Gift-Giving Tradition Of Omiyage Runs Deep

By Evelyn Iritani

omiyage1

If they ever map my DNA I am convinced they will find a gene for omiyage. It will have been passed onto me through my parents, and I’m sure it has found its way into my children’s genetic material as well.

Omiyage is the tradition of gift-giving that permeates Japanese culture. Holiday celebrations. Business meetings. Travel abroad. The Japanese are a nation of gift-givers, and their stores are filled with exquisitely wrapped mementos of all shapes and sizes. You can give someone a bottle of expensive liquor, four individually wrapped apples or a beautiful box of mochi or manju, the chewy rice cakes filled with sweet bean paste.

Though I was born in the United States, I was introduced to omiyage through my mother, who grew up in Japan. One of my favorite travel pastimes is scouring an exotic market in search of that unusual “something” that will make someone smile. And I will admit to, upon occasion, cruising the airport kiosks for those last few people on my shopping list.

Omiyage inspires desire to find the perfect gift. The pressure of selecting just the right omiyage can be overwhelming. I remember in the early 1980s trying to help my mother find a special present for her sister in Japan, whom she was going to visit for the first time in many years.

A beautiful silk scarf? A leather bag? Every time we found something we were certain would be perfect, we would see the “Made in Japan” label.

With the spread of globalization, the search for something “Made in the USA” became even more difficult. For years, I packed bags of Starbucks coffee as gifts for friends overseas. That ended when I stumbled across the familiar Starbucks logo on a tiny café in the ancient Forbidden City in Beijing. (That location has since been closed, but China remains one of the Seattle coffee company’s fastest-growing markets.)

I have been saved by the explosion of regional food products in America, which has allowed me to merge three of my favorite pursuits: shopping, eating and gift-giving. I’ve discovered there is no better way to introduce America to the world — or vice versa — than to share homegrown delicacies.

My omiyage of choice can now be found at places such as Beyond the Olive in Old Town Pasadena, Calif. The small shop’s owners, Chip and Crystal Reibel, have created a wonderful home for some of California’s best extra virgin olive oils and vinegars. (I was thrilled to discover that the 60-milliliter sample bottles of their rich fig balsamic vinegar and buttery EVOO Ascolano olive oil could be hand-carried onto an airplane.)

Before visiting my parents, I often stop at the Fugetsu-Do Sweet Shop in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, where the Kito family began producing its soft, chewy mochi (rice cakes) and manju (sweet bean-filled rice cakes) in 1903. Though the family was sent to an internment camp in Wyoming during World War II, they returned and rebuilt their pastry shop into one of the community’s most beloved businesses.

Thanks to the Internet, I can now send my favorite taste treats anywhere in the world. That includes almost anything from the Pike Place Market in Seattle, where I always pick up packages of Chukar’s chocolate-covered Cabernet Cherries or boxes of the fragrant MarketSpice tea. (I’ve also successfully packed a frozen salmon on ice into my carry-on bag.)

I was curious what Japanese tourists are taking home from America these days. So I asked Sachiko Yoshimura, chief executive director of the Los Angeles office of the Japan External Trade Organization. Her answer? Apparently young Japanese are filling their suitcases with the branded reusable shopping bags from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

I thought omiyage was a Japanese trait, but I learned otherwise when my friend, Lira, visited from South Ossetia, a tiny country in the southern Caucasus wedged between Russia and Georgia. Her bulging suitcase was filled with gifts, including sacks of spices and freshly shelled walnuts, a regional specialty.

Lira unrolled one carefully wrapped package to reveal a dozen strings of small balls in bright shades of red, orange and yellow. They turned out to be Churchkhela, a traditional sweet made of walnuts dipped in different fruit juice mixtures and hung to dry. I savored them for weeks.

In Lira’s world, cooking is done by taste, and ingredients come in handfuls and pinches. So when my husband asked how to use the spices she brought him, Lira’s answer was a shrug and a smile. “Sprinkle them on nuts or vegetables,” she told the translator. “Roger will know how much is enough.”

