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Job serenity

June 2, 2011

Somehow, through a combination of good vibes and good luck, I have found a truly blessed job. And in that, I have found stability. Especially since September when I began this experiment that is managing a restaurant. I had no precedent for what that would mean. I didn’t go to business school. Though I had some experience in food service I did not grow up in restaurants. All I had was whatever experience I had tucked in my back pocket and the passion for food that lived in my soul and in my belly. I am someone who believes in open lines of communication and constantly striving to be better, to be different, to change, to grow. I believe in sustainability and of minimizing my footprint. I believe in honesty and the merits of simply being your own unique individual. Though I was raised in privileged upper-middle class New Jersey I am not driven by money and believe that capitalism should go hand in hand with (and to some degree to be beholden to) being responsible living on this planet. We live in precious times. Life is a precious time. It’s all about now. It’s also about being hopeful for tomorrow. Life can be great.

And with all that at my disposal I get to run a restaurant. Run it. It sort of feels inconsiderate to say that honestly. There is a cast of characters equally important and in some cases probably harder working. But the great thing about my job is that it requires me to float about the restaurant. One minute I may be making lattes and the next placing an order for produce. One minute expediting in the kitchen making a salad or passing a chicken portion to Skye (the head chef workhorse of the kitchen) and the next taking a leisurely walk to the bank for change. (Young single power-drunk man’s NOTE: All of this happens with an ever-watchful eye for the many beautiful women who frequent my home away from home.) This flexibility allows me to pace myself and also provides me a measure of light-heartedness that enables me to find joy amidst the chaos. I also happen to really enjoy…well…everything about the hours usually spent between the hours of 8am and 10pm.

I get to make beautiful hearts in deliciously creamy frothy refreshing lattes. I get to serve people delicious food and get to have them literally applaud when I approach. I get to see 20 of my closest friends everyday. I get to work with fantastically creative interesting people whom I love. I get to be in charge. I get to be myself. I get to learn about food and about myself everyday.

I get to live.

And let me tell you, living is exhilarating.

Hate turns mainstream

April 28, 2011

All around the country talking heads and pollsters, candidates and their private/corporate financial backers are gearing up for the 2012 elections. The cycle is fully geared up, more than 20 months before the election. And in this age of hyperbolic and inflammatory rhetoric, it should come as no surprise that many extreme 2010 Democratic and Republican hopefuls are making the waves as their hate comes center stage. While I’m not sure giving a platform to such hate-filled people isn’t necessarily a step in the right direction (any press is good press is it not?), I do believe that the voters need to know when someone running to represent them either at a local, state or federal level says something with absolute disregard for our collective humanness. Take for example these three candidates. Thanks very much to the journalists who are shedding light on the darkness.

Allen West (R-FL)

Alright so this guy is an actual sitting congressman. He already proved that even crazy is electable. During a speech at a meeting for Women Impacting Nation (whose mission is to “educate and equip women with knowledge of God’s truth” and “to support those who take a stand for those Judeo-Christian values upon which our country is founded”) West said:

We need you to come in and lock shields, and strengthen up the men who are going to the fight for you. To let these other women know on the other side — these planned Parenthood women, the Code Pink women, and all of these women that have been neutering American men and bringing us to the point of this incredible weakness — to let them know that we are not going to have our men become subservient.

West supports tax cuts for the rich, is in favor of abolishing the Departments of Education and Energy, was forced out of the Army for his harsh treatment of an Iraqi prisoner in 2003 and believes that Islam is “not a religion” but a “theo-political belief system and construct” that must be destroyed.. Backed by the Tea Party, West won his seat, in Florida’s 22nd District, in 2010 with 55% of the vote.

