Celebrating 200 years…

Celebrating 200 years…

5a914fab57c8c67f0f8210e848a0afc3As we were leaving New York City, the Baha’i community there was in the midst of preparing for the landmark 200 year anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet founder of the Faith. In fact, the entire Baha’i world was looking forward with eager anticipation to this date, working hard to plan commemorations across the globe that would fittingly celebrate this important occasion. Although we could not participate in New York City’s celebrations, only a short ferry ride away the Baha’is of Dar Es Salam were planning their own celebrations, and we were invited!

We took the Kilimanjaro V, one of Zanzibar’s newer catamaran ferries, on a thankfully-smooth two hour trip to Dar Es Salam, Tanzania’s largest city and economic capital. We had been invited to stay in the home of a local Baha’i woman and when we arrived, it seemed that the celebration had already started! Her home was filled with what turned out to be the local Baha’i choir practicing their songs about love, unity and celebration for the commemorations the following day. They sang for two more hours after we arrived (enough that by the end knew the songs too!) before leaving us all to rest.


The incredible physics defying bus

The next day about 35 children, youth and adults packed into an aging bus that was probably made to seat 25 people and could only go forward or reverse by shutting down completely and then starting up again. As we made our way towards the first celebration, we proceeded to pick up even more people! It seems that the laws of physics, and occupant capacity, did not apply to this bus as we must have had at least 45 people mashed together whether seated, standing or, in the case of children, on the lap of another person.


The first day of celebrations commemorated the life of the Bab, the forerunner to Baha’u’llah. We were able to attend two different celebrations that day in different neighborhoods. Each one was held in a hall filled with hundreds of beautifully dressed people from different parts of the city, including one of the government ministers, invited as an honored guest. The programs were beautiful and included prayers, song, talks about the significance of the day in Swahili and English and video clips about the life and imprisonment of Baha’u’llah and the Bab. A few highlights: the politician got up and started dancing with the choir,  a youth band formed from Baha’i activities sang the song “We are drops” which is taught around the world in Baha’i children’s virtues classes and seems to have the same tune no matter which country you visit, and an interesting skit by a group of youth about the importance of family unity, but also respecting justice.

IMG_3612We were also fortunate enough that Caity was able to sing two songs with a friend in Swahili and English, using her ukulele. They had been practicing for the last few days and the songs went well, helping to demonstrate the diverse and international nature of the Faith. Also the ukulele was a hit as many people had never seen one before! The children and fellow musicians were fascinated by this tiny “child’s guitar”. :)

The next day we traveled up to the new Baha’i center for the city-wide celebration for the birth of Baha’u’llah. For this event the community had turned the Baha’i center itself into an exhibition on Baha’u’llah’s life, where guests were guided through each of the different stages of his life, from its start in Iran to exile in Baghdad and Adrianople and his eventual banishment to the prison city of Akka. One of the most moving rooms told the story of Baha’u’llah’s imprisonment in the “Black Pit” for many months where he was forced to wear chains that were so infamous they had their own names and weighed over 100 pounds! With the lights off and the floor covered in rusted chains, it was possible to glimpse what this terrible prison might have been like, at once one the the darkest times in Baha’u’llah’s life but also the place where he received the revelation that he was a prophet of God.

IMG_3608During the final program I was struck by how incredible and unlikely it was that this celebration was even happening at all. It was only 150 years ago that the Baha’i faith was only made up of a small band of adherents heavily persecuted in their native land of Persia. Their first Prophet, the Bab, had been martyred at the hands and the government and clergy and their current leader, Baha’u’llah, was living in exile, never to return to his homeland. Yet in the years since, the community has expanded to every country on the globe inspired by Baha’u’llah’s message that “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens” and “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.”

I might not have been able to celebrate in New York City, but sitting in the audience at the Dar Es Salam Baha’i center surrounded by people of a diversity of nationalities, religions and backgrounds and knowing that similar celebrations like this were happening all over the world was a wonderful feeling. I am sure that I won’t have to wait for another 200 year anniversary to experience it again!


The children with the signs they would show on our bus ride to the celebrations.


Island of Spice

Island of Spice

spice-tour.jpgWhen we came to Zanzibar, I heard people call it an “Island of Spice”. At any market that you visit your nose will inevitably encounter a symphony of smells coming from small stalls filled with plastic bags containing dozens of different multicolored powders. These bags it turns out, are a symbol for Zanzibar’s past as the epicenter of the global spice market.

