A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it... We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive... And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us try then what love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
William Penn

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone...
George Fox

Monday, April 15, 2013

On Being an Alchemist

I was a little nervous going to the Masterpeace office in Cairo today. I've been a relatively low profile pilgrim for Masterpeace; any publicity I've had has found me, and not the other way around, so I haven't had much of it. And without publicity for myself, I haven't generated much publicity for Masterpeace either. But my destination had always been Cairo because of Masterpeace, so I paid a visit.
My Masterpeace contact these past eighteen months has been Raghda, and she knew I had arrived in Cairo, but if she wasn't in the office I thought I might just introduce myself, then leave again when everyone wondered who I was and why I was there. When I couldn't find the building where Masterpeace is located, I phoned the office.
"Hello, is this the Masterpeace office?" I asked.
"This is Ken... Ken Schroeder..."
There was a pause, and I was ready to explain what I explained to everyone; that I was walking for peace, and I'd walked also for Masterpeace, etc, when the woman on the phone said, "You're the Alchemist!"
I was glad she knew who I was, though I had never called myself an alchemist, and certainly not 'The Alchemist.'
She was referring to Masterpeace Alchemist Alive, which is a part of Masterpeace that encourages journeys for peace, and comes from Paolo Coelho's book 'The Alchemist,' (with his permission.) But the fact that she had said, "You're the Alchemist!" rather than, "You're the guy that walked from Portugal!" had me feeling pretty important at that moment. Hmmm, I thought.  I am The Alchemist.
So once The Alchemist had fumbled around to find the right building, I took the elevator to the 13th floor where I found the office. Before long I was getting nervous again, not because no one knew who I was, but because of all the attention I was getting.

After I'd walked into the outskirts of Cairo, and gotten the news from Inge that we had lost our friend Sofia in a bus crash in Thailand, I 'd made my way to Maadi to find my host and hole up for a few days. My host, Shanna, allowed me to do just that. Shanna is from New Zealand, and teaches in Cairo. She had once cycled the length of New Zealand's south island for diabetes, so she was sympathetic to my cause. Maadi is on the south end of Cairo, and has a large expat community, and through Shanna I've met many of her colleagues from Ireland, England, and the US. But most of my time here has been spent in isolation. So despite having been in Cairo now for several days, I haven't seen much of it or met many of the people who are from here. Nor had I visited the Masterpeace office until today.

I hope to extend my visa here, something I've been assured is much easier and cheaper to do than in Turkey, and to help Masterpeace in planning and doing a walk through Cairo to the pyramids. As in Coelho's book, the pyramids had been the final destination for my walk for peace. Masterpeace is planning a peace concert at the pyramids in September of 2014. However, the pyramids have now become another leg of my journey; an important leg of my journey, but not the final destination.
I completely support Masterpeace for its philosophy that the individual can change the world for the better, even if only in a very small way. Too many 'professional' peacemaking organizations disregard personal initiative as being ineffective or naive, but I believe that anyone's sincere initiative to create peace will have positive results, even if those results are never seen by that person.
So now after walking from Portugal to Istanbul, hitchhiking from there to Iskenderun, taking a ship from there to Port Said and then walking from there to Cairo, I'll continue walking with others to the pyramids for Masterpeace, and for peace in Egypt and in the world. But once we've gotten to the pyramids, I'll have more walking to do.

Meanwhile there are other alchemists walking or making a journey for peace; 'The Alchemist' for me just may be Wijnand Boon, now in Italy, who helped to inspire me to make this journey. There are alchemists who are planning to start their walks for peace very soon, and there are alchemists who are just thinking about making a journey for peace, and alchemists who don't even know yet that they'll be making a journey for peace. Some will be going to the pyramids while others have other destinations, like Stephan Meurisch who is now in Turkey and walking to Tibet. I'll still be walking with them, and with all of those I have come to know on this journey.

But for now, on to the pyramids! Peace!

Look up Masterpeace at Masterpeace.org to start your own initiative for peace

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Desert Highway from Ismailia to Cairo

I'm on my way again down the desert highway from Ismailia to Cairo. It's hot, but not as hot as the south of France was last summer, so I am a bit fooled by the sun.  By the next day I am trying to cover my arms and face to keep from getting any more sunburned.
I am walking on the shoulder of the highway against traffic, and I frequently have to move onto the desert sand as the shoulder is often used as a lane. I also have to be careful of cars coming up from behind, as the shoulder is also sometimes used as a lane to drive against the flow of traffic. There are no rules here.
Up ahead I see a group of soldiers trying to wave someone down. Their jeep has broken down . Two cars pull over at the same time to help them, and sideswipe each other. They careen a bit, both cars out of control, and my eyes widen as I am in their path. I jump off of the road, just in case, but I am a good 20 meters away from where the cars come to a stop. The car owners exit their vehicles and yell and scream at each other while the soldiers run to them. I saunter past the scene, turn back when I see a fight is about to break out, then continue again down the highway. The soldiers are doing a good job of holding back the two drivers without me.

