Author Archives: Zaina Brown

About Zaina Brown

Bellydancer, writer, filmmaker, traveler

Getting Tattooed, Somali Style

Henna tattoos are a big part of women’s wedding preparations in many Arab countries. The same is true for Somali culture. If you ever find yourself in Hargeisa, Somaliland, you should definitely give it a try.

Enter the central market, and walk through the food section. if you look closely at the walls behind the vending tables, you may spot a picture of hands with henna tattoos. Or just ask someone to show you where they are. Remember to be female. The henna salons are just tiny rooms closed with curtains – a strict no-go zone for men. Take off your niqab (face covering) if you are wearing one, and your shoes, and sit down on the mat to wait for your turn. Most Somali women get brown Henna, but red is available as well. For hands only, brown costs $3 and red $4.

ImageWaiting for my red henna to dry

ImageAll done! 

ImageBrown henna

This gave me a flashback of the Sahrawi wedding I attended in Laayoune, in the occupied Western Sahara. Both Somaliland and Western Sahara are unrecognized states. They are at the opposite ends of the African continent, yet they have things in common, such as henna. Incredible!

ImageMarried Sahrawi women get both hands and feet tattooed. Laayoune, Western Sahara 2012

I thoroughly enjoyed the Somali wedding. I’m a lucky, lucky traveler. Hargeisa, you’re too good to me!

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Sweet Shanghai

China’s visa policy used to be very stiff. Now they’re giving out free 72-hour transit visas. I’ll take it! I spent two full days in Shanghai on my way from Phuket to New York. You can eat many things in that time. Here are a few sweet examples. (Ok, I didn’t eat EVERY one of these. Guess which one I skipped.)

Fried pumpkin balls. Traditional Chinese dessert, yummy and gooey!

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Peanuts / red beans with ice cream and waffle. A treat in one of the thousands of Shanghai malls.

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A Hello Kitty cake. Meeow! How cute is that?

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Candied apples and strawberries. Sold on streets everywhere.

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A coco cream puff at Pudong airport. Ending things on a good note.

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I’ll have to return for that Hello Kitty cake sometime. (The big one.)

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Star Wars Tour in Tunisia

Disclaimer: I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie in my life. I don’t know the difference between that and Star Trek. Fantasy and Scifi are among the few film genres I don’t particularly enjoy. I walked out of the first Lord of the Rings thirty minutes in, and I would rather read the memoir of Sarah Palin than any given Harry Potter book.

However, the Star Wars sightseeing in Tunisia is thoroughly enjoyable even for someone like me. Most of the “film sets” are old Berber buildings – strange-looking structures designed to keep grains intact, or people comfortable, in the scorching desert heat, before there was electricity. They are worth seeing with or without the Star Wars brand.

All of these locations are in the reach of the independent traveler. Tunisia is well-connected by buses and louages (minivans, smaller and faster), and hiring private cars at the destinations won’t break the bank.

ImageKsar Ouled Soltane

First stop: TATAOUINE, in the Southeast. In Arabic it’s spelled t-T-w-i-n, so one of the transliteration options is Tatooine. (Yes, Tatooine actually exists on the map, in the Tunisian Sahara.) Once there, hire a taxi for the day, to get into the surrounding abandoned Berber villages. Among them you will find Ksar Ouled Soltane and Ksar Hedada (also spelled Hadada) – both were used as slave quarters in Star Wars: the Phantom Menace.

ImageKsar Hedada

Move onto the nearby town of MATMATA. See Hotel Sidi Driss, its interior was used as Luke Skywalker’s home. It is an old troglodyte dwelling, basically a hole in the ground, later converted into a functioning hotel. Go on, have a sleepover at Luke’s.

ImageHotel Sidi Driss

Then, travel to TOZEUR in the Southwest of the country. Once there, hire a 4WD through a local travel agent to get to Ong Jamel. That is a rock formation in the desert, also seen in the movies. The town of Mos Espa lies nearby. This site is an artificial one: a movie set built into the desert, and left there after the filming ended. Sand dunes are moving in and covering the set more and more each year, so the best time to visit is right now.

