Tag Archives: travel

subways, hospitality and risk

I had been warned about Cairo subways. I love to travel, to try new things, meet new people, experience things so different from my daily life. But it’s also been somewhat beaten into me – as a woman, you must be careful. As a woman, things are different.


cairo at night                                                                                       © erin dunigan 2013

I’ve ridden plenty of crowded subways in my life − in New York City, in Osaka Japan, in Mexico City amongst them. Subways where one has to push ones way just to board the train. Subways where women are warned to stay close to their male companions, lest the pushing from strangers become a bit too directed.

So as we descended into the station for the Cairo subway I was prepared with such stories. There was even a car just for women, I had been told, to help mitigate some of these issues. I chose instead to remain with my male colleagues, not wanting to get separated in the journey.

We stepped onto the car. It was rather full, but not so full that we had to push our way on. But standing room only full. As I looked around I saw that I was the only woman in the car.

And then it happened.

A man next to me, seated, got up and stood next to me. As he did so he motioned something to me. I quickly realized what he was suggesting. Was this really happening?

He was offering me his seat. I smiled, and thanked him, using one of my five Arabic words – Shukran. As I settled into my seat the man next to me leaned over and spoke something in my direction. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said and smiled.

I am not doubting that there are harrowing experiences for women on Cairo subways. I’m not doubting that it is wise to keep aware and watchful when traveling in new places, navigating other cultures. I have myself experienced such harrowing subway situations in other parts of the world, as have friends of mine. Caution and entering situations with eyes wide open seem to be wise ways of being.

But what I was struck by that spring evening leaving Tahrir Square, was that I had been taught to fear, to approach the situation with skepticism, with a bit of distance, while my experience had been so entirely opposite – one of welcoming, hospitality, and graciousness.  How often are we taught to fear ‘the other’ rather than to be open to him or her? I wonder if that fear of the other doesn’t keep us from the encounters, like my own, that would so completely disprove that generalized sense of disease? For there are some who, I am sure, would have avoided the subway entirely, having heard the stories, and in so avoiding, would have also barricaded themselves from the encounter to disprove those very stories.

This theme made its way to the surface again in a passage from Esther de Waal’s Living on the Border where she discusses white South Africa during the time of apartheid:

“The white proponents of that regime were so completely and utterly confident of the righness of their stance that they shut the door totally on the other. Metaphorically, they barricaded themselves into their laagers, those circles of upturned wagons that the Afrikaners traditionally used to protect themselves on their long marches. Two worlds had now become polarized, without contact, without sympathy or understanding.”

As I pondered her words it was not long before these stories began to overlap – mine on the Cairo subway, de Waal’s about borders and exclusion of the other, and, of course, current debates within my own society and culture about inclusion, exclusion, of whom to fear and what places and people to avoid.

I find that more than any other emotion, I am thankful for that nighttime subway ride in Cairo. Something that could be seen as inconsequential, or even as reckless or unwise. Perhaps it was more of a risk that I realized. But I wonder, if we barricade ourselves off from the other, if we keep ourselves ‘safe’ from encountering those we perceive as different or strange or alien, if we are not, in actuality, putting ourselves at a far greater risk.

“Across the border then, whether it’s a human border or the strange frontier with God, is something or someone who is more hospitable than we dreamed; and we learn this by taking the risk of hospitality ourselves.”                 -Ester de Waal

whose story?

journey             dreams

On Wednesday, in Mexico, I got an email – ‘This is last minute, but might you be able to travel with us to Africa?’

Today, Saturday, three days later, I am sitting in Newark airport, waiting for my connecting flight to Brussels and then on to Nairobi.

So, needless to say, getting myself packed, vaccinated, malaria pilled and ready to go took up much of the previous 72 hrs. I was able, in the midst, to get an old hardback copy of Out of Africa to bring with me on the trip. When I travel I like to be able to read something related to the place I’m going. I’ve never even seen Out of Africa, but it comes highly recommended, so it seemed like a good fit.

I also had a recommendation for Ngugi wa Thiong’o – a Kenyan author. Given my timeframe I wasn’t able to find a book copy of it, but did manage to download the audiobook. I’ve begun both on this first leg of my journey, from Orange County to Newark.

It’s a fairly startingly contrast, even this early in, of which story, or whose story, is being told – the story of the albeit sympathetic, but still colonizer? Or the colonized?

Who are the savages?

Who are the squatters?