After camping in an olive grove by the highway, my plan of the day is to cover 25 or 30 kilometers, find a place to get food and water, to recharge my phone battery, and to find tea. Later in the day, I find some shade in an orchard. When I get to my tree, I notice there are people in the shade of many of the trees, sleeping, smoking, chatting, and drinking tea from a little roadside tea stand. I've only been sitting for a few seconds when a kid yells from a neighboring tree. I yell back. Then the man he is with beckons me over. I move my bags to the blanket they're sitting on. The man, Mohammed, offers tea, and I accept. He sends the kid to fetch it. Mohammed's friend comes over, and we try to communicate. I manage to communicate that I am walking for peace to Cairo. They're happy to hear it and give me their phone numbers, and I give them mine.

Later in the day I finally find a 'supermarket' at the end of a long line of factories, which, other than army bases, are the only buildings out here on this stretch of desert highway.  The supermarket is dusty, and nearly empty. Its two workers are sleepily sitting on the steps, swatting flies. I've already been given water from a guy on a motorbike, and from a soldier who filled my bottle from an earthen jar, but I'm empty again so I buy more. I also buy a can of beans, a little cake, and what I think is a bag of peanuts but is a bag of dried beans. (The next day I'll give this to a woman rummaging through the rubbish along the highway.) I find an outlet to recharge the battery of my phone, and as I wait I buy some potato chips to eat as there isn't much else in this supermarket. I find a spot of shade and sit in the dust with my back to the wall, eating potato chips on a desert highway. It isn't what I had imagined it would be.

By the end of the day I'm camped in the desert sand. Looking in one direction, it's endless North African desert, but it's not the desert camping that tourists sign up for. There's also a factory a kilometer away, and the highway just half a kilometer away. I'm hoping for a call from Selda, but instead get a call from Mohammed, the man in the orchard who'd invited me for tea.
"Ken!" he says.
Mohammed then chats away in Arabic for a few seconds.
"I don't understand!"
"Goodbye!" shouts Mohammed.
Just before I fall asleep I hear footsteps approaching the tent. The footsteps slow down, then speed up, then break into a run. No telling who could be in that tent in the desert!

 The next morning I walk past more factories with roadside food stands. The food stands are filthy, but so am I, and I'm hungry. In any case, 'filthy' doesn't bother me.  I stop at two of them, having breakfast twice. I eat:  lots of pita bread, something like refried beans, lettuce and tomato, onions, hard boiled egg and fries along with tea. I take my shoes off and sit on a blanket with factory workers, who are all very friendly. The food is good, and I feel better. The two breakfasts together cost me something like one euro.
Later in the day, Arda calls. He's been calling regularly since I left Ismailia to know exactly where I am on the highway, and to make sure I'm all right. But today he calls because I'm near his factory, in 10th of Ramadan City. He picks me up off the highway to take me to lunch, then to a machine shop where he's doing business. While there I get some time on the internet to communicate with friends and my extended family from Montana to Iran. Then Arda drops me off where he picked me up. It's nice to have Arda looking after me.
That night I'm camped again in a desert olive grove, but the trees don't seem to be doing very well here. Selda calls all the way from Turkey. It's nice to have Selda looking after me too.

The next day the plan is to get to Heliopolis, a part of Cairo not far from the airport to stay with a Couchsurfing host there. As I get to the outskirts of the city I walk through chaotic markets set up under the highway. Then I find the internet cafe where I get Inge's heartwrenching message about Sofia , and the world stops turning.  

Egyptian and Turkish Hospitality in Ismailia and Cairo, and Just a Little Song I wrote

I am on the balcony of my room in the 4-star Mercure Hotel, overlooking a lake that links two parts of the Suez Canal. Below is an inviting swimming pool flanked by palm trees. In the distance, ships are passing northbound through the canal. I’ve had a long, hot shower to wash off the sweat and dust accumulated after my three day walk from Port Said. I feel a bit out of place, and I’m wondering whether I should have insisted on lesser accommodation when Sherio put me up here. Then I stretch out on the bed and decide to take advantage of a little luxury and privacy. Sherio has said he’ll return later to take me out somewhere, and I’m also waiting for a call from someone named Arda. It’s all a bit of a mystery to me, how I came to find myself in this hotel when I thought I’d be passing through Ismailia and sleeping in my tent again. But Selda has managed to arrange something for me from her home in Ankara. She has become like family for me, and I lie on the bed thinking about how grateful I am for her help.

