Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bahrain Buddies

Bahrain Buddies

Last September, before I even knew I’d be going on a trip to Africa, my eight-year old grandson and eleven-year old granddaughter installed Google Earth on my computer while visiting at my Edisto Island home. We found ourselves traveling via satellite across the causeway and bridge onto Edisto Island from the mainland and up Highway 174, turning onto Peter’s Point Road and eventually circling my dock and the house, where the three of us sat at my laptop. My two young computer experts assured me the satellite images were several months old, and we could not be seen through our windows. But I felt at one point as though I could reach through the computer and collect trash from the highway! It took my breath away. And it frightened me. We had traveled through the computer, and we had found- us!

For me, it has been a couple of months and a trip to Africa since, but last weekend, Allen and Ticelyn were once again with me on Edisto, and we found ourselves on Google Earth. However, this time we drove via computer across the causeway and the long bridge from the small island country of Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. I had become interested in Bahrain, not because of recent news reports of revolution but, amazingly, because of the snowstorms in Paris that had altered my flight plans in December!

Before leaving for a six week trip to Africa on December 18, I knew nothing of Bahrain. At the library I researched Cameroon and Ethiopia because I would be traveling with a native Cameroonian and her husband, a professor of African studies, who both now teach in Korea. Two of their students would be traveling with us. I surely did not want them to discover how ignorant I was of world history and geography. I neglected to research Finland. That slipped by me. Two of our travel companions would be from Finland. But I had no reason to research Bahrain. Why would I?

Little did I realize as I sat in the Columbia airport December 18th waiting to fly out, significant snowstorms in Europe would affect my connection in Paris. After hours in the airport, my entire schedule was rerouted, and instead of flying through Atlanta, I found I would be flying to Washington, DC.

On December 19th, I finally made it as far as Washington and was put on standby but did not get a seat on a plane. That, however, turned out not to be such a bad thing after all. My niece, who lives twenty-five minutes from the DC airport, rescued me, and I spent a pleasant evening and morning with her family in their home. The next afternoon found me back in the airport waiting to board a flight to Paris from where I then would travel to Douala, Cameroon and meet up with my friends coming from Korea.

I saw many exhausted and frustrated travelers who had not been as fortunate as I was to have relatives nearby. Most of us had experienced snow-related delays. Some had spent the night in the airport. I’m a people watcher, and that helps pass the time in a situation like this where you have a lengthy wait. Among my fellow travelers, I noticed two slender, young Arab men sitting across from me obviously weary, but like me, patiently waiting and observing. They talked occasionally to one another or sat silently. One of the young men had a red Santa hat perched jauntily atop his head.

After about forty minutes without a book to read or crossword to work, I became restless. I got up to stretch my legs and eventually went over and sat beside “Santa.” Did he speak English? I wasn’t sure. “I like your hat,” I said. His face lit up, and we laughed.

He was eager to practice his English. He told me they were cousins, in the U.S. for a year, going to school to learn the language. “Santa” is majoring in engineering in their home country of Bahrain, but to succeed in that profession, he told me one needs a complete mastery of English. They had learned in school to write and read it, but because they were having trouble speaking English, their parents had sent them abroad to study, practice and become fluent. They were excited to be going home on their holiday break. I confessed that, although I had heard of Bahrain, I knew little about it.

We passed thirty or so enjoyable minutes this way. I never did get their names. “Santa,” as I think of him, was either the more extroverted or confident in our language, so he and I talked, with his cousin occasionally joining in. I’ve always been curious about what life must be like for Muslim women, so I asked these boys, “Tell me about your mothers.” They were eager to talk about their moms for whom it is obvious they have much affection. I found out then, and later during my travels in Cameroon and Ethiopia, asking about a mother can be the key to engaging young people, especially young men, in conversation.

As we finally arose to board, my name was called over a speaker to come to the desk. Due to my experiences the last two days, I grimaced and looking at my new friends said, “This can’t be good. Pray for me!” Instead of another cancellation, I was surprised to learn I had been upgraded to business class and told to walk the red carpet to the plane. For me, this was an unheard of luxury, and I was baffled as to how I’d won the lottery so to speak.

I passed my young friends in line as I walked down the red carpet past them, “Eat your hearts out, guys! I’ve been upgraded!” I waved my boarding pass, and they laughed and reached over as if to grab it from me. To what could I attribute my good fortune of new friends in far flung places and a business class seat! After a couple of tense days, my heart was happy!

Could it get any better than this? It could. On the plane, I found myself seated next to a delightful gentleman, David, who worked for the U.S. Army, a higher up wearing a business suit, and employed in some capacity over Africa and the Arab regions. We shared champagne. He showed me how to operate the luxury recliner. He told me they had probably overbooked economy, and that was how I’d gotten my seat. I was told to play it cool and never let on that I was not a seasoned business class traveler. We laughed a lot.

I told him I’d met the guys from Bahrain, and he said he’d seen us talking. David told me about Bahrain, that it was a small, island country, sophisticated and modern where the conservative Saudis travel the causeway on weekends to party and let down their hair, so to speak. I told him I regretted I knew none of their language, and he volunteered to teach me a few phrases. I eagerly jotted them down on a scrap of paper and practiced saying them over and over: “Hello, good friends. How are you? I’m fine.”

