Pray, Dance, Puke

I woke up at 4am in a Lebanese mountain town. It was still dark. I waited until the morning light, and went out for a walk. The streets of Broumana were quiet and smelled like flowers. It was the second day of Ramadan, but you didn’t notice that here. It was a Christian town.

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One of the numerous churches in Broumana, Lebanon

I stepped inside a Maronite church, and sat down on the nearest bench. There was a handful of women, all sitting quietly. I noticed that the center piece above the altar was a statue of Madonna with baby Jesus. I think most churches have a depiction of a crucified Jesus there. I liked the woman holding the baby instead.

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Inside a Maronite church

A priest walked in. I realized that the women were waiting for the mass to begin. A few more people trickled in. I decided to stay. It was the first time I sat through a church service in Arabic. The Maronite mass was nice and calm. There was a lot of singing. In the end, two little boys got up to touch the priest’s hands, and then went around the church and touched everyone else’s hands. I’d never seen that. It was sweet.

The following day I attended some sort of Bellydance Olympics. Which was what I was here for.

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The climate in the mountains is great in the summer, it doesn’t get too hot

The Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, near the coastal town of Jounieh, is like Lebanon’s version of Christ the Redeemer. A giant statue of Virgin Mary casts a merciful eye on the mortals beneath her. I don’t know how I’d never made it there before. It was on my mind every time I came to Lebanon. Now I would finally do it.

You see, the Lady grants wishes. That’s a true fact. At the tender age of 18, a friend of mine prayed to the Lady to make her a bellydancer. And a bellydancer she became, beautiful as a butterfly. She’s one of the most talented people I know. It was a little late in my life to be wishing for that. I was going to ask for something entirely different.

There’s nothing like a stomach bug to kill a great plan. A puking day is not a sightseeing day. I lay in bed, and managed to recover enough to fly at night.

The three days in Lebanon had been eventful. Highlight: seeing many dear friends, and making new ones. Low point: sitting on the floor of a taxi, vomiting by the roadside. But you know what they say: if you want to make the Lady of Lebanon laugh, tell her your plans. Guess I’ll have to return another time.

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Mommy & baby

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NYC, the Home of the Amish

Ten years ago I arrived in New York City with a couple of bags, an address and a phone number. I called the landlady from a payphone at JFK to let her know I was on my way. But when I got to the apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, no one buzzed me in. I sat down on the stoop. It was the last afternoon of August. The summer was far from over. Some guys on the block noticed me and began to holla at me. “Hey baby…” I looked the other way, at my new street, at Brooklyn. I knew I had to get smart real fast.

Even while sitting on the street with my stuff, I felt relieved. The hard part was over. I’d worked my butt off to reach that stoop. Through the preceding winter I’d cleaned offices during the day, taught bellydance classes at night, and performed on the weekends. I’d scrambled together (barely) enough money to get a six month long visa – on the second attempt. (The first time they denied me. I wasn’t taking no for an answer, and reapplied with a new pile of papers.) I’d found a cheap sublet on Craigslist in Sunset Park, a mostly Mexican neighborhood. I arrived with a few thousand dollars, enough to get me through the first three or four months. I didn’t have a plan for after that. I knew nobody in New York. At least I spoke the language.

The city welcomed me. I found everything I’d been looking for, even the things I hadn’t dared to want out loud. The dance scene was amazing. For the first time I didn’t struggle to make ends meet. New friends were all around, places to live were easy to find. Each new neighborhood was a new beginning. During four years I lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, twice in each. Some of those roommates became friends for life.

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Tompkins Square Park in Alphabet City, Manhattan

Every so often a friend comes to visit (like next month), but these days I’m usually not around. The least I can do is make some recommendations. I got plenty, but still asked my friend Monet, one of the few native New Yorkers I know. Let’s lean in for her inside information!
“What would you call a New York must-see?”
“You’d need to ask somebody who’s moved here from someplace else. When you’re born and raised here you don’t really think about it.” (Telling it like it is!)
“Well what’s your favorite neighborhood to visit?”
She paused.
“I like Astoria. It reminds me of Brazil.” (Huh?!)
“Where do you like to shop?”
“I don’t shop.”
There! You heard it from a native. She said to ask someone who’s moved here…so I asked myself.