ImageMos Espa

Between Tozeur and KABILY lies Chott el Jerid, a giant salt lake. This was the location of Lars Homestead, Luke’s house was supposedly here. An enormous white surface, it really looks like another planet.

ImageChott el Jerid

There are many amazing things to see in these areas, each town invites thorough exploration. Going to these places is in no way overlooking the real Tunisia. The Star Wars attractions only work to enhance what is already there – a beautiful country and people, who will warmly welcome you. Have fun and may the force be with you, like the hobbits say.

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How I Met Haile

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The man with the million dollar smile!

Haile Gebrselassie is a name that brings me back to my childhood. I remember watching him on TV with my family. It’s the early 90’s, and the young Ethiopian long distance runner has just emerged on the world stage. He leaves his competition behind and everyone else in awe. This guy is incredible! My father in particular admires him. Somehow the story of a boy, who ran ten kilometers to school and back each day barefoot, resonates with him. Haile runs with his left arm crooked, as if holding a pile of invisible school books. Indeed, he is a sports hero of the purest kind. No coaching, no special diet, not even SHOES – this world champion is the product of good old-fashioned talent and mad resilience.

Fastforward to 2014, and I’m in Addis Ababa for the second time. A little bird has told me the location of Haile’s office on Bole Road and I’m ready to raid the building. I begin at the gym downstairs, where he works out every day. (I’m guessing he likes the treadmill. And it’s HIS gym, by the way.) Perhaps that’s an appropriate place to bother the busy entrepreneur? A little embarrassed, I ask the receptionist what time I might find him there. She tells me it won’t be until much later. “But if you want to talk to him now, you can go upstairs to his office and ask his secretary.” Well then! I do just that. I have to wait all of ten minutes while Haile is in a meeting, and then I’m invited in.

Now, showing up unannounced like this is a little on the audacious side. But my audacity is rewarded. Haile is very friendly and personable. He graciously welcomes me and sits down to talk to me. I have a present for him: a scarf and a little good luck charm from Tunisia, and a box of chocolate-covered dates from Dubai. (I happen to think those dates are amazing, and a suitable gift for anyone from running legends to doctors and their offspring. Besides, Olympic winners eat chocolate for breakfast, everybody knows that.) Haile asks me about my life, trying to understand where it is that I live and work, which often gets people confused. I explain the whole dancing and traveling scenario. “You are a very special person” he says to me. That’s kind of crazy to hear from someone who has set twenty world records. From a country boy to a star athlete to a successful entrepreneur, Haile’s had a wild ride. But you can tell by his warmth that none of that got to him. He’s still that boy with no shoes, only now running a business empire. And THAT is true greatness. That is why it was such an honor to meet him.

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Pandora’s (In)Box

Manish had a question for me.
“hey..r u a belly dancer..??”

One day while browsing my Newsfeed I saw a friend talk about his “other” inbox.
“What is that?” I asked.
He explained that next to my Inbox, I too had a folder named “Other”, where all the spam, and messages from non-friends, went. I just can’t keep up with Facebook. Mark should tell me these things!

You know the story of Pandora? According to the Greek, Zeus gave Pandora this beautiful box, telling her not to open it no matter what. But that silly girl went and opened it anyhow, and BOOM! Out came years worth of promotional spam and sexual frustration. And since that day, every woman on Facebook has been cursed with a Box of their own.

A lot of the stuff in Zaina’s Box could be summarized as just “hi…can we be friendz…??”, but others had more substance. Some accounts had been deactivated. Or maybe shut down for spamming too many women?

“Are you a real belly dancer? I thought muslim countries don’t have belly dancers. Im muslim so im just curious.” -Namis
I think Namis is very, very confused.