Kimberly Daniels

Also from Florida is Kimberly Daniels who is running, as a Democrat, for a city council seat in Jacksonville. A relative newcomer to the political stage, Davis is the founder of the Kimberly Daniels Ministry and, according to her political website, often lobbies Capital Hill on pro-life and pro-marriage issues. Truth Wins Out, an organization committed to rooting out anti-gay misinformation in our society, recently started a campaign to expose Daniels and her beliefs. She believes in “praying the gay away”. Among the things that Kimberly Daniels has publicly stated:

“You can talk about the Holocaust, but the Jews own everything.”
“I thank God for slavery. If it wasn’t for slavery, I might be somewhere in Africa worshiping a tree.”
“I do not buy candy during the Halloween season. Curses are sent through the tricks and treats of the innocent whether…by going door to door or by purchasing it from the local grocery store. The demons cannot tell the difference.”

So Kimberly Daniels is an anti-Semite, anti-gay, pro-slavery and anti-candy? Harsh.

Donald Trump

The Donald, teasing the idea of running for President in 2012, is a straight up racist. He seems to have a personal vendetta against President Obama for petty, racially-tinged reasons. Sure, I’m not the biggest Obama fan myself. I have serious concerns with his governance, the continued wars and occupation and back-room secret corporate handshakes. But Trump doesn’t communicate his unhappiness with these policy points. He isn’t upset that we have a broken political, medical and financial system. Donald Trump is simply a racist. He has a problem with someone like Barack Obama becoming president. He wasn’t born in Hawaii. He wasn’t smart enough to get into Harvard. He should get off the basketball court and govern. You, the black reporter, you must like Obama. And the craziest part of all of this? He’s still given platforms to spout his crazy like his “Celebrity Apprentice” show and multiple Fox News appearances and is being called the GOP front-runner in the mainstream news.

It’s A Wonderful Life

April 27, 2011

So here I am. 28 years old managing a very popular restaurant/cafe in Los Angeles. I look forward to going to work nearly every day and can truly stand proud behind my employers, the “beast” that is The Curious Palate. Every day is filled with personal successes, professional successes, metaphorical successes and, generally, joy. I am paid fairly for the hard work that I do and manage to carve out a pleasant existence. I have a family and friends who love and respect me. I am in the process of quitting smoking cigarettes and know that I am strong enough (and have the support of a bevy of supportive peers to help me) to do it on my own. I have health insurance that I pay for out of pocket and have a clean bill of health. I subsist without car but with bike. Venice Beach is a quick 10 minute ride. My friends are happy and doing well. My family is happy and doing well. My immediate community is happy and doing well. We seem to be the only ones.

Reading the headlines one gets a completely different picture of the daily state of affairs in our United States. Millions of people are unemployed and underemployed. Millions of people are sick and in physical pain and are without health insurance. Millions of older adults are losing and have lost their jobs at a time when they should be living comfortable lives. Millions of elderly folks are living in fear of their social security benefits – which they’ve paid for their entire lives – at a time when they should be stress-free and enjoying the last years of their lives. Millions of young recent college graduates are entering a job field which is unreliable and unceasingly negative. Millions of these job, which SHOULD exist for Americans here at home, are fleeing our shores to be give to uneducated poor folks in China, Bangladesh, India, Mexico and Panama where environmental rights, workers rights and tax laws can be pushed aside. GE, which made a staggering $14 billion in 2010 in profits paid $0 in US taxes that year. And their CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, serves as President Obama’s chief of the [American] Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. BP, Transocean and Halliburton, all responsible for the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, all gave large bonuses and awards to their executives in what, specifically, Transocean labeled their “best year in safety“.

This reality doesn’t seem nearly as rosy as my own personal reality.

What is going on? How did things get this way? I am by no means long-term financially stable and yet I am, by today’s standards, doing very well. I have to pay taxes and be assessed 25% interest on a credit card and these multinational record-earning corporations pay no taxes and receive no-interest government bailouts when they rig the system and slip up? How do we explain that the tax rates for the richest 0.1% of Americans has been slashed and slashed in the past 50 years which the tax rates for the middle class have increased and increased. We would have collected an extra $282 billion in tax revenue from the richest 0.1% in 2007 if they had paid the same effective tax rate. How does anyone point to teachers and unions and federal employees as the culprit for sucking us dry while at the same time cutting taxes to the richest and most powerful Americans individuals and corporations who hide money in overseas tax havens and move jobs to third world countries? Who’s less patriotic?