Earlier in the day, as I approached Ismailia, I’d been in touch with Sherio after Arda had given me his number. I had no idea who either of these guys were. Sherio phoned me a few times to monitor my progress, then once I’d gotten into Ismailia, he picked me up in his car. He is an Egyptian lawyer, but he wanted to talk about the Blues and Rock and Roll and Nietzsche. He spoke a bit about politics, and about how he wanted to help me or anyone else walking for peace. He seemed far too kind to be a lawyer. Meanwhile, I still didn’t know what had been arranged.
“Will I have a place to stay here?”
“Yes, a nice place to stay,” he said.
Now in this nice place, Arda called to say he was on his way. I was to meet him in the lobby. I would recognize him because of his casual clothing and long hair.
Arda, as it turns out, is a Turkish businessman, though he in no way resembles one. He takes me to a restaurant for a Turkish kebab in his very modest, well used car. While we’re eating (and I’m doing most of the eating) he explains that the restaurant was almost burned down during the Arab Spring uprising.
“One guy had it in his head to burn the restaurant, so everybody else followed.”
I discover from Arda that he has a plastics factory near Cairo. His factory produces, among other things, plastic pieces for the batteries that power the little three wheeled taxis now prevalent in Egypt.
After dinner he takes me to a café where we smoke shisha pipes and have a long conversation about everything from politics to Egyptian versus Turkish culture to the ways he might be able to help me to deliver one of my petitions. He has a lot of connections.
He explains to me that everything belongs to God, and this is why he’s happy to help me out. Because he dresses as simply as I do, and drives a shabby old car, and lives with and takes care of his father, and comes across without the slightest trace of arrogance (though possessing a keen sense of business savvy), I realize Arda is a giver, not a taker. I believe Arda must give away most of what he makes from his factory.  

The next day I check out of the Mercure despite Sherio’s having deposited enough money to keep me there another night. Arda says he’ll help me find someplace else to stay. He arrives in the early afternoon to pick me up for a car trip to Cairo. This gives me a chance to have a look at the desert highway I’ll be crossing. We meet two Turkish friends of his, who host us for lunch, then the four of us go into the center of Cairo for coffee or tea before taking a night boat ride on the Nile. On the way, Arda points out the burned building that had been Mubarak’s party headquarters.
On our dhow on the Nile, powered by a primitive lateen sail, I have a hard time believing I am here. ‘Down to Egypt’ has become reality, not just some distant, unattainable fantasy. I think about a tune I’d made up in the first months of the walk; a tune a few people have heard me sing over the months, whether they liked it or not. Of course, the written word is less invasive than music can be, so the reader may skip over the lyrics to this little tune. However, it does explain my peculiar Quaker perspective for making this 18 month journey...

I was sittin on a mountain, just lookin at the sky,
When God came down from heaven, and He looked me in the eye.
He said, “Time you started walkin, headin to the East,
Time you started walkin, and thinkin ‘bout makin peace.”

“Get on down to Egypt… now get on down to Egypt!”

I said, “Lordy, can’t it wait, just a little while,
Before I go to Egypt, and to the River Nile,
I got myself a wife, I got a daughter too,
We got ourselves a home, and a garden we just grew.”

“Get on down to Egypt… now get on down to Egypt!

“Lord, you bore the house of Jacob, on eagle’s wings,
You brought ‘em out of Egypt, with all of their things,
Now I’m walkin down to Egypt, when Moses walked away,
Lord, let me understand just what you’re tryin to say!”

“Get on down to Egypt… now get on down to Egypt!”

“Lord, I don’t want to leave it, leave it all behind,
And goin down to Egypt I don’t know what I will find.”
“It’s time you started walkin, headin to the east,
It’s time you started walkin, and thinkin ‘bout makin peace!”

“Get on down to Egypt… get on down to Egypt…”

So now I’m on the Nile and the wife and home and garden are gone, (Linda and I friends though) my dear daughter Olivia is in America (working, studying too hard), I’ve left it all behind (everything I own in my backpack), I’ve thought a lot about making peace (and I’m still not sure how to go about doing it), I’m in Egypt, having walked east (and every other direction), and here I am but I still don’t know what I’ll find.
Back in Spain, where I came up with the words to this song after I’d got a harmonica, I never really thought I’d make it here. Egypt? Was I nuts? But here I am.