These, of course, are not new questions – not new issues. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to raise them. But the multiple narratives are something I’m hoping to hold as I continue on in this journey – something I take with me as I enter in to my part of the story.


lost in translation…

Whenever I travel I like to learn at least a few words in the local language. To me, it is a sign of respect to chose to at least try and communicate in the language of my host country. So, for instance, in Korean I can say good morning and delicious – in addition to milk and apple, but that’s another story. In Arabic I can say thank you, hello, how are you and God bless you. The list goes on.

So, when I was in Japan this past week I wanted to pick up at least a few words. I did realize that I already had some simply from pop culture – sayonara, and domo arigato (mr. Roboto) amongst them. But there were nuances that I wanted to pick up – instead of simply thank you, what about thank you very much, or thank you in a respectful way. Instead of just hello, what about a greeting with respect.

I thought I was doing fairly well, considering I speak basically no Japanese.

That is, until I got home and realized that rather than saying good morning I was actually walking around saying, thank you very much. Which, it seems, is actually not a bad way to greet the world – especially as we in the United States celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday.

So, good morning. And thank you very much.

the road to ensenada…via london?

poolside at estero beach restort, storm approaching

Recently I was at a party and was asked if I knew of a particular location in Ensenada, a town about 45 minutes away, and one of only two ‘cities’ within that distance from the small (like 1000 people small) town of La Mision (the other being Rosarito).

I apologized that no, I didn’t know where that particular location was. Or the next one, or the following one.

What struck me, in the course of the conversation, is that I actually know London, and Paris for that matter, and even Rome—all obviously large cities and at least a ten hour plane ride away–better than I know Ensenada, less than an hour’s drive.

There are, of course, many factors for that–such as that when I am actually here in La Mision I am typically coming from traveling somewhere else and like the opportunity to stay put for a bit, not even use my car if possible, take tigger for a walk, and work in the yard. There is also the lack of many local streetlights, which makes night seem, somehow, so much darker, that I rarely venture out after dark.

But regardless of the reasons, I’ve decided that it is just not right that I don’t know more of Ensenada, which is a fairly ‘do-able’ sized city. Well, actually, I decided that back in September, and hadn’t really done much about it until yesterday, when I was, as it were, forced into it, by needing to take my two kittens to the vet. Luna had begun to exhibit some behavior that seemed to match up with the google search of ‘how do I know when my cat is in heat’ so I thought, prior to having any more animals in the house, it would be good to finally take her for a bit of surgery.

Which gave me five hours in Ensenada with no agenda, other than to wait to pick Luna back up. It didn’t seem to make sense to go back to La Mision and then return to Ensenada, so I decided it would be the day to get to know my way around.

First stop, my absolute favorite fish taco stand, which I did already know about, from having been taken there by tour guide extraordinaire, Kathy, and which I had bookmarked on my iphone when I took Buddy (the other kitty) to get fixed a few months back and had some time on my hands. There are a couple of stools, but it is most definitely street food, eaten on the sidewalk, while leaning up against the quinceañera store’s block wall.

After filling myself up with two fish tacos con todo–cabbage, salsa, lime, onion and crema–I headed south, thinking I’d go to la bufadora, a marine geyser, said to be one of the largest blowholes in North America. But on the way I got a bit distracted.

'dutch boy' at home depot, helping me find the proper sealer for the floor

First, I stopped at the Home Depot in Ensenada, just to see what I might need, and wound up with seed packets for two types of basil, cosmos (the flower, not the martini, though that would be quite a feat), marigolds (for encouraging good insects in the garden and discouraging bad ones) and dahlias (because they are pretty and, as it turns out, perennial). The seeds are distributed by a company called Los Molinos. As I typically try to buy open pollinated non-genetically modified seeds, I’d like to know more about Los Molinos, but haven’t been successful yet.

I’m afraid this post is starting to sound like some of my dad’s letters from my parents’ motor home travels–“and then we had a sandwich for lunch, and then we drove 128 miles and stopped for a bathroom break and a snack and one of the cupboard doors on the motorhome was rattling so we had to stop and wiggle it a bit…” I’m not kidding.

Anyway, lest you begin to wonder how far the apple falls from the tree, I left Home Depot and continued heading south, still planning on La Bufadora but again distracted by the Estero Beach Resort, which was empty on a Tuesday in February, but which, with its pools and jacuzzis, seemed to hold a lot of promise for a warm summer afternoon.

Since the wind was picking up, and it looked as though the rain might begin in earnest, I left Estero Beach and headed back north to Ensenada, to the ‘tourist zone’ for a cappuccino at Starbucks (I know, I know…but they have internet, and I had gone without for four hours at this point, a near record) to wait out the rain and the final hour before kitty pick-up.