Thanks to a little online sleuthing, I discovered that the spices of the Caucasus are as complicated as their politics. One of Lira’s gifts, called Khmeli-Suneli, is a mixture of coriander, dill, basil, bay leaf, marjoram, fenugreek, parsley, safflower or saffron, black pepper, celery, thyme, hyssop, mint and hot pepper. So now when we roast our vegetables, we throw a little reminder of Lira on top. The best omiyage I could imagine.

Originally posted on Zester Daily

Serenity now: the story of Kombis

by Sarah Golden

I walk to the kombi depo to catch a van.  The site is packed with booths loaded with food and housewares with energetic vendors who give the place the feel of a carnival.  Drivers pack their passengers into vans that drip into lanes like a diagram of drugs entering the central nervous system.

The kombis belong to the drivers so they take artistic liberties. Often bumper stickers line the walls with phrases like “Thank God I’m a black man,” “Knowing me doesn’t mean you don’t pay,” “Women are like roads; the more curves the more dangerous” and “Don’t rush me – you’re late, not me.”

They bump music. You don’t understand the gravity of a song with the chorus “you can’t keep the black man down” until you’ve heard it as the only white person packed among solemn black faces bobbing to the beat, as you ping between BMWs and Audis with white drivers in post-apartheid South Africa.

But sometimes, those times I’m in a hurry usually, these kombi drivers are infuriating.

A couple of days ago, I forgot my external hard drive and left to retrieve it. I got into a kombi to return to work (for which I am now spectacularly late) and we pulled out of the depo. As soon as we were outside, the driver pulled over and called his “executive door opener” on his phone. And then we waited. And waited. And waited.

My blood pressure was rising. There was a constant line of kombis, there was no reason I had to be on this one. I repeated to myself the country’s mantra, “serenity now, serenity now.” I looked around. People were calm, texting on their cell phones, looking around. I was the only person who appeared upset.

Kombis would never happen in the United States. They are a fleet of vans that speed along defined routes in Cape Town picking up people. Five rand should get you where you want to go.

They’re a two-man operation: the driver and a money collector who clutches a dirty bag rattling with coins and hangs his head out the window, yelling their destination at pedestrians. The collector, called a gaatjie (which must be Xhosa for executive door opener) also has the task of determining the next stop and telling the driver.

For the most part, this dangerous, unregulated system is ace. They make their money in quantity of passengers, so they weave about the crowded streets as though laws do not apply and robots are optional (robots are what they call traffic lights). They also fulfill a role in an impoverished city with inadequate public transportation.

Yesterday, on the way home I caught a kombi that seemed determined to fill the van before returning to the depo. They come to a stop next to each pedestrian, regardless of which side of the road they were on, and yell “You! In here?!”

Once again, my blood pressure is going up. I think, “If they want to get on, they’ll let you know. You will not persuade someone to go to Cape Town.”

They stop in the street and throw the car in reverse – during rush hour – to trail pedestrians. “CAPE TOWN!” the executive doorman yells as we inch next to them.

I am late for a meeting. I am annoyed. No one else appears bothered. If time is relative, it would seem people here have lots of it.

The door opener gets out and stands on a corner, yelling at people up the block. “CAPE TOWN! CAPE TOWN!” He yells as he points to the kombi. This goes on for five interminable minutes. I am livid. I should have walked. Even other people are getting annoyed.

“Leave him,” I suggest to the driver.

“I can’t. He has my money,” he answers.

The door opener finally gets back in.  I give him the stinkiest eye I can. I don’t think it translated.

I wonder how many times must this happen before I no longer chant, “serenity now.” Rumor has it the chant leads to insanity later.

God and Politics on the Train to Cairo

By Graham Pitts

The woman shook her head and laughed when we bought two tickets for the third-class train out of Alexandria into the Nile Delta.  Americans don’t usually buy tickets on this train.

“Bikam?”  How much?