We flew on across the Atlantic. I looked for those boys as I walked my aisle to get the kinks out of stiff joints, rehearsing those phrases in my mind. I hoped to surprise them with my newfound ability to speak their language, but I did not see them.

It was night as we crossed the ocean. We slept. In the morning, as we ate breakfast, I reviewed my Arabic. My helpful seatmate, taught me also to say, “Good morning, buddies!” but I doubted I’d see my Bahraini friends again. My affable travel companion and I exchanged business cards and eventually disembarked into a dreary, frozen Paris, having by now also shared stories of family and career. It had been the most relaxing and entertaining flight I remember ever having, and he agreed.

Charles de Gaulle Airport was crowded and confusing as I rode a bus and several elevators and another bus and stood in lines. At some point, I was told there was a problem with my boarding pass for the next leg of my journey and was shuttled off like a pinball to yet another line. It turned out to be a minor problem, easily corrected. However, as I stood there in line, headed for Africa, I was surprised and elated to see up ahead in the same row a Santa hat and my Bahraini friends who were headed for the Middle East! What were the chances? They seemed just as happy and startled to see a familiar face in an unexpected place. Imagine their surprise when I hailed them with a “Good morning, my young friends! How are you?” in what I was certain was perfect Arabic. They were stunned! We laughed and spoke briefly before having to rush off in opposite directions. I left them wondering how I knew none of their language in the U.S. but could speak it in France!

The world seems to shrink as you travel and make friends along the way. Now, watching the political upheavals in Africa on the evening news, I feel affection and fear for these people as though, I personally have something at stake, although the African countries I visited are not these I see on the evening news. Tunisia has overthrown its dictator. Egypt has broken free of theirs. I see strife in Bahrain and feel compelled to travel there over the internet with my grandkids and to tell them, “We have friends there now, you know. Let’s say a prayer for them, for all these countries, for these people are so very much more like us than not.