I never did make it to la Bufadora–that’ll have to be next trip. But I did figure out that the vet and my favorite taco stand are on the same street, just a few miles apart, and I also found easy street parking a block away from Starbucks–both of which are key pieces of information in my goal of getting to know Ensenada. Now if they just had Boris Bikes


How do you experience a place? An esoteric question? Perhaps to those who sit at home. But it is a very real question to those who would venture out to travel the world.

When I was in college I took my first trip ‘across the pond’ to visit a friend who was working as an au pair in Switzerland. Not only was it my first time stepping foot off the North American continent (I had grown up visiting my grandmother who lived in Mexico so travel was hardly a foreign concept) but it was also the first non-family, non-youth group expedition. With my brand new guide book in hand, a camera and a few rolls of film (yes, I am old enough to have used film in college) I was prepared. The only problem was, I did not know what to do. So I diligently searched for every item pictured in the guidebook and tried to copy them as best I could with my own camera.
More than a decade and 25 countries later I have overcome this awkwardness in being a tourist, but I still am left to wonder—how does someone truly experience a place?
The question has arisen once again as I am the only under 50 member of a barge cruise up the Rhine 295130928_hsuL3-Mriver. Each day brings a new town and with it the question. For the retiree crowd at least, it seems that the way to experience a place is to go on a walking tour, complete with headsets that allow an all-knowing guide to regurgitate his knowledge something like a mother bird feeding her young. The point is information—to be informed about the place is to experience it. When was that cathedral built? What is the significance of the statue on its spire? Who founded this city and how many years ago did it happen?
Perhaps its not entirely the retirees fault. The guidebooks and tour companies must shoulder some of the blame for the misperception that information somehow equals experience. Its not altogether surprising in the midst of a consumer culture. To experience a place must be to consume it in some way, mustn’t it? What better way to conquer a locale than to know its important facts and figures? Cologne? It’s the fourth largest city in Germany. It’s cathedral is the largest in Germany and in the top five largest in the world. It sits along the Rhine river. Check. Next?
But what if there were something more? Shouldn’t there be? Is that the big secret surrounding travel, that it is little more than being able to check places off a list or add them to your countries visited map on facebook?
Today we stopped at a town called Koblenz. It is a small, ‘cute’ German town along the Rhine, at the intersection with the Mosel River. The optional excursion was to tour a castle. I chose to opt out and instead found myself sitting at an outdoor café, sipping a cappuccino, and reading the English language International Herald Tribune. The sun was warm but not too hot, the sky blue, the apple strudel delicious. To be honest, I felt a bit guilty for opting out of the castle tour, where all of my group of retirees were to be found. But I was absolutely content to sip my coffee and enjoy the town square from my seated vantage point. After taking the last sip I got up and walked around town a bit, even doing some shopping along the way, and arrived back to the barge just as the buses were dropping off the castle-goers.
As I boarded the boat I was chastized by the tour guide. “You missed out!” she accused. But I’m not convinced. Granted, I did not spend 33 Euro to have a guided tour of a bunch of old stones on a hillside. I’m sure it was interesting—I’m not arguing with that. But what I wonder is, can simply enjoying being in a place count as experiencing it? Or, to put it more directly, can I travel without a guide book and without an ‘expert’ informing me and still consider it worthwhile? It’s not that I will never visit another museum or photograph another landmark. I’ll probably just make sure to do it after having coffee and reading the morning paper along the town square.

exit row

(“exit row” was initially published on culture-voice.com)

I used to travel a lot. I mean a lot. Three out of four weeks I’d be out of town due to my work. I thought of myself as quite the savvy traveler. I looked down my nose at the ‘vacation’ travelers that would clog up the security checkpoints and ticket counters come summer. They moved so slowly. Did they have to bring everything they owned on vacation with them? Didn’t they realize that some of us were working.

