Jacaranda trees, cool breezes, a downtown that feels something like San Francisco (for lack of a better reference point). Seventeen hours on a rickety train, terminating in a landscape that looks something like the high desert between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, or the llano further east. Except that there are giraffes running off the train tracks here, ostriches prancing wild, and bizarre birds alighting and something hairy and baboonish lumbering through the bush.

I must be in Nairobi. It seems like life has been drawing me here for awhile. Continue reading

Crossroads of the Indian Ocean

I spent the weekend in Zanzibar. It’s a place with streets like Damascus, music like Cairo and Congo intertwined, and an equatorial climate. It’s perched on the rim of the Indian ocean, ringed in palms, and everywhere bears the imprint of a history equal parts East Africa and Arabia, with plenty of Persian, Gujarati and other Indian Ocean ingredients thrown in. And I even found a band of roving, self-taught capoeiristas. They call themselves the Spartans (which means they have a link to my Guerreiros in New York, more on that later).

So yeah, you could pretty much say I’m in love. Not much time to write now, but here are just a few photos. I didn’t take many, because I hope to go back soon with more time for impressions.

The streets of Stonetown reminded me of Aleppo.

The streets of Stonetown reminded me of Aleppo.

Continue reading

Capoeira Jihad for the new year

OK, don’t freak out. I’m not advocating a Brazilian-martial-arts-based holy war on infidels here. Jihad simply means “struggle” in Arabic and carries no inherent connotation of religion or violence. If you don’t know what capoeira is, please read the Wikipedia entry.

Capoeira Jihad is a concept I came up with last year when I was really getting into capoeira, training four to five times a week. I also happened to be taking an extremely time-consuming Arabic class at Columbia. Continue reading

The South Wind of Summer Caresses the Hills…

I got a call around noon on Sunday — my last Sunday in Lebanon — from my capoeira friends asking if I wanted to come to the Bekaa to do a workshop for a youth camp.

Duh. Of course I want to go on a road trip with a bunch of capoeiristas to northern Lebanon!

An hour later, I was cruising up the Damascus Road in the back seat of a capoeirista’s jeep with a berimbau lying across the middle of the car. We came to the crest of the mountains and beheld the mighty Bekaa Valley. It was supposedly the breadbasket of the Roman empire, full of grains and fruits for nearly the length of Lebanon. Now, it still produces some of the best fruits, vegetables and wines, but it has been left out of the international trade loop, people say. It is relatively impoverished and development has bypassed it. Parts of it are home turf for Hezbollah. On the far side of this deep, broad valley rise the slightly more arid ante-Lebanon ranges. On their far side — in their rain shadow — lies Damascus.

The view has the same effect as the one that greets you coming over the Grapevine from Los Angeles into the Central Valley of California. You know, the view that Tom Joad sees in The Grapes of Wrath when his Okie convoy finally comes through the Mojave.

A little while later we were heading up the Bekaa listening to Salif Keita. We went through some small farming towns, where the people had a hard-bitten look to them, and there were Hezbollah and Amal flags everywhere. They run the show, and the Amal guys we asked for directions were completely helpful, despite the foreign appearance of even the Lebanese in our six-person group. (Amal is a political party allied with Hezbollah.)

Ahead of us was a thunderstorm: a good, old-fashioned, high-desert, afternoon-sky-blackening thunderstorm. My instructor — who lived in Albuquerque for years — and I immediately knew it was going to be a nice rain. We had a fun time arguing with the Beirutis in the car, whose conviction that rain does not fall in Lebanon in August under any circumstances was stronger than the evidence before them. Finally the blessed drops began to fall, and we stopped the car and greeted the moisture with out-stretched arms. Such refreshment is hard to come by down in Beirut.

We turned up into the hills to the west, and began a slow ascent through mountains that looked exactly like the semi-arid country of southern Colorado. The difference was that here, the soil was limestone, and the trees were not pinions and junipers but olives and other deciduous trees. They grew in the same evenly spaced patterns of a pinion forest. A breeze was blowing and I could smell the rain. I felt right at home.

In a small dale where the road was glistening from the recent rains, we stopped by a cabin where some apple trees were growing. A man in camouflage pants with a pony tail came out of the cabin. Some children and women were in the background.

