bartenders are Malian!).  It was fun to speak Bambara and have a few drinks in a fancy SoHo bar and pretend to be a grown-up!

Rabayah, another RPCV from Mali, welcomed me into her apartment after drinks.  I loved getting the chance to catch up even if I was barely functioning at that point since I was so exhausted.  You always have one more battery bar left in you when it comes to sweet friends, don't you??

Annette helped me pack up and kept me company until my metro left at 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning when I headed out for Richmond.  So many sweet friends I am so thankful to have - thank you to you all!

Monday, October 24, 2011

An international engagment: Part II

"The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”
Don Williams, Jr. (American Novelist and Poet, b.1968)
Tombeaux Merinides
Abdoulaye and I walk into the foyer of the Hotel Merinides and we immediately feel transported. Richly embroidered couches line the perimeter of the lobby and hand-woven tapestries blanket the floor. Shiny silver and gold tea sets are displayed on wrought-iron coffee tables and royal portraits of Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco, sit quietly in gilded frames by the front desk and on open table spaces. Porters float by wearing fez caps and gypsy suits as waiters expertly weave between the furniture while balancing trays of pulpy, fresh-squeezed orange juice destined for hotel guests on the terrace. We exit the lobby to soak up the panoramic view of Fez at sunset and sigh into white patio furniture as we order two orange juices.
Fresh-squezed orange juice on the patio
Our flight left Mali this morning at 2 a.m. and we arrive in Casablanca around 5:30 a.m.  Customs is a breeze since we are maybe 2 of 4 people not taking a connecting flight to Mecca – our entire flight was filled with Malians making their pilgrimage.

We catch the first train out of the station (conveniently located inside the airport) at 6 a.m. and settle into our first-class seats (definitely worth the couple dollars more in price for air-conditioning and an almost-private car). We try to nap but are too excited to sleep as the Moroccan countryside and city scapes blur past us beyond the windows. Abdoulaye strikes up a conversation with a Moroccan man headed to his home in Fez and asks what are the must-sees in the city. “You have to visit the Hotel Merinides at sunset,” he says.  I nod and tell him I will not forget the name and Abdoulaye agrees.  Our plans for our first night in Fez are made!

We drop off our bags at our hotel in Fez and freshen up before heading into the city to find lunch. After following the flow of mid-day traffic we find a street side café prime for people watching and settle in. I tell Abdoulaye how much I would like to find a hat and a pair of sunglasses. A few minutes later a man walks by with straw hats and bags; I buy one of each. Satisfied with my purchases, we order our lunch and begin to people watch. A few minutes later a man walks by selling sunglasses. I think to myself 'I could ask for a lot of other things!' but I decide to keep my mouth shut – this game of ask-and-you-shall-receive is getting to be too much!
After filling our bellies we decide to catch a few z's before heading out for dinner. For our first night out on the town I decide to get dolled up and wear an exceedingly cute and equally uncomfortable pair of espadrilles. I still have the blisters to show for them and their cuteness.... We decide to walk to the hotel recommended to us by our new train-friend and find ourselves on a street-corner that looks promising and with another tourist couple looking lost. But tired of walking and with the sun quickly setting in the west, we flag down a taxi and explain the hotel we are looking for. “It's on the hill!” I say excitedly while miming a hill with a panoramic view of the city for our driver since we forgot the name, “and you can see all of Fez!” The taxi driver looks unimpressed with my body language and begins to drive in the direction of what he understands we are talking about. We pull into the hotel driveway and I twist my ankle in excitement as I leap out of the taxi to get change from the concierge. We are here!
We walk through the lobby of the hotel and then sip our orange juices on the patio while the sun sets on Fez. The moon rises in the east and our first day traveling together outside of Mali has come to a close. As I sit on the outdoor sofa next to Abdoulaye I think that life could not get any better than fresh-squeezed juice on a hotel terrace overlooking the former Imperial capital city of Morocco. And then Abdoulaye asks me to marry him so I can enjoy moments like this with him by my side for the rest of my life. Life just got better.
A carriage ride through Fez our second night in the city

See more pictures from our trip to Morocco here and here!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An international engagement: Part I

It is a Saturday afternoon in Bamako and we are gathered in my boss Thelma's living room. Mom and I spent the morning with the photography club at the National Museum and then met Cassie for lunch in town. Abdoulaye and his mom, Foulé, spent the morning shopping for bazin fabric in the grande marchée for Foulé to take back to Guinea as gifts and for small commerce. Everyone is looking thirsty and so Abdoulaye and I excuse ourselves to the kitchen to get some hibiscus juice for the crowd. I take his hand as we enter the kitchen. I love these private, albeit brief, moments with him after days that are so public.

Our brief moment is briefer than usual when Bobo enters the kitchen behind us and says with a smile and a shake of his finger “Vous deux, allez dehors!You two, outside! I look at Abdoulaye who purses his lips and nods his head and I follow him through the living room; I guess the hibiscus juice will have to wait.

Cassie looks up at us from the couch as we walk by. Foulé sits with her hands in her lap in a chair opposite my own mother who is perched on a loveseat, playing with Bobo's baby girl, Aminata. Bobo takes a seat on the chair opposite Cassie and subtly encourages Abdoulaye and I outside with an exaggerated nod of his head towards the door.