“hi i need to talk with u soon in job .and i get ur name on fb from friend to u .but answer soon plz not time .tnx”
Man! I can’t believe I missed that opportunity in job! This sounds TOTALLY legit.

“I like u r puctur n profile.”
Not sure which puctur I had at the time, but I’m glad he liked it.

“Hello!! Lady!!!! Can we become friends???” – Myles
Hello!! Dude!!! No???

“hi, i know u have seen my FR but u r hesitant to accept! no need to worry from dear i just like to be ur close friend in bahrain…u r amazing with special senses!”
Pheew, I was so worried that he may not want to be my close friend. However, my special senses tell me not to speak to him.

A quick query among my friends produced similar results. Bellydancers are online creeper MAGNETS. A take from Shayma‘s Box:

Shayma

Shayma

“really u look so sweet, i want to be real friend , send me ur number to talk , i have only 20 days for my vacation” – Kamal
Twenty days of real friendship. Who could refuse?

“hi hwzz u whr u frm??cute pix…”
– Shibin
Would it kill Shibin to use actual words?

“U like to have a feet massage !?”
– Tareq
Don’t we all, Tareq, don’t we all.

Siham

Siham

Siham‘s Box included one of the most coherent messages ever written by a random dude to a girl he’s never met. You would almost think he typed it with two hands.

“I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you have to be one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen!!!  You look like an Arabian Princess in your outfit!
Would it be okay if I were to ask you a kinda silly question? Well, I’m a little nervous to ask but here goes. I was wondering if you might consider the thought of having a servant boy?  Like someone to do all your cleaning, running errands, hold your umbrella, stuff like that? I just thought you looked like an Arabian Princess.  Like in those movies where the Princess is being carried on one of those fancy carriage things, carried by four male slaves while another slave fans her with those peacock feathers. Know what I mean?” – Kenny

We know exactly what Kenny means. Those fancy carriage things, peacock feather fans, slaves, the usual stuff. I don’t think this poor servant boy from the States even realizes that Siham is a professional dancer, not a girl dressing up as a Disney princess. Kenny seems pretty caught up in his fantasy world.

Athena Najat

Athena Najat

Here’s a couple of winners from Athena‘s Box.

“mam am body massager  special in belly dancer body  special in backbone hipe  thai  legs foot foot finger shoulder hand hand finger mam my massage full reluxe the body she feel come in the world in born new baby mam thailand world massage center she lady call me in thailand i will go thailand in 20011 mam i want a massage job my mobile no 00923******** my am male am 48 year old am 25 year above experince in massage” – Sarfraz
I just have a couple of questions to Mr. Sarfraz. Judging by the number, he’s in Tajikistan. Would mam Athena need to move there, should she decide to hire him? And, who the hell makes plans for the year 20011?

“hioo ..good morning iam ahmed from arab republic of EGYPT.. iam inetrsted in u so much … can u accept adding me in ur frind list …. woww i see u wear belly dancing clothes …. can u really dance egyptian dance i feel woww ….. u know i live in giza 10 minutes from pyramids… can u add me soon….thanks iam waiting ur reply” – Ahmed
I hear you Ahmed! I feel woww when I see Athena’s pictures too!

But one person stood out in the crowd. We’ll call him the Poet. He’d sent me a whole bunch of messages. If you read closely, you can hear the South Asian accent. Here are some of my favorite lines. The entire “poems” are WAY too long to repeat here.

“when i think of you i became fragrant, your scent is resided in my soul”
“there is some magic in your eyes, hide me under the shade of your lashes”
“The world is your ouster, and it ponders on an opportunity to show its gratitude to you for your graceful aura which you sprinkle in every ambiance.”
What?
“the morning blue sky awaits your rainbow smile….so :)”
“The heavens need to bestow in your life a Prince (…) who when would be in your presence would feel champagne falling from the heavens.” 

Look, before you get mad jealous, it wasn’t me that caused that leakage of champagne. The Poet was sending the same stuff to just about EVERY bellydancer and their mother. His friend list also included many women who appeared to be, how to put this now, adult entertainers.