It was around this time when I became an exit row sitter. I knew the system, and somehow at that point it hadn’t occurred to the masses that they too could request an exit row. It also hadn’t occurred to the airlines that they could charge extra for an exit row. So I partook of the knowledge from my frequent traveler status and got an exit row aisle almost every flight. It was so nice not to be crowded. So nice not to have the person in front of you practically in your lap for the duration of the flight.
After enjoying and taking pride in my travel savvy ways for quite some time I had a troubling encounter. As I was walking smugly toward my exit row seat I happened to notice the man sitting in the row directly in front of it—you know, the row that has no leg room and also can’t lean back, due to the exit row behind? This man had to be pushing 7 feet tall. He was in aisle seat, but still, there was hardly room for him to bend his legs to wedge them in. My smug glee melted as I sat down in my roomy seat behind him. I’m 5 foot 2.
The exit row was mine, fair and square. I’d asked for it, I’d been given it. I hadn’t stolen it from anyone. I spent way too many hours on planes in my life during those days, so it seemed almost like I deserved some comfort, didn’t I?
Yet I couldn’t shake it. The nagging sense of guilt. Not the bad kind of guilt, but the good kind. The kind that tells you when something isn’t as it should be. When you might be playing a part in what’s not quite right in the world.
The thing is, though it’s of course nice, at 5 foot 2 I don’t need an exit row. Sure, it’s cramped when the person in front leans back and you can’t even move your legs. No, I don’t enjoy being crowded on an airplane any more than the next person. Yes, I avoid middle seats like the plague. No, I’m not some sort of martyrous glutton for punishment.
But in a world where so few of us use such a disproportionate amount of the planet’s resources, is there perhaps a place for not taking up all the space that we can procure for ourselves? Is there room for knowing one could get an exit row, but choosing instead to leave it to others? Or is that just nonsense? Someone’s going to get the benefit of that extra 5.3 inches of legroom—it might as well be me, right? If I don’t ask for it, who knows who might? Maybe someone even shorter than me, who deserves it less! Or maybe some arrogant jerk business traveler who thinks he’s better than the rest of us peons crowded in?
Or maybe, just maybe, there’s something to be said for relinquishing what I ‘deserve,’ regardless of the outcome?

turn aside

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”                                                      – Exodus 3:1-5


 What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside…

It’s a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, An Altar in the World. I had to stop and re-read that line.

What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside…

Even if you are not familiar with all of the details of Moses’ life, my guess is that most of us have at least some sense of his rather important place in the story of the Bible.  

Moses is the one to whom God’s name is revealed. Moses is the one who goes to Pharaoh and says let my people go  enough times that finally Pharoah does. Moses is the one who leads the people out of Eypt, from their lives of slavery, and on the journey toward the promised land. Moses is the one who meets God on the mountain top and to whom are given the 10 commandments.

Moses has a pretty big role, when it comes to the stories of the Bible.

I wonder…. What if Moses had been talking on his cell phone? Or texting? Would he have walked right by the burning bush without even noticing it?

What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside…

One of my favorite modern day theologians is travel writer Rick Steves.

I first encountered him while living in Scotland, doing a lot of traveling around Western Europe. He says this:

We travel to enjoy differences—to become temporary locals. You’ll experience frustrations. Certain truths that we find self evident—ice in your drinks or venti-sized coffees are suddenly not so. One of the eye opening realizations is that there are logical, civil, and even better alternatives.

Globe trotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. The prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures that become knit into your own character.

After graduating from seminary I spent a year living in Scotland. It was a wonderful year, but it also took some ajdustment, living in a new culture—even if they did presumably speak the same language.

One day I was walking out of a photography store, happily looking at my freshly printed photos, when I was stopped in my tracks—literally—by the shop door, which I had just run into. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the door, I did. With the photos in one hand, I put the other on the door handle and pushed.

Part of what I like about travel and experiencing different cultures is that it helps me to see things that I had never known or noticed before—both in the new culture, but it also helps me to see my own culture more clearly.

What became clear that day as I literally ran into the door as I tried to push it open was that, actually I needed to pull the door. I had been awkwardly leaving shops for weeks before this. I had never bothered to notice that in the United States you most often push the door to exit. 

There’s nothing like immersing yourself in a new or different place for helping heighten your ability to, but also your need to pay attention.

Moses had traveled a long way from home.  The text says he was out beyond the wilderness—even farther than the boonies—at Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God. This mountain, by the way, is also called Mt. Sinai, and is the place to which he will return later to receive the stone tablets of the 10 commandments.

But for now he is just Moses. Fairly ordinary.  A guy not leading people, but sheep.  

Who knows how long he had been out there. Was he lonely? Tired? Hungry? Bored?

The thing is, Moses was a long way from home, if home were to be considered Midian.  But Midian was not even his true home.

Moses, as those who have grown up with the Sunday school tale know, was an Israelite. Because the pharaoh had ordered it, all baby boys born to the Israelites were to be killed. So Moses’ mother put him in a basket of reeds and into the river where he happened to be found by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh. She took pity on the baby and rescued him, raising him as her own son in the house of Pharaoh.