“Seventy-five ‘irsh,” she responded, about twelve cents.

On the platform, the fading orange paint was peeling off the local third class train, clearly distinguishing from the fresher blue paint on the first class train cars headed for Cairo.

We were two American students looking for an ‘authentic’ Egyptian experience, which usually translates into cheaper and grittier.  There’s only so close I can get to that as a tall blond with accented Arabic.

We took our places on the plain orange plastic benches with bucket seats, and then came the inevitable stares. One of the first men to sit down near us asked to share in water bottle that I had just opened.  The man was coughing as he said “water” in English.

In Islam, refusing to offer water when requested is haram, or ?(what’s haram mean?) I passed the gruff, balding man my bottle which he drank putting his lips on the bottle and handed it back to me.   I recapped it and put it away.  In Egyptian restaurants, a single metal cup will serve table after table of customers who drink without the same apprehension Americans have for contracting sickness from strangers.

As the train crawled through the poor neighborhoods lining the tracks out of Alexandria into the countryside, a young man overheard my conversation with my travel partner and sat next to me, asking if he could practice his English.

“God forgives you for insulting the Egyptian people,” he said after a brief conversation about politics.

“What do you think about our antiquated system?”

“You mean the trains?”

“No, Mubarak.”

“Oh, the former system. What do you think?”  Experience in the Middle East had taught me to discover the point of view of my interlocutor before continuing.  “Are you with the revolution?”

“Yes.”

“Right, Mubarak hiwaan.” Mubarak is an animal who killed and tortured his people.

The young man was quiet for a few minutes before turning towards me and confirming that: “God forgives you for insulting the Egyptian people,” implying that he did not yet.  Quickly he relayed what I had said to the other men sitting beside us.

“You have insulted the honor of all Egyptians.”

Even though he supported the revolution, he demanded that the previous, oppressive, corrupt regime be respected.  Indeed, he insinuated that God himself was the protector of the honor of the Egyptian nation.

Suddenly on this third class train in rural Egypt, a revelation flashed out at me: the close similarity between how nationalism and religion reinforce one another in the U.S. and Egypt.  In America too, we assign religious value to patriotism.  In America too, we hold the honor of the nation to be almost holy.

My friend whispered to me that he thought we might be in trouble, that we had made the mistake of talking about politics in rural Egypt.  He thought we were going to get thrown off the train.

Raising his voice in Arabic, the Egyptian tried to rally the other ten or so men in the cars against us.  But the others told the young man we were right.   Despite their conservative appearance, most sported long beards and wore galabiyyas,(what is this?) they held liberal political leanings.

I noted that if I talked about George W. Bush the same way I had referred to Mubarak, Americans would not be insulted.  Nods of agreement went around the car, their honor intact.

Running “Hash” in Hong Kong

by Nick Gerry-Bullard

My friend Ben invited me to go on a “hash” – an English ex-pat tradition that combines jogging with a treasure hunt – in Hang Hau country park, one of the many wilderness parks of Hong Kong.  I thought, what could go wrong with a little nighttime group run in the woods?

I got to the meeting point at the MTR station around dusk and Ben, 25, bearded, wearing his yellow USC tank top, was holding the cab that was to take our belongings from point A, the start of the race, to point B, where it ended. I tossed my bag – including phone, ID, and wallet (less a single $20 which I kept) – into the cab.  We were waiting for Doug, and as soon as he arrived, a brusque 40-ish executive of some indeterminate kind, we took off jogging.

There had been downpours throughout the day but now the sky was clearing with clouds whipping along above Hong Kong’s high-rises. It was misting and breezy and dark as we jogged along the road leading from the MTR.

Doug explained the rules of the hash as we ran.  He told us to look for piles of flour, chalk arrows, or scraps of toilet paper to mark the trail. Every 60 paces or so, there should be a “check” – a circular mark confirming that you’re on the right path. A sign in the shape of a T meant we’d hit a dead end.