A significant stage of this tasty history began in the mid 1800s when the Omani Sultan (who had recently moved his capital from Oman to Zanzibar) introduced cloves to the islands. It turns out they grow quite well here and Zanzibar eventually came to produce the vast majority of the world’s cloves, a veritable spice juggernaut! Even in recent history, when spice exports have dropped, clove alone brought in 70% of Zanzibar’s export earnings until 1994! I had no idea that the little pods I stuck in oranges, and drank in chai tea, were the foundation for a spice empire on the other side of the world.

With this history in mind, a number of spice farms have sprung up all over the island as a popular tourist destination where you can see the origin of all the incredible spices that we almost exclusively encounter in powdered form on supermarket shelves.

I recently visited one of these spice farms along with my cousins Gwen and John who were visiting as part of a long tradition of gathering every year to bike long distances in costume together (it’s a long story…). So this meant we could not just visit a spice farm, we had to bike there.

IMG_3485Our trip began by hoisting up our bikes on top of a “dala dala”, Zanzibar’s fleet of modified trucks, vans and busses that transport people all over the island squished together in crowded (but cheap) compartments that always seem to fit one more person, just when you thought that there was no physical way another body could be crammed onto the bench.

Please note, much of the following blog post was written in conjunction with Gwen, a PhD in Conservation Biology, so please forgive any overly scientific language and overzealous plant descriptions :P

We got off near the Guwakamole botanical garden, a 8 acre site directly adjacent to the government agricultural research station KATI. It turns out that the father of our guide Haji had worked for the research station and had been growing a wild menagerie of tropical fruits and spices on this site for decades. Our guide had been leading tours here since 1986. We set off on a slow excursion through the site, stopping every few meters to taste some new and wonderful fruit or plant part and learn about the exotic species that grew here. This was our kind of tour!

IMG_3494As soon as we entered the garden we were intrigued by a weird looking bush with red flowers and spiky black seed pods. We only had wild guesses as to what it was, even when our guide opened up a pod and showed us the small red seeds inside. He gave us a few more clues by rubbing the seeds and revealing a bright red dye and telling us that it was commonly used in food. Because we were still stumped, he finally gave in and told us it was Annatto, the bright red coloring agent. This is one of those ingredients that you often skim over at the end of the ingredients list and we had no idea that it was from seeds. Our guide demonstrated the potency of the dye by painting the lips of one of our biking companions. We subsequently painted our own faces in solidarity so she was not the photoonly ridiculous looking person in the group :)

We then stopped by a small tree with bright shiny leaves and were handed some of them and told to chew on the stem and guess what the tree was. Wild guesses of what it might be revolved around cinnamon (nope, but we did see that tree later and correctly guessed it then) but a cheating look at the tree itself revealed it to be cloves. The clove-shaped green and pink things under the flowers were the dead giveaway. These large floral structures are hypanthia which are hand picked by skilled workers who climb the trees and pluck them from the upper branches and then dry them to produce the little brown cloves that we are familiar with from stores.




Inside of the cacao

The next quiz was to identify a small tree that had large pods and flowers hanging off the main trunk. This one we correctly guessed to be Cacao, although none of us had ever seen it in person before. As the source of chocolate, we of course were all big fans of this plant to start with, but we discovered that chocolate was not the only tasty part of this fruit if you can believe that! Our guide split open one of the pods and demonstrated how to remove the individual seeds and suck off the sweet encasings. Delicious!


PhD scientist added for scale

We then encountered a jackfruit, the tropical fruit that we were familiar with from asian candy but had never actually seen as a fresh fruit, never mind one growing on the tree. These fruit are huge, some even watermelon sized, and they too were growing directly from the trunk of the tree! When cut open, the smooth white fruit inside tasted a bit like bubble gum.

During this two hour tour of the garden we tasted dozens of fruits, looked at more spice plants than we could possibly remember, and had such a great time that we decided that running away and living on a spice farm in Zanzibar could be a valid backup life plan. However, because this blog post is getting overly long, we will only talk about one more of the many spices and fruits we saw.