I think the biggest mistake visitors make is never leaving Manhattan. (Taking the ferry to the Statue of Liberty does NOT count.) Okay, you wanna see the Empire State, the Met, some diner where Sally fake orgasmed at Harry…yawn. I’m not a big fan of touristy stuff, anywhere. The best of NYC does not come with an entrance fee or opening hours. What makes this city great is its PEOPLE. The mix of cultures, the different neighborhoods. People move to New York with big dreams, whether it’s finance, fashion, or arts – or simply supporting family back home. This city was built by ambitious immigrants. We used to arrive by boat from Europe, now we fly in from all over the world, and all of us have a chance to make it here.

A few historical neighborhoods are famous, like Harlem, Little Italy and the Village in Manhattan. All are worth a linger. But there’s a hundred others. The Greek-Arabic-Hispanic (and I suppose Brazilian!) concoction Astoria in Queens is one of my favorites too. A little further east is Jackson Heights, Queens, head there for a slice of Indian heaven. Right now I’m staying in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, and I constantly hear Arabic on the streets. It offers me a soft landing from the Middle East. Wanna see what the kool kids are up to? Alternative is mainstream on St. Marks Place in the East Village, Manhattan – great for cheap eats, community yoga classes, bongs, tattoos, and other weird souvenirs.Image

Who doesn’t love Big Gay Ice Cream Shop! East Village, Manhattan

The Chinatown in Manhattan is far from the only Chinese dominated area. Try Flushing, Queens – women with umbrellas on a sunny day will confirm you’re in Asia. Or go check out the fashionable ladies in the Russian speaking Brighton and Coney Island in Brooklyn. If you keep your eyes open (or Google) you can discover interesting sub-neighborhoods like Koreatown, Little Haiti or Le Petit Senegal. I have a huge soft spot for my first hood Sunset Park, and to this day I head to 5th Avenue for cheap shopping, to hear what’s hot in Reggaeton and to grab some street snacks. (Not to be confused with the 5th Avenue in Manhattan! No Louis Vuitton here.) Other good shopping destinations are Flatbush Avenue, which is in a mostly black and Caribbean area in Brooklyn, Steinway street in Astoria, as well as Queens Mall. Great food is all around, you can find anything your heart desires, whether it’s cheap ethnic or fancy fusion. For a truly local experience, have a bagel with cream cheese.

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Arabic food is easy to find in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

Sometimes this city stuns you. I’ll never forget when I first set foot in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Suddenly I saw a boy wearing a little hat, with a shaved head and two long curls on both sides of his face. I thought to myself “Wow, that kid’s parents have a strange sense of humor.” I walked on and began to see adults in clothes that looked like they belonged to a different century. “Right, I think these are Amish people…” Finally I saw a school bus with Hebrew text, and realized I was in a Hasidic Jewish area. Oh! Fresh from Scandinavia, I’d never seen anything like it.

Times Square deserves about three minutes of your time, unless you’re picking up a ticket for a Broadway show (TOTALLY worth your money and time). Instead, take the subway down to Union Square, and spend a couple of hours. It’s a hub for street performers and musicians, activists, craft and bake sales, and the occasional Hare Krishna gathering, especially in the summer. (Also the homeless and the crazies – New York has lots of them – but they’re usually harmless.) Speaking of performers, take kindly to those athletic young men who barge into a subway car and yell “It’s showtime!”, proceeding to blast music and do acrobatics on the aisle. Give them a dollar and a smile. They’re good kids.

I’m still a New Yorker at heart, although I don’t spend much time here. It’s my safe place, where everything makes sense. I can have a chat with virtually anyone I come across during my day – people are eager to go off script and share a laugh with a stranger. I feel completely free. I can wear anything, look people in the eye, and cross the street when I want. There have been times when I arrive a little worse for wear, licking some battle wound, but there’s nothing that can’t be talked out and made better over coffee or sushi. I turn to my friends, and I decompress.

Back to that stoop in Sunset Park. I didn’t sit there for long. A girl came to open the door for me. She said the intercom wasn’t working. I followed her to the apartment, and into my tiny little room. And from that moment on, I was home.

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LayOver and Over and Over

Getting from A to B is usually pretty straightforward. But sometimes I find myself with a two ticket combo just to get to one place – probably as the result of getting a two way ticket somewhere I’m only going once. It makes for a long trip, but can be very cost effective, if all I need is another ticket someplace nearby. Case in point: the last few days.