Who’s less “American”? This idea that anyone can achieve greatness if only they work hard. Is the definition of “work hard” now associated with hiring a harem of lawyers to dig through tax code and pull out every loophole imaginable? These lawyers have indeed worked very hard to ensure that their employers and their corporate ilk take advantage of the system, and by association, me.

I have no loopholes to abuse. I have no lawyers to pay. I have only my hard work

…and my morals.

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge

July 9, 2010

The bayou shares its healing powers with Josephina

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.  New Orleans, Louisiana.  At 23,000 acres it is our nation’s largest urban wildlife refuge.  It contains all manner of birds, reptiles and bugs.  And because it is Louisiana, specifically, and an “urban” refuge, generally, it contains, within its borders, heavy industry.  Located 15 miles east of downtown New Orleans, Bayou Sauvage is still within the city limits.  From my former home in the Lower Ninth Ward it was a quick 15 minute drive, one which I took countless times.  Within days of first arriving in New Orleans I  visited Bayou Sauvage for a up-close look at my new office space.  From one planting to the next, the routine typically looked the same.  The same preparations, the same route, the same players.  The same plants, the same muddy hands, the same empty pots . Every day we were out there was progress.

The shocking amount and pace of wetlands loss in Southern Louisiana...more than a football field every 30 minutes

With each fresh load of plants we helped to resuscitate a gasping ecosystem.  Sure, the land loss at Bayou Sauvage isn’t as catastrophic as in areas further south, closer towards the mouth of the delta and the place that land should be continually supported and created. The place where the river’s spoils should spill over the banks every spring and, inundating the immense floodplain with nutrients from as far north as northern Minnesota, re-instill the breath of our land into the wetlands. Thanks to our extensive leveeing of the Mississippi River, though, such “shoulds” are fleeting. But the effects in Bayou Sauvage are still very real.

The story of wetlands loss in Southern Louisiana is a long and sordid affair and, for now, shall be left to be told some other day.  Anyway, its hard to feel accomplished when thoughts are of widespread catastrophic wetlands loss.  In order to trudge on through the muck – literal and figurative – one has to be able to see right in front of them.  See the tree within the forest.  And for me, that place, that caterpillar which I could help morph into a butterfly, was Bayou Sauvage.

As with every morning, the day started with morning meeting and I would gather my assigned and volunteered comrades, giving them an overview of where we’d be working and what we’d be doing.  The grasses and the tools would be loaded in the bed of the pickup.  Lunches would be assembled, water jugs would be filled.  Sunscreen, applied generously to any bare patch of skin, released fruity notes to the air.  Wetland grasses, wet and muddy, added earthy and sulfurous overtones. And with that, we were off, most often to Bayou Sauvage and no matter how recently I had been I was always anxious to get back to rediscover my roots.

We were armed with what we needed to reintroduce life to the bayou.  Most of these tools remained constant no matter which site we would be visiting.  There were two areas of the refuge which we helped to restore during my time there.  The first was an area adjacent to a newly constructed boardwalk (which stretched several hundred feet into the marsh) at a newly constructed visitor’s picnic area. This area held true to the “wet” in “wetlands” as we were often submerged to at least our waists in murky algae-topped water. The second area was more like a muddy field, prone to flooding, which was across the road from a concrete plant, and within the boundaries of the city’s flood protection system (the levee) which sat just several hundred feet away. During Katrina and as a result of not securing what was their legal responsibility to secure, a barge from this factory was brought ashore by the storm surge. When the waters receded, the barge was left, rendering the cushiony nature of the grasses and mud irrelevant to the quite possible 300 tons of the ship.