I decided to play a little. I wrote a message to the Poet.
“Wow, you write such captivating poems. You truly are a man of eloquence and creativity. But I’m a little sad since you have sent the same poems to many other dancers…now would you write something just for me? Looking forward.” I stopped short of calling him the Rumi of our generation. I’m not that mean.

Here’s a sample of what I inspired in him. The whole thing is much, much longer.
“your style is a killer Zaina
how can one not sacrifice for you?
your body is a spark”
“my body feels a fire
your face such a heart-tempter”
“Your gaze of of sensuality bedazzled the town folk of Madrid
Let the ladies backstage be envious of your dance”

I could only muster a one word in response.
“Madrid?”
“Don’t you live in the Madrid?”
“Never been to Madrid in my life.”
Must be hard to keep track of all the bellydancers in the world.

The Poet went on to ask where it was that I lived, and if I liked what he’d written for me. I didn’t respond. Soon another poem followed, something about tears of love and waiting for the message of my homecoming. Well. I’m not going to Spain anytime soon, if that’s what he meant.

However, it’s not all about us girls. Guys can make champagne fall from the heavens too. Here’s the proof from Luna‘s Box.

Luna

Luna

“Hi luna I am Saudi gay arab man, i am big fan of your dancing.  You know what mean to be gay in Saudi Arabia, it very difficult for me.” – Abdullah
She ignored him. He wrote back later:
“Luna you know I am big fan, you can trust me. I want give you rent for to spend night with your musician. Please you can help me with this.”
NOW we’ve heard it all. I don’t dare imagine how Luna’s Egyptian band would react if they knew some dude was fantasizing about them. The poor guys would probably be traumatized for life.

Amar Lammar

Amar Lammar

Let’s crack open Amar‘s Box. The plot thickens.

“hi Amar, iam from Saudi Arabia but iam gay and I love to wear girly  even I look very manly
anyway as you know in Saudi Arabia its difficult for people to accept me as who iam. can we be plz friends” – Abdullah
I know I know, it’s hard out there for an online perv, in Saudi or anywhere. But why is a gay guy contacting WOMEN? Something is not adding up here.

“Sherlock Holmes was an idiot and Robert Watt was a fool.One was a detective,the other invented radar.But neither of them ever discovered you.I’m a genius!so can i be ur friend?” – Ahmed
I feel woww.

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A Little Dabke in Palestine! See Video :)

I love watching any type of dance. And I ESPECIALLY love watching children dance. Which is why coming across a kids’ Dabke rehearsal was such a pleasant surprise.

Let me explain where this happened. You know Bethlehem? As in the Bible? Just a few miles from the spot where Jesus (supposedly) was born, lies the Dheisheh refugee camp. Housing some ten thousand Palestinian refugees, it’s also home to a children’s folk dance troupe.

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Graffiti art on the streets of Dheisheh

It is not a new camp. The original residents of Dheisheh fled the fighting, or were expelled from their villages, in the wake of the founding of Israel in 1948. Like all refugee camps, this too started out as a tent city, a temporary dwelling place for those with nowhere to go. Six decades later, these kids were born here. Their kids will probably be born here. There are lots of camps like this all around the West Bank.

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Back in the 50’s it still looked like a temporary camp

Want to see for yourself? You can. From Bethlehem, take a taxi to the Ibdaa Cultural Center at the entrance of the Dheisheh camp. There is a nice, cheap guesthouse too, so you can stay the night. I warmly recommend it.

Here’s a clip from the rehearsal:

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Becoming a Gray Alien

I’m tired of being white. I’m tired of being human, too. I’d rather be a shiny, gray-faced sea monster.

The journey to the Dead Sea is mindblowing. Jordan is a sight for sore eyes. Mountains and valleys, desert, towns, castles – the Kings Highway is magical. And then the sea emerges. The horizon is dreamy. The dead calm water blends into the sky.