That night back in Ismailia I meet some of Arda’s Egyptian friends, one of whom is Hishiim. Hishiim is an outspoken, but very friendly man who gives me lots of advice. He tells me to contact him if I ever need anything in Ismailia, as he has all the right connections. Arda then finds me a place to stay that night. I never do meet Sherio again.
The next morning I start walking down the desert highway towards Cairo.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Along the Suez Canal, Then and Now

In December of 1979 the USS Tattnall, a guided missile destroyer of the US Navy, anchored off of Port Said, Egypt, waiting to pass through the Suez Canal. The Tattnall was on its way to the Persian Gulf. The revolution was underway in Iran, American hostages were being held in Tehran, and the USS Tattnall was going to save the day. At least, that’s how I saw it at the age of nineteen.
I was a signalman on the Tattnall, and I was excited to have a look at the famous canal. From our radio, exotic strains of Arabic music were heard across the signal bridge. Vendors in boats tried to approach the ship but were waved away. There was a stiff, cold breeze, and I remember thinking it odd that it could ever be cold in North Africa. We had a long wait at anchor before entering the canal, and I remember being impatient. I wanted to see this canal, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf; all places that had intrigued me since I had heard childhood stories of Aladdin or seen the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I couldn’t wait to leave the Western world behind and to enter this intriguing world of the Middle East.

Two weeks ago, walking out of Port Said, I pass through several military or police checkpoints. The general rule seems to be that if the checkpoint is an army checkpoint, the soldiers just smile and say “Welcome!"       If the checkpoint is a state police one, several policemen in black uniforms rush out to me before I reach the checkpoint to see my passport and to ask if I speak Arabic. After showing my passport and replying “No,” to their question, they wave me on, also saying, “Welcome!”
So as I approach a checkpoint and toll station on the highway leading to Ismailia, I take note that all I can see are soldiers in tan uniforms. I won’t have to dig out my passport. However, as I walk past a young soldier, ready for my welcome, he demands to see my passport. As I dig it out of my bag,  two men in civilian clothes run over to me. They are smiling, and waving something at me; something they want to sell me in a clear plastic bag. They ask where I am from and I don't reply. One of them tells me to open the plastic bag to have a better look at what he’s selling.
“La,” I say.
I hand the soldier my passport and one of the vendors snatches it out of his hand to have a look. I then snatch the passport out of the vendor’s hand to hand it back to the soldier. The vendor pierces me with a hard look, and the soldier stands smiling. The other vendor says, “Police.”
“Ah! Sorry. Didn’t know.”
The ‘vendor’ accepts my apology. The soldier and the ‘vendor’ have a good look at my passport, then direct me to the other side of the checkpoint. I walk to the other side where several soldiers are hanging around with another man in civilian clothes. They wave me over, take my passport, and tell me to open my bag and backpack. They all seem to keep a distance as I do so. Then they tell me to empty the contents. I start to do this when the man in civilian clothes gets his own hands into my bag to have a look for himself. He finds a knife that Inge had given me back in Bosnia. It has etched into the wooden handle the words, “Let the unexpected guide you”. The man indicates to me that I cannot carry this knife, it is forbidden. He examines the knife, opening and closing it, then he puts it into his pocket. 
“Hmmmm,” I think. But I allow him the knife, wishing him many unexpected events in his life to help guide him.  Then a soldier asks for my mobile phone. I pull it out of my pocket, still not savvy to what’s happening, but I draw back when he tries to snatch it from me. The man in civilian clothes has some words for the soldier.
“Can I go?” I ask. There is more conversation between them in Arabic.
“My knife?”
“La,” says the man.
“Can I go?”
“Yes, yes.”
I repack my things and start down the road again, oblivious to shouts behind me. As I pass the toll station, one of the civilian-clothed police, or vendors, or whatever they are, runs to me, trying to sell whatever it is he has in this plastic bag.
“You must pay 20 dollars to pass!” he shouts at me.
I stop, get close to him, and give him a good, solid, “LA!” to his face, then continue walking down the highway. No one comes to arrest me. Of course.