The group should split up at a check to search for the right trail, and remember to call “Are you?” occasionally. People yell back “Checking” if they’re still looking – or “Trail!” if they’ve found a mark.  “Trail!” meant you better sprint towards that voice because it won’t always wait for you.

Doug and I had our headlamps on (oh yes, we were wearing headlamps) and this made picking out the piles of flour pretty straightforward, when they were still intact from the rain.  The trail was marked by a hasher who went by the name Bobbledick. Doug muttered that Bobbledick could have used more flour, given the weather.

This sport was first invented in 1938 in Malaysia by British officers and expatriates.  Later, a club formed called the “Hash House Harriers” who chased a hare along a trail.  Their aim was to get rid of weekend hangovers and to convince older members that they were still vibrant.  The real objective though was the reward at the end – beer, cigarettes and a feast.

Bobbledick’s trail paid no respect to pedestrian routes: a cement drainage channel carved into the hillside was as fair game as a broad walkway. Yellow signs with characters we couldn’t understand likely warned death and dismemberment; we clambered over them in search of the flour. Often had to climb back when we couldn’t find it. Doug typically led, with Ben between and me behind, providing a light for Ben’s footsteps, as he didn’t have a lamp. We kept up a sparse chatter about work and time spent in Hong Kong, more, I think, to distract us from a growing worry about the trail than anything.  Talking, as it turned out, was the easy part.

Every few minutes we would reach a juncture and split up to look for the mark.  On my own, what I could see shrunk to the quavering white circle of my headlamp. Moss, wet leaves, and wet rocks flashed along below my feet. I heard the day’s showers rushing through the park’s culverts, my own panting, and the wind through the trees far above.  At one point, caught in a snarl of hanging vines, I stopped long enough to watch a foot-long centipede rolling smoothly along inches from my foot, shining darkly against the wet brown leaves and tree roots.

We ran along the ridge at the top of the park, the wind roaring, bending the trees, almost drowning out our shouts of “Are you?” and “Checking!” The sky was a dark bruised yellow-purple from the storm and the lights of Kowloon filtering up through the mist. The occasional gust of rain blew across the ridge, but for the most part the fog just clung to us and cohered, slicking our skin. Doug’s increasingly venomous commentary on Bobbledick reached profane levels.

We circled, circled back, and searched. We were soaked. The trail was lost. Our belongings were at “B.” Yet in our haste to get going, we hadn’t taken the moment to ask where B was.  Doug said that he had seen it written somewhere as “university.”  We looked at him dumbfounded.  That was all we had to go by? “University?” Which university, and where? The run was listed at nine kilometers, which made for a worrisomely inclusive radius. Ben thought he’d heard the cabbie say something about “Dai Kok.” We had no idea where that was either.

We took stock of our belongings – Doug’s metro card and my twenty Hong Kong dollars. No phones.  Doug assessed our meager supplies and summed it up as “le clusterfuck.”  We nodded glumly.

The plan, the best we could think of, became to run back to the MTR stop, where at least we’d be able to ask someone which university might lie within 9 kilometers.

The return felt surprisingly brief. When I could look up from my footwork, I was amazed to see that even at this height, we were eye-level with mid-range apartments in the skyscrapers abutting the park.

Finally, we entered the air-conditioned hangar of the MTR station like a trio of filthy, soaked stowaways dragged into the sunlight from the hold of a ship, blinking in the fluorescent lights, streaked with mud and bits of clinging jungle, smelling of sweat and fear.

We wandered through the mall attached to the station, with a vague idea that we might find an internet cafe from which to retrieve Bobbledick’s phone number or some more information about “B.” No such luck. Finally we got a map from a bemused MTR station attendant, looked through the index of “Secondary Schools & Universities” and found that the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was not far away. And if this wasn’t the University in question, we reasoned, at least there would be a computer lab with internet.

My $20 was enough to get Ben and myself onto the minibus that went to the campus; Doug had his metro card. A ten minute ride later, we were in the parking lot of the University, looking again for piles of flour – and within two minutes, we’d found one – and then another, and 60 paces on, another.