The sun is setting, and I rush to the beach. I dip my body in the water and return to the shore. I stick my hand inside a big pot and grab a handful of mud. I begin to spread the dark, thick substance on my body, like jelly on a piece of toast. Little by little I disappear.

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I return to the water as a gray alien. I touch my tongue with a finger tip, and it burns a hole inside my mouth. The hot, mad salt doesn’t let me go far. A few steps from the shore, and I’m on the surface belly up. I float like a piece of cardboard. My gray skin has melted into the Dead Sea. My body is gone. Only a face remains.

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A man in a turquoise T-shirt appears and tells me to return to the shore. But…I want to stay…but…but…The turquoise man doesn’t understand that monsters belong in the sea. The sun is down and the fun is over – for now. Come morning, I’ll return.

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Never Again, Again, Again

A year ago Rwanda caught me completely off guard. It turned me into a pitiful sobbing ball of sadness. Only mountain gorillas distracted me from the genocide that consumed my every waking thought. I took my time to get ready for Cambodia. And a few weeks ago, ready I was.

When trying to make sense of an ugly monster like genocide, you push emotions aside and employ your logic instead. You learn about the circumstances prior to the disaster, gain insight into the mindset of the nation. You find out “why”. But you still continue to ask WHY. Facts can only get you halfway there. The rest of the way, you’re on your own. You get lost, and turn back where you came from, to look at the facts once more. You try again to find a way into understanding, or simply give up, staying lost forever. And even if you reach that vague state of comprehension, it doesn’t gratify you. If just feels hollow.

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Cambodian genocide victims. Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda

Seeing the pictures, or the remains of thousands upon thousands of victims is overwhelming. Your mind tunes out in order to defend itself, or you break down completely. When my vision begins to blur over the faces of so, so many people, I zoom in. Seeing just one person at a time allows me to refocus. I find someone I can most easily relate to: a woman around my age. I wonder what her and I may have had in common. What her life was like when everything was still fine. If, in another lifetime, we could be friends.

ImageI like to look at the victims’ faces. This may sound strange. But they say that we are not dead as long as there is at least one person who remembers us. As time drags on, there may be no one left to remember the victims of the past. Their entire families may have died alongside with them – hence the word genocide. By looking into their faces, I’m honoring the life that these people had. If I was in their place, I would like someone to know that I existed. That I was here. That I was somebody, even if they will never know my name.

Whatever happened to the murderers? Well, Pol Pot was burned in Anlong Veng, in the north of the country. As soon as his regime was overthrown, enraged Cambodians did away with him and the rest of Khmer Rouge, and torched them alive. Sorry, that didn’t really happen. Pol Pot died quietly of a heart attack in 1998, almost twenty years post-genocide, having never faced justice. His body was cremated on a pile of tires. He got away with the murder of nearly two million people.

I wanted to make sure they really burned every last piece of him, so I made the trip. The nature around Anlong Veng is eerily beautiful. This was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, and remained under their control well into the 90’s. Seeing the pile of ashes gave me some peace of mind. Hell holds a special place for the likes of him.

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Pol Pot’s cremation site in Anlong Veng

I know that for many people this kind of misery tourism sounds unimaginable. Well, traveling for me is about getting to know the world, good and bad. I saw plenty of beautiful things in Cambodia, too. But I needed both sides of the story.

What’s the purpose of going someplace just to feel bad, someone may ask. Is it a case of morbid obsession, or sincere interest in historical events? That’s a valid question. I analyze my own motives all the time. It comes down to the value of seeing things with your own eyes. Everyone knows what the pyramids look like, yet most people would still want to see them. The thing is, I’m perfectly capable of feeling bad WITHOUT seeing with my own eyes. I’ve felt bad about the genocides of the world since I was a kid. Visiting the locations is the only thing left to bring me closer to that elusive state of understanding. Closer, but not quite there. I think I’ll stay lost forever, asking “why” until the end of my days.