As the USS Tattnall passed through the Suez Canal, I stood on the signal bridge, mesmerized by my surroundings. On the right bank, Egyptian soldiers in earth trenches waved and cheered. Jimmy Carter had recently helped to make peace between Israel and Egypt, and we were apparently seen as friends. I was surprised by this friendliness; even back then we had all been programmed to believe the entire 'Arab' world was alien and hostile.  On the left bank of the canal was the barren Sinai desert. Bombed ruins and charred army vehicles and tanks remained on the Sinai side of the canal as monuments to the war between Israel and Egypt only a few years before.
I’d had my first lesson in Arabic when we were at anchor off Port Said, having been required to know numbers in Arabic to help identify markers as we passed through the canal. Now I searched for every marker I could find just to test myself on how well I’d learned. The right bank of the canal was the edge of the Nile delta, so there were palm trees and fertile fields on that side in contrast to the miles of lifeless sand on the Sinai side. I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer for the first time passing through the canal, and I am still  as enthralled by it now as I was then. 

On my three day walk from Port Said to Ismailia I quickly learn that Egyptian hospitality is not what Turkish hospitality had been. Though I am occasionally invited for tea along the road by truck drivers reclining in the shade of their trucks, or by a teahouse owner here or there, I am more often having to demand the ‘Egyptian price’ when I am overcharged for a glass of tea.
“Are you Egyptian?” asks one man in response to my demand.
And though many people question me about why I’m walking down this highway and where I’m from and where I’m going, many others put their questions in the form of an interrogation, even demanding to see my passport. There is more suspicion than friendly curiosity in these ‘interrogations’.
At the end of my first day I camp behind some reeds, with the highway just a few meters behind my tent and the Suez Canal not half a kilometer from my front door. As I sit in my tent eating pita bread filled with fried eggplant, and watching ships pass through the canal, a man comes and sits near the tent. He speaks no English, but manages to interrogate me anyhow. He may own the field I am in, but I am not sure. I offer him some food, he declines. I try to explain that I am walking for peace, for salaam. He asks if I am Muslim.
Again, the very useful word, “La.”
Then he marks a cross on his chest.
I nod yes.
He asks again, almost angrily, forcefully marking a cross on his wrist with his finger.
How can I explain my unorthodox Christianity to him? How can I explain that I am not a Coptic Christian? That Christianity as I know it is from within, and not from dogma? That I believe in peace, that my faith rejects violence? But I simply nod yes.
Then I say what so many Moroccan Muslims had said to me over a year ago.
“But Allah is for everybody!”
I say this smiling, pointing upward then stretching my hands out to form an arch across the sky.
He gets up and leaves without a word.

I spend one more night in my tent before reaching Ismailia. It is getting dark, and I duck into a fruit orchard, trying to find a discreet place to pitch the tent. There are footpaths all around though, and from inside the tent I hear voices everywhere. After nightfall I hear many angry voices approaching the tent, and a bright light shines in my face through the opening.
In English, “Who are you? Where are you from?”
I can’t see anyone because of the light in my face. I reach to the back of the tent for the only food I have, pita bread and jam.
“Something to eat?” I ask.
“Give me your passport!”
“Are you the police?”
“No police, give me your passport!”
By this time I can see a little as the light is now being held to the side. These are definitely not the police, unless the police are recruiting 12- year- old kids. Apparently several of  the males of the area have shown up to deal with me, and most of them are carrying sticks, including the 12- year- olds. Inge and I had been through this twice in Bosnia, and we’d learned that everything would be fine once we’d explained. They’re afraid, that’s all.
The leader of this group, a middle aged man, carries a white plastic bucket for some reason. He bangs on it. Is it his weapon?
“Your passport!”
I show him my passport.
“No visa? Where is the visa?”
I find the visa for him. Then things calm down, and the men and boys lower their sticks. I look at one kid and he looks disappointed. He may have been hoping for a little action. As the man in charge questions me in a friendlier manner now, some of the others crouch down to have a better look at me.
Before leaving, the man in charge assures me that I am his guest, and that he will see me in the morning.
Soon afterwards, my peace mentor, Selda, phones from Ankara. She is worried about me. As I am assuring her that everything is okay, I hear more voices approaching. Another bright light shines into the tent.
“What’s happening?” Selda asks.
“Don’t worry, I’m their guest now.”  
Another man has come with his son, without sticks, to see what the guest in the orchard is all about.
Early the next morning, as I pack up, the middle-aged man from the night before appears to give me breakfast; three pita bread sandwiches.