Breaking it down, focusing on just two small areas which together made up maybe two acres, the whole exercise seems, in a way, futile.  And in a way, with the problem being so many degrees of magnitude bigger than you, it is.  But in these situations, as in other struggles around the globe, whether they be environmental, political, human rights, animal welfare or social justice, whatever the struggle, I am reminded of the wise words of Margaret Mead, who said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  All of us all over the world struggling for justice help drive the engine of change, no matter what our field nor how small our input.  Truth is more land was lost in an afternoon of planting than we had saved.  That is the cold brutal reality.  But we had done something.  Something immediate and with a sense of community.  Especially here, we were helping to save not just our wetlands but our city.  It was backyard rehabilitation.

Although there were other places in the refuge in which we worked, planting grasses and trees alike, it was in these two areas which we concentrated our efforts.  The results were spectacular; real concrete victories:

Most of the vegetation and land in the foreground we planted. That whole area used to be waist-high open water.

Everything in the foreground we planted. Our new additions extended about 50-100 feet in either direction out of frame.

They weren’t huge, monumental, David vs. Goliath battles, but we were making headway. Besides, it’s not like we were the only ones in Louisiana undertaking such efforts. My co-coordinator, Richard Waller, was a 50-something master gardener and restoration specialist who worked for many years in Hawaii and who I was honored to work with. He taught me so much and continued to learn alongside me. To have been treated as his equal, having jumped in without a life raft and having him trust me, was a real privilege. I also worked closely with Colleen Morgan, a staff member of the Audubon Institute and founder of Bayou Rebirth, who served as a mentor to me during my 10 months in the wetlands. LSU AgCenter, Louisiana State Wildlife and Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service were regular contacts and managers of projects my volunteers and I worked on.

I travelled all over Southern Louisiana, south, north, east and west of New Orleans and saw some pretty awe-inspiring landscapes and met people who Sarah Palin would refer to as part of “real America”.  Places I would have never even known existed.   Places like Galliano, Golden Meadow and Grand Isle. Ecological treasures which are at risk of disappearing forever unless serious funding is invested and serious attention is paid to these wetlands.

An entire ecosystem is simply vanishing before our eyes. At a staggering rate of a football field every approximately 37 minute, coastal Louisiana loses about 25-30 square miles of wetlands a year.  And that was without oil everywhere, impacting plant life, bird life, nesting sites, fish populations and fish larvae.  Impacting endangered Kemp’s Ridley Turtles and threatened (actually recently removed from the endangered list) Brown Pelicans.  Impacting White Shrimp (which during one planting on Lake Borgne were literally jumping out of the water all around me by the hundreds) and Crawfish.  Impacting Spartina patens (salt marsh hay) and bitter panicum (running beach grass).

A day at Bayou Sauvage provided a sense of relative comfort in the face of all of those “big” issues.  The science remained the same and Bayou Sauvage needs help; this was not a paradise after all.  But as a home away from home, Bayou Sauvage was like a friend to turn to  in times of crisis.  They may not have their shit together, but you could rely on them for some stability and security.  I got to know Bayou Sauvage well, spending time both with groups and on my own, alone with the plants and birds and alligators.

Oh those alligators.  Once we all went swimming after a morning of planting.  In (possibly) alligator-infested waters.  We had the time of our lives.  Next week I saw a mother gator and her baby.  In a place with such a nurturing nature, the wetlands of Louisiana are still as wild as they are wonderous.

Bayou Sauvage at dusk

Things are oil wrong

July 2, 2010

Typical toxic runoff from a farm

Imagine you are a pocket of nitrates. As runoff from a poultry farm in Iowa, you now find yourself in the mighty Mississippi River, the drainage basin for more than half of these United States. On your journey south, you meet up with phosphates and your old friend Roundup. Gaily you soak in the soothing waters of the river, no longer able to flood the banks in the spring because of man-made levees. For more than 1,000 miles, you travel unimpeded to Venice, Louisiana, at the mouth of the river, picking up speed and particulates along the way.  Congratulations.  You have reached the Gulf of Mexico and, if it’s sometime during the month of August, one of the largest aquatic dead zones in the world: in 2007 it measured nearly 7,900 square miles, about the size of New Jersey.