It turns out that nutmeg also grows on a medium sized tree, hidden inside green fruits that were about the size of an egg. If you cut them open, the valuable seed is revealed, surrounded by a pink seed coat that looks strangely alien like. This spice is revered for its taste and medicinal qualities, but apparently also was historically thought to be an aphrodisiac. We didn’t test that part.


After a large and expertly spiced meal, we realized that we had to bike home.


Perhaps the advertising was a bit misleading…

When we signed up on the bike tour, it mentioned there was “some off road biking” but it turns out that this was a serious understatement. Our guide had us pedaling up a trail that looked more like a ravine than a road, through a national forest filled with red colobus monkeys, randomly placed cassava fields and two women carrying 50 lbs of firewood on their heads like it was no heavier than a sun hat. We eventually made it out of the forest and onto the paved road, which was perhaps an even greater challenge. Although bikes are quite common in Zanzibar, there are certainly not bike lanes (or sometimes car lanes for that matter) and we definitely had one scare from a minibus that screeched into the middle of the other lane due to the driver texting. 


But, even with some near misses, it was certainly worth the delicious and fragrant journey into the famed origins of this Island of Spice.


A Taste of Tradition

A Taste of Tradition


This might look like its from Rome, but this is our local Gelateria!

When Caity and I moved to Zanzibar, as vegetarians we were worried about what we would be able to eat. As it turns out, as a mixing point for Indian, Arabian and East African cultures as well as a thriving tourist hub, we should not have worried too much. Zanzibar town has a wide variety of international food from Ethiopian to Syrian and a significant Italian influence with one restaurant even importing an oven from Italy for its pizza and another serving fresh-made gelato!

A little harder to find however, is traditional Zanzibari food. As it is more often found in homes rather than restaurants, in the month since we have arrived, we have not had the chance to really taste local cuisine–until today, when we went to the Makunduchi food festival.

We were invited by our landlord, who just so happens to be the father of the host family that Caity stayed with during her first two trips to Zanzibar. His family is from a small town on the southern coast of Zanzibar called Makunduchi, which has recently started hosting an annual traditional food festival to revive local foods from a time before the advent of processed foods or imported ingredients.

The Cooking:


Making the Manda by hand.

When we arrived at Makunduchi we were led into a large open courtyard when 40-50 women were spread about in small groups surrounding a series of large metal pots set atop wood-burning fires. Our host walked us from group to group explaining each of the different dishes. The first was a Manda patty made from a mix of coconut and wheat flower and fried on banana leaves, which our host compared to an American getting a donut at Dunkin’ Donuts to start their day. We then moved from one huge pot to another, stirred with ladles make from halved coconut shells and filled with curries, black fermented cassava, thick porridges and tiny hand-rolled balls of cassava flower called vidodoo.


The coconut chair!

There were also a few traditional tools that have since been replaced by blenders and industrial machines. Perhaps the most interesting one was a chair specifically designed to help the sitter shred coconuts. A wooden rod tipped with a metal scrapper extends our from the short folding seat helping the seated woman expertly and rapidly turn coconut meat inside a shell to a pile of sweet shavings. You know that coconuts are an important part of your cooking when you invent a piece of furniture specifically to help with its preparation!

The Celebration: 


The singing menu

Before we could eat however, we had to watch the festivities that culminated in the food frenzy. With the combination of not speaking Swahili and a microphone that would continuously cut out, it was hard to follow exactly what was going on, but there were a few definite highlights. The first was a pair of women in high pitched voices singing through the menu of traditional foods, describing and acting out the process of how each one was made.


The main “band”

After a few other routines came the main act. Caity and I had sat down when we heard a pretty incredible guitar riff coming out of the speakers. We get up to see what is going on and find a five-man band dressed in bring white shirts, dress pants and suspenders playing a song from a famous Makunduchi band from the 1970s. Upon closer examination however, it turned out that the two guitar players were not hooked up to any cords and the “trumpet” player was in fact holding a silver flute that he just played like a trumpet! Despite not actually playing the music, they were totally rocking out! The “trumpet” player took a solo and energetically moving around the crowd, with his cheeks puffed out theatrically and the guitar player took his solo to the next level by “playing” the guitar upside-down above his head! And the crowd loved it! People were continually running up to the bank and stuffing Tanzanian shilling notes in their shirt pockets, in a jar up front or even tucking them into the suspender straps of the lead “singer”!