I’m not a big layover person, meaning I don’t try to make the most of my eight hours in London or whatever. I just sit and wait. Exceptions apply. If I’m taking FlyDubai, I definitely need to catch up with some friends! 24 hours between the flights is all they will give you, and I happily took it.

The alarm tore me out of bed at 5:30am on Sunday in Bahrain. Some hours later my friend picked me up in Dubai. I accompanied her to two bellydance classes that she was teaching, stretching through the first and participating in the second. (I’d always wanted to learn how to bellydance!) Afterwards we made a quick trip to the Mall of the Emirates. I was like a cousin from the countryside, visiting the big city. Coming from Bahrain, Dubai felt just astonishing. At night I watched my friend’s show, and another one came by to say hello. What a fun day it was! Red Bull helped by giving me a small pair of wings.

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With Shayma and Sabriye. Guess which girl wasn’t working that night? 🙂

The alarm went off at 5:30am again. Was there a newborn baby that needed to be fed or something? Why couldn’t I sleep more than two hours at a time? Right, I had to get back to DXB.

Next stop was Beirut. I had a few hours to drop off a bag at a friend’s hotel. In three weeks I would be back in town to pick it up. Sure, going back and forth with the luggage was a pain in the butt. But I would be grateful to have just half of my usual weight once I got to New York, my final destination. I saw my friend for only a few minutes, she needed to run out for errands. (At this point I felt like I was speed dating my friends around the Middle East.) I took a quick shower and felt like a new person.

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My travel pillow. It was Winnie the Pooh’s first time in Lebanon!

Another check-in followed, this time with Alitalia. That should send shivers down anybody’s spine. This airline is just notorious for lateness, rudeness, and losing luggage. Just recently, they arrested like fifty Alitalia employees for stealing passenger’s stuff from their bags in Rome. It’s the third world airline of Europe! Well, lucky for me most of my precious stuff – dance costumes – was now safe and sound in Beirut.

Now, this ticket came with a long-ass layover in Rome. I hadn’t made any grand plans, as it was impossible to predict how dead I would be at this point, after little sleep and wrestling with the bags. Going to town was a tempting idea – but I might just find a cozy bench inside the terminal and call it a night.

I arrived feeling surprisingly good. I’d gone in and out of consciousness on the plane, and it helped. I should have been looking for the transit desk to get my boarding pass for New York, but somehow I drifted towards the immigration line. Seeing the sign “EU Citizens Only” makes me smile each time. Not to be mean, but I just walk through, while many others stay in long, slow lines. In my defense, most of the time it’s me in those other lines, answering all kinds of questions. It gets stressful sometimes. So I do enjoy the EU passport color control. That’s right. The lady just saw my innocent face, and a burgundy passport in my hand, and didn’t even check to see if it was mine.

It was still bright when I stepped outside at around 8pm. The weather was something amazing. No humidity, no heat, just a perfectly pleasant breeze. After the Gulf, the soft Italian air felt like a kiss. I took the train to central Rome, and had a pizza, which was great for a first real meal of the long day. The trains back to the airport had already stopped running for the night, which was the perfect excuse to stay and find a hotel. It wasn’t the cheapest six hour sleep I ever had, but man, it hit the spot. The alarm went off at 6am – isn’t it somebody else’s turn to feed that baby? – and I headed back out. I thought I was an early bird but I was hardly alone. Oh! Rome was already up and looking way sharper than me. The daytime life is something I tend to forget even exists.

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Ask for coffee, and you get an espresso? The Italians’ idea of a morning cuppa Joe dramatically differs from mine…

Now it was Tuesday on all continents. JFK was just nine more hours away and I was feeling good. It was definitely movie time. Show me the coffee!

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The Human Rights of Go Go Dancers

Just as I was finishing up my contract in Bahrain, I came across something that shocked me. Much has been said about the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf – but even performers can face some really disturbing circumstances.

Picture this. Four girls locked inside a hotel room. They only leave the room when they go to work in the hotel nightclub. Food is delivered to them. They get to leave the building just once a week, for a trip to the mall, accompanied by security.