Think that’s bad? Now that nitrate bundle has to contend with (a conservative estimate of) 80 million gallons of dirty crude which has poured from the Deepwater Horizon well since the oil rig exploded on April 20. The effects of this man-made disaster will have repercussions on the local economy and environment for decades to come.  The oil will remain on the surface of the water, suspended in the water column and coating the plants, all the while mixing with the pollutants which have already made their way to the Gulf from thanks to our obsession with pesticides.

66% of the grain grown in the US is used to raise livestock, most in confined animal feed lots (CAFO).  And both of these industries, grain and CAFO farms, highly prevalent in the mid-West, the heart of the Mississippi River drainage basin, are both highly subsidized and contribute massive amounts of  pollution to our air and our water.  In addition, when Hurricane Katrina hit, storm surges from both Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River flooded much of New Orleans with toxic waters containing PCBs, petrochemicals as well as lead and arsenic:

According to the EPA, agency scientists found levels of lead and arsenic at some sites in excess of drinking water standards—a potential threat given the possibility of hand-to-mouth exposure.

Katrina flood "water"

Southern Louisiana has had a long checkered history with toxic spills of all sorts: chemicaloil and man-made dispersants used to clean that very oil.  This latest spill in the Gulf is just the most recent example of the kind of catastrophe human engineering can cause in the communities and wetlands of America’s 18th state.  But her people march on, driven by hope, a love of their land and that which drives all of us: to persevere in the face of a crisis bigger than any of us.

Living the (Lie)f?

June 23, 2010

Two days in and I miss her.  “Dream Machine” by Mark Farina is was one of our songs.  It’s soothing beats were part of our theme music, serving as background to many of life’s happenings.  We cleaned to it.  We cooked to it.  We seduced each other to it.  We just danced to it, rocking back and forth, letting the rhythm guide us as we brought the machine to life.

Now it’s playing at a coffee shop in Brentwood, my new home and the place where I begin to realize my truth. What that means, what that looks like, I do not yet know.  Moving out, out of the comfort and security of my community, out of the loving embrace and personal and passionate committment of my partner, out the status quo and into fear and the unknown, I know not what I should feel, only what I do feel.  And that, only four days in, has already changed.

For more reasons than I could name and based on more emotions than I could explain I have embarked on a journey, self-initiated and anonymously led, to “find myself”.  Being scooped up, two years ago, out of obscurity, I willingly and gladly fell head first into what would become a sometimes magical, sometimes agonizing love affair with someone whose being, whose essence I will (thankfully) forever be tied to.  Along the way I learned about life, love, patience, humility, nurturing, and commitment.  I grew, as both an individual and a partner, and embraced every bit with all of my heart.  But then something, something inside of me, changed.  A door opened. I light turned on.  A path was illuminated.  It was not, though, that my grass wasn’t green.  I just wondered about the other lawns around me.  I pondered what life held in store for us all and questioned my stability amid the turbulence of our human existence.  And so I leaped.

I was excited at the opportunity and the possibilities.  And when I was with her, post-leap, I remained so.  But now, having leaped and now being on my own, I am in a different place.  It’s still too early and the jury’s still out, so to speak, but I remain excited.  Fending for myself is something I’ve looked forward to for a while.  I’ve relied on other’s motivations to help me along my path.  And the time has come to provide my own kick in the pants.  

If prompted and appropriately motivated I’m pretty sure I can kick pretty damn hard.

Silenced in Egypt

June 23, 2010

So there we were.  Negotiating with a taxi driver at the Rafah border crossing after having spent a life-affirming and life-altering 72 hours in Gaza.  Getting into and out of the Strip, once all was said and done, proved to be easier, though just as dramatic as we had thought.  Now, having passed through customs at the Palestinian Authority/Egypt controlled Rafah border crossing, we were only a cab ride away from our fellow Gaza Freedom Marchers in Cairo, mere hours away from sharing our experiences with those who we had left behind, friends (like Suleika, a senior at Princeton) who were physically violated during a December 31 demonstration in the streets of the Egyptian capital.  We had escaped unscathed.  Escaped unscathed from Cairo and from Gaza, having only our patience and sympathies tried.  The home stretch was upon us.