This hilarious act closed out the presentations and let us get to our food! Although we still had to pass up a few dishes, like octopus soup, we still got quite a good sampling of traditional Zanzibari cuisine. One of the family members with us even said that he had not eaten one of the dishes for over 50 years!


Enjoying our food without utensils. This was after all a traditional food festival!

Harnessing the Wind

Harnessing the Wind

“It’s working! I’M DOING IT! Wait, what’s happening now? Oh no! The kite is dropping! What do I do? He didn’t tell me what to do when this happens! AHHHH!” [face full of sea water]

This is what learning how to kite surf sounded like for me. Cycles of momentary success, followed by unexpected changes and often ending in spectacular crashes! It was difficult, and at times painful, but this was one of the things I was looking forward to about our time in Zanzibar. Learning how to kite surf was right near the top of the things-we-must-do-before-we-leave list. I didn’t know much about it, but surfing the ocean harnessed to a kite and being able to launch yourself into the air sounded incredible.

A bit of Kite History:

Charvolant (1)

A different kind of “horseless carriage”.

Because I’m a history nerd, I had to look this up. As it turns out, using a kite to harness the power of the wind for transportation is not as novel an idea as I thought. In the early 1800s a British school teacher named George Pocock had started experimenting with kites. He first used students in experiments, then family members (at one point using a 30ft kite to lift his daughter over 250ft in the air!) and eventually applied his ideas to transportation. His invention of the “Charvolant” buggy was a carriage propelled by kite, which was not only the fastest carriage at the time, but conveniently avoided the hated “horse tax”! Unfortunately, his idea did not catch on and it took another 80 years for kite transportation resurface.


A war kite! Be afraid!!!

It came in the early 1900s, when famed Wild West showman Samuel Cody began experimenting with kites that were large enough to carry people. Debuted in Britain, these kites attracted the attention of the British military, which purchased four “war-kites” from Cody. They later hired him as the Chief Instructor of Kiting at the Army Balloon Factory, which ultimately evolved into the No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Air Force! Although his “war kites” were ultimately eclipsed by motor powered airplanes, Cody did become the first man to fly an aeroplane in Britain in 1908, just a few years after the Wright Brothers.

It took until the late 1990s for kites surfing to become a popular sport, after the work of a number of creative individuals led to the combined use of a large kite with inflatable ribs, a harness on a trapeze belt and a board with foot straps. And so kite surfing was born. It is now a sport with roughly 1.5 million participants and a number of crazy records such as achieving a top speed of 64 mph and jumping almost 94 feet off the ground! (Don’t worry Mum, I wont be doing either of those in the foreseeable future!)

Learning how to Kite Surf:


Inflating the surfing kite.

The process for learning how to kite surf is thankfully much easier than I expected. Working with a Zanzibari instructor named Yahaya, I started with a small “baby kite” where I learned the basic kite control skills that would eventually have me gliding across the water.

After this Yahiya took me out into the ocean, where I practiced using the kite to drag myself through the water, practicing for the times when I inevitably crashed, lost my board and had to fetch it or just bring myself back to shore. This stage produced some of the most epic crashes as I accidentally caught too much power in the kite, launching myself out of the water only to belly flop back down into it!


Not me, but totally what I did many times.

The second day introduced the board, which you use one hand to stick your feet into while the other holds the kite steady. My first attempts involved a good number more crashes, this time involving more speed and the board flying off my feet!

But it is all worth the feeling of gliding across the surface of the ocean pulled by a 12-meter kite that you control! Although these moments do not come frequently in the early stages of the learning process, when they do, it brings back into brilliant focus the freedom, joy and exhilaration that are the reason why I was attracted to kite surf in the first place.


When I finally got up on the board!


My instructor Yahaya and I. We got along so well that he was calling me his “brother from another mother.”

Being a Student:

The process of learning how to kite surf also let me to experience what its like being a student again. As a teacher about to enter a new school year, it was a good reminder about both helping my students develop the qualities needed to learn, while also being conscious to let them practice with the “baby kite” before asking them to jump into the water. That way, when the wind blows, they are ready to catch it and glide away. And, hopefully after a few more lessons, I will be doing the same!

