My bags are packed and sitting by the door. The car awaits.
Whether the destination is Kalamazoo or Kuala Lumpur, I pass through my house in silent reflection
Visiting each room
Grateful for our common experience
Thankful for the people who have shared it
I beseech it to remain safe and strong until my return.
Every departure is an intimation of the last.
In a week that saw both the forty-year sentence handed down to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for his role in the massacre at Srebrenica, and the decision of Bosnian Serb authorities to name a school building in his honor, I was moved again to reflect on the difficult and contentious path Bosnian citizens must walk towards their goal of reconciliation.
Here’s a joke that was making the rounds when I visited the country in 2015:
Three friends – a Serb, a Croat, and a Bosniak – go to a bar. After one beer, everything is OK. After two beers, everything is still OK. After the third beer someone asks “So who really started the war?” After a hasty fourth beer things are OK again.
Sometimes you can visit a country justly renowned for the beauty of its mountains, lakes, and castles and when you get home your favorite picture was taken at your hotel…
This striking assemblage of folk art on the beach at Ouidah, Benin illustrates two ever-present themes of the West African experience: the terrible legacy of slavery, and the fact that nothing ever goes to waste.
The setting was the annual Voodoo Festival which, to this uninitiated viewer, looked like a massive meet-and-greet. The beach marks the point of no return from which slave ships sailed for the new world or, as the sign so eloquently puts it, the beginning and the end of history.
In response to the question “How was Mongolia?” there is only one adjective that comes to mind, pushing all other qualifiers out of contention: vast. The extent of the vastness can only be appreciated once you leave the capital of Ulaanbaatar and realize that you will be spending hours and hours, day after day, traversing huge distances in a rugged and bumpy vehicle, relying on GPS to guide you through roadless and unvarying landscapes.
Among this vastness you will see the country’s justly renowned sights, to wit:
The Monastery Complex at Erdene Zuu
The Flaming Cliffs
The Wild Takhi Horses
But meanwhile there is no denying that the days are long, the challenges of the road are many, and the novelty of the occasional settlement or camel herd is apt to wear thin. So while in Mongolia I found that the best strategy is to embrace the unexpected, and delight in the fact that you are in a country where:
There are vegan karaoke bars:
There are monuments to phalluses:
Angels perch atop baroque silver fountains at the edge of the desert:
The bartender at your ger camp is always ready to serve:
Genghis Khan (or at least his boot) still stands tall after eight centuries:
And museum placards leave you really wanting to know what else is registered in the Red Book of Mongolia…
My thoughts on attending the bull jumping ceremony of the Hamer people were these: If I were a young man about to prove myself worthy of a bride by running naked over the backs of six cranky animals, would I want hundreds of foreign tourists and at least three international media outlets there to record it? And if I were a young woman who was going to drink a generous amount of honey wine and allow my back to be beaten raw with tree branches by the male members of my tribe, would I want so many shocked and disapproving Westerners looking on? Their response, I am sure, would be utter and complete indifference. There can be few traditional people as confidently and defiantly themselves in the face of the modern world as the Hamer people of southern Ethiopia.
The bull jumper is a young man who has come of age and hopes to be allowed to marry his chosen bride by running back and forth three times over the backs of the assembled animals without incident. I’m pleased to report that our jumper was successful and that his payoff was immediate. Returning to terra firma after an impressive display of balance and agility, he scooped up his intended and together they quickly left the scene.
The ritual beating of the women is harder to watch and to understand. The Hamer women are aggressive, quite foxy, and nobody’s fools. But walk behind a random thicket at the ceremony site and you are apt to encounter a young woman, already bleeding profusely, defying a man with a switch to hit her harder. Their willingness to submit to this violence is typically described as a way of showing devotion to the men of the tribe. Why their devotion takes this form is, as far as I have been able to determine, unexplained.
There is a small but wonderful ethnographic museum in the town of Jinka, where storyboards feature Hamer women in their own words. I would have appreciated some insight into the origins and psychology of the custom. But the storytellers are, after all, community members, not anthropologists. They make it clear that refusing to participate in this ritual would be unthinkable, and that the scars thus gained are a badge of honor.
Three times over and back
Observing it all