Five minutes later, we rounded the corner to find a group of middle-aged men and women sitting around on university benches in varying states of griminess drinking beer and Schweppes grapefruit soda. We had found the hashers. I looked at my watch; 9:15. Our sojourn in the woods had lasted less than 90 minutes.

And there sat Bobbledick, a lanky Brit with a sort of grizzled gentility who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a safari hat. He wore a tattered turquoise fanny-pack and spandex shorts that gave clinging testimony to his nickname, and seemed quite oblivious to criticism. Perhaps it was because Doug was too new a hasher to have even earned a nickname. But I didn’t see him take any special account of the complaints from Wanchai Wanker, Gin and Vomit, or Hopeless, either.

Doug and a few other frustrated hashers left at that point.  The rest of us headed to the Chinese-subsidized university restaurant.  Food arrived for 12– egg-drop soup, sweet and sour pork, prawn noodles, sliced ham with oranges, fried rice, sauteed grouper over broccoli, eggplant bathed in sesame sauce. After an intense debate, Bobbledick and Wanchai Wanker compromised and ordered seven pitchers of beer. Ben and I were seated next to Sticky Little Sex Toy, and we got to know her a bit.

With the food largely eaten, the pitchers drained, and the restaurant staff utterly exasperated at the group’s indifference to their 10pm closing time, the “Down-Downs” began – a series of sarcastic awards handed out by Indy, a garrulous Scot with a machine-gun laugh, to recognize the stand-outs and flops of the run.

You had to be “upstanding,” that is, standing up, to receive your award, which was a shot of beer from one of the restaurant’s teacups, swallowed to a boozy chant of “down-down-down-down-down.” Bobbledick got plenty of down-downs for his failure to mark the trail; everyone else got one for our failure to find it. Ben and I were down-downed as new runners and encouraged to come the next week. When the check came around, we paid the equivalent of $12 US for the feast and another dollar for having joined the run – the 1,795th taken by the Little Sai Wan Hash House Harriers.

Tahrir one year later: Celebrating what?


By Ben Gittleson |

How do you celebrate a revolution that has not yet run its course?

Many Egyptians pondered the same question late last month as they poured into the streets to mark the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that felled former President Hosni Mubarak.  One year after the dictator stepped down, protesters still occupy the center of Tahrir Square, the state commits human rights abuses at levels higher than before, and holdovers from the previous regime make up a large percentage of the country’s interim leaders.

It’s a reality many Egyptians didn’t expect when they turned out in droves in and around Tahrir last year, uniting around one common goal: toppling Mubarak.

My Egyptian friends tell me that during 18 days of demonstrations in January and February 2011, the square represented an idyllic place they wanted their entire country to emulate. Clean and free of Egypt’s ubiquitous litter, Tahrir became a space where Islamists and liberals amicably discussed politics, where women did not have to fear the sexual harassment common in Egypt, and where everyone pushed aside prior convictions about one other, rose their heads high, and were proud to call themselves Egyptians.

Some said it foretold a “New Egypt.”

“Everyone wanted the same thing, for Mubarak to leave,” my friend Mohamed, 23, told me.

One year later in Tahrir Square, that united spirit was all but lost.

Different stages ringed the outside of the massive traffic circle that served as the epicenter of the uprising, Islamists on one platform and liberals on another. Speakers competed for attendees’ attention. There were lots of demands, with posters calling for everything from police reform and a transition to a civil state to the military’s immediate departure from power.

Jan. 25, 2012, felt a very different from its predecessor the year before, Mohamed said. This year, the crowd didn’t come together as one. The fraternal spirit that had gripped Egyptians seemed far away.

“It wasn’t the same,” Mohamed said.

Many Egyptians harbored mixed feelings about celebrating a revolution they felt had not yet ended; some said a celebration should not take place at all with many members of the former regime still in power.