Monkeys, Mangroves and Minnows

Monkeys, Mangroves and Minnows

It seems fitting that my first post about life in Zanzibar be about the natural beauty that we have experienced in our first two weeks on the island. As a coral island, Zanzibar is renown for its beaches, but there is more to do here than just lie in the sun and catch up on our reading!


Blue Monkey.jpeg

One of the “Blue Monkeys” we saw.

We began our exploration of Zanzibar with a trip to the Jozani Forest Reserve, one of the many protected ecological sites on the island. Our guide started by leading us on an improvised trail running through people’s yards and fields and then past a roadside stand selling roasted corn. Our first monkey sighting was a small “Blue Monkey” (our guide also said the scientific and Swahili name of everything we saw but I promptly forgot them) who was sitting in a tree next to the “path”.

We then continued on until we stepped into someone’s backyard and saw the main object of our quest, the Red Colobus Monkey, sitting in a tree on what looked like a specially designed monkey perch eating leaves. We felt an instant bond as Red Colobus Monkeys are also vegetarians! They mainly eat the soft and juicy new leaves of a different plants and have even been seen to eat charcoal to aid in the digestion of more toxic leaves! Talk about smart! Each monkey is about 1.5 feet tall (not counting the tail), has two bright red patches on their back, a light colored nose and bright white tufts of hair poking out wildly above their eyes.


I was way more scared of the monkey than he was of me!

We continued walking through a field and we are suddenly in a monkey-crossing zone with a few of the furry creatures walking right by us as they foraged their way to a living fence where the rest of their troop was hanging out (quite literally in the case of a few!). It seems that these monkeys live in small groups of 20-30 with one dominant alpha and about two female monkeys to every male. There are two interesting facts about these groups. The first is that their membership is fluid. This is particularly true with females, who will hop from group to group, a practice that is probably particularly trying for the ego of the alpha! The second interesting dynamic is with young males. In part due to the strong hierarchy, young males are not always accepted in the group where they are born and regularly leave to take their chances joining another group. However, this does not always go smoothly and researchers have found that some young males will bide their time with another group of a different species of monkeys, spying for the opportune moment to try and enter the new group again. One monkey was even found to spy on his desired group for over two years! I hope he got in after that!


jozani-forest-tour-zanzibar-mangrove-boarwalkAfter spending some time with our primate friends, our guide took us on a forest tour that ended in one of Zanzibar’s mangrove forests. We followed an elevated walkway through an area that is partially submerged in salty sea water during high tide and fed from underground freshwater during low tides.

In order to survive in this unique environment, mangrove trees have adapted in fascinating ways, especially in dealing with the high salt content of the ocean water they are regularly bathed in. Because they are partially submerged in salt water for part of each day, different species have found ways of living in this low-oxygen environment. For example, red mangroves grow a series of stilt-like roots which prop up the main tree higher and allow it to absorb oxygen through its bark, while black mangroves grow roots that stick straight up out of the ground (some over a meter in height!) and can act like straws for breathing!


The sacrificial leaf

Another adaptation is the use of a sacrificial leaf, where the tree directs excess salt into older leaves on the tree, which turn yellow and fall off, allowing the rest of the tree to continue growing! Finally, there are even some mangroves which can “sweat salt”, pushing it out from their leaves! Crazy!

As if that is not enough, mangrove seeds even have special adaptations. For one, the seeds start their germination process before they even fall off the tree and this ready-to-go seed will then drop from the tree and float until it finds a suitable environment. When it does, the seed will change its own density to float vertically and more easily root. If this doesn’t work out, the seed can change its density again and float away! Wow!


Don’t even think about lying on this beach!


Our next ecological adventure took us to the North Eastern coast of Zanzibar, where we went snorkeling on Mnemba Island. Actually, I don’t mean on the island itself, since the entire island is privately owned and it is considered trespassing to set foot upon its powder white beaches. Unless of course you are able to pay the $1,200-1,600 a night to rent one of the dozen private villas on the island. If you can however, not only are you guaranteed a very exclusive get away but also a chance to rub elbows with Bill Gates, as this is reputedly one of his favorite get aways! :)

We contented ourselves with the much cheaper route of renting a small boat and swimming around the coral reefs that ring the island. The fish came in all shapes, sizes and colors, darting in and out of the coral formations or dodging swimmers who dove down below the surface for a closer look.