The USS Tattnall passed through the canal, through the Red Sea, into the Indian Ocean, through the Straits of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf, where she passed back and forth on a straight line for some two or three months. The day was saved through diplomacy in the end, not by the USS Tattnall or any other military means. I am glad now that I never saw a shot fired in anger.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Goodbye Sofia

When I arrived at the outskirts of Cairo, in the early afternoon, I was exhausted. I'd walked from Ismailia down the desert highway, dealing not only with the heat and dust, but also with the heavy traffic. I was sunburned and filthy, and I was looking forward to reaching Heliopolis later in the day to stay with a host; to have some company, a shower, and a bed with a roof and four walls. Upon entering the city I found an internet cafe, and on checking my e mail I received the worst news imaginable from Inge in Iran. Her best friend, and my friend Sofia, whom we had spent a month with in Istanbul, had been killed in a bus crash in Thailand. I was in shock, and I was unable to hold back the tears. Sofia, so full of life, living out her dream in Southeast Asia, was gone.

Back in Banja Luka, in Bosnia, Inge had said we had to be in Istanbul by mid-January. Sofia was going to fly in to Istanbul at that time to see Inge before going to Thailand. For the next three months Inge did the navigating, making sure we covered the appropriate distance every day to be Istanbul on time. This created some tension between us as the walk seemed like a forced march for me at times, but Inge was determined not to miss her friend. As it turned out, we arrived in Istanbul just two days before Sofia flew in. I had assumed that Inge and I would part at that point, but the three of us remained together for a month in Istanbul. For that month I got to know Sofia quite well, and I finally understood Inge's resolve to be in Istanbul to meet her. 

What struck me most about Sofia was her passion for life. Inge was busy during that month working through the bureaucratic mess involved in getting visas for her journey, I was pining for renewed vigor to continue my journey, but Sofia was ready to see everything, go everywhere. Istanbul was much more exciting for her than for travel weary Inge and I. Sofia also wanted to visit the surrounding area; islands in the Sea of Marmora, various organic farms to work on. She never got to the islands but she did get to an organic farm near the Black Sea. I met up with her there and found her to be in her element. She was as happy as I had ever seen her when she was living the communal life at the organic farm; slogging through the mud and getting her hands dirty planting and weeding in the greenhouse, she was always brimming with joy. Everybody there loved her, and she loved everybody, caring for them as though they were little brothers or sisters. And she was happy also because her flight to Thailand was coming up soon.

When Sofia left the farm, she was so busy with saying goodbye to everybody that our own goodbye was brief, as though we would see each other again the next day.

We communicated a bit once Sofia was in SE Asia, through Facebook, and she was truly living her dream. The last time we communicated she had just finished an intensive Vipassana meditation course, and she was ready to get out and about once again after sitting still for ten days.

At 22, I believe Sofia had already lived an abundant life. Her excitement at seeing a small strawberry growing on an organic farm, at feeling the breeze on the ferry across the Bosporus, at sharing her discoveries with others, testified  to her high appreciation of life. She had also traveled a great deal, having been to Spain and South America. While so many of us mope around, living long arduous lives, Sofia flew like a bird in springtime.

I was shocked, and I was angry when I read Inge's e-mail on the outskirts of Cairo. There was a great cosmic injustice at work. I was also numb. When I left the internet cafe I knew I'd better focus on getting to a host or I'd be wandering the streets all day and night. I decided on a host at the south side of Cairo, in Maadi, whom I could meet with sooner than the one in Heliopolis. I caught a bus to get to the metro, and as the bus charged through clogged, narrow streets, or took shortcuts by going the wrong way on a four lane road, all I could think about were two people; Sofia, gone now, most likely because of this same kind of driving, and Inge, Sofia's best friend and my adopted little sister, in the middle of nowhere in Iran having to deal with the terrible news.

I'm safe and sound now in Maadi with my very kind host from New Zealand. The Masterpeace office is also in Maadi, and they want to have a little celebration for my arrival in Cairo, but that will have to wait a bit. Inge, meanwhile, will probably be flying home. She wants to be there for Sofia, and she needs to be with her family and friends. Getting through Iran has been hard enough for her without the loss of her best friend; with Sofia's loss it's more than she can bear. But if I know Inge, her journey is far from being over.

Sofia's journey may be over, or it may be just beginning; while traveling we meet so many people who become family to us, then we part, convincing ourselves we will meet again. This parting seems final, but all of us who know Sofia will meet her again and we'll continue our journey together.  

Meanwhile, in Turkey, where I last saw Sofia, the ney plays for her and for us.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Adventure at the Internet Cafe; Port Said; and 'Where are the tourists?'