Of course I know something is up as Abdoulaye closes the glass door behind us and we settle on the patio outside. I think Abdoulaye knows something is up, too, but he is avoiding my questions and feigns ignorance of what is going on inside. “Come on,” I plead in my usual, charming fashion, “tell me what is going on!” He shakes his head and segues the conversation to our respective adventures with our moms that day. That boy knows how to switch my train of thought! Then Cassie throws open the door and passes us baby Aminata. “Your mom needs to concentrate!” she says before quickly returning inside. I turn to Abdoulaye for an explanation but his attention is on the baby and I find myself quickly distracted by her baby gurgles, too. Aissetou, Bobo's wife, appears from behind the house and takes Aminata away for a feeding. Then Bobo opens the door and waves us inside. I feel a strange expectation build in my stomach and try to smile it away. Abdoulaye takes my hand and gives it a reassuring squeeze.

I re-enter the living room and take a seat on the couch next to Cassie. Abdoulaye sits on the loveseat next to my Mom who is wiping away tears that are spilling down her cheeks. A few thoughts run through my head. First, I definitely missed something. Then, 'Oh my goodness, I bet someone in Guinea passed away and this is the culturally appropriate way to share the news.' And then, wait a minute, how come Cassie got to stay? I look from my crying mother to a solemn-faced Foulé to a grinning Bobo and finally to Cassie whose face is giving nothing away. “OK,” I finally say after the awkward silence becomes too much, “somebody spill.”

Bobo begins the conversation, situating his body and his words towards my mother. He begins by telling her what he thinks of Abdoulaye. He says, among other things, that he sees a lot of people passing through Bamako and that Abdoulaye, who he did not know before coming to Mali (both Bobo and Abdoulaye are from Guinea), is someone special. I have heard Bobo's touching words before but they still give me a little thrill each time; Abdoulaye really is someone special.

At this point in the conversation I am pretty sure I also have something to do with all of this but my Mom is still crying on the loveseat and I still think someone may have died. Then, Bobo turns to me and my Mom's tears begin to taper off. He talks about how in Africa a marital union is not only between the couple – it is also between families. I sit up a little straighter and try to make eye contact with Abdoulaye who is looking intently at Bobo and only briefly catches my eye. I definitely have something to do with all of this.

Foulé begins to speak again in Susu and Bobo translates for me into French while Cassie translates for my Mom into English. Foulé talks about how pleased she is to see her son so happy and continues on with a laundry list appraisal of what she thinks of me now that she has seen Abdoulaye and I together this past week. The list is a good one and I blush and squirm in my seat. Abdoulaye says nothing but looks at me and flashes me one of his heart-melting smiles. I laugh awkwardly at pauses in the conversation. Mom stands up to get another tissue and I brush my hand against Abdoulaye's. “Won tannara,” I mouth to him in Susu. We are together.

Foulé takes a breath and Bobo clasps his hands. His gaze moves expectantly between my mother and I whose own glistening eyes are moving between me and Abdoulaye. Foulé starts up again in Susu and Bobo grins even larger than before. I sense that the conversation is quickly reaching its apex, at least, I hope it is since I am still unsure if the pauses in the conversation are meant as opportunities for me to respond or simply dramatic pauses meant as opportunities for Foulé's words to settle in.

“As the representative of Jenny's family,” Bobo continues in French while looking at my mother, “do you accept for Abdoulaye and Jennifer to join in marriage?” Mom looks at me and tearily shrugs her shoulders and nods (Dad, Sheri and John – I hope you guys are on board!). I smile until it hurts and give Abdoulaye's knee a squeeze before standing up to give hugs all around. I thank our translators – it means even more that Bobo and Cassie, two of the people dearest to Abdoulaye's and my hearts, were there – before I give Abdoulaye an extra squeeze. We head back to the kitchen to get the hibiscus juice we originally came for – this time to toast Part I of our engagement.


Monday, October 17, 2011

La rencontre: Bamako Mom Fest 2011

After bargaining for our $4 fare to pick up Cassie for lunch, Mom and I step into the taxi. The driver peers back at us through his slightly askew rearview mirror and asks – his eyes resting first on me and then on my Mom – “I koromuso walima I bamuso?” Your older sister or your mother? I laugh before telling the taxi-man that this is my mother. “An ba,” he says, his face lighting up, “a diarra an ye I na na!” Our mother – we're so glad you came!