Fran Cardwell

Christmas Eve in Cameroon With the United Nations

By Fran Cardwell
   To get a full understanding of our Christmas 2010, you have to understand that we were somewhat of a traveling United Nations. There was beautiful Cameroonian Rebecca Mbuh, my friend of twenty-seven years, her husband Mark who is a retired University of South Carolina professor of African studies and their five year old Rawandan daughter, Margarette, whose first language is Korean. Then, there were two of Mark’s Korean students, my roommates, Soo Yeon and Chae Eun, and joining us for the first of the trip and the holidays, were Hanna and Sami from Finland, who are spending two years backpacking through Africa. Finally, there was me, Fran, who brought Rebecca home from church to have Sunday dinner with us in Columbia so many years ago when she was an eighteen year old freshman at Allen University. She eventually got her PhD from USC, and she and Mark now teach in Korea. What a motley crew we were, and what an amazing Christmas we shared in Pinyin Village and Bambili with Rebecca and her large, extended Mbuh family, some of whom I've known for years and many who are now new friends.
   By the time we were headed for Pinyin on Christmas Eve, we had already been traveling the coastal region of Cameroon for several days, but Rebecca had spent that time with her sister Mary in the city stocking up on supplies and making arrangements for the house guests and many party goers who would be arriving in their village over the next few days.
   The heat and humidity on the coast that I’d been warned about were nothing compared to a South Carolina summer, and I found it quite comfortable. Our trip was a study trip, but Christmas week was to be family time, and we were in high spirits as we anticipated relaxing and enjoying the good life, African style, in Pinyin Village. I, especially, was so looking forward to seeing Rebecca’s brother, Tennu, who was my pen pal for many years, and Justice who had also lived in Columbia for a while. I was anxious to see their sister Mary again who had spent time years ago at our Edisto home with us. I knew Rebecca’s Mamma and Pa from Mark and Rebecca’s wedding and time spent in Columbia and Charleston, but that had been more than a decade ago. This celebration had been in the works for more than twenty years, and I could not believe it was finally happening and that I was here for it!
   We were many hours late getting started to the village Christmas Eve. One thing we had to adjust to quickly once we arrived on African soil is being on African time which is much, much slower than what I know as Edislow time back home. In Cameroon, nothing is efficient, utilities are unreliable, transportation often breaks down, government is corrupt, money is in short supply, and life is hard and confusing at best. One thing you can be sure of is that nothing will happen when and as planned. Stopping to pay bribes to officials when traveling by bus or taxi, is the order of the day. We traveled by African bus from Limbe on the coast to Bamenda, the nearest city to Rebecca’s home, and were relieved when the bus overheated on a steep grade, giving us the opportunity to escape to the bushes to use the “facilities” while the bus cooled down! I worried about the poor trussed chickens, little black pig and the dog in a basket that spent the hot seven hours crammed under the bus with the luggage and with no relief or water.
   So it did not surprise us too much on December 24th when it took Rebecca and Mary hours longer than expected to pick us up at the Baptist Mission where we had spent the night in Bamenda. They had frantically been procuring goods and services for the festivities, so I’m sure they were anxious and exhausted by the time they and their driver arrived after dark with some family member’s small car loaded down with supplies and with little room for us. Soo, Chae Eun, Margaret on a lap, Mary, Rebecca, the driver, and I crammed ourselves into the car with no room for Mark and the Finns or most of our luggage. Unwilling to leave my three large puppets behind, I squished them in with us like three additional children, and we headed off, waving good bye to Mark, Sami and Hanna, wondering when and how they would make it to the village but we, ourselves, were relieved to be underway. Plans were made to return for the three of them, but we hated to leave them sitting there in the Bamenda dark at the Baptist Mission.
   We took off at breakneck speed through this large, third world city which is wild at night, roaring with motorcycles and revelry even when it is not Christmas Eve. Just as we were approaching what we felt must be the outskirts of the city, we pulled up in front of a tiny dressmaker’s shop, and Becca and Mary climbed out and went inside. No explanation. We locked our doors and sat with the driver, tense and uneasy in this questionable neighborhood, but after a few minutes, got out ourselves to find out what was going on. They had stopped to pick up Christmas clothes, only to find out one dress was still a work in progress. The frantic dressmaker had a cluttered shop the size of a bathroom filled with anxious women and active, small children all wanting their new holiday clothes as she desperately worked an old sewing machine. I sat down with Becca and Mary to wait. Through an open door in an adjoining shop, a toddler screamed as chemicals were slathered on her little head and her hair was pulled and forced into a tight “do.” Kind-hearted Cheun went in to try to distract the poor child. It was a zoo. And then the lights went out! In that whole district of Bamenda, everyone was now in the dark.
   For the first time on the trip, I began to sweat sitting in the darkness of that tiny shop, wondering about Becca’s family waiting at our destination, wondering when we would ever get there and concerned about my friends waiting back at the mission. But this little snafu, we found, is typical of life in Cameroon. Someone produced an open cell phone and the poor seamstress, now under even more duress, began to sew by cell phone light, this time using, instead of electricity, the back up pedal device on her machine. The light was pitiful, so a small candle was lit and stuck with wax to the table, as the desperate woman continued to sew in the semidarkness. After about twenty-five minutes or so, the lights came back on, the group heaved a collective sigh, Mary’s dress was done, and we jumped into the car for our long ride into the remote Bamenda countryside and beyond.
   We drove for approximately an hour before turning off onto a dirt road. Or was it a road? The Koreans and I weren't sure. It felt like an assault as we jounced and bounced our way over the rocky, mountainous track through the darkest heart of Africa. “Mary and Joseph,” I thought, “could not have had it so rough on that long ago eve.” On and on and on and up we went into inky blackness. We could see none of the landscape, and what little we could see of the road up ahead in the headlights of the car, made us want to close our eyes. It seemed impossible that any vehicle could traverse it. And then my two Seoul friends discovered the stars overhead! Despite our being crammed so tightly into the car we could hardly breathe, they were straining out the windows to see what residents of Seoul seldom see, a beautiful, starlit, countryside sky! They ooohed, and they aaaahhhed. We laughed. This was all unbelievably crazy to me!
Then, as we wound through the African night, stars overhead, a true Christmas Eve miracle occurred. God sent me what I firmly believed at the time was a Christmas present to keep me from feeling homesick. Above the din of the rocks over which we careened, and squealing Koreans, I heard…. could it be? It could not! Surely not! Music from the car radio was playing all of my favorite oldies from the sixties and seventies. “What the heck!” as Soo Yeon would say, in one of her favorite American expressions, was this doing coming out of the radio on Christmas Eve here in this place in the middle of this continent at this time? Even the DJ sounded like “back home!” It sounded like, well, it sounded like Columbia, SC to me! Now, I was shouting with joy and singing along!
   When after about twenty minutes of this, the DJ said he was coming live from Cayce, SC, I, dumbfounded but not silent, began to exclaim, “I cannot believe this! What an amazing satellite feed! I cannot even get this radio station in Orangeburg!” There were tears in my eyes. Our driver with his poor mastery of the English language, could not explain it and probably could not understand me. Truly, this was a Christmas miracle and, yes, it did occur to me briefly to wonder why, when radio stations begin playing Christmas music right after Halloween, this familiar Cayce station was not even playing carols on Christmas Eve. For the rest of that wild trip to Pinyin, I don’t believe I stopped talking about this wonderful gift and the truly unusual radio station that reached a remote region of Africa but not Orangeburg or Edisto.
   Post holiday, a few days later, we had a different driver. My steadfast, dear friend, Tennu, this time chauffeured us back to the city. I heard the same sweet, rock music of my youth playing on the car radio again. “Ah, Tennu,” I sighed, “what an amazing satellite! How God has blessed me with this gift of home in a foreign country!” He burst out laughing and told me that many years ago, during his time living in Columbia, he had made multiple cassette tapes for family and friends of his favorite radio station. Well, the joke was on me, and now I laugh every time I think about it! But it will always be my Cameroon Christmas Eve miracle with a little help from technology and Tennu!
                                                                         ...Next: Christmas in Pinyin Village