“Hey, don’t I know you?” he said in clear English, with a decaying smile. He then proceeded to offer us “cocaine, ecstasy, hash — whatever you want.”

“Uh, no, we just wanted some apples,” I said in Arabic.

“Oh, OK, please have some. In the summer, we have apples. But in the winter we have cocaine, ecstasy, hash, only.”

It was a puzzling and light-hearted conversation. We had no interest in his more exotic goods, but we left with our delicious, fresh apples and drove above dark green fields of crops (you read correctly, Cypress Hill fans) to the camp where we were doing the workshop. The picture above was taken on the last leg of the trip, above the little valley where the hamlet is.

At the summer camp, we did drills with everyone in the late aternoon on a large stage. People liked it — the children were most enthusiastic — but their attention was mixed until we played in a huge roda and they got to see the acrobatics and contortion of the game. Then, with great enthusiasm, everyone taught us same dabkeh steps and played darbakeh beats on the African drums we had brought along.

We drank fresh cold water from a stream (hope that was OK, everyone was doing it) and ate a meal of fresh fish, fattoush and french fries. The full moon came up over the beautiful valley and the air was very cool (elevation about 1,500 meters). It felt just like a New Mexican village. We left despite the entreaties of several young men who begged us to stay and talked about American music with us. Most of the people in the camp were visitng from the middle of the Bekaa and thought of the locals as a bit backward. (Which was a little funny since that is how Beirutis probably view them.) The town looked like Hezbollah ran most major operations, despite the presence of a cursory Lebanese army post.

We cruised back out over the hills in the moonlgiht and told each other scary stories. I freaked everyone out with La Llorona, which seemed appropriate to the landscape.

Finally, we were back in the flats of the Bekaa, and drove by the awesome (not in the surfer sense — rather, the original sense of the word) Roman ruins of Baalbek. To make everything unbelievably perfect, we had the windows open bumpin’ Marvin Gaye as we drove past the towering columns and still-intact temples of the ancient city. So the denizens of the surrounding town got a nice taste of Sexual Healin’ before we left down. Which is really very appropriate for Lebanon, whether or not you are in a Hezbollah-dominated area. People like to live, and they are used to the outside world.

Anyway, that’s the story of my last Sunday. I gotta say it was a good day.

(PS The title of this blog is from a song by the band The Flatlanders. Listen for an auditory equivalent of the breezes I felt that day.)

Summertime Vibes Batroun Beach Party

This was the scene from an all-night capoeira fundraiser Sobrevivientes threw this weekend. It was a success on many levels and a great introduction to the beauty of Lebanon’s beaches. I will post a clip to give an idea of the vibe, but it takes too long in the net cafe… later.

Bahia Axe in Beirut and Damascus

Just a quick update (many more to come):

I am enjoying the heck out of myself in Damascus seeing old friends, although there does not seem to be enough time to see everyone. I will feel terrible that I was not able to visit every person I have a connection with while here. But it’s just impossible.

A great highlight of the last few weeks in Beirut and Damascus has been the existence of capoeira in both. There are good players here and bona fide capoeristas with years and years of experience.

That’s meant an instant community for me, no hiatus in training, and something anchoring my life in places both old and new. It’s what ties all the places I visit together.


Um Pouquinho de Dendê

Watching the United States-Barbados qualifying match on Sunday, I was struck by how the American team — even as their technical skills improve — continue to play like cardboard cut-outs of soccer players. The friend I watched the game with pointed out that U.S. star Landon Donovan personifies this style of play.

Now, I’m about to be a real Long Gone Daddy — off to Lebanon for two months for a journalism internship. When I asked my friend what I should look for out of my internship, he said:

“Just don’t play it like Landon Donovan — textbook perfect. Give it more than that.”

That’s no disrespect to Landon Donovan. He’s a far better footballer than I could ever have hoped to be.

What my friend really meant is summed up in a capoeira song we sing: Eu vim aqui buscar um pouquinho de dendê: I came here to pick up a little bit of dendê, which is palm oil.

It means, put a little oil in your game. Make it smooth. Do the unexpected and play with style.

So as I head off today, that’s what I am keeping in mind!

Peace, America. I’ll see you on the flip side of summer.