Everything was going well until one day, Moses possibly wrestling with the issues of his identity—an Israelite, a member of an oppressed group of people, growing up in the house of Pharaoh, the source of his people’s oppression.  One day he saw an Egyptian beating one of the Hebrews and so Moses decided to intervene. He did so, and killed the Egyptian. This, as you might expect, did not sit well with Pharaoh, so Moses was forced to flee. He fled to Midian.

So when we find Moses by the burning bush he had traveled a long way from home—if he even knew where home might be.


A few weeks ago I was in Mexico and was invited by my friends, Jose and Vita, to come over to their house for fish tacos. I’ve known them a long time, and have shared many meals with them, and many conversations, though always either at my house or the house of other Americans in the community. My Spanish is pretty good, and they both have fairly good English, so communication is rarely a problem.

But this Friday night was the first time I had ever been to their house. Jose came to pick me up, as their house is on a rather steep hillside, with pot holed dirt roads and he thought it would be easier than me finding it and finding my way. That also meant that I would go home whenever he took me home.

Everything was going well. We arrived. I greeted Vita. Their son Alejandro came through the door. I know him, greeted him. Then their nephew Beto came in. I know him as well, and greeted him.

And then all of a sudden the door burst open and in came their daughter, son in law and their little baby—who all live in the States—followed by family members who were all excited to greet them and welcome them ‘home.’ At once the house was full of people, all speaking Spanish, at the same time, rapidly. Suddenly, I had no idea what anyone was saying, or what was going on. I didn’t understand a word.

Though I was an invited guest, and most definitely welcomed, I was also a stranger. It made me realize how they must feel like so much of the time when they are invited to my house, or the house of other Americans, full of people talking all at once, in English.

I also realized that it also heightened my senses of observation, since I felt very, very lost. I had to pay more attention, because I could take nothing for granted.

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbit of Great Britain says: “The Hebrew Bible in one verse commands ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to love the stranger.”

When we allow ourselves to be strangers we are in the position of receiving hospitality from another. We are not in control. 

The Hebrew Bible says to welcome the stranger because you remember what it was like to be a stranger…if we are never in that position, how can we possibly remember what it is like?

Moses was a stranger. 

From the moment he was picked up out of the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was an Israelite living in the house of Pharaoh. When he was forced to flee he became even a stranger from his adopted identity. In the land of Midian he was in a new place, with different customs, different ways, amongst people who followed a different God.  Moses was a stranger.

I wonder. Did this make him more able to notice the burning bush?

Did this help him to pay attention?

Was this part of what allowed him on that day, to see the burning bush, and not to walk on by, but to stop, to take notice, and to turn aside?

In the book of Luke, on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, there is a story of two people walking along the road to Emmaus. A stranger joins them. They don’t know it, but it is Jesus. He walks with them until they arrive at their destination. He acts as though he will keep going, but they insist that he stop with them and accept their hospitality. It is when they sit down to eat, as he breaks the bread, that they realize who he is.

In the story of Abraham and Sarah, it is the strangers they welcome who end up being the messengers of God who announce the good news that Sarah will bear a child.

Why do we welcome the stranger? Why do we turn aside?

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Yes, Moses  was far from home and yes Moses was a stranger and yes, these are both qualities we might do well to welcome into our lives and cultivate.

But the thing is, you don’t have to go far from home…

Moses was also doing what he probably did most every day—he was tending the sheep. It wasn’t a religious holiday. He didn’t go to church or even some special sacred place. It’s not that God can’t be found in these places. But Moses encountered God there, out beyond the wilderness, in the midst of his normal and perhaps even mundane daily task.

We can learn to be mindful, to pay attention, here and now.

Barbara Brown Taylor also says this:  “The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else.”

What if we were to take a moment to turn aside?

I invite you, right where you are, right where you are sitting, to take off your shoes. If you have your holy socks on, all the better—we’re in church. You don’t have to do this, no one is going to force you. But if you are willing, reach down, take off your shoes. Rest your feet on the ground.  Let them feel the touch of the floor.

As Kelly comes forward to sing, I invite you to sit in stillness. Close your eyes if you’d like. But give yourself these moments to simply be present. Be mindful. If thoughts come to you, allow them to simply pass right on by. Invite God into the space, but don’t fill it up with words or with prayers or other noise. Feel the holy ground beneath your feet as you sit and listen.

What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside… Who knows who you and I might become, if we but turn aside?