I've had a lot of work to do online here in Port Suez, my unexpected port of entry into Egypt. As such, I have spent almost as much time in internet cafes as out. The first internet cafe I found had a sign on the wall: Foreigners price, 3 dollars an hour. The last time I'd had to pay such an exorbitant price for internet was in France.
"Foreigners price 3 dollars an hour?" I asked.
"Three bucks an hour. I am honest. I tell people before they use the internet. Where are you from?"
" The USA, but lived in Portugal the last 15 years, and living on the road now."
It's always difficult for me to answer this question.
"Where in USA? I have family in Brooklyn."
"California, Florida..."
Also hard for me to answer.
"California! So 3 bucks no problem!"
I wanted to go, but I was desperate to communicate to family, friends and supporters that I was in Egypt, and not in Israel.
"Three bucks is a problem. I've been living on the road for a year and a half. Walking mostly, for salaam."
"Okay okay, I make you a discount, 2 bucks! Ha ha! Bucks, you know bucks! You're American! Bucks!"

After an hour of internet for two bucks, about 14 Egyptian pounds, I searched for another place. The emergency communication was done. Though the 2 buck internet didn't function well (no Facebook, no Couchsurfing) my friend Selda in Ankara had got the word out that I was in Egypt.
When I found the next place I was relieved, it was 3 Egyptian pounds an hour (not even half a buck), and everything worked. Until the blackout. It may have been a city block, or the entire city, but there was no power and no lights anywhere for 45 minutes. Kids in the internet cafe went wild in the dark. Oddly, the chaos that is Port Said calmed down in the dark. The owner of the cafe had to chase the kids out, they were so wild. I waited because I had been in the middle of an important message. The owner chatted with me a bit in the darkened cafe. He told me the blackouts never lasted more than an hour.
Yesterday, back at work in the same place, a fight broke out inside the internet cafe. I was hastily writing my blog about not getting into Israel, so I wasn't very motivated to make peace. The two antagonists moved out onto the street, with everyone else in the cafe following and shouting. The owner was carrying a stick. I heard glass break outside, and car horns honking. There was a lot of aggression out there, but like a piano player in a saloon during a fight in an old Western, I just kept hitting the keys on the keyboard. In time, everything calmed down, and the owner quietly put his stick away.

As I said, Port said is pure Chaos, but it seems to work. In Morocco there were crosswalks that everyone ignored, the same in Turkey. In Egypt there are no crosswalks, so there is no false sense of security. You just dodge and run for it with car horns honking away. They may not be honking at you though. They honk all the time. Everyone honks. Get out of my way.
I've seen remarkable feats of driving. Drivers who fly down narrow streets (actually every street is narrow, or made narrow as any road space is filled with vendors, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians who can't walk on garbage filled sidewalks or cars making a new lane) missing obstacles by centimeters. I've seen boldness; drivers running red lights as if they weren't there, drivers disobeying signals in one intersection controlled by three non-chalant traffic cops, drivers driving against traffic. They honk, get out of my way!
Over a year ago I thought Moroccan city traffic was about the worst I'd seen. The Egyptians are much better at being the worst. Everytime I step outside I take a deep breath and start dodging traffic. I think it must be something like being under fire in a combat zone. When I reach my destination I duck inside and take another deep breath. The other pedestrians are very calm though. While I'm looking in all directions, ducking and bobbing, running a serpentine pattern, they just walk on, oblivious to all the near misses.
Anyway, I'm enjoying it here. Food is ridiculously cheap once you've found the right places. You have to learn very quickly where the foreigner prices apply.

Also, there are military armoured vehicles with manned 50 caliber machine guns standing by on certain streets. The soldiers manning them are very relaxed though, and return your greetings. They're there because Port Said is presently under military control, the result of the recent riots. My Masterpeace friend in Cairo, Raghda, says Port Said is very safe, and I believe it. Except for the cars, motorcycles and bicycles.

I haven't seen but two or three foreigners here. I met a German couple, stranded here because their ship went to a destination other than the one they had booked for. Their destination? Iskenderun. The ship's? Haifa. The ship? None other than the 'Nissos Rodos.' Apparantly our ship goes to where the money is, wherever the greatest number of trucks sit waiting. The truck drivers in Port Said who were going to Iskenderun have been left stranded as well, their loads of fresh fruit rotting. I understand now why I couldn't get a straight answer as to when the ship was going to Haifa while I was in Iskenderun. The Captain doesn't even know until the last hour.
Anyway, Rudyard Kipling said,
If you truly wish to find someone you have known and who travels, there are two points on the globe you have but to sit and wait, sooner or later your man will come there: the docks of London and Port Said.