But other attendees said they wanted to recreate the spirit of the “days of the revolution” last year, that hopeful time when few protesters predicted the coming collapse of the Egyptian economy or an increase in crime across the country.

As I walked around Tahrir this year, I felt like I was at a political rally reminiscent of the many other demonstrations I’ve observed in the square over the last eight months. I thought back from time to time to a Save Darfur rally I attended six years ago on the National Mall in Washington.

Thousands in attendance at that 2006 rally – which featured George Clooney and Barack Obama, no less – called for an end to genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region. The demand was clear: no more killing.

In subsequent years, it seemed like many of my friends lost interest in saving Darfur as the political situation there became more complicated and requests for action multiplied. Egyptians, too, have found themselves divided and weakened by a muddled political scene, with most people unsure of what they want other than stability and personal safety.

The weeks since Jan. 25, 2012, have seen over 70 people killed at a soccer game in Port Said, Egypt, and a spate of street clashes in downtown Cairo. Amid the political instability, more and more Egyptians seem to want a return to the heady days of January and February 2011, or perhaps even the time before.

Take a Bite Out of Apple


By Karen Lowe |

To begin with, Siri and I never got along.  I was seduced by advertising showing men giving her orders while jogging and then smiling with satisfaction. They knew that Siri had efficiently placed appointments on their calendars. I wanted a smart phone to reliably finish tasks, instantly call people on my command and find the best nearby sushi place.  Instead, I felt like I had mail-ordered a leggy blonde wife from Russia, but ended up with a stout and surly babushka.

Here’s an example. Me: “Siri, give me directions on how to get to 261 S. Figueroa Street.”  Siri: “Here are directions to 261 S. Broadway Street.  I’m not certain this is what you meant though.”   I tried to schedule an appointment for January 29th 2012 and she planned it for January 1st 2029. Once I asked Siri for something and she responded, “I don’t know you well enough.”  What??  I complained to an Apple store employee about her insolence and got the kind of look you might imagine.

Now, I see Siri as the evil in the phone trying to get out. The New York Times reported that the iPhone – maybe even my own – was made in China’s Foxconn, a kind of Apple-based gulag.  My sleek white iPhone in a red case most probably came from an flood lit factory where workers are on their feet so many hours that their legs swell up double their normal size;  where workers are awakened after working 12-hour shifts to get back on the factory floor because someone in Cupertino (Steve Jobs can you see this from where you are?) wanted a design change immediately; where nets went up around the outside of the factory to keep people from successfully committing suicide because the work was so unbearable. Suddenly this cool, hip object feels, I don’t know, dirty and suspicious.

Would we pay more for the phone if we knew the workers were treated humanely?  I’d like to think so.

If there are blood diamonds, then certainly this is a blood phone.  Someone please tell me how this is different.  The New York Times investigation of Apple’s supplier tallied the human collateral of Foxconn and Wintek and found 23 people died and 273 were injured while building iPhones and iPads.   I don’t want their blood on my hands.  Apple reported these casualties in their own audits.  What are the working conditions like for suppliers to Nokia, T-Mobile and Samsung?

I am angry because this horror that has become SOP for manufacturing was perpetuated by the one person in the world who could have changed this, Steve Jobs.  Nearly 37 million people bought the iPhone last quarter, and Apple is now worth $406 billion dollars, blowing past ExxonMobil as the most valuable company on earth. Memo to Timothy Cook, the new CEO of Apple: Do something about this now!

The Busiest Corner in Hong Kong

by Emily Frost

Even in the half-dream state before my alarm buzzes, I am hazily aware that Hong Kong is pushing ahead full throttle and I am already falling behind. Heavy truck wheels rumble by and dump scrap metal into heaps nearby, as I scurry around my shoebox-size apartment dressing for work on the glitzier, cosmopolitan side of Hong Kong known as “the island.” I’m on the Kowloon side, in a neighborhood called Mong Kok, which translates into “busy corner” from Chinese — the place vibrates with activity, as though the very buildings themselves were on Ritalin. My commute begins when I step into the heavy, hot air and onto the grimy street where I’m careful to avoid the remains of cockroaches squashed last night. Shops pushing goods from medicinal tea to stationery to pork buns line the streets. A woman with a microphone hawks plastic umbrellas. No space is left unfilled. Street vendors carve out space in alleys, and restaurants spill onto the sidewalk with plastic tables and chairs.