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Wedding Crashing in Thailand

Few things make me bounce with excitement like the prospect of attending a wedding. It’s a cultural fair like no other. I believe it provides a unique view into the heart of a country. It’s fascinating to see how people celebrate the most special of all occasions. Being the clueless foreigner just adds to the fun – there’s always some surprises!

I can divide my wedding experiences into three categories. Most of the time I’ve been “the bellydancer”. Like all my sisters in New York, I’ve performed in lots of weddings, especially Arabic ones. A handful of times I’ve been “a guest”, with a formal invitation and all. And sometimes while traveling I get to be “a crasher”. Yeah, there’s some sort of verbal invitation from an audacious someone who thinks it’s okay to bring extras. But I consider myself a crasher when I don’t even know the names of those getting married.

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Cutting the cake. Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire 2010

Snagging an invitation to crash is such a random thing. You never know when and where you’ll get lucky. I’ve spent a total of ONE YEAR of my life in Egypt, and never attended a wedding there! That’s odd even statistically speaking, considering how marriage-happy and easygoing Egyptians are. I’ve had more luck in Africa than in Arabia. My most glorious moment came in Burundi. I entered the country, where I knew no one, on a transit visa. And somehow during those 72 HOURS I managed to invite myself into a wedding. Ha!

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The bride wore white. Bujumbura, Burundi 2012

Oftentimes, a wedding is a days long affair and attending once doesn’t cover nearly all of it. Case in point: I spent three days at a Sahrawi wedding (in the occupied Western Sahara) without seeing the bride once. She was going to make an appearance late on the third night. Unfortunately I had a bus to catch. I’m sure she looked pretty.

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Sahrawi women get fresh henna for each wedding. Laayoune, Western Sahara 2012

Thailand turned out to be another lucky country for me – Nakhon Si Thammarat being the lucky town. A Thai wedding was a whole other animal. I had no clue of the dos and the don’ts. My main concern was the dress code. I googled and found plenty of info. None of the dresses I had with me were temple-proof. For a Buddhist wedding, you cannot wear a short skirt – you’ll be sitting on the floor and shouldn’t flash your crotch at Buddha. Black is a funeral color worldwide, but here it’s a serious no-no: the Thais are a superstitious bunch and wearing black could bring some serious bad luck to the happy couple. Bare shoulders and cleavage may be fine in a church, but not cool at the temple. And you shouldn’t go too fancy as to not upstage the bride. So what’s a girl to wear? A moomoo or mosque gear? That didn’t seem quite right either. Finally I went for a long blue strappy dress, which was definitely on the beachy/maternity/casual side. A belt, bracelets, earrings and a shawl later, I hoped it would do the job.

I arrived at the wedding location – house, not a temple – and all my concerns evaporated. The bride’s friends were all in knee-length dresses, or even pants. Well, better safe than skimpy. Aside from cutesy frocks, I saw lots of casual attires, including guys in T-shirts and jeans. They looked severely underdressed to me, but I’m sure they knew what they were doing.

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The girls

The ceremony began at 9:09 am (nine is a lucky number and plenty of weddings start at that time). It was held inside the family home, on the living room floor. The Thai way of getting hitched is deeply traditional and ritualistic, yet friendly and non-pretentious. In other words, it’s the perfect reflection of the culture. Even as I didn’t understand anything that was said, it was a super interesting thing to watch. The bride was gorgeous in her traditional outfit. (The groom was alright in a suit and color-uncoordinated blue socks.) The couple received blessings from parents and grandparents, water was sprinkled on their heads, the bride spoon-fed the groom (she stuck some really spicy stuff in his mouth, which made everybody laugh). At one point the ceremony took a surprising turn. We all flocked into the bedroom, where rose pedals were thrown onto the bed. I suppose it was the bed where the couple would, you know…take a nap later on. That was a little too much information for my Farang eyes. My favorite part was when each guest blessed the newlyweds by pouring water on their hands. By being present, we all were contributing to their future happiness. I felt honored to be a part of it.