The times have changed though, and I think most foreigners are avoiding Port Said these days. But I love it here. I love the chaos.

Nevertheless, as I've done all the damage control I can do after being cast ashore here, tomorrow I'll start walking again, towards Cairo across the Masr-Al Ismaileya Desert. It sounds intimidating, but it's only April; not so hot; and the distance to Cairo isn't so far, just some 200k, about 8 days of walking. There is also a city in between, Ismailia, and I'll be walking along a highway. I crossed a bit of desert in Morocco, and I enjoyed it but for the escort by the Gendarme Royale. I'm looking forward to being in my tent again after nearly three months with a roof over my head. After the storm comes the calm. (Or is it the other way around?) Once in Cairo, Raghda has said there will be a little Masterpeace party, which is nice. And I've got three hosts arranged, all near the pyramids, which is the official end point of my 'Down to Egypt' walk for peace.
But I think my walk will unofficially continue for a bit longer. I've still got some walking and work to do in Israel and Palestine.
'Into the Promised Land,' maybe.

Last week, in Antakya

I skipped this post because I was denied entry into Israel a few days ago, so I thought I'd write about that first. But Antakya was important so I'll write about it now.
Also, an apology for the unedited last post. I'm in a sudden hurry to find new hosts here in Egypt and get ready to make the walk to Cairo, what with my new sudden plans. I've also got a lot of hosts to cancel in Israel, so I'm too busy to edit anything. Thanks Haifa security team. Ahem. By the way guys, if you're interested and reading (I doubt that of course) I'm going to try again.

So back in Antakya a week ago I stayed  in the Catholic Church guest house for pilgrims and at Sister Barbara's guest house as well. sister Barbara has been there for some thirty years preaching and praying for peace. Her chapel is non-denominational, and all are welcome, Muslims and Quakers included. She's got a beautiful peace wall with peace written in dozens of languages, and the windows in the chapel each represent a religion or group of religions: the first represents Buddhism and the Eastern religions, the others represent Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Her service is a mixture of music enhanced with her guitar playing and the angelic voices of two people who work there. There are poetry readings and readings from Sufism and any other spiritual voice on peace. There is a five minute silent prayer time for world peace. I really enjoyed attending.
 Another regular attender while I was there was a young woman from Poland named Dominika. The NGO she works for goes "inside" (meaning Syria) to do their work. You would never know from Dominika's cheerful countenance that she works literally on the front line to help people in need. She was a model to me and she is also a model to the world for what the humanitarian aid worker should be. Unlike some of the journalists and other NGO workers I met there, she has no cynicism regarding an individual's efforts at peacemaking. She offered me great encouragement. After Easter she'll be back "inside" doing the same work.
Before the meal at Sister Barbara's there is breaking of bread, also for peace, and an opportunity for visitors to share a peace poem or song. Selda, my peace mentor from Ankara, sang a nice Native American song for us. She had come down hoping to find some work for us with one of the many NGO's in the area working to help Syrian refugees.
Unfortunately, finding such work on such short notice was difficult, though 'Save the Children' may have been able to put us to work had we been there longer. Instead, we decided to try to help the refugees on our own.    We visited the small city of Reyhanli, just a kilometer or two from the Syrian border to see if there was anything we could do to help in a very small way. We saw no people in any desperate need there, though there were many Syrians living in poverty. Selda bought some bread to feed a few hungry ducks in a pond and some children approached with their grandfather. We gave them some bread to feed the ducks but they ate it instead. Selda then played with the children without any reserve; the image I have of the children giggling with delight at her tickling them, and in the background a flock of sheep crossing the road is etched into my mind. Selda is a peacemaker in every way, and I think her selfless gift community manner is more a model of peacemaking than the businesslike way of some of  the professional peacemakers. Selda brings people happiness.
The next day Selda decided to buy some educational toys for these same children. Selda had collected some money from her friends for this 'mission' of ours, and we went back to Reyhanli to find our kids. Once we found their house we were invited in, and of course their Arabic family wanted us to stay for dinner, but we had to go as the last bus back was going very soon. They gave us some hot bread, and arranged for a man to give us a ride to the bus stop on his motorcycle. We caught the last bus and felt happy that we had done what we had.

That night Selda took the bus back to Ankara, and the next day Shu and I hitchhiked to Iskenderun. Our hosts there were kind and generous, as is normally the case, and they gave us a home until my ship came in.