Working hours are 9pm-2am each night. The pay is 27 US dollars per day plus tips. You heard me. Twenty-seven bucks. (Food and accommodation are free.)

The club where they work can best be described as a go go bar. It’s like an Arabic version of a strip club. The girls wear short skirts and skimpy tops, fishnets and heels. They dance on a round podium in the middle of the room. The nearest chairs offer a great view up the dancers’ skirts – they realize this and wear shorts. One girl sings. One bellydances, but only if there are “enough people”. Most nights there aren’t.

Aside from dancing, their job is to make customers buy flowers for them. (The staff is selling leis made of fake flowers.) The dancers get a commission of the sales, but most of it goes to the house. If you don’t get many flowers, the manager is upset. If you do, the other girls are jealous. On an average night, the flowers amount to a little less than ten dollars per dancer.

To boost the business, the manager pushes the girls to call customers during the day, and hustle them to come to the club. He gives each one a list of names and phone numbers. The girls say yes to shut him up, but usually don’t call anyone.

Sound unbelievable? Well, believe it anyway. I remember seeing a similar scenario in the Emirates. A group of Moroccan girls were kept in their hotel room the entire day. Every night they emerged in their long dresses, hair extensions and makeup, and passed by my room on their way to work. (They weren’t bellydancers. Many places do this kind of semi-show with girls on the stage, they just dance around all together.) In the end of the night they marched back, escorted by security. Often my door was open, and we all looked at each other bewildered. It was like there was this invisible barrier between us. We lived a few steps away from each other, but never came into contact.

And now I saw it here in Bahrain. The bellydancer of the group was a friend of a friend. We spoke on Facebook. She invited me to see the “show”. It was early, customers hadn’t arrived yet. A Filipina waitress tried to make me buy flowers. (Seriously?) I ordered a Sprite ($8), just to be polite. She asked why I wanted to see bellydancing. Maybe she thought I was a perv. I explained that I was a dancer too. On my way out, I peeked inside the two Arabic nightclubs. Both had girls on the stage, wearing long dresses. They all turned to look at me, confused. In hotels like this you never saw women dressed like civilians. “What is that?” was written all over their faces.

The bellydancer and I arranged for me to visit their room one afternoon so we all could talk. This of course required a special permission from the management. Getting past the reception still wasn’t easy. The staff seemed very suspicious of me. I restrained myself from making any drug-dealer jokes. Twenty minutes and lots of phone calls later, while five ice creams melted in my bag, the security guy finally took me to the room. He opened the door with a key. Only then I realized that the girls were literally locked in.

I told them I was shocked by this. They were shocked too, when they heard that I was completely free. We were like two different animals. For them, it was normal to live like this. They’d done it before and they would do it again. All the work from their particular agent came with “closed” contracts. I wouldn’t last a week.

The reason behind the imprisonment is obvious. The management fears that given a long leash, the girls will turn tricks and maybe even take off, all the while on hotel sponsored visas. This would mean trouble for the hotel. (Maybe they should pay them better?)

Eastern Europe is the prime market for pretty white girls for little money. I consider jobs like this exploitation. But for some, it’s worth it. Maybe there’s no work available back home. After all, it’s just a dancing job, kind of depressing but nothing dangerous or dirty. But every so often these gigs are disguised as bellydance jobs. Here’s a rule of thumb: A legit bellydance contract NEVER includes other obligations. No go go dancing, no guest relations of any kind, definitely no sitting with customers.

The girls started getting ready for work, and I walked back to my hotel to do the same. I looked up at the foggy sky and tried to imagine how it felt to not walk on the street for six months. Can’t take that shit for granted.

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(Not) Just Another Travel Blog…

…was one of the names I considered for this blog. Because another online travel diary is just about the last thing the world needs. Another possible name was Better Late Than Never. After all, this one woman circus has been on the road for six years already. I settled for Where’s Zaina? because the answer to that will probably be the first thing to disclose with each post. I stole the name from a Bob I met in Burundi, who had a similarly named blog. I had a dream where he sued me.

I can’t pinpoint why I didn’t begin blogging earlier. I’m not sure I should now. Why should anybody? I must like writing – I did write a book. I love playing with my camera. I frequently get excited about something I see or experience, and it’s fun to share it with someone. That’s what I hope blogging will be like: having a chat with friends. Please prove me right! 🙂

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