The coral was unfortunately less spectacular due to the significant bleaching that has occurred over the past few years. Bleaching is when the colorful algae living in a symbiotic relationship with the coral it covers are killed off, largely due to increased water temperatures. This can happen dramatically, like the time in 1997-1998 where a global bleaching event caused by El Nino killed 80% of Tanzania’s coral (!), or this can occur over a longer period of time as the temperature of the ocean’s water incrementally rises. Dying coral reefs can no longer support a diverse ecosystem, which in turn puts stress on the millions of people who rely on fish from the reefs as a principle source of food and income. After teaching a unit on climate change this past year, seeing the whitened coral certainly gave me an up-close perspective on one of the many serious challenges that I had spoken with my students about.


Unfortunately not our picture, but this is almost exactly what we saw!

Thankfully the trip ended on a high note: a dolphin chase! Once one boat spotted a small pod of dolphins swimming a short distance away, then news rippled across the other boats and the race was on! Guides hurriedly gathered their swimmers, revved their engines and launched after the dolphins. As a boat approached the prize they would pull up next to these elegant creatures and every tourist threw themselves into the water in an attempt to get a close-up view. But within seconds, the dolphins were out of sight and the next boat would repeat the procedure in a crazy game of leap frog. Thankfully we had our turn and I got about 10 feet from a pair of dolphins as they surfaced for air and dove back down under the water, effortlessly swimming out of my sight. It was only a few seconds, but it made the whole trip worth it.


A Trip to the Beach

Every summer, many Egyptians take leave of the hot and dusty interior cities and head to the beach. They swarm cities like Alexandria and populate the numerous resorts that have grown up along the Red Sea. To celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary (hooray!!) we decided to follow the crowd and spend a few days basking in the sun and swimming in turquoise waters.

We chose to go to Moon Beach, a spot more popular among foreigners. It was liberating to change into our swimsuits, finally being able to wear clothing that provides some reprieve from the heat, as compared with the pants and longer sleeves that are the cultural norm in Egypt. Although we felt self-conscious at first, seeing other beach goers calming walking around in bikinis helped to assuage our worries.

The beach was gorgeous. Thatched umbrellas spotted the beach and looked out over the brilliant blue waters, where you could just make out the mountains on the other side of the Red Sea. The other sunbathers must have come from all over, as we heard five or six different languages being spoken, and sometimes many among the same family! There were also a number of Egyptian families as well, some of whom happily soaked up the rays in bikinis while others swam while still wearing a headscarf and longs leaves.

We spent most of our time sitting in the sun and reading (Caity with her Kindle and me with an old fashioned non-ebook), as unfortunately much of the coral that normally draws snorkeling enthusiasts has died out in the last few decades. We were told that this is due to ships illegally dumping their bilge (sewage etc accumulated from their voyage) before the reach the Suez Canal in an attempt to save same money, as the ships are charged by weight. When roughly 18,000 ships pass through the canal each year, this is not an insignificant issue. I tried not to think about it as we splashed and swam about in the cool waters.

Caity Windsurfing

Although there was no snorkeling, there was definitely windsurfing. Moon beach is known for its constant wind and smooth waters, making it windsurfing central. There were always five or six people out on the water, mostly beginners slowly and ponderously cruising along but other more advanced surfers zipped across the water and even doing 360s, spinning the massive board and sail in a movement that looked like water acrobatics from the shore!

My 30 foot epic voyage!

Although this looked easy enough from the shore (not including the spins of course!) it turned out to be much more difficult in practice. Larger than a normal surfboard, a windsurfing board is big enough to allow to you crawl on top and stand up without sinking. That however, is the easy part. You have to then pull (maybe hoist is the proper sea term? :P) the huge sail up off the water while remaining balanced on the board. If you pull too hard, you fall over backward with the sail on top of you and too much to one side or the other and you loose balance and flop off the board. After about five minutes of graceless flopping, I finally managed to catch the wind and go a good thirty feet, giving me a newfound appreciation for the sport and the incredible amount of skill needed to turn the thing, much less spin it!

We spent the last night out under the stars, which, unlike Cairo, were brilliantly visible. It was even clear enough that we could easily make out the Milky Way spilled across the dark night sky. Living in a city of twenty million, it is easy to forget how tiny we are compared to the vastness of the universe and the wondrous mysteries of creation. We are rarely afforded true darkness or silence in Cairo and being alone with only the sounds of the wind and waves was a treat.