When I decided to do a third-year with the Peace Corps and move to Bamako my Mom, the dust barely pedicured off of her feet from her first trip to Mali in January 2010, started planning her return. At first I resisted. “It's too far and it's too expensive,” I protested. But moms have a way of knowing what is best and mine is especially patient. I eventually agreed that she needed to come back.
Annie was also curious to check out my life in the big city – and to get a break from village – when she came to visit in May. I told her about Mom's plans to return in September but that we would not be able to come back to village this time – her trip being too short and the journey to village too long. Could she come back to Bamako to help me welcome her? “No problem,” Annie said, “and I could go to airport with you to pick her up?” “Of course!” I said. “And then I could go inside the airplane to see what it looks like!” she added. “That might be a problem,” I replied.
Around the same time as Annie's visit Abdoulaye and I hit a point in our relationship where it was no longer 'let's see what happens in October when my third-year is over' but rather 'let's start planning for a post-October together.' I left for Lebanon to attend Monica and Samer's beyond-beautiful wedding and Abdoulaye left for Guinea to defend his thesis and receive his doctorate in veterinary medicine. He talked with his mom about a trip to Bamako and she was thrilled with the idea. Vaccination card in hand Foulématou Bangoura started packing her Bamako bags.

And so began Bamako Mom-fest 2011. Abdoulaye's mom arrived first by taxi from Conakry, Guinea on Thursday. Annie arrived the next afternoon on a bus from San with Christine, now a very solid three and ½ year old. My mom arrived that evening on the same flight as Axel, my boss's husband. Axel exited the terminal first and as we waited for my mom to emerge with her bags looked at me – his signature ball cap square on his head – and demanded: “Do you know how I found your mother in Paris?” - his German-accented English making his rhetorical question sound more like a quiz. “I saw her in her Malian skirt and did a double-take,” he said, “I thought it was you!”

Doppelganger in tow we headed home with all of our airport companions. Massa and Abdoulaye on motorcycle and the rest of us: Annie, Christine, Foulématou, Jim and me, in the car. After sharing some pumpkin and potato soup (Foulé's commentary: 'It's tasty and I'm glad Jennifer likes to cook for a lot!') we all crashed.
On Sunday Mom and I gave a Sunday school class to some neighborhood kids (lesson: Blessed is he who prefers his brother to himself) before heading to CommeChez Soi for brunch. Bellies full and one of her Bamako to-dos checked off the list, Mom and I headed to market to collect watermelons for our Welcome-to-Bamako party that night. Around 30 friends came together at my generous boss Thelma's home to say 'aw bissimilah' to our treasured mothers. Hibiscus and ginger juice, meat kebabs, watermelon, plantains and french fries – what more do you need to have a party??

On Monday Abdoulaye and I began our routine of mom shifts. He would head over to Thelma's in the morning (where Foulé and Annie were staying) while Mom and I got ready at Sylvaine's (my other generous boss where both she and I stayed and where I've been living the past couple months). Around ten we headed over to collect the rest of the crew and head to the National Park, another must-see in Bamako after the Comme Chez Soi.
The rest of the week included all sorts of excursions and must-sees for Bamako. A trip out to Titibougou to see Abdoulaye's work and give my last English class for the year. Pizza and hummus at the Relax. Close-of-Service obligations at the Peace Corps office. A day trip to visit Annie's sister, Esther, in Koulikoro. Dinner at Sous-Bois with my Bamako-crew. Quality time with Cassie. Drinks at the Zira. A 60th birthday bash for Sylvaine. A few days before our Moms arrived someone told me I must be super stressed with all the preparations. While coordinating all the arrivals and places to stay and things to do was not simple, nor was I stressed about what we would do once they all arrived. Mom is such an easy going companion that I could just tote her along and know, as long as she was watered and fed, that she was happy as a clam just to be back in Mali.
On one of our last evenings together, a friend walked in the door who could not make it to our party the previous Sunday. She proceeded to greet all the guests in Thelma's living room and stopped at my mother while looking at me. “You don't need to introduce me,” she said. “You and your mother are like two drops of water.”

Zouheirata, Annasoura's little sister, invited us all over for a delicious dinner
Lunch in Koulikro.  Annie is concerned about Mom and Abdoulaye's technique
National Park excursion with Cassie!

Tuckered out after a day of play.  And yes, we did travel with a suitcase.  Accessories!
Fatoumata and Christine
Mom, you were great with the girls! :)

Monday, October 10, 2011

With love from Mali

You can't see it but I'm pinching Cassie and Abdoulaye to see if it's real - I'm so happy all these folks are in Bamako at once!

You can see it here - Catherine is pulling my hair to see if it's really attached to my head and not weave.  It's not weave.

When folks here say "Nice to meet your mom!  She's much prettier than you!" I look at this and believe.

My forehead is great for traction...

Big smiles in Koulikoro for a day-visit to Annie's little sister, Esther.

Hard to believe tomorrow marks the last day of Bamako-Mom-Fest 2011.  But y'all better believe it because it does!  It's been a great visit - I have lots of photos to share - but for now it's off to different waters - more on those waters next week!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Guess who's come to Bamako...!!!!

With Foulé (Abdoulaye's mom), Annie and Mom (holding Christine)
Annie spent a day traveling to Bamako from village to get here.  Abdoulaye's mom spent over 30 hours in a car from Conakry.  My mom spent over 24 hours in planes and airport terminals from Virginia.  I made some pumpkin and potato soup and a cardboard sign to welcome them.  After all, I am already here!  More posts to follow on our Bamako adventures! 
With Abdoulaye and Mom at our mom party chez Thelma

Snacking on watermelon and hibiscus juice at the National Park (Mom with Fatoumata)

Foulé Bangoura
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