We negotiated a price, one for the seven who were going back to their hotels in El Arish, the Egyptian sea-side town just south of the Rafah crossing, and another for the remaining four of us who needed to get back to Cairo.  And after arguing with an Egyptian customs official who would not return our passports to us, who said that we would get them back just as soon as we got back to El Arish or Cairo, who said that this was how things worked in Egypt, who laughed when I asked for, nay, demanded, my passport back, who was visibly unshaken when I said I would call my embassy because this was if not illegal, entirely unnecessary and completely frustrating, and who finally, after nearly 30 minutes of yelling, relented and gave us our passports back, after all of that, we loaded the mini-van and were en route to Cairo.

Trailed and led, of course, by Egyptian police escorts.

While holed up in the Commodore Hotel in Gaza City, on the shores of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, we had heard various reports of our Gaza marchers being detained at the border.  We were told, by Hamas officials none-the-less, that having defied the call to leave, we were forcing the Egyptian border officials to essentially hold our friends hostage until we left.  We were given until midnight to basically get the fuck out of Gaza, lest we all be immediately deported.  Our friends said otherwise.  So, after everyone, in two waves, had already left, we were verbally forced into a van which took us to the Rafah crossing and which now led us here: to a packed mini-van driving through Egypt in the darkness.

After about 30 or 45 minutes and having passed by the turn-off for the El Arish hotels, we pulled over on the side of the highway, surrounded by police cars.  We had no idea what was happening.  We were then abruptly, and with no warning, told that no one would be able to stay in El Arish.  “But all of our things were at our hotel just down the road!”  “We’ve already pre-paid for the next month at the Swiss Inn!”  “We don’t want to go back to Cairo!”

We were, incredulously, being detained, for no reason whatsoever, on the side of a darkened highway in the north of Egypt, just minutes from several activists’ hotels.  Over the next hour, many dozen policemen, armed with rifles and shields, would heed the calls for help, not by aiding our trip back to Cairo, but by helping to physically and verbally intimidate and silence us.  We were simply 11 activists, armed with nothing more than our luggage (as well as a general loathing for the Egyptian government who helped maintain the crippling Gaza blockade and the Egyptian police which had done this sort of thing to us earlier in Cairo and had assaulted our friends and which represses the Egyptian and Palestinian population everyday) and having done nothing but go to Gaza.  And yet we were detained.

Our situation began to deteriorate.  Stuck in a cramped van filled with 11 bodies and lots of luggage we were told that not only would we be unable to return to El Arish, but we would not be able to leave the van to use the bathroom or even open the sliding door to get some air.  Having just returned from a chaotic and overwhelming spat in Gaza this was the last thing we needed or even expected.  We though we were home free.  But yet here we were, unable to even use a restroom.  I had never been in such a situation: completely devoid of any right.  It was a very strange feeling, the flood of emotions which flowed and morphed with each passing minute.  As I am (thankfully) unfamiliar with the feeling of being surrounded by riot police, I was first, for just a moment, frightened. Quickly remembering the last time this happened, not one week earlier, my fear turned to confusion.  Why was this happening?  What had we done to deserve such mistreatment?

An Egyptian higher-up (who spoke terrific English) had told us, soon after first being detained, that he was just following orders.  Told us that we might try going back to Gaza if we stayed in El Arish.  Told us that a phone call from our embassy is all he needed to allow those who wanted to stay in El Arish to stay, for those who wanted to go back to Cairo to go there and that this situation would be over as soon as it began.  It sounded simple enough and had been, for the past hour or so, trying desperately to get anybody at the embassy interested in out current dilemma.  Earlier, while still at the border, our passports being held hostage, we had made a similar call which fell mostly on deaf ears.  Now our situation was even more urgent.  We didn’t know what the hell was happening or when it would be over or what we could do.  We were crippled.  Nothing we said could make the thugs policemen leave us alone.  Or willingly let us open the window.  Kelly eventually forced her way out of the van, crawling through a small open window in the back.  Once outside, she joined Sarah, a New Zealand native who was Muslim and who, most importantly, spoke Arabic.