More importantly however, the trip was a wonderful way to mark our two years of marriage. We have had an incredible second year together, traveling across the Middle East, experiencing a revolution, living two months as evacuees in Kenya and Uganda and now spending the last months in Cairo. I certainly feel blessed, and I think we are both looking forward to diving into year three!

Sketchbooks and Rubber Duckies

I was not flying in for a traditional academic conference. I did not bring a paper to present or intend to leave a few days later with a new line on my resume. Instead, my suitcase was filled with a sketchpad, drawing pencils, a glue stick, an object from my childhood and ten close-up photos of natural objects. It was going to be an interesting week indeed.

My trip was a bit unconventional before I even got to the airport. Two days before my flight took off I had no idea where I was staying. A friend in Barcelona was helping me with accommodations but in addition to the difficulty of asking friends to host a total stranger for a week, things in Spain happen on their own schedule, one not so concerned with my imminent arrival. Luckily, I ended up staying with Montse, a sweet Catalunya native who worked as an educator helping people recover from drug addiction.

Once I arrived in Spain and met Montse the morning before my first session, I found out that we had opposite schedules. My workshop started in the morning and ended at 1:30pm, right at the time she left for work, only to get home after ten. The first morning we went together and made a copy of the house keys, but when I returned from the workshop ready to take a much-needed siesta, one of the keys didn’t work! As I had no cell phone and no idea where Montse worked, I decided to wander the city until she got back. Luckily, in Barcelona, that is a great plan B.

And this is a normal building...

The city is built along the coast and a cool breeze off the ocean makes the temperature just perfect for a stroll or spending the afternoon eating tapas at one of the many street-side cafes. Barcelona is also filled with public art and was the home of the famous artist Antoni Gaudi, whose incredible mosaics and flowing nature-inspired style can be seen on buildings and parks throughout the city. But even those buildings not designed by an artist seem to be works of art in themselves, coming from a time when buildings were dignified structure made to last. Every building has its own personality, with different windows, ancient doors and stylized metal railings on the small balconies. It was easy to see why this was chosen as the location for a workshop on creativity!

Our hosts/teachers for the workshop were Shelley Berc, an accomplished playwright and author and Alejandro Fogel, a talented visual artist. Both have spent a lifetime working in the arts and reflecting about creativity and its inspiration. Throughout the five days, they guided us through a host of different writing and drawing activities meant to free us from our minds and help us let go from any mental obstacles that would keep us from tapping into the creative side of our nature.

We recounted childhood stories, drew maps of our heart and mind, interviewed another participant and presented ourselves to the group as them, did visualizations and lots of automatic writing and drawing, letting our hand outpace our mind. One of my favorite activities was trying to make a story using ten random objects chosen by another of the participants. I ended up being given a rubber ducky and a bunch of small necklace pendants and fashioned an epic tale of friendship, loss and triumph!

In a sense, it was to help us be more like children, getting in touch with the fun, energetic side of ourselves, one that is not stifled by shame, self-consciousness or an overly-critical mind. When a child sees a performer on stage doing an amazing dance or song, they immediately want to join, and might even have to be stopped from climbing up on stage themselves! Most adults on the other hand, see the performance and say to themselves, “I could never do that. I would make such a fool out of myself if I even tried.”

One of my realizations throughout the workshop concerned the importance of creativity in our education. Before coming to Barcelona, I thought of creativity as something mainly useful for artists, whether visual or performing. It became clear however, that creativity is less a skill and more a way of thought, of opening ourselves to inspiration and learning not to listen to the more critical side of our nature.

This is important because creativity is a significant part of who we are as people and how we understand the world. In the US, we are told that the primary part of our identity is that of a consumer; that we take in what others create. If our purpose is to consume however, we do not create, losing that wonderful force that makes life so interesting and ultimately drives our society forward. This reflection made me think differently about the fact that when a school has budget problems, it is the art department that gets cut first. This is not just a loss to those students who are artistically inclined but to all students, who are being deprived of the chance to develop a new way of thinking about the world. Schools should not kill creativity but foster it.

It would be nice to say that having finished the workshop, I am now creative. Unfortunately it does not seem to work that way. :) Shelley and Alejandro gave us a number of different seeds, but it is now up to us to plant and nurture them and see what grows.