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Blessed by water

Once the ceremony was over, guests moved into a tented area on the street. A couple of female singers took turns on the little stage. Food was served. It was standard Thai, nothing unusual. There was some sort of coconut soup for dessert. After the food, the guests in my table got up to leave. I was stunned – the reception hadn’t even begun! The newlyweds hadn’t made their grand appearance yet, there had been no speeches, no wedding cake, no (belly)dancing the afternoon away…It dawned on me that none of it may be coming. This was it. People ate, and then just left. On the way out, they took pictures with the groom and the bride, who had now changed into a white wedding gown.

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I loved both her dresses

So I followed suit. I took my final photos with the newlyweds, received a party favor (a mug wrapped in pink mesh), and signed the (pink) guestbook. I left the party with my head in romantic pink clouds, and loving Thailand even more.

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How to Tell You’re in Finland

1. It’s July and you’re wearing a jacket

My plan to visit Finland mid-July seemed foolproof. For the first time in a decade I was going to my home country smack in the middle of summer! What could possibly go wrong?

The weather, of course. The temperature hovered below twenty degrees Celsius – low sixties Fahrenheit – with some rain and thunderstorms. I mean, what the fuck? This was summer? Everyone kept telling me how the entire June had been hot, which was a cold comfort, literally.

2. The sun seems to never set

It’s easy to lose track of time, when 10 pm looks like a cloudy afternoon. Me like!

3. Every single house comes with a sauna

And every kitchen with a coffee maker, a built-in cutting board, a built-in dish rack inside a cupboard over the sink, and…

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Back in the day, babies were born in saunas

4. It speaks fluent English – until

You know that arrogant European tourist, who expects people to speak their language wherever they go? Well, you won’t have to learn Finnish to know what the hell we want from you. It’s a fringe language and we know it’s our job to make ourselves understood. It’s common for kids to study several languages in school. English is expected of everyone – you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone under 50 who cannot converse in English. But some things will inevitably get mixed up. Like, when “valleys” is translated into “hills”. Oh well.

5. You get off the bus at  “Kuusmiehenkaari – Sexmansbågen”

What? How are you supposed to read that? The names of everything are long and exhausting, twice (Finnish and SWEDISH! Useful, right?). It’s kind of like trying to read Turkish or Malay. But fear not, getting around is easy enough. In Helsinki, all the buses and trams have electrical signboards announcing the next stop – so you only need to remember the first few letters of your destination.

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I’m sure orange was a really hot color in the 80’s…but I would have gone with plain silver

6. People pick up the phone by saying their name (when they don’t know who’s calling)

Saying just “Hello” would be considered kind of rude. Only a hillbilly would do that.

7. It plays by the rules

Whether it’s waiting for the green lights to cross the street or buying a tram ticket when no one is checking…it’s a pretty obedient society. Street crime is close to none. In the small towns no one would snatch your bag if you offered it. You really don’t have to give a shit about your stuff.

8. The ladies in huge black skirts and frilly tops ain’t headed for a renaissance fair

They are Finnish gypsies. Oh yeah. It’s a small ethnic minority here. Traditionally horse traders, fortune tellers, and artists, these days the gypsies have mostly main-stream professions. The men wear black pants, and match them with a seemingly random top, like an Adidas jacket. There’s always been some friction between gypsies and the general public, but it’s nothing compared to the discrimination and human rights violations that go on in central Europe.

9. The cashier says hello! No exceptions

You know the kind of service you get in the average supermarket or pharmacy in NYC? I’m talking of the people who take pride in giving customers attitude because they really don’t give a flying fuck about their job. You simply cannot find that here.

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Rudolph is food.

10. Reindeer meat, rye bread, licorice candy, sour milk…

…is sold in every corner store.

11. Just when you give up all hope, summer appears

And then it’s all ice cream and short shorts in a warm bright night. Awesome!

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