The two made their way to the bathroom, and if it was anything like my trip about 30 minutes later (after Kelly an Sarah had demanded and hollered and forced the cops’ hand to eventually allow us all the same privilege) it consisted of all sorts of cursing (in Arabic, of course, foreign to most of our ears), laughing (at the fact that we were helpless dogs, having already submitted to their illogical reign) and spitting on the ground near them.

(Kelly eventually proved most heroinic.  Upon her return from the bathroom at the hotel down the street, she argued with the cops and, in despair, sat down in the middle of the street, refusing to get up until we were given some basic rights.  While I sat, steaming and with my bladder full, in the back of the van, I watched parts of this scene unfold outside.  I was, frankly, worried for her safety, though did not find out until later that she staged a one-woman sit-in.  Her actions speak volumes about her dedication to peace and respect for your common human being and it was not the first time that I was humbled in her presence.)

Eventually we got  not only an employee at our embassy on the phone but also the legal coordinator for the Gaza Freedom Movement, Sally Bette Newman.  And despite his earlier claims, the “head” officer refused to take the phone to talk to anyone sympathetic to our plight.  Sally sure wanted to speak with him.  I was struck by how cold and jaded he was.  Here we were, in his country, spending money in his economy, respecting his personal dignity and he couldn’t afford us the same privilege.  Sure, he works for a repressive regime and, barring corruption and embezzlement, probably doesn’t get paid much.  But we were pressing him to see the humanity in us.  To simply deny us of any right was beyond my understanding.  Egypt had proved a menacing and intimidating foe and I repeatedly felt unwanted in their country.  Such is the life, I suppose, of a political activist in a country which oppresses any dissenting voice, foreign or domestic.

We were yet to reach the climax of our ordeal, though, which would soon come in the form of a compromise.  The police said they would get us a second van to take us all back to Cairo.  Great news!  This would mean, though, that those who had their belongings in El Arish hotels and their rooms pre-paid in said hotels would be shit-out-of-luck.  What to do what to do.  Surely all personal belongings would have to be summoned from the hotels.  Surely all monies would have to be returned to the activists.  Luckily, one of the managers of the local hotels (where at least three people were staying) had arrived and for some time had been negotiating our “release” from detention.  A standoff ensued, with Ellen and David, two older long-time peace activists from California holding the keys to our van hostage until their pre-paid hotel room was refunded and their baggage returned.  It had been made clear that as soon as the keys were turned over we would be on our way.  But Ellen and David refused.  We yelled and they yelled right back.  We just wanted to go home, we told them.  We just want our money back, they told us.  A noble fight, for sure, but they were seemingly putting our freedom and our lives in jeopardy.  A back and forth persisted for a while until, due to clearly illegal means, their bags were retrieved from their locked room and their funds returned in full.  The Egyptian police had broken into all of the rooms in order to bring the Americans their stuff.  Talk about violating one’s personal space.  But I no longer cared about anything but leaving this hell hole of a van and getting back to our friends and our stuff in Cairo.  All I could think about was having this end as quickly as possible and once again tasting freedom.

In a blink of an eye we had gone from Gaza, arguing with a member of Hamas about wanting to stay, to arguing with Egyptian border police to return our passports to arguing with Egyptian police to let us use the bathroom and ultimately go home.  We were exhausted.  We were spent.  We had endured just a fraction of the intimidation and dissolvement of rights that Palestinians have had to endure daily for decades.  And then, in another blink, we had split into two vans and were on our way back to Cairo.

Our driver would try once more, while unloading in front of our Cairo hotel, to shake us down for more money.  We politely told him to fuck off and went upstairs to unwind and get back to “normal”.

I had never envisioned this kind of thing happening.  Of course, going into someone’s house and telling them you don’t like their decorations will inevitably lead to arguments and being kindly asked to leave.  I should have expected this.  But to actually live it was something for which I was not prepared.  It was a powerful personal growth moment.

One which I will not soon forget.

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