In Mong Kong, people throng the streets — school girls in uniforms, old men with high-waisted pants, women shoving fliers into your hand, the rare expat walking his golden retriever. My neighbors are a true melange, united by one thing: their ability to move. The Hong Kong hustle can be seen everywhere you go, and even more so in Mong Kong where the streets are narrower and the air conditioning sparser. Before I became one of the crowd, moving quickly enough to not stand out, I made lots of sweaty, tense wrong turns in a maze of streets with Chinese signage. Few people speak fluent English in this sweltering jungle.  At each turn, I learned the density never stops, nor do the surprises. Pink buildings. Scaffolding made entirely of bamboo. A smoke-filled gaming room full of adult men.

Will I ever become inured to the nauseating smells from the sewer; or the bucket of slop being tossed across the sidewalk right in front of me, or the vision of freshly butchered pig’s head being chopped up? The first time I made this trip, I felt cheated. Where were the sophisticated shops or the electric skyline I’d seen in photos? Even a businessman in a suit would have been some comfort.

By the time I get in the subway it is 9 a.m. Sweat streams down my face.  Everyone waits silently, expectantly for their stop.  I notice one hilariously mistranslated t-shirt:  “Guns don’t kill people, People’s badness kills people.”  It helps to keep my eyes from glazing over and slumping into submission.

I get off at my stop and step quickly into Hong Kong’s ferocious pace, orchestrated by the mechanical pedestrian guides, urging walkers to pick up speed when it’s time to cross the street. Taxis come flying around corners, with near-misses a part of life. People walk, unless they can find something faster. Ninety percent of the population uses public transportation — either the sleek, silent and lightning bolt fast metro, the double decker bus, or the mini-bus, which pops you from one destination to another for mere pocket change. Or you can always hail a taxi. They’re cheap and don’t seem to obey any speed limits (if there are any?…)

After all this movement, life slows considerably for meals. At my office’s canteen, patrons bark at the waitresses and waiters for their order to come quickly, but then tuck into a multi-course meal. I’ve joined the Chinese workers at the canteen, sitting silently surrounded by single men amid the din of the lunch hour. We’re served a hot Chinese soup and warm tea, which are included in your purchase and prolong the meal. I watch as groups of friends  at nearby tables eat together, splitting multiple dishes, spinning them back and forth to each other using a lazy susan. Bellies satisfied, we’re off to the race of work and the return commute.

This time, on the way home, I stopped for a bowl of wonton soup in an alley way.  I savored the soothing umami broth. It was one magical moment before I resumed the rhythm of subway, work, sleep.

Yemen Protesters Whip Up Revolutionary Zeal

 By Erika Solomon for Reuters

By nightfall, thousands of anti-government protesters in a scrappy tent city in Yemen’s capital Sanaa catch their breath and begin to cheer musicians clambering onto a rickety stage.

“Let’s give a round of applause for the big hit, “Mother of the Martyr, Bride of Blood,” their host shouts.

Sometimes jubilant, sometimes mournful, protest songs — or revolutionary anthems, as their creators call them — are the pulse of a nine-month-old movement still struggling to end the 33-year rule of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Streets that earlier swarmed with motorbikes whisking bloodied protesters away for treatment are instead filled with candy vendors and children. The smell of popcorn drifts through crowds of men cross-legged in the street as singers croon on a platform plastered with photos of those killed in protests.

“They stir my love for the revolution, they lift my spirits,” said protester Salem Jabbar, 23, sitting transfixed in “Change Square,” the 4-km (2.5-mile) stretch in the heart of Sanaa that protesters occupy with their ramshackle tents. [Read more...]

Even in Shell-shocked Yemen, the Wedding Must Go On

By Erika Solomon
SANAA | Wed Oct 5, 2011

Even as Yemen’s crumbling capital shudders from machinegun fire, cars line up, covered in lace and blinking lights as if for some fairytale gala.
It is high season for weddings in Yemen.

Along this ramshackle, dusty stretch of bridal shops, brothers and uncles puffed with pride decorate wedding cars and brides are ushered into beauty salons. They share a note of unexpected optimism in Sanaa, where more than 100 have been killed in one of the bloodiest episodes of an eight-month revolt against the president.

The country seems to become more fractured by the day.

“Well, yes, the situation is bad. But so what? We’ve booked the hall, the musician. Stop the wedding? No — it has to be done,” says Abdelwahab al-Mansour, decorating his white SUV with red roses and glitter before escorting his niece to her wedding in style.

Tens of thousands of protesters have struggled unsuccessfully to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh from his 33-year rule and have now sparked a bloody, on-off battle between his loyalist forces and troops backing the opposition.

That all seems a world away to the short, bearded Mansour. The 50-year-old is dressed impeccably in traditional tribal attire — a starched white robe, his ornate half-moon-shaped Jambiya dagger tucked into a green patterned sash.

Mansour puts the finishing touches on his car when more rat-a-tat of gunfire bursts out. Mansour and some friends stand calmly and watch with amusement. “It’s no big deal, relax,” they laugh.

Sanaa’s “coiffure street,” as locals call it, is dotted with hair salons and shops overflowing with sparkling white gowns and long trains. Others sell decorations — draping the family car with plenty of sequins, lace and bouquets of flowers is de rigueur.

For many, a dark gloom hangs over the city as it becomes increasingly divided by checkpoints and roadblocks. Some were cooped up at home for days after their street became a war zone of rocket propelled grenades and gunfights.

Naji Saweiry, 23, decorates a white van for his two sisters who he says weren’t very enthusiastic about having to wedge one of the happiest days of their lives into one of the darker chapters of their country’s history.

“It’s a double wedding and I’m doing my best to make it special,” he said. “The wedding hall is packed with guests, everyone is coming, despite the problems. Maybe right now people wanted something to find a little joy in.”

SHOPKEEPER “DISASTER”

For shopkeepers, there is little good cheer to find despite the small crowds gathering on their street. As night sets in, some crank up generators to keep the lights on in a city where electricity has become scarce.

In the storefronts of less wealthy businessmen, the dresses glitter by candlelight.

“This year was a disaster. We’ve lost 60 percent of our business. Some of the shops next door have lost so much money they can’t pay rent,” says Amar Rafai, 26, shaking his head. He works at a bridal shop where rows of frothy, sequined dresses hang from the ceiling.

“It’s not that customers are scared of the violence, they’re scared of losing their livelihood. Most want to save their money, or they’ve lost their jobs.”

Yemenis were already scraping by before the turmoil, with unemployment above 35 percent and nearly half living on less than $2 a day. Food prices have skyrocketed, more than double sometimes, while fuel and water shortages are widespread.

“Normally we make about 10 million rials a year (about $44,000). The wedding dresses would fly off the shelf,” says shopkeeper Nishwan Shamiri, 26. “This year the owner is putting in money out of his own pocket. I don’t get it, things had calmed but then all the violence came back. God help us.”

Later, the sounds of gunshots taper off and a few bridal parties speed away. Though they insist on holding a wedding, most say it’s best to quickly wrap up celebrations that once lingered late into the night.

Abdulwahab al-Mansour, jumping in his truck to fetch his niece, says it is the uncertainty Yemen faces that fed his determination to carry on with the wedding.

“No one knows how long things will stay like this. Will it take a year or two years? Another day or a few months? We don’t know. So we have to celebrate, in spite of it